In 1960, 24-year-old Jane Goodall arrived in Tanzania to study chimpanzees.
Sent by British scientist Louis Leakey, the former secretary initially had...moreIn 1960, 24-year-old Jane Goodall arrived in Tanzania to study chimpanzees.
Sent by British scientist Louis Leakey, the former secretary initially had to be chaperoned by her mother. Goodall later obtained a PhD from Cambridge University in ethology, a branch of zoology that studies animal behaviour, based on the her work at the Gombe Stream National Park.
Goodall began by studying our closest relatives, discovering their propensity for using tools and hunting small mammals for meat. These were startling revelations in their day, since it was believed that using tools was a human trait and that chimpanzees were vegetarian.
More than five decades later, Goodall is still far from home, and still part of the conversation about what it means to be human.
The octogenarian spends 300 days a year on the road, lecturing on conservation and raising funds for both the Jane Goodall Institute, which funds ongoing research at Gombe, as well as Roots and Shoots, a global youth-education program.
This spring sees the publication of her 25th book, Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants, the third book she's co-written with journalist and former spirituality editor for Amazon.com, Gail Hudson.
Refreshingly, Goodall is upfront about her credentials: "Of course I am best known... for the study of the Gombe chimpanzees... But there would be no chimpanzees without plants - not human beings either, for that matter. And the chimpanzee might never have materialized for me had I not been obsessed, as a child, with stories of the wilderness areas of the planet and, most especially, the forests of Africa."
And so, in Seeds of Hope Goodall (and her co-writer) describes her specific history while also presenting a brief history of the different kinds of plants and trees, and how they have been cultivated over time. Goodall relies heavily on stories from the environmental and community groups she works with.
She also delivers a handful of big ideas with her anecdotes: Organic food is healthiest, the effects of GMOs on humans aren't fully known, mono-cultures aren't sustainable over the long term, we need our forests to be fully human.
All these big ideas bear repeating; the problem with Goodall's approach to these issues, however, is that readers aren't left with a big picture. The material hopscotches geographically between England and Africa, the two poles of Goodall's life, with stops nearly everywhere her tour bus has paused in between - but there's very little cohesion.
Also, although Goodall is reliably charming, the sections that include material outside of her first-hand experience and/or limited areas of expertise feel like they were written by an inexperienced speechwriter.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Goodall and her collaborators were accused of plagiarism last year by the Washington Post after the American edition was released.
Goodall subsequently apologized and pledged to work with editors to correct future editions. Potential readers will be glad to hear the Canadian edition has received a relatively thorough going-over.
But even that last-minute tinkering wasn't enough to save Seeds of Hope; though its authors are earnest, the book isn't half as compelling as it should be.
Those looking for a local equivalent should dip into The Global Forest by Ontario-based botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger, who is also interested in working with storytelling and environmental advocacy.
J.B. MacKinnon's The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be, shortlisted for this year's Charles Taylor Prize for non-fiction, is also worth a read as it digs into the archeological record and challenges some of the assumptions underlying the main tenets of conservation.
This review appeared in the Books Section of the Winnipeg Free Press on April 5, 2014. (less)
I'm currently re-reading my book. So I can do readings from it, in the weeks and months ahead. So I can get the poems off the page and into my mouth,...moreI'm currently re-reading my book. So I can do readings from it, in the weeks and months ahead. So I can get the poems off the page and into my mouth, words and cadences and line breaks. (Half-memorizing poems for readings is a much difference process than writing/editing them...)(less)
American novelist Chang-rae Lee writes what could be called Ivy League fiction.
After doing an MFA at Yale, his first novel, 1995's Native Speaker, won...moreAmerican novelist Chang-rae Lee writes what could be called Ivy League fiction.
After doing an MFA at Yale, his first novel, 1995's Native Speaker, won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.
Since then, on top of his work teaching creative writing at Princeton, Lee has written a book every four or five years, which culminated in a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 2010 for The Surrendered.
Lee's most recent book, the dystopian On Such a Full Sea, represents a departure for the Korean-born writer.
Having written about the intersections of class and race in books that referenced Korean comfort women during the Second World War (A Gesture Life) and orphanages in post-Korean War South Korea (The Surrendered), Lee has abandoned specific histories for imagined ones, and race for class. This shift is front and centre in the book's opening passage:
"It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore. We think, Why bother? Except for a lucky few, everyone is from someplace, but that someplace, it turns out, is gone."
So, instead of the United States of America, we have the Association of Charter Villages, run by multinational corporations instead of governments.
The villages are home to the upper class and ultra-rich. Middle-class people live in directorates, which are basically company towns, producing goods for Charter citizens such as fish raised in tanks and vegetables cultivated in greenhouses.
On Such a Full Sea's main characters, a young couple named Fan and Reg, were born and raised in B-Mor, a directorate assigned to a group of immigrants from China, which is close to the Charter village Seneca.
Though there are few perks in the directorates, there is the security of (crowded) housing and (increasingly limited) medical care. Lower-class people live in the open counties, where there are no illusions: If you can't afford something, you try to take it by force.
A cynical reader would note here that this state of affairs isn't that different from our current circumstances... but what is different is that the citizens of Lee's imagined world all eventually contract C, or cancer.
And Reg, a gangly 19-year-old gardener, is somehow C-free. When medical tests reveal this fact, he is whisked away by administrators.
Fan, a diminutive 16-year-old tank-diver, resolves to find him and leaves B-Mor for the outlands. She doesn't have any inkling where he might be, but leaving seems to be a logical first step.
She spends the rest of the novel moving in the opposite direction from most upwardly mobile Association residents: from B-Mor to the outlands to Seneca, a Charter village.
Interestingly, although Fan spends little to no time in B-Mor, her story is narrated by a directorate resident who prefers the first-person plural. He is the one who describes the ins and outs of Association society, who reflects on the changes to B-Mor after the disappearance of Reg and the departure of Fan, and who tries to make sense of all their lives.
So the question remains: is On Such a Full Sea a fully formed dystopia? A fully formed fiction? While Lee's imagined world has some interesting flourishes and some ingenious ideas, it never coalesces into a completely convincing whole.
And while it is masterfully written, in Lee's trademark formal diction and elaborate, slightly overwritten sentences, ultimately we know Fan and Reg the way our anonymous narrator does: by name and in passing.
Although On Such a Full Sea probably won't be counted among Chang-rae Lee's successes, it does make for a most interesting departure.
- From the February 1 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press.(less)
From the August 3 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press' books section:
On his mother's side, British Columbia poet and professor Jay Ruzesky is a cousin,...moreFrom the August 3 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press' books section:
On his mother's side, British Columbia poet and professor Jay Ruzesky is a cousin, twice-removed, of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.
Ruzesky's compelling new memoir, In Antarctica, tells the story of his trip to the Antarctic a century after his ancestor became the first person to set foot on the South Pole.
Ruzesky, who now teaches in Duncan, spent his childhood dreaming of the polar expeditions. But his adult life had been consumed by writing three collections of poetry and a novel, teaching and having a family.
As the 2011 anniversary of Amundsen's achievement approached, Ruzesky tried to reconcile himself to not following in his ancestor's footsteps.
He failed. Instead, Ruzesky found himself online, booking a berth on a ship that would take him from Patagonia to the Antarctic.
What's more, he convinced his brother Scott to come along, even if his sibling's first question was, "Which one of us is Amundsen?"
Ruzesky knew he was incurring tens of thousands of dollars of debt but thought there might be a book in his trip across the ice. (Which, in case you're wondering, makes perfect economic sense to a poet.)
Structurally, In Antarctica parallels Ruzesky's 2011 trip with episodes from Amundsen's 1911 voyage on the Fram and his earlier expedition to the Antarctic on the Belgica in 1887. His title is obviously an homage to the late Bruce Chatwin's classic 1977 travel memoir, In Patagonia.
The sections from Ruzesky's point of view meld travel writing with memoir, which effectively sets the stage for the writer's month-long voyage.
For instance, though Ruzesky has called B.C. home for 20 years, he spent his childhood in the cold-weather climes of Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Saskatoon and Calgary.
One story that would be familiar to anyone who grew up on the Prairies details how the entrance collapsed to the quinzee he and his schoolmates had built in their school playground in Thunder Bay. This is meaningful, given that Amundsen's crew spent more than a year in a large hut connected to a series of snow caves on the Ross Ice Shelf before making their attempt on the pole.
Also interesting is Ruzesky's anecdote of a failed dog-sledging lesson in Whitehorse in 2002. Knowing that Amundsen's success in reaching the South Pole was largely attributed to his use of dogs instead of ponies, like his English rival Robert Falcon Scott, supercharges this story.
Ruzesky also includes meditations on exploration and cartography and provides context for Amundsen's journey by providing thumbnail sketches of other voyages to both the North and South poles.
The other half of In Antarctica is in Amundsen's voice, an incredibly detailed account that Ruzesky somehow cobbled together from the explorer's journals and photographs.
More importantly, these sections are very finely written. Ruzesky illuminates Amundsen's dreamy childhood and his possible motives for devoting his life to exploration instead of medicine, as his mother would have preferred.
Ruzesky's description of Admundsen's affair with the married Sigrid Castberg that preceded the 1911 voyage, however, read like the best historical fiction.
All of which is to say that In Antarctica is a bold and satisfying composite of creative non-fiction, memoir and travel writing. (less)
From the June 1 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press' Books Section:
Rabble-rousing U.K. journalist George Monbiot doesn't much like sheep.
In his eighth...moreFrom the June 1 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press' Books Section:
Rabble-rousing U.K. journalist George Monbiot doesn't much like sheep.
In his eighth book, Feral, he minces no words about the effect the ruminants have on the British landscape: "Sheep farming in this country is a slow-burning ecological disaster, which has done more damage to the living systems of this country than either climate change or industrial pollution."
Monbiot worked as an investigative journalist in Brazil, Indonesia and East Africa for six years. He's been a columnist for The Guardian for nearly two decades, writing on multinational corporations (2000's The Captive State), democratic reform (2003's The Age of Consent) and climate change (2006's Heat).
But it was a move to the Welsh countryside with his young family in 2007 that forced Monbiot to focus on his immediate surroundings: the heaths and moors of the Cambrian Mountains.
Even though his Guardian column demanded that he range across disciplines - from science to economics to politics - Monbiot realized he felt disengaged from his body and his environment. He was, as he called it, "ecologically bored."
After a little digging, Monbiot realized that the Welsh landscape was not especially natural. As little as 1,300 years ago, according to the fossil record, most of the U.K. was covered in forest. Man cut down the trees and then filled the empty spaces with sheep, who browse anything green down to the ground.
"Heather, which many nature-lovers in Britain cherish, is typical of the hardy, shrubby plants which colonize deforested land," writes Monbiot. "I do not see heather moor as an indicator of the health of the upland environment, as many do, but as a product of ecological destruction."
What follows is an argument for the "rewilding" of the British uplands so as to reverse some of the environmental damage they've sustained and re-invigorate the people who live there.
Rewilding, according to Monbiot, "involves reintroducing absent plants and animals (and in a few cases culling exotic species which cannot be contained by native wildlife), pulling down the fences, blocking the drainage ditches, but otherwise stepping back." Monbiot advocates rewilding only in areas "in which production is so low that farming continues only as a result of the taxpayer's generosity."
Readers may be wondering how Monbiot's ideas apply to the North American landscape. While we don't have sheep, we do have cattle ranches and a high density of deer in both rural and urban areas. And scientists and conservation officers across the country are currently asking some of the same questions Monbiot does on the value of maintaining (and in some cases reintroducing) keystone species such as beavers and wolves.
Unfortunately, Monbiot sandwiches his largely compelling arguments between chapters that detail his goal to live a life "richer in adventure and surprise." (In Monbiot's case that mostly seems to mean the times he nearly kills himself with his sea kayak.)
In addition, while Monbiot was likely motivated by beginning a family to write Feral, there is no denying that the risk-taking he describes is gendered. It is predicated on the fact that there is someone at home with the children who is not trying to kill herself with a sea kayak.
Combine those interludes with Monbiot's nostalgic recollections of his adventures in East Africa and Brazil and, well, you've got a very manly book.
Part of the posturing is probably due to the fact that Monbiot is a ‘radical thinker’ and not a lowly scientist or an academic. These stories are meant, at least in part, to establish Monbiot’s bona fides.
They’re also likely an attempt to inject some colour into a book where he mostly wanders through the woods, muttering bleakly about sheep. (less)
ONTARIO literary writer Colin McAdam's compelling third novel manages to be both violent and loving, eloquent and non-verbal. Which is apt for a book...moreONTARIO literary writer Colin McAdam's compelling third novel manages to be both violent and loving, eloquent and non-verbal. Which is apt for a book that features an ensemble cast of humans and chimpanzees.
Those readers shuddering at the prospect of another "animal novel" can rest assured. Like Newfoundlander Jessica Grant in 2009's Come, Thou Tortoise, and Toronto's Barbara Gowdy in her 1999 elephant novel The White Bone, McAdam rises to the challenge of writing across the species barrier, where before he'd settled for crossing class lines and the gender divide. Structurally, A Beautiful Truth is a Canadian Museum for Human Rights whereas his previous books, Fall (2009) and Some Great Thing (2004), are roomy houses.
Rather than two or three main characters, for instance, here there are almost a dozen major and minor characters. The humans include Walt, a developer who adopts a baby chimp, David, a scientist conducting ape research, and Mike, an ambitious local politician who has an instinctive dislike of chimps.
The first half of the book is largely spent in the humans' heads, mostly with the easygoing Walt, as is evidenced by the novel's plummy opening sentence:
"Judy and Walter Walt Ribke lived on 12 up-and-down acres, open to whatever God gave them, on the eastern boundary of Addison County, four feet deep in years of rueful contentment."
McAdam has the childless couple rationalizing their decision, first, to import an exotic animal, and then, a dozen years later, dealing with the inevitable results.
By the time we're two-thirds of the way in, McAdam is narrating almost entirely from the point of view of the chimps, who are housed in different sections of a biomedical facility.
And as one of them, Looee, is dosed with antidepressants and anesthetics, and exposed to a variety of illnesses, we know there is no going back for either Walt or Looee.
The narrative complexity doesn't detract from McAdam's biggest strength: portrayals of ardent but bashful men who find themselves on the cusp of, and then in the middle of, episodes of violence. And, like his previous novels, A Beautiful Truth is difficult but not dreary, because McAdam always carefully acknowledges that consensus and communion are possible.
He has even invented a word for the experience of these states, used in the chimp sections: "oa." It is this kind of inventiveness with language, as well as McAdam's use of short, one-paragraph sentences, mimicking the keyed-in exchanges between researchers and subjects, that makes these sections especially effective.
McAdam has drawn on the results that came out of the first ape studies in 1960s and '70s, specifically the Nim Chimpsky and Washoe Projects. He also spent time observing apes at the Fauna Foundation, a Canadian chimpanzee sanctuary based in Chambly, Que.
Are there beautiful truths at the centre of A Beautiful Truth?
Many of us know that it is dangerous to try to make a child out of a chimpanzee. But what does it say about us that, like Walt and Judy, many pet owners describe themselves as "parents," and that doggy daycares cost more than human ones?
What does it say about us that we confine our closest relatives to zoos and research facilities?
Finally, what does it mean to be human? Are language and functional vocal cords the only things that separates us from dolphins and elephants?
This review was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press' Books Section on March 23, 2013.(less)