Friday, July 30, 2021

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer

Protecting cultural heritage from al-Qaeda
During the Middle Ages, when Europe was experiencing an extended descent towards barbarism, Islamic scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, and poets played an important role in carrying the torch of knowledge and advancing intellectual discourse. Western history books tend to depict sub-Saharan Africa as a cultural blank slate until the modern era, but from the 13th to the 17th century the city of Timbuktu in the nation of Mali was a thriving center of Islamic learning and written scholarship. Prior to the printing press, ideas were disseminated through hand-copied manuscripts, usually written on parchment and often augmented by beautiful painted illustrations and elaborately decorated bindings.

In his 2016 book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, journalist Joshua Hammer reveals that hundreds of thousands of these historic manuscripts have survived to the present day, mostly hidden in the homes of private citizens and passed down within families for generations. Hammer explains how in the last few decades cultural heritage organizations, and one dedicated librarian in particular, began collecting these manuscripts and transferring them to newly built libraries so they could be restored and preserved, thus making centuries-old texts newly accessible to contemporary scholars.

In this book, Hammer provides a revealing glimpse into Timbuktu’s centuries-old history as a center of learning, but he also gives the reader a vivid view of life in contemporary Mali. He meticulously charts the 21st-century rise of Islamic jihadism in North Africa, which poses a severe threat to the existence of these priceless artifacts. When a combined force of al-Qaeda militants and Tuareg rebels invaded northern Mali, Timbuktu was occupied by a jihadist government that instituted a brutally draconian form of Sharia law. Under this ultraconservative interpretation of Islam, the manuscripts were seen as immoral and targeted for destruction. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible and inspiring story of how a few brave Malian librarians, with the help of many local volunteers and international donors, managed to save hundreds of thousands of these medieval manuscripts by smuggling them out from under al-Qaeda’s nose.

If you are approaching this book as a bibliophile or lover of libraries, be forewarned that the majority of the story is about politics, terrorism, and military activity. The manuscripts themselves only feature prominently in the first few chapters of the book. Nevertheless, even though I’m not one to buy books on current political events, I found Hammer’s telling of this story captivating from beginning to end. He delves into a great deal of detail on Islamic terrorists and the formation of their various factions, but he does so in an articulate style that makes the history accessible and memorable even to news-challenged general readers. I learned quite a bit about Islam from this book, not just the negative aspects we see on the news, such as terrorism and war, but also the positive aspects of Islamic culture and the intellectual tradition of Islamic science, arts, and letters in African history. Hammer’s skillfully penned account delivers an eye-opening education amid a political thriller that will have you rooting for these unsung book-saving heroes.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Essential Fantastic Four, Volume 1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Glory days of the Silver Age
Essential Fantastic Four, Volume 1 reprints the first twenty issues of the Fantastic Four comic book, which originally ran from November 1961 to November 1963, as well as the first Fantastic Four Annual from 1963. Marvel’s Essential series reproduces comics in black-and-white on newsprint paper. I have previously read the first ten issues of Fantastic Four in Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four, Volume 1, which reprints the comics in color on glossier paper. With over twice as many issues included, however, the Essential version gives one a better idea of how the characters and the series developed over time.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s work for Marvel in the 1960s was truly groundbreaking, and perhaps no title was more innovative than Fantastic Four, which they immodestly subtitled “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” Though the FF bears obvious similarities to an earlier team of heroes that Kirby created for DC, the Challengers of the Unknown, the addition of a woman to the cast and the introduction of a family dynamic among the heroes made the FF a unique reading experience for its era. While saving the world, the FF faced real-life problems and displayed the personality flaws of mere mortals. At the same time, however, this was the most sci-fi of Marvel’s Silver Age superhero titles, and the Four faced bizarre and outlandish menaces at every turn. In these first 20 issues, Lee and Kirby introduced villains that would prove eminently memorable for decades to come, most notably Dr. Doom, Marvel’s all-around top bad guy. In addition to resurrecting Bill Everett’s Golden Age character the Sub-Mariner, Lee and Kirby introduce readers to the Mole Man, the Skrulls, the Puppet Master, the Impossible Man, the Red Ghost and his Super Apes, the Mad Thinker, the Molecule Man, and Rama-Tut (later revealed to be an incarnation of the time-traveling Kang).

These landmark stories are not without their flaws, however. The first is the role of Susan Storm, the Invisible Girl. She hasn’t yet discovered her ability to create force fields, so her powers here are limited to just turning herself invisible. This gives her very little to do but play the hostage in most situations. On the other hand, the other three members protest too much when they assert that she plays a valuable role in the team by providing moral support to the men. In contrast, the powers of the Human Torch and Mr. Fantastic seem almost limitless. Like some orange version of Green Lantern, the Torch seems to be able to make all sorts of unreasonable constructions out of flame. He can even create “fire that doesn’t burn” and holographic “flame images.” He already knows he can burn hotter than a supernova, which always seemed ridiculous, but even more so in these earlier tales. Reed Richards can manage his stretching ability so well he’s able to squeeze through molecule-thin gaps, and one panel describes him as a judo expert!

Though these issues were some of the most innovative comics for their day, to the modern reader the first 20 issues do start to get a bit monotonous. Dr. Doom and the Sub-Mariner make multiple appearances, the Thing continually changes to Ben Grimm and back, and the squabbles between team members start to get repetitive. Fantastic Four Annual #1 is a great addition to this volume because the epic 37 page story gives Kirby a chance to indulge in elaborate world-building visuals for the Sub-Mariner’s Atlantis, like an undersea Asgard. In terms of plot, these first few years of the Fantastic Four have their ups and downs, but Kirby’s art is always a joy to behold, and there’s no denying that these initial stories laid a monumental foundation upon which to build many classic comic adventures to come.

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Monday, July 26, 2021

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804, Volume 2 by Alexander von Humboldt

From the Orinoco to the Amazon and back
Alexander von Humboldt
Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition to the New World from 1799 to 1804 was a landmark event not only for the history of scientific exploration but also for the nascent genre of nature writing. Humboldt’s journey to Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Cuba, and Mexico yielded at least 30 volumes of published findings. Most of these books were specialized tomes on botany, zoology, mineralogy, or cultural geography. His Personal Narrative, however, was intended to be the all-encompassing account of the expedition for general readers. In this three-volume work, Humboldt combines copious scientific data with personal reflections on his travels, including numerous diversions into a variety of fields that represent his staggeringly broad range of interests and expertise.

Though the first volume of the Personal Narrative was a fascinating read, the second volume is more enjoyable, for a few reasons. One is that the entire narrative takes place in Venezuela, since the previous volume already covered the journey to get there. Also, the events related in Volume 2 are unified by a single compelling mission. Humboldt and his traveling companion, the French botanist Aimé Bonpland, set out to investigate the rumor of a natural canal, the Casiquiare, that connects the watersheds of the Orinoco and Amazon river basins. The pair traveled 1,725 miles to establish the veracity of this unique geographical feature. In addition, Humboldt’s writing in this second volume is more accessible than that of Volume 1. His prose reads less like a string of empirical data and more like a series of scientific travel essays.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Humboldt production without multiple asides into topics that interest him, often resulting in digressions within digressions. Humboldt, the ultimate generalist, left no field of study untouched in his explorations. He was an expert not only in the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms, but also in geography, meteorology, astronomy, anthropology, linguistics, and the politics and history of South America. The vast range of subjects he pontificates upon include the influence of physical geography on the worldwide development of agriculture, a tree that produces a milk-like sap, the results of his extensive (and dangerous) experiments with electric eels, the unjust treatment of the Indigenous population by the Spanish missionaries, the chemical properties that determine the different colors of water in various rivers and lakes, the history of cannibalism, the truth behind the rumors of a tribe of women warriors (from which the Amazon river gets its name), and one of Humboldt’s favorite subjects, people who eat dirt (a practice more widespread than you’d think). In all cases Humboldt compares his observations in Venezuela with phenomena he has witnessed and studied throughout the world.

One taxing aspect of the Personal Narrative is that much of Humboldt’s text is devoted to geographical information that could better be conveyed through maps—the direction of mountain ranges, the tributaries of rivers, and so forth. The reader spends a great deal of time wading through a jumble of place names and compass points. Perhaps the original editions of the three volumes included a map or two, but you won’t find them in the public domain versions that you can now download for free. If Humboldt didn’t provide maps, he should have, and if he did, then much of his descriptive text is redundant. Even so, Volume 2 of the Personal Narrative is still a wonderful, intellectually stimulating thrill ride through the sun-drenched plains and dense jungles of South America, with one of history’s great polymaths as your enlightened tour guide.

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Monday, July 19, 2021

The Modern Prometheus by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Guilt-ridden romance
E. Phillips Oppenheim
I recently discovered the work of British author E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) and have enjoyed reading a couple of his books. He published over 100 novels, most of them thrillers involving espionage, crime, or political intrigue, and many of them bestsellers. Other than 
The Great Impersonation, which is probably his best-known work, I really don’t know which of his books are considered his best. So when I decided to read more Oppenheim, I just scrolled through the novels in the Delphi Classics’ Collected Works of E. Phillips Oppenheim and chose one randomly by title. Looking for a shorter work, I settled on The Modern Prometheus, published in 1896. The title intrigued me because it is reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. I did not expect Oppenheim’s novel to bear any similarity to Frankenstein, but it is surprising that the story doesn’t seem to have any relation at all to the myth of Prometheus.

In the opening chapter, we are introduced to Francis Kernham, a reluctant celebrity in his hometown of London. He is a self-made man who has struck it rich digging for gold in a foreign land (the details of his meteoric career are never really revealed). He has returned to London for the first time in a decade, and his primary goal is to track down an old flame. Ten years earlier, Kernham was a struggling writer in a relationship with an equally struggling young actress. He left her to seek his fortune, knowing full well that he was possibly abandoning her to an iniquitous fate, forcing her to capitalize on her beauty and become a “kept woman” (somebody’s mistress) in order to survive. Motivated by both love and guilt, Kernham is now resolved to find his lost lover and face the truth of her unknown fate.

Oppenheim’s forte may be spy stories and adventure tales, but this is just a romance, and a rather dreary one. It is unclear to the reader why any two people in this novel are in love with each other because we never actually see any of the characters enjoying one another’s company. Though there’s a lot of grandiose talk here about love, the only factors that seem to bind couples together are money and physical attraction. The latter element might be sufficiently captivating for a movie, depending on the casting, but not for Victorian prose. For a novel of this era, The Modern Prometheus is admirably forward in its discussions of premarital and extramarital affairs. This is no erotic thriller that capitalizes on scandalousness, however. The narrative is still hampered by the Victorian code of mores that binds gentleman and ladies. Any sexuality that’s hinted at in the narrative only serves to pile on more guilt.

For the first half of the book, Oppenheim does a great job of keeping the reader guessing as to what exactly is going on between Kernham and his mystery woman. Each chapter ends with a bit of a cliffhanger that makes one look forward to the succeeding chapter. Once the basic premise is revealed and established, however, the novel becomes awfully formulaic and clichéd. In scenes seen countless times in old movies and pulp fiction, the characters all take turns renouncing love in the name of honor.

The Modern Prometheus is one of Oppenheim’s earlier works, so perhaps he was still finding his mature authorial voice. His later works call to mind the thrillers of Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie. Though this novel was a disappointment, I will continue to delve blindly into Oppenheim’s prodigious body of work, where I know there are gold nuggets to be found.
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