Saturday, February 28, 2009

Toilers of the Sea - reprise

Warning: this post gives away the plot. But were you really planning to read it?

Note: at left, art by Victor Hugo: "The Lighthouse."

Oh damn. Toilers of the Sea is due back at the library and now I must deal with the many slips of paper stick out of the pages. What were those all for? I hope I can remember.

I do still remember what an inspiration this book was. The novel starts with a 55-page natural and cultural history of Guernsey and the Channel Islands (containing among other treasures a sentence fragment that fills an entire page and sports 27 semi-colons, 46 commas, and 4 dashes and is utterly readable). "The Archipelago of the Channel" was a thoroughly enjoyable section, and I was more than a little eaten up by envy as to how V.H. managed to get so intimate with Guernsey as to know so many of its grass species (!!) by name (not to mention everything else). Also I was thrilled to find such a precedent to a problem I've been working on, that of place-as-character. Whether Hugo wanted Guernsey to be a character in his novel is not clear but it does appear that the ocean - The Abyss, as was his first title to the novel - was meant to be a character. Does it work? Was it obvious enough without being too ponderous? I can't say for anyone else; me, if the ocean is a character, then I think the relationship between Gilliatt and the sea needed to be limned out more bright and clear in the early pages - but then I am quite profoundly dense most of time and capable of missing the most overt references. Hard work, but enlivening, this problem, because I think place-as-a-character can only work if the land (or sea) has a personality that is both described and yet so vast, so other, that it does not interact with humans in a recognizably human way. Which makes it kind of hard for a reader who has never thought of place, of locus (and its genius), as a character before to realize that this is what the writer is doing. Doing that - bringing in alien characters, even if they are of this world - is the work of speculative fiction, which one doesn't usually expect to be reading when curled up with "literature."

Back to Toilers: Later, the pinnacle of the story arc again pierces the envelope of what fiction usually does by casting the reader adrift upon a 146-page sea of dialog-free words that then reels you up, gasping, with a step-by-step how-to exposition. And d'you know what? It didn't drag. Admittedly, if I had half my dad's brains I would have enjoyed it more, because the how-to was a clever problem for engineering: How might one person all by his lonesome salvage the engine of a steamship when the ship has been wrecked in such a way that it is wedged up in the air between two lofty points of a reef. While the goal of the exercise may have been for Hugo to show off how much he knew about various sorts engineering (including hydraulics), it was still admirable -- to someone who used to publish a how-to zine that criss-crossed the boundary between fact and fiction, from time to time.

It was also during these sections that I was glad I had read the introduction. Left to my own devices, I never would have noticed that the ship wedged in the reef made a gigantic "H". If I had, I never would have assumed that Hugo meant it to be thought of as an H or for it to refer back to him or that the whole book was all about him. It's just not the focus I tend to have or to assume that someone else has. When I write fiction I'm writing about values and ideas, not about me or the state of my life. One of Hugo's biographers, though, suggests very strongly that Hugo was almost always writing about Hugo. Once I got the little point about the H drilled into my head, I could read the book as the story it is and also as Victor Hugo's epic struggle to salvage his life from the wreck of being exiled on Guernsey. This also explains why Gilliatt is not an illiterate fisherman from Guernsey but rather a genius from France.

I do have one quarrel with Hugo (or with him, his culture, his time, his way of being and seeing). Should I ever get to reading Les Miserables, I will be eager to see how Hugo casts Cosette. The female entity in Toilers is barely human and not very interesting as an animal. Hugo takes repetitive pains (but that is his style) to illustrate how mindless she is, how in the moment, how she has no idea of the consequences of her actions and nor any memory of them when the consequences happen. She is beautiful as the roses she tends (a tribute to Hugo's rose-growing mother) and more shallow than spilt water on a mirror. This is the thing that Gilliatt falls in love with. He salvages the engine to win its hand. But he never spoke to it, so it never knew that. While he is away, Deruchette falls in love with a clergyman suddenly made rich (and who is also not twice her age). Score! for thoughtless beauty. And Woe is me! for the multi-talented, brilliant, intrepid, and stubbornly toiling Giliatt.

