Monthly Archives: March 2010

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan

Cro-Magnon by Brian Fagan

Climate change is not just a modern issue for humans.  Thus is the main statement of Brian Fagan’s Cro-Magnon.  Modern humans owe a lot of their cultural development to adjustments we were forced to make to adapt to fluctuating temperatures and precipitation levels, and our ability to adapt quickly is what made us survive and Neanderthals fade away.

Fagan presents Cro-Magnons to the reader with an astonishing amount of thoroughness.  He discusses tool and weapon development, hunting techniques, clothing and shelter creation, art, and possible religious beliefs in detail.  But first he talks about Neanderthals.

Neanderthals, Fagan argues, had an essentially static and conservative culture that did not develop its own adaptations to the environment quickly.  They were cognitively challenged compared to Cro-Magnons, and could not communicate like we do.  I found this interesting, since he does talk about Neanderthals possessing some of the same technological abilities as Cro-Magnons at about the same time Cro-Magnons developed them.  He claims that they were mimicking what Cro-Magnons had already figured out, and that they lacked the ability to actually think out new ways of handling environmental change.  But hasn’t he argued against himself here?  Isn’t the ability to take someone else’s innovation and use it to your advantage rather clever, actually?  And where did they get their technology from before Cro-Magnon appeared on the scene?  I find the dismissal of Neanderthals’ mental abilities and capabilities a little disingenuous — they were competent and smart creatures.

The rest of the book, though, has a very scholarly feel to it.  The information contained within is detailed beyond imagining.  So much so that it took me back to my physical anthropology class in college, in which I had to read a lot of academic articles on things like prehistoric middens and the earliest known hominid.  Fagan says that the more interested reader should take a look at the articles in his bibliography, but I can’t imagine any but the most die-hard anthropology enthusiast will need to look someplace else for comprehensive information on general Cro-Magnon culture and its changes over time.

And changes are what Fagan concentrates on.  He examines the culture at specific points in time, and discusses how the climate shaped the ways Cro-Magnons went about living life.  For example, reindeer were at one time much more common in Europe because of the lower temperatures.  Because they were more abundant, quite a few Cro-Magnon settlements depended on the annual reindeer migrations as their major source of meat, fat and skins for the winter.  I found this fascinating, since I was vaguely aware that, yes, climate dictated some adaptations, but Fagan masterfully shows how the outside world really has shaped human cultural development since our beginnings.

This is quite an impressive book.  I’d recommend it to those who are interested in the development of humans in Europe.  For both the lay reader and those who are coming to the topic in a more formal setting, Fagan has assembled a fine work that will satisfy.

Rating: 4/5.

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Filed under 4/5, Advance Reader's Copy, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction

All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg

Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has written several memoirs and family histories, some of which have become bestsellers.  Such is what happened with All Over but the Shoutin’, Bragg’s account of growing up poor and white in the South of the sixties and seventies, and how those events shaped his adult life afterward.

Overall, I like Bragg’s word choice and his insights into others and himself.  He has some creative word choices that work well, and can convey humor and horror equally well.  I particularly like a passage in which he discusses how he felt about his mostly absent father, and how learning about what his father had endured during the Korean War shifted his view of the man; he talks about being “trapped somewhere between [his] long-standing, comfortable hatred and what might have been forgiveness.”

I also can see how he uses the people in his life as symbols of something larger.  He uses his mother’s father as an example of a truly honorable man — the epitome of the best of what the South can be.  On another occasion, he shows us the Braggs, his father’s family:  they kick against one another, they brawl.  But isn’t that what the working poor do, is struggle against what they are in order to attempt to either accept or reject a larger society that has already made up its mind about them?

Bragg’s writing style, does, however, leave a bit to be desired on occasion.  It sometimes strikes me as overly sentimental and cloying; it feels as if he is trying to force me into feeling.  At times he uses colloquialisms within the exposition, and not just during dialogue, which strikes me as a play-up of the Southern stereotype that he claims to have struggled against all his life.  Not only does this seem disingenuous, but it also weakens his work.  He’s a talented and gifted man when writing in an unflavored and unforced manner.

I truthfully enjoyed Bragg’s exploration of his adult life.  It appears to me that part of his tale is that his life is an adaptation to his upbringing, that he is who he is, and cannot change.  We see this echoed in his discussions of his mother, his father, his brothers, Sam and Mark.  These people are who they are, and do not alter their behavior.  His father drinks and abandons them.  His mother works and worries.  Sam is a hard-working handy man.  Mark drinks and gets in trouble with the law.  They do not change.

Can Bragg change?  He can certainly, through his talent and hard work, move up in the eyes of larger society — he can move up tax brackets, have a fellowship at Harvard, win awards, work at one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world.  But the inside is still angry and bitter about how his life was.

It is amazing, the amount of compassion and feeling he can bring for the people of Haiti, for poor Southern churchgoing people who are struck down in an accident, for the homeless.  He cannot bring that same compassion and understanding for people who are middle class or upper class.  He cannot consider any of their problems to be real problems, and therein lies my issue with his book.  Bragg has accepted goals and values that all of American society considers admirable ones — to pursue a successful career, to provide for his mother, to be good to his family — but doesn’t make the connection that, by accepting those values and goals, he must also embrace the people who have helped form them.  We are all worth a second look, a sympathetic ear, until we prove ourselves unworthy of it.

Until Rick Bragg fully realizes this, he’s still going to have that chip on his shoulder, and he’s going to miss out on a lot because of it.

Rating: 3/5.

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Filed under 3/5, Book review, Mixed, Nonfiction

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Isaac Asimov.  I’m thinking middle school was probably when I read my last Foundation series book.  But I’m always sure I’ll like him in a certain sense, if for no other reason than the same that keeps me from forgetting that I have a similar love-hate relationship with Heinlein and picking out one of his books to read: the weirdly unbalanced way men and women work in their fictional worlds.  Somehow neither thought about a growing equality of the sexes, and both, for the most part, left it out in fundamental ways in a lot of their work.

Sure, Heinlein has sexual liberation in a lot of his fiction, of a sort, but the traditional roles still exist for the most part, with women submitting to men on the important stuff.

I actually enjoy watching the odd interplay — Asimov was able to envision flying cars, robots, and, strangely enough, something extremely similar to applied stem cell technology — but women are stifled.  They are either homemakers who are irrationally cruel to their children, or are employed but not taken as seriously as their male counterparts until they have bent over backward to prove their abilities.

Dr. Calvin, the protagonist, is indeed a woman.  She’s intensely professional, but also portrayed as cut off from her emotions, other than when she is lied to about a matter of the heart; then she’s emotional and cruelly destroys a robot who only did what it was programmed to do.  Colleagues dismiss her at one point, telling a man unacquainted with her that she’s neurotic and that she shouldn’t be taken seriously.  This strikes me as interesting, seeing as a man in a previous section put a coworker’s life in danger without letting him know — and gets to keep his job without penalty.

Another issue I have with Asimov’s writing is the tendency toward text as long monologues.  That’s a part of a lot of science fiction, though, and I’m more than willing to overlook it for the wonder of the story.  It’s a wonderful exploration of the social impacts of sentient machines, and was thoroughly enjoyable to read.

Rating: 3/5.

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Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is one of those books that is a product of its time.  Julia Strachey, the author, was of Virginia Woolf’s time — in fact, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press.   It is put forth today as a “forgotten twentieth-century novel” by the current publishers, and I think that’s a fair assessment.  The book has a limited audience it speaks to, and others are not likely to pick it up.  Despite that, I think that it is a good depiction of British women of a certain class and time and their relationships; it is thus worth reading if only for the insight it gives into the time period.

The book takes place in the home of Dolly Thatcham, a bride-to-be dressing for her wedding.  The house is full, from the visiting relatives and guests to the servants, and her confused mother looks after it all.  Dolly appears to not have anyone who truly understands her other than Joseph Patten, a former lover, who is unhappily in attendance for the wedding between his still-beloved Dolly and Owen Bigham.  Joseph and Dolly play the game of keeping up appearances, and can even almost do it.

One delightful point of both realism and symbolism was when Dolly, drunk and uncoordinated, manages to spill ink on the front of her wedding dress.  The only one there to help is Joseph, who does — he gets her a lace scarf to drape and pin over the stain.  In it I find both the sign that Dolly’s marriage to Owen will never be a clean start, and also an omen of what is to come from Joseph after the wedding.

I suppose Cheerful Weather for the Wedding could be, and probably is, classified as domestic fiction — after all, the book takes place solely in one house over the events of a part of a day.  In this way, it carries on in the tradition of Jane Austen, taking a careful look at the manners and mores of the time and skewering them.  Unlike Austen, however, Strachey strives to move beyond the manners into a more realistic life depiction.  While Austen would have striven for the characters to cover scandal and to provide for them a mostly happy ending, in this book no one ends up in an enviable position.  In this way Strachey has both honored Austen in her genre choice, while also subverting its conventions and providing it with a more realistic feel.

Overall, I found the story to be a solid one, with some really interesting parts.  It’s not my favorite genre, but it was an enjoyable read.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

Okay, this was a reread, but for good reason.  I finally got a matching set of The Chronicles of Prydain series, and this is the only part that I’ve read before.

Alexander’s influence by Wales and Welsh myth is unmistakable.  The names are patterned after Welsh names.  The landscape he paints is similar to Wales.  The story is structured like those told in the British Isles.  I feel this provides the reader with a familiar and comfortable land in which to enjoy the overall story, which relies on morals that are often found in the traditional stories of the land.

I absolutely love the underlying lessons in this book.  First, there is the sense of growing maturity in the protagonist, Taran.  He goes from a child, longing for excitement and adventure, to a more introspective youth, finding that the peace found at home is something to be treasured above most other things.

Second, we experience his frustration with how his forays into being a hero have ended.  He feels he has failed in all his attempts to be a leader, but is reminded that, even when mistakes are made, if you learn from them, they more often than not are worth having been made.

Third, he learns the value of cooperation to reach a goal.  Even if he made mistakes, his companions performed admirably.  They all had their roles to play.  The task was too great for any one person, but a group together can do remarkable things.

As a piece of classic children’s literature, The Book of Three is delightful, and can stand on its own without further reading into the series.  I, for one, do not want to stop here, and will be going on with my exploration of Prydain.

Rating: 5/5.

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Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

Small Gods is the thirteenth book in Terry Pratchett’s DiscWorld series, and the second in the Gods subseries.  I’ll be honest and say that I unabashedly love Pratchett, so you may take this entire review with a grain of sand.

Let’s first talk about the structure.  Like any DiscWorld book, Small Gods has no chapters.  It consists of sections of text broken by blank lines, which form a buffer between sections.  This provides for a smooth flow of text and has the added benefit of having a more lifelike feel — real people don’t have their lives neatly broken into chapters, and neither to Pratchett’s characters.

The one thing I missed from Small Gods was the scarcity of the footnotes.  Footnotes are another hallmark of Pratchett’s work, providing amusing asides about topics only tangentially related to the story.  Earlier books had a plethora of them, and they were sometimes overwhelming, but at this point in the series, they’re too rare!  More footnotes!

Small Gods is, unsurprisingly, about religion and belief.  Pratchett skewers religion’s bureaucracy, showing how power becomes transferred from the god to the people in the church.  Due to this fear of what people in power can do, believers stop truly believing and merely make the show of religion to avoid repercussions; true belief is an unbelievably rare thing.

Pratchett also provides an interesting undertone to the book in the exploration of character.  At one point, the god Om says to his one believer, Brutha, “You can’t read a mind.  You might as well try and read a river.  But seeing the shape’s easy.”  Pratchett makes the reader think about the underlying structure of a person.  Are we predestined to be a certain way —  smart or dumb, coy or honest?  Are we fated to be who we are — and can our nature ever really change, even after a full life of experience?  These are interesting questions.

I found Small Gods a delight to read.  If you’re the type of reader who enjoys humorous fantasy that also makes you reflect on serious topics, you can’t go wrong picking this book.

Rating: 5/5.

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