Book Review: The Naturalist

Book Review: The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the United States of America, was big on nature.  Specifically, he had a strong interest in natural history, and wanted to become/be known as a naturalist.  This new biography focuses on that part of Roosevelt’s life, from his boyhood collection of stuffed birds to his African expedition for the Smithsonian Institute.

The Naturalist Theodore Roosevelt

The author is himself a museum naturalist, so the narrative is perhaps a bit biased in favor of those who go out to collect specimens for natural history museums.  Roosevelt considered himself a “hunter-naturalist”, someone who went out, observed nature carefully, then killed animals for scientific study.  Sickly as a boy, with bad asthma, Teddy had to re-invent himself several times in his youth.  He worked hard to build up his body and mind, engaging in outdoor activities and especially learning about animals in nature.  His family was involved with the founding of the New York Museum of Natural History, which gave him a head start.

Interestingly, Roosevelt’s choice to go to Harvard seems to have doomed his ambition to become a full-time naturalist–according to this book, the college’s natural history program was dominated by laboratory work, not the field expeditions Teddy favored, and he met his first wife and realized that a naturalist’s pay wasn’t going to keep them in the style they were used to.

Instead, Roosevelt studied law and got into politics, with the results I mentioned in the first paragraph.  While he certainly made some headway as President, including creating America’s first wildlife reserves and other environmentally friendly actions, Teddy chafed at not being able to hunt properly and the last months of his term were largely taken up with preparations for his African expedition.

There were many bits of knowledge in this book that I either had not known before or had long forgotten.  Theodore Roosevelt’s poor vision meant that he was a bad shot, and often had to use far more bullets to bring down specimens than was ideal (and sometimes this meant he wound up killing more animals than he wanted!)

I found the literary feud between Roosevelt (and other scientifically-oriented naturalists) and the “sentimental” nature writers as exemplified by the Reverend William J. Long interesting.  Dr. Long heavily anthropomorphized the animal behavior in his “non-fiction” stories, and often depicted events that were so unlikely that naturalists accused him of just making things up.  (Side note:  I looked up Dr. Long’s work and among other things he penned an entirely serious book on the subject of animal telepathy-not just non-verbal communication, telepathy.)  In response, Dr. Long said that President Roosevelt could only touch the hearts of animals…with bullets.

The book stops with the aftermath of the successful African expedition-the less happy Amazon expedition does not get mentioned at all.  As is common with these specialized biographies, any parts of Roosevelt’s life that did not have a bearing on natural history get short shrift, and the serious student should also read a more general biography to get a balanced picture.

A heavy emphasis is placed on how Roosevelt’s practical experience with hunting influenced his ideas on conservation.  He could see with his own eyes how over-hunting was wiping out game animal populations, even within the span of a few years.

There’s a center section with black & white photos, and a few more scattered through the book.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.  Bright senior high students should be able to handle the material and language.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to those interested in Theodore Roosevelt, natural history and the role of hunters in nature conservation.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through Blogging for Books for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume edited by Judith Merril

This 1957 volume contains speculative fiction stories from magazines published in roughly the previous year, hand-picked by the editor to represent the best the field had to offer at the time.  (I’ve previously reviewed the fifth annual, which switched the title from “Greatest” to “Best.”)  It contains eighteen stories and articles, beginning with “The Man Who Liked Lions” by John Bernard Daley (an unusual person spends the day at the zoo; he isn’t too impressed with the human visitors) and finishing with “The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson (a teacher notices that one of her students has an imaginary box of wonders–or is it imaginary?)

The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

“The Anything Box” is the best story in the collection–Ms. Henderson was a first-grade teacher herself, and it shows in her descriptions of the students and their personalities.  And also in the dialogue of Alpha, the teacher kids won’t remember fondly at all, even while she prides herself on the discipline she inflicts.   The use of imagination, and its perils, are well-represented here.

Also of interest: “All About ‘The Thing'” by Randall Garrett,  a summary in rhyme of the classic John W. Campbell story “Who Goes There?”  Ms. Merril mentions in her introduction to the next piece, “Put Them All Together, They Spell Monster” by Ray Russell, how disappointed she was that Hollywood in the Fifties decided to go with sci-fi creature features for their movies, instead of thoughtful SF like “Destination Moon.”  The piece itself is a parody of the plots of monster movies, with a bit of extra spice because it first appeared in Playboy.  (No actual sex or naughty words.)

“Grandma’s Lie Soap” by Robert Abernathy takes a fantastical premise–a soap that prevents the user from telling untruths, and follows it to a logical conclusion, only to present a new dilemma in the last paragraphs, one that perhaps makes the main character’s actions more dangerous than he’d thought.

Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Other Man” should be talked about a bit.  An abused woman asks her ex-boyfriend, now a renowned psychiatrist, to treat her awful husband.  The story has a unique take on the habit abusive people have of suddenly being the most loving, wonderful person you fell in love with before going back to being abusive.   The therapy works, but something of value might have been lost in the process.

Many of the stories have the theme of communication, with others or with oneself.  In the afterword, Judith Merril notes that the previous year’s stories had been marked by cynicism and pessimism, while this crop is somewhat more hopeful.  She also notes that the pressure for conformity in the greater society led to more use of science fiction and fantasy as metaphors for current events and social ills.

I have not even mentioned several famous writers who got their works in; Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard (his first published story!), Algis Budrys, Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth and Mack Reynolds.  Their stuff is pretty good too.

Be aware that there is period sexism in the stories, (all the authors but Zenna Reynolds were white men) and some ethnic stereotyping.

Overall, a fine collection, worth picking up if you see it–also check your library for this or later volumes.

Movie Review: The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Movie Review: The Sign of the Cross (1932)

In the year 64 A.D., Rome burns while Nero (Charles Laughton) composes poetry, accompanying himself on the lyre.  Ambitious bodyguard Tigelinus (Ian Keith) warns that some parties are blaming the fires on Nero himself.  Nero doesn’t actually deny the rumor, but doesn’t confirm it either.  Tigelinus suggests blaming the fire on the Christians, a radical sect that he believes are planning to overthrow the government.

The Sign of the Cross

Thus there is now a bounty on Christians, which two local thugs try to collect by nabbing a couple of old men who were seen making the sign of the cross.  The ward of one of the men, Mercia (Elissa Landi) , tries to intervene, but the scene is turning into a riot.  The draws the attention of prefect Marcus Superbus (Fredric March).    Immediately smitten by the beautiful Mercia, Marcus allows the old men to go free by answering evasively about their religion.

Marcus, meanwhile, is a favorite of Empress Poppea (Claudette Colbert), who has the hots for him, even though he’s too loyal to Nero to return the favor.  Rumors start flying about Marcus and Mercia,  and Tigelinus sees them as a way to discredit Marcus and become prefect himself.  Things rapidly go from bad to worse.

This was a Cecil B. DeMille movie, his first talkie film with a religious theme.  It was made before the Hays Code, so contains some scenes that are kind of spicy by the standards of the early 1930s.  Reactions to these scenes helped lead to the formation of the Catholic League of Decency.  In particular, there’s the Dance of the Naked Moon, performed by the “wicked”  Ancaria (Joyzelle Joyner) at Marcus’ request to try to get Mercia to loosen up a bit at his banquet.  It has some pretty blatant lesbian overtones.

Mind, that dance is overcome by the power of Christian prisoners singing hymns.  Make no mistake, the author is on the side of Mercia and her fellow believers, no matter how many scantily-clad women may be on display.  There’s some shirtless men too, but the camera doesn’t linger on them the same way.

Quite a bit of violence is also on display, with archers massacring a Christian gathering, and a full day of events at the Games.  DeMille has some fun with little bits of dialogue among the audience at the Coliseum,  pointing up similarities to audiences at any violent sporting event.  And then there’s the outright weird Amazons vs. Pygmies battle, which the spectators treat as comedy, even though it has just as much blood and death as the other gladiatorial contests.  (The “pygmies” appear to be white little people in bad makeup.)

The acting is good, though still in the “just out of silents” way that less experienced viewers may find odd.  Charles Laughton is clearly having a ball as the self-indulgent but easily swayed Nero.  Fredric March has a tougher role as Marcus,  who doesn’t quite understand this Christianity thing, and has a rather off-putting way of courtship (he does the “hem the woman in to keep her from escaping” thing some women I know really hate), but is trying to not frighten Mercia away.

You may notice a distinct resemblance to the plot of Quo Vadis, which the original play version apparently borrowed large chunks of.  This being a Cecil B. DeMille movie, there’s plenty of spectacle, and some really obvious Cross symbolism.

If you liked the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments and want to see some more Cecil B. DeMille, this is a good place to start.  (Make sure you get the restored version with the milk bath scene.)

Book Review: If I Were You

Book Review: If I Were You by L. Ron Hubbard

Before L. Ron Hubbard got involved in…you know, he was a middling-good and prolific pulp author. The Golden Age Stories line is reprinting many of his stories in attractively designed paperbacks. This volume contains two short stories, , a preview of another, a glossary (really needed this time because of heavy circus slang) and a hagiography of Hubbard that does not mention…you know by name, just calling it “serious research.” Hee. It’s double-spaced in a largish typeface for easy reading.

You

The title story concerns a little person, “Little” Tom Little, who works as a circus midget, and then discovers a mystical method for bodyswapping with other people. He promptly decides to use this to swap with the tall, imposing ringmaster Hermann Schmidt. But Schmidt has troubles of his own, which could get Tom killed regardless of which body he’s in!

There’s a nice bit of foreshadowing early in the story, with what seems like random cruelty to Tom, but is actually a hint of what Schmidt’s issues are. The lion phobia, on the other hand, was a bit too telegraphed. The payoff to that is a very exciting scene, mitigating the obviousness. There’s a nice bit of ambiguity, too, in the motives of the Professor, who leaves Tom his books of magic.

The second story, “The Last Drop” is co-authored by the much better L. Sprague de Camp. A bartender foolishly creates a cocktail with some untested syrup from Borneo; growth and shrinking hijinks ensue. A fun story that at least waves at scientific plausibility as it goes by, in the form of the square-cube law. (The glossary explains it for the benefit of anyone who might have forgotten.)

While it’s a handsome package, and the stories are fun, the book is thin on content for the price. I’d recommend looking for used copies at a steep discount, or checking it out from the library.

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