Tuesday, February 28, 2023

the last book I read

The Last Life by Claire Messud.

Sagesse LaBasse's life seems pretty sweet, on the face of it: her parents and grandparents own and run a hotel on the Mediterranean coast of France and she spends a lot of time just hanging out by the pool with her friends. But she's a teenager (about fifteen when the book starts) so a certain amount of surly teenage dissatisfaction is pretty much de rigueur, n'est-ce pas

To be fair, Sagesse does have some actual stuff to worry about as well: her younger brother Etienne suffered some severe brain injuries after being deprived of oxygen at birth and survives at home only with the provision of round-the-clock care from family and a series of nurses. Sagesse is also something of an outlier among her peers in terms of her background: her mother Carol is American and her father's family were pied-noirs (or possibly pieds-noir or maybe even pieds-noirs), French people of European descent who lived in Algeria when it was a French colony and who almost all relocated to mainland France after Algeria's independence in 1962. In late-1980s/early-1990s liberal France reminders of France's colonial past are a bit unwelcome, and people who were involved tend to get the side-eye as potential closet racists. 

Things start to deteriorate when Sagesse's grandfather, finally exasperated beyond reason by Sagesse's friends' noisy late-night cavorting in the hotel pool, fires a gun from the upstairs balcony and injures (fortunately not seriously) a couple of them. Sagesse herself, as it happens, isn't among them as she is down on the beach a short distance away being inexpertly fingered by her teenage boyfriend Thibaud. The parents aren't prepared to take "not severely injured" for an answer, though, and proceed with the enthusiastic pressing of charges against Sagesse's grandfather. This causes some tension with Sagesse's best mate Marie-Jo, one of the key witnesses, and they drift apart.

At her mother's suggestion, Sagesse visits her American cousins in New England as an escape from all the awkward legal business, and again finds herself an outsider, this time for her half-Frenchness rather than her half-Americanness. Some things are common to the teenage experience the world over, though, and after falling out with her cousin Becky over a boy, and drinking too much at a beach party and being fountainously sick, Sagesse makes her way back to France.

Grandfather ends up getting a seven-month prison sentence, during the course of which Sagesse's father takes a more active role in running the hotel's affairs. It also becomes clear to Sagesse that Dad is running certain, hem hem, "affairs" of his own a little closer to home after she and some school friends arrive home unexpectedly. Grandfather's release, on the face of it cause for family celebration, has the opposite effect on her father as he is gradually ground down by Grandfather's insistence on being involved in the day-to-day running of the hotel. While it's almost certainly not the only factor - he appears to have what would today be described as some sort of bipolar disorder - this may have contributed to father's eventual decision to drive out along the coast to a favourite beauty spot, sit in the car overlooking the ocean and shoot himself in the head.

The disintegration of her family almost complete, Sagesse heads off to boarding school in America. On her return at the end of the year she finds her mother shacked up with a new man and contemplating shuffling Etienne off to some permanent care facility so that she can enjoy a bit of middle-aged freedom before it's too late. Grandfather, perhaps fuelled by outrage at this development, has a massive stroke and requires a permanent care facility of his own. Sagesse is a bit outraged on Etienne's behalf as well, though needless to say not enough to volunteer to jack in her studies and come home to look after him herself.

And so we end, via a quick framing device featuring Sagesse, a few years later, pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University and seemingly content with a fairly solitary existence, the odd fleeting lover aside.

Well, so far so standard coming-of-age novel, you might say: teenage protagonist, parents and grandparents of various degrees of eccentric grotesqueness and shouty oppressiveness, funny feelings and furtive sticky fumblings, you know, down there, occasional envious encounters with contemporaries of impossible beauty, fabulous riches or devil-may-care freedom, contemplation of all of the above from the remove of a few years hence, full adult sophistication having been gained in the intervening time. There's something in that, but at the same time there's plenty here to lift The Last Life above the formulaic, in particular the complications of the family's Algerian background, and some kicking around of ideas about how we perpetually re-invent ourselves, even to the extent of re-inventing our own pasts to better fit the stories we want to tell in the present.

The Last Life was Claire Messud's second novel, published in 1999; it was her third novel The Emperor's Children in 2006 that gave her her big breakthrough sales- and awards-wise. There's a touch of the "write about what you know" here, as Messud's own father was a pied-noir - these days Messud is half of a major literary power couple with her husband, critic James Wood. 

Anyway, The Last Life is very well-written and enjoyable without doing anything especially startling. The previous book in this series to feature Algerian independence as a major plot point was the rather faster-moving The Day Of The Jackal

Thursday, February 23, 2023

pando moany mum

Here's one for the COINCIDENCE? OR IS IT?* files:  It can now be revealed that the book I was reading at the time was The Overstory - there is in fact further reference to these aspens later in the book that makes it clear that it is specifically the massive Pando colony that's being referred to. 

