Friday, March 9, 2018

Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935, by Claudia Clark

University of North Carolina Press, 1997
289 pp

After finishing Kate Moore's Radium Girls, which was okay and did the job the author meant it to do, I wanted to read an historical account of this story.  Where Moore's account is more firmly focused on providing the human face of this tragedy, here we get down to the forces that allowed it to happen in the first place and the attempts made toward reform so that it could never happen again.

As is made clear both in Moore's book and here, the young women who worked painting luminous dials on watches did so by means of lip pointing.  As they put the brushes into their mouths to make them sharper, they were also putting quantities of radium directly into their bodies.  No one at the time could have predicted what would happen next; radium was thought to provide wonder cures, was being sold on the open market;  the dial painters even had fun putting the substance on their teeth, hair, nails, and clothing. 

from Furatermek
However,  dial painters began to show up at their dentists and doctors offices with varying illnesses, including necrosis of the jaw, strange fractures and anemia.  Some of the women and their physicians or dentists began to wonder if their horrific symptoms were related to the radium paint or the factories in which they worked; investigations were made but the powers that be at the dial-painting facilities rejected the idea that the women's troubles had anything to do with the workplace or with their occupation.  In New Jersey, for example, the case of Irene Rudolph led her doctor to make a report to the state Department of Labor, but they found nothing "that conflicted with state factory laws."  Even though one consultant issued a warning that "radium might be behind the illness of the dialpainters," and that "every dialpainter should be warned," no action was taken. Another case came to light in January 1924; by February three of the women were dead, but at every official level where people may have made a difference, nothing was done.  Enter the women of the Consumers' League, committed reformers who worked tirelessly to not only bring these cases into the realm of public knowledge, but to take steps to have radium poisoning defined as an occupational illness, so that the women would have access to compensation.  Without the intervention of the Consumers' League, as the author notes, "the dialpainters would never have established the cause of their illnesses and deaths."

The women's fight to gain recognition for illnesses associated with the industry in which they worked was a long one, and despite the reformers' actions, was often impeded on several fronts. Clark discusses how the factory owners knew about the dangers of radium yet continued to not only deceive these women as to their safety, but it doesn't stop there. Self interest was another factor, in which scientists and physicians who received funding from these companies refused to divulge what they knew so as not to alienate those who funded their work. As she notes, the book traces "the failures of industrial health reform to a faith in the autonomy of 'experts' in both government and medicine."   There's much more here, as she examines the "social and political factors that influenced the responses" of everyone involved.

Clark's Radium Girls manages to give the women in her study a great deal of consideration without all of the litany of suffering that appears in Kate Moore's account, which was one of my big issues with that book. Unlike my experience with Moore's book, in this one  I came away with a better understanding of the historical, social, and legal milieu in which these battles were being fought. And while I was completely absorbed in this book, it wasn' t perfect -- as just one example, as various topics are introduced into the narrative the author ends up having to provide a brief background  so that the book becomes a bit overwhelming in terms of many histories going on at the same time which sort of pulls attention away from the real focus of her work. 

Many readers found this book to be "dry" or lacking sympathy for the dial painters themselves, but I didn't get those vibes at all. Then again, as I told someone recently, I'll probably die with a nonfiction book in my hand because I love getting down to not only the whys and hows of events of the past, but how those past events reflect or have had an effect on the present.  In that sense, I was not at all disappointed with this book, and frankly as someone who knows very little about the history of industrial health,  I found it quite fascinating. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, by Kate Moore

Sourcebooks, 2017
479 pp


 I am probably going to be the only person in the entire universe of people who've read this book who wasn't overwhelmed.  The reader reviews of Radium Girls are, if you'll pardon the pun, simply glowing, but while I think the author's intentions were great, and the story definitely compelling, my picky reading self had some serious issues with the way this book was written.

The first I'd heard of the "Radium Girls" was while reading the excellent book by Deborah Blum called The Poisoner's Handbook; I remember being absolutely captivated by the story she told of a New Jersey physician, Dr. Harrison Martland (also the Chief Medical Examiner for Essex County) who in 1928 had sent the bones of a young woman to the New York City Medical Examiner. These bones were all that was left of a once healthy person who had the misfortune of taking a job at the US Radium Corporation (USRC)  in Orange, NJ, where she, along with several other young women had been hired to paint the numbers on luminous wristwatches and clocks.  The method they used to apply the paint was to put the brush into their mouths to bring the tip to a perfect point, dip it into the paint, put the brush into water, and then the process would be repeated.  They even played around with it, putting the luminous liquid into their hair, rubbing it on their teeth, etc.  Even though the paint was made of radium, no one seemed too worried, since at the time it was considered to be great for your health -- people were enjoying radium spa treatments, it was put into toothpaste, skin products, drinking water, cigarettes, and many other items -- so there was absolutely no thought given to negative side effects.  But the girls started to become very ill with a rather mysterious and incurable illness; eventually nine of these girls died by 1924.   The bones sent to the NYC Medical Examiner's office in 1928 belonged to Amelia Maggia, who'd worked at the USRC for four years and died in 1923;  Martland wanted the bones tested for radioactivity.

That small part of Blum's book has always stuck in my head, and reinforced by watching an episode of American Experience based on her book, so I absolutely had to read this book by Kate Moore, whose mission here is to
"illuminate the inspiring young women exposed to the 'wonder' substance of radium and their strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances." 
Starting her story in 1917, she brings a human face to these women who were betrayed not only by their bosses, but also by the governments, the courts, and other individuals who continued to deny the lethal effects of radium as these women were slowly dying. In that sense, without a doubt, Moore's book is successful.  She also brings to light several examples of corporate insensibility, especially toward women, and I counted a number of points she made that as of a century later continue to exist.  Reading this book made me angry; it also makes for compelling reading and is steeped in tragedy.    I should have loved it, and maybe I would have if it hadn't been for the writing.  I am one of those very strange people who looks past the story being told down to how it's being told, and it is here where I had several issues.

First, there are a number of places where we read things like "perhaps," or "She could have meant," or "there might have been" --  in short what we're getting here is a lot of  conjecture.  Then come the literary touches the author puts into this work, for example, on page 107 when she talks about "a troubled look" that "crossed" the face of  Arthur Roeder, the president of USRC (how does she know that?) , or how "the Lord works in mysterious ways," heading a section that could have just as easily been left out with no detriment to the point she was making, or using phrases such as "The light of justice flooded in..."   This sort of thing crops up again and again, and I find it particularly annoying.  We also find ourselves reading things like "by all reports" in which there are no reports cited in the endnotes.  There's a particularly egregious error on page 292, in which the phrase "results that showed...", citing a statistic appears, but when I went to look for the citation, there was none; on page 364 she notes in speaking about a particular dying woman that she "lost approximately one pint of blood every time..." and guess what? No citation. No source, no nothing.  Seriously,  while some people might think that because the author describes herself as a non-academic, scholarship standards shouldn't matter, but that's just not the case.   What I object to the most is the purposeful, purely emotional tugging this author engages in.  To put a human face on these women by talking about the horrors they endured is one thing (and she does it very well), but, as just one example,  when you spend two pages describing the clothes people wore at a funeral, or the ribbon in a little girl's hair, and the prayers said by this little girl after her mother had died, well, that's just a bit much and unnecessary.  We already by this point have an abundance of sympathy toward this woman and the costs of her illness to her family in human and monetary terms, so why belabor the point?  And then, of course, there is the constant repetition of the symptoms of the radium poisoning that manifested in different ways -- she spares nothing and goes into overkill in describing every little bit of oozing pus and blood from a number of the women she's studying here. 

As I said, the author is highly successful in bringing their stories out of obscurity and into the light, in showing her readers that these women were human beings with families as well as victims of an industry that tragically turned its back on them when they needed help the most.  So the bottom line is that while I ended up being caught up in the story of the women she profiles,  became incensed that they suffered so needlessly and were refused help, became irate over the fact that some of the very same practices in the corporate universe of the time continue to exist, the truth is that I just can't overlook the writing here.  On the other hand,  readers are LOVING this book, so once again, I seem to be that little fish swimming against the tide.

When all is said and done, I would certainly recommend Radium Girls  because people should know this long-forgotten story and more importantly, these long-forgotten women in this dark episode of American history.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup

Bloomsbury, 2018
304 pp

hardcover, sent by the publisher

My many thanks to the lovely people at Bloomsbury for sending me this book.  Some time back I read and enjoyed this author's book A Is For Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, in which the author had surveyed Christie's novels and short stories, and then wrote about fourteen different poisons -- arsenic through veronal -- used by Christie to kill off her victims.  Despite the gruesome subject matter, it was a fascinating book, so when I was asked if I would like a copy of Harkup's Making the Monster, I wasn't at all going to say no.

Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and as it says on her website, a "science communicator."  On the dustjacket blurb of this book we learn that she
"completed a doctorate on her favorite chemicals, phosphines, and went on to further postdoctoral research before realising that talking, writing and demonstrating science appealed a bit more than hours slaving over a hot fume-hood."
 Thank goodness for that, because in her role as "science communicator," she is able to take some very complicated science and distill it down so that people like me can understand it.  I love science but I will admit to being mystified by it at times; here I didn't feel overwhelmed or over my head.

That's a good thing, because Making the Monster, as the blurb says, "explores the scientific background" behind Mary Shelley's masterwork, Frankenstein: Or, Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818 and then again in 1831.  The book examines the "science behind the story," but it also pieces together the "political, social and scientific world that she grew up in."  The question that she poses at the outset is this:
"How did a teenager create a work of fiction that has enthralled, inspired and terrified for two centuries?" 
which, if you consider it, is a very good question indeed, one providing the framework for what comes next.

After a section on a brief look at the Enlightenment, the author takes us not only into Mary Shelley's life (family, education, contemporaries, her possible inspirations for her work, its creation at the Villa Diodati and the scandals! that followed her and her family), but into the novel itself, both the 1818 edition and the later, revised 1831 edition.  All of that makes for fascinating reading, but where this book actually shines is in following Victor Frankenstein as he makes progress in his creation.  This part is just plain genius, since alongside Victor in the fictional world, we are taken through the history of science up to that time step by step, as the author demonstrates what information was available to a young woman with a well-rounded education and sheds light on the work of scholars or other people who may have influenced Mary Shelley in her writing.  She also reveals how Victor's work may have followed or diverted from known science of the time.

Victor Frankenstein and his creation; 1831 edition illustration, reproduced in this book

We are guided through Victor's work first in collecting the "raw materials" aka body parts, and this leads to a brief discussion of the history of the study of anatomy and discoveries that were made through the process, while taking us into the world of "bodysnatchers, resurrectionists or the "sack-em-up men," which could often, as the author noted, provide a good living. Using this model (the fiction vs. the real science) she goes on to examine the question of how Victor would have been able to preserve what he'd collected against the history/practices of real-world counterparts, going on into how Victor constructed his creation.  She then turns to the  "small electrical machine" he built to provide the spark of life to his creature, and then it's on to the reanimation of his finished creation, which leads to some of the most interesting writing in this book  as she goes into the history of electricity and  experimentation in its potential uses in medicine, some of it just plain creepy.

Following this section is another excellent (albeit short) chapter that focuses on the mind of creature itself, and the moral implications of its creation; there is also a timeline in the back that is quite interesting and extremely useful.

Once I started Making the Monster it was a book I was reluctant to put down for any reason, which says a lot since "scientifically-minded" is not a description I'd use in describing myself.  However, as I said earlier, the way in which the author put this book together made the science completely accessible so that the information is not at all overwhelming.   It is also a timely release, since it is now two hundred years since the publication of the original edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which as a novel has continuously captured people's imagination over the centuries.  Anyone at all who has read Shelley's book will love this one which gets behind the science fiction into the science fact.

highly recommended -- and again, my many, many thanks to the powers that be at Bloomsbury.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Maul and the Pear Tree, by PD James and TA Critchley, with a dash of Thomas De Quincey on the side:

Mysterious Press, 1971
234 pp


I came to this book in a bit of a roundabout way.  One evening I was making my way though Britbox offerings, and discovered Lucy Worsley's series A Very British Murder .  Part of the first episode, "The New Taste for Blood," dealt with
"The 1811 mass killings in the East End of London, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, and their effect on an excitable population"
"attracted the attention of opium junkie and writer Thomas de Quincey, who wrote a borderline satirical essay on the slaughter."
 After sitting there glued to the screen, I realized that I actually owned an old hardcover copy of The Maul and The Pear Tree, so it shot up to the top of my TBR pile, along with Thomas de Quincey's On Murder As Considered as One of the Fine Arts.  Both are excellent reads, although de Quincey's lecture can be a bit daunting to get through. Having said that, it is still well worth reading.

About ten minutes to midnight on December 7th, 1811, a young servant girl, Margaret Jewell was sent out to pay the baker's bill and to buy oysters by her boss Timothy Marr.  Both the baker's and the oyster shop were closed, so after about twenty minutes she made her way back to Marr's draper shop (and residence) at 29 Ratcliffe Highway. Finding the door locked, she continued to pull the doorbell, but no one came to let her in. After about one a.m., the night watchman came "calling the hour," and told Margaret to move along. After she explained her presence there, the watchman also rang the bell and began pounding on the door. This noise woke a neighbor, pawnbroker John Murray, who made his way to the back of the house, where he discovered that the back door was open. Climbing up the stairs, he stopped short of going into Marr's bedroom and then proceeded into the shop area, where he found the first of what would turn out to be four dead bodies -- that of James Gowen, the apprentice, who was laying there with a face that had been "shattered by blow after blow," with his head "beaten to a pulp." As the authors describe the scene,
"...blood and brains splattered the shop as high as the counter, and even hung, a ghastly excrescence, from the low ceiling." (14)
Murray was in shock and made for the door where he found the body of Mrs. Marr; after managing to get the door open he announced
"Murder! Murder! Come and see what murder is here!" 
to the small crowd which had started to gather.  The body of Timothy Marr was then discovered, leaving only  the three-month old  baby Timothy Junior unaccounted for; sadly his body too was found laying in its cradle, after having been killed in a most brutal manner.   While government, the magistrates, and the public were still reeling from these events, full-fledged panic set in just twelve days later when another gruesome set of murders occurred, this time at the nearby pub in Gravel Lane called  The King's Arms.

from the Thames Police Museum website

 A man on his way to the pub late at night  to fetch a pot of beer stepped out into the street and was immediately "swept into turmoil:
"People were shouting and running, and above the din, repeated again and again, came the terrible cry, 'Murder! Murder!' "
It was then that he saw what everyone gathered on the street was staring at:
"A man, nearly naked, was suspended in mid-air, clutching sheets knotted together. Hand over hand he was making his way down from an open garret window, shrieking and crying incoherently." 
The man was John Turner, the lodger, whose cries of "Murder" led to members of the crowd breaking into the King's Arms, where they discovered the bodies of proprietor John Williamson, his wife Elizabeth, and the servant woman Bridget Harrison. Once again, the deaths had been extremely violent; unlike the Marr murders though, the perpetrators had spared one victim, the Williamsons' young granddaughter.

James and Critchley use these two murders to examine not only those particular cases, but also to shed light on the state of policing at the time (no unified London police force to speak of); the haphazard questioning and arrests of several people by the powers that be who were supposed to be in charge, namely the very disorganized Thames River Police, constables who went unpaid, magistrates who too often just didn't care, a government that often looked the other way, and the local parish watchmen.  Much time is devoted to the xenophobic outlook that made it easy to accuse "foreigners" of any crimes.  They also look at  the effect of the widespread (read nationwide) panic brought about by these two horrific murders, and then, of course, at the arrest of the "guilty" party, John Williams,  based on nothing but circumstantial evidence and hearsay testimony.  There were a few responsible parties who actually asked the right questions about other suspects, but they were largely ignored after Williams' arrest and subsequent suicide in his jail cell, which  seemed to offer some sort of proof that he was indeed the guilty party.  And finally, the two authors examine the question of Williams' actual guilt, offering conflicting evidence pointing away from him and toward someone else.  

These cases are also quite famous since Thomas de Quincey, in his series of essays beginning with On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (this essay, followed by another, then "A Knocking on the Gate in Macbeth" and an 1854 "postscript"),  also uses the Ratcliffe Highway murders as a centerpiece.  As just one example, writing about Williams the murderer  as an "artist," he says that he had
"made his debut on the stage of Ratcliffe Highway and executed those unparalleled murders which have procured for him such a brilliant and undying reputation." 
De Quincey defines murder as an "artform," actually referring to the Ratcliffe Highway murders in a rather satirical fashion as "performance," and also discusses the role of the press in sharing these "performances" with the public over breakfast; over the four essays he makes the case for murder as a sort of public "cause de celebration" in which people want to be involved.  As Judith Flanders notes in her The Invention of Murder,  in elevating Williams to center stage as an artist who has "carried his art to a point of colossal sublimity,"
"De Quincey is making a serious point: In Macbeth, we are interested not in the victim, Duncan, but in the thoughts of the murderer, Macbeth, just as we are more interested in murderers than we are in his victims." (18)
As anyone who's read any sort of later nineteenth-century Victorian sensation fiction or Victorian crime fiction knows, that idea resonates clearly through much of that sort of literature of the time, and actually continues to this day.

The Maul and the Pear Tree, as I said, is a great read, an excellent study of not simply two crimes, but James' and Critchley's in-depth research  turns this book into a broader social and cultural history of the time. If you ask me, that's the way every true crime account should be handled.  And while De Quincey may be most challenging to read, Frances Wilson's book Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey sets these four essays in context, making them a bit more doable.

Anyone with even the slightest interest in British historical true crime shouldn't miss The Maul and the Pear Tree.

 I leave you with these two places of note re the Ratcliffe Highway Murders:

 Thames Police Museum


The Londonist (which also has a brief video clip of author Iain Sinclair talking about these crimes in the modern-day area of the Ratcliffe Highway murders)

And don't miss A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley!  I hate the way she says the word "muhduh" but it's a great series.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, by Marjorie Worthington

Spurl Editions, 2017
originally published 1966
320 pp


First things first. I have to take a minute and say thanks to Eva at Spurl, who brought this book to my attention.    Spurl is a small press, one that specializes in "unusual literature and photography," and I first heard of this publisher when they came out with Jean Lorrain's Monseiur de Bougrelon last year.  They "love the eccentric, the unexpected, the seedy and the absurd" like I do, so it's great match. 

Who is Willie Seabrook, you might ask, just as I did.  I did a half-hearted search on him just to find out what he'd written, but left it at that since I decided I really didn't want to know anything about him until I'd read this book. Here we get to know Willie Seabrook the author, the traveler, and the adventurer; he was a man with many friends who loved him, a man who knew a veritable who's-who list of famous writers and other colorful characters during his lifetime.   However, Marjorie Worthington probably knew him better than anyone. In a very big way, this book is her own story.  Her love for Willie she describes as
 "something so intricately bound up with the breath I breathed and the blood that channeled its way in and out of my heart that only death could put an into it,"
one, which says  "cut myself off from wherever I belonged in order to be with him."

Standing by him with the patience of a saint, finding deep reserves within herself upon which to draw, she documents that "strange world" she lived in with Seabrook, often at great risk to her own sanity, until a time when she just couldn't do it any more.  While the story is not pretty, it is compelling enough that I couldn't stop reading it, not so much because of any voyeuristic tendencies I may have, but because in Marjorie we have a woman who wrestled with her own demons while devoting herself to trying to help Willie with his. Written in 1966, the book takes us through Marjorie's years with Willie Seabrook, and then up until his death in 1945.  Whether this may be her own way of looking back and taking some measure of blame for his suicide, I'm not sure, although the argument could certainly be made here.

She begins her story in 1926 when they were both in Paris as part of what Gertrude Stein called the "Lost Generation."  The "core of her life" as she puts it, was during their seven-year stay in France; it was a time when they met for aperitifs and conversation with  people like Ford Madox Ford, Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and Jean Cocteau.  There they lived in a small place in Toulon where they both worked on their writing, although they also spent time travelling  throughout France.   There's a lot of "name dropping," as Marjorie calls it, but we also get a brief glance into Willie's rather strange persona for the first time.  On page 19, she refers to Willie's relationship with women, saying that he liked them,
"in spite of a deep-rooted hostility to his mother Myra, that compelled him to make them miserable...Author, traveler, celebrity, he could still look wistful and sort of small boy, and he had a way of making a nice woman feel that he needed her, that she alone could help him get rid of the demons that beset him, his drinking and his sadism." (19)
These twin "demons" of "drinking" and "sadism"  will reappear many times throughout Marjorie's account, but more interesting is that after having finished the book, it seems to me that here we have the first clue about how Marjorie sees her own role in Willie's life -- she is that "nice woman" who wanted to feel needed, and with whose help he could exorcise the "demons" in his life. Everything that happens later (up to a point), I believe, comes back to this statement, as Marjorie will take his failures on her own shoulders, making them hers.  For example, during the 1930s when Willie began drinking "almost a whole bottle before lunch, and another bottle between the time he awoke from his siesta and nine o'clock at night," to
"deaden some inner anguish that lay so deep a whole ocean of brandy couldn't touch it,"
he came to the decision that he needed to go to New York, "to be shut up someplace 'behind bars' where he couldn't get a drink for love or money."  In Marjorie's eyes, she "had failed" because she "could not help him stop drinking," and she viewed Willie's decision to leave for New York as a way of him telling her that the two of them "weren't good for each other," that she was "the last one to help him stop drinking," and that together they'd "made a fine mess" of both their lives.

She also came to believe that while they were "physically drawn together," she had also failed when it came to taming Willie's other demon, manifested in the women who were paid for hours to allow him to put them in chains while he took sadistic pleasure in their pain.  She referred to these women by the "generic name" of Lizzie in Chains, and while she hated it, she put up with it, once in a while even obliging him herself.

Willie Seabrook and Lee Miller, taken by Man Ray, c. 1930. From "The Zombie King," by Emily Matchar, Atavist Magazine.
About his "Lizzie in Chains" fetish, she wrote that she
"had always kept some tiny thread of hope that one day Willie, who I believed could do anything, would be able to slay his evil demon before it destroyed him."  (293)
Things did seem to be on target for better lives after Willie's treatment for his alcoholism -- he was sober again, they married, he was writing, and they even bought a place in New York out in the country to take on "a new kind of life."   But even for a woman whose patience seemed to know no bounds, and despite her life devoted to  this man, Marjorie eventually came to discover that she had a breaking point, a realization that likely saved her in the process.

The Strange World of Willie Seabrook was written twenty years after Seabrook committed suicide. It is haunting, and between these two covers we find not only a lot of soul searching on the author's part, but also a picture of Seabrook as she knew him,  a deeply-flawed, severely-troubled human being who seemed destined for self destruction.  At the same time she leaves us with the idea that he was a
"fine, intelligent, and lovable man, with a touch of genius as well as madness,"
and that he inspired "deep and indestructible love" among those who "tried to help but were not successful." Perhaps Marjorie should have realized that the possibility looms large that Willie never really wanted help, saving herself a whole load of grief much earlier on.

very highly recommended and major, major applause to Spurl for bringing this book back into print.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767, by Thorkild Hansen

NYRB Classics, 2017
originally published as Det Lykkelige Arabien,  1964
translated by James McFarlane and Kathleen McFarlane
381 pp


NYRB Classics has delivered what I think is one of its best offerings yet with this book, which, in a word, is outstanding. It is also one of the best books I've read so far this year, and I put it down only when necessary, each time grudgingly so.

On January 12, 1761, the front page of the Copenhagen Post relayed  the news that the King of Denmark, who "strives indefatigably for the furtherance of knowledge and of science and for the greater glory of his people,"  had "dispatched a group of scholars" on a rather extraordinary  mission. They were to
"travel by by way of the Mediterranean to Constantinople, and thence through Egypt to Arabia Felix, and subsequently return by way of Syria to Europe; they will on all occasions seek to make new discoveries and observations for the benefit of scholarship, and will also collect and dispatch hither valuable Oriental manuscripts, together with other specimens and rarities of the East."
This undertaking was the first of its kind for the Kingdom of Denmark; it was also of great interest to Europe as a whole since this was to be a journey into Arabia Felix, or what is now known as Yemen, which at the time was "a corner of the world unknown to Europeans."  As Colin Dwyer notes in his review at NPR, this expedition was "King Frederick V's chance to make his own splash in the era of the Enlightenment," drawing on not only this period's focus on science, but also on "the enthusiasm for foreign and particularly Oriental lands."

What the press didn't know was that this small group had already been "riven by bitter dissension" even as they had been rowed out of Copenhagen a week earlier; later on, this discord among these people would come to a head when they realized that one of their number had purchased arsenic, adding fear and distrust to the already volatile mix.  That story alone makes for compelling reading, but there's so much more to keep readers turning pages.    Arabia Felix follows this remarkable expedition from its origins through its end in 1767, with the return to Denmark of only one survivor who, as the back-cover blurb notes, found himself "forgotten and all the specimens that had been sent back ruined by neglect."

While I won't go into any detail here, Arabia Felix turned out to be a gripping read, full of adventure, tragedy, a number of nail-biting moments, and even humor.    The author also reveals how many of the discoveries made on this expedition would come to have great significance for scholars in several fields to this day -- as just one example,  the inscriptions painstakingly copied by Carsten Niebuhr at Persepolis were so well done that later scholars built from them, eventually solving the "mystery of the cuneiform script."  Speaking of Niebuhr, his amazing story alone is well worth the price of this book, not to mention his often-comical adventures with his trusty astrolabe.

I can't begin to express how much I loved this book.  I bought it looking forward to the story of the expedition, but I was not expecting what I found here.   Arabia Felix is a very human story in which Hansen gives the men their due, bringing each of these people vividly alive both individually and collectively in terms of the group's dynamic.  But it's not just that.  Working with a variety of sources, the author  manages to bring everything to life -- the successes, failures, miscommunications, misunderstandings, mistakes, and ultimately, what these people sacrificed in the long run to complete their given mission. The tragedy of their stories having been long forgotten is beyond rectified here, and delightedly so.

Kudos to NYRB for publishing this book.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

...and speaking of lost cities: whoa.

- Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan Vols. I & II by John Lloyd Stephens
             9781605204468, Cosimo Classics, 2008
             originally published 1841

 -Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, Vols. I and II, by John Lloyd Stephens
               9781605203799, Cosimo Classics, 2008
               originally published 1843

- Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, and The Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya, by William Carlsen
                 9780062407405, William Morrow, 2016

I don't know if anyone else does this, but when I read nonfiction, I go through the listed sources like a fine-toothed comb to find more about what I'm reading.  While I had some issues with the book,  one very nice thing to come out of my reading of Preston's Lost City of the Monkey God was the reference to this book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, Vols. I & II -- so voilá, within a few days it was in my mailbox.  I had thought to only read the sections about the Yucatan since I was just there a few weeks ago, but I started from the beginning and got totally caught up in Stephens' book.  What may seem dull to quite a lot of people kept me flipping pages.  Stephens' account of his travels with partner Frederick Catherwood reads like an old-fashioned adventure story combined with history and the thrill of discovery as Stephens and Catherwood only make their way through Central America during a time of major political upheaval, battling dense jungles, illness, and even sharks while in a leaky boat.   Its true importance though, as Carlsen so aptly describes in his own book, is that these two people "altered the world's understanding of human history." More on that later.

After finishing that book and still hungry for more, I picked up Carlsen's Jungle of Stone, made it about halfway through, and then realized that Stephens had published yet another travel account, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, also in two volumes.  Like any good nerd would do, I put the Carlsen book on hold  until I could read the second Stephens book, then picked it up again where I left off.

This book was less of an adventure story (although it did have its moments) than an account documenting the often-harrowing travels of Stephens and Catherwood through the Yucatan, where they made a circuit of several ruins from Copán to Tulum, as Carlsen calls it,  "their last great ghost city."

Fascinating stuff, made all the more interesting since, as I said, I was just there, which was the reason behind why I wanted to read these books.  Last year we were there as well and visited Coba, which is only briefly mentioned in Stephens' account, and made it up an eight-story pyramid,

my photo

while this year we did Tulum:

my photo

It's one thing to visit these places after they've been excavated, gone over, studied and written about, but imagine what it must have been like for these two men in the 1840s, coming across these places and having to hack out enough jungle just to get close enough to examine them. Their wonder at these discoveries is well documented in this book, along with Stephens' theories about the people who built these once-flourishing cities.  Their travels took them not only to these still-unexplored ruins, but also underground at times, for example at Bolonchen, as captured by Catherwood's excellent illustrations (pp 97, 99, and 101 respectively)

the cave opening at Bolonchen

making their way down through the opening into the cave on a ladder that kept falling apart


exploring the passages leading from the main chamber.

Both books are very much worth looking into for anyone who has an interest in Central American history, the history of the Mayan civilization, and archaeology; it's also great for armchair travelers.  But the most important thing about both of these books is explained very nicely in William Carlsen's book, Jungle of Stone.  

This book not only gives a great summary of both of Stephens' accounts, but also examines the lives of both Stephens and Catherwood. While Stephens was very well known, Catherwood's life  has been an enigma, and Carlsen gives as much insight into this man as is probably possible, since very little is known about him.  He  also examines the archaeology, the history and the studies that have been done since Stephens and Catherwood first made their way to the area to find this "hidden jungle of stones" that would "begin the process of unraveling the Maya's amazing, improbable history."   But there's much more here -- for example, the current view before their trek of discovery was that
 "the Americas had always been a land occupied by primitive, inferior people," 
but that notion would be radically altered after Stephens published his books.  As Carlsen notes,
"After the publication of their books, the mysterious stone ruins in Central America, the vast, sophisticated road network of the Inca in South America, and the monuments and temples of the Aztecs could no longer be viewed as the Lost Tribes of Israel, the ancient seafaring Phoenicians, or the survivors of lost Atlantis. They were understood to be solely indigenous in origin, the products of the imagination, intelligence and creativity of Native Americans."
In short, Stephens and Catherwood not only paved the way for future exploration, but their discoveries and their keen awareness of the significance of what they'd found actually turned our own prevailing assumption about the development of civilization on its ear. And seriously, all you have to do is to visit a place like Chichen Itza or Tulum to discover the truth of what Carlsen (and earlier, Stephens) is saying.

I can very highly recommend all three books here -- reading the first one was often like being in the middle of an adventure, and there were times when I wondered how this guy managed to stay alive.   The second book was just sheer pleasure to read, and I'm already thinking that next year we'll go to Mérida as a home base for exploring more ruins.  Carlsen's book is absolutely perfect for readers who may be interested but don't want to spend the time reading Stephens' accounts, since he gives the highlights of both but adds in so much more.

I can't begin to say how much I enjoyed these books.