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Posts Tagged ‘biography’

Ok, Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees I mostly read before vacation, but finished on Saturday. Roger Deakin, who died before this book was published, was a fascinating man. He renovated his Elizabethan farmhouse, which was more or less a ruin when he bought it, and was well known for his nature writing. What I most enjoyed about Wildwood is his delight in his subjects, whether the rooks in a nearby wood, the people who love the natural world as he does, artists, trees, hedges — he was apparently insatiably curious about the planet and the people on it and I learned all kinds of interesting things as I read, from how cricket bats are made to where apple trees originated. I found this book while shelf-reading (a project in libraries, in our case undertaken every summer, whereby staff compare a list of books that should be on the shelf to the actual books on the shelf, to check that they are where they should be). It was a serendipitous find of the highest order. I’d like to read Deakin’s other work, if only for the language. Here’s a bit from a chapter on a trip to the Pyrenees:

“We collect sweet, fresh chestnuts, easing them from their hedgehog husks. Following a steep-sided holloway veined with the exposed roots of beech, holly, hazel, chestnut, maple, ash, and oak, we drink from the woodland springs. As noon approaches, crickets begin singing hesitantly, and young lizards venture on to the sunny track.”

Even if I wasn’t already interested in his subject (and I am a little bit tree mad since reading The Hidden Life of Trees), I’d read that all day.

On our vacation to Maine last week — the first weeklong trip the Computer Scientist and I took alone in nearly three decades — I packed only a few books. One I’d been wanting to read for some time: The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall. I reviewed her book about Margaret Fuller back when I was still writing a column, but this book came to me via my neighbor, who loved it. You may recall I wrote here about her family inviting me to choose books from her collection after she died — this was one of those titles. I’d been waiting for a good time to read it. I figured a week in Maine was a good time to take on a meaty history book and it was. I really thoroughly enjoyed it, both because the Peabody sisters are fascinating women and because I love learning about the history of New England in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Marshall spent twenty years working on this book, explaining in her introduction that she had to learn to read the sisters’ handwriting and that of their family and friends in order to complete her research. I really respect the effort that went into the book, and the fascinating details of the may interwoven lives the Peabody sisters touched. If you don’t know much about them, the eldest, Elizabeth, coined the term “transcendentalism” before any of the men who later made it famous, and was an incredibly gifted thinker and writer. Her legacy to aAmerica, among other things, is kindergarten. Mary, the middle sister, was a teacher and writer who helped Elizabeth with her work and later, helped her husband, Horace Mann, with his. The youngest, Sophia, was an artist and also married Nathaniel Hawthorne. Marshall brings them and the people they knew to life, illuminating the social, cultural, and religious environment that shaped them and the day to day lives they led. I thoroughly enjoyed The Peabody Sisters and would like to wander around Boston and Salem visiting the places where these fascinating women lived and worked. I’d also like to read biographies of some of the rest of their circle, starting with Horace Mann.

When I was just about finished with The Peabody Sisters we visited Elements, a used bookstore, coffee house and bar in Biddeford (much like Book & Bar in Portsmouth. I was fairly restrained in my purchasing, but I did buy Gramercy Park: an American Bloomsbury by Carole Klein. It seemed to be similar in spirit to Marshall’s book; rather than covering one family’s impact on a period, it covers one neighborhood’s impact on several periods. Klein begins with Samuel Ruggles, who wished to preserve some open space as Manhattan expanded north, and began planning to create the neighborhood with its exclusive park in the center in 1831. By the 1840’s homes were being built around the park. Straight through the 1930s, when Klein’s book ends, a parade of interesting New Yorkers lived in Ruggles’ lovely neighborhood, and many more visited. I enjoyed reading about the many writers and artists but also about people I knew less about, like architect Stanford White and inventor and Cooper Union founder Peter Cooper, critic, novelist, artist Carl Van Vechten (who was a close friend of Gertrude Stein, James Weldon, Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, and F. Scott Fitzgerald). Again the book made me want to walk the neighborhood — I’ve been to the Strand several times and never realized how close I was to Gramercy Park. Klein wrote several other books that I am interested in tracking down.

My final vacation read was a collection of William Trevor’s short stories, After Rain, that I found on the free cart at work (librarian benefits: we see donations before anyone else does). I’d never read the much acclaimed Trevor but as longtime bookconscious readers know, I enjoy short fiction. This book was a little sadder than I am in the mood for lately — world, local and family events offer enough difficult emotions for the time being. But I persevered because Trevor really is a master at this form. “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” and the title story were my two favorites. The former opens simply: “Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man. Belle married him when he was old.” The story goes on to tell of the two marriages, “He had given himself to two women; he hadn’t withdrawn himself from the first, he didn’t from the second.” It’s a lovely story.

