Last Update 12/30/10

Forry: The Life of Forrest J. Ackerman by Deborah Painter, McFarland, 2010, $45, ISBN 978-0-7864-4884-5

I confess that I wasn't particularly interested in the subject of this biography, but it was a fairly short book and when I first glanced through I found enough noteworthy to go back and skim through it in its entirety.  Ackerman founded Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, collected genre related movie items and books, and was at various times an agent, an actor, and an icon.  The author contends that her subject was frequently misunderstood because he was socially awkward rather than arrogant or indifferent. There are quite a few black and white photographs, most of them interesting although a few bear little if any relationship to Ackerman, like a shot of two actresses from a movie in which he had a minor part, but does not appear in the photo, and a picture of his favorite singer!  The author takes a very defensive attitude toward criticisms of Forry, understandable since she was a friend, so don't expect a neutral treatment.  12/30/10

The Spanish Inquisition by Jean Plaidy, Barnes & Noble, 1961

This is a combined edition of Plaidy’s three volume history of the Inquisition.  Unlike the last couple of books I’ve read on the subject, Plaidy is no apologist for the Church.  She makes it quite clear that in many cases Church officials were interested in confiscating the wealth of those who were accused, which explains why very few of the poor class were affected.  Some apologists have pointed out that the executions were performed by the lay authorities rather than the clergy, but that was a maneuver by the latter to avoid guilt for the deaths of those they tortured.  If any died during the torture itself, the priest responsible was immediately absolved as a matter of course.  Thorough and well written, although long winded at times. I confess to having skipped through several redundant or peripheral sections. 12/5/10

What If? 2 edited by Robert Cowley, Putnam, 2001

Following the success of the first volume of speculative essays by historians, this follow up includes writers like Caleb Carr and Cecilia Holland to suggest what might have happened if various historical events had unfolded differently.  The decision points include Marc Antony’s success against the Parthians, a different outcome to the Battle of Hastings, the colonization of North America by the Chinese, a different military policy embraced by Eisenhower during World War II, and so forth.  Some are fascinating, some less so.  There are bits that read almost like fiction though other essays are purely cerebral.  The variety of possibilities suggested leads me to wonder why such a large part of our alternate history fiction centers on the Civil War and World War II, but that’s probably a consequence of American self indulgence. 12/1/10

Bismarck and the German Empire by Erich Eyck, Allen & Unwin, 1950  

I knew of course that Otto von Bismarck was a rigid, shrewd, and militaristic leader who helped shape the German nation – empire at the time – under the leadership of Prussia, but until I read this detailed account of his political career, I had not realized how devious and frankly shameless he was.  Bismarck was variously a liberal and a reactionary, an isolationist and a colonialist, depending entirely on what he interpreted to be the path that would best suit his own desire for power.  He made international treaties that contradicted each other because he didn’t believe that there was any reason why he should abide by them, he destroyed his enemies by fair means or foul, he lied, cheated, entrapped, corrupted, stole, and killed in pursuit of his personal quest to dominate an emerging German nation.  Humanitarian concerns did not seem to occur to him at all and I’d probably label him amoral instead of immoral, but he was clearly a psychopathic personality who unfortunately was able to manipulate circumstances.  He was almost personally responsible for three unnecessary wars and he crippled the constitutional movement in Germany, which contributed significantly to the circumstances of the two world wars.  A fascinating life. 11/24/10

The Mediterranean by Fernand Braudel, Harper Collins, 1992, from the original French version of 1966

This history book concerns itself with the world of the Mediterranean during the years 1550-1600, the reign of Philip II of Spain.  Although full of interesting information, it is presented almost as an encyclopedia rather than in any narrative form, which deprives it of any internal momentum.  As a consequence I dipped into this from time to time over a period of a month or so without ever feeling any compulsion to read to the end.  I just eventually reached it.  The most interesting parts for me were those which described the effects that geography – mountains vs plains for example – have on the people who live there, their customs, interactions with other regions and so forth.  The sections on trade and government structure were also engaging, although other parts were of less interest.  This is actually a radically condensed version of a much larger work, even though it’s well over 600 pages long.  Profusely illustrated as well. 11/18/10

Union 1812 by A.J. Langguth, Simon & Schuster, 2006 

The War of 1812 was essentially a defeat for Americans, who achieved none of their stated war goals and had their capital burned, but its positive outcome may be that it cemented the still divergent colonies and new states into a single nation.  Langguth chronicles the period from the end of the Revolutionary War thru that conflict in this nicely written historical survey.  He examines all of the political infighting – just as fierce as what we see today – and gives us unvarnished looks at several historical figures.  Washington, for example, was not universally loved as President, nor was he a Christian, and he resisted efforts to establish a state religion.  The account of Jefferson implies that he fathered children with one of his slaves, but I’ve read elsewhere that Jefferson’s nephews are now known to have been responsible. Abigail Adams comes across as an ardent supporter of the oppressive Alien and Sedition Acts.  I was surprised to discover that Citizen Genet, the French Directory’s ambassador to America, was the first person to claim political sanctuary in this country. I had been taught in high school that the war was fought primarily because the British were impressive American seamen, but on the other hand, Americans were selling instant citizenship to British deserters, and in any case only two men – both British – had been taken from American ships during the year preceding the war. Which is not to say that there weren’t high handed provocations by the British, but the issue was not as clear cut as it might seem. On the other hand, it’s amazing that the country survived given the ineptness of its first few presidents and other political figures, to say nothing of the military.  The army’s activities during the War of 1812 were embarrassing, although the navy comported itself quite well, particularly given the overwhelming odds against it. 11/11/10

Tournament of Shadows by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, Counterpoint, 1999  

The Great Game was the contest for the control of Central Asia – Pakistan, Tibet, etc. – conducted primarily by the British and Russians, although other outside powers including France, China, and in the later days the United States all participated.  This longish book examines various aspects of that contest, in large part describing various exploratory and mapping missions, the frustrating attempts to penetrate Tibet which had closed its borders to outsiders, and the personalities of the various individuals involved.  There are some interesting side stories including visits by Nazis, a Swedish explorer with a whale sized ego, and the infiltration by pundits, Indians who disguised themselves in order to pass the border guards where they secretly drew maps.  There were a few parts I found rather slow but for the most part this was a consistently engrossing book, and the implication is clearly that the game has not ended. 10/30/10

This Baffling World by John Godwin, Hart, 1968 

This collection of articles about oddments of the world is not badly written, but the author is too willing to accept the plausibility of some of the accounts and a bit inclined toward conspiracy theories.  The subjects he examines include the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman, UFOs, lost pirate treasures, satanic apparitions, the man in the iron mask, and strange powers like walking on fire and so forth.  The book is profusely illustrated, and given the prosaic nature by now of most of the subjects covered, the photographs are perhaps the most interesting part of the book to modern readers.  There are, however, much more complete, reasoned, and entertaining accounts available in any good bookstore. 10/26/10

Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi by William J. Petersen, State Historical Society of Idaho, 1969   

This is a large, comprehensive discussion of the history of navigation on the Mississippi River, which opens with a brief history of the exploration of that area and the development of the steamboat’s potential by Robert Fulton and others.  The author falls for the myth that the Fulton’s vessel was called the Clermont – it was not – but otherwise the early sections are concise and accurate.  The book examines various aspects of riverboat travel, the economics, social effects, historical events and particularly voyages or ships of significance, the role of the riverboat in war, and so forth.  Some of the chapters are quite interesting, others are pretty dry.  There are some interesting photographs of old paperwork, riverboats, and reproductions of contemporary art, also interesting.  Not really a casual reading subject but of interest to those of us interested in the history of the riverboat. 10/18/10

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen, Simon & Schuster, 1995  

Anyone who has gone through high school history knows how boring the textbooks are.  This book is a lengthy indictment of just how bland they are, leaving out important facts to avoid offending anyone.  Some of his points strike me as trivial, but most are more consequential, like the perpetuation of the myth that Columbus had to convince people that the Earth was flat, or that he faced a mutiny by his crew, or that Woodrow Wilson wasn’t a white supremacist who personally vetoed the racial equality clause in the charter of the League of Nations.   Much of what the author reveals I’d picked up elsewhere – e.g. John Brown was neither crazy nor a religious fanatic, the Pilgrims weren’t called that until generations later, that the colonization of America was aided by European diseases which wiped out at least 90% of the population of North America, and Columbus was not a nice man.  On the other hand, I hadn’t realized that there were many black major league baseball players before Jackie Robinson, until racism drove them out of the game, that Warren Harding was inducted into the KKK at a White House ceremony, or the overt and covert efforts by the Kennedy administration to undermine the Civil Rights Movement.  There’s one probably unavoidable strategic problem with the book.  Since it is a response to and critique of history books which glorify American history and cast everything in a good light, most of the omissions he cites are things we should be ashamed of and as a consequence the tone of the book seems unrelentingly negative at times. He also has a habit of attributing motives that he could not possibly know objectively that I found irritating.  Even so, given the current shenanigans by the idiots on the Texas textbook committee, this book is particularly relevant, but naturally nothing will be done about it.  And people wonder why we’re falling behind the rest of the world in science and scholarship in general. 10/14/10

An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians by Edward William Lane, Dover, 1973, facsimile reprint of the 1860 edition 

The author lived in Egypt for twenty five years and wrote extensively about the land and peoples among whom he found himself.  This is his most important book, a lengthy examination of the culture, dress, religion, government, and so forth of Egypt from 1820-1860, while it was still a part of the Ottoman Empire.  Each subject area is discussed in considerable detail and the material is well organized and accompanied by very nicely done drawings of the architecture, clothing, and other artifacts of the time.  In essence this is almost a travel book although there are elements of history and even occasional bits of speculation.  An excellent way to get the feel for how Egyptians – and probably most Arabs – lived during this historical period. 10/7/10

The Mummy by E.A. Wallis Budge, Collier, 1972 

This is a reprint of a book the author wrote for the Egyptian section of a British museum and it is more of a reference book than a narrative – and the title has little to do with the contents although there is a section about how mummies were prepared.  The two most interesting sections for me were the history of the various dynasties – the most complete and detailed I’ve ever seen – and the catalog of Egyptian gods, likewise the most comprehensive I’ve ever read.  Least interesting was the long selection of drawings of the cartouches from various tombs.  There are also chapters on funeral rites, the Rosetta stone, and other elements.  Not really the kind of book you read from cover to cover. 9/27/10

Floods, Famines, and Emperors by Brian Fagan, Basic, 1999  

This is an examination of the effects of El Nino and other weather disturbances globally, advancing the view that weather events are not as isolated as we may think, and that they often determine the fates of entire civilizations.  The first third of the book deals with the study of El Nino in particular, the middle third with droughts and other extreme weather in ancient societies, and the last third on more modern ones including the contemporary world.  There are lots of interesting bits scattered all through this, but it covers an awful lot of ground in a comparatively small time and it felt a bit unfocused a lot of the time.  I was also less interested in the mechanics of how El Nino works than in its effects, so those parts did not hold my attention as well.  I found the sections dealing with South America – I didn’t know that was where potatoes originated – particularly interesting. 9/25/10

The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton, Vintage, 1985  

This is a collection of essays about French cultural history, i.e., it deals with the mass of people and how they lived rather than the handful of famous names we’re familiar with.  The essays examine various aspects of life from an unusual perspective – the notes of a police officer, the account of a literal massacre of cats by printers’ apprentices, and most interesting of all for me a comparison of common fairy and folk tales from one country to the next, and commentary on their background.  This particular essays points out that Erich Fromm – who justly castigated Konrad Lorenz for not checking source material – is guilty of the same crime himself, analyzing folk tales based on modern versions rather than the originals.  Red Riding Hood, for example, was not saved from the wolf by a kind woodsman, and in fact she was debauched by him before she was eaten.  The author makes an interesting point.  If we don’t get the point of a joke or story from another culture, that’s an important observation because it provides an opportunity to find out just what was different at the time.  Very informative and completely accessible despite sometimes abstruse subject matter. 9/20/10

Not So! by Paul F. Boller Jr., Oxford, 1995 

This is another collection of rebuttals of “popular myths” of American history but I was a bit disappointed in this one, which largely refutes conspiracy theories rather than simply misinformed stories. It opens with a piece showing that Columbus did not have to convince the authorities the world was flat – most educated people including the church hierarchy already knew that.  The interesting addition here was that the false story was originated by Washington Irving.  The rest of the articles, however, are either of vague trivia – I don’t know anyone who believed Millard Fillmore installed the first bathtub in the White House – or outright crackpot ideas, like Joseph McCarthy finding communist spies in the state department and army.  Some interesting bits are sprinkled throughout.  I hadn’t realized that Woodrow Wilson was the first President to refer to the country as a democracy – although I knew the Constitution calls us neither a democracy nor a republic.  Amusing, but light, and not really what the blurbs advertise it to be. 9/18/10

Parting the Desert by Zachary Karabell, Knopf, 2003 

Although I knew that Lesseps, who was in charge of the Suez Canal project, was French and that the canal later contributed heavily to the collapse of the Egyptian economy and the occupation by the British, that was pretty much all I knew about the canal. This entertainingly written account follows the entire story, with Lesseps spending more time trying to maneuver among the governments of England, France, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire than in actually working on the canal proper, a project which took fifteen years to complete and which was, of course, over budget as well as overdue.  Although my sympathies were initially with Lesseps, his later attempts to take unfair advantage of the Egyptians and flout their needs and laws tempered my admiration.  I had not realized that Napoleon III was such a strong factor in the issue, nor did I realize how thoroughly opposed Lord Palmerston of England was throughout the project.  And I had no idea that Lesseps later formed another company to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama and that he was found guilty of defrauding his investors in this later enterprise. 9/14/10

The Anatomy of Utopia by Karoly Pinter, McFarland, 2010, $38, ISBN 978-0-7864-4036-8  

The premise of this examination of Utopian literature is that we should pay less attention to the works in question – by Thomas More, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and others – as political statements or social commentaries than as simple works of literature.  I’m all for that, although I think in most cases it’s difficult to separate the two.  A tendency in Utopian literature is to assume that once a “perfect” society is established, there will be no serious discontent – e.g. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Erewhon, Islandia, and others.  This means that the characters necessarily don’t act entirely human, which tends to degrade the book’s value as a literary exercise.  The author also discusses dystopias, but he includes such a broad range of books – everything from Ballard’s The Drowning World to A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller – that it seems much less focused than the rest of the book.  Some interesting points are scattered throughout and the book will reward readers interested in the subject matter. 9/9/10

Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann, Knopf, 1981 

The blurbs call this the most exhaustive biography of Wilde ever written, and I believe it.  There was in fact almost too much detail and at times I thought the author would never get past the college days. I ended up reading fifty pages a day over nearly two weeks rather than tackle it as one continuous project. Wilde was a fascinating and controversial character. Although reviled toward the end of his life and rarely appreciated even before that, he is undoubtedly the most important author of his brief era, with plays like The Importance of Being Earnest and of course The Picture of Dorian Gray, which has become an iconic story known even to people who have never read the novel.  Filled with anecdotes, analysis, portraits of his acquaintances and relatives like his parents, John Ruskin, Florence Balcombe – his fiancé until she left him for Bram Stoker – and many others.  Wilde is one of the most colorful, complex, and interesting literary figures in history and this reflects a good deal of his mystique and uniqueness. 9/8/10

