Cherry dumplings on a Sunday afternoon

The Radetzky MarchThe Radetzky March by Joseph Roth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s very difficult to describe the pitch of this book, its approach to the military and administrative life of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the years before WWI. I’m tempted to use the word ‘camp’, which Susan Sontag delineates as ‘failed seriousness’. It is not quite satire, because it is too sincere, but it is certainly not serious in the sense except in its pathetic, touching sincerity. All of the Trottas and almost everyone else in the book has this quality. The significant exception is the generous, sensible, hedonistic (I use these words carefully) nobleman Chojnicki, who, in more than one sense sees the gathering storm and its consequences. If it were not for Chojnicki, the book might be unbearable; the intellectual and emotional balance of the book hangs on him as on a tent pole.

While it is Chojnicki’s clear-sightedness that throws the rest of the cast into campy tragic silliness, he himself actively facilitates the carnival atmosphere, relieving the corrosive boredom of military life in peacetime and keeping up the appearance of high old world civilisation in the manner of a string quartet playing on the doomed deck of the Titanic. On the night that the news of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination reaches them (I trust this isn’t a spoiler), our protagonist Carl Joseph and his colleagues are capering about festooned with paper garlands at one of Chojnicki’s parties, and as the band drunkenly play Chopin’s Funeral March, the guests dance. This is the decadence that the war crunched up and swallowed, along with Herr Trotta’s pantomime of self adornment, along with a generation of men across Europe. Roth’s painting of this world is ridiculous, and never even slightly sentimental, but it is impossible not to be moved by it.

Roth’s rendering of physical detail is exquisite, even excessive; I feel it’s a modernist device. His lengthy dwellings on food and dinners are as lavish as Woolf’s, if less frequent. However, as Michael Hofman’s introduction points out, The Radetzky March is full of action, of meaningful plot. Rather than expanding days or hours like Woolf and other modernists, Roth spans generations like a Russian classic, with the result that it feels like an epic. Actually though, it’s not a very long book; it has the tragic brevity of a meagre life cut short.

What kept me hungrily reading was Roth’s ability to capture the ineffable feelings of transcendence that attends pivotal and sometimes trivial moments of life by dramatising their attire, their context. Somehow he finds the right landscape feature, the right constellation of sense data, to make the sudden overwhelming symphony of emotion audible to me. I take off my hat to Hofman for his luminous, crystalline translation. The fruit of his labour is poetry.

The glimpses of Jewish lives offered in this book made me urgently want to read more of Roth’s reflections on this subject. I am usually fascinated by books from the pre-war and inter-war periods (like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s youthful memoirs) because they depict this glorious tapestry of life in Europe that was utterly destroyed. The Radestzky March focusses on the military pageantry of the last days of Austria-Hungary, but it contains, like precious stones, in the obscure yearnings of Carl Joseph, whose life is so disastrously misdirected, flashes of lives not woven of pomp and parade, about which Roth is almost romantically solicitous of sympathy, the lives of peasants and workers, culturally diverse, oppressed, mysterious to officialdom. Carl Joseph’s manservant Onufri and his (grand)father’s butler Jacques read, superficially, like fairytale cliche, but there is an undertow so treacherous and powerful that Roth has to break the wall to begin to express it. These types exist, he insists, and the caricatures of them in literature are ‘bad copies’. Herr Trotta and his son are, finally, morally and intellectually unworthy of those over whom they have power.

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War is kind to men

Sita's RamayanaSita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For a thousand years the Dandaka forest slept.

And then Sita arrives with her tale, and the solemn-eyed flowers listen. Beginning here, in a plea for shelter and help, I hold my breath, and feel the forest embrace me with the beautiful queen of Ayodha, my fellow daughter of the earth.

The forest – not this one in particular, but, The Forest as archetype – has many functions and many grades of presence and consciousness only hinted at in this short work, but the hints are so evocative I am lost, I am watching the action between leaves with arboreal stillness and distant music in my ears. Similarly, the world of gods, only touched in the book, expands endlessly beyond the edges of the frames.

I want Moyna Chitrakar’s paintings around me at all times; I don’t want to leave her forests of curves and stripes, people like monuments wrapped in pools of colour gathered by lines radiating energy. Her marks sing the world into being without losing the memory of her hands coaxing the paint, of her mind coaxing the hands. It’s landscape and portrait as felt, as spoken between poet and listener. When she paints the ocean there is only hard hostile serried squiggles, the sea’s treacherous meaning.

It’s obviously a hand-rubbing delight to have a woman re-oriented version of a classic ‘love’ story. Sita as both actor and thinker of the Ramayana puts the story in a light that’s very unflattering to Rama himself – what a jerk. Actually, my own acquaintance with the Ramayana goes back to high school, when, in religious studies class at age 14, I worked with a small group to produce a dramatic retelling of the story. I wrote the script, and played both Hanuman and Ravana. The story was presented to us then, and in my version, as a European style fairy tale in which the prince rescues the princess from the forces of evil and they live happily ever after. This is such a violent act of vandalism that I think I ought to make reparations to the gods of literature! The world of demons is here no more ‘evil’ than its earthly counterpart, in fact the entire episode is precipitated by a needless act of violence on the part of Rama’s brother Lakshmana (who never gets come-uppance for this or other culpable acts). Ravana imprisons Sita out of desire for her, and his family, fellow demons, try to set him straight. Some befriend Sita and help her. This place is no hell.

I loved the animal characters. Hanuman was by far the most heroic and impressive person in the book, mischievous, clever though uneducated, with inexplicable and inconsistent super powers. The beautifully painted birds Jatayu and Garuda, and the gorgeous creatures of the sea, all shaped the narrative and adorned the pages. I will read this again and again.

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There’s no home like freedom

The Girl Who Fell to EarthThe Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-Maria
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This memoir has a stranger-than-fiction appeal made all the more delectable by Al-Maria’s matter-of-fact, breezy delivery. She deploys language with a spring in its step and whimsy in its heart. The glossary alone made me feel I was drinking coffee and catching up with a friend I loved the space/sci-fi theme, which dissolved alienating boundaries between urban and traditional Beduin, Cairene and rural USian lifestyles, but left their quirks and contrasts intact. I felt Al-Maria’s relish and resentment in each setting, both longing for and recoiling from aspects of them all.

I was struck by Al-Maria’s observations of her Bedu grandmother’s lifestyle and the contrast between relaxed, communal, active and autonomous nomad living and the compressed, fractious, rigidly controlled and stultifying indoor life of the same people transferred to city apartments. I myself felt horribly trapped as she narrated her travails. I felt the weight, the intolerable weight of boredom, and the amused horror at garish, frilled and flounced ballgowns for the wedding, bought for the pleasure of self-adornment but also to display femme charms to potential mothers in law, since potential husbands are forbidden to see them. I would escape by any means necessary!

Yet this airless world was at least far less threatening than USian high school, high bastion of rape culture. I couldn’t stand that either. And although I believe I have the mad courage and the battle-scar badges to survive against the grain of conformity in that cruel culture, I hate its junk food-rotted guts.

It amused me that Sophia’s father upset his mother in law by slaughtering a lamb in her honour, but in the very next scene she is buying meat in the supermarket with him, making no connection between the unacceptable death of the cute lamb she’d loved and admired before it was killed and the less fresh pieces of flesh in her shopping basket.

As well as cracklingly contemporary vernacular, all splice and spice, that makes me love some new writing, the easy flowing prose has texture, sonority, chiaroscuro. The book is filmic, flowing from one carefully realised, richly visual scene to the next. Al-Maria painted images that sank into my memory, drawing life force from her tale’s veracity.

The Cairene part of the story broke my heart, and the final section left me stranded, longing to know where Sophia would go now, what she would do, who would help her and love her. Yet she had gone, I felt, back into the pathless desert, where all directions are open and the gleam and glitter of the stars, silver and gold, adorn the future with magical light. Where next is the sweetest dilemma…

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Eat Rice Have Faith In Women

The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical TheoryThe Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory by Carol J. Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recently my adult English class were studying the topic of ‘nature’ which had a section on ‘animals’. One of the opinions on the page was something along the lines of ‘the world would be a healthier and happier place if everyone went vegetarian and it would be good for the environment too’. After giving time for students to discuss this and other ideas, I asked if they agreed with it and was answered by a chorus of heartfelt ‘no!’s. Why not, I wanted to hear, and the students vehemently insisted that eating meat was essential to survival and health. You have to eat meat they said, using the strongest form for expressing obligation available to them. Since I’ve mentioned that I’m a vegan before, my students were arguing against the evidence standing in front of them, and perhaps I should have demanded an explanation as to how I had somehow survived for the past 16 years during which I haven’t eaten meat, but I focussed on dismissing The Protein Myth, which has folks believing that essential amino acids are missing from vegetable foods, or that the amino acids in such foods are not the same as the ones we need to make proteins in our bodies. I wanted to squash the bad science quickly and move the class on to ethical arguments. I was unprepared for this wall of resistance and strength of conviction in the necessity of meat.

