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review 2018-09-24 08:34
Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them
Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them - Jennifer Wright

I finally finished this one.  The delay was a combination of being on holiday, and needing to put some space between my experience of this book and the experience of others, as I was starting to feel like I was losing my objectivity regarding my feelings about this book.

 

So, my feelings: Get Well Soon was poorly sub-titled and marketed.  As a popular science book, or a popular history-about-science book, it fails.  As an introductory anthropological and cultural survey of how society has historically reacted to epidemics and pandemics, I think its excellent.

 

Furthermore, while I like her writing style a lot, it is polarising.  Jennifer Wright is a 30-something author whose voice is informal, irreverent and snarky.  She writes the way friends - good friends - talk when they don't have to behave themselves.  She uses this no-nonsense voice to sometimes share her thoughts about topics that are themselves, polarising.  

 

So this is a book that isn't going to appeal to everyone.  It particularly isn't going to appeal - at all - to anyone looking for a more sober, scientifically-focused exploration of the topic.  After reading the whole thing, I'm pretty sure it was never meant to, at least, not from the author's perspective.

 

"If you take nothing else away from this book, I hope it's that sick people are not villains."

 

This is a recurring theme from start to finish.  Wright's objective seems to be to focus a spotlight on humanity's reaction to mass illness throughout history, whether good or bad.  Her hope in doing so is that perhaps those who read this book will learn from history rather than doom themselves to repeat it.  She does this is the frankest, bluntest possible way, with a lot of snarky humor.

 

In this objective, I believe she succeeds.  I think those of us who could be labeled as 'prolific readers' or those who voraciously devour their favorite subjects, might lose perspective on how well-informed, or not,  most people today are.  Society today is at least as divided as it's been at almost any other time in history, and a good deal of opinion is shaped via the internet, a source we all know can be about as accurate as a round of the telephone game.

 

In this context, I think the book is fantastic.  Jennifer Wright seems to be a popular author of columns in various newspapers and magazines; if even a handful of her fans from Harper's Bazaar, et al, read this book simply because she wrote it, and they come away having learned something they didn't know before they started, or thinking harder about their responsibility in society, then Wright will have succeeded where others have failed.  (And yes, I'm generally pessimistic about the world I live in - my country is being run by an orange lunatic; I think I'm entitled to a bit of pessimism.)

 

I'm not one of her magazine/newspaper fans.  In fact it wasn't until after I'd started this that I realised I'd ever read anything by her before.  I'm also quantitatively better read, if not qualitatively (some would argue), and I can say that not only did I enjoy this book a great deal, but I learned more than I expected to.  For example, I had no idea that the Spanish Flu wasn't actually Spanish, but probably American, and I had no idea that it killed so many Americans.  Granted, most of my knowledge of the Spanish Flu comes from British fiction, but it's a testament to the horrifying effectiveness of government censorship during WWI that you still don't read about it in American fiction, and this is a disease that killed in one month more Americans than the US Civil War.  I'd also never heard of Encephalitis Lethargica, and sort of wish I never had.  Even on the diseases I knew more about, Wright managed to impart something new for me, and in at least 2 chapters, left me misty eyed over the power people have when they choose to be selfless.

 

As a popular science book meant to tackle a complicated topic in a palatable way, this book is a fail; there's not nearly enough scientific discussion or data here to qualify this as such a book.  But as a popular, cultural overview of the way societies throughout history have succeeded or failed to handle epidemics when they happened and the importance of rational, humane leaders and populace in times of crises, I think Wright succeeds very well.

 

The tragedy of this book is that it's marketed to the very people who are bound to be disappointed by it and likely don't need its message, and the people who might gain the most from it are likely to pass it by because they think it'll be too boring and dry.

 

I read this for The Flat Book Society's September read, but it also qualifies for the Doomsday square in Halloween Bingo.

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photo 2018-08-27 11:54
Best Anthropology Coaching
Source: www.sapiensias.in
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review 2018-07-08 18:00
Echoes from the Dead Zone by Yiannis Papadakis
Echoes from the Dead Zone: Across the Cyprus Divide - Yiannis Papadakis

This is an excellent book, anthropology mixed with memoir, by an author from divided Cyprus. Coming to this book knowing virtually nothing about Cyprus, I learned a lot about the country. But this is such an insightful look into conflict generally and the ways groups of people become entrenched in and justify their own positions that I think anyone interested in the psychological side of political conflict would appreciate it.

Cyprus has long been inhabited by both ethnic Greek and ethnic Turkish populations, and belonged to both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. In the 20th century, it became a British possession, and groups that had historically lived well together grew more distant, both leaning on their historical motherlands for support. After independence, many Greek Cypriots wanted to become part of Greece, and unrest led to atrocities against Turkish Cypriots in the 1960s, with many of them relegated to ghettos. In 1974, a Greek-sponsored coup led to Turkey invading the country and carving out the northern part for Turkish Cypriots – leading to atrocities against Greek Cypriots who lived there and were killed or forced from their homes. Today, almost 50 years later, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus continues to exist in fact but to be recognized only by Turkey and seen as occupied territory by everyone else. Negotiations to reunite the country have always broken down, and from this book it’s easy to see why.

Yiannis Papadakis is a Greek Cypriot, who after studying abroad returned home in 1990 to begin studying his country. One of the things that makes the book so interesting is that it is as much about his journey, being forced to confront his own indoctrination and biases, as about the people he meets. He visits Turkey to learn Turkish (after some serious initial misgivings about his safety there, he realizes Turks are regular people too), lives with Greek Cypriots near the border and then crosses over to the Turkish side. (I was initially thrown by the way he talks about the Turkish side, making reference to “pseudo-officials” wearing uniforms decorated with “pseudo-flags,” but this turns out to be representative of his opinions at the time the research began, not by the time he wrote the book.) Eventually he winds up living in a mixed village in the “dead zone” between the two sides, where everyone is suspected of being a traitor.

Cyprus’s history and politics are complicated, as is the author’s analysis, so anything I say here will no doubt oversimplify. But there’s an incredible amount of food for thought here. About the ways both sides manipulate history – not necessarily by lying, but by beginning the tale with their own flourishing empire that’s brought down through the wrongdoing of the others; by focusing only on their own side’s pain, emphasizing their own dead and refugees while refusing to acknowledge wrongs against the others; by paying attention to only the extremists on the other side, painting their views as everyone’s view’s; by both defining their own side as the threatened minority. About the ways people refuse to understand each other, about the ways propaganda is used, about the repercussions this conflict has in people’s lives. The author sees and hears some striking things, like the refugee family in Northern Cyprus that moved into a Greek Cypriot home, and kept all the furniture and family photos out in case of the prior owners’ return.

He’s also able to draw a lot of connections between the two sides: the two right wings have far more in common than either would ever admit, both invested in insisting upon the evil of the other while bringing their own side closer to the motherland. The two left wings are also similar and seem ready to reach out to each other and bring peace, though when the opportunity comes, they too choose political opportunism. In the end there’s plenty of blame to go around, and the author doesn’t absolve anyone.

At any rate, I found it an insightful and fascinating book. While the page count is short, there’s a lot of text on each page, so it isn’t necessarily a quick read. But it’s broken up into short sections, often just a couple pages long, and the writing is accessible. It was published by a small, academically-oriented publisher, but has a lot to offer the casual reader; if it had gone through a big publishing house I could see it as a well-known work of popular nonfiction. Only in a couple of places does the author go off on short tangents that seem to be pet interests of his (the myth and symbology of Aphrodite), and his narrative provides a detailed view of Cyprus and his own journey of discovery about his country and people. I would definitely recommend this one if you can get your hands on it.

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review 2018-06-25 09:39
Medusa by Stephen R. Wilk
Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon - Stephen R Wilk

TITLE:  Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon 

 

AUTHOR:  Stephen R. Wilk

 

DATE PUBLISHED: 2000

 

FORMAT:  ebook

 

ISBN-13:  978-0-19-534131-7

____________________________________

 

From the blurb:

"Medusa, the Gorgon, who turns those who gaze upon her to stone, is one of the most popular and enduring figures of Greek mythology. Long after many other figures from Greek myth have been forgotten, she continues to live in popular culture. In this fascinating study of the legend of Medusa, Stephen R. Wilk begins by refamiliarizing readers with the story through ancient authors and classical artwork, then looks at the interpretations that have been given of the meaning of the myth through the years. A new and original interpretation of the myth is offered, based upon astronomical phenomena. The use of the gorgoneion, the Face of the Gorgon, on shields and on roofing tiles is examined in light of parallels from around the world, and a unique interpretation of the reality behind the gorgoneion is suggested. Finally, the history of the Gorgon since tlassical times is explored, culminating in the modern use of Medusa as a symbol of Female Rage and Female Creativity."

______________________________________

 

This lavishly illustrated book starts off exploring the variations in the Medusa and Perseus myth, then goes on to explore Gorgons in art, gorgons around the world, possible explanations for the common appearance of the Gorgon face, how astronomy fits in with the myth, gorgons and gargoyles (this was a really good chapter!), the author's hypothesis on what the Gorgon really represented, and what the gorgon means to people today.

 

The book is clearly written and explores all things Medusa.  This book is so interesting, with the author covering various aspects from mythology, astronomy, war, art, gutter ornementation, religion, possible origins, where the snakey-hair comes from, movies (author needs an update here), novels etc.  I learned a whole boat load of new things from this book.  I also really appreciate the lack of irrelevant side tangents and biographical ramblings so often found in non-fiction books. I would quite happily read any other dissected myths should the author write something like that.

 

 

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review 2018-03-10 17:35
Wacky, wacky, wacky
The Power of Myth - Joseph Campbell,Bill Moyers

Some of us are old enough to remember the trash bag commercial that referred to the bargain brand as "wimpy, wimpy, wimpy."

 

 

The cheap brand broke, and all the trash spilled out.

 

With Joseph Campbell, it's wacky, wacky, wacky, and all the pretentious bullshit is falling out.

 

In the interest of disclosure, I should add that I was raised nominally Protestant, though I didn't get much education in that faith until I chose to become specifically Presbyterian in my mid-teens.  Much of my maternal family is Jewish.  So I come from a mixed and very spiritually tolerant background.  Growing up, I had friends who were Irish Catholic and went to the Catholic schools, friends who were Italian Catholic and went to public schools, friends who were Missouri Synod Lutheran and went to the Lutheran school, as well as plenty of friends whose religion was completely unknown and totally irrelevant.

 

And as I mentioned in a previous status, I have just enough background in cultural anthropology -- Malinowski and his Trobriand Islanders! -- to come to The Power of Myth with an open and curious mind.

 

The first couple of chapters irritated me.  I couldn't discern a real theme, a real thesis of what is myth, what is its power, how is that power used, by whom is it used.  Because my objective was an analysis of romance novels as myths, this was important to me. 

 

What I found through the 33% of the Kindle edition that I read was gobbledygook.  Bullshit.  Horse crap.  Garbage.

 

But I was determined to continue reading.

 

At the 30% mark, page 74, I came to this:

 

MOYERS: What do you mean? What can you make of the watch you’re wearing? What kind of mystery does it reveal?

 

CAMPBELL: It is a thing, isn’t it?

 

MOYERS: Yes.

 

CAMPBELL: Do you really know what a thing is? What supports it? It is something in time and space. Think how mysterious it is that anything should be. The watch becomes the center for a meditation, the center of the intelligible mystery of being, which is everywhere. This watch is now the center of the universe. It is the still point in the turning world.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth (p. 75). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

At that point, the book became a wallbanger.  Campbell, whose face and mannerisms and even voice I knew from snippets of videos, had become in my mind a pompous old man demanding attention and reverence even though he was spouting obvious nonsense.

 

When I was a graduate student in about 2002, I had a seminar class of seven students with two professors.  One of them I had had before, so I was familiar with his teaching style and I had taken the class partly because of that.  The other, whom I shall call Arthur for the sake of this discussion, was unknown.  Sadly, Arthur did 95% of the teaching.  If you can call it that.

 

We had some very difficult texts by some very difficult authors: Georg Lukacz, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Terry Eagleton.  I dutifully read every assignment, even though I didn't always understand what I was reading.  I came to class prepared to ask questions, discuss ideas, listen to other interpretations.  But what happened was that Arthur took over from the moment the class started, and he never shut up.

 

Non-stop, he rambled, on and on and on and on and on and on.  If one of us raised a hand to ask a question, Arthur would say something like, "I'll get to you in a minute," and the minute became thirty.  The class was two hours long, and he frequently talked for the entire two hours, not even allowing us the customary ten-minute break in the middle.  One of the students, a full-time firefighter, occasionally fell sound asleep.  And snored.

 

Nothing fazed Arthur.  One evening I managed to demand his attention and asked, "You do all this talking, but we aren't discussing the material.  What does this stuff all mean?"

 

He laughed and replied, "Welcome to grad school."  Then he resumed his monologue on some unrelated topic.  I don't even remember the name of the course.

 

One evening Arthur opened the session with a declaration that he was not going to talk more than fifteen minutes and then would open it up for discussion.  All of us who had questions about this reading material were eager to have the chance to air our thoughts.  Arthur of course talked for the entire two hours, less maybe five minutes at the end.  By that time, no one cared.

 

I thought of him often while reading Campbell.

 

I struggled through the rest of that chapter with the watch, because I really wanted to read about "The First Storytellers" and "The Gift of the Goddess."  But I couldn't get past the absurdity of Campbell's thinking.  I felt as if I'd gone back into that seminar room in the Sands Building and Arthur was once again droning on about some stupid shit that mattered less than Rick, Ilsa, and Lazlo.

 

This morning, even though I had already DNFed The Power of Myth, I took it up again to write this review.  I skipped ahead, skimmed some of the text.

 

Campbell gives a nod to the divine feminine in the chapter "The Gift of the Goddess," and I began to have some faint hope.  Very faint.  And I was quickly relieved of even that.

 

Frequently, in the epics, when the hero is born, his father has died, or his father is in some other place, and then the hero has to go in quest of his father. In the story of the incarnation of Jesus, the father of Jesus was the father in heaven, at least in terms of the symbology. When Jesus goes to the cross, he is on the way to the father, leaving the mother behind. And the cross, which is symbolic of the earth, is the mother symbol. So on the cross, Jesus leaves his body on the mother, from whom he has acquired his body, and he goes to the father, who is the ultimate transcendent mystery source.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth (p. 208). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

I added the emphasis, because plainly Campbell still privileges the masculine over the feminine, no matter what he says in other places to the contrary.  And he still privileges the strict duality, despite dismissing it often enough . . . in theory.

 

There was a temptation to give this one or one-half or even no stars, but I went with one and a half because the negative lessons were somewhat worth it.  I still have some old anthro books that might give better insights into the value and true power of myth.  Campbell sure as hell didn't.

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