April 15, 2008

Booksmart: Book Reports for 4-16-08

Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology: By Stanley Hedeen; foreword by John Mack Faragher. University Press of Kentucky; 182 pp., .95Big Bone Lick:The Cradle of American Paleontology(By Stanley Hedeen; foreword by John Mack Faragher. University Press of Kentucky; 182 pp., $24.95)In 1739, a French military expedition ventured south from Montreal on a voyage intended to subdue the Chickasaw Indian nation and chart a route connecting France’s Canadian and Louisiana colonies. In blue clay, in a salty Kentucky marsh 20 miles south of what later became Cincinnati, the soldiers found fossilized remains unlike anything previously found in North America — enormous femurs, teeth that weighed as much as seven pounds, 12-foot tusks and shoulder blades a yard wide.Left behind by mammoths, mastodons and ground sloths, the bones found in what is now Big Bone Lick State Park puzzled the world’s leading naturalists — including American luminaries Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson — for the next 150 years. Eventually the bones would debunk many strongly held scientific orthodoxies of the day. Jefferson invoked the bones as evidence against the European notion of “American degeneracy” — the idea that New World animal species must perforce be smaller than Old World species because of inferior soil and climate conditions in North America.By undermining the universally held belief that in a God-created universe the extinction of species was impossible, the Big Bone Lick fossils contributed to one of the most important scientific revolutions of the 19th century.Stanley Hedeen, a Professor Emeritus of Biology at Xavier University in Ohio, tells the story of these remarkable bones and the people who discovered and studied them in accessible prose, drawing heavily on the documentary record. And though his narrative never quite conveys a grand unifying theme, his side trips into areas such as salt production in the 18th century are as fascinating as the important tale of Kentucky’s role in the growth of American paleontology. —Marty RosenHuman Smoke:: The Beginnings of World War II and the End of Civilization By Nicholson Baker. Simon and Schuster; 576 pp., Human Smoke:The Beginnings of World War II and the End of Civilization(By Nicholson Baker. Simon and Schuster; 576 pp., $30)Against the backdrop of Gandhi’s struggle to gain Indian independence, the old European powers prepared for war. While Mahatma’s principles of non-violence were being forged, half a world away aircraft, artillery and (most ominously) chemical/biological weapons rolled out of factories and laboratories at a furious pace.As its subtitle indicates, “Human Smoke” is an account of mankind’s progress toward wiping itself out. Especially powerful is the book’s structure, composed of diary entries, newspaper clips and official memorandum, none more than a page long. Each entry is dated and meticulously documented.In the process, the author trashes the treasured myths of WWII. Chief among these is the myth of Winston Churchill. If Nero fiddled while Rome burned, Churchill was supplying kindling while Germany played with matches. While Churchill and Roosevelt did their best to screw things up (embargoes, blockades, cheap weapons sales and propaganda), Germany responded with monstrous determination, annexing sovereign countries and speeding up its expulsion of Jews.The book ends shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, making it not so much a history of the war as a listing of events that led up to it. It is also a technological history of developments in the efficiency and savagery of weaponry during those years. It makes for a compendium of horror.Its many illustrative passages, too numerous to quote, brim with misery. The title, for the record, was coined by a Nazi general who lost faith in Hitler and was imprisoned toward the end of the war. He called the foul smelling ash that drifted through barred windows of his cell “human smoke.” —Paul Kopasz