Did I forget to post mine when I started this thread two months ago? Or did it mysteriously disappear? Anyway, I've slowed down so much and I'm making so little progress on my "projects" that I won't attempt to give any plans, just what I've managed to read since the beginning of the fall:
Buddy Levy, River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana's Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon  324 pages
This book is primarily a history of the 1541-42 expedition of the conquistador Francisco Orellana. He left Quito as the second-in-command of the expedition of Gonzalo Pizarro to search for the Land of Cinnamon and El Dorado; when the expedition bogged down on the Rio Napo, Orellana took the expedition's boat and 57 men downstream to look for food. When he finally found an Indian village with available food, he was too far downstream to return against the current (or at least that was his justification for not returning with the food; Pizarro reported him as a traitor) and so continued down the Rio Napo and eventually discovered the Rio Maranon, which was later named for him -- the Rio Orellana -- but soon became known as the Amazon, the world's largest river. (Although the mouth of the river had already been discovered, of course.)
The book describes his journey for more than 4000 miles down the river to the Atlantic. There are also chapters on the later fate of Gonzalo Pizarro (he returned to Peru, starving, with about 80 of his original force of over 200 men, to find that his older brother Francisco -- the conqueror and governor of Peru -- had been assassinated; he later rebelled against the new government and was executed), the second expedition of Orellana to the Amazon, and a brief epilog on the expeditions of Aguirre (a.k.a. The Wrath of God) and Sir Walter Raleigh.
The author treats the expedition mainly as an epic adventure story; the tone is non-academic, although there are endnotes giving the sources for his statements. The book is based almost entirely on the record of the expedition by its official historian, Father Carvajal, and thus reflects Orellana's own version of the events; there is little if any attempt to evaluate whether he is telling the truth, although the record was designed to justify his actions and gain support for his second expedition. For example, it records almost daily battles for months with thousands of armed Indian warriors at a time, including hand-to-hand combat lasting for twenty-four hours straight; the Indians are killed like flies -- but Orellana loses only three men to the Indians in the whole trip. Even with superior armor and weaponry, this sounds too much like a Sylvester Stallone movie to be believable to me. Perhaps he exaggerated the numbers or the warlike nature of the interactions? The author reports the battles in exciting "you-are-there" style without any skepticism.
Perhaps more seriously, he also idealizes and justifies Orellana as a hero. He contrasts his "peaceful nature" and "respect" for both his own men and the Indians to the cruelty and brutality of the Pizarro brothers -- this is a little like praising Mussolini for not being Hitler. Where the Indians are friendly, Orellana takes all the food he can get and kidnaps their leaders as guides; where they're hostile he shoots them, steals their food and burns their villages. The author continually reminds us that this is all "self-defense", but the fact is that the farther he goes the more the Indians forewarned come out to fight and keep him moving along. Naturally he is peaceful when he is totally outnumbered, but if he sees a small village without many warriors he raids it for food. The author also tells us repeatedly that what had started out as a conquest becomes an expedition of discovery -- of course, with his 57 men left he couldn't try to conquer anything except food, but that doesn't make it a voyage of scientific discovery -- there are no records of Lewis and Clarke, for example, massacring thousands of Indians and burning their villages.
I did learn much about the early history of Peru after the conquest, and about the Amazon Basin. One thing which I was surprised at was the numbers (even if Orellana exaggerated, since he was trying to get a second expedition he needed there to be a prosperous Empire with gold and silver) and the level of organization and trade of the Amazonian natives. I had always assumed that the Amazon Indians were always small tribes of hunter-gatherers as they are today, and were even in the time of von Humboldt (my last reading). But Orellana describes extensive chieftainships -- as large as many small countries today -- with large towns and continuous habitations for hundreds of miles, agriculture, turtle-farming, and even whole villages given to specialized occupations for trade. According to the notes, archaeologists since I was in school have discovered that this may be correct after all, and that rather than being sparsely settled by hunter-gatherers the Amazon Basin may have been one of the most densely populated areas in the world, before the Europeans and their diseases decimated their numbers and culture. It was worth reading the book just to learn this.
Larrie D. Ferreiro, Measure of the Earth: The Enlightenment Expedition that Reshaped the World  353 pages
A history of the International Geodesic Mission to Peru in the first half of the eighteenth century, to measure a degree of latitude at the equator and decide between the Newtonian and Cartesian theories of the shape of the Earth.
Celebrated in its time, this first international scientific expedition has largely disappeared from public consciousness; most later accounts of it are based on the writings of La Condamine, and in fact it is most often referred to as the La Condamine expedition. The author has done original research on the Expedition, and the present book is based largely on letters and documents, which get beneath the published reports of the participants to explain the actual disagreements and disputes which at several points nearly derailed the expedition and did cause it to take far longer than expected at the outset. He bends the stick in the other direction, presenting Pierre Bouguer as the principal leader (all accounts agree that the official leader, Louis Godin, was incompetent) and emphasizing the role of the Spanish officers Ulloa and Juan in keeping the expedition together by bridging the feuds of Godin, Bouguer and La Condamine.
The book is popularly written, well-documented and extremely interesting reading. The one disappointment for me was that it passes over the return journey of La Condamine on the Amazon in less than a chapter. There is some discussion of the results and influence of the expedition, but the emphasis is more on personalities than on the science.
Neil Safier, Measuring the New World: Enlightenment Science and South America  387 pages
Unlike the previous book I read, this book is not an account of the Geodesic Expedition itself, but takes that as the beginning point for a discussion of how Enlightenment Europe investigated and what they thought they knew about South America. While that was written in a popular, narrative style, this is much more academic in tone, and concerned much more with theoretical ideas about history and knowledge.
The book begins with a chapter on the pyramids set up by La Condamine and the controversy about their destruction by the local authorities. The next chapter deals with La Condamine's account of his trip down the Amazon. Humboldt had already shown that much of this was inaccurate (although he also praises La Condamine) but Safier shows that much of La Condamine's account was actually not based, as he claimed, on his own personal observation but was plagiarized from earlier, mostly unpublished manuscripts by missionaries in the Amazon Basin. The third chapter deals with criticisms of La Condamine's account by his contemporaries, primarily of his negative descriptions of the Indians; the fifth chapter does the same for the account of Ulloa. The fourth chapter is on Maldonado's map of the Province of Quito and how it was changed in the process of editing and printing. The sixth chapter deals with the 1744 French translation of Garcilaso de Vega's History of the Incas, which incorporated much about the plants of Peru on the basis of the materials brought back by the Geodesic Expedition. The final chapter is about the use of La Condamine's accounts in the articles of the Encyclopedia.
The subject matter of this book is very interesting; the writing much less so -- very dry and full of unnecessary modern theoretical language, which renders the points he is trying to make less rather than more clear. I would not recommend this one to the general reader, but only to someone with a real interest in either the Enlightenment or the philosophy of science.
Henry Walter Bates, The Naturalist on the River Amazons  390 pages [Kindle]
The naturalist Henry Walter Bates is known today for two things: the discovery of "Batesian mimicy" and his friendship with Alfred Russell Wallace, the codiscoverer of evolution by natural selection. This book, the account of Bates' eleven years of research, primarily in entomology, on the Amazon River and its tributaries, has only a half dozen references to Wallace and does not mention mimicry.
I risk being somewhat unfair to Bates, having read this shortly after finishing the travels of Alexander von Humboldt, who visited South America some fifty years earlier; Bates' book is definitely the less interesting of the two. Humboldt was concerned with every aspect of the region, from meteorology and geology to botany and zoology, history, language, and social conditions. Bates' interests were more narrowly circumscribed; for example, while Humboldt took temperature and barometric readings, as well as lattitude and longitude, at every stopping place, Bates lost his thermometer early on and never bothered to replace it. Both men described the flora and fauna, and Bates perhaps has the advantage in detailed description, particularly of the insect life, which was his specialty -- the sections on ants are the most interesting parts of the book. However, while Humboldt sought to generalize and explain phenomena, Bates never goes beyond description.
I was struck in reading Humboldt by the modern sounding opinions on social questions; he missed no opportunity to denounce slavery, and was friends with people who later led the Independence struggles. Bates is much more a product of his time; he seems to take slavery for granted (although he praises the character of the free negros in Brazil), constantly makes racial generalizations about Portuguese, Brazilians, Indians, negros, and "half-breeds" (though not always favorable to the whites), and denounces the "anarchistic" rebellions of the native populations against the Portuguese.
In short, where Humboldt represents the cosmopolitan European scientific tradition stemming from the Enlightenment, Bates represents the more parochial British tradition of "Natural History." The book is not entirely without interest, but I would not recommend it to anyone who isn't seriously concerned with the history of nineteenth century British science or the Amazon region.
Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains  317 pages
This is one of those books you wish you could make certain people read. The book is a biography of Dr. Paul Farmer, who brought health care to rural Haiti and played a major role in health policy reform with regards to the TB epidemic. The theme of the book is that while diseases have a biological cause, epidemics have social causes. It documents that the health problems in Haiti and elsewhere are due to poverty, and while not primarily about politics, shows how political choices (especially by the United States) have contributed to that poverty. I was particularly impressed that the author (and Farmer) dared to contrast the healthcare system in Cuba favorably to those in other poor countries that are part of the capitalist world economy. This is a book that ought to make people angry.
Granted that Kidder is not a great stylist, he does a good job in telling Farmer's story in a straightforward and clear way, without trying to put himself in the foreground or making criticisms to seem higher than his subject as so many biographers do.
I read this for a discussion group, and I think it is a great book for this purpose, because it leads into so many directions for discussion: on Haitian history, on the nature of US foreign policy, on liberalism in the US, on the TB epidemic and the controversies concerning multiple-drug resistant TB, on the health care system and the drug companies, on individual responsibility and activism, on liberation theology and the role of religion in social problems, and many other subjects.
Theodore Roosevelt, Through the Brazilian Wilderness  244 pages
Theodore Roosevelt's account of his expedition, along with Brazilian Col. Rondon, to determine the course of the Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt), later named the Rio Roosevelt.
After reading the narratives of Alexander von Humboldt and Henry Walter Bates, this has a totally different feel. Roosevelt, whatever his qualifications as a naturalist may have been, writes, sometimes as a politician, sometimes as a tourist, and usually as a big game hunter, but never as a naturalist.
Humboldt writes very objectively about what he observed, hardly ever commenting on the conditions of his own party or the hardships of the journey; Bates is somewhat more personal; but Roosevelt focuses almost entirely on the hazards and suffering of the expedition, continually reminding us of their merits as "real explorers" in an unknown region, compared to those who do real scientific study in areas which have already been settled to some extent, like Humboldt and Bates.
The Roosevelt-Rondon expedition lasted a couple of months, as compared to the eleven years that Bates spent doing entomology; they spent their time traveling and "collecting" -- i.e. hunting. Where Humboldt and Bates were essentially private scientists, Roosevelt was a celebrity accompanied by an essentially government mission -- until he got to the Rio da Duvida, there were flags and ceremonies everywhere he stopped. The Roosevelt-Rondon expedition was fairly large and well equipped; in contrast to Bates fifty years earlier, or Humboldt a hundred years earlier, they had flashlights, carbines, and canned foods, as well as an expedition doctor with medical supplies.
The descriptions of natural phenomena in the book are superficial, and concerned mainly with the numbers of species they "collected". The commentary seems mainly designed to convince American and European businessman of the business opportunities in South America. In short, it is an adventure narrative with a political purpose, not an account of a scientific expedition.
Candice Millard, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey  416 pages
The history of the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition down the Rio da Duvida, later the Rio Roosevelt. Having just read Roosevelt's account of the same expedition, I was afraid this would just paraphrase his book, but in fact it gives the background and reveals much of what Roosevelt suppresses from the accounts of Rondon, Cherrie, and the other participants.
According to Millard, the expedition was incredibly mismanaged from the beginning. Intending originally to voyage leisurely down well-known and much-traveled major rivers collecting specimens, the expedition's planners, Zahm and Fiala, stocked up on luxury goods. The amount of baggage was excessive even for that expedition. When the decision was made at the last minute to combine with the Rondon Expedition down the previously unexplored Rio da Duvida, the baggage was kept basically unchanged, with little attention by Roosevelt himself. As a result, the pack animals were overcharged and died in large numbers, and essential supplies had to be left behind, including the lightweight Canadian canoes. Fortunately, they also left behind most of the American members of the expedition, including the racist priest Father Zahm.
The expedition proceeded down the river with wholly unsatisfactory, heavy and overloaded dugout canoes purchased from a primitive native tribe. From the beginning, there was a difference in the goals of the American and Brazilian leaders, the Roosevelt party wishing only to go down the river as quickly as possible to determine where it came out, while the Rondon party was interested in doing an accurate scientific survey to be able to map the river and its tributaries correctly. The result was a total disaster, with the party nearly perishing and Roosevelt himself nearly dying of infection and malaria. Roosevelt's account, while building up the importance of the mission, suppresses the disputes and mistakes, and also minimizes his own illness; I had not realized from his account how sick and near death he actually was at the end of the expedition (and his death three years later may have been a result of the infections he suffered in the Amazon.)
The author clearly has a great respect for Roosevelt, and his personal courage and charisma were undoubted (though I don't think much of his politics); but in the end he does not come off very highly in this account, in my opinion. I had already decided from his own account (see my review of that) that this was not a real scientific expedition (although it apparently was intended as such by Rondon) and this book more than confirms it. Unfortunately, Roosevelt's celebrity status caused Rondon to acquiesce in many poor decisions, further jeopardizing the expedition to increase the Americans' comfort. I was left, on the other hand, with a great respect for Rondon, whom I had not heard of previously, although he is apparently a major hero in Brazil.
The book is written very well, keeping the reader's interest while narrating the story in a matter-of-fact and accurate way. Contrary to my usual experience, I would recommend this over the original account by Roosevelt himself.
Wade Davis, One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest  537 pages
A biography of ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, alternating with an account of the author's travels with Schultes' student Tim Plowman in 1974 in search of the origins of the coca plant. This was crammed with information about a number of subjects, including the (natural and political) history of the Amazon region, the history of the rubber industry, the story of earlier explorers of the region (particularly Richard Spruce) and the customs and religious beliefs of many native tribes. Much of this was fascinating to read about.
Schultes was one of the first botanists to seriously study hallucinogenic plants, which is the author's main interest, as well as the botany of natural rubber and various medicinal plants and poisons such as curare.
The one problem I had with the book was its organization; there is so much information on various topics juxtaposed in little bits, and the chronology shifts from chapter to chapter, not just between the two alternating accounts but also within them, with background material in flashbacks. At times it was confusing, and when I got interested in a topic the book would suddenly shift into the drier background of the next subject. With all the different things Schultes studied, I think it would have been better if the author had simply written a biography of Schultes and left the (somewhat less interesting) account of his own travels for a separate book, which could have given a clearer account of the botany of coca. That way he could have gone into more depth on the significance of Schultes' discoveries, which occasionally give a sense of being left hanging.
Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses  547 pages
The story of two actors from India who fall out of an exploding plane and are variously transformed, the action ranges from the time of the prophet Mohammed to the present. Fantasy elements, which may or may not be dreams or hallucinations, and are definitely symbolic, are combined with very realistic depictions of racism and neo-colonialism and a whole range of human emotions. The writing is incredible -- I reread the first chapter several times -- full of allusions, wordplay, and unexpected but apt juxtapositions, and the story is extremely imaginative. The novel is full of ambiguities and ironies, and the points Rushdie is making are not always clear. I'm sure I would have gotten more out of it if I were more familiar with Islamic religion, the Quran and Hadith, but the story is understandable without that. I read this for the banned book challenge on PABW from last month.
B.F. Skinner, Walden Two  320 pages
This is behaviorist psychologist Skinner's famous utopian novel of a commune based on psychological principles. From everything I had ever heard about this book, I expected to hate it; but it was not nearly as bad as it is often presented. The first hundred pages or so is basically a utopian socialist argument not much different from many earlier books, apart from a less primitive technology, and most of it I would agree with; later on he begins presenting his theoretical views, which are less application of his psychological theories (he deals in generalities) than a standard technocratic view of politics, with "experts" making decisions for the community without any democratic discussion or participation. This of course is the part of the book that generates the most heat, and which is the weakest.
The "devil's advocate" of the book, the philosophy professor Castle, presents very poor arguments against Skinner's thesis, as one would expect -- he continually tries to present it as "fascist", which it certainly isn't -- it strikes me more as Stalinist, in that it tries to achieve a socialist community from the top down through "planners and managers", and I think in reality it would fail for the same reasons as the USSR, because there is no easy way to correct the inevitable mistakes or exercise any control of the leaders. He argues that there would be no reason for the planners and managers to become corrupt in a non-competitive society, but this is the same mistake the early Soviet leaders made, which resulted in the Stalinist bureaucracy becoming entrenched before anyone realized what was happening -- after all, the first managers and planners were not products of the new society, and the corruption occurred before the society could be changed enough to prevent it. Interestingly, the book mentions "Russia" in only two pages, and gives a rather superficial explanation of its failings (although this might have been hard to do in a book written at the height of the witch hunt and the beginning of the cold war.) I think the general idea is not dissimilar to the present European theories of the "end of politics."
Skinner also argues that society could be radically changed by setting up these utopian communes without any political movement; this is the most "utopian" aspect of the work. The Waldens might be left alone as long as they are a game for white middle class Americans who are already among the most privileged people on Earth, but could one really imagine that they would not be suppressed as soon as they began attracting the working class and non-whites (to say nothing of trying to set them up in other, poorer parts of the world -- compare Dr. Farmer's experiences in Haiti, for example.) It is perhaps not accidental that all the characters in the novel are white, and that it says nothing about Blacks or the race question (in 1948!)