Tuesday, April 26, 2016

HOW TO BE BOTH by Ali Smith (fic)

This book received much attention when it came out last year (now in paperback); it was a finalist for the Booker Prize and also chosen as one of the Times 10 best books of 2015.  Ali Smith is an accomplished and creatively original writer, this is her sixth novel.  The book is essentially divided into two parts and was published with some copies beginning with one part and others starting with the other.  Depending on which book you bought, you would have a different character starting the novel.

My copy began with the story of a troubled teen whose mother had just passed away of an allergic reaction to an antibiotic.  She was only 50 years old, and it was an unexpected and shocking death to her family. She was a politically leftist blogger with a degree in art history. The young girl called "George" was left with a father drowning his sorrow in alcohol, and a younger brother who still needed attention and nurturing.   George was close to her mother and they had recently travelled to Italy, drawn there by her mother's fascination with a medieval fresco in the Palazzo Scifanoia in Ferrrara.  The fresco and painter are real, you can Google it and see the premise this story is built on.

The second half of the book is about the 15th century painter, Francescho del Cossa who died of the plague in his forties.  For centuries his work disappeared, and was rediscovered when some white wash fell off his painted-over masterpiece.  This, and an old letter asking for more pay from the d'Este family who were his patrons, led his rediscovery. George and her mother made their pilgrimage to his medieval fortress town of Ferrara in northern Italy, often called the birthplace of the Renaissance.

Sexual ambiguity is a theme running throughout both sections of the novel.  There is the question of the sexual identity of Francescho, and what is the relationship between George's mother and a mysterious woman named Lisa Goliard, who could also be spying on the mother's political activism.

In her effort to heal, George becomes immersed in the painter's life and times, with daily visits to a gallery in Cambridge where a piece of his work is displayed.  The author presents us with the power of art and history and how they can affect us.  What hold does the past have on us?  George, somewhat of a loner, makes friends with Helen, a girl in her class. The girls are drawn together by their intelligence and creativity.  Again, there is ambiguity about their relationship. They begin working together on a class assignment on the topic of empathy. They choose Francescho for their project.

George's story ends and Francescho's begins, or vice-a-versa depending on which copy of the book you have. I am glad I had a copy with George's story first because I found the section on Francescho, with its stylistic change, more difficult to read.  The reader is left to make what he/she will of this.  As I read I could see these two main characters were trying to understand each other across the historical void, and this was part of the healing process for George.  Then I came to believe that the section on the painter was the project that George and her friend Helen had completed for their school assignment. Other readers may have different interpretations.

I found this novel interesting and creative and unique.  It is also challenging to the reader. I would recommend that should you read it, you look for a copy with George's story first.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

REMARKABLE CREATURES by Tracy Chevalier (fic)

Tracy Chevalier who wrote the popular novel, "Girl With a Pearl Earing'" has chosen another fascinating topic to fashion a novel around.  The novel takes place in Lyme Regis on the coast of England, renowned for its chalky cliffs and plethora of fossils.  England is in the midst of war (the war of 1812 with America and the Napoleonic Wars).  But war is hardly mentioned in this book, and one has the feeling that it doesn't much affect this little scientific outpost.

The story is narrated by two women who form an unlikely friendship based on their love of fossils and science, a field not open to women at the time.  The first narrator is Elizabeth Philpot an older spinster who has moved to Lyme Regis with her two sisters to live more economically after her father's death. Elizabeth was a real person who in her day became known and respected for her knowledge of fish fossils. The other voice belongs to MaryAnning, again a real person, who is still known as the greatest fossil finder ever.  We meet Mary as a poverty stricken young girl.  In real life, as in the book, her father was a cabinet maker who dies early on, leaving the family to make a living through selling fossils to tourists and rich hobbiests.  There is a true story related in the book about the ubiquitous Jane Austin approaching Mr. Anning to purchase a cabinet.  She never did business with him because she thought his prices were too high (as she wrote to a sister).

