Book Reviews: Fall 2020

Anna Faktorovich

“But Why?…” [Write in Your Own Reasons for Assassinations]

John Withington, Assassins’ Deeds: A History of Assassination from Ancient Egypt to the Present Day (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, December 8, 2020). Hardcover: $25. 368pp, 6X9”. 81 halftones. ISBN: 978-1-78914-351-5.


The other day, I looked up the tree of potential heirs who could have inherited Elizabeth I’s throne upon her death in 1603; it turned out that at least 12 of them had died young, 1 was disqualified because Elizabeth refused to acknowledge his parents had married, and 1 simply never made a claim for the throne. Instead, Mary Queen of Scot’s son James I took over both the Scottish and English thrones. This seizure of power has historically been presented as England conquering Scotland in this union of the crowns, but it was really a victory for the plot to overthrow Elizabeth and her line of succession by James, the Scottish king. If James had been second or third in line for the throne, the deaths of a dozen alternates would appear accidental enough, but surely this extraordinary number of premature deaths had to be a series of undiscovered or covert assassinations. Given the power assassinations hold in shifting international politics between political parties, between families, or between countries, the scholarly study of cases where a death is a confirmed assassination is essential for the security of the world. Can there ever be a benevolent assassination of a nuclear scientist, or a totalitarian leader? Surely, any type of assassination invites the question of why any cause is worthy of murder without the judicial punishment of the guilty assassin or the leader ordering the hit. Thus, this book sets out on the honorable quest of explaining the crime of assassination in its widely different geographical and political contexts.

“Personal ambition, revenge, and anger have encouraged many to violent deeds, like the Turkish sultan who had nineteen of his brothers strangled or the bodyguards who murdered a dozen Roman emperors. More recently have come new motives like religious and political fanaticism, revolution and liberation, with governments also getting in on the act, while many victims seem to have been surprisingly careless: Abraham Lincoln was killed after letting his bodyguard go for a drink. So, do assassinations work?” This is a curious scholarly question that I have not seen addressed from this perspective before. The book not only reviews the “historical evidence” but also the “statistical analysis” to understand the aftermath of these assassinations. This history is just as concerned with describing “ingenious methods of killing”, as the “many unintended consequences.”

The book is divided into chapters by the ages that held different perspectives on assassinations, relations and murder. For example, in the “Age of Chivalry”, duels for love or against offenses were considered honorable and required of nobility. Meanwhile, during the “Wars of Religion”, killing over religious convictions became honorable. And in the “Age of Revolution”, killing to prevent tyrannical monarchs from having power over the people became socially acceptable. And now in the modern age, assassinating those the media classifies as “evil” such as the Nazis and terrorists has become a new noble unpunished quest. The final chapter addresses the assassinations that have gone unpunished in contrast with most of the others that have tended to lend to the execution of the assassin if he or she acted without state-authorization.

The opening pages of the “Prologue” are somewhat disappointing as John Withington repeats a fictitious scene with gestures such as “leaps”, thoughts regarding what to do next, and various other dramatic details that are indeed entirely fictional as they paraphrase the 1927 assassination by a Chinese revolutionary in Shanghai that was created by Andre Malraux for his novel, La Condition Humaine (1933). Withington then explains that real assassinations do not come with the “novelist’s all-seeing eye”. The opening would have been stronger if it opened with a quote from one of the more detailed confessions of an assassin regarding how he proceeded in his or her deed. In reading of the archives, interrogation and confession files tend to be far more emotionally-triggering in their striking details than any cliché motions that repeat across novels that describe formulaic assassins. The rest of the “Prologue” stops to question what distinguishes assassinations from regular “murder” and uses the dictionaries to explain that assassinations are murders of the “famous or important”, or one that is performed with a “political or ideological motive”.

The book picks up speed and focuses closely on the facts starting with the first chapter. “The Ancient World” chapter opens with the “‘first known victim of assassination’”, or the “Egyptian pharaoh… Teti…” who was “‘murdered by his bodyguards’”. Withington notices that this is only a potential assassination because it was first claimed as such 2,000 years later in Manetho’s account. However, the case is handled largely with questions of whodunnit, instead of providing evidence for each potential murderer. In one sentence Withington writes: “We know that he was succeeded for a short time by a man named Userkare.” There are no notes or citations in this entire paragraph about this assassination. This sentence and others give the impression that historians have previously determined the specific length of time for which “Userkare” ruled, but this information is kept out because it is boring to Withington or he imagines would be boring for readers. From my perspective, it’s not useful for my research to read generalizations such as this, as I would need to know the precise details if I was going to benefit by incorporating this narrative into a novel of my own (building over the known facts), or if I needed to quote a passage of precise history to support an argument I was making.

Similar casual language, digressions and impression is the style that repeats across the book. I am particularly interested at this time in “chivalry” because I’m studying the period in Europe that followed it, and the manner in which European monarchs outlawed honor-duels. Yet when I turned to this chapter, I found this sentence: “Almost immediately, Becket went spectacularly native” (91). This sentence includes a rather offensive descriptor joined with a serious of generalizations. From there the paragraph is full of questions such as “But why?” I’m reading this book because I need answers to these types of speculations, rather than to hear the author pondering aloud instead of doing the work/research needed to present the answer. A few pages later, Withington is pondering if “Becket might have felt less insulted”, and if the assassination was a “great career move”.

In summary, the premise behind this book is fantastic, and promises to deliver a moral, philosophical and legal treatise that accuses world history of condoning some political or famous murders, while executing others. It promises to derive the statistic and historical motives and other patterns behind the assassin’s profession. However, the execution is absolutely awfully done. This book is unreadable for scholars. Only somebody who is accustomed to reading fiction might accept these uncertainties and emotional triggers are suitable and might manage to read this book cover-to-cover. The only reason for these mistakes I can imagine is if the point is to drive a scholar reading this book into homicidal rage as he or she corrects the missing citations and the horrid digressions; and thus, by experiencing the fury of the assassin, the scholar will enter their mind in their imagination. So, unless you are searching for the most frustrating book of the year to rage against as a critic, try to avoid reading this book.

Vivid and Intellectual Narratives of the Evils that Force Migration

Ai Weiwei, Human Flow: Stories from the Global Refugee Crisis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, December 1, 2020). Hardcover: $29.95. 400pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-691-207049.


“In the course of making Human Flow, his epic feature documentary about the global refugee crisis, the artist Ai Weiwei and his collaborators interviewed more than 600 refugees, aid workers, politicians, activists, doctors, and local authorities in twenty-three countries around the world. A handful of those interviews were included in the film. This book presents one hundred of these conversations in their entirety, providing compelling first-person stories of the lives of those affected by the crisis and those on the front lines of working to address its immense challenges.” The book presents condensed stories about “migrating across borders, living in refugee camps, and struggling to rebuild their lives in unfamiliar and uncertain surroundings. They talk about the dire circumstances that drove them to migrate, whether war, famine, or persecution”. It is illustrated “with photographs taken by Ai Weiwei while filming Human Flow”.

I have previously reviewed many horridly done interview books, where those being interviewed digress to repeat the same general ideas about scriptwriting or about fighting in war or other shared experiences in a manner that fails to give either researchers or those who want to imitate their behaviors or professions useful material. In contrast with these many past failures I have covered, the editors of this book have succeeded in speaking with intellectual refugees who are knowledgeable enough and interesting enough because of their outlier experiences for them all to present new perspectives and information that is essential to understand this international subject. The photographs included are also not designed to solicit donations by showing extreme desperation, but rather show the vibrant minds and emotionally complex people that are suffering among the refugees. One photo from the “Cem Terzi, Makeshift Camp” in Turkey in 2016, shows two men, two girls a woman, and a doctor tending to another child, as the others study the problem with concern. They are sitting on a carpet, wearing jeans, and some are sitting cross-legged. There are so many details, the reader truly feels welcomed into this reality, instead of feeling as if a propagandistic version of reality is being sold (114). Another photo is of a makeshift camp in Greece in 2016. The angle is of numerous tents, with lines of drying clothing at the forefront. It is clear that Weiwei truly visited these places and just took photos of what he saw and spoke with those he encountered with his full concentration and at a rapid speed that captured the reality of these moments (50).

