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 Constitution of the United States of America

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One of my book clubs chose to read the U.S. Constitution a few months ago, inspired by Khizr Khan’s speech at the 2016 Democratic convention. This week seemed to be an appropriate time to look at it again. Regardless of your political leanings, if you are a U.S. citizen this is the foundational document and primary source for your country’s government.

I realise that one can spend years learning about all the interpretations and rulings that have added layer after layer to this short document. Some book club members read additional books to expand their understanding, but I wanted to start fresh here.

Some of us had read the Constitution back in our schooldays; others never had. I think we were all surprised by how much we’d forgotten or perhaps not noticed in the first place.

Of course, this week all eyes are on Article I, Section 9: the emoluments clause intended to ensure that our elected officials are not bribed by “any King, Prince, or foreign State.” We expect our elected officials to put the good of the country before their personal gain. You could argue that this possibility is already covered by the treason clause (Article III, Section 3), since accepting a bribe would also be putting another country’s interest before that of the U.S. and therefore giving them “Aid and Comfort.” Still, I’m glad it is spelled out.

The sentence just before that in Section 9 amused me: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” A few years ago I visited Sulgrave Manor in Oxfordshire, England, home of George Washington’s ancestors. One of the guides told me that a few days earlier a contingent of Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) members had toured the house. These women had assured the guide that they were the aristocracy of the U.S. I said no, that was just their personal fantasy, and that I was sure they were not representative of the DAR as a whole. I added that my mother, who had been invited to join, had refused. Despite her interest and pride in her family history, she thought it was un-American to think yourself special because your family had been here since the revolution.

I was also surprised that there were only two casual mentions of Native Americans in the document. This was another headslap moment, though, because I certainly knew about tribal sovereignty. Tribal nations are considered “domestic dependent nations” whose relationship to the U.S. is different from that of a foreign nation. There are limitations on tribal nations’ sovereignty just as there are limitations on the sovereignty of states and the federal government.

Whatever else I’d forgotten, I remember the first ten amendments to the Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights. I come back often to the first of them which assures freedom of religion, speech, and the press; and rights of assembly and petition. This one seems in most danger today.

Other amendments provide a curious glimpse into the country’s history, such as Amendment III against housing soldiers in people’s homes without their consent (except in case of war and then only according to law). This is not something most of us worry about today, but it was a big issue for the colonists.

And the U.S.’s shame is spelled out here as well. Why would amendments be needed to guarantee the right to vote regardless of race or color (Amendment XV) or gender (Amendment XIX)? Surely Amendment XIV should have been enough since it guarantees the civil rights of “All persons born or naturalized in the United States” and says that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Thus we are reminded that there was a time not that long ago when people of color and women were not actually considered “persons”.

I’m glad my book club pushed me to reread the Constitution and reacquaint myself with this country’s first principles.

Have you read the Constitution recently?

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway

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It seems a good moment to be reminded of those who retain their integrity even in the worst of times. Like Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book, this novel is based on a true story of courage and honor during the siege of Sarajevo.

Galloway’s novel is based on the actions of Vedran Smailović, a former cellist in the Sarajevo String Quartet, who during the siege played among the ruins, especially the Albinoni piece, and at funerals, even though funerals were often targeted by snipers. Unsurprisingly, Smailović was furious that his life and story had been co-opted by someone else without his permission, calling it an invasion of his privacy. He also said,

“I didn’t play for 22 days, I played all my life in Sarajevo and for the two years of the siege each and every day.

“They keep saying I played at four in the afternoon, but the explosion was at 10 in the morning and I am not stupid, I wasn’t looking to get shot by snipers so I varied my routine.

“I never stopped playing music throughout the siege. My weapon was my cello.”

Galloway, on his part, defends his actions by saying in the same article that Smailović’s actions had been “an extremely public act” and that a writer need not get permission from his sources of inspiration. Apparently they have since begun to move towards reconciliation, but I still am concerned about defining the grey area between a private person and a public figure.

In Galloway’s story, on 27 May 1992 an unnamed cellist sees a mortar bomb explode in the square outside his room, killing 22 people who had been standing in line for bread. He decides to put on his formal clothes, go out to the spot where the bomb exploded at 4:00 pm and play Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, a piece composed around a fragment found after the bombing of the Dresden Music Library in 1942. He will do this every day for 22 days, if he survives that long.

The rest of the story revolves around three fictional characters, ordinary citizens whose lives have been derailed and distorted by the war. Arrow is a young woman who reluctantly became a sniper for the city’s defenders because of her previous experience on her university target-shooting team. To separate herself from that person who would never have used a rifle to kill, she has taken a different name. Yet she still struggles to align her actions with the remnants of her belief system. “The Sarajevo she fought for was one where you didn’t have to hate a person because of what there were . . . You could hate a person for what they did.” What could be more timely?

Dragan was able to send his wife and son out of the city before the siege and now lives with his sister and her family. He is trying to get to the bakery where he works, even though it is his day off, to eat in the employee cafeteria—one less burden for his sister. Dragan imagines Sarajevo as it was before the war, the parks, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Olympic venues from 1984. He is delayed by the people he encounters and the terrifying hesitation at street corners. Crossing a street means exposing yourself, and Dragan falls into magical thinking about what might save him. This is a choice I see people resisting today: to hide in memory or indulge in magical thinking. Only by facing reality can we address it.

Another person out on the streets is Keenan who must travel across the city to get water for his family and for his elderly neighbor, Mrs. Ristovski, even though he is almost paralysed by the thought of venturing out into the sights of the snipers in the hills. As he makes agonising decisions about which bridges to cross and whether to abandon Mrs. Ristovski’s cumbersome bottles, he becomes aware of tankers of water servicing the rich, those who are making money off the beleaguered residents. Keenan must find a way to live with his fear of death and decide whether it is worth going on.

Nothing is more relevant to today’s fears than this chilling reminder from late in the book. Although Galloway is referring to Sarajevo, he could be talking about any of several nations in the throes of change today.

. . . civilization isn’t a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, re-created daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible.

What novel have you read recently that has given you new insight about current events?

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

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I’ve written about this book before. Rereading it nine years later for my book club, I was struck by the same things I mentioned then: the factors that led to the destruction of a huge ecosystem that had developed over thousands of years. It took only a couple of years for it be ruined, for the dirt to be lifted up into great clouds that blew as far east as New York and Washington and killed people and animals who tried to stay on in what became known as the dust bowl.

My book club discussed who was at fault. Although there were some “suitcase farmers” who tore up the sod for a quick harvest and then disappeared, leaving the ground without even a cover crop, most of the farmers just wanted what anyone might want: a place to work and raise your family.

We talked about how hard it is to weigh future damage against current needs. One person mentioned talking with a friend in Nebraska who works for a farm—a huge agribusiness, as most farms are today—who said farmers today make the same choice: if prices go down, they plant more to make up for it, even knowing that increasing the supply will drive prices down even further.

We talked about the complicity of the government, encouraging people to believe that “dry farming” could work and offering incentives to get people to move to areas previously designated as desert. We also talked about greedy capitalists, like the syndicate that owned XIT ranch who didn’t care if families starved and died as long as the syndicate could pay their shareholders.

So much here resonates with what is happening in the U.S. today. As regulations and rules have been decimated by successive “pro-business” administrations, banks and businesses have gone wild, not caring who gets hurt. Their reckless actions led to the depression of 2008 and to the enormous loss of jobs—real jobs, that is, with benefits and regular hours.

As one of the book club members pointed out, another parallel is the way hard economic times bring out blatant racism, blaming black people for taking jobs that should go to white men. Egan describes the harsh rules against people of color, including the case of two black men jailed for months simply for spending a night in a town where that was not allowed and forced by the judge to dance at their hearing. He quotes speeches by politicians such as “Alfalfa Bill” Murray railing against blacks, Indians and Jews. Sound familiar?

Another parallel was the difference between Hoover’s response to the Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s.

Hoover believed the cure for the Depression was to prime the pump at the producer end, helping factories and business owners get up and running again. Goods would roll off the lines, prosperity would follow. Roosevelt said it made no sense to gin up the machines of production if people could not afford to buy what came out the factory door.

Trickle-down, anyone? What none of us could understand is why these lessons from the past don’t keep us from making the same mistakes over and over. Is it ignorance of what happened not that long ago? Or something darker, that as long as someone has a chance at getting a bit of money or power, he will take it, regardless of who else suffers? Yet many people pulled together in these communities to help each other out.

