Scottish Castles: An Introduction to the Castles of Scotland by W. Douglas Simpson, 3/5
Little more than a glorified pamphlet, this small book still manages to address the major eras of Scottish castle-building between the 12th and 17th centuries, briefly addressing the historical contexts that affected changes in architectural styles. Starting with the simple motte and bailey structures of the 1100s, the reader encounters the stone towers and walled courtyards of the 1200s and the evolution of tower-houses between the 1300s and 1600s from simple rectangles to L-shapes and Z-shapes. There are a good number of black-and-white photos and floor plans, but pairing them with the relevant text requires a lot of flipping back and forth. Also, as might be expected in such a small book, many references go sadly un-illustrated and there is no glossary. Needless to say, I am still on the hunt for the ideal book about castles!
Why I read it: a used-book-store find that caught my eye.
Princess Kaiulani: The Last Hope of Hawaii’s Monarchy by Kristin Zambucka, 3/5
This book’s best feature is its generous selection of stunning, historical photos, which are given pride of place, accompanied by numerous excerpts from Princess Kaiulani’s personal correspondence. The author’s written contributions are very sparse and basic, resulting in an overall effect that is more scrapbook-like than literary.
I have now read two accounts of Hawaii’s transition to statehood and they could not be more different from each other. This tale of the forcible removal of the native Hawaiian monarchy by a bevy of white business owners and politicians was certainly more believable than the whitewashed, weaselly portrayal of the islands’ “liberation” depicted in Hawaii: A History.
Why I read it: The Princess has languished in a box of music books for as long as I can remember, but during a recent reorganization, I decided it was about time she was read and put on the shelf with the others.
Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally, 4/5
Many books have been written about the inhumanity of Nazi Germany during WWII, but fewer portray the bureaucracy. Behind the scenes, the business of war gave Oskar Schindler an opportunity to leverage the “ordinary” vices of extraordinarily evil men in order to save Jewish lives. Almost all of the seven deadly sins make an appearance as Schindler schmoozes, name-drops, threatens, cajoles, bribes, wines and dines his way through the war. A man who, at the beginning of the story, could barely be described as “decent” transforms into a fanatic who risks everything to sabotage the German war effort and protect his Jewish workers. It is a fascinating tale, both from a historical and a psychological perspective, though the author’s writing style is a bit dry and idiosyncratic.
Why I read it: I’ve never been motivated to watch the film (way too depressing for movie night) so I was excited to come across the book instead.
Hawaii: A History; From Polynesian Kingdom to American Statehood, by Ralph S. Kuykendall and A. Grove Day, 1/5
Reading history books doesn’t usually outrage me; after all, there is nothing you can do to change the past. However, I soon became incensed by these authors’ relentless attempts to whitewash Hawaiian history and marginalize indigenous culture. Fourteen centuries of native history predating the arrival of the first European explorer in 1778 are relegated to one short chapter (fewer than 10 pages). After that, this book is a drooling panegyric to the wonderful white people who “civilized” Hawaii and eventually earned Hawaiians the ultimate prize of U.S. statehood.
It is insulting, embarrassing, and truly obnoxious, the way this book idolizes the cultural invasion perpetrated by Europeans and Americans as they exploited Hawaii for its resources during a relentless and mercenary takeover of the economy and government of what was once an independent island kingdom. At every turn, the authors use blatantly biased language to present foreign influences in the best possible light–even the infamous Captain Cook is portrayed as a Pretty Good Guy, quite at odds with the testimony of events.
I was particularly startled to learn that the multi-billion dollar Dole Food Company got its start during Sanford B. Dole’s 30-year involvement in Hawaiian politics (including serving as president and later territorial governor). You don’t have to be a crazy conspiracy theorist to think that this is all a bit sketchy, but the authors studiously avoid questioning Dole’s to-them-unimpeachable motives and ethics. In fact, if I hadn’t looked into the topic further, based on Dole’s last name and its connection with tropical fruit, I never would have known.
While it is tempting to let the outrage flow unchecked and there are certainly plenty of blatantly exploitative and unethical events for which to blame the “haoles,” I have to admit that the situation was messier and more ethically complex than it might seem at first. After all, it did not take long for the first outsiders to establish their own families, quickly resulting in multiple generations of Hawaiian-born, non-indigenous people (including Sanford B. Dole himself) who all had social rights and responsibilities to exercise. I can’t pretend to know what policies would have resulted in the most fair and beneficial outcomes in 19th- and 20th-century Hawaii, but I do know that the authors’ bias and agenda-driven interpretation of events is insulting, intellectually dishonest, and completely inappropriate for a book of history.
Why I read it: A thrift store find that reminded me how little I know about my own Hawaiian heritage.
Discovering Antique Maps by A.G. Hodgkiss, 4/5
This is more of a booklet than a proper book, but it still contains a satisfying amount of basic information on the characteristics of maps from ancient times through the 19th century. There are a decent number of black and white illustrations, but I longed for more and for colored ones as well. I think this book serves its purpose of whetting the reader’s appetite without overwhelming with too much dry information. After reading it, I feel a greater appreciation for antique maps and also that I might be able to look at them with a greater eye for detail than before.
Why I read it: I think I came across this in a Canadian used bookstore.
Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 4/5
Written by a bona fide Arctic explorer, this book reflects a bygone era of exploration, when sane men packed up and left on insane adventures into unexplored territory from which they well knew they might never return. Indeed, every one of the five stories in this book involves death or disappearance, often punctuated by the horrors of starvation, betrayal, cannibalism and pure ineptitude. The author is not shy in drawing his own conclusions for each scenario and though his writing style is not the most entertaining, his first-hand experience and rational approach to the information available at the time make for a fascinating read.
I learned a lot from this book, such as that the Arctic, which I once imagined to be an abandoned ice desert, is (or at least, was) actually livable land, teeming with life. Unintuitively, the Inuit would move north during winter due to the abundance of game in the frozen landscape, killing everything from seals to polar bears without the aid of guns (often in territory in which well-armed Europeans managed to starve to death). I also learned a lot about scurvy, its causes and surprising psychological effects. According to Stefansson, scurvy plagued those explorers who tried to maintain a European diet, even when supplemented by fruits and vegetables. It was the author’s strong opinion that a diet consisting solely of native, fatty meat was the best way to stay healthy in the Arctic. It’s strange to think that the ketogenic diet is still controversial after over 80 years of arguments and studies.
Why I read it: an impulse buy in a used book store; for $3, who could resist?
No Holds Barred: The Complete History of Mixed Martial Arts in America by Clyde Gentry III, 2/5
Relentlessly packed with names, dates, dry facts and endless acronyms, this book is about as appealing to read as the world’s longest Wikipedia article (a comparison that could be considered a compliment if you account for the fact that it was written before Wikipedia even existed). The author has performed an impressive amount of research, including a jaw-dropping 125 interviews, but unfortunately seems completely incapable of telling a story, even when equipped with firsthand knowledge of the dramatic events and larger-than-life personas associated with the history of MMA. His blow-by-blow descriptions of classic fights are excruciatingly boring and he somehow sucks all the life out of even the most amusing or astonishing anecdotes. Adding to the faults of the original edition is a half-assed update written 10 years later that sees the clumsy addition of multiple-page “sidebars” (literally marked with bars) that completely disrupt the text’s already inadequate narrative flow, two off-focus chapters tacked onto the end, and multiple references to himself awkwardly as “this author” that made me grind my teeth every time they assaulted my eyes. In the preface, the author mentions that this book was supposed to be the first in a series that “never happened” and, after reading it, there is no question why.
Why I read it: A gift from my dad, accompanied with the warning “it will probably be terrible.”
The Don Flows Home to the Sea by Mikhail Sholokhov, translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry, 2/5
Like other Russian novels I’ve read, this one contains a dizzying array of characters–41 to be exact, according to its “Key to Principal Characters.” This unwieldy list appears at the beginning of the book and is much less helpful than you might expect since it is organized by last name. Once you’ve scanned from “Astakhov, Stepan” to “Zykov, Prokhor,” you’ve likely either forgotten who you were searching for altogether, or why you were interested in the first place. Add to that a writing style that jerks from unrelatable dialogue, to flowery descriptions of scenery, to endless, dry accounts of military movements associated with the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922, and it makes for a very tedious reading experience indeed.
Fortunately, the drama heightened as the story progressed and I felt more invested in the characters and their experiences during the last 400 pages than the first 400. Judging by this trend, I can only assume that if I’d known beforehand that this novel forms the second half of a four-volume work (preceded by And Quiet Flows the Don) and read these books in order, I would have enjoyed it a lot more. It was very interesting to learn about the Russian Civil War from an “inside” point of view, though it is difficult to know to what extent personal bias and political constraints affected the author’s depiction of historical events. I perceived a clear anti-Communist perspective throughout and the author was awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature, but the novel is considered a work of socialist realism and won a Stalin Prize, which seems very contradictory. If anyone can explain this to me, I’d appreciate it!
Why I read it: This copy belonged to my grandfather and has been on the shelf for years. Since I’m trying to read through all my old books, it seemed like a satisfying one to accomplish.
Night by Elie Wiesel, 5/5
This firsthand account of a Jewish teenager’s experience in four German concentration camps during World War II is short, stark and brutal. While most other historical accounts from this era that I have read contain some sliver of hope, faith, humanity, and closure, there is none to be found in Wiesel’s testimony. Presumably these elements are explored in the following, fictional, books of the trilogy, Dawn and Day. There are many disturbing and moving scenes in this book, but strangely, the thing that hit me most was the author’s brief mention of electrical fences around the camp. Some irrational part of me pictures the Holocaust as happening in the dark and distant past, before modern civilization. Realizing that something as thoroughly modern as an electric fence was used to contain innocent men, women and children, 11 million of whom were doomed to die, brings the horror of the Holocaust back to the very near past, where it belongs.
Why I read it: My boyfriend and I found the battered little paperback in a box of his high school relics. If it’s still not required reading, it should be.
Castles: Their Construction and History by Sidney Toy, 2/5
Never has a book more sadly lacked a glossary! In retrospect, I should have created one of my own as I encountered endless, undefined technical terms like “barbican,” “corbel,” and “machicolation.” Because the author is very good at describing castles in painstaking detail and creating architectural drawings, this book has historical value as a record of the condition of various castles at the time of the author’s visits (pre-1939). Unfortunately, however, Sidney Toy is more focused on presenting data than interpreting it, so there is very little narrative flow or sense of the bigger picture as far as castles’ construction and history in general is concerned.
Why I read it: With several castles on the itinerary for a recent trip to Ireland, I was hoping to gain some knowledge on the subject, but this book was disappointingly unhelpful.