Monday, September 28, 2020

Handbook to Life in Prehistoric Europe by Jane McIntosh



Vast range of time and space
For anyone interested in archaeology, the Handbook to Life series from Oxford University Press is a great set of books on ancient cultures and civilizations, including volumes on Greece, Rome, and Egypt, as well as the Aztecs and the Maya. Unlike those volumes focusing on one particular culture, Handbook to Life in Prehistoric Europe, published in 2006, is much broader in scope. Geographically, its range encompasses the entire continent, and chronologically, it covers a time span from the first appearance of homo species in Europe around 800,000 BC to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD. It does not cover classical Greece and Rome, because they cannot be said to be prehistoric, but rather the cultures that existed outside those empires, such as those the Romans would have considered “barbarians.”


Like all the books in the series, this Handbook to Life begins with a substantial chronological overview, followed by a series of thematically organized chapters focusing on different aspects of life, such as agriculture, dwellings and settlements, trade, religion, burial practices, warfare, language, and apparel. Each thematic chapter proceeds from the general to the specific, breaking down its topic into categories that focus on, for example, the use of specific natural resources, different types of dwellings, or classes of weapons. Often included are brief descriptions of archaeological digs where examples of the artifacts or practices discussed have been uncovered.

Unlike the Romans or the Aztecs, it is difficult to make blanket statements about how daily life was lived in prehistoric Europe. Because of the vast area and time span considered, there is very little that unifies the various cultures and civilizations discussed. One can make generalities about Bronze Age and Iron Age technologies, for example, but those technologies developed at different rates in different regions of the continent. As a result, the text often reads like an inconclusive hodgepodge of data, expressed in the form of, “Some people did this; some people did that.” If you want to learn about a specific people, such as the LBK culture, the Etruscans, or the Scythians, you’d have to consult the index and hopscotch around for bits and pieces of data. For that reason, this book is probably more useful as a reference than as a cover-to-cover read. The Celts, who were widespread throughout western Europe, are the one group that are examined extensively throughout the book and pretty much dominate every chapter.

What this book does very well is give the reader an idea of what archaeologists look for at a prehistoric dig site, how they interpret their findings, and the methods and techniques they use to analyze and date artifacts. One of this book’s weaknesses is its illustrations, which seem to be treated as an afterthought. Most are drawings of artifacts pulled from 19th century textbooks. There are very few photographs. The maps, as typical of this series, are very well done. Overall, I didn’t enjoy this volume as much as others I’ve read in the series, but there is no denying it is packed full of valuable information. Author Jane McIntosh has done an admirable job compiling a comprehensive volume on this vast range of time and space. Oxford would have done better, however, to break this up into a few focused volumes on different ages or regions.
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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Rafinesque: A Sketch of His Life with Bibliography by T. J. Fitzpatrick



Relentless curriculum vitae
Constantine Rafinesque
Back in the days of Lewis and Clark and John James Audubon, another lesser-known naturalist was also tramping the wilds of America’s frontier. Constantine Rafinesque was born in Europe, lived for a decade in Sicily, but spent most of his adult life working as a naturalist in America. He eventually settled down to a professorship at Transylvania University in Kentucky, which allowed him to explore much of what was then considered the western United States. In his 1911 book on Rafinesque, botanist and famed book collector Thomas Jefferson Fitzpatrick briefly recounts the life of this eccentric scientist and provides an extensive bibliography of his published writings.


Fitzpatrick’s biography of Rafinesque is drawn almost entirely from the latter’s 1836 autobiography A Life of Travels and Researches in North America and South Europe. Fitzpatrick’s account often reads as if he merely changed Rafinesque’s text from first to third person. After he covers the events of Rafinesque’s death, however, Fitzpatrick does add some valuable content in the form of eulogies and posthumous assessments of Rafinesque by his contemporary naturalists, some of whom praise his accomplishments and some of whom accuse him of being a crackpot. Fitzpatrick also reproduces a revealing autobiographical passage from Rafinesque’s book New Flora, in which he relates the hardships and joys of life as a roving naturalist.


Although Fitzpatrick’s contributions as a biographer may be minimal, he makes up for it as a bibliographer. Here he has compiled a detailed list of Rafinesque’s published writings totalling 939 entries, as well as an overview of the unpublished manuscripts he left behind. Even though Richard Ellsworth Call compiled a Rafinesque bibliography in his 1895 book The Life and Writings of Rafinesque, Fitzpatrick greatly expands upon Call’s foundation. New material is still being discovered, so Fitzpatrick’s bibliography has since been expanded and updated by Charles Boewe in 1982 and 2001. The bibliography, of course, is not something most readers are going to peruse word-for-word, but browsing through the titles of Rafinesque’s publications gives one a revealing overview of this naturalist’s peculiarly wide range of interests.


One thing’s for sure, Rafinesque took the saying “publish or perish” quite seriously. One strategy that contributed to his prolific output is that he edited and published his own scientific journals, loaded with two- to four-page articles that he penned himself. In these publications—among them Specchio delle Scienze, Western Minerva, and Atlantic Journal—Rafinesque published articles in a staggering array of fields, not just botany, zoology, and geology but also meteorology, astronomy, chemistry, political economy, linguistics, archeology, art, poetry, physics, and metaphysics. He even dabbled in banking schemes and invented patent medicines for tuberculosis.


In addition to his hundreds of articles, Rafinesque published dozens of books and scores of pamphlets. Most critics agree that he made some genuinely valuable discoveries in the areas of botany and ichthyology. Many also assert, however, that he was a dilettante and a bit of a quack, and he had a tendency to prematurely claim the discovery of new species. Nevertheless, Rafinesque lived a fascinating life, and Fitzpatrick’s book gives the reader a vivid glimpse into the spirit of adventure, voracious thirst for knowledge, and propensity for self-aggrandizement that fueled his life and work.
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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Speeches and Sayings of Marcus Aurelius



Bits and pieces beyond the Meditations
Marcus Aurelius
Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire from 161 to 180 AD and is remembered as one of Rome’s wisest and most benevolent rulers. He also left behind a wonderful book of philosophical thought, the Meditations, which is considered one of the fundamental texts of ancient Stoicism. The Meditations, however, is not Marcus’s only extant written work. A number of brief and fragmentary writings and quotations have survived from antiquity. These are generally grouped under the categories of Speeches and Sayings. Both are included in The Complete Works of Marcus Aurelius, an ebook published by the Delphi Classics, which is the edition that I am reviewing.


The Speeches of Marcus Aurelius consist of three brief orations. Two of them concern a rebellion led by Avidius Cassius in 175 AD. The third speech purports to be “The Last Words of Marcus,” spoken on his deathbed. One of the Cassius speeches was written down by Marcus and sent as a letter to the Senate, which speaks in favor of its veracity. The other two speeches are related second-hand, perhaps by first-hand observers or perhaps by writers long after the fact. The deathbed speech certainly reads as if it were embellished with the perfect eloquence possessed by dying characters in tragedian dramas. None of the speeches contain any overtly Stoic content, but they do illustrate Marcus’s good qualities as a leader, such as the two addresses regarding the revolt of Cassius, in which Marcus strongly emphasizes forgiveness and leniency over vindictiveness and harsh punishment.


The Sayings of Marcus Aurelius consist of 22 numbered paragraphs. These are written in an anecdotal third-person style similar to the Analects of Confucius. Each paragraph relates that on such-and-such an occasion, when addressing so-and-so, Marcus said . . . and then follows a quotation or aphorism from the master. It is unclear whether these sayings were gathered by an ancient author, or whether they are second-hand quotations selected from a number of ancient texts. The anecdotes collected represent a series of historical scenes in the life of Marcus, and the words he delivers often relate directly to that context. A few of the sayings can be taken to have broader philosophical meaning, touching upon Stoicism, as Marcus reveals his humble nature, his desire to be a good leader, and his brave attitude toward facing death. Also lumped in with the Sayings is a letter Marcus wrote to the Common Assembly of Asia, in which he censures the violent persecution of Christians and urges leniency instead.


