Sunday, April 16, 2017

Book Review: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Blurb by Simon & Schuster:
A powerful story about a family, separated by circumstances, culture, and distance, Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane paints an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and celebrates the bond that connects mothers and daughters.

Review by Virginia Denucci @ Steamboat Today

Growing up in the Ak-ha tribe in the 1980s was not easy for a woman. Li-Yan’s life was immersed in cultural taboos, superstitions, restrictions and curses. When she became pregnant out of wedlock, Li-Yan was forced to abandon her child, leaving her newborn daughter at the door of an orphanage, with no more than a tea cake from her secret, ancient tea trees. 

Several themes were intricately woven into this amazing story. See immerses the reader into the Chinese tea culture, from small village harvesting to a world-wide business. Enter the world of tea connoisseurs, who discuss vintage, harvests, seasons, geographic source, weather and, of course, age, as it relates to taste.

Review by Deborah Donovan @ Book Page:
See’s ambitious novel touches on Chinese cultural history, the centuries-old intricacies of the tea business and both the difficulties and joys of Chinese-American adoptions. But ultimately it’s a novel about the strength of mother-daughter ties—peopled, as is each of See’s novels, with strong characters with whom the reader empathizes from the first page to the last.

Review by Emily Kim @ the Washington Times:
The best-selling author of “Snow Flower and The Secret Fan” and “China Dolls,” Ms. See is known for writing historical fiction about the Chinese female experience. However in her new novel, Ms. See diverges from writing about the Han, China’s ethnic majority. Here, she focuses on a Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha.

Ms. See gradually gives information about the Akha’s culture, not overwhelming the reader with information. However, the beginning is most heavy with rituals, beliefs and taboos that the narrator, Li-yan reveals.

Review by Terry Hong @ Book List Online:
See, herself partly of Chinese ancestry, creates a complex narrative that ambitiously includes China’s political and economic transformation, little-known cultural history, the intricate challenges of transracial adoption, and an insightful overview of the global implications of specialized teas. The only possible flaw is that some may consider her magic-wand ending unbelievable. 

J Charles Wall - Relics From the Crucifixion

For centuries, people have been fascinated with, and have fought over, the relics of the Crucifixion. When researching St Helena, I discovered a woman who, late in life, made this her mission - to find these sacred relics, and bring them back to the newly Christianized Roman Empire.

The book covers the history of the cross, starting with traditions about its origins (via Eden and the Pool of Bethsaida) and focusing in detail on the centrality of its recovery during the Crusades. The volume also treats the legendary histories of the nails, the “INRI” board, the crown of thorns, the holy lance and grail, Veronica’s veil and (albeit too briefly) the Shroud of Turin.

Among the things you’ll discover in these pages:
  • The miracle that revealed to St. Helena which of the three discovered crosses was that of Jesus
  • The horse’s bit made from a nail of the True Cross, and the successes it brought the horse’s rider
  • The nails — and why there are so many in existence today
  • A history of the fortunes the Crown of Thorns to those who held them, and a list of towns where thorns are found
  • Where, in 1492, workman accidentally discovered again the actual board on which “King of the Jews” was written
  • The modest Frenchman who saved a holy nail from profanation during the French Revolution
  • Drawings of the spear of Longinus, and reports of its later use in battles
  • Relics of Jesus’s actual blood from the Crucifixion: and why it makes sense that some still exists
  • The veil of Veronica, Christ’s seamless robe, and much more!
In these gripping pages, you'll not only learn about the tree from which the Cross was made and the Cross itself, but as well of the Nails that bore Jesus's battered body, the Crown placed on his head, the Thorns, treasured by Christians for generations, and even the very blood of Jesus caught in vessels by those who loved Him and preserved down to this day.

Too easily we skeptical moderns dismiss the authenticity of relics, particularly relics of the kinds that have often been forged. Author Wall here cites so many reliable sources about relics of Christ's Passion that you will put down these pages with doubts about your doubts, and find in yourself a new and growing desire to look upon them yourself and to receive the many graces that - as Wall also reports here - regularly flow from them for the benefit of souls.

More on the True Cross:
Archaeologists in Turkey believe they have found a small piece of the cross used to crucify Jesus. It was discovered in a stone chest on the site of seventh-century Balatlar Church in Sinop and tests are now being carried out to try to determine its authenticity. Legend has it that the cross was discovered in 325 AD and parts were sent to religious leaders around the world and this may explain how the piece ended up in Turkey.

The veneration of relics is not a question of proof or science but an act of faith. Throughout history, there has been an unbroken chain of tradition in the veneration of relics and reference can be found in both the Old and New Testaments where the Holy Scriptures fully supports the true virtue of relics and the request to honor them. (See II Kings 13:20-21, Exodus 13:19, Mark 5:25-29, Acts 5:15-16). 

Helena (c 249-c 329) was the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor. She is held up to reverence as the discoverer of the Cross upon which Jesus was crucified.

Helena was almost 80, however, when, in 327-8, she made her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Jerusalem had been desecrated in 130 by the Emperor Hadrian, who had built a pagan temple on the supposed site of Jesus’s tomb near Calvary.

Helena ordered its demolition, and then selected a spot close by to start digging for relics. Three crosses were found, and the true one identified when a sick woman was cured after touching it. Nails and a tunic were also discovered. 

But in the last half of the 19th century, a French independent scholar named Charles Rohault de Fleury assigned himself the task of tracking down and measuring every surviving relic of the True Cross.

In 1870, de Fleury published his findings in a book, Mémoire sur les Instruments de la Passion. De Fleury concluded that if all the surviving relics of the True Cross were somehow reassembled, there would not be enough lumber to crucify a man, let alone build Noah’s Ark. 

The Pyramid Hills and Other Wayside Discoveries

Photographer Thomas Nolf has  .... embarked on an adventure to explore the famous so-called “pyramids” of Visoko, discovered in 2005 by a controversial self-styled archaeologist. Nolf’s upcoming book The Pyramid Hills and Other Wayside Discoveries – put together from his perspective as a sociologist-turned-photographer – presents an alternative history of the country based around the pyramids and set apart from familiar narratives of nationalism and ethnic hatred. 

Mr Osmanagić
After all, he says, the romantic notion of an ancient civilisation in Bosnia – one claimed to be more advanced than that which built the pyramids of Egypt – “might be better to believe in than the craziness that is going on here today”.  Nolf acknowledges concerns that the excavations have disturbed genuine archaeological sites from Bosnia’s medieval kingdom, which was seated in Visoko, and he gives space to critical essays in his book.

So what and where are these famous Pyramids of Bosnia??
Not just any pyramid, but what Osmanagich calls the Pyramid of the Moon, the world's largest—and oldest—step pyramid. Looming above the opposite side of town is the so-called Pyramid of the Sun—also known as Visocica Hill—which, at 720 feet, also dwarfs the Great Pyramids of Egypt. A third pyramid, he says, is in the nearby hills. All of them, he says, are some 12,000 years old. During that time much of Europe was under a mile-thick sheet of ice and most of humanity had yet to invent agriculture. As a group, Osmanagich says, these structures are part of "the greatest pyramidal complex ever built on the face of the earth."

An archaeologist known as 'the Bosnian Indiana Jones' claims a group of hills in his home country are actually the world's oldest man-made pyramids. Once his research in the Visoko Valley in Bosnia and Herzegovina is complete, Semir Osmanagic believes one of the pyramids will be shown to be taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt.  The theory - which has been dismissed by experts as a 'cruel hoax' - was first proposed by Mr Osmanagic in October 2005.

Despite mainstream archaeologists saying they are just natural rock formations, Mr Osmanagic has made another bold claim that he has found Nikola Tesla’s so-called "torison fields of standing energy" at the Bosnian Pyramids site, which means we could now "communicate with aliens".

Mr Telsa was a Serbian-American inventor, physicist, and futurist, who contributed to the design of the AC electricity supply system in 1888. His ideas became more left-field and experimental towards the end of the 1800s, and he devised the theory of "standing waves" of energy coming from Earth that meant electricity could be transmitted wirelessly over long distances.

Mr Osmanagić has claimed the alleged discovery at one of the "34,000 year old" pyramids he calls the Pyramid of the Sun "changes the history of planet" and could lead to intergalactic communication.

On his work, Dr Osmanagich says: "You have not only the first pyramids in Europe, but also the biggest on the planet. This is shocking to many archaeologists as most people like to keep the status quo when you come up with new and progressive ideas."

But experts are sceptical. They believe the pyramids are nothing more than a cluster of natural hills.  Archaeology professor Curtis Runnels from Boston University, for instance, says that he is "not persuaded" by the arguments in favour of the so-called pyramids because cultures capable of producing such "colossal buildings" came about in that region only about 2,500 years ago.  Even then, they did not construct buildings of that size and form, he told The Straits Times.

While he concedes that the notion of such colossal structures in the region defies accepted history, Osmanagic is adamant that the pyramids are real.  But a pantheon of archaeologists disagrees.

