Monday, November 19, 2018

Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnaeus by William MacGillivray



The king of classification and his predecessors
Carl Linnaeus
William MacGillivray (1796-1852) was a Scottish naturalist. His name may ring a bell with birders because his colleague John James Audubon named a bird species after him, the MacGillivray’s Warbler. MacGillivray’s book, Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnaeus, was published in 1834. I came across this book while searching for a biography of Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-century Swedish biologist known as the father of taxonomy. For those seeking an education into this distinguished scientist’s accomplishments, this volume will serve you well. The entire second half of the book—13 chapters—is devoted to Linnaeus.

MacGillivray starts his book with two chapters on Aristotle, which are also quite interesting. Everything in between, however, is painfully boring. Even Pliny the Elder’s death at Pompeii from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius can’t liven things up, and the extremely long chapter on British naturalist John Ray, who must have been a personal hero of MacGillivray’s, is excruciating. MacGillivray doesn’t so much offer biographies of these figures as bibliographical histories. From his summarizing of what had been published in the field of zoology, it is remarkable how few books on animals actually existed prior to the 18th century. For many of the personages profiled here, zoology was merely a sidelight. Most were botanists first, perhaps because plants are much easier to examine than animals. Many were also physicians by profession, and several also studied for positions in the clergy. MacGillivray’s book was published before the theory of evolution was proposed, so it is taken for granted that species were created as is by God, and the author comments on his subjects’ piety almost as much as their scientific discoveries. The profiles in the book are not entirely adulatory. MacGillivray is quick to point out the mistakes made by his illustrious predecessors and the fact that many of them merely summarized prior research rather than engaging in first-hand research of natural phenomena.


Not so with Linnaeus, the book’s guest of honor. MacGillivray makes it clear that Linnaeus had a monumental impact on biological science. Linnaeus invented the system of classification and nomenclature that biologists still use today to assign plants and animals to kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. In one of his comprehensive texts, Linnaeus classified 7,000 species of plants and animals, nearly all those known to the Western world at the time. His accomplishments in botany were even more prodigious than his work in zoology. Linnaeus even applied his classification system to the mineral kingdom. While today species are arranged in an evolutionary family tree, Linnaeus, working prior to an awareness of evolution, classified plants and animals according to morphological characteristics, primarily for the purpose of identification. While much has changed since then, the overall systematic structure he established still remains in use. As MacGillivray points out, Linnaeus made his share of errors, some of which brought him ridicule even during his lifetime, but there is no denying his important and enduring contributions to scientific knowledge. MacGillivray details Linnaeus’s expeditions, his teaching career, his catalog of publications, and his family life (with nothing good to say about Mrs. Linnaeus). MacGillivray’s treatment may be too thorough for some readers, but those with an interest in natural taxonomy will find much food for fascination amid the copious detail.


The content on Linnaeus is worth a solid four stars; the rest of the book brings the overall rating down. If you just want to learn about Linnaeus, I would recommend skipping the first half entirely.

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Thursday, November 15, 2018

Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter



The quietest of thrillers
Rock Crystal, a novella by Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, was originally published in 1845 under the German title Bergkristall. The story takes place amid the mountains of Stifter’s homeland. He begins by describing a rural village nestled high in an alpine valley, where the inhabitants lead rather simple, insular lives amid a setting of great natural beauty. In this village, named Gschaid, lives a shoemaker and his family. As was often the case in rural communities of centuries past, the shoemaker’s two children, Conrad and Sanna, enjoy a great deal of independence. They are allowed to journey unaccompanied to a neighboring village to visit their grandparents, a trip of at least a few miles that includes traveling through a mountain pass. After one such visit to the town of Millsdorf on a winter’s morn, the kids set out in the afternoon to return to Gschaid. On their way home, they are hit by heavy snowfall, which hinders their visibility and obscures their path home. Disoriented, the children become lost in the mountains.

The best thing about Rock Crystal is the way Stifter gradually progresses the story towards this predicament. The narrative follows the children, who learn the danger of their situation long after the reader and still approach their journey with gaiety until well after the point of losing their way. Though this would be a parents’ nightmare, the reader doesn’t experience what the parents are going through. The children never seem to realize the danger they’re in, and unfortunately that ambivalence rubs off on the reader. The narrative is told in a very straightforward, deadpan style that nullifies any suspense, if Stifter in fact intended any suspense in the first place. The plot of the novella seems only to serve as a showpiece for the stage setting, as Stifter lovingly describes the mountains and glaciers of the Austrian wild. Stifter was often praised for his depictions of nature, but I didn’t find anything particularly remarkable about his natural description, at least in the hands of English translator Lee M. Hollander, when compared with other writers of winter landscapes such as Jack London, Knut Hamsun, or any number of naturalist novelists.


The story of Rock Crystal takes place on Christmas Eve. Though not specifically a Christmas story in the traditional sense of the phrase, it does have some Christmas spirit to impart in its appreciation of the winter landscape and its picturesque depiction of rural village life. Any story of children separated from their parents also can’t help but convey a reinforcing of the importance of family and the comfort of being with loved ones. I don’t think Stifter intended Rock Crystal to be children’s literature, but since the protagonists are children there is an unavoidable feeling of kid lit about it. One can see how young readers might enjoy the story of these independent children and their thrilling adventure, while adult readers will be more drawn to Stifter’s depiction of nature through poetic realism.


Stifter is highly regarded in the German-language literary world, hailed by fans such as Thomas Mann and Hannah Arendt, and the New York Review of Books thought enough of Rock Crystal to pluck it from the public domain and rerelease it as a paperback. After reading the book, however, it is not easy to discern why this unassuming work has received such acclaim. The free public domain version of the 1914 English translation by Hollander can be found in the book The German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Vol. VIII. For those who are attracted to the setting of an Austrian mountain village, it is worth a free download and a couple hours of your time.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Montezuma’s Daughter by H. Rider Haggard



An Englishman’s adventures among the Aztecs and conquistadors
English author H. Rider Haggard is primarily known for his adventure novels set in Africa, most notably King Solomon’s Mines, She, and their various sequels. In 1893, however, Haggard published Montezuma’s Daughter, an adventure novel set in Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. As a lover of classic literature and an enthusiast of Mexican and ancient American history, I’m always on the lookout for a good, vintage novel dealing with the Aztecs, the Maya, or the Inca. Such books are rare, however, so I consider myself lucky to have stumbled upon this one. That said, after having read King Solomon’s Mines, I didn’t approach Montezuma’s Daughter with overly high expectations. To my pleasant surprise, however, this really is a very enjoyable adventure novel, and in my opinion far better than Haggard’s better-known works.

Though it was the Spaniards who conquered Mexico, Haggard was writing for an English audience, so he must have felt compelled to give the novel an English protagonist. The hero of Montezuma’s Daughter, Thomas Wingfield, is a young Englishman with a Spanish mother. He travels to the Americas in pursuit of a Spanish relative named de Garcia who has grievously wronged him and his family. In his quest for revenge, Wingfield ends up in Mexico where he is reunited with his nemesis, who has signed on as a member of Hernán Cortés’s expedition to conquer the Aztecs and capture their gold. At first the idea of an English witness to the Spanish conquest seems farfetched, but in the long run Wingfield’s Englishness actually works in the novel’s favor because it allows the Spaniards to be the villains. Wingfield takes the side of the Aztecs and lives among them, first as a prisoner and then as an honored guest. He even falls in love with the daughter of the Aztec emperor Montezuma, the beautiful and stately princess Otomie.


Though Haggard’s African novels often felt a bit too fanciful in their depiction of the Dark Continent, here he has actually done his research quite well. Those interested in Mexican history will enjoy the way he works Wingfield in as a witness to important events in the fall of the Aztecs, or at least the legends that have been built around the history. Not surprisingly, the narrative is heavy on human sacrifice, the one aspect of ancient Mexican culture that every adventure writer fixates on. Nevertheless, Haggard portrays the Mexicans more sympathetically than the Spaniards and treats the Aztec civilization with admiration, dignity, and respect. His depiction of an interracial relationship is surprisingly enlightened for the 19th century, particularly given that the woman is no damsel in distress but rather an equal partner in the union. On those occasions when Haggard does disparage the Native Americans, it is not on any racial or ethnic grounds, but rather—predictably for the Victorian era—on religious grounds, because they are not Christians.


The novel does have its flaws. Most glaring is the unbelievable way in which Wingfield and de Garcia keep conveniently and coincidentally running into each other all over the world. The novel also tends to drag in its second half, and the long-awaited climax is less satisfying than one would hope. Overall, however, the story is quite entertaining. What’s more, when Haggard deals with issues of the heart—separation from a loved one, the joy of family, the death of a child—the novel is actually quite touching. Frankly, I didn’t know Haggard had it in him. Anyone who enjoys Victorian adventure novels of the “lost world” vein or historical novels set in ancient times will enjoy reading Montezuma’s Daughter, especially those who have an interest in Mexico and its Native civilizations.

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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Celebrating Polish Literature

. . . and a century of independence!
November 11, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Celebrated in many nations as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, and in the United States as Veteran’s Day, November 11 is known as National Independence Day in Poland, where the end of the Great War meant the end of foreign occupation and the birth of Poland as a modern nation. At the time of the war, Poland had literally been wiped off the map for more than a century, its territory divided among Russia, Prussia, and Austria. When those conquering nations were defeated in the First World War, the Second Polish Republic was formed, and Poland was once again an independent nation. 

In honor of the occasion, Old Books by Dead Guys takes this opportunity to recognize the underrated literature of Poland. Though by no means an expert on the subject, OBDG does have an interest in Polish literature and has reviewed 28 books by Polish authors, with hopefully more to come in the future. Below is an annotated list of these prior Polish posts. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews. I believe with the exception of the last title on this list, all of these books are in the public domain and therefore available for free download from sources like Amazon, Project Gutenberg, and HathiTrust.

   

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855)
Widely regarded as Poland’s all-time greatest poet, Mickiewicz wrote the Polish national epic Pan Tadeusz, the last great epic poem in European literature (though in English translation you are more likely to find it in prose form).

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916)
Winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature. Sienkiewicz, one of the most Romantic of Romanticists, is best known for grand historical epics of Polish History (the With Fire and Sword trilogy) and ancient Rome (Quo Vadis), though he also wrote novels about modern Poland (In Vain).

Boleslaw Prus (1847-1912)
Probably the least-known name on this list to English-language audiences, though highly respected in his home country. In contrast to Sienkiewicz, Prus was a realist who mostly wrote about contemporary Poland, except for The Pharaoh and the Priest, which is set in ancient Egypt.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
Born Józef Theodor Konrad Korzeniowski in the Polish Ukraine. Emigrated to Britain and wrote in English. Considered to be one of the greatest writers in English literature (though to be honest, I’m not a big fan.)

Wladyslaw Reymont (1867-1925)
Winner of the 1924 Nobel Prize in Literature. A naturalist in the vein of Emile Zola, Reymont’s four-volume novel The Peasants (Polish title: Chlopi) is one of the greatest works in Polish literature.

Fiction Collections
  • Stories by Foreign Authors: Polish, Greek, Belgian, Hungarian (1898) - 4 stars
    Includes “The Lighthouse Keeper of Aspinwall” by Sienkiewicz, plus four more stories by authors of other nations.
  • Tales by Polish Authors, edited by Else C. M. Benecke (1915) - 4 stars
    Includes selections by Sienkiewicz, Adam Szymanski, Stefan Zeromski, and Waclaw Sieroszewski.
  • More Tales by Polish Authors, edited by Else C. M. Benecke and Marie Busch (1916) - 4 stars
    Includes selections by Prus, Reymont, Adam Szymanski, Stefan Zeromski, and Waclaw Sieroszewski.
  • Selected Polish Tales, edited by Else C.M. Benecke (1921) - 2.5 stars
    Includes selections by Prus, Reymont, Adam Szymanski, Stefan Zeromski, Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski, and Madame Rygier-Nalkowska.

Nonfiction
  • Poland: A Study of the Land, Literature, and People by Georg Brandes (1903) - 4.5 stars
    In this book—part travelogue, part investigative journalism, part political commentary, part literary critique—Danish literary critic Brandes chronicles four trips he made to Poland and provides an insightful portrait of life under Russian occupation.
  • The Essential Guide to Being Polish: 50 Facts & Facets of Nationhood by Anna Spysz and Marta Turek - 4 stars
    Two Polish-American journalists created this guide to all things Polish, covering both the history of the country and the state of the nation in the present day. This guide presents a wealth of information on a variety of subjects, including politics, religion, art, customs, famous Poles, and the Polish diaspora throughout the world.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Our Children’s Children by Clifford D. Simak



