Fringe Science and the Story of Sumer

As promised, a post on a pair of books. This all began in my extreme youth. I wanted to be an archaeologist, and a couple of places in the world enthralled me. The first one was Egypt, with its pyramids and general antiquity. The other was accepted as nothing more than a quaint legend: Atlantis. For some reason I fixated on the Sargasso Sea as the locale for the Lost Continent, or whatever it was called. Little tangible has been discovered much beyond Plato’s references to it, so we’ll leave that one alone for the time being.

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Egypt, I discovered, spawned and influenced other Euro-Asian cultures. The most familiar to us is the Greek. Then archaeologists began noticing things that surely dated Egypt to 12,000-10,000 BCE. These findings are still considered fringe science (read: hokum) by the established archaeology cadre, but the findings of these oddball fringers is compelling, once considered. And that brings us to the two books in question. They were both written by Chris H. Hardy (Chris for Christine), who is an ethnologist, cognitive scientist, and Princeton researcher. The two books in question deal with certain aspects of Sumer, one of the oldest recorded cultures to leave written traces of themselves. And controversy begins with the initial crack of the Sumerian bat.

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Troves of Sumerian tablets and cylinders have been found and translated, leaving a rich depiction of that culture. Surprise abounds as we discover that the Sumerian “texts” carry the initial story of the Christian Bible in Genesis. But wait minute!! The tone of the Sumerian version is MUCH different, once understood. And here’s why science is an evolving discipline.

Facts lead to interpretation, and over time the best reasoning wins out. Until it’s disputed through new findings and data. And then, again, the best reasoning wins out. The bottom line here? Oh well, I may as well spring it on you.

Humanity, according to Hardy’s well thought-out but presented in a harum-scarum thesis is that a highly advanced culture came to earth, settled here and fiddled with the DNA of pre-cognitive creatures that eventually became humans. Much here will unsettle traditional religion and many not particularly attached to religion. And it will upset us individually because of our programmed need to worship and to follow leaders.

So. Ready for Hardy’s story? I can’t wait to tell it.

 

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A Very Brief History of Burned Books

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A somewhat obscure placing for a news item of this import: in my local paper, a quarter column piece revealed that the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar (anything to draw people to books) had been broken into. The miscreants, of course, had made off with some $500 and apparently some of the champagne. Somehow – and we’re not sure we can blame this on the burglars – a vacuum had caught fire and set off the store’s sprinkler system, damaging several thousand books.

We’re in an era in which by all rights books should be disappearing in favor of the digital and audible varieties. Not so. Readers still want to hold the book, turn its pages, feel the paper’s texture. Libraries are still a core resource in most communities. I can pass by the downtown library at most any hour and see readers inside, researchers plotting ideas, justifying opinions, or just looking for a thought-provoking read.

But libraries – and books – have lived precarious lives. The famed library in Alexandria, Egypt, burned in or around 642 AD, destroying manuscripts dating perhaps a thousand years into antiquity. But this wasn’t the first time the library had tasted fire, but the fourth. Conquerors knew the best way to dominate a conquered culture was to destroy its books and manuscripts.

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In the era prior to the year 1000 in Muslim Spain, Cordoba, to be exact, the library of al-Hakam II, reputed to contain some 400,000 volumes, suffered a deliberate burning: the manuscripts were hauled into the street and burned to please religious officials, who mistrusted the philosophies they contained. (btw, go to your local library and look up Cordoba of that era. Prepare to be amazed at the civilization maintained by that Muslim culture.)

In the heady sixties, it was James Michener, I believe, who, in a knockdown argument with campus radicals bargained thusly, “All right, burn the ROTC buildings. Gut the administrative edifices. But please don’t touch the libraries.” Fortunately, they heeded his plea.

All this to say that books – and their repositories – are the cultural bedrock of any culture, and they should be protected as such.

 

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Living the Irish Life

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Walk The Blue Fields, by Claire Keegan

Story collections can be intriguing and ground breaking: witness James Joyce’s
. They can also be more than the sum of their parts as well; they can operate under an overarching theme. Or they can be simply a series of disconnected stories with a common setting.

The latter is the case with Walk The Blue Fields. Keegan uses rural Ireland as her palette, allowing her richly drawn characters to walk across rural Ireland within the drama of Irish life that seems as old as the hills and gorse themselves. Her dialogue is subtle, filled with a wit that sometimes despairs, at other times is filled with the energy of life. Sometimes, however, her stories turn corners that end in blind alleys, but even then her writing style compels.

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

Find Truth, Tell It

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With today’s media having been gobbled up by bottom-line-must-be-in-the black types, it’s hard for the book game to cultivate writers, and so we must do it ourselves. As I implied in this early post, writers have always found it hard to comment on their various societies, their foibles, their fledgling promise. We feel the pressure of politics, religion, and customs, aspects that support creaking social structures and deter us from looking at the unvarnished truths of our world. But this we must do; the power of the written word endures while politicians, preachers, and purveyors of the status quo wither and turn to dust. We writers and the fruits of our labors are the closest thing to immortality available in this evanescent world.

So be strong, writers. Don’t be swayed by the temporary comforts of politics, of religion and custom. Tell the truth, as you see it. Even though we’re mere chroniclers, our dedication to Truth, as Plato would have termed it, will outlast them all.

 

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A Private Eye in Elizabethan England

Heresy, by S.J. Parris

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There’s one sure way to scan the health of a literary genre: to note how easily it embraces other genres. And this is what we’re now seeing in the realm of historical fiction, which takes on romance, mystery,  and even suspense. In S.J. Parris’ capably written novel we find elements of both mystery and suspense wrapped in an Elizabethan setting. Does this approach hold to its historical underpinnings, i.e. does it shed light on its historical era? Yes. Is it historically believable? Very nearly so.