One thing that is different today is that during the dust bowl years, people who received government assistance—“4,000 of the 5,500 families in six counties of the Oklahoma Panhandle were getting some form of relief” from the government—recognised where help was coming from. They praised Roosevelt and his New Deal programs, “nearly a hundred thousand people in a city with less than half that population” turned out for Roosevelt’s visit to Amarillo. Instead of railing against big government, they understood that the government was keeping them alive.

As a writer, I was struck on this second reading by Egan’s extensive research and by his deft weaving of information with the personal stories of a handful of people. The combination enables us to see the big picture of what was happening in the Great Plains, from Nebraska to Texas, as well as the impact on individual people.

Have you read a nonfiction book where personal stories have helped bring the narratives to life?

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War

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This new anthology comes in the middle of the centennial of the Great War, later called World War I. Usually when we think of centennials we think of celebrations, but this occasion is one for remembrance, with all the mixed emotions memory evokes.

I have written before about the reasons for my intense interest in this war. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon took me beyond the dry facts of schoolroom history. My fascination grew as I began to realise just how much those few years changed Western culture and influenced all that has happened since.

These stories all take place, at least in part, on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, when the war ended, not in victory or defeat so much as in exhaustion. They are love stories: romantic love, love between parent and child, love of a native or adopted country. They express on a personal level what that day meant.

The authors—Jessica Brockmole, Hazel Gaynor, Evangeline Holland, Marci Jefferson, Kate Kerrigan, Jennifer Robson, Heather Webb, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig—come to that day in different ways. Some stay firmly in that day while others start before or after. Stories are set in Paris, Brussels, Kenya, Dublin, the English village of Brimsworth, even Pelahatchie, Mississippi.

All are haunted by loss. The indescribable losses of those years, falling on a population accustomed to peace and plenty, left everyone terrified whenever the postman stopped at their door, as Hazel Gaynor describes in her story “Hush”. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British forces experienced 57,470 casualties, 19,240 of whom died. French and German forces also suffered huge numbers of casualties.

Yet even with the omnipresent losses, these are stories of unexpected connection. Evangeline Holland’s narrator in “After You’ve Gone”, Morven, is a woman of color from Scotland, without money or friends in Paris when she meets a man who has a surprising link with her past. In Kate Kerrigan’s “The Photograph” set in the present day, Bridie learns something new about her beloved great-aunt that helps her find a way forward in her current troubles. In “Hour of the Bells” Heather Webb’s heroine, Beatrix, the native German widow of a French clockmaker-turned-soldier, undertakes a journey out of despair that leads to surprising encounters.

If there is consolation to be found in contemplating these cruelly hard times, it is this: that in the midst of death, we are alive. Even in our great grief, we can be touched and at least a little healed by love.

What stories of World War I have you read?

Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, by Tom Wessels

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Tom Wessels’ book helps me understand what I’m looking at when I examine the woods that come almost up to my porch. Although I live in the mid-Atlantic, we share the same type of forest as southern New England, one of seven types in the U.S. Ours is called the Central Forest. There are differences, but the trees I see from my porch are those I saw in Massachusetts: oak, maple, white pine, honey locust, maple, ash. We also have sweet gum and black walnut, which are not found up north, or at least not yet.

This is not a tree identification book, however. It’s more like a magic decoder ring. It gives the information you need to look at a patch of woods and make a pretty good guess at what it looked like 100 years ago and what has occurred to disturb it in the meantime.

Wessels sets up each chapter as a mystery, starting with an etching of a forest by Brian D. Cohen and then pulls out the clues that tell us what has happened there. Was it once a pasture or farm that was left to reforest itself? Has it been logged, and if so, how many times? Has there been a hurricane or a forest fire? Have they been affected by blight? What do the trees tell us about the soil and topography?

At the end of most chapters, he takes a look back at the historical context of the disturbance. For example, in precolonial New England, Native Americans used fire as a forest management tool. They burned the litter on the ground and low-growing vegetation to control insects and make it easier to move silently. “These precolonial, fire-managed woodlands looked dramatically different from New England’s present forests. They were parklike, with massive hardwoods creating a canopy over forest floors carpeted with grasses and berry bushes.”

However, the diseases brought by settlers decimated the Native American population, whose knowledge was then lost. “Within fifty years of the landing at Plymouth Rock, the Native American, fire-managed ecosystems of southern New England became a memory,” replaced by the dense, almost impenetrable forest that I see from my porch.

There are also fascinating nuggets buried in this irresistibly engaging book. For example, in the last major gypsy moth outbreak in central New England in the summer of 1981, scientists found that “the oak trees not yet attacked by the gypsy moth larvae changed their leaf chemistry, apparently in anticipation of the approaching insects.” The trees were communicating with each other using an airborne chemical message (jasmonic acid).

This discovery reminds me of another book I’ve heard of but not yet read: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben. A German forest ranger, Wohlleben explains that trees are social beings, working together in networks and sharing resources. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

Now when I stand on the porch, I can read the history of the trees in front of me. More than that, I’m aware that what I see are not the separate individual trees I’ve always thought them, but rather a community. These trees are talking to each other in ways that I cannot decipher.

What book has changed your view of the natural world?

Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, by Terese Svoboda

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How could I have never heard of Lola Ridge before? A central figure in Modernist poetry, she seemed to know everyone: from Robert Frost to Amy Lowell to H.D. Praised by people like Stephen Vincent Benét and Louis Untermeyer, she was considered one of the top American poets. Her fiery poems describe the real life of immigrants and others struggling to get by. A lifelong anarchist, she was devoted to the ideal of personal and artistic freedom. She worked for years with Emma Goldman and participated in many political protests, including the outcry against the Sacco and Vanzetti executions and the railroading of Tom Mooney.

I have become accustomed to the way once-popular artists and activists disappear from the cultural consciousness. I have heard the argument that the guardians of the Western canon needs to let go of the belief that only white men can write lasting literature, and add more women and minorities (and new majorities!). I’ve shaken my head at the way hysteria around World War II and McCarthy’s reprehensible anti-Communist tactics attempted to wipe out the memory of the social reformers, labor activists, anarchists, socialists and, yes, communists who were active in the first half of the 20th century. But I’m still surprised that I’d never heard of such a prominent figure.

This biography rescues Ridge from history’s dustbin. Svoboda embeds us in her life, from her birth in Dublin in 1873 through emigration to New Zealand as a child, then to Australia, and finally to the U.S. in 1907 where she mainly lived in New York City. Her travels didn’t stop there though. Always on the edge of bankruptcy and starvation, she scrounged money for trips to Mexico, Baghdad, Taos, and California. She was awarded residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony.

And always she wrote poetry. By including so many poems and fragments of poems, Svoboda give us what is truly a writer’s story: Ridge’s experiences and convictions drive her fierce work that captures the lives of the poor and disadvantaged, the dreams that possess them and the forces that beat them down. Here is a poem from her first collection The Ghetto and Other Poems:

Debris
I love those spirits
That men stand off and point at,
Or shudder and hood up their souls—
Those ruined ones,
Where Liberty has lodged an hour
And passed like flame,
Bursting asunder the too small house.

Described as fragile and intense, Ridge often invoked images of fire in her work. She went on to publish three more collections, each more popular than the last. She won awards like the Guggenheim, and edited the avant-garde magazines Others and Broom, as well as Margaret Sanger’s magazine on birth control. While editing Others and afterwards, she hosted weekly soirées in her one-room apartment to discuss art and freedom. These lively gatherings drew famous and not-so-famous writers and artists and activists, including William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Man Ray, Alfred Kreymborg, Mitchell Dawson, Jean Toomer, John Reed, Louise Bryant, and Evelyn Scott.

The New Critics, who rose to ascendancy during WWII and afterwards, insisted that poetry should not be political in any way and claimed that women, with their overactive emotions and weak intellect, were unsuited for writing anything but love poetry. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that Ridge’s poetry, so famous in her lifetime, sank into obscurity after her death in 1941. Svoboda compares the way Ridge’s influence on Crane and others has been lost to the way few today know of how TS Eliot drew on Hope Mirrlees’s Modernist masterpiece Paris while writing The Waste Land.

I hope that Svoboda’s biography helps to bring her back into the light.

