A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

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Writers agonise over the first sentence of their novels, relentlessly reminded that it is critical to gaining the reader’s attention. The first sentence of this novel couldn’t be simpler:

Hi!

What better way to begin the dialogue between the characters and the reader, between ultimately the writer and the reader?

The speaker, whom we will later learn is a 16-year-old Japanese schoolgirl, immediately launches the sort of questions one might ask any new acquaintance, interspersed with her own answers. The first question, though, is odd; she asks us if we know what a “time being” is.

Thus we know right off that we are immersed in a story where words and phrases hold multiple means and can change chameleon-like depending on their context. We get further proof when we learn the young woman’s name: Nao, pronounced “now”.

Her first-person narrative is interspersed with the third-person narrative of an older woman, who finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach of the island in the Pacific Northwest where she lives with her husband Oliver. The woman, who is half-Japanese, is named Ruth, again a name with multiple meanings of her name not to mention the difficult pronunciation for speakers of Japanese.

The two stories intertwine as Ruth reads Nao’s journal, which is in the lunchbox along with some letters written in an outdated form of Japanese and another journal in French.

Nao’s voice is a stunning evocation of a teenaged girl’s idiom and headlong approach to handling her problems. The way she talks to her father, whom she blames for many of her problems, took me back to my own teen years and my fraught relationship with my parents. Ozeki manages to find a way to take us into Nao’s world and to make us care about her, despite what in other hands could be clichéd teen angst.

While I enjoyed Nao’s sections, I found myself most interested in Ruth’s story, perhaps because she is closer to me in age. Her tale is more nuanced, more complex. Ruth’s ways of dealing with her outsider status, her marriage, and her curiosity about Nao reveal a depth and care that I found irresistible. She sets out to learn about the letters and French journal, while also looking for proof that Nao is a real person.

Both stories are engaging and thought-provoking. This is a book about language and communication and ambiguity. Most of all it is a meditation about time. In the last third of the book, concepts of time and quantum theory begin to be reflected in the story, adding a further dimension of interest.

Everyone in my book club loved this book, a rare show of unanimity. We found much to discuss, particularly about the various parallels of character and plot, and about time itself.

Are you in a book club? Has your group read a book recently which everyone loved?

A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, by Linda Schele and David Freidel

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Published in 1990, Schele and Freidel’s book draws on then-recent archeological and linguistic discoveries to paint a new portrait of the Mayan civilisation. While both emphasise that their work draws on past work and more recent collaborative efforts with others, their own experience and expertise adds authoritative weight to this book.

Then an art teacher, Schele first encountered the Mayan ruins as a tourist in 1970. Inspired by what she found there, she spent the next decades working with others to decipher the hieroglyphics on the remaining monuments. She says in the Prologue, “I had the understand how, why, when, and who had made these things.” The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs and drawings of the art, often with direct translations of the hieroglyphics.

Freidel brings an archeologist’s viewpoint. His first visit to the area was in 1971. He says, “I wanted to know what the relationship was between political power and religious belief among the ancient Maya.” This sociological approach, combined with the evidence derived from the translations, gives us factual descriptions interspersed with vignettes that enable us to participate in the daily life of these ancient peoples.

The Mayan civilisation lasted for thousands of years, starting from around 2,000 BC until the Spanish conquest in 1,697 CE. The account in this book takes us through the various phases of this civilisation, which was located in the Yucatan peninsula. The authors are careful to identify when they are speculating (and on what evidence) and when they are working from reliable information drawn both from the record left behind by the Mayans and from accounts left by other Mesoamerican peoples and the Spanish themselves.

Of course, there are still Mayan descendants, despite efforts by the Spanish to destroy their language and history and their subjugation by later groups. One of the most touching moments in the book comes when Schele gave a workshop to forty Maya men and women, helping them learn how to translate their own historical texts for the first time.

What I, as a reader and writer, loved most in this book was the extent to which the civilisation was built on literacy. I had not realised that these stone monuments were actually historical texts, nor how sophisticated the language, imagery, and ritual were.

When literacy began to fail, the civilisation faltered. While the near-simultaneous collapse of the Classic Mayan Civilisation in the 9th century CE continues to be an intriguing mystery, the authors are able to identify some factors. After that point, no more engravings were created. Literacy was “abandoned” along with the belief in their kings that had been their guiding philosophy. The authors see a strong correlation between the collapse and the failure of “historical kingship”, the long dynasties of kings memorialised in the monuments we see today.

One factor that resonated with me was income inequality. As the kingdoms prospered, a wealthy elite grew up who not only challenged the king’s power but hogged resources. In some kingdoms, where population growth exceeded the agricultural capacity, income inequality exacerbated the problem, with the elite building palaces on arable land and, based on physical evidence, having plenty to eat while everyone else starved.

Another factor that resonated was the endless warfare, with each kingdom trying to grab more territory. Proving himself a powerful warrior was essential to a king’s power.

After the collapse, a few small kingdoms rose in the southern regions who tried to claim kinship with the great kings of the past, as well as communities that “eschewed royal history”. In the north, there emerged “a cyclic form of government in which power became centralized at one regional capital, then dissolved to re-form elsewhere.” Small states continued to bicker amongst themselves until the Spanish arrived.

The lengthy footnotes, maps, glossary and bibliography testify to the amount of research that went into creating this clear and readable account of a vanished civilisation. This book is a great introduction to that world.

Have you ever visited the Mayan ruins or been curious about their civilisation?

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

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This was exactly the book I needed to read right now! I’ve tried to read it before and given up after twenty or so pages, bored by the lack of a story question and disliking the characters. Still, my friends persisted in telling me that it was a great book and I would love it. They were right.

We start with the story of a notary sailing from the Chatham Islands home to California in 1850. His travails with the rough sailors and their captain are somewhat ameliorated by his friendship with a doctor who promises to cure him of his rare disease. From there we move to the story of an irresponsible young composer in 1931 Belgium, who has wasted his inheritance and tricked his way into the home of an aging and infirm yet still famous composer. Then we are on to others, moving forward in time to the present and beyond.

The structure reminds me of “Menelaiad”, a short story by John Barth. As we go further into the nested tales, the sequence of quotation marks increases. Then as we go back out they decrease. I once heard him read the story and he used a flip chart to show the growing series of quotations marks and then flipping back as we came out. I don’t want to pre-empt your own discovery of how Mitchell’s structure fits this story, so will not say more, only that you will not be disappointed.

Each of Mitchell’s eras is written in a different style: a journal, an epistolary novel, a genre mystery, etc. It’s masterful writing! Ian McEwan did something similar in Atonement, writing each section in a style that reflects a popular literary style of the period.

Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Mitchell story takes things—ideas, trends, prejudices, movements—that we can see happening in our society today and carries them to a logical outcome, with an equally terrifying result. There was nothing in here that made me think, “That will never happen.”

I don’t want to give too much away. I can only tell you that I came away feeling both frightened and reinvigorated. More confident than ever in my path, I set aside discouragement and depression and put my shoulder to the wheel again. Thank you, David Mitchell. I will never forget what you have done here.

Is there a book—fiction or nonfiction—that you’ve read that gave you courage?

The Ministry of Fear, by Graham Greene

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Author of over 25 novels, Greene brought his complex view of human nature to whatever genre he chose as his starting place. While he famously separated his oeuvre into serious novels and “entertainments”, he nevertheless imbued even the lightest of stories with a dark undercurrent of moral ambiguity. While he is often called a Catholic writer since several of his novels feature protagonists and themes that are overtly Catholic, Greene took his exploration of moral issues well beyond Catholic doctrine.

This early novel, published in 1945, is a thriller which employs the now-common trope of an ordinary man stumbling into a morass of international intrigue. He has to figure out what is going on while trying to rescue himself (and usually another; oh, and possibly the world).