To Conquer a Peace by John Edward Weems, Doubleday, 1974 

This account describes the war with Mexico in the 1840s, after which half of that country including California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming, were ceded to the United States, which also acquired the formerly independent nation of Texas.  James Polk was President at the time, and he also secured what is now Oregon and Washington State from the British, making him one of the most activist, and probably the most underestimated, of all American presidents.  Not surprisingly there was widespread opposition to what was perceived as a war of aggression, a view shared by the author, although even by his own account it is not that simple.  The war started when Mexico declared war after Texas voted to join the United States, and when a small expeditionary force sent to secure the border with Mexico was attacked by the Mexican army.  Since Texas had been independent for ten years and was recognized by England and France, the Mexican government clearly reacted precipitately.  Polk had even offered to pay them compensation, which was not legally or morally required, and was not interested in a war with Mexico because he was concerned about a more serious war with England over the Oregon territory.  It also should be pointed out that the Mexican army was more than five times the size of the entire American army and navy combined, although poorly trained and equipped.  Whatever the cause, it became an aggressive war later because Polk decided this was a good time to seize California and whatever parts of northern Mexico might be captured.  In fact there was sentiment in Congress, and in some parts of the Mexican legislature, for the complete absorption of Mexico into the US.  Obviously that didn’t happen.  Weems details all the events quite well and supplements with personal accounts of some of the soldiers who participated, including Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee.  Very readable. 9/4/10

The Book of Bad Things by Count Droffig, Kingfisher, 2010, $19.99, ISBNa978-0-7534-6464-9  

This is a picture book for kids, and it’s filled with pop-ups, puzzles, secret codes, and other things to hold their interest.  The theme is scary things, phobias and such, and the real author is Clive Gifford (Droffig spelled backward). Wrapped around the fun are numerous actually interesting facts about lost cities and such.  The pictures are a combination of photography and artwork.  It’s hardbound, with padded covers, and should be a hit with its target audience.  Even us hardened adult readers can recapture a bit of childhood wonder wandering through its various sections. 8/29/10

Deep Ocean Journeys by Cindy Lee Van Dover, Addison Wesley, 1996 

I picked this up when I was trawling for books about life at the bottom of the sea, but it turns out this one is actually the memoirs of the first woman to become pilot of Alvin, the famous deep sea exploration vessel. Although there are passing references to discoveries on the ocean’s floor, it is more about her struggles to overcome a very male dominant environment and other problems as she pursued her career.  As a memoir, it is interesting at times though sometimes rather superficial; she suggests rather than describes much of the difficulty she had to deal with.  It was still a fairly pleasant read, if not what I was actually looking for. 8/27/10

The War of the Two Emperors by Curtis Cate, Random House, 1985 

I knew practically nothing about the war of 1812 between Napoleon and the Russian Empire under Alexander, except that the French were defeated by the inclement weather in Russia. This exhaustive and detailed history contends that while weather was a serious factor, and while the Russian army was for the most part badly led as well as equipped and missed numerous opportunities to win battles, the fault for the loss lies on Napoleon almost exclusively.  He made so many errors, many of them obvious ones, that it is hard to imagine circumstances under which he could win.  He appointed generals who were incompetent and sometimes insubordinate, he failed to properly prepare and plan the support system, he ignored the political situation by not announcing the re-establishment of the Polish kingdom, freeing the serfs, and fomenting rebellion in the Ukraine, he made bad battlefield decisions, he split his forces, he failed to maintain discipline, and he abandoned his army in the field when they began to retreat.  Apparently most of the major players in the battle, on both sides, wrote their memoirs and the author makes a great effort to separate fact from fiction.  A very entertaining analysis and description of one of the most ill conceived campaigns in history. 8/19/10

Freedom from Fear by David M Kennedy, Oxford, 1999 

This is a very long history of America from 1929 to 1945, depression through World War II, topping 800 pages and I only read it as quickly as I did because I had hay fever so bad that I didn’t do much of anything else.  It’s an exhaustive but very readable history of that period, with a good summary of the  major campaigns of the war and an analysis of the economics as well as the politics of the New Deal that was even comprehensible to me, and I hate economics.  FDR does not come across as a great guy, but neither was he a villain, and many of the New Deal policies were actually initiated by Herbert Hoover.  What some conservatives fail to realize is that there was a definite threat of a widescale revolution by the working class and the New Deal was passed as an acceptable compromise.  We are also told that much of the New Deal was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, hence FDR’s threat to pack the court, but in fact the Court at the time was dominated by a philosophy that property rights were more important than constitutional guarantees on other matters.  For example, minimum wage laws were declared unconstitutional because they abrograted states rights, but state minimum wage laws were also thrown out because government did not, in the court’s opinion, have the right to compel employers to dispose of their money in ways that they did not want to.  The court packing challenge actually caused the court to change direction and FDR eventually was able to replace the diehard members.  A very fine book much of which was about a period of history that I knew only vaguely. 8/11/10

Lies, Legends, & Cherished Myths of American History by Richard Shenkman, Harper Collins, 1988 

Another book by Shenkman pointing out errors in our recollection of history.  Some are clearly factual errors, others questions of misinterpretation or emphasis.  He discusses misconceptions about slavery, education, various wars, Presidential actions, historical sites, the frontier, misquotations, immigration, sex, and family life.  I already knew a lot of this, but I was surprised to discover that Lincoln did not, after all, write the Gettysburg Address on an envelope – it had actually gone through several drafts, and that JFK did not write Profiles in Courage – Ted Sorenson was the real author.  Nor did the Liberty Bell get sounded to announce independence; that story was made up years later.  The log cabin where Lincoln was “born” is a complete fake. On the other hand Johnny Appleseed, Uncle Sam, John Henry, and Casey Jones were all real people.  Entertaining and informative. 8/8/10

The First World War by Martin Gilbert, Holt, 1994  

Although I think that all wars are basically stupid, World War I has to rank very near the top of the list.  I have read several histories of  that periodand I still don’t understand how all of the politicians and military leaders – on both sides – could have been so relentlessly stupid.  (I make an exception for Winston Churchill, who seems to have had a much more realistic attitude, but he was out of power for much of the period in question.)  Hindsight is great, of course, but even at the time there were many people who kept saying that the situation was ridiculous, and the excuse that events once set in motion could not be recalled is just an excuse for inaction.  This is a very comprehensive examination of that era, sprinkled with anecdotes, that shows dramatically how the tides of war switched from one side to the other.  There is little attempt to portray the personalities involved except peripherally - and virtually no one ends up looking good, and we learn a good deal more about what they did than why they did it, or said they did it.  There is an excellent selection of very readable maps and a pretty good collection of photographs as well. You’ll find this very informative, but also very depressing.  7/31/10

I Love Paul Revere Whether He Rode or Not by Richard Shenkman, Harper Collins, 1991  

Over the years I’ve unlearned a lot of things I was told in school.  I know that the American Revolution was not the revolt against tyranny that it was betrayed, that its origins were more economic than philosophical, and many of the framers of the Constitution were lukewarm Christians, if they were Christian at all.  I know that Washington did not cut down the cherry tree, that Paul Revere probably didn’t complete his ride, that the colonies declared independence on July 2, not July 4, and so forth.  But I still stumble across things that I thought were true but which are not.  This book contains several of those.  For example, the story of Betsy Ross is a complete fabrication.  Washington did not carry the flag across the Delaware; in fact, the only battles fought under the American flag were at sea.  Francis Scott Key thought the British deserved to win the War of 1812 when he wrote the Star Spangled Banner and the Pilgrims did not wear those silly black clothes and hats that we drew them in during grade school. Even the Boy Scouts lied to us.  There was no significance to the selection of red, white, and blue; they do not represent courage, purity, and boldness.  The author examines our ideas about alcohol, politics, heroic figures, and other subjects.  Much of it becomes matters of interpretation rather than fact, and his understanding of the facts in World War I in particular is less than impressive, but for the most part he provides a clever and entertaining alternate viewpoint.  And I hadn’t known that Eli Whitney did NOT invent the cotton gin; one of his slaves did. 7/22/10

Flight Volume Seven edited by Kazu Kibuishi, Villard, 2010, $27, ISBN 978-0-345-51737-1 

This is the latest in a series of anthologies of short graphic stories by various authors and artists. I’m not familiar enough with this genre to know which of the eighteen listed in the contents are significant, but judging by the contents, they are all capable of noteworthy work. The artistic styles and subject matter vary greatly, the former from very simple, brightly colored panels through comic book styles to others that verge on the realistic.  The book is in fact color throughout, hence the stiff cover price.  It’s hard to pick the best but I’d go with “The Courier” by the editor and “Fairy Market” by Katie and Steven Shanahan.  But the artwork by Michael Gagne is also outstanding. 7/18/10

The True Story of How America Got Its Name by Rodney Broome, MJF, 2001

Although I grew up being told that America was named after Americus Vespucci, there is apparently contradictory historical evidence - cited in this slim little book - suggesting that John Cabot named various parts of North America after his friends, including Richard Amerike, and that a copy of the subsequent map was sent to Columbus before his return voyages to the New World.  It appears unlikely that the truth will ever be known decisively, but it may be that America was named because of a mapmaker's mistake.  Another and possibly more interesting observation is that fishermen from Bristol may have been visiting North America regularly even prior to the first voyage of Columbus, and may have concealed this from Cabot because they wanted to keep their rich fishing grounds secret.  7/16/10

India by Percival Spear, University of Michigan, 1961 

Given the year this was written, I anticipated a patronizing attitude toward the Indian people which is mostly absent, although the author does exhibit some traces of racism in his insistence that some of the various peoples of the subcontinent are more intellectually capable than others independent of tradition and training.  That aside, he makes the point early that India has influenced the outside world profoundly in many ways – it was in India that Buddhism first arose for example – and that much of the reason that western style competitive nations did not arise is because of the geography and climate rather than an inherent difference in the people, although he also feels that the differences in philosophy and religion are radically different than those found in Europe. The book follows events up to about 1960 in considerable detail.  Most of the text is quite interesting, but the various maps included could have been much easier to read.  7/11/10

Octopus Pie by Meredith Gran, Villard, 2010, $17, ISBN 978-0-345-52043-2 

This is a fairly largish collection of cartoons about two twenty-something roommates living in Brooklyn, one tending toward hippie, the other toward yuppie. It’s apparently a compilation of the first two years of the strip and each episode is self contained on one page, although there are occasionally ongoing stories.  The art is deliberately that of a cartoon and is not in color, but color really wouldn’t add anything.  Some of the jokes are predictable but some are quite funny as the two characters are played off against one another and various walk ons.  Not a classic, I suppose, but solidly entertaining. 6/29/10

The World Beneath the City by Robert Daley, Lippincott, 1959 

I was interested in learning about the subways under Manhattan so I picked this up, but very early on the author refers to alligators in the subways as proven fact.  Suspicious, I asked a friend sitting nearby to confirm my suspicion that he was copying an urban legend.   Actually, I ended up being wrong.  He didn’t copy it – this is the book that STARTED the urban legend, after he believed a tall story told him by a retired city official noted for his creative memories.  Since Daley obviously didn’t get any outside confirmation – didn’t even check the contemporary news accounts which don’t exist – everything he said thereafter was suspect.  Bits and pieces that followed were interesting, but the urge to doublecheck everything immediately was distracting and I would never refer to anything in the book as “fact”. Proof that everything needs to be read with a skeptical eye. 6/24/10

Collapse by Jared Diamond, Viking, 2005  

This is a lengthy analysis of why various civilizations collapsed, always involving environmental problems – man made or natural – and often involving international relations, either war or the decline of a major trading partner.  The author examines several of these in detail, including Easter Island – where the inhabitants denuded the island of trees and wiped out virtually the entire ecology, Pitcairn Island – which was marginally habitable and could not sustain itself when environmental damage on other islands brought an end to trade, and the Mayan civilization, which fell apart piecemeal as the result of environmental and other conditions.  The author opens the book with an examination of contemporary Montana, and the parallels are obvious.  Top heavy consumption by the indolent rich, deforestation, erosion, pollution, mineral exploitation, the collapse of the local economy.  More than half of Montana’s entire income comes from earnings made out of the state and it receives far more aid than it pays in taxes. Texas does so as well, incidentally, despite Rick Perry’s denunciation of federal support.  The bulk of the book consists of detailed discussions of various cultures including modern ones like the Dominican Republic, Japan, and Iceland, and older ones like Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, Greenland, the Anasazi, the Maya, and New Guinea.  Some societies learned to be self sustaining; others did not.  I was particularly struck by his description of the imminent collapse of the ecologies of Australia and China.  The latter part of the book is more polemical and I found it less interesting – but that’s not a comment on his arguments.  6/22/10

Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race by Ashley Montagu, Oxford, 1974 

This is a revised edition of Montagu’s 1940s refutation of the racist writings of Nazi “scientists” and others including Greeks, Americans, and British.   Much of what he says is no longer an issue, but it is interesting to note some of his arguments, specifically that our attempt to divide humans into races contradicts what biologists would do with any other species.  He also points out that racism as we know it did not exist in the ancient world, although discrimination against other ethnic groups certainly did.  The Egyptians considered themselves the most civilized people in the world, but it was snobbery rather than racism, and acculturated foreigners were accepted as equals. Montagu blames European whites and the Christian church for creating racism in the late 18th Century. It was created to justify religious and commercial exploitation and conquest and as a rationalization for slavery.  He discusses the evolution of the concept in anthropology where race was originally a term of convenience with no scientific meaning.  Later anthropologists then decided to make it “real” by defining the term using criteria that met their preconceptions and ignoring data which contradicted them.  There is then no dividing line between “races” and the term is essentially meaningless. Montague repeats himself at times, perhaps because this is the third version of the book.  Some of it has become dated by events but the underlying principles are as valid now as they were in the 1940s. His summary of  the writings of some American academics, as late as the 1960s, justifying racism is particularly chilling. 6/14/10

Torture: The Grand Conspiracy by Malise Ruthven, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978 

I picked this up mostly to get a different viewpoint on the Inquisition from the one I’d read recently.  Ruthven does not accept that the Church was opposed to most uses of torture, and he cites much more widespread use of it, in some cases to deprive the wealthy of their money – most notably the Templar Knights – and sometimes as a form of mass hysteria.  He is mostly concerned with the interaction of torture and law, tracing it from the ancient world to relatively modern instances.  Needless to say, he’s against it, and makes no effort to disguise his attitude.  Parts of this were interesting but other parts were either technical or of no particular interest to me, though well written and reasonably well organized. 6/4/10

