Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Northern Lights by Lucy Jago

This is a fascinating book about Kristian Birkeland, a Norwegian scientist who in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries endeavoured to discover the science behind the Northern Lights.

Birkeland was a professor in the Faculty of Science and Mathematics at Christiana University. A man who was used to the comfort of a library or laboratory, his investigations led him and his team into some dangerous situations. The places best suited for viewing the Lights were also often isolated and subject to freezing temperatures. A member of his first expedition lost his fingers to frostbite. But Birkeland inspired loyalty in his students and they were willing to face danger with him. When they finally reached their base on that expedition the Lights appeared in the night sky;

Birkeland understood for the first time why the Lights had defied neat explanation: they appeared not to belong to Earth but to space. Seemingly beyond human comprehension, they reached straight into the souls of those who witnessed them as an appearance of the angelic host or the Holy Spirit might do. The glowing banners in the sky were so entrancing that the group forgot the cold and remained outside, entering the hut occasionally to eat or drink but re-emerging to watch the breathtaking display dancing over their heads.

Money to fund his research was a constant problem in the early days and he had to spend time away from his studies to engage in money-making schemes. Some of these were very successful and allowed him to direct his own studies without being controlled by the university. This did produce some professional jealousy which made his life difficult at times. His work didn't receive the recognition it should've in his lifetime. I am very ill-educated about science but the impression I got from the book was that his theories threatened the status quo and the Royal Society in London stood out against them. Without the approval of the Royal Society, he found it difficult to be taken seriously elsewhere.

It was quite a sad life, but a fascinating book. I have always wanted to see the Northern Lights. I have heard that, with the right atmospheric conditions, they can occasionally appear as far south as North East England, but I am yet to see them.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Girl Reading by Katie Ward

I first heard about this book on The TV Book Club and thought it sounded interesting. It is structured as a series of short stories, though all are linked. The first story takes place in 1333, and then we make our way through history until we're in the future, in 2060.

All the stories are about the making of images of women reading. The first one is about a young orphan girl named Laura, living in Siena, who is chosen to be the model for a painted alterpiece. The second is about Esther, who works as a servant in the house of an artist in Amsterdam. As we move through the book we see the styles of art develop, through painting and photography and computer graphics. Also the roles of the women change. Laura and Esther have very few choices in their lives, whereas the later women are more empowered.

I think my favourite story is set in 1916 and is about Gwen, a 15 year old girl who is staying at the house of Cynthia Everard, an academic. I think that Ward captures Gwen beautifully. She is so self-centred and dismissive of people, including Cynthia, who she pities for being unmarried and dressing badly. Gwen is in love with Laurence Fern, an artist who is also a guest of Cynthia. When an elegant, sophisticated lady friend of Laurence's arrives, Gwen is devastated.

Gwen slides to the floor in a heap, for there is nowhere on the ample furniture to rest a spirit as battered as hers. Armchairs are too good for her. She must feel the woe and discomfort in her whole body, even in her knees. She must assume the position of melancholy. She is suffering, her heart is in shreds. Laurence Fern, behold your greatest work.

I loved this book and raced through it. I think it would be an excellent choice for a book club, with lots to discuss.