In wartime London, Arthur Rowe impulsively attends a church fête, drawn by memories of his innocent childhood. It’s a rather sad affair, with few booths, but some of his anxieties are eased as he tries the games. He makes a wild guess at the weight of cake, said to have been made with real eggs, before ducking into the fortune teller’s booth. He ends up walking away with the cake.

It is not an ordinary cake, though, and Arthur is not exactly an ordinary man. He’s been living a half-hearted life in a rooming house since his release from prison where he’d been sent for the mercy killing of his beloved but ill wife.

He is pursued by the people involved with the cake, though he only gradually begins to understand his danger. The kaleidoscope shifts constantly as he tries to determine who to trust and what their motivations are. Even identities shift constantly. The stakes are raised as he is dragged from his self-imposed isolation and begins to care about others.

Greene reflects Rowe’s dilemma in two opposing forces. The first is the Blitz. The nightly bombing raids not only ratchet up everyone’s anxiety level but also continually rearrange the fabric of their lives. Buildings disappear; streets are rerouted. If you turn a corner, the street may or may not be passable. If you call someone, the phone may or may not ring. If you go to their home, the house may or may not be there. People abandon their bedrooms to sleep in shelters.

The second is a children’s book, The Little Duke, by Charlotte M. Yonge, which Rowe also carries home from the fête. In the story young Richard of Normandy becomes the duke when his father is killed. He must learn whom to trust: those who flatter and cajole him or his father’s trusted lieutenants who tell him hard truths. He is betrayed and kidnapped, yet his trials teach him to do what is right; he learns how to be both brave and gentle. Although some of his people are puzzled when he forgives his enemies, they love the little duke for it and support him without fail.

While not didactic, the story is obviously meant to be instructive, with its themes of honor and glory: that maintaining your honor by doing good will bring you glory in war and in the hearts of your countrymen.

Such childish illusions were shattered in the trenches of the Great War, and shattered again for a new generation in the war against fascism that is the setting for Greene’s story. A more nuanced understanding of good and evil is required.

Like Rowe, we are asked to leave behind the comfortable certainties of childhood to navigate this adult world where everyone has secrets and reality is always shifting. As Yonge put it, we must find “the only safe way across the morass, and a very slippery, treacherous, quaking road it was.” The tension that is created between the broken and uncertain present and the sweet simplicity of the past amplifies Rowe’s predicament. And what could be more relevant to the situation we find ourselves in today?

Also relevant is the title, which refers to one way Germans are said to control the fifth columnists working against England in the war. They come up with something on them, forgive it, and then control them with the threat of blackmail. As one character explains, “‘They formed, you know, a kind of Ministry of Fear—with the most efficient under-secretaries. It isn’t only that they get a hold on certain people. It’s the general atmosphere they spread, so that you can’t depend on a soul.’”

These days it is hard not to look around and wonder who is being paid or blackmailed, if the people in power are taking orders from our enemies and selling out their country. Amid threats and firings and lies, we must stand up to the Ministry of Fear that threatens our fragile covenant.

Have you read anything by Graham Greene? He was one of the most popular novelists of the 20th century. Do you find his work relevant to today’s world?

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

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As most people know by now, the protagonist of this popular, award-winning novel is Cora, a young slave on the Randall plantation in pre-Civil War Georgia. After experiencing the brutality of Cora’s life there, the reader might think Cora would jump at the idea of escape, but we understand her reluctance when we see how recaptured slaves are tortured. Eventually, though, a slave newly arrived from Virginia persuades Cora to run away with him. He’s made contact with the underground railroad, which contrary to popular wisdom extends into Georgia.

Of course, the real underground railroad did not reach Georgia, so we quickly learn that the author is going to play fast and loose with the truth. Depicting the railroad as real trains running through real tunnels under the ground is only the most famous of the fantasies in this book. Among other things, skyscrapers and the Tuskegee Airmen appear a hundred years early, and the dreams of the American Colonization Society are imagined as having been made into law in North Carolina.

