May 19, 2012

Review: "Hide Me Among the Graves" by Tim Powers

A couple of observations about Tim Powers and the books that he writes--First, he can weave a hell of a tale!  Second, he certainly does his homework, as his blending of historical fact within his fiction borders upon both the sublime and brilliant!  Hide Me Among the Graves is only the third novel by Powers that I've read, but it is easily the best.  The other two were The Anubis Gates and The Stress of Her Regard.

By way of background, and as some of you may know, I am a huge fan of the Victorian poet, Christina Rossetti.  Christina was the youngest sister of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founder, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (a poet in his own right).  While a pious woman, Christina, for much of her life explored the breadth and depth of human emotion in her amazing poetry such as her long narrative epic poem, Goblin Market, or the intensely personal series of Monna Innominata sonnets, or in her slightly creepy poems The Ghost's Petition, My Dream or Love and Death

Portrait of Christina by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I guess what I'm trying to say is that Christina Rossetti's poetry evokes a similar response in me as that when I view the art of William Holman Hunt or John Everett Millais, or even Christina's brother, Dante Gabriel--the paintings are lavishly colorful, ornate, detailed and bring to life the natural, spiritual and mythological world.  Christina Rossetti was, if you will, a charter member of the 'PreRaphaelite Sisterhood' and her poetry, in my opinion, was as intellectually creative and emotionally visceral as that of her male contemporaries in the visual and literary arts.  While Christina is perhaps best known for her epic poem, Goblin Market (1859), she was a prolific poet  who, through the course of her life, wrote something over 1,000 poems.  Like her older sister, Maria, Christina never married, and she ultimately died of cancer at the age of 64 in 1894.

What Powers has done in Hide Me Among the Graves is to create an entirely compelling and virtually believable and macabre story involving the Rossetti family and some of the characters from his earlier novel, The Stress of Her Regard.  Is it necessary to read The Stress of Her Regard first? Probably not, but I thoroughly recommend that you do so, as it will make your overall experience that much more meaningful.  In both, The Stress of Her Regard and Hide Me Among the Graves,  Powers has created a unique blend of historical, horror and fantasy fiction in a style that hearkens back to the Romantic period and Gothic revival portrayed in the poetry of Byron, Shelley, Keats and even Coleridge, and in the fiction of Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley, and Ann Radcliffe.  Interestingly, and relevant to both  The Stress of Her Regard and Hide Me Among the Graves, shortly after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1817, the maternal uncle of the Rossetti siblings, John Polidori, wrote a short story entitled The Vampyre (1819).  Polidori, who was also Byron's personal physician while Byron was in Europe, figures prominently in Hide Me Among the Graves as one of the immortal race of horrifying vampires known as the Nephilim.

While a horror story from start to finish, Hide Me Among the Graves is also a family story told on a Dickensian scale.  Powers completely captures the devotion to family that each member of the Rossetti family so zealously guarded and protected.  And while the Rossetti siblings, William, Dante Gabriel, Maria, and Christina are trying to rid London of their undead Uncle Polidori, the fictional characters John Crawford and Adelaide McKee are trying to find and save their young daughter, Johanna, from the clutches of the evil vampire.  During the course of the novel the reader encounters other such real-life characters as the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's artistic muse and wife Lizzie Siddal, the linguist and Dante translator Charles Cayley, and the author and adventurer Edward John Trelawny.  The other major character featured in the book is the City of London and its history, from the depths of the oldest sewers to the "Whispering Gallery" in the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral.  Powers' portrayal of his characters in the London landscape increasingly reminded me of Charles Dickens' magnum opus Our Mutual Friend, both in the descriptive talents of the two writers, but also in the sheer elegance of each written word on the page.  These are characters that you can believe in, admire, and be repulsed and horrified by.  At the same time, over the course of the novel, the gritty and seamy urban environment of London is described so realistically that one almost expects to encounter little 'Jenny Wren' or the 'Artful Dodger' as one rounds the corner in the footsteps of Christina Rossetti on the trail of her vampire uncle.

