Friday, January 28, 2011

by Mira Bartok

Norma Herr was destined for Carnegie Hall. She was a child prodigy of the piano. By the age of nineteen, she was struck with schizophrenia and Chopin was erased by madness. Norma loved her two daughters but her mental state made her, more and more, impossible to be around (she had a fear of them being raped, kidnapped, or murdered and would incessantly say that to them).
No father was around (he had left when the children were quite young).
When the girls went to college, their mother's badgering did not cease. Norma would call at any time, show up at their residences or jobs and threaten sucide if they did not return home to her.
Finally, when it all became just too unbearable, Mira and her sister Rachel severed contact with their mother and changed their names to harbor their safety. (Mira's first name had been Myra and Rachel became Natalia.)
Seventeen years later, the daughters reconcile with their mother who is dying.
What a magnificent story! Mira Bartok writes in such lyrical prose. It's absolutely gorgeous. She is an artist and at the beginning of each chapter, Mira has painted an object that has to do with some aspect of the text. From Chapter 3 to the end are diary entries written by her mother. You see the brilliance with lucid moments and you also see the craziness.
Through art, writing, travel (Italy, Norway, Israel), the harrowing memories of living with insanity are revealed.
The book is honest, powerful and disturbing. Don't miss it.
Very highly recommended.

Monday, January 24, 2011

by Glynis Ridley

Herb women, through the centuries, have possessed an infinite knowledge of the curative powers of plants. Many educated men were unwilling to learn from them (call it pride) even though male botanists, druggists, and physicians relied on the supply of herbs to keep them in business. One botanist, the eminent Philibert Commerson would intentionally seek out local herb women due to his endless passion of flora. (He would acquire a medical degree but then would leave the profession and immerse himself totally in the field of plants much to his father's distress.)
In 1765, Commerson was asked to join an expedition which would be known as the first French circumnavigation of the world. As he would be collecting a vast array of resources, he would need an assistant.
Jeanne Baret, a twenty-six-year-old herb woman who had met Commerson, worked and lived with him (she became his mistress), wanted to join the voyage. Women were not allowed so she disguised herself as a young teenage boy and joined the crew of 330 men.
How a poor working-class woman survived amongst suspicious crewmates (a pistol always at her side) with some real interesting characters aboard the ship makes for one hell of a story. She, more than Commerson, would contribute more to botany than he would even though, as a woman, those findings would be dismissed or written out of history. A newly discovered notebook written in Baret's own handwriting has proven that she was a scientist in her own right. (One of her discoveries would be the bougainvillea which was named after the commander of the ship.)
Through scrupulous research author Glynis Ridley has pulled a virtual unknown botanist from the original journals of French naval officers and published works to the forefront.
Truly the first woman to sail around the world, Baret had an incredible amount of courage, strength and stamina to persevere through all kinds of trials.
A great read.