I just realized (or remembered, now I think about it) Kindle has a visual quotation feature. This one refers to Tahiti, “paradise” to the early sailors who landed there and found a different and less restrictive society, not so much after a few visits.
The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring by Richard Preston. New York: Random House. 2007. 320 pages.
In The Wild Trees, Richard Preston delves into the lives of giant trees, primarily coast redwoods, and some of the people who seek and study them. The adventure starts well with three footloose college students, a beater car, and the open road before them. The first man disappears within pages of his introduction, and the second surfaces only sporadically later. The author starts to narrow his interest to the third, Steve Sillett, and then the college dropout son of a millionaire, Michael Taylor. After a four-year-old Canadian girl makes her appearance, her story begins to dominate the narrative.
When he isn’t elaborating on Sillett’s childhood with his grandmother; Taylor’s origins and the trouble with his father; and Marie Antoine’s entire childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood (whether the recounted experiences are relevant to the greater story or not), Preston weaves in interesting facts about the biology of giant trees and old-growth redwood forests, including what was and wasn’t known about them.
At some point, I recognized Preston’s style from The Hot Zone, another novel-like depiction of science. I wondered how he could make redwoods and other tree giants as gory as Ebola, but I soon found out when he describes what happens to a human body that has the misfortune to plummet from one of the world’s tallest trees. (Hint: During a fall, the body is weighted toward the head like an arrow.)
The strength of The Wild Trees is not only its emphasis on the age, size, and beauty of coast redwoods and other giants, but on the ecosystems that thrive within their trunks and branches. When a single redwood giant is cut down, an entire community of plants, fungi, and animals is lost, including amphibians that in theory shouldn’t be living hundreds of feet off the ground. There’s also a spiritual loss as well. Scientists like Sillett and Antoine and explorers like Taylor have more than a dispassionate interest in their subjects; they are spellbound by them, compelled to find them (Taylor) and climb and study them (Sillett and Antoine).
Preston loses his way in minute depictions of details. Human interest adds to any tale of science, but I would have preferred fewer intimate details about Michael Taylor’s every job and relationship issue (such as his career as a knife salesman) and Marie Antoine’s happy, then sad childhood and more about how the redwoods evolved, what has been discovered about them, the threats to them and how they’re being addressed, and the passion Sillett, Antoine, Taylor, and others have toward them. Sentences such as, “A helicopter from the Life Flight Network touched down on a nearby road, and the team carried Hillery to it, and he was loaded into the helicopter and it lifted off and flew toward Portland” distract from the horror and drama after a man falls 100 feet out of a tree.
Despite the depth of background, Preston never quite gets to the heart of Sillett’s personality and character, rendering him as uninteresting as a man who climbs trees hundreds of feet tall can be.
Preston knows how to choose a good story, even if he does need an editor to keep him focused on what’s compelling. The Wild Trees is educational and informative, and if you’re like me you’ll want to learn more about coast redwoods and other giants while we still have them.
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
3 November 2016
The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1983. 176 pages.
In today’s science-based world, where simple DNA tests can help free the innocent on Death Row, the story of Martin Guerre might have ended before it began. Inheritance and money were involved, and then as today we take both very seriously. The risk of exposure is greater now, but at least your life doesn’t depend on guarding against it.
In Davis’s own words, the book is an attempt to go beyond the film, “to dig deeper into the case, to make historical sense of it.” In fewer than 200 pages, Davis takes the reader along an exploratory journey into the past that includes a surprising wealth of lessons about geography, local economies and law, culture, beliefs, and customs and practices. She mixes facts such as what is known about Martin Guerre, his wife, and her family, with the conjecture necessary to build a plausible story.
Why did each player act as he or she did and how? What did each hope to gain (or not lose) and how? How did each manipulate public beliefs and opinions? Davis runs through various scenarios, focusing on the village but also referring to broader, changing political and religious issues where they can help answer the larger questions, for example, about Catholic law on marriage and what it meant at the village level, or how the new Protestantism may have been spreading in Artigat and affected the people and the case.
