Thursday, June 19, 2014

[Book Review] 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Charles C. Mann (2005)

Where to even begin?

I don't think I've ever read anything that completely shifted my perception of the world as many times as '1491' did. In more ways than I can count, this book has fundamentally altered the way I think about the continent that I've lived on for my entire life, and the people who lived here before my own ancestors arrived, and how shamefully little I was taught about those first Americans in school and college.

I honestly had never given any thought at all to what Native Americans did with the 15,000 years between coming to North America and making contact with Europeans. I assumed, based on the fact that it had never been brought up, that they basically made war, gathered herbs, used every part of the buffalo, and basically didn't change single a thing about two entire continents for up to fifteen millennia.

I could not have been more wrong.

When Europeans first arrived in the New World, they kept going on and on in their early accounts about how green and fertile this new land was, how lush and full of game; almost like a garden, or a game preserve. WELL, THERE WAS A REASON FOR THAT: Native Americans, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, made enormous changes to their environments, mainly through the use of controlled burns to clear forests and create open fields which were attractive to game animals like deer and rabbits. In Mesoamerica, they built complex societies with advanced mathematics, architecture, and philosophy; in the Southwest, they built entire cities into the sides of cliffs; and in the northeast, the Iroquois League created a representative democracy which would later serve as the basis for the Constitution of the United States. The list of their accomplishments goes on and on.

Possibly the greatest of Native achievements (at least within the territory of what is now the United States) was the sprawling merchant-city of Cahokia, near modern-day St. Louis. In the 1250 A.D., it was larger than London. As Mann describes it (emphasis mine):
"Anyone who traveled up the Mississippi in 1100 A.D. would have seen it looming in the distance: a four-level earthen mound bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Around it like echoes were as many as 120 smaller mounds, some topped by tall wooden palisades, which were in turn ringed by a network of irrigation and transportation canals; carefully located fields of maize; and hundreds of wooden homes with mud-and-straw plastered floors and high-peaked, deeply thatched roofs like those on traditional Japanese farms. Located near the confluence of the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers, the Indian city of Cahokia was a busy port. Canoes flitted like hummingbirds across its waterfront: traders bringing copper and mother-of-pearl from faraway places; hunting parties bringing such rare treats as buffalo and elk; emissaries and soldiers in long vessels bristling with weaponry; workers ferrying wood from upstream for ever hungry cookfires; the ubiquitous fishers with their nets and clubs. Covering five square miles and housing at least fifteen thousand people, Cahokia was the biggest concentration of people north of the Rio Grande until the eighteenth century."
Cahokia at its peak in the 1200s A.D.
What's even more shocking about Cahokia is the fact that YOU'VE ALMOST CERTAINLY NEVER EVEN HEARD OF IT. We're not taught about it in school, even though it's enormous, and part of our own country's history. Before I read 1491, I had no idea that any Native society north of Mexico had produced any settlement larger than a pallisaded village. Even though I knew about the cliff-dwellings of the Anasazi and Pueblo peoples, I didn't even think to include them in that broad and sweeping generalization: that's how little I knew about Native Americans.

This book comes with my highest recommendations. This book should be on the required reading list for every person who lives in the New World, or whose life has been affected by their discovery and colonization.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

[Book Review] The Stuff of Legend, Volume 1: The Dark

Th3rd World Studios, 2009
Writers: Mike Raicht, Brian Smith
Penciler: Charles Paul Wilson III
Colorists: Michael DeVito, Jon Conkling
Editors: Michael DeVito, Jon Conkling

I like to think of The Stuff of Legend as a darker, more psychological cousin of Pixar's Toy Story trilogy. Though I picked up a free sample of the first chapter at Free Comic Book Day 2010, I only just got around to checking this series out via inter-library loan, and I'm kicking myself for not doing it years ago. The story is taut and highly psychological, while still clipping along at a brisk pace, interspersing combat with character-development and relationship-building. The dialogue is as clean and crisp as any prime-time drama, and I found myself laughing aloud on more than one occasion. The art which accompanies the story (and more importantly, enhances it) is darkly beautiful, portrayed in loving detail and a sepia-tone wash, reminiscent of an old, faded photo album.

The idea of living toys (warning: TVtropes link) is nothing new in literature, but the true depth of toy-psychology remains almost entirely unfathomed. What would it really be like to be a secret guardian to a young child, acting as their best friend, imaginary surrogate, and plaything, only to be discarded when the next, more interesting toy comes along? How would you react to that? Would you be sad? Jealous?Angry? Would you feel betrayed? Would you want revenge for being thrown away so carelessly? And what would you do if an evil, shadowy monster kidnapped spirited your master away into another world? Would you risk your life for him, a child who never truly appreciated you, and will - inevitably - abandon you as he grows up and puts away childish things?

For the toys belonging to an unnamed boy living in Brooklyn in 1944, the answer is "yes". One night, a creature known as the Boogeyman reaches from his world to our own, and drags a small boy into the world of "The Dark", for his own nefarious ends. Still numb with shock, most of the toys simply accept that the boy is gone, beyond their power to help or save, and that they will all pass to his younger brother. But The Colonel, a courageous WWI doughboy, forms a rescue party along with seven other loyal toys: Harmony, a windup ballerina; Quackers, a wooden duck; The Princess, a Native American warrior-maiden; Jester, a jack-in-the-box with a quick tongue and eyes only for the Princess; Percy, a cowardly piggy-bank with a head for facts; Maxwell, a teddy bear, formerly the boy's favorite toy; and Scout, a beagle puppy and the boy's new favorite.

Upon arriving in The Dark, the toys find themselves transformed: Maxwell becomes a hulking grizzly bear, Quackers is able to fly on real wings, and the human toys are now made of flesh and blood (except Harmony, who's more of an automaton anyway). Making a surprise D-Day style landing (highly reminiscent of the war which the boy's father is currently fighting over in Europe) on the shores of The Dark, the toys pit their might against the armies of the Boogeyman: forgotten toys, long ago consigned to the closet or lost under the bed, who now harbor deep grudges against their former master and the toys who come to rescue him. Here, cowboys and Crusaders fight alongside Roman centurions, Greek hoplites, Civil War soldiers, and Viking berserkers (Is the boy perhaps a tad obsessed with war?), all in service of the dreaded Boogeyman.

The Boogeyman is honestly one of the most genuinely frightening villains I've come across in a long time, possibly since Lord Voldemort himself! (And coming from a man who had a Harry Potter-themed wedding a few months back, that is very high praise indeed.) He's cunning and ruthless, frightening and unknowable, and seems to know everything that happens in his realm. Far from truly threatening him, the insurgency of the loyalist toys seems to amuse him, and he plays with them as a cat plays with a mouse before killing it.

I highly recommend The Stuff of Legend to anyone who ever played with a toy. This is a series off to an excellent start, and I will be eagerly reading and reviewing the rest of the books in this series, as soon as I can get a hold of them.