Tag Archives: History

Book Review: Reading Arabia: British Orientalism in the Age of Mass Publication, 1880 -1930

Reading Arabia by Andrew C. Long

Reading Arabia: British Orientalism in the Age of Mass Publication, 1880 -1930 by Andrew C. Long is a study of the Middle East in British literature. Long earned his B.A. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University and his PhD in Comparative Literature from the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York. He currently teaches in the Department of Cultural Studies at the Claremont Graduate University. Long previously taught at American University in Beirut. 

I was not exactly sure what to expect from this book. My interests lie in history and English literature of that time period. I was expecting more of a socio-political treatment of the period rather than a detailed study of the literature and authors. This book is not about the major historical aspect of this period, such as the partitioning of the Middle East, the occupation of Iraq, the results of the Afghanistan conflict, but about literature of the period. 

The works covered include Richard Burton’s translation of The Kama Sutra and Arabian Nights EntertainmentsThe Scented Garden and others by the Kama Shastra Society which were considered more pornographic than literature. Among the groups the Cannibal Club, members of Victorian society, interested in exotic pornography. Burton had quite a unique view of the world. He claimed by his research most Mediterranean men are bisexual while Arabs are pederasts. He also noted, and apparently measured, a male Somalian’s genital size for a footnote for one of his texts. Other texts covered and analyzed are Doughty’s Travels and Edith Hull’s The Sheik, made famous by Rudolph Valentino. 

Some of the literature had very little to do with the Middle East and Africa. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Tragedy of Korosko which was an adventure novel that merely used the Sudan as a backdrop for the story. Hull, who wrote The Sheik, had never visited the Middle East. She was what could be described as a middle class housewife. Following her, more authors started writing “desert romance” books. 

Reading Arabia covers an interesting period of British history and a few important advancements in British society. The first was the social movements that created leisure time and a middle class. Secondly, there were advancements in printing, making books affordable to most people. Lastly, there was the British Empire. Most people never left England and the far off exotic lands provided an interesting escape from daily drudgery.Reading Arabia may not be a book for historians, but for students of British literature and culture and sociologists this is a worthwhile read.

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Book Review: The 20th Century in Poetry

The 20th Century in Poetry by Michael Hulse

The 20th Century in Poetry is an anthology of the poetry describing the 20th Century. With a degree in history and another in international relations I looked forward to reading this collection. I have always liked to see how other fields see history. Art history of the 20th Century is an amazing reflection of the culture. Art Deco completely captures the 1930s. The Pop Art of the 1960s captured that decade’s spirit: from Andy Worhol to the style Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills album cover. Many times you can look at the art and know the decade and the origin. I am sure poetry could do the same. I did have one condition in a poetry collection of the twentieth century. It had to have on poem that I felt was, historically, a very important part of the 20th century*.

Historians look at the 20th Century a bit differently than the calendar shows. Historians start the century at the start of World War I, the official end of the 19th century world view. The century not only starts late, but ends early too. The fall of the Soviet Union closes the book on the 20th Century for most historians; the beginning of “The New World Order” and “Peace Dividends.” 20th Century in Poetry takes the reader year by year from 1900 through 2000 with at least one poem from each year. It further divides the poems into sensible groupings.

1900-1914 Never Such an innocence again
1915-1922 War to Wasteland
1923-1939 Danger to hope
1940-1945 War
1946-1968 Peace and Cold War
1969-1988 From the Moon to Berlin
1988-2000 Endgames

From the innocence of Thomas Hardy “The Darkling Thrush” to the great sadness of Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” From Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” to Jeffrey Harrison’s “Sketch”. From Alan Ginsberg’s “America” to Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind”. From John Updike’s “Seven New Ways of Looking at the Moon” to Jeffrey Harrison’s “Pale Blue City”. The highs and the lows of the 20th century are all recorded by the eyes and words of the poets of the time.

This is a suburb collection of the the full range of the 20th century. Usually I will keep my poetry in paper, but the selections are so good and so vast, that it makes an excellent ebook. Not many people will sit and read this through cover to cover and it wasn’t meant to be read that way. Pick a year or a couple of years and enjoy. Keep it on your reader or your phone and when you have a few minutes pick a poem or two, you won’t be disappointed. Of course if you do read it cover to cover, you will get a detailed history of the 20th Century: The events, the people, the achievements, the failures. Perhaps the reader will see that we, as a whole, in this century we have not learned from our previous failings and not learned from advances. A collection like this makes an excellent barometer for where we are and where we are heading, as a people, in the twenty-fist century. Five Stars.

* The poem I was referring to earlier is in the collection: “The Wasteland” by TS Elliott


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Book Review: A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps

A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps by Chris West

A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps by Chris  West is a unique take on looking at history. West is a graduate of the London School of Economics where he studied economics and philosophy. He wrote his first book Journey into the Middle Kingdom after the traveling to China. His fiction includes theChina Quartet four crime novels based in the the People’s Republic of China. West’s other non-fiction include books on business and entrepreneurship.

Stamps are history. I remember having stamp albums as a child and going trough the pages studying the stamps from different countries. There was almost as much to learn from stamps as there was from books. I had nearly forgotten that old hobby until I saw West’s book.

West starts with the 1840 Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp, and ends with the 2012 1st Class stamp featuring a young Queen Elizabeth. Most stamps feature the current monarch’s profile with the exception of 1996-2012 when a small silhouette of the queen was used and other subjects where the main art of the stamp. Through time most of the stamps in the book displayed current events or anniversaries. There is a shift in the art work too reflecting the times. All of the stamps used are British except for a single German stamp from the interwar period. A 200 Mark stamp over printed 2 Million Marks reflecting the hyperinflation in Germany.

West writes a clear and easy to follow history of Britain. Each chapter starts with a stamp and a story connecting the stamp to a piece of history. Whether it is a new king, a royal wedding, or marking the death of the former Princess of Wales there is a piece of contemporary history connected to the stamp. Some history is less obvious, like an odd looking Christmas stamp, or a misplaced “46th” on a stamp, or even a minority occupying the center spot on a stamp. It is not only the history of the stamps but the history the British Post Office. At one time mail was delivered twelve times a day in London. The price of a stamp was cheap enough so that, as the author says, people posted letters then like people text today. The Post Office was one place where everyone was equal. Post office brought a standard rate for all letters, provided decent jobs, and operated a bank. The bank, unlike others at the time, was for the common people. Also mentioned several times in the book is Britain’s most famous postal employee (and author) Anthony Trollope.

Thirty-Six Postage Stamps is a fun and rather light historical read. It is a history book for those who really don’t like getting bogged done in dates and such. A single stamps followed by a story makes makes for a nice and informative read. For those who like history or stamp collecting it is still an excellent read. From early in Victoria’s rule until the present the reader will get a taste of British culture and history. An excellent read.

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Book Review: Francis of Assisi: The Life

Francis of Assisi: The Life by Augustine Thompson is a comprehensive biography about one of the Catholic Church’s most beloved saints. Thompson earned is BA and MA at John Hopkins. He earned a second BA in Philosophy and a MDiv from Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. His PhD is from the University of California, Berkeley. He has taught at several universities, published several book and articles.

St. Francis has quite a romanticized history. Pictures of him surrounded by small animals and a missionary of peace, kindness, and genteelness is how I remember him from my days in Catholic school. Thompson mentions some newer views of Francis:

“Francis was a free spirit, a wild religious genius, a kind of medieval hippie, misunderstood and then exploited by the”Medieval Church.” Or perhaps they know him as the man who spoke to animals, a nature mystic, an ecologist, a pacifist, a feminist, a voice for our time.”

Francis was born into a well off home, was educated, and quite a party guy. He went to war, fought, held as a prisoner, and was quite a changed man on his return. He was haunted by strange dreams and from the descriptions of his behavior sound much like post traumatic stress syndrome. Francis felt a great guilt and openly gave alms to the poor. He drifted from his family and displayed eccentric behavior. He began a life of poverty. He exchanged manual labor for food and shelter and worked with lepers. Along with two other penitents he went to Rome to ask to start an order. He managed to see the pope and was told to go on his quest see if he could bring in new followers. He spent his life dedicated to hard work, giving to the poor, and embracing the cross. Francis called this as leaving the world.

As far as the animals, Francis did have a way with them. There are numerous stores from before his sainthood that show a special connection, although not as great as his post sainthood stories. Interestingly, although he is known for releasing animals given to him and his circle for food, he had no prohibition against eating meat. Francis took the bible’s “Then let us eat what is put before us.” literally when it came to eating meat.

Thompson shows that Francis did exhibit some questionable behavior that would seem not too rational. Despite everything, Francis is dedicated to his mission. He would not accept money in exchange for his labor, only food or shelter. He does many things to show his faith and never waivers. Whether or not the reader is Catholic or Christian there is much to be learned and admired from St. Francis. Thompson writes an excellent biography and documents his work very well. It is quite an accomplishment to retrieve this much detailed information on a man who lived almost 1,200 years ago. A very good read for anyone interested in the Medieval Church, the Franciscan Order, or a story of a great man.

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Book Review: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan is a study of the historical Jesus and the Jewish people and their relationship with the Romans. Rez Aslan is an Iranian-American writer and is on the faculty of University of California, Riverside. He came to America in 1979 with his parents who were fleeing the Iranian Revolution. Aslan holds a BA in Religions, a Masters in Theology in from Harvard Divinity, and a PhD in Sociology of Religions from UC, Santa Barbara. He is well published in newspapers and has made numerous appearances on television and radio. He has also written several books on religion.

