Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Friday, February 29, 2008

Neandertals cannibalized themselves into extinction?

Dieneke's Anthropology Blog, another great blog devoted to anthropology and human origins, has a link to an article claiming that Neandertals may have "cannibalized" themselves into extinction. The claim is that a form of prion disease, sometimes called kuru in some places, helped kill them off, because they, um, ate each other. My question is, what is it with Neandertals and purported cannibalism, anyway? People are always attributiing cannibalism to this group of people(whoever and whatever they were). But there's no context. . . .Oh well. I suppose theories like these add something to our knowledge of the prehistoric past.
Anne G

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Some changes and additions

I've decided to add a rather eclectic mix of blog links to my "Other blogs" section. These don't exactly fit in the slots for writing or human origins, let alone Neandertals or medieval. But they encompass some of my many and varied interests. Dear blog reader, dip into them if you wish, and enjoy or not, if you wish. Some may "offend", others are just, well. . . . never mind. You don't have to agree with me about anything, you know!
Anne G

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Book review: Mistress of the Art of Death

Franklin, Ariana Mistress of the Art of Death
G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 2007, 384 p.
ISBN 978-0-399-15414-0

I am not normally a mystery reader. I haven't been since the long-ago days of reading Nancy Drew. Which does not mean I never read mysteries; it just means that they are not my first choice, or I stumble on them in the course of looking for something else, am in the course of learning something about a place or a time, or they come recommended.

I came across Carl Hiaasen's hilarious and satiric mysteries, all set in South Florida, where Hiaasen lives, and reports for a Miami newspaper. These mysteries are not only hilarious, but they tell you a lot about some of the kinds of people who live there. And he is also very concerned about what is being done to the local environment, in the name of "progress" or other claims. Since I am also concerned about what is being done to the environment where I live, in the name of "progress" or other claims.

This is a somewhat roundabout way of getting to how I happened to end up reading Mistress of the Art of Death. The author came recommended on a historical fiction website. I didn't pay a whole lot of attention at the time, but about a week after the person's recommendation, I came across her latest effort, and it really looked very interesting. It just so happens that both books are set in medieval England, close to the time period I'm in, in my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece. So when I visited the library, as I often do these days, to see if there was anything interesting there, lo and behold, I found Mistress of the Art of Death.

It did not disappoint. Like Hiaasen, Ms. Franklin creates characters with foibles --- very funny ones. And not only that, her characters seem like people you might well meet in East Anglia today(the story is set in medieval Cambridge). And, like Hiaasen, Ms. Franklin is obviously concerned about a number of problems, that still exist today: ignorance, racism, the nature of the justice system, and so on. But it is also wrapped up in what turned out to be a very entertaining story, and her own concerns don't intrude. Readers not interested in these things can safely ignore them; readers interested in aspects of medieval life will probably come away feeling that people living in medieval Cambridge, at least, were not that much different from people living in the present time.

And the central character! Adelia is an orphan girl, raised by some Jews in Salerno, where women are allowed to be trained as doctors in the medical school there. The premise of the plot revolves around the need the king of the time --- Henry II --- has, to protect the Jews of Cambridge, who are virtually imprisoned in Cambridge Castle because children keep disappearing and turning up very, very dead. Which is blamed on the Jews. So he sends for a "master of the art of death" to try to figure out who really "dunnit". What he, and the town of Cambridge gets instead, is Adelia, and a rich cast of characters, including a love interest in the shape of a tax collector who is being considered by the king for a bishopric. Even if one has only the mildest interest in the period, the reader is likely to learn a lot of interesting things by reading the book.

Mistress of the Art of Death does, however, have some flaws. For some, the rather "modern" East Anglian dialect may be grating, as are some things that seem possibly anachronistic(did the Jews living in England at the time really speak Yiddish?). The fact that she doesn't use "Grantabridge"(which was what it was called then), may not sit well with some "accuracy purists". Personally, I have my opinions about such people, but I won't go into them here; that is a subject for another essay. Furthermore, as mysteries go, it is not very "subtle". I could easily spot most of the clues and "red herrings" that exist in just about every book written in this genre. Though most mystery writers end up writing about the characters, the place, or the time in which the mystery takes place, the mystery itself being just a kind of hook to hang these thigns on, the clues --- at least for me --- tend to be "buried" a lot better. On the other hand, the author writes straight "historicals" under another name, and this appears to be her first mystery novel, so perhaps she can be forgiven for not being very "subtle". Overall, however, these flaws seemed relatively minor, at least to me. But then, I'm not normally a mystery reader, and I tend to get fairly impatient with too much subtlety in these things, and I often end up taking a peek at the end to find out "whodunit"

For anyone else, though, it is a good read, and it looks as if there will be more "Adelia" stories coming out in the future. I look forward to reading them.
Anne G

Saturday, February 9, 2008

More on Neandertal mobility

John Hawks has an excellent commentary on the "Neandertal mobility" article that just came out today. He makes the important point that it's hardly surprising that Neandertals were mobile. What else would you expect, when they had to catch their woolly mammoth stew for dinner, so to speak? But the idea is still controversial --- in some quarters. The other point Hawks makes is, that it would hardly be surprising that they might have traveled over distances, to make use of resources they didn't have in their "home base". Which strikes me as quite reasonable. But it is apparently not reasonable to some workers who believe, or want to believe, that Neandertals just didn't have the "brain power" to do this. And yes, there are people who believe things like this.

But it's studies like these that confirm --- for me, at least --- that I'm on the right track in portraying the Neandertals in my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals the way I do. Because in most ways, there is almost no difference between the way the Neandertals in my epic behave, and the way everybody else behaves. They are different in some of their abilities(and not the ones the average reader might expect), but then, I'm not writing paleoanthropology, I'm writing science fiction, and my work, while rooted in actual historical events, is primarily a kind of "what if" work of the imagination. So I really don' think this discovery about "Neandertal mobility" is really a huge revelation. At least not for me. My work is based on the premise that Neandertals were not all that different --- other than (somewhat) anatomically different --- than "modern" humans are. And I am perfectly well aware that there are plenty of people who disagree with this assessment.

This particular study, and Hawks's comments on it, simply confirm the suspicions I have had all along. And that's one of the reasons I'm writing the things I'm writing.
Anne G

Travelin' Neandertals

Apparently, Neandertals, once considered to be "stick in the muds" , traveled on occasion. Or maybe more than one occasion. At least according to the article in the link above, they did. Oh, and for those interested, there's a nice picture of a Neandertooth, too.
Anne G

A nice medieval post

Over at Elizabeth Chadwick's Living the History , there's a nice little article, with some nifty photos(from a "recreated" tournament), about William Marshal. He was an important figure in the "earlier" Middle Ages in England, and his life was quite colorful, among other things. Those interested in medieval history will probably want to read this.
Anne G

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


John Hawks has a two-year-old. And I agree with him --- two year olds are not Neandertals, whatever else they may be. Heck, even Neandertal two year olds probably weren't "Neandertals", though they doubtless wore their parents out! I don't think things have changed that much in 40,000 years. But Harvey Karp, author of a parenting book called The Happiest Toddler On the Block, which came out about four years ago, seems to think otherwise. Really, I don't know why people think later "archaic" humans were all that different from "us", or more "childlike" or whatever. I thought this kind of thinking went out with the 19th century. But apparently I was mistaken, even if, as Dr. Hawks suggests, the guy's parenting advice is perfectly good.

Note: This is a sort of disclaimer. Having parented a two year old myself once upon a time, I can understand the temptation, but no, I repeat: two year olds are not Neandertals!
Anne G

Robert Sawyer on writers and writing types

Robert Sawyer, a science fiction writer I highly respect, has some good definitions of various types of writing. About the only thing I would disagree with him about, is that "literary fiction", which covers a wide variety of "sins" so to speak, tends to be "plotless". My understanding, for whatever it's worth, is that such fiction tends to emphasize character development a lot more than (some) genre fiction. But of course, a lot depends on the writer involved, whether it's "commercial/genre" or "literary".
Anne G

Monday, February 4, 2008

writing in the present tense --- again

Those of you who drop by my blog from time to time may have caught my occasional gripes about the increasing number of authors who write in the present tense. I have long been mystified by this apparently spreading trend, but now I think I know one source of its popularity. The answer is --- screenplays. Just last week, I was killing time in a local Borders Book Store, and found the script of a screenplay that had been adapted from some popular novel. Don't ask me which one; I can't remember the title. Just the fact that everything in a screenplay --- like a stage play, only with somewhat different directions --- was written in the present tense!

The reason for this had its beginning about ten or fifteen years ago, when a lot of aspiring writers got the idea that they could make money, and lots of it, by writing screenplays. This just happened to coincide with the widespread adoption of computers and their associated technology; there is now screenplay-writing software on the market. Previously, most "present tense" writing seems to have been confined to some of the more "extreme" literary novels. Now this technique seems to be proliferating everywhere.