The quaking aspen colony is named because "pando" is Latin for "I spread"; it turns out it's also quite a widely-used brand name for a variety of companies doing a variety of things. Once again, though, my instinctive reaction is coloured by my recent experience as a father of three young-ish children and my immediate thought was of Bing's panda friend and his disinclination to wear the yellow shorts he always starts off an episode wearing. 

Huwie was quite into Bing a couple of years ago and I see I tweeted about it an embarrassingly large number of times. It does seem to be a thing that generates strong feelings among parents, as this Mumsnet thread demonstrates.

* as always: yes; yes it is.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

there we are then


approach with caution

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

unn believable

A couple of footnotes to the last post - I have no idea how likely Siss and Unn are as names for young girls in 1960s Norway (The Ice Palace was published in 1963) but as a father of still fairly young children I can still vividly recall our nightly appointments with In The Night Garden and its cast of weird squishy nonsense-spouting primary-coloured characters, including the Tombliboos. Those are the three stripy mofos with the spotty trousers (source of much oh-no-we've-all-got-each-other's-trousers-on confusion and hilarity) who live in, and I quote, "an extraordinary bush". Stop sniggering at the back there. Anyway, their names are Unn, Ooo and Eee, for reasons which I assume are obvious. It wouldn't really have been in keeping with The Ice Palace's rather sombre tone for Unn's two sisters to have suddenly shown up and started playing the drums and having comical trouser mishaps, but the thought did briefly cross my mind.

Another example of inappropriate hilarity at serious moments was provided last weekend when the girls decided that we should watch The Railway Children for our Saturday night movie. Anyone who's seen this will know that the last scene (it's actually not quite the last scene, but you know what I mean) is a legendary not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house moment (unlike some other Jenny Agutter movies which demand a ready supply of tissues for different reasons). To guard against succumbing to this I was idly imagining whose appearance out of the smoke (i.e. in place of Iain Cuthbertson) would be most amusing, and I came up with Mr. Blobby; cue me ruining the scene for everyone with some most inappropriate guffawing. Here is roughly how I imagined the scene; you'll have to supply the sound effects yourself.

the last book I read

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas.

Siss is just a regular girl (not sure if her age is ever stated explicitly, but I think we are to assume around eleven or twelve) in the frozen Arctic wastes of rural Norway, just trying to get through the day without falling into a fjord and freezing to death, getting trampled to death by a moose or dying after eating some tainted rakfisk.

Siss is a popular and influential girl at school and so when a new girl, Unn, arrives, the class look to her for a definitive thumbs up or down. Siss is intrigued by Unn - quiet, reserved, very happy to be in her own company at break-times and not mingle much with her contemporaries - and arranges a visit to her house after school to get better acquainted.

The visit offers further intrigue - Unn has come to live with her aunt after her mother's death, her father being absent long since and known to Unn only through a couple of old photographs. Unn also alludes vaguely to some dark secret, the details of which she keeps to herself but which she imagines may be visible to Siss in some way after they undress in front of each other (what, you mean you don't do this on a first visit to someone's house). Siss is made a little uncomfortable by all this but the two make a promise to be BFFs before Siss heads home.

Unn herself is a bit spooked by the intensity of this first meeting and decides to bunk off school the next day to avoid the awkwardness of having to meet Siss in front of everyone else. Luckily it's midwinter and there are lots of icy delights to explore, notably a frozen lake and, near its outflow, a spectacular frozen waterfall that the locals call the Ice Palace. Unn ventures into the ice palace, mesmerised by its weird beauty and the unearthly creaking and cracking noises that it makes. But the constant thawing, cracking, dripping and re-freezing mean that the ice palace is constantly re-shaping itself, and where there is beauty there is also danger.

Siss is surprised by Unn's absence from school, and heads for her aunt's house to check on her, only to find that Auntie hasn't seen her either. The alarm is raised and a search commences, including the lake and the ice palace, but no trace of Unn can be found. 

Obviously life goes on, for everyone else anyway, and Siss' schoolfriends want to welcome her back into their group, But Siss is mindful of her promise to Unn and keeps to herself, fiercely guarding Unn's empty desk against anyone wanting to re-use it. But where does it end? It's increasingly obvious to everyone, even as they diligently continue searching, that Unn isn't coming back.

Springtime arrives and things start to warm up - relatively speaking anyway, it's still Norway - and the lake ice starts to thaw. Unn's aunt decides to sell up and move away, and encourages Siss to move on with her life and set aside her promise to Unn. And so Siss and her schoolfriends make a final trip to see the ice palace before its eventual inevitable collapse.

