Thursday, July 28, 2011

Michael Lewis, The Big Short

Let me be clear. I've always thought of investment planners as hacks, capitalism as a shell game, economists as an embarrassment to real scientists, and financial markets as inherently fraudulent. Business schools have some excellent people in them, as students and as faculty, but I have to force myself to think of them as similar to (um sorry, colleagues!) real graduate programs.

In other words, Michael Lewis' The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine is hardly the kind of book I'd seek out for myself, although I should say that his articles on the 2007-09 financial collapse were very helpful in letting me get enough of a handle on everything that I didn't feel left out. Economics is something that at heart offends me so much that I can barely stand knowing enough to avoid total ignorance, but that's one of the things book clubs are good for: learning things you'd otherwise ignore, deliberately or accidentally.

So I was really surprised, last night, that I found myself unable to stop reading The Big Short, cramming its 270 pages into a five-hour blitz. I was absolutely, utterly riveted, and this morning I think that everyone capable of understanding the text owes it to the future of human civilization to read it carefully.

Mind you, I'm not sure yet what role Lewis himself played or plays in my sudden obsession. As he says in the afterword, people have been treating him as an expert, but he's really just a reporter. A reporter who understands the story, which is exceptional when you're talking about something as complex as collateralized debt obligations, or pay option negatively-amortizing adjustable-rate mortgages, but a reporter nonetheless.

The gist is that the biggest American financial institutions, over the first decade of the 21st century, fucked themselves in search of profits and through their own stupidity (of individuals and of the institutions), by deriving especially fraudulent investment schemes out of the spectacularly corrupt ways in which a number of smaller, opportunistic American financial institutions had already been fucking the American public. A select few people figured out the extent to which the larger institutions were ignorant of the ways in which they themselves were fucked (rather than wildly profitable, as they understood themselves to be), and bet against the institutions.

The machinations of these select few people prolonged and intensified the pre-collapse behaviours of the large firms, and as a result the few made obscene profits, and the institutions almost without exception faced the possibility of bankruptcy. The American government rode in to save most of them by handing over vast sums of taxpayers' money, and as a result most of the financial institutions remained solvent, their employees made bonuses, and their executives made absurd amounts of money after their ignorance had nearly caused the collapse of the American financial system.

If you've seen anything else I've reviewed lately on this blog (like this, this, or this), you'll know that I'm basically green. Non-human nature good; people of suspect value. My own life has too much brown in it, far too much brown in it, but green is where my allegiance lies.

As far as society goes, I've really been in a state of mourning for years, sometimes passionately and sometimes quietly, that environmental change and climate change are combining to mean that the forms of human society I love can no longer function. I've used a lot of breath and ink supporting farmers' markets, community justice initiatives, pollution remediation efforts, and the rest of it.

But after reading Michael Lewis' The Big Short, I'm no longer mourning. I'm perilously close to being on board with Derrick Jensen, who has for years kept saying that the only way to save human society is to bring down the current version of it. No one in Lewis' book deserves to avoid the apocalypse. No one. And if I get nuked with them, well, today I'm not sure I'd mind that.

Angry doesn't begin to describe how I'm feeling, with this extra bit of insight into the unavoidably corrupt, demonstrably fraudulent, criminally parasitical financial services industry. As an academic, honestly, my response is hardly likely to be anything other than text-based and wannabe, but mother of god, there's a gigantic reckoning out there that's richly, richly deserved. Time to raise the black flag, as they say.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native

I first read Thomas Hardy's 1878 novel The Return of the Native twenty years ago in an upper-level undergraduate course taught by the erratic but personable Reg Terry, from whom I'd earlier taken a second-year survey course (Medieval to Victorian; motto: "We read it all, thinly!") that I'd enjoyed enormously. The Victorian novel course was a bit of a slog, to be honest, with nine novels in thirteen weeks. Sir Walter Scott's Heart of Midlothian, for example, takes up precious little of my memory banks, though I suspect there was quite a bit of Action and Drama in it, and I'm still unsure whether I've actually read Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, though I did own a copy for many years that I'd bought for the course.

But Hardy's Return of the Native was, as the cliche has it, a revelation. I'm teaching the novel this fall at my university, so I've just finished reading it again, and my goodness.

The book's representation of a socially claustrophobic small community hit me very hard on first reading, and it hit just as hard again. There are so few people in the novel, but they deliberately enforce - and sometimes against themselves - what they believe to be the standards of the much larger society. Utopic fiction often starts from a small community that's somehow able to evolve standards that suit themselves, that allow an escape from an oppressive larger social structure in order to move forward into a (relatively) stable private reality: that's not at all what happens in The Return of the Native, where the private reality remains inexorably linked to the larger world even though the larger world remains invisible and seems to most characters scarcely imaginable.

