“Field Notes From a Catastrophe” by Elizabeth Kolbert (Bloomsbury, 2007)

Field Notes From a Catastrophestarstarstar

In Field Notes From a Catastrophe – dramatic title aside – Kolbert, a staff writer for the New Yorker, offers readers not a telling off story about how the human race is steadily destroying the planet, but an up to date factual guide to the reality of the world.  Kolbert simply offers the details and facts from first hand sources which can only be taken as truth and harsh reality.

Split into two parts, the first, “Nature,” offers four case studies into different parts of the worlds on the state of global warming and how it is affecting that particular area.  Starting in Alaska where a scientific group researching the effect of the melting ice in the Arctic are for the first time unable to find a large enough iceberg and able to travel further north than ever before; on to the real world rising temperatures and its effects on the planet; to the melting glaciers of Iceland where life is changing for both the people and the animal and plant life; to an apparent evolution of a species of butterfly and toad in the last fifty years.  “Nature” serves as a solid foundation on the current state of the world, segueing to the second part, “Man,” where the realities of our role in the current state of the world is fully revealed.  Again, with little opinion or evaluation on Kolbert’s part, just the statement of facts.

It is in these last six chapters of the book that the reader sees how the planet has been changed, what history tells us, how this is a unique period in the history of the planet, and how exactly we are to blame for it.  Juxtaposed with this are the steps that are being taken around the world to try to change this, as Kolbert returns time and time again to the United States and the Bush Administration’s blind eye to global warming, the greenhouse effect, and rising global temperatures.  And when the Under Secretary of State for Democratic and Global Affairs, Paula Dobriansky,  is asked to respond to these presidential decisions that seem to be made against the advice of the scientists and the will of the people, the repeated response – much like that on domestic and foreign policy – is: “We have a common goal and objective . . . Where we differ is on what approach we believe is and can be the most effective.”

Elizabeth Kolbert makes the reality clear and unquestionable.  The facts are there, the sources for the facts are also there to be checked and confirmed.  All that’s left is to accept blame and do something about it.  The question is: by the time the world gets around to reacting on a global scale, will it be too late?  There seems to be a focus in today’s day and age on the now, the current generation.  This idea is no more prevalent than in governments and administrations.  There’s little forethought or prediction on the part of our children and grandchildren; on the future generations who will be born into a world worse than ours and will have to fight harder to get by.  It makes me sad and long for 2009, when hopefully big changes will be made.

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

Originally written on April 28th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome” by Susan Wise Bauer (Norton, 2007)

History of the Ancient Worldstarstarstarstarstar

The History of the Ancient World is Susan Wise Bauer’s first book of a four-volume series, as she attempts to recount a complete history of the world.  In this first tome, she covers humanity’s beginnings of civilization, as we changed our nomadic ways, on through the ancient world, up to Emperor Constantine and the fall of the great Roman Empire.  Weighing in at 860 pages, including notes and bibliography, it’s the most detailed and complete history of the ancient world I have ever read.

Bauer’s insight in bringing this lengthy but important time in history to the reader is through her system of not having a section of the book dedicated to each civilization or ruler, but in recounting a chronological history of the ancient world, taking a chapter with each civilization as they rise, prosper, and then fall.  In a time when history is not just about dates, conquerors, kings, and emperors, but pulling back and looking at the different regions on a wider scale, this book is indispensable  It is in this way that historians discover why certain things happen, and why certain people do the things they do: because they are related and dependent on all events and happenings in that part of the world, and not just their particular civilization.  Bauer does exactly this by telling everyone’s story concurrently with everyone else’s.  It’s a magnificent feat, not just from the reader’s standpoint in learning the history, but on an editorial scale also.  In this way, the reader’s sees that history isn’t just about one group conquering another for personal gain (though this is certainly a part of it), but humanity’s striving for an evolution of improvement.

Using obvious and clear chapter titles, along with a few sentences on what the chapter is about; navigating through this book is not a problem at all with these devices, as well as a lengthy and complete table of contents.  The book is split up into five parts: The Edge of History, Firsts, Struggle, Empires, and Identity.  In this way, Bauer is indicating the progression of humanity in the ancient world and making it clear what the reader should be taking from the book.  Her only failing is in most of the book consisting of the history of the ancient western world.  Leaving out the Americas – due to lack of historical evidence, I would presume – and leaving Africa for a later book; apart from the western world, Bauer also focuses on China and India, though not to the extent as with Western Europe and the Middle East.  While I’m certain there was a lot more going on in India, China, and Asia for the most part, Bauer presents at best a survey of ancient times in this part of the world.  Nevertheless, again she does an amazing job of covering each civilization in parallel, so that the reader knows what was happening in China, Asia, and Babylon during the rise of the Pharaohs in Ancient Egypt.  Bauer even goes one step further with tables at the end of each chapter which cover the events in that chapter, as well as those in the previous chapter, listing them side by side with a time-line.

