Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Early Mainland Southeast Asia: From First Humans to Angkor by Charles Higham

The Khmer Empire was the major player in the South East Asia of the Middle Ages.  Their major rivals were the Cham, who mostly occupied the coast.

Book Review
Early Mainland Southeast Asia: From First Humans to Angkor
by Charles Higham
Published July 25th, 2014
by River Press Books

    South East Asia is one of those areas where investigations into early human history have been thwarted by a combination of circumstances including lack of interest, war and difficult terrain.  Fortunately, the 21st century have seen advances on all three fronts.  Most importantly the new technique of using "LIDAR" ground imaging technology to map areas covered by dense forest and jungle has been instrumental in advancing historical-archeological investigations in this area.
The Funan polity was an early proto-state centered in the Mekong delta area.


   The historical narrative surrounding South East Asia traditionally runs something like this: Stone age people living in the area were raised up from ignorance by Indian Sanskrit speaking traders and holy men, then Chinese traders and armies advanced from the North and this combination produced state-lets that eventually solidified into the Khmer empire, which lasted until the 14th century, after which the civilization of South East Asia was more or less "set."  

     Higham makes the (convincing) case that the existing civilization was more advanced than what historians have traditionally though.   Advances in metallurgy and agriculture were indigenous, not brought by Indian/Sanskrit speaking traders.  Rather, the Sanskritization of South East Asia was more likely the adoption of a state-centered ideology by a local elite, who adopted Sanskrit names and Indian methods to support early state building exercises in the area.

   The Chinese sent traders and armies south and most importantly, they sent writers who provide most of the factual early descriptions of this area.  In fact, any serious treatment of this period and place require that the author have a comprehensive grasp of Chinese historical documents AND archeological findings, typically written in Sanskrit.
Photograph of a "Negrito" woman from the Philippines
      South East Asia is also interesting from a pre-historical standpoint, as a major pathway for human migration.  Fun fact: African type people called "Negritos" by the locals still exist in South East Asia in remote hunter-gatherer societies, providing a modern link to a historical migration stretching back to Africa.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Metamorphoses (8 AD) by Ovid

Bernini's The Rape of Prosperina (commonly called "The Rape of Persephone" illustrates a scene from Greek and Roman mythology that Ovid narrates in his Metamorphoses.

Book Review
Metamorphoses (8 AD)
 by Ovid
(LIBRIVOX FREE AUDIO VERSION- STREAM OR DOWNLOAD FREE AUDIO BOOK)

  The pre-18th century section of the 1001 Books list seems more arbitrary then the rest of the time periods, perhaps because so few books were selected.  The Odyssey and the Iliad are absent, as is the Aeneid.   There are no Greek plays included, and Plato's The Republic doesn't make the cut.  Perhaps it is because the Editors assume that anyone interested in a list of "1001 Books to Read Before You Die" will have already read The Odyssey and that The Republic isn't "literary" enough to merit inclusion. 

  Metamorphoses is a late Roman period compilation of Greek and Roman mythos, with a nod to historical and current events.  It contains everything from creation myths, to tales of war and adventure between humans and centaurs, to familiar "Greek" myths like those of Hercules and Perseus, to retellings of The Odyssey, The Iliad AND The Aeneid.   There is a loose chronological path from pre-human times of the Gods, through mythological times featuring interactions between gods and men, to historic times and current events.   There is no framing narrative by the author, the stories are just lumped together in a series of "Books."
Titian's Death of Actaeon is a familiar tale from Metamorphoses, where Actaeon is turned into a stag because he saw the Goddess Diana naked.

  It's worth reproducing the Wikipedia description of each book, I found myself looking at it consistently so I could figure out what was going on in each story. (1)  As I was reading this book, I gradually became aware that Metamorphoses is one of those key documents that inform the imagination of hundreds of years worth of artistic inspiration.

  Metamorphoses was never "lost" and so it was there at the beginning of the Renaissance when people were looking for a new ascetic.  Metamorphoses would have been fashionable, as it were, and it would have been a foundational text for any printing press in terms of a book that the public would want to purchase.   Although written as a lengthy poem, the text is readable as prose.  In this regard the Librivox version was sub-optimal and was just read as prose, not poetry.  I'm sure I liked the prose version more than I would have liked a version which attempted to preserve the pentameter of the Latin. 

  You can use Metamorphoses as a kind of handbook for artistic inspiration and tony sounding cultural references- in this regard the special Wikipedia page just for the characters in Metamorphoses would be useful.  In fact, I think Metamorphoses is more of a one-stop shop for a book on Greek and Roman mythology, and in that way it's maybe more crucial than The Odyssey or The Iliad.


(1)
  • Book IThe Creation, the Ages of Mankind, the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, Apollo and Daphne, Io, Phaëton.
    • Book XIV – Scylla and Glaucus (cont.), the pilgrimage of Aeneas (cont.), the island of Circe, Picus and Canens, the triumph and apotheosis of Aeneas, Pomona and Vertumnus, legends of early Rome, the apotheosis of Romulus.

    Sunday, May 17, 2015

    Howards End (1910) by E.M. Forster

    Book Review
    Howards End (1910)
     by E.M. Forster

      Please note, there is no apostrophe in the title- that is a COMMON misconception.  I've been making my way through Howards End for months due to the fact that I've been reading it on my Kindle, and I actually lost my Kindle soon after I started, and I hardly use my Kindle anymore because I have run out of Public Domain books I can download for free on my Kindle  (most books published after 1915 are still under copyright, and therefore, not free.)

      Howards End continues to be a  "top 100 novels of all time" list perennial and I suppose this reflects both its continued popularity with the reading public, a plot that straddles the Victorian and Modern period, and a writing style that is unobtrusively sophisticated.  It says something about Forster as an author that his books can be read as "light" or subjected to the most searching analysis.  I think reading Forster in after reading late Victorian authors like Trollope or early Modernists like Henry James is a mistake, Forster is best enjoyed in isolation from his peers, as a kind of literary iceberg.

      This isn't because he is so different, quite the opposite.  Reading any of Forster's books can not but help to evoke his literary contemporaries, and some of the subtle pleasures of his work can be lost amidst the natural human instinct to compare like works of art.  If there is some aspect of Howards End (or any of Forster's hits) that is incredibly path breaking, I straight up missed it.  Finishing Howards End months after I'd finished the other books from this time period left me feeling nostalgic for simpler, pre-modernist literature, where men were rich, women were poor, and books were about marriage, property and families.

     In the 20th century, the literature of these types of concerns would expand to encompass the entire globe, but when Forster was writing, the intent focus on the concerns of the upper and upper middle classes of England and American was almost claustrophobic, and in this way Forster would be the last of the Anglo-American author to tread the grounds of his late-Victorian peers.  I'm reminded of William Faulkner's quote about Henry James, "Henry James was one of the nicest old ladies I've ever met."   Forster, a gay man who was not, in any sense of the word, "out."  Did not right about the physical passion that would obsess contemporaries like D.H. Lawrence.  His is the sexless world of the pre World War I Victorian aristocracy.   In Howards End, the half-German Schlegel sisters are his stand ins for the Bloomsbury group, and their sexuality is between unconvincing and non-existent.

       An illicit affair and illegitimate birth happens entirely off set.  Forster uses the birth to animate the end game of his inter generational story of marriage and property, but there is no physical passion on offer.  And clearly, this is something readers want and continue to want.

    Go Down, Moses (1942) by William Faulkner



    Book Review
    Go Down, Moses (1942)
    by William Faulkner

      Each Faulkner novel I read, I ask myself, "Do people still read William Faulkner OR WHAT?"  I've actually already done a post about the decline of interest in Faulkner between his high watermark in the early 1980s and today.  Specifically, in 1985, Ernest Hemingway surpassed Faulkner in terms of number of mentions in the English language, a phenomenon you can see clearly illustrated in the above Google Ngram.  Hemingway himself isn't exactly in vogue these days, so that shift in number of mentions is particularly telling. 

      My sense is that Faulkner has suffered because of the explicit themes of sex, violence and race relations which permeate his work.  His modernist prose style doesn't help, but the combination of the four factors makes him largely unreadable for High School students, vastly limiting his potential audience.  I can also see how his "white maleness" would make him an unpalatable subject for graduate students in literature, another huge potential audience.   Was Faulkner ever a popular, best selling author?  Certainly after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949, but  not before then, when his audience was confined to the literati.

      I've seen Go Down, Moses referred to as both a collection of short stories and a novel.  Initially, readers and reviewers read the collection of loosely connected chapters as a compilation of thematically similar short stories, but later readers have, rightly I think, argued that Go Down, Moses is actually a loosely structured novel.  In Go Down, Moses Faulkner concerns himself with the confused family history of the McCaslins.  The family has two branches, one black, one white.  The chapters move backwards and forwards and time, and rarely spell out for the reader the precise nature of the twisted family dynamics between the slaves and slave owners.

       Finally, after reading the unusually stylized Wikipedia entry for this book, I realized that the complication at the heart of Go Down, Moses is that of a white male slave owner having a child by a slave, and then having a child with that (female) daughter.  Hunting is also a major theme in here, with multiple stories dealing with the tracking and hunting of a wily old bear.  I guess they have bears in Mississippi?

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