Thursday, September 02, 2010

#42 - Fauna

Please, please forgive the pun but I'm going to fawn over Alissa York's magnificent Fauna over the next few paragraphs. Good lord I fell hard for this novel, for the author's imagination, likening my experience of reading this book to the high school crush I had on a boy named Chris P. Rice -- his blond hair and blue eyes ruining me for months when our brief love affair ended. I fell and fell hard, just like I did for Fauna.

The novel counts squirrels, bats, raccoons, coyotes, and skunks among its characters. All kinds of critters combine to create a world that exists, wild and sometimes frantic, in and around the edges of the urban city of Toronto. In a way, even the human characters are misfits, outcasts, human versions of the animals they co-habitat with in between the pages. Edal, a troubled young woman who used to work for the Forestry service, currently on leave, befriends and then feels abandoned by a mouse in her house. She's suffered a loss that she can't quantify and spends much of the book trying to find her way back from tragedy.

And while you don't find out what that tragedy is until the end of the book, how she comes to met Guy, a kindhearted animal lover who runs a scrap heap/yard/towing service feels magical and reminiscent of fairy tales. Edal enters his giant yard by a locked gate (The Secret Garden!), finds their magical world (SPOILER: an animal graveyard covered with hubcaps), and returns often to listen to him read The Jungle Book out loud (ever good relationship starts with a story). Rounding out Guy's (he's named after Lafleur, people pronounce it incorrectly ALL the time) motley crew are Stephen, a wounded war vet and Lily, a teenage runaway who makes her home in the Don Valley.

The novel takes you through each of these characters, and one other, Darius aka "Coyote Cop," as they interact with various different kinds of wildlife in the city. Oh, and there's another character, Kate, who is also broken -- she works at an animal rehabilitation clinic in the city and meets Lily as she's jogging through the Valley. The one theme that holds them all together is their love of animals. Whether as a career or a hobby or, in Darius's case, as a strange obsession, animals become a focal point to how they understand the world around them. Every single one of York's characters feels empathy in a way that accelerates how connected we are with the animal world around us, even when we live in a concrete jungle like Toronto.

Yet, even when the animal characters show up in the vignettes, York's not anthropomorphizing in any way. These aren't Disney squirrels. They aren't Alvin and his brothers. I mean, it would be impossible not to describe them in human terms, but you get a real sense of what life is like for a skunk in the city, you feel the raccoons fingers trying to figure out a bungee cord, and you see the car lights flashing by as the animals attempt to cross the road. It makes the world of this novel feel more organic than setting traditionally is in a novel -- the leaves and trees, the bugs, the mice, the living, breathing world that surrounds these characters becomes so much more rich and alive with York's magical thinking (I KNOW, I hate using that term but it feels magical, it does).

There's little about this novel I didn't like. There's deep emotional resonance, fascinating characters, and even if the essence of the novel's plot runs a bit thin, the wildness and imagination that courses through every page, every sentence, of the book more than makes up for it. I didn't need a lot to happen on the surface of this novel -- because the ideas that drive the story were so rich and experiential that I was pulled along regardless. It's one of my favourites I've read this year, absolutely. Highly, highly recommended.

Why Are We Bound & Determined To Be Opposites?

Throughout much of my short-lived academic career, I studied post-colonial literature. Shocking, I know. In particular, I wrote about the Manichean allegory, this idea of opposites naturally imbuing a sense of "good" and "bad" just by their very existence (black vs. white, colonizer vs colony, etc.). And then I got out in to the real world and discovered that while prejudice and all kinds of other things that were so important to me during my academic life have drifted away into the larger concerns of "how do I pay my mortgage" and "do I really care if someone [read my Alma mater Queen's University) always addresses me with the derogatory "Miss" on my mailed communications?" (sort of but not really)...

Anyway, the media loves a good Manichean allegory don't they? What easier way to invent controversy than to present two opposites. But then again, it's not just journalists, bloggers, twitters, people on Facebook -- they're all told to "like" things (inferring that they perhaps "don't" if they refuse to click), make decisions, form opinions -- create polar opposites. And now the one act that used to bring everyone together, reading, which by its very nature has no "opposite" in the Manichean sense (I guess you could be "anti"-reading [I'm aghast at the thought] or be illiterate) because the moment you read a sentence, even if its the back of a cereal box, your world is somehow different, has become polarized as of late.

Oddly, it's not the written word that's causing the problems. It's not a particular text or even a series of words put together by an author: it's the very act of reading and how you choose to do it. Seems like you're either "for" or "against" ereaders, either "defending" or pontificating over the actual idea of a physical book, and the idea that people can be polarized around an action that by its very nature brings human beings together makes me a little angry.

This article on Salon is making the rounds on Twitter today: "E-reader revolt: I'm leaving youth culture behind." The author has avowed to never, ever, ever, never read a book on an ereader:
For me, there's just still something universal about ink on paper, the dog-earing of yellowed pages, the loans to friends, the discovery of a relative's secret universe of interests via the pile on their nightstand. And it's not really hyperbole to say it makes me feel disconnected from humanity to imagine these rituals funneled into copy/paste functions, annotated files on a screen that could, potentially, crash.
And then, this morning (also via Twitter), I quickly browsed an article in the NY Times called: "Of Two Minds About Books." The gist of which is that couples are at odds with one another, not over their chosen reading material but, instead, of HOW they like to read. She's p-book; he's e-book, and goes on to find about a half-dozen more varied couples to discuss the differences in how they choose to read.

Funny, but did I miss the universal memo that states we have to pick sides? That by buying and reading books electronically means that you swear unapologetically to never go back, to never change, to never switch from one to the other?

I've been thinking a lot about my own reading habits lately. To anyone who has ever heard me lecture before (in a classroom, at Book Camp), you know that I'm passionate about reading in all its formats. As long as people are buying books, no, more importantly, reading books, it doesn't matter to me whether you do it on an iPad, a Kindle, a p-book, a phone, a blackberry, or via audio. What matters is that people are consuming content, voraciously in the case of the Stieg Larsson trilogy, talking about it, finding it, spreading it, and to create conflict out of the fact that you NEED to choose between one or the other misses the point. Isn't it just amazing that people have so many more options now with which to devour content?

My own reading habits have been forever altered by my iPad. I'm not going to lie -- it's an amazing life tool, but I don't read exclusively on it. I've discovered that I don't like reading it in bed, so I've got a p-book on the go that sits on the nightstand. I've also found (as noted in an earlier post) that it's way better for commuting than content in a traditional format. But it sucks to read on the deck at the cottage (the whole glare issue). So, it's really a moment-by-moment decision for me rather than a complete lifestyle change as so many of these articles suggest. I'm tired of having to choose one OR the other, they can both co-exist within my life and, in different ways, satisfy my never-ending craving for the written word. I mean, why do we have to choose? Anyone who judges a person by their preference commits a horrible crime against reading in my eyes -- the same people who come down on Oprah for having a book club and use the word "populist" to describe anything.

All books, all print, all media, all words contribute to the health and success of this business -- to our culture, to our collective conscious, to our imaginary lives, and I for one will never choose one over the other, nor will I make grandiose statements about the "value" of reading one way over the other. Just read people. And then make some noise about what you've read. Then someone needs to come and give me a hug.