Reading list [finale]

Staying on the boat for several days meant some of us exhausted the few books we had brought and started looking for others’ discarded books. My daughter took David Gemmel’s John Shannow (in French) from my son, my son started The lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch,  as soon I finished it and he completed Abercrombie’s Best served cold, and no one touched my George Martin’s A Game of Thrones as Alex had already brought a copy! Anyway, several of us were eager for Sylvia to complete her Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier, whose French translation I tried to impose on my daughter before we left. Captain Mark got the higher hand and managed to finish it on the last morning on the boat, then my wife and I shared it during the final days of our summer vacation…

This book is very fast to read, but very very enjoyable and not only as a summer book. It describes the beginning of fossil hunting at Lyme Regis on the Southern Coast of England and the consequences on science, (pre-)Victorian society [the story starts in 1810], religion, and the life of two remarkable women. (The title is thus ambiguous, describing both the remarkable specimens of extinct reptiles found there and the two women, given the lower status (pre-)Victorians accorded to women [despite being ruled by one of the greatest English monarchs!], as illustrated by the book. Some of the situations showing second-rate intelligences getting the better of those women simply for being male are indeed remarkable!) The book should appeal to scientific minds, as it describes how “discoverers”—Mary Anning who made the major fossil discoveries on Lyme Regis beach and managed to see the structure in them—get the better of theoreticians—like Buckland from Oxford and Cuvier from le Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. Mary Anning and her friend Elizabeth Philpot drew inference from their observations, on their own, as for instance about coprolites (the name was coined by Buckland). Scientists like Cuvier and more clearly Buckland were hindered by the very classifications they had designed and by the religious constraints of a literal reading of the Bible. (This is oversimplifying as Cuvier was arguing from the 1790’s, i.e. before Mary Anning’s discovery, that fossils were the results of past extinctions, leading to a theory he called catastrophism.) The book is accompanied by a website that gives entries into those topics. My only reservation is that the dialogues often appear too modern, but this does not get annoying, quite the opposite. (The book got positive reviews from all passengers on the boat!) I had read a few years ago the Girl with the pearl earing and found the same pleasure in reading about the novelisation of historical events and this Dutch master of light…

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