June 2010


Puerto Rico is such an idyllic vacation spot – if it doesn’t torrentially pour, that is. The week before my mom and I were scheduled to go, the weather forecast predicted four straight days of thunderstorms. I was prepared to enjoy myself no matter what, but my mom was in the doldrums.

Not so bad after all.

As you can see from my photo, it wasn’t really so bad after all. Turns out in Puerto Rico they always predict rain because its more likely than not, but no one really knows for sure. Our hotel was located on the fringe of the El Yunque rain forest, in a small city called Fajardo. It’s about an hour from San Juan. The biodiversity there is mind-blowing  – I was lucky enough to see iguanas, pelicans, and tropical fish. I spotted several starfish, conch shells, and purple crabs while snorkling. I even saw baby sharks swimming around my legs as I swam on the beach! (I was glad to discover that the mother shark wasn’t anywhere in sight, and that apparently they’re harmless.)

I had a wonderful time relaxing with my mom and reconnecting with nature. I spent a large part of my vacation in the water because I love to swim, especially in the ocean. The hotel had its own private island, Palomino Island, that was different from any other place I’ve visited in the Caribbean in terms of flora and fauna. Opposite Palomino is a smaller island named Palominito (“Little Palomino” in Spanish). The distance is swimmable, but I decided against trying because of motorboats and possible water currents.

On Palomino Island, a private island.

When I wasn’t in the water, I was in one of these amazing beach chairs reading. The sun was so strong – Puerto Rico has one of the highest UV indices in the world – that I had to read with sunglasses on to make it bearable. I managed to finish a heavy book that wasn’t very good for the beach, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. I don’t know what my problem is exactly, but I find it difficult to finish a French classic, and this was no exception. This book is a bildungsroman focusing on a young, liberal male who secretly idolizes Napoleon while he advances himself by working for wealthy families. Julien Sorel’s character irritated me with his sensitivity and erratic behavior. I appreciated the book’s ironice hypocrisy in the vein of Voltaire, but Stendhal didn’t pull it off nearly as well.

Le Rouge et le Noir, by Stendhal. (English: The Red and the Black.)

On the third day, I was sad when I had to swim back to shore for the last time. It was a bittersweet parting, and I realized that I’d like to live close to the ocean when I finally have a place. When I got home, I researched Stendhal and discovered that, upon his travels to Florence, he was so overwhelmed by its beauty that he was dizzy and nauseous and faint. The doctors coined this Stendhal syndrome (look this up on Wikipedia if you want!). I wasn’t quite as taken by Puerto Rico as Stendhal was by Florence, but I was certainly enamored by its charms and would love to return again.

For my birthday in April, my roommate gave me a Barnes & Noble gift card and I picked up this book. Between final exams and moving out of my apartment, I never had the time for it. So this gem just sat there, collecting dust for almost four months, unopened.

Purge

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

This novel, Puhdistus or Purge, is suspenseful and riddled with secrets. These secrets impelled me to keep turning the pages late into the night. I wouldn’t even say that I “read” this book; “devoured” seems like a more accurate term.

Its two protaganists, Aliide Truu and Zara Pekk, are connected by an invisible thread of family connections and betrayals. They both share suffering and mutilation at the hands of two governments — the Communist and Fascist regimes that alternately dominated the Russian/Estonian block. Aliide is an old woman burdened with shame and guilt at betraying Zara’s mother and grandmother thirty years before by turning them over to the Soviets. Zara is a young sex-trafficking victim who has a photo of Aliide and her mother in her pocket, but does not know any details of their relationship.

The book dances between Aliide’s story and Zara’s story, leaving the reader to discover the intersections. Both Aliide and Zara are victims of sexual violence in a time of war, forced to submit to men in “chrome-tipped boots.” Aliide discovers that no matter how much she pretends to be Communist or Fascist, the men come after her nonetheless. She realizes that to survive in Estonia is to be implicated. It is to betray herself or to betray the ones she loves. She even betrays her beloved, Hans Pekk, by forging letters to him and keeping him locked up in a room against his will.

The scenic town of Haapsalu, in Läänemaa, Estonia, where this novel takes place.

The novel culminates in Part Five, where the tone shifts markedly. Part Five is a series of secret service reports that shed light on characters’ actions. Sometimes these reports entirely change the meaning of these actions as they were portrayed in previous sections of the novel.

For me, this was equal parts “good read” and “history lesson.” I admit to being completely ignorant of Estonia’s condition during the Soviet occupation. Even though this book reflected primarily on the plight of women during this time, I learned a lot about the general condition during those times. I was especially surprised about the emotional and sexual warfare imposed on the inhabitants of Estonia in order to “rehabilitate” them for the Communist regimes.

Sofi Oksanen received both the Finlandia and Runeberg prizes.

Oksanen’s raw, minimal writing style colored this book with compassion and honesty. None of the characters (with the notable exception of Aliide’s sister, Ingel Pekk) are idealized. Aliide “smells like onions,” and she is plagued by flies that symbolize her decay. Zara has “tatters of skin torn from her lower lip,” a reminder of her sexual domination. For this novel, Oksanen received both of Finland’s prestigious writing awards, the Finlandia and the Runeberg. Purge is currently sold in more than 25 countries. If you have the time, please pick up this book – I promise you won’t be disappointed by this exciting, touching novel.

What makes a really good memoir? It certainly isn’t writing style or quality alone. Is it the vividness and uncanny detail of the author’s recollections, as in Roald Dahl’s Boy and Going Solo? Or is it some mixture of personal suffering and political intrigue, as in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago? Or maybe it’s the allure of celebrity that draws people in, a desire to read about scandals, affairs, substance abuse.

Things I've Been Silent About, by Azar Nafisi

While Azar Nafisi’s memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About, abides by all the rules, I was not entirely impressed. It does include some lively sentences and acute observations, but it lacked that essence which makes a memoir, well, memorable. I found that Nafisi constantly repeated certain points – that her mother was a chronic liar, that her father inspired her to create imaginary worlds, and that literature was her chief escape from the dictates of the Islamic regime under Khomeini. Over and over again, she reiterated these ideas in different ways. She seemed to run out of things to say, but not out of ways to say them.

That’s not to say that her book was terrible or worthless. I did find it interesting to read about how upbringing and political climate shaped her aspirations. I learned a lot about the Iranian revolutions and how they affected the daily lives of the people. She writes beautiful sentences on the importance of not being silent, of not being complicit. She emphasizes this by relating her experience hiding her father’s romantic affairs from her obsessive mother, whom she claims suffered from “an absence of love.” She then broadens the boundaries of complicity and writes poignantly on the topic of silence and absolutist governments:

It is important not just to disobey the rules but to acknowledge one’s right to do so, and to do so openly… It is an illness in our society, the way victims become complicit in the acts perpetrated against them. This habit of pretending to give into the regime created a certain moral laxity, a spiritual laziness in all of us.

Azar Nafisi's mother, Nezhat Nafisi. (Image courtesy Azar Nafisi)

I suspect Nafisi lacks in this book what she lacked in Reading Lolita in Tehran: a willingness to reflect upon and describe her own weaknesses. She seems to pass judgment on every member of her family in these memoirs, with particular distaste for her mother. (After reading this, I found it hard to believe that she truly mourned her mother’s death, or that her mother was among those listed in the book’s dedication.) Yet she hardly takes time to reflect upon her own emotions and impressions of events. She describes them as a journalist would, detached from the events as they occur and simply relating the facts. Perhaps the emotions are too painful for her, or perhaps they’re buried deep under the surface. All I know is that I found myself seeking more.

Perhaps it’s selfish, but I wanted her to expose her vulnerabilities, to tell me something that I couldn’t have found out from anyone else. All she did was to point out the failings of others, which seemed very … inconsiderate, or even rude … to me. Yes, those are the right words, even though they’re harsh. Rude. Inconsiderate. She rails against silence while belittling everyone except herself. Somehow this book went against how I felt a memoir should be written: with a third eye turned inwards.

On a side note, I’ve been obsessively watching every FIFA World Cup match this weekend. I hope to read at least one or two of the Daily Beast’s top five soccer books before the end of the World Cup.

I’ve just switched to WordPress from my former home at Vox. My WordPress is going to be more focused, centering only on book reviews. I was able to import some of my old reviews from Vox, which are visible below.

I’d like to introduce the concept for this new blog before I launch into a string of reviews. My username, capacityforwings, is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson entitled “From the Chrysalis.”

Here’s the poem, if you’re interested.

My cocoon tightens, colors tease,
I’m feeling for the air;
A dim capacity for wings
Degrades the dress I wear.

A power of butterfly must be
The aptitude to fly,
Meadows of majesty concedes
And easy sweeps of sky.

So I must baffle at the hint
And cipher at the sign,
And make much blunder, if at last
I take the clew divine.

The poem expresses that life can emerge from something inorganic. In the same spirit, books, which are inorganic objects, can impact us so profoundly that they turn into organic emotions and even actions. This impresses me so much that I’d like to write about it! What’s more, I’d like to develop my own critical voice and realize my own capacity for wings. Here’s to a new start on WordPress!

