Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

The Ten Thousand

The Ten Thousand: A Novel of Ancient Greece - Michael Curtis Ford

Between 401 BC and 399 BC, a Greek army (consisting of the wayward cast-offs of the Peloponnesian War) marched its way into the heart of the Persian Empire (current day Iraq, ironically enough), supporting a contender for the Persian throne. When their employer had an unfortunate (and fatal) encounter with a Persian sword and the army's supply train was ravaged by the Persian cavalry, the Greeks found themselves stranded and alone in the midst of the Persian Empire, surrounded by enemies, cut off from the sea.

This then is the famed tale of the Ten Thousand, The Anabasis, by Xenophon, an Athenian exile of noble blood, who helped lead the beseiged Greek army in an epic march across Persian and Armenia to the Black Sea and the safety of the Greek colonies.

I doubt anyone can read The Anabasis and not wonder at the Greeks horrific and epic struggle to reach safety, or not feel a tingle down their spine when they cross that last range of mountains and wearily raise their eyes to the spy the far blue of the sea...it is a tale indeed.

The Ten Thousand goes to great (and mostly worthy) efforts to retell the same tale as Xenophon, as told by his slave (later freedman) Theo. The characters are well-drawn, particularly the war-ravaged and acid-tongued Spartan general leading the Greek mercenary army but I found my interest flagging shortly after the long journey out of Persia began.

Despite efforts by the author to dress it up with a side-story romance between Theo and a beautiful Persian concubine, the journey of The Ten Thousand becomes much like the journey of the Greeks - long, difficult, somewhat tedious, and intermittantly exciting. The first half of the book, leading up to the events of the Ten Thousand's March were (I thought anyway) far more interesting as it gave you a glimpse into the life in Athens, Spartan politics and the chaos that followed the long Peloponnesian War. It is not bad, but it is not great.

I suppose if you haven't read The Anabasis previously, The Ten Thousand may be a more fresh and exciting story - but for my money, read Xenophon himself instead. There is less hand-holding and it is, as with many classical stories, written in a style that is sometimes stiff and archaric to modern readers, but...it is permeated with the beliefs and thoughts of its writer and participants, and so you get a direct sense of how the Greeks fought, thought and died, how they debated and made decisions, guided by both reason and omens from the gods.

A better book set in ancient Greece is Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, telling a vivid (and bloody) account of the Battle of Thermoplye and the 300 Spartans. I highly recommend this book - and I will review it sometime in the future.

If you are interested, you can grab the complete text of Xenophon 's Anabasis from Project Gutenberg. You can even download it onto your PDA...There's something rather kicky about reading a text written more than 2,000 years ago on a 21st century device, even if you do prefer paper.

For more on ancient Greece, visit the Perseus Project from Tufts University.

Oh, and lastly, in case you were unaware, Julius Caesar is blogging (I know, I know, he's Roman, but what the hey...).

Monday, January 27, 2003

The Island of Lost Maps

The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime - Miles Harvey

Maps have always had a tangible fascination for me. They evoke all the excitement and verve of travel, exploration, discovery, of finding your way in a confusing and sometimes hostile world. Maps are, at their essence, stories, each and everyone. Sometimes the stories are one's of your own devising. Plan a trip sometime, then after you travel, look back at your maps and retrace the contours of your voyage. The map is subtlely different, after you have travelled the road - and it is never the same for all the parties on that road.

The Island of Lost Maps is an investigation into cartographic crime, tracing the crimes of Gilbert Bland, a man termed "the Al Capone" of map-theft. The book retraces his path of thievery through some of North America's most eminent rare book library collections and the long, difficult battle to bring him to justice for what many law-enforcement professionals mistakenly viewed as a minor crime (albeit one that netted Bland hundred's of thousands of dollars. You can bet if he was robbing banks it would have been taken more seriously). The Island of Lost Maps is also a glorious exploration of the history of maps, of map-making, discovery and, in modern times, the collectibles industry, driven equally by map affeciandos and investors seeking riches.

Don't expect a rip-roaring "true crime" story here, Miles Harvey's book is a slower, more paced process, drawing you into the world of maps and the get-rich-quick schemes of Gilbert Bland, a maddeningly elusive character who suits his name beautifully. Chock full of fascinating asides and subtopics (many probably worthy of a book on their own), the Island of Lost Maps is intent on weaving a picture, a narrative map of its own, to tell this tale, and for the most part, it is well-told, although if you can look at a map and not wonder if "here be dragons", then it may not be for you...

Interested in old maps? Check out this site and this site for a look at what the collectors covet...

Map-making can be tough. Here's the diary of a map-making team...in Antarctica.

Got a GPS? Try out the newest orienteering sport - Geocaching! Take a map though....

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Tales from the Thousand and One Nights

Tales from the Thousand and One Nights - Translated by N.J. Dawood

Know O Prince, that once upon a time, there was a collection of such tales as could freeze the blood with trepidition, or stoke the raging fires of the imagination anew with tales of wickedness, debauchery, wonder and faith; tales of fantastic creatures, of magic and mystery, of the squalid and the high. Where O Prince, you ask may they be found?

Tales from the Thousand and One Nights (also known as Tales of the Arabian Nights) are a collection of Arabic, Persian and Indian folktales and legendary stories, dating from as far back as 850 AD. Rich with humor (often low-brow), allegory, social satire, fantasy, magic, sex and the vageries of daily life, the stories were originally translated and publicized in the West by Sir Richard Burton.

Tales from the Thousand and One Nights includes a mixture of selected stories (there are many, both short and long) including the classic adventure tales of Sindbad the Sailor (which almost certainly includes some of the Odyssey tales that made their way across the Middle East and into the Sindbad canon), Aladdin and Haroun al-Rashid. The stories are excellent fun, richly woven with characters (both memorable and cliched) from all walks of life. The tales are often nested and interwoven with one story incorporating another, followed by another within it's further recesses, making the reading experience one that feels not unlike a slow, sinking immersion into a new world.

Stories in this volume include (among others): The Tale of the Hunchback, the Barber's Tale, the Porter and the Three Girls of Baghdad, and The Tale of Judar and His Brothers. My personal favorite story (and one of the shorter tales): The Historic Fart.

The only suggestion I can offer for an improvement would be that footnotes and annotations might have added more to the reading experience as some of the satire and subtlty are very probably dependent on a greater understanding of the social context of the story. Learn a little more about the background of the Thousand and One Tales here and a site dedicated to the history of the Thousand and One Nights here.

For those interested, British explorer Tim Severin rebuilt a traditional medieval sailng ship (sewn together with rope - no nails), taking it to China in an epic recreation of the famous Arabic sea traders on whom the Sindbad legends and tales were based. Read about it in Severin's book The Sindbad Voyage ( I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Severin at a lecture a few years ago and consequently have a signed copy!).

Sir Richard Burton, the original translator and popularizer of the tales is an interesting bloke all on his own. Burton was a noted explorer (endlessly thrashing about searching for the source of the Nile River), linguist, scholar and devil-may-care adventurer. Burton also translated the Kama Sutra, complete with the naughty parts intact (surprising for a Victorian). Read about him in Edward Rice's definative account Captain Sir Richard Burton: A Biography. You can also find his original translation of the Nights online

Friday, January 17, 2003

The Ghosts of Tsavo

The Ghosts of Tsavo - Philip Caputo

They were called The Ghost and The Darkness, two adult male African lions, that haunted the scrub brush of the Tsavo River at the turn of the century.

In 1898, they killed more than 135 Indian and African railway workers, laboring to throw a bridge across the Tsavo River, before Lt. Col. John Patterson, in an epic and harrowing nine-month struggle, hunted the lions down and killed them.

Today the lion's are stuffed and displayed in the Field Museum in Chicago, but the question of what spawned their behavior, what drove them to become that most feared of all animals ( to us anyway) - a maneater, remains unanswered and mainly unexamined by science.

In the Ghosts of Tsavo, Phil Caputo, author of A Rumor of War, Horn of Africa, and numerous other books, examines the Tsavo lions, looking at two separate lines of scientific research that are now attempting to explain supposed behavioral and physical differences (Tsavo lions are maneless - sometimes, very aggressive, and may be a subspecies of lion that was thought to have died out 8,000 years ago) between Tsavo lions and other African lions. Journeying into the field with the scientests, Caputo offers a welcome insight into the scientific methodology in studying these animals, and brings a raw, visceral sense of the dread, fear, strength and admiration that the lions can generate.

Tsavo, in case you are interested, means "place of slaughter".

At times Caputo's writing is, by turns, chillingly effective at making the reader aware of the power of the lion and why so many of us fear the dark beyond the fire, mixed with the more clinical approach of scientific study. There is an undercurrent of Caputo's awareness of his own mortality ribboning through the story that makes the lions appear less of an animal, and more of a archetype of death, staring at you with yellowed, predatory eyes.

The book is generally engrossing but at times the abrupt shift in tone is disconcerting and uneven. As with most scientific studies, there is no real conclusive point to the lion study, or for that matter to the book. It is a good tale of a journey, but a final arrival at a destination would have also been nice.

For more about the Tsavo lions, read Col. Patterson's Maneater's of Tsavo for the definative account (and a rippin' great adventure story to boot (if a trifle Victorian in tone)). You can also download it (and many other public domain texts) free from Project Gutenberg.

There are also two Hollywood interpretations of the story, one of which, The Ghost and The Darkness, starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas, is now on DVD. Interestingly enough, they had to import the lions used in the filming from Canada, and, with the filmakers usual lack of attention to detail, they used two fully-maned males, rather then the sparsely maned Tsavo cats....

For those of you that can't afford a flight to Africa, get a taste of the wilderness at Africam.


Halloween - Jerry Seinfeld

As the father of a four-and-a-half year old, my literary experiences have now been expanded into the kids section of the local mega-superzilla bookstore. I must confess that my son and I rarely purchase books from the store, instead opting to find a small collection of titles, grab a comfortable couch and read a few in quick succession, before grabbing some hot chocolate and chocolate chunk cookies at the coffee shop.

It was on one such expedition, that I spotted the latest Seinfeld opus - not a autobiography of his rise to fame, not a collection of scripts, lame jokes or his views on life or marriage, but an out-and-out kids book. Jerry Seinfeld's Halloween is definately not a literary prizewinner (the story is alright, but somewhat like listening to Jerry's traditional monologues), but it is a fun read with your child.

Short, witty and mostly enjoyable, with superlative and funny illustrations by James Bennett, it reminisces about the Halloween's of yesteryear, looking back at the various types of candy that you most want to receive, and the inevitable superman costume for young Jerry to wear. The book does a great job of illustrating Jerry as a kid (see here and you get the idea), but was less than stellar at keeping my son's attention. Devoid of any knowledge of Seinfeld, blissfully free of knowing the trivialities of Vandelay Industries, Festivus ("a Festivus for the rest-of-us') or Kramerica, my son preferred the much cheaper Scooby-Doo Mysteries.

More for adults who can chuckle at the in-jokes then for kids, Seinfeld's Halloween is good, but maybe sitting in the wrong section of the store. Is there a vanity press section in the mega-superzilla bookstore?

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Gallows Thief

Gallows Thief - Bernard Cornwell

Don't click the ready bag or you'll be doing the Newgate Morris at the Kings Head Inn, so fake away off, culley.

Bernard Cornwell is, I must confess, one of my all-time favorite authors of historical fiction. It is such a rare find, an author who writes well, creates exceptional atmosphere and characters and actually gets his history right....Author of the Sharpe series (a terrific long-running series set in the Napoleonic era), Cornwell has, in the last few years, branched out into other periods, bring the same quality and detail to such subjects as the Hundred Years War (Harlequin ( published in the U.S as The Archer's Tale), Vagabond, Heretic (coming out late in 2003)) and the legend of Arthur (The Winter King, The Enemy of God, Excaliber). Reviews for each of the above will be posted at a later date (I'm not done Vagabond yet...give me a few more days).

Gallows Thief is a Regency-era mystery, set in London in 1817, with a London rich in detail, style and the inescapable harsh reality of daily life providing the backdrop. Captain Rider Sandman, ex-soldier, veteran of Waterloo, a gentleman now in penury, takes on the role of Investigator for the Home Secretary, looking into the conviction of a London portrait painter, guilty of murdering the Countess of Avebury and sentanced to hang ("to dance on Newgate's stage") in seven days. Moving from the secret clubs of London's seedier nobility, from the bustle of the "flash" taverns to the flat green of the cricket field, Gallow Thief is remarkably good at evoking the feel and lives of the period, coupled with some interesting characters from all walks of life. It also offers a memorable lesson in Thieve's Cant or the underworld slang of the era.

