Friday, November 30, 2012

Reading Anna Karenina

My library copy of Anna Karenina

Between, recovering from surgery and starting chemotherapy, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands.  So, I thought, why not tackle a big novel? Previews for the Keira Knightley version of Anna Karenina were being shown, and a friend told me she loved the book, so I checked it out of my local library and began.  All 924 pages of it.  You may find another version that has a slightly different number of pages, but my version had 924.

I was pleasantly surprised that the translation I was reading was very approachable and easy to follow.  Sometimes I have to really concentrate to read "classics," but this one read fairly easily..  I was also a bit surprised to find Anna is not really the main character in this peopled Russian novel, and you don't even meet her at the beginning.  In fact, the book starts with her brother dealing with the fallout at home of his own discovered affair with a nanny.  Stephan Arkadyvich (Anna's brother) and his wife are one of three couples followed throughout the narrative.  Tolstoy's novel is less about Anna and more about marriage and society.

Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina

Although Stephan's wife struggles to forgive her husband of the affair, society is accepting of it.  Anna, on the other hand, gets an entirely different reaction as she enters into an affair with Count Vronsky.  Unhappy in her marriage to the stiff Alexsey Aleksandrovich Karenin, Anna seeks happiness with Vronsky, and they have a child. While Vronsky continues to move freely in their social circle, Anna finds herself paying a very high price for the relationship.

Alicia Vikander as Kitty Levin

Meanwhile, Kitty Levin's marriage plays out as the counter to the other relationships.  Kitty and her husband, Konstantin, live in relative domestic peace.  When they have conflicts, they talk them out and resolve them.  They work at keeping one another happy.  Tolstoy had a very astute eye when it comes to viewing society, marriage, and families.  Many of his observations are as applicable today as when he wrote his novel in the 1870s, and many moments in the novel made me smile or think.  For example, as Levin enters into marriage, Tolstoy writes "As a bachelor, when he had watched other people's married life, seen the petty cares, the squabbles, the jealousy, he had only smiled contemptuously in his heart.  In his future married life there could be, he was convinced, nothing of that sort...."  Of course, Levin discovers he does have all of the "normal" difficulties in his relationship with Kitty. 
Vronsky and Anna believe they will find happiness with each other, but as their relationship continues, it grows strained.  Vronsky tries to reassure Anna as her insecurity increases.  Her decisions about whether or not to divorce her husband and marry Vronsky further complicate  their relationship. Tolstoy writes "Vronsky, meanwhile, in spite of the complete realization of what he had so long desired, was not perfectly happy."  Many times the thing we thought would make us happy fails to do so, and I appreciated Tolstoy's recognition of this in his novel.
The tragic Anna Karenina
Anna reminded me a bit of Edith Wharton's Lily Bart in "House of Mirth" in that both women are on downward spirals, and as a reader, you hope someone will pull them out, or especially in Anna's case, that they will make decisions that will lead them to peace in their lives and acceptance in society.  However, both women have tragic ends.  Tolstoy's novel, for me, bogs down a bit in the parts about local Russian politics, but his characters are well-drawn.  Levin and Karenin both experience religious journeys that are in themselves interesting to examine.  With the new movie introducing another generation to this story of complicated love, it is a good time to delve into Tolstoy's enduring novel. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Visiting Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

View of the kill site at Head-Smashed-In

On my trip to Alberta, Canada this summer, I couldn't resist a stop at "Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump."  What a great name!  It begged for a visit.  Head-Smashed-In is just what is says, a buffalo jump site where people herded buffalo off a cliff so they could butcher the animals and use the meat and hides.  Today, this location is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It has a wonderful interpretive center, and is well worth a visit.

Welcome sign

We were excited to make this stop on our drive from Great Falls, Montana to Banff.  There is ample parking at the site.  If you don't want to walk from the lots to the center, you can take the shuttle bus.

Interpretive Center

This beautifully designed multi-level building is set into the hillside and follows the contours of the land.  We entered the center and proceeded to the top of the building to begin our visit.  We ventured outside to see the top of the "kill site."  This is the cliff where the buffalo fell to their demise.  The pathway is paved, and it was an easy walk to the overlook.

Walkway to the overlook

Winds blow frequently at this site, and can reach up to 150 km/hour.  It was definitely a high wind day when we visited.  Since we felt like we were going to be blown away at any time, we decided to have a little fun with it, and practice flying.

The guys try their luck flying in the high winds.

After visiting the top of the kill site we were pretty wind blown and headed back inside to view the movie about buffalo jumps.  This film carries a warning about its graphic nature, but frankly, the films I saw about buffalo hunts in elementary school were more graphic and intense.  This film is very informative and well done, and we felt it was worth our time to watch it.

Skins used for herding the buffalo.

Buffalo jumps may not be used for generations.  Timing and conditions had to be right.  If a herd was nearby, and the people were able to set up a camp, then a buffalo jump could proceed.  First, a ceremony with the iniskin (buffalo shaped rock) was held to ensure a successful jump.  Then, drive lanes were constructed on the top of the cliff area.  Buffalo runners would dress in skins (pictured above) and maneuver the buffalo into the drive lanes where they would be funneled down to the cliff face.  Once the buffalo fell off the cliff, the hard work of butchering the animals and preparing meat and hides began.  Head-Smashed-In was a successful site used over 5,700 years because a spring of water seeps from the sandstone cliff base.  Without a water source, it would have been impossible for people to camp and prepare all the buffalo at the bottom of the cliff.

Model of a buffalo jump in the interpretive center.

Head-Smashed-In was a relatively undisturbed site for many years, leaving a great archaeological record.  Tools and evidence of camp life in the area help researchers learn more about the buffalo jumps.  The current cliff is 10 meters high.  However, because of the dense bone deposits here that extend 12 meters deep, it is believed that the jump site was twice as high 6,000 years ago.

Display of buffalo skulls in the interpretive center.

Old photographs and records give some idea of the vast numbers of buffalo that once filled these prairies, and of the numbers killed in successful buffalo jumps.  One sign at the center displays this quote:  "I never saw such amazing numbers together before...they immediately fill up the place like waves in the sea."  --Peter Fidler, 1792.  It is hard to imagine today the buffalo extending further than the eye can see.  It must have been quite something.

Display of artifacts, including a hammer stone and scraper

The interpretive center has many attractive displays including animal mounts and tools and artifacts.  We saw arrow heads, a teepee, and more.  Signs give insights into the Blackfoot culture that was dominant in this area.  We also heard from a Blackfoot volunteer while we were at the center.

Replica of a Blackfoot teepee.

One of my favorite displays was a "Winter Count Robe."  Buffalo robes were used to record important events, including numbers of buffalo.  The robe on display at this center is a Piegan Indian winter count robe and covers the years 1764-1879.  This is one of the longest records on a buffalo robe.  Symbols on the robe indicate things like an outbreak of small pox and the end of the buffalo.

Piegan winter count robe.

After we finished seeing the interpretive center, we headed out on the 1 kilometer walkway to see the buffalo jump from below.  Along the way, we saw several cedar waxwings in a bush.  They were smaller than I expected, but were beautiful birds.

Cedar Waxwing

Again, the walkway was paved and this was an easy walk.  The wind was not nearly so strong at the bottom, either.

Family below the buffalo jump.

This sandstone cliff rises from the grassy Alberta prairie.  It is a quiet, peaceful place today, but we could imagine it bustling with excitement and anticipation as the Blackfoot people prepared for a buffalo jump.  There are other buffalo jump sites you can visit, but we highly recommend Head-Smashed-In.  It is a quality experience.

Sign about the Women's Buffalo Jump

Buffalo jumps were used by generations over thousands of years. I think that is one of the things I learned that I had never really considered before...that this process of harvesting meat was handed down and used by many groups over many, many years.  I liked this interpretive sign that indicated the Women's Buffalo Jump was the place where men and women decided to live together according to Blackfoot lore.  This is a wonderful stop and well worth the drive.

View of the prairie from the top of the buffalo jump.

If you go:  Head-Smashed-In is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The location has a cafeteria, a film, and exhibits.  Tours are available, and it is wheelchair accessible.  It is open daily (except Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Day, and Easter Sunday) from 10am to 5pm.  There are extended summer hours from July to Labour Day.  We saved a little on admission by buying a family pass.  Head-Smashed-In is located in southwestern Alberta.  It is a little out of the way, but I recommend it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Art of Living in Thanksgiving

Illustration from N.C. Wyeth's Pilgrims

"Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, - a grateful heart;
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if Thy blessings had spare days,
But such a heart whose pulse may be Thy praise."
--George Herbert

As I reflect on my many blessings this year, I have decided that it is a true gift to live in Thanksgiving daily.  These past few months have brought so many things to my life.  I have entered a world of cancer patients, and those who care for them.  I have been overwhelmed by kindness, competence, generosity, nurturing, gifts, compassion, empathy, advice, and laughter.  Overall, I have found much for which to be grateful.  I have always been told that I could choose my own attitude in my life, but for some reason, I have always had a long list of rationalizations as to why I really was not in control of my own attitude.  Or rather, I was constantly justifying my bad attitude.  But I notice the more grateful I am, the better life is, and so living in Thanksgiving daily is something worth pursuing.  I hope you all have a wonderful celebration with people you love, and that blessings will surround you and wash over you throughout this day and the upcoming year.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Footnote - Movie Review

The movie - Footnote

"Footnote" is a Joseph Cedar film that was nominated for an Academy Award in the best foreign language film category.  As it is now available on DVD, I checked it out of my local library to view.  Billed as a comedy, it looked like it had potential to fill an enjoyable evening.

Son and Father - Talumudic scholars

"Footnote" is the story of a father, Eliezer Schlotnik, who devoted his entire career to studying word changes in various Talmudic commentaries, painstakingly tracing through texts, and coming up with a complete, early version of text.  Meanwhile, a fellow scholar finds the actual early text, publishes, and essentially negates Eliezer's entire life's work.  The elder Schlotnik is an eccentric, and seemingly bitter man.  He has always wanted the Israel prize (the top award for scholarhip), and has been an applicant for 20 years, but has not ever won.  His one claim to fame is that he is mentioned in a footnote in another scholar's publication.

Meanwhile, Uriel is also a scholar and professor, and is nominated for the Israel prize.  In an odd turn of events, the Eliezer is mistakenly informed that he has won the Israel prize!  Imagine his happiness and validation after all of these years.  However, the award was really intended for Uriel, the son.  What is a son to do?  The committee wishes him to inform his father.  Despite their rocky relationship, Uriel cannot take away this happiness, and feels that his father deserves the prize after all of his hard work over the years. Enter the dilemma:  the committee informs Uriel that either he must inform his father and claim his prize, or forfeit his right to be nominated for the coveted Israel prize in the future.  Uriel faces an agonizing decision. The committee will not do the paperwork for his father to get the award, but will sign off on it if Uriel submits it.  Uriel makes his choice, sacrifices his own future, and does the paperwork.

Although there are some quite comedic scenes, particularly as the committee meets, this is more drama than comedy.

Eliezer sleuthing out the truth.

Ever the scholar, Eliezer reads over his nominating paperwork carefully.  And notices something.  He researches and examines, finding in his son's writings the same word choices and patterns that are in his nominating paperwork.  As the truth unfolds, we wonder what Eliezer will do.  He knows it is not his prize.  He knows what Uriel is doing for him.  As the movie ends, Eliezer is going up to accept his award.  He has one more shot to admit the truth...what will he do?

This movie seemed a bit more like those short stories you read in high school English classes than a typical comedy.  However, the acting is solid, the characters are believeable, as are the family relationships, and this movie will hold your interest and creates a surprising amount of tension.  Rated PG, it runs for 106 minutes, and is in Hebrew with subtitles.

So what happens at the end?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Although I longed for Eliezer to do the right thing, and honor the sacrifice of his son Uriel,  I saw nothing in Eliezer's character throughout the film to make me believe he would do anything but walk right up there and claim his prize.  And maybe he deserved the prize after all his years of work.  I couldn't find a satisfactory ending in my own mind.  This movie will make you think, however, and is worth a look.