This year (2021)

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Peter Moore:
    The Weather Experiment
Olga Tokarzkuk:
    Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Anthony Trollope:
    Autobiography

The Weather Experiment, by Peter Moore

     Before the 19th century it seems that nobody had any real idea about the weather. Sometimes it was a sunny day and at other times it was stormy. Of course it was clear that the seasons changed due to the tilt of the earth traveling around the sun. But, according to the book, the day to day changes in the weather were either unknown or else attributed to the influence of the divine. At least people did have barometers in the 18th century, and they knew that high pressure gives good weather and low pressure is bad.
    Then somebody had the idea of finding out what the weather was like on a particular day, and time of day, at different places when a great storm had occurred. And it was found that the storm had winds in a large, circular system. But then, of course, localized thunderstorms or squalls at sea are not circular storms. And somebody else had the idea that water vapor tends to rise; it is less dense than dry air. This produces some sort of circulation. Thus we have two different phenomena, discovered by two different people, who subsequently engaged in a decades long quarrel in various scholarly forums about which of the two things is most important. Only later was it recognized how the one thing causes the other in conjunction with the Coriolis force resulting from the earth's rotation, and that also high pressure zones rotate in the opposite direction to stormy low pressure ones.
    The ability to quickly gather information about local weather at widely spaced sites came about through the invention of the telegraph. Peter Moore devotes many pages to describing this process. As an Englishman, he confines himself almost exclusively to a few of the stories of his own countrymen, and occasionally a few developments in the United States. But if he had taken the trouble to examine the appropriate Wikipedia article he would have been able to give a much more interesting and comprehensive account of the whole business. But most of the book is devoted to describing the life and times of Robert FitzRoy, who was the captain of the Beagle on the famous voyage around the world with Charles Darwin in the years from 1831 to 1836.
    So what was Robert FitzRoy's weather experiment?
    After a distinguished life in the British Navy, navigating and mapping dangerous passages, FitzRoy became known as a practical expert in the observation of weather. It was his idea to publish in the daily newspapers each day a weather map and forecast of the weather for the next day. (The word "forecast" in this connection was also his invention, in order to confound those people who said that his predictions were not based on "exact science", but rather only on the intuitions he had gathered from his naval experiences.) But after a few years, with many erroneous forecasts, the "serious" scientists of the day gained the upper hand, saying that FitzRoy's forecasts was mere hocus-pocus, not based on scientific theory, and they were banned from the newspapers. Thus FitzRoy fell into a depression, ending his life by slitting his own throat. Perhaps his state of mind was made worse by the fact that he was obsessed with religion, believing everything in the Bible to be literally true. For example, during the voyage of the Beagle he told Darwin that the reason dinosaurs are now extinct is that they were too big to fit through the door of Noah's Ark. Since FitzRoy also had a very bad temper, Darwin refrained from pursuing the argument further.
    Then the book goes on to describe the ballooning adventures of James Glaisher, with his meteorological experiments. One day, losing control of the gas release valve, the balloon soared up to perhaps 35,000 feet, yet Glaisher and his pilot, Henry Coxwell, survived unharmed.
    And finally - inevitably - a few words are devoted to the political correctness of "climate change".

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarzkuk

     This is a story about the evils of killing animals, astrology, vegetarianism, living alone all year round on a Polish plateau in a holiday house surrounded by hunters, people being murdered. Much is made of the English poet, William Blake. The protagonist is a Polish woman who hates her own name, and so she thinks of the people in her life in terms of imagined names: "Big Foot", "Oddball", "Dizzy", "Good News". She tells us that she used to be an engineer, having constructed bridges in Iraq. (What was she doing there?) Now she teaches English on Wednesdays to a class of grade school children. She likes them, but finds that children become repulsive when they become older.
    At the end we finally understand what she means when she goes on and on about her "little girls", and about the mysterious and bizarre ways in which the hunters are murdered. It is a strange book; is it a protest about modern Poland, or about modern life in general?

Autobiography, by Anthony Trollope

     For an admirer of Anthony Trollope this book comes as somewhat of a shock. The manuscript was discovered by his son after his father had died, and in it, Trollope wrote that the son was free to publish it if he thought it worthwhile, but if so then without any changes or other editorial additions.
    To begin with, Trollope tells us that his childhood was extremely difficult, owing to the fact that his father, who was a lawyer, decided to become a farmer, thus ruining himself and his family. The farm was next to the snobbish Harrow school, and young Anthony was sent there and admitted on the basis of charity, trudging every day through the dust and mud with his worn out clothes, to be laughed at, beaten, made a fool of by all the other boys and the teachers. Things improved when his mother, at the age of 50, after an unsuccessful stay in America, wrote a book which sold well. And he tells us that his mother then kept on writing more books in the 26 years until she was 76, at which time she had written and had published 114 volumes! Thus the family was - more or less - saved.
    Anthony Trollope himself was not quite able to equal this prodigious output, since he only wrote 47 novels, plus various travel books, historical writings, and short stories. Still, he tells us how he was able to write so much despite the fact that he was working full-time for the British Post Office. (But we are also told that the office hours for common clerks back then in the 1850s were from 10 in the morning till 4 in the afternoon, with a generous lunch hour, leaving lots of time for other amusements.) His system was to get up at 5:30 every morning and write for three hours non-stop, after which he had breakfast. During that time he had a pocket watch on his writing table and raced against the clock, writing at a steady rate of 250 words each 15 minutes. That is, 16 and 2/3 words per minute. With no revisions. Thus we see that the words flowed out of him like sausages being extruded from a sausage machine.
    He then tells us in great detail how much money he earned with each book, giving a table showing the exact earnings for each book, and a grand life total of £68,939 17s 5d. Using the inflation calculator of the Bank of England, we see that this is equated to about £8,250,000 in our modern, devalued money. (Less than people like Steven King or J.K. Rowling get, but maybe comparable to Ian McEwan.)
    Despite all this, his books are wonderful to read. Admittedly, after these facts became known to the world, the critics of Victorian England revised their opinion of the author. How can we take seriously words produced at the continuous rate of 16 and 2/3 per minute - that is to say one word every 3.6 seconds? And then to tell us in exact detail how much money it all produced. Is this the behavior of a gentleman? Only later, in the 20th century, did Trollope's reputation again increase, and today he is much admired.
    Perhaps we can compare him to Mozart who also wrote everything in one quick, smooth session with no revisions. Many people find the music of Mozart to be of divine inspiration. In contrast we have the modern composer of "classical" music who spends years trying to write a single piece of music, crossing everything out, starting again and again, philosophizing, explaining, suffering. The product in the end is a horrible, disjointed, disharmonious chaos which concertgoers must endure, or else they quickly leave before the performance begins. Or again... Think of some of the modern novels which have won the Booker Prize - and which are practically unreadable.
    Finally I must remark on one phrase which struck me when reading the book. Trollope and his wife are in the process of selling their house near London and setting off on an extended visit to Australia and New Zealand with the purpose of visiting their younger son who has a sheep station in Australia. He writes "I and my wife" - and so on.
    What an awkward phrase! Well, OK, he must have written it in about 12 seconds and then gone on steadily with the rest of the sentence without further thought. We are told - for example in his entry in the Wikipedia - that he had a loving, happy marriage. Still, in this book he comes across as being rather more egotistical than that which we would usually expect in an autobiography. At least we can hope that if he had taken the trouble to revise the manuscript then he would have crossed out this phrase and substituted the more usual "my wife and I".