The comments made by these refugees are uncensored. Hagai El-ad in Jerusalem, Israel in 2016 describes how he feels that Israel’s “military rule” over Palestinians is undemocratic, as they are denied participation in the political process. From his perspective, Israeli Jews have been benefiting from Europeans favoring the “Judeo-Christian” position against “Islamic extremism and terrorism”; whereas, the non-temporary occupation of the Palestinians’ land is from their view a violation of their human rights (197-8). He explains that the problem is not theological, but rather financial and practical as the Israelis practice “demolitions” or bulldozing of people’s homes, so that people are in “constant fear” of losing their possessions, and the encroaching entity has “legal excuses” for these thefts or for refusing to connect a village to utilities. At the end of this interview, Hagai accepts the offer to have another drink, so this openness comes slightly out of uninhibited inebriation; though perhaps the drink is of water… (205). Overall, this is one of the more enlightening takes on the problem of Palestinian-Israeli relations I have previously read. I am familiar with the Zionist perspective from attending Hassidic schooling, but this doctrine forces an ideological veil over a conflict that is robbing the local people. I was just reading earlier today about how Catholics’ land and houses were confiscating during Elizabeth I and James I’s reigns and granted frequently to other Catholics who were bribing or otherwise corrupting the political system. The confiscations were sold as purifying and religious measures, but these hyper-moralizing ideas were disguising outright theft of estates and fortunes won by industrious labor, and granting these riches to idiots who managed to bribe idiotic officials. This is precisely why this is a necessary book. Politicians and broadcasters should stop philosophizing about conflicts such as this Israeli-Palestinian clash, and instead listen to and look at the documented evidence presented by any party who has been violated. There is a legal and financial solution (instead of a violent military solution) to this conflict if the fraudsters are not allowed to sway by emotion and religious doctrine and instead are forced to present the facts of their case.

The other stories are similarly revealing, as Mohammad, a refugee in Berlin, describes the financial struggles he underwent during his migration (256). There are no questions asked in another section, where Rafik Ustaz, an activist in Malaysia, just relates his story and challenges without interjections. He explains: “My parents’ family was killed by the military junta of Myanmar, and our villages were burned in 1982 and 1983.” Despite these extreme hardships, Ustaz became a teacher because his community was in desperate need for basic literacy and knowledge. He gradually transitioned to helping others by working for humanitarian organizations to help people access food, medicine and other necessities (283-7).

There are no boring or irrelevant words or sentences across the pages I reviewed in this book. Each of these refugees is motivated by their own and their fellow refugees’ desperate situations to speak with succinct purpose to communicate the raw experiences they have been facing that are glossed over in cliches in mainstream accounts that stop at portraying tents or thin refugees without really asking what criminal misdeeds forced their migrations, and how they have managed to overcome and to survive these extraordinary quests. These are such captivating stories that Weiwei only took up half-a-page in his “Introduction” and another half-a-page for a photo of himself in Greece looking out into the ocean. I have previously seen a couple of documentaries about Weiwei, but this book displays his uniquely researched awareness of this problem that is apparent in the complex questions, and follow-ups that he asks in each of these foreign places. This is a much more useful endeavor for an activist versus marching because a crowd marching and chanting a single phrase is nonsensical in comparison with allowing those harmed by conflict and other human evils to express their sorrows and to call out for the unique type of help that can solve their precise obstacles. 

The Philosophy and Drama of Pontano, an Early Modern European Teacher

Giovanni Gioviano Pontano; Julia Haig Gaisser, editor and translator, Dialogues: Volumes 2 and 3 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020). Hardcover. 464pp/ 264pp. ISBN: 978-0-674-23718-6/ 978-0-674-24846-5.


These two volumes represent these texts first translations into English, so they are of interest to all generalist scholars of philosophical international thought. “Giovanni Gioviano Pontano (1429-1503) served five kings of Naples as a courtier, official, and diplomat, and earned even greater fame as a scholar, prose author, and poet.” Dialogues cover “religion, philosophy, and literature, as well as in everyday life in fifteenth-century Naples.” They describe Pontano’s “humanist academy over which he presided from around 1471 until shortly before his death.”

Volume 2 is Actius, “named for one of its principal speakers, the great Neo-Latin poet Jacopo Sannazaro, and contains a perceptive treatment of poetic rhythm, the first full treatment of the Latin hexameter in the history of philology. The dialogue continues with a discussion of style and method in history writing, a landmark in the history of historiography.”

The “Introduction” explains that Pontano joined the court of a Naples king at eighteen and served several subsequent kings as an adviser, researcher and overall secret-secretary. Similarly to Socrates and various other philosophers before him, Pontano had a following that became known after his death as the Academia Pontaniana. The five dialogues gathered in this Harvard edition make up most of Pontano’s original work, whereas most of the rest of his efforts were scholarly editions, transcriptions, histories and political or propagandistic treatises. The three dialogues in these two volumes were all published after Pontano’s death by his group.

Actius opens with an absurd discussion on the linguistic usage of “posterity” as it relates to the “posterior” in reference to the purchase of a cottage (3). The discussion becomes more interesting as Caeparius dives into a long monologue where he explains the sound construction of a cottage: “without any problem of water dripping from the eaves or of being used as a latrine” (5). These types of details should be useful for historians of these centuries who otherwise have few precise construction-method descriptions to rely on to make precise estimates on what life was like. Many sections of this text digress into random subjects, and leap between subjects in a manner that is difficult to follow. There are also many quotes from ancient classics, so that at one point one of the speakers, Compatre, satirizes the over-usage of these references to classics by noting that Paolo tends to “regurgitate one line of Terence and another from Cicero: ‘I am full of cracks’ and ‘not rich but full of loyalty.’ And add: ‘the world if full of fools.’” Sadly, Paolo refrains from answering the question about the preponderance of stupidity among humans, and instead inserts an avalanche of new quotes from the classics, so that Compatre gives up on returning to his initial question (29-31). The over-citation is overdone when Azio takes over and commences on a monologue lecture that takes up half of the book, across which there is basically a single speaker without interruptions. Azio begins by promising to explain the workings of merchants as well as “poetic rhythm” (103). Each of these subjects would have been better-served if it had been handled in a separate essay or speech dedicated to it. These dialogues appear to be transcribed lectures on random subjects that were taped together. There are some page-long quotes from Virgil on ancient mythology (109). And there are pages that include a dozen one-line quotes from different texts such as Aeneid and Georgics. These examples are used to generally show that Virgil and the Greek language include rhythm, counted syllables, and other tactics that were popular in Pontano’s time (139). Praise of these classics is mixed with explanations regarding the types of writing that appeals to readers: “just as a juxtaposition of syllables is pleasing because of the clapping of the same letters, so too and much more pleasing is a juxtaposition of the same vowels, since from this clapping of unelided vowels arises a great addition to euphony” (171). Thus, this dialogue needs the same type of scholarly digestion and separation of it into distinct arguments and lectures that has been applied to Plato/Aristotle and other mainstream philosophers. Their original lectures might have been as jumbled as Pontano’s but over the millennia scholars have separated them into smaller chunks on distinct topics that can be read by those researching something specific. Without this scholarly digestion, a reader has to read the classics Pontano is alluding to, and become an expert in this history and politics of this region and period before they can begin to slowly research each sentence before the next sentence takes them on a different research quest.

Volume 3 covers the last two of the five surviving dialogues—Aegidius and Asinus. Aegidius is “named for the Augustinian theologian Giles of Viterbo,” and covers “creation, dreams, free will, the immortality of the soul, the relation between heaven and earth, language, astrology, and mysticism. The Asinus is less a dialogue than a fantastical autobiographical comedy in which Pontano himself is represented as having gone mad and fallen in love with an ass.”

Aegidius opens as a group enters a house, studies it, studies the fruits and wine being served before settling to listen to the lecture. Then, Pontano praises the grandeur of the “Muses”, before Suardino breaks into tears at their repeat mentions. Suardino explains that he is thinking of the “Christian Muses” and “shrines of the saints”. Pontano tells him not to be sad but to also find joy in the “celestial Muses” that are consistent with Christian piousness (11). In another section Elio lectures on the similarity between “workmen” who “dig” a field for an employer with those who work on their souls for God to gain access to Elysium. God is equated with a “head of household in hiring workmen… for he provides them with a tool to dig and make it clear what he wants the workers to do… after the work is completed, he gives each one his wages and praises the service of those who performed the task well, but those who did badly he removes from payment and visits with disgrace” (57). Overall, these dialogues thus are attempting the revived classical philosophy while fitting it with the Christian doctrine and theology. Pontano is also trying to fit these theological ideas with the economic realities of serfdom and the first roots of capitalism springing in Europe. The employer is equated with God as laborers are taught to perform for free or for little extraordinary work at the risk of going to hell if they fall short of meeting set expectations.

