Book Reviews: Summer 2021

By: Anna Faktorovich

Are These Songs Forgeries Started in 1720 and Completed in 1982?

Jan M. Ziolkowski, Editor, Translator, The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia) (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020). Hardcover. 410pp, 6X9”. Illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-674-25846-4.

*****

I am nearing the point when the first section of my British Renaissance Re-Attribution series will be released to the public. While I have dated this project as one that re-assigns texts from the “Renaissance”, when I have used my computational-linguistics attribution method to test texts that were initially undated or that include sections that echo works that were ghostwritten by the Workshop, I have discovered that there are texts currently claimed to have been first-published across the first seven decades of the sixteenth century that were actually first-published significantly later. Examples include Verstegan and Harvey’s Meditation of a Penitent Sinner currently claimed to have been first-published in 1560 and Percy’s Like Will to Like interlude that appears to have been back-dated to 1568. If some of these early texts and the Workshop’s output are set aside, I have been interested in learning what remaining texts currently claimed to have been first-published in Britain actually pre-date the Workshop. It would have been far more difficult for any group of writers and publishers to monopolize British publishing if there had really been institutions and scholars in place before them who were practiced in writing and publishing. On this search for genuine original British-made compositions, Cambridge Songs is clearly exactly what I have been searching for, as: the handwritten manuscripts are indeed in an original handwriting style, the structure of these pieces are very different from the Workshop’s output, and they are written in Latin (confirming my suspicion that the Workshop gained a monopoly on English-language publishing because very few people in Britain could read and write in this relatively new language when they started). During my research into the Workshop, I have not come across any citations of these “songs”; this means this text was probably locked away and inaccessible to scholars during the Renaissance; otherwise, the Workshop would have probably imitated and borrowed from it along with translating it and alluding to it. Thus, modern scholars should really be more excited about this particular publication than they have been. Then, again some of the history of these manuscripts inspires some doubt regarding the authenticity of its dating back to before the Norman Conquest in 1066, as the original manuscript has been lost (preventing scientific dating of the paper and ink), and “new” songs were mysteriously found in Frankfurt in 1982. The book’s “Introduction” and the rest of the translation offer some explanations and various other curious bits of information to solve the dating and attribution questions that are of special interest not only to me, but to all scholars of this text.

Harvard’s blurb is a better place to start for non-specialists in this field: “The Cambridge Songs, from the Latin Carmina Cantabrigiensia, is the most important anthology of songs from before the thirteenth-century Carmina Burana. It offers the only major surviving anthology of Latin lyric poems from between Charlemagne and the Battle of Hastings. It contains panegyrics and dirges, political poems, comic tales, religious and didactic poems, and poetry of spring and love. Was it a school book for students, or a songbook for the use of professional entertainers? The greatest certainty is that the poems were composed in the learned language, and that they were associated with song. The collection is like the contents of an eleventh-century jukebox or playlist of top hits from more than three centuries. This edition and translation comprises a substantial introduction, the Latin texts and English prose in carefully matched presentation, and extensive commentary, along with appendices, list of works cited, and indices.” The editor and translator is Jan M. Ziolkowski, a Professor of Medieval Latin in the Department of the Classics at Harvard University. The “Acknowledgements” describe that Peter Dronke allowed Ziolkowski to borrow some of his own English translations of a few of the pieces.

The font used throughout the book is a bit too tiny and the margins are too large. It would have been better to increase the font and shrink the margins, especially because of the technical nature of the archival research and materials being described. The “Introduction” claims “no one has questioned that the famous codex was held in the monastery of Benediktbeuern” until 1803, but when this monastery first came into possession of the codex is in question. It also explains that at the time when they would have been created they would have been made on Germany territory. The pieces collected are merely claimed to be the work of English scribes, while the stories were originally from Germany, France and Italy and elsewhere from across a range of centuries. The “Introduction” helps to explain the range of genres, poetic structures and other elements covered in these poems. The editor discusses various theories presented previously regarding who created this collection, including that it was designed by a traveling musician, or that a patron invested in the collection because he was curious to learn about other cultures’ songs, or that a teacher put these together with the intention of teaching students from it. And one strange component of this collection is that unlike the Palatine Anthology, it has not been found to copy or borrow from earlier identifiable anthologies. This is a bit troubling in terms of authentication as a collection that takes stories from multiple foreign cultures should logically reproduce some texts that should exist in slightly different versions in manuscripts in those cultures as well; if there are no traces of where these songs were borrowed from, either the author wrote these all himself and made them seem to be multi-cultural, or scholars have not dug far enough to discover the sources that could help to establish a timeline for this collection’s creation. One firm date alluded to in this collection is poem 33 that refers to the death of German Emperor Conrad II in 1039, so at least this poem must have been written after this date. The editor also clarifies that there is provenance for the missing pages that have been tracked as having been removed to Frankfurt in 1840, prior to their sudden recovery in the 1980s. The “foliation” (claimed to have been done by a Clement Canterbury librarian at Saint Augustine’s) has a style that suggests it was created in the fifteenth-century, so since this is one of the only firm date-tests for this collection, I think it is possible this text was both created and foliated in the fifteenth-century. It is unclear why the paper and ink have not been more precisely scientifically tested to solve some of these questions with more than scholarly conjectures. On the other hand, there were some scientific experiments made such as the nineteenth century attempt to “restore” one of the censored poems by a moralist editor by applying “a chemical reagent”, but this only spoiled or darkened the parchment. The editor also explains that the collection was very likely to have been developed for a German ruler or emperor, as it includes “six praise poems for German emperors”. Though other scholars have found links with other countries. Another section of the introductory comments explains that segments from this collection were “first brought to the attention of readers in 1720, when Johann Georg Eccard… published nine of the historical poems on the basis of transcriptions… from an unnamed source”. A full transcription of all of the poems in the collection was only published in 1898. While there have been previous critical editions of this collection, this is clearly the best version of it so far in terms of presenting the editorial comments, citations, clear translations, scans of some of the original manuscript pages, and several other components all in one book that would be necessary for the next generation of scholars to really consider this evidence to make clearer conclusions regarding who wrote this text and when.

From a brief scan of the collection, I came across a curious story that deserves closer study from historians as well as literary scholars of a “wandering merchant” who sold “the snow-child… to a trader for hard cash, receives one hundred pounds” and then returned to his wife as “a rich man”, claiming the child was taken by a storm that melted the child; “thus fraud overcame fraud” (67-9). I was just working on a translation of Three Lords of London that has a character called Fraud, so this piece stood out. Most of the poems repeat standard Christian theological ideas about Virgin Mary, witches and the Devil. The collection must be partially uniquely difficult to date because a story like that of David who slew Goliath and had other adventures could have been written with this type of content at any point between the authorship of the Old Testament and the present (159). The notes at the end of the book are very helpful for those who want to understand the deeper implications beyond some of the simple words in the poems to a casual reader. For example, the comments on poem 24 explains that the “mention of the lung has been seen as a fairy tale motif, since in a wide variety of later stories the stealthy consumption of a liver or heart is involved in a miracle in which a saint takes part” (243).

While students of early European literature might imagine that the oldest texts have been studied and understood to a point where no further research is useful, scholarly editions like this one prove that there is much more that has not been understood about these early examples of human authorship. I recommend this book for purchase to all sorts of libraries, and this might be a curious textbook for a special class on this narrow subject.

Please Do Not Send Fiction for My Review

Erin Flanagan, Deer Season (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, November 1, 2021). Softcover: $21.95. 320pp, 5.5X8.5”. ISBN: 978-1-4962-2681-5.

**

I have done my best to avoid reviewing all of the previous poetry and prose books that have been sent for my review. This decision has stemmed from my deep-held repulsion from all of the modern literature I have previously read; it has been unimaginable for me to dive yet again into the swamp of modernity. However, this book has arrived, and this set of books I have to review for this issue of PLJ is smaller than across the past few years; so, it would be strange to skip it out of merely my deep-seated bias that guarantees I will not like it. Beyond my general non-fiction policy, the title of this book also repels me because I have been vegan now for around four years, and the idea of a hunt that kills a deer makes me a bit faint. Even seeing a cooked chicken in movies has been making me nauseous lately. It is possible that while traveling or the like, I will eat meat again, but a whole book about the joy of killing wild animals that majestically leap around and munch on grass? It sounds more horrific than a Stephen King horror novel about eating people… 

“It’s the opening weekend of deer season in Gunthrum, Nebraska, in 1985, and Alma Costagan’s intellectually disabled farmhand, Hal Bullard, has gone hunting with some of the locals, leaving her in a huff. That same weekend, a teenage girl goes missing, and Hal returns with a flimsy story about the blood in his truck and a dent near the headlight. When the situation escalates from that of a missing girl to something more sinister, Alma and her husband are forced to confront what Hal might be capable of, as rumors fly and townspeople see Hal’s violent past in a new light.” The author, Erin Flanagan, is a professor at Wright State University. The front-matter explains that this and her other fiction has been sponsored with grants from councils.

This summary is as I anticipated mixing murder of humans with hunting for deer. It is a common belief that hurting animals in one’s youth correlates with murderous impulses later in life, so the story of the farmhand hunter being implicated in a murder appears to be psychologically consistent. This story appears to be a formulaic mystery that merely adds digressions about “family” and social relations in a farming community to make it simultaneously worthy of literary fiction grants and general public readership. I think this university press can find much higher-brow literary fiction that would truly address these topics in-depth; the assumption that the general public likes simple 5th-grade level stories is a self-fulfilling prophesy; if publishers do not publish more complex fiction, readers will not have access to these complex narratives to raise their literary tastes.

The novel opens with a scene of Alma injecting a piglet with antibiotics, while her assistant tosses the piglet to mark it (1). And this is one of the only descriptions of actual life on a farm in this book. Most paragraphs could have as easily come from any other modern novel. In one paragraph, Hal is said to have talked about Peggy’s hair being “so long” and “her shorts so short” before cooking some food, and then asking if it is likely she would become his “girlfriend” before being shut down by Alma (143). There is an assumption behind books like this that by merely inserting the death-threat, with questions such as, “She’s dead, isn’t she?” (217) in the middle of these formulaic and repetitive stories that talk without actually relating anything specific about the unique lives of these characters—that these death-threats can turn a boring and semi-plagiaristic, in similarity to other novels, story into a “new” work with a “mystery” in it that readers want to read just to solve alongside with the barely interested author.

I would like to petition for writers to not only stop sending these types of stories to me for my review, but also to stop writing stories that repeat the same tropes of what somebody else imagined a story about death and sex is supposed to include. There are so many unique lives humans live across this planet, and none of them have anything to do with the dialogue or clumps of narrative repeated in these. I hope writers who want to sell their words to the public will put aside all formulas and books they’ve read, and will just go to a random place they choose on the map and ask to interview a random person they happen to meet there. Just keep talking with this person, and asking them questions about their life, and follow them around as they go about a normal day, and then write down everything you hear, smell, see, and understand, and that honest account might finally create a story that is worthy of this new century; otherwise it seems humanity’s fiction is devolving just as access to computing and the world’s knowledge has made it easier than ever before to fill fiction with dense meaning and the intricate realities of human existence.

Imaging and Realizing Innovative Theatrical Designs

John Marciari and Laurel O. Peterson, Architecture, Theater, and Fantasy: Bibiena Drawings from the Jules Fisher Collection (New York: Morgan Library & Museum; Paul Holberton Publishing, 2021). Softcover. 96pp, color illustrations. ISBN: 978-1913-64504-5.

*****

“This exhibition catalog explores the remarkable theatrical designs of Italy’s influential Bibiena family in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For nearly a century, members of three generations of the Bibiena family were the most highly sought theater designers in Europe. Their elaborate stage designs were used for operas, festivals, and courtly performances across Europe, from their native Italy to cities as far afield as Vienna, Prague, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, and Lisbon. Beyond these performances, the distinctive Bibiena style survives through their remarkable drawings. Architecture, Theater, and Fantasy commemorates a group of Bibiena drawings from the collection of Jules Fisher, the Tony Award–winning lighting designer, gifted to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. Accompanying the first US exhibition of these works in more than thirty years, these drawings demonstrate the range of the Bibienas’ output, from energetic sketches to detailed watercolors. Representations of imagined palace interiors and lavish illusionistic architecture illuminate the visual splendor of the Baroque period.”

This collection seemed to be an informative and beautiful book when I looked at the description in the press’ catalog, but it is actually even more so once opened. Even the idea of a collection of drawings of theater designs helped me with my own research before I received a copy of this book. I was working on an introduction for one of the plays I am translating from Early Modern English to Modern English, when I realized that the elements of theater design in this and the other British Renaissance plays is significant because there were no buildings dedicated purely as theaters for plays in London before the 1580s. These earliest structures were rudimentary imitations of the grand theater-palaces that were already spread across many other European countries like France and Italy. The idea of this book inspired me to research the innovations that had been made in these other countries that were likely to be seen by the Brits on their travels to spark this strange interest in a genre that was foreign in London, which was instead full of largely illiterate people who enjoyed watching cock and bear fights in circular structures dedicated to displaying these spectacles to the rowdy audiences. The Galli Bibiena family tree inside this book stretches between the middle of the seventeenth century through the middle of the nineteenth century, so it covers the two centuries after the British Ghostwriting Workshop I have been studying. While this means it is not a book that is useful in solving the puzzles about stage-design origins I am wrestling with, it does explain how the grand theatrical designs we are all familiar with if we go to the theater today were concocted. The statues, arches, decorative lamps, fine woodwork, and other elements inside a theater like the Margravial Opera House, designed by Giuseppe Galli Bibiena 1748 (17) seems to be very familiar and yet in many ways even more elaborate the glorious than some of the finest theaters in New York or London today; this grandeur was a gradual progression that could have fizzled and deteriorated or could have stagnated if not for generations of theater-designers such as the Bibeinas. The Renaissance was only the beginning of the rebirth and reinvention of classical Greco-Roman architectural and artistic ideas, whereas these centuries between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century added innovation, craftsmanship, and the funding that actually turned ideas into amazing spaces that inspire viewers before actors or singers utter a syllable on these stages.

The brevity of this book is very suitable for what it is: a beautiful collection of archival drawings. Modern theater designers need exactly this book to study the heights of theatrical design humanity has achieved so far to imagine new paths this field can explore and grow into in the future. The text accompanying the images explains the artistic style and tools used in the drawings; the point of these images would have been to sell a design idea to an investor or a patron, as well as to explain a vision to the builders; and they succeed in this regard in a manner that modern designers can learn from. The editors insert a section from Ferdinando Bibiena’s “treatise on perspective”, Direzioni della prospetiva teorica (1732) describes how the “spirit” of the “original concept is lost” when the initial inspired sketch is colored and painted, and then eventually becomes the final product (25). The descriptions of the history and the artistry of these images throughout are both linguistically beautiful and informative: “Inscribed lines in the arches, as well as additional prick marks, indicate the use of a compass. The foreground architecture was then drawn in pen and brown ink… The carefully executed fluting on the columns, the ornate plasterwork on the ceiling, the bold scrollwork on the throne, and even the foliate decoration on the stairs beg for attention” (44). It is not an exaggeration to find value in these classic images, and I only wish modern architecture found something new and yet equally complex and engaging to present to audiences (instead of the “modern” boxes and triangles that pass as “innovative” modern-design).

This is a great book for all types of libraries and for all designers and artists who are searching for what is next by exploring where humanity has succeeded in the past. Especially at a time when humans are questioning if they will ever go to a public theater again, this is the perfect moment to question not only what type of air conditioning these spaces should have, but also how they can be re-imagined in ways that are more ambitious than what generations of artists like the Bibienas achieved previously. Books like this allow access to knowledge to the general public that would have only been accessible in the private archives of this family in these earlier centuries. Thus, we can all apprentice with the Bibienas by reading this book, without the expense of time-travel.

A Rare Entertaining Study of Human Language

Steven Roger Fischer, A History of Writing (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2001/2021). Softcover. 392pp. 150 illustrations. ISBN: 978-1-78914-349-2.

*****

“From the earliest scratches on stone and bone to the languages of computers and the internet, A History of Writing offers an investigation into the origin and development of writing throughout the world. Commencing with the first stages of information storage—knot records, tally sticks, pictographic storytelling—the book then focuses on the emergence of complete writing systems in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BC, and their diffusion to Egypt, the Indus Valley and points east, with special attention given to Semitic writing systems and their eventual spread to the Indian subcontinent. Also documented is the rise of Phoenician and its effect on the Greek alphabet, generating the many alphabetic scripts of the West. Chinese, Korean and Japanese writing systems and scripts are dealt with in depth, as is writing in pre-Colombian America. Also explored are Western Europe’s medieval manuscripts and the history of printing, leading to the innovations in technology and spelling rules of the 19th and 20th centuries. Illustrated with numerous examples, this book offers a global overview in a form that everyone can follow. The author also reveals his own discoveries made since the early 1980s, making it a useful reference for both students and specialists as well as the general reader.”

This book is filled with useful illustration. The first image that attracted my attention is a diagram of “Afro-Asiatic” languages (330). It helped me realize that the term “Semitic” refers to a family of alphabets stretching from the West Semitic Alphabet in 1500 BC to most of the modern Middle Eastern, European and Indian languages that are used today (Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Indic, Arabic, as well as Hebrew); given that I have been studying linguistics, it is strange that I never checked on the fact that “Semitic” refers to this enormous group of languages and does not actually mean “Jewish”, despite the strange term “anti-semitic”. The East Asian/Chinese languages are some of the only modern languages that do not come from this branch, and they include a sub-branch of all of the Native American languages like Mayan. So, I guess the Native American people can be called Chinese more logically than Indian.

Another curious illustration is from the “first book published in British North America” in Cambridge in 1640; the title-page does not actually specify the city or country of publication, and the design looks slightly like the design of most of the books the Workshop published in London during these decades, but the typesetting is oddly thinner and longer; as the surrounding pages explain it is in Old Face Roman font, the font that was popular in London (311-2). This section attracted my attention because I just watched a documentary about a forger who succeeded in forging a document he claimed was the first one printed in America (“Oath of a Freeman”), before bombing a few people involved in his forgery scam, and thus bringing his decades worth of forgeries to light. If he had not started blowing people up, he would have continued forging faked books and documents and having these bought by collectors and the public alike. In fact, specialists in this film reported that despite his convictions, nobody has really seriously attempted to track down pretty much all of the “historic” items he has sold, which he himself confessed were all forgeries. This shows how easy it remains to forge history, in contrast with forensic shows and the like that suggest that art and documents currently go through rigorous scholarly review for authenticity.

Another surprise is a 770 AD example of the “earliest preserved example of East Asian printing”, which would have been a millennium before the printing press was “invented” in Europe (299). It is also curious how many alternative ways there are to form language, such as the Korean Hankul script that “combines consonants… and vowels… in each syllabic letter” (214). Another curious set of illustrations for me were the “earliest Hebrew alphabet” variants (that have some similarity with modern Japanese or Native American pictographs) and the later “prophet Habakkuk on a leather Dead Sea Scroll” from 170 BC that includes “an early stage of the Square Hebrew script” (which looks similar to the modern Arabic script) (106-7).

This book is extremely valuable even for just these comparative diagrams across it that show the relationship between human cultures that are dramatized as being divisively different in the news, but are really just the result of people trying to copy the same wisdoms or letters as their ancestors, but repeatedly making mistakes and thus altering their styles of writing until they are cryptic to each other across long, isolated geographic distances. It is no accident that I was able to grasp what these images meant, as the descriptions of them in their titles and in the neighboring pages are very clear, concise and useful.

The text itself explains how while there is a clear history about how the world’s writing systems formed, there are also many mysteries about them that have not been solved, or have been solved erroneously due to the few documents that have survived of some of these millennia-old languages. For example, a section explains how Yuri Knorozov discovered “the phonetic ‘key’ in the 1950s” that allowed for scholars to distinguish “fifteen distinct writing traditions” that “flourished in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica” (236). This type of honesty about how much depends on scientific study of linguistics, and how many gaps in our understanding remain, is far more helpful in a textbook than a narrative that suggests humanity has reached a knowledge of all, and past scholarship is flawless in its conclusions. Most of this book is clearly designed as a linguistic textbook, with intricate discussions of the impact of borrowing from other languages on “relevant Latin sounds”, including a “double consonant” and uniquely long Latin vowels (158).

Overall, this is a great book for our current socially-tense political climate. Those who are xenophobic or racist can really benefit from reading a book like this to question what the significance really is between the slightly divergent English and Spanish European languages in comparison with the range of languages in the world. Reading about the relationship between Arabic, Hebrew and Greek/Latin might be much simpler and clearer than reading the Judeo-Christian-Muslim bibles and figuring out the relationships between these complex theological beliefs. Of course, the content of this book might be incomprehensible to those who see language or theology as a sign of superiority or inferiority to begin with. So, more realistically, this is a great textbook for linguistics and history of human writing classes. It should be an interesting read for students, and presents many points of discussion and testing for professors. Researchers of this subject should also benefit from this cleaned up new edition of a classic text in this field. And all libraries need to have this book on their shelves, even if they do not have texts on each of the main languages summarized in it.

Walking in Silence to Play While Writing Drama

Leslie Hill and Helen Paris, Devising Theatre and Performance: Curious Methods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021). Softcover. 164pp. 10 color photographs. ISBN: 978-1-78938-471-0.

*****

The publisher advertises this book as “exercises distilled from twenty-five years of interdisciplinary artist workshops and teaching devising and performance making”, with “exercises for devising, composing, and editing original works… with vivid examples from contemporary performance practice and relevant political contexts… with tools for giving and receiving feedback, fostering critical reflection, and framing artistic work within academic research contexts.” Basically, it is a set of “performance recipes” with variations to invite their adoption into different cultural contexts.

I have never seen a book like this before, though perhaps I have not been looking for books about performance. Basically, most of the book is designed like a recipe book. A typical performance recipe includes the time it will take, a brief description of the project, the steps for how to execute it, and then “Reflections” on what this exercise is designed to achieve and what it signifies. One example is called “Silent Stroll”, and in it two partners take a 10-minute walk together in silence, followed by time to write down everything heard, smelled etc. on this walk, before picking only one gesture and one sound out of this writing, and then creating and practicing a “micro performance” to be repeated in a “loop three times” with these elements. The “Reflections” section asks questions regarding if this was challenging, how the collaboration between the partners items worked out, before a discussion is invited (69-70). Another exercise is called “Index Card Storyboard” and it asks for actors to begin with existing scene titles, followed by the drawing of a sketch set or a storyboard, then editing it with collaborators for missing pieces, re-ordering the pieces, and editing the story after practice.

The book is divided into sections on “Working with the Body”, “Production Workbook”, “Practice-Based Research Workbook”. The introductory comments before the recipes start are only around four pages, and the only conclusions are in the “Reflections” sections across the book. The introductory comments describe the production company, and the people involved in developing this project, more so than explaining what these pieces mean as a coherent whole. There are also some brief introductions to each of the main sections. But these explain some of the sources these exercises are based on. They also make general statements such as “cultivate a feeling of openness and alertness” (56).

I can imagine that some of the writing prompts have a television production company in mind like Saturday Night Live, where the writers are also largely the actors. The exercises are designed for the participants to play and have fun doing absurd things to come up with creative ways to trick actors to write, when the simple tasks of writing or drawing a storyboard is assumed to be too boring by most high school/college students. I can imagine how I would be more successful in soliciting creativity and engagement if I gave my creative writing/ drama students these exercises over a textbook that described the formulas of writing or the components of an engaging storyboard. Just for the innovation in these ideas, this is a curious book for teachers to explore, but I don’t think drama professors can just assign this book as a primary textbook. I also can’t imagine that a mature acting/writing troupe can spend this much time walking around in silence instead of just writing and practicing the episodes SNL or the like need to execute that week. But perhaps I would have found a job as a writer/producer on a show like SNL if I was more open in directing other writers to do these types of silly exercises instead viewing writing as a speed and endurance sport where the winner creates the most complex and the most researched tome. Thus, you really have to read into this book to figure out if it is for you.

How Renaissance Mechanics Were Better than Modern Ones

Philip Steadman, Renaissance Fun: The Machines Behind the Scenes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021). Softcover. 398pp, 6X9”. B&W illustrations. ISBN: 978-1-78735-916-1.

*****

Renaissance Fun is about the technology of Renaissance entertainments in stage machinery and theatrical special effects; in gardens and fountains; and in the automata and self-playing musical instruments that were installed in garden grottoes. How did the machines behind these shows work? How exactly were chariots filled with singers let down onto the stage? How were flaming dragons made to fly across the sky? How were seas created on stage? How did mechanical birds imitate real birdsong? What was ‘artificial music’, three centuries before Edison and the phonograph? How could pipe organs be driven and made to play themselves by waterpower alone? And who were the architects, engineers, and craftsmen who created these wonders? At the end of the book we visit the lost ‘garden of marvels’ at Pratolino with its many grottoes, automata and water jokes; and we attend the performance of Mercury and Mars in Parma in 1628, with its spectacular stage effects and its music by Claudio Monteverdi—one of the places where opera was born. Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture were widely studied by Renaissance theatre designers. Hero of Alexandria wrote the Pneumatics, a collection of designs for surprising and entertaining devices that were the models for sixteenth and seventeenth century automata. A second book by Hero On Automata-Making describes two miniature theatres that presented plays without human intervention. One of these, it is argued, provided the model for the type of proscenium theatre introduced from the mid-sixteenth century, the generic design which is still built today.”

The leaps in mechanical progress described in this book took humanity from a millennium in the dark ages to a culture that welcomed ingenuity and invention. Comparatively to the rate of change in theater props during these couple of centuries, we are currently in a century of stagnation in innovation. The same type of pulleys and basic stage props and tricks have been used for the past couple of centuries. Instead of inviting scientists to create new concepts to assist every new production, people have settled into repetition. Developments in synthetic music frequently only enhance the ability for musicians to borrow or plagiarize, instead of being tools that can create entirely new sounds and rhythms of music. This is why a book like this one is uniquely important in our present moment to review what is possible when intellectual freedom is not only encouraged in schools, but is also patronized and funded without corruption and privilege interrupting those with the most original ideas and the most diligent work ethic from winning these favors. Monopolization across most industries has made it more profitable to market the same old fountains that just shoot a stream of water up that was already invented in the sixteenth century; when modern technologies can create a fountain that shoots water in all directions at musical rhythms. If a fountain company pushes innovators out because it is cheaper to just push the water up; it is not that one innovator who loses, but humanity that might be assuming we are heading towards a science future with flying cars; because even flying cars are being plagiarized from one movie to the next without adding an innovative new idea to dream about. Publishers have historically deliberately rejected new scientific ideas the contradict past theories to avoid offending the puffed scientists who won prizes with the theories new research can prove wrong. Scientists regularly invent a new field like genetics, but die after a series of rejections in poverty, only to have these ideas plagiarized and appropriated by the surviving scientists as if they are their own, and now corruptly puffing themselves with help from other “insider” friends to make millions without really understanding how these ideas were developed, and thus unable to take them further once money and success should make the application of these concepts possible.

The “Introduction” opens with John Evelyn’s tour starting in 1643 of Europe to see wanders such as the “jettos” that could spray water in patterns “in the air in the shapes of glasses, cups, crosses, crowns”: echoing my concern regarding the relative simplicity of modern fountains (2). The next section explains that some of the artists we currently primarily associate with paintings, like Leonardo da Vinci, were also commissioned by their patrons to design machines such as “a golden rotating dome representing Paradise for a play in Milan, and… mobile robot lions to greet the Kings of France” (3). Their output was the result of them having continuous commissions or employment in the arts and sciences, with an overriding demand on them to develop new ideas with every project. And they would have been miserable in these pursuits, if they had instead been asked to just reproduce somebody else’s creations. This type of freedom is needed today. This book rightly focuses on Italy because the more I study the Renaissance, the more I realize that Italy drove the Renaissance because Italy had retained some of its Greco-Roman theatrical traditions and spaces, and merely revived these practices, and re-built its enormous theatrical spaces, whereas the rest of Europe had to copy their ideas by introducing theaters for the first time to largely illiterate populations after the middle of the sixteenth century; Italy had started in its movement in this direction by 1400, the beginning of the range of centuries Steadman covers. As I assumed, the first chapter begins by reviewing “The revival of ancient plays”, that started when “mid-fifteenth century humanist scholars began to reprint the comedies of the old Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence” and “tragedies of the ancient Greek theater” (13). And the next section explains that stage scenery with “perspective” with help from mirrors and other simple devices was an essential step in the growth of the power of the theater, as it allowed viewers across an enormous theatrical audience to see the actions and the scenery (and not only those who were looking from the ideal perspective) (14). The section on “The birth of stage lighting” indirectly explains why the London Globe burned down from a fireworks or thunder special effects; a single scene could have needed 50 lamps in windows and across the stage, with 288 lamps in 1589 in the Uffizi Theater’s auditorium alone (50). Imagine lighting 288 candles or torches nightly… And a complex miniature design of the enormous machine that was created for the “ascension in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence in 1438” to lift a character to fly across the stage shows the bravery of these engineers and troupe managers and the actors willing to fly up there (73). In my research I learned that William Percy frequently used the sound of thunder in his plays, and this book explains that he might have used the mid-seventeenth century “Nicola Sabbattini’s thunder machine. Heavy stone or iron balls are rolled down a channel with unequally spaced steps” (106). There was even a machine that could send “real wind” at the audience (106); I don’t know how this would work with modern audiences, perhaps there would be some lawsuits over excessive windiness… The designers appear to have been massing with these audience as Furttenback describes water with “odours” (occasionally of roses, but perhaps fouler occasionally) could be “dropped through holes in the ceiling ‘but only on the heads of the most prominent ladies and their sons’” (109). Now that’s a show I want to go to, where the first rows of highest-paying guests are repeatedly having water, wind, and who knows what else tossed at them.

The entire book is full of these types of entertaining, and educational concepts. It can either be read for pleasure for those in the public who like going to see strange things in the theater. Especially during the current pandemic, it is safer to read about great achievements made in entertaining the rich in the Renaissance. It also should be useful in challenging modern theatrical designers and engineers who are stalled in their creativity, and can perhaps begin just by replicating some of these ideas that have been abandoned with the modern tools that would make them far safer, cheaper, and more complex. It is also a book that will help scholars of Renaissance drama to understand what it took to re-birth this art from being entirely foreign to being a standard form of entertainment across Europe by the eighteenth century. Thus, I recommend this book for the full range of readers from the general public to libraries to scholars in the related narrow fields.

What Can Alien Life Be Like?

Kevin W. Plaxco and Michael Gross, Astrobiology: An Introduction, Third Edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, August 3, 2021). Softcover: $34.95. 416pp, 6X9”. B&W diagrams. ISBN: 978-1-4214-4129-0.

*****

“Informed by the discoveries and analyses of extrasolar planets and the findings from recent robotic missions across the solar system, scientists are rapidly replacing centuries of speculation about potential extraterrestrial habitats with real knowledge about the possibility of life outside our own biosphere—if it exists, and, if so, where. Casting new light on the biggest questions there are—how did we get here, and who else might be out there? Plaxco and Gross examine the factors that make our Universe habitable, from the origin of chemical elements and the formation of the first galaxies and stars to the birth and composition of the planets. They describe the origins of life, the evolution of metabolism and the development of complex organisms. In order to assess the limits for life elsewhere, they also explore life in extreme habitats and reveal how it informs the search for potential extraterrestrial habitats—ones that might support extraterrestrial life. Sharing fascinating findings from the comet mission Dawn, the visit of New Horizons to Pluto, and the work of the Deep Carbon Observatory, which has revealed an incredible underground biosphere within our own planet. Plaxco and Gross weave together cosmology, astrophysics, geology, biochemistry, biophysics, and microbiology. From neutron star mergers to the survival skills of tardigrades. Kevin W. Plaxco is a professor of chemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara.”

I will refer back to this book when I return to writing my realistic science fiction book about what it might really be like for a civilization of biological creatures to travel across a galaxy. When I wrote the first draft of this project around three years ago, I don’t think I had access to a book like this that really explored what life on other planets might be like. The first edition of this book was released in 2006, the second in 2011, and now this is the third. Because I am currently unaffiliated with a university, I tend to only pick up the books that become available for review when they are first released. I thought I have reviewed at least one other astrobiology book over the years, but I cannot find it in PLJ’s archives, so I must have only read sections about astrobiology out of more general astronomy textbooks.

The preface argues that there is new “optimism” regarding if there is “life elsewhere in the Universe”. This is only logical because if planets form the same type of relationships with stars across galaxies, it is also likely that chemicals are likely to mix together to generate living or moving entities. These are very likely to be entirely different from the combinations of life that have developed on earth depending on the extremely different environments on each planet, but the fact that chemicals develop life elsewhere if they were able to develop it on earth should be beyond doubt. There are just some temperatures, chemical mixtures and other conditions on potential planets that are extremely hostile to the development of life; and this is the case with all of the other planets in our solar system. There is pretty much no living organism on earth that could survive on any other planet in our system (though there might be some extremophiles I am forgetting). But with trillions of stars out there, there are so many potential positions of planets and other circumstances, that there must be trillions of planets with very similar conditions to earth (or other combinations nourishing for life) in the universe. The problem is that human telescopes or gravitational measurements etc. cannot yet “see” planets the size of our earth around stars that are dozens of light years away and beyond. Even light-speed travel makes getting to any other biologically-active planet near-impossible; our Milky Way galaxy has a radius of 52,850 light years, so traveling at the (impossible) speed of light would require humans 1,761 generations to cross it, and at any point across these changes of generations or leadership, the residents of this ship would have to decide to condemn their offspring to a lifetime of travel through empty space or returning to earth where habitable life is still guaranteed. So, space-faring aliens would have to be those that manage to destroy all potential of life on their own planet, and then spend over a thousand generations in empty space to finally be within radio-communication of Earth to send a greeting… If you enjoy speculating about these types of ideas as a science fiction writer, as a scientist, as an amateur star-gazer, or for some other reason, this book will be of interest to you.

“Chapter 1” asks “What Is Life?” and then questions some basic assumptions about this concept, including the need for it to be “self-replicating”, when “not all self-replicating chemical systems” are “alive” (including the “complex… reaction network” involved in fire), and some chemicals do not replicate themselves, but rather can live perpetually. Another section questions which chemicals out of the periodical table are absolutely essential for the creation of life, and carbon is given special status in this regard (1-7). Other chemicals, like silicon, might appear to be similar in their number of atoms, but fail to form equally strong bonds with other chemicals. This is used to argue that all life must be carbon-based because it allows for creatures to exist in multiple solid, liquid and gaseous forms, but this flexibility might not be as beneficial on a planet with very different temperatures and chemical composition than earth (15). Another section covers potential solvents of life other than water, such as ammonia (18).

I did not find a single page in this book that did not attract my interest. This means I am going to read this book cover-to-cover before returning to editing my space-travel book. This is great inspiration to return to it, after I finish editing the current linguistic studies I have been working on, and probably before I continue translating the British Renaissance.

While some of these questions might seem like science for its own sake, solving the mysteries regarding what is needed to create life can uncover new ideas about life on earth that scientists have not even imagined before. If silicon-based life is possible, humans might be able to create it here on earth in our scientifically distant future. New forms of energy might be developed by understanding how else energy might be produced in the universe. And any hope of a long-term trip to any other planet in the solar system begins with understanding what is needed to create a habitable space within a hostile extraterrestrial environment. This is not a book for those who have no previous background in science, but rather for those who are majoring, teaching or working in one of the hard sciences like chemistry, astronomy, or physics. It should be accessible in public libraries just in case high school students suddenly want to explore the possibilities after feeling inspired by a chemistry class, and being hungry to learn something entertaining in this direction over the summer. I hope all science fiction writers who mention aliens will read this book, as I have almost never seen a science fiction movie that makes the slightest attempt to bring realism to these humanoid creatures being imagined across our universe.

The Profit in Selling Idiocy as Rational, and Rejecting Rationality as Madness

Aubrey Clayton, Bernoulli’s Fallacy: Statistical Illogic and the Crisis of Modern Science (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021). Hardcover. 350pp. ISBN: 978-0-231-19994-0.

****

“There is a logical flaw in the statistical methods used across experimental science. This fault is not a minor academic quibble: it underlies a reproducibility crisis now threatening entire disciplines. In an increasingly statistics-reliant society, this same deeply rooted error shapes decisions in medicine, law, and public policy with profound consequences. The foundation of the problem is a misunderstanding of probability and its role in making inferences from observations.” This is the “history of how statistics went astray, beginning with the groundbreaking work of the seventeenth-century mathematician Jacob Bernoulli and winding through gambling, astronomy, and genetics. He highlights how influential nineteenth- and twentieth-century figures developed a statistical methodology they claimed was purely objective in order to silence critics of their political agendas, including eugenics.”

The publishers blurb does not really explain what precisely are the errors in modern statistical analysis, but the “Preface” begins this explanation by arguing that it might be best to avoid reaching a hypothesis before starting an experiment, that the experiment should test multiple potential hypothesis, that “corrections” should not be made to the data to make them “unbiased”, and that it is “impossible” to “measure” future “probability” by “experimentation” (as this involves predicting the future). Another complaint is about the use of standard distribution norms; I thought it was strange we spent so much time on these in my own statistics class I had to take as part of my economics degree in college. The point I like the most out of this is: “The point of statistical inference is not to produce the right answers with high frequency, but rather to always produce the inferences best supported by the data at hand when combined with existing background knowledge and assumptions… Science is largely not a process of falsifying claims definitively, but rather assigning them probabilities and updating those probabilities in light of observation. This process is endless… The more unexpected, surprising, or contrary to established theory a proposition seems, the more impressive the evidence must be before that proposition is taken seriously” (xiii-xiv). This exactly matches the conclusions I reached in designing my own computational-linguistics authorial-attribution method. My findings re-attribute the entire Renaissance to six ghostwriters. In contrast, previous computational-linguists have used statistics to re-affirm the current attributions to “Shakespeare” and other pseudonym holders by designing experiments that re-affirm previous beliefs or the desired hypothesis. There are many ways to skew the results of statistical analysis when the data, and the method of analysis is entirely up to the researcher, and that researcher has a fiscal advantage in supporting any given ideology, corporate position, or historical claim.

Across the rest of the book, Aubrey Clayton describes the history of how the rules of statistics were first designed, before explaining what the current formulas and methods are and how these have failed to evolve or to be changed to match humanity’s understanding of math and how the world can be studied mathematically. For example, in a section on “The Subjective Interpretation”, Clayton begins by pointing out a phrase of its “advantages” of being “flexible” and universal in application, and “disadvantages” of not actually being applicable anywhere. Then, he reviews the work in this field done in the 1740-50s by Thomas Bayes in England; it points out that Bayes was interested in proving Christian theology, including the possibility of “miracles”. Then, the standard method of calculating probability in a dice game is reviewed through Bayes’ theorem. Clayton points out that this equation has generated “four centuries” of “controversy” that are the subject of the rest of the book. Then, Clayton describes the various flaws with this approach such as that a limited data set of observations of the sun rising across only 5000 years of human data-keeping generates the probability the sun would rise tomorrow that is less than an absolute certainty; this is ridiculous since it does not reflect the true astronomical odds that are far higher than what humanity has data of (42). In another section, a controversial study by Fisher of the data in the British census of 1911 seemed to indicate that “lower-class people tended to be more fertile”. He manipulated the data to argue that over-breeding by the poor would bring down civilization, so he proposed social policies that prevented immigrants from reproducing; these ideas led indirectly to eugenics in Nazi Germany (155-6). This is not an isolated case, but rather most of Clayton’s book brings up similar mis-applications and corruptions of science that have been used to assist mad-men with achieving psychotic goals under the guise of scientific “truth”. As Clayton explains with the complexity of each of these arguments and with a diagram in Figure 5.6 of “Flowchart for selecting commonly used statistical tests”, the math used in some of these statistical approaches is so convoluted that average people fail to retain the attention span needed to not only read the results of a statistical study, but also the method used, and how it was applied (194).

All of these are interesting points that every statistician needs to read closely before graduating with a degree in this field, so that they are not as easily manipulated into fixing their own studies. However, linguistics is not mentioned in the index, there are no sections that are clearly connected with it in the Contents list, and there are no diagrams connected with statistical applications to language. Thus, I find that Clayton’s argument is very true in proving why my own radically different findings have been rejected by publishers, but there is no section that would help me to explain these flaws to readers better or would help me adjust my statistical presentations to make them more believable despite them being shocking. One of the more relevant sections in this regard is in a chapter on “The Replication Crisis/Opportunity” that explains that studies that are innovative, but fail to be “replicated” by rival scientists do not get attention in the media. It is much easier to replicate very simple and inconsequential experiments, than the most complex and thus innovative findings (both in terms of the necessary funding and knowledge). Then again, I don’t agree with some of Clayton’s claims such as that “top-tier journals” prefer that the “hypothesis” or findings are “surprising.” Some of the discussion in this section digresses from the central points that can be proven into generalist logic arguments the step away from useful points. Clayton claims there are some theories that “should never have been taken seriously”; this general claim contradicts his own claims that researchers should not form hypothesis before they start a research project, but instead let the data bring about the theory; thus, strange theories deserve equal seriousness as confirming theories. Clayton also digresses into abstractions like if an effect really exists if data “didn’t show statistical significance”. But then he raises a curious point: “researchers in various fields… have accumulated publications but left behind little or nothing of any value because their methods of analysis never made logical sense in the first place”. I just don’t really understand why Clayton is not learning from this lesson by leaving more room in this book for explaining how past statistical concepts must be precisely changed for rational science to win in this battle against nonsense (275-9). The following chapter appears to promise to offer solutions or “The Way Out”, but its first section argues for abandoning “Frequentist Interpretation”, which seems to be an absurd concept that cannot seriously help any field. Studying “frequency in a series of trials” is hardly the biggest problem in modern statistics. While “probability” might not “mean frequency” might be narrow, but refusing to study how frequently stuff occurs is a ridiculous reaction (281-2). He then proposes name changes for concepts such as changing “random variable” to “unknown” (which might be logical enough), but also changing “significant difference” to “N/A”; the latter change is ridiculous since things that are very different from each other cannot be substituted with being not-applicable without completely making nonsense of an experiment. Another section is called “Get Used to Approximate Answers”… While approximation is something that should be an assumption in all measures of probability; this is hardly a point that needs change given the myriad of manipulation-of-data problems the center of this book summarizes. It is also ridiculous that Clayton proposes to “Give Up on Objectivity”, and instead to focus on “Validity”; being objective means not having a bias that skews the results towards a desired instead of the true solution; so how can this possibly be a significant problem that needs to be changed in statistic studies? As I suspected, Clayton then claims that prior scientific studies should be assumed to be right, whereas those that introduce new methods and thus lead to new conclusions should be dismissed because of a failure to “distinguish the bogus experiments that appear to pass all the necessary tests from the legitimate ones” (301). This is all circular logic that is really arguing for the preservation of the current problems in statistics, instead of actually proposing solutions that would address the errors rationally described in this book’s preface. The digression into pure nonsense in this conclusion is most apparent from the final sentence and paragraph that is preceded with a grandiose statement regarding the era of Big Probability: “But first we need to understand what we’re doing” (303).

It is as if two different writers wrote this book: one of them started the book by pointing out exactly what is wrong with statistics and how we ended up with these errors, and then the second half of the book is written by one of these flawed statisticians who is doggedly working to defend continuing to apply biased methods to arrive at whatever conclusions he is paid to reach, instead of the truthful conclusions that rationality demands. Thus, readers really have to just read the first rational half before writing their own books that actually present simple and replicable solutions to these problems. If there was any profit in fixing these problems, they would have been fixed, but instead there is profit in stupefying the masses with nonsense while selling idiotic theories as rational, and rejecting rational theories as madness. Overall, this book is not for the general public or for libraries or for college classes in this field; it is only for statistical professors and professionals who are already familiar with these subjects and just want to question what they are doing by having a prolonged internal argument with this author’s conclusions before possibly writing a review like this one or a rival book.   

Informative and Exquisite Narrative About the Eighth-Century Japanese Court

Ogimachi Machiko; G. G. Rowley, Translator, In the Shelter of the Pine: A Memoir of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu and Tokugawa Japan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021). Softcover. 330pp, 6X9”. B&W photos/diagrams. ISBN: 978-0-231-19951-3.

*****

“In the early eighteenth century, the noblewoman Ōgimachi Machiko composed a memoir of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, the powerful samurai for whom she had served as a concubine for twenty years. Machiko assisted Yoshiyasu in his ascent to the rank of chief adjutant to the Tokugawa shogun. She kept him in good graces with the imperial court, enabled him to study poetry with aristocratic teachers and have his compositions read by the retired emperor, and gave birth to two of his sons. Writing after Yoshiyasu’s retirement, she recalled it all—from the glittering formal visits of the shogun and his entourage to the passage of the seasons as seen from her apartments in the Yanagisawa mansion. In the Shelter of the Pine is the most significant work of literature by a woman of Japan’s early modern era. Featuring Machiko’s keen eye for detail, strong narrative voice, and polished prose studded with allusions to Chinese and Japanese classics, this memoir sheds light on everything from the social world of the Tokugawa elite to the role of literature in women’s lives. Machiko modeled her story on The Tale of Genji” of “the eleventh-century”. G. G. Rowley teaches English and Japanese literature at Waseda University in Tokyo.

During my current Re-Attribution series of the British Renaissance, I discovered that most of the earliest texts credited to women in British literature were actually ghostwritten by men, including a book credited to “Anne Lok”, as well as those credited to “Mary Sidney” and other aristocratic women from the sixteenth through seventeenth centuries. While my tests indicated there were some female authors with distinct styles in Britain the eighteenth century, the three Bronte sisters proved to have only two distinct linguistic styles between them, and the abnormalities in the changes in their bylines make it very likely that their novels were also ghostwritten by name who used female pseudonyms because these tended to sell better with female readers with a lot of free time and purchase-power. Thus, if Machiko was indeed writing complex literature in the eighteenth-century Japan, she might have preceded the first true female British authors. The “Introduction” does not offer proof that would absolutely establish Machiko’s biographical timeline, as there appear to have been only two documents that mentioned her and those barely establish her age, while somewhat contradicting each other. A professional writer capable of producing a novel should really have left a more concrete documentary record. Instead, there is more evidence regarding Machiko’s descendant, a medieval scholar Sanjonishi Sanetaka, and her father the courtier who studied poetry, Orimachi Kinmichi, who held an official position in the imperial bureaucracy; she quotes her correspondences with him in her memoir (xii). This evidence leans towards the idea that Kinmichi was a court-ghostwriter similarly to the six British Workshop ghostwriters; he might have communicated in letters with his daughter, and he might have written a novel from her perspective because of the popularity of Genji, and the relative lack of interest in a novel about a court-scholar. The following section about “Concubinage in the Yanagisawa House” does not begin with these concubines being given an education, but rather with the explanation that their primary job was birthing children. The section on “Form and Function” explains that some of the events described in this novel could not have been autobiographical from Machiko’s perspective, as the information was clearly borrowed from “the official record of Yoshiyasu’s life, Rakushido nenroku”, as well as from other scholarly sources (xix). The introduction offers a detailed synopsis of the content in the chapters, which should be helpful for scholars seeking specific pieces of information. The “Manuscripts” section does not even mention the date when this manuscript was first-published, or any other early dates that can firmly establish that it already existed by in handwritten form, such as in allusions to it in other publications (xxii-iii). All this clearly indicates that scholarly research of the earliest versions of this manuscript for dating and for attribution are essential for really understanding its author, sources, and publication timeline.

The first chapter of the memoir itself opens with puffing remarks on the glory of the regime governing Japan at the time of the authorship of this book. The biographies and history of the surrounding decades is described with precision that would have required a lifetime of scholarship. There is also a familiarity with the state of the Emperor’s and Governor’s health, and political maneuvers, as well as the polite manners and dialogues that surround the business and schemes of power (1-3).

The eighth chapter begins in 1698 with His Highness deciding to construct the Central Hall to expand his palace in a manner similar to a preceding temple construction. Some sections of this story require more annotations than those present, as for example, the second paragraph explains that the ruler adopted the daughter of Lord Counselor, lady Kichi, as his own, without any clue that the Counselor had died. This might suggest that Kichi was taken on as a concubine as well, but it is unclear why this would not be explained directly given that the entire book’s author is a concubine and describing herself as such. Descriptions of a grand wedding are then mixed with the thousands of “burly laborers” who rolled “great stones”, pillars and roof-beams, while being directed by the Lord, who was busy “inspecting” these activities (48-50). Another section describes “an enormous earthquake” and how “great many places had collapsed, and a great many people had been lost to high tides” (175). There are reasonably heavy annotations at the back of the book, and the Index is both in English and Japanese. The annotations explain a range of topics that help us in this distant land and time to understand the contest. One annotation explains a reference to a quote from Fujiwara no Morosuke’s Gosenwakashu (1392) about “gardens where seedless flowers bloom without falling” (265).  

Overall, this is a treasure-trove of information about life and politics in 17-18th century Japan. I doubt this book was really written by a woman or by a concubine; I would have to read a study regarding precisely how concubines were educated at court during this period, and I would need to see other samples of dated handwriting from court women from these decades to be convinced. But this attribution is not really that relevant in terms of understanding this distant culture and time through the eyes of a contemporary (whoever he or she might have been). This translation is extremely well executed in terms of the beauty and precision of the language, clarity and flow of thoughts, and materials added to explain what it all signifies. As basically one of the first complete translations of this text ever made into English, this is definitely a text all libraries should add to their collections, and English-language classes that cover Japanese literature should benefit from adding it to their curriculum.

The Annotated Collected Works of a British Countess

Anne Finch; Jennifer Keith and Claudia Thomas Kairoff, Editors, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea: Early Manuscript Books, Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019; June 2021). Hardcover: $260 for the 2 volumes. 830pp, 6X9”. B&W diagrams. ISBN: 978-1-107-06860-5.

Anne Finch; Jennifer Keith and Claudia Thomas Kairoff, Editors, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea: Early Manuscript Books, Volume 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). Hardcover. 670pp, 6X9”. B&W diagrams. ISBN: 978-1-107-06865-0.

*****

“This is the first ever complete critical edition of the writings of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661–1720), including work printed in her lifetime and material left in manuscript form at her death. Textual analysis, based on print and manuscript copies in repositories across the United Kingdom and United States, reveals her revision processes and uses of manuscript and print. Extensive commentary clarifies her techniques, sources, contexts, and diction. A detailed essay traces the history of her works’ reception and transmission. The result is a complete view of her achievements that will promote more accurate assessments of her contributions to literary and cultural shifts, including perspectives on literary value, women’s equality, religion, and affairs of state. Writer and critic of the Glorious Revolution, Finch imparts rare insights into this watershed of political and cultural values. Her work represents a complex convergence of artistic innovation, political allegiance, and personal passion. Provides established texts of all Finch’s poems, plays, and letters, organized by their appearance in Finch’s authorized collections”.

As I explained in a preceding review, I am especially interested in eighteenth century British women writing because my findings indicated there were pretty much no authentic female writers during the preceding century, so Finch might have been the actual first female author in Britain.

The first volume begins with a set of introductions that is fits this enormous two-volume set. These introductions describe Finch’s biography, the genres she wrote in, summarize her texts and describe the texts publication or creation history. Then there are a couple of sections with poems, followed by two tragedies, and other poems. The preface from the main editor explains that she began discussing this set back in 2003, before Cambridge agreed to it in 2008, in parallel with her completing most of the archival research between 2004 and 2010. After Cambridge’s acceptance of the non-existing manuscript, she asked her co-editor Kairoff to help her. She had a few other research assistants helping her across the following years. I can’t imagine having any help with my own research… But I guess such things are possible. A myriad of different institutions also funded this research. One of these was a three-year Scholarly Editions and Translations Award from NEH… for which I think I’ve also applied, but will most likely be rejected as with my previous NEH applications, despite me writing a nearly 700,000 words towards my current translation project in 10 months. At this speed, in 18 years… I will write 14.4 million words… or more than 2 volumes… And there’s a whole paragraph on how the Folger Shakespeare Library was especially helpful as they share their knowledge with this team, explaining “textual variants”, and a bunch of institutions provided illustrations (xxiv). In comparison, I just received an email from the University of Birmingham after they had initially told me in January, 7 months ago, that they would email a digitized copy of a masters thesis that was completed at their school with a transcription of one of William Percy’s self-attributed plays; this week they emailed me with a copy that redacted all of the content of the actual play transcription that I needed and only included the introductory comments about this play by the thesis-writer; they explained that the Duke of Northumberland was refusing to allow copyrights to this text under the claim that he owns the content of a text Percy wrote over 4 centuries ago, which is absolutely not true. Most of the books that Cambridge publishes have similar prefaces, but I am just thinking about this more than usually.

