My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The day Unfamiliar Fishes came out, it was downloaded to my Kindle. I loved Sarah Vowell’s previous books, especially Assassination Vacation. Sarah Vowell has turned into a sort of deep sticky underbelly of American History sort of historian whose books feel like long episodes of The American Life (and I love This American Life). I foist them on everyone I see — “Want to learn bizarre facts of American History? Read these books!”
I liked Unfamiliar Fishes, a book on the history of Hawai’i from 1778-1900, but the subject matter is so soul-crushingly depressing the upbeat sarcastic tone of the text clashed with the actual text at times. The narrative begins with the death of Captain Cook in 1778 at the then-named “Sandwich Islands” for doing horrible things to the local natives and then discusses what Hawai’i was like at that time: not a peaceful paradise. The islands had just been forged into a Kingdom after a bloody civil war. The society was highly stratified with bloodlines of chiefs and a feudalistic system of land division. Men and women were segregated from one another at meal times and women were forbidden to eat certain foods under kapu laws. They had their own Gods — Ku the War God gets prominent mention for his prominent temple. Then the missionaries came with their Jesus and their Bibles in 1820 and everything changed.
Everything would have changed anyway. Had it not been the missionaries it would have been someone else. The missionaries at least came with the printing press and a zeal for learning. They translated the Bible into a new written form of Hawai’ian and, from there, others wrote down all the chants and religion and myths and culture they could to preserve it. The missionaries came to save the Hawai’ians, which meant stamping out the local culture, shoving New England Protestantism on it, and persuading the high Chiefs to do away with various bits of their culture to make it more “modern.” Granted, by the time the missionaries came, the Hawai’ians were starting to dismantle some of their culture anyway, so perhaps some of it is moot, but it would have taken a different course.
Then the shipping came, and then the sugar plantations, and the imported workers, and the round trips from newly established and totally hot San Francisco, and then with it came the smallpox and the malaria and the dysentery and everything else that could wipe out a local population. In time, the US Navy started eying Hawai’i as a Pacific port, especially with the sexy Pearl Harbor. Enterprising grandchildren of the original missionaries decided to stage a coup, and then decided to get Hawai’i annexed to the US to avoid tariffs on sugar. When Congress voted against the treaty of annexation due to the protest of the islanders, Pres. William McKinley decided it was good old “American Manifest Destiny” and figured out a back door to get annexation through anyway.
The sugar plantations are gone, now. And there’s a huge revival of local culture — a good thing.
Why did I give this book 3 stars? Mostly because Goodreads won’t allow me to set 3.5. This is a good book, but not a great book. It does feel like a long episode of This American Life, but not one that sticks in the memory. I also felt terrible and depressed at the end because it’s a terrible and depressing subject, and no amount of sarcasm and no number of funny stories about insane Mormons who are trying to become King of the Pacific make up for how sad and depressing the story is. It reminded me strongly of George Carlin’s bit, “Religious Lift.” It goes like this:
“Like I say, religion is a lift in your shoe, man. If you need it, cool. Just don’t let me wear your shoes if I don’t want ‘em and we don’t have to go down and nail lifts onto the native’s feet!”
David Plotz on last week’s Slate Political Podcast quoted this section of Ulysses S Grant’s memoirs as a bit of random trivia. This quote is a minor reminder that in American politics all that is old is eventually new again and the same few arguments come up again and again. If the telegraph is such a world-changing marvel in 1885, what is the Internet?
“The framers were wise in their generation and wanted to do the very best possible to secure their own liberty and independence, and that also of their descendants to the latest days. It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them, and under unforeseen contingencies. At the time of the framing of our constitution the only physical forces that had been subdued and made to serve man and do his labor, were the currents in the streams and in the air we breathe. Rude machinery, propelled by water power, had been invented; sails to propel ships upon the waters had been set to catch the passing breeze—but the application of stream to propel vessels against both wind and current, and machinery to do all manner of work had not been thought of. The instantaneous transmission of messages around the world by means of electricity would probably at that day have been attributed to witchcraft or a league with the Devil. Immaterial circumstances had changed as greatly as material ones. We could not and ought not to be rigidly bound by the rules laid down under circumstances so different for emergencies so utterly unanticipated. The fathers themselves would have been the first to declare that their prerogatives were not irrevocable.”
- Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs, Chapter XVI, Section 14
Amid the history buffs and parents with young children wandering along the crushed shell paths of Virginia’s restored colonial city, some noticeably angrier and more politically minded tourists can often be found.
They stand in the crowd listening closely as the costumed actors relive dramatic moments in the founding of our country. They clap loudly when an actor portraying Patrick Henry delivers his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. They cheer and hoot when Gen. George Washington surveys the troops behind the original 18th-century courthouse. And they shout out about the tyranny of our current government during scenes depicting the nation’s struggle for freedom from Britain.
“General, when is it appropriate to resort to arms to fight for our liberty?” asked a tourist on a recent weekday during “A Conversation with George Washington,” a hugely popular dialogue between actor and audience in the shaded backyard of Charlton’s Coffeehouse.
I’ve got nothing.
(Just a splat-share, but this is pretty awesome from a nerd standpoint.)
King Tutankhamun, the pharaoh who ruled Egypt more than 3,300 years ago, rode full speed over the desert dunes on a Formula One-like chariot, according to new investigations into the technical features of the boy king’s vehicle collection.
1. I found a nice program called Calorie Tracker for the Droid (free) that backs to a massive database of restaurants and foods. It also has barcode search via the camera, tracking across all sorts of metrics (carbs, fat intake, etc), graphing, etc. My experience with trying to find out what is wrong with my diet is mostly one of data collection. Whatever it is, I’ll find it and stop eating it. Or at least find things I shouldn’t be eating in general and stop doing that.
2. I fell asleep watching this older documentary on the Dark Ages from the History Channel last night. Yay Netflix streaming to device that… I shouldn’t be in bed with but I was trying to stay up and failing. It occurs to me two interesting facts:
A. These documentaries are myopic. They completely leave out the existence of Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire. No mention is ever made that they tried to recover Rome through several invasions via southern Italy. All of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe simply disappears off the map. Leo the Great! The General Basiliscus! Zeno vs. the Ostragoths!
Oh… nevermind. No one gives luv to Constantinople.
B. If one wants to know what would happen in the case of a Zombie Invasion, study the Fall of Rome. Seriously! A decadent Empire is felled by invaders who take over the cities and force the few survivors to scrabble through the ruins to scratch out survival. Any moment a barbarian may appear and take people out with an axe (or a zombie virus). They never stop coming! To survive, the survivors collect next to the ruins of technological marvels they could never hope to replicate and strip them for parts. Aqueducts fail. Roads crumble. Bits of civilization holds out — the Roman Governor of Gaul held out for a breathtaking 70 years — before the barbarians (zombies) took out the last bit of existence.
I was so excited by the parallels last night I fell asleep. But don’t duplicate my example. Read a book! Or Wikipedia! The perfect blueprint for a Zombie Invasion — right from history!
The clip we saw on AMC from the original 1938 Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn was not colorized as we originally suspected but in an early and eye-gougingly bright Technicolor. I swear I thought it was colorized but no, apparently it was filmed in color.
According to IMDB, they used all 11 Technicolor cameras in existence (from Technicolor) to film the movie and it’s huge Avatar-like success is what lead to the adoption of color movies.
It’s the 1922 Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks that is in B&W.
That answers my random outstanding and context-free question of the day.
As an archeology geek with interest in the Mayans, I go squee: Using Laser to Map Ancient Civilization in a Matter of Days.
Then, in the dry spring season a year ago, the husband-and-wife team of Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase tried a new approach using airborne laser signals that penetrate the jungle cover and are reflected from the ground below. They yielded 3-D images of the site of ancient Caracol, in Belize, one of the great cities of the Maya lowlands.
In only four days, a twin-engine aircraft equipped with an advanced version of lidar (light detection and ranging) flew back and forth over the jungle and collected data surpassing the results of two and a half decades of on-the-ground mapping, the archaeologists said. After three weeks of laboratory processing, the almost 10 hours of laser measurements showed topographic detail over an area of 80 square miles, notably settlement patterns of grand architecture and modest house mounds, roadways and agricultural terraces.
It has an interactive graphic! It’s awesome! The city is huge!
This is exceptionally neat: an evolutionary biologist/artist recreates the faces of hominid evolutionary ancestors from skulls and fragments.
You can find the artist’s site here.
Today in history — Chewing!
Cooking is something we all take for granted but a new theory suggests that if we had not learned to cook food, not only would we still look like chimps but, like them, we would also be compelled to spend most of the day chewing.
Without cooking, an average person would have to eat around five kilos of raw food to get enough calories to survive.
The daily mountain of fruit and vegetables would mean a six-hour chewing marathon.
It is already accepted that the introduction of meat into our ancestors’ diet caused their brains to grow and their intelligence to increase.
Meat – a more concentrated form of energy – not only meant bigger brains for our ancestors, but also an end to the need to devote nearly all their time to foraging to maintain energy levels.
As a consequence, more time was available for social structure to develop.
If God didn’t want us eating animals he wouldn’t have made them out of meat! Go team carnivore!
Egypt’s famed King Tutankhamun suffered from a cleft palate and club foot, likely forcing him to walk with a cane, and died from complications from a broken leg exacerbated by malaria, according to the most extensive study ever of his mummy.
The findings were from two years of DNA testing and CT scans on 16 mummies, including those of Tutankhamun and his family, the team that carried out the study said in an article to be published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
That’s awful anti-climatic.
Today I pimp a podcast and a website!
I listened to Lars Brownworth’s original series, the 12 Byzantine Rulers, when it first came out. It was awesome and what got me hooked on academic-leaning podcasts. 12 Byzantine Rulers was recently mystically transformed through occult ritual into dead tree form and it is still available in the full run on iTunes. It was written up by the New York Times and it’s a tremendously fun listening experience at about 15 minutes a pop.
HOWEVER, now he’s doing the Norman Centuries on how the Vikings turned into Normans and became Middle Ages conquering machines. Vikings! Crusades! Norman Conquest of England!
The first episode is up on the webpage and the RSS feed for the podcast is running. I cannot pimp this podcast enough. If you even passingly enjoy learning about the more obscure corners of history, these podcasts are fantastic.
The Internet! Sometimes it’s for learnin’!
I have a complaint about the American Revolution! Which is a strange sort of complaint, so perhaps it is not a complaint about the Revolution itself, which sort of happened a while ago, but about the history books that have sprung from it and which I consume in overly large doses like Fritos.
My complaint today has to do with the treatment of supporting cast, or more to the point, lack thereof! Most of the book on the actual war itself are very focused on His Excellency, George Washington, and how awesome he is. He’s always played by some very important leading man, like Brad Pitt or Christian Bale or Johnny Depp. Tall and good looking, an imposing red-haired figure at 45 in his blue coat with excellent buckles, how can you miss him?
But I contend his supporting cast is more awesome and my specific complaint is the total lack of coverage of Henry Knox who, when he does get to appear on screen, is played by a comedian or some second-string sidekick who can pull off a nebbishy bookseller from Boston who whips out the super-secret winning plan at the last moment.
Like most of the supporting cast of the American Revolution, he was awesome. Hauled cannons in sleds from Upstate New York to Boston in the middle of winter! Orchestrated the Crossing of the Delaware! (Someone had to come up with that plan.) A founder of the Society of the Cinnicinati, a bona-fide somewhat Secret Society! First Secretary of War and founded the US Navy! And he was such a horrible insane tyrant in his old age up in Maine he was the model for Col. Pynchon in Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables.
Yet he is relegated to being played by a Topher Grace in the history of the Revolution when the movie is made and the book adaptation released. Compared to Washington, who has all the best lines, who cares about a crazy Bostonian with a flair for coming up with completely implausible plans that somehow work?
My problem with the American Revolution in general and the history books in particular is the same problem I have with True Blood: I get tired of the Mary Sue main characters (although in history there are rarely Vampire boyfriends) and find the secondary cast so much more interesting. The secondary cast has all the color and flair! These main guys? Sure they can stop bullets and fly, but where’s the fun in that? The secondary cast is so cool it’s difficult to believe they weren’t just made up. By me.
I shake my fist in muted history-nerd rage.
(Yes, I’ve read Angel in the Whirlwind, and it has awesome parts about the secondary cast. McCullough’s 1776 has some nice in-depth on secondary characters on both sides of the conflict.)