book beginnings on Friday: The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change by Iain McCalman

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

reef

A passionate history of explorers and climate change (and thus, one expects, necessarily of climate politics as well)? You have me sold, sir. Here is the opening paragraph of chapter 1:

James Cook did not know, on Sunday May 20, 1770, two weeks after leaving Botany Bay on the east coast of New Holland, the western portion of the continent, named by the Dutch captain Abel Tasman in 1644, that the HMS Endeavor was sailing into the southwest entrance of a vast lagoon where reef-growing corals began their work. It was a channel that later navigators would call the Great Barrier Reef inner passage. Cook didn’t realize that then, and he never would.

I am going to pick these first sentences apart a little here; bear with me. The concept McCalman opens with is a compelling one, and one he’ll return to: Cook was ignorant of what he discovered, and history in hindsight often makes the mistake of giving to discoverers credit for intention that they never had. Also, I think it’s a powerful image, this captain’s ship entering a dangerous and unknown area, and not even realizing it. In other words, I think McCalman chose a good opening subject; but golly, look at that first sentence! All the clauses: “he didn’t know, on the day, in the place, which was such a place, where this happened… that he didn’t know.” I dare McCalman to diagram that sentence; it might lead him to reconsider. And please do note that this is a pre-publication galley copy; he may still change it (or his editor might), so give the published look a glance and see when it comes out in late May. I am recommending the book despite a clause-heavy opener. Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Gods of Olympus by Barbara Graziosi

For novices and enthusiasts alike, a comprehensive and absorbing study of the gods of Olympus and how their cultural roles have changed over the centuries.

gods of olympus

From Homer and Hesiod, we know that Zeus has a large sexual appetite, that Athena is noble and warlike, that Aphrodite is the goddess of love and sexuality, that Hermes is a messenger with a sense of humor. But how did these myths and the personalities they depict survive to the present? Barbara Graziosi is a professor who’s written several academic works on the classics. In The Gods of Olympus, she directs her expertise to a more general audience for the first time, following the 12 gods and goddesses of the classical Greek pantheon from their first appearances in antiquity through our continuing modern awareness of them. Readers benefit immensely from her proficiency, which comes with a sense of humor: Graziosi occasionally appears in her own narrative, with an endearingly wry, self-deprecating tone.

The history of the immortal Olympians begins in Greece, where Graziosi explores their role in myth, ritual and cultural events. The Athens of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle reconsidered the value of the gods, in literature and in life, and when Alexander the Great expanded his empire toward the ends of the earth, he advertised his ability to travel even further than Dionysus. By gauging his own accomplishments against those of the gods, he sought to make himself like a god even as he reconfirmed the supreme importance of the deities.

Under Alexander’s rule, much of the “known world” was Hellenized, taking on Greek–and therefore Olympian–customs and culture. During the Roman Empire, the gods’ strong personalities were merged with the traditional Roman gods’ rule over matters of state, surviving in slightly different forms that best served those in power. As Graziosi demonstrates, this is the model through which they have come to us over millennia: the rise of Islam and Christianity likewise preserved the Olympians, though it transformed the gods into demons, allegories and cautionary figures. Their original worshippers are long gone, but the Olympic gods survive, flexible and changeable but continuing to inspire art and literature.

Graziosi’s knowledge is obvious, and easy to trust, accompanied by thorough notes and a helpful appendix to the original 12 gods and their corresponding Roman identities. Her writing is accessible and entertaining, her passion for her subject obvious; The Gods of Olympus will equally thrill longtime lovers of the classics, and appeal to readers seeking a friendly, engaging introduction.


This review originally ran in the March 10, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 centuries (just for starters).

Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia by Sigrid Rausing

The personal side of an anthropologist’s year in post-Soviet Estonia.

wonderful

Sigrid Rausing spent a year on a collective farm on the west coast of Estonia in the mid-1990s, doing fieldwork for her Ph.D. in social anthropology. Her time there yielded an academic book, History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia: The End of a Collective Farm. “Much as [that book] excluded the personal,” she writes, “this book excludes the academic.” Everything Is Wonderful contains Rausing’s remembrances, after nearly 20 years, of time spent in an unusual cultural landscape and the questions that remain with her.

The tone of this slim memoir is quiet and unobtrusive; engaging in participation observation is the anthropologist’s aim. Rausing contemplates the legacies of the Soviet Union in Estonia as a country and a culture, and in the village she lived in. As a parallel, she considers her own cultural identity as a Swede living in England who finds herself at home in a place where Estonian Swedes once made up a sizable and powerful minority, before the Nazis sent them to Sweden in a “perhaps overly collaborative” evacuation.

Rausing’s subjects include the everyday tedium and alcoholism of a small village in a deeply depressed region; they include dream interpretations, and loving descriptions of natural settings, despite the monochromatic winter that occupies most of the year. Interactions with her neighbors and friends are rendered with an eye for irony. Yet for all its bleak detail, Rausing’s work resonates with nostalgia as well. “I was tired, and often hungry,” she recalls, “but even now, twenty years later, I miss those long quiet walks in that melancholy and restful landscape.”


This review originally ran in the March 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 “cocktails.”

Teaser Tuesdays: Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

hotel florida

I am, of course, enjoying immersion in the beautifully composed Hotel Florida, a history of six individuals in the Spanish Civil War.

“THE PICTURE WAS BEYOND PRAISE AND SO WAS YOUR ATTITUDE,” wired Scott Fitzgerald after the screening he saw, at which Hemingway had spoken about la causa and the loss of Lukács and Heilbrun. Fitzgerald sensed in his old and now distant friend an attachment to the film project, and to the war in Spain itself, that had “something almost religious about it.” As so often, he saw Hemingway more clearly than Hemingway saw himself.

I appreciate the larger truth in these lines about the relationship between Fitzgerald (who doesn’t much play into this story) and Hemingway (who is one of its stars).

Also, I am thrilled to note just a handful of pages later an extended excerpt from Goethe’s poem, Der Erlkönig, which I memorized in its entirety for my German class in high school. (In German.) That was fun.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

remedy

I have an awesome new book to tease you with today. I hope the title alone begins to interest; it did me. The first paragraph sets the stage:

In train after train, consumptives filled the passenger cars, their hacks and coughs competing with steam whistles and screaming brakes as the engines came to a halt in Potsdamer Platz. They came to Berlin without any sense of where to go or what to do once they arrived. And they kept coming, for days, weeks, and months. It must have struck Berliners as a sort of zombie pilgrimage: here were the walking dead of Europe, all suddenly flocking to their city in search of something – some fantastic substance that did not yet officially exist.

Not out til early April, so stay tuned for my review til then. But for now: I am quite impressed with the writing (my favorite: accessible, engaging, nonfiction science), and the fascinating story of the race towards a cure for tuberculosis, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s rather surprising role in it.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire by Kim Heacox

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

muir ice

You know I couldn’t pass up a history of John Muir and his role in creating the American conservation movement! I am learning a lot, and not only about Muir and glaciers.

Today’s demographers have estimated that of the roughly 110 billion people who have lived on earth the last 50,000 years, only a small fraction have achieved age fifty and beyond; of those, half are alive today. In other words, Muir was already the beneficiary of a relatively long life.

…although of course, being Muir, he did not go gently into that good night. I am not surprised at these numbers but had never considered such a thing; it’s a little boggling, isn’t it?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

I am quite pleased with Hotel Florida, about the Spanish Civil War and concentrating on six individuals – three couples – who experienced it. I’m offering a little more book beginning than usual today, because I think this way gives a good feeling of Amanda Vaill’s work; so bear with me.

hotel florida

Three book beginnings…

Author’s Note:

“It is very dangerous to write the truth in war,” said Ernest Hemingway, “and the truth is very dangerous to come by.”

Prologue:

On July 18, 1936, at Gando in the Canary Islands, a short, balding, barrel-chested man in a gray suit, carrying a Spanish diplomatic passport in the name of José Antonio de Sagroniz, boarded a private seven-seater de Havilland Dragon Rapide aircraft that had arrived at Gando three days previously and had been waiting on the tarmac for him ever since.

And chapter 1:

Arturo Barea lay on the brown, pine-needled floor of a forest in the Sierra de Guadarrama, northwest of Madrid, with his head in his mistress’s lap. It was mid-afternoon on Sunday, July 19, and the resinous air was loud with the sound of cicadas.

The effect I noticed immediately here, is the connection between the Hemingway quotation and the Hemingwayesque first line of the first chapter. For one thing, note all the sensory detail in that second sentence. This is instantly recognizable to me as Hemingway’s style. And most pointedly, recall the opening line of Hemingway’s novel about the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.

I surely don’t need to tell you that this parallel was established on purpose. For that matter, Vaill ends her book with the opening line as (she tells us) Hemingway wrote it in his first draft:

We lay on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest…

I like her use of structure here, the bookending of her book using Hemingway’s own words. I find that this really pulls it together.

Rather more book beginning than usual, I confess. Thanks for your patience. And let me say that Hotel Florida is about much more than Hemingway; but he is the most widely known of her six individuals, and arguable the biggest and most colorful personality, so I think the occasional emphasis can be excused. That said, I really enjoyed learning so much about her other characters. They include Martha Gellhorn, journalist and Hemingway’s partner (mistress during the war, wife after); photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro; and press officers Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar. As usual, you’ll have to stay tuned for my book review, but for now: I recommend.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: Dying Every Day by James Romm

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

dying every day

Dying Every Day is well named. Nero’s rule over Rome beginning in the first few years AD was marked by death & murder in a multitude of forms, and Seneca, his philosopher/teacher-turned-adviser, offers enormous ambiguities. I chose a teaser for you that makes that point in a single sentence.

To act as imperial panderer, dispatching an ex-slave to the princeps to stop him from sleeping with his mother, brandishing Burrus and the guard as an implicit threat – these were hardly roles he had envisioned when he returned to Rome from Corsica, his trunk full of ethical treatises.

Stay tuned!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Valentine’s Day in book history

As I’ve done before, I figured I’d note today’s (consumerist, contrived) holiday with some book history, courtesy of A Reader’s Book of Days.reader's book of days

Born today:

Frank Harris (My Live and Loves), Galway, Ireland, 1856. I do not know this man. But I have been to Galway.

Carl Bernstein (All the President’s Men), Washington, D.C., 1944. I know of this one, of course, though I haven’t read the book. Interesting to know he was (is?) a D.C. native.

Died today:

1975: P.G. Wodehouse (The Code of the Woosters and lots of wonderful others, of course), Southampton, NY, at age 93. More’s the pity; would that he had lived to write more and more of those funny books.

2010: Dick Francis (Dead Cert, all those horse racing mysteries), Grand Cayman Island, at age 89. I’ve read none of his books, but I know his fans; I was working in a library where his books were popular at the time of his death, and I remember.

Additionally, I find it amusing that Nabokov features again on Valentine’s Day, since he came up on New Year’s as well!

In 1932, Vladimir Nabokov, in goal as always, played his first match with a new Russian émigré soccer team in Berlin. A few weeks later, after he was knocked unconscious by a team of factory workers, his wife, Vera, put an end to his soccer career.

[Oops.] I am a soccer fan and former player – and Nabokov fan, naturally – so I enjoy this factoid.

And,

1935: Samuel Beckett wrote to Tom McGreevy on Jane Austen, “Now I am reading the divine Jane. I think she has much to teach me.”

Well done, Beckett!

And finally, today in Julia’s personal history: we are typically in the desert wonderland of Big Bend National & State Parks & surrounding locales on this day, and this year follows that pattern. Husband and I are playing on our mountain bikes today, but I’ll check in on you upon my return.

I’m glad I picked today for a historical review in miniature; I learned some things. You?

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell

New research and new angles on The Great Gatsby and its place in history.

carelesspeople

Sarah Churchwell (The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe) takes on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mythically proportioned masterpiece in Careless People, an expansive study of biography, history, literary criticism and cultural connections. Her inquiries focus on a double-murder involving a socially ambitious lower-class woman and a respected rector, both married but not to each other, found shot to death in each other’s arms. The case captured national attention in 1922, the year Scott and Zelda returned to New York–and the year in which The Great Gatsby is set.

With an appealing, freshly curious manner, original research and newly discovered resources, Churchwell explores the possible connections between Fitzgerald’s experiences in 1922 and what happened at the same time in his most highly regarded novel. She also compares the plot of The Great Gatsby to the real-world action of 1922. In the book, which alternates between the Fitzgeralds’ lives during the period The Great Gatsby came to life with the unfolding of media coverage of the murder case, Churchwell incorporates Fitzgerald’s correspondence, including delightful poems exchanged with Ring Lardner, and lists of slang (including some 70 ways to say “drunk”).

With elements of fun and tragedy–like the lives of its subjects–Churchwell’s study of the Fitzgeralds, The Great Gatsby and the world that birthed it presents new perspectives on a literary icon.


This review originally ran in the January 28, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 unattributed clippings.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 348 other followers

%d bloggers like this: