Books Read 2015 (117 since January 1)

Shakespeare's Restless World - Neil MacGregor - 2012 -The British Museum

    Amazingly, the Shakespeare industry continues to yield interesting and informative social and literary history.  Supported by the British Museum and the BBC, MacGregor had the unique idea of looking at Shakespeare's world through key objects that have come down to us.  Each chapter unfolds from one of these physical remains.  These include a silver medal, a silver cup, an iron fork, a rapier and dagger, a woollen cap, an obsidian mirror (originally an Aztec ceremonial object polished with bat feces), a glass goblet, a wooden ship model, a pedlar's trunk containing a clandestine Priest's kit for saying Mass, gold objects from Salcombe hoard, a panel of failed flag designs, a clock, a martyr's eye relic, and a number of maps, portraits and drawings.  Each is a keynote for one of the twenty chapters.  I learned a lot about the racy and dangerous world that Shakespeare negotiated with great fortune and success.  He survived violent encounters (unlike Marlowe) as well as the plague that shut down London's theaters in 1603, the year of James' accession to the throne.  Shakespears's was truly a global vision, even though he never physically left England.  Puck, in Midsummer Night's Dream, can "put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes," faster even than today's satellites.  Potential violence also lay just beneath the surface of society in the uneasy ascendancy of Protestantism as the Priest's kit signifies.  In the chapter on New Science, Old Magic, we learn of the venerable Magus, Dr. John Dee, who combined astrology, alchemy, magical slight of hand, and real scientific accomplishment.  Throughout Elizabeth's long reign she was threatened by plots of treason and assassination, thankfully thwarted by her master spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham.  Elizabethan clocks lead into the many references to time in the plays: "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time."  Recorded time and measured syllables are only possible through the mechanism of a clock that measures both hours and minutes and marks time with its tick and tock.  Reading this book leads me once again to the plays themselves, a never ending source of  amazement and delight.  I decided this time to go light and read A Midsummer Night's Dream.  So here is my review of this delightful play on the "fools that mortals be."


A Midsummer Night's Dream - William Shapespeare

    Yes, it's a piece of fluff, but what a delight of language it is, all the while riffing on the folly of mortal love and chivalric romance.  There is class, Theseus, Duke of Athens.  There is the mythic Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, betrothed to Theseus.  In the context of Elizabethan times, this is a merger of kingdoms, one located in the real world and the other mythical.  A blessed marriage of different but complementary realms.  Even more mythical are the fairies, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed, ruled over by Oberon and Titania and served by the miracle worker Puck, Robin Goodfellow, who notes how easy it is to manipulate young lovers, "Lord, what fools these mortals be," the mortals in question being Demetrius, Lysander, Hermia and Helena, but as he also notes, "Jack shall have Jill: Nought shall go ill."  There is the familiar play with a play, Romeo and Juliet light, and behind that the Persian story of Lala and Majnoun, as well as being the classical Pyramus and Thisby.  Bottom, the weaver, who plays Pyramus, also becomes the Golden Ass of Apuleius when Puck even entrances his mistress Titania into loving Bottom who appears to her as an ass.  Yes, Shakespeare and his audience were familiar with classical literature and happy to see the characters transformed into earthy Englishmen.  They were delighted at how easy it is to play them for fools and yet realize true love in the end.  The play opens with some of the loveliest iambic pentameter dialogue in the Shakespeare canon.  As we get further into the fairy realm, the language moves toward interconnected rhyming couplets.  It's a lovely play to read and even lovelier to see performed.  We were fortunate to see a Galiano Players production a few years ago, which provided the added layer of knowing all the characters for themselves as members of the community, some of them real characters in their own right.  Today is Newyear's Eve day and this play is a good way to look forward to a coming year. 


Beyond Belief - Jenna Miscavige Hill - 2013


    Jenna is the niece of Scientology's current mastermind "Chairman of the Board, Religious Technology Center" (COB) David Miscavige.  Her parents and her grandparents were all important Scientologists at one time or another.  Both her parents were high up in Sea Org, which meant that she was allowed very little contact with them and indeed they were posted to different sides of the continent and had little contact with one another.  Jenna was sent to "The Ranch" and at the age of seven had become a full fledged Sea Org Cadet.  Scientology teaches that every person is an essential Thetan being who is continually being reincarnated.  At age seven, Jenna signed a contract with the Church for a billion years of service on the pathway to the eight levels of Operating Thetan or OT.  Scientology is replete with jargon and acronyms, designed to lead the adherent into an elaborately constructed universe of belief and service.  Life at the ranch was brutal, with children performing hours of heavy labor and numbing instruction in the Church's arcane vocabulary and practice.  In addition to the manual labor, she was assigned to be the chief medical officer looking after the health of her fellow cadets.  Even in 1991 this all would be in blatant violation of child labor laws had it come to the attention of authorities in the outside world.  Unfortunately, they were hermetically sealed from this WOG world of "Well and Orderly Gentlemen."  They learned about MEST, Matter, Energy, Space and Time which somehow justified their hard physical labor.  While at the ranch she once attempted to escape but was apprehended and punished.  This scenario was repeated throughout her career in Scientology.  She rebelled at what she thought was unjust treatment and received increasingly harsh psychological thought control as punishment.  One instrument of that control was the E-Meter (electro-psychometer) invented by Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard.  It was as whacky and fraudulent as the founder himself, but was used to chilling effect to discipline rebellious behavior.  The worst punishment that could be given was declaring someone a Suppressive Person (SP), which could involve being sent to the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF) for reprogramming.  The book recounts incident after incident as Jenna attempted to become a good Sea Org member but rebelled and was punished.  Ultimately it was her sense of injustice that drove her out rather than a rejection of Scientology outright.  In the end, she "bolted" completely and started a self-help organization of ex-Scientologists.  Her most serious delinquency came from her relationship to the man she later married, a fellow Scientologist named Dallas Hill.  When her keepers refused to allow her to marry, she and Dallas had sex and were immediately punished by having an "out 2D," (Out Second Dynamic) which resulted from any intimacy more than kissing.  As things got worse for her, the thought control become increasingly a physical as well as mental imprisonment.  Later she learned that this harsh treatment was ordered by her uncle Dave, COB David Miscavige.  By this time her parents had bolted themselves and were living in Mexico, although she was not allowed to have any contact with them.  All her letters were opened and read by the authorities, and many were simply kept from her.  All of this is reminiscent of North Korea or China under the Cultural Revolution.  In some ways it was worse since it took place within a society that values freedom of thought and expression.  The book is an excellent piece of ethnographic writing as well as a chilling personal account of her many years of abuse by the Church.  That she eventually got out is a tribute to her feisty spirit and sense of justice.  Only when she was out did she come to realize that L. Ron Hubbard was a con artist, fraud and in later life insane.  In writing this book she hopes to help others who find themselves trapped in the system.  I wonder ultimately if COB Miscavige's increasingly paranoid and arbitrary control will backfire and the whole system will collapse.  Unfortunately, they are immensely wealthy and can afford good lawyers to fend off legal challenges, but being rotten at the core does not bode well for continued survival in its present form.  Maybe there will be a palace coup to replace Miscavage, but even so the core system will still be there.  Until enough people can see through the maze of obfuscating acronyms and dubious belief system, it will continue to pray on the minds and pocketbooks of needy and unstable people.  Jenna's book helps, but at its core Scientology isn't much crazier than successful and established religions like LDS and Jehova's Witness.  A "reformed" Scientology might just survive the Miscavage autocracy.  If so, too bad, since it is at heart a system of lies, deceptions and half truths designed for maximum thought control and incidentally maximum cash flow.  If the IRS had the guts to take away its tax free status as a religion that would help, but that's a long shot in the USA.  Elsewhere it has been rightly declared a cult. 



The Rest of Us: The Rise of America's Eastern European Jews - Stephen Birmingham - 1984 - McClelland and Stewart

    Birmingham has written extensively about rich and famous families in America.  In this one he follows the remarkable careers of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who became household names and dominated enterprises sometimes neglected by both gentiles and an older generation of German Jews.  Most arrived in New York and many started out as pushcart vendors.  Sam Goldwin (Schmuel Gelbsisz - Samuel Goldfish ), Louis B Mayer, Adolph Zukor, Irving Thalberg, David Selznick, Bert Lahr (Irving Lahrheim), Edward G. Robinson (Emmanuel Goldberg), Paulette Goddard (Pauline Levee), Lee J. Cobb (Lee Jacob), Theda Bara (Theodosia Goodman), Jack Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky), Fanny Bryce (Fanny Borach), Harry Houdini (erich Weiss, Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson, Sophie Tucker (Sonia Kalish),  George Burns (Nathan Bimbaum), Eddie Cantor (Isidor Iskowitch), Libby Holman (Catherine Holzman), and Lauren Bacall (Betty Joan Perske) dominated the new Hollywood film industry.  David Sarnoff went from street urchin to office boy to president of RCA.  (His granddaughter, Rosita, was at Swarthmore College when I was there.)  Meyer Lansky was the most successful crime boss in America.  Helena Rubenstein becaue the world's wealthiest woman although a miser at home.  Samuel Bronfman, whose father Jechiel was relatively well to do in Russia, thrived in the booze business during prohibition and took over Segram, a venerable name in distilling.  He and his associates are credited with inventing quality blended whiskey in contrast to the less than quality blends often marketed during prohibition.  Jacob Javits became an influential senator.  Most of these immigrants arrived not knowing English and for most of their lives spoke (and influenced) a rough and ready new vernacular.  The book also tells the tale of the "Jewish Cinderella," cigar factory worker become socialist Rose Harriet Pastor who married blueblood J.G. Phelps Stokes.  The book is carefully researched and allows the reader fascinating glimpses in the lives and times of these people who become icons of North American culture. 


Pastoral - Andre Alexis - 2013 - Coach House

    According to the author's brief note, the book follows Beethoven's 6th symphony, "The Pastoral."  The five movements are 1, awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country, 2, scene at the brook, 3, happy gathering of country folk, 4, thunderstorm, storm, 5. shepherd's song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm.  It is not as obviously an apologue as Fifteen Dogs but the human characters can be read as archetypal or representative of the cultures in which we find them.  And yes, there is a talking sheep.  The book begins with a recent seminarian, Pastor Christopher Pennant, arriving at his first parish of Barrow in Lambton County, southwestern Ontario.  Lambton is a real place but the name is appropriately allegorical.  A pennant is a ship's flag and perhaps that of the Magisterium that Father Pennant represents.  Although Barrow is a fictional place, it seems to resemble the small rural community in the real Lambton County where Alexis grew up.  Other principal characters are the love triangle of a farm boy, Robbie Myers, his fiancee Lizzie Denny, and his first girlfriend and continuing lover, Jane Richardson. Robbie loves both Lizzie and Jane and wants to marry one without giving up the other.  Father Christopher (whose name means, "bearer of the anointed one" and whose namesake is the patron saint of travelers), is drawn to a love of nature but finds himself in the culture of small town Ontario.  He has some heartfelt conversations with Liz when they meet at a sacred spring said to be the source of Ontario's Thames.  Christopher also becomes bonded to caretaker Lowther Williams and his friend, Heath Lambert, an eccentric inventor.  Although reluctant at first to accept Lowther as a caretaker, he comes to admire him as a friend and a gifted cook and housekeeper.  Lowther lives in the knowledge that all his male ancestors have died at age 63.  He turns 63 in the course of the book and does die, although not in the way he expected.  There is an apparent miracle when the town's mayor George Fox [also the name of the founder of the Society of Friends] walks on water as part of the Barrow Days celebration.  Sheep appear from time to time.  One is sacrificed as road kill to further the plot line; another speaks to Christopher as the Holy Spirit. This is a kind of transubstantiation or reversal of roles with the sheep becoming shepherd and the pastor a member of the flock.  It's interesting that in English sheep is both singular and plural.  Their flock, though, is more coherent than are Father Pennant's parishoners.  The name also suggests penitent.  Christopher struggles with his faith but seems to come out of it all with a shepherd's song and a calm after the storm.  The pastoral is also, of course, an obvious reference to his role as pastor.  Pastoral is a much less layered book (I think) than Fifteen Dogs.  It is, indeed, pastoral.  The characters are fully human with the occasional intercession of insects who create signs in the air and a talking sheep, but they are also archetypal.  Liz loses her love for Robbie but marries him anyway to start another generation of Barrow farmers.  Jane disappears into the city.   Things happen.  Lives develop, intertwine and separate.  Life goes on. 


The Elizabethan World - Lacey Baldwin Smith - 2015 - Horizon

    Rather than being a cultural history this is largely about the political and religious intrigues and people of of the Tudor world.  It's interesting and well done as a political history, but I would have liked to hear more about language and culture rather than Religious struggles and politics.  The discussion of the reformation and counter reformation are powerful and fascinating.  The closest thing today is the struggle between Sunni and Shia Islam.  True believers are dangerous for sure.  Despite not dealing language and literature, the book captures a time at the end of divine right of monarchs and the rise of equally authoritarian religious ideology.  Overall I surely prefer Gloriana over Calvin and Loyola.  The description of Loyola and Xavier as starving students in a Paris garret is interesting.  Now we have the first Jesuit Pope


Patrin: A Novella - Theresa Kishkan - 2015 - Mother Tongue Publishing

    This novella reads like a prose poem.  It has touches of autobiography as it traces the quest for her Roma roots by Patrin, a young woman living in Victoria.  Kishkan's own family on her father's side is eastern European but not Roma.  Patrin's Roma grandmother gave her the name.  It turns out to mean "leaves," but has a deeper meaning of signs left on a trail for others to follow.  Her search on the trail of her grandmother and her people begins with her grandmother's quilt, probably made by the grandmother's mother in Czechoslovakia.  The quilt, she discovers, is a kind of map of the places her Roma ancestors knew.  Leaves from different kinds of trees signify places that bear their names.  The book's short chapters move from Victoria to Crete to Paris and finally to Czechoslovakia where Patrin meets a man who will help guide her search.  The search is more spiritual than actual.  It's not just the story of looking for grave markers of ancestors from "the old country."  Not at all "ancestry.com."  The smell of the quilt, its fine stitching, Patrin's memories of sharing a bed with her grandmother in Saskatchewan, are all signs along the way.  Patrin writes a poem about the quilt and its meaning as she explores the possibility of becoming a writer.

    Green leaves on

        grey ground, dark velvet, these textures of night,

    shadows, gold thread, lines coming

        through the trees.

    Birdtracks at dawn.

    Where did she get the brocade?

    Who traded copper for linen,

    wool for silk?

    Who lost their bed for the ticking?

    Their blanket for the batting?

    Did she sew by day,

        horses in the background,

        tied

        to the wagons?

    Or by night, someone crooning

    a ballad in the darkness

        beyond the fire?

    Who lost their bed?


    On a boat to Crete she meets Nestor, a Roma musician who plays a zurna made of apricot wood.  He gently leads her into love for the first time but after a time leaves her to continue his life and destiny.  He is a force of nature not to be constrained, but she mourns the loss.  Later, love returns as she and her Czech friend and guide Tomas become more than friends.  Her home remains Canada, but she returns cloaked in the deeper meaning of the quilt and of her grandmother's life. 

    As with everything Kishkan writes, this book is thoughtful, passionate and spiritual without being at all smarmy.  Set line for line, the whole novella could easily become a long narrative prose poem.  There are also obvious poems where poems are called for.  There's a lot in this little gem of a book to dream about and return to.

The Red Thumb Mark - R. Austin Freeman - 1907 (first book in megapack 2014)

         I had never heard of Freeman until Phryne Fisher (aka Kerry Greenwood) in Dead Man's Chest said he was her escape reading mystery writer.  The detective is Dr. John Thorndyke and his Watson is his friend Christopher Jervis.  A large package of raw diamonds has been stolen from the safe of a metals dealer, John Hornby.  He and his rather scattered wife raised the orphaned sons of his two brothers, the cousins Reuben and Walter.  Reuben delivered the package to his uncle and the next morning when he opened the safe, the diamonds were gone but Reuben's thumbprint in blood was clearly marked on the piece of paper John left in the safe.  He had previously recorded his thumbprint (but not in blood) on a "Thumbograph" his aunt had received from Walter.  The police immediately arrested Reuben in what they said was an open and shut case.  The evidence was overwhelming, despite the lack of any clear motive and his uncle's testimony to his sterling character.  Reuben and Walter were also brought up with another orphan, the lovely Juliet Gibson, who has lately come into an inheritance that gives her financial independence.  Walter has tried to woo her but she is uninterested.  She professes a lifelong friendship with Reuben and is horrified at his arrest.  Jervis thinks she is in love with Reuben as he himself finds himself falling in love with her.  The mystery turns on Thorndyke's Sherlockian skills as an observer, scientist and experimenter.  As the plot progresses there are several ingenious attempts on his life.  Jervis is anguished by his love for Juliet and his duty as a gentleman.  The denouement comes at trial when Thorndyke demonstrates that what appears to be evidence should never be taken at face value.  Reuben is acquitted and Juliet is at liberty to tell Jervis that he is engaged to another woman but did not reveal it because of the cloud he was under.  Jervis & Juliet begin to call one another, "dear."  The language in this book is deliciously Edwardian, something forever lost to the generation that begins a greeting with, "Hey" and expresses emotion with emoticons.  The book is a clinical, technical mystery rather than a cozy one but surely a classic in the genre and a wonderful period piece.   

Dead Man's Chest - Kerry Greenwood - 2010 - Poisoned Pen Press

    As always, Greenwood delves into a fascinating cultural vignette as one setting for a very mild mannered mystery.  This time it's a community of surrealists living in the small seaside community of Queenscliff.  She brings in Andre Breton, Yves Tanguy, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Kraft-Ebbing and a cast of locals with surrealist names; Lucius Brazenose, Anteus (AKA Dr. Green), seemingly identical twins of indeterminate gender known as RM1 and RM2, Thaddeus Trove, Magdalen Morse, Cyril the hyena, Mr. Wellbeloved, a cat named Perroquet, and a real and vile parrot named Pussykins.  Phryne fits right in.  The surrealist gathering is the home of a Hungarian emigre, Madame Selavy. They declare, "Surrealism is a drug.  It is the fortuitous juxtaposition of two terms that shed a particular light to which we are infinitely sensitive.  The strongest image is arbitrary...Surrealism aimed to detach events from each other, so each occurred as a perfect thing to be examined and appreciated."  

    The mystery, such as it is, has to do with the disappearance of the Johnsons who were supposed to have been looking after the seaside home owned by Mr. Thomas, an anthropologist who has gone somewhere into the wilds of Arnhem Land.   She's renting it for a quiet holiday with Dot, Jame and Ruth.  She soon acquired another young protoge, a local guttersnipe she calls Tinker; also the wandering and famished dog belonging to the Johnsons.  Dot's fiance Hugh, who has been promoted to Detective Sergeant, arrives to investigate a rum smuggling case, which turns out to be connected to the Johnson's disappearance.  Another cast of characters is the neighbor, Mrs Mason, her odious boy and his bullying companions.  They get what they deserve and are even, perhaps, reformed if not exactly nice.  Through it all, Ruth is in her element cooking fabulous meals for the household using The Gentle Art of Cookery by Mrs. CF Leyel and Miss Olga Hartley. And oh, yes, there's the murder of a nasty old busybody who has been abusing her niece Lavinia.  Phryne is happy to let this one go as a mercy killing by the Irish maid.  The maid, Bridget, and Lavinia inherit Mrs. McNaster's fortune and move to live on a tree lined street closer to Melbourne.  All ends well as Phryne gets ready for a visit by the divine Lin Chung. 


Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit - Dane Huckelbridge - 2014 - William Morrow (Harper Publications)

    The book lives up to its title; a spirited history starting with Ramon Llull, a high liver who had a vision of Christ floating in air and became a Franciscan monk in the Baleric Islands in 1265.  What does he have to do with Bourbon?  He was an alchemist and in his experiments discovered that distilled wine was was an essential spirit suitable for drinking in small quantities.  Although the ancients knew about distillation, they seem not to have used it to produce a beverage.  Contrary to popular opinion, many Native Americans knew about fermentation, including fermented corn.  The first colonial to put the two together was Captain George Thorpe, Esq. the Jamestown colony.  He was killed by the Powhatans but left behind some kegs of his product, de facto the first batch of barrel aged corn whiskey.  George Washington was a distiller as were many other founding fathers.  Out of expediency came excellence.  The he product was at some point called "Old Bourbon," perhaps a tribute to the French who supported America during the revolution.  The name may have come from the name given a county in Virginia in 1785.  Mr. Jacob Spears, a distiller from Paris, Kentucky, is said to have first used the name Bourbon in the 1790s.  Bourbon was well established as a preferred drink by both northerners and southerners at the outset of the Civil War.  For Grant it was an essential bodily fluid.  Lee professed a liking for it as well but abstained during the war years.  It was used medicinally by both sides although not, as myth would have it, as the only available anesthetic.  Kentucky remained with the north, putting the southern troops at a considerable disadvantage.  In the years that followed, familiar names of distillers arose; Old Crow, Jim (Jacob) Beam, Evan Williams.  All went smoothly until the national paroxysm of xenophobia and puritan morality that resulted in the 18th Amendment and Prohibition in 1920.  The book points out that the impulse was as much a reaction of rural America against foreign immigrants and their cultures of wine, beer and brandy, as it was for the stated lofty moral purposes.  Unfortunately, that xenophobic white bias is what now propels the Republican Party.  As we all know, mixed drinks evolved to disguise the unpleasant taste of bootleg booze, although most of the bourbon being aged found its way to the Bahamas and Canada from which places it was returned at inflated prices by rumrunners.  Women entered the drinking workforce, speakeasys proliferated, and gangsters ruled.  The federal government lost an immense amount of revenue.  Although not the cause of the depression, prohibition certainly didn't help.  In 1932 the country came to its senses (sort of) and began to restore what had been lost, although most stills were dedicated to producing industrial alcohol at the onset of WWII.  After the war prosperity returned and Bourbon slowly developed into a national drink.  As of today, many artisinal distilleries have returned to 19th century small batch methods to produce a premium product.  Booker's True Barrel small batch is the original gourmet Bourbon.  Maybe Santa will put one under the tree for us.  The story of Bourbon really is a story of America.  Every evening as I was reading this interesting and informative book, I poured a shot or two of Evan Williams onto ice and savored rich words and a fine American product.  Cheers!


A Sport and a Pastime - James Salter - 1967 - Open Road Media

    This is the book that propelled Salter from the undeserved categorization as a military genre novelist into the mainstream.  There are flavors of Camus and Hemingway, but the voice is distinctively Salter's.  The opening pages are a description of Paris in August by an unnamed first person narrator.  Just a sample of the flavor: "There's a comfortable feeling of delivering myself into the care of those who run these great, somnolent trains, through the clear glass of which people are staring, as drained, as quiet as invalids."  The train trip goes on for another nine pages.  People come and go and are never seen again.  He reaches his destination, a house called Wheatlands in the small village of Autun.  The narrator talks to himself, to the reader, to whatever it is he is writing and to, perhaps, the reader.  "I've said Autun, but it could easily have been Auxerre.  I'm sure you'll come to realize that."  Who is this writer?  How does he come to be in Autun?  He has fantasies about Christina Wheatland but nothing comes of them.  Does he have any employment?  The story devolves away from him and to his friend Phillip Dean and his affair with a young French woman, Anne Marie Costallat, a 19 year old waitress at a restaurant named, "The Foy."   The rest of the book describes, in intimate detail, the physicality of their relationship, mostly the sex and very little other form of intimacy.  They are of different minds but achieve a perfect and repeated union of bodies, described in almost clinical detail.  How does the author know all this?  Did Dean tell him all, or is it all a figment of the author's vivid imagination as he fails to achieve intimacy himself.  There's a car, a 1952 Delage convertible, a car that Salter himself later owned.  It's not Dean's car but owned by a friend who is on an extended trip.  Indeed, Dean has no resources of his own.  He's a talented, maybe even a brilliant young man who dropped out of Yale out of boredom or in rebellion against his father, a well known and well to do literary critic.  Dean periodically tries to hit him up for money, usually with little success.  He cashes in his plane ticket home in order to continue living a life of languid and delinquent bliss with Anne-Marie, born October 8, 1944, who very much enjoys the vigorous sex life they have together but perhaps little else.  "She's only a child," the author tells Dean.  She speaks some English from having worked for the US Army in Orleans.  Dean's French is ragged and escapes him in an emergency, probably a saving grace.  The two don't have much need of language in order to communicate organically.  "One alters the past to form the future.  But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change," says the narrator not long after Dean arrives in the Delage.  In Dean and Anne-Marie's first embrace, he says, they hardly know one another.  That doesn't change materially despite the intimacy of their carnal knowledge.  The narrator writes, "I see myself as an agent provacateur or as a double agent, first on one side - that of truth - and then on the other, but between these, in the reversals, the sudden defections, one can easily forget allegiance entirely and feel only the deep, profound joy of being beyond all codes, of being completely independent, criminal is the word.  Like any agent, of course, I cannot divulge my sources.  I can merely say that some things I saw myself, some I discovered, for after all, the mutilation, the delay of as little as a single word can reveal the existence of something worthy to be hidden, and I became obsessed with discovery, like the great detectives."  (Add, maybe, a little Faulkner to the mix but no, it's pure Salter.)  There's even some embedded dialogue in the description of events in Dean's life.  The narrator lives through Dean and we see very little of him, and what we see is flaccid, inconsequential.  Anne-Marie is the wise one, the woman grounded in who she is and nothing more.  The others are poor little lambs who have lost their way, Yale expats.  She says to Dean, "Do you think you will remember me in five years? ... You will go," she said.  "You are the type."  She is right.  They communicate in the eternal present in "the single unselfish ritual of love they contribute to it all they can.  Nor does it matter how much either takes away.  It is a limitless body.  It can never be exhausted but only, although one never believes this, forgot."  They are married, sort of, and then Dean leaves.  He does not return.  We never know if maybe he planned to return, for an accident claimed him in America not long after.  Anne-Marie goes on to live the life she was destined to live.  But the narrator does acknowledge that what they had was sweet in, "their first exchanges in the language that she taught him."  He muses, "In one sense, Dean never died - his existence is superior to such accidents.  One must have heroes, which is to say, one must create them."  So, A Sport and A Passtime is Salter's creation.  "It is we who give them their majesty, their power, which we ourselves could never possess.  And in turn, they give some back.  But they are mortal, these heroes, just as we are.  They do not last forever.  They fade.  They vanish.  They are surpassed, forgotten - one hears of them no more."  Anne-Marie lived on, married, maybe had children.  James Salter died  at the age of 90 in 2015.  

Queen of Hearts: A Royal Spyness Mystery - 2014 - Rhys Bowen - Penguin

    Georgie is still not quite getting it on with Darcy but this time they share an adventure in Hollywood as guests of Cy Goldman, head of a movie studio (MGM?) who has invited Claire, Georgie's actress mother, to star in a film about Elizabeth I and her sister Mary.  Claire has come to America to get a Reno divorce from her former Texas husband, Homer Clegg in order to marry her current sugar daddy Max, the German.  The film project hasn't really gotten off the ground when Cy is murdered at his mansion estate.  Georgie, Belinda and Darcy are there, or course, as are bit characters like Charlie Chaplin.  Again, the story is delicious for its setting and its characters rather than the mystery, although that proves to be interesting enough.  Darcy has come on assignment to track down a mysterious cat burglar whose victims are always in a place where Cy's mistress, Stella Brightwell is present, but always with an alibi.  Claire and Stella shared the vaudeville stage in years past and Stella had an act with her sister, Bella.  So you can get the drift of the plot.  Doesn't matter, though.  And yes, there gazelles and giraffes on the estate, which is in truly horrible appropriative American nouveau riche taste (or lack thereof).  I'm worried, though, that Georgie is getting to be a little long in the tooth to be a virgin.  Let's hope she does it in the next book without having to retire into domestic obscurity. 


 

Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue - 2015 - Andre Alexis - Coach House Books

(some of the poems by Kim Maltman and inspired by Roo Borson)

Review by Robin Ridington - November, 2015

 

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods,
They kill us for their sport.  (King Lear)

 

(An apologue is a philosophical fable often involving talking animals.  Anansi and Brer Rabbit come to mind.  Fifteen Dogs is the second in a series of five philosophical tales in the genre.  The first, Pastoral - 2014, was about talking sheep.

 

       Fifteen Dogs is the winner of the 2015 Giller prize and well worth the tribute.  At first glance I thought it looked like a nod to The Iliad, Lord of the Flies and maybe Animal Farm or Heart of Darkness, but it's a much deeper book than such a facile characterization.  It might be about the transition from deathless Olympian Gods to the Christian God who experiences death as a man.  Maybe it's best to start with the poetry rather than the opening scene, which is where every review starts, although the opening epigraph from Pablo Neruda's 'Ode to a Dog' may help: why is there day, why must night come ... 

 

And he asks me
with both eyes:
Why is it daytime?
Why does night always fall?
Why does spring bring
Nothing
In its basket
For wandering dogs
But useless flowers,
Flowers and more flowers?
This is how the dog
Asks questions
And I do not reply.

 

       Here are the book's poems in order, and yes, they were composed by a dog named Prince.  Each one contains the name of one or more of the 15 dogs given human consciousness and language in a genre invented by Francois Caradec for the OULIPO, "the workshop of potential literature," using "constrained writing techniques" related to palindromes and mathematics.  These poems reflect Prince's experiences and those of  his pack.  Each one contains the name of one or more of the dogs.   I may have missed some as of this reading.  I've highlighted the names I found.  Majnoun and Ronaldinho are still missing.  The hidden meaning is in the sound rather than in the typography.  Oulipo is more than a clever poetic trick.  It references the essence of an oral culture of apologues which, despite being written down at some point, are essentially oral.  And so, maybe back to The Iliad  which, as Lord and Parry tell us, is oral, mnemonic and illiterative.  Kim Maltman (see above) is a poet, mathematician and theoretical physicist.  Kim is the name of Prince's beloved first master with whom he is reunited in his last dream.  But I'm getting ahead of the story.  Prince's poems and the Ulipo names I could find: 

 

       Beyond the hills, a master is

       who knows our secret names.

       With bell and bones, he'll call us

          home,

       winter, fall or spring.  [Bella]

 

       The light that moves is not the light.

       The light that stays is not the light.

       The true light rose countless sleeps

          ago.

       It rose, even in the mouth of birds.   [Rosie]

 

       How the sky moves above the world!

       How the ground's fur is changed.

       All to distract the dog with bones,

       buried or dug.  He will wander

          unsatisfied.  [Dougie]

 

       We bound into the prairie

       through ages of Winter grass,

       taking the path Ina took.

       Her name long gone,

       though her roads linger.

       The ground will not forget.

       Longing to be sprayed (the green

           snake

       writhing in his master's hand),

       back and forth into that stream -

       jump, rinse: coat slick with soap.  [Athena - Prince]

 

       In the sunny world, with its small

       things moving too fast,

       I shy away from light

       and in the attic cuss the dark.  [Atticus]

 

       The leaves, they run like mice,

       while birds peck at the ground.

       The wood has rotted in its bit.

       The grim axe has come round   [Max]

 

       With one paw, trying

       the edges of the winter pond,

       finding its waters solid,

       he advances, nails sliding,

       still far from home.  [Lydia] 

 

       Running through the grey-eyed dawn

       with last night's trash in mind,

       the brown dog scuttles

       through fluted gates

       while birds sing on above the world

       about a bit of fallen cheese,

       the shish kebob he ate

       and all the vagaries of plates

       that wait for him at home.  [Bobbie]

 

       The lake comes to the fringe

       while lights go up around the bay.

       Somewhere near, the cow flesh is singed.

       Smoke floats above the walkway.

       I've eaten green that comes up black,

       risen cold from torrid mud.

       I've licked my paws and tasted blood.

       What is this world of busy lies?

       Some urban genie feeding food to flies! 

       [Frick -Benjy]

 

       What is the name of he who comes

       with eyes closed and fingers black,

       the one who draws the curtains back

       when dawn has come?

       'Agha Thanatos' or just plain 'Death'?

       When will I know which is right?  [Frack - Agatha]

 

       Prince is a mutt who, along with 14 others dogs, was given human intelligence and consciousness in a wager between Apollo and Hermes about whether or not a being with human language and consciousness will die happy.  Olympian Gods are obsessed with life and death, death being something they can never experience.  Apollo says no, Hermes says yes.  The prize is two year's servitude.  The fifteen dogs were in a kennel in Toronto, where the Greek Gods had been having a beer in Toronto's venerable Wheat Sheaf tavern, founded 18 years before confederation.  They speak ancient Greek to one another.  Wheat sheaf, of course, is the symbol of Demeter.  "While often described simply as the goddess of the harvest, she presided also over the sacred law, and the cycle of life and death. She and her daughter Persephone were the central figures of the Eleusinian Mysteries that predated the Olympian pantheon."  Hermes argued that, "the human way of creating and using symbols is more interesting than, say, the complex dancing done by bees."  Apollo maintained that, "Human languages are too vague."        

    Their wager is an experiment going deep into the paradox of humans having both an animal, instinctual nature and a cultural, linguistic, even poetic one.  Like the dogs that these capricious Olympians transform, we, too, have been transformed by a capricious trick of evolution into becoming sentient beings with animal natures.  Our primate natures are less nuanced than those of dogs, most of whose senses are far superior to our own.  The fifteen dogs react differently to their transformation.  Atticus, "an imposing Neapolitan Mastiff, with cascading jowls," becomes Alpha Male and rejects their new language, even while continuing to think in it and occasionally even communicating in it, contrary to the rule he imposes on the others.  He reminds me of the hypocritical Evangelical preachers who inveigh against homosexuality while secretly indulging in it.  Prince is a mutt who composes poetry.  Majnoun is a black Poodle who learns about love from Nira, the woman with whom he has an intense bond of understanding and communication.  They are avatars of the Arabic/Persian love story of Lala and Majnoun, an inspiration for Romeo and Juliet among other things.  Benjy is a scheming self-interested Beagle who if he were not a dog might have been a politician. 

       Just as fifteen dogs were given a new language and with it a new way of thinking, Fifteen Dogs gives the reader the aural vision through OULIPO poetry; seeing something that is there but disguised and revealed only in the hearing of it.  And of course there are the Gods.  They have a fascination with what is forever absent in their lives.  They give mortal men (and dogs) free will to determine their feelings as their lives end, but not freedom from that fate, just as the Gods themselves are fated to be immortal.  In the book the Gods are not alone among the Olympians.  They cannot control the Fates; Atropos who cuts the threads of mortal lives; Clotho and Lachesis who weave them together.  To the Fates, even Zeus is just a "loud mouthed fornicator."  All the dogs die in the end, as, of course, do all humans, but Prince, at least, lives and dies as the poetic Prince of Peace.  The Christian God, unlike the Olympians, must die in order to become one with Man, but in his grace he is given to be born again.  The fate of  Man remains a matter of theological debate. 

       Am I reading too much into this short book about fifteen dogs.  No.  On the contrary, at this point I am reading too little.  Alexis is gifted in voicing ultimate questions about culture and nature, Man and God, without using bafflegab or inpenitrable philosophical jargon.  He's a storyteller and a poet.  Fifteen Dogs richly deserves the Giller.  

 

I thought about whether I could write a sonnet inspired by sonic resonance.  I could and did. 

 

Oulipo

 

You leap over the musty hallowed halls

of prosody.  You rob in sight of fate.

A fallow fingered sheaf of foolscap falls

as casements blindly ratiocinate.

\

Slick scratch of pen or easy tap of key

assembles fonts as diadems of words

that conjugate, that breed and then that flee

into the fastnesses that are absurd

 

or flacid, or to quicken stiff with sound

that signifies the nought or one - the code

you understand, stand under, and are found

to lie within the textual abode

 

of sonic sonnetry.  Please, say it's not

the toxic tropic malady I've got.

 

Robin Ridington

November 22, 2015

 

Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout - Philip Connors - 2011 - Harper Collins

    Connors grew up on a farm in the midwest but found his way to New York where he got a job as copy editor for The Wall Street Journal.  He met a woman in a bar (not on social media) and they began a series of intense conversations and correspondence.  Connors had always loved green spaces, and wild things and even found a feral meadow on an abandoned El line, but New York eventually wore them both down and in 2002 decided to move to New Mexico together where Martha entered nursing school and Phil took a summer job staffing Apache Peak lookout, a remote fire lookout in the Gila National Forest.  During the winter he honed his skills as father-confessor tending bar to rednecks and cowboys in Silver City.  The book is only incidentally about their relationship, which isn't even mentioned until page 25 There's just as much about their dog, Alice, who accompanies Phil on the hikes through the forest he takes on the days off when he's not in town with his now wife Martha. Connors loves and respects the forest but does not gush about it.  Aldo Leopold worked in the Gila and was in part responsible for it becoming a (more or less) protected area.  He writes about Leopold and the split between Gifford Pinchot and John Muir over the meaning and human value of wilderness.  Pinchot favored making wilderness accessible to large numbers of people.  Muir wanted people to find it as it is with as little disturbance as possible.  He also writes about and quotes Gary Snyder and even Thoreau without commenting on what a hard ass puritan he was.  Connors is not like that.  He brings a judicious supply of bourbon to the post and welcomes visits from his wife.  He praises Norman Maclean's little known Young Men and Fire as, "the one and only masterpiece ever written on the subject of American wildfire.  He has an interesting and attentive chapter about the Apache resistance warrior Victorio and describes visiting the site where he and his band ambushed American Buffalo soldiers. 

    All this is just background to the main point about the book.  It's a loving tribute to the extraordinary beauty of  the pine, juniper, meadow environments west of the Rio Grande and north of Mexico.  It is beautifully written without succumbing to unnecessary romanticism.  It is also about  the craft of fire fighting and the difficult decisions the forest service must make about whether to allow or even encourage natural fires as part of the forest succession or to suppress them.  He ends the book with a line from the poet Richard Hugo:  If I could find the place I could find the poem.   I have found the place.  This is the poem. 

    The book has a special interest for because I spent part of one summer when I was in college with my Aunt Jeanie and her family who lived in the tiny town of Apache Creek, NM, within sight of the Apache Peak lookout.  Aunt Jeanie drove me through whatever roads were available in and around the Gila and Mogollon Rim as well as flying over it in her Cessna 172, 4156F  She had an instructor's rating and started a logbook for me which led to a private pilot's license a couple of years later. 


Heirs and Graces: A Royal Spyness Mystery - Rhys Bowen - 2013 -Berkley Prime Crime

Georgie goes to a classic Agatha Christie isolated estate to help educate a young Australian recently determined to be the estate's heir.  There's a lot about lingering aristocracy - they "dress" for lunch and dinner.  They have servants to dress them.  They value duty to class and privilege above all.  The dowager Duchess of Eynsford embodies it all, and her son John Altringham, who died in the war after renouncing his aristocratic heritage to live in Australia, turns out to have fathered a son, Jack.  The current Duke, John's brother, the degenerate Cedric who, playing for the other team,  refuses to produce an heir.  He has grand designs for creating an ampitheater on the estate and is accompanied by a French valet, Marcel, and a gaggle of syncophants, here called the starlings.  Cedric turns up dead with Jack's knife in his back and a local inspector arrives to take charge.  Jack is initially a suspect but evidence materializes that Cedric was poisoned and only stabbed post mortem.  There is the appropriate cast of dysfunctional family members and some interesting twists and turns of plot.  Darcy of course is involved, as the person engaged to bring Jack from Australia to England.  Jack is suspicious of the toff ways of his long lost relatives but takes a fancy to his cousin who has been disabled in a riding accident and seems to be above the rigid formality of her their grandmother, the Duchess.  All is resolved in the end, although it is not clear whether Georgie and Darcy actually manage to get it on.  While anxious to shed her virginity, she wants to do it properly and Darcy respects her wishes.  Lots of passionate kisses, though. Stay tuned. 


Daniel Sims - Tse Keh Nay-European Relations and Ethnicity, 1790s-2009

MA Thesis University of Alberta - Department of History and Classics - 2010

Notes by Robin Ridington - November, 2015

 

       The first chapters review the literature on Sekani; Jenness, Morice, Mackenzie, Harmon, Black and Denniston.  These sources contain a bewildering number of terms for the various peoples living between the Alberta border and the Arctic/Pacific divide.  By giving primacy to these terms Sims fails to note several fundamental facts about subarctic hunting, gathering and trapping peoples. 

       One is that, until relatively recently, terms of self-identification differ from those used by outsiders.  Thus, all of these people speak dialects of the same language and represent a continuum of overlapping populations or demes.  My own research indicates that at least the McLeod Lake Sekani and the related people between western Alberta and the Rocky Mountains self-identify as Dane-zaa, (which Sims spells Dunneza following an earlier usage) translated variously as "our people" or "real Indian."  Dane-zaa is the spelling currently used by the upper Peace River First Nations.  The term Sekani (Tse Keh Nay in the thesis) literally means "people of the rocks."  I agree with Jenness that Sekani was never used as a term of self-identification by all the related populations.  It seems to have been used by people outside the Rocky Mountain area to refer to people living there, and to have been adopted by various fur trade writers and ethnographers.  The Dane-zaa of the former Fort St. John band refer to people of the mountains as Tsegenu and sometimes include in this term the Halfway River people of the Hudson Hope band.  People of the Halfway River First Nation and those of the former Fort St John band have come to identify themselves officially in recent years as Dane-zaa rather than Beaver.   

       Another fundamental fact is that subarctic athapaskan adaptive strategies emphasize seasonality and the scheduling of resources.  Thus, different environmental zones call for a different mix of strategies.  Because all these people live in areas of considerable environmental diversity, they are able to use "edge-zone" adaptations.  The advent of the fur trade had a significant impact on seasonality, essentially adding a resource (the fur trade post) that had not existed previously. 

       Sims is correct in saying that, "the treaty period strengthened regional Tse Keh Nay identies," but I believe he is wrong in asserting the previous existence of "a wider Tse Keh Nay ethnic identity," if by this he means an identity using that name to include all the people speaking related dialects of the same language.  Sekani (sometimes referred to as Slave in the fur trade journals) seems to have been used by fur trade writers to refer to all the related people within the Rocky Mountains, and Beaver to refer to people of the Peace River.  Their own term of self-identification seems to have been Dane-zaa, although now with the creation of various First Nations (previously bands), that term is used as an ethnic identifier by the upper Peace River First Nations. 

       Sims uses the term Tse Keh Nay to include the modern communities of McLeod Lake, Tsay Keh Dene, Kwadacha and Takla Lake.  He goes on to discuss their divergent strategies with regard to treaty making options.  McLeod Lake opted to take an adhesion to Treaty 8 in 1999.  Kwadacha has entered into the BC Treaty Commission Comprehensive Treaty negotiations.  Sims follows with a discussion of disputes regarding the treaty's western boundary.  These are legal rather than ethnographic issues and I cannot comment on their merits.  He says that Treaty 8 "reinforced east-west regional identities."  It is not clear whether he means after the McLeod Lake adhesion.  I very much doubt if it had much effect on regional identity in the early 20th century. 

       Sims quotes Tsay Kay Dene Chief Seymour Issac who suggests that the McLeod Lake Tse Keh Nay (McLeod Lake Indian Band is the term hey use to describe themselves to outsiders) were "enticed by Indian Affairs into demanding an adhesion  to Treaty No 8 based on the perceived benefits they would receive from it" (Sims 90).  He cites Ridington's 1968 thesis giving regional band names known to his informants.  He quotes from the thesis, "White traders classed all the Indians east of the Rockies together as Beavers, a term which probabloy derives from Tsa-huh or tas-dunne, Beaver People.  The Rocky Mountain Indians they called Sekani, after tsekani or tsekene, Rocky Mountain people.  To the Indians, tsa-huh and tsekani are simply two wutdune [regional populations] out of many but to the whites the terms became tribal names referring to two broad geographic and dialectical divisions" (Ridington 1968 146-147).  Lamb (1970 250) gives us a note in his edition of Mackenzie's journal saying that Mackenzie meant Western Beaver by the term Rocky Mountain Indians.  At the time of Mackenzie's journal entry on January 12, 1793, neither he or any other European had visited the upper Peace River or encountered native people there first hand. 

       Sims argues that the treaty reinforced "regional identities compared to a wider Tse Keh Nay identity."  He concludes that, "The fact that Treaty No. 8 reinforced regional Tse Keh Nay identities explains the separate approaches taken by the four modern "Tse Keh Nay."  It is not possible to know to what extent pre-contact people of the Rocky Mountain trench and adjacent areas described themselves as Tsekene and to what extent the more intimate term Dane-zaa was used.  I suspect that then as now, the choice was situational and context dependent, although Jenness argues that there was no overall term to identify all groups by a single ethnicity.  Fur traders and ethnographers found it convenient to record the names of regional bands.  The choice of which term would be used to self-identify was also context dependent.  In thinking about who you are in relation to people of other bands, you will use the name of your regional band.  In thinking of your linguistic and cultural ethnicity, you will use Dane-zaa. 

       Sims notes that despite signing an adhesion to Treaty 8 in 1999, the McLeod Lake Indian Band also entered into the comprehensive treaty process in 2004.  Tse Keh Dene "has chosen to pursue the treaty on their own, while Kwadacha has chosen to unite with the Kaska Dena Council, which also represents the Liard First Nation that Nelson River Nomads joined" (93).  The decision of Kwadacha, he explains, is due to their being a combination of the Fort Grahame Nomads and Kaska.  Hence their joining with Kaska Dena Council in entering into comprehensive claims negotiations.  He points out that Jenness' Tsekani and Yutuwichan united to be come McLeod Lake Tse Keh Nay and the Sasuchan and Tseloni united to become Fort Grahame Tse Ken Nay. 

       Sims describes the Kwadacha/Kaska-Dena claim and that of Talka Lake, as that of a "mixed Dakelh and Tse Keh Nay community" (107).  He continues to talk about Rocky Mountain Indians as distinct from Dunneza [sic] and Tse Keh Nay.  Mackenzie meant Western Beaver by the term according to Lamb, and Ridington identified Rocky Mountain Indians as an English translation of tsekene or tsegenu, the term his informants used for people living in the mountains and adjacent areas.  It is consistent for Mackenzie's informants  in January 1793 to mean Western Dane-zaa by the term.  It should also be noted that the "Western Beaver", particularly the Hudson Hope band, used territory well into the mountains and have been called tsegenu by the tsipidanne, the muskeg people of the former Fort St John Band to the east.  Again, I should point out that the use of these terms is situational.  Eastern Dane-zaa may call Western Dane-zaa Rocky Mountain Indians because some of their territories extend into the mountains, but Western Dane-zaa use the term more specifically to mean people to their west whose territory extends into the mountains. 

       Sims concludes his thesis with reference to Frederick Bartth and writes, "the Tse Keh Nay found themselves in different circumstances and interactions with Europeans, all of which have had different affects on Tse Keh Nay ethnic identity and boundries.  All of this proves that Tse Keh Nay ethnic identity is both dynamic and situationaal in nature" (109).  However, he goes on to use the passive voice by saying that during the fur trade and missionary periods, "the Tse Keh Nay were conceptualized as a single First Nation (albeit with constituent subgroups), while during the treaty and reserve period the Tse Keh Nay were treated in an ad hc and often localized manner, which reinforced local identies, often at the expense of a wider Tse Keh Nay ethnic identity" (110).  By using the passive voice he avoids the question of whether the idea of a single First Nation was a comprehensive self-identification or an outside one.  Who is he referring to when he writes, "the Tse Keh Nay were conceptualized ..."  He writes that the fur trade is associated with, "the emergence of a wider Tse Keh Nay ethnic identity layered on top of more local or regional identities, often centered on fur  trade posts" (110).  He continues to state that the Rocky Mountain Indians are different from the Dane-zaa and the people Mackenzie met on the Parsnip in 1793.  Is this a real as yet unidentified group or an artifact of people writing from different perspectives?  It makes sense to think of them as Western Beavers as Lamb suggests, but if they are different from both the Dane-zaa (clearly Western Beavers) and the people Mackenzie met on the Parsnip (whose material culture is consistent with a Sekani identity), could they really exist as a separate named group?  The end result of this long history is a list of four communities, McLeod Lake, Takla Lake, Kwadacha and Tsay Keh Dene.  Kwadacha has joined a claim as part of the Kaska Dena Council and Takla Lake as part of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council.  The creation of Williston Reservoir has cut off the contact that used to exist between the two southern communities and those flooded out by the rising water. 

       Finally, Sims concludes that "Tse Keh Nay ethnic identity is dynamic and situational.  It is a dynamic identity because it is layered.  There is no single dimension to Tse Keh Nay ethnic identity, rather there are several" (115).   With this I would agree. 


Sekani Indians of British Columbia - Diamond Jenness - Bulletin No. 84, Anthropological Series 20, National Museum of Canada - Ottawa,  1937

Analysis in relation to fieldwork with Upper Peace River Dane-zaa

Robin Ridington - November, 2015

       In the summer of 1924 Diamond Jenness spent three weeks at McLeod Lake and one week at Fort Graham.  During that time he obtained a remarkable amount of information about Sekani history and culture.  The following is primarily a review and evaluation of his discussion of Sekani history and band organization in light of my own work with the closely related Dane-zaa of the upper Peace River and adjacent areas.  Jenness stated that the Western boundary of Sekani territory is the Arctic/Pacific divide.  He recognized it as a natural boundary marking two different adaptive opportunities for First Nations people.  He described the Eastern boundary as, "the line of the Rockies (and the boundary of the province of British Columbia" (1).  Since the eastern boundary of British Columbia is well east of  "the line of the Rockies," he is saying that Sekani adaptive strategies included using the Rocky Mountain Trench, mountain and Peace River ecological zones. 

       He writes, "Since their rivers drained eastward and northward toward the Arctic the Sekani lacked the great shoals of salmon that were the mainstay of most of the Indian tribes in British Columbia" (2). The only exception to the Western boundary, he writes, is "in one place, around Bear Lake," where "their territory extends into the salmon area beyond the Pacific divide" (2).  Generally, then, he described the Sekani as people adapted to a subarctic boreal forest eco-system containing rivers, mountains and forested undulating hills.  Modern writers would describe their culture as using an edge zone adaptive strategy based on seasonal rounds.  "To the east," he writes, "beyond the Rocky mountains on the prairie south of Peace river, roamed many herds of buffalo that the Sekani had hunted, previous to the nineteenth century, and on which their thoughts lingered long after they were confined within the Rockies by the hostile Beaver and Cree" (2). 

       Sekani thoughts may have lingered on Peace River bison but had disappeared as a commercial resource by 1823, a century before Jenness' fieldwork.  Even by 1806, Rocky Mountain Fort at the mouth of the Moberly River was closed due to depleted game supplies.  According to Doig elder Ray Aku (personal communication, 1965) and McLeod Lake Chief Harry Chingee, a few bison remained until the end of the nineteenth century and were considered symbolically important.  Harry told Ridington in 1997 that his father, born around 1860, still encountered bison east of the mountains:  "And there was lots of buffalo in his early days, when he was very young.  Over there, you know (Chingee 1997).  Rather than being a confinement in the Rocky Mountain Trench by hostile neighbors, the Sekani shifted their primary attention to the resources available in that area while maintaining access to areas adjacent to the Peace River  Continuing a strategy of seasonal rounds, they focused their attention on a combination of mountain, riverine, forest and lake resources while continuing to cross into the Halfway River watershed in the winter (Harmon quoted in Jenness 1937:5).   The establishment of a Hudson's Bay post at McLeod Lake in 1805 allowed them to participate in the fur trade economy. 

       Jenness agrees that this "confinement" was not absolute.  In describing Sekani seasonal rounds he went on to say, "About mid-summer they resorted to the lakes to fish, or visited the various tribes beyond their borders.  There were many passes through the mountains that gave them access to their neighbors" (2).  Specifically, these routes led to, "the upper waters of Halfway river, which led down to the Peace half-way between Hudson Hope and Fort St. John; another, straight down the Peace" (2).  A third route led "from the Misinchinka valley across Pine pass to Pine river, which joins the Peace nearly opposite Fort St. John" (2).  Finally, there is a fourth route, "from the headwaters of the Parsnip to Wapiti, a tributary of Smoky river that joins the Peace near the modern town of Peace River" (2-3).  He concluded that, "today [they] have very little contact with the Indians lower down Peace River" (4).

       Jenness derived his notion of confinement largely from what Mackenzie writes about the Sekani prior to embarking on his 1793 excursion through their territory.  He notes that Mackenzie identified "Rocky Mountain Indians" as, "(1) a western branch of the Beaver as yet uninfluenced by Cree culture, who controlled the river from its junction with the Smoky [site of Peace River, Alberta] to Hudson Hope; and (2) another group the Sekani of modern writers, who had been driven farther up the river from Rocky Mountain canyon to the basins of the Parsnip and the Finlay, although they still crossed the mountains in their hunting and even visited his post near Peace River landing" (5-6).  Mackenzie goes on to state that "the Sekani proper, still claimed as their territory all Peace river above its junction with the Smoky and represented the first group as intruders who would shortly confine them entirely to the western side of the mountains" (6).  (See my 2014 report for a discussion of Mackenzie's information.)

       Jenness notes that in 1806 Simon Fraser met more than 200 "Meadow" Indians whose hunting grounds were were on the upper reaches of the "Beaver" (South Pine) river (6).  Fraser's journal says that, "their numbers had been greatly reduced by the raids of "Beaver" Indians [who Jenness notes was the term Fraser used to mean Cree.]  Jenness concludes that, "not many centuries ago the Sekani and Beaver were one people, divided into many bands which differed but little in language and in customs.  Their territory stretched from lake Athabaska west to the Rocky mountains, which a few bands had probably crossed before the eighteenth century" (7). 

       By confinement, Jenness meant that the upper Peace River Beaver and Sekani, who were a continuous population of related people, no longer visited areas near Lake Athabasca where the Cree had established themselves.  His data demonstrate that upper Peace River and Finlay/Parsnip populations continued to maintain contact with one another.  My own data from fieldwork with upper Peace River Dane-zaa (which I will discuss later) confirm these conclusions. 

        Jenness begins his chapter on "History and Subdivisions of the Sekani," by quoting Harmon who "conjectured that 'the people who are now called Sicaunies ... at no distant period belonged to the tribe, called Beaver Indians, who inhabit the lower part of the Peace River; for they differ but little from them in dialect, manners, customs, etc.  Some misunderstanding between the Sicaunies and the rest of the tribe to which they formerly belonged probably drove them from place to place up Peace River, until they were, at length, obliged to cross the Rocky Mountain'"(5).  Jenness goes on to say that in Harmon's day, "many of the Sekani spent the winter months on the east side of the mountains, but withdrew in summer to the Finlay and Parsnip basins from fear of the Beaver and Cree" (5).  In citing Harmon, Jenness does not note that a transhumant adaptive strategy would make it logical to exploit the Finlay and Parsnip areas and adjacent mountains during the summer and fall. 

Jenness writes that, "The Indians from the Smoky to Hudson Hope were rapidly adopting Cree culture in the same way as their kinsmen around Fort Vermilion; morever, they were uniting with the Cree in attacking the Indians farther up the river" (8).  The primary sources available to Jenness were fur traders Mackenzie, Fraser and Harmon.  He speculates that, "Very possibly the region [Rocky Mountain Trench] was uninhabited or, if inhabited, only by a few straggling Carrier who wandered farther afield than the rest of their nation" (8).  Since he wrote this, archaeological information has become available.  An archaeological survey of sites in the Rocky Mountain Trench (Gibson,  T.H. J. Flannigan, C. Ramsey, and B. Low, 1997) shows a number of pre-contact surface sites along trails known to have been used by the Sekani, indicating that the area was indeed occupied prior to contact. 

    My own fieldwork with the upper Peace River Dane-zaa (Beaver), beginning in 1964 and continuing to the present, proves Jenness entirely wrong in his assertion that Indians "from the Smoky to Hudson Hope were rapidly adopting Cree culture."  The error is not due to a failing in his own fieldwork, but to his lack of first hand knowledge or the upper Peace River Dane-zaa.  There is no evidence in Dane-zaa oral history that the Dane-zaa of British Columbia ever united with Cree Indians in attacking other Dane-zaa (Ridington and Ridington 2013).    Elsewhere, (Richling 2012) Jenness wrote that he decided to visit the Sekani rather than the Beaver because he considered the Beaver to have been too influenced by white culture to be of any ethnographic interest.  My own fieldwork demonstrated exactly the opposite.  Indeed, I was the first anthropologist to have lived with them and record stories and genealogies from elders alive in the 1960s and '70s.  The elders stated that until the Alaska Highway was pushed through their territory, the upper Peace River Dane-zaa maintained a subsistence hunting and trapping economy.  Beaver was the first language for everyone and elders spoke little or no English.  Their children were not apprehended and sent to residential schools. 

    The 1899 Northwest Mounted Police census of Indians in the Fort St. John area lists only five Cree, most of whom have married Dane-zaa women.  They did not form a separate community.  The only exception is the Moberly Lake Saulteau, Cree speakers who migrated to the area around 1888.  Cree was used as a trade language, but the only Cree presence was the five individuals noted in the 1899 census and a Cree-speaking metis, Joseph Apsassin, who married a Dane-zaa woman and took over the paylist number of a deceased band member in 1912.  Nowhere in British Columbia was there a resident population of Cree sufficient for establishing a reserve under Treaty 8.  The upper Peace River Dane-zaa remain suspicious of what they call "Cree medicine" and have strongly esisted adopting Cree songs and practices like the sweat lodge.  They identify all their songs as having been "brought down from Heaven" by people they call Naachin or Dreamers (Ridington and Ridington 2013, Chapters 7 & 8). 

       Jenness writes that, "The routes to the eastward led to the Beaver and Cree Indians, who were not only hostile, but nearly as primitive as the Sekani themselves" (3).  As stated earlier, there were no established Cree communities in British Columbia until the migration of the Cree-speaking Saulteau in 1888.  Dane-zaa oral history (Ridington and Ridington 2013, Chapters 4 & 5) describes sporadic conflict between Sekani and Beaver in late pre-contact times, but always in the context of fights between people who were related through ties of marriage.  The oral history also describes early historic intermarriages.  (See Story of Dukesachiin below).  More recent personal narratives describe marriages between McLeod Lake people and Dane-zaa of the Hudson Hope band (see Dukesachiin story and Thomas Hunter Narrative, 1966 cited in 2014 Report). 

       Jenness relies heavily on Mackenzie in recounting the history of  "the Sekani of modern writers."  Mackenzie writes that they, "had been driven farther up the river from the Rocky Mountain canyon to the basins of the Parsnip and the Finlay, although they still crossed the mountains in their hunting and even visited his [Mackenzie's] post near Peace River landing."  These "Rocky Mountain Indians ... the Sekani proper, still claimed as their territory all Peace river above its junction with the Smoky" (6).  Rather than being a forcefully displaced people, they were a group that responded to pressures from the fur trade by intensifying their transhumant adaptive strategies. 

Analysis

       The fur trade journalists Mackenzie, Harmon and Fraser were culturally predisposed to look for distinct named tribal groups.  This inclination may go back to Julius Caeser's description of the tribes he encountered in Gaul.  In contrast to distinctive tribal identities, the Beaver/Sekani represent a continuum of culturally and linguistically related people.  The distribution of people represents a cline of overlapping concentric circles.  From any individual's point of view, a majority of the people he or she comes into contact with will be relatives for whom a term of relationship is known.  A  person who is on the outermost parts of that first individual's circle of relationships, will similarly have a circle of close relatives and others who are more distant.  Overall, the distribution of related people speaking dialects of the same language and sharing cultural traits describes the situation that Mackenzie and the others encountered.  Hence their confusion about the relationships between Rocky Mountain Indians, upper Peace River Beavers and Sekani, all of whom think of themselves as Dane-zaa.

       Jenness correctly points out that, "The Sekani themselves have no common name that covers all their subdivisions, but only names for separate bands" (5).  He seems not to have been aware that the term Dane-zaa, meaning something like "real person" or "real Indian" is in fact the term that both Sekani and Beaver use to describe themselves in opposition to linguistically and culturally different people like Dishinni, Cree, or Monias, the Cree word for "whitemen."  The upper Peace River people I have worked with emphatically describe themselves as Dane-zaa.  When I Interviewed McLeod Lake Chief Harry Chingee in 1997, he told me that Sekani people also describe themselves as Dane-zaa (Ridington 2014 Report: 4-5).

       Oral history I have recorded from the upper Peace River Dane-zaa describes early 19th century kinship relationships between people from McLeod Lake and Ingenika with Dane-zaa of the Tsipidanne band, sometimes known as "Muskeg People" or as Milligan Creek people.  One of these is Dukesachiin, the father of Fort St. John band leaders Yeklezi and Dechii, both of whom were recorded in the 1899 Northwest Mounted Police census of Fort. St. John Indians.  His father, also called Dukesachiin, is described in a story I recorded from Doig elder Ray Aku in 1965.  Aku places him as living in the Rocky Mountain Trench, a place where a long straight river flows between mountains.  (see http://vimeo.com/20623834 for link to audio recording with subtitled translation.)  In the summer of 2015 I recorded a long story about Dukesachiin the son, told by Blueberry River band member Randy Yahey (Pink Mt. 2015 - 1&2). 

Dukesachin, there's a big story about him.  My dad used to tell us those story about him.  My grandpa told him.  My grandpa tell stories and those elders.  Dukesachiin, he's from Ingenika.  That's where he's from.

 

Randy's story goes on to describe the 1823 killing of the St. Johns Hudson's Bay employees at the mouth of the North Pine (Beaton) River.  When the Dane-zaa feared retaliation for the killing they sought help from Dukesachiin.

So falltime, these Dane-zaa, they went through shortcut.  Ingenika, someplace that area.  They got to that community.  They see those Dane-zaa and they ask Dukesachiin, "We going to give you offer."  When they came in there Dukesachiin already he knows it through his vision, what these guys want, what's coming.  So he tell them, "Yeah, there's going to be a big action."  So they tell him, "Those elders want you over there in our community.  Come back with us.  We're going to give you more offer."  Falltime, Dukesachiin come back with those guys.  Right to over there, someplace Milligan Creek.  And when Dukesachiin got there, those elders, they got some young womans.  They give one young girl to Dukesachiin.  They ask Dukesachiin, "This woman's going to be your wife.  You going to stay with us in here.  We need you."  So from there, Dukesachiin stay with them.

 

They learn that Dukesachiin's cousin from McLeod Lake has formed an alliance with the whitepeople and Cree to oppose them.

And Dukesachiin, his first cousin, from someplace over there, could be McLeod Lake, he's with that group.  I guess when these Cree people and those white people they making that plan, they going to come over here, these Cree they check around with these Dane-zaa.  They want to pick up a powerful guy and they run into that guy from someplace McLeod Lake.  That's Dukesachiin's cousin.  See, McLeod Lake and Ingenika, they related.  They took that one back with them, those white people. 

 

       The story ends with Dukesachiin's power being stronger than his cousin's and the Cree allies.  We learn from the story that in 1823 Peace River Dane-zaa looked to support from their relatives, also identified as Dane-zaa, from the Rocky Mountain Trench area.  Dukesachiin is still revered as a powerful ancestor of  the Doig River and Blueberry River First Nations.  Randy Yahey's grandfather was the last Dane-zaa Dreamer, Charlie Yahey, whose first wife and mother of his children was Yeklezi's daughter, Randy Yahey's grandmother and granddaughter of Dukesachiin (Ridington 1968). 

       Another story,  told by Doig elder Albert Askoty (Ridington and Ridington 2013: 77-80), describes a battle between Dane-zaa and Cree in pre-contact times.  The Dane-zaa protagonist was a man named Ahataa.  His mother was Dane-zaa from the upper Peace River and his father was a Dane-zaa from the mountains (Sekani).  In this case, the two groups allied with one another to face a common enemy. Another story told by Albert Askoty describes pre-contact conflict between mountain and muskeg people who are related by marriage.  One man's mother was a Dane-zaa who had married a Sekani man.  His lived with his father's people.  Conflict arose when another man, whose mother was from the Muskeg People and whose father was Sekani, visited his Sekani relatives, who belonged to the same band as Ahataa.  The two young men challenged one another with their respective powers and eventually the Muskeg man triumphed.  The story describes conflict between closely related people who had previously been allies against a common enemy.  There is no indication that it describes "Beaver" attempting to push "Sekani" into the mountains.  (Ridington & Ridington 2013 72-80)

       In 1966 I recorded a long narrative by Halfway River elder Thomas Hunter, who was born in McLeod Lake and later moved to Halfway River with his brother Antoine where both of them found wives.  The story describes their travels in the winter of 1912 when they journeyed from McLeod Lake to Fort Graham to Halfway river and later back to McLeod Lake (Ridington 2013 Report 26-27).  Kinship connections between these communities are ongoing.  Antoine's daughter, Agnes returned to McLeod Lake to marry Lawrence Solonas. 

       From my research I conclude:

1)  Mcleod Lake and other Sekani communities identify themselves as Dane-zaa and speak dialects of the language spoken by upper Peace River Beavers, who also identify themselves as Dane-zaa.

(2  Terms like Sekani and Beaver derive from athapaskan words meaning, "people of the rocks" and "beaver people" respectively. 

3)  These terms have been interpreted by non-Native observers to indicate tribal identity rather than simply being names for localized populations of related people. 

4)  Dane-zaa variously identified as Sekani and Beaver have shared kinship connections for several centuries.

5)  Upper Peace River and Rocky Mountain Trench athapaskans share edge zone adaptive strategies.

6)  Due to depleted bison populations Rocky Mountain Fort closed in 1806 and Saint Johns in 1823.

7)  Conflict between related groups is probably of great antiquity but may have been intensified by depletion of resources due to the fur trade. 

8)  McLeod Lake Sekani, like other subarctic athapaskans, have adopted an edge zone adaptive strategy in which they use seasonal rounds to access resources from a variety of environmental zones. 

9)  McLeod Lake and upper Peace River Dane-zaa continue to recognize a shared history and kinship.

References Cited

Aku, Ray

   1965  Story of Dukesachiin the elder.  (http://vimeo.com/20623834)

Chingee, Harry

   1997  Interview with Robin Ridington. 

Richling, Barnett. In Twilight and in Dawn: A Biography of Diamond Jenness. 

  2012 McGill-Queen's University Press.

Gibson,  T.H. J. Flannigan, C. Ramsey, and B. Low

 1997  The Mackenzie Timber Supply Area Archaeological Overview

             Assessment Final Report.  Western Heritage Services Inc.  Saskatoon

             and Prince George.

Pink Mt. 2015 - 1&2 

   2015  Video recordings by Robin Ridington of Randy Yahey telling story of Dukesachiin.

Ridington, Robin and Jillian

   2013  Where Happiness Dwells: A History of the Dane-zaa First Nations.  UBC Press, Vancouver. 

Ridington, Robin

   1968  Environmental Context of Beaver Indian Behavior.  PhD Thesis, Harvard University. 

Yahey, Randy

   2015  Story of Dukasachiin recorded by Robin Ridington. Pink Mt. 2015 - 1&2. 


Just For The Love of It: The First Woman to Climb Mount Everest from Both Sides - Cathy O'Dowd - 1999 (epilogue 2013) - Crux Publishing

    Cathy O'Dowd is a South African mountaineer turned motivational speaker.  The book is her story of four Everest expeditions, two of which allowed her to reach the summit.  The first was via the standard route from Nepal and the other, the more technical and difficult north face.  In addition to providing vivid descriptions of the high mountain environment and the hardships of being there, if only for a brief moment, she describes the sometimes fraught interpersonal relations of an Everest expedition.  The first South African one was particularly problematic, with some members bailing out after reaching base camp.  The team leader, Ian Woodhall seemed to generate animosity and controversy, although Cathy later formed a partnership with him in business as well as marriage.  She has divorced by the time of writing the epilogue but credits him for his abilities as a climber, an organizer and a friend.  The first expedition generated controversy when a team member, Bruce Herrod, died after lagging behind Cathy & Ian who met him on their way down from the summit with two Sherpas.   He insisted on continuing by himself, even though it was 12:20 pm, making a safe return problematic.  He reached the summit at 5 pm and radioed them that he felt fine, but never made it back to their camp 4.  Immediately she and Ian were blamed for allowing Bruce to continue on alone, although as she explains it, he was insistent on making the attempt.  That season also saw the deaths of several other strong climbers from other parties.  Cathy describes what it is like to pass bodies on the way up and again on the descent.  A person who dies on Everest stays there.  On the next expedition from Tibet, she encounters an even starker situation.  As she and Ian and two Sherpas reached the base of the technically difficult first step below the summit ridge, they encountered another body.  "I looked across and saw, slightly down the rocky slope, a boulder.  Just below it lay a body with a purple jacket and red boots.  That surprised me.  I had realized that there would be bodies on the trail.  But bodies I had seen before on this mountain.  I looked back towards the step.  Then the body moved."  It turned out to be a woman, Fran, who had been climbing with her Russian partner Serguei.  She was lying and moaning weakly at 28,200 feet, less than 1000 feet from the summit in what is known as the death zone because of lack of oxygen.  It was 5am and she had been there overnight or even longer.  Her partner was no where to be seen.  Fran managed to say, "Don't leave me," and then, "I'm an American"  and "Why are you doing this to me?"  She could not move or sit up on her own, let alone walk.  Three Sherpas had summited and met them on their way down.  Even with five Sherpas, they could not hope to move her down the mountain and it was likely that even with advanced medical care she was fatally injured by hypothermia and frostbite.  They learned later that the Uzbec team had passed her the day before and proceeded on to the summit, passing her again on the descent.  The Sherpas had already reached the summit but at this point Cathy decided that she could simply not go on.  Ian felt ready to go but agreed that if Cathy wanted to go down that was the way it would be.  Two years later, Cathy was the principal organizer of another expedition to the north face.  This time they were successful in reaching the summit.  Her description of technical climbing at extreme altitude is fascinating, and of course the bodies that had been there on the first attempt were still there.  Indeed, it was that year that other climbers discovered Mallory's body somewhere below the first step, proving that he had at least gotten within less than 1000 feet of the summit.  Any successful climb, she reminds is, is one from which you come back alive, and most who die on the mountain remain there.  In a rich literature of climbing stories, this is one of the best, and although not explicitly written from a woman's perspective, it is clearly that of a talented woman climber, particularly in her ironic commentary on the generally macho culture of male climbers.  The epilogue gives some shocking figures about the industrial scale of commercial Everest expeditions.  In 1996 she was the 835th person to climb Everest.  In 2010 there had been 5,104.  On one day in May of that year, 169 people reached the summit, more in a single day than in the first 30 years following the 1953 first ascent. 