The Ice Palace tells a pretty simple story in a stark, understated way. The central metaphor is pretty straightforward - the chilly hardness and subsequent thawing of the waterfall being echoed by Siss' coldness towards her friends in the aftermath of Unn's disappearance and her eventual re-acceptance into the group. There is some deeper, darker stuff going on as well, though - Unn's dark secret is never revealed, and there are some hints of burgeoning pre-teenage sexuality both in Siss and Unn's charged first encounter at Auntie's house and in Siss' tentative friendship with the boy who seems to have become a leader of the group of schoolfriends in Siss' absence. And it's never completely clear what's happened to Unn - we assume she's frozen to death and been entombed within the shifting walls of the ice palace, but if that's true then at some point during the spring thaw her semi-frozen corpse should slurp out of the ice and spoil someone's picnic. Maybe she will just be washed away with the collapsed remnants of the ice palace and never be found.

There's always an interesting contrast involved in following a pretty long book with a very short one - The Overstory had lots of characters, lots of digressions into arcane bits of tree-related lore, peaks and troughs in terms of the relevance of what's currently going on to the perceived main thread of the narrative, and no desire to coyly allude to things where devoting a whole chapter to them will do instead; The Ice Palace has none of that, being all told from Siss' point of view except for the chapter where Unn ventures into the ice palace, and with pretty much nothing in terms of fat on the bones and certainly no desire to explain itself beyond the ruthlessly-imposed bounds of the story it sets out to tell. None of that is a value judgment, it's just interesting. I enjoyed The Ice Palace very much, and it certainly passes the "lingers oddly in the mind" test that I mentioned here and here, and the "interesting short novel that's probably ideal film material" test that I mentioned here, here and here. And sure enough it was filmed in 1987 - what appears to be the complete movie is available on YouTube here.

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

this story works on many levels

One thing I could have added to the review of The Overstory is that the endpoint of Patricia's logical train of thought about how to save the planet, i.e. as many of us as possible need to die, is strongly reminiscent of the stated aims of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which you may remember from this post from way back in 2007 - they appear still to be going, those of them who haven't gone voluntarily extinct, anyway. More generally I'd agree with this Guardian review's comment that there's just a suspicion that "something slightly antihuman has crept into the philosophy" - don't forget that what most people mean when they voice the vague concept of "saving the planet" is "saving humanity in something like its present form"; the planet, after all, will be fine, for the next few billion years until it gets engulfed by the sun anyway. Knowing that after our demise our shattered cities will be repopulated by glorious verdant ranks of trees is nice and all but small comfort to most people, as we won't be there to see it, and in any case would only complain about access to Sainsbury's being partly blocked by a massive baobab full of hooting gibbons.

A bit of detail on the novel's slightly clunkily punny title, as well: the overstory is the topmost layer of plant life in a forest with the understory being, as you might expect, under it. That's "story" as in level or layer; in UK English it's more usually rendered "storey" but US English often omits the "e".

Monday, February 06, 2023

the last book I read

The Overstory by Richard Powers.

Hate trees? You'll hate this. Then again, what kind of idiot hates trees? Those great big lovable wooden bastards are everyone's friends: you can climb in them, shelter under them, eat the fruit and nuts they produce (even when the fruit is actually a berry, the nut is actually a seed or a legume et tediously cetera), and then cut them down, chop them up and use the wood to build boats, houses, aeroplanes and what have you. Trouble is, once you cut a tree down, it's dead, and it takes bleedin' centuries to grow a new one. So you have what you might call a sustainability problem and a requirement for humanity, as the de facto custodians of the planet, to manage the available resources in a responsible way. So are we doing that? Are we fuck. Now read on...

Enough of this Meetings With Remarkable Trees stuff, though - let's meet some actual people. Each of the principal protagonists gets an introductory chapter, each chapter recounting some childhood background loosely associated with a particular species of tree. So Nick Hoel gets an American chestnut on the family farm, valiantly holding out against the merciless sweep of chestnut blight across North America in the early 20th century; Chinese immigrant's daughter Mimi Ma gets a mulberry in the garden of their family home; Adam Appich gets a maple; Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly get an oak and a lime respectively; Douglas Pavlicek gets a Douglas fir (though the tree that rescues him when he parachutes out of a burning plane in Vietnam is some exotic species of fig); wheelchair-bound software genius Neelay Mehta gets a fig; Patricia Westerford gets a beech; Olivia Vandergriff gets a ginkgo.

Having introduced our characters (generally as children) we now zoom ahead and gradually meet them all again as adults. Olivia Vandergriff's life is transformed when she is shocked - literally - out of her slightly aimless student existence by a badly-wired bedside lamp and, convinced that some higher power is using her as a conduit, heads off on a cross-country trip in her car with some fuzzy-edged ideas about saving trees. On the way she meets up with Nick Hoel, tending to a dying chestnut and an empty house at the family farm in Iowa, and he agrees to join her.

Eventually Olivia, Nick, Adam Appich (now a psychologist), Mimi Ma (an engineer) and Douglas Pavlicek (a drifter and occasional forestry worker) form a loose collective campaigning for environmental reform. This starts as the usual non-violent chaining themselves to bulldozers and occupying trees (Olivia and Nick spend most of a year up a giant redwood) but eventually the group as a whole decide that the only way to shock humanity out of its gradual and inexorable slide towards irreversible eco-disaster is direct action, and moreover direct action of the destructive and explodey variety.

Meanwhile Patricia Westerford, a botanist specialising in trees, writes a paper detailing some of her theories about how trees communicate with each other and is roundly mocked by her colleagues for such crazy hippy-dippy nonsense.

Chastened by this experience, Patricia retreats to a hermit-like existence as a forest ranger for the next couple of decades until scientific orthodoxy catches up with her and she belatedly becomes a celebrity, helped by a book contract and subsequent popular-science bestseller.

It soon becomes clear that humanity isn't going to suddenly have a big collective moment of clarity, shrug off its slash-and-burn ways and embrace a more sustainable but less comfortable way of life, and things start to fall apart. The whole eco-terrorism gig, always a bit perilous, goes spectacularly tits-up as the group botch the bombing of a development project which is about to dispatch an area of forest and Olivia dies. After ceremonially lobbing her corpse on the resulting inferno, the group disperses and all take up separate lives, but with the nagging knowledge that The Man may one day come for them.

Ray and Dorothy have led a more conventional life, his income as a prominent lawyer keeping them comfortably off. Tensions arise when they are unable to have children, and ramp up when Dorothy has an affair. Ray's reaction to this is to have a spectacular brain aneurysm and require round-the-clock care for the rest of his life, something Dorothy commendably abandons her carefree boning to do. Pretty clearly Ray isn't going to be up for any tree-related activism but he and Dorothy fill their later years conducting a quiet suburban rebellion and letting their garden re-wild itself, much to the chagrin of the neighbours.

Patricia, meanwhile, a couple of bestsellers notwithstanding, has decided that the best thing humanity can do for the good of the planet is hasten its own demise, and that only a spectacular gesture in this direction can engage people's attention. So she agrees to be a guest speaker at an eco-convention and plans to commit suicide as a spectacular climax to a lecture. Will this shocking gesture do any good?

Adam, meanwhile, is giving a lecture of his own, having resumed his career as a psychologist. One day the inevitable happens and a team of armed FBI agents shows up in the back row; Adam immediately knows what has happened. But maybe he can use his subsequent high-profile domestic terrorism trial as a means of publicising the cause?

Neelay, meanwhile, has become one of the richest individuals in the USA by designing a series of computer games. Inspired by Patricia's actions he turns his attention to designing some sort of bot army that can use Big Data to co-ordinate a response to the climate crisis. Can AI succeed where humanity has failed?

So I'm pretty sure all but the most bone-headed denialists acknowledge that climate change is a thing, and that one of the primary causes is galloping deforestation, sustained by humanity's uncontrollable breeding habits and voracious appetite for wood for all manner of uses. What, The Overstory asks, are we going to do about it?

Well, the short answer is: no easy answers are offered here, and probably rightly so given that this is at least ostensibly a novel set in the real world where people are reluctant to give up their colour TVs and digital watches and suddenly start living on acorn paste and ferns. While there are some encouraging signs of a spread of eco-activism following some of the high-profile events (Adam's trial, for instance) it's still all very slow and there seems to be a suggestion that technology (most likely Neelay's bot army) will be the thing most likely to save us. Personally I'm not persuaded that this is true and am highly suspicious that those who are haven't seen The Matrix

Structurally the book is a bit odd - the character introductions in the first section ("Roots") are compelling little short stories and probably the most focused and enjoyable bits of the book. The remaining sections ("Trunk", "Crown" and "Seeds") seem a bit unfocused in comparison (the book as a whole is a beefy 625 pages) and feel like they could have used a trim - it's not very clear to me, for instance, what purpose Ray and Dorothy's story serves here and what would have been lost by leaving it out. You might also reflect on the momentous and life-changing (life-ending, in Olivia's case) activities of the eco-terrorism group and ask: what did that actually achieve, in the end? You'd probably, if you were honest, have to answer: well it isn't very clear at the end, but possibly not much. 

That said the depth of research here and evident love of the subject is impressive and the story being told is never less than compelling, and anything that prompts us puny humans to think on a timescale not directly tailored to our own brief lifespans is probably valuable. So it's highly readable and thought-provoking without my being completely knocked sideways by it in the same way as the judging panel for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize evidently were. Previous Pulitzer winners here include Breathing Lessons, Foreign Affairs, The Bridge Of San Luis Rey, Gilead, Beloved, The Grapes Of Wrath, The Road, Independence Day, A Thousand Acres and The Shipping News.