Monday, December 07, 2015

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert


I want to talk to you this morning about an incredibly ambitious book that sets out to tell the reader the history of botany, and especially of pharmaceuticals from the early 1800s to the 1900s. The book is Elizabeth Gilbert’s, The Signature of All Things. It is also the story of Alma Whittaker and of her father, Henry Whittaker, born in 1760 to a poor orchardist, and who “grew up sleeping one wall away from the pigs, and there was not a moment in his life when poverty did not humiliate him.”

Young Henry is sent to sea at a young age to sail with Captain Cook on a botanical expedition, one that sets the course of his future life and that of his not yet born daughter, Alma. After four months at sea, Henry arrives in Lima, and there he begins to ship the bark from the cinchona tree back to England.

It turned out that cinchona bark did indeed interrupt the path of malaria’s ravages, for reasons nobody could understand. Whatever the cause, the bark appeared to cure malaria entirely, with no side effects except lingering deafness—a small price to pay to live. 
By the early eighteenth century, Peruvian bark, or Jesuits’ bark was the most valuable export from the New World to the Old. A gram of pure Jesuit’s bark was now equal in value to a gram of silver.
Henry gathered hundreds of botanical samples on his years long expedition, and although he did not automatically become a gentleman (which was his aim), via his botanical investigations, he did become a very rich man. Not content with simply shipping the bark, he started his own cinchona plantation in the Dutch colonial outpost of Java. He married a plain but brilliant Dutch woman, and with her moved to America, created a garden modeled after the Kew gardens where his father had been an orchardist, and very soon was one of the richest men in Philadelphia. However, it was their daughter, Alma, who was the truly brilliant botanist, and it is her story and her research into mosses that becomes the central theme of the book. Alma is a rigorous scientist who refuses to yield to anything less than genuine understanding. She comes to understand that it is the quinine in cinchona bark that remedies malaria, and unlike her father who is interested in botanicals only as a way to fortune, Alma desires to understand the natural world as an end in itself.

Like her mother, Alma is a large, plain woman who never finds romantic love, but instead pours all of her substantial energy into botanical investigations. In particular, she becomes fascinated, even obsessed with mosses and with what she calls transmutation. “In essence, she apprehended, mosses did not merely resemble algae that had crawled up on dry land; mosses were algae that had crawled up on dry land.” She also decides that “Whatever is true for mosses must  be true for all living things.”

Of course Alma is not alone in discovering the transmutability of organisms; like Darwin and other scientists of the time Alma witnesses that “The beauty and variety of the natural world are merely the visible legacies of an endless war.”

There is so much of interest in this sprawling novel, not the least of which is the story of Alma’s life and her courage. She, herself, eventually sails to the South Seas, always with the botanist’s eye turned to the life forms about her. She becomes the world’s foremost expert in the life and transformation of mosses.

My first intellectual love was botany, and this book recalled and reinforced that fascination. I think it will also appeal to those who love historical fiction, for this book was meticulously researched, and it is written with clarity and passion.

I recommend the book to all who love science and discovery, and even to those who simply like a good story and who want to see the huge role of women in botanical research.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Kent Haruf


This morning I’m going to depart from my usual practice of reviewing a single book in order to pay tribute to the life-work of Kent Haruf, whom I would characterize as a superb writer of the heart. Again, I am surprised that I only recently heard of this amazing writer who died in 2014. For reasons hard to explain, I feel sad that I didn’t get a chance to read him while he was still alive. In the last two weeks, I have read up almost everything he published, including his posthumously published little novel, Our Souls at Night.

Haruf’s writing is simple and bare-boned, and all of it centers on a single small town, Holt Colorado. There is a generosity of spirit in this man that shines forth from each of his short novels. Our northwest treasure, Ursula Le Guin, describes his lovely writing much better than I ever could.
His courage and achievement in exploring ordinary forms of love—the enduring frustrations, the long cost of loyalty, the comfort of daily affection—are unsurpassed by anything I know in contemporary fiction…Haruf is in fact a stunningly original writer in a great many ways…He talks quietly, intimately, yet with reserve as one adult to another. He’s careful to get the story right. And it is right, it’s just right; it rings true.
Characters recur in each of his novels, and the novels themselves read in many ways like collections of short stories. Harold and Raymond McPherson are two brothers who live together all their lives on a small ranch seventeen miles outside the small town of Holt. Neither ever marries. But a particularly enlightened and wise teacher in the high school decides to try to help a young girl in her class who is pregnant and has been kicked out of her own home. She stumbles on the idea of taking the girl, Victoria Robideaux, out to the McPherson’s ranch. She already knows of the gentle hearts of the two brothers, and she believes that having the girl stay with them while she is waiting for the birth of her daughter will assuage their loneliness while providing the girl safe haven. The relationship of the three is developed in three of Haruf’s novels: Plainsong, Benediction, and Eventide. It is a love story at its finest—innocent, enduring, and so simply laid out. When Victoria has her daughter, Katie, the four live together for a time until the brothers arrange for Victoria to go off to college.

In Benediction, Harold dies as a result of a ranching accident, and Raymond is left alone for the first time in his life. Although the pathos is always understated in Haruf’s writing, he manages to display an emotional intelligence that I find to be exceptionally rare in any writer, and especially in male authors. As a friendship begins to develop between Raymond and a woman who was a nurse in the hospital  where he was treated for injuries suffered in the same accident that killed his brother, she questions him about how he can manage without his brother.
How will you manage?

