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4.13.2014

Climate Fiction: A Hot New Genre?

Is climate fiction really a hot new genre (no pun intended)?

Something remarkable has happened. When American colleges start to use climate fiction to teach how to prepare for the coming climate crisis, expect writers to sit up and listen - especially science fiction writers. The New York Times recently reported on it (see here) saying classes focus on a "heavy dose of the mushrooming subgenre of speculative fiction known as climate fiction, or cli-fi, novels like Odds Against Tomorrow, by Nathaniel Rich, and Solar, by Ian McEwan."

Further down in the article, more cli-fi books are mentioned, among them Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, Daniel Kramb's From Here, Hamish MacDonald's Finitude, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, Saci Lloyd's The Carbon Diaries 2015 and more recently The Carbon Diaries 2017 (a British YA book).

Wow! I sat up and listened since my soon to be released Forever Young looked like it might fit the genre. 

Checking around on the Net, I visited Wikipedia's definition (see here) and discovered that the earliest climate fiction book was The Drowned World published back in 1962 by J.G. Ballard (though it wasn't Climate Change in this case but solar warming). Here's the first edition (nice cover!):



I gathered  a slew of interesting articles (see below) and checked Goodreads. I found a whole page there dedicated to so-called "popular climate fiction books" (39 titles so far):



Take note: climate fiction has attracted big best-selling writers like Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood (who famously tweeted about it), Clive Cussler and Barbara Kingsolver. They have all jumped into the subgenre and some as early as 2009 (in Atwood's case).

The blogosphere is awash with posts (see below) and there's one book selling website set up by a British Columbia  "micropress", the Moon Willow Press, with a green conscience; take a look at their home page:


This site gives an interesting definition of climate fiction: 
"a genre of literature, film and other media that involves climate change fiction, which may be speculative, literary or science fiction". 

So here we are moving away from the idea that it may be a "subgenre" of science fiction. It is also described as "bendable...not necessarily set in the future nor always apocalyptic", and Barbara Kinsolver's Flight Behavior is given as an example (the setting for this present-day story is the explosive invasion of Monarch butterflies into the Appalachian Mountains). 

There is at least one blog fully dedicated to climate fiction  set up by Dan Bloom, a journalist and writer who invented the term back in 2007 (on his blog and in an article in Vice Magazine) - the term was picked up again by reporter Scott Thill in 2010 in Wired.  

Here's the homepage of Dan Bloom's Cli Fi Central blog (to visit, click here):


The news reported on that page is of some 6,000 "cli fi" fans meeting in...2058 to discuss climate change! Yes, a little bit of irony doesn't hurt (but only 6,000? That's a depressingly small number...) 

Climate fiction is still very new and evolving. Dan Bloom acknowledges this and last summer summed it up neatly in this article about the origins of cli-fi and where it's going, see here. He notes that cli-fi has recently drawn two stars who met and talked about it at the 2013 Kingston WritersFest: Margaret Atwood on her way to a likely Nobel Prize in Literature and Nathaniel Rich, "a freshman Manhattan newcomer" who's fast spreading the word about "climapocalypse" to his (30's) generation.

The news about climate fiction took off when the National Public Radio (NPR) and the Christian Science Monitor used the term - the story then rebounded on the UK Guardian in May 2013 (see Rodge Glass' article here), and it was picked up by newspaper columnists in Turkey, Sweden, Lithuania, Spain and Italy. Yes, going global! 

The Guardian article got 139 comments, with most approving the birth of a new genre and some objecting that a new term was not needed. The best comment in my view comes from someone calling himself "Keyserling":

"It's apparent that "cli-fi" is nothing new, we just have a new buzz-word to describe it. I don't like the term (my mind associates it with "clitoris fiction", of the appalling Fifty Shades type). But we do need a new genre.

As the world knowingly embraces climate destruction, and we reap the whirlwind, islands will be lost, coastlines, then streets and cities flooded. Continents may perhaps become lethal or altogether uninhabitable, and eventually, a much reduced mankind may be reduced to living in polar colonies, or on space platforms orbiting our once abundant planet.

As that happens - like a global, inevitable, unstoppable, slow motion car crash - authors will more fully focus on the actual decay and destruction around them, and their observational fiction may not neatly slot into the overcrowded dystopian / apocalyptic / post-apocalyptic genres, alongside Planet of the Apes, Level 7, or The Day of the Triffids, et al.

So yeah, a new genre, to reflect new times. O brave new world!"



And another writer, Joe Follansbee, has come up with "6 rules" for writing climate fiction on his blog; briefly put, climate change has to be the "driving narrative" and it's not to be confused with a weather event (say a tornado) which is short-term. We are speaking here of long-term climate trends that affect humanity's future.

But the latest United Nations report on climate change has put a new twist on it: it's no longer an "exceptional event" that would demand it be stopped but something that humanity has to learn to live with. See this illuminating article in The Atlantic. The idea is that all is not lost, we can adapt to a warming world. 

That seems to put paid to Climate Change as a primary source of high suspense for climate fiction!

I would argue that the demographic explosion, the overwhelming trend towards urbanization and growing socioeconomic inequality are beginning to look like better candidates for suspense - or at least they look like very credible sources of social tension and recurring human-created disasters (e.g. displacement and extinction of species, recurring local wars, smog-caused health emergencies, refugee crises and population displacements, spikes in food prices leading to famines etc etc). 

Add to the mix natural disasters like floods, earthquakes or tsunamis, and an already fragilized socio-political situation could easily get out of hand. 

That is a much more likely future than the one posited by Climate Change alone. That is the future I see in my upcoming book, Forever Young - set 200 years from now. Why 200 years? Because I don't believe things will come to a head all that soon. People always cry foul and use biblical language to warn humanity of impending doom - a doom that never comes on schedule. Which is why 200 years seemed like a reasonable lapse of time...

And Climate Fiction as a subgenre? I'm not sure it's headed anywhere...What is very striking is that as a subgenre, it hasn't developed a recognizable style of book covers. Take a look above at the Goodreads bookshelf. Or take a look at the book covers you find on the Cli-Fi Books site, here are a couple, chosen at random:



Clara Hume's novel takes the reader "through apocalytpic American after climate change and other ecological disasters have greatly altered the planet":


But you wouldn't guess that from the cover, would you?

Do you see any pattern in the design of these covers? Personally, I don't. They're nice covers, often with a retro charm (like Clara Hume's), but there is surprisingly little or no reference to a doomed or threatening future, which is the least you would expect.

What do you think? I tend to believe that climate fiction might possibly merge into the "hard science fiction" genre (see here) which is based on scientific accuracy, i.e. on the best informed guess about where we are headed...At least "hard" sci fi covers have a distinct sci-fi flavor, see here for an early book in the genre:

First edition (published in 1970)
But the latest best-seller in the genre, Hugh Howey's WOOL, certainly sports a rather bizarre cover that is a radical departure of the "classic" science fiction genre:

 
So it looks like the reverse might be happening: "hard" science fiction is merging into climate fiction... 

Perhaps this is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Some people are convinced that climate change is "the hottest thing in science fiction", as Dave Burdick put it (see here, on Grist) and he reports the interesting observation made by Csicery-Ronay, an English professor at DePauw University in Indiana and co-editor of the journal Science Fiction Studies: "Cli-fi is getting some interest from folks who are not necessarily interested in science fiction."

I'm very happy to hear that. Because climate fiction is not a silly fantasy. Because the whole point of it is to make us think seriously about the future of humanity and where we're going...

One thing's for sure: climate fiction sells as it attracts more and more people beyond strict science fiction fans. An example? Knopf's recent acquisition of Paolo Bacigalupi's new novel The Water Knife, to be released next year, see here (before that he was with a small press). Following on his success with the Windup Girl (200,000 copies sold), the editor at Knopf is convince his new novel is set to attract a "cross over audience" beyond Bacigalupi's "core readers".

Hey, are you ready for climate fiction? I know I am!

Related articles:


My latest news: WANT A PRINTED COPY OF "CRIMSON CLOUDS? Go over to the Straight from the Library website and make a comment! Your name will be drawn from a lottery and I'll send to your home a printed copy...Click here (Offer limited to residents of the United States)


READ THE REVIEW by Librarian Judith:  This book is not your everyday romance book--instead it's a story of second chances, of mature love and failings, and carries with it the theme--and fear-- of "too late." It reads more like "women's fiction" than romance. Is it "too late" for Robert to follow his childhood dream of painting? Is it "too late" for Robert and Kay to have a life together? Is it "too late" for them to find some common ground in a marriage that for twenty years have been living all but separate lives? Is the love they still share not only "too late" but enough to salvage this relationship? 

Ms. Nougat does a wonderful job at reeling the reader in and making her care what happens to these two characters, even while said reader wants to just shake them both at times and tell them to "stop it right now." They each want to regain what they had in the early days of marriage but each are equally sure that their needs are the most important ones. The author takes these two through an unconventional (especially in the terms of romance writing) journey as they seek to regain what they have lost. It's told through alternating points of view so we get some of the story from each of them, which is interesting to see. I am definitely interested in reading more of this author's work---I like the way she writes.
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4.10.2014

When a Novelist Defies All Conventions: "The Blazing World"

Siri Hustvetd's latest novel, The Blazing World, defies all conventions about novel writing. Its format is quite literally like no other novel ever written (that I know of), which is why I bought it and read it. I love it when someone has the courage to break down all the rules. It's wonderful to find yourself in unknown, undiscovered territory. Very refreshing.

