Saturday, July 31, 2010

Reading is sexy XXXIX

(image by Andre Martins de Barros)
25.Curiosity by Joan Thomas. If you know anything about the history of earth science, you will know the name Lyme Regis, neither as English beach resort, nor as the set of Persuasion but as cliffs which were key to early 19th century understanding of the very nature of fossils, and the beginning of paleontology. Curiosity is a novel based on the life of Mary Anning, "fossilist", dealer and paleontologist. Anning was an outsider in every way - a working class woman, a religious dissenter, whose natural intelligence, insight, sense of injustice and largely self-taught knowledge set her apart. At a time when women were not even allowed to attend the meetings of the Geological Society of London, let alone belong to the Society, some upper class gentlemen-scientists seemed barely capable of acknowledging the daughter of a cabinet maker as a fellow human being (citing the gentlemen who purchased her fossil finds, rather than name her), most of her siblings did not even survive childhood and geologists were still trying to explain dinosaur fossils in terms of the Biblical flood story, Anning single-handedly found, identified and excavated dinosaur, fish and marine fossils (the first ichthyosaur skeleton to be correctly identified, the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found, the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany). Other real-life characters appear in the novel, including, Henry De la Beche, William Buckland, William Conybeare and Elizabath Philpot - all of whom owe certainly their fossil collections, and some of their fame and success in science to the discoveries of Anning. This is a novel, and a love story. Joan Thomas relied on primary sources which allude to a secret of Anning's, possibly thwarted love. She takes the liberty to interpret this as a love between Mary and Anning's great supporter and friend, who eulogized her to the Geological Society, Henry De la Beche. De la Beche was a bit of an iconoclast himself - expelled from military college for insubordination, willing to question received wisdom and be an actual scientist, rather than a theological apologist, and able to recognize genius in a woman, and a working-class woman at that. Nontheless, he also was a plantation -and slave-owner in Jamaica, for all his otherwise progressive beliefs. It makes for a rich story, of memorable, rounded characters, in a time of change and discovery.

26. The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia I bought this debut novel, seeing reviews which allude to García Márquez and Calvino, but I was captured by the reference to the Museum of Jurassic Technology. This, is one hell of a debut novel. It's a tale of great beauty, magic and pathos. Part creation myth, with origami organ replacement and one person made entirely of paper, it is filled with all the magic of Mexico (from loteria, to a sainted lucador Santos with his Japanese tag-team partner 'Tiger Mask' Sayama, to the Virgin of Trinidad whose halo burns so brightly she unwittingly burns the visionaries, to lime obsessions and curandero). This is a story of love lost, heart-break, family, quixotic battles and finding one's place in the world, or the solar system, as the case may (or may not) be. Further, there is Rita Hayworth and the lettuce pickers, mechanical tortoises with lead carapaces, Napoleon, Vatican troops, bees, and one Baby Nostradamus. When Frederico de la Fe's beloved wife Merced, finally leaves him and their daughter Little Merced, he and his daughter leave Mexico for California. They join the community of flower-pickers in El Monte, and soon the gang El Monte Flores (EMF) is enlisted in a war for autonomy and privacy against the omni-present oppressor Saturn. The book employs some of the things in the "post-modern" toolbox (many of which in fact were there with Cervantes, in Don Quixote), whether it be a dubious narrator, the author as character, telling and re-telling, levels of meaning and stories within stories or tricks of typography and occasional illustration - but these are used judiciously and seamlessly. You really should go read it, now, cause I'm not going to tell you more, and you do want to know.

{Series so far: books read, more books read, books read, books read continues, more books read, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII,XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII XXIV, XXV, XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII, XXIX, XXX, XXXI, XXXII, XXXIII, XXXIV, XXXV, XXXVI, XXXVII, XXXVIII}

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