Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Michael Crummey, Sweetland

Michael Crummey's Sweetland is a remarkable novel -- maybe predictably remarkable, but that's hardly a genuine strike against it, even if I'd slot Sweetland pretty high on my coveted and top-secret shortlist for "best Canadian novel not to hook me".

Mind you, maybe it's just that my bones are too Western Canadian for me to be able to read East Coast fiction with the right frame of mind. (Not that this is a problem for the National Post reviewer quoted below….) Crummey's is a satisfyingly evocative Newfoundland, a richly drawn world that's almost entirely unlike my experience in the same country. On the island of Sweetland, there aren't any First Nations; the settlers have been there in the same houses with the same neighbours for generations on generations; and the trees are more like shrubs.

It's a long way from BC, is what I'm saying.

But the novel's lessons are familiar ones, even if I believe in Moses Sweetland (and I do), even if I admired Crummey's creation of the autistic young boy Jesse, and even if the landscape of Sweetland's island is as loaded with significance as that of Pilgrim's Progress. A city will change you -- Toronto might eat you alive, when you come to it from the country. If there's no one to speak for a place, the place dies. I get it. These are traditional lessons in rural Canadian fiction, highly traditional in East Coast fiction, and I didn't want to read that book again. Not this month, anyway, for whatever reason, even if it's a polished and impressive book.

Everybody else loves this novel, though:

  • "Crummey's novel is all of a piece, its apparent simplicity of style, like that of its protagonist and his setting, concealing a primordial power" (Aparnya Sanyal, Globe and Mail)
  • "Sweetland is a thing of beauty, one of the finest novels we are likely to encounter this year" (Robert Wiersema, National Post)
  • "Crummey's finest novel yet" (Brian Bethune, Maclean's)

What the hell do I know.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Chief Earl Maquinna George, Living on the Edge

Here at Book Addiction HQ, most of our fiction reading is of the arty variety, unless it's for the book club, and a lot of our nonfiction reading is similarly self-conscious and, to a worryingly large degree, fancy-pants. I'm not sure how this is the road I've found myself on, but if those sorts of books make your eyes roll, today might be your day.

One of the most valuable books I've read in a long time isn't the least bit annoyingly literary, and that's Chief Earl Maquinna George's chronicle Living on the Edge: Nuu-Chah-Nulth History from an Ahousaht Chief's Perspective. Let me be clear, because I don't mean that this book hasn't been constructed with close attention to the structure of story or the aesthetics of how a writer connects with audience: it's just that when you read this book (and you really should read this book), you won't need to remember any lessons from English class, from New York Times book reviewers, or from book bloggers vastly cleverer than I am. You need to open up to the book, give it enough time that you can hear some stories, and let the stories work.

Canada likes to think of itself as a First World country, a developed nation, with the history and cultural complexity that those descriptors seem to imply as following naturally from its current economic status. As Chief George notes, though, the fishing industry that transformed coastal BC and coastal First Nations communities didn't get seriously rolling until the 1930s, at which time it was still common for First Nations to travel in dugout canoes (p.109). Thousands of years of occupancy and history have been buried in a too-late treaty process, with the year 1846 getting a semi-mystical status at some treaty tables to represent a fixed date for the precise outline of Aboriginal rights and title, with some large structural changes not beginning until the last years before World War Two.

In essence, Living on the Edge represents Chief Earl Maquinna George's personal corrective to decades of outsider anthropological and ethnographic study: "Documentation by outsiders is an artifact of the order and the orderliness of western cultures; it is not a part of our way of knowledge" (p.39). Though a personal response first, it is also an authoritative declaration of cultural difference.

And I'm not going to tell you this book's stories. I don't own them, although I've now been told them.

The simple fact is that if you don't read Living on the Edge, you're not going to understand what it means to live on the BC coast. You don't need to agree, or to respond: you need to listen. Chief Earl Maquinna George is talking here. Join the audience.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Patrick Lane, There Is a Season

Can every memoir be like Patrick Lane's There Is a Season? Of course not, but I'm always made a bit wistful by a piece of writing so lovely that it spoils me from reading less accomplished work. Not that I haven't been reading fantastic stuff lately (Harold Rhenisch, Thomas Wharton…), but this run can't last forever, and eventually I'm going to have to resent Patrick Lane a little bit for making me more likely to notice.

My first encounter with Lane didn't go all that smoothly, in part (though only in part) because he took the Victoria Book Prize competition in a year when I actually knew one of the nominees and thought he deserved to win. I can't see myself reading Red Dog, Red Dog again, but I'd heard very good things about this memoir, and so in I climbed.

Certainly the most abuse-filled gardening book I've ever read, There Is a Season traces Lane's early days in the Kootenays, dipping into particularly tragic or painful moments in his life since then, up to the annus mirabilis of his first year after rehab for alcoholism. Family violence, crushing poverty, casual pedophilia that young Pat would regularly manipulate for small cash windfalls, alcoholic despair: there are all the joys of Canadian literary fiction here, I tell you, but rendered throughout in glowing prose that's so observant and sensitive that the scent of flowers and compost from Lane's Saanich garden fairly rises from the pages:
An iris of the lightest blue just flowered in the sunniest spot of the new shade garden. Early this morning I watched a bee climb, one flower at a time, down the three-branched styles and drink from the blossoms. The sun shone through the pale flesh of the style and I could see the bee's soft shadow inside the standard. I wished for a moment that I could do it too. The throat of the iris is ivory and the pendant petals are fretted with black lines that look perfect against the blue. There are times beauty is a thing apart. The poet goes there carefully for beauty is a word much abused. The sentimental is always a failure of feeling and I have lived in fear of it, so much so I think I have sometimes deprived myself of simple things. (p.176)
The book is an almanac of the gardener's year, to set beside Des Kennedy's remarkable Ecology of Enchantment; it's a tale of BC settler woe, like Lane's own novel Red Dog, Red Dog; it's an ecologically aware childhood memoir comparable to Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. I don't expect to read many books this year better written than There Is a Season, but it can be a painful read, unless you've read enough memoirs to feel inured to sad older men surreptitiously masturbating young boys, or little enough realist / naturalist fiction that the long shadow of alcoholism doesn't feel at times predictable.

If you're a regular reader of BC literature, then this book is very much for you. If you're a reader of nature writing, or life-writing, or the belles-lettres memoir, then you're going to appreciate this novel. Above all, if you appreciate the well-turned image flowing from keenly focused observation, then you're sure to find There Is a Season rewarding.

But maybe read it yourself, before giving it away as a gift. Not every reader is going to find the stunning natural description or the masterful prose enough.