The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Rudolf Erich Raspe, illustrated by Gustave Dore, 3/5
The ridiculous and fantastical exploits of Baron Munchausen remind me very much of the tall tales told of American folk heroes Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan. In fact, I so firmly associate this aesthetic with 19th- and 20th-century America that I really struggled to reconcile it with 18th-century Germany. I looked in vain for an undercurrent of serious political satire, but none was to be found. Even the illustrations seemed implausible: Gustave Doré is best known for his extremely serious engravings of Biblical scenes. I had to verify that he was even capable of depictions like Baron Munchausen’s butt plugging a hole in a leaky ship, while a school of fish look on in obvious shock. This book should not exist but it’s so bonkers that I’m glad it does (even if it’s not exactly my cup of tea).
Why I read it: another one from the list of 10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.
The Sagas of Icelanders
The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, Preface by Jane Smiley, Introduction by Robert Kellogg, 5/5
I’m not usually one to complain about scholarly features such as an extensive introduction, maps, diagrams, summaries, analysis, etc., but by page 73, I was ready to just get to the fun stories already! By any standard definition of “fun,” I would have quite a while longer to wait; the first saga’s opening paragraphs read about as smoothly as a cross between the Old Testament and War and Peace. Once I gave up trying to remember who was who’s father’s best friend’s son and where they came from and where they were going, I was able to enjoy the dramatic events for their human interest without getting too bogged down by genealogical, geographical and historical details.
That is not to say that I learned nothing about Norse culture along the way. The stories in this book corrected many misconceptions I had about Viking life; yes, they glorified masculinity to a level that many today would find intolerable, but they were far from being merely uncivilized, lawless barbarians. In fact, they had well-defined legislative and judicial infrastructure (though the enforcement of laws and rulings sometimes required one to show up with a large group of armed friends) and more respect for women’s rights than might be expected. While there are fantastical elements to some of the stories (especially the shorter tales at the end of the book), the overall tone was much more prosaic and historical than I expected.
Why I read it: I have read traditional stories from many cultures and this thrift store find piqued my curiosity. I started it while in the ER the weekend my son was born, then re-started it once I caught my breath over a year later!
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
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
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
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
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
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.