"The Speckled Monster" is an engaging, beautifully written near-novelization of how inoculation for smallpox was introduced to England and America in"The Speckled Monster" is an engaging, beautifully written near-novelization of how inoculation for smallpox was introduced to England and America in the 1720s. The author has taken great pains to bring the people of the historical incidents to life using primary sources that range from letters and journals to scholarly publications of the time period. The result is largely entertaining and informative.
Personally, I am not usually a fan of this style of writing history since it relies heavily on conjecture, assumption, and imagination. However, given the scope of the project and its narrow focus (smallpox in 1720), the presentation holds together well, mitigating or rendering harmless the method's inevitable inaccuracies. The narrative really comes to life thanks to a well-formed timeline that provides structure and eventually pulls the two stories into a convergent whole.
The book flows quickly until the last third, which gets sluggish in its long catalogues of whom was inoculated when. The conclusion and aftermath picks up the pace again.
Definitely read the endnotes, chapter source summaries, and people descriptions; these round out the narrative and explain exactly what actually happened vs. what is guesswork. ...more
This book is a good general-reader introduction to the Black Death. It is mostly a summary of current scholarship on the plague, presented for the mosThis book is a good general-reader introduction to the Black Death. It is mostly a summary of current scholarship on the plague, presented for the most part in storytelling format chronologically and geographically. It deals entirely with the plague in Europe, focusing mostly on Italy, France, and England. There are also some interesting sections about medical practices, religious and secular responses, and outbreaks of anti-Semitism. It's hard to call a book about a topic as depressing as the plague enjoyable, but it was approachable, fast-moving, and fairly detailed considering its scope.
"The Great Mortality" does not cover the entire scope of the Black Death (ie, it focuses solely on Europe to the exclusion of the rest of Eurasia and Africa), which was disappointing since the European story has been told time and again. It would have been informative and possibly illuminating to hear about how other cultures handled (and continue to handle) outbreaks of the plague. But since the author is not an expert in medieval history, the enormous scope of such a project necessarily limits the work to what has already been examined most thoroughly by modern scholars.
More to the point, there are individual chapters assigned to Italy, France, and England, yet the rest of Europe (Germany, Scandinavia, the Low Countries) are lumped together in one chapter. Eastern Europe and the Iberian peninsula are barely mentioned; Greece and Russia not at all. Another tell-tale sign of a non-medievalist at work is the author's tendency to think just in those terms of modern demarcations of states and countries. We visit the cities of "Italy", but it would be more accurate to describe them as separate Italian(ish)-speaking city-states. Similarly, France was divided into various regions, occasionally held by England or warring nobles even this late in the Middle Ages, so to think of the plague as each country's national crisis to retroject modern concepts of statehood into decidedly fluid territorial regions.
Another unfortunate tendency rising from the same difficulty of transporting oneself intellectually to a different time period is the condescension permeating the discussions of medieval culture and thought, particularly in the examination of medical practices. There is a slightly critical tone accompanied by an air of disbelief accompanying the description of how the medical community responded to the plague. While medieval medicine certainly had its faults, ignorance is hardly something for which it should be condemned, particularly since, as far as we know, no one in the medical community had seen a case of plague in several hundred years. The author does note however that many physicians made heroic efforts to tend the sick, well knowing there was no hope of curing them. I wonder if today's medical community, faced with a disaster on the scale of the plague, would fare much better.
The chapter on the Flagellants and anti-Semitic pogroms fares much better - the author's compassion for the monumental suffering the plague caused gives this section needed balance. It was refreshing (though of course still depressing) to read an account of the inexcusable violence perpetrated by Christians against Jews that was not also accompanied by a condemnation of Christianity in general.
While coherent in structure, the book seems not to have been read straight through before publication. The chapters occasionally repeat information as if it had not been mentioned before, and more annoyingly, some points in later chapters contradict earlier statements. For example, there is a lengthy discussion of medieval hygiene - how medieval people never undressed or bathed out of modesty. Later, the book mentions that the fleas could bite people easily because they slept naked. Well, which was it? There are also some egregious typos, such as an important chapter-concluding sentence that likens the plague's destruction to a damaging rain storm, noting that Europe awoke refreshed "like the sun after rain." I'm pretty sure he meant like the Earth after rain, since it doesn't rain water on the sun.
The author has done really quite a good job assembling a body of material on which he is not an expert, and for that he should be applauded. Actually, it is probably better that, rather than drawing his own possibly amateur conclusions, his final assessments of the plague and its aftermath come from scholars such as David Herlihy. The final chapter on the effects of the plague contains material that, while not verbatim, nearly reproduces one of Herlihy's essays in "The Black Death and the Transformation of the West." Like our medieval ancestors, Mr. Kelly recognizes both the prudence and usefulness of consulting Authorities. ...more
A thorough summary of current trends in women's lives, this book pulls together in one volume anecdotal and statistical research explaining what has hA thorough summary of current trends in women's lives, this book pulls together in one volume anecdotal and statistical research explaining what has happened to the world economy and aspects of its social structures since women began entering the formal workforce en masse.
