Wednesday, January 29, 2014

This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz. This is How You Lose Her. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012. 217 pages. ISBN 9781594631771.

I heard Junot Diaz speak at a Book Expo America convention in 2012 about what inspired him to write this book. He spoke eloquently about the macho culture of Latino men that prevents them from admitting to or engaging in an emotional commitment to women. Boys aren't brought up to respect women, neither their mothers and sisters, nor their girlfriends or wives.

In This is How You Lose Her, he shows the reader how this culture can be toxic to one's life and loves. Each short story focuses on one relationship that is damaged beyond saving by mistreatment of feelings, and lack of respect. Most of the stories center around one character, Yunior, and his family. In spite of all of Yunior's mistakes and terrible decisions, it's hard not to root for him as he tries to navigate his way through life. There's an element of sadness that runs through all of the stories.

Diaz's earlier books include Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008. I'll be putting his earlier books on my reading list! I recommend This is How You Lose Her to anyone who enjoys contemporary short fiction.

The Bible Unearthed, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman

Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts. New York: The Free Press, 2001. 385 pages. ISBN 0684869128.

The Bible Unearthed is a fascinating look at what archaeology can tell us about the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. The book is organized into three parts that discuss the Bible as history, the rise and fall of ancient Israel, and the rise of Judah as a state and its influence on the development of the biblical texts. Throughout the book, the authors use archaeological evidence in an attempt to determine what parts of the Bible are historically accurate and which parts cannot be proven to be so. They use evidence from other regions, such as Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian inscriptions, to help date or provide other perspectives on the stories found in the Bible.

When this book was published, author Finkelstein was the director of t the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, as well as director of the university's excavations at the Tel Megiddo archaeological site. Author Silberman was director of historical interpretation for the Ename Center for Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation in Belgium. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in ancient Near East history.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The David Story, by Robert Alter

Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. New York: Norton, 1999. 410 pages. ISBN 0393048039.

This is a fascinating, annotated translation of 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as the first two chapters of 1 Kings. Robert Alter is a professor of Hebrew and Comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author or translator of numerous books about the bible, biblical literature, modern Hebrew literature, and more.

In a lengthy note to the reader, Alter provides a thorough introduction to the David story, and describes his methodology. As source material, he used the Masoretic Text, which was "established by a school of grammarians and textual scholars in Tiberias sometime between the seventh and the tenth centuries C.E." (p. xxv). The oldest complete manuscript of this text is the Aleppo Codex, which dates to approximately 1000 C.E. Also used as a source is a fragmentary version of Samuel that was found at Qumran (part of the Dead Sea Scrolls cache). Finally, ancient translations of the Hebrew Bible, that date as far back as the third century B.C.E. are available; Alter uses these translations to resolve or clarify what appear to be inaccuracies or other problems with the Masoretic text.

Throughout the translation, Alter provides historical context and clarifies details that may be confusing to the lay reader. He also explains when and why he used different sources for particular translation details (e.g., selecting the ancient Greek translation over the much later Hebrew text). As someone who reads history for pleasure, but who is not a historian, I found his commentary to be incredibly helpful in understanding the text. I recommend The David Story to anyone who is interested in biblical history.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Gypsy Boy, by Mikey Walsh

Mikey Walsh, Gypsy Boy. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, 2012. 278 pages. ISBN 9780312622084.

Compared with Running With Scissors, this book tells the story of Mikey Walsh (a pseudonym) who grew up in a Gypsy community in England. This harrowing tale describes the Gypsy culture and its emphasis on living apart from all others, whom they call Gorgias. Mikey's extended family had a tradition of bare-knuckle boxing, and his father tried to train Mikey to take part in this fighting tradition. He started Mikey's boxing training (gloves allowed for children) at the age of four; regularly punching and beating Mikey to develop his fighting skills. He forced Mikey to fight any and all challengers, which were many. Every time the family moved to a new area, their reputation for fighting would cause the local Gypsy boys to challenge Mikey.

Mikey's descriptions of his beatings are difficult to read; it's hard to imagine a society in which this kind of behavior is allowed and encouraged. In the end, at the age of 15 Mikey makes a friend who helps him escape the Gypsy community. On the run for years, he doesn't see his family again until he's 20. Mikey wrote this book using a pseudonym because of his fear that he and others would be endangered if he had written it under his own name. A second book, Gypsy Boy on the Run, was published in 2013.


The End of the Bronze Age, by Robert Drews

Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993. 252 pages. ISBN 0691048118.

Sometime around 1200 B.C., many of the major cities in Greece, Anatolia, the Levant, and Eastern Mediterranean islands such as Crete and Cyprus, were sacked and burned, and subsequently abandoned. Theories abound as to what happened and why, including earthquakes, migrations, the development of iron technology, drought, systems collapse, and raiders. Author Drews postulates that most of these theories don't provide a satisfactory explanation for such a major and widespread upheaval. The closest one is the suggestion that raiders caused all of the destruction towards the end of the Bronze Age.

Drews proposes that the cities and kingdoms that thrived in the Bronze Age relied heavily on chariot warfare. Chariots were used primarily as moving platforms for archers; the chariot forces were supported by infantry. Towards the end of the Bronze Age, the development of longer swords swept through the Eastern Mediterranean, providing infantry forces with weapons that allowed them to prevail over chariot forces. It appears that they sacked and burned the cities, and probably took all the loot they could carry, along with the populations of the cities that hadn't managed to escape to the hills.

Drews discusses each of the earlier hypotheses in detail, demonstrating why each of them falls short in providing credible evidence. He follows that with chapters addressing chariot warfare, the use of foot soldiers in warfare, and changes in armor and other weaponry. His arguments are very convincing and he writes in an engaging style. One caveat: Drews includes quotations in French, German, Latin, and Italian without translations throughout the book. Classicists won’t have any trouble with this, but it might be challenging for the lay reader. I recommend this book to anyone interested in ancient history.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan

Susannah Cahalan, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. New York: Free Press, 2012. 266 pages. ISBN 978451621372.

This is another book that I came across in my massive weeding project! I had heard someone speak about the book at the 2012 BEA convention, and brought a copy home to read. As I was sorting through my books trying to decide which ones to keep, I got drawn into Brain on Fire. I started out skimming, and before I knew it, half of the afternoon was gone!

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness is a riveting story of a young woman who very quickly descended into what appeared to be a mental illness. Doctors who were brought in to consult conjectured about a wide variety of possible diagnoses. One doctor claimed that she was partying too much and not getting enough sleep, another hypothesized that she was bipolar. In the end, she was lucky enough to get a doctor on her case who was familiar with recent research showing that an inflammation caused by a uterine tumor could cause illnesses such as she was experiencing. While she didn’t prove to have the tumor which is commonly present with this illness, tests did in fact indicate that she had an inflammation of the right side of her brain, and she responded to the recommended treatment for this illness. Back on the job as a reporter for the New York Post, she wrote an article about her experience, which she later turned into this fascinating book.

As I mentioned, once I started this book, I couldn't stop reading it. It's a frightening story, showing us how quickly one’s life can be turned upside down by an illness that doctors are unfamiliar with. If she hadn’t been diagnosed in time, she could have died or been sentenced for life to an institution for the mentally ill. I recommend this book to anyone interested in scary, true life, medical dramas.

Neanderthal, by Paul Jordan

Paul Jordan, Neanderthal: Neanderthal Man and the Story of Human Origins. Phoenix Mill, U.K.: Sutton Publishing, 2000. 239 pages. ISBN 0750919345.

Written in an engaging, almost chatty style, Neanderthal is a good introduction to our understanding of Neanderthal man as of the date of publication (2000). It begins with the first discovery of a Neanderthal site and skeleton, in the Neander Valley in Germany, and goes on to describe many other Neanderthal finds.  Author Jordan shows the reader how Neanderthal man fits into the long evolution of modern man. He describes the environment of Neanderthal man, the state of his technology, and speculates on his way of life. He goes on to place Neanderthal man on the spectrum of evolution, describing hominid development before and after Neanderthal man. Jordan reminds us that Neanderthal man existed for over 100,000 years, whereas we have only been around for about a quarter of that time period!

Neanderthal has well over one hundred black and white illustrations and about two dozen color plates. I would have appreciated some maps to illustrate the many sites in which remains were found. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in early hominid and human development. It looks like it's not available in print right now, but there appears to be a Kindle edition available.

Paris: Then and Now, by Peter and Oriel Caine

Peter and Oriel Caine, Paris: Then and Now. San Diego, CA: Thunder Bay Press, 2003. 144 pages. ISBN 1592231365.

I found Paris: Then and Now in Ollie's Bargain Outlet, a store in State College, PA, that offers (among other items) a very small selection of books at bargain prices (this one was $3.99). It's a coffee table book that consists of photographs of most of the major sights in Paris. It juxtaposes older photographs on the left with a more recent photograph on the right. It's a really fun way to see how Paris has changed over the decades, and I enjoyed looking at photographs of many of the places that I visited during my one and only trip to Paris in 1979, when I was 15.

Each photograph in Paris: Then and Now includes a caption that describes a little something about the history of the site when the photograph was taken. The only odd thing that I noticed, and this isn't really a criticism, is that the older photographs are from a wide range of time periods. The older photograph of the Ministère de la Marine is from 1944, whereas the photograph of the Pont St. Michel is dated 1880. Presumably the contemporary photographs are all from the same time period, near the publication date of the book. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to take a historical tour through Paris. Beware, though; it will make you want to get your passport out!

Friday, January 3, 2014

All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, by Rachel Manija Brown

Rachel Manija Brown, All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2005. 349 pages. ISBN 1594861390.

I picked up this book at the 2005 BEA convention and just now got around to reading it. I am in the process of weeding my collection of nonfiction, and making (very) hard decisions about what I am really, truly, ever going to get around to reading. When I read the back cover of this book, I knew this was one that I really did want to read, and I started it that night.

All the Fishes Come Home to Roost tells the story of Manija (now Rachel), a young girl who was taken to India at the age of 7 and raised in an ashram there until the age of 12. The ashram in which she lived was dedicated to Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual leader who lived from 1894 to 1969.  Ms. Brown's parents were followers of Baba's and moved to India so they could live according to his philosophical teachings.

Ms. Brown's memoir is filled with tales about living in the ashram with a collection of eccentric residents and visiting pilgrims. She tells harrowing stories about the conditions of the school she attended, which was taught in English, but in which she was the only foreign student. She tells us about her love for the countryside and its flora and fauna, which includes some of her best memories of India. And she tells us about her unhappiness living in a country in which she always felt like an outsider. Her lack of belief in Baba and his teachings made her an outsider even within the ashram and her family, although she was careful to keep her lack of belief a secret until she was much older.

I found All the Fishes Come Home to Roost to be funny and insightful. Ms. Brown's writing style is clear and engaging, and it kept me interested to the last page. I enjoyed reading about her conversations and encounters with her parents in which she attempts to clear up some of the mysteries of her childhood. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys a good memoir.