Monday, December 23, 2013

Amazon protest and the Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Seattle Rally Supports German Amazon Workers

 Amazon protests from German and US Workers happened this month, which is interesting, in that once they unionize, I would imagine that Amazon will find a way to get rid of them and bring in non-unionized workers, who are cheaper and work longer hours under worse conditions and have no real voice in their treatment.

Nancy Becker, an Amazon warehouse worker from Germany, speaks at a
protest at the company's Seattle headquarters Monday. (photo: Geekwire

While some Amazon employees in Germany vowed to continue strikes at the
company's Bad Hersfeld and Leipzig facilities, supporters in the U.S.
staged a protest at the company's headquarters in Seattle
yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Mechthild Middeke, a representative of the services union Verdi, said
this "is the first time the union has taken a German wage dispute
outside the country to a corporation's doorstep" and described the U.S.
action as symbolic. "What's happening in Seattle is not a strike but an
act of solidarity with workers in Germany," she said.

The protest included several U.S. unions, among them the Teamsters and
the Service Employees International Union. "About 10 different labor
unions were present in solidarity with Ver.di," said Kathy Cummings of
the Washington state AFL-CIO.

 Christmas reading from Neil Gaiman in NYC

Author Neil Gaiman
"managed to make the crowd at the New York Public Library fall silent
for over an hour on Sunday to hear him read A Christmas Carol, from a
special copy that Charles Dickens had edited himself for live
performances. (He wore a fake Dickensian beard throughout to help get
into character.) Which, considering how many children were in the
audience, was a miracle on par with Scrooge's change of heart," the New
York Observer reported.

"It's a wonderful time to tell stories about the dead," Gaiman said.
"You've got winter. You got the depths of winter. You have the whole
peddling around a fireside thing. You have long nights.... What Dickens
did that was so interesting was that he took the ghost story, Christmas
ghost stories, as a genre, and he wrote a couple really good ones for
his magazine."  
The Signature of All Things is Elizabeth Gilbert's latest foray into fiction, after her fame for her non-fiction memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" which was made into a movie with Julia Roberts. Gilbert has become something of a guru to a generation of women who feel disillusioned and disconnected, and are trying to find a balance between being wives/mothers and being career women. Not that this is a new thing, but Gilbert's saucy prose and yearning to dig deeper to find answers resonates with many 20 and 30 and even 40 somethings looking for a way to have it all, or at least to have most of it all without losing their minds or spirits.
At any rate, The Signature of All Things is the story of Alma Whittaker, the daughter of self-made millionaire Henry Whittaker, who grew up poor in England and learned about botany and plants from his father, who was an orchardist at the famed Kew Gardens in London. Henry made a fortune selling quinine and other botanical remedies in the new world, and after finding a sensible and smart Dutch wife, settled in Pennsylvania. Alma grew up in the 19th century, a very privileged child who was educated in languages, botany, mathematics, logic, history, astronomy and chemistry. Her only "problem" is that she is described as being "ugly" and large, with irregular features, reddish hair and a blunt, questioning nature. Yet somehow, she is never sought out by young men seeking their fortunes, which seems a bit odd. 
When her parents adopt the daughter of a harlot and a madman, both of whom are killed right in front of her, the thing that bothers Alma the most is that the girl is very pretty, and she feels the weight of the contrast between them acutely. Prudence, as she is called once she's adopted by the Whittakers, is educated alongside Alma, but has little hope of catching up to her brilliance. When they encounter a wild and socially adept friend, Retta Snow, it seems as if the two will actually have a friend to work as a bridge between the two of them. 

