Thursday, July 13, 2017

Friday, July 7, 2017

Golden Hill

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York is being touted as Francis Spufford's first novel. I'll call it his second, because Red Plenty is clearly historical fiction in my book. Golden Hill is set in New York City in late 1746. It's a vibrant small city on the make, with plenty of wheeler dealers and political tensions... the kind of place where an outsider with ambitious plans should be plenty wary of sticking his nose where it doesn't belong.

Enter our hero, Richard Smith, newly arrived from London with a check for a thousand pounds sterling (quite a small fortune) that he needs to cash in order to conduct some unknown business in town. Unknown, that is, until nearly the end of the novel, when we learn of Smith's mission. In the meantime, there is friendship, theatre, imprisonment, love, death, sex, and scandal. Oh, and currency, in multitudes of denominations and discounts.

Golden Hill is definitely a good yarn, if not in the same league as the genre-busting minor masterpiece Red Plenty. Spufford is an ambitious, clever writer; here he seeks to replicate some of the style of 18th-century literature... with mixed success. The rococo opening sentence, run-on and crammed with interjections, reads just about right to my ear. But Spufford can't always keep it up. The lengthy letter from jail in the book's middle didn't quite work for me. Some plot contrivances are a little pat. And the story seems to rush to its conclusion.

All that said, it's mostly a very good tale well told. The book imagines a quite believable pre-revolutionary Manhattan, with political, religious, and ethnic divisions lurking just beneath the surface; the main characters are well drawn and appealing. A chilly Christmas in Old New York may be just what you need for beach reading this summer.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

Whenever I am browsing Kepler's Books for a good read and nothing on the "new" table appeals, I often scan the fiction shelves for a book with the NYRB logo on the spine and give it a try. Nine times out of ten I am quite happy with the outcome. New York Review Books Classics specializes in novels that were well-received in their day but have disappeared from print and still deserve to be read. Many of the best of them are early- to mid-century British novels.

Barbara Comyns's Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a great example. By turns funny and harrowing, and often both, it is the account of a young woman in Depression-era London struggling with poverty, a deadbeat husband, and a sequence of not entirely welcome pregnancies. Published in 1950, it is remarkably frank about reproduction, medicalized births, and even abortion. The writing is spare, unadorned, pedestrian in places, but all the more effective for that. The depiction of Sophia's stay in a working-class London hospital for her first birth is a tour-de-force. In labor, she is brought into a ward where she is shaved, sponged with stinging disinfectant ("This smarted a lot, but it was was almost a relief to have a different sort of pain"), and administered an enema followed by a dose of castor oil.
After this I escaped from the torture chamber and was taken to a room called the labour ward. There were other women there that had not actually started their labour yet, but were expected to have difficult confinements. They were talking quite cheerfully, and it made me feel better to hear them, because all the nurses had been so grumpy and impatient with me. I had begun to think it was a disgraceful wicked thing to do– to have a baby.
Sophia's naiveté and passive resignation to her plainly dreadful marriage are at first frustrating to a modern feminist reader, but objectively speaking her options are limited, and it's not long before her humor and equanimity can be seen as manifestations of deeper strength and resourcefulness. Eventually taking command of her life, as best she can, there is the prospect of a happy ending. If she gets it, it will only be what she deserves; if not, only what she has reason to expect. Which will it be, reader? I urge you to obtain a copy of this gem of a novel and find out for yourself.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Postcards from Nicaragua

Research meetings took up most of my time, but I managed a little sightseeing. How about a few pictures...

Front yard of my home stay in Sontule, Miraflor...



Vacas bonitas...



Corn and beans, the staples...



My daily walk through the barrio El Rosario in Estelí took me over the Rio Estelí on "la rampla," a local landmark...



Estelí is famed for its murals. I didn't get around enough to see many of them, but this is a good one...



Some interesting commercial artwork in Managua...



And last but not least, a visit to Volcan Masaya, just south of Managua, where you can just catch a glimpse of the bubbling lava at the bottom of the crater... scary and impressive. Green parakeets nest in burrows in the walls inside the crater and sometimes circle overhead through the smoke...





And why not close with a cliché, sunset in Miraflor...


Coffee country, Part 2

The small producers we visited in the Segovias region of northern Nicaragua mainly belong to PRODECOOP, a consortium of local coffee co-ops. In addition to certifying and marketing coffee at a fair-trade price, the organization has a number of social programs to support local development and food security.

The variation in the scale of operation along the coffee supply chain, especially in the small-producer specialty market, is striking. The process may start with the seedlings on a farm with an acre or two under cultivation...



I think most of the farms have moved beyond this old equipment for removing the husks...



The green beans are brought to a processing facility for final drying, sorting, and shipping. PRODECOOP has a big modern facility in Palacagüina...





This impressive machine uses a laser to test the color of the beans as they fly by and with a small puff of air culls the ones not up to standard. It is the noisiest place in a noisy factory...




Despite mechanical and optical sorting technologies, the final sort is done by hand, by women...



From there, into shipping containers and off to port for export. Most of the roasting is done at the destination...

Monday, July 3, 2017

Coffee country, Part 1

Having worked three plus years on an interdisciplinary study of food and water security in Nicaragua's coffee country, I finally had an opportunity to visit the place over the last two weeks. We were based in the city of Estelí, but took some drives up the rutted dirt roads into the mountains to visit the farms and the farmers. Beautiful country, impressive farming.

Shade-grown coffee plots are a great example of agrobiodiversity and pied beauty. Banana trees are a common source of shade and food...



Coffee berries are green this time of year...


50 shades of greenery on Don Marvin's finca in Sontule, Miraflor...



Bromeliads are blooming in the trees and on the ground...


Coffee leaf rust (la roya) has caused massive losses in the region over the last few years. Most of Marvin's plants are doing okay...



Banana and plantain leaves are impressive...



Amazingly, the entire massive banana plant grows in about a year, the bananas are harvested, and the plant is cut back at the base, where a new sprout spirals up...


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Geri Allen, RIP

She was one of my favorite pianists, a trio specialist with a wide-ranging musical mind. At 60 it seems she was just getting started.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 78

Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944) is available in its entirety on Spotify. Is it possible to listen to the whole 11 plus hours from beginning to end without tiring of this glorious singer and the great musicians who adopted her? Four hours and counting, and I have no desire to change the channel.