The only off-note (and it is a fairly minor quibble), was that the mystery itself was good but not that unique or exceptional...but this book isn't really about the mystery, it is more of a glorious walk through the period, the lives of the characters, the atmosphere and the cold reality of the hangman's noose and its impact on pre-Victorian society.

Just to expand your personal vocabulary, here's a taste of the "flash" language:

Stealing a purse - filed the bit; boned the cole; clicked the ready bag
Prison - a sheep walk; the quod
Newgate Prison - King's Head Inn
Turnkeys - Gaggers
Hanging - Scaffold hornpipe; Newgate Morris; scragged; twisted; crapped; nubbed; Jack Ketched; dancing on Newgate's stage or rope gargling
Pistol - Stick
Sword - Tail
Stage - Deck
Good man - Flash scamp
Victim - Mum scull
Money - Rhino
Brothel - Academy
Prostitute - Frow
Flash - underworld; criminal; daring
To be criminal - On the cross
To be honest - On the square
Gallows Thief - Crap prig

For more slang from the era, check out this site.

To learn about the Regency period (1812-1830) check out the Eras of Elegance website.

For a complete list of Cornwell's books, check out his own site.

Friday, January 10, 2003

Mutiny on the Globe: The Fatal Voyage of Samuel Comstock

Mutiny on the Globe: The Fatal Voyage of Samuel Comstock - Thomas Farel Heffernan

"I am the bloody man; I have the bloody hand; I will have revenge!"

Thus spake Samual Comstock, the estwhile leader of the one of the most gruesome mutinies in U.S. history, the mutiny on the Nantucket whaling ship, The Globe, in 1823. Killing the captain and officers, Comstock then led his party of mutineers (and a number of unwilling sailors in fear of their lives) to Mili Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, where Comstock proposed building his own South Seas island kingdom. Within days, his dreams of glory dissolved in murder and chaos.

Mutiny on the Globe is a good and gripping nautical read, with enough well-researched, well-defined background information to make readers appreciate Comstock's upbringing in the icy discipline of Nantucket, the circumstances that drove him to sea in a whaler (one of the harshest professions of a harsh age), and the psychological horrors that lurked behind his eyes. Heffernan, as the expression goes, is a writer that "paints in the corners", with the mutiny providing only the first half of this harrowing tale. The remainder of the book is devoted to the fate of mutineers (and the innocents) on Mili Atoll, and their various fates (which I will not outline here - read the book!).

Interestingly enough, this is the second book on the Globe mutiny published recently. Also available is Demon of the Waters by Gregory Gibson, which I have not yet read, but I understand is based in part on a newly discovered account of an officer from the U.S. Dolphin, the schooner that eventual rescued the few survivors from Mili Atoll.

The most famous mutiny in history was, of course, the mutiny on the Bounty, where Captain William Bligh was unceremoniously bundled into a longboat with his loyal followers and set adrift. Bligh ended up committing one of the great acts of seamanship, bringing his remaining crew back to civilization in an epic voyage 3600 miles across the South Pacific, while the Bounty mutineers, led by Fletcher Christian, ended up on the remote Pitcairn Island, where their descendents still live today.

Check out Mutiny: A History of Naval Insurrection by Leonard F. Gutterridge for more fearful tales of mutinious crews throughout history.

Wondering what the word Mutiny means? Wonder no longer, you can check it out here, along with a number of other words you've probably been puzzling over....

Thursday, January 9, 2003

Red Rabbit

Red Rabbit - Tom Clancy

Tom Clancy. Tom. Clancy.

Clancy is one of those writers, like 'em or hate 'em, who define a genre, who, for all practical purposes, helped invent a genre. In Clancy's case it was the techno-thiller, which seems to have tacitly replaced the Ludlumesque / James Bondian spy thrillers of yesteryear. He was one of the first fiction authors who could make the intricate, evolving dance of technology, tactics and weapon's systems come alive (assuming you like that sort of thing). Short and shallow on character development, but able to make the technical specifications of an Aegis Cruiser readable, Clancy redefined thriller writing.


As anyone who has read his books and followed his career over the years, as his fame and success grew, so have the problems with his books. They are routinely huge (Red Rabbit is 618 pages, and is smaller then most of his recent works), spends a great deal of plot-time running in place, with a little too much time pushing his own personal politics, and, these days, often seems contrived or somewhat lost. It may be that the end of the Cold War left him at a loss for good villains as Columbian drug lords, environmentalists, Asian capitalists and terrorists don't seem to leave him quite as much to work with. His topical plots remain as precognitive as ever, particularly in light of his pre-911 use of a plane as a weapon in "Debt of Honor".

Red Rabbit in particular feels like a bit of a reach. It harkens back to the 1980's, with a young (but still just as lightly sketched) pre-Red October Jack Ryan posted to the U.K. by the CIA as an analyst. The Rabbit in question is a Russian KGB code officer in Moscow who makes the moral decision to defect and pass information about an intended KGB-sponsored assassination. The proposed victim: Pope John Paul II. The book outlines (in endless, tedious detail) the various machinations of the KGB, the CIA, MI6, Ryan's perky wife Kathy, and various other characters (none of who are particularly memorable or for that matter particularly distinguishable from one another) as the parties involved try to assassinate/prevent the assassination of the Pope. Even the moral musings of the defector, which you might think would be interesting to examine, are dishwater dull and feel contrived, as the Rabbit arrives at his moral decision to betray his country without a great deal of soul-searching. The climax is exquisitely marred by the fact that, being based on an actual incident (Mehmet Ali Agca's failed attempt n 1981, for which he was recently pardoned), you readily know what is going to happen.

Be that as it may, I can't recommend Red Rabbit, unless you are a die-hard Clancy fan and refuse to miss one no matter what. As for myself, Clancy dropped off my "must-read" list about ten years ago, when the sheer weight of his books began to require propping them up agains the fruit bowl on my kitchen table in order to read them.

My recommendation to Mr. Clancy (for all its' worth) is that he depart for a time from the "Jack Ryan universe" as it increasingly feels like he has painted himself into a corner. Try a new character, a new situation (or possibly a new era - maybe the Civil War?) and hire a new editor, one with a strong ruthless streak who can cut some of the unnecessary and retain the essential.

For more details on the real events involved, try Nigel West's book, "The Third Secret: The CIA, Solidarity and the KGB's Plot to Kill the Pope".

For more than you ever want to know about the world's various weapon's systems, armor, ships, subs, planes, missles etc., check out Janes. If they don't have it, nobody does.

One thing of note: I enjoyed Clancy's descriptions of the Vatican and St. Peter's, as I have never had the opportunity to visit. Of particular interest is the Vatican Museum. You check it out virtually here.

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

The Demon in the Freezer

The Demon in the Freezer - Richard Preston

Chilling. Terrifying. Definately not the book to read (as I did) the week before your four-year old comes down with chicken pox.

A worthy follow-up to his previous work The Hot Zone, The Demon in the Freezer tackles smallpox, giving you a truely unsettling look at the disease, it's horrifying course through infected victims, it's history, it's painstaking eradication by the World Health Organization and hundreds of dedicated scientests and medical practioners, and its Lazurus-like resurrection as a potentially deadly bio-weapon.

Preston traces the story of smallpox, from Indian temples where it is worshipped and placated as a terrifying goddess, to the laboratories of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Maximum Containment Laboratory in Siberia, where the world's only two acknowledged supplies sit, frozen in a vault, between life and death, held immutable by political necessity, fear and scientific study.

As with The Hot Zone, Preston writes with a chilling exactitude and precision that leaves little doubt of the deadly potential for smallpox. The book is very readable and, frankly, hard to put down once started. Preston is very good at walking the reader through the more complex aspects of bio-war, smallpox and the scientific background of the story...maybe too good, as I have been unable to read a single current newstory related to bio-war, terrorism, etc. without thinking about what isn't being reported...

For more information about smallpox, visit the keepers of the Demon, (also known as the CDC), which has an excellent (if frightening) resource page about the disease.

You can read a short history of smallpox at the American College of Physicians / American Society of Internal Medicine here.

For a dry, rather more clinical link, you can look at the Journal of the American Medical Association's (JAMA) 1999 article on the usage of smallpox as a biological weapon (just in case you are still able to sleep comfortably after reading the book....).

Finally, for those of you that just can't get enough...here are some additional recommended titles that I've read over the years and found to be excellent, (if not very conducive to a good rest):

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston
The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett
And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts