Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ree Dolly, my hero

When a book keeps you up all night thinking about it after you've finished reading it, it has to be a powerful book.  This book by Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone, scared the bejeezus out of me, as one of his characters might say, and I couldn't go to sleep till after midnight, worrying about the characters.  And not just because it's "noir":  it's because it's "country noir," as one reviewer put it.  It situates the violence and darkness not in its usual urban environment, but in my home:  the rural South.

OK, so Faulkner depicted a lot of violence and darkness in the rural South too. What else is new? Well, the setting here is the rural South, circa early 21st century, a bit closer to home for me than the Mississippi Delta in 1910 or 1830. And I'm sorry to say that the villains are instantly recognizable. They are the men who used to make moonshine in the past and have now diversified, first into marijuana growing, a fairly harmless pursuit in the seventies, and now into the cooking of meth, or crank, as it's called in the Ozarks apparently. We still mostly call it meth in the Upper Cumberland.  A few years ago it was a huge problem here.  Young people were losing their teeth over it, and losing custody of their small children.  But fortunately for us, Mexicans started making meth better and cheaper, and those "jobs" went south over the border, like the jobs in the shirt factories that used to be here.

In Winter's Bone, Daniel Woodrell makes the world of white rural poor people very vivid and exact, down to the last detail, of the interiors of their houses for example:  the old woodstoves, the guns lying casually on the kitchen table next to bags of pot and crank, the inherited old clothes, the cut-off shirt sleeves, the junk food bought as cheaply as possible,  and the still-useful relics of an older, more self-reliant past like a wooden "skinning board" for skinning squirrels.  He is also very good at describing the way beaten-up poor people look:  the missing ears and teeth and fingers, the limps caused by gunshot wounds, the pallor caused by days and nights of living on drugs, beer and cigarettes.  Even the smells of people--the bail bondsman smells "like town"-- are instantly believable.  His transcription of their speech is dead-on.  This is what makes or breaks a novel about the South, I think:  the writer's ability to remember and transcribe the unique  speech patterns and vocabulary of Southerners, which varies a lot regionally.  Flannery O'Connor was a past master of this, as was, of course, Faulkner.  But it's not that easy to do without sounding condescending, as if you are writing "dialect."  Woodrell never condescends.  His third-person narrator's voice participates in this voice too, so as not to distance itself too much from the main character, Ree Dolly.

And what a character she is.  She is absolutely, totally real and memorable.  She was the one I stayed up late worrying about.  She is a teenager when the events of the story happen, but she has already had to assume responsibility for feeding and caring for her two little brothers and her mother, who has gone crazy.  Her crank-cooking dad is absent, run off to escape prison.  The family home, inherited by her mother, has been put up by her dad for his bail bond.  So she has to find him, make him appear in court, or prove he's dead.

This task takes her on an odyssey through her broken-down neighborhood, meeting scary character after scarier character, like that baby bird in Are You My Mother?  She seems as vulnerable as that baby bird, only she's looking for her no-good daddy, ironically to bring him to justice to save the family home place.  The bad guys she meets are mostly men.  Her own uncle is one of the scariest.  Frequently these encounters lead to a slapping at the least; once she's knocked down some stairs; always she's threatened and told not to ask so many questions.  Her courage in persisting in this do-or-die effort to save her home, the ancient trees on the hill above it, her crazy mother, and her not-yet-mean little brothers is both admirable and reckless.  And people tell her so.  But she seems to feel she has no choice but to risk venturing into the dens of these crank crooks, asking them, in effect, if they have killed her father or know where he is hiding.

The fact that in the end she doesn't give up or die trying means that this is a novel where things mostly end happily, rather than real life, where it's just one thing after another with no real denouement.  In real life she would have gotten scared off; there would be no real resolution to the mystery of what happened to her father; she would join the Army, and her brothers would be adopted by a relative, her mother dropped off at the local mental institution.  To Woodrell's credit, for a while it seems as if this might be the way it ends.  But again, this is art, not life, and something like a satisfying victory is achieved, although the reader knows it's fragile.