George Hawkes, a publisher, comes to White Acre, the family estate, initially to work with Alma on her botany articles (women were not allowed to publish anything serious in that era, or if they did, they used an alias) but it becomes clear that Alma has developed feelings for George, though she never declares them because  she is afraid of being humiliated and scorned due to her ugliness. It's around this time that Alma finds some erotic literature, and on reading it, discovers that masturbation helps relieve her feelings of tension and passion that have no other outlet.  Sadly, due to the era, and her strict protestant upbringing, Alma is certain that masturbation is evil and unclean, and she feels ashamed of her sexual longings.
 Unfortunately, George marries Retta (after being turned down by Prudence, whom he loves, but who doesn't feel that she can marry him knowing how Alma feels about him...yet readers know none of this until near the end of the book), which crushes Alma, and Prudence marries an abolitionist tutor who insists that she live a life of poverty until all slaves are free men and living as as equals with whites. Retta has miscarriage after miscarriage, and being a flighty social butterfly type, ends up going mad, and is put in a "nice" insane asylum by her husband when it becomes clear that she's a danger to herself and others. Of course they drug her until she doesn't know who she is, and she dies alone, which is sad for such an interesting character. It is made clear in the book that 19th century women didn't usually have long lifespans, especially if they had, or attempted to have, children, or if they were at all fun or interesting. Dour, logical, stoic and virginal seems to be the only way a woman can survive. George dies too soon as well, and yet Henry, who lived a rough life until he was middle aged, survives until he's in his 90s. 
Alma meets a flora/fauna painter, Ambrose, who is also fascinated by the natural world, and of course she falls in love with him, seeing as he's only the second man to ever approach her, and it turns out that he's something of a nutball, too, believing in all sorts of metaphysical stuff, like angels and telepathy, and he marries Alma after believing that she had agreed to a celebate marriage via telepathy. Alma, furious and frustrated sexually, sends him off to Tahiti, (to her fathers vanilla plantation) where he dies after 11 years in a christian mission. At this point the old dragon Hanneke, the chatelaine of White Acre, and Alma's nursemaid, rips Alma a new one, and tells her that upon inheriting her fathers entire estate, that she should give some money to Prudence, who gave up the love of her life, George, for Alma, and that she's been selfish and lived a life of privilege too long, and has made everyone around her miserable. This is simply not true, and it is at this point that I became a bit frustrated with Alma. She gives her entire estate to Prudence to turn it into a school for freed slave children, and she gives money to Retta's asylum and to George, and then she takes off for Tahiti when she gets her husbands effects delivered to her, and discovers his nude drawings of a young, beautiful native boy with a large penis. Suddenly she realizes that Ambrose, the flaky artist that she banned to Tahiti, was gay. For some odd reason, she feels compelled to travel to Tahiti to find out more about the boy he drew who was obviously his lover, and to find out more about Ambrose himself. WHY she does this is still unclear to me. Ambrose is dead, he was no good to her sexually, or as a partner, really, and she's given away all of her money because her nursemaid guilted her into it, and she's not really even a good Christian, as she doesn't believe in anything but reason and logic, so she will be no good at trying to convert the Tahitian heathens. WHY take a rigorous journey by boat to a tropical island of a people who do not have any understanding of privacy or personal property (they steal everything from her soon after she arrives) just to find a gay man who loved the husband she erased from her life makes NO SENSE. She's supposed to be this brilliant and logical, no-nonsense woman and after one talk with her turncoat nursemaid, she's suddenly a mousey altruist who feels she needs to find her husbands gay lover and live in poverty as some kind of penance? I can't imagine her sainted mother or her nasty illiterate father being at all happy with that decision, had they been alive. She was the last "real" Whittaker, and she should be the one running White Acre, not her sniveling adopted sister, who seems a dupe to me.

Inevitably, Alma finds the Tahitian boy, who has now grown into a man nicknamed Tomorrow Morning and who is a leader/missionary himself. He is beautiful and charismatic, and he takes her to a cave full of moss (she has made a decades-long study of moss) where Alma is finally able to perform oral sex on Tomorrow Morning, though she doesn't allow him to have sexual intercourse with her, for some reason that readers are never privy to. Again, this is something that makes no sense at all in this book. After thirsting, hungering and yearning for sex with a man for over 30 years, WHY wouldn't Alma take advantage of the handsome Tahitian god and lose her virginity, for heavens sake? She is 50 years old, for crying out loud, it's now or never! But no, she just gets off the guy, and then ships back to Europe, where she has to find work because she gave her whole bleeping fortune away! So she goes to her uncle in Holland who has a botanical garden that has been in the family for generations, and she goes to work for him, while also writing her theory of evolution. She refuses to publish it, however, because she can't answer the question of why people do altruistic or unselfish things, which rarely help them win the evolutionary battle. (She claims not to understand altruism or unselfishness, yet what did she do by giving her entire estate away?) Darwin publishes his Origin of the Species and another scientist, Albert Russel Wallace, also published a paper on evolutionary theory. After Darwin's death, Alma invites Wallace to Holland for a visit, and shows him her theory, and is thrilled when he pronounces that there are "three of us" who had the same ideas about evolution. Thus the book ends, with old Alma satisfied that her place in history is secure, at least to herself. The book was well written, if a bit over researched, and a bit boring in spots where it goes on and on about plants, especially moss. Seriously, how many people are going to find every detail of moss evolution interesting?  Also, I don't see how Ms Gilbert can, with any authority, write about what it is like to be large and ugly, when she is willowy, blonde and beautiful.
Still, I would recommend The Signature of All Things to those who find 19th century women fascinating, and women in science and history interesting.

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