Sunday, 10 June 2018

THE MALAY ARCHIPELAGO by Alfred Russel Wallace


I always used to feel rather sorry for Wallace, who always struck me as a rather tragic case of missing the boat.  He  was a nineteenth century naturalist that had the idea of evolution at the same time as Darwin, and wrote to Darwin (a much wealthier, older man)  to share it with him, which prompted Darwin to hurry up and publish his own existing paper on the idea quickly himself. Thus, Darwin ends up the discoverer of evolution; he is the famous one; the adjective is Darwinian and not Wallacian. What we learn from this, is don’t respect your elders.  Lesson aside, after reading this book I no longer feel sorry for Wallace.  He had an amazing life and enjoyed himself to the max. 

This book is the account of his eight years expedition around Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and East Timor in the 1850s.  In summary, it was off the hook, and he loved it, mystery fevers and diarrhoea aside.  Here he is, finding a place to keep the alcohol for his insects, and a place for himself to sleep:
. . . I thought it safer to leave my case of arrack securely placed in the fork of a tree. To prevent the natives from drinking it, I let several of them see me put in a number of snakes and lizards; but I rather think this did not prevent them from tasting it.  We were accommodated here in the verandah of the large house, in which were serveral great baskets of dried human heads, the trophies of past generations of head hunters  . .  I slept very comfortably with half a dozen smoked dried human skulls suspended over my head
Heads aside, I enjoyed his various encounters with local communities, which were surprisingly respectful for his period.  Here he is at dinner one night:
I took my evening meal in the midst of a circle of about a hundred spectators anxiously observing every movement and critising every mouthful, my thoughts involuntarily recurred to the lions at feeding time.  Like those noble animals, I too was used to it, and did not affect my appetite.  . . I. . turned showman myself, and exhibited the shadow of a dog’s head eating, which pleased them so much that all the village in succession came to see it.  The ’rabbit on the wall’ does not do in Borneo, as there is no animal it resembles.
There are some super dodgy sections whether or not some races are superior to others, and he ties himself into knots trying to prove that forced labour was good for the locals, but this is as nothing compared to your hardcore Victorians.  It’s shocking to be reminded how very long ago the 1850s were, and how much intellectual ground there was still to cover:
Poets and moralists, judging from our English trees and fruits, have thought that small fruits always grew on lofty trees, so that their fall should be harmless to man, while the large ones trailed on the ground. Two of the largest and heaviest fruits known, however, the Brazil-nut fruit (Bertholletia) and durion, grow on lofty forest trees, from which they fall as soon as they are ripe, and often wound or kill the native inhabitants. From this we may learn two things: first, not to draw general conclusions from a very partial view of nature, and secondly, that trees and fruits, no less than the varied productions of the animal kingdom, do not appear to be organized with exclusive reference to the use and convenience of man
It’s so different a world view it’s hard to imagine.  Though for sure we all still act as if the planet existence for our immediate convenience. 

Also fun, in a boring way, where his long lists of insects he collected, which he thinks are fantastically interesting, and clearly thinks we will be debating him on.  It’s compelling how he loves the natural world, and his excitement at what he finds.  He is particularly struck by the beauty of the orgutangs, and how human-like they are, and is thus especially delighted when he manages to kill like 5 adults and 3 children.  He often elaborates on how lovely a bird is  before telling us how extra thrilled he is to have shot a large number of them.  He collected over 100,000 specimens, including 5000 new to science.  And he had an amazing time doing it.  Not too bad a life, after all, even if he doesn’t get to have his surname an adjective. 

Saturday, 2 June 2018

GRANT by Ron Chernow


What I learned from this book is that you can still be a very successful person even while having plenty of serious faults, making a LOT of mistakes, and not really learning from any of them. 

Before the American Civil War, Grant had been kicked out of the army for being an alcoholic, lost his money in a swindle (not the first time, not the last), and was doing kind of a bad job as a clerk at a leather store.

Once the war started he moved up through the ranks pretty slowly, both because of the drinking problem and because he did a terrible job of managing the politics.  Politics was far more important than merit apparently in choosing leadership in the North, and it showed:  despite being massively superior in men and material they were beaten frequently.  Eventually the North were reduced to actually considering merit, and Grant reached the top of the power structure, with a million men reporting to him. 

This is when things started to get really bloody.  One reason the South was so hard to finally beat was that the end of the war was fought on their territory, where they knew the land and could dig in, so it was some sort of version of a war of attrition (as in the first world war).  Grant succeeded in part because he was willing to let people die.  Lots of people thought he was a butcher, but not too many had any idea of how else they could win.  As one Southern solider put it:
We have met a man this time who either does not know when he is whipped, or who cares not if he loses his whole Army, so that he may accomplish an end.  
Interesting was to see what it was like for the slaves as they started to win.  It reads very much like the fall of a massive four million person concentration camp:
. . .scenes of ecstatic jubilation greeted them as they passed abandoned plantations and were applauded by former slaves.  One ex-slave, seated on a lawn, rocking back and forth in joy, kept shouting, "Glory, hallelujah, glory, hallelujah . . . Bless God, bless God.  I never spected to see dis day. 
The slaves flocked to volunteer for the Union side, and at first the leadership restricted.  Once they were allowed in they proved incredibly dedicated, and far tougher than the regular troops.  This seems totally unsurprising to me, given what the slaves had survived, and what they were fighting for, but apparently was to the white people of that time. 

Once the North was won, Grant became a politician, not a great choice for someone really terrible at politics.  He also continued terrible with his money.  Much of the content for this massive, exhaustively researched book, comes from Grant's own memoir, which he wrote at great speed, in a race against death from mouth cancer (all those cigars!), so as to leave his wife a little money, as he had managed to lose it all again. 

Grant's wife was famously ugly.  Charmingly, he famously adored her.  She had some sort of major squint, which she tried to get treated:
When she mentioned the visit afterward to her husband, he was thunderstruck as to what had made her entertain such an idea.  "Why, you are getting to be such a great man and I am such a plain little wife," Julia replied.  "I thought if my eyes were as others are I might not be so very, very plain., Ulys; who knows"
I learnt a lot about the Civil War in this book, about slavery, about Reconstruction, about military nicknames (Old Goggle-Eyed Snapping Turtle being my favourite); but mostly I learnt you don't have to be perfect to still get something done. 


THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS by Isabel Allende

Here is a book packed with all sorts of things.  It tells the story of three generations of a family in an unnamed South American countr...