Chevalier does a terrific job of weaving her real characters into a story that is entirely believable. Several well-known scientists of the day also make an appearance in Mary's story.  In fact these several male scientists made their names in scientific circles by buying Mary's finds without much recognition given to her either for her discoveries or for her talent for cleaning and restoring the fossils which were prominently displayed in London museums.  Scientists who mattered respected Mary including the most famous of his day, the French scientist, Cuvier.  Another aside, though it doesn't appear in the book, is that the tongue-twister, "she sells sea shells by the sea shore," was penned when Mary became well known.

Mary called her finds, "curies" and one day in 1811, she made one of the biggest finds of her life, an intact fossil of an ichthyosaurs which she first assumed was a crocodile.  This find cause great consternation and controversy not only in the field of science, but also in theological circles. The great debate centered on how one of God's creatures could have become extinct.  Neither science nor theology allowed for the idea that unknown creatures could have inhabited the earth in the past.  Mary made further discoveries, a plesiosaurus in 1823 and a pterodactyl in 1828. By this time she had made a name for herself and was foremost in her field.

Chevalier weaves a very nice story around the discoveries, a story of friendship, loss, love, poverty and grudging respect.  She makes fossil hunting exciting and real though human relationships. Her characters are real, interesting and altogether human in their triumphs and follies.  I highly recommend this book for all who are interested not just in fossils but in relationships and two women who fought against the custom of the day.  In the end, we might never have known about Mary Anning if it weren't for Elizabeth Philpot who was determined to bring the truth to light.

Monday, April 4, 2016

IN THESE TIMES by Jenny Uglow (non-fic)

Subtitle:  Living in Britain through Napoleon's Wars, 1793-1815

What struck me the most when reading Jenny Uglow's latest book is that war in all its guises somehow is the same no matter when it is fought.  It is always the poor who suffer the most, no matter if it is the Napoleonic Wars, fought over 200 years ago or any conflict in today's world.  In the 22 years of the Napoleonic Wars, which was nearly a world war since most of Europe and the United States and Caribbean islands were involved, the suffering and depredation afflicted all the principals.
In England, the subject of this book, there were riots, food shortages, speculation, crop failures, stock crashes, profiteering, new taxes, new money, and disease.  All this despite the fact that there were never any battles in England.

Jenny Uglow, one of my favorite historians, does a masterful job with the gargantuan task of presenting this social history which stretched over many years with the players outside of England and France, changing sides fueled by whatever economic or military crisis they found themselves in.  What Uglow does is to use a framework of diaries and letters of over 30 families who wrote their thoughts and recorded events between 1793 and 1815. She fleshes this out with precise research and presents it all as a fascinating and realistic record of the lives of the commoners and the gentry.  Over and over the reader will discover the validity of that old saw, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

The book is richly illustrated, though I did have to take a magnifying glass to some of the small prints. Besides consorting with farmers, bankers, soldiers, sailors, and mill workers, the reader will discover the war activities of such luminaries as:  Jane Austin, Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Thomas Paine, Leigh Hunt (who along with his brother was jailed more than once for their anti-war propaganda), Edmund Burke, James Fox, and a wealth of others.  The loss of British lives was horrendous and not only to battle.  Diseases such as yellow fever took their toll as well.  40,000 men were lost to fever in the Caribbean and in the swamps of the Netherlands. Because of the length of the war, it was not unusual for a father to have fought in the beginning conflicts and sons in the latter battles with women losing husbands and sons.

Like all wars, art and literature seemed to grow and flourish as new ideas and ways of thinking came into vogue.  People even managed to travel between the battles and relations with other European nations waxed and waned.

Having recently read a biography of Napoleon, it was interesting to compare and contrast conditions in England and read of reactions to Napoleon whose star fell as Wellington's and Nelson's rose.  I recommend this social history to all who have an interest in the European history of the era, and English history in particular.  Uglow covers a lot of material with great perspective.  She is an able guide to an interesting period of time and its people.