Unexpected guests from the future
Clifford D. Simak gets down to business very quickly in his science fiction novel Our Children’s Children. On page one, an interdimensional doorway opens up on a suburban lawn, and out walks a stream of people who claim to be refugees from the future. In their time, five centuries ahead of our own, a highly intelligent and incredibly lethal alien species has attacked Earth. Unable to defeat the extraterrestrial invaders, the human race opts to prevent the extinction of humanity by fleeing into the past. The constant stream of refugees pouring forth from “time tunnels” around the world may eventually add up to as many as two billion people, placing a heavy burden on the present-day population. Though these uninvited visitors are our distant descendants, do we have the means or the wherewithal to help them? And given the threat they faced in the future, perhaps human beings won’t be the only unexpected guests traveling through those time tunnels.

Simak usually sets his science fiction stories in rural Wisconsin or Minnesota, but in this novel the main plot line takes place in Virginia, so that the author can have easy access to Washington, DC. The phenomenon is not localized, however, as the time tunnels have opened in various nations, and international relations plays a part in the overall story. One solution that’s suggested for the refugee problem is to start a new civilization in the prehistoric past, an idea that Simak would further develop to better effect in his 1978 novel Mastodonia. As ingenious a premise as that may be for a science fiction novel (or two), Simak never really addresses the fact that every animal that’s killed, tree that’s burned, or rock that’s overturned might have a butterfly effect that alters the course of human history. Still, it makes for some fun speculation if you don’t take it too seriously.

Though this was published in 1974, relatively late in Simak’s career, it feels rather simplistic, like the plot of an early ‘60s monster movie. I kept expecting some startling revelations that would turn conventions on their ear, but such twists never came, just a few small surprises at the end. Simak doesn’t really even delve too deeply into the theory of time travel, but instead just uses it to set up the refugee crisis, which he explores from various political, social, and economic dimensions. The character development is weaker here than in most of Simak’s stories. Only one person, a White House press secretary, is really fleshed out in more than two dimensions. Simak opts for quantity instead, introducing new characters in almost every chapter. Since almost everyone is a white, Anglo-Saxon male (except for two female characters), after a while it becomes very difficult to tell the difference between a Steve Wilson, Tom Manning, or Sam Henderson, especially when their occupations are the only factor that distinguishes one from another.

The ending of Our Children’s Children is rather inconclusive. Instead of a problem being solved, only a plan has been formed that may solve the problem. If this were a longer book, such a lack of closure might be truly annoying, but since this book is only about 200 pages, and a rather brisk and engaging read, the reader doesn’t much regret the fact that all the loose ends aren’t tied up in a neat little bow. Our Children’s Children reads like Simak lite. This novel is not a science fiction masterpiece by any means, and I wouldn’t want anyone to judge Simak on the basis of this work. To those who have never read Simak’s writing before, I would recommend better novels like Way Station or City. For Simak fans, however, this is an entertaining read, even if it’s not as intellectually deep as his typical fare.
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Monday, November 5, 2018

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert



House Atreides, the next generation
Children of Dune, the third book in Frank Herbert’s epic Dune series, was published in 1976, seven years after the preceding volume, Dune Messiah. At the end of that last book, Paul Atreides, the emperor/messiah known as Muad’Dib, walked off into the desert to die, thus leaving his twin children Leto II and Ghanima to reign as co-emperors over the known universe. Until the children reach an appropriate age to rule, however, the empire is governed by Paul’s sister Alia, who acts as regent. Alia and the twins share an unusual congenital anomaly. Through a combination of eugenics and the effects of the planet Arrakis’s most valuable export, the spice that alters human consciousness, all three were born with ancestral memories going back hundreds of generations, and thus attained full awareness and adult intelligence within the womb. The drawback to such a gift, however, is the danger that one might become what’s called an “abomination,” possessed by the very ancestors whose consciousness they carry within their minds. It is also possible that when the twins grow up they may share their father’s ability to foresee the future. Their own future, however, is in jeopardy, as the ruling members of House Corrino, the former imperial dynasty that was overthrown in the original Dune novel, have developed a plot to assassinate the twins.

Even for a confessed Dune nut like myself, this is a tough book to get into. This is my second or third time reading this, but it’s been a while, and though I had a pretty good idea how this one ended, the getting there was sometimes a challenge. Much of the “action” takes place within the characters’ heads, in the form of visions and ancestral conversations. Characters who can see millions of years into the past and future don’t always explain their motives or actions to those of us who can’t, and Herbert seems to delight in disorienting the reader as much as possible. As the Dune series moves forward, Herbert seems to opt more and more for psychological over physical action, although there’s still plenty of the latter to be found in Children of Dune. At times it can be as frustrating as watching a multi-player chess game undertaken by people who are exponentially smarter than you are, but a big part of what makes the Dune books so admirable is the intelligence with which they are written and the multiple levels of depth in the narrative, which can be enjoyed merely as a space opera or explored further for its philosophical and theoretical riches.

Ultimately, the reader’s patience is rewarded as all the unexpected twists and tangled threads come together into a satisfyingly colossal conclusion. While the story of Dune Messiah feels narrower in scope, Children of Dune equals the epic bombast of the original Dune. Nothing less than the future of humanity is at stake!

At the time it was published, Children of Dune was seen as the climax of a trilogy, but by page 100 one can already see Herbert laying the foundation for a fourth book. The first three books do constitute a trilogy of sorts in that this is the last book to feature many of the characters introduced in the first volume. From here, Herbert takes a leap forward centuries into the future for the fourth book, God Emperor of Dune. To be honest, Children of Dune is probably my least favorite of the first three volumes, but still it is so much better than the vast majority of science fiction that’s out there, and it is an invaluable piece of the monumental masterpiece that is the Dune saga. The six books that Herbert set in this world (I haven’t read any of the posthumous prequels or sequels) make up one of the most ambitious novel cycles in all literature, science fiction or otherwise.
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Friday, November 2, 2018

Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson


Layman’s perspective for a novice reader
In her 2014 book Lives in Ruins, author Marilyn Johnson applies her “irrepressible wit and curiosity” (quoted from the jacket copy) to the field of archaeology. I approached this book with some trepidation because I had previously read Johnson’s book on the profession of librarianship, This Book Is Overdue!, and found it disappointing. In the end, however, having long had an avid armchair interest in archaeology, I couldn’t resist the promise of an inside look into the lives of archaeologists. The good news is that Lives in Ruins is better than Johnson’s previous book. She doesn’t gush over the personality quirks of her subjects as much as she did with the librarians, and she concentrates more on the actual profession itself. The bad news is in many ways it’s more of the same, a little too frivolous and elementary to amount to a worthwhile read.

Indiana Jones has unrealistically colored everyone’s conception of what an archaeologist is or does, not only because he’s a death-defying tomb raider but also because he’s a tenured professor. As Johnson points out, most archaeologists aren’t so lucky, and many struggle to get by on contract work for low pay and no benefits, hopping from job to job like nomads. The most valuable take-away from this book is the realistic view of how difficult it is to achieve security and success in the profession, and the degree to which the important work that archaeologists do is so underappreciated. I was also surprised to learn the extent to which the U.S. Department of Defense acts as a patron of archaeological research.

For the most part, however, the problem with Lives in Ruins is that if you are interested enough in archaeology to want to read this book, then you probably already know most of what’s in it. I’m not an archaeologist, but I do read a little on the subject. I subscribe to Archaeology magazine and National Geographic, both of which are intended for a general readership, but Johnson writes in a style of journalism that is even more casual in tone and elementary in content. The effect is similar to getting a guided tour of a museum by a docent who doesn’t know much more about the collections than you do. I certainly wasn’t expecting a textbook on the subject, but the marketing copy promised behind-the-scenes, inside knowledge of archaeologists’ lives, and the book doesn’t deliver enough of that. Instead, Johnson mostly just summarizes the research of the archaeologists she’s interviewed from a layman’s perspective for a novice reader.

Johnson attends field school and works at some dig sites. In her reporting on what goes on there she emphasizes her amateur status and indulges in fish-out-of-water humor that undermines the relevance of her narrative. In a few chapters she sits in on meetings at the American Institute of Archaeology conference and reports on what she heard there. She has access to many distinguished professionals in the field and reports on everything they say with the amazement of a novice: Archaeologists are doing this! Who knew?! Well, I knew, and I’m far from an expert.

I’m not saying this is a bad book by any means. It just depends on your level of knowledge on the subject. This would be a great book to give to a high school student who is considering studying archaeology as a profession. On the other hand, most people who have ever dreamed of being an archaeologist would probably get a better grasp of what archaeologists actually do and what’s going on in the field by picking up a typical issue of Archaeology magazine.
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