Tag Archives: anthropology

The Lieutenant, by Kate Grenville

This is a book I picked up because of reviews. I read some very good reviews about it, and then it was on sale. It seemed like fate. (I use this excuse for almost any book that I buy, to be fair.)

It’s based on a true story, the story of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy who is involved with the settling of Australia. He becomes friends with some of the natives, starting to learn their language, and that connection informs the rest of his life and career.

The style is very reflective of the main character, Daniel Rooke. He’s never really felt like he fit in – he has a very mathematical mind and, if he were alive today, would probably be considered to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum. He doesn’t quite understand most social encounters and relates better to numbers than to people (which, you might imagine, is not too popular at a time when most people didn’t have formal schooling).  He joins the Navy and ultimately the trip to Australia because of his mathematical gifts, his need for rules and structure, and his interest in astronomy. He ultimately makes a few friends – Silk, in particular, whose interest in words and narrative and storytelling mirrors Rooke’s interest in mathematics, astronomy, and order.

His friendship with the natives starts from his interest in rules and order – he hopes to learn and transcribe their language according to the precise rules of grammar, so that others may learn. Of course, language is not that easy, as he learns. Neither are relationships – with the natives, with the Navy, with Silk, with himself.

But I was talking about the style. It’s fairly emotionless for most of the book. We know what Rooke is seeing, doing, and feeling, but it’s very clinical, very straightforward, as Rooke himself is. It is not until we get towards the end, when things at Botany Bay are starting to fall apart, when his relationship with the native girl (a sister-brother type relationship, not that anyone believes him) is starting to conflict with his relationship with the Navy, that you actually feel for Rooke – that there is anything to feel for Rooke. That Rooke really feels anything himself, beyond the satisfaction he’s previously felt at his solitude and star-gazing. By the end, your heart breaks for him, as his is breaking at the events that he is forced to become a part of, and the consequences for him of these conflicting priorities.

It’s an anti-racism book, but not to the point where it gets preachy. Rooke simply presents his observations and the conclusions he draws from them, and the reader is allowed to make up their own mind. (Not that I anticipate that any reader of this book will go, “Ooh, racism is good!”) It’s about the conflict between love (not romantic love) and duty – but again, not to the point of preachiness. But at the same time, it doesn’t really express very many new ideas or new ways of thinking. It’s a nice book; it’s a well-done book. It’s not a groundbreaking book. The information about the Australian natives is interesting and unique in my experience, but the message of the book itself isn’t really anything new.

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Filed under General Fiction, Historical

A Brief History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

I really like Bill Bryson’s writing voice. It’s wry, it’s distinctive, it’s colloquial without being overly dated.  I was a little bit nervous about this book, because I tend to like Bryson’s specifically travel books better than anything else (I have not gotten all the way through Thunderbolt Kid, for instance – although I haven’t tried his Shakespeare book yet). But I quite enjoyed this book, which, if you don’t know, is all about the history of science. Every science – chemistry, physics, geology, biology, anthropology, paleontology, astronomy, etc. – is described from the beginning of the Enlightenment to the beginning of the 21st century. It’s like a travel book through the history of science.

One of the things that reading books like this does to me is make me want to read more books like this. I walked into Blackwell’s today and had to restrain myself from buying an anthology of science writing. I also had to restrain myself from adding lots of obscure public-domain science books to my list, and looking up ways that I could get extra degrees in things like chemistry or bacterial biology or astronomy or even just mathematics. Books like this also make me want to write books like this: I have at least one travel book started in my head now. The only problem is that my writing keeps sounding like Bryson, and not so much like me yet.

Because that’s another thing that reading books like this does to me: it makes me want to know everything about everything. The world doesn’t know a lot about bacteria? I should study it! It’s a part of my whole ‘searching-for-focus’ thing that doesn’t work well because I’m interested in EVERYTHING. I want to find a niche that I can fill; unfortunately the niches that are out there don’t quite mesh with my current education or experience.

I did notice quite a few references in the book to amateurs – people who were in other fields and did science almost as a dedicated hobby, and ended up making amazing discoveries. I don’t know how feasible that would be today. Most of the things that I am interested in (genetics, for example, or astronomy) require equipment that I don’t have access to at this point, and I don’t know how I would be able to get access to it. Maybe I’ll become a mathematical ‘celebrated amateur’ instead. Or a (semi-trained) linguist. (Or maybe I’ll just stick to being a voracious reader of everything that I can get my hands on.)

Overall I liked the book, obviously. Also, I figured out how to read footnotes on the ereader, which is a plus. Science is fascinating, and Bryson makes the history of science accessible. I probably won’t remember some of the names and facts in a week or so – it’s not a textbook, and I wasn’t taking notes or anything – but the love of it definitely will stay with me.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (Science)