Friday, October 18, 2019

Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno



Excellent guide to a fascinating civilization
For anyone interested in archaeology, the “Handbook to Life” series published by Oxford University Press is an excellent collection of comprehensive books on ancient civilizations. If your interests lie in Mexican history or the archaeology of the Americas, the 2006 volume Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno is an excellent resource loaded with fascinating detail.

The Aztec Empire is also known as the Triple Alliance because it was established by three city-states: Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan. While most of the book focuses on this central core of the Aztec civilization, the opening chapters give a broader overview of pre-Columbian Native cultures throughout Mexico. Aguilar-Moreno discusses the earlier civilizations that influenced the Aztecs, such as the Olmec, the Toltec, and Teotihucan. The origins of the Mexica, who would later settle in Tenochtitlan to become known as Aztecs, are examined from both mythical and archaeological perspectives. Also discussed are many of the other Native cultures throughout Mexico with which the Aztecs came into contact. The Maya are barely mentioned, however, because the series has another excellent book on that subject: Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World by Lynn Foster. The Spanish conquest is covered in depth throughout the book. The final chapter gives a concise history of Mexico from the demise of the Aztec Empire to the present, with special notice given to the present state of the Indigenous population.

After the opening historical and geographical overviews, the book delivers a series of thematic chapters examining different aspects of Aztec life. Topics discussed include warfare, clothing, food, astronomy and mathematics, economy and trade, and the role of women in Aztec society. The book is especially strong on the religion and philosophy of the Aztecs, giving you an idea of the underlying belief system that permeated every aspect of daily life, including the practice of human sacrifice for which the Aztecs are notorious. Aguilar-Moreno reveals a society in many ways more sophisticated than its European conquerors. The chapters on art, architecture, and literature are heavily illustrated with photographs and line drawings of archaeological sites, artifacts from the Museo Nacional de Antropología, and codices of Nahutl pictographic writing. The book concludes eloquently with a selection of Aztec poetry translated into English.

While it seems intended as a text for undergraduate courses, this book is perfectly accessible to general readers, armchair archaeologists, and Mexicophiles. Because of the textbook organization, there is a fair bit of repetition of information. For example, major battles discussed in the historical overview are also discussed in the section on warfare. Such repetition never becomes annoying, however, and only serves to reinforce the lessons learned, as any textbook should. The thematic presentation also strengthens the book’s usefulness as a reference guide.

This book was published in 2006, and there have no doubt been archaeological discoveries since then that may call some of the information here into question. But has a more comprehensive, well-organized, and accessible overview of the Aztec civilization been published since? Experts in the field might quibble with some of the details, but for the vast majority of interested readers this handbook is an excellent and educational read. If you require further information on any of the topics discussed, the book cites an extensive list of references for further study.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon.com and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.
https://www.amazon.com/review/R3QJWRPIHBRSP8/ref=cm_cr_srp_d_rdp_perm

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Angel of the Revolution: A Tale of the Coming Terror by George Griffith



Dreary world-war fantasy with racist aftertaste
The Angel of the Revolution, a novel by British author George Griffith, was originally serialized in 1893 issues of the periodical Pearson’s Weekly. It is a work of science fiction that is set in the near future of 1903. A young scientist named Richard Arnold, working in his own private laboratory, has invented a flying machine. A major advance over the technology of his time, Arnold’s invention is not merely a modified balloon but an actual powered flying machine capable of great speed, agile maneuverability, and a heavy carrying capacity. So far, however, Arnold has only been able to construct a scale model of his design. He lacks the money to build a full-sized prototype. At the moment of his greatest financial difficulty, he is approached by a mysterious man named Colston who offers to help him bring his concept into production. Colston introduces Arnold to a secret organization of anarchists and nihilists who call themselves the Brotherhood of Freedom, though the rest of the world refers to them as The Terrorists. The Brotherhood wants to use Arnold’s flying machine to crush the world’s military forces, in particular those of the Russian Tsar, in order to bring about world peace. Being sympathetic to their ideals, Arnold joins the Brotherhood and becomes their admiral of the air.

The Angel of the Revolution is a very well-written pulp fiction adventure novel. Griffith’s prose is consistently brisk, often exciting, and surprisingly fresh. His writing is less antiquated than even exemplary contemporaries like H. G. Wells or Jules Verne. While the way Griffith tells his story is quite commendable, however, what he actually has to say is not so appealing. This is really an ugly story, the purpose of which is to rack up as much carnage and as high a body count as possible. One really has to have an appetite for destruction to appreciate this novel. Much of the plot revolves around troop movements and airpower strategy and reads like some pompous wargamer pontificating over a game of Risk.

Though the Brotherhood are supposedly men with no nation, the story clearly favors the Brits over the evil Russians. The Tsar’s regime is depicted as institutionalized torture and murder, yet the Brotherhood itself doesn’t come across as much more humane. We are supposed to admire these “heroes” as they mercilessly destroy all opposition before them, but their methods and their speech ring of fascism. The system with which they propose to replace the existing world order is vaguely socialist, but in the hands of the psychotic Brotherhood it would no doubt devolve into an iron-handed oppression even worse than the Soviet Union’s heyday of human rights violations.


In addition, there’s the racism. In Griffith’s world war England and Germany team up against an alliance of France, Russia, and Italy, thus pitting the palest, blondest nations in Europe against the swarthy Southerners and Slavs. The novel explicitly states in several passages that the Anglo-Saxon race is destined to inherit the Earth. Once they conquer Europe, the Brotherhood plan to then exert their influence over the colonies of Africa and the “yellow barbarism” of the East.


If you want to read an excellent science fiction novel about a future socialist revolution, read Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1907). London himself was an Anglo-Saxon supremacist, but not blatantly in that book, and the political theory is a lot smarter than the pointless bloodlust on display in The Angel of the Revolution.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon.com and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.
https://www.amazon.com/review/RFYXXPJT852QU/ref=cm_cr_srp_d_rdp_perm

Monday, October 14, 2019

The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, edited by Lawrence Buell



An excellent guide to the movement as a whole
While Transcendentalism was an extremely important development in the history of American literature and philosophy, likely few readers today could define the movement beyond calling up the names of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. A few enlightened souls might stretch so far as to mention Margaret Fuller. Despite its name recognition, Transcendentalism is a very difficult school of thought to pin down. Many of the Transcendentalists themselves, and Emerson in particular, denied the existence of any “school” or “movement,” likening the group to an amorphously diverse congregation of vaguely like-minded individuals. Nevertheless, Transcendentalism was a genuine movement with concrete philosophical precepts and an agenda for social change. In the 2006 book The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, editor Lawrence Buell not only amasses an excellent collection of writings but also delivers a thorough demystification of this crucial and confusing period of development in American thought.

Buell opens the book with an enlightening introduction that outlines the history of American Transcendentalism, its intellectual origins, and a summary of the philosophical views common to its members. The movement originally arose when a number of liberal Unitarian ministers including Emerson, influenced by German philosophers, departed from the strict confines of the Unitarian church to found their own independent congregations. These heretics embraced a more pantheistic conception of deity in which a divinity exists in all human beings. This philosophy emphasized the sacredness of the individual, who, to live up to the divinity within, must follow his or her own path to personal actualization and spiritual fulfillment. An intimate experience of nature, as evident from the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, was a means toward accomplishing this, as was a love for one’s fellow man exerted through virtuous social activism. Emerson at first was reluctant to get involved in social issues, wishing to keep Transcendentalism on a purely intellectual plane, but over time the movement’s members became more outspoken as advocates for religious liberty, educational reform, feminism, and the abolition of slavery.

The writings included here are a mix of essays, journal entries, memoirs, letters, aphorisms, utopian constitutions, articles from the group’s journal The Dial, and a generous helping of poetry. Many of the selections are relatively brief, well-chosen excerpts from longer works, but a few major manifestoes are reproduced in their entirety, such as Emerson’s “Nature,” “Divinity School Address,” “Self-Reliance,” and “The American Scholar,” and Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” This collection goes well beyond the two household names to feature many of the movement’s lesser-known movers and shakers. Highlights include Fuller’s feminist manifesto “The Great Lawsuit,” Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s essay on nature and health “Saints, and Their Bodies,” Theodore Parker’s antislavery writings “The Function of Conscience” and “The Fugitive Slave Law,” and the poetry of William Ellery Channing II and Jones Very. Buell also includes commentary, some of it critical, from notable writers outside the movement such as Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James. In all cases, Buell provides excellent introductions that provide insightful historical context.

Not every selection in this volume is a pleasure to read, as some of the writers are deliberately obscure and overly mystical in their delivery. As a whole, however, this is an excellent collection that provides a fascinating and comprehensive education into the history, literature, and philosophy of the Transcendentalists.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon.com and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.
https://www.amazon.com/review/R2GO2XRJRTVWEL/ref=cm_cr_srp_d_rdp_perm

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates 2019

Congratulations to Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke!
This year the Nobel committee delivered a double whammy, making up for last year’s aborted 2018 prize (it’s a long story) as well as bestowing this year’s regularly scheduled 2019 prize. Old Books by Dead Guys congratulates both lucky winners, Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk (2018 prize) and Austria’s Peter Handke (2019 prize). As is often the case, I haven’t heard of either one of them because I’m too busy reading old books by dead guys, but I may get around to reading their critically acclaimed works in decades to come.

Each year Old Books by Dead Guys presents the cumulative list of works by Nobel laureates that have been reviewed at this blog. From now on, this list will be featured as a permanent page on the blog, with a link in the navigation bar, and will be regularly updated to serve as a reference for those interested in exploring the works of the Nobel laureates.


Over the past year, Old Books by Dead Guys has reviewed 22 works by Nobel laureates. Making their first appearance on the list this year are France’s Henri Bergson and François Mauriac, Sweden’s Sigrid Undset, Finland’s Frans Eemil Sillanpää, Russia’s Mikhail Sholokhov, Portugal’s José Saramago, Turkey’s (still very much alive) Orhan Pamuk, and a monumental trilogy by Denmark’s Johannes V. Jensen. Plus, more new works by the likes of Henryk Sienkiewicz, Hermann Hesse, John Steinbeck, and more! Check out the authors below and click on the titles to read the complete reviews.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱


Rudyard Kipling (1907 Nobel) United Kingdom (born in India) 🇬🇧

Selma Lagerlöf (1909 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪


Paul von Heyse (1910 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪


Maurice Maeterlinck (1911 Nobel) Belgium 🇧🇪


Gerhart Hauptmann (1912 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪


Rabindranath Tagore (1913 Nobel) India 🇮🇳

Romain Rolland (1915 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Verner von Heidenstam (1916 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Henrik Pontoppidan (1917 Nobel) Denmark 🇩🇰

Carl Spitteler (1919 Nobel) Switzerland 🇨🇭

Knut Hamsun (1920 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Anatole France (1921 Nobel) France 🇫🇷


Wladyslaw Reymont (1924 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱


George Benard Shaw (1925 Nobel) Ireland 🇮🇪


Henri Bergson (1927 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Sigrid Undset (1928 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴
  • Jenny (1911) - 2.5 stars

Sinclair Lewis (1930 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Ivan Bunin (1933 Nobel) France (born in Russia) 🇫🇷 🇷🇺

Eugene O’Neill (1936 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Pearl S. Buck (1938 Nobel) United States of America (raised in China) 🇺🇸


Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1939 Nobel) Finland 🇫🇮

Johannes Vilhelm Jensen (1944 Nobel) Denmark 🇩🇰

Hermann Hesse (1946 Nobel) Switzerland (born in Germany) 🇨🇭 🇩🇪

Bertrand Russell (1950 Nobel) United Kingdom 🇬🇧


Pär Lagerkvist (1951 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪


François Mauriac (1952 Nobel) 
France 🇫🇷

Ernest Hemingway (1954 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Halldór Laxness (1955 Nobel) Iceland 🇮🇸

Borris Pasternak (1958 Nobel) Russia (Soviet Union) 🇷🇺

John Steinbeck (1962 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Mikhail Sholokhov (1965 Nobel) Soviet Union 🇷🇺

José Saramago (1998 Nobel) Portugal 🇵🇹

Orhan Pamuk (2006 Nobel) Turkey 🇹🇷
  • Snow (2002) - 3.5 stars

Mo Yan (2012 Nobel) China 🇨🇳

Bob Dylan (2016 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Bonus: Albert Einstein (1921 Nobel in Physics) Germany/Switzerland 🇩🇪 🇨🇭

See you next year, Nobel!

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought by Robert J. Richards



Vindicating evolution’s controversial champion
Charles Darwin may have formulated the theory of evolution, but most people learned about it from Ernst Haeckel. Following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Haeckel, a German biologist, became one of the theory’s earliest and most outspoken champions. He spread the gospel of evolution through his popular books, many of which he illustrated himself with beautiful works of zoological art. While Darwin’s revolutionary theory was very controversial for its time, Haeckel’s presentation of it was even more so. Haeckel built an entire atheistic philosophy around evolution and used evolutionary theory to vehemently attack religion. Over the course of his career, Haeckel was accused of overzealously fabricating fraudulent illustrations to support his scientific claims. He has also been posthumously accused of having inspired Nazi ideology. In his 2008 biography of Haeckel, The Tragic Sense of Life, author Robert J. Richards closely examines the life and work of this controversial figure and assesses the validity of the accusations that have been leveled against Haeckel, both during his lifetime and after his death.

While, as the subtitle indicates, much of the book deals with the “Struggle over Evolutionary Thought,” The Tragic Sense of Life is also in fact a true cradle-to-grave biography of Haeckel, and a very good one. The early chapters on Haeckel’s intellectual development are particularly fascinating. Richards elegantly delineates a chain of thought from Kant to Goethe to Humboldt to Darwin to Haeckel, illustrating each figure’s influence on his follower and how the ideals of Romanticism trickled down the chain and filtered into Haeckel’s work. Richards also makes a strong case that events in Haeckel’s personal life, most notably the death of his first wife, altered his philosophical outlook and thus affected the course of his scientific career.

Like most Europeans of the 19th century, Haeckel was a racist, or more specifically, a racialist. When the theory of evolution burst upon the scientific landscape, most biologists believed that the races of mankind were separate species, perhaps even descended from different families of apes. Whites were seen as more highly evolved than the “primitive” or “lesser” races. (Richards cites biologist Friedrich Tiedemann as one exception who did not hold these views.) This racialist view of humanity is evident in Haeckel’s work, an unfortunate relic of the times in which he lived. Richards disproves, however, any assertions that Haeckel was an anti-Semite, demonstrating in fact that he had a very enlightened attitude toward the Jews. Richards addresses the scandal over Haeckel’s “fraudulent” illustrations by weighing the arguments on both sides, concluding the fiasco was more of a stupid mistake than intentional chicanery. The same thorough scrutiny is applied to the accusations of proto-Nazism. There seems little doubt that racialism and a twisted interpretation of evolutionary theory were a part of Nazi ideology, but Haeckel’s atheistic philosophy and favorable attitude towards the Jews make him an unlikely progenitor of the Nazi party line. The Nazis themselves, at one point, officially denied Haeckel as an ideological influence.

This book is a very comprehensive examination of Haeckel’s scientific career and delves quite a bit into 19th century philosophical theory. Nevertheless, though aimed at a scholarly audience it is quite accessible to the general reader and makes a fascinating read for any admirer of Haeckel’s work. The second appendix, however, a lecture on historiography and a recapitulation of the Nazi debate, is aimed strictly at historians and is best skipped by the nonacademic reader.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon.com and give me a “helpful’ vote. Thank you.
https://www.amazon.com/review/R3QSSUSTV3B58G/ref=cm_cr_srp_d_rdp_perm

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Snow by Orhan Pamuk



Cold Turkey
Snow is a novel by Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature. It was originally published in 2002, under the Turkish title of Kar. The novel’s protagonist is a Turkish poet named Ka (a pseudonym composed of his initials) who is relatively famous in his homeland. For the past twelve years, he has been living as a political exile in Berlin. Upon returning to his native land, he journeys to Kars, a smaller city on the eastern edge of Turkey. Ostensibly, he is there working as a journalist to report on the political situation in this remote provincial district, and in particular to follow up on reports of young Muslim women who have committed suicide after being persecuted by the secular government for wearing head scarves. Ka’s real reason for venturing to Kars, however, is in hopes of reuniting with a beautiful woman friend from his college days and winning her love.

Soon after arriving in Kars, however, Ka can’t help but get involved in local politics, as representatives of various factions, drawn by his literary reputation, seek him out to share their views and ascertain his political and religious loyalties. The political landscape in Kars is a complex patchwork of conflicting sects from all shades of the political spectrum, and the police and military employ torture and beatings to subdue dissent. The entire novel takes place over the course of just a few days, during which time snow falls heavily on Kars, providing inspiration for Ka’s poetry but also shutting down all roads into and out of the city. During this period of enforced isolation, a Turkish Republican launches a coup to overthrow the Kars government and installs a conservative regime even more antagonistic to the city’s Islamists, leftists, and Kurds.

This novel is fascinating for what it reveals about Turkey, a nation that most western readers likely know little about. Snow is at its most authentic and compelling when it is discussing politics and social conditions. What’s less successful is the drama of the characters’ lives. Despite the violence, poverty, and unrest all around him, Ka strolls the streets with the boundless optimism of a love-struck Romeo. He exists in a fantasy world where perfect strangers spill their innermost hopes and dreams to him upon first meeting and perfect poems conveniently materialize out of some spiritual ether. This is the kind of fanciful world that authors love and literary critics gush over, but it doesn’t ring true to the world we live in. Up until the last few chapters, Pamuk chronicles Ka’s escapades with a touch of humor that clashes with the shootings and beatings taking place. This disconnect in tone is likely intentional on Pamuk’s part, but to this reader it felt off.

The novel is narrated by Pamuk, who occasionally breaks into the narrative with his first-person perspective, portraying himself as a writer investigating the life of Ka and attempting to track down the missing poems Ka wrote while in Kars. Since the poems are lost, the book is constantly discussing verses that the reader never gets to read, which makes it awfully hard to find them interesting. The reading experience would have been much more satisfying had the poems been found and included in the book, à la Doctor Zhivago.

Snow is certainly worth reading but not quite the masterpiece I expected, given the accolades it has received. It broadened my knowledge of and interest in Turkey, and Pamuk proves himself an intriguing author whose body of work deserves further investigation.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon.com and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.
https://www.amazon.com/review/R1ARE9164DLL8S/ref=cm_cr_srp_d_rdp_perm

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Dropsie Avenue by Will Eisner



The life and death of a neighborhood
Originally published in 1995, Dropsie Avenue is the third graphic novel in Will Eisner’s Contract with God trilogy, following A Contract with God (1978) and A Life Force (1988). All three works take place in a fictional neighborhood named Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx. A Contract with God and A Life Force were both set during the Great Depression and based somewhat on Eisner’s own memories of his childhood in a Bronx tenement building. In this third graphic novel in the series, however, Eisner creates a narrative with a much broader and more ambitious scope. Dropsie Avenue is essentially the life story of the neighborhood itself.

Eisner begins his narrative in 1870, when the Bronx was largely farmland inhabited by Dutch immigrants. Once the English start moving in, there goes the neighborhood! Then just a few years later, the English find themselves saying the same thing about the Irish. Long-term residents depart in disgust as they see their property values drop, and conflict arises as each new wave of immigrants moves into the neighborhood, from the Italians to the Jews to the Hispanics and the African Americans. At first the Whites don’t want to live next to the Blacks, and the Catholics don’t want to live next to the Jews, but over time some learn to tolerate, respect, and even like one another. At each step in the process, opportunistic real estate developers change the face of the neighborhood, from agricultural fields to single-dwelling houses to tenement buildings. As the income level of the inhabitants progressively drops, racial violence, organized crime, drug use, and urban blight steadily rise. Some residents still hold out hope for the neighborhood, however, and make efforts to preserve and strengthen the Dropsie Avenue community.

Since Eisner spans over a century of history in about 170 pages, a lot of characters drift in an out over the course of the narrative. In some cases, Eisner can concisely chart the trajectory of a character’s life and fortunes in a single page of six to nine panels. Over time, however, the reader begins to notice certain prominent families who pop up generation after generation, and several recurring characters make their way to the forefront of the plot, such as the Jewish lawyer Abie Gold, the ragpicker turned landlord Izzy Cash, the Italian political boss Polo Palermo, and Ruby Brown, the daughter of the first black family to move into the neighborhood. Eisner expertly intertwines the storylines of a large ensemble cast, illustrating the drama of everyday lives with the elegance and eloquence of a classic naturalist novelist. After weaving such a rich narrative tapestry, however, the story’s only unfortunate flaw is an ending that is a little too convenient and too abrupt.

The art in Dropsie Avenue is superb, even better than the two prior graphic novels in the series. Even though Eisner did excellent work back in the 1940s, here a half century later he demonstrates that he is one of those rare artists that progressively improves with age until the very end of their careers. The page layouts are incredibly innovative, with the lives of the expressive characters meshing seamlessly with gorgeous drawings of urban architecture as detailed as architectural renderings. Eisner’s one weakness, artistically, is his depiction of the various ethnic groups that populate the story. Although he’s come a long way from Ebony White in the days of The Spirit, some of the Italians, Jews, and African Americans still have the feel of stereotypical caricatures (a common problem for a lot of comics artists). Overall, however, there is no denying that Dropsie Avenue is a landmark work of graphic literature capping off an absolutely phenomenal trilogy that is one of the most monumental achievements in the comics art form.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon.com and give me a “helpful’ vote. Thank you.
https://www.amazon.com/review/R8ZAF407TZXN7/ref=cm_cr_srp_d_rdp_perm