Before I get into a more serious critique of this phenomenon, I would like to point out that the venue of a novel or short story is somewhat different from that of a play or a movie. Plenty of stage plays have been "translated" into film, but even that takes some "rearrangement", since, unlike a staged play(for better or worse), the action is continuous; it isn't broken up by intermissions between acts or obvious scene changes. The action simply flows from one scene to another, or so it seems to the moviegoer. "Translating" the written word and fitting it into a film script is even more of a leap; it takes longer to read a sentence than it does to watch actors performing an action on screen. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these particular media. They are simply different ways of telling a story. But anyone who works with these things has to take the differences into account. I've seen some very good adaptations of novels into film; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and all of the Lord of the Rings films are good examples. But seeing these books "translated" into film is a very different kind of experience than actually reading them. And, siginficantly, both C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both wrote in past tense.

Now one might object that these authors are an "older genration" that never thought of writing any other way. They would be correct, of course. But you could also argue that any narrative is a retelling of past events, even if the past events being retold are about the reactions, say, of people who witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center by al-Qaida operatives. In other words, the kind of "you are there" immediacy present tense suggests is at best a device to "get you there".

This works in certain situations; it might work well if the writer is trying to recreate the reactions of those who witnessed the destruction of the Twin Towers, as opposed to the reactions of those who smashed their aircraft into them, or US Muslims who didn't know what to think, for example. It also works well in some books aimed at "young adults", especially if it's about contemporary problems, or purporting to be someone's diary. But I'm not sure a "you are there" technique works quite so well in fiction that is set in some past historical period, yet I've seen an increasing number of authors using this technique, presumably imitating the "immediacy" of a screenplay.

For one thing, it takes a really good writer to pull this off in a compelling way. I haven't, so far, at least, seen any writers who are completely able to do this, with a few partial exceptions. One of them was a novel about a young girl who is thought to be dead, but is really in a coma. While in a comatose state, she starts to become an angel, and does all kinds of things, including influencing the terrorist who threw the bomb that supposedly killed her. Here, a present-tense narrative actually works quite well; the girl is a spirit floating about the city where she was bombed.

But then, a number of historical writers are jumping onto the "present tense" bandwagon. Some of them are trying to be more "literary" than "genre". Others just seem to want to "make history real" by using "screenplay" techniques. What these latter(and perhaps some of the former) writers forget, however, is that narratives from Beowulf onward, were really narrating a slice of the past. In other words, you don't really need this kind of "immediacy" to get people engaged with whatever your character is doing. As long as you, the author adequately describes what the character is doing, with reasonably appropriate motivation, the reader will probably be engaged, if they get past the first few pages(even the first fifty). "Immediacy" is nice, but generally unnecessary in most writing, besides which it can annoy some readers. I can't tell you how many times I've picked up an interesting-looking historical novel, only to put it down because it takes place in some past era, but is written in the present tense. To me, this just gets in the way of the storytelling, and intrudes on the character.

Obviously, the writers who do this, don't feel this way. But I think in the end, writing a book like a screenplay probably won't work as intended in the long run, except, perhaps, in some literary novels and books aimed at young people. Besides, too many writers just don't know what they're doing, but somehow manage to get published anyway. But that's another story, I suppse.
Anne G

Medieval England was civilized!

Checking around in some of my blog links, I found this fascinating item. It's from Nan Hawthorne's blog about Anglo-Saxon England. About the only thing I might quarrel with, is that the period in question is described as the "Dark Ages". People who study that period shun this characterization, and prefer "Early Middle Ages". The author is also a mystery writer, though I must confess I've neer read her books. OTOH, I think the quiz contained therein, may surprise anybody who wanders in and reads it.
Anne G

Getting even more medieval

Just to make up for my absence, enforced by my feeble computer, I'm promoting a link to another medieval site. This one is called The Crispin Guest Blog. Crispin Guest is the hero of a new series of medieval "noir" mysteries. Since his isn't the period I'm working with --- it's late 14th Century England --- I can't verify how accurately the period or the person is portrayed. But a "medieval noir" mystery certainly sounds, well, pretty interesting. And it's good advertising for the series. The author already has two blog entries up, and she just started the blog! Hey, maybe I'll steal that idea, and blog about Illg, Hardwin, et al. But only later on, when my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece/Epic is closer to completion! I've got lots of work to do on it yet.
Anne G

We're getting medieval!

I've been a little slow about blogging lateley. That's because my computer is getting kind of old and cranky, just like a really arthritic old man or woman. Oh well, I've had the thing long enough. Anyway, I've just added a link that's stuffed full of all kinds of medieval novel goodies. Some of them I've read, albeit longer ago than I care to think about. Some of them I merely intend to read. The link has lists of other periods besides medieval, but alas, nothing prehistoric. Well you can't have everything. This wonderful resource for all writing medieval, so to speak, is Historical Should you, gentle reader, decide to visit it, look on the left side at the dropdown menu, and click on "medieval". There you will find a wealth of books for every taste and temperament.

Happy reading,
Anne G