BOOK REVIEW: Chloroform by Linda Stratmann

Chloroform: The Quest for OblivionChloroform: The Quest for Oblivion by Linda Stratmann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Stratmann’s book tells the story of the rise, fall, and debauchment of the anesthetic known as chloroform. As such, most of the book — particularly in the first half — is a medical history that offers detailed discussion of the debates that went on between doctors as to whether chloroform was the best form of anesthesia available, or whether an alternative approach was superior. (Contenders include: ether, nitrous oxide, or the old-fashioned approach of no anesthesia whatsoever.) The book also discusses a number of cases in which chloroform was used in the commission of a crime, or was speculated to have been. On the topic of vice, the use of chloroform as a recreational drug is also described. For those who aren’t medical historians, the explorations of chloroform in crime, vice, and licentiousness are where the book gets intriguing, and they tend to take place in the latter half of the book. [That makes sense from a chronological perspective as it took some time before laypeople became aware of the range of uses of this substance.]

The book is well-written and follows the intrigue. That said, it’s definitely a niche work. I came at it from the strange direction of one who is interested in consciousness (and, by extension, how it is lost.) This book could appeal to those interested in the history of medicine, true crime, or recreational drugs, but, regardless, it’s a niche within those niche fields.

The book has graphics, annotations, a bibliography, and even an appendix that describes the chemistry of chloroform. It comes with all the bells-and-whistles one might expect of a scholarly book, but tells a story skillfully. The author is neither a journalist nor a scientist, but she seems to have done an extremely thorough job of research.

If you only read one book on the history of chloroform this year, make it this one. [Disclaimer: As far as I know, this is the only history of chloroform, and it’s certainly the only one that I’ve read to date.]

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BOOK REVIEW: The Ocean of Churn by Sanjeev Sanyal

The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human HistoryThe Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History by Sanjeev Sanyal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a geographic and historical overview of the Indian Ocean from the geological processes that created it to the wave of independence movements that took hold in the wake of the Second World War. The author’s approach is to emphasize the interaction between – rather than within – the various nations of this region. [Though, India in particular, gets a great deal of space devoted to internal happenings. However, given its central location (trading to both the east and the west,) its size, and its cultural influence on the region, it’s not necessarily the case that this is an unfair bias.]

I was happy to find a book that seemed to be just what I was looking for. Having lived in India for more than five years, I’ve often been struck by the intriguing evidence of interconnectedness that I didn’t have the historical background to understand. From a discussion with a Nairobi cab driver who had no idea that chapati (a flat bread common in South Asia, but eaten as far afield as the Caribbean) was anything other than an indigenous Kenyan culinary invention to the fact that Tamil is one of the official languages of Singapore, I’ve often found myself curious about how these connections came to be. This book didn’t disappoint. Sanyal delves right into the fascinating fun facts without getting too bogged down in the who married whom and who fought whom that quickly becomes the tediousness contributing to a lack of enthusiasm for the subject of History among school children. (That said, there is – probably necessarily – some of the stuff that students are forced to memorize, here and there.)

The approach of the book, after an introductory chapter that gives the reader a contextual introduction to the region, is to proceed chronologically. This means the book starts out more geology, geography, and anthropology and gradually becomes more of a history. In the later half of the book, this history is particularly an economic history focused on the products whose trade drove interaction in the region – be it for conflict or for cooperation. Trade is important throughout the region’s history, but we also see a lot the spread of culture earlier, especially the spread of religion. From the spice that was much coveted in Europe to the opium that the British East India Company used to balance its trade with China (resulting in the Opium Wars,) this trade has had a profound impact on the world in which we live.

There are many graphics throughout the book, primarily maps. These are extremely beneficial. The book is annotated with end-notes that provide sources and elaborations.

I found this book to be both interesting and entertaining. The author throws in a one-liner joke now and again, but what I really found humorous were the fictions that were widely believed back in the day. Most of these resulted from merchants telling tall tales to make asking prices more palatable. It’s harder to scoff the price of a diamond if one thinks they were guarded over by gigantic snakes and the only way to get them was to throw meat into a canyon so that Eagles (the only things that could out move the snakes) might snatch up a diamond with its steak. It is also fascinating to learn how the same stories were heard from different sources, suggesting that false information behaving like an infection isn’t new to the internet age.

If I had one criticism of the book, it would be that in the final chapters the author leaves behind the historical objectivity that seems prevalent throughout most of the book. Instead of presenting the information and letting the reader make up their own mind about such events as Subhas Chandra Bose’s (Netaji’s) courting of the Nazis during the Second World War, Sanyal shapes the information he feeds to readers to persuade rather than to inform. I didn’t notice this in earlier parts of the book and suspect it was just easier to be dispassionate about the distant past.

