Friday, December 31, 2010

Ken Belford, Decompositions

I've read some other Ken Belford books in the last few years (Pathways into the Mountains, ecologue, and lan(d)guage), so I was very pleased to hear earlier in 2010 that his newest volume, Decompositions, was coming out shortly from the wonderful publisher Talonbooks. I enjoyed Maureen Scott Harris's review in the December 2010 issue of The Goose (ALECC's regular journal/newsletter), helpfully reprinted with credit on the Talonbooks site, and I'm not sure I've got much to add.

Still, I retain my slight anxiety about these pieces, and the whole landpo mode that Belford is working. At a 2009 Open Word presentation in Victoria, Belford suggested that lyric poetry is basically corrupt, as a way of connecting with or expressing ideas of the land in British Columbia. (Lorna Crozier, who identified herself during the Q&A as a "lyric poet," didn't take this especially well.) I'm fine with this assertion, and with the occasional related remarks here (nature poetry as "death with / a pretty picture," on p.45), but I'm still a little puzzled by what I take to be a prickly wavering between openness and insider language: between colloquial rhythms and words on the one hand, and specialized vocabulary from indeterminate specializations on the other.

Maureen Scott Harris sees these specializations as those of vascular plant biology and geology, to give two examples, but he also connects with computer virology and coding, with the physiology of disease, and with other fields of study. Is he saying that I need to understand these fields to make sense of the poetry? Is the jargon a collective red herring, reminding me of the assorted additional pulls on my attention and time? Is he using the language not for precise meaning, but to underscore the connections that should be made and recognized between a poem and a larger world? Am I supposed to get by with a limited understanding of these words, because I (we?) tend to muddle through the world learning only enough to get by?
Landscape is an idyllic place
in the imagination, a claim of meaning
farmed by old fogeys. I'm looking, not
for a theory that allows for duplication,
but for a consonance that's better. (p.46)

Decompositions is a terrific book that repays your attention, definitely, and I encourage you to take a run at it, but maybe you can drop me a note to suggest what I should think of it....

Stephen King, Under the Dome

Life, I think, is too short for me to bother again with Stephen King unless I'm getting a ridiculously positive suggestion from someone I trust. At nearly 900 pages in the UK hardcover I found at Value Village, his Under the Dome is our January book club selection for Da Mook Club. I'm finished it, so it's review time here at Book Addiction. I'm not spilling any plot points because some of the guys are still reading (or are yet to start, in some cases!), as is my usual practice with these, but jeez, what the hell else is there to talk about?

The Canadian paperback version, which I noticed at Bolen Books just yesterday, includes a frontcover blurb by Lee Child claiming it to be "The best yet, by the best ever." There's plenty of overheated commentary online about Under the Dome, with plenty O folks agreeing with Child, but love a duck, I don't know why.

The bare outline: a mysterious dome comes down over the small New England town of Chester's Mill. A small amount of air and water can get through, but nothing else, and the dome (The Dome!) appears impervious to initial testing. Bad men are in positions of power. Good people are powerless. Things get worse before they get better -- but do they get better, really?

Lots of interesting details, but in 900 pages, you'd expect there to be SOME details that worked out. The plot turns over pretty rapidly, and the prose style stays out of the way, but there's so, so, so very little of what I go to fiction for. Creative writing instructors often talk about using the whole toolbox, in a longer work: if Under the Dome is the best yet by the best ever, then I guess that King's the master of using a hammer, and only a hammer. Maybe he gets things out of his hammer that no one else can -- but dude, it's still a hammer. Try a fretsaw next time.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Roderick Haig-Brown, Timber

Now this, THIS, is a book to marvel at: Roderick Haig-Brown's 1942 romance novel Timber. Sure, it was rereleased in 1993 by Oregon State UP's Northwest Reprints Series, with an introduction by Glen Love and a manly cover photo of loggers, but you don't get the full effect if you don't read the Collins White Circle Edition, with full-on pulp-fiction cover art and blurby goodness!

It's the story of young Johnny Holt and his best friend Slim Crawford, plus Slim's cousin Julie, a good girl who kind of wishes she was bad, and their evolving fates inside the British Columbia forest industry through the 1930s: blacklists, union drives, coroners' inquests, and technical lingo like no other romance novel you'll ever read. The whole first chapter is taken up with testimony at a coroner's inquest after a man was killed by a log during the loading process on the camp train, including a juror who doesn't understand the terminology and has to keep asking for clarification. Make it through that, and it's pretty clear sailing.

Unless, that is, you're surprised by what I assume is unconscious homoeroticism like this passage, in which Johnny reflects on his pal Slim:
Last night and this morning he had been kidding all the time, his red mouth twisted with that smile and his blue eyes looking at you from his smooth, evenly brown face. Slim was like a swell-looking woman sometimes; brown curly hair, always lighter in summertime just above his forehead, where he pushed his hat back; long, round chin, full lips and straight nose. It was good to look at him. But he wasn't like any woman you could ever come near, or any soft woman. Just his face was like the faces on woman statues sometimes are. His hands were big, long-fingered and wide, and there were long hard muscles in his forearms and shoulders, across his back and on his flat belly. It wasn't right to think Slim was like a woman, except for his face sometimes and when he talked sometimes. (p.35)
And a few pages later there's a shower scene, just after a fistfight, in which a character ponders the differences between men's bodies. I found it a bit distracting, because it's not clear to me what's gained by this particular form of self-awareness in the characters, seeming almost to gender attention even to one's own body, but fascinating nonetheless.

Richard White, The Organic Machine

It's been on my shelf for a while, and I've dipped happily into it more often than I thought possible with such a small volume, but Richard White's environmental history gem The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River had gone unread in toto until this hols. I'll be teaching it this semester, so it's long past time for me to have read it with the requisite care and attention, but my previous dipping had made me comfortable with that extent of knowledge.

And I remain so. White's book was mentioned in some essay or other in JA Wainwright's collection Every Grain of Sand: Canadian Perspectives on Ecology and Environment (another book I'm teaching this term) as a remarkable work, startlingly rich given its brevity, and indeed it is. His key insight is simply that the Columbia River has been the site of human effort since there were humans in the Pacific Northwest: local First Nations named every rock and fishing spot, and worked to improve and adapt the best fishing spots over time, and Europeans tried to get what they could from it (salmon, irrigation, hydroelectric power, etc) as soon as they arrived. It's been a form of technology for a long time, as long as you don't worry too much about the concept that technology is unnatural.

If you're still worried about a nature/culture divide, or still seeing one, you're not paying attention, is roughly White's point. Nature exists, obviously, but it's not entirely separate from human culture. And that's okay, honest. It doesn't mean nature doesn't have its own power or place in the world or however else you want to express it, just that humans are part of the same world as rivers and whatnot. I'd like to add "obviously," but a whole lot of ecocritical rhetoric tells me there's nothing obvious about this perspective....

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas 2010

An impressive haul, this Christmas, enough that people were looking around grumbling that next year books might have to be off the wishlist:
  • Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood
  • Hugh Brody, Maps and Dreams: Indians and the British Columbia Frontier (a classic, a gem, a treat)
  • Robert Budd (who I gather may generally be known as "Lucky"), Voices of British Columbia: Stories from Our Frontier (transcribed interviews from people living in BC in the early 20th century, including 3 audio CDs)
  • Douglas Coupland, Player One: What Is to Become of Us (the 2010 Massey Lectures)
  • Dave Eggers, Zeitoun (an upcoming Mook Club selection)
  • David Pitt-Brooke, Chasing Clayoquot: A Wilderness Almanac
  • Tara Saracuse, Island Kids (former student!)
  • Vikram Vij & Meeru Dhalawala, Vij's: Elegant and Inspired Indian Cuisine (best. food. ever.)
  • Robert J. Wiersema, Bedtime Story (an uncorrected proof, though I did ask for an autographed copy from Bolen's!)
Skewed toward Douglas & McIntyre, as it happens (Brody, Budd, Pitt-Brooke, Vij), but I'm okay with that!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

December 5, Value Village

Three books today, all of which fit my new intention of buying used books only when (a) it's out of print, (b) I've already bought a new copy of it once before, or (c) its author has no need for my pittance (in that order):
  • Margaret B. Blackman, During My Time: Florence Edenshaw Davidson, A Haida Woman ($2.99)
  • Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius ($3.99; for the West Coast lit grad class I'm team-teaching)
  • Stephen King, Under the Dome ($3.99 for 900 pages of British hardcover edition; our January book club selection).

Update: Bugger. Blackman's book isn't out of print after all. Am I going to have to get a smartphone of some kind just so I can stay virtuous?!?

Update #2: Actually, the one that's in print is the revised and enlarged edition from 1992. I bought the unimproved and still-shrunken 1982 edition. Curses, but does that mean I'm still partly virtuous?

Update #3: No way can I keep to the oath implied above. But that's not news to anyone who's been to this blog before.

Douglas Coupland, Girlfriend in a Coma

Dear Doug,

I've just had three whole evenings free, with nothing in hand to mark, and tonight I'll receive ninety first-year composition papers: around 110K words, so they'll take over my dreams once I get rolling on them.

But in the interim, though, I picked up once again Girlfriend in a Coma, your novel I'm teaching in January for a grad course on West Coast literature, to see how much I could get through before I had to suit up for all those essays. For years, whenever your name came up in conversation, I'd say that you're one of my favourite writers and that I'll always read everything you write, and I'd say that Girlfriend in a Coma is the clearest example of your inability to finish a novel properly. But what the hell, I thought, I'll assign the thing. A reader can't understand the contemporary West Coast without spending some time in your version of it, even if it gets ridiculous at the end.

How did this happen, though?

The novel doesn't get ridiculous. I remain an atheist, so the details of the plot's climactic machinations remain a problem, but Doug, honestly, how did I not end up on my knees ten years ago with Linus and Wendy and Megan and the rest?

Admittedly, I got verklempt to the point of near-weepiness while watching Elf this afternoon with my eight-year-old daughter, so I'm pretty heavily battered by fatigue and assorted middle-aged strains, but gosh. Time to build a world.

Regards,
Richard

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Bill Gaston, Mount Appetite

This will be a very short note, because it's been two weeks since I finished reading Bill Gaston's Mount Appetite, and there've been a lot of student words under the grading bridge since then.

And that's kind of a shame, because I really liked this collection of short stories. HIs narrators and characters were personable but unpredictable, and Gaston shows a keen eye for moments of personal crisis. Some of these are large, some small, but you know how it is -- a decision eventually has to be made, even if it's to do nothing, and sometimes you can't help betraying principles (yours or someone else's) or even other people. The title story is pretty remarkable, involving a parent's attempt to retain custody of a child with special needs when the government wants to take over, but there are some real gems here.

I read him as a BC writer, as a coastal writer, and he's got value if that's your focus, but more than that, he's just a great voice to spend time with. I gather that some female readers would like to see something different for and from his female characters, so you might feel that as well, but we're all critics, no? Read it. Great stuff.