A series of impromptus to wind down the backlog of missing reviews.
Title: Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution, by Richard Fortey
Completed: September 9, 2012 (#62)
An exuberant natural history of our long-extinct arthropod ancestors. As preposterous as it sounds, this is a delightful read. Highly recommended: like The Age of Insight, Dr. Fortey is a man of science with a humanist’s soul.
The erosion which I can both see and hear is ineffably slow. I could stand here all my life and notice little difference to the cliffs. Maybe a chasm excavated along a fault might seem subtly darker as its girth increased after an exceptional storm. Perhaps a rock fall would leave a scar cleared of campion and grass. But I am certain that when Thomas Hardy stood on this spot he would have gazed upon a comparable scene; my eyes now see what his once saw. To be sure, the vegetation would have changed, but the geological signature of the cliffs would have been legible in much the same way. How can we conceive of the time needed to wear away these cliffs to nothing, to convert all the massed slates into fine silt, quartz veins into pebbles—at first angular, then worn by the constant shuffling of the sea rounder and rounder, until they acquire the contours and colours of a hen’s egg? Millennia are irrelevant, species come and go, and still the cliffs stand obstinate against the inroads of time. Yet given enough time even this rampart that seems to stand so unflinchingly against the surf will be reduced to nothing, and the flagstones on the floor of the Cobweb Inn will return to sediment, joining all the other works of Man, committed once again to the great cycle of change. Rocks are eroded to sediment: sediment is hardened to rock; rock is elevated above sea level by movements of the Earth, transformed by tectonics; and, thus raised, is once more subject to the assault of the elements. This is the great wheel of the Earth. If Gustav Mahler had taken the geological view, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) would have been a cycle of erosion and reconstruction endlessly reiterated, enough to try the patience even of those who admire the most mantric of symphonies.
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Title: How to Build a Dinosaur: The New Science of Reverse Evolution, by Jack Horner
Completed: September 10, 2012 (#63)
Dr. Horner may be the Platonic form of the bone-hunter, but this is an uninspired offering whose title is an oversell. Jurassic Park: A Dream Deferred.
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Title: The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived, by Clive Finlayson
Completed: September 15, 2012 (#64)
Concrete evidence of human pre-history is sparse and difficult to interpret, but paleo-anthropologists, like the noble savages they study, still have plenty of axes to grind. Terrific cover.
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Title: Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst
Completed: September 17, 2012 (#65)
Creditable spy thriller, set in pre-war Paris, Germany, Hungary, etc. Dimly recollected plot involving a Hollywood movie star being put to the screws by Nazis, lots of noir atmospherics:
His Paris. Which was found by crossing the Seine on the Pont d’Alma and, eventually, entering the maze of narrow streets of the Sixth Arrondissement, the Faubourg Saint-Germain. And if the damp earth of the French countryside had lifted his spirit, being back in his old quartier was as though a door to heaven had been left open. Walking slowly, looking at everything, he couldn’t get enough of the Parisian air: it smelled of a thousand years of rain dripping on stone, smelled of rough black tobacco and garlic and drains, of perfume, of potatoes frying in fat. It smelled as it had smelled when he was twenty-five.
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Title: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson
Completed: September 23, 2012 (#66)
From the author of The Devil in the White City: An ineffectual ivory tower pinhead and his promiscuous and indiscreet daughter take residence in the American embassy to Nazi Germany. Hilarity (and barbarity) ensues.
Mr. Larson remains one of our best popular historians:
In short, Dodd wanted a sinecure, a job that was not too demanding yet that would provide stature and a living wage and, most important, leave him plenty of time to write—this despite his recognition that serving as a diplomat was not something to which his character was well suited. “As to high diplomacy (London, Paris, Berlin) I am not the kind,” he wrote to his wife early in 1933. “I am distressed that this is so on your account. I simply am not the sly, two-faced type so necessary to ‘lie abroad for the country.’ If I were, I might go to Berlin and bend the knee to Hitler—and relearn German.” But, he added, “why waste time writing about such a subject? Who would care to live in Berlin the next four years?”
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Title: Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins, by Ian Tattersall
Completed: September 27, 2012 (#67)
See, supra, at “axe-grinding anthropology.” This book is one of the better recent introductions to the field. Hopefully, once this discipline has sorted itself out, we will no longer see through a glass darkly. For now, the literature seems dominated by lots of detail, little synthesis, and too many putative species.
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Title: The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral, by Robert A. Scott
Completed: October 2, 2012 (#68)
A Princeton sociologist writing a non-specialist’s guide for non-specialists:
People who are familiar with my background and training have been surprised to learn that I have undertaken this project. Nothing about my past career as a teacher, researcher, and academic administrator anticipates it. My degree is in sociology, which I taught for seventeen years while on the faculty of Princeton University. My courses there and elsewhere dealt with topics far removed from the subject of this book. Moreover, I have never formally studied medieval history, art, or architecture, nor have books about the medieval period been high on my leisure-time reading list-that is, until about a decade ago, when I began working on this project. Most important, my inspiration did not come via the familiar academic route of a deductive descent from atop some grand theory for which the Gothic cathedral provides a compelling example. It came by the opposite route. I fell in love with one particular cathedral-the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Salisbury in England, the building that Samuel Johnson described as “the last perfection in architecture.”
A successful entry into a field less crowded than one might imagine. Perhaps a bit secular for my tastes, but Dr. Scott’s social science background certainly informs his thoughtful chapters on the organizational structures that were necessary before the architectural structures could rise.
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Title: The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453, by Desmond Seward
Completed: October 7, 2012 (#69)
“Whatever the motives, a sustained—and, on the whole, extraordinarily successful—offensive was waged for over a century by a poor and scantily populated little country against a richer, more populous and ostensibly far more powerful enemy. It is arguable that the Hundred Years War was medieval England’s greatest achievement.”
Meticulously researched, mellifluously written. The United States still does not hold a candle to the Mother Country’s popular history industry. Strongly recommended.
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Title: Daniels’ Running Formula, by Jack Daniels
Completed: October 7, 2012 (#70)
The locus classicus for marathon training, by the man with the unforgettable name.
We shall spare our fair Readers further detail as to the travails of the Superfluous Marathoner.