University of Massachusetts Press, 2016
When Stephen Clingman, Distinguished Professor of English at UMass Amherst,
was two, he underwent an operation to remove a birthmark under his right eye. The operation failed and the birthmark returned, but in somewhat altered form. In this captivating book, Clingman takes the fact of that mark—its appearance, disappearance, and return—as a guiding motif of memory.
Not only was the operation unsuccessful, it affected his vision, and his eyes came to see differently from each other. Birthmark explores the questions raised by living with divided vision in a divided world—the world of South Africa under apartheid, where every view was governed by the markings of birth, the accidents of color, race, and skin. But what were the effects on the mind? Clingman’s book engages a number of questions. How, in such circumstances, can we come to a deeper kind of vision? How can we achieve wholeness and acceptance? How can we find our place in the midst of turmoil and change?
In a beguiling narrative set on three continents, this is a story that is personal, painful, comic, and ultimately uplifting: a book not so much of the coming of age, but the coming of perspective.
Simon & Schuster, 2016
Did you realize that the first person known to observe and document the life cycle of moths and butterflies was a woman—and that she was the first person ever to take a scientific voyage? And that a woman found and chiseled out the first ichthyosaur skeleton? And that a woman astronomer from Nantucket spent many cold nights out on her roof before discovering a new comet in 1847?
It is these lives that Jeannine Atkins ’80, who teaches children’s literature at UMass Amherst, presents in Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science, her new novel in verse about natural historians Maria Sibylla Merian, Mary Anning, and Maria Mitchell.
All of the women emerge from the context of their time: Merian in Germany at a time when gathering wild herbs led to suspicions of witchcraft; Anning during haranguing religious debates about the age of Earth; Mitchell from a Quaker faith that was both emotionally strict and intellectually supportive.
Composing in verse allowed Atkins to explore details, find images, and compress things. She deliberately begins the life narratives when each girl is about 13—the target age of her audience, and also the age when she says “so many girls start to lose science.”
Atkins’s writing glows in describing the exhilarating uncertainty of science: the power to look past received knowledge, to learn from mistakes, and to find answers to questions that don’t already have answers—particularly answers to questions that no one yet knows how to ask.
“There’s a lot of mystery in science,” Atkins says, “and that’s where the joy is.
—By Laura Marjorie Miller