Tag Archives: environmental stewardship

Giddy for the Giller #3: 419 by Will Ferguson

Alright- here’s the first Giddy for the Giller confession:

I did NOT finish this one, and after 4 overdue days at my library, I was disheartened and GAVE UP. It is a bit discouraging because this one is “favoured” to win the grand prize.  Hmmmm… Well, you win some an you lose some (plots that is!)

Dear Mr. Ferguson, I’ve not previously heard of you before. You aren’t really in my genre. So, maybe my opinion doesn’t matter. In my defense, I consider myself a very well rounded reader who enjoys the odd thriller, particularly ones about international issues.  Something about your book made me put it down, unable to finish it.

419 is about global consequences and the thin way in which survival loops together exploitation. A retired school teacher in Calgary commits suicide. His family soon learns that he was suffering financial ruin at the hands of a Nigerian 419 internet scam. His daughter, Laura, wants retribution for his death. The Canadian police have no ability to enact justice in Nigeria. Laura travels to Nigeria herself, putting herself in great danger because the 419 scammers are linked to crime lords who are accountable to no one.

One narrative follows Laura, the teacher’s daughter. Another narrative follows Winston, the man in Nigeria who makes a living frauding people of money. There is also a narrative about a pregnant African woman that I don’t know much about, but she is starving and traveling through Africa and looking for someone. That’s as far as I got.

The premise of 419 was interesting and the characters were decent. Dialogue was on par with any decent author. But the 340 pages of 419 were not compelling enough to keep reading. There was this lengthy diatribe about the “Shell Man”  and the oil exploitation that “white man” has imposed on the Nigerians in recent history.

As legitimate as the story of the death of a culture, and the exploitation of a vulnerable people, these chapters did not seem credible. Or perhaps they seemed to simple. But I found it bulky and boring.

Not every book is for me, and someone else might like this. It may make an interesting gift idea for a person who reads lots of National Geographic (ie my Dad).  It almost reads like investigative journalism, or maybe like a Robert Ludlum novel, but with less suspense.

The long and short of this is, it’s been an interesting Giller shortlist. This one was surprising for me.
Cheers!

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! was one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year. Some of my favorite things in life are eating chocolate, learning about new things, and uninterrupted sleep (preferably through the night). Swamplandia! helped with ONE of those. It was fascinating!

This ambitious novel, written by the twenty-nine year old Karen Russell, was buzzing around on some must read lists for 2012.  Swamplandia! is a theme park deep in the Florida Everglades. It’s an almost fantastical place with gator wrestling, sensational Everglades memorabilia, a quasi-historical museum and an endangered family called the Bigtrees.

Ava is a thirteen year old girl. She has an older brother, Kiwi, and an older sister, Osceola. Her family is normal in a sense that they love each other, they have history and they are alive. But they are also a little strange. They live isolated but fulfilling lives on one of the alleged Ten Thousand Islands (not our Ten Thousand Islands) of the Florida Everglades. The Bigtree family’s connections with the rest of the world are few. One is an old  houseboat that serves as an outdated library for the very scattered community of islanders. The other is the ferry that brings tourists back and forth from the mainland to adventure in Swamplandia!

Hilola Bigtree is the mother of this family and she is also the main gator wrestler!  (exclamation point was not really necessary in this sentence) She’s good; a good showman and a good mother. But she dies quickly of cervical cancer leaving her family fragmented,  and the struggling theme park without its headliner.

Simultaneous to Hilola’s death and Swamplandia!’s fizzle is a mainland theme park opening called The World of Darkness. Tourists stop coming and the family’s way of making a living and surviving in the proud Everglades impossible due disheartening big corporation market push over.

The mourning children deal with their deep loss. Kiwi leaves the island for the mainland with intentions to make money and save Swamplandia! He ends up getting a job at The World of Darkness as a janitor.

Osceola becomes a spiritualist  using an Ouija board to try and contact her dead mother. Unfortunately, her mother is not accessible and she starts dating ghosts of young men.

Ava trains with great diligence, dreaming to be the next Hilola Bigtree, the best gator wrestler in the world. She tends and trains the gators in their pit as hard as her thirteen-year-old self can. 

Their father leaves the island to save the bankrupt island. The children believe he is meeting with investors for a few weeks, but he is actually working on the mainland as well. Kiwi is gone, and Osceola and Ava are left on their own to tend to the gators and the island. Osceola starts to become more and more bizarre. She runs away, deeply in love with a dead dredgeman to elope in The Underworld, which is where dead people go.

Ava wakes up alone with a note explaining the run away, and a promise ringing in her ears to her brother about keeping their whimsical sister grounded. She sets off with a strange, transient man who is known by locals as the Bird Man, a transient middle-aged man who scares away troublesome birds. The Bird Man’s appearance is serendipitous because he tells Ava he knows the way to The Underworld and can help save her sister.

Evil and hardship await the siblings as they follow their own way to save their realities. In the end it seems that people must be adaptable to the way the world changes. Even if it is for the worse.  Because life can always be full of love.

Why?

Swamplandia! is eerie and haunting. Some parts reminded me of The Dead Marshes of Tolkien and even though the Everglades is a real place, the book feels like a fantasy. It’s fabulously alluring and Russell uses amazing imagery to pull it off.  In the scene where Ava and the Bird Man are setting out, one lovely sentence reads like this:

We poled around the scummy crystals of the oyster beds and made a beeline for the mirror-like slough. I watched a line of water creep up his pole as the channel deepened, like the mercury in an old-fashioned thermometer, and then we broke into wild sun (page 160).

This movie is Tim Burtonesque, complete with a creepy and unreadable Johnny Depp character. I think people would enjoy the humour and stunning beauty that Ava sees. Russell draws her alive, and gritty, although slightly more mature than thirteen would allow; she is easy to root for and connect to.

Swamplandia! is thick with details. Russell knows the world of the Everglades well, and the history portrayed in the novel about the land and the people who survive there is rich and enthralling. Also, every time that Swamplandia! is printed in this lovely tome, Swamplandia! has an exclamation mark on it. It’s details like that which really won me over. 

This book made me do a lot of online research about the Everglades. I now want to go there someday and I love books that expose me to new and exciting places. Everglades is an amazing place! I read some cool stuff here: Everglades in Wikipedia, and the government website for the national park.

I also enjoyed the theme of old vs new, of history vs progress. Swamplandia! was old-fashioned and a bit out of touch with popular culture. The World of Darkness (Read: World of Disney) represents the large-scale corporations that have all but taken over the States (and Canada). Russell also talks about survival of the fittest.

The tension between these two ideas makes for a thought-provoking read. Swamplandia! was one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year.

Generation A by Douglas Coupland


Who Will Like it?

  • those who like cultural critiques
  • those who like books with little or no romance
  • people who like atypical novels, avant garde

The Plot

I just finished Generation A.

I don’t read much Coupland (why does he pronounce “cope” and not “coup”?), but I do think he is eccentric, talented and insightful. His observations on the current state of society are bang on and often take away my breath away, or pull the metaphorical rug from under my slightly shaky feet.

Despite all these amazing reasons, I don’t read Coupland often because I don’t find his writing voice compelling.

Generation A did not disappoint. It is a powerful book set in the near future about five people stung by bees around the same time, in different parts of the world. People consider this an amazing event because bees have been extinct for years

The five people are similar in their inability to connect and have meaningful relationships with those around them. They all have a general unease with a new drug, called Solon. This medication is a stress reducing drug that speeds up the perception of time. It is so addictive that once you take it, you can never come off it.

The five individuals are swept away by government officials, placed in isolation, and studied to learn why the bees have considered them special. A conspiracy unfolds involving drug corporations. The drug companies are interested because the bee-stung people do not feel a need for Solon. Their detachment and laissez-faire attitude is what the company intends Solon to do anyways. They take Serum from their brains and it’s farmed to make the ultimate Solon.  The production of Solon was the reason the bees became extinct. Thus,  the current way of Solon production could be stopped and the remaining bee population would bounce back.

I won’t say more regarding the plot.

Relevance

Does anyone else remember when that study was released about the decrease in world bee population? (click here to see the study) It was somehow related to the increase in cell phone usage and the radiation interrupting bees’ ability to communicate with each other and thus their ability to make honey and continue on with their bee lives.  It is ironic that cellphones, which are supposed to help us communicate better, are destroying bees’ ability to communicate and survive.

In Generation A, the reader gets the sense that the world is small, and it has been made small by things like cellphones and other forms of digital communication. Ironically though, the people in the book are not connecting with each other in meaningful ways. The digital world is changing how we communicate, our language, and the way we internalize our daily existence. I often find myself thinking in Facebook status language “Elisha Stam Judson… hates it when she drops her fork while eating pancakes.” It’s embarrassing, but it’s also incredibly mind-boggling. Cellphones and digital social networks are around to keep us better in touch, but maybe, like the bees, it’s interrupting with the natural way of things.

People are constantly texting. Have you intentionally spent time with someone only to have them text every five minutes? (or five seconds) It’s ironic because it interferes with your ability to connect with them. It’s not even the physical act of texting or “liking” something on Facebook that is a hindrance to connecting. I think it has something to do with attention. Our culture is changing, and very rapidly.

Coupland believes a new species is evolving.

Generation A also says some poignant things about the story of man. About our cultural narratives and our own personal narratives. If you sit down and ask people to tell a story off the top of their heads, Coupland believes common themes will develop. These are what we should unite around. The desires in our hearts.

I was taken aback by Coupland’s description of prayer as trying to make sense of the story in your head. That prayer can take you to the place where the unimportant voices are drowned out. I think there are quite a lot of unimportant voices that drown out my meaningful thoughts.

Just to warn you: there’s quite a bit of swearing in this book, one of the main character has Tourette’s Syndrome.

“Now you young twerps want a new name for your generation? Probably not, you just want jobs right? Well, the media does such tremendous favours when they call you Generation X right? Two clicks from the very end of the alphabet. I hereby declare you Generation A.  As much at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

Farm City, The Education of an Urban Farmer

I just finished an insightful book called Farm City, the Education of an Urban Farmer. I would love for someone else to pick it up and read it too.

Who would like it?

  • anyone with a mild interest in gardening
  • people interested in eating local would gain some new ideas and insight
  • someone who enjoys honest and humorous non-fiction.

The Book:

In Farm City, The Education of an Urban Farmer, the author Novella Carpenter introduces the reader to her “homestead”. This is a non-fiction account of Carpenter’s farm in Downtown Oakland, California. It sounds like a familiar place, a downtown with regular violent crimes, highways beside decaying and abandoned buildings and old homes turned into apartments with absentee landlords.

In an abdicated city lot, Carpenter raises beds for vegetables and fruit and builds pens for her animals. Animals? In the city? This eccentric and somewhat crazy woman actually tends livestock in downtown Oakland. This leads to wild tales of turkeys killed by junkyard dogs, hens clucking down sidewalks, and neighbours complaining about the smell of her pigs. Oh yeah, she has pigs…. which she feeds entirely by dumpster diving at local restaurants.

Carpenter’s passion is personal food production. She wants to know her food and be enriched by it.  Home grown food resonates with me too. I have slowly developed a unease with the grocery food business. Grocery stores provide us with necessities; but food comes to us with no endearment and at great environmental cost.

Homemade food thrills Carpenter, and she loves the value it holds.  Each spinach leaf tangibly represents weeks of work, sunshine and water.  She is so close to her food that on cold nights, her young poultry stay in her living room. And she still thought it was worthwhile, even when she had to gulp down (pun intended) all reserve and kill and roast her own rabbits.

She considers food production part of our cultural history. We have innate desires to “make” our own food. She claims this is our heritage, and I understand this. I still enjoy gardening, even though summers of my childhood included weeding. My grandmother, at 76, still puts up enough veggies for the winter. Carpenter thinks such good and perfect things need not be sacrificed for city life.

Carpenter vs. Kingsolver

I kept thinking of Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. A detailed memoir in which the privileged Kingsolver gives up an urbanunnatural” life in Arizona to live in a backwoods farm, committed to growing most of her own food.

Carpenter is very clear that city life is interesting, less isolating, and just as natural.  We don’t have to be hermits to be farmers. It made me feel proud to be city-folk, (even though I grew up in very rural Ontario). Conscientious food consumers don’t have to pine for the country. I still occasionally yearn for the idyllic country, but having lots of space is not the only way to solve the grocery store conundrum. It made me rethink preconceptions about farming and food production.

Despite her lofty ideals, Carpenter struck me as rounded and mature, brimming with empathy. One hot July day,  she witnessed a junkie shoot up from her window. Sitting there, watching him, she was struck with the shame of her so-called “foodie righteousness.”

She had considered herself better than people who ate carelessly and only knew how to use a microwave to reheat frozen dinners. There are more important things in life then what food she eats and where it comes from. There are bigger issues in this world. I liked that the best about this book; Carpenter was convicted but compassionate. There is nothing worse than a self-righteous eater, when basically we are all just trying to survive.

It would be hard to believe this woman’s story, but she writes with such authenticity.

I am new at this “urban gardening/ food production thing,” but I was inspired.  The book extrapolated very clearly that urban food production is not a new or radical idea. Cities like Shanghai, produce 85% of their own food within city limits, and have done so since the beginning of memory.

So we are giving it a go: my family and I have a tiny spot in a friend’s plot at the local Hill Street community garden. And things are growing. It will be a good bean year, and every time I go to see the garden I am thrilled.  I liken the feeling to watching my children smile. It’s mesmerizing, and the spinach and greens are tender and not even a bit bitter.

The humour in this book, her wry sarcasm and honesty (my favourite part was when she confessed to actually having a sizable grow op when she lived in Seattle), even her occasional F word slip, made me feel like we were close friends.

I was also encouraged because this book is about love.  It is about love for a city and community, and for nature that can coexist.  And it is about the good feelings that come from building up your neighbourhood. Even if it’s something as simple as sharing homegrown food.

Some thoughts?

Continue reading Farm City, The Education of an Urban Farmer