Sunday, September 30, 2007

Eye Candy

The History of Civilization

Chapter Four: The Collapse of the Bronze Age

All around the tiny kernels of civilization that had appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia by 3000 BC, there lived nearby peoples who were on a lower plane of organization. Once civilization had been achieved, its basic concept became an exportable item. To many of the neighbors the new achievements were highly attractive, for when these people looked at the first civilizations they probably saw the remarkable physical progress, but not the problems which were appearing.

The development of trade seems to have been the most important factor in promoting foreign awareness of the amazing advances in Egypt and Mesopotamia. As economic connections grew, so too did cultural and political ties. Then the Near East experienced great waves of attacks by outsiders, causing civilized societies to decline and setting them on a radically new course. While the great empires fought in an inconclusive fashion, their internal strength was weakening. Egypt, attacked on land and sea under Ramesses III (1182-1151 BC), barely rode out the storm. So too Assyria survived, but lost any capabilities of expansion for the next few centuries.

Life in the eastern Mediterranean was characterized by the almost permanent stress of endemic war. Land, resources, and people were caught up in an ever moving situation of violence and conquest. From minor wars against weaker neighbors to those between powerful kingdoms, no country was ever at rest. A degree of equilibrium did emerge, then this entire world collapsed in the twelfth century BC.

The turmoil that rocked civilization during this period has often been compared in scale to the fall of the Roman Empire. Several reasons have been given for this long and disastrous setback to mankind: cataclysms, crop failure, famine, drought, and mass migrations. One important factor concerns the Sea Peoples: a series of invaders from the Mediterranean, and their overwhelming destructive power. Their arrival signaled the end of high Bronze Age civilization.

To be continued...

If you're interested in this period, there's an outstanding coffee table-style book called The Mediterranean in History, by David Abulafia. Lots of beautiful artwork with explanations, I look through my copy all the time.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Eye Candy

Spud

Spud, by John van de Ruit
$11.55 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 1595141707
Set in a boys' boarding school in South Africa during the last days of Apartheid, Spud is a story about growing up. It's written in a diary-style format, which makes it an easy read thanks to plenty of friendly blank space on every page.
John Milton is thirteen. He has a neurotic family including a senile grandmother named Wombat, and a father who's frequently in trouble with the law for his strange and confrontational behavior. In the first chapter, dad turns his power washer on the neighbor's noisy dog. Additionally, they're poor and rather tacky by prep school standards. Naturally, John is mortified.
He's nicknamed Spud by his classmates because his still hairless scrotum resembles a new potato. Apparently he's something of a late bloomer. In spite of these setbacks, he's a lovable kid who wins the respect of his school chums and the affection of a young lady he's nicknamed "the Mermaid". Ah, young love.
One review I read described this book as the Catcher in the Rye of South Africa. Unlike Holden Caulfield, however, Spud is not an asshole.
He deals with all the classic traumas of boyhood. Evidently in this part of the world, boys are whipped for misbehaving at school, which he does from time to time. He auditions for a play, gets taunted by bullies, learns about girls, and has a roommate with some serious mental problems.
All of this is set against the backdrop of Nelson Mandela being released from prison. There's a general consensus among the country's white elites that this signals the beginning of the end for civilization in South Africa. Spud reserves his judgement, adopting a sensible "wait and see" attitude. Smart boy.
This book comes highly recommended. Not only is it an outstanding coming-of-age story, but it also gave me a lot of insight into the lives of whites living in the Dark Continent. Its teen angst is up to date: it includes learning disorders, racial tension, and suicide attempts. Somehow, Spud still manages to tell an upbeat story with a delightful boy who's sure to grow into an amazing man.
The promise of youth and optimism for a bright future shine on every page. Don't miss this one, in ten years it'll be a universal classic.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Eye Candy

Quotations

The more original a discovery, the more obvious it seems afterwards.
Arthur Koestler (1905 - 1983)

Until you've lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was.
Margaret Mitchell (1900 - 1949)

Enjoy present pleasures in such a way as not to injure future ones.
Seneca (5 BC - 65 AD)


America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.
Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)


Roam abroad in the world, and take thy fill of its enjoyments before the day shall come when thou must quit it for good.
Saadi (1184 - 1291)

I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.
Louisa May Alcott (1832 - 1888)

There is an alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmuted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness.
Pearl Buck (1892 - 1973)

Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869 - 1948)

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Eye Candy

Imperial Life in the Emerald City

Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
$10.35 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 0307278832
A shocking work of investigative journalism, and finalist for the prestigious National Book Award, this book takes us inside the city of Baghdad after the US invasion.
It's been over four years since President George W. Bush led the invasion of Iraq, ending the regime of Saddam Hussein. Ostensibly this was done for two reasons: 1. To stop Hussein from using Weapons of Mass Destruction (he never had any), and 2. To "liberate" the Iraqis from tyranny and oppression.
Apparently, during that time, electricity, heat, and water have not been restored to the people of Baghdad after the public utilities were destroyed during the US bombing. The new US-sanctioned government also had most of its defense fund stolen, and its officials have to meet in crumbled ruins. Some liberation.
US military power in the city is consolidated in an area called "The Green Zone", which is the focus of Chandrasekaran' story. It's surrounded on all sides by guards: no Iraqis are allowed in. It has electric power from an independent generator, a fleet of SUVs, and several all-you-can-eat buffets. Here the decisions about the future of Iraq are made, and you won't believe how or by whom.
Believe it or not, this book is without political bias: he just describes the conditions in Iraq, along with conversations he had with high-ranking US officials and military personnel.
He was obviously tireless in his research, but also has a talent for writing it as a very personal story. There's a touching scene where a Baghdad merchant tries selling pizza to American soldiers. The business is a flop: the guys in the barracks aren't allowed off the base, even to get pizza.
Imperial Life painted a picture of the situation in Baghdad I'd never imagined. It takes us into the hospitals, the public schools, the stock exchange, and finally deep into the heart of the militarized Green Zone.
The American invasion of Iraq deserves more attention than a three-minute TV clip. Check this book out and learn a little about a very timely topic.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Eye Candy