A Delightful Romp Into Brazil: Through the Arc of The Rainforest

9780918273826_p0_v2_s260x420I’ll be teaching Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rainforest in the fall, so I decided to get a headstart and read it now. And I’m awfully glad I did because now it might give me the chance to read it again in the fall. Yamashita’s novel is an amazing romp from Japan and into South America with a cast of no less than 6 main characters and a variety of minor characters. At the centre of the narrative action is a substance called Matacão, a strange dense, hard, and malleable substance that resembles plastic. It is discovered underneath the Amazon rainforest and is responsible for the massive growth of the GGG corporation, a whole industry of rubbing feathers on your ear to heal sickness/stress/anxiety, and a religious pilgrimage communication empire. When I call Through the Arc‘s plot sprawling, it really is. The central character is a Japanese boy named Kazumasa Ishimaru, who follows his cousin to Brazil, hoping to make his way. The five other main characters who eventually are pulled into his orbit include: J.B Tweep, a three armed corporate lackey who becomes GGG’s hidden CEO; Batista Djapan, Kazumasa’s jealous neighbour whose wife builds an international communications empire out of homing pigeons; Mané da Costa Pena, a poor Brazilian rubber tapper who becomes an instant celebrity after GGG realizes the marketability of the feather; Chico Paco, a Brazilian fisherman who decides to make a pilgrimage to the Matacão after his best friend Gilberto is miraculously cured of his paralysis. All of these characters build empires on or out of the Matacão in some way as the novel continues. It is quite amazing to see, and it can cause you to wonder whether this novel is about human characters or corporations.

Oh, and the sixth main character? That’s the narrator, an unnamed ball that attaches itself to an orbit in front of Kazumasa’s forehead when he is a child. It is the catalyst for the discovery of the Matacão, and a central character in the final pulling together of all the diverse threads in the novel’s final chapters. Yamashita’s novel is more than a little strange, but that’s what makes it so great in my mind. She throws plausibility to the wind and embarks on a wildly imaginative free-for-all that satirizes corporations, consumerism, environmentalism, globalization, and any number of other targets. The book has more than a hint of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude to it. Both use magic realism, and both are sprawling narratives. I loved the fact that the ball narrates the action and provides its own mysteries, particularly on the last page of the book.

However, what made the book most rewarding for me was the fact that it also takes the environmental destruction of Brazil seriously. As much as it is a hilarious satire and veritable carnival, Yamashita is clear that Brazil is being destroyed by corporations and people hungry to exploit its natural resources. She is also clear that the poor will be made to bear the burden of this destruction more so than the rich who run these operations. However, Yamashita does not let this critique get in the way of narrative fun and I think she blends criticism with humour and wonder in an amazing blend.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the Amazon or south American literature. Actually, I recommend it for everyone. It’s really good!

Yamashita, Karen Tei. Through the Arc of the Rainforest. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 1990. Print.

 

Essential Reading for Understanding Today’s World: The Corporation

thecorporation_bakanJoel Bakan’s The Corporation is a must-read for anyone who is hoping to make sense of the world that is North America right now. Published in 2004 alongside a documentary film of the same name, the book explores how corporations have become the most powerful institutions in the world and how we should be more than a little suspicious of them. I knew going in that corporations were far from benevolent, but Bakan’s book makes clear just how problematic they are. As he argues, if a corporation were actually a person (as they are legally but not literally), they would be classified a pathological psychopath because of their obsessive desire to seek their own self-interest in the form of profit. Lest you think that a nice CEO makes a company better, Bakan continually reminds us that all CEOs are legally required to act in the shareholders’ best interests, meaning that they must always choose the ethically wrong choice if it means more profit.

The Corporation is  very readable and Bakan does an admirable job explaining what can be a complicated economic realm. He uses a wealth of examples that illuminate his points and push a reader’s understanding of the corporate world today. While it could be easy to sink into cynicism given the disturbing amount of influence corporations currently hold, Bakan’s final chapter does give some key strategies and thoughts on how there is still hope for us today. I appreciated this honest assessment of our future and found it quite inspiring.

Overall, I don’t have a lot to say about this book beyond the fact that you should go read it (or, at the least, go see the film because it is also quite good). Corporations are threatening to derail the democratic gains made in the 20th century, and we are all liable for standing by and letting it happen.

Bakan, Joel. The Corporation. Toronto: Viking Press, 2004. 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.

An Ode to the Industrial City: Singing the City

0001.jp2.sI am not quite sure how I came across Laurie Graham’s Singing the City, but I am quite happy to have read it. Graham’s memoir/creative non-fiction is a both an elegy and a hymn to Pittsburgh’s fast-disappearing industrial past. Pittsburgh was once at the center of the American steel industry, so there are some close parallels between it and Hamilton, Ontario (the city I live in). However, what really made Singing the City come alive for me was Graham’s willingness to take the working class life on its own terms. At times she might run the risk of romanticizing it, but her interviews with current or former steel workers continually remind her that their steel mill careers were far from perfect. Graham’s book, then, works both as an intimate portrait of Pittsburgh, but also as an example to the many former industrial cities in North America that face the difficult transition from heavy industry towards a more diversified, white-collar economy.

Maybe part of the reason that I liked Singing the City so much is that the steel mills here in Hamilton have always been on the near horizon of my imagination. I grew up travelling past them on the way to my grandparents’ house, and they became a kind of mythical landscape. Their size and other-worldliness is truly something to behold. For someone who now works a desk job in a university, that world is nearly as far from my own day-to-day life as you can get. Yet, these places are slowly disappearing in North America as industry is outsourced in a globalized economy. Graham summarizes it best when she writes:

“The work of this place helped set the course of the nation. People have died here winning our wars, creating and building the world we know. The evidence of their existence remains, if only anonymously, in the buildings and bridges built with their steel. But the immediate evidence of their existence, the locus of their work, is gone. Looking out over an empty mill site, I can only wonder why it is that as a nation we are not more ready to recognize these places as hallowed ground.” (130-31)

The Calvinist upbringing in me resists the temptation to call factories and steel mills hallowed ground, yet I’m deeply attracted by Graham’s forthrightness. Entire lives, even generations of lives, have been lived within the shadow of steel mills. There is a wealth of stories in these places, yet these stories often go untold and unheard.Graham explains this: “The devaluation of working people is a commonplace in human history. It is also too easy, a failure of imagination maintained, I think, by a willful blindness to certain kinds of ability, a desire to discount what one cannot or does not want to do” (135). I think she hits the mark here because, if I am truly honest with myself, I would rather be at my desk reading a book or marking a paper than wearing the heavy fire-proof coveralls while handling hot metal with tongs for the rest of my life. I do take a deep pleasure in physical labour, but this is more from the lack of physical labor in my everyday life than from a deep connection to it. I worked on a potato farm throughout high school and university in the summers, and I know that these experiences easily dispel any romantic notion I have of seeing myself as a farmer.

Finally, what I think Graham’s book also offers is a model of a memoir of place. In its relatively short 166 pages, readers get a real sense of Pittsburgh as a place. It is a living place with a deep history and a textured surface that makes it unique from other industrial cities. I firmly believe that every city, town, or village is unique in its own way, and the best writing on place helps to bring this out. Near the end of her book, Graham writes: “I have come to realize that as I move through Pittsburgh, mentally and physically, I am carrying, living in, a story. The city is multilayered for me, so that in any view of the present I see adumbrations of what has gone before” (160-61).

I think this is summarizes her book in a poetic way. We as readers encounter Pittsburgh through her eyes, and we come to a budding relationship to the place even if we have never been there. Such writing can help us understand that globalization and consumer capitalism do not have the final say in turning every city into a carbon copy of every other one. Instead, we need to see the places we live as part of a much bigger story, a story that we need only hear to see that the places we live are multi-layered.

I would recommend this book for people who have lived in industrial cities and for fans of place-writing.

Graham, Laurie. Singing the City: The Bonds of Home in an Industrial Landscape. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1998. Print.

