Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Monday, April 28, 2008

Dietarily well-balanced Neandertals

This just hot off the press! The National Geographic press, that is. Based on some collogen studies a few years back, a lot of workers started claiming that Neandertals ate nothing but meat. I won't go into the reasons, at this point, as to why this is just beyond silly, but when it came out, I thought that it was. Now, apparently, my suspicions have been confirmed. Because a tooth study of the famed Shanidar 3 fossil, seems to suggest that they ate, as the Natinal Geographic , a "variety" of grasses(e.g. grains). Of course, Shanidar is somewhat farther south than Vindija, where the other study was done, but even Vindija probably had a growing season of some length. And other, more indirect evidence has been provided elsewhere. So, one asks, why would Neandertals ignore edible grains when they were available? It wasn't as if food was going to be abundant, in all its forms, at all times. And they didn't survive for 200,000 years by ignoring available foodstuffs.
'Nuff said,
Anne G

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Book reviews, medieval and modern

Franklin, Ariana The Serpent's Tale, G.P. Putnam's sons, 2008, 371 pp
ISBN 978-0-399-15464-5

Hoag, Tami, Alibi Man, Bantam Books, 2007, 351 pp.
ISBN 978-0-553-80201-6

I haven't blogged for a while. And I haven't reviewed any books for a while, either. In both cases, this lack has a lot to do with the fact that I'm furiously writing the final book of my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece. Also, I don't usually dip into the mystery genre. But these two books are interesting, both of them for reasons related to that selfsame book.

I have already reviewed Mistress of the Art of Death, the first in what appears to be a series of mysteries by Ariana Franklin, the pen name of the historical fiction writer Diana Norman. This series is set in 12th century England, during the reign of Henry II, who also appears as a sort of "agent of change" in both books. It is shortly after the killing of Thomas Becket, the famous archbishop of Canterbury. In this one, Ms. Franklin has added Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was Henry's wife. She isn't portrayed quite as one might expect her to be, which, depending on one's point of view, is fortunate or unfortunate. Another character, famous in her time, appears iin the book, but she is very, very dead by the time she appears. This is one Rosamund Clifford, who was the "other woman" as far as Eleanor was concerned. Rosamund was later known as "Fair Rosamund", and Eleanor is supposed to have been so jealous of "Fair Rosamund", that she poisoned her. But again, Franklin doesn't portray "fair Rosamund" the way most of us would probably picture her. She is short, blonde, and needs to lose a lot of weight. On the other hand, Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar is portrayed exactly as you would expect the protagonist in a mystery to be portrayed --- as an "outsider". But on the other hand, this outsider is just a little different from any "outsiders" you might expect in a mystery. She is a woman in a "man's profession"(she is what would now be called a medical examiner), she was trained in this art in Sicily, which allowed women doctors then, she is an orphan, rescued and raised by a loving pair of tolerant Jews, with the help of a Muslim with a fine singing voice, and though she was born and raised in Sicily, she ended up in England, more or less at the command of Henry II, who always seems to need to have his problems solved by someone else. Also, she has fallen in love with a man who is now a bishop, and supposedly out of her reach. They have even had a child together. Their ongoing relationship, whatever that may turn out to be, is probably going to be the "glue" that holds this series together. It is also highly entertaining.

Without going much into plot details(I can say that it reflects a number of things that were going on at the time, plus a large dollop of Franklin's imagination), I think this is shaping up to be a highly entertaining series, and very readable. Franklin/Norman really knows her business, though there are some places that strike me as being somewhat anachronistic. People who are "purists" about the "medieval mindset", and know this period well, may be annoyed at times by these anachronistic touches. Overall, though, I feel that Franklin has done her job well, and the book is likely to be very satisfying to most mystery lovers.

Tami Hoag's Alibi Man is, like The Serpent's Tale, also the second in what is likely to be an ongoing series. It is entertaining and satisfying, but, being set in modern Florida --- the Palm Beach area --- and among some very, very rich, and often unpleasant, people, it is entertaining in a much "darker" and grittier way. Alibi Man, and its predecessor, Dark Horse, is also set in the horse show world. The reason for this is, that Hoag herself seems to have decided to compete as a dressage rider in that world. Which means she knows, or has learned a lot about horses. For the record, I have to confess I picked up this Hoag book because it was set in this world, and, as my own book features horses(and Siamese cats, among other things), and I know next to nothing about horses and their behavior. Which is a distinct disadvantage if you're going towrite about them. There are other parallels as well, though I think in some ways, Hoag is a better mystery writer than Franklin, at least at the moment. The kind of clues and "red herrings" that mystery fans expect when they read in this genre, are much more subtle in Hoag's books than in Franklin's. To be fair, though, Hoag has been writing mystery and crime novels longer than Franklin/Norman has, and The Serpent's Tale is a lot more subtle in this, than Mistress of the Art of Death was.

On the other hand, like Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, Elena Estes is an "outsider". And she, too, is an orphan, adopted by a wealthy lawyer and his wife as a kind of "to do" project. She has rejected the lifestyles of the rich and famous, however, and she was, for a while, a cop, but got into trouble when she was on an assignment and one of her partners accidentally got killed. Now, she hangs around horses, but ends up trying to find out why people get killed. And she, too, has an on-again, off-again love life, though she is far edgier than Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar. In the second book, Hoag reveals that her relationship with her parents is not a loving one.

Again, without going into plot details, there is still another set of parallels, and that is that in both book, some kind of sexual obsession is the pivot on which the plots end up turning. This is a fairly common motivation in mysteries, but one might expect such things in a contemporary setting, but not in a medieval one. Or at least not so much in a medieval one. But in their edgy way, Hoag's efforts at portraying the horse show world and the "filthy rich" types who generally inhabit it, are satisfying. One gets the sense that there is a certain subtle moralism here --- a kind of warning against envy of the lives of the rich and famous. Because people who are that rich, whether or not they are "famous" are often not very attractive personalities. And because they are so rich and are so used to having a great deal of power, some of the feel as though they can do anything they please. Hoag is at great pains to emphasize this aspect, in both her books, but especially in Alibi Man, which also has crude, but understandable members of the Russian mafia wandering in and out of the proceedings. It is an almost "Hogarthian" warning to the rest of us, about the cost of these lifestyles.

I enjoyed both of these books greatly, and have no trouble recommending them to others who might be interested. Unless a reader is of the type that reads iin only one genre, I can almost(given that readers' tastes vary widely), guarantee that they will be fast-paced, enjoyable reads. I look forward with pleasure to more from both these authors, and I don't often say this about any author.
Anne G

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Rovbert Sawyer on Neandertals

Robert Sawyer has something to say about Neandertal speech today. It's based on a recent study making a claim that Neandertals, essentially, had "inferior" speech capacities because they somehow couldn't pronounce a long "e" sound. He proudly asserts that he had a long interview with Philip Lieberman, a prominent paleoanthropologist/archaeologist, who has for years made similar claims.

This study came out in the news last week. About all I can say about it is, the people who did the study are just basically following Lieberman's lead here(and IMO he is really out of date on this, considering some of the genetic and other studies that have been coming in), and what's worse, I think they're clutching at straws to show just how supposedly "different" they were. I have a lot of respect for Robert Sawyer, and he writes good, solid sf. Unfortunately, although I really enjoyed the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, I find it absolutely incredible that, when he wanted to learn about Neandertals for his story, he basically incorporated the views of only one "side" in the Neandertal "controversies", and, in his first book, Hominids, basically dismissed anything that didn't agree with this "side". I don't like that. He may really think "that's the way they were", but instead of doing thorough research, he basically followed the most popular "side", and constructed a parallel universe in which Neandertals were the "dominant" speices. I understand, from a writer's point of view, why he might be tempted to do this, but my enjoyment of his work here was dimmed somewhat by this lack of even the pretense of any sort of neutrality. But I really think it's even worse that he agrees with these "straw-cllutchers" about Neandertal language capacities(or the lack thereof). Lacking a supposed ability to form a long "e" wouldn't preclude a really complex language. They would just lack certain sounds. And jeez. There are languages that lack sounds which English speakers take for granted. By the same token, English speakers can't make certain sounds that Russians would consider vowels! I've heard English speakers try, and while I never got very good at it, I did have a good ear at one time. Most English speakers don't. At least not for some of the Russian sounds I'm thinking of.

I should add, that while different languages often have differences in consonants, they may also have differences in "length" of vowels as well. English has an "ee" sound and an "e" sound, and it is this, I think, that the researchers were referring to. Some languages may not, though. Don't these researchers know this? But then, it's not just Neandertal language capacities that are contested, it's just about everything. And this, despite a lot of contrary archaeological evidence that suggests a good deal of competence and complexity. As a writer, I would think Sawyer would at least understand these things on an intuitive level, and also understand that the most "widely held" and "popular" theories about human origins(or anything else, for that matter), may be, if not wrong, at least a lot more complex than many people want to believe.

I don't want to keep going on and on about Neandertals, though they are a vital part of my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals. I am, after all, a writer, not a scientist. However, it pretty much just drives me wild, when people like Sawyer, who are intelligent enough to know better, reach for the most simiplistic explanations for rather complex sets of abilities, to "explain" something, even if it's a fictional something. So, I shoot off a blog piece here. I will probably be doing this for quite some time, given the 150-0ld nature of this particular scientific argument. Which is too bad, because I'd really rather do more blogging about my writing and my own creative growth --- and maybe squeeze a little something in about medieval life, as well.
Anne G

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Now we know Neandertals ate a lot of meat!

I hadn't meant to post something other than writing-related material, but --- Julien Riel-Salvatore has done it again. The study he comments on is about Neandertal diet, which included lots of meat. Many people claim Neandertals ate nothing but meat, but while Riel-Salvatore hints that this probably wasn't completely the case, for very good and sufficient reasons, this study does suggest that they ate an awful lot of it. The only quibble I would have with the study itself --- not Riel-Salvatore --- is that the study seems to imply that they ate a lot of horses and "bovids" --- wild cattle and such. But there are any number of sites, such as a place called Salzgitter-Lebenstedt, where Neandertals apparently successfully hunted reindeer/caribou(Rangifer tarandus). And apparently they hunted them in ways similar to those of many "modern" caribou hunters, e.g. either "drove" or "found" them at a river or other watery crossing where the reindeer/caribou would have to swim, and thus be vulnerable. Only the weapons are different. Neandertals(and early "moderns") didn't have access to rifles, bullets, snowmobiles, etc, let alone things like cell phones. But they did what they did, very wel..
Anne G

Monday, April 7, 2008

I've figured out how I'm going to end my trilogy!

I've figured out how I'm going to end my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece! I got the idea from a presently ongoing discussion on an e-mail list called Mediev-l. It's basically a scholarly medievalists' list, but anybody can join. Yay! No, I'm not going to give away my ending. But, I'll give a hint: it has something to do with weather.
Anne G

Some more (sort of) good advice to writers from Robert Sawyer

Robert Sawyer has again given writers some advice. Usually, I think his advice is reasonably good. This time around, I'm (sort of) not so sure. He basically is advising would-be writers to write a bunch of short stories before they submit. It looks to me as if he is basically drawing from the arc of his own career here. Like a lot of science fiction writers, he started out writing short stories. But not all writers of SF(or any other fiction) start out that way. Because not everybody can write short stories well. I might be able to, but I write "big". I always have. I tackle big, complex stories, and while I can pare down, I find it very hard to pare down to the miniature quality required of the average short story.

Mind you, I used to read a lot of SF short stories. I cut my teeth on science fiction this way, and I absorbed the work of some excellent authors. Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury come immediately to mind. But I also remember, even as a relatively young girl, reading Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination ---- which is a novel-length work, though very strange in some parts. It's science fiction, after all.

But following his advice, even to get the interest of an agent, probably wouldn't work for me. As I said, I write too "big". Whenever I've wanted to write, it's always been conceived as novel length. I agree with Sawyer that it's much harder, if you're unknown, to interest an agent this way, or a publisher, but there are a lot of things in the publishing world that seem to be changing, some for the benefit of writers, some not. And it would probably not work for the writers I know or am in contact with, most of whom are not yet published, but have good, imaginative works that simply need some polishing.

I think Sawyer is still mentally living in an age when you were pretty much required to "come up" the way he suggests. He still thinks this is the path to getting published. Perhaps he's right. And if you can conceive of "miniature" story arcs, and have the discipline to polish your craft this way, there's nothing wrong with writing short story-sized SF. There are markets for it, and it will get your name in print. But not everybody conceives their story arcs this way, not everybody is attracted to small, spare incidents. And it definitely would not work for, say, a romance writer! Probably not for someone writing mysteries, either. There was a time when this career ladder worked for at least some writers, but you practically have to go back to the days of Fitzgerald and Hemingway to get to that time. Nowadays, yes, there's a lot of work trying to get yourself published, and even then, that won't guarantee success. I read somewhere, that J.K. Rowling got rejected some 25 times before she sold her first Harry Potter book, and after that it got really good "buzz". She was lucky. And she is a very good writer. But she didn't have Robert Sawyer to tell her what she "should" be doing. If she had, Harry Potter probably would not have become the phenomenon it did.
Anne G

Saturday, April 5, 2008

This and that

Well, folks, it isn't April Fool's Day any more. But it is April, and the weather has more or less become springlike around my neck of the woods. I don't really have much to say, except that, from time to time, I find a blog or a website that doesn't have anything to do with writing, prehistoric humans, or anything related to medieval times. And the blog is so entertaining, or so relevant to something that is going on in the world today, that I have to add it. So, from time to time, the Gentle Reader will find something new that doesn't seem to relate to anything I'm writing about. The latest in this particular category is a blog called "Playing Chess With Pigeons, which is basically about antievolutionists. Some of you may not "believe" in evolution, and that may be your choice. However, the antievolutionists I'm talking about want to make everybody stop believing in evolution. And that is dangerous. And Playing Chess With Pigeons has something to say about that. I'm not asking anybody to accept what they have to say, or believe it(any more than I'm asking anybody to accept or believe anything I have to say. I'm just giving you out there the opportunity to ponder possibilities. So whenever I find something that allows you to do so, I"m going to link to it.
Anne G