Tag Archives: British Columbia

Stanley Park: Great on Food; Poor on Plot

           

So Timothy Taylor’s *Stanley Park* was on the list of books recommended to me when I moved to Vancouver. Not surprising, perhaps, as the book spends a lot of time describing the city: the disparity between rich and poor, the exceptional natural beauty, the pretension of the foodie-hipsters who live here and then, in great detail, the landscape of the largest park (and biggest tourist attraction), Stanley Park. 

The protagonist, Jeremy, is an idealistic young chef who owns a hip restaurant and cooks (magnificent) locally sourced meals. The plot thickens as his restaurant struggles to maintain financial solvency, and thickens further as the plot detours to follow Jeremy’s father, “The Professor” who lives IN Stanley Park as part of an ethnographic study of homeless folks who live in the park AND investigating a cold case murder of two children. 

I suppose there are some ways in which these two plot lines intersect: Jeremy visits his father in the woods, thematic parallels around local food and local/post-national belonging. But for this reader it felt very much like two plot lines jammed together without the necessary exposition making it clear why a murder mystery and foodie romance belong together. Indeed, even with careful reading I’m still unsure about who/how the murder was committed, why it was significant for Jeremy and what implications it had for The Professor. 

So here’s how I take it:

The restaurant plot and Jeremy is great. The writing is decent, the descriptions of food and cooking are great and the questions around independent/small business v conglomerate are interesting and worth exploring.

The Stanley Park plot is terrible. The descriptions try so hard to be literary and poetic that it’s entirely unclear to this reader what is happening, to whom and why. More importantly, I still don’t know why I should care about this plot line. What does it have to do with the local food? with food security? 

Hmm. I’ve been telling folks this is a great read (and it did help me past my “Let The Great World Spin” hangover) but in writing this I’m not sure its great so much as the one strand of the novel is great. Can part of a novel be great and the other part terrible and the sum be something like average? I don’t think so. I think it’s still worth reading for the gorgeous food bits, just don’t be surprised if you’re reading and wondering what the hell this Czech guy is doing living on Lion’s Gate Bridge. And maybe also don’t be surprised if you’re a little annoyed with the editor of this book who failed Taylor in not telling him that you can’t just jam two plot flavours together and hope for a satisfying read. 

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The Golden Spruce: Valliant Wins Again

                                  

So having now read two of John Valliant’s books – The Tiger and now, The Golden Spruce – I’m prepared to give him title of Most Best Genre Blender. It’s hard to tell you whatkindof book The Golden Spruce is because it’s a combination of straight up history (but of various subjects – colonization, the logging industry in BC), mythology, biography and narrative. The effect of the genre shifting – and it is shifting, between paragraphs and within chapters the “kind” of story subtly changes without announcement or fan fare, rather the recognition that some kinds of stories are better told/better read as myth, or personal narrative, or statistical history. 

The book uses the story of the golden spruce as a loose focus around which to depart with lessons in plant mutation, descriptions of colonial-indigenous encounters, retellings of oral stories, musings on the fate of the “criminal” Grant Hadwin (musings, too, on whether he be criminal or something else) and meditations on the future of logging/trees in BC. The story? A singularly exceptional tree on Haida Gwai that is golden, rather than green (the precise reasons for the golden colour – or the supposed reasons – are taken up in chapters in the book) that is revered by the Haida, the object of tourist attraction and the unlikely object of the errant environmentalist, Grant Hadwin’s, misdirected consciousness raising environmentalist campaign.

I loved the form of the book – the shifting genre approaches, the range and breadth of information covered – as it gestures to the complexity of any issue/story. Our understandings of historical or current political/environmental/social issues cannot be understood in a simplistic, or teleological, telling; rather, anything approaching understanding must come from building a wide contextual net, disallowing firm conclusions and arguing for the incompleteness of any telling – even the most wide-ranging and intentionally thorough.

I loved the book, too, for its examination of place as character. As The Tiger uses an animal as protagonist, The Golden Spruce allows the place of Haida Gwai and BC more broadly – to be a living, breathing, changing, demanding, character: complete with hypocritical actions, fraught decisions, failures and triumphs. The setting really does read as “alive” in a way that so beautifully aligns with the thematic intention of the novel: that of encouraging the reader to think carefully about their engagement with, and responsibilities to, the environment. Rather than positioning the environment as something to be acted upon, or dealt with, by making the environment a living character Valliant makes the case that we must engage in a relationship with the world around us.

So yeah. Read it, okay?

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Prize Winner