Raise Me with Sunrise: A Review of ‘My Name is Why’ by Lemn Sissay

Raise me with sunrise

Bathe me in light

Wash all the shadows

That fell from the night.


Imagine having to piece together your life and your identity from a series of index cards and minuted committee meetings! Imagine finding out age 16 that even your name is a lie. This is the experience that poet Lemn Sissay relates.

Even if you don’t know who you are from an emotional point of view, at least you have a name.  Perhaps it is the right name.  It is the one written on your birth certificate which someone will have stored in a shoebox in the bottom of a wardrobe.  Whether you like this name or not it was the name given to you at birth and it cannot be changed without legal process.   

But what happens when the name you have lived with, and the family you have lived with turn out to be a lie?  A chimera?  What happens when someone hides your birth certificate from you and presents you with other official looking documents which contain a different name?   Who are you then?

Lemn Sissay grew up as Norman Greenwood.  Born in 1967 it was not until 1982 that Sissay was shown papers which proved that his mother had been an Ethiopian student who had been forced to give him up but had tried to get him back.  In the intervening years, he was placed with an incapable foster family who rejected him when he was 12, and an increasingly pentitential series of children’s homes, including in 1984, Wood End, which has since been connected with abuse scandals in the press. Wood End was an experience which Sissay writes gave him nightmares ‘until my forties’.

“ This really was George Orwell’s 1984.  I was right. I was right about the entire dysfunctional system which pretended it could care for me while knowing in its heart that it couldn’t.  This horrific place was where the system stopped pretending.”

How many other children have similar stories?  When Sissay blogged about his experiences in Wood End a number of people came forward to say that they had been ‘dumped’ there too.

Sissay fought the Local Authority for 30 years to get access to his records.  This book is the result of him finally being sent – in 2015 –  four folders of notes of meetings and decisions, in none of which he was involved or consulted, that constituted the first 18 years of his life.  Yet although this book is inevitably a quest for identity, it is also a story of a man who recognised his inner poetic light very early on.

Although Sissay now has success and recognition and could rest on his laurels, this is not his style. I get the impression this is not a man that does laurels – except for poetic ones. He is still achieving, still working in the vanguard of the fight for justice for children in care. He is still fighting against the possibility that any other child will have to endure what he did. My Name is Why is a manifesto against systemic ignorance and hypocrisy, and on the side of the human rights of the child.


Lemn Sissay is a BAFTA nominated, award-winning international writer and broadcaster.  He has authored collections of poetry and plays.  His Landmark poems are visible in London, Manchester, Huddersfield and Addis Ababa.  He has been made an Honorary Doctor by the Universities of Manchester, Huddersfield and Brunel. Sissay was awarded an MBE for services to literature and in 2019 received the Pen Pinter Prize.  He is Chancellor of the University of Manchester. He is British and Ethopian.

Challenge, Challenge, Challenge! Women in Translation Month August 2020

It’s not over till the fat lady sings as Will Smith said in Independence Day.  But nine titles read and only four weeks left to complete my 20 books of Summer .  I have to be honest it looks like it might be 15 books of summer for the Rune.

What to do if you are already behind on your existing challenges, why take on another one of course.

During August in addition to my other challenges – both literary and non-literary –  I propose taking part in Women in Translation Month.  Thank you to

 Meytal at Biblibio for hosting this project which I found at Annabookbel

So far as well as  20 books of summer I have reading through the shortlist of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

How am I doing so far?   I have read the following since July 1:

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht 

1000 Ships Natalie Haynes

Ash before Oak, Jeremy Cooper

No Time to Spare:  Thinking about What Matters, Essays by Ursula Le Guin

Grove, by Esther Kinsky

The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson –  a reread. Not yet reviewed.

***

I will be  adding the following 4 translated works :

King Kong Theory, Virginie Despentes (Fitzcarraldo Editions) Original Language French

Surviving the War, Adiva Geffen  (Penguin) original language Hebrew – I have purchased a kindle edition of this one.  I’m about half way throuth  …mmm..!

Surviving the War: based on an incredible true story of hope, love and resistance by [Adiva Geffen]

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadano – not Miyazaki’s film but a children’s book and a departure for me on this blog –  Original language Japanese. It’s not published until August 20.

Picture 1 of 1

Winter in Sokcho Elisa Dusapin (Daunt Books) Original language French

 

Non-Existence is a Skill Learned Early: Review of ‘Recollections of My Non-Existence’ by Rebecca Solnit

Recollections of my Non-Existence, Rebecca Solnit

Recollections of My Non-Existence by [Rebecca Solnit]

“Most urban women, you know, live as though in a war zone …”

When I started Recollections I expected that I might feel some passages were exaggerated or unpalatable.   What is unpalatable of course is not the book – but the gruesome stories Solnit recounts of abuse, rape, murder of female victims – a virulent flow largely unstaunched even today by law making institutions.

What I found instead was a picture of my own life as a young woman only without Solnit’s awareness.  I have lived my own life in fear but considered it normal.   I lived unaware of the compromises I routinely had to make, so normalised were they, adapting what I ‘should’ wear, the things I ‘should’ talk about – especially any needs or wishes of my own. I have left unvisited places I could not safely visit alone or at night.

Even if it is ‘only’ a constant stream of wolf whistles and inappropriate comments that are faced when a woman walks down the street, the message is the same.  They are entitled.  She puts up with it.  Or faces ridicule – no,  hostile disbelief – or blame  and inaction. So she remains silent.

Non existence is a skill learned early.

I have made these adjustments to my life the perfectly valid reason of wishing to remain unmolested, unraped.  But until I read Solnit’s work I never questioned why my universe had to be this way.

A war zone indeed, and one from which the only escape is to grow old.

The adjustments that women have to make in their lives are so normalised and unquestioned that the assumptions upon which our lives are built – any man can treat any woman as he wishes without condemnation or fear of the law – go equally unquestioned.  This may not be the case in the letter of the law.  But the letter of the law is not available to most, and the law is useless where unenforced.

Recollections is Solnit’s own story.  Growing up in San Francisco, her first apartment, friends she made and lost, the choices she made as an artist and a writer, as a reader.   Years of finding a lyrical way of writing away from mere journalism.  Yet much of this book feels elegiac.  As if it has been written for the thousands – probably millions of women – who have been abused and even died at the hands of violent men. Who have been silenced.

What is changing is not – despite Weinstein –  the fact of the matter, but the dialogue. The conversation. The awareness.  And that this is changing is due to some very courageous women.  As Solnit has written sexual assault thrives on the silence of its victims, but not all women are prepared to stay silent any longer.

“I understood that not everyone would welcome my information, and I was prepared for a variety of outcomes, including being dismissed.”

said Dr Christine Blasey Ford who questioned Brett Kavanaugh’s suitability to be appointed as a Justice to the Supreme Court of the US alleging that he had sexually assaulted her in 1982.

Yes, we have had the #MeToo movement which claimed Weinstein as a high profile victim and yes we have had the TimesUp movement.  Yet many thousands of attackers and rapists walk the streets without any of the fear of condemnation or blame that their victims must daily suffer.

Solnit is not anti-man.  It is a barb easily thrown at any feminist, a cheap shot offered up by people of both sexes to avoid any questioning of the status quo.  She does not assume that every man is violent –  of course not every man is violent.  Most are not.  But in cultures all over the world the dice are loaded against women in all sorts of ways.

Society is even now reluctant to hear the stories of abused women.  Last autumn I found myself sitting with a friend in the waiting room of a police station (waiting for someone else!) when a young woman came in and started talking to us. She had she said been assaulted at the local college that she attended but had been unable to get the college authorities to intervene or to take any action to support her.   In short, she was not believed.  But at least she had found the courage to bring herself to the police station.

I believe this is due in part to writers like Rebecca Solnit.

 

Thanks to #NetGalley and #Granta Publications for this review copy.

 

 

 

 

 

Inspiration for Spring: People Who Changed the Way we See The World

There are many who would qualify as having changed the way we see the world,  but I could only pick four, both for my sanity and yours.  Before anyone gets in touch and says they’re all guys, next week I shall be writing about four ladies that changed the way we see the world.

***

Is there any more inspiring artist than Van Gogh  both in the intense suffering of his personal life and the transformative and (still) stunningly original nature of his art?.

In letters to his brother Theo (The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Penguin Classics, 1997), Vincent wrote:

“I don’t know myself how I paint it.”

VanGogh

Although Vincent was unable to describe his working methods,  from his substantial body of letters it is possible to follow the workings of his mind and stand in awe of his  powers of observation.   For example this description of a wood.

Behind those saplings, behind that brownish-red ground, is a sky of a very delicate blue-grey, warm, hardly blue at all sparkling.  And against it there is a hazy border of greenness and a network of saplings and yellowish leaves.  A few figures of wood gatherers are foraging about, dark masses of mysterious shadows.

In 1884 Van Gogh wrote to Theo after the latter had complained about the quality of some drawings Vincent had sent and told him his work needed to improve a great deal!

Vincent’s reply was:

“As far as saleability or unsaleability  is concerned, that’s a dead horse I don’t intend to go on flogging.”

One of the prime lessons  Van Gogh’s  life offers us is how to believe in yourself as an artist, when the rest of the world doesn’t.  I often wonder what would he and Theo make of the crowd control measures now necessary outside the Van Gogh Museum in Amerstdam?

***

Including poems inspired by the work of Vincent Van Gogh –  No Enemies,  No Hatred  is the title of  a collection of writings by  dissident and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (1955-2017).

For the role he played in drafting and advocating the human rights manifesto called Charter 08 which called for democratic reform in China,   Liu Xiaobo was arrested and in December 2009 sentenced to 11 years in Jinzhou prison.

In 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize much to the chagrin of the authorities in China who tried to prevent any celebration of this award.  Unable even to send a family member to Oslo,   Liu’s Nobel lecture speech was given in absentia and read by the actress Liv Ullman.   He died in July 2017.  Here is an extract from his speech:

“But I still want to say to this regime, which is depriving me of my freedom, that I stand by the convictions I expressed … twenty years ago – I have no enemies and no hatred.  None of the police who monitored, arrested and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies.  Although there is no way I can accept your monitoring, arrests, indictments and verdicts, I respect your professions and your integrity ….”

 

And on free speech:

“Free expression is the base of human rights, the root of human nature and the mother of truth. To kill free speech is to insult human rights, to stifle human nature and to suppress truth.” ~ Liu Xiaobo

***

Daisaku Ikeda is one of the world’s foremost living Buddhist philosophers, spiritual leader to millions across the globe who practise Nichiren Buddhism.  He is the recipient of numerous peace and humanitarian awards and author of more than sixty books.

Here he is on the power of reading.

Ikeda

“Reading is dialogue with oneself, it is self-reflection which cultivates profound humanity. Reading is therefore essential to our development.  It expands and enriches the personality like a seed that germinates after a long time and sends forth many blossom laden branches.

People who can say of a book “this changed my life” truly understand the meaning of happiness.  Reading that sparks inner revolution is desperately needed to escape drowning in the rapidly advancing information society,  Reading is more than intellectual  ornamentation, it is a battle for the establishment of the self, a ceaseless challenge that keeps us young and vigorous.”

(Middleway Press, 2006)

***

No post on inspiration can be complete without a poet.  But which poet to choose?  I have decided on Rainer Maria Rilke not because I can read him in the original which I can’t sadly, but because the soul tearing profundity of his ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ is the same in any language.

On Solitude:

And to speak again of solitude, it becomes increasingly clear that this is fundamentally not something we can choose or reject.  We are solitary.  We can delude ourselves about it, and pretend that it is not so.  That is all.  But how much better it is to realise that we are thus, to start directly from that very point.  Then to be sure, it will come about that we grow dizzy; for all the points upon which our eyes have been accustomed to rest will be taken away from us, there is no longer any nearness, and all distance is infinitely far.

Next week I shall be posting about four inspirational ladies who changed (or are changing)  the way we see the world.

 

 

 

Daemons, Giants but Mostly Elves – A Brief Walk Round the Literary Marketplace

Unlike the real literary marketplace which is peopled by giants with 3 for 1 tables and  websites with a zillion hits,   the blogosphere literary reviews marketplace is peopled by elves.

Book elves,  that’s us folk who love to read and who do an awful lot of it and some of the books we love we hope and pray that someone else may love as well.  And even if they don’t or they can’t get to it right now well, there’s still a conversation to be had.

***

Sometimes I think there is too much ‘should this’ and ‘should that’ around reading.Too much of the latest thing, the big hype.  Happy the writers who are on the beneficial end of being the next big thing but that is a small number of people.

Meanwhile there is the rest of us.

At a time when we are sharply being reminded of the porous nature of our national borders have chosen I would like to share something from one of Philip Pullman’s essays ‘Children’s Literature without Borders’ from his collection entitled Daemon Voices (David Fickling Books).  The  His Dark Materials trilogy writer talks about the art of storytelling and why children’s literature ‘shouldn’t need passports’.

Can we read the wrong things or read things for the wrong reasons?  There are those that will say we can.

Reading for the wrong reasons is something that the guards on the border never do, but which other people do all the time unless they are supervised.

What Pullman is referring to  is the reading of adult books by children or vice versa.  This is different, he points out, to feminists writing books for other feminists, or gardeners writing books for other gardeners.  Children’s books are written by adults and most usually bought by adults.

When we categorise books and reading we are more likely shutting folk out than being inclusive.  He likes to imagine the literary marketplace as if it were precisely that.

A busy place with lots of people buying and selling, stopping for a gossip, a cup of coffee, or to watch a juggler or stop to listen to the storyteller…

The real literary marketplace is not like that.   There are many intermediaries who come between the storyteller and his audience, who come bearing gifts or influence, or gifts of influence, advice, marketing, ticket sales, book signings.

When Pullman wrote this in 2001 we were pretty much pre-internet.  But to me the blogosphere has become the nearest thing we have to that bustling market place that Pullman envisaged – unlike the shop with its regulated shelves for this age group or that age group,  books specially for women, or specially for men, cookbooks for those who like to eat, diet books for those who like to diet, books on politics for clever people.

A book blog is not a place of  commercial influence, or very few.  I guess that’s not why people do it.  It’s certainly not why I do it.   So why do it?  Do I hope to make a fortune? Hah!

I blog  to be part of a community.  Because someone may stop by for a chat or a virtual coffee, agree or say I’ve read that book too and it was amazing (or total rubbish).     At other times people may rush on by.   And that’s fine too.

Meanwhile, excuse me, I need to go and watch the juggler and listen to that storyteller over there …

 

 

 

Top 5 Tuesday: This week its ‘5 Bookish Habits’ ( or rather 2 bookish habits and 3 I’m working on!)

Thank you also to thebookprescription where I found it
I’m writing down the books that I’ve read in a real notebook – at least the titles and authors.  This is something I’ve only just started doing in 2020 which is a pity because it was would be fun to look back and see what I’ve read – over a lifetime that’s a lot.
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I always read before I fall asleep but usually have so many books on the go that I can’t decide which to pick up.  My bedside table is a toppling pile, upon which my mobile perches precariously at night.   Am currently working through Rebecca Solnit Whose Story is It and Dorothy McArdle Dark Enchantment.  Also reading Riot Days  by Maria Alyokhina, a member of the activist group Pussy Riot.
And 3 good habits I’m trying to acquire:
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Finishing everything.  I always buy too many books then don’t finish them all but I’ve got better about finishing books in recent times.
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Don’t lose stuff.  Shelve books properly.  Get books organised and keep them that way.  I’ve been known to rebuy books that I already own but can’t find or did own but recycled at some point in time, then regretted it.
I’m trying to update all the various websites that are now keen to keep track of my reading.   I find this very laborious.   Is this a good habit?  Or is it I feel I ought to do this because  everyone else sort of does it habit?  Mmmm! Not sure.

Birds, Behaviourism and a Broken Promise

Review  Eva Meijer. Bird Cottage Pushkin Press.  Translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett

I always enjoy books about women who break the mould which was what attracted me to this one. I particular enjoy books which dwell on the study of nature since those are increasingly invaluable records of what we are losing .

20060625-Hampton Court -DSC_0153

The title  is taken from the name of a house in Ditchling, Sussex in which the naturalist Len (Gwendolen) Howard lived and wrote from 1938  books on birds, based on years of living with them  and closely observing their behaviours. Meijer’s book is partly fictional, partly biographical based on Howard’s letters and archive.

Born in the early years of the 20th century to a poet father and depressed mother Howard gave up an early career as a violinist and the possibility of marriage in order to live alone and write about her birds.  At least  this is how the book presents her.

This reimagining of her life brings to light her struggles to be taken seriously as a naturalist – well it was the early part of the twentieth century and she was (a) a woman and (b) not a formally trained scientist.

Howard notes in her letters:

Konrad Lorenz’s book in which he describes how he lives with all kinds of animals, is treated far more seriously that mine, probably because he has proper qualifications, writes scientific articles, is a man.  Yet his observations are less original than mine.  Moreover the birds have freely chosen to live with me whereas Lorenz rears his and so influences their behaviour.

