Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Cambridge University’

When our elder child finished his gap year in England we met him there. I’d planned a day in Bath, which I visited during college. It proved to be a wonderful day despite fairly steady rain, and one of the best things we did was visit a small, unassuming and very well done museum: The Herschel Museum of Astronomy. When they were younger, my children were both fascinated by astronomy and we’d learned briefly of brother and sister astronomers William and Caroline Herschel. Their former home on New King Street in Bath is a lovely tribute to their work together and we all enjoyed it.

When I heard that one of my favorite small presses, Cinnamon Press, had published a novel about Caroline Herschel, Double the StarsI was intrigued. And yesterday, on the last day of my holiday vacation, I sat and read it in its entirety, one of my favorite ways to get lost in a book. It’s a wonderful read by a person well versed in both science and art; Kelley Swain was poet-in-residence at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science at Cambridge while working on this novel. She notes in the afterword that she met with the Herschel’s descendants, one of whom even created the cover art, and from what I could tell from what (albeit little) I know about the Herschels, the novel seems true to history.

And yet, it is still a work of fiction, with certain details rearranged to create a narrative, and I suspect, bits of emotional drama inserted. The Computer Scientist and I went to see The Imitation Game this weekend, the biopic about Alan Turing (the other really interesting place we visited on our trip was Bletchley Park — well worth an outing if you are in London). We enjoyed it but mused on our way home that it seemed unlikely that Turing’s relationships with his superiors at Bletchley were so fraught, and I noted that the information about the burglary and investigation seemed inaccurate from what I could recall. I found an article in Slate when we got home which verified what we’d suspected — conflict was added to the film that didn’t exist in Turing’s actual life, and no detective in Manchester investigated him, he admitted to being gay and that was that. Also, in focusing on Turing, the filmmakers left out some important collaboration that took place in breaking Enigma and in building The Bombe — the computing machine that sped up the code-breakers’ work.

Does that matter? I mused on Facebook that I was disconcerted by the level of extra drama and the portrayal of Turing as a humorless, antisocial narcissist (like Benedict Cumberbatch’s well known portrayal of Sherlock Holmes). My cousin Sheafe noted “the movie biz believes that the story of a movie must have more drama than in anyone’s real life. The movie must have conflict in every scene, however small to be a good movie and not a boring one. Most people’s life story, even the extraordinary ones have some dull, not so cinematic moments that must be creatively altered to serve the plot/story/movie. That’s the moviegoers expectation to be amazed and overwhelmed.”

Sheafe comes from a family of actors and directors and his law practice is dedicated to entertainment law and intellectual property in the arts, including film. So he knows what he’s talking about. And I know I’m the odd one out in believing that novels and films about real people don’t have to have zingers, explosions, betrayals, or drama on every page or frame in order to entertain. But how is it that we’ve reached a point in our culture where we need to be amazed and overwhelmed nearly to a point of artifice? Why aren’t people as incredibly interesting as Caroline Herschel and Alan Turing entertaining enough without the added embellishments? I get that every day of even remarkable people’s lives aren’t interesting, but it seems to me that both of them had lives that are plenty dramatic.

But I digress. Swain’s novelization of Caroline Herschel’s life is delightful and I don’t mean to detract from that. She portrays the enormous obstacles to female intellectual life in the late eighteenth century and the freedom Caroline Herschel enjoyed in large part because she lived with her brother. And the darker side of that freedom, as in this passage, when Caroline realizes her musical career will end when she becomes her brother’s assistant astronomer, a royal posting: ” . . . locked into William’s orbit, his influence overwhelmed the trajectory of her own desires.”

Swain makes clear that Herschel’s peers — including some of the greatest scientific minds of her time — knew and valued her work, and that she herself derived great satisfaction from it. Herschel was the first woman to earn her living as a scientist, and whether the dramatic story-line in the novel about her sacrifice of personal happiness is true or not, there is no doubt that she, and most women of her time, had to sacrifice their own pursuits to the needs and preferences of the men they relied on for support and respectability. Swain does an excellent job of showing how bittersweet Herschel’s successes were; unlike many women she was lauded for her fine mind and its accomplishments, but like so many others, decisions about how and where to live, and what work to pursue, were often not entirely up to her.

Read Double the Stars. Go see The Imitation Game. But ask yourself — isn’t art just as beautiful when it is, like life, leavened with a little ordinariness? Do we really need the adrenaline rush of conflict and drama to be entertained? I’m reminded of Eddie Izzard’s comparison of American and British films. I guess I just like the A Room With A View, “I’d better go, Yes I think you better had” sort of art, myself.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

I can’t quite remember how I heard about Matt Haig and his novel The Humans, but it arrived on the state library van as an interlibrary loan for me this week and it’s the first book that’s kept me up too late in a few months at least. I really didn’t want to put it down, and not just because I’d dropped the “blue card” with the circulation bar code on it in the dark and subsequently woke up repeatedly in the night worrying I’d have to return it sans card. (When I woke up the card was on my slippers).

The premise of the book is that the narrator, an alien assassin, has been sent to Earth from a planet many light years away to eliminate a maths professor, Andrew Martin,  at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam College because he has discovered the proof for the Riemann Hypothesis, the inhabitants of his planet believe humans aren’t ready for such progress.  The only problem is he arrives on earth with little knowledge of everyday human life and culture, and for some reason, arrives in Andrew Martin’s naked body on a dark country road.

Alien Andrew Martin has to convince his wife, Isobel, his troubled teenaged son Gulliver, and their dog, Newton, that he’s the same man they’ve always known, despite his powers (he can heal, for example), and what appear to them to be his mental lapses. Such as a complete lack of understanding of adultery. And, he has to kill them, since that’s what he was sent to do.

Instead, he begins to admire human life, and to understand it. He learns to like music: “The last thing I listened to was a tune called ‘Clare de Lune’ by Debussy. That was the closest representation of space I had ever heard, and I stood there, in the middle of the room, frozen with shock that a human could have made such a beautiful noise.” And he discovers poetry, especially Emily Dickinson. And peanut butter, which he shares with Newton. As he learns about being human, he becomes a vastly kinder, more considerate one than the real Andrew Martin ever was. Which is where the problems begin.

I don’t know why I am on a British witty urban scifi kick lately, but at risk of repeating myself, if you like Tom Holt or Daniel O’Malley or Douglas Adams or Nick Harkaway you’ll like this book, which is less showy in the bells and whistles of alien life, but funny in its own dry way, and lovely too, in the tenderness alien Andrew Martin learns. It’s a quick read, entertaining, but also thought provoking. Haig writes in the afterward that he recovered from panic disorder by reading, and by writing this book. How beautiful, that a novel about what it means to be truly human gave its author a sense of being comfortable with his own humanness.

 

Read Full Post »

Yesterday was another scorcher, but I had a plan: a lounge chair on the screened porch in front of a large fan, a bowl of popcorn, a tall cold glass of seltzer, and a novel: Anonymous Sources, by Mary Louise Kelly. I heard a snippet of Kelly’s appearance on the The Diane Rehm Show last week, and was intrigued. It sounded like just the thing for a warm Sunday afternoon.

If you recognize the name Mary Louise Kelly, you’re an NPR listener (or CNN or BBC World Service, where she’s also been a correspondent and producer). Try not to hate her for being incredibly successful at two careers; this will be a challenge if you read her acknowledgements, as she describes writing the novel in Tuscany as her husband brought her espresso & Chianti and helped her work out tricky plot issues.With this novel, she’s definitely launched her fiction-writing career with a flourish. Anonymous Sources is a terrifically entertaining spy novel. By the end, the reader is able to start putting the pieces together, but it still felt fresh, even though the villains are familiar: rogue Pakistani nuclear scientists and a fringe terror group.

Her heroine, Alexandra James, is a hoot. She’s a smart young reporter with a weakness for designer shoes and Hendrick’s gin. She’s acutely aware of the effect her long legs and red hair have on men. And she’s not afraid to exploit it in order to file a good story or, as the case may be, get out of a sticky situation with a wannabe terrorist.

I loved the supporting cast as well, from Alex’s best friend and fellow reporter Elias, who owns an incredible array of kitchen gadgets and “drinks espresso the way Italians do. Which is to say, like water,” to Hyde, the quirky father-figure editor who lets Alex chase a hunch on a routine story that leads her from Harvard, where the White House Counsel’s son has died in an apparent accident or suicide, to Cambridge University, where he’d spent a year as Harvard Scholar. There Alex meets Lucien Sly, “Lord Lucien Sly,” who makes her laugh, is “fantastic in bed,” but is also “obviously a cad and incapable of an exclusive relationship.”

I don’t want to give away the page-turning story, so I’ll just say this: if you want a fun read, the literary equivalent of a smartly-done popcorn flick, with great details about the intelligence community and national security, a gripping and somewhat alarming plot, and characters that will make you laugh and also compel you to root for them, pick up Anonymous Sources. If you’re an aspiring writer, read the acknowledgements, where Kelly talks about rewriting the awful parts under the guidance of her agent, and take heart, and rewrite.

Up next, I have requested the now-outed J.K. Rowling’s police procedural from the library, since I seem to be on a spy/mystery/thriller kick. I can’t wait to see what it’s like, since it got such good reviews before anyone knew she wrote it.

Read Full Post »