I don’t know why I was so surprised, since I had been reading Carol Adams’ book ‘The Sexual Politics of Meat’, which addresses the mysterious difficulties of vegetarians to be heard over the dominance of ‘the texts of meat’. Since these are written into white culture we are heard as aggressive in our very refusal to partake. Plutarch is quoted suggesting vegetarians flip the question everyone asks us and invite the interlocutor to explain why they feel it’s alright to eat the dead flesh of animals, but this level of provocation usually backfires. One of the uses of spurious scientific arguments against vegetarianism is obviously to deflect the possibility of an ethical discussion; likewise the hypotheticals wise guys and gals love to bombard us with relating to desert islands and other unlikely situations. ‘What would you do if I put a gun to a cow’s head and threatened to pull the trigger if you refused to eat a burger?’ wondered a classmate of mine recently, surely begging the question ‘but… why would you do that?’

Anyway, while the terminology seemed a bit out of date to me, much of the analysis was valuable. The idea of meat as a macho food is overt, but Adams seeks to illuminate how deep the parallels run between the status and optics of women and of animals in white Euro-USian culture and society. I was actually most moved by the opening section in which she points out that women everywhere go without food, especially meat, to ensure that men eat well and eat meat. The discussion of rape though, made neither logical nor intuitive sense to me, and I lost the thread of the argument at times.

A key topic that does resonate for me is the development of meat consumption. Adams identifies four historical stages, the first being vegetarianism, followed by hunting, followed by subsistence farming, followed by industrialised agri-business. The Euro-USian world is obviously in ‘the fourth stage’, which is mostly pretty horrific. Adams considers meat-eating on the scale of this cultural group to be enmeshed with white supremacy and to some extent imposed with colonisation around the world. Listening to Radio 4’s Farming Today I regularly hear reports on British farmers seeking expanding markets in ‘BRIC’ countries where animalised and feminised protein (meat, dairy products and eggs in Adams’ terminology) are being consumed in increasing quantities. The analysis on the radio never gets beyond ‘they want it because they can afford it now’, continually reinforcing the food hierarchy with meat at the top. Little attention is paid to the health or environmental implications, or the farmers’ intention to create demand. Compassion for ‘livestock’ is obviously unmentionable.

While I appreciate Adams’ reflections on meat-eating as white supremacy, and agree with her critique of Pat Parker’s poem ‘To my Vegetarian Friend’, I feel the aspect of intersections between culture and racism and meat industries is underdeveloped. Reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of many books that confronts me with the fact that Black slaves in the US were treated far worse even than animals raised for food who, as Adams points out, receive ‘the trappings of care’ from humans, I am reminded that white veg*ans like myself are regularly guilty of <a href="
” rel=”nofollow”>reinflicting, reinscribing or callously ignoring white supremacy and other aspects of kyriarchy. This week I read about <a href="
” rel=”nofollow”>vegans of colour protesting the antics of Thug Kitchen. The Sistah Vegan Project and other thoughtful, intersectional work should be required reading for vegan activists!

Still, Adams started the ball rolling taking veggies to task for misogyny, not that it’s over. Tweeting as my local Green Party branch on the topic of raising the number of women in parliament, I received a response from a white man: “why not focus on helping animals instead? #govegan” presumably, only male animals. Adams makes an intriguing connection between the fragmentation of animal bodies and of texts, specifically, the silencing of women’s texts and especially as ‘bearers of the vegetarian word’. It is important that Frankenstein, much analysed and admired, has been ignored as a vegetarian text, and also that so many attempts have been made to attribute it to Shelley’s husband, since it’s inconceivable that a woman can have written something so brilliant. I really enjoyed the literature analysis, and I will add veg*anism to the lenses I try to look through in my reading, as it seems to be all too rarely applied.

One of the questions addressed by Adams’ analysis is that of why women, and specifically some feminists, have been drawn to vegetarianism. Aside from the clear association of meat and masculinity, to what extent have women embraced plant based diets as a form of protest against patriarchal violence? Because feminism and vegetarianism both tend to be ridiculed and excluded from mainstream discourse, there is a need for loving excavation of vegetarian reflections in woman oriented texts, such as the work of Alice Walker.
She mentions an (Victorian?) article about teenage girls who refuse to eat meat, which treats the behaviour as an eating disorder (but, happily, recommends kindness and healthy alternatives, not coercion). This apparently common experience of the body rejecting meat, of meat becoming ineffably wrong was my own at the age of fourteen. Disgust is a strange emotion, and I still cannot say whether mine has its roots in my conscience. I can only say that as I have removed animal products from my diet, I have ceased to see them as food, and increasingly I can’t imagine how I ever ate them. I was led to vegetarianism by disgust, and ethical conviction followed; perhaps then, I act, and afterwards find my action good! Going vegan though, I was led by concern for hungry people and warming planet, and compassion for other animals, and disgust came after. It is not possible for me to separate them – when asked why I am vegan, I say ‘all the reasons’, so I knot that this journey out of eating animals is very personal and full of obstacles. I have to thank countless people for clearing my way, including Adams, but I also have to acknowledge many privileges that have enabled me, such as money, time, whiteness, education, and living in a place with an active and creative vegan community where veganism has some recognition.

I am publishing this review in celebration of the start of World Vegan Month and the 70th birthday of the Vegan Society! I invite all my readers to get involved in some delicious way – you definitely don’t have to be vegan to <3 vegan ice cream, for example ; )

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On the Spiritual Telegraph

The BalloonistThe Balloonist by MacDonald Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is always a rough edge in tech, where afficionados tinker with half-known science. Nowadays it might seem that physics frontiers are out of reach of amateur enthusiasts, and that you need a doughtnut-shaped tunnel many kilometres long buried under the middle of Europe and gigajoules of energy to find out anything new, but there are still unfashionable and expensive things to do, like scan the sky for approaching asteroids, that are, I believe still more or less in the hands of communities of uncoordinated volunteers. MacDonald Harris has captured the spirit of the optimistic era before WWI when many of the protagonists of STEM fields were ‘gentleman amateurs’ messing about with magnetic fields and Leden jars, and parties of explorers set out to plant their white male feet on the sketchy bits of the map.

The topic in focus, meticulously researched and painted in thrillingly evocative detail, is ballooning, but not with hot air and burners, but with hydrogen, The delicate matter of managing buoyancy is tortuously clear; I felt it in my belly, and finally in every poetically-sensitve nerve. We spend this novel in the delightfully bizarre psyche of a brilliant scientist-explorer, who, being Swedish and of an obssessive, exacting character, deploys English with unnerving and at times slightly unnatural precision. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the ‘spiritual telegraph’ he builds to ‘listen to’ weather at a distance using a ‘Bell receiver’, a crystal of galena and a coiled aerial, and the Schadenfreude he feels on inspecting a rival method of steering a balloon to his own delicate scheme of trailing guide ropes, and finding it impracticable. It is typical of the major (and the book’s style generally) that he dislikes the idea of the zeppellin (which was soon to make deadly contributions to the war) since its cigar shape made it phallic, in contrast to the favoured feminine contours of the balloon.

All this geeky detail, while one of the book’s chief pleasures, is co-passenger to the love story that steers the protagonist and his crew through his reveries on the way to the pole. While the major is amusingly resistant to and contemptuous of feminism, he responds to te question of whether a woman can perform some technology related action with the observation that only experts can tell female and male skeletons apart; he cannot locate the impulse towards supporting gender equality anywhere but in physical science. The major is out of his depth in Luisa’s feminine world, but that Harris is able to invest this world with such depths as well as limits that are in fierce contention; borders of gender, sexuality and empowerment, makes for a novel that expands internally, beyond the journey that is its ostensible subject, beyond the limits of its narrator’s vision. Luisa’s intellect is formidable and she seems physically and psychologically indomitable. Savant, person of colour, owning her desires and engineering their fulfilment, she wears the costs of independence, the scars and worse. Harris stays respectfully out of her head.

I would like to talk about vegetarian ideas in The Balloonist. The major describes one of his passengers, the bluff American journalist Waldemer as a lover of machines, and efficiency. Part of this ongoing characterisation consists of: “An animal to him is something to be looked at through a gun sight, something that falls down and turns into meat when the exquisite mechanism of the trigger is actuated”

This reflection is recorded at the start of the novel, when meat-eating is not taking place. However, later Waldemer kills animals for meat, for example a polar bear, and once again the major reflects on this creature as a living being in extraordinary language: “Did the bear ask to show us that he was red inside? He wanted only to be left alone with his wife and children. Did we debate with him like rational creatures whether his life was more important than our own?”

