Review of: The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked and Found, by Martin W. Sandler

I don’t typically read or review “Young Adult” books, but The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked and Found, by Martin W. Sandler, came my way via an Early Reviewer’s program and—full disclosure—I did not realize it was YA when I requested it! Of course, Whydahthe “Young Adult” genre has come a long way since my own youth, when it tended to only run to the lowest common denominator of the youngest readers.  In contrast, just about any adult non-specialist could peruse The Whydah and perhaps not even realize it was written for a YA audience.

Pirates are the stuff of both myth and history, an enduring legend that dominates the imagination in pulp fiction, swashbuckling films, and even Halloween costume parties and amusement park rides. The reality, of course, was starkly different from the romanticism, as revealed through both historical scholarship and—especially in recent decades—its partnership with the increasingly sophisticated technology of underwater archaeology. Sandler, a prolific author of books for adults and children (his Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad was previously reviewed on the Regarp Book Blog.*), artfully brings this marriage of history and archaeology to bear in this well-written work that focuses on noted pirate captain Black Sam Bellamy, his flagship vessell Whydah, and the culture of early eighteenth century piracy—as well as the recovery of the wreck and interpretation of the artifacts.

Born in England, like many young men of his era Sam Bellamy went to sea in the British navy.  A veteran of naval combat in the War of Spanish Succession, at twenty-four Bellamy found himself out of a job when that conflict ended in 1714, and tens of thousands were released from service. His next stop was Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod, where he partnered up with a fellow-adventurer and returned to sea, this time on his own terms. When a promising salvage venture went sour, Bellamy instead turned to piracy, where he proved himself a highly successful raider along the east coast of America. One of his greatest prizes was the Whydah, a slaver that had recently traded its human cargo for vast riches that became the bountiful plunder of Sam Bellamy and his crew, and was transformed into Bellamy’s flagship. In what amounted to but a single year, Black Sam distinguished himself as one of the most successful pirates of all times—before he fell victim to equal parts greed and the treacherous seas off of Cape Cod that sank the Whydah in 1717, and drowned Bellamy and most of his mates. The wreck—and a bounty of artifacts—were not recovered until 1984.

Sandler’s thin volume is rich with detail, not only for his subjects but the milieu of piracy these inhabited. Pirates, it turns out, could indeed live up to the lore that has portrayed them as brutal and ruthless, but they also lived by a code of honor that was rigorously upheld.  Most extraordinary in this code was its stark element of democracy. In a time when all the world was organized by hierarchy and class, all pirates, regardless of their specialized roles aboard ship, were essentially equals; the captain was little more than a first among equals, although he received two shares of plunder rather than the one due to an ordinary seaman. Nearly every aspect of their communal existence was governed by consensus, and determined by an equal vote from each member of the crew. When they raided other ships, their treatment of those who manned the prize was determined largely by the level of resistance. If the ship under attack surrendered without a fight, pirates typically showed great lenience, sparing the lives of officers and crew alike, who would be released to the sea with provisions on small boats if the ship was taken. Those who gave battle, on the other hand, often saw no quarter, ending their lives in a sometimes-horrific fashion marked by outsize cruelty. Thus, it was little wonder that the majority of ships beset by pirates often promptly surrendered. More surprising, perhaps, was that the surrendered crew was frequently offered a chance to join up with the very pirates that had overrun them—and that many availed themselves of this opportunity!

The last third of the book is devoted to finding and excavating the Whydah—which has continued for decades—as well as exploring the art and technology of diving and underwater archaeology. Here too the author presents the material in a competent, engaging fashion that holds the interest of the reader of all ages. Sandler aptly demonstrates how the artifacts recovered from the Whydah have contributed to a renaissance in the interpretation of what life must have been like on a pirate vessel three centuries ago.

Yet, this otherwise laudable work is unfortunately marred when it credulously repeats the fanciful notion that has Alexander the Great as an early pioneer in underwater exploration, here depicted in a medieval painting being lowered beneath the sea in a primitive glass diving bell, in the fourth century BCE! [p125] This ahistorical myth belongs to the literature of the so-called “Romance of Alexander” that was imagined many centuries after his death, and that to my knowledge has no scholarly support. (Endnotes include a reference to a defunct URL, but further research on the reference itself lends it little credence.) There was also a glaring error of historical interpretation in Sandler’s Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation, this one regarding slavery and the Civil War, which makes me wonder about his reliability as a historian.* Sandler has many books and projects and awards to his credit, much of them focused on history, as well as a background as an educator, so these uncharacteristic flaws seem especially incongruous. Of course, both author and publisher should be taken to account for such carelessness.

Despite this imperfection, The Whydah has much to recommend it overall to a popular audience of both the young adult and their parents. This is fascinating material, and Sandler’s skill as a writer who can weave multiple themes into a coherent account shines throughout the narrative.  All of this is further enhanced in the presentation, which includes a number of sidebars, illustrations and maps. The Whydah demonstrates that the real story of pirates can be as enthralling as their swashbuckling legends.

[*See my review of Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad, by Martin W. Sandler,  at:]

Review of: The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts: The Rise and Fall of a People’s Movement, by John R. Mulkern

Massachusetts in the early 1850s had undergone dramatic changes that had radically upended the social, economic, and political dynamics of its very recent past. It had become “the nation’s most densely populated, urbanized, and industrialized state,” [p83] The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts The Rise and Fall of a People_s Movement,with thriving mills and factories that employed legions of laborers that often worked long hours in terrible conditions for very low wages, with traditional agricultural and rural lifeways in steep decline.  Efforts at reform were thwarted by the dominant pro-business Whig party. A market hungry for labor only encouraged an exponential increase in the population of the foreign born, already swollen by a rising tide of desperate immigrants from Ireland fleeing starvation, their numbers pregnant with an unfamiliar culture and a religious faith despised by most Americans. A growing discontent fueled a rage directed at the elite and their failed institutions, spawning a populist revolt that manifested itself in racism, hatred, xenophobia, exclusion and a determination to overthrow the old order and start afresh.  The result was a shocking and unprecedented sweep to power of the American Party—popularly known as the Know-Nothings—who captured all but three seats of the state legislature and even the office of the governor!

Invited to write an article about Know-Nothings for a nativism-themed journal, the very first source I turned to for background on my research was The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts: The Rise and Fall of a People’s Movement, by the late John R. Mulkern. It turned out to be such a fine work of history that I read it cover-to-cover. And it served to inspire and define the narrower focus of my own article.

Accounts of the antebellum era often gloss over the Know-Nothings as a brief flare that served to signal the collapse of the established political order that had acted as an uncertain glue to the larger looming geographical fissure, which has sadly doomed the movement to unwarranted obscurity.  And while the ascent of the Know-Nothings was indeed a national phenomenon coincident to the larger fracture of the two-party system over the slavery issue, only in Massachusetts was its impact so extensive and profound. On its face, the sudden rise to power of such magnitude of a racist, nativist régime seems especially surprising, since by most measures the Bay State was the most egalitarian in the nation, with a comfortable African-American community, as well as a significant anti-slavery element. But, as Mulkern—formerly Professor of History at Babson College—underscores in this well-written, comprehensive volume, this manifestation of the Know-Nothings was truly peculiar to Massachusetts, once again proving the maxim often associated with former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill that “all politics is local.”

Mulkern skillfully guides the reader through the tangle of issues and interests that shaped the advent and unlikely political monopoly held ever so fleetingly by the Know-Nothings on Beacon Hill.  It all began with the complacency of a pro-business Whig Party that—aligned with the captains of industry—seemed to have an iron grip on power. Reforms that had taken hold in other states—such as districting and plurality—were absent in Massachusetts. Gubernatorial candidates rarely achieved the requisite majority, so the race was tossed to the Whig-dominated legislature, thereby assuring that their man got the job. Rural areas had little voice in state government. Rather than working in agriculture and living in small towns as their grandfathers had, great numbers of citizens crowded in the urban east and worked as wage laborers in sometimes deplorable conditions. Lobbies for a “Ten-Hour Law” that would restrict the work day were repeatedly rebuffed.  Jacksonian Democrats, long in lonely opposition, were yet too wedded to laissez-faire economics to seize this issue and run with it. Meanwhile, other voices in temperance, nativism and free-soil remained muted and increasingly frustrated. Add to this combustible mix a great influx of desperately poor unskilled Irish refugees who brought with them strange customs and Roman Catholicism, a faith universally despised by the Protestant native-born. There was such a hunger for labor that not a single American was displaced, but the presence of masses of foreign workers fed a false yet compelling narrative that jobs were at risk.

Traditional social and political institutions were incapable of redressing or even containing the growing discontent that was a by-product of these competing forces. It was the Free-Soil Party that first exploited it, sensing an opportunity and seizing the moment to join with anti-corporate Democrats (styled as “locofocos”), disaffected Whigs, and others to spring to power in a surprise “Coalition” government that permanently unseated Whig dominance. A grand attempt at constitutional reform failed even more grandly, but there was lasting historical significance to the Coalition’s short-lived grip on the reins of legislative authority when it sent the notable Charles Sumner to the U.S. Senate.  Closer to home, it bulldozed the established order, paving the way for the emergence of the Know-Nothings.
Know-nothing-flagThe Know-Nothings in Massachusetts were an ostensibly nativist organization that traced their roots back to the virulently anti-Irish “Native American” party.  Based in local, fraternal lodges across the state, their power base lay in gatherings of friends, relatives and neighbors who met in secret to voice their grievances. A shared sense of alienation and political impotence eclipsed the veneer of nativism and united disparate voices on the outside—including those of anti-slavery and pro-temperance—in a populist surge that took the state by surprise with their sudden coup in the 1854 elections. In an unexpected landslide, Know-Nothings elected the governor, all forty state senators and all but three house representatives; most of those elected had never before served in government. The once dominant Whigs—damaged by their earlier displacement at the hands of the Coalition, and further weakened in a state unfriendly to slave interests by their association with the Compromise of 1850 and its hated Fugitive Slave Act—were fatally wounded by their startling rout.

What followed was a plethora of efforts to restrict citizenship and contain the burgeoning Irish population, most of which came to nothing. Part of that was due to the fact that most of those elected were political neophytes, but more importantly, it was because the Know-Nothings in Massachusetts were actually a shadowy coalition of progressives and reactionaries. Once again, the Free-Soilers—led by the wily, chameleon-like, soon-to-be United States Senator Henry Wilson—saw an opportunity and seized it, commanding an outsize role in the movement.  But they were not alone.  At the end of the day, reformism trumped reactionary. The Know-Nothings did not retain power long, but their legacy included an astonishing amount of extremely progressive reform legislation, creating laws to protect workingmen and ending imprisonment for debt.  There were also laws that provided an overall boost to public school expenditure, made vaccination compulsory, funded libraries, took tentative steps to regulate child labor, and strikingly improved women’s rights in property, marriage and divorce. Arguably of the greatest significance was a law that mandated integration of blacks and whites in public education, landmark legislation which effectively made Massachusetts the first state in the country to ban school segregation!  [The latter became the topic of my journal article, “Strange Bedfellows: Nativism, Know-Nothings, African-Americans and School Desegregation in Antebellum Massachusetts,” which is accessible at:]

It was not to last. Despite their dramatic takeover and flamboyant dominance, the Know-Nothings faded as rapidly as they flared. Still, while they may have been just a flash-in-the-pan locally as well as nationally, the Massachusetts incarnation made a bold mark on what was to follow.  Gearing up for the 1856 presidential race, the national Know-Nothings met in convention and declared the party agnostic on slavery, seeking to unite the country behind nativism. Massachusetts Know-Nothings, however, met in Springfield and, while championing nativism, countered with a free-soil and anti-slavery position known as the “Springfield Platform.” This severely wounded the national party, which ultimately went down to defeat as anti-slavery votes hemorrhaged to the emerging Republican Party.  The Know-Nothings were essentially relegated to a footnote in history.

In retrospect, the Know-Nothings in Massachusetts represented nearly a textbook case of a populist movement that combined both reactionary and progressive elements, a topic analyzed elsewhere at great length by the historian Ronald P. Formisano, who argues that populism can frequently marshal a mosaic of forces to serve as engine to revolt against the status quo. Thus rage and revolt take center stage over policy and agenda.  This is what best accounts for the incongruous 1968 drift of many supporters of the liberal Robert Kennedy to the segregationist George Wallace after the assassination. Similarly, some estimate that as many as ten percent of those who backed Bernie Sanders ultimately voted for Donald Trump in 2016!

Mulkern artfully wields the tools of complexity and nuance critical to historical analysis from start to finish in this definitive chronicle of a long overlooked political movement in a barely remembered moment of Massachusetts history.  All too often, a truly magnificent work directed at a narrow academic audience gets buried in the library stacks. Published back in 1990, this volume probably has not received the attention that it deserves. I am grateful that I found it, but full of regret that I could not share my praise—and a copy of my completed article that was nurtured by his scholarship—with the author, who passed away in 2012. I can only hope that this review serves to bring others to read it, so that the product of Mulkern’s fine effort will live on for generations to come.

[NOTE: Some of the content of this review was lifted from my journal article, “Strange Bedfellows: Nativism, Know-Nothings, African-Americans and School Desegregation in Antebellum Massachusetts,” which—along with related materials—is freely accessible to the public at a website I created to explore this topic,]

Review of: Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, by Bill Schutt

“You are what you eat,” nutritionist Victor Lindlahr once famously declared. That certainly turned out to be true for the ill-fated Fore tribe in the highlands of Papua New Cannibalism A Perfectly Natural HistoryGuinea, who until fairly recently engaged in ritualized cannibalism of their deceased relatives in a rite of honor that unknowingly condemned hundreds of them annually to a devastating and ultimately fatal disease called “kuru” that was—due to its bizarre symptoms—popularly known as the “laughing death.” This story of the Fore and how their consumption of the brains of family members transmitted a peculiar epidemic is just one of the fascinating tales in Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, by Bill Schutt, a well-written, entertaining but occasionally flawed account of a topic that is often as much taboo as it is irresistible.

Indeed, there is something that is equal parts enthralling and horrifying about the subject of cannibalism that attracts an audience that nevertheless wants to shrink away from it. For many, The Road is Cormac McCarthy’s most memorable and disturbing novel—rather than his far more nuanced excursion into man’s inhumanity to man, Blood Meridian—precisely because people are not simply slaughtered, but devoured.  The most unforgettable serial killers—both real and fictional—remain Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lechter, respectively.  There’s a good reason why people who know almost nothing about American history still seem to know something about the whaleship Essex and the Donner Party.  For us, cannibalism is a rare and horrid deviation from the norm.  To that conclusion, Bill Schutt would say: not so fast!

When I was a small child, I was really excited when my pet gerbil gave birth, then horrified when in short order she methodically ate her own young. The image of scattered pink and furless baby gerbil parts littering the terrarium remains seared into my memory. My distressed gerbil was engaged in something called filial cannibalism, but the practice of one member of a particular species consuming all or part of another of the same species is hardly aberrant in nature, as the spoiler in the subtitle—A Perfectly Natural History—suggests. In fact, as the author reveals, it is remarkably prevalent, occurring for a variety of reasons under a whole host of various conditions, and much less often linked to starvation desperation than might be supposed, although far less common among mammals than creatures such as insects and mollusks, for instance.

In the first third of the book, Schutt—professor of biology at LIU Post and research associate in residence at the American Museum of Natural History—takes the reader on a tour of this peculiar habit among fauna both familiar and foreign. Schutt treats us to some great tidbits along the way. It turns out that everything we thought we knew about sexual cannibalism with Black Widow spiders and praying mantises is wrong, not because it does not occur but because, like almost everything else in the universe, there is a great deal more complexity to the phenomenon.

But things get really interesting when Schutt gets around to higher life forms. Apparently, cannibalism often occurs as a reproductive strategy—termed heterocannibalism—as when lions that take over a pride eat the cubs sired by another male. An evolutionary adaptation has played a weird trick on male spotted hyenas to deter them from similar behavior: female spotted hyenas produce high levels of testosterone, their vulva seals to form a pseudoscrotum, and they develop a bizarre elongated clitoris that becomes a pseudopenis that violently ruptures when large full-term hyena fetuses pass through it during birth.  Female hyenas are the tough guys on the block; no males would dare to eat their babies. [p65] But there are no such obstacles to similar practices by sea lions, polar bears and—our closest living relatives—chimpanzees. And there are tantalizing clues that cannibalism may have once took place among some species of therapod dinosaurs.

After leaving the animal kingdom behind, Schutt turns to the human experience, and here is where things get a bit uneven. Among humans, cannibalism—known as anthropophagy—assumes many forms and is naturally a thornier subject. The unfortunate Kore practiced what is known as endocannibalism, a ritualized consumption of relations driven by honor and respect.  A variation of that once occurred in other aboriginal groups when they ate the bodies of their enemies in order to capture their strength and spirit; that is one form of exocannibalism. But exocannibalism also encompasses the more familiar desperate measures taken to ward off starvation.  Much of the rest of the book serves as a platform for the debate about how wide of a net can be cast for anthropophagy.  Is gnawing on your fingernails a form of cannibalism? Some actually think so. That’s one extreme.  Another is voiced by an expert “denier” who argues that the vast majority of reports of cannibalism are examples of hyperbole or downright fiction.

There are many roads unfortunately not traveled. Early on, the author informs us that he does not want to stoke sensationalism by dwelling on serial killers like Dahmer and the like, but a deeper discussion of why people who are not starving—other than aborigines guided by tribal custom—would choose to eat other people is largely absent. Apparently, there were incidents of cannibalization-for-sustenance of American POWs by their Japanese captors in World War II, but—more intriguingly—also cases where their livers were served up as delicacies to Japanese officers, a fate only narrowly avoided by downed pilot George H.W. Bush. Schutt references Bush’s bare miss, but fails to train the lens on the dynamic that nearly put him on the menu, which seems like a missed opportunity of some significance.

There are others. A now famous case of starvation cannibalism followed the 1820 sinking of the whaleship Essex that left survivors stranded on whaleboats, where they proceeded to eat the dead, then drew lots among the living for who would serve as the next course. This episode has been chronicled at length in book and film, but it is less well well-known that this was a very common—although essentially unadvertised—practice among shipwrecked sailors, euphemistically termed the “custom of the sea.” I kept hoping Schutt would probe this macabre maritime tradition with such a storied history over several centuries, but I was left disappointed. Instead, a very long chapter is devoted to a blow-by-blow account of the Donner Party incident, which has been done to death for mass consumption (puns fully intended!) in so many venues that here it inspires little more than impatient yawns.

Still, despite sins of omission, Schutt’s Cannibalism remains well worth reading. His strength as a scientist shines through and mitigates some of the weaknesses in the total product. Most importantly, he is also an excellent writer whose well-crafted prose neatly carries this fascinating narrative.


Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery that Changed Our Human Story, by Lee Berger and John Hawks

Back in 2014, I took a challenging but rewarding MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), “Human Evolution: Past and Future,” a free online course taught by University of almost humanWisconsin-Madison professor of anthropology Dr. John Hawks. Hawks, who might be described as both genial and genius, seems equally devoted to both advancing studies in paleoanthropology, and sharing data cross-discipline for the greater good of scientists, students, and the wider public audience—a heresy that cuts against the grain in scientific as well as academic circles among those who jealously guard their discoveries in order to be the first in line for credit and publication. The course introduced via video clips a leading paleontologist in the field, Lee Berger, whose two remarkable and vastly dissimilar hominin finds in South Africa have each literally shifted the landscape in studies of human evolution.

Berger, who frequently partners with National Geographic, has in common with Hawks an absolute devotion to open access, which has made him unpopular among some of his more traditional peers.  Berger and Hawks passionately believe that—especially given today’s technology and speeds of communication, as well as tendencies towards ever increasing specialization—that such free and open access is essential to fostering advances in all of the related fields. This passion also extends to the general audience, as evidenced in Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery that Changed Our Human Story, by Lee Berger and John Hawks, a well-written, fast-paced narrative that puts a focus to the latest finds and the cutting-edge technology and techniques of paleoanthropology.

My training is as a historian rather than a paleontologist, but I have been fascinated by fossil finds ever since I was a boy, when I followed the adventures of the Leakey’s in National Geographic, and later bought books by Richard Leakey and Donald Johanson that sit on my shelves to this day. The discovery of the magnificent 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis nicknamed “Lucy” was a big deal for this teenager! So, I have to confess to some delight when Berger reveals in the opening chapters that as a youth, on his somewhat circuitous route to paleoanthropology, he thrilled to these very same volumes. Back in those days, it was once remarked that our entire collection of hominin fossils could be displayed on a single large table. As Berger and Hawks remind us in Almost Human, those days are long past!

This is a very exciting time for studies in human evolution, both because of a plethora of new fossil discoveries, as well as stunning advances in technology that permit a far more detailed knowledge of the lifeways of our early hominin antecedents. For instance, we can now determine with some certainty, based upon carbon isotopes retrieved from fossil teeth, what the owners of those teeth once dined upon. And rather than the familiar “tree of evolution” found in early textbooks, we now know that the model is far “bushier,” with many descendants of a distant common ancestor that turned into dead ends.  Modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, are the only surviving species of the genus Homo, but paleoanthropology has revealed that we have many extinct relatives, and we will likely stumble upon many more.  In addition to Lucy, there were several other australopithecines, which are not in our direct line of descent, as well as a number of Homo varieties, including the recent surprising and controversial discovery of Homo floresiensis, nicknamed the “Hobbit,” a kind of dwarf hominin that inhabited the Indonesian island of Flores. Far less ancient Denisovans have been found in Asia that are, like Neanderthals, archaic humans. Clearly there is no straight line from our ancestors to us.

Perhaps nothing underscores that more than the two astonishing discoveries directed by Lee Berger.  The first, the nearly two-million-year-old fossils of Australopithecus sediba, was actually found not by Berger but by his nine-year-old son in 2008. What is remarkable about sediba is that despite its antiquity, it sports surprisingly modern hands and quite humanlike ankles, yet also—significantly—retains the more ape-like attributes often characteristic to an australopithecine.  Such a weird amalgam of features both ancient and more recent are termed “mosaics” by paleontologists, and there was probably no greater example of this than sediba.

At least, that is, until Berger had a look at the fossils of what was later to be called Homo naledi, first discovered in 2013 by recreational cavers exploring the Rising Star cave system, in the vicinity of Johannesburg.  Homo naledi, a mere 300,000 years old, nevertheless demonstrated mosaic features far more archaic than would be expected from a hominin significantly younger than other specimens of Homo known for larger brains and more modern characteristics. At the same time, there were also distinct anatomical features that clearly identified it as part of the Homo lineage. What those cavers had stumbled upon, at the end of a narrow chute, was the long-isolated Dinaledi Chamber, littered with fossils that turned out to represent more than a dozen naledi individuals. This extraordinary discovery was the foundation of Berger’s Rising Star Cave Expedition that is the central focus of Almost Human.

The Rising Star Cave Expedition, which included Hawks and a truly remarkable team, was presented with a unique set of excavation challenges. The 650 foot (200 meter) labyrinthine route to the Dinaledi Chamber included a particularly claustrophobic segment tagged as “Superman’s Crawl,” a short tunnel less than 10 inches (25 centimeters) wide, so-called because traversing it requires a bodily contortion with one arm stretched above your head and the other held tight against your body, like Superman flying. This was followed by a vertical climb of some 65 feet (20 meters) up an underground ridge called Dragon’s Back, and then a perilous descent through a 39 foot (12 meter) vertical chute that narrows at one point to only some 7 inches (18 centimeters) wide! Berger brilliantly overcame this daunting hurdle by recruiting the most qualified paleoanthropologists, with climbing and caving experience, who were also physically of the smallest stature, and therefore best suited to probing the narrowest passages. The six who were selected, all women as it turned out, were nicknamed the “Underground Astronauts.”


The story of these intrepid explorers makes for an exciting tale that is sometimes related breathlessly, yet never sinks to pulp. While it is eminently clear that this expedition is underway in the first part of the twenty-first century—replete with state-of-the-art technology and communication—there remains an ever-present palpable element of old-fashioned danger as flesh-and-blood scientists slowly and painstakingly navigate Superman’s Crawl, and then later descend that very narrow chute, to retrieve those precious bones that have lain undisturbed for several hundred thousand years. The narrative is so well-written that the reader can almost hear Berger’s heart thumping in his chest as he monitors the steady progress of his Underground Astronauts, ever alert that there are indeed things that can go very wrong in this extreme environment that could mean injury or death for them.

I must admit just a hint of disappointment with Almost Human at first, for while it is hardly dumbed-down, I had hoped for a bit more emphasis on the fossil morphology, and perhaps a more technical examination of how naledi fit with the rest of the evolutionary bush. But that quickly passed.  This is not that kind of book. Instead, Almost Human is an adventure story of discovery in a field that these days is all about breaking news, told by two men with the talent to articulate it. And Berger’s commitment to open access means that the news of such discoveries is actually getting out, at least in his arena, rather than remaining squirreled away for years as had long been standard practice. Homo naledi and the progress of the Rising Star Expedition has been the stuff of social media for several years now; I learned of the publication of Almost Human on Twitter.

Race, we now know, is a meaningless construct: all living humans today are more closely related to each other genetically than the two chimpanzee populations of west and east Africa are to one another. But it was not always that way.  The search for human origins is a complex one, and new discoveries and interpretations ever alter the contours of the twigs on that bush.  It is a fascinating story, but much of it is often given to the secrecy and arcane jargon of science and academia, and thus lost to a wider audience.  Almost Human is a welcome respite from that, and I highly recommend joining Berger and Hawks and their Underground Astronauts on this fascinating journey to resurrect a piece of our past and proudly show it off to the world.



Review of: The Iliad, by Homer, translated by Stephen Mitchell


The rage of Achilles—sing it now, goddess, sing through me
the deadly rage that caused the Achaeans such grief
and hurled down to Hades the souls of so many fighters,
leaving their naked flesh to be eaten by dogs
and carrion birds, as the will of Zeus was accomplished.
Begin at the time when bitter words first divided
that king of men, Agamemnon, and godlike Achilles.
–Mitchell lyric translation The Iliad

That is the opening seven lines of the quirky, modern, lyric translation of Homer’s The Iliad by Stephen Mitchell. This was my third read of The Iliad, arguably the foundational work of literature in Western Civilization, which I consider the finest book ever written. Like many, I grew up fascinated with the Trojan War, my volume of The Iliad in decorative binding beckoning to me from my bookshelves since I was about twelve years old. That edition, the prose version by Samuel Butler, which I read for the first time with some dramatic impact in middle age, reproduces those same lines as:

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.
–Butler prose translation of The Iliad

Verse may have been too great an obstacle for me on that first, untrained read, but my experience with the nineteenth century Butler version—which lacks poetic beauty and, worse, employs the associated Roman names for the Greek gods—nevertheless sponsored an obsession with the history and literature of ancient Greece that has carried me with great fervor for nearly two decades hence. And it inspired my next read, some years later, of the beautiful lyric translation by Richard Lattimore, which renders those lines as:

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.
–Lattimore lyric translation of The Iliad

Now that is poetry! It sounds even better in Greek than English, of course, but I can yet imagine something like that rhythm as bards recited the epic to audiences thousands of years ago! The Iliad is an epic poem written in dactylic hexameter meter that depends on the differentiation between long syllables and short syllables for the rhythm in its verse. It was written in Homeric Greek in 15,693 lines that later were divided into 24 books—23 books in the Mitchell edition, but more on that later. Here’s what those opening lines look like in Greek:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.
The Iliad in Greek

Archaeology has demonstrated that the existence of Troy—ancient Ilium, now the site of multiple layers of excavated ruins going back to 3000 BCE at the tell of Hisarlik in northwestern Turkey—is not a myth, even if history cannot prove that the legendary conflict between a coalition of Mycenaean Greeks and Troy ever occurred. Still, while Homer’s account was certainly fictional, most accept that the war was a historic event, if only because the Trojan War cuts such a deep groove in the memory of the ancient Greeks that it seems unlikely that it was created out of whole cloth. There is evidence that the archaeological level denoted as Troy VIIa—likely a vassal state of the Hittites strategically situated near the mouth of the Hellespont (today’s Dardanelles)—was destroyed by war circa 1184 BCE, at the cusp of the collapse of the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean World. This remains the best candidate for the city that tradition said succumbed to the decade-long warfare and siege at the swords of the Greeks.

But The Iliad is not actually about the Trojan War. Rather, The Iliad—although it indeed takes place during the Trojan War—is instead specifically about what has come to be called “the wrath of Achilles.” The Iliad covers only about fifty-one days in the tenth and final year of the war. The events leading up to the war and its conclusion—the abduction of Helen, wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, by Paris, Prince of Troy, which sparked it, and the subterfuge of the Trojan Horse that finally brought the city to ruin—would have been well-known to the ancient Greeks and thus receive little or no attention in this narrative. (This is no less true of the many episodes of the war revealed in non-Homeric tales contained in what has come to be called the “Epic Cycle,” or the stories of its aftermath told in Homer’s Odyssey.)

The Iliad opens as the Greek army is beset by plague sent by Apollo because Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek forces, refuses to return the daughter of a priest of Apollo he has abducted as a spoil of war. Eventually Agamemnon capitulates, but then takes in her place a woman belonging to Achilles, King of the Myrmidons, an allied force from Thessaly. This sparked the famous wrath of Achilles, a great hero who in his anger withdraws in a sulk from the fight. Achilles is the son of a goddess whom he asks to prevail upon Zeus to favor the Trojans in the war so that the Greeks—known variously here as Achaeans, Danaans or Argives—will come to appreciate in their suffering how essential Achilles is to any hope for victory. In addition to intrigue, much of what follows includes some of the greatest scenes of warfare ever written, with an unsparing eye for the blood and gore of battle. This is also a story with much complexity. The characters—gods and humans—are extremely well-crafted, there is outstanding dialogue, as well as some of the finest applications of analogy as a literary device in the entire canon of western literature. The Achaeans suffer mightily as Achilles spitefully sits out the war. Eventually, Achilles’ closest friend Patroclus borrows his armor and goes out to fight in his place, only to be slain by Hector, the mighty hero who is brother to Paris and son of King Priam of Troy. Now Achilles settles his differences with Agamemnon, magnificent new armor is forged for him by the gods, and he returns to battle, killing Hector and dragging his body by chariot around the walls of Troy to defile it in the eyes of his father. Later, Priam visits and supplicates himself before Achilles, begging for the body of his son so he can properly perform funeral rites. Moved, Achilles grants his wish. The Iliad concludes with the merciless sacrifice of Trojan prisoners upon the pyre of Patroclus, and elaborate funeral games presided over by Achilles.

The ancient Greek audience would know the rest of the story: that Paris, Priam and Achilles would all forfeit their lives, that Troy would fall, that Helen would return to Sparta with Menelaus, that Agamemnon would return to Mycenae only to be murdered by his wife and her lover. But none of that has any importance to this tale, which is always and ever about Achilles. Achilles, half-god and half-man, has always seemed to me to be the mirror-image of humanity for all of its grace and its savagery. Achilles can be ugly: Achilles would see his friends and allies slaughtered to redeem his spite; Achilles revels in envy, in anger, in unparalleled sulk; Achilles is savage, is vengeful, is merciless, is unrepentant. But yet Achilles is also beautiful, physically and spiritually. Achilles is remarkably courageous, fiercely loyal, is capable of irrepressible love and grace and kindness and empathy. Achilles could be your very worst enemy as well as your very best friend, in a single heartbeat. Achilles is the Bronze Age. Achilles is the blood-spattered twentieth century. Achilles is our god and our devil. Achilles is you and me.

The Iliad, a story equally of gods and men, is the closest the ancient Greeks ever had to something like the Christian Bible. It was born out of an oral tradition, and no doubt was recited from memory for generations before it was written down. The civilization of the Mycenaeans collapsed along with the Bronze Age; the subsequent “Dark Age” saw Greeks lose literacy as their “Linear B” writing system went extinct. When they rediscovered writing centuries later—borrowing the alphabet from the Phoenicians and brilliantly adding vowels—the very first thing they seem to have written down was Homer’s epics, circa the mid-eighth century BCE. It is unknown whether Homer himself was the real author or even a real person, or simply a literary construct, but that controversy hardly seems to matter, for The Iliad, and its companion quasi-sequel, The Odyssey, are without question outstanding literature that resonate far beyond their tales or their age.

But in English translation, each version is a different story of sorts, hence the temptation to read it again and again, channeled through different masters. And there are many. In addition to Butler, Lattimore, and Mitchell, there are celebrated versions by Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald; I personally also own translations by A.T. Murray and Andrew Lang. That is but a mere handful of the available choices. There is a beauty in reading The Iliad, every time, in every iteration, but for me the Mitchell translation was the most eccentric, and it left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, and on the plus side, Mitchell literally takes no prisoners as he renders the brutal, sanguinary battle scenes as the fast-moving action narratives they were meant to be. On the other, the realism in the modern vernacular occasionally sacrifices authenticity in the work; Mitchell has Achilles refer to Agamemnon as a “son of a bitch,” which reminded me unfavorably of how the literary splendor of the King James Version of the Old Testament is often painfully cratered by modern “hip” translations. Mitchell also opts to reduce redundancy in the narrative by eliminating the repetition of such famously descriptive epithets as “swift-footed” Achilles, “horse-taming” Hector, and “white-armed” Hera, that underscore the poetry in motion; the final product suffers for this omission. Homeric scholars most object to Mitchell’s deliberate excise of The Iliad’s “Book Ten,” a tale of Odysseus and Diomedes on a nighttime adventure between the battle lines, which some hold to be a later addition to the Homeric canon worthy of deletion. For myself, I see little merit in his decision, but neither does the cut inflict a fatal wound upon the epic.

Yet, for all of that, there is indeed outstanding literature in Mitchell’s Homer, as in this excerpt from Book Seventeen:

But apart from the battle, Achilles’ horses were weeping;
they had not stopped since the moment they learned that Patroclus
had just been cut down at the hands of man-killing Hector.
Automedon did whatever he could; he hit them
again and again with his whistling whip, and he tried
persuading them with soft words, then angry threats.
But the horses refused to budge; they would not go back
to the ships, nor would they go forward into the fighting.
Motionless as a gravestone that has been set
upon the funeral mound of some lord or lady,
they stood there in front of the chariot, hanging their heads.
Hot tears flowed from their eyes and fell to the ground
as they mourned for their charioteer, who was gone forever,
And their long, luxuriant manes became filthy and trailed
in the dirt, from the collar on either side of the yoke.

Now that is a great translation! I am not certain that I would recommend Mitchell to the uninitiated for a first time read of The Iliad, but neither would I necessarily dissuade it. My own favorite version remains Lattimore, which I think best catches the spirit and the cadence of the work, but I do not regret my time with Mitchell. His was a fine effort that deserves praise for turning out something new and beautiful from something old and wonderful. There truly can be no fault in that.

Review of: A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition, by Ernest Hemingway

Arguably, Ernest Hemingway was the greatest American writer of the twentieth century. Because it is probably unfair to declare one author greater than another of their contemporaries when their styles and methods varied so much—William Faulkner and A Moveable FeastF. Scott Fitzgerald spring to mind—such an accolade should probably be qualified by “among the greatest.” But I would still put Hemingway in first place, if only because his style was so unique and his reach so vast: he not only penned a handful of truly great novels—The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls—but also dozens of magnificent short stories, including “Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” plus the semi-autobiographical “Nick Adams” tales, as well as the striking vignettes inserted between the stories in the published collections. And that was just his fiction. His roots as a skilled journalist made manifest the staccato bursts of short sentences that became his signature style, and without a doubt served as the basis for his ability to witness people and events and distill it all into captivating prose. Whether you are fascinated or repulsed (or a little of both!) by bullfighting or big game hunting, there are probably no better chronicles of these pursuits than, respectively, Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa. Hemingway’s genius for nonfiction is again underscored in A Moveable Feast, a memoir first published posthumously in 1964 by his fourth wife Mary, and then controversially re-edited and re-released in this “restored edition,” by his grandson Sean.

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man,” Hemingway wrote, “then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” This marvelous book is a collection of sketches of that “moveable feast” by that talented but penurious young man who lived in Paris in the early 1920s, struggling to earn a living as a foreign correspondent while perfecting his fiction, reading everything he could lay his hands on, skipping meals to finance trips to the race track, skiing in the most primitive conditions, drinking up a storm at cafés, and glorying in a whirlwind of activities with his first wife (Hadley Richardson, with whom here he is very much in love), and a gaggle of literary expatriates whose names read like a catalog of authors from the spines of books on the shelf of a fine personal library: John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, and many others.

Revealed here is a kinetic energy and optimism in the young “Hem,” as well as an admiration and respect for other artists conspicuously absent in his later years. This version of Hemingway is extremely likeable: gregarious, curious, kind, considerate; craving the friendship and attention of both the famous and the little-known characters in his orbit. It was this fecund period that spawned The Sun Also Rises, his first novel and one of his finest. Later in life, his talent for his craft visibly diminished, lost to excessive alcohol, punishing physical injuries, and a kind of vulgar, outsize grandstanding that turned him into something of caricature of himself. He could often be mercurial, violent, boastful, immature; a mean drunk, a lousy husband, frequently a bad friend who was envious and resentful of another’s success, and spiteful enough to conspicuously malign them (as he did Scott Fitzgerald, more than once) in his writings.  Thus it is that Hemingway’s episodic account of his early years in this volume is so energizing for the reader—revisiting a lost era of Paris between two devastating world wars, guided by a young man on the very cusp of becoming a great writer who is at once full of love for his lady and his life—yet nevertheless colored by the poignancy of the knowledge of what lies ahead for both Paris and its protagonist.

In 1956, Hemingway rediscovered two small steamer trunks that he had stored and forgotten at the Hotel Ritz Paris nearly three decades before, full of the notebooks he had kept during the 1920s.  These were the primary sources for A Moveable Feast, which is why it reads with such freshness and optimism. Hemingway transcribed and edited these as a basis for a memoir he never completed.  After his 1961 suicide, his fourth and final wife Mary reworked this manuscript for publication, putting changes to his draft that some have criticized. Also criticized with some greater vehemence is this “restored edition,” reworked yet again by his grandson Sean Hemingway, and containing additional material. As with all posthumous works, we can only wonder what the living author would have wanted us to read. But all of that is of less consequence to the reader than the wonder of this gift to us from that author. Again and again, throughout this volume, I came upon paragraphs written nearly a century ago by a man I consider the finest literary artist of his generation that took my breath away.  Paragraphs such as:

The worst thing I remember of that avalanche winter was one man who was dug out. He had squatted down and made a box with his arms in front of his head, as we had been taught to do, so that there would be air to breathe as the snow rose up over you. It was a huge avalanche and it took a long time to dig everyone out, and this man was the last to be found. He had not been dead long and his neck was worn through so that the tendons and the bone were visible. He had been turning his head from side to side against the pressure of the snow. In this avalanche there must have been some old, packed snow mixed in with the new light snow that had slipped. We could not decide whether he had done it on purpose or if he had been out of his head. But there was no problem because he was refused burial in consecrated ground by the local priest anyway; since there was no proof he was a Catholic.

And that is why you read Hemingway! Not because you are impressed by the man he was, or the caricature of the man he came to personify, although both of these are fascinating.  Not because of his utilization of the “objective correlative” as a literary device, although he did employ it masterfully.  Not because he could tell us stories about wars, and bulls, and illuminated cafés, but he certainly knew such stories and told them well.  But because he was truly an outstanding writer who frequently bestowed upon us truly great literature.  This is why A Moveable Feast is required reading not only for the Hemingway aficionado, but for anyone who wants to experience such an artist at the height of his form.  Paris may have been Hemingway’s moveable feast, but our very own moveable feast might be found in the books of glorious prose he has bequeathed to us.  With that in mind, I will let Hemingway conclude this review of his work with his own words rather than that of the reviewer:

Nobody climbs on skis now and almost everybody breaks their legs but maybe it is easier in the end to break your legs than to break your heart although they say that everything breaks now and that sometimes, afterwards, many are stronger at the broken places. I do not know about that now but this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.

Review of: Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami

I must admit that I winced just a little when I took in the title of Haruki Murakami’s most recent release, Men Without Women. I have read all of Murakami’s fiction to date, and to my mind his male characters, for the most part, are average, passive, weak-willed, Men Without Womenapathetic, and decidedly boring. In his celebrated novel Norwegian Wood, Murakami has Reiko Ishida, the woman in the mountain asylum, say: “I’m much better at bringing out the best in others than in myself . . . I’m the scratchy stuff on the side of the matchbox. But that’s fine with me . . . Better to be a first-class matchbox than a second-class match.”  I always thought it was a great quote, but far more appropriate for that book’s male central character, Toru Watanabe, than for her.  For while the male protagonists are often forgettable, Murakami’s art shines in his creation of the strong, colorful female characters that populate his fiction, such as the teenage May Kasahara in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the eccentric Sumire of Sputnik Swetheart, and most prominently the indomitable Aomame (“Green Peas”) of his masterpiece, 1Q84.

Fortunately, there are plenty of such strong females in Men Without Women, a collection of previously released and original short stories that first appeared in Japan in 2014, and published in translation (by Phillip Gabriel and Ted Goosen) in the United States on May 9, 2017—which may or may not be coincidental to the 1927 publication by Ernest Hemingway of his identically titled collection, ninety years prior. As in Murakami’s After the Quake, from 2003, the title serves as a loose theme for the stories it contains. In this case, there are seven, four of which appeared before in various other publications. Although all the central characters are male, many of these men serve as little more than supernumeraries, while the women in their respective orbits stand out as the vital, dramatic key players.

That is certainly true in the previously published “Drive My Car,” which like Norwegian Wood recycles a Beatles’ tune for literary effect. The man without a woman here is Kafuku, a widowed actor beset with sadness and bad eyesight who distrusts female drivers, but nevertheless hires as his chauffeur Misaki, a somewhat less-than-attractive, chain-smoker who has little to say but is a great listener.  And Kafuku, it turns out, has a lot to say, eventually relating an odd tale of how, after his wife’s death, he deliberately cultivated a friendship with a man he knew had secretly been her lover.  As time goes by, over the course of otherwise unremarkable daily commutes, the laconic Misaki grows into an insightful interlocutor, and serves as unlikely muse to help Kafuku come to terms with his late wife, and—most critically—himself.

A similarly introspective tale is one of the new stories written for this collection, “An Independent Organ,” which, like “Drive My Car,” is a kind of a story about a story. In a tragedy replete with stark metaphor, the utterly romantically agnostic heart—that independent organ—of a certain Dr. Tokai gets broken upon the wheel of unrequited love. The reader never meets the woman that he is without; she is but a wistful echo of Dr. Tokai’s terminal suffering. Both the title and the essence of the tale seem to smack of Edgar Allen Poe.

A Beatles’ song is again the title for the previously released “Yesterday,” about a guy named Kitaru with a repressed sexuality who urges his best friend to date his own girlfriend, Erika Kuritani. It is not a strong story, but in Erika, Murakami has crafted a superb object of desire. Her description of a recurring dream of a moon made of ice that melts away—and her prevailing terror that in the next dream the moon may not reappear—sets the reader longing for Erika to return in a future role, even if there is little remorse when Kitaru drops off the page.

Those who crave Murakami’s brand of magical realism will be delighted with two previously published stories. The first is “Kino,” a creepy tale with familiar elements from classic Murakami fiction, including an abrupt, failed marriage, a cat that seems much more than a cat, and a jazz bar frequented by mysterious guests. As in 1Q84, the eponymous Kino seems to be standing on the fragile edge of two intersecting worlds, beset by serpents, having random sex with a woman scarred by her sadomasochistic boyfriend, and subject to various menacing encounters that have him seek shelter in a locked room, where much like Kafuku and Dr. Takai, be finds a badly bruised heart. The other is “Samsa in Love,” a wicked alternate reality of isolation starring none other than Gregor Samsa, the anguished protagonist of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Since Kafka on the Shore remains my all-time favorite Murakami novel, I got a special kick out of the device employed here. I even imagined Tim Burton turning it into an animated film à la Corpse Bride! I also wondered how many readers would fail to identify Samsa as the literary icon retooled in homage to the master.

Another fine story is the title piece of this collection, “Men Without Women,” in which a man awakens to an unexpected middle-of-the-night phone call from the husband of his long-ago ex-lover, announcing without explanation her recent suicide. The centrality of the story has nothing, really, to do with the main character or the hapless husband, but rather the memories that form a kind of ghost of the woman he only refers to as “M.” She—M—is the woman the men are truly, and as well inexplicably, profoundly without.

My favorite story is a re-read for me: the first time I read the brilliantly crafted “Scheherazade” was when it appeared in The New Yorker several years ago, in translation from the original collection in Japanese, and I have frequently recommended it as an opportunity for the uninitiated to encounter Murakami in top form.  Habara is the central protagonist, on house arrest of some sort for an offense never articulated, visited twice weekly by an otherwise plain, middle-aged housekeeper whom he dubs “Scheherazade,” because after she indulges him in frequently perfunctory sexual encounters, she relates marvelous, sequential stories that enthrall Habara. It is her visits—and much more than the sex, her stories—that serve as powerful antidote to Habara’s sense of isolation. When Scheherazade was a school girl, she tells Habara, she developed an obsessive, unconsummated crush on a boy that she addressed by breaking into his home when he was not there, stealing something incidental of his and leaving in place something intimate of her own. Scheherazade has an exceptional belief that she was a lamprey in another life, and when she was in the boy’s room, alone, she transformed metaphorically into that lamprey, “… suckers stuck to a rock underwater and my body waving back and forth overhead, like the weeds around me.” [p124] This a story well-worth reading again and again.

It has been reported that Murakami never writes short stories and novels at the same time; it is always one kind or another, but never both.  I was left underwhelmed by his last novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, so it is my hope that this collection means he is setting his short fiction aside in favor of another grand work like 1Q84.  Of course, whatever he turns out, I can guarantee that I will read it! It might be said that Murakami is for literature what the Grateful Dead is for music: you either love it or you hate it. I happen to favor both, but literature, like music, is highly subjective. If you have not done so, give it a try, but be warned: if you fall for it, you may find yourself compelled to read all of it.  Men Without Women is as good a place to start as any.

[NOTE: For the uninitiated, a free taste of Murakami—his  outstanding 2014 short story “Scheherazade” from Men Without Women—is available online at:]

[NOTE: Murakami’s latest novel, Killing Commendatore,  was released in Japan in February, 2017. There will no doubt be a long wait for the English translation.]

[NOTE: This blog has featured reviews of several other works of Murakami fiction, including:

South of the Border, West of the Sun:

Hear the Wind Sing & Pinball 1973

After the Quake

Sputnik Sweetheart

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman]






Review of: The Indus: Lost Civilizations, by Andrew Robinson

In the late fifth century BCE, one Ctesias of Cnidus, a Greek physician at the Persian court, wrote passages that described the Indus River and its environs in the distant land of Sindh, and spoke of local exotica, including unicorns. Even then there was no memory The Indusof the great ancient civilization that once flourished there and then fell, a millennium and a half before. Another millennium and a half was to pass before British railway builders stumbled upon the startling remains of what is today called the Harappan, or more commonly, the Indus Valley Civilization, which once straddled the now sometimes contentious border region of southern Pakistan and northwestern India. Among the artifacts eventually uncovered were ancient Indus seals–contemporary with Sumer and Old Kingdom Egypt–inscribed with a script that yet remains undeciphered, and decorated with images of unicorns!

The hearts of ancient history aficionados tend to beat a little faster when the Indus Valley Civilization comes up in conversation. One of three great ancient civilizations of the Old World, along with Egypt and the Mesopotamian city states, it almost certainly hosted the largest population–perhaps as many as five million–and was the most geographically widespread. Yet, it is the least known and thus the most fascinating and enigmatic of the three.

It is this that makes the publication of The Indus, by Andrew Robinson–the first entry in a new series entitled Lost Civilizations–such a welcome addition to the scholarship. In a remarkable achievement, Robinson–a polymath who is at once journalist, scholar, and prolific author–has written an outstanding digest-sized volume that brilliantly summarizes nearly everything that we know about Indus and what remains unknown or in dispute. Moreover, he does so in an engaging narrative style replete with fact, analysis and interpretation suitable to both the scholarly and popular audience.

In 1856, British engineers laying the East Indian Railway Company line in the Punjab pilfered tons of bricks for ballast from forgotten ruins along the way, including Harappa, unicorn-seal_0which unknown to them was once a great urban center inhabited from 3500-1300 BCE, and one of the largest cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. Some years later, amateur excavations turned up the first unicorn seal, but its significance was overlooked. Serious archaeology began in the 1920s, and coincided with the discovery of another large city, Mohenjo-daro, in Sindh. The following decades revealed that the Indus Valley Civilization encompassed a vast region represented by well over a thousand cities and settlements (uncovered thus far), extending over at least at least 800,000 square kilometers (more than 300,000 square miles), with a population in the millions.

This astonishing civilization, at its height 2600-1900 BCE, was built upon thriving river basin communities centered upon wheat and barley cultivation (and later, rice) along the Indus River, as well as another ancient river that long ago went dry and vanished, that some–including Robinson—identify with the legendary Saraswati and its descendant, the Ghaggar-Hakra river system, which now flows only with the monsoon. It is clear from Indus seals (which depicted real as well as fanciful creatures!) that they domesticated animals, including the humped zebu cattle and the water buffalo. Arts and crafts were highly developed, as was metallurgy. In addition to a writing system, they created a uniform system of weights and measures. Extensive trade networks by land and sea carried raw materials and finished objects as far as away as Mesopotamia, where no less a historical figure than Sargon of Akkad circa 2300 BCE boasted of ships from “Meluhha,” as the Indus was known to him, docking at his capital. Trade may also have extended to Egypt and Minion Crete. Their cities were architecturally stylized masterpieces of engineering, evidenced careful street planning, and remarkably sophisticated water drainage and sewage systems–including the world’s first toilets–that could only have been possible in a highly organized and carefully managed society. Yet, there appears to be no indication of armies or warfare. Indus Valley Civilization flourished for centuries before entering a period of slow decline most likely due to environmental factors, around 1900BCE—several hundred years prior to the time Ramses II ruled Egypt—and eventually disappeared entirely, although tantalizing traces of its cultural imprint can be detected even today.

Indus_Valley_Civilization,_Mature_Phase_(2600-1900_BCE)What can we make of Indus, which truly is a “lost” civilization? As Robinson describes it, the challenges of archeology and interpretation have been and remain substantial. Stripping ruins for railway construction was only the first of many insults to the legacy of Indus. Early excavations were sloppy, in the days before strict archaeological methodology was standardized. With scant evidence, conclusions were reached and loudly trumpeted of a warlike people given to “militaristic imperialism” led by a “ruthless authoritarian regime,” who finally only succumbed to Indo-Aryan invaders—none of which stands up to scrutiny. The material culture has yet to reveal any traces of war, or even soldiers. And while Indo-Aryan migrations into the region did in fact occur, these were not coterminous with Indus decline. At the other extreme, Hindu nationalists—who vehemently reject the scholarly consensus that Sanskrit is a member of the Indo-European language family rooted in those later Indo-Aryan migrations—have on entirely spurious grounds attempted to hijack Indus as the autochthonous ancestor of Hinduism and Indian national identity. These politically powerful forces have even created from whole-cloth a faux decipherment of the Indus script, to serve their propaganda objectives, which is utterly baseless. Archaeological efforts have been compromised over the years by a variety of factors, most prominently the 1947 partition that created Pakistan and India as separate and often hostile nation states—and effectively drew an international boundary line through Indus sites in a volatile region that makes excavation both difficult and dangerous. Moreover, environmental dynamics in flooding and high water table salinity threaten existing sites and complicate future excavation. In fact, about ninety percent of Indus sites remain unexcavated, including Ganweriwala, a huge urban center that ranks in size with Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro! Finally, the stubborn resistance of the Indus script to decipherment despite decades of intensive efforts offers little hope that the many mysteries of the Indus Valley Civilization will be resolved anytime soon.

It is a testament to the genius of the author that he was able to take so much material and condense it down to such a small volume without compromising the quality of the work. Concisely but carefully, in chapters that examine architecture, trade, society and the like, he discusses what is known and deconstructs competing arguments of interpretation. And while he refutes the specious attempts of Hindu nationalists to connect the dots from ancient Indus to modern India, Robinson makes a strong case for continuity in conspicuous traces of Indus Valley Civilization that seem to have indeed left an indelible footprint on the South Asian landscape. There are elements of religious symbolism that echo in Hinduism, including ritual purification, as well as the unique system of weights and measures that still survives in markets in India and Pakistan today. One of the book’s many delightful photographs shows Harappan terracotta votive objects depicting zebus and a wheeled cart, juxtaposed with a facing page contemporary photo of a similar bullock cart in use in the Indus valley, some four thousand years later. Robinson includes much discussion of the Indus writing system and the lost language it recorded, as well as its possible link to the Dravidian family of languages prevalent in southern India today.

Robinson’s little book is an excellent introduction to an extraordinary civilization that has been all but lost to time. Skillfully organized and well-written, this fine work also contains a wealth of illustrations, photographs, maps, and a timeline, adding to its accessibility for the general audience, while the meticulous notes underscore its reliability for a more scholarly one. A glance at some of the human faces staring back at us from Indus art provokes chills of a sort for the modern reader, evoking snippets of Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias and reflecting that long before Caesar, or Pericles, or even Tutankhamen, in the days when Khufu’s mummy was interred at Giza, there was a magnificent civilization in South Asia that then disappeared from human memory for thousands of years. And we are still trying to rediscover it.

[Map credit: By Avantiputra7 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons, ]

[Unicorn Seal credit:  Unicorn Seal, Mohenjo-Daro,]

Review of: The Sound of One Hand Clapping, by Richard Flanagan

To my mind, great literature is best defined by the visceral reaction it triggers and its stubborn lingering effect. After the plot has faded, the names of the characters erased, The Sound of One Hand Clappingand the book itself diminished by passing time into a sort of vague mental snapshot of its encounter, the way a great novel makes you feel while you read it cuts a kind of indelible groove that resonates long after the cover is closed. That is not only fine writing: that is art. And that is the art in the novels crafted by Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan.

My first encounter with Flanagan was Gould’s Book of Fish, a stunningly original and brilliant blend of satire, heartache, love, cruelty, comedy, and existential tragedy, tossed with a superb use of magical realism. Think William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Irving, all stirring the same pot with different shaped spoons. Originally published in 2001, I consider it the finest novel of the millennium to date. I have since read five of the six books Flanagan has written, including The Narrow Road to the Deep North, winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2014. *

The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a much earlier work, published in 1997. The central character is Sonja Buloh, a strong but troubled woman in her late-thirties who returns to her birthplace in Tasmania. The novel’s title–adapted from the famous Zen kōan–evokes the bleak narrative that marked the formative years of Sonja’s life, abandoned at three years old by a mother who disappears into a blizzard, and thereafter shuttled between various temporary households by her often alcoholic and sometimes violent father, Bojan Bojan, a Slovenian immigrant whose parenting ranges from adoration to abuse. Flourishing a technique reminiscent of André Brink in A Chain of Voices, Flanagan skillfully moves between moments in time without losing anchor to the present, exploring Sonja’s childhood and, significantly, Bojan’s young manhood, which smacks of memories littered with atrocities and corpses of Nazis and Slovenian partisans. This is a book of much tragedy, of much disappointment, yet also one of hope and redemption. There is just a hint of the magical realism later manifested Gould’s Book of Fish. But there is here, as in all of Flanagan’s fiction, an abundance of fine prose as well as a masterful use of the objective correlative–a literary device that conjures emotion in the inanimate–often seen in the works of Hemingway and Garcia Marquez.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping has much of the feel of a first novel, although it is not. Flanagan’s first novel was the magnificent Death of a River Guide, which was no doubt a hard act to follow. ** One Hand Clapping seems rougher and less sophisticated than River Guide. There are portions that seem extraneous and beg for edit. It can be slow-going, especially because the elements that make you want to care about the characters are not fully fleshed out until the last third of the book. On more than one occasion there is the thud of the anticlimactic dully falling flat. And yet …

And yet the quality of the prose never disappoints; warts-and-all this is a novel that generously rewards the reader for patience and loyalty to the narrative. After it is done, there remains a powerful urge to read it through again. There are few writers of contemporary literary fiction that can deliver at this level, something a review like this can certainly attest but by all rights demands to be heard in Flanagan’s own voice:

In the great forests beyond, the devils and quolls and possums and potaroos and wombats and wallabies also came to curious life in the night, and they roamed the earth for what little they could scavenge to keep themselves alive, and when they mistakenly ventured onto the new gravel roads that were everywhere invading their world, it was to be mesmerised by the sudden shock of moving electric light that rendered them no longer an element of the great forests or plains, but a poor pitiful creature alone whose fate it was to be crushed between rubber and metal. Having being shown by the electric light to have no existence or meaning or world beyond a glaring outline upon the gravel, each animal was killed easily by the men who drove drunk to and from their place of work, heading to or from the whores and grog and the card games of the bigger towns. By day the roads were speckled red with the resultant carnage and startled hawks feasting on the carcasses would hastily rise into the air dragging rapidly unravelling viscera behind them, a shock of bloodied intestine stretching across the blue sky as if the world itself were wounded. Jiri had told Bojan some people believed that the animals reincarnated as spirits or other animals or even as people. But when Bojan hit a fellow animal he hoped he had done it a favour and relieved it of the burden of life forever. [p268-69]

            That is great literature. That is art. That is why, even if it is not his finest novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping should be penciled into everyone’s to-be-read list.


* I reviewed The Narrow Road to the Deep North here:

** I reviewed Death of a River Guide here:



Review of: Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils, by J. William Schopf

Breaking news that recent discoveries may push back traces of the earliest forms of life on earth to a remarkable 3.77 billion years ago brings new relevance to Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils, by J. William Schopf, a dazzling exploration of cradle of lifehow science was able to overcome substantial obstacles to look back to the very edges of the dawn of life on our planet. Schopf, professor of earth sciences at UCLA, is a paleobiologist with a long, impressive resume that includes service as NASA’s principal investigator of lunar samples during the golden age of manned moon landings. More significantly, it was Schopf himself who in 1965 was the first to discover Precambrian microfossils of prokaryotic life in stromatolitic sediments in Australia’s Apex chert dated to 3.5 billion years ago, the oldest confirmed evidence for life at the time. Because new breakthroughs in this field are rare and the science moves forward at a somewhat glacial pace, Cradle of Life–first published in 1999–remains fresh and fascinating.

If references to “prokaryotic life” and “stromatolitic sediments” sound intimidating, the reader should take some comfort in that Schopf’s fast-moving and well-written chronicle is largely accessible to the non-scientist.  At the same time, do not overlook the implied caution in “some comfort” and “largely accessible,” but neither should that serve as roadblock to his rewarding if sometimes complicated account. I frequently challenge myself to read above my level, and these forays typically orbit around science and mathematics, where my strengths in historical analysis are of little service to me.  I will long remember how humbled I was by The Particle at the End of the Universe, Sean Carroll’s brilliant exposition on the hunt for the Higgs Boson. Such books are a reminder of how smart you aren’t! I came better equipped to Schopf than to Carroll, largely because of my long self-taught study of evolution and paleontology, yet still I found myself tested as I trod through the evidence for ancient microbial life and how it functioned in an ecosystem so distant in time to us that it compels the reader to brave the contours of both science and imagination.

The earth was formed some 4.54 billion years ago, but as recently as the late nineteenth century it was believed to be only 100 million years old. Darwin, who advanced his theory of evolution before the earth’s antiquity was established, was troubled by what he viewed within that framework as the lack of requisite time for the slow process of natural selection to occur.  Later, with the age of the planet at least approximated, it yet remained rather fuzzy when organic life first appeared, today believed to be as early as 4.1 billion years ago. Until relatively recent times, it was accepted wisdom that whatever life–simple and microscopic–may have existed before the fossil-rich Cambrian Period (the first geological period of the Paleozoic Era, which began 541 million years ago) left no verifiable remains.

In the opening chapters of Cradle of Life, Schopf neatly summarizes for the non-specialist the fundamentals of earth science, geology, and plate tectonics, as well as the key concepts of evolutionary biology, before moving on to recount the various attempts to locate evidence of Precambrian life.  It turns out that such traces are often ambiguous, and vestiges of life in the layered mineral record bear a striking resemblance to similar nonbiologic designs in sedimentary rock. Experts who fell victim to such errors brought disrepute to the field when shown to be mistaken, which engineered a strong resistance to authentic microfossils when these came to light.  Fortunately, for all of its wrong turns, science is self-correcting, and the bulk of this fine book relates the discovery of indisputable ancient fossil life and how that has impacted what we know about evolutionary paleobiology.

Schopf, as noted, was at the forefront of this dramatic breakthrough, which was manifested in his discovery of microfossils of cyanobacteria preserved in stromatolites–accretionary layers produced by the activities of mat-building microorganisms–in the sedimentary rock of some of the oldest pristine continental crust still extant on the planet, in northwestern Australia’s Pilbara Craton. Cyanobacteria, formerly and incorrectly tagged “blue-green algae,” are an ancient single-celled organism that, lacking a nucleus, are characterized as prokaryotes. Cyanobacteria still exist, but were of outsize significance to an early earth that was both starved for oxygen and subject to punishing UV radiation unshielded by an ozone layer that was yet to exist. Critical to the evolution of much of life as we know it, it was cyanobacteria’s pioneering strategy of oxygen-producing photosynthesis that literally created the environment suitable for the explosion of the diversity and complexity of organisms that later populated the planet.  As cyanobacteria flourished, vast quantities of oxygen were pumped into the atmosphere that not only created conditions salubrious to evolving life but led to the formation of the protective ozone layer essential to the latter’s survival. In the meantime, cyanobacteria demonstrated an astonishing level of adaptability to a whole host of habitats, a testament to how it is that this “living fossil” remains with us today.

While I see no inherent conflict between science and religion, as a self-styled “dogmatic skeptic” the evolution of life strikes me as even more wondrous and miraculous without the presence of a creator god.  Schopf underscores that every form of life on earth is linked to one another, that: “Whether large or small, living or fossil, life comes in just two varieties …” the nonnucleated single-celled prokaryotes like cyanobacteria, and the eukaryotes, which “have chromosomes packaged in a saclike nucleus.” Eukaryotes encompass both single-celled creatures as well as all of the more complex multicellular organisms–like azaleas, ants, frogs and humans–that exist on our planet. The author rhetorically chides us for our “big-organism bias” that puts frequent focus upon plants, fungi and animals–the only three branches of life that “include large, many-celled organisms,” as well as microscopic ones. [p237] Cradle of Life reminds us that the most noteworthy creatures can be those that are invisible to the naked eye. Cyanobacteria, measured in micrometers–a millionth of a meter–are not nearly as wide as a human hair. Life’s four most critical biogenic elements are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen (CHON), so the contributions of oxygen producing cyanobacteria–a microbial single-celled prokaryote–to the evolutionary processes unleashed cannot be overstated. Schopf argues that cyanobacterial oxygenic photosynthesis, and the much later innovation of eukaryotic sex that fueled genetic variation, are the two “surpassingly important” components of evolution ever devised. [p249]

While much of Schopf’s delightful book is accessible to the non-specialist, portions nevertheless present some difficulty to those outside of this field. The complexity is, however, much mitigated by photographs, illustrations, timelines and a comprehensive glossary of terms that I found most helpful. Moreover, Schopf’s prose is both articulate and engaging. While I found some of this read challenging, I came away from the work much rewarded for the effort. For those little familiar with the origins of life on earth and the line that can be drawn from that hazy ancient past to my very fingers typing out this review, Cradle of Life comes highly recommended.