Growing an Understanding of Plants: Salal

SalalLaurie Ricou’s Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory is an intriguing book. On the one hand, it is a book about a single species of plant that is common on the northwest coast of North America. On the other, it is a surprising, entangled, and lively narrative about the way in which human lives are deeply interconnected with this plant. Salal is difficult to classify because it is alternately a kind of literary criticism – analysing literary representations of salal, anthropological fieldwork – interviewing various fieldworkers whose lives are bound up with salal, philosophical musings on the human connection to plants, and a travelogue of Ricou’s attempt to think through Salal. It is a book unlike almost any other I have read. Being in the final stages of a dissertation that attempts to bridge literary criticism into the natural world, it is also a book that I can only hope to aspire to in my writing.

I was surprised that I found myself pulled into Ricou’s book, especially given that I am not the biggest fan of the ecosystem he writes about. I find British Columbia too wet, too grey, and too claustrophobic for my Prairie-bred taste for open spaces and my southern Ontario desire for a modest topography. Mountains intimidate me and the lushness of the rainforest vegetation irks me in some weird way. Either way, Salal is very well-written as Ricou pulled me into this obscure yet everyday world of salal-pickers, sellers, dreamers, and writers. In case you didn’t know, salal is a commonplace plant from the northwest coast grows low on the ground, produces edible (but not really delicious) berries, and is valued in landscaping for its hardiness and low-maintenance. I didn’t know what it was, but Ricou ably introduces it. My sense is that Ricou sets up a kind of detective narrative where by we follow him trying to come to some kind of deeper, elusive understanding of the plant over the course of the book’s pages. He does find a deeper sense of the plant’s meaning, but he also leaves plenty of mystery and open-ended thought for readers to chew on.

This book is probably not for everyone, but for me it was invigorating to read and inspiring in terms of the way it connects the arts not only to the natural world but also to the many diverse and mundane places that we live and work in. Ricou’s enthusiasm for the plant is contagious and I found myself growing remote roots into the northwest soil. When I’m next in the area, I’ll be sure to keep my eye out for salal.

I recommend this book to anyone from the Northwest area and to anyone with an interest in some of the best ecocritical writing there is.

Ricou, Laurie. Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2007. Print.



Space Opera Again but This Time with Less Excitement: Use of Weapons

UseofWeaponsI am not sure what to make of Iain M. Banks’ work. I loved The Player of Games and while I enjoyed Consider Phlebas I found the initial learning curve a little steep. Use of Weapons  is Banks’ third full novel set in the Culture universe and I had the chance to read it over the last few weeks. The fact that it took a few weeks rather than a few days to read should be signal enough that I found this novel less than absolutely enthralling. It might be that the central theme of Player of Games, game-playing in various forms,  is really what hooked me whereas the central theme of Use of Weapons, the place of war and violence in several characters’ lives, was somewhat less appealing. I am not quite sure what to make of this difference in reaction. One thing does stand out to me, and that is that Banks certainly does not rest on his laurels and simply reproduce similar plots/themes/motifs. Use of Weapons stands apart from the other two Culture novels I have read.

Perhaps part of my ambivalent reaction stems from the narrative structure which tells two story-lines. The first concerns the attempt by Diziet Sma, a Special Circumstances agent,  recruiting Zakalwe to do some of the Culture’s dirty work in a cluster of planets on the brink of all-out war. Zakalwe, a hardened mercenary who works for cash more than glory or prestige, accepts the job and finds himself embroiled in a seething and ever-changing world of cut-throat politics and bouts of intense physical action. The second story-line concerns Zakalwe’s past. He is enigmatic in that he comes from a world outside of the Culture’s reach but has long been a mercenary for the Culture. However, the trick is that Banks tells all of Zakalwe’s backstory in a reverse chronology of sorts, moving backwards into his earlier life. These chapters are numbered differently and are placed in between chapters of the chronologically forward moving narrative of his work on Voerenhutz. I found this structure confusing throughout as Zakalwe’s backstory is never clearly dated so that I found myself constantly trying to construct a straightforward history of his past. I’m guessing this was Banks’ intent as there are some pretty significant moments late on in Use of Weapons that hinge on understanding Zakalwe’s past. Looking back at it now, a few days after finishing the novel, I can appreciate the intricate structure and the narrative work it does. However, I’m not sure that it worked as much in the moment.

Where I think Use of Weapons really stands out to me is the way that slyly critiques our own culture. In one section, Banks suggests that Sma has visited Earth with her critiquing the use of electric chairs in a country that prevents “cruel and unusual punishments.” Overall, the entire novel itself critiques war by showing the Culture and the local oppressors using it as a means to various ends with no real regard for the human bodies involved. I think a subplot throughout the three Culture novels I have read is whether the Culture itself is good or bad as they seem variously benign and benevolent or cruel, cold, and extremely calculating (especially in the scene where Zakalwe is extracted from a war he has just managed to turn towards his side against all odds in order for a kind of deus ex machina move to keep the system’s political honchos happy). Zakalwe is a weapon throughout the novel and he ruminates on his status as such. Sometimes he seems to accept and revel in it while at other times he seems deeply disturbed by it, perhaps even ruined by the violence he has enacted on others.

Overall I would say that Use of Weapons is a very good book. I’m not sure why I couldn’t get into it, but it certainly places above Consider Phlebas for me because of its narrative sophistication and the complex thinking it does on war, violence, and morality.

I would recommend Use of Weapons for sci-fi fans, but stand by my assertion that it is probably best to start with Player of Games if you haven’t encountered Banks’ work before.

Banks, Iain M. Use of Weapons. 1990. London, Orbit Books, 2011. Print.

The Book I Wish I had Read Two Years Ago: Crow Planet

downloadI think every PhD student has a secret worry that there is a book out there that makes the same argument they plan on making. Well, turns out that Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness is that book for me. I really wish that I had read this book 2 years ago as it would have saved me a fair bit of work …. There is an element of facetiousness in this of course. Haupt does not take up literature like I do and instead writes as a naturalist (which I am decidedly not). However, Crow Planet is a very well written and engaging book that makes clear how important it is for urbanites to embrace the natural world around them. In the opening chapter she writes:

I have come to believe that opening ourselves to [close and detailed] inquiry and participating daily in the process of discovery it implies is our most urgent work as humans in the new millennium. And not because engaging these questions will make us happier, or smarter, or make more of our moments feel enchanted, though it will certainly do all of these things. It is urgent because an intimate awareness of the continuity between our lives and the rest of life is the only thing that will truly conserve the earth – this wonderful earth that we rightly love. (12-13)

Haupt was an avid bird watcher and committed environmentalist who placed high value in wilderness experiences. However, after her editor pushed her to do a project on crows, she began to see the necessity of studying and understanding her own urban (Seattle) context. I think this is what makes Crow Planet so persuasive. Haupt is forthright about her own struggles with the compromised nature of urban nature and about the everydayness of crows in general. However, she very quickly finds wonder in this bird’s adaptability and life in the city. And in this wonder, she begins to sketch out a way to embrace and engage with urban nature. I am struck how similar our overall projects are even though our methods ended up being quite different.

This is a very good book that I highly recommend to anyone who lives in a city. This is what environmentalism should look like! Seriously. Go get this book now.

Haupt, Lyanda Lynn. Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2009. Print.

Windsor and its Waters: The River

1riverTwo years ago I started work on a chapter of my dissertation that looked at Windsor, Ontario through the eyes of its writers. I didn’t know what would happen or how attached I would become to the place even though Stephen Colbert in 2012 called it the anus of Ontario. Paul Vasey’s memoir/book of creative non-fiction The River details his own attachment to Windsor and the many characters he encountered in the city during his many years there. I met Vasey at a writer’s festival in Windsor a few years ago, and he told me then about this book. And it was with pleasure that I picked it up from my university’s library to read.

I hesitate to call The River either a memoir or a book of creative non-fiction because Vasey himself blurs the line between the two. Throughout the book, he maintains a running dialogue between two unnamed characters that questions the veracity of what has come before, particularly when the anecdote or story is far-fetched in nature. At first, I was unsure what to make of this narrative technique as I felt myself wanting a strictly mimetic, realist account of Windsor. However, as the book progressed, I was far more comfortable with the technique as it continually reminded me that the places we inhabit are not just physical things but they are also imbued with memory, affect, and imagination. What I mean to suggest, and I think Vasey would agree, is that any history is inevitably made up of story, parts of which may not strictly be accurate to an event or place. This is not to say that all history is fabrication or that there is no worth in having a reliable history, but it is to loosen up the strictures of “objective” history (objectivity may be a fiction in its own right).

Getting back to Windsor, Vasey crafts a lively and intimate place throughout The River. There is plenty of nostalgia here for the post-World War II era when everything seemed possible and Windsor’s fortune was on the rise. However, there is also some keen documenting of now-lost or forgotten places that set Windsor apart as a place. Historically speaking, the city is one of the oldest settlements in Ontario as the French had a presence in the area before 1700. It has been home to a rich diversity of people and Vasey’s book certainly makes this clear. At times, the colloquial or anecdotal nature of The River might bother some readers looking for “history,” but I felt like it gave the city a human texture that often goes missing from other works of local history.

Overall, I would recommend this book to people from or interested in Windsor.

A Wartime Parable: The Tenth Man

407I’ve always had a soft spot for Graham Greene after first reading his The Power and the Glory. I purchased The Tenth Man 4 years ago, so it’s somewhat embarrassing that I haven’t read it yet. Well, that problem is corrected as I had a chance to dig into it over the last week. The backstory to the novella is that Greene wrote this as a movie script for MGM during World War II to help put food on his table. MGM locked it up and kept it hidden away in a vault until 1983 when it was purchased by Anthony Blond who then published it as a book in 1988. This has got to be one of the strangest journeys from pen to publication for any writer as Greene himself expresses surprise at the quality of the manuscript in the book’s preface.

Anyways, The Tenth Man is a parable of sorts with a small cast of characters and a central moral problem. Jean-Louis Chavel is a wealthy lawyer who ends up in a Nazi prison along with 29 other men. The Nazis decide to kill 3 in retaliation for some resistance attacks and leave the prisoners to choose for themselves who will die. Lots are chosen and Chavel’s number comes up. However, rather than accept his fate, he offers his wealth and estate to anyone willing to trade positions with him. Janvier, a poor man, decides to make his mother and sister rich and accepts Chavel’s offer. This decision drives the plot of the novel and provides the intriguing central theme of the novel: how are we to view Chavel’s actions? Is he simply a coward looking to escape death, or would we have done the same in his position? Greene leaves this question hanging and never truly resolves it even as Chavel comes to see his own action as cowardly and wrong. What I liked most about The Tenth Man is how I could easily empathize with Chavel yet also found his brokenness a little too unsettling for my own sense of self at times.

There is a sense in which this kind of fiction reads a bit strange in 2014 as narratives of moral and spiritual progress are passe. The Tenth Man reads more like a Dostoevsky novel than one by Michael Chabon or Margaret Atwood. It hearkens back to an older mode of fiction where character was more important than plot or action. I think this may be in part because the cast of characters is so small and the action is relatively muted. However, this does not hinder Greene’s ability to paint a complex canvas. To return to the parable analogy, there’s a way in which the simplicity of the narrative lends itself to the complex moral portrait that emerges. In some ways, The Tenth Man‘s conclusion is quite similar to The Power and the Glory as human dignity becomes a key part of the final action. While some may be put off by Greene’s Catholic sympathies, I think that this novel is an important reminder about the importance of character and our own ability to fail to live up to a high standard of justice.

I recommend this book for fans of Greene’s work and for anyone who likes Dostoevsky.

Greene, Graham. The Tenth Man. Toronto: L & OD, 1985. Print.

Finding Healing in the North: Through Black Spruce

1_through_black_spruceI had read Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I re-read it last week as part of some final adjustments to my dissertation. I’m glad I had the chance to re-acquaint myself with Boyden’s work because it is sometimes easy to get carried away with criticizing authors for things extraneous to their writing. I don’t think I will be reading his latest book, The Orenda, any time soon, and I’m still not necessarily on-board with the way he has become a “celebrity” Native author (for a review from a friend of Boyden’s latest novel see here). However, Through Black Spruce is a genuinely good read.  I think I was paying more attention to form and style this time around and I was happily rewarded with an intricate narrative structure and a compelling narrative.

