Sunday 23 September 2012

The Evolution of Inanimate Objects by Harry Karinsky

My preference for fiction over non-fiction is well documented.  I dare you to try to find a review of non-fiction on this blog.  Good luck with that.

I mean why muddy up a really good story with a whole bunch of factual details and all the associated footnote and bibliography references and indices?  Facts quite frankly get in my way of my reading.  And my imagination.
Despite an author’s descriptions of a fictional character’s physical traits, we all see that character differently in our mind’s eye whereas with a factual, real life person, you typically have a photograph, usually several throughout their lifetime, so you know precisely what they look like.  Unless they are very historical, like Genghis Khan. Or Julius Caesar.  Even then, there are a few drawings or coins from which a physical depiction can be influenced.

Whereas, with a fictional character, I am allowed to wander a bit more.  One of my pet peeves is when the cover of a book has a picture, or worse a photograph, of the main character.  The mortal sin is books which have a cover of a photograph from the film which has subsequently been made.  I am all excited that the author of the original publication got a book deal but it spoils the fun for me.  If I haven’t read the book by the time the film comes out, I won’t read the book.  Unless I have to under threat.  Of death.

For me, a photo or drawing is someone else’s mind taking over from mine and that defeats the purpose of fiction.

I will concede I have read a few biographies and enjoyed them.  The most recent biographies I have read include the following:

1.       The biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson was fantastic, sometimes brutal, sometimes adoring; not unlike how those around Steve Jobs probably felt in his presence.   This biography was imminently readable and despite its heft, I breezed through it to the expense of my children and housework.
2.       Rob Lowe’s biography was full of name dropping stories and inconsequential, barely entertaining anecdotes.  Well, honestly what did I expect?  Let’s face it; I just bought it for the photograph on the dust jacket.
3.       I found Helen Rappaport’s biography of Queen Victoria’s year before and years after Prince Albert’s death, Magnificent Obsession, to be fascinating but dense with details.  I had to give myself regular breaks in between chapters with other reading material to sustain myself.
4.       I was less impressed with Hugo Vickers biography of the last days of Wallis Simpson, Behind Closed Doors.  I think I just found it all a bit too sad and dirty with the two sides of the story so wildly different and little third party objective substantiation.  I enjoyed Mr. Vickers’ own personal brushes with Mrs. Simpson but tired quickly.
5.       Elizabeth The Queen Mother, also by Hugo Vickers was thoroughly enjoyable but again very dense with thousands of references to thousands of archived documents.  I found myself dipping in and out just to clear my head occasionally.

So, I tend to head towards fiction:  crime, thrillers, historical, with a bit of chick lit lightly peppered about.
But what about a blend of the non-fiction and fiction category to really through me off the scent?  Now this sounds like a bit of fun!

The Evolution of Inanimate Objects by Harry Karinsky is just that:  a whole bunch of fun.  A family firmly planted in the roots of British history, the Darwin family includes not only the esteemed Charles, but his father, brothers, sons who all made significant contributions to all different fields of study and society.

The novel focuses on the premise that Charles and Emma Darwin had not 10 but 11 children, the last being Thomas.  Of course, Thomas doesn’t really exist and every correspondence is truly the work of the author’s mind.  However, I had to keep multiple sources to make sure.

This isn’t a long book and would be quite easy to read in a single sitting except that the fusion of fiction and non-fiction draws you into the dark world of Wikipedia.  I found myself learning all about the intricacies of Charles Darwin’s life and research methods, his personality and notably the history of mental illness in his family of genius.

The Darwin-Wedgewood (Darwin’s wife, Emma, was his first cousin from the pottery family) family was rife with eccentricities but very accomplished and were most certainly thought leaders of their day.  However, they had more than a predisposition towards mental instability.  Charles Darwin’s repeated illnesses had roots in hypochondria which could have easily been brought on by depression.  The detail to which Darwin’s research was conducted and documented could easily be classified as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

When Thomas’ research applies the same level of rigour to cutlery as his father applied to animal species, one starts to laugh at the absurdity but then begins to feel pity at a young man trying to live up to the monumental expectations of a father like Charles Darwin.  What else was left for Thomas to discover?

The explanation of the evolution of a dessert fork to a pastry fork and the accompanying drawing is a hysterical and satirical companion to the drawings Darwin made during his voyage on the Beagle.  The painfully accurate detailed observations and measurements of the fork tine widths were not dissimilar to those made by his father to prove the uniqueness of species.  The wholly melancholy point is that for Thomas the differences were inconsequential, whereas for his father, they defined a system of scientific categorisation still used today.

Thomas’s inability to live up to what he felt were his father’s expectations and his inability to distinguish himself and gain the scientific community’s respect led to his detainment in a mental institution in Canada to where Thomas had fled the pressures of academic Cambridge.  There his short, tortured life is brought to an end by tuberculosis.

The book is an extraordinary feat of originality.  It takes what could have been a dense, dull biography of Charles Darwin and encourages the reader to do their own research.  I was lost for days in the search for the fact within the tale of the fiction.  Rather than teach me, this book has allowed be to learn.  But not just about the Darwin family and scientific classification methods.  I have learned about the pain of seeking a parent’s approval and how difficult it can be for a child to establish an identity.

A highly recommended read!

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