Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin ****

A novel about the gossip and scandal surrounding a short story of gossip and scandal recounting the original gossip and scandal. A non-fiction novel about the popularizer of the non-fiction novel. The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin is a Russian nesting doll of Truman Capote and New York City high society in the 60s and 70s.

The main characters, Truman Capote and his glamorous swans, are people raised in modest circumstances who moved to New York City and hit it big with the attitude
"I'm different. I'm special. I'm more."
Truman Capote coupled this arrogance with a disdain for his roots.
"No one else in that dusty Alabama town knew what a writer was."
This success is shown to be coupled with a private desperation.
"It's not easy, you know, trying so hard to-to act as if everything is just fine."
The women subscribe to pre-feminist doctrines.
"Men, the dear boys, did need to be taken care of, and American women were particularly bad at that, so intent on having their own fun."
The story presents an almost humorous view of the super-rich. Babe Paley was served on her own private china in hotels which stocked it just for her, and her newspapers were ironed.

In the end, this is a cautionary tale of fame and fortune.
"Because being rich, she'd found out, wasn't really that much fun."
Like a Greek tragedy all the proud fall into an abyss of death, despair, and loneliness.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Death in the Dales by Frances Brody ****

It's 1926 and Kate Shackleton has taken her niece Harriet for a holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. A Death in the Dales by Frances Brody mixes the idyllic small village atmosphere with murder. Murders actually.

They stay are a deceased aunt's house. Ten years previous the owner of a public house had been murdered in front of his establishment. Someone was tried and hung for the murder, but the aunt went to her grave believing that the wrong man was convicted.

In addition, a local farmer was poisoned. Reminiscent of the previous murder, everyone agrees on the suspect, motive, and means.

As the astute reader of mysteries will expect, neither turns out to be the true culprit.

A delight cozy mystery with enough delight in the British countryside and surprising plot twists.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning ****

Imagine that your mother has died and your father has an affair with your mother's illegitimate half-sister, who is the same age as you. This is the story of Martha Jefferson told in the historical novel: Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning. The half-sister is Sally Hemings, an enslaved person, given to Thomas Jefferson by his father-in-law. This is the same Thomas Jefferson that authored the Declaration of Independence and was the third president of the United States, but this book is about his daughter Martha. The "affair" lasted until Thomas Jefferson died.

Beyond this strained family situation, the time period is the 18th century. Women vow to obey and serve their husbands. Pregnancy brings the risk of either mother or child dying. Martha lost several children and her mother and sister in childbirth. Regardless, she had eleven children. As Thomas Jefferson appears to have understood, a doctor's treatment ould bring death as well as cure. This describes a life of privilege. The situation for enslaved people is unspeakably worse.

The book with its undertones of emancipation for enslaved people and rights for women often seems quite modern.  When faced with a public scandal, Thomas Jefferson realizes that any response would just fan the flames and increases the bad publicity.

Martha would be comfortable in the 21st century. She notices the asymmetry of marriage vows, the many explicit and subtle ways enslaved people are disenfranchised. She is concerned about families being broken up, enslaved women being raped, the arbitrary punishment meted out to satisfy the psychological needs of the white people and independent of any action be the enslaved people.

The author reconciles Martha's "woke" understandings and the historical record by presenting her a powerless, frustrated victim.

In the author's note at the end, she asks,
"Were there happy endings for anyone? You decide."
For me, I found the story to be a tragedy, an underserved tragedy without catharsis. The lesson I took away was not to be born in the 18th century.


Friday, May 26, 2017

Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally ***

There is a broad spectrum between fiction and non-fiction. Historical fiction is somewhere in the middle. Some historical fiction is predominantly fiction drawing on the historical record primarily for the setting. [Disclosure, I am writing a novel like this set during the Thera explosion of the Minoan era on Crete.] Other historical fiction moves very close to non-fiction with historical figures as the main characters. Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally is of the latter type, focusing on Elizabeth Balcombe, a friend of Napolean during his exile on St. Helena. This is certainly a challenge as there is much published, both fiction and non-fiction about Betsy, including other memoirs.

I found this novel to read much like non-fiction, and thought it might have been more enjoyable if I had been a better student of Napolean. In fact, I didn't know where St. Helena was located until I read this book.

Monday, May 15, 2017

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell *****

Consider the progress made by literary women in the 40 years between Pride and Prejudice and North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. In the latter, protagonist Margaret Hale is more concerned about social issues (hunger and workers' rights) than domestic issues (marriage and dances). Margaret speaks directly to the men and successfully negotiates between the factory masters and the workers. It is Margaret's brother who is marked for life from a youthful indiscretion. While the men around Margaret seemed eager to see her married, she is not interested and turns down offers with ease. She also has no problem inheriting or managing a sizable estate.

Central to the plot is a strike in the northern industrial town of Milton. The plight of the workers in the strike-breaking, union busting climate is, similar to today.
how we all had to clem [hunger]...yet many went in every week at the same wage, till all were gone in that there was work for; and some went beggars all their lives at after.
the strike...must end in...the invention of some machine which would diminish the need of hands at all.
Margaret views the situation around her in terms of power and economics, who controls the soldiers and who has the capital to survive. She also sees herself as a person who can change the course of events, sometimes subtly...
Margaret did not want to encourage him to go on by replying to him, and so prolong the discussion.
Other times more directly, as when she confronts an angry mob of strikers on her own.

She also declares...
I shall never marry.
In the end, she makes the surprisingly contemporary conclusion:
But she had learnt...that she herself must one day answer for her own life, what she had done with it; and she tried to settle that most difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.
While Austen might have written of the plight of 19th-century women, Gaskell writes of women with agency and courage. Here in 1855, Margaret is a strong, intelligent women who would not be uncomfortable in the 21st century. She is contemporary of Dickens (who lived and died with a few years of Gaskell). Her perspective of 19th-centruy England is well worth reading.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain ***

Have you read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? How about The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County? And Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court? If you still want more Mark Twain, you might try Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain.

But I do not recommend it.

This short book starts with his famous description of the fabulous life of steamboat pilots on the Mississippi. The description of the training and prestige is fascinating. However, after the saga of the steamboat pilot, the remainder of the book is a hodgepodge of short anecdotes and histories of various towns along the Mississippi. The latter often include tedious listings of demographic and economic statistics. The dull reporting is mixed in with classic Mark Twain digressions, such as a rant against Walter Scott and a discussion of the lagniappe tradition in New Orleans, which was recently the subject of an NPR podcast.

Mercifully short and of mixed interest.

The final chapter has a great description of the Twin Cites in the late 19th century.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton ****

I imagine authors expected most (New York state) voters to be able to read Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton. These eighty-five essays in favor of the U.S.  Constitution were published in various newspapers between 8/27/1787 and 5/28/1788. The authors assumed the readers were familiar with European, Greek and Roman history and could follow legal arguments.

In some cases, the authors were prescient when they addressed the issues of the subtleties of corruption, concerns about fake news and deceptions, the size of the federal government, and the power of the courts. In other cases, the were naive and idealistic where they assumed a homogenous population of voters who were patriotic and concerned about integrity and reputation.

If they returned today, they would be most surprised by our mass communications. Underneath many arguments is the assumption of geographically local communities and the difficulty of know someone who you do not meet face-to-face. On the other hand, I doubt they would have been much surprised by the civil war or the various states rights conflicts.

The other surprise would be how much the federal government has acquired dominion of so many governing functions. The writers of these papers mostly thought of the federal government as doing that which could *ONLY* be done by a central authority (war, treaties, interstate conflicts) and little else.

Still a fascinating read.

Closing caveat: Do not put these documents on a pedestal. They close with strong statements against term-limits, the bill of rights, and specific protection for freedom of the press. All of these things happened and most agree they were important.

Trivia: Just as an example, they mention the difficulties for a widow to control her husband's assets, not as a problem, but as a common practice that all would be familiar with, just like the history of Rome.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Flashbacks by Morgan Smith *****

Along with Benjamin Franklin, Anne Frank, and Henry David Thoreau, you should add Morgan Smith. Flashbacks by Morgan Smith has the two key attributes of a "must read" memoir. First, it is placed in an interesting time. In this case, the 1960s. But most important, a fascinating person has written it, one who is simultaneously unique and universal.

The author's grade school education (elementary through high school) encompassed the 1960s. As she recounts her life, she casts a bright light on the not only her cohort but also the cohort of her parents. People decades older than the author will recognize themselves, their parents, and their children. On one level this is a memoir of the 60s from the point of view of a precocious child. This is a story of the childhood that many wished for.

In kindergarten, the author organized a mini-protest against an antisemitic teacher. Here is a story of the ur-demonstration of civil disobedience organized by innocent children. Her mother's response?
"She emphasized that I did the right thing by not listening to Teacher and standing up for Justice, even if, normally, disobeying Teacher would be wrong."
Isn't this the story we all wish we could tell, and we all want to celebrate we live in a world where this story can be believed.

To add to the idyllic story...
"Life in my home operated on two basic principles: Benign Neglect and Books."
For a celebration of intelligent, independent children, this is a memoir for the ages.

If you read Summerhill by A S Neill, this is the practical companion to the theory of child-directed education. This is the case for free-range children.

Through the author's formative years she has magical memories. Memories all might wish for themselves, their children, or anyone.

Her mother advocates for justices, her father for science, and she herself navigates all counter-forces with compassion and humor.

When her friendship with another girl is challenged by a bigoted classmate, she formulates the perfect response:
"If I refused to be friends with everyone who is prettier and smarter and more talented than me, I'd be a very lonely girl, wouldn't I?"
Somehow in an environment of freedom and books, the author grows up confident and capable.
"No one doubted for a moment that I wasn't perfectly capable of it."
These examples could go on forever. Just read the book and add it to your list of important memoirs.





Sunday, March 26, 2017

Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear ****

Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear is a historical novel leading up to September 30, 1938, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain infamously appeased Adolf Hitler and gave his "peace for our time" speech. The protagonist is Maisie Dobbs who is temporarily convinced to become a British secret agent and go to Munich under an assumed identity to rescue a boffin (technical expert/inventor) imprisoned by the SS and Gestapo.

Maisie is a wonderful female protagonist, especially in 1938. She accepts the conditions of her time, but also has great inner strength and confidence. This is her thought about being trained to shoot a gun.
"She always considered reason to be the most powerful weapon in any arsenal, ..."
When the embassy demands she "submit daily timetable," her response is "Well, we'll see about that."

An excellent historical novel of the rise of Hilter which somehow seems especially relevant in the current political climate.

The book gives a good presentation of the Munich in 1938 through setting, culture, and language. Every so often, the dialogue seems suspiciously modern, as in this case:
"Because after everything you've been told in this little meeting, if you say no, I'll have to kill you."


Thursday, March 23, 2017

What We Find by Robyn Carr ****

My first Harlequin Romance. Sure enough, at around page 100, What We Find by Robyn Carr includes a multi-page sex scene, leading 100 pages later to ultimate sex.
"When a man gives all of himself to a woman who gives everything she has, the bond is so powerful it can be the ultimate fulfillment."
The two main characters are Maggie Sullivan and Cal Jones, a brain surgeon and a defense lawyer, respectively. Both are going through traumatic life experiences and have retreated to backwoods of Colorado. I found the characters realistic, sympathetic and interesting.

An enjoyable read for all who appreciate Cal's mission statement: "I want to build a healthy, balanced family life in a beautiful place with the woman I love."

However, a few things kept bouncing me out of the story.

About every 50 pages, more or less, I ran into a sentence or two I had to read over and over to understand.
She sighed. "My dad says I have high expectations of myself," she said, when in fact it was she who carried those expections.
It was over an hour before it was their turn to appear.
I read this as "It was finished an hour before..." It should have been read as "It was longer than an hour before..."

These missteps reminded me that there were an author and editors between me and the story.

After this I imagined editors adding details that do little to the story except to satisfy a small number of picky specialists. This is from an exciting scene where our heroine is being lowered over a ledge. First, some editor required her to wear a helmet. Then some other editor required an explanation for the availability of the helmet. I hope they are happy.
"Someone else handed her a helmet, which was just dumb luck -- they didn't typically wear helmets on the trails."

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead *****


"Stolen bodies working stolen land"
Throughout the history of the United States from the Declaration of Independence to the present, black Americans have had to walk a line between life and liberty and violent suppression. Two authors have recently demonstrated this delicate balance with their writing. I reviewed Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly a few months ago and now I have The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Both books deliver an engaging story with small slices of terror and brutality slipped in between. Anyone who wishes to ignore the history of murder and abuse can easily do so, reading the books like I watch medical shows on TV. I close my eyes at any hint of blood. I will follow their lead with my comments. Slavery was horrific, now on to the story.

Whitehead chronicles the The Underground Railroad  by focusing on different people associated with it, including escaped slaves, railroad conductors, and slave catchers. However the main character is Cora who escapes from a plantation in Georgia and travels throughout the antebellum United States. One of the ways Whitehead lightens the story is by conceiving of The Underground Railroad as an actual underground railroad. The introduction of fantasy reminds me of Mary Poppins' spoonful of sugar.

Whether you want the brutal history and a fantasy, this is the book for you. The writing and storytelling are excellent.

In between the black and the white, the book is full of many subtle reminders of the ups and down of history.

At an optimistic rally, a negro leader gives the following speech that will be repeated again and again over the next two centuries.
"By proving the negro's thrift and intelligence...he will enter into American society as a productive member with full rights....We need to slow things down. Reach an accommodation with our neighbors and, most of all, stop activities that will force their wrath upon us."
The book is not above defending delusion.
"We can't save everyone. But that doesn't mean we can't try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth."
An excellent book regardless of your approach to it. A masterpiece.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson *****

An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson in a contemporary western about Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire. He is assisted by Henry Standing Bear, also known as the Cheyenne Nation, and undersheriff Victoria Moretti, usually called Vic. Vic drives an orange dodge that can go about 200 mph.

This is a book of clever nicknames and dialogue. The Cheyenne Nation's car is named Lola after the old girlfriend Lola Wojciechowski. Lola drives a gold '66 Cadillac DeVille. Walt's granddaughter Lola is named after the car. There are two bad guys named Frick and Frack. You get the idea.

Vic signs up for a skeet shooting competition.
I nudged her shoulder. "Scared?"
She barked a laugh. "Hell with that; I'm used to targets that shoot back.
Clever dialogue.

Between the names and the dialogue, the story flies by. An engaging page-turner. There is a mystery, but I think the fun is in the reading and the plot is just a bonus.

I rarely mention typos, even though they seem to be on the increase. I would never say anything about a small press or independent author, but this is a  Penguin Random House book, and the typo has to do with numbers.

The story revolves about time trials. The first time posted is 14.01 seconds. This time is beaten by 14 seconds flat. The final winner finishes in 13:59. 13:59, as in 13 minutes and 59 seconds? It should have been 13.99.


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Doll-Master by Joyce Carol Oates *****

The Doll-Master by Joyce Carol Oates is a collection of horror stories for the 21st century. It opens and closes with more classical stories in the tradition of Poe, frighteningly evil characters with minimal affect, empathy, or conscience. However, between those two stories are a contemporary quartet of stories.

The first two are about guns and the after-effects of shootings. Oates' writing is so strong that even when the titles, "Solider" and "Gun Accident," might be considered spoilers, the impact is not reduced. The theme here is the pain and terror of the survivors, two very different shooters with two very different responses. Both are equally horrible.