Most of Wolf's research will be familiar to anyone who reads major world news publications, but Wolf has arranged and commented on it so that disparate pieces (the part-time workforce, the beauty industry, sex, sex workers, higher education, childrearing, among other topics) come together to explain the effect of feminism in combination with globalization on society both East and West.
In particular, her section on the loss of volunteers for charitable causes is a much-needed addition to an overlooked aspect of women's lives before 1970. Wolf reminds the reader that women did not suddenly become brilliant and useful to society because feminism freed them from the shackles of home and family - they were always working, but their energies were directed toward areas of need and not in the formal work sector.
Yet although she acknowledges (even in the title) that this sea change has caused inequality for the four-fifths of women who are not "elite graduates," she fails to connect these women's achievements with the losses they have meant for men. Namely, elite women have taken jobs from men who would have been breadwinners for families, forcing their wives too to take part-time jobs to support families that can no longer exist on one, now less lucrative, income. Perhaps because to make that fact explicit would give the appearance of judging the women's movement in a negative light, the book ends weakly, stating rather lamely that elite women's gains are progress that (apparently) justifies the inequality that is now the burden of non-elites. A stronger conclusion would have made this book outstanding, particularly if Wolf had suggested some ways to remedy the problem. A second volume, on the lives of non-elites, is needed to provide such a discussion....more
This is one of the best works of short fiction I have read.
I do think a lot of the scholarly commentary is over the top in its attention to minutiaeThis is one of the best works of short fiction I have read.
I do think a lot of the scholarly commentary is over the top in its attention to minutiae and attempt to find symbolism, particularly in religious concepts. To me, the story makes the most sense when read as a metaphor for terminal illness and the toll it takes on a family caring for a sick relative.
Gregor's sudden illness and the need to keep him secret indicates a severely contagious and socially problematic disorder - hence the family's refusing Gregor medical care and hiding him from both the household staff and their boarders. Kafka's own tuberculosis and his death from starvation associated with it echo Gregor's experience.
The Samsa family cannot cope with Gregor's transformation from breadwinner to burden - they are all too selfish, even the initially compassionate sister. At first fearing how they will cope without him, Gregor's family is oddly set free by his illness; mother, father, and sister must take on work employing their own unique abilities. Worse for Gregor, they are also set free from the obligation to appreciate him. At that point, the reality of Gregor's place in the family becomes apparent: there is no love lost for Gregor, because there was never love for him in the first place.
As Gregor loses more of his faculties, the family members also lose what little attachment they had to him as a person and regard him at the end as a disposable bit of filth rather than at the very least, a human being, not to mention their own son/brother.
In this work, Kafka painfully and personally answers a rhetorical question posed to his own family, "How would you care if I died from this disease I have?" His answer through this story reveals that he certainly thought they would not rise to the occasion....more
I found this book overwhelming. Others have commented that it is heavy on Christian recommendations and that is also true; it will not help classicalI found this book overwhelming. Others have commented that it is heavy on Christian recommendations and that is also true; it will not help classical or secular homeschoolers....more
This got repetitive after about 5 families - most were some variety of Christian homeschoolers, which is fine, but it all started to sound the same afThis got repetitive after about 5 families - most were some variety of Christian homeschoolers, which is fine, but it all started to sound the same after awhile. There were a couple extraordinary stories (getting arrested for homeschool, homeschool in a cabin on a frozen lake in Alaska).
This was the best introduction-to-homeschool book I read (and I read them all). Succinct and thorough, with practical considerations for many situatioThis was the best introduction-to-homeschool book I read (and I read them all). Succinct and thorough, with practical considerations for many situations....more
Even if you don't agree with Freud, the impact he had on psychology is hard to overestimate, and he is a superb writer. The construction of the analysEven if you don't agree with Freud, the impact he had on psychology is hard to overestimate, and he is a superb writer. The construction of the analysis is outstanding and his narrative is intriguing despite technical language/discussion.
Personally I think he was mistaken, but studying how he thought about the mind and body reveals to us a great deal about early twentieth-century attitudes. Extremely useful to the historian....more
This book was one of the strangest I have ever read but I could not put it down. I read it in a remarkably short amount of time and found myself wantiThis book was one of the strangest I have ever read but I could not put it down. I read it in a remarkably short amount of time and found myself wanting the Cliff Notes since I could make no sense of the author's point. I can't remember ever reading something so thoroughly confusing yet utterly enjoyable. ...more
This is the book that inspired my interest in medieval studies at the age of three. I can't believe it's out of print since it is the best book ever wThis is the book that inspired my interest in medieval studies at the age of three. I can't believe it's out of print since it is the best book ever written....more
The story is a lovely poem and the illustrations are done to appear like New England primitives. Plus, it teaches kids about farm life and elementaryThe story is a lovely poem and the illustrations are done to appear like New England primitives. Plus, it teaches kids about farm life and elementary principles of economics via simple trade. Love it! And Dante does too....more
Thumbs up from Dante. Bill and his toothbrush Pete learn to read and then foil the Bad Guy's plans to turn Bill into a suitcase. Tomie de Paola's pictThumbs up from Dante. Bill and his toothbrush Pete learn to read and then foil the Bad Guy's plans to turn Bill into a suitcase. Tomie de Paola's pictures are as usual outstanding....more