The book ends with a second hydraulic marvel. Gilliatt, having relinquished his claim on Deruchette, goes to a place on the cliffs of Guernsey that is a sort of rock throne. A place that gets totally submerged during high tides (and from which Gilliatt once saved Deruchette's clueless love interest). As Deruchette and her rich husband head to England for happy-ever-aftering, Gilliatt sits in the throne, and the ocean slowly rises up his seated body until it covers his head and he unites with the Abyss. ... Maybe he had a really fierce grip on the rocks with his toes. And maybe the fact that he got starved down to a near skeleton while rescuing the steamship engine kept any part of him from floating. Oh, but what a dramatically tragic ending scene it makes. How very French.

Overall I loved the book and Hugo's rich language. Rich? It's clabbered cream; it's a napoleon pastry of prose! I can even excuse this amateur naturalist's demonizing of one of my favorite animals in the world (the octopus): I am willing to take that as a needed plot device. But I must say that regardless of any deeper symbolic meaning I should be applying to Deruchette, Hugo's female character really burnt my bouillabaisse.

Friday, February 27, 2009

We can still consume our way to world domination - Yes! We can!

We Norte Americanos live next to a nation being torn apart by war. A nation teetering on the bring of becoming a failed state. We all know that nation is Mexico but what I find consistently missing in the reports of the progress of demise is the root cause of it all.

That would be us. The U.S. The tweakers, the potheads, the coke addicts, in particular ... all those people in those very large constituencies who get their fix from or via Mexico. But we should definitely throw in the arms manufacturers, too, because that's the other thing America still does well: sell things that destroy people.

I listen to the news from Mexico and think: yes, once again Americans' voracious appetites are someone else's ruin. And then I proceed to darker thoughts - perhaps because I've been reading about the Opium Wars (which were the quintessential notion of conquest via the drug market). ... Is there perhaps a higher goal to the United States' spectacularly failed "War on Drugs"? One that is perhaps succeeding?

Think about it. If Mexico out-and-out collapses, who stands to gain? Yeah, sure, we might have a big refugee problem - and that's what good fences are for - but what else could happen?

The U.S. could finally and totally win the Mexican-American War, is what. (After all, in the grand old days of empire-building, one did not stop at merely redrawing boundaries; the winner took the losing country over altogether.) Damn! After all those years of not remembering the Alamo, of not knowing what the Mexican-American War was about, of kinda wishing we had never gotten Texas and now wishing we could give them back California and its failed economy ... we could own Mexico. Without firing a shot. We could have not just the 51st state, but states number 51 through 82 (or 83 if you count Mexico's federal district).

Currently, though, we are doing something else the U.S. does really well. Sitting on our hands and humming while a problem we created destroys another country. Making it next to impossible for innocents fleeing the devastation to get out. Something that is particularly bizarre in those border cities where the Mexican side (like Juarez) is a war zone and the other side - El Paso - is fat and happy. (Fat: definitely; happy: comparatively.)

So I'm just wondering what all we will do, when the time comes to do something.

Friday, February 20, 2009

we cut heads

Ronan is ten and half years old. High time she learned to cut hair around h'yar. I'm tired of cutting the backside of my own head - and many people would think that anybody, even Sid Vicious (back from the grave), would do a better job, all around. Or at least my mom thinks so. Another reason to get Ronan trained up is that my latest haircut requires something like monthly maintenance and, really, I am not that kind of person. Of course Ronan can't just launch into my hair on her first turn with scissors and clippers. Thus, it was decided (by me) that she should start with Matt. Matt usually asks me to cut his hair at times that don't work for me. Like just before he's out the door or last thing at night. Ronan is still usually good to go at the time I consider "last thing at night," so we started her off on Matt's head, last thing at night. (I made myself a pint of tea to make it through.) Below right is the result. The photo was taken a couple of days later when the two of them were putting up a wee little greenhouse we got from BiMart.

