DAILY PHOTO: Miniature Displays, National Museum of Vietnamese History

Taken in Hanoi at the National Museum of Vietnamese History in December of 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Henry VI, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

King Henry VI, Part 1King Henry VI, Part 1 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Like some of the other histories, this one is not so much about the titular character (Henry VI) as it takes place during his reign, and, in this case, it’s the very beginning of young Henry VI’s rule. In fact, this play begins with Henry V’s funeral. Henry VI does play a role as the naïve, new ruler who has the childlike wisdom of one who can’t see why everybody is getting so upset about what seem like trifling matters (e.g. infighting) when more crucial problems are at hand (e.g. France in revolt.) This is best seen in the young King’s gentle rebuke of the aristocrats for the big deal they are making about the color of rose being worn – which includes Henry’s innocent wearing of a white rose to make a point. (The events leading up to the War of the Roses feature prominently in the story, i.e. the civil war between the House Plantagenet and the House York.)

All that being said, if one were to pick a protagonist for this play it would have to be the great military commander, Talbot (pitted against his French counterpart, Joan of Arc — referred to as Pucelle throughout the play.) Early in the play, Talbot is captured, and this throws the English into a panic because he’s considered the linchpin of their forces in France (and because England is in a fragile state with Henry VI being young and inexperienced.) Talbot’s release is negotiated (the French, perhaps, being dismissive of how crucial the English see Talbot as being.) This dismissiveness is later seen in an episode with the Countess of Auvergne. The Countess, surprised to find Talbot is not a giant – given his reputation, thinks she is about have him arrested. When asked how he obtained such an outsized reputation, Talbot calls for his men, who promptly make an overwhelming show of force, clarifying wherein his power lies and putting to rest the idea that her men can take him. Act IV sees the tragic end of Talbot and his son, who each try to get the other to leave a battlefield dominated by the French, but neither will do so and so they die together.

The reason the great Talbot gets outplayed is two-fold. First, Joan (Pucelle) convinces the Duke of Burgundy to change sides, which significantly changes the balance of forces. Second, the English infighting between Somerset and York plays out in Talbot being denied reinforcements. The tragedy of this being that Talbot is universally-beloved, and it’s through no fault of his own that he can’t get the backup he needs. He is lost due to the pissing contest of lesser men.

Act V shows us how a peace is brokered that hinges on an arranged marriage for the young Henry. This provides us a [kind of] story wrap-up, i.e. a moment of stability. However, it’s no surprise that there are more parts to come, because there is a tremendous amount of divisiveness yet to play out. There is the embryonic War of the Roses, and a related great deal of contention over the deal that was brokered to end the war in France. For one thing, at one point Henry was doubly betrothed, and there was dissention about which fiancé he should pursue. But even if there hadn’t been a second choice, there was still room for conflict over what was seen as a bad deal (no dowry to be paid from the Princess’s side and – in fact – the relinquishment of territories – a reverse dowry if you will.)

A lot of people consider this to be one of Shakespeare’s worst plays. (The insult is often not against Shakespeare as many also believe he only partially penned this play, as well as some of the other lesser-loved plays.) I must say, as Histories go, I found this one to be quite readable. (Of course, I didn’t despise “Titus Andronicus” either – though it is mega-bloody and perhaps not as nuanced a story as the later tragedies.) I think the Act IV tragedy and the political infighting made for some intense emotional resonance. In general, the histories are constrained by how interesting the events are rather than how creative the playwright can order them (though a number of the tragedies follow events – as they were known — fairly closely.)

Part of the complaint may have to do more with language than story, and from this perspective, I must say there are not a lot lines that leap out at one in the manner typical of Shakespeare.

