Tuesday, January 18, 2011

2010 reads

In speaking with a colleague this week, who was complaining about the impressive amount of reading that one of our job candidates had made it through in 2010, I realized that I hadn't figured out my past year's reading yet. The last few years I've made it through about 50 volumes annually, and I figured I'd managed about half that this year. Some distractions, anxieties, and weaknesses, though nothing out of the predictable range of such things: save your pity for the genuinely deserving.

Without further ado, in 2010 I read the following books, in the following order:
  1. Derrick Jensen & Stephanie McMillan, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial
  2. David Gessner, Sick of Nature
  3. Robert Kaplan, The Nothing That Is: A Natural HIstory of Zero
  4. David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames
  5. Michael Chabon, Summerland
  6. Lilli Carré, Tales of Woodsman Pete
  7. rob mclennan, red earth
  8. Stanley Evans, Seaweed on the Street
  9. Martin Amis, The Information
  10. Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism
  11. J. Douglas Porteous, Environmental Aesthetics
  12. Melody Hessing, Up Chute Creek: An Okanagan Idyll
  13. Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island
  14. Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns
  15. David Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect
  16. Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future
  17. Brian Brett, Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life
  18. Eugene Meese, A Magpie's Smile
  19. David Leach, Fatal Tide: When the Race of a Lifetime Goes Wrong
  20. Stephanie Meyer, Twilight
  21. Alexandra Morton & Billy Proctor, Heart of the Raincoast: A Life Story
  22. Thomas Wharton, Icefields
  23. Barbara Hurd, Entering the Stone: On Caves and Feeling Through the Dark
  24. Betty Lowman Carey, Bijaboji: North to Alaska by Oar
  25. Jeffrey E. Foss, Beyond Environmentalism: A Philosophy of Nature
  26. Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes
  27. Rick Bass, The Book of Yaak
  28. Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics
  29. Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen's Union
  30. Karsten Heuer, Being Caribou: Five Months on Foot with an Arctic Herd
  31. Mark Leiren-Young, The Green Chain
  32. David Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp
  33. Bill Gaston, Mount Appetite
  34. Douglas Coupland, Girlfriend in a Coma
  35. Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River
  36. Roderick Haig-Brown, Timber
  37. Stephen King, Under the Dome
  38. Ken Belford, Decompositions
Some of them I'd read before, but not many, and I hadn't reviewed any of them before. It was, though, a good reading year, and a more productive one than I thought it had been. Here's hoping that 2011 works out even better, for you as well as for me!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hugh Brody, Maps and Dreams

I think often of Pierre Bayard, author of the celebrated/infamous How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. To quote one of his comments that appeared in the Guardian's review of his book (which I haven't in fact read in full), "'Because I teach literature at university level,' he says, regretfully, 'there is, in fact, no way to avoid commenting on books that most of the time I haven't even opened.'"

The past five years, for me, have been spent gradually getting to some of the books that I've most been wishing I'd opened, so that I can stop relying on the tricks I've half-heard from those who might have read more of Bayard's book than I have, in order to use these valuable but unread books in my intellectual practice.

(Don't try this in your classes, kids!)

Key in this list of thus-far-unread books has been Hugh Brody's Maps and Dreams: Indians and the British Columbia Frontier -- but no longer. A work of immersive social science, not uninfluenced by Clifford Geertz' approach to ethnography but with a sharper political purpose, Brody's work proceeds through chapters in alternating discursive modes: one a narrative of some time spent with the people of a particular Reserve (cloaked with some fictitious detail), one a discussion of economic, political, or historical influences or impacts. Brody spends most of a year participating in the annual round of activities, in pursuit of enough trust from the people of the region's reserves that he can generate maps of their historical and contemporary land-use, in order to challenge the planning processes for oil and gas development, including the by now long-completed Alaska Pipeline.

