Barkskins – book review

28597330Annie Proulx may have kept her fans waiting fourteen years between novels, but with her new release Barkskins she has rewarded their loyalty with more than 700 epic pages spanning three centuries. Opening with the arrival of two indentured servants (René Sel and Charles Duquet) in the dense forests of New France in 1693, Barkskins tells the story of these two men and their descendants and the livelihoods forged through logging red cedars. Through them, in turn, she also tells the story of the rise of American capitalism, the ‘assimilation’ and marginalisation of the native Americans, and the environmental devastation of the continent.

I know Proulx can be a marmite writer, and if you haven’t liked her previous books you are very unlikely to enjoy this. I’m a Proulx fan, but I found this one harder work than her usual fare. Partly this is because it is so long; partly because the vastness of the story means we don’t have full connection and resolution in the successive generations – mostly, I fear, because life got in the way of my reading it properly. This isn’t a book to be read on buses and moments snatched between appointments, but one worthy of full and proper focus. This isn’t to say I didn’t like it – other than the ending, I did – but I wish I had saved it for a rainy few days off to immerse in it properly and do it justice.

 We might start off in dense forest, but the lure of money drives these loggers forward into brave new worlds and adventures on the high seas – Europe, Asia, New Zealand and the Amazon basin are all depicted. As historical fiction, it’s done just how I like it – the encyclopaedic knowledge built up in over a decade of research is completely woven into the narrative, rather than having random facts crowbarred in just so they could be used. Sure you might have known that the possibility of increased risk taking opened up by the invention of corporations was a huge economic driver, but did you know that the importation of large amounts of coffee directly led to the working day becoming longer? Even more so I enjoy historical fiction of ‘small lives’, as if there is such a thing as an ordinary person. None of these characters are present when Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. are assassinated – they live their lives against the historical background, rather than players in the main events, as the vast majority of us do.

 If you have read any Proulx you’ll know she bumped off characters with a regularity and brutalness that George R.R. Martin can only dream of emulating – happily for the ghoulish, Barkskins is no exception. The easy quashing of individuals, even as each successive generation of individuals steals something precious from the earth and damages it irreparably, is just one way of drawing our attention out from individual people and towards the vastness of nature. I hope everyone who reads this book realises how each generation never fully comprehended the scale of their own destructiveness; never took the simple steps to stop environmental destruction; looks at their own lives and realises that in a big picture scenario sometimes no one appears to be at fault because everyone is at fault – and makes some changes. There is no Planet B.

 Barkskins is published by HarperCollins Fourth Estate and is available in bookstores now. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.


Hair of the cat

Day #9 of Veganuary and I’m feeling pretty darn good if I’m honest. I fully intended to write a blog impressively full of tips and packed with photos and recipes of the simple delicious vegan goodness we’ve been having the last few days but… it’s Saturday. So instead here’s the recipe for the dangerously delicious milky vegan cocktail Himself whipped up this evening.


To make Hair of the Cat you’ll need:

  • One measure of Ponche*
  • One measure of Malibu
  • 12.5g of ginger dark chocolate (we used half a bar of Moser Roth from Aldi which is cheap as chips and delicious)
  • Five whole shelled hazelnuts
  • 500ml of coconut milk.

Simply blend all the ingredients together and serve in your receptacle of choice. The above will make roughly a pint, but instead of a pint glass I’ve just put some in a jam-jar for the picture like an insufferable hipster bastard 🙂 Enjoy!

*We used our favourite Spanish liqueur Ponche de Caballero, but this would work just as well with Tia Maria or Kahlua instead.



Becoming one of them?

After over two decades of vegetarianism, I’m trying veganism for the first time this January. I’m joining over 20,000 people and counting who have signed up to Veganuary 2016 pledging to live without meat, fish, dairy and all other animal based food for thirty-one days. Pretty much the entire family got a nasty bout of gastroenteritis during the no-mans land between Christmas and New Year – and so the start of Veganuary went without a hitch. It’s very easy to be vegan when you literally aren’t eating anything! I’m writing this on Day #7, but for normal eating purposes it’s more like Day #3. So the food has yet to prove an issue but mentally it’s already taking it out of me if I’m honest.

You see, even as a vegetarian I found vegans a bit… off. Weird even. It all seemed so extreme. What on earth were they eating? How did they cope without a decent cup of tea?! I don’t get what the problem is with wool? Or with honey? Bees love honey, don’t they?! Vegucated is a highly watchable documentary currently streaming on Netflix which follows three meat and cheese loving New Yorkers as they attempt to be vegan for six weeks. I watched it for the first time last week and wholly identified with the Vegucated crazysequence where director Marisa Miller Wolfson talks about how she had always thought vegans were weird. Later Brian, one of the three subjects of the documentary, confesses the same. Yup – that’s how I felt for a long time. It didn’t help that the only vegans I met for many years were either hard-core animal activists (the animal version of the awful placarding pro-life nuns who used to terrorise O’Connell St in the 90s) or incredibly unhealthy people with skin conditions who literally cut animal produce out of their diet and subsided on pasta and other refined carbs. So an opinion formed in my mind a long time ago – veganism was not for me. It was too dogmatic, too preachy, there were too many rules and fundamentally I didn’t exactly enjoy myself around the vegans I had met. And like any opinion held for a long time, it’s calcified within me. I’m now doing Veganuary and I’m still thinking –hmmm. Vegan. Am I now one…of them? Continue reading “Becoming one of them?”

