Sunday, January 29, 2012

C.J. Cherryh, Foreigner

I've been cranky lately, and my reviews have been a little harsh as a result: I stand behind them, but I recognize that I've compromised less than I might've done.

C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner, now, I don't need to compromise for. Recent SF reading has gone smoothly, and I've been cranky about realist fiction and about nonfiction (especially scholarly work), so presumably there's something biographical getting in my way. For now, though, there's no point worrying about that.

The gist of the book: future humans travel extremely long distances through space, drawing on the (drug-assisted, tech-modified) talents of pilots whose resulting abilities are near superhuman. The book, though, isn't about that. It's about what happens when something goes wrong, something that never gets explained (at least in this first volume of the series), and a ship winds up at what might approximate entirely the wrong end of the universe. So lost, are they, that they can't figure out a single reference point from the star charts, which isn't at all the same as that time you went out the wrong exit at the mall and had to walk five minutes in the rain.

And so, some generations in, they wind up encountering the humanoids on the planet they're orbiting: first contact is startling and shocking and predictably disturbing. But just like the book's not about getting lost, it's also not about first contact.

Far more intriguingly, it's about prolonged contact with another humanoid species whose instincts and social prescriptions look similar but are so utterly different that there's been no substantial rapprochement whatsoever. (And yes, as a matter of fact I do know "rapprochement" refers to the concept of a return: give me a similar "come together for the first time" term, smart guy, and I'll use that instead.)

Foreigner is the first novel of an in-progress and hence still-growing 14-novel cycle, so there's no news to be found in my thoughts on it. I would say, though, that Cherryh's attention to detail about ecological function and environmental ethics fascinated me, especially because it's so far below the surface most of the time. It's rare to find someone thinking this carefully about such questions, who isn't then foregrounding the questions and answers. (Yep, I'm looking at you, Le Guin, as much as I've enjoyed so far my time spent with your work!)

Plus she's so damned normal, C.J. Cherryh, if her blog is anything to go by. Apparently, it just so happens that even successful SF/fantasy novelists who live with other successful SF/fantasy novelists do small-time renovations with their own hands, renos that do not always go smoothly. Cool to share this kind of detail, even if I won't be visiting the site very often given the amount of reading I've got ahead of me....

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

Literary fiction is, mostly, realist fiction, except for the prize-winning literary fiction that's a touch surreal (Rushdie, Garcia Marquez, etc). Julian Barnes' fine novel The Sense of an Ending isn't at all surreal, but it's won prizes, which means what, kids? Especially given that it's as British as the day is long? Realism. Letter-perfect realism. Greatly to be admired, etc, but also ... disappointingly normal.

Our man Tony is getting on now, around 70, and he spends the bulk of this short book reliving angst of one kind or another, mostly different senses of inferiority. He turns out not to have been The Smart One of his school chums, he's never really been successful with women, he's failed to hang onto his friendships: we've read this novel, seen this movie, lived this life, before. Most of his sense of inferiority is justified, but not all of it, and we're meant to identify with him, more or less, so we get to map or extend our own anxieties onto his and hence to suffer with him through the undignified complexities of a man's unravelling life. So far, so ... good, I guess.

I'm a little uncomfortable with my position on this novel, because reviewers have mostly been competing to see whose praise can be most heavily larded with absolutes and cliches ("a highly wrought meditation," said the Guardian; "A slow burn, measured but suspenseful, this compact novel makes every slyly crafted sentence count," said the Independent; "There is a fierce and unforgiving lucidity about The Sense of an Ending, a mature reckoning with ageing that makes its competitors seem petulant and shrill," according to the Australian; "Julian Barnes reveals crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden," said the New York Times. "He has honed their edges, and polished them to a high gleam"). Thank goodness for Michiko Kakutani, even if I'm not usually on her reviewing side.

In my view, Barnes has done a remarkable job in The Sense of an Ending of doing AGAIN what so many British or British-influenced writers -- and actors -- have done over the years, namely to put a human face onto internalized class struggle. Good on him, as far as this goes, but (God forgive me for by blasphemy) I couldn't help seeing in Tony a little bit of Mr. Bean....