Mysticism by the Waters: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

41vzd0Zp9OL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was quite the journey. I suppose, having read some quite skeptical and suspicious literary critics who don’t take too kindly to Dillard’s kind of writing, I expected something quite different. Instead, I was continually surprised by the poetic lyricism and, dare I say, mysticism of Dillard’s year-long journal of Tinker Creek (the book also won her a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction). She talks not simply of the animals, insects, and plants that reside in the creek outside her door, but also, quite frequently, of the divine, aesthetics, beauty, and human consciousness. I find myself unable to quite describe my own reaction to Pilgrim because it is so far-ranging and well-crafted. Sure, there were moments when my eyes rolled a little at the sometimes frustrating tangents into metaphor laden philosophy, but there were other moments where I had my breath taken away. The entire book could be summarized in a line Dillard gives about halfway into the book: “Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery” (143).

Pilgrim is not a quick read because it moves so easily across natural history to theological musings and back, hitting history, astronomy, physics, mythology (particularly Inuit), and poetry along the way. I would hesitate to put this book in the same category as a book by Bill Bryson or even nature writing per se. There is too much poetry and mysticism in this book to confine it to that category. Some readers will love it and others will be turned off by it (I think I am somewhere in between if I am honest). Her description and reflections on the eating habits of a giant water bug are startling both for the insect’s horrifying eating habits and for the way that Dillard weaves the seeming cruel brutality of nature back into an unorthodox praise of all things created. This kind of literary skill is worth dipping into Pilgrim for, but I think readers really need to take their time with Dillard’s work. It, like the writing of most mystics, does not divulge its full meaning or depth on the first surface reading. In a way, I could see myself continually coming back to this book to dip into its waters again and again.

This is partly because Dillard works in a non-linear manner. She comes back to several key episodes including the giant water bug and an oak tree that enflamed her imagination, deepening her reflections on these episodes and using them as touchstones to bring her thoughts back in a circular manner. In doing so, Dillard gives us not just a literal or natural historical sense of Tinker Creek but also a spiritual sense of the area. If you are looking for someone to re-enchant landscape for you, then Pilgrim is a great field guide. Tinker Creek is neither wilderness sublime nor controlled nature, but somewhere in between, making it a useful template for most North Americans. We could all use a little more enchantment with the natural world in our lives, and Pilgrim might be able to help us to find it (or you may find yourself turned off by it …).

I am somewhat on the fence with this book. I think it could be a great read for some readers while for others I would hesitate to recommend it. If you like contemplative thought (think Thomas Merton, the Christian Desert Fathers, or most Buddhist writing), then this book will appeal to you. If you like your facts kept high, dry, and safe from “subjective” feelings and emotions, then stay away.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974. Print.

Writing for Our Time: Grass, Sky, Song

downloadI have read Trevor Herriot’s two previous books, River in a Dry Land and Jacob’s Wound, and really enjoyed both of them. So I had high expectations for his latest release Grass, Sky, Song. Needless to say, I was not disappointed. In this book, somewhat of a departure from the previous two, Herriot takes a much more political stance in his critique of agribusiness, consumer practices, and political policy, all of which are causing a massive decline in grassland birds on the prairies. Grass, Sky, Song is also a more slim volume than his previous two, making it a shorter read. It seems like he had an editor or reader who helped him to pare down his writing. Where in Jacob’s Wound, Herriot takes his time exploring ideas, Grass, Sky, Song is much more concise. That’s not to say that this book is less readable.

One of the strengths of this book is that it uses a personal narrative – Herriot’s purchase with friends of a property on Cherry Lake – to anchor his exploration of why grassland birds have been declining in the last 40 years. In the process of explaining his plans for the property, he also discusses his relationships with various Saskatchewan naturalists and the development of his wife`s breast cancer. Herriot is a very personal writer, seemingly giving readers full access to his life and thoughts. It is one of the things that I like most about him because it turns what could dry scientific data into more meaningful anecdotes, stories, and images. I should also admit that I am anticipating a move to Saskatchewan next summer, so Herriots material was, perhaps, more compelling for me.

I also think that another strength of Grass,Sky, Song is that Herriot refuses to take a one-sided or simplistic view of the problems causing the decline of grassland birds. He points out that science struggles to provide answers when problems are complex, yet he also refuses to believe that no one is to blame. He goes further and suggests that all of us are to blame, in part because we as consumers demand cheap food and are too lazy to change our consumption habits to encourage more sustainable and environmentally friendly modes of agriculture. He does not free farmers or the government from blame either, but he is careful and measured in his suggestions for how we can change current systems.

Even though he seems justified in becoming pessimistic, Herriot refuses this position. Instead, he draws on the optimism of a mentor of his, Stuart Houston, to remain hopeful of a better future for the Prairies. And this might be the most valuable part of his book. It is too easy to become depressed, apathetic, or burned out by the litany of environmental damage currently happening. We need to remain hopeful or environmental damage will continue unabated until we find ourselves in a position similar to the inhabitants of Easter Island. Although theories vary on their demise, it seems likely that their desire to cut down trees led them to clear cut the entire island, permanently changing the ecosystem and leaving the islanders with no way off the island or any way to survive. We need to do everything we can to avoid finding ourselves in this position.

I highly recommend Grass, Sky, Song for anyone interested in the Prairies and anyone looking for one of Canada’s most engaging and readable naturalists.

Herriot, Trevor. Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.

More Great Writing about Trees :The Golden Spruce

goldenspruce2I absolutely loved John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce. I could hardly put it down which is somewhat surprising given that non-fiction is something I struggle to get through. However, Vaillant writes The Golden Spruce like a mystery novel, keeping back key facts and points until he must reveal them, a tactic that I think pays off by the book’s end. The book is about a Golden Spruce tree that lived some 300 years on the Queen Charlotte Islands until it was cut down in a bizarre act of environmental protest by Grant Hadwin in 1997. In the ensuing controversy and leading up to Hadwin’s court date, he disappeared after attempting to solo kayak the Hecate Strait, one of the world’s most dangerous and unpredictable bodies of water. Vaillant uses this mystery to not only give a thoroughly detailed history of the Queen Charlotte Islands, logging practices in British Columbia, and the geography of the Pacific Northwest, but he also gives a sizeable dollop of environmental reflection on our paper-hungry society. Near the end of the book, he writes “most people alive today will witness the end of old-growth – big tree – logging, an industry that has been practised continuously and with undiminished zeal in the Northern Hemisphere for at least five thousand years” (212). This fact was enough to stop me in my tracks: our society is facing multiple crises right now, but the situation with trees seems to be particularly acute. We are quickly approaching the point where we will have completely logged out Canada. And this is no mean feat, because when Europeans first stumbled onto the scene, the continent was largely forested with an incomprehensibly vast systems of trees stretching from the Atlantic right to the Pacific. After this is gone, there really is no where else to go for the wood we need for everything from lumber to paper to any kind of paper product you can think of including cellophane. In a way, it’s like the oil crisis, except we haven’t been using oil for five thousand years. Trees literally have been a key component of all human civilization. Scary stuff indeed.

One of the things that I have really enjoyed in the process of doing this reading challenge is noticing the way certain books line up with each other. In this case, The Golden Spruce is a great counter-part to Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt. Both deal with the logging industry and both share the British Columbia geography. They also both end up at the same conclusion: that we are in deep trouble and it’s not clear what kind of solutions will get us out of this fix. It would be easy to let this problem prevent us from doing anything – call it environmental apathy. Yet, I believe that such intractable problems present an opportunity for thinking up innovative solutions to the problem. These may not be new solutions – I have a sense we are going to look more frequently to the past for solutions to technology-created problems – but they will be solutions that take the long-term into account instead of short-term profit. Of course, this could also be wishful thinking. Capitalism is showing no signs of going away any time soon. Vaillant does a good job in his epilogue showing signs of hope in the Queen Charlottes, and I think we need to focus on these stories rather than being paralyzed by a sense that nothing we do matters.

Overall, I loved this book. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in environmental issues, or anyone living in Canada for that matter. It is exceptionally well-written and not at all preachy (even though this review is …).

Vaillant, John. The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2005. Print.