I realise this is fiction and recognise the metaphorical weight of these unreal elements.

Still, I wish the author had added an afterword separating what was real from what was false. It is disturbing that some readers will take much of this as fact. Even worse, given so much that is exaggerated or false, other readers will question the book’s brutal depiction of slavery. There are plenty of people in the U.S. who believe the false narrative that slaves were treated well and were happy in their work. While this is powerfully refuted by the book, especially the part on the plantation, it won’t help if people decide that it, too, is exaggerated.

Many in my book club disagreed with me, asserting that it was fiction so we shouldn’t have any expectation that it would conform with reality. Some also disagreed with me about Cora herself. I didn’t feel as though she came alive as a character. She seemed to me a cipher, deliberately empty so that the reader could imagine ourselves into that space, while they found her distinctly individual and realistic.

If I thought that Cora and all of the other characters could have been more fleshed out, I have nothing but admiration for Whitehead’s world-building. He brought each place and its culture to life such that they still linger in my memory. From the first page to the last, Cora’s life depends on her ability to suss out each new environment she enters, uncovering its secrets, identifying the dangers and guessing who can be trusted. As I traveled with her, I understood a tiny bit better what it must feel like, even today, to walk the streets—and drive the highways—as a person of color. Such an expansion of empathy is one of the greatest gifts of fiction, as I’ve said before.

I thought the book powerful and gruesome. Although I appreciated it more on an intellectual level than an emotional one, I find myself pondering many of its ideas. I think about the alternate forms of communication among the powerless and the fierce hold of an obsession. I think about the great cost of one person’s push for freedom and the stories that we would like to tell about ourselves. I think about the blood and injustice upon which this country was founded.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Life Upon the Wicked Stage, by Grace Cavalieri

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In my memoir classes I stress that there are different reasons for writing a memoir. You can write a memoir as therapy, to help deal with a traumatic event or period of your life. You can write one for your family. I wish my mother had left more than a few pages about her childhood; now that she is gone I wish I knew more about the rest of her life and had a record of her oft-repeated anecdotes. Or you can write a memoir for a larger audience, a story that addresses some larger issue that will be of interest even to people who do not know you.

I go on to say that only the last sort of memoir is eligible for publication, since that is the only one designed for a larger audience. But Cavalieri’s new memoir proves me wrong.

She clearly states on the first page that she is writing “a catalogue of what I’ve done, where I’ve been in my career so our daughters, Cindy, Colleen, Shelley and Angel, will have a chronology.” The chapters that follow are not actually in chronological order or, as far as I can tell, any sort of thematic order. They are brief tales of her professional life as a playwright, teacher, broadcaster, and poet interspersed with memories of her beloved husband Ken and a little about her parents and grandparents.

Why does this family memoir work so well for a wider audience? One reason is that those of us who read, write and love poetry and drama are all part of Cavalieri’s family. In addition to writing many plays, she worked for PBS in the early days of children’s programming, founded and co-founded independent presses, worked as a book editor, and taught writing. Today she is best known for “Exemplars”, her monthly poetry feature for the Washington Independent Review of Books, and for “The Poet and the Poem”, a radio interview program from the Library of Congress. Cavalieri is also celebrated for her unfailing support of poetry and her generosity to other poets (including me, whose book Terrarium she reviewed in “Exemplars”).

Another reason to enjoy this book is her insider’s description of the worlds of drama and poetry, including tales of the poets laureate she’s met and interviewed. I was especially intrigued by her depiction of her early days writing poetry when she had to persuade the 1960’s literary community in Washington, D.C. that yes, a suburban housewife could indeed be a poet.

And the writing itself is reason alone for plunging into this memoir. Cavalieri quickly brings people and places to life. Her straightforward prose carries emotional weight. Best of all, many of the chapters include a poem of hers about the same events or people. She’s the only other person I know of who starts with a poem and may then expand the idea into a prose piece. I will also sometimes go in the other direction: if I get bogged down in a story, I’ll write it as a short poem, an exercise that helps me get to the heart of the story.

As well as many reasons to write a memoir, there are many ways to do so. You can write a memoir, as I did in Innocent, that has an overall narrative arc like a novel. You can arrange your pieces according to themes, as Vladimir Nabokov did in Speak, Memory. You can put fragments together in such a way as to create a mosaic, as Denise Levertov did in Tesserae.

Or you can arrange your chapters in a way that seems right to you. Although I cannot discern a pattern here, I have to say that the chapters flow seamlessly. I especially like the combination of prose and poetry. I’ve seen this done before, but never so well.

I’m glad to know more of Cavalieri’s life and achievements and grateful that with this book she’s shown me yet another way to write a memoir and reason for publishing it.

What memoir have you read that impressed you?

Mary, by Vladimir Nabokov

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Mary (Mashenka) is Nabokov’s first novel, written in his mid-twenties while he and his wife Vera were living in Berlin. It is brief, what we would consider a novella today, and has some the characteristics we have come to expect from first novels.

Lev Glebovich Ganin is a 25-year-old Russian émigré living in a pension in Berlin, nostalgic for his lost country, and unsure what to do next. It is hard not to suspect autobiographical parallels.

The year is 1924, early in the Weimar Republic, but Ganin’s Berlin bears no trace of the gaudy gaiety I associate with that time. Instead, the city and its inhabitants are depicted as tawdry and unattractive, even repulsive. The unsubtle piling on of dingy details seems overdone, not unusual in a novice writer.

Ganin wants to move on, calling it “nostalgia in reverse, the longing for yet another strange land,” but he is marooned by depression. In the first scene Ganin and the new arrival to the pension, Alfyorov, are stuck in the elevator. Later in his career, I’m sure Nabokov would have left it up to us to see the connection, but here he makes it explicit. Alfyorov says:

“Don’t you think there’s something symbolic in our meeting like this, Lev Glebovich?” . . .

“What’s symbolic about it?” Ganin asked gloomily.

“Well, the fact that we’ve stopped, motionless, in this darkness.”

At one point Ganin cannot even rise from the chair in his room, “powerless because he had no precise desire” yet “vainly seeking something to desire.” That something is provided by Alfyorov who, unable to leave any thought unspoken, tells Ganin that his wife Mary is arriving on Saturday. His description of Mary prompts Ganin to decide that mysteriously, miraculously, this Mary must be his own lost love, their last contact some letters while he was at the front.

Nabokov uses an omniscient point of view, staying mostly with Ganin, but sometimes moving from one character’s thoughts to another’s, even within the same paragraph. Today we call that head-hopping and consider it a beginning writer’s mistake because it is disorienting for the reader, but I believe it was not uncommon at the time this novel was written. It’s been a while since I’ve read Nabokov’s later novels but remember them as staying closely with the protagonist.

Yet even with these marks of a first novel I can trace qualities I’ll value in the later books, especially the theme of memory and the delicate interweaving of past and present. Ganin and his Mary’s past is gradually revealed, as he continues to interact with Alfyorov and the pension’s other occupants. In particular, he tries to help the elderly poet Podtyagin obtain the passport and visas he needs to go to Paris. Through these interactions some sweetness and generosity begins to shade these characters and the story becomes more complex and intriguing.

This copy was given to me by my friend Hayley. It’s part of Penguin’s series on Great Loves. From the back copy, it seems they included it because of Ganin’s attachment to Mary, his first love. While that drives the plot, a stronger love here is for his lost country. Ganin’s reminiscences contain less detail about Mary than about the places where they met: a boat poled on the river amid fir and mimosa, the pavilion with its diamond-shaped panes of colored glass, the terrace of a deserted mansion shaded by lime trees.

Proust wrote, “les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus” which, while open to discussion, Scott Moncrieff translated as “The true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.” Nabokov’s loss of the paradise of his youth and the theme of memory are constants in his work. In contrast, Berlin had to seem unvaryingly dark and ugly.