French and Indian Wars - Francis Russell - American Heritage

    Russell is a well respected American historian but not very sophisticated anthropologically.  In this short book (just over 100 pages) he recounts all the major battles and many of the skirmishes ssifought in North America in reflection of a nearly century of wars between England and France,  The prize here was actually more important than any to be gained in Europe.  France wanted to control the Great Lakes-Ohio-Mississippi corridor and the English wanted to extend their colonies from Boston and New England into Acadia and beyond.  The Native tribes, Mohawk, Abenaki and others became embroiled as allies and enemies of the warring parties.  At the middle of this were two battles over Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island.  Despite its heavy fortifications, the English took it once only to lose it again when the Treaty of Aix-la Chapelle in 1748 gave it back to France in exchange for Madras in India which the French had captured.  They took it again in 1758 and this time it remained in English hands, later becoming part of Canada rather than the USA.  Fierce fighting resumed in the west, with George Washington and the infamous Rogers Rangers making names for themselves.  Montcalm and the French were initially able to hold Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Duquesne but by 1759 the English again had the upper hand.  These battles had their denoument on Quebec's Plains of Abraham where both English and French generals perished but the English prevailed.  Considering the relatively small populations of colonists and the distance from England bogged down by wars on the continent, it is amazing how many people died, women and children as well as soldiers.  As I said, Russell gives a coherent account of military operations, but is astonishingly ignorant and disrespectful of the First Nations partners in these wars.  Indians are dusky squaws and braves who speak in a guttural tongue.  In war the braves are "yowling Indians removing scalps of the dead."  He does point out, though the New York's Scalp Act of 1747 paid bounties for the scalps of the French and their Indian allies, no matter the age or gender of the victim."  That sounds pretty savage to me.  It's a quick read and does outline some important events that resulted in English hegemony over North America.  It's interesting to note that the exchange of Louisbourg won by Boston soldiers at great cost for a city in distant India set the stage for the colonists to begin thinking of themselves as North Americans rather than British living in North America.  The rest, of course, is history. 


The Twelve Clues of Christmas - Rhys Bowen - 2012 - Berkeley Prime - Penguin

    Georgie is at it again in another Agatha Christie type setting of people assembled for a Christmas gathering in the quaint Devonshire village of Tlddleton-under Lovey.  She's escaping the frosty Rannoch castle being ruled over by her odious sister-in-law Fig.  She responds to an ad by Lady Hawse-Gorzley of Gorzley Hall for a "young woman of impeccable background to assist hostess with the social duties of a large Christmas house party."  Lady Hawse-Gorzley is thrilled to have a member of the Royal family answer the ad and Georgie is happy to escape Scotland.  It turns out her mother and Noel Coward are renting a cottage in the same village and Georgie asks her grandfather to come down to be with them.  As the guests arrive, a man dies falling off a small bridge coming home from a pub and an assignation with the pub owner's wife.  The death looks to Georgie like a murder becomes and the first in a series of eleven, almost twelve more.  Darcy turns out to be the nephew of Lady H-G and inevitably shows up at the party.  He joins Georgie and her father in investigating the deaths.  The local inspector becomes an ally after initially being skeptical of Georgie as an amateur lady detective.  A clue emerges toward the end of the book when Georgie links the murder of a man named Partridge with the pear tree in which he died.  From then on the investigation picks up speed, although there are some interesting twists and turns and the obligatory near fatal encounter with the murderer(s).  This time, though, it is a village feral woman of the moors rather than Darcy who rescues her. 


Running in the Family - Michael Ondaatje - 1982 - Vintage

    Canadian writer Ondaatje grew up in Ceylon in a Dutch-Tamil family that has been there since 1600.  The book comes from several trips back to Ceylon and stories friends and relatives told about his parents, Mervyn and Doris, and his grandmother Lalla.  His father was a charming reprobate who told his parents he had been accepted into Oxford and was doing well there when in fact he spent two years partying.  He later became a terrifying alcoholic whose exploits included stopping trains at gunpoint while still in the Ceylon Light Infantry.  There are two chapters about his last train ride the year Michael was born, told by his commanding officer Sir John Kotelawala who later became Prime Minister as well as by members of the family.  He was not really a mean drunk, but he certainly was a thoroughly dedicated one, whose last ride was probably in the throes of DTs.  Michael's maternal grandmother Lalla was another larger than life character whose obsession with flowers led her to ravage the gardens of more upstanding citizens.  The book is funny in a bittersweet way but does not attempt to excuse the astonishingly bad behavior of his closest relatives.  His mother was perhaps an exception, having to keep it together and eventually divorcing Mervyn.  The book also includes some of Michael's very good poetry.  It's a quick read and a rich portrait of the mixed Dutch-Tamil colonial culture of Sri Lanka as well as being a family portrait. 


My Promised Land - Ari Shavit - 2013 - Spiegel & Grau

    Embedded within Shavit's very personal narrative is a complete history of the modern state of Israel.  Shavit is a journalist writing for the left-leaning Haaratz newspaper and the great grandson of Herbert Bentwich, an English Zionist who emigrated to Palestine at the turn of the 19th century.  Shavit has a wide range of friends, colleagues and personal contacts, many of whom have played significant roles in the development of the Jewish state.  He is a fierce believer in the potential for Israel to preserve its vision of being a tolerant, modern democratic state, but at the same time he is a realist and acknowledges the "seven circles of threat: Islamic, Arabic, Palestinian, internal, mental, moral and identity-based"; the national anthem in a hopeful but realistically minor key.  His friends and contacts are generals, Arabs, writers, and even some members of the right-wing Shas party, although tellingly, no ultra orthodox Jews, who he sees as a major impediment to the democratic vision.  Shavit travels throughout Israel, visiting important sites in her history.  One of the most telling of these is the former Arab city of Lydda, where Zionist settlers and Arabs co-existed until the catastrophe of 1948, when Operation Larlar drove the Arabs from their homes and lands on a brutal forced march on which many perished.  He devotes a whole chapter to the tragedy there.  It marked the beginning of the state of Israel but also the beginning of a moral dilemma that has plagued the state ever since.  When Likud took over from Labor, and Netanyahu set the course of increased settlement in occupied territories, the conflict became inevitable.  Add to that the demographic dilemma that Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Israelis now outnumber people who identify themselves with the original Zionist idealogy, and the future looks grim.  And add again to that the chaos in the Middle East following Bush's ignorant invasion of Iraq and the brutal civil war in Syria, both of which created ISIS, and it looks more and more like Israel is surrounded by both enemies and chaos.  The book ends just before the Iran nuclear agreement was ratified, but in later Haraatz articles, Shavit says that at best it puts the Iranian nuclear project off and at worst it makes it easier for Iran to invest in newer and more efficient technology that can be hidden away from the existing installations.  On top of that, lifting sanctions frees Iran to fund Hezbollah more freely.  But what other option was there?  Military strikes would have had the same effect, although probably have avoided lifting sanctions at the cost of damaging retaliation.  That's for another book, though.  He concludes this one with good and bad news.  "the good news of the second decade of the twenty-first century is that Israel is growing stronger in comparison to its neighbors and that Israel is determined to reform itself.  The bad news of the decade is that the Middle East is growing wilder and that Israel has turned its back on it."  He plaintively laments that Jews who have become successful in America and Britain are gradually losing their identity and marrying out.  I guess my two brothers-in-law, John Goldfine and Jack Liebowitz are cases in point.  Somehow that seems of more consequence than Christians who become secular and or marry outside their tradition.  Friends of ours are a different case, a Catholic who converted to marry her Jewish husband.  My Promised Land is a long book, over 400 pages, and rich in detail.  Shavit gives us a series of contextualized biographies of many people who are important to Israel's short history.  Some of them he knew personally, others from research about them and their place in Zionist history.  Yitzhak Tabenkin and the pioneers of Kibbutz Ein Harod evoke socialist Zionism in the 1920s. In 1939 Haganah was founded.  In 1942 Shmaryahu Gutman leads a pioneer youth group to the ancient fortress of Masada, the site of a mass suicide in 73 AD as Herod's troops threaten certain defeat.  There is a real fear that German troops will repeat this conquest.  The grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, has met with Hitler and forged an alliance between the Arab-Palestinians and the Third Reich.  [Recently Netanyahu has raised controversy by citing this as evidence that Palestinians caused the holocaust, provoking rebuke from Angela Merkel who rightly pointed out that Germans were fully to blame.]  Masada provided a powerful symbol of Jewish resistance and a determination that they must never again be defeated in their ancient homeland.  I am troubled by Shavit's use of the term "cleansed of Arabs" to describe t a series of brutal displacements immediately prior to Israel becoming a state.  The implication is that Arabs are unclean, not a helpful language to use when trying to achieve some accommodation.  Another chapter describes the nuclear facility at Dimona and the masterful way young Israeli scientists managed to obtain nuclear capability from the French.  Later in the book he describes the conflicts caused by an influx of Sephardic Jews who do not share the Ashkanizi's original secular Zionism.  Aryeh Deri advances the cause of oriental and ultra-Orthodox Jews who insist on exemption from military service and sometimes even from any work other than religious studies, while continuing to produce very large families.  Their employment rate is only 45 percent. "Demography," Shavit says, "is turning against the Jews."  46 percent of Israelis are Palestinians but another large and growing segment of the population is ultra-Orthodox.  So demography, properly speaking, is turning against Ashkanazi Zionism.  My Promised Land should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the complex situation now facing the Middle East.  Shavit is passionate about his native land and deeply understands its history and present situation.


Deadly Proof: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery - M. Louisa Locke - 2015 -

    This book ends with the marriage of Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson.  The end of the series?  The next books, if they come, will include their children.  There's also the ongoing romance between Nate's sister Laura and Seth Timmons, which has not been resolved.  Deadly Proof refers to the galley proof a typesetter and compositor pulls to check their work prior to the final print run.  The murder victim is a print shop owner, Joshua Rashers, killed with a bodkin, the sharp tool used to move type along in the frame while setting.  Locke has done a lot of research about 19th century printing technology, which fits in with her academic career of studying women's work and culture in 19th century San Francisco.  The book has the usual trajectory of a mystery with rich character development & cultural setting as background for a murder investigation.  Here, Nate is called to defend Mrs. Florence Sullivan, a compositor at Rasher's, who Mrs. Rasher accuses of murdering her husband after being a rejected lover.  For some unknown reason Florence refuses to divulge any information about the events leading up to her discovery of the body.  Seth Timmons also works at Rashers and was the first person Florence saw after discovering the body.  As usual, the prosecutor is politically motivated to convict her and the police short sighted and incompetent.  Everyone who knows Florence says she could not possibly have done it, but her refusal to talk works against her.  Finally, there is another murder of a young giddy woman employee and Seth himself is briefly charged but released after Laura confesses that she was with him in his room during the crucial hours.  Her testimony is borne out by porter who heard a woman's voice and a servant in Annie's boardinghouse where Laura lives who saw her return after midnight.  We learn a lot of printing terms, platen, galley, proof, sorts, bodkin, ems, case.  Hand setting type was laborious and had to be done backward and in mirror image.  In 19th century San Francisco it was work ideally suited to women and contributed to them leading somewhat independent lives, despite the corsets and heavy clothing.  The series is well worth reading for Locke's intimate knowledge of the time and place.  Her woman characters are strong as well as being creatures of the culture.  I look forward to a second installment of the series, perhaps focusing more on Laura and Seth as well as Annie & Nate as a married couple.  Let's see how companionate marriage works out.  Laura and Seth have both been accepted into UC Berkeley.  Laura wants to be a lawyer like her brother.  Annie is winding down her Madam Sibyl enterprise and taking on clients in her own name for financial advice.  Read the book and find out who actually did it, although as with any really good mystery, that is almost incidental to the characters and their lives.


A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka - 2005 - Penguin

    Among other things this Man Man Booker prize winning novel has excerpts of an interesting, perhaps very short, history of tractors worldwide written originally in Ukrainian by one of the book's main characters, Nikolai Mayevskyj, the 84 year old father of narrator Nadezhda (Nadia).  Nadia's mother has died two years before and her father announces he wants to marry a 36 year old currently married Ukrainian woman with large breasts and bring her to live with him in the family home near Cambridge, England.  Trouble ensues.  Marina (Nadia) writes in a funny, ironic voice but as the soap opera progresses becomes more intense.  I'm tempted to think Marina sees herself in Nadia.  Besides both being Ukrainian they share being narrators of the story and have a good ear for dialogue and sometimes absurd monologue .  An underlying theme is her relationship with her sister Vera, who is ten years older.  Vera was born before WWII, Nadia after.  The two have become estranged after their mother's death and fight over politics, inheritance and general world view.  In the end, they come to a common cause in saving their father from her father's new bride, Valentina, who turns out to have delusions that everyone in the west is wealthy, including poor Nikolai who is living on a pension but owns the family home.  Some of the best passages are Valentina's rants in Ukrainian accented English:  "You no good man.  You plenty-money meanie.  Promise money.  Money sit in bank.  Promise car.  Crap car...  You dog-eaten-brain old bent stick, you go in room and you shut up ... squishy squashy husband want make oralsex..." etc.  Nikolai had been an aeronautical engineer in Stalinist Russia but as his colleagues were one by one sent off to Siberia or worse, he decided to move to a humble factory that made tractors.  As the story of his disastrous second marriage progresses, we learn more of the terrible pre-war and wartime years in Ukrainia.  Vera was scarred by her early years in a forced labor camp.  Nadia knows nothing of this but learns more and more as she and her sister find common cause.  There's lots more to say but I'll leave this to the reader to discover.  It's a quick read but not at all a lightweight one.  Enjoy.

Animal Wise: How We Know Animals Think and Feel - Virginia Morell - 2013 - Random House

    Morell is a science writer for Science and National Geographic.  She is also a dog lover as well as a cat owner.  She has been disturbed at the persistent view of mainstream science, particularly behaviorism and even ethology, that animals are incapable of serious thought and emotions.  She set out to interview researchers whose work is accumulating evidence to the contrary.  Current science combines neurological, anotomical, ethological, experimental and observational evidence to demonstrate, she says, that what we knew all along about animals was substantially correct.  She goes back to Darwin, whose views turn out to be substantially correct as validated by more rigorous experimental evidence.  The book is a series of vignettes;  ants, fish, birds, rats, elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, dogs and wolves.  Behind all of these are experiments and ordinary observations of humans, both developing children and adults.  Some surprising results: Gorillas are far better than humans at almost instantly seeing and remembering a the positions of sequence of four letters, sometimes shown only momentarily.  The gorillas can arrange them in the correct sequence up to 80% of the time.  Humans generally cannot do the task at all.  The conclusion is that gorillas have a developed visual imagery capacity better than ours and probably adapted to their habitat and social order.  The studies on dogs and wolves show that dogs have adopted many human traits while wolves remain wild.  In some things wolves are smarter, but in relating to humans dogs are supreme.  Each chapter summarizes important contemporary research based on Morrel's first hand contact with the researchers and their subjects.  The ant chapter is particularly interesting in that it describes research that painstakingly identifies and tags individual ants in a controlled colony and then observes behavior when the colony is disrupted.  How does a colony achieve a common objective without any central control mechanism.  If you want to know more about this, read the book. 


A Fatal Twist of Lemon - Patrice Greenwood - 2012 - Evennight Books

    Greenwood is another self published mystery writer who gets the reader hooked by offering the first book in a series for free.  I happily fell into the snare, relieved at something light after reading Malinowski's confessional diary and his exhaustive ethnography in Argonauts.  The author lives in Santa Fe and loves Victoriana, especially the ritual of English tea.  The plot is pretty predictable and reminiscent of the Victorian San Francisco mysteries.  Young woman (Ellen Rosings) inherits a house, sells it and buys an old Victorian residence near the historic Santa Fe Plaza where she invests her time and remaining assets into the Wisteria Tea House.  On pre-opening event for friends and sponsors, she discovers the strangled body of one of her benefactors, Sylvia Carruthers.  The police arrive.  Leading the investigation is Detective Antonio Aragon who arrives on a motorcycle clad in leathers and shades.  He immediately takes a disliking to what he thinks of as rich effete Anglo usurpers gentrifying the town he and his family grew up in.  He is rude and abrasive but softens a bit when he challenges Ellen as a newcomer and she tells him her grandmother was born in Santa Fe and the family has lived there ever since.  Like other engaging mysteries, this one is good because of the cultural and personal atmospherics.  Santa Fe is as much a character as a setting.  The book ends with an unresolved mystery of the ghost of Colonel Dusenberry, who built the house in the mid 19th century an was murdered in the same room as Sylvia.  No doubt he will return in later books.  Like mysteries going back to Agatha Christie, this one assembles a cast of human characters who had come for the event.  Aragon considers most, including Ellen, as potential suspects.  He asks to search her locked living quarters, Ellen refuses and demands a warrant, and the next day he obliges, tearing her private space apart but finding nothing which does not endear him to her.  Ellen, like Annie Fuller, gradually takes on the task of investigating the crime herself and like Annie, gets into trouble in the end, only to be rescued by a strong male protector(Aragon).  OK, I know this is a stock plot that requires a man to rescue the woman, no matter how intelligent and independent she is.  And of course, Aragon develops into a love interest, setting the stage for the next three books in the series at $5.99 each.  I'm hooked and have already bought #2 for my Nook.  There is a lot about Tea and Victoriana, which Greenwood avowedly adores.  She's a good writer working within a tried and true genre.  Do I need to feel guilty enjoying books like this?  Not at all.  I'm sure many PhD theses have been written about mystery novels.  What's interesting recently is that strong independent women writers have been able to get their works before an enthusiastic readership entirely without the gatekeepers of the mainstream publishing industry.  Libby Hawker is another one, although not a mystery writer.  This is not a bodice ripper or even chic-lit.  It's not even escapist literature, any more than Austen or the Brontes were in their time.  These strong women mystery writers probably project something of their own personalities on their characters.  I'd like to see one, though, where the strong male gets himself into a tight situation and the female does the rescue. 


A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term with an Introduction by Valetta Malinowska,1967 and Raymond Firth, 1989 - Bronislaw Malinowski -

    Malinowski kept a journal during his fieldwork trips in 1914-15 and 1917-18.  He wrote in Polish and obviously never intended it to be published.  Following his sudden death in 1942, his second wife, Valetta Swann, eventually discovered the diary and decided that in the interest of science, it was worthy of publication. This was a brave act on her part, since a constant theme of the 1917-18 diary is his yearning for Elsie Masson, to whom he was provisionally engaged and later married.  Interspersed with Elsie is longing for and ambivalence about several other women with whom he had been involved.  On a more serious note, he referred to the Tribrianders as niggers.  The translator and later Leech tried to soften this by saying it didn't have the same connotation as American usage and in Polish it might just have meant something like blacks.  He also had a servant "boy" named Ginger, with whom he had frequent disputes.  Even that term, though, as used by Australians is derogatory.  He confesses in the diary that the Trobrianders got on his nerves and he sometimes didn't like them very much.  He has no hesitation in the ethnography calling them natives, which of course they are, going back to mythic times and as we now know, to Lapita ancestors and before that to the original Melanesians of 40-50 thousand years ago.  He also suffered from frequent bouts of fatigue and sometimes of fever, perhaps caused by malaria.  Many of these ailments were undoubtedly real, but he was also quite a hypochondriac.  He injected himself with arsenic when he felt down and probably also took cocaine medicinally.  His bouts of despair and loneliness are understandable given his isolation from those he loved.  From the diary we learn that he spent more time with the white trader Billy than the ethnography indicates.  His great solace and escape was time spent alone in his dinghy rowing in the lagoon.  It would have been nice to know more about this boat and also the boats both sail and power, on which he traveled.  He does mention the pride with which he views his ethnographic work.  He seems to have been in regular mail contact with Emily as well as his mentors Seligmann and Fraser.  The correspondence with Emily has been published elsewhere.  Another purely escape which tormented him was reading "trashy novels."  He seems to have been taken by Conrad and have seen himself as being in a similar situation as Kurtz.  He does credit Tobawona as his best informant and also Kipela.  "Ethnogr. work goes very well thanks to Tobawona. "He comments that most of the local whites, particularly an English snob named Donovan, are rascals who persecute him and that he has an, "incomparably easier relationship with the natives."  ... "Above all, the knowledge of a people's customs allows [one] to be in sympathy with them and to guide them according to their ideas.  This point of view the Govt: a mad blind force, acting with uncontrollable force in unforeseen directions, sometimes acting as a farce, sometimes a tragedy, never to be taken as an integral item of tribal life... The final plea: purely scientific value; antiquities more destructible than a papyrus and more exposed than an exposed column, and more valuable for our real knowledge of history than all the excavations in the world."  Overall, Valetta was corrrect in publishing the diary.  His longings and frustrations are completely understandable and despite a few words that can be taken out of context, his private view of the Trobrianders is consistent with his ethnographic writing.  A small Canadian note, he is sharpely critical of Diamond Jenness who did fieldwork in the same area.  I think Jenness was out of his depth here and did much better in the Arctic and with Indians.


Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprises and Adventures in the Archepelagos of Melanesian New Guinea - Bronislaw Malinowski - 1922 - Routledge & Kegan Paul

    Argonauts is a classic of ethnographic writing and established Malinowski as a major figure of early 20th Century ethnographic writing and practice.  I probably read or at least perused it in graduate school but decided to go back and read the whole thing carefully after reading Brian Fagan's chapter on the Kula.  It's a long book and very detailed and remains an ethnographic tour de force.  Malinowski really was a master of languages and as he said, was able to watch important ceremonies and obtain extensive texts of magical formulas in a way that allowed him to understand and interpret metaphor and mythological references.  It's also an amazing feat in that the Trobrianders speak in short staccato sentences that are even more stylized when they are magical formulas.  He's often described as the father of participant observation ethnography, and perhaps compared to people like Radcliffe-Brown who is reputed to have asked the police to bring in Aborigines for questioning, he is undoubtedly deserves praise for being there and living in a tent in a series of Trobriand villages.  As he describes the intricacy of the Kula system and the paramount importance of magic and kinship and status, it is obvious that full participation would have been impossible.  That he was able to accompany Trobrianders on at least one Kula expedition and to describe others in intimate and accurate detail, is enough.  To have claimed to have "gone native," particularly in Melanesia, would have been unbelievable.  The central institution he describes here is the Kula, a system of exchange in which shell arm bands are given to partners on different islands in one direction, and shell necklaces & pendants are given some time later in the opposite direction.  Collectively these are called vaygu.  Accumulation of valuables (and yams in one's own village) is not to acquire them permanently but to display and they give away as tokens of political and magical power.  In Malinowski's somewhat dismissive words, "The net result will be the acquisition of a few dirty, greasy, and insignificant looking native trinkets, each of them a string of flat, partly discoloured, partly raspberry-pink or brick-red disks, threaded one behind the other into a long, cylindrical roll."  The meaning of these objects is their history and the magical power used to acquire them, "the social forces of tradition and custom."  His classic description of a Boyoan expedition to Dobu is in itself a treasure.  While an observer rather than a participant in the strict sense of the word, he followed the expedition from all the steps and interactions and magic required for making a canoe, to the voyage itself and its culmination at Dobu.  The main principle of the Kula exchange is a gift, followed some time later by a counter gift.  He is clear that it is never a barter.  The influence of receiver on giver takes place in the mythically grounded magic performed prior to landing and indirectly associated with the objects themselves. 

    Like the well crafted argument made by a lawyer, Malinowski's detailed ethnographic descriptions set the stage for his interpretations in relation to ethnography and indeed western philosophy.  "The main social force governing all tribal life could be described as the inertia of custom, the love of uniformity of behaviour.  The great moral philosopher [Kant] was wrong when he formulated his categorical imperative, which was to serve human beings as a fundamental guiding principle of behaviour."  Certainly with regard to the pervasive importance of magic and the culturally embedded objectives of the Kula, it is clear that culture rules here.  Malinowski does not (perhaps appropriately) take the next step and question the influence of his own culture on his life, although I'm sure he thought of it.  Implicitely, the categorical imperative is not necessarily wrong universally but should be simply limited to the practices within certain cultures.  Malinowski does not mention functionalism here and sticks pretty close to what can be ethnographcally demonstrated.  He does say, though, that, "The real rule guiding human behaviour is this: 'what everyone else does, what appears as norm of general conduct, this is right, moral and proper.  Let me look over the fence and see what my neighbor does, and take it as a rule for my behaviour.'  So acts every 'man-in-the-street' in our own society."  His own society, of course, was in the throes of WWI that changed western cultures in profound ways.  His relations with Trobrianders was conditioned by the inter-cultural possibilities.  Gathering information in this culture would have been impossible without paying his informants, generally, it appears, in tobacco.  He names and acknowledges the expertise of particular informants but never says anything about real friendships beyond ethnographic collaboration. 


Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans - Brian Fagan - 2012 - Bloomsbury Press

    Another from the prolific Brian Fagan.  In this book he draws upon his own extensive experience as a sailor as well as his background as an archaeologist and historian.  The result is a comprehensive and engrossing story of passage making, beginning with the first modern humans to reach the Indonesian islands, New Guinea and Australia more than 50,000 years ago.  There is no direct evidence of their vessels so what we know is mostly by inference from where they made landfall.  The chapter on the Trobriand Kula ring is excellent, as is his discussion of Polynesian navigation, beginning with the Lapita people, ancestors of the Polynesians, who instigated what is still the most remarkable and sophisticated ocean passages and "decoding" of the ocean that humans have accomplished.  The story then goes to the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, Northern Norse and other voyagers, the Aleutians, and finally the West Coast Indians, the Mayans and the Equadorians.  The book is well researched, amply illustrated with maps, photos and line drawings and of course engagingly written.  The section on the BC coast is a bit strange in that it starts with Princess Louisa Inlet, making it seem to be an entirely isolated place rather than a very popular yachting destination.  The book would make a good addition to a ship's library to read while at anchor in a snug cove somewhere. 

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans - Brian Fagan - 2010 - Bloomsbury Press

    Fagan is an archaeologist and prolific author.  Despite the somewhat misleading subtitle probably concocted by some well meaning editor, Fagan makes no attempt to say that Cro-Magnons were the first modern humans.  He gives detailed evidence of their African origins, including information on Blombos cave in South Africa where modern humans were leading a rich and varied life 73,000 years ago.  He is clear that the Cro-Magnon ancestors of modern Europeans migrated out of Africa no more than 59,000 BP.  Before he gets into describing the complex history of these people, he devotes several chapters to the Neanderthals who occupied Europe from 300,000 BP to about 30,000 BP when they were finally overwhelmed by modern humans of African origin.  Although he grants Neanderthals credit for having survived harsh pleistocene conditions for thousands of generations, he describes them as being without language and even without footgear.  There is no evidence for this and as we know, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.  I simply can't imagine hunters running around barefoot in pleistocene winter conditions.  Similarly, he sees their lack of tailored clothing as damming evidence of their intellectual inferiority, even though perfectly functional fitted garments can be made with lacing of thongs, the difference between buttons and zippers.  I also can't imagine the co-operative hunting they must have used being possible without some form of cultural communication.  Languages are cultural artifacts; language is innate to our species.  Fagan does not really address the fascinating question of what capacities and cultural tools Neanderthals may have evolved independently of us.  They evolved from something like an advanced homo erectus or H heidelbergensis beginning about a million years ago, so their ancestry has diverged from ours for long enough for significant differences to appear.  H sapiens evolved from an African equivalent of H erectus.  In our line, the capacity for articulate language and the cultural inventions of specif languages co-evolved.  We simply don't know what communications capacities and tools Neanderthals may have had.  Fagan occasionally indulges in stereotypes like "grunts" and "hirsute" in describing them, although he also refers to an idea that they communicated musically.  In the 2010 edition he says he doesn't believe they interbred with us and corrects this in a preface to the PB edition, citing Svaante Paabo, findings.  None of this information makes its way into the body of the book.  Paabo found that Europeans and Asians have about 4% Neanderthal DNA while Africans have none.  How did they interbreed?  HS men capturing Neanderthal women maybe, or exchange between groups.  I don't think he found evidence for African DNA in the Neanderthal genome.  did some Neanderthal families join Cro-Magnon gropus?  Fagan has them as silent forest people skulting around the outskirts of where our HS ancestors lived.  His strongest argument about the Neanderthals is the remarkable conservatism of their material culture, despite evidence that after contact with moderns they adopted some of their tool making techniques.  They probably did have different intellectual capacities from us and would certainly have evolved different systems of communication.  Alas, we'll never know short of time travel.  To me, the Neanderthal chapters raise more questions than they answer.  He also doesn't have much to say about early human populations in Asia, although he makes it clear that it was Africans who relatively soon after leaving Africa moved east and south as far as New Guinea and Australia at dates similar to the earliest upper paleolithic sites in Europe.  Another fascinating piece of information is about the catastrophic Mount Toba eruption on Sumatra 73,500 BP.  This, he says, may have reduced the entire population of our species to a few thousand individuals.  He doesn't really say anything about whether or how this effected the Blombos populations who seem to have been thriving about then.  Certainly it was a bottleneck for people in the northern hemisphere and seems to have stopped a small foray of HS people into North Africa and the Levant somewhat earlier.  He's not really clear, though, what people were almost exterminated by the eruption.  It reminds us, though, that a similar natural disaster today would probably kill many millions of people.

    Fagan is on firmer ground when he gets to the first moderns in Europe.  The rest of the book is about the familiar Mousterian (Neanderthal), Chatalperronian, Aurignacian, Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian tool making traditions of Europe.  Some of these terms are probably site specific, but certainly the Aurignacians spread a similar material culture throughout the inhabitable parts of Europe from 39,000 to 29,000 BP.  The masterful painters of Chauvet cave were probably Aurignacians.  The book is illustrated with some splendid color pages as well as helpful charts and line drawings of artifacts.  Perhaps we are still waiting for someone to put forth a reasonable explanation of how a parallel evolution of communication may have arisen in the Neanderthal line.  The evidence, though, seems clear that H sapiens cultures are exuberantly symbolic while Neanderthal cultures, whatever they may have been, were different, although effective for thousands of generations of adaptation to harsh pleistocene conditions.  Fagan's book poses both questions and answers.  His discussion of Milankovitch cycles is interesting in relation to climate change.  There is no reason not to think that we are currently in an interglacial and the earth could return to pleistocene conditions.  The short term effects of global warming, though, would leave a far diminished population of living things to adapt to the changes.  He doesn't really go into this though, since his real fascination is with the glories of the upper paleolithic. 


The Universe Within: Discovering The Common History of Rocks, Planets and People - Neil Shubin - 2013 - Pantheon

    Shubin takes on the daunting task of going from the creation of the universe to the evolution of life as we know it.  I am familiar with most of the story but the way he tells it is engrossing.  The book is particularly strong in giving portraits of scientists and thinkers who made the most significant discoveries, some of which, like Wegener's theory of continental drift, were discounted as fantasy until quite recently, when evidence for plate tectonics finally emerged.  Even then, the evidence produced by Marie Tharp was discounted as "girl talk" but eventually accepted by her boss, Bruce Heezen.  The scientific establishment continued to reject it but the evidence refused to go away and was eventually accepted as having "shaken the foundations of geology."  Once continental drift was established, a wealth of previously puzzling paleontological evidence fell into place.  The book is a little sketchy on recent human migration and could have filled in a bit more about the great transformation of iron into iron oxide, but overall Shubin gives us a crisp picture of past climate and environment.  Even after multicellular life was well established, the earth's atmosphere could not have supported large terrestrial creatures.  The planet has not always been as we know it and will not be in the future.  Shubin gives a good explanation of the balance between carbon producing processes and the oxygen cycle of production and removal that has always been at a critical balance point.  Living things, volcanos, acid rain, erosion and subduction of mid ocean plates create a dance of forces that can tip one way or another with tremendous consequences for life on earth.  In particularly vulnerable situations, the Milankovitch cycles are critical in determining climate.  We live in a tiny bubble, made even more precarious by our reckless dumping of carbon into the atmosphere and from that into the oceans.  The book places our tiny slice of time in the context of a 13.5 billion year history.  Awesome but also immensely informative and engaging. 

The Nature of the Beast - Louise Penny -2015 - M & S

    The beast in question is both the antichrist from the book of Revelation and a supergun designed to fire an object into low earth orbit.  And of course, these converge on the peaceful almost non-existent village of Three Pines which is not on any map but central to Penny's Inspector Gamache mysteries.  Gamache has retired to Three Pines when a young boy named Laurent Lepage, known for telling tall tales, dies in what was initially described as a bike accident.  Gamache was one of the last people to see him alive and hear his fabulous tale about a giant gun and a monster hidden in the woods.  Gamache suspects foul play when the boy's beloved stick is not found with the body.  He examines the scene more carefully and then calls in the Surite inspector Isabelle Lacoste, his former protoge and replacement as head of homicide.  A search for the stick begins and eventually there is an astounding find; a huge gun with an etching of a seven-headed monster on it hidden in the woods.  The boy's stick is there with evidence that he had been murdered.  A parallel and ultimately convergent story is about a play, She Sat Down and Wept that local theater producer Antoinette wants to put on despite it turning out to have been written by a notorious mass murderer, John Fleming.  (Strange coincidence that there's a real John Fleming who is a theater critic and author of a book about Tom Stoppard.  He must be surprised to see his namesake here as an arch villain.)  The title, of course, is a variant of Psalm 137, By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our lyres.  For there our captors required of us songs and our tornenters, myrth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion. . . O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall be he who repays you with what you have done to us.  Blessed shall be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock.  The gun, it turns out, is the result of Project Babylon (again a historical reality) and it's front man, Gerald Bull who was killed in a professional assassination in Brussles attempting to negotiate an arms deal.  Enter a mysterious duo of CSIS agents posing as humble file clerks but in fact being much more.  Another murder happens, this time of Antoinnette, whose uncle, it turns out, was in fact the scientists who designed the gun.  There's lots more in this intricately woven plot and like other Penny mysteries involves an existential threat to civilization.  All of course is well in the end but getting there is the fun part. 


Among the Islands - Tim Flannery - 2011 - Atlantic Monthly Press

    Flannery is an Australian scientist, writer and was curator of mammals at the Australian Museum during the mid 1980s when he carried out extensive field research on endangered and as it turned out undiscovered species throughout the Melanesian islands, from New Guinea to Malaita, New Caledonia and Fiji.  Although he found some marsupials like the giant cuscus of Woodlark Island, his main interest was in rats and bats.  Having previously scoured museum collections from New York to London and elsewhere, he identified a number of island species only known from a single specimen.  His research was focused on determining whether these could still be found and to look for previously undescribed species.  Underlying these particular collecting objectives was the more fundamental question of determining evolutionary relationships and connections between mammals and the complex and varied geology of the islands.  Some islands broke off from Gondwanda millions of years ago.  Others were attached to New Guinea during pleistocene low water levels.  Some were volcanic.  His research also carried him into culturally complex places.  Fauna prior to human occupation included many species that succumbed to human exploitation.  New Guinea was first populated in the pleistocene, 33,000 years ago.  Other islands, like Fiji had only had people for a few thousand.  Original Melanesians merged with Polynesian Lapita populations to produce distinctive cultures.  At the time of the research described in the book, some places he visited were largely uninfluenced by western culture.  Unmarried women in the interior of Malaita wore no clothes.  Other places, like New Caledonia had a long and sometimes violent history of colonial contact.  Flannery is a good writer and takes the reader through his adventures in difficult terrain and sometimes strange and potentially violent cultures.  The core of the book, though, is the mammals he studies, particularly bats, among the largest of mammalian orders.  There are more species of bats than just about any group.  Insectivorous bats, Microchiroptera, make up almost a quarter of all living mammalian species.  So investigating the evolutionary, ecological and geological relationships of bats and rats (prior to the introduction of European species) provides an important window into evolutionary and adaptive processes.  Flannery writes whimsically about his adventures and sometimes misadventures.  On New Caledonia, a francophone island, he tries to buy formaldehyde from a pharmacy but doesn't know the right word.  He asks for preservatif, which turns out to mean condom.  When the pharmacist produces some, he says, Non, plus grand - a demi litre."  Then to make matters worse he tries to explain, "pour les animaux morts."  On the point of being arrested for being a pervert, a customer who spoke some English asks for le formal."   During the years of these expeditions, he discovered many new species, hoping that a documentation of rare and endangered animals would encourage regulations to prevent habitat destruction.  In an afterword he admits that in hindsight he might not have been as willing to kill animals to obtain a specimen.  Advances in DNA sequencing have made it much easier to trace evolutionary relationships from minute samples.  The book has good maps and some interesting photos of bats, rats and people taken during his expeditions. 


Murder on the Leviathan - Boris Akunin aka Grigory Chkhartishvili (tr Andrerw Bromfield) - 2004 - Random House

    Akunin "enjoys almost legendary popularity in Russia."  He is a philologist, critic and translator of Japanese.  This is one of ten Erast Fandorin novels.  The plot and setting are classic Agatha Christie in form.  An initial multiple murder, mysterious objects from India, a gathering of suspects on a sea journey to India in the maiden voyage of the Leviathan.  Investigating the crime is French detective, Inspector Gauche.  His name says it all.  He is not Poiret, but a self important and usually delusional man obsessed with his forthcoming pension and his French chauvinism.  The steamship company had produced gold badges for all first class passengers.  The wealthy collector who was murdered in Paris was found clutching one in his hand.  Gauche concludes that the suspect must be on the Leviathan and missing a badge.  He arranges for all these people to be gathered together at one table for the voyage.  The plot twists and turns.  At first he accuses a Japanese passenger, M. Gintaro Aono until the observant Russian, Erast Fandorin, proves him wrong.  Things turn and tumble.  Gauche has read a newspaper article implicating an international adventuress, Marie Sanfon.  She does turn up under an assumed identity.  There is the son of the Emerald Raja of Brhamapur who eventually turns up as Charles Renier, a ship's officer.  As the plot thickens mayhem and murders increase.  Eventually, Fandorin solves the case.  I won't say more.  This is a perfect complex surprise laden mystery.  I'll probably look for more by Akunin. 

Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit - Joyce E. Chaplin - 2012 - Simon & Schuster

    As the title says, historian Chaplin traces circumnavigation beginning with Magellan, who actually did not make it all the way.  She points out that until the time of Cook, i.e. from 1519 to 1775, long voyages were guaranteed death traps, largely due to scurvy but also to dank, dark and filthy living quarters.  Magellan's expedition lost 80% of its men and many others simply failed to return.  Contrast this with Cook's second voyage in which he lost only 2.6 %, none of them to scurvy.  Even Cook did not fully understand the dietary requirements for scurvy prevention.  He fed his men sauerkraut but also took shore leave as often as possible.  The discovery of Tahiti and later Hawaii made it possible to break up the long Pacific passage and take on fresh supplies.  Beyond the age of sailing ships, Chaplin goes into the age of steam, both by ship and overland by railroad.  She probably spends more time on Phileas Fogg than any other circumnavigator, which is disconcerting since he was a fictional character, not an actual traveler.  The book goes on to the age of flight and finally to the space age.  Overall it's a solid well researched history of circumnavigation, with the annoying exception of her fascination with the imaginary Fogg and his companion, Passpartout.  It's a long book and could probably have benefited from a keen editor.  (September 20)


Out of Africa - Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) - 1937 - Random House

    After reading McLain and Markham I had to read Out of Africa.  The contrast between Blixen's experience and Markham's couldn't be stronger.  Despite the immense popularity of Blixen's book and the obscurity of Markham's, the latter is a better, certainly more poetic and ethnographically more accurate writer.  More important, she was born in Africa and grew up with Africans as her best friends.  Markham doesn't seem dated, even when describing elephant hunting safaris.  Blixen is almost unaware of the immense colonial bias of her writing.  While having some close relationships with Kikuyu and Somali servants and farm workers, she is steadfast in her belief that European culture is at a more advanced stage of cultural evolution.  Yes, she acknowledges that colonialism has robbed Africans of their land and their past, she continues to hold fast to a hierarchy of peoples.  Somalis, she writes, "were greatly superior to the Native population in intelligence and culture ... The Natives of the land ... have got their own old mysterious and simple cultural traditions which seem to lose themselves in the darkness of their very ancient days.  We ourselves have carried European light to the country quite lately, but we have had the means to spread and establish it quickly."  She goes even farther in asserting that Native Africans never go beyond the mental growth of a European child of nine.  The Somali make it to 13 - 17.  Wow!  Even her trusted Somali farm manager Farah, with whom she had a strong bond, was required to walk five paces behind her.  Perhaps that was simply required without question, but still, she does not make any criticism of it.  Compare this with Markham's friend Kabii who became her associate Arap Ruta.  No such nonsense.  Blixen makes reference to Cooper's Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook as a model for her relations with Africans.  The British colonists, "country-bred and open-air people ... schooled by dignified keepers and stablemen were accustomed to proud servants.  Themselves untamed, with fresh hearts, they were capable of forming a Hawkeye-Chingachgook fellowship with a dark untamed nomad or hunter; they accepted and trusted the Somali, as the Somali accepted and trusted them."  The relationship, though, was always master & servant.  "We were the people who, wherever we went, were followed, at a distance of five feet, by those noble, vigilant and mysterious shadows."  She writes about African people much as she writes about African animals.  Noble but different.  Yes, the book was written in 1936 and reflected an even earlier colonial era, but Markham lived at the same time and had an entirely different relationship to Africa.  When describing the Masai warrior ethic, Blixen quotes Nietzsche, "Man for war, and woman for the warrior's delight.  All else is foolishness."  For all of this, Blixen must be understood as a woman of her time and culture and within those constraints, an extraordinary woman whose African workers were obviously devoted to her.  Perhaps without really knowing it, she has created a rich portrait of British colonial East Africa, in all its ethnocentrism and triumphalism.  I was astonished to learn that Africans were forbidden to own property in what had once been their own land.  The colonials brought with them an English culture still strongly based on class and privilege.  Even after the war that took a generation of young English men, they assumed that their natural state was master and the people of Africa were there to serve them. 

West with the Sun - Beryl Markham - 1942-1983 - Open Road

    Markham wrote the book after her epic flight but it remained virtually undiscovered until the early 1980s when an editor found the following passage in a letter from Hemingway:


"Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West with the Night? ...She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers ... it really is a bloody wonderful book."

I have to agree.  There is poetry, adventure, narrative ethnography and storytelling.  Markham had the same gift with words that she had with horses.  She knew how to encourage them to run their best.  McLain seems to have taken some of the stories almost literally from the book.  Not exactly plagiarized, but summarized and retold.  I like Markham's versions better.  One remarkable story McLain did not include is her warthog hunt with two Nandi hunters, Arap Maina and Arap Kosky.  The chapter is called, "Praise God for the Blood of the Bull." They called her Lakweit.     It is a remarkable story that includes a standoff with a lion.  Her spear is the one that finally kills the boar.  There is terse narrative of the events and beautiful rendering of Nandi warrior's speech. The boy she new as Kibii taught her to jump and handle a spear.  He later became Arap Ruta, a lifelong companion.  Some writers have claimed that the book was actually ghost written by her third husband, but Mary Lovell's research indicates that most of it was written before she had met him.  There is some suggestion that her style was influenced by Antoine de Saint Exupery, who was reputed to have been one of her lovers.  Whatever the inspiration, Beryl is the only person who could have written about her Africa as she does.  Her writing is vivid, poetic and economical.  No hyperbole despite describing remarkable events.  She chooses to write about her accomplishments with horses and airplanes and her deep and enduring friendships, not her romances and failed marriages.  That's all to the good.  It is not a confessional.  The book ends with her solo flight from England to North America.  She would have made it all the way to New York had it not been for a bit of ice lodged in the air vent of her last fuel tank, forcing her to land in a bog.  Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing, and this one was good and a triumph.  The book is also very good and a triumph.  She continued to train horses into her late 70s and early 80s but the unexpected income from the recently re-discovered book eased her comfort in her final years. 

Circling the Sun - Paula McLain - 2015 - Ballentine Books

    Unlike the historical novels of Libbie Hawker, McLain writes about people of the 20th century; Hemingway's "Paris Wife" and in this case, Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west.  The book begins and ends with a brief account of her flight but the rest of it is a very personal novel about her life, based on Markham's own book (West with the Night) and Mary Lovell's 1987 biography, Straight On Till Morning: The Life of Beryl Markham).  It is first and foremost about Africa, about the culture of English settlers in Kenya, about horses, and about her lifelong friendship with a neighboring Kipsigi boy Kibii (later arap Ruta) whose people called her Lakwet, "very little girl."  From them she learned to use a spear and was treated more like another boy than a girl destined for Kipsigi womanhood.  Her greatest love was horses and as a young woman, against all odds earned a license as a horse trainer.  McLain moves from biography into historical novel in detailing her loves and relationships, particularly with Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) and Denys Finch Hatton, the man they shared without really coming to terms with it.  Denys was an Eton and Oxford educated Englishman who became a safari guide, once even guiding the Prince of Wales and his entourage.  He was charming and loving but not willing or able to settle down with anyone.  Eventually Beryl took up flying, perhaps inspired by Denys who had flown in WWI.  In Africa he used his plane to spot game for his safaris.  He came to a tragic end when his plane went down from unknown causes.  Beryl was married twice (in the years described by the book); once to Jock Purves, a farmer who turned out to be at least verbally abusive and next to an English aristocrat, Mansfield Markham, with whom she had one child, a son named Gervaise.  Markham did not want to return to Africa and granted her a divorce on the condition that he keep the child.  She returned to her horses, to flying, to Denys.  The relationship with Karen is an interesting one and my next reviews will be of the books written by the two friends. 


Storm in the Sky (Part 2 of The Coming Forth of Day - Libbie Hawker - 2015 - Running Rabbit Press

    The soap opera of Akhenaten contines as he assumes increasingly arbitrary powers and obsessions.  As with all her books in the Egyptian series, the major characters are real people given novelistic personalities by the author.  Mahu really was the Pharaoh's chief of police and protector of the city in the desert.  The future Pharaoh Horemheb appears as a guard under his command, as is known to be the case.  Baketaten and her mother Sitamun were real but are given much more prominence than the record shows.  Nefertiti is well known and was probably much like the person portrayed here.  The salient features of Akhenaten's reign are his rejection of all the ancient Egyptian gods (and their entrenched priesthoods) and his devotion to the abstract power of Aten, the sun.  He probably was genuinely obsessive and maybe even as cruelly mad as he is shown here.  There is evidence that he not only followed the more or less normal practice of marrying a royal sister, but also married his own daughter(s).  The old Queen Tiy, mother of Akhenaten,  continues to be an important presence as is her evil brother Ay, the father of Nefertiti.  The whole thing is a lurid soap opera, but looking at the physical remains from that period the lavish opulence is not exaggerated.  The Amarna portraits are stunning; Nefertiti, of course, but also the strange long face of Akhenaten himself.  It's amazing how very much we know about those few years 3,300 years ago.  Hawker is a prolific and imaginary writer but she has done her research well and does not give us anything much beyond what ah historical novelist of our own period would do.  Her writing is not particularly poetic but intensely narrative and passionately evocative of what it looked and felt and sounded and even smelled like in ancient Egypt of the 18th dynasty.  The next book is coming out this month.  (September 12)


Uneasy Spirits: Book 2 of Victorian San Francisco Mysteries - Mary Louisa Locke - 2013 -

    Annie Fuller, AKA Madam Sibyl, finds herself confronted with real life spiritualists and mediums who trick clients into believing they have contacted the spirits of their dead relatives.  One of her roomers, miss Pinehurst, has asked her to investigate because her sister is being seriously taken in.  Eventually, her love interest Nate Dawson is drawn into the case of the fraudulent Framptons.  There's lots about late 19th century San Francisco and about the clothing women wore then.  Along with the Framptons is a young girl, Evie May, who has a remarkable ability to assume different personalities and appearances.  She turns out to be more or less the real thing.  The Framptons are frauds but not really sinister.  Behind them, though, some other evil person is using them to blackmail influential people.  We don't learn who that is until late in the story, which ends as usual, with a near escape and a rescue by Nate.  Sometimes it seems that Annie is constantly putting herself into situations inviting rescue which undermines her autonomy.  She explains it, though, by saying that she has been controlled by men before and this time wants to make her own decisions, including her own mistakes.  One feels, though, that she would have been better off partnering with Nate rather than waiting to be rescued by him.

The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired - Francine Prose - 2002 - Harper Collins

    I've read the first three portraits and decided to go back and read works these first muses inspired.  I'll finish this review later.  Well, I've finished the book.  It's really quite an amazing piece of research and writing since it involves nine biographies and cameo performances by the artists they inspired.  Some of the muses had more than one moth in her flame.  The book begins with a chapter describing the classical Greek muses as unchanging immortals, unlike the all too mortal humans who take on, for a time, their personae.  The transition from introduction to biography is a scene where Alice Liddell receives a Columbia University honorary PhD in musology (not museology) the first and only one such degree ever awarded.  Alice was the matronry woman who at ages 8 & 10 was Charles Dodgson's muse and the inspiration for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  His portrait of her as the little beggar girl is still a remarkable landmark in portrait photography and a testament to Alice's ability to hold a pose for a minute or more. 



Hester Thrale was Samuel Johnson's muse and was herself a writer.  His journal of a trip to the Scottish isles evolved from letters he wrote her.  Sadder is the muse of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Lizzie of the flaming red hair.  Rosetti was a thoroughly self adsorbed exploiter with a fetish for hair and youth (hair fetishism and erotic slumming).  Lizzie Siddal succumbed to an opium (laudanum) addiction and to add insult to injury, was exhumed by Rosetti to retrieve some forgettable poems he buried with her.  Rosetti himself was done in by addiction to choral, alcohol and ultimately psychosis.  Lou Andreas-Salome was a more interesting muse and more a force of her own.  She entranced Nietszche and a younger Paul Ree, in part by remaining virginal and distant physically.  Later on she did have a physical relationship to Ranier Marie Rilke and an intellectual one with Sigmund Freud, becoming herself an analyst.  One of the most interesting and independent muses was Lee Miller, a model for Man Ray and later a photographer and war correspondent who took the grim photographs of a liberated Buchenwald.  Finally, there is Yoko Ono, sometimes described as a Japanese Succubus in possession of John Lennon.  Prose judges their work together as terrible and embarrassing, but Ono's later work after his death as being at least interestingly avant-garde.  The most terrible of the muses was Gala Dali and her certifiably insane husband.  Perhaps the sweetest one is Suzanne Farrell, Balanchine's dancer.  The final muse (although not in that order) is Charis Weston, muse and art-wife of photographer Edward Weston.  Prose has accomplished an amazing, thoughtful and skillfully researched series of biographies, each one of which could probably have been developed into a book.  One is left with a negative feeling about the men who needed and created their muses.  They seem narcissistic, remote and incapable of a truly mutualistic relationship.  There are no examples of women who have other women as muses, like Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas.  Even more absent are men and or woman who had male muses.  Something to ponder. 


A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland - Samuel Johnson - 1773

    This travel journal evolved from letters Johnson wrote to his muse, Hester Thrale on his journey with Boswell through Scotland.  The journal is particularly interesting in its portrait of life on the  Hebredes at the time when people were leaving in large number to emigrate to America.  The period of clan feuding had not long passed and each island was still ruled by a clan Laird and administered by his Tacksman.  The residents were rent-paying tenants.  Johnson is down to earth in describing the details of travel in the late 18th century.  "The true state of every nation," he writes, "is the state of common life. . . the greater part of our time passes in compliance with necessities."  At the time of his travel English was only spoken by the Lairds and others of their station.  The common people spoke Erse (gaelic)., which he describes as, "the rude speech of a barbarous people, who had few thoughts to express, and were content, as they conceived grossly, to be grossly understood."  He discounts accounts of "Highland Bards" and is particularly skeptical of the reputed bard Ossian.   Travel as far as the lowlands was done with a one horse cart but on the islands, there were no wheeled vehicles and no roads.  Travel was by boat and by horse. There were no public accommodations on most of the islands, except for Sky (Skye) and consequently, Johnson and Boswell stayed in the homes of residents and occasionally in the more spacious homes of the Lairds.  His reputation as one of London's glitterati seems to have preceded him and everywhere he was given a gracious welcome.  Locals provided boat transportation and small island riding horses.  His description of huts built without mortar and usually without a chimney.  Sometimes he was in for a surprise as when staying at "the hut of a gentleman, where, after a very liberal supper, when I was conducted to my chamber, I found an elegant bed of Indian cotton, spread with fine sheets.  The acommodation was flattering: I undressed myself, and felt me feet in the mire.  The bed stood upon the bare earth, which a long course of rant had softened to a puddle."  He is attentive to the subtle variation in soil and hence in the possibility of agriculture from island to island.  There is a good description of peat and its uses.  Most people ground their corn (grain) using a quern or hand mill, which he describes accurately.  Similarly, he describes the local belief in "second sight" with attention to detail and example.  Some of the Lairds had assembled men to serve in the American campaign, and it is obvious that Johnson (who had met Benjamin Franklin earlier) had little use for revolutionary secession.  If one were to travel through these islands today, Johnson's journal would be an invaluable companion.


Alice In Wonderland (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) - Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) - 1865

    Alice Liddell was Charles Dodgson's muse from whom he wrote the famiiar and multi-layered story.  Familiar as the story is, another reading rewards with further insight into Dodgson's erudition, his puns, his political sendups and his poking fun at homilies like, "How doth the busy bee."  Lots of word play from the start - antipodes becomes antipathies.  A recent article in The Walrus (appropriately enough) The Cheshire Cat's Grin: Solving the Greatest Mystery of Wonderland 150 Years Later, explains a lot of the more esoteric references.  The cheshire cat reflects a mathmatical construct of a curve suspended between two points, but it also references the "patristic caternary (chain of the fathers) by Edward Bouverie Pusey (i.e. Puss), who was rector at Dodgson's college.  Some little things Alice may have gotten; Eaglet and Lory are her sisters, Edith and Lorina.  The Dodo is Dodgson himself, who had a slight stammer.  Sentence before verdict is a reference to a principle in calculus that only the math professor Dodgson would know.  The white rabbit is Henry Wentworth Acland, family physician (and also to Queen Victoria) who was always checking his pocket watch.  Alice would probably have had this image as the story unfolded.  Her fall down the rabbit hole reflects precise mathematical ratios.  The conger eel is Dodgson's friend John Ruskin.  There are lots more word plays; Tortoise - taught us; porpoise, purpose, etc.  Altogether it is a delicious riddle like, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?"  Your turn to answer.

The Book of Coming Forth By Day: Book One, The House of Rejoicing - Libby Hawker - 2015

         More lurid soap opera from Egypt's 18th dynasty.  In this series we trace the rise of Amunhotep III, later Akhenaten.  The main characters are Tiy, his mother, Amunhotep II, his degenerate father, Tiy's scheming brother Ay and his equally scheming daughter, the beautiful Nefertiti, one of a trio of  the Amunhotep III's wives.  The others are Sitamun (his sister) and Mitanni Princess Tadukepha (Kiya).  As in Hawker's other books, these are all actual people and for many of them we have stunningly realistic portraits.  Perhaps moreso than in her other books, Hawker takes literties to describe palace intrigue and raw emotions.  There is very little about the actual business of running an empire, which under Amunhotep II was at its peak.  It's very much told from a female point of view.  The book depicts Amunhotep III's gradual grasp of power and accession to the throne, suggesting even that he may have killed his father.  She depicts him as cruel, charismatic and ultimately mad.  At the end of the book he has rejected the ancient worship of Amun and its well entrenched priesthood and replaced it with worship of Aten, the creative force of the universe represented by the sun.  In this she depicts what actually happened quite accurately.  The following books will follow Egypt's descent into Akhnaten's madness and his ultimate downfall.  (August 24)


The Gods of Olympus - Barbara Graziosi - 2014  Metropolitan Books

         Graziosi is a classicist at Durham University in England.  Obviously, much has been written about classical Greece and its gods, but Graziosi traces the 12 Olympians from their origins in Minoan Homeric and archaic Greece through classical and hellenistic times and on into the Roman empire, Christianity, Islam, the middle ages, renaissance and finally into our own era.  As befits a scholar, it is meticulously researched and footnoted but not at all to the detriment of the story itself.  The gods have always been distinctive in combining their immortality with thoroughly human attributes.  As she points out, the twelve constitute an Olympian dysfunctional family.  Athena and Artemis are powerful in their virginity.  Aphrodite is powerful in her sexuality, and Zeus is powerful in his indescriminate sexual impulses.  She begins her portraits of the gods by looking at them as portrayed in the the Parthenon frieze of Phideas.  Here the artist has captured each one's idiosyncracies at a time when philosophers were beginning to question even their literal existence.  Such doubts, though, never really challenged the institutional and popular nature of their cults.  Powerful interests had a stake in maintaining temples and priesthoods.  Above all, the gods of classical antiquity invited the stunning human portraits, a few of which have come down to us in statuary from the period or from Roman copies.  The book makes good use of photographs to illustrate the gods as they were seen by their creators as well as maps placing them within the Mediterranean world.  Less well known perhaps is the importance Islam played in carrying on the classical tradition.  Legend has it that Aristotle appeared to the darly 9th century Abassid Caliph al-Ma'mun in a dream encouaging him to translate the works of classical antiquity.  He established a "House of Wisdom" dedicated to the study of the ancients.  The most important translator was a Nestorian Christian, Hunan ibn Ishaq.  Although he knew Greek and was familiar with Homer, it was one of his students who did the first translation into Arabic.  The work of Ptolomy was particularly important to the growing Arab empire and eventually became known in 15th century Europe, perhaps providing Columbus an impeetus to sail west.  As you can see from this review, the book is rich in detail, spanning a period of almost 4000 years.  It would be a good book to have in a reference library as well as being a good read.  (August 25)

 

Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings - Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton with Jay Barbree - 2011 - Open Road Media 

         It seems appropriate to read this after the race for Timbuktu that took place a century before.  Jay Barbree is a science writer who has covered NASA from the beginning.  The book starts with the first Sputnik, Russia's first sub orbital and then orbital flight, and America's fight to catch up.  Werner von Braun was the real genius behind the rockets that made American space travel possible.  He was behind every important missle up through the Saturn V that ultimately launched the Apollo moon shots.  The book follows the original Mercury 8 up through Deke Slayton's eventual flight as the world's oldest rookie astraunaut aboard the Apollo Soyuz Russian US docking mission.  Shepard and Slayton were central to the entire US early manned space program.  They were typical type A ambitious and talented all American test pilots with military experience.  These qualities were probably essential for dealing with the complex problems that typically arose in space flight.  The book goes from the first rudimentary Mercury and Gemini flights to the amazingly complex Apollo systems.  All of this development took place in less than a decade.  The book is ethnographic in its depiction of NASA culture but also riviting as it takes the reader on an intimate journey aboard these space craft.  The chapters on Apollo 11 and 13 are particularly dramatic.  It ends with a lament for the demise of NASA's manned space capacity and puts the blame squarely on the Obama administration. Barbree shares with Elon Musk the fantasy that human life on earth is doomed and our survival depends on colonizing other worlds.  Mars is the only place in the solar system that could possibly support a very small colony but would our species really want to be confined to a world without a life supporting atmosphere.  Worlds in other solar systems are simply beyond reach.  It would take thousands of years or more to reach any likely candidate.  That's not going to happen.  Maybe we should start looking after the world we have. 


The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold - Frank T. Kryza - 2006 - Harper Collins

         In the first quarter of the 19th century  the sub saharan African interior was virtually unknown.  The Romans had known its fringes and legends persisted of a great city of gold known as Timbuktu.  It had been visited in the early 1500s by Leo Africanus, a Spanish Moor whose descriptions of a major trade hub probably exaggerated its oplulence.  Although Europeans knew of the Niger River, its source and its mouth were unknown.  Some thought that it ran into a central African lake, although Lake Chad had yet to be discovered by Europeans.  An interest in African exploration began with the formation of The African Association with Sir Joseph Banks as its head.  By the 1820s it had been subsumed by the British Foreign Office.  During the early years of the 19th century a host of intrepid explorers were sent to the coast with a mission of exploring inland to find Timbuktu and the mouth of the Niger.  Virtually all of these died of tropical diseases.  Kryza's book is remarkably detailed, making use of extensive journals and letters that have survived from the explorers of the 1820s, Hugh Clapperton and Major Alexander Gordon Laing in particular.  After many adventures, Clapperton succumbed to disease trying to reach the interior from the coast.  Laing succeeded, going overland across the Sahara from Tripoli.  He did not live to report his findings and was killed by fanatical Muslims only three days out from Timbuktu.  Major figures in the story are the powerful men of Tripoli, the British Consul Hanmer Warrington and the local warlord, Bashaw (Pasha) Yusuf Bashaw Karamanli.  Warrington's wife was an illegitimate daughter of George IV and their daughter, Emma, fell in love with and married Laing shortly before his departure from Tripoli.  The book closely recounts the travels and intrigues of these explorers, sometimes on a day to day basis.  It is rich in detail about local culture, the Tuaregs of the desert and the Yoruba farther south and east.  It is also rich in descriptions of the desert landscape and the rigors of travel through it. Timbuktu has recently been in the news under assault by ISIS Islamic extremists.  Although the weapons have become more deadly, tribal warfare, kidnapping and attacks on non-Muslims in the news today are not that different from what Clapperton, Laing and the others encountered. 

Estelle Ryan - The Gauguin Connection:Book 1 of the Genevieve Lenard Series - 2012 - Published by Estselle Ryan

         Genevieve Lenard is a very high functioning woman with autism who works for a company that insures valuable works of art.  Her talent is to read people's faces and body language to determine if they are telling the truth and what other emotions they are hiding.  Her employer and main contact with the outside world is Phillip Rousseau, who has been asked by his long time friend, a detective with Eurocorps named Manny (Colonel Manfred Millard), to investigate the mysterious theft of weapons in their care.  The company is based in Strassbourg but Jenny seems to be equally comfortable in French and English as well as Russian.  Manny is Deputy Chief Executive for Strategy at the European Defense Agency.  Genevieve, later called Jenny by a reformed art thief she learns to trust, is obsessed with neatness and order.  Curiously, the man she trusts, Colin Frey, breaks into her apartment and refuses to leave until she is willing to talk with him.  Not long after there is another break in, this time by  thugs who ransack her place and search for something they do not find.  She is rescued when Colin's friend Vinnie, a gentle giant, scares them off.  Objects in her space must be precisely aligned.  Lists must be alphabetical.  The book opens with an assault on her secure world when Manny inadvertently shows her the photo of a crime scene related to the investigation.  It is a young woman lying in a pool of blood.  She blacks out but has learned to compensate by writing out favorite works of Mozart in her head.  As the plot develops, she spends long hours scanning information on a bank of computers, tracing out connections that reveal a mysterious villain, Piros, who has links to someone high up in the EDA.  At the end we learn that it is Frederick Dutois, Chief Executive of the EDA and second in command after the Head.  The case involves a complex web of connections between art forgeries and the murder of young artists recruited to make them.  There's lots of interesting detail, suspense, and even a developing romance between Jenny and Colin. There are seven more books in the "Connection" series.  Women who self publish interesting mysteries seem to be doing well.

The Unlikely Disciple - Kevin Roose - 2009 - Grand Central Publishing

    Kevin was a student at Brown who decided that instead of taking a semester abroad, he would enroll in Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lychburg, Virginia and if all went well, write a book about his experience.  This is that book, written when he was 19 years old.  It's very much a portrait of what it is like to be a young man living in a college dorm, but in this case the dorm is governed by Liberty's strict rules against swearing, sexual intimacy beyond holding hands, breaking curfew and a host of other offenses.  The campus culture is suffused with the language of born again evangelicals, but beyond that, Roose (called Rooster by his roommates) finds complexity, integrity, and the usual angst of kids that age.  His greatest dilemma is being unwilling or unable to tell his friends what he is really up to, although rather than being a muck raking investigative reporter, he is more like an ethnographer.  He finds it particularly hard when he is attracted to a female student named Anna.  Kevin is from Oberlin, Ohio and is the son of not terribly devout liberal Quakers.  He has beloved aunts in a lesbian relationship and lots of gay friends from Brown, so the hardest challenge is dealing with the intolerance for gays and outright hateful homophobia among some students.  On the other hand, he finds prayer an uplifting and meaningful experience, particularly when done with friends.  Although he credits his teachers with being generally intelligent, he cannot get over their insistence that no matter what the scientific facts say, the Bible is inerrant.  One course is based on young earth creationism, the institutional orthodoxy of Liberty.  The most difficult and painful experience was being forced to do Christian witness at the spring bacchanalia of Datona Beach.  It was unsuccessful all around and neither he nor his more ardent team members made any real converts.  The most pressing question he is constantly asked is whether he has been saved.  Not being saved means going to eternal hellfire and damnation.  He has a hard time accepting that at Liberty, Mother Theresa, The Pope and most other people, living and dead, suffer this fate.  At the very end of his semester he asks the campus newspaper editor if he will support a request to interview Jerry himself.  Unlike most interviewers who are either acolytes or enemies, Kevin asks the founder about his personal life and simple things like how many ties he has, getting eventually to family ties and a quirky sense of humor.  Through this technique he reveals a man who was able to become friends with people like Ted Kennedy.  Tragically, Falwell dies of a heart attack only days after the interview, the last print interview he ever gave.  The book is whimsical, intimate, and revealing of both himself and Liberty.  It is well written and engaging.  (August 14, 2015)


Bloody Lessons: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery - M. Louisa Locke - 2013

         This is the third in a boxed set about boarding house owner and clairvoyant financial adviser Annie Fuller.  Her romance with lawyer Nate Dawson moves along in book  three.  At the end she finally says yes to him.  Meanwhile, the mystery is about anonymous letters sent to teachers and administrators at the school where Nate's sister Laura teaches.  Early on there is a tragedy when her best friend Hattie dies of a fall and a miscarriage under suspicious circumstances.  Annie and Laura join Nate in investigating the letters.  The book begins with a mysterious attack on Laura walking home from school.  At the the end of the book we learn that the intended victim was her friend and fellow boarder, Barbara Hewitt.  Her son Jamie goes to the school and they have a loyal  terrier named Dandy.  Can't help but like that.  Locke is a retired professor of US & Women's history.  This is a well researched and quite complex mystery with lots of characters and insight into 19th century clothing, culture, schools and gender relations.  Just the kind of mystery I like for its cultural, even ethnographic perspective. As with any good mystery, all the pieces don't come together until the very end.  And then Nate pops the question (again) and Annie says "Yes." 


Murder on a Midsummer Night - Kerry Greenwood - Poison Pen Press

    Yes another long delicious Phryne Fisher mystery.  As usual it's richly cultural as well as being a good story.  In this case there's a wealth of information about antiquities since the murder victim was a dealer with an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient artifacts.  Phryne knows a lot too and puts this knowledge to good use.  There are a lot of references to classical mythology and literature.  Cybele, the castrated hermaphrodite is there too, leading into Old Testament references as well as the God Tammuz.  As usual, there are two cases going on at once.  The other is the search for the grown child of an unwed mother who was forced to abandon her baby and marry someone of her father's choice.  She has passed away leaving a family with her Italian husband, but the lawyer for the estate needs to find out if another child exists and if he or she is still alive.  Phryne of course solves both cases with the help of her adopted kids and her lover, Lin Chung.  There's also a subplot of a band of crazies who believe the antiquities dealer had a map revealing the location of Blackbeard's buried treasure. 


Doc - Mary Maria Russell - 2011 - Random House

    Although a work of fiction, Doc is based on the real life of John Henry Holliday (Doc Holliday), and the Earp brothers, Morgan and Wyatt.  It is not about the famous shootout at the OK corral in Tombstone but rather largely set in Dodge City, Kansas.  There is a long list of characters, some of which are familiar from the mythology and all of which are real people.  Doc was a talented dentist who grew up in antebellum Georgia but after the war trained at the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in Philadelphia.  He was very good at his profession, despite the weakness he suffered from the TB that eventually took his life.  He was equally talented as a professional gambler and particularly excelled at dealing faro.  Dodge City was full of rowdy cowboys who drove cattle from Texas to the railhead there.  It required intrepid lawmen and equally intrepid prostitutes.  One of these was Maria Katarina Harony, an aristocratic refugee from Romania, who spoke Latin, French, Spanish, German and her native Magyar.  She was later known (but not to her face) as Big Nose Kate.  She and Doc often conversed in Latin and were equally proficient at quoting from both Latin and Greek classics.  She became Doc's mistress and gambling partner.  Another character was the vaudeville actor Eddie Foy.  A mystery develops over the mysterious death of a young half black boy, Johnny Sanders.  Yet another character is the Jesuit priest, also an aristocrat, Alexander von Angensperg, who was Johnny's teacher in mission school.  The story is told in the voice of a third person outside observer, with appropriately embedded dialogue.  It's as much a portrait of a slice of history as it is the portrait of an individual, although Doc is drawn with sharp attention to detail.  Russell is, in fact, a historian and makes good use of that knowledge.  It's an intimate portrait of people and places and beautifully written. 


