Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Borzoi, 2015

“The Buried Giant” doesn’t tell its story simply. On the face of it, it’s a simple tale. An elderly Briton couple- Axl and Beatrice- not valued by their little ‘village’, decide to pay their son a visit in the village nearby where he lives. On the way they meet a Saxon warrior and his injured charge, a knight, ogres, a swarm of nasty pixies, monks with deadly intent, boatmen who ask an awful lot of questions before ferrying his charges across to islands, and more. Many of these characters are not who they seem to be at first. The knight is Sir Gawain, despite King Arthur being long gone. The boatmen, despite working a real river, are the ferrymen of the dead. Even Axl isn’t the peasant he appears to be.

Axl and Beatrice are in love with and devoted to each other. Beatrice addresses Axl as ‘husband’ and he calls her “princess” – I’m afraid to say that I did laugh a bit at this, being put in mind of ‘The Princess Bride’. They never want to be more than a couple of steps apart.

An odd mist lies over the land; it brings forgetfulness, both of recent events and those long past. It lies in patches, so that sometimes Axl and Beatrice can remember things they previously couldn’t. This leads them to wonder: if there were bad things in their past, would they be better off forgetting them? No, they decide. Those events made them who they are today. But while remembering is good for Axl and Beatrice, it isn’t best for everyone. Sometimes it’s best to let the past be shrouded in forgetfulness for the sake of happiness and peace. Axl and Beatrice can forgive- have forgiven- their past errors; that’s a lot harder for large groups of people.

I read this book over about 24 hours; when I would take a break I needed to shake my head to clear the mists out. The story enchanted me, in the same way that Arthurian legend and Tolkien’s word does, despite being told in plain language without the flourishes or old fashioned language of many myths. I loved this book. 

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden, by Vita Sackville-West and Sarah Raven. St. Martin’s Press, 2014

Sissinghurst is the garden created by Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicholson. They bought a Tudor era property that was nearly in ruins (it has a moat! And a tower!), fixed up the buildings without much modernization, and then, with Harold laying out the hardscape and Vita dealing with the plants themselves, made a garden that became very famous. Sissinghurst is the home of the famous (among gardeners) White Garden. Vita orchestrated a very lush garden, packed with flowers- especially scented flowers- that looked like they had sprung up naturally. Of course, it took a great deal of knowledge –and a couple of full time gardeners- to keep this looking natural.

150,000 people a year visit Sissinghurst to this day. While it has had changes- some plants didn’t do well, some just got old- the bones and spirit of the garden Vita created remain in place. Sarah Raven is a garden writer who has had the privilege of living at Sissinghurst for a while- she is married to Vita’s grandson. She considers herself the co-author of this book; she has mined Vita’s prodigious writings and included passages from them in the text. With this, we can see what Vita was trying to achieve in the garden and it’s a very interesting look inside. The book includes many black and white photos of the garden, inside the buildings, and Vita and her family; a few modern day color photos are also included. Very interesting for anyone interested in garden design from the viewpoint of living intimately with the garden 365 days a year.

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way influenced my review.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas. Free Press, 2010

I was loath to put this book down once I started it. It held my interest like a well-crafted novel would- for the most part. The author’s premise is that empires expand when they have good sources of food (mainly grain), and then, when the food sources fail the empire collapses. They present the Mayans, Mesopotamia, the Romans, the British Empire, modern China, and modern America among others, and they paint a pretty scary picture.

Sadly, their scholarship doesn’t match their writing. The British Empire didn’t fail because of a shortage of grains. Some of the dates given are just wrong; in at least one case, that makes what they are saying impossible (that a certain event caused something).

The book jumps around in time and place; I found it rather jolting at times to make the connections. For some reason, they felt they could bind a lot of the events together with the story of the world roaming trader Carletti, but they don’t even give him a continuous narration. He really had nothing to do with their thesis.

What was good about it? It does examine food surplus and scarcity. To be a food empire, the empire must be able to produce or capture a surplus of grains. They must be able to ship it to all its area, and trade it for other things, both necessities and luxuries. Having more food than your own population also gives a society another, very important, thing: when there is enough food that not everyone has to be a farmer, people can do other things, like learn to read and write, become artisans, and go exploring. Being able to have a non-farmer class gave us civilization.

They also go over why the food surpluses ceased to be. Irrigation that created over saline soils, loss of soil nutrients, loss of soil itself due to erosion, lowering of average temperatures by even one degree makes plants take longer to ripen grain, lack of rain- all these things can create disaster. And we are facing that again today: today we face climate change, soil erosion, drought, and the fact that the vast majority of grain growing (and, hence, meat producing) relies on petroleum inputs- and we are fast running out of petroleum.

The authors do not have an answer to our possible/probably plight. One thing they do suggest isn’t something that will work for most areas of the world: becoming locavores. Eating only foods grown within a circumscribed area at least remedies the amounts of fuel used to truck and process foods. Now, a big city, with all its suburbs, covers a huge area with blacktop and concrete and will have few areas for growing foods- and it takes a LOT of area to grow grains and frankly no one wants a pig farm next door. Our area, despite being rural, cannot successfully feed itself. The soils are not rich enough to support much beyond grass hay and cattle. The growing season is too short to ripen grain a lot of years- not to mention many fruits and vegetables. It’s possible on a small scale to ripen peppers and tomatoes by protective coverings but it would take a LOT of greenhouses to feed the county year round.

What this book does is point out a lot of different aspects of food supplies and make you think about them. For that I give it four stars. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way influenced my review.