Cool Reading 2007

A reading journal by Stephen Balbach

Reading journals from other years:
2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013,
2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022


Old Christmas illustrated by Randolph Caldecott

Washington Irving (1819-1820)
Paperback, Dover Pictorial Archive Series, 2005
December 2007

"Old Christmas" is a collection of five Christmas "sketches" by Washington Irving from his famous Sketch Book. It describes Irving's experiences at the old English country estate Mr. Bracebridge during the "coaching days" of the early 19th century, focusing on the sights, sounds, smells and traditions of "Old" Christmas, hearkening back to the Middle Ages -- before the "peasants" had learned to read newspapers or were talking politics at the local pub, when manner lords opened their halls for the local people to feast in a show of gratitude, under the watchful stare of paintings of ancient family crusaders and armored statues. This wonderful account has a tangible sense of realism mixed with romanticism for the Middle Ages and the comforts of tradition.

The 100+ pen and ink drawings throughout are by Randolph Caldecott, a prolific and famous children's book artist of the 19th century. This illustrated edition was created in 1886 (posthumously to Irving) and was a best seller, remaining in print to this day. The pictures bring the book to life, we see the exact "physiognomy" and "countenance" of the many curious Dickens-like characters, the scenes of feasting and dancing, the old English kitchens, the stage coach, the dress and mannerisms of a "Coachy" - priceless details that effortlessly transport the reader back in time.


The Chimes A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In

Charles Dickens (1844)
Hardcover "Books, Inc." 1936 set of 20 Vol.III ("A Christmas Carol/American Notes")
December 2007


A History of Histories Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquires from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century

John Burrow (2007)
Hardcover, first English
December 2007

John Burrow is a professor of that somewhat orphaned discipline "history of ideas", or intellectual history. His earlier books include Evolution and Society: a study in Victorian Social Theory (1966), A Liberal Descent: four Victorian Historians (1981), which won the Wolfson Prize for History, Gibbon (1984) and The Crisis of Reason: European Thought 1848-1914 (2000).

Burrow approaches A History of Histories as an intellectual historian, and not a critic. That means you won't find critiques regarding historical accuracy. Instead Burrow emphasizes the general character of the historians achievement, relying on the work of specialized scholars and biographers: the biography lists many excellent "secondary" sources a few of which Burrow has relied heavily on. He is, in a sense, a popularizer of some the most important histories, his goal being to "give a sense of the experience of reading these histories and what may be enjoyable about them"; he assumes that you have not read or even heard of the works. Such an approach, which mixes interpretation and summary, allows Burrow to cover a great number of works across time - from Herodotus to the late 20th century - but at some cost: a reader may feel they understand the significance of a work, but a connected developing narrative seems unclear; and while there are many block quotes (in particular with the earlier authors), often one yearns for more of a taste of the work.

How can one create a narrative of a "history of histories"? Burrow examines the ideas of the past, and how today we stand in relation to those ideas, as expressed in history books. These themes include the emerging conception of a distinct European identity contrasted with Asia (Greece vs Persia); ideas of republican virtue in early Rome, supposedly corrupted by conquest and vice; the Bible's narrative of transgression, punishment and redemption; the idea of an early Germanic state of "freedom" as the ultimate basis for modern constitutional democracy; 19th century ideas of nationalism; 20th century divergences into many genres, none of which dominate.

At its best, A History of Histories conveys the imaginative energies of some of the worlds most famous and important historians. In the end a book such as this really only matter if it sends us off -- for the first or 10th time -- to read Gibbon's account of a Fall, Xenophon's travels through the desert or Parkman's epic of the New World. These works are kept alive because every new generation re-discovers their qualities, and that is why they still matter.


The Pickwick Papers

Charles Dickens (1836)
Hardcover "Books, Inc." 1936 set of 20 Vol.VII
December 2007

In 1890's, about 60 years after The Pickwick Papers was published, literary scholar Percy H. Fitzgerald looked back and reminisced about the novel in two books, The History of Pickwick (1891) and Pickwickian Manners and Customs (1897). Below are some excerpts from Fitzgerald which I believe capture the spirit of the time and why the novel was so popular with generations of Victorians. The Pickwick Papers is certainly a novel of comedy, but as these quotes illustrate, it is also a romantic work, romanticizing about times gone by (the late 18th and early 19th century), which gives it a whole new level of good cheer and warmth. Not unlike the movie A Christmas Story, filmed in 1983 but set around 1939, both works are nostalgic comforts for adults and children, of memories past and lives current, creating a mythology that has never died. Today of course no one alive feels teary-eyed about the by-gone, innocent and simple olden days described in Pickwick; no one remembers the excitement of the delivery of the next green papered installment and having your father read it it aloud to the family after dinner. If the modern reader can transport back to that perspective, the novel comes alive in ways that were hidden before - it is not only funny, not only Dickens first novel, not only a literary masterpiece, it is a romantic and nostalgic journey.


THERE are many who look back with delight to the days of their childhood, when " Pickwick," in its green wrappers, was coming out month by month, and furnished nearly two years of sustained enjoyment to people of all ages and conditions. The cherished numbers, bound into a volume, now lie before me, and bring back the recollection of the almost feverish expectancy with which its mirth-moving incidents were awaited or listened to, as the head of the family read them aloud, to increase, it might be, his own sense of the relish. Not the least merit in this book is that it should have been thus appreciated by children ; but the aged found no less enjoyment in its humours; so those of the old and new fashion were alike recreated. This was in itself a phenomenon.

The book is so rich in suggestion, so stored with humorous touches and allusions, that each reading as Professor Ward has pointed out brings out something that has escaped notice: while the general hilarity is so overpowering that many delicate touches escape notice, and require pause and deliberation to discover.

The sale of this extraordinary work has never flagged during fifty years, and we are told that, since the death of the author, over a million copies have been disposed of by its publishers.


PEOPLE, indeed, seem never to tire of the subject the same topics are taken up over and over again. The secret seems to be that the book was a living thing, and still lives. It is, moreover, perhaps the best, most accurate picture of character and manners that are quite gone by: in it the meaning and significance of old buildings, old inns, old churches, and old towns are reached, and interpreted in most interesting fashion people are reckoning up the wonderful changes in life and manners that have taken place within the past sixty years. These have been so imperceptibly made that they are likely to escape our ken, and the eye chiefly settles on some few of the more striking and monu- mental kind, such as the introduction of railways, of ocean steamships, electricity, and the like. But no standard of comparison could be more useful or more compendious than the immortal chronicle of PICKWICK, in which the old life, not forgotten by some of us, is summarised with the com- pleteness of a history. The reign of Pickwick, like that of the sovereign, began some sixty years ago. Let us recall some of these changes.

To begin : We have now no arrest for debt, with the attendant sponging-houses, Cursitor Street, sheriffs' officers, and bailiffs; and no great Fleet Prison, Marshal- sea, or King's Bench for imprisoning debtors. There are no polling days and hustings, with riotous proceedings, or "hocussing" of voters ; and no bribery on a splendid scale.

Drinking and drunkenness in society have quite gone out of fashion. Gentlemen at a country house rarely or never come up from dinner, or return from a cricket match, in an almost "beastly " state of intoxication; and "cold punch" is not very constantly drunk through the day. There are no elopements now in chaises and four, like Miss Wardle's, with headlong pursuit in other chaises and four; nor are special licenses issued at a moment's notice to help clandestine marriages. There is now no frequenting of taverns and " free and easies " by gentlemen, at the "Magpie and Stump" and such places, nor do persons of means take up their residence at houses like the "George and Vulture" in the City. No galleried inns (though one still lingers on in Holborn), are there, at which travellers put up : there were then nearly a dozen, in the Borough and else- where. There are no coaches on the great roads, no guards and bulky drivers ; no gigs with hoods, called "cabs," with the driver's seat next his fare; no "hackney coaches," no "Hampstead stages," no "Stanhopes" or "guillotined cabriolets" whatever they were or "mail-carts," the "pwettiest thing" driven by gentlemen. And there are no " sedan chairs " to take Mrs. Dowler home.

There are no "poke" or "coal-scuttle" bonnets, such as the Miss Wardles wore; no knee-breeches and gaiters ; no "tights," with silk stockings and pumps for evening wear ; no big low-crowned hats, no striped vests for valets, and, above all, no gorgeous "uniforms," light blue, crimson, and gold, or "orange plush," such as were worn by the Bath gentlemen's gentlemen. "Thunder and lightning" shirt buttons, "mosaic studs" whatever they were are things of the past. They are all gone. Gone too is "half-price " at the theatres. At Bath, the "White Hart" has disappeared with its waiters dressed so peculiarly "like West- minster boys." We have no Serjeants now like Buzfuz or Snubbin: their Inn is abolished, and so are all the smaller Inns Clement's or Clifford's where the queer client lived. Neither are valentines in high fashion. Chatham Dockyard, with its hierarchy, "the Clubbers," and the rest, has been closed. No one now gives dfy'efads, not dejeuners; or "public breakfasts," such as the authoress of the "Expiring Frog" gave. The "delegates" have been suppressed, and Doctors' Commons itself is levelled to the ground. The "Fox under the Hill" has given place to a great hotel. The old familiar "White Horse Cellars" has been rebuilt, made into shops and a restaurant. There are no "street keepers" now, but the London Police. The Eatanswill Gazette and its scurrilities are not tolerated. Special constables are rarely heard of, and appear only to be laughed at : their staves, tipped with a brass crown, are sold as curios. Turnpikes, which are found largely in "Pickwick," have been suppressed. The abuses of protracted litigation in Chancery and other Courts have been reformed. No papers are "filed at the Temple" whatever that meant. The Pound, as an incident of village correction has, all but a few, disappeared.

Another startling change is in the matter of duels. The duels in Pickwick come about quite as a matter of course, and as a common social incident. In the "forties"! recall a military uncle of my own a gentleman, like uncle Toby handing his card to some one in a billiard room, with a view to "a meeting." Dickens' friend Forster was at one time "going out" with another gentleman. Mr. Lang thinks that duelling was prohibited about 1844, and "Courts of Honour" substituted. But the real cause was the duel between Colonel Fawcett and Lieut. Munro, brothers-in-law, when the former was killed. This, and some other tragedies of the kind, shocked the public. The "Courts of Honour," of course, only affected military men.

Gas was introduced into London about the year 1812 and was thought a prodigiously "brilliant illuminant." But in the Pick- wickian days it was still in a crude state and we can see in the first print that of the club room only two attenuated jets over the table. In many of the prints we find the dip or mould candle, which was used to light Sam as he sat in the coffee room of the Blue Boar. Mr. Nupkins' kitchen was not lit by gas.


IT may seem somewhat far-fetched to put "Pickwick" beside Boswell's also immortal work, but I think really the comparison is not a fanciful one. No one enjoyed the book so much as "Boz." He knew it thoroughly. Indeed, it is fitting that "Boz" should relish " Bozzy;" for "Bozzy" would certainly have relished "Boz" and have "attended him with respectful attention." It has not been yet shown how much there is in common between the two great books, and, indeed, between them and a third, greater than either, the immortal "Don Quixote." All three are "travelling stories." Sterne also was partial to a travelling story.

For an excellent review of Pickwick Papers, see Murr's Review November 17, 2008

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Tracy Chevalier (1999)
December 2007

Beautiful and somewhat believable journey into a everyday life of 17th century Netherlands. The plot uses standard rules of romance first set down by 19th century writers like Jane Austen. It also displays some modern feminist values about women and pictures ("He traps them in his world, you can get lost there."). Both of these would make it seem foreign to a contemporary, but it creates a bridge of understanding backwards in time.

Griet, a 17 year old illiterate maid, has an natural artists eye for composition and offers her advice to Vermeer. For example she finds fault in a composition's perfection by rumpling a cloth on a table to provide distraction and sense of balance. Likewise the story of her brother Franz and her sister who dies of plague provide dark contrast to the perl that is Griet's successful life. The perl in the painting is Griet, she is the center that holds the novel together, the bright light surrounded by various pieces - her covered hair represents her virginity; her bleeding, painful and pierced earlobes have a more direct symbolism.

Looking for faults I would say it was the unsympathetic treatment of Vermeer's wife Catharina, who, is in many ways the victim of Vermeer and ultimately Griert. She is a somewhat flat character (as are her daughters) and serves mainly as a so much background contrast, an easy foil or villein in a melodramatic plot. She doesn't change in the end, although she hands over the pearl, only because she has no choice it was her husbands wish, and not because of any internal enlightenment about forgiveness and charity. However the lesson that the husband is "Master" is apparently not lost on Griert who sells the pearls for the price of a Maid.


The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance

John Hale (1993)
Hardcover, first American
December 2007

John Rigby Hale (1922-1999) was a legendary Renaissance scholar, this was his last and probably greatest work. The title is an allusion to Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) - which seems presumptuous considering Burkhardt is the single most important historian of the Renaissance; however it succeeds - Hale has written a modern up to date version of Burckhardt's masterpiece. Just a few months after the final draft Hale had a debilitating stroke, with the final version touched up by his wife and some professional friends. It is one of those rare books that enters the realm of the mythological.

Hale's style can be compared to a French impressionistic painting. The texture and details awash over the reader like so many dots forming grand narratives and themes; one not so much understands in so many words, but experiences understanding through the revelation of others. Unlike many historical surveys which tell the reader how things were, Hale shows it through direct quotes from the people who lived the age. This is not always easy going, the mind has to constantly shift between examining the dots and the image it paints, sort of like the optical illusion of a vase, or two faces looking at one another, back and forth between perspectives, it is not a book for speedy reading but contemplation and absorption.

Although many subjects are covered in this imaginative social survey, the consistent theme of "civilization" has a title role. In the Middle Ages, Europeans envisioned themselves as belonging to one of three "Estates": The Clergy, The Nobles (warriors), The Peasants. The vast majority were peasants who worked on behalf of the other two estates, who in turn protected and prayed for them. Those who work, fight and pray lived ideally in a sort of balanced harmony according to Christian precepts. However the Peasant estate also included urban merchants, and with increased prosperity in the latter Middle Ages, the distinction between peasant and noble became blurred as merchants became as powerful as nobles (Medici). Other things changed like guns and longbows allowed peasants to fight just as well as knights (100 Years War), so the three estate view started to break down. By the Renaissance, with the rediscovery of Classical texts, they looked back and asked how the Ancients structured society and found it was based on a 2-tier system: civilized and "barbarian" (uncivilized). The 3-tier Christian view was gradually replaced with the 2-tier secular system, which we still use to this day (civil laws, clash of civilizations, uncivilized behavior, civics, etc..). Order, peace and harmony is maintained through civilization and all it entails (education, prosperity, freedom, etc), and what that meant was being worked out in this period.

Hale shows a profound and noticeable change within a single generation starting around the middle of the 15th century, people were conscious and aware of a shift, often saying how they now lived in a modern era, one that surpassed even the ancients. Although they wrongly disparaged the Middle Ages as backwards (a sentiment that sadly still lives to this day among some scholars and the public alike), they were correct that things really did change. Hale's primary theme are these changes as so many contrasting bright new colors on the pale canvas of tradition. By the end of the Thirty Years' War in the early 17th century society had absorbed too many structural changes and "civilization" was collapsing - this lead to a retrenchment through the era of the "Old Regime" and finally, after a period of restoration and stability, an era of social and industrial Revolution in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the world we inherit.


Fleeing Hitler: France 1940

Hanna Diamond (2007)
Hardcover first
November 2007

I originally bought Fleeing Hitler for a family member, who as a child took part in the Parisian "Exodus" in the summer of 1940 as Hitler advanced at Blitzkrieg speed into France. I honestly didn't think a book about civilians fleeing would be very interesting, it's such a seemingly minor, and for many embarrassing event in World War II history; but I was soon hooked after reading the first few pages. Not only did the Exodus directly shape the course of the war, Fleeing Hitler is hugely educational, entertaining, and even relevant today.

Diamond unfolds the events with liberal use of direct quotes from about a dozen people who left excellent accounts, published and private. The first few chapters describe the build-up to war, invasion, the "phony war" and finally the Exodus itself. Diamond has a novelists sense of building a story so that by the time the Nazi's invade you feel ready to flee along with everyone else. Then there is an excellent history of how and why the French government split into the Vichy government and the government in exile - this has always been a confusing for me, but now I understand it was largely in direct consequence of the Exodus.

I live in the DC region and after 9/11 I sometimes wonder what I would do in a evacuation (terror, hurricane, pandemic, etc). Clearly, the first decision is whether to leave home when there is confusion and conflicting instructions from authorities, the road can be more dangerous than staying home when order breaks down. Assuming one leaves, the number one lesson is to always keep your family together, never separate, even for a brief time - in the case of 1940 some families took years to re-unite after being briefly separated on the road, it was probably the worst long term consequence of the Exodus.

Fleeing Hitler can be enjoyed on many levels, from WWII history of a largely forgotten and unknown but major event, to personal stories of survival, to general lessons about evacuations and what happens when a modern western industrial society breaks down.


Europe, 1648-1815: From the Old Regime to the Age of Revolution

Robin W. Winks (2003)
Paperback, 2004
November 2007

The period between the end of the Thirty Years War (1648) and the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) is covered in this short readable undergraduate survey, part of a series by the author that covers all of European history. The first half of the period is characterized by recovery and consolidation after an age of chaos (16th and early 17th century Wars of Religion); the second half by a movement to towards Enlightenment and Revolution (political and industrial).

Although no one living at the time saw themselves as transitory, historians today see the period as a transition from the Medieval to the Modern, sometimes called the "Early Modern". This perspective makes me wonder if our time will be securely placed within history, or be a road sign pointing to a as yet unknown destination not afforded the attention and study of other more interesting periods (the Renaissance, the Ancients). As an introductory school survey for a semester long class, it at least mentions in passing most of the important things, but because of its brevity, it does not bring the period to life. On the other hand, it's nice to read about things like The French Revolution from start to end in 10 pages to get a big picture view.


The Tokyo Look Book: Stylish To Spectacular, Goth To Gyaru, Sidewalk To Catwalk

Philomena Keet (2007)
First, paperback
November 2007

Fascinating tour of the world-renowned hyper-speed Tokyo fashion scene. Almost all the pictures are "on the street" and cover a wide range a genres. Japanese youth fashion seems strange, exotic and weird to westerners and for good reason - they treat dress as we might Halloween. What the clothes represent is not so important as the Japanese club or group that wears that style of fashion. So, someone wearing 1980s Heavy Metal fashion does not actually live the Heavy Metal lifestyle, fashion is a blank canvas into which anything can be mixed with little regard to its underlying meaning or connection to lifestyle - just as we can dress up on Halloween as gangsters, monsters and demons without regard to its underlying representation. As an example, kids wearing a NYC rapper style would go around saying "this is for real, we are real" - not because they are "real" (how could they be), but in imitation of NYC rappers who say those things! It's very postmodern. Another illustrative example, some kids dressed as American biker gangs attacked a police car throwing bottles - not because they were bad biker guys, but because that is what bad biker guys are supposed to do - when the police apprehended them, the kids apologized and just said they were doing what bikers are supposed to do.

Fashion can represent a person, who they are and what they do. It can also serve as a mask, to be someone we are not, and I believe for the Japanese who are otherwise so tightly regulated and controlled fashion is both a rebellion, a way to be unique and different, and a mask to hide ones true self.


Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction

Christopher Butler (2002)
Paperback, first
November 2007

Postmodernism can be a difficult topic, but this Introduction provides clarity of vision for a subject of muddled origin and meaning. Butler certainly makes value judgments, it is not a NPOV wikipedia article thank goodness; he takes a position in what is ultimately a political movement, but provides multiple POVs. Short but some pages can take a long time to digest, its a "slow read", pithy but never banal.


Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age

Adrian Lister (2007)
First, hardcover
November 2007

This beautifully produced coffee-table size (mammoth) book is full of pictures, maps, drawings and text detailing the origins, natural history, interaction with humans and eventual extinction of the Mammoth. It's aesthetically on par with something produced by National Geographic or the Smithsonian Institute. The actual content however exceeds that, it is a labor of love written by someone who obviously has a lifetime of experience and knowledge about mammoths. Nor has it been dumbed down for a general or younger audience - the science is clearly explained and accessible. What do we know? How do we know it?

I read it cover to cover in under 4 hours and with all the visual aids (pictures, maps, drawings, graphics) carefully tied into the text, it is a multimedia joy, I only wish more science books could be this effortless. We know more about the extinct Mammoth than some living species because there are so many well preserved frozen in the ground, and the close relation with living elephants tells us a lot about behavior.

This is a third edition (1994, 2000, 2007) and some of the information is extremely recent, for example the best preserved Mammoth ever found was in early 2007, and there is a picture included!


Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing

Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan (1998)
2003 paperback
November 2007

Travel "literature" traditionally has not been taken very seriously in academia, and so the authors (Professors at Harvard) have undertaken a scholarly examination of some popular post-WWII authors and works, while trying, they say, not to be polemical. To give a sense of what kind of book this is, here are two illustrative quotes: "Travel has recently emerged as a crucial epistemological category for the displacement of normative values and homogenizing, essentialist views." If your eyes have not glazed over yet, try this one:
"At first blush, it certainly seems there ought to be an affinity between travel writing and postmodernism; for among its many, not infrequently contradictory features, postmodern theory foregrounds the instability of the human subject, shifting ontologies of space and place, and the undermining of linear history, which characteristically assumes a fractured or palimpsestic structure."
This is the kind of writing that gives scholarly books a bad reputation, at least among general readers without a degree in literature. Yet for the intrepid adventurer willing to put in the work, there is gold to be found within. The book is structured into four main chapters, along with a meaty Prologue, Introduction and Postscript that summarize and expand on the core ideas.

Chapter 1 deals with colonial myths still lurking in modern travel literature, and the post-colonial "countertravel" writers who are not white, middle-class western males. A number of examples are examined including the "anti-racist" works of Caryl Phillip's The European Tribe and Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place. The "resistance" work of Salman Rushdie's The Jaguar Smile. The "counter-Orientalist" narratives such as by Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land and Vikram Seth's From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet. And "anti-Imperialist" works such as Pico Iyer's Video Night in Kathmandu.

Chapter 2 discusses the concept of geographic "zones", or how regions have travel mythologies built up by previous travel writers; new writers either attempt to re-discover what they pre-suppose to be there ("the dark heart of Africa"), or attempt to tear down the myths, in both cases reinforcing and continuing the mythologies. The chapter examines the zones of of the "tropical" (Congo and Amazon); the "Oriental" (Japan); the "exotic" (South Seas); and the "liminal" (Arctic). Within each zone there are 3 or 4 case authors and works discussed.

Chapter 3 looks at women and gay male writers as alternative voices. Chapter 4 examines hybrids of travel literature such as "virtual travel" and the "eco-traveler" - some of the best examples of the later include David Quammen's The Song of the Dodo, Peter Matthiessen's The Cloud Forest and Barry Lopez' Arctic Dreams.

Overall I learned a lot, even though certain passages were opaque with academic verbosity. It has made me examine my notions about the trustworthiness of travel literature as an alternative to travel; the value of travel itself and the hidden complacency (co-dependence) between the travel industry and travel writing; my own inherit prejudices as a white, middle-class male and the mythologies that travel literature re-enforce; and to expand my horizons on what kind of travel literature I choose to read; it helped place many well known authors and works in context.


Mediaeval Feudalism

Carl Stephenson (1942)
Internet Archive
November 2007

Carl Stephenson (1886-1954) was an early 20th century American Medievalist, a student of Charles Homer Haskins (America's "first medievalist"). This little gem was written in 1942 before the more fashionable works on Feudalism by Bloch, Ganshof, Reynolds and Brown. It is a solid and easily digested essay written in a delightfully simple down to earth style. Even if some of the perspectives have been questioned or expanded by later works, it still provides a necessary and accessible foundation. As the opening paragraph of the 1956 edition says:
SINCE its first printing in 1942 the late Carl Stephenson's 'Mediaeval Feudalism' has enjoyed a distinguished career. Eminent historians of America and Europe have reviewed it with high praise in the most respected historical journals. To the college freshman it has been a "vade mecum" in the awesome task of mastering such complicated feudal principles as subinfeudation and liege homage. The omniscient graduate student has at first reading whisked through it with disdain, casting it aside for the imaginative hypotheses of a Marc Bloch or for the impressive tomes of German historians, only to come meekly back to it to obtain his bearings and a sense of proportion. Seasoned scholars and teachers have read the book with discrimination, realizing that behind each page stood years of research and thought devoted to the study of feudalism in mediaeval Europe; they in turn have recommended it to their students.
Another book by Stephenson, Medieval History: Europe from the Fourth to the Sixteenth Century, was for decades one of the most widely used textbooks in the field. He is probably best known for Borough and Town: A Study of Urban Origins in England (1933). Stephenson was working in an age rife with prejudiced nationalism among European scholars; as an outsider he helped show the commonality of medieval institutions and move the discussion beyond 19th and early 20th century nationalistic concerns.

Read via Internet Archive

Created a Wikipedia Article


Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck (1937)
First edition, hardcover, no DJ, later printing
November 2007

A beautiful book about what it means to be human. As the last sentence shows, some get it, some don't. It is easy enough and short enough and multi-faceted enough to deserve re-reading at different points in life. I first read it in high school and now again at age 40 and hope to continue revisiting it again in the years ahead.


At Play in the Fields of the Lord

Peter Matthiessen (1965)
First edition hardcover
November 2007

Although written in 1965 (when Matthiessen was 38) the novel still remains vibrant and relevant, its staying power attested by its transition to film almost 30 years later in 1992. Even though it would seem almost un-filmable, the director did a good job, carried in part by the beautiful photography of the Amazon. The book is basically about the extinction of a smaller culture by a larger more powerful culture - it is no accident the main characters are Jewish and Navajo Indian, two cultures that have historically successfully resisted assimilation. Matthiessen was active with indigenous peoples in the Amazon when he published the non-fiction book "The Cloud Forest" in 1962, just a few years before "Fields of the Lord", the two works can be profitably be read in conjunction as both biographical of Matthiessen's evolving views and understanding of the culture and geography.



Emile Zola (1880)
Oxford World's Classics (pb), tr. Douglass Parmee
November 2007

What an amazing novel. From the first blow-away chapter it is a hot-house driven by the unpredictable winds of lust and fortune. Nana's addictive qualities ensnare the most vulnerable to her charms, perversely encouraged by society in the decedent years leading up to the Franco-Prussian crises. Chapter 5's description of the inner workings of a theater is an unforgettable submersion into Dante's Inferno. The gruesome ending is a Realist version of 'Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde', or 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' (both later works and probably influenced by Zola). In the end there were no villains, just victims.

The most difficult element is keeping the many secondary characters straight, it is a crowded novel. They are introduced in rapid fire sequence and the details (age, weight, background, relations etc) are spread throughout so the characters are not easily visualized which can make the plot often confusing, a whirl of people. Yet this is exactly the point, imagine the modern club scene or college parties.

The symbolism throughout is intense and unusual for Zola, this is the least Naturalistic of his novels, yet is retains its realism, as Flaubert said: "Nana turns into myth, without ceasing to be real."


Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu

Laurence Bergreen (2007)
First hardcover
November 2007

Marco Polo (1254-1324) was not the first European to make it to China, but he was the first to bring the news back to a wider European public. As famous as he is, Marco Polo remains a mysterious and controversial figure. The author of this biography Laurence Bergreen is probably best known for his wonderful account of Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe, and there is a connection - it was on that journey beginning in 1519 that one of the 18 survivors named Antonio Pigafetta, the official chronicler, had read and was inspired by Marco Polo's 'Travels'.

Marco Polo's 'Travels' (ca. 1298) is not a single account but about 119 surviving manuscripts, each one different and none authoritative. Scholars have tried to patch the various versions together over the centuries, but in the age before the printing press, Marco kept handing out new hand-written copies with additions and subtractions, and others would make more copies adding their own embellishments or mistakes: chronology would change, ordering of events would change as if the pages were dropped on the floor and re-assembled incorrectly, specifics of events would change, places and people changed, etc.. there is no "correct" version. Bergenger bases his account on the longest version available and usually does not question its accuracy, rather, often pointing out why it must be so (except for a few well known problems).

The "Great Question" that has haunted 'Travels' since it first appeared is its veracity; children are said to have followed Marco Polo chanting, "Messer Marco, tell us another lie!". Until the 19th century it was mostly seen as comparable to 'The Travels of Sir John Mandeville' (1357), an enjoyable but fanciful account. When scholars in the 19th and early 20th centuries were able to verify through Chinese records many of the details, and with the recognition of the importance of the Age of Discovery and global trade and travel in World History, Marco has become today one of the most well known figures of the Middle Ages. Yet there still remain a few critics who question if Marco Polo actually ever went, and this myth of the "faked Travels" hangs over it. Even in Colin Thubron's ('Shadow of the Silk Road', 2007) recent review of this very book in The Washington Post (November 4, 2007; Page BW10) he raises the question; but as Bergreen says in the "Epilogue", it would have been a more amazing feat to amass so much accurate information about Asia without actually going there, then to have made the trip and wrote about it (Occam's Razor).

Four stars instead of five because I think Bergreen is not able to create a convincingly strong central narrative like he did in 'Over the Edge'; he shows Marco Polo develop from a naive youth to a curious sensualist, into a spiritual awakened middle aged man into a petty, cranky and aged ex-opium addict - we know very little about Marco Polo the person, it is conjecture when faced with Marcos externally orientated 'Travels' - the portrait is believable but the sources are weak. Bergreen also sometimes makes allusions to current events which will dilute the books timeless appeal.

The book is organized with an Introduction, 15 chapters, and an Epilogue. Most of the issues discussed in this review are in the Epilogue and they hung over me while reading the body of the story, which is essentially an excellent re-construction of 'Travels'. One approach is to read the Epilogue first, putting the text and story in historical context. Then enjoy one of the most astounding snapshots of the world in time ever compiled - 13th century Asia in all its extremes, diversity and exotica.


On Deep History and the Brain

Daniel Lord Smail (2007)
Hardcover first
November 2007

This is a fairly short book that Harvard professor of history Daniel Smail describes as a series of connected essays. It is essentially an argument to include all of human history, not just written history, in academic history survey courses and textbooks. Most of the book is an interesting historiographical survey of how historians essentially ignore "pre-history"; the problems with periodization; and a post-modern rejection of Christian Universal History metanarratives which are stealthily lurking in much of western secular historiography to this day.

Smail suggests using evolution as a new approach - one idea he suggests - changes in human brain chemistry, from external and internal forces, play a role in shaping human history. For example the widespread adoption of caffeine in Europe in the 17th century altered Europeans brain chemistry and thus the track of history. Similar investigations could be done with "pre-historic" periods. Smail doesn't get into many specifics, this is concept book about how to approach history, not a definitive scientific analysis or conclusion - it is part of the larger ongoing discussions on how the ideas of evolution can be applied scientifically to the humanities (history, literature, etc) . Overall I was intellectually stimulated throughout and greatly enjoyed the ideas and perspectives, Smail is well versed in western historiography and the philosophy of history. Even if you are not convinced by the titles premise (almost a sort of hook), discussed only in one chapter, there is a lot to learn in this short but pithy book.


The Genius of Michelangelo

Wiliam E. Wallace (2007)
The Teaching Company 6-DVD 18hr lecture
October 2007

"The Genius of Michelangelo" is an 18 hour video lecture by William Wallace published by The Teaching Company, 36 episodes of 30 minutes each. It focuses primarily on Michelangelo's works from an artistic perspective, less so on his life story or later reputation. It is for a general non-specialist audience, but is not dumbed down and contains real up to date and original scholarship by one of the worlds most knowledgeable and respected living Michelangelo scholars who also happens to be an excellent public speaker. Most Teaching Company courses cover a wide variety of topics, this is a very narrow subject, one person, and very long, 18 hours, so at times it can feel like minutia detail, but in the end it is worthwhile to really understand a single artist in such depth to better know the Renaissance as a whole. The production quality is top notch with tons of visuals.

I felt at times that Wallace was a bit over the top in his love of Michelangelo and his place in history, but then, it's hard to deny his greatness; it brings up post-modern questions about the nature of genius and the nature of how history works. It seemed like the propaganda of the Renaissance is alive and well in Wallace, and for good reason, job security. Still, it's possible to speak of Michelangelo as a "genius" and not be off the mark.


Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Ian Fleming (1964)
Audiobook, narrated by Andrew Sachs 2003. 2.5hrs
October 2007

Caution: This is a negative review of a "beloved" children's book. My apologies, I'm normally a pretty nice person, see Charlotte's Web below.

A mercifully short genre work. The best scene was the discovery of the tunnel because of its silly Freudian symbolism. I suppose it's popular because of the clever title, character of the car and many popular movie adaptations. It's a sort of kids gateway to mass popular culture period pieces : Harry Potter, Steven King and of course James Bond - if the kids are inspired enough to keep reading that far (if at all).


Charlotte's Web

E. B. White (1952)
Audiobook, read by the author. 3.5 hours
October 2007

It's hard to be impartial, Charlotte's Web is the first "real" book I ever read, a special occasion that happens only once in life. Our first grade teacher read it aloud (Northfield Elementary School in Howard County Maryland) over the course of a few weeks, and remains one of the few lasting memories I have of first grade (that and some food fight incidents). I was totally enthralled and could not wait for each school day as our class sat in a group on the floor, our teacher towering tall above us in a chair, her lips gave forth the most wonderful sets of words and images I had ever imagined. I suspect it has had some deep influence on me in ways I can not fully understand, but that is perfectly alright, this is the book one wants to be shaped by. Reading it again for the first time as an adult 35 years later I don't remember most of the story specifics, but the atmosphere and good feeling remain tangable. It works on many levels for children and adults, it is just as wonderful today as it was then, although it doesn't compare to my feelings of a first grader hearing it for the first time.

This audiobook edition is narrated by E. B. White, who died in 1985, we are fortunate to have his audio rendition, the technical and artistic quality are excellent. White never approved of the annimated film adaptions, so this is as close as one can get to a "correct" interpretation of his work (other than the original book illustrations).

Interestingly, White was born in the Chinese Year of the Pig (1899) - the character of Wilbur the pig is exactly like the Pig personality as described by Chinese astrology, in fact it reminded me of some other Year-of-the-Pig people that I know. I believe this is one reason the book works so well, it was the right book for White to write, the perfect self-expression. "But I don't want to die, Charlotte." No, you will live forever Mr White, through your wonderful story of a little white pig.


Sister Carrie

Theodore Dreiser (1900)
1997 New York Library, based on the 1981 Pennsylvania edition.
October 2007

I found this in the bargain bin of a local used book store for $3. I had never heard of the title or the author, but it looked "literary" so I brought it home and started reading with zero expectations. It took a while to finish because the prose is often dense, but I loved it, spending most of the time lost in the story. It is written in the Realist/Naturalistic style common to Balzac, Zola and Harold Frederic - the detailed descriptions of everday life in Chicago and New York - the clothing, shops, transportation, restaurants, food, etc.. creates wonderful sights, sounds, smells and feel of another time, with the interesting story and deep and moving insights just so much icing on the cake. After finishing I read some critical commentary and it seems many people don't like the prose, but I found it perfect for the story - like a polite society person spooning out dirty gossip through round about indirect and seemingly innocent vocabulary loaded with meaning and innuendo, the reader has to carefully pay attention yet remain a bit aloof. At times the prose was densely complex for the most simple things, it seemed banal, but banality is the key to understanding the novel. There are some really great and timeless quotes, see "Quotes & Notes" below.

Sister Carrie has been rightly compared to Balzac's Pierre Goriot, but I found close comparison with Frederic's The Damnation of Theon Ware; or, Illumination (1896); written at around the same time, in the Naturalistic style, about New York, a novel of manners, both somewhat controversial and not widely read and their day, both more popular in Europe and both influential with later modernist writers.

