Ninja is another travelogue-ish, easy to read history of a broad and fascinating topic, in this case the history and afterlife of ninjas in Japanese culture. It felt more scatterbrained than Man’s other books, and was more of a chore to read; I wasn’t really impressed, and although there were some very informative chapters about actual ninjas and what they did, there’s a lot of fluff about traditions and stories about ninjas that didn’t really add up to much.
Of Man’s books, I definitely wouldn’t recommend this; if there’s a better book out there about ninjas and their history, I think I’d actually like to read it, please.
This book is, I’ll warn people right up front, also a history of how the Mayan specialists in the West failed to break the “Maya code” for far too long, due to petty jealousies and larger than life characters. Quite often Coe sketches a mini-biography of someone who was involved in the decipherment (or more often, the failure of decipherment); sometimes the biography isn’t so mini.
Still, I think it’s better written than his other book on the Mayans, which I read not that long ago — it certainly worked better for me, anyhow. Perhaps because there are glimpses of the scholars and larger than life characters who put in the work, erroneous though it often was.
The book is illustrated, both with full reproductions and sketches. For me, the full-page spreads of Mayan characters were meaningless, but I’m sure it would appeal a lot to some people to be able to have a crack at it themselves. I know I’m not visually inclined enough, so I tended to skip the examples and such, but they are there and I’m sure more visually inclined people could pick out some of the features Coe discusses.
Seahenge: An Archaeological Conundrum, Charlie Watson
A short and beautifully illustrated book on Seahenge, mostly focusing on the practical issues of how it was made, how it was found, how it was excavated, and the hard facts discovered since from analysis of it. There’s less concentration on the speculations about a ritual landscape in the area, etc, than you find in Pryor’s book on the same site, and a lot more illustrations and photographs. The two complement each other, I think, though I am reading them quite far apart — this is much more ‘just the facts, sir’ than Pryor’s book, while Pryor did the work of interpretation.
If you’re just looking for some background on Seahenge, you’re definitely safe with this one!
If you don’t actually know much about the history of science, this book might well be for you; for me, it was painfully obvious, hitting exactly the topics I expected, skimming over what I expected it to skim. A worse crime, however, is that the author simply wasn’t accurate: if you’re going to write a non-fiction book, it’s important to make sure you don’t speak beyond your research.
It does not take much research to find out that Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are not pictographic representations of language. (To be perfectly accurate, some of the characters echo in form the thing they name; a cow head shape might mean the word cow, for instance. However, the languages also contain phonetic characters.)
I didn’t read beyond that. On that point, I knew the author was wrong — on a subject that isn’t even a particular area of expertise for me; how, therefore, could I trust him to have done his research about anything else? If we’re talking deeply technical details, that’s different, but it is widely understood that Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are not solely logographic. There’s too little time for something where I distrust the research and editing and I’m bored.
Part discussion of the Burgess Shale, part rebuttal of Stephen Jay Gould’s premises in Wonderful Life, this book was a bit of a slog to get through for me. It’s a topic I find fascinating, but something about the style mostly had me snoozing, even when he entertainingly decided to take a turn for the science fictional and imagine a whole dive into the seas at the time of the Cambrian explosion. (That bit was mostly entertaining through being surprising, though also through trying to bring to life the animals that could’ve been seen if that could happen, and how they would have behaved — the most speculative bit of the book, basically.)
I feel like Wonderful Life is probably the more fun to read and the more comprehensive, but it’s still fascinating to read about the point of view of a scientist who has actually worked with the Burgess Shale. Whatever you think of Conway Morris’ style, he’s a scientist Gould respected and an expert in his field.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge
As so often with books that have enraged certain types, this isn’t the screed against white people that folks would have you believe. The essay of the title was written to explain that the author, Reni Eddo-Lodge, is tired of explaining prejudice to people not equipped to listen. She acknowledged in the original piece and in this book that that doesn’t mean all white people, and it certainly hasn’t meant that she’s stopped talking about race. But she’s given herself permission to avoid doing Racism 101 every five seconds, and more power to her — it’s easy enough to Google that shit, people. Whenever you have a minority identity, there’s questions you get asked and comments you have to hear that just recur like clockwork. I refuse to go back to my last hairdresser because I heard that tape starting with regards to my sexuality: “But have you ever tried going out with a man?” It’s tiring, and I can imagine it’s much more so when your difference is visible, when you can never choose whether it even has the chance of becoming a topic of conversation.
That said, this whole book is a way for Reni Eddo-Lodge to talk to white people about race — if we’re willing to listen. It’s UK focused, which I think was very much needed: a lot of the narrative online focuses on racism against African-Americans, and it’s different here in the UK… though, after reading this book, I have to admit it’s not as different as wishful thinking imagined. A lot of the problems with institutional racism are the same, and though we may have fewer shootings, that seems more likely to be because we have fewer armed police officers than because our attitudes are markedly different.
It’s very much worth reading this, even if you think you’re pretty up to date and in the know. There’s history I had no idea of, attitudes that are alive and well which I didn’t know were still considered acceptable, and overall, further to go than I thought. For that reason, this isn’t an easy read (though it was easy in the sense of being well-written and easy to follow) — and I sense that Eddo-Lodge was still pulling her punches for white people’s sake, even so.
This is a mostly textbookish sort of primer on the Mycenaeans: a bit more up to date than the Penguin classic on the Greeks I read recently, by Kitto, but not necessarily in line with the latest ideas as I remember them either. He relies quite heavily on Homer as a historical source; although I know there is certainly some historicity in Homer (the descriptions of armour and other artefacts are often correct in Homer for when we think the Trojan War occurred, rather than for when the epic was written down, suggesting that it does have a good deal of content from being originally composed nearer in time to the actual events), it’s also full of Gods and magic — not usually considered key markers of accurate history writing.
It was basically what I expected from something of a rather textbooky nature, though: dry at times, expanding on some not-necessarily-interesting (to the casual reader, anyway) points, and generally taking a long time to get where it was going. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad book, but I wouldn’t particularly recommend it to those without a deep interest in the details.
Most books about the Roman Forum would tend to focus on the Roman period itself, but this rather fascinatingly did a survey through time — not only the classical Roman period origins of the Forum, but the transformations over the years since. The authors strongly feels the importance of seeing the Forum as a living place, somewhere that developed since the time of the Roman Empire, so he spends much time lovingly describing the churches built on the site as well. It’s an approach I definitely appreciate: it’s ridiculous to try and stop the clock of the Forum at the end of the Empire, or to think it was always just one thing throughout that period either. We can’t turn the clock back, so the Forum is best embraced for what it is, rather than attempting to freeze it in time.
I did find this book fascinating, but my one quibble is that the author is almost aggressively against archaeology. He complains frequently about excavation in the forum. And yes, some of it has been done destructively, and I do disagree with trying to tear down anything that was built since Constantine reigned (or whatever your chosen marker point might be). But at the same time, archaeology can be of great value, and I would also be sad if the Forum were to be barred to archaeologists.
This book is kind of outdated in its information and definitely so in many of its attitudes, but nonetheless it remains a bit of a classic. I think that’s mostly because of the author’s sheer enthusiasm for the people about whom he writes, their land and their customs. I studied Athenian democracy in excruciating detail for a Classics A Level, but Kitto manages to actually get excited about it, to show all the best things about it and the way the Greeks behaved and thought. It’s mostly about the Athenians, honestly; you can consider the two basically synonymous in this book — Kitto does talk about the Spartans, for instance, but with significantly less approval and interest.
Kitto’s style is mostly engaging due to his enthusiasm, but I do warn that he quotes extensively from various sources (rather than summarising them, he lets them stand for themselves to illustrate his points; this can get tiresome).
Just as a warning, though, if you were thinking of picking this up: though I do think there’s something charming about Kitto’s complete adoration of the Athenian people, he definitely held some less than charming opinions about the place of women and the treatment of slaves — he thought that most things were justified because it allowed the Athenians to have their genuine democracy (which just so happened to exclude much of the population).
Pax Romana is a popular history style examination of the peace imposed by the Roman Empire, and how peaceful it actually was, as well as how it benefitted or oppressed the lands and peoples that fell under Roman sway. Although I called it popular history, it’s not super popularised: the evidence is meticulous, and the pace slow. It’s popular history in the sense of being perfectly comprehensible to the interested outsider to the field, rather than being simplistic.
The overall theory of the book is that the Pax Romana really was, in general, beneficial — and that Rome’s rule really was relatively peaceful and benign, with exceptions being just that rather than the overall rule. A lot of the time the evidence suggests that benignity was due to basically ignoring local squabbles and leaving places to govern themselves with minimal interference, while the legions only marched in for serious matters.
How far do I agree with Goldsworthy’s views, based on the evidence presented? Well, he definitely makes a good case for it, though I think he takes the long view to a great degree and I think there were likely people within the Roman Empire who felt oppressed by it, as well as people who were relatively unaffected by it. I do agree with his view that the Roman Empire wasn’t ruled simply through brutality: it certainly wouldn’t have had the longevity it did, if that were the sole basis, and it wouldn’t have been something people actively wanted to be part of — and it was something people wanted to be part of, more often than not.
It’s definitely a worthwhile look at whether the Roman Empire is really so degenerate as its painted.