BOOK REVIEW: By Water by Jason Landsel & Richard Mommsen

By Water: The Felix Manz StoryBy Water: The Felix Manz Story by Jason Landsel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Release Date: March 21, 2023

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This is a graphic novel-style biography of Felix Manz, a Protestant (Anabaptist) reformer from Zurich during the sixteenth century. Manz and his compatriots had a few beefs with the Catholic church, broadly classified. The first (and most religious / doctrinal) grievance was with respect to how the Church handled baptisms; specifically, infant baptism prevented baptism from being a free choice for the baptized. The second set of grievances involved the priesthood and how priests were moved around at the convenience of the Church and how much money they cost the citizenry. (i.e. They wanted local priests and not to be forced to pay a lot of overhead.) The third complaint was more an entire slate of complaints about resources. In that era, Swiss commoners couldn’t just go hunting in the woods or chop firewood as they needed because the land was under the ownership of the powers that be.

The story of Manz and his followers is intriguing, if one is interested in history. It’s kind of a strange topic to read in comic book form, but as history can be tedious in historical / biographic tomes, this makes for a quick and painless way to take in the story. There are a couple points where the book seems to shift into hagiographic territory (i.e. being difficult to swallow for the non-believer.)

The art is clear and neatly rendered, but I wondered how time-accurate it is. Maybe it is, but the inside of the houses looked pretty much like today (e.g. curtains and furnishings) and I found myself wondering whether its anachronistic or not. Ultimately, I have to give the artist the benefit of the doubt as I know virtually nothing about how Swiss commoners lived in the 1500’s. At the end of the book, there are some appendices that provide more information in prose text.

If you’re interested in European and / or Religious History, you may want to read this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Egyptian Mythology: A Very Short Introduction by Geraldine Pinch

Egyptian Myth: A Very Short IntroductionEgyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction by Geraldine Pinch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

It’s a daunting task to provide a flyover of such a fruitful mythological tradition, one that spanned thousands of years. This book does a mixed job of it. When it’s good – it’s exceptional, and when it’s not – it’s not. One can’t fault a book with this one’s editorial mandate for not being comprehensive. However, one can fault it for not using the little space available in the best manner. The book spends too much time discussing art and artifacts, and (to a less objectionable degree) history. I say “to a less objectionable degree” not because there was less space devoted to history but because having some historical and anthropological background is of benefit to understanding a culture’s stories [more so than knowing about their material possessions.] Until I got to chapter three, I thought the book might have been mistitled and should have been “Egyptology: A Very Short Introduction” because it was such a broad discussion of Egypt and its artifacts.

That said, in chapter three, the book does an excellent job of reviewing the gods of Egyptian Mythology. Thereafter, it meanders back and forth between being an excellent introduction to Egyptian Mythology and a rambling discussion of things Egypt. There’s a fascinating presentation of the conflict between Horus and Seth, but most of the discussion of myths are short summations (often one-liners.)

I don’t have any basis for comparison, and, therefore, couldn’t tell you if there is a better introductory guide to Egyptian Myth. That said, it does a good job of presenting an outline of the subject, but expect to spend a fair amount of time reading about subjects that are, at best, tangential to the stories of ancient Egypt.

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Nellie Bly Limerick

There was a reporter named Nellie Bly:
decided she'd give the asylum a try.
'Twas just for a story.
Doctors lost all glory
when they couldn't tell a nut from a spy.

BOOK REVIEW: Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward

Anarchism: A Very Short IntroductionAnarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Despite having graduate level education in Political Science, I never learned about anarchism. Even as an individual holding libertarian [classically liberal] beliefs, I dismissed anarchism as a philosophy without practical merit, one that failed to grasp the realities of human nature. And I apparently wasn’t alone as all those professors who built the curriculum that I studied didn’t find anarchism worthy of more than a passing mention as the theoretical endpoint on a continuum, a point that could never be reached in reality.

I read this little guide to the history and political philosophy of anarchism to help rectify this gap in my education, and to determine whether I was correct to dismiss anarchism as a pie-in-the-sky ideology of no practical value.

This introductory guide makes the point that anarchists have had influence in areas like labor and education policy. In essence, the book suggests that anarchism isn’t as bleakly devoid of success as it would appear. While we don’t see any functional and long-lived political entities devoid of governance by an organization with a monopoly on use of force, that doesn’t mean anarchist ideas haven’t made an impact.

The book starts with definitions and an overview of those thinkers who made anarchism seem potentially viable. It examines anarchist history and how anarchism related to competing ideologies. There’s a chapter that looks at the individualist / libertarian approaches to anarchism (in contrast to the leftist / socialist strains that dominated the early history of anarchism.) There’s a chapter that investigates the connection between anarchism and federalism. The book ends with a discussion of the green anarchists and how anarchism might move forward (to the degree it does so.)

This was a fine overview, offering insight into anarchist history, philosophy, and the divergences of thinking between anarchist scholars. It’s dry reading, and while that’s almost unavoidable in a book that’s brief, scholarly, and on a specialized subject, I’d say this volume is probably in the lower half of VSI titles for readability. Still, if you’re interested in the subject, it’ll give you the gist in a small package.

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BOOK REVIEW: Native American Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sean Teuton

Native American Literature: A Very Short IntroductionNative American Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sean Teuton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This VSI (Very Short Introduction) stimulates curiosity from its very title. One might be interested in, but not necessarily intrigued by, titles such as: “Native American Folklore,” or “Native American Mythology.” However, when one thinks of the world of Native American story and language-centric art, one is likely to first think of oral storytelling, and then, secondarily, about the immensely popular genre / commercial fiction of someone like Stephen Graham Jones. Even if one is aware of some of the Native American literary works that got widespread attention and praise, works such as Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn” or the poetry of Joy Harajo, one may wonder whether there’s the basis for such a broad overview style book.

That’s just the notion that this book seeks to challenge. That said, until the final two chapters, it doesn’t always feel like the topic is as advertised. That is to say, with the exception of chapter two — which discusses the oral storytelling of various Native American tribes, much of chapters one through five is historical and cultural background designed to provide context for the creation of a Native American literary canon, but without talking about the canon’s components much. Some of the questions addressed include: how Native tribes came to written language, in general, and then to the English language, specifically; how self-image of tribal peoples shifted over time (and how that impacted the nature of written works;) the nature of various strains of Native literature (e.g. literature of resistance v. literature of assimilation, and so on.)

I learned a lot from this brief guide. I’m not going to lie, it does have some sections that are dry and quite scholarly, but it also raises some interesting ideas while introducing the reader to books that will be wholly unfamiliar to some and largely unfamiliar to most.

If you’re interested in how Native American literature came to be, I’d recommend one check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Ferber

Romanticism: A Very Short IntroductionRomanticism: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Ferber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Romanticism was a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement of the late 18th and early 19th century. It’s commonly believed to have been a response to the Enlightenment, a desire to not throw out the baby with the bathwater as the influence of religion waned. In this book, we learn that that’s a misleading oversimplification, but not one completely devoid of truth.

Like a lot of “movements,” Romanticism is a fairly loose set, containing a disparate band of entities. This is exacerbated because it’s not just, say, a style of painting or of music, but rather it cuts across a diverse range of activities. Because of that, the book offers the least clarity in the opening chapters (ch. 1&2) and in the last one (ch. 6.) The first two try to rope in Romanticism and to differentiate it from “sensibility,” a movement oft-confused for Romanticism. The last chapter attempts to show the commonality that cuts across different domains, e.g. how are Romantic paintings similar to Romantic novels, or – for that matter – Idealist philosophy.

However, starting with chapter three, the book provides clear insight into the nature of Romanticism. Chapter three investigates poetry. Chapter four examines philosophy and Romantic attitudes towards religion and science. This was quite eye opening to me because I’d previously contrasted Romanticism with the Enlightenment, and here I learned that the Romantics’ views on religion and science were far from the opposite end of a spectrum. Chapter five shines light on the social context of Romanticism, focusing on politics, the French and the Industrial Revolutions, and War, but also evaluating what influence, if any, Romanticism had on changing views toward women.

I feel I came away from the book with a better understanding of Romanticism, and so I’d recommend it for others interested in learning more.

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BOOK REVIEW: Radium Girls by Cy

Radium GirlsRadium Girls by Cy.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Out: April 6, 2022

This is a graphic novel that tells the same story [based on actual events] as the similarly titled, but otherwise unrelated, popular book by Kate Moore. The “Radium Girls” were women who worked at watch factories, painting luminescent numbers on watch dials. Unfortunately, the luminescent material being used was radioactive, and the painting process that these women were taught involved touching paintbrushes to their lips between strokes, causing them to ingest minute amounts of it everyday, often over many years. In today’s world, a person who found themselves glowing in the dark from a job (without protective equipment) would know something was radically wrong, but this took place about a century ago and understanding of radioactivity was much less – though scientists clearly understood that precautions needed to be taken when working with radium.

This book captures the highs and lows of a small group of workers from one of the watch / clock factories involved, the one in Orange, New Jersey. Ultimately, this is a sad story of deteriorating health and premature death, but it also shows a relatively new phenomena of women holding jobs that allowed them to increase control their own destinies. By showing the women as they tasted the good life, the experience of the bottom falling out created a more visceral experience. The women did earn a good wage — not the kind of money that makes cancer worthwhile, but higher pay than the usual salary available to women of the day.

I thought the story was well told and touching. The art was in an interesting style – sure to be the cup of tea of some but not others – but nevertheless clearly conveying events of the story. I’d recommend this graphic novel for readers interested in the subject.

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BOOK REVIEW: Angels: A Very Short Introduction by David Albert Jones

Angels: A Very Short IntroductionAngels: A Very Short Introduction by David Albert Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This book offers an overview of angels in the Abrahamic religious traditions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.) [It does take a quick dip into angel-like beings from other religious traditions – e.g. Hindu and Parsi – but generally comes down on the side of it doing a disservice to everybody to equate such beings across mythological traditions – with the possible exception of the New Age angel which is predominantly an offshoot from Abrahamic mythology.] The book considers the evolution of theological thinking on angels: how they’ve been portrayed in art; what they are [made of;] what their purposes are (i.e. messengers, healers, guardians, warriors, etc.;) and, occasionally, how they play into popular culture.

I took away a great deal from this book. For example, I learned about the differences between the djinn of Islam mythology and demons of Judeo-Christian mythology, and the theological underpinnings of this difference (i.e. Muslims do not believe angels have free will, and thus angels can’t be fallen, and so the djinn are a separate entity altogether [rather than being fallen angels.]) I found the book to be readable, interesting, and balanced in its approach to the topic. If you’re looking to learn more about how angels (and related beings, e.g. fallen angels / demons) have been treated by thinkers of various ages, without getting deep into the minutiae, this is a fine book to consider.

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BOOK REVIEW: Saints: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Yarrow

Saints: A Very Short IntroductionSaints: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Yarrow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This is an overview of the history of sainthood in Christianity: how the canonization process changed over time (i.e. from mostly dispersed to increasingly controlled by Rome,) what types of individuals have been selected (from ascetics and martyrs to the heads of orders and other more conventional candidates,) the changing incidence of women saints (while always far less than males, at times almost nonexistent,) and who were some of the more prominent (or atypical) saints.

The book’s organization is primarily a chronological flow, but there are a couple chapters that are of a more topical nature (e.g. on female saints and about hagiographies [“biographies” of saints that mix fact and fiction.]) It was fascinating to me to learn that we are amid a resurgence of canonization. The making of saints had fallen off for a time around the 1800’s (presumably at least in part because it became increasingly challenging / embarrassing in an “Enlightened” age to argue for miracles [“proof” of which is necessary as part of the process.]) However, that can’t be the full story because since John Paul II there’s been a substantial increase in canonization, while we have less reason to believe in supernatural phenomena than ever.

The book takes an agnostic / scholarly stance on the rightness or wrongness of sainthood and doesn’t go out of its way to discuss the scandalous. However, it does not shy away from – here and there – mentioning misbehavior of the Church (e.g. Papal Indulgences and political canonization.) The economist in me found it fascinating that Indulgences gained fungibility – i.e. tradable as an intermediary of value, i.e. like cash.

I found the book interesting despite its occasional drifts into obscure theological / historical territory. It’s readable and, at times, fascinating.

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