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THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
VICTORY AT SEA AND ITS TRAGIC AFTERMATH IN THE FINAL YEARS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
A TRUE CRIME STORY
FROM ANCIENT ATHENS
By Debra Hamel


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READING HERODOTUS:
A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE WILD BOARS, DANCING SUITORS, AND CRAZY TYRANTS OF THE HISTORY
By Debra Hamel


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THE MUTILATION OF THE HERMS:
UNPACKING AN ANCIENT MYSTERY
By Debra Hamel


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TRYING NEAIRA:
THE TRUE STORY OF A COURTESAN'S SCANDALOUS LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE
By Debra Hamel


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PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
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SOCRATES AT WAR:
THE MILITARY HEROICS OF AN ICONIC INTELLECTUAL
By Debra Hamel


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ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
THE LIBERATION OF THEBES AND OTHER ACTS OF HEROIC TRANSVESTISM
By Debra Hamel


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IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
By Debra Hamel


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I've decided to stop accepting review copies. The downside of getting buried in free books is that reading increasingly becomes an obligatory act. After some seven years of blogging books, it's time for me to return to the simple pleasure of reading only the books I want to read, when I want to read them.



  
From a random review:

  

« Coville, Bruce: The Monsters of Morley Manor | Main | Snicket, Lemony: The Slippery Slope »

Winchester, Simon: The Map that Changed the World

  

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HarperCollins © 2001, 352 pages [amazon]
3 stars

Simon Winchester, the author of the deservedly best-selling The Professor and the Madman, writes in The Map that Changed the World about William Smith, who was dubbed in 1831--a bit belatedly--The Father of English Geology by the then president of the Geological Society of London. Smith's great work was an enormous--some 8 x 6 feet--geological map of England, the data for which Smith had spent a considerable part of his lifetime collecting single-handedly. The map, which delineates in splendid color the various strata of rock that underlie England, was the first of its kind. Smith himself was a maverick intellect for his understanding of both the implications of the strata for the history of the Earth and the importance to the rocks' identification of the fossils that could be collected from them.

But Smith's stay in the King's Bench Prison is itself anticlimactic, because while Winchester alludes to its "horrors" earlier on, he finally describes debtors' prison as a sort of country club, where the indebted middle-class pass their time playing cards or bowling and drinking beer.Smith also had an interesting personal history in that his great efforts for science were so unremunerative that he landed for some eleven weeks at the age of fifty in one of London's great debtors' prisons. Winchester makes much of this great irony in his book, that a monumental figure should be so ill-treated and so long unrespected during his lifetime.

For all Smith's merits as a subject, however, Winchester's narrative is a bit of a slog. His emphasis is very often on the science of geology rather than the personality of Smith. This is reasonable enough given the subject matter of the book, but I, at least, frequently found the author's discussion difficult to follow. Winchester may, as a one-time student of geology at Oxford, have had too high an opinion of his layman readers' capacities. (Or I, of course, may not have been the proper audience for the book.) For those who are not geologically inclined, there may be more discussion of strata, however, than is palatable: "Below the 300 feet of chalk, Smith declaimed before the others, were first 70 feet of sand. Then 30 feet of clay. Then 30 more feet of clay and stone. And 15 feet of clay. Then 10 feet of the first of named rocks, forest marble. And 60 feet of freestone." And so on.

Winchester's narrative does become more interesting toward the book's end, when Smith has, finally, published his map and he is imprisoned for debt--the great dramatic moment toward which the book has been leading. But Smith's stay in the King's Bench Prison is itself anticlimactic, because while Winchester alludes to its "horrors" earlier on, he finally describes debtors' prison as a sort of country club, where the indebted middle-class pass their time playing cards or bowling and drinking beer. Trying and embittering it may have been to be locked away while his possessions were riffled through and sold off, but it was evidently not horrific.

Winchester's writing is at its most charming--and he does write charmingly--in the most personal section of the book, when he tells the story of his discovery at the age of six of an ammonite fossil. He and his fellow convent boys were led by the sisters of the Blessed Order of the Visitation on a miles-long walk to the sea, an expedition they undertook once a week. Winchester's account of the boys' riotous plunge into the sea shows just how nicely he can turn a phrase:

"Up here there always seemed to be a cool onshore breeze blowing up and over the summit. It was tangy with salt and seaweed, and the way it cooled the perspiration was so blessed a feeling that we would race downhill into it with wing-wide arms, and it would muss our hair and tear at our uniform caps, and we would fly down toward the beach and to the surging Channel waves that chewed back and forth across the pebbles and the sand.

I seem to remember that by this point in the weekly expedition the dozen or so of us--all called by numbers, since the convent's peculiar regime forbade the use of names; I was simply 46--were well beyond caring what the nuns might think: The ocean was by now far too magnetic a temptation. Once in a while we might glance back at them as they stood, black and hooded like carrion crows, fingering their rosaries and muttering prayers or imprecations--but if they disapproved of us tearing off our gray uniforms and plunging headlong into the surf, so what? This was summer, here was the sea, and we were schoolboys--a combination of forces that even these storm troopers of the Blessed Visitation could not overwhelm."
Perhaps Winchester will one day expand on this passage with further autobiographical fare.

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About the blogger: Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece, including Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.

  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  






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Book-blog.com by Debra Hamel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - No Derivative Works 3.0 License.