The Making of Victorian England by G. Kitson Clark, Atheneum, 1962 

The title might suggest this as a history of Victorian England, but it’s not really; it’s an analysis of some of the forces at work during the 19th Century in England, and the author opens his  arguments by telling us that terms like “middle class” and “Victorian” are essentially meaningless because they were used to describe many different institutions rather than homogeneous subject matter.  He discusses many of the social aspects of that era, sometimes interesting, sometimes not.  My major dissatisfaction is that he belabors both the obvious and not so obvious for so long that I lost interest.  It isn’t so much that he was providing additional evidence as that he was repeating what he’d already said to make sure we hadn’t missed it.  The book could have been cut by a third or so with no loss of content.  Disappointing. 5/30/10

Abyss by C.P. Idyll, Crowell, 1964 

This is exactly the book I was looking for to explain deep sea life, except unfortunately it’s more than forty years old.  So I’m still looking for something similar that’s more up to date.  The author spends most of the book describing the physical form and behavior – as much as was known at the time – of a wide variety of deep sea creatures from fish to copepods to sharks to whales and octopi.  There are also a handful of photographs and a large number of drawings.  Some of the sections are fascinating – octopi fashioning weapons out of toxic feelers from jellyfish, for example – more evidence that they use tools and are much smarter than we usually think they are.  The text is well organized, clearly written, and provides historical perspective without getting so caught up in the history that the original purpose is lost.  There are a couple of speculative chapters as well as a detailed history of how the oceans probably were formed.  I found this more engrossing than many novels. 5/25/10

The Animal Fable in Science Fiction and Fantasy by Bruce Shaw, McFarland, 2010, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-4783-1

I confess that this particular subset of fantastic literature holds little attraction for me and I skimmed large portions of this otherwise probably quite informative and entertaining book. Many of the stories he deals with involve animals, but don't seem to me to be "animal fables" like City by Clifford D. Simak or War with the Newts by Karel Capek.  But it's the author's book and he can set the definitions wherever he wants.  He examines a number of different facets including interspecies sex, satire, scientific plausibility, and a history of the animal fable itself.  He lists Wikipedia among his sources, which I confess made me uneasy given the unreliability of so much information I've found there, but for this subject matter I imagine it is considerably less risky than it would be with others. It certainly appears to be thorough although I would have expected more time spent on Watership Down and its various imitators. William Horwood, Gabriel King, Walter Wangerin, and Tailchaser's Song aren't even mentioned.  5/2/10

Inquisition by Edward Peters, Free Press, 1988 

I was told this was probably the most authoritative work on the Inquisition so I picked it up when I saw it second hand.  It does appear to be meticulously researched, and the history of the evolution of law – civil and church – is incredibly detailed.  Unfortunately, that portion was of little interest to me in part because it was so technical and in part because the author’s prose is more academic than general, using specialized terms without explaining them in some cases.  The book is in large part a defense of the Christian church of the time, and most of the author’s arguments seem cogent to me.  Most heretics – real or imaginary – were killed and tortured by lay authorities, not church officials.  In part this was because the church and the state had merged and therefore heresy was treason, by definition.  It does appear as well that the church was more interested in reclaiming those who strayed rather than eliminate them, except in isolated cases, and obviously there were occasional corrupt officials involved.  I wasn’t entirely convinced that the church authorities were as blameless as is suggested, but they most likely were not the monsters that we generally connect with the Inquisition. 4/29/10

The Victorian Underworld by Kellow Chesney, Schocken, 1972 

I thoroughly enjoyed this systematic description of the various aspects of the criminal underclass in Victorian England, although the words “criminal” and “underclass” are both misnomers.  The large majority of people in London, for example, had nothing but contempt for the fledgling police force and felt no compulsion to obey laws whose formulation was not a product of their own contributions.  And many criminals were to be found among the “upper” class, or the wealthier portions of the middle class.  The author examines pickpockets, con artists, sporting related crime, muggers, prostitutes, and so forth, each category of which had its own methods of operations and its own slang.  There is in fact an extensive glossary of slang included.  Well organized, entertainingly written, packed with information and illustrative anecdotes.  There are lots of illustrations as well, but some of them appear to have little to do with the text. 4/23/10

Dracula Is a Racist by Matt Melvin, Kensington, 2010, $12.95, ISBN 978-0-8065-3137-3

There's been a flurry of spoof books lately, of which this is the latest.  As the title suggests, it makes fun of vampires and the current obsession with them by one large segment of today's readers.  It's a guide book about what to do if you actually encounter a vampire, heavily illustrated and entirely whimsical.  There's a brief history of vampire legends and famous examples - including Count Chocula. Techniques for fighting evil vampires or living with good ones are described at some length and a few of the jokes are actually funny.  Much of the text is fluff, restating the obvious, but it's very light hearted and it won't take you an hour to read the entire book.  Good for an occasional chuckle.

Eminent Victorian Soldiers by Byron Farwell, Norton, 1985 

This book consists of eight short profiles of noted British officers, as you might guess from the title.  The first concerns Hugh Gough, who served in China and India primarily, and who won his battles as much through force of character as anything else, since he disdained artillery and tactics and preferred straight ahead bayonet charges that cost him many of his own troops but which proved to be effective against the enemies he faced.  Charles Napier was a more intelligent, more admirable character who sympathized with the downtrodden, tried to minimize casualties, and only late in his career – while at war with the Sind – did he betray typical British military bloodymindedness.  Charles Gordon, on the other hand, was not very bright and was considered a bully by many who knew him. He was also openly gay, unusual at the time, and a religious fanatic.  During his service in China, he delighted in burning palaces and works of art. In the Sudan, where he was eventually killed, he governed arbitrarily, unwisely, and ineffectively.  Frederick Roberts was the only one of the eight whose name was unfamiliar, but I did know of his exploits. He was a competent soldier and a reasonably good man.  Not so Garnett Wolseley, who was a thorough going cad, racist, snob, misogynist, pederast, and so forth.  Evelyn Wood, who was a protégé of Wolseley, was possibly the most accident and disease prone man in history and I’m astounded her survived as long as he did.  Hector MacDonald committed suicide rather than face court martial for his homosexual exploits.  Worst of the lot frankly is Lord Kitchener, an ambitious, ruthless man with absolutely no interest in the men who served under him.  An impressive but largely unsympathetic group of characters. 4/5/10

The Universe of Oz edited by Kevin K. Durand and Mary K. Leigh, McFarland, 2010, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-4628-5

It has been many years since I read the Oz books – L. Frank Baum, Ruth Plumly Thompson, and a smattering of the other sequels – so my memories were not very fresh and a lot of the references in this collection of essays had no resonance for me so there were parts I just skimmed through.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t find several of them entertaining – and only a couple laboring under an excess of English major verbiage.  The essays are collected in three groups – as literary works, as philosophy, and as social commentary.  I found the first section to be the most interesting and the middle section the least convincing, generally speaking.  It was enough to make me wonder if I ought to find enough time to read them again, but not enough to make me actually do something about it. 3/30/10

Embracing Defeat by John W. Dower, New Press, 1999 

This book - which has been my bedside reading for several pleasant days - os about the American occupation of Japan following World War II.  It piqued my interest in part because I was curious to see how the Japanese public reacted to the defeat and in part because it still is the only example of a successful imposition of democracy from above rather than from the populace at large.  Dower, who has written extensively about Japan, asserts that Japanese support of the war and even the emperor was never as deep as our image of fanatical soldiers would suggest, that the country was ripe for an overthrow of the existing system, which tried to impose feudal institutions on an industrial society. Although he has reservations about Douglas MacArthur’s religious fervor in dealing with the Japanese, he acknowledges that the general did as much as was feasible to reduce the suffering of the population at large and to reduce the power of corrupt officials and privileged families.  Dower also contends that much of the democratization/Americanization of Japanese culture was accomplished through the prostitutes that serviced an occupation army of a quarter million, because the government officials and others who officially interacted with the Americans were not inclined to change. The sections involving Hirohito’s exclusion from the war crimes trials by the Americans and his refusal to renounce his divinity – despite belief by the Americans that he had done so – are particularly enlightening. Predictably, the war crimes trials come in for particularly heavy criticism.  Even one of the judges acknowledged that they were show trials and more about revenge and publicity than in justice.  Some of the defendants were convicted of “crimes” that the Allies – including the US had also committed. One of the charges was conspiracy to create an empire by conquest – which the British, Dutch, French, Russians, and Americans had all engaged in themselves. One of the most depressing revelations is that the general responsible for the Bataan death march was allowed to live unmolested in Japan under another identity with the full knowledge of the American authorities because of his known anti-communist feelings. Pampering of most other war criminals by the Americans led to their becoming celebrities and undercut the intention to make the Japanese public cognizant of the crimes committed in its name.  In fact, when the Korean War broke out, the American government forced Japan to rearm in defiance of its constitution and it was only with great effort that they resisted pressure to participate directly in the conflict.  A very impressive, readable, and occasionally disturbing book. 3/29/10

The Bounty by Caroline Alexander, Viking, 2003  

Last year I re-read the Bounty trilogy, but I was aware from various sources that the events in the novels weren’t entirely faithful to the historical truth.  This appears to be the most comprehensive book on the subject, which covers the background before the ship even sailed, the aftermath in which the mutineers were apprehended, tried, and executed, including events that followed their deaths.  There are also details about the various crew members and even their families and the various forces that all contributed to the conflict.  Bligh comes out looking considerably better than formerly, and Fletcher Christian considerably worse, although the conflict was not as clear cut as that might suggest.  The chaotic aftermath among the mutineers suggests that there was never any real unanimity among them to start with and the mutiny could probably have been easily averted by any of several individuals or events.  An interesting re-examination of the subject. 3/23/10

Mafeking: A Victorian Legend by Brian Gardner, Sphere, 1968 

I had never heard of Mafeking but apparently during the Boer Wars it was an important rallying cry, though not militarily significant British town that was under what we might loosely call a siege for a considerable period.  It was in fact not valued by the Boers enough that they could be troubled to actually attack it in force and the blockade was so incomplete that mail service was not even interrupted, though it was a bit delayed.  This is a detailed account which portrays the local commander as a somewhat incompetent publicity seeker who took advantage of circumstances to promote his own image despite his ineptness and unwillingness to really conduct warfare.  The book appears to be quite well researched, although I shuddered when the author ignorantly announced that 1900 was the first year of the 20th Century.  One interesting observation is that the buildings were constructed of such cheap, soft materials that artillery rounds passed through them without exploding. The Boers frequently wrote indignant letters to the British commander complaining that he was arming the natives and that this wasn’t cricket. The commander, Robert Baden-Powell, was now involved with youth organizations that became the Boy Scouts. A mostly interesting look at a side issue of the Boer Wars. 3/17/10

The Zombie Combat Manual by Roger Ma, Berkley, 2010, $14, ISBN 978-0-425-23254-5  

This is obviously a joke book, a how-to in case you discover the world is being overrun by zombies some morning.  It’s written like a military manual, refuting disinformation about zombies, describing their anatomy and weak spots, guiding you to the selection of the appropriate weapon, and suggesting a variety of strategies depending on your physical location, the number and nature of the enemy, and so forth and so on.  It’s actually quite a long book and the joke wears pretty thin long before you’ll reach the end.  There are various simply drawn illustrations that really don’t add a whole lot to the book.  Zombie fans will be delighted and the rest of us will scratch our heads and wonder why someone would pay this much for a single, extended joke. 3/14/10

The Armada by Garrett Mattingly, Houghton Mifflin, 1959 

The 16th Century is not a period of history about which I know a lot, although I had obviously heard of the Spanish Armada.  This was my first attempt at filling the gap, a history told with almost novelistic detail.  I knew that it had been sparked in part by the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, but I was only vaguely aware of the political and religious roots of the conflict.  In this account, Sir Francis Drake comes across as brilliant but a bit of a loose cannon motivated as much by his personal hatred for King Philip of Spain as by loyalty to Queen Elizabeth, and a paranoid egomaniac as well. One of the things I did not know was that the sailing of the Armada was set to coincide with successful efforts to cause a civil war in France, which might have proved a hindrance to the war effort, and the expulsion of the ruling king from Paris, even though he was a loyal Catholic. I discovered as well that I’d been told another untruth in high school.  The Armada was not mangled by a storm so that it was easy prey for the English.  There was a storm but the damage was inconsequential.  The English simply were better sailors and were also better able to resupply themselves in a battle that lasted for weeks.  The Spanish preferred to believe that they were defeated by an act of God rather than men, so the legend arose that the storm had been responsible.  All in all, a very good account, well written, well organized, and as far as I can tell, balanced and comprehensive. 3/10/10

The Pirate Wars by Peter Earle, Thomas Dunne, 2003  

The author opens this history of piracy by lamenting the romanticized view of pirates that persists today and discusses at length the unrealistic portrayals in books and movies, although unaccountably he makes no mention of Rafael Sabatini or Richard Hughes.  He then describes the different kinds of piracy that existed from the 16th Century onward, starting with British raids on foreign shipping from towns near the English Channel. There is a more extensive coverage of the Mediterranean corsairs than any I’d encountered previously, which was a definite plus. Each pirate era – there were several – had differences in nature and effect.  The book includes accounts of major and minor battles, and all the familiar names – Kidd, Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, Bartholomew Roberts.  I had not known of the resurgence of piracy in South America in the early 19th Century, nor that this was where “walking the plank” was first used.   Very thorough and entertainingly written. 3/9/10

River Boats of America by John Donovan, Crowell, 1966

Time for another history of steamboats, in this case as part of a more comprehensive history of travel and trade on the various inland waterways.  The author establishes his independence from popular lore by stating early on that Henry Hudson did not discover the Hudson River,  James Watt did not invent the steam engine, and Robert Fulton did not invent the first steamboat  - which, incidentally, was never known as the Clermont until well after  Fulton died.  One of the more interesting anecdotes is that the government built a deep drawing, iron bound ship for the Colorado River, which was virtually useless.  Seventy years later, after the river had changed course, the wreck was found in a near desert, tied to a tree. Donovan discusses the use of various forms of river boats on the varied rivers of North America, and in uses as diverse as commerce and warfare. Many of the anecdotes are fascinating and in generally they’re told in an entertaining manner.  The book does however have more typographical errors than anything I’ve ever seen before by a major publisher.  Obviously the proofs were never read. There are quite a few photos and paintings, several of them excellent. 3/6/10

The Werewolf Delusion by Ian Woodward, Paddington, 1979  

Despite the title, the author of this sort of history of werewolves suggests that while most may be psychological disorders, some werewolves actually change physically.  His reasoning for this is essentially that since there are so many people who believe in the legend, it must be at least partly true, although he hedges constantly. He even suggests at one point that it may be a genetic trait and that is why the preponderance of accounts come from poor, rural regions. His concluding chapter includes an assertion that he does believe that there are supernaturally transformed human beings. Although there are interesting bits in the book, the author’s irrationality renders much of what he says ridiculous.  There are lots of illustrations, however, which are quite interesting, including stills from horror movies and woodcuts from centuries past. 2/18/10

The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, Del Rey, 2010, $24, ISBN 978-0-345-51226-0  

This book celebrates more than a decade of Penny Arcade, an online comic strip which has mushroomed into a major web presence.  The book follows them through the years with samples of work from each period, and also includes pieces on controversies they were involved in and other issues that transcend the usual timeline.  The artwork is surprisingly good and the wit is often fiercely acerbic.  A lot of this is satire on the world of computer gamers, and I missed some of the jokes probably because I hadn’t played the specific game being mentioned, but most of it is accessible to even those who have only the vaguest awareness of the gaming world.  The book is a nicely produced full color hardcover. 2/17/10