Maybe it deserved the Booker this year, I haven't read the other nominated volumes, but it just has to be one of the most predictable winners in a while: not unlike Richard B. Wright's Clara Callan a few years ago, it checks all the boxes for formula elements of a prizewinner, and yet somehow I never got past the conspicuousness of the artistry that itself prevented my investing in reading the novel.

The book club probably liked it, though: I'll find out tomorrow, and then I'll go all Tony and doubt myself, hence proving Barnes a genius beyond compare. Stupid literature and its perceptiveness.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

An open letter to Joe Oliver

Dear Joe,

I started 2012 in a cautiously hopeful mood. Off and on, I've been cranky for years about how governments in Canada treat environmental questions, and certainly I've complained crankily about your current Conservative government for just this issue. But 2012, I decided, would be different.

We're citizens of the same country, we're living in the same environment, we're aware of the same questions, and neither of us wants to see the apocalypse come. It's not that I was planning a policy of accommodation, exactly, but I was going to do my best to understand where you're coming from.

And then on January 9, your open letter in the Globe and Mail ensured that I would be unable to hang onto this pledge. And then your utterly absurd interviews on CBC's program "On the Coast" and "As It Happens": ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod.

Nine days into the year, Joe Oliver, you broke me. I survived Stephen Harper's remarks Friday about this sort of thing, but you topped him. Nine days, and you broke me.

Let me count the ways:
  • If I'm reading you right, you think anyone worried about oil spills wants "to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth." Bullshit.
  • I'm concerned that oil spills would themselves cause the loss of jobs in tourism, fisheries, and agriculture. The category "tourism" includes people working in restaurants, hotels, the guiding industry, skiiing, fishing, mountain biking, hiking, and so on. Without the oil spills that will occur, predictably, as a result of this "major project," there would be more jobs in more places.
  • The pipeline will HURT economic growth in all those places traversed by the pipeline, except when people get hired -- from outside the local communities, who'll be reduced to providing volunteers for these jobs -- to clean up after the inevitable oil spills.
  • The oil industry generates MONEY: it doesn't generate JOBS, in anything like the number of jobs that can be associated with a relatively healthy local environment that's not mopping up after yet another oil spill, happening at predictable intervals.
  • Your interview on "On the Coast" opened by saying that environmentalists want a "pristine age" for the environment, from the "dark ages." Again, bullshit. Actually, no, no more pulling punches: fucking bullshit.
  • There have been human influences on the environment since there have been humans -- humans are themselves part of "the environment." Yeah, anyone concerned about environmental matters is speaking on behalf of whatever we might imagine as "the non-human environment," but that's simply a balance question. If you'd spent any time reading the thoughtful comments of environmentalists, radical or moderate, you'd know that this "pristine" line is just the most utter bullshit.
  • I don't know which member of your communications team fed you that line, but you should maybe question that person's loyalty. When a conservative speaker uses the term "pristine" in referring to the environment, it signals precisely that you don't know the first thing about the discourse you're pretending to critique. Not the first thing.
  • Would I have an easier time with your whining about "foreign-funded environmentalists" if the Canadian oil industry was actually Canadian? Probably not. Everyone with power needs to be questioned regularly, including industry. But I can't believe you're unaware that this particular claim has humiliated you and your party on an international stage. You humiliated yourself on "As It Happens" with your comments to Carol Off about this, and about the distinctions between "industry money = good" and "enviro money = bad."
  • You think Canadians concerned about oil spills are connected to billionaire socialists?!? First of all, ain't no such thing as a billionaire socialist: if you mean George Soros, you mean a currency-speculating capitalist billionaire with diverse interests in democracy, social justice, and environmental damage. Second, an awful lot of us concerned Canadians aren't members of the groups who've received a modicum of funding from sources outside Canada.
So. You broke me. I've been quiet, not talking publicly about (to choose a couple of recent, fairly egregious examples) Jason Kenney's offensive remarks about the hijab's role in citizenship ceremonies, or about Peter Kent's ignorance about ecological systems, or anything else from the world of politics. Clearly you're not going to let me remain quiet.

