Delights & Shadows: Poems, by Ted Kooser

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I hadn’t read any of Ted Kooser’s work before, though I’d certainly heard of him. I opened this early collection at a random spot and started to read rather quickly.

I wasn’t particularly impressed: the rather ordinary language didn’t exactly sing to me and the insights—while making me smile—didn’t make me gasp. However, after a few poems, a sense of well-being stole over me, almost a sense of familiarity. Perhaps I had read them before after all? Or had somehow heard this voice?

I found myself thinking of the title of Alice Munro’s 2012 story collection Dear Life. And of Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir My Beloved World. There was something in this short, seemingly simple poems that I needed. I went back and reread them more carefully.

“Tattoo” recounts a moment at a yard sale: seeing an old man whose tattoo of “a dripping dagger held in the fist / of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise”, a lingering ache “where vanity once punched him hard”—a brilliant line. Note how the images do double duty: a bruise that is the blurred blue of an old tattoo and also a lingering ache, a punch that vanity requested being also like the needles that poked ink into his skin.

There is no mockery here, only fellow-feeling as the author notes the traces of youthful arrogance. The man is still strong and has “the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt / rolled up to show us who he was,” yet we see him as an old man, “picking up / broken tools and putting them back,” the broken tools again doing double duty. And the final line takes us back to the image at the beginning, now shimmering with all that we have learned about this man and all men in just these few lines.

There is a depth of compassion in these poems and a recognition of the small moments that illuminate what it means to be human. In “At the Cancer Clinic” we see a woman being helped across a waiting room by two others, perhaps her sisters, to where a nurse waits patiently. There’s the slight chuckle at calling the nurse patient, the sympathy at the woman’s slow progress, and then the surprising ending that elevates the scene into an evocation of what is best in all of us.

Another poem I loved is “Skater”. Having myself not started skating until middle age and being quite proud that I finally managed a waltz jump—a baby jump, the easiest of all—I thrilled to this joyous description of landing it, of how that experience changes you. Adding to the joy are the bright colors and the image of her skates braiding a path on the ice, echoing her ponytail in the first line.

My friend Dave has much to say against poetry that seems like prose. When I read the last poem in the book, I thought of him and how this could be prose if written without the line breaks. However, reading it again I saw how the images of time and fading light suggest the idea of aging, even death, with calm acceptance, even perhaps with gratitude for a life well lived.

A Happy Birthday

This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

Have you read any of Ted Kooser’s poetry? Do you have a favorite poem of his?

The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles

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Since I was due to visit Lyme Regis, I decided to reread this 1969 novel which is mostly set in that seaside town. Of course, my first memory from reading it almost 50 years ago was the gloriously romantic opening image of a woman, dressed all in black, staring out to sea from the end of the Cobb.

The Cobb in Lyme Regis is a mole, a grey stone wall that curves out into the sea like an arm protecting the harbor. It features in Jane Austen’s Persuasion where it is the scene of Louisa’s downfall as she attempts to jump into Captain Wentworth’s arms.

Fowles’s mysterious woman is Sarah Woodruff, a disgraced woman who according to gossips had run off with and been abandoned by the eponymous officer. She’d met him while he was recovering from a shipwreck in the house where she then worked as a governess.

She is observed by Charles Smithson, a privileged young man who considers himself a Darwinist, and his fiancé Ernestina Freeman, whose conventional views belie her surname. As part of his scientific pursuits, Charles hunts for fossils, reminding me of my recent reading about Mary Anning. He leaves Ernestina at home when he goes on these expeditions, so is alone when he encounters Sarah later and resolves to try to help her.

While written in the style of and using the conventions of Victorian literature, the story is narrated from the point of view of a modern-day man. With epigraphs and footnotes and commentary in the text, this narrator provides social and historical context for the struggles of his Victorian characters, sometimes criticising them, sometimes commiserating with them. He also openly discusses the problems and choices the writer faces in putting the story together.

This self-consciousness places the book in the wave of postmodern metafiction in the 1960s. Another metafictional aspect is that the narrator provides three possible endings.

While the “I” of the narrator calls himself a “novelist”, it seems to me he is instead yet another character rather than Fowles himself. He even shows up as a character near the end.

Thus, Fowles has quite a few plates to keep spinning. He risks losing the story’s momentum with his digressions about Victorian mores and morality or the clash of religion and science.

Yet these challenges for the reader play into the theme of free will, the monster released from its chains by Darwin and his colleagues. What are the risks when the strict conventions of religion and social convention are shown to be shams? How do we comprehend the world—or the world of the novel—when the framework we’d always used begins to dissolve? When are we most free, when we are “working well within a harness” as Frost says or when we take responsibility for living an authentic life per Kierkegaard?

The other main thing I remembered from when I first read this novel was which of the three endings I preferred and what that said about me. Reading the book now, I find it much more complex than I remembered. It is the sort of book that repays multiple rereadings.

I plan to read it yet again to see how Fowles manages the omniscient point of view—the sort most rarely used these days. It’s an interesting choice, setting up an omniscient narrator—albeit one whose power and knowledge he undercuts now and then—for a story of the time when people were coming to terms with the idea that there may not be an omniscient and omnipotent god.

What novel have you read and reread, finding more in it with each rereading?

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

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For once, I saw the film of this award-winning Young Adult book before reading the book itself. I’d taken an excellent workshop led by Rosoff, so when I saw the film listed, I decided to take a look. Only later did I follow up with reading the book, and was glad I did.

As the story begins, fifteen-year-old Daisy arrives in England, sent by her father and new stepmother to visit Aunt Penn, sister to Daisy’s mother who died when Daisy was born. The teen loathes her stepmother, who is pregnant, saying, “If she was making even the slightest attempt to address centuries of bad press for stepmother, she scored a Big Fat Zero.”

Daisy’s voice is the best thing about the book—surly, smart, funny and vulnerable. She’s met by her fourteen-year-old cousin Edmond, who is not only smoking a cigarette but has brought a “falling-apart” jeep in which he will drive her home.

Thus begins her adventures with her charmingly eccentric cousins in an old house in the countryside. Aunt Penn who is important in the government, leaves almost immediately “to give a lecture in Oslo . . . on the Imminent Threat of War.”

Daisy pays little attention to war-talk, since people had been yammering about the possibility for the last five years, though her oldest cousin Osbert can’t get enough of the latest news. She spends her days with Edmond, his twin Isaac, and their little sister Piper, and assorted dogs, goats and other animals. They fish and swim and picnic.

Then comes the invasion.

This is when the film blew me away. Watching it without knowing the story at all, I thought if a war came, it would be like the Land Girls or children being moved to the countryside during the Blitz, as in Lissa Evans’s Crooked Heart.

I was wrong. The images of rural England occupied by an enemy force—villages turned into military encampments, cars abandoned on country lanes for lack of petrol—shocked me deeply. And, to my shame, showed me just how superficial my empathy is for other countries trapped by warring armies: Sarajevo, Aleppo, so many others. Not England, I kept thinking.

Shameful, indeed.

I’m glad I went on to read the book. Not only is it more detailed and nuanced—movies must necessarily leave out much of what’s in a book—but Daisy’s voice is so true as she tries to keep her head above water, waters that get deeper and more treacherous as the story goes on. I felt I experienced every minute with her, every shifting emotion. We are all flawed beings; Daisy is no different, yet in rising to the occasion found an unexpected heroism. I felt privileged to spend these pages with her.

Have you read a book recently that showed you something new about yourself, perhaps something you’re not proud of?

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

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On a July evening in 1962, a young newlywed couple sits down to dinner in their hotel suite on the Dorset coast. Bound by convention, they continue eating a meal they do not want, their attention drawn to the bed in the next room. Edward and Florence, both nervous, reflect on how their love for each other has brought them to this moment.

It may be hard for those born after the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and the availability of the Pill to understand the repression and gamesmanship of the time that came before. What little Florence has heard about sex disgusts her, but she is determined to do her duty. Edward has had only one experience, which did not go well, and has been kept at arm’s length by his beloved throughout their courtship.

McEwan expertly builds the picture of the time period and of these two—one a student of history and the other an apparently gifted violinist—who come from different levels of society. And yet, as I’ve found with other of McEwan’s novels, this story is mostly an intellectual pleasure.

I keep reading his novels because they are so well-constructed and so well-written. Individual sentences sparkle and delight. Yet there is something about McEwan’s novels that leaves me cold and unsatisfied.

Maybe it’s the sense that they are more an exercise than a story. The chessboard is laid out with care, each element with its purpose. The theme here is interesting: what we don’t say or do; society’s constraints versus how we feel. I find moments I recognize—ones I thought no one else knew—like the first thrill, dark and irresistible, of loosing the angry words suppressed in a lifetime of good behavior.

The plot is clear and cogent, from the usual McEwan beginning with a surprising event that changes everyone’s lives. What’s different here is that the book goes back instead of forward from that event. Only at the very end comes a quick summary of the resulting future. It is also different because it’s about what doesn’t happen. No stranger comes in and changes everything.

The characters are also well-constructed. I found Florence a little unrealistic, that she could be so completely frigid sexually and yet such a remarkable and passionate violinist. I wondered if perhaps there was some early trauma. McEwan drops a couple of hints of possible abuse, but—much as I appreciate subtlety and being left to figure things out by myself—it’s too little to make a case. I read an interview later where McEwan said that he left a few clues but didn’t want to make it explicit. I don’t think that is fair to the reader.

In the end, though, I don’t care about what happens to the characters. They seem like puppets being moved around. The story doesn’t engage my emotions. However, McEwan does bring back that time vividly. I found myself thinking of the 1961 film Splendor in the Grass, and how clearly I recall it after all these decades. This book, on the other hand, is fading quickly.

Have you read a novel that you appreciated, even admired, but didn’t enjoy?

Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

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McGregor’s latest book is not for everyone. There are no car chases or spies or broken-down police detectives. There isn’t even a traditional protagonist. Reservoir 13 is the story of a village in the Peak District and its surrounding countryside. It’s a story about time, stretching over 13 years with each chapter covering a single year of the village’s life.

In quiet, exquisite prose, McGregor immerses us in this life. Holidays are celebrated, with fireworks at New Year’s and Guy Fawkes Day and a pantomime at Christmas. The agricultural life of the village goes on: haying, getting the cows in for their evening milking, looking for the sheep lost in a snowstorm. Hawthorne blooms; voles burrow under the hedges, fox cubs play outside their den.

Townspeople appear and reappear: a family who get called away from their sheep farm to rebuild bridges knocked out by storms and to do other heavy work around the village, a woman who is barely keeping her head above water caring for her autistic son, a man who visits his aging mother at Christmas and tries to avoid meeting up with his sisters, a woman who helps her elderly neighbor by walking his dog, and many more. In the course of the 13 years we follow children growing into their young adulthood, pairing off, breaking up, finding new loves.

At first I was afraid that I would have trouble following all these different characters, but in fact I had no problem keeping them straight. The author always provided small but necessary clues to remind me of who the person was and their relationship to others.

My only criticism of the book—and it is partially of the author and partly of the publisher—is that it begins with the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl. She and her parents, who are staying in the village over New Year’s, go for a walk and somehow get separated. By starting this way and by the promotional material, it sounds like it’s going to be a mystery, but it is not.

Instead, it is an examination in part—and only in part—of the effect of this event on the life of the town. As you can imagine, while the disappearance dominates the first year, over 13 years it begins to fade to an occasional memory, however much some individuals are changed by it.

The misleading description of the book as being about the girl’s disappearance sets up expectations that detract from the real pleasures to be found here. I almost came to see the disappearance as a clumsy attempt to start with a bang, in media res as we writers are advised to do. Yet nothing else here is clumsy.

