Thursday, April 26, 2012

S. Terrell French, Operation Redwood

While I may spend a lot of time reading children's books, I mostly read them aloud to my daughter, rather than quietly to myself. Most of these are truly children's books, too, pre-teen fiction rather than examples of the much-bruited Young Adult Cash Cow literature. When I stumbled across S. Terrell French's Operation Redwood, though, it seemed time to give YA fiction a try.

Let me be clear at the outset: this is a doomed review. I consistently kept expecting the things I'd want as an adult reader, but trying actively to suppress those expectations, and in the end I think I've failed to keep an eye consistently either on what the intended readers might want, or on what adult readers might want. Read on at your peril, is my point.
Operation Redwood pursues a third-person limited-omniscient narration, in which we're largely inside the head of 12-year-old Julian Carter-Li. Julian's father passed away some years before, and his mother is absent from the novel (and mostly from his life) because of her work: she's in China on an arts grant, so Julian's staying with his father's horrid brother. We're not inside the other characters' heads, but we do get to read emails written by several of them, and I thought that was a nice way to get around the otherwise nearly absolute focus on Julian and his perspective.

The story is easily summarized: Julian's uncle runs an investment firm that has come into possession of an old-growth redwood stand, and that has obtained approval to log the stand. By accident, Julian learns of the grove's existence and its imminent logging when he learns of the extreme anger of a young girl who lives next to the grove. Through complex machinations (that reminded me of Tom Hanks' son's escape for New York in Sleepless in Seattle), Julian ends up on site with a group of kids making a last-ditch effort to stop the logging.

It's a novel whose heart is in the right place, certainly. The representation of protest was really effective: the need for sustained determination, for elements of carnival, and for overcoming one's susceptibility to social authority. Kids who read this novel will see how kids might undertake protest actions, even if it's all a little cartoony (especially the relatively easy success), and for that reason alone I'd recommend this novel to anyone who might be on the cusp of embracing social justice. (Kids, certainly, but maybe adults too who wouldn't mind the comparative simplicity of YA fiction.)

But like I said, I'm not a regular enough reader of YA lit to know whether the novel works for its intended audience. Operation Redwood has won some awards, and I gather that it has sold okay, so I'd interpret both those pieces as positive. I enjoyed it, but I had trouble plugging into it, in spite of my obvious interest in a novel championing environmental protest. Good stuff, I'd say -- best for precocious 11-yr-olds, through to about 14.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Matthew Hooton, Deloume Road

Matthew Hooton's novel Deloume Road is a classic work of Canadian literature; it reads like a late-career work by an accomplished Canadian novelist, and it both deserved on publication, and continues now to deserve, all kinds of praise. (No, don't ask which novelist. I just mean that it's terribly polished work.)

Mind you, I'm not sure I knew that classic CanLit novels were still being written, at least not in as pitch-perfect a version as this.

Admittedly I still somehow haven't read Joseph Boyden (though I'll now have to surrender my union card), or lots of other writers from outside Western Canada, but if the blurb hadn't mentioned the Gulf War, and if I hadn't done the math for the Korean War veteran's approximate age, I would have thought this was set in the 50s or earlier -- and maybe written in the 70s. That's a good thing, definitely, but also of course ... not so much a good thing. Or maybe too much of a good thing? Either way, while I was actively reading Deloume Road, I liked it a lot, but when I didn't have the covers open, I wasn't excited to open them again.

Now, my responses are likely to be atypical, but I've never pretended I write disinterestedly on this blog. Let's think about three elements that I think are keeping me from getting too into it.

