October 27, 2015

Book review: “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford

I know that I should like Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. It is a detailed, well-documented, well-researched look at the rise of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. Actually, I should say “empires” since the unified domain that Temujin created in the 13th century on his way to becoming Genghis Khan (which means “strong, wolf-like leader”) was quickly fragmented among four branches of his family. Weatherford’s 2004 book is filled with insights into the culture of the Mongols and their methods of war-making. He examines the seemingly endless ways in which the Mongols, in their empire-building, had an impact on every corner of Asia and Europe. So why do I come away from the book dissatisfied? The fault, I acknowledge, may lie with myself. Perhaps Weatherford provided so much information and perspective new to me that my circuits overloaded, and I just couldn’t hold my own as a reader.   Three faults? I can’t help thinking, though, that there were perhaps three faults of the book that caused me to lose my way. The first is that Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is ostensibly a biography of Genghis Khan — […]
October 26, 2015

Book review: “The Marne” by Edith Wharton

Nearly a century after World War I, the hopeful, innocent, sentimental ending of Edith Wharton’s novella The Marne is jarring. This was a war in which much of a generation of young men on both sides lost their lives in bloody battles across huge stalemated fronts. A war in which attempts at strategy were overwhelmed by the armaments of heightened technical and industrial sophistication, grinding up waves of troops like mechanical threshers. It was a war that destroyed all military romance and glamor. A war exemplified in such novels as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and R. H. Mottram’s Spanish Farm Trilogy (1924-1926). Unlike those books, however, Wharton’s The Marne wasn’t published several years after the conflict when the shattering realities of the trenches could be faced in all their existential insanity and inanity.   The home front The war was still raging on October 26, 1918, when the 15,000-word novella was published in the Saturday Evening Post, and fighting continued for two more weeks. So, The Marne, which came out as a book later that year, doesn’t have the post-war, angst-filled perspective of Remarque, Mottram and other writers. Also, it really isn’t a book about […]
October 23, 2015

THREE COCHINEAL BOOKS – 3 – “A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World — an Epic Story of Art, Culture, Science, and Trade,” Edited by Carmella Padilla and Barbara Anderson

A Red Like No Other is several books in one, and that may be too many for some readers and, at the same time, not enough. I found it fascinating. It often demanded hard work from me as a reader, but it always rewarded my efforts. It is the story of the American cochineal bug, a tiny insect that lives on a cactus and provides a deep red color like freshly shed blood that has been used as a dye since the second century B.C. The word “cochineal” is based on the combination of two Aztec words that mean “cactus blood.” DNA research, as well as other studies, indicates that the American cochineal species originated in the Oaxaca area of what is now Mexico. From there it spread into South American and, later, across the globe. The story of cochineal is about local and world economics, about transcontinental trade, about the rise and fall of empires, about slave-trading and the redcoats of the British army, about fashion and status, about brightly decorated furniture, about great works of Western art, about the chemistry and recipes of dye-making, about financial speculation and about elegant clothing throughout the world and down the centuries. […]
October 22, 2015

THREE COCHINEAL BOOKS – 2 – “Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color” by Elena Phipps

In 1776, a French spy went to Oaxaca in Spanish-held Mexico. He was there to steal a treasure — a tiny bug called cochineal. The female of this insect species had been used in the Americas since at least the second century B.C. to provide a rich red dye, particularly for textiles. Following the arrival of the Spanish in the 1520s, it became an important trade good. Indeed, Elena Phipps writes in her 2010 book Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color, “[B]y the mid-sixteenth century the Spanish flotillas that traveled annually between the Americas and Spain were bringing literally tons of the dried insects to Europe.” In one year alone, 72 tons of the dried bodies of cochineal was shipped from Lima to Spain. “Cochineal, along with gold and silver from the Americas,” Phipps notes, “enabled the Spanish Crown to finance its empire…” Throughout human history, red has been among the most highly prized colors because it’s so difficult to achieve. Phipps delineates the many means used to create red dye, such as minerals, and notes, “The most brilliant crimson red dye, however, was obtained from a group of scale insects of the superfamily Coccoidea.” And the most […]
October 21, 2015

THREE COCHINEAL BOOKS – 1 – “A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color of Desire” by Amy Butler Greenfield

A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield won wide praise from reviewers when it was published in 2005. Without question, it is a jaunty, entertaining and informative book. Yet, there is an awkwardness at its core. It is a book about the dyestuff cochineal which, when it arrived from the New World in the 16th century, “was the closest thing Europe had ever seen to a perfect red.” Previously, textile makers and painters had used a variety of red dyes, the best of which were St. John’s blood (later called Polish cochineal) and Armenian red (later called Armenian cochineal). Garfield writes: But cochineal had three advantages that St. John’s blood and Armenian red lacked. First, cochineal insects produced their carminic acid with far fewer lipids than did the plump little Armenian insects, whose fat melted in the dyepot and sometimes coated the threads of silk preventing the fibers from fully absorbing the dye. Second, cochineal could be more efficiently produced than either…, and it could be harvested several times a year. Third — and most important — cochineal yielded far more powerful dye than any of the Old World reds. […]
October 19, 2015