What paradises have you lost?

Fear of the Dark, by Walter Mosely

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Mosely’s fans know that his many novels, including the Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones mysteries, are rousing adventures that navigate the liminal areas that lie in the shadow of good and evil, guilt and innocence. While we race along with the narrator, trying to avoid danger and death while figuring out just what is going on and what to do about it, we are testing our own moral code.

This addition to the Fearless Jones collection is narrated by Fearless’s friend Paris Minton, bookstore owner and ferocious reader. Most of Paris’s problems follow visits from his cousin Ulysses “Useless” Grant, a petty crook who spreads trouble in his wake. Although Paris turns Useless away at the door, refusing to help him, trouble comes in the door anyway. Luckily Paris can turn to his friend Fearless—a man Paris says is “outside the law” and “stronger of thew and character than any other man I had ever met.”

For me, the great joy and value of fiction—all fiction, highbrow or lowbrow, genre or literary, ebook or audio, text or graphic novel—is the chance to live someone else’s life. In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains the biology behind our deep-rooted desire for virtual adventures: stories are how we learn about the world and test our abilities. Most of all, to my mind, they increase our empathy by enabling us to see the world through someone else’s eyes and by forcing us to fill in the gaps with our own emotions and experiences.

Walter Mosely’s novels let me encounter the world as a black man, an especially difficult and valuable stretch for me. This particular book is set in Los Angeles of the 1950s: not the easiest time to be a black man in this country. Without disrupting the flow of the story or preaching, Mosely gently reminds us of just how different life was and is for a black man than for someone, say, like me.

The most explicit moment comes when Paris comes upon a white man lying dead on the bookstore floor. He calls Fearless for help, and he brings a friend to help dispose of the body. Paris says:

There I was, in a truck with desperate men. I was a desperate man. It was hard to believe that a milquetoast coward like myself could be involved in such a clandestine and dangerous operation. But the reasons were as clear as the quarter moon shining through the windshield.

All three of us were living according to black people’s law. The minute I came upon that white boy’s body I knew that I would be seen as guilty in the eyes of American justice. Not even that—I was guilty. There was no jury that would exonerate me. There was no court of appeals that would hear my cries of innocence.

I wasn’t a brave man like Fearless or a born criminal like Van Cleave, but we all belonged in that truck together. We had been put there by a long and unremitting history. My guilt was my skin, and where that brought me had nothing to do with choice or justice or the whole library of books I had read.

This is not empty polemic. It is a necessary explanation of why Paris doesn’t just call the police when he finds a dead body on his property. It is why this quiet man gets drawn into the dangerous currents of the criminal underworld.

Being such a big reader explains Paris’s voice being a little more florid than today’s readers might be accustomed to. One area where I particularly noticed his voice was in the descriptions of every character, even the most minor walk-on extra. As David Corbett points out in a recent blog post, “the ability to describe the human face in fiction seems to be, if not a dying art, at least in a state of decline, even indifference.”

In this story Mosely mixes it up. He makes use of faces, posture, clothing and behavior to bring his characters memorably to life. Here are some examples:

Jessa was wearing an orange sundress that had little white buttons all the way down the front. The collar had a little dirt on it. Her red purse was scuffed.

Mona was a beautiful young woman. She was Negro and she was brown, but the brown mixed with gray everywhere in her appearance. Her skin was touched by it; her eyes sometimes shone with lunar possibilities. Even her hair seemed to be lightened by the midtone color.

Rinaldo had copper skin and slicked-back hair that did not seem straightened. He was missing one tooth and stood and walked in a hunched-over posture that he blamed on forty years leaning over pool tables.

Cleetus Rome, an elderly white man, . . . was old and toothless. He smelled something like dust or maybe even loam and he always bought magazines from me that had swimsuit models on the covers.

I was especially interested in the different ways Mosely describes skin color. He never falls back on the overused “coffee” or “mocha” but instead imagines the particular tone of a character’s skin.

As a writer and as a person I am learning a lot from this book. Even after providing an exciting read, it continues to reward further study.

Have you read a mystery or thriller that transported you to another world?

The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel

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Subtitled “A Life of the Genius Ramanujan”, tthis dual biography tells the story of one of the world’s greatest mathematicians and the man whose support made him known to the world. Their stories raise questions pertinent to today’s societies about prejudice, privilege and education.

Ramanujan was born in southern India 1887. Although his family was Brahmin, they were not wealthy. Ramanujan’s mother treated him like a little prince, probably in part because he was her only child until he was ten. From his first experience with school at age five, he rebelled against its teachers and rules. “Even as a child, he was so self-directed that, it was fair to say, unless he was ready to do something on his own, in his own time, he was scarcely capable of doing it at all.”

Anyone with a gifted child in a bureaucratic school can recognise this situation, but Ramanujan’s gifts were so extraordinary that, once he discovered mathematics, he could not bring himself to work on anything else. As a result, he failed the all-important exam which dictated who could go to university.

Kanigel’s story details Ramanujan’s obsession with mathematics and subsequent struggle for recognition and for the means to support himself and his family. By the time Ramanujan came to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a result of a letter to G. H. Hardy, he’d reinvented much of the then-current mathematical theory that hadn’t been available to him at home and gone far beyond it. Even today mathematicians are building entire careers working on portions of the book of theorems he brought with him to England.

Caught by the Great War, Ramanujan stayed at Trinity from 1914-1918, working with Hardy and others. Kanigel details his difficulties with the cultural differences, the racial prejudice he encountered, and his own personality. Perhaps most significant was the problem of simply getting enough to eat. A devout Brahmin, Ramanujan would not eat anything with an animal product in it. Today that would not be a problem, but at that time there was little he could eat and even that diminished with wartime restrictions. The effect on his health from a poor diet, the cold climate, and his passion for his work was catastrophic. In 1918 he went home to India near death from tuberculosis.

As in other nonfiction, writing a biography presents certain challenges. You want to write an engaging story, but unless the subject has left revealing diaries or letters, you don’t have access to their emotions and motivations. Despite years of research, you may still be missing information about critical areas of your subject’s life, but you cannot just make up things to fill in the gaps. If you speculate about his or her feelings, you must be sure your readers know that’s what you’re doing.

If in the end I felt I knew more about Hardy as a person than about Ramanujan, that says more about me and my prior knowledge than the book. It was also probably unavoidable since Hardy lived longer and wrote and spoke much more than the man he championed. Given that Ramanujan’s only writings were professional papers and a few letters, Kanigel does a good job of teasing out the internal and external forces working on him. One of the most interesting aspects of Ramanujan’s personality that Kanigel brings out is the Brahmin’s blend of science and spiritualism.

An added difficulty is that your subject’s area of expertise may be too esoteric to easily present to a lay reader. Kanigel does an excellent job of presenting tidbits of mathematics in easily digestible chunks anyone can understand. The reader can certainly skip over them without losing the story, but reading them helps deepen your appreciation for Ramanujan’s extraordinary accomplishments.

The relevance of his story for us today is best captured in this quote from Nehru’s Discovery of India, provided by Kanigel:

Ramanugan’s brief life and death are symbolic of conditions in India. Of our millions how few get any education at all; how many live on the verge of starvation . . . If life opened its gates to them and offered them food and healthy conditions of living and education and opportunities of growth, how many among these millions would be eminent sceientists, educationaists, technicians, industrialists, writers, and artists, helping to build a new India and a new world?

It’s impossible not to apply Nehru’s words to our own slums and impoverished rural communities, plagued by poor education, food insecurity, vanishing job prospects, and often inadequate health care. What geniuses are lost to us? As Kanigel ably points out, we cannot rely on the bromide that genius will out. Ramanujan’s story shows how much was lost by his long obscurity and early death, how many times his eventual recognition hung in a precarious balance.