The section about previous editions of the covered texts do not clearly summarize which of these texts were published during Finch’s lifetime, and only a few posthumous collections are mentioned such as the 1903 collection of her poems. There was an authorized collection of her works in 1713. There is no certainty regarding when Finch had her manuscripts transcribed. The manuscripts also list a name assumed to be Finch’s pseudonym, but which could have been used by some other ghostwriter, “Ardlia”. At least Finch’s biographical dates are firm, since as an aristocrat her dates of birth, marriage and the like were officially recorded. There is an assumption that Finch was educated, but this conclusion comes from the content of these texts, and not from a documented record of exactly how and by whom she was educated. She became a Maid of Honor to Mary Beatrice starting in 1682, but this does not seem like an appointment that would have challenged her intellect; the first song currently attributed to her was published in a collection in 1686. One positive is that there is a section on the “Works Excluded from This Edition” that explains that works that Finch herself did not claim as her own, such as Free-Thinkers, have largely not been included those that introduce the problem of proving a “negative”. Another positive is the inclusion of a few pages of scanned handwritten pages; this is a good think because at least this handwriting style does not match one of the Workshop ghostwriters; it would have been depressing if I found blatant indicators that these were also the Workshop’s work that was just published decades after they had all died. The translations are not particularly good given how much time these editors had to adjust them, as words like design’d were left without being correct to the correct in Modern English designed. And wast was left without being fixed to either was or waste; more likely the latter in the context (3). Missing words and letters were also not filled in, even when the surviving letters clearly indicate the intended meaning as in, “Betrayed, th[.. .. ….]d, [.. .. …..]”; the second world is very likely to be threatened (5). And while the collection is advertised as coming from basically somebody who basically helped start the 1688 Revolution, the opening scene of The Triumph of Love and Innocence, the tragicomedy, glorifies the Queen’s fight against a usurper (116). Instead of being corrected within the text, some of the words are clarified in the back, like the use of the line above letters in words such as com̅ands to indicate a double-m (577). Some of the definitions are nonsensical like the definition of “frantic” as “insane” (OED); the two words basically have the same meaning in Modern English (588). One of the clearer explanations is this: “according to legend, a spirit caught Aristomenes when he was cast into the dungeon. In some versions of the story, the spirit appeared in the form of an eagle” (589). The explanations of theological references are similarly clear and frequently precise in their citations (617). There are also sections that explain what is known about the composition date (if anything), with lists of previous reprints (that were missing in the general introduction) (717).

The second volume in this collection reprints an identical version of several sections from the introductory remarks, like the lists of illustrations, chronology and the like. Glancing over the second volume, there are theological poems that glorify God, notes on maids, winter and spring, and a bit of kissing (221). None of these attract my attention enough to write two separate reviews of these two volumes.

I do not recall when I requested these for review, or if I did, but if I did it was a few years ago, and I guess it was just finally completed. I am glad to have these volumes in my library, as it is possible that I will return to my re-attribution project on the eighteenth century and then having these on my shelves will be very useful. Given the price of these volumes, I do not recommend their purchase to general libraries, but rather only to university academic libraries that have collections of other early British literature. The collected works of Finch are clearly a significant component of an inclusive 18th century collection, and the annotations and other scholarly materials in these volumes are of high-standards.

A History of Tuscany with Ponderings on Excuses for Tyranny

Brian Brege, Tuscany in the Age of Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021). Hardcover. 515pp. ISBN: 978-0-674-25134-2.

*****

“A new history explores how one of Renaissance Italy’s leading cities maintained its influence in an era of global exploration, trade, and empire. The Grand Duchy of Tuscany was not an imperial power, but it did harbor global ambitions. After abortive attempts at overseas colonization and direct commercial expansion, Tuscany followed a different path, one that allowed it to participate in Europe’s new age of empire without establishing an empire of its own. The first history of its kind, Tuscany in the Age of Empire offers a fresh appraisal of one of the foremost cities of the Italian Renaissance, as it sought knowledge, fortune, and power throughout Asia, the Americas, and beyond. How did Tuscany, which could not compete directly with the growing empires of other European states, establish a global presence? First, Brege shows, Tuscany partnered with larger European powers. The duchy sought to obtain trade rights within their empires and even manage portions of other states’ overseas territories. Second, Tuscans invested in cultural, intellectual, and commercial institutions at home, which attracted the knowledge and wealth generated by Europe’s imperial expansions. Finally, Tuscans built effective coalitions with other regional powers in the Mediterranean and the Islamic world, which secured the duchy’s access to global products and empowered the Tuscan monarchy in foreign affairs.”

This book also answers the broad questions I have been asking myself regarding why Italy’s states were first to develop theaters and other forms or modes or genres of art at the start of the Renaissance. While the blurb from the publisher above does not mention it, but the reason I found is that Italy encompassed Rome or the capital of the Greco-Roman empire, as well as the capital of Catholicism. Money from Catholics across the globe was pouring thus into Italy, and it appears to have trickled out (perhaps through corrupt means) to merchants, aristocrats and others who grew wealthy during this period, and chose to display this wealth by having themselves entertained or wooed with beautiful forms of art. Italy remained powerful across the Greco-Roman period, and it retained some of this power as the rest of the world slipped into the Dark Ages, while Italy’s states continued collecting theological taxes. Keeping the rest of the world illiterate and uninformed served the Pope’s interests across the millennium before the Renaissance, as illiterate farmers were able to farm and send in their taxes just as well, or better than they would have if they were educated and thus perhaps more likely to rebel or to do what was in their best interests. The list of Catholic Popes begins with the Jewish St Peter in 30 AD in Rome, and stretches through the present, with most Popes having been Italian like Sergius II (844-7).

This book is not particularly easy to read. The “Contents” barely explain the logic behind the organization of this book, with symbolic part titles such as “The Tail Wags the Dog”, and chapter titles like “Cooperative Empire”; both of these can really be about a myriad of topics none of which grabs the reader’s attention. There are no illustrations. The notes take up a bit less than half of the book.

Opening the book to a random page, I found a section on the trade in birds across Europe, like the peacock that was sent to Ferdinando I in 1591; he was writing in the hope of finding a female partner for this male peacock to create a local supply of peacocks for this Italian region (187). Another section from 1608 describes Ali Pasha’s army’s departure when the residents of Aleppo rebelled and started throwing stones, as Pasha had to escape on a fast horse. Then the Turks arrived and massacred the rebels; preceding events involved the burning of Jewish houses; so this is a broad inter-ethnic and inter-theological story (283). Yet another section describes dealings between Tuscan aristocrats and their work in mobilizing “the Turk” by soliciting an “archenemy, the Shah”, a campaign that was led by the newly knighted in 1598 Sir Michelangelo Corai (303). The only thing these pieces have in common is that represent pieces of Tuscany’s history, so this is really just a general history of Tuscany during the age of Empires. I noticed few digressions that venture into the philosophical or political questions the book’s blurbs proposes to explore. The “Introduction” does connect some of these ideas by explaining the background of empirical conquest, and the “Medici Monarchy in Tuscany”. But many of the sections digress into general themes like “On Global History” and “On Protagonists and Heroes”. The latter section begins by explaining that the Duchy of Tuscany “justified its bellicosity by frequent recourse to a discourse that denounced Ottoman tyranny”; the Medici countered the claim that they were tyrannical by accusing the Ottomans of being more tyrannical and thus justifying the need for their own violent military actions and the collections of the nation’s wealth in taxes into their coffers with this stated purpose (27). These same types of tricks to excuse tyranny are being used today by the USA, so the lessons of Tuscany are hardly distant or irrelevant in our present historical moment.

This history is well-written and well-researched, but it should be extremely difficult for a researcher to find specific topics, or to read this book cover-to-cover. Only those who are professors of Tuscan history and who are writing books about Tuscany are likely to retain interest across a significant portion of this book. Thus, this book should only be ordered by academic libraries upon request of scholars in this narrow field.

“Bread and Water! What a Feast!”

Pierpaolo Polzonetti, Feasting and Fasting in Opera: From Renaissance Banquets to the Callas Diet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021). Hardcover. 326pp, 6X9”. B&W illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-226-80495-8.

*****

“How convivial culture shaped the birth of opera and opera-going rituals until the mid-nineteenth century, when eating and drinking at the opera house were still common. Through analyses of convivial scenes in operas, the book also shows how the consumption of food and drink, and sharing or the refusal to do so, define characters’ identity and relationships.” It “moves chronologically from around 1480 to the middle of the nineteenth century, when Wagner’s operatic reforms banished refreshments during the performance and mandated a darkened auditorium and absorbed listening. The book focuses on questions of comedy, pleasure, embodiment, and indulgence—looking at fasting, poisoning, food disorders, body types, diet, and social, ethnic, and gender identities—in both tragic and comic operas from Monteverdi to Puccini. Polzonetti also sheds new light on the diet Maria Callas underwent in preparation for her famous performance as Violetta, the consumptive heroine of Verdi’s La traviata. Neither food lovers nor opera scholars will want to miss Polzonetti’s page-turning and imaginative book.”

This books blurb made me assume that this would be a book primarily about feasts that were part of performances, or feasts that were held by the characters in an opera. This particular take was of interest to me because a lot of William Percy’s plays that I’m now translating end with a festival, celebration, wedding or the like, and in several instances, food is either directly described as being eaten, or is suggested as characters describe the entertainments of this concluding scene to include a feast. As I searched through this book looking for these bits of information, I instead realized that Percy might have been including these scenes of feasting and festival because there would have been feasting or other celebratory elements among those in the audience, so these types of conclusions would have welcomed the members of the Court or aristocracy in attendance to join in the revelry (dancing, singing or feasting) with the actors on the stage.

The introduction to Part I describes how this part begins by explaining that banquets were part of storytelling at least as far back as Homer’s Odyssey. The narrative enters the fifteenth century in Chapter 3, with a description of the “wild drinking chorus of bacchants” in the conclusion of Politian’s Orfeo. Then, Chapter 4 leaps to the explanation mentioned in the blurb as to why opera organizers in the nineteenth century decided to stop allowing the public to feast during performances. Most of the text, including a section on the use of the unhappy poison, focuses on summarizing the plots around banquet or food-related scenes and then describing the unique thematic elements a given banquet presents. At least one chapter deals with generic distinctions between how feasts are treated in tragedies versus in comedies. The thesis is that unless there is poison, feasts are presented as positive or comedic, while starvation is always tragic. Other sections discuss theology and crimes against women. Most of the book has a narrative comedic tone, as the author tends to make light of the absurdities of these early texts as in this example: “Shortly after raping Donna Anna and killing her father, his appetite is awakened by the approach of Donna Elvira: ‘Shush! I can smell a female’” (111). There are too many digressions and too many mentions of Bakhtin across this book, and not enough direct explanations regarding specific patterns of feasting and how writers handled food in productions. For example, a section on “Performing Good Taste” begins with Bakhtin’s general claims that the eighteenth century was a “moment of decadence” and that its end meant the destruction of “the ‘traditional link of wise and free speech with food and wine’” (137). This is an absurd generalization to make as there have been food and alcohol in fiction of all forms from the first written texts through the present. Many sections combine the author’s humor with the humor of how authors combine feasting and fiction in a pleasing manner as a section where a scene is described of wild feasting before a warning arrives from a father for his son to avoid returning to the castle “unless he wants to end up eating bread and water in prison. Unsympathetically, the chorus of robbers replies, mockingly, ‘Bread and water! What a feast!’” (183). At least a couple of the illustrations clearly don’t fit the theme of the book as Figure 10.8 and 10.9 are photographs depicting Violetta miserable and dying in Traviata, instead of showing anybody eating. Basically, whenever the author attempts philosophy, he uses a long quote about “the search for meaning” or discussions of the basically nonsensical “‘cognitive’ mode” that includes characters gaining knowledge through eating (187). And when the author gives up on philosophy and tries to just describe the food-related elements and then jokes about these, the book moves along smoothly.

I received a digital copy of this book for review, and I think this is a better format for it. I was able to search through it for mentions of “Shakespeare” and for the next part briskly, whereas the same digs might have been strenuous with a paper copy. The subjects covered across this book are so wide as they stretch across centuries, and across a range of different themes that a researcher has to enter this book either with a specific point they are searching for information about, or just hoping to browse across a few humorous ideas on what going to the opera was like in previous centuries. Producers of modern entertainments should find useful information about alternative uses of food and drinks, especially if they are considering re-introducing feasting into operatic performances. Thus, this book is for researchers in this field and for opera-buffs.

The Biography of the Dutch Prince Who Conquered Britain

William Pull, William III: From Prince of Orange to King of England: A History: 1650-1689 (London: Unicorn Publishing Group, 2021). Hardcover. 608pp, 6X9”. Color illustrations. ISBN: 978-1-913491-60-4.

*****

“A detailed study in the struggle for power between seventeenth-century European ruling elites. The story of William of Orange before he became the king of England, examining the system of clan family and patron-client relationships across Europe on which the prince’s political and diplomatic influences rested. His skillful personal ability with the political elites in the Dutch Republic and England enabled his rise to power in the republic and later to the throne of England. Providing a full and detailed recounting of the dramatic clash between William’s regime with Louis XIV’s governance of France, the book does not shy away from engaging in historical controversies.”

As I searched for the word “controversy” across this book, I did not find many actual controversies the venture outside of the standard or widely accepted history of this period. For example, one mention is to William’s or James’ “controversial” approach in response to Dissenters led in part by Quaker William Penn. James wanted to “repeal the penal laws and the Test Acts” against Dissenters, which required the permission from Parliament that was being blocked by the Test Acts content itself. Meanwhile, the army and government were being purged of Protestants and replaced with Catholics (513). This type of constant and pointless theological opposition among sectors of Britain is incredibly repetitive, as waves between Protestantism and Catholicism keep repeating in pointless succession. Until I saw the year of these events was 1687, I had difficulty guessing if this could have taken place as early as 1560 or at the end of the covered period… or perhaps even yesterday.

I searched for Percy and Northumberland, but there are no mention of these topics that are of interest to my current research. There are a few mentions of music being played in a music gallery as aristocrats listened to it and lectures from a Doctor of Law at the Sheldonian Theatre (143). It is mentioned in a few other sections such as a mention of how the Prince “passed the time by giving a reception, attending a church service with music from an orchestra and choir, and engaging in his favorite relaxation of hunting” (316). There is also a mention of entertainments like card-playing, balls, and the theater; for the latter, “William subsidized the French theatre to the tune of 5,000 guilders a year” (427).

There are also surprisingly few mentions of the revolution that had just led to the execution of Charles I just before the start of events in this history in 1649. Instead, the argument seems to be that William just ignored the “risk of revolution”, as he avoided undertaking “too radical a transformation in the personnel of the Town Council” or other changes; it seems as if the potential for a revolution in the Dutch republic was of greater concern than the odds of a new revolution back in the British Isles (212). One section does explain this conundrum: “The events of 1672 may fairly be described as constituting a revolution, or, perhaps more accurately, a counter-revolution; the overthrow of De Witt’s regime of ‘the True Freedom’ and the return to a Stadholder regime did represent such a profound change, with important consequences, particularly in foreign affairs and the conduct of war, thus deserving the name… Civil war such as occurred in the British Isles in the 1640s and with the Frondes in France, in that and the following decade, was avoided—as indeed was the far more radical change that Charles II and Louis XIV had in mind for the Dutch Republic… It was one of the lessons that William carried with him when he invaded England in 1688” (213). Basically, William III was only born in 1650, or after the Civil wars that ended in an execution of a British king, so he was not really alive yet, and thus was not directly impacted by this event. And most of William’s life was spent as a Prince in Holland in the Dutch Republic, as he only reigned in the United Kingdom after conquering it in 1689 during the last three years of his life. This history is how he spent his life leading up to his Glorious Revolution or invasion of England in 1688, as the historian attempts to explain why William decided to venture on this conquest into England. The real Revolution had succeeded back in 1649, but British historians keep calling this Glorious Crossing or invasion of Britain by the Dutch the Glorious Revolution (just because some insiders in Britain were also launching a coup by supporting William III over the deposed James II/VII). There are controversies to be uncovered in this history, but I don’t think this particular history book actually addresses any of them.

Overall, this is a thoroughly researched history and biography that covers all sorts of topics and moments in William III’s life. Thus, it is a great read for a casual member of the general public that enjoys imagining or understanding how a monarch spent time prior to gaining a crown and how one went about winning a crown, if one was not exactly next in line. And researchers of this period in Dutch and British history and of William III in particular will find digested archival research here that should help them fill gaps in their understanding. Thus, this is a useful book for public and academic libraries. I would not complain if this book had been used as a textbook in one of my history classes, as it’s a pretty interesting read, and presents many ideas for further research.

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