Lizzie Siddall by DGR
This is good stuff, folks!  A scary and macabre tale, yet at the same time a breathtakingly imaginative and creative story grounded in the real lives of a group of intellectually amazing poets and painters at the height of the Victorian Era in the 19th century.  Finally, there are two aspects of Powers' Hide Me Among the Graves that simply cannot be overstated or oversold.  First, Powers has managed to effectively and accurately portray the complexity of the relationships between Christina Rossetti and her other family members; the tortured relationship between Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his wife, Lizzie Siddall; and even the somewhat bizarre character of the poet, Algernon Swinburne.  Additionally, and most importantly from my perspective, Powers has managed to open a window and illuminate the magnificent poetry of a relatively obscure--but certainly not minor--female poet of the Victorian Era, Christina Georgina Rossetti.  I personally cannot thank Tim Powers enough for setting out and accomplishing both of these tasks in grand fashion in this truly excellent novel!

While cerebral, Tim Powers' Hide Me Among the Graves is entirely accessible to any and all readers and provides a wonderful exclamation point to his spectacularly successful earlier novel, The Stress of Her Regard.  I highly recommend both of these amazing novels!


I am rereading the novel right now, and revisiting some of Christina's poetry that was utilized as epigraphs and/or referred to throughout the book, and I am quite likely to come back and revisit the content of this review in the near future, but this will suffice for the time being.



If, after reading Hide Me Among the Graves, you find yourself becoming interested in learning more about the Victorian poet, Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894), I strongly recommend the following:

Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems, Penguin Classics, 2005.

Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography, by Jan C. Marsh, 1994 (My review here)

May 3, 2012

Off to the Big Trees for a respite...

My wife, Susan, and I are off to one of our very favorite national parks this weekend.  We are going to Sequoia National Park, and are going to be staying at Wuksachi Lodge right in the middle of the park.  This is a belated birthday present (I was 56 on April 28th).  It'll be interesting to see how the dry winter has affected Sequoia and whether there are any wildflowers blooming, and what the wildlife are up to in early May.  We plan on getting in some good hiking, maybe a little photography, and just generally relaxing in one of the most beautiful landscapes in California.  Oh, did I mention that there are a bunch of simply ginormous trees in this national park?  They truly do defy description, so if given the chance don't pass up a chance to visit Sequoia National Park, created in 1890, the second oldest park in the Nation's national park system.  Wish me a lovely, stress-free, and fun-filled weekend with Susan!  Woo-Hoo!

Review: "The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins" by Richard G. Klein

This review is associated with the 3rd Edition of Richard G. Klein's The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins (2009)--

Wow!  Nearly one month later I have actually come to the end of this most amazing book.  My hat is off to Dr Klein, as The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins is arguably the most thorough and comprehensive, yet eminently readable, treatise associated with paleoanthropology, archaeology and human evolution that I've yet to encounter.  While the book was primarily written to serve as a textbook in a university environment, its organization and explanation of the material makes it completely approachable and understandable by even the casual layperson.  If you like history with a liberal dose of good science thrown in, you just might find yourself as enchanted as I was.

The nearly 800 pages of actual text is organized into eight solidly fascinating chapters, including--
1. Evolution, Classification, and Nomenclature
2. The Geologic Time frame
3. The Primate Background
4. The Australopiths and Homo habilis
5. Evolution of the Genus Homo
6. The Neanderthals and Their Contemporaries
7. Anatomically Modern Humans
8. Synopsis: Anatomy, Behavior, and Modern Human Origins
The presentation and organization of the material allows the reader to easily grasp the important concepts and salient details.  Whether it is an in-depth discussion of anatomical details, archaeological artifact assemblages, habitat usage or cyclical climate-change records, speculations or observations in behavioral psychology, or even the latest important genetics information, Dr. Klein's explanations and descriptions of the relevant data and information in each of the chapters was always engaging, very well written, and always quite thought-provoking.  I consider myself a fairly well-educated amateur, but very enthusiastic, paleoanthropologist, and I learned something new on virtually every page of this book.

I do need to point out that it is abundantly clear that Dr. Klein is largely (if not firmly) a proponent of the "Out-of-Africa" model associated with modern human origins.  But he is also quite candid and forthcoming in describing the few shortcomings of the hypothesis that cannot currently be reconciled with existing data and/or the fossil evidence.  Additionally, Dr. Klein spends a good bit of the last three chapters building the case not only for the Out-of Africa model of modern human origins and dispersal, but also the cultural explosion--the result of a new type of modern human behavior--that occurred about 50,000 years ago, and quite likely provided the impetus for the mass-migration from eastern Africa and out across Eurasia, into western Europe, to Australia, across Asia and Siberia and finally into the Americas.  While I have been generally pretty familiar with much of this information, it was only through reading this book that I was able to put the whole picture together; starting with the Australopiths, and then into the Genus Homo, concluding with the stark fact that of all the human species we are the last one, Homo sapiens.  The synthesis and synopsis provided in the last chapter was simply astounding, and was so damned interesting I read it twice.  In sum, Dr. Klein tells a story in this book that is both deeply compelling and fascinating.

Finally, I also want to highly recommend the system of references and bibliographic citations that Dr. Klein has provided associated with the material in this book.  At the end of each section within each of the chapters, Dr. Klein provides a brief compendium of the source material for each of the subjects discussed in that section.  One can then refer to the extensive, nearly 200 pages, of references at the end of the book.  Trust me, this system works well, and the extensive references are certainly 'worth the price of admission' on their own.  Dr. Klein also provides a comprehensive Site Index that allows the interested reader to specifically look up an archaeological site.  He has also provided a Reference Index (by author/researcher) as well as the obligatory Subject Index.  As I said at the beginning, this is a comprehensive reference and resource, and I'm very glad to have this on my bookshelf now.


Reviews: "Masters of the Planet" and "The Fossil Trail" by Ian Tattersall

Within this posting I am including my reviews of two superb books by Ian Tattersall, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History.  The book reviews include:  Masters of the Planet:The Search for Our Human Origins (2012), and The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know about Human Evolution (2nd Edition, 2009).

Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins

Ian Tattersall's new book, Masters of the Planet, is an eloquently and well-written story of our human origins.  While much of the material included in this book was familiar to me, I have to say that Dr. Tattersall's organization and presentation makes this book the perfect gift for someone looking for a thorough but easily understandable first exposure to human evolution.  Tattersall's love of systematics, anatomy and taxonomy shines through brightly as he uses the narrative to carefully document, explain and interpret the important fossils and archaeological evidence associated with many of our hominin ancestors. 

This anthropological and archaeological detective story begins some 5-6 million years ago and culminates with the origin of anatomically modern humans (i.e., Homo sapiens) in Africa nearly 200,000 years ago, and subsequent dispersal through much of the rest of world starting about 60,000 years ago.  This is the elegantly told story of--to borrow a phrase--"bones, stones, and molecules" that provides Tattersall's synthesis and interpretations of the current state-of-knowledge associated with the fossil evidence, the stone-tool traditions, and the latest genetic data.  Finally, for those who are interested, Tattersall has provided twenty pages of detailed notes and bibliographic source citations for each chapter at the end of the book.  I really enjoyed reading Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins, and unhesitatingly recommend it for those interested in the natural and biological sciences.


The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know about Human Evolution

This is a superb history of the discovery of most of the important hominin fossils and interpretations and integration of these fossils into the overarching story of the origins of humans.  Ian Tattersall has spent most, if not all, of his illustrious career carefully exploring and considering the fossil evidence and developing a logical hypothesis for the evolution of human species, which he has thoughtfully laid out in the second edition of this important book.  Tattersall has also done a very good job of incorporating and explaining the latest scientific data and information related to genetics, geochronology, paleoclimatology and paleoecology that tend to bolster his thesis and specific interpretations. 

While much of this material was also thoroughly covered in Richard Klein's huge third edition of his relatively recent book The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins (2009) which I just finished reading recently, I have to say that I very much enjoyed the approach taken by Tattersall--ever the anatomist and taxonomist--in presenting and discussing the fossils in the order that they were discovered, and how they have been viewed and interpreted over time.  As the book moves along, Tattersall comes back and revisits certain fossils and presents the new way of interpreting it and its proper placement in the on-going telling of the story of our human origins. 

Interestingly, I am actually beginning to recognize and remember many of these fossils by the catalog and/or 'nicknames' that have been given to each of them (e.g., KNM-WT 15000, also known as "Turkana Boy" a very nearly complete skeleton of a young Homo ergaster boy), and this makes reading this book, as well as other technical journal articles and books even more meaningful to me now.  Additionally, this book is liberally illustrated, with superbly detailed line drawings of just about each of the fossils that are described in the book.  In conclusion, this book is well worth the read, especially if you're at all interested in the history of these amazing fossil discoveries and the evolution, over time, of the interpretation of the of these extinct species and their ultimate role in the search for the complete story associated with the origin of anatomically modern humans--Homo sapiens.