Wednesday, June 29, 2011

John Vaillant, The Tiger

I've read John Vaillant before, and I really enjoyed his first book The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed. Mind you, I was unpleasantly surprised while teaching the book to my fourth-year class in literature and environment to discover, mid-lecture, that the chapter sequence is quite different between the hardcover and softcover first editions! I haven't seen an explanation for the difference, but maybe I should just ask him....

Anyway, his second book came out last year, again to considerable acclaim, and perversely I've deferred reading it for months after being loaned a copy. Now that I've sat down to read it, I can tell you that I had a really tough time interrupting myself while reading The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. (Maybe his third book will be subtitled A True Story of [only one noun], and his fourth simply A True Story [full stop]. Publishers. Who knows.)

It's not unputdownable, this book, but Vaillant has again done a great job of wrapping a complex array of thorough background elements around a gripping but ultimately brief story. Anyone thinking of writing a book-length piece of nonfiction journalism needs to see how Vaillant does it, because he's much more successful than many other writers (I'm looking at you, Marty), even though his method is ultimately predictable.

The hook is simple: huge man-eating tiger! multiple victims! animals who think! And the story itself delivers on the promise, with suspense and excitement and moments of genuine drama, but that's the easy part. What sets this book apart is Vaillant's ability to keep us reading through all the background so that the hook becomes more or less irrelevant to what we take away from The Tiger, no matter how deeply the hook might be set in our readerly jaws.

Now, I'm nerdy about this sort of thing like you've never seen, so it's predictable that I'd enjoy it, but I'm not the only one: here, or here, or here for reviews by readers less likely to be automatic fans.

Tiger evolution; the timetable of ancestral human dispersal from Africa; two-plus centuries of Sino-Russian politics; Jakob von Uexkull's concepts of "Umwelt" and "Umgebung" ("In addition to being delightful words to say, umwelt and umgebung offer a framework for exploring and describing the experience of other creatures" [p.162]); post-perestroika cultural collapse, aka katastroika; tiger consciousness: this book offers all kinds of angles, just like The Golden Spruce did, and to similarly impressive effect. Vaillant brushes up against here at least a dozen themes from the recent ASLE conference I attended, and I can't recommend the book highly enough - even though it's possible that you may not like the book as much as I did.

You'd be wrong, but it's possible!

(Don't believe me? Try the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or the Independent. The Independent has what looks to be the most positive review I've seen: "Whatever its signal virtues as eco-fable and chase narrative, The Tiger also counts as a supreme example of true-crime writing driven by wide-angle empathy and compassion. Some readers may choose to shelve it, not among cosy wildlife yarns, but with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.")

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Keri Cronin, Manufacturing National Park Nature

I'm always pleased when I see the academic books that have grown out of essays I've appreciated, and the sensation is sweeter when the author's a friend. I don't know Keri Cronin all that well, personally, but as another executive member of ALECC, as well as a fellow attendee at several events over the years, she's someone I've come to trust and to like. Her essay in Mosaic from 2006 is one I've assigned more than once to my classes, and it's made such great sense to them (as well as making my teaching easier as a result).

All of which means I've been looking forward for some time to the publication of her 2011 volume from UBC Press entitled Manufacturing National Park Nature: Photography, Ecology, and the Wilderness Industry of Jasper. In sum, it's just as good as I'd hoped, and I'm now dreaming up courses where I can assign it to students!

Basically, Cronin's arguing that the evolving technology of the photograph, and the framing conventions associated with it, have defined our relations with animality and landscape in conventionally understood wilderness settings such as the northern Rocky Mountains. By looking at postcards (including hand-written notes on the back), souvenir photos, related ephemera, and more self-consciously artistic images, Cronin asserts that the tradition embodied in their visual rhetoric (a) governs our relations with places and animals and (b) hides the ways in which these relations are in fact unbalanced power relations. In doing so, she also shows a wonderfully light hand with why we like the pictures we do, and why we're not bad people for having the preferences we do: there's an openness and a humanity to this book, which could so easily have been not much more than hectoring.

It's not perfect, of course, and I for one would have appreciated a tighter connection between the chapters to justify the final one on the "fake nature" of museums and dioramas, but it's a much better read than your typical academic book. I don't know that I'll be giving Manufacturing National Park Nature away for Christmas, but it should be essential reading for anyone with a deep interest in the ecology of photographed places, especially parks.

For ecocritics working on representations of nature either visual or textual, this may prove invaluable: request it for Christmas, I beg of you!

Douglas Coupland, Player One

Admittedly, it was maybe a poor choice for my trip across the continent last week, passing through four airports each way, to take with me Douglas Coupland's novel Player One: What Is to Become of Us: A Novel in Five Hours (from the CBC's Massey Lectures, the first novel in its 50-year history). Fortunately, no security personnel asked about it or recognized that much of my 26 hours of travel time would be spent in the company of five people trapped in an airport hotel's martini lounge during a global crisis, possibly even the apocalypse.

"Why no, officer: I didn't know that's what it was about. A conference about literature and environmentalism? Yes, I was just at one of those. Plenty of talk there about apocalypse and fear, yes, right you are. Why do you ask? I should go in which room, then?"

I've reviewed Coupland before on this blog, of course: Generation A, Girlfriend in a Coma, The Gum Thief, and JPod. Something of a fan am I, in other words, but this is a different sort of text. It's a novel, sure, but it was written for delivery from a podium to live audience (though edited afterwards); it was written for a specific audience (CBC listeners); and it was written for a particular prompt, rather than simply out of "inspiration" (and I don't use scare quotes very often). What would come of the usual Couplandia whatnot, with these factors in play?

If you've ever seen Coupland in an interview (and you should, especially a strange one), you won't be surprised to hear me opine that there may be nothing that'd ever prevent Doug from achieving Couplandia. If you've enjoyed anything Coupland's ever done, including his wonderful book Terry (about Terry Fox, about whom you should know if you don't know him already), then you'll enjoy this one. If you've never read Coupland, or never enjoyed him, I think there's something here for you as well, more than there often is with this idiosyncratic and ubiquitous artist.

The characters are recognizable in type from Coupland's other novels, especially in their only partly self-aware internal monologues that I find so valuable in his works, and also from my circle of broad acquaintance. I'm troubled somewhat, mind you, by the representation of Rachel, whose assorted complex conditions had me thinking constantly of the vulnerabilities discussed in Jean Vanier's Becoming Human. I know too many people with them, including too many young children, for me to overlook the use of disabilities simply in order to forward a plot; this is the narrative element that I'm the least sure about, because otherwise I think the characterization is both successful and functionally useful. All of them are damaged, in different ways, mostly as results of distinctly contemporary (postmodern?) issues or conditions. Addiction, loss of faith, the loneliness of crowds: people suffer every day, and Coupland has a real talent for showing us what middle-class suffering looks like.

But in an ASLE context, which was the conference that took me across the continent, ashamedly burning oil the whole way, it's important to note that the apocalypse that traps our characters together in an airport hotel's martini lounge is a specifically environmental one, an apocalypse we are likely to suffer through ourselves sooner than we would like.

You can find detailed reviews and commentaries in assorted places online, so I'm not going to say more about the plot, but Coupland hitches a ride on my hobby horse with this one: community is our only chance. Not a happy novel, but apocalypse turns out to be survivable, mostly, at least for the short term, and for now, we've got to keep telling stories about it so we can have a narrative to follow once it arrives in our lives. I'm not prepared to let Cormac McCarthy's The Road be the narrative I'm looking forward to.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Jean Vanier, Becoming Human

What was I thinking, reading a book on the plane to ASLE and then not commenting on it before filing my head with three days of earnest conversation, interesting presentations (mostly), and assorted goings-on most pleasant? Ah well.

Jean Vanier's 1998 Becoming Human is another of the Massey Lectures collections. (I've already commented here on both Thomas King's and Ronald Wright's, and I read Douglas Coupland's on the flight home from ASLE - more on that soon.) Unlike some of the other collections, it ended up with a special note on the front cover: "The #1 National Bestseller." What was it about this book that touched the reading public in such numbers, and does it still stand up in 2011?

Vanier founded L'Arche, an organization committed to providing intimate, small-scale housing for those with intellectual disabilities. From a modest beginning in 1964, a year after Vanier had been introduced by Father Thomas Philippe to several men with such disabilities, L'Arche now has multi-residence communities in 34 counties on six continents, including more than 200 homes, workshops, or day programs in Canada. Basically, the program does all it can to provide support and encouragement to these very vulnerable people, so that they can find peace and comfort in their lives: so many people with intellectual disabilities live in poverty and suffering, are unable to help themselves, and have for many reasons not found support from their own families or in their communities. It's not all that easy to find critiques of this faith-based organization, and Vanier is regularly described as a possible saint. I wouldn't go that far, even if I had any faith of my own, but my experiences of individuals with such disabilities suggests that the L'Arche model just might be incredibly valuable.

Becoming Human, though, isn't really about L'Arche, but about compassion, forgiveness, and community. In brief, Vanier believes that if we don't open our hearts and minds to those who differ from us, especially those we would much rather continue to see as different, we cannot be fully human. The connection to L'Arche comes in his searching analysis of why it can be so very difficult to spend time with an adult with an intellectual disability: since we prize reason and shared values, we're confounded utterly by another adult seemingly without reason and seemingly incapable of understanding or sharing our values. We fear them, we fear being or becoming them, we turn away from them: we fail to live out our common humanity. The same situation applies in facing someone of a different faith, a different politics, a different social class, but the question of intellect haunts the book's most evocative, affecting passages.

There's more to it than that, but at heart, Vanier's arguing that we can only be ourselves if we know those least like ourselves. I found myself wondering how one might go about expanding his circle of community, such as to the nonhuman world, but Vanier doesn't offer any help with that.

Even though Vanier tries to reduce the presence of faith-based discussion in the book, there's plenty of it for those who like that sort of thing (or like to resist it). Faith isn't the only part of his argument, and you should be able to get there from a rigorous ethics, but still: it's hard to separate it out, or to read around it. Still, this atheist found himself close to tears a few times, flying across the continent to spend four days with several hundred people very like him talking mostly about the nonhuman from which we separate ourselves at our cost. There is another world of humans, too, that we mostly ignore - and they both need and deserve our attention and our caring.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

ASLE 2011 - Day One

In this report:
  1. Thank the host!
  2. Attend outside your area!
  3. Doubt the theory!
And maybe use fewer exclamation marks, but that's up to you.

First off, you need to understand just how difficult it is to host a conference this size: eight hundred people for five days, with up to twenty-one sessions happening at the same time? Madness. ASLE has always worked with a local host, rather than a local committee, and we all decided after the 2009 event that it was time to put a stop to this terribly unsustainable practice. It worked out at Victoria, and there were local individuals who were prepared to help more than they did (and helped in every way I asked them to), but in some ways I'm still recovering. It took months before I could bear to look at the accounts (sorry again, Amy), and I've continued to be affected by the experience. I took everyone's thanks genuinely, so no one could have done more to make me feel better afterward -- hosting ASLE is just that deeply affecting an experience.

Christophe Irmscher has done the vast majority of the local work for this conference himself. To the degree that this conference is a success (and it IS a success! People are very happy here), it's a credit to him that comes with a personal cost that I hope fades quickly. When you next see Chris, thank him earnestly: maybe even give him a hug, if you're comfortable with that, but don't tell him the suggestion came from me. (And 2013 host, whoever you are, you absolutely must must must have a strong committee supporting you! No more bits and pieces of help from whoever might want to help out where they might happen to be needed. Email me, call me, write me a letter, but I'd like to talk.)

And you should thank Ursula, too, because Chris' job has been to do all he can to make her vision come to life. It's Ursula's program and Ursula's conference, in collaboration with Chris. They're greatly to be commended, congratulated, and appreciated!

Second, I always encourage people to surprise themselves a bit at ASLE. I get along well with my department colleagues at home, but there's not much overlap between our research in different literary periods, national literatures, genres, and so on. Here, I have a lot in common with the environmental medievalists, the ecological performance artists, the eco-Victorianists, really everyone, and it's such a treat to realize materially our common pursuits, just by taking the time to listen to some of them go on at some length about their areas of research.

I mean it: at ASLE or affiliate conferences, like ALECC's, you should make a point of attending one panel that has absolutely no connection to your own research apart from the "eco" bit. What a treat to recognize that we're part of a unique discipline after all, not just part of the real discipline of literary studies.

Third: the dicey bit. I mentioned on Twitter today that I'd heard Timothy Morton mentioned several times in different sessions, not discussed but mentioned, and the mentions have been nagging at me.

Here's the thing.

Two years ago, I took the long view that if someone was using theory to read environmentally, or to read environmental texts, or to read the environment itself, or whatever, then I'd support that person's efforts. Maybe I didn't appreciate what that person was doing, but that's okay. The discipline needed theory, needed theorization, and I was glad that Morton was doing that.

Six months ago, I expressed some misgivings about Morton's work in a tepid but informal review of his Ecology Without Nature. In the end, I said that I was "underwhelmed by the outcome of Morton's considerable expenditure of effort in pursuit of a new theoretical model," and that the book "feels kind of obvious, where it doesn't feel unhelpfully fuzzy." Ecology Without Nature was, in short, a call for people to do what Morton seems not to know that people are already doing.

If I was going to defend and/or support Morton's future work, I needed it to be clearer as well as more cognizant of others' contributions to the field.

And I haven't seen that. His work hasn't been clearer, and it hasn't taken adequate notice of others' work in the field. At bottom, I'm not convinced that his research has been careful enough, and I know that this is a terrible thing to say about a fellow academic. However, his piece in PMLA on queer ecology was name-checked today by Una Chaudhuri in an otherwise excellent plenary session, and Morton's PMLA piece just doesn't deserve that kind of attention. There are a half-dozen or more people at this conference who've spent much more time on queer ecology, doing much more thorough work on the subject, and I'm not happy that it's Morton's comparatively unresearched article that gets selected to represent some version of where the field's going.

I love and admire Morton's energy. I follow his Twitter feed, I read (many of) his blog posts, I watch (some of) his filmed lectures that he posts on his blog. I'm delighted that there's someone with as much intellectual curiosity working in the same field I am.

But he's doing his thinking in public, and he's not being treated that way. I'm all for experimentation, for trying on hats and what have you, but his readers need to understand that that's what he's doing. If the mentions of him at this conference are any indication, his writing isn't being treated as provisional, and that's how I'm finding myself forced to take it now. For example, the queer ecology piece seems to be already in his rear-view mirror, traded in for hyper-objects: good on him for being open to changing his mind, but again, his readers need to understand that his writing is provisional and provocative, not resolved or thorough. He has had what I think is a disproportionate presence at this conference, for someone who isn't here, and I'm surprised to find how vehemently I feel that his presence here isn't fully deserved.

Hit me in the comments, y'all, especially about the Morton references that have been bugging me (and that maybe you've been loving!).

Tomorrow morning I'll post a separate note about all the fun I'm having, which includes the very first fireflies I've seen in my sheltered Pacific Northwest existence; a skunk outside the residence (bunnies? here's what I think of your stinkin' bunnies); and sundry pleasantnesses. For now, though, it's belatedly time for bed.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Jacques Cousteau, The Silent World

I'm a sucker for older paperbacks anyway, and I'm always looking for nature writing, so when I saw a 1966 edition of The Silent World at the Times-Colonist book sale this year, by Capt. J.Y. Cousteau with Frederic Dumas, well, I just had to grab it. Not that I was going to read it any time soon, necessarily, especially with all the things I have to do these days, but then Richard Ellis talked about in Tuna: Love, Death, and Mercury, and the cover reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke's The Deep Range, so onto the reading list it went.

And I'm really pleased to have made its acquaintance, though I will say that, wow, the world was SUCH a different place a half-century ago!

This was Cousteau's first book, so he spends quite a bit of time on the background to his current work underwater (as of 1953). We learn, for example, that they had to invent almost every tool they used, and that as a result they could be subject to all sorts of risks: carbon monoxide poisoning from the generator that powered the pump filling their air tanks, for example. More than that, they tried all sorts of experiments just to see what would happen: moving progressively closer to underwater explosions of one-pound TNT bombs, for example ("When a burst caused too much discomfort, we stopped" [p.41]), and other explosives as well.

Their relations with the life aquatic, too, was fascinating. Cousteau described how whole species fish in different areas, which at first were curious if not friendly, learned rapidly that humans were dangerous as a category and hence began to avoid them. He suggests that they seemed able to recognize the limits of human powers, so staying just outside the different ranges of harpoon, spear, and so on, as if they recognized the different weapons separately. He recounts the story of what dragnet fishing looks like on the sea-bottom, appalled by its indiscriminate effect; he describes numerous heroic (!) battles underwater with large fish that have been harpooned by hand.

Cousteau offers up gory details, too, about what can go wrong on a dive. When a helmet diver's air supply fails at great depth, and if the nonreturn valve doesn't hold, very bad things happen: "By the suction of the air pipe, his flesh is stripped away in rags which stream up the pipe, leaving a skeleton in a rubber shroud to be raised to the tender" (p.133). I like the double meaning of that word "tender," too.

It's instructive, too, to recognize just how gradually his vaunted environmentalism grew in him. In the years before this book, Cousteau and his crew would harpoon dolphins and let them swim for hours, doomed, so that sharks would approach the boat. Similarly, they occasionally used grenades or explosives to kill enough fish to attract sharks, and on occasion just to obtain an accurate census of fish in a particular area. Frederic Dumas, who regularly coerced octopi into "dancing" with him, by exhausting them so much that they weren't capable of resisting him, delighted in spearing large fish. Environmentalism flashes into and out of sight constantly throughout The Silent World, and I really appreciated catching it on the wing like that, so to speak.

Great book, well worth a couple of afternoons of your time!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Margaret Atwood, Year of the Flood

Well, darn it. Now I'm going to have to read Oryx & Crake: not that I didn't want to, but Margaret Atwood's been an unwitting victim of my West Coast anti-Ontario prejudice, even though I regularly recommend that people read Wilderness Tips, and even though I've enjoyed everything by her that I've ever read. I'm busy. I'm not going to read stuff unless I've got time and energy for it, unless the book club makes me do it, and The Year of the Flood was impressive enough that I've got to find the energy for Oryx & Crake as well.

Since others raised the question when the novel first came out that Atwood was writing these two novels, I had to do the customary mulling over of whether it's still science fiction when a "literary author" writes it, or if it remains "literature." (And I don't use scare quotes often, so take them seriously!)

It's set in the future, with technologies that we're developing now but that aren't here yet, and it's got plenty of the traditional hallmarks associated with dystopian sci-fi: huge corporations, the faceless and anonymous powerful, ethical blind spots, intense personal conflict between characters representing competing worldviews, and so on. Environmentalism has been part of the science fiction universe since before there was environmentalism, too, so even there Atwood's representation of pre- and post-apocalyptic environmentalism shouldn't be seen as new. So it's sci-fi, and we should move on to talk about the book.

Except that really, The Year of the Flood is a sci-fi novel that didn't get received that way when it appeared, and a novel that's not received as sci-fi isn't genuinely sci-fi. If you talk about Fight Club, you're really not in Fight Club; if you're not treated like a genre-fiction pariah by literary reviewers, you're not a sci-fi novelist. You could write a novel about robots failing in their attempt to regrow humans, now extinct, from the DNA of Leonard Nimoy and Jeri Ryan, on a satellite right where the Earth had been until its destruction by the Vogons, but if newspaper book reviewers want to talk about it, it's not sci-fi. That's especially true if said reviewers think of the novel as anything other than sci-fi, and The Year of the Flood got too much attention.

Yes, yes, I realize that the purchasing and borrowing audience for science fiction is huge, and that in most countries, more people read science fiction than mainstream literary fiction. Not the point. Science fiction is outsider literature: financially successful publishers, employed and remunerated authors, glossy covers and decent copywriting, but there's no place for it at the mainstream table.

But is this really an issue?

Atwood's novel offers a rich, complicated look at apocalypse--before, during and after--in a society that looks not unlike where ours might be in a few decades. Some things should be understood metaphorically rather than actually (transgenic sheep bred for organ transplants, rather than bred for hair transplants), but otherwise this imagined alternative future kind of fits. The blend of religion and science among God's Gardeners is brilliant, really, and her hymns are shockingly believable (and good, too). Some characters are a little cartoony, but society has done that to them. As I watched the uncivil unrest occur in Vancouver last night--which I refuse to call a "hockey riot"--some scenes from this book came to mind, particularly of Toby looking out from her refuge and wondering what kind of world she was going to be left with. In other words, it's the kind of book where the futurist dystopia leaves you differently equipped to face the world you're already facing, and that's a very good sign.

It's a powerful book, The Year of the Flood, well worth reading slowly and carefully, or racing through a couple of times if that's your preference. Whether you're a sci-fi reader, or a reader of Real Fiction, there's something here for you, and either way, you should read some books more often read by the opposing side. When the apocalypse comes, we'll want a common language by which to know each other.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Richard Ellis, Tuna: Love, Death, and Mercury

I need to talk about Richard Ellis' 2008 book Tuna: Love, Death, and Mercury (originally published as Tuna: A Love Story) in two quite separate ways, because it's both fascinating and maddening.

The content of Ellis' book is worth a considerable chunk of your time, even if Taras Grescoe's slightly more recent Bottomfeeder (reviewed here) gives you a perspective on more than just the assorted species of tuna. But the writing, or possibly the editing, drove me batty enough that I'm tempted to suggest reassigning the main editor to other duties, and keeping the author under a very firm hand indeed in any future work.

In brief, the book's a paean to the assorted species of tuna, who collectively and individually represent all sorts of marvels technological and evolutionary. They're warm-blooded fish, unbelievably, with built-in flow-reversing heat exchangers keeping their body temperatures constant at about 27 degrees Celsius in water ranging from 3 to 30 degrees. They can swim at up to 55 miles per hour, grow to over 1500 pounds, cross the Atlantic once or more per year, dive to more than 1500 feet of depth.

And in 2001, a 440-pound bluefin sold at auction for the equivalent of roughly $173,000. Single large bluefins, the most prized for the Japanese sashimi market, each sell for thousands of dollars, though a great many factors weigh into the price: fattiness, texture, market economics, scarcity versus glut, and so on. As a result, bluefin tuna has been fished so intensively that extinction is on the horizon. The other species aren't suffering as badly, at least not yet, but the book's theme is basically that tuna has been overfished since they were first taken seriously just over a century ago (with bluefin not being particularly important to Japanese cuisine until the 1960s, much to my surprise), and unless we stop wanting to eat so damned many of them, there won't be any left. (Hello, Atlantic cod fishery. How are things?)

The more carefully I read the book, though, the crankier I got at the repetitions, the lack of cross-references, the incomplete (shoddy?) index. And I'm not talking about people recurring unnecessarily at different points, though they do, or at revisiting the same ideas: I'm talking about whole sentences appearing more than once in the book, separated by a hundred or more pages. For example, a seven-sentence passage on farming bluefins appears verbatim on pages 16 and 268, including a multi-sentence quotation, and pages 20 and 167 feature identical brief discussions of how great white sharks can sometimes enter tuna nets. The index is fairly lengthy, but it doesn't include all mentions of its terms: when I went looking for mentions of Andrew Revkin, to confirm whether the same quotation was used more than once, I found that the index only included some of the occurrences.

Plus the titular reference to mercury had me expecting it to be a major thread, and it's not. It doesn't show up until 75% of the way through the book, and it only takes up a few pages out of roughly a 20-page section. The postscript for this edition (by Vintage) addresses mercury specifically, but that's hardly adequate to justify the title. Felt to me kind of like a marketing scam.

Ellis complains at one point, in a footnote, about Farley Mowat's failure to provide a full scholarly apparatus in his books, particularly Sea of Slaughter. Admittedly it seems that Mowat may have made some things up, in order to generate a more effective narrative or to support more broadly a hypothesis or belief, and so Mowat should be chastised for this sort of thing. But in a book that's lacking structural consistency? Glass house and stones, let he without the first sin, etc.

Great details, interesting characters, almost an inside story: Richard Ellis' Tuna has almost everything going for it, except an editor up to the task of directing and controlling Ellis' copious energies. Read it and learn, certainly, but it's not as well crafted as Taras Grescoe's Bottomfeeder, or Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, or Alisa Smith and JB MacKinnon's 100-Mile Diet.

If you're interested in the book anyway, don't feel badly about reading a chapter or two instead of the whole thing - especially if you stop eating tuna indiscriminately. Learn where it's from, how it's caught, and whether it's sustainable: eat knowledgeably, and everything wins.

Friday, June 03, 2011

CS Richardson, The End of the Alphabet

CS Richardson, like Chip Kidd, but also completely unlike Chip Kidd, is a book designer who's moved into writing novels. Richardson's acclaimed 2007 novel The End of the Alphabet is this month's book club selection, which explains my otherwise inexplicable escape from recent trawling through retro science fiction and logging novels.

Now, I was underwhelmed by Kidd's The Cheese Monkeys, to put it mildly, and in retrospect the warning signs were there in Kidd's reviews. Conceptually interesting, but unnecessary, is how I thought of it. Nick Bantock's books are more interesting than that, though maybe I just think that because they're warmer of heart than Kidd's intellectual (?) exercise, but I was a little anxious about The End of the Alphabet.

Now, bear in mind that this novel's an international bestseller, puffed in the blurbs section by USA Today, the Globe & Mail, and People magazine. Bear in mind, also, that it won the 2008 Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best First Novel (Canada and the Caribbean region). People have said publicly, in other words, that This Is Good Stuff.

To my eyes there are two ways to read this novel, and I think I'm unable, perhaps congenitally, to avoid reading it both ways at once.

It's a delicate, restrained portrait of a suddenly dying man and his lovely wife, who understands what he needs but is mostly destroyed by losing her husband. As People puts it, "a compelling look at an enviable marriage--one that just happens to be coming to an end." He gets a 30-day life expectancy, and wants to visit a different place for each letter in the alphabet. She wants to be home, to feel at home, to hold tight to him at home, and the novel depicts their struggles to get what they want and yet to let the other's desire be met as well. Full of compromise and quiet drama, melancholy and courage, the financially secure upper-middle-class Brit hasn't been rendered so lovely in print since ... wait, have they ever been lovingly rendered in print before? (Kidding. I assume that they have, even if I don't read that sort of thing very much.)

It's also boring and twee and self-indulgent, a coded lament for the tattered ruins of collective capitalist egotism that shouldn't be stomached. Ambrose Zephyr travels obsessively following his diagnosis, abandons his family and friends, and burns up his wife's energies to live out the life's goal of his juvenilia, to visit places from A to Z, for no other purpose than simply to do it. Of course USA Today and People loved the book: those particular journalistic lights spend much of their energy bemoaning the decay of Right Values while also celebrating the borrowing of bijoux from Harry Winston and the best $500 shoe for this season. There's a deadline for our lives, and for our society: doing the same thing we've always done, more intensely, is no way to effect change.

