December 09, 2013
Not too long ago, I reviewed The Dante Connection, the middle book in Estelle Ryan’s (currently) three-book detective series featuring a main character, Genevieve Leonard, who is a high functioning autist. At the time, I found myself wondering if this would wind up being a series I would follow. The answer to that question is yes.
Although they’re nothing alike, I think Genvieve Leonard will be my new Amelia Peabody. Having now read the first and third books in the series (The Gauguin Connection and The Braque Connection), I’m hoping Genevieve and I can have a long and happy relationship. She’s smart, she’s independent, and I find the way she both works around and makes use of her autism absolutely fascinating. I could use a few hundred pages of her company every year or so.
The Gauguin Connection is still available as a free download from Amazon, so give it a gander—you’ve got nothing to lose, and you might make a new friend.
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December 08, 2013
I’ve just finished reading through a review copy of Chandra Clarke’s Be the Change: Saving the World with Citizen Science and have to say that this little eBook is something everyone should own. It’s electronic format-only book, and not everyone I know has an eReader, but those who do are getting a copy for Christmas (sorry if that’s a spoiler for any of my dearer readers).
Clarke, who also writes the blog Citizen Science Center, has a clear, lively prose voice—and she knows her subject. What she does in this book and on her blog is gather and share information on scientific projects that can genuinely use the help of ordinary non-scientists (of course, scientists can participate too).
The best-known citizen science project is probably SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), which offers a downloadable program that will enable your computer to spend time analyzing radio astronomy data to try to detect life on other planets. Similar analysis programs do everything from running docking simulations on malaria proteins to help with drug development to searching for neutron stars.
But maybe you want to participate a bit more actively instead of letting your computer do all the work in its down time. Projects at this level often involve analyzing photos, films, or sound: humans, for now at least, are still more discerning viewers/listeners than are computers. You can look for evidence of cancer in tumor samples, try your hand at folding RNA, or listen to a live-feed underwater microphone and note whale songs. I’m planning to help classify sea floor ground cover and species on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s HabCam (or Habitat Camera).
Think you don’t have time to participate in citizen science? Think again! Clarke points out that “Americans (just Americans!) watch more than 200 billion hours of television every year. If that statistic doesn’t boggle your mind, consider the online game World of Warcraft: one source suggests its 11 million players have spend as much as 5.9 million years on it… or as much time as humanity has spent evolving as a species.” Your ten or twenty minutes may not seem like much, but when enough people participate they can accomplish wonderful things.
You can buy this eBook for only $2.99. You can visit Clarke’s web site for free. Find a project that suits your interests and, yes, save the world in your spare time.
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December 06, 2013
O.K., the title might seem a bit of a stretch, but if you stop and think about what life must have been like in Henry VIII’s England, fascist isn’t inappropriate. Loyalty to the nation meant unquestioning loyalty to the crown. This was “Christian” state in which the meaning of Christian changed regularly and was determined by the crown. Dissent was a capital offense.
This is the setting for Nicola Shulman’s highly engaging Graven with Diamonds, The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Poet, Lover, Statesman, and Spy in the Court of Henry VIII. Wyatt’s poetry was wildly popular during his life, but has been looked on less favorably ever sense. It’s sort of an obscure, but obligatory stop along the road that runs from Chaucer to Shakespeare.
What Shulmam does is to look at the politics of Wyatt’s time in order to understand the popularity of his poetry and to shine light on some of the less well-known aspects of his life. Anyone who reads much Tudor history will recognize Wyatt’s name because he was one of the men confined to the Tower at the time of Anne Boleyn’s fall—and the only one of that group to make it out alive. What fewer people know is that Wyatt went on to a career as a diplomat and, despite repeated political intrigues against him, managed that rarity (yes, yes, I’m exaggerating) for a courtier in Tudor England: a natural death.
What’s brilliant about Shulman’s book—and it is a brilliant book—is the way Shulman combines genres in order to think about Wyatt, his times, and his work in genuinely new ways. This isn’t just an individual biography, isn’t just portrait of an era, isn’t just a critical study of a minor poet. It’s all of these and something more.