What early 20th century poet fires your imagination?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

On Wings of Song: A Journey into the Civil Rights Era, by Molly Lynn Watt

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Molly Lynn Watt’s latest poetry collection is a memoir of her work in the Civil Rights movement in 1963. It compellingly captures the time and the emotions surrounding it, the dangers and the innocence.

The book opens with a few poems describing incidents from her childhood that introduced this New England girl to racism and Jim Crow. The bulk of the book is made up of poems describing a time in the pivotal year of 1963 when she and her husband and two toddlers went to Tennessee to lead the new Highlander School, dedicated to training interracial volunteers to register voters in the South.

Traveling through the South, they are exposed to Jim Crow in chilling incidents. Their integrated caravan is refused service at restaurants and gas stations. Worse, they learn that trying to register voters can have fatal consequences.

She captures the fear in terse, direct lines. From “Tonight”, describing their first night at the Highlander School.

fireflies spark by the window
cans rattle in the alcove—
Mr. Tillman Cadle is arriving

we’re weary fake sleep
feel Tillman hover
sense his shotgun over us
throughout the night
Tillman stumbles and mutters
there’s going to be trouble

As it turns out he is the owner of the land, which he’s provided to the school. He’s there to guard them, not harm them, but as the author says later in the poem “Tillman Cadle/knew trouble when he smelled it”. The young family and their friends are about to meet trouble first-hand.

The final section of the book ponders the changes since that time, from her elderly mother’s apology for refusing their phone calls back then to her granddaughter’s refusal to vote, not understanding how fragile and incomplete this armistice is.

Watt says that she chose to write this memoir in poems “to limit my discomfort” in reliving that terrifying time when hatred and prejudice bared their face to her. For a memoir to matter, for it to grab the reader and not let her go, you have to plunge back into the storm, the one you thought you’d come to terms with long ago. The emotions are still there for you to find if you dig deeply enough.

Watt does. Each poem rings true.

There are plenty of other reasons for using poetry to write memoir. Poetry’s concentration of experience into a few lines makes the reader pay attention to every word and has the power to shock us into experiencing a revelation or moment of deep emotion.

Too, poetry’s use of imagery can assuage the author’s fear of revealing too much. Wrapping secrets in metaphor and motif not only gives the reader a tantalizing challenge, but also offers the author a semblance of protection. And a poetry collection, by breaking the story into fragments, mimics the way our memory works: an image here, a bit of dialogue there, a certain smell or glance of light.

Watt’s book is something to treasure, capturing a time and a body of experience that too many now forget. It’s a valuable resource for anyone curious about using poetry to write memoir. Most of all, though, it is a collection of powerful poems that leap from the page.

Have you read a memoir written as poetry? What did you think of it?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author, who is a friend of mine. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, by Hermione Lee

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I like to read biographies of authors. When the biography is as good as this one, I like to stop and read the author’s books just before they are discussed. Yes, the works stand alone; you don’t need to know details of the author’s life to appreciate them. But as a writer, I am curious about how her experiences shaped the author’s perspective and choices.

I’ve been particularly curious about Penelope Fitzgerald for two reasons: I’ve loved her novels, and she was 60 years old when her first novel was published. She did publish two nonfiction books, one when she was 58 and the other the same year as her first novel. I wondered how her life story meshed with the stories described so vividly in Tillie Olsen’s Silences.

Indeed, it does. While working at the BBC during WWII, she married Desmond Fitzgerald, whom she’d met at Oxford. Within six months, he’d been sent to North Africa with the Irish Guards. Like so many soldiers, he returned damaged in ways less visible than a missing leg. His misadventures meant that the family lived in poverty, even being homeless for a while before gratefully moving into a council flat. Working to support the family and raise her children left Fitzgerald little time for writing, but she was storing up ideas and experiences that enabled her to produce nine novels and three biographies in just 20 years.

In this rich and readable biography, Hermione Lee gives us not just Fitzgerald’s story, but also a discerning evaluation of her work. Lee incorporates excerpts from Fitzgerald’s speeches and writings: letters, reviews, essays. Without being didactive, she suggests places in the novels where Fitzgerald made use of her experiences. Fitzgerald’s first five novels draw on her own past, but even the later novels reveal traces of past preoccupations and concerns.

Lee gives us the events and people that shaped and influenced Fitzgerald as a writer. For example, knowing that her beloved father, Edmund “Evoe” Knox, wrote for Punch, adds a new perspective to her brisk, humorous prose. Her father and his siblings provided a rich, if unusual, environment for the young writer.

In talking about the novels, Lee traces some common threads, such as, “Bourne-Jones attracted her, too, because she felt a strong imaginative pull towards characters at odds with their world: the depressives, the shy, the unworldly, the emotionally inarticulate.”

Her own experiences enabled her to sympathise with such characters. In an interview, Fitzgerald spoke of “the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?”

In her later works, she experimented with an impressionistic style, putting together fragments that push the reader to actively engage with the story. This style is most effectively used in The Blue Flower, her story based on the life of the German Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, known as Novalis. It is especially effective because it mirrors his own style. In an early notebook, Fitzgerald wrote, “Novalis wrote: One can imagine stories which have no coherence, but only association of events, like dreams, or poems which at most have single verses which can be understood, like fragments of the most various objects.”

Lee pins down another aspect of this novel, saying, “she has been thinking all her writing life about the relation between biography, history and fiction. Now she merges the genres to create a new kind of book.”

What most impressed me in this account of Fitzgerald’s life and work was the incredible amount of research she did for each book, not just for the biographies, but for each novel as well. For Beginning of Spring, for example, Lee says, “there is a great deal of homework in her notebooks on printing works, alongside notes on merchants, railway stations, ministries, churches, birch trees, dachas and mushrooms.” Some extensive reading may only be come a detail, such as the sandstone towers of a market in Moscow.

For me, this remarkable biography sheds new light on Fitzgerald’s novels. Plus I love that it sent me back to read all the novels again.

What biography have you read recently that gave you new insight?

World War One: History in an Hour, by Rupert Colley

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of the first Battle of the Marne on 5 September 1914, I want to mention this excellent introduction to WWI. Colley has written a number of these History in an Hour books intended to give you basic information about a subject in an easily digestible form. At only 60 pages and illustrated by photographs, this ebook provides an accessible and accurate primer on the war, from Sarajevo to the Paris Peace Conference. Appendices identify key people and provide a timeline for easy reference.

I've long been interested in this war and have three shelves of books on the subject to prove it. As Colley says in his Introduction:

This, the first ‘world' war, was not just about armies winning and losing battles, but whole populations mobilized for war, at the mercy of the enemy, civilians starved and bombed. It was an industrial war where a country's whole economic output was geared to war; a war of empires that pulled in combatants from nations across the globe. It was a war of land, air and sea, a war of politics, espionage, and also the Home Front. For the first time in history, this was total war.

For me, immersed in the literature of England as I have been all my life, August 1914 was when the world changed. It spelled the end of the British and Ottoman Empires, but more importantly it was when the long enlightenment ended and the modern era began, when notions of duty and honor were replaced by cynicism and disillusionment. At the outbreak of the war, Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon, the Foreign Secretary from 1905-1916, said, “ The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time”.

Aside from facts memorised in school, I first came to the war through its poets: Rupert Brooke who died before he could lose his idealism, Wilfred Owen who learned to write a new kind of poetry in the trenches and mental hospitals, Siegfried Sassoon whose satiric poetry reflected his disenchantment, and others, all of whom seemed to know each other.

In “The Send-Off”, Owen wrote:

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men's are, dead.
. . .

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

Once I started going to Europe and visiting the sites, I began reading more widely, memoirs, histories, even a modern guide to the war's locations. I became fascinated by the role played by supply chain logistics, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Russian Revolution, and the much-delayed entry of the U.S. Reading Timothy Findley's book The Wars brought home to me what wrestling with the mud must have been like. As Colley says of the Battle of Passchendaele, “guns disappeared into it, tanks sunk in it, a quarter of the men killed at Passchendaele drowned in it.” I began to understand J.R.R. Tolkien’s remark that the Dead Marshes where Frodo and Sam saw the faces of the dead looming up at them through the mud and water had their source in the Battle of the Somme.

And of course, the war was not won. It ended with an armistice, which as it turned out, only provided a breathing space until the war resumed as what we now call World War II.

With all I have read, I still found it good to come back and review the facts of the war in this short book.

Which WWI poets have you read?