And the representation of place itself as an agent of change; metaphors (and actualities) of vision and blindness; character self-awareness and self-ignorance; accidents of circumstance: I really do find this novel astonishingly satisfying, even with (because of?) all the tragedies large and small that develop through its pages.

That's not to say that I don't have concerns about teaching the class. For example, I'm a little anxious about how the pacing will line up with student interests more broadly, since the long-ago undergrad experience of someone who becomes a literature prof isn't a reliable indicator for a book's popularity now. Perhaps more specifically, I'm also anxious whether the book's narrow social milieu (only a few dozen people living across a fairly large desolate area) will resonate with those accustomed to social media's hypothetically infinite community. With luck, and the support of some engaged students, it just might work - and it'll be the last book we read, so by then maybe I'll know how to sell it!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Poul Anderson, The Winter of the World

Sorry to repeat a trope and a theme, but oh, 1970s science fiction: at what point did you figure out a way to at least fake an understanding of women's lives and values? Poul Anderson's The Winter of the World is interesting for a lot of reasons, though maddening or off-putting for others, but its gender politics are pretty dodgy. Check the cover image, for example, which has little to do with the plot: note the woman in bare feet on what may be ice, the handsome specimens behind her, and the increasingly erect phallic weapons the men are holding (read left to right, from downward ax to erect spear).

As with Callenbach's Ecotopia, and I'm guessing most of a generation's worth of science fiction, reading The Winter of the World is partly an exercise in mental gymnastics, in that you have to figure out what can be abstracted that's not irretrievably connected to the gender ridiculousness. But the setup means you persist, even though it takes 60% or more of the book before you start getting much payoff:
"First came the ice--and a magnificent civilization collapsed beneath the glaciers. Then all men became barbarians living in a time of chaos. But out of confusion came new and perhaps stronger cultures...." (back-cover blurb)
Not exactly global warming, but really, we should be talking about climate change anyway, or about increased climate instability, or something. Warming is the short-term effect, but the longer term is harder to imagine what with all the cascading effects, hypercorrections, inversions, and whatnot that might come down the pike at us. So yeah, this novel just might have something to offer.

Much of The Winter of the World has to do with what appears to be a far-future New Orleans, several thousand years in the future, after a lengthy Ice Age has scoured much of the planet. Three (or possibly four) of the world's powers are in conflict in the general area, including the Northlanders, who are the most unusual of the groups in terms of their political structure, gender relations, and ecological role. It takes the novel a long time to get to what the blurb promises, and there's a fair bit of action along the way there (swashbuckling! promiscuity! learning new languages!) that'd suit most science fiction of this period. Eventually, though, we end up somewhere kind of unique: an ancient city that was saved from the glaciers, possibly Chicago, whose towers remain standing but are being gradually quarried for their metal.

Upon first seeing this huge, abandoned city, a minor character remarks, "I never really appreciated till now ... what a lot the ancestors grabbed. They left us mighty lean mines and oil wells, didn't they?... As is, nobody will make anything like this city again" (p.151). One of the main characters thinks to himself, in reply, that this theory would explain why the world's most productive mines were along coastlines, which would have been underwater before the ice came and hence not available for exploitation. More than that, though:
"Was that why the ancients died? Had they spent so much of the earth that, when the Ice overcrawled a great part of it, not enough of remained for them to live the only way they knew how?" (p.150)
Presumably, yeah: much like in The Road, not enough survives the catastrophe for civilization to rebuild itself the way it was, and in The Winter of the World, it takes thousands of years for much of anything to happen, in terms of what we might call civilization.

From the abandoned city of Roong, the novel moves on to some seriously interesting speculations on human evolution going forward, with natural selection favouring those who'd rather live in small groups without rulers, rather than in large groups under someone's direction, and favouring those who'd rather spend a lot of time in nature, being natural. It turns out in the end that the novel's oddly 70s gender politics (women able to think themselves into non-fertile states! shared sexual partners! open marriages!) might be part of the way forward, once civilization collapses. This doesn't make it more likely you won't roll your eyes at much of it, mind you, but at least there's a reason for it.

Fascinating stuff. Not the best writing, or the least predictable, or even the sexiest, speaking of that, with oddly little eroticism for a novel so keenly interested in sex sex sex, but fascinating in times of climate change.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

David Gessner, My Green Manifesto

I first came across David Gessner's work when I was trying to put together something of a shit-disturbing panel for ASLE '09 in Victoria: his book Sick of Nature suggested he'd be a good match with Terry Glavin and Brian Fawcett, since all three of them push environmentalists to do more and better work than they've done so far. Neither Fawcett nor Gessner attended, in the end, though I gather that Glavin enjoyed winding some people up.