All-in-all, I’d recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn more about history and trade across the Indian Ocean. I learned a great deal, and found the book readable and intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Anarcha Speaks by Dominique Christina

Anarcha Speaks: A History in PoemsAnarcha Speaks: A History in Poems by Dominique Christina
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection of poems, written by Dominique Christina and selected / arranged into a story by Tyehimba Jess, tells the story of a slave woman who was used for medical experimentation. Most of the poems are in the voice of this woman, Anarcha, and are conveyed in a slave dialect. However, a few are from the perspective of Dr. Marion Sims, the doctor who used Anarcha (and other slave women) for research and experimental procedures. Even without the cues in the poem titles, it’s easy to tell when these switches in voice occur because the doctor’s poems are in “proper” English, as opposed to Anarcha’s dialect. I should point out, while I can’t tell you how accurate the slave dialect is, I can say it presents no challenge to the reader’s understanding of the story or of the imagery or metaphor of the poetry.

The events described in these poems are based on a true story. Anarcha developed a fistula (a hole in bodily tissues that’s not supposed to be there) as a complication of carrying a child, and as a result suffered persistent bleeding. Anarcha’s owner handed her over to Dr. Sims to repair the fistula and stop the bleeding, which would require the development of a new procedure. Sims is often called the father of modern gynaecology, and was lauded with statues and honors. However, in recent years, his image has been tarnished by the fact that many of his advancements were only possible through the non-consensual examination of, and experimentation upon, slave women.

I should point out that, while reading this book has made me interested in learning more about the details of the story, I can’t really comment on the degree to which the poems accurately convey history. From the little I was able to garner from quick internet research, there are wide-ranging views on Dr. Sims and his research. Some think Sims belongs in Josef Mengele’s corner of hell. (Note for non-history buffs: Mengele is the Nazi doctor who experimented on Jews and other prisoners during the Second World War.) Others believe Sims was genuinely working to heal the slave women and wasn’t solely motivated to find a treatment for paying patients, and that — in the context of his times — he should be considered a fine, if fallible, doctor. I don’t know how much is know about what was in Sim’s mind or how it matched his behavior, but at a minimum he seems to have been much less delicate with his slave subjects than he would have been with his patients in terms of subjecting them to pain and humiliation.

I will say that the poems in Anarcha’s voice feel authentic, i.e. they feel like they convey truth about what would go through a person’s mind when put in her position. Her humanity is felt. In a few cases in the Dr. Sims poems, that authenticity feels like it breaks down, and one thinks, “no one sees themselves that way” – an instance of self-deification springs to mind. That said, perhaps it’s an accurate depiction. More than one doctor has been known to be colossally narcissistic on occasion.

That said, this is a poetical work and not a historical account, and so the beautiful language, clever metaphors, and emotional resonance of the work are what serve to make it a book that should be read. I would highly recommend this book for all readers. Even if you aren’t typically a poetry reader, you’ll find this free verse collection readable because of its story and the insightful view into the mind of Anarcha it presents.

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BOOK REVIEW: Raoul Wallenberg by Ingrid Carlberg

Raoul Wallenberg: The BiographyRaoul Wallenberg: The Biography by Ingrid Carlberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the most recent of the many biographies of Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat during the Second World War who is credited with saving thousands of lives. He was posted to Budapest with an assignment of issuing protective passports to Hungarian Jews. Hungary was a last bastion of Judaism among Nazi controlled / allied countries, but in the summer of 1944 they began mass deportation to the death camps in Poland. Protective passports from the neutral country of Sweden staved off deportation for many.

As dangerous as Wallenberg’s life was during his assignment to Budapest when he was constantly at odds with the Arrow Cross Militia (the Hungarian fascist party) and the Nazis who put them in power, the most intriguing part of Wallenberg’s life story may be his disappearance. In January of 1945, as he was seeking contact with the commander of the Red Army in Hungary to facilitate a post-War reconstruction of Budapest, he was arrested by the Soviets and surreptitiously moved to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. The Soviets denied having Wallenberg, but facing overwhelming evidence from released prisoners who came into contact with Wallenberg in Lubyanka and Lefortovo prisons eventually made the Soviets recant. In the 1950’s they admitted they’d had him while making the suspect claim that he’d died of natural causes in 1947. There remains a great deal of mystery surrounding the case. Why they arrested Wallenberg in the first place? Why didn’t they release or exchange him like other foreign diplomats they had in custody. If they executed him – why’d they do it and why’d they do it when they did it. [There were claims by prisoners stating that they’d met Wallenberg in Gulag camps in the 1960’s and even into the 70’s (though the latter claims are more suspect.)]

In a bold move, this book is written in the old school style, which is to say chronologically. This may not seem odd for those who’ve been reading biographies and autobiographies for a long time. It’s how historians always used to write their books, and it certainly seems like a logical arrangement for the telling of historical events. However, the mode today is to start in media res, or in the middle of the exciting bits, and to sprinkle in only what is absolutely necessary of backstory as one goes along. Because of a combination of intense competition for one’s reading time and what seems like the diminished attention span of today’s average reader, it’s really quite brave for Carlberg to start with 150+ pages discussing: Wallenberg’s parents and grandparents, his days in America as an architecture student studying a form of building design that would be considered virtually useless when he returned to Sweden, and his attempts to get started in business in the years between his return to Sweden and his entry into the diplomatic corps. That said, this first of the three parts that make up the book is well done and more interesting than one might expect. It doesn’t suffer from the painful dryness that is so common when one discusses ancestors and the subject’s childhood. It’s not just that Carlberg keeps an eye on what data might be useful for the reader later in the book. In fact, I’d say that what makes the first part interesting isn’t that it shows us how Wallenberg’s youth forged him into an inevitable hero. Rather, it’s that we come away with a picture of a somewhat shiftless kid from the least wealthy limb of a family tree of a rich family. It’s not that he was born to be a hero that makes his background fascinating; it’s that he was in many ways an ordinary fellow whose decisions at critical moments made him a hero.

As mentioned, the book’s 23 chapters are divided into three parts. The first part, as described, is Wallenberg’s background. The second part explores his actions while posted to Budapest. This is when he had to deal with the likes of Adolf Eichmann and – at the very end – rogue elements of the Arrow Cross Militia who were engaged in killing sprees. The third part covers the period of Wallenberg’s arrest and disappearance at the hands of the Soviet Union. Many of the popular biographies of Wallenberg were written in the 1980’s, during a period of reawakened interest in his fate but when the Soviets were just beginning to loosen up, and so this version does contain a little bit of new information that came out during the Glasnost years and subsequently.

The book has a substantial group of black and white pictures of relevant people and documents. There are also modern-day descriptions of the author’s visits to various key places in Wallenberg’s story including various offices and residences, as well as Lefortovo prison. These are short (a few pages at most) and are interspersed with the chapters around which that locale was relevant. Some of them involved talking with people who had insight into Wallenberg’s life and other places are occupied by individuals with little to no knowledge of Wallenberg. There is a detailed accounting of sources, including both a bibliography and lists of interviewed individuals and unpublished sources.

I found this book fascinating. I will admit that I didn’t get hooked right away. While there was enough in part one to keep me interested, the book doesn’t become truly gripping until the second and third parts. In part three, it becomes genuinely hard to put down.

That said, if one is hoping for a work that resolves all questions, that work doesn’t yet exist, and it’s less and less likely that it ever will given the way the Soviets purged Wallenberg from documentation (very few references were found during the Glasnost era investigation) and apparently cremated his body. Few people remain alive who were involved and their memories are adversely effected by time. Still, Carlberg offers excellent insight into what went wrong on the Swedish side that may have contributed to Wallenberg’s demise. The Swedish diplomat jumped to conclusions that probably hurt Wallenberg’s survival odds. There are a few brief scenes in the book that are visceral, and one of these involves the degree to which that one diplomat was haunted by his missteps in the case. (Another involves a cudgel-wielding former KGB-interrogator who threatened Wallenberg’s step-brother when the relative tried to visit to find out more. If the sparse documentation is to be believed, the retired KGB man may have been the last person to speak with Wallenberg. But the man clearly wanted to put that behind him.)

There were just a couple of questions that I wish had been addressed by the book that weren’t. Carlberg is keen to point out that it appeared that the Soviets were hinting that a teen-aged Baltic refugee, Lydia Makarova, could be a possible exchange for Wallenberg. (The Swedish diplomats were too dense to get this at first because one had concluded Wallenberg died in Hungary and another – higher up — didn’t believe in quid pro quo life trades.) I can see how this Lydia Makarova wasn’t really relevant to Wallenberg’s story. She was just an extremely high value subject, but I couldn’t help but wonder why they would want a teen-aged girl so badly that they’d have been willing to take the public relations nightmare of admitting they abducted a diplomat regarded as an international hero. With the book weighing in at over 600 pages, I can see why there was reticent to investigate this further just to scratch an itch of curiosity, but still the itch remains.

I’d highly recommend this book. I’ve read other books on Wallenberg, and believe that this book offered substantial value added – particularly regarding the investigation of Wallenberg’s disappearance.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin

The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for AmericaThe Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America by Don Lattin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The title and subtitle say it all when it comes to Lattin’s controversial thesis that four individuals who were at (or — in Smith’s case — “near / working with”) Harvard University single-handedly (octa-handedly?) gave birth to the sixties’ counterculture through their research and advocacy of hallucinogenic substances (first psilocybin and later LSD.) Before I obtained a copy, I was perusing the reviews, and one overarching criticism stuck out amid a sea of generally complimentary comments. Having now read the book, I’d have to agree with both that criticism and much of the praise.

The criticism is that Lattin arbitrarily lumps four individuals together and emphasizes their connection to the prestigious Harvard University in order to support a [sub-titular] claim whose reach exceeds its grasp. Now, some critics may be defending their alma mater. No matter one’s perspective, Harvard gets a black eye from the story of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass.) For some people, that black eye results from the fact that the pair of psychologists were able to carry out such wild and woolly experimentation in the first place. For others, it results from the fact that the university ultimately fired the two and ended research into the benefits and hazards of hallucinogenic substances [and how to tap the former without succumbing to the latter] — a line of research just starting to show results. (To be fair, the CIA’s shenanigans with hallucinogen experimentation [i.e. MK ULTRA] likely did more to kill this line of research than did the firing of Leary and Alpert.)

As one can see, tying the stories of Leary and Alpert together is reasonable. They were faculty members who worked together, were ultimately fired together, and for a while after said firing they continued to work together to advance their agenda outside the constraining halls of academia. Smith and Weil have roles in this story, but presenting them as though they were working shoulder-to-shoulder to advance psychedelic substance use is a bit of a stretch. While Weil’s work eventually suggested that marijuana wasn’t particularly harmful and could be beneficial, as his story intersects with the Leary / Alpert story his role was adversarial. As an undergraduate and writer for the school newspaper, Weil was the one who broke the story that Leary and Alpert were giving at least some undergraduates hallucinogenic substances (a big no-no as per their agreement with Harvard.)

Huston Smith’s story is yet more tenuously connected. While he was on faculty at MIT, he worked with Leary and Alpert on a study with divinity students to determine how psychedelically-induced mystical experiences compared to ones that weren’t influenced by mind-altering substances. While Leary followed his own advice to “drop out,” becoming a counterculture / hippie bad boy, and Alpert went on to pursue the mystical life of a spiritual seeker under the alter-ego of Ram Dass, Smith had a long career as a mainstream academic – retiring as Professor Emeritus from Syracuse University. Weil had some karma pains early in his career, being marginalized by his colleagues for his work with controlled substances as Leary and Alpert once had been, but ultimately he became a health food / holistic medicine celebrity and co-director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.

While I agree that Lattin overstates his case on the book’s cover, once one delves into its pages, I think he does some intriguing and honest reporting of the stories of these four men. It’s certainly a story with a lot of tension. There’s the strained relationship that ultimately develops between the polar-opposite partners of Leary and Alpert. The two psychologists’ differences were complements in some ways, but the partnership was ultimately doomed. Of course, both of the above men had a problem with Weil, and the latter’s attempts to reconcile with them is integral to the post-Sixties part of the book. As suggested above, Smith’s is a side story that exists outside this drama, and only really has the one point of intersection.

This book kept me reading. Timothy Leary and Ram Dass were only vague pop-culture references to me, and I knew nothing of Weil or Smith before reading, but the overarching story (as well as the individual ones) is a fascinating one. While these four men may not have birthed the Sixties into being, they did have interesting stories while living through an interesting time. I’d recommend this book if you want to learn about the early civilian (i.e. transparent) research into hallucinogens (note: there is only a small reference to the parallel, secretive, government-sponsored work on LSD, and this isn’t the book to learn about that subject.) It’s also a good book to get a view of how the sixties unfolded, and the states of mind that led to it. As I said, these four men weren’t particularly integral to the Sixties being what it was. Aldous Huxley’s essays were out there; the Vietnam War, political mistrust, and other ingredients of the counter-cultural tide were all present. But, while the Sixties might have transpired without a glitch if none of these men had ever been born, they did have front row seats to what was going on, and one sees in their actions (drug use, spirituality, radicalism, etc.) the era in miniature.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Brief History of Vice by Robert Evans

A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built CivilizationA Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization by Robert Evans
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s title and subtitle suggest its central theme, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. As the title suggests, drugs, sex, and sundry bad behavior aren’t just the abhorrent actions of a marginalized few who society seeks to reign in. In some cases, culture and civilization are built on said behaviors. Evans devotes a fair amount of space to discussing research on vices’s role in the growth of civilization. These hypotheses and theories run a gamut from the non-controversial and well-established to more sweeping claims such as that the agricultural revolution was largely driven by the dictates of beer production (i.e. both the need to produce a lot of grain and to be homebodies through the fermentation process) and that the dawn of religion may be linked to the ingestion of mushrooms of the magic variety. Despite the book’s light and humorous tone, it should be noted that the author treats the latter type of claims with the requisite skepticism.

But this isn’t just a book of history, anthropology, and evolutionary biology as pertains to the origins of vice and its linkage to civilization and culture; it also offers humorous anecdotes of the author’s experiments into how to replicate some of the vices of the ancients – as well as offering step-by-step directions for readers to conduct their own such investigations. As might be expected, there’s a lot of humor in the book. Just the idea of debauchery building civilization offers plenty of opportunity for the subversion of expectations that makes comedy, but then one adds in stories of people (and occasionally other species) making decisions under the influence of mind and mood altering substances (or even under the influence of horniness) and one enters territory ripe for hilarity.

The book consists of 15 chapters that cover both expected and unexpected topics. Not surprisingly, discussion of drugs – legal and illicit — takes up a large portion of the book. [I should make clear that the discussion of illegal substances is purely historical, and the “how-to” sections describe “experiments” that were legal in the author’s jurisdiction and that will be for most readers.] Ten chapters are about various consciousness and mood altering substances including: alcohol (ch. 1 & 4), psychedelic substances (ch. 7, 8, and 10), tobacco and marijuana (ch. 9; treated together because historically they had more in common than in their modern use / legal status), the ephedra shrub and derived products ranging from Mormon tea to Methamphetamine (ch. 11), coffee and caffeine (ch. 12), designer drugs ranging from ayahuasca [made from two different plants that don’t live together and which only work when used together] through pain killers and on to the dangerous scourge of synthesized substances created in labs to get around drug laws for a few days until they will be added to the schedule of illegal substances.) The final chapter (ch. 15) is devoted to the search for the mythical salamander brandy of Slovenia (claimed to have hallucinogenic qualities owing to a toxin emitted by the submerged reptile.) I should point out that I have oversimplified with this division of chapters for simplicity’s sake. Some of the chapters dealt with more than one type of substance. For example, Chapter 10 is really about drug cultures and how they kept people safe in, for example, shamanic tribal societies, and how the loss of such culture is part of the reason we have a more severe problem with substances in modern society.

No investigation into the role of vice on civilization would be complete without discussing sex, though there are only two chapters about it. The first, chapter 6, discusses prostitution / sex work. There’s a widespread tongue-in-cheek reference to “the world’s oldest profession” that hints that sex work is both ancient and that past civilizations sometimes viewed these activities in a much different light than do we in modern, Western society. The second chapter on sex, chapter 13, addresses a different question altogether, but one which has captured the attention of many a scholar (as well as being fruitful territory for humorists), and that’s why there’s such a vast range of sexually titillating activities. It’s not difficult to figure out the evolutionary advantage of extreme pleasure being linked to sexual intercourse. However, it’s much less clear why there are such a huge range of fetish behaviors that are intensely arousing for some while ranging from being boring to disgusting for others. [It’s not cleared up by thinking that there is just a tiny fraction of the population that is into everything. A person who gets excited by wearing a head-to-toe rubber suit while being failed with a halibut might find a foot fetish utterly disgusting.]

For those who are counting, that leaves three chapters on miscellaneous forms of vice. Chapter 2 discusses music, particularly as a lubricant of social activities, and it presents an intriguing theory that Stonehenge may have been built for its acoustic qualities – i.e. to facilitate ancient raves. Chapter 3 explores celebrity worship, an activity which we tend to think of as both recent and as harbinger of doom for humanity, but which actually has a long history – so long that it may date back further than humanity, itself, does. That leaves chapter five, which delves into a grab-bag of bad habits that would today be collectively labeled “douchiness.” This includes narcissism, inexplicable overconfidence, and a tendency toward lying, bragging, and delusions about self or others.

The book has a range of graphics from photographs to diagrams. Some are for educational purposes (e.g. to help the reader conduct their own experiments) and some are mostly for comedic effect. The “side-bar” discussions of how to reproduced the results of the ancients (and the author, himself) are presented in text-boxes for the sake of clarity. There are one or two of these text-boxes in most chapters. As mentioned, the subjects for these “hands-on” activities are chosen to avoid running afoul of the law.

I enjoyed this book. It’s at once amusing and thought-provoking. I think the author hits a nice medium between doling out humor and educating the reader. I’d recommend reading it (though not necessarily conducting every one of the experiments) for anyone who finds the subject intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass IncidentDead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Dyatlov Incident is one of the most fascinating mysteries of the 20th century. In 1959, a crew of nine seasoned hikers headed into the Siberian wilderness in late January for an intense but vigorous trek. When they didn’t return in early February as planned (and after a bit of prodding from family members) a search was conducted, and what the searchers found was so bizarre that it would be fodder for conspiracy theorists and readers of tales of the weird for decades. It wasn’t so much what killed the hikers, almost all of them died of hypothermia — though three of the members had severe blunt force trauma injuries that contributed in varying degree to the speed of their deaths.

Instead, it was that the bodies were found on the order of a mile from their tent, none of them was wearing boots or adequate attire. There were also a range of smaller anomalies, such as one individual wearing two watches, several of the team having shredded clothing, one of the hikers missing her tongue, and some of the hiker’s clothing testing positive for radioactivity. Lest one attribute the hiker’s strange and fatal behavior to drink or other mind and mood altering substances, the hikers were known teetotalers, and the little medicinal alcohol they had was all accounted for by the search party (who admittedly drank it.) So the question wasn’t what killed them, but what drove these skilled, sober, and well-led hikers out of the comfort of their tent improperly attired in the middle of the night on the night of February 1, 1959, and what explanation could account for this range of bizzarities?

I won’t get into Eichar’s well-developed and scientifically supported theory to avoid spoilers, but it’s fascinating to consider the range of theories that people came up with over the course of the investigation (and subsequent years) to explain the odd incident. The explanations run the gamut from the otherworldly (i.e. Siberian Demon Dwarves) to a range of theories that were less provocative but which also lacked explanatory power or were inconsistent with known data (e.g. avalanche or high winds literally blowing them off the mountain.) Of course, another fact played heavily into people’s conspiracy building and that was that this was the height of the Cold War Soviet Union. While life had eased a bit since the demise of Stalin (such a trek would have been prohibited under his rule) it was still an authoritarian state, plus the memory of Stalin was fresh. This led to the most widely accepted theories involving the hikers being killed because they saw a covert weapons test or stumbled into an area where the KGB was getting up to some shenanigans. (As a sign of the times, it seems that there was some attempt to thwart the investigation and /or limit the interest in the case from low-level party apparatchiks who probably assumed shadowy elements of the government were involved [though there seems to be no evidence that they were.]) Another theory proposed that the hikers were killed by a group of escapees from the Gulags that were numerous in that part of the country. (Of course, that assumes that the poorly fed and clothed prisoners would have survived the freezing temperatures better than the fit and relatively well-equipped college students.) As evidence mounted, however, it suggested outsider involvement less-and-less. For example, the side of the tent was cut open, but rudimentary forensic investigation readily proved that it must have been cut from the inside and not from the outside by a KGB agent, Gulag prisoner, local tribesman, or a Siberian dwarf claw.

The book intersperses accounts of the happenings in 1959 with chapters that describe the author’s trips to Russia to investigate, including his visit to “Dead Mountain” and the “Dyatlov Pass” in 2012. (The former name predates the Incident and has to do with the fact that the mountain is devoid of vegetation. The latter name, i.e. “Dyatlov,” is the last name of the leader of the group of hikers.) The penultimate chapter describes Eichar’s conclusion about what caused the mysterious incident and his visits to experts that lent it credence. The last chapter offers a retelling of events that takes into account both the evidence and scientific speculation about the cause of the hikers’ panicked flight from the safety of their tent into a desolate landscape on a sub-freezing night.

There are graphics throughout, mostly black and white photos from the cameras of the hikers, which were recovered and became part of the case file. Other than the photos, there is a graphic or two to help explain the theory put forth by Eichar and others. (It should be noted that there was a group of Russians simultaneously considering the same possibility.)

I was enthralled by this book and couldn’t put it down. The mystery was fascinating and the hypothesized solution was at least as much so.

I’d highly recommend this book to readers of nonfiction, though much of it has the taut structure of fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Rasputin by Maria Rasputin and Patte Barham

Rasputin: The Man Behind the Myth - A Personal MemoirRasputin: The Man Behind the Myth – A Personal Memoir by Mariia Grigor’evna Rasputina
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This was an impulse buy made at my local used bookshop. How could I not pick it up? There are few historic figures with as much swagger, and who are as steeped in mystique and myth, as Grigori Rasputin. This Russian mystic has been fictionalized as a villain by Disney and in the “Hell Boy” universe. If one knows anything about this holy man, it’s that he proved exceedingly hard to kill and that he is believed to have had great sway with the Tsar and his wife (i.e. the Tsarina) in large part owing to the apparently miraculous effect his presence had on the healing of their hemophiliac son, Alexei. (Skeptics will note that it’s widely believed Rasputin did – in fact – save the boy, but probably not through communion with a deity. Instead, he did it through a combination of luck in keeping the doctors from giving the boy aspirin [its blood-thinning nature wasn’t yet recognized], old folk wisdom [i.e. stressing the kid out with a dozen poking / prodding doctors is as likely have a deleterious effect on health as a positive one] and a placebo effect arising from the holy man’s larger-than-life charisma.)

It’s always hard to know what to expect with a biography written by a family member. In this case, the lead author is one of Rasputin’s daughters, Maria. While there is the same potential for bias in an autobiography, in a relative’s biography one never knows whether the writer will deify or vilify they subject – but one strongly suspects they will do one of the two. This is made all the more difficult in this book on the life of Grigori Rasputin because the author is at once exceedingly forthcoming about the man’s drinking and womanizing but simultaneously rails against Rasputin’s enemies and always holds that he was fundamentally virtuous and pious (outside of sleeping around, sousing it up, and taking bribes [which the author claims were redistributed Robin Hood style and which it’s further suggested didn’t result in promises to intercede with the Tsar / Tsarina that he wouldn’t have agreed to on the grounds of virtue and merit alone.]) It should be noted that there was a journalist co-author who may have rounded of the coarse edges of personal bias, though – as I suggested – Maria Rasputin comes across as being at ease with her father’s less godly proclivities.

The book begins in media res with a description of the night that Rasputin left his home and daughters never to return. This intro presents his daughter’s perspective as she experienced that night at the time – i.e. without any of the insight of later investigations and research that comes later at the book’s end. It’s a skillful set up for the book, and in general this book avoids becoming bogged down in minutiae of personal interest as is common in biographies. The book then proceeds chronologically from sparse coverage of Rasputin’s youth with particular emphasis on the events and indications that he wasn’t the typical farm boy through to the aftermath of his death. In between the book charts the rise of Rasputin from peasant farmer to personal friend to the royal couple who visited them freely while abandoning all the protocol that was required of others on visits to the Tsar’s court.

I did do a bit of research out of curiosity about how biased or neutral the book was. In general, it seems to be a reasonably accurate portrayal of events. While I did find information that seems to conflict with the author’s presentation, it doesn’t appear to be a matter of an attempt to propagandize but rather a result of differences of perspective. One type of bias revolves around the belief in supernatural powers that can readily be seen in the case of Tsarevich Alexei mentioned above. Maria Rasputin was clearly a believer that her father had powers, and so she presents the healing as being divine (though she does state that keeping the doctors away probably had a role and she says that her father never claimed responsibility for cures but always said thanks should be given to God.) Another example is the belief of the authors that Rasputin was still alive when he was thrown into the river that is based on abrasions on his wrists as if he was struggling in the water, but supposedly there was no water in his lungs. (With respect to the claim of Rasputin being hard to kill, after healing up from having been disemboweled with a knife, on the night of his assassination Rasputin was [allegedly] poisoned, shot multiple times, castrated, and then dumped into a frozen river. The author suggests it was the drowning that finally got him, but the more common view is that the gunshot to the head had already done the deed – and furthermore, the assassins probably in some way fouled up the poisoning because there wasn’t any posthumous evidence of it. It should be noted that the authors, too, suggest that the assassins must have gotten it wrong with the initial attempt to poison Rasputin because of the lack of evidence of poison – i.e. they make no supernatural claims on that issue.)

Concerns about bias aside, the book is highly readable. It is fascinating throughout and it complies with Elmore Leonard’s advice to novelists to “cut out all the parts people skip over.” The author captures the political intrigue as well as Rasputin’s mix of seedy and saintly sides that combine to make his story so fascinating. We see his ups and downs as he became immensely popular (always with powerful enemies) and then how he lost influence in World War I when his pacifism conflicted with the jingoistic outlook of the day.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the life of Grigori Rasputin.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction by James A. Millward

The Silk Road: A Very Short IntroductionThe Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction by James A. Millward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Millward’s emphasis is in pointing out that the Silk Road was neither predominantly about silk nor was it the single route that the word “road” implies. While silk was certainly a product that traded on this transportation network, it wasn’t necessarily the most important commodity by value– and certainly wasn’t in terms of its effect on the world. More broadly, the author presents a Silk Road that defies neat delineations and definitions, a Silk Road that is often more of a conceptual bridge than a literal transportation route.

The book consists of six chapters. The first describes the territory serviced by this network, and particularly Central Eurasia which served as the bridge between East and West. This is the Silk Road as connective tissue allowing dispersion of ideas, technologies, products, services, and art between regions separated by vast distances and cultural gulfs.

While chapter one deals in the space of the Silk Road, chapter two explores time periods in which the Silk Road flourished. This begins with Indo-European nomads as far back as 3000 BC / BCE, and proceeds through various eras seeing changes in the route and the products moving along it. Most of these eras, e.g. the classical Silk Road period and the time of the Mongol Empire, are defined by burgeoning use of the network. However, Millward does ask how dead was the period from the 3rd to the 5th AD / CE which is normally considered a dead spot in Silk Road history. It should be noted that modern history is addressed mostly in the last chapter, which considers whether the Silk Road remains relevant in today’s world with its very different transportation and communications infrastructures.

Chapter three is about the biology of the Silk Road. A considerable portion of this chapter is devoted to human dispersion and the legacy of events in Central Asia as seen in human DNA. However, the author also examines the spread of horses, grapes, and dumplings. The approach of focusing on a few key commodities is repeated in chapters four and five. (These three chapters form the core of the book.)

Chapter four reflects on the role of the Silk Road in dispersion of technology. Silk is presented in this chapter, but not so much as pashmina and bolts of cloth, but rather in terms of sericulture—the technology of producing silk. The second product to be evaluated herein is paper, and it’s argued that paper was a more important commodity than was silk. Medicine and military technology are also examined in this chapter as among the biggest global game changers of the Silk Road.

Chapter five is about the spread of art along the Silk Road. One of the most interesting parts of the book, for me personally, was a discussion of stories and myths that spread via the Silk Route, and which can be seen in various cultures along the way. The lute (and stringed instruments that sprung from it) is also considered as a key artistic commodity of trade. There is also an extensive discussion of visual motifs seen along the Silk Road, as well as the blue-and-white porcelain that was a popular product, ultimately becoming widely copied.

As discussed above, the last chapter is about the present and future of the Silk Road. Entitled “Whither the Silk Road,” the author suggests that this trade network didn’t become irrelevant with the rise of transportation by sea and air and new modes of communication—though it has changed considerably.

There are a small number of graphics, including maps as well as photos and pictures that depict examples of commodities and technologies relevant to discussion of Silk Road trade. There are also sections devoted to references, advice on further readings, and a page of relevant websites.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants a brief overview of the Silk Road. If you’re a history buff and want to dig deep and see broadly, it seems there are some very well-regarded books of a much more detailed nature. I can’t comment on said books, but I know there is more than one award-winning book on Silk Road trade and cultural interactions. This, as the subtitle suggests, is much more of an outline of the subject. That said, I think the author does a good job of picking a few exemplary commodities, technologies, and arts, and focusing on them. Thus, one does get some of the insights of a book that drills down, just not along as broad of subject matter.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True StoryThe Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Preston tells the story of his participation in an expedition into the Mosquitia region of Honduras in search of a lost city, alternately called the White City (i.e. La Ciudad Blanca) or the City of the Monkey God. Preston was acting as a correspondent for National Geographic and was part of a larger team including a photographer, filmmakers, archaeologists, and a team of ex-Spec Ops escorts. It’s not a simple and straightforward tale of Indiana Jones types chasing after the artifacts of a long collapsed civilization (though it does capitalize on that sense of intrigue greatly from the title to the telling of both the historic and contemporary searches for this fabled lost city.) The book tells several stories that occur about and around this search, and they are arguably more interesting.

One of these side stories is the historic accounts of past explorers who searched for the White City. Those were the individuals who more closely corresponded to Indiana Jones–both because they didn’t have an airplane with a state-of-the-art Lidar system (lidar is the light/laser version of radar or sonar), and because they were more likely to engage in tomb-raiding and artifact robbery. This isn’t to say that the expedition that Preston was on didn’t have its share of snakes, quickmud, and other hazards that are the only reason that a huge city from a past civilization would remain undiscovered in the present day. The region in which the expedition took place had not only all the natural hazards of dense jungle, but the human hazards posed by operating in territory controlled by drug cartels. That said, they didn’t have to machete through hundreds of miles of jungle with no idea of where they were likely to find their objective.

One of the most interesting side stories occurred when Preston and many of the members of the expedition came down with leishmaniasis, a nasty tropical disease vectored by sandflies. The disease has a treatment that’s almost as likely to kill one as is the disease. It’s almost impossible to completely get rid of the disease. One can be cured in the sense of being made asymptomatic, but one may remain a potential carrier waiting to be bitten again and to pass the nasty parasite onto another sandfly so they can infect someone else. There are several elements of the disease story that are intriguing. The most interesting is speculation about the role that disease might have played in the sudden evacuation of this lost city. This is informed by a broader discussion of how “Old World” diseases spread through the “New World” with crippling effect. Another is how diseases are neglected when they almost exclusively infect poor and rural people (until a National Geographic correspondent tracks it back to the continental US, that is.)

For those outside of archaeology, one of the least interesting, but still interesting, side stories is that of the intense controversy in the field. Preston is very forthcoming about his talks with scholars who were angered and outraged by the use of terms like “Lost City” which hearken back to a period in which tomb-raiding was the norm and Westerners stole and shipped priceless artifacts back to the West by the ton. These internecine wars of academia reinforce the idea that this isn’t just musty history, but involves questions that many people feel intensely passionate about.

There is a photo section that provides images of both the cast of highly discussed people and a few of the artifacts uncovered. There’s also a section of sources and citations.

I found this book to be fascinating and I’d highly recommend it. Those interested in exploration and adventure tales will find it of obvious interest, but those with a curiosity about public health may find it unexpectedly of interest.

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