Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Book Review: Ethiopia: The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdom by Mary Anne Fitzgerald with Philip Marsden

Photography by: Nigel Pavitt, Frederic Courbet, Justus Mulinge, Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher

Pros: gorgeous pictures, informative text

Cons: less information than expected, some sites get one or two photos while others get several

The book starts off with an introduction on the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church, which differs in may respects from other Christian denominations both in practice and beliefs (their version of the Bible contains 81 books. Contrast this with the 66 books in the King James Version used by Protestants, the fewest number of books used by a Christian denomination). There’s also a short section on some of the important Ethiopian saints, whose images decorate the churches.

The churches themselves are separated by geography: Aksum and Tigray, Lalibela and Lasta, Gondar and Lake Tana. It covers 66 churches. There’s a short section with amazing photographs of the major religious festivals. The books ends with a useful glossary of terms and some notes (the notes on photography are interesting as they point out how challenging getting such complete and well lit photographs was).

This is a gorgeous coffee table book. It’s massive (10” x 13.5”, and 2” thick). There are 520 glossy pages full of photographs. There’s minimal text on each church, just enough information to introduce it. Some of the photo captions mention fascinating tidbits that are worth reading (like notes on when certain images started being portrayed in churches. For example, images of the Deposition of Christ (Christ being taken down from the Cross) only show up after the Jesuits started preached in the country in the late 1500s).

In a few cases I was disappointed by how few photos there were of a particular monument. Abba Garima, an important monastery and forbidden to women does not have a single image from inside the church, nor is there an explanation for this (like they were unable to enter/photograph it). In contrast, the monastery of Debre Damo, also off limits to women, has some excellent photographs of the buildings and ceiling.

The photos themselves are clear with a lot of detail. It’s obvious a lot of work went into them.

If you are interested in Ethiopia, the expanded Christian church, architecture or religious art, this book is worth the price.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Five Books That Would Summon Me

Yesterday I saw a post by Christina Orlando (@cxorlando) on twitter asking the following question: What five books would someone put in a pentagram to summon you?

My first reaction was to think of 5 books I love to read and reread. Should I say one per subgenre? Ones I’ve read the most and had a big impact on me growing up? And I started mentally listing books I could use.

Then it occurred to me. If you were summoning me with magic, 5 books I love wouldn’t be enough. They would have to be books that dealt with the core of who I am as a person, books that get at the essence of what makes me ‘me’.

1) The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. It’s a slow opening fantasy so it’s hard to recommend now, but it’s the first fantasy novel I really loved. It opened me up to the genre and to my love of reading in general.

2) The Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were by Robert Ingpen. I loved mythology and supernatural creatures growing up and was thrilled to find this book in my public school library. It’s a meaty hardcover that goes over so many things (living and not). It’s the first book I special ordered and still sits by my chair.

3) Sailor Moon manga #2 by Naoko Takeuchi. One of the first anime I really watched was Sailor Moon. In university I started watching other shows and picked up some MIXX (now Tokyopop) manga, the first official translations. The second issue has a scene where Sailor Moon saves Tuxedo Mask and he marvels at how much she’s grown as a person since he first met her. One of my professors in university, when talking about the middle ages (my major) pointed out that most people were illiterate back then, just as many tourists learn how to speak foreign languages but never learn to read and write them. I loved the Japanese language and their music so I started teaching myself hiragana and katakana, the Japanese syllabaries. This came in handy a few years later when I moved to Japan. My language skills are pretty poor (despite a LOT of effort it seems I’m just not good at languages) but I still love the sounds and listen to Japanese music all the time.

4) Let’s Go Western Europe 2004 travel guide. After coming home from Japan I took some of the money I made and travelled around Europe. I figured I didn’t have an apartment, job, or significant other, so it was the perfect time to see the places I studied in school. It was an amazing trip and still inspires me. I LOVE travelling. The world is such a remarkable place. I love learning about new cultures, their history, traditions, food. I’m going to Ethiopia soon after learning about some of their natural and historic monuments.

5) I haven’t been able to finalize my choice for this book. I’ve considered a couple of things. High on that list is the Biblical Book of Revelations. I was very religious growing up and loved reading about the end of the world. (I was a weird kid.) When I left that church I stayed clear of all religious stuff for several years but I’ve started reading esoteric literature again (Book of Enoch, Book of Jubilees). Not so much because I want to know how the world is going to end, but because it says so much about people of the past: how they thought about life, the afterlife, what’s considered ‘evil’. In fact, I’m enjoying studying Judaic legends and versions of Christianity and would like to get to Islam and some of its beliefs soon.

I could add a medieval history or art history book. Maybe one about cathedrals - my main focus, or illuminated manuscripts. Or maybe history ties in to travel, as most of the places I go are because I’ve learned about their history and want to see those things for myself.

A cookbook? I enjoy cooking though I don’t know that there’s a specific cookbook that’s influenced me more than others.

Some sort of craft book? Something about making cards or painting? Or drawing?

Maybe a comic book. I collected X-Men comics for several years and there were some highly influential storylines.

Ah! I have it. But I can’t tell you what it is. I don’t want to be summoned by a magic circle. Those sorts of spells always go poorly - for both parties.

It’s a fun question though. What are the five books that speak to your soul? You don’t have to answer publicly. Just ask yourself what books have the most meaning - true meaning - to you.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Movie Review: The Circle

Directed by James Ponsoldt, 2017
IMDb listing

Pros: interesting premise, some terrifying ideas

Cons: brings up issues but doesn’t examine them, ambiguous ending

Mae’s happy landing a job at The Circle, a social networking company bringing people together. But the corporate culture is very demanding. When she makes a bad decision she starts an experiment that changes the world.

Based on a book by Dave Eggers, this film delves into the question of how willing people should be to give up their privacy in return for safety and connectivity. It asked some great questions, but didn’t do such a great job of answering or even examining those questions.

Mae, played excellently by Emma Watson, agrees to wear a camera at all times, streaming her every action to the world. Let that sink in for a moment. Bathroom privacy aside (she can turn the camera off for 3 minutes) everything she does is open for public consumption. As an introvert I immediately balked at the lack of privacy inherent in this decision. The company implies that wanting to be alone is somehow wrong and anti-social. I liked that the film showed Mae’s lack of intimacy once she put the camera on: no one was willing to talk about their problems with her and she couldn’t really share her own. The film points out that when people know they’re being watched they tend to act better, but failed to address the fact that people generally stop being genuine. They ‘act’ for the camera. And while that’s fine in smaller doses - if you’re an extrovert - few people would want their more ‘negative’ emotions broadcast (depression, grief) not to mention those things everyone does to make life easier (gossip, gripe, complain about loved ones, friends, co-workers, bosses). Complaining about people is one of the social glues that allow people to function in society, but while it can be good for the complainer’s mental health, you wouldn’t want the subject of those conversations to know about them. Humans need outlets for frustration and anger, and the entire ending undercuts that. More cameras won’t solve those problems, they’ll just exacerbate them.

I feel as if the film didn’t do a very good job of showing what the company’s owners had done that was bad, that didn’t include the company as a whole. Yes, the policies were bad (from a privacy stand point), but getting rid of the owners wouldn’t change that policy, especially since Mae wanted even more cameras and privacy breaking to continue. The ending is propelled by a death caused by one of the programs she supported and yet it expands on the programs that caused the death in the first place. There was a great opportunity to talk about the power of mobs to do good and evil that the film completely ignored. I was shocked that the death didn’t make Mae realize just how bad mobs can be. Even with the previous search I expected a more negative outcome.

There were also some comments in the middle of the film that I questioned. At one point the idea came up for it to be mandatory for people to get accounts with this privately owned for-profit corporation and that membership would be how people were registered to vote and do other government affiliated things. I can’t imagine any government giving a private company such power. Not to mention the damage it could do if it got hacked or if the company decided to subvert democracy and change votes from the inside. None of which was brought up by the film.

The characters were all interesting. I loved the inclusion of Mae’s father having a chronic illness and how the need for health insurance affected her early decisions. The supporting cast was all brilliant: Karen Gillan as her friend, Bill Paxton as her father, Tom Hanks as one of the owners, and John Boyega as a concerned employee.

I liked the questions the movie asked but didn’t think it examined them with the necessary depth and found the ending unsatisfying. I find myself wanting to discuss it, so it would be great to watch with a group of friends.


Thursday, 5 September 2019

Shout-Out: Overdrawn by N. J. Crosskey

Henry Morris is watching his wife slip away from him. In an ageist society, where euthanasia is encouraged as a patriotic act, dementia is no longer tolerated.

Kaitlyn, a young waitress, is desperate for the funds to keep her brother's life support machine switched on.

When a chance encounter brings the two together, they embark on an unconventional business arrangement that will force them to confront their prejudices, as well as their deepest, darkest secrets.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Book Review: Towards a Global Middle Ages Edited by Bryan C. Keene

Pros: essays on a wide range of places and periods

Cons: dense prose, some essays a challenge to read

The book begins with a prologue followed by an introduction. The introduction starts with highly academic prose in its explanation of why it’s important to broaden the field of medieval studies into a global discussion, acknowledging that the field has centred heavily on Europe and ignored the many points of contact (via trade, religion, war, etc.) with nations outside Europe. The editor points out that the world has always been global, and at a time when nationalists and white supremacists are turning history into polemics on segregation it’s past time medievalists broadened their studies to show how interconnected peoples of the past truly were. He then gives short descriptions about manuscript traditions throughout the world during this period.

This is followed by a quick time line of the items mentioned in the essays to follow. The book is separated into four parts, each with an introductory essay: Glimpsing a Global Middle Ages (5 essays and 1 case study), The Intermediality of “the book”: Bound, Rolled, and Folded Textual Objects (3 essays and 2 case studies), Identity: Finding One’s Place in the Medieval World (3 essays and 3 case studies), and Itineraries from the Atlantic to the Pacific: Travel, Circulation, and Exchange (3 essays and 3 case studies). The book ends with an Epilogue that goes over the importance of museums in creating collections and exhibitions that foster a more global outlook.

This is a book for academics. While the case studies are accessible to a wider audience, most of the essays are not. I struggled through several of them due to dense prose. Having said that, the struggle was worth it as I learned quite a lot about the challenges of including certain areas of the world in a medieval discourse (like how most artifacts containing writing as well as wooden carvings in tropical climates have decomposed, making it difficult to study pre-modern eras). I loved that the essays spoke of wildly different areas including Ethiopia, China, India, and Mexico.

Several of the case studies mentioned a lot of interesting details and I finished the book with the intention of looking up several of the manuscripts mentioned (the end notes give web addresses if they’ve been digitized).

The standouts for me were the case study: “Traveling Medicine: Medieval Ethiopian Amulet Scrolls and Practitioners’ Handbooks” by Eyob Derillo and the essay by Sylvie Merian, “Reproducing the Resurrection: From European Prints to Armenian Manuscripts”, which both dealt with topics I find fascinating.

The globalization of medieval studies is important and it’s great seeing a collection that brings researchers from different disciplines together. This is a challenging book to read, but worth the effort you put in.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Books Received in August 2019

My thanks to Saga Press for sending me the following books.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone - An excellent time travel novella with a romantic underpinning. I reviewed it here.

In the ashes of a dying world, Red finds a letter marked “Burn before reading. Signed, Blue.”
So begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents in a war that stretches through the vast reaches of time and space.
Red belongs to the Agency, a post-singularity technotopia. Blue belongs to Garden, a single vast consciousness embedded in all organic matter. Their pasts are bloody and their futures mutually exclusive. They have nothing in common—save that they’re the best, and they’re alone.
Now what began as a battlefield boast grows into a dangerous game, one both Red and Blue are determined to win. Because winning’s what you do in war. Isn’t it?
A tour de force collaboration from two powerhouse writers that spans the whole of time and space.

Foe by Iain Reid - While I saw the twist coming, it's a great atmospheric read. My review of it is here.

A taut, psychological mind-bender from the bestselling author of I’m Thinking of Ending Things
We don’t get visitors. Not out here. We never have. 
Junior and Hen are a quiet married couple. They live a comfortable, solitary life on their farm, far from the city lights, but in close quarters with each other. One day, a stranger from the city arrives with surprising news: Junior has been randomly selected to travel far away from the farm...very far away. The most unusual part? Arrangements have already been made so that when he leaves, Hen won’t have a chance to miss him at all, because she won’t be left alone—not even for a moment. Hen will have company. Familiar company. 
Foe examines the nature of domestic relationships, self-determination, and what it means to be (or not to be) a person. An eerily entrancing page-turner, it churns with unease and suspense from the first words to its shocking finale.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Shout-Out: Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff

Remember your just-in-cases. Beware tall buildings. Always have your knives.

Raised in isolation by her mother and Maeve on a small island off the coast of a post-apocalyptic Ireland, Orpen’s life has revolved around training to fight a threat she’s never seen. More and more she feels the call of the mainland, and the prospect of finding other survivors.

But that is where danger lies, too, in the form of the flesh-eating menace known as the skrake.

Then disaster strikes. Alone, pushing an unconscious Maeve in a wheelbarrow, Orpen decides her last hope is abandoning the safety of the island and journeying across the country to reach the legendary banshees, the rumored all-female fighting force that battles the skrake.

But the skrake are not the only threat…