Book review: “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is a particularly scary book to read in the fall of 2015 when businessman Donald Trump and an array of other candidates for the Republican nomination for President are spouting an irresponsible and demagogic rhetoric, unheard at the center of American politics ever in the nation’s history.   It’s a novel of alternative — i.e., “what if?” — history, and it’s based on the proposition that, in 1940, Charles A. Lindbergh becomes the Republican presidential nominee and, running a campaign based solely on image, defeats FDR. Once in office, the Lindberg administration starts, quiet step by quiet step, to isolate and marginalize Jews. Within two years, there are Kristallnacht-like anti-Jewish riots in major cities across the nation as well as arrests of virtually all major Jewish figures and their Gentile supporters. It’s a warning that’s been written before. In 1935, as Adolf Hitler achieved dominance in Germany, Sinclair Lewis published It Can’t Happen Here, a novel about a newly elected American president who imposes totalitarian rule with the help of a paramilitary force. It Can’t Happen Here ends with the nation in a civil war. Oddly — and unaccountably to my mind — Roth […]
October 14, 2015

Book review: “Red & White Quilts: Infinite Variety” by Elizabeth V. Warren with Maggi Gordon

What would it be like to have 653 red and white American quilts assembled and displayed together in the same place? That unusual question was at the heart of the Infinite Variety exhibit in the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, sponsored in 2011 by the American Folk Art Museum for six days, March 25-30. The answer: A kind of delight-filled ecstasy. Historian and art critic Simon Schama wrote that his response to the show was pure, runaway, skipping-through-the-puddles joy. This show, featuring the treasure trove of a single collector, Joanna S. Rose, was, Schama wrote, “a monster of happiness that will have no competition anywhere this season for sheer sensory riot or ecstatic retinal shock.” Thousands attended the free show, but only those lucky enough to be in New York for the exhibit’s  short run.   Grandeur Now comes Red & White Quilts: Infinite Variety by Elizabeth V. Warren with Maggi Gordon (Skira Rizzoli, 352 pages, $60) in which all 653 quilts, exquisitely photographed by Gavin Ashworth, are displayed for close and careful inspection by anyone. So, what’s the response to seeing all of these quilts assembled in a single book? The answer: Breathless astonishment at the grandeur […]
October 12, 2015

Essay: Believing in Movies

Through much of the 20th century, American movies acted as if sex didn’t exist. Oh, they’d hint at it, but film-makers feared being slapped down by those custodians of mainstream cultural mores, the censors. Today, there are no censors, and sex and nudity are all over the screen. Now it’s God and religious faith that are missing in action. Consider three excellent movies of the past year: Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman. Each tells a compelling story with great skill and artistry, but each has a failure of nerve when it comes to confronting the reality of religious faith. Unbroken, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book, is the story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympian athlete who survives a plane crash and 47 days on a raft in the ocean only to land in a series of Japanese prisoner of war camps. He is shown praying to God on the raft, but a key element of the book is absent from the film — Zamperini’s post-war conversion by a young Billy Graham and his work with Graham in the evangelist’s crusades. What’s omitted from Noah is God. Here, Noah (Russell Crowe) could be just another […]
October 11, 2015

Sister Aches and Brother Pains

When I wake in the morning, Sister Aches and Brother Pains are there to greet me. Brother Death, sitting on a chair in the corner, gives me a smile and a nod. Sister Aches is dressed in a nun’s long black habit. The thick fabric covers her rotund figure. Her neck seems to be bothering her. Every few minutes, she raises her left shoulder as if to clear some obstruction or unkink a muscle. She bustles about the bedroom, and it seems I can hear her bones creak with each rapid movement. I have no idea what she’s doing. Over at the window, Brother Pains has a flat face, or maybe it’s just so empty of emotion. His gaze is interior. He wears his body like a suit of armor. He is dressed in a power-blue polo shirt and khaki shorts. Out in the car, I head to breakfast. Sister Aches sits next to me in the passenger seat. Behind me is Brother Pains. To his right — I can see him in my rearview mirror — is Brother Death. He smiles and gives me a nod. That night, at basketball, Sister Aches and Brother Pains plod after me, up […]
October 1, 2015

Book review: “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past” by A. Roger Ekirch

I found A. Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, published in 2004, endlessly fascinating — and endlessly irritating. What Ekirch set out to do in this book was to look at the myriad aspects of life after dark for the people in preindustrial Europe and North America (generally 1500 through 1750). He looks at how people got around (and didn’t) in the dark, how they used moonlight and candlelight to see after sunset, how they acted on the roadways and in their homes at night, and much, much, much more. And he succeeds wonderfully in examining hundreds of ways in which life after dark was different than life in the daylight — and, by implication, the ways in which life at night in the preindustrial world was different than life at night in the present-day. For instance, did you ever wonder what it must have been like to fall ill in a world before electricity and other artificial illumination? Ekirch did, and he reports: Not only was sickness common, but darkness contributed its share of injuries. Families possessed a passing knowledge of remedies and cures, combined with a small inventory of potions, plasters, and possets, some acquired […]