While the other two “dialogues” in these two volumes are basically digressive school lectures, Asinus includes satirical dramatic exchanges that are designed purely for entertainment, and need to be acted out as a drama, rather than being read as information-buckets. In one line, Pardo exclaims: “The ass farts, we explode” (157). In one of the longer passages, Pontanus pushes the ass away as the ass is biting his hands, and tossing him into the mud. He concludes that there is no point in trying to wash an ass, as it will remain dirty, so that “my effort and expense were wasted” (165). A close reading of this drama is necessary to come to understanding of the intended meaning, the allusions, implications, and the details it reveals about Naples’ people and leaders.

This book is ideal for scholars of the time and place in which Pontano was writing. It should not be studied in general philosophy or drama courses because the topics are too intricate to be instantly grasped without preceding study of the sub-topics. Meanwhile, scholars who are focused on this type of literature will find a trove of never-before examined in English content in these pages, which can be approached from a myriad of critical approaches. Thus, all major academic libraries should carry a copy of this book, to allow those who need it or are curious about it to browse its pages for revelations.

A Refined Translation of “Homeric” Hymns

Homer; Apostolos N. Athanassakis, Translator and Introducer, The Homeric Hymns, Third Edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020). Softcover. 116pp. ISBN: 978-1-4214-3860-3.


Unlike Homer’s lengthy and repetitive Iliad and Odyssey, these short poetic hymns succinctly summarize the Greek mythologies about gods such as Apollon, Aphrodite and Athena. The style of a mixture of allusions to mythological characters and moral lessons in these hymns includes formulaic elements that were mimicked across the European Renaissance in verse. The hymns have not been as commonly quoted as Homer’s epic works, but the lessons in poetic structure and narrative in them are more relevant for modern writers who are striving to achieve poetic heights. 

This is the third edition of these Homeric Hymns, so any glitches or confusions in earlier attempts have been ironed out. The “Introduction” has been expanded and notes have been updated. This “Introduction” addresses the question of authorship. It explains that in medieval times, some of these hymns were published alongside with “Homer’s” Odyssey and Iliad in collections such as the edition princeps in Florence by Demetrios Chalcocondyles (1488). However, centuries earlier, Athenaeus had questioned “Homer’s” authorship of these hymns, instead proposing “Hymn of Apollon” was the work of Homeridae, a poet who imitated “Homer’s” style. The non-Homeric influences of later generations adding and altering these hymns as scattered pieces were transcribed for new religions is apparent in elements such as the mention of “archangel Michael”, mixed together with Hades and souls in the netherworld. I recently reviewed another book that explains that the Odyssey and Iliad are also not likely to have been written by “Homer”. I can write a book on this subject, but I am going to refrain from following this digression. If anybody is curious about the subject, this might be the reason you might pick up a copy of this book to research it further. The cover blurb acknowledges that: “these prooimia, or preludes, were actually composed by various poets over centuries.”

New students of the subjects covered in these hymns are likely to be able to understand the rudiments because the book is accompanied by tools such as diagrams of the genealogy of the Greek Gods, a map of the ancient world, and explanations of how this mythology and literary style fits with other genres. The detailed notes also explain the myths that are abbreviated in the poetry. The newly added “Index” is useful for those researching a specific Greek deity or idea.

The publisher explains these hymns “were performed at religious festivals as entertainment meant to stir up enthusiasm for far more ambitious compositions that followed them, namely the Iliad and Odyssey. Each of the thirty-three poems is written in honor of a Greek god or goddess.” Apostolos Athanassakis “preserves” most of the essential elements of this “ancient text while modernizing traditional renditions of certain epithets and formulaic phrases. He avoids lengthening or truncating lines, thereby crafting a symmetrical text, and makes an effort to keep to an iambic flow without sacrificing accuracy… Numerous additions to the notes, reflecting over twenty-five years of scholarship, draw on modern anthropological and archaeological research to explore prominent themes and religious syncretism within the poems.”

