25 March 2019

Green Gold: The Epic True Story of Victorian Plant Hunter John Jeffrey / Gabriel Hemery

Based on historical documentation, Green Gold proposes a solution to a real-life mystery: what happened to Scottish botanical explorer John Jeffrey after he was last seen in San Francisco in 1854? The young man, sent to the American Northwest by the specially formed Oregon Botanical Association 4 years earlier, had recently been summarily dismissed from his post as Collector for "desertion of duty." How did such a diligent, enthusiastic young man disappoint his patrons so acutely in carrying out his seed-gathering mission?

The novel's main structure consists in an assortment of clearly identified, genuine historical documents such as letters, minutes, instructions and plant labels — these last cleverly used as signposts along Jeffrey's route to show that "J.J. was here." To bridge the gaps between these records, Hemery imagined what Jeffrey might have set down in his expedition journals and created present-day scenes recounting the fortuitous discovery of these journals by Helen, a new intern at the Boston arboretum.

Alas, these fictional sections didn't work at all for me... The style of Jeffrey's writing isn't credible as coming from the pen of a mid-19th-century Scot, and sounds nothing like his actual letters that are reproduced in this novel. The dramatic incidents that supposedly lead Jeffrey to neglect the work he was initially so eager to perform are described matter-of-factly, without any emotional depth behind them. And to top it all off, we're treated to the usual clichés about Native Americans — one of which, you've guessed it, involves a pretty Indian girl coming to our European explorer's bed. (At least she's not an Indian princess.)

As for the present-day "plot," its superficial characters and stilted dialogue are only minor annoyances when compared with its regrettable lack of complexity. We're presented with a handful of bare branches that, with a little care, could have been turned into verdant boughs. Why does the author skim over Helen's investigative work, which could have been the most fascinating part of the story? Instead, we leap from Helen finding the journals (in the very first box she opens on the very first day of her internship, how convenient) to her travelling to Scotland (for no clear purpose) to her curating a great exhibition on John Jeffrey — all in a few sketchily drawn scenes and short emails. We learn nothing about her (save that she likes exclamation marks!) or why she's so fascinated by Jeffrey.

The writing of biographical fiction is a perilous endeavour. Crafting a story around selected sources demands remarkable skill. Stitching together the real and the imagined requires a deft hand, and though many attempt it, few succeed with any kind of credit. This novel, despite its claim at "epicness," is little more than large pieces of old yet sturdy material patched with scraps of dull, threadbare cloth.

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Unbound, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: **

18 March 2019

Guardian Books

Well, this has been a lengthy absence... Fear not, I won't bore you with the reasons behind it. Suffice it to say that I currently find myself with time on my hands and nowhere to go for a few weeks, so reviving this blog seems like the perfect project.

One thing certainly hasn't changed since last year: I'm still listening to podcasts at every opportunity.

The Guardian Books podcast generally offers compelling, lengthy interviews with authors. For example, a recent episode entitled "Why Have We Forgotten Jack the Ripper's Victims?" posed an uncomfortable question. True crime has long been popular, but except in very rare cases it gives pride of place to murders and their perpetrators, reducing the (overwhelmingly female) human beings upon whom these unpardonable acts are committed to little more than a name — as though they had existed solely to provide a convenient body as target.

I found both of this episode's guests fascinating. Hallie Rubenhold's The Five deliberately ignores Jack the Ripper and his heinous crimes, i.e. where his victims' stories end, choosing instead to focus on their individual lives. (Countless reviews of this book call it "long overdue.") In The Butchering Art, Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris explores surgery in the 19th century, specifically the pioneering work by Joseph Lister in the fight against infection.

Two of the topics discussed particularly interested me: how victims are still today blamed for their victimhood through a narrative built around them to explain how they put themselves in a situation where they inevitably became targets of violence; and the true meaning of "justice for the victims" lying not in identifying their killer over a century later, but in learning about and respecting these victims as individuals. Food for thought indeed.

5 November 2018

Dialogue on the Tides / Galileo Galilei

It is scarcity and plenty that make the vulgar take things to be precious or worthless; they call a diamond very beautiful because it is like pure water, and then would not exchange one for ten barrels of water.

29 October 2018

The Western Wind / Samantha Harvey

Set just before Lent in a small English village in the late Middle Ages, The Western Wind is told entirely from the point of view of its priest, John Reve. Mostly through his private thoughts and internal dialogue, he recounts the apparently accidental death of the hamlet's most influential inhabitant, Thomas Newman, who allegedly drowned in the river that separates Oakham from the rest of society. Reve's concerns also turn to the events big and small that occur around this tragedy: his beloved sister's wedding and subsequent departure; the 3 days' worth of confessions he receives; his pleas with God for a Western wind; the second failure at constructing a bridge over the impassable river; the strange debilitating illness afflicting a young woman freshly returned from a pilgrimage; the threat to the village by envious monks; the facial injury incurred by the young man who saw Newman twice in the river; the dean's cavalier appropriation of Newman's house and goods... Throughout, Reve's sense of powerlessness is palpable and all too understandable.