The History of the Ancient World is a necessary encyclopedia for any amateur historian with an affection for the period, and with the countless maps and pictures throughout the book, it is also an ideal albeit lengthy book for those wishing to learn more about the ancient civilizations across the globe.  Now it is a case of impatiently waiting for the next volume in the series which will cover the Middle Ages throughout the world.

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

Originally written on April 5th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Spain in Mind” Edited by Alice Leccese Powers (Vintage, 2007)

Spain in Mindstarstarstarstar

Take a trip to the wonderful and historical country of Spain, but not just the Spain of the present day, but of the past century, and the century before; as seen through the eyes of such renowned writers as Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and many more.  Presented in an almost pocket-sized wonderful paperback edition and edited by Alice Leccese Powers, who’s previous In Mind series have been very popular; Spain in Mind is the ideal book for those thinking to travel to Spain, those who are traveling, or those who wish to know more and just want something easy and interesting to read.  The beauty of a collection of travel stories is that they can be read over short periods of time and enjoyed just as much as an entire travel book by one person.  This is not just a travel book about Spain, but a historical, political, critical, and anthropological book about the country that more and more people visit every year.

Having just come back from a week’s vacation in Spain, on the Costa del Sol, this book was an ideal companion for the long plane ride over, and during the week I was able to sample and experience many of the tastes and sights Spain has to offer according to Spain in Mind.  Calvin Trillin writes lengthy and descriptive about the famous Spanish peppers known as pimientos de Padrón which he only travels to Spain for, and eats in vast amounts.  Trillin has even tried growing the peppers in his native New Jersey, but so far has failed, and has to return to Spain often to satisfy his addiction.  On one family get together, I was able to experience these pimientos and while I don’t hold them in such high esteem as Trillin, it was wonderful to read about a famous dish and then be in Spain to try it for the first time.

I was born in Spain and spent the first eighteen years of my life there, before coming to California; I hadn’t been back in four and half years until this trip.  Alice Leccese Powers starts the book with a comprehensive and enchanting introduction that brought back all the memories of Spain for me, and will serve as an excellent introductory course to those having never traveled to Spain or simply not knowing much about the culture.  On the matter of the renowned Spanish siesta, Powers indicates that in this dynamic and modern world, it is still very much alive: “Although there are reports of the decline of the midday fiesta because of the pressures of modern life – commuting, two-family households, a bustling economy – it is still difficult to find an open pharmacy in Madrid in the middle of the afternoon.” I can attest to this with firsthand experience with regard not just to pharmacies, but to many different stores, even the parking!  Between two and three in the afternoon, parking is free in my hometown of Fuengirola, presumably because the meter maids are taking their siesta.

Sadly, bullfighting is still very much alive in Spain, with the colorful posters covering every bare space of public wall with the lionized torero or bullfighter shown in regal splendor.  Hemingway’s piece is of a long battle between two bullfighters in 1959 who challenged each other to kill the most bulls.  While it isn’t my cup of tea, the writing is of course Hemingway: uniquely described with brevity and accuracy.  Powers wonderfully balances this with a Henry James piece.  The author has this to say on the subject of bullfighting: “Yet I thought the bull, in any case, a finer fellow than any of his tormentors, and I thought his tormentors finer fellows than the spectators.”

George Orwell writes of the civil war and the part he played in it.  Barbara Kingsolver writes of the unique flora, fauna and way of life on the Canary Islands.  Chris Stewart, a one-time member of Genesis and now British expatriate, writes of his experiences in living on a farm in Spain.  There is even Rose Macaulay, traveling on her own by car in the 1940s – which was a rare thing – who does not seem to like Spain that much, choosing not to visit the tourist-clogged south, and voicing a distaste for many things; nevertheless providing a unique eyewitness account bursting with description and detail.

Powers also balances the prose with quite a few poems from e. e. cummings, Billy Collins, W. H. Auden, John Dos Passos, Langston Hughes, and Andrew Marvell.  While a map of the towns along with some photos of places and things described in the book would’ve improved Spain in Mind, it is a wonderful mixture of material covering three centuries from very different writers moving to or visiting Spain for many different reasons.  It is through their experiences in their writing that we experience the true life of Spain, not just in describing the places, but in these people living their lives there.  We see Spain through their eyes, and live Spain through their hearts.

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

Originally written on March 29th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandries” by Neil DeGrasse Tyson (Norton, 2007)

Dead by Black Holestarstarstar

An astrophysicist for the American Museum of Natural History, director of the world famous Hayden Planetarium, and columnist for Natural History magazine, Neil DeGrasse Tyson brings to the non-scientific world the ideal book for those fascinated with space, the cosmos, black holes, and all the questions and wonders therein.  Death by Black Hole is the perfect book for the reader who wants answers to questions about the universe in a simple and clearly defined way so that even if they know next to nothing about science and it’s jargon, Tyson makes it easily understandable.

While I was hoping for something a little more in depth in the style of Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos or Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics, Death by Black Hole nevertheless provides quick and simple answers to many questions everyday readers without a science background have about physics, the universe, space, and most matters dealing with the cosmos.  The book is a selection of his columns in Natural History that are organized in a somewhat textbook fashion.  Tyson starts with the idea of science and nature in its basic form, how humanity views Earth, the solar system, the universe.  Along with this discussion, Tyson also gives minor history lessons on the development of different ideas in physics and astronomy, which people came up with what big ideas and how the progression led to the development of the big theories of our current time with string theory and relativity.  Going on from here, Death by Black Hole addresses the crucial steps that led to the formation of the universe and its development over the many billions and billions of years, again explaining how it is that scientists know what they do and what instruments were used, as well as the history of who invented and used said instruments.

It is then that Tyson finally turns to the subject matter of the title of the book in the section “When the Universe Turns Bad: All the Ways the Cosmos Wants to Kill Us.”  Here he addresses the complex and still relatively unknown subjects of chaos theory, dark matter (which constitutes over 90% of all matter in the universe, while we still know next to nothing about it), and finally black holes.  Tyson takes the reader on a hypothetical journey with what would happen if one were to be sucked into a black hole and how as they approached the event horizon, they would become stretched until the elasticity point of their skin was surpassed and the body would be torn into thousands, then millions of little pieces.

With many questions now answered, in the next section Tyson discusses how science is viewed by the media, Hollywood, and people around the world in general.  The final section addresses the concept of science and religion, again taking the reader on a historic journey through the development of first religion, then science, and the struggle that has ensued for centuries.  It is the perfect end to a book on science, as Tyson lectures the importance of supporting fact and reality in a time when there are many who believe more in faith, even when all the evidence is to the contrary.

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

Originally written on February 3rd 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory” by J. M Adovasio, Olga Soffer and Jake Page (Smithsonian, 2007)

Invisible Sexstarstarstarstarstar

While the cover of The Invisible Sex indicates an interesting history book with its parchment design and implied cave painting of a woman, many may be deterred by the title and subtitle, thinking this a book championing the role of women only, pointing out chapter by chapter where all the men got it wrong in history.  This would be an error on the reader’s part.  The Invisible Sex is an amazing book that specifically charts humanity’s ancestry from the day when apes were the most evolved animals around, to some four to six thousand years ago when humanity settled down and began farming.  What makes this anthropology book different is that the authors point out the known history on a certain period in time and then reveal the evidence and push forward the correct interpretation of women having a much larger role in civilization than was previously thought.  Coupled with the up to date information and discoveries on our ancestry, The Invisible Sex is a great, easy to read book for any anthropology addict, or for anyone who wants to know what really was going on with our species over the last two million years.

Even though it is unclear which author is writing which chapters or parts, Adovasio, Soffer and Page are all working from their specific careers, drawing together their knowledge and talents to present a comprehensive meld of human history.  The book begins at our beginning with the discovery of Lucy in Ethiopia and why this was such an important discovery – as to whether Lucy is actually female or just simply a male of small stature, remains unknown.  While presenting a complete history of the Homo genus, they also take the reader through a history of the archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians who made the discoveries in the last couple hundred years.  It is here that the essence of the book is revealed, as the authors point out the assumed role of men always conducting the hunting and gathering while the women stayed in the hut or cave, looking after the children, and occasionally collecting the odd nut and berry.  Coupled with this is the image of the brave and strong cavemen/hunters taking down woolly mammoths and giant sloths and providing the tribe with food for weeks.  Coincidentally this ties in with the period in history when all the men were out working, bringing in the money, while the women stayed home, cleaning house and looking after the children.