It's both these things and neither of them. It's good enough, I guess, and I'm glad for Richardson both that he has found a readership and that readers have found something to keep them rewardingly teary-eyed. But I don't get it. I really don't.

Gene Stratton-Porter, Freckles

No, wait, wait, don't go! I know that with a title like Freckles, by Gene Stratton-Porter, it's going to sound like some sort of teen novel, probably featuring someone plucky, and with some kind of romance plot, and I don't....

Actually, yeah. Published in 1904, Freckles IS a teen novel featuring a plucky young man of ignoble birth who falls in love with an even pluckier younger woman of high birth. But - and this is key, so pay attention - there's a twist. Instead of vampires, there are loggers: the hero guards the Limberlost Swamp against timber thieves so the trees can be cut down by the man who holds the actual timber lease, but falls madly in love with the flowers and birds and whatnot. The girl visits the swamp just to spend time with its extravagant flora and fauna, along with a slightly older woman who's an accomplished nature photographer, so there's romantic tension along with conservationist tension.

And also: gunplay! orphans! love! accidents, some comical and some nearly fatal! paternity revealed! male homosocial bonding, with hugging and declarations of love between employer and employee! Scots dialect! vultures, both human and avian!

Gene Stratton-Porter was a wildly popular Indiana novelist writing at the very beginning of the 20th century, with many of her novels being set in and around the Limberlost Swamp (notably A Girl of the Limberlost); she also wrote a number of nature books, formed a movie company, and financially supported wetlands conservation with the income from her assorted endeavours. Freckles was apparently made into a movie in both 1935 and 1960, so I'll have to see if I can find one or the other of those, but I was really intrigued by the way that her characters are represented as loving the "unspoiled" nature but also respecting the timber industry, to such an extent that the nature-lovers are excited by the prospect of having furniture veneered by bird's-eye maple taken from the Limberlost.

It's a long way from the union-loving complexity of Roderick Haig-Brown's Timber, even though there's a romance plot in that novel as well, and a long way from the cursing and homocentricity of the nearly contemporaneous Woodsmen of the West, by M. Allerdale Grainger, but I'm grateful to Nancy Holmes for pointing me toward it. I've been thinking about those other two novels in terms of their potential utility for thinking about the collaborative activity needed to respond to climate change's local impacts on forests both large and small in British Columbia, and Freckles offers something quite different. I don't know what to do with it, but there's something to be done: maybe somebody can suggest some ideas....

Revisiting Gabor Maté

It's odd to me, but the stats are undeniable. Week after week, day after day, the search engine results keep telling me that people arrive at this blog in pursuit of assorted terms connected with Gabor Maté's book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. Some weeks it's as high as 80% of the search engine stats, with three or four of the top ten queries (though there's always something entertaining to break up the monopoly).

As I said in my initial post, which is STILL receiving comments and significant traffic nearly two YEARS after it went up, I'm not crazy about the book. I came around to what Maté was trying to achieve, and I'm appreciative and deeply respectful of his commitment to the cause of drug addiction, especially in Vancouver's suffering neighborhood Downtown East Side, but as a book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by turns annoyed and interested me - plus it's not as polished a piece of writing as I'm used to, but then I've been trained into snobbery no matter how much I resist it.

Some commenters to the post tell me that they're professionally angered or offended by Maté's approach, others that they find him to be the only person who's ever understood them. I don't have any perspective from which to judge these opinions - I'm a reader, nothing more. This counts for something, but only something, and I'm very much aware of that. Still, it's fascinating to me that so many readers of this blog are here for something about which I know so little, and about which I once simply mumbled some partly formed thoughts. I was talking mostly about literary form, not addiction, but Google maybe doesn't sort out details like that.

If you're here to read about addiction, and if the title of this entire blog is part of the reason you're here (Book Addiction), well, sorry if you feel misled. But feel free to stick around: you might like some of the other books I've been reading, too. Maybe try a "best of the year" post on for size, or an "everything I read this year" post, but thanks for stopping by even if it doesn't work out.