By virtue of his position, John Reve has no one in whom he can confide, and so the book acts as a confessional — a written counterpart to the makeshift wooden box that stands in the little community's church. It exposes and explores the uncertainties, ambiguities, disorientations and dilemmas that emerge when things are about to shift, as they do here in multiple ways. Indeed, we are at the very end of the Middle Ages, Reve's companionable life with his sister is over, the period of relative ease before Lent is coming to a close, and it appears inevitable that the peace and prosperity of Oakham (which itself sits on the edge of a waterway) has run its course.

Despite its unfortunate anachronisms, this is a remarkable novel not only owing to the reverse structure of its 4-day narrative, but also by virtue of its profoundly human and introspective nature. 

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Grove Atlantic, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: ****

22 October 2018

Yorkshire / Richard Morris

A hitherto unknown photo of Richard Morris' mother as a young child prompted this exploration of the archaeological, geological, industrial, agricultural and social history of Yorkshire, "England's greatest county."

Conscientious objectors, emigration to Canada, silk, airships, whaling, fly-fishing, mining, the Romans, wars and roads — Morris flits between topics as he would in a friendly conversation around the dinner table. He visits each Riding in turn, introducing their distinct personalities like old friends.

What comes through most clearly is Yorkshire's extraordinary impact on literature, with the Brontës of course, but also J.B. Priestley, Ted Hughes, Winifred Holtby, Daniel Defoe, Philip Larkin, Robin Hood and King Arthur all making an appearance.

I never would have read this engaging book if John Mitchinson hadn't enthused about it on an episode of the Backlisted podcast. While I have no connection with Yorkshire (my ancestors being from other parts of Europe), I've long been fascinated by Great Britain and had an interest in the more ground-level aspects of history. I spent quite a few happy evenings roaming Morris' Yorkshire.

I purchased this book online.

Rating: ***½

15 October 2018

L'Œuvre au noir / Marguerite Yourcenar

«Vos craintes sont naturelles et raisonnables, mais la honte et le regret sont aussi des maux.» (Zénon)

8 October 2018

Circe / Madeline Miller

My whole life I had waited for tragedy to find me. I never doubted that it would, for I had desires and defiance and power more than others thought I deserved, all the things that draw the thunderstroke. A dozen times grief had scorched, but its fire had never burned through my skin. My madness in those days rose from a new certainty: that at last, I had met the thing the gods could use against me.

We know Circe as a sorceress who turned men into pigs. This, in essence, is her chance to tell her own story.

Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios and the nymph Perse, knows she is different: a goddess with a conscience, self-doubts and a too-human voice. She is further isolated by her fascination with mortals, which the vain, cruel, self-absorbed deities among whom she lives find baffling and worthy of scorn. Indeed, it's this partiality, along with her sense of guilt and her awareness of her own fallibility, that causes her downfall — and yet.

Exiled to the island of Aiaia, surrounded by tame beasts, Circe learns the secrets of plants and finds the words of power that bring her will to life. This isolation that was meant as a punishment instead affords her the space to come into her own. Over the span of hundreds of generations of humans, she lives with the remorse to which other gods appear immune. Alas, she is not left in peace... Figures from ancient mythology and literature enter her existence, all leaving their indelible marks: the Minotaur, Daedalus, Medea, Hermes, Odysseus and his crew (of course), and countless others.

This autobiographical tale of a goddess who is too clear-eyed for her own good is simply fascinating. I found myself rooting for her constantly, and loved watching her confidence grow in her secluded island home. I fell in love with Madeline Miller's writing from the very first scene. My only issue with this novel is that it came to an end!

I borrowed this book from my local library.

Rating: ****

1 October 2018

Cloud Atlas / David Mitchell

Books don't offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw. (Timothy Cavendish)

24 September 2018

Cahiers de jeunesse / Simone de Beauvoir

On ne connaît jamais un être, puisque, en connaît-on tous les éléments, la manière unique dont se forme la synthèse n'est perçue que par l'être lui-même, et c'est cela seul qui importe [...]

17 September 2018

Journal / Katherine Mansfield

Is it not possible that the rage for confession, autobiography, especially for memories of earliest childhood, is explained by our persistent yet mysterious belief in a self which is continuous and permanent; which, untouched by all we acquire and all we shed, pushes a green spear through the dead leaves and through the mould, thrusts a scaled bud through years of darkness until, one day, the light discovers it and shakes the flower free and — we are alive — we are flowering for our moment upon the earth? (1920)