Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

“Science doesn’t tell us what we should do. It only tells us what is.” – Dellarobia Turnbow, Flight Behaviour

I finished this book about six months ago and have been trying to write a review about it ever since. But the right words continue to elude me. Countless drafts later and I still do not feel like I can do this book justice.

I think it’s because Barbara Kingsolver is, in a word, brilliant. Every word she writes carries so much weight – no sentence is wasted. Her prose is tightly controlled, but at the same time it possesses a rhythmic quality, like poetry.

As an aspiring writer, I find her work incredibly intimidating. Reviewing it feels odd, like an apprentice commenting on a master’s technique. Maybe I should call this post a letter of admiration instead.

Her latest novel, Flight Behaviour, is fearlessly honest. Kingsolver tackles no small topic: climate change. Never one to shy away from controversial subject matter (see: The Poisonwood Bible), she leaves little room for the reader to hide from hard truths in Flight Behaviour.

Synopsis 

Set in small town rural America (Appalachia to be exact), Flight Behaviour follows the life of Dellarobia Turnbow, a farmer’s wife and mother of two. Dellarobia leads a simple existence by some comparisons. Too poor to afford a computer or a smartphone, she rarely uses the internet and is in a way disconnected from the wider world. Her life revolves around her two children, five-year-old Preston and three-year-old Cordelia, her sweet yet uninspiring husband, Cub, and her overbearing mother-in-law, Hester.

Dellarobia’s days are consumed by plastic toys, baby food and sneaking out onto the porch to chain smoke cigarettes. On Sunday the family goes to church. Occasionally her best friend Dovey will come over and they will do each other’s hair and dream about the lives they could have led.

Dellarobia is plagued by the feeling that she is not living up to her true potential. Exhausted and depressed, she is ready for change, and is about to run away from her mundane farm life – and her two beloved children – to have an affair with a young lover. In the first chapter she drops her children off at her mother-in-law’s, puts on a pair of nice boots and trudges up the hills behind her property to begin her new life. But then she sees something that makes her think twice.

“A small shift between cloud and sun altered daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame… The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze.”

Butterflies. Thousands of them, if not millions. Orange monarch butterflies were occupying every branch of every tree, as far as the eye could see. Through Dellarobia’s eyes we adjust to the view, unable to understand why – or how – these winged creatures came to be here, behind her property. That sight scorched Dellarobia’s mind and sent her hurrying back down the mountain, back to her kids, back to her family, with a renewed sense of purpose.

“Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became a brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something.”

And so the story begins. Overwhelmed by their beauty, Dellarobia at first tries to keep the butterflies to herself. But before long news of the unusual colony has attracted the attention of scientists the world over. As Dellarobia learns more about the phenomenon, she realises the butterflies may not be the miracle she’d hoped for.

Dr Ovid Byron, a leading butterfly researcher, sets up a science lab on Dellarobia’s property and begins to study the monarchs. A tall, gentle, highly intelligent man of African-American descent, he is unlike any man Dellarobia has ever known – she is transfixed by his presence in her life. He provides her with a full-time job in the lab, the first she’s ever had.

As she learns about the butterflies and gains some financial independence, the storyline is propelled towards the uncertainty looming on the horizon – not just for Dellarobia, but for the fragile monarchs. Having never migrated this far north, they are in a precarious situation. Will they survive the winter? Or will the entire species be wiped out? Will Dellarobia pull her life together and do the best by her kids? Or will she sink into the apathy that plagues so many people today?

My thoughts

Many climate change narratives swing from one natural disaster to the next, swallowing cities whole and wiping populations off the earth. Flight Behaviour is far more subtle – and therefore far more representative of climate change itself. There’s a dangerous belief circulating that one day climate change is going to hit us like a tonne of bricks and then we will all wake up to the reality. But, as Flight Behaviour beautifully illustrates, climate change is happening right now, at a pace that is too slow for people to take significant notice yet fast enough that it will have drastic consequences.

This novel opened my eyes to how the ‘little things’ aren’t so little when they are done by everyone, on a grand scale. The lunch wrappers I throw in the bin every day. The cheap clothes that fall apart after a few spins in the washing machine. The casual consumerism that we all participate in to feel accepted by society. Flight Behaviour is a stark reminder that the earth wasn’t created solely for our comfort. If we want to stay long on this planet we must relearn how to give nature the caution it demands and respect it requires.

Bookmarked quotes

“Mistakes wreck your life. But they make what you have. It’s kind of all one. You know what Hester told me when we were working the sheep one time? She said it’s no good to complain about your flock, because it’s the put-together of all your past choices.”

“Will you explain to me why people encourage delusional behaviour in children, and medicate it in adults?”

“The last generation’s worst fears became the next one’s B-grade entertainment.”

12 Years a Slave is not a history film

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“12 Years a Slave isn’t just a film about slavery in America. It is a film about unjust violence, about people controlling other people through fear and brutality. And that is not history.”

It has been one of those weeks. Every now and then, my thoughts spiral out of control and end up at some challenging destinations. This week, disillusionment with humanity was stopover number one. What better way to culminate a week of anxiety about the state of humanity than with a trip to the cinema to see 12 Years a Slave?

The film, set in 1841, follows Solomon Northup, a free black man living a relatively wealthy life in the state of New York. Married with two children, Solomon is a well-educated, talented violinist and loving family man. Then one day he falls into business with the wrong men, is illegally captured, put on a boat to New Orleans and sold into slavery. For twelve years he struggles to survive in brutal environments, controlled by violence and confined by fear.

To say this film is difficult to watch is an understatement.

I’ve just got back from the movies and I’m struggling to make sense of what I just saw. Intellectually, I understand. Although horrifying, I can see the circumstances in which slavery can exist. I can see how humanity got to that dark place. But I couldn’t watch that film with an objective sense of intellectualism. From start to finish the movie struck me right beneath the ribs. It is the most brutal, confronting, honest film I have ever seen – and it made me realise what a crock of shite so many movies are. How they gloss over the truth and carefully paint a picture of altered reality, of easily digestible nonsense. How they show us what we want to see, stories we are happy to accept.

No one wants to see an attempted lynching. No one wants to see rape. No one wants to see a naked woman whipped within an inch of her life.

But 12 Years a Slave doesn’t gloss over these harrowing scenes. It lingers on them. Sometimes I cover my eyes in films to avoid seeing gore or violence, but often it is in a superficial way – as in, I’d rather not see this but I’ll be fine if I do. With 12 Years a Slave it was different. I felt fear. I felt fear because, despite being set in 1841, the brutality of this film did not in any way feel historical. Unlike other films on a similar topic, I didn’t watch it with any sense of relief that ‘this no longer happens’.

Slavery itself may have been abolished in the United States, but the violence – the rape, the murder, the racial prejudice – has simply changed narratives. It still happens, every single day, somewhere in the world.  As I type, there are people inflicting pain and suffering on others for their own personal gain. 12 Years a Slave isn’t just a film about slavery in America. It is a film about unjust violence, about people controlling other people through fear and brutality. And that is not history.

As I struggled to watch the scene in which Patsey, a young woman born into slavery without a family or any hope of escape, is raped, I found myself wishing we could categorise the violence associated with slavery to the past. It would be so much easier to file it away as ‘done, mistake learned from, no longer an issue’. But this film is a bleak reminder that we cannot afford to move on just yet. As I watched this scene, I felt fear – I felt fear that this could happen to me. Not in the same circumstance, no. But violence, that could happen to anyone. Rape? No woman is ever completely safe from the possibility.

Yet this is not a truth that is easy to accept. And I understand why. No one wants to admit how precarious life is, how everything could fall apart at any given moment. We all have to find a way to live, to do the best we can in an uncertain environment. Yet sometimes I fear our preference for a convenient ‘truth’ means we will never actually make progress. This question of ‘authenticity’ has been troubling me all week, and watching 12 Years a Slave only heightened my anxiety about the – sometimes dangerous – power of storytelling.

Edwin Epps, the slave master who raped Patsey, justified his actions by telling himself the same story over and over again: “A man is free to do as he pleases with his property.” Religion, too, played a big part in the slave master’s righteousness. Although this justification visibly went against his natural instincts – and probably forever ruined him as a person – his belief in his own superiority was so strong he could not even entertain ideas to the contrary. He let the story he wanted to believe win, and reality was buried deep under alcohol and anger.

I know this may seem like a tenuous link to make, but how many of us hide from reality on a daily basis? How many of us escape from truths we don’t want to accept, preferring to tell ourselves a more convenient story?

Earlier this week I felt disillusioned with just about everything, but mostly about money. It all started when I was preparing an SEO report for work. I had a lot of data in front of me and thought, hmm, I can probably manipulate this information to support my pre-established recommendations for the website in question. And then, it suddenly struck me how meaningless it seemed – taking a set of numbers and bending them to my will. What I really wanted to know was the truth – was the SEO strategy working, or wasn’t it?

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised – that is exactly what many companies do, all day every day. They put hours of time, thousands of dollars, into creating carefully constructed images that support their business goals. The ‘truth’ doesn’t always come into the question. When there is money to be made, you bend the truth to suit whatever will get you the highest return on profit.

And slavery, once upon a time, was a very lucrative investment.

This, I’m told, is business. But if big business – and money – underpins the world as we know it, then is authenticity a pipe dream? Will we ever escape the cycle of corruption and greed?

I walked out of 12 Years a Slave in tears, feeling numb with grief and shock. How can people be so cruel? What drives someone to that level of violence and brutality? What sort of situation leads someone to believe in something as awful as slavery?

When I said earlier that I couldn’t make sense of what I just saw, I realise now I meant I couldn’t find an alternative truth to the bleak reality 12 Years a Slave presented. There is no way to paint the film in a prettier light, to find the silver lining, to justify the violence. And that left me feeling hopeless and scared. But at the same time, it brought a certain sense of clarity. It took me out of a comfortable, convenient truth and placed me into an authentic one. It reminded me to look past the smoke and mirrors and to search for the important stories, not the easy ones.

12 Years a Slave is not a history film. It is relevant today, and I hope people will realise the problems it portrays are far from over, as without acknowledging this difficult truth, how will humanity ever stop repeating the same mistakes?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

“So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.” 

At 232 pages, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is not a mammoth masterpiece. It is, however, a very clever one. I read it in a few hours on a lazy Sunday morning, absolutely captivated by the story – even though I’d already seen the movie. 

An epistolary novel (a book written in letters), it is told through the eyes of Charlie, a slightly awkward teenager, adjusting to high school life. There is all the usual teen stuff – first love, proms, exams. But the real brilliance of the story lies in its subtlety. Through Charlie, author Stephen Chbosky provides us with a running commentary on the daily life of a middle class American family living in suburbia in the early 90s. There are no dragons or wizards: just music records, bookstores and a lot of pot.

Charlie is incredibly philosophical. Often his letters, addressed ‘Dear Friend’ to an anonymous recipient, will include detailed play-by-plays of family parties or school lunches. But most of the time, Charlie – or Chbosky – is commenting on (read: challenging) social norms and musing on how silly some conventions seem. It’s one of those books that helps you put life in perspective and forces you to look at situations in a different light.

To illustrate my example, here is a quote from one of my favourite passages. Charlie is in a takeout restaurant (presumably McDonalds):

“I saw other people there. Old men sitting alone. Young girls with blue eye shadow and awkward jaws. Little kids who look tired. Fathers in nice coats who looked even more tired. Kids working behind counters of the food places who looked like they hadn’t had the will to live for hours. The machines kept opening and closing. The people kept giving money and getting their change. And it all felt very unsettling to me.”

This short paragraph contains so much meaning. You can see why Chbosky didn’t need to write a 600 page novel – his 232 pages are more than enough. He gives you a tantalising glimpse into the lives of so many different characters – and then he moves on. Just in that paragraph, you have snippets of other people’s stories. And you can probably relate to them all on some level.

My thoughts

I found it incredibly refreshing to read a book that communicated powerful messages in such a ‘readable’ fashion. As in, in a clear and unpretentious way. And I don’t think it was by accident. Charlie received advice from his advanced English teacher about his writing, as follows:

“[Bill] said that I should use the vocabulary that I learn in class like ‘corpulent’ and ‘jaundice’. I would use them here, but I really don’t think they are appropriate in this format. To tell you the truth, I don’t know where they are appropriate to use. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t know them. You should absolutely. But I have just never heard anyone use the words ‘corpulent’ and ‘jaundice’ ever in my life. That includes teachers. So what’s the point of using words nobody else knows or can say comfortably? I just don’t understand that.”

The Perks of Being a Wallflower doesn’t hide behind any fancy words or academic references. It is the sort of book you can read in a couple of hours on a lazy Sunday morning, but finish the last page feeling as though you have soaked up a whole semester’s worth of philosophy class. And if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know it contains the essential hallmark of a great novel: a shocking twist.

Although that doesn’t mean it embodies perfection. One passage in particular in The Perks of Being a Wallflower stood out to me. Bill, Charlie’s English teacher, gave him a new book to read. And this is what he said:

“Be sceptical about this one. It’s a great book. But try to be a filter, not a sponge.”

I read that sentence a few times, and it dawned on me that lately, I have been a sponge. Just read my latest review of ‘Little Princes‘ and you’ll see what I mean. I’m positively gushing about this book, praising it to high heaven – so much so that I probably didn’t apply a filter at all when reading it. My critical eye was blinded. Instead I had just soaked it all up and bathed in what I perceived to be its brilliance.

But I need to be a filter. The written word is powerful and I can be easily inspired. All it takes is one novel about orphanages in Nepal and I’m ready to pack my bags and sign up as a volunteer. Now, in hindsight, I see that Little Princes may have teetered on the ever-blurry border of fact and fiction. How much of it was true and how much of it was carefully constructed publicity? The author, after all, has a not-for-profit to run. This book wasn’t just written to provide an insight into Nepalise life – there is always an agenda. And this doesn’t make it bad, but it is simply worth remembering. With how much I read, I need to be a filter, or I will struggle to stay sane under the weight of so many different ideas.

And that, when I think about it, is probably why Charlie needed to be a filter too. He suffered from severe panic attacks and was highly sensitive to the world around him – so much so it almost killed him. But life will not be enriching if you try to soak it all up like a sponge. Eventually you are going to run out of room and become laden and heavy, overburdened with information, unable to move forward. But being a filter, you can take what you need out of life and leave the rest. It isn’t worth holding onto what doesn’t serve you.

Bookmarked Quotes

“We accept the love we think we deserve.”

“Enjoy it. Because it’s happening.”

“He’s a wallflower. You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.” 

Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” – Steve Jobs

I really, really enjoyed this book. As the many people who had to put up with my ‘Fun facts about Steve Jobs rants’ can attest to. And I’m not even an Apple fan-girl. The only Apple product I own is an old, battered iPod Classic.

I think the reason I enjoyed it so much is because I knew very little about Steve Jobs before I started.

I knew he was famous. I knew he was despised by some, loved by others. I knew my Android-loving stepdad was adamant he was an asshole, and my Apple-loving friends were adamant he was an inspirational genius. I knew he delivered an amazing speech to Stanford graduates in 2005. I knew he died too young.

But those snippets of information were enough to convince me his biography was bound to be interesting. And I wasn’t let down. I think everyone who owns a personal computer should read this book. Because it’s not just a book about Steve Jobs – it’s a book about how personal computers came to be in nearly every home over a relatively short space of time.

This biography is about how our appetite for technology has grown rapidly over the past few decades. It’s about the war between Microsoft and Apple and the mutual hostility-cum-admiration between Jobs and Gates.

On a deeper level, it’s also a story about childhood and friendship, education and work, illness and health, love and family. It’s about the decisions people make when placed in challenging situations and the sacrifices they have to concede to succeed.

Steve Jobs had a big life and an even bigger personality. The impact he has made on our generation is enormous. But I think this has caused some people to paint him as a flawless figure, when really he led quite a fractious life. Walter Isaacson does his best to provide an accurate account of Steve Jobs, shedding light on the good, the bad and the genius. I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

Bookmarked quotes

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

“We are inventing the future,” [Jobs told a job applicant]. “Think about surfing on the front edge of a wave. It’s really exhilarating. Now think about dog-paddling at the tail end of that wave. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun. Come down here and make a dent in the universe.”

“I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it.”

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen book review

I picked up a tattered copy of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen from a second-hand bookstore over the summer holidays. Mine is a paperback version, with a picture of Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon locked in a tender embrace on the front cover. I’d already seen the movie, which I enjoyed, and I wanted to see if the book was just as good.

Set in America in the 1930s, Water for Elephants follows the life of Jacob Jankowski, a young student born to Polish parents and studying to be a vet. His world is turned upside down when his parents both die in a car crash, and he runs away from his hometown to start a new life. Somehow, he ends up jumping on board a moving train, which he soon discovers is home to a travelling circus called “The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth”.

Before long he has been hired as the show’s vet and has been taken under the wing of equestrian manager August, a mentally unstable and intense character who happens to be married to the beautiful performer Marlena. As you can imagine an awkward love triangle ensues and the rest of the book is largely centred around Jacob’s desire to start a new life with Marlena, and August’s terrifying control over her, the animals and many of the show’s workers.

But it wouldn’t be called Water for Elephants without an elephant. The book’s fourth protagonist is Rosie, a large, stubborn, alcohol-drinking elephant with a penchant for mischief. I think the circus animals, especially Rosie, are what make this book special. Jacob and Marlena fall in love against the backdrop of an elephant and an array of other circus animals including horses, monkeys, lions, panthers and more.

All of these elements made for an excellent movie. I found it hugely entertaining to watch a circus come to life on the big screen, and I found Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Marlena very convincing – which made up for that fact that I found it hard to see Robert Pattinson as anything other than ‘Edward from Twilight’.

I think the fact that I had already seen the movie hugely influenced how much I enjoyed the book. Usually books offer more detail and depth than films. So I guess you could say, when I picked up Water For Elephants, I was looking for something extra. What was the book going to tell me that I didn’t pick up from the movie? As a New York Times Bestseller, I was expecting it to be fantastic. Instead, I read it with lukewarm appreciation.

I already knew what was going to happen at the end, which meant the story was robbed of suspense and mystery. The film was incredibly faithful to the book, so I didn’t get that ‘something extra’ that I was looking for. Instead I felt as though I was re-reading a story. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it – I just didn’t love it. And I wouldn’t feel compelled to read it again. My favourite aspect of the book was tapping more inside the head of 90-year-old Jacob, a cranky, cantankerous man, as he battled with nursing staff in his resting home and grappled with flashbacks to his time on the circus and falling in love with Marlena.

I wonder what my reading experience would have been like if I had not seen the movie first?

Whether you have seen the film or not, Water for Elephants makes a nice story. Sara Gruen writes with stunning simplicity, saying just enough but not too much. I enjoyed the conversational tone and found it incredibly easy-to-read. It is a good book for when you are on holiday, but if you’ve seen the movie just don’t expect it to be a page-turner.

Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

It has been weeks since I finished Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

The subject matter is challenging and daunting: written from the perspective of Julia, a pre-teen living in suburban California, Age of Miracles imagines that the rotation of the earth starts to slow.

Daylight stretches well into the night, darkness lasts well into the day. Clock time becomes a thing of the past as the earth spins slower and slower.

Age of Miracles is an intriguing read. It draws attention to just how fragile our existence really is. Continue reading