Some books I read this month were disappointing, and one I didn’t even bother to finish. But others are definitely worth talking about, and reading. Copies of the first three books came from my local library. Hooray for libraries!!
So what have you been reading this month? Any that I can add to my list? Let me know in the comments.
Karin Altenberg: Island of wings
What I really enjoyed about this book was the new world that Altenberg took me to — the islands of St Kilda, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. It was a place and culture that I knew nothing about, and her novel is based on historical facts. (Although I wish I had googled images for the island before I read the book. Seeing the photos would have helped my understanding of the geography.)
In 1830 and Neil and Lizzie MacKenzie arrive on the island of Hirta. Reverend MacKenzie’s evangelical mission was to bring salvation to the islanders. He was committed to bringing them away from their pagan and uncivilised ways. “He had been chosen to relieve the islanders of their backward ways and show them the rightful path as drawn out by God and paved by the Church of Scotland.”
They were a community that needed help. It was a hard life, where food and fuel supplies often didn’t last the winter. Infant tetanus was rife and many infants died before they were 8 days old. But the land was worked communally, with daily meetings to determine what needed to be done. They had a rich oral culture and crime was virtually non-existent. By the time Reverend MacKenzie left in 1843, the islanders had moved into stone houses and were beginning to divide up the land into individual plots. (Life for the islanders continued to be a struggle, until the last of them left St Kilda in 1930.)
The story is the contrast between Neil, who is driven by his religious fervor to atone for past events, and Lizzie. She doesn’t speak Gaelic, and is isolated — from friendship, from occupation beyond looking after the children, and even from Neil. She is very aware of the beauty of the island. Altenberg’s delicate descriptions of the island and bird life are often told through her eyes.
Rebecca Stott: Darwin and the barnacle
We all know of Darwin’s fame because of “On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection”, published in 1859. We also know that his voyage aboard the Beagle was crucial for his theory. However, I didn’t know how important his barnacle work was — or indeed that he had worked for eight years, from 1846 to 1854, on barnacles. Stott’s book, based on many primary sources, is a fascinating insight into Darwin’s world.
The first chapters recount Darwin’s study of marine invertebrates found on the sands of Leith, as well as his journey on the Beagle. However most of Stott’s book tells of those years Darwin spent dissecting and investigating barnacles. He thought he would only be taking a couple of years away from his theory on species. However, his notes on species lay in a drawer for those eight years, while he came to grips with barnacles. There were two main things he was trying to do. He was trying to classify the species of barnacles as well as attempting to understand how these species had evolved and diversified through time. Barnacles came to him from collectors around the world. Thank heavens for the new postal system!
Darwin’s health had always been poor. While he was doing his barnacle work he was undertaking the Water Cure, which as far as I can tell seemed to be daily immersions in cold water, as well as being wrapped in wet sheets. He was not allowed to work for more than a couple of hours each day. In 1851 his beloved daughter, Annie died. She was only ten, and naturally Charles and Emma were devastated.
Stott argues that these years were very important for Darwin’s future work on The Origins, and for his reputation in the scientific world.
“The barnacle years had been no cul-de-sac in the development of Darwin’s ideas. [Barnacles] helped him fine-tune the way he used homology and embryology to think about species’ origins and relations, they provided the foundation on which he continued to build his credibility, reputation and authority as a systematist, and they had been the means by which he had established a network of correspondents that would hold together and bolster that authority.”
Patricia Ferguson: The midwife’s daughter
In the early 1900’s midwife, Violet Dimond, adopts Grace. Grace resembles Violet’s own dead daughter — except that Grace is black. She grows up in a town in Cornwall, where she faces the whole range of experiences, from overt and subtle racism through blunt curiosity to automatic acceptance. Violet has a fierce determination to protect her and give her strength. Grace certainly has strength, which she needs to get her through an especially ugly patch. The story of her childhood and adolescence unfolds as we watch her develop into an intelligent and beautiful young woman. It is told against the backdrop of a small town coping with the trauma of WW1 and all the changes that it brings.
Violet is a midwife and her story is woven around Grace’s. She has attended most of the births in the town, and has an authority because of her presence at this primeval time. However she is a causality of the professionalisation of mid-wifery, when the authorities demand papers and qualifications. Is it for the better? At the end of Grace’s story Ferguson makes us wonder whether it is.
Helen Scales: Poseidon’s steed: The story of seahorses, from myth to reality
Simon Winchester’s review, quoted on the front cover sums up this book:
“This seems to be about the perfect book: small, delicate, elegant, charming, unusual, fascinating, and uniquely memorable, a classic of its kind. Poseidon’s steed is itself a sort of seahorse of the book world.”