You want to stop projects from being opposed by environmental groups, especially by groups receiving funds from American individuals or groups? Fine. Here come the rest of us.

Game on.

You might wish you'd stuck to fighting casually with groups, rather than getting so many voters upset with you.

Best wishes,
Richard

Monday, January 09, 2012

Terry Tempest Williams, Finding Beauty in a Broken World

By all accounts a lovely woman, Terry Tempest Williams: I've taught her work before (an essay in the textbook/anthology Writing It Slant), I've been following her on Twitter for some time, and plenty of my eco friends are fans of her work.

So it's uncomfortable that I don't know what the hell to say or think about her recent book Finding Beauty in a Broken World. It hurt to read this book's content, and I can't make sense of its aesthetics. It has its fans and defenders, mind you, some of them people I've come to like and to trust, but I can't call myself one of them.

This Christmas I chose Williams' book for myself, expecting it to partner nicely with Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark (review here). I'd not bothered to learn the first thing about the book, since it was basically an impulse request based on seeing the hardcover on the remainders table at Munro's Books, but I did take the jacket copy seriously. Jacket copy is, of course, reliably misleading (as I've complained before), but sometimes....

Should I have expected to find 'twixt these covers "a luminous chronicle of finding beauty in a broken world," then, or "a narrative of hopeful acts by [Williams'] taking that which is broken and creating something whole"? Well, no. But I did. And this wasn't my experience of it.

We get about 30 pages based in Ravenna, Italy, where Williams learns from a wonderful artist the basics of how to make mosaics: as it turns out, the "mosaic" is the key metaphor for this book. We then get 60 pages of background about the Tempest family (good stuff) and about prairie dogs (good stuff, though more so for eco nerds like me than for yr average reader). So far, it's proving to be an interesting book, with some nice stylistic touches around the use of short paragraphs to mimic in textual form the aesthetics of mosaicists.

Then, things turn awkward: 110 pages almost entirely comprised of shorthand journal notes, from two weeks spent in an observation post watching and trapping prairie dogs as part of an ecological research project in Bryce Canyon, Utah. Fragments, sparks, connections, moments: I get it, life can feel like a mosaic sometimes, but even I had trouble reading each page in this lengthy section. Sure, some lovely moments, but ... someone should maybe have tried harder to talk her out of going exactly this way for the book's middle section. After all, a mosaic works in part through suggestion, by providing lines and flow and colour but NOT being an entirely representative art form: a mosaic flower recalls a flower, but it isn't. This journal section should have recalled a journal, rather than seeming in fact to be one.

And then Williams' brother Steve dies, leading to a 15-page meditation that I found very strong, bringing together the assorted pieces of the book up to that point. Some might say that Steve deserves better than to be compared to prairie dogs, but I disagree: this section worked for me.

The book's last 160 pages, though. Hmm.

Terry Tempest Williams went to Rwanda in 2005 as part of an artists' project to bring some healing and some sustainable development to a post-genocide country. It is impossible, perhaps, for a country to move beyond its genocide, but better words are hard to find. In brief, Williams goes there to work with a group called "Barefoot Artists" on a memorial project that's intended to bring positive change to a single local community. As their time in Rwanda goes on, though, the project's effects expand outside the local community, the local people immerse the artists ever more deeply in their lives, and the genocide becomes ever more real to Williams and the other artists.

Which leads this book from mosaic-making in Italy, to ecological research on prairie dogs, to explicit descriptions of moments from throughout the genocide. The details of the different ways that skulls can be fractured. Of how people survived by hiding under the rotting bodies of family members. Of child rape. Of a river so full of corpses that the bodies formed a dam, flooding a village's houses partly with the blood of its former occupants.

I read every page of this book. It ends with a small positive movement, though a tentative one, and it's no counterweight to the horrors that preceded it.

Terry Tempest Williams had three books she could have written here. She jammed them all together, using the metaphor of the mosaic, and setting mosaic-style short paragraphs beside each other so that the book's style matched the organizing metaphor.

I wish she had written the three books instead. They would have been remarkable, I bet. This one ... for me, it's a mess.