Monday, November 28, 2011

Theresa Kishkan, Mnemonic

It's been a long time, too long really, since I've had the chance to review a new book by Theresa Kishkan. One of the first writers who talked to me in blog comments, she's a wickedly accomplished writer of environmentally inflected memoir, and her books Red Laredo Boots and Phantom Limb are among my very favourite books of and from British Columbia. It was therefore with delight that, out of my packed end of term schedule, I carved out enough time to work gradually through the essays in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees.

I've remarked before in other reviews that a really great book makes me slow down, makes me keep closing the covers so I don't have to finish it as quickly as I might, and Mnemonic I dragged out for more than a week. I hesitate to give you samples, because I want you to go and read it yourself, I'm that excited by this book, but here's a passage anyway that encapsulates some of the book's hold over me but doesn't actually give anything away:
And yet. And yet. I never expected to feel such physical loss as when I stand in the centre of my own still world and remember the past, which is almost always a landscape. Which is almost always what happened in a landscape. (p. 214)
"There never was an is without a where," as Lawrence Buell memorably put it in his book Writing for an Endangered World, and Kishkan puts is'es and where's aplenty into these pages, from all over the world, emphasizing moments of BC and her BC sensibility.

Some tips:
  • For those who don't read environmental or environmentalist writing, that's not what this is. It's a memoir, with trees of different species as signposts and emblems and evocations.
  • For those who don't read thoughtful memoirish essays, that's not what these are, either. It's a collection of environmental writing, cataloguing the ways that we relate to the world in which our lives occur and with which our lives intersect.
  • For those who.... Never mind. It's environmental writing. It's also memoir. And damn it, you should drop your pretensions and read Mnemonic. You'll love it, I swear, or if you don't, you know someone who will love it, and you can pass it along at the next gift-giving opportunity!

Not that aren't detractors: Brian Fawcett's a very good writer as well, but he does draw on his Curmudegeonly Critic routine in commenting on her book. In his review, if that's the right word for his article, he opens with the line, "Theresa Kishkan is the sort of human being I’ve spent my life avoiding," remarking in the second paragraph on her husband, poet John Pass, "I’ve long found his admittedly-skilled work incomprehensible –no, wait, the right word is inconsequential...." These are review-ready remarks how, exactly?

But Fawcett comes around, more or less, though retaining his traditional posture. While he remains prickly about what he sees as the book's faults (most of which are that Kishkan's not herself Brian Fawcett), he gives what counts for almost extravagant praise: "her sensory array is both complicated and profoundly educated, and if you can get over the rhetorical pomp and the sometimes insight-arresting sensitivity, there is an expressive richness to this book that’s quite a lot more than simply charming." Back-handed, sure, but sometimes that's the best you can hope for.

Her recent novel, Age of Water Lilies, I wasn't as happy with as I wished I had been. (In unrelated news: that was two years ago? Good God, but I'm old.) It was well written, and the characters were interesting, but I never really got hooked. This new one, though, Mnemonic, is good enough that I'm buying copies and giving them away - honestly, I sent my first one out the end of last week, and I've got a few other people in mind for presentation copies! With Christmas around the corner, you could do no better than to read an essay or two, compare your impressions against your buying obligations, and distribute it widely.

For all his codgerly grumpiness, Brian Fawcett sums up, far better than this fan has been able to, what's so appealing about this book: "a rare glimpse into a complicated and intelligent woman’s mind travelling at very high velocities, and in pursuit of startling verities." Wonderful, wonderful stuff - congratulations, Theresa!

Saturday, November 19, 2011


You ask why I don't write.
But what is there to say?
It's always a challenge for university instructors, staying afloat from late October to late November. The assignments keep coming in, there's the labour of reviving your old understanding of your material while also continuing to make sure your old understanding remains somehow relevant, the annual cycle of administration has gotten seriously underway.

And then something like Occupy Wall Street happens: there's something every year, always something, though OWS kept me more excited and intellectually busier outside my usual working area than most past ... distractions? Can I call them that? I blogged a little about Occupy, and I read a lot, and I tweeted back and forth quite a bit. It's taken up a surprisingly large portion of my thoughts over the last month, though I'm not sure what it's going to mean to me as time goes on, and the camps come down.

And my Twitter account got hacked, and I got into a TwitterSpat with someone claiming to be a grad student at the London School of Economics. His point (and I use that term loosely) was that cuckoldry is the male equivalent of being raped (actually saying it more than once), which ordinarily I would simply have mocked as inane, and ignored as trolling, except that he was claiming the support of evolutionary psychology, so game on, "nature" boy.

And I reread books for current courses and for student supervision, and I sampled books for future coursework.

And I finished an article arguing that the BC forest industry is quiet about climate change for underlying ideological reasons connected to a frontier-ish ethic unique to the Pacific Northwest that's most easily explored in BC novels about logging: a startling number of moving parts in this project, so while the article's done, I'm painfully aware that I have to keep going with it if I'm going to make sense of it all.

And probably most important of all was this little project, in which I spent a whole lot of time and energy critiquing, commenting upon, and suggesting changes to my employer's Strategic Plan (what the brilliant Joe Bennett long ago taught me to think of as a "planny sort of plan"). Now that the comment submissions deadline has passed, I'm probably going to let that project relax a bit. Maybe I'll go back to the existing plan, see how the promises lined up with what was delivered, but we'll see how time works out.

And also, you know, life and stuff. I'm gradually coming back to this blog.
These nail-parings
bore you? They explain my silence.
I wish there were as simple
an explanation for the silence of God.
(This post is book-ended by the opening and closing lines of RS Thomas' poem "Correspondence." It's wonderful, and it's posted here by a fellow Thomas fan.)