Saturday, March 28, 2009

Hunger by Elise Blackwell (revisited)

So, I've given the book a little more thought since yesterday. It's actually haunting. Like Brokeback Mountain, which I kind of liked and thought pretty good, but which then haunted me in a way I didn't expect after I left the theatre. That's how this book was. The book itself was interesting, with moments of lyrical prose and vibrant, sensual evocation. But it was only after, thinking about the protagonist, and his struggle with the moral compromise that he enacted, and how that shaped his sense of himself. He wouldn't have survived if he hadn't done what he did. But in surviving, he was forced to watch his strong, deeply-adored wife fade away. He did good things after, but there's still the sense of the disquiet of his own conscience. There are a lot of interesting issues explored in the book--the question of what it's acceptable to do for one's children, but not for oneself alone, the question of the different kinds of bravery and cowardice, the question of where you draw the line on what you will or won't do to survive. And of course, what amount of good works after would justify morally-questionable actions undertaken in one's past.

But it was the image of his wife, starving and dying, that haunted me the most. The notion that there can be golden, happy years in which there's little or no inkling of doom, and then suddenly everything changes and life unravels into sadness, loss and desperation. I think, because I've seen this so often, I actually live, waiting for that axe to fall. I don't feel any particular privelege, except the sense of gratitude that so far, I have lived in a peaceful and relatively prosperous time (even with the financial crisis, we haven't yet been reduced to eating bark, grass and dirt to try to feel full. We've lost a lot, but we're still a long way from that and relatively speaking, we are still a prosperous nation and people for the most part). It puts things into perspective, but it also makes me wonder if and when the axe will fall. Of course, we'll never know that. But knowing how often in times past, peaceful, prosperous lives have been shattered by large-scale disaster leaves me in no doubt as to the presence of the axe--nor of the fact that if I manage to live my life without it falling, at the societal, not the personal level (since to live is to have axes falling in one's personal life. That's just the nature of life itself), it will just be sheer good luck for me.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hunger by Elise Blackwell

Part of my new plan is to try to read a book a day, whenever possible. I have no restrictions on type of book (fiction, non-fiction etc). But, in preparation for law school, I need to apply some speed reading techniques to my regimen. In theory, this will provide me with that opportunity.

But alas, today, I didn't speed read. I just read, at normal pace, a relatively short book.

It's called Hunger. In a strange bit of synchronicity, it takes place during the siege of Leningrad, among a group of botanists who work at a seed bank. They are embattled because the prevailing theory of "vernalization"--i.e. the notion, put forth by Trofim Lysenko, that seeds can acquire and pass down traits that are not part of their genetic code, but that are rather, parts of environmental exposure--has meant that the government has decided to view bona fide geneticists as enemies of the state (vernalization became part of the official party policy and resulted in poor harvests and lots of suffering). This is later, as this small group must live daily with seeds but resist eating them in a time when people were eating dirt, and bark and so on in order to survive.

It's oddly synchronous because a week or so ago, Tom was telling me about Lysenko and his experiments. And then this past week, we heard about him in my Russian history lecture. And now, I stumble upon this book, which I bought years ago, when, for reasons unknown, the dollar store at the corner was suddenly getting really intriguing books in, which they in turn sold for a dollar. I'd come home with bags of books--a biography of Zora Neale Hurston, a couple of intriguing non-fiction treatises, a translation from Russian of a classic SF novel, a copy of Ender's Game that I gave to a friend, and so on. Very intriguing. This was one of them. The back cover mentions nothing about Lysenko nor Leningrad, for that matter. So it was really chance that I picked it up and opened it. And then I thought "I'd better read it--it's oddly relevant to the moment."

It's not long, which is why I managed to read it today without doing speed reading stuff--only 130, rather sparsely-printed pages. And it's not even full trade size.

It's not a bad book. I didn't find it wonderful, but perhaps it is meant to be dwelt upon for longer than a day.

She uses the recurring motif of Babylon to create a parallel between two lost cities--the Leningrad that existed before the war, and Babylon. It's an imperfect parallel, I think, in the sense that there's a feeling of halcyon days and glorious idylls to do with Babylon, whereas prewar Leningrad was no fun, because the purges were in full swing. But she does keep the chronology somewhat unclear, so a reader might not realise this. She describes the protagonist's halcyon days in Leningrad years before (and elsewhere as he travels to collect seeds), but doesn't go into all the details of the purges and oppression of the late 30s. So, in the book it seems like the dark times somehow came with the war, though this isn't really the case.

On the other hand, perhaps her intention is to create the parallel between Babylon and the seedbank and the people who populated that, in search of knowledge and the stories and histories hidden in ancient grains.

She has an evocative writing style--an occasionally remarkable turn of phrase. Similarly, the halcyon days, both abroad and in Leningrad are encapsulated in prose that has a luminous, vibrant clarity to it that is nice to read. It seems a crime to skip over such carefully crafted prose.

I don't know how I shall do it. But that will be one of my projects for the summer--to work on improving my reading speed, but also to work on being able to turn it on and off at will. Skim here, read closely there.

This book was pleasant but only occasionally moved me, and then not all that deeply. The imagery surrounding the hunger was sometimes potent, as was her evocation of detail in what people would eat in order to sate it--which was tragic. Also, the wife, Alena's, inability to have children, of course struck a poignant note for me.

A final element that struck me was the protagonist's talk of how it would have been easier with children (in his opinion) because then, during the starvation, the justification would have come more easily. It is more acceptable to steal and to do extreme, morally-questionable things when your child's life is at stake. People understand and accept that, where they judge those who would do the same to save their own lives.

But I'm not dwelling on it overlong--there is too much else to do, though I hate giving any novel, particularly a well-crafted one that has obviously taken a lot of work and research, short shrift. There are undoubtedly layers and nuances that I have missed in my quick read through of it.

Still, for now, that is the nature of the undertaking. I'm writing this--coming back to this blog--to remind me of my impressions of the books I read during this undertaking.

And as for this one--if a fictionalized visioning of the subject matter interests you, then by all means, track it down. It was interesting, but not deeply potent, for me.