The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate–Jacqueline Kelly

evolution of calpurnia tate

I had just finished the biography of Darwin and opened the beautifully-covered young-adult novel, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, when I saw that the first chapter began with the Origin of Species.  In fact, every chapter began with a quote from Origin.  With evolution in the title, that should not have been so surprising, but I had chosen the intriguing cover for my next book for its whimsy, not evolution, so the focus on Darwin seemed serendipitous.

Isn’t it lovely when a beautiful cover, a truly beautiful cover, folds over an equally beautiful story?  When I read the back flap and saw that this was Jacqueline Kelly’s first novel, I could not believe it.  Calpurnia and her family are such rich characters in such a rich Texas setting that no debut novelist could have created them, but here they were.  Kelly sets the story in 1899 where Calpurnia’s part of Texas has more of a foot in the nineteenth century than it is looking forward to the twentieth.  Calpurnia is the only daughter in a prosperous farm family with six brothers. Her mother has headaches and drinks medicinal potions, which Calpurnia later discovers are twenty percent alcohol.  Her oldest brother is starting to court, but not always showing good taste in young women.  Her youngest brothers are raising kittens and being little boys, while the middle brothers begin to follow their older brother’s lead and show an interest in girls, particularly Calpurnia’s best friend, much to her dismay.

Calpurnia is not interested in knitting and needlework, or the cooking her mother tries to encourage.  She is far more interested in the world around her outdoors, particularly insects.  Her oldest brother gives her a notebook in which to record her observations and this attempt to keep a younger sister out of his hair leads Calpurnia to science and, as important, to her grandfather, who lives with the family, but is an obscure figure who retreats to his library and his laboratory in the old slave quarters out back.  He notices Calpurnia when he sees her recording in the notebook and, in light of her poor observations, takes her under his wing and opens the world of the Victorian naturalist to her.  When Calpurnia it spurned by the local librarian for seeking Origin of Species, Grandfather gives her his copy, demonstrating his trust in her care and her ability to understand serious science.

They spend long afternoons collecting specimens and recording their findings.  Calpurnia helps him track his experiments at turning pecans into a consumable liquor.  He refuses to give her answers to her questions, but gives her the tools with which to answer them herself.  When Calpurnia despairs at the impossibility of her becoming a scientist, he reminds her of the great women scientists of history.  Grandfather is a treasure.

Grandfather worries over the little time he has left and Calpurnia speaks so often of how he is her salvation on the farm that I began to fear the book would end with Grandfather’s passing, but Kelly saves us from that.  Like the caterpillar she captures and raises through its life cycle, Calpurnia consumes knowledge and grows, enters the cocoon of despair at her limited opportunities as a young girl in Texas in 1899, then emerges bright, shiny,and optimistic without our seeing her truly take flight.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is magical.  I am so glad I read it.  I am so glad I read it after Darwin’s biography. I cannot wait until my young naturalist is ready to read it, too.

Finished 3/30/15


Darwin: Portrait of a Genius–Paul Johnson


The first genius of this book is that it is 150 pages long, the perfect length for a short read today (if you are a reader) or a do-able read today (if you are not a reader).  Johnson’s biography of Darwin is published by Penguin and marketed to the academic market, which is also why it needs to be fairly brief.

Paul Johnson is a biographer with many “big men” of history under his belt.  He tackles Darwin with the same kind of workmanship that he has tackled others.  He begins by portraying Darwin’s family tree as trending Darwin towards genius.  He had the genetics, the nurturing environment, and, most importantly, he was independently wealthy and free of the need to teach, publish on a schedule, or meet any other external demands.

Johnson handles Darwin’s education with an honest appraisal of his weaknesses, math being key among those.  Johnson is also honest about the way in which Darwin crafts the image of his education and downplays those whose influence he wished to discount or disavow, with the overall impact of making his intellect appear innate with very little need for the shaping of formal education.  Darwin was first sent to school for medicine, then ordination.  He did not acquire much skill in dissection or drawing, two skills that would have helped immensely in his later work.  He also was weak in foreign languages, which would later contribute to his not learning about Mendel’s work with genetics.  What he did acquire from his formal education that was absolutely crucial was a network of movers and shakers, one of whom garnered for him a place on the Beagle that would set the agenda for the rest of his life.

Johnson portrays Darwin as fascinated with detail.  He enjoyed the study of finch beaks and later worms and barnacles.  He was much less interested in the people he encountered on his voyages with the Beagle and made, disappointingly, observations of native peoples that were in line with his age—bigoted.  Their customs appeared to him extremely primitive and he believed rumors that reinforced his impressions.

Darwin was slow to publish The Origin of Species after his return home for terribly human reasons.  First, Johnson argues, he was concerned about the backlash from religious conservatives and his religious wife.  Second, he was just not that organized or motivated.  He did not need to publish.  Only when others began laying the groundwork for evolution and only when another thinker, Alfred Russell Wallace, sent him a manuscript that contained Darwin’s own theory of natural selection, which Wallace had arrived at independently, did Darwin find the self-discipline to quickly and economically write Origins, freeing himself from the extensive scientific structure of the Victorian age and writing, instead, to persuade the public.  This, Johnson argues, makes Origin much more readable than any of Darwin’s other works (including his four-volume study of barnacles).

Johnson argues against the idea of Darwin as persecuted and shows, instead, how he used his network to promote Origin and how he used effusive praise of a wide variety of scientists and thinkers within Origin to smooth its reception.  Johnson is blunt about Darwin’s continuing weakness when observing humans and his typical Victorian racist and sexist assumptions scattered throughout Origin.

With Origin in publication and Wallace’s threat to his intellectual legacy held at bay, Darwin retreated to his world of minutiae, turning now to his barnacles and worms, puttering in his green houses.  Had he read German or hired an assistant to read foreign-language journals and keep him apprised of developments, Johnson argues, Darwin might have realized the importance of Mendel’s work with peas to his natural selection theory (which, in later editions, Darwin amended to the natural selection theory after many pointed out that others had arrived at the same conclusions).

Johnson’s views on Darwin’s relationship to social Darwinism are more complicated.  Darwin’s cousin was a virulent social Darwinist, as were many of Darwin’s network, but Johnson stops short of saying Darwin himself held these ideas.  Yes, he was racist and sexist, but was he a proponent of social Darwinism?  Did he approve of his cousin’s work, yes.  Would he have approved of eugenics as it developed?  Johnson says we cannot know for sure.  What we do know is that he opposed birth control and vaccinations as interfering in the processes necessary for natural selection.  Johnson is more direct about the connection between Darwin’s framework of struggle in Origin and the way in which others interpreted his work.  Darwin’s view of struggle and the emotional language surrounding it that he employed in Origin set up a social Darwinist reading of the text.  Johnson even connects Darwin’s use of struggle and Hitler’s in Mein Kampf.  What Johnson as biographer rather than historian does not draw out here is whether Hitler’s and Darwin’s uses are connected through their texts or through the overall tone of the time.  What historical forces influenced Darwin to see natural selection through the lens of violent struggle that also influenced Hitler to see his own story as one of struggle?

Johnson reveals his hand in the last pages of the biography, arguing against the deification of Darwin by Darwinian fundamentalists, using language to parallel the religious fundamentalism that fights against Darwinism, natural selection, and evolution.  Johnson argues that we need to see Darwin as a historical figure, subject to the weaknesses of his time, and limited by the knowledge of his time.  This argument, however, brought me back to the subtitle:  Portrait of a Genius.  Does not Johnson’s own title perpetuate, even if just for marketing purposes, the deification his text fights against?  Darwin in this light has ceased to be a historical figure and has become, instead, a commodity to be traded by publishers as well as biologists and evangelical preachers.

Finished 3/27/15

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Pla–Terry Tempest Willliams


A friend recommended this book to me based on a Facebook picture of burrowing owls that I shared.  Refuge begins with these owls losing their nests as the Great Salt Lake rises and each chapter follows the level of the lake.  Schema is powerful and, as a Midwest woman, I struggled for 3/4 of the book to not see Great and Lake and read Great Lakes.  By the last few chapters, I could read Great Salt Lake and only quickly think of my own wonderful Great Lakes.

The Great Salt Lake is Terry Williams’ refuge from all of life’s challenges, but particularly those posed by the returned cancer of her mother and then the discovery of cancer in her grandmother.  Williams struggles with her own and her mother’s pain, her sense of loss mirrored by the loss all around the lake as its levels rose and birds died or were pushed away from their nesting grounds.  She recounts a mystical connection with her grandmother that centers on nature, but particularly birds.  Williams’ best passages are those where she writes about birds and how they teach her about life.  The most difficult for me were those where her naturalist-educator stepped in and became more technical.

Williams, her mother, and her grandmother all love solitude and yet are forced into painful intimacy with one another through their illnesses.  Williams loses her mother, both grandmothers, and several aunts to cancer during this book and, at the end, suggests that the U.S. military’s above-ground nuclear testing is likely at fault.  The book is about accepting, but not being passive.  The idea that so many women (and men) in Utah would end their lives prematurely and so painfully because of a cost/benefit analysis in Washington, DC that discounted their lives is beyond infuriating, but those sorts of decisions continue to be made every day.

I’ve never desired to see much of the West and thought the Great Salt Lake would be interesting mainly for the salt.  Now I want to see the birds.

Finished 3/21/15

Some Other Town–Elizabeth Collison

some other town

I think I may have heard about this book through a tweet by John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, but I am no longer sure.  This is Collison’s first novel and I could not help but think that showed.  The first chapter is amazing.  Collison sucked me in with a dream of death, of driving over the rail on a bride and plunging to her death.

The novel is full of quirky people and situations and that is part of the problem.  Margaret lives next to Mrs. E., who steals things from her garage, barges into her house to use the restroom, and sets twigs from her tree on fire in her yard.  Mrs. E. also screams at her for driving away Ben and demands Margaret find him because he is in danger.  Margaret dismisses Mrs. E. as crazy.

Margaret works in an old tuberculosis sanatorium that has been converted to a multi-unit office building housing a drug addiction clinic, a ward for disabled children, and another for disabled convicts.  She works at The Project, a grant-funded children’s publishing venture meant to produce basal readers, but which has and will produce nothing because it is staffed by women who are not up to the job, including Margaret.  Celeste, their leader, is very interested in ghosts and insists their offices are haunted by a young TB patient who jumped to her death from one of their windows.  Frances has taken up tennis and dates men whose foibles she chronicles during lunch.  Sally Ann rarely eats lunch with the group and chooses instead to lunch with Bones, the puppet she has made out of cereal bowls who is either on her hand or in her purse and who speaks for her.  Steinem, who applies for the grants that pay their salaries, is busy conducting an affair with the Personality, whom he’s hired to do audio versions of the books the editors have not produced.  The grantors happily provide grants without asking to see any results and more grants flow in not because their work is good, but because Steinem excels at writing grant applications.

Margaret travels this world in a haze, a perpetual observer who seems unable to connect with anyone, including Ben, about whom she begins daydreaming when she is supposed to be setting copy for the books they will never print.  Margaret began a relationship with Ben, a married visiting artist, that was innocent enough at first, but that became more, that became love, she finally reveals, but love she turned away whether because she did not reciprocate, feared making that kind of commitment to anyone, or because she could not truly be the other woman is not entirely clear.  In response to Mrs. E.’s adamant demands, Margaret decides to find Ben, but continues to be delayed by silly excuses.

When the editors hear that The Project is going to fold and they are going to be laid off, Margaret finally makes a decision to find Ben, tell him she loves him and will run away with him.  She drives to the farmhouse he rented and discovers the farmer boxing up Ben’s things and we learn the reason Margaret has a recurring dream of driving over the bridge into the icy water.

I was annoyed by this.  Several chapters before this scene I nearly stopped reading and thought, but there was so much promise in the first chapter.  What happened to the dream that drew me into this story in the first place?  I do not care about these silly women in The Project, which seems cartoonish in its quirkiness.  I am beyond frustration with Margaret’s handling of Mrs. E., who sets her garage on fire and still faces no consequences for her increasingly destructive and bizarre behavior.  The back jacket says this is a tale of one woman’s awakening to her own possibility.  I did not read that at all.  Margaret faces reality by leaving town on a bus, bound for some other town.  She is an artist who has abandoned her art, a lover who rejected love, a publisher who did not publish, and she runs again by getting on a bus in the last paragraph.  Is this an escape from the university town she never managed to leave after college?  Or is it just more flight from what is real, from her grief, from reality?

What was meant, I think, to be dramatic and evocative was, for me, frustrating and a fumble.  New writers can craft wonderful introductions.  Experienced writers craft sublime endings.  If I happen to see Elizabeth Collison’s next book, I will give her another chance to see when she lives up to the amazing opening that promised so much in Some Other Town.

Finished 3/16/15

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives-David Eagleman


My father died a little over a year ago and that has raised many questions for me about what happens to us when we die.  These are questions I had thought answered before his death.

Eagleman’s forty tales are very brief–two to five pages–and provide various visions of the afterlife that run along a few themes.  One theme sees life in computing-networking terms.  We are a program, all code.  Our actions are determined, but we do not care.  Our programmers did not intend love, but it was a pleasing side effect that generated more power for the universe.

In one tale, everything that is created has an afterlife–coffee mugs along with pets and people.  Gods have afterlives and all of the discarded gods live together and sleep in a field at the edge of town because they cannot bear to sleep in houses like the creatures who once worshipped them.  Tiamat and Marduk have awkward conversation over coffee in which Marduk tries to start a conversation and Tiamat punishes him with silence.

In two tales we exist with our other selves.  In one we exist in the afterlife with our selves from other ages and find we have less in common with our other-aged selves than with those our own ages.  In another we exist with our potential selves, those who made different choices than we did.  We are annoyed both by those who achieved more because they make us feel inadequate and by those who achieved less because they could have done more if only they had made better choices.

In a wonderfully whimsical tale, Mary Shelley sits on a throne protected by angels in the afterlife because God’s favorite book is Frankenstein because he feels for the first time someone understands him.

In many tales God has made mistakes with creation–various mistakes creates various problems and provoke various reactions.  God is he.  God is she.  God is a group of tiny creatures who live inside the earth and created us as mobile cameras to record the surface and are disappointed when they find we only take pictures of each other and do not venture across the vast distances of the planet, but cluster together.

Sum is playful and provocative.  Ultimately for me Sum was reassuring because I was able to share in someone else’s questioning of what happens when we die and of why we are here in the first place.

Finished 3/7/15

The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy–Mark Logue and Peter Conrad

kings speech

Logue and Conrad begin the story with King George VI preparing for his coronation. The scene is dramatic and begins with a familiar character before introducing Logue’s grandfather, Lionel Logue, the king’s speech therapist.  Having sucked the reader in, they turn back to the humble beginnings of Lionel Logue in Adelaide, Australia and his rise to regional fame as an elocutionist.

Having seen the movie, the trajectory of Logue’s relationship with the king (first the duke) was not surprising.  What was most interesting was the depth of that relationship, which a film does not have time to fully explore.  I was touched by the king’s work ethic.  He did not stop his therapy when the first results became evident.  He kept at it throughout his life to continue improving.

The film seemed to suggest that part of the king’s stutter came from his being bullied as a boy by his dad, but the book portrays George VI as very close to his father and emphasizes that Logue diagnosed the king’s problem as physical, not psychological.  The film also suggests that David was encouraged to abdicate, but the book depicts him as telling his brother of his decision to abdicate only once it was made–even avoiding his calls.

Logue’s outreach to the king in the years when the king was very busy and was no longer attending regular sessions are almost heartbreaking and I could not help but be glad when the king turned to him again after the abdication.  I also enjoyed the relationship between the king and the people, who seemed to want him to succeed and who cheered on his successes after the horrid Wemberly speech.  I loved when a well-meaning subject wrote to Logue with a suggestion to improve the king’s locution.  The whole country seemed to have been involved in his treatment in some way.

My favorite story was when the king stumbled over a word in a speech disbanding the Home Guard after WWII.  When Logue asked him about it, he said he did it on purpose because if he spoke perfectly, people would not know it was him.

After Logue’s death people wrote to the paper to add to his obituary.  I would have loved to read more of these letters and the letters sent to Logue by his other clients (a few of which the authors shared).  I would also love to see Logue’s scrapbook.  It sounds as though he was a careful collector.

The King’s Speech was a quick read and rounded out the image of the two men created by the film.  I am thankful to both for bringing this great story to the attention of so many.

Finished 3/5/15

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane–Kate DiCamillo

miraculous journey of edward tulane

Today was Kate DiCamillo day and am I ever glad I started with The Magician’s Elephant.  Although that tale was about something dark–depression and loss of hope–The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is darker and the hope is much more subtle.  I cannot wait to hear what my seven-year-old thinks of both.

Edward Tulane is a three-foot tall china rabbit with real rabbit fur ears and an extensive wardrobe of silk clothes and a gold pocket watch.  He belongs to young Abilene, who adores him and talks to him, dresses him, and protects him until the day aboard a ship when young boys get him and he ends up at the bottom of the ocean.  Edward had previously spent his days thinking how fine he was and now he spent his days thinking how badly treated he was.  When a storm tosses him up he goes to live with a kindly older couple, who talk to him and dress him, but cannot protect him from their adult daughter, who sends him to the trash.  From there he lives with a hobo and his dog, is a scarecrow, lives with a dying young girl and her brother, and then spends years on a doll-maker’s shelf until he is once again chosen to by a young girl.

Through these cycles, Edward gets a heart–first in sorrow as he realizes what he has lost, then love.  Love brings him sorrow again and again as he is separated from the people he loves, often without the chance to say goodbye.  He grows a heart and wishes he did not have one.

Edward has a promise of a happy ending, but it’s abrupt and the happiness is outweighed, by and large, by the sadness in this tale.  One of the images of Edward is of him as a scarecrow and I stared at it trying to decide if he was supposed to look as if he were being crucified.  In a later chapter he is broken and has a death experience–the light, seeing the people he loved and lost, moving towards heaven–until he is pulled back.  He is saved.

DiCamillo adds a coda to this novel that recaps, in minimalist fashion, the entire tale, and tells us that Edward did love again–but this is not in the body of the tale.  In music a coda is a passage that brings a piece to an end.  Here it is in a smaller font and titled “Coda.”  It looks like publisher’s material.  Why this choice to tell that Edward had a happy ending?  Once again, this choice helps the darkness outweigh the light in this tale.

She precedes the tale with this quote from Stanley Kunitz:  “The heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking.  It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark and not to turn.”

I hope DiCamillo has gone through her dark and deeper dark and has returned to a world with more light, like that of Despereaux.

Finished 3/3/15