The factual elements of the book are interesting for observations on animal behaviour such as:

Darwin’s work on animal intelligence, for example, is regarded as unscientific because it is primarily based on anecdotal evidence.  Behaviourism, however, does not properly take account of the fact that many animals behave differently in captivity than when they are free.

Yet I found some of the dialogue slow moving and unconvincing which may be a result of translation, the evocation of period a bit clunky.

“Cook rings the bell. Tea is ready.  I go upstairs to put away my violin.  Mike is singing in the garden.  Ta-da-da, tada.”

There’s not much sense of the history against which the story is set  – a brief mention of some suffragettes  and force feeding “it must be dreadful”.  Gwen recognises a soldier as “one of the chaps Kingsley used to play tennis with”.   The second world war gets barely a mention.

Gwen’s character comes across as completely self-absorbed, out of touch with her family -she fails to attend her own father’s funeral – and certainly out of touch with the momentous events that shook the world through the first half of the twentieth century.  She’s not the most empathetic of characters but obviously the birds like her.    The author writes in a note that Howard’s books Birds as Individuals and Living with Birds were once best sellers, but now only available second hand.

I understand that the intention may have been to show that this is what it took to live life on your own terms for a woman.  If so I’m not entirely sure it worked for me. I felt I did not know the character any better by the end of the book than at the beginning.

Sadly the author tells us that Howard left Bird Cottage in her will to the Sussex Naturalist Trust who promised to turn it into a bird sanctuary.  This never materialised and the land was sold to someone who felled all the trees in the back garden, apart from a single oak.

 

Thank you to #PushkinPress and #NetGalley for this review copy.

Even by the Standards of Pianos this one is Heavy

Review:  The Weight of a Piano, Chris Cander.  Europa Editions

It is a truth universally acknowledged that many of us choose a book if not exactly by its cover then by reading the first couple of paragraphs.  That’s why every writer knows it pays to have a good opening paragraph.

grayscale piano keys
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I picked this book up recently in a store in Waterloo station on the strength of the following:

“Hidden in dense forests high in the Romanian mountains, where winters were especially cold and long , were spruce trees that would be made into pianos: exquisite instruments famous for the warmth of their tone and beloved of the likes of Schumann and Liszt.  One man alone knew who to choose them.”

Damn that’s a good sentence.  It has a sense of place, romance (in the original meaning of the word) mystery and it kicks off a good first chapter describing the making of a Blüthner Piano (No. 66,825) the subject of the story.

Certainly a story about a piano is not unique but there’s always room for one more.  Sadly it’s not this one. I could hardly imagine that a book that starts this well could ultimately be such a disappointment.

Like Unsheltered this book is in two time shifts, but there the similarities end.  Kingsolver relates her two different periods in entirely credible ways and gives us two strong, female characters.

The Weight of a PIano  set partly  in Soviet Russia and partly in  contemporary USA , offers us two heroines named Katya and Clara – names close enough to confuse if you’re not concentrating.   Neither lady benefits from character development  away from their reactions to the various men in their lives.

There are other things to be confused about too.

Chapter 2 kicks off with a typo so that Clara’s surname ‘lundy’ is not given a capital letter – at least not in the copy I was reading.  That’s a major error for a publisher to allow to go through to final printing, and on page 15.

Moving swiftly on, the modern tale is centred around Clara who is a car mechanic :

“when the lines were bled, she stuffed the towel into her back pocket and went to her toolbox to grab… ”.

You may wonder how we got  from Schumann and the Romanian mountains to Clara stuffing a towel in her back pocket – at least I did.

Both Clara and Katya become at various times in their different lives owners of the said piano yet I struggled to believe in either of them or their convoluted back stories.   Neither Garage girl Clara or soviet émigré,  victim of domestic abuse Katya are convincing.  Nor is the dialogue.

‘Greg’s eyes glistened in the moonlight but he didn’t cry again’

Featuring probably the worst sex scene I have ever read

 “Oh Katya,” he moaned.

“Misha” she whispered back.

and an unlikely story line about the sale of the piano which relies on coincidence,  followed by an unlikely trip to California’s Death Valley, it felt to me like the book has been written by two different people and neither being able to make up their mind as to what the storyline should be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A house with no foundations and lessons in survival A Review of ‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver

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.