1491

1491 by Charles C. Mann, second edition9781400032051

publication date: 2011
pages: 541
ISBN: 9781400032051

The title of this book came from the year immediately before Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas. Charles C. Mann wanted to show what life was like for the people in the Americas before European contact. The book, originally published in 2005, was very popular. I was reading the second edition, published in 2011. After reading it, I understood why the book was popular and why it warranted a second edition.

Mann wasn’t just describing American Indian life in 1491. He also was attempting to show why our modern conceptions of pre-Columbian peoples are wrong. He had three main ideas about the American Indians before European contact. First, that they were numerous and the Americas were densely populated. Second, that the native peoples’ societies were old and complex. And third, that American Indians manipulated the land around them to suit their needs and desires.

Mann used extensive research to support his ideas. He quoted academic papers, interviews, and primary sources. He also included evidence and sources that contradicted his own ideas. Notwithstanding this inclusion, most of his arguments were effectively convincing. For example, Mann argued that the number of Indians killed by European diseases was extraordinarily high: perhaps 9 in 10 killed within 200 years of contact. His explanation for this was clear and persuasive:

When humans and domesticated animals share quarters, they are constantly exposed to each other’s microbes. Over time, mutation lets animal diseases jump to people: avian influenza becomes human influenza, bovine rinderpest becomes human measles, horsepox becomes human smallpox. Unlike Europeans, Indians did not live in constant contact with many animals. They domesticated only the dog; the turkey . . .; and the llama, the alpaca, the Muscovy duck and the guinea pig . . . .

Mann then went on to explain that when the Europeans brought domesticated animals, especially pigs, to the Indian homeland, Indian immune systems were not prepared for animal diseases, and some communities experienced death rates of 96 percent.

Mann not only provided compelling arguments for his theories, he also included interesting and enlightening details about American Indian life. For example:

The Olmec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican societies were world pioneers in mathematics and astronomy – but they did not use the wheel. Amazingly, they had invented the wheel but did not employ it for any purpose other than children’s toys. Those looking for a tale of cultural superiority can find it in zero; those looking for failure can find it in the wheel. Neither line of argument is useful, though. What is most important is that by 1000 a.d. Indians had expanded their [agricultural] revolutions to create a panoply of diverse civilizations across the hemisphere.

Although 1491 was sometimes dense, it was routinely interesting and presented an innovative and compelling picture of the Americas before European contact.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

New York Times
Root Simple
Foreign Affairs

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

Very Recent History

Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City by Choire Sicha

publication date: 2013
pages: 240
ISBN: 978-0-06-191430-0

From the title of this book, I expected it to contain a journalistic report of living in New York City for a year during “the Great Recession.” I anticipated a kind of objective history text that discussed not history, but the near present.

Very Recent History started off that way. The first paragraph, for example, stated something factually true, but maybe not currently considered significant, about living in New York:

One cold night in winter a young man named John walked down a street in the City. It was free to walk on the streets, although to take a public conveyance, such as a subway or a bus, cost money.

Although the book began as I expected, by discussing life in “the City” in an objective and detached way, the bulk of it was inconsistent and jumbled. The book began by discussing several macro and micro aspects of living in the City, including following several “characters,” who were presumably real people. However, a main character, John, began to emerge. As Very Recent History accompanied John in his working and dating exploits, the book became much more about narrating John’s life and much less about overtly examining the time and place in which John lived. As soon as I got a handle on this new, narrative style of the book, Sicha unfortunately injected a third, separate manner of writing. This aspect of the book would discuss something that was happening in John’s life, and then include a paragraph or two about something completely unrelated, such as homelessness, that I guess was meant to elucidate something about modern living.

This aimlessness led to passages that were both confusing and boring. For example, in one passage, the book discussed that John went to a bar called Sugarland, wherein, “It got very flirty, for no good reason. He was drunk. Well, they were all drunk.” Just a few sentences later, Sicha completely changed gears, stating, “It was easier to not have a home in the summer than to not have a home in the winter, due almost entirely to the weather.” Then, only two sentences later, another seemingly random about face and Sicha was discussing the amount of John’s vacation time.

Very Recent History did not contain enough material to be a purely informative, detached, ironic account of “very recent history,” so I understand why Sicha included the narrative portions of the book. I think, however, it would have been more successful if the book had not been framed in the title as a quasi-history book. If, instead, the book had been presented as a narrative account interspersed with observations about modern living, maybe I would have been better able to handle the shifts in presentation.

Another, related problem with Very Recent History was the dissonant changes in tone. Sometimes passages would be written in a dry, almost cumbersome, style. This passage about sexual proclivities, for example:

Sometimes people refused to acknowledge their sexual selves, leading to later trouble with mates. They hadn’t been doing what they wanted, but they hadn’t known it. For instance, many people wanted to have sex with a number of people, but they, by habit or pressure, ended up in agreements that they would have sex with just one person only.

However, other passages were written in a jaunty, childlike tone:

Then it was that time already, winter was coming on, now all the trees were all dead again!

This book attempted to tell us something about the isolation and absurdity of modern living, but was bogged down in the inconsistent narrative.

3/6: more good than bad

The Atlantic
The New York Observer (sidenote: although never explicitly stated, the main character worked at The New York Observer)
Entertainment Weekly

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 Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer

The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer by David Leavitt

publication date: 2006
pages (including back matter): 319
ISBN: 0-393-05236-2

The Man Who Knew Too Much refers to Alan Turing, a gay Englishman who broke the Nazi’s code in WWII, basically invented the computer, and killed himself while on a forced estrogen treatment given to him by his government to “cure” him of his homosexuality. Embarrassingly, I had not heard of him before I heard of this book.

Turing’s story was incredibly compelling. He was a math and mechanical genius who used his intellect to create the foundation for computers, including a proto-computer that cracked the code of the Nazi coding device, Enigma. Further, his death was avoidable and tragic. However, Turing’s story as told by David Leavitt was sometimes uninteresting and dry.

Leavitt spent a good deal of time explaining the math involved in Turing’s discoveries. There were several passages that included equations, tables, and strings of numbers. I enjoy reading about math so, generally, I didn’t find these passages dull. A few times, however, I didn’t think Leavitt understood what he was explaining (Leavitt is a creative writing professor), which made his explanations muddled, tedious, and hard for me to grasp.

Further, Leavitt did not use nearly as much detail describing Turing’s personal life or experiences as he did describing the math involved. Leavitt instead often spoke in generalities or hypotheticals. For example, Leavitt repeatedly noted Turing was lonely but he provided no further explanation, such as how Leavitt knew he was lonely, what caused his specific loneliness, how he coped with it, or anything of the sort. I’m not sure why Leavitt was so withholding, because the bits of Turing’s life that he did introduce were illuminating. Especially fascinating was a short story Turing wrote about a scientist named Alec Pryce who sexually propositions Ron, a young man.

Leavitt’s discussion of Turing’s death was woefully sparse. With only five pages left in the book, Leavitt wrote, “Mrs. Clayton, his housekeeper, found Alan Turing’s dead body in his bed on the morning of June 8, 1954. Nearby was an apple out of which several bites had been taken.” Leavitt then spent several paragraphs discussing letters written by Turing’s mother after his death. On the last few pages, Leavitt finally reflects on Turing’s suicide, although in only a few paragraphs. Leavitt’s cursory discussion left me wondering what the whole point was. Leavitt clearly was enthralled by Turing’s life and death, but he provided no explanation or reflection as to why.

However, The Man Who Knew Too Much was an enjoyable book that delved into a fascinating life and regrettable death. The book has something to offer to varied types of people, including those interested in math, history, or queer studies.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews of the book:

Kirkus Reviews
The Independent
Entertainment Weekly