At any rate, I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss this play based on its (relatively) diminished stature, lest one make the same mistake as the Countess.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Dreaming Eagles by Garth Ennis

Dreaming EaglesDreaming Eagles by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

New Edition Out: June 1, 2021

This graphic novel by the author of “The Boys” and “Preacher,” tells a story based on the experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen, and does so as a story within a story. The framing story is set in 1960’s America and finds a World War II veteran (a pilot of the Tuskegee Airmen) trying to talk his teenaged son down from getting too entangled in the Civil Rights movement — for reasons that are only revealed as he completes the telling of his experiences at war. Through flashbacks, the protagonist depicts not only the thrilling exploits of air-to-air combat over Europe and the visceral tragedies that occur when hot lead meets with aluminum high above the world, but it also shows the unique tribulations experienced by these particular military men – such as “leaders” who wanted to see them fail and widespread discrimination.

The story-in-story approach is an excellent one because it allows for a character arc in which the protagonist grows. Without getting into spoiling details, as the protagonist revisits his story, he comes away with a new and changed perspective (which is always a valuable feature in storytelling.) The frame also breaks up the history and helps maintain reader attentiveness by showing the influence the story has on the attentive son. (Young men not being famous for being interested in the life stories of their parents.) I don’t mean to suggest that the war story is not interesting. It’s full of action, heroism, and the tension of interpersonal conflict. However, for those who aren’t history buffs and are acclimated to Ennis’s more popular fare [i.e. full of superheroes and random acts of violence and titillation,] the story may feel a bit flat only by virtue of the fact that it is constrained by actual historical events.

I found the art to be well-crafted. The chaos of air combat is conveyed without being so chaotic that one can’t tell what is happening, and the graphics offer a great sense of setting and era.

This volume is definitely worth giving a read. It tells a compelling story of the combative exploits and the political / social travails of these groundbreaking and heroic pilots, while holding a mirror to the rank societal biases of the era.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente

Comic Book History of Comics: Comics for AllComic Book History of Comics: Comics for All by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

As the title suggests, this is a history of comic books and graphic novels that is presented in the form of a comic book. This book turned out to be more fascinating than I expected (and, obviously, I thought it would be interesting enough to start reading it in the first place.) The added fascination, of all places, came from the economics nerd in me (I thought that guy was dead, but apparently not.) You may wonder what economics has to do with the history of comics, but it turns out that there was a long period of learning about how the unique characteristics of comic books should influence how they were most lucratively sold. At first, comics were sold just like other magazines, but eventually people realized that the fact that these periodicals told serialized stories (and that they were potentially collectable) made them a very different kind of product. And there were booms and busts along the way.

It’s not just economists who might find something surprisingly interesting in this book, there is a colorful discussion of intellectual property law as it pertained to comics. (As well as the more visceral human-interest story of the artists who created characters that made executives and actors billions of dollars, while said artists eked out a living.) Long-story-short, this book isn’t just for those interested in how artistic styles changed, or how various popular characters came to be, though those subjects are touched upon as well. It looks at the history of comics from many angles. One learns a little about the unique Japanese, Brazilian, Mexican, and African comic book markets, and one even sees how comic books played a roll in international relations. While it’s mostly an industry (macro-)level look, there is discussion of a few who individuals who changed the industry (e.g. Alan Moore.)

This is a quick read, but packed with interesting information for those of us who are basically interested in everything. It’s well drawn as well. Check it out.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Madness: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Scull

Madness: A Very Short IntroductionMadness: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Scull
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This is yet another of the many “Very Short Introduction” books from Oxford University Press that I’ve been pleased to read and review. The series offers concise overviews of a wide range of topics that are presented by scholarly experts. This particular book is a historical examination of the changing approaches to mental illness from the ancient world where such a condition might be attributed to demonic possession to more recent times in which drugs and decarceration / defunding of asylums have become the dominant approaches to mental illness. Along the way the book shines a light on the immense difficulty experts have had in understanding what mental illnesses are and how they can best be dealt with. The book not only looks at the real-world response to mental illness, but also explores how it’s been treated in fiction from “Hamlet” to “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

The book consists of six chapters. As one would expect of a book from a historian’s-eye view, its organization is chronological, but the arrangement of time periods by chapter reflects changing approaches to mental illness. Chapter one focuses on the ancient world, during which we begin to get glimpses of madness in the written record. Chapter two, entitled “Madness in Chains,” focuses on the 16th through 18th century, during which Bethlem [Bedlam] Hospital was the cutting edge. That the institution’s nickname becoming a synonym for chaos and confusion says a lot. It was a time of brutal measures that did little to reduce the trauma of mental illness. The chapter also discusses madness in Elizabethan literature, famously that of Shakespeare.

Chapter three shifts to the 19th century, an era in which incarceration became more widespread as well as coming to be thought of as the best that could be done for the insane. In Chapter four, we learn about the rise of psychoanalysis as well as the increasing employment of treatments that involved the physical body – infamously, the lobotomy.

Chapter five is one of the most intriguing parts of the book. Entitled “Madness Denied” it opens with an exploration of the difficulties that arose from all the war-related cases of mental illness that came about as a result of the two World Wars (and others.) It also discusses a movement to overturn the prevailing approach to insanity, most famously and vociferously argued by the Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, a clinician who had a mix of promising and disastrous results from his experimental approach which used LSD, but few other medicines. What I found most interesting, however, was the discussion of the growing recognition that there was a false front in the idea that psychiatry was beginning to really understand mental illness and its treatment. This was exemplified by the Rosenhan experiments in which sane volunteers checked themselves into asylums and, for the most part, the doctors and staff couldn’t tell that they were sane (though, interestingly, in at least some cases the other patients did call it out.) The troubles in classifying and diagnosing mental illnesses have also seen in the vexed history of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness” [DSM,] a guide meant to get mental health experts on the same page about what’s what. [As opposed to ten psychiatrists offering ten different diagnoses of a given patient.] While a worthy attempt, the DSM has not – thus far – succeeded, though it could probably be argued that progress has been made.

The last chapter brings the reader up to the current period, a period dominated by two trends – first, mental illnesses being treated overwhelmingly pharmaceutically; and second, the closing of asylums and the concurrent ill-effects that have come about, societally speaking.

The book has a few graphics, mostly black and white art and photos used to enhance the reading experience. There are also appendices of references and recommended readings.

If you are interested in the history of psychiatric medicine, I’d highly recommend you check out this brief guide. It may not give you all the information you’re looking for, but it’s a good first stop to organize your thoughts on the subject.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction by Malcolm Gaskill

Witchcraft: A Very Short IntroductionWitchcraft: A Very Short Introduction by Malcolm Gaskill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

Witches, like ninja, so excite the popular imagination that everyone knows about them, but most of what we know is incorrect — either by virtue of being exaggerated or being imbued with cultural and narrative coloring. Gaskill’s book shows us the changing landscape of popular belief about witches and witchcraft, and it contrasts those perceptions with what the historical records show. So, for example, while there was undeniable persecution of individuals accused of witchcraft, it was less of a widespread mania than one might have been led to believe.

There were several fascinating discussions throughout the book. One such discussion is how surprisingly widespread the phenomena of witchcraft is, with witches being found in Africa who demonstrate remarkably similarities to those we are familiar with from the stories of Europe and New England. One can imagine how societies in which medicine was rooted in shamanistic practices, e.g. mixing herbal medicine with superstitious rituals, might produce practitioners that the modern, Western viewer would associate with witchcraft.

Another interesting question under discussion involved the psychology of accusations of witchcraft. For example, it’s not like every time a child died the parents leapt to the conclusion that there was some sort of voodoo witchcraft being practiced against their child, but in some circumstances it definitely happened. Under our current understanding of science and medicine, it’s hard to imagine how anyone would reach such conclusions, but it’s illuminating to explore the conditions under which our ancestors did. It tells us a great deal about humanity’s changing understanding of the world.

The book consists of eight chapters and the usual ancillary matter for the AVSI series (preface, graphics, references, and recommendations for further reading.) It begins by asking: “what is a witch, exactly.” It’s not as simple a question as one might think. Is a witch an herbal healer? Is she a malicious devil-worshipper? Is he or she just a neighbor with whom one had a beef, resulting in the use of that person’s perceived nefariousness to explain an unexpected tragedy? Is a Wiccan a witch? (This is addressed later because Wicca is a relatively recent phenomenon.) Is a witch just a popular Halloween costume based on stereotypes and story details? In some sense, the witch is all of these things wrapped into a messy mélange.

Chapter two recounts how the rise of Christianity warped the way witchcraft was viewed. As Christians attempted to both eliminate the competition of existing spiritual beliefs and to fit those who practiced witchcraft into the context of the Christian belief system, a new kind of witch came to be introduced. Chapter three delves into how the popular image of witches came to be associated with older, haggish women. (In the early days of witchcraft, women were no more associated with the practice than were men.) This chapter also has a fascinating section about cases of neighborly disputes playing out through accusations of witchcraft.

Chapter four explores how witchcraft came to be conflated with demon-worship in the popular imagination, and how beliefs about witchcraft were influenced by competing takes on Satan and what powers the devil was believed to have (or not have.) It also discusses the topic of witch hunts, and proposes that, while horrific things happened, there are many more examples of rationality and calm reflection winning the day. As I was reading this book, it sometimes felt to me like the author was acting as an apologist for the forces of persecution, but upon closer reflection I realized that he was just trying to combat an overly exaggerated view of what it was like to be amid witch hunts and trials. From what most of us have heard about the Salem Witch trials one might be led to believe that any woman in the seventeenth century who was accused of being a witch would immediately be drowned by an insane and angry mob. That was [mostly] not the case. Which is not to say it’s not horrible that it happened at all, but it is useful to understand the scale of any problem.

Chapter five investigates the nature of witch trials, and the changing face of how witchcraft was treated under the law. Witch trials have become synonymous with a vicious catch-22 in which a woman is tied to a rock and thrown into a river: if she floats out, she’s immediately killed as an agent of Satan; if she doesn’t, they say “our bad” and reward her with a Christian funeral. Gaskill emphasizes that there were people at the time who recognized and challenged how horrible and insane that approach was. [I often mention Dr. Sherrill’s formulation of the “Outhouse Fallacy,” the idea that because earlier people didn’t have indoor plumbing that they must have been complete dimwits, and the fallacy tends to apply to our popular conception of people of that era.] Chapter six dips further into crazes and panics over witchcraft. Chapters seven and eight consider different dimensions of how fantasy and reality became intertwined in how witchcraft was seen – from Macbeth’s trio of witches to modern Hollywood adaptations.

I read a lot of these AVSI titles from Oxford University Press; they are a good way to get a quick overview of a subject with which one has a limited familiarity, while ensuring the source has a high degree of scholarly competence. This edition is no different, and – in fact – owing to its fascinating topic, it’s probably more engaging than most. I enjoyed learning how my perception of witchcraft varied from reality, and how perception becomes a kind of reality unto itself. If you’re interested in learning about witch hunts, witch trials, and the like, this book provides an excellent and brief overview of the subject.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Richard II by William Shakespeare

Richard IIRichard II by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This is a dramatization of the last couple years of the deposed King’s life. It is written entirely in verse, which is not the norm for Shakespeare (only a couple other histories are purely verse, most mix prose and poetry.)

The story opens with two gentlemen petitioning Richard II about their dispute. One of the men, Henry Bolingbroke, has accused the other, Thomas Mowbray, of both misappropriating funds and being involved in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester (a relative of Bolingbroke’s.) Mowbray denies these claims. First, Richard attempts to mollify the men and bring about a peaceful settlement. When this fails. Richard agrees to allow the two men to undertake “trial by combat” – i.e. dueling to the death. While this seems to provide a solution, as combat is about to take place, Richard changes his mind and calls off the match. Instead, the King banishes both men into exile – Mowbray permanently and Bolingbroke for ten years [adjusted to six years.]