Walden or Life in the Woods - Henry David Thoreau - 1854 - Ticknor and Fields: Boston - Harper Torch Classics

    In t he first chapters of this classic Thoreau spends most of his energy bad mouthing the philistines "whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle and farming tools." farmers around Concord.  He brags excessively at how little money he spends to establish himself (as a squatter) on Walden Pond.  "The mass of men," he writes, "lead lives of quiet desperation."  The life of a laborer, he says, is freer than that of his employer.  The tone of these chapters is that of an old (or young) curmudgeon.  It gets a lot better after that.  His chapter on solitude is a classic.  Not a prescription for living but a contemplation from Thoreau's solitude about what the Buddhists would call mindfullness.  After a break to read a novel and some mysteries I'm back at it.  The passages about nature, or at least what passes for nature in this multiply harvested forest surrounding Walden, are deservedly beautiful and philosophical.  Thoreau presses on with his preachy and ascetic message of renunciation.  He is famous for lines like, "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity." The chapter on "Sounds" is memorable and describes the soundscape in which he lived.  His passage about darkness and walking through the woods with no light reminds us how recent it is that we expect light to be everywhere always.  On eating meat he is extreme:  "There is something unclean about this diet and all flesh."  Tell that to our hunting ancestors or contemporaries like the Dane-zaa.  He is wrong that, "The repugnance to animal food is not the effect of experience but is an instinct."  He even goes further to declare that man's "higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind."  Gemutlich our David is not.  Putting extra condiment into your dish, "will poison you," he declares.  Eating and drinking, he says, is a"slimy bestial life."  Sex is even worse.  "The generative energy, which, when we are loose, dissipates and makes us unclean, when we are continent invigorates and inspires us.  Chastity is the flowering of man."  "An unclean person is universally a slothful one - Nature is hard to be overcome, but she must be overcome."   So much for being an iconic nature writer.   I could go on and on finding passages like this.  He'd be at home with Gandhi.  He does use metaphors from the natural world effectively.  Like the chrysalis becoming a butterfly, he muses about resurrection.  The last lines are, "The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us.  Only that day dawns to which we are awake.  There is more day to dawn.  The sun is but a morning star. 


 Marco Polo - Milton Rugoff - 2015 - Horizon

    This is a short account of the life and travels in China and India of Marco Polo.  Although much of what Polo wrote was inflated and exaggerated, Rugoff presents what appears to be true in his narrative.  He really did serve in the court of Kublai Kahn between 1271 and 1295.  He initially traveled with his father and uncle, Niccolo and Maffeo, who had met Kublai Kan in 1269 and brought the teen aged boy with them on their next trip.  The book gives the back story of Gengis Kahn and the rise of the Mongol empire.  Kublai was his grandson whose residences were in Shangdu (Zanadu) and Yehching (Beijing).  After his death from overindulgence in food & drink, the empire disintegrated and eventually the Ming Dynasty took over.  Rugoff probably didn't check all his sources carefully.  He says, for instance, that the Chinese drilled 3,500 foot deep oil wells as early as 200 BC.  The closest I could find was wells of 800 feet by the 1st century BC.  Rugoff admits that Polo described events that he did not witness directly, some of which happened before he came to China.  Despite all the miasma surrounding his work, which he dictated to a fellow prisoner when he was in jail in Genoa after a failed battle at sea.  Polo particularly admired Kinsai (Hangzhou) with it's canals and great lake.  Polo died in Venice in 1324.  He was well to do although not a major patron in the city.  Not long after his time the silk road trade routes were cut off by raiding tribes.  Not long after, the Ming Emperors prohibited trade and contact with foreigners, making China seem even more mysterious and distant than it had been when travel to and from was possible.  For a more detailed and nuanced account of his life and times there are recent biographies including Timothy Brook (2010) The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (Harvard).  See also Wikipedia for other references. 


Pirate King - Laaurie R. King - 2011 - Bantam

    This is another Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes mystery about making a movie about a play about Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, that is taken over by real pirates.  The Russell-Holmes story about making the movie also features being taken over by pirates.  Russell is asked to join the movie production team headed by the flamboyant director Randolph St John Warminster-Fflytte.  She works for his cousin, the assistant director Geoffrey Hale.  The story begins in Lisbon where actors are hired to play the swarthy band of pirates.  The cast also includes a bevy of 13 virginal girls accompanied by their maternal chaperones who play the improbable daughters of the play's Major General.  In Lisbon they meet the poetic translator, a heteronym named variously Senhor de Campos and Senhor Pessoa (person).  This character is based on a real person.  Fflytte is talked into buying an aged barque for the trip to Morocco where most of the filming will take place.  The pirate who sold him the vessel is named La Rocha who is disfigured by a terrible scar across his face.  His even more sinister half-brother is Samuel (Selim).  They and most of the other pirates turn out to be Arabs.  When the film crew is captured and held for hostage in Morocco. Russell manages to disguise herself as an Arab boy and explore the Arab town of Sale, across the water from the more colonial Rabat, for escape routes.  Holmes has earlier joined the crew aboard ship and is held hostage with the men in another building.  The greatest danger in the end is an over zealous British gunboat and Colonial officials who threaten to try brute force.  In the end, it is the women, among whom is another clandestine operative sent by Mycroft Holmes, who free themselves and kill the sinister Selim.  As I read the book the familiar tunes of the G&S operette rang through my mind.  The original play is a spoof on the British establishment where pirates are revealed to be British upper class men and therefore suitable mates for the Major General's daughters.  The British colonial authorities here are ignorant and heavy handed, but also blessedly slow to take action.  The women turn out to be their own rescuers and also that of the men.  (July 23)


Let Them Eat Shrimp: The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea - Kennedy Warne - 2011 - Island Press

    Shrimp farms are the monsters in this story but the real subject is the world's community of coastal mangrove forests.  Warne used a National Geographic grant to visit mangrove habitats and the communities that they sustain around the world; Bangladesh, Brasil, Panama, Bimini, Indonesia, Florida, New Zealand.  I may have missed a few.  He combines ecology, ethnography, climatology, economics and philosophy to show how the true costs of projects like shrimp farming are never calculated because these "externalities" are costs paid by the environment, not the consumer.  Warne obviously loves the mangrove habitat and describes its creatures, including the humans who live from it, in loving detail.  The book is not a rant, yet if gives us some disturbing information up front.  Number one, don't ever buy shrimp unless it is local and wild like our lovely spot prawns.  Shrimp farms are truly foul ugly polluting miasmas and the creatures that must be sacrificed to produce shrimp for market far outweigh the shrimp themselves.  Whole ecosystems far beyond the immediate confines of the farms are being destroyed.  The farms obliterate mangrove habitat, lead to shoreline erosion and loss of livelihood for local people.  What he describes is truly terrible but because he presents the mangrove communities so positively, there is hope.  Like other global ecological issues, we must confront externalities or when the final reckoning comes, we will be bankrupt. 


The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light - Paul Bogard - 2013 - Little Brown

    This is a very personal but also scientifically informed story of how we have lost the night sky over the last century.  Our species and our cultures evolved in adaptation to circadian cycles.  On nights without moonlight people stayed indoors (or by their fires) throughout the night.  The full majesty of the night sky was a common heritage that until the advent of electric lighting we took as normal.  Now the majority of people live in cities and never experience it.  Recently scientists discovered that our eyes have photosensitive cells unrelated to vision that regulate the production of melatonin.  Under blue light it is suppressed.  In the dark it is produced.  It is natural to sleep, although our ancestors probably divided their nights into several sleep intervals broken by periods of quiet wakefulness.  When we artificially stimulate these receptors long after nightfall, we bring on sleep deprivation and even more serious threats like heightened rates of certain cancers.  The light pollution of modernity is particularly stupid and immensely expensive.  Fear of the dark triumphs over wonder.  If anything, brightly lighted spaces increase crime rates.  The depth of darkness is measured on the Bortle scale of 1-9, where 9 is Times Square and Las Vegas where the night sky is completely obliterated, and 1 is a place with not even a distant glow from artificial light.  Much of the mistakes are caused by a combination of ignorance and lobbying by utility companies and lighting manufacturers.  Utilities want fo maintain a constant load; companies want to see more lights and fixtures.  With intelligent light design it is possible to provide adequate light that is shaded from trespassing or causing a glow in the sky.  Businesses like gas stations are particularly bad in using excessive light to draw in business.  If they were all held to a common standard, everybody would be better off.  Bogard travels across America and to Europe to visit astronomers, light designers and dark sky advocates.  In recent years the National Parks have added night sky awareness to their mandate of preserving wilderness.  They provide night sky experiences to visitors as well as education.  Over the two days and nights I was reading the book I made a conscious effort to notice the gentle transition from day to night, something that extends over several hours at this time of year in our latitude.  I made a point of not turning on lights and if I needed to read the book, I used my headlamp in its red light mode.  Bogard pays tribute to other authors who have written about light and natural heritage; Aldo Leopold, Henry Beston who walked Cape Cod beaches in 1928.   Bogard is himself a poetic writer who brings to the page the wonder of experiencing a real night sky. 


The Square of Revenge - Pieter Aspe (Brian Doyle translator) - 2013 - Open Road

    The square is an enigmatic note left at the scene of a bizarre jewelry store break in in which nothing was stolen but all the items were reduced to simple gold in an acid bath. 

    Rotas

    Opera

    Tenet

    Arepo

    Stator

The columns read vertically repeat the words horizontally.  It turns out to be the Templars Square, related to the Masonic set square.  The mystery is set in Bruges, Belgium and the police commissioner is Pieter Van In, who partners with a gorgeous deputy prosecutor named Hannelore Martens.  Of course, they end up in a romance, but that's not what is interesting about this complex and intricately crafted novel.  One difference from the usual mystery is that alternating chapters tell about police investigation and movements of the perps themseves.  As the title suggests, the crimes are an act of revenge, the motivation for which gradually comes to light.  The revenge centers around a wealthy and influential man named Ludovic Degroof.  In addition to the beak in at the jewlery story owned by his son, Ghislan, the young son of his daughter Charlotte is kidnapped and a bizarre ransom note received that demands the public burning of paintings owned by her husband, Patrick Delahaye.  A truly gothic family tragedy gradually unfolds and there are lots of thrills and close calls as the drama comes to an end.  Even after the kidnapped boy if rescued, there are additional twists and revelations.  Aspe is a prolific writer but only three of his books have been translated.  We've already downloaded one more, The Midas Mysteries. 


The She King - Libbie Hawker - L.M. Ironside - Self Published - ca. 2014

The Shekmet Bed, The Crook and the Flail, The Sovereign of the Stars, The Bull of Min

    Libbie Hawker is an amazingly prolific writer who decided to bypass the fraught world of publishing and just write.  I got the first book of the series as a freebie on Book Bub, thinking, "Well, if I don't like it the price is right."  For the next week I found myself engrossed in Egypt's 18th dynasty and of course having finished The Shekmet Bed, I had to buy the entire series, still a bargain for 700 pages of 3500 year old romance and intrigue.  This is a historical saga and all the characters are real, although Hawker takes considerable liberties filling in all the juicy details, particularly in the last book.  I was amazed to be able to go from reading the books to Google and find texts, images, statues and even mummies of the characters.  I don't know why nobody has written a historical novel about this fascinating saga before but Hawker has done a splendid job.  As the title says, the central figure is the remarkable Hatshepsut, Egypt's only female Pharaoh.  The saga begins with the death of Amenhotep I and the selection of his younger daughter, Ahmose, to be the Great Royal Wife of his chosen successor, a rekhet-common  born soldier Thutmose I.  The first two books feature the bitter struggles between Ahmose and her older sister, Mutnofret.  All these people really lived.  Thutmose II was the child of Thutmose I and Mutnofret.  In the book he is a weak and spoiled young man who died in a military misadventure.  The historical record suggests that he did not take part in military campaigns himself and that he was still a minor when Thutmose I died.  He was married to his half sister, Ahmose's daughter Hatshepsut. His children were Thutmose III and perhaps Neferure.  There are suggestions in the record that Hatshepsut took as a lover Senenmut, her tutor and architect of her monumental temple.  In the book, Hatshepsut actually was pregnant by Senenmut and tricked Thutmose II into thinking the child was his.  In the book, Iset, a variation of Isis, was also Hatshepsut's fan bearer and lover.  In the book she was poisoned by rival Amun priests in wine meant for the Queen. 

    The book gives a vivid account of Hatshepsut's expedition to the land of Punt, probably somewhere in Eretrea and or Somalia, whose Queen Ati had a remarkable physiognomy with rolls of fat and an enormous steatopygious rear end.  The expedition was well depicted on Hatshepsut's great mortuary temple at Djeser-Djeseru, the holy of holies.  

    The story becomes more conjectural as it evolves.  Neferure becomes a religious fanatic devoted to the Goddess Hathor.  She becomes crazed when she learns that Senenmut rather than Thutmose II was her father.  First she attacks her mother's fan bearer who succeeded Iset and then even more outrageously, kills Senenmut.  There is little or no hint of these events in the historical record although the name she took when she escaped to a small temple was Satiah, a known consort of Thutmose III.  Historically, Satiah was the daughter of Thutmose III and his wife, Merytre-Hatshepsut, who in the book is a strong and loyal partner to Thutmose. 

    Hawker uses real Egyptian names for places and features rather than the more familiar Greek ones.  Thus, Thebes is Waset and Luxor, Ipet-Isut, Djeser-Djeseru for Hatshepsut's amazing mortuary shrine.  More commonly, hyppopotamus is deby, the Nile is Iteru.  Similarly, she uses ancient names for Nubia and what is now Israel and Jordan.  Hawker's style is that of an engrossing storyteller.  She doesn't attempt any fancy intellectual tricks but that's OK.  The story is engrossing.  What better praise can you give a writer than to say she is an effective storyteller.  It's truly amazing how very much we know about people, places and events that were real and vibrant 3500 years ago.  She is particularly good at evoking clothing, makeup, head coverings (the nobles wore wigs), food, climate, sights, sounds, smells.  For the week or so that I was immersed in these books I really felt that ancient Egypt was a real place I could visit; perhaps more real than Egypt as it is today.  I look forward to the series now in progress about the Amarna period later in the 18th dynasty. 


The Tempest - William Shakespeare - 1611

    We recently saw Victoria's Shakespeare By The Sea production of The Tempest.  In their version, Prospero was Prospera, Antonio Antonia, Trinculo Trincula etc.  It worked, and the person who played Prospera was commanding with just a touch of whimsy.  Reading the play again I was struck, even shocked at the portrait of Caliban as a debased slave threatening to despoil Prospera's virginal daughter.  Intentionally or not, Shakespeare articulated all the tropes of American slavery and even later segregation and KKK apologetics.  There was even the colonialist complaint that we taught this savage our language but of course he abuses it.  There was also a hint of the Native American in Caliban's boast of his knowledge about the island's springs, flora and fauna, which he in turn taught Prospero.  He claimed to be indigenous to the island and Prospero an intruder.  Of course, it's not really proper to read recent history into something written hundreds of years earlier, but Shakespeare certainly knew of the slave trade which indeed made many Englishmen rich.  He knew at least a bit about Native Americans although at the time the English had not really established colonies there.  He would have read the narrative of William Strachey and Sylvester Jordain of the Sea Ventures's shipwreck on Bermuda.  The bulk of the play is taken up with the drunken antics of Shakespeare's more or less stock low-life characters who, even in their cups, speak richly metaphoric language;  dollar resonating with doleur, for instance.  The love interest is as simple as it gets.  Miranda, a largely brainless child ingenue, falls in love with Ferdinand, the first man she has seen other than her father and Caliban.  Ferdinand promises to remain chaste until the marriage is solemnized, which in the play is almost immediately.  Ariel is perhaps the most engaging character, a spirit but still Prospero's instrument until he chooses to release her.  He also has some of the great song lines;

    Full fathom five thy father lies;

    Of his bones are coral made;

    Those are pearls that were his eyes'

    Nothing of him that doth fade

    But doth suffer a sea-change

    Into something rich and strange.

    Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.

                                       and

    Where the bee sucks, there suck I;

    In a cowslip's bell I lie;

    There I crouch when owls do cry.

    On the bat's back I do fly

    After summer merrily.

    Merrily, merrily shall I live now

    Under the blossom  that hangs on the bough. 


    So overall with such a lightweight plot and stock characters is it such a great play.  Again, reading from a contemporary perspective, it is because of such familiar images as brave new world, drown my book and most of all Shakespeare's farewell to the stage:

    Our revels are now ended.  These our actors as I foretold you,

    were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air.

    And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

    This cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,

    The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

    Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve

    And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

    Leave not a rack behind.

    We are such stuff as dreams are made on,

    And our little life is rounded with a sleep. 

    Scholars have pointed out that Prospero's renunciation speech was lifted almost word for word from a speech by Medea in Ovid's Metamorphoses.  Actually, though, if you compare the texts Shakespeare has used Ovid to his own poetic and dramatic ends.  There's no drown my book in Ovid.  Here are the texts side by side:

Golding's Ovid - Medea's incantation:

Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone,
Of standing Lakes, and of the Night approche ye everychone.
Through helpe of whom (the crooked bankes much wondring at the thing)
I have compelled streames to run clean e backward to their spring.
By charmes I make the calme Seas rough, and make y rough Seas plaine
And cover all the Skie with Cloudes, and chase them thence againe. 270
By charmes I rayse and lay the windes, and burst the Vipers jaw,
And from the bowels of the Earth both stones and trees doe drawe.
Whole woods and Forestes I remove : I make the Mountaines shake,
And even the Earth it selfe to grone and fearfully to quake.
I call up dead men from their graves : and thee O lightsome Moone
I darken oft, though beaten brasse abate thy perill soone.
Our Sorcerie dimmes the Morning faire, and darkes y Sun at Noone.

The Tempest - Prospero's incantation

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

Shakespeare's language is rich and English and directed to the Play's dramatic and philosophical conclusion.  Ovid didn't write, "And ye that on the sands with printless foot."  The lines flow with classical and natural imagery to Prospero's renunciation lines.  The whole passage flows almost without pause or punctuation.  Shakespeare no more plagiarised Ovid than did he plagiarise nature.  Where the bee suck, there suck I. 

Shakespeare himself seems to have liked the play more than others, perhaps because he saw himself as Prospero aided by an airy muse, who created whole worlds, characters and intrigues to be spoken in the Globe Theater, a microcosm of the great globe itself.  Prospero uses Ariel to conjure the tempest and bring his ursurping brother Antonio to his un-named island.  Like Prospero, he chooses to retire to his country estate and leave the imaginary island behind.  That is a reading contemporary with his time and supported by at least some evidence from those who knew him and edited his work. 


The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I - Stephen Alford - 2012 - Bloombury Press

    Elizabeth I survived a multitude of assassination plots, thanks to her loyal band of secret agents.  Chief among them were Sir Francis Walsingham, Lord Burghley, "the most formidable politician of Queen Elizabeth's reign," and his son, Robert Cecil.   An amazing cache of letters from the period survive, perhaps because of the way the watchers managed to intercept and decode correspondence from spies and plotters aiming to restore Catholicism and depose the "heretic bastard usurper" as they called Elizabeth. Intrigue was integral to politics and international relations throughout the Queen's reign  Probably the most intense period was when Walsingham and his allies sought to incriminate Mary Queen of Scots in a plot to assassinate her "cousin."  For many years Elizabeth was reluctant to execute a royal, even a deposed one on the very real notion that once done to Mary it could be done again against her own person.  He contrived an elaborate scheme to intercept Mary's letters that she thought to be secure being delivered and sent hidden in casks of beer.  The brewer, she employed, however, was being paid handsomely by Walsingham.  In 1586  Mary composed what came to be known as "the bloody letter" that implied she had knowledge of an assassination plot.  Walsingham was certain of her true feelings but to be sure forged an appendix to the letter making her knowledge more explicit.  The plot was engineered by a Catholic Englishman, Anthony Babington.  He was arrested, tried and executed.  Next it was Mary's turn.  Elizabeth was still reluctant to give the order but Walsingham prevailed at the trial.  In the end she was convicted on the original letter and probably never saw the forged addition.  It was enough and in 1587 Elizabeth reluctantly signed the death warrant which was swiftly carried out before she could change her mind.  This turn of events energized Philip of Spain to prepare an invasion armada in 1588.  The Gods and the English navy prevailed before the invasion force could land.  Alford's book is minutely researched and contains more detail than the casual reader could ever retain.  Overall, though, it gives a vivid portrait of how precarious things were during the years that Shakespeare wrote most of his plays.  It was dangerous to be a Catholic yet large numbers of young English priests, mostly Jesuits, were being trained in Rome and elsewhere in Europe and smuggled across the English Channel.  Walsingham apprehended many and the usual punishment was execution.  The fear of treason was not paranoid.  It was a real threat.  Perhaps there is an analogy with our present day threat of Islamic extremist terrorism, although Islam itself is not persecuted in the West, at least not officially.  It's different in most Muslim countries where apostasy is a capital offense. 


Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery - M. Louisa Locke - 2009 - 

    Annie Fuller is a widow who runs a boarding house in 1879 San Francisco.  She also has a side business as Sibyl, a clairvoyant who gives advice on business matters.  She's a widow because her reprobate husband squandered his and her money and committed suicide.  She's a successful business consultant (disguised as Sibyl) because of the education she received from her father.  As the book begins a creditor of her husband has threatened to collect a dept of $300 with compound interest in the expectation that she will have to sell the house she inherited from her aunt Agatha.  Annie will have none of it.  Just as this all transpires, she learns of the mysterious death of a client who has become a friend, Matthew Voss, co-owner of the Voss and Samuels furniture company.  He died from cyanide poisoning and the police initially called it suicide, but Annie suspects otherwise.  She decides to take a position as a servant in the Voss household to find out more.  Well, the plot unfolds from there.  A young Voss family lawyer becomes a character and perhaps a love interest, although this will probably not be revealed until a later book in the series.  Locke is a retired professor of US and Women's history and who has taken up writing mysteries, and pretty good ones at that.  This one works itself out with some interesting plot twists.  Annie is strong and resourceful throughout.  I look forward to reading about her further adventures.


Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story - Rebecca Coffey - 2014 - She Writes Press

    Coffey is a science journalist and broadcaster who writes for magazines like Scientific American.   In her introduction she explains that most of the Freud family correspondence is rigidly guarded by a family trust intent on preserving Papa Sigmund's legacy.  Coffey attempts to get around this obstacle using published and openly available sources to create a novel told in Anna Freud's own words.  Of course, the dialogue is imagined as are many of the scenes, but the overall story has the ring of authenticity.  Freud was a complex and troubled man who concocted his psychoanalytic theories almost entirely from his own imagination with little or no grounding in clinical or historical fact.  Yes, he published famous case studies like Wolf Man and Little Hans, but his interpretations were as much imposed on the cases as derived from them.  His central obsessions were about psycho-sexual family drama.  A boy desires to kill his father and marry his mother.  A girl envies her brother's penis and identifies with her father.  The only true form of sexual satisfaction for a woman is vaginal penetration.  Clitoral masturbation to orgasm is deviant, as is lesbianism.  Unable to find any evidence for primal family sexual dynamics in the ethnographic record, he constructs his own myth of the primal hoarde where the father casts his sons away until they collaborate to kill him and rape all the woman, "mothers, sisters, cousins, aunties."  This was immediately followed by immense guilt which ultimately resulted in the incest taboo.  "From this point on, all humans strove to control their inborn parricidal incestuous impulses."  All of this is told from a male patriarchal perspective.  Women are acted upon rather than acting.  The entire edifice seems to reflect the Abrahamic patriarchal tradition beginning with Abraham's willingness to sacrifice to Issac to prove his loyalty to God the Father.  Although Freud was not a religious Jew, he certainly inherited much of the Jewish psyche.  Coffey intersperses the narrative with a series of Jewish jokes.  "When the doctor tells a woman her son suffers from an Oedipus complex, she replies, "Oedipus, Shmedimus, as long as he loves his mother."  There are also some wonderful little vignettes like when Anna is visiting Ernest Jones in England and was served fish and chips.  "I had never before imagined anything as outrageous as dipping good food in cheap batter and then frying it in fat.  It was wonderful."  Anna, at least in the novel, views her father's hoarde myth as "archaeological hokum."  A cast of luminaries from late 19th and early 20th century Vienna populate the book.  One of the most interesting is Otto Gross (call me Otto) who influenced Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Rudolph Steiner, Franz Kafka and D.H. Lawrence who married a former lover, Frieda von Richthofen (distant relative of the Red Baron).  He helped initiate the Berlin dada movement.  Anna underwent several years of analysis by her father, certainly something that went against his own rules of practice.  She became his spokesperson at conferences and established her own practice as a child analyst.  She also in time fell in love with another woman, Eva, and later with her life-long partner, Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham, an heir of the US Tiffany jewlery empire.  Together they co-parented her children as part of Anna's psychoanalysis of them.  As I read through the novel there were times when I could scarcely believe the outrageous things Freud was said to have espoused, but when I looked up actual sources of his writing, there it all was.  Although Freud was important in recognizing childhood sexuality, he was unable to accept it as normal and healthy.  Instead, he was driven, yes driven, to concoct hideous hysterias and parracidal wishes.  He was particularly out of touch with the experience of women.  It is indeed a paradox what his most trusted disciple was his youngest daughter, Anna. 


Plant Dreaming Deep: A Journal - May Sarton - 1968

     In 1958 following the death of her parents, novelist and poet May Sarton decided to leave Cambridge and move to the country.  She ended up buying a dilapidated farmhouse in the small New Hampshire village of Nelson.  With the help of local builders, she renovated and moved in on the targeted date of October.  Over the following years she created a garden and listened to what the land told her about landscaping.  Although she chose to live alone, leaving her long time partner Judy in Cambridge, she also had many guests, including my own thesis adviser Cora DuBois.  The book is beautifully written with a rich sensitivity to the place, its history, environment and culture.  Mostly the citizens of Nelson were generous and always they were interesting.  She includes some of her poetry in the book.  There is a lot about her career and the opinion of some critics that her verse is old fashioned in its lyricism, use of rhyme and luscious attention to the sound of words.  More power to her.  The garden is central to her life there and she spent several hours each day during gardening season tending to her plants and connecting with their dreaming and her own.  Reading this journal makes me want to read more of her work. 


The Orenda - Joseph Boyden - 2013 - Penguin

     Boyden has taken on the task of telling about the defeat of the Wendat Nation through the voices of fictional but vividly drawn characters who lived and died through in these wars.  Central figures are a Wendat leader, Bird, his Hodausaunee (Iroquois) captive and adopted daughter, Snow Falls, and the Jesuit missionary Christophe, known to the Wendat as the Crow.  There are some shocking scenes of warfare and ritual torture of captives, but Boyden is not making anything up.  The novel succeeds in helping us understand if not accept this part of Irouoian culture.  The book's chapters alternate between voices of the central characters, narrating their experiences and inserting remembered dialogue.  The technique works as a device for taking the reader inside both Wendat and Jesuit culture and experience.  Reading The Orenda is an emotional experience.  It begins with Bird ritually torturing and killing the family of Snow Falls and taking her captive as an adopted daughter after her people had killed his own family.  Many of the chapters narrated in Bird's voice are addressed to the beloved wife, whom he lost to Snow Falls' people.  Another important character is Gosling, an Anishibanabe healer who comes to live with the Wendat and eventually marries Bird.  As we know from history, the Wendat (Huron) were defeated as a single nation and dispersed to live with other peoples.  At the end of the book Bird joins Gosling's people to become a hunter and give up the traditional farming culture of his people.  It's not often that a book brings me to tears, but this one did.  Tears, rather than anger.  It's not really about bad Hodenausaunee and good Wendat.  They all share a similar culture, but the Hodenausaunee were more numerous and alllied with the British rather than the French, although The British are not mentioned in the novel.  I wonder how the contemporary Iroquois would view this book.  Although the wars were fought in a ritualized way, they were ultimately accelerated by European contact and competition for trade.  The Wendat allied with the French and were middlemen between them and the northern forest nations.  The Iroquois ultimately took over this position by force.  The characters feel very real and one identifies closely with them and mourns their losses.  This is a truly great book and a masterful piece of writing.  It also documents a chapter in Canadian history that most people are entirely unaware of.  In an interesting twist, Boyden depicts Snow Falls' daughter as being captured and adopted by Iroquois the leader Tekakwitha.  Gosling had a premonitory dream before her birth that she would be a holy person but not a happy one.  The inference is that she grew up to become Catherine Takakwitha, "The Mohawk Saint."  I wonder what today's Mohawks (and Catholics) think of this inference. 

 

The Qur'an: A Biography - Bruce Lawrence - 2006 - Douglas & McIntyre

     Lawrence is an professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University and probably not a Muslim, although he retains an air of scholarly distance.  He describes events in Islamic history, particularly the life of the Prophet, as they are given by tradition.  For instance, he tells the story of Abraham visiting the site of the Kabbah and being told to sacrifice his son Ishmael.  This is the Muslim version, not the Biblical one that centers on The Holy Land and Issac.  Muslims are Abrahamic through Ishmael, son of Abraham's concubine Hagar, rather than from Sarah.  I'm OK with this tone of reporting, since it would be an altogether different book if he attempted to deny the authenticity of Islamic tradition.  He touches on the early dynastic rivalries  but does not give specific information about the martyrdom of Hussein at Karbala.  Neither, does he question the divine inspiration of the recitations.  Reading between the lines, though one is tempted to see some of the messages, particularly the later ones, as convenient justifications for particular events in the Prophet's life.  The verses about "the lie," for instance, specifically exonerate Ay'isha from an accusation of improperly consorting with a young man when she was left behind by Momammad's caravan.  The recitations invoke harsh punishment for those who questioned her.  Similarly, later recitations comment on Mohammad's battles with the non-believers of Mecca.  Thus, the recitation go from the cosmic and general to the very mundane and particular.  Why, one wonders, does God takes sides in these tribal and domestic disputes.  Lawrence avoids the Joseph Smith critique of Moroni taking a stand in Smith's family arrangements.  Mohammad's monotheism is otherwise strong and held at a distance.  He does not receive messages directly from God but through the intermediary of Gabriel.  The question remains; why did God choose for Gabriel to take sides in very small domestic affairs?  The later chapters of the book review a history of Qur'anic exegesis and criticism, ending with the interpretation of Osama Bin Ladin.

 

Naughty In Nice - Rhys Bowen - (Janet Quin Harkin) - 2011 - Penguin

         Book five in the Royal Spyness series finds Georgie sent on another investigation by Queen Mary, this time on the French Riviera.  Her Majesty is missing a favorite snuff box that once belonged to Marie Antoinette and strongly suspects a recent visitor, Sir Toby Groper who has made a fortune in somewhat shady business ventures including stealing the engine design for the Fearless Flyer automobile.  His former partner who was actually responsible for the invention was a German jew who took his own life after being cheated by Sir Toby.  He is also known as a collector of art and antiques which makes Queen Mary believe he was the only person in  attendance that day who could have lifted the snuff box.  The Queen also wants Georgie to check up on her son David and the odious American woman who seems to have gained power over him.  That's just the beginning.  Georgie meets Coco Chanel who asks her to model a new androgenus outfit and, incidentally, wear a priceless necklace that also belongs to the Queen, who lent it to Coco's companion on the understanding that it would be kept in a bank vault and guarded by police when worn.  Of course, Georgie's show is tampered with which leads her to fall and in the confusion the necklace disappears.  After this there are some murders, including the odious Sir Toby, and Georgie is arrested by the Frence gendarmes.  There's a charming but treacherous French Marquis.  Darcy is there but Georgie sees him on the beach with a beautiful young woman and a child and thinks this is his mistress and child.  Of course, Darcy comes to the rescue in the end and the beautiful young woman turns out to be his widowed sister and her son, his nephew.  Like other books in the series, this is predictibe but fun. 


Small Wonder: Essays - Barbara Kingsolver - 2002 - Harper Collins

     These essays are full of wonder, modestly great wonders of Kingsolver's world.  Some are sharply critical of human greed, arrogance and stupidity.  She is a dedicated and informed invironmentalist and also a patriotic American who deplores the flag-waving bigots who claim to be patriots. There's a lot about family; her mother, her two daughters and her husband, Steven Hopp with whom she wrote some of the essays.  Their essay on the San Pedro river and its riparian conservation area celebrates a waterway and wildlife corridor in an otherwise arid desert.  It is small but large in importance, but seriously challenged by other water users, from ranchers to a large military base.  It is a place she and her family cherish and join others in doing what they can to preserve it.  These essays were written before Bush IIs Gulf war and well before the menace of the Islamic State.  I can only imagine her anguish at these developments and others like Citizens United.  Her critique of TV and its news cycle is pretty persuasive.  Why, indeed, do we watch these horrors unfold as they are packaged for us by media conglomerates.  She describes an annual media fast of going entirely without even newspapapers or radio for weeks at a time.  I'm writing this in Princess Louisa Inlet where even cell phones don't work.  We are listening to Mozart Divertimenti on my iPad but it's a technology that connects us to the 18th century, not the 21st. 

     Kingsolver is a beautiful and sensitive writer as well as a critical reader of other peoples' works.  She is impatient with fiction writers who gratuitously get their facts wrong.  The only one I found in Small Wonder was saying that Clovis hunters used bows and arrows when in fact Clovis points were used on spears.  It's not a major error and she is trained as a biologist, not an archaeologist.  Small Wonder gives an intimate portrait of Kingsolver the person as well as information about the two places she lives, Kentucky and Tuscon, Arizona.  I don't need to say much more except read and enjoy.


The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape - James Rebanks - 2015 - Flatiron Books

         James Rebanks comes from a long line of Lake Country shepherds.  The book is autobiographical, ethnographic, historical and biological.  It is dedicated to his grandfather, who bought the farm he currently works with his father, wife and three young children.  Rebanks and other shepherds of the area specialize in breeding Herdwick sheep that are adapted to spending their summers on the highland fells and surviving harsh winter conditions in the valleys.  These sheep are special.  Prize ewes and tups (breeding rams) are shown at annual fairs.  The best of the breed command top prices at auction.  Rebanks grew up devoted to his grandfather and wanting nothing more than to follow his path.  The local schools were terrible and he couldn't wait to get out.  When he was in his early 20s he discovered books that had belonged to his mother's father and became a voracious reader.  Suddenly, further education seemed a possibility.  He is obviously very bright and managed to convince Oxford admissions that a smart shepherd would be a good candidate. He was right.  He kept up his shepherding while completing his degree and then found a job as a UN adviser on heritage cultures and farming.  The book could almost be a textbook on the cultural ecology of fell raised sheep.  He points out that more intensive agribusiness practices simply don't work on the fells.  Thanks in part to Beatrix Potter, who owned a Lake District farm and was instrumental in preserving the fells as common land, ancient shepherding continues to be practiced.  The breeders are intensely  proud of their stock and are meticulous in their selective breeding of tups and ewes.  Lambing season is particularly intense with the entire family involved in helping with births and ministering to ewes.  If a lamb dies, it is immediately skinned and the skin placed like a coat on another lamb, perhaps a twin, in order to entice her to accept it as her own.  Sometimes lambs have to be pulled physically turned and pulled from a ewe if it is in the wrong position.  The pattern of farming goes back thousands of years and the current practices, walls, drains and fields more than 500.  It is indeed an ancient landscape but it is also an intensely cultural one.  Hundreds of generations of shepherd farmers made it the way it is and continue to preserve it as they preserve themselves and their families.  This is a beautifully written book.  Rebanks has as much of a way with words as he does with sheep. 


Caesar: Life of a Colossus - Adrian Goldsworthy - 2006 - Yale University Press

    At 627 pages, Goldsworthy does not pass over a single battle formation.  I persevered, though, in order to get the full impact of Roman politics, economy and military exploits at the end of the Republic.  In some ways Roman politics hasn't changed in 2000 years, although it was a lot more violent back then.  Human life, even the lives of friends, was expendable.  In the struggle for power they played for keeps.  Militarily, violence was the very essence of the Roman system and of its success.  Goldsworthy has rich sources to draw upon, especially Caesar's own writing about the Gaulic wars.  Cicero was a contemporary and the later writing of Suitonius and Plutarch are important sources.  Cisalpine Gaul is what is now northern Italy, while the transalpine is most of France and the low countries.  Caesar and through him Goldsworthy, goes through every battle in minute detail explaining strategies, formations and chrolology, as well as to us shocking loss of life, particularly among losing armies and civilian populations.  Looting, rape and pillage were normal perks of successful conquest.  Caesar was certainly a master tactician and charismatic personality.  He was also a compulsive womanizer, particularly among the wives of other senators and high officials.  The double standard for men and women was absolute but obviously not always adhered to.  Marriages were generally political and divorce was easy.  One woman Caesar seems to have genuinely loved was Servilia, the mother of the conspirator Brutus. 


The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating - Elisabeth Tova Bailey - 2010 - Algonquin Books

    Elisabeth Bailey was stricken with a dangerous virus that virtually destroyed her cells ability to regulate themselves, while traveling in Europe.  She called the condition dysautonomia.  She made it back home, barely, and found herself confined to bed for several years.  Just getting up and sitting was an impossible ordeal for much of the time.  At one point a friend brought her a flower pot of violets and also a live snail.  "Time unused," she writes, "and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all."  In this state of mind she devoted herself to slowing down to a snail's pace.  She noted that the snail, "my snail," slept during the day and was active at night.  It left curious square holes in objects such as paper.  Eventually she took to feeding it pieces of portobello mushroom.  She took to listening carefully and was able actually to hear her snail munching with its radula containing hundreds of tiny sharp  teeth.  Each short chapter is introduced by a literary passage about snails; Rilke, Emily Dickenson, Kobayashi Issa.  Bailey's writing is luminous, a work of prose poetry appropriate to the intense quietism of her confinement and the equally intense activity of the snail.  She ponders where instinct ends and inttellect begins.  "My snail went about its life, moment to moment, much as I did, making decisions - or being indecisive - about food and shelter and sleep."  A moment of intensity comes when her snail miraculously lays a clutch of eggs and then another larger one in the terrarium she has provided for it (him-her, snails being hermaphroditic).  Elisabeth regains enough of her strength to move home and has a friend take the snail back to the woods where it was found.  She brings some of the offspring with her.  This is a story of intense fascination where very little happens and very much is known.  There's a wonderful disquisition on slime.  Who would have thought that would be the subject of a beautiful philosophical essay.  She wonders about the pathogen creature that "forever changed the course of my life" which leads to her thoughts about "the unknown future - my own and that of all living things."  From a virus and a snail and a human consciousness, Bailey brings all of life and her own in particular into sharp focus.  "The earth is home to millions of potential pathogens, of which a thousand or so depend on human hosts.  The pathogens I contracted was, in its own way, an author; it rewrote the instructions followed within every cell of my body and in doing so, it rewrote my life, making off with nearly all my plans for the future."  Somehow, with the help of a small snail, she brought words and thoughts into that future to craft a stunningly beautiful piece of literature.  The snail does not read, nor does it hear or really see as we know it.  Its world is tactile and olifactory.  In bringing its world to our attention, Bailey has brought a bright light to shine on the life of both a snail and a human within the larger web of living things.  It's a book worth reading more than once or perhaps reading aloud.  


King Arthur - Christopher Hibbert - Horizon-New World City - 2014

    In this short book, Hibbert discusses the myths surrounding King Arthur and what little is known about an actual Celtic king who may have lived in the 6th century.  In an epic poem written in 603, the Welsh bard Aneurin describes epic battles involving between the Britons and Jutes, Angles and Saxon invaders. He refers to Arthur indirectly.  In the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth includes Arthur among his Kings of England but describes his court as being on the same scale as that of Charlemagne.  It was Geoffrey who first established the compelling stories of the Round Table and its Knights.  Another Welsh monk, Nennius, mentions Arthur by name in the 9th century.  He mentions Carn Cavall which is said to bear the imprint of Arthur's dog, Cavall, made during a boar hunt.  After William Claxton set up the first English printing press in 1476, Thomas Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur became a popular, if largely mythic, charter for an imagined age of chivalry.  Elements were borrowed or at least had common roots with other mythic stories like Tristaan and Isolde.  Later writers like Sir Walter Scott and T.H White elaborated on this imaginary history.  The round table, Guenevere and Launcelot and the Holy Grail probably had nothing to do with the actual king.  Later chapters in the book review the archaeology at Glastonbury that are suggestive but not definitive of a large royal establishment.  A dedication stone dating from the 6th century was discovered with an inscription that translates as, "Artognou descendant of Pattern Colus made  this."  Artognou in Old Breton means, "Bear Knowing."   It has become a tourist attraction for Arthurian devotees.  Hibbert concludes that perhaps within the Mallory myth there may lie a kernel of truth, citing Schleman's excavations in Troy as evidence for finding physical evidence of a mythic or poetic tradition.  The book covers most of what is known about the historic and mythic Arthur although perhaps leaning a bit heavily toward crediting the archaeology as proof of the King's historical reality.  (June 1, 2015)


The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama - Pico Iyer - 2008 - Vintage

    Pico Iyer has known the Dalai Lama since 1974, first as a friend of his father and then in his own right.  He has traveled with him extensively and had many conversations on a variety of topics.  His understanding is that beyond the image he presents to western audiences using words like investigate, analyze and research, he is a highly trained scholar of Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  The public message is refreshingly ecumenical.  He does not attempt to convert others to Buddhism but rather encourages them to understand the traditions into which they were raised.  This works well for Christianity and Hinduism but perhaps not so well for Islam.  Iyer does not describe him engaging with Muslim clerics or even commenting on Islam.  Iyer shows that the Dalai Lama fundamentally tries to follow the teaching and example of Gautama, while practicing the intensely esoteric tantric traditions of his school of Tibetan Buddhism which are highly shamanistic and polytheistic.  Iyer suggests that this form of Buddhism is not unlike the religions of classical antiquity.  While outsiders and even most Tibetans think of him as The Living Buddha, his own image of himself is more that of a humble monk seeking to live a life inspired by Gautama.  In Tibetan tradition he is the reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama but not of Gautama the man.  Lama in Tibetan simply means guru, and that is how Tenzin Gyatsu sees himself, although he is also a monk who has received rigorous training in the Gelug branch of Tibetan Buddhism.  The portrait that emerges is of a remarkable and multifaceted person who is both the head of the Tibetan state in exile and a simple monk.  For someone steeped as he is in rote learning of esoteric chants and rituals, he completely undogmatic although not as some would like on issues like same sex relationships and even divorce.  Some of his pronouncements startled even his supporters, such as the suggestion that the 15th Dalai Lama could be a woman or even that there would be no 15th at all.  The book goes on in the mode of travel writing for which Iyer is known in describing the expatriate community of Dharhamsala in northern India not far from the Tibetan border.  Here are literally thousands of monks but also hoards of counter-culture seekers, beggars, merchants and charlatans.  Rather than becoming westernized, the Tibetans are becoming more and more Indianized. Hindi is spoken more than Tibetan and English is probably second to Hindi.  The community is set in one of the rainiest places in monsoon India and mud is a constant presence.  Compared to Tibet, it is only about a mile above sea level, although it does get winter snows.  Sanitation and modern conveniences are minimal.  Chinese Tibet is altogether different.  There are high rise buildings, a high speed rail link to the rest of China, glitzy amusement centers and lots of upwardly mobile Han Chinese, along with, of course, the ubiquitous Chinese police and military.  The relationship between China, Tibetans in Tibet and the exile community are waiting to see what will happen after the Dalai Lama passes.  He himself says he does not know.  For sure, the Chinese will discover a 15th from among people loyal to the regime, and the exile community will not accept their choice.  Whether they discover a reincarnation from among themselves or elsewhere is unknown.  It is unlikely they would find the person within Tibet, for if they did he would be entirely under the control of China.  Meanwhile, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama radiates compassion to all who meet him.  Pico Iyer has done the man and office justice in this book. 


O Jersulalem - Laurie R. King - 1999 - Bantam Dell

    The title comes from Psalm 137:5, If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.  The book is number 5 in the Mary Russell Sherlock Holmes series.  Mary is 19 here and just accepted by Holmes as his partner rather than his assistant.  Following an attack on their life in England by a mortal enemy (Moriarty's daughter it turns out later), they are assigned by Mycroft Holmes to investigate threats in the newly liberated land of Palestine.  The Turks have been defeated by General Allenby but many plots against English rule have surfaced.  Mary and Holmes are put ashore and met by Ali and Mahmoud, two Arabs who were once English and negotiate both cultures perfectly.  Mostly Russell and Holmes travel disguised as Arabs, Russell as a young man ironically called Emir.  There are many days of travel on foot and by donkey, a swim in the Dead Sea, an episode where Holmes is captured by a demon named Karim Bey and rescued by Ali and Mahmoud.  Finally, they traverse passages under the city of Jerusalem and in the nick of time foil a plot to blow up the Temple Mount, Allenby and a host of other important people.  There's not too much plot development in this one but lots of travel in disguise and of course the final denouement when Holmes defuses the dynamite Bey has placed under the Temple Mount.  Finally, they discover that behind the psycopathic Bey is an English traitor who is duly dealt with.  Lawrence of Arabia even makes a non-speaking appearance.  I just learned to my great distress that King is working on a final book in the series to be called, The Murder of Mary Russell.  Don't know if I'll be able to face up to it.   


Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World - Matthew Goodman - 2013

    Goodman provides a more accurate picture of the real Nellie Bly as well as the other young woman sponsored by The Century magazine.  Due probably to dirty tricks engineered by The World as well as an exceptionally stormy north Atlantic crossing, Bisland came in at 76 days, 16 hours and 10 minutes, to Bly's 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds.  The dirty trick was a supposed Cook's travel agent who falsely informed Bisland that the steamer she planned to take had already departed, forcing her to take a much slower vessel that departed later.  Without this deception she probably would have won.  The two women could not have been more different.  Bly was from western Pennsylvania and despite her travels remained chauvinistically American.  Bisland was from a southern plantation family who, despite hard times after the Civil war, was well educated.  She had begun her career as a reporter in New Orleans, where she was mentored by the world-traveling Lafcadio Hearn, about whom she later wrote a book.  She loved literature, particularly English literature, and was a strong anglophile.  Bly, by contrast, hated the English and even at one point supported Austria and Germany as enemies of England in WWI.  Blys triumphant arrival made her an instant celebrity, but also precluded any more under cover investigative reporting.  She became a victim of her own largely manufactured fame, a sort of 19th century Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton.  Yes, her accomplishment in making the journey was real, but so was Elizabeth's.  Throughout her life, Bly struggled with financial problems, despite marrying a millionaire industrialist 40 years her senior and holding patents for various sheet metal products made by the company she ran after his death.  Bisland, by contrast, seems to have been happily married for 30 yearrs, although the last years were marred by her husband's illness and death.  The couple spent a lot of time in England and developed many friendships there.  Bisland also maintained her writing career with a number of books that were positively reviewed.  Goodman provides a balanced account of both young women and their adventures.  I skimmed many of the chapters about Bly since they were largely based on her own book about the journey.  Both women were exploited by their editors and publishers but Nellie lost in winning while Elizabeth escaped the publicity frenzy and was able to continue on with her life.  The period was one that combined a liberalization of opportunities open to women with a still entrenched social and legal inferiority. 


Around The World in Seventy-Two Days - 1890

    Despite her amazing journey and pioneering work as an investigative reporter, the real Nellie Bly turns out to be less sympathetic than the fictional version of Marshall Goldberg's novel.  Throughout her travels she shows herself to be the very epitome of the ugly American, full of racism and complete disregard for local cultures and sensibilities.  Maybe that is what the readers of Pulitzer'stabloid wanted. In India and Japan, she refuses to remove her shoes in a temple, mosque or home.  She delights in viewing a Chinese execution ground and being shown a disembodied head.  She has no qualms being carried around in a sedan chair by "coolies" who she describes as filthy.  She does like the Japanese, although not enough to remove her shoes, only agreeing to cover them with a kind of loose sock.  Compared to many other travelers of her time who respected and adapted to local culture, Nellie remained enveloped in her confidence of American superiority.  As travel writing goes, her style is superficial and repetitious.  I guess the style was suited to the tabloid journalism of the day.  Overall, I liked the fictional Nellie better. 

Around The World in Eighty Days - Jules Verne - 1872 - translated by George Makepeace Towle, 1872 - Dover

    This is a typical Verne narrative about a miraculous voyage.  It's an easy read and not to be taken any more seriously than his more fantastical stories about trips to the moon, the center of the earth, or the ocean deeps.  At least this voyage is entirely possible, as Nellie Bly proved not long after.  The central characters are the wealthy Phileas Fogg and his servant, Monsieur Passepartout (meaning goes anywhere, passport, or even skeleton key).  Fogg is meticulous and punctual to a fault with all the British upper lip of a more than proper Victorian.  He wagers 20,000 pounds with members of his club that he can travel around the world in 80 days.  The centerpoint of their adventure is rescuring a beautiful young Parsee woman named Aouda from being burned alive on the funeral pyre of her aged husband.  After the daring rescue, Aouda joins them on the journey.  Another figure, though, shadows them.  Just when Fogg began his journey a large sum of money had been stolen from an English bank and the Fogg matched the suspect's description.  An over-zealous detective named Fix followed them, awaiting anxiously for a warrant to arrest Fogg.  Many adventures and narrow escapes ensue but Fogg's equanimity is never perturbed.  Each obstacle is more difficult than the next.  Of course, it all works out in the end and Aouda asks Fogg to marry her, to which he assents.  Fogg is a bit of a Don Quixote figure although always in mastery of the situation.  Passepartout is more like SanchoSuspension of disbelief is required and freely given as one breezes through their adventures.  (May 18, 2015)

   

The New Colossus - Marshall Goldberg - 2014 Diversion Books

    This is a fictionalized account based on real people & events.  The central character is Nellie Bly, one of the first investigative reporters and certainly the first woman in that role.  Her first  investigation was to get herself committed to Bellevue asylum and report on the abuses there.  She sold the story to the New York World's Joseph Pulitzer and was taken on as a regular staff reporter.  In the novel, although probably not for real, Pulitzer engages Nellie to investigate the death of poet Emma Lazarus who wrote, The New Colossus, a sonnet that was eventually inscribed on the new statue of liberty.  Lazarus was a Sephardic Jew whose ancestors came to America in colonial times and were friends with George Washington.  Nellie discovers plots within plots involving prominent literary critics and robber barons of the day, all real historical figures.  Jay Gould, Henry Hilton, the gay Jewish drama critic Alan Dale.  Hilton concocts a scheme to dispossess the Montauk Indians and turn their land into a shipping port that will put New York out of business.  On the Emma Lazarus case, she suspects that although Emma was dying of cancer, her death was hastened by arsenic poisoning.  There is no evidence for this in the historical record but everything else in the novel is true to history.  Emma's last poem is an astonishingly beautiful sonnet suggesting a lesbian passion.


    Last night I slept, and when I woke her kiss

    still floated on my lips.  For we had strayed

    together in my dreams, through some dim glade,

    where the shy moonbeams scarce dared light our bliss.

    The air was dank with dew, between the trees.

    The hidden glow-worms kindled and were spent.

    Cheek pressed to cheek, the cool, the hot night-breeze

    mingled our hair, our breath, and came and went,

    as sporting with our passion, low and deep

    spake in mine ear her voice: "And didst thou dream,

    this could be buried? This could be asleep?

    And love be thrall to death? Nay whatso seem

    have faith, dear heart; this is the thing that is!

    Thereon I woke, and on my lips her kiss.

In the novel, her lover was the southern belle and litarary light, Helena DeKay Gilder whose brother, the literary critic Charles DeKay had been her companion up until her death.  Nellie surmises that Charles was a cover for the real affair between Emma and Helena.  Each chapter begins with the photograph of a principal character in the story.  Nellie and Helena and Emma and  the artist Molly Foote were all beautiful women.  The novel resolves the mystery of Emma's murder but Pulitzer declines to publish it.  His motive for investigation seems to have been entirely personal.  The book gives us a fascinating portrait of real people and their times with the added spice of a mystery that is probably the novelist's creation.  Nellie wanted her next assignment to be an attempt to best Phileas Fogg's imaginary trip around the world in 80 days as recounted in Jules Verne;s 1872 novel.  In real life, Nellie did just that and published her adventure in a book, Around The World in Seventy-two Days.  The real Nellie went on later to marry a much older wealthy industrialist and when he died, become herself a captain of industry.  Among her accomplishments was obtaining a patent on the 50 gallon oil drum, still an industry standard.  (May 17, 2015)


Macbeth - William Shakespeare - 1606

    Last night we saw an excellent production of the play by Victoria's Blue Bridge Theater.  There was an original score and sound design and a set centered on a fiery pit of hell.  The actors spoke their lines well and the whole thing made perfect dramatic sense.  I decided to go back and read the play to re-imagine its rich language.  Macbeth gives us memorable lines and phrases like "the milk of human kindness" and the tongue twister by Lady Macbeth that follows:

    It is too full o' the milk of human kindness

    to catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great:

    Art not without ambition, but without

    the illness should attend it; what thou wouldst holily;

    wouldst not play false and yet would wrongly win.

It is well known that the play catered to the new King James' fascination with witchcraft and magic as well as his Scottish heritage and his claim to be descended from Banquo.  Lady Macbeth is often portrayed as the evil genius behind the King but on this reading she seems to have been the instigator who got in way above her head and was driven mad by it.  Yes, she is wholly evil in her designs, but pays for it in madness and suicide.  The king is reluctant at first but once begun follows through to the end and dies by the sword.

Some other great lines: Macbeth after the murder of Duncan:

    Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood

    clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather

    the multitudinous seas incarnadine,

    making the green one red.  

I can imagine Shakespeare at his desk, quill in hand, looking over the lines he has just written and thinking, "That's not bad.  It will probably go over well with the audience."  I don't suppose he would have imagined that more than four centuries later people would still quote these lines in amazement at their elegant beauty.  One of my favorite turns of phrase is another tongue twister,

    It were done quickly; if the assassination

    could trammel up the consequence, and catch

    with his surcease success; that but this blow

    might be the be-all and the end-all here,

    but here, upon this bank and shoal of time,

    We'ld jump the life to come.  But in these cases

    we still have judgment here; that we but teach

    bloody instructions, which, being taught, return

    to plague the inventor: this even handed justice

    commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice

    to our own lips.

Finally, there is Macbeth's closing soliloquy:

    To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow

    creeps in this petty pace from day to day

    to the last syllable of recorded time,

    and all our yesterdays have lighted fools

    the way to dusty death.  Out, out, brief candle!

    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

    that struts and frets his hour upon the stage

    and then is heard no more: it is a tale

    told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

    signifying nothing.  

There is obviously an autobiographical element with Shakespeare, nearing the end of his acting and writing career, placing himself on the larger stage of life.  Time is an element that runs throughout the play and I'm sure has generated many learned tracts.  The "out, out" line echoes his wife's mad compulsion about blood on her hands.  Modern writers have used almost every line from the soliloquy to title other works.  In the context of Shakespeare's time immediately following the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII and its obsession with succession, Macbeth seems singularly interested only in his own power.  He did not have an heir, at least not in the play, but he struggled against the prophesy of Banquo's seed becoming kings.  The theme of murder as a route to succession was still strong in English consciousness, with the War of the Roses being still vivid and terrifying.  As has been noted before, this is one of Skakespeare's best plays and one of its most easily understood theatrically.  What makes it great is the wondrous language.  Did The Bard come up with "surcease success" in a dream, did it simply flow naturally from his pen or perchance did he hear it in an ale-house conversation and co-opt it to a higher purpose.  We''ll never know the muse but we do have the poetry.  (May 15, 2015)


Murder and Mendelsohn - Kerry Greenwood - 2014 - Poisoned Pen Press

    This is one of the longest and most engrossing of the series.  It begins with the murder of Hedley Tregenis,  odious and dictatorial conductor of the Melbourne Harmony Choir rehearsing Mendelsohn's Elijah.  Tregenis had ingested a lethal dose of poison but the cause of death was suffocation caused by pages of the musical score stuffed down his throat.  Then there is the parallel plot of a visiting spy,  Rupert Sheffield and his companion, Dr. John Wilson.  These characters reflect Holmes and Watson.  Sheffield is at first insufferably arrogant, giving lectures on deduction and mathematical solutions to crimes through observation and deduction.  Phryne had known John when she was an ambulance driver and he a doctor during the war.  She had saved his life although he received a would that left him with a bad limp.  In the heat of battle, they became lovers, even though his true nature was to love men.  Phryne resumes her relationship to John but resolves to stimulate the beautiful but apparently passionless Rupert into the relationship with John that was meant to be.  The Moriarty figure is Mr. Mitchell/Ratcliffe, an arms dealer Sheffield had thwarted.  Ratcliffe mistakenly thought Sheffield was in Australia on his trail, which was not the case.  There is the usual violent confrontation and Phryne, disguised as a boy hiding in the rafters of a warehouse, puts a bullet through his head.  Conveniently, she had previously arranged with Agent Fanshawe to concoct a fake suicide note.  Better to wrap up this story line without nasty police intervention.  Then there is the alcoholic pianist Szabo who once played with Beecham.  Won't say how he fits in.  The book is as much about music and sex as it is about murder.  There's an amazing scene when Sheffield asks her to disrobe so he can examine the female anatomy.  She agrees on the condition that he do the same.  John watches on.  The plot was to make Sheffield jealous of John's relationship to Phryne and therefore bring him to recognize John as his true love.  There's more gay culture with Auntie Mark, a robust tenor of huge appetites and flamboyant tastes.  Altogether, this is one of the best in the series.  (May 14, 2015)


The King's Grave: The Discovery of Richard III's Lost Burial Place and the Clues it Holds - Pilippa Langley & Michael Jones - 2013 - St. Martin's Press (May 10, 2015)

    The book alternates between events leading up to the discovery of Richard's body in September, 2012 and events leading up to his death in August, 1485.  Langley, a journalist, pretty much single-handedly initiated and made possible the excavation and writes those chapters.  Jones, a historian, writes the other chapters.  The two stories weave together well as we get a portrait of Richard and his times and a modern unfolding mystery of discovery.  Langley is an avid member of the Richard III Society, formed in 1924 to counter what they consider the Tudor bias against Richard, most famously and effectively displayed in Shakespeare's play.  (My Aunt Dol was a member and also a devoted Richardian).  The historical record is clear that Richard was buried at the Greyfriars monastery and Langley was able to pinpoint that the most probable location would be under a modern carpark in Leicester.  When she first visited the site she has a strange sensation just where some anonymous person had painted a "R".  This probably didn't help her with raising money but the solid historical evidence was convincing enough that she persuaded a variety of funders and academics to pursue the investigation.  The dig finally began in 2012 and on the very first day in Trench One human remains were found.  Much later, after obtaining permission to exhume the bones, a team of two experienced forensic archaeologists carefully recovered the body, which seemed more and more to be the very one they were searching for.  It had a curved spine caused by a condition called scoliosis which meant that he was not a hunchback as in Shakespeare, but probably had one shoulder lower than the other and may have suffered back pains.  When the skull was carefully examined, it turned out to have wound marks consistent with the descriptions of Richard's death in battle.  The historical chapters give a clear portrait of Richard and his world of political and dynastic intrigue.  His deeds were in no way worse than those of his predecessors or of the Tudors who followed.  Overall the authors give him the benefit of the doubt in concluding that he was a fair and just monarch whose reign would have been seen as good had he lived.  Henry Tudor comes off as not particularly brave and with less claim to the throne than Richard.  Bosworth Field marks the end of medieval English history and Richard was the last warrior king who actually took up arms and fought in person.  Although the authors do not indulge in what if speculation, I am tempted to wonder how English history would have developed if he had defeated Henry at Bosworth.  Overall, he probably had the advantage and should have won, but battlefields are always uncertain places and this time it didn't go in Richard's favor.  Had he won we certainly would not have had Henry VIII and the Church of England, although it is likely that England would have evolved some sort of protestant church in due course.  Can't imagine we would have remained papists like the Irish, but who knows.


Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel - 2009 - Henry Holt

    This is almost a soap opera, being the story of Thomas Cromwell and Tudor court intrigue.  Mantel writes in the present tense and mostly in the voice of an omniscient narrator.  Within this there is lots of embedded dialogue and some internal mental musings of the characters, of which there are many.  The shift in voice is sometimes hard to follow, particularly at the beginning.  Sometimes Mantel refers to "he" when describing events ("He thinks about that little girl..."), but then she sometimes seems to be giving us Cromwell's thoughts in the words of his own mental processes, as when referring to events "under your direction."  There is a kind of loose slipping of voice reference that could be annoying but probably in the end lends a sense of authenticity. 

    Wolf Hall, the Masterpiece TV series is based on the book.  At 550 pages it's not exactly a page turner and sometimes the reader has to refer to genealogies and lists of characters to keep things straight.  One is even tempted to peek into Wikipedia to look ahead, although as of 175 pages in I have resisted the temptation.  Most of the outline is more or less familiar, although Tudor politics and the dynastic rivalries that preceded are complex indeed.  There is a huge cast of characters and complicated turns of political intrigue.  These turns are par for the course for the Plantagenets and Tudors, but Henry also seems to have become obsessed and unhinged by his failure to produce a male heir.  Although she does not make the accusation, it would be fair to conclude that as he aged he became psychopathic.  Mantel shows Cromwell as a powerful and overall sympathetic person who rose from obscurity to manipulate events in the Tudor court.  Not a small accomplishment.  He is still alive at the end of the book, unlike his mentor Wolsey and the fanatical Thomas Moore who he tried to save by persuading him to swear alegance to Henry as both monarch and head of the Church.  Moore chose to die rather than compromise.  Mantel uses some terminology such as jakes for toilet that is probably from the period, but other terms like framed that is definitely not.  Overall, she pushes stylistic and syntactic edges but in doing so probably adds to the book's impact.  Not for me to say.  At least she did not get shot down by her editors.  The sequel is Bringing Up The Bodies and I'll get to it after giving Henry and Thomas a bit of a rest.  


4:50 From Paddington: A Miss Marple Mystery - Agatha Christie - 1957- Penguin

    This is chicken soup for the mind while waiting out a headcold.  Miss Marple's friend Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy is on the eponymous train as it briefly runs alongside another train on a parallel track.  As it rounds a curve, the blind on the opposite car snaps open and she observes to her horror a man strangling a woman.  She reports it to a porter and an even a stationmaster at the next stop, neither of whom take her seriously but do report it to the police, who turn up no evidence of a missing person.  Miss Marple takes her friend more seriously and makes takes the same train herself to investigate the possibility of a body having been thrown from the train and somehow spirited away.  With the help of a map provided by a young relative, she deduces that the curve where the murder took place was an oasis of undeveloped land owned by the Crackenthorpe family.  To investigate further she contacts her talented friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow who is self-employed as a person who fixes up households that have run down for one reason or other.  She is trained as a mathematician but prefers to lead an independent life and actually enjoys cooking and cleaning.  She never takes a permanent position so she is a perfect candidate to apply for work for the Crackenthorps whose large Victorian home is occupied by Emma and her father, a "mean" and thoroughly unpleasant man.  There are brothers but none in residence.  Lucy manages to discover the body in a sarcophagus stored in an outbuilding.  New Scotland Yard assigns the case to Miss Marple's old friend, Detective-Inspector Craddock.  There is a lot of money tied up in the property and in Mr. Crackenthorpe's father's will which leaves his fortune to his grandchildren, not his mean son.  Everybody seems to have a motive.  In classic Christie fashion, all gather at the estate.  Other murders take place.  At the very end, Jane Marple and Elspeth McGillicuddy solve the crime and Craddock takes over from there.  A classic Christie tale.  


Royal Blood (Royal Spyness Series #4) - Rhys Bowen - 2010 - Penguin

    Queen Mary sends Georgie (Lady Georgiana Rannoch) on another assignment, this time to attend the wedding of Princess Maria Theresa of Romania to Prince Nicholas of Bulgaria.  She is to represent the Royal Family.  The wedding will take place in a remote castle in Transylvania in the middle of winter.  Golly, as Georgie would say.  She needs a maid but can't afford one so asks her cockney grandfather's advice.  He comes up with a rather rustic girl named Queenie who is entirely unsuitable to being a ladies maid but comes through with a dramatic rescue (sort of) in the end.  Of course, there are stories of wolves and vampires, as the castle was once owned by Vlad The Impaler.  A latter day Vlad enters the story.  As usual, Georgie finds herself in multiple perilous situations and is rescued by D'arcy who miraculously turns up at the wedding.  The bride is a girl she knew slightly from her finishing school in Switzerland but didn't know was a princess.  Another good romp.  She and D'arcy actually spend some time together in the same bed but as yet have not consummated their relationship.


Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, annd Faith in the New China - Evan Osnos - 2014 - Farrar, Straus and Giroux

         Osnos and his wife lived in Beijing for 8 years following his graduate studies of Chinese.  His book is really an ethnographic account of Chinese culture after Deng's introduction of capitalism following Mao's disastrous cultural revolution.  He follows the careers of people in media, business and academics and through their experiences extrapolates to the strengths and weaknesses of a capitalist dictatorship "with Chinese characteristics."  The people he interviewed range from the ultra nationalist philosophy student Tang Jie who created a viral video praising the Chinese system and sharply criticizing the flaws of Western democracy, to race car driver Han Han known for pushing the edges of criticism through humor and irony.  Another important character is internationally famous artist is Ai Wei Wei.  Another is Hu Shuli, founder of  the newspaper, Caijing that also attempted to push the boundaries.  Overall, though, the story is of massive absurd state control of information.  China's great firewall has removed Google, twitter and Facebook from its internet.  Although a determined person can get around the wall, few do and most people share the party's fear of democracy and freedom of information.  The USA, of course, is a master of a more subtle form of thought control, but in China it is direct, all pervasive and in your face at all times.  During the time Osnos lived in China, the country experienced enormous growth but at the same time moved toward a separation of the richest from ordinary people.  Moreover, upward mobility declined and corruption became even more obvious.  Osnos tells of the high speed rail disaster caused by attempting to build too quickly and by manufacturing defects caused by corrupt procurement procedures.  As the book ends Xi Jingpao has come into office.  He attempts to crack down on corruption while maintaining an even stronger control over information.  While Osnos reamains an outsider, he is able to give us a look into the inner workings of modern China.  His knowledge of Mandarin and his obviously engaging personality gave him access to China's inner workings and some of its most interesting people.  The book is a good read as well as being informative.  It ends with a discussion of research on other developing cultures with one party rule.  He concludes that increasing inequality and strict government control of information will put pressures on the system that eventually cannot be ignored. Welcome to the USA 2015.


Royal Flush - #3 in Her Royal Spyness Series - Rhys Bowen (Janet Quin-Harkness) - 2009 - Penguin

    After a failed attempt at advertising herself as an "escort service" not knowing what that meant, Lady Georgiana is sent to her home in Scotland to investigate threats to the Royals.  Darcy appears and disappears.  She's not sure where she stands with him but continues to be enormously attracted.  Her friend Belinda, a lover Paolo who races motorcycles and motorboats, and a dashing aviatrix Ronnie are a cast of characters.  Her grandfather, the retired cockney police officer joins her in Castle Rannoch.  There is a series of mysterious "accidents" involving the Royals in residence at nearby Balmoral.  There is also a climbing accident when Georgie's rope has been tampered with and she survives only by a lucky accident.  Several deaths follow.  Georgie and Darcy are both involved in solving them.  There's an appropriate denouement when Georgie is saved (again) by Darcy.  I won't say more about who the killer was.  That's for you, the reader in cooperation with the author to discover.  


Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy - John R. Hale - 2009 - Viking

    Hale tells the story of Athenian sea power from 524 with the birth of Themistocles to 322 when the Macedonians defeated Athens at the Hellespont and exiled a majority of its citizens to Thrace.  The Greeks themselves, Heroditus and especially Theucidides and Xenophon, documented and analyzed Athenian history and world events.  The story begins with the Great King Darius of Persia sending out a fleet to conquor Greece.   Fortunately for the Greeks, his fleet was wrecked in a storm off Mount Athos.  In 490, Miltiades led an Athenian hoplite army to repel a land invasion at Marathon.  Meanwhile, Athens had gained a windfall from silver mines at Laurium at the southern tip of Attica.  The governing council had proposed keeping half the silver in the treasury and distributing the other half in equal portions among all 30,000 citizens.  Themistocles knew that the Persians would make another attempt, and spoke eloquently before the assembly that the silver should be used to construct a fleet of triremes and fortify the port of Piraeus.  But rather than mentioning the Persians, he tactically emphasized the danger posed by nearby Aegina.  Themistocles was endowed, like Odysseus, with the cunning known as metis.  By 482, Athens had built a fleet of 200 triremes.  This ship is essential to the story of Athenian sea power.  Naval warfare had evolved into staged battles between fleets of these swift vessels designed to ram and sink their adversaries.  Each was rowed by 170 men in three banks of oars.  The citizen oarsman was characterized by his oar and his rowing pad.  Triremes were light and delicate boats that were generally kept ashore and when in service, tied to shore overnight.  They could not withstand heaby weather.  Although they were equipped with a mast and sails for long distance voyages, when fighting these were left ashore.  The new Persian king, Xerxes, led a huge army against Greece again and even dug a canal through the narrow part of the Mount Athos peninsula.  The Athenians were forced to abandon Attica and in 480 he invades the city and burns its temples.  The oracle at Delphi proclaimed that Athens would be defended by a wooden wall.  Themistocles interpreted this to mean a fleet of triremes.  He developed highly trained crews and deployed them with great skill to win the decisive battle of Salamis to defeat the Persian fleet in 480.  Following the Persian wars and the golden age of Pericles, Athens became embroiled in  the 27 year Peloponesian war, meticulously documented by Theucidides.  The greatest enemy of the Greeks were other Greeks. 

    The strongest message of this history of the Athens as a naval power is their almost constant state of warfare.  Every man and boy served as either a hoplite or the member of a trireme crew.  Competition and physical challenge was at the core of their identity.  They were violent, litigious and prone to pillory their finest citizens.  Generals accused of abandoning survivors of a battle, despite impossible weather conditions, were given the hemlock.  So was their greatest philosopher, Socrates.  It's amazing that the city was able to continue on as it did with so many of its men being lost in battle and exiled or executed by their own citizens.  Those who died in battle were memorialized, some with their names on a wall like the Vietnam memorial.  Those who were executed were remembered by later generations.  Even the wars they won were won at a heavy cost.  Perhaps because military exploits were so crucial to their survival, each battle on land or sea was meticulously documented.  Hale is able to use these accounts in conjunction with sketch maps of the battle scenes to give a graphic description of tactics and outcomes.  He also had recourse to archaeological finds of ancient cities, harbors and battlefields.  I found a video online of the modern reconstruction of a trireme, the Olympias.  It showed how the rowers were arranged in tiers, with the uppermost in a sort of outrigger.  The replica was able to do 8 knots but Hale reports that ancient triremes could sustain 10 knots over considerable distances.  One consequence of maintaining such a large fleet of warships was the denuding of forests in Attica.  Contemporary writers noted that what once had been forests were now eroding scrubland.  The land never recovered and is like that to this day.  The glories of ancient Greece that we sometimes romanticize today were based on continuous, sometimes foolish warfare and a glorification of violence.  It's a blessing they did not have modern weapons.  The ones they had, particularly the trireme, were magnificent, extravagant and wholly destructive machines whose sole purpose was to destroy others of their kind.  Thousands of triremes went to the bottom, and with them whole forests, treasures of bronze, and of course their crews, swallowed up by a hungry Poseidon.  No wonder they built the lovely temple to this god at Cape Sunion. 


The Shape of Water - Andrea Camilleri (translated by Stephen Sartarelli) -2002 - Viking

    The first of the inspector Montalbano series, it is set in Sicily, about as far from Brunetti's Venice as you can get.  Although Sicily is still Italy and corruption is endemic, this is Mafia country with a lot of violence and a lot of smutty talk and behavior.  An important political figure, Silvio Luparello, is found dead of natural causes in his BMW parked in a sleazy lover's lane.  He's not unlike that other notorious Italian politician named Silvio.  Like Brunetti, Montalbano is both honest and cynical and prone to resolving issues without recorse to the corrupt and tedious Italian court system.  There is a rich host of characters, most of whom are either corrupt or lascivious or both.  It is a short book but what with the violence and bad behavior the length is about right.  


Marriage Can Be Murder - Emma Jameson - 2014 - Lyonnesse

    This is the first of a series about doctor Benjamin Bones who has been assigned to a rural practice in Cornwall at the beginning of WWII.  He arrives in the small town of Birdswing (formerly Crow's Wing) that is also the girlhood home of his estranged wife Penny.  Penny more or less captured the young doctor when she discovered she was pregnant with someone else and meanwhile is having another affair.  Ben decides that divorce is the only recourse but as they arrive they are still man and wife.  The village is dark due to the blackout and vehicles are required to drive with their lights off.  As they are walking down the high street, a lorry bears down on them, knocking Ben to the ground and breaking both his legs.  Penny is also down and the lorry reverses and runs her over, killing her instantly.  It turns out she was universally disliked in the village.  Dr. Bones  begins his recovery in a room above the local pub and is eventually by Lady Juliet Linton (Bolivar).  Her estranged husband is a bounder, Ethan Bolivar.  The bumbling and officious ARP warden Gaston has been delegated with police authority and is more interested in persecuting cracks of light under their doors.  Fortunately, his sister, the widowed Mrs. Cobblepot, decides that housekeeping for Dr. Bones is more important than indulging her brother.  She turns out to be everything Gaston is not.  Lady Juliet and Ben gradually become a team working on the mystery of Penny's death which they are convinced is murder.  A clue is a note in newsprint apologizing for harming Ben when he only meant to harm Penny.  The note's author turns out to be a local named Freddie who is unfortunately murdered to prevent him revealing who hired him.  Eventually they discover that Penny had been blackmailing a wealthy ship owner who was also a supporter of Oswald Mosley's BUF, British United Fascists.  Dr. Bones earns the respect of the villagers by saving the life of a young person who has gone into shock.  There is the usual tense standoff at the end but all is resoled in the end.  Although Ben had a minor crush on a lovely but vacuous schoolteacher named Rose, his real attraction is to Lady Juliet.  We'll see what happens in the sequel.  Jameson hints that the cad Bolivar will return.  


H Is For Hawk - Helen Macdonald - 2014 Random House

    This is a first person account of Helen's relationship with a Goshawk she is training while at the same time mourning the death of her beloved father, a talented English photojournalist.  A parallel theme is her account of writer T.H. White's ultimately failed attempt to train a Goshawk in 1939.  White named his hawk Gos.  Helen named hers Mable.  White's ultimately flew away and never returned.  Mable stayed with Helen despite some distancing flights.  Most falconers are men.  Helen creates a sort of cross species gender bond with Mable,  She even devises games to play and discovers to her surprise that Goshawks are capable of having a playful nature.  Their ultimate nature, though, is as efficient predators who relish the kill and the taste of freshly caught mammals or birds.  Helen comes to grips with the hawk's relationship to mortality at the same time she comes to grips with the mortality of her father.  White ultimately failed because he projected his own sado-machocihistic repressed homosexuality onto the relationship with Gos.  Helen succeeded as a result of having loving parents and a happy childhood.  Beyond the amazing story is the way she tells it.  Macdonald is a beautiful poetic writer and an erudite student of the English language.  There he was, an impossibly beautiful creature the colour of split flint and chalk, wings crossed sharp over his back, his dark, hooded face turned up to the sky.  The hawk is watching a vintage Spitfire fly over but the moment also brings White's 1939 to mind.  In addition to the specialized vocabulary of falconry, she uses a host of ancient but not excessively esoteric words and mythological references.  Horus is the Egyptian hawk headed God and Merlin, King Arthur's magical mentor, is also a falcon.  White is best known for his telling of the Aurthurian legend in The Once and Future King.  A falconer is called an austringer.  The cords that bind her feet are called jesses and the line that limits her tethered flight is a creance.  Hawks don't wipe their beaks, they feak.  When they deficate they mute.  When the shake themselves they rouse ... The tiny, hairlike feathers between her beak and eye - crines - are for catching blood so that it will dry and flake, and fall away, and the frownng eyebrows that lend her face its hollow rapacious intensity are bony projections to protect her eyes when crashing into undergrowth after prey.  When a hawk loses his or her concentration on the falconer, it bates, a reckless flight from wrist to ground.  We hear the term over and over as the manning of Helen's hawk falters and recovers.  Falconers have a word for hawks in the mood to slay: they call the bird in yarak.  The books say it comes from the Persion yaraki, meaning power, strength and boldness.  Hawks have an accipitrine heart, a way of seeing in more colours and with much greater accuity than humans.  They have a heart and a nature designed to spy, seize and kill their prey. 

    Helen lives for her hawk and for a time neglects her academic career.  She has few close friends and no close relationships except for the one with Mabel.  I can imagine she would be a difficult person to live with.  She has bouts of deep depression but is wise enough to seek professional help and accept anti-depressant medication.  As the book closes, Mable is going into moult and Helen relinquishes her to an aviary for the duration.  Perhaps this is when she began to write the book.  The story is no doubt ongoing.


Murder in the Dark - Kerry Greenwood - 2006  - Poison Pen Press

    This book is competely different from the TV episode of the same name.  It is probably the longest Phryne Fisher mystery and despite the name, there is no actual murder.  The only death is the apprehended Joker who is plotting to kill Phryne and her bohemian Templar friend Gerald.  The scene is the "last best party of 1928" set in an old mansion that has been whitewashed by the Church that bought it after the owners died.  Gerald and his godly sister Isabella make up for any churchly influence with their extravagant rituals of cannibis, alcohol and karez ceremony of group sexual play without actual climax.  There is jazz by the divine Nerine and a coterie of sapphic girls.  A flavor of Agapenone, the flavor of love, pervades the proceedings.  Phryne indulges with a beautiful young man Nicholas who turns out to be a secret service agent.  No matter, when she meets Lin after the party she writes him off as "like fairy floss, very sweet but melts on the tongue and leaves the deep hunger unsatistied."  As usual, there are turns and twists and dangerous encounters which turn out all right in the end.  As usual, her little gun is a character but never speaks.    (March 29, 2015)


Arctic Dreams - Barry Lopez - 1986 - Open Road Media

    Lopez writes beautifully and with great respect for the arctic in which he traveled.  His chapters on musk ox, polar bears and belugas are particularly sensitive and evocative as well as being scientifically grounded.  We learn a lot about ice as well as about the Inuit, who at the time he wrote are still referred to as Eskimos.  The book provides a kind of unintentional base line from which to observe the massive changes now evident in the arctic.  The terms global warming and climate change were not really developed when he wrote and the only changes he mentions are the relatively long term ones of the past that marked the Thule expansion and readaptation as well as the Norse failure to remain in Greenland.  Sometimes it is rewarding to read a book written nearly thirty years ago, particularly when it describes an area now subject to enormous changes in climate as well as human exploitation.  It is worth reading just for the beauty and economy of his prose.  I'll check to see if he has written anything on the present conditions.

(March 26, 2015)


Amelia - Nancy Nahra - 2014 - New World City

    This is a short sketch of Amelia Earhart's life and the culture of women flyers of her time.  It's more like a long magazine article than a book and as such it is informative and to the point.  Her family of origin was troubled with an alcoholic father who went from one failed job to another.  At times her mother was essentially a single parent.  Earhart was a skilled mechanic as well as a talented flyer at a time when navigation aids were almost nonexistent.  Her solo flightw were remarkable and she almost complleted the greatest challenge of all, a round the world flight.  We'll never know why she never made it to Howland Island.  The book briefly discusses all the theories, most of which are far fetched.  Part of the problem was with her radio, a device she was less comfortable with than machines.  She was able to transmit during the final leg of the flight but evidently could not receive. 


Quiet as a Nun: A Tale of Murder by Antonia Fraser - 1977 Viking

This mystery reminds me in its setting of The Name of the Rose but in a convent, not a monastery, and set in modern times.  The convent is said to have been founded by Eleanor of Aquitaine and there are rumors of her special friendship with another woman in the convent.   The mystery begins when Sister Rosabelle Mary Powerstock, (Sister Miriam) is found locked in a  tower and dead, presumably of natural causes.  She left a cryptic note for Mother Ancilla that said, "Jemima knows."  Jemima Shore is a thoroughly secular television program host who knew Rosa when they were both girls in the convent school.  The Mother Superior has called her in to investigate.  There's a link to an interview she did with Alexander Skarbak, a charming and cunning crusader for the rights of the poor.  A thoroughly convoluted plot evolves involving a mysterious passage between the tower and the convent chapel and the fact that Sister Miriam has inherited the title to all the grounds surrounding the convent.  She seemed to have become mad and fixated on a literal interpretation that a holy person should give all she has to the poor.  Doing so would, of course, destroy the convent.  Since this is a mystery and a good one, I won't reveal how it all comes out. 


Baghdad Sketches - Freya Stark - 1938 (introduction by Barbara Krieger, 1992 - Marlboro Press Edition 1996)

    Freya Stark learned Arabic and set out to travel by herself through the Middle East in 1928.  In today's world it seems strange that Stark's quest for freedom should take her to one of the world's most repressive cultures, at least for woman.  As her sketches reveal, although women were largely veiled, they often enjoyed freedom at least within a limited sphere.  Mostly, though, she spent her time in the company of men, somehow making herself welcome in the tents of Bedouin Sheiks as well as among humble merchants in the slums of Baghdad.  Each chapter is a short sketch of a particular place or tribe.  The one on the Yezidis, "The Devil-Worshippers," is particularly interesting in light of the recent genocide against them by ISIS.  Their saint, the twelfth century Shaikh 'Adi, is reported to have said, "Curse no one, not even the devil."  Hence the accusation that they are not only unbelievers but devil-worshippers.  The sketch of Kuwait as a desert in which even water must be imported by sea is also prescient, as she recognizes in a 1937 visit the growing power of oil barons and imagines palatial mansions springing up by the sea.  She even goes into the tribal struggles leading the the house of Saud.  The sketch on Mandali talks about water rights and the importance of water in ancient Near Eastern civilization.  She reminds the reader that rivalry comes from the latin word for river bank, riva.  Stark is a strong writer.  Her sketches are economical and evocative, with a wry British sensibility that honors Arab culture while maintaining a somewhat bemused distance.  She has an insider's wealth of knowledge with an outsider's sense of detachment.  It is fascinating to read her descriptions of places that have been in the news for over a decade; Fallujah, Tikrit, Mosul, Basra and a host of others. 


Something Blue: Book 3 - Lord & Lady Hetheridge Series - Emma Jameson - 2013 Pyper Press

    As the title suggests, this one ends in a wedding but also in an unresolved case.  Hetheridge's enemies remove him from an active case, supposedly for his failure to achieve instant results but more likely because he & Kate are getting too close to the psychopathic killer Godington.  The murder here is of Michael Martin Hughes, the owner of Peerless Petrol, an environmentally unfriendly oil company responsible for a disastrous spill.  Another murder follows that of Hughes.  This time it is his assistant/mistress, Ariana Freemont.  There is also a dotty American psychic who may have done one of the deeds.  Something Blue sets us up for the fourth book, already in the works according to the prolific Ms Jameson.  Looking forward to it.  (March 13)


Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress - Dai Sijie - 2001 - Anchor Random House - (translated by Ina Rilke)

Two teen aged boys are taken from their bourgeois parents for re-education during Mao's Cultural Revolution.  They are both from the city of Chengdu.  The narrator, who plays classical violin is seventeen and the son of a pulmonary specialist.  His friend Luo, whose father is a famous dentist who repaired Mao's teeth, is eighteen.  They end up in a mountain village near the border of Tibet.  The area is known as, "Phoenix of the Sky."  The peasants are actually not too hostile as long as the boys plow rice paddies with oxen and carry buckets of manure, some of it human, to the fields.  A locally famous tailor lives in a neighboring village and he has a beautiful daughter, the little Chinese seamstress.  A fellow exile from the city, called Four Eyes because he wears glasses, is the son of a famous poet.  They learn that he has a suitcase filled with forbidden books and arrange with him to visit a hermit to collect "authentic people's folk songs" that Four Eyes will send to his mother who can perhaps arrange his early release.  The songs turn out to be scatological and erotic, if not pornographic, but Four Eyes changes the lyrics to be politically correct tributes to the revolution.  When he reneges on his promise to give them books they manage to steal the suitcase.  Their passion is to read the works of Balzac, translated into Chinese, and then tell them back to the villagers as oral stories.  Luo falls in love with the little seamstress.  Events transpire which I won't disclose and an unexpected form of re-education happens.  That is the bare bones of the plot.  The book's charm is its exposition of teenage-young adult exuberance and humor, as well as being a portrait of remote village life in a time before so many peasants had fled to the cities to take on factory work.  It's a quick read and an engrossing one.  There are no terrible tragedies but lots of excitement.  Even in English, one gets the flavor of Chinese filtered through French.  (March 8)


The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language - Melvyn Bragg - 2003-2011 - Arcade Publishing

    Fascinating, comprehensive and beautifully  written, Bragg takes us on  a romp from Beowulf to Indian, American and Carribbean English.  His central thesis is that while English voraciously gobbled up words from every other culture and language it contacted, it retained an essential structure and core vocabulary (word hoard) from the original form that immigrants from Friesland brought to Biritain in the 8th century.  Even today, the language spoken around the island of Terschelling in Friesland are intelligible as variations on English.  Eighth century English was a written language and survived despite the Norse destruction of centers of learning like Lindesfarne.  Alfred (The Great) may not have saved England but he did save the English language when he defeated the Danes in 878 at the battle of Ethandune.  After the Norman conquest, French became the language of court during most of the Plantagenet reign.  Richard II was the first English monarch using only English.  In 1362 Parliament opened in English for the first time.  English persisted, though, in regional dialects and folk culture such as "Summer is cumen in."  English added French words while retaining it's own.  Thus we have cow, beef; sheep, mutton; pig, pork.  In the 15th century Chaucer (a French name) chose to write in an English that is still intelligible today, especially as it is pronounced.  As English began to be used at Court, scholars and writers such as Shakespeare liberally invented new words including she longest word in Shakespeare, "honorificabilitudinatibus."  Most of the story that has come down to us until the 18th and 19th centuries is credited to men, Queen Elizabeth perhaps being a grand exception.  Bragg reports with authority that she was certainly the best educated and most literate monarch in English history.  It wasn't until the rise of the novel and authors like Austen, the Brontes and George Sand that women took their place as authors of great English literature.  The story continues overseas with the Empire and with mass immigration to the New World.  One interesting observation is that in England between Chaucer and Shakespeare there was "the great vowel shift" from short to long.  People in the Midlands and South of England shifted from ee as in meet to e as in met.  The advent of printing and Claxton's press standardized spelling but left regional variations in pronunciation intact.  The first English Bible was translated from Latin by Wycliffe and as such is not a great work of literature.  William Tyndale's Bible is entirely different.  Bragg devotes and entire chapter to Tyndale and argues that he single-handedly created a new literary form.  Tyndale was a remarkable linguist and was able to translate from Hebrew and Greek into beautiful English.  The King James Bible retains the best of Tyndale's work.  I have highlighted multiple words in the book that are in common usage without us knowing how they came into being.  Mews and codger, for instance, began with the royal sport of falconry.  Codger is an elderly man who carried hawks in a cage.  Quarry was the reward given a bird for making a kill, and mew is the building in which hawks were kept.  Now, of course, it's a fake English term for an apartment or "town house" complex. 


Blue Murder - Emma Jameson - 2012 - Lyonness

This is book two of the trilogy, Lord and Lady Hetheridge series.  Anthony Hetheridge, ninth baron of Wellegrave and chief superintendent of New Scotland Yard takes is called to a grizzly double axe murder at a party attended by drunk and stoned socialites.  One victim is a handsome and brainless rugby star.  The other is a smart but sleazy student who writes plagiarized papers for the upper class twits.  The home where the party and murders took place is owned by Kyla's parents.  It is next door to Sir Duncan Godlington who was implicated but not convicted of a previous violent murder.  Detective sergeant Deepal (Paul) Bhar is on the case along with Hetheridge and Kate Wakefield.   Deepal's career was nearly ruined in an earlier case involving Godlington because he was taken in by Godlington's lover, Tessa Chilcott.  A side plot here is Deepal's mother who writes succesful romance novels under the name, Sharon Lacey.  As in any good British mystery, there is a multitude of possible murderers and lots of motives.  The denoument of this book, in addition to solving the murders, is Kate's final acceptance of Hetheridge's marriage proposal.  So now we know why the series is called Lord and Lady Hetheridge.  Stay tuned for book number three. 


The Human Age - Diane Ackerman - 2014 - W.W. Norton

    Ackerman is a popular writer and not a scientist.  Her style is breezy and sometimes annoyingly so.  There are tidbits of useful information salted throughout but overall I didn't really learn anything new.  She develops the narrative initially through the eyes of a young orangutan named Budi who loves to use his iPad through a program called Apps for Apes.  Later, she invents a fictional geologist from the future she appropriately names Olivine.  It's interesting to think about what remains our civilization will have left in the earth.  Lots, I suspect.  There's a poignant passage about her own experience scuba diving and being witness to reef beauty and reef death.  Sometimes, though, her metaphors go beyond science as when she describes plankton as shrimplike.  She knows shrimp are crustaceans and plankton are not but couldn't resist the turn of phrase.  I would have preferred more about the varieties of phyto & zoo plankton and their importance as fundamental foundations of the food chain as well as maintaining the atmosphere.  She does talk about the plankton/krill relationship.  In the chapter called, "Opportunity Warms," she explores a host of new technologies and clean energy sources, most of which are only found in highly developed countries.  This section reminds me a bit of the hopeful chapters of Naomi Klein's book and like them, downplays the issues of global poverty, overpopulation and endemic warfare.  Yes, windconverters are a wonderful thing, but perhaps not the optimistic "time portals" she imagines.  Overall Ackerman describes a progression of green technology without the radical transformation of society that Klein says is essential.  The interplanetary internet linking crews on spacecraft between the planets, although perhaps technologically possible, is the immensely costly indulgence in futurism that isn't going to help anybody except elites of business and industry.  The chapter on Robot sapiens is interesting but seems to focus on the idea of self reliant machines rather than the distributed intelligence that Robert Sawyer imagines in his latest trilogy.  The discussion of Cleverbots is interesting and I enjoyed viewing the online conversation between two of these digital creations.  She uses Umwelt to mean, "worldview encompassing thoughts, feelings and sensations," rather than the original meaning of an animal's perceptual environment.  Deer ticks have a distinctive Umwelt but certainly not thoughts or a worldview.  The chapter on epigenetics was interesting and I did learn something about t he influence of environment on the expression of DNA coded potential.  There's a scary chapter about the bacteria we carry around with us, some of which, like Toxiplasma, she says have the capacity to alter sexual behavior.  Rats with it, she says, are fatally sexually attracted to cats.  There are similar although more subtle effects in humans.  Fortunately, it is destroyed by antibiotics.  Some of her grand phrases seem too self indulgent; "But I'm also struck by the everythingness of everything in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else." Methinks the one hand is clapping for its own amusement.


The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years - Bernard Lewis -1995 - Scribner

Lewis is a Professor Emeritus of Middle East studies at Princeton and it is instructive to see his take on events up until the first Gulf war.  In 2015 he is 98 years old.  I must admit I skimmed over his brief overview of the pre-Islamic history but took in enough to see that by the time of Muhammad (Lewis' spelling) the region had been subject to almost constant wars of conquest, empire, dissolution and challenges from competing power centers.  The Christian era overlaps with Islam and even with the beginning of Western European interest in the area.  It's hard to imagine a more fought over place on earth.  Powers rise and then are struck down.  Cities are built and destroyed.  Over and over, the people living in the area are subjected to ultimate cruelty and genocide.  In the context of a history of strife that was already millennia long what we see happening now is not surprising.  In some ways the Muslim period overall was one of greater overall stability than was known previously.   Since the birth of the Prophet ca. 571 CE and his recitations that became the Qur'an, a stern and absolutistic monotheism has dominated the region.  A fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam is that with Islam, church and state are one.  Lewis traces the various Sunni Caliphates: Umayyads, Abbasids Fatimids, Ottomans.  Sunni, he points out, means acceptance of orthodoxy, from sunna, ancestral, prescedent, the normative custom of the tribe.  Thus, the Caliphates as imperial powers arose from tribal customs and retained many of their values.  The Shiite stream of Islam is different because it claims direct descent from the Prophet.  Because both forms of Islam combine religion and government into one body, the Holy Law of Islam (shari'a) and the commetaries that have grown up around it are, in theory at least, the religious rules on which government is based.  A fundamental premise of Islam is that divine law is paramount and should govern human law.  This is in serious conflict with western ideas of democracy and the separation of church and state.  France is at one extreme; ISIS (which Lewis could not have imagined in 1995) is at the other.  Part V of the book is about the challenge of modernity.  Lewis describes the contrast in Muslim tradition between Dar al-Islam, the House of Islam, and Dar al-Harb, the House of War inhabited by infidels who have not yet submitted to Muslim rule.  Islam at its core means submission to the will of Allah.  He points out that for the firsst 1000 years of Islam, Muslims had the upper hand over Christians.  Things turned around after the collapse of the Ottoman empire; however it was western imperialism (and perhaps a sliver of democracy) rather than Christianity that challenged the Muslim Umma.  Modern Turkey has proven to be a hybrid case, being Muslim but not Arab.  Attaturk was staunchly secular, although Erdogan's Turkey is perhaps a quasi-democratic one party state with Muslim ideology but not strict Sharia law.  Pakistan, in theory a democracy, still has the death penalty for blasphemy and occasionally even imposes it.  Saudi Arabie is, I need say no more, a Wahabi oil-based monarchy.  Even Iran, currently a Shia theocracy, could become more representative than any Sunni Arab state is likely to be.  Current negotiations of a possible nuclear deal (something Lewis probably never imagined) will determine whether Iran turns back inward or continues its slow engagement with the west.  The Republicans and Israel's Likud are doing everything they can to push Iran back into theocracy.  As of 1995 when the book was published, Saddam Hussein was still in control of Iraq.  Lewis suggests the possibility of Middle Eastern peoples and governments determining their own fate and producing new regional powers, or alternatively going the way of Yugoslavia and Somalia to "fragmentation and internecine chaos."  Thanks to the arrogance & ignorance of Bush, Cheney and Wolfowitz the latter has come to pass.  He also suggests the possibility of a new jihad, which certainly has come about, although he never imagined anything as regressive and terrible as ISIS.  His more recent writing has sparked considerable controversy.  He was an advocate for the Iraq war and has been accused of exonerating Turkey from responsibility for the Armenian genocide.  He has also written that Iran is a fundamentalist jihadist theocracy whose aim of destroying Israel could outweigh Israel's mutual assured destruction provided by its large nuclear arsenal.  He's probably supporting Netanyahu in his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.  Although I haven't seen any public pronouncements in the past he has supported Bibi and Likkud.  Lewis reminds me a bit of Paul of Tarsus.  He's a Jewish intellectual who is also a citizen of the American empire.  Despite his considerable erudition and obvious love of some aspects of Middle Eastern culture, he is fundamentally a Jew and a supporter of Israel.  Sadly, that uncritical attitude shared by Republican hawks leads us closer to a catastrophic war with Iran. 

 

Last Lost World: Ice Ages, Human Origins and the Invention of the Pleistocene - Lydia V. Pyne and Stephen J. Pyne - 2012 - Viking

    This is really two books.  One is an account of geological and "genomic" events during the last several million years of alternating glaciation and interglacials.  We meet the familiar australopithecines, "erectines" and hominins.  The other book is about the philosophical history of how western thinkers from Anaximander, Plato and Aristotle on to the present day have thought about what it means to be human.  One is about the evolution of ourselves and our immediate ancestors.  The other is about the evolution of a philosophy of science as a way of explaining human evolution.  The period known as the Pleistocene is by far the shortest of the named periods in geological history.  It's cycles are governed in large part by the Milankovitch cycles of planetary motion, which means that, other things being equal, we are due for another glacial advance soon.  We are very likely still within its anthropocene phase.  The philosophical sections are about the need for a positivist hard science to be tempered and interpreted by the human imperative for narrative.  At one point they even say that, "Ideally, somewhere, there must be an unmoved mover who acts on immutable matter."  I think that's a leap of faith and not at all necessary for constructing a meaningful narrative about human origins.  Elsewhere they say, "The organizing principles for true narrative reside not in evidence but in rhetoric and the themes that give it punch do not come from morphology but from a moral sense" (86).  I'm still enough of an empiricist to think that ultimately evidence is more reliable than ideology while acknowledging that the history of interpretation has been riddled by scientists believing what their culture and individual status leads them to believe.  I do think that physical evidence must be the catalyst and factual basis for any successful narrative.  The British wanted an ancestor to come from the British Isles, not the "colonies," which led to accepting Piltdown and rejecting Australopithecus until evidence proved otherwise.  The controversy over homo Floresiensis mirrored the one over Neanderthal but as evidence piled up, it became clear that these "hobbit" hominins were real while an interpretive explanation for who they are and how they may be related to us  is still pending.  The authors generally agree with the narrative of erectines migrating out of Africa and into Europe and Asia during periods of glacial retreat more than 200,000 years ago.  Meanwhile, homo remained in Africa and at some point evolved into one group that again migrated north and another that stayed. 
    Our ancestors were nearly exterminated when Mount Toba in Sumatra exploded catastrophically between 73,000 and 71,000 years ago.  While Neanderthals were cold adapted, the immediate ancestors of modern humans needed a tropical refugium which Africa provided and gave African populations an enhanced degree of genetic diversity.  When conditions improved 60,000 to 70,000 years ago, they moved out, ultimately reaching Australia.  They argue that these populations had an enhanced capacity for culture that led ultimately to their global hegemony.  Artistic representation is taken as a key piece of evidence, but they also wisely point out that an equally creative impulse can be expressed in oral history, mythology and narrative (what I have called "narrative technology").  These expressions, of course, would leave no archaeological remains.  The authors leave unanswered whether this creative flourishing was the result of biological-cognitive evolution, cultural evolution or some combination.
    The philosophical story centers on the "transubstantiation by which matter becomes mind" (207) and goes through how the major figures in modern western philosophy addressed the issue.  I found the philosophical excursion a distraction from understanding how a narrative of the pleistocene can be constructed from the evidence on hand.  Perhaps this is because to the authors, evidence is meaningless without a philosophical underpinning.  I tended to glaze over when confronted with Cassirer's objekt with its three forms; science, history and psychology.  The first two are straightforward but his psychology is, "the metaphysical reaming imbued to the objekt or assigned to it - the cultural clout that gives it meaning and weight" (241).  "Like Cubist images visible from several perspectives, every objekt possessed multiple, simultaneous interpretations" (241).  I fuzz over when reading a passage like this and then learning that it has been replaced by something equally ethereal, particularly when I am trying to figure out the meaning of an important fossil within its geological context.  I really want the evidence to speak first and although the fossils are often fiercely subjected to multiple interpretations, ultimately they are pieces of a puzzle that with time and luck we can put together.  The authors go on to say that the "new archaeology" of the 1960s and 70s went beyond Cassirer, so why confuse the story with such a long disquisition about him and other philosophical schools of thought.  Overall, I had to sort through a lot about the history of philosophy to find out about the history of the pleistocene. 
    On one important issue about how humans fit into pleistocene evolutionary history, the authors argue that when modern humans entered Europe and Asia, they began a process of exterminating the large mammals that had been typical of the pleistocene fauna.  This is a twist on the Paul Martin thesis about hunters causing megafauna extinction.The only strains to survive, they argue, were the horses, camels and elephants that humans domesticated.  I'm sure a lot of people would take issue with this reading of the evidence and I won't go into all the counter arguments.  Surprisingly, they end the book with a discussion of Robert Ardrey's "killer ape" hypothesis.  They recognize that it was an outlier and quickly refuted, so why bring up a marginal footnote to the story at all. 
    I'm sure a reader whose background is philosophy would find the book stimulating in the way it attempts to integrate scientific facts with narrative interpretation.  I'd like to know how professional archaeologists and pleistocene pre-historians view it.  More later if I come up with anything. 

Ice Blue - Emma Jameson - 2011 - Pyper Press

    This is the first of three Lord & Lady Hetheridge mysteries.  Here we meet the important players, who are Scotland Yard detectives.  Kate Wakefield is a 31 year old who lives with her mentally disabled brother and young nephew.  She is just getting over the last of a series of bad relationships, this one with a man named Dylan.  Her boss is Lord Anthony Hetheridge, and her co-worker is an east Indian named Deepal Bhar  who goes by Paul.  Both he and Kate grew up in street smart less than privileged circumstances in contrast to Tony who is Ninth Baron of Wellegrave as well as being chief superintendent of New Scotland Yard.  He's called to a grusome murder scene from a white tie & tux event.  The victim is a wealthy but universally disliked man named Malcolm Comfrey who was bludgeoned to death with a poker which the murderer then drove through his eye.  When Hetheridge arrives on the scene, Malcom's wife Madge turns out to be his former fiance who had married Comfrey shortly after Tony terminated the engagement.  The murder took place following what was supposed to be an engagement party for Madge & Malcolm's daughter Jules and a seedy character named Kevin who Malcolm despised but Madge supported.  As the party began Malcolm ranted and insulted everyone present until Kevin stomped out and the others quickly departed.  Being a British murder mystery in something of the Agatha Christie mode, everyone present at the party turns out to have a motive and an opportunity.  As the plot develops, a relationship between Kate and her boss also develops.  The murder is solved following a dramatic and violent confrontation in which none of the protagonists are harmed.  It's obvious from the title of the series that Kate and Tony do get together.  Stay tuned.  This is a classic mystery updated to a contemporary setting.  There's a touch of Dalgliesh and Lord Peter Whimsey in Hetheridge but Kate is strictly up from the ranks, which makes her excellent at her job and loyal to someone like Tony whom she can trust.  Jameson is a talented writer.  (January 5)

Got Any Grapes?: Reading Thomas King's The Back of The Turtle

Robin Ridington (submitted to Canadian Literature - February, 2015)

 Prologue

         The Back of the Turtle is about stories within stories.  Like the storied lives of people in First Nations cultures, the characters in Thomas King's latest novel lead multiply storied lives.  Some of the stories have Christian origins.  Others are unique to First Nations.  Some are from popular culture, like the joke about a duck who walks into a bar and asks, "Got any grapes?"  This joke in turn links to a popular mind worm, "The Duck Song."  For the characters themselves as well as for the author, these stories and others come together to form a whole.  If Coyote were a storyteller, which he is, one of his names would be Thomas King. 

         The Back of The Turtle is not about ducks any more than it is just about resurrection or the woman who fell from the sky, although all these and other stories enter into it.  Muskrat is a better candidate for diving down and bringing up the world.  There are turtles in the story too.  In some First Nations stories the turtle carries the world on its back.  Here Thomas King brings all these stories together.  From now on I'll just refer to him as Tom.  Canadians know him as Tom from the CBC program, "The Dead Dog Cafe Comedy Hour" that ran from 1997 to 2000.  Each episode was actually only fifteen minutes, but hyperbole and inflation are to be expected on air;  Tom doesn't stand on formalities. 

         Tom's The Truth About Stories was first given orally, and later became a book.  Each chapter began with another version of the turtle story.  Like all of Tom's writing, The Back of The Turtle is as much about stories as it is about Indians or turtles, but as a novel the story has a narrative structure.  I use the term Indian rather than the current "First Nations" as that's the word Tom uses.  Within the narrative are stories of the destructive hubris of western civilization balanced by stories of creation.  Indian stories came before books, and with any luck will be here as long as people tell stories. The Bible contains lots of stories, and most of these probably existed before books.  For thousands of years though, they have existed within the containment of written words, despite generations of exegetes who made their livings performing them from the pulpit or recently on radio and TV.  Indians' stories have a different life.  Their stories are as ephemeral as vibrations in air and as enduring as the passage of one generation into another.  They don't vanish with the supposedly vanishing Indian. 

         Tom begins this book with a medley of creation stories and lots of characters to choose from.  There is The Woman Who Fell From the Sky.  There is God, known here as Dad, whom Nietzsche (and the Dead Dog Cafe) proclaimed to be dead.  There is Sonny, his son, who wields Thor's hammer but also collects salvage, and there is a dog named Soldier, who died in Tom's Truth and Bright Water but has returned now when he is needed.  There is Nicholas Crisp, known in English history for manufacturing beads and probably trading slaves.  Here he is pretty frisky, despite being even older than God.  He has goat thighs like the god Pan.  The human characters have mythic resonances in the same way that mythic characters have human attributes.  God the father and God the son, Dad and Sonny. 

         Gabriel Quinn is an Indian from Lethbridge, Alberta.  His mother was from Smoke River on Samaritan Bay on the BC coast.  His name suggests Gabriel Dumont, Louis Riel and maybe Bob Dylan's "Quinn the Eskimo." Quinn took an engineering degree at Stanford and became chief scientist at the biotech company, Domidion.  The name resonates with the Old Testament promise for man to have dominion over nature  (Genesis 1:26).  It certainly resonates with biotech companies like Monsanto.

         Quinn, as Domidion's Head of Biological Oversight, developed a version of the genetically modified bacterium Klebsiella planticola SDF 20 into a monster Domidion called Green Sweep.  Green Sweep, it turned out, has the ability to kill any plant it contains.  Tom didn't make this up, either.  A mutant Klebsiella planticola called SDF 20 (Raine 2004) was really developed and nearly escaped.  In a bizarre twist that only big pharma can explain, SDF 20 is also a proprietary code name for Sildenafil, also known as Viagra.  Sounds like Coyote at work.  Green Sweep caused "The Ruin" in which Indians and turtles living on Samaritan Bay disappeared.  (Tom is certainly aware that a poem called The Ruin is probably the earliest piece of literature written in English).

The Story

         Stories sometimes say as much about what is unsaid, but mutually understood by teller and listener, as they do about what is actually said.  I once wrote:

The discourse of Native people takes place within real time, but it is meaningful in relation to a time of mind, a mythic time.  Performer and listener share both a common time frame and a complementary knowledge of that mythic world.  They share a common responsibility to the names that are fabulous in their lands.  Their relationship to the names and to one another is conversational.   (Ridington 1990: 276)

         Quinn disappears mysteriously from his office at Domidion, as does the turtle kept in a tank at the company's headquarters.  He leaves enigmatic writing on the wall of his rented bungalow: Bhopal, Chernobyl, Pine Ridge, Grassy Narrows.  Writing on the wall comes from The Book of Daniel, which tells about King Belshazzar who used sacred vessels stolen from Solomon's Temple at Jerusalem for a feast.  Suddenly, a disembodied hand appeared and wrote these words: Mene, Tekel, Upharsin, "You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting" (Daniel 5:25-28).  That night the king was killed and his city taken by the Persians.  Quinn, like Daniel, has found Domidion wanting.  As a balance to this destruction, he also wrote out the story of the woman who fell from the sky.   Having destroyed turtles and Indians, Quinn now has an obligation to help create a new world from the one Domidion destroyed. Quinn is desperate to remove the guilt he feels for having created yet another environmental disaster, a left-handed creation.  

         The story begins with a Prologue.  At first light, the shore of Samaritan Bay is in shadows.  Crisp and Master Dog share an apple.  "It's the stuff of creation," Crisp tells his companion.  No prohibition here about eating forbidden fruit.  The God who issued that decree hasn't been seen for a long time.  Maybe he has transformed himself into the dog, Soldier.  As we learn later, that would make Soldier and Crisp brothers.  A figure emerges from the trees and begins his final descent to the beach.  "There he be, as you predicted ... but just remember, this be your idea," Crisp says to Master Dog (1-2).   The figure that emerges is Quinn, who has left Domidion and traveled to Smoke River.  This is where his mother, Rose, came from and returned to.  It's where she, Quinn's sister Lilly and her son Riel died. 

         Quinn has come here to walk into the sea at low tide and climb onto rocks known as "the Apostles."  Quinn has brought a drum with him and plans to sing as the tide rises.  As he sings, the ocean will wash away his transgressions.  "It was going to be a good day," he thinks, echoing "a good day to die," a phrase attributed to Crazy Horse and repeated by Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man.  He slipped off his cloth-and-leather jacket with "Crow Fair - Powwow Capital of the World" written on it.  He slipped off the rest of his clothes.

         But then something unexpected happened.  A hand reached out from the water.  But this hand was not disembodied.  It was the hand of a young girl.  He found his jacket and wrapped it around her.  He began to sing a fierce grass-dance song.  On the Apostles he began to act like a good Samaritan.  He made his way from there to the beach and emerged from the sea, naked as the day he was born.  He found the dog waiting for him.  Above the beach is the Ocean Star Motel, whose motto is, "Follow the Star," a reference the Magi in the Nativity story. Quinn emerged to receive the message of redemptive salvation.  It's getting to sound a lot like a story from the Christian Gospels, but maybe there's something worth saving from these stories too.  Maybe, like the woman who fell from the sky, he is looking for a new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1).

         Samaritan Bay without the Indians is a strange place.  Crisp and Sonny live there.  Dad lived there in motel room number one, Sonny in number two and Crisp in number three, but Dad's room seems to be empty.  Dad and Crisp are brothers from primal stories of ancient times.  Because Dad hasn't been seen lately Sonny tries to be the "beloved son in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17).   He is disappointed that Dad doesn't seem to be listening.  Sonny likes to break things with his hammer, but he also collects salvage.  He is from a different generation than Dad and Crisp.   He is still new to putting broken pieces together, but he is learning.  He really wants the turtles to return. 

         The cast of characters assembles as the story begins.  Sonny is on the beach looking for salvage, for salvation, but there are no turtles and no Indians, except for Quinn.  That is soon to change.  A woman in jeans and a blue shirt wades in the surf toward where Quinn is lying, still naked.  The woman is Mara Reid, a real live Indian who used to live on the Smoke River reserve.  Her best friend was Lilly, Quinn's sister, but he doesn't know that yet.  They talk.  "I've seen you out here several times."  "I'm trying to kill myself."  "You're not very good at it."  Mara recognizes Quinn's first name from the story about the woman who fell from the sky.  "Gabriel, like the left handed twin," she says (36).   

         The Back of The Turtle weaves together stories from different times and places.  Gabriel surrounds himself with growing friendships.  Sonny with his hammer becomes a friend.  The dog, whose name he thinks is Soldier, becomes a friend.  Crisp, who speaks in the language of a King James Bible, becomes a friend.  Mara becomes a friend and maybe, as the story ends, more.  After all, with only one more letter in her name she would be the mother of God, and he could be the first man as well as the annunciator, at least in that other story.  Not a bad friend to have if you are a left handed twin whose role is to put rocks and waterfalls in all the rivers that had always flowed easily downstream before.  Not a bad friend if you had invented Green Sweep that eliminated both her family and your own, and turned the Smoke River reserve into an "authentic aboriginal ghost town" (99). 

Creation and Destruction

         Mara and Crisp tell the story that is central to this book.  They tell it while luxuriating in the watery world of the hot springs where Crisp likes to spend his time.  Everyone there is naked as is appropriate for telling an elemental tale.  The story they tell is “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky.”  It isn't really an ultimate creation story since it begins with an existing world and an existing woman and a digging stick and a woman's curiosity.  There might have been a man in that world too, since it turns out the woman is pregnant although she's just ornery enough to have done it on her own.  In that other creation story a woman doesn't get pregnant without at least some sort of divine intervention.  What's creative about the story is that it is conversational, dialogic to use a more academic term.  Unlike that other creation story which is a monologue, this one freely shares words and motivations and yes, desires.  "It's a story," Crisp says, "that comes with the land, and the two are forever wedded" (222).  A wedding, at least a good one, is the ultimate in conversational intimacy.  The story and the land are in communication.  Indians have always known about these things.  Gabriel and Mara are waiting for this conversation to happen between them, despite Gabriel's big mistake.  They are both Indians, after all.  Their shared stories go back thousands of years. 

         In that other land in the sky, the woman digs for tubers under the roots of an old tree.  Tom calls her Charm in The Truth About Stories, but she could also be named Mara in this story.  The storyteller easily becomes a storied character as she tells the story.  That world is "somewhere high above this plane, somewhere in the black realm of space" (223), but it can be connected to the world we live in, a world the woman helps bring into being.  She  falls toward a world that is only water, and her fall is broken by water birds, maybe even ducks.  There is no land and the only place they can put her is the back of a turtle.  They gently lower her down.  So this part of the story is not really about creation either.  Ducks and turtles and water and, it turns out, other water beings including Muskrat, already exist.  But the story and the woman cannot rest where they are for long.  If she can't go back to that other world, she needs to find a new one down below.  Things get even more crowded on the turtle's back when she gives birth to twins, one left-handed and the other right-handed.

         I know the next part of the story really well and have told it myself to lots of people.  I heard it from Dane-zaa story tellers (Ridington & Ridington 2013) and have made it my own to share.  As Crisp tells it, "So our woman calls all the creatures together and announces a contest ... a diving contest and all are welcome to participate.  The first to reach the bottom and bring up a ball of mud wins" (232).  The one who succeeds in Crisp's story, as in the Dane-zaa one, is Muskrat.  In the Dane-zaa version a being who lives in the sky has floated a raft on the water and that's where Muskrat places the tiny dot of earth beneath his fingernails. It is a raft instead of a turtle, which makes sense since there are no turtles in Dane-zaa country.  In Crisp and Mara's version, Muskrat places his mud on the back of the turtle:  "Don't say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story.  You've heard it now" (King, Truth:29)        

         Stories have a way of taking strange twists and turns, at least as Tom King tells them.  Dad and Crisp, a previous generation of twins, had their own moment of creation.  As Crisp puts it, "In another time Dad and me were loose in the world, astride the universe with grand designs, him with his assurances and admonishments, me with my appetites and adventures.  We believed we was elemental and everlasting" (238-39).  The right-handed twin made things straight and the left-handed brother made them twisted.  Dad seems to have disappeared long ago, but Crisp is very much alive, being the fixer-upper. 

         In Tom's story it is up to Gabriel, a new left-handed twin, to become a fixer-upper who wants to become right-handed, to realize his mistakes and try to make things right again.  When Mara learns that Gabriel is responsible for killing her family and his own, she tells him to go drown himself, but in the end, she has a change of mind.  When he tells her, "I don't want to save myself," she replies, "All right ... Then you can save me" (475).  An element of Christian mythology floods in, sort of.  Gabriel tries to kill himself for having created Green Sweep and causing The Ruin, but finds salvation in his conversation with the woman who tells the story about the woman who fell from the sky.  His own salvation comes from saving the woman he is in conversation with, maybe even in love with, not himself.  In the end it is not one twin who is bad and the other good.  It is a cosmic union of the two that creates a balance.  And on the human level, the lives of Gabriel and Mara promise to come together to create new life.  They are likely to be better at it than Adam and Eve.  They are in conversation and they are equally responsible for what happens next.  There's no snake and no shame in this story.

The Question

         On first go round I thought in terms of oppositions, right and left, creative and destructive, good and evil.  In this reading of the story, the twins were rooted in their identities as right-handed and left-handed, Dad and Crisp, from a primal generation.  Maybe I was thinking of that other story where they were Gabriel and Michael, Jehovah and Lucifer.   Helen Hoy gave me some clues:  "Right handed isn't good and left handed undesirable.  Rather, the balance they create together is what is needed.  It's not about driving out bad with good as in Christian mythology" (Hoy n. pag.) So maybe it's better to think about balance and complementarity rather than opposition.  Dad is missing but Dog is very much alive.  Rather than being dyslexic, he's ambidextrous. Gabriel doesn't really need to be redeemed for his transgressions.  He just needs to relax into who he really is, just as earlier in the story he relaxed in Mara's embrace and felt good about it. 

         Sonny may help out here.  He is himself of twin natures.  One side is Thor who wields a hammer of destruction.  The other side is dedicated to salvage and, as the son of Dad, to salvation.  It is Sonny's cobbled together beacon on the beach that brings the turtles back, first Domidion's missing turtle and then the rest:  "Already there were signs of resurrection at the edges of desolation" (344).  That's a pretty good clue that the Christian story has legs.  We can't forget that lots of Indian people have heard that story and made it their own. 

         Indian stories are not supposed to provide all the answers.  They are supposed to generate questions, as the listener makes the circle of stories his or her own.  Indian stories provide clues for the listener to become the storyteller.  Stories written in books often impose answers rather than generate questions.  Tom is pretty good at putting Indian stories into a book without making them canonical.  His book can be enjoyed on many levels.  First of all, it's just a good story with lots of interesting dialogue and some telling criticism of the damage caused by industrial society.  But then again, it's a densely layered and erudite composition of Indian and  non-Indian stories.  It even includes a nod to the Duck Song, although he may have only been thinking about a joke by his friend, the actor Graham Green (Hoy n. pag.).  Folklore is like that.  It gets around and sometimes turns up in unexpected places, like the back of the turtle. 

         The relationship between Gabriel and Mara is still evolving as the book ends, but as characters in Indian stories, they are in conversation.  Crisp has a wait and see attitude about whether things will work out between them, but Soldier, being a dog, is "known to favour happy endings."  The book concludes as it began, with Crisp and Master Dog in conversation on the beach at Samaritan Bay.  Despite his great antiquity, Crisp is happy to tell his companion, "I am well" (518).   And echoing him, all is becoming better in the world.  Indians and turtles and birds and otters have returned.  Even ravens have "returned in force, forever unsympathetic" (517).  Sonny is now the one who needs Soldier's protection and nurturing.  As Crisp instructs Master Dog, "Look after the lad, for our Gabriel don't need ye anymore." 

Works Cited

Hoy, Helen

   2014  Personal Communication, December 9, 2014.

King, Thomas

  1998  How I Spent my Summer Vacation: History, Literature, and the Cant

   of Authenticity.  Landmarks. 

  2003  The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative.  Toronto: House of

  Anansi Press.

  2014  The Back of The Turtle.  Toronto: Harper Collins.

Raine, Addison.  Klebsiella planticola.

    2004  http://web.mst.edu/~microbio/BIO221_2004/K_planticola.htm

Ridington, Robin

   1990  Cultures in Conflict: The Problem of Discourse.  Canadian

   Literature.  123-125:273-290. 

Ridington, Robin and Jillian Ridington

  2013  Where Happiness Dwells: A History of the Dane-zaa First Nations.

  Vancouver: UBC Press.

 The Art Forger  - B. A. Shapiro (Lynne Wayne )- 2012 - Algonquin Books



    Despite being a NY Times bestseller this really is a thoughtful and thoroughly engrossing novel and not quite a mystery, at least in the classic sense.  There's no murder and really no crime, although the backdrop is the spectacular unsolved theft of priceless art treasures from the Isabelle Stewart Gardner museum in Boston.  The protagonist is an artist, Claire Roth who as the book opens is working painting authentic reproductions of old masters.  Three years previously she was in a relationship with a famous artist, Issac Cullion.  When he developed an artist's block prior to an important commission, she agreed to help him and ended up painting a masterpiece, 4D which he then claimed as his own.  Cullion, it turns out, means scrotum and could be loosely translated as scum bag, which Issac turns out to be.  The novel flashes between her relationship with Issac which ends with his suicide when she attempts to claim 4D as her own, and the present.  Her special interest is Degas and it wasn't hard for a famous gallery owner to engage her to copy what he claims is a copy of a Degas that was among the works stolen from the Gardner.  The plot involves multiple layers of deception but a truth above it all is Claire's talent as an artist in her own right, despite multiple betrayals.  Among her circle of friends who hang out at Jake's Bar is a junior curator at the Gardner who turns out to be a true and trusted friend.  He's gay so she's not burdened by any romantic attachment.  The painting she is asked to copy is one of a series Degas did called, "After The Bath."  Shapiro has created a fictional fifth painting in the series in which Belle Gardner herself is painted nude.  As she works on the copy she becomes convinced that the third figure in the composition is not by Degas and must have been forged sometime prior to it being hung at the museum.  Therefore, she is making a copy of a copy, not of the original.  Shapiro provides clues to the reader in the form of fictional letters between Aunt Belle and her niece, Amelia.  These are privileged to the reader and not part of Claire's discoveries, but set us up for understanding why Belle might have wanted to keep the painting while not putting it on display, and therefore might have had a motive to commission a forgery.  There's a lot about the technology of art forgery and a tribute to the master, Han van Meegeren whose forgeries were never discovered until he was forced to prove his authorship of a painting that ended up with Goebbels and later precipitated a charge that van Meegeren had sold a national treasure to the enemy.  In order to prove his authorship he had to replicate the work under strict supervision.  Claire is asked to do the same thing with 4D but the art critics, who come off as fools in the novel, see what they want to believe rather than what is true.  There's lots more plot but I won't divulge.  This is one of those books that is hard to put down.  I look forward to seeing what else Shapiro has written.  (February 3)


The Wolf's Tooth:Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades and Biodiversity  - Cristina Eisenberg - 2010 - Island Press

    Eisenberg is a practicing wildlife ecologist whose specialty is trophic cascades caused by the absence of presence of keystone species in an ecosystem.  Her fieldwork is mostly with wolves and their effect on elk populations which in turn causes a healthy regenerative population of forage species like aspen poplars.  Another classic example of keystone predators and trophic cascades is the sea otter, sea urchin, kelp forest cascade.  A third and now close to home for us is the role of starfish as keystone predators in shoreline ecosystems.  She pays tribute to Aldo Leopold, who worked with biodiversity before the term was coined as well as to the other pioneering researchers whose experimental and theoretical work established the concept.  She also discusses the ongoing debate about the relative importance of bottom up versus top down ecological influences.  Bottom up has to do with things like habitat and food supply while top down has to do with predator pressure as a means of regulating herbivorous species.  There's a fascinating section on research studies of the canopy ecosystems on mature rain forest communities.  Eisenberg deals with sometimes technical research in an accessible prose style including anecdotes of her own interactions with wolves, creatures with whom she obviously feels strongly bonded.  The book could perhaps have used some more editorial attention since she repeats key examples in more than one place, but overall it's an interesting read suitable both for the general public and a scientific audience.  (January 31)

Fieldwork Among the Indians: First Fieldwork Among the Sioux and Omahas.  By Alice C. Fletcher.  Edited with and Introduction by Joanna C. Scherer and Raymond J. DeMallie.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013. ix + 418 pp.  Illustrations, drawings, maps, notes, bibliography, index.  $65 cloth. 

 

         Alice Fletcher was a pioneer of what we now call participant observation ethnography as well as applied anthropology.  She began her career as a lecturer on subjects having to do with American Indian antiquity and women's issues.  Because of this background she was already proficient in public speaking and writing for an educated audience when she began her first fieldwork at the age of forty-three.  Fletcher undertook her travels to the Rosebud Sioux and Omaha reservstions as a free-lance writer, intent on being the first to document the lives of Indian women from "the Indian's point of view" (101).  She had previously met Thomas Henry Tibbles, his Omaha wife Suzette and her half brother Francis LaFlesche on their tour of the East with Ponca chief Standing Bear.  They agreed to be her guides to Indian country. 

         At the Rosebud Sioux reservation she was witness to abuses by an Indian Agent who proudly informed her, "I''ll have you understand that I regulate everything on this reservation but the weather" (121).  She was horrified at the chaotic government distribution of cattle at Rosebud and was witness to the Sioux's poverty and despair, which solidified her negative opinion of the reservation system.  Following her time with the Sioux she returned to the Omahas, where she was welcomed into the family of Joseph LaFlesche.  As a keen observer and eloquent writer, she recorded important details of  Omaha social organization and ceremonial life. 

         Her views on assimilation and the transfer of reservation land to the hands of individual tribal members reflected the opinion of her host family.  Joseph LaFlesche was a member of the "young men's party" and lived in the "village of the make-believe whitemen."  The narrative ends with her taking a positon as land allottment officer for the government. 

         Fletcher completed "Life Among the Indians" in 1886 and hoped to have it published before the end of the decade.  For reasons unknown, Charles Scribner, to whom she submitted the manuscript, never brought it into print and Fletcher went on to her pursuits as allottment agent and in1890 holder of the Thaw Fellowship which supported her work without the need to publish commercially.  Fletcher, with her collaborator and later co-author Francis LaFlesche, went on to publish The Omaha Tribe in 1911.  It elaborated on much of the ethnographic information in the earlier work, which was intended for a popular audience.  The 1911 publication, however, in no way supplants the material finally published here by Nebraska and skillfully introduced and annotated by Joanna C. Scherer and Raymond J. DeMallie. 

         Fletcher uses reconstructed dialogue throughout the book and writes in a style that does not sound foreign or dated to the contemporary reader.  Her writing reflects an Omaha way of storytelling.  Her acceptance into the LaFlesche family gave her access to rich information about Omaha tribal life.  She was sometimes told, laughingly, "Don't you know you are almost as good as an Indian" (274).  The book is an important contribution to Plains Indian ethnography and still an engrossing read.  The best of premodern ethnographic writing, which this is, continues to have both literary and historical value. 

(Review for Great Plains Quarterly)

Robin Ridington

Professor Emeritus of Anthropology

University of British Columbia


Mrs. Mike - Benedict and Nancy Freedman - 1949 - Berkeley Books

    This is a young adult romance and a classic of the genre, set in northeastern BC and western Alberta ca. 1910.  It was a favorite of our neighbor in Maui and she recently gave us a copy, thinking we would be interested since part of it is set in Dane--zaa country.  However good a story it may be for a teenaged girl, the historical and etnhographic and even geographical content is somewhere between ignorant and fraudulent.  The authors have Beaver Indians dressed in feather headdresses, using flint tipped bows and arrows and living in a reserve village adjacent to Hudson's Hope.  There were no reserves in D-Z country anywhere in 1910, they dressed elegantly in store bought clothing, they used horses and modern rifles, had been involved in the fur trade for over a century and lived in nomadic bands, not villages.  The authors probably didn't even bother to find out anything about conditions at HH then since the stereotypes made a better story. They considerably inflate the distance between Edmonton and HH and have the characters improbably traveling overland using dogteams in the winter.  They might have gone north on horseback to Peace River and by boat thereafter.  There were steamboats on the Peace in 1910.  Later the characters move to Grouard and the Indians there are equally stereotypical Hollywood images.  The story itself about a young Irish American girl from Boston, here named Katherine O'Fallon, who goes west for her pleurosy and marries an RCMP seargent is loosely based on an actual life.  The real woman herself attempted to sue the authors but was unsuccessful.  I suppose none of that matters if you want simply a good story, but sadly it is neither great literature or even vaguely authentic history or ethnography.  They even have DZ women conscripted to carry furs overland to Edmonton.  In the 19th century furs went east by frieght canoe.  By 1910 they were starting their journey by steamboat.  Not sure where they went after that but certainly not on the backs of Beaver Indian women.  Fraudulent on every level.  It's possible that the authors read Philip Godsell's equally fabricated stories of his time as a trader in the Peace River country but if so they embellish on even his concoctions.  Sam St. Pierre knew him and commented, "Bullshit."  I'm thinking about what to tell our neighbor when she comes back to Maui soon.  Probably just that it's a good story but flawed ethnography.  (January 24)

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikrin - Gabrielle Zevin - 2014 - Algonquin Books

    Zevin has created an engaging, quirky and immensely literate book without being snobbish or esoteric.  She has also avoided the cloying hip atmosphere of a book like The Marriage Plot.  Her characters are young(ish) and interesting and intelligent in their discourse without being in the least bit cute or trendy.  A.J. Fikry owns a bookstore on a small fictional island named Alice.  Sounds like a tribute to Canada's Nobel Prize winning short story writer Alice Munro.  If so, that's fine but not essential.  I also can't help thinking of some other remarkable island bookstores, Munro's in Victoria, started by Alice and Jim, Galiano Island Books and closer to home, Michael Thompson Rare Books on Hornby Island.  A. J.'s wife with whom he started the business has died in a car accident and he's falling apart and drinking too much.  He has found a priceless original limited edition of Poe's first publication, Tamerlane, in a rummage sale.  It should be worth many thousands but one night after he passes out it is missing.  Then, almost as if in its place, a two year old child named Maya appears with a note and an Elmo doll.  The mother's body is found washed up on the beach not long after.  A.J. decides to keep the child and immediately his life improves.  Each chapter is introduced with his reader's notes about a short story, usually a classic.  It would be interesting sometime to locate and read each one.  There are lots of other interesting characters and, of course, romance.  I won't say more.  The book is an easy read but not in any sense a lightweight.  Zevin has written young adult novels as well as several adult ones and the genre has kept her honest and accessible.  It's not only about books but also about writing, so there are many stories within his storied life.  Maya is a bit of a self portrait of a young woman always knowing she is a writer and actually doing it.  She is also a realization of her lost mother's ambition to be a writer.  There's a Harvard connection to Maya and her mother as well as the author.  Zevin does it well.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and may even go through the reading list myself.  (January 17)

The Meaning of Human Existence - Edward O Wilson - 2014 - Norton

    As with all of Wilson's many books, this one has some solid science and some shaky anthropology.  A central scientific theme, as with most of his scientific work, has to do with the evolution of Eusociality, the formation of groups in which members cooperatively rear the young across multiple generations.  Surprisingly, it has only evolved nineteen times in 400 million years of multicellular evolution.  These are scattered across insects, marine crustaceans and subterranean insects.  It is humbling to know that the only other mammals to have achieved it are African mole rats.  At least, though, they didn't make a mess of the biosphere.  Only once has it arisen with and because of increased individual intelligence and complex social bonding.  Furthermore, the earliest eusocial animals were termites and ants of 200-150 million years ago, which is not far back as evolutionary time goes.  Ants and termites, though are astonishingly successful.  With only 20 thousand of the million known insect species, they comprise more than half the world's insect biomass.  The necessary precursor to eusociality is the construction of a protected nest or its equivalent within which the young are raised to maturity.  In order to explain how this has come about in terms of evolutionary theory Wilson devotes a lot of time and an entire appendix to a discussion and ultimate rejection of inclusive fitness theory.  I did not quite follow his detailed argument since it depends on an understanding and ultimate rejection of the arithmatic regression method, arguing that correlation does not prove causality, which is of course scientifically true but not intuitively so.  Wilson himself embraced inclusive fitness in Sociobiology and has only recently returned to the standard neo-Darwinean model of gene (more properly allele) selection.  The key difference is that inclusive selection treats the individual as the unit on which selection works rather than genes regulated by the principles of population genetics. 
    So that is the science part and Wilson is probably right in his repudiation of inclusive fitness.  He is on the right track when he says human sociality evolved to emphasize detailed knowledge of each group member by all the others, what I have called highly contexted discourse.  He does not, though, mention oral narrative as a means of distributing this knowledge widely.  It's when he gets onto the subject of religion and belief and what he calls tribalism that he seems unaware of the anthropological literature.  He writes, for instance, "The price imposed by the gods and their priests in more primitive societies is unquestioning belief and submission."  Primitive has not been in the anthropological vocabulary for a very long time.  There is nothing like this submission to authority of gods or priests in small scale HG societies and even in the great polytheistic empires of the bronze and iron ages, submission to the will of god (or gods) is not the dominant theme.  It is submission to rulers, who of course like to describes themselves as gods.  Only with the rise of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions of the book does submission to a deity become a major imperative.  Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Issac at God's command is directly ancestral to the multiple religious wars of Christianity and even moreso to Islam which literally means submission to Allah.  He writes off pre-modern creation stories as ignorant superstition rather that viewing them as instruments of philosophical understanding.  Tom King's works that resonate with creation stories are a good place to start.  His view that all religion must give way to the reason of science is naive.  It reminds me a bit of Naomi Klein's hope that capitalism will wither away and hierarchy disappear as a means of saving the biosphere.  Wilson should have paid far more attention to social hierarchy in large scale societies rather than the ignorance of believers.  He says that, "the great majority of people worldwide remain in the thrall of tribal organized religions, led by men who claim supernatural power in order to compete for the obedience and resources of t he faithful."  Tribal is not the right word here.  World religions are not tribal and the term should be limited to smaller scale societies larger than bands but smaller than states.  Wilson grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida and Texas.  Some of that old boy mentality seems to have stuck with him despite a distniguished scientific career.  In criticizing the over specialization of contemporary scientists, he calls them "intellectual dwarves."  Only someone from a much older generation would thoughtlessly use such a pejorative term that equates an inherited condition of small stature and other physical features with mental inadequacy.  He concludes that in his view people in a better-informed world might even be able to teach about the historical Jesus in evangelical churches and publish images of Muhammad without risking death.  But then evangelical churches would no longer be evangelical.  Here he seems to be channeling Dawkins with his in-your-face attitude about the ultimate absolute correctness of athiesm.  My own views of the existence of a creator and the afterlife are dismissive, but following my mother, I would rather call myself "a non-practicing athiest."  I feel comfortable going to services at Keawala'i Church in Maui even though I do not really view what happens there as the word of God.  I do agree with him that forcing creationism into what should be a science curriculum is reprehensible in the same way I would not support the kind of state-sanctioned athiesm of totalitarian communist regimes. 
    I think my own categories of sapient vs cultural intelligence is a better way of looking at how smart and loyal humans can have made such a mess of the world in which we live.  (January 17)

All The Light You Cannot See - Anthony Doerr - 2014 - Scribner

    Set during WWII, the story alternates between stories of a blind girl, Marie-Lure Le Blanc and a young German forced to become a soldier, Werner Pfennig.  Marie-Lure's father is a locksmith at the National Museum in Paris and Werner is an orphan whose father died in a coal mine in Essen.  He and his sister, Jutta, are raised in an orphanage by a kindly French speaking matron, Frau Elena.  Werner is fascinated with radios and the mysteries of electronic radiation.  He builds a radio from found parts and with his sister listens to broadcasts from around the world late at night.  One of these is a the remarkable voice of a Frenchman who talks about many mysteries including light and the previous living things that became coal.  He also plays Claire de Lune and other pieces on the piano.  The voice, it turns out as the stories converge, was that of Marie-Lure's grandfather who was killed in the previous war. 
    Light and the entire spectrum of radiation, seen or unseen, are constant themes throughout the book.  Another central character, if a stone from the earth can be called a character, is The Sea of Flames, a133 carat diamond with a dramatic red hue at its center.  The Sea of Flames comes with a story and a curse.  Centuries ago, a prince of Borneo found the rough stone on a dry riverbed but on his way back to the palace he was stabbed in the heart and robbed of everything but the small stone clutched in his hand.  The Prince miraculously recovered and stonecutters were called to create facets revealing a brilliant blue with a touch of red at its center.  A story arose that whoever possessed the stone could not be killed, but it soon became known that there was also a terrible price to pay.  Although the Prince did not die, people close to him did.  In a dream it was revealed  that the Goddess of the Earth had made the Sea of Flames for her lover, the God of the Sea and should be returned to the sea in order to remove the curse.  Many years later the stone was found by a French diamond trader and it fell into the hands of a duke.  When misfortune came to those around him, the duke ordered that it be placed in a specially constructed vault in his museum and not opened for 200 years.  The story resumes 196 later as war looms again in Europe. 
    As the Germans close in on Paris, the museum that has been holding the diamond moves its treasures to secure locations.  For the Sea of Flames, they commission an expert counterfeiter to make three authentic looking replicas and choose four people to take custody of  these three as well as the real one.  None of them knows who has the diamond.  Marie-Lure's father is given one of them and eventually makes his way with his daughter to Saint Malo in Brittany where his father's brother lives. 
    The book alternates between Marie-Lure's life in Saint Malo and Werner's life as he is sent to an elite Hitler Youth military school.  Because he knows how to build things, especially radios, and because of his innate skill with math, he ends up with a special unit devoted to detecting transmissions from resistance fighters in occupied territories.  There are many complicated twists and turns of fate that eventually bring the stories together.  I won't go into these since the narrative itself is gripping as it unfolds. 
    The central philosophical themes have to do with sight, insight, responsibility and the relationship between what is seen and unseen.  Marie-Lure "sees" with her other senses.  Werner sees a world of electronic waves and messages beyond the visible spectrum.  In both cases, they perceive vibrations far beyond the visible spectrum.  The Sea of Flames, of course, is a hypnotic instrument of holy radiated energy.  The book is beautifully written and I could scarcely put it down over the course of two days, even though it is 571 pages long.  It is written in a sort of present tense style familiar to readers of French fiction in translation but with lots of embedded dialogue to separate the characters' voices from that of the omniscient author.
(January 13)
   
Death By Water
- Kerry Greenwood - 2005 - Poisoned Pen Press

This is one of her best and that is saying a lot.  It is full of interesting literary quotations including Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale.  There is also a lot of subtle tribute to Agatha Christia such as the clumsy ship's doctor who reminds one of Doctor Franklin in Curtain (see below).  There is also the setting of a cast of characters brought together in a single place; in this case a cruise ship, the Hinemoa, sailing around New Zealand.  Hinemoa was a Maori Princess who fell in love with a commoner.  One of the passengers, Professor Applegate, is revered by the Maori crew as being a person of high ritual standing.  There's a wonderful description of their visit to a Maori village and the lady professor's reception there.  Phryne has been called in by the P & O line to solve a series of jewel thefts on previous cruises.  She is given a fake sapphire, "The Great Queen of Sapphires," that once belonged to a maharani.  She wears it ostentatiously and provokes several attempts at theft as well as one attempt at her life.  The chapters are introduced with short letters from travelers by sea to their friends and relatives at home.  It's not clear how to interpret them until the end of the book, which I won't divulge.  Phryne in the end solves the first mystery and comes upon another ancillary one.  It also turns out that the Queen of Sapphires she has been wearing is the real thing.  This is a delicious mystery and replete with interesting literary and historical references.  Well done, Kerry.  (January 9)

Curtain - Agatha Christie - 1975 - Pocket Books

Poirot's last case.  We find him in the usual Christie setting, Styles, a country estate with which Christie fans are already familiar.  It is being operated by a retired Colonel and his wife as a guest inn.  The book is narrated by Poirot's old friend, Arthur Hastings.  His daughter, Judith, is there working in the lab of Dr. Franklin who is conducting research on the pharmaceutical properties of the African Calibar bean, used by Africans as a "poison test" to determine guilt or innocence.  Of course, it is used in the murder of Franklin's ailing wife.  Poirot has identified a person he sees as the perfect murderer who he simply calls Mister X.  He won't divulge this person's identity to Hastings except to say he is among the company staying at Styles.  Poirot is in failing health and confined to a wheelchair, or so it seems until the end of the story.  Poirot dies of a heart attack on the night of a final murder, but leaves some cryptic clues for Hastings.  The whole story is revealed in a postscript by Hastings after reading further notes left with Poirot's former valet, Georges.  I won't divulge more except to say that in this one somebody actually gets away with murder, sort of.  (January 9)

Flying Dinosaurs: How Fearsome Reptiles  Became Birds - John Pickrell - 2014 - New South Publishing

Pickrell is a science journalist rather than a primary researcher but as such he writes well and covers the field comprehensively.  There is no question now that birds are simply avian theropod dinosaurs, to be distinguished in name only from non-avian dinosaurs.  Due to an early lack of knowledge about evolutionary relationships in naming major dinosaur groups, the theropods are among the saurischian group while the triceratops and others are classed as ornithischians.  While flight is certainly a key to birds' survival of the K-T extinction, feathers, it turns out, are probably of great antiquity among non-avian dinosaurs.  All this makes sense.  Flight feathers must have evolved from an earlier form that probably functioned in thermoregulation and certainly as a mechanism of display.  Dinosaurs, like birds, were capable of seeing more vivid colors than mammals, most of whom are color blind, or primates who cannot see in the infrared.  The dinosaur world was vivid, colorful and noisy, but not as imagined in Jurassic Park.  Dinosaur sounds (not strictly speaking vocalizations as it were) must have been like those of birds, with the larger animals probably calling at very low frequencies we wouldn't have been able to hear.  The book describes not only the dinosaurs, transitional forms and birds, but also the scientific stories of how, when and where important finds were made and reported.  Since the discovery of remarkable feathered dinosaurs and early birds in China in the last two decades, a thriving trade in forgeries has sprung up, one of which even snookered the National Geographic and peripherally Philip Currie, who said his initial endorsement of the fake was the worst mistake of his life.  As forgers have become better, so have paleontologists.  Now, close scrutiny of every new reported find is carried out.  Unfortunately, though, important information about provenance and stratigraphy is usually lost when a fossil, even a genuine one, appears on the open market.  The book ends with an ABC of dinosaurs and birds as well as a substantial bibliography.  In the e-book version I read, there were a number of editorial errors, but that seems now to be the fate of books, even those coming from reputable presses.  These are not the author's fault and he has done an admirable job in this easily accessed piece of science journalism.  (January 11, 2015)

        
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