The novel centres on two protagonists – Will Bird, an alcoholic Cree bush pilot, and his niece Annie, both of whom live in Moose Factory/Moosonee – who are attempting to put their lives back together in the wake of drug-related violence. Annie’s sister Suzanne has gone missing with Gus Netmaker, the brother of Marius Netmaker who violently attacks Will because he believes that Will has been talking to the police about his drug dealing. You can already get a sense of how intertwined these two narratives are. The novel moves back and forth between Will’s narration and Annie’s. The catch is that for the most part, Will is in a coma after another vicious attack by Marius, while Annie begins to narrate her search for Suzanne while she is visiting Will in the hospital. At first glance this seems like an odd narrative structure, but this time around I really appreciated what it made possible in terms of story-telling. Boyden also does a good job using suspense to keep readers pushing along as he begins to weave the two seemingly separate narratives together by the story’s end.

What Through Black Spruce does quite well is represent the difficult reality that many northern indigenous communities face as drugs make their way north, ruining the communities by poisoning the youth. However, Boyden refuses to let tragedy rule and instead weaves a narrative of resilience and courage even as he remains true to the brokenness of his community. Like Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse,  this novel performs a kind of literary healing for its indigenous characters. This is not to say that it makes everything right in the real world, but it does open up a space to think and talk about the serious issues that many of Canada’s indigenous communities face.

For me, this is Boyden’s best work as I found Three Day Road too violent for my liking and I’m not sure I’ll pick up The Orenda based on some of the reviews/criticism it has attracted. I think his early collection of short stories, Born With a Tooth, was quite good, but Through Black Spruce presents Boyden at his best.

I recommend Through Black Spruce for fans of indigenous writing and those who like narratives set in Canada’s north.

Boyden, Joseph. Through Black Spruce. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2009. Print.

Back to Space Opera and Loving It: The Player of Games

theplayerofgamesAs I am winding down my PhD, I’m finding myself more and more drawn to science fiction in my pleasure reading. I feel like I might be struggling from a 4 year overdose on “literary” fiction so that when I start encountering obvious symbols/allegories or complex characters, my pulse begins to plummet rapidly. This is not to say that science fiction does not have these things as Iain M. Banks’s The Player of Games is a complex, rich, and richly rewarding work of science fiction. For better or worse, science fiction is becoming my “escape” literature in that I feel no compulsion to analyse the novel’s texture or narrative, no need to think about how this might relate to other works I have read, and no anxiety about how this might change the course of my dissertation/research. I can just read it and enjoy it.

And Banks’ The Player of Games is a great read. I encountered his first Culture novel last year, and loved that one. However, I would say that this second novel is a much better one. Where I had trouble empathizing with Horza, Consider Phlebas’s protagonist, I developed a deep connection to Jurnau Gurgeh, one of the Culture’s best game players who lives an idyllic life on an Orbital. He grows somewhat bored with a life of playing, thinking about, analysing, and theorizing the myriad games that the galaxy has to offer and ends up, via some drone blackmail, travelling to a distant Empire built entirely around a single, massively complex game called Azad. In the interest of full disclosure, I am an avid board gamer who hosts a board game night once every three weeks or so and craves the complexity and deep pleasure of playing a good game. So The Player of Games immediately appealed to me. But Banks also does an incredible job of weaving the theme of game playing into the narrative itself as Gurgeh senses that on some level he is being “played” by Culture in his trip to play Azad.

I suppose The Player of Games felt a bit like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left-Hand of Darkness in that it is deeply anthropological. It lays out a complex empire for readers to study and think about. Yet where le Guin’s novel occasionally felt too distant for me, Banks includes humor, intrigue, and action to keep readers interested. In fact, I found the novel so compelling that it became my reward for a hard day’s work of revising my cumbersome and lengthy dissertation. There were a number of moments in The Player of Games where the Empire that we encounter feels eerily similar to our own, a parallel that I am sure Banks intends. Of course, the fact that Banks is writing space opera – a genre that is largely disconnected from our reality and makes little to no attempt to connect them – seems to complicate this, but I’m not sure it does. Instead, we encounter an imaginative world animated by desires and impulses that are very similar to our own. This is an intriguing form of meta-critique that masks as pure entertainment. Or maybe masks is the wrong word. Instead, it doubles as critique and entertainment. Either way, I’m sold and Use of Weapons is already sitting on my bed side table, waiting for me to finish a few other books.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to any fans of science fiction. In fact, I would recommend starting here rather than with Consider Phlebas because this one seems more polished and coherent.

Banks, Iain M.  The Player of Games. London: MacMillan London, 1988. Print.