Friday, June 26, 2015

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski is Professor of French at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America. She is the author of several books, including Poets, Saints, and Visionaries of the Great Schism (1378-1417).

Her latest book is The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims: A Medieval Woman Between Demons and Saints.

Recently I asked Blumenfeld-Kosinski about what she was reading. Her reply:
I am a medievalist by training and profession but for the most part I dislike historical novels, except when they deal with scientists and their passions (though I have no particular scientific aptitude). Recently I embarked on a kind of “thematic binge,” bookended by a wonderful non-fiction book, Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder and a novel, T. C. Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done (a book I almost didn’t read because of its awful title). Holmes’ book’s subtitle is “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.” It focuses on scientists like Joseph Banks, Humphry Davy, William Herschel and his sister Caroline, and the explorer Mungo Park. Each chapter captures the excitement of new discoveries, people’s resilience in the face of disappointments, and their persistence in their endeavors.

In the past I had read Andrea Barrett’s short story collections Ship Fever, Servants of the Map, and Archangel (which I loved) but now I was looking for novels that starred a mixture of real and invented characters. Rebecca Stott’s The Coral Thief fit the bill (this is a thriller involving priceless stolen coral specimens and naturalists like Cuvier and Lamarck in 1815 Paris) as did her Ghostwalk, a murder mystery around Isaac Newton that spans the 17th century and the 21st; it deals with issues of literally cut-throat scientific competition and the violent tactics of some animal rights’ activists. Martin Davies’ The Conjurer’s Bird also interweaves two time periods, a technique I like very much especially if, like Ghostwalk, it features modern scholars on the trail of some past mystery.

Davies’ novel stars Joseph Banks in the 18th-century part of the plot and a modern-day naturalist named Fitz who embarks on a frenzied search for a unique bird that long ago was given to Joseph Banks and then disappeared. A love story is invented for Banks who smuggles his beloved on Captain Cook’s ship during expedition to the South Seas. (Banks also appears briefly in Elizabeth Gilbert’s excellent novel The Signature of all Things that I devoured last summer.) Another naturalist for whom a love story is invented (an intriguing young female painter married to his friend) is John James Audubon who is at the center of Katherine Govier’s engaging novel Creation. On his 1833 voyage to Labrador he meets captain Bayfield from the Royal Navy and both race to finish important projects, Audubon his immense Birds of America and Bayfield his cartography of the coastlines.

In Creation there is a distinct feeling of time pressure, to capture things in the natural world before they change. Ecological change is inevitable and efforts to stop it are often doomed to failure. This is why I picked up Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done which chronicles the fight between conservationists and animal rights activists in today’s California. The park ranger Alma Boyd Takesue is one of Boyle’s great creations. She truly believes that wild pigs and rats need to be eliminated completely on an island off the California coast so that the indigenous birds can survive. But how far can you dial back natural developments? The epic battle against Dave La Joy who is against any killing of animals escalates in the course of the novel, which also delves back into the past through various characters of an earlier generation. Boyle’s gift for satire and even slap stick is on full display here and he turns an ideological struggle into a full-scale war. In the end I found that I could not decide who was right and who was wrong since each view was represented by a passionate individual willing to take great risks for her or his position.

At the moment I’m reading another novel about a passionate scientist, Amy Brill’s The Movement of the Stars which features Hannah Price (modeled on the astronomer Maria Mitchell) who as a Quaker woman on Nantucket is gazing at the stars in 1845 and dreams of observatories and a scientific career. I don’t know yet how it ends but I can guess. And next I want to read Boyle’s take on Mungo Park in Water Music, probably another wild ride.
Read more about The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims at the University of Pennsylvania Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue