The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
How is our modern, high-tech, industrial culture both better and worse than life in a traditional hunter gatherer or subsistence agriculture group? That is the question explored in this book by Diamond, who spent decades in Papua New Guinea first as an ornithologist and later as an anthropologist. Traditional societies on several continents are covered. Some of the chapters I found more interesting or easier to read, but overall this is a thought-provoking read. Who is a friend, a stranger, or an enemy? Sometimes it depends on degrees of relationship, a common language, or the potential as a trading partner. Are large scale wars worse than frequent small battles? Is the lessened risk of dying from an infected insect bite offset by the frequency of diabetes and heart disease as people adopt modern diet and medicine? Chapters explore child rearing, justice, diet, the benefits of multilingualism, religion, warfare, responses to perceived and actual dangers, and how traditional societies cooperate differently when there is drought or an overabundance of food. The author’s experiences in New Guinea would be of interest for readers of Lost in Shangri-La.
Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the making of Christianity in the West, 350 – 550 AD by Peter Brown
“Again, I tell you it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven.” With these words, spoken by Jesus and brought to us by the gospels, Peter Brown, in his new book, attempts to deal with “The distinctive manner in which wealth and social status came together in Roman society.”
Wealth in the Roman Empire in the 4th Century AD, was as unequally distributed as it is today. Riches derived from the fruits of the land, expansion of the tilling of the soil and favorable planting conditions. Rich farmers would intermarry with other wealthy landowners, so the profits would be kept within the family. Well off families would create magnificent villas, and in time the Fabulous City of Rome with its overarching Emperor. A lot of wealth was also created by using a slave class to do work that was not compensated. Slaves were imported from conquered territories throughout the Empire. In order to keep the slave and working classes pacified, in the cities, the wealthy patrons of Rome held almost daily Games and Circuses that were free to the general public. While attending these events the common folk could forget their wretched lot for a while.
The rise of the Christian Churches started to compete with these enterprises by offering the Liturgy and the Eucharist to the wealthy and the poor. By offering Jesus’s vision of “Eternal Wealth in Heaven” instead of transient riches here on earth, the Church was able to sway and gain hold with the moneyed class in what was now termed a “Pagan Environment”. So instead of endowing themselves or passing on their wealth, the rich gave their treasure to the newly rising Christian church. “in some way or another, to give within the Christian Churches was to open a path to heaven. That Wealth despised on earth should somehow follow the ethereal soul up to the stars opened a new horizon.”
Another element of giving to the church was the notion that possession of riches was evil. “There was a common proverb, cited on one occasion by Jerome, which stated that “a rich man is either a wicked man or the heir of a wicked man”
The writings of Augustine (City of God), Ambrose and Jerome amplify this thesis as the Roman Empire begins to disintegrate at the end of the 4th Century, due to Barbarian invasions and widespread internal corruption.
“Through the Eye of a Needle” reads like a novel. “His report is a masterpiece that introduces us to the wealth and poverty of an empire as it implodes and the inspiring Christian concept of treasure in Heaven.”
Foundation: The History of England from its earliest beginnings to the Tudors. By Peter Ackroyd
Life in medieval England was nasty, brutish and short. Mr. Ackroyd does not spare on the horrid details of daily life in very old England. In the beginning, people, mostly Celts lived in mud huts with their livestock. If you got sick, there were the leaches and the bloodletting followed by a poultice of cattle dung applied to the affected area. There were constant wars between competing factions and soldiers were easily expendable. And this was before the “100 years war”, which actually lasted 114 years. If you got into trouble, really bad trouble, like William Wallace who dared to defy Edward Longshanks (see the movie Braveheart) you could be hanged, then dis-emboweled while you were still alive, then drawn and quartered which meant that your head and limbs were severed and put on display. If you were a heretic, which there were not many, you would be burned at the stake. If you were a King and were deposed by an opposing faction you could die by having a red hot poker shoved up your backside.
Here is Richard the Lionheart, who was not so noble, but was really good with a sword. King John was so bad that the barons teamed up and presented him with the Magna Carta, the basis of all western law.
Here too is the Battle of Hastings in 1066 which some people still regard as the end of true English civilization, with England being overrun by Normans. The Author shows through archaeological data that long before the “Norman Conquest”, the Celts were being infiltrated by a constant stream of Danes and Vikings, who intermingled with the population.”
The Black Death shows up in the 1300’s and a third of the population dies. The author postulates that it was not Bubonic Plague but instead was Anthrax, Influenza, or a form of Haemorrhagic Fever.
Regarding the Jews “The history of the Jews in medieval England is an unhappy and even bloody one. Since Christians were not allowed to lend money at interest, some other group of merchants had to be created. The Jews became moneylenders by default, as it were, and as a result they were abused and despised in equal measure.”
The last part of the book is devoted to the Wars of the roses; the house of Lancaster vs. the house of York, the white rose vs. the red rose.
In conclusion Ackroyd says : “when we look over the course of human affairs we are more likely than not to find only error and confusion. There is in fact a case for saying that human history, as it is generally described and understood, is the sum total of accident and unintended consequence.” I guess some things never change. There is a volume 2 to this history, “Tudors the history of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, which will be published in October of 2013.
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
As many sweet and savory treats are prepared and enjoyed in the winter, it seems like a good time of the year to learn about the history of food by looking at the tools and equipment used in cooking and dining. British food writer Bee Wilson describes important inventions over the centuries, and how our tastes in food have changed along with the equipment. The first big inventions were roasting spits and clay pots. Wilson describes the evolution of the stove and refrigerator, appliances we would struggle without today. Chopsticks versus eating knives reveal the difference in culture, and how a cuisine that began by conserving fuel by quick cooking in a wok now consumes billions of disposable chopsticks annually, many now made in Georgia. Many cooks occasionally enjoy using a mortar and pestle, but a food processor can save large amounts of time and labor. Why do American recipes use measured amounts while other cultures give weights? Wilson has a theory. Even the grating of nutmeg and cheese get their turn here, as does an amusing look at the spork. And who would have guessed how much forks changed during and after the English Civil War? I really enjoyed Wilson’s look at food and history. Readers might also enjoy At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson, and John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk.
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard
James A Garfield was clearly a brilliant man, and one who had no interest in becoming president. He was a college president, a Civil War general for the Union who became a congressman, and was an advocate for freed slaves as well as an inspiring speaker. In 1880, Garfield gave a speech nominating John Sherman, the brother of General William Tecumseh Sherman, at the chaotic Republican convention, although the most notable candidates were James G. Blaine and Ulysses S. Grant. The convention became deadlocked and took two days to nominate a candidate for president. Remarkably, James Garfield became the nominee, won the election, and took office in March, 1881. He hired the youngest private secretary in history, Joseph Stanley Brown, age 23, who later married the president’s daughter Mollie. Brown was the only one who could turn away the long lines of office seekers who appeared at the White House daily, including Charles Guiteau, a failed lawyer who wanted to be the French Ambassador. On July 2, 1881, he shot the president as he entered a train station. The president died on September 19, and Guiteau was tried for murder. He used an insanity defense, and also stated that while he shot the president, he did not kill him. Guiteau was absolutely correct, as Garfield died of malpractice. Candice Millard relates the fascinating story of Garfield’s life and family, the misguided pride of Dr. D. Willard Bliss, the valiant attempts of Alexander Graham Bell to locate the bullet, and the surprising legacy of one of our most overlooked presidents, the last to be born in a log cabin. I found this book to be fascinating, and at only 260 pages, it’s a very readable look at a time when the election (and protection) of presidents was very different from today.
For more about Garfield and the book, visit the author’s website.
