Tag: history

Review – Akhenaten

Posted November 15, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet by Nicholas ReevesAkhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet, Nicholas Reeves

Although this book as billed as being a revolutionary interpretation of Akhenaten, I think that’s just hype. It’s certainly a thorough examination of the evidence we have, and of Akhenaten’s actions and methods, and it points out that there were sound political motives behind the move to Tel-el-Amarna to found Akhetaten… but most of this is stuff I’ve heard before. He talks about theories like the idea that the Amarna family had Marfan’s syndrome as if it was ignored and kind of niche… but even I (not an Egyptologist, not reading the scholarly material and not having any training whatsoever in that field — I have an interest, but not a particularly up to date knowledge) know about that. Perhaps this is due to him popularising it, but it seemed very odd.

There are other things that ring alarm bells, as well. He doesn’t utilise footnotes, so it’s hard to track down his assertions (there is a bibliography, but of course you don’t know what was the source for any particular idea). I did remember when I started reading this that the idea that Tutankhamun had been murdered had been recently pooh-poohed on the 2005 CT scan of the mummy, but I was prepared to hear some solid arguments based on some kind of evidence… and none were forthcoming. It’s clear that whole subject is muddied by post-mortem damage of the body, possibly in antiquity and definitely by Howard Carter, so I would’ve been sceptical of any offered theories, but Reeves avoided the subject as if it were not a serious stumbling block for any theory. His sole comment on the unreliability of the evidence is this (bolding mine):

If this interpretation is correct (and it has inevitably been challenged), the implication would be that Tutankhamun suffered a blow to the head and lingered, drifting in and out of consciousness, for some weeks. What is interesting is that the position of this supposed blow would indicate that the damage had been sustained intentionally rather than by accident — at a time when political manipulation of the god-king was the norm, and regicide a rather more common occurrence than the Egyptian state cared formally to acknowledge.

Whereupon he wanders off into speculation about Ay, Tutankhamun’s successor. But… the challenge really needed to be discussed here, because it’s a serious one: although this book was published almost at the same time as the better scan in 2005 and he can’t have known about the results in time to change the book before publication, Reeves’ whole line of argument is so weak that it falls apart from that point because the CT scan completely dismissed the murder theory, and he had no counterpoints ready. If he’d addressed the uncertainty better, it would seem rather less like he builds his arguments on houses of cards.

As a consequence, he has several interesting theories which I enjoyed reading about, but as a consequence of his light hand with substantiation, I cannot trust. For example, I’ve never heard of the letter to Suppiluliuma being thought to be sent by Nefertiti, instead of the common interpretation that it was sent by Ankhesenamun. It makes sense, on the evidence here, but what has Reeves omitted because it doesn’t suit his racy narrative? Same with his re-interpretation of the kingships just prior to the Amarna period: he lays it all at the feet of Hatshepsut and her “greed” to become the ruler. Quite apart from wondering a little about Reeves’ personal views on women (we don’t hear about the “greed” of Ay or Horemheb in taking power after Tutankhamun’s death), I haven’t heard this elsewhere… and I can’t trust Reeves.

As I said, granted I’m not exactly neck-deep in the latest research, but this book was originally published in 2005, and I haven’t heard most of these theories elsewhere since. At this point, I wouldn’t believe a thing he says without a pinch or two of natron and some supplementary sources.

I also think it’s irresponsible of the publishers to republish a book from 2005 without revision, while stating on the back that it is a “revolutionary” interpretation (which certainly assisted my previous impression that it was a new book). It’s over a decade old and parts of it have been proven to be castles in the sky, folks.

ETA: Slightly amended due to finding out the publication date listed on the source I checked was wrong, and this was originally published in the same year as the CT scan.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Border

Posted October 17, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Border by Diarmaid FerriterThe Border, Diarmaid Ferriter

This book professes to explain the importance of the Irish border, and to delve into its importance in the Brexit negotiations. I thought this was something worth informing myself about, because my knowledge of Irish history of any era is fairly limited, and I want to be better informed. This… is not a good place to start, I think: it throws names of politicians and political parties at you rapid-fire, and expects you to already have much of the context in mind. That makes some sense in a book focused on the border, but I’d still start with a bit of context to help orient people who are picking the book up for the reasons I did.

In the end, I couldn’t finish it. I found the style too dry and it just wasn’t calibrated for the level of knowledge I went in with. I’m sure it’s fine if you’re interested in the topic already, but then, a primer on the topic is why I thought the book would be useful, so it’s a little misleading in terms of the jacket copy.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – Fascism: A Warning

Posted October 11, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Fascism: A Warning, Madeleine Albright

Part memoir, part political treatise, part history, Madeleine Albright’s book does a quick overview of Fascist regimes in history, taking in the obvious ones, digging into how they took power, legitimised themselves, and made it difficult to get rid of them by dismantling constitutions and laws. Most of that isn’t new to a casual student of history, though some of the details are, but then she moves into some of the more recent dictators and fascists of the world. In some cases, the leaders discussed don’t fit the definition of fascism as stated by her, and sometimes it feels more like the title should be Dictators: A Warning.

Her bias, as a former member of the Clinton administration, is obvious, but her respect for George W. Bush is a rather welcome note in that. Her lack of respect and trust for Trump is explicit, though she stops short of calling the Trump administration a fascist one (granted, the copy I read is from 2018, so her views may have updated somewhat since).

There’s some fascinating insights from Albright based on her experience, including of living leaders (Putin, for one), and her direct experience in Czechoslovakia. As I was reading it, I was thoroughly absorbed by her conversational and clear style. I do doubt how well it translates for people across the party line. (From the look of Goodreads, not well.) Interesting, though not entirely new to me in terms of what fascism looks like.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Lost Languages

Posted September 30, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Lost Languages by Andrew RobinsonLost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts, Andrew Robinson

This is a bit of a whistlestop tour of, well, the world’s undeciphered scripts. It starts off by exploring some scripts which have been deciphered — Mayan, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Linear B — and discussing how those decipherments were accomplished, and what if anything might be relevant in the study of other languages. After that, it introduces a few different undeciphered languages, including Linear A, Rongorongo and the Phaistos disc, discussing what we know and what we don’t, giving a little of the context, and figuring out to what extent any claimed modern decipherments are real.

It’s an interesting read, and reproduces a lot of photographs, sketches and diagrams showing these scripts and ways of deciphering them. Those images are probably really useful if you think in a very visual way, but they were somewhat limited for someone like me with no visual memory or imagination! It got a bit technical at times, but if that’s your interest then I’ve no doubt it’s useful and quite probably inspiring (in the sense of making you want to dig into these mysteries yourself).

I think Robinson’s attitude toward claimed decipherments is fairly cautious and conservative, but he takes the time to explain what his reservations are and what the field as a whole thinks of the ideas. It’s not always a riveting read, but it was overall pretty interesting and easy to absorb information from. Probably even better if you are, like I said, a visual sort of thinker/learner.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Civilisations: First Contact / The Cult of Progress

Posted September 27, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of First Contact / The Cult of Progress by David OlusogaCivilisations: First Contact / The Cult of Progress, David Olusoga

There’s a lot going on in this book: it sweeps past swathes of history, touching on some of the important questions and critiques of colonialism and empire, dwelling on how they were represented by artists and how art of different cultures met and mingled. It doesn’t linger, speeding past the Benin Bronzes and cramming in the Eiffel Tower as well, and I found it a little vague and unfocused. It was unclear what the argument was meant to be until the afterword, where he mentions the idea that all human art comes from “the same imagination”.

Hmm. A little insipid, really; that’s my final conclusion on this. It’s nice to have a quick guide to some of the art and its context, but it really is the most glancing look at most of it. It’s nice to have a degree of breadth, but then I wouldn’t say it has that much by way of breadth — it’s all so lightly touched on. There are some artworks I didn’t know about, and interesting facts, like the portraits painted by Lindauer of Maori people (and the fact that they would choose to be painted in a combination of Western and traditional clothing, to show they knew how to move in both worlds).

I feel like there are several books here and this is just a not very focused amalgamation of all of them. It didn’t work for me, though perhaps people who saw the series they accompany will get more out of it.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Intersteller Age

Posted September 26, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Interstellar Age by Jim BellThe Intersteller Age, Jim Bell

This was a pretty entertaining read about the Voyager missions, with the usual kind of autobiographical detail (extra odd Bell was more a fan of the project than a part of it, though he worked on things that were tangentially related at times) and some biographical detail. Lots of fanboying about Carl Sagan, which is sweet, but not always to the point. It’s a good overview of what the Voyager program did, and there were lots of little titbits I didn’t know.

I think the favourite part for me was discussing the Golden Record, though; I think I’ll have to look up the book he mentioned which goes into it in detail. I love the idea of the Golden Record (I did write a story about it a while ago, after all!), and I especially love the fact that we filled it with “our hopes, not our fears”. It makes it very clear that few people on the project thought there was much chance of it being found, but it was considered so important anyway: a moment for humanity to reflect on itself, and send out something of ourselves into the universe… the good parts, at least.

In terms of the engineering of the Voyager crafts, there’s relatively little, and though the math and physics of figuring out how to send them on their way is mentioned, it’s not explained. It’s more of a cultural history with explanations of what the Voyagers found than a science book, though there are interesting factoids about the various planets and moons of the Solar System which we wouldn’t have known (until later) without Voyager. Likewise, it discusses some of the problems that the Voyagers had — like the seizing of the camera platform — but not nearly all.

Entertaining, and probably as deep as some folks want to go!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The King in the North

Posted September 17, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The King in the North by Max AdamsThe King in the North, Max Adams

Having recently read Joanna Arman’s The Warrior Queen, I was a bit worried about plunging into another medieval period biography — that one was so disappointing in prose style, baseless assertions and general slenderness. The King in the North was rather more satisfying; Adams writes well, and though I’m not always a fan of history books that spend too much time prosing about the landscape, his set-pieces on that subject do capture something useful about the locations he writes about.

This isn’t an area of expertise for me, but I’m reassured by the footnotes and endnotes that he is making reference to real findings drawn from a range of sources. When something is his imagination or opinion, that’s clear in the text, which is also important. Generally, I think this is likely to be a pretty solid pop-history source on Oswald of Northumbria, and his life and times.

Like most of these biographies of medieval personages, there’s a lot of preamble with setting up the context and then analysing the aftermath: as ever, very little of it focuses on Oswald’s life and his deeds while alive. Still, I found all of it interesting and relevant. I’ll happily read more of Adams’ work.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Aztecs

Posted September 8, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

The Aztecs, Richard F. Townsend

I read some fairly wide-ranging and eclectic subject matter, and I know a lot of it would bore other people to tears. The Aztecs, however, should be pretty darn interesting in principle: while our sources are fragmentary, there’s still a lot we can know, and there’s so much to be fascinated by in their legends, stories about themselves, and social structure.

Just… not in this book. There are other books in this series that manage to be wonderful, so it’s not the academic-ish introduction or the general goals of the book that constrain it. Something about Townsend’s prose is just stultifyingly dull. I made it halfway through and realised that not only had I failed to absorb most of the information so far, I hadn’t once turned to my wife and said, “Hey, did you know that…”

Well, that’s the kiss of death for me and non-fiction. Somehow it didn’t manage to give me any new information in a way that made it feel interesting. Bye, book! I’m sure you are indeed the “best introduction” to the field (as the back proclaims), for people who either don’t mind being bored or are so fascinated by the field that they can’t look away.

(Lest you be wondering, the things I excitedly tell my wife don’t have to be that interesting to the wider world — the facts can be fairly trivial.)

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Warrior Queen

Posted August 30, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Warrior Queen by Joanna ArmanThe Warrior Queen, Joanna Arman

Arman’s book promises a lot, offering the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. It comes up rather short, and in part this isn’t the book’s fault: the information on everyone of this era is rather scanty, and women tend to be represented even less than your average big man of the time, even if they turned out to be rulers later in life. Books about these women have to lean heavily on interpreting what the locations of charters and charitable establishments mean, and it doesn’t always make for the most riveting reading.

Nonetheless, most of the book is almost entirely speculative. Æthelflæd may have been taught this, Æthelflæd may have gone here with her father, perhaps Æthelflæd did this… Much of the book is framed by what the women in Æthelflæd’s life were doing (her father, her brother, her husband), right up the point where suddenly she becomes the real protagonist and starts leading men and establishing forts. But I didn’t want a book on Alfred, Æthelstan, Æthelred, etc, etc, etc.

Worse, the book drifts off into pure daydream at times. Mentioning the clasp of a book found in Stafford, the author speculates that it might have belonged to Æthelflæd. There’s no archaeological context given — Arman doesn’t even mention a date given for the clasp! — and it seems that Arman invented this spurious connection out of her own head, just to add spice; I can’t find such an assertion elsewhere. She does have a bibliography, but no detailed footnotes to allow her claims to be followed up, so I’ll give this claim the credence it’s due: none. Now I have to wonder what else Arman has imagined and invented — the coins she mentions, perhaps? The firm dating of forts and towns? To be fair, Arman does make it clear the link is speculative, an ‘I’d like to imagine’, but nonetheless… I have questions.

Finally, the book is atrociously edited. It’s common for entire words to be missing from sentences, sometimes making them nonsensical, and sometimes no doubt just altering the sense of them.

It is a shoddy job, and I cannot recommend it as a source of information, though there are some titbits that you can call entertaining fiction.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Superior

Posted August 5, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Superior: The Return of Race Science, Angela Saini

As a history of race science and an examination of what people have believed about race from a scientific(ish) perspective, Superior is a good book. It gives a good account of where some of the current beliefs come from, and the ups and downs of race science in the wider science community. She’s sharp on the fact that there are journals, people and most especially funds, like the Pioneer Fund, that are deliberately advancing a racist agenda, and they need to be scrutinised.

It doesn’t really engage directly with the science itself, though, which is where it falls down a bit for me: Saini’s opinion on the material is clear, but I feel that I’m being told I should rubbish the data without actually being shown the data. She presents the work of scientists like Cavalli-Sforza as being inherently racist — in this book, it’s racist to track gene frequencies in populations and how they change over time, because… because it just is, darn it! I don’t think we can hide from facts just because they can be used as ammunition by our opponents, and it’s simply a fact that the human race is not homogenous. You’ll find some genes at a high frequency in some populations, and a very low frequency in others. That’s just inevitable unless the human race has always been geographically contiguous, and breeding has been entirely random across the whole geography, with no local clumps of people who are related to one another.

Now, does that actually mean anything? For my money, no. It can tell us things about history and about the pressures on survival/reproduction in past populations, but it doesn’t predict anything much about people now. As Saini does point out, it’s entirely possible that there is more variation between me and another random white British person than between me and someone from Pakistan (as long as you don’t pick someone I’m actually closely related to). Populations of modern humans haven’t ever been isolated long enough to speciate, as proven by the fact that all populations on Earth can readily reproduce. We’re just not that different, though some populations have developed adaptations to local conditions (like pale skin, lactose tolerance in adulthood, and sickle cell anaemia).

But isn’t it better to argue that from data, look right at what the race scientists are saying and refute their claims, than pretend there are no differences between populations at all? I’m pretty confident their data is rubbish, from my own knowledge and experience, but I haven’t been given any of their data by this book. I’ve been told they’re bad and wrong people, I’ve been told what their motives are, but in most cases here I have no real idea of how they’re trying to prove their points or what they’re arguing, except that they’re wrong. Yes, you’ve told me! But why are they wrong? What proof have they presented?

As a history, then, I’m all on board — it’s valuable to see how race science developed, and the motives of the people using it — but don’t file it with the pop science books, because it doesn’t go there. I feel no better qualified to refute the claims of race science than I was before I read it. It makes a moral argument, but (with a couple of exceptions) not a scientific one. I’m still rating it quite highly, because I think it’s a valuable read, and it’s not the book’s fault it’s been marketed as science, but if you actually want to get your teeth into the science, you’ll need to start with the references and go look at the actual sources.

Rating: 4/5

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