Leo Lionni’s Frederick

A repeat from 2017.

There are a few illustrated children’s books I grew up with that left a very deep mark on me. Tomi di Paola’s books, Ashanti to Zulu about the peoples of Africa, dinosaur and paleontology books, Three Trees of the Samurai, Holling C. Holling’s books, and one called Catundra about an overweight cat and how she slims down.

Leo Lionni’s story Frederick was one of these. The book is fifty years old this year, and is a wonderful story about the importance of Odds in societies. The author was Dutch, and did many children’s books, a lot of them about mice, including Frederick. I discovered it as a audio-tape and read-along book Mom and Dad got at the library. Continue reading

Book Review: The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean

Ellenblum, Ronnie. The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950-1072. (Cambridge University Press, 2012) Kindle.

Everyone knows that the 900s-1200s were a great time to be in Europe – warm, good weather in general, leading to a period of cultural and economic development that is often called the High Middle Ages, when the great cathedrals were built and chivalry flourished and the Hansa cities were at their peak. That’s true, but only if you were in western or central Europe. The Levant, Mesopotamia, the Balkans, the Pontic Steppes and Egypt? Endured bitter cold, drought, plague, and economic collapse. Invasion came with the cold and drought, and pushed the Byzantine Empire into rapid decline. North Africa went from semi-bread-basket to desert with pockets of irrigation, and Jerusalem was almost abandoned. When the warriors of the First Crusade breached the gates of the holy city, they found very few people compared to the population in the year 1000 or so.

The weather patterns that warmed and moistened western and northern Europe froze and desiccated Southwest Asia.

The book’s origins stem from Ellenblum’s curiosity about the lack of water in Jerusalem vs. the population it was supposed to have supported during Roman and early Byzantine times. This led to studying the hydrology of the city, and the discovery that most of the springs had dried up by the time of the First Crusade. Why? Bad land management? Climate shifts that caused the springs to lose groundwater and fail? As it turns out, the answer is a series of cold, dry years that caused the local water table to drop. This dried the springs, many of which never returned even after the rains came back. Jerusalem had to shift to relying on rainwater caught in cistern during the winters, meaning it could no longer support even half the population it had boasted at the time of Jesus.

When the author looked farther, it proved that Egypt, the rest of the Levant, Mesopotamia, and the Pontic Steppes (area north of the Black Sea) also suffered severe cold and drought during the period of roughly AD 950-1100. The lack of rain, and the bitter cold (snow on the ground in Baghdad for 40 days!) caused already tense relations between settled peoples, Bedouin nomads, and steppe nomads to collapse. The governments could not feed the people in some cases, nor could they keep the Turkic nomads out of the river valleys. When the Turks arrived, they burned, looted, carried off people to sell or ransom, interrupted trade, and eventually took over swaths of the area. The great centers of Islamic and Jewish learning in Baghdad disappeared, and Islam (Sunni) took on a different intellectual focus, one less interested in preserving the Classical philosophies and more on Islam’s own philosophy.

This is one of the books that I read and slap myself on the forehead and go “Duh.” I’d always wondered why the Seljuk Turks suddenly appeared in Southwest Asia. We went from Byzantine vs. Arab to “Turks in Charge” in the 1050s and later. Why? Where had the Seljuks come from? Why had they left the steppes? Well, they were pushed by the need for fodder and food, because the terrible weather drove them south and west. This also caused the Magyars (Hungary) and Bulgars to raid the edges of the European part of the Byzantine Empire just as Constantinople was cut off from major sources of food and military personnel. Toss in the plagues that always break out in cold, undernourished populations, and you can see why the empire started devaluing its currency and could no longer hold onto the edges of its territory, especially in Asia Minor.

Elllenblum is tightly focused on the region, so there are no cross-comparisons with western Europe or Russia (Kievan Rus). I do know from other reading that China experienced cold and drought in the 1000s, with floods and the disaster of the Yellow River floods following (1090s-1140s). The author alludes to the push to the east, and into South Asia, leading to shifts in Muslim control over northern India (the Lodi Sultanate). The book is also somewhat episodic, and focuses on weather and its direct effects, rather than on telling human stories. If you are looking for the tales of people, or a seamless, flowing narrative, you will be disappointed.

The book also lacks a bibliography. This is inexcusable on the part of Cambridge University Press. The notes are extensive, but readers are forced to comb through them at the end of each chapter to find material and primary sources if a reader wants to follow up on a topic.

I highly recommend this book for students of medieval Middle Eastern history, for those interested in the environmental history of all of Europe, and scholars wanting to fill in gaps about the causes of movements, migrations, and the shifting attitude of local Muslim rulers to Christians and Jews. A basic background in the overall history of the region is good, but not really necessary depending on the reader’s focus. I found the book easy to read, but this is my baliwick. Non-specialists might not be as enthralled.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation from the author or the publisher for this review.

Manners: Current Day and Fictional

I was reading a book entitled Why Manners Matter, which concerns the need for some sort of self-restraint and code of behavior in society. I had trouble getting into the book at first, until I caught on that the author is Australian, and so “manners” had a different cultural connotation than in the Southern US culture that I grew up with. “Manners” in Australia carries the sense of class difference and pretensions of rank and station, something that is anathema in Australian popular self-perception. Being polite and decent, on the other hand, is OK.

The book’s author tries hard to avoid religious and philosophical arguments, and instead focuses on practical “because it keeps people from going nuts trying to figure out everything and makes people happier and less stressed” sorts of benefits. She also notes that the military requires manners and self-discipline, something she sees as good. I’m inclined to agree with her on many points, although I’d point out that all people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity until they prove otherwise just because they are human and made in the image of G-d. Once they prove otherwise, then especially treated in a way that you maintain your self-respect and dignity. Sometimes the kindest, best thing to do to a rabid dog, once it is proven rabid, is to put it out of its and society’s misery. That can apply to social situations – tossing someone out of a gathering, for example, or ending a relationship, on the mildest end of the spectrum.

Which got me thinking a bit about self-identity. How we see ourselves, how we see our place in culture and society, which bits of culture we accept and which we try hard to stay away from. Readers know that I tend to avoid the easy, casual style of modern day popular media culture, and incline more towards formality and “good manners.” Not quite Victorian or Edwardian levels of politeness — I don’t wear gloves indoors, I drink soda-pop from a can, I’m bad at small talk — but certainly more restrained behavior than most younger people, and than a lot of people my age. Part of it is my being an introvert who gets twitchy around groups of emotional people, part of it is that I prefer having a mental script to fall back on in new situations.

Restraint and distance also help prevent a lot of problems from starting. It’s easier to start “hard” and then relax than it is to back up if you start all hang-loose and casual. In the fraught world of men, women, and “harassment means he looked at me for a half-second too long,” manners and formality are safety.

Self-control is part of good manners. I learned as a teen that letting my emotions show guaranteed trouble. That’s what the bullies wanted. I also realized that I might do something really, really antisocial if I lost my grip on my temper. The two are probably related, but the dark streak may predate my teens. I’m not going to dig in that part of my mind to find out. The point is, if you are in control of your mouth and temper, you are a lot less likely to get in trouble or cause trouble. Good manners are part of that self control. “A gentleman does not . . . A lady never raises her voice in anger.” OK, sometimes increasing the vocal volume is needed just to cut through the roar and get attention, but projection is not yelling. Emoting all over the place is rarely called for, at least in my personal world. Other cultures are different. There’s also a balance between making other people aware of your discontent with the situation and repressing things so much that it causes you problems.

Which led my wandering mind to a comment a reader made about how Arthur’s manners around Lelia changed. In the first two books, he’s more “relaxed” and “casual.” Over time, he becomes more formal, as does she. The clan tends toward formality, partly because of the need to keep intraclan violence to an acceptable level. Formality is Arthur’s default within the clan. As Lelia became more of a dependent, then peer, then family member, Arthur treated her more and more the way he would treat a relative in the clan. Part of Lelia’s persona as glamor [glamour?] goth is formality, likewise André, so she slid into the role relatively easily. It’s armor in a sense, for Lelia, her boss, and her husband. Especially when André is having trouble, formality gives all of them space to sort through what is bothering them and how to deal with it. Both men are predators, both are territorial, and both respect each other, and love Lelia in their different ways. Formality is appropriate. And as in other situations, Lelia and André look to the senior person for cues as to when manners are relaxed.

“An armed society is a polite society,” as Robert Heinlein phrased it. When people are armed and situations can shift quickly from irritating to lethal, civility and manners lubricate things and keep the friction to a minimum. Low friction doesn’t cause combustion.

Book Review: 1620

Wood, Peter W. 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project. (New York: Encounter Books, 2020)

The New York Times sponsored the 1619 Project to tell a previously ignored aspect of the history of the US. At least, that was the original claim. The actual project paints all of US history as a product of the importation of chattel slavery and its evils to the English colonies in 1619. Peter W. Wood, former president of the National Association of Scholars, penned this rebuttal and critique. In his view, the signing of the Mayflower Compact of 1620 is far more important start-point for the American story. Continue reading

Book Review: Beyond Order

Peterson, Jordan. Beyond Order: Twelve More Rules for Life (New York, Portfolio Books, 2021)

If the original twelve rules were about organizing yourself and your pocket of society, then Beyond Order is about living in the chaos around you, and staying true to yourself and others in the midst of that chaos. The book reminds me a bit of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, in the sense that the focus is on you, the reader’s, and your way of dealing with the world and your attitude to chaos beyond your direct control. Continue reading

Book Review: Unmasked

Ngo, Andy. Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy. (New York: Center Street Press, 2021)

Andy Ngo’s book, Unmasked, pulls together the history, methodology, and activities of Antifa. Although they proclaim themselves to be fighting fascists, their tactics and philosophy copy those used by the Fascists, the fighting wing of the NSDAP and it’s successors, and of course, the Communist Antifascistiche Aktion of Germany in the 1920s-30s. Ngo connects the past with the present, showing how the movement came to the US and what its goals are. For some of us, this is well-known material. Even so, it is worth reading. Continue reading

Book Review: Dress Codes

Ford, Richard Thompson. Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021) E-book.

Fashion history has been a bit of an interest for me, mostly in the whys and wherefores. I mean, if I’m going to dress 150+ years out of date, I probably ought to know something about the clothes and the reasons (then) for them. Professor of Law Richard Thompson Ford takes a sideways look at fashion going back to the Renaissance, arguing that laws related to dress had serious effects on society, and can reveal a lot about power and culture. I don’t always agree with him, but he has some very interesting observations and ideas. Continue reading

Book Review: The White Horse

Miles, David. The Land of the White Horse: Visions of England. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2019)

“We’ll run the course/ From Stonehenge up to Uffington,/ On a white chalk horse we’ll ride . . .” So sang the band Uffington Horse. The real thing is not quite as mythical, perhaps. It is world famous, and is set in a very, very old landscape, one where people have been leaving traces for tens of thousands of years. The horse is prehistoric . . . or is it? Continue reading

Summoning, Good vs. Bad, and a Book Review

Gosden, Chris. Magic: A history From Alchemy to Witchcraft From the Ice Ages to the Present. (Farrer, Strauss and Giroux, 2020) Kindle Edition.

So, one thing readers of the Familiars series might notice is that the light-sided characters generally do not call up any spirits, Elementals aside. And then they ask, not coerce if at all possible (André, Lelia and the other shadow workers may coerce if forced to by circumstances, but they don’t like it.) One of the things that raises eyebrows among good to neutral magic workers is when someone compels Elementals or other things. Returning an accidental summoning, or banishing a spirit that should not be present (like F. X. Chiu delegated to the Buddhist priests), comes under a different heading.

Continue reading

Book Review: Revelations

Pagels, Elaine. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. (NY: Penguin, 2013). Kindle e-book.

This is a relatively short book about a book chapter, namely the “Revelation of John” or “The Apocalypse of John” in the Bible. It’s not an analysis per se, but more of a history of this type of work, and how the material got to be included in the canon. If you are interested in interpretations of Revelation, or a cultural history, I recommend her very detailed annotated notes and bibliography. Continue reading