Monday, July 28, 2014

Jonas Jonasson, The One-Hundred-Year-Old Man etc etc

What were they expecting, I wonder?  So cranky, readers who really ought to have just enjoyed this novel (or the movie based on it, in this particular case).

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out His Window and Disappeared, like so very very many novels, just isn't serious. And that's fine. Yes, it's from Scandinavia, and it has a long and somewhat cryptic-sounding title that's directly referential to something central to the novel, but this doesn't mean it's a dark novel ghost-written by Stieg Larsson. It's possible to read it as something like an absurdist commentary on the personality-driven machinery behind modern culture, but it's neither sweet like Forrest Gump nor openly satiric like Being There. This doesn't mean it's a failure on the terms of either of those other novels (or the movies based on them, which are really what people are thinking about when they talk about the texts); it's a different novel, aiming at something different.

Précis: a centenarian climbs out the window of his nursing home and disappears into the Swedish afternoon, finding himself on the run from an increasingly large number of criminals, police officers, and journalists. While on the road with a motley herd of one-off characters, Allan Karlsson tells his companions (and readers) the deliberately unbelievably complicated story of his life, almost all of which was spent accidentally influencing international politics in numerous countries all over the world.

If you look at blogged book reviews of this novel, like this one for example, in most cases you'll see reasonable readers making just the right assessment: in spite of there being several deaths, in the end it's "light-hearted and silly: the kind of book to read on a rainy day with a mug of hot chocolate." Fargo, frankly, isn't a bad comparison, including the mixed reactions, though with Fargo there was some pre-hipster peer pressure to love the Coen brothers even if you didn't get the humour….

The Manly Book Club™ was unanimous in its mild appreciation, incidentally. Our female fellow readers (wives, sisters, etc) tended not to appreciate it, but I'm not willing to call it a gender issue. So there.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

John McPhee, Coming Into the Country

I've commented before on the deep, nerdish pleasure I take in reading John McPhee, and Coming Into the Country (about Alaska, from 1976) confirms my thoughts in those other reviews. He has an unparalleled ability to make you obsess nerdishly about subjects you knew next to nothing about, before falling into his book, and you really must find one of his books that won't put you off. The people in this book might put you off, so The Pine Barrens would be a safer bet, but seriously, you'll be better off if you can just spend some time with McPhee, sometime.

Coming Into the Country, if I can carelessly summarize a nonfiction classic, is about perspectives on Alaska from people with different attitudes toward government and the frontier, with those differences being utterly American in scope and angle. The garrulous man of independence, rabidly opposed to government support of those who can't do for themselves, being cared for hand and foot by his third wife; the sneakers-wearing environmentalist from outside Alaska, unaware of basic wilderness protocol and yet vastly more competent in the wilds; the outside-educated Native Alaskan, who returns to his home to be scorned as un-Alaskan by whites from Michigan with three winters behind them: you know McPhee's politics, but this book's not really about politics. It's about a place where politics are nakedly revealed, are deeply implicated in local conflicts of every kind, and are almost entirely irrelevant to the business of survival, which is the only business that matters in 1970s Alaska.

By this time, McPhee had put a lot of months and miles into wild places, but he wasn't prepared for Alaska, which he had thought of as the culmination of this work:
"I may have liked places that are wild and been quickened all my days just by the sound of the word, but I see now I never knew what it could mean. I can see why people who come to Alaska are unprepared. In four decades of times beyond some sort of road, I never set foot in a place like this. It is in no way an extension of what I've known before. The constructions I have lived by ought not, and do not, apply here. Left on my own here, I would have to change in a hurry, and learn in a hurry, or I'd never last a year." (p.271)
Human death, quite simply, haunts every page of Coming Into the Country. Very few deaths are depicted, fewer reported on at something close to first-hand knowledge, and yet it's clear that for McPhee, the likelihood of dying because of your own actions is the key to understanding human existence in Alaska.

Not that humans are all that important in McPhee's Alaska, "a place so vast and unpeopled that if anyone could figure out how to steal Italy, Alaska would be a place to hide it" (p.57). We have great power to damage ecosystems in Alaska, particularly through destroying the protective cover over permafrost and through injuring the thin, slow-growing vegetation of the tundra, but in the end, Alaska exceeds us, exceeds our capacities.

This book could have been three books, so distinct are the three sections, and the later McPhee would likely have written three separate books that could subsequently be collapsed into something massively larger than this already hefty volume: I would probably have enjoyed that more, but he was young. How could he have known the publishing strangenesses that he was going to be allowed to get away with, once he started working in the highly marketable, bodice-ripping genre of geological nonfiction?

Like McPhee's geological books, Coming Into the Country isn't for everyone -- but for those who'd like that sort of thing, it'll be one of the best books you'll ever read about this kind of place and this kind of subject. Remarkable.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Rowan Jacobsen, American Terroir

For a small subset of people, it's a genuine question, so I'm glad to see an answer. With American Terror Terroir, Rowan Jacobsen has convinced me that the environmental defense of place can amplify (and be amplified by) the foodie's defense of special flavours.

The worry behind this question, for those who see it as a question, is whether food culture is inevitably faddish, snobbish, and exploitative, or whether these characteristics are avoidable. Jacobsen's talent in his food writing, as with his science writing, is to put place first beyond any doubt, with that term "place" encompassing concepts like surrounding environment, species identity, human relationship with place, and elemental components (like the mineral composition of soil in a particular area). He's writing as a confirmed and dedicated foodie, comfortable in any food conversation imaginable in the world of high-end restaurants, but in a way, that's only flavouring for the main conversation, which is place.

Each chapter addresses a different food from a different place, which Jacobsen discusses in terms of time he spends in each location: avocados from Michoacán, coffee from Panama, salmon from Alaska's Yukon River, varietal honey from all over…. Each chapter, too, ends with information about how to order or obtain these specific foods, information about how to get a reasonable version of it without breaking the bank, and some recipes for showcasing the special flavours of the especially local foodstuff. I was hungry the whole time I was reading this book, hating most of my pantry's contents but eating better as a result. With only three people in my house, I still often find myself cooking two and sometimes three different dinners each night, and Jacobsen left me feeling like the effort's worth it if we're getting the flavours we all crave. (Of course, family peace means it's worth it anyway, but it's nice to have the support of philosophy, no?)

I'm teaching an activist-oriented course this fall at my university on the intersection of literature and environment, and as a result I'm spending a lot of energy thinking about battles and opposition and conflict. So great to be reminded that compromise is sometimes possible (though only sometimes, and only with partial effect): it was a real treat to spend time with Rowan Jacobsen, these remarkable foods, and the remarkable people who produce them.

The book's full title is American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields, and it's terrific. Sure, the adjective "American" is worryingly expansionist here, encompassing Central America as well as Canada, but it's about place rather than borders, so I'll give him a pass on that. Read it, buy it, give it away!