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review 2018-02-26 22:55
Podcast #92 is up!
The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke - Jeffrey C. Stewart

My ninety-second podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Jeffrey Stewart about his new biography of the early 20th century African American scholar and critic Alain Locke (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!

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review 2018-02-20 01:07
A masterful study of the "dean" of the Harlem Renaissance
The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke - Jeffrey C. Stewart

Though regarded as the "dean" of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain LeRoy Locke's name is not one that usually comes to mind when most people think of the movement. Yet it was the Philadelphia-born philosopher who provided much of the intellectual framework for it, most notably with his concept of the "New Negro." That Jeffrey Stewart uses the name as the title for his in-depth biography of Locke both highlights its role in defining Locke's legacy and the degree to which it was a product of Locke's own life and experiences.


The only child of middle-class parents, Locke grew up in Gilded Age Philadelphia. Stewart stresses the predominant role Locke's mother Mary played in his life, particularly in inculcating a passion for education. Graduating from Harvard, Locke became a celebrity among African Americans by becoming the nation's first black Rhodes scholar, though he was frustrated in his efforts to complete his degree there. Returning to America, he started teaching at Howard University, moving from education to philosophy after earning his doctorate at Harvard. Yet it was his work on race that would endure, particularly with his promotion of African and African-American culture in both art and literature. Though the Renaissance as a movement declined by the end of the 1920s, Locke had succeeded in redefining African American identity in ways that embraced their heritage while reaffirming its place in American life.


Locke's role in this has long deserved its due, and Stewart has provided it. His biography provides readers with a deeply perceptive study of Locke's life and achievements, one that situates them both within his time and the circumstances of his life. His is especially good at describing the central role Locke's homosexuality played in his life, which is no small achievement considering the degree to which such matters often went unspoken back then. That doing so requires a degree of supposition on Stewart's part is understandable, but his judgments are reasoned and well-argued. Together it makes for a masterful achievement, one that gives Locke the recognition he deserves for his many achievements.

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review 2017-12-31 22:57
Western Civilization to 1500
Western Civilization to 1500 (College Outline) - Walther Kirchner

The story of Western Civilization centers in Europe but begins over 8000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt and seems like a daunting task to cover in less than 300 pages even if one only goes to the end of the Middle Ages.  Western Civilization to 1500 by Walther Kirchner is a survey of the rise of society from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt through the Greeks and Romans, the Middle Ages, and the beginning of the European Renaissance.


Kirchner spends less than 30 pages covering the Fertile Crescent and Egypt through 3500 years of historical development before beginning over 110 pages on Greco-Roman history and the last 130 pages are focused on the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.  This division clearly denotes Kirchner’s focus on Europe in this Western Civilization survey, though one cannot fault him for this as even now knowledge of the first three and half millennia of the historical record is nothing compared to the Greco-Roman sources, yet Kirchner never even mentioned the Bronze Age collapse and possible reasons for its occurrence.  The highlight of the survey is a detailed historical events of Greece and Roman, especially the decline of the Republic which was only given broad strokes in my own Western Civ and World History classes in high school and college.  Yet, Kirchner’s wording seems to hint that he leaned towards the Marxist theory of history, but other wording seemed to contradict it.  Because this was a study aid for college students in the early 1960s, this competing terminology is a bit jarring though understandable.  While the overall survey is fantastic, Kirchner errors in some basic facts (calling Harold Godwinson a Dane instead of an Anglo-Saxon, using the term British during the Hundred Year’s War, etc.) in well-known eras for general history readers making one question some of the details in eras the reader doesn’t know much about.  And Kirchner’s disparaging of “Oriental” culture through not only the word Oriental but also the use of “effeminate” gives a rather dated view of the book.


This small volume is meant to be a study aid for students and a quick reference for general readers, to which it succeeds.  Even while Kirchner’s terminology in historical theory and deriding of non-European cultures shows the age of the book, the overall information makes this a good reference read for any well-read general history reader.

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review 2017-12-15 22:26
Review: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes
Selected Poems - Langston Hughes

I read this for the Winter Solstice square. I am not at all familiar with the Harlem Renaissance period, so I went in with no expectations or background knowledge other than I knew Hughes was a poet from this era.


Most of the work in this book is short; I could not really get the full picture of what Hughes was describing. I think part of my problem was how the book was sectioned; I really enjoyed the Magnolia section, but the Madam series and the Dream Deferred set were tedious to read after a while. Hughes writes to a beat that is hard to flow from one poem to the next. I'll be honest and say the most I enjoyed of his poetry is when he is talking about race and racism - he really got to the heart of the matter without fussy details and still had historical details to give context and more meaning behind the poem. Many of these poems dealt with the lingering consequences of slavery and the Civil War with the present day of Jim Crow and the migration of Southern blacks to the north and west during the late 1800s and early 1900s.