First, autism: special needs generally, but I think it's autism that Hooton portrays. When your child has some special needs, you get sensitive to the representation of children with special needs. My daughter doesn't have autism, and there's really no infallible window into the thinking and feeling of a child with autism, so why did I squirm so much about Andy? Hard to say: he felt created, somehow, maybe more like an aesthetic or functional element rather than a character. It aims at being a wonderfully, terribly artistic book, I'd say, in the High Literature kind of sense that I'll characteristically defend, but Andy stuck out for me as novelistic. Other reviewers have mentioned The Double Hook as a comparison, in terms of its setting and so on, but I'd also mention The Sound and the Fury, and that novel's Benjy sections. (With the caveat that I haven't read Faulkner in 20 years!) Maybe Hooton knows all sorts of people with autism, and maybe he has one or more children with it. If so, then I'll need to interrogate my own expectations more closely, but even so, I'm structurally resistant to the artistic portrayal of children with special needs.

Second, multiculturalism: Canada's a multicultural place, and there are impressively multicultural little neighbourhoods all over this country, but its extent here felt a little contrived. As I've complained about a few other books over the years, it felt a bit like jury-baiting, which wouldn't be at all a bad thing for a High Literature novel to do that came out of a university Writing program: ticking the boxes for "Important Canadian Novel."

And finally, nature nature nature. I really appreciated the sensuousness of the novel's detail, the clarity and multi-sensory texture of it all. We'll see what the book club thinks, but I kept wondering if they were yanking their hair out over all that detail. They liked The Golden Spruce a lot, but not because of its natural description. I'm a commie pinko green, more or less, trending on occasion toward anarchy instead, so I'm normally going to get excited about natural description that's clear enough to assign nature a decentered and decentering power. I expected to feel that way with Deloume Road, and sometimes I didn't not feel that way, so that's something.

But the momentum was terrific, and the prose was -- as lazy reviewers will sometimes say -- luminous, and the characters were memorable. All the pieces were there for a terrific novel, and Deloume Road is one of the most polished, accomplished Canadian novels I've read in quite a while. Somehow, though, I never fell in love with it. I never enjoy feeling like I'm damning something with faint praise, but that's what's happening with this post. Other readers more worthy of trust than I am, though, have loved this book, so consider reading some of their positive reviews instead!

Monday, April 16, 2012

April 15 - Grafton Books, closing sale

The pace of change, etc., but it's no fun losing a bookstore: I'm buying more new books now than I used to, and I still haven't bought a book online, but I do love used bookstores. Grafton Books, you'll be missed in Oak Bay, and it's not really a salve to know that your owners already have Beacon Books in Sidney. Not my local.

In honour of Grafton's closing, I went and partook heavily at their half-price closing sale:
  • Howard Breen-Needham et al., eds., Witness to Wilderness: The Clayoquot Sound Anthology ($9)
  • Thornton W. Burgess, Nature Stories to Read Aloud ($3: wow, politics have changed since 1959)
  • John Gay, Poems on Several Occasions: Volume the First ($50: not bad shape for the 1753 Lintot edition)
  • Gary Geddes, Falsework ($8.50: verse novel on the 1958 mid-construction collapse of the Second Narrows Bridge, in Vancouver)
  • Katherine Gordon, Made to Measure: A History of Land Surveying in British Columbia ($30)
  • Zane Grey, Ken Ward in the Jungle ($8: which will be awesome, I just know it, along the lines of Grey's Roping Lions in the Grand Canyon -- why do people never think these are real titles?)
  • Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune ($3: fourth volume in the series)
  • Craig J. McArthur, BC Centennial of Logging: A Century of Photographs, 1866-1966 ($40: highly specialized nerdgasm)
  • Barbara Norfleet, Manscape with Beasts: Photographs ($7: photos of wildlife in juxtaposition with human stuff, like her 1984 "Garter snake with wine bottle and Wall Street Journal")
  • John Pass, Water Stair ($7: my first book by Mr. Kishkan!)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, Forty Signs of Rain ($5.50: first volume in Robinson's climate-change apocalypse trilogy)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, Sixty Days and Counting ($6: third volume - gotta get Fifty Degrees Below, clearly)
  • Sound Heritage vol. 8, no. 4, In the Western Mountains: Early Mountaineering in British Columbia ($10: such a fascinating series)
  • Rev. Edward Wilson, ed., The Naturalist's Poetical Companion ($50: the 1846 second edition of this charming collection)

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Robert J. Wiersema, Walk Like a Man

No one gets out of high school unscathed: maybe you're unpopular while you're there; maybe you're secretly unhappy; maybe you're happy but never feel that way again.

