Man, there is something about the combination of memoir and naturalism that really works. Matthiessen, Dillard, Swift, Sebald, now Macdonald. This wasMan, there is something about the combination of memoir and naturalism that really works. Matthiessen, Dillard, Swift, Sebald, now Macdonald. This was candescent.
After her father’s sudden death, Helen Macdonald, an academic and long-time falconer, decides to train a goshawk (one of the most challenging birds of prey to train) in an effort to get through her grief.
To read is to be subsumed, and in the company of the narrator with her squeaking, rousing hawk ever-present, you feel part of their solitude. Also, charmed as the plainness of the goshawk’s spirit seems, truly, inscrutable. Her descriptions (of everything) are mesmerising. I had no trouble picturing everything in fine detail, but also in perceiving space and light. Very hard to pull off.
Memories of exchanges with her father or dawning revelations she had as a young child (the small girl with ‘burning pedantry’ for falconry) are the ghosts of the story, rather than people. Innocuous, nondescript places are charged with significance. The ghost of an owl once roosting; a long-passed, stumbled upon fall-out of an attack on a pheasant.
It’s also, often, funny.
“The hawk is alternately a hunchback toad, a nervous child or a dragon.”
The only reservation I have is just how central to the story T.H. White’s the Goshawk seems to be. White’s experience training a goshawk is more a metaphysical battle with an historical figure (or hieroglyphic?) than a relationship of building trust and habit with a bird. I thought the parallels were interesting, though there was maybe too much of it for me. ...more
“Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are the likeable [people] and t“Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are the likeable [people] and the unlikeable, the good and the bad… everything in the end consoles you.”
I whipped through this four-part novel, as did many others. If you’re just reading My Brilliant Friend (the first part of this novel), I won’t share spoilers; however, I will say try not to get too hung up on wondering what a character will do, what mistakes and choices they make, where their relationships will take them, etc. This spans a lifetime. It’s rich, subjective, profound, moving, and painful.
What can be said about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series that hasn’t alreadybeensaid?
This is one of very few novels which seems to impel reviewers to be self-reflective, thinking instead of their own relationships and life trajectories rather than focusing on a critical analysis of the writing itself. In fact, it’s sometimes so consuming, it’s easy to forget this is a novel. There are turning points which shape the lives of the characters, and whose consequences reverberate through the time to follow, further contouring self-identification. There are flippant opinions, also intentionally hurtful statements and revelations made by some characters (Lila, for example), which become epigraphs for others. Unless you are completely invulnerable to critique or self-doubt, it takes no effort of imagination to understand the obsessive fixation induced by what others may forget they ever said.
“Every intense relationship is full of traps, and if you want to endure, you have to learn to avoid them.”
Elena is an unreliable narrator in the way we all are. How we perceive ourselves is simply not how we’re perceived. This story is much less about truth than it is about uncertainty, vulnerability, and pulling the fragments of our experiences and selves into some semblance of order. ...more
This quick overview covers (very briefly) a potted history of the origins of international law, how it’s implemented today, what it does well, and whaThis quick overview covers (very briefly) a potted history of the origins of international law, how it’s implemented today, what it does well, and what it does badly or not at all (more so to address misperceptions than to offer criticism). The notes and explanations I’ve taken down are pretty difficult to condense into a fluid overview, so I’ve organized them roughly around questions.
Where does international law come from?
International law focuses on the relationship between independent sovereign States, of which there are nearly 200 today. The ‘rules’ of international law stem from treaties and customary international law; treaties are straightforward enough, but customary international law presents far more complex and interpretive challenges. Customary international law is essentially State practice, but that soon becomes complicated. What counts as practice? Which states, and how many? How consistent does practice have to be before it’s customary? Over what period of time should practice be examined? How should silence be interpreted? Where do international organizations or non-state actors (like the Red Cross, Amnesty International, multinational corporations) fit in? Resolutions of the UN or other international organizations cannot make international law, though these may be made in observation of international law.
What can’t international law do?
Really, international law is more of a source of record. When States come to an agreement, it’s then written into law in the form of a treaty (or convention or protocol or charter… I never previously understood the differences, but the names merely reflect style and diplomatic tradition and aren’t themselves different instruments). What international law doesn’t do is offer an innovative solution where States are radically divergent. Also, unfortunately, international law itself cannot administer international justice
Okay, but does the UN enforce international law?
Eh, kinda. The UN is an example of something that international law is doing well: facilitating State cooperation. The UN is really just a space for diplomacy, discussion, international understanding and decisions. A tiny proportion of these are then recorded as resolutions or treaties (as we saw last week with the resolution on Syria), though for the most part the function of the UN is just to be there, not to do anything.
However, the UN does have an expert body: the International Law Commission, which reviews areas of the law and adopts texts restating the law where customary international law is sufficiently clear.
What about coalitions – are these bodies put into motion as a result of international law?
Nope. The use of force by ad hoc coalitions has raised questions within the discipline about whether a new rule is emerging (which might then become recorded as international law) in which the use of force is permitted to prevent massive human rights violations by incumbent governments (as seen in Kosovo, Libya or Iraq). These coalitions are authorized by the UN Security Council.
Right, what’s the UN Security Council?
The Security Council lies at the center of the UN architecture, consisting of representatives of fifteen States: the P5 (the five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the UK, the US) as well as ten States elected for two-year terms by the UN General Assembly. The Security Council can authorize coalitions to take action as an exception to the rules around the Use of Force. The Security Council can also impose mandatory sanctions including trade embargoes or establish no-fly zones. By far the more common action would be the deployment of forces, which operate as a buffer and don’t take sides in a conflict (UN Peacekeepers).
What does it have to do with me?
Probably very little in a practical sense, unless you’re a State. Having a basic understanding though can be very useful in understanding global politics and international relations.
The second novel in the Neapolitan series picks up at the same scene the first leaves off at. There are distinct differences on the whole between bookThe second novel in the Neapolitan series picks up at the same scene the first leaves off at. There are distinct differences on the whole between books one and two; in the first story we see Elena and Lina (or Lenu/Lenucia and Lila. Just let it wash over you.) coming-of-age in Naples starting off around age 6 and carrying them through Lina’s wedding at age 17. In the first novel, the “brilliant friend” is not who you might assume. Envy between the two girls masquerades as love and their power dynamics and self-assurances are interchanging in a way that will, undoubtedly, be eerily familiar to many women reflecting on their childhood friendships. The bounds of your universe, whether Naples or elsewhere, are clearly drawn and no matter how intimate and privileged your friendships, there remains the potential for deceit. Maybe I reveal too much and this isn’t as universal as I assume…
The second novel, “The Story of a New Name,” is part two in what is now a four-part series written under the pen name Elena Ferrante. I think it’s no coincidence that the narrator throughout the books is also Elena. Considering the fact that members of the Camorra feature in her story as well as a few especially seedy moments that – if true – must reflect episodes worth exorcising, I have little doubt that this is in part autobiographical.
In book two, Lenu continues to better understand herself and mature. She cultivates a moral code that helps her cope with disappointment, betrayal, and a more sophisticated, directed malevolence than she endured as a younger girl. Throughout her ordeals she fosters a self-preservative approach to keeping appearances and self-respect intact, if not friendships. She understands and shows compassion for Lina in ways that are mature beyond her years.
I will definitely carry on reading the next two. I only started this series as part of a book club (normally I give anything that clearly has a numerical order wide berth) and have been surprised with how consuming the series is. That said, I’m also very surprised at the acclaim it’s received. One of my friends recently went to see Jonathan Franzen speak and even he’s reading Ferrante. Who would’ve thought.