How to Defeat Your Own Clone by Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D. Johnson, Bantam, 2010, $14, ISBN 978-0-553-38578-6  

I haven’t seen too many gimmick books lately, but here’s one that mixes actual facts with speculation and humor.  If cloning becomes common in the future, will we have to battle alternate versions of ourselves?  Will the clones be enhanced with biological advantages that we don’t have?  Can we defeat our clone without being gauche?  How do you cover your tracks after disposing of your rival?  What advantages do you have being the original, if any?  None of this is to be taken seriously, of course, despite the trappings of scientific fact interspersed among the silliness.  Amusing but minor. 2/15/10

War in the Falklands by the Sunday Times of London, Harper & Row, 1982  

Since I knew very little about the background of this war between England and Argentina, I picked this up.  The authors – though they are British journalists – obviously feel that Argentina has a stronger claim to the islands, but they also suggest that if the Argentine government at the time – a junta – had been patient they would have acquired them peacefully.  Having fought a war to repel the invasion, it is unlikely that the British government will relinquish them until at least another generation has passed.  The naval, air, and land battles are described in considerable detail, with excerpts from interviews with those who participated. It was even more violent than I remembered.  The overall impression we are left with is that this was probably the most unnecessary war fought during the 20th Century.  It led to the fall of the Argentine government and trouble among various western allies that has probably still not been entirely erased. 2/8/10

Deep Atlantic by Richard Ellis, Knopf, 1998  

I finally found a book that covers life in the deeps of the ocean in the kind of detail I wanted, although it covers a number of other aspects of the Atlantic as well.  The history of submersibles was particularly interesting.  I hadn’t realized that the Russian empire under Tsar Alexander was the first to have a submersible as a recognized part of its navy, although it was never used in combat.  The first Union submarine from the Civil War is still on display at the Department of the Navy but it was the Confederacy that first used a submarine to sink an enemy warship.  Alas, it was destroyed in the process.  The portions on the biology of the ocean were well organized and fascinating, with many illustrations by the author, a noted illustrator. It had never occurred to me before that no plant life can exist below 1000 feet because sunlight can’t penetrate that far, and the existence of life that functions by chemosynthesis rather than photosynthesis contradicts one of those things I was taught in high school that is no longer valid.  Nor did I realize that there are more crustaceans in the ocean than there are insects in the entire world or that jellyfish can get up to one hundred feet long. I suspect that some of the chapters were written as separate articles and later collected here because there are several instances of duplicated information, but that’s a minor cavil. 2/7/10

In The Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, Penguin, 2001  

This is an account of the sinking of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex, which inspired parts of Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  The Essex was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in the Pacific, and twenty survivors set out for what would be the longest journey by open book ever recorded.  Only eight survived, after cannibalizing the others.  Two of the survivors wrote lengthy memoires, one only recently discovered, and the author has combined them with other research to recreate the sequence of events.  He opens with a very evocative look at life in Nantucket in the early 19th Century, a predominantly Quaker community which had evolved its own culture. Their subsequent efforts to survive in the middle of the Pacific Ocean are epic and at times one wonders how they found the strength to go on.  A nicely done though often disturbing book. 1/29/10

In the Days of the Tall Ships by R.A. Fletcher, Brentanos, 1928 

This is a nostalgic look back at the days of the sailing ship, written at a time when people still remembered them.  The book opens with a description of the different types of ships which is often too technical for me, but did give me an idea of the differences among barqs, brigs, ketches, and the like.  Then there’s a discussion of the East Indian company’s ships and exploits, and a brief discussion of pirates and privateers – which repeats a good many of the myths of that era as though they were factual.  His discussion of the development of faster, safer ships is quite interesting.  England’s maritime laws, designed to protect its own commerce, actually worked against its interests, coupled with a reluctance by British shipbuilders to adopt techniques developed in the United States.  Further chapters deal with various aspects – gold rushes, emigration, and so forth.  The chapter on disasters and rescues is probably the most interesting in the book. A bit dated in language and the prejudices of the author are rather obvious, but overall an interesting look at a less than obvious side of history. 1/25/10

The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness by Erich Fromm, Holt Rinehart Winston, 2003  

I read this one over the course of a couple of weeks because it poses a lot of thought provoking questions. Back in the 1960s, a handful of writers – Konrad Lorentz, Robert Ardrey, Desmond Morris – popularized their theory that the killer instinct is a part of humanity’s nature and that we will always have wars, murders, and so forth.  Although their books were debunked at great length by others who pointed out that their conclusions were not supported by any evidence, works like On Aggression, The Territorial Imperative, and The Naked Ape were written for a popular audience and the ideas in them took root and flourish even today.  Fromm opens his book with a painstaking analysis of Lorentz which reduces each of his arguments to nonsense.  Lorentz studied geese and attributed to them human emotions such as cruelty and kindness, even decided that some animals choose to act selflessly for the good of others rather than playing out instinctual mechanisms.  One of the flaws in Lorentz occurred to me even when I first read his work back in my college days.  He suggests that war was the way in which primitive man selectively bred more aggressive males.  Since the more aggressive males were necessarily more likely to die in battle, the effect would be to reduce the incidence of aggressiveness, not increase it.  The wide acceptance of the killer ape school of thought is probably akin to the one time popularity of belief in ancient astronauts – if we’re being manipulated by forces we cannot control, then we’re not really responsible for our misdeeds or failings.  Lorentz’s theories could, after all, be used as an excuse for Nazi Germany, Stalin’s repressions, and any other mass killing you choose to champion. 

Having demolished Lorentz, a relatively easy target, Fromm moves on to Skinner and the behaviorists.  When I was at Michigan State, I considered majoring in psychology – it ended up being one of my minors.  MSU at the time was firmly in the grip of the behaviorists – yes, I trained a rat to press a lever – which was not the kind of psychology I was interested in.  So I read Abraham Maszlow, Erich Fromm, Rollo May, and majored in English. Oversimplifying, behaviorists believed that since we can never be sure about motives or intent, they were outside scientific study.  To them all observable behavior that appeared the same was the same.  Fromm points out that there is a very large difference between a man who spanks his son to discipline him and one who does so for the love of inflicting pain, a distinction which behaviorists would ignore as out of their realm. 

Fromm then goes on to discuss individual contentions that humans are instinctively violent, pointing out flaws and contradictions in each.  His view is that organized violence, warfare, came relatively late in human development and is a function of civilization, i.e., the more primitive the culture the less likely it was to wage war.  This obviously contradicts the theory that the killer instinct developed early and has been carried forward. He suggests as an alternate possibility that the widening of cultural identity into the nation state has made it more difficult for individuals to feel like parts of a coherent community and that this stress is a contributing factor to violence.  He points out as supporting evidence that experiments placing animals in confined spaces does not usually lead to violence unless members of different communities are mixed together.  A human example offered is World War II concentration camps, where violence among prisoners was almost unknown.  If Fromm’s suggestion is correct, modern media has inadvertently aggravated conditions by exposing individuals to so much of the world.  He also speculates that two social organizations might eventually evolve, and I wondered what he might have thought of organizations like Al Qaeda, the Teabaggers, and other social groups. 

