A house with no foundations and lessons in survival

Unsheltered,  Barbara Kingsolver.  Faber & Faber

Taking my TBR list somewhat out of order this is my third review out of my initial list.  My target is 50 so only 47 more to go!

A new Barbara Kingsolver book is always an event in the literary calendar, although I haven’t read them all.  I loved The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna and Flight Behaviour.  In the latter the central character is a woman from small town America whose life normally bounded by childcare, domestic duties and caring for the in-laws,  is changed by the arrival of a scientific observation team who have come to examine the effects of climate change on the migration patterns of Monarch butterflies.

Kingsolver

Unsheltered uses similar tropes for the central character of the modern story Willa although reverses them.  Willa is a professional woman (a journalist) with two adult children who having moved to Vineland, New Jersey for her husband’s job finds herself trying to undertake freelance work and then trying to survive, in that order.

The book has two time shifts.  One, the modern story,  is set in Trump’s America (2016  ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ says Willa on hearing the result of the New Hampshire primary) and the historic story set in 1871 amongst the same community.

Willa’s journalistic ambitions are seriously stymied by the illness of her ageing and impossible father-in-law, Nick,  who has no plans to go gently into that good night and whose care falls to Willa.  Another catastrophe strikes as Willa’s adult son Zeke, married with a newborn, is suddenly faced with the death of his own partner.  Urgent childcare is needed, a breach into which Willa also steps.  As if those things are not enough, the Vineland house into which the family has recently moved is diagnosed as literally falling to pieces.

Because this is Kingsolver we know there will be science.  The historic section of the book is set in houses on the same street, and concerns a lady called Mary Treat (a real person), a naturalist and entomologist who wrote many books and articles and corresponded with Charles Darwin.

Willa’s belief that Mary Treat might have lived in the house that her family currently occupies  gives her hope that she could register the house as being of historic interest and so be eligible for grant funding to do urgent repairs. After research, though,  It turns out acclaimed biologist Mary Treat did not live in Willa’s house but in a house over the road.  Willa’s house was in fact occupied by the family  of a local school master named rather uproariously Thatcher Greenwood.

We learn that Thatcher is a proponent of Darwinian science –  beliefs considered dangerous and ungodly by the head of the school in which he is employed as a teacher.   He is peremptorily told not to fill the children’s heads with ungovernable nonsense such as evolution.   Ultimately Thatcher is told to disavow his Darwinian beliefs which -sensibly on the side of history – he refuses to do.

Back to the future, and undaunted by research showing the absence of Mary Treat or her ilk from her home, Willa sets about trying to find a possible connection between Thatcher and Mary.   Was there a connection between Thatcher Greenwood and Mrs Mary Treat, Willa wonders (you’ll have to read the book to find out)  and if so was it sufficient to enable her to make an application for historic registration of her property?

‘These two iconoclasts living in one another’s line of sight, anode and cathode, had some current flowing between them that Willa had accidentally stuck a hand into.’

This story is not just about someone trying to apply for a housing grant.  As part of the modern story, Unsheltered is also about generational differences but not the sort of generational differences that the boomers had with their parents which was all about cool and uncool and music and vibes. The expectations of the boomer generation was achiever fever,  to outdo their parents in wealth, position collecting of stuff, size of house.    The new generational differences are much more fundamental.  They relate to understanding the depths of disaster that the planet is facing and the price of survival.  They are about recognising:

‘The global contempt for temperance and nurture, the fierce entitlement to every kind of consumption’

This whole books is a metaphor for how we are going to have to completely redefine things which are important to us in the future.  A timely metaphor indeed on a day when Greta Thunberg has addressed the World Economic Forum at Davos asking us to act as if nothing matters more than our children.

Oh boy can Kingsolver do metaphors!  You only have to look at the central tenet of the story –    a house with no foundations!   And one of the minor characters in the story quite literally gets away with murder.  The title of the debate ‘Darwin versus Decency’ in which Thatcher takes part,  sounds as ridiculous to modern ears, as the utterings of climate deniers will sound to the ears of generations into the future.

But though I admired this book, somehow I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to enjoy it – not as much as some of the previous books.  I found the historical storyline less absorbing than the modern day one, the characters harder to get a handle on.  I think I kept waiting for a ta-dah sort of revelation, but there was none.  The reader has to be satisfied with small victories and uplifting moments, against a background of relative awfulness. And isn’t that just like life.

Poets, Astronomers, Mathematicians, Biologists: Figuring by Maria Popova

Figuring

“We snatch our freeze frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives.  All the while we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things, for the things themselves, our records for our history.   History is not what happened but what survives the shipwrecks of judgement and chance.”

Maria Popova

The title of the book Figuring refers to Popova’s ideas about:

‘figuring and reconfiguring of reality – it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony …’

Her book ranges widely across philosophical ideas and scientific notions, starting with mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).

Kepler would, says the author ‘quarry the marble out of which classical physics would be sculpted’.

Kepler had investigated and proposed the claim (made 50 years earlier by Copernicus) that the Earth moves around the sun, even before Galileo Galilei plucked up the courage to say that he had himself thought along these lines but kept silent to avoid being charged with heresy.  Eventually he could keep silent no longer.    Kepler, Before Newton,  also conceived the notion of a gravitational force which directed the movement of the planets.

The book moves on to American Journalist and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) and the life of astronomer and mathematician Maria Mitchell (1818-1889).   Mitchell rose to be the first female Professor of Astronomy at Vassar.  Maria Mitchell knew that the surest route to empowerment of women was through education.

We are taken by the author on a journey through the  life and poems of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and on to the groundbreaking work of environmental scientist, Rachel Carson (1907-1964) with others in between.

Among the questions Popova asks, and seeks to answer through the examination of the lives of the (mostly women) in this book.     What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement?

This last is a question which courses like blood through the veins of the book because, if it is axiomatic that we should seek to achieve greatness in our chosen field, whether science, literature, art, then what part does societal recognition play?  The lives of the women in this book were lived out against a background of the utter disbelief  of those particular societies in which they lived concerning the suitability of women even to partake in education, let alone to make world changing scientific or artistic discoveries.   Yet this is exactly what they did.

While it is impossible to know for certain every life chance or turn that led to these women becoming exactly who they did, they all shared the fortune of coming from families enlightened as to the education of its daughters.  They all shared a need to work, and like every human soul, a need for love which came in all sorts of shapes and guises.

Popova writes about women who were major achievers in their fields but this is not just an account of certain lives however remarkable they may be.  What Figuring does is the same thing that Popova’s blog Brain Pickings (www.brainpickings.org) does, it makes beautiful connections between art and life, between sinew and spirit, soul, chance and choice.  In her inimitable way she makes the reader not just wish to know more but insist on knowing more, to relish the ‘down the rabbit-hole’ effect of research,  to want to delve further, find more tunnels.

 

silentspring

 

The last ‘life’ to be covered in Figuring is that of Rachel Carson (1907-1964), author of Silent Spring.

Carson was a biologist, nature writer and oceanographer, an ecologist before the term was even known.   Although ailing and nearing the end of her life at the time of writing Silent Spring this was the book that it fell to her to write simply because she was the best qualified to do the job,  and in so doing she founded an ecological movement which today is more desperately needed than ever.

Carson was informed by the establishment of the time that despite her meticulously evidenced research on the damage caused by the use of DDTs in crop sprays and pesticides in decimating bird and insect populations,  there was no ‘evidence’ of permanent damage.  In other words, it was thought by some in a gung-ho way that populations might be decimated but, hey, they would recover.  They didn’t.  My life had stood a loaded gun’ as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote.

The conflation of such gung-ho attitudes towards chemically manufactured carcinogens, in pursuit of profit, and the disparagement by those engaged in such activities of individuals who challenge them, has given rise to the environmental activism we see today.    It is shocking how little attitudes have changed since Carson wrote in the 60s and how much there is still to achieve.  For example in the last few days it has been reported in the Guardian that the peaceful environmental group Extinction Rebellion was listed by the Metropolitan Police on its Prevent list of radicalisation, alongside neo-Nazi groups, meaning that to be concerned about ecological destruction and the death of species, is considered extreme even though we ourselves are part of the ecology we destroy.

Carson would no doubt  take little pleasure in – but equally might not be surprised by  narratives being pursued today by powerful corporates and those who serve their interests  regarding the damage done to human tissue by ultra-fine particles in the air that we breathe.

Governments cannot be trusted with environmental crises.  Although DDT’s may be banned in certain countries our legal and regulatory systems lag behind desecration and mayhem caused by chemical pollutants in our air and water systems, particularly from vehicle and aviation exhaust fumes.

 

 

Are the only sparrows left the ones we dream about?

20201

 

I dreamed about sparrows last night which I found rather sad if the only sparrows left are in dreams.

“Miners use canaries to warn them of deadly gases.  It might not be a bad idea if we took the same warning from the dead birds in our countryside.”

So wrote Lord Shackleton in 1963 in his introduction to Rachel Carson’s now iconic book Silent Spring

We couldn’t see it then could we – yet now it’s here.

Reading the right books  suddenly feels like a huge responsibility but which are the right books?

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woman sitting while reading a book
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

I’ve challenged myself to read 50 books in 2020 and to read more books about the environment, painful though it is.     Suggestions welcome in the fields of poetry, memoir, biography, literary fiction, philosophy and new nature writing.

So far on my list I have:

Figuring by writer, genius, blogger and writer of genius Maria Popova.

This was a daunting looking read coming in at a cool 545 pages – but fascinating and endlessly erudite.   I’m on p429 (yes, thank you Christmas).   Published by Canongate. Review upcoming  in the next week–

Bird Cottage by author, artist, singer, songwriter and philosopher Eva Meijer. Pushkin Press.

Really looking forward to this one on the connections between ourselves, the natural world and the epidemic of loneliness.

A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar,

the latest book from American born British/Libyan Pulitzer prize winning author of The Return, about the author’s search for his father. Published by Viking.

Dark Enchantment by Dorothy Macardle (Tramp Press).

Not an author I know anything about but I found this reviewed in the FT Weekend and thought it sounded intriguing – a sort of gothic ghost story set just after the Second World War.

Whose Story is This? Rebecca Solnit (Granta).

Who gets to shape the narrative of our times?

Daemon Voices, Philip Pullman. (David Fickling Books).

Famed author of His Dark Materials trilogy in a series of talks/lectures about his influences including Milton and Stephen Hawking.

Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber).

Mmm! A long way short of 50 but it’s a start!

#NonficNov  Week 3 Asking the experts : Surveillance, Tyranny and a Movement for Peace

NON FICTION-NOVEMBER WEEK 3 HOSTED  BY

DOING DEWEY

You can share 3 or more books on a single topic that you’ve read and can recommend (be the expert); you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you’ve been dying to read (ask the expert); or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Certainly making no claim to being expert at anything.  But I am increasingly concerned about how fragile our freedoms are and how easily they can be taken away from us.    This seems a good time to celebrate books that tackle tyrannical regimes.

Here are three learned books that to consult on that very topic.

The polish poet Czeslaw Milosz says in his note to his own book:   The Captive Mind (Penguin Modern Classics, 1953)

“It’s subject is the vulnerability of the twentieth century mind to seduction by socio-political doctrines and its readiness to accept totalitarian terror for the sake of a hypothetic future.”

CzeslawMiloszDHcover

Or to put it another way.  How did Stalin get away with it?  How did the nazis?  The century may have changed but the ideas and concerns haven’t – only the methods used by oppressors change not the fundamental intent.  It has yet to be seen whether the West is currently moving towards totalitarianism.

Edward Snowden’s book Permanent Record which I am  currently reading deals with a digital reign of terror, mass surveillance,  bulk data collection and data storage currently being perpetrated on millions and tens of millions of global citizens.  All in contravention of the US constitution.   Yet  congress knowing this finds itself unable to unwilling to act.   Full review will be posted shortly.

 

And belief in a better way – A Forum for Peace: Daisaku Ikeda’s Proposals to the UN Ed. Olivier Urbain, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. 2014

Buddhist Philosopher and President of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Daisaku Ikeda has written Peace Proposals to the United Nations every year since 1983 focusing on areas of great importance and relevance to our modern world.

This book is a collection of Peace Proposals on such topics as climate change, global poverty, health, human rights and nuclear abolition.

  Ikeda states:  As a Buddhist I deeply believe that no individual can experience true happiness or tranquility until we turn humankind away from its obsession with war.”

ForumforPeace

 

 

 

With the intro post hosted by Julz and Julz Reads and the fiction/nonfiction pairing hosted by Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves. And don’t miss the next two weeks discussion either, coming from co-hosts Rennie at What’s Nonfiction and Leanne at Shelf Aware.

Where a goddess might trail her garments

 

 

Non Fiction November

Week 2: (Nov 7 – 11) Sarah’s Book Shelves  is hosting Week 2 of Choosing Nonfiction:

What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

Tree1Tree2

Right: Extract of cover from Richard Powers The Overstory

 

Thoreau wrote in Walden

“This was an airy and unflustered cabin, fit to entertain a travelling god, and where a goddess might trail her garments.  The winds which passed over my dwelling were such as weep over the ridges of mountains, bearing the broken strains, or celestial parts only, of terrestrial music.”

Writers like Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald combine deep knowledge of natural history with literature and spirit with geology. I want a writer that I know has put in the ten thousand hours of research about their subject and will offer up insights into the way that knowledge works in the world.  Or the way it doesn’t.

In The Old Ways Macfarlane writes:

“By an old stone bridge he dropped down to the riverside to show me where two yews had grown into one another.  Their joint foliage was covered with translucent red berries, life half-sucked cherry drops. ‘These are the oldest living beings of the Guadarrama….”

Trees are often the oldest living beings of anywhere but we choose to forget that.  We think nothing of burning and cutting trees for our furniture, for palm oil and other products.   But the writers are fighting back, along with the activists.  Richard Powers Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Overstory examines how trees affect the lives of a group of people who pass by them everyday – sometimes unknowingly.  A disparate group of characters – an artist, an under-graduate from an actuarial course, a scientist, an air force veteran come together for differing reasons of their own but all with the same aim – a desperate attempt to save a few remaining forests in the US from annihilation.

These places where a goddess might trail her garments I am looking for in non-fiction work.  But such places are tragically few and perhaps soon will exist only between the covers of books.

Thank you also to the hosts for 2019 – Katie of Doing Dewey, Julz of Julz Reads, Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves, and Leann of Shelf Aware.This event runs for five weeks, with five weekly discussion topics, giving us a chance to highlight and talk about our non-fiction reads.

Nature has not given up, nor should we

This is the third book of my 10 books of Summer

A Review of Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish. Bob Gilbert (Saraband)

I am as ambivalent as many Londoners about my city, loving it but longing, much of the time, to be out of it; living somewhere overhung with trees or with a sight of the sea or with the shape of hills to look at.  And this is my compromise; this untidy patch of garden with its chickens and its struggling vegetables, this defiant gash in the city’s concrete skin.  It is a wound that I tend with broccoli and potatoes…

Not exactly on a mission to re-wild London, but certainly to examine more closely what is beside, behind, beneath and above us as we all rush about, what has survived and adapted, the author has traced ghost outlines of the wild that once covered the area of East London known as Poplar.

