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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

August 28, 2010 6 comments

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kinsolver, Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

For a French, food is a serious thing. When you come back from a trip abroad, people anxiously ask you “How was the food?” and the degree of anxiety varies according to the country you were visiting. So I was interested in Barbara Kingsolver’s book on her experience of being “locavore”. This word means that you only eat food which has been produced close to your home.  

For her family, it has been a radical change in their every day life as they moved out from Tucson, Arizona to Virginia, in the farm they already used as second home. Country life instead of city life. The family is composed of Barbara Kingsolver, her daughters Camille (18) and Lily (9) and her husband Steven L. Hopp.

Their challenge was to spend a whole year eating the food they would either produce themselves or buy locally from trustworthy farmers. The book is the story of this challenge,  Barbara Kingsolver mostly wrote it but informative articles from Steven are inserted in her text and some chapters end with Camille telling her feelings about the experiment and giving recipes.  

Of Barbara Kingsolver I know nothing except that I like her books a lot. Through them, I imagined someone very tolerant, respectful of nature and other cultures. I felt someone in peace with herself. I wasn’t far off the mark but I wasn’t aware that she was a skilled gardener. So I expected to read of agricultural catastrophes and funny adventures with poultry. But this is not chick lit about naïve urban Bobos returning to country life, working in fields with high heels and meeting hostile local farmers. In fact, this family had already had a kitchen garden and chickens in Tucson, which sounds a little eccentric, by Western standards of urban life. They had a solid knowledge of farming.  

Their project starts in March, with a family meeting, whose purpose is to write their first shopping list with only local products. Each person was entitled to choose one good coming from outside the area: for example, Steven chose coffee.  Two apparently insuperable problems arose: vinaigrette and mayonnaise. Barbara Kingsolver said she would make her own dressing and would try to make mayonnaise, as she had heard it was not so difficult. That sounded quite revolutionary to her and quite revolutionary to me that it could be revolutionary at all.  

The chapters follow one another, describing the seeds, the crops, the pleasure to cook one’s own food without hiding that this kitchen garden of 1000 m² requires a LOT of work and an awful lot of time wearing mudded boots and cutting vegetables. Barbara Kingsolver loves gardening, browsing seeds catalogues and growing half-forgotten sorts of vegetables. Camille is fond of cooking. Lily loves hens and is in charge of the henhouse and the eggs production.  

This book is an ode to nature with its joyful descriptions of vegetables and to rural way of life. It alternates between the family story and serious and documented information on the food market and production in the USA and its lobbies.  I loved the passage about turkey reproduction and zukini overproduction time – the only time of the year when inhabitants lock their cars and homes, fearing to find free zukinis in it when they come back as everyone tries to get rid of their zukini overproduction. 

It is also a plea to change our habits, for our health and the future of our planet. She praises home made dishes and family dinners, a time and place to share how everyone’s day was. She also tries to promote rural life. Of course, she can afford this way of life as her job allows it. Someone working full time for a company can’t have two months of summer holiday to crop vegetables and make tomato sauce jars for the coming winter. Her purpose is educational. She doesn’t want people to massively quit cities and stettle in the country. She just wishes that people hear another song that the one coming from major food companies.  

I’m sure you wonder “What about the mayonnaise?” – and if you don’t, I’ll tell you anyway. In the last chapter, we learn she never dared try making one. I can’t imagine what is so difficult about it.

I read this book with pleasure, learnt details about the American way of life and society but nothing major as I was already interested in the topic. Will I change something in my habits after this book ? I already practise a lot of what she preaches as I don’t buy ready-cooked dishes and we have a family dinner every night. I have admiration for their experiment and respect for their way of life and but I’m far too urban to be able to live that way. I hate gardening, rooting out weeds bores me and the idea of spending an afternoon “cropping” (as she says) chickens and turkeys doesn’t sound appealing at all. My idea of gardening is sitting on a deck chair with a fascinating book and watch butterflies as I turn pages.

 For further information on their project, book references or recipes, click here.

Madame Swann at home

August 23, 2010 7 comments

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, Part I by Marcel Proust.

I have read the first part of In the Shadow of Young Girls In Flower, Madame Swann at Home, and will start the second part soon. Thankfully, I have found an English translation online, which is of course much better for quotes than the clumsy translations I could have done. This post contains spoilers about the plot, and I feel comfortable with this as I don’t think one reads Proust for the plot. 

Now, the Narrator, Marcel, is a young man. He has just finished school and needs to choose a carrier. He still lives at his parents’, but is free to go and see whoever he wants. He has inherited from his Aunt Léonie and has the liberty to spend his money according to his own wishes. Indeed, we see him sell a Chinese vase to get some cash, which makes me think he is over 21, the age of majority in France at that time. So, as Marcel Proust was born in 1871, we are probably now around 1892, in Paris and this book covers 18 month of his life. But I’m not sure, as he acts like a teenager. This first part has four important sections: the narrator in his domestic life and M. de Norpois, the meeting and acquaintance with the writer Bergotte, his relationship with Gilberte and as a background of all these aspects of his life, Madame Swann. 

The beginning is about M de Norpois, a friend of the narrator’s father. This man, a rather old Ambassador he had been working for Napoleon the Third – works with Marcel’s father, who praises himself for the acquaintance. M de Norpois looks ridiculous and old fashioned. The humour Proust puts in his descriptions of this man and his supposedly fine crowd is clear in the following passage :  

In the words of a fine Arab proverb, ‘The dogs may bark; the caravan goes on!’ After launching this quotation M. de Norpois paused and examined our faces, to see what effect it had had upon us. Its effect was great, the proverb being familiar to us already. It had taken the place, that year, among people who ‘really counted,’ of “He who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind,” which was sorely in need of a rest, not having the perennial freshness of “Working for the King of Prussia.” For the culture of these eminent men was an alternate, if not a tripartite and triennial culture.

The French text has an agricultural metaphor/play-on-words, as in French, “culture” is a word used both for “crop” and “culture”. The narrator cannot be but ironic about this man who does not like everything he himself adores : M de Norpois considers that the narrator has no talent for literature, that Bergotte, whom he admires so much is a flawed author and that Madame Swann is not worth knowing.

This part around M de Norpois is the opportunity to describe the evolution of the family life and of the narrator’s activities. Françoise now lives with them in Paris and is still a vivid character. A carrier as a diplomat is what the narrator’s father would have wanted for his son but he acknowledges nothing else will make him happy as devoting himself to literature. So the narrator is officially an aspiring writer. This aspect is not developed in this part, except for his incapacity to concentrate on his work because of his relationship with Gilberte.

 The narrator is introduced to Bergotte at a rather formal luncheon at the Swann’s. He is embarrassed because he does not know how to behave, out of his own social circle and tells it frankly with a hint of self-irony:

“I did as they had done, with the air of spontaneity that a free-thinker assumes in church, who is not familiar with the order of service but rises when everyone else rises and kneels a moment after everyone else is on his knees.”

The meeting was a disappointment for him as he struggles to reconcile the writer with the man who speaks to him. He even thinks his physical appearance does not match at all with the cleverness and sensibility of his books. This conversation is the opportunity to discuss art and Bergotte thinks him intelligent. Proust takes advantage of this passage expose his ideas on the nature of talent, of genius, that I could not sum up here.  

Madame Swann at home.

Throughout the novel are scattered scenes of everyday life at the Swann’s house, as Odette de Crécy is now married to Swann. The narrator calls her Madame Swann as long as his relationship with Gilberte is going on and Odette after they have parted.

Proust describes the Swann’s way of life: the visits, the furniture, the food, Odette’s gowns, her habits. She has eccentric ways for everything: decoration, clothes, language – she uses English words in her French. She is as silly as she was in Swann’s Way but she still attracts men and regards. Proust shows the competition between Odette and Mme Verdurin, as they both hold a salon. The scene when Mme Verdurin comes to visit Odette is so funny! The narrator also tells her efforts to reach higher circles and how Swann deals with the impossibility for his former friends to admit Odette as their own acquaintance. The narrator becomes a frequent visitor to their house and shares their lunches, or diners and activities.

 Gilberte.

The relationship with Gilberte is disconcerting. It has no name. A flirtatious friendship? A chaste love story? The narrator is in love with her and is equally convinced his love is unrequited. Yet, she invites him at her parties and spends a lot of time with him. Marcel never tells her that he loves her, he just assumes that she knows. It’s a bit frustrating for the reader, since we only have his point of view. It seems to me that she does love him, at least at the beginning, and that she got tired to wait for him to make the first step. The scene during which they playfully wrestle is sensual and full of desire on both sides. Actually, she tells him she loves him during their last fight.