Although the motivations of the actors can’t be known, for the most part Davis’s conjectures seem plausible against the sketchy context she is able to provide. Like Davis, we can only guess at the emotions that must have wrenched the family members when Martin Guerre left and when he returned (and returned again) — the anger, fear, perplexity, concern, and acrimony that can accompany any unplanned or unwelcome change in a life course that has been accepted, especially when that change affects future status, comfort, and security. The older Martin Guerre’s refusal to lead a “life of quiet desperation” upsets the equilibrium the village and the families have achieved and thwarts his own objectives.
In a conclusion that’s as interesting than Martin Guerre’s case, Davis covers the relevant history of Jean de Coras, an officer of the law who found himself compelled to tell the story from a legal perspective, but can’t quite put his finger on the kind of story it is. Davis’s tale of his origins, life, career and writings (including Arrest Memorable), and own demise nearly overshadows that of Martin Guerre. For Coras, “the outcome was wretched . . . at least it makes it hard to tell the difference between tragedy and comedy.” His end, no less tragic than that of the man on trial, combined with his ambivalence toward the case and his selective account of it, made me wish I’d spent less time on Guerre and more on Coras and his rationalizations and changing sympathies.
The Return of Martin Guerre is a great way for a non-historian to learn about a time that we’d like to think was simpler, but in which a seemingly straightforward case could raise religious, judicial, and even philosophical questions around one village, one family, and one man — and whether he was, and was believed to be, Martin Guerre.
A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. New York: Random House. 2006. 416 pages.
In my 50+ years on Earth, I’ve lived through the middle and end of the Cold War, nuclear proliferation, and wars waged from the depths of tropical forests and the expanse of deserts using everything from automatic weapons to automated drones. While the war veterans of 1782 and 1865 wouldn’t recognize much of today’s weaponry or some of the new tactics, “War is hell,” as it has always been.
In A War Like No Other, Victor Davis Hanson outlines the cause, means, and results of the Peloponnesian War and how the strategies, tactics, and technologies evolved as the war dragged on, changing how the Greek world approached fighting and the military even as classical Greece tore itself apart. Hanson organizes his history by the war’s essential elements, such as fear, fire, disease, terror, armor, walls, horses, and ships.
This may sound discombobulating if, like me, you’re not familiar with the classical Greek era. By taking this approach, Hanson brings into relief the critical points and factors in the war’s agonizing progress and evolution, for example, the insufficiency of ravaging, the growing reliance on lightly armed troops, the need for horse troop support, the increasing desperation on both sides of sieges, and the inclination of democracy to make awful decisions and punish the leadership that carries out those decisions.
While aw is a survey, rich details draw the reader into the horrors of the war and its political background — the confusion and noise of the hoplite battle at Delium, where in the chaos Athenians kill Athenians, and the desperation at Syracuse, where men stranded on Sicily hundreds of miles from home are hunted down and slaughtered even as they drink the water of bloodied rivers. Later in the war, sailors are “speared like fish” as their triremes are destroyed.
At the beginning of the war, the expectation is that some land, mainly in Attica, will be ravaged; some cities may be besieged; some triremes may be sunk; and some hoplites will be killed honorably in a few decisive battles. As the war drags on, the rules are ignored, then forgotten. The war, which could have been a series of decisive battle and events, becomes a chronic, progressive disease with no cure but the destruction of one host or the other. Even when it’s in remission, such as during the Peace of Nicias, it’s festering within the Greek body.
By the time Athens is finally defeated, left to watch its vaunted Long Walls torn down, thousands of Athenians, Spartans, allies, and bystanders have died, hundreds of triremes have been rammed and sunk, and the Athenian treasury has been depleted, yet no clear victor has emerged. Athens and her aspirations have been reined in, but Sparta is weaker, while its enemies are not. In the meantime, war, once waged ostensibly according to conventions and rules (even if often broken) has turned into a nursery for ideas and technologies aimed at killing the most people most efficiently.
Why should you care about a war fought thousands of years ago over fear of an empire that faded soon after? Throughout Hanson refers to many wars that have happened since — Ottoman, the American Civil War, the first and second world wars, Vietnam, and Iraq. In some ways the Peloponnesian War set a precedent for why and how modern conflicts are fought, who participates, and how conflicts are marketed and perceived during their up- and downswings.
As Hanson recounts critical miscalculations made by the leaders, peoples, and combatants on both sides, it’s hard to forget that future historians and peoples will look back and marvel at our own errors and blunders and wonder how we could be so oblivious to so much that is obvious. After all the years, money, and lives lost, perhaps the Peloponnesian War’s clearest legacy was helping to make future conflicts easier to sell to people who want to be winners and ever more coldly and efficiently deadly — at which point, no one wins.
The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time by Matthew Fox. Highly recommended.
In The Reinvention of Work, Matthew Fox brings together the work of Eastern and Western mystics, ancient, medieval, and modern, to propose a new paradigm for how we work and what we do. Citing Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas, Hildegard von Bingen, the Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, Studs Terkel, Patch Adams, and progressive economists, Fox explores the concept of work and how it can be healthier physically, emotionally, and intellectually, but primarily socially, environmentally, and spiritually.
Fox believes that the Enlightenment and the industrial age have left us with a machine-centered, anthropocentric world that focuses on outer work and rewards at the cost of inner work and spirituality, and destroys rather than creates. Real wealth results from preserving the health of the planet, not in the artificiality of money or possessions. The result has been a world often at war, where the gaps between affluent and poor continue to spread, where the environmental health of non-industrialised nations is sacrificed for the comforts of the industrialised, and where the work that is available and that most people have serves machines and leaves the worker stressed, addicted to work, ill, angry and even violent, and unfulfilled intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.
Fox cites mystics like Eckhart and Aquinas to show that they understood what is important and that they prophetically understood the traps that man is prone to fall into. He also recounts the stories of people who reinvent themselves through work, who are willing to sacrifice position and possessions to find an avocation that matters, like the man who gives up a high-paying position to become a fireman and who is ecstatic about the meaning it brings to his life.
Fox carefully sets up all that is wrong with our modern concept of work and, indeed, life, since so much of who we are, how we feel, and how we live is tied up in what we do for a living, or what we mistakenly call “work.” His proposed solutions are centered around creation spirituality, which is a “creation-centered mysticism that is also prophetic and socially transformative.” While creation spirituality is not very clearly defined here — Fox has written several other books about it and refers to them — it appears to center around the idea that creation comes from within and that we create our world, which is part of a greater, interdependent cosmos that continues to undergo creation. For Fox, “enlightenment” might mean recognising and embracing creation spirituality and our responsibility and role in the ongoing creation of the cosmos — a recognition that begins with inner work and extends outer work, and that redefines wealth and poverty. Fox is quick to point out that this is neither communism nor socialism, both of which suffer from the same destructive values as capitalism.
There are many elements involved in creation spirituality, which embraces many aspects of life that have been neglected, distorted, or abused, from education, health care, art, psychology, and sexuality to something he believes is critical yet missing or misused — ritual. In creation spirituality and the reinvention of work, properly conceived and performed ritual is meaningful, bringing people together, bringing out emotions, and acknowledging what has been done in the name of war, destruction, and hate. Ritual can also be playful and energising, for example, circle dances. Whatever the focus, ritual brings us together to share our common joys and sorrows. Ritual heals.
Mysticism appeals to me, and Fox’s assessments of what’s wrong and what could be done to change our course make sense and are supported by the quotes he provides from a broad array of sources, including psychologists, economists, writers, and artists. The consequences of not changing are clear, but it is equally clear that those consequences have not penetrated to either the masses or their leaders. (Even the rising price of gasoline in 2005 has not inspired any more than cautious apprehension.) We are like smokers who are able to quit our habit only when terminal lung cancer has been diagnosed.
To get billions of conditioned consumers (and their consumers-in-training children) to give up their increasingly complex lifestyles, comforts, and amusements in the interest of a healthier, more just world for all and for better personal mental and physical health requires a utopian change that most people will not embrace. As with the Woolgers in their book, The Goddess Within, Fox tries to find a movement in the mid-1990s that has not materialised yet. Generally, people do not choose to change; they are forced to. Perhaps someday, when the gaps have widened too far, and society and our home can no longer support our appetites (and the corresponding waste), we may be ready to listen to Fox and his adherents, at which point they will need to provide practical answers. Who will “make ritual”? Who will produce the necessities and how? Who will distribute them? How will they be paid, or what will replace a monetary/barter economy? What if there is imbalance between what people want to do and what needs to be done? In practical, everyday terms, what does the reinvention of work look like? And do I want to live long enough to experience the disasters that are likely to be required to bring it about?
Eckhart, Aquinas, von Bingen, the Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching — all wise beyond their times. And beyond ours as well.
21 August 2005
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
A Treasury of Royal Scandals: The Shocking True Stories of History’s Wickedest, Weirdest, Most Wanton Kings, Queens, Tsars, Popes, and Emperors by Michael Farquhar. Recommended.
If you eagerly await each issue of The National Enquirer but wish it were less about Jennifer Lopez and more about Henry VIII, this is the book for you. In it, Michael Farquhar has collected charming tales of Europe’s royal elite at their finest — fornicating, battling, murdering, backstabbing, beheading, inbreeding, mincing, politicking, and going stark raving mad. You’ll read about the touching love of Philip the Fair for Joanna the Mad (who’s called that for a reason, as you’ll see), the familial love of Napoleon for his brothers, and the not-so-familial love of Caligula for his sister.
Farquhar’s gift is not so much for digging up tales of shame, but for the irreverent sarcasm with which he dishes them out. Of King Frederick William of Prussia: “The reply [to his son] was written in the glowing warmth of the third person.” “Peter the Great was what might be best described as a super-tsar.” [Groan.] “If Louis XIV was France’s Sun King, then his brother, Philippe, duc d’Orléans, was its Drag Queen.”
Sarcasm and bad puns aside, let’s get back to the comparison to The National Enquirer. Unless you are truly the type who subscribes to Playboy/Playgirl for the articles, chances are that you readThe National Enquirer for the titillating hints of the scandals, improprieties, infidelities, gifts to the Democratic Party, and other acts calculated to provoke moral outrage that today’s royal icons, celebrities, have virtually trademarked.
If you have any common sense (and how would you? Look at what you’re reading!), of course you realise that little of The National Enquirer is burdened by the weight of the truth, but it is seasoned just right to tempt your sense of gullibility. (For example, a cover lamenting Cher’s “heartbreaking disease” — surely cancer, or at least diabetes? — led to a story about her deadly adult acne problem.)
Farquhar takes much the same approach to his subject. Royal Scandals is replete with “reported that” qualifiers as well as apocryphal stories. Perhaps the most obvious is the one about the assassination of England’s Edward II, or rather the description of the gruesome way in which it was allegedly committed. You’d be hard pressed to find a historian who doesn’t scoff at the anecdote, but you are guaranteed to flinch at it. Farquhar will have you hooked.
While Royal Scandals does not quite qualify as history — don’t cite it in your next paper, kids — it may pique your interest in such characters as Bloody Mary, Mary Queen of Scots, the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, and the hapless Jane Grey (whose mother was, “by some accounts . . . romping with a servant fifteen years her junior” at the time of Jane’s beheading).
When you’ve finished reading Royal Scandals, you’ll realise Hollywood has nothing on history — or the embellishments thereof.
The appendices, showing British, French, and Russian monarchs, and a timeline of events in the western world are useful. An index would have been helpful as well.
2 May 2005
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
The Goddess Within: A Guide to the Eternal Myths that Shape Women’s Lives by Jennifer Barker Woolger and Roger J. Woolger. Not recommended.
The Goddess Within is an attempt to explore and explain contemporary psychological issues and social trends through the ancient Greek goddesses Athena, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hera, Persephone, and Demeter. The premise is based on the idea that the whole goddess of more matriarchal times has been divided and wounded, that patriarchal society suffers due to the resulting imbalance, and that we need to restore the balance and the multiple roles and energies of the goddess (and women).
One problem with The Goddess Within is reflected in the subtitle. There are no goddesses that shape women’s lives; rather, humans shaped the goddesses — including their splintering. At times, the authors seem to forget that distinction, especially when they make such statements as: “. . . the two goddesses who are, so to speak, expressing their larger grievance through the two women.” Perhaps it is simply the two women expressing their own grievances, which they have in common with other women.
