Book Review: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

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“What a grim view! I wish you did not consider our lives so bleakly. On the whole of things, Alma, I still see more wonder in the world than suffering.”

“I know you do,” said Alma, “and that is why I worry for you. You are an idealist, which means that you are destined to be disappointed, and perhaps even wounded. You seek a gospel of benevolence and miracle, which leaves no room for the sorrows of existence …Moreover, you make me feel like a horrid little marplot, because I sit here making such dull arguments and because I cannot live in the same shining city upon the hill that you inhabit.”

On the cusp of the 19th century, a bold and inquisitive woman, by name of Alma Whittaker, the daughter of an eminent botanical explorer, is born.

Alma is a heroine unlike any I’ve encountered before – and perhaps the prime reason I am so drawn to this book as to read it twice in one summer, and once again the next summer, and to find it no less impressive than the first time I set off on the voyage through its ebullient pages. I have just finished reading this book for the third time, and think it’s high time I sang its praises in a review.

There is no more apt word for this novel than panoramic – spanning from 1760 with the birth of Alma’s father, Henry Whittaker, to the late 1800’s up to the end of Alma’s life, and the beginnings of a new era of understanding with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. It is a novel about the pleasures of discovery – scientific, personal, sensual, and spiritual. Above all else, it is Gilbert’s weaving of these manifold forms of discovery, which truly captures the exploratory spirit of the century.

Besides the abundant historical, geographical, and botanical details, which lend the tale an immersing verisimilitude; it is Alma’s life, her personal dreams, disappointments, heartbreaks and hankerings that make the novel so engaging. Alma is a woman thirsty for knowledge. While university was still very much inaccessible to a woman in 1820, Alma prowls after knowledge nevertheless, persisting in her quest for understanding in the comforts of her mansion home in Philadelphia, built by her preposterously rich father. But despite her enviable economic privilege and unexcelled education, Alma yearns for something more.

Our female lead is questing, curious, libidinous, insecure, obstinate, dubious, vulnerable and foolish, all at once. Unyieldingly intelligent, and at times self-absorbed and impulsive, Alma Whittaker positively throbs with life, is the coal-and-ice heroine through which we can feel the red-blooded pulse of history.

But this story has so much more to offer in character esprit than Alma. It is a story about her father, and her mother; her adopted sister, Prudence, and their kooky comrade, Retta. It is about the stalwart housekeeper, about Alma’s frail first love, and the bold cast of characters she meets on her travels, as she sails from Philadelphia to Tahiti, from Tahiti to Amsterdam, and many places in between. Most of all, however, it is about the man who irreparably alters her as she falls in love with him.

This book was never meant to be a romance, in the conventional sense. There is certainly a love story, but one fraught with discrepancy, marred by an insurmountable discord between ideas and worldviews that ultimately ends in carnage. Alma and Ambrose’s irreconcilable differences, henceforth, becomes the crux of this tale about a wider ongoing conflict between science and religion in the 19th century.

There is no conventional happy ending, either, but nor does the story come to a completely bleak or cataclysmic closure. It speaks to the marvels of the natural world – the miseries, too – and the fleeting wonder that is life in what Alma designates “Human Time”.

I like that Alma can be read in so many different ways – as any well-rounded character should be. Personally, I read her as more selfish and frustrating the third time around – perhaps because I had the foresight of knowing where her choices would lead, whereas at first, I was completely swept up, empathising more with the disastrous decisions one can make whilst in the clutch of heartbreak or intense disappointment.

Why else do I love this story so much? I love that I can feel the pulse of history . I love every one of the characters – intensely flawed, headstrong, ridiculous, persistent, weak, deluded, wise, repressed – and all of their unique idiosyncrasies. I love how vividly Gilbert paints the marvels of the universe – whereby even something as apparently mundane as moss can be as awe-inspiring as the cosmos (indeed, that it is its own cosmos), whereby wonder lies everywhere in nature, and that we can see it, if only we pay close enough attention.

Marriage kerfuffles, vibrant dialogue, and slick wit make this book about so much more than Victorian science. It is as entertaining as any good period drama, with a good dose of philosophical spiel, and a thoroughly modern candour. It is also breathtakingly honest about sexuality – unfortunately for Alma, a taboo topic in Victorian society – but certainly not one from which Gilbert shies in this very contemporary telling.

In prose that is buoyant and peppy without detracting, Gilbert tells an open-hearted tale about exploration and wonder, with very real, warm-blooded characters whose aspirations and adversities will garner the sympathies of any reader. This book may be about science, but it is suffused with a certain kind of magic; in which an acute sense of the unattainable, the elusory, and the divine lingers, indefatigable, even at the heart of Alma’s avid quest for certainty and knowledge.

Book Review : The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

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People and their dwellings were such a thin dust on the surface of the globe, like invisible specks of bacteria on an orange, and the feeble lights of kebab shops and supermarkets failed utterly to register on the infinities of space above. If it weren’t for God, the almighty vacuum would be too crushing to endure, but once God was with you, it was a different story.

The word which best defines this novel, for me, is disintegration. Slow, terrifying disintegration: of faith, of civilization, and of human relationships.

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Books That Changed Me : The Best of 2015

The best books are the ones that change us.

The following seven books are those that I feel have changed me the most in the past year. The ones that made me think, made me look at the world a little differently, the ones that introduced me to exciting new ideas and authors. 2015 was the first year I tracked everything I read and really made an effort to hunt down things that were a little different to my usual tastes. At the end of it all, I can say it was a fantastic experience, that everyone should do it, and that I very much look forward to doing it again next year!

Needless to say, I would thoroughly recommend all of these. So without further ado, here are my top seven reads of 2015 ❤

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Book Review : Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies

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​The weeping willow Pearl is riding dips its neck into a clear, brown stream. Sssshhhh, she whispers, as she pats the bucking trunk and grips with her thighs. Above her, the willow tosses its shaggy arms. Slim, fish-shaped leaves fall past Pearl and plop into the stream. She dangles over to watch and inhales as the slivers of green swim away; the stream’s breath smells of bright weeds, frogspawn, lichened pebbles…

These are some of the reasons she comes to the woods.

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Book Review : Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

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The fear of not living is a deep, abiding dread of watching your own potential decompose into irredeemable disappointment when “should be” gets crushed by what is. Sometimes I think it would be easier to die than to face that, because “what could have been” is much more highly regarded than “what should have been”. Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug.

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Book Review : A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel

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Hazel felt around under the blanket to inspect her body, which was still swollen – a tight, empty globe. What had been growing there was done and out and growing someplace else now. It didn’t need her blood or her air.

The genesis of human life is at the core of Ramona Ausubel’s first short story collection, A Guide to Being Born. These fleshly tales have a twisted beauty about them that will both beguile and innervate their readers. Continue reading “Book Review : A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel”