The book challenges many of the theories of evolutionary psychology (successfully, I think) and proposes a new model for prehistoric sexual behavior a...moreThe book challenges many of the theories of evolutionary psychology (successfully, I think) and proposes a new model for prehistoric sexual behavior among humans. Written in a playful voice, the work nevertheless presents some good science with excellent notes and bibliography. We know that the invention of agriculture was more curse than blessing, leading as it has to population explosion, environmental degradation (including the possibility of catastrophic climate disruption), war, health problems, repressive governments, and delusional religions intent on controlling every aspect of life. We know that the lives of foragers were more free of stress and filled with leisure. We know that humans evolved to live in groups of 150 or fewer. We don't, however, have any way (short of the collapse of civilization) to get back to that state of existence. Likewise, we have very limited options for changing the structure of sexual relations (for the entire cultures of nations) based on an ideal monogamy (whether that monogamy turns out to be serial or entirely without the occurence of legal marriage). The authors have shown convincingly that monogamy was not a natural state for humans existing in prehistory before the advent of organized agriculture and have suggested that many of our current problems with sex can be traced to "unnatural" cultural constraints on our "natural" sexuality. They have left us with a theoretical structure for understanding the unhappiness and psychological distress felt by so many given the current state of sexual relations, but they haven't recommended any feasible fixes for the problem. That they haven't may be seen by some as a deficiency, but, despite the playful tone of the work, the authors have wisely limited their book to their purpose of challenging the traditional narrative of the development of human sexuality and to proposing an alternative narrative that describes a path from which we have diverged. (less)
Heinrich's memoir provides a fascinating perspective on the lives of ordinary Germans caught up in the extraordinary events of the two world wars. It...moreHeinrich's memoir provides a fascinating perspective on the lives of ordinary Germans caught up in the extraordinary events of the two world wars. It also chronicles the transition from traditional taxonomy to the world of evolutionary biology, with the author's father (an autodidact with an expertise in ichneuman wasp taxonomy) representing the disappearing world of collecting and describing species based on appearances and with the formally educated author representing the new experimental biology. This would be a great companion for Yoon's Naming Nature. More than a book on history or biology though, Heinrich's work is a study of intriguing family dynamics as a father and son seek to establish a relationship while dealing with being refugees in a rapidly changing world. The sad and yet hopeful conclusion of the saga is that a son can only really appreciate his father when he stands alone in the absence of the father and understands what he himself has become through the positive and negative interactions between them over a lifetime. To read The Snoring Bird is to take a wonderful journey with a great guide through worlds that no longer exist and to understand a little better at the end of the journey what it is that makes us human.(less)
The author attempted perhaps more than he could deliver, but it is overreaching that distinguishes our species. Better a daring shot from horseback th...moreThe author attempted perhaps more than he could deliver, but it is overreaching that distinguishes our species. Better a daring shot from horseback that misses the bullseye but thrills the mind with possibilities than a bullseye from a bench shot that confirms our expectations. The work is worth a second reading, even if one has no interest in Toronto. (less)
Wrangham presents and defends well the hypothesis that cooking had major evolutionary consequences for the development of anatomically modern humans,...moreWrangham presents and defends well the hypothesis that cooking had major evolutionary consequences for the development of anatomically modern humans, including diminishment in size of mandibles, dentition, and intestines. He presents good arguments for the early control of fire and for its use in cooking by at least one group of habilines who then evolved into Homo erectus. His arguments for the evolutionary advantages provided by cooked food (less time spent in chewing, more calories available per unit of food consumed, less energy expended in digestion, more energy available to power larger brains, etc.) are convincing. When he moves into the social development of early humans and the effects of cooking thereon, however, he tends to attribute too much to cooking alone. While the hearth did provide a focus for the "household," there were many factors involved in the creation of the nuclear family and in determining gender roles. There does seem to be a tendency on the part of some scholars to attribute more to single important factors they have identified than the evidence will support. This is a particular danger in explaining social developments, which often result from complex contributing factors for which physical evidence is either lacking or ambiguous. Although the author issues the customary caveats about contemproary hunter/gatherer societies being "modern" rather than "primitive," he puts a lot of weight on reasoning backward from observations of the current practices of such groups to the hypothetical social behaviors of early humans. A monograph on his principal hypothesis might have been less sexy than this book, but it would have been more focussed and less speculative. The book has detailed notes and a good bibliography. (less)
Larsson found his stride with this, the last number of the Millenium Trilogy. When I reached the middle of the book, I couldn't put it down and finish...moreLarsson found his stride with this, the last number of the Millenium Trilogy. When I reached the middle of the book, I couldn't put it down and finished it at 3:00 a.m. It is sad that Larsson died before seeing any of the trilogy in print and sad too that we will have no more novels from him. Nevertheless, the Millenium Trilogy stands as a fine memorial. Lisbeth Salander, his unique creation, is less an active agent in the final novel and more of a fulcrum on which the action turns, driven by the other well-drawn characters, both friends and enemies. Larsson apparently intended the trilogy to be a feminist statement on the treatment of women, but it is even more a defense of democracy and a tribute to the power of the press in protecting freedom. That becomes especially clear in the final novel. My staying up until 3:00 in the morning to finish it shows that it is also a compelling story well told. Every trilogy should save the best for last and leave readers wanting more. Three cheers for Larsson and a job well done!(less)
The author begins with a simile from the Iliad (2.780-85) in which Homer compares the sound of advancing Greek troops to the sound of the earth beneat...moreThe author begins with a simile from the Iliad (2.780-85) in which Homer compares the sound of advancing Greek troops to the sound of the earth beneath the "anger of Zeus who delights in thunder, whenever he lashes the ground around Typhoeus in Arima, where they say is Typhoeus' bed . . ." He then takes the reader on a tour of the eighth-century world of Greek "travelling heroes," during which he solves the Homeric reference with which he began by identifying Arima. Along the way, he teaches the reader about the role of Euboean adventurers who extended Greek influence to the east and the west of their island homeland, in the process transporting both ideas and artifacts from one place to another. I learned much from the book about Greek interactions with other cultures in the eighth century, about the trade routes, and the settlement patterns. The author makes a convincing case for the traditional eighth-century dating of Homer and has astute observations about the differences between the works of Homer and those of Hesiod. He is a brilliant scholar of Greek literature with an excellent command of the archaeological literature and a good knowledge of the landscapes and seascapes through which the "travelling heroes" passed in literature and in life. He is somewhat less accomplished in his analysis of myth and folklore, although (I must admit) I delighted in his nineteenth-century exuberance as he engaged in old-fashioned Frazerian speculation. I could almost touch that golden bough as Typhoeus shuddered beneath my feet.(less)
It was fun. Not as sophisticated as the works of Charles de Lint, the novel is more like a comic book without the pictures. The mythic world of the ot...moreIt was fun. Not as sophisticated as the works of Charles de Lint, the novel is more like a comic book without the pictures. The mythic world of the other London created by Gaiman doesn't quite work, but it works well enough to advance the narrative. If the reader is able to go with the story without worrying about the internal logic of the London below and its curious intersections with the Londons above and before, the book provides a diverting afternoon. I especially enjoyed the use of the London subway system and its stations to create a framework for the story. I plan to read another book by the author.(less)
Like the rings of Saturn, Sebald's brilliant and melancholic book of the same name is also made up of fragments, which raise in the reader's mind imag...moreLike the rings of Saturn, Sebald's brilliant and melancholic book of the same name is also made up of fragments, which raise in the reader's mind images that are beautiful, ethereal, thought-provoking, and ultimately, devastatingly sad. Bound together by threads of silk, the anecdotes of an imaginal journey through space and time circle back upon themselves like the rings of Saturn or like the paths through the heather in which the narrator at one time becomes so overwhelmingly lost. In a work so full of loss -- lost houses, lost villages, lost ways, and lost lives, the reader cannot but with the narrator feel the incredible weight of relativity bearing down all sense of meaning. And yet, to find a mind such as Sebald's and to share his insights into the human condition is surely a discovery that is worth the loss of what we thought we knew. (less)
The search for the historical Homer, like the search for the historical Jesus, is an exercise in speculation. The lack of real evidence and the abunda...moreThe search for the historical Homer, like the search for the historical Jesus, is an exercise in speculation. The lack of real evidence and the abundance of legend have obscured the traditional creator(s) of the Iliad and the Odyssey to the point that scholars have argued at various times that the two works were composed by different people, that one of the composers was a woman, or even that the works were compilations of anonymous songs redacted by one or more individuals who have collectively come to be known as "Homer." Dalby gives a nice overview of the problems and includes a useful "Guide to Further Reading," as well as a bibliography. He argues successfully, I think, for the common origin of both epics in the seventh century B.C. His assertion that the common composer's gender was female remains unproven and unprovable. He gives a helpful introduction to the Parry-Lord hypothesis for those unfamiliar with this important advance in the understanding of oral composition and transmission. The value of the work lies more in its provision of context for reading the Iliad and the Odyssey (i.e., geography, society, literary history, etc.) than in the author's proposed identification of the composer of both works as a woman. For a real "rediscovery" of Homer, see Alberto Manguel's most excellent Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography. (less)
"The study of the Life of Jesus has had a curious history. It set out in quest of the historical Jesus, believing that when it had found Him it could...more"The study of the Life of Jesus has had a curious history. It set out in quest of the historical Jesus, believing that when it had found Him it could bring Him straight into our time as a Teacher and Saviour. It loosed the bands by which He had been riveted for centuries to the stony rocks of ecclesiastical doctrine, and rejoiced to see life and movement coming into the figure once more, and the historical Jesus advancing, as it seemed, to meet it. But He does not stay; He passes by our time and returns to His own. What surprised and dismayed the theology of the last forty years was that, despite all forced and arbitrary interpretations, it could not keep Him in our time, but had to let Him go. He returned to His own time, not owing to the application of any historical ingenuity, but by the same inevitable necessity by which the liberated pendulum returns to its original position."
Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1910 [Translation of Von Reimarus zu Wrede, 1906]
Aslan's work is well written, but it ignores the conclusion reached by Schweitzer over a century ago that we are unable to recover the life of the man around whom the Christian mythos developed. The author restates the conclusions of Reimarus and, more recently, Brandon and Carmichael that Jesus was a political revolutionary. He contends that Jesus was interested in establishing a renewed and purified Kingdom of Israel, free from Roman rule and the perversions of the Temple priests, and subject only to the sovereignty of God exercised through his designated agent, the Son of Man (i.e., Jesus). There is, therefore, nothing here that I didn't learn about more than forty years ago in my classes at Southern Methodist University. Aslan, as so many others before him, cherry picks passages from the Gospels and other documents to support his conclusions, while rejecting or ignoring those that refute it. His notes are in an attractive narrative format that invites reading, but he neglects to give original publication dates, a practice which could mislead non-specialist readers. Although claiming to be a historian of religions, the author's academic training is in the sociology of religion, and he currently teaches creative writing, a career that, no doubt, served him well in this endeavor.
As a historian of religions with a great interest in the issues addressed by the author, I am tempted to provide a detailed critical review, but that would be perhaps less useful to general readers than a brief appraisal of the book. Aslan is right in his assertion that Jesus was executed by the Romans because of his threat to the peace of Jerusalem. He is correct that the message of Jesus was directed to the Jews and was inspired by the message of John the Baptist. He does a good job of portraying the conflict between Paul and the Jerusalem church about the mission to the gentiles and other issues. He rightly asserts that Pauline Christianity triumphed over the beliefs of the Jerusalem church after the destruction of the Temple. He doesn't devote sufficient attention to the importance of the Kingdom of Heaven (Kingdom of God) in the message of Jesus and misunderstands some key passages in the source materials that make it apparent that Jesus taught a radical, apocalyptic eschatology. The execution of Jesus and the failure of his eschatological vision created a "stumbling block" with which Christians have had to deal ever since.
The book's value lies primarily in calling attention to the vast amount of scholarship that has gone into the attempt to recover the historical Jesus, and, for those who read the notes, how tenuous any conclusions about the man from Galilee who inspired Christianity must be. (less)
Furst set a very high standard for himself early in his career. He clearly owns the period from 1933-45 in Europe and is a very fine writer of histori...moreFurst set a very high standard for himself early in his career. He clearly owns the period from 1933-45 in Europe and is a very fine writer of historical fiction filled with intrigue and likeable characters. Over the last few years, however, he has slipped into a formulaic pattern that takes few risks and delivers few surprises. I'm not concerned with those formulaic elements that function as trademarks (protagonists who never die, Table 14 in the Brasserie Heininger in Paris with its mirror marked by a bullet hole, characters who reappear in different novels). It's more of an impression that he's started writing by the numbers -- filling in the blanks on a template because it works (at least in that it sells books). I still read everything he writes, because a mediocre Furst novel is better than the best efforts of 90% of best-selling novelists. I just want him to challenge himself a little more, to get out of his comfort zone and take some real risks as a novelist. The novelist who wrote The Polish Officer, Dark Star, Red Gold, and The World at Night is still in there somewhere, despite such mediocrities as The Foreign Correspondent. When I read Furst, I want to listen for the footsteps on the stair, to hold my breath while waiting for the knock on the door, to look anxiously over my shoulder at the black sedan crawling down a dark street -- I want to feel fear and to care passionately about what happens to people I feel I know. I want more than boilerplate scenarios translated from one European city to another. I don't want Furst to become another Bernard Cornwell, who keeps on churning out the prose after the creativity has died. One of the problems with success is that it encourages an inclination to repeat what works and a fear of failure that stifles creativity. In the meantime, I'll keep buying the books Furst writes in the hope that the fire has not gone out for good. The latest novel is better than a number of more recent ones, but it shows a few worrying trends, including talking down to the reader. I submit that anyone who needs the following explanation in the text shouldn't be reading a novel set in World War II: "'. . . the Geheime Staatspolizei.' An official title, the secret state police, simply one more government organization. But in Germany it was common usage to abbreviate this title, which came out 'Gestapo.'" I'd like to think this was the idiotic idea of an inexperienced editor. If so, one would think Random House could do better. Roald Dahl was one of the last pilots to fly in defense of Greece during the German invasion. His account of that experience could give Furst a few pointers about how to write a nail-biting, palm-sweating story about Greece as the Nazi night descended.(less)
Despite the author's nods to The Turn of the Screw and The Woman in White, she is no Henry James or Wilkie Collins. To be successful, a ghost story mu...moreDespite the author's nods to The Turn of the Screw and The Woman in White, she is no Henry James or Wilkie Collins. To be successful, a ghost story must be mysterious and evoke a proper eldritch atmosphere, be humorous, or play upon the sentiments of the reader. This poor attempt is not atmospheric (despite the looming omnipresence of Highgate Cemetery), not intentionally humorous (despite the bizarre reactions of characters to the various ghostly presences and the equally bizarre antics of the ghosts themselves), nor does it play successfully on the sentiments of the reader (which would require an impossible feeling of empathy for these cardboard figures pretending to be part of a story). I wanted to like the novel, but I kept thinking what a novelist like A. S. Byatt could have done with this material. I'm afraid the whole thing came off as a marketing piece for Highgate Cemetery, with the preservation of which the author is closely involved. The best thing about it is the pun in the title on the British pronunciation of "cemetery," although Blake would not be pleased to have his marvelous imagery associated with such a poor attempt at literature.(less)