Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Rob Wiersema, Walk Like a Man

Rejected opening lines for my in-progress review of Robert J. Wiersema's memoir and/or fanboy geekout, the truly fabulous Walk Like a Man:
  • Changing our understanding of adolescence in the West, Robert Wiersema's Walk Like a Man proposes the genuinely paradigm-shifting concept that self-conscious teenagers can find peace in and through rock and roll.
  • A memoir -- really?
  • Asbury Park, New Jersey: basically Agassiz's brother from another mother.
  • What kind of person didn't think high school was wicked awesome, anyway?
  • Honestly, now, can we not just admit that Bruce Springsteen is really just an East Coast imitator of John Mellencamp?
I tease because I love. A longer review of Walk Like a Man is proving difficult, because it keeps turning into a memoir itself, or a whole series of them, and that's not what I do here at Book Addiction Central. OK, it sometimes IS what I do, but it's not usually what I mean to do, and not what I want to do in this case. (Even though it seems inevitable now that it's going to turn out that way, resistance being sometimes futile.)

Let me say only this, and I'll get back to working on the real review.

For years, I've been saying (when pressed) that I live in Douglas Coupland's BC. Coupland's books give me back a powerfully familiar version of my home province: not because of the details, but because of how Coupland's imaginary works, how his complicated BC is complicatedly part of a complicated larger world.

I'm in no way a Bruce Springsteen fan, though I've always enjoyed and appreciated his music. My mid-80s allegiance went to Mellencamp's '85 "Small Town" single and his brilliant '87 album The Lonesome Jubilee; my idol has always been Johnny Cash, even when I didn't know it was; and Bob Dylan's albums since Oh Mercy have had an enormous influence on me over the last two decades. But Springsteen? This week, though, I get it. I GET IT.

And crucially, it turns out that all along, I've been living in Rob Wiersema's BC. Walk Like a Man got me choked up and excited and grinning, for all kinds of reasons, but especially because it's just that good of a book, just that valuable.

More details to follow another day, once I sort out what the hell's going on with this more traditional review that won't let itself be finished....

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

New books, Dec 2011- Mar 2012

Well, that didn't work.

I thought that rather than note each purchase separately, I'd be organized enough that I'd post something monthly identifying what I'd picked up since the last time -- and here it is, nearly four months since the last one. On the positive side, there's not all that much to catch up with. Relatively speaking.

Albion Books, Vancouver
  • Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster ($10.50)
  • "Grant Madison" (Gilean Douglas), River for my Sidewalk ($17.50: the hardcover first edition, published pseudonymously because in 1953 nobody wanted to publish some woman's book about living alone in the wilderness. Jerks)
  • Kim Stafford, Having Everything Right: Essays of Place ($10)
Bolen Books, Victoria
  • Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending ($25: reviewed here)
  • Charlotte Gill, Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe ($29.95: reviewed here)
  • Cherie Priest, Boneshaker ($18.50: reviewed here)
  • Robert J. Wiersema, Bedtime Story ($21.00: reviewed here)
Camas Books, Victoria (February)
  • CrimethInc., The Secret World of Terijian ($8: anarchist children's lit about ELF!)
  • Gordon Hak, Capital and Labour in the British Columbia Lumber Industry, 1934-1974 ($6)
Experience Music Project, Seattle
  • Reinhard Kleist, I See a Darkness: Johnny Cash ($23.50: graphic novel biography, reviewed here)
Left Bank Books, Seattle
  • CrimethInc., Work: Capitalism, Economics, Resistance ($8: reviewed here)
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places ($5)
  • McBay, Keith, & Jensen, Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet ($22.95)
  • David H. Price, Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State ($15.95)
  • Chet Raymo, The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe ($9: probably from here, a bit mysterious...)
MacLeod Books, Vancouver
  • Lawrence Buell, Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance ($7)
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs, Back to the Stone Age: A Castaway in Pellucidar ($7: formerly available for 25 cents, according to the inside cover)
  • ed. Lewis Lapham, Lapham's Quarterly 1.3, The Book of Nature ($8)
  • William Morris, The Wood Beyond the World ($9: "the first great fantasy novel ever written"-blurb)
Munro's Books, Victoria
  • David Mas Masumoto, Wisdom of the Last Farmer: Harvesting Legacies from the Land ($7.99: wow, did I ever fall in love with his Epitaph for a Peach, back in the mid-90s)
  • Paul Torday, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen ($6.99: reviewed here)
Russell Books, Victoria
  • Dave Eggers, The Wild Things ($9: hardcover, reviewed here)
  • Dave Eggers, The Wild Things ($29.95: fur-covered hardcover first edition)
subTEXT, Victoria
  • Taiaiake Alfred, Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom ($22)
UVic Bookstore, Victoria
  • David Harvey, Spaces of Hope ($35: cultural geography)
  • Rebecca Kraatz, Snaps ($15: graphic historical novel set in Victoria BC)
  • ed. Lynch, Glotfelty, & Armbruster, The Bioregional Imagination: Literature, Ecology and Place ($24.95)
Word on the Strait, Tsawwassen ferry terminal
  • Glynnis Hood, The Beaver Manifesto ($16.95)
New rule: mandatory monthly cataloguing. Ridiculous: and I probably missed a few things from Russell Books, too.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Lorax

