Early Civilizations Of Southeast Asia

Early Civilizations Of Southeast Asia by Dougald JW O’Reilly9780759102798

publication date: 2007
pages: 235
ISBN: 978-0-7591-0278-1

I picked this book up because I was interested in the Pyu people of modern-day Myanmar. In Laura Bush’s memoir, which I reviewed, she discussed how the Pyu were a nonviolent people who created a good template for living. I had never heard of the Pyu and was intrigued by her description. I searched Wikipedia but didn’t find much information. Wanting to find out more about the Pyu, I found the only book at my local library that discussed the Pyu in any detail: Early Civilizations Of Southeast Asia.

This book read like an expanded dissertation paper. It was dry and filled with quotes from other sources. The author didn’t attempt much interpretative writing or analysis. Also, the discussion was filled with words and terms that I wasn’t familiar with, which the author didn’t define and couldn’t be understood from the context. For example, these sentences, from a short discussion of the climate of the region:

At the higher elevations the increased rainfall changes the character of the forest, creating a canopy where little sunlight penetrates to ground level. Here the arboreal animals dominate the faunal spectrum.

Honestly, I kinda liked the phrase “the faunal spectrum” – it had a quirkiness; but it seemed flashy and redundant in this context.

Perhaps ironically, O’Reilly’s discussion of the Pyu did not mention any of the things mentioned by Bush: the pacifist culture that might herald a better way of life. So, either Bush – and others – was mistaken, or O’Reilly didn’t think that aspect of the Pyu was important enough to mention. Granted, O’Reilly didn’t discuss much of the culture or daily life of the Pyu people, whether nonviolent or not.

The book included some interesting tidbits. For example, Pyu people built their houses out of lychee and decorated their teeth with gold rosettes. However, the interesting parts were rarely discussed in any detail or even strung together to form a compelling picture of a people. As I was reading, I wished the whole thing was linked like an online article so I could learn more. For example, how did they use the lychee? Did they dry it? Is lychee a tree? I’d heard of it, but only as a fruit.

The book was well-researched and hopefully accurate. I would say I was simply not the audience. Academics looking to write a paper or thesis on this topic will perhaps cite this book, although I would not recommend it for reading, or even to gain a better understanding of these older cultures.

3/6: more good than bad

No other book reviews as such, although people have reviewed the book on Amazon and Good Reads:

Amazon
Good Reads

The Witches

The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff9780316200608

publication date: 2015
pages: 498 (including notes, index, etc.)
ISBN: 978-0-316-20060-8

In The Witches, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff presented a picture of the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692. She mainly focused on the events of 1692, although she included a little background information and some of the shame-faced aftermath.

In and around Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, more than 100 people were jailed for witchcraft, over half of which confessed. Ultimately, 20 people were executed. The accusations began with four teenage women, who were afflicted with seizures and other maladies. The young women accused several, some of which accused several more, who in turn accused several more – until, in the fall of 1692, some 120 were accused. If an accused witch confessed, the courts were more lenient. Of all the accused who went to trial, only one had confessed to witchcraft – the rest denied until the end. By October of that year, 20 had been executed and the sitting governor of Massachusetts, astonished by the proceedings, dismissed the witchcraft court from any further trials. The trials picked back up again in 1693, but at that point the fervor had died down and the accused were found not guilty or were pardoned.

This book was incredibly well-researched and detailed. Schiff obviously spent time investigating primary sources and reading secondary sources. She included many incidents and episodes from that time period.

However, the book was muddled by Schiff’s tone and writing style. First, she wrote as though the accusations were truth, which she plopped down in the middle of discussions about the trials or about the village. That led to surreal and confusing passages.

Additionally, Schiff wrote in a very convoluted way. Here’s one of the more tiresome sentences:

And if you intended to live in a state of nerve-racking insecurity, in expectation of ambush and meteorological rebuke – on the watch for every brand of intruder, from the “ravening wolves of heresy” to the “wild boars of tyranny,” as a 1694 narrative had it – seventeenth-century Massachusetts, that rude and howling wilderness, was the place for you.

Further, she wrote in a sarcastic style, as though the whole episode was one big joke that the Puritans weren’t in on. For instance, after a short discussion about the torture that certain accused were subjected to, she included this (lame) joke:

Had [accused] Proctor attended the [witchcraft] hearings he might have commented on a different brand of torture: The authorities pummeled the Andover facts into shape.

I hate to cry “Too soon!” about torture and death that occurred over 300 years ago, but these were still peoples’ lives!

For anyone interested in this topic, I would recommend this book because it contained a lot of information. However, as an entertaining or thought-provoking read, The Witches left much to be desired.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews:

New York Times
Boston Globe
The Guardian

The Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre by Hiller B. Zobel

publication date: 1970
pages (including back matter): 372
SBN: 393-05376-8

As we all learned in school, the subject of this book, the Boston Massacre, occurred when several British soldiers supposedly gunned down unsuspecting and unarmed citizens of Boston, adding another spark to the Revolutionary fire.

Zobel would disagree with that well-known, simplistic, and inaccurate telling. In The Boston Massacre, Zobel took an objective and research-based look at the years leading up to what we now call a “massacre,” the event itself, and the subsequent infamous trials against the British soldiers, who were defended by John Adams himself. Zobel’s motivation seemed to be simply illuminating the causes and effects of the Boston Massacre, both in America and abroad. Beyond that, any theme he attempted to convey revolved around the mythological significance the Boston Massacre has in our collective American history and, further, the dubiousness of that mythology considering the prolonged harassment of the British soldiers in the Colonies and the lack of solid facts surrounding what actually happened the night of the massacre. In Zobel’s own words:

[I]t seems fitting that an event so historically inevitable and yet so basically insignificant should have taken place on a moonlit night, before scores of people, without leaving any two witnesses able to give the same account of what happened.

Although I found the subject matter interesting and Zobel was clearly passionate about this aspect of American history, the book was dull. Especially tiresome was the first half, containing the years leading up to the Boston Massacre. Zobel included excessive detail, like this discussion of British troops first landing in Boston:

The sergeants, too, wore silver-laced hats and swords. Their sashes were crimson and buff or (for the Twenty-ninth) crimson and yellow; they carried long-shafted ornamental battle axes called halberds.

Do I really need all that information? Further confusing things, Zobel assumed knowledge about 1760s New England that I didn’t have. Nonetheless, I would much prefer Zobel’s zealous attention to fact and detail than read through a nonfiction book full of exaggerations, opinions, and invective. (Under the Banner of Heaven, as an example.)

This book was recommended to me as a particularly relevant historical account, considering all the gun violence on civilians recently in the news. As I was reading, I was struck by the slowness and hesitation people of that time seemed to have concerning discharging any gun, including the British soldiers who were taunted and harassed for months and then mobbed for hours the night of the massacre before firing a single shot. This is in contrast to media reports today, where George Zimmerman can legally fatally shoot a teenager without so much as a quarrel. However, was the past any different than today, considering the fact that the soldiers involved in the massacre, much like Zimmerman, were found not guilty of murder?

Whether The Boston Massacre has relevance to today, it is a useful historical account of a storied part of our history.

4/6: worth reading

I couldn’t find any lengthy reviews of this book online, but there are a few more summary reviews:

Amazon
goodreads

Girls to the Front

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

publication date: 2010
pages: 367 (including back matter)
ISBN: 978-0-06-180636-0

For anyone unfamiliar with the Riot Grrrl movement, it is, according to Wikipedia:

an underground feminist punk rock movement that originally started in the early 1990s, in Washington, D.C., and the greater Pacific Northwest . . . . In addition to a music scene and genre, riot grrrl is a subculture involving a DIY ethic, zines, art, political action, and activism.

That definition was about as much as I knew about Riot Grrrl, so I decided to read this book and learn a little more about the movement.

Sara Marcus obviously felt very passionate about the movement and spent time collecting and investigating it. Her bibliography included hours of interviews, Riot Grrrl zines, many books and essays, and more. However, this passion did not translate into a cohesive or informative story. Marcus related several anecdotes and events, but with no coherent theme or objective. In fact, the first morsel of a theme that I spotted was in the Acknowledgments at the back of the book.

There were many problems with Marcus’s storytelling of Riot Grrrl beyond the lack of coherence. It was bogged-down in name-dropping, for example. There were several pages about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, who were barely tangentially related to Riot Grrrl. Many passages also contained Marcus’s rants and raves about things with no appreciable connection to Riot Grrrl or to each other. At one point, Marcus sent up the song “Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones. Marcus snarked:

True youth rebellion is always elsewhere, and verily, ’tis better that way, without the chaos and collateral damage and inconvenient principles that always seem to mar such movements in close-up.

If you’re wondering what this idea has to do with a mediocre 1990s pop song, I am too.

One thing Marcus was competent at was accurately portraying her subjects and the Riot Grrrl movement. This meant that the portrayal was not always favorable. There’s this story where members of Riot Grrrl punish some “jerky boys” at a concert:

And once, at a huge alienating jock-filled Fugazi/Slant 6 show at the University of Maryland where some jerky boys booed Erika’s onstage announcement about Riot Grrrl, the girls went into the women’s bathroom and inked WRITE RAPIST’S NAMES HERE on the wall; one girl from the college asked to borrow Erika’s marker and wrote a name up on the wall right away.

I would recommend this book only if you have a burning interest in this topic.

2/6: many problems

A.V. Club
L.A. Times
bitchmedia

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are so Rich and Some Are so Poor by David S. Landes

publication date: 1999
pages: 531 (not including back matter)
ISBN: 0-393-31888-5

This book existed on a spectrum of poor writing. At best, David S. Landes’s writing was imprecise; at worst, it was racist. At its most average, it was merely inaccurate. In The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Landes attempted to explain, through a historical lens, the current economic circumstances of different nations. In his mind, these nations could most easily be split into the “West” and the “Rest.”

The best thing I can say about this book is Landes clearly had a lot of knowledge rattling around in his head. He shared detailed facts ranging from the most plentiful agricultural products in 18th century England, to the ships and sailors that roamed the Indian Ocean before England established its dominance in that region. However, that’s about all the good I can say about the book. There were just so many problems.

A very basic issue was that Landes rarely provided numbers to support his assertions. Further, when he did provide numbers, he didn’t provide the sources or the sources were vaguely defined. As an example, here is a passage discussing the income gap between countries:

Is the gap still growing today? At the extremes, clearly yes. Some countries are not only not gaining; they are growing poorer, relatively and sometimes absolutely. Others are barely holding their own. Others are catching up.

What an unhelpful passage. What are these countries? Where did you get these ideas?

Next is an example of Landes’s writing that falls on the spectrum I was discussing above. His language was probably just imprecise, but it could be that Landes actually believed what he was writing, in which case he was obviously inaccurate. In this passage, Landes was discussing the health problems that exist in tropical regions. He concluded his discussion with this ridiculous sentence: “The very existence of a specialty known as tropical medicine tells the character of the problem.” Ah yes, much like the existence of gynecology shows how inhospitable and unhealthy vaginas are.

Here is a passage that exemplifies when Landes’s writing would fall somewhere in between inaccurate and racist. In this instance he was discussing how Europe contained diverse people throughout its history, in contrast to other regions in the world.

Europe, in contrast, did not have all its eggs in one basket. In the thirteenth century, the Mongol invaders from the Asian steppe made short work of the Slavic and Khazar kingdoms of what is now Russia and Ukraine, but they still had to cut their way through an array of central European states, including the new kingdoms of their predecessors in invasion – the Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Hungarians, and Bulgars – before they could even begin to confront the successor states of the Roman empire.

The implication of his discussion was that other regions, such as Asia, the Americas, and Africa, did not have a diverse group of peoples. I’m no historian, but just a quick check of Wikipedia shows this discussion to be inaccurate. (Asia, South America, Africa)

I have so many more examples of poor and frustrating writing from this book. But I think I’ve made my point. So I will only add one more comment: about the glowing reviews on the book’s jacket. I don’t understand how anyone who read the full 532 rambling and sometimes incoherent pages of this book could enjoy it or find it helpful. The only thing I can think is the reviewers read only a synopsis and brief passage.

2/6: many problems

Other reviews of the book, which are somehow positive:

New York Times
University of California at Los Angeles
goodreads

The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death

The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death by Jill Lepore

publication date: 2012
pages: 192
ISBN: 978-0-307-59299-6

The Mansion of Happiness was definitely not what I expected. I don’t know where I got this idea, but I thought the book was a collection of fictional stories meditating on the theme of life and death. I certainly did not realize Mansion of Happiness was literally Jill Lepore’s retelling of the history of life and death.

Probably because I opened the book with different expectations, I was somewhat disappointed. Lepore’s style of history-writing consists of telling funny or odd anecdotes and attempting to relate that anecdote to the current day. The anecdotes didn’t have much to do with each other beyond that they were about things that happened to people, mainly people from America. Lepore attempted to shoehorn her narratives into the theme “a history of life and death,” but her attempts were not very effective, mainly because any story is technically about life or death. Additionally, the parallels drawn by Lepore between history and the present day were sometimes weak or forced.

The book had much to redeem itself, however. Although Lepore’s anecdotes were unrelated and not what I expected, they were interesting. Particularly interesting was her discussions of board games in the preface, of breast feeding, of the early rivalry between Time and The New Yorker, and of efficiency in the domestic sphere. There also were several curious parallels between the past and today that were uncovered by Lepore. For example, Lepore discussed an article entitled “What Can We Do About Marriage?” that stated that nearly three in five marriages end in divorce. Sounds familiar; but the article was published in 1947. Although the parallels found in the book were interesting, often Lepore was unpleasantly heavy-handed during those passages.

Lepore was also bewilderingly contemptuous of her subjects and, at times, downright contrarian. For example, people who insist on breast feeding their children are fanatical, but people who use breast pumps are complacent in the system. Oh, and by the way, Lepore was not comfortable with formula. OK, so she’s anti-breast feeding, anti-pumping, and anti-formula. What then could possibly be left? Additionally, the objects of Lepore’s contempt were sometimes puzzling; she spends a paragraph making fun of books about puberty written for adolescents.

Overall, The Mansion of Happiness is perfect for The New Yorker, which is where most of the chapters were first published. It involved the weaving of disparate stories in an attempt to reveal a clever thesis. It was interesting, but annoying in a way you can’t quite identify. Maybe it’s the author’s disdain. Or the myopic worldview. Or maybe it’s just the fact that, deep-down, you know what you’re reading is mostly irrelevant.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews of The Mansion of Happiness:

San Francisco Chronicle
Sophisticated Dorkiness
Salon