Friday, February 26, 2010

Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock

On the first day of class, I stated that I never read nonfiction because it’s “boring.”  Andrea challenged me to read in nonfiction for one of my annotations.  I rose to that challenge.  Reading the nonfiction book rotated between torturous and wonderful.  I pushed through the less interesting parts, though, and I’m a big enough person to admit that the end product was not at all boring.

I read Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock.  Some readers will already be familiar with the basis of Hancock’s work.  If you’ve seen Stargate, 10,000 BC, or 2012 you’ll recognize the research behind those films.  It’s no coincidence that all were directed by Roland Emmerich.  In truth, that’s why I decided to read this book.  I’m a voracious Stargate fan.

Fingerprints of the Gods presents a view of history that, like the films based on its research, has earned the scorn of traditional archeologists. It point-by-point contradicts the established timeline of human civilization.  As a historian (or at least, someone with a BA in History), I’m trained to scoff at these types of books.  And yet, Hancock’s evidence is so much more comprehensive than traditional archeologists’ that I find myself unable to ignore the research in this book.  In fact, I find myself convinced.

Hancock starts the book by presenting a series of maps.  Despite being drawn circa 1531, they look familiar enough to modern readers.  And that is why Hancock presents them first.  He poses a very simple question.  How does a map drawn in 1531 have an accurate representation of Antarctica when the southern continent was not discovered until 1818?  It is possible Antarctica was not discovered, but rediscovered in 1818?  From there, Hancock examines myths, histories, and architectures from across the ancient world.  The most compelling portions of the book are the astronomic, geologic, and anthropologic evidence that suggests a global, technologically advanced civilization has been lost to history.

Historians generally accept that monuments such as the pyramids in Mexico and Egypt were built to align with the stars.  Hancock points out that in all cases, the alignments do not match the modern sky, but would have done so perfectly circa 10,450 BC when human civilization was supposed to have been primitive.  Geologists have unanimously agreed that the evidence suggests water damage was done to the Great Sphinx at Giza, but Giza last flooded during the most recent Ice Age, meaning that its attribution to the Fourth Dynasty must be incorrect.

Equally thought-provoking as the scientific evidence is the anthropologic arguments Hancock makes.  There is no evidence of early cultural evolution in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, or the Americas.  These ancient civilizations seem to have sprung out of the ground fully ready to build the Great Pyramids and Chichen Itza.  This confounds all social science theories.  Furthermore, in what logical world could the ancient Americans calculate an accurate solar calendar, but lack the science to invent the wheel?

And these are only a few of Hancock’s compelling arguments.

There were places where the science was over my head.  Much as I loved my Astronomy and Geology courses, they were only introductory classes.   The photographs and diagrams help to visually explain, and Hancock does a diligent job writing out all the mathematical calculations for the readers who have not studied Trigonometry or Geometry.  This book is fifteen years old, and so some parts do seem slightly dated, but only in the sense that some astronomical events Hancock calls ‘future’ have already taken place.

Fingerprints of the Gods raises more questions than it answers, but I’m comfortable with that.  I read to be challenged by ideas, not to be bludgeoned with facts.  Furthermore, my mind has always been open to new theories.  It was no great leap of faith for me to accept that there is more to our history than what we know.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys “secret histories” or Roland Emmerich’s films.  I also think it would make excellent reading for patrons who are willing (or eager) to challenge traditional academia.

Book Information:
Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock.
Three Rivers Press, 1996. 592 pages.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle by Rosalind Miles

When it came time for me to pick a Fantasy novel for this class, I knew I was going to read an Arthurian fantasy.  I love Camelot in all its many variations, but my favorite legend is that of Tristan and Isolde.  Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle by Rosalind Miles is the first in the Tristan and Isolde Novels series.

Tristan and Isolde is a star-crossed lovers tragedy.  As the most recent film adaptation tagline read: “Before Romeo and Juliet, there was Tristan and Isolde.”  This book is a feminist retelling of the classic legend.  Miles uses Morte D’Arthur as the source material for this series and stays remarkably close to the original text, but also infusing it with the matriarchal culture of pre-Christian Britain.

The novel opens as the Queen of Ireland, Isolde’s mother, is urged into attacking Cornwall by her lover, Sir Marhaus.  Marhaus challenges King Mark of Cornwall to single combat. Knowing Cornwall has no knight that can best Marhaus, Merlin goes in search of Sir Tristan of Lyonesse, who is the nephew of King Mark. 

Led to Cornwall by the Lady of the Sea, Tristan arrives in time to answer the challenge.  In the duel, Marhaus is killed, but Tristan is wounded by a poisoned dagger.  Feeling responsible for his injury, Merlin takes it upon himself to protect Tristan.  He boards a boat to Ireland in search of the best healer in the British Isles, Isolde.

As Tristan recovers, he and Isolde fall in love, but circumstances are against them.  Tristan cannot stay in Ireland while the Queen seeks revenge for the death of her lover, and soon Isolde finds herself betrothed to King Mark in order to make peace.  On the voyage from Ireland to Cornwall, Tristan and Isolde admit their love for each other and begin a secret romance. 

Miles adds layers to Tristan and Isolde that most of the older classic legends are lacking.  She also includes a great deal of Irish and Cornish history and culture into the story.  Although this book is a fantasy, the legend of Camelot is founded in British history, and Miles expands the worldview appropriately.  I am curious to know if the subplots that don’t seem at all related to Tristan and Isolde will come to mean something more in later novels in this series or if they are Miles’s way of broadening the setting.

I don’t like to judge a series by the ending of the first installment.  They often have ‘conclusions’ that I don’t particularly care for, but I love the overall story. Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle has one of those endings.  I feel like the hopeful finish betrays the essential theme in this legend.  Considering how closely Miles stayed with the source material, however, I can only assume the last novel will end according to the legend.

This book is high on my recommended list for anyone who loves Arthurian legend.

Book Information:
Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle by Rosalind Miles.
Three Rivers Press, 2003. 368 pages.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Quality AND Demand

Quality versus demand always seems to come down to a black-and-white, all-or-nothing argument.  The options presented are almost exclusively circulation-based or expert-based collections.  In my experience, these kinds of debates are circular and go nowhere—especially not towards any resolutions.

Libraries are not museums; libraries are not bookstores.  Therefore, we shouldn’t act like we are either.  It’s my personal opinion that we are a unique combination of both.  Libraries are one part responsible for housing our culture and one part accountable to tax payers in our communities.  To that end, we shouldn’t be debating quality versus demand.  We should be having conversations about balancing quality and demand.

How do we have both quality and demand in a collection?

One option is leasing a rotating collection of popular titles.  Subscription services such as McNaughton exist for this very purpose.  Any of the leased books can be purchased from McNaughton for a discounted price if the library wants it to become part of the permanent collection.  That decision to purchase can be made by librarians and patrons.  Librarians could select books based on quality.  Patrons, on the other hand, show their reading preference through check-outs.  The collections manager could decide that after a McNaughton book has been checked out a certain number of times, it becomes part of the permanent collection.

One justification for discarding quality classics is that libraries have limited shelf space.  With a rotating collection, that becomes a moot point.  If there are too many McNaughton books to fit on the shelves, we see which ones have been checked out the least and send them back to make room for new titles.  When the permanent collection gets too large, it would be a matter of responsible weeding.  That is, not using circulation as the only reason for discarding books.

As to the budget, I think this is also the more responsible model.  Quality books are a one-time investment that will stay in the collection for years.  Although they may be checked out less, it is not a “waste” of money if a $30 book remains in the collection for 30 years.  It also fulfills the obligation to the people who fund the library.  Instead of purchasing 30 copies of a book that will be popular for a year, we can lease 30 copies of that title.  When its popularity fades, we can ship the 30 books back to McNaughton and get 30 copies of the next big thing on our shelves.  Or if its popularity doesn’t fade, we can move as many copies into our permanent collection as we think we need.

Is this the perfect resolution?  Probably not.  Subscription services cost money, and libraries are always scrambling for funding.  There is also the added hassle of negotiating a contract that fits your library.  But I think it is an idea with many merits, not the least of which is compromise.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

Historical fiction is among my favorite genres.  I was so looking forward to reading in historical fiction that I had a really hard time narrowing down the stack of books to just one.  In the end, I selected The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory.

Gregory is famous for her series of novels about the Tudor royals, especially The Other Boleyn Girl.  I decided on The Constant Princess because the main character is Katherine of Aragon, and she is a historical figure I have always greatly admired, whereas I have regarded the other Tudors with mild disdain.  I like the Plantagenet kings, especially Richard III after reading his biography by Paul Murray Kendall.

The Constant Princess begins with a scene from Katherine’s childhood on the battlefields of Spain.  From the earliest moments, Katherine (born Catalina) is trained to be a ruling queen by her mother, Queen Isabella, and her father, King Ferdinand.  When Catalina leaves her home and travels to England, she is confronted by a whole new world.  She finds that the weather is extreme, the social norms strange, and the courtly manners uncouth.  Born to be Queen of England, however, she must adapt herself to her new home.  Catalina finds comfort in her husband, Prince Arthur, but their happiness is short-lived.  They have been married only nine months when he dies.

The politics of England are harsh for Catalina following Arthur’s death.  The only way to fulfill her ambitions of becoming Queen of England is to say her marriage to Arthur was not consummated and convince the Kings of England and Spain to betroth her to Prince Harry.  This she does, though she first lives in poverty and insignificance at court.  As queen, Katherine is every bit as adept as her mother, Isabella.  She feels threatened by only one fact – her inability to produce a male heir.  The novel concludes with the birth of Princess Mary, Katherine’s only surviving child, who will become Queen Mary I follow the death of Henry VIII.

As opposed to most depictions of Katherine of Aragon, Gregory does not write about her in contrast to Anne Boleyn.  In fact, Anne Boleyn is mentioned only in the epilogue. I found it a refreshing take on the story.  Given the turmoil Henry VIII created for Anne Boleyn’s sake, it is her story we remember most, yet Katherine was queen for 20 years, and very much beloved by the English people.  More so, in fact, than Anne Boleyn ever was.

I began this novel a great fan of Katherine of Aragon, and though I still remain one, Gregory’s novel has sobered my opinion of her.  While depicting Katherine as a strong woman and great queen, she reminds readers that to survive in a royal court takes courage, resilience, and more than a little scheming. 

In novels like this, there is a chance that the story will not be engaging.  After all, we know the ending of Katherine of Aragon’s story.  What I loved about Gregory’s novel was the insight into Katherine’s actions and character.  I’m curious now about how she depicts the Tudors.  Despite my love of the Plantagenet kings, I know I’ll be reading more of Gregory’s novels in the future.

Book Information:
The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory.
Touchstone, 2005. 393 pages.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I’ve had a strange relationship with A Thousand Splendid Suns.  I knew it would be an amazing book because it was recommended by a good friend with nearly identical reading preferences to my own.  All the same, I didn’t want to read it.  I avoided the book as much as possible.  I took different paths around my apartment, shelved it incorrectly on my alphabetical bookshelves, and stuffed it into a bag for a week.  Yet when I did pick it up and start reading, I couldn’t put it down.

I didn’t want to read the book because I knew what was coming – a glimpse into the lives of Afghan women.  In some respects, I read about the existence I knew I would.  There was all the oppression, abuse, and violence I knew there would be.  But I also found something else in this book that I did not expect – hope, grace, and moments of happiness.

A Thousand Splendid Suns tells the story of two Afghan women set against the chaotic political turmoil of the last thirty years.  Miriam is born a harami—an illegitimate child—in Herat and raised in a small country shack.  At the age of fifteen, she is given in marriage to Rasheed and taken far from her home to Kabul. 

Laila is a child of the next generation.  She is born the night the Soviets invade Afghanistan, and her life is marked by that war.  Both brothers killed in the jihad fighting for the Mujahedeen, Laila is left to care for her inconsolable mother and fulfill all the aspirations her academic father had for his children.  For comfort, she has only her friends.  Among them is Tariq, whom she has fallen in love with.  At age fourteen, Laila is cast adrift by Tariq’s departure for Pakistan and the missile that kills her parents.

Miriam and Laila’s lives collide in a way as violent as the wars ravaging Kabul.  Taken as the second wife of Rasheed, Laila is pitted by him as Miriam’s rival.  The women find solace in each other, however, when the lowliness of their lives unites them. 

I was, at first, unsure if Hosseini could do justice to this story.  I am naturally skeptical of men writing about a woman’s life (and vice versa) because I believe we experience the world in different ways.  I thought the same thing when I read She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb.  Hosseini won me over much more quickly than Lamb with his sharp insights and empathy.

A Thousand Splendid Suns reminds me of the ancient Greek tragedies.  There is no happiness for Miriam and Laila.  I found hope, however, in the way these two women refuse to submit themselves to the life they are proscribed.  Whatever they endure, they still find the strength to continue on, and that strength comes from their ability to love.  I won’t say this is an uplifting story.  I cried plenty while reading this book, and at some unexpected places.  I will say that this book celebrates the human spirit and, for that reason, the story is not as depressing as it seems at first glance.

Book Information:
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Riverhead Trade, 2007.  432 pages.