Archive for the ‘botany’ Tag

Housing Issues   Leave a comment

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Usually it’s the first line of a Barbara Kingsolver book that grabs me; it took much longer with Unsheltered. However, what may have been lacking in initial engagement is negated by the lingering thoughts since closing the pages of her newest novel.

This is a two-in-one story about two families living in the same house but separated by two centuries. Aside from the dilapidated structure, at first it seems there is little else in common. Yet, it’s surprising how much they share. Kingsolver methodically reveals the similarities by alternating chapters between the old and the contemporary.  Politics, prejudices, meaning of family and beauty of friendship are portrayed in each time frame. And always, another part of the house is falling apart. Neither family has the wherewithal to make the necessary repairs.

Willa Knox is the matriarch whose family has inherited the home. Her counterpart from the previous century is Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher, who lived with his wife, mother-in-law and spirited younger sister-in-law.

While researching the history of the house, Willa learns about Mary Treat, a 19th century botanist who corresponded with Darwin and other scientists of her day and becomes a friend of Thatcher’s. Treat is another connection between the past and present.

Kingsolver incorporates several techniques such as the parallels among the characters in each era and ending each chapter with a line that serves as the title of next section. These, and other aspects, kept me turning pages – even if not always at a rapid rate.

Unsheltered
Four Bookmarks
Harper, 2018
464 pages

Microscopic and Grand   2 comments

“The Signature of All Things”

For a minute forget that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote Eat, Pray, Love. It may take a little longer, but the idea is to not let this dissuade you from reading The Signature of All Things. Gilbert’s novel is as different from her memoir as ice milk is from ice cream. The latter is much richer and nuanced; it’s worth every moment of guilty pleasure spent under its grip.

Gilbert transports the reader from London, across the seas (on multiple occasions), and to Tahiti and Amsterdam. Philadelphia provides the lengthiest setting where the brilliant, unattractive Alma Whitaker is introduced to the world: her birth is literally the first sentence of this epic narrative. In Gilbert’s words, Alma’s childhood “was not yet noble, nor was it particularly interesting …” Thus, the focus turns, albeit temporarily, to Alma’s father, Henry Whitaker.

Henry stole his way out of poverty. He didn’t just acquire wealth, he attained knowledge and became a leading botanist and businessman. Alma’s mother, a stoic and harsh parent intent on fortifying her daughter’s intellect, also possessed a great mind and interest in botany.

Through humor, interesting botanical descriptions and strong, insightful characters, Gilbert creates a story that not only spans continents, but also scientific ideas along with notions regarding love and relationships. The vivid imagery of the various landscapes is a bonus.

Alma is a passionate character rich in curiosity (and foibles). Yet, despite the limits placed on her gender, she explores life in miniscule proportions and unexpectedly reveals its grand scale.

The Signature of All Things
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Viking, 2013
499 pages