In Henry VIII’s fascist England ( and fascist is my term, not Shulman’s) the game of courtly love was played for deadly stakes. As Shulman puts is, Wyatt “like Mandelstam or Akhmatova, was a poet writing under tyranny.” To be a success at court, one needed to master courtly love, while at the same time never engaging in behavior that might come back to be used against one. Anne Boleyn and the men she flirted with, but most likely did not have sex with, learned this lesson the hard way. What was an enjoyable intellectual and emotional play-acting could become deadly real as the mood of the King, and therefore the mood of the time and law, shifted.
This situation—the need for language that was vividly emotional, but topically ambiguous—was ideal for a poet like Wyatt. As Shulman shows us repeatedly, not only could any one of his poems serve as a window into more than one event in his life, his poems could also serve as windows into the lives of others and were used in this way. Wyatt’s poems were copied out by hand, passed among courtiers, used as occasional pieces, with minor modifications as needed. That interpretive plasticity is what made Wyatt so popular. Whatever a courtier was feeling, there was a Wyatt poem that covered it.
One of Shulman’s central claims is that Henry’s court was so dangerous because Henry himself took love so seriously. Others played at courtly gestures; Henry lived them. This meant that when one of his wives fell from grace, all those around her were at risk as well because they all had, as courtiers did at the time, engaged in badinage that suddenly could be taken literally.
For those inclined to explore the sort of musings Shulman offers, this book is a delight throughout. It enables one to imagine life under Henry in a way that standard histories do not. If you currently think of Wyatt as an unimportant figure or his poetry as inconsequential, you’ll have reconsidered that thinking by the end of the book.
This book is a delight not just because of its intelligence, but also because of Shulman’s knack for finding slightly whimsical, but perfectly apt, ways of describing people and situations. Catherine of Aragon had “a little pointed chin like a lemon.” She characterizes the continental linguists of the era as perceiving “English in its current state… [as] a shaggy and hopalong means of expression.” At one point, in a comparison I find more entertaining than accurate, Shulman depicts Henry as “sincere in all his doings. If he were alive today, he’d be Canadian.” In other words, reading this book isn’t just interesting, it’s fun.
In the interests of full disclosure, I will acknowledge that I received an electronic review copy of this book, but I don’t think that influenced my evaluation of it.
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December 02, 2013
I’ve just finished reading Alison Weir’s Elizabeth of York: a Tudor Queen and her World. Alison Weir is one of the great stalwarts of current historical biography in Great Britain, and I’ve read and enjoyed a great many of her books. (She also produces historical fiction, though thus far I’ve only read her biographies.)
I imagine one of the great challenges of writing this sort of work is the fragmentary nature of the evidence one has available. One the one hand, one has to do a great deal of “what if” thinking to fill in gaps in the record and to understand the significance of the material that remains—but at the same time, one can’t go too far in one’s imaginings. (Perhaps that explains the historical fiction she writes.)
Weir began her career as a biographer with her 1991 The Six Wives of Henry the VIII, one of several group biographies of these women to appear around that time. Since then, she’s worked her way through a variety of royals and near-royals including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth I, Mary Boleyn (sister of the more-famous Anne), the Princes in the tower, the bastard son of Henry VIII, and Mary, Queen of Scots. Her books have made for consistently interesting reading, a deft balance of intricate detail and clear prose.
I admit that I didn’t find Elizabeth of York one of her best books, but I also gladly admit that I enjoyed every minute of reading it nonetheless. I think the problem lies in the mismatch between my expectations as a reader and what’s actually possible given the historical record (or lack thereof). I find myself hungering not just to know the events of Elizabeth’s life, but to spend time inside her head, seeing her world as she saw it, feeling things as she felt them. And this, of course, is absolutely impossible.
Monarchs in the Tudor era spent their entire lives surrounded by others—courtiers, petitioners, diplomats, abbesses offering honey or rosewater in hopes of a greater gift in return. But this was not our era of the paparazzi. My impression is that even when the events of the day were being recorded, the record focused on the outer lives and experiences of these figures. The desire to “know” them, not sexually, but still intimately, seems much less strong that it is today.
As a result, we can’t “know” Elizabeth of York in the way we know close friends—or even our favorite screen idols. What we can know is drier stuff: household accounts, lists of fabrics ordered in anticipation of court events, highly formulaic correspondence between those in positions of power, a grant of a few pounds (actually quite a substantial amount at the time) in exchange for the rosewater mentioned above.
What I rely on biographers for is an ability to tease meaning out of these lists and accounts. What can fabric for a new holiday dress suggest about the relationship between king and queen? When is a grant an act of politeness; when does it demonstrate something about deep emotional loyalties?
Reading Elizabeth of York, I found the lists (of fabrics, food, jewels and such) very, well, list-y. The book allows for interesting inferences. For example, the price of real goods seems much higher (the present-day equivalent of £100,000 for the purchase of a carriage) than the cost of actual labor (often times equaling less than the equivalent of £100 for a year’s skilled work), which may say something about the value of individual lives at the time. But what to make of a long list of six and seven yard cuts of fabric in unfamiliar weights and weaves? It’s not just that I’m reading a list, but that I’m reading a list of items I can’t always picture—and sometimes the author helps me out with a bit of commentary and sometimes she doesn’t.
So Elizabeth of York was interesting. It piled up details for me to think about. It offered a precise timeline of the course of Elizabeth’s life. What it didn’t, perhaps couldn’t, do is offer me a sense of Elizabeth the individual. One leaves this book feeling more familiar with the practices and economies of the era, than with its characters.
It may be that what I really need right now is Weir’s fiction. It might be fun to see more of the imagining she does that can’t make it onto the pages of her biographies.
You can find Elizabeth of York in your local independent bookstore beginning tomorrow, December 3.
Please note that this review is based on a free, pre-publication e-version of this book that I received from the publisher. I don’t believe that affects my objectivity—but just saying.
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November 29, 2013
Like much of the world, I followed the discovery of the remains of Richard III with great interest. I read a fair bit of Tudor biography so, as the King whose fall led to the Tudor triumph, Richard is a compelling character—particularly when one adds in the long-fought battle over his depravity and/or virtue.
I’ve just finished the first book-length work on this archaeological project, The King’s Grave, authored by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones. Langley, chair of the Richard III Society, coordinated the dig after a “revelation” of sorts convinced her that she had identified the location of Richard’s burial. She is not an archaeologist herself, but pulled together a fine team of experts for the project. Michael Jones is the author of a key pro-Richardian history, which provided much of Langley’s initial inspiration. (While the two are co-authors, I will often refer to Langley as author in the course of this review because much of the book is written in her voice.)
For centuries, Richard’s story has been carried along on two very different tracks. After Richard’s defeat and Henry VII’s rise to power, any number of scholars were eager to ingratiate themselves with the new king by writing biographies denigrating Richard. As a result of this historical bandwagon, Langley and Jones tell us, “By the time of Shakespeare this propaganda had reached its zenith. Richard had now become a crouching hunchback, whose bent and distorted body mirrored the hideous depravity of his crimes. By then, the king’s actual body, buried hastily in Leicester after the Battle of Bosworth, had disappeared from view.”
Langley is among those who are convinced the portrait of Richard as murderer and usurper is false and who dedicate their research to furthering a more generous view of the man as honorable, a good king known particularly for his sense of justice. From the beginning, her Looking for Richard project is as much tribute as scientific/historical research. Her original proposals for the dig also included plans for a new tomb and monument in Richard’s honor.
Well before Richard’s body disappeared from view, the bodies of his two nephews, the heirs of Edward IV, Richard’s elder brother, had disappeared. Originally Richard was part of a regency council to rule in the name of the young Edward V until he reached his majority, but quickly Richard became sole regent, then went on to rule as king after the princes were—murdered on his orders? victims of unfortunate, but natural, deaths? By the end of the book, Langley proposes a rereading of Richard as patriot, rather than murderer: “Richard transferred his loyalty, duty, and service to the kingdom since he could not commit his allegiance to Edward’s illegitimate sons.” This seems somewhat disingenuous given that Richard was a player in the process by which the princes were illigitimatized.
Langley isn’t entirely uncritical of Richard, but she sums up her still-partisan goal early on: “To bring [Richard] back to life we do not need to try to replace a villain with a saint; rather, we need to understand better the bravery and self-belief of the line of horsemen who charged across the battlefield to meet their foe, and the astonishing courage of the king who led that charge.”
The book proceeds in chapters that alternate the story of Richard’s life with the story of the dig that uncovered his remains, a move which breaks the continuity of both narratives. The chapters on Richard’s life are quite interesting at times, particularly when Langley and Jones provide close readings of the historical record, discussing the different ways that key documents and actions can be understood. At other times, the historical narrative feels a bit speculative, which has the effect of undermining the attempt at objectivity in the chapters focused on the dig.
Chapter nine is the best of the chapters focused on the dig and analysis of the remains. It offers summaries of the many kinds of methods that were used to identify Richard’s remains: carbon 14 dating, osteology, forensic analysis of perimortem wounds, and facial reconstruction. Chapter eleven, on the other hand, makes one wonder at Langley’s judgement as coordinator of the dig as she recounts further attempts at “scientific” analysis that include handwriting analysis and work by a psychological profiler.
I acknowledge that I lack the scholarly expertise to determine which portrayal of Richard—the wise ruler or the scheming murderer—is more accurate and certainly Langley has more expertise than me, but at times I found myself distrusting her because of her determination to find what she’s already decided should exist.
For now, this book is a good initial read on the finding of Richard’s grave and his reign, but I don’t think it’s the definitive work on the topic. It may be that a definitive read on what are essentially two topics just isn’t possible. Nonetheless I find myself hoping that more and better books will follow this one.
Note: The discovery of Richard’s remains has launched a complicated legal struggle over the issue of where they will be reburied. Langley and Jones’ book ends on the assumption that the story has ended—but the final ending is still being contested.
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November 27, 2013
Jimmy Santiago Baca has been saved by the word. And by word, I don’t mean the Bible; I mean the written word. He learned to read and write while in prison and since then has become a fierce, courageous presence on the American literary scene. He’s won honors like the Pushcart Prize and the American Book Award—honors that are well-deserved and that, thankfully, have not diluted the character of his work. He writes to call out injustice, to wrestle with ideas, to balance the horror and hope present in our day-to-day lives.
I’m in the process of reading two of his collections of poetry, each written for one of his children: The Esai Poems and The Lucia Poems. At the moment, I’ve just finished The Esai Poems. I’m holding off on The Lucia Poems until tomorrow morning, when I can take advantage of the Thanksgiving holiday and let myself spend several hours sinking into his words.
In her introduction to this collection Carolyn Forché tells us that “Jimmy Santiago Baca gives us the secret and present—and yes, dangerous—reality at the heart of our democracy.” What makes The Esai Poems so remarkable is the way they balance his rage and marvel: rage at the daily loss of human potential through war, imprisonment, indifference and marvel at the infinite miracles, both physical and spiritual, that mark the life of his son, Esai.
Let me start by giving you a taste of his sense of marvel. In the poem “Prolougue” that opens this collection he describes his son in phrases that are Whitmanesque: “let your beautiful feet rush through the/grass as if each/blade of grass/were a harp string/and you were falling from string to string, a/tiny little fellow/reduced to the size of a lizard,/and my goodness, play the songs of giants my son.”
Looking at his son, he celebrates “the festive possibilities of all earthly infants/from Jesus, Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Buddha, to Essai/star at the tip of the tree of life.” He shows us the divine in the ordinary, the ordinary in divine.
Despite the inherent marvel of human life, Baca sees life as a battle, with the marginalized struggling to survive while those who have cling tightly to their wealth and focus on generating more. He describes his infant son’s “tiny hands/that will have to fight for dignity;/ claw through and dig up/struggling your way to peace/bloody knuckled, scratched and cut.” In a later peom, he return to this theme of the struggle for survival that even children face: “much of what I write—/the poems, that is—are stones/I litter the dusty roads with/so kids can pick them up readily/to throw at tanks.” The written word has saved Santiago Baca. He continues to craft it in hopes of helping other survive.
Baca the father is also Baca the activist (though “activist” seems inadequate to describe all he does), who tells his son “your steps are acts of love against cruise missiles/your open arms as you rush headlong to me,/acts of love against bigots who would label protesters/terrorists.”
It’s this dual vision that makes his poems so compelling. Baca describes the incongruencies of our lives in ways that enable us to see them more sharply. Working our way through his poems, I found myself nodding, yes, and yes again, feeling deeply grateful that he could give voice to issues I’ve so often wrestled without without achieving any sort of satisfactory resolution.
Read Baca. Read him once. Read him again. Let his poems help open your eyes to both beauty and horror. At this time of year when we remind ourselves to give thanks, let him help you keep in mind the things we might someday be thankful for if we demand a fairer, more loving world.
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November 25, 2013
Last week, I posted a somewhat philosophical (rambling?) response to Marta Ascoli’s Auschwitz Belongs to Us All. While I stand by the things I said in the previous review, I honestly think I wrote more about ideas the book led me to than about the book itself—and I wanted to do justice to the book, as it’s a remarkable piece of writing.
Ascoli was a young, half-Jewish woman who was deported first to Birkenau (a women’s camp inside Auschwitz), then moved to Bergen-Belsen near the end of WWII. In her author’s note, she explains her purpose in bearing witness: “[T]oday, before the last survivors pass away and a veil of forgetfulness descends over the Nazi death camps and the genocide of the Jewish people. I… feel a sense of duty to contribute my testimony.” At the same time she notes that she “deliberately left out many facts so [the] story will not become oppressively bleak for readers.” This reticence, which might at first seem a failing, is one of the great strengths of this book. Ascoli’s spare prose makes her story much more moving than a more “dramatic” account might. She lets the events speak for themselves, and they do speak—loudly and disturbingly.
The camps themselves were designed to maximize the suffering of those interned there. For example, “There were no roads, just tracks, and one had to walk everywhere through mud”; slave labor and starvation rations weren’t enough, these we augmented by energy-draining slogs across the camp to the locations where the labor was performed. Prisoners were repeatedly “sorted” via a process with no apparent logic—at any moment, they might be counted off and every third or every fourth prisoner would be sent to the crematoria. To make the process even more inhumane, the women were often stripped at the beginning of this process.
In some Holocaust narratives, a few individual prisoners manage to retain their humanity, but this was not Ascoli’s experience: “In the camp I met all kinds of people, from intellectuals to farmers and factory workers. Without exception, they all had become dehumanized through their suffering and grown selfish in their struggle for survival. Despite the huge number of people in our camp, each of us carried our cross alone…. the only thing that would matter anymore was your own existence, which—despite the tragedy of it all—was all you had left and might soon come to an end.” I don’t point this out to suggest that Ascoli is in any way a lesser person than the writers of those other narratives, but rather to argue that her honesty about her own loss of humanity requires significant courage. She doesn’t turn herself into a heroine, doesn’t claim she had some resilience others lacked.
Reading Ascoli’s narrative is a difficult experience that calls into question any beliefs one might have about the essentially good nature of human beings. The guards inside the camps, the citizens living outside the camps or along the rail lines that take prisoners to the camps at best observe the suffering with equanimity—and many of them take great pleasure in it. This willing participation in (or at least indifference to) genocide is a reminder of how carefully each of us needs to protect whatever spark of decency and love lies within us. Ascoli’s narratve suggests that participation in brutality is all too easy to become accustomed to.