Prominent Bosnian archaeologists entered the scrum early on, denouncing the dig and lobbying to shut it down.  Anthony Harding, president of the Czech Republic-based European Association of Archaeologists, has dismissed Osmanagic's ideas as "wacky" and "absurd."   Garrett Fagan, of Pennsylvania State University in University Park, has slammed the project. He says that the dig will destroy bona fide archaeological sites in the area.

Archaeological discovery of the century? The experts say probably not. Where Osmanagić sees all the elements of a ceremonial megastructure–four perfectly shaped slopes pointing toward the cardinal points, a flat top and an entrance complex–professional archeologists see an angular mound and an overactive imagination. Osmanagić’s critics accuse him of promoting pseudo-scientific notions and damaging a legitimate archaeological site–a medieval walled town sits atop the “pyramid”–with his excavations. Throughout all the negativity, Osmanagić remains determined to prove his case. The dig continues.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

My Arthurian Renaissance

Picture, if you will, a time, long long ago, when there were no such things as personal computers, kindles or other e-readers.  Picture the time of 'the book".

Many, many years ago, I was in a reading cycle - meaning, I would light upon a subject and read only books relevant to it until I had all be exhausted everything on the library shelf.  Thus I embarked upon epic reading journey encompassing the likes of crime fiction (Christie, Conan-Doyle, Marsh, Hammett etc); historical biographies (from anywhere and any time); Irish political history (my forte - having devoted much  of my earlier writing to politics), which lead me onto Celtic mythology and history (Berresford Ellis, Markale, Squire) and finally the Mythological Cycles (Mabinogian, Irish Mythological Cycles) and Arthurian Romances (de Troyes, MaloryTennyson) - and any novel that fell within that reading extensive parameter (Marion Zimmer Bradley, Diana Paxon, Kenneth Flint, Morgan Llywellyn to name but a few).  Many of the books that I initially read have found aplace on my own personal library.

Which leads me to my current renaissance and my journey of rediscovering not only the mythological texts but the historical texts covering the Arthurian cycle. So here's the condensed version.

An eminent historian and Arthurian scholar, who offered us the location of Cadbury castle and Camelot, and was most noted for his books "The Quest for Arthur's Britain" (slightly dated now but was one of the go-to books of its day) and "The Discovery of King Arthur" (using the Chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth as his starting point, Ashe goes on to prove through literary & historical sources, that Riothamus, an actual 5th-century British monarch, is the historical Arthur).  Ashe also was a contributor to "The Arthurian Encyclopedia" by Norris J. Lacy.

A Professor of Archaeology, Alcock undertook a major excavation of Cadbury castle - the supposed site of camelot.  His "Arthur's Britain History and Archaeology AD 367–634" was the pre-eminent scholarly tome on Britain in the 4th to 7th centuries, using many sources including archaeology, historical sources and providing a critical analysis of the evidence.  It is still regarded today.
See: obituary in the Telegraph and the Guardian

Moffat has written not only on Arthur but extensively on Scottish history which no doubt lead to his book "Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms".  Here Moffat  "rewrites the legend of King Arthur, radically relocating Camelot and the sites of his brilliant victories" - and by relocating, we mean further north towards Scotland, and that rather than a king, he was a cavalry general!

Senior lecturer in Ancient History at University College London, and founder and first editor of Past and Present, his work "The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650"  was widely criticised by contemporary scholars for the lack of sources, which were published 4yrs after his death.  Like all books of the day, it has been superseded by other well-researched tomes.  This has place on my Arthurian bookshelf.  It is a comprehensive work (over 600pages) on the political, social, economic, religious and cultural history in Britain from the fourth to the seventh century. 

Christina Hardyment
A Senior Associate Member of St Anthony's College, Christina Hardyment has brought forth a captivating study of Sir Thomas Malory, author of "Le Morte d'Arthur. Known as both "Malory: The Knight Who Became King Arthur's Chronicler" and "Malory: The Life And Times Of King Arthur's Chronicler", Hardyment uses evidence from new historical research and deductions from the only known manuscript copy of Malory's celebrated work, and cleverly resolves the contradictions about an extraordinary man and a life marked equally by great achievement and devastating disgrace.
Review by Richard Barber (author of King Arthur: Hero & Legend ) @ the Guardian

Founder of Boydell Press and a noted historian who has written extensively on British history as well as Arthurian legends, most notably "King Arthur: Hero and Legend", "The Arthurian Legends", and "The Legends of Arthur".

British archaeologist more recently known for his appearances on the TV show Time Team, Pryor has written a number of books, included "Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons".  Here he digs into historical and literary sources and archaeological research, to create an original, lively and illuminating account of Arthur.  A scholarly work that for those whom history and archaeology is not their fotre, may find a little "dry".  To be read in conjunction with this first in the series, "Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland Before the Romans".
Pryor's Blog - In The Long Run

Now we come to my two most recent reads:

An author and journalist, who from a discovery of an ancient Latin text in the British Library (Nennius' Historia Brittonum and the Annales cambraie) that listed the twelve battles of King Arthur, believes he has convincingly found the locations for all of Arthur’s battles.  "King Arthur's Battle For Britain" is the result.  Walmsley himself states that he has "attempted to flesh-out the bare skeleton of Nennius' battle-list in the style of a war correspondent's report from the battle-front, covering the action of friend and foe alike."

I found it an interesting and plausible read that attempted to assign each of the battles to specific locations.  The accounts of the battles are Walmsley's own sytylised version - and he's upfront about that from the start. The only contention for the true scholar is the lack of sources - he is not a historian as such, but has spent some considerable time in researching his work.

John Matthews and Caitlín Matthews
"The Complete King Arthur: Many Faces, One Hero".  Where was this book 20 years ago??  This is one work that uses all the historical records, scholarly research (both past and present), and the epic poems to strip away the fog that has surrounded Britain during the time directly following the Roman departure.

The authors between them have written over 150 works mainly steeped in Arthurian substance and this is the culmination of 40 years of research.  The Matthews write convincingly, exploring all known works (oral and written) and seeing how they fit with the Arthur of legend.  Taking known research and analysis of the social, cultural and military histories, they build up a realistic portrait of the man at the centre of the myth - a man with many faces.

The authors also take an in-depth look into the sources themselves, and discuss how an oral tradition was extended and added to each time it came into contact with other cultures - and nowhere is this more apparent than in the cycle of the great traditional Arthurian romances of Chretian de Troyes, Robert de Boron, Ambrose Firman-Didot's "Fisher King" stories, Gottfried von Strassburg's epic "Tristan" stories, through to Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur", Edmund Spenser's "Faerie Queen" down to Tennyson's "Idylls of the King".  Even today, Arthur and his knights hold a spell over writers, judging by the prolific works (fact and fiction) dedicated to him.

I am mentally exhausted - in a good way - after reading this book.  There was just so much information to absorb, and I now want to now go back and read everything Arthurian I can lay my hands (novels, poems, epic sagas, the histories).  The seed in my mind has begun to germinate and it needs tending.  I have no hesitation in recommending this work - I will be adding it to my own personal library.

See also: King Arthur: Dark Age Warrior and Mythic Hero by John Matthews (nice entry level introduction into the Arthurian mythos).

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Battle for Rama: Case of the Temple at Ayodhya

The sanctity of Ayodhya as the birthplace of Lord Rama, which has been questioned repeatedly by leftist historians, has been vouched for by not just "Hindu religious scriptures" but observers of diverse stripes across time.

From Persian works of the Medieval era to sanads issued by Mughals in the eighteenth century, ‘Muslim’ sources that acknowledge the disputed territory as Ram Janmabhoomi, for instance, have seldom been cited in mainstream discourse.

Meenakshi Jain’s The Battle for Rama includes an account of various such sources in history, shining a new light on the city, and also counters popular arguments.

read more here @ Swarajya

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Viking Women: Not as Different as You Might Think -

Heather Day Gilbert talks about her book God's Daughter at Medievalist dot net

My novel, God’s Daughter, tells the story of Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir. I know you Viking-o-philes know exactly who I’m talking about, but I’ll elaborate a bit. She’s the first documented European woman to have a baby on North American shores. She traveled here with her sailor husband, Thorfinn Karlsefni (“Finn” in my novel). She was a Christian. She was wise and beautiful. And she was the ward of Eirik the Red.
I wanted to base my novel as closely as possible on the Icelandic Sagas. Even though the sagas are sparse, you get a really good feel for the Viking women who lived around AD 1000.
I hope my story, told from Gudrid’s point-of-view, shows Viking women in a whole new light. Forget horned helmets and funky braids. Viking women weren’t that different from us. And they’re worth learning more about.
You can read more on Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir here at:
- Murder Is Everywhere
- The Ages of Exploration
- Travelling feminist (Penguin Unearthed)
- Hurstwic
- Discoveries of the Americas
- Wikipedia

Bright Air Black - Modern Medea

In the acknowledgements of his latest novel, David Vann declares: “I’m a neoclassical writer. My novels are all Greek tragedies.” 