And work changes you, love it or hate it but it changes you: shifts the way your brain functions, alters the default abilities of your hands and feet, leaves you with aches physical or mental that will never ever go away.

And relationships, Christ.

The great worthiness of Robert J. Wiersema and Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen comes in the depth of his revelations about these matters, so quotidian and so all-important. I tried to review this book as soon as I finished it, but it's taken a few days, and I'm still not satisfied. There've been a few books that I've come back to on this blog (Theresa Kishkan's Red Laredo Boots, for one), and I suspect that this might be one of them: no guarantees, though, especially this time of year, so I'll try to make this review count.

Wiersema's deliberately not channeling Bruce Springsteen in this book, and that's a wise move: back in the early 90s, for example, Melissa Etheridge caught serious flak just for the similarity between the cover art on Never Enough to the cover art on Born in the USA, and she's worked with Springsteen since then, so she's In The Family. More than that, Wiersema's also deliberately not competing with the historians, or the analysts of the lyrics, or the biographers, or the back-catalogue specialists. As he says in the opening pages, and as he's said in interviews, it's crazy to think you can say something new about Springsteen. People keep trying, and some of them find something new to say, but it's still crazy.

So Wiersema doesn't try. This book isn't about Bruce Springsteen, though I imagine it'd be a great help to know a little something about him: its subtitle is the truest expression of what's going on here, Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen. Just as Springsteen's own music comes of age, evolving through the various iterations of the bands and the tours and so on, so too does Wiersema himself come of age, both personally and as a writer. The intersection of these evolutions is what fascinated me, ultimately, especially because of Wiersema's insistence on the particularity of each song he's using as background. In demanding that, for example, I seek out a video of "Rosalita" as it was performed in Phoenix on July 8, 1978 (my daughter's birthdate, as it happens, 24 years early), Wiersema's freezing Springsteen in time and place, identifying a point in evolution's arc, and as valuable a trick as this is, it's still counter to the book's emphasis otherwise on the subtitular Coming of Age. Wiersema's portraying here both the becoming and the being, his own and Springsteen's and Bruce's and that of their now-conjoined arts, and there's a richness to this paradox.

But for me as a reader, there are personal connections here, too. Rob and I were in a few classes together as UVic undergrad students twenty years ago, though he was cooler than I was and sat in the back row from which he could lob insights. In the same context, unknown to me until I read this book, we each married our university girlfriends the summer after graduating: mind you, he dedicated this book to his wife Cori, who remains his beloved, but it's been more than a decade since I last saw my ex-wife. He grew up unhappy and largely isolated in the small town of Agassiz; in my own small town of Chase, BC, I didn't have the same isolation, but school-age unhappiness doesn't always correlate with how things look, "Richard Cory" being far more than just an exercise in poetic form. And I shouldn't have been surprised by the depth of his anchoring himself in Agassiz as a material place, but sometimes I forget that you don't have to be an environmentalist, neither overtly nor at all, to feel the way I do about one's hometown environment.

Hell, I should have learned that for good in the mid-80s when I sang along so very many times, and so fervently, to Springsteen singing "My Hometown." (If you can find the British cover version by Everything But The Girl, you'll be made additionally happy, but that's maybe another story.) Springsteen, as I've been taught by Rob Wiersema in Walk Like a Man, could always have been teaching me things like this. I'm not giving up on Johnny Cash just yet as the import background soundtrack to what BC has felt like to me as I've grown and evolved here, but this week, I'm feeling like if I knew enough about him, and knew the music well enough, there's no reason to think that Springsteen wouldn't have given me the same senses of grace and damnation.

If I was Bruce, I'd have a closing riff. But I don't, and I give up. The review's gotta go live, or I'll lose track of it. Thanks, Rob, and congrats on this book. You're not just a novelist anymore, but a writer.