“Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered” by Peter S. Wells (Norton, 2008)

Barbarians to Angelsstarstarstar

Peter S. Wells, professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and author of The Battle That Shaped Rome and Barbarians Speak, takes on a bold new subject as he attempts to prove that the so called “Dark Ages” really weren’t that bad at all, but were a time for important trading, the long-term migration of different peoples, and that most of what we consider to know about the period from the fall of Rome in approximately 410 to the takeover of England by William the Conqueror in 1066 is actually not correct.

Wells begins with Late Antiquity and the fall of the Roman Empire explaining how this all came about and what state Europe was left in once Rome was gone.  But instead of painting the invading tribes as desecrating the relics of the once great empire, he creates a whole new canvas in revealing that the migration of foreign tribes and peoples in the former Roman Empire was a gradual one that took place while the Empire was still thriving.  There was not necessarily a “hostile takeover,” but a replacing of government with people who were not indigenous to the region and had lived there for some time.

Wells creates the same setting for the mass migrations of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from Western Europe to Britain as not an event that occurred within a hundred years, but something that took place over centuries.  The author attempts to prove all these findings which are quite contrary to common thought on the subject with photos and evidence of the regions apparently revealing that the migrating people had been there for a lot longer than thought, or in the case of the Anglo-Saxon migrations, that the populations were never that large to begin with.

The other part to Barbarians to Angels, according to Wells, is that the “Dark Ages” were not a return to an ignorant and primitive way of life for many, with the power lying in the hands of the church, but a time of life similar to that experienced during the Roman Empire, with extensive trading throughout the continent of Europe.  With this trading there would’ve been an exchange of cultural knowledge and education leading to better developed societies.

Peter Wells does an impressive job in revealing perhaps a different world and way of life for the people of the Early Middle Ages.  His failing lies in the amount of evidence presented, which may be partially due to the limitations in the length of the book, but may also lie with there simply not being enough evidence to help prove his point.  As a medieval historian, I’m not thoroughly convinced with the case he presents in Barbarians to Angels, however there are some very interesting ideas, with evidence that cannot be ignored.  The most sobering and perhaps convincing item is that of a bronze figure of Buddha that was crafted in northern India in the sixth century and was recovered in Helgö, Sweden, which leaves one at least contemplating the ideas expressed in Barbarians to Angels.

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Originally written on October 7th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Eric Clapton: The Autobiography” by Eric Clapton (Broadway, 2007)

Eric Claptonstarstarstarstar

Now out in paperback, the story of Eric Clapton’s life as written and told by himself is not necessarily a happy one, but it is one that is true to his life, as he recounts the moments when he wrote and recorded some of the world’s favorite songs.  He tells of the times he wrote and recorded the great songs like “Layla,” “Wonderful Tonight,” “Bell Bottom Blues,” and many more, as well as discussing his obsession with Pattie Boyd and the effect it had on his friendship with George Harrison.

Eric Clapton, like many British musicians, began life in a poor family with very little, the son of a builder.  Discovering the great music of the 1950s, he made it his goal at a young age to become a great guitarist.  Clapton’s career began slow, with his lack of money; his first guitars just weren’t that good and hindered his creativity, as well as his ability to teach himself to play.  Nevertheless, he began his playing in a time that was bursting with creative music talent, giving him many avenues to practice and improve.  From the beginning, Clapton was both a perfectionist with his music, and somewhat stuck up and arrogant about the sound he wanted.  He saw the Beatles as too commercial, looking for a purer and more complex sound.  This is why he spent little time with bands, going from one to the next like The Yardbirds, Cream, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, and Blind Faith.  And yet with each band he improved and became more popular in the eyes of the fans, developing the nickname “Slowhand” as well as the chant, “Clapton is God!”

At the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 70’s, Clapton was at a highpoint in his career, wealthy for the first time, and because of the period, took very heavily to drugs, alcohol, and smoking, and was soon a heroin addict.  While Clapton never really openly discusses why he became an addict for so many vices, he is upfront in revealing the disappointment his father always had for him in pursuing a career in music, as well as an awkward first sexual experience that led to many problems in his life.  In 1970, Jimmy Hendrix, a good friend and revered as a hero by Clapton, died from unexplained circumstances, but was known to be a very heavy drug and alcohol user.  The parallels were obvious to Clapton, but instead of swearing off everything, he went the other way and spent years depressed, constantly drinking and taking heroin.