As in Hamlet, indecisiveness is the root of tragedy in this play. Had Richard let the two men duel it out as planned, he likely would have died as King instead of being deposed. If Mowbray had won, then Bolingbroke would not have been around to later usurp the crown. If Bolingbroke had won, he would have automatically received his inheritance upon the death of John of Gaunt (Bolingbroke’s father and Richard’s uncle) and – therefore – Richard wouldn’t have confiscated John’s holdings to fund a war in Ireland. Either way, Richard would have been better off had he let the duel happen. But, because he didn’t, and then took possession of Bolingbroke’s inheritance, he triggered a chain of events that would involve Bolingbroke invading England against minimal resistance [and increasing support] as Richard was off fighting in Ireland.

While this play is generally classified as “a history,” it has been known to be called a tragedy, and the ending certainly fits that genre. In the last act a conspiracy to unseat the newly coronated king, Henry IV [Bolingbroke,] is revealed when the Duke of York discovers that his son, Aumerle, is involved in the conspiracy. Aumerle races to King Henry and gets him to grant him leave without knowing what treachery was in the works. Henry agrees, but then the Duke of York shows up asking the King to punish his son for his involvement in the conspiracy. It looks like York is about to have his way when the Duchess (York’s wife and Aumerle’s mother) enters and implores the new king to spare her boy – which Henry does (though he has the conspiracy brutally crushed with most of the conspirators killed and those who weren’t killed being captured.)

Also in the last act, one of Henry’s loyalists overhears an off-the-cuff remark that Henry makes about wishing Richard dead. The henchman decides to go to the prison and take matters into his own hands. The play ends with a mortified Henry rebuking the murderer and announcing that he, himself, will go to the holy land in an attempt to make amends for the suggestion that triggered Richard’s murder.

I found this to be an engaging tragedy. The histories aren’t often as intriguing as the tragedies, but this play features and intense – if straightforward – narrative arc. If you’re interested in reading Shakespeare’s histories, this is definitely one you’ll want to check out. It also sets up what is sometimes called “the Henriad,” [a tetralogy of plays] which includes “Henry IV, Part I,” “Henry IV, Part 2,” and “Henry V.” That makes “Richard II” a logical starting point to take on the four-play epic.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen

Pandemics: A Very Short IntroductionPandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

This book explores disease pandemics through the lens of History. I open with that because this is a topic that can (and has) been addressed through many different disciplines, and a reader expecting biological or epidemiological insights is likely to be disappointed. However, if one is interested in questions of how, where, and with what impacts various diseases spread, this book provides a concise overview for seven select pandemics: The Plague, Smallpox, Malaria, Cholera, Tuberculosis, Influenza, HIV/AIDS.

This book belongs to Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series, a massive collection of brief guides outlining a wide range of scholarly topics. This title complies with general guidelines of the series, presenting the basics of a subject in a manner accessible to a neophyte, citing sources and providing recommendations for further reading, and offering graphics to support the text where beneficial.

As mentioned, the book delves into the seven pandemics listed in the opening paragraph, and does so in the order in which they are listed. Each disease is presented in its own chapter – so the book consists of a prologue, seven chapters, an epilogue, and back matter (i.e. citations, recommendations for additional reading, and the index.)

Obviously, these seven pandemics don’t represent a complete history of disease pandemics. The book was published in 2016, well before the COVID-19 pandemic (though readers will certainly read some prescient-sounding statements — particularly in the epilogue,) but not even all past epidemics classed as pandemics are addressed. [It should be noted that there is no perfectly agreed upon dividing line between epidemic and pandemic.] Still, this book includes the biggest and most globally-widespread pandemics, but it also covers a diverse collection of diseases, including: contagious, vector-borne, and water-borne illnesses, as well as bacteria- and virus-induced diseases. It’s worth noting that The Plague is a worthy first case not only because it’s one of the diseases that has most shaped human history, but also because there’s not a great deal known about disease before then. (During the relatively recent 1918 “Spanish” Flu pandemic, the medical community still didn’t know anything about viruses, and so one can imagine how little ancient people would have understood about these causes of death.)

As the book shares information about the pandemics and their impact on the world, it also teaches one something about how medicine and science progressed as a result of these events. This is famously evident in the case of Cholera, a disease whose unusual characteristics with respect to spread baffled doctors until a clever investigator learned that cases were tied to a common water well. The case of Cholera is a prime example of how changing one’s approach can resolve a stubborn question, looking at the cases spatially offered an immediate insight that other modes of investigation had failed to present.

I found this book to offer interesting insight into pandemics. If you are looking to understand the history of disease pandemics, this is a great book with which to start one’s study.

View all my reviews

DAILY PHOTO: Bara Kaman

Taken on November 29, 2020 in Bijapur (Vijayapura)

Looking like the remnants of a bombed out Gothic cathedral, this expanse of arches resting on a massive plinth is actually the unfinished mausoleum of Ali Adil Shah II. Shah intended this structure to dwarf other famous tombs — e.g. the nearby Gol Gumbaz and the Taj Mahal in Agra — but when he was defeated by Aurangzeb the structure became stuck in suspended animation.

BOOK REVIEW: Freiheit! by Andrea Grosso Ciponte

Freiheit!: The White Rose Graphic NovelFreiheit!: The White Rose Graphic Novel by Andrea Grosso Ciponte
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: March 4, 2021

This tragic story tells the tale of a small college-centric anti-Nazi resistance group, doing so in graphic novel form. While it touches upon the story of six White Rose members who were executed, special emphasis is given to the sister-brother duo of Sophie and Hans Scholl. White Rose was largely involved in distributing leaflets to encourage others to engage in resistance activities against the Nazis. (Note: the translated text of the White Rose pamphlets is included as an appendix.) There is so much attention given to the truly fascinating question of how a bunch of fascist lunatics managed to run a country into such diabolical territory that it can easily be missed that there was at least some resistance within Germany. I, for one, was oblivious to the story of White Rose before reading this book.

The arc of the story takes the reader from the upbeat stage during which White Rose was succeeding in distributing articulate and persuasive flyers, through some of their close calls and other frustrations (e.g. the Scholl’s father being arrested), and on to the bitter end. Much of what I’ve seen previously about resisters centered on communists. One sees in White Rose a different demographic. There are a number of religious references without the “workers of the world unite” lead that would be taken by leftist groups.

I believe the author overplayed the stoicism with which the executed individuals accepted their fate. This is based upon a true story, and so this may seem an unfair criticism because perhaps that’s how it appeared in reality. However, from a storytelling perspective, it felt surprisingly devoid of emotional content [given the events provide loads of potential for it.] There is a great tragedy in young people being executed by the State for asking others to resist fascism, but as a reader I didn’t really feel an intense visceral connection to events. As I said, I suspect this had to do with the author wishing to show that the Scholls took it in all in stride, but I think some display of angst or anger might have made for a more intense reading experience. I don’t know whether it was more a textual or graphic issue that left me unmoved.

All in all, the book was an interesting insight into resistance to the Nazis in an academic environment. I did find reading the pamphlet translations themselves to be insightful. The flyers give one insight into where the student-resisters were coming from, and what buttons wished to push in others. It might have been a bit more gripping, but it was an interesting telling of events.

If you’re interested in learning more about Germans who resisted the fascists, this book provides a quick example of how (and by whom) it was done, and I’d recommend you give it a read.

View all my reviews