I wanted to loathe the new movie version of The Lorax. I really did, because the Mazda commercials are loathsome in their callous pimping of my idealistic admiration for this one wonderfully dark Dr. Seuss fantasia. I currently drive a Mazda, and thanks to those ads, I die a little bit every time I grudgingly climb back inside the thing.

Indeed, I'd worked myself into a state of moderately high dudgeon about the movie, when Chris Turner posted a great article at MNN about it, entitled "The Lorax speaks for the SUVs? Yeah, sounds about right." Reeling a little from too abruptly consuming Turner's common sense, off I went to see the movie with my nine-year-old.

And you know, I didn't hate it, even if that's the best I can say about it. The Lorax tired me out, depressed me, and left me seriously frustrated about the military-entertainment complex that inhabits our collective imaginaries, but I didn't hate it. The movie introduces plot elements both sexist and racist that weren't in the book (see below), but those are so ubiquitous in other films, and so transparent here, that I'm slower to anger about those than I should be.

One throwaway element, in fact, even left me a little bit inspired, and wondering about the machinations behind the making of this movie. After the Once-ler has begun selling his thneeds and making his fortune, he manages to catch a photo of the Lorax holding a thneed. Immediately, this photo becomes an advertisement, a "Lorax-approved!" poster on the side of a vehicle: the thneed, just like the Mazda SUV, gets the Truffula stamp of approval. Inside the movie, we're supposed to be briefly disgusted by the Once-ler's co-option of the Lorax. Outside the movie, we're supposed to accept Mazda's co-option of the Lorax.

Let me say that again. The movie specifically denigrates the Once-ler for using the Lorax deceptively for the purposes of advertising. How can I not want to read this as covert resistance by the animators, added somehow on the final cut?

I said above that there are new racist and sexist plot elements in this film, so let's talk about those. I called them "transparent," too, and while I think that's true, I haven't seen much discussion of those. Too much fire being drawn by the SUV-shilling environmentalist icon, I guess.

Racism first, because it's a one-off thing that's campy and weird, and maybe not racist except in the eyes of a politically hyper-correct middle-aged white guy who's out of touch with contemporary music.

Basically, once the Once-ler gets incredibly wealthy, he starts throwing money around like a drunken CEO/sailor, which leads to a musical number called "How Bad Can I Be" (click for a YouTube audio-only version). The Once-ler stomps around the screen in a green velvet overcoat, with oversized matching hat and assorted jewelry, singing what amounts to low-rent guitar-assisted rap. The one-time farm-boy, skinny and innocent, makes big money and in consequence starts dressing like a cartoon pimp, rapping, and wearing what ignorant white-bread advertisers refer to as "bling."

Money corrupts the Once-ler toward conspicuous consumption, which is sort of in line with the Dr. Seuss original, but it's the specific form of this corruption that I'm interested in here: white farm-boy becomes faux-black pimp/rapper.

Maybe I'm overstating the movie's racism, since it's mostly in this one musical number that's voiced by the notoriously white Ed Helms, but I'm not overstating its sexism.

In the Seuss book, the Once-ler had no real motivation for his actions, except to become a success, and Seuss's Once-ler is an entirely self-directed, independent figure. The first thneed, too, is bought by a man walking by who pays $3.98 for it.

