Friday, March 22, 2019

The Ancient Cities of the New World by Désiré Charnay

On the trail of the Toltecs
Désiré Charnay, a French archaeologist, made two expeditions to Mexico and Central America to explore the remains of ancient cities of pre-Columbian civilizations. His 1887 book The Ancient Cities of the New World details his second trip to the region in 1880-1883, while also referring briefly to his first expedition there in 1857. This book provides a descriptive overview of many archaeological sites, as well as the towns and people that Charnay encountered along the way. The narrative takes place almost entirely in Mexico, except for a couple chapters towards the end in which Charnay visits Mayan ruins in Guatemala. Charnay took photographs during his travels, which were then copied into engravings for reproduction, resulting in a richly illustrated book.

I have traveled extensively in Mexico and have visited many of the archaeological sites that Charnay describes here, including Teotichuacán, Chichen Itza, Palenque, Mitla, and Monte Alban, as well as cities like Veracruz, Puebla, and Mérida. For a Mexicophile like me, it is a joy to read Charnay’s travelogue and get a glimpse of what Mexico was like over a century and a quarter ago. Back then, many of these ancient cities were just beginning to be uncovered. When Charnay stayed at Chichen Itza, for example, the main pyramid was still mostly covered with vegetation, and he and his crew camped in the temple at the top of the pyramid! The book gives an interesting look into an explorer’s life, even though many of the methods and techniques he used might not be considered scientifically acceptable, ethical, or culturally sensitive today.

Charnay ventured so widely and spent so little time at each site, it is hard to believe he was considered an expert on any of the sites he visited. Wherever he goes, he wants to collect artifacts and send them back to the Trocadéro Museum in Paris. He laments the fact that newly established laws concerning cultural patrimony demand that most of his finds end up in the hands of the Mexican government. As an archaeological treatise, I’m not sure how much of Charnay’s conclusions have held up to the test of time. His oft-repeated thesis is that the Toltecs, as progenitors of all Mexican cultures, were responsible for just about every aspect of North American pre-Columbian civilization, thus lessening the contributions of the Olmecs, Aztecs, Maya, and everyone else. He also argues rightly that many of the sites he visited are not thousands of years old, as previously conjectured, but were occupied shortly before the Spanish conquest.

Though the book may or may not have its scientific shortcomings, as a travel narrative it is certainly an enjoyable read. At times it can get boring when Charnay is rattling of measurements or describing artwork that would be better off depicted outright, but he does flesh out his narrative with interesting bits of local legends and mythology. To be honest, the book is easier to like than the author himself, since Charnay often comes across as a conceited jerk. While he likens the ancient civilizations of the New World to Greece or Rome, he laments the barbaric travel accommodations he has to put up with in modern Mexico. He also expresses an almost lecherous attraction for young Latina women. His pomposity, fortunately, is usually more funny than offensive.

The contents of The Ancient Cities of the New World are probably too arcane for those with a casual interest in Mexican travel, but I would recommend it to readers with a genuine enthusiasm for Mexican history and archaeology, especially if you enjoy reading science history from the 19th century.
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Monday, March 4, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 2 by Stan Lee, et al.

More 1960s fun with Cap (and introducing the Falcon!)
This second volume of classic Captain America comics from the Marvel Essentials series picks up where Volume 1 left off. Essential Captain America, Volume 2 reprints issues 103 to 126, which were originally published from 1968 to 1970. All the stories were written by Stan Lee, and initially the art is provided by Jack “King” Kirby, but he departs after the first several issues included here. The middle of the book features brief stints by artists John Romita, John Buscema, and Jim Steranko. The latter was highly regarded back in the day for his innovative page layouts and psychedelic imagery, but in hindsight his art seems overrated and takes too many liberties with the human figure. With issue #116, Gene Colan settles in for an extended stay as artist, and his work is superb. This unsung master’s artistic style, combining the thunderous bombast of Kirby’s work with the anatomical fidelity of Neal Adams, is the perfect graphic complement to Stan Lee’s rollicking adventure stories.