They reveal the known history and then take it apart and go to the evidence, revealing what it says and what was really the dynamic of this time: that the men in fact weren’t killing woolly mammoths easily, providing all with bountiful meat, because the mammoth was the most feared animal around with its immense size and gouging tusks.  In all likelihood the hunting was done in a large group involving women, children and other family members.  They were not going after woolly mammoths and sloths, but were more focused on smaller animals like foxes, rabbits and other animals of similar size.  Using large nets, they would scare these animals out from hiding, catch them in the nets, club them to death and then have a large supply of meat for some time.

The authors don’t hold back, revealing all the prevalent theories on what human species was the first to leave Africa, for example, and discuss their own theories.  In some cases there is disagreement between them, such as over the development of language as to whether it was a quick or slow development.  The reader can’t help but get lost in the details and ideas being thrown around, one of the most interesting being that the initial stages of language developed with the relationship between a mother and her baby, possibly communicating in “motherese.”

The Invisible Sex is a combination of books held together in one volume: there is the history of humanity covered from its early evolutionary stages as these ape-like creatures decided to start walking upright, to ideas on how language and then writing developed, to reasons for people ending their nomadic ways and beginning long-term farming; then there is the book where the role of women in prehistory is put straight, complete and clear for the first time, revealing that women had a far larger role than previously thought, and were in fact incremental in a lot of events in history that may never have happened had they not played such an important role.

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

Originally written on February 11th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

The Role of Wome in Prehistory

“Saxons, Vikings and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland” by Bryan Sykes (Norton, 2006)

Vikings, Saxons, and Celtsstarstarstarstar

Bryan Sykes, author of The Seven Daughters of Eve and Adam’s Curse, professor of human genetics at Oxford university; has spent many years of his life studying genes, chromosomes, and DNA, specializing in collecting data from all over the world and tracing ancestral lineages back thousands of years.  Sykes was one of the instrumental geneticists in tracing all Europeans back to seven ancestral women.  From this, Sykes now takes on the challenge of determining the ancestry of the British Isles.  How much Saxon, Viking, and Celtic DNA is left in a modern day Englishman?  Saxons, Vikings, and Celts is a bold and ambitious embarkation that reveals the astounding results of Sykes many years of study; while the facts may present more questions of why than answers, Saxons, Vikings and Celts is one of the most important books of the twenty-first century.

Do not be daunted by the prospect of pages of DNA statistics, Sykes goes out of his way to break everything down and explain it in a detailed and simple way; he even warns the reader before the “part with all the numbers.”  Saxons, Vikings, and Celts apart from being a book about DNA and genetics of the British Isles, is also an amazing source for history.  The first chapter is spent setting the scene with Sykes’ career and research.  Chapter two is one of the most brilliant summaries of British history: from the end of Roman rule, through the history of King Arthur, past each important monarch, on to the present status quo; Sykes has an innate ability for explaining things in a way that make their connections obvious to everyone.  The next few chapters are spent explaining his process for collecting the genetic data throughout the British Isles, first with blood samples from schools and blood banks, and then with plastic brushes that are scraped on the inside of the cheek to get skin samples  — an easier method better received by the people donating their samples.  Sykes then dedicates a chapter for each country covering it’s history of immigration with Celts, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans, with successive chapters covering the genetic correlation of these specific countries.

The last five pages of the book are what the reader has spent the last two hundred and fifty pages reading to get to; here Sykes correlates all the data together and explains the results, which are astonishing to say the least.  They essentially boil down to this: the genetic makeup of the British Isles mainly consists of the Britons and Celts who have lived there for thousands of years, while the invading Saxon, Viking, and Norman people are but a minor percentage of the total.  What does this all mean?  Sadly, Sykes doesn’t really explain this at all – perhaps he is saving it for another book? – nevertheless, the reader is left coming up with his or her own ideas of what these results mean.  Were the invading peoples not that great in number?  Did they not actually settle in such large numbers, as we think?

While Saxons, Vikings, and Celts may not answer every question you have, the facts that it brings to light with the irrefutable certainty of DNA evidence are enough to spend many years contemplating.  Sykes has even started his own company, Oxford Ancestors (www.oxfordancestors.com), where one can sign up and with a sample can have their DNA traced through ancestors who lived, walked, and breathed thousands of years ago.  For those seeking more facts and answers from Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, they should visit www.bloodoftheisles.net.

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

Originally written on February 3rd 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.