The Blazing World is a novel different in both form and structure. To begin with, it presents itself like non-fiction. It pretends to be the work of an "editor" who has put together a biography/portrait of a recently deceased contempory artist, Harriet Burden. The (fictitious) editor uses, as is always done in this kind of work, testimonials from art critics, family and friends and extracts from the artist's personal diary.

This format enables the author to tell Harriet Burden's story from various points of views. I was struck by the novelist's remarkable ability to change "voice" and convincingly draw a highly sensitive portrait, as Harriet is differently perceived by the people who knew her.

From the start, you are told that she has recently shaken the New York art scene, putting on highly successful shows using male artists as "screens" or pseudonyms for her work. She has used three artists, two unknowns and one well-known, for this bizarre project that she has called "maskings" - a project intended to "prove" that one's perception of the art one sees is governed by one's knowledge of the artist. In particular, she wants to show that art made by a man sells better than art made by a woman; that there is a diffuse gender bias in the art world. Harriet Burden's art  had never attained prominence when it was shown under her own name but now it suddenly achieves success simply because it is seen by the public as the work of a man.

Harriet Burden's plans go awry when Rune, the third artist who is a celebrity in his own right, refuses to reveal that she is the author of the show. He takes on all the critical acclaim, leaving her in the dirt. She smarts from the injustice and as a reader, you smart along with her - which shows how effective the author's writing is.

No spoilers and I won't give out more of the plot, except to say that the story is practically known from the start. That's another peculiarity of this novel: there is next to no suspense. You know from the first page that Harriet is dead and you know very soon what happens to the man who betrayed her (the third artist in her "maskings" project).

So why do you keep reading? Because of the superb writing of course, and because of something else too. Questions are asked that you never thought of asking. The book is filled with gems - insights into life and art and the human condition. The sort of thing that gives you arresting moments of self-revelation and a deeper understanding of the world around you. 

Here's a few quotes to give you an idea:
  • "...it is not what is said that makes us who we are. More often, it is what remains unspoken" (this came up in connection with Harriet's upbringing and difficult relationship with her father);
  • "It is my time, and I will not let them take it away from me. The Greeks knew that the mask in the theater was not a disguise but a means of revelation. And now that I have started, I can feel the winds behind me...(Harriet, commenting on her "maskings" project);
  • "Mostly, the art business has been about men. And when it has been about women, it has often been about correcting past oversights. It is interesting that not all, but many women were celebrated only when their days as desirable sexual objects had passed."
  • "Human beings are the only animals who kill for ideas."
  • "Celebrity is life in the third person."
I actually underlined the book 51 times. That (for me) is something of a record and a good indication of how much I enjoyed it (lucky I read the digital version, if it had been the printed one, it would have looked very messy indeed).

Is there anything wrong with this novel? 

Yes, for anyone looking for suspense. There is none. 

And yes, there's a little too much about art, perception and gender. To a large extent - you're warned! - this is a feminist book. Harriet Burden makes a lot of allusions to philosophers in her diaries, allusions that would get lost or misunderstood without (very academic) footnotes. So you find yourself reading the footnotes. Actually, there's a certain, perverse pleasure in reading them but at times, it does become a little too much. And perhaps, while the footnotes make sense in a book that pretends to be non-fiction, they certainly detract from the pleasure of reading the book as a novel - in principle, a form that never has any footnotes (unless it's a classic for school use).

My conclusion? It is well worth reading and I highly recommend it. But it really isn't a novel as such - more an intellectual joy ride. I doubt that this book will spawn off many more books of the same type. The format is enticing but not easy to follow or reproduce.

However this total departure from the novel form is interesting inasmuch it seems to indicate that we may be reaching a certain degree of fatigue with the "standard" novel and the three act structure. We live in an age of experimentation. That is certainly what I did in Luna Rising (in Book One, I combined novel and play writing).  Many books lately are "cross-genre" and even "serialized" (broken up in bits like a TV series, making them easier to consume in our fast-paced, attention-squandering digital age). And of course we have fictionalized biographies and documentaries.

 So why not fictionalized non-fiction?

For more info, visit her website
For those curious about the author: she is the wife of Paul Auster and author of five internationally acclaimed novels, The Sorrows of an American, What I Loved, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, The Blindfold, and The Summer Without Men, as well as nonfiction, notably Living, Thinking, Looking, a compendium of 32 essays about philosophy, memory and imagination. The same questions that animate The Blazing World recur here: How do we see, remember, and feel? How do we interact with other people? What does it mean to sleep, dream, and speak? What is "the self"?   

