The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

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We don’t often reflect on just how amazing it is that we can put a letter in the post and know that it will arrive at its destination in a timely way. Iris James is the sole employee of the post office in Franklin, Massachusetts, a small town on the tip of Cape Cod. It is the fall of 1940, and the U.S. is holding off from entering the war. Meanwhile, Iris and her neighbors listen to the news coming out of London where the Blitz is flattening buildings and posters urging Londoners to Keep Calm and Carry On abound.

Many of the newscasts come from Edward R. Murrow but some people in Franklin are being drawn in by the voice of Murrow’s protégé Frankie Bard. She talks about the little moments that bring to life the horrors happening in London for the inhabitants of Franklin.

One of those inhabitants is Emma, new wife of the town’s doctor, Will Fitch. Orphaned during the flu epidemic of 1918, Emma has grown up feeling invisible, untethered as she is by human bonds. Meeting Will has changed all that, but Will has his own demons.

Franklin seems far away from the war and the U.S., like Franklin’s mob of summer tourists, is too busy being entertained to pay much attention to what is happening in Europe. “How easily the face of the world turns away,” Frankie thinks at one point. Yet the war’s reach is long.

Blake’s evocation of wartime London is brilliant; equally vivid is her portrait of quiet Franklin, where Iris takes comfort in the routine and order and consistency she can bring to her work in the tiny post office, holding the secrets of the town in her hands, as one neighbor tells her. I found Iris fascinating, yet for once didn’t mind moving between protagonists as the story shifted between the three women, because Emma and Frankie are equally fascinating.

I didn’t expect to like this book, despite (or perhaps because of) the effusive praise on the cover. One Thanksgiving when I was eight or nine, my cousin Bobby piled a lot of sauerkraut on my plate, and my mother made me eat it all. I’ve never been able to eat sauerkraut since.

That’s how I feel about novels set in WWII. I find it hard to read yet another one. My perception of the outsized number of WWII novels may be a function of my age. As the central event in the lives of my parents’ generation (along with the Depression), it was obviously a subject that stirred many writers and readers during the decades when I was growing up. And then there’s the aftermath of the war that I experienced. After my mother’s sentimental stories of the boys she danced with before they shipped out, no tragic wartime romance could seem anything but old hat. After the Eichmann trial, no Holocaust novel could shock me.

Yet Blake has found what for me is a previously unexplored corner of that war—twelve months while London is being bombed and the U.S. is trying to stay neutral—and used it to pose important questions.

How do we cope with our world being destroyed? You don’t know where the next bomb is going to fall; if you put a loved one on a train or ship to safety it may itself be destroyed. Is it better to keep them near? What do you do when you lose your home? Your neighbor? Your mother?

More importantly, how do we live our ordinary lives knowing other people are suffering these horrors? Frankie’s colleague Harriet has been collecting the brief reports and hints coming out of Germany describing what is being done to the Jews, but no one wants to hear about it. Iris’s friend Harry keeps a lonely vigil every night, convinced that a German submarine may be headed for Cape Cod, but others in town make fun of him. As Frankie asks Murrow:

“What are we doing back home, Ed? What are people doing, for Christ’s sake?”

“Living their lives.”

“How can they be?”

Yet we do, even now.

Questions like these lurk in the background of this engrossing novel, while we follow the trajectories set in motion by the characters’ decisions and twisted by outside events, including an undelivered letter. Blake’s unsentimental yet compassionate tone makes us care about these characters even as she avoids the all-too-common pitfall of romaticising the war. I fell into the world of this novel and stayed there right to its satisfying conclusion.

Have you read a novel that you found both absorbing and thought-provoking?

All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski

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To this last novel, published a year before his death in 2007, Kempowski brings all the experiences of his long life. Born in 1929 in Hamburg, he was caught up in WWII, at 15 witnessing the East Prussian refugees in Rostock, the coastal town where he grew up. Soon after, he learned that his father had been killed.

He escaped to the west at the end of the war, but on a 1948 visit back to Rostock, now occupied by the Russians, he and his mother and brother were arrested for espionage and sent to a Soviet prison. Released, he was deported to West Germany and became one of that country’s most famous authors.

Drawing on these experiences, Kempowski crafts a story of an East Prussian family continuing to live their normal, even banal, lives while the first Baltic refugees fleeing the approaching Russians begin to pass their estate. Eberhard van Globig is serving in Italy, leaving his beautiful, if vague, wife Katharina to drift around their manor house or visit her pregnant friend in the nearby town while his elderly aunt actually runs the household and his twelve-year-old son Peter is tutored by a schoolmaster too old to fight who comes out from the town every day.

They welcome refugees that come to the door, sharing their food with them and enjoying the songs or stories the travelers bring. It breaks up the monotony of their lives. However, we learn later that each refugee has filched something from the van Globigs before leaving. Then the self-important head trustee of the local Labor Front, who lives in the new settlement across the road and considers himself their pseudo-mayor, decides to start billeting more refugees in the manor.

Underneath the details of the days, calm, somewhat repetitive, sprinkled with quotes from poems and folksongs, there are questions being asked over and over. Should we leave now? How close are the Russians? Will our forces turn them back? If we leave, where should we go? Should we turn back or go forward?

The family exists in a pre-war bubble of serenity, Peter playing with his train set, adding to his treehouse, looking at things with his new microscope, even as the train of Baltic refugees swells and the sound of guns grows louder. The scenes grow more and more surreal.

What makes this story so remarkable is its unsentimental, objective tone. The author never even hints at what we should think about these people and their actions, letting us draw our own conclusions. The characters are given to us whole, with all their kindnesses and cruelty. Each is formed by the live they’ve lived; none are totally good or totally bad.

But always we have the title. Each of the characters—refugees, family, other locals—is obsessed with what to take when they go and mourns what they have left behind. Auntie insists on thoroughly cleaning the manor before they embark.

What do we leave behind? What use is all our learning, the poems we’ve memorised, the love we’ve given or deaths we’ve mourned? What sense can we make of life when fate so randomly bestows both favors and misfortunes? In wartime, we are constantly reminded of the capriciousness of fate. One family on a road packed with refugees is killed by a bomb while others are not. One son is killed in battle and another is not.

This quiet but intense book makes us consider all these ‘last questions’. It carries the weight of our not-so-long-ago history, which is always happening all over again. What could be more timely than a novel about refugees? It also has much to tell us about human nature. And then there’s the title.

What novel have you read that seems to carry an entire life’s worth of experience?

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?

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

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This surprising bestseller is set in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown where Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie has been temporarily interred. A favorite in the household, 11-year-old Willie contracted typhoid fever and died the very night of a huge ball at the White House.

Saunders was intrigued and moved by accounts that Lincoln in his grief had actually visited the crypt in order to hold the boy’s body.

Bardo refers to an intermediate state between death and reincarnation. All the characters, besides Lincoln and the cemetery’s keeper, are those souls who have not moved on but remain in the cemetery. They do not understand that they are dead; they believe they are “sick”, that their coffins are “sick–boxes”, and that they will at some point return to their interrupted lives. They are shocked and saddened when joined by Willie, not only because he is a remarkable child, but because children usually move on right away.

I didn’t want to read this book. I had read a few reviews of it, so I knew a bit about it and didn’t think that it was a book that I would enjoy. Then my book club chose it.

There were two reasons why I didn’t think I would enjoy it. For one, I don’t like to read stories about the death of children.

Also, I understood that it was experimental fiction. Its format consists of brief quotes followed by the name of the speaker, almost like an inverted screenplay.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy experimental fiction, but I rarely find it as enjoyable as more traditional narratives. Of course, there are exceptions. I was delighted by A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. I knew that Saunders’s book is narrated by the dead, like Spoon River Anthology. I have always enjoyed these poems by Edgar Lee Masters; in fact, one of my favorite quotes comes from his Lucinda Matlock. She says, “It takes life to love life.”

Here, I feared that the cacophony of voices would be overwhelming. In fact, though, they flow together very well. The three main narrating souls have distinct voices in the beginning of the book, but soon their voices become quite similar. I assume this was a deliberate choice by the author to make the story read better and not feel jerky.

Other chapters are a collection of excerpts from historical sources, some real and some imaginary, which give us the facts about the ball at the White House, Willie’s death, and the war. Amusingly, many of these accounts conflict with each other. They also reveal a contemporaneous understanding of what was going on in Lincoln’s mind. The year is 1862. The Civil War has been going on for one year, and the casualties are mounting.

While there are a couple of intensely moving moments in this book, I found reading it more of a cerebral exercise. I appreciate the form that Saunders found in which to tell his story and how well he executed it. I also appreciate the subtle and surprisingly powerful ending.

Still, I was surprised that it became such a big bestseller. True, Saunders was already a popular author. And there is a good bit of humor as well as those few profound scenes. It is also surprisingly easy to read, though I wonder how confused I’d have been at the start had I not read those reviews first. If I expected a bit more substance in the novel, then that is my failing rather than the author’s.

Have you read any experimental fiction that you thought was especially successful?

Selected Poems II, 1976-1986, by Margaret Atwood

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I came to Atwood through her fiction, but it is her poetry that has come to mean the most to me. For me, her poems from this period expressed my own complicated mix of sorrow, pity, praise, and controlled rage.

As in her fiction, Atwood sometimes uses a female protagonist to shed new light on social issues. Most poems about the myth of Orpheus focus on his divine music and tragedy of his trip to the underworld to bring his wife Eurydice back to the realm of the living. However, Atwood’s “Orpheus (1)” gives us the voice of Eurydice who says, “the return/to time was not my choice.” She speaks of his “old leash . . . love you might call it” and says:

Before your eyes you held steady
the image of what you wanted
me to become: living again.
It was this hope of yours that kept me following.

In these few lines, Atwood captures the frustration of women wanting to be seen for themselves, not something to be molded to their husband’s fantasy, along with the patient kindness, the desire to spare him hurt that keeps us silent.

Myths and fairy tales are subtexts in many of these poems. In “Variation On The Word Sleep”, she alludes to several fairy tales, including one of my favorites: The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands . . .

Atwood’s Canadian identity has informed much of her critical work, including her landmark book Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Published in 1972, it makes a case that Canadian literature reflects a unique national identity, one derived from the harsh conditions in the frozen north and the clear-eyed accounts by early pioneers trying to survive in the wilderness. This somber theme works its way through many of the poems in this collection, sometimes emerging in strong, unpretty images. In “Flying Inside Your Own Body”, for example, she describes

Waking, your heart is a shaken fist,
a fine dust clogs the air you breathe in;
the sun’s a hot copper weight pressing straight
down on the thick pink rind of your skull.

That sense of the landscape as something hostile is tempered by her ecological awareness and sometimes difficult love for the things of this world. In “Marsh, Hawk” she describes a swamp and “a mass grave” of detritus—rotten trees, old tires, bottles and cans—that “spreads on the / land like a bruise.” But the poem takes a left turn in the middle, as so many of Atwood’s poems do, as the speaker wants the marsh rushes / to bend aside, the water / to accept us”, to become one with the complicated beauty of the physical world.

In much of her writing, Atwood draws inspiration from historical figures, particularly Canadian ones, such as Susanna Moody. Some of the poems in this collection seem to draw on this awareness. Sometimes she seems to be speaking for those who came before us.

In Negotiating with the Dead, a collection of her Empson lectures, she says, “Not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and fascination with mortality – by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.”

What themes or preoccupations do you see in one of your favorite writers?

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse

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Another Middle Grade coming-of-age story told in verse—pure coincidence that this was next up on my TBR (to be read) pile when I stopped to read Brown Girl Dreaming. Hesse’s story is also a Newbery winner but is fiction rather than memoir. Thirteen-year-old Billie Jo loves playing the piano when she isn’t busy helping her father and pregnant mother try to keep body and soul together in Dust Bowl Oklahoma.

She is good enough to be asked to play in shows, often with handsome Mad Dog. If she gets well enough known with her music, she can leave the failing farm and the ubiquitous dust behind and go to California. Then a terrible accident throws all her plans into disarray.

Spanning a two-year period from January 1934 to December 1935, these poems paint a vivid picture of what life was like during that terrible time. She describes having to turn the glasses and plates upside down on the table until the last second before serving the meal, and still the food is saturated with dust. There is the heartbreak of a field of wheat, already decimated by drought and wind, be flattened by hail or devoured by grasshoppers.

In some aspects, Billie Jo’s life is similar to many teens: wanting more independence than her mother is willing to give her, feeling as though she’s stuck in the middle of nowhere. When her teacher is in a production of Madame Butterfly, and Mad Dog says that “most everyone’s” heard of that opera, Billie Jo is miffed.

How does that
singing plowboy know something I don’t?
And how much more is out there
most everyone else has heard of
except me?

And she has a best friend. But when Livie leaves for California with her family, Billie Jo says, “I couldn’t get the muscles in my throat relaxed enough / to tell her how much I’d miss her.”

Poetry works well as a form for this novel. The fractured narrative adds to the feeling that you are reading a diary. Also, the necessary compression distills each scene into its essence while retaining the emotional impact. Hesse makes effective use of symbols as well, such as the mother’s special cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving. Here is one complete poem, called “Broken Promise”:

It rained
a little
everywhere
but here.

Other poems are longer and tell a more complete narrative, such as “Blankets of Black” about going to Texhoma for Grandma Lucas’s funeral. Billie Jo’s detailed description of the ordeal is riveting.

While written for ages 11-14, Billie Jo’s story will certainly appeal to adults as well. For younger readers, it’s a good introduction to the terrible tragedy of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Depression.

Have you read a Young Adult or Middle Grade novel that brought an historical period to life for you?

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, by Francine Prose

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Intrigued by a photograph of a lesbian couple in a nightclub by Hungarian-born French photographer Brassaï, Francine Prose investigated further and found a blockbuster story. She considered writing it as nonfiction, but chose instead to use it as the basis for a novel.

Like the tuxedo-clad Violette Morris in Brassaï’s photograph, Lou Villars is an Olympic-bound athlete and a race car driver in 1920s Paris. She’s also an habitué of the fictional Chameleon Club, a gaudy, anything-goes nightclub. As the next war looms, she is recruited to spy for Nazi Germany and goes on to become famous for rooting out and torturing members of the Resistance.

I felt immediately at home in the milieu of this book, which was a bit puzzling because I’ve never been to Paris, much less seen its streetlights gleaming on rainwet streets or enjoyed the burlesque shows—onstage and off—of its nightclubs. Then I realised my familiarity came from my obsessive reading forty-five years ago of Anais Nin’s diaries and novels, as well as books about Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and their circle. I also spent some time a few years ago studying poet Hope Mirrlees, particularly her spectacular 1920 poem “Paris”.

Villars’s story is told by multiple narrators. There are letters to his parents from Gabor Tsenyi, a Hungarian photographer like Brassaï. We have memoirs from Tsenyi’s lover Suzanne, his wealthy patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol, and his best friend, the American writer Lionel Maine, seemly based on Henry Miller with his preoccupation with drinking and womanising. Finally, and providing much of the structure of the story, there are excerpts from a self-published biography of Villars by Nathalie Dunois, a relative of Tsenyi’s lover Suzanne.

Interestingly, we never hear directly from Lou herself, raising questions of identity and historicity. Given that we only learn about her through others, whose own reliability is dubious, we cannot help but consider the fallibility of memory and self-interested testimony. As readers, we are left to judge for ourselves how much to trust each of these sources.

I struggled with the first part of the book, as I tried to sort out the narrators, get a handle on the large cast of characters, and figure out where and in whom the story lay. I abandoned it for a while, but am glad I came back because it picked up about two-thirds of the way through. And I think the multiple narrators lift this book above the ordinary.

What fascinates me most in this story is the trajectory between good and evil. If we were only presented with Lou Villars in her later incarnation as traitor and torturer, we would think her a monster. But here we start with her as a child, devoted to her mentally ill brother. I don’t know who said it first, but a now-common piece of advice for writers is that even the villain thinks he is the hero of his story. What this means is that if we are to present them as fully realised characters, we must dig deep into our villain and try to understand why he or she thinks what they are doing is right.

In my recent review of Julian Barnes’s novel about Shostakovich’s life under Stalin, I said that these days I am absorbed by the question of how to live a good life, how to negotiate the inevitable choices and compromises we face. I think often of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead where the two courtiers wonder if there was a moment where they could have chosen differently and, if so, how could they have missed it? Is it ever too late to go back and choose differently?

Through her melange of voices, Prose helps us understand Villars’s choices and compromises. It is a story that never grows old for me. As the world seems more and more to be taken over by dishonest and greedy people who laugh at the harm they inflict on others, I look to stories such as this to help me understand how a good person turns to evil.

Have you read a novel with multiple narrators? What did you think of it?

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?

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?