A fascinating book about the "fierce people." The Yanomamö—a "demographically pristine" stone age population occupying a remote expanse of the OrinocoA fascinating book about the "fierce people." The Yanomamö—a "demographically pristine" stone age population occupying a remote expanse of the Orinoco straddling Brazil and Venezuela. The author spent 30 years with them and came back with robust comparative data that will never be equaled, since, the Yamamanö are now acculturated. That is, their violent but pristine way of life is now mixed irrevocably with that of our world.
Three quarters of the book is about the tribes themselves. Chagnon had to spend years in the field. He started by learning the Yamamanö language from scratch. Eventually, he would discover that it was without precedent. That is, without marked similarities to nearby languages. This suggests the Yamamanö are an exceedingly ancient people, having lived in considerable isolation, perhaps for millennia. Along with the New Guinea Highlanders, they were perhaps the last such pre-contact stone age people to survive into the twentieth century. And Chagnon worked with groups that had never before seen a white man.
There exists among the Yanomamö—a name taboo. Not only is it considered offensive to use the name of someone who has recently died, but even to call a living person by their name out loud is unseemly. Now try to imagine how this affected Chagnon, one of whose tasks was to gather genealogies and censuses. It makes for quite a story, especially when the tribe, the Bisassi-teri, which loved a good scatological joke, deceived him for months on end about the names he was collecting. Naturally, he was furious, but what could he do?
• "On one trip, again with Rerebawä as my guide, we were followed all the way from our canoe to the edge of the village by a jaguar, a walking distance of four hours"; • "The Yanomamö express distance by the number of 'sleeps' it takes to get somewhere"; • The Yanomamö technique of asphyxiating armadillo in their burrows and digging precisely where their quarry has fallen is an astonishing thing to read about; • "The most vile and vulgar insult you can utter in Yamamanö is 'Wa bei kä he shami!' ('Your forehead is filthy!') Any allusion to blemishes, warts, pimples, etc., on someone's skin, especially on or near the forehead, is potentially insulting."
Then there's the time when a monk from the Salesian Mission asks Chagnon—an atheist—to murder one of the mission's fellows, who, it has been discovered, has sired several children with a Yanomamö woman. Now get this, the proposed murder was seen by the monk, Padre Cocco, as a means of saving the Church from further embarrassment. The Salesians were evil, but Chagnon had to remain on good terms with them if he was to get his work done. The monks would take Yanomamö children downstream to mission encampments "...where they were put into dormitories, taught Spanish, and discouraged from using their own language. They were away from their parents and their villages for months at a time." Moreover, in the ongoing struggle to out perform the Protestant missionaries, the Salesians began giving the Yanomamö—a war-making people previously limited to bows and arrows—shotguns.
Noble Savages is also a book of searing, irrefutable truths, of reputations regained. A book by an author who underwent decades of smears. Here is the bottom line: Chagnon determined empirically that of the men in the many tribes he studied over decades, those who killed one or more enemies on raids, had almost three times greater reproductive success (more wives, more offspring) than those who did not kill. See the fascinating tables on pages 275 and 276.
This, Chagnon's biggest finding, connecting Yanomomö war-making with reproductive success started an academic war. For empirical proof that the Yanomamö went to war over women completely upset the anthropological orthodoxy of the day. That orthodoxy said that the "...theory of human behavior had no room for ideas from biology, reproductive competition, and evolutionary theory." That's right, the cultural anthropologists were anti-science! War in primitive societies, they decreed, had to be due to competition over scarce material resources or a reaction to the repression of the western colonial powers. To say otherwise was "contrary to the prevailing anthropological wisdom derived from Marxism."
Now imagine poor Prof. Chagnon. He was 28 at the time the first of his findings were published, and he faced a backlash from the "purists" who smeared him baselessly and who argued without evidence that he was wrong. But he was not wrong. He was correct. The Yanomomö did indeed go to war over women. Thus, the vast edifice of Cultural Anthropology as it was then defined went to war with itself.
How far could Chinese patriarchy go in the early twentieth century to make the lives of women sheer humiliation and misery? Here in Wild Swans we haveHow far could Chinese patriarchy go in the early twentieth century to make the lives of women sheer humiliation and misery? Here in Wild Swans we have that question tidily answered. This is a tale of the lives of three generations of Chinese women: the author, her mother and her grandmother. Author Jung Chang's grandmother had her feet bound—a hideously painful process undertaken solely so that some man might one day find her lustworthy enough to take as a concubine. The years-long process of foot binding—of smashing the toes with a rock and binding them under the sole of the foot—is thoroughly explained.
Author Chang's grandmother was thus encrippled and eventually traded off to a general of one of the factions vying for control of the country in 1920. All this so her wretch of a great-grandfather—Yang—could raise his own material status, buy land and accumulate concubines. I have read of stories purdah, the seraglio and Morman four-wiving, but never have I come across such a harrowing description of the degradation of women that I have found here.
Mind-numbing are the cruel stratagems of the concubines back at the family home to degrade Yang's first wife (Chang's great-grandmother) and freeze her out of her own home. I was aware of this social structure before through works by the writers Jonathan Spence, Anchee Min, Nien Cheng, Harry Wu and others, but never have I had such a vivid picture of how the first wife/concubine pecking order played out in the daily life of a Chinese family as I've had here. It is beyond belief.
Then in 1930, released from her bond of concubinage on the death of the general, the grandmother—whose name Yu fang translates as jade fragrant flowers—falls in love with a Manchu doctor, who is determined to marry her as his wife. This sends his large family into conniptions since it means Jade will have to be accorded reverence in line with the doctor 's strict Manchu standards of filial respect. And at 65 he is almost three times her age. Perhaps if it weren't for his wealth there would be less of a fuss, but a new wife has implications for the eventual distribution of his estate's assets. In protest one of his sons shoots himself dead. This act of greed—for the family is worried only about its own dispossession, nothing more—drives Dr Xia to divide his possessions among his sons and move to a shack on the outskirts of Jinzhou which is a cholera epidemic waiting to happen. Yet there, he and Jade and the author's mother find some happiness despite the fact that the doctor is penniless and must start at the bottom. And all of the above in the book's first 44 pages!
Next we learn of the horrors committed during the Second Sino-Japanese War—the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, in which Jinzhou is located. Dr & Mrs Xia are able to save a friend from the Japanese by befriending the prison garroter, Dong, who promises them not to strangle the man fatally, only partially, so he'll look dead enough to be transported to the foul-smelling communal grave at the end of town. There, the Xias extract him from a tangle of bodies—he's still breathing—take him home and nurse him back to health. This man, Han-Chen, later goes to work for Kuomintang intelligence where he procures a membership ID for Mrs Xia's son which allows him to avoid military service and keep working in the doctor's medicine shop where he's most needed. He even gets Dong a job. After the war there were so many saved by Dong from the Japanese reaper in this way that survivors pooled their monies and bought the former executioner a little house for his retirement. Heroism takes strange forms.
The Japanese were defeated in 1945 and the second and concluding portion of the Chinese Civil War resumed. The author's mother now turns out to be this capable community organizer on the Communist side. She distributes propaganda. The Nationalist bigwigs are seen as corrupt and lacking discipline. The Communists were promising the populace things they would never deliver on, such as the retention of personal property. In Jinzhou, the author says, the Communists were perceived as innovators who would make the lives of the people better. Another sneaky thing the Communists did, while the Nationalists were busy fighting the Japanese, they intensified their propaganda and brought the people over to their side. Anyway, as you may know, neither side comes out smelling like a rose.
Fascinating in the early going here with regard to Empress Maria Theresa and her machinations once named monarch to restore provinces snatched away byFascinating in the early going here with regard to Empress Maria Theresa and her machinations once named monarch to restore provinces snatched away by greedy usurpers. How dare Austria name a woman to lead their country. Well, Maria Theresa in time regained Bohemia, Moravia and part of Silesia after hard bargaining with the Hungarians for military support. Quite a story. This is the first I've read of this monarch's exploits and its proving entertaining. Maria Theresa, or some farsighted advisors, saw the importance of crushing some feudal institutions such as the robot, which gave the nobility control over the working lives of the peasantry, and the tax-free status of the nobles themselves. So, as the authors of Why Nations Fail would say, she decreased the "extractive" burden on the peasantry, believing they and the state would be far better off if they were left to promote their own self-interests. This "began to undermine the very logic behind traditional social hierarchies," i.e. feudalism. Moreover, after the loss of her most commercially active region, Silesia, to Prussia during the War of the Austrian Succession, she made Triest, Fiume and Brody all tax-free zones as a means of spurring trade. ...more
This is a spritely survey text. I admit that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it is so. Granted, the book becomes something of a slog aroundThis is a spritely survey text. I admit that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it is so. Granted, the book becomes something of a slog around the Middle Ages. But as a wise old historian once said to me, "It's hard to make the Middle Ages sing." So I give the author a pass there. I'm sure I knew most of this stuff thirty years ago, but with disuse it has fled from my memory. This is a stylish refresher. I was in thrall to the early Roman narrative with its Celts already on site, its Angles and Saxons and the subsequent overrunning of the island by Danes and Norwegians. (See clarifying note from Pete: "Us Celts were ensconced upon this sceptred isle long before Julius arrived c55 bc. What is more we remain the dominant dna & the popular white anglo-saxon protestant is a very rare find, more Vikinga dna than Saxon or Angle or Jute.") The story of the Norman Conquest was the first one I'd come across that did not induce torpor. Everything about the Angevin Empire was news to me. I had no idea that England had held such extensive possessions in France. Great Scot, the holes in my Anglophilia! Also very interesting has been the story of the nasty Puritans, Bloody Mary, wise Elizabeth and her court—perhaps England's greatest monarch, according to the author—Mary Queen of Scots and all the murdering and mayhem leading up to the so-called Glorious Revolution. I learned how Magna Carta, the first instrument between crown and the commons with regard to tenancy rights, eventually expanded to become the foundational document which made the idea of parliament possible. The burning of both Catholics and protestants was news to me, I had not known it was so extensive, as was the long, detailed back and forth between parliament (protestant) and crown (Catholic) with regard to religious questions. England did not entirely escape the madness of the Thirty Years War; it had it's share of bedlam, for the most part inspired by monarchs—Charles I (beheaded), James I and James II (permanently incapacitating nervous breakdown)—who wanted to take the largest protestant population in Europe and return it to Catholism. How's that for hubris?
To think it took just two days in 1959 to record this masterwork. Most of the players get a mini-biography. These are fine in the case of Miles Davis,To think it took just two days in 1959 to record this masterwork. Most of the players get a mini-biography. These are fine in the case of Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Cannonball Adderley, but too meager in the case of John Coltrane and all but nonexistent for bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb. The most interesting part of the book for me was the discussion of George Russell's "Lydian Chromatic Concept for Tonal Organization," a sophisticated modal theory of music which greatly influenced Miles, Coltrane's post-Miles work, Charles Mingus and much of the post-bop generation. With that single exception, though, I think the writing about the music itself is rather thin. But isn't this true of all music writing? Sure, one can convey something of the music's emotional effect, something of its reception and historical importance, even an idea of the labors involved in making it, but in the end it's all simulacra. One is reminded of sex in novels. Nor does the writing itself rise to a level of achievement consonant with its subject matter. That said, the book is a wonderful adjunct to the recording....more
What I most remember about this book is how it came out just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall and showed, by going through the Soviet Union's books,What I most remember about this book is how it came out just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall and showed, by going through the Soviet Union's books, that the empire was vastly underfunded and on the brink of collapse. President Reagan's role in all this was to dramatically increase the U.S. defense budget knowing full well the Soviets could not match him. Shortly before the crash, I remember the truest sign of that Empire's dissolution showing itself in the form of a coup d'état—supposedly in reaction to Gorbachev's reforms while he was on vacation in Crimea. It was led, if we can use that word, by small group of elderly, white-haired Red Army generals sitting at a table. A pathetic display. But author Shelton saw it all coming, making this volume one of the few bits of journalistic clairvoyance it has ever been my pleasure to come across. Before you knew, it was 1991 and the USSR was belly up. May we never see its like again....more
This posthumous volume may be the most emotionally satisfying of the three works comprising the trilogy, which describe the eighteen-year-old author'sThis posthumous volume may be the most emotionally satisfying of the three works comprising the trilogy, which describe the eighteen-year-old author's year-long journey by foot along the Danube in 1934-35. (The first volume was A Time of Gifts and the second, Between the Woods and the Water. See my reviews on both of these.) It's astounding we even have it. The editors have taken several of PLF's unfinished manuscripts and pieced them into a convincing semblance of a third volume.
This volume is a more ruminative book than its predecessors. He muses on the strange nature of memory. For only one of the many notebooks PLF scribbled in during his sojourn would be available to him decades later when he started to write. Perhaps because of this deficit, Fermor enters into imaginative flights that were less prominent in the first two volumes, where historical background seemed to anchor the story. Here first impressions reign more. In addition, there are discursions into the approach the writing should take that now lays before our eyes. Should PLF include information from later trips to these same areas, or not? He decides to do so and to disclose it to the reader. No doubt much of this rumination, and a few inapt metaphors, he would have cut had he seen the volume to publication himself. Editors Thubron and Cooper have had to be much more inclusive.
For example, there are admissions of joy in the lush appurtenances of the great homes he visits outside of Bucharest— their libraries, chauffeur driven cars, frequent lush feasts, etc.—the like of which never appeared in volumes 1 and 2. There the rich châteaux were described, yes, but never was there the level of swooning one gets here. Granted, he is coming off a long period of sleeping outdoors under his great coat, or in flea-ridden, undistinguished hovels, and lately the weather has turned cold so these creature comforts are no doubt more keenly appreciated. Then guilt descends:
Pricked by conscience about this sybaritic way of life a few days later, after being driven (yet again) to luncheon at a country club on the edge of Lake Snagov, some miles outside of Bucharest, I set out to return on foot.
Leigh Fermor was a beauty and a philanderer of extraordinary scope. This third volume seems much more relaxed with regard to the author's female companions than its predecessors. The depiction of Nadejda in the Bulgarian town of Plovdiv is, I think, without parallel in the previous books. This no doubt has much to do with the fact that those earlier books were published during the author's lifetime, when his lady friends and their husbands were still alive. Now with everyone conveniently dead, the editors—one is PLF's biographer—can be forthcoming with textual hints of his libidinous exploits, which, it should be noted, are nothing more than normal hotblooded sexuality.
The triliogy is, among other things, something of a tribute to the peacefulness of Europe even in the face of the Nazi threat of 1934. PLF comes across some strong opinions during his trek from Holland to Istanbul, largely on foot. These often appear in the text. His facility for learning languages on the fly here is astounding. Nothing, however, quite prepares the reader for the night in Tirnovo, Bulgaria, when word is brought to the café where PLF and his host are relaxing, that a Bulgarian assassin has just murdered King Alexander of Yugoslavia and his host, the French foreign minister, Louis Barthou. Everyone in the café, except PLF, erupts into joyous cheers and dancing. At no point in the trilogy up until now has anything so damning been revealed of any of the dozens of peoples the author chronicles. But the Bulgarians make their mark here for blatant xenophobia and nationalist myopia unparalleled even by the Nazis PLF meets in volume one. It's an obscene moment which reveals longstanding Bulgarian suffering for years of poor decisions in the realm of foreign relations. Her hatred of those states surrounding her is beyond the irrational. Greece and Romania and Yugoslavia were all apportioned slivers of Bulgarian land because of the latter's support of Germany in the first world war. She would make the same mistake in the second world war. As PLF puts it:
Bulgarians have a perverse genius for fighting on the wrong side. If they have been guided more by their hearts and less by their political heads, which usually seem to have lacked principal and astuteness in equal measure, their history might have been happier one. (p. 95)
It's interesting to compare francophile Bucharest, Romania, that PLF visits in October 1934—with its vigorous intellectual, artistic, literary and social life—with the dead city of the same name found in Saul Bellow's novel The Dean's December, crushed under the heel of Marxist-Leninist claptrap. Writing of the many wonderful people he'd met there, it was necessary for PLF to mention only those who had left the country or died. For to mention those still living in the country would have been to make them targets of the police state. See Herta Müller's astonishing The Land of Green Plums and The Appointment for an idea of what an unalloyed joy that can be.
PLF gives us the lowdown on the Pharnriots, a Hellenic people who brought the last vestiges of Byzantine culture to Romania after the capture of Constantinople in the late 1400s. This whole area, by the way, Bulgaria mostly, but also Romania and Hungary, faced repeated violent upheaval due to their geographical position as land bridge from Asia to the west. The Huns, Bulgars, Magyars, Pechenegs, etc. all came marauding through this area over a period of many centuries. In 1529, the Turks reached Vienna itself which they would continue to attack from time to time over the next 150 years, but never take.
The passes in the mountain barrier outside were perhaps the funnels through which, in 1241, the hordes of Genghis Kahn had swarmed to tear Europe to bits. (p. 193
What is lost in terms of polish and finish here is more than made up for by the sheer ebullience of the writing. I don't know of any writer who drinks in a landscape the way PLF does. I find the book's descriptive verve, especially toward the end when he is walking along the Black Sea—and later, too, in the Mt. Athos diary which closes the book—so vivid, so moving. When, after almost drowning in a tide pool, our traveler comes back out onto the beach, he discovers a cave sheltering shepherds (Bulgarian) and fishermen (Greek) next to a roaring fire. He is soaking wet and we shudder to think what might have happened had he not, to use his phrase, "struck lucky." In the warm and welcoming cave, there's plenty of slivo to go around and soon this engenders dances by two of the men, to vigorous bagpiping of all things. A table is clenched in one dancer's teeth as he whirls to a blur.
It's vivid stuff, though not always complete. The main deficiency being the much anticipated description of Istanbul, for which the Mount Athos diary is meant to serve as a kind of compensation. It doesn't quite fill the bill though, despite the interesting descriptions of the Greek Orthodox monasteries and their monks, since it's fragmented and tonally different from the rest of the book. Hence, the editors' fitting title....more