Monday, August 24, 2015

Sword of the Angles

Leofric: Sword of the Angles
© 2015 S. J. Arnott
412 pages

The days are dark for Angeln. Surrounded by enemies and increasingly depopulated as her people flee to more peaceful fields in Britain, her king has seen fit to enlist one-time enemies as allies against the Danes.  The outlook for Leofric is especially grim; his father is missing on campaign,  and himself so sickly that his grave has already been dug.  When the entire folk gathers at the king's city as a show of force to convince the Danes to keep their distance, matters grow far worse. A personal  grudge leads to a bloodfeud, and Leofric finds himself kinless, destitute, and declared outlaw. His village burned, he must flee to the wilderness and find refuge among others left for dead. In time the sickly boy will find the courage and strength needed to claim vengeance for his murdered uncle and restore his family's lands. 

Leofric: Sword of the Angles is a hero's-journey story set in dark-age Europe, at a time when Rome is dead but not buried, an age where the woods are dark and deep and home to monsters that require Beowulfs to slay them.  War looms, though the combat of Leofric is almost strictly personal, limited to Leofric and a companion or two fleeing, fighting, or ambushing those who will not be happy until the young man is dead.  Although the author acknowledges in his notes section that information on the Angles prior to their arrival in Britain is hard to come by, gaps are readily filled in by borrowing cultural references to the Franks and other Germanic tribes, and what details are available are worked in craftily; there is no awkward lecturing here, only a man pursuing his fate against a host of trouble. Some pieces of narrative are particularly mesmerizing, like the moment when Leofric's "dragon" awakes. This is his blood-heat, a surge of adrenaline and battle rage that allows him evade death and turn it on his enemies.  Although he triumphs in part by the end, some unfinished business --an enemy who escaped to Britain  -- begs for a sequel, and so do I. Considering that Bernard Cornwell's Uhtred is on death's door these days (hovering about in the doorframe, actually),  I would welcome more Leofric! 

Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories, especially #3, Lords of the North

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Tevye's Daughters

Tevye and his Seven Daughters
© 1894 Sholom Aleichem
300 pages

Consider the question: is it possible to enjoy a book while having music from a movie it inspired playing incessantly in your head every time a page is turned? Well, more or less. This is has been my experience with Tevye's Daughters, a collection of short stories by Sholom Aleichem (aleichem shalom!), the basis of Fiddler on the Roof.    The stories are not all part of the same narrative; those told by Tevye the Dairyman,  Fiddler's star, comprise only a fraction of the book. The rest have other narrators, most anonymous, but all Jews living in Tsarist Russia.  There is humor here, some of it dark. Most of the entertainment value is derived from the narrators' collective gift of gab. In one, "The Man from Buenos Aires" the story consists of a businessman rambling on about his financial prowess (and his modesty). Page after page this goes on until our narrator is about to disembark when he finally asks: what is it it you do? The businessman's reply is "Well, I don't sell prayer books, that's for sure!".  There's no conventional drama-conflict-resolution scheme to these stories, and the point of quite a few slipped me entirely. The writing, though, just drew me in, and I suppose it was helped by the Russian setting, which is completely new to me. Tevye is utterly lovable, though being a man of the musical made me fond of him from the start.  Like the movie-musical,  Tevye's Daughters drifts toward the sad, ending with the expulsion of the Jews from Russia. There is a bright light at the end, however, when Tevye is restored to one of his daughters. Altogether the stories were charming enough that I'm glad I took a chance on ordering through interlibrary loan.

Originally written in Yiddish, this translation retained enough to require a glossary in the back.

The Devil Knows Latin

The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition
© 1999 E. Christian Kopf
327 pages

Earlier in the week I read The Devil Knows Latin, which like Who Killed Homer? contends for the value of a classical education to western civilization.  His argument, appropriately enough, is trinitarian; he argues on behalf of tradition itself, argues for the classics' place as the bedrock of the western tradition, and argues for Latin and Greek's importance in imbibing the west's heritage most fully.  Kopf is a partisan of the west who regards attempts at emphasizing multiculturalism in education as dodgy; not because other cultures don't have value, but because they cannot be appreciated piecemeal.  A cultural tradition is, like a great house or a city, a thing built across the ages by succeeding generations; the work laid down by the dead is used and advanced by the living; each piece connects to the other. One generation of Greeks makes written stories out of another's myths;  Shakespeare takes those stories and makes them the background for his own; even a 'modern'  mind like Freud uses Greek mythic language to communicate his ideas. Attempting to teach culture through random stories from across the world would be tantamount to constructing a house by grabbing diverse elements -- a Japanese roof, Igloo walls, French doors -- and pushing them all together.  It doesn't work, and nor does modern western education work in presenting children with a slate of wholly seperate subjects without connection to one another. Kopf's understanding of education is more integral; for him, subjects should be learned together, like Roman schoolboys learning philosophy or history as they translate or read Latin in their mastery of it.

Regrettably, Kopff doesn't dwell on the Greek worldview the way Hanson does, though a conviction that education is less accumulating facts and more the cultivation of an individual undergrids his perspective.  The book doesn't have the cohesion its author admires; between an essay on the importance of language and several fascinating pieces of movie and literary criticism lays an argument for protective tariffs.. This is really more a collection of articles, linked by highbrow cultural defense.  If The Devil Knows Latin succeeds, it is in its first argument for culture, specifically the fact that culture is not a thing in itself, with its own life, but something which depends on the living to preserve and build upon.  Russell Kirk made an identical argument in America's British Culture, where he sweetened the pot by  contending  that  the classical tradition was one that Americans of all ethnicities and religions could use to bind one another together, instead of falling apart in cultural balkanization. Though I'm an ardent lover of the classical tradition, for me The Devil Knows Latin will be more memorable for the movie reviews.  Hanson's work, which predated this by a year, is much superior.

For the curious:  the title is taken from the story of a bishop who insisted a child be baptized in Latin instead of English, because "the baby doesn't know English and the Devil knows Latin."

Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education, Victor Davis Hanson
The Roots of American Order and America's British Culture, Russell Kirk. Both not only include reviews of the west's classical heritage, but stress the importance of cultural continuity.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Vanished World

A Vanished World: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Medieval Spain
© 2005 Chris Lowney
320 pages

Vanished World sets medieval  Spain before the reader with the warning; we may be blessed or cursed by emulating its example. The Iberian peninsula is the very perimeter of western Europe, within a stone's throw of both the vast continent of Africa and the looming expanse of the Atlantic. Despite its apparent remoteness, Iberia was throughout the ages in the very thick of the action --  the pitch wherin civilizations clashed. In an earlier age, Rome and Carthage sparred; a thousand years later,  Visigoths and Muslims fought.  The invasion of Spain in 711 by the Umayyad caliphate made the former province of the Romans, then yet another ruin ruled by nominally Christian barbarians, into an outpost of a far larger, far more sophisticated civilization, where it enjoyed a golden age that was for Europe a preview of the Renaissance and enlightenment.  Here the gifts of the Greeks were preserved and built on; here  both Islam and Rabbinic Judaism grew in new directions.  Vanished World is a brief  and romantic history of medieval Spain, one brimming with hope that we can all just get along.

Until the triumph of Ferdinand and Isabella, who united their kingdoms and created a state commanding the peninsula, Iberia was home to a multitude of peoples and minor states. While many were drawn by commercial cross-traffic, others came to carve out kingdoms, like the Visigoths and their successors from Africa, the Umayyads. Iberia was fractured and destitute, lingering in a winter of civilization that was chased away by an eastern wind. Unlike the barely literate Goths,  the Muslim invaders were part of a vibrant, culturally rich civilization on the ascendant. Sweeping over the peninsula, they infused it with new life, creating a social order that allowed their new subjects to participate in it.  Although the calpihate would falter after the death of its leader, breaking into squabbling branches that were brushed aside by a Castillian comeback,  it reigned for several hundred years and created an environment that brought the best of human passion, creativity, and intelligence to the surface.  After an introduction which establishes an outline of Spain's political history.  most of the book is given over to sections which explore different aspects of the civilization that prevailed between the fall of the Goths and the rise of Castille.  These include chapters on the growth of science, as Muslim and Jewish scholars built upon Greek knowledge and advanced it considerably, as well as some on religious revolution; the Judeo-Muslim mystical traditions both flourished in the Iberian setting. Downey's vision for the book is made apparent in contrasting several pairs of legends. The patron saint of Spain. St. James, was remembered alternatively as either a humble and kind apostle who spread the Gospel to the furthest reaches of the continent, or as Santiago the Muslim-Slayer, who was said to have appeared and led a Christian army to victory. A similar contrast is offered by the Song of Roland, depicting Charlemagne as a Christian warrior fighting the fiendish Muslims, and the story of El Cid, who found honor and friendship among the ranks of both.   Christian and Muslim need not spar, Downey writes, offering various examples of cross-cultural pollination and episodes of historical cooperation, as when Christian and Muslim powers joined together to fight...other Muslim powers. 

Although the subject is fascinating and I wanted badly to like it, in truth the book is limited. Downey is a very casual historian,  chatty and informal.  That can work to a degree, but sometimes retards a reader's ability to take the text seriously. Assuming one is completely oblivious to intellectual life in the medieval epoch, Vanished World will be quite exciting. Personally, Spangenburg and Moser's history of science covered this ground too well for me to take much here, though I did find the bits about Sufism and Kabbalah of interest.  The history is also heavily sanitized in view of Downey's objection. It's a laudable goal, of course, and he does mention a few trifling incidents of unpleasantness, but haranguing Christians for the Crusades is hardly fair when no mention of the Battle of Tours is made.   Sixty years after the conquest of Spain by Moorish armies, the Umayyads advanced on France itself, meeting defeat scarcely 150 miles from Paris.  Humans will never cease to war with one another, though, regardless of religion; Christians may fight Muslims, but as this and countless other books demonstrate, they will happily dig into one another as well. We're a hot-blooded species given to destruction.  That considering, it's nice to review the many ways we are capable of working together, as Downey does here,  touching on science, art, medicine, and even the invention of cowboys.                

Look for a future comparison to Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain



Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Top Ten Authors I've Read the Most Of

This week the Broke and the Bookish are asking people who their most-read authors are.

1. Isaac Asimov 

It's been a while since I read the dear doctor here, but after discovering his fiction in 2007 I went a little mad. Now I have an entire bookcase of short stories, essays, and novels by him. Shelfari says I've read fifty-seven titles by him, and I own a few dozen I've not even touched yet.  He's appeared on the blog 63 times.

2. John Grisham

Guilty pleasure here, obviously.  I've read all of Grisham's adult fiction.

3. R.L. Stine

How much Stine have I read? Good lord, who could count? I've read all of Goosebumps, all of Goosebumps Millennium, all of Nightmares on Fear Street, and  far too many Fear Street novels.  It's probably close to a hundred. For the inexplicable few who have never heard of Goosebumps, it was a series of fantasy-horror novels for children, always with twist endings at the end of every chapter and book.

4. Gertrude Chandler Warner

Technically, I suppose I haven't read as much of Warner as I think I did. She only penned the first dozen or so of Boxcar Children novels, after which point the children became something like cartoon strip characters: static figures against a changing background, always solving mysteries.  That went on for 70+ books or so.

5. Beverly Cleary

My first favorite author, who penned the Henry Huggins series. Okay, that's probably better known as the Beezus and Ramona series,but the first book of hers I read was about Henry and his lost dog, Ribsy.

6. Bernard Cornwell

My favorite author of historical fiction, a man who has taken me into the Napoelonic Wars a few dozen times. We've also visited the Viking era extensively.  He's appeared on this blog...44 times, second only to Asimov.

7. Harry Turtledove

I have subjected myself to Turtledove almost forty times, going by Shelfari, which is sad.

8. Jeff Shaara

The only thing this man has written that I haven't read is his last Civil War book, which opens with the burning of Atlanta. Things just go downhill from there, really, and so I stopped. The Shaara style is to take the reader into the mind of the men who lived history; their thoughts are part of the narrative. It works wonderfully, but I didn't want to be in Sherman's head.

9. Steven Saylor

Saylor writes detective mysteries set in the Roman Republic,  and has created a couple of epic novels I rather enjoyed.

10. K.A. Applegate

I didn't quite finish the Animorphs series, but I think I made it about 50+ books. They were published around the millennium, and were about six kids fighting an alien conspiracy by morphing into animals.  It sound kiddy, but the series grew dark as the tweens came of age as hardened warriors.