There is nothing in the Speeches or Sayings that in any way competes with the insight or profundity of the Meditations. These writings are interesting in their own way, however, more for historical and biographical content than for philosophy. The Speeches and Sayings are unnecessary to an understanding of Marcus as a Stoic, so if Stoicism is you’re primary interest in the man then you’d be better off rereading the Meditations. On the other hand, for those completists who wish to cover the complete works of Marcus Aurelius, reading these brief works will likely take up less than an hour of your time.


Friday, September 18, 2020

Finch’s Fortune by Mazo de la Roche



From Jalna to England and back
Finch’s Fortune,
published in 1932, is the third book published in the Jalna series by Canadian author Mazo de la Roche. (Because of prequels, it is the ninth book chronologically.) To recap the basics for those just tuning in: Jalna is the title of the first book in the series and the name of a farm in southern Ontario. The family that lives on that farm are the Whiteoaks, which is also the title of the second book. At the end of Whiteoaks, Finch Whiteoak inherited a hundred thousand dollars from his grandmother. In Finch’s Fortune, he spends it.


The novel opens with the family throwing Finch a 21st birthday party, even though many of the Whiteoaks still resent the fact that grandma left all her money to him. Finch was never quite comfortable in his own skin, and he is even less so now that he has come into his wealth. He thinks a man of means should see more of the world, so he decides to make a voyage to England to visit his aunt, and he generously invites his elderly uncles along for the trip. After a brief stay in London, he spends the better part of a year at his aunt’s sedate country home in Devon. There he meets a fellow houseguest, his cousin Sarah, who might be a marriage prospect for Finch if the two hit it off.


Of all the Whiteoaks, Finch seems to be the one with whom de la Roche herself most closely identifies, which is likely why this is the second consecutive Jalna novel to focus mostly on him. That’s unfortunate because Finch is the most boring and frustratingly meek character in this entire family saga. He appears to be a semi-autobiographical embodiment of all the author’s youthful insecurities, which may have been great catharsis for her but doesn’t prove enjoyable for the reader. Finch’s annoying qualities can best be expressed by quotations from his older brother Renny: “You’re always afraid!” “You’re twenty-one, and you act like a girl in her teens!” “I’ve never known anyone so absolutely incapable of enjoying himself.” Such is the protagonist of Finch’s Fortune. In Whiteoaks, his sexual preference was in question, but this novel confirms hat he is not gay. Even so, all he seems to have learned on his trip to England is a disdain towards women.


When not concentrating on Finch, the focus of the plot shifts back to Jalna and the dysfunctional relationships there. Alayne, an outsider who married into the Whiteoak family, was a sympathetic character in the previous novels, but here she turns into a bit of a shrew. Her marital troubles with Renny are the main concern of the Canadian portions of the novel, which isn’t much of an improvement over Finch’s perpetual melancholy.


The Jalna series is like a cross between The Waltons and Wuthering Heights. Its homey depictions of life on a Canadian farm make it appealing, but it often succumbs to emotional histrionics, with plotlines that are straight out of a romance novel—not a trashy romance novel, but rather something like the less satisfying works of Pearl S. Buck. There’s certainly nothing terrible about Finch’s Fortune; there’s just nothing exceptional about it either. From beginning to end, it is surprising how little forward momentum is generated in this lackadaisical novel. The book just coasts along inconsequentially to the next installment in the series.

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Monday, September 14, 2020

The Life of Erasmus Darwin by Charles Darwin and Ernst Krause



The grandfather of evolution
Erasmus Darwin
Before Charles Darwin formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection for his landmark book On the Origin of Species, the Darwin name had already achieved renown in England’s scientific circles due to the work of his grandfather Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). In February 1879, the German journal Kosmos published a paper written by biologist Ernst Krause on “The Scientific Works of Erasmus Darwin.” Later that year, Krause’s paper, accompanied by a “Preliminary Notice” written by Charles Darwin, was published in book form as The Life of Erasmus Darwin. The Preliminary Notice is more than just a preface, however, and is in fact even longer than Krause’s paper.

Erasmus Darwin was a practicing physician, but he did not limit his scientific pursuits to the field of medicine. His favored discipline was botany, and he published several scientific texts on the subject, the most important being his Zoonomia of 1794. He was also a poet. In the late 18th and 19th century, poetry was a legitimate medium through which to convey scientific and philosophical theories. Such didactic poems were written in verse with extensive footnotes in prose. Erasmus’s poems, such as The Loves of Plants, consist largely of visual descriptions of nature. Through such poems he also articulated his broader system of natural philosophy based largely on materialistic causes, in opposition to the elaborate paeans to intelligent design written by most of the biologists of his era. Erasmus was a founding member of the Lunar Society, a sort of learned illuminati in London. As Charles and Krause describe him, Erasmus comes across as a sort of English Ben Franklin, with whom he corresponded. Like Franklin, Erasmus was also an inventor, though Charles points out that he failed to follow through on many of his ideas.


Leaving the examination of Erasmus’s scientific accomplishments to Krause, Charles provides mostly biographical and genealogical information on Erasmus, as well as a discussion of his career as a physician. Charles strives to give the reader a sense of his grandfather’s personality and values by reproducing Erasmus’s correspondence with friends, professional colleagues, and family members. A friend and colleague of Erasmus’s, Anna Seward, had previously published a biography that was somewhat unflattering. Here Charles refutes Seward’s allegations and even attacks her character. While one does learn quite a bit about Erasmus from Charles’s biographical sketch, there’s definitely a degree of family bias to his account, as well as quite a few tangential digressions that would only be of interest to a Darwin cousin.


Krause is more successful in his essay on Erasmus’s career as a biologist. Probably at least two-thirds of Krause’s essay, however, consists of extensive quotes from Erasmus’s published writings. Krause believes that Erasmus deserves far more recognition for the development of the theory of evolution than he typically receives. He asserts that what we typically think of as Lamarckism, the evolutionary theory of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, was actually Erasmus Darwin’s idea. To call it Darwinism, however, would certainly be confusing, since Charles Darwin disproved Lamarckian evolution when he discovered the mechanism of natural selection.


Rather than a full biography, The Life of Erasmus Darwin is more of a jumble of facts and opinions about the man. One does, however, learn quite a bit about his contributions to the history of science, and Krause’s essay provides a good overview of his system of natural philosophy.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804, Volume 1 by Alexander von Humboldt



Epic travelogue loaded with empirical data
Alexander von Humboldt
Prussian scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt achieved worldwide fame for a daring and scientifically fruitful expedition he undertook to the New World from 1799 to 1804. Accompanied by botanist Aimé Bonpland, Humboldt explored portions of Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico, where he logged new species of flora and fauna, investigated geological and meteorological phenomena, studied native cultures, and compiled accurate geographic measurements of the region. The discoveries made and data gathered from Humboldt’s American journey yielded at least thirty volumes of published books. While many of these works were written for botanists, geologists, and other specialists, Humboldt devoted three volumes to his Personal Narrative of the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804, which was meant to be the catch-all volume aimed at the general reading public. Though hardly light reading for laymen and loaded with arcane findings, the Personal Narrative proved to be a popular travel narrative that influenced many subsequent naturalists including Charles Darwin. Volume 1 covers Humboldt’s ocean voyage to South America, his stops along the way, and part of his time in Venezuela.

If Volume 1 is indicative of the whole, there is nothing particularly “personal” about the Personal Narrative. Humboldt does write this account in the first person, but the text is very heavy on empirical data. Only rarely does Humboldt ever include anything in his narrative that could be considered a personal anecdote. At times, however, Humboldt does insert commentary into the narrative that expresses his personal views on political and social issues, most notably his abhorrence of slavery. Except for such brief editorials, the text is comprised almost entirely of objective observations of nature. Humboldt relates these observations through a combination of beautiful nature writing, such as when he stands on a mountain top gazing at the landscape below, and detailed notations of scientific facts, such as long lists of minerals and plant species or measurements of temperature, barometric pressure, and elevation. Humboldt often compares these findings with other locations in the world that he has studied or to which he has traveled, in an attempt to elicit universal laws governing similar physical and ecological characteristics.