 “For a moment I was afraid that she thought that I did not love her, and this was for me a fresh agony, no less keen, but one that required treatment by a different conversational method. “If you knew how much you were hurting me you would tell me.” But this pain which, had she doubted my love for her, must have rejoiced her, seemed instead to make her more angry. Then, realising my mistake, making up my mind to pay no more attention to what she said, letting her (without bothering to believe her) assure me: “I do love you, indeed I do; you will see one day,” (that day on which the guilty are convinced that their innocence will be made clear, and which, for some mysterious reason, never happens to be the day on which their evidence is taken), I had the courage to make a sudden resolution not to see her again, and without telling her of it yet since she would not have believed me.”

 She cares for him exactly at the moment he realizes he has enough strength to leave her. It is noticeable that the translator has chosen “love” and not “like” to translate “aimer”, since there is only one word for both verbs in French. It will be the last time they see each other at this period of their lives because he stubbornly keeps the promise he makes to himself that day, whatever the suffering it will generate. He decides to kill the self who is in love with Gilberte, to be able to move on.

There is a parallel between the two love stories of Swann/Odette and Marcel/Gilberte. Swann’s love for Odette was “no longer operable”. Unlike Swann, Marcel decides to operate himself and relates the operation and his convalescing. Swann suffered for a woman “who wasn’t even his type”, Marcel refused to be a diplomat to stay in Paris near the Gilberte he is now leaving.

His decision not to see her again is at the same time brave and childish. In the end, he never had an open conversation with Gilberte on their mutual feelings, out of shyness probably. This first love is clumsy as often first loves are. The description of his feelings, the waiting for a note, the need to see her and his seeing her mother instead, to hear of her are lucid, clever and tender. Proust has a brilliant way to describe hearts and feelings with realistic details. I have always thought of him as an impressionist writer. The Monet of literature: small touches which, seen as a whole, are as vivid as life and move deeply the reader.

Proust has always touched something very personal in me. It did it the first time I read him. It does it again now. It feels like he has lived in my head for a while and visited it all, even the most remote corners.

For other reviews: here are Richard’s first and second posts on this volume and Max’s first and second posts.

When Lost Time is not searched but stubbornly imposes itself

August 17, 2010 9 comments

Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut.

Kurt Vonnegut openly states that this book is about his experience of WWII. He was a war prisoner working in a slaughterhouse in Dresden when the city was bombed by British and American air forces. He was one of the seven American prisoners who survived. This bombing turned Dresden from a beautiful earthly city to a place looking like moon.

 Can life be more ironic than surviving a massacre thanks to a shelter in a slaughterhouse ?

 The first chapter of the novel is an introduction in which Kurt Vonnegut describes the genesis of this book, published in 1969. He had been struggling to write about the bombing in Dresden for years and explains why the book is dedicated to Gerhard Müller and Mary O’Hare. The first one was the German cab driver he and his war companion Bernard V O’Hare befriended with when visiting Dresden for this book. The latter is O’Hare’s wife, Mary, who was angry that Kurt Vonnegut would write a book about his war experience. She thought it would show war as glamorous and she resented that. Kurt Vonnegut promised her he would not write anything turning this book into a tribute to war. I read this first chapter one night, and in the next morning, powerful as it was, it lingered in my mind. The afternoon on that same day, when visiting an Air and Space Museum, I experienced what Mary O’Hare had feared. The history of aircraft was told in such a way that it shown war as attractive. Almost everything was about war, a little about civil companies and nothing about commercial, humanitarian, or postal aircraft. It struck me as I was starting Slaughterhouse Five, would it have struck me the same way without it ? I’m not sure. Back to the book.

Kurt Vonnegut tells the story of Billy Pilgrim who was sent to WWII as a chaplain’s assistant in 1944 and was a war prisoner in Germany. Like many soldiers, Billy resumed a “normal” life after the war, as anyone expected him to do. He married a rich girl, passed his exam as an optometrist and succeeded in the business. He became rich and was well acquainted and praised by the local bourgeoisie, in Ilium, New York. He would live a humdrum life, but “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” and has spent time on another planet, Tralfalmadore. The Tralfamadorians are a people who observe Earthlings and have a totally different conception of life and time.

  “All moments, past, present and future always have existed, always will exist. (…) They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have on Earth that one moment follows the other one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever”.

There is no need to mourn when someone dies, because the moments where he is alive still exist. In this idea of time, there is no lost time, every moment is permanent. War souvenirs pop up in Billy’s everyday life. Like in Proust, smells, colours, scenes bring him back that Lost Time, except that, contrary to the Narrator in Proust, he would rather not remember. These moments still vividly exist for him.

I was impressed by the style and the construction of this novel and spent some time in dictionaries, looking for words I did not understand, because every word seemed purposely chosen and there to contribute to the story. Vonnegut’s little sentences are walking in line, like obedient soldiers. Precise. Well-ordered. Never stopping. The novel is full of cross-references, which show how Billy’s war time leaks into any moment of his post-war life. Vonnegut uses the technique of repetition for this. I noticed three examples of repetitions, but there are probably more.

The first one is a “striped banner of orange and black”, which is on the train carrying the war prisoners. Later, the tent that Billy’s daughter had for her wedding reception was striped and “The strips were orange and black”. The second one is when Billy walks among other American war prisoners. He sees “corpses with bare feet that were blue and ivory”. This image of blue and ivory bare feet is also used twice to describe Billy’s feet in his home in Ilium and once more for corpses. The third one is a dog barking, first just before Billy is caught by the Germans. “The dog had a voice like a big bronze gong”. Later, this image is used again both for civilian and war time.

 These repetitions create the effect of the flashes which occur in Billy’s mind. We understand that at any time in his everyday life, a word, a sensation can bring him back to war. Like in Tralfamagore, the past moments are not dead, they still live and can be lived again. 

Moreover, to emphasize the number of occasions in which death is involved, every time a death-related word is used, the sentence “So it goes” ends the paragraph. It can be an actual death (someone gets killed) or not (Some champagne without bubbles is described as “dead”). Counting the number of “so it goes” would give the number of times death is involved.

Sometimes, an interruption from the author reminds us that  it is his story too. “I was there. So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare”

In the end, everything fits like a big puzzle. It is wonderfully and cleverly crafted. Besides this extraordinary net of people and feelings, I like Vonnegut’s sense of humour in describing things or people, like for Maggie White :

“She was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies. Men looked at her and wanted to fill her up with babies right away”

 Billy looks like the Candide of Voltaire to me. In English, Candide is categorized as “satire”. In French we say “conte philosophique”, literally “philosophical fairy-tale”. For me, this is how I would call Slaughterhouse Five. It allies the magical elements which are natural in fairy-tales and the philosophical quest and critic of our society. Like Candide, Slaughterhouse Five is built on real historical events. Both characters live through atrocities but take things as they come and look ridiculous. Candide’s optimism is ludicrous and Billy is dressed like a clown. Both have a personal philosophy which is their inner compass. 

In addition, it seems to me that Tralfamagore is a mean to bring to life Bergon’s theory of Duration through science fiction elements (a saucer, aliens, another planet, etc.). I am not educated enough in philosophy to develop fully that idea, but I have the intuition that it is related. Like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Slaughterhouse Five is a thought on Time and Memory. (I’m also reading Proust and I think there is something between Bergson’s theory and Proust too)

And of course, Slaughterhouse Five is known to be an antiwar novel.

It questions the justification of the bombing in Dresden. How Americans relieve their conscience of killing innocent civilians by comparing the number of victims of Dresden to that of the victims from the Nazis. Kurt Vonnegut does not accept the rationalization of this act and its deceptive justification. He still thinks that this bombing was unnecessary to win the war and caused the death of 135,000 persons and destroyed a beautiful city. When Billy leaves from his first war prisoner camp to Dresden, his English co-prisoners tell him he is lucky to be sent there because “You needn’t worry about bombs, by the way. Dresden is an open city. It is undefended, and contains no war industries or troop concentration of any importance”.

In Slaughterhouse Five, all good soldiers and war lovers are dangerous persons in civilian life. For example, among the other American prisoners, Roland Weary is a distasteful and crazy man, whose main interests in life are weapons and torture tools and Paul Lazzaro is obsessed by revenge, and can wait for years before acting. Billy’s own son, a Green Beret during the Vietnam war is described like this:

“This was a boy who had flunked out of high school, who had been an alcoholic at sixteen, who had run with a rotten bunch of kids, who had been arrested for tipping over hundreds of tombstones in a Catholic cemetery one time. He was all straightened out now. His posture was wonderful and his shoes were shined and his trousers were pressed, and he was a leader of men”

In Kurt Vonnegut’s mind, one must be a freak to love war. There is no comradeship between the American war prisoners, something often put forward by former soldiers. The American soldiers are all anti-heroes, poor little human beings and only children.

 There would be a lot more to say about Slaughterhouse Five. I did not relate the criticism of the American society included in this book, through the articles of a character named Campbell. The question of free-will is also important and discussed. I could have written pages about the construction of this novel, but I think this post is long enough.

To conclude, I am indebted to Max Cairnduff from Pechorin’s Journal for giving me the title of this book when I asked for recommendations to discover SF authors. Thanks a lot, I loved it.

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler.

August 13, 2010 10 comments

  The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. Translated by Boris Vian.

  It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.

I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.

 These are the first three paragraphs of The Big Sleep. In three paragraphs, I was in the book, totally caught by Chandler’s style and the essential of the story is already there. A private detective is hired by rich Mr Sternwood and has enough of chivalry to help him on another matter, although his help is not clearly wanted. In between, many adventures happen.

Right from the start, we learn some of the basic traits of Philip Marlowe’s temper. He is utterly professional and chivalrous. He dresses properly to meet a new client and he would have helped the knight of the stained-glass panel, for the sake of the lady in distress. But maybe this knight was purposely slow to spend more time near the lady, who was enjoying his slowness for the same reason and both would have been really put out if someone had taken the initiative to help him. Philip Marlowe wouldn’t have thought of this possibility because he cannot repress the envy to save a damsel in distress.

Being professional and chivalrous seem to be his guidelines: his moral code is built to respect these two principles, even if it means breaking the law.

 …

 Honestly, I’m struggling to write this post, always thinking that I’m either going to state the obvious or write something stupid. 

So I’m going to ask myself the basic question: Did I like this book ? The answer is YES, a thousand times yes. The Big Sleep is the kind of book I would have loved to read without stopping, by a rainy or very cold afternoon, curled up on a sofa with a huge pot of tea near me, if I still had the time to spend such afternoons. I enjoyed Chandler’s style and especially his odd and vivid way to describe people and places. I liked Philip Marlowe, the PI who doesn’t want to get married because he doesn’t like cops’ wives. I’m curious to see how Chandler developed his character in the next novels.

 I want to read more.

 PS : A word about the translation. It’s excellent. I’ve always thought it helped to be translated by an actual writer, I’m not disappointed by Boris Vian. I’ve looked for quotes in English and compared them to the French translation, it’s perfect. Boris Vian managed to be faithful to Chandler and find the appropriate French expressions which give back the atmosphere of the English text.

The Wind-Up Bird never sang to me.

August 7, 2010 10 comments

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, by Haruki Murakami.

 Opening a new book is like opening the door to a new country. Sometimes you fall into that country right from the first page and sometimes you need to walk down a several-pages hall to reach the country. And sometimes you think Daedalus designed the hall and you never reach the promised land. That’s what happened to me with the Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.

The main protagonist of the book is Toru Okada. He’s thirty years old, married six years to Kumiko and unemployed after he quit his job as an assistant in a law firm. He is at home and plays the househusband (I know the word doesn’t exist, what are Anglophone feminists doing?)

He is bored. His life changes as he answers an enigmatic phone call from an unknown woman who seems to know him well. Several new persons enter his life, each of them quite weird. His first-person narrative is interrupted by these people telling their story. A Sheerazade sort of effect. 

 I guess the purpose of the novel was to develop Taru Okada’s character and bring him somewhere. He’s questioning his life but as he’s as swift as a mollusc, I didn’t like him. I don’t have to like the hero to like a book, however, the hero must at least have some consistency. Taru Okada seems so empty! Maybe that’s where Murakami wanted to go. Maybe he needed an empty character to be the recipient of other people’s stories. 

I will never know. 

Unfortunately, I never entered into this book. I thought it well written but so insipid that I stopped reading it at page 275, after the beginning of the second part. I had 600 pages left to read and that was too much. I was taking it reluctantly, I had to read a few pages back to remember where I was before going on and I couldn’t remember the name of the hero. All bad signs that yell “stop reading”.  

I’m disappointed, as I liked Kafka on the Shore. Maybe I’ll try another Murakami another time and I’ll try to find bloggers’ reviews before choosing it. 

Now, I’m reading The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler and after a three-paragraphs threshold, he swallowed in his world. Promising.

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