Posts Tagged With: science

it’ll keep you up at night, and it’s worth it

At our house, buying a hardback book is a big event.  We splurge when authors we adore publish something new and we can’t possibly wait our turn at the library or for the paperback.  We’ll also get our wallets out for the promise of a read we can’t resist.  Not being able to resist was the impulse behind acquiring Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

Signature of all Things

In full disclosure, I never read Eat, Pray, Love.  Then and now, I rankle at the gimmick of it, at the way Gilbert pitched to her publisher a trip for healing from divorce; in three countries she’d search for love and spirituality and then write a book about it.  What really chapped my hide, in truth, was the notion that a pre-planned and pre-paid guide to healing was a self-helpish story to tell rather than a private journey.  I’m pretty sure enlightenment isn’t something you can decide to acquire, nor a thing you can pay for.  Probably I’m jealous and kind of a bitch and resistant to popular things. Divorce is shitty, to be sure, and Gilbert likely wanted to crawl in a hole and hide but resisted, but it’s been my experience that both love and spirituality are quests you can’t engage in with a head and heart full of lists and expectations.  Love and enlightenment come winging at you when you’re NOT questing, when you’re vulnerable and off-guard and open to the great mystery of being alive.

That almost every woman I knew was in a hot lather over how amazing and life-changing the book was, one they felt made them more thoughtful and stronger as a woman (a comment I heard repeatedly), only made me want to read it less.  And then even less during Gilbert’s 187 week stint on the New York Times Bestseller List.  And then even less when her story of love and spirituality became a movie (also pre-paid, I’d imagine).

Still, I was intrigued by the mission of Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, by its ambitious romp through more than a century and across the globe, and also worried that she had “gotten” to the idea of my own novel, at least a little, before I’m finished with it.  She didn’t, I’m safe there, not that we’d be allowed in the same literary room anyway, honestly, unless I’m asking for her autograph.  But this much I believe to be true:  Elizabeth Gilbert’s book will, or should be, on the list to win the Pulitzer this year.

Gilbert’s Henry Whittaker is a plant thief in 18th century England, grifting the plants and clients of his father’s employer at Kew Gardens, making his mark in the world one small exotic cutting at a time, and then transplanting himself to Philadephia to build his own botanical pharmaceutical dynasty.  Henry’s daughter Alma inherits this vast network of wealth and her father’s love of plants. A polyglot, a seeker of wild places, a solitary child, Alma gets her mother’s sharp intelligence and curiosity, and also a reserve that renders her emotionally daft in the world.  And then there’s Alma’s figure, big and strong as a man’s, and her face, tragically plain, anything but feminine, next to the stunning beauty of her adopted sister Prudence.  Such is the stage upon which Gilbert sets her tale.

And what a stage it is.  What rises to the surface, above every disappointment heaped upon heartbreak for every character, not just for Alma, is the utter loneliness braiding these characters together, and the way they soldier on in the name of survival.  For, of course, their fates are as connected as those of any Dickensian tale.  Also, pinging around the edges of the narrative are Darwin’s theories, after all.  Alma attempts to understand the human condition inside science, seeking to crack the code of what makes mosses, a microcosm of the natural world, work in order to understand people and the way they love.  There’s scientific genius in her, which a reader believes because Gilbert’s clearly done her homework, but Alma’s quest is also driven by her own aching heart.

It’s not a flawless tale, especially toward the end when we see where Gilbert’s headed with Alma, but the choices the writer makes for her are true to the story, or more to the point, true to the Alma with whom we’ve spent so many years.

For a few days now, I’ve been unable to pick up another book.  I’m still steeping in the delicious sting of Gilbert’s story, which I took my time to read because I knew I’d be sad when it was over.  I am.

Buy it in hardback.  Read it, but not too fast.  Alma’s yearning interior and lush exterior worlds will keep you up at night.

A few reviews are here if you still don’t believe me.

Barbara Kingsolver in The New York Times

Elizabeth Day in The Guardian

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Categories: book review, books, fiction, publishing, writing | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

chicken in space

Before I began the glamorous work of becoming a writer, I was a high school teacher.  I worked in several high schools over the years, doing everything from teaching English to driving the van for science field trips, but my favorite job was my first (and longest) in Bishop, California.  One of many small towns flanking the high desert of the Sierra Nevada range, Bishop is on the highway between Los Angeles and Reno, and many view it as nothing more than a place to stop and get gas before they go skiing at Mammoth Mountain.

But I loved it there.  In fact, I never intended to leave.  Until I fell in love and then I did leave, but that’s another story.

Bishop Union High School is a small place filled with a band of passionate teachers, most of whom have chosen to work and live in the Owens Valley for a certain way of life.  Pretty much anything you want to do outdoors is at your feet there.  Bishop has Mule Days (a whole weekend devoted to celebrating the mule; it’s fantastic; you must put it on your bucket list), world-class fishing and rock climbing, hot springs, and a rich history of conservatives and liberals working to get along.  I could go on.  Someday I’ll move back.

My favorite tidbit about my old stomping grounds is this:  Recently, students at Bishop Union High School sent a rubber chicken named Camilla into space.

What’s more, their venture was (will continue to be) sponsored by NASA.  Camilla is NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory mascot who has upwards of 20,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter.  I’d like to say I still have my finger on the pulse at B.U.H.S., but I only know about the project because the students involved were interviewed on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me last weekend.  Instantly transported back to my time as a teacher there, I listened as Peter Sagal interviewed young scientists from Earth to Sky, a team of Bishop’s middle and high school  students who are working on various astrobiology projects.  Probably it was a coincidence, but  the kids Sagal interviewed were all girls. I almost cried at the great, good hope of a tribe of young girls choosing science ( at lunch; it’s not even a class!) instead of the raft of pursuits they no doubt feel culture expects of them.  But, I digress.  I’m sure there are plenty of boys in Earth to Sky, too.  They just weren’t interviewed.

I’m tempted to pack my bags right now and  join up with Earth and Sky.  Or just hang out with kids pumped about science.  Right now they’re waiting to see what Camilla’s “radiation badges,” sent away to a commercial lab for testing, will reveal.  My guess is Camilla’s relationship with Bishop’s kids isn’t over.  I bet they’re already planning what she’ll be armed with the next time she goes up.

A SHORT LIST OF DELICIOUS DETAILS ABOUT CAMILLA’S LAUNCH

  • The kids launched her into “near-space” during a solar radiation storm  in a helium balloon that went up to 124,00 feet

  • Her balloon popped, of course, and she floated back to earth by parachute

  • She was fully rigged with 2 GPS  units

  • She wore a knitted space suit made by a gal from Missouri

  • 7 insects and 24 sunflower seeds were along for the ride

  • None of the insects survived, but you can find them pinned to the “Foamboard of Death” as examples for all future adventuresome insects about what will happen if you try to go to the edge of space (maybe this explains Camilla’s look of horror…or maybe that’s joy?)

  • The 24 sunflower seeds have been planted by 5th graders to see if radiated seeds will produce flowers, too

Categories: chickens, girls | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

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