But when is she going to cut my hair, which will require a lot more scissors work? A fortuitous time when we are both free has not yet arisen.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

two less items in the freezer

My housemate called me up to tell me there was a gorgeous red fox dead on the road just a mile away. I didn't go get it. I had a lot to do that day. (Excuses! Excuses! -- You never plan to have a four-hour gap in your schedule for dealing with a roadkill from the moment of gathering up rubber gloves, plastic bags, and sharpened knives to the final disposing of the body in a respectful way ... and in a way so that your dog can't dig it back up). No, the real reason was that I couldn't stand to put one more hide in the freezer while I continued to procrastinate on learning how to tan them.

Our freezer came with several hid
es in it when we bought it, used. We composted some of them (deer skins that had already been in there several years), but kept the beaver pelt. Since then I've added Silvy's skin - one of two pet rabbits we were given that later got killed by dogs straying onto our place from down the road. Silvy had such lustrous silver fir I couldn't let her go to waste, so she was the first animal I ever skinned. Next was a young gray fox picked up on a frosty morning after dropping Ronan off at school. Last was the massive great lump of Pearl's hide. Pearl was one of our goats and the only one with a black coat. That hide had fallen on the ground before getting bundled into the freezer, and I'm really not looking forward to thawing it out and working it. I think you can see: enough was enough. I used the guilt about not getting the red fox to motivate me call my friend Valerie and set up a time to tan hides with her.

Too bad I didn't bring the camera. It was a brilliant sunny day - one of the way too many gorgeous and dry days we've had this rain season - and I love Bruce and Valerie's place. Plus, there would have been photos of the beginning of the proce

I worked the fox pelt on the Valerie's fleshing log and Ronan worked the rabbit pelt on a big round rock. Ronan learned one thing in particular that day: never volunteer to work a hide that was a person's first experience with skinning. The poor kid had a lot of cleaning to do, whereas as my lean, nearly fat-free fox was a breeze in comparison. Ronan stuck to the job all morning, though, and would have kept at it well into the afternoon, but Valerie told her to call it good enough when I had the tanning solution mixed up.

Which was also where things may have gone awry. The recipe we used called for alum, salt, oatmeal, and sour milk, made into a paste and spread only on the inside of the pelt. I had defrosted some goatsmilk from the freezer and let it go sour, but it went so sour that it separated completely into cheese and whey. With no other alternative, we proceeded anyway.

The next day I was worrying about whether the process was really working and also about whether I was ruining the fur side because liquid from the paste was draining off the hides and getting into the fur. So I called my friend Rohn (a Black Choctaw) for advice and, kind of as expected, in all his years of experience with processing furs and skins he'd never heard of the recipe I used. I asked if I could just stop the process (by washing with borax and water) and continue some other day because after the next day it would be many days before Ronan and I would have time to work the hides to soften them. He thought I could redo the tanning if I wanted. He also told me not to put the pelts in the washing machine to clean them.

Valerie had already put them in her washing machine and they'd survived, so I took a chance and did them on delicate. (Sorry, Rohn!) Ronan and I spent Sunday trying to work them in between a series of potlucks and visits. Dragging the granite boulder around with us to soften the hides on was nearly as big a challenge as having to have more than one portable dish prepared. The result so far?

The fur is still on both hides, and they look good. The skin is stiff, partly because we haven't worked them enough and partly because even the book says that alum tanning makes for stiffer hides. They still smell ... uh ... fleshy. But not rotten. Rohn said the smell could only be fixed by smoking the hides, and I haven't done that yet.

Ronan wants to make a hat out of Silvy. So we've got a ways to go, possibly re-tanning and definitely smoking, as the odor of the skins is super-clingy and stays on your hands even after washing twice in dishsoap (but it is eco-friendly dishsoap). I hope to maybe make a pouch out of the fox pelt but the tail may prove impractical for anything but the most ceremonial of pouches. I'm flexible, though (even if my fox pelt currently isn't); I can just add the fox to our home decorating scheme just as it is.