Through the 1970s and early 80’s this addiction sadly continued with Clapton, even though some of his best music was written and recorded during this period.  Clapton is honest in saying that he cannot remember as much as he would’ve liked to of his life.  Going through serious rehab, he eventually stopped the drug abuse, but simply switched to alcohol and smoking.  The 1980s were a time in which Clapton spent most of the day drunk, and yet still managed to transcend the world of music in his guitar playing and writing.  It was not until the 1990s that he finally stopped drinking completely, as well as eventually ending his smoking habit.

It wasn’t until the late 90’s that Clapton found his current wife and admits that it has only been in the last ten or so years of his life that he has been truly happy.  This is visible in his music, with the album Pilgrim on through to the present; it is a more mature and happier sound, with less anguish, as if Clapton really is enjoying what he is doing in his life for the first time.

Clapton: the Autobiography is the life of Eric Clapton through his memories and thoughts.  It is a life of sadness, depression, heartache, alcohol and drug abuse.  In some ways it tarnishes the joy and happiness fans find in his music, when he cannot even recall recording a favorite song.  Nevertheless there is a silver lining and a happy ending that makes the reader realize that in the later years of his life, Eric Clapton is finally at peace with his past and enjoying the great music he continues to make.

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Originally written on July 26th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“San Francisco Giants: 50 Years” by Brian Murphy (Insight Editions, 2008)

San Francisco Giantsstarstarstarstar

As only a recent fan of the San Francisco Giants, I know of the 2002 World Series defeat, Barry Bonds’ race to reach and beat Hank Aaron’s homerun record, and the young and magnificent arm of the 22 year-old pitcher Tim Lincecum.  I know the names of the great Giants like Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Juan Marichal; but the period from the 1958 move of the New York Giants to San Francisco up to the end of the 1990s is a time I know little about.  Thankfully 2008 is the fiftieth anniversary of the San Francisco Giants, and to commemorate it a beautiful book has been published, written by Brian Murphy (a host for the KNBR sports radio station), celebrating the fifty years of San Francisco baseball history with the Giants.

The cover of San Francisco Giants: 50 Years captures the book perfectly with a split picture: on the top is Seals stadium, formerly a place for minor league baseball; it was where the new San Francisco Giants played their first games; at the bottom is the breathtaking AT&T Park, where the Giants currently reside.  A foreword from longtime fan Danny Glover takes the reader back to moments in Glover’s history as a little boy watching the greats play as Giants.  Brian Murphy then sweeps you back to the first days of the New York Giants gracing the streets of the city by the bay as the new San Francisco Giants.  Murphy uses a descriptive style that congers images in one’s mind of the history of this baseball team, not overloading the book with stats and numbers, but providing facts and details where necessary, informing the reader of the many great strides the Giants have made, as well as the crucial times they came within reaching distance of the World Series ring: in 1962 against the New York Yankees, in 1989 against the Oakland Athletics, and in 2002 against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Brian Murphy takes the readers through the many high points of the San Francisco Giants history, as well as the many low points.  There is the miraculous story of the pitcher Dave Dravecky, a star for the team until a tumor was found in his pitching arm, who after surgery and recovery returned to pitch one of his best games ever.  In the following game, he snapped his humerus bone, and eventually had to have his arm amputated.  The story of the great Bobby Bonds, as his son hung around the clubhouse and watched his father and godfather, Willie Mays.  The career of Barry Bonds who came to the Giants in 1993 and spent the next fourteen years smashing records and creating news goals for future players to reach.  And hints at possible future greats for the San Francisco Giants like Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, who pitched in the 2008 All Star Game at Yankee Stadium.  The book ends with a superb finish: an afterword from the great Willie Mays, as he recounts some of his memories as a Giant.

San Francisco Giants: 50 Years is a treasure for any sort of fan of the Giants bursting with photos, booklets featuring team photos and opening day lineups for all fifty years, along with an audio CD recounting fifty years of play-by-play highlights.  It is a book that will never spend long on the shelf, as readers will keep picking it up again and again, whether to look up a detail of history, check on a team member or stat, or simply to look at some of the greatest players the world of baseball has ever known.

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Originally written on July 26th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Bryson’s Dictionary For Writers and Editors” by Bill Bryson (Broadway, 2008)

Bryson's Dictionaries For Writers and Editorsstarstarstar

Bestselling author Bill Bryson has already amassed quite a career for himself with successful travel writing books like A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country, as well as books on literature and language like The Mother Tongue and Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, and even attempting to present a concise history of science with A Short History of Nearly Everything; Bryson now returns with Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors.

He admits in his preface that it is a personal collection, “built over thirty years as a writer and editor in two countries,” and that some of the obscure references and definitions may not be useful to many, like the name of the Sydney district Woolloomooloo, or that the residence of the Danish Royal Family in Copenhagen is the Amalienborg Palace. Nevertheless, Bryson addresses many of the common issues that make a writer hesitate – amoral or immoral? Effect or affect?  He dispenses with the dictionary’s phonetic alphabet, instead providing pronunciation help where necessary; as well as cross indexing so that in the example mentioned above, the entry can be found filed under both amoral and immoral for the writer’s and editor’s ease.

Bryson’s Dictionary is filled with innumerable references and spellings for authors, book titles, series, philosophers, scientists . . . you name it, making them even easier to find than looking up on the Internet.  Bryson also includes appendices of punctuation and its definitions, words ending in –able and –ible, a list of the world’s airports and their codes, the different currencies of the world, conversion tables, and an extensive glossary on grammar.

Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors is the ideal book for most people who do any sort of reading and writing, whether it is the freshman heading off for college for the first time, the freelance writer looking to get published, or the retired crossword addict looking for exact spelling at their fingertips.

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Originally written on July 11th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times” by Amy Goodman and David Goodman (Hyperion, 2008)

Standing Up to the Madnessstarstarstarstar

The award-winning and bestselling brother and sister team, Amy Goodman  (popular and successful host of the TV and radio show Democracy Now!) and David Goodman (an investigative journalist), authors of Static and Exception to the Rulers, return with Standing Up to the Madness.  The Goodmans strike out on a new path in aiming to not retread on the familiar ground of endlessly criticizing the Bush administration and its endeavors, but to report and record grassroots stories of people from across the country who have suffered under the current regime, and how they have fought back and gained some ground.

The stories in the book are grouped into subjects on how science is being threatened, schools and education being threatened, the war in Iraq, and simply “Standing up to the Madness.”  There is the story of Malik Rahim, a native of New Orleans who was there when Hurricane Katrina struck, and is still there now trying to rebuild the ravaged country and its torn and exiled people.  Rahim tells of the little help he has seen from the government, and what there remains now.  He also provides startling insights into the horrific acts of racism that are now commonplace in the ruins of the city.  But Rahim has started a charity group from scratch, Common Ground, that is now strong and increasing in size and popularity, providing aid and shelter to the many citizens of New Orleans that still have nowhere to call home.

Raed Jarrar, a US citizen originally from Iraq, tells the story of his being prevented from flying on JetBlue because he was wearing a T-shirt that read “We Will Not Be Silent” in both English and Arabic. Clearly it was because of the color of his skin, and with help from the original manufacturers of the T-shirt, he was able to make a stand for freedom of speech.  Librarians across the country tell their story of standing against the Patriot Act and its supposed allowance of turning over library members reading histories.  Psychologists speak out against the use of their members being used as litmus tests and decision makers when witnessing torture at Guantanamo Bay.  American soldiers back from Iraq tell the true story of what was really taking place in the Middle East, and why every day is another step in the wrong direction.

It is easy to criticize the Bush administration, but the authors of Standing Up to the Madness challenge the reader to do something other than criticize.  Through the voices and lives revealed in this book, one can see that change and justice is possible, and with an epilogue of advice and suggestions, it gives one fuel to begin the change that is necessary to make America the land of the free once again.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on July 11th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science” by Richard Preston (Random House, 2008)

Panic in Level 4starstarstarstar

Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Wild Trees, returns with Panic in Level 4, featuring six of his articles which have appeared over the recent years, in some form, in the New Yorker.  While the title refers to the highest level, Bio Safety Level 4 (BL-4), of biosecurity in the laboratory, the articles run the gamut of subjects from the number Π, to the search for the origin of Ebola, to a unique type of cannibal.

In Preston’s introduction, “Adventures in Nonfiction Writing,” he tells a story of the time when he was finally granted access to Level 4, offering description step by step as he is taken to the room where the suits are, each baring the name of its owner, and is handed a suit with no name; Preston takes this as a bad sign.  Inside Level 4, Preston observes these daredevil scientists who face the risk of infection and death as their day job, watching them investigate blood samples of a possible Ebola victim.  As Preston bends down to look into a microscope, the front part of his suit bursts open and Preston is rushed from the lab and checked for Ebola infection.  Since Panic in Level 4 has been written and published, Preston obviously survived his brush with one of the most lethal viruses ever discovered.

In “The Mountains of Pi,” we meet two brothers who live in a small apartment in New York and spend their time building supercomputers and furthering their research into Π and its possible pattern.  In “The Search for Ebola,” Preston travels to different countries in Africa, tracing the history of Ebola outbreaks to their original sources in an attempt to find the genesis of the deadly virus.  In other articles, Preston discovers a treasure-trove of wondrous trees in the most unlikeliest of places; as well as the finding of an ancient tapestry at the Metropolitan Museum that when turned over for repair, reveals a back side that has rarely seen the light, still in its original breathtaking detail.  In the final article, “The Self-Cannibals,” Preston educates the reader about the rare disease Lesch-Nyahn syndrome, where a single altered letter in one’s DNA makeup creates the occasional mental state that your limbs are out to attack you and must be stopped through self-cannibalism and self destruction.  Preston meets and becomes friends with sufferers of the syndrome, revealing a human side to this devastating disease, making the reader realize that even those these people are threatened by their very own body, they are still people just like you or I.

Preston seems justifiably proud about the fact that he seeks out the humanity in the difficult subjects he writes about, and in this way it is accessible and understandable to anyone, no matter your background.  Panic in Level 4 aims to not just educate the reader in some of the mysteries of this world, but also to reveal the complexity and incredible brilliance of the human species.

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Originally written on June 26th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Post-American World” by Fareed Zacharia (Norton, 2008)

Post-American Worldstarstarstar

Fareed Zakaria, author of The Future of Freedom, and editor for Newsweek Inter-national, offers up a sobering yet fascinating look at the possible future of the United States and its stake as the global superpower in the first half of the twenty-first century.  The Post-American World is part business, part political, part historical, and part sociological; as Zakaria analyzes how the United States has arrived at the state it is in internationally, and what the future holds for the two global giants of India and China on the horizon.

Zakaria begins by discussing how the United States – as well as its citizens – has continued to perceive itself, from the end of the Cold War to the present, as the sole global superpower and utopian democratic and capitalist nation by which the rest of the world should admire and follow suit with.  This is all too clear with the globalization of numerous American companies such as the McDonald’s and Starbucks franchises, which can now be found almost anywhere in the world, on every continent except Antarctica.  But in that time, the United States has lost uncountable jobs, manufacturing industries, and development institutions to other countries, which is now causing serious problems with unemployment and the cost of goods and services to the nation and its citizens.

Zakaria points out: “Generations from now, when historians write about these times, they might note that, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the United States succeeded in its great and historic mission – it globalized the world.  But along the way, they might write, it forgot to globalize itself.”

Coupled with this is the continued downfall and disinterest the rest of the world now has in the United States with the choices and decisions it has made.  “The world is moving from anger to indifference, from anti-Americanism to post-Americanism,” Zakaria says. And it is not until the United States fully comprehends this, that things will begin turning around and improving.

With the United States left in the wake of globalization, Zakaria turns the reader to the next two giants that will become the next so-called superpowers due to the variety and number of industries already situated within their borders, as well as the exploding workforce that is available at a much cheaper rate than the Western World.  Zakaria spends most of the book, with specific chapters each on India and China, giving their history and development over the centuries and how it is that they now stand at this brink to become the next superpowers.  He also offers sobering statistics in a world that is becoming more environmentally inclined: “Between 2006 and 2012, China and India will build eight hundred new coal-fired power plants – with combined [carbon dioxide] emissions five times the total savings of the Kyoto accords.”  And yet the growth in these countries is unstoppable and how is America to critique this when it is one of the largest contributors of carbon dioxide in the world?

In the last chapter, Zakaria addresses what the United States needs to do to become the once great shining nation it was.  “It needs to stop cowering in fear.  It is fear that has created a climate of paranoia and panic in the United States and fear that has enabled our strategic missteps.”  While at this moment in time, this seems more of a lesson for its government than its people, it is the last paragraph in The Post-American World that makes the most sense to the reader:

“For America to thrive in this new and challenging era, for it to succeed amid the rise of the rest, it need fulfill only one test.  It should be a place that is as inviting and exciting to the young student who enters the country today as it was for this awkward eighteen-year-old a generation ago.”

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Originally written on June 20th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.