This book had been on my list for a couple of years, but I kept putting it on the back-burner. Why should I read a book about food, of all things? Aren’t there more important issues to be reading about than what we put into our mouths? Nevertheless, last week at the library, I saw it lying neglected on a cart and I decided to borrow it on a whim. And what a good whim it was! I learned quickly that food is indeed one of the most important issues to be reading and thinking about these days.

 

I like that this book has no polemical food agenda. It doesn’t really argue for fast food, slow food, local food, organic food, or foraged food. It doesn’t preach. What it does do is make the reader much more conscious of his/her food choices through a careful examination of four very different meals, from field to plate.

 

This brings me to an important point that Pollan emphasizes frequently. Food does come from a field, that is, a plant. It’s hard to imagine that Twinkies, Fruit Roll-Ups, and Doritos come from plants sometimes. Actually, it’s more like one plant — corn. Maybe you’ve heard, maybe you haven’t — but high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), maltodextrin, modified corn starch, etc. are in many of the convenience foods we eat. Using very scientific (… okay, bordering on too scientific) analysis, Pollan examines the evolutionary path of corn and how this humble vegetable came to dominate our plates. He concludes that corn won the evolutionary rat-race, so to speak, with its large edible kernels and other usable, though non-edible, parts. Meanwhile humans, who can eat all sorts of diverse foods, are reduced to mostly eating this one measly grass. He writes about a fast-food meal from McDonalds where the beef is fed corn instead of normal grass, the chicken nuggets are coated with cornstarch, and the Coke is full of HFCS. He goes further to say that the “natural fruit flavor” in your Fruit Roll-Up is probably a corn product as well, not a cheese product. “Okay,” you’re probably saying, “But I’ve heard all of this already. HFCS is bad for you, blah blah blah. Fast food gives you heart attacks, blah blah blah.”

 

So maybe you’ve switched to organic food thinking it’s healthier for you. Happy bovines grazing verdant green pasture. Chickens clucking happily in the loam. Ah, the beauty of the organic farm… Right? Wrong, at least partially, according to Pollan.

 

In the chapter entitled “Big Organic,” Pollan visits an organic chicken farm to check out if the “pastoral narrative” on their egg boxes is really as idyllic as the image it conjures in the mind’s eye. Unfortunately, he only discovers chickens living in stifling conditions similar to traditional chicken farms, with the exception that they are not fed antibiotics. Sadly, this farm still meets federal organic regulations, which are now incredibly lax due to farmers’ pressures on government officials. The “free range” that the chickens are allowed to roam is not an open field, but rather a narrow strip of grass at the edge of their enclosure which, if anything, the chickens seemed to be avoiding. Since they are kept in conditions similar to factory farms sans antibiotics, the chickens have to be carefully protected from pathogens and humans have to wear biohazard suits before entering the plant. I wonder what’s worse – having the chickens in such an environment with antibiotics, or without. The same goes for organic dairy products.

The egg-mobile, a humane contraption for moving chickens around the farm. Polyface Farm, Virginia.

Local food would seem to be a good solution, but it has many obstacles to deal with. Of all the alternatives, I think that buying local is the most feasible, effective way to know what you’re eating. Purchasing local food builds community, allows buyers and suppliers to interact, and encourages us to eat seasonally. Many proponents of local food are also a part of the Slow Food movement, which calls for buying locally, cooking fresh foods, and sitting down to eat them slowly with family. But Pollan points out many of its drawbacks, which include:

 

A) People in cities find it difficult to find local foods. I identify with this because I live largely in New York, and I can rarely find fresh fruits and vegetables like I can find in New Jersey.

 

B) Local food is expensive, and low-income individuals may only be able to afford fast food. This is a terrible predicament because fast food perpetuates the cycle of poverty and obesity. At a Slow Food event I attended in Boston, the speakers mentioned the hidden costs of fast food. Even though these people may be buying cheaper food monetarily speaking, they are bankrupting their health and their environments. Ultimately, however, local food needs to become affordable in order to reach the people who need it most.

 

C) Local food does not have the government-backed financial support it needs. Corn and dairy farmers make their livings off of government subsidies. Local farmers have no such subsidies, which forces them to pass their costs on to the consumers. This is part of the reason that local food is so expensive relative to what you might find in the supermarket, or even in organic stores like Whole Foods.

 

D) Local food is not scalable. Organic food is. The economics is simple. There are huge sacrifices to the food’s integrity when local farmers scale up beyond a certain threshold, whereas organic farmers can operate on a large scale while maintaining government standards. What do I mean by the “food’s integrity”? Suppose a local farmer decides to expand his ten-acre lettuce production to a hundred-acre lettuce production. He has a surplus that he can’t sell locally, so he has to use fossil-fuel-burning refrigerated trucks to ship the food somewhere else. This totally defies the concept of “local” and renders it meaningless.

 

All of these factors combined mean that, unfortunately, local food is better in concept than in practice. At least in the bigger scheme of things, that is. If you can afford to buy local, and are near a reputable farm, I would commend the decision to switch. Local farmers burn less fossil fuels, use less pesticides, and are usually more aligned with the community’s interests.

 

In the last part of the book, Pollan describes his journey to cooking a fully foraged meal. That is, he hunted and gathered almost everything on his plate in order to achieve what he called “full consciousness” of his meal. This seemed like a logical conclusion to a book that began with fast food, wandered into organic food, and tasted the potential of local food. Foraging a meal is mostly not practical, but Pollan knows that. He went through great difficulty (including a week of cooking in advance), to gather the ingredients and create the meal. He even killed a wild boar while hunting, and discussed the implications of animal cruelty in the context of human omnivorousness. After hearing about his journey, I really wanted to try foraging myself. But on second thought, I think I’d probably kill myself with a toxic mushroom.

 

So what did this book mean for me? It didn’t turn me into a vegan or a vegetarian, a slow eater or an organic eater. I liked that this book didn’t push me in any direction, choosing instead to present the facts and allowing me to decide for myself. As Pollan said, it was more of a journey towards “consciousness” of what was on my plate. Many of the facts in this book were familiar to me, but Pollan’s concise journalistic writing style combined with personal anecdotes made it so enjoyable to read. On its Wikipedia page (ahem), The Ominvore’s Dilemma is listed as one of the non-fiction books that reads most like fiction, and I would have to agree. This was one of the first non-fiction page-turners I’ve ever encountered. Props to Pollan for this wonderful book.

 

Michael Pollan, center, visits Richmond Gardens.

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Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a lyrical, sensuous postcolonial novel that takes place in a small Sudanese village. If you’ve read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, you’ll recognize several of the novels themes, which include racism, sexism, corruption, and moral decay. The key difference is that Salih’s work is taken from the perspective of the colonized rather than that of the colonizers. The central figure, Mustafa Sa’eed, draws on the eroticism of his African Muslim background to seduce several European women while studying abroad in England. In this way he manages to enslave and brutalize Northerners, reversing the traditional roles of colonized and colonizer.

Mustafa Sa’eed is to Conrad’s Kurtz as Salih’s narrator is to Conrad’s Marlow. The unnamed narrator in this novel is a “secret sharer” of the central figure’s life story, much as Marlow is privy to the details of Kurtz’s life. Mustafa Sa’eed entices the narrator with an incomplete version of his sexual escapades in England, and after his death, establishes the narrator as the guardian of his children. This irrevocably links the narrator’s life with Sa’eed’s. As more details of Sa’eed’s life become apparent after his death, the narrator is slowly driven insane by the likeness of Sa’eed’s life to his own. Also educated in England, the narrator becomes torn between the tensions between South and North, hot and cold, passion and apathy. He finally decides to live individualistically, without concern for the similarities between himself and Mustafa Sa’eed, but this decision may have come too late.

One major theme of this novel is the failure of postcolonial government in Sudan. Salih describes a fictional (though certainly not fantastical) Minister of Education, who says that farmers and peasants should not be educated “beyond their means.” He claims that education will result in unrealistic aspirations to become a part of the bourgeoisie.  Meanwhile, the Minister vacations on a yacht, wears expensive jeweled rings, and flies in dresses from Harrod’s on a private jet for his wife. The novel also stresses that education does not necessarily lead to action, particularly in political affairs. The narrator, educated in British schools and working in the postcolonial government, is unable to create tangible changes in his native village. Meanwhile, his friend Mahjoub, who only passed through secondary school, leads the village Commission and brings improvements to the people’s quality of life.

Another theme is the tension between tradition and modernity, particularly relative to sexuality and marriage. The narrator falls in love with Sa’eed’s widow, Hosna, after his death, but lacks the courage to marry her. While he leaves the village on government affairs, a 70-year-old man claims her as his second wife against her will. She is forced to marry under the edict of her father and the village elders. Moreover, female circumcision is traditionally performed in the village and upheld by elders.

The poetic quality of this book is most impressive. The version that I read, the Heinemann edition, was translated from Arabic brilliantly by Denys Johnson-Davies and retains a lovely, lyrical luster. I highly recommend purchasing this edition for a couple of dollars on Amazon. Although Tayeb Salih’s prose sometimes borders on overkill, he knows precisely when to reign it in. The story is gripping apart from its poetic qualities. This is a novel packed with action, violence, and lust, among many other powerful emotions that keep readers engrossed throughout.

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