“Empires, Wars and Battles: The Middle East From Antiquity to the Rise of the New World” by T. C. F. Hopkins (Forge, 2007)

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With little end in sight to the United States’ protracted stay in the Middle East, it’s important to understand the history of this crucible of civilization.  T. C. F. Hopkins, author of Confrontation at Lepanto: Christendom vs. Islam, gives us Empires, Wars, and Battles, providing a short but detailed history of the Middle East beginning with the settling of civilization, when towns and cities were first formed long, long ago.  It’s not really surprising that the birthplace of civilization remains a very important location for today’s world.  Empires, Wars, and Battles serves as an excellent short history book into the past of this renowned but relatively unknown place in the world.

The book is only split into five chapters covering over two hundred and fifty pages.  Hopkins presents the reader with a lot of information that is not very well divided: “The Ancient World,” “The Roman Period,” “Byzantium and Islam,” “The Rise of the Ottoman Empire,” and “The Ottoman Century and Beyond.”  Because centuries of history and events need to be covered in these chapters, the book would have been more approachable if the chapters had been parts, with further chapter divisions.  It is a nonstop narrative of information given to the reader in each chapter, leaving them overwhelmed to say the least.  Nevertheless, for those looking for an  informational download to be quickly read who already understand the cultures somewhat already, this is the ideal book.  Also, as overbearing as it may, Hopkins, in this way, presents the history with dates and battles from this group to that group, from the Hittites and the Huns and the Mongols, all in different locations with different intentions.  This is a relatively accurate portrayal of the confusing way of life that existed in southwest Europe and the Middle East during this time.

While my hope with Empires, Wars, and Battles was that Hopkins would link events and occurrences of the past with explanations for the situation at the present, there is only a sentence or two here and there that tries to link with what today’s Middle East is like.  But Hopkins goes on to say that Empires, Wars, and Battles serves more as a companion book to Confrontation at Lepanto, which when both are read will no doubt provide a clearer picture on the enigmatic Middle East with its different cultures and faiths.

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

“1000 Places to See in the U.S.A. and Canada Before You Die ” by Patricia Schultz (Workman, 2007)

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When travel writer Patricia Schultz published 1000 Places to See Before You Die on May 22nd, 2003, she expected the book to do relatively well like her other travel writings.  She has written for Frommer’s, Berlitz, and Access travel guides, and has published articles in Condé Nast Traveler, Islands, and Harper’s Bazaar: a fairly accomplished travel writer in her field.  This was the general idea for bookstores also: 1000 Places would do relatively well being a travel book and an original idea.  No one predicted an amazing, bestselling success; one of the top gifts for Christmas of that year; and an unstoppable expansion into new uncharted territories: a calendar, a TV show, a registered trademark, a soon-to-be information-filled website (www.1000beforeyourdie.com), and an idea that will spawn countless sequels, such as Shultz’s latest release 1000 Places to See in the USA and Canada Before You Die, released almost exactly four years later.

What makes this new book unique for Americans and Canadians is that there is at least one chapter (if not more) in this book that each person will know very well, for it is about where they live.  They likely will know the big tourist spots, the areas one must visit, and the locations that are known worldwide; these are all included in 1000 Places to See in USA and Canada Before You Die.  However, Schultz takes you further with short detailed articles on areas you may never have heard of, even if you live in that particular area.  I live in California and have for some time.  I’ve seen a lot of the popular locations Schultz mentions: Alcatraz Island, Catalina Island, Yosemite, and the Mission Santa Barbara; but on reading this chapter I was thrilled to discover new locations I’d never heard of within California, such as Ojai, a delightful town located north of Los Angeles, as well as the annual Festival of the Arts, held in Laguna Beach each summer.  Included in this chapter on California are also articles on popular restaurants for both Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Schultz takes you on a journey through every state of the country, and every province in Canada, providing the reader with valuable information that doesn’t take up that much room.  Each article is a couple pages long and ideal for reading in a brief space of time, say, waiting for a train or plane, or taking a cab ride across a city you’ve never been to before.  One of the keys to this book and Schultz’s last, is the economical way they have been published in paperback form (however, 1000 Places to See in USA and Canada Before You Die is also available in hardcover), and while they may not fit in your pocket, they easily slip into a backpack or purse, weigh little, and are very easy to navigate with a table of contents and extensive index.  Schultz goes one step further with her latest book in providing the reader with “special indexes” in addition to the regular one, which includes: first-rate hotels, resorts, and spas; lists of unique restaurants and places to eat; scenic drives; getaway islands; and where to take the kids, to name a few.

The saying is: “So many places, so little time.”  But thanks to Patricia Schultz, travelers now have two invaluable resources that while not making it possible to see every important place in the world in one lifetime, nevertheless quantify and qualify what there is so see and why you should see it; whether you’re sitting on a couch in your home deciding where to travel to; or 35,000 feet up on your way to a new and never before seen country; or traveling along a rare and hidden location you’ve never heard of.  Over a hundred years ago, every traveler was required to have their Baedeker on them at all times; in the twenty-first century, it is 1000 Places to See . . .

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Originally written on June 14th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens (Hachette, 2007)

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Christopher Hitchens has spent some time in journalism: a book reviewer for the Times, a staff writer for the New Statesman, chief foreign correspondent for the Daily Express, a regular columnist for the Nation, and a regular writer for Vanity Fair, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly.  As a foreign correspondent and travel writer, he has written from more than sixty different countries.  He is also the author of such books as Letters to a Young Contrarian and Why Orwell Matters.  Hitchens now takes on a subject of growing discussion and debate in a time when the number of atheists in the United States, as well as the rest of the world, is apparently growing either because they are abandoning all religion or they are simply “coming out” and admitting to their atheist beliefs.  A short time ago “atheist” was a hated label for one to admit to having, but now with a slew of atheist and anti-religious books, including Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion, Sam Harris’ End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, to name a few, with no doubt many more to be published; Hitchens addresses a subject that is slowly creeping into mainstream media (Dawkins made Time’s Top 100 Most Influential People list this year) and becoming a commonplace conversation in many households across the country.

What I find quite uncanny, having read most of the books mentioned above, is how each author avoids covering the same examples and details when discussing the same subject matter.  The authors find new and different ways of exposing the futility of religion and pushing forth their atheist beliefs.  Hitchens joins the ranks here in presenting a new side to a growing subject matter.  What makes God is Not Great different is that while many of the other books calling for the end of religion gloss over the different faiths of the world, they ultimately focus on Christianity, being the largest and most visible faith in this country; Hitchens doesn’t hold back and has chapters not just on Christianity and its various denominations, but also extensively attacks the Muslim religion and its denominations, Buddhism, Mormonism, as well as small religious sects around the world such as Shintoism and Jainism.

Hitchens puts his journalistic background to good use here in citing many different examples of how each religion causes more pain and suffering than good.  In most cases, these are examples that feature situations that Hitchens was either involved in or learned about it while in that specific country.  He best illustrates this in the second chapter of the book when he talks about serving on a panel with Dennis Prager – one of America’s notorious religious broadcasters – who challenged him to responding yes or no to a simple question: Hitchens was to imagine himself in a strange city one evening whereupon he saw a group of men coming towards him; the question is would he feel safer or less safe if he was to learn that they were coming from a prayer meeting?  Hitchens then spends the next five pages explaining specific situations from a list of places simply beginning with the letter “B”: Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad.  In each city, he gives examples of why he would not feel safe, and in so doing covers the world’s major religions.

Daniel Lazare of the Nation in the May 28th issue in the article “Among the Disbelievers” (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20070528/lazare) discussed the different atheist and anti-religious books mentioned above.  Lazare’s problem with all these books is that when religion is done away with, there is nothing but an “empty vessel” to fill the vacuum.  The point needs to be made here for all these authors who wish to see religion become less prominent and less powerful, and to be made clear to Lazare, which is this: the Dawkins, Dennetts, Hitchens, and Harris of the world don’t need something to fill the absence of religion.  With science and empirical evidence, they have all the answers they need, and when a new scientific theory comes along with evidence to cancel out the old theory, then it is replaced, and science changes.  The point that Hitchens repeatedly makes is that one big problem with religion is it being based on beliefs and ideas that were made and written down long ago, in some cases over thousands of years ago, when the world was an ignorant and very different place with very few true answers to everything.  In the year 2007, it seems inconceivable that so many people in the world have complete and unquestionable belief in ideas and thoughts that were made in a time when thunderstorms and earthquakes could not be scientifically explained.

Hitchens ends God is Not Great with this ominous statement: “We have first to transcend our prehistory, and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection.  ‘Know yourself,’ said the Greeks, gently suggesting the consolations of philosophy.  To clear the mind for this project, it has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it.”

AUDIOBOOK VERSION: In some ways, the audiobook version of God is Not Great can be considered the superlative version by some.  Christopher Hitchens, like Richard Dawkins, is originally British, who moved to the United States in 1981; nevertheless as all proud English do, his accent is still strong, his lip still “stiff and upper.”  So when one listens to the thoughts and ideas, the hopes and dreams from Hitchens with his own words, the power and empathy comes across the speakers or headphones and one is hypnotized in some ways with the calm voice speaking clearly and intellectually about the state of religion in the current world.  At the end of each chapter and section, there is a small string piece to perhaps clear one’s thoughts or to give one time to contemplate on what they have just been told.  When the author is the reader of their own audiobook, one should also seek out that version and in that way they get the most out of the book.

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Originally written on June 9th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” by Jared Diamond (Viking, 2004)

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Jared Diamond, renowned author of the Pulitzer-winning Gun, Germs, and Steel, returns with another piece of mind-blowing work that will simply astonish any reader.  In his last book, Diamond took us on a journey into the history of humanity, with cogent and logical answers for why our ancestors did the things they did, tying it in with geological and biological processes; how location matters very much for why certain of our ancestors did much better than others.  Guns, Germs, and Steel serves as an excellent introduction to Collapse, though it is not required.

In his new book, Diamond tackles the overarching reason for why certain cities and civilizations decline and collapse, while others get through the hard times enough to get by and sometimes even thrive.  What are amazing are the many case studies Diamond uses, ranging from early history with the Anasazi, Vikings, and civilization of Eastern Island; to the modern day cultures of Rwanda, Australia and the area of Montana where Diamond now lives for part of the year.  In his introduction, Diamond clearly lays out his plan with the book – much like a scientist about to run a number of experiments – with a specific list of factors that determine a society’s success or downfall, including: geographical location, amount of natural resources, amount of possible food, amount of trees.  Some societies suffer from a lacking in just one of these factors and are still unable to survive, while others suffer from a lacking in a number of them.  What’s fascinating with these thoroughly researched and explained case studies is how two societies in close proximity to each other will have different outcomes: one may collapse, or barely survive, while the other thrives for many hundreds of years.

Diamond’s reason for writing this book, he explains in the beginning and elaborates at the end, is to help the people of the present day realize the predicament we are in.  With global warming, astronomically high carbon dioxide levels, overpopulation, and a dwindling supply of nonrenewable energy resources; Diamond seeks to enlighten us in first world countries (those most likely to be reading this book) of collapses and failures of past civilizations – some in the distant past, some in the not too distant, some still ongoing today – as an educational lesson so that we may learn where others failed and why, perhaps then we can ensure our own continued survival.  With the factors mentioned above, like overpopulation and dwindling energy supplies, we are right on course with some other past civilizations that collapsed.  The question is whether the governments of the world will realize this and react soon enough to halt us on this doomed path, and start us on a new and healthier one.  Like many things in our lives: only time will tell.

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Originally written on May 20th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.