 Ralph Waldo Emerson said:  “The ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object covered over with hints.”

Gilbert’s book seeks out those memoranda and signatures.  But to focus purely on history, on the lonely open landscape that once existed – a landscape of ‘wide and windswept estuarine marshes’ where now there are tower blocks and urbanisation. That would be a book only about loss.

‘It was possible, on a day of shifting, watery grey cloud to still feel the imprint of the reed beds and the osiers, of lonely cattle grazing on the open marshes, of the cry of a passing curlew…’

I doubt if many curlews cry over East London now.  But this book is not a eulogy. Far from it.   There is much wildlife here to celebrate.    Gilbert charts  new habitats in surprising places, gives us new causes for appreciation of the here and now.  He seeks at the edges of shopping centres, at the side of rail tracks,  the base of lamposts in the  cracks between paving stones, in Churchyards and parks and in allotments for the new urban ecology  As well as a biographer of the ghost outlines of estuarine marshes which once covered Poplar,   Gilbert is a chronicler of our contemporary urban adaptees of the natural world.

Thus in an imaginary conversation the writer has with Richard Adams, (he of Watership Down fame) who apparently was rather grumpy about London and claimed to see nothing inspiring other than a few crocuses in a hotel garden, the author writes:

“I wanted to tell him of the black redstart I had seen feeding in front of the building’s bulldozer, of the pheasant I had found foraging on an urban allotment and of the skylarks I heard singing in a landscape of chemical works and pylons.”

Ghost Trees is the result of what must have been thousands of hours of painstaking research not to say hundreds of miles of walking and hours of looking and note taking.  It traces the outlines of the rural places that have been.   It also charts the history of the mulberry tree, plane tree and other arborial inhabitants cultivated by humans in this our great city of London for one reason or another.  It is a book of plant histories but especially of plant stories

I found the account of the Mulberry’s arrival in the UK  particularly fascinating.  In order to facilitate a supply of raw silk without having to buy the stuff from abroad somewhere because that is (a) too expensive and (b) vulnerable to political interference,  England in the l6th century  needed its own Mulberry trees.   Mulberry leaves are bread and meat and wine to silkworms; they require many of them to sustain their arduous workload.  Under the patronage of King James,  10,000 mulberry plants were ordered, Gilbert tells us, including a plantation at Westminster.  All this is now subsumed beneath concrete, with the poetically termed Mulberry Gardens the sole surviving relic of the project, along with  Mulberry Street; Mulberry House; Mulberry Tree pubs etc etc. Sadly and for various reasons this is a project which failed and England never was able to support its own silk industry.  But next time you go for a pint at the Mulberry Tree pub spare a thought for the little silkworms.

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Gilbert also gives us an image of the post-human forest, and perhaps given current events that is not such a fantastical idea.  These are the trees and plants that will colonise the land when humans no longer do. The goat willow, buddleia, plants that are happy to colonise neglected areas, abandoned  urban corners, thickets of broom, cherry, aspen and birch, taking their place in the empty streets, decaying buildings, fractured windows and disused doorways of a post apocalyptic world.  I rather like the idea that nature will go on, rather like Celine Dion’s heart, regardless of the worst man can do.

“But there was wildness too, in those individual trees that sprang up outside the confines of cultivation; the seedlings and the saplings that appeared without permission on lawns, in flowerbeds, along pavement edges and in pots in my back garden…. This would be the wilderness returning, and these would be the post human trees.”

Where there are trees can the shades and the Forest of Arden and the magic be far behind?   I found this book awe inspiring in its wisdom and abundant historical and horticultural knowledge,  although perhaps a little impersonal at times.  No doubt the author, like the rest of us, has been inspired by the work of Robert Macfarlane and although not quite in the same poetic bracket, this book is an inspiration and a wake up call.  Nature has not given up, nor should we.