Sunday, June 30, 2013

Matthew Hooton, Deloume Road (revisited)

I'll confess, straight up, that I got it wrong: Matthew Hooton's debut novel Deloume Road is a whole lot better than my first review said it was. Sure, I could say pretentiously that reading, like time, is a river, and it's not the same river when you step into a novel for a second time, or maybe you're not the same person the second time, or whatever Eckhart Tolle would say if he was a book reviewer.

This time around, I hung on every word, every section. Deliberately, and for days, I forced myself to stop reading, to stretch out the process, because while I wanted to race through Deloume Road, there was just no way I wanted to surrender the experience. I don't feel compelled to this step very often, reining in my reading to sustain its duration, but as I said some years ago about Theresa Kishkan's collection Phantom Limb and Alistair Macleod's Island, it's such a treat that I'm entirely prepared to trust it as an absolute indicator of a book's quality.

And yeah, an attentive (obsessive? - ed.) reader might have noticed that a recent note on Frances Greenslade's Shelter offered a clue I was still ruminating on Deloume Road, but I hadn't gone back and reread the novel to see whether my thinking had changed. Now I have; and it has.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Harry Robinson, Nature Power

Like so many well-meaning settlers, I'm always finding myself caught between my personal history (40 of my 43 years in British Columbia, the others in Alberta) and my cultural history: mutt Anglo, with undistinguished forebears participating in the generalized over-running of non-Anglo places for a few centuries now, without much power themselves but with a higher rank than those whose place it was before we mutt Anglos showed up.

Some say there's no sense in which apology or redemption can be meaningful, or indeed adequate to the circumstances of settler colonialism.

Some say that there's no point beating yourself up about anything past, as long as you genuinely want to see a better world tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, progressively, with justice for all that's not especially retrospective.

Is there a way to talk sensibly or plainly about white folks and Indians, in any particular North American place?

Of course not. Absurd even to try: actually, not so much absurd as destructive of whatever fragile detente we've managed to erect simply by not talking about there being a need for a detente.

Until, that is, you read one of the beautiful collaborations between Harry Robinson and Wendy Wickwire, so justly respected for their clarity, their approach, and their openness.

This fall, I'm teaching their book Nature Power: In the Spirit of an Okanagan Storyteller in my class English 456 (BC Literature), though it'd be more accurate to say that I'm including it in the class. Harry Robinson was one of the great storytellers of the Okanagan people, and hence a teacher himself, so my role is really to stay out of his way while my students read his words.

People more often read Robinson and Wickwire's first collaboration, Write It on Your Heart: The Epic World of an Okanagan Storyteller, but I really like the focus in Nature Power on a single topic, the source of power (such a complicated term!) among the Okanagan people as well as among some affiliated groups near their region. The idea of "power," as Robinson explains it, might seem to overlap with conceptions of spiritual magic, but his point is that this form of power comes from a material basis and has material effects. Usually a person learns his or her power while still a child, purposefully left alone by one's elders when they judge that it's exactly the right time, but there's nothing consistent about the events in these stories, except the likelihood of variation.

What's consistent, though, is Harry Robinson's pattern of storytelling, and I'm hoping our class will spend some time talking about narrative and audience, not just about the content of the stories. In general, Robinson opens either by introducing the main character, the person with the power, or by emphasizing that he's telling a story. These are the opening lines, for example, of "Throw Me in the River":
Did I ever tell you?
What I was going to say?
Oh, I think I did tell you,
    or maybe not-- (p.85)
Different stories take different approaches, and they're also collaborations with Wendy Wickwire, with Wickwire responsible for putting the stories on the page, but this time through the book, I found myself really captivated by the moments where Robinson reaches outside the narrative like this. Even more than these openings, though, I appreciated those moments where he repeats himself, often with slight variation, saying very nearly the same thing over the course of maybe a dozen lines.

It'll be a touchstone for how we approach English 456 this year: but even if you're not in the class, it's a wonderful, classic set of stories. Every BC'er should know something about the stories that were here first, even if settlers need to remember that they don't get to call other people's stories their own.

Monday, June 17, 2013

David Pitt-Brooke, Chasing Clayoquot

Does anyone else get a little reluctant to read books that clearly have you as their target market? Lordy, I hope I'm not the only one who takes too long to get to the very books most likely to deepen my sense for what I go to books for in the first place.

In other words, why on earth did it take me so damned long to read David Pitt-Brooke's beautiful 2004 book Chasing Clayoquot: A Wilderness Almanac?

Such a thoughtful book, and so careful about the details of natural history, human history (settler and First Nations), ecology and meteorology and biology, and such a conversational prose style touched with aphorisms: this is a classic (classical?) work of natural history, an exemplary environmental almanac, so much so that I almost didn't hate the Globe and Mail reviewer who referred to Pitt-Brooke as "a Thoreau for Clayoquot."

(Almost.)

If you know someone who'd be likely to appreciate a book about the wild West Coast of Vancouver Island, who might be keen on nerding out briefly with the minutiae of water habitats in gravel beneath rivers (the "hyporheos"), or the flight paths of western sandpipers, or the spawning techniques of herring, then there is simply no other book worth considering.

Garth Lenz for the WWF, via Ocean Village Resort
Okay, no, actually there are several other good books, because this kind of thing has long been (inaccurately) considered a moderately safe bet for British Columbia publishing circles, but my point is that Chasing Clayoquot does its job extremely well. But also somehow, somehow, I'm just not able to end this review here, with the only the compliments rhymed off, and I'm unwilling as well to slide in the subtle knives from some more timely reviewers. This book deserves better than that.

The thing is, I could cheerfully go a dozen years without seeing yet another reference to a forest as a cathedral, and I've been worried about environmentalism's focus on wilderness for a very long time (even before reading William Cronon's utterly essential essay "The Trouble with Wilderness," which expressed the right ideas so clearly, helpfully, provocatively). Like I wrote here recently when talking about Yosemite, wild places are better off without us; environmentalists, like industrialists, should maybe stop going there themselves, and find some way to celebrate and rewild the worlds in which they actually live.

Pitt-Brooke's almanac is precisely and declaratively a defence of wilderness, both in its material form and as an idea, and I respect his efforts. But I quibble, here at Book Addiction HQ; that's what I do. If you've been to this site before, you know this already: I can get cranky.

At the end of a very entertaining passage on his own appreciation for machines and technology, in the context of driving to see some wilderness, Pitt-Brooke comments that really, machines can take you only so far on Vancouver Island. Even the most rugged four-wheel-drive needs a comparatively clear road if it's going to keep moving, and that's a problem: "anything at the end of a clear road is not worth seeing" (p40). Dude, no no no! There's always something worth seeing at the end of a clear road -- there's even something worth seeing in the ditches or centre median of any highway.

In part he's poking fun at himself self-deprecatingly, I get that. And I'm not a humourless reader, but if environmentalists aren't just going to be talking to themselves, we've got to stop falling for this kind of rhetoric: we've got to stop using it, even if we're trying to celebrate wilderness. Especially if we're trying to celebrate wilderness, actually, because that's when we're most likely to turn stereotype and chase away potential allies without knowing we're doing it. It's not good enough for Pitt-Brooke to "reserve [his] real enthusiasm for wilderness" (p255), as he demonstrates the book that he knows, in spite of lines and hints like these.

Regardless of how congenitally cranky I seem to have become, Chasing Clayoquot was a joy to read. Pitt-Brooke touches on valuable ground indeed in his meditation on death and the improbability of life ("The wonder is not that we die, but that we live at all"), for example, and his anger at industrial resource extraction is nicely calibrated.  The perspective that he brings to this reflection on Clayoquot Sound, and on wilderness generally, should not be missed by any reader with an interest in either of these subjects.

Mind you, I may be the very last BC environmentalist to have read this book, so it may not have much of a market left....

Andrew Pyper, The Killing Circle

Let me be blunt: Andrew Pyper's The Killing Circle is the most horrible book I've ever loved reading.