The most basic problem, however, is the division of everything into the masculine and feminine. Is the earth really female? The moon? Why is the sun male? The authors talk at length about the moon, but never acknowledge that, without the “male” sun, there would be no nurturing of life on earth. Why is intellect a male attribute? Emotion female? Are these the kind of labels that reveal human psychology or repress a deeper exploration? Since each goddess is held to represent certain traits, are they necessary at all? Can six goddesses represent the “feminine” in its entirety? Essentially, psychology can be made to fit into any system desired.
What is more troubling, however, is the authors’ claim that “balance” is missing in our patriarchal world and their insistence that a matriarchy should replace it. The amount of gratuitous male bashing leaves no doubt about how they truly feel about “balance.” For example: “Growing Athena soon learns to curb her frustration at male stupidity and ineptitude, however” and “All men have in them heroes, lovers, fathers, leaders, listeners, protectors of one kind or another and it is never too asking too much to make the long overdue sacrifice of the whining little boy that prevents their emergence.” The message throughout is that everything wrong with the world, from war to pollution, is due to masculine thinking.
The authors also bring a great deal of personal bias to their discussion. They believe that Demeter (motherhood) is undervalued and suggest that mothers be allowed to return to their jobs after being granted five-year leaves — a greater privilege than National Guardsmen have. They don’t point out that someone must fill Demeter’s shoes involuntarily — perhaps even a type who doesn’t want to work extra hours and who would like to experience life, too. (I’ve done my share of working late so mothers can get to day care and events on time — my own admitted bias.) They say that families with children are relegated to fast-food restaurants and blue-collar diners, another phenomenon that doesn’t fit in with my observations.
That leads to another problem — The Goddess Within seems dated. Writing in 1989, the authors discuss “movements” that the average American today has not heard of — suggesting they are not so much movements as the typical handful of people from each generation who deviate from societal norms. There has been no growing return to rural living; if anything, suburbs continue to expand. There is no growing sensitivity toward the “earth goddess” among the masses. What the authors label “patriarchal values” — war, conquest, corporate power, degradation of the earth — are even stronger today. If the question is one of balance of matriarchal and patriarchal values, as the Woolgers define them, the world is as or more out of balance than ever.
The Woolgers, however, do not seem to propose balance, but a return to the matriarchy, where patriarchal Christianity as practiced and rational science (which they tuck in together as odd bedfellows) are subject to the goddess — ignoring the benefits that Christianity and science have given western society and focusing only on the harm they have done. For example, science has brought us nuclear weapons, but it has also contributed cures, treatments, and surgeries for ailments that would have killed millions of us early in life.
Rarely do the Woolgers mention the gods — and then it is primarily as consorts to the goddesses (or, in Zeus’s case, as the ultimate patriarch). If balance of these values should be the goal of the individual and society, why not The Gods and Goddesses Within: A Guide to the Eternal Myths That Shape Men’s and Women’s Lives? In their slavish devotion to the feminine (and feminist), the Woolgers devalue the masculine. To them, “no matter how much a doting father adores and is adored by his daughter, he is still far from a mother’s love of her little girl. He did not bear her in his body; he cannot experience that great mystery.” Is this really true? Does every woman who bears children experience it as a “great mystery”? And what of the great mysteries that men can and do experience? It is this lack of balance and wholeness that undermines the Woolgers’ claims.
Some women (and men) may find the goddess portraits very useful in assessing themselves and the women in their lives (for example, the Hera mother is easily identifiable) as well as their relationships. The goddess portraits and sidebars are also somewhat useful in the study of Greek and Roman mythology. Beyond that, however, The Goddess Within is little more than trendy, empty, male-bashing feminism of the worst kind.
My goddess scores:
Athena (goddess of wisdom)
Artemis (goddess of the wilds)
Persephone (goddess of the underworld)
Aphrodite (goddess of love)
Hera (queen of heaven)
Demeter (goddess of life)
5 February 2005
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. Recommended.
Imagine a virus that may spread through the air and that causes death at the same rate as the Black Plague during the Middle Ages — within a matter of days. You don’t have to imagine it; it’s emerged from the rain forest of Africa. In The Hot Zone, Richard Preston covers the filoviruses, Marburg and Ebola, from their effects on victims, how they are spread, and various outbreaks to the horrifying discovery of an Ebola strain right outside the U.S. capital, in Reston, Virginia.
To shatter our complacency, Preston begins The Hot Zone by detailing how a French expatriate, “Charles Monet,” undergoes the transformation from healthy human being to a Marburg virus host undergoing extreme amplification within days. His fate is to “crash and bleed out” — to throw up the “black vomit,” go into shock, slough intestinal lining, and lose copious amounts of blood from every orifice. This is a true horror story that Poe could not have imagined — yet it is what happens in 50–90 percent of similar cases. There is not only no cure for the filoviruses Marburg and Ebola, there is no treatment.
When the Army and the Centers for Disease Control (inexplicably abbreviated C.D.C.) discover there is an outbreak of an Ebola-like agent in a research monkey holding facility in Reston, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., a team of virologists, veterinarians, physicians, and technicians go into action to identify and isolate the agent, to euthanize the monkeys, and to kill all life within the building.
Preston follows the daily life of Jerry and Nancy Jaax, both Army veterinarians; Dan Dalgard, consulting veterinarian to the company that imported the monkeys from the Philippines; researchers Gene Johnson and Peter Jahrling; intern Tom Geisbert; Colonel C. J. Peters; and others as they develop and execute a strategy for containing the virus (named by co-discoverers Jahrling and Geisbert Ebola Reston) within the monkey facility population and to protect humans from exposure.
Preston plays up the melodrama inherent in the story. He shows the ordinary home life of the Jaaxes, feeding their children, picking them up from school events, and taking care of their pets. In contrast, Nancy dons a “space suit” to work in relatively safety around Level 4 biohazard agents like Marburg and Ebola. Geisbert is a young father who has sacrificed his marriage to his work. Gene Johnson is unable to write about his research and has recurring nightmares about a breech in his gloves. While Army teams are “nuking” the monkey facility, killing and carving up monkeys that host what was believed to be a virulent, deadly hot agent, children play happily at the day-care center down the hill. These juxtapositions of normal life with scenes of people in space suits in fear for their lives from Ebola are intended to add to the horror. While life goes on, a particularly grisly kind of death is only steps away.
I found the attitude of the veterinarians difficult to understand. Dan Dalgard euthanizes monkeys to see if they have simian hemorrhagic fever (SHF). They prove to be healthy. Preston writes, “Sacrificing the monkeys had been a difficult, disgusting, disheartening task” — a sentiment the other veterinarians echo throughout the book. Dalgard notes, “. . . the animals were unusually well fleshed (butterballs), young (less than 5 years), and in prime condition.” Yet even as he feels the “disgust” of sacrificing the monkeys, he doesn’t question the ethics of working for a company that takes these young, healthy, “butterball” non-human primates away from their natural habitat and family groups and sells them to researchers at a profit — researchers who will most likely inflict pain and suffering on them in the course of research.
Later, to ease the distress of what they are about to do, one of the Army officers tells the young privates sent to assist in killing the monkeys and collecting samples, “These animals gave their lives to science.” This may be comforting to humans, but misses the mark. Animals don’t give their lives to science; their lives are taken from them involuntarily. Five hundred monkeys need not have been euthanized had they not been artificially housed together, amplifying the filovirus’s ability to spread.
At points, Preston sacrifices science for drama. When he writes, “moths and insects” and “a monkey or perhaps a baboon,” one assumes he knows that moths are insects and that baboons are monkeys. He refers to monkey canines as “canine fangs” or simply “fangs” to heighten the sense of danger — but zoologists typically would not use “fangs” in this sense. There are occasionally contradictory statements. In the middle, Ebola is shown to travel through air. By the end, this has become, “You have to wonder if Ebola virus can do that or not,” Peters notes.
The Hot Zone left me with unanswered questions. Why didn’t the virus appear during the 30-day quarantine after the monkeys were imported? Why did Hazleton Research Products import more monkeys from the same source, given the likelihood they would be infected? Why was the second outbreak in the monkey house allowed to burn through the population, causing a cruel death to the monkeys? Why did the company, the Army, and the CDC treat the second outbreak so casually (once they realised Ebola Reston did not affect humans), although today the same filovirus strain requires Level 4 biohazard handling, the same as for the deadly Ebola Zaire strain?
The Hot Zone is a horrifying, compelling story adequately told. In the wake of 9/11/01, it is also a timely one; today, filoviruses are considered bioterrorism threats (although who would want to handle them?). When you’re falling asleep in at night, imagine what else lurks among the life of the rain forest — and consider that the forest may yet have the final word.
15 November 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet by Fritz Redlich, M.D. Recommended.
In Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet, psychiatrist Fritz Redlich, a Jewish contemporary, attempts to determine how physical ailments and mental disorders may have affected and influenced the Nazi leader.
This type of work, known as a “pathography,” has no set or determined structure. In the first part, Dr. Redlich describes “Hitler’s Life from Birth to Death,” including such topics as “Entry into Politics,” “Ascent to Power,” and “Warlord.” The second part, “Review, Comments, and Interpretations,” delves into more detail about the medical and psychological issues brought up in the first section.
This first part is the more problematic one. Dr. Redlich is not a historian and is not equipped to present or interpret history, especially history as fraught with the unknowns, distortions, and lies that surround Hitler. For example, he refers to the “billy goat story” several times. He notes that Hitler was not known to be cruel to animals as a child, except for the “dubious” billy goat story — a highly unlikely story of questionable origin that no historian would cite as an exception, even with the “dubious” qualifier.
He also discusses Geri Raubal’s death but provides no insight into what actually happened or how Hitler reacted to it. He briefly discusses a few innuendoes that Raubal was murdered, but there is nothing here — about a critical moment in Hitler’s psychological life — that is not covered more thoroughly and carefully in other books (Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, for example). On the other hand, there is sometimes too much detail about Himmler, Goebbels, et. al, which does not particularly relate to Hitler, his health, his psychology, or his actions. Indeed, much of the first section could have been eliminated as it often provides irrelevant information or biographical detail that is explored better in Hitler biographies and Nazi and WWII histories.
In the second part, Dr. Redlich attempts to diagnose Hitler, based on the scant and unreliable information available. He dismisses diagnoses when there is too little evidence or the known symptoms are inconclusive, although given that there is so little information and that neither Hitler nor anyone surrounding him is a reliable source, it is still primarily speculation. Dr. Redlich does conclude that Hitler had Parkinson’s syndrome, of unknown etiology, although at one point he mistakenly refers to it as Parkinson’s disease. He also provides a plausible explanation for Hitler’s headaches.
In his discussion of Hitler’s psychology, Dr. Redlich covers anxiety, depression, sexuality, and other obvious topics (often inconclusively) as well as such things as his lies and ambivalence. Again, there is nothing conclusive to say; many of these questions are still hotly debated by Hitler scholars (for example, whether he believed or came to believe his own fabrications).
The question of cruelty is an interesting one. It’s easy to say that Hitler was cruel, given the death, destruction, persecution, and torture he wrought against dissenting Nazi Party members, Gypsies, Jews, and others. This gets short shrift in Dr. Redlich’s analysis, because it’s not clear that Hitler was cruel in the conventional way many of us might think. Someone who gains pleasure from kicking a dog or witnessing the kicking of a dog is clearly cruel — but generally Hitler did not directly participate in or even witness what was happening in the concentration camps. He kept his distance from it. More discussion of such detached cruelty and distancing, with real-life examples, might be useful.
The reader does learn a great deal about the mundane details of Hitler’s health (including his ongoing problems with flatulence, which Dr. Redlich does not quite connect to his vegetarian diet), about the doctors who treated him, and about some of the medical practices still used in the 1940s (including leeches).
Dr. Redlich’s ultimate diagnosis of Hitler is one that few lay persons would recognize; it is part of the title. Hitler saw morality simplistically in black-and-white terms, he believed he’d been chosen by a higher power to do what he did (and was afraid he would not live long enough to accomplish it), and found a convenient scapegoat (the Jews) around whom to rally his followers. This is a cautionary tale that is especially relevant in today’s international political arena.
It’s important to note that Dr. Redlich’s effort could have been more condensed and focused. In addition, he is not a writer and fails to make what are necessary paragraph breaks to large chunks of text with multiple subjects (as does his editor).
Given how little is known of Hitler and how much of his own history he falsified, it would have been difficult to have produced a definitive work. Dr. Redlich honestly describes his personal reasons for writing Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet, which ultimately is not a particularly significant contribution to the Hitler literature. Those who wish to try to understand every aspect of Hitler’s life (including his flatulence and bad teeth) or who wish to recognize political paranoia wherever it rages may find this a must-read.
7 November 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson. Recommended.
In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson has turned what could be a dry retelling of the facts into a suspenseful story of creation, destruction, and insanity, focusing on architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, serial killer H. H. Holmes, and disturbed young man Patrick Eugene Joseph Prendergast. How will Burnham complete the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition on time? In the midst of the world’s fair excitement, will anyone ever notice Holmes’ grisly career choice? What will Prendergast do and what does he have to do with the fair?
In chapters that roughly alternate, Larson exposes the characters of these individuals: the ambition and drive of Burnham, the amoral charm and bloodthirsty quest for psychological power of Holmes, and the obsessive insanity of Prendergast. While these stories are know to history, Larson is able to imbue them with suspense, showing the critical points at which the world’s fair nearly failed and the many obstacles that continually arose to obstruct it, the care with which Holmes planned his career and chose his victims, and Prendergast’s growing fascination with Chicago Mayor Carter Henry Harrison.
Unfortunately, Larson begins several strands that lead nowhere. After Burnham’s partner, John Root, dies, Larson hints that the opium addiction of Burnham’s new partner, Charles Atwood, will cause problems later, but never alludes to it again.
Larson also spends a great deal of effort on everything that impedes Frederick Law Olmsted’s implementation of the world’s fair landscape architecture plan, from temporary infrastructure such as rails to paths rutted after heavy rains. Despite extensive quoting of Olmsted’s concerns beyond the fair’s opening, Larson never reveals whether Olmsted’s plan was completed or, if not, the extent to which it was completed. At the end, while he describes Olmsted’s decline into dementia in great detail, I found myself wondering what the results were of Olmsted’s work on the world’s fair and not finding even a hint of an answer.
Another area that Larson builds on is Chicago’s desire to “out-Eiffel” Alexandre Gustave Eiffel and his Eiffel Tower. The result is the Ferris Wheel, which attracts thousands of visitors and makes $200,000 in profits. It’s never clear, however, whether the contemporary world perceived that Burnham and Ferris had succeeded in their quest.
In his conclusion, Larson omits some interesting details and gets others wrong. He mentions that the Palace of Fine Arts was transformed into a permanent building, home to the Museum of Science and Industry, but fail to mention that it was designed by Burnham’s opium-addicted partner, Charles Atwood. Indeed, Atwood is mentioned only twice. While noting that Olmsted’s lagoons and Wooded Island survive in Jackson Park today, he doesn’t allude to the other remnant of the fair that graces the park — a replica of the Statue of the Republic, fondly known as “Big Mary.”
His portrayal of Wooded Island as a “wild and tangled place” is only partially accurate. At the request of area nature lovers, the Chicago Park District stopped managing some areas, which are becoming “wild and tangled.” Visitors who cross the bridge, however, first behold a mowed lawn, while the Japanese garden is carefully, planted, pruned, and maintained — a fact that would surprise readers who go by Larson’s description.
Larson also talks about Burnham’s contribution’s to Michigan Avenue, Chicago’s “Miracle Mile.” The area is, of course, known more commonly as the “Magnificent Mile,” a phrase coined in 1947 by real estate developer Arthur Rubloff that is more suited to Burnham’s lofty aspirations. (“Miracle Mile” appears to be a recent marketing invention that most likely refers to the miracle it would take not to spend any money at the avenue’s many upscale shops and restaurants.)
Larson captures the era of rapid change and how a new type of American criminal, the antisocial serial killer, could take advantage of the time’s evolving mores and seeming indifference to mysterious disappearances. Burnham is incompletely portrayed; while he is shown to be a great architectural project manager who helped change the American idea of what a city could be, the reader is left with no sense of Burnham’s own architectural vision and style. Louis Sullivan’s criticism of the fair as relying on the past seems unfair based on Larson’s version of how the exposition was built; even had he wanted to be innovative, Burnham and his architects simply ran out of time. What would the exposition have looked like if Burnham had had another year?
Early visitors to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition felt a sense that the fair was incomplete, especially since the unfinished Ferris Wheel silently attested this impression. Careful readers will feel the same way about The Devil in the White City.
24 July 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf