Monday, December 26, 2016

The One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka

"We can never know the answers to great spiritual questions, but it's all right not to understand. We have been born and are living on the earth to face directly the reality of living."
-- Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution (112)

This 1978 book is another one that crossed my path by the most random of happenstance, and I'm not sure why I picked it up. Agriculture, alternative or otherwise, is not really one of my areas of interest or expertise, but within that field, this book is definitely a classic, and I pretty much agreed with every word, despite the number of DVDs and bags of potato chips in my house.

Fukuoka was a young scientist studying plant diseases, when an existential crisis led him to a liberating epiphany about the futility of human endeavors: "Humanity knows nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort" (4). Thought an eccentric by everyone, and after the interruption of the Second World War, Fukuoka begins to practically apply his philosophy to his chosen field of agriculture, pioneering what he calls "do-nothing" farming (15).

He jokes about how others always think that means there's no work involved, which isn't true, but his techniques are all about working with one's specific environment, and interfering as little as possible with the natural growth of crops, which, as he had realized, can flourish in the wild without any human intervention. He is constantly thinking "How about not doing this?" (ibid)

The introduction, by noted author Wendell Berry, points out that the book's specific farming techniques are designed for Fukuoka's land in Japan, and aren't directly applicable to other conditions. I won't spend much time on those, although that was more interesting than I expected. But I was most interested in the underlying framework, which was surprisingly profound. He points out that a small compromise for convenience can send one down the road to complete complicity in an unhealthy system, and commiserates with the city dwellers whose options for "natural" food are almost as unnatural as just eating the Doritos (okay, that's my example).

At heart, his message is this: "The more people do, the more society develops, the more problems arise. The increasing desolation of nature, the exhaustion of resources, the uneasiness and disintegration of the human spirit, all have been brought about by humanity's trying to accomplish something" (159). And he warns, "Human beings can destroy natural forms, but they cannot create them" (154).

Of course, we're in a modern industrial age, when generations of tampering in the name of progress can't really be unraveled. Fukuoka's vision is entirely impractical, and the vast majority of people wouldn't want to live that way even if they could. As it says in Good Omens (by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman), instead of a desire to go Back to Nature, "almost the entire drive of human history has been an attempt to get as far away from Nature as possible." Still, it's kind of hard to argue against the idea that the world is a mess, and many efforts to fix it are making more of a mess. Or that the human urge for "fast rather than slow, more rather than less" (110) has led to big problems, so maybe we could try slow over fast, and less over more.

On a less pensive note, this was a clearly-written and thought-provoking read, worth putting on anybody's book lists about food, farming, or modern industrial problems.

Fukuoka, Masanobu. The One-Straw Revolution. New York: New York Review Books, 2009.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Books for Hogswatch

My recommendation for your Hogswatch/Yule/Christmas reading this year, The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories. Sooooo good!

I'm assuming that you've already read the all-time classic, Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett, and watched the equally classic movie (starring Lady Mary herself, Michelle Dockery), along with the Brom's Krampus: The Yule Lord. If not, get on that, too.

But about the new Valancourt book: I've been waiting for years for someone to put out a collection of Victorian Christmas ghost stories, and better people couldn't have done the job. The stories are all good, and perfect for reading on cold winter nights, which I know, since I was in the middle of this the night our furnace went out (getting down to 53 degrees before we got it fixed). If I could buy you all stocking stuffers, this is what you'd get. And you'd like it!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Dune, by Frank Herbert

"Thufir, old friend," Paul said, "as you can see, my back is toward no door."
"The universe is full of doors," Howat said.

"Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. but the real universe is always one step beyond logic."

-- from Dune (770, 604)

Dune (1965) is one of those classics I always resisted, even back when I was mainly reading science fiction. It seemed kind of heavy and message-y, and its fans came across as cultish. It went onto the list after a viewing of the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune, which is fantastic, and you should watch it -- who knew such an inspiring film could be made out of a creative failure? I finally picked it up to read in those oddball off times at a science fiction convention, and I took to it immediately. I'm a sucker for faux nonfiction, so I ate up all the excerpts from histories-within-the-book, and the sayings and lore interspersed throughout. I also appreciated that the novel's far futuristic society and alien planets are significantly alien. The royal houses, the Bene Gesserit order, Arrakis: none of them are the half-hearted extensions of modern life one so often sees (even in things I love, like Star Trek), but have evolved in ways that are truly different and strange.

For most of this book's "running time," I kept having the same nagging thought in the back of my head: "I do not see Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides one little bit!" The more I read, the stranger that casting seemed. Nothing against Kyle, who's a fine actor, but, geez. I don't know who I would have expected to play the young nobleman gone native as a Messiah figure on an unforgiving desert planet.

I'm also not sure what to make of Herbert's ecological concerns. There's a whole theme about the ecosystem of Arrakin, and how its elements are more interconnected than people realize, and along with that, it seems like he's saying the desert-living Fremen are more in harmony, adapted to the planet's environment. But they're still manipulating it, working to reform it, making it more comfortable for human life. They're just doing it in a slow and systematic way, rather than the usual lumbering one.

My other main thought is that I felt like Dune was really a complete book. I know there's a whole of slew of sequels, by Herbert and his son, but while I enjoyed reading this a lot, I don't feel any need to continue. It didn't pose many unanswered questions, and in fact has a lot of foreshadowing about what the end results are going to be for the universe (hint: not good).

This is one of those books that was worth avoiding, just so I had it to read fresh now.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. Ace premium edition. New York: Berkley, 2010.

Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

"My sole desire to to proceed straight through this history with all convenient despatch." 

"Don't be afraid; we won't make an author of you, while there's an honest trade to be learnt, or brick-making to tun to."

-- from Oliver Twist (p. 135, 108)

It's funny that Oliver Twist is the novel that got the full-on musical treatment, with 1968's Oliver! Although the young Oliver Reed was dead-on casting for the brutal Bill Sikes. (So far), It's the grimmest of all the Dickens that I've read. Unrelieved by comedic side trips, it sticks closely to Oliver's life and experience, only straying to relate what's going on with characters who pretty directly affect him, so it lacks the broad panorama-of-society effect of, say, Bleak House. Many of Dickens' novels depict squalor, poverty, and misery, in large doses, and also expose the corruption of society that allows them to exist, but in Oliver Twist, the darkness seems particularly unrelieved. Even the boy's brief escape to the home of kindly Mr. Brownlow comes off like a twist of the knife (oh, sorry about the pun), snatching away a glimmer of hope.

In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf annoyed me by saying of Charlotte Bronte's writings that " if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly." Well, it's pretty obvious that if Jane Eyre was written in a rage, so was Oliver Twist, and then some.

I'm not the only one to notice this: G. K. Chesterton wrote that even the humorous parts of Oliver Twist "amuse, but they cannot be enjoyed ... Dickens makes game of Mr. Bumble because he wants to kill Mr. Bumble" (25). The famous Fagin is described as "like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness" (Dickens 153), but even he's better than the heartless authorities who profit off human misery.

Eventually -- and sure, spoilers, why not? -- Oliver has to get shot before things in his life take a turn for the better, and he finally meets some people who don't view him as a number in a ledger column or a resource to be exploited, but as a little boy alone in the world, who needs some help.

The machinations of melodrama, with some fantastic but fully anticipated coincidences that connect various characters, seem a little balder here than in some of his other novels, although that leads to a refreshing, uh, twist, when Oliver's background is revealed. He was the son of a miserably married gentleman and a young lady he loved, making him the heir to a fortune, and bitterly resented by his dissipated half-brother. When the latter calls him a "bastard child," kindly Mr. Brownlow "sternly" says "that term ... reflects true disgrace on no one living, except you who use it" (431, 432). Right on!

Similarly, the most sympathetic character in the book is Nancy, whose position as a prostitute is only slightly obscured. She's clearly not responsible for the options she met with in life, and while there are some speeches on the subject, and her ultimate acts of nobility, I liked that her character was sketched so well in one early line: "There was no flinching about the girl" (161).

So, Dickens. Please, sir, may I have some more? I still have at least five full novels to go, and just don't know what's next. I'm still resistant to David Copperfield and Great Expectations, so I'm guessing those will be the last. Leaning toward Hard Times, or maybe Martin Chuzzlewit. I hear so much about his attacks on America that it sounds pretty entertaining.

Chesterton, G.K. Criticisms and Appreciations of the Works of Charles Dickens. Kelly Bray, Cornwall: House of Stratus, 2008.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. London: Penguin, 2003.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I'd have the facts.”
-- from To Kill a Mockingbird

I was in New Orleans in August, and, with a nasty sunburn (my own fault), ended up spending one full day hiding from the hot sun in the air conditioning of my hotel room. At least it was one of those really old historic hotels, so I didn't feel like I was completely wasting my trip! That gave me the opportunity to finally read Harper Lee's 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird mostly in that day; for the record, I started it in the airport on the way down.

Many are the people who have been shocked over the years to learn that I, the incessant reader, had never read this classic and staple of high-school English courses. Usually I've said that I'd get around to it, although when I've been honest, I've said something like "I'm not big on American literature." Or most modern literature. That should probably be obvious by now. There are some American writers whose work I do really like: Herman Melville. Robert E. Howard. Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Chester Hines, Ursula LeGuin. There's Charles Brockden Brown, father of the American Gothic. And current writers like Nick Mamatas, and A. Lee Martinez, and other people who aren't leaping to mind. But in general, whatever the time period, if the choice is between an American writer and a non-American writer, I tend to go for the latter. And if it's between something from the 20th century or later, and something before, I'll go for the latter.

My kneejerk stereotype about mainstream American literature is that it's too on-the-nose. Too obsessed with realism, too much thinking it's full of meaning because it deigns to include some symbolism. It says what it is, and after it's over, you say, " 'Kay. Got it." This tendency can be found in other writers, too: I feel the same way about D. H. Lawrence, for example. But I find it a lot in Americans. These can be okay reads, but there's so much out there that's richer and fuller.

So the truth is, had I not brought Lee's masterpiece as an airport book, and stuck to my room that day until it got cooler, I probably still wouldn't have read it. Not that there was anything wrong, as such, with the opening chapters. But as with my reading of Ready Player One, when it was over, I realized there wasn't a single line that I wanted to underline. In the end, that's probably my most damning summary of anything I read. I mean, I enjoyed the language in Crescent Carnival, a total potboiler, a lot more, and underlined a bunch of stuff! Most damning of all, I left it on the free book pile on the steps of a used book store, so I wouldn't have to carry the weight on the trip back. Ouch.

Maybe it's just that I like the adjectives.

In summary, To Kill a Mockingbird was fine. It was certainly better than watching Law and Order marathons in a hotel room all day. I liked the idea that such an esteemed and much-read classic has such an unconventional female narrator/protagonist, who chafes so openly at the limitations put on girls. It also, of course, contains an important message: racism is wrong. How depressing is it that this is still relevant?

And now when it comes up, I don't have to field questions about why the hell I never read one of the most famous American novels of all time. Just don't ask me about Go Tell a Watchman!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Found in the Stacks

Did you know that Edward Gorey illustrated an edition of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds? I did not. But I'm happy he did.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Crescent Carnival, by Frances Parkinson Keyes

"She was even conscious of a rush of thankfulness that she had found the courage to speak from her soul, at least once, before she was silenced forever."
-- from  Crescent Carnival (130)

Contains spoilers, but seriously, they're mentioned on the book cover.

After reviewing three (very interesting) books in a row that  are collections of anecdotes and experiences -- diary entries, erotic Socratic dialogues, and a collection of short tales and lore -- I found myself with a powerful hankering for narrative. And that was certainly delivered by Crescent Carnival, an 807-page multi-generational saga, originally published in 1942.

From Keyes' New Orleans-set novels, I picked this one for the promise of historical Mardi Gras culture. Its succession of young heroines, spanning the 1890s to the start of World War II, are all expected to become Carnival Queens, and while the situations play out differently in the different time periods, there's enough description of parades and balls to satisfy that expectation.

Along the way, I was surprised and thrilled to find many specific locations in the book that I'm familiar with: the home of the earliest protagonist, Estelle Lenoir, is the building I've toured on Royal Street that now houses the Historic New Orleans Collection. The Sisters of the Holy Family convent, now a hotel where I've stayed twice, plays a role. Plus obvious spots like the cornstalk fence house in the Garden District, the Napoleon House, the St. Louis Cathedral, and an unnamed coffee shop near the Cathedral which might be Cafe du Monde (it could also be the Morning Call).

Starting at a Mardi Gras ball in 1940, the novel flashes back to the star-crossed love between Estelle, a beautiful Creole heiress, and Andrew Breckenridge, a Yankee plantation-owner scandalously involved in the real-life Louisiana State Lottery Company. The sheltered, devoutly Catholic Estelle, barely allowed to leave the house by herself, comes to the brink of defying her family, and the rules of her whole society, for love, but is frightened away by her lover's vehement romantic ultimatums: "If you want to marry me enough, you'll let the whole world crash to pieces without stopping you from doing that" (149).

While this thwarting of narrative expectations, in a novel with all the trappings of romantic fiction, was somewhat frustrating, I did like two aspects of it. First, Estelle is no Scarlett O'Hara, and neither is her daughter, who'll fall into a similarly doomed romance with Andrew's son (unhappily married to a completely incompatible woman, who sort of Carol Kennicotts everyone around her). Everyone can't defy their times, and many people still have difficulties going against the grain of social and familial pressure, and this novel doesn't pretend that most people can.

Secondly, the relative boldness of the young women in the 1940s section (Estelle's granddaughter Stella, and the distantly related Patty) is shown as a function of their time. They've grown up wearing comfortable clothes, driving cars, mixing socially with young men, and because of that lack of constraint, they are freer to make choices about their own lives. That doesn't necessarily make the course of true love run more smoothly, since throughout the book, the biggest obstacle to any couple's happiness is their own mistakes, but it illustrates changes in social attitudes without getting heavy-handed about it.

Slangy, career-oriented Stella is particularly interesting. She scoffs at her grandmother's Downton Abbey-esque view of the changing times -- "Grannie dear ... you keep telling me we've come to the end of an era " (30) -- and when she meets her true love, she can think "How could she resist an embrace which encompassed her so naturally and so inevitably? Why should she?" (522, italics and obvious implication, in the text) But she and her fiancee spend much of the book thwarting their own happiness, due to pride and mutual misunderstanding, just like their ancestors' happiness was thwarted by fears and social conformity.

The couple who bring it all together are a little too good to be true, but by then, SOMEONE deserves a happy ending, so it didn't annoy me too much.

I will warn you, this book was written by a white woman about white Southern culture, in 1942, with all that implies. Characters casually say things like "that's mighty white of you," without anyone thinking it odd, and there are various patronizing depictions of their black servants and plantation laborers. Plus, there's a whole subplot about Huey Long -- his 1935 assassination occurs within the novel --  and the characters we're following, and by extension identifying with, are politically opposed to him. They talk about his dictatorial ways and his stranglehold on the process, which makes this opposition seem perfectly appropriate and democratic. But suddenly, they're all praising an anti-Long speech against some of his legislature: "When this ugly bill is boiled down in its own juices, it disfranchises the white people of Louisiana ... you cannot sell the birthright of another white man" (528).

So it was a tyrant against a bunch of racists. Wow; good times. But not inaccurate, historically.

Fortunately, there are only a few of those "eee" moments, and otherwise, it's an interesting and sprightly period piece. If I get caught up on other things, I'd certainly read some of Keyes' other works -- maybe the other New Orleans saga, Dinner at Antoine's.

Keyes, Frances Parkinson. Crescent Carnival. Boston: Second Line Press, 2014.