A delicate flower, is what I am, so I'm not used to reading in any detail about murders, and I've got little enduring interest in exploring other people's evocations of stultifying fear and paranoia. (Sell crazy someplace else, as they say, because we're full up here.) The narrator and many characters in Pyper's novel are depressing at best, reflective of either a society or a species in what may be permanent decline, with corruption or depravity always an immediate possibility, and why do I want proof that someone else thinks the same way I do?

Because it's an incredibly, terribly gripping story. I woke up too early on Father's Day, and read from before 6:30 until after 8:00, then stole some time during the day, and finished it before bed the same day -- shameful, I know, and if you've read the book, you'll know just how inappropriate a book it is for Father's Day reading, but even for a confirmed book addict, I was genuinely surprised at how difficult it was to stop reading.

Imagined on flickr by Melissa
Thing is, I also feel like there's precious little I can write about the book that won't give away something good, that you'll need to be surprised by as you enjoy your way through this delightfully evil tome (a phrase, incidentally, that Google no doubt wrongly claims has never before been posted online). The novel opens with its narrator sliding out of a book critic's job with a major newspaper, some years after the death of his wife, living weepily with his young son and trying to become a writer like he meant to before becoming a critic: beyond that, you're going to have to read the book (or some cheap review that gives away the goods unfairly!).

I'm guessing that some of the other book club members may feel similarly about the violence and the fear, but you know, this book's just worth the pain. At times, it's even funny, like when the narrator describes readers as "the last floral-skirted and corduroyed, canvas bag-clutching defenders of civilization" (p139). Actually, Pyper scatters easter eggs throughout for literature fans interesting in thinking about, or sniping at, some of the pretensions of readers and critics, especially in Canada, and it's kind of worth staying just for those.

Well, for a certifiable book nerd, anyway, and why would a person resist the label, anyway? You're hear reading blogged book reviews: be proud, oh corduroyed and/or floral-skirted defender of civilization!

But seriously: read the book. It's horrible. You're going to bury yourself in it, and enjoy it in spite of yourself.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Help the wild be: Alfred Runte, Yosemite

Confessions of a bad environmentalist: I've never been to Yosemite or Yellowstone, nor to Clayoquot Sound or the Great Bear Rainforest. Sure, I'll argue always that these places don't need my consumerist footprint weighing them down further than they are already, but imaginatively, I'm terribly compromised by my exposure only through indirect means (cue Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction").

Or so the argument goes, I guess. I'm supposed to feel bad that I haven't been there, but I don't. In fact, I've always been a little bit proud, secretly, that I'm never collected the standard visitors' badges to wild places as cred for my green views.

Alfred Runte's angry 1990 work of environmental history helps to clarify and support this sort of reluctance to visit wild places. Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness forcefully proposes that the American national park system, especially its signature park Yosemite, has been doomed from the start through management toward principles of human utility and visitation, rather than principles of biology or forestry or ecology. The only responsible position is that visiting Yosemite must occur in a context of respect for nature and place, rather than for human desires.

"Nature" at night: Yosemite Valley
Is it possible to manage nature without doing so for human ends? No, because our understanding of nature is always already limited and deceitful and manipulative, no matter how good our intentions, but as Runte explains, management in Yosemite has really never even tried to aim at the best of intentions. The park's development is a sorry history of managerial and touristic practices that should have been criminal at the time, and in some cases were indeed criminal, but that were allowed to thrive until the park's reason for being has in large measure been extinguished.

It's a beautiful place still, obviously, well worth visiting touristically, but after reading Runte's book, I just can't imagine that I'll ever want to visit Yosemite. I refuse to contribute to the Disneyfication of this place; I will not accept that it should remain the thoroughly consumerist-industrial resort that it has become. Frankly, I'm feeling pretty good right now about my practice of rarely visiting parks or places far from my home, here in a city.

Leave wild places right the hell alone. Not the worst mantra for an environmentalist to live by, even if I'd absolutely love to hike the untrailed Brooks Peninsula one of these summers....