The continuity in this story makes it clear that it could stand as a long tome, but has been chopped into four sellable units. At £4.80 a pop, you are essentially paying £20 for one (long) book. That said – er, I’m going to backpedal a minute. There is no way I would casually sign up to read a 1,693 page piece of fiction unless I was serving a prison term. I take it back. It makes perfect sense to chunk it. ...more
Having made it through the whole thing, I can tell you what I got from this: some surprising autobiographical or incidental details of Will Oldham’s lHaving made it through the whole thing, I can tell you what I got from this: some surprising autobiographical or incidental details of Will Oldham’s life, and his amusingly arbitrary yet rigid opinions on the world (I still feel like it’s anyone’s guess what Will Oldham’s stance might be on any given issue). That’s it. Not enough reason to pick this up.
Reading this was like getting stuck at a table with two dudes indulgently carrying on about common experiences with zero regard for you: people, artists, producers, recorded material, tours, memories and references… only to occasionally remind you why you’re there in the first place by making oblique, fleeting reference to a promising anecdote. Here you go: a 400-page “interview” between two long-time friends, plus you: the silent witness. It just occurred to me; this book is really a long eavesdropping session.
The moments I loved the most were all unexpected. For example, Will Oldham’s completely un-ironic love for R. Kelly. When Will first met him (Rob), he stole his dew rag wrapper out of the trash, asked him to sign it (one of the only autographs he’s ever asked for) and kept it as a souvenir. After this encounter, he was invited to take part in Trapped in the Closet (appeared in episode 15) and his thoughts at the time? “This is amazing. Dreams can come true.” On the flipside, he becomes mesmerized by others’ poor taste (disclaimer: I am not hating on R. Kells): for example, his fascination with the cult of Jimmy Buffet. He wanted to understand the adoration so listened to all his records, read all his books, and then put together a 7” vaguely in the style: Gulf Shores.
I was initially hooked discovering small details, like the fact that he took the photo on the cover of Spiderland (!) or his bizarre, endearing correspondence with Glenn Danzig (founder of the Misfits, Samhain, Danzig). Will would send Glenn boxes of whatever: cow skulls (why not!), collages he made from old encyclopaedias, you name it. He’d ship off this box-o-stuff plus a $10 bill in the hope of getting 7”s that were out of print. And it worked! He’d receive packages back with OOP records, shirts he’d never seen before, all sorts of Samhain stuff.
Will can be pretty indiscriminate in his creative pursuits, too. For example, the excellent Superwolf started off as experimentation. Will wrote the lyrics to three songs, sent them to Matt Sweeney to write the music, and instead of rehearsing, they went straight into a live show to see how it came together. He also has a penchant for picking up translated poems, folk stories or cracking open obscure books and singing (or sometimes, really, just reading) them. Master and Everyone? The lyrics you hear were discovered – an old Italian folk song – found in the back of an opera programme. In Get on Jolly, Oldham sings Tagore poems. He dusts off old gospel tunes (like Washington Phillips’ “I Had a Good Father and Mother”) and delivers them in a style that sounds – not just word for word but flourish for flourish – exactly like the original.
Part of the reason I wanted to pick this up was because Will Oldham has a reputation for having crusty old man opinions. As mentioned earlier, I don’t feel much the wiser on who he is exactly; I didn’t find consistency in his attitude. After listening to a favorite album in privacy and then hearing it played live at a show was like “going to a strip club and seeing your girlfriend there.” Oh. He’d rather his albums be organized alphabetically rather than by artist, and would be happy if every album had its own unique audience. If he plays a show that he’s not happy with but is told it was a great show, it bothers him. Conversely, if he plays what he feels was a great show and someone says it sucked, he’s pleased for the criticism. Humans have had the same impact on the destruction of the earth as a single sound wave. I’d say he can’t make this stuff up, but I’m tempted to say that he does.
Last week I saw – at very short notice – that someone in Oxford had organized an adaptation book club, and since the month’s choice was Capote’s shortLast week I saw – at very short notice – that someone in Oxford had organized an adaptation book club, and since the month’s choice was Capote’s short novella, I made quick work of it. The idea is that you read the book on your own, watch the film adaptation at the start of the meeting, and then discuss the differences and advantages of each afterward. It was all going well until the movie finished and then everyone slowly rose, slipped into their jackets and started sloping out the door. How odd and disappointing. At any rate!
Truman Capote, upon seeing the film adaptation, called it sentimental, cloying, cheap and manipulative. I’m sorry to say, I agree. The interpretation of his work turns nuance and spectre into a gauche spectacle paired with Hollywood’s disappointingly familiar paternalism and racism (seriously, what the hell was the casting director thinking when selecting Mickey Rooney to play Mr. Yunioshi? It was genuinely painful to watch any scene he appeared in).
The movie takes the novella’s character constraints and exaggerates them. Though what the movie misses is the limitation on perspective; Holly’s character is perceived through Paul’s eyes, but is really hiding so much from view, which doesn’t develop in the movie. Paul’s premature impression of Holly is that, “[she] would never change because [she’d] been given her character too soon; which, like sudden riches, leads to a lack of proportion: a lopsided romantic.”
The movie’s narrative is centered on wish-fulfilment, whereas the novel is more about the cost of the dream. It’s more frightening for its realism.
“I thought of the future, and spoke of the past. Because Holly wanted to know about my childhood. She talked of her own, too; but it was elusive, nameless, placeless, an impressionistic recital, though the impression received was contrary to what one expected… in short, happy in a way that she was not, and never, certainly, the background of a child who had run away.”
The film and the novella are culturally distinct, both with their own merits. Capote wrote his novella with Marilyn Monroe in mind, literally writing the part for her. However, to the disappointment of both, the director chose a new direction; Hepburn’s character better suited the expectant optimism (and witlessness) of the screen’s Holly Golightly. ...more
We are led to believe that the enemy in the War on Drugs is a thing – drugs – but the facts laid out in this book are unambiguous. The foundations forWe are led to believe that the enemy in the War on Drugs is a thing – drugs – but the facts laid out in this book are unambiguous. The foundations for the War on Drugs can be traced far back; the thesis isn’t that these are mutant Jim Crow laws resurrected, but that the punishment, exclusion and disenfranchisement that is the result of the war on drugs creates a very comparable subjugation for people of color, only we can ignore these stark facts by the (minor) incidence of white felons incarcerated or convicted of drug crimes (hence the ‘colorblindness’).
“As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.”
The myth of choice is attractive (felons have chosen to break the law), but the author cautions that this opinion should be challenged. Quite simply, African Americans are not more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, they are just arrested at far higher rates for the same offense. The disproportionate imprisonment of people of color is a product of racial profiling rather than justification for it.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign manipulated fears of the race riots encouraging a ‘get tough’ policy on black crime. The first declaration of the current war came from Ronald Reagan (1982) and ever since, there has been a tacit recognition amongst politicians that being tough on crime is necessary to win an election, and by distinguishing yourself as uniquely tough on crime through further injunctions, you win yet more confidence. Take Clinton for an example – to declare his firm position he introduced a one strike and you’re out (of public housing) rule for felons, leaving many first time offenders homeless and creating very difficult situations for those living in public housing with no felony record. “Support” of a felon, even where you’re ignorant of their criminal activity (your grandchild, caught with marijuana; your caretaker caught with methamphetamine), can get you evicted from public housing as well. By creating such an impossible dynamic for felons’ re-entry to society, is it any wonder that – in the absence of societal or family support – they would turn to other felons or gangs?
Since the declaration of the War on Drugs, the prison population has exploded growing from 300,000 to more than 2,000,000 in just 30 years. Between 1980 and 1984 antidrug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million for the FBI alone transforming inner city policing across the country into something resembling a military operation. The momentum around the get tough on crime policy added mandatory minimum sentencing to the agenda, setting far more severe punishments for possession of crack than powder cocaine at a ratio of 100:1. Recently Obama has reduced that to 18:1, but still. The 5-year minimum applies even in the absence of evidence that there is any intent to sell. In 2005 alone, 80% of the drug arrests were for possession only. Returning to the prison population of more than 2 million? The vast majority are non-violent offenders.
Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion in incarceration rates. With decades of evidence to review – sociologists, economists, judges, and so on all agree – this crusade is largely ineffective and extraordinarily expensive. Also? Doesn’t reduce crime (as it’s defined).
All of that aside (discussing the obsolescence of prisons, the absence of rehabilitation, the fact that the system as it is actually creates more crime, or the huge issue that privatization has created): how is this like Jim Crow?
The consequence of conviction (let’s put incarceration aside for a second) is the label of ‘felon.’ What will that label mean for you? Despite a non-violent conviction, this label stays with you for life obstructing your chances for employment (it’s legal in most states to discriminate against former felons – though encouraging that a nationwide Ban the Box campaign has been introduced into legislation in 17 states). It also disenfranchises you, taking away your right to vote or serve on a jury. You are legally bared from housing or welfare benefits. Legalised discrimination – which disproportionately affects black men, 90% of those with convictions resulting from this policy – leads to a permanent position of social exclusion.
Hefted on top of this, I’m sorry to say there’s yet more working against the targets of the War on Drugs. Without diffusing the main issues, 1. Defendants are typically denied meaningful legal consultation often due to the volume of public offenders and the pressure this puts on the system to go straight to a plea bargain. Often the defendant is pressured into pleading guilty as this would diminish their punishment and allow them to be released sooner. However, this offer conceals the worst consequences of pleading guilty: being labelled a felon. 2. Today’s Blaxploitation in the form of network television, which exploits and exaggerates the worst racial stereotypes often portraying “out-of-control, shameless, violent, over-sexed and generally undeserving” people. It’s shocking, but truly disgraceful how VH1, MTV, BET, etc. programming undermines and typecasts in a way reminiscent of minstrelsy. 3. Pluralistic ignorance. Families with incarcerated members aren’t open to talking about their problems, and even though it’s widespread, there’s a lack of community, support and awareness of how truly extensive the problem has become. Although African Americans represent about 12% of the US population, 1 million of the 2.3 million incarcerated are African American.
The book itself was excellent, though fairly repetitive. Almost rhetorical for its repetition, though it’s likely to be effective. Absent is a clear solution; the problem is so fraught and there are so many forces to reckon with. Repealing mandatory minimums, supporting former felons in societal re-entry, supporting the Ban the Box campaign in your own state or municipality, and reallocating some of the staggering enforcement budget to providing assistance (for example, better transportation from the inner cities – where manufacturing jobs have disappeared – to suburbs where there are greater job opportunities) all seem like decent places to start. ...more
Man in a High Castle is an historical fiction – an alternate history (sort of… this is still loosely categorized as science fiction) - on what might hMan in a High Castle is an historical fiction – an alternate history (sort of… this is still loosely categorized as science fiction) - on what might have happened if the series of events leading to the US involvement into WWII had been a little different and the Axis powers emerged victorious. In this alternate history, FDR’s assassination attempt was successful and John Garner (FDR’s VP) leads a weak government and recovery from WWI. Republican John Bricker is then elected into office, adopting a strictly isolationist policy against participation in WWII. The UK and Soviet Union fall to Nazi Germany, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour is a decisive success, and over a few years, the Pacific States of America become part of Japan’s territory.
The Germans and Japanese have carved up North America into the PSA on the West Coast, German territory on the East, and a slightly less controlled territory in the middle of the country functioning as a demilitarized zone. By the time the story picks up, the handful of characters featured have been accustomed to the occupying culture and – especially in the case of the PSA – have a strangely staccato manner of speaking and thinking. I suppose in the manner of non-native English speakers? It’s a bit odd and distracting.
Some aspects of the story are incredibly imaginative. For example, the eponymous character is an author who wrote a banned book, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which is hilariously an alternate history to this alternate history… what would have happened if the Allies won WWII. Throughout the story, different characters are found reading clandestinely. As you may imagine, the alternate history to the alternate history in fact doesn’t really reflect what actually happened (in real historical events). Instead it seems the US has forged relations with Chiang Kai-shek and overtaken Communist Mao Zedong. In this alternate universe, it’s eventually the US and UK in a Cold War for global hegemony.
On the whole, however, I was a little disappointed. The idea of this book was far more exciting than the insipid characters or slack plotline. There’s only a tiny bit of science fiction (the Germans colonizing space or transforming Lufthansa into a rocket-powered operation. Hilarious.) but not enough happening. I was hoping for something a little closer to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, also an alternate history where Charles Lindbergh – a Nazi sympathizer – won the Presidential election in 1940, therefore throwing the advantage to the Axis and therefore changing the course of history. ...more
Man, what to even say about the Bloody Chamber. Angela Carter translated Charles Perrault's "La Barbe bleue" (Blue Beard) among other stories, and whiMan, what to even say about the Bloody Chamber. Angela Carter translated Charles Perrault's "La Barbe bleue" (Blue Beard) among other stories, and while spending the painstaking, patient time interpreting the text, she considered the 'latent content' within these traditional stories. She noticed quite apparent themes of sexuality, violence, transformation, objectification, and bestiality, then she teased these out to create almost alternate versions of well-known traditional stories (like Beauty and the Beast, Red Riding Hood, Snow White) either to turn them on their head or offer alternative outcomes. These stories are original, most very well-written and many quite disturbing, but pretty remarkable. The first was definitely my favorite. ...more
As a writer who only previously used the terms “architecture” or “carpentry” as pretentious metaphors for the non-physical creation that is writing, PAs a writer who only previously used the terms “architecture” or “carpentry” as pretentious metaphors for the non-physical creation that is writing, Pollan always regarded both as mysterious and impressive. In A Place of My Own, Michael Pollan details his undertaking to build a small structure he can work in. This project offered him an opportunity to be exposed to and involved in the full process from understanding the developer’s practice of selecting a site, to the architect’s functional design and carpenter’s reckoning with that (often challenging, sometime unrealistic) design.
As one of Michael Pollan’s earliest books (his second), it’s a little unrefined. As always, he writes in a very thoughtful, informative, and conscientious way, but I think his later (more popular) books are more aware of audience. A Place of My Own often gets very tedious, though the process of learning the principles of design, planning, building and finishing also are –of course - remarkably tedious in their detail as well.
This reminded me of The World Without Us, which explains what would happen if humans just vanished from the earth - what would breakdown first, what materials in our cities and suburbs are most vulnerable to water damage and dissolution, and how susceptible our roads, systems and buildings are to nature. You learn a great deal about a building’s relationship to nature – how all lumber is part of the nutrient cycle of the forest, how a building interacts with the ground it's built on, and how to choose materials. For example locust is more invulnerable than cedar, which is more invulnerable than pine. Never build with pine.
However, Pollan warns his readers (retrospectively, I imagine) not to approach this as a how-to book that will tell you how to build your own cabin in the woods. Although the book is deceptively organized to walk you through the process with chapters entitled Drawing, Foundations, Framing, Windows, and Finishing, he calls this more of a “how to think about it kind of book.”
And lord does he think about it. From philosophy to history to architectural schools of thought to all the theories of siting (even feng shui, which is admittedly quite amusing to see him following the ‘dragon line’ to confirm he’s picked the correct site), finishing this book, like finishing a house, is heavy going.
The philosophy I could have done entirely without, with the exception of Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. Bachelard is one of the only philosophers who takes the sorts of interior spaces children make (forts, nooks in closets and under staircases) seriously. As a serious nester myself, I loved the idea that he recognized the psychological importance of these spaces.
Unless you’re interested in the serious detail involved in architecture and construction, I would not recommend this book. That said, the quest to find original blueprints to resolve a construction detail for an in-swinging casement window was genuine high drama for me. ...more