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