‘Tis the season for pulling the fat from the fire and fulfilling New Years’ resolutions before ’tis too late. A Superfluous Man being approximately 30 – 40 reviews behind, today we provide our first omnibus review.
Title: Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, by Laurence Bergreen
Completed: July 21, 2012 (#52)
Recommendation: Fascinating account of mutiny, betrayal, derring-do, torture, and discovery.
Mr. Bergreen, whose books on Columbus and Marco Polo are now on my list, is a cracking good writer. This recounting of the first circumnavigation of the world is appropriately paced, and although we all know the end that poor Magellan met from grade school, there are a few surprising twists along the way.
Earning bonus points from this reviewer, Mr. Bergreen occasionally digresses into a bit of etymology:
Arabs developed sophisticated methods of extracting essential oils from aromatic spices used for medical and other therapeutic purposes. They formulated elixirs and syrups derived from spices, including julāb, from which the word “julep” derives.
Eventually, Magellan gave the Indians a name—Pathagoni, a neologism suggesting the Spanish word patacones, or dogs with great paws, by which he meant to call attention to their big feet, made even larger by the rough-hewn boots they wore. So these were the Bigfeet Indians, according to Magellan, who later gave the name to the whole region, known ever since as Patagonia.
Popular history at its best.
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Title: Kant: A Very Short Introduction, by Roger Scruton
Completed: July 21, 2012 (#53)
Recommendation: Truth in advertising: a very short introduction to the works of Immanuel Kant, by one of contemporary philosophy’s most piquant commentators.
Regular readers of this website will already know the high esteem in which we hold Mr. Scruton. This survey of Kant’s metaphysical, ethical, and political works is, in a word, brisk. As the title implies, the book is intended as an introduction, although readers who have already pushed themselves through Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft and Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (N.B.: it’s no less obscure in English) will derive greater benefit.
In any case, Mr. Scruton is a model of economical prose and a pleasure to read:
Kant’s private life is often parodied as one of clockwork routine, fastidious, donnish, and self-centred. It is said (because Heine said it) that the housewives of Königsberg would set their clocks by his time of passing; it is said (because Kant once said it) that his constant concern for his bodily condition displayed a morbid hypochondria; it is also said that the bareness of his house and furnishings displayed an indifference to beauty, and that the punctuality of his routine disguised a cold and even frozen heart.
Sure to delight and edify. Can be wolfed down in a single sitting.
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Title: The Castrato and His Wife, by Helen Berry
Completed: July 23, 2012 (#54)
Recommendation: The disordered life of Giusto Fernando Tenducci, the famous 18th century castrato. Tantalizingly close, but fails for lack of sufficient historical grist for the mill.
Readers are no doubt familiar with the even more famous Farinelli, who shared both a talent and a characteristic manque with Tenducci. Despite his disfigurement, the latter had a rather, shall we say, active life of amorous liaisons that reads a bit like Tom Jones with a vasectomy.
Alas, as Mrs. Berry admits, the historical materials are a bit too spare:
Historical facts about men and women born in obscurity are not easy to come by. Even those exceptional people who by quirk of fate or sheer determination make it into the history books leave a body of historical evidence that is like a fine old musical instrument long infested with woodworm: some material traces of the original do survive, but these have become pockmarked with holes, till all that is left is a fragile shell and hollow space. This book has endeavoured to squeeze a tune from ephemeral materials using the different varieties of time-tempered fragments that are left to us: not just the written words, but the objects, art, and music that are the legacy of previous generations.
This reader could have done with a bit more music theory on the art of the castrati and with a bit less gender-bending Freudian speculation (although one can hardly blame Mrs. Berry from indulging in a bit of psychoanalysis under the circumstances).
Incidentally, for a taste of what an apparently middling castrato sounded like, please consider this rare recording of “the last castrato,” Alessandro Moreschi: