Somewhat interesting, and the material was well-presented, but I'm rating it as "okay" because it lacked the wow-factor that I look for in books likeSomewhat interesting, and the material was well-presented, but I'm rating it as "okay" because it lacked the wow-factor that I look for in books like this.
If you're looking for a survey of research showing that the human mind is more of an interpretive tool than an objective perceiver, this is a good book to have on hand. ...more
I liked this well enough that I've now purchased another of Hutton's books.
The edition I picked up was published in 1993, and be warned: much of it rI liked this well enough that I've now purchased another of Hutton's books.
The edition I picked up was published in 1993, and be warned: much of it reads like a catalog of archeological finds. Many pages are little more than dry lists of bones, grave goods, pottery bits, and talismans dug up from tombs, monuments, and ruins.
Don't ask me why I liked reading all that stuff, but I did (I'm an off-the-scale dork, I suppose?) And in any case the payoff is Hutton's analysis of the archeology and the scholarship that's accompanied it.
(Also, as I think about it now, the fact that he seems to have considered every single tomb, monument, ruin -- along with all the relevant written materials, both academic and lay, historical and contemporary -- contributes to the sense that he's extremely careful and judicious when it comes to the analysis. It gives his analysis weight.)
And much of his commentary consists of his conclusions about what we *don't* know, which was refreshing. He refrains from speculation, but instead states frankly that the evidence is often so slight and lacking in cultural context that we have no idea what it means.
He's also amusing when he turns his attention to other peoples' speculation -- or worse. One example is the 19th Century forgeries of Edward Williams; Williams invented a mystical Druidic tradition and attributed it to prehistoric Welsh pagans. "By the time of his death," Hutton writes, "he had achieved the romantic's highest goal, of having his dream taken as reality by others." (Ah, that's so my goal, too!!!)
An awful lot of what modern people think of as paganism, Hutton would argue, is also the dreams of romantics. Poke around the interwebs and you'll find that some people are pretty unhappy with him about that. He argues that there's no credible evidence that humans passed through a peaceful, harmonious, Goddess-centered period, for example (according to Hutton, scholarship that proposed this in the 19th and 20th centuries has since been soundly refuted). That's earned him enemies. He also sees no real evidence for other supposedly pagan notions that are taken seriously in some quarters today, such as ley lines.
For all that, he strikes me as hugely sympathetic to contemporary pagans. He's honest about traditions that he thinks have no roots in pre-historical culture, but he's respectful of them for what they are.
Recommended for anyone interested in a clear-eyed review of what academics up through the early 90s believed to be true of ancient pagan culture. ...more
One of the other books I'm reading right now (and no, it's not on my shelf; I've given up trying to keep my GR shelf up-to-date, I'm too impulsive inOne of the other books I'm reading right now (and no, it's not on my shelf; I've given up trying to keep my GR shelf up-to-date, I'm too impulsive in my reading and I read too many books at a time) is "Clear and Simple as the Truth," by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner. It's a book about a writing style they call "classic."
Classic prose, they write, "is pure, fearless, cool, and relentless. It asks no quarter and gives no quarter to anyone, including the writer ... human beings are not pure, fearless, cool, or relentless, even if we may find it convenient for certain purposes to pretend that we are. The human condition does not, in general, allow the degree of ... certainty that the classic writer pretends to have ... But the classic style simply does not acknowledge the human condition ..."
The Highest Alter is *not* an example of classic style.
On the contrary, it's a bit of a mess.
I do not mean that pejoratively however.
Tierney got involved in this human sacrifice business as a journalist; he was sent to do a story about an Incan child sacrificed on a 17,780-foot-high mountain in Chile.
He ends up learning about and then chasing down a number of stories of 20th Century human sacrifice in Argentina, Chili, and Peru. And there's a real bull-in-the-china-shop feel to his story. He barges into these indigenous communities ("It rubs me the wrong way to have a gringo come here and ask me about that," one man responds when Tierney questions him) and tries to get the local tribal leaders and shamans and victims' family members to confess to acts that Tierney himself finds horrifying. More than horrifying. Also culturally and psychologically inexplicable. "I couldn't shed my desire to civilize the natives," Tierney remarks at one point. "In my ideal world they would all have become teetotaling vegetarians who practice yoga."
He narrowly escapes with his life on more than one occasion, whether it's because he's caught in a blizzard on a mountain peak or because he's insulted or riled the locals.
The result is hugely peculiar. Tierney eventually realizes that human sacrifice is a fairly common practice in certain regions of the Andes. He also slowly, gropingly begins to place it within a larger religious context. Human sacrifice is a tool these cultures use to deal with fear and uncertainty and the lack of control that marks human existence everywhere. Victims are turned into demi-gods, intermediaries between this world and the next; they're worshipped and supplicated. It's a sacred practice. Horrifying, but sacred. But how do you write about that when you also view the practice as murder -- bloody murder, literally (while ancient Incan sacrifice victims were probably drugged and killed relatively gently via exposure, which accounts for the relatively peaceful posture and facial expressions of Andean mummies, today's victims often die neither quickly nor happily).
The only way Tierney could learn anything about these practices was to become close to their practitioners. This puts him into a morally ambivalent position. He not only consorts with murderers. He also recognizes that he's exploiting illiterate native South Americans for selfish reasons (so he can write an Important Book and be lauded for it). And he finds himself feeling pity for people who commit these crimes, because they are in a sense drafted into the role by their communities. If a bloodthirsty god has sent a devastating earthquake and tsunami that is killing people around you and wiping away their homes, and you're a local shaman, you gotta do what you gotta do, right?
This is hugely tricky territory. And so, to get back to the notion of how content and style interplay: it's no wonder much of the book seems somewhat disorganized. Tierney is reporting what he learned, but also trying to make sense of it, and he's part of the story -- he's complicit in it. At times he literally repeats points he's made earlier, like you do when you're keeping a journal and there's some insight you can't quite internalize, so keep returning to in your life.
Tierney closes the book with several chapters that shift the action away from contemporary South America entirely, and instead examine Western Judeo-Christian practices and beliefs. In some respects, these are the most coherent chapters of the book -- because here, Tierney is dealing with theories and analysis and scholarship instead of children getting their limbs hacked off.
What he proposes is certainly fascinating.
Human sacrifice was practiced by every single pre-historic culture in every region of the world.
Somehow, certain cultural traditions managed to render it taboo.
I've personally formulated a fresh new notion of human evolution since reading this book. We became humans, instead of animals, when we began practicing human sacrifice.
We started to become something else again when we stopped.
But we haven't stopped entirely. The Highest Alter was published in 1989. I doubt the practices Tierney investigated have disappeared since then ...
Highly recommended for anyone interested in history, paganism, ancient religion -- or what it means to be human.
The Hammer Conspiracies is an out-of-print semi-fictionalized history of mob activity in Rochester, New York in the 1This book is hugely hard to rate.
The Hammer Conspiracies is an out-of-print semi-fictionalized history of mob activity in Rochester, New York in the 1970s. It covers the events that follow a mafia hit; in the aftermath of the murder, local and federal authorities managed to turn a couple of mobsters, which allowed them to identify and prosecute suspects in a number of formerly-unsolved crimes including murder and arson. The resulting power vacuum triggered a mob war. And to cap it off (ha ha ha) some of the Rochester detectives involved in the case apparently got a little too zealous; they presented testimony that could not be substantiated and were themselves tried for perjury. Convicted, got wrist slaps.
The problem with rating the book is that the combination of Aloi's style and the way he presents the information makes it a slog to read. His style is noir-influenced: lots of sentence fragments. He tends to do thing like shove dialogue from multiple people into single paragraphs (sometimes with quotes, sometimes not) so you don't have visual clues as to who's saying what or where the story's going. And (my biggest beef) he continually throws multiple people at you at once. If I was going to seriously absorb all the intricacies of these events from Aloi's telling, I would need a spreadsheet of the people, and I'm not joking. I bet there are 200 people in this book. Names names names constantly coming at you with no clues as to whose story you should be paying attention to at any given moment.
The thing is, story-telling is hard, and story-telling that requires you to shape actual events is probably even harder. You have to identify the themes and conflicts and arc, and you have to work all that in right from the beginning so readers know "what this story is about." Aloi doesn't do that. The experience of "reading" this book is therefore an awful lot like "reading" an encyclopedia (remember those?) -- a flat sea of information that you somehow have to sort as you paddle along.
So why give it 4 stars? Because what Aloi did do, and hats off to him for this, is capture an incredible amount of information about a fascinating period in Upstate New York history -- and that makes this book a treasure. And this is first-hand info. He talked to these guys -- mobsters and cops, many of whom are now dead. Seriously, hats off to him. He knew it was important to capture these things and he did it.
Sad that it's out of print. I borrowed a copy from the Rochester public library, a paperback that's falling apart.
There are a few copies for sale around the interwebs. They go for over $100.
It would be nice if someone brought it back out.
It would also be nice if someone used it as source material and developed a new history of that era. There are plenty of people still alive today who remember these events and characters. But they won't be around forever...
Recommend this book to anyone who wants to do research on 70s era mafia or Rochester, NY history. ...more
If I'd read it when I was in my teens or early twenties, I'm sure I would have thought it was The Best BooThis book is enormously hard for me to rate.
If I'd read it when I was in my teens or early twenties, I'm sure I would have thought it was The Best Book Ever Written.
And there's so much to like about it today. Heinlein is a fantastic writer. The scenes are vivid, the characters are vivid, and the book fairly thrums with Heinlein's intelligence.
And yet, and yet ;)
I can't really give it four or five stars.
Part of the problem is that it feels dated. This happens for two reasons. The first, and less problematic, issue is that when Heinlein wrote the book, the time setting he chose was probably pretty close to "early 21st Century." I.e. now.
There's actually a clue about the time setting in the book. Jubal (who is arguably the novel's main character, despite Stranger nominally being the story of Michael Valentine) reflects at one point on what it was like when cars first replaced horses -- i.e. he remembers when that happened, in his childhood. So he was presumably born in the early part of the 20th century. He's now an old man, but not nursing-home-old. So: maybe in his 80s or spry 90s? Which would suggest that Heinlein was imagining a world around the turn of the 21st century.
Other clues are in the kind of technology that Heinlein imagines. That's actually kind of neat. Imagine if we had today's technology but we got here without the microchip. It's almost steam-punky in feel: future tech and quaintly retro at the same time. Flying cars ... but no Internet.
The other aspect of the book that makes it feel more dated is--for me, anyway--a bit harder to overcome. Without including any bona fide spoilers: the hero of the novel establishes a new religion, and assuming it reflects Heinlein's ideas about sexuality and relationships, the guy believed that if we could just ditch our sexual repression and hang-ups about being naked, we'd all be sooo much happier.
Oh, so wincingly 60's...
Coincidentally, I happened to watch the 1969 movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice last weekend, around the same time I was finishing Stranger. In the movie, directed by Paul Mazursky, Bob (Robert Culp), a documentary filmmaker, and his wife, Carol (Natalie Wood) attend an Esalen-Institute-like group therapy retreat and emerge convinced of the virtues of a free love approach to marriage and friendship. To watch it is to peer into a time capsule containing all the failed moral conceits of the late 1960s.
The parallels between the movie and Heinlein's Stranger are uncanny. In both movie and novel, you have people who believe Free Love is a big part of The Answer.
The difference is that while Mazursky presented his character's experiences as bewildering and painful (which is to say realistic; nobody can really accept adultery as benign and "beautiful" just because he or she attended a retreat and punched a pillow), Heinlein idealized his character's sexual-spiritual evolution to the unflinching and wide-eyed end. His characters have spontaneous sex, they're back in The Garden, they get happier and happier, they reverse aging, even death doth lose its sting.
But then, Heinlein had a device at his disposal that Mazursky did not: a magical personage, this Michael Valentine.
Speaking of whom: I doubt I'm the first person to observe this, but guess what. Stranger in a Strange Land is actually a retelling of the New Testament, as surely as C.S. Lewis' Aslan is Christ.
As a writer, myself, I'm a bit in awe of anyone who attempts such a thing.
How do you make an interesting story about a guy who is ... perfect?
Answer: you make the story not about Mr. Perfect but about the people who are affected by him.
The climax is still bound to be awfully hard. Which suggests what is to me the final issue with Stranger. Heinlein left himself only one way to bring the plot to a climax, and it's not one I found particularly satisfying.
I'm definitely glad I read the book. It deserves to be read, IMO. Particularly by young people.
And don't get me wrong, it's a highly entertaining read. So recommended if you admire excellent writing, and definitely if you are interested in 60s-era pop culture. ...more
In his essay "Tree and Leaf," JRR Tolkien observes (with great regret) that the Victorians trivialized the whole notion of "Fäirie."
Fairies and elvesIn his essay "Tree and Leaf," JRR Tolkien observes (with great regret) that the Victorians trivialized the whole notion of "Fäirie."
Fairies and elves were turned into mild, safe little characters, "flower-fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae that I so disliked as a child, and which my children in their turn detested." And as a literary category, fairy stories were relegated to the nursery room: "in recent times, fairie-stories have usually been written or 'adapted' for children."
Tolkien did not view this as a positive development, to put it mildly. "Fairy-stories banished in this way, cut off from a full adult art, would in the end be ruined," he wrote. "Indeed, in so far as they have been so banished, they have been ruined."
Well: had Tolkien cracked open "Seneca Indian Myths," he'd have been as delighted as I am to find story after story gloriously un-ruined.
By way of background, these stories were collected by Curtin on behalf of the Smithsonian in 1883; the volume was originally published in 1922.
The beauty of the stories is that Curtin transcribed them, rather than interpreted or re-told them. He didn't Westernize them; he most certainly didn't try to turn them into nursery tales.
If you're at all a fan of fairy tales, you're probably aware that older versions of our familiar European tales are often bloody and violent -- more Stephen King than Disney. You'll find that same matter-of-fact brutality in this collection. People chop each other up, cannibalize unsuspecting victims, wager and lose their lives in magical games. Reading them, you peer into a time when people lived closer to the idea of death than we're accustomed to, today, with our sanitized health care and the hands-off way we manage the dying.
The stories are also shot through with magic -- with the fantastical. The characters are all "people" but only a handful could be considered human: most are animals, or natural phenomena (Meteor, Whirlwind), or mythical figures and monsters (the Stone Coats, Flying Heads, Ancient Bear, Half of Anything). Yet they talk like people and behave in many ways like people--so to read these stories is to partake, however imperfectly, in the notion that all things in the world are living ... that consciousness is not exclusive to human beings.
How marvelous is that?
And -- maybe best of all -- the stories' structure has more in common with the convoluted, surreal world of dreams than what we people acclimatized to Western literature recognize as fictional narrative. There are lessons in these stories: punishments and rewards. But the stories are apt to take strange twists along the way. The story Okteondon and His Uncle, for example, begins with Okteondon (Root) as a boy. He lies down at the foot of an elm tree and becomes encased by the trees roots, where he lives until he's a grown man, fed and watered by his uncle. Then, just when you think this is what the story is "about," Okteondon breaks free (tipping the tree over) and begins a fresh adventure -- a heroic quest to defeat a Maneater who has captured his brother, sister, and uncle.
I first discovered this collection many years ago, when I was in college. It was at the time out of print. I was so pleased when I learned that Dover republished it in 2001. It is truly a treasure; this is one of my most prized books.
That said, there doesn't seem to be a lot of information about the collection online.
Not only that, the bits about Curtin that have found their way onto the interwebs gives us some interesting things to chew on: specifically, via Curtin's Wikipedia entry, the man is accused of butchering his translations of Polish novels. The entry quotes H.B. Segel, writing in 1965, as saying that Curtin mistranslated the Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz due to "carelessness, uncritical reliance on dictionaries, and ignorance of Polish idiom, culture, history and language."
Eek. That's pretty brutal stuff, and one can't help but wonder if Curtin's work with the Seneca stories could be tainted by the same weaknesses. According to the 3-page "Note" prefacing "Seneca Indian Myths," for instance, Curtin learned the Seneca language in four months (!). Is four months really enough for any man -- no matter how intelligent -- to master a foreign language, particularly one with completely different linguistic roots, sufficiently enough to faithfully translate 500 pages' worth of oral folklore?
On the other hand, another collection of Seneca stories, titled "Seneca Fiction, Legends and Myths" and gathered at about the same time, was published under the names of Curtin and J.N.B. Hewitt -- and Hewitt's credentials in this area are a given. He was a Tuscarora (the 6th Iroquois nation), was also employed by the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of Ethnology, and made many contributions to collecting and preserving information about Iroquois culture and customs.
One could *perhaps* assume that if Curtin were running around botching Seneca translations, Hewitt wouldn't have let his own work be in any way associated with the man.
Interesting questions though, aren't they?
And by the way, if you really want your mind blown, hunt down a copy of Hewitt's two-volume Iroquois Cosmology. I promise you: it's no nursery rhyme...
I recommend "Seneca Indian Myths" to anyone interested in Folklore, Native American Culture, the history of New York State -- or "real" fairy stories ;) ...more
I had never read the entire work before, only the first act (the Gertrude part, back in college IIRC).
ThSo pleased I purchased this edition of Faust.
I had never read the entire work before, only the first act (the Gertrude part, back in college IIRC).
Then I tried to re-read it several months ago, but struggled. This is not an easy book under any circumstances, and the translation I tried previously seemed stilted and difficult to follow. Got a little way into Walpurgis Night and my eyes started to cross ...
Then I found this edition, and what a pleasure. The translation (Walter Arndt) is much more accessible. I also really appreciated the interpretive notes by Cyrus Hamlin -- they're extensive, around 150 pages, and helpful in so many ways -- everything from providing context to insight on the text's symbolism. I honestly felt like I was in a college lit class, being "taught" the book by someone who knows it inside and out. But no having to worry about writing a paper at the end :D
I also enjoyed the critical essays that make up the final 3rd of the book, except for the ones at the very end by the contemporary scholars. Good grief, can we get any more abstract, fellas?
I'm actually noodling the idea of writing my own version of Faust; that was part of my motivation for picking this up in the first place. But those plans are backburnered for now -- the scale of Goethe's version is so epic I'm pretty much overawed.
Maybe once I've digested it for a while ...
Highly recommend to anyone who loves the classics and/or wants a nice mental stretch.
Giving this three stars for purely subjective reasons.
The book is on the whole very good: a mix of memoir and advice from someone who has made it bigGiving this three stars for purely subjective reasons.
The book is on the whole very good: a mix of memoir and advice from someone who has made it big and wants to share some of the things he learned along the way.
Where it fell apart for me was when he started talking diet. Adams jokes that you shouldn't take diet advice from a cartoonist. That should have inoculated me against reacting the way I did, but alas, it didn't. The problem is threefold: dietary success is based on a staggering mix of variables; the odds that any given reader will actually be helped by copying what Adams does is staggeringly small; and the odds that Adams' advice will run counter to any given reader's personal experience is staggeringly large.
Which is what happened with me. So I ended up skimming and skimming to get past the diet-y stuff. Which left me feeling disappointed -- like I'd only gotten two thirds of a book.
That said, the material Adams shares about things like using systems instead of goals is very interesting and worthwhile to consider. So I'd recommend the book as a bit of pleasant New Year's Resolution-type reading. Just be prepared to discover that -- unless you want validation for vegetarianism and fear-of-the-fat-in-cheese -- there will be some throwaway chapters toward the end. ...more