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Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier

This volume extends Chevalier’s genre – novelized histories of cultural icons, as told through the lives of women who orbit or inhabit them – by addressing not some well-known male figure or male-made object, but a pair of under-acknowledged women, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, whose excavation of fossils along the beaches around Lyme Regis, England, helped spawn the field of paleontology and with it, our modern understandings of evolution, zoology and biology.  This the author does with grace and generosity, if somewhat of a Hallmark Channel/young adult vibe.

The tale is told in alternating first person narratives, with Annie’s broken grammar the main indicator of who is speaking as each section begins.  Despite the intimacy of the first person, one never feels a visceral connection with either woman, likely due to the formality and reticence which characterize their era (the early- to mid-nineteenth century). Yes, their romantic disappointments are addressed, but there is little reflection or revelation, Chevalier’s concentration is very much on the science and sociology of the story, and it is there, in the women’s interactions with the men who rule those spheres, that more heat is produced. Anning’s loss of repute for being ‘on beach’ with a male, Philpot’s need to secure a male escort for any public errand in London, these are clear and impactful; a woman’s life was in large-part a prison, and when gender did not suffice to complete its enclosure, then drudgery did, witness Anne’s mother, Molly Anning, or Philpot’s servant, Bessy.  It is so telling that the novel’s high points of suspense and drama are Philpot’s unescorted excursion to overhear a lecture (she must hide on a back stair to do so), and her later boldness in approaching the Geological Society, even with her young nephew as escort. While a couple of the ‘scientists’ show nascent traces of open-mindedness, the men in this story are by and large smug, self-satisfied and uninterested in the world around them, except for their narrow spheres of ‘expertise’. The most interesting of them, Mary’s Dad and Elizabeth’s nephew, are only minor players.

This, in retrospect, is the most important message of the novel; not what these two intelligent and driven women discovered, but what they had to overcome to do so, and then to attain even modest recognition in their lifetimes. Remarkable Creatures is, in effect, a prison-break story; The Great Escape for women imprisoned by custom, manners and gender. Bittersweet, and well-worth the telling and remembering.

Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

McEwan still has the power to surprise; to anticipate what his reader will be thinking and make hay of it.

All through this I wondered at the reason behind his writing in Serena’s first person and what sort of personal whimsy or predilection might be behind it. That he (she ) wonders if there might be a hint of gender issues in Tom Haley’s writing (and persona) led me to wonder (not for the first time) just the same about McEwan. Then here she comes in the final epistle to toy again with the theme, but now from Tom’s point of view,and at the same time, reveal the he (McEwan) has, all the time, been writing in Tom’s persona as he (Tom) attempts to write from Serena’s point of view! Almost more fun in the diagram than in the execution, still, McEwan’s Serena is mostly credible ( and where not, one can grant that it is just Tom’s failure, not McEwan’s). Interesting and just kinky enough to add spice.

No masterpiece, but a fun spy story with more human insight and value then any but the best of its genre.

Sweet Caress, by William Boyd

William Boyd secured my admiration with Any Human Heart, and this novel only ratchets that higher.  In a deceptively low-key manner, it tells nothing less than the full story of a human life, packed with incident and accident, the monumental and the mundane.  Zelig-like, Amory Clay’s story intersects with many events of the twentieth century,  so this is also an historical fiction – and at times a bit of a thriller – but mostly it is a wise and thoughtful examination of a (fictional) life well-lived.

Impressively, Boyd upped the ante on himself this time by taking on a female protagonist with, at least to this reader, great success. While Amory is not a ‘typical’ stereotyped woman of her era, she feels real and true to her gender, especially in his scenes of romance, sex and simple lustful arousal. One wonders at the research or consultation he may have employed to get there.

The novel employs another conceit as well: Clay is a lifelong photographer, and throughout the text Boyd has sprinkled in what are purported to be her photos, dated from 1928 to 1968.  Internet research reveals they are found-photos, mostly fitted to the narrative but a little bit the other way round as well.  In any case, they add another dimension and credibility, without feeling gimmicky. (Unlike some novels told all in correspondence, or with wild typographical explorations running up and down and sideways across nearly-blank pages).

A real inspiration, and a challenge to other authors to do anywhere near as well.


Shakespeare’s Pub – A Barstool History of London as Seen Through the Windows of Its Oldest Pub – The George Inn

This amusing blend of history and anecdote traces not just the George, but all the coaching inns of Southwick, down through the centuries. Brown, who has made a career of writing about British beers and the people who brew, serve and consume them, has an obvious love of his subject and that translates into an enjoyable read, even with an iconoclastic glass of wine in one’s hand.

Has a decent eye also, for how individual history reflects that of the surrounding economy and culture. One of his revelations concerns the effects which the invention and rapid spread of railroad trains had on a wide range of industries, from the freight wagon trade, to passenger-carrying stagecoaches, stables and liveries, lodges/hotels, the hop trade, ports and the very patterns of settlement geography. Not gradual change either, but rapid and accelerating, able to wipe out an industry in one lifetime. That some of the trades displaced had done similar violence to other, earlier ones, suggests poetic justice when the trains themselves are later displaced by automobile and truck traffic (on roadways which necessarily evolved almost beyond recognition from the muddy and undisciplined things they had once been – ‘imagine, needing to make actual rules for which side of the road to drive on! Imagine!’).  Which reflects nicely on our current fearless leader’s proposal to preserve the coal trade. Really?

Touching on literature, cuisine, habit and morality, Brown suggests that the history of the George is only tenuously concerned with its physical manifestation, examining the existential question, if you replace only one small piece at a time, but eventually have replaced every piece of any object, is it still the original object? A question he answers in the affirmative – as he must, for the book’s topic to have merit…

My favorite bit though, is when a George-lover asserts that the ghost of Same Weller (of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers), has been seen around the place, allowing Brown a wonderful riff on the mental contortions required first to believe in ghosts, then in the ghost of a fictional character who never lived in the first place, and then that said ghost would haunt not the pub which the author named as his character’s locale but the one which some readers like to think the author may have had in mind when he created his fictional location, despite giving it the not-at-all fictional name of another actual pub down the street!

I like the way this author’s mind works, and will be seeking out his other beery books. Not to mention seeking out The George one again, as soon as we return to London-town.