I’ll think of something. Hire somebody I expect.
It must be terribly hard wtihout your brother here anymore.
It’s not the same. I’s not anything like it. Harold and me, we was together all our lives. 
You just have to go on, don’t you.
He looked at her. People always say that, he said. I say as much myself. I don’t know what it means though. He looked out the window behind her where the night had fallen. The yardlight had come on and there were long shadows in the yard.
While Haruf understands all too well the pain and misery in the world, and the casualties of poverty, he also sees a simple goodness in some people—a young boy whose parents die and who then cares for his aging grandfather. The schoolteacher who rescues Victoria and is catalyst for the sweet relationship between her and the tough old brother ranchers.

In his final book, Our Souls at Night, published posthumously in 2015, he explores the relationship between two elderly people who decide to spend their nights together, not for sex, but simply to hold hands and talk in the night. As Le Guin says, Haruf talks quietly, but he evokes so much from his readers. It is the brave 70+ woman who is courageous enough to suggest the nighttime arrangement with her near neighbor. Although initially clandestine, the two soon decide to brave the gossip and narrow-mindedness of their small town and to meet publicly and stop trying to  hide his nightly trips to his neighbor (carrying his pajamas and toothbrush in a paper sack).

As always, the story is told with wonderful simplicity, the language spare and unsentimental.
I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.

What? How do you mean?
I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk…
I’m not talking about sex.
I wondered.
No, not sex. I’m not looking at it that way. I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?
Yes. I think so.
The beauty and simplicity of this man’s writing cannot, I think, be made manifest by quoting passages. He is so patient in developing his stories, and the tug at the heart builds gradually. While he clearly understands simple kindness and loyalty in characters, he also understands clearly the viciousness and cruelty in others.

His stories are among the most beautiful I’ve ever read. Simplicity and kindness, the magic of a simple gesture, of unexpected words of encouragement.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Stoner by John Williams


I want to talk to you this morning about a novel first published in 1965, and then reissued after the turn of the century. Since its first publication, is has become a classic among critics and academicians. It has been called a ‘perfect novel’ as well as ‘the great American novel.’ In both those cases, it was a male critic who awarded it such a distinction. In the remarks that follow, I think it will become obvious why I think it is no accident that this lavish praise has come from men.

The name of the novel is Stoner, and the author is John Williams. It is an excruciatingly sad little novel, superbly crafted and polished, but written in plain, even flat prose matching the flat grey life of the main character, William Stoner. Almost nothing goes right for Stoner, and yet, he himself on his deathbed pronounces his life a successful one. Although usually written in the third person, it is a tale seen exclusively through the eyes of Stoner. Rarely does the author use the first name of his lead character; he is referred to simply as Stoner, and the tone remains impersonal and emotionless even in the most dramatic sections of the book.

Stoner is a farm boy, the only child of a hardworking couple who eek out an existence from hard scrabble land that yields less and less as the years go by. Stoner’s father encourages Stoner to attend a newly formed agricultural college in the hopes that he may learn new techniques to improve the production of their small farm. However, through happenstance, Stoner takes a survey of literature course in his second year of college, and his life is irrevocably altered. The instructor of the course, Archer Sloane, is not a great teacher, but he is a dedicated one, and he informs Stoner that he is to be a teacher even before Stoner realizes it. 
“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloane asked.

“Don’t you understand about yourself  yet? You’re going to be a teacher”  
Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?” 
“I’m sure,” Sloane said softly. 
“How can you tell? How can you be sure?” 
“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”
And he is in love, with learning, but even that love is so muted, so understated that it fails to bring with it excitement or significant shifts in his day to day life.  Stoner continues his undistinguished undergraduate studies, and with Sloane’s encouragement begins an equally undistinguished course of graduate studies, and then a far from spectacular teaching career.

Along the way, Stoner falls in love with a pretty but quiet and socially shy, unsophisticated girl, also a single child of a moderately successful banker and his unremarkable wife. Both Stoner and his new wife are sexual innocents, and from their honeymoon forward, theirs is an almost completely non-sexual and non-romantic relationship. 
Within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping that it would improve. He learned silence and did not insist upon his love. If he spoke to her or touched her in tenderness, she turned away from him within herself and became wordless, enduring, and for days afterward drove herself to new limits of exhaustion. Out of an unspoken stubbornness they both had, they shared the same bed…
They have one child together, Grace, and for a time Stoner finds a closeness with young Grace that he is to find with no one else in his life. His wife changes her appearance after her father’s death, and for a time takes a newfound interest in  Grace, whom Stoner has raised essentially alone up to that point. As Stoner sees it, his wife, Edith, declares war on his relationship with Grace and does all in her power to drive them apart. There are several points in the novel when Grace goes through brief bursts of energy, and in each case, the burst of energy is directed to an undermining of Stoner—undermining his relationship with Grace and attempting to undermine his relationships with his students just as he begins to be a better teacher. Edith seems to be threatened by any signs of happiness in Stoner.

The author’s description of these campaigns by Edith against Stoner’s few periods of happiness are so emotionally violent that I found myself beginning to doubt Stoner’s story. Instead, I began to see a deep vein of passive-aggressiveness in Stoner that he does not see, nor I suspect does the author understand the unbelievable one-sidedness of  his portrayal of their marital warfare. Stoner is drawn as such a pathetic figure, so persecuted by his wife, by a malevolent colleague, by life itself that I found myself ultimately rather disgusted by his weakness and ineptitude. 

I suspect that the meticulous drawing of this misunderstood and unappreciated man has appealed to male readers, drawn on their sympathies precisely because they see themselves in his flat, not sufficiently appreciated life. Eventually, I found myself thinking, “I’d like to hear this story again, but told through the eyes of Edith.”

Despite my suspicions about the lead character and what I see as overblown appraisals of the book, it is superbly told. I would love to read it with others as a psychoanalytic portrayal of a bad marriage.  It is a riveting book despite its overall greyness and flatness, and while not a great or perfect novel, it is one that will stay with me for a long time, and one that I recommend to all serious readers.