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Ship Fever: Stories Paperback – November 17, 1996
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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“Beautiful stories about the wonder and work of science…In Barrett’s hands, science is transformed from hard and known fact into malleable, strange, and thrilling fictional material.”
- Boston Globe
“The title novella is devastating: as with every story here, you enter right into it, and cannot entirely leave it behind.”
- The New Yorker
From the Author
After writing four novels in quick succession, I felt a longing to try something new - new voices, new approaches, new lengths and shapes," Barrett says about the writing of her book. "Ship Fever grew from that longing, with the collection as a whole evolving from the stories themselves, rather than from any preconceived notion. Although the stories differ from much of my earlier work because of their focus on history, writing them felt like a natural extension - I've always relied on research to uncover other people's lives and help me invent interesting situations. I knew as little, initially, about the Chinese doctors in The Middle Kingdom, or the elderly monk in The Forms of Water, as I did about these biologists.
My background is a little unusual for a writer; as a young woman, very much influenced by growing up on Cape Cod and by my love of the ocean and the natural world, I decided to be a biologist. I majored in biology in college, but not until a very brief stay in a graduate zoology program did I understand that I wasn't cut out to be a scientist. What I'd really wanted to be was a version of Darwin or Wallace; I wanted to see and describe and appreciate and name, not to analyze. Slowly I learned that those were the traits of a naturalist - a 19th-century profession. After I abandoned science, a brief but intense bout of studying history weaned me from the academic life for good; once more it was the stories of the field that captured me. I'm a slow learner, but at that point I finally turned to writing fiction. Still, science, particularly the history of science, never lost its fascination for me. I'm married to a scientist; many of my friends are scientists; for a while I edited medical and nursing books. And as I started writing these new stories I found myself driven back to the people and situations that had captivated me as a young woman.
What was it like to be Linnaeus, naming plants and animals for the first time? Or Mendel, ignored and despised? Those scientists I'd once glimpsed briefly at a marine-biology station - what might go on in their interior lives? What about the women I knew who had gone on to be successful scientists? If I'd been a doctor with a scientific mind in the 1840s, and was confronted with an epidemic disease caused by unknown factors, what would I have done?
Writing these tales, I felt as though I'd finally found a way to bring together science, history, and fiction - the three great, seemingly disparate, loves of my life. As if the long route I'd traveled in my writing, swinging wide through explorations of family life and contemporary love, China and a village lost to water, had led me back home after all.
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What is particularly noteworthy about these stories are that each is framed within a fascinating history of science context. Because of this unique feature, the book lends itself very well to an unusual type of book discussion group.
Our discussion sessions were two hours in length and each one centered on one story only. For each session, one member agreed to gather information about the scientific historical context underpinning the story and share it with us in a casual talk of about 45 minutes in length. During the talk, there was ample time for discussion. During the second hour, another member (selected in advance) facilitated the group in an in-depth literary and thematic discussion, often there were specific questions sent out in advance via email. In between the parts, we made time for the usual snacks and chatting.
This format worked very well and helped us get a lot more out of this collection than if we had just read the entire book as a whole and gathered to discuss it for one two-hour session. We were all genuinely fascinated with the science history behind each story, even if it was tangential to the actual theme or purpose of the story. The person doing the talk enjoyed the independent research that went into it and the chance to share that information with the rest of the group. Although we were all very well educated people, most of information we learned in these casual talks was fresh and new. When it came time to discuss each story as a literary work, we had no problem maintaining a lively discussion on a single story for 45 minutes.
If your book group has time to give this format a chance, you might find that it significantly enhances your enjoyment for this particular collection of stories.
And so we continue. THE ENGLISH PUPIL concerns the old age of the great Linnaeus, declining not-so-gracefully in 1770s Uppsala. THE LITTORAL ZONE is about a torrid affair between two scientists, set in the present. RARE BIRD is how two women outsmarted the great Linnaeus, layered in amongst observations about how difficult it was for an intelligent woman to live a happy and fulfilling life in 1760s England. SOROCHE is a tragic story about loss, set in the present. BIRDS WITH NO FEET is a vivid recreation of the lives of the nineteenth century scientist-explorers, who, inspired by science, set up to collect animals and plants from remote corners of the world. THE MARBURG SISTERS is about a relationship between two sisters, one of who is a biochemist, set in the present. SHIP FEVER is set in 1840s Canada, and concerns a public health tragedy.
What is so amazing about these tales is how well the characters are evoked. Ms Barrett manages to immerse us quickly into their lives and concerns, so much so that we feel as if we know them well after only a few pages. That shows real talent. If you have never read short stories before, or believe you don't like them, these are for you. Five stars. A bookclub recommendation.