Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Monday, January 27, 2014

"Flight Behavior"

As a Barbara Kingsolver fan, I don't know why it took me so long to get to reading her latest book, Flight Behavior. I found it completely enjoyable. I even liked the slightly over-the-top rants about environmental destruction. I liked the way some of her characters -- especially the central character, Dellarobia -- view the selfishly motivated interests that encourage doubters and science-haters. I appreciated the sympathetic creation of characters with several different points of view and different social status, and how she depicts their interactions. I would encourage my book club to select this book, but I think it exceeds our maximum length requirement.

The book's setting is in rural Tennessee, near a small town where almost all the businesses have folded, and where many people's skills at making or selling things have been rendered obsolete by cheap imports from China and other aspects of globalization. Dellarobia's late father had been a skilled woodworker, making beautiful toys, furniture, and Christmas ornaments. Her late mother had been a tailor and seamstress, whose beautifully crafted women's suits still showed their quality when they appeared in second-hand junk stores years after she had made them. No one any longer valued skills like theirs. Does this all sound too pat? Kingsolver makes you totally understand how this all affected Dellarobia and the people around her.

I guess creating a sympathetic and intelligent woman character who grows up with little opportunity to use her intellect is a really big Kingsolver talent. Dellarobia is a young mother whose college hopes had been destroyed by the death of her parents and by her teenage pregnancy and consequent marriage. Her efforts to be a competent wife, mother, daughter-in-law, raiser of sheep, and aide to a scientist (as well as several other efforts) are depicted in a fascinating way. She learns, and we get to see her learn, through her relationship with her very bright kindegarten-age son, her not-so-bright husband, and her cold and unforgiving in-laws, and by her employment as an aide in a science laboratory. Her religious faith is depicted in a fascinating way as well.

Kingsolver's descriptions of masses of
monarchs was vivid, but I looked up this
photo to help my visualization.
The events that Kingsolver uses to bring her ecological message home involve the arrival at Dellarobia's farm of a huge mass of lost monarch butterflies, whose normal migration patterns have been disrupted by various ecological and climate disasters. These beautiful insects are threatened with extinction. (Although in reality, there was a terrible flood in the monarch's normal home in Mexico, their unusual arrival in Tennessee is Kingsolver's invention.)

Soon TV news crews, a group of scientific experts, a variety of tourists, and members of political groups appear at Dellarobia's property to see the butterflies, study the butterflies, or create some type of story about them. Out of this set of circumstances, Kingsolver weaves what I find to be a wonderful tale.

I recognize that there are many choices in this work of fiction that would lead some readers to doubt how convincing it was, but I enjoyed it all -- except, unfortunately, I found the ending somewhat unsatisfying.

Date read: January 27.

UPDATE, Jan. 29: I just read an article about the actual crash in numbers of the monarchs in Mexico, just as the book described, even including the reaction of guides who had once shown the masses of butterflies to tourists. The decline is attributed to "the displacement of the milkweed the species feeds on by genetically modified crops and urban sprawl in the United States, as well as the dramatic reduction of the butterflies’ habitat in Mexico due to illegal logging of the trees they depend on for shelter." -- Washington Post: Monarch butterflies drop, migration may disappear.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ducks on a cold day

Golden Eye Ducks on one of the remaining open water areas of
the Huron River near Nichols Arboretum
Canvas Back Duck on open water in Huron River
Len's photos

Friday, January 24, 2014

Notes on Food Memoirs

The first food memoir?
I suspect that the first food memoir might be The Physiology of Taste: or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (born 1755), notably translated by M.F.K. Fisher. Brillat-Savarin's memoir is famous for originating the expression "you are what you eat," as well as for the aphorism "The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star."

I have enjoyed reading food memoirs for many years, perhaps beginning with A.J.Liebling's memoir Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris and Orwell's memoir of being Down and Out in Paris and London. Early in my food reading experience, I thoroughly enjoyed Calvin Trillin's many memoirs in the New Yorker and in book form -- often also about dining in France. Also, I loved several books about about life in the wider Mediterranean region: an older memoir titled Honey from a Weed and several memoirs by Mary Taylor Simeti, an American who married a Sicilian and has lived there for years.

Two books about becoming a chef especially interested me, the stories of Marcus Samuelsson and Jacques Pépin. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, was adopted by a Swedish family, trained in various parts of Europe, and is now an American celebrity chef (blogged here: "Yes, Chef"). Pépin was one of the last generation to experience the completely traditional chef's apprenticeship beginning at the age of 14; he also ended up in America (blogged here: "The Apprentice").

Recently, I read Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen. Sort of a tour-de-force, it manages to present the history of Russia just before, during, and after Communism through a selection of typical meals that might have been served each decade of the 20th century (blogged here: Cuisine without Food). And for a completely different cultural milieu: Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey describes the girlhood in India of this famous woman who has been highly successful both as an actress and a cookbook author (blogged here: "Climbing the Mango Trees").

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other food memoirs, and many lists of favorites from many sources such as 50 from Abe Books or over 700 from Goodreads. Here is my choice of memoirs among which I think we could pick one that would be enjoyable for our book club this year:
  • Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen -- most  highly recommended.
  • Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling
  • Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
  • Alice, Let's Eat by Calvin Trillin
  • Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia by Patience Gray
  • Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood by Mary Taylor Simeti
  • Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl (note: we read the first of this series, Tender at the Bone, several years ago)
  • Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
  • The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin
  • Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey
I'm simultaneously posting this on my food blog.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Notes on Novels (Part 3)

Reading two more of Gabi's proposed books for my book club.
See below for one long and one short review.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
This interesting novel begins at a photo exhibition in 1966. The narrator, Kate, and her husband are viewing portraits by Walker Evans, taken years earlier with a hidden camera on the subways of New York. The book itself includes no reproductions of the works, but I looked it up. Of course they are compelling.
Some of Walker Evans' Subway Portraits: 1938-1941 (Source)
At the exhibit, Kate sees two photos of a man she once knew, Tinker Grey, and begins a memoir of the year 1938, during which she had a complicated relationship with him. Of course Kate and Tinker are both fiction, though the photos really exist.

Among other things, the book is very visually oriented. Tinker Grey is a wealthy banker, while his brother is an impoverished painter trying to capture some element of the reality of urban New York life, from the jazz scene to the lives of the down-and-out. The artist brother owns a number of works by Stuart Davis, whose style I think he's supposed to imitate. I wish the book had included some reproductions!

 Stuart Davis: Abstraction, 1937, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Although I found the book quite readable, I'm afraid that I don't think author Amor Towles lived up to his goal of re-creating the life of a young woman in the New York 1938 world of publishing, high and low society, jazz clubs, funky diners, former speakeasies, delis, automats, fine restaurants and hotel dining rooms, doorman-guarded apartment buildings with private catering staffs, and fast company. In some ways the descriptions of all these New York 1930s places and characters seem a little too iconic, too perfectly compliant with the stereotypes of that era. A few contrasting scenes in wealthy families' country retreats with 20 bedrooms and luxurious living areas seem even more remote and stereotyped. Though there are many period-evoking descriptions, ultimately I think Kate's sensibilities were more representative of the 21st century than of 1938.

The NY Times Review puts it this way: "With this snappy period piece, Towles resurrects the cinematic black-and-white Manhattan of the golden age of screwball comedy, gal-pal camaraderie and romantic mischief .... With Katey, we travel by cab and watch Broadway 'slipping by the windows like a string of lights being pulled off a Christmas tree,' or see limousines idling in front of the 21 Club, smoke spiraling from their tailpipes 'like genies from a bottle.' These pages prompt recollections of movie scenes stamped so deeply on the psyche that they feel remembered: elevated trains, Carole Lombard and Jimmy Stewart, smoky jazz clubs and men in fedoras. To call such images clichéd would be to call youth clichéd, to call Manhattan itself a cliché."

The character Tinker Grey, a man who created a very different identity for himself than the one he inherited from his family, is depicted in contrast with the upper class men and women who live very much in their society milieu. His life is also shown in comparison with the narrator's own struggle to define and improve her own situation: she was the child of Russian immigrants from a lower class neighborhood. In the course of the year 1938 she overcomes her background and makes it in the competitive world of publishing.  Tinker and Kate are also shown in contrast to Eve, a character who comes to New York to escape a rich family from the midwest, has a kind of fling with Tinker, and who eventually runs away from Tinker and from New York itself. A somewhat less-well-developed character named Anne Grandin is in the background of every essential event in the book. In the end, the story that emerges about their personalities and interactions has some rough edges when it comes to plausibility. But it still does read well.

Date read: January 21

Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan
This will be a very short review to follow the pretty long one. Bad Things Happen is a mystery story set in Ann Arbor, that is, all around me. Our local restaurants, bars, streets, neighborhoods, campus buildings, shopping centers, city hall, and highway locations all play a role in the story -- even Borders' Books and the Ann Arbor News, which have both disappeared since the book was published. Though the book starts out a bit slowly, the last 50 pages or so are really suspenseful with lots of surprises, so it's a satisfactory mystery, well crafted. It might make a fun read for book club, especially because of the setting.

Date read: January 23

Monday, January 20, 2014

Notes on Novels (Part 2)

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Both of these novels are works of a great imagination, illustrated with bizarre images from old photos that the author and people he knows have collected. The author uses the no-doubt manipulated images, reproduced throughout both books, in an enormously effective way.

Peculiar children, the books show, each have a special capability, such as Olive, the child taken from the photo on the front of the first book, who levitates uncontrollably, just floating upward unless she wears extra-heavy shoes or is held by a tether. She's often controlled by Bronwyn, whose talent is extraordinary strength. On their adventures in both books, the girls are accompanied by a girl who can make fire with her hands; a boy who keeps bees in his stomach and expels them when needed; a boy who is totally invisible unless he is wearing clothes; a pair of inseparable blind twins who echolocate like bats, and a number of others. They learn to turn their abilities into more than a curiosity as the books go forward.

Both volumes are narrated by Jacob Portman who started in the first volume as an ordinary boy growing up in Florida, but learned of his peculiar talent when his grandfather suddenly died. Jacob has always known his grandfather was unusual, but grandfather's death at the hands of a horrendous monster shows Jacob his own talent: he can sense the presence of such monsters. And suddenly the horror stories he thought his grandfather had made up, and the peculiar photos his grandfather had shown him when he was young and, as he later thought, gullible, have a whole new meaning. After his grandfather's death, Jacob follows some hints his injured grandfather gave and meets Miss Peregrine, a shape-changing bird-woman, and the peculiar children under her care.

Jacob and the peculiar children engage in a kind of time-travel, mainly from the present twenty-first century in Florida and on a mysterious island in Wales to the early days of World War II when the Nazis were bombing England. Most of the second volume is an story of dread as they flee both the Nazi bombs and the monsters that prey on peculiar children and their bird-women caregivers. Throughout both volumes, Jacob and his friends learn more and more about the long history of "peculiars," for instance interestingly meeting a Gypsy band who have always been somehow allied with the peculiars as they are both persecuted for their differences. And sometimes the supernatural monsters disguise themselves as Nazis or policemen or other authority figures.

World War II thus is clearly chosen as the setting for a reason, summarized at the beginning of the first book. His grandfather's history began in Poland, where he was the only one of his Jewish family to escape: "He never saw his mother of father again, or his older brothers, his cousins, his aunts and uncles. Each one would be dead before  his sixteenth birthday, killed by the monsters he had so narrowly escaped. But these weren't the kind of monsters that had tentacles and rotting skin, ... they were monsters  with human faces, in crisp uniforms, marching in lockstep, so banal you don't recognize them for what they are until it's too late." (p. 21)

Ransom Riggs to my knowledge hasn't announced how many sequels about Miss Peregrine, Jacob, and the peculiar children he plans to write. Each of these two books ends in a kind of cliff-hanger -- almost literally in the first one. Miriam and I have been waiting since last spring for Hollow City to be published, which just happened last week. I hope Riggs can keep writing suspenseful, attention-grabbing sequels as long as he wants to -- though based on other series books, that seems a lot to hope for.

Dates I read these books: last spring and January 19.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Visitor from the Tundra

Snowy owls are visiting the US in large numbers this year.
We found this one in a field outside Grass Lake, MI.
After sitting for a while, the owl flew up in the air, showing its magnificent white wings
against the dark trees. I found it rather thrilling! But we didn't get a photo of it flying.
From the car, I watched Len taking the top photo.
Definitely a relative of Harry Potter's Hedwig.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Notes on Novels (Part 1)

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol
This translated French best-seller has many differences from popular English-language novels. For one thing, casual racism and antisemitism are present to a degree that's no longer acceptable in America, I'm sorry to say. Examples: a greedy, boorish, lustful Jewish character and a caricatured Chinese houseboy named Pong. Enough on that topic.

The main characters are numerous, but not hard to keep track of -- several mothers and teenage children, various husbands, estranged husbands, lovers, ex-lovers, and other complicated relations. The plot concerns a variety of ways that the main characters deceive one another, deceive themselves, and try to deceive their children, who seem to see through them. It's not bad, though it goes on a bit too long. One or two of the lies and secrets are very far-fetched, but I won't spoil the surprise of finding out what the secrets are except that the eponymous eyes of the crocodiles are part of one of them.

Reviewers like this book better than I did. Reviewer Caroline See in the Washington Post: "There’s a three-part ending here that’s utterly preposterous, but hey, nothing’s perfect! — and this is a satisfying read."
Date: January 13

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
This book has at least six different plots, and it slues among them, back and forth in time and space, from Hollywood to Italy to Seattle to Idaho to London, jumping 50 years or more at a single bound. Two or three of these plots are embedded literary works-in-progress by the characters -- a novel, an outline of a screen play, a stage play; these each get their own chapter.

Some of the characters are real, for example, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (no kidding). Several of the fictional characters work in the film industry, or want to. The characters are connected to each other one way or another, but their stories are fairly distinct until the very end, when there's a sort of philosophical chapter linking them together. Can you tell I didn't enjoy this book very much? I really liked the dust jacket, though -- it's retro.
Date: January 17

Where'd you go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
I read this a year or two ago, and really enjoyed it. Unlike some of the books I disliked, the plot was tightly constructed, and the characters were both amusing and well-thought-out. Bernadette, seemingly a crazy mother, turns out to have been a truly imaginative architect whose work was destroyed, leaving her in a discouraged and fragile state. She's victimized by an identity thief masquerading as a remote concierge who will take care of all her paper work -- so well portrayed that I've seen references to this part of the plot in serious articles about identity theft and how to take care of yourself online.

In the course of the novel Bernadette's husband, a Microsoft-exec, realizes what he values while the reader chuckles at a really good send-up of corporate behavior. Slowly their early-teenage daughter learns about her family and herself as she searches for Bernadette who goes missing in a wonderful adventure. It works! If you need to know more, there are over 2000 reviews on amazon.com. Or  you could just read the  book.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
I read this a few years ago, and liked both the historical-fiction parts and the modern-detective-story parts. It's a suspense tale about the Sarajevo Haggadah, a book with a somewhat mysterious past, and a troubled present.

All of these books have been proposed as selections for my book club for next year, and they looked so good that I couldn't resist reading some and rethinking what I liked about the two I read in the past. I would be happy if we chose any of them except Beautiful Ruins, which is just too bad! I have at least two more proposed books to read and will report on them as well.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Birds Flying

Kestrel, near Plymouth, MI; Len's photo

Canada Geese, Riverside Park, Ann Arbor; Len's photo

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Dara Horn: "A Guide for the Perplexed"

In her recent novel A Guide for the Perplexed, Dara Horn successfully attempts a very difficult combination of historical fiction in two different eras with contemporary genre fiction about the makers of a software product for capturing human experience. The scope of this fictional software goes beyond what I think is currently possible, so I call it genre fiction.

The unifying theme of the three parallel stories is memory. The unifying location is the Cairo Genizah, a storehouse of documents from the medieval era that was discovered in the late 19th century. The unifying philosophy comes from Maimonides' book A Guide for the Perplexed. Another unifying theme is the relationship of pairs of brothers or sisters; each of the three plotlines includes at least one and sometimes more than one set of siblings. I was aware of the historical characters in this novel, so I found the historical fiction about the events absolutely absorbing.

Somehow Horn works all of these themes together into a fascinating tale of suspense involving a remarkably talented woman, Josie, creator of the software I mentioned before: a memory aide called genizah. The central plot is Josie's kidnapping by Egyptian fanatics while representing her corporation and its product. During her captivity she has a copy of Maimonides' Guide as her only reading matter and only consolation.

The earlier of the two historical parts of the story takes place in Fustat, near Cairo, in the 12th century; it reconstructs the life of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides. Horn envisions the events that lead up to his depositing a number of documents in the Genizah, a storage room in the synagogue of Fustat. In particular she places his relationship with his brother in the center of the events: a letter concerning the loss of his brother at sea is one of the treasures found in the Genizah when its contents were examined in the 19th century.

The 19th century part of the history concerns Solomon Schecter, a Jewish scholar at Cambridge University in England. At the suggestion of two women, twins -- Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson -- who had purchased medieval manuscripts in Cairo, he traveled to Cairo and obtained the majority of the Genizah manuscripts for Cambridge, including those from Maimonides. I learned from this story of Shecter's origins in Romania and of his twin brother, who immigrated to Israel. (I checked -- the facts in the historical portions of the novel appear to be fully based on the historical reality: source.)

I won't include any spoilers about the detailed story of Josie's relationship with her family (including her sister) and with the people she meets in Egypt, including her kidnappers. It's completely engrossing and unlike many such stories, remarkably believable.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Hanging Rocks

Hanging rock at Joshua Tree National Park
Another rock at Joshua Tree
LA County Museum of Art: "Levitated Mass" by Michael Heizer
Dry stream in gardens of Getty Museum, LA

Friday, January 03, 2014

Cats and cat-like creatures

Lounging lion at the San Diego Safari Park
(formerly known as the Wild Animal Park)
Question to keeper: "Do you go in the cage with the tiger?"
Answer: "No, he would kill us." 
Most famous animals at San Diego Zoo: Koalas
Cheetah, San Diego Zoo
Another famous San Diego Zoo animal
Are meerkats actually cats?