Because there was no unifying theme to the book, it felt like the poem's subjects were all over the place and there was no feel to poems connecting to create a big picture. As an introduction to Hughes work, it worked okay but I think it would be better to read his single published work rather than an omnibus.

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review 2017-11-20 13:14
16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 2 - Guy Fawkes Night: Headless Chicken Parade Part 1: Giordano Bruno
Heresy (Giordano Bruno #1) - S.J. Parris


Giordano Bruno (1548 – February 17, 1600) was an eminent Italian philosopher, mathematician, poet, and cosmological scientist, whose theories extended the then-novel Copernican model. Bruno proposed that the stars were just distant suns surrounded by their own exoplanets and raised the possibility that these planets could even foster life of their own; and he insisted that the universe is in fact infinite and could have no celestial body at its "center". -- Raised in Naples as a Dominican friar from age 13 onwards, his interest in the writings of Copernicus and Desiderius Erasmus attracted the attention of the Holy Inquisition before he had even turned 30, and rather than become a martyr for the sake of his philosophical and scientific beliefs then and there, he fled from his monastery and from Italy and, having made a name for himself as a scholar in France and attained the patronage of French King Henri III himself, he eventually turned up in Britain in 1583, where he was introduced to Francis Walsingham and agreed to become a spy in Walsingham's network. The Inquisition did eventually catch up with him in 1593, however, and he was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in Rome's Campo de' Fiori in 1600.


While you will be able to glean the above biographical facts (up to 1583) from the beginning of S.J. Parris's Heresy and the book actually has an engaging beginning, it all goes rapidly downhill (or it did for me, anyway) from the moment when the first of several murders occurs. -- Parris's book uses details from Bruno's actual stay in England, in sending him to Oxford for a philosophical debate with the then-Rector of Lincoln College, John Underhill (who indeed opposed Bruno's views). The rest of the story is fictitious, however, and I sincerely hope the personality of this book's Giordano Bruno has nothing whatsoever in common with that of the real-life philosopher and scientist, because if it had, it would be nothing short of a miracle how he ever managed to evade the Inquisition and find his way all the way to France and, later, England.


As for "Bruno the sleuth," leaving aside that initially there isn't even a good reason for him to involve himself in the investigation into the dead man's murder

(even the discovery that the man was a clandestine Catholic, and that his death may thus fall into the purview of Bruno's mission as a spy, follows his death; there is nothing to make Bruno suspect as much while the man is still alive),

(spoiler show)

the murder and its immediate aftermath are described in such a fashion that anybody who has read Arthur Conan Doyle's

Silver Blaze

(spoiler show)

can't fail to notice one fact pointing very damningly in one particular direction right from the start -- and surely the real-life Giordano Bruno's intellect would have been on par with that of Sherlock Holmes in every respect? And it certainly doesn't get any better by the fact that the one person who thus draws, if not the fictional Bruno's attention, then at least that of this book's reader to themselves in a very conspicious manner, with the same act also eliminates a witness in a manner identical to that used by Ellis Peters in

the fourth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, St. Peter's Fair

(spoiler show)

... and that in connection with a second murder, a few days later, Parris employs precisely the same slight of hand already used by Agatha Christie in

Murder at the Vicarage.

(spoiler show)


So, I found myself looking in one particular direction from page 95 onwards, and though it turned out that I had the dynamics between two of the persons involved the wrong way around, I never wavered in my belief that the solution lay that way -- which makes a 474-page book a mighty slog to finish, particularly if the book's alleged super-sleuth is running around like a headless chicken, missing just about ever vital clue that doesn't actually explode in his face, and standing by passively and helplessly and / or letting himself be tricked, manhandled and otherwise be manipulated in a way I'd possibly have expected from a rookie investigator, but not from a distinguished intellectual like the real life Giordano Bruno, who after all had, himself, demonstrated considerable cunning in evading the persecution of the Holy Inquisition and make his way, undetected, all the way from southern Italy to France and England.


There is one final twist that I didn't see coming exactly this way around (although I should have, and just possibly might if I'd still cared enough to engage with the book at that point), and I'll also have to give Parris credit for an engaging beginning and for her knowledge of the period -- even though I wondered several times how her version of Giordano Bruno, who had never before been to Oxford in his life, could have the city's layout down so pat within a day at most that the book reads as if Parris had had a map of 16th century Oxford sitting next to her manuscript virtually all the time.


Final note to those who don't care for first person present tense narration: There is an excerpt of the series's second book (Prophecy) included at the end of my edition, and while I didn't actually read it, I've seen enough of it to be able to recognize that it's written in that particular narrative voice. (Heresy is not -- it's in first person past tense.)


I read this book for Square 2 of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season - Guy Fawkes Night: Any book about the English monarchy (any genre), political treason, political thrillers, or where fire is a major theme, or fire is on the cover.

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