Gessner's new book pushes some of the same buttons that he was after with Sick of Nature, but for quite a different effect, and not just because it's a focused book rather than a collection. Instead of working as a sniper this go-round, he's on a good old-timey sort of mission in My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism. He wants to change the culture - actually two cultures, both the consumerist and the environmentalist - so this book really is a manifesto. A funny, satiric, personable manifesto, if that's imaginable.

The world needs saving, as we greenies all know, and we're all wondering how to get it done. Well, Gessner has some firm ideas about that:
"You may find yourself wishing that, even if the doomsday predictions are entirely accurate (down to the last minute and extinction), even if our fate is sealed (or, almost sealed as they always like to say, giving us a last second chance at reform), even if it is all true (and I, for one, will admit it is true, more or less), even if this is all the case could we just SHUT THE FUCK UP ABOUT IT FOR A MINUTE?... I don't want to bury my head; I just want a short fucking break to remember that there are good parts to being alive." (p.29)
Climate change is underway and worsening. Extinctions are legion, inexorable, and permanent. Oil supplies are disappearing before we figure out how to replace them. But you know, the world is a pretty great place to spend a few years, and some parts of the world really deserve some celebration: let's do that, in amongst the small task of turning around human civilization from the momentum generated by the whole force of almost all of human history.

Remember the small stuff, one might say. Learn something specific, pick a fight about it, and stay in the fight (expanding its terms or changing its ground as needed) until you've won.

Don't think about climate change. Think about the creek that your street's gutter drains into, or the hummingbirds you see for a month or two every summer, or the Vancouver ground-cone that you might sometimes see in late June or early July under salal bushes by the bus stop. Figure out how to make things better for whatever it is you're thinking of, and don't stop fighting for it.

But also, and this is key, you need to drink beer outdoors, maybe something stronger on occasion. You need to get your hands and feet muddy, your muscles the good kind of sore, and your skin burned. You need to be gobsmacked by the weirdness of insects, or the miracle of bird flight, or the size of either a tree or a bit of moss. You need to be okay with not knowing stuff. Above all, you need to be capable of taking a slackjawed pleasure in the world, because if you can't do that, then you're living in your head first, and that's where we worry. Love something, and fight for your love. It's that easy, and that hard.

Mind you, I'm not entirely on Gessner's wavelength. At a few different spots, he says that the book is what he'd wished his 16-year-old self might've read, and hence something that might work for 16-year-olds now. I don't see it that way, since I'm only a decade younger than he is and yet it feels almost immeasurably closer to the annoying 1960s than I'm comfortable with - but then again, I regularly forget how important the spirit of the 60s still is for those tending toward environmentalism. You can keep your Che t-shirts and unkempt John Lennon haircuts to yourselves, and I'm happier with recent riverboat-gambler Dylan than with acoustic Dylan: but we do all march together, and I have to keep reminding myself of that.

In sum, this is an important little book, and also one that's fun and biting and pleasing. We do have to shut the fuck up about the bad stuff sometimes, even while we work to overcome or reverse it: there's something good to save, not just something bad from which to save the good stuff.

Don't want to read it? Want more than the book has to offer? Try listening to him, or maybe even watch the handsome bugger.

Friday, July 15, 2011

WP Kinsella, If Wishes Were Horses

How could If Wishes Were Horses miss? W.P. Kinsella's collected works include both clunkers and hits, but the two novels for which some of his readers actually venerate him (rather than simply appreciate him) are The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, featuring Gideon Clarke, and Shoeless Joe, featuring Ray Kinsella, which you may - and should - also know as Field of Dreams, starring the then-ascendant Kevin Costner, who may never have been better.

Because If Wishes Were Horses brings together Ray Kinsella and Gideon Clarke in the same volume, and lets them both talk at length, without interruption, with each chapter entirely narrated by only one character. If the first two novels were as character-driven as most of us thought they were, then this novel would be wonderful.

Basically, Ray and Gideon come together to ponder and help solve the unlikely, improbable, and impossible events occurring in the life (or possibly lives) of Iowa-born Joe McCoy, a retired pro baseball player on the run after apparently kidnapping a child and committing numerous other crimes - except that it didn't quite happen that way, and for some reason nobody wants to actually arrest the guy. McCoy means well, always, and he lives a small life with at best small victories, so we're meant to see in him our own weaknesses (and our own strengths in Kinsella and Clarke, vindicated in the earlier novels).

It's a brilliant idea, and the set-up is terrific. I bought into the characters (OK, the male characters - the female ones, Kinsella has always kind of struggled with), and I appreciated how he handled questions of setting.

But I'm glad I read enough to be glad of partial successes. I couldn't stay excited about this book, and the big plot twist explaining McCoy's increasingly improbable existence ... well, let's just say that the original version of The Abyss came to mind for me. I mean, honestly. Dude. It's a novel: there's no reason not to give us the director's-cut DVD up front, with all the good stuff left in.