And if you want more detail, then I'd recommend that you read the longer, more careful review published in the LA Times when the book first came out. Good times!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Gene Stratton-Porter, Keeper of the Bees

We have never been modern: it's a brilliant tagline, and such an appealing title for a book, but the more time you spend with books from the 1920s, the more convinced you become that however we might feel about humanity's relative modernity, modernism is most definitely a real thing.

Recently at Book Addiction HQ, I've accidentally found myself reading several 1920s novels (Zane Grey westerns, Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasies, Bertrand Sinclair social realist fiction), so I've had brought home to me repeatedly just how different from my own are the views of both language and social structure articulated by the period's novels and novelists. (Good heavens, man, write a decent sentence! Ugh.) More than that, I think of my own views on these things as basically, though only partly, representative of something like a consensus: tinged by my being lefty, green, academic, Canadian, white, male, middle-aged, and so on, but not an outlier as far as views go. The 1920s novels, as a result, aren't just foreign to me, but genuinely foreign, even though I find reasons to appreciate these novels, even find myself immersed in their concerns and narratives and desires.

And then I read something like Gene Stratton-Porter's The Keeper of the Bees, published in 1924 after her untimely death. Two years ago, I read and enjoyed her first novel Freckles, so I knew approximately what to expect from her final novel, but still, I just hadn't reflected on the social changes that divide us from the period immediately after the First World War. When we think 1920s, we might think about flappers, or whatever the heck Baz Luhrmann is showing us in the Great Gatsby, or maybe we'll think about technological change, but the distinction is more absolute than that. Government surveillance is something we expect now to be total, rather than virtually non-existent and fundamentally impossible; adult-child relations are carefully proper, or else worth criminalizing; people change, always and inevitably.

A few plot points about Keeper of the Bees: our novel opens with young Jamie Macfarlane, back from the Great War for more than a year, whose chest wound remains unhealed and pustulent. When he accidentally hears that he's about to be sent to a tuberculosis sanatorium, even though he has no TB, to make room for someone who might actually heal, he walks out of the hospital and heads, unknowingly at first, for the California shore, never to be pursued by the Army military-medical bureaucracy.

On arriving in California, near death himself, he briefly saves the life of a man he has never met before, and in consequence is immediately entrusted to look after the man's house and possessions, two acres of garden, and numerous hives of bees. Naturally Jamie accepts, though he knows absolutely nothing whatsoever about bees. With the help of a plucky 10-year-old, however, whose gender goes decidedly undecided for the bulk of the novel, even though Scout regularly gives our hero a "little hot kiss firm on his lips" (p306), Jamie works toward healing himself, caring for the bees, and Making His Way as (eventually) a Good Christian American Man.

Stratton-Porter was known for her careful natural description, I should say, and she deliberately published both novels and works of natural history. In some ways she valued the natural history more than the novels, and she took great care to get natural description right in her fiction. Me, I loved the little vignettes about flowers and grasses that Jamie would walk past, for example, and Stratton-Porter is deservedly respected for her attentiveness to the agency of nature's component beings. (Yes, yes, I know I'm larding this with ecocritical academic jargon here. You find a way to say it more cleanly, then.)

In amongst the physical healing of Jamie Macfarlane, is the developing story of his coming to find an enduring place in the world: geographically and economically, but also socially. There's a secret love, and a wedding, and a birth, and deaths, and while there's no genuine doubt but that Jamie'll come through successfully, the machinations and plot twists that promote good Christian living are so far beyond soapy that there's no way to explain them except as the product of a different world.

To be honest, it's the novel's religiosity that I found hardest to read past, which I find odd because it's so transparent and so culturally pervasive. The complicated plot twists were fine, and the details making this look like a different culture altogether were interesting -- but suggest that a good life flows only from Christian principles, and I'm jarred out of immersion. The Keeper of the Bees is a long book that doesn't read rapidly, but if you've got plenty of free time and an interest in reading about love and bees and healing war heroes and flowers, it'd be a great choice.

For the right audience, obviously, and I'm not sure that such an audience exists anymore....