The Blazing World, just published (March 13, 2014) is available on Amazon here and Living, Thinking, Looking can be found here. Note that The Blazing World is expressedly called after Margaret Cavendish's own magnum opus (available here - yes, titles cannot be copyrighted!) 

Margaret Cavendish was a 17th century aristocrat and a brilliant scientist and philosopher who suffered from that fact that, being a woman, she wasn't taken seriously by anyone in her own time, though she corresponded with Descartes and Hobbes. Siri Hustvetd's main character, Harriet Burden, considers Cavendish as her idol and role model.

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673)

Blazing World was reviewed by the New York Times, see here, as well as in the following articles in the British press:
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4.07.2014

Author Bob Rector's Interview of C.N.




show that became known as the World's Most Decorated Play and that entertained America's troops around the world for fifteen years.




MY INTERVIEW WITH MULTI-TALENTED CLAUDE NOUGAT

It is with great pleasure that I introduce to you the very talented author/artist Claude Nougat. Not only is she a gifted storyteller, she also provided invaluable editing advice to me while I was in final preparation of my manuscript for Unthinkable Consequences.

Claude you are an accomplished author with several books in release, but before we start discussing your word-craft, tell us a little about your background.
ClaudeI guess you could say I’m a world citizen, I really don’t have roots anywhere. Born in Belgium, raised in Sweden, Egypt, Russia, France, Colombia and finally reaching the US when I was 17 – picking up on the way many languages and forgetting them in turn. What’s left is French, Italian, Spanish and of course English that I learned attending classes at the American Embassy in Moscow. My formative years as an intellectual took place in America, at Columbia U. I graduated in economics not because I particularly liked the subject but because my father felt that studying anything else would be a “waste of time” (what I really wanted to study was paleontology, I love old bones…) Once out of school, I travelled the world over for the United Nations, giving management advice to aid projects in difficulty, a fantastic job. It put me in touch with so many different people – a very enriching and full experience that lasted 25 years till I retired in 2003.

I happen to know that you are also a very talented painter. Do you find that it compliments your skills as a writer? If so, how?
Painting and writing seem to call on diametrically opposed segments of the brain: the mode of concentration is totally different – painting is more intuitive, it sort of “happens” on the blank canvas. You could argue that a book also happens on a blank page, but it is a long haul, not like a painting that can be done in a few hours. A book can take years in the making – my first one (now out as “Luna Rising”, a Sicilian family saga) took 30 years in the making, from the first moment I thought of it (when I walked into a dusty men’s club in Sicily full of old men playing backgammon – they all looked like ghosts) to its most recent incarnation (now out in a brand new edition). A painting only takes a few days, in that sense, a painting is more like a short story or a poem…

Two of your works that I truly enjoyed are Crimson Clouds and Forever Young. Give us a brief description of each.
CrimsonCloudsSo happy you enjoyed them! “Crimson Clouds” is about the anxieties of restarting one’s life after retirement. Robert, the protagonist, in his early 60s, a brilliant manager, he’s still young and attractive and has a lovely and much younger wife who’s carved out her own success as a dealer of contemporary art. But when he decides to renew with a childhood dream of being an artist and produces paintings that are dreadfully academic (a little like my own!), his wife is horrified. They fight over art but what is at stake is their marriage and they separate. He goes to Italy, has some love affairs but his wife wants to save their marriage and comes back to him…

“Forever Young” is set 200 years from now, when the Earth is dying and only the ultra rich, who can afford the costly and exclusive Age Prevention Program (APP), enjoy a perfect life in their gated communities, looking young till the day they drop dead. The book has three major characters, forming a love triangle: Jamie, a young investigative journalist from the World and US Post (the New York Times and Huffington Post rolled into one), his partner Lizzie, a professional golf player (she’s a descendent of the mythical Tiger Woods), and Alice, a beautiful Swiss nurse and an outsider: she yearns to join the APP and is in love with Jamie. There are two options to survive the extinction of life on Earth, both opened only to APP members: fly to another pristine planet similar to Earth or take refuge in Antarctica, the last virgin continent, and wait for the end to come, getting ready to re-settle the Earth afterwards. What will our threesome do?

Why do you write?
Tough question. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t write!

What appeals to you most about crafting a story?
The suspense. Digging into another person’s head. Figuring what happens next. If I know ahead what’s going to happen in my story, I don’t feel like writing it at all. I’m my own first reader!

What writers have inspired or influenced you most and why?
All the classics, especially the Russians – I consider Gorki’s Dead Souls an absolute masterpiece, it’s got everything I love, the characters, the social comments, the way a light is thrown on society – much more effective than any sociological critical essay. The same can be said of Bulgakov’s The Master and Marguerite: literally insane fantasy and the most effective and devastating comment ever made about Communism and men’s tendency to fall into dictatorship. But I also like the French, Voltaire’s Candide and Camus’ novels for the same reason I like Gorki. Also the English, in particular the sci-fi masters, Aldous Huxley and Orwell though this is an area where there are lots of remarkable American writers too, from Frederik Pohl to Philip K. Dick and most recently, Hugh Howey. Actually, there are lots of amazing writers alive today from Penelope Lively to William Boyd, David Lodge, Louis Begley, Deborah Moggach, Tracy Chevalier, Siri Hustvedt…

If your writing was music, what would it sound like?
Good God, I have no idea! I guess, cool jazz…

What comes first for you, plot or character, and why?
Character, no question about it. The plot comes next, it develops out of a character’s strengths and weaknesses, yearnings and fears. The setting is often what challenges the characters and pushes them to their (internal) extremes but the challenges also come from relationships between characters.

Tell us a little about how you formulate your plots.
I don’t formulate them at all. I have a general idea and jump in. As I write, it all unfolds in front of my eyes like a film.

Talk a little about themes. At what point in your writing process do you address them?
Never. I don’t believe in writing with a theory in mind that you want to develop. The themes come naturally as a side-effect of the plot and characters. Forever Young really deals with major issues threatening life on earth but I hope that doesn’t show. The intention is to entertain, not teach or preach.

Tell us a little about how you create your characters.
Observation. People around me are warned! But most of all, I draw characters from my own inner self. Whatever looks logical for the character, given who he/she is, gets written down. The characters dictate the creation, not the other way around. I’m sure you know what I mean, because I can see that’s how you create your characters too.

Which characters have you created that are most vivid to you, or continue to reside in your heart?
The young man in Luna Rising, he is stuck in his life, he hates it and he’s trying to get out of it. Obstacles on his way, coming from the ghosts in his family, are so numerous that he is forced to become a hero or…die! Contrary to a lot of my readers who disliked Kay, the wife in Crimson Clouds, I actually love her. That’s why I rewrote Crimson Clouds (now the second edition of what was originally called A Hook in the Sky). I wanted to make it clear that for her, winning back her husband is a huge undertaking and he’s constantly cutting her down. So I added whole sections to the book giving her side of the story. And I also love Alice in Forever Young: she’s the outsider who should be in, but is constantly left out. But that doesn’t discourage her, she’s a brave, determined woman – at any rate, that’s how I think of her and painted her (at your behest!) and I’m thinking of using that portrait as a book cover…
ALICE
Portrait of Alice at dawn - oil on canvas by Claude (2014)


You definitely should! Talk to us a little about writing good dialogue.
Bob, I think that’s where you’re the master! In any case, I follow your system: see the people talk, hear them talk (go in a trance if necessary!), take time to speak the dialogue out loud, and you’ll hear it when it’s too long or repetitive or useless. Then, there’s only one solution for it: cut, cut, cut!

I agree. For every line of dialogue that makes it on the page, I probably toss a dozen more. Do you have personal, social, or political convictions that worm their way into your writing? If so, give an example.
I suppose I do though I try very hard to not let them “worm” their way in. Yes, because they can be truly worms that punch holes in the plot. I am convinced that much of contemporary art is not good and I guess that worked its way into Crimson Clouds (mainly in the form of fights between Robert and the women in his life who are all contemporary art fans). Likewise, I’m convinced that income inequality is a major evil of our time and it’s become one of the premises of the brave new world you find in Forever Young.

What do you find most difficult about the craft of storytelling?
Avoid repetition. Not talk down to the reader. Realize that they’re bright and don’t need to be either lectured to or have to be told anything twice. So again, I cut!

Amen! Talk to us about your greatest “Ah-ha!” moment when you read over a passage or chapter and said, “Wow, that’s really good!”
Are you speaking of my own work? I don’t have such moments, ever, when it comes to my own writing! Other people’s writing, yes. Right now I’m into Siri Hustvedt The Blazing World and there are a fantastic succession of such awe-inspiring moments! Just to quote one (out of a dozen or more) when she describes the protagonist’s father: “Harriet’s father was physically awkward, prone to self-conscious pats of his daughter’s arm or quick, hard hugs that were more like speeding collisions than expressions of affection…He liked to expound to us on philosophy…He believed in tolerance and academic freedom…But it is not what is said that makes us who we are. More often it is what remains unspoken.” That last sentence is fantastic!

Many writers create different working environments or conditions that help them focus on the job at hand. Tell us about yours.
Nope, sorry to disappoint. No special environment. I work wherever and whenever I can, in between womanly tasks like cooking or making beds. I leave the gardening to my husband!

We’re in agreement, although I don’t make beds. Don’t see the point. What frustrates you most about being a writer?
The marketing. I hate book promotion but it’s a necessity – especially in today’s environment, with millions of books available on Amazon with just a computer click.

Yes, I think most writers would agree with you on this. Do you think male and female writers approach storytelling differently? If so, how?
I never thought it was a gender thing. For me, it’s not and I don’t believe there’s any gender determined difference. Character-wise, sure. I should think we’re all different in the way we approach work, whether it’s writing, painting, music or economic analysis.

If a young person just starting their working life said to you they wanted to be a writer, knowing what you know now, what would you say to them?
Hey, that’s a tricky question! I don’t think of myself as a guru… On the basis of my own experience, I would say, be ready for the long haul, chances are that your first book won’t make a ripple. So don’t get bitter about it, it happens to all of us. Be ready to befriend your competition. Actually, a lot of writers see other writers as rivals and that’s totally wrong. Writers are terribly different from one another, there’s space for everybody, and we can help each other!

Great advice, Claude. As always, I enjoy your stimulating views on writing. Thank you for participating.

4.05.2014

Recovered Art: The Man Who Lived with a Gauguin 40 Years in his Kitchen

We've all heard of the amazing story of the recovery of two famous paintings by Gauguin and Bonnard whose traces had been lost since an auction sale in 1964. They were bought in 1975 by an Italian worker at a state auction held by the Italian Railways for the modest sum of 45,000 Lire (about $100) - actual value: around $10-15 million, the Gauguin is worth about ten times the Bonnard. They have hung ever since in the worker's kitchen - or so it was written up with glee in the blogsphere and the traditional media alike, the New York Times included (see here).

The Italian Carabinieri that are tasked with the defense of cultural patrimony recently reported on it, earning the compliments of the Italian Minister of Culture:

Minister Franceschini and Carabinieri General Mariano Mossa at press conference, 2 April 2014 (afp)
The paintings are truly beautiful. Here's the Gauguin, titled Fruits sur une table ou nature morte au petit chien:


And here's the Bonnard called La femme aux deux fauteuils:


Imagine living with such splendor for 40 years! The press says the guy put it in his kitchen - that sounds a lot more newsworthy - but it is not fair. He put it in his living room and as he was a simple blue-collar worker, the living room had a kitchen corner, he couldn't afford more...

In fact, I got curious about this man. And I discovered a few things about him in the Italian newspapers (see here and here). He is now 70 years old, retired and lives in his hometown, Syracuse, Sicily (a beautiful town I know well, it's my husband's hometown too).

His name is Nicolà, and like so many southerners of his generation, he spent his life working "in the North", in Turin, doing long night shifts in a Fiat factory. But unlike his fellow workers, he didn't spend his money on booze in bars but liked to save it to participate in the yearly auction of "lost objects" organized by the Italian Railways, in that "beautiful room behind the train station of Porta Nova", as he put it. 

He still remembers that morning in the spring of 1975 when he bought the paintings. A beautiful sunny day, he was 34 years old and full of hope. He particularly wanted the Bonnard and counted on getting both paintings at the lowest possible price - obviously with a monthly salary of 200,000 Lire, he couldn't afford high prices. The two paintings hadn't been recognized as valuable - indeed, at the auction they were thought of as "trash", they were expected to go around 50,000 Lire. No one made a bid at the first turn and his hopes were high that he might make a killing at the second turn, starting at 40,000 Lire. Unfortunately someone suddenly woke up and started bidding. He had to fight for them, with hikes of 500 Lire at every turn. He finally got them for 45,000 Lire, a quarter of his monthly salary, quite a lot for him.

He didn't have any idea of the value of these paintings, until much later, when his son, 15 years old at the time, who loved the paintings too, got interested. He thought he could read the signature in one of them, the Bonnard, and deciphered "Bonnato", which of course got him nowhere. Later, when he was studying architecture (yes, Italian society does have social upward mobility!), he bought a Bonnard biography and discovered a picture of Bonnard's garden that was exactly like the garden in the painting his father had bought. 

Father and son contacted the Italian Art Bureau (Sovrintendenza) to no avail, they were turned away and told that their story was "impossible" and they shouldn't waste their time with it. Only the Carabinieri listened to them. That is how it was discovered that the paintings belonged to a wealthy couple who lived in London and who had died since without heirs. 

Obviously, at this point father and son are hoping no heir will ever be found and that they can recover the paintings for their living room - as of now, they are under the Carabinieri's custody. After all, Nicolò bought the paintings in good faith from a State auction, and he bought them because he loved them...The best reason to buy art!

One wonders whether in future lost conceptual art would find the same fate. Some of it, yes, as long as it is art meant to please and comfort. Unfortunately, too much of contemporary art is meant to astonish and shock, not exactly the sort of thing you'd want to have in your living room, let alone your kitchen... 

But of course, that's what Picasso always said of his own work: that he would never want to have a painting of his hanging in someone's living room. There was this deep "hatred of the bourgeois" (especially bourgeois living rooms!)  that has been transmitted to most young artists today. Personally, I think that's a shame. When you come across the love of art in simple people, like in this case, it's quite simply a wonderful, moving experience that restores one's faith in humanity. The love of Beauty is the one thing that sets humans apart from animals...

Your views?
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3.28.2014

Ukraine Crisis: A Return to the Cold War?

Vladimir Putin - Olympic Host
The West has loudly condemned Putin and his grab on Crimea, forgetting that for most of its history, Crimea belonged to Russia and that it was only absent-mindedly handed over to the Ukraine some 60 years ago by Krushchev. This was a time when the Soviet Union was so solid that it was impossible to imagine that it might collapse some day, much less fragment the way it did. 

Putin is obviously a nostalgic politician dreaming of putting the broken Soviet giant back together again via his EuroAsian Union proposal (so far only joined by Belarus and Khazakstan).

But Putin's nostalgia is not something to take lightly. Russia's economy may well be no larger than Italy's, and Putin may rely excessively on carbon energy and gaz rather than attempt to build a diverse economy for the future (which would be much wiser), but his Russia is still a major nuclear power and therefore not to be trifled with.

Then, consider the effect of globalization: Russia is a major trading partner and provider of energy for Western Europe and Germany in particular. Practically all big banks in the West are exposed to Eastern Europe including Ukraine and Russia, but the Europeans (for example Italy's Unicredit) much more so than the Americans. 

These economic links only mean one thing: any attempt to impose broad economic sanctions following the model applied to Iran would only backfire and most likely put paid to Europe's on-going recovery (that is still very weak and iffy).

Obama has been loudly asking for Russia to pull back from Crimea and Ukraine. Merkel a little less loudly, and that's understandable, she has no wish to risk an economic recession - and a lot of European leaders are dragging their feet, uncertain of what is the next step. 

So the dispute has been moved up to the United Nations. The General Assembly has been drawn into the act in a resolution supporting Ukraine territorial integrity, with 100 voting in favor, 11 voting against and, what is important in this case: 58 abstentions (24 countries did not vote). Out of a total 193 members, a little more than half were mobilized in favor (for details see news report here )

The US made the case that while self-determination is a UN principle, it is not valid when the voting is held "under coercion" as was done in Crimea - something Russia of course denies (!). 

The outcome of the UN vote, while giving strong support to the US position, does suggest that for a lot of countries, those that abstained or didn't turn up to vote, the situation is not quite so clear cut and they've adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Notably, the BRICs abstained: China, India, Brazil and South Africa.

Those voting against along with Russia, were the usual culprits: Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

The biggest move - more important than the piddly sanctions against people in Putin's entourage (freezing their assets abroad and forbidding travel to the West) - has been the ejection of Russia out of the G-8, which is now effectively back to a G-7. And the next meeting which was supposed to be hosted by Putin and held in Sochi this summer won't take place. 

Of course. Thus Putin is now effectively isolated. Alone on the international scene.

Is that clever?

What do you think? In my view, this is both a dangerous and stupid game. Kicking Russia out of the G-8 has effectively removed one major forum where Putin could have been tackled. One chance less to try and curb him.

Shaming him in front of the UN General Assembly might have given Obama the feeling he had achieve something, but in fact it has no practical consequences. Resolutions in the General Assembly, unlike those of the UN Security Council, are not legally binding. And naturally, a UN Security Council resolution is unthinkable since Russia is one of the five countries with veto power. 

Result of this move? It makes the UN appear in Putin's eyes as a supremely unfriendly environment. Not a place where he is going to want to go and discuss the territorial integrity of anything at all.

We are now effectively back into a Cold War situation where diplomatic channels tend to be frozen. And when diplomacy is frozen, the military elbow in and strut on stage - with the consequences we all know. No doubt to the glee of gun merchants and the military-industrial complex.

Not clever at all.

Your views?


Photo credit: Vladimir Putin - Olympic Host see: DonkeyHotey
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3.24.2014

Why Climate Change is Only a Side Show: the Sixth Extinction is Upon Us!

In the United States, Climate Change is often viewed with suspicion: many Americans don't believe in it, at best they'll agree that climate warming may have natural causes but they strongly refute the idea that it could be due to human action. And in any case, they reject any causal linkage with extinction of life on earth. Life has survived long periods of colder and warmer climate, they argue, and there's no reason to believe that this time will be any different, regardless of who's responsible for the warming - and supposing the warming actually occurs. 

For a strong statement expressing this viewpoint, see here, "global warming debunked" by Gary Ellis, who describes himself as an electrical engineer "with 40-plus years of work experience in electrical generation from methane gas to coal, natural gas and nuclear." Incidentally, not a climate specialist but a person whose life has been invested in energy extraction.

Right. You can always argue as he does that the science behind Climate Change is not strong enough or persuasive, that there's a political agenda behind it. Whose agenda is never spelled out though the agenda of people debunking climate warming is pretty clear: they want to defend their kind of economy based on energy extraction that spews out tons of carbon in the air. Just ask the Chinese authorities and watch what they do to control the smog in Beijing.  They're the ones (along with India) who constantly defeat United Nations discussions on Climate Change and how to control it.

But this discussion is sterile when confronted with the actual numbers out there:  the numbers describe an alarming increase in the rate of extinction of species that often have been around for millions of years (like amphibians) and yet are headed for extinction - in some cases, right now. The rate in extinction is so massive that scientists have taken to calling it the Sixth Extinction - there were five before, notably the one that killed off the dinosaurs (that one was caused by an asteroid impacting the earth and causing the equivalent of a "nuclear winter"). But this one, the Sixth, is shaping up to be bigger than any other, the biggest ever, and it is caused by...yes, us, humans.

Think of it. We've covered the earth, all 7 billions of us soon to become 8, 9, 10 billions - there seems to be no end to the population explosion. We use up every available natural resource, we cover the earth with our buildings, we shape the landscape, we travel everywhere, bringing seeds and species along in our baggage, thoughtlessly putting local biodiversity at risk. Big changes are in the offing: the disappearance of amphibians caused by the spread of a fungus, the fast acidification of the oceans that threaten the survival of reefs and all life in them, the extinction of bats in the United States - even our outdoor cats can be a cause of extinction as they relentlessly kill birds. 

I read about the cats (some 80 million of them in the US) yesterday in the International New York Times (see here: "That Cuddly Kitty is Deadlier Than You Think"): yes, a recent study has shown that sweet cats, some of the best companions we have, are among the most feral predators and given the facts of rapidly rising urbanization and modern agriculture reducing forest space, birds have few places left to breed and live. Add cats to the mix, and there you go: a silent spring!

This is a horror story and it is excellently described by New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert in her book The Sixth Extinction, an Unnnatural History -  now a #1 bestseller on Amazon in biology and a must read for anyone remotely interested in what the future holds for us. She expertly takes us along for the ride as she herself travels around and interviews scientists, often following them in their investigations. All this makes for a very human and effective read, in my view, Pulizer Prize stuff! 

What I like best about it, is that she cleverly avoids the confrontation with Climate Change: it is obvious that it enters the equation, it is a fallout of our activities but if you believe it is not, in fact, it doesn't matter. It doesn't change the thrust of the arguments about the Sixth Extinction or the results of observation. The data showing the on-going extinction is not anybody's invention, it is solid science and cannot be debated or refuted like climate warming. As Kolbert says, even if you find a totally clean energy (say fusion), what would matter is whether you continue to cut down the rain forest. Some of those biologists interviewed by Kolbert have no doubts: human life is headed for extinction and what will follow are...giant rats!

The rate of the current extinction? Scientists believe that up to 50 percent of existing species will have disappeared by the end of the century. Fast! And inevitable, it is already on-going. Nothing in our political set-up (especially at the United Nations where everyone is allowed to speak, including those who don't understand the issues: see the failure in Copenhagen, here) permits us to think that we can escape the ultimate outcome. We might have the science to do it but we won't do it for political reasons.

For me, the book was an eye-opener and I highly recommend it. This is of course why I have set my upcoming book "Forever Young" some 200 years from now  (btw, it's nearly finished, I'm going through the last edits - expect it soon!). Kolbert's book came out just in time to confirm my timing and give me extra confidence in the world I envision in "Forever Young" - a world that is not only sharply divided between the haves and have-nots, with every costly technological advance going to the ultra rich who can afford it. It is also a world threatened with extinction - and again, only the ultra rich have escape options. Some decide to fly to another pristine planet, others to take refuge on the last virgin continent, Antarctica, and wait there, in a protected environment, for the end of life - with the intention of resettling the earth once the Sixth Extinction is over. But this is a novel, not a scholarly treatise of futurology. So I've thrown in that future world people like you and me who have to figure out what to do - and still try to live a full life and know happiness in love. But is it possible when everything collapses around you? The answer in "Forever Young"...

In a way, I see this book "Forever Young" as my own contribution to the debate, or, if you will, "duty of care".  As Kolbert reports, paraphrasing Sherwood Rowland, one of the scientists who discovered ozone depleting chemicals, “What’s the use of having predictive science if you don’t listen to the predictions?

My hope is that people who read "Forever Young" will start to listen to the predictions and do something about it... And here's a fun (?) video - anyway worth watching:

 


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