Speaking of which, Lee’s storytelling has improved since the last volume, but it’s still pretty bizarre. The Red Skull continues to make frequent appearances, but thankfully he’s not as ubiquitous as before. MODOK and AIM show up more often, Batroc makes a couple reappearances, Dr. Faustus is introduced, and bad guys from other Marvel titles, like the Trapster and the Scorpion, each stop by for an issue. These villains usually have no plan or objective beyond the assassination of Captain America. Rick Jones (the Hulk’s best friend) decides he wants to be Cap’s sidekick and dons the old costume previously worn by Bucky Barnes. The ease with which he falls into the role defies belief, and his presence is usually more of a burden than a help. In Volume 1, Cap’s secret identity was revealed, and the whole world came to know him as Steve Rogers. In this volume, Lee comes up with a cockamamie plot to fake Steve Rogers’s death, thus negating the identity reveal, but then Cap goes back to being Steve Rogers anyway, as if nothing ever happened. The biggest development within these issues, however, is the debut of the Falcon, one of Marvel’s pioneering black superheroes. He won’t become Cap’s official partner until Volume 3, but he appears in four or five of the issues included here. Although his origin story is a little weird, towards the end of Volume 2 the Captain America title starts to display inklings of an increase in urban realism that would characterize the Falcon’s tenure as co-headliner. 

The tone and subject matter of these issues vacillates between scenes of artfully violent hand-to-hand combat and more pensive moments in which Cap broods over thoughts of loneliness and love. He is still chasing Sharon Carter, but their relationship is not working out because he wants her to give up her career as a SHIELD superspy. (Cap may be a liberal, but he’s not yet a feminist). These moments of heartache and tribulation often seem lifted from a sappy romance comic, but when drawn by Kirby or Colan they at least have the appearance of film noir.

In summation, there’s nothing here that will really go down in history as a Marvel masterpiece, but for the most part it’s just good solid storytelling and art. At times the plot points come across as kitschy or ridiculous, but that’s part of the nostalgic fun. Like it’s predecessor, Volume 2 is an enjoyable trip down memory lane, and I am looking forward to reading the further exploits of Captain America and the Falcon in Volume 3.
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Friday, March 1, 2019

Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life by Scott M. Marshall

The slow train’s still coming
In contrast to the prevailing critical consensus that Bob Dylan did all of his best work in the ‘60s, my favorite period of Dylan’s career consists of his three gospel albums from 1979 to 1981 (Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love) and the two albums that bookended them (Street-Legal and Infidels), which also deal with religious themes. During this era, Dylan was always backed up by a top-notch band, and his lyrics were quite fascinating and compelling. Though I am not a religious man, I appreciate the ever-present biblical references in Dylan’s lyrics in much the same way that a classical philologist appreciates Homer’s references to Greek mythology. Despite our difference in beliefs, the moral message still comes through. Looking to learn more about Dylan’s gospel period and the religious views he’s held throughout his life, I couldn’t have asked for a better guide than Scott M. Marshall’s 2017 book Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life.

For the most part, Marshall examines Dylan’s career chronologically. The book is broken up into chapters devoted to each calendar decade, rather than by any stages in Dylan’s musical development, which seems a strangely arbitrary choice. Marshall’s rather generic thesis, as stated in the introductory chapter, also doesn’t inspire much confidence. He asserts that Dylan has been and is still a monotheist. Gee, ya think? Since Marshall’s not really going out on a limb with that statement, I was worried that this was just going to be a catalog of spiritual references in Dylan’s songs, but it turned out to be much more than that. Beyond an encyclopedic mining of Dylan lyrics, Dylan interviews, and Dylan criticism, Marshall interviews many of Dylan’s associates and does a great job of insightfully connecting the dots between all the data he’s amassed.

I remember growing up in the ‘80s and hearing about how brave U2 was for singing songs with Christian imagery. That was nothing compared to what Dylan did when he became “born again.” He alienated his fan base to the point where he was getting death threats every night he was on tour. He also lost a lot of friends who couldn’t understand this new direction in his music and his life. Marshall covers this period beautifully, providing stories from Dylan’s friends, religious advisors, bandmates, and crew about what those gospel tours were really like, and it is a crazy and fascinating ride. Looking through the notes for the chapters on the ‘70s and the ‘80s, one sees the phrase “Author interview” repeated over and over again, a testament to the diligent legwork Marshall conducted in investigating this mysterious period in Dylan’s life. The chapters after that, not so much, but I still learned a great deal about Dylan, and the book is really an addictive read.

Many critics have argued over whether Dylan is a Jew or a Christian, or have chastised him for not being enough of either. Marshall illustrates that Dylan is both, and he draws his spiritual strength from both faiths. Dylan is essentially a Jew who believes that Christ was the Messiah promised by the Hebrew prophets. Marshall also finds fault with those who think Dylan’s embracing of Christianity ended in 1981. He demonstrates how Dylan has continued to make statements of belief, both Christian and Judaic, in music and interviews up to the present day.

Just as you don’t need to be a Christian to get the protest message of “Slow Train,” you don’t need to subscribe to any particular faith in order to enjoy this book. In fact, nonbelievers can probably appreciate the book more objectively than those looking to take sides in the argument over Dylan’s beliefs. As an avid fan, this is one of the best books on Dylan that I’ve read.
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