Book Review: Breverton’s Phantasmagoria

Breverton, Terry. Breverton’s Phantasmagoria: A Compendium of Monsters, Myths, and Legends. (London: Quercus Publishing Plc. 2011)

Some days, or times of day, you just want something you can pick up, nibble for a page or two, then set aside. This is that sort of book. If you want to read about the Gordian Knot, the Ship of Fools, The Flying Dutchman, learn if snakes really do flee from naked men, or puzzled over the story of Prince Madoc, you can find all that and more in this book. It is great for trivia buffs, writers in search of plot seeds or McGuffins, or people who occasionally read while in the, ahem, Reading Room.

I get the feeling that Mr. Breverton collected odd bits and things, snippets and archaeology reports and mythologies and folk lore and archaeological reports a bit like a bower bird. It is a book you can read through by topic, or just open at a random page and nibble at random moments. The writing style is light and somewhat breezy. A few things I sort of shook my head at, because there’s a bit of “gee-whiz!” at times. Spaceflight in the Mahabarata? Um, I’d like to see other translations of the text. The book starts with people, then monsters and ghosts, then magical places (real and otherwise), flying monsters and odd things in the sky. Mysteries of the deep comes next, then strange artefacts and maps and stuff, treasure tales (Oak Island again), and wraps up with “is this legend true? Well, here’s what inspired it.)

All in all it is a fun book, and the two things that I back-tracked he was correct as far as sources went (did a boloid explosion do-in Soddom and Gamorrah? Quite possible, which led to my reading about something similar, at about the same time, in the Alps.)

The book is available on Kindle, but that takes some of the fun of “open to a random page” out of it. Breverton seems to be a trivia buff, because he has several more themed titles.

Two paws up.

FTC Note: I purchased this book with my own funds, and received no remuneration for this review.

Natural History Writing

A good natural history book is a joy to read. They seem to be growing scarcer, alas, although it might just be that there are so many books out these days that winnowing “natural history” from “environmental dirge” from “pop-science” from “local writer writing about local birds” has grown far more difficult. But when I find a good natural history, it is such a treasure.

What is natural history? I know it when I read it. OK, beyond that, it is a study of a place over time, one that looks at everything from the dirt and rocks to the birds, plants, waters, land-use, and weather of a generally small bit of of the world. When you finish reading, you know the critters, flowers, trees, grasses, soils, and story of the land – sort of a biography of place, with a dollop of science. The first of these that is fairly well known in English is Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. Selborne was the parish where White was minister for many years. The book was published in 1789, and is still in print. White described the place through the seasons, what grew there and why, and so on. Pliney and other ancient and Renaissance writers had done descriptions of places and critters, but no one had written a popular study of one small corner of the world.

White inspired a lot of other writers, some talented amateurs, some professionals, some a little of both. Aldo Leopold was a forest ranger with a gift for writing, and his Sand County Almanac and other essay collections are magnificent depictions of places, and meditations on “nature” and “Wilderness” and what those ideas mean for people and critters.

So, what’s the difference between environmental history (my bailiwick) and natural history? Environmental history is more academic, meaning it has all the things that are required of academic writing (footnotes/endnotes, historiography, formal introduction and conclusion with certain elements in them). Environmental history often includes a lot about people, government policies, laws and how they were applied (or were not), corporate history, you know, paperwork stuff. And they tend to cover more ground. A natural history of Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas, for example, only talks about that particular place. It doesn’t go into discussions of federal and state wetland policies and how they changed over time, except as they related directly to the wetland, and then only one chapter at the end of the work. Instead, it starts with the geology, then the mud, the cattails and other things that root in the mud, the fish and bugs and amphibians, and works up to the raptors and other birds that live in and around the wetland.

I’ve tried my hand at writing a few natural history type things. I’m not good enough, and I don’t know enough to do a good job. Natural Histories are love songs. Environmental histories are ballads.

Book Review: Super Volcanoes

Andrews, Robin George. Super Volcanoes: What they Reveal about Earth and the Worlds Beyond. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2022) Kindle Edition

I’d hoped that this might be a book about supervolcanoes, the giganormous ones like Yellowstone and Toba. No, it is about how cool volcanoes can be, and about volcanic activity on Earth, the moon, Mars, Venus, and some of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. It’s a very well-written, intriguing book, and you get the sense that the author is sort of geeking-out over all the cool rocks and ice and really strange things that volcanoes get up to.

Andrews is a PhD in geology who works as a science reporter. The book is a little breezy at times, as I’ve come to expect from “reporter does science.” However, the geology is sound, and once you get past the “oh my gosh, I love rocks!!!!!”, it’s a fascinating work of popular volcanology.

He begins with Yellowstone, and why the hype is just that. He does indulge in a bit of “OK, so if this does blow, how badly will it effect North America.” As badly as you’d think, even if the eruption is weaker than previous (as seems to be the pattern when continental crust moves over a hotspot). Then he considers other well-known mountains before moving to some truly outré mountains in Africa. I suspect African volcanoes are pretty much mysteries for most people, aside perhaps from Kilimanjaro, and perhaps those in Rwanda that have erupted within the past five years. East Africa has a marge number of active peaks, some of which possess the oddest chemistry terrestrial volcanoes this far are known to have. Part of the story is “how can volcanologists and locals work together?” and part is “crazy things people will do to get samples.” Ingenuity, desperation, and a low budget can work wonders. Lava that’s not exactly lava, lava that’s too cool to be lava (but that will still kill you), chemical stews that make even bacteria think twice . . . These mountains and rifts are not always friendly.

From Africa and then Hawaii, our intrepid reporter turns to undersea volcanoes and the black-smoker thermal vents. I felt a bit of a warped grin forming when he described how rarely eruptions undersea are recorded and observed by geologists in real time. This was, oh, three days after Tonga went dark under volcanic ash.

Lunar volcanoes, Martian mounts, Venusian vents, and things hanging out around Saturn, Jupiter, and parts beyond wrap up the book. No, this isn’t your usual geology book.

The end-notes are quite good, and the “climate change delenda est!” passages are generally short and skip-able. Something about how much CO2 volcanoes burp into the air compared to everything that humans do, and so on. No, we won’t become Venus because of burning coal and oil.

I recommend this book for people interested in more than just “This is a volcano. Volcanoes are mountains that make lava” and want a general, wide-ranging look at the topic. Andrews assumes that you have a basic understanding of geology, which I suspect most if not all of my readers do. He doesn’t write down, but he doesn’t go sailing over your head, either.* It’s a fun read for the rock buff, or people like Game Masters looking for evil new things to throw at their players (carbonate volcano!)

*Unlike a lecture on the chemical crystallography of the magmas of Kilauea and Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea that I lost track during and never caught back up. The conclusions were fascinating, but oooooh, then chemistry to get there!

FTC Note: I purchased this book with my own money for my own use, and received no compensation from either the author or the publisher for this review.

Book Review: Pearl of Fire

Chancy, C. Pearl of Fire (Kindle Edition).

Life inside the caldera of an active volcano is interesting. Life in an active volcano kept in check by magic, and threatened by followers of a fire-god, is a bit too interesting for Allen Helleson, police detective and elemental Spirit worker. And theologian, but that’s the family business and he tries to keep out of that. When blind fire-worker Shane Redstone stops a bomb from igniting a chain reaction that would wipe out part of the city, Halleson has to sort out what to do with her, and to find whoever set the bomb.

A fantasy police procedural, and the story of a woman still fighting a war she can no longer see, Pearl of Fire starts with a near-bang and wraps tighter and tighter. Caldera City is just that – a city in an active volcano, one tamed by magic and populated by dragons. The people fled war and an implacable foe, taking shelter in a place too dangerous for any others. However, their enemies will stop at nothing to eliminate the calderans. The calderans believe that the Lord of Light made five elements, all of which people might use, should they be so blessed. Shane Redstone was the army’s strongest fire worker until a curse blinded her. Allen Helleson has a weak spirit gift, but one that allows him to sense truth and falsehood. That is a valuable talent for a police officer, even one from outside Caldera City. Helleson left his family because he believes that the laws should be followed. Redstone too follows the law . . . in her own ways.

Chancy weaves a fast-paced tale in a rich, detailed world. She elides some things, leaving it to the reader to fill in what are sketched outlines. Helleson, Redstone, and the others are believable people, and Helleson’s struggle to balance his faith and his dawning understanding of outside evil unfolds well. As with her other books (Seeds of Blood and A Net of Dawn and Bones), religion plays a major role. Yes, the bad-guys’ faith resembles that in the non-fiction world, but humans have developed several ideologies that include “believe what I say or I will destroy you.” Some are called political systems, not religions, but the same mental pattern exists, alas. However, the book is far more about Redstone and Helleson as people, and about solving a mystery, than about religion. The tension between bureaucracies is, alas, a bit too realistic for my taste, but credit-claiming is also a human universal whenever two or more departments compete for budgets and praise.

There is room for a sequel, and I hope Chancy writes one. I agree with one on-line reviewer that the followers of Ba’al are a bit too close to an existing real-world faith, but they are more of the outside driver of the story. The characters of Redstone and Helleson are the core of the book, and both suffer and grow, coming from rather different places to work together and—perhaps—find peace and friendship. Or at least not kill each other before they get the problem solved!

FTC Notice: I purchased this book with my own funds for my own use, and received no remuneration or consideration from the author or publisher for this review.

Book Review: Garden Variety

Hoenig, John. Garden Variety: The American Tomato From Corporate to Heirloom. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018) Hardcover.

We all know that there are only two things that money cannot buy, per country music. Those are true love and homegrown tomatoes. Most of us have probably grumbled about the visually perfect and rather bland super-‘mater that is found in grocery stores in January, and many of us have sighed and sweated over trying to raise our own tomatoes in pots, or in gardens. And then felt overwhelmed by the produce overload that is known as August-September (in much of the US). Tomatoes are argued over, debated, immortalized in song, have a folk history, and serve as a powerful symbol of the problems of mass-grown corporate agricultural produce. But what if that story is a lot more complicated that most activists think? Enter John Hoenig and his fun book, Garden Variety.

Hoenig starts about 200 years ago, looking at the slow rise in popularity of tomatoes, and the problem of preserving them. You can’t easily dry, smoke, salt, or otherwise store tomatoes. Potatoes, corn [maize], turnips, squash, cabbage, beans, all can be easily kept for the long duration of winter, but tomatoes were a seasonal luxury until canning came along. Ketchups of mushrooms, then tomatoes, and sauces came first because of the limits of technology. Those limits also led to the creation of lots of regional canneries, each using local produce and serving a limited area. In those places where immigrants and others introduced new diets, like the Italians in the late 1800s, tomatoes became a luxury, then a necessity. To have the first tomato of the season brought a lot of money to farmers, and so cold-frame-grown tomatoes appeared, or tomatoes shipped by rail. However, most tomatoes ended up in cans, either at home or through the local cannery.

WWI and especially the Great Depression and WWII led to the explosion of both canned tomato products and the super-cannery. Standardized foods, like canned diced tomatoes, tomato paste, Ro-Tel™ tomatoes-n-peppers, and canned meals grew in popularity. The wars absorbed almost all the tomato products that Heinz and others made, forcing gardeners to can at home. With the shift in the economy and changing leisure-time interests, home canning faded for a while. That shift also led to the end of the bracero and other farm-labor programs. This is where the “industrial tomato” arose, when labor shortages in the 1960s forced growers to finally take interest in a mechanical harvester. Said harvester needed sturdier tomatoes, leading to the modern industrial hybrids.

Most histories of food in the US turn here, following the rise in mass-consumption and the “blanding” of the American diet as corporations came to dominate agri-business. However, Hoenig takes a different track, and points out how a combination of “back-to-the-land,” “gourmet,” and “traditionalists,” led to the resurgence in farmers’ markets and heirloom local tomatoes. Yes, most packaged produce still comes from big farms and corporations. However, the local tomato didn’t wither on the vine, and in fact old-breed varieties grew in popularity, as did farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). This complicates the story of “corporate food.”

The book is shorter than it seems, because of the extensive end-notes and bibliography. It is not academic, for all that it is written as an academic monograph. Hoenig aims the work at interested readers, people who might know a little about farm history, or gardening, or food history, and who want to learn more. There are no bad guys, no super-heroes, unlike some books about farming and agri-business in the US. The story never strays from the tomato. I got the sense that Hoenig is not entirely comfortable with the giant corporations that dominate supermarket shelves, and the environmental problems associated with monocrop farming. Those topics are not his focus, however, and he steers clear of the shoals of polemic. I suspect a lot of us share his concerns, and are interested in buying local and supporting more variety in ag when we can.

I highly recommend this book for readers interested in the history of food in the US, in farming and mechanization, and in quirky histories about produce.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book with my own funds, and received no remuneration or consideration from either the author or publisher for this review.

Book Review: To Be Men

Metier, Sirius, and Richard Paolinelli, eds. To Be Men: Stories Celebrating Masculinity. (Superversive Press, 2018) Kindle Edition.

Back in 2012-2013, Sarah A. Hoyt wrote two essays/blog posts about the problem of too much anti-human, anti-fun “grey goo” fiction being foisted on readers. This led to the idea of “human wave” fiction. From there, John C. Wright and others developed the idea of Superversive Fiction, the kind of story that elevates the human spirit and (90% of the time) contains overtly Christian elements*. Since indie publishing was also starting to flourish, this led to the creation of a loose group of writers who became associated with the Superversive idea, and the stories in this collection are part of that.

There are seventeen stories, ranging from police procedural to fantasy to military fiction to sci-fi. All of them are about, well, men being men and doing guy things, be it solving crimes (with the help of a wise-@ss dragon detective), stopping a casino robbery (one of my favorite stories in the book), teaching sheltered teens to be men and women, rising to duty, standing up for team-mates, overcoming the wolves of their natures (literally in one case), and making sacrifices to protect a child and wife. All are fairly short, fun reads. There is also an introduction about why the collection came about, and an essay about the problem of society’s degrading of traditional masculinity.

There was not a story that I did not like, although two of the military fiction works were not exactly suitable for young readers (language, insults about things military guys insult each other about). The story about the casino security boss and his team who borrow from movies to prevent trouble is one of the better ones, because it is more about wits and sacrifice than force. All the stories are positive and hopeful, even if they go dark places on occasion. So does life. The story “Cooper” was a bit too eerily prescient about a dystopian-leaning future in some ways. I got that “skin crawling on the back of my neck” feeling because it wasn’t as overtly over-the-top “what if current trends continue” as one of the police stories was.

Authors include “His Tankness” T. L. Knighton, Jon del Arroz, C. J. Brightly, Julie Frost, Michael Herbert, and others. The Sherlock Holmes story was very well done and deals delicately with a rough topic. I fully admit to giggling at Tom Knighton’s story, because as soon as I started reading it, I knew exactly which award-winning fiction** he was riffing off of . . . and then went in a totally different direction with it.

The down side is that the e-book seems to be out of print, and Amazon only lists the collection as available used. I suspect the rights reverted to the individual authors and the book may be out of print. Which is too bad, and I hope it is made available again. I highly recommend it for teenaged guys, college-age guys, (girls too, for that matter), and anyone looking for clean stories about courage, justice, honor, and bravery. I agree with the reviewer on Amazon that because of the language in two of the military stories, it’s probably not suitable for younger teens (say, 15 and younger, unless the teen is very mature and his or her parents are willing to have some discussions about “why are the other guys saying that.”)

*I’ve seen some with Jewish elements as well, but most are Christian.

**That short story has spawned more “oh good grief, that’s not really sci-fi. Let’s see what would happen if I filed the numbers off and . . .” stories than almost any other in recent memory. All I’ll say is “T. Rex and bar-fight.”

Book Review: Geköpft und Gepfhält. Vampires in Archaeology

Franz, Angelika and Nösler, Daniel. Geköpft und Gepfählt: Archäologen auf der Jagd nach den Untoten. (Darmstadt, Germany: Theiss Verlag, 2016)

I needed some books about Central European history, books not available in English. So, while prowling and its cousins, this popped up. It translates “Beheaded and Staked: Archaeologists on the Hunt for the Undead.” It is a fascinating look at the evidence for belief in vampires and other undead, going back to the Paleolithic and as recently as the early 2000s in Romania. Probably more recently, although many cases of “vampire” elimination probably stay very quiet. The authors point out that moderns are the first generation to not believe in the undead, in people coming back to warn or destroy the living. At least, that is, if the archaeology and anthropology prove true.

This book combines popular science and hard science in a readable volume. Yes, it is in German. I’m used to reading archaeological reports and the like, so I could follow it very easily, although I did look up some legal terms.

The authors start with an overview of vampire legends and recent cases, along with accounts of vampire “scares” in the 1700s and 1800s. Then they look at “life and death in the middle ages and modern times,” including burial rituals and beliefs about death. From there they consider all the terms for “vampire:” draugr, morioi, shroud-chewer, and others, and where the names came from. The unhappy undead are found all over Europe, even if they are not called “vampire,” and took many forms and acted in different ways. “Count Dracula” of Bram Stoker and the movies was actually a bit of an exception, in that he did not focus on blood relatives or former neighbors.

From types, the authors move to ways of becoming a vampire. Some are just cursed, others became vampires by living an unjust life, or working in occupations thought to incline people toward sin and injustice (like being a lawyer or a surveyor!) Babies who died without baptism, women who died during childbirth, men who died while denying their sin, all might return to claim the lives of relatives and others.

Written sources from the Middle Ages come next, followed by archaeological evidence for vampires. This is some of the most interesting material, because it goes back, oh, tens of thousands of years. When people find bodies with stones piled on top of them, or a rock wedged into the jaws, or a sickle resting on the throat, or the head removed and jammed between the feet . . . vampire. Buried face down, or with the feet tied, or even cut off? Vampire or some other form of dangerous undead. Even priests and abbots were not immune to fears of their return, as certain burials showed.

The last chapters look at the forensics of the undead, and the process of decay (or lack of decay) that were taken as signs of the body housing a vampire. Then what steps were taken to prevent someone from returning, including putting thorns in the shroud, needles or thorns in the feet (to prevent walking), scattering poppy or sesame seeds in the coffin (the dead would have to count all the seeds and gather them before they could leave the grave), taking a winding route to the graveyard, and a different route back (to confuse the dead), burying possible vampires inside thorn-hedges to keep them from leaving . . . There were as many ways as cultures.

The book concludes with the undead of modern times, including Haitian zombies, and the undead in fiction and popular culture. I found the first four-fifths of the book to be the most interesting, especially the archaeology and the typology of restless undead. Popular culture associates vampires with Romania and the Balkans, or New Orleans (Ann Rice and followers), but the undead are found all over the world, and are generally malevolent. There’s no angst or regret for being a vampire in a German “shroud chewer” or his cousins. They want company, and that means killing relatives and neighbors to come join them.

The bibliography includes sources in English, German, and Romanian. Some are popular accounts, but most are academic papers about archaeology and anthropology. I plan to track down a few of the titles, English and German, for future use.

The book is well written and easy to follow. It helps if you know a little about archaeology and about the topic in general, but it’s not needed. Yes, the book is in German. But not academic German, and I had no trouble reading through, even without having a dictionary on hand. The dictionary helped in places, mostly legal terms and a few medical things I couldn’t suss out on my own. Alas, the book was not cheap, but most of that was postage. Boat freight has gone up since 2018, the last time I ordered books from a shipper in Germany.

I highly recommend this book to people interested in the folklore and archaeology of the undead, in vampires outside of Romania, and interested in popular beliefs about death and sin. A basic knowledge of German is needed, and a good dictionary helps.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration or consideration from the publisher or authors.

Book Review: The Complete Gentleman

Miner, Brad. The Complete Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry. 3rd Revised Edition (Washington D. C., Regnery Gateway, 2021)

The reviews on this book were mixed, with several complaining because it was not a guide to manners and behavior – that is, it doesn’t give a clear “do this, don’t do that.” Instead the author discusses the history of the idea of chivalry and who was chivalrous, the Victorian concept of gentleman, and possible large ways to shift behavior and thinking in order to be a better, more chivalrous, gentleman.

Brad Miner points to the movie Titanic and the behavior of some young men while watching it, specifically their mocking the actions of some of the upper-class male passengers. That got Miner to thinking about chivalry, the standards men held themselves to, and where it all began. Thus the book goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, notably the Stoic philosophers and Aristotle, the medieval ideals of knighthood and chivalry, the Victorian reinterpretation of those ideals, good examples and horrible warnings, and so on.

Miner breaks the gentleman into three main aspects – warrior, lover, and monk. He looks at each in turn, and how these three aspects blend together in a medieval or Victorian man. Then he casts his gaze at the present day and the younger generation. How can you be reticent and restrained in the age of social media and “post your feeeeeeelings!”? Miner points to Castiglione’s The Courtier, and the idea that became sprezzatura, the appearance of effortless grace (which applies to men and women, just in different ways.)

There’s a lot to chew on here, especially if you are the parent of a boy, or a young man trying to be better. Being a gentleman is about aspiring to better. We can’t be perfect. But we can be better, we can raise the bar for ourselves, be it in conduct, physical skill, dress, faith . . . The book is a lot of “what is a gentleman” instead of “how to be a gentleman.” Miner implies that if you work on the mind-set, the how-to will follow. I’d add that having a few carefully chosen guides and role-models will help a lot, for man or woman. Because women need to understand the origins of the idea of gentleman, in order to encourage more of them, and to raise them.

The book reads well. It is somewhat breezy, a bit pop-history at times, but his sources check out, and that’s probably the best tone to take. People don’t like reading hundreds of pages of Polonius, or Lord Chesterfield. Many of the sources are Christian, which fits the culture, but Miner points out that you don’t have to be a Christian to aspire to certain virtues. He tends to keep politics out of the work, although there are a few “don’t do this” moments. Alas, vice knows no time nor country. Miner might have given more time to the critics of masculinity, if only to show some of the flaws in their thinking, but that’s not his goal.

I’d recommend it for young men and women, parents of young men and women, anyone curious about where the ideas of “gentleman” came from, and people interested in popular understandings of European medieval culture.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and was given no remuneration by either the author or the publisher.

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.