Humboldt also frequently digresses from the travelogue into extended asides in which he discusses at length particular topics of interest to him, such as documented instances of pre-Columbian transatlantic travel, the most efficient methods of processing indigo and tobacco plants, the atmospheric phenomenon of zodiacal light, or the strange case of a Venezuelan father who breastfed his own child. Just as Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle devotes a chapter to the formation of coral reefs, Humboldt in the Personal Narrative theorizes extensively on the formation of volcanoes, the causes of earthquakes, and the relationship between the two. These two travelogues share many of the same merits and faults. Both can be challenging reads for the nonscientist, but both inspire awe and envy for their authors’ adventurous and remarkable journeys.

One really needs to be a botanist and a geologist to understand all of what Humboldt has to say in the Personal Narrative, but for the rest of us it is still enjoyable to vicariously experience the travels and discoveries of this heroic genius. For most readers with a casual interest in Humboldt, however, a modern summary of his journey will suffice. Gerard Helferich’s 2004 book Humboldt’s Cosmos, for example, provides an excellent blow-by-blow summation of Humboldt’s American expedition.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Miss Cayley’s Adventures by Grant Allen



Independent woman travels the world
Canadian-born British author Grant Allen spent his career pushing the boundaries of Victorian England’s conservative mores. As both an essayist and a novelist, Allen often wrote works advocating for such liberal and radical ideas as atheism, socialism, feminism, free love, and the theory of evolution. His 1899 novel Miss Cayley’s Adventures is a protofeminist story of female independence. The title character is an unmarried woman who, after her stepfather’s death, finds herself with nothing to her name but the twopence in her pocket. Rather than find a husband, take a job as a teacher, or confine herself to a convent, Lois Cayley embraces the freedom of having nothing to lose and decides she wants to travel around the world. She then fortuitously stumbles into a series of odd jobs that finance her travels to exotic locations around the globe.

Like a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, the chapter titles all begin with “The Adventure of the . . .” (Cantankerous Old Lady, Magnificent Maharajah, Unprofessional Detective, and so on). Although each chapter focuses on a particular escapade, this is indeed a novel. All the adventures must be read sequentially as one complete narrative, as they culminate in Miss Cayley’s ultimate fate. Some sources (Wikipedia included) state that this book is a detective novel, but that is not accurate. Miss Cayley is not a detective, and her adventures run the gamut from thwarting a crime, fending off a suitor, establishing her own business, or competing in a bicycle race.

In 1899, there were likely hundreds of novels published that featured a penniless young man striking off to make his fortune in the world. The idea of an unmarried woman traveling alone, however, would have been a shock to British readers, and probably to many Americans as well. In the story, Miss Cayley is frequently presumed to be an “adventuress,” that is to say, a woman of easy virtue looking to snag a wealthy husband. Allen, who enjoys satirizing priggish attitudes toward sex and class, endows Miss Cayley with an admirable I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude. She is clearly an intelligent and capable young woman, and one who values personal freedom and happiness over money. Sometimes her confidence comes across as a little too egotistical when she expresses thoughts of self-praise that are meant to come across as spunky or plucky but would seem off-puttingly arrogant if uttered by a male character. The story is light-hearted good fun, more romantic than realistic, and well-told for the most part by Allen. The situations he puts Miss Cayley in are sufficiently lively and complex to maintain the reader’s interest, but comfortably predictable in their good-triumphs-over-evil outcomes. The last few chapters, however, feature a tedious courtroom battle that ends the book on a weak note.

Though Allen was quite liberal for his era, he’s not entirely free from Victorian prejudices, or at least here he compromisingly panders to a more conservative audience in matters of race, sex, and class. Though he wishes to make Cayley the very embodiment of an independent woman, the novel never leaves any doubt that her final destination will be marriage. On a trip to India, Cayley is the only Brit who refuses to refer to the natives by the n-word, yet she blushes at the idea of marrying outside her race. Allen frequently scoffs at class distinctions, yet the events and characters of the narrative continually imply that the upper classes are a cut above the laboring masses, Miss Cayley excepted. Nevertheless, Allen’s novel does make baby steps in the right direction, and it is certainly a refreshing improvement over the racist, sexist, and classist sentiments found in much of English genre fiction at the time. Without succumbing to heavy preachiness, Allen manages to get his views across in a fun story that makes for an entertaining read.
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