Friday, July 27, 2012

Lakeland by Allan Casey

by Allan Casey
Greystone Books, 2009
352 pages

If it is a wizard you seek, find one who has seen enough for his hair to go grey.

I placed the e-copy of this on hold quite a while ago in the hopes of reading it at some point. It's the One Book One Community book for my region this year, and I'd been thinking of reading it anyway after hearing Allan Casey interviewed. It's kind of a brave choice for OBOC, though it's not out of line from some of their earlier choices (ie. The 100-Mile Diet). To get a whole community to read a non-fiction book isn't easy, but this is an excellent choice. Perhaps I'm only saying that because it's right up my regular reading alley anyway, though.

Casey has structured this book as a sort of travelogue; he undertook to visit important Canadian lakes (excluding the Canadian lakes we always think of, that is, Erie, Ontario, Huron and Superior, which aren't exclusively Canadian anyway) and write one chapter per lake. He looks at the environmental context and also the cultural importance of the lakes, in some cases their economics, in others their biology, and often both. Each chapter introduces us to at least one person with life-long ties to the lake in question, and sometimes to others with more fleeting ties.

It's not always a comfortable or comforting book to read, in that Casey is a clear-eyed and practical recorder of events, people, places, and problems. He's not unrealistically optimistic. He's also not gloomy, either, which can be the other (and more common) problem with books of this sort. This book is also not a call-to-action, which are the sorts of environmental reads I hate most, because they tend to get me all fired up and then, almost immediately, I feel desperate and guilty, impotent and ashamed. Lakeland more of a call to awareness, and a very effective one at that. What this means is that I often think about the book, and the lakes, and our relationship to them, in ways that I haven't done before, without becoming mired in that perennial environmental problem of apathy born of a feeling of hopelessness.

I can only speak for myself, but the kinds of problems Casey identifies suggest that the fact that I am not the only Canadian out there to take our lakes for granted. It's a problem of abundance. We have so many, we are so used to them. They are a part of our psyche, our cultural unconscious. So we don't recognize how incredibly lucky we are to have them. I can't imagine living in a country without easy easy access to lakes. This week I'm spending by one of the Muskoka lakes (I am one of the fortunate to have access to these from the comfort of a building without a million dollars burning a hole in my bank account) and I read this book sitting on the shore of Georgian Bay, which is my lake, the lake that I judge all other lakes by. 

I think Lakeland is saved from becoming too gloomy or strident by Casey's excellent writing skills, and his excellent sense of proportion. The book is not unrelentingly about the problems. It's often funny, often beautiful, and his turn of phrase is almost poetic at points. His love for the country he calls Lakeland is transparently visible, his desire to bring all of us along with him is infectious. He looks at the problems and then finds the good, the little toeholds where things might take off for the better. It's a friendly book, and much of what he writes is familiar to a long-time lake-lover like myself.

I think this is one of those books that every Canadian should read -- new Canadians, to orient them to a vital part of the psychology of their new home, and Canadians from families that have been here for generations, to remind us of just how lucky we are to have our lakes. It's a worthwhile read for others, too; I'd wager a guess that not a few Americans understand how wonderful a Canadian lake is, or have a special American lake of their own. As a primer for anyone interested in Canada or travelling to visit us, one could do far worse. It's a uniquely Canadian book, but I think its appeal is wider.

Longtime readers know I don't normally highlight causes here, but the Canadian government has decided we don't need to bother with lake research in this country any more, which is completely baffling. They are shutting down the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area to "save money" (it will cost several billion dollars to shut them down properly) and we will lose a vital part of our scientific, and dare I say, cultural heritage. Be aware.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern

The Night Circus
by Erin Morganstern
Doubleday Canada, 2010
385 pages

What a lovely, lovely book. I have this thing against fantasy gone mainstream bestseller. I'm always delighted to see it happen, because I'm always happy to see people reading fantasy. But I've also always found that, to my dismay, the fantasy book that makes it big rarely makes me a happy reader. The few I've read just don't grab me; perhaps I expect too much of them. They seem bland, formulaic, and only occasionally very well written.

The Night Circus bucked the trend. It's definitely a fantasy, and it was reviewed glowingly in The Globe and Mail, and I was seeing it all over the place for a while. So I was leery. But the things Robert J. Wiersma said in his review were perfectly targeted to exactly me as a reader, so I had to give it a try.

The whole experience of reading this book is rather dreamlike. I think it's because it's written in the present tense, which threw me for a few minutes (I feel like normally I would be obliged to hate this) and then ceased to matter. But that choice means that, particularly as the circus comes into being, it does read like a dream. A wonderful dream, a complicated dream, a sometimes scary dream, but the sort of complicated, beautiful dream everyone hopes to have when they lay down for the night. It's also a puzzle, with the pieces falling into place slowly and carefully. Things that are hinted at near the beginning start to take on greater and greater importance; my favourite example is the way reading, books, and most especially stories all gain importance as the tale moves along.

If I had one small complaint, it was that while some characters leap off the pages with their quirks and desires, others remain thin or distant, even those who aren't supposed to; I loved Poppet and Widget, for example, and Bailey worked well for me, but Marco, though he was one of the leads, remained a bit of a cipher though I can't quite say why. I think I enjoyed the sections written from Cecelia's perspective better, which might have caused distance between Marco and I. Otherwise, I thought the writing was excellent, as evinced by the fact that I couldn't dump the book despite my initial reaction to its tense. The story is interesting, creative, and enchanting.

I would dare one to read this and not want to find the Night Circus, just once, and step inside its black and white gates to stare at the clock, get some popcorn and cider, and lose oneself in the dream.