William the Conqueror by Thomas B. Costain

Read: 8 December, 2016

As I was talking to my mom about reading the Narnia books to my son, she mentioned that she has a few children’s books that we might want to look through. There, on her shelf, was an extensive collection of Random House historical biographies for children from the 1950s.

These books had been my mother’s when she was a child, then enjoyed by me, and I picked out a few to share with a third generation – our first was William the Conqueror.

At five, my son is perhaps a little young for this series, but he followed along in his own age-appropriate way. The battle scenes, which enthralled me as an 8-10 year old, we’re a little too intense. There are also a few authorial asides (particularly with regards to gender roles) that made me uncomfortable enough to turn into Teachable Moments.

But, for the most part, this book holds up. The vocabulary is a bit challenging, and the narrative voice doesn’t lend itself well to out-loud reading, but it’s a great introduction to historical concepts. And while I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all the historical facts, the book lays an excellent foundation for helping kids to get a feel for a time period and a familiarity with essential names.

The writing style can be very repetitive, and seemed to have trouble deciding whether it wanted to show or to tell. It’s unfortunate because the book, on the whole, is great fun.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Read: 5 December, 2016

Immortal Life is a fantastic book about the HeLa cell line – immortal cells that kick started many fields of modern medical science.

But the story goes beyond the clinical, exploring the life of Henrietta herself, her husband, her children, her many descendants. Much of the story focuses on Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, and her search to learn about the mother she couldn’t remember.

It’s a heartbreakingly human tale of horrific medical abuse, crushing poverty, child abuse, Old Timey medical research ethics. It personalizes what have for so long been thought of as nothing more than a collection of cells in a test tube.

The issues raised about ethical medical research are important ones, and Skloot gives us few easy answers. But they are things that we all should know about and consider.

Even more important is the history of medical abuses towards black patients and those with mental illnesses. So much of the modern medical science we depend on today was developed through horrific experimentation on vulnerable populations. For that alone, this book should be required reading for all teens.

I was aware of most of the issues brought up in the book, but getting to know Deborah and the Lacks family made it all so much more viscerally real.

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Series: Good Times Travel Agency by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Bill Slavin

In each book, the Binkertons are transported by one of Julian T. Pettigrew (of the Good Times Travel Agency) back in time. In each adventure, the Binkerton family gets into trouble, meet some of the locals, and taste some of the various flavours of the culture. To escape back to the modern era, they must finish reading Pettigrew’s book, seen at the bottom of each page.

My son is still pretty young (today was his first day of Kindergarten!), but I try to pick up educational books here and there so that I can have a good stock of suggestions to make when the time is right. While we do read educational books together now, they tend to be geared more for his age range and attention span.

I had just finished reading Adventures in the Ice Age when I brought my son to the library to get Adventures in Ancient Egypt. My son saw it, and he asked if we could read it at bed time. I figured that we’d get a couple of pages in and he’d get bored. The adventures themselves (told in comic book style) are pretty interesting, but the Pettigrew book pages at the bottom of each page seemed a little too infodump-y for a four year old.

But he loved it. We read the whole thing, and then he asked for Adventures in Ancient China the next night, which he also loved. Even more wonderful, he’s absorbing quite a lot of the information.

What I really love about the series is that it doesn’t bother with trivia – with the names and the dates. Rather, each book gives you a little taste of the atmosphere. What did each culture feel like? What did people eat? What did they wear? What did their homes look like? What might it have been like to live in Ancient Egypt, or Ancient China, or during the Ice Age? That style gives kids a context into which they can slot the trivia later on, when they encounter it elsewhere.

So today, my son was telling me about weaving silk, and chattering about children’s sidelocks.

I was a little surprised that he took to the books so young, but in retrospect, I think that the quality of artwork and the entertaining action of the trouble the Binkertons get themselves into are well suited for a wide age range. If a kid is getting fidgety in the Pettigrew book portions, the books can still be read without them (though I found them to be a very good length, and to be very economical in the way they present information).

I highly recommend the series starting at around 4-5 years old, with no upper cap. Even for older kids, even for 30 year old me, I think the books provide a wonderful sense of place and time into which information from meatier fare can be inserted.

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Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner

Full disclosure: I started following Warner’s blog a few years ago and corresponded a few times via e-mail regarding some questions I had. We’ve since become Facebook friends and I quite like her as a person. 

Read: 16 April, 2015

Warner’s excitement about Edward II is infectious. I found her blog through my general interest in medieval Europe, and soon found my new favourite monarch. So I was understandably excited for this book to come out. (Then, of course, had to wait eons because Amazon apparently didn’t get enough books to cover the pre-orders.)

The writing style is, unfortunately, a little info-dumpy. I found it difficult to really get engrossed in the narrative when it felt more like reading someone’s notes than the final product. This is a very common problem in non-fiction, though, and is overshadowed by the book’s strengths.

Notably, how well Warner is able to make Edward II (and Isabella, for that matter) seem like a real person – complex and sometimes idiosyncratic, a whole person. In particular, it was wonderful to see such a nuanced look at Edward’s relationship with his wife, Isabella.

It was a shame that so much time was devoted to debunking the common myths surrounding Edward’s reign, but it had to be done. I was glad, also, that Warner didn’t take the easy route of simply dismissing them out of hand, instead taking the time to explain the arguments and present the evidence.

I really enjoyed the numerous lists in the book – how much Edward’s household spent on cloth for a wedding, how much fish was consumed during a stay in a particular place, etc. I know it’s not for everyone, but it helped me visualize what these events might have looked like, it made them tangible and relatable; especially since Warner took pains to translate the lists into modern terms (how much would that amount of money have really meant at the time?).

I definitely found it a worthwhile read, and I recommend it for anyone interested in the politics of medieval England, and particularly in the life of the first English monarch to be deposed.

EDIT: I’ve heard rumours that Warner may be working on a biography of Isabella next, so I’m really excited for that!

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The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford

Read: 6 June, 2014

Genghis Khan is frequently portrayed as a savage barbarian, the enemy of culture. Yet according to Weatherford, he gave power to his wives and daughters, and he installed a system of laws that were often quite progressive. In Weatherford’s narrative, it was the great Khan’s sons who initiated the Mongolian version of the “War on Women,” excising the mentions of their sisters’ deeds from the historical record, removing them from power, and collapsing the empire Genghis Khan had built. That is, until Manduhai saved it some 2-3 hundred years later.

I had already heard of Khutulun, the Wrestler Princess, but not have Manduhai, nor of the other ruling princesses and queens Weatherford mentions. I found their history extremely interesting, and I was glad to read a more nuanced account of Genghis Khan, as well. That being said, the Princesses Good / Princes Evil motif tried my patience.

I have also heard from someone who read Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World that the princesses and queens who are so important and central to the history of the Mongol empire, are barely mentioned at all. I can’t confirm as I haven’t read it, but it just makes me angry that he would perpetuate the distinction between History and History With Women In It, even when those women take on masculine roles.

Same for his dismissive attitude toward those women who don’t cut quite an impressive figure as the hugely pregnant Manduhai riding into battle. For example, he describes the women of one period as “operat[ing] behind the scenes, making alliances, promoting heirs, fighting with co-wives and mothers-in-law, and pursuing the life of court ladies, who seemed so important to the political life of the moment but had minimal lasting significance on the rise and fall of empires” (p.126). As if putting someone on the throne could be dismissed as having “minimal lasting significance.”

The sense I got was that women were central and important when they ruled directly and rode into battle. Essentially, the influence of women matters only insomuch as it takes place within spheres that are so often considered masculine. This casual dismissal of “women’s work” irked me.

Still, it was an enjoyable and very readable book, and it was refreshing to see women discussed in relation to the Mongolian Empire (other than Borte). I wish that it could have been presented as more of a history with less opinion injection, but I haven’t seen another book that covers the same ground. I suppose beggars can’t be choosers.

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Zealot by Reza Aslan

This review is a repost from my Bible Blog: CarpeScriptura.com

Read: 3 November, 2013

I posted my review of No god but God a few days ago [the review posted to my Bible Blog is different (in small-ish ways) from the one I posted here] because I feel it’s important to contextualize my discussion of ZealotNo god by God seems to be fairly unanimously considered awesome, with many reviewers saying that they use it as a reference. In fact, I read it after John Green said in a video that it was his recommended primer on Islam.

Yet I found many instances where Aslan was fudging. Either he slipped some piece of information in casually that really needed a more detailed treatment, or he’d use linguistic tricks to shift perception. I don’t want to repeat my whole review (you can go read it for yourself), but my point is that many of the complaints I’ve seen of Zealot are not at all unique to that book.

The Infamous Interview

A few months ago, Aslan did an interview with Lauren Green on Fox News. The interview is awful. Not to be too “Leftist,” but it pretty much encapsulates every complaint made of Fox News. It’s almost so extreme as to be a thing of beauty. Really, watch it, if you haven’t already:

Green’s awkwardness is very distracting, but a little fact checking reveals that Aslan doesn’t come out of this interview so well either.

As Matthew J. Franck points out, Aslan misrepresented his qualifications:

Aslan does have four degrees, as Joe Carter has noted: a 1995 B.A. in religion from Santa Clara University, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and wrote his senior thesis on “The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark”; a 1999 Master of Theological Studies from Harvard; a 2002 Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Iowa; and a 2009 Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

None of these degrees is in history, so Aslan’s repeated claims that he has “a Ph.D. in the history of religions” and that he is “a historian” are false.  Nor is “professor of religions” what he does “for a living.”

More importantly, Larry Hurtado points out that Aslan is a:

PhD in Sociology of Religion, and with his own marketing firm, and with a university connection in creative writing, but no training or demonstrated expertise in ancient Judaism, early Christianity, Roman history, or any of the subjects relevant to the book in question.

Green’s question of his qualifications to write this book was absolutely warranted, she just focused on a completely trivial and irrelevant reason. (Not that, of course, Aslan wouldn’t have the right to write this book or even be taken seriously, but the fact that he misrepresented his qualifications to lend himself additional authority is very concerning.)

This issue is in the book, as well. Within just a couple pages, we get:

…two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity… (p. xix-xx)

…two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history… (p. xx)

And then Aslan’s Acknowledgements page begins:

This book is the result of two decades of research into the New Testament and the origins of the Christian movement…

Pro tip: If your Acknowledgements begin by mentioning all of your own hard work, you’re doing it wrong.

I can’t remember ever seeing a purportedly scholarly book dwelling so much on all of the author’s hard work in putting together the research. It’s a distraction, completely irrelevant to the quality of the research, so why even mention it?

As an amateur Bible-enthusiast, I don’t have a lot of tools at my disposal to distinguish between good sources and bad sources. This kind of pontificating on one’s qualifications is a huge red flag.

The Book

Aslan is a fantastic writer. His use of language is extremely effective and he can, as they say, bring his subjects “to life.”

But his writing ability isn’t necessarily a good thing for his readers. As I pointed out in my review of No god but God, he uses subtle linguistic tricks to predispose his readers for/against certain ideas, and he does it so well that I find myself needing to read his books on constant high alert – reading slowly and making sure to note every single word.

It’s exhausting.

While I lack the expertise to judge most of Aslan’s assertions, my suspicions were raised early on when he states that “crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition” (p.xxviii). Given that a large part of his argument rests on this fact, I felt that it warrants far more than just a throw-away line. And, as it turns out, the use was not nearly so clear-cut.

I found the construction of Aslan’s notes to be worrisome. Facts are stated outright throughout the book, often without attribution. The notes, rather than being proper end notes, just summarize the research Aslan did for each chapter, provide a little more discussion, and recommend further reading. That is not enough. I need to fact check his statements, and the format of the book does not, in most cases, facilitate that.

Even in cases where he uses a contemporary document to bolster his claims, he frequently fails to name the document (which might be Google-able). Instead, the notes simply refer me to journal articles hidden behind paywalls – something that most of his audience will obviously not have access to.

I was also concerned by how easily he shifts back and forth between dismissing the gospel accounts and reading into them to find a nuance that supports his claims, or using them to feed the biographical narrative. Often, there is no attempt to explain why some passages are apparently reliable and others aren’t. Even when there is an attempt at an explanation, it’s only say that obviously the gospel authors changed that bit because they were writing from a post-destruction vantage – circular reasoning at its finest.

But, like I said, I really do lack the expertise to give the content of the book any kind of real rebuttal. Instead, here are some reviews that I think make compelling counter-arguments and, at the very least, offer up food for thought:

Conclusion

Overall, it’s a fun read and I found the depictions of first century Palestine very informative. But without the pre-existing bank of knowledge to sort the wheat from the chaff, I’m very hesitant to absorb any of the information Aslan presents.

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Myths & Magic: The Complete Fantasy Reference, introduction by Terry Brooks

I went to high school in a small town with what was probably the second largest Wicca/occult shop per capital in the world (the largest being Salem, Mass.). Is it any wonder that I dabbled in that sort of thing as a teen?

Just to be clear, I never got into Wicca. I got into the awkward, romanticised version of Wicca that we see in movies like The Craft. I was angsty, and it was my way of rebelling.

Given the proximity of so many magic shops, I of course did a bit of shopping and picked up books – most of which I’ve since discarded because… yikes. But during my recent move, I re-stumbled on Myths & Magic as I was unpacking and decided to give it a good second look.

When I first read it, I didn’t really get what it was supposed to be. I just saw that it wasn’t teaching me how to make love potions or make my enemies sprout warts, so I shoved it in a corner. But re-reading it, I have no idea what it was doing in a magic shop, because that’s not what it is at all.

Myths & Magic is a superficial reference for writing fantasy. It covers everything from a brief explanation of how medieval European society worked, how different cultures around the world have understood and classified magic, and of various mythical animals. There are also checklists of things to think about regarding how a writer’s magic system works, and how the society is organized given the existence of magic.

The information really is quite superficial, and frequently sacrifices nuance for simplicity and clarity. But it’s not supposed to be a history textbook, it’s supposed to be an aid in idea generation.

I really quite enjoy this book, and I would definitely recommend it for anyone who writes fantasy. It’s not an instruction manual, but it’s great for thinking through world-building with magic.

My only complaint is that the book lacks some amount of focus. Each chapter has a different author, each clearly tackling a different problem, and it shows. I think that the addition of a “checklist” sort of chapter at the end of things to think about would have been an improvement.

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The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible by J.R. Porter

Read: 2 May, 2013

As I’m blogging my way through reading the Bible, I’m always on the lookout for books that might help me understand the material on a less superficial level, and Porter’s book just happened to pop up in a search of my library’s catalogue.

Much of the content of the book is simply retelling the stories of the Bible, occasionally relating the information to outside sources (such as the writings of other Near Eastern cultures, archaeological finds, etc), though the “extra info” boxes that appear on nearly every page contained far more detailed discussions. Particularly in the portion of the book covering the New Testament, I was able to find quite a bit of food for thought.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, what really set this book apart was the illustrations. Every page has photographs of the relevant landscape or archaeological sites, diagrams, or paintings, and these were great fun to flip through.

Lastly, I quite enjoyed that Porter steps out of the scope of the Bible itself to, towards the end of the book, discuss Christian art and the development of beliefs in the early Church.

Though I do think that this would make a lovely coffee-table book, there were some pretty terrible editing issues, such as info boxes that end mid-sentence and a punctuation philosophy that borders on anarchism.

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Manners & Customs in the Bible, 3rd edition by Victor H. Matthews

Read: 6 April, 2013

In Manners & Customs, Matthews covers the major periods of biblical history, from the Ancestral Period down to the Intertestamental and New Testament Period. In each section, he covers some of the historical background of the period, such as what was going on politically both in Hebrew lands and nearby regions. This is followed with specific discussions of construction methods and styles, marriage customs, clothing and adornment, weapons and military technology, and more.

I found the text interesting, particularly in its range, though I was a bit disappointed by how heavily it relied on the books of the Bible for its sources – mainly because I’m also reading the Bible and thus have access to those same passages. What I wanted was more information on what other texts from the period and the archaeological evidence have to say. Though I suppose I might have been unreasonable given that the title of the book specifies that the manners and customs are in the Bible.

It also led to some issues where Matthews took the Bible at face value in the absence of any corroborating outside evidence, but he was using the same matter-of-fact voice he uses elsewhere when there is corroboration. So, for example, he talks about the exodus as a discrete event, as it’s presented in the Bible, without mentioning the possibility of a folk tradition that glomped together multiple migration events, or simply a cultural memory of Egyptian occupation.

All in all, I found it to be an interesting read. There are better introductions to “biblical times” resources, though I appreciated Matthews’ focus on domestic customs – even though I found these to be far more sparse than the title had led me to believe.

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Don’t Know Much About the Bible by Kenneth C. Davis

Read: 1 March, 2013

I’ve been working on my Bible reading project over at Carpe Scriptura and I came across a recommendation to read this book. Though the stated objective of my project is just to chronicle my personal impressions of the text, I do like to cheat and get some outside perspectives occasionally, particularly when I raise questions that require more historically-founded answers.

Don’t Know Much About the Bible is a great introduction to the Old and New Testaments. Davis has a summary of each book, including a discussion of the themes, issues, and current scholarly thoughts for most. He also covers some of the bible basics, such as the Document Hypothesis. In that sense, I found it to be a perfect little primer for cultural Christians and others who just want a crash course on the contents of the Bible but lack the patience to slog through the actual text (which I fully understand). I could also see it working well as a quick reference book for someone who does enough Bible-talk to need one, but not enough to memorize all the information.

I found the information to be well presented and the writing style to be accessible. That being said, I did notice a few issues. Most notably, Davis seems rather intent on calling women in the bible prostitutes, such as Rahab (which is a little iffy). Worse, he presents their professions as if they were undisputed facts, stated explicitly in the text. I suppose he should get some credit for dispelling the myth about Mary of Magdala being a prostitute – though that correction is nearly more famous than the original myth by now.

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