Friday, January 12, 2018

Book Review: Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney

BeowulfBeowulf by Unknown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The oldest epic poem in English follows the feats of its titular protagonist over the course of days and years that made him a legend among his clan, friends, and even enemies. Beowulf was most likely orally transmitted before finally be written down several centuries later by an unknown Christian hand in Old English that today is readily accessible thanks to the translation by Seamus Heaney.

The epic tale of Beowulf begins in the mead hall of King Hrothgar of the Danes which is attacked by the monster Grendel for years. Beowulf, upon hearing of Hrothgar’s plight, gathers fourteen companions and sails from Geatland to the land of the Danes. Hrothgar welcomes the Geats and feasts them, attracting the attention of Grendel who attacks. One of the Geats is killed before the monster and Beowulf battle hand-to-hand which ends with Beowulf ripping off Grendel’s arm. The monster flees and bleeds out in the swamp-like lair shared with his mother. Grendel’s mother attacks the mead hall looking for revenge and kills one of Hrothgar’s long-time friends. Beowulf, his companions, Hrothgar, and others ride to the lair and Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother with a giant’s sword. After another feast, the Geats return home and fifty years later, Beowulf is King when a dragon guarding a hoard of treasure is awakened by a thief and goes on a rampage. Beowulf and younger chosen companions go to face the fiery serpent, but all but one of his companions flees after the King goes to face the foe. However, the one young warrior who stays is able to help the old King defeat the dragon though he his mortally wounded. It is this young warrior who supervises the dying Beowulf’s last wishes.

This is just a rough summary of a 3000 line poem that not only deals with Beowulf’s deeds but also the warrior culture and surprisingly the political insightfulness that many secondary characters talk about throughout the poem. The poem begins and ends with funerals with warrior kings giving look at pagan worldview even as the unknown Christian poet tried to his best to hide it with references to Christian religiosity. Although some say that any translation deprived the poem of the Old English rhyme and rhythm, the evolution of English in the thousand years since the poem was first put down in words means that unless one reads the original with a dictionary on hand, this poem would not be read. Heaney’s translation gives the poem its original epicness while also allowing present day readers a chance to “hear” the story in their own language thus giving it new life.

Beowulf is one of the many epic poems that have influenced storytelling over the centuries. Yet with its Scandinavian pagan oral roots and Christian authorship it is also a melding of two traditions that seem at odds yet together still create a power tale. Unlike some high school or college course force students to read the Old England or so-so translated excerpts from the poem, Seamus Heaney’s book gives the reader something that will keep their attention and greatly entertain.

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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Book Review: Evita by Nicholas Fraser

Evita: The Real Life of Eva PeronEvita: The Real Life of Eva Peron by Nicholas Fraser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having only lived 33 years and been in the public spotlight for the last six, one woman has become in the 60+ years since her death the most iconic and polarizing woman in her country without even holding political office. Nicholas Fraser in his work, Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron, navigates between the fantastical versions of her life to find the real woman and put her into the context of the Argentina of her time before during and after her life.

Given the multitude of circumstances that Fraser faced to get an accurate portrait of Eva Peron, including her attempts to cover up her family’s illegitimacy, the fact that he was able to give a full account of her is noteworthy. Because of her short lifespan, the book was never going to be long but Fraser also had to contend with explaining the political atmosphere through Eva’s life especially after she became the First Lady of Argentina. Along with all of that, Fraser had to contend with the legendary versions of Eva’s life from both pro- and anti-Peronist sources. Yet the last 30 pages of the book are some of the most fascinating because it details the myth-creating journey that her corpse endured for almost 20 years through several governmental changes before finally being securely laid to rest in Buenos Aires.

Although the sensational accounts of Eva Peron’s life make for the ideal basis for musicals and films, the truth is just as fascinating. Nicholas Fraser’s biography of the most iconic Argentine political figure of the 20th-century is as close to the truth of her life as one is going to get and still understand the political atmosphere without getting bogged down in minutiae that would have enlarged the book and drifted away from the subject of the book.

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Saturday, January 6, 2018

Book Review: How's Inky? by Sam Campbell

How's Inky? (Living Forest Series, Volume 1)How's Inky? by Sam Campbell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When a little porcupine becomes the topic of conversation people want to talk to you about, you either accept it or become annoyed. Nature writer Sam Campbell though thought the question, How’s Inky? the perfect title to title the first book of what would eventually become the Living Forest series.

Campbell wrote about the adventures of Inky the porcupine around his home in the animal sanctuary of Wegimind that he along with two other men supervised through spring, summer, and fall every year. Inky was one of five orphaned baby animals that the sanctuary cared for and helped to survive before releasing them into the wild. Although Campbell does talk about the other four animals, it’s Inky that is the one Campbell focuses on because of Inky’s view of life and what it can teach people.

How’s Inky? was not the first book Campbell wrote nor his first public exposure, which was a nature radio program first aired in Chicago in the 1930s. Known as the ‘philosopher of the forest’, this book shows why Campbell was given that moniker as his lessons from nature are written in a down-to-earth style that readers of all ages will enjoy. Campbell does speak of God as part of his lessons, but the book is does not ooze religion.

At a quick 127 pages, How’s Inky? is a fun read for all ages and highly recommended if you enjoy nature books and for a nice read for a rainy day.

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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Book Review: Founding Myths by Ray Raphael

Founding Myths: Stories that Hide Our Patriotic PastFounding Myths: Stories that Hide Our Patriotic Past by Ray Raphael
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story of the American Revolution is well known and thought of as gospel by average Americans, but is that story more myth than history? Ray Raphael in his book, Founding Myths, aims to tell the true patriotic history behind the stories told about the American Revolution.

Investigating thirteen prominent stories surrounding the Revolutionary era, Raphael attempts to put the actual people and events in context of their time while demythologizing the past. Some of the stories are that of individuals like Paul Revere, Molly Pitcher, and Sam Adams or such events like Yorktown ending the war, the Continental Army surviving Valley Forge, and the events before Lexington and Concord. While a few myths that Raphael covered have been demystified by some pop-history documentaries since before and after the publishing of this book and others that a well-read history enthusiast already knows are false, there was one that completely surprised me and that was the events of 1774 that led up to the Lexington and Concord.

Although I knew the actual history behind the myths Raphael covered, this book was still a pleasant read if you can persevere through the repetitious references to films like The Patriot and Raphael’s continual hyping of the Massachusetts revolution of 1774. While I understood the reference to The Patriot given its prominence around the time of the book’s writing but it could have been toned down. Raphael’s description of the events in Massachusetts in 1774 are really eye-opening but he keeps on bringing them up throughout the book and given he already written a book about the subject before this one it makes it feel like he’s attempting to use one book to sell another. Finally, Raphael’s brings up how the mythical stories he is writing about are in today’s textbooks in each chapter and while I think this was book information, it might have been better if he had moved that into his concluding chapter alone.

Founding Myths is fascinating reading for both general and knowledgeable history readers which is a credit to Ray Raphael’s research, yet there are pitfalls that take some of the joy out of reading this book. While I recommend this book, just be weary of the repetitious nature that I described above.

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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Book Review: Western Civilization to 1500 by Walther Kirchner

Western Civilization to 1500 by Walther Kirchner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story of Western Civilization centers in Europe but begins over 8000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt and seems like a daunting task to cover in less than 300 pages even if one only goes to the end of the Middle Ages. Western Civilization to 1500 by Walther Kirchner is a survey of the rise of society from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt through the Greeks and Romans, the Middle Ages, and the beginning of the European Renaissance.

Kirchner spends less than 30 pages covering the Fertile Crescent and Egypt through 3500 years of historical development before beginning over 110 pages on Greco-Roman history and the last 130 pages are focused on the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. This division clearly denotes Kirchner’s focus on Europe in this Western Civilization survey, though one cannot fault him for this as even now knowledge of the first three and half millennia of the historical record is nothing compared to the Greco-Roman sources, yet Kirchner never even mentioned the Bronze Age collapse and possible reasons for its occurrence. The highlight of the survey is a detailed historical events of Greece and Roman, especially the decline of the Republic which was only given broad strokes in my own Western Civ and World History classes in high school and college. Yet, Kirchner’s wording seems to hint that he leaned towards the Marxist theory of history, but other wording seemed to contradict it. Because this was a study aid for college students in the early 1960s, this competing terminology is a bit jarring though understandable. While the overall survey is fantastic, Kirchner errors in some basic facts (calling Harold Godwinson a Dane instead of an Anglo-Saxon, using the term British during the Hundred Year’s War, etc.) in well-known eras for general history readers making one question some of the details in eras the reader doesn’t know much about. And Kirchner’s disparaging of “Oriental” culture through not only the word Oriental but also the use of “effeminate” gives a rather dated view of the book.

This small volume is meant to be a study aid for students and a quick reference for general readers, to which it succeeds. Even while Kirchner’s terminology in historical theory and deriding of non-European cultures shows the age of the book, the overall information makes this a good reference read for any well-read general history reader.

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

Book Review: Ancient Mysteries by Rupert Furneaux

Ancient MysteriesAncient Mysteries by Rupert Furneaux
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The enigmas of history have spawned theories, either scientifically based or plain conjecture. In Ancient Mysteries, Rupert Furneaux attempted to answer timeless questions covering the world through the use of science.

Furneaux covered over 30 “mysteries” that covered such subjects as Atlantis, several monumental architectural structures around the world, Biblical mysteries, several ethnic groups and cultures, mysteries centered in Britain and the Americas, hoaxes, and “soon-to-be” 21st-century enigmas. Through all of them Furneaux attempts to give a description of why the topic in question is a mystery and then over the history of theories before giving as “definite” answer as possible.

Unfortunately for this book, Furneaux used scientific conclusions 20 years old by the time the book was published which are even more out-of-date today. Yet, not all of his answers were based on science through they were not far out theories which he pretty much attempted to dismiss as much as possible. For several topics, Furneaux attempted to straddle the line between “scientific consensus” and far-out theories, so mixed success at best and just plain bad at worst.

The background information Furneaux gives for each of the topics he writes about, though definitely not up-to-date, is the best part of the book. However, the out-of-date science, the occasional stretch of the science that Furneaux, and sometimes condescending tone the author uses in some topics makes he want to caution people away from this unless they are really well read in history.

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Book Review: Atlantis: The Eighth Continent by Charles Berlitz

Atlantis:  The Eighth ContinentAtlantis: The Eighth Continent by Charles Frambach Berlitz
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Atlantis has tantalized Western culture for millennia, but only since the 19th century has the topic of its existence become a touchstone of controversy between “believers” and “deniers”. Atlantis: The Eighth Continent by Charles Berlitz is a book in support of the mid-oceanic Atlantis over Mediterranean candidates or being a legend. Purporting to use the latest scientific and archaeological evidence—albeit in the mid-1980s—Berlitz looks to give strong proof that Plato’s Atlantis was real.

Bringing forth ruins and cultural evidence from both sides of the Atlantic, Berlitz began his argument by attempting to show a shared connection between numerous cultures across the world that seemed to be influenced by the same source. Then he became chronicling the scientific discoveries of unwater ruins, dismissed by scientists as natural phenomena, that prove ruins of an ancient civilization having existed in the mid-Atlantic. While a surface reading of this material is thought-provoking, Berlitz’s misunderstanding of geology undermined the book back in the mid-80s. The science of plate tectonics is the biggest problem with Berlitz’s book and the fact that his understanding is so wrong would make you shake your head.

While there are a lot Berlitz’s theories that just don’t stack up, he did expression layman ideas that surprisingly have begun to be debated within the scientific community though for reasons close to Atlantis. The first is that cataclysms can and do occur within the geological record, but his thoughts ad evidence are nothing compared to Dr. Robert M. Schoch’s. The second was suggesting that an impact event occurred at the end of the last Ice Age that caused a sudden melting of ice, while scientists are beginning to believe an impact did occur it actually resulted in sudden cooling instead of heating. Yet these two ideas do not make up for all the incorrect assumptions Berlitz’s writes.

Atlantis: The Eighth Continent is packed full of cultural information from around the world that is its major appeal along with two ideas by the author that are now being debated by scientists but not to prove Atlantis. Frankly the evidence doesn’t prove Atlantis in the mid-Atlantic, but it’s a curious read nonetheless.

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