So why read this book?
Because it offers us a truth. Because it forces us to live with the memory of the worst our species had done. Because it keeps us from thinking “I would never….” We mourn as we read this book, but it can also strengthen us in our own resolve to be the best people we can be, to have the courage to say “no” to abuses of authority. I can’t overemphasize the value of this book—you will come away shaken, but also strengthened by bearing withness to Ascoli’s experiences.
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November 21, 2013
I’ve just finished reading an electronic review copy of Marta Ascoli’s Auschwitz Belongs to Us All. As an Italian teenager, Ascoli, who is half Jewish, spent time in both Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen. She was at the latter when liberation came at the end of WWII.
Reading about the death camps is distressing, but necessary, I believe. We need to remind ourselves regularly of the monstrosities we’re capable of—and I use that we deliberately. I’m pretty sure all of us, at least all of us doing pleasure reading on the internet, spend most of our time forgetting or failing to notice the injustices around us. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that in this global age anyone living comfortably is a “good German”: hanging on to the security he or she has and trying to to be overwhelmed by the constant need and injustice surrounding us. I am not saying that “we” (whoever “we” are) have a system the equivalent to the Nazi death camps. I am saying that people are imprisoned, tortured, and killed every day, both in the U.S. and abroad, for the simple crime of being who they are: impoverished, female, a member of any one of hundreds of ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities (and a majority in one region can easily be a minority in another). The Nazis didn’t invent genocide and WWII certainly didn’t end it.
I’m not saying this because I hate myself or because I want others to hate themselves. Self loathing, as the great contemporary novelist Sherman Alexie reminds us, is really just a form of narcissism. (I’m the worst person in the world! No one is as horrible as me!) Even if there really is one worst person among all 7 billion plus of us, the odds are neither I nor you is that person.
What I found particularly moving about Ascoli’s book is the matter-of-factness with which she recounts her experiences. She isn’t emotionless, but she also doesn’t wallow in emotion. And her ability to bear witness to the terrible things she’s seen in her fellow humans makes it possible not just for us to deplore the evil in others, but to take ourselves to task (somewhat gently, perhaps) for our own evil. I would like to hope that in the face of a horror like the death camps I would speak up—but my government has done any number of things that I find deeply appalling (extraordinary rendition, for example), yet I don’t do much more than write a letter of protest or attend a rally. And sometimes I don’t even do that: I’m “too busy.”
We see some real monsters in Auschwitz Belongs to Us All, and I feel confident I’ll never become one of them. But what about the minor players, those who go along with things without searching their own consciences too rigorously? While many of the people who stop me on the street asking for money have “chosen” this lifestyle in one way or another or have other means of getting by, others no doubt are hungry, have hungry children waiting in the car they’re living in, have become slaves to drugs that have made any other lifestyle impossible, are fleeing a home situation that was even more violent than the hunger and violence that now threatens them on the street. And I can’t always make the right call about who falls into which categories. I pretty much always buy food for a woman with bruises, but does that mean that someone is beating her up just to play on my sympathy? Am I keeping her in thrall by cooperating? Is that able-bodied-looking man half my age genuinely disabled (and we can argue about what that “genuinely” means)? Does physical disability merit more kindness than psychological disability? If I find someone frightening, does that justify me in failing to see his need?
My point here is that while some of the suffering we see is the product of deliberate action by “real mosters,” much of it is also the product of the limited compassion and generosity of people we would generally describe as “decent.”
How do we live with this knowledge?
On my good days, I try to live with it by choosing to do things I can. Maybe not all the things I could do if I were a hero and able to put myself on the line like a St. Frances or a Mother Teresa. But I choose some things. And on a good day, I can choose one or two more goods than I might on another day. On my bad days, I try not to waste time hating myself. For the heroes, doing right may be a game of all or nothing. For most of us, it’s a game of inches. But one inch of progress from each of us is seven billion inches. And seven billion inches is over 100,000 miles—or four tips around this blue-and-green world we inhabit.
Thank you, Marta Ascoli, for bearing witness. Thank you for doing it in a way that moves us, but that also leaves room for reflection.
Read Auschwitz Belongs to Us All. I’m pretty sure it will give you that extra inch of generosity our world is looking for.
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November 18, 2013
I’ve just finished reading a review copy of Nobel Prize-winner Peter Doherty’s Their Fate Is Our Fate: How Birds Foretell Threats to Our Health and Our World. This book is a good follow up to several of the pieces I read recently in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013, including the piece on how we determine which species extinctions to try to prevent and also the excerpt from David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic that documents the jump of animal diseases to humans.
Doherty’s book is written for popular audiences (at least those patient enough to wade through a number of technical passages) and he’s open about his purpose from the start: he wants his readers to become “citizen scientists” who “contribute [to science] by helping collect key data on, for example, what’s happening to the birds, to the butterflies, or to the life forms that live in or on the banks of our rivers and streams.”
Doherty gives us two pressing reasons to “enlist” as citizen scientists. First, many diseases originating in birds can be threatening, even deadly, for us—think of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Catching a new virus before it develops human-to-human transmission, is crucial to launching a successful attack against it: “Data from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control], which tracks ‘seasonal’ epidemics in the USA, show the [flu] virus traveling to every state in the space of 4-6 weeks. Contrast that with the four years it took West Nile Virus to get from New York to California using a bird-mosquito infection cycle.” That’s the difference between a virus spread by sneezing and one spread by mosquito bites.
Second, birds can show us the current impact of climate change through changes in population size and ranges. Yes, Doherty—like pretty much every scientist I know—not only acknowledges climate change, but is appalled by our inability to respond with force and commitment to the threat it presents. In his estimation, we come off as something less than the dinosaurs killed by an earlier period of climate change: “While our willful behavior may ultimately ensure our elimination, and that of many other life forms, there is no way that the big dinosaurs could have deliberately contributed to their own extinction. Consciousness, reason, callous greed, deliberate ignorance and true malevolence are very much unique to Homo sapiens sapiens.”
So what does Doherty want us to do? He wants us to participate in programs like the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Counts and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feeder Watch. “Indications that a population is at risk are most likely to come from the careful, systematic counts made by birdwatchers and amateur ornithologists [who] participate in [programs like Audubon's] Backyard Bird Count Program. You don’t even need to leave your own property to be part of this study.”
And if this work sounds unimportant or dry, think again: “While our birder ‘citizen scientists’ might be more like the passionate amateurs of the French Resistance of WWII than paid members of the contemporary US National Guard, American democracy is characterized by volunteerism and broad, public involvement. Being an unpaid ‘birding James Bond’ might appeal to some though, but rather than a Walther PPK or a Beretta, the weapons of choice for our ‘bird spies’ will be leg bands, and binoculars made by Zeiss, Swarowski or Leica.” Forget your stereotypes of little old lady birders; you’re working for national defense.
While it might be easy to laugh at the call to arms, or rather call to field glasses, Doherty’s point is crucial. In the face of threats to our health and our planet, we can take action, we can make a difference, even if we are neither particularly powerful nor particularly wealthy. Doherty shows us what birders can do. We need a whole series of such manuals to help inspire other communities as well.
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November 14, 2013
I move between history and historical fiction frequently in my reading, which leads me to think about the difference between the two. Obviously, history is history and fiction is fiction—but the two aren’t so neatly separate. Good writers of history (at least of history for popular audiences) work to achieve the flow and engagement we associate with novels, and good historical novelists research carefully to get their facts straight.
Reading history can be like pondering a map: we see the outline of a land, its topography, the most prominent structures and features. Reading historical fiction is, at its best, like time travel: we don’t necessarily get the big picture, but we perceive one small part of that picture vividly and even, at the best of times, feel that we’re experiencing it for ourselves.
I’ve just finished with Sisters of the Bruce, 1292-1314, by the Australian author of Scots descent J. M. Harvey. My knowledge of Scots history is very limited, so I pretty much had to approach this book in isolation; I didn’t have a preexisting understanding of the tumultuous time period in which it’s set. I’ve read a bit about the two English kings Edward, who fought the Scots around the turn of the 14th Century, but that’s left me able to recognize the occasional name and little else.
In the preface, Harvey tells us “In this fictional narrative, the five sisters of Robert the Bruce speak to us from the past. Their remarkable story deserves to be told, so that they might no longer be ‘unwept, unhonour’d and unsung’—to borrow a line from Sir Walter Scott. The Bruce, Robert the Bruce, was a legendary king of Scotland, devoted to uniting the warring clans and ridding the country of the English. His five sisters (and their sisters-in-law, children, and nieces) are, indeed a remarkable bunch. Isabel (Isa), the eldest, marries the King of Norway and watches the lives of her siblings—when information is available—from afar. The next two sisters, Christina (Kirsty) and Mary are captured by the English, along with a sister-in-law and a niece. Christina is “caged” within a convent; Mary is literally caged, hanging in a wood and metal pen in the open air above an English castle. The younger two sisters, Mathilde and Margaret, evade capture; filling in a gap in the historical record, Harvey imagines them as fugitives in Orkney.
One can understand why Harvey was eager to write this book. And, having read the jacket synopsis, I was certainly eager to read it. My feelings now, as I’ve finished it, are mixed—contradictory enough that I want to deal with them as individual bullet points, rather than trying to sort through them all at once.
• These are interesting women. I’m delighted to have had them brought to my attention and expect they’ll continue to live in my imagination for some time.
• Harvey is scrupulous constructing and maintaining her timeline so, as long as you read the afterward and sort fact from fiction, you can leave with a fairly clear outline of this period of history as seen from the Bruce perspective.
• The novel reminds us—we seem always to need reminding—of what a barbarous, messy business war is and of the brunt of the suffering borne by civilians: the Scots peasants face misery regardless of who has the nominally stronger hold on the land. English invaders murder, rape, and pillage; Scots defenders burn crops and destroy villages to keep them out of the hands of the English.
• The book has occasional moments of real beauty. For example, in her first letter to Kirsty, Isa writes of her leave-taking and journey to Norway: “For an unusually long time, sea creatures followed our vessel and I could not keep my eyes from their sleek forms and gentle eyes. I hoped they might travel back to you and whisper in their strange tongues that all was well; that these things shall indeed pass.”
• Unfortunately the prose style here is—I was going to say “uneven,” but actually the problem is that the prose style is too even. The above sample is a rarity. Most of the parts of the book written as correspondence among the sisters, sound dully identical. Isa’s letters to Kirsty and Kirsty’s letters to Isa are interchangeable, except for the geographic references.
• The omniscient narrator who directs other sections of the book has a voice like a history textbook—dry and all-seeing, taking the life out of what should be vivid events. Early on in the novel, the narrator tells us “It is as well that foresight is denied mere mortals. Had they [the books' characters] known what terrible price they would have to pay to achieve their goal [of a united, independent Scotland], their steps may have faltered and turned from such a perilous path; their actions would ultimately fracture their beloved family and the country they so revered.” This doesn’t build suspense, as perhaps it was intended. It flattens the narrative.
• At times, the writer seems to abandon sense in order to ride the flow of a phrase she’s begun. As Mary festers both figuratively and literally in her cage, we’re told, “When some of the older folk no longer wandered by, [Mary] presumed illness or death had overtaken them. Such benign thoughts helped to fill the long hours.” Illness and death, benign? I don’t think so, not even in comparison with Mary’s miserable state.
I found the historical thread running through this novel fascinating, but as a reader I was less than fascinated. Harvey writes fiction as though it were textbook history, drying it out and rendering its varied terrain to a single level of flatness. I appreciate Harvey introducing me to these remarkable women, but I’m still waiting for a novel that will capture their lives vividly.
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