Quotes & Notes for Sister Carrie


Pecos Bill:The Greatest Cowboy of All Time

James Cloyd Bowman (1937)
2007 hardcover, New York Review of Books Children's Collection
October 2007

The American legend of Pecos Bill was supposedly handed down by early settlers of the Southwest, however more recent research has shown this is probably apocryphal. The stories were largely invented as "fakelore" by Edward O'Reilly in 1923 for The Century Magazine, soon after collected in the book Saga of Pecos Bill. Later writers then borrowed or expanded on O'Reilly's stories.

Although O'Reilly created the legend, probably the most well known and best written collection of Pecos Bill stories is by James Cloyd Bowman, who won a Newbery Honor in 1938 for Pecos Bill: The Greatest Cowboy of All Time. In the 1937 Preface, Bowman does not discuss the legendary background, except to say "This is a volume of genuine American folklore", and that he collected from "original documents left by the early adventurers into the open range country." This sounds suspicious today, and it is unfortunate the publishers of this 2007 re-print did not include an updated literary history Introduction that examines Bowman's sources in more detail. It now gives the appearance of a buried literary crime waiting to be uncovered.

Still, this is a beautifully written and re-produced book with original illustrations by Laura Bannon. It is exactly the children's book my parents would have read and fits perfectly with the 1940s and 50s image of the American cowboy hero, or something out of the movie A Christmas Story. I was first introduced to Bowman's work in a non-fiction biography of Robert Louis Stevenson and was impressed by his down to earth, easy to read and factual prose and thus sought out more. He's not that well know today, in particular for his literary criticism, but considering his generation (born 1880) his writing is unpretentious and modern yet gentle and easy to read.

As for Pecos Bill himself, readers of Kiplings The Jungle Books will recognize the story of the orphaned human baby raised by wolves, mastering the natural world around him, then returning to his human folk to do the same. Many of the stories describe the origins of various cowboy related things: the roundup, branding, roping, the rodeo, etc.. along the way you learn about cowboy life and culture.

One thing to note, although this is an illustrated children's book it is still a lot of text, about 20 chapters it took me about 4-5 hours to read, it is more in the young adult category, some of the vocabulary is fairly advanced and specialized.


What Is the What

Dave Eggers (2006)
Audiobook, 20hrs
October 2007

There are a number of really excellent non-fiction autobiographies of the Lost Boys currently available, 5 of them (see below). "What Is the What" is the only fictionalized account I am aware of. I've read some of the non-fiction accounts, and they are just as compelling, fascinating and dramatic as fiction; in many ways more so because they are factual and have a sense of "otherness" and level of specific detail. Although the novel has plenty of violence, it seems somewhat sterilized and made more palatable for the sensibilities of a middle class American audience - Deng's "voice" (really Eggers?) is confident and optimistic about the future, rarely did I sense the utter loneliness, despondency, hopelessness, weakness and fear that is palpable in the real autobiographies.

This is not a bad book, Eggers has created an entertaining work of art, not unlike what Charles Dickens did for the poor in "Oliver Twist", it serves to advance a social cause. But the real autobiographies are just as page-turning readable and even more emotionally moving because of their truthfulness. Literary critic Lee Siegel in "The New Republic" took the problem even further saying the novels "innocent expropriation of another man's identity is a post-colonial arrogance.. How strange for one man to think that he could write the story of another man, a real living man who is perfectly capable of telling his story himself -- and then call it an autobiography. Where is the dignity in that?" Francis Prose in "The New York Times" said the novel is very popular among younger readers in their 20s and I guess this is not surprising since fiction is usually more approachable and accessible than non-fiction, but there are some excellent real-life accounts, told in the actual words and voice of someone from Sudan, it is a challenge to step into someone else's world, but can be a transformative experience.

* They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky (2005)
* God Grew Tired Of Us: A Memoir (2006)
* The Lost Boys of Sudan (2005)
* The Journey of the Lost Boys (2005)
* Lost Boy No More (2004)


Thinking Medieval: An Introduction to the Study of the Middle Ages

Marcus Bull (2005)
First hardcover
October 2007

Thinking Medieval is targeted to an introductory academic audience, but it is so well written, easy to read and fascinating it would appeal to anyone with an interest in the Middle Ages. This is really a book about "medievalism" - the Middles Ages in popular culture and modern scholarship - which is extremely helpful in better understanding how to approach and read medieval history. Dr. Marcus Bull is a professor at Bristol University in England.

There are four chapters. Chapter 1 deals with the Middle Ages in modern popular culture. Bull examines the conflicting positive and negative views of the period; how it is portrayed in movies in particular a case example Pulp Fiction; books such as Timeline and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; the Gothic Novel of the 18th-19th centuries; the role of Scott and Ivanhoe; Neo-Gothic architecture; J.R.R. Tolkien; and much much more. I've studied this endlessly fascinating topic before, but Bull finds new perspectives and anecdotes that make it worthwhile even for the most hardened myth-buster. Arcane as it seems, medieval mythology is so ingrained in popular culture it is probably as critical to understanding ourselves as understanding the period in question.

Chapter 2 asks "What are the Middle Ages?" It looks at questions of periodization and how to define the beginning and end of the period and if it even makes sense to call it a period at all, as if it had a single "essence". He ends with what seems like a radical, but logical, suggestion to consider removing "medieval" and "Middle Ages" from academic discourse and find new more finely tuned categorizes for the immense diversity and scope of the time. This is exciting stuff!

Chapter 3 "The Evidence for Medieval History" examines how we know what we know, mainly from source documents and surviving art and architecture. Very interesting discussions about how much written material has survived (probably less than 1%) and how this has shaped our views of the period. It also discusses the 12th century break between the oral and written culture when written evidence explodes, before which the amount of written material is so limited that scholars can actually know all there is to know about a time period, which has its advantages and disadvantages.

Chapter 4 "Is Medieval History Relevant?" is essentially an apology for why we should study Medieval history, a question which seems to be driven by occasional academic funding squabbles. As someone who studies from home solely for the love of the subject I find it curiously amusing that anyone would think Medieval history is not worth knowing, and feel fortunate we have so many academics devoting a career to it. The chapter also looks at some case examples of areas of study which are still relevant today, such as the English Language and the Crusades.

The Bibliography is annotated and excellent and recently updated, many of the cited papers and books are post-2000.


Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay

William W. Warner (1976)
Hardcover first (11th printing)
October 2007

Even though Pulitzer Prize winning Beautiful Swimmers was published in 1976, it employs the now popular "narrative non-fiction" technique so it feels very modern and up to date. Like the weathered watermen of the Bay, Beautiful Swimmers improves with age while retaining a youthful luster. It has a certain classic gentleness and pleasantness, like more recent works such as The Secret Life of Lobsters, which clearly owes a lot to Warner's style and technique.

As with most narrative non-fiction accounts about wildlife, there is a wide smattering of biology, history, geography, travel writing and human interest story written by someone who loves his subject and has experienced it first hand. It is not an archival based encyclopedic work, Warner captures the sights, sounds, smells and feel for the thing, its essence - for example through the use of dialog and a slangy waterman kind of drawl. The first chapters which focus on the biology of crabs are somewhat interesting, in particular the mating ritual, but can drag a little with the minutia of anatomy. We then leave the classromm and go out crabbing with trot lines off Kent Island for the "monster" crabs of crab alley, and finally end up in the big leagues off Smith Island, all the while learning more about the watermen, their families and communities - and of course crabs.

Maryland waterman culture continues to loose its uniqueness as the communities have been more homogeneously drawn into the vortex of the Wash/Baltimore metroplex. Warner clearly notices it, but he has still captured a time and place that is some respects no longer exists or is rapidly disappearing. He also raises the warning flag about the bay waters appearing old and tired (pollution), a warning that is even louder and more urgent today as we continue to use the Bay as a freebie water filtration plant, the cost of which is ultimately born by wildlife extinctions and our quality of life. But this is not a Silent Spring, it is a beautiful ode to the crab, the Chesapeake and the watermen.


Le Mariage de Loti ("The Marriage of Loti")

Pierre Loti (1880)
Hardcover Kegan Paul 2002 trans. Clara Bell
September 2007

Pierre Loti's first 3 or 4 books, including The Marriage of Loti, are his most autobiographical, immediate and passionate. If his later works are better artistically conceived they lack something as purely travelogues or fiction. Loti's descriptions of Tahiti are lyrical and haunting and because we know most of the story to be true, at least in the broad strokes, and most of the people real, it makes it all that much more fascinating.

The Marriage of Loti is his second novel, but chronologically recounts the first of his life's exotic-romantic adventures, when he was just twenty-two years old. It marks the genesis of his pseudonym -Loti- and when his modus operandi first takes form: blending in with the locals, going native, wearing their dress, speaking their language, making love to their women, and then writing about it.

This is a titillating novel as the amount of sex is pretty high by 19th century standards, although still mostly implied and understood. Post-colonials rightly bash it as imperialistic and racist, but it can still be read to better understand the almost narcotic sense of power European colonialists had during the late 19th century. The novel is haunting in the end, indeed very spooky, almost subversive in its implied testament of the dangers of colonialism.

Reading Loti, in particular early Loti, it is impossible to separate the story from the person - the more literary history available the better, Lesley Blanch's biography (ch. 4) as an excellent background as is the Wikipedia article for those on the quick and cheap!

Update: Wikipedia article


The Medieval World View (2nd edition)

William Cook and Ronald Herzman (1983 / 2004 (2nd))
hardcover 2nd edition
September 2007

This is a recently updated (2003) survey of Medieval history from about 0 AD to 1500 AD designed for the beginning student, by two American medieval professors. I'm not a student or beginner, yet I found this to be one of the best surveys I have read and learned a tremendous amount. Other comparable general surveys I have read that are good include Morris Bishop's The Middle Ages, Joseph Strayer's The Middle Ages 395-1500 and Norman Cantor's The Civilization of the Middle Ages.

It is only 278 pages which for medieval surveys is a miracle of economy. It really is pithy, with the most important people, events and places in the big picture. But I think its strongest point is that it explains those elements of Medieval history that beginners have the most trouble understanding. The iconography of the medieval mindset is very foreign for the modern reader and most history books do not explain it very well, probably because its thought too specialized, but its a core foundation to understanding the period, and that is what makes this work most unique.

Cook/Herzman use the wonderful method of not only telling us what things mean, but also actually showing it, either through pictures or extended block quotes - there is barely a page without at least one extended block quote and I suspect 20% of the book is quotations. I don't know why this is not done by other historians more often, Cook/Herzman demonstrate a great thinkers ideas in their own words, usually with historically well known and significant quotes, it is very effective. For example I now have a much more solid understanding of the Scholastic method and how Thomas Aquinas wrote his masterpiece by actually reading an excerpt from Summa Theologica. I suppose a serious student can find source documents and read them in conjunction, but allowing Cook/Herzman to find short approachable excerpts that demonstrate the idea is priceless and probably something I would never do on my own.

There is no doubt Cook and Herzman focus on Christian topics, for example it is a 10 chapter book covering 1000+ years but there is an entire chapter devoted to the Franciscan monastic order. To be fair they are up front about the Christian theme from the start, and Medieval history is in many ways church history. Yet strangely, by avoiding much of the political narrative, it simplifies the perspective, for example the events in Italy between roughly 1000 and 1200 can be seen not as a complex web of invasions and feuds but simply secular and church conflict over who has ultimate power. I could not help but think of our own times and the conflicts with secularists (Dawkins, etc..) as an extension of this trend.

The bibliography is excellent, it includes not only monographs but web sites, primary sources, and reference works. Cook/Herzman even dare to say what other medieval historians should be saying more often: most monographs are written by specialists for specialists and most novices (ie. popular reading public) end up laboring to understand without a full grasp of the basics. Titles like "Wanning of the Middle Ages", "The Distant Mirror" and "Making of the Middle Ages" seem to be big sellers, but many people skip the basics before diving into these more difficult and/or controversial works.

Cook and Herzman also have a series of video lectures with The Teaching Company which are excellent and reinforce and expand on many of the ideas discussed in the book.


Chasing Kangaroos: a continent, a scientist, and a search for the world's most extraordinary creature

Tim Flannery (2007)
First hardcover
September 2007

I knew almost nothing about kangaroo's and now have a somewhat better sense of how diverse they are (over 70 species) and when and why and how they arose in Australia. Flannery uses the modern style of non-fiction narrative, wrapping facts into a storyline that keeps the reader turning pages to find out what happens. The "story" in this case is his experience in the outback back in the 70s, into which is wrapped the information about the science, biology and history of the kangaroo. This technique is now so common as to be tiresome if not done well and honestly the story part was not that interesting. At the same time much of the biology terminology was very specific and over my head. Flannery's enthusiasm for kangaroos, and himself, is apparent but I never got caught up in it. Still, it was a quick read, painless and I learned a few things that have stuck with me.


The Agony and the Ecstasy (the biographical novel of Michelangelo)

Irving Stone (1961)
BotMC hardcover 1961
September 2007

Writing a fictionalized life of one of the most famous and studied iconic figures in world history is tricky business. Stone plots a steady if somewhat conservative course, sanitizing some of the more ugly aspects of life in Renaissance Italy, and perpetuating some of the mythology. It helps to approach Stone's version of the story already having studied the basic history of the Medici family and late 15th/early 16th century Italy, there are many large and important events that swirl around and through Michelangelo's life. The number of names is overwhelming and they often re-appear, unless your Italian they all start sounding the same. Fortunatly a list of primary characters can be found in I, Michelangelo, Sculptor (1962) by Irving Stone, along with the translated letters that Stone largely based the novel on.

I normally don't read a lot of modern historical fiction, much less fictional biographies, but I wanted to get a better more emotional feel for the age, and hoped historical fiction would provide an artistic interpretation. I was not disappointed although not as overwhelmed as I was with Name of the Rose. Stone is strongest when describing the act of sculpting, which is not surprising as he was an apprenticed sculptor and knew it first hand. However I think he misinterpreted and didn't fully realize some of the more nuanced aspects of life in the 15th and 16th centuries that would have made Michelangelo seem less a mavrick and slightly more typical of his age (although he was still a genius and mavrick). However this is still a very good work and Michelangelo for me is now more than just a name attached to static works of art. This is the kind of novel that could profitably be re-read with an encyclopedia to discover in detail all the people and events mentioned, or even reading Michelangelo's translated letters in the above mentioned book.

Update Watched the 1965 movie starring Charlton Heston, it only covers Michelangelo's painting of the Sistine Chapel, so it's not really a film adaptation of the novel or Michelangelo's life, they just share the same title. A decent movie on its own, the sets and acting are excellent.


Among English Hedgerows

Clifton Johnson (1899)
Hardcover 1912 The Macmillan co. via Internet Archive, original copyright 1899
September 2007

In the late 1890s, American writer/photographer Clifton Johnson traveled through the English countryside recording picturesque scenes of English daily life. Each chapter examines a different theme - tavern, village, castle, school, church, etc.. with portraits of the people and places rendered hyper-realistically, a style fashionable in America at the time, bordering on the banal or anthropoligical depending on your interest level. The many beautiful photographs are of unusual quality in both composition and technical effect - they appear to be partially hand painted as if seen through a "Claude glass". As some contemporary critics pointed out, the placement of the photos alongside the body of the text that discusses the scene is very effective.

Some of the chapters were originally published in leading magazines of the day, it was a popular book remaining in print for at least 25 years, including at least one paperback edition. There is something very relaxing, pleasant and satisfying and I don't think something like this could ever be published today. Although it is not a classic of travel literature, today it would probably be considered a nice period piece. There are better known travel books from the 19th century written by Americans in England such as Henry James, Herman Melville, Frederick Olmsted, Nathaniel Hawthorne and of course Mark Twain. But it is still a quality book, if not intentionally a bit naive and conservative, the pictures are worth a peruse and it's an enjoyable way to help understand what we have gained and lost since 1900.

A funny quote about the English aristocracy:
It seemed to be the opinion of the general public that the gentry were, in the main, not of much value as a part of the national life. The best of them study politics and statecraft, or some branch of science, or they interest themselves helpfully in their tenants and home villages. But the large majority, after being sent as young men to Oxford or Cambridge, settle down to a life of indolence and the pursuit of pleasure. Their greatest accomplishment is very likely the ability to ride well after the hounds, and their finest boast is of the times they have come in first in the hunt.
This attitude towards the "gentry" can be traced back to the late Middle Ages (14-17th centuries), when the traditional armored knight gradually became irrelevant because of changes in warfare (gunpowder, longbow, standing armies)- the aristocracy morphed into a new role as "Courtiers" (see The Book of the Courtier), who had a mixed reputation at best of well-rounded Renaissance men, or at worst, effeminate pleasure seekers, which lead to that embarrassing period of the 18th century when everyone wore puffy clothes, makeup and wigs - and eventually Monty Python, that troup of hedonistic Don Quixote Renaissance men.

Read via Internet Archive


Aziyade (or, Constantinople)

Pierre Loti (1879)
2002 Paul Kegan hardcover trans. Marjorie Laruie
September 2007

This is Pierre Loti's first book (1879), and I believe his best (of those I have read), because it is so amazingly autobiographical about one of the most influential periods that would shape his life and later works. It should be read in conjunction with Lesley Branch's biography (see prev, chapters 6-8) to better understand what is going on as there is a lot of back story. Beyond all that, it is one of the world's great love stories - Aziyade was Loti's greatest love and he would remember her for the rest of his life. Aziyade and the Marriage of Loti (1880) were very influential with Proust who could quote passages from memory (and there are some very quotable passages).

The translation in the Kegan Paul edition is by Marjorie Laurie from the early 20th century - it is dated and edited to remove some of the more controversial scenes, but sadly seems to be the only one available, but at least it is still in print!

Update: Created a Wikipedia article.


Leviathan The History of Whaling in America

Eric Jay Dolin (2007)
Hardcover first
September 2007

When I told some friends I was reading a history of whaling in America I got blank stares, a long pause and "sounds boring". Oh, but wait, I said, did you know.. and so goes the fascinating and romantic history of the American whaling industry. Dolin has mined extensive archives and written a very readable account of whales, whaling, whalers and whaling ships. It moves chronologically starting with our very first settlers on the Mayflower who found a beached whale, through the rise and fall of the Quaker community of Nantucket (before the wealthy retreat, it was the whaling capital of the world), to the long demise with the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania.

I wanted to read this because, well, it got great reviews, but also because I have read Moby-Dick and Philbriock's excellent In the Heart of the Sea. These are more focused and romantic works, Dolin's survey is of course brief on detail and wide in scope, but he retains a lot of the character and emotional awe and wonder of whaling, it is not a dry work (you might even say it's all wet). There is hardly a page that does not have a fascinating book in the footnotes for further reading - the history of whaling is extensive and the jump off points many and varied.

Back to the footnotes, at over 75 pages of small font text they are almost a book within a book, some more than a page long and not just banal references. I suspect the editors moved portions of the book into the footnotes to keep the narrative flowing and page count under 400 pages. It also has 2 sections of glossy B&W photos, it is a shame they did not make the photos color as many of them are beautiful paintings.


Shadow of the Silk Road

Colin Thubron (2007)
Hardcover first
September 2007

Shadow of the Silk Road has good reviews but I am not as impressed. Of course it is well written, there are some brilliant insightful quotes (see below); but as travel literature it lacks life, there is something missing. Thubron is revisiting places he has gone before, we are constantly reminded that he has been there before, a trip down memory lane, the "shadow" of Thubron. The focus is on the old and decaying, buildings and graveyards crumbling away, the past, like an old man near death for whom the world is falling apart. The historical asides are accurate, but short enough they lack context or meaning; it was only those places and histories I already knew in more depth that left a memorable impact. Nothing particularly exciting happens because he is in and out of peoples lives in a few days, not enough time except for the banal: a scary trip to the dentist, almost running off the road while driving drunk and seeing a man masturbate are stand outs.

One critic called Thubron "Our greatest living travel writer," which implies most of the "great" travel writers are dead, from another era, presumably the golden age of travel literature pre-WWII. This is a sad reputation, Thubron seemingly has one foot in the grave (literarlly if one follows his morbid itinerary). The same critic called it "A shining example of the modern travel account", in which case I prefer the older accounts which have life, optimism and adventure. Perhaps in the end it is a statement of the reality of the modern world of central Asia; or a statement about the decay of the travel literature genre. Surely there are other more fun, optimistic and ultimately hopeful travel accounts along the Silk Road.

Quotes & Notes for Shadow of the Silk Road


Rocketeers How a visionary band of business leaders, engineers, and pilots is boldly privatizing space

Michael Belfiore (2007)
Hard first
August 2007

Fairly short and easy to read magazine-style investigative journalistic human interest narrative about some of the exciting people and companies involved in America's burgeoning private space industry: the X Prize, Burt Rutan, Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk, Robert Bigelow and a few others. I thought the best chapters were about Burt Rutan and winning the XPrize, in particular the blow by blow account of all the troubles they had, very edge of the seat; also the backgrounds of Elon Musk and Robert Bigelow. As a journalistic work it is ephemeral and will be outdated (except as a source for later writers) but if your fascinated by the events, people and rocket ships, this is an excellent overview that is valuable right now. Belfiore writes for a number of periodicals like Popular Science, Wired, New Scientists, and claims to be one of only a few who are covering this exciting new industry, so he will certainly be an author to watch in the years ahead.


Song for the Blue Ocean Encounters Along the World's Coasts and Beneath the Seas

Carl Safina (1998)
Hardcover first
August 2007

Song for the Blue Ocean is a powerful book and Safina shows the complexity and often contradictory nature of conservation; it's a story of the ocean, but the problems are applicable to the worlds environment. It's a depressing book, yet ultimately hopeful. It is a difficult work to summarize crossing many genres, which can be a sign of greatness. Another sign of greatness is timelessness, but sadly it is already outdated in 2007 - he wrote and researched most of it in the early 1990s so it is a snapshot of that time, the current state of affairs are now beyond the book. This creates a sort of empty feeling, for example people in the book would say "we only have 10 years left" -- well it's been over 10 years.. In a way this has worked against the message because some of the doom and gloom predicitons have not come to pass, although things are certainly very, very bad.


Au Maroc ("Into Morocco")

Pierre Loti (1890)
Philadelphia, D. McKay. 1914 trans. William Peter Baines, via Internet Archive
August 2007

Au Maroc was Pierre Loti's first pure travel book. It covers about a month of spring while travelling by horseback between the cities of Tangiers, Fez and Meknes. Loti starts out as part of a French diplomatic mission, but in characteristic style, he quickly ditches the pomp of politics for native garb and takes off on his own to explore the people and culture in a more down to earth fashion.

Highlites include wonderfully visual and olafactory descriptions of the carpets of wild flowers that cover the bloming spring landscape in patterns reminicent of oriental rugs; the salt-hand torture of folding the fingers into slits in the palm, packing with salt, binding and waiting for the fingernails to grow into the hand and slowly kill the victim; the smelly muddy streets layerd with refuse and dead animals compared with the dark cool and clean interiors of the buildings; the rooftop culture of women who congregate there during the day; the contrast between the ancient building and people that remain unchanged since the early middle ages and the surrounding pristine flowers and newly emerging spring re-birth; the erotic secretivness and sad life of women who live in harems.

Read via Internet Archive

Update: Created a Wikipedia article. Not much there yet. This article by Arthur Clark is pretty good background.


Pierre Loti The Legendary Romantic

Lesley Blanch (1982)
hardcover first American edition 1983
August 2007

Pierre Loti is a biography of turn of the century French "romanticist/realist" Pierre Loti. Lovingly told by Lesley Branch who spent considerable time searching for the people still alive who knew him and examining his private personal letters and artifacts. Loti was one of the most famous writers of his day but his style has gone out of fashion and most people today have never heard of him, much less read his works. Yet his life was the stuff of legend and his corpus of writing still remains valuable and readable. Loti said he wished to die with two objects: a garden spade and a scarf from a former lover. They represent the two things he thought most important in life: nature and love. His works and life reflect this deeply.


Mon Frere Yves ("My Brother Yves")

Pierre Loti (1883)
Translated by Mary P Fletcher, 1887 Vizetelly & co., on Google Books
August 2007

My Brother Yves (1883) was one of Pierre Loti's most famous books. It continued the style of his first three books as partly auto-biographical and partly novelistic, perhaps "romanticized memoir" would be a good description. The 1887 translation by MP Fletcher is not very good, but it is the only free copy available online, there are better translations available in print. There is no strong central plot and it describes in vinnegets Loti's relationship with a hard drinking working class Breton sailor named Yves, with snapshots of their times together at sea and on shore in Brittany, and the changing nature of Yves as he grows older, more mature and settles down. Yves is based on a real sailor who Loti was friends with. Some commentators have said there is a hidden sub-text of a homosexual relationship between Yves and Loti, however there is nothing overtly like that in the text. I just see it at face value as a close brotherly relationship which in the 19th century was more common when strange men regularly shared beds in hotels (see Moby-Dick) and lived in close quarters on ships for years on end; turning it into a sexual affair without evidence is a later less authoritative interpretation.

Of the Loti books I've read (see below) this so far is the weakest but it was one of his most respected and popular, in the top 5 anyway, I think the bad translation is part of the problem. Still, it is interesting to learn about French naval life and Breton sea-fareing culture which are probably the real main characters of the novel.

Read via Google Books.

Created a Wikipedia article.



Pierre Loti (1897)
New York : R. F. Fenno 1897 trans. Henri Pene du Bois, via Internet Archive
August 2007

In Ramuntcho (1897), Pierre Loti poetically describes the Basque peasants of the French Pyrenees, revealing the "ancient" and beautiful speech of the Euskara language, the mantilla and woolen Basque cap, dances such as the fandango with the castanets, the ancient white-washed houses, the game of pelota, etc.. an exotic and attractive subject. It is helpful to have an encyclopedia nearby to translate the many Basque terms. The plot is a Shakespearean Romeo and Juliet which never fails to pull the heart strings. The style is impressionism and Loti does a wonderful job visually painting the French Basque lands and people. It's the kind of work to read slowly savoring - a beautiful work of art to become immersed in another world, an ancient world were things move slower, the colors bright pastel pinks and blues, the breezes warm and smelling of mountain herbs and flowers, the people gentle and life inevitably destined by the forces of history.

Read via Internet Archive.

Update: Created a Wikipedia article.


Pecheurs d'Islande ("An Iceland Fisherman")

Pierre Loti (1886)
Internet Archive, New York P.F. Collier, 1902. Translated from the French with a critical introd. by Jules Cambon. With descriptive notes.
August 2007

This is my first Loti book and I was immediately captivated by the blend of impressionism and realism. In the tradition of Balzac and Zola, Loti writes with documentary realism, but also subjective poetic description, a precursor of the modernist movement. The scenes of geography and place are miniture works of art, beautiful and original. The actual story is simple but moving and believable. Iceland Fisherman is often considered Loti's most commercially successful work and perhaps critically one of his best as well, it was adapted to film by acclaimed writer and director Pierre Schoendoerffer in 1959.

Read via Internet Archive

Update: Created a Wikipedia article.


The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

Charles Dickens (1839)
Hardcover "Books, Inc." 1936 set of 20 Vol.IX
August 2007

This is my 4th Dickens novel and probably the longest. As usual I both loved and hated it. Loved it for all the good reasons: characters, descriptions of 19th C England, wit - and hated it, as usual, for being too long (at least 40 hours to read!) and meandering plot. Dicken's novels usually have a central theme which is explored in all its permutations by it's many typological characters. In Nickleby the theme I saw is childhood abandonment followed by the redemption of coming home for those who are deserving and banishment for the rest (a common theme for Dicken's, the "coming home" feel-goodness, gathering the family at Christmas - a very Christian theme). Another commentator (see "Resources" below) says the main theme is "flattery" and makes an interesting case for it. There are really many themes here which is what makes it so rich a work to explore.

Here are some observations made by other commentators in the "Reources" section:

* Writing at the same time he was writing Oliver Twist
* First Dickens novel with a strong central female character
* First Dickens novel with a traditional hero as main character.
* Main theme is "flattery", as seen in all the characters.
* Last third of novel takes on a melodramatic stage performance.
* Unequal work that could be 3 or 4 separate novels, but shows Dicken's development from earlier "sketches" into a whole novel.

See also my Quotes & Notes for Nicholas Nickleby

Robert Giddings. Although about the 2002 film, it contains more about the book, using the film as a contrast, this lengthy essay is the best I've read on the Internet about Nicholas Nickleby.
George Gissing, The Immortal Dickens. Some old commentary from 1925.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens (1911) . More old commentary.
Flattery in Nicholas Nickleby. Interesting in depth thesis about "Flattery" being the central theme.

Update. Watched all 9 hours of the Tony Away winning play by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Fantastic - actors, sets, costumes. Very faithful to the original with only minor variations. It would be difficult to fully appreciate without reading the book first, and many of the themes get lost or misinterpreated, but it still does an amazing job of capturing the period. Although produced in 1982, nearly 25-years ago, one would never know, there is nothing that makes it a 1980s period piece, it is a timeless adaptation.


Doctor Zhivago

Boris Pasternak (1956)
Hardcover 1958 edition
July 2007

Doctor Zhivago is a difficult and uneven work but also rewarding for the careful reader . Pasternak is foremost a poet, the prose is often densely specific, metaphorical or philosophical. One running metaphor is "mother Russia", and the women in Zhivago's life - his first wife represents the old tradition of the 19th century, comfortable but not passionate - his second wife was the bad girl revolutionary, passionate but deadly, his third wife of necessity and survival and finally the orphaned daughter, cut off from the past headed into an uncertain future. Like Tolstoy in War and Peace, Pasternak examines the old question: does the individual make history or history make the individual - the characters mirror the historical events. There are many "philosophy bombs", little insights on life and art weaved into the text which are worth quoting (see "Quotes & Notes" below). Pasternak was born in 1890 and saw the transition from 19th ideals to 20th century first-hand and the novel is the epic story of that transition across generations. Some particularly illuminating text about this can be found in chapter 13(14). There are hundreds of named characters in the novel, most with minor appearances, giving an all-inclusive "communist" feel, no one is left out!

I could not help but reflect on Kang Zhengguo's 2007 memoir Confessions (below) since Doctor Zhivago is the novel that, after requesting to borrow a copy from the library, landed Kang prison for 3 years for "thought crimes" against the state. Today in the 21st century, when high literature is seen as rarefied art, perhaps even headed for extinction, when the CIA is chasing after YouTube clips of terrorists, it's hard to imagine that not too long ago people were jailed and sometimes even killed over literary art. It should be noted the CIA was involved in either the novels translation or publication because they knew it would be an embarassment for the Soviet's. I suspect the 1965 film version also contains some Cold War propaganda, parts of the film, which are not in the novel, are clearly designed to make the USSR look bad. This political dimension either adds or takes away from its value as a work of art, depending on your point of view, time will tell, my guess is it will diminish its reputation as a period piece.

See also Quotes & Notes on Doctor Zhivago

Update: (re)watched the 1965 film, with a fresh perspective having now read the novel. Of course the movie cuts a lot and changes some things around, and even adds a lot of new things, but in some ways the movie is more immediately satisfying - since the novel moves so slowly, the high climax scenes are few and far between making them almost anti-climatic, while in the movie (about 3.5 hrs long) the emotional coaster can be experienced in a single sitting from start to end. The cinematography, scenery and sets in the movie are outstanding, and a few scenes in the movie helped clarify some confusion in the novel. With this praise of the movie, it would be impossible to understand the film fully without reading the novel first - the relationship of the characters and their backgrounds are not fully fleshed out leaving the viewer grasping at the central love story and missing the deeper insights. See the film, but also read the novel, they are complementary.


Confessions An Innocent Life in China

Kang Zhengguo (2007)
First hardcover
July 2007

Extraordinary. Princeton professor Perry Link says in the Introduction "This may be the best account of daily life in Communist China that I have ever read. It stands out .. because of the extraordinary lifelike qualities of the writing and the credibility of its account .. Hundreds of writers .. have given accounts of China during Mao's years, but nearly all use an ideological lens .. This account, in contrast, is clear eyed."

It has a number of factors that make it stand out. As Link says, it is honest and devoid of Communist ideology, Link considers this the first account "free of Mao" to appear out of China. The writing is superb and the characters pop out of the page to such an extent I feel I know them all personally. Certain scenes are anthropological in detail of Chinese rural peasant life and some of the prison descriptions are, according to Link, as good as anything else of its type available.

Zhengguo never sacrificed his internal integrity, which made him a nail-head that constantly attracted the notice of the Communist hammer, usually involving literature and books, in particular his desire to read Doctor Zhivago (see above). Zhengguo says in writing his memoirs "I sought salvation through describing my trials and tribulations in writing. My purpose was not merely to complain but rather to salvage my dignity through honest revelations about myself and everyone who had interacted with me, whether friend or foe." He has obvious faults, there are times the reader wonders how he could be so foolish and stubborn, but anyone who is a devotee of books and the literary life will find in Zhengguo, and many other Chinese intellectuals like him, inspiration for a dignified life and personal integrity.


Ivan Ilych and Hadji Murad

Leo Tolstoy (1886-1905)
Internet Archive, Oxford Univ Press, trans. by Louise and Aylmer Maude, 1935
July 2007

From Internet Archive.

This is a collection of Leo Tolstoy's later short stories and novella's, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude and published in 1935 by Oxford University Press; the translations were originally published earlier, "Hadji Murad" in 1912, not sure of the rest. Louise and Aylmer Maude are well known English Tolstoy scholars from the early 20th C who wrote a decent biography soon after he died, which is also available on Internet Archive in two volumes.

The contents of "Ivan Ilych and Hadji Murad" are arranged in chronological order:

*The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886)
*Master and Man (1893)
A Talk Among Leisured People (1893)
Walk in the Light While There is Light (1893)
Memoirs of a Madman (1894)
*Hadji Murad (ca. 1896/8, 1901/4)
Fedor Kuzmich (1905)

The three best are marked with a '*' which are "Ivan Ilych", "Master and Man" and "Hadji Murad", which comprise the bulk of the books length. The three short stories after "Master and Man" are somewhat polemic and not too valuable except from a biographical view, and the last story - "Fedor Kuzmich" - is brief and incomplete before he died. The overall translation is excellent, well respected and highly readable with helpful footnotes.

"Hadji Murad" is a masterpiece. Yale professor Harold Bloom considers it the central canonical work of fiction of the 19th century and devotes an entire chapter of "The Western Canon" (1994) to it. At about 160 pages, it's a lot more approachable than the behemoth "War and Peace." Lots of heroism and adventure and the politics of Islam vs Christianity are applicable to the present day.

"Master and Man" is wonderful in the descriptions and will leave a lasting memory - everything normal seems new again. It's the shortest and lightest read of the three, with a lot of foreshadowing and a kind of twist ending.

"Ivan Ilych" is a well known classic that has amazing re-readability, as we age and go through stages of life, so does Ilych and we can plot ourselves along his course. A heavy read but if you have not read it in a while it's well worth a re-visit.

Note: this scan has 4 missing pages, 2 in "Ivan Ilych" (pp. 50-51) and 2 in "Master and Man" (pp. 132-33) - however Project Gutenberg has a plain text version of the same translation so the missing text is available.


The Secret Life of Lobsters: how fishermen and scientists are unraveling the mysteries of our favorite crustacean

Trevor Corson (2004)
Hardcover first
July 2007

De-mystified the lobster and lobster fisherman. Amazed at how complex the lobster is and how much it depends on human activity - the destruction of the Cod allowed the lobster to thrive. Lobster eggs travel 100s of miles, the bay where they are caught is not a year-round home or place of birth. Lobsters are managed substainably, one of the few wild catches of the sea to be so.


A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

Eric Newby (1958)
Paperback, Lonely Planet (1998)
July 2007

English traveler and author Eric Newby (1919-2006) published over a dozen travel books during his remarkably adventerous life, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958) is his most well known and considered a classic of travel adventure writing. At the age of 33 in 1956, he quit a job as a high-end clothing salesman in London and joined a friend in a remote part of Afghanistan to attempt a first ascent of a 23,000' mountain. The problem is neither Newby or his friend had any mountaineering experience. Armed with 4 days of mountaineering training and a fold-out pamphlet for beginners, they drove 5000 miles across Europe and Asia into Afghanistan, the super-bowl of the climbing world. Many things go wrong and by the end of the 2 weeks they return much the worse for wear but still alive. Newby is a good writer and the book flows well. Most memorable is his humor, many times I was laughing out loud at the self-deprecation and understated silliness that is English humor. A comparison could be, and has been, made with this book and Rory Stewart's The Places In Between (2004).


