Tag Archives: climate change

Unsheltered: Everything is Broken; We are Doomed(?)

In two parallel narratives, one set in the very-present of Trump and climate catastrophe and the other in the 1870s-ish of  Darwin, Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered takes ‘unsheltered’ literally by narrating  the crumbling homes of the protagonists in each of  these periods. From the collapsing homes the narratives spiral out to explore all the many, many ways the lives and societies of these protagonists are similarly falling apart.

In our present day we witness Wila and Iano struggle to keep up with their (unintentionally comedically) diametrical opposed twenty-something children as all try to make sense of the middle class promise of a better life for your children. The daughter, Tig, a socialist and strident environmentalist stands in for the future-present, trying – ardently trying – to convince those around her of the absolute and irreversible  change instigated by, and demanded by, the global climate crisis  (cue the parallel to the Darwinian timeline where the evolutionary scientists are trying to persuade those backwards, stubborn deniers of the obvious-ness and logic of evolution. It’s a bit on the  nose, in my opinion, particularly the force with which  the narrative drives home this parallel – repeated themes aside, there are some explicit speeches designed to make sure  we get  – really get – that  those denying the existential threat of climate change are just as ridiculous as those denying evolution.) The son, Zeke, abandons his child in pursuit of profits. It’s theme made (so) literal. What would you give up for designer clothes? Your first born. Actually. Okay, so Zeke is meant to be the foolish optimist that thinks change can be achieved from within the system, Tig wants to blow the whole thing up, and Wila and Iano try to reconcile their life-long desire for the middle class dream of a solid home and retirement plan with the reality of bankruptcy, contract labour and paying for American healthcare.

19th century narrative is… so similar. Thatcher Greenwood, science teacher and supporter of reason in convincing others of the merits of the Darwinian argument, meets his neighbour Mary Treat, a historically forgotten but totally delightful scientist exploring flora and fauna and all in between. The two try to convince their town of Darwinian thinking in literal staged debates that end in murder and outrage. His house is also – literally and figuratively – falling apart.

With all that is collapsing around them – homes, families, marriages, belief systems – Kingsolver pitches the idea that it is community and connection that will, if not restore the  bonds and rebuild the homes, then will offer ‘shelter’ amid the chaos and wreckage. So you may not have a home, a planet, a reliable belief system, but you will have friends and relationships and that will be – could be – enough. It’s a compelling argument (particularly for a Unitarian) and one I would have enjoyed a lot  more if it hadn’t been made so…  forcefully. The extensive repetition of theme through character, plot, setting, dialogue… just got to be a bit much.

All the same, if you want a book to convince you not to have (more) children, then this is the one.

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The Marrow Thieves: How Should I End Blog Posts?

Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves is a YA (maybe?), dystopic, post-climate-apocalyptic, fantasy novel that follows an Indigenous family as they establish familial and romantic ties while also trying to escape the clutches of predatory, murderous, white ‘Recruiters’ bent on capturing them and taking them off to ‘Schools’ to drain them of their literal marrow (and kill them) because their marrow combats the dreamlessness that has turned all white people into dream-zombies. *Breath* That is to say… it is a lot.

It makes its thematic concerns abundantly clear and accessible (presumably this is why it is understood as young adult fiction?): colonialism, settler-indigenous relations (past, present and possible-future), ecocriticism and trauma. There’s scope to discuss how/when children become adults, the intersection of history and story and the purpose of spiritual life and dreams. It feels like if you were teaching a literature/politics course you could not have ordered up a better novel to open conversations (or I guess if you’re a producer of the 2018 Canada Reads competition…). It is also bursting with similies. Like a water barrell overflowing in a rainstorm with similies.

As a story I didn’t love it. It was a quest narrative that didn’t articulate it’s quest until reaching the climax, as a consequence the reader is left adrift wondering if there might be a point to all the wandering (though I suppose there’s an argument to be made that the reader’s feeling of waywardness is intentionally mirroring that of the characters, but I don’t buy it). The characters themselves read a bit jumbled: there are a lot of them in the family and not enough attention is paid to individualizing each, so there is little emotional investment for the reader on what happens to any one of them. That said, the few characters that do receive a backstory are compelling, if not entirely complicated. There’s also a question of setting. They are forever walking north (like months and months) but never seem to get anywhere (again with the wayward wandering). And I did find the writing strayed into the cliche and the Literary Devices.

As a novel to spurr conversation I think it has merit. There’s ample opportunity to talk about the legacy and continued experience of colonialism, the continued profit off Indigenous bodies, the history of residential schools and the present of incarceration and child welfare agencie, the experience of Metis people within and against the state, and the representation of indigenous people as eco-warriors.

I never know how to end these posts. I feel like I’m always tempted to be like “read it” or “don’t read it,” and in this case I don’t know what to tell you, and maybe you don’t want me to tell you anyway, and so… END.

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A Tale for the Time Being: You Probably Haven’t Heard Of This Book; Here’s Why You Should Read It

maxresdefaultOr maybe you have heard of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. After all, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, hyped in all of the right places. All the same it slipped through my Canlit net, and seems to have for all those I’ve talked about the book with as I’ve been reading it, and so I’ll assume you haven’t heard of it either (you’re my made-up audience, so I may as well, right?).

This idea of the reader-audience and how readers make novels mean something by reading them is one of the (many) preoccupations of this fantastically rich and layered story. At one point our protagonist-cum-author notes “Surely a reader wasn’t capable of this bizarre kind of conjuration, pulling words from the void? But apparently she had done just that, or else she was crazy. Or else… Together we’ll make magic… Who had conjured whom?” (392). The role of reader in the novel is complex: with two threaded narratives – that of Ruth, an author living on an island in British Columbia who finds a diary washed up on the beach and that of the diarist, Nao, an American-Japanese schoolgirl – that both reflect, influence and respond to one another, one of the questions the novel asks is how readers determine and impact the meaning and influence of a story. Within the novel itself this question is explored in the relationship between Ruth and Nao, but the novel expands this question with metafictional play and probity to include this reader, too. So you ought to read it because the novel presupposes its existence depends on your reading it.

You ought to read it because the philosophical questions it explores like the nature of time and quantum mechanics; the role of animals in the interconnected web of being; restitution, responsibility and war; the relationship of class and identity (and bullying); the purpose of art and art-making; – are those questions that make both for great dissertations and for great discussions (and I know you have a thesis you want to write or a book club to attend [*cough* this was a book club choice for the book club I attend]). These questions look esoteric when I write them down, and there are moments of the novel – like reading the Appendixes on Schrodinger’s Cat – that stray in that direction, but the overwhelming feeling this novel evoked for me was exhilaration: it’s simply thrilling to see a masterful exploration of questions of time, identity and the nature of meaning in life through grounded (if somewhat fantastical) story.

And you ought to read it because I say so. Okay, not that. But because it’s beautiful.  Layered with complexity and richness, yet not so dense as to be inaccessible or off-putting. And you see it and think 400 pages, really? And I say, consider the time it takes to read. No really, consider “time” and “takes”: what does it mean to “take time”? Once you’re asking that question you may as well be reading the novel because in reading you find time, time-taking, time-making – well, you might have a different feeling on the other side (which assumes you ever leave a novel once you’ve read it… another question for another time being).

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