Lots of sweetness in this novel, but for me, not enough of anything else.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Cannings x 3, The World of Fresh Water

A little over a decade ago, two of the Cannings boys (Sydney and Richard/Dick) wrote and published the enormously valuable British Columbia: A Natural History. Inspired by the large number of stories and concepts that had to be left out of even that large and rich book, Dick and Syd joined up with brother Robert to start writing self-contained books based on individual sections of the bigger one. The World of Fresh Water was the first of those succeeding books, uninspired in its title if I may say so, but an absolute joy to wander through.

It's not a writerly book, but its writing is very good indeed: evocative, descriptive, zippy. These are scientists, and I think I felt a distinct note of apology in what was meant to be a simple remark that "the physical and chemical characteristics of fresh water are largely ignored" (p.ix). But they're scientists who are in it to communicate, to share what they've learned in order to make sure we understand what a remarkable place British Columbia is.

This is an engaging, big-hearted book about fish, beetles, moss, saline lakes, and honestly a thousand more topics in a little over 100 pages. I found the brief sections on beetles to be irrationally fascinating (new favourite word: plastron), but there wasn't a chapter I didn't linger over. Admittedly most people who know me wouldn't be surprised to find me marvelling at such details as the relative mineral concentrations of lakes whose inflow streams pass quickly over steep rock, and those whose inflow comes slowly across alluvial soil, but the Cannings boys make this sort of stuff sing, they really do.

Man, what I wouldn't give to have the naturalist nerd chops to hang out at Cannings family dinners, and it's not just these brothers. I'm a hack and a dilettante, even if I'm usually okay with that, and even if I'm sometimes more knowledgeable than other people. (Cue Douglas Adams' paranoid android, Marvin: "That young girl is one of the least benightedly unintelligent organic life forms it has been my profound lack of pleasure not to be able to avoid meeting.") I'm excited to dig into the rest of this series.

Don Gayton, Kokanee

I've now finally read Don Gayton's Kokanee: The Redfish and the Kootenay Bioregion, after giving an autographed copy to my father and somehow picking up an autographed copy for someone named Pam, after having Don speak to one of my classes when he was the Haig-Brown Writer in Residence at my university, and after I'd managed to put it onto the book club's fall rotation for November. Well past time to get on it, in other words, and I'm glad to have spent time with it while camping for the first week of July.

Now, as another volume in the excellent Transmontanus series edited by Terry Glavin, Kokanee is short, non-technical, and genre-bending, but still rigorous and careful in its detail. If you're the kind of person who thinks this means it's likely to fall between stools, well, I can't help you with that, but that's never been my experience with Transmontanus. These books are about wonderfully diverse topics (ancient clam fisheries, historic and idiosyncratic uses of explosives, the Vancouver histories of punk and beach nakedness, basking sharks, etc); they're written from a position of relative expertise, mostly by talented writers; and they're edited and designed beautifully. I continue to ponder ways to organize courses around them, to be honest.

Gayton's books isn't my favourite in the series (Theresa Kishkan's Red Laredo Boots is still that, so far), and this isn't Gayton's best work (Landscapes of the Interior holds that distinction, at least until I reread The Wheatgrass Mechanism one of these days to see if I get it now). Still, I appreciated the light touch of including his father's end-of-life story, even if I wanted more of that thread than you end up getting, and Gayton's always really good at flicking effectively between subjects without leaving you feeling dislocated. The beginnings and endings of his chapters (titled sections?) are often wonderful, too, but I'm not going to spoil those for you.

On the informational side, I came away knowing a lot more than I'd known previously about the non-oceangoing kokanee salmon. In my teens I fished for them regularly in the Deadman Valley between Cache Creek and Savona, a terrific little part of the province of BC, but that's about the extent of my intimacy with them. Just textbook stuff, otherwise, so I'm grateful to Don for sharing some knowledge with me.

And I learned more about Kootenay landforms, too. It's a part of the province I barely know at all, so it's fun just to bring it into my thinking for a change. It feels kind of like home (like both the Shuswap, or at least the wetter North Shuswap, and like northern Vancouver Island), but the topography's still somehow mostly wrong for my sense of space. Very odd feeling to be there, though it's aesthetically beautiful and ecologically interesting.

If you want to live in BC, and feel like you know the place, this is the kind of book you need to spend some time with. You don't need to study it, or tattoo its lessons on your wrists for easy reference, but it'll save you SO much time as you try to figure out how the Kootenays are different from the rest of the province; how the assorted fish species fit together; what the deal is with provincial, federal, and volunteer fisheries workers; why hydroelectric dams are more like the devil than you might thnk; and so on. Plus it's really good writing (sometimes scientific, sometimes memoir-ish, sometimes travel), in a lovely little package suitable for framing. Buy three today.