Book Review Round Up Part 3: More from Foreword Reviews

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a round up of some of the books I have reviewed for Foreword Reviews since October 2020. This week, I am posting yet another selection of books I have reviewed for them lately. Here you will find Latinx speculative fiction, travel through Greece in the Age of Covid-19, the absurdities of life in Communist Albania, and the origins of the conspiracy theories of the American far right, among other things.

I had a great time reading and reviewing these books. Hopefully you will be able to find something enjoyable to read among them.

The text within quotation marks are excerpts from the reviews.

Jan Brokken, David McKay (transl.). The Just. How Six Unlikely Heroes Saved Thousands of Jews from the Holocaust (Scribe Publications, 2021).

“Jan Brokken’s history text The Just documents a rescue operation to save Jews from the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Lithuania. In telling the life story of Jan Zwartendijk, The Just adds one more piece to the memory of the Holocaust.”

Literature about the Holocaust is a massive genre and it continues to grow as research on this genocide continues. This book was very interesting to read because it focuses on one of the many people who, at great peril for themselves and their loved ones, stood up for humanity and what is right.

Hernandez, García, and Goodwin (eds.), Speculative Fiction for Dreamers. A Latinx Anthology (Mad Creek Books, 2021).

“The anthology Speculative Fiction for Dreamers is an exciting and mind-expanding collection of short stories by contemporary Latinx authors. Speculative Fiction for Dreamers uses as its inspiration the lived experiences of the American Latinx community of today, expressed through speculative fiction. Rooted in the theoretical framework established by Gloria Anzaldúa’s ideas about la frontera, the anthology’s stories grew out of the participating authors’ lives, located at the cultural, political, sexual, and ethnic borderlands of American society. Speculative Fiction for Dreamers is a fun, subversive anthology of Latinx short stories.”

Another book I really enjoyed. I would say that SFF is one of the most vibrant and dynamic literary genres today. New voices are being added to the choir at a steady pace, which expands our ideas of what this and other worlds could become, now and in the future.

Margo Reijmer, Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Zosia Krasodomska-Jones (translators). Mud Sweeter than Honey. Voices of Communist Albania (Restless Books, 2021).

“Personal testimonials reveal the lived truths of communist Albania in Margo Rejmer’s oral history book Mud Sweeter than Honey. The book is written like a fairy tale. Its introduction sets up the testimonials, which reveal a repressive society based on contradictions bordering on the absurd. From the survivors of the regime, Mud Sweeter than Honey collects important testimonies about life in communist Albania.”

Mud Sweeter than Honey is an important book for two reasons. One, it is an inside view of the least known former Communist state of Eastern Europe, Albania. Two, it demonstrates the importance of literature in translation. Originally written in German, without the work of publishers who believe in translated literature, this book would never have reached us.

Peter Fiennes, A Thing of Beauty. Travels in Mythical and Modern Greece (Oneworld Publications, 2021).

“Musings on the myths of ancient Greece are intertwined with contemplations on climate change and Covid-19 in Peter Fiennes’s travelogue A Thing of Beauty. As climate change set the world on fire and Covid-19 emerged, Fiennes traveled through Greece with ancient Greek travel writer Pausanias and Lord Byron as his guides. The purpose of the trip was to find hope and to search for beauty; these elusive terms are explored in depth, but the book provides no definite answers about them. In the end, it is the journey that matters. A Thing of Beauty is an entertaining, erudite travelogue through Greece, both ancient and modern.”

When Covid-19 shut down the world in early 2020, tourism ground to a halt and communities whose survival depend on money coming from outside suffered. Greece was one of them. Slowly as we learn how to live with the virus, tourism and travel in general is returning, but for those months when the world stood still, those who dared venture out walked in solitude.

Edward H. Miller, A Conspiratorial Life. Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism (University of Chicago Press, 2021)

“The origins of the conspiracy theories that permeate modern American politics are revealed in Edward H. Miller’s biography of Robert Welch, A Conspiratorial Life. Born into a family of North Carolina farmers who fought in the American Revolution, owned slaves, believed in white supremacy, supported the confederacy, disliked Yankees, and distrusted the federal government, Robert Welch made his fortune as a candy manufacturer with the purpose of supporting himself as a political writer. Hypervigilant to conspiracy theories, he found a personal outlet in the death of John Birch, an American military intelligence officer who died during World War II. He founded an anticommunist organization, The John Birch Society, to peddle his theories among American conservatives. A Conspiratorial Life is the first comprehensive biography of Robert Welch. It is revelatory about his role in the development of modern American conservatism.”

This book is quite the chilling read because it shows the origins of some of the conspiracy theories that we are living with on a daily basis, how they developed, and were allowed to spread and sprout very deep roots.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

______________________________________________________

Did you enjoy this post? Please show your appreciation by supporting The Boomerang for more content of this kind.

The Book by Keith Houston. Or, In Praise of the Lone Genius and How to Erase the Persian Empire from History

960px-Persepolis001

The ruins of Persepolis, Iran. Persepolis was one of the capital cities of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Source: CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=655691

What would you say is the greatest invention of the Middle Ages?

To me the answer is obvious.

The greatest invention of the Middle Ages is the book.

Or rather, the codex, to use its technical term.

A codex is a stack of folded sheets, made from papyrus, parchment or paper, collated along one side to form a spine and then placed within a protective casing made from wood or thick paper. In other words, what we today call a book.

The reason why codex is the technical term for a book is that “book” is a collective term for different types of objects that serve as repositories for writing, either printed or by hand. Other such objects are clay tablets and scrolls made from papyrus or parchment. The codex itself can be divided into several different types, such as illuminated manuscripts (handwritten on parchment during the Middle Ages), incunabula (books printed before the year 1500), or chapbooks and pamphlets (cheap pocket-sized printed books popular during the 17th and 18th centuries).

41UHen-IwaLThe history of the codex is a fascinating one. So fascinating in fact that Keith Houston decided to dedicate an entire book to the history of the book. His book is called The Book. The subtitle is A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time.

I agree with Houston that the book is a powerful object. Even though the physical format of the book is ever changing–from clay tablet to scroll to codex to digital tablet–the book itself endures. However, Houston’ book is not a book about the book. It’s a book about the history of how a book is made, with particular emphasis on the development of printing techniques.

Houston starts his narrative in Ancient Mesopotamia and the invention of writing, without which there would be no books. He then moves through history and discusses the inventions of papyrus, parchment, and paper; the making of ink; the development of writing as an everyday mode of communication; and the development of printing presses in China and in Europe.

At this point, Houston makes a jump in time and in content. Instead of discussing the book as a powerful object during the Early Modern Period with the advent of the chapbook and the pamphlet, without which there would not have been an English Civil War nor an American Revolution, no liberal democracy, no Freedom of the Press Acts or demands for free speech and social equality, Houston instead falls into the rabbit hole of the mechanics of printing. The siren song of the story of the lone male genius is powerful, and Houston steers his ship right towards its rocky shore.

If Houston is to believed, four Ancient civilizations contributed to the development of what was to become the codex–China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. China’s inventions are recognized but their actual influence on Europe is questioned. Mesopotamia and Egypt serve as conduits towards the achievements of Greece and Rome, here presented as European civilizations which, in turn, upholds the out dated argument that Mesopotamia and Egypt were somehow European as well.

The traditionalist Eurocentrism of Houston’s historical summary causes him to dedicate two pages to dismissing the significance of the Phoenicians and their alphabet with the purpose of maintaining the link between modern English and Egypt as a “European” civilization. And, he skips over the one Ancient civilization that did more for normalizing the use of writing in everyday communications than any other, namely Persia.

The Persian Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BCE) was the largest empire of the Ancient world. From its heartland in present-day Iran, the Achaemenids ruled a territory that reached from the shores of the Levant and North Africa to the Indus Valley in northern India. They kept this vast territory together through an intense letter exchange between the ruler of the empire, the King of Kings, and the satraps, or governors, of the empire’s many provinces.

960px-Achaemenid_Empire_at_its_greatest_extent_according_to_Oxford_Atlas_of_World_History_2002

Notice the King’s Highway/Via Maris between Susa and Sardis that for millennia connected the Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean. In the Persian Empire, this road served as the backbone for government communications through letter writing. By Original creator: MossmapsCorrections according to Oxford Atlas of World History 2002, The Times Atlas of World History (1989), Philip’s Atlas of World History (1999) by पाटलिपुत्र (talk) – This file was derived from: The Achaemenid Empire at its Greatest Extent.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73745174

When Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid Empire, he kept the system of satraps and the network of communications, which after the Successor Wars became part of the states of the Hellenistic kingdoms. As Hellenism spread throughout the Mediterranean basin, other states and empires became Hellenized as well, among them Rome.

If you ask Houston, the history related in the above paragraphs never took place. According to him, letter writing as a means of state communication that led to the normalization of writing for everyday communication happened in Rome.

Within the history view put forward by Houston, this makes sense. Persia was the enemy of Greece, and Houston has obviously only read the Greek view of the Persians. He sees Rome as the foundation of European civilization, even though the Rome he is referring to was long gone by the time an idea of “Europe” began to take shape. Mesopotamia and Egypt are there to pave the way for what was to come.

Keith Houston’s The Book falls into the trap of the lone genius and provides a cherry-picked overview of the history of the codex.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.