"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Unexploded: Enough to Put You off WWII Novels

One should never say that there have been too many books about anything, but after reading Unexploded by Alison MacLoed I've been seriously considering calling for a moratorium on WWII novels.

I approached this book about life in Brighton in the months after Dunkirk with good expectations, thinking that MacLoed was part some how of Alistair MacLoed's clan.  And while she certainly is his kin in the grand scheme of Scottish affairs, her novel is orders of magnitude less interesting than other books by clan members.

The pedestrian story--kids who admire Hitler, a middle class woman who falls in love with a Jewish enemy alien, her Mosley-loving husband, their char with a heart of gold--has little new in it.  More importantly, the story is not told in a way that adds anything to our understanding of the period or of the human condition.

MacLoed and her editors are also extremely sloppy. How can you trust a book that  has a major character thinking about getting penicillin to cure a dental abcess and taking some parcetemol to counter the pain even thoug neither drug was available commercially until after the War? 

How it made the 2013 Man Booker long list is beyond me!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

1491: Before the Columbian Exchange

What was it like in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans?  Comments have been frequent over the years, but 1491: New Revelatons of the Americas before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann   is perhaps the most interesting.

Mann is a journalist, but he is far more erudite than most and he writes orders of magnitude better than any academic.  This means that he is able to handle mountains of scientific studies and hours of interviews to present a fascinating and surprising picture of what the New World was like before the 15th century wave of European exploration. 

First of all, he says, it wasn't a New World at all.  People had been in North and South America for up to 30,000 years or more, and in a few places had invented cities at the same time or even before people in the Near East had settled down in permanent villages.  Nor were there only a few of them: estimates now are that 40 million people lived on the two continents.  Certainly the very first Europeans commented again and again on how populated the country was, even the  Amazon basin. 

What happened shortly afterwards was nearly complete decimation of the population through disease.  Mann says that calculations of a 90 per cent die-off of the many and varied native groups are not far-fetched. 

This was great tragedy for the people involved, but also for the entire world, he writes. 


"Having grown speately for millennia the Ameicas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams stories, philosophies, relgions, moralities, discoveries and all the other produc5w of the mind.  Few thing aremore sublime or characrerically human that the cross fertlizatoon of cultures.  The simple discovery by Europe of the existence of the Americas caused an intellectural ferment.  How much grander would have been the tumult if Indian societies has survived in full splendor? 

"Here and there we see clues to what might have been.  Pacific Northwest Indian artists carved beautiful masks, boxes, bas reliefs and totem powles within the dictates of an elaborat aesthetic system based on an ovoid shape that has no name in European langauges.  Britsh ships in the nineteenth century radically transformed native art by giving he Indians brightly coloured paints that unlike native pgiments didn't wash off in the rain.  Indians incorporated the new peigments into their traditionns, expanding them and in the process creating an aestic nouvelle vague.  European surrealists came acoss the new art in the first years of the twentieth century.  As artist swill, they stole everthing could, transfiguring the images further.  Their interest helped a new generation of indigenous artist to explore new themes.

"Now envision this kind of a  fertile back and forth happening in a hundred ways with a hundred cultures--the gifts from four centuries of intellectual exchange.  One can hardly imagine anything more valuable  Think of the fruitful impact on Europe and its descendants from contacting Asia.  Imagine the effect on these places and people from a second Asia.  Along with the unparalleled loss of life, that is what vanished...."

Mann has written a second, somewhat less successful book,  1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created .  He also is a little constrained in both books by his seeming lack of knowledge of French and Portuguese--most of his examples are drawn from English and Spanish sources or experts.  But this is a book that should be read by anyone trying to tease apart where we are now.  His sections on agriculture in Amazonia and the Peruvian deserts are particularly relevant since they show glimpses of how human intervention can lead to a long term, sustainable relation to nature.

The photo, by the way, is of the Madre de Dios river in Peru, a tributary of the Amazon.  Much has changed along it, as I found when I was in South America last year.  This book, which I had read before but have just returned to, has been an eye-opener for me as I try to make sense of what I saw.  



Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Odor of Coffee: Dany Laferrière and Science

The coffee's dripping and I'm thinking about how good it smells.  Since last night one of my library discussion groups talked about Dany Laferrière's The Return, the work of this Haitian-Québécois member of the Académie française is on my mind.

The verdict about Laferrière's novel about a man's return to Haiti to scatter his father's ashes was not clear.  Some loved it, others found it too scattered.  Much more successful, I think, is his account of a period spent with his grandmother as a 10 year old, The Aroma of Coffee.

Reading this is pure pleasure, both for the descriptions of life in a Haitian village and for the strong portrait of a grandmother who cares for her sick grandson with love and firmness.  She also makes a terrific cup of coffee.  As is the case for many writers, Laferrière spent a time of enforced isolation as a pre-adolescent, and then was faced with integrating into a wider world rather suddenly.  In his case, it was a fever that kept him inactive and allowed him to read a lot.  When he was better, he went back to Haiti's main city Port-au-Prince where he found a swirling world that he had to make sense of.

The book is not an auto-fiction.  That is Laferrière uses elements from his own life, but transforms them to make something that is art, not life.  (In fact, he spent a much longer time  with his grandmother, and he returned to the capital at an older age.) The result is very much worth reading.

So is The Return, for that matter, particularly if you haven't read much Laferrière because he returns to many themes he's written about earlier, but refined them here.  If  you have followed his career, you might find it verging on the same old, same old. 

Both books were translated by David Homel, who does a terrific job. 

And as for the great attraction of coffee, The New York Times has an interesting story today that explains how the ability to make caffeine evolved in coffee trees as a double-whammy tool for the plant's survival.  In large amounts, as when coffee leaves fall to the ground and degrade, caffeine prevents other plants from germinating and competing with the tres.  But in small amounts, as in the nectar of coffee flowers, the chemical gives pollinating insects a little buzz that encourages them to return to the flowers.

Same thing for us, I guess.  The smell of coffee is divine and the small energy hit of one cup is great, but too much can give you palpitations or worse.

Okay, I've finished my cup.  Quite procrastinating on the Net and get to work....