52 weeks – 30 December, 2012

Book

Flight Behavior coverHaving enjoyed The Lacuna so much back in September, I was keen to read Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behavior. The setting and the characters are entirely different, but once again you are quickly immersed in a believable world. This time, Kingsolver gives us  the lives of poor farm families living in her native Appalachia (specifically, rural Tennessee) and the life-changing disruptions they experience after the outside world descends on them.

Dellarobia Turnbow is a young woman living a stifling life with her unimaginative husband Cub and their two children. Cub is willing to have his life controlled by his parents Bear and Hester; Dellarobia is less so but she goes with the flow for a number of years until she can no longer tolerate it.

In the early chapters, Dellarobia’s day-to-day life is pieced together like a quilt: childcare, work on the farm, dealing with her sharp-tongued mother-in-law, finding bargains at the outlet and second-time-around stores.  She finds Cub’s slowness and his acceptance of the limitations of their lives frustrating. Her one relief is getting together with her friend from high school, Dovey:

Dovey lived ten minutes away in a duplex owned by her brother in what passed for suburban Feathertown. This morning, she’d helped Dellarobia knock off a pile of year-end tax documents and two loads of laundry, with more to go, plus the deconstruction of the weird Christmas tree, which made the kids whiny …

Suddenly, Cub was at the back door, calling out from the kitchen. “Hon, do you know where my keys are at?”

Dellarobia bugged her eyes at the mirror. “No more sex till he quits ending every sentence with a preposition.”

Dovey crooned, “Do you know where my truck keys are at, bitch?”

“What’s funny?” he asked from the bedroom doorway. His face was unreadable, backlit as he was from the bright living room, but Dellarobia could see in his posture the reluctance to enter their zone. Cub was a little afraid of Dovey and herself in tandem, a fact she felt bad about but would never change. Their communal disloyalties were like medicine: bitter and measured, life-prolonging.

“You going over to Bear and Hester’s?” she asked. His key ring was on the dresser. She reached to toss them and he caught them out of the air one-handed, chank. He was surprisingly coordinated for someone who moved through the world as if underwater.

Dellarobia is the first to witness a fiery miracle that turns out to be millions of monarch butterflies changing their overwintering habitat owing to changes attributed to global warming. She seizes the opportunity to learn when scientists arrive on their doorstep and the biologist, Ovid Byron, puts her to work. He also, not surprisingly, starts to figure largely in her fantasies.

Kingsolver’s Author’s Note gives us information about the facts that inspired the background of the novel:

In February 2010, an unprecedented rainfall brought down mudslides and catastrophic flooding on the Mexican mountain town of Angangueo. Thirty people were killed and thousands lost their homes and livelihoods. To outsiders, the town was mainly known as the entry point for visitors to the spectacular colonies of monarch butterflies that overwinter nearby. The town is rebuilding, and the entire migratory population of North American monarchs still returns every autumn to the same mountaintops in central Mexico. The sudden relocation of these overwintering colonies to southern Appalachia is a fictional event that has occurred only in the pages of this novel.

Solar coverCoincidentally, the next book to hand also has global warming as a background theme — Solar, by Ian McEwan.

McEwan’s characters are often unlikeable but the richness of detail makes them three-dimensional and believable. Michael Beard is a physicist: he is a womanizer, a Nobel Prize winner, overweight, amoral, quick-witted. After becoming the head of the National Centre for Renewable Energy on the outskirts of Reading in England, Beard is coasting. He is sidetracked into concentrating on wind turbines for domestic use, although he is not excited about the project. He is resentful that his post-docs do not seem as respectful as they should be:

In all this time, not one of the six post-docs moved on to a better-paid job at Caltech or MIT. In a field crammed with prodigies of all sorts, their CVs were exceptional. For a long while Beard, who always had face-recognition problems, especially with men, could not, or chose not to, tell them apart. They ranged in age from twenty-six to twenty-eight and all stood above six feet. Two had ponytails, four had identical rimless glasses, two were called Mike, two had Scots accents, three wore coloured string around their wrists, all wore faded jeans and trainers and tracksuit tops …

And none of these young men appeared as much in awe of Michael Beard, Nobel laureate, as he thought they should. Clearly, they knew of his work, but in meetings they referred to it in passing, parenthetically, in a dismissive mumble, as though it had long been superseded, when in fact the opposite was true, the Beard-Einstein Conflation was in all the textbooks, unassailable, experimentally robust …

But it was worse than that. Some of the physics which they took for granted was unfamiliar to him. When he looked it up at home, he was irritated by the length and complexity of the calculations. He liked to think he was an old hand and knew his way around string theory and its major variants. But these days there were simply too many add-ons and modifications.

After a series of events including a domestic tragedy, Beard starts to use the work of one of the post-docs as his own. It’s all about solar energy now, specifically photosynthesis, and Beard works towards putting on a convincing demonstration in New Mexico. But past events, a lifetime of making bad health choices, and a lifetime of making bad choices in his private life are coming back to haunt him. It’s an entertaining read, with some compelling and convincing scientific background and lots of examples of the ways in which humans mess up for reasons of greed.

Food

Raspberry macaronsThe most heavenly sweet treats I have had lately are the macarons from Thomas Haas. It’s hard to pick a favourite flavour, but I think raspberry is the current front runner. Intense raspberry butter cream sandwiched between light almond meringues — a blissful combination.

Movie

Broken Wings DVD coverBroken Wings is an Israeli-made movie about a family coming to grips with the loss of its husband and father. The mother, Dafna, works hard at a local hospital and unintentionally neglects her children. The older son, Yair, has dropped out and spends his days wandering around town in a mouse costume, presumably being paid to advertize a restaurant. 17-year-old Maya is a singer/composer. She hopes to get a hearing from a talent scout but is constantly being called on to look after her younger siblings, Ido and Bahr. The family is deeply dysfunctional and it seems inevitable that disaster will strike again soon.

It takes a close brush with tragedy to change anything, but the family does cohere better by the end of the film.

Refreshingly, the characters are ordinary-looking, with an absence of Hollywood glitz and veneer. There is an attraction between Dafna (Orly Silbersatz Banai) and Dr. Valentin Friedman (Vladimir Friedman) and it appears they may share more of a relationship in the future but  there is no speedy romance — again, non-Hollywood, which is all to the good.

52 weeks – 7 October, 2012

book

The second part of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Laguna is so different from the first that it seems as though it ought to be clearly labelled a sequel.

In the earlier part, Fletcher is depicted growing up with his feckless mother in Mexico, moving from place to place, and finding positions first in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and then with Lev Trotsky. The text is lavishly sprinkled with Mexican words and Frida Kahlo’s version of English is gloriously mangled. The world is colourful.

In the second part, Fletcher makes his rather grey, adult life in the US after the death of his American father. At first, he succeeds as a writer and it seems as though this lonely character has found a suitable niche. But he is living in the US during the McCarthy era and he comes to the attention of government agents. His former associations are taken as clear evidence of Communist sympathies.

Here, there is another lacuna: missing notebooks that could be used against Fletcher. It is also the gap between truth and reputation. Kingsolver delivers a frightening portrait of a net closing in around Fletcher, where wild accusations are given the weight of truth and the words of a character in one of his books are repeated endlessly as his own, supposedly treasonous, view. How can a modern country be gripped by such hysteria? Well — looking at some of the news coverage of US politicians over the past decade — only too easily, it appears, and it is still possible for accusations without a shred of hard evidence to be taken as truth by those who are receptive.

His secretary, Mrs. Violet Brown, a simple, straightforward woman who becomes deeply loyal to her employer, narrates much of the second part of the book. Her old fashioned American small town colloquialisms (“My stars,” “Fiddlesticks,” “Mr. Fletcher, how be ye?”) are perfectly rendered.

food

October brings a three-course fixed price special dinner to the Salmon House. For dessert, I had the Floating Island, a heavenly confection of lightly poached meringue on créme anglaise with little puddles of dulce de leche in it. It was so good, I could have licked the plate.

movie

Saw Rust and Bone at the Vancouver Film Festival. Before going, I knew only that it was by a French director, Jacques Audiard, and it starred the wonderful Marion Cotillard.

The move is powerful and, most of the time, unpredictable. Cotillard and her co-star, Matthias Schoenaerts, are an unlikely pair. He makes a precarious living: he does odd jobs to support his young son and does no-holds-barred street fighting to make more money; she is a killer whale trainer. You’re left off balance by the twists and turns of their relationship and the events of their lives. A brilliant, disturbing film.

52 weeks – 30 September, 2012

book

Listened to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, read by the author. I didn’t notice who the reader was at first, but I noticed how careful she was to enunciate clearly — almost too carefully, as if English were not her first language. But by the end of the first disk I had adjusted to the slow pace and careful pronunciation and started to rather like it. There are a lot of Mexican words, but you can usually guess what they mean from the context.

The way Kingsolver reads is a fitting counterpart to the way she writes. Her use of language is uniquely fresh — never for a moment does she resort to cliché.

25 August

Today begins the year of all suffering at the School of Cretins, Deaf-Mutes, and Boys of Bad Character on Avenida Puig. The classroom is like a prison hall full of writhing convicts, its iron-barred windows set high along one wall. Small boys and monkeys for pupils. No one else there could be fourteen or anything near it, they’re the size of baboons. The Holy Virgin feels very sorry but remains outside, on her cement pedestal in the small tidy garden. She has sent her son Jesus in with the other wretches, and he can’t flee either. He is pegged to his cross on the wall, dying all the day, rolling his eyes behind the back of the Señora Bartolome, even He can’t stand the look of her clay-pipe legs and those shoes.

She teaches one subject only: “Extricta Moralidad!” The tropical climate inclines young persons of Mexican heritage to moral laxity, she says.

Señora Bartolome, perdon. We are at an elevation of 2,300 meters above sea level, so it isn’t tropical, strictly speaking. The average monthly temperature ranges from twelve to eighteen degrees Centigrade. It’s from the Geographical Atlas.

Punished for insolence. Bad Character accomplished, the first day of term. Tomorrow perhaps, Deaf-Mute. After that one could aspire to Cretin.

The Lacuna is the story of the life and times of Harrison Fletcher, who spends several periods of his early life in Mexico and later lives in the U.S. (He has a Mexican mother and a “gringo” father.) The history of the two countries in the Thirties through to the Second World War forms the backdrop of the first part of the novel. Fictionalized historic figures appear: Fletcher spends time in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and is a secretary to Trotsky. Even though we are reading fictionalized history, Kingsolver makes us realize how much of a lacuna — a gap, something that is missing — there is between events and the memory of them, particularly when events become history with all the filtering and shading that happens as history is written.

Kingsolver herself says,

This novel about memory, history, American political identity, privacy, celebrity, gossip and truth, I had contemplated for decades … It is without doubt the most difficult and satisfying work I’ve done.

more …

food

Sushi and shrimp/scallop skewers at Deep Cove Osaka.

TV series

Parade’s End. Oh dear: I was so sure I was going to love Parade’s End. But love has not blossomed after watching the first two episodes. Probably I should watch a couple more episodes before coming to hasty conclusions. It didn’t help that the sound was somewhat murky on the recording.

It has such promise. Ford Madox Ford’s story is one of moral struggle. The adaptation is by Tom Stoppard. Benedict Cumberbatch does a fine job of stiff integrity and conservatism as John Tietjens. So far, I am finding Rebecca Hall a bit over the top in the role of his selfish and shallow wife and Adelaide Clemens just too young and naive as his platonic love interest. But I want to like it. So I will continue watching.