The Swerve: how the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt
A fascinating look at the birth of the Renaissance, particularly the rediscovery of a poem written around 50 B.C. In 1415, papal secretary and scribe Poggio Bracciolini is out of a job when Baldassare Cossa, Pope John XXIII, is deposed. Cossa was one of three men at the time claiming to be pope. Poggio was a humanist and bibliophile, as well as a scribe praised for his elegant and legible handwriting. Friends and patrons interested in items of antiquity such as sculpture and Latin manuscripts funded Poggio’s search for lost Latin texts. Monastic libraries were a likely source, as monks were required to read every day. In 1417, probably in the remote Abbey of Fulda in central Germany, Poggio discovered several lost works, including De Rerum Natura, or The Nature of Things, by Lucretius. Lucretius wrote about Epicureanism, the often misunderstood philosophy about avoiding pain and seeking tranquility and pleasure without overindulging. One central them was about atoms, the smallest particles of matter, which clash in an infinite void. I though atoms were discovered in modern times, not theorized over 2000 years ago. I was also surprised to learn how much is known today about one man’s life in the early 15th century, even that Poggio had 14 children with his mistress, and later married and had 6 more children. Poggio also became chancellor of Florence.
Poggio had the manuscript copied, and eventually copies began to circulate in and around Florence. When Lucretius published De Rarum Natura, Virgil and Cicero both admired it, but it had been lost for several centuries before Poggio found it. Its rediscovery influenced many people, including the painter Botticelli, the Jesuits, Machiavelli, Galileo, Isaac Newton, and the 16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Sarah Bakewell’s recent book, How to Live–or–A Life of Montaigne, has led to renewed interest in Montaigne’s Essays, and the publication of Swerve has led to a reprinting of Lucretius’ work. By a strange coincidence, Lucy Hutchinson, a Puritan woman in 1675, translated Lucretius into English, all the while abhorring its non-Christian worldview. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Edoardo Ballerini, who is fluent in English and Italian, and found it very absorbing.
A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor
If you’ve ever wanted to visit the British Museum but couldn’t afford the airfare, now you don’t have too. Neil Macgregor, Director of the British Museum brings it to you in his new book.
Here are 100 carefully selected objects that represent the sum total of the progress of Humanity. All the major civilizations of the world are represented here, including Meso America (Olmec, Maya, Aztec) ; South America (Paracas, Moshe, Inca); Europe (Celts, Minoans, Athenians, Romans, Byzantium, Ottoman-Turks); the Tigris-Euphrates river valley(Sumerians, Assyrians, Lydians, Persians); Egypt and Nile delta (Ancient Egyptians); Africa (Kushites, Oba, Kilwa, Ife); Indus Valley (Gupta, Orissan, Mughal); and China (Zhou, Confucian, Han, Tang, and Ming Dynasties, Mongolia, Timurid Empire, Quig Dynasty). All of the objects are either works of art or tools that look like works of art. Some are very well known like the Rosetta Stone, Ming Vases, Beowulf’s Helmet, and The Easter Island Statues. All the world’s great religions are profiled including Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity.
In each of 100 short chapters, MacGregor writes a brief description and history of each object, which keeps the book from getting long and boring. Photographs of the objects are beautifully rendered against mostly black backgrounds. Also included is a brief paragraph from experts in their various fields such as Archaeology, Linguistics, Ancient Literature, etc.
Here is an example of one of the interesting things one could learn from this book. This passage refers to Marco Polo and his first encounter with now world famous Chinese Ceramics:
“One of the Startling things he had seen was Porcelain; indeed, the very word ‘porcelain’ comes to us from Marco Polo’s description of his travels in Qubilai Khan China. The Italian porcellana, little piglet, is a slang word for cowry shells, which do indeed look a little like curled-up piglets. And the only thing that Marco Polo could think of to give his readers an idea of the shell-like sheen of the hard, fine ceramics that he saw in China was a cowry shell, a porcellana. And so we’ve called it ‘little piglets’ porcelain, ever since –this is if we’re not just calling it ‘china’.
A book that is very worth your while.
The Lady in Gold, by Anne-Marie O’Connor
In June 2006, The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was sold at auction at Christie’s in New York for a record 135 million dollars. The buyer of the painting was Ron Lauder, who had coveted the gold portrait of Adele for years. He needed a destination painting for his new museum in New York City called the Neue Galerie. This painting had a lot of history behind it. He was willing to pay a lot of money for it. How this gorgeous painting was created, and how it came to the United States is the subject of a fascinating book by Anne-Marie O’ Connor.
The painter was Gustav Klimt, part of a new generation of artists in the early 1900s who refused to conform to convention and were instead in the vanguard of the nascent “Art for Art’s sake” movement. The subject of the painting was Adele Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish socialite, who was also ahead of her time, being an avid suffragist, chain smoker, and salon intellectual. There were also rumors that she and Gustav were lovers although nothing has been proven. Klimt produced several portraits of Adele and often used real gold leaf which added to the allure of his work. However at the time most everyone was disgusted by the overt eroticism of Klimt’s pieces and thus they did not enjoy wide popularity.
The painting resided happily on the walls of the Bloch-Bauer family’s Belvedere Estate in Vienna, until the Anschluss (March 1938) when Hitler insisted that Germany and Austria be united under the Third Reich. Jews and Jewish property were fair game for the Nazis. They stole vast art collections from all the countries of Europe, but Klimt’s works were spared because “Der Fuhrer” considered modern art to be degenerate and unwholesome. However the painting was expropriated by Viennese nationals, who were not Nazis but had no love for the Jews. The name of the painting was changed to “The Lady in Gold” so as to eradicate any connection to its Jewish owners. It survived the war and ended up in a national museum.
During the last decades of the twentieth century, modern art gained in popularity and value. Most of the Viennese Jews had perished in the holocaust, but some claimants came forward and demanded restitution for their stolen property. Litigation went on for years but finally the painting was restored to its rightful owners, the heirs of Adele and her family.
“in Vienna, the impact of the Bloch-Bauer restitution rippled out of ministries and courtrooms and into cafes and dinner parties. “It was our Austrian ‘Mona Lisa’ ” lamented Werner Furnsinn, the director of the Austrian Culture Ministry’s Commission for Provenance Research.
If you like modern art and history, then this book will be perfect for you.
Before the space race, before the sound barrier, the conquest of Mount Everest was the final frontier, or so the British public thought after the disaster of World War I. The two poles had already been visited, and the British Raj were engaged in a tremendous effort to map India and the surrounding areas. In their endeavors they discovered the highest mountain in the world. Many veterans were terribly disenchanted with the war and its aftermath. Britain’s honor, dragged through the mud and gore at the Battle of the Somme, must be restored, but how? Everest was the answer. The British must conquer it or die trying.
Into the Silence chronicles three British expeditions launched in the early 1920s to attempt to climb Everest. There were numerous factors working against them. First was the woefully inadequate equipment. Clothing, climbing gear, tents, stoves, and oxygen tanks (if they had them), were not made to withstand the rigors of the extraordinary altitude. It would be like sending a man into space without a spaceship or spacesuit. Second was the non-cooperation of the local people. The Buddhist monks held that Everest, or Chomolungma as they knew it, was a sacred place guarded by demons, who would cast out anyone trying to climb its rarified slopes. Sherpas, who really are the unsung heroes in any Everest climb, before or since, were not in the business of climbing at that time. They all thought the British were mad. Why go to all the trouble of climbing the mountain? Of course we know why, “because it is there”, as Mallory famously stated. Thirdly, Nepal was closed to foreigners, and the expedition had to take an indirect route from their base in Darjeeling, India, adding about 150 miles to the route. In the end, the expeditions met with failure. On the second try, ten porters were swept to their deaths. On the third try, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappeared while attempting to summit Everest.
At 655 pages, this book was a bit of a challenge, with some sections bogged down in detailed descriptions of the expeditions and their privations, but the author gives the reader a great feel for what the people in the expeditions experienced.
Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand
Hillenbrand’s book is the extraordinary tale of Louie Zamperini’s life – from track and field star of the 1930s, participant in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, survivor of a B-24 crash into the Pacific Ocean in May 1943 followed by 47 days adrift in shark-infested waters, to a hellish and brutal existence in a Japanese POW camp. After the war he experienced years of suffering from what is now referred to as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Eventually he finds inner-peace by forgiving his WWII captors, especially the exceptionally cruel Corp. Mutsuhiro Watanabe. If you are interested in a gripping story that is destined to become a classic of narrative nonfiction, then this book is for you. Highly recommended. For more about Louie, visit the author’s web site.