Lumber on an epic scale

cover of BarkskinsI discovered at the weekend with a rapidly beating heart, that one of my all time favourite writers,  Annie Proulx, has released a new novel.

Thirteen years since her last novel, Barkskins is, by all accounts, a rip snorter. According to what I can glean from good old Mr Google, it is 736 pages long, spanning 3 centuries, and tells the story of two French immigrants in the new land of America. They are bound to a feudal lord for three years and are sent to work in the dense and remote forests of the New World in exchange for a promise of land. The book follows them and their descendants from 1693 through to the 21st century and various family members travel all over the world, including to little old New Zealand.

Annie Proulx first caught my eye when I read The Shipping News, another great story of families, set in Newfoundland. I have never forgotten the ways she described snow and ice and barren landscapes and the families and eccentrics who lived amongst it.

Cover of The shipping news

Accordion Crimes was also a favourite, charting the lives of immigrants settling in America through the life of an accordion that is handed down through families; Jewish, Irish, Italian and many others.

Both The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain (a short story originally), were also made into movies, both well worth watching.

Ms Proulx, now in her eighties, was a bit of a late bloomer, with her first short stories published in her 50s and her first novel in 1992. She has gone onto to publish 13 works and win over twenty literary prizes, including a Pulitzer prize for The Shipping News.

Her novels and short storys are filled with hard bitten complex characters and landscapes that are wonderful described, I find I get immersed in her stories and I think this is because she herself has led a full and intense life, always on her own terms. She has been married and divorced three times and has raised three sons alone. She worked as postal worker and a waitress, and early on a writer of magazine articles on everything from chilli growers to canoeing.

She has two history degrees, drifted the countryside in her pickup truck, can fly fish, fiddle, and hunt game birds. But for all her life experience, she has said that she likes to write about what she doesn’t know, rather than draw on what she has already experienced. If you haven’t read her books, I strongly recommend them.

So, I’m on the library waiting list, hoping the book arrives quickly so I can again revel in her wondrous prose!

Michael Otterman: The ‘unforseen, unthinking consequence’ of Erasing Iraq

I have decided there can be no light and witty blog title for a subject such as the one Michael Otterman tackles in his latest book, Erasing Iraq.  Chair Sean Plunket describes it as a difficult and uncomfortable read, and not a book to be curled up in bed with at the end of the day.  A collection of interviews with Iraqi refugees displaced all over the world, the very first tale relates the story of a Mendaean family whose son is kidnapped and murdered by fundamentalist extremists, and who then must go to retrieve the body.

The main thrust of the message is that the United States invasion of Iraq represents not a liberation, but an occupation, triggering what Otterman calls sociocide – the killing not just of a group of people but of a way of life, with the Mendaeans being a case in point.  A small and very insular group with strong religious beliefs, before the war they numbered around 50,000.  Now there are less than 5000 remaining, and with their cultural and religious beliefs precluding them from marrying outside their society, they are the last of their people.  Otterman describes the “unforseen, unthinking consequence” of United States foreign policy and actions, and has documented the devastating human cost of this thoughtlessness through the tales of those he interviewed.

The session was riveting, and had a deeply appreciative and attentive audience (apart from the dear old ladies sitting next to me, who on discovering which session they had wandered into, said rather loudly, “Oh, dear! That doesn’t sound very nice!”).  Nice it wasn’t, but compelling it certainly was, with Sean Plunket making some (rather brave, I thought) comparisons between what is going on in Iraq today, and the Holocaust.  As it turns out, however, Otterman’s own father and grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and he is more than happy to discuss the similarities and differences.

There’s no way I can do justice to the gravity of this message, and thus all I will do is relay the advice that Michael Otterman gave the audience, when asked what we as New Zealanders and as individuals can do:  read the book.  Read as much as you can find from outside mainstream media.  Go to Google and type in “Iraq blogs”.  Lobby the government to admit Iraqi refugees (in 2006 we took in just 86 Iraqi refugees, despite the fact that more than 3 million are now stranded outside their own country with nowhere else to go).  And remember that the Fox Network  should never be the sole provider of news and information from places like Iraq, or Afghanistan, or indeed, anywhere.