Bright Air Black is Vann’s biggest Greek tragedy to date, primarily because it is a retelling of an ancient tale, a retouched portrait of one of mythology’s most enthralling and notorious women, Medea.

Vann’s reimagining is not for the faint-hearted. Some will wonder if he oversteps the mark. Others will question the point of the whole enterprise. Why bother with a book which takes, blends and repurposes episodes from Apollonius of Rhodes’ The Argonautica and Euripides’ Medea when we can read those original works?

The answer becomes clear several pages into Bright Air Black. Vann gives us a fresh slant on an early myth, an up-close and in-depth character study. From the outset, his drama unfolds in prose that is both atmospheric and electrifying.

Maria Callas as Medea
Bookended with blood and providing no catharsis or easy answers, Medea’s story is one of the bleakest of all the Greek tragedies. Vann sums it up succinctly: “Unnatural, all that is human.” But the tale is also one of great power and intensity. Bright Air Black possesses the same potency. Its dark energy shocks us and shakes us, yet it is impossible to pull away.

India's Rani Of Jhansi Regiment

This is a riveting and meticulously researched account of the Indian National Army’s Rani of Jhansi regiment, the first in recorded military history that comprised only women.

It is not often that a forgotten and glorious chapter of a country’s history is resurrected and presented to its people and the rest of the world, and that too by a foreigner. This is what India now sees with the publication of a riveting and meticulously researched account of the INA’s Rani Jhansi Regiment (RJR) authored by Danish historian Vera Hildebrand.

As the author says, this unit was the first in recorded military history that comprised only women. Admittedly, the Soviet Union’s Red Air Force in World War II had a few squadrons of women pilots, but the support staff included men. In any case, these squadrons were not formally designated as “women’s regiments”. The RJR’s status as the world’s only all-women ground forces fighting contingent remains uncontested.

Read more here at Swarajya Magazine Online and at the Hindustan Times
Read an excerpt here at Kitaab


Compediosa Totius Anatomie Delineatio

A censored 16th century anatomy book may provide evidence that taboos slowed the development of knowledge of the female genitals, researchers have said.

The 1559 edition of Thomas Gemini's Compediosa Totius Anatomie Delineatio features a depiction of a semi-dissected female torso, and the book's original owner has cut away a neat triangle of paper on which the vagina would have been drawn.
It will be displayed in an exhibition at St John's College at the University of Cambridge, and curator Shelley Hughes said it may offer clues as to why knowledge of the female anatomy lagged behind that of the human body as a whole.
Read more here at the Belfast Telegraph

Turning Pages: The Case for Books

Alberto Manguel doesn't think the book will die because it is one of a handful of perfect things we have invented. "The codex is everything we want a text to be: portable, interactive, and it contains as much information as we want," he says. "Anything you require, the codex does it."

Manguel – novelist, editor, translator, librarian, essayist and long-time thinker on the subject of books and reading – is moving against the tide. For quite a while, we've been hearing about the death of the old-fashioned paper book, to be replaced by ebooks and other electronic devices.

But there are signs that tide is turning. After years of growth, publishers have recently reported falls in ebook sales. And new research from Murdoch University lecturer Margaret Merga has revealed that children with access to e-reading devices prefer paper books. They like the sensation of picking up a book and "feeling the weight of commitment".

This fits in with the research of two other lecturers, Loughborough University's Simone Natale and Birkbeck, University of London's Andrea Ballatore. In an article for The Conversation, they looked at "the myth of the disappearing book" and why it still persists.

Read article here at the Sydney Morning Herald

Turning Pages: The Case for Books

Alberto Manguel doesn't think the book will die because it is one of a handful of perfect things we have invented. "The codex is everything we want a text to be: portable, interactive, and it contains as much information as we want," he says. "Anything you require, the codex does it."

Manguel – novelist, editor, translator, librarian, essayist and long-time thinker on the subject of books and reading – is moving against the tide. For quite a while, we've been hearing about the death of the old-fashioned paper book, to be replaced by ebooks and other electronic devices.

But there are signs that tide is turning. After years of growth, publishers have recently reported falls in ebook sales. And new research from Murdoch University lecturer Margaret Merga has revealed that children with access to e-reading devices prefer paper books. They like the sensation of picking up a book and "feeling the weight of commitment".

This fits in with the research of two other lecturers, Loughborough University's Simone Natale and Birkbeck, University of London's Andrea Ballatore. In an article for The Conversation, they looked at "the myth of the disappearing book" and why it still persists.

Read article here at the Sydney Morning Herald