In the movie, the Once-ler is named Ted. (What's Dr. Seuss's real first-name again? Theodore? What a coincidence....) Ted leaves home mostly in order to prove himself to his mother. His brothers are both morons (in a clinical, Aldous Huxley Brave New World sense), and his father isn't much better, and yet somehow Ted understands that the women in his family see him as less valuable than the other men. Power resides only in his aunt (whom the Lorax, as you may have seen in the trailer, takes for a man rather than a woman) and in his mother.

Second, in the movie Ted/the Once-ler accepts the Lorax's case and decides not to cut down any more trees, because in truth, it's not entirely necessary to do so. The family's other men-folk even pick the Truffula tufts for processing, but it's a slow and inefficient job. So who's responsible for the decision to cut down the trees? Not Ted: it's his mother, and we even get to watch Zac Efron's Once-ler face collapse briefly into a mask of upset and confusion when she issues her decree. Sure, Ted profits mightily and (as noted above) turns for a time into a super-rich bling-wearing pimp/rapper, but he's NOT the one who wanted to cut down the Truffula trees. Instead, he'd agreed NOT to cut down any more of them. His mother unilaterally decides to overturn his conservation plan, and his mother has them all cut down.

Finally, in the movie the first thneed isn't even sold, and it doesn't go to a man at all. Instead, after failing to sell his only thneed after several days of sideshow-barker fast talking, the Once-ler flings it away in disgust. As fate and movie logic would have it, the thneed wraps accidentally around a teenage girl's head. She decides it's way cool, several other girls immediately decide the same thing, and with its girls leading the way, the entire town charges after the Once-ler waving money and demanding that he manufacture enough thneeds for everyone.

Because as everyone knows, teenage girls drive all changes in women's fashion, as well as consumer culture.

So like I said: the film of The Lorax tired me out, depressed me, and left me seriously frustrated about the military-entertainment complex that inhabits our collective imaginaries. I wanted better, but Chris Turner was right to remind me -- to remind us -- that there's nothing better than this to be expected. Time to raise the black flag, methinks.

And to you people who think that the movie's somehow TOO environmentalist, or that those of us who critique the movie are mean or anti-fun or against innocence: read the book again. Or get someone to read it to you, maybe, because you've missed the point somehow in the way you're reading it to yourself.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Robert J. Wiersema, Bedtime Story

I've enjoyed Rob Wiersema's books before, both his first novel Before I Wake and his novella The World More Full of Weeping (which second book I seem to have promised some months ago to blog, after having read it more than a year before. Hmm). Plus I've been browsing slowly through Walk Like a Man since Christmas, and even though I haven't been entirely hooked, I'm delighted by his BC Book Prize nomination for it. (Perhaps unfortunately for him, up against this gem, for one, as well as against Fred Herzog's unfairly fabulous Photographs, too.)

But Bedtime Story? Wiersema has found another level here, though as with his first two novels, there are some seriously anxious moments for parents, especially parents prone to anxiety about their children's health and/or wellbeing.

As sometimes happens around here, it took me too long to get around to reading this novel. A year ago this past Christmas, I was fortunate enough to be given an advance reader's copy of Bedtime Story, complete with blue cover, a few typos, and an endearing question from a typesetter who seems nice, and unaccountably it's been sitting on my bedside book stack ever since. "No more," I thought, "I could use a big book to work through slowly": except that three days later, by which I mean three unhelpfully late nights later, I'd finished the thing.

If Before I Wake was a novel for women/mothers, a claim with which I disagree heartily but which apparently persuaded Tesco to market it as the product of genderless novelist "RJ Wiersema," then Bedtime Story is that novel's parallel for men/fathers. It's a false dichotomy that depends on gender stereotypes largely obsolete before the brief Kim Campbell administration, but the responsible Tesco employee can't be the only person to find enduring value in sexism.

Basically, Wiersema gives us a young boy who lapses into catatonia while reading a fantasy novel: because he's reading a fantasy novel, this particular fantasy novel. More than that, the boy is catatonic in real life because his consciousness is trapped inside the novel. There are all kinds of wonderful plot points and twists that I'm not going to give away, but Wiersema's managed a neat trick here: he's given us strands of three separate but interwoven novels, from three separate genres (a parent's fear of loss; a child's realization of mortality; high fantasy). The first draft of this novel, I gather, was something like twice the length of the published manuscript; university libraries of the world, I'm calling shotgun right now so I can be be the first reader of the full text, whichever of you winds up with Wiersema's manuscripts and ephemera!

I'm sure it was the right editorial decision to cut the length so dramatically, but having read this much of it, I'm really curious to know what else was going to be in there.

In writing about the novel, though, after the recent book club contretemps re Julian Barnes (here, and in the comments here), I do find myself worrying a bit about whether I'm letting Wiersema off the hook too easily. After all, the largely failed but formerly hot-young-thing novelist is common enough to approach stock, and of course the caring wife/mother is a nurse by profession, plus the "struggling kid finds salvation in literature" trope is every novelist's dream - and the dream of certain categories of parents, too, I don't mind saying. I worry a bit, but I found this to be a very original book, and I found its cliches to be either helpful or something of a trick being played on my expectations.

Incidentally, I stopped by Bolen Books today and bought a new copy. Totally worth it. Everybody should have a copy, and should buy it new from the store where Wiersema works.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Cherie Priest, Boneshaker

Let's get the "pardon?" elements out of the way immediately, just as the front-cover blurb does it for Cherie Priest's novel Boneshaker: per Scott Westerfeld, it's a "steampunk-zombie-airship adventure." (In other news, I've only just this moment learned who Scott Westerfeld is, beyond a blurber for Boneshaker: I kind of want to be him now, both because he has smart things to say about dumb reviewers and because his kid fans build him amazing stuff.)

So anyway, yeah. Zombies, airships, and full-on steampunk. None of these are things I've managed to bump into very often, even if I've been cheerfully without genre allegiances for some time here at Book Addiction Central, but I'm glad to have made a fuller acquaintance with them.

The basic set-up is that deep in the 19th century, Seattle was the location of an apparently failed attempt to build a steam-drive device that'd allow mining for gold underneath glaciers. This failure's key feature was that in demonstrating beneath Seattle the machine's potential for gold-mining, the device struck an underground deposit of gas: Blight Gas, which turns anyone breathing it into a zombie. Downtown Seattle is immediately walled off, and its inhabitants either become zombies, are eaten by zombies, or live with zombies constantly pursuing them.

Into this comes a young man who'd like to remedy the reputation of his father, whose machine caused this whole mess, and his young mother, who just wants to get him the hell out of zombified Seattle. Will good win out? And who's good, anyway -- for that matter, what IS "good"?

It's a fun and complicated novel: characters both just as believable as in any other fiction and the uniquely steampunkly absurd (the traditionally over-the-top Victorianish names, like "Leviticus Blue" or "Jeremiah Swakhammer," or an airship captain who's 7'6" tall); settings both realistically detailed and deliberately altered for novelistic purposes; lots of good stuff. It's really successful escapist fiction, in other words, portraying a world that's both different from ours and much darker. The US Civil War has been going on for 18 years, for example, and there's little apparent cause for hope in really any aspect of the represented society. Yay us, because this ain't our world, but we're able -- well, Cherie Priest is able -- to build us a world like Boneshaker's world simply to entertain us.

Mind you, Chris Harman might suggest otherwise. I don't know whether Priest is familiar with his book Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx (reviewed in the Socialist Review), but for me, the term "zombie capitalism" immediately leapt to mind when I realized in Boneshaker, zombies are a natural product of the mining industry. The non-zombie characters outside Seattle are, mostly, the functionaries of a technology-driven, dehumanizingly industrial process -- the non-zombie characters inside Seattle are, mostly, self-directed technology-supported resisters of the dominant social order -- the zombies can't help themselves, must be destroyed, and should be pitied rather than just loathed. I don't have time to generate much more than this, but Boneshaker just might have the potential for a revolutionary post- or anti-capitalist ecopolitics.

That, plus it's good escapist fun. Not high-end steampunk, I gather, but fun.

In conclusion, I'm totally going to build me a doppelganger out of corpses, with brass gears and mahogany dials and steamdriven appendages and whatnot, so I can read all this fascinatingly political steampunk stuff that I'm suddenly realizing is out there: like this, or this, or this. (Stupid academic career trajectory.)

I've added a few minor cavils in a vain attempt to satisfy some emailed comments, which suggested my praise of Priest's novel ought to be a little bit tempered until I've read enough steampunk to be more knowledgeable. Fair enough, it seems to me, though I didn't change much.