15 Great History Books
Recently we asked an old friend if she wanted
a copy of RALPH's new poetry book.
She wrote back:
As to poetry, your offer has caused me to realize that it never had been at the top of my list. There have been perfect and beautiful poems that have captured me from time to time, but I go out and buy the books and they just sit there, or I read them once and then they sit. (Wallace Stevens, Czewslav Milosz; there's an Emily Dickenson stacked at the bottom of a pile next to my reading chair right now.)
You know what a literal person I am, it's just too fleeting. So on top of the Dickenson is Jared Diamond and Voll's
The History of Islam and Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China and several fabulous Barbara Tuchmans stacked there waiting for me. Just finished Tuchman's WWI book and am thrilled by the things I finally understood. Fact is I'm crazy for history these days.

§   §   §

Train Wrecks:
A Pictorial History of Accidents on
The Main Line

Robert C. Reed
(Schiffer)
What is it about train wrecks that delights us old rail buffs? Certainly those into old cars don't want to see a Duesenberg tangled up with a Model T. Sports car racing enthusiasts don't go gaga over stock cars in a heap. Airplane nuts don't look for pictures of 707s falling from the sky. Sailboat aficionados don't want to see a three-masted schooner keel up. Dune buggy enthusiasts don't seek out four fat wheels sticking up in the air, revolving ever so slowly.

Maybe it is the sheer massiveness of it: a 150 ton Baldwin 2-6-2 tipped over, a Pennsylvania Railroad engine upside-down in the Delaware River, an old Soo Line steam engine bent double, amidst tracks bent double as well.

Whatever it is, we rail fans will seek out pictures of the most awful tumbles, tracks torn up, boilers exploded, telescopic wrecks where the engine of a train from behind fits uncomfortably inside a rail passenger car (imagine those people glancing back and seeing a black steaming locomotive coming straight at them, 75 mph. Wouldn't that be a heart-stopper?)

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Human Anatomy
A Visual History from the Renaissance
To the Digital Age

Benjamin A. Rifkin
Michael J. Ackerman
Judith Folkenberg

(Abrams)
This is no ordinary medical or "art" book. It is a history of the illustrations of "deep" --- and sometimes not-so-deep --- dissections. It contains upwards of three hundred pictures --- mostly woodcuts and engravings --- that were published from the end of the 15th century to the beginning of the 21st.

The design of the book is delicious, if one can use that word with so many illustrations of the "Children of Saturn." The prose is intelligent, wise and penetrating. Likewise, most of the drawings and engravings are clear and rich with detail, often showing a strange sense of modesty. There are twenty-eight important artists featured --- mostly names we have not encountered before: Charles Estienne, Juan Valverdi de Amusco, Bartolommeo Eustachi (you have two of his tubes inserted in your head to protect your ear-drums), William Cheselden (a bone man), William Hunter ... and the improbably named William Smellie. This last created some powerful engravings of fetuses in and sometimes almost out of the uterus --- some of the most disturbing images in the book.

Other interesting monikers include William Skelton who didn't do skeletons but, instead, some fairly ghastly diseased livers, hearts in myocardia, and gangrene; Govard Bidloo, who specialized in neat thoracic cavities, weird fetal skeletons, and shaved heads --- shaved of their outer skin, that is --- including two vile eyes-closed mouth-wide, tongue-extended gack craniums; and Jean-Baptiste Marc Bourgery, whose neck-thorax dissections in vivid color will blow your mind if they don't make you swear off cadaver books for the rest of your days.

It's not only the obscure who appear here. Leonardo da Vinci's "Anatomical Notebooks" are crammed with skeletons and parts of bodies and fetuses "in utero" ... albeit only two included here. There is the "crucified nude" by Jacques Gamelin [Fig. 1 above] that recalls, the author suggests, Michelangelo and Raphael. Rifkin even offers the thought that some of the colorful drawings of "deep dissection" by Jacques Fabian Gautier d'Argoty may have influenced Delacroix and van Gogh.

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America in
The Sixties

John Robert Greene
(Syracuse University)
Greene captures so much of those years with a reportorial flair and a contrarian point of view. For example, we all thought of Eisenhower as no more than a pleasant golfer, but Greene claims that he had a shrewd foreign policy --- refusing to get involved in the Suez controversy, limiting assistance to the Diem government in Vietnam, doing what Kennan called a "containment" of the Russians (although it scared us half to death).

The author has an Op-Ed view of the world from back then, and a hero like Martin Luther King doesn't come out too well, what with his indecisiveness, and "his plan to use elementary and high school students in the next march on Birmingham."

    There was absolutely no question that some of these youngsters would be hurt and possibly killed when they faced [Bull] Connor's police.

Richard Nixon? We probably forgot that in his early years, he strongly supported the Marshall Plan, even "led a successful fight against a bill to outlaw the Communist Party." And the "Alger Hiss case"? Greene puts forth the notion that both Whittaker Chambers and Hiss were notorious liars.

Good history demands the pure facts, an engaging style, and a willingness to upset the apple-cart. Greene has it all. The Good Guys here are not only Nixon, Eisenhower, Johnson and writers like Rachael Carson and Betty Friedan, but, too ... hippies. "This was the pure socialism of Friedrich Engels (not the 'communism' of Karl Marx) --- it was a complete rejection of capitalism as a unifying social structure.'"

    In the 1960s the media paid no attention to this philosophy (indeed, the media has never paid any attention to this philosophy). Rather, the media concentrated on hippies as freaks, paying attention to the length of their hair and their often comical or extremely well-worn clothes.

Our conclusion: America in the Sixties has a lousy cover, notable insights and excellent writing.
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Hurricanes, Slaves, and Gold
David E. Fisher
Of the 300,000 Tainos indians inhabiting Hispaniola when Columbus first made landfall there in 1492, one third were dead by 1496. In 1508 a census showed only sixty thousand still alive, in 1512 the number was twenty thousand, and by the middle of that century the Spanish governor of the island reported that fewer than five hundred Indians were to be found. Today none remain.

But at the time Columbus's arguments pleased the Spanish sovereigns, and they sent him back twice more to the Indies to find a path to China, to find the Indians' hidden gold mines, and to bring back armies of slaves. In order to keep the peace among the colonizers, however, Ferdinand ordered him not to interfere with the new administration of the islands, which was to be set up without him.

On his fourth and final voyage, in 1502, Columbus's main mission was to get to China, but he was forced to take a detour. His flagship on that trip, La Capitana, proved untrustworthy on the transatlantic voyage, and so he put into the port of Santo Domingo to attempt to replace her. He also wanted to find shelter there from a hurricane that he felt coming.

I use the phrase "felt coming" because I can't think of a better one. The signs he listed as indicative of the impending storm are less than sure: cirrus clouds scudding along ahead of an "oily" rolling swell of ocean waters otherwise suspiciously smooth, like glass; light winds with sudden sharp gusts; large sea creatures (seals, manatees, and unidentified shapes) coming to the surface, apparently deserting the turmoil of the deep waters; and perhaps most telling, sharp pains in his rheumatic or arthritic bones. Somewhat less than a scientific basis, especially for a sailor who had seen only one hurricane (possibly two) before, but as it turned out he was right.

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The World Of Yesterday
Stefan Zweig
(Pushkin Press)
The high points of The World of Yesterday come through the author's proximity to the three major historical events that pushed us all into WWII: the hyper-inflation that enveloped Austria in 1922 --- and shortly after, Germany; the Great Depression (that came about with the failure of an Austrian bank); and the rise of the Nazis. Zweig went into voluntary exile in England, was there deemed an enemy alien in 1940 after the declaration of war, and went off into a second exile in Brazil. There he finished this manuscript and, with his second wife, committed suicide in 1942.

We get the feeling that he was a gifted albeit prolix writer (one might think of him as an Austrian John Steinbeck), but it is the subtle stylistic touches, not the famous names, that make The World of Yesterday so memorable. On superinflation: "No one knew what anything cost ... Even a goldfish or an old telescope represented 'real value,' and everyone wanted real value rather than paper." Rents were frozen by the government, so "everyone lived more or less rent-free for five to ten years --- since landlords were not allowed to give their tenants notice." Conclusion: "Money had let us down."

Then there was the raid on his home after the ultra-nationalists took over the Austrian government. Because he was Jewish, four "detectives" arrived to search his house. After they left, "I sensed the present gravity of the state of affairs in Austria, and saw what enormous pressure Germany was putting on us."

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Singing Bronze:
A History of Carillon Music
Luc Rombouts
(Lipsius Leuven)
As I was finishing this book, I happened to be in a small bucolic lovely idyllic gorgeous village in which, next to our lot, there stands a Catholic church with with its own bell tower (about eight feet tall, so that the bell-ringers can reach the bong mechanism).

This particular day, the bell was operated by a robust fortyish lady from a near-by farm. She was a character right out of Chaucer, no shrinking violet: large in shoulder and bust (and, presumably, heart); vigorous in arm and grip --- given to approaching bell-ringing as if she were out there in the fields chasing away the very devil himself.

I watched and listened, for the first time listening to what it is that makes a bell a, well, a bell (well!). Luc is right: it's the overtones, what he calls the "partial notes," that catch your attention. I had been immersed in his book for a few days, and all of a sudden the bellness of it all made sense. The "bong" of this or any other bell is not just a single tone. It is full, sensuous, complex in character, complex in duration, rich in the dying fall.

I listened for the first time as the author would want me to listen. I was hearing all of it, filled with the core truth that one simple passage gave me. It was as if for the first time the music of it that I heard so long ago, chastening me as I raced across campus to get there before the fatal close of the chapel door, but, also, at this very moment as Our Lady of the Fields pulled slowly on the heavy rope, she was pulling a complex of sounds from the sky, raising a full-throated song that, we find out, was something that I and all the other listeners over all the centuries were making up.

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Kinsey:
Sex the Measure
Of All Things

Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy
(Indiana University Press)
Kinsey is fine reading, even though some of the facts come under the "I don't think I really want to know" department (don't even bring up Kinsey and his toothbrush). And some of the quotes are more than a little revealing. For instance, C. A Tripp who once said that Kinsey saw sex "as a factory of affection." Or this, on one of Kinsey's key, early grants --- $120,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1946 ---

    What is astonishing is that all this really rested on and resulted from two intangible factors --- the power of Kinsey's personality and the gripping nature of his subject. Kinsey hadn't published anything of consequence on [sexuality] yet. There had been nothing in the nature of "peer review." Gregg [Director of the Foundation] despite his Board's frequent and intense anxiety that the whole thing was "decent," or that Kinsey was pursuing ridiculously large numbers (which he was), had, he told Kinsey, simply presented most of his extraordinary findings to the Rockefeller Board and they, like everyone else, had been completely fascinated. It was almost as if they paid to find out --- what will he discover next?

Whenever any of the board members visited with him in New York or Bloomington, Kinsey asked for, and almost always got, their intimate personal sexual histories.

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The History of the Minstrel Show
As little George Washington prepared to chop down the cherry tree, he got an idea. What if he were seen chopping down the tree? So he blackened his face with a burnt cork. Now if he were seen, it would be blamed on one of the slave children. Little George was seen that day, but only by the slave children, who thought this looked like fun. Sneaking into the kitchen, they dipped their faces and hands in flour. Back in the yard, they played at being white people. They stood tall; they spoke slowly, gave each other commands, and danced their version of a minuet. The children were seen by their parents, and by the overseers, and by little George's father. What fun, they all thought, and thus began the tradition, that one day a year the slaves would paint their faces white and become like the masters. The masters would paint their faces black and become like the slaves. They would take commands from the slaves, slap their knees, tell jokes, dance, and have a good time. And so on through history --- Pat Boone became Little Richard and sang a song he thought might be about ice cream. Even across the ocean, Mick Jagger, an accounting student listening to the blues in his dorm, lost his English accent and learned to talk just like Muddy Waters. Oh Mississippi Delta, Oh Africa, Oh harp and fiddle and banjo. Oh young Elvis, visited in a dream by the ghost of his twin, Jesse. In the dream Jesse was black, whispering, Brother, when you sing, sing like a black man, dance like a black man. Elvis quit his job at the trucking company that day, and began to sing as no white man had sung before.
--- From The Chair
Richard Garcia
© 2014 BOA Editions


Jacobson's Organ
And the Remarkable
Nature of Smell

Lyall Watson
(Norton)

Schizophrenic patients have their own characteristic odor. German soldiers during WWI said they could sense the presence of the English across no man's land "by their smell." The English said the same about the Germans --- the word "Kraut" came from "the perception that they lived on, and smelled of, sauerkraut."

In the days of the Romans, adulterers were punished by having their noses amputated. The temperature of your mucosa rises by 1.5 degrees Centigrade immediately after intercourse, making us wonder about scientists hanging around congressional couples long enough to stick thermometers up their hot little noses. Wine-tasting is almost impossible for those who are having too much such hanky-panky: it's called "honeymoon rhinitis." Tiger urine --- sprayed backwards as a marker --- is so smelly that the Sanskrit name for tiger is vyagra, "the name derived from a verb root meaning to smell." As Watson points out,

    This sheds an interesting new light on Pfizer's recent best-selling drug for impotent men, which is being marketed, with or without knowledge of Sanskrit, under the brand name of Viagra.

There are few nasal items that Watson misses. One such turned up in Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media. "Until the coming of missionaries in the seventeenth century," he says,

    the Chinese and Japanese measured time by graduations of incense. Not only the hours and days, but the seasons and zodiacal signs were simultaneously indicated by a succession of carefully ordered scents.

Like Watson, he says that the sense of smell is "the root of memory and the unifying basis of individuality." (His chapter on clocks is called "The Scent of Time.")

If you're into passages, nasal or otherwise, and if you're a devotee of aromatic minutes (as well as minutiæ), stick your neb into Jacobson's Organ.

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History in English Words
Owen Barfield
(Lindisfarne Books)
Barfield is nuts about the English language. Since he loves it, he knows how to use it --- and if you give him your time and your patience, History in English Words will have you nuts about it too.

Barfield makes it clear that centuries ago the primary task of the rude folk living across the seas from the British Isles was murder and plunder: fertile England, filled only with Picts, was ripe for the Picting.

So the invaders moved in, did their pillage and rapine --- stealing women, land, cows, horses, and goats, acting up in a generally bestial fashion --- and then went home again. Aryans, Teutons, Angles (both right, left, and obtuse), Saxons, Celts, Franks and Romans came and went like fleas on a dog. They did, however, leave behind a few bonuses.

One is that they turned the Anglo-Saxon language out of an obscure corner of England into the language which is the second most commonly used in the world (Mandarin Chinese is #1; Spanish #3; Urdu is #109.) Think of it as a river says Barfield --- rivers of invaders that washed over England, always leaving words behind.

    Already another ripple of the Teutonic wave is upon us, rocking over the seas in the long boats of the Scandinavian Vikings, and almost before they have left their impress on the eastern quarter of the land, a third --- the Normans this time --- is breaking on Britain once again at Pevensey.

He ends this happy image as follows,

    The liquid metaphor is unavoidable, for no other image seems adequate to express what actually happened. To watch through the glasses of history the gradual arrival and settlement of the Aryans in this country is to be reminded irresistibly of the rhythmic wash and backwash, the little accidental interplays of plash and ripple, which accompany the tide as it fills an irregularly shaped pool.

Barfield is not only good at explaining the roots of individual words (how they came into being, how they changed their meanings); he ties all this in with the large events: how the original Picts and their many visitors changed over the years, a change that was always reflected in the language. Thus, on the creation of the concept of "myself," he writes:

    With the seventeenth century we reach the point at which we must at last try to pick up and inspect that discarded garment of the human soul, intimate and close-fitting as it was, into which this book has been trying from the fifth chapter onwards to induce the reader to reinsert his modern limbs. The consciousness of "myself" and the distinction between "my-self" and all other selves, the world, the observed, is such an obvious and early fact of experience to every one of us, such a fundamental starting point of our life as conscious beings, that it really requires a sort of training of the imagination to be able to conceive of any different kind of consciousness. Yet we can see from the history of our words that this form of experience, so far from being eternal, if quite a recent achievement of the human spirit.

Enough! If I keep going on like this, I'll end up quoting the whole damn thing. Take my word, or --- better --- take Barfield's words. If you are interested in how your vocabulary got from there to here, if you are interested in how changes of world-view are reflected in our speech, if you are interested in what the language tells us about ourselves and our history --- this is your book.

And it isn't watered down. It's a full meal. Sometimes History in English Words stayed on my bed table untouched for a few days or a week or more. I found it thick and almost too rich, like a good olla podrida. But I always came back to it, unable to stay my curiosity on how, for instance, the word "idea" came into being (it all started with Plato who saw "Ideas" as real Beings with an existence of their own, which stood behind physical phenomena rather than within them.) See. I told you I can't stop.

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The Age of Gold
The California Gold Rush
And the New American Dream

H. W. Brands
(Doubleday)
The pleasure of The Age of Gold lies in the myriad interesting and improbable facts. As well, there are many diversions, obscure tales --- such as the reality of crossing a country that was practically barren (certainly barren of places to sleep, eat, and find drinking water).

Then there's the lusty, scandalous history of early San Francisco; the wrangling that was necessary to get California to statehood (the question of slavery being a great stumbling block); life in the mining camps for the 250,000 people who actually got to Sutter's Fort; the effect of $730 million in newly-mined gold on the free markets of the time (it was probably key, Brands states, in the Union's victory over the Confederacy).

Most enlightening are the specifics: what it was like to cross Central America; how Californians inveigled their way into the Union; the shenanigans of James Fisk and Jay Gould and how they caused the stock market to collapse on September 24, 1869 (thereafter know as "Black Friday"); and, most wonderfully, how to mine gold by means of one of the four techniques available --- placer mining, river mining, hydraulic mining, and quartz mining.

In the hands of a lesser writer, all this information might be enough to put one into extreme dropsy, but the author makes it fascinating by digging through newspapers, letters, journals, and reports of the time --- proving that he is something of an Argonaut himself.

This from a correspondent who descended into a "quartz" mine, dressed in an India-rubber suit:

    Stooping, or rather half lying down upon the wet rock, among fragments of quartz and props of wood, and streams of water, with pick in hand, and by a dim but waterproof lantern, giving out a very dim and watery light, just about bright enough, or rather dim enough, and watery enough, as Milton expresses it, "to make darkness visible," a man was at work, picking down the rock --- the gold-bearing rock --- and which, although very rich, was very rotten, and consequently not only paid well, but was easily quarried, and easily crushed; and although this rock was paying not less than three hundred and fifty dollars a ton, we could not see the first speck of gold in it, after a diligent search for that purpose.

Imagine a newspaper reporter in our own day being able to write so adroitly, much less being able to quote John Milton.

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Breasts
A Natural and Unnatural History
Florence Williams
(Norton)
If there are villains in Breast, they are those who contaminate our bodies and our world and are permitted to do so by the government agencies who were supposed to protect us from these progress at-all-costs types.

The heroes in this book? They would be the few scientists who are working on their own to identify the chemical and biological threats to us and our children. Those who toil on despite an indifferent public, and an even more indifferent government.

At one point we learn about hundreds --- perhaps thousands --- of cases of breast cancer that developed in one locale. It befell marines who served at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina for thirty years, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. They were drinking and bathing in water that came from well number 602, water thoroughly contaminated by a plume of underground petrochemicals, water that served eight thousand people, water that "yielded a reading of 380 parts per billion of benzene," which was "seventy-six times the legal limit for benzene, a human carcinogen."

So far, countless ex-Marines have developed breast cancer among other illnesses (their children and wives were exposed as well). As one ex-marine said, "I felt like a freak. I got no breasts, how can this be? I'm a marine. I'm a bad ass. I work out all the time, I ate good, I exercised, stayed fit my whole life, never smoked or did drugs, and you try to figure out how can this have happened?"

§   §   §

Oh, yes: there are some other heroes (or heroines) here. One is breast milk. Its constituents are most versatile. If your baby is a boy, the milk is richer in fat; if a girl, less so; if your baby is premature, the milk will have constituents to compensate for that. How does it know? Scientists call it crosstalk, "one part of the body communicates with another and vice versa."

    In the case of the lactating breast, the organ is communicating not only with its immediate landlady but also with the infant.

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Rats:
Observations on the History and Habitat of
the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants

Robert Sullivan
(Bloomsbury)
Despite what you may believe from personal experience, your common rat has a maximum weight of two pounds, and can grow no more than twenty inches in length (with tail). But they can fit through any hole which is greater than 3/4 of an inch because that is the size of their head-bone. The rest of their bodies, the knee-bone, the back-bone, the hip-bone, are able to be squashed up like a .... like a, well, like a squash.

The brown Norwegian rats as opposed to the smaller and noisier black rats which are very fond of my attic are the most populous if not popular. And they didn't come from Norway.

They probably started out in Southeast Asia, moved up with the traders in their caravans though the Middle East, took the boat to Denmark, then north to Norway (who got all the blame) then East to Great Britain and the United States. That's all right, that thing about calling them Norwegian Rats. The English blamed the Gauls for syphilis, called it "The French Pox." And in Germany, the German cockroach is known as the French (or Russian) cockroach. It's nationalism in action.

Their teeth are like steel; no, better than steel: a rat can gnaw though concrete. And they and their disgusting teeth and tails and habits and rat-shit are everywhere except one province of Canada (Alberta). God I don't know: can we be sure of all of Alberta? How about there under the slops at the back of the High Hat Pub there in Medicine Hat, or the We Fall Inn just outside of Waskatenau?

Rats spend most of their time eating, sleeping, and making babies. One pair can produce 15,000 descendants. They usually stay within sixty-five feet of their nests. When a colony is poisoned, the pregnancy rate of any nearby female rat doubles.

We shouldn't forget that Tom and Jerry and Mickey are mice, not rats. Have you ever seen any cartoons with rats that make you laugh (although sometimes I wonder how Walt Kelly was able to make Pogo so lovable: get a gander at a real possum up close, when it's hissing, making faces, sneering at you).

If you want to get the skinny on rats, talk to exterminators. Because of the reality of their jobs (you cannot exterminate all the rats everywhere, maybe not anywhere) they now call themselves "vermologists" or "rodent controllers" or the like.

They will tell you, as one told Sullivan, that to seed a trap you should use Hershey Bars, nuts, anchovies, shrimp and beer. I almost wrote "beet." Hold the beets. According to experts, rats don't care for beets, peaches, raw celery, cooked cauliflower, or radishes (with tops). They adore scrambled eggs. With cheese. Don't hold the fries, though. Nor the lettuce, mayonnaise, tomatoes, pickles, and ketchup. We rats eat them up. With relish.

The Black plague was called "The Black Death" because although

    the plague can cause parts of the body to turn black, when the Scandinavian writers used the term black, they used it to mean terrible or dreadful or horrible.

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Amulet
Roberto Bolaño
Chris Andrews
Translator

(New Directions)
She may be the "Mother of Mexican Poetry." Or it might be that she was there at the Birth of History. Perhaps she's just a roving street lady in Mexico City, sleeping on floors here or there, living with borrowing clothes in borrowed digs, scribbling poems (or notes) on toilet paper.

She's missing four front teeth, thinks of herself as "the Emily Dickinson of Bulimia." She hangs out with Mexican poets and rent-boys, is named Auxilio Lacouture, has pink ears and, she claims, a face like Don Quixote's.

During the 1968 uprising of students at the University of Mexico City, she spent thirteen days hiding in the bathroom of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature building where she wrote her poetry, which she then ate. Once she saw death coming for her, on the streets of the city,

    I put my hand into my handbag, I mean my satchel from Oaxaca, and felt for my knife, which I always carried with me, as a precaution against urban emergencies, but the burning skin of my fingertips could feel only papers and books and magazines and even clean underwear (washed by hand, without soap) ... but the knife, ah, my friends, now there's another recurring and terribly Latin American nightmare: being unable to find your weapon; you know where you put it, but it's not there.

Auxilio (which means "help" as in HELP!) roams the streets, meanders around in her head, eventually squirreling herself in the reader's heart with long Proustian gatherings of words and sentences that bobble on and on, in comic rounds, carrying us with her in circles, as she circles her life, the city's life, the life of poetry and poverty and artists and painters and ... and Orestes.

Yes: Orestes, addressing Erigone, who has fallen in love with him: "If you stay here, I will kill you," he says. "The gods have driven me crazy." This street lady, with her pink ears, her four missing teeth --- she hides her mouth with her hand when she speaks or laughs --- can get in a dither about Orestes, who wandered through "Greece with his friend Pylades, becoming a legend."

    But Erigone doesn't understand Orestes' words, and fears that all this is part of a plan hatched by the cerebral Electra, a kind of euthanasia, an exit into darkness that will not stain the young king's hands with blood.

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The Making of a Tropical Disease
A Short History of Malaria
Randall M. Packard
(Johns Hopkins)
Randall M. Packard is another of those well-meaning historians who is interested in informing us but, in the process, puts the reader into a narcoleptic twilight zone. I am quite a fan of books on the earth's scourges (disease, war, madness, greed, fundamentalist Baptists) but I insist on being entertained while I am being instructed, even on the most horrific details.

The facts of malaria are well known, interesting, and can be woven into a fascinating history if you are a Hans Zinsser or a J. W. Howarth. Unfortunately, if you are a Randall Packard, the story of malaria becomes a sloughing contest, sloughing the poor reader through countless, repetitive facts to get to a muddled, inconclusive ending.

It doesn't have to be so, and there are facts that manage, somehow, to escape the author's miasma. We know that malaria is caused by mosquito bites even though that is a misnomer. Mosquitoes don't bite you; they stab you; then they spit into your capillaries before sucking your blood; thus, the source of infections like malaria, yellow fever and dengue is mosquito spit.

As Packard rightly indicates, malaria is caused by poverty, poor sanitation, deforestation, overcrowding, and cows, horses, pigs, and goats (farm animals attract blood-sucking insects, which by feeding on them, causes more mosquitoes to appear). There are charts in The Making of a Tropical Disease that give some strange correlations. One graph pits the rate of malaria infection vs. foreign aid offered to Third World countries (p. 170). We might intuit that one: less aid, more disease.

More startling is the ratio between mortality and the price of cotton in the Mississippi Delta (p. 74). "While the conditions under which sharecroppers lived were generally poor, they became worse when cotton prices bottomed out."

    As the price of cotton fell, sharecroppers' ability to maintain their homes, feed their families, and acquire medicines when sick declined.

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The Slave Ship
A Human History
Marcus Rediker
(Viking)
At the end of his Introduction, Rediker notes, "This has been a painful book to write, and if I have done any justice to the subject, it will be a painful book to read." He can say that again.

As he lingered on the conditions of the ships and the pain and horror inflicted on men, women and children alike, this reader would flip ahead a few pages for sheer relief; to find, for example, a few pages about a theory about the true nature of the ships. They were not just there to transport bodies, the author says. They also served as a school.

    At the beginning of the Middle Passage, captains hired on a motley crew of sailors who would, on the coast of Africa, become "white men." At the beginning of the Middle Passage, captains loaded on board the vessel a multiethnic collection of Africans, who would, in the American port, become "black people" or a "negro race."

"The voyage thus transformed those who made it. War making, imprisonment, and the factory production of labor power and trade all depended on violence."

There are fascinating bits here: that the sailors who did the dirty work on the vessels had a mortality rate not so much less than the blacks; that the captains, too, rarely survived more than seven voyages; that the captains and officers typically had women slaves as "favorites" during the journey, which then were sold at "'a good price' once they reached the New World;" that the cruelest captains were called "buckos;" that the ultimate weapon against the slave trade was a drawing published widely in England and the United States of hundreds of black bodies crammed together in the hold of the Brooks, one of the larger of the slave ships, along with exact measurement of the space below decks given to each body.

Thus the trade was not ended over a rage at the treatment of an innocent peoples, nor concern over the social and mental harm of the trade ... but by means of a communication of the profoundest feeling of simple claustrophobia.

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Fu-Go
The Curious History of Japan's
Balloon Bomb Attack on America

Ross Coen
(University of Nebraska Press)
In the fall of 1944, using tree bark, glue, and intensive child labor, the Japanese produced a series of balloons that were sent up from their east coast, rising to 30,000 feet, moving across the Pacific in a great arc --- and, improbably, arriving in the coast of America. They were called "fire balloons" or fusen bakudan (in Japanese military-speak, fu-go).

When they came to ground, it was expected that bombs would explode, fires would be set off, and --- in theory --- the great timberlands of the American Northwest would be set aflame.

The fire, the furore and the panic would destroy the morale of common Americans everywhere. With this unreasoning fear of a world ablaze, we would sue for peace and WWII would come to a successful and jubilant end, for all concerned. Especially them.

So these spectral beasts began appearing in the skies of the United States in late 1944 and, not long after, over Alaska, western Canada, and contiguous American states as far east as Michigan. They appeared out of the blue and some of them actually exploded, even though early spring is not the best time to set off forest fires what with the constant winter/spring rains. Still, in the six months that the program was underway, it was claimed that 9,000 "fire balloons" had been released, with a further 11,000 planned and under construction.

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