Warning: This book and this review is not for everyone. I can see how some would be offended by the contents of this book and for that matter this review. Aslan writes about the historic Jesus and not the divine Jesus. He places events in their historical context, examines the original language texts, and compares it to Hebrew scriptures. The Gospels are compared for content and for the time period they were written.

Aslan provides a good history of the Jewish people and the Roman occupations. Pontius Pilate who had a great dislike of the Jews. He wold never release a prisoner for Passover, and it is unlikely that he would have given any personal attention, let alone a trial for a Jew accused of treason. Death sentences were carried out regularly without much more thought the a stroke of a pen. If there was to be a question asked of Pilate it would be “Are you the King of the Jews? “ King of the Jews was a political title, Herod held that title. For someone not appointed by Rome to take that title would be considered treason against the Roman Empire.

Zealot challenges many ideas and words that have been misrepresented through history. Jesus was a Nazarene; he was not born in Bethlehem. Only Mathew and Luke place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but consistently refer to him as a Nazarene. The census that supposedly brought Jesus’ family to Bethlehem was a fabrication to tie Jesus to the House of David. Rome would not shut down its entire economy for weeks or months so that people could return to their birthplaces and wait to be counted. People were counted where they held property so that their taxes could be assessed, not in their birthplaces.

Paul is also covered in the book and his rise to prominence over James the Just, brother of Jesus. Paul is shown to do his own thing and ignore many of the teachings of Jesus. In fact his only mention Jesus life is the crucifixion, resurrection and the Last Supper. Paul appoints himself as the 13th apostle and he is the one who breaks with the Old Testament teachings much to the astonishment of the twelve apostles.

It’s not that Aslan is trying  destroy Christian beliefs. He looks at the events strictly as a historian. He covers a great deal of ground inZealot. Temple history and practices are covered as are the Romans and Roman Law. Healing, purification, and the many messiahs that existed before Jesus are also covered. Very little in first century Holy Land is left unexamined.

Zealot will make you rethink what you know about the New Testament and Jesus. Alslan writes a very well thought out book and a very well supported book. He includes over seventy pages of documentation to back up his claims, and that support is needed on such a sensitive subject. It is an very informative book for any reader with an open mind and willing to look at history. I highly recommend the book.

For those posting comments:

1) I am not Reza Aslan, PhD.  I just reviewed his book.

2) Your personal religious beliefs are your own.  They do not belong here and will not be approved unless, you have a book detailing your religious beliefs.  Then I would be more than happy to review it.  Send me a copy along with your academic credentials.

3) Post concerning material in the book or my review are always welcome.

And finally, Thank You to the hundreds of people who took the time to read my review.


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Book Review: A Bigger World: The Life and Times of Wm. Edwy Ryerson

A Bigger World: The life and times of Wm. Edwy Ryerson

A Bigger World: The Life and Times of Wm. Edwy Ryerson, written by Thomas Ryerson, is the semi-fictional account of his great grandfather’s life through the stories grandparents told and experienced. It is semi-fictional in that the major events are true, like serving in World War I but the details needed to be filled in. Stories like these are difficult exciting events from the past often lose their luster in the present. It’s a difficult task and I found it be very well done.


The book is narrated by Tom (the author’s grandfather) and follows three time lines: Edwy’s life of adventure Boer War, World War I, India; The depression in the 1930s; and the 1920s. Although they do all form one lifetime, they are divided in the book and intermixed. The reader needs to pay attention to when the story is happening.


I will admit I was a bit confused at the start of the book. I initially assumed the author was telling his memories of his great grandfather’s stories, then I realized the author was somewhere around my age, so that could not be the case. I took a moment and figured it out and I should have given more attention to the forward. Secondly the time changes were confusing: was it the 1920s or the 1930s? This just forces the reader to pay better attention. The tragic story of Sonny clearly lets you know where you are in the time line. I will take the blame for my initial confusion as everything did work out the further I read.


The writing is clear and well thought out. The stories of the wars and even the Titanic were not “thrilling” is the sense of Hollywood movie, but have a totally different feeling. They were told like someone who was there and experienced it. Talk to a vet about about what ever conflict they were in and you will get the same feeling of gravity. War is not glorious, you do what you have to and deal with it and some times you look away and often times you simply endure. The feelings Edwy had for the Empire are much the feelings that many in the military have for the country they serve. I felt the same way when I joined the Marines and yes it was thrilling…about three percent of the time. I am sure anyone who served can relate to Edwy’s stories.


The story of Sonny is very touching and deals with the reality of metal illness in the 1920s and 1930s; we have come a long way. The characters in the story are all interesting. The stories are all interesting and some moving. The main story is Edwy’s life is amazing: Two wars, Colonial occupation, ship’s steward (on the Titanic no less), and raising a family in the depression. Any one of these events would have been enough for most people. Life was an adventure for Edwy Ryerson and he lived it to the fullest.


A very worthwhile read  

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