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

House Of Rain

House Of Rain by Craig Childs9780316067546

publication date: 2006
pages: 496
ISBN: 978-0-316-60817-6

In House Of Rain, Craig Childs presented a piece of reportorial nonfiction, interwoven with narrative travelogue. For several seasons, Childs trekked the southwestern U.S. in order to discover for himself the world of the native people who inhabited that land before Europeans. Childs moved through New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and northern Mexico, often on foot, to follow the centuries-long migrations of a people he usually called “Anasazi.” There is some controversy surrounding the term Anasazi, both because there is disagreement about how large their territory actually was and because Anasazi, a Navajo term, can be objectionable to modern-day Pueblo people – who instead may use the term “Ancestral Puebloans.” Childs used this phrase sometimes, along with another – Hisatsinom – that is used by contemporary Hopi. Childs explained his use of the word Anasazi and used other words when he thought it was appropriate.

House Of Rain described Childs’s travels as he explored cliff dwellings, seemingly uninhabitable gorges, great Anasazi kivas, and active archaeological digs. His travelogue writing was compelling, although often pretentious. A good example was this passage, when Childs was exploring Anasazi construction on what is now a national park:

A cascade of flute music emanated from speakers tucked among the ceiling beams. I stood still for a moment, a little surprised, recognizing immediately that the music was played not on a Native American flute, but on a traditional Japanese shakuhachi. . . . This kiva was tangled in eclectic ancestry, unrelated histories passing in and out of each other, brought together by this place. What was it Einstein said, that time and space are the same entity? Does that mean that if you stand in one place and are a keen enough observer, you can see clearly through time’s entire lineage?

His discussions of the Anasazi people could also be self-serious or extravagant, but he did present many interesting facts about their daily lives and viewpoints. Here was his discussion of Kinishba, a vacated Anasazi compound:

I sensed manners and social regimentation in the way the site was laid out. It was not the monastic atmosphere I had once imagined in the halls of [another compound called Chaco], but a busy, orderly setting, an urban trade center. Everyone had a place, some families having doorways that opened prominently onto plazas, others living in smoky, poorly lit rooms deep in the pueblo’s interior.

The nonfiction account of the Anasazi people and Childs’s descriptions of his expeditions was often woven together effectively and he presented a convincing case that the land he was exploring needed to be walked or hiked to ever understand the Anasazi people.

Childs’s tone was often dense and he imbued even the smallest event with meaning. However, he created a generally compelling and informative work.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Orion Magazine
Ms. M’s Bookshelf
Light+Space+Structure blog

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

Spoken From the Heart

Spoken From the Heart by Laura Bush 9781439155202

publication date: 2010
pages: 456
ISBN: 978-1-4391-5521-9

Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush, the 43d president of the United States, published this memoir about two years after her husband left office. The book, which wasn’t short, spent about 200 pages discussing Laura’s childhood, the early years of her marriage with George, and the first few months of George’s presidency. The remaining half of the book focused on 9/11 and the years following.

I was surprised by how much I liked this book. Bush was a fine writer and had access to many interesting stories, which she usually told with aplomb. The book was most effective when Bush depicted the stories of all the amazing, ordinary people she had met, like the doctor on the Thai-Burmese border who dedicated her life to providing medical care to Burmese refugees.

Bush’s retelling of the events surrounding 9/11 was very moving. I cried. In her description of that day – and throughout the book – Bush included perfect details to capture the essence of whatever she was recounting. For example, here was her portrayal of the evacuation of a nearby school:

Within minutes of the attack, many parents had rushed to the school to pick up their children, but as the streets clogged with evacuees and emergency vehicles racing south, 150 students remained behind. The school’s principal, Anna Switzer, herded them, their teachers, and a few parents inside. Before the South Tower fell, Switzer and her teachers lined up the students, ages five to eleven, in a single file and told them to hold hands. They stepped out of the building into the ash and smoke. Some looked up and watched as men and women flung themselves from the upper floors of the towers, their bodies passing through the billowing flames. One child said, “The birds are on fire.”

Although Bush spent a significant portion of the book discussing politics, she didn’t offer much criticism of her husband or herself. She attempted to rationalize much of her and her husband’s behavior, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. She completely skipped over things from the Bush administration that existed but that she seemingly didn’t agree with. For example, in the entire book, she only referred to Dick Cheney twice, although she brought up other political figures numerous times. She also never mentioned the controversial use of torture that was a huge issue for the Bush administration. She managed to remain silent on torture even as she recounted her visits to Bagram Air Base and dismissed the travesty at Abu Ghraib prison as a failure of the system of command.

The book humanized Bush and her husband, by detailing intimate moments of their lives and by describing all the time and attention to detail that goes into being a head of state. However, it didn’t remove the feeling of dissatisfaction with their performance, especially surrounding the nonexistence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Spoken From the Heart was obviously very political. If Bush’s politics are so disagreeable to you that you can’t see them in print, then I would not recommend this book to you. However, the portraits that Bush created in this book, of people doing amazing, or interesting, or important things, were very compelling and effectively rendered.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian
OnTheIssues.org

Bike Lanes Are White Lanes

Bike Lanes Are White Lanes: Bicycle Advocacy and Urban Planning by Melody L. Hoffman51xsjhsnvwl-_sx320_bo1204203200_

publication date: 2016
pages: 196
ISBN: 9780803276789

In this book, Hoffman studied what happens when bicycle advocates, and even bicycle riders, don’t examine the racial, political, and historical aspects of any given place, such as a city, a neighborhood, a trail, or a proposed bike lane. In her opinion, bicyclists – especially leaders in the bicycling community – damage historical minorities, cities, and bicycling itself when they take a race-neutral stance or attempt to create events and policies without looking at how those who aren’t upwardly-mobile white people would be affected.

To explore these issues, Hoffman presented three case studies. One looked at a twenty-four-hour bike event in a mixed-race neighborhood in Milwaukee. The second studied the fervor and hostility generated in Portland when a black neighborhood was experiencing gentrification, which was symbolized by the installation of a bike lane on a prominent street. The third and final case study analyzed Minneapolis, which has a recent history of deliberately and explicitly recruiting middle-class white people to the city by creating bike infrastructure.

I loved this book. It converged with so many of my interests: bicycling, urban planning, communities of color, and other things. It also generally dovetailed with my own particular view about how the world is and should be. However, I realize not everyone would love this book as much as I did. Perhaps many of the underlying concepts would be alien to some readers or even disagreeable. Also, some might find discussions of cycling or urban planning boring because those aren’t topics that interest them. With that caveat in place, I have a lot of great things to say about this book and I would recommend it to most anyone because it was a quick and informative read.

Hoffman presented an interesting question at the beginning of Bike Lanes: what could possibly be wrong with an educated white person riding a bicycle in the city? I thought she did a great job of showing that there isn’t necessarily anything inherently wrong with being an urban white cyclist, but instead showed that being an urban white cyclist isn’t representative of many people’s experiences on a bicycle. For example, data in one city showed that 4 out of 5 tickets given to people on bicycles were given to black people. This discussion set up the rest of the book by showing the inaccuracy of bicycling as a “race-neutral” form of transportation.

Although most of the book was easy to read and enlightening, sometimes the concepts presented were confusing. For example, I still don’t understand what this sentence meant:

[N]eighborhood [is] “The place where one manifests a social ‘commitment’ . . . the domain in which the space-time relationship is most favorable for a dweller who moves from place to place on foot, starting from his or her home . . . .”

I struggled with what rating to give this book because I enjoyed it so much but I could see others not liking it. However, if you ever do come across it, I highly recommend you pick it up.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

CBS Minnesota
Amazon
Green Room

OUTsider

OUTsider by Ruth Marimo41mh4gjqj7l-_sx321_bo1204203200_

publication date: 2014
pages: 248
ISBN: 978-0-9895868-0-1

This book had two things going for it: a heartfelt and genuine tone and a thought-provoking account of a person not often represented in the media.

OUTsider was the autobiography of Ruth Marimo, a gay, undocumented immigrant activist originally born in Zimbabwe. The book detailed her struggles of being an orphan in Zimbabwe, the confusing events that led to her living in America at nineteen without a status, her abusive marriage, and her self-discovery as a lesbian and an activist.

Marimo was very open about much of her life, including her struggles with her sexuality, her noxious relationship, and her status as an undocumented immigrant. That sincerity and candor was often effective, as in this passage from shortly after Marimo arrived in the States:

At first, I was very alarmed and upset that I had come to this country so ill prepared. I had not been treated well, and I had to work real hard for everything I had.
I was nineteen.
I was a kid.
For the past year, I had fended for myself so far away from home and from any assistance. Now, with my predicament, I simply had to do whatever I could to survive. I shopped for all my clothes at the Goodwill . . . .

The ardent nature of the writing and the important subject matter, especially surviving a physically abusive relationship, was enough to recommend the book. However, the book had some problems.

The writing was self-indulgent, like a journal or diary, as though Marimo was using the writing process to work through her own problems. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with using writing as a tool, but then don’t sell the book to others as something that would interest them.

Also, the writing could be very disorienting. Parts were contradictory, from the smallest lines to entire passages. As just one small example, early in the book, Marimo said she was “really in love” with a young woman named Belinda when she was around 16. Then, only nine sentences later, she said she fell in love with a young man named Masimba at 17, and this “was the first time I was truly in love with someone.” Entire sections contained these kinds of contradictions, which made the book confusing to read and lessened its effectiveness.

Additionally, Marimo did not have a coherent thesis beyond just the importance of her story and stories like hers. That was enough of a thesis for me, but the book seemingly strove for a more actionable thesis, and failed.

The book was a quick read and contained many illuminating passages about Marimo’s life and experience.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

goodreads
Amazon

Dark Lover

Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider9780374282394

publication date: 2003
pages: 423
ISBN: 0-374-28239-0

I picked this book up as I was wandering through the library. The title caught my eye because it was also the name of the first book of a romance series I sometimes read called The Black Dagger Brotherhood. When I started the book, I knew almost nothing about Rudolph Valentino and the era of silent movies.

Rudolph Valentino was an Italian man born in 1895. He moved to New York City when he was 18, where he became a dancer and an actor in bit parts. His first big break was in 1921 as the lead in the successful silent movie The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. That role led to many more parts and to him being a new kind of sex symbol: the dark and mysterious, maybe even a little evil, lover. He had a short and powerful career and died at the age of 31 of stomach ulcers.

Dark Lover was obviously well-researched. Leider described Valentino’s life in great detail and included several passages about the biographies of the people closest to him, including his immediate family and his wives and friends. Leider also uncovered facts about Valentino’s life that had been forgotten or had been wrongly presented in other accounts of Valentino.

Although Leider’s writing did not sparkle with wit or originality, she did present a fun tone throughout the book, and an undeniable passion for the subject. Here was her description of the negative implication of Valentino dancing for money when he first arrived in New York:

American opinion found nothing strenuous in dancing done by men, whether in ballets or ballrooms. [Russian male dancer] Nijinsky, who appeared in New York in 1916 with the Ballets Russes, was slammed in the press for being effete. To move with graceful insinuation, wear citified evening clothes, show off, and make a woman sigh as you swept her across the floor – sorry, it just wouldn’t do, especially if the woman was picking up the tab. The [dancer’s] slicked-back hair became a symbol of what made him suspect. Instead of being rugged and leathery like a 100 percent American, his oiled hair and manner made him “smooth” and slithery, like the fabled snake in the grass.

The book also contained three different sets of photographs. Leider found some wonderful pictures of Valentino, including a photo of a shirtless Valentino wearing skintight goatskin pants and playing a flute.

For me, the book was about one hundred pages too long. Leider included a lot of detail throughout the book, from her descriptions of Valentino’s clothes and purchases to the summaries of his movies. Someone with more than a passing interest in Valentino’s life presumably would have found the content more engaging. To me, the book seemed repetitive at times and would drag on. Leider never elevated Valentino’s story to be more than just a recounting of facts.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

The Guardian
London Review Of Books
Curled Up With a Good Book