The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories

Leo Tolstoy (1889)
Project Gutenberg e-text #689, Trans. Benjamin R. Tucker in 1920
..and, Penguin Classics, trans. by David McDuff 1983
July 2007

Harold Bloom in "The Western Canon" ranks Tolstoy among the best authors in world history (post medieval), proceeded only by Shakespeare and Dante. Although best known for his epic novels, Tolstoy also wrote some excellent short stories and novellas. Near the top of the later is The Kreutzer Sonata which demonstrates Tolstoy's powerful command of the craft in a digestible portion.

It is a morality story about how social forces shape and eventually corrupt men and womens relationship with one another. What is love, is there really love? There was barely a paragraph where I did not recognize either myself or someone I know. Although fiction this might as well be psychoanalysis. It is not always easy reading to confront bare naked mysonginy, and Tolstoy takes things to logic extremes, but in the process reveals something timeless, basic and wise. As a story that delves into "the mind of a killer" it is the best I've ever read in terms of believability, whereas other authors tell you what the person is thinking, Tolstoy shows you how he came to think it.

Read via Project Gutenberg

In addition I read The Devil, The Forged Coupon, and After the Ball in the Penguin Classics collection The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories (2004), The Devil and Kreutzer tackle the same question/problem of what is love and how to deal with sex in marriage. The Devil is a more concise and better-told tale than Kreutzer, it is based in part on Tolstoy's real-life affair with a peasant on his estate (much to the chagrin of Tolstoy's wife who found out about it through this story). In my opinion Tolstoy's hang-up is prostitution, so common for men of his class in Russia that he saw it as normal, he could not envision life without it, and was stuck trying to integrate it with the idea of true love and marriage according to Christian precepts. In these stories Tolstoy was coming to grips with his own debauchary and trying to find a moral and religious way out - he eventually found it by renouncing his wife and all wordly goods, an acknowledgement that one can't buy love.


Stephen Crane (HBJ Album Biographies)

James B. Colvert (1984)
Hardcover first
July 2007

At 162 pages and many full-page photographs this is a quick and painless way to learn about the life of Stephen Crane. It is well written, well researched and well designed. There are other more detailed biographies, but for a 1-day read for the non-specialists it is very enjoyable and educational.

Crane published a few novels and many short stories. His work was uneven and beyond the big three - Red Badge of Courage, Maggie and The Open Boat - it is hard to know where to start. This book provides an excellent guide to know what stories are his better ones, and the context of his life and surroundings when he wrote them. It also places his relationships with other well known authors like Henry James and HG Welles and Joseph Conrad in context.


Brave New World

Aldous Huxley (1932)
Hardcover 1946 Harper & Row "Blue Ribbon"
July 2007

Huxley correctly predicts "political correctness", the modern emphasis on information over wisdom, the dangers of a "do it if it feels good" culture.

Yale professor Harold Bloom is the living embodiment of John the "Savage", for more in depth see his excellent 2000 interview on BookTV (See "Essays and Film" section at bottom) as well as his introduction in some editions of "Brave New World".


The Black Sheep ("La Rabouilleuse")

Honore de Balzac (1842)
Paperback Penguin 1970 trans. Donald Adamson
July 2007

Although full of action and entertaining, "The Black Sheep" is something more. This is a story of two brothers and a mother, very similar to my own family situation, and apparently like Balzac's home life as well - speaking from personal experience, the novel has a good deal of verisimilitude: the competition for the affection of the mother, the changing fortunes of the brothers - one plodding slowly along, the other a bright but erratic star - the physical prowess and weakness of each - these are not just fictional devices. Balzac speaks broadly to the reality of life, all the while set in the delightful atmosphere of early 19th century France, it really is a treat.


Children of the Sun a history of humanity's unappeasable appetite for energy

Alfred W. Crosby (2006)
First hardcover
July 2007

Quick world history survey of sources and uses of energy. Fairly un-inspired and not very deep. Everything is correct just not very nuanced. Might recommend for someone with no previous experience. Crosby is very pro-nuclear but misses some of the major problems with it.


The Snow Leopard

Peter Matthiessen (1976)
Hardcover first (no DJ)
July 2007

National Geographic ranked The Snow Loepard #12 in its respected list of 100 all-time best travel and exploration literature. It opened new vistas in the travel literature genre, combining spiritual quest, autobiography, nature writing and travel/adventure literature. It also won the National Book Award.

In some ways The Snow Leopard represents a document of not only Peter's journey but an entire generations. Traveling to the Himalaya's, smoking pot, zen-ing out with Buddhist's monks - this was the height of hip in 1973 when Peter took the trip, and it obviously has had life-changing impact on many people. Some of this vision and lifestyle has lost its luster over the past 30 years with new generations and new values, but this book will certainly be forever a documentary of the times. Peter's descriptive powers are formidable - it can take some effort to get into his flow as the passages are dense with information, visual and encyclopedic, but if you can keep up with his energy, the reward is an unforgettable trip.


Maggie, a girl of the streets (a story of New York)

Stephen Crane (1893)
First, Internet Archive
July 2007

A story of a NYC working class Irish immigrant family that slides into degeneration because of alcohol and family abuse, very similar in style and content to Emile Zola's L'Assommoir and Nana, but about 1/10th as long and less "pornographic" to turn of the century sensibilities. Maggie is portrayed as a "devil child" to those around her - a sign of the Gilded Age when children took second place to partying - for comparison to the mood of the time, think 1970s and Stephen King's "Carrie".

Read via Internet Archive, the 1896 first edition. Crane self-published the 1893 edition which was in pamphlet form.


The Red Badge of Courage

Stephen Crane (1894)
1951 Modern Library
July 2007

Stephen Crane first published Red Badge in a local Philadelphia magazine when he was 23 years old. It is a short work because Crane found other popular realists like Zola ("Germinal") and Toltstoy to be tiresome, saying of "War and Peace" - "He could have done the whole business in one third the time and made it just as wonderful". He even criticized his own "Red Badge of Courage" as being too long. Crane was a rebel and non-conformist, essentially without any formal education, he disliked anything that was considered popular.

Crane was aiming for photographic documentation, but the work is also richly symbolic, with a series of episodic scenes juxtaposed like a French impressionist painting forming contrasts. Thus he is able to capture the ironic and contradictory nature of war, swinging from elation to fear, pride to humbleness, love to anger .. time and geography are lost, what is right becomes wrong and what is wrong becomes right. The book has no real plot, and is morally ambiguous, one leaves it feeling a bit disheveled wondering exactly what happened, but with certain scenes forever etched in your memory. Probably one of the best artistic representations of the experience of combat.


In the track of R.L. Stevenson and elsewhere in old France

John Alexander Hammerton (1907)
First hardcover
July 2007

This is one of the first "in the footsteps" of Robert Louis Stevenson, some of whose best works were his auto-biographical travel journals.

In 1903 Hammerton re-traced Stevenson's 1873 ten-day hiking trip ("Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes") through the Cevennes mountains in south-central France, except on a bicycle instead of a donkey, taking many pictures and even meeting a few people who remembered Stevenson. He then bicycled along the canals as originally detailed in "An Inland Voyage" (1870), Stevenson's first book. Later chapters are less Stevenson-specific but also in France. Hammerton heavily quotes Stevenson and shows a wonderful eye for the romance of France that Stevenson also captured. Hammerton's trip was only about 25 years after Stevenson so much remained the same and his descriptions and feel for the place are very authentic and help further fill in the picture of rural France in the later 19th century, in particular the introduction of urban electric trains which were common in the 1890s to 1920s.

This edition is available on Internet Archive including pictures. I purchased the hardcopy to get better quality picture scans. This book is notable for its construction - only 254 pages, the spine is about 2 inches thick. Each page is so thick that they don't bend when turned, the cover is a deep blue leather, this is book love at its height.


Waiting for the Barbarians

J.M. Coetzee (1980)
Paperback, "Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century"
June 2007

Timeless observations about human nature. In a post-911 world, in particular the Abu Ghraib Prison torture scandal, it is strangely prescient, but it is not allegorical to any particular time or place, rather a timeless fable or myth. It is essential post-colonial literature, applicable to the 4th Century Goths/Romans, the 5th century Chinese/Mongols, the 19th century Americans/Indians, Europeans/Africans, etc.. Many layers to look at, but also a well told and exciting story.


The Cult of the Amateur how today's internet is killing our culture

Andrew Keen (2007)
Hardcover first
June 2007

Prior to the 19th Century just about everyone was an amateur, limited only be time and resources, but with the rise of the professional in the 20th century, the amateur lost his role, shoved aside by gatekeepers who required credentials to be taken seriously. Now, with people living longer and having more free time, the amateur is making a come back in a big way in many areas. On the Internet, it is having an impact on the professionals, in particular journalists (blogs), reference works (Wikipedia), entertainment (theft of copyright material), distributors (P2P), publishers (web). Andrew Keen looks at the downside of this movement, saying the amateurs are undermining the very professionals they initially set out to imitate, replacing them with inferior quality material. It's an important conversation, even you don't agree with everything, the ideals of participatory user-generated content need to be examined in light of the realities of what actually goes on. Realities that many idealists are quick to apologize for or ignore.

See the (somewhat ironic) Wikipedia entry on "Professional amateur" which I helped write.

See also an excellent debate between Keen and new media guru Kevin Kelly.


Facing Athens encounters with the modern city

George Sarrinikolaou (2004)
Hardcover first edition
June 2004

A quick and thoughtful travel memoir about Athens by a Greek immigrant to the US who returned to Athens in his 30s and took walking tours around town and comments on his personal recollections and thoughts. George focused on things most people disregard - working class people and neighborhoods, Gypsies and Albanian low-wage workers, the corruption and general systematic disregard for the law. The hospital story of bribes for the doctors is frightening.

As both an American and Greek, George is able to write for an American audience but from a Greek perspective. For those of us who see ourselves as "travelers" and not "tourists", George's focus on the street and dark corners is exactly what we are looking for, a "rough guide", but told with respect, humanity and tact.

I found this book for free at "The Great Sage" restaurant in Clarksville, MD in June 2007 - one of the employees set out a box for anyone to take from her personal collection. Thank you anonymous giver, I would have never read it otherwise.


The Bridges of Madison County

Robert James Waller (1992)
Hardcover "first printing"
June 2007

In 2003 while traveling across country, on a solo camping trip for 3 months, I drove to Madison County and found my way to Roseman Bridge. I had not read the book or the movie but knew from the title the "Bridges of Madison County" were something to see. It was a dusty hot day with no one around and I made a few pictures. A car drove up with three women who were on a literary tour. They had traveled from Japan, California and Texas to see Roseman Bridge. They asked if I could take their picture in front on the bridge and seemed genuinely moved by the experience - we did not exchange many words and I went on my way feeling a bit out of the loop. I decided one day I would either read the book or watch the movie - now I understand.

This is moving and wonderful work of art. The juxtaposition of the freedom loving man who chases his dreams, and the woman who sacrifices her dreams for the security of the routine, speaks volumes of the human experience on many levels. They both desired what the other had, but knew that in attainment would come its destruction. If only we could all be so wise - careful what you wish for.

See my 2003 blog entry with pictures of Roseman Bridge here.

I found this book for free at "The Great Sage" restaurant in Clarksville, MD in June 2007 - one of the employees set out a box for anyone to take from her personal collection. Thank you anonymous giver.


The Zen of Fish The story of sushi, from samurai to supermarket

Trevor Corson (2007)
Hardcover first
June 2007

The Zen of Fish is an appropriate title. Like small decorative servings of visually appealing sushi, Trevor Corson playfully dishes out many short chapters full of descriptive appeal, encyclopedic knowledge and witty banter, a written "documentary" of the sushi experience in easily digestible portions. The variety of information about sushi is varied, but like the ubiquitous bed of white rice it is served on, a consistent human-interest narrative holds everything together, popping one short satisfying chapter down after the next. Reams of encyclopedic information are interesting, but when wrapped around a person and a story, it becomes an unforgettable experience.

Gratefully, Corson has added an appendix on how to go about ordering and eating Sushi "correctly", and he covers at least a dozen different fish types that make knowing what to order beyond the standards easier. Fun and educational book, highly recommended.


L'Assommoir ("The Dram Shop")

Emile Zola (1877)
Oxford World Classics, trans by Margaret Mauldon
June 2007

The seventh volume in the Les Rougon-Macquart cycle of 20 novels by one of the best 19th century authors of world literature. Along with Nana and Germinal it is probably Zola's most famous and commercially successful. It is also his most controversial, outraging many contemporary conservative critics with NSFW language and portrayals of sex and violence - the sexualization of pre-teen Nana is treated frankly for example. The minute level and accuracy of working class 19th century Parisian life remains a study for anthropologists to this day.

The novel is notoriously difficult to translate. Indeed, even the contemporary native French version needed translations since many of the words and phrases were localized slang unfamiliar to many people. The Oxford World Classics is the most recent translation and reads beautifully.


The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man

David Strahan (2007)
First UK paper
June 2007

Despite the histrionic title this is a remarkable book. Not only is it full of accurate, up to date and important information about peak oil, it is entirely entertaining and impossible to put down. Written by an investigative journalist, he explains concepts and ideas about peak oil in a way that are fully understandable to the lay reader, and very entertaining - I read it in 3 sittings over a day and a half. Highly recommended. I had to import it from (Canada) into the US as it's not available for sale here but it should and hopefully will be. Probably the best and easiest way to learn about Peak Oil, but even experts are raving about it saying they too learned new things.


Charlemagne Father of a continent

Alessandro Barbero (2004)
Hardcover US first
June 2007

Thematic survey of the Carolingian world during the reign of Charlemagne. Up to date historiographical approach regarding the "dark ages" not being so dark after all. Well written, lots of interesting anecdotes, gives a decent picture of the times, within the limitations of the sources.


Deep Ancestry Inside the Genographic Project

Spencer Wells (2006)
Hardocver first
June 2007

"Deep Ancestry" is a sort of simplified version of "The Journey of Man" which is a classic. Although many of the details were new, details which I will forget, the concepts are the same, no new ideas. Given all the recent controversy of Genographic Project with indigenous peoples, in particular American Indians, this reads like an apology on why the project is important and the nature of the research. I did learn some new things and its a very short 170 pages of text (the rest being appendix).


To Travel Hopefully journal of a death not foretold

Christopher Rush (2005)
Paperback US 2006 edition
June 2006

I am a big fan of Robert Louis Stevenson and in particular Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes (1878) so I was very excited to discover this memoir by Scottish novelist Christopher Rush (who is new to me). I was expecting an "in the footsteps" re-enactment with literary history and of course 'Hopefully' has these elements, but it turns out to be an original and beautiful work in its own right. The first 100 pages are about the life of Rush and how he suffers a series of terrible losses in his family. Desperate with grief and anger he sets off to re-trace Stevenson's journey in southern France and along the way he re-connects with himself and ultimately finds hope to continue living. Rush writes with honesty and humor, intelligence and learning. Very powerful, uplifting, full of wisdom and truth that is rare and beautiful.

Although a memior it really has the elements of a novel, specifically a character who encounters diversity, travels and finds answers and changes to become a better person. This is the sort of travel memoir that is the most satisfying. It is also a story of finding hope and anyone facing depression from personal loss, bad health, etc,, would benefit from this powerful tale.


The Road

Cormac McCarthy (2006)
Audiobook 7hrs
June 2007

It might be a mistake to call this a novel. As Anthony Burgess said in the introduction to "A Clockwork Orange", a novel shows a character changing and evolving and learning a lesson and hopefully becoming a better person in the end. Anything else is a fable. While "The Road" is well written and very good post-apocalyptic fiction, complete with flesh-eating "bad guys", and while it strikes a deep chord with generational zeitgeist in America, that is all, no deep truth.

For a real-life and ultimately more satisfying "Road", see John Muir's "A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf" (1911) - two years after the end of the Civil War, John Muir walked from Chicago to Northern Florida, crossing the Appalachian mountains in the cold and snow, passing through the wasted and desolate lands of the South. Bivouacking in abandoned farm houses, passing burnt and destroyed croplands and forests, he was constantly at threat from bands of ex-Confederate bandits who patrolled the road and would "kill a man for $5". Not to mention the "wild negroes". Many times he almost starved to death, became sick and in the end his life was saved by a family who took him in. If "The Road" is a fable, it is a fable of the South after the end of the Civil War.


Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet

Mark Lynas (2007)
Paperback, UK first edition
June 2007

The IPCC says that in the 21st century global warming could bring temperatures anywhere from 1 to 6 degrees hotter. Lynas uses peer-reviewed scientific literature to show what these temperature rises could mean. In 6 chapters he outlines 6 degrees, 1 degree for each chapter. Fundamentally, once temps get past 2 or 3 degrees, like a wild fire burning out of control, the planet will continue to heat up no matter we do because nature starts releasing massive stores of CO2 from burning forests, melting tundra, warming oceans etc.. once it reaches 6 degrees it could wipe out most life on the planet.

This is the first comprehensive attempt I have seen to outline what exactly a warmer world will be like, based on the most recent peer reviewed scientific literature. It is one part of the learning curve about global warming but an important part. It should be read in conjunction with other books, such as Monbiot's "Heat" which offers solutions to keep temps below 2 or 3 degrees.

This is scary stuff and we don't have much time, 8 or 10 years, to make drastic changes. Once things reach a certain temperature its out of our control and the higher temps become just a matter of time. There is a fire smoldering in the kitchen and we need to get off the couch and turn off the TV and do something about it before it burns down the house.


Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich

Robert Frank (2007)
June 2007

Robert Frank is a reporter at the Wall Street Journal who, a number of years ago, began a column on what it's like to be rich in America. This soon became a very popular column and he was tasked to work on it full time. This book represents the synthesis of his experiences over the past few years.

"Richistan" is a colloquial term Frank uses to describe the booming numbers of wealthy. Starting in the late 1980s, there has been a doubling or tripling of the number of wealthy households in the US, currently at over 9 million with $1 million or more in net assets. Within this "nation within a nation" there is a class system, with the "lower class" rich (or "merely affluent") in the 1-10 million net worth range, the "middle class" rich in the 10-100 range and the "upper class" rich in the 100-1 billion range. The billionaires, estimated to be about 1000 strong in the US, are in a separate group entirely. Each of these groups have distinct spending patterns and investment goals. 90% of these new rich came from middle or lower class backgrounds and everything about them is different from the stereotypes of the "old" rich: how they made their money, how they spend it, how they give it away.

Frank's book is both easy reading and hard to put down. I listened to the audiobook version, going through the 7 hours in "no time". Although educational, this is also a very funny book. The audio greatly enhances the humor as the narrator has perfect timing and change of voice, many times I was laughing out loud, yet at the same time going "ah-ha!". A rare treat.


My First Summer in the Sierra

John Muir (1911)
Barnes and Noble "Suggested Reading" (2006), Hardcover.
June 2007

When Muir first arrived in CA in 1869, and got a summer job herding sheep to the highlands of the Sierra mountains, there he would discover his life's passion, Yosemite and the Sierra Mountains. This journal details with excitement and awe the bounty of nature, and the colorful backwoods characters he encountered.

Muir is at his best when he is trying to express the unexpressable and that is best seen in the chapter on Yosemite. Parts of this book are dull but the chapters on Yosemite and later are pretty good.

Also available on Internet Archive, first edition, illustrated:


A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on the Rivers and Lakes of Europe

John Macgregor (1866)
First edition, Internet Archive
June 2007

John MacGregor, outdoor writer and distant relative of Scottish folk hero and outlaw Rob Roy, designed and built a hybrid canoe / kayak with a sail and kayaking paddle which he named the "Rob Roy". He then paddled through the rivers, lakes and canals of Germany, France and Switzerland, portaging between waterways on a cart or on trains. This was a completely novel idea for the time, traveling alone, by water, in a boat so light it can be carried, and it fired popular imaginations across Europe. His account of the journey became a best seller read by royalty and laymen alike, attracting newspaper attention and crowds along the route.

"A Thousand Miles" was written as both an account of the journey and a sort of travel guide for those wishing to follow in MacGregors wake. Indeed, fellow Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson was so enthralled by MacGregors trip, he soon made his own in a Rob Roy, which he wrote about in "An Inland Voyage", Stevenson's first published book. One can profitably find comparison between MacGregor and Stevenson's accounts, Stevenson being the genre imitator, but superior in writing quality.

MacGregor's account has a degree of Victorian optimism that is refreshing, not unlike Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days", the world is an Englishman's oyster with new and exciting modes of transportation making outdoor expeditions available to everyman. At times his account becomes journal-like and banal, commenting on every town, supper and rapid he comes across, and there is no central narrative other than the curious mode of travel and incidental encounters - but for learning about the details of European life in the 1860s and the zeitgeist of the time it is an authentic and pleasurable journey that was influential.

A scanned illustrated first edition is available online at Internet Archive:

There were many later editions, I think up to nine, that had additions including a map, discussions of the Prussian War etc.. the success of "A Thousand Miles" would spur Macgregor to take many more voyages and write other travel accounts of his trips in the Rob Roy.


Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning

George Monbiot (2007)
Hardcover first
June 2007

Heat is an optimistic response to more pessimistic works such as Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia which suggest we should prepare for the consequences because it is too late. Monbiot asks the hard question: what specific solutions could reduce carbon emissions by 90% by 2050 and thus save the world from the worst impacts of global warming?

He examines electricity production, transportation, housing and some case examples, such as retail stores and concrete production. Relying on government reports, think tanks and other sources he discovers that it may "just" be possible, so long as a society we approach it like we did WWII, with a massive and focused effort and some sacrifices. Except for long distance travel (by air, train or ship), everything else it should be possible, says Monbiot, to reduce by 90%.

Monbiot mainly addresses England. However, England is one of the worlds best organized countries politically and economically, so anything difficult for England is going to nearly impossible for other nations - can Georgia or Belarus or Chile or China reduce carbon emissions by 90%? It is a global problem and Monbiot doesn't look beyond England and the US, thus it is difficult to see how the entire world can turn around in such a short period of time. There are big areas that Monbiot does not address, such as agriculture. He also does not look at "climate surprises" or tipping points, where a little CO2 increase by humans triggers a massive CO2 release in nature (see Fred Pearce With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change).

Monbiot is optimistic solutions are available, but I found his solutions so politically difficult to implement, and nearly impossible globally, I came away even more depressed about our prospects. However, one thing is clear, we have no choice but to try.


No god but God The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam

Reza Aslan (2005)
Hardcover first
June 2007

Good beginners background to Islam. Notable for me is the comparison of Islam today to the Christian Reformation and wars of religion of the 16th C - the violence in the Middle East is not a clash of civilations of East vs West, but an internal civil war over what religion means and what it means to be religious in the modern world. The progressive and laudable egalitarian and pluralism (acceptance of other religions) of Muhammad's original vision. The Ulmaad's present day tight control over Islamic society which has strangled it from advancing because no rational commentary of the original Quaran is allowed since it is the literal direct words of God. The origins and meaning of the five pillars (such as the fast of Ramadan, circleing the Ka'ba (black cube) seven times at Mecca during the Hajj, praying to Mecca five times daily). The immediate history after Muhammad's death that lead to the split between Suni and Shi'ite, a sort of tribal feud; and Suffism's strange mixture of Christian, Buddhist, Islam, etc.. How Iran became Shii'ite while the majority of the rest were Suni. The happen-chance start of the Saudi Kingdom. Etc..


The Day of the Barbarians: The Battle That Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire

Alessandro Barbero (2007)
Hardcover first
May 2007

The story of the Gothic War and the famous Battle of Adrianople has often been re-constructed, for example by Gibbon (1776) and more recently by Peter Heather The Fall of the Roman Empire (2005) and Michael Kulikowski Rome's Gothic Wars (2006) - what makes this account special is not any new over-arching theory, but simply a well researched, reliable and very well told story - if writing history is a type of literature, this is literature at its best. Barbero has the ability to fire the imagination and make it all real - he can take a single sentence from Ammianus Marcellinus (the primary source for the events) and draw in other related material to fill in the details to make a book-length retelling where others have a chapter or two. As Steven Coats said, reviewing in the New York Times (April 29, 2007), this is an "elegant and pleasurable little account - what a joy it is to read about the ancient world in digestible portions." This is clearly a book for the general reader, but Barbero is a medieval scholar, it contains supporting footnotes (which are worthwhile) and references to further reading. I never tire of reading about this story, it brings together so many elements of the ancient and medieval worlds, it was one of the pivotal moments in world history and also one of the most dramatic.

With all the praise above, a couple things about what the book is not: 1) this is a short book, 147 pages of actual text, the rest is footnotes 2) it is not for specialists or experts - Barbero does not go into too much chronological or geographic detail - it is not a definitive scientific study 3) the question if Adrianople was the dividing line between the Ancient and Medieval world is thankfully relegated to the Preface and last two pages, a "hook" I suppose. The books real value is in the skillful narration of events, and understanding the process of the 'barbarization' of the Roman Empire.



Michael Cook (1977)
Paperback 1996 edition, Past Masters series from Oxford UP
May 2007

Wonderful little introduction to Muhammad and Islam. Monotheistic Judaism and Christianity were making cultural headway into polytheistic pagan Arabia by the 7th century. Facing cultural challenge by an outside monotheistic religion, Muhammad co-opted elements of these faiths, the exact sources and origins a matter of great debate. Muhammad saw biblical history as a series of prophets from God who came to earth to deliver a message - Moses, Jesus and finally Muhammad were all "messengers" from God - the message of the Koran, as written by Muhammad, is the most recent, and therefore most valid, message from God and only the "true believers" (Muslims) can go to heaven.


A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf

John Muir (1867)
Internet Archive first edition, 1916
May 2007

John Muir (naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club) left his home in Indiana at age 29 and "rambled" 1,000 miles through the woods of the southern US ending in Florida in 1867/68. It was just 2 years after the end of the Civil War and he ran into "wild negros" and long-haired horse-riding ex-guerrillas who would kill a man for $5. He passed through uninhabited stretches of burnt out fields and deserted farms and was often seen as a northern interluder mistrusted by his southern guests. He lived mostly on stale pieces of bread, almost dieing of starvation while camping in a graveyard outside of Savannah, GA. He caught malaria and was bed ridden for 3 months, cared for by a kind family in Florida.

This is a snapshot of the south right after the war and the contrast between Muir's beautiful nature writing and the devastation of war are just as striking today as they must have been for the many people who encountered this unusual walker of the woods. Muir's writing is under-stated - the book was published posthumously and is more a diary than a finished book, which gives it a truthfulness and matter of factness. Fundamentally a Romanticist world-view - the power of nature and mans relation to it - Muir delights in finding, sampling and discussing plants, animals and geography. The genre is best compared with Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes' and Thoreau's 'The Maine Woods'.

As found at Internet Archive.


Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives

David Sloan Wilson (2007)
First hardcover
May 2007

This is a wonderful book that will change lives. Just about any phenomenon can be viewed from an evolutionary perspective - from the big questions of religion and war, to the curious such as why we smile. The book is only 350 pages, but has 36 chapters, each one packed with information easily accessable to a general reader (I could only digest 50 pages a day). Abundant references to further reading. A central thread is that seeing the world as an evolutionist is not hard and many age-old mysteries can and have been recently solved by so-called amateurs relying on the power of the idea of evolution, it is a wide open field that you don't have to be a "scientist" to understand or even contribute.

My suggestion is to read the book with a question in mind and see if the book (or evolution) can provide an answer: my question is, can "generations" (GenX, Baby Boomers, etc..), such as discussed by Strauss and Howe, be understood in evolutionary terms - the book doesn't discuss this in particular, but it provides enough information to come to some startlingly unique and powerful insights, all on my own. It's a wonderful feeling to be armed with these powerful ideas that have such universal application.


Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline

Lisa Margonelli (2007)
Hardcover, first
May 2007

Margonelli spent three years traveling around the world documenting different stages in the oil flow. The book can be divided in two parts, the first part in the USA in six chapters: 1) gas station, 2) oil delivery trucks, 3) oil refinery, 4) oil drilling, 5) oil futures market, 6) strategic oil reserve. The second part examines overseas oil sources: 7) Venezuela, 8) Chad, 9) Iran, 10) Nigeria, 11) China. Within each chapter it is a human-interest story with Margonelli interacting with a main character (gas station owner, drill operator, oil warlord, Iranian minister of oil, etc..) with tangents to highlight encyclopedic facts about the history of the place or institution in a sometimes overly-wrought magazine-style prose.

I found the later overseas chapters the most interesting, to learn about the history of oil states and how interconnected everything is. The vast majority of the worlds oil is owned by governments, and not by the Exxon's of the world which only have about 20%, thus Margonelli's focus on the oil states was spot on. In regards to who is to blame for high gas prices in the US, the best theory was from a oil trader in NYC who says its simple supply and demand, China and other countries are demanding a lot more oil.

4 stars: stylistically the prose was inconsistent. At times it flowed well, other times it was choppy with halting sentences, or tried too hard to be clever and endearing (how many ways can you say "the bolt is as big as (fill in the blank)"). I also thought some of the exposes were unnecessarily unsympathetic. The excellent information about oil made it worth the trip, Margonelli's three years traveling around the world to remote and often dangerous places (and probably often boring) has been a great help in understanding first-hand what is happening.


The Name of the Rose

Umberto Eco (1983)
First, hardcover, Harcourt
May 2007

This will be a difficult novel for anyone that does not have an academic background in the Middle Ages. Luckily, I have spent the past 3 years preparing with excellent surveys such as Norman Cantor (The Civilization of the Middle Ages), Joseph Strayer (The Middle Ages, 395-1500) and Morris Bishop (The Middle Ages). There is hardly a sentence that does not connect with a scholarly topic on the Middle Ages, which should come as no surprise as Eco was foremost a medieval scholar before he wrote this his first novel. The first 100 pages of the novel are like reading a medieval manuscript, trying to piece together what is known of Medieval history and figuring out what Eco is talking about, not unlike what happens with the characters in the novel. With that said, the novel can still be enjoyed by anyone without a medieval history background because of the excellent plot and Gothic atmosphere. The novel needs extensive annotations to fully appreciate (such as The Key to The Name of the Rose, although I found it lacking in many ways).

'Rose' works on many layers and can be approached from many perspectives. It's impossible to cover all the permutations in a single reading, indeed I have read it only once primarily a "reading for the plot" to understand the sequence of events. The movie helps in this regard, although it has some substantial "Hollywood" changes at the end and is much less subtle and interesting - recommend reading the novel first.

Most valuable for me was Eco brought to life the Guelphs vs Ghibellines dispute in color, shape and form that only fiction can achieve. It's the difference between intellectually understanding history versus emotionally experiencing, and for this alone the novel is priceless, the best of what historical fiction can achieve.

Update: Read the book The Key to the Nameing of the Rose. It has a lot of helpful material, but there was no line by line annotation (other than Latin translations) so it misses a lot.
Update: Watched the film with Sean Connery. It does an admirable job of following the sequence of murders but at the exspense of removing some of the mystery - does not do a good job at explaining the conflic between the Papacy, Emperor and Franciscans - overall, the movie is impossible to fully understand without reading the novel, but it doesn't matter since it has great acting and atmosphere. The ending is Hollywood.


The Making of the Middle Ages

Robert Southern (1952)
1975 Yale paperback
April 2007

The Making of the Middle Ages is a study of the period 972 to 1204. Before Southern wrote this book in 1952, the period has traditionally been called the High Middle Ages or the "Renaissance of the 12th Century". However Southern sees it as more than a Renaissance (usually thought of as a period of *re* discovery of classical texts and ideas), rather it as a period of new and original ideas and institutions. Southern says the period "had been overtaken by a creative spirit, which was not derived from the past, but nourished by a medley of influences both past and present." What is the "creative spirit"? According to Southern, it is Romanticism, which can be defined as a heightened sense of self-consciousness in perceiving the physical and natural world, both in the secular and spiritual.

It was with the publication of "Making" that decades of subsequent research into the period has focused on Romanticism as the primary creative movement that helped propel European culture from a backwater throughout the early middle ages to a leading civilization by 1500. The Virgin Cult, courtly love, the Arthurian tradition, the origins of Gothic architecture, are just a few of the peculiar institutions and ideas that have been re-examined from a Romantic viewpoint. And it is for that reason "Making" is so often classified as one of the most important medieval history books of the 20th century. Further, it was groundbreaking stylistically because it legitimized speculative and imaginative cultural history, which has found many imitators, such as Peter Brown (The World of Late Antiquity) and Robin Lane Fox (Pagans and Christians).

Although "Making" is accessible and readable by anyone, the books intent as described above is subtle and nuanced, in particular outside of the "state of the art" of medievalism in 1952 which saw the 12th century as a Renaissance at best, or a "dark age" at worst. This was a revolutionary and groundbreaking book for its day and is as interesting today for historiographical reasons, some of the actual content has since been refuted. Literary speaking, it is well written and delightful. It does contain interesting anecdotes about the period, but this is not a survey text and those looking for a introduction to the Middle Ages may be disappointed if not dazzled.


The Book of the Courtier

Baldesar Castiglione (1528)
2002 Norton Critical, Singleton translation
April 2007

One of the most popular books of the 16th century. Written at a time when the Italian Renaissance was drawing to a close as France invaded Italy, Castiglione looked back at all the best qualities of the Renaissance and applied them to the model of the French court in the form of the "perfect courtier". Highly influential for generations its echo's on western civilization can still be felt to this day.

Note: I read the first 2 of 4 books and about half the critical essays. The last 2 books - about court ladies and the relationship between men and women, and about philosophy and the nature of leading a contemplative life versus an active one, remain for future.


The Civilization of the Middle Ages

Norman F. Cantor (1963 / 1993 2nd)
1993 hardcover 2nd
April 2007

Civilization is a single volume survey of Medieval history from 300 to 1500. Cantor was a Medieval history professor at a New York City university from the 1960s until the 1990s teaching thousands of undergrad classes. This is a synthesis of everything "most people want to know" about the Middle Ages, it has consistently remained one of the most popular medieval history books in the US for decades.

I've been studying Medieval history fairly intently for about three years - it is a vast subject of about 1,200 years, each century filled with unique events, people and ideas. Distilling it into 500 pages of the most important elements and weaving a common thematic narrative is something only a few have attempted and very few have successfully achieved. Cantors work is truely a gift.

Cantor avoids the common, but banal, political narrative of kings, wars and conquests. He reminds us that the Battle Milvian Bridge was one of only a handful of truely important battles in history. He focuses on that most powerful of all historical forces: ideas. As such the Middle Ages was a period of Christianity, and many of the changing ideas related to theology and the synthesis of faith with reason.

What I found most remarkable was how Cantor could touch on a huge number of subjects, in one or two sentences putting them into historical context, and move on to the next. This book really demands prior knowledge of the Middle Ages, the more the better, but it can also profitably be read by a beginer. In fact for beginers I would suggest professor Phillip Daileader's 2-part (12hrs ea) series from The Teaching Company before reading Cantor's book as it gives an easier entry, but doesn't have Cantors incredible intellect and insight tieing everything together.


The Maine Woods: "Allegash & East Branch"

Henry David Thoreau (1864)
Published as Canoeing in the Wilderness 1916
April 2007

The Maine Woods (1864) was written in three essays and published posthumously. If he had lived longer, Thoreau might have revised them into a more cohesive whole, but he never had time to do this. The book describes trips over an eleven year period, and Thoreau's work on these essays spanned 15 years. The third and longest essay was originally titled "Allegash & East Branch", about 200 pages, and in 1916 it was published as a separate (very slightly abridged) book re-named Canoeing in the Wilderness which is reviewed here.

This is one of the most vivid and realistic experience of an out-door trip I have ever had, in part because I have direct experience in the lakes of Canada and can smell, hear and see everything Thoreau describes. Nothing particularly "adventuresome" happens, just the normal day to day of being in the wilderness (fishing, getting lost, telling stories, rain, cooking fires, wet clothes, etc..), but Thoreau describes it with such grace, simplicity and clarity I was completely in the woods. But perhaps the best part was the Indian guide Joseph Polis (1809-1884), a Penobscot tribal leader, who Thoreau hired -- he starts out cold and indifferent and as the days move on his character and nature is revealed until by the end he is an old friend. It is the most intimate and realistic portrait of a native American individual I have ever read. Considering this is written circa late 1850s, Joseph was the "real deal", and has been forever immortalized by Thoreau.

As found on Internet Archive:Canoeing in the Wilderness


The Conquest of Assyria: Excavations in an Antique Land

Mogens Trolle Larsen (1996)
hardocver, first
April 2007

"Conquest of Assyria" came highly recommended by David Damrosch in a footnote in "The Buried Book", so I took the chance. What a discovery! This is a very readable and enjoyable narrative of one of the most romantic and picturesque stories in archeology. Perhaps partly justifying the steep price ($135 list), the book is physically above average in terms of quality - it is large format, the binding is like a tank, the boards are heavy and solid, the paper is heavy gloss, there are full-color plates, maps and drawings throughout (at least every 3rd page). The narrative reads like a novel covering the lives of about half a dozen gentleman "scientists" (more like antiquarian diggers). Layard is the central hero with adventures and tales equal to anything in India Jones, but all real. If it was re-printed in paperback for a mass audience it would probably overshadow books like The Buried Book, but for whatever reason, it remains for a limited audience because of the high price. If you have any interest in learning more about the desert adventures of 19th C archaeologists, this is one book to get lost in, it was hard to put down.

There are some scholarly quibbles. Larsen takes Laylards accounts of his adventures, written for a 19th C popular audience, at face value and in the end tends to have written a hagiography of Laylard. He repeats racists 19th c perspectives about Arabs (stupid, bad workers, etc..). His perspective on the Oriental middle east is likewise outdated calling it "endless, monotonous and flat.. decrepit.. not a nice place to spend the summer or any other time of year." There is no awareness by Larsen of post-colonial views, he seems to favor the 19th c colonial position of superiority. As a story of mystery and adventure it can't be beat, as a scholarly account it repeats old stereotypes that should be retired.


Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the 20th Century

Norman F. Cantor (1991)
April 2007

Unless your a Medievalist this book would be pretty boring, but if you've ever taken on the quest to answer the question "What were the Middle Ages really like?", this book serves as a sort of cheat-sheet. It's Medieval historiography of influential historians, their works, ideas and schools of thought. Highly recommended. Cantor is brilliant.


The Thirty Years War

C. V. Wedgwood (1938)
Hardover 1995
April 2007

This is the best single-volume account of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). The war was very complex but Wedgwood provides singular clarity. Other interpretations are possible, but her vision is strong and memorable. The Machiavellian machinations are head-spinning, one has to read carefully, the reward is a solid understanding of not only 17th C dynastic politics but how Medieval politics operated before the rise of the nation state.

Wedgwood is an old-fashioned historian like Gibbon, retelling the events in highly-readable prose, focused on the "great men". This can be problematic, the Thirty Years War was more than just the decisions made by a few elites - social, economic and other forces were at work. Her sources are almost all 19th century. There are no new insights on the war, it is a retelling of established views. As a political narrative it is not only a great work of history but also literature.


The Epic of Gilgamesh

N.K. Sandars (trans.; 1960)
"Penguin Epics" series 2006, re-print from 1960
April 2007

This is a review of The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Epics) published 2006, a prose translation by N.K. Sandars, first published in Penguin's 1960 edition, re-printed here under the "Penguin Epics" series, without the book-length editors introduction and notes. Just the meat, no potatoes or desert. It took me about 2 hours to read as an average reader, was clear and easy to understand. The book is physically tiny, 4x8 inches and a quarter-inch thick, it would disappear on a book shelf.

I purchased this at the same time as The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, however I wished I had waited, as 'Buried Book' has a good overview of more recent translations available. However I am not disappointed as Sandar's translation is good and easy and understandable - it may not be scholarly level, but perfectly acceptable for most readers who just want to read the epic and enjoy it in prose format.


The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh

David Damrosch (2007)
Hardcover, first
March 2007

The story begins in 19th century Iraq with the accidental discovery of the until then unknown Epic of Gilgamesh, and unlike most history books, works backwards in time slowly revealing the mystery of its origins and meaning - this chronology works well, not unlike an archaeological dig. The first half of the book is devoted to two unlikely and largely unsung heroes of the Victorian era who first found and deciphered the tablets, George Smith and Horzmud Rassam. Rassam is probably the most important and unique revelation of the book, as Damrosch restores an unfairly maligned scholar to his rightful place in history and perhaps some immortality. The second half of the book jumps backwards from the 19th century to when the Epic was written, discussing the history of the Assyrian kingdom, and the library where the tablets were buried. The tablets were buried around 700 BC when the city was sacked, and thus the Epic lain forgotten from that time until the 19th century. Had the city not been sacked and the tablets not buried, it is likely the Epic would have been lost forever, as most tablets from that period did not survive otherwise.

This is a fun tale, both Smith and Rassam encompass dramatic lives as underdogs who rose from obscurity, overcoming Victorian prejudices of class and race. If nothing else the first half of the book is worth the price of admission, in particular Rassam's side adventure to Ethiopia. Damrosch's literary interpretation of the Epic (Ch. 6) provides valuable insights, such as the importance of cedar trees, making it less "foreign" (both in time and culture) and more universally human. I certainly came away with a new appreciation of the tales message of the quest for immortality.

The Sources and Notes section includes an up to date guide of recent translations of the Epic, recommended reading before deciding which translation(s) to pursue.


The Reformation: A History

Diarmaid MacCulloch (2004)
March 2007

A historical narrative survey of the 16th and 17th century reformations. Encyclopedic in scope. Well written. The parts I already knew about were excellent and enlightening with new perspectives. The parts that were new to me I found difficult and boring. This is one of those surveys where the more you know before hand the better off you'll be. This is because the author assumes that established histories and narratives are known and wants to add new ideas - thus not leaving much room for the newbie trying to understand the basics. I stopped reading at page 330 and hope to re-read and return and finish at a later date when my background on the 16th and 17th centuries are more solid, will get a lot more out of it then.


Across Arctic America: Narrative of the Fifth Thule Expedition

Knud Rasmussen (1927)
First, Internet Archive
March 2007

Knud Rasmussen was a native Greenlander who was half Inuit and half Danish. He was the first person to travel the Northwest Passage by dog-sled, around 1922, as re-told in this readable and enjoyable account first published in 1927. Known as the "Fifth Thule Expedition", it was designed to be an ethnographic expedition to answer "that great question the origins of the Eskimo race". A native speaker of Inuit, Rasmussen's insights into the religion and inner-life, voice and spirit of the Inuit remains a classic of polar travel literature and ethnography. The Inuit language is difficult to translate and Rasmussen's unique position of straddling both cultures proves indispensable.

Rasmussen traveled with two Inuit who had never before left Greenland. On the return trip home by plane, the group stopped in New York City and were awed by what they saw. One said while looking over the city skyline from a rooftop: "I see things more than my mind can grasp; and the only way to save myself from madness is to suppose that we have all died, and that this is part of another life." An Inuit Shaman revealed to Rasmussen "All true wisdom is only to be found far from the dwellings of men, in the great solitudes; and it can only be obtained through suffering. Suffering and privation are the only things that can open the mind of man to that which is hidden from his fellows."

An Inuit-produced film 'The Journals of Knud Rasmussen' (2006) was recently made based on the book, produced by the same people who made 'The Fast Runner' (2001), which has been called one of the 10 best Canadian films. This book is pretty rare in first editions going for $50-$100 in the used market. A re-issue was made in 1999, still in print. See also the books by Peter Freuchan for accounts of this journey and others he took with Rasmussen.

Found on Internet Archive, freely available here. I expanded the Wikipedia article on Knud Rasmussen.


"A Mediaeval Burglary"

Thomas Frederick Tout (1916)
Manchester: The University Press, 1916
March 2007

"A Mediaeval Burglary" is a 24-page lecture transcript from 1915 about a little known burglary of King Edward I's treasure room in 1303. It is a real-life medieval mystery with interesting characters, scandal, cover-up, and an accurate feel of the times from a ground-up perspective, as told in a smoky Victorian library about 100 years ago. Entertaining, includes a hand-drawn map and two relevant manuscript pages.

There is a recent book about it called The Great Crown Jewels Robbery of 1303 (2005) by an author better known as a novelist -- its 300+ pages (I have not read it), but I think this short lecture by a Medieval scholar covers it pretty well and has Victorian character which adds to the atmosphere.

Found on Internet Archive, freely available here. See also thread on Metafilter.


The Autobiography of St. Ignatius

Ignatius of Loyola (1555)
Internet Archive, Joseph O'Conner trans. 1900
March 2007

This is a review of the ca. 1900 Joseph O'Conner translation at Internet Archive.

St. Ignatius was the founder of the Catholic order of the Jesuits in the early 16th Century. He started from humble beginnings in Spain, and like many of his day, was zealously religious. He rose from obscurity and founded one of the most successful Catholic orders to this day. His life story is an inspiration for anyone who believes in something and has a vision and goal to overcome adversity. This is not just a story about Catholicism or even religion, it is inspirational for anyone.

Some of the memorable scenes from the book include his encounter with the Moore on the road and his struggle to decide if he should kill him or not for insulting the Virgin Mary. His trip to Jerusalem and sneaking past the guards to climb the Olive Mount. His days of begging in the streets of Paris while trying to earn a doctorate in the "Queen of sciences" (theology). Being imprisoned as a youth in Spain and standing up to what he believed in and overcoming the tribunals. His extreme mortifications (fasting, standing all night, roping his leg off with a cord). His injury to the legs with a cannonball and stoicism during three surgeries without anesthesia.

Ignatius was born into the "Reformation" generation, the same generation as Luther, Calvin, Henry VIII and many others who would re-shape religious life as we know it. It was a time when the bible was being made widely available because of the printing press, and a subsequent re-evaluation of what it meant to be Christian. Ignatius was a revolutionary like the Protestants who broke with the Catholic Church, but he was at the opposite extreme, fighting for Catholicism, not against it. The Jesuits would eventually win back Poland, Lithuania and other places from the Protestants, they were called the Catholic "shock troops" or front-line vanguard in the 'Counter Reformation'. They also went on to found some of the worlds top educational institutions which still exist today.


The Peasants War in Germany, 1525-1526

Ernest Belfort Bax (1899)
Internet Archive
March 2007

The Peasants War in Germany was the largest popular uprising in European history (besides the French Revolution). Yet most modern history books devote a page or two at most. This is perhaps not surprising since the Peasants War is surrounded by racist and socialist scholarship - Friedrich Engels famously wrote about it in 1850 from a Communist/Socialist perspective, and the Nazi's had some special attachment to it for their own agendas - most historians today just give it a brief account in relation to the Reformation.

I wanted to learn more about the specifics of the events - the battles, the people involved, the stories. Although written in 1899, this old fashioned historical narrative written in the tradition of Gibbon is a pleasure to read. For the most part it sticks with a chronological narrative of events, the first chapter has historical interpretations that are largely in-line with modern ones.

I read it through Internet Archive's "Flip Book" feature online and it was actually very enjoyable, in particular with the old scrawl some early 20th C socialists revolutionary hurriedly underlined throughout, giving it added atmosphere.

Found online at Internet Archive.


Earth's Changing Climate

Richard Wolfson (2007)
The Teaching Company 2-DVD, 6hr
March 2007

Video lecture by The Teaching Company ( about the basic science behind climate change and global warming. Although I already know a lot about climate change, I learned a lot from this course and feel more confident about what the mainstream/traditional views is, and where there are questions of less certainty. This is basic education everyone should have in high school, like chemistry and biology. There is a considerable amount of politics surrounding global warming, and having the knowledge to separate the science from the politics is vital, which this course provides the basic scientific facts.


Logan's Run

William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson (1967)
Bucanner Books Library Binding 1999
March 2007

Run! The action starts and never ends in this short but breathless 1967 sci-fi fantasy. Published the same year I was born, it says more about the zeitgeist of America at the time than any prophecy of the future. Youth culture, hedonistic living, rebellion and revolution - it turns the tables instead of the old people in charge it is the youth, instead of the youth rebelling it is the old people. One can find 1960s "hippies" in the "pleasure gypsies", and the giant thinker computer which connecs and runs the world as a proto-internet. Like H.G Wells, this is great classic fiction that reveals the dystopian fears and visions of another era.


The Magic Circle of Rudolf II: Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague

Peter Marshall (2006)
March 2007

I first heard about Rudolf II while reading a history of collecting. Even though Rudolf II was Holy Roman Emperor, king of the largest empire in Europe, that part of his life is the least interesting and this book thankfully does not spend too much time on politics. Rudolf, too, would have been pleased.

Rudolf II was one of the world's greatest collectors, he spared no expense in finding rare and exotic objects from around the world to fill his castle in Prague. He never married, had a stable of 'imperial women', rarely left his castle or appeared in public, had little interest in the affairs of state - all of his energies were in his collections and in the occult sciences of astrology and alchemy. He was so wealthy and patronized so many artists and intellectuals that Prague became Europe's late Renaissance cultural capital for about 30 years around the turn of the 17thC.

Peter Marshall does a wonderful job of revealing this eccentric and fascinating monarch, and the amazing artists and thinkers that were a part of his world. It was because of Rudolf's patronage that foundational scientific works were created, such as Kepler's "New Astronomy". Although Rudolf's ultimate quest was to find the Philosopher's Stone, a legendary alchemy rock that made one immortal, he inadvertently helped lay the foundational stone of the scientific revolution by allowing many great minds to flourish in an atmosphere of freedom and creativity. It is called the "Rudolfian age", comparable to the "Elizabethan age" (Elizabeth I of England).

History has not been kind to Rudolf, only in the past 50 years or so has his life been been re-examined beyond the lens of his political failures, and his contributions to the arts and sciences been given their due credit. His life story will be appealing to anyone with an interest in collecting, astrology/alchemy, science history, European history, and eccentric monarchs. Marshall writes in a very readable style and brings life and color to the period, people and events.


With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change

Fred Pearce (2007)
March 2007

Fred Pearce is a journalist with 'New Scientist' magazine who has been writing about climate change since the 1980s. With a background writing for a popular science magazine he is naturally skilled at quickly distilling complex science into a readable and understandable narrative for the educated lay reader and placing things in the big picture. But he is also grounded and objective, saying in the Introduction "I am a skeptical environmentalist" but that "climate change is different.. the more I learn.. the more scared I get.. because this story adds up."

Pearce goes through a checklist of major concerns scientists are looking at: Melting ice in Greenland and the Arctic. Glaciological "monsters" lurking in Pine Island Bay and Totten glacier. The stability of the West Antarctic ice sheet. El Nino getting stuck, trigger droughts or super-storms. The Amazon rain forest disappearing due to drought or fire. The acidification of the oceans. Damage to the atmospheric hydroxyl smog cleaning system. Influences of the stratosphere on global warming. Methane releases from melting arctic bogs. The North Atlantic conveyor belt shutdown. Frozen undersea methane clathrates. The impact of soot. The unknown factor of clouds. The many ways the sun and the earths orbit effects climate change. And much more.

In addition he covers a bit of history including a history of the debate between the the polar and tropical camps on what is the driver of climate change. His explanation of El Nino was simple yet it finally made sense to me how it works and why it is so important.

Interleaved throughout is the common narrative that climate is not a steady beast, but a widely unpredictable "drunk", who prodded a little can go off irrationally and unexpectedly in any direction. This is an excellent overview that is easy to read, fascinating, well written, a roller-coaster of ideas and insights.


Journey Without Maps

Graham Greene (1936)
1983 hardcover
February 2007

Graham Greene is a famous 20th C novelist ("The Orient Express") who also wrote a few travel accounts. This is his first, when he was 31 years old and left Europe for the first time in his life to experience the uncivilized "dark heart of Africa" by traveling through the back country of Liberia in 1935. It was a 4-week, 350-mile walk, mostly through an unchanging tunnel forest path, ending each day in a primitive village. He had about a dozen black porters who would carry him in a sling, although he walked much of the way.

It's written with a very "old school" perspective, with one foot in the 19th (or 18th) century of romantic colonial imperialism, and one foot in the pre-war 1930s perspective of deterioration, rot and things falling apart. Heavy whiskey drinking, descriptions of the festering diseases of the natives, and plethora of bothersome insects, the run down European outposts and a motley cast of white rejects fill many descriptive pages.

It reminds me a lot of Samuel Johnson's "Journals of the Western Isles" (1770s) when Johnson, who had never left England in his life, decided to go to Scotland to see what uncivilized people were like. Just as Johnson brought Boswell who would go on to write his own version of the trip, Greene brought his female cousin Barbara Greene (who remains unnamed in the book and largely unmentioned), who went on to write her own version of the trip in the 1970s called "Too Late to Turn Back", which mostly contradicts Grahams version.

I can't say I totally enjoyed this book, I found Greene's attitude irritating - but therein lies its value, as a snapshot of prewar European zeitgeist. It is reminiscent of "Kabloona" (1940), another prewar travel account to an uncivilized place (Arctic Eskimos) by a young European aristocrat, who also is deeply inward looking and finds a new perspective and appreciation for the "cave man" people he meets. It's very much a transition period between prewar and post-war attitudes and the fluctuation's back and forth, the sense of things falling apart, but also new-found perspective, make it a challenging but interesting work.

Update: I created a Wiki page Journey Without Maps (although I think the above entry is better).


J. P. Morgan: The Financier as Collector

Louis Auchinclos (1990)
First, hardcover
February 2007

J. P. Morgan amassed one of the worlds greatest art collections, mostly European works between the Fall of the Roman Empire through the Renaissance. The type of work was endless from painting to sculpture to relics to grave goods to furniture, tapestries, gems and so on. By the time he died in 1913 half his fortune was in art, 60 million dollars. He collected not only individual pieces but other collections, many dozens. He donated most of it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of which he was president and was a major force in its establishment.

This is a coffee-table picture book containing about 30 pages of text and 100s of pictures of some of his most important works. It's not very in-depth and a quick read but for the right price it's a pretty book and, printed in Japan, it is of high quality material. One leaves it with a feeling of seeing a random pile of stuff, which is exactly what many critics of Morgans collection have expressed.

Morgan was a collector since childhood, the only difference between him and a beer can collector is the price of his toys - like all manic collectors he hoped to find immortality through material things - remember Citizen Kane and Rosebud - we all die and the lesson of Morgan is "you can't take it with you".


Finn: A Novel

Jon Clinch (2007)
Audio (11.5hr) + first hardcover
February 2007

It is rare that I read brand new fiction ("The Echo Maker" being the only other example) and even more rare to read a first-time novelist (never before) so this represents something out of the ordinary. Who can resist the temptation to learn the dark secrets of Pap Finn, Huckleberry Finn's alcoholic and abusive father, and how he ended up floating down the Mississippi River inside a house with a bullet in his back. Clinch takes up the few clues from Twain's book and weaves a believable if ultimately dark and sad biography of Pap Finn from his childhood to untimely demise. It is Mark Twain with a little bit of creepy "Deliverance" wrapped around a murder mystery. Clinch crafts his words and sentences with almost poetic care creating a cadence that bounces along the river pulling up secrets from its muddy depths.

In the audio version the narrator has a relaxing country drawl and pleasant rhythm that combines with carefully crafted sentences to form a song-like cadence, dancing lightly along the longer descriptive passages but grounding satisfyingly in the simple but meaning laden dialog. There is an additional 30 minutes or so of post material including an interview with the author in which we learn he would write about 250 words a day, crafting the words and sentences with meticulous care; that certain scenes were derived from Melville; and other interesting back-stories to the back-story.


American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War

Carole Gallagher (1993)
First (limited 10,000), hardcover
February 2007

Disturbing and revealing oral history of America's atomic testing program and the health impacts caused by radiation. Hundreds of atomic bombs were exploded above-ground in the deserts of southern Nevada in the 1950s and 60s. The Atomic Energy Commission waited until the wind was blowing eastward because people in Utah "didn't give a shit about radiation", as they were Mormons who were a "low use population" that were taught never to protest or raise any concern and put God and Country as equals (the Mormons believe the US Govt is divinely inspired). Each bomb released more rads than the Chernobyl accident. Radiation has spread to every state in the country.

The effects have been devastating. Carole spent about 10 years in the 1980's traveling through Nevada and Utah interviewing people - cancer rates went through the roof and remain high to this day. Strange pregnancies and birth defects became the order of the day. The US government has done everything possible to cover it up going so far as to suggest radiation is good for you. The epidemic of cancer in the USA could be explained largely as a result of these tests which released enough rads to kill the world many times over.

As a result of reading this book, and the similar oral history "Voices from Chernobyl", I have purchased a new high quality Geiger counter. It is difficult reading to realize the scale of the horror but the US Govt has perpetrated a holocaust-scale crime on its own citizens and no one really knows about it. The evidence can be "soft" - how do you know what causes cancer? - but like global warming, or lung cancer caused by smoking - you don't need a scientist to tell you what your intuition and gut know to be true - the US has unloaded literally 1000s of Hiroshima's on US soil.

Update: I received a new geiger counter. So far everything has checked out clean. Since the battery lasts 12-years and never turns off I can leave it on full-time. A certain peace of mind.


To Have And To Hold: An Intimate History Of Collectors and Collecting

Philipp Blom (2003)
Hardcover, first
February 2007

At first I thought this was going to be a survey of some eccentric collectors in history, on which is does not disappoint, but it turns out to be a lot richer and contain some real pearls of wisdom about life in general, and flashes of historical insight.

Reading through the chapters of this book was a lot like rummaging through a private collectors cabinet of curiosities. The chapter titles alone don't reveal its direction and only after a few pages does it begin to reveal its treasure. Chapters cover aspects of collecting as diverse as: people who collected experiences with women (Casanova), the collecting of body parts (religious relics), collecting memories, American billionaires who bought up European heritage (JP Morgan, Hearst), collectors of mass-produced items (milk bottles, food wrappers), Princes and Kings such as Rudolf of Hapsburg (17th C) who filled his castle with the worlds greatest collections and slowly went mad, collecting as a madness, as a substitute for love, as a form of autism, as psychology, as crime - and in the end, as a warning to all those who take it too far.


The Alien Voices Presents: The Time Machine

H. G. Wells (1895)
Audibook by Alien Voices 1999, 2hr
February 2007

An original script, full-cast, full-production, original score, radio adaptation. If there was an audio-book "Hollywood", this is what it would sound like. Leonard Nimoy stars as the time traveler. It is helpful that Nimoy's reputation as a space faring time traveler gives the story an extra degree of verisimilitude. Although many of the finer details from Well's original story are lost in this abbreviated version, for the most part it sticks to the original plot and is highly entertaining and makes for a wonderful listening experience. Recommended.


The Short Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, Volume 1

Robert Louis Stevenson (1880s)
Audiobook 3hrs, narrated by Charlton Griffin, Audio Connoisseur, 2005
February 2007

This is a wonderful audio narration of three Stevenson tales: "Markheim", "A Lodging for the Night" and "The Body Snatcher" along with a circa 1900 biographical essay by long-time friend Edmund Gosse. The narrations are multi-cast (although Griffin multi-voices where possible, they are clearly different sounding people) with some background noises and music. The narrator is a professional actor who breathes life into the story without falling into a formula - a lot of artistic thought was used to combine the pacing, music and sounds, top notch quality that greatly enhances the original work.

"A Lodging for the Night" is Stevenson's first published fiction when he was 27 years old. It is my favorite of these three. "Markheim" opens the door on the thoughts of a murderer before and after he comits the act, ultimately finding redemption. It's a complex piece that takes two or three listens. "The Body Snatcher" is great Gothic horror in the creepy way that an innocent person commits a murder in the name of science. It would be later re-worked into a classic 1940s film.


Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness

Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner (2006)
Hardcover, first
February 2007

"Quantum Enigma" opens with a colleague's objection to the book: "Though what you are saying is correct, presenting this information to non-scientists is the intellectual equivalent of allowing children to play with loaded guns."

Visualizing the quantum enigma is not difficult, the authors reveal it with stories and diagrams that any careful reader can understand. It is a lot like watching a magic show: the rabbit disappears - it is an enigma. But a disappearing rabbit we all know is a trick with some reasonable explanation that resolves the enigma. In the case of the quantum enigma, it is no trick, but an experimental fact, and the enigma remains unresolved. This creates a metaphysical crises once you really grasp the meaning of it, which is what makes this book so difficult, the implications and what it could mean. The authors call it physics' "skeleton in the closet", or a "loaded gun", because it is so strange in its implications and how it can be interpreted, it transcend physics, which makes many uncomfortable.

Beyond the quantum enigma and how scientists came to discover it, the book discusses consciousness studies and suggest, intuitively, that there is a connection between the quantum enigma and consciousness - perhaps understanding one can lead to the other. I found this the most provocative, and also the most difficult part to understand. The last 50-pages took nearly as long to read as the first 150 and I am still not on firm ground - but that may be the point, no one is. The implication that we are creating the universe as we discover it (John Wheeler's eye looking backwards) is great fun and makes paraphenomena and "law of attraction" and "what the bleep" stuff look small-minded when considering the possibility!

My only regret is I can not take the University of CA (Santa Cruz) course this book came out of as there are some areas that I just don't understand and could use further help with. It may be asking too much but some authors have web sites with FAQs, or forums, or even interact through Amazon. In any case hope to see and read more about this subject in the future.


Imperial Life in the Emerald City

Rajiv Chandrasekaran (2006)
Hardover, first
January 2007

Rajiv was a WashPo reporter in Iraq from pre-invasion to late 2004. The core of his narrative is the period under Bremer when the CPA (the US civilians tasked with re-building Iraq) were stationed in the Green Zone (ie. Emerald City because in Oz, the city was Green, except that everyone wore green-colored glasses). It is a devastating account of American corruption, incompetence, denial of reality and humanitarian crimes. We get to see the reality behind the headlines during a period when we were told everything was going well and getting better when in facts things were getting worse - not in spite of the Americans, but because of the Americans. Most people today blame the CPA, Bremer in particular, which is all this book focuses on. Another book Fiasco looks at the military as well and offers some larger lessons.

After reading this I am left wondering how things could have gone better. No doubt Iraq is a tough place and no plan could have gone perfectly. The biggest mistake was the assumption that free Iraq would welcome Democracy with open arms. Creating a Democracy and capitalist economy is one of the hardest things that can be done, look at the history of the west and how long it took and how bloody it has been. Dictatorships and the like are easy to set up, that is why there are so many of them. In a collapsed stated like Iraq, creating a Democracy and capitalism in a few years through American intervention was never going to work because the Iraqi's never really wanted it. It can't be forced. Many critics were saying this from the start, and the neo-cons had no plan to implement their vision - it was an afterthought after WMD's were not found.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius

Leo Damros (2005)
First, hardcover
January 2007

Until Damros published this 2005 National Book Award finalist, there has not been a good single-volume biography of Rousseau in the English language. This is because Rousseau's own auto-biography, "Confessions" (1782), is so well done and the number of sources for Rousseau's first 40 years are otherwise so weak, that writing a new biography is mostly a retelling of what Rousseau has already said. The strength of Damros' biography is to summarize Rousseau's life, his evolving thinking and his major works, including historical significance and context, while weaving in some of the best scholarship available after two centuries of reflection.

Rousseau's influences are so vital and important to so many aspects of modernity that they seem like second nature, a testament to his triumph: the idea that government exists for the good of the people it governs, and not for the people to be good "subjects" of its rulers, is why he was called the "prophet of the French Revolution". As mentioned, Confessions was the first auto-biography to focus on otherwise mundane events in life, particularly childhood traumas (and adult sexual escapades), which he saw as influential in creating personality - an original idea for the time which otherwise saw childhood as a time to be forgotten. His ideas of "natural man" in his natural state as the height of good, and civilization a downfall, are at the roots of Romanticism.

His personality can best be describe as immature and "sharp at the edges". He either loved a person with all his heart, or hated them as his worst enemy. Usually, it started with the former and ended with the later, fueled by his paranoia and over-active imagination. These are traits one normally sees in a child, a black and white world view of love and hate unable to deal with the ambiguities of human weaknesses - which makes sense given Rousseau's brilliant genius combined with his abusive child-hood; lacking a mother he needed to trust someone, but at the same time could trust no one because of his abusive past. This fueled his desire for self-sufficiency and subsequent rejection of dependent relationships - thus he was naturally conflicted in an 18th C French society which was based on hierarchies of dependencies, where everyone was either the master of someone, or mastered by someone (and usually both)--Rousseau found a way to both live and preach an isolated life of self-sufficiency and inward reflection, hallmarks of the modern man. The master of no one, mastered by no one, and completely isolated from everyone. All of this is directly reflected in his works and ideas, so it is possible to fully understand Rousseau's works by understanding Rousseau the person - this biography paints the full portrait and answers many questions.


Running the Amazon

Joe Kane (1989)
Hardcover first
January 2007

Adventure literature classic. National Geographic ranked it #57 in its top 100 Adventure Books of all-time. Outdoor Magazine included it in its top-25 list of best outdoor books for the last 100-years.

A team of nine, most strangers, attempt to be the first to paddle the Amazon river--from its source in Peru to the Atlantic--the longest river in the world. Joe Kane is invited as a journalist to document the journey, but he has no boating or adventure experience. Crisis among the team leadership leads to a breakdown and in the end things don't turn out as expected. Reads like a novel.

The question is, why among the thousands of adventure and outdoor books is this one ranked so highly. I believe for a number of reasons: for one it is extremely well-written, Kane is a professional journalist who has written articles in The New Yorker, National Geographic and the like. But unlike most outdoor books written by journalists, Kane is also an active participant, indeed in the end he is one of the few to actually make it all the way. The journey was indeed epic in scope, comparable to traveling the length of the Nile, the holy grail for 19th C explorers. It contains a love story. Narco-trafficing and Shining Path guerrilla's. Multiple-near-death experiences from man and nature. All these things combine to make it a classic of the genre.

Update: Created a Wikipedia page for Joe Kane


One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1968)
1995 hardcover Everyman's Library
January 2007

Marquez, born 1927, published Solitude when he was about 40 in 1967, the same year I was born, and I was about 40 when I first read it in 2007, "in medias res". It is from this perspective of being in the "middle of things" that it is possible to understand the novel.

Themes of inter-generational similarities and solitude becomes very much a part of life when sandwiched between the twin responsibilities of caring for both the younger and elder generations.

For me, the novel became increasingly tedious towards the end as old characters died and new characters appear, all with the same names, it becomes difficult to even care anymore, creating a sense of despair and pessimistic pre-determinism that I did not find enjoyable. Either it is a lesson I am resisting, or an outlook on life that is foreign, I am not sure yet.


The Old Way: A Story of the First People

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (2006)
First, hardcover
January 2007

I first heard of the Bushmen through National Geographic's Genographic Project (Spencer Wells "The Journey of Man") which found genetic evidence suggesting Bushmen are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, peoples in the world--a "genetic Adam" from which all the worlds ethnic groups can ultimately trace genetic heritage. Within the face of a Bushmen one can see all the genetic expressions of the world (Asian eyes, African nose, Indian skin, etc..) So I was delighted when this new book appeared by bushmen expert Elizabeth Marshall Thomas who, along with her brother and parents, were one of the first westerners to live with and scientifically document the Bushmen in the 1950s (when Elizabeth was a teenager). Her parents and brother went on to become famous Bushmen experts and proponents in their own careers.

Older members of the Bushmen tribe were valued and respected for their wisdom, likewise Elizabeth is passing down her knowledge and experience for later generations. The Bushman way of life she saw in the 1950s, perhaps as old as 150,000 years, no longer exists - all it took was one generation and the long unbroken chain known as "The Old Way" has disappeared. It is the same sad story told the world over from Native Americans to Tibet to Eskimos. Yet Elizabeth reveals a deeper lesson, which is the "myth" that the Bushmen ever wanted it any other way - they want the comforts of modernization, just as we would prefer not to hunt and gather food each day. Bushmen want to travel, see the world, be a part of wider humanity, and for that we can celebrate and welcome all they have to teach. This book provides that introduction.


The Future of Life

Edward O. Wilson (2002)
2005 9th printing hardcover
January 2007

A great "state of the planet" survey circa 2002 covering species extinctions and the environment. In the end Wilson is optimistic with solutions. I came away with the desire to buy a microscope and start exploring the micro-world - and I also immediately donated money to the three top environmental organizations: World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International. Wilson clarified some questions I had about how these organizations operate and their histories and accomplishments. I was also amazed to learn how relatively cheap it is to buy and protect large areas of wilderness. Overall a book of unflinching dark reality and a hopeful future.


The Places In Between

Rory Stewart (2004)
Paperback, 2006 Harvest Books + Audiobook
January 2007

Scottish author and historian Stewart walked across some of the most difficult mountain terrain in Afghanistan in the early winter months of 2002 right after 9/11. He experienced a land of contrasts: a feudal-like culture living in mud huts with modern weapons and vehicles. Villages in which people lived their entire lives a few miles from home but who regularly saw international forces from the USSR, USA, NATO and elsewhere passing through. Poor Afghans one step away from starvation willingly giving food to a passing stranger and then shooting at him for sport and fun the next. Afghanistan has always been resistant to understanding, but Rory, by traveling and living with the mountain tribes who comprise most of the country, comes close as any by pulling back the curtain and revealing the character of the country in their own words and actions. A classic of travel literature and anthropology.

The audibook version is highly recommend as a supplement to the text. It is narrated by Rory (from a studio in Kabul) and his pronunciations of Afghan names and places are priceless, as well as his overall character and tone.


The Annotated Wizard of Oz

L. Frank Baum and W.W. Denslow (illus.), 1900
2000 Centenial Hardcover ed. Michael Patrick Hearn
January 2007

Three books in one. 1) The original story with all the original illustrations reproduced exactly as appeared in the first edition. Tthis is the only full re-production edition available. 2) A 102 page literary history with extensive biography of Baum and his works and illustrator Denslow. 3) Extensive annotated notes.

Michael Hearn is the master of annotation and this is just one in a series he has done including The Christmas Carol and Huckleberry Finn. The factual detail is dense, but always relevant and interesting. Oz may be a "kids story" but this is serious adult entertainment.


Essays & Film of note

*Kerry Emanuel, "Phaeton's Reins: The human hand in climate change", January/February 2007 issue of Boston Review. A lucid and poignant survey of the science and politics of global warming for a popular audience. Update: Well, the article was so popular they decided to make it subscription only and re-print it as a pamphalet size book. It was great while it was free, an excerpt is here.

*Barbara Ehrenreich, "How we learned to stop having fun", an excerpt from her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, about how depression is a phenomenon that became more widespread around 1600 and might be attributable to the reduction in the number of public festivals.

*Sherrie McMillan, "What time is dinner?", from Oct/Nov 2001 History Magazine. Fascinating account of when and how meal times changed from early afternoon to early evening in the late 18th century with the introduction of artificial light.

*Richard Schickel, "Not Everybody's a Critic", May 20 LA Times. The qualitative difference between a professional book review and what is found on blogs and Amazon reviews. The same criticisms can be expanded to Wikipedia and other free culture forums.

*Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why, 2000 video interview. Amazing insights by an amazing person. He has a gift for speed reading and memorization allowing him to "read out" many public libraries and now in his 70s has probably read many 100s of thousands of books.

*Larry Lessig, How creativity is being strangled by the law. TED confrence video, 20-minutes. Powerful speech, people were standing up at the end clapping. Lessig makes the delima and debate of copyright into a larger social movement. "We are living in a time of Prohabition". Highly recommended.


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