The final two stories are about victimized women, actually a woman and a girl. Here again, the terror is real and long lasting. The author magnifies the impact with unresolved endings, so the reader is forced to continue to think about the story afterward.

If you haven't read anything by Joyce Carol Oates, you are missing one of the great living authors. This is a good place to start.

When writing about women, the author includes two themes.

The first is the control men exert over women, as a subtle, psychological power.
"Rarely was the wife able to withstand the husband's wishes."
The second is the fantasy women have prevents them from acting in their best interests.
"And he was her protector. He would not want anything to happen to her, surely?"
While one might wish that these themes were not applicable in the 21st century, these stories are too real and well-written to support that fantasy any more than the dangerous fantasies of the women in the stories.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Great Cat of R'a by Robert Muller *****

The Great Cat of R'a by Robert Muller is a wonderful alternate history set on the San Francisco peninsula in the current time, but the city is called Menmenet and it is part of the Ta'an-Imenty Republic (a country on the western side of North America), part of the new world empire of Kemet (Egypt).

This is a novel that combines Egyptian influences (different god, stick and bow combat, and language) with contemporary technology, Rusian mobsters, and money laundering. Come for the culture and stay for the mystery.

Highly recommended.

On another note, the design of the book is extraordinary. Here is an entire blog post inspired by the book. https://shannonentropyequalszero.wordpress.com/2017/02/22/publishing-progress-or-not-publishing-history-writing/


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Aegean Bronze Age edited by Cynthia Shelmerdine *****

Not for the casual reader. The Cambridge University Press offers this "Cambridge Companion," about 500 pages of independently written articles by authors with extensive academic credentials. As might be expected in an academic publication, there are plenty of maps, drawings, photographs, notes, bibliographies, and index entries. I imagine this book is assigned for a graduate archeology class.

Given that caveat, The Aegean Bronze Age edited by Cynthia Shelmerdine provides excellent background and detail on the Aegean Bronze Age. If that title is not clear or interesting, this book is not for you. This is not the introduction to anything. This is the graduate course. If you want the that, you've found it and at a bargain price (for a college text).

Some of my notes:

Over the years, the Minoan palaces have been characterized as centers of production and redistributions, but the latest research suggests that they were more centers of consumption. Note that this dichotomy is independent of the palace/political/king versus temple/goddess/priestesses dichotomy. Neither dichotomy has an established answer.

The initial settlement of Knossos goes back to the fifth century BCE. Note that the Knossos currently on exhibit is from the new palace era or the second century BCE.

Crete had few mineral resources. Of the precious metals, silver likely came from the area around Athens, and gold came from Egypt. Semiprecious stones were imported Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and all points in between. These included colored marble, colored lapis, amethyst, hematite, carnelian, and rock crystal.

"Traces of lightly incised guidelines on blocks suggest the oversight of a trained architect or work from actual architectural plans."

Mount Ida gets its name from the original Minoan.

The unit of liquid seemed to be 28-30 liters, with 32 units held by a large pithoi for storage. The unit of weight (the Minoan talent) was about 29 kilograms. The fascinating thing about this is that the standard liquid measure, when filled with water, weighed the same as the standard weight measure. Today this is true of liters and kilograms but was not established until the end of the 18th century, over 3,000 years after the Minoans.




Thursday, February 2, 2017

Minoans by Rodney Castleden *****

Since Arthur Evans discovered Knossos on Crete, the Minoans civilization has been a source of wonder and mystery. The defining, or undefining, feature of the Minoan civilization is Linear A. Linear A is the unknown and undeciphered language used by the Minoans. Bronze age languages are often undeciphered, including examples from China and India. Bronze age writing from Egypt and Mesopotamia has been deciphered.

Since there is effectively no written record, archeologists have been free to interpret the evidence as they wish. This is a tradition by Arthur Evans himself with his creative reconstruction of Knossos Palace. Minoans by Rodney Castleden recasts the record interpreting the palaces as temples. Minoan Kingship recasts the record with kings in charge when others have seen a matriarchy.