The most potent sentiment for me as I read this book was simply, what changes have there been to the circa-1978 First Nations way of life Brody portrays? How could I know what changes there've been in BC's northeast? And on what basis might I be able to judge such change?

At times, I feel quite keenly the worry that I tried fumblingly to articulate after my PhD defense to the members of my examining committee: as a literary studies academic, I live mostly inside my head, but the good bits of the world are almost exclusively outside my head. It's not good enough for me simply to think differently than I once did -- but the roads to other effects on the world are difficult for the benightedly academic fully to recognize, let alone to inhabit. I understand how one might use Maps and Dreams in a literature and environment classroom, for example, but my role there generates a different influence than did Hugh Brody's year with the Dunne-za (formerly known as the Beaver Indians).

Let me end, simply, by offering some of Brody's words that ring truer now than they ever did, with the enormous scope of the oil sands project in northern Alberta:
"Resources left in the ground are saved, not lost. The rapacious frontier in northeast British Columbia is not in anyone's long-term interests. A questionable economic urgency is being allowed to overwhelm the needs of the Indians for whom the northeast corner of the province is both a home and an economic base that has lasted more centuries than the energy frontier might last years." (p.281)
To be clear: The Dunne-za have lived in northeast BC for more than a hundred times longer than the expected productive tenure of the oil and gas companies in the same region. And when the companies are ready to leave, the land will be filthy, the game trails and hunting trails will be disrupted, and the vegetation patterns will be unreadable to anyone familiar with it today.

The lessons that Pierre Bayard shared with the world in his little book have, though I haven't read it, allowed me to touch on Maps and Dreams in the past. I'm glad to have finally done my small bit by actually reading it: the very least, I think, that a would-be-responsible academic can do.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Janisse Ray, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

"Culture springs from the actions of people in a landscape."--Janisse Ray
I've spent the last few evenings reading Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, doing so tonight in the intimate company of a dying cat. Her kidneys are basically gone, she stopped eating some days ago, and this afternoon her legs quit. If she shows some pain, then we'll head for the animal hospital, but so far she's resting comfortably beside me on the floor, and I'd rather she be at home for the end. Which likely won't be long.

And my father's been seriously ill, and his father passed away just before Christmas, so I'm maybe in a susceptible frame of mind.

Janisse Ray, though: I've been staggered by the beauty and the artistry of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Just staggered by it. I've spent such a long time digging into the regional culture surrounding my own home that I've deliberately, if sometimes reluctantly, avoided writers whose places are far enough from my own to make the connections seem mostly ideological rather than material, or even genuinely cultural. Nature writing's increasing sophistication, however, has meant I've been getting more and more anxious to get into the last 15 years of it, and Ray's memoir is pushing me even harder toward catching up than did Rick Bass's excellent Book of Yaak. I've felt more impressed by this book than I can recall being in a very long time.

It's not just Chloe's inevitable fate, tonight, that has me so moved by Janisse Ray, just as it wasn't only my grandmother's slow death that had me so affected by Theresa Kishkan's Phantom Limb and Red Laredo Boots. Few things tempt me toward dropping my stern atheism long enough to use words like "fate," but sometimes we're lucky to find books at the right time. And Theresa Kishkan and Janisse Ray have fallen into my lap at the right times.

What's it about, you ask? Well, this book's written in alternating chapters, one about the ecology of the longleaf pine forests (of which only about 1% remains in older growth form), and then one about her upbringing in a junkyard (yes, an actual junkyard). It's a complicated family, with mental illness and potent religiosity and poverty, and Ray only came to an ecological perspective later on in her life, so we get to see competing Edens, so to speak, and to watch her wonder whether these Edens, if that's what they are, are mutually exclusive. Not really much to summarize, perhaps, but Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is stuffed with beauty, so very much beauty, if you're able to look with her through her multiple perspectives on it all.

And if you're as lucky as I've felt this evening, helping my cat through her dwindling, you'll find yourself seeing with something a little bit like Janisse Ray's eyes once you put the book down.