The killing is described in a completely unheroic way. The bear is shot at a distance and seen lying dead on the ice close to his family.

As well as offering me food for thought as a feminist, vegan and physics-fan, Harris offers me rich nourishment as a linguist from cover to cover in this work! Here’s a random sample

Pennsylvania is freckled with iron mills, but muriatic acid was expensive. I was forced to resort to my own pocketbook to buy another demijohn, which had to be brought out from Harrisburg in a wagon. In any case, the ascension was postponed until the next day, when everything in fact worked faultlessly and Waldemer and I soared for an hour over various neat farms divided into rectangles, landing finally in a rye field. Professor Eggert followed us in a shay drawn by an intelligent mare that had learned a good deal about the movements of balloons and was able to trace out their landing places with hardly any guidance from the reins.

Phillip Pullman is a fan, and Harris’ influence is detectable in the former’s work. If you like Pullman, I daresay you will like this. I’m rounding up from 4.5 stars.

Oh I forgot to mention how funny the book is! It’s hard to believe that Harris found room for such hilarity, but he had me chuckling helplessly on the bus over many of the major’s thoughts. A multi-layered masterpiece indeed!

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I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the TalibanI Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To all the girls who have faced injustice and been silenced. Together we will be heard.

Some months ago Media Diversified’s editors described Malala Yousafzai as the bravest girl in the world. That accolade will always be pinned to her chest in my mind after reading this, in which I learned that the most courageous do not know they are brave.

Folks will read this, perhaps, to discover what made Malala; what familial context and historical moment was capable of producing her. Her account of her birth, her welcome into the world by her father, is in heartbreaking contrast to the reception of most girls who share her background. She was made to feel special, and she became someone with the self-confidence to stand up for her rights, to aspire to be a politician even in the shadow of the murder of her icon Benazir Bhutto, to title her story ‘I am’.

Nevertheless, what is extraordinary about Malala seems dwarfed by what is not. Her story is universal on the one hand, in that she is like young learning-lovers everywhere – bright school girls preoccupied with competing to come top of the class, falling out with besties and getting into mild mischief, and particular in the sense of local context; her life as a Pashtun in Swat and as a young Muslim. In many ways, Malala fits comfortably into the time and place of her birth. She loves her valley, described as the most beautiful place in the world, and is at home in her cultural and religious traditions, sharing her father’s convictions on the need to develop gender equality and rights.

The machinations of the Taliban and related groups, the Pakistani state and the USA are all discussed here with clarity; the book has apparently been written for maximum accessibility. I was grateful for the political background, but what I really loved, what emerged glittering, astonishing, bright as the sun, was the image of an ordinary life completely unfamiliar to me. I have no idea, I never hear, how Pashtun teenagers live, how teenagers everywhere beyond the walls of Euro-N America live, except rarely, selectively, through the tinted and shape-shifting lenses of literature.

There are a few disquieting moments here when Malala mentions the use of skin-lightening creams, which she and her friends have used uncritically. However, she is forthright about faults and mistakes – her tendency to get into jealous arguments, and a time when she stole from a friend, showing self-awareness and maturity.

Yesterday I heard that Malala had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. I saw her on TV, her sunny face smiling yet serious, framed by her bright hijab as she opened a Birmingham library (now, we in the UK are graced by her presence, though in her book she makes clear her wish and deeply felt longing to return), as she waved to cameras, the politician in training. I look at her with love, with an ache in my chest, the passion of a fan.

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Wet Petals

Faces in the Crowd Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Arranged in short stream-of-consciousness style vignettes, this book is pretending not to be a novel, though what it is in disguise as is hard to pin down; is it a journal? A memoir? I am not very patient with plotless characterless fiction and I increasingly skimmed, but I did enjoy the presence of the toddler; his leavening questions and opinions.

What distinguishes the book from others and makes it contemporary is its close-to-the-boneness, its disturbingly risky-seeming self-referentiality. In this, it reminded me of Stevie Smith’s autobiographical not-really-novels, and it might also claim The Hour of the Star among its relations in terms of subject and tone. However, in contrast to Lispector’s, Luiselli’s narrator lives a literary texture, haunted by poets and poetry.

Luiselli made me feel my own emotional inadequacy at least; she made me feel that there was someone to feel for in the protagonist, even if I could not actually feel for her. The anecdote about the deleted lines of Ezra Pound’s heartfelt poem was my favourite thought. The faces in the crowd, the wet petals, the shadows of love and memory: here Lusielli manages literature’s magic trick, the resurrection of feeling.

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