Good-place, No-place, My Place or Yours? : Herland

The first Utopia was written by Sir Thomas More in 1516, the name coined from the Greek eu-topos, meaning ‘a good place’ – or perhaps ou-topos meaning ‘no place’. As this inherently conflicted word moved beyond the original text into common parlance describing any perfect society, we owe a debt to More’s original pun – for can there ever be such a thing? Over at the feminist classics reading project, April’s read is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopian novel Herland, first published in 1915.

As with all utopian literature, plot-wise the reader is in no fear of passing out from excitement – lengthy descriptions of societal structures are key to the entire purpose of Herland. In a nutshell, three young male Americans, fresh from a tipoff from a “savage” on a previous exploration, set off in a “flying machine” to discover a fabled country comprised only of women. Terry is bulging of bicep and majestic of mustache and very much a ‘man’s man’, which then as now is a nice way of saying ‘arrogant lout’. Jeff, bless ‘im, is a southern gentleman who places the fairer sex on a pedestal (to his credit, not to look up their skirts), while our narrator, Van, is a sociologist more than a little blinded to how partial his “scientific” thinking can be. Upon arriving in Herland, they soon encounter the ‘natives’, whom they find to be dignified, rational and alarmingly athletic. Our intrepid trio are taken prisoner in the nicest way possible (“…we were borne inside, struggling manfully, but held secure most womanfully in spite of our best endeavours”) and are taught the native language while simultaneously teaching their appointed guides English. It transpires that all the men of Herland were wiped out in a catastrophe some 2000 years ago. Shortly after this, one young woman discovered she could reproduce by parthenogenesis and the current population of some three million women are all descended from her. The Herlanders have no history of or interest in sexual intercourse with the men, yet motherhood is the cornerstone of the Herland culture, and children treasured. Their society is without classes or competitiveness, vanity, illness, war, greed or crime. Continue reading “Good-place, No-place, My Place or Yours? : Herland”

Welcome to the Desert of Real: No Future for You

Since records began, 215,673 people have sworn that the world is going to end. It only takes one of them to be right…” promotion for the 1995 film Twelve Monkeys cautioned. In this installment I shall explore Gilliam’s post-apocalyptic time-travel story in relation to the issues raised in previous sections (space constraints decreeing that the film in its complex entirety cannot be dealt with here). As a result, I shall focus on the inherent dangers of postmodern attitudes to consumerism and technology, and their impact on perceptions of reality as Gilliam lays them before us. It will become apparent that both the societal breakdown of Fight Club and the technological dependence of The Matrix are prevalent in contemporary American society- and lead directly to its future underground.

[3:1]Any discussion of Twelve Monkeys must be aware of the possibility that rather than a time-loop paradox the entire narrative may simply be a prolonged psychotic episode. This is a possibility that the director deliberately kept to the fore by keeping the details of the future vague enough to have them simply be the product of James Cole’s (Bruce Willis) deranged mind (McCabe 167). That Cole’s psychiatrist in 1990, Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who is our anchor in the world of the film as she shares the ‘present’ with us (McMahon 148) comes to believe in Cole may prove only that madness is contagious. However, it may suggest he is telling the truth, since the first reminder of this contagion comes from mental patient Jeffery Goines (Brad Pitt), who imagines insanity “…oozing into the ears of all these poor sane people, infecting them- wackos everywhere, plague of madness! We are once again in the realm of uncertainty fostered by the breakdown of the cinematic reality already dealt with in Videodrome (and which has been Gilliam’s stock in trade since his Monty Python days).

The ceaseless linking of the post-apocalyptic world with contemporary society is problematic as a result of this breakdown of cinematic reality. The visual themes used to link the various temporal plains of the film- most notably the chicken wire that seems to cover every surface- serve to complicate matters further. For instance, is Cole imagining imprisonment in a wire cage in 2035 because he is already in an asylum with wire-coated windows? We are asked to question the likelihood of a time-traveller experiencing virtually the same sequence of events across the divide of forty-five years (Cole is roughly scrubbed down prior to facing a panel of scientists in both 2035 and 1990). As we are never at ease in any of Twelve Monkeys‘s realities, perhaps we are the monkeys that are being experimented upon. This is heightened by the allusions to Vertigo, which foreground the possibility the whole story is merely an elaborate deception (Strick Monkeys 46)i. Continue reading “Welcome to the Desert of Real: No Future for You”