Today’s uber-wealthy, comfortable in their gilded fortresses, may write off great swathes of people, but by doing so they may be depriving themselves of the person who might one day have cured their cancer or discovered a new and more profitable energy source.

It’s no wonder Ramanujan’s story has gripped the imaginations of so many people. It is inspiring to see what a single mind may be capable of. And sobering to see how easily it could be defeated by society’s strictures.

Have you seen the film or read the book? What did you think?

The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall

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There is nothing like a good children’s book when you want to take a little break from the world. What seemed like a monolithic category when I was a child—probably because I read everything on the children’s side of the local library—is actually broken into picture books, middle grade (MG) or juvenile (ages 8-12), and young adult (YA) (ages 13-18). Of course, there are gradations within each of these categories; a story aimed at an eighteen-year-old may not appeal to a thirteen-year-old.

There are also differences other than age at play. YA books are longer and have fewer restrictions on content. More interesting to me is that while YA characters are able to see the world through the eyes of others and to face real-world problems, characters in MG novels are quite different. Like children of that age, they are still the center of their universe and likely to see every setback as the end of the world.

Jeanne Birdsall’s modern series about the Penderwick family is classified as juvenile/MG. It is a delightful romp, reminding me of some of the best books of my own childhood.

In this first book, the four Penderwick girls and their father take a cottage unseen for their summer vacation. It turns out to be on an estate called Arundel owned by a snooty woman named Mrs. Tifton, whose formal and conventional life is turned upside down by the influx of rambunctious girls.

Twelve-year-old Rosalind feels the responsibility of being oldest keenly. Skye, the next youngest, is pure tomboy, determined to go her own way. Then comes Jane who at 10 has her head in the clouds when she isn’t writing flamboyant novels about an adventurer named Sabrina Starr. The youngest is shy, four-year-old Batty who wears butterfly wings all the time and communes with Hound, the most beloved of dogs.

While tunneling though a hedge in the forbidden Arundel gardens, Skye runs into a boy—literally—who turns out to be Mrs. Tifton’s son. Jeffrey quickly becomes an honorary Penderwick and the girls rally to his cause when Mrs. T. and her boyfriend, the Dreadful Dexter, decide to send Jeffrey to a military boarding school.

Individually and collectively the children scamper through the story, having adventures and escapades. Although I’ve enjoyed the post-Potter deluge of magical childrens’ advetures, I especially liked that the only magic here is the ordinary magic of childhood, when so much of the adult world seems incomprehensible.

Most of all I loved the family rituals the girls have developed, such as calling a MOPS (meeting of Penderwick sisters) or understanding the responsibility of being the OAP (oldest available Penderwick). Having grown up in a large family, much of this rang true for me, as did the way the sisters sometimes had to transcend their different personalities to respond to various crises.

One of my adult sons reads across all the categories of children’s fiction. They are a good balance for his serious reading and his often stressful job. One aspect that he particularly appreciates in them is the focus on right and wrong, good and evil.

In this book, while we clearly start with Mrs. Tifton and Dexter as thoroughly evil, by the end they have acquired more subtle shadings. They seem more misguided than cruel. When it comes to Jeffrey and the Penderwick girls, their essential goodness doesn’t prevent them from behaving badly at times.

Also, there are shadows in this lovely world. Their mother’s death when Batty was born affects the girls just as Jeffrey’s missing father affects him, though these griefs do not weigh heavily on the story: a difficult trick that Birdsall pulls off beautifully. A missing parent is a common trope in children’s stories. Being left unprotected, or less protected, enables the child to be the protagonist, to be the one to solve the problem, instead of expecting an adult to take care of it.

This book and the others in this series are a delightful reminder of my own childhood, back in the days when children were tossed out of doors to entertain themselves without parental oversight. We got into trouble and found our way out of it. And even then I loved stories like this one about mischievous but good-hearted children.

Is there a children’s book that you enjoy reading as an adult?