Honorable Mentions
Wendell Berry, whose entire bibliography I aim to read.
Lemony Snicket...counting the entire Series of Unfortunate Events.
 Spangenburg and Moser, the authors of a series of scientific history books
Frances and Joseph Gies, medieval historians who specialize in social history
Will  and Ariel Durant, of the Story of Civilization series.

Monday, August 10, 2015


Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World
© 1997 Mark Kurlansky
294 pages

In Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky detailed the surprisingly impactful career of a table condiment on human history. The importance of salted fish, both as food and as an industry, popped up again and again, not surprising given that five years earlier Kurlansky had penned an entire book on cod. For coastal peoples, fishing is more than a leisure sport done at the river; it is the sustenance of life itself, the foundation of regional economies.  North Atlantic cod have been especially important in this regard, keeping food on the table in England, Spain, Iceland, and New England.  Town seals featured the codfish prominently; in Boston, an artifical one hung from the rafters of city hall.  In the mid-20th century, several European powers engaged in "cod wars" in which their commerical and quasi-military coast guards grappled with one another, ramming their ships and cutting trawl lines.  They were fighting not just to ensure that their respective nations got a good piece of the cod pie, but that the pie would be there in the future. This history of cod has an ecological point, for man's rapacious appetitite and creative gift for fashioning technology to maximize yields has frequently driven populations into peril.    Cod demonstates the problem of the commons, in which resources held in public are abused and exhausted; not until nations began aggressively quartering off sections of the ocean and fighting off the competition were populations of the fish possible to measure and protect.  Despite moratoriums and restrictive quotas, the codfish have not rebounded as quickly as expected;  their future seems to lie in 'farms' (like catfish ponds), a somewhat depressing spectre.

Russ Roberts of EconTalk interviewed the CEO of a seafood restaurant enterprise this past Monday, discussing the problems of the fish industry today.  He followed it today with a podcast on the oyster business. (Roberts has also interviewed people about the potato chip and bottled milk businesses.)

Thursday, August 6, 2015

10 Don'ts On Your Digital Devices

10 Don'ts On Your Digital Devices
© 2015 Eric Rzesut, Daniel Bachrach
180 pages

Networked computers are no longer the hulking monsters of the 1970s,  only found in  industrial and military installations. In the second decade of the 21st century, they are as common as phones -- in fact, for many of us, they are our phones.  Their ubiquity allows us to connect all the various aspects of our lives to an infinite degree; we can do taxes or engage in research while traveling,  stream lectures during exercise,  and lose ourselves in TriviaCrack while on dates that aren't going so well.  But the pervasive natures of web-connected devices doesn't  just create space  for leisure, education, and personal work, however:  it's also an opportunity for parties interested in accessing and exploiting our personal data -- businesses,  criminals, and the government. In Ten Don'ts On Your Digital Devices, Eric Rzesut and Daniel Bachrach offer a crash course in basic digitial security, one which fairly well covers the basics for people who never realized that the same smartphones which allow  them access to a world of information also expose them to a world of quicksand, disasters, and predators.

 This is a technological briefing that doesn't get too technical, allowing even the most tech-oblivious to get a handle on the new territory they're covering.  Some lessons are utterly basic, like remembering that phones, tablets, and laptops can now contain information just as sensitive as that found in a wallet of credit cards and government identities, and should be guarded with the same ferocity.  Others pass along information gained only by experience, like learning to detect phishing attacks -- emails disguised as legitimate correspondence containing innocent-looking links that lead one's digitial information to being plundered.  Even the paranoid, myself included, may find updated threat information here: I wasn't aware that some phones are enabled by the manufacturer to automatically connect to whatever wireless networks are in the area, exposing unwitting users who check their bank statements on the phone without realizing it's switched to Johnny Ne'er-do-Well's network instead of their service provider's. Ever section includes a basic review of the issue, followed by suggestions. Some are behavior-related (as in, "Don't pay your credit card bill on a McDonalds wifi connection",  but some list alternatives and relevant tools.   Short but full of useful information, Ten Don't's is a good review of basic personal digital security that offers a lot of suggestions for people who want to tread more carefully.

Internet Police: How Crime Went Online (and the Police Followed), Nate Anderson
@ war: the military-internet complex, Shane Harris