I listened to this book. Some stories are better suited for audiobooks than others. I think I would have enjoyed reading it as well, but listening to it provided a sweet, almost trance-like pleasure. I started listening to it on a road trip but it was a little too quiet. However, during peaceful times at home or those sleepless hours in the middle of the night, it was exactly the right thing. I must have listened to it four times over by now. I even go back to chapters out of order now that I know the story. I never tire of it.

I love the rhythm of the year, the description of nature’s cycles, and the cycles of peoples lives: divorces, deaths, first loves. One of McGregor’s techniques to reinforce these cycles is to repeat certain phrases or sentences with slight variations. I love the image of the river that runs through town that turns over itself under the bridge and carries plumes of dirt over the weir. It reminds me of the quote from Heraclitus (as translated in my edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations) “You can’t step twice into the same river.” We see the four children we see grow into young adults trying to do just that as their own personal ritual. Another interpretation of Heraclitus’s thought

. . . is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound. It is that some things stay the same only by changing. One kind of long-lasting material reality exists by virtue of constant turnover in its constituent matter. Here constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected. A human body could be understood in precisely the same way, as living and continuing by virtue of constant metabolism–as Aristotle for instance later understood it. On this reading, Heraclitus believes in flux, but not as destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy, at least in some cases (and arguably in all).

McGregor’s remarkable story embodies this paradox. It is told in both linear and circular time—a remarkable achievement. The mystery here is not so much the disappearance of the girl, but the mystery of time, the center of this paradox of change and constancy.

This is not a book to rush through. It is a book to savor. it happens rarely, but sometimes I will read the first page of a book and think to myself: OK stop. You need to slow down and take your time and enjoy every second of reading this book. It almost never happens, but it did with this book.

Have you read a book that you just want to read over and over?

The Flight of the Maidens, by Jane Gardam

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Recently I encouraged my new book club to read Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, a book which I enjoyed tremendously. Some people in the book club enjoyed it, but a couple of others said that they were put off by it and skimmed over it to read the ending. They said that because it was the story of a 13-year-old girl, they felt that they had lived through that stage and suffered that angst and did not want to relive it. I was surprised because part of why I loved the story so much was that I identified so strongly with the protagonist. I loved her imagination and could certainly identify with her struggles with her sister.

I expect that those same book club members would not enjoy this novel by Jane Gardam. It is the story of three young women who are a little older at 18. As it begins, they have just learned that not only have they gotten into the excellent universities to which they have applied, but they have received the state grants that will enable them to attend. The story then covers the two months as they prepare to leave home.

This is a remarkable time, this time of disentangling oneself from parents and childhood friends. Even more terrifying and exciting is that in this liminal space you can determine who you want to be, now that you have this great opportunity to present yourself as a different person to the world.

When you go off to school, where no one knows you, you can leave behind the person you’ve been for 18 years. Gardam’s choice of time period adds to the uncertainty: it’s 1946; the Second World War has only been over for a year; and everyone is adjusting to the new nuclear reality and the shocking news from Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz.

Hefty has decided that at university she will be called by her full name Hester. She’s eager to escape from her clinging intrusive mother, whom she cannot help but love, just as she loves her father, who was greatly damaged in World War I. Once a promising scholar, he now digs graves and wanders about.

Her brilliant best friend Una has become a bit more distant this year, since Hetty took up with—and became engaged to—a pleasant milquetoast of a man. Una has been spending much of her time with her longtime friend Ray, once the fish boy and now working for the railroad. Una and Ray are mad for cycling but curiously silent with each other. Una’s mother operates a run-down hair salon in their home and has a hap-hazard approach to parenting

The third girl is Leiselotte, a German Jew brought to England in the 1939 kindertransport and placed with a Quaker couple. She has not been notified of her parents’ fate all these seven years. A quiet girl, who spends her free time knitting, she has kept to herself up till now, but is thrown together with Una and Hetty by their awards.