 

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Here, Italian monk Giordano Bruno has escaped the Inquisition by fleeing papal territories and eventually arriving in England, where he’s recruited into a role of spying on Oxford college denizens, a way of unearthing papists in Protestant England. Bruno arrives at Lincoln College ostensibly to take part in a debate on Copernicus, but he’s quickly confronted with an apparent murder, then another, and yet another. Why Bruno feels the need to investigate these connected killings is unclear, but investigate he does, and this begins to roll back a curtain of secrecy on secret Catholic meetings in Oxford.

The author pulls every twist and turn possible out of her hat to build suspense and to deepen the intrigue here, but to what end? Clearly, to the end of depicting history in a deeply ingrained manner. She has skillfully lain out the depths of the Catholic/Protestant conflict at the time, the terror it induced in the citizens of England.

Yes, to cast the monk Bruno in the role of medieval private eye is a bit clumsy, and some of the furtive hijinks seem a tad overdone. But, forgiving these, the author has done a bang-up job of giving readers a rare peek into the Elizabethan world.

 

 

My rating 16 of 20 stars

 

 

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The Self as Enemy

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The Antagonist, By Lynn Coady

This book is on the surface a rant by a hard-luck fellow, Gordon Rankin, Jr. (Rank), via e-mail, caused by an old college acquaintance’s novel, in which Rank finds himself the very apparent subject. Beneath the superficial rant, though, the book concerns many things:

  • A mirror in which Rank sees himself as the cause of his own problems
  • A look at the male athlete’s lingering hold on youth
  • Religion as a failing arbiter of morality
  • The weaknesses of the modern family
  • The roots of alienation
  • The neutrality of the novel as cultural portrayer

But to the story:

Rank is a large child-man who can’t resist the lure of things and opportunities that lead to trouble. His father, a small man, enlists Rank’s help in keeping “punks” away from his ice cream store, resulting in Ranks’ beating of one boy (Why? Because he can). From that point on, Rank’s life is a series of misadventures, making of that life a poignant, unfulfilled, empty shell.

But there is no epiphany here; in the end, Rank seems simply to tire of his rage at Adam, the old friend who wrote the novel:

“I told you what I had to tell you, and you told me something back, and that’s our story, isn’t it, Adam?”

In other words, as in James Joyce’s “A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man,” all the cultural devices meant to nurture and mature young men have failed Rank. He must then rely only on himself for redemption.

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This is a difficult novel to read, and I found myself constantly flipping back to earlier references in order to have passages make sense. In that manner, the book is too abstract; it relies too heavily on ideas, pronounced or alluded to, and too little on embodying those ideas in the formation and presentation of the characters – principally Rank.

Still, Coady is a formidable, adventurous writer, and one shouldn’t allow oneself to be thrown too far off track by her experimentation with style. The vision of her work here is much too important for that.

My rating 16 of 20 stars

 

 

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Veering Toward Melodrama

Cutting For Stone, by Abraham Verghese

image via schulerbooks.wordpress.com
image via schulerbooks.wordpress.com

 

This is an ambitious project. And like many ambitious novels, Cutting For Stone walks a tightrope between admission to the literary canon and the agony of reaching too high. Perhaps only history itself is the best judge of such books, but for me the book leans toward the latter.

It’s the story of two boys – Marion and Shiva, who take on the surname of the doctor who delivered them, Thomas Stone. The two boys are twins, extracted from the womb of a nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, and joined at the head by a tubal tissue that possibly threatens the lives of the boys until it’s severed. This birth condition sets the book’s surest but most underdeveloped metaphor. The sister dies, and the presumed father, Thomas Stone, abruptly makes tracks, wanting nothing to do with the boys. They are then adopted by Ghosh, an ad hoc surgeon, and Ghosh’s heartthrob an Indian nun, Hema.

Shiva is matter-of-fact smart, expending little effort to achieve his goal of becoming a doctor, while Marion has to work at it. And then there’s Genet, a female waif who grows up with the two boys and is eager, as they become aware of their sexuality, to have one or the other deflower her, as she puts it.

The story takes place largely in Ethiopia during the last days of Haile Selassie’s reign, the unrest that follows Selassie’s demise as ruler, and the ensuing urge to revolution in Africa’s horn. It’s this aspect of the story that I enjoyed the most – the crumbling of that nation’s ancient foundation, the blending of Christian, Hindu, and Islamic cultures there.

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Historic epics are the grander end of literature, and Verghese clearly had this in mind when writing the book. But there are technical aspects of the story that simply don’t work. The author allows Marion to narrate the story – including the weeks prior to his and Shiva’s birth, their infancy, and much later during Marion’s surgery. The manner is which this is accomplished has the effect of forcing Marion into an awkwardly unrealistic omniscient point of view little suited to first person narration. Too, the characters, by Western standards, have altogether too many stilted conversations. This may be the manner of Ethiopian language and conversing, but these scenes seem more like TV dialogue than revealing literary dynamics.

Thomas Stone and Genet show up again at story’s end, but the purpose of both seems wasted, other than trying to tie up as many loose ends as possible. Still, there are many alleys and streets in this novel that lead nowhere, story-wise, or metaphorically, and I couldn’t help imagining Charles Scribner slicing and dicing the manuscript to half its length, as he did with those of Hemingway near the end of that fabled writer’s career. Altogether, then, these technical aspects of the book give it a rather melodramatic tone, something I’m sure the author didn’t intend. Clearly the author’s vision for the book was ambitious, but it’s the manner in which this was carried out that forces me to lean to the nay-saying side of Verghese’s literary tightrope.

 

My rating 12 of 20 stars