“After Rain” is set in in a little “pensione” in a small town in Italy where a woman named Harriet visited for years with her parents, and has fled when a relationship ended. In a rain storm, Harriet takes shelter in the “Church of Santa Fabiola” and looks at an Annunciation, “by an unknown artist, perhaps of the school of Filippo Lippi, no one is certain.” When Harriet walks back to her hotel, she is still thinking of the painting: “While she stands alone among the dripping vines she cannot make a connection that she knows is there. There is a blankness in her thoughts, a density that feels like muddle also, until she realizes: the Annunciation was painted after rain. Its distant landscape, glimpsed through arches, has the temporary look that she is seeing now. It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.” Beautiful. And true — I’ve felt that way, where the connection I was trying to make was just beyond me.

The painting Trevor refers to is this one:

annuncia

Annunciation
1497
Panel, 176 x 170 cm
Duomo, Volterra, by Fra Bartolomeo and Mariotto Albertinelli

I wrote not that long ago about attending a talk at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum about another annunciation painting and buying a book abut the exhibit. On Sunday, just before we moved the former Teen the Elder (now nearly 24) out of his house in Boston, we stopped at the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Botticelli exhibit, which included some works by Fillipo Lippi. I’ve always loved when my reading and life intersect.

 

 

 

 

 

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First the one I read and hated: The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger. I chose it to fill the “book from the teen zone” on my book bingo card. It’s a graphic novel in a picture book layout and the premise drew me in: a woman escaping a fight with her partner finds a mysterious bookmobile stocked with everything she’s ever read, staffed by a friendly librarian. A blurb on the back said the message is that we are what we read. What’s not to love?

Except this book is about a woman who reads and enjoys remembering what she’s read to the point of obsession and madness. It’s a story about losing hope, clinging to to our own desires even if they make us lonely and miserable, and perishing in a mire of self — and then the ending glorifies that. Don’t read this book.

There.

On to a much happier selection, even though it’s about grief and pain and loneliness. It’s H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, and it’s also about heart and hope and love, family and friendship and wildness. This is a story celebrating the redemptive quality of both seeking something we care deeply for, in Macdonald’s case hawking, and doing it well as a way of reminding ourselves how very alive we are when the world has overwhelmed us with sorrow. It’s beautiful and in some ways the opposite of The Night Bookmobile.

Macdonald can write. Damn, can she write. When the book opens she is describing a morning when she woke up feeling she must go out, and then “only when my frozen ancient Volkswagon and I were halfway down the A14 that I worked out where I was going and why. Out there, beyond the foggy windscreen and white lines, was the forest. The broken forest. That’s where I was headed. To see goshawks.”

She goes on to describe how hard a task she’d set herself: “Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace; it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.” It seems strange she’d just woken up and gone looking for them until not long after when she receives shocking news: her father has died suddenly.

Macdonald is stunned, horrified, immobilized by grief. She’d been devoted to hawking since she was a child, and as she processes her father’s death and struggles to stay sane, she revisits those memories, and her books on hawking. And before long, she has a goshawk, a young female she names Mabel.

And one of the books she re-reads is The Goshawk by T.H. White, the same man who also wrote The Once and Future King. Macdonald dips into many of White’s books in the telling of H is for Hawk. White, she sees, was deeply scarred by his childhood and deeply afraid of the potential pain and loss of human relationships. As an adult she can begin to understand that which she didn’t as a child. The reader watches as Macdonald’s compassion for White grows into healing for herself.

The brilliance of H is for Hawk is that it is several stories: Mabel’s and Macdonald’s, her father’s and White’s and also the story of hawking, and a loving tribute to the English countryside. It’s a book about grief and depression and how Macdonald manages to pull up as her life seems headed for a crash landing. And it’s the story of deep and abiding friendships –and Macdonald’s appreciation for them, and for Mabel, and ultimately, for life itself.

Often I don’t like this style — the Computer Scientist and I have discussed the fad for rambling, wide-ranging memoirs that seem not to have a clear point. But Macdonald manages both to ramble pleasingly and relevantly through history, literature, ecology, geography, hawking, and more, and to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.There is no forced cleverness, no jarring sense that you can see the puppetmaster’s strings distracting you. If you’ve struggled to like cross-genre memoirs, try this one and you’ll see how it really ought to be done.

H is for Hawk is also warm. It’s about horrible things, hard things, lost things, but it’s also about things that are soulful and heartfelt. There’s a sense of ancient continuity in what Macdonald and Mabel do, and what Macdonald is feeling. And everything Macdonald relates belongs. It all comes together as if you were listening to a very intelligent, very interesting friend.

And I did listen; I took out the audiobook, which I don’t often do. Macdonald read it, even doing different voices. I liked hearing her narrate her own story, and I managed to knit a good bit of a scarf while listening. I do think I probably get more out of reading than listening, but perhaps that has to do with the fact that I’m a novice knitter and my attention was divided.  I’d like to go back and read it in print.

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This week I finished a couple of inter-library loans, each about a prominent woman whose work was of the highest caliber but whose accomplishments are always discussed in terms of their gender. Marie Curie is one of the greatest scientists of all time, Chiyo-ni is one of the greats of Japanese literature. Each is generally spoken of as a woman who exceeded expectations, not just as an accomplished person.

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Falloutby Lauren Redniss, is a beautiful book, a graphic biography with cyanotype art, a glow in the dark cover, and more than the usual life story of Marie Curie. Redniss portrays Marie & Pierre’s great love for each other and for their work, Marie’s second Nobel prize and the scandal around her relationship (as a widow) with a married colleague, the redemption of her reputation as she provided dozens of mobile and field x-ray units during WWI, and her post-war celebrity, as well as the incredible legacies of her life, including children and grandchildren who became prominent scientists.

Through art (including a custom font she created for the book) and text, Redniss also explores the “fallout” of the Curies’ work: nuclear weapons, radiation treatment, and nuclear energy, including interviews with a victim of Hiroshima, a man who grew up watching bomb tests in Utah, and a scientist studying Chernobyl, photos of mutant flowers growing near Three Mile Island, and an interview with a couple who regularly visit a radon spa in Montana. It’s a lovely, moving, thought provoking, and fascinating book.

Chiyo-Ni: Woman Haiku Master by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi is part biography, part anthology of a hundred of Chiyo-Ni’s haiku, arranged by season, as well as examples of her haibun (prose with haiku, a form made famous by Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North) and renga (linked forms, where two or more poets write haiku to form a longer work). Chiyo-ni published two poetry collections (a rare feat at the time) and her work appeared in a stunning 120+ anthologies in her lifetime (1703-1775). She became a Pure Land Buddhist nun at age 52, and her poems are known for their enlightened clarity. She wrote one of her most famous,

a hundred gourds
from the heart
of one vine

at age 24, when a Buddhist master asked her to compose a poem on sankai, “desire, form, and nonform.” As the story goes, he was stunned when she spontaneously wrote the gourd poem, which illustrated that “everything arises from the mind.” But, in her time and ours, she’s been called a woman poet, not just one of the greatest poets in Japanese literature. Do we call Basho a man poet?

I am intensely curious about why human beings feel the need to label each other and why women are viewed as doing something especially remarkable if they excel in a “male” field. It still happens today. The Computer Scientist shared this video with me and our teens this week, showing female “geeks” (gaming, comic, and anime/manga fans) who’ve experienced sexist attitudes about their interests, which are already disparaged in mainstream culture (hence the nickname “geeks”).

I just heard a piece on NPR about the Women’s British Open, where Inbee Park could win a 4th major this year (a feat no golfer, male or female, has accomplished). The reporter said he hoped Park would “get her due” if she wins. He went on to note that the LPGA tends to promote “sex appeal” rather than “great golf” and Park isn’t a “glam girl.” Why wouldn’t sports fans be at least as impressed with Park as they were with Phil Mickelson, who finally won the men’s British Open after many attempts? He’s no glam girl either.

Before you hit the comment button, I’m not saying men and women are the same, I know there are differences. But can’t we judge people’s actions and accomplishments on their merits without dwelling on labeling them by gender or race or age or any other label? I’m not sure we’ll ever get to that point, but it can’t hurt to try.

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Longtime bookconscious readers know I love Jane Austen. I was very excited to read this new biography, The Real Jane Austen: a Life in Small Things, and author Paula Byrne’s innovative approach sounded intriguing. Rather than telling the story of Austen’s life directly, she takes nineteen objects from Austen’s time (and some from her actual possession) and weaves Austen’s story as well as relevant literary, social, cultural and political history from these seemingly disparate threads.

For example, in a chapter called “The Barouche,” Byrne covers Austen’s love of travel, the history of English travel writing, the social and economic aspects of travel in the Georgian era, and the significance of carriage and coach rides in Austen’s novels. In “The Theatrical Scenes,” Byrne writes of the Austen family’s great love of both amateur theatricals and professional theater, the theater scenes in London and Bath, some of the best-known actors and actresses of the day, and the influence of theater in Austen’s writing.

You get the idea. It’s lovely, and very interesting, and felt a great deal like visiting a museum and peering into cases with exceptionally well written displays. In fact, the book would be a terrific companion guide to an exhibit about the iconic items Byrne selected to portray key themes in Austen’s life.

First let me say that Byrne only reinforced my deep admiration for Austen as a deeply interesting, incredibly gifted, strong and brilliant woman and one of the best writers of all time. Byrne’s writing is excellent and she has, to my mind, the perfect touch when it comes to speculating on what we don’t know about Austen and what we can sensibly conclude — she never overreaches and is careful to be forthright with her readers when she veers into analysis rather than strict historical record. I wanted to love this book wholeheartedly as I love Jane Austen.

But because of the inventive format Byrne chooses, the narrative felt circuitous and choppy. Several anecdotes from Austen’s life are repeated across chapters. I found myself flipping back to check what I’d already read, or skimming parts that felt repetitive. I suppose the best way to avoid this feeling would have been to savor the chapters individually as essays, rather than reading the book in a few sittings straight through. In my case, that wasn’t an option — it’s a new book from the library so I had limited time to read it.

Still if you love Austen, you’ll find much to enjoy, and I’d also recommend The Real Jane Austen for anyone studying Georgia England, or interested in the period. If possible, just dip in, choosing a chapter that looks interesting, rather than reading it from beginning to end.

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