Like my friends I remember only too clearly that time of my life and at first was not sure that I wanted to relive it. However, I have been charmed by many of Jane Gardam’s novels and had great faith that she would intrigue me. I was not disappointed. Gardam fills out the cast with marvelously eccentric English characters and, as always, her prose is acerbic enough to offset any incipient nostalgia for the past.

I was most intrigued by the push-pull between the girls and their families at a time when it was unusual for girls to go off to university. With humor and insight, Gardam navigates these subtle currents of love and independence.

Does the age of the protagonist make a difference when you are choosing what to read next?

White Dog, by Romain Gary

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A friend loaned me this out-of-print book after we’d had a discussion about race in the United States. The story takes place in 1968 and was published two years later in France and the U.S.

A Russian émigré to France, Gary was at that time the French consul general, living in Los Angeles with his wife, actress and civil rights activist Jean Seberg, their son and several pets.

One day their sweet-natured dog brings home a new friend, a German Shepherd who seems not only gentle but extremely intelligent. All goes well until a man arrives to clean the pool—a man who happens to be black—and the dog erupts into a vicious rage.

Gary eventually discovers that this dog whom he loves and who adores him is in fact a white dog, that is, a dog who has been trained and bred to attack black people and only black people. Such dogs were used at the time by law enforcement in the South, and also as protection by whites who feared a violent black uprising—a possibility that was certainly in the air in 1968.

Though he claims to be a cynical man, Gary is seized by a rare moment of hope and resolves to train the dog not to hate anymore. Perhaps he can prove that social behavior can be unlearned, not just by this dog, but by the country itself, which has been seized by paroxysms of rage, rocked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the resulting riots.

He takes the dog to a ranch owned by a friend of his who trains animals for the movies. A black keeper there, who is expert at milking venom from snakes, makes retraining the dog his personal mission.

Gary brings a European perspective to the issues of race that were roiling the country in 1968, a time I remember only too well. Mocking non-violent activists, he circles around the idea of violence as a solution. One of his close friends is black Muslim leader calling for war against the whites—the real thing, not a metaphor. At the same time, Gary mocks the liberals—including his wife who’s become involved with funding the Black Panthers—for their posturing and ineffectual swipes at the problem.

He is not ashamed to reveal his proclivity for running away from difficult situations and spends much of the book traveling. At one point he returns to Paris in time to egg on the students rioting in the streets.

I was dismayed to discover that this supposed memoir is in fact something Gary called a fictionalized memoir. To my mind, there is no such thing. Memoirs are nonfiction, so if it is fiction then it is not a memoir.

Deliberately fictionalizing things in what is supposed to be a memoir does a disservice to all memoirs. Their power comes from the fact that they are true. Certainly it is a particular person’s truth—and we all know how different that can be from one person to another—and they have been shaped by what is included and what is left out. Still, they carry the force of personal witness.

My opinion of this book went down when I learned that it was not true. I am not alone in my dismay at the mixing of fiction and memoir. Look at the howl of betrayal over James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.

Still, it was enlightening to revisit that explosive year, and to compare it to today’s social justice movements.

Have you read a book, seen a film, or attended a lecture that has given you a different perspective on issues around race?

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, by Toni Morrison

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Published in 1992 but still relevant today, this work of literary criticism looks at how writers create characters different from themselves, specifically how white writers use black characters in their work. As a writer she must imagine others and, thinking about that process, she became curious as to how black characters are portrayed in the U.S. literary canon, which at the time was almost exclusively white.

Morrison also looks at the effect on the work of these white writers as they pretend that race is not a factor in their work. “What became transparent were the self-evident ways that Americans choose to talk about themselves through and within sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence.”

Applying this new critical approach, Morrison describes the deliberately constructed Africanist persona and how it functions in the American literary imagination, examining works by Faulkner, William Styron, Hemingway, and others.

She looks at the silence around race, for example, in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew and the lack of critical attention to the black woman who is the agent of moral choice in that novel. In Willa Cather’s story “Sapphira and the Slave Girl”, Morrison’s reading of race shows Sapphira not so much a cruel mistress as a desperate and disappointed woman whose social superiority is the only thing she has left to validate her self-image.

Examining American literature through this lens is fascinating. Morrison looks at the way authors such as Melville and Twain use the image of a slave population to investigate problems of human freedom and the fear of failure or powerlessness in white people. She shows how these authors relocate internal conflicts to slaves whose voices are silent.

These speculations have led me to wonder whether the major and championed characteristics of our national literature—individualism, masculinity, social engagement versus historical isolation; acute and ambiguous moral problematics; the thematics of innocence coupled with an obsession with figuration of death and hell—are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding signing Africanist presence. It has occurred to me that the very manner by which American literature distinguishes itself as a coherent entity exists because of this unsettled and unsettling population.

She also points out the troubling discrepancy between the fearful and haunted early American literature—Hawthorne, Poe, etc.—and the American dream of a city on a hill.

In addition to offering an allegorical foundation for major themes of American literature such as autonomy, absolute power, and freedom itself, Morrison suggests that this Africanist imagery “provided the staging ground and arena for the elaboration of the quintessential American identity.”

To me, her discussion sheds new light on today’s concerns about cultural appropriation. I am sympathetic to all sides : the writer’s need to tell the story she is passionate about, the importance of not preempting marginalized voices, and the necessity of having more diversity both in our reading and in our writers.

Have you read something or seen a lecture that gave you new insight into the books you’ve read?

Northanger Abbey, by Val McDermid

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How could I resist this book? I have long been a Jane Austen fan. Northanger Abbey may be my least favorite of her works, but it is still an enjoyable display of Austin’s satirical wit. I admit, though, that I’ve gotten a little tired of modern adaptations of Austen’s novels. I’m not a purist, but there are many books in my to-be-read pile, and I had been feeling that enough was enough.

What intrigued me here was Val McDermid’s name. I’m also a big fan of her crime novels: meticulously plotted, believable characters, satisfyingly dark and twisty, her mysteries set me puzzling through the clues while thoroughly immersed in the human dramas. Already pondering how Austen’s story could be updated to the modern day, I was further intrigued by the addition of this fabulously dark crime writer to the mix.

In Austen’s story, naïve Catherine Moreland goes with family friends to Bath to get her feet wet in the social season there. She is led astray by her worldly new friend Isabella Thorpe who introduces her to Gothic novels. They quickly become an addiction for Catherine. Isabella’s brother John, believing Catherine to be an heiress, makes a big play for her. At the same time, Catherine has met and become attracted to quiet clergyman Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor. Thus, she finds herself pulled between the two families while coming to see the world through a Gothic lens.

Austen’s send-up of the then-new craze for Gothic novels is fun and witty, though a bit weak on plot and—at least for me—sufficiently complex characters. I could never quite believe the way Catherine is forgiven at the end of the book.

So I was curious to see how McDermid would translate this story into the modern day. There’s still plenty of naïveté to go around, even today with our sophisticated teens, and young women are still looking for the right man, even if not for the practical reasons common in Austin’s day. No problem there, but what about the rest?

McDermid cleverly sets her story in Edinburgh during Festival time, certainly as much of a social crush as Bath in Austen’s time. Her Cat Moreland is introduced to novels such as Twilight by her new friend Bella Thorpe, and Cat’s romantic fantasies begin to include sexy vampires along with the serious lawyer Henry Tilney. Communication is by text and Facebook rather than letters, though in the four years since this book was published, endlessly posting selfies to FaceBook seems to have waned among the young.

While these equivalencies are fun to enumerate, what’s amazing is the seamless way they are integrated into a story that closely follows the original, while standing just fine on its own. There’s plenty of satirical wit and lots of in-jokes too.

It’s a tour-de-force. Though I started out reading analytically, I quickly became absorbed in the story itself. I found the twists and turns quite satisfying, sufficiently different from Austen’s, while still appropriate for today, to delight me with their ingenuity.

Why would McDermid, a successful crime writer, take on such a project? Most of the writers I know like to challenge themselves. Perhaps they try a different genre or a different technique. They are constantly trying to improve their skills, no matter how successful they already are. Too, I believe that it is the project that terrifies you, the one you aren’t sure you’re up to but believe in your bones that you must write that becomes the most successful. The passion that you bring to it and the way you must dig deeply to rise to the challenge make it your best work.

Kudos to McDermid for a job well done!

Have you read an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel that you thought was particularly successful?

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

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Mary Anning lived for her whole short life in Lyme Regis on the south coast of England. Born into a working-class family—her father was a cabinet-maker—Mary started while still a small child helping with the family’s sideline of gathering fossils from the cliffs that stretched along the shore. These were sold to tourists for much-needed income.

As a child, Mary’s claim to local fame was that she had been struck by lightning while only a little over a year old and survived, unlike the woman holding her or the two other children nearby. Chevalier imaginatively uses this incident as a source of much that is different about Mary, such as her remarkable eye for spotting fossils.

Chevalier’s novel is historical fiction, but Anning was a real person who lived during the first half of the 19th century. So was Elizabeth Philpot, a lady of limited means who moved with her sisters to Lyme Regis. While looking for the pretty stones she did not yet realise were fossils, Elizabeth became friends with young Mary even though she was 20 years older.

The story is really about their friendship, a peculiar one not only because of the difference in their ages and circumstances, but because of their shared rejection of the customs of the day. Climbing around on the cliffs digging out fossils and reading scientific treatises about them were not approved activities for women of any class. Mary taught Elizabeth how to recognize fossils in the shale and limestone of the cliffs, while Elizabeth taught her how to read and write and also shared with her the scientific papers that she found.

Gathering fossils was dangerous work because the cliffs were unstable. As the ground crumbled during storms, new fossils were exposed, but the two women were always in danger of being buried by a landslide. It was also dangerous because at the time the very existence of fossils was disputed because they repudiated the prevalent literal understanding of the Bible by suggesting not only that the earth might not have been created in a handful of days, but also that God may have allowed some of his creatures to die out. At that time it was believed that God watched over his creatures and could not have made a mistake or allowed any of them to become extinct.

Completely self-taught, Anning became a significant figure in the history of science. We follow her footsteps as she discovers an ichthyosaur skeleton—she was the first to suggest that it was not a crocodile, but something that must have lived long ago—as well as two complete plesiosaur skeletons and a pterosaur skeleton. She and Elizabeth also find important fish fossils. Elizabeth’s significant contributions later led her nephew to build a museum originally named after who her that later became the Lyme Regis Museum. Part of her collection is in the Oxford Museum of Natural History.

Amateur fossil hunters and prominent geologists of the day not only consulted Anning, and but also asked her to lead them on fossil hunting expeditions on the cliffs. Some of the men whom she helped took credit for her, finds but towards the end of her life this misrepresentation was corrected and her accomplishments began to be recognized.

While I’m delighted to have these two foremothers’ stories brought out of obscurity and introduced to a popular audience, I do have some qualms about historical fiction in general. Because so little is known about the details of their lives, there is ample room for a novelist’s imagination.

However, when we are talking about two women who actually lived, I have reservations about taking the liberty of adding to their stories. We can guess at their likely motivations, but the author herself admits that she made up some events that I believe the women would not thank her for. Of course, after we’re dead and have no one to speak for us, we have no control over our own stories. At least Anning has not been featured in a commercial dancing with a vacuum cleaner like Fred Astaire.

Still, Chevalier has done a great deal of research and written an engaging book. She has also done a great service in bringing out the inspiring story of these two women.

Have you recently learned about an area of women’s history that was new to you, perhaps through a book or a film?