You can't help admiring this amazing young woman and her sheer physical courage, tenacity, stubbornness, endurance, and all-round know-how:  she can shoot a squirrel out of a tree and skin it; she splits wood expertly; she negotiates with the bail bondsman.  It's all the more gratifying to think that a man wrote this wonderful portrait of a young woman; it's not a woman writer fantasizing about what she would have liked to have been.  When I was a little girl, I loved the Caddie Woodlawns and Pippi Longstockings of my fiction world: the strong, independent little tomboys.  Ree Dolly is a more realistic, grown-up, contemporary version of those little girls:  Pippi grown up not just to lift horses onto a porch, but to fight hardened, ruthless, meth-addicted rednecks.  And win.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Stressful Serengeti


Nature is supposed to be calming. We are urged to take vacations in 
"nature."  But people who spend a lot of time in "nature" know better.  Nature is not good or bad; it just is.  And sometimes it's violent and dangerous, and that's not just hurricanes: sometimes your fellow organisms can be a pain in the butt.

Nobody knows this better than Robert Sapolsky, the author of A Primate's Memoir.  Sapolsky has studied olive baboons in the Serengeti for decades, as a way of understanding stress in animals in general, including humans, the most numerous primates.  Sapolsky went to Kenya shortly after his graduation from Harvard and began chasing olive baboons with a blow-gun, in order to dart them with an anesthetic, draw blood from them, and measure their cortisol levels to determine their stress levels.  He found that being an alpha baboon was good.  Duh.  Being lower down on the pecking order caused a lot of stress for baboons.  The lower-ranking baboons, male and female, were subjected to bullying from higher ranking baboons, and some of them failed to mate as a result.  Both these things--physical abuse and isolation--make stress hormones sky-rocket, leading to stress-related diseases.

But this book is not just a parable about all the reasons not to let other people (or baboons) bully you.  It's a very entertaining account of life in Africa during the eighties and nineties.  Many of Sapolsky's stories revolve around his travels outside Kenya--to Sudan and Rwanda, memorably--and close scrapes and narrow escapes from bad guys and con artists in that part of the continent. The picture emerges of a beautiful but troubled continent, where desperately poor people are inured to corruption.  The last, tragic chapter is a lesson in the damage that corruption can do.

During his sojourns in the Serengeti, Sapolsky's neighbors were the Masai, with whom he seems to have had a love-hate relationship. At first he wanted to BE a Masai, and he practised diligently with the spear they gave him, trying to throw it through a rolling tire.  He became close friends with several Masai.  But as the decades went by, Masai culture changed.  The Masai turned out to be instrumental in the destruction of the baboons that Sapolsky loved.  In the end, he had some sympathy for the Kenyan government, which made being a Masai warrior illegal eventually.  Nevertheless, Sapolsky feels some sadness for the loss of this warrior, cow-herding culture.  (He mentions parenthetically that they practiced clitoridectomy,  which detracts somewhat from the romance of the culture.)

Sapolsky is a very good story-teller.  He is good at pacing a story, finding the telling detail to make it vivid and usually funny, and delivering the punch line. Some of his stories are poignant as well as funny, like the story of his trip to visit the dwindling reserve where Dian Fossey's mountain gorillas lives.  Fossey was apparently not as good at getting along with the locals as Sapolsky has learned to be, and he is critical, although also admiring, of her, especially since mountain gorillas were Sapolsky's first love.  He switched to baboons when he realized that baboon society is more analogous to human societies, and thus better for studying social stress.

I laughed out loud several times reading this book. It's rare to read a book by an academic scientist that is so well-written and entertaining that it makes you laugh out loud.  But also it made me think differently about people. I started noticing that people are really very sophisticated baboons. A lot of what goes on between people is exactly the kind of power-mongering and jockeying for position that olive baboons are obsessed with.  Somehow that realization--that it's just part of primate nature to bully and resist bullying--makes it, well, less stressful.  Groom your friends, avoid your enemies, make a loud noise if you need to, to scare enemies off, avoid the hyenas, and life is pretty good.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Epigram Against Stalin

In the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books, there's an article by Jose Manuel Prieto about a translation he made in the nineties of Osip Mandelstam's poem, "Epigram Against Stalin."  Prieto was commissioned to translate the poem into Spanish from Russian, which he did, but he says that he was not really satisfied with the translation, that it never quite seemed to convey the power of the poem in Russian.

I had never heard of this poem, even though I studied Russian in college in the seventies.  I think surely my teachers knew of it; they were Russian emigrees.  This article would be a wonderful teaching tool for people learning Russian, as Prieto goes line by line through the poem, analyzing all the nuances and allusions in it that only Russians would understand.  The poem turns out to be a microcosm of Russian society in the Stalin era, a history lesson in sixteen lines, and as Prieto says, a sixteen-line death sentence for Mandelstam.

Here it is translated into English:


We live without feeling the country beneath our feet,
our words are inaudible from ten steps away.
Any conversation, however brief,
gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man.
His greasy fingers are thick as worms,
his words weighty hammers slamming their target.
His cockroach moustache seems to snicker,
and the shafts of his high-topped boots gleam.
Amid a rabble of scrawny-necked chieftains,
he toys with the favors of such homunculi.
One hisses, the other mewls, one groans, the other weeps;
he prowls thunderously among them, showering them with scorn.
Forging decree after decree, like horseshoes,
he pitches one to the belly, another to the forehead,
a third to the eyebrow, a fourth in the eye.
Every execution is a carnival
that fills his broad Ossetian chest with delight.
—Translated by Esther Allen from José Manuel Prieto’s Spanish version

The poem was written in 1934; by 1938, Mandelstam was dead in the camps.  Prieto describes the poem as "an act of incredible recklessness, bravery, or artistic integrity."  Why did Mandelstam do it?  Apparently he spent days composing his poems in his head; only when he was satisfied with them would he commit them to paper.  After he finished the Epigram in his way, he recited it to Pasternak.  Pasternak was appalled and apparently said, "You have not recited anything to me and I did not hear anything and I bet you not to recite this to anyone else ever."  But Mandelstam did, and eventually word got back to Stalin.

 I can understand the irresistible appeal of being able to shock so thoroughly using the power of words, even if the result was almost certain death.  It would be hard, if not impossible,  for a poet like Mandelstam to keep his poem to himself.  People make art so that their work can be seen and heard.  Mandelstam himself said, "Only in Russia is poetry respected--it gets people killed.  Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?"

 I read somewhere else, long ago, that only in Russia are poets like rock stars.  Regular people in Russia care about poetry and literature in ways that are hard to imagine in the West.  In Sergei Dovlatov's story, "The Colonel  Says I Love You," the narrator is stopped by a policeman, who, it turns out, only wants to know if he remembers when Akhmatova's book Rosary was published!  If a cop ever asks me a question about when Faulkner published Absalom, Absalom!... well, I won't know the answer.  Maybe I'll end up in Huntsville.

 Prieto's line by line "explication de texte"  shows why Russians care so much about their  poetry:  if much of it is like the Epigram, it's satisfying in ways that poetry in English rarely is.  I can still pronounce the Cyrillic alphabet, even though I took Russian over thirty years ago, and so I read the words of the poem in Russian aloud to myself.  Even if you don't understand the meaning, the sounds are wonderful:  hard and then soft, lots of assonance and alliteration, repetition and rhythm.

 But Prieto also gives you a feeling for what Russians hear and understand in this poem.  Perhaps the most striking example is his explanation of this line:

 "His cockroach mustache seems to  snicker,"

In Russian this line is just three words, literally, "cockroach mustache laughs."  Apparently there's a famous children's poem in Russian involving a huge cockroach with a mustache.  Ok, I've seen those feelers on the front of a cockroach; they do look sort of like a mustache.  In the children's poem, the cockroach terrorizes the animals in a forest until a bird eats him with one bite.  So when Russians read the Epigram, they hear the allusion to this poem, and in their minds, a bird appears to eat...Stalin!  Maybe the bird is Mandelstam?  After all, both he and Stalin are dead, but the poem is still here.

 According to  Prieto, Mandelstam  had probably thought all this through:  he knew that composing and reciting the poem was suicidal, but he also knew that it would out-last him and Stalin:

 "Mandelstam knew that the epigram would never be published and was trying to leave it imprinted on as many minds as possible, to keep it from disappearing with his death."

This strategy worked.   Mandelstam  was made to write down the  epigram at his trial.   This copy ended up in the KGB archives.  Later, the researcher Vitaly Shentalinsky found it, and compared this version to the version that had been circulated in samizdat in Russia.  The samizdat versions were identical to Mandelstam's original.  As Prieto writes, "The poem had etched itself faithfully in the memories of those who heard it recited in the distant year of 1934."



Monday, January 25, 2010

The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection

The Carolina Rice Kitchen:  the African Connection is perhaps the most erudite cookbook I've ever read, excepting maybe The Oxford Companion to Food.  And, it's a cookbook within a cookbook, or rather, a cookbook within a treatise on a specific cuisine:  the Carolina rice kitchen.

Karen Hess has reproduced within her own book an early 20th century cookbook called The Carolina Rice Cookbook, by a Mrs. Samuel Stoney. It seems that Mrs. Sam Stoney's husband was one of my grandfather's cousins in South Carolina, where a lot of rice was grown in the 19th century.  This was no ordinary rice;   it was a special variety called Carolina Gold.  Planters stopped growing Carolina Gold in South Carolina in the 20th century, because it was so labor-intensive, and the soft ground where it was grown was not suitable for machine cultivation.

But in the 19th century, particularly during slavery times, South Carolina grew a lot of rice and had a true cuisine built around rice.  The European-American planters did not come from a rice-growing culture, however.  Their slaves did.  This is the other story behind the Carolina Rice Cookbook that Karen Hess uncovers.

She says that white planters learned everything they needed to know about rice culture and cookery from their African slaves.  West Africa had a thriving rice agriculture for centuries before West Africans were enslaved in large numbers and brought to the United States to grow rice.  In fact, planters especially wanted slaves from the rice-growing areas of West Africa.

It wasn't just that Africans knew how to grow rice:  they also had special ways of cooking it.  Hess says that in South Carolina, people cook rice differently from the way they do it in the rest of the country:  they do it the African way, which is also the Indian (Asian Indian) way.  In Africa and India, people don't boil two cups of water for every cup of rice, and then cook the rice in that water until the rice is absorbed; rather, they boil the rice in a lot of water--perhaps three times the amount of rice--for about 12-15 minutes, then strain the rice and put it back in the pot to "soak" or steam.  The pot is put near the fire, in a warm place, or over low heat.  This way of cooking yields a very fluffy rice, "with every grain distinct," which was apparently desirable.  (The Chinese/Japanese way of cooking rice uses less fuel, however, because less water has to be boiled.)  I have been cooking Carolina Gold rice this way since I read the book, and I like the result.  (You can buy Carolina Gold at Whole Foods and other stores, because some enterprising foodie growers are now growing it again, but it's expensive.)

Another characteristic cooking method in the Carolinas was the pilau.  This was rice simmered in a stock made from chicken or meat.  In this case, the rice stays in the cooking liquid rather than being drained.  The pilau, and jambalaya, according to Hess, came to the Carolinas from Persia by way of Provence.  Many of the Europeans who settled the Carolinas were Huguenots from that part of France.

Hess does a lot of her detective work by way of etymologies.  One of her most interesting speculations is about the dish Hoppin' John and its origins.  Hoppin John is rice cooked with some kind of beans.  In the South the bean is usually black-eyed peas, or some other pea in the cowpea family.  But Hess thinks the word just means "beans with rice."  The word for beans in Malay is kachang.  And the Persian word for rice is bahatta.  If you say "bahatta kachang" fast, it sounds sort of like Hoppin' John, at least if you are a Gullah speaker, as the African-Americans of coastal South Carolina were.  Works for me.

Another interesting etymological speculation in the book revolves around one of my favorite foods, the beignets of New Orleans.  Rice was not as central to the cuisine of New Orleans as it was to the cuisine of coastal South Carolina.  But by the late 19th century, African-American women were selling something called "calas" on the streets, as a street food sold by street vendors. These were fritters made with rice flour, or beignets de riz.  How did they get the name calas?  Hess speculates that African-Americans saw them as a variation on their African akkra, or fried croquettes, usually made of ground blackeyed peas in Africa.  As with Hoppin' John, some consonants got changed and transposed:  akkra became akla, and, Hess says, "cala is a metathetic form of akla, a...common alteration involving transposition."  (I learned from wikipedia that "metathesis" is just the rearranging of the sounds in a word, as for example saying "purty" instead of "pretty.")

Anyway, those wonderful beignets at the Cafe du Monde are French, yes, but they're also African, and they used to be made with some rice flour, or cooked rice mixed with flour.

There are also chapters on rice soups and other rice breads besides the calas, and sweet rice puddings for desserts.  South Carolinians also ate the birds that ate their rice:  Dolichonyx oryzivorus,  Here is a charming recipe from the frontispiece of the Carolina Rice Cook Book:

    "Select the fattest birds, remove the entrails, bake them whole or split them up the back and broil.
Permit no sacrilegious hand to remove the head, for the base of the brain of the rice bird is the most succulent portion. Use no fork in eating.  Take the neck of the bird in the left hand and his little right leg in the right hand. Tear away the right leg and eat all but the extreme end of the bone. Hold the bill of the bird in one hand and crush your teeth through the back of the head, and thank Providence that you are permitted to live.  Take the remaining left leg in your right hand and place in your mouth the entire body of the bird, and then munch the sweetest morsel that ever brought gustatory delight.  All that remains is the front portion of the head and the tiny bits of bone that formed the ends of the legs.  To leave more is to betray your unappreciativeness of the gifts of the gods."

Wonder if you can buy whole rice birds at Whole Foods?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Gaia's gonna get you

James Lovelock is the scientist who first conceptualized the Earth as a living organism. And he named that organism Gaia.  His idea was that life on Earth keeps Earth hospitable to life, generally.  But sadly, as he points out in his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, the Earth goddess Gaia does not necessarily care if one species in particular--ours--survives or disappears. She may have to regulate herself by getting rid of us.

Lovelock sees the Earth as an old lady, as old as himself in fact.   He is in his late eighties, and if life on Earth is 3.5 billion years old, and Gaia will die when the sun burns out in 500 million years, then she's about 88% of the way there.  If a man like Lovelock can live to be 100, and Gaia's "100" is 4 billion, then she's an old lady indeed.

But she is not a loving mother; she is more like the old Hindu goddess Kali who destroys as well as creates.  Lovelock thinks that the chances are good that humans may not survive the coming catastrophe of climate change.  But if it's any consolation, he thinks that life on Earth will survive, and new organisms will evolve to live in its new hot state.  He hopes that humankind will be able to evolve its consciousness to a different one, less predatory and selfish, and more concerned with life on the planet as a whole than simply with individual or species survival.  And if not evolve, then adapt to life on a hotter planet.

Lovelock makes a good case for the fact that the conventional predictions of the pace of warming may be grossly understated.  He shows how global sea level changes are a more accurate way of measuring the amount of heat that the Earth has already absorbed, and by that measure, we are further down the path of climate change than many realize or predicted.  Also, the Arctic sea ice is melting much faster than scientists have predicted. Lovelock emphasizes that when it comes to climate change, change is not linear, but can be quite abrupt and chaotic before the Earth levels out into a new steady, hotter state.

Although Lovelock addresses "solutions" like solar and wind power, he does not see them as real solutions.  In his view, it's all too little, too late. There are too many of us, and solar and wind can't possibly supply enough power for seven billion humans, even if they are willing to make do with less (although he certainly advises us to get ready to make do with less).  He has famously touted nuclear power as a solution, but it's hard to see how this squares with his reverence for Gaia herself.  Putting toxins into her system that will persist for millennia hardly seems like a nice thing to do to an old lady who's already having hot flashes.

Indeed Lovelock is a cranky old guy who for some reason seems to dislike environmentalists.  The chapter "To be or Not Be Green" is a confusing diatribe against the "new breed" of environmentalists who have the gall to be more than just  innocent nature lovers who enjoy a walk in the country from time to time; on the contrary, these new bad environmentalists are political lefties, "partisan and contentious."  You would think that, faced with the extinction of humankind, environmentalists would be praised for going to the ramparts.  But Lovelock longs for the old days when nobody knew that big corporations were injecting poisons not just into birds, but into humans also.  This chapter is odd because in it, Lovelock talks about the near disaster involving CFCs destroying the Earth's ozone layer.  Lovelock apparently had invented a tool that made the measurement of tiny amounts of pollutants possible, and this  tool made the detection of the ozone hole possible.  He seems to be glad this disaster was averted, so why does he resent the politicization of environmental issues so much?  It's not clear.

Another odd thing is the way he seems to see humankind's fouling of its own nest as somehow inevitable, given the way our species evolved. He quotes E. O. Wilson as placing the blame on the fact that we are "tribal carnivores."  Well, maybe some of us are.  But everything was going pretty well until some white male Europeans invented the Industrial Revolution.  At the time, the Romantics knew this was a bad idea, people like William Blake, Ruskin, and William Morris.  But people made fun of the Romantics much as Lovelock mocks environmentalists.  And look what happened.  The fact is that this disaster is the making of a few people, mostly male and mostly European. 

I guess you could go back further and say that everything was going pretty well until these same male Europeans invented patriarchy, war, city states, and slavery. That's the real beginning. But however bad life under patriarchy was, life was still possible. It wasn't until patriarchy and capitalism came up with the internal combustion engine and started burning coal in large quantities that the fate of the human race was sealed.

I hope that Lovelock and Wilson are right, though, in their implication that if we become less carnivorous and less tribal, we might survive. I dream a world of matrilineal vegetarians.  And Gaia, or Kali Ma, or whoever she is, might like us enough to let us survive.