There is also a discussion of territoriality and dominance, which Fromm contends are not as prevalent in nature as some writers would like us to believe.  Many animals share territory, and dominance is not always physical.  For example, among some groups of animals, the “leader” during hunting might not be the leader during other activities, and this is also true in many primitive human tribes.  In fact, many tribes have no equivalent of a chief at all.  There are several sections that posit thought provoking concepts, like the rise of “character” as a replacement for our lost instincts.  Fromm also attributes much of the violence in modern society as a reaction to boredom – not the simple boredom we might feel from time to time but a deeper, systemic ennui that affects a large proportion of the population.  There are also penetrating analyses of the characters of Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Hitler.  I’m not sure I agree with all of Fromm’s conclusions, but he certainly provided me with considerable raw material for speculation. 1/19/10

Writers Workshop of Horror edited by Michael Knost, Woodlands Press, $21.95, ISBN 978-0-9824939-1-5  

I’ve seen quite a few writers’ guidebooks over the years.  They all contain pretty much the same elements – guides to formatting, marketing, elements of story telling, personal anecdotes, perhaps something on getting an agent or the current state of the market.  This one is slanted toward writers of horror, which presents some unique problems because the market is so depressed.  The editor has gathered here articles and interviews with a very large number of horror writers including Rick Hautala, Clive Barker, Joe R. Lansdale, Elizabeth Massie, Tom Monteleone, and others, and there’s a lot of good advice here and, as the editor points out, the majority of it is applicable to any other genre as well.  Some of the articles are also interesting for what they tell about the techniques used by the individual authors.  So if you want to be a writer, or want to learn more about how writers work, this is an excellent place to start. 1/8/10

Egyptian Magic by E.A. Wallis Budge, Dover, 1971, originally published in 1901  

Still pursuing my interest in ancient Egypt, I tried this survey of the role of magic in that civilization.  The author provides a well organized survey of the different forms magic took – amulets, incantations, and so forth, and its role in their society.   The different aspects are illustrated by ancient myths and stories, some of which are very interesting in their own right.  Given the time it was written, it came as no surprise that the author occasionally contrasts Egyptian and Christian belief systems, characterizing the former as superstition and the latter as enlightened reason.  There are some interesting illustrations as well.    I actually got more of a feel for Egyptian culture from this than from of the more comprehensive books I’ve read on the subject. 1/3/10

Opus Dei by John L. Allen Jr., Doubleday, 2005

Having read Dan Brown, I knew very little about Opus Dei, the conservative Roman Catholic group, and I didn't need Brown's various critics to tell me that his description was likely a wild caricature.  I did a little reading on the subject and concluded that as with any large organization - there are close to 100,000 members worldwide - it contained a variety of people and inevitably some of them would have gone beyond what the organization would normally tolerate, just as would happen in any similar organization.  I knew about most of the criticisms - that they are a coercive cult, that they segregate the sexes, require demeaning activities including self inflicted corporal punishment, and a few other questionable practices.  What I wanted was an objective discussion that would allow me to draw my own conclusions.  When I saw this in the bookstore, I was initially put off because the author is a journalist working for a Catholic magazine, which was likely to prejudice him.  But the cover copy said that it was an "objective" look and a glimpse inside found a passage in which the author said that he draws no conclusions, simply presents the arguments on either side and lets the reader decide.  Both the cover copy and the author's statement are bald faced lies.  The introduction reads like a puff piece and during the course of the book we discover that contrary opinions by critics, ex-members, and others are the result of exaggeration, misinterpretation, individual aberrations, or practices which have been abandoned - although in the lattermost case the author doesn't appear to have done much to determine whether or not this is true. He seems to have accepted anything Opus Dei officials chose him because they obviously were too devoted to truth to lie. Personal accounts of abuse are characterized at times as "unlikely", hardly an "objective" analysis.

Allen interprets some of the actions of the group's founder, Escriva, intuitively rather than factually, particularly his relations with Franco and Pinochet. There are also several instances where bad actions are characterized as okay because other religious groups also engage in them.  Every criticism is undermined by the author's commentary, but he makes no effort to undermine any of the statements by Opus Dei officials.  In other words, he presents the opposition's case but tells us that we'd be crazy to believe them, or when they have been substantiated, crazy to think this was typical. He even apologizes if he has offended anyone by discussion the various criticisms. The self mortification - flagellation and the wearing of a spiked wire around one thigh - are justified as personal choices, less painful than a workout at a gym, even though he admits that some participants are physically disfigured.  He dismisses many of the criticisms as anecdotal, but refutes them by interviewing two low category members.

Allen has the most difficulty with the order's segregation of the sexes - they have separate entrances, separate telephone switchboards in the same building, etc.  His justification for this - and even he seems a bit uneasy - is that many members are celibate and this removes temptation.  That's an absurd argument since they interact with the rest of the world on a regular basis, and if anyone is led to sin by hearing a female voice on the telephone, then they'd better not ever dial the operator.  The explanation of why all of the menial housekeepers are female is, according to Allen, simply that women are better at cleaning and cooking.  His argument about conditioning is also full of holes.  He asserts that most of those who left the order with complaints did so early in their vocation and had not progressed to the point where they recognized the freedoms they would enjoy and that's why they said they were being conditioned.  And that's exactly what the author is describing.  He also justifies the secrecy about Opus Dei's constitution.  It is in Latin, he explains, and officials believed it might not be translated properly (and naturally had not done so themselves).  Allen also offers the explanation that some of the concepts were still fluid and subject to interpretation so that no completely accurate translation would be possible.  This seems to contradict his assertion elsewhere that Opus Dei has not changed some of its less appealing practices because that's the way Escriva set it up and they can't change anything.

Despite his assertions of objectivity, he summarizes the criticisms at the end of the book and "refutes" each as inventions of the organization's enemies.  It is probably significant that the charges of misogyny are not mentioned in this summation. He also insists that the order is not a cult, but given the flexibility of that word - all Christian religions are based on a charismatic founder after all - the argument makes no sense on either side.  I came away from this book knowing little more about Opus Dei than when I started and with my opinion still uncrystallized, but I have no doubt at all that the book is heavily one-sided.  I read some reviews online and discovered that he didn't even interview some of the more prominent critics, even within the Church itself.  Propaganda, not reportage.  1/2/10

Raj by Lawrence James, St Martins, 1998  

This is a lengthy, detailed examination of the history of British India, although it skips over the first years of contact fairly quickly.  The nature of the British domination – which is astonishing given the number of inhabitants of the subcontinent relative to that of the invaders – changes considerably during the course of time.  Initially it was just the East India company, then with support by the government of England, then primarily dictated by Parliament and the military.  One of the more interesting discussions is of incidents leading up to the sepoy mutiny in 1857.  I had known about the rumors that the new cartridges being provided were tainted with forbidden animal fat, but I hadn’t been aware of the background that made this rumor so persistent.  Militant churchmen had forced the government to prohibit officials in India from participating in Hindu and Moslem ceremonies, which had formerly been the case, and flooded the country with missionaries who were not answerable to the local authorities or particularly respectful toward their hosts.  There was widespread belief that all of India was going to be forcibly converted to Christianity, and the widening gap between the British officers and the Indian soldiers didn’t help.  There was also an obvious double standard since they condemned the Indians for arranging marriages for girls as young as twelve, but the age of consent in England was also twelve until late in the 19th Century.  Rudyard Kipling also takes some telling blows here.  In addition to his understandable paternalism, he was a supporter of the general who fired on unarmed demonstrators in Amritsar, killing almost 400 people and wounding hundreds more.   Winston Churchill and Mohandas Gandhi don’t come across as very nice people either. His conclusion is that there were benefits as well as drawbacks to British rule, that the disengagement was handled very badly, but that a peaceful solution was probably impossible given the circumstances. Very well written and organized, but this edition at least was riddled with misspelled words and occasional sentences from which it appears one or more words were inadvertently dropped. 1/1/10

 

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