In addition to his creative interpretations, Castleden provides the best catalog of evidence. The subtitle of Life in Bronze Age Crete is well deserved. If you were to read just a single book about the Minoans, this is the one.

That said, the reader looking for hard facts is often dismayed by the expansive conjectures.

After suggesting that a pair of holes in a bell-shaped object represents either eyes or nipples, conflicting evidence presented. "Several of the objects have four eyes or nipples, instead of the expected two." Rather than allowing that the original interpretation might be wrong, this explanation is offered, "there is probably some additional layer of meaning that has yet to be penetrated."

In Minoan frescos, women and men usually have different color skin - men red and women white. When a woman is found with red skin, the following complicated explanation is proffered.
"This suggests that there was a subordinate caste of priests who were transvestite, who became nominal priestesses...they were probably eunuchs."
Minoan trivia:

The Minoans' main cloth fiber was wool.

The word sandal might be of Minoan origin.

The Minoans had many kinds of jewelry: hairpins, earrings, armbands, bracelets, anklets, collars, and necklaces.

Their oxen were given simple descriptive names...Balck, Dapple, White Nozzle, or Red Rump.

The bull from the bull games might have been domestic.

Spices included: coriander, cumin, fennel, sesame, celery, mint, cress, and safflower. Also pistachio nuts were very popular. Olives and grapes were cultivated in large quantities. Grains were wheat and barley.

The word coriander might also be of Minoan origin.

Tin had to be imported to make bronze.

Seals might have been signature stamps, identity tags, or credit cards. They came in many shapes and were worn around the neck or wrist.

The Minoans had magnifying glasses.

Tuna were available in the spring and fall.

Ships were dragged to the beach when there was no harbor available. An average ship might have 15 rowers on each side.

Minoans had some amber which they probably got from England.

Potidas is the Minoan precursor of Poseidon.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare*****

Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare has been adapted so many different times and in so many different ways, that the original has been forgotten. This is Shakespeare, and he does not disappoint. He can turn a phrase.
"I have no more doublets than backs, no more stockings than legs, nor no more shoes than feet."
But the role of women underlies the play. A role that is subservient for reproduction
"KATHERINA Asses are made to bear, and so are you.
PETRUCHIO Women are made to bear, and so are you."
and sex
"What, with my tongue in your tail?"
At the bottom, this is a play about brainwashing.
"Am starved for meat, giddy for the lack of sleep,
With oath kept waking and with brawling fed;
And that which spites me more than all these wants,
He does it under the name of perfect love,
As who should say, if I should sleep or eat,
'Twere deadly sickness of else present death"
So we have a comedy about torture and Stockholm Syndrome.

An exceedingly well-written comedy about torture and Stockholm Syndrome.

This might explain why there have been so many adaptations. The plot about love and marriage is timeless, but adaptation is necessary to match the evolution of society.

I just rewatched 10 Things I Hate About You. Though based on the Shakespeare play, the men are more changed than the women in line with the over four centuries that have passed since the original.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Wondrous Realms of the Aegean from Time Life Books ****

Time Life Books has long ago stopped publishing, but for many years they published beautiful books through their subscription service. Wondrous Realms of the Aegean from TimeLife Books was in the Lost Civilization series.

These books were lavishly illustrated, and this volume contains large, full-color reproductions of many of the iconic images of Minoan life. These include several frescos from Akrotiri, House of Ladies, Prince of Lilies, and examples of bull jumpers.

In addition to the many pictures, the text is full of interesting gems.
"Minoan society may have been matrilineal... Such customs arise...where people do not comprehend a direct connection between a baby and its father."
"One view...is that the pastoral and nautical imagery was deliberately created to reinforce the notion of a highly unified, satisfied society; in order words, that it was propaganda."
In summary, this is an excellent introduction of Minoan Crete.

Some other observations include:

The Minoans lived in harmony on Crete because of their isolated position. "The resulting unifromity of customs and speech no doubt stimulated sharing and cooperation."

Crete manufactured ceramics, jewelry, and other luxury goods. Much of the raw materials for this industry needed to be imported: copper, tin, gold, and silver came from far away. They also traded for obsidian, emery, ivory, ostrich eggs, alabaster, gems. Long distance trade has been verified by the discovery of Minoan products throughout the eastern Mediterranean and as far east as Mesopotamia.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Minoan Kingship by Nanno Marinatos ***

Superman or Batman? At first, this debate seems futile, as they are both fictional characters. But when you hear two experts present their cases, the detail is impressive. Ultimately, as an outsider, you are lost and lose interested.

Thus is was for me with Minoan Kingship by Nanno Marinatos. Did the Minoans have a king or a queen? No one can know, as the written record is recorded in Linear A, a language unknown and undeciphered. As I entered into this Alice in Wonderland world of interpretation and extrapolation, I thought I was interested. Ultimately, I understood this was a debate for those few academics who had studied the Aegean Bronze Age for years and years. Over my head and beyond my interest.

I did find some interesting details...

Gold. Apparently, Egypt had a monopoly on gold. Gold was traded among kings and used for self-glorification. "Consequently, it can be inferred that a king gave a gold ring only to a trusted and loyal emissary."

Libraries. "All kingdoms (small and large) of the region around Crete had libraries."
"The Minoans probably had literature written in the as yet undeciphered Linear A script. The fact that the only records that have survived were written on clay tablets...may well be an accident of history because leather and papyrus do not survive."
Vocabulary. The Kephtiu are the people of Crete. I'je're'u is a priest.

Axes. The meaning of the ubiquitous double-ax is still open to debate, while the oval-ax seems to be a scepter.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly *****

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly "inspired" the eponymous motion picture. The "inspired" is important because a movie tells a story while this book reports the story. The book reports three interesting and important stories: (1) the Jim Crow era, (2) the space race, and (3) the West Computers.

The Jim Crow era is covered from the depression through the Civil Rights Act. During the Jim Crow era, the south, and much of the rest of the country was segregated into white schools, stores, restaurants, service stations, and substandard or non-existent facilities for blacks. Even federal government research labs segregated their offices, cafeterias, and restrooms. For example:
"...in response, the state of Virginia set up a tuition reimbursement fund, subsidizing the graduate education of black students in any place but Virginia, a policy that continued until 1950."
"In Prince Edward County [Virginia], however, segregationists would not be moved: they defunded the entire county school system...rather than integrate. ...schools would remain closed 1959 through 1964."
The space race began with the Soviet sputnik satellite in 1957 and went through the moon landing by Neil Armstrong in 1969. Though on television, NASA looked like a sea of white men, women provided significant support. Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt tells the story of predominantly white women in Califonia, and this book reports on the black women in Virginia.

The West Computers were a segregated group of black women who performed complex mathematical calculation on desk calculators, first during World War II for the design of jets, and later during the space race in support of the Mercury and Apollo programs. These are the ladies that star in the movie.

This is a well-researched documentation of a problematic period of American history. It provides an important perspective on the events which lead to our conflicted race relations today. Well written and worth reading.

I found it interesting that one of the driving forces for civil rights in the 1960s was to counteract the Soviet Union's growing influence. As a government official said,
"In trying to provide leadership in world events, it is necessary for this country to indicate to the world that we practice equality for all with this country. These countries where colored persons constitute a majority should not be able to point to a double standard existing within the United States."
The author presents this story with an optimistic view.
"But she also knew that the best thing about breaking a barrier was that it would never need to be broken again."
Progress is about big things, like the Civil Rights Act, and small things. When Uhuru wanted to move on with her acting career and leave Star Trek, Martin Luther King encouraged her to stay as a visible example for black girls and women.



Friday, January 13, 2017

The Destruction of Knossos by HEL Mellersh *

The Destruction of Knossos by HEL Mellersh is primarily interesting as a sociological/anthropological study in changing assumptions and attitudes over the last 50 years.

For example, when praising the Mycenaeans, who conquered the Minoans, as a superior Aryan race, the author characterizes them as "horsey" people.
Horsey people are indisputably a different and recognizable kind of people, now and always throughout the ages. They are self-confident, they do not seek to be over-intelligent but they do seek to be active and forceful and heroic.
Later in defending the Minoans...
One other find of this period shows a man with a dagger...there is therefore no need to impute effeminateness to the Minoan.
Later, explaining why Minoan cultural influence continued after the Mycenaeans took control.
[Mycenaeans] were, it is repeated, a horsey and warlike people. In any age the hunting squire or army general is not likely to have bee a connoisseur of the arts. This is not to say, however, that the squire's or the general's lady would not be interested in fashion...
In explaining the classical Greek period that evolved almost a thousand years later, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is invoked.
And whence came...this power of intellectualism?...In the first place, Greek, like its cousin Latin, is a highly inflected language...
In support of this book, between these social anachronisms, there are many interesting facts and details about the culture around the Aegean Sea during the millennium prior the classical Greek period.

Some interesting details gleaned...

During the Minoan time, the palace at Knossos was probably decorated by pennants.

The "small army of artisans, slaves, clerks, storemen, and workman" commuted to the palace across a ravine and river using a great viaduct ("a major engineering and architectural feat" wide enough for flocks of sheep).

"The designs on the seal-stones, now becoming so neat and clever, as give intimations of prosperity. They show for instance the pithos or giant storage jar, and the ship. Each of these could serve as a trademark for Crete--perhaps they did."

Variations of the Minoan Earth Mother includes dove for power, snake for domestic protection, bull for potency and strength, and a pillar. The bull also represented earthquakes.

Thera eruption: "The seismic destruction of the palaces, ...the failure of vegetation due to tephra fall, and the annihilation of the Minoan fleet [by tsunami]."

The Mycenaeans brought weapons, armor, and chariots to Crete. For centuries after Thera the Mycenaeans ruler Crete from a rebuilt Knossos.











Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Minoan and Mycenaean Art by Reynold Higgins *****

Mycenaean (Greek) civilization inherited the Aegean Sea after the collapse of the peaceful Minoan island paradise following the enormous volcanic explosion on Thera. In spite of all the Greek accomplishments in philosophy and mathematics, their logical world view was...
"never really sympathetic to the more exuberant and less disciplined Cretan spirit ... their joie de vivre and love of natural subjects."
Minoan and Mycenaean Art by Reynold Higgins (in all its many editions) surveys the bronze age (roughly the second and third millennium BCE) in the Aegean Sea (Crete, The Cyclades, mainland Greece). This edition is generously illustrated with 241 illustrations with 54 in full color on glossy paper.

If this is your area of interest, this book is an excellent choice. (note: classical Greece is approximately the 4 and 5th centuries BCE, much later).

The art and architecture of the Minoans on Crete differed from the surrounding civilizations, Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the succeeding ones (Greek, Roman, et al). The Minoans were matriarchal and peaceful. Their art reflected this in many ways. For example, from frescos to sculptures, to cups and bowls, to jewelry, Cretan art chose natural subjects (marine life, plants, birds) and peaceful activities (harvesting, acrobatics), eschewing scenes of fighting and hunting used by virtually all following civilizations.

On a larger scale, the peaceful nature of the Minoans expressed itself in their palaces. Throughout the world, public structures tend to be built from the outside in. The structure starts with a defensive perimeter and everything else is fit into the internal space. This includes residences, castles, walled towns, and countries. Fortified boundaries are almost a universal sign of civilization.

The Minoans, on the other hand, started with a central courtyard. Around this space, residences, offices, treasuries, storerooms, etc. were added in an organic way, as and where needed.

It is interesting to wonder if the explosion at Thera had delayed another thousand years, whether western civilization might be different.