One hymn “To Dionysos” includes an absurd tale about Dionysos playing a trick by turning into a lion and then making a bear appear: “The bear reared with fury and the lion scowled dreadfully on the topmost bench. The crew hastened in fear to the stern/ and stood dumbfounded round the helmsman…” (49).

The short hymns are more focused on glorifying a god such as Zeus as “the greatest of gods” (54). A hymn “To Demeter” discusses the goddess’ virginity, the traditional roles of husbands and wives, child-rearing, and the beauty of meadows and hair (5).

Overall, these hymns are a good place for a student of ancient verse to start their studies to become familiar with these gods and their celebration before diving into denser and more digressive epics. If a library does not already have an earlier edition of this collection, this is a great time to acquire this new edition.

The Propaganda That Shaped the Maps of the “New” World

Alida C. Metcalf, Mapping an Atlantic World, Circa 1500 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020). Hardcover. 224pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-1-4214-3852-8.


“Beginning around 1500, in the decades following Columbus’s voyages, the Atlantic Ocean moved from the periphery to the center on European world maps. This brief but highly significant moment in early modern European history marks not only a paradigm shift in how the world was mapped but also the opening of what historians call the Atlantic World. But how did sixteenth-century chartmakers and mapmakers begin to conceptualize—and present to the public—an interconnected Atlantic World that was open and navigable, in comparison to the mysterious ocean that had blocked off the Western hemisphere before Columbus’s exploration?” The covered maps “depict trade, colonization, evangelism, and the movement of peoples”. Alida Metcalf combines “historical cartography and Atlantic history” to explain “why Renaissance cosmographers first incorporated sailing charts into their maps and began to reject classical models for mapping the world… The visual imagery on Atlantic maps—which featured decorative compass roses, animals, landscapes, and native peoples—communicated the accessibility of distant places with valuable commodities.” In other words, the cartographers developed propagandistic maps that were designed to advertise world-travel to traders as an easy pathway to riches. As new parts of the globe were explored and “maps became outdated quickly… new mapmakers copied” or plagiarized predecessors’ “imagery”. This is a history of the hidden relationship between this age’s “small cadre of explorers and a wider class of cartographers, chartmakers, cosmographers, and artists”.

The reproductions of maps and segments across this book are chosen to prove specific points, rather than for their beauty. For example, three images of parrots (employed to “signify Brazil”) are used to show how later cartographers copied earlier versions of one of these parrots with increasingly less detail between a 1502, 1506 and a 1507 map (95).

The “Introduction” further explains that the “Atlantic World” appeared on a European map for the first time in precisely 1500. “Chapter One” clarifies that there had been references to the “Atlantic Ocean” more generally since the “ancient Greeks”; there was just a blind-spot in ancient maps where the world was thought to end because nobody had explored or mapped the rest of this ocean. Metcalf adds that the ancient maps themselves have been lost, so how this region was portrayed in these times has to be reconstructed from its descriptions in books. Metcalf shows the age of exploration in a new light. The journey across the Atlantic was extremely difficult, and the death-rate from diseases and war among the colonists was hardly a selling-point, but elements in these wealth-advertising maps made the journey appear to be child’s play, and kept explorers on the road across the Atlantic Ocean across the following centuries. Metcalf also views these maps from the perspectives of the slaves and slave traders, food merchants, and how information in maps was either privileged or excluded to meet political propagandistic or strategic aims of the monarchs sponsoring expeditions.  

This book is saturated with informative explanations on history, cartography and other fields. For example, one section explains that the addition of “invisible circles and decorative compass roses” changed by 1502 in a manner that was previously rare, but has since been repeated through modern maps as if it is an essential element (51-2). Metcalf explains how trees and forests were sold and romanticized as detailed drawings of trees turned into more abstract images or into simply the color green (100-2). He also explains how chart makers’ insertion of cannibals into their maps solidified the claims of people-eating as a fact about native populations (115). The images of animals and other symbols on maps are explained as “visual codes” designed with specific intended meanings and messages. He describes the process of how prints and book were made between the artisans and their guilds, to the book makers and patrons that contributed to this process (107).

This book dives into many different fields and subjects as it explores new ways of seeing the maps that many of us glimpse in textbooks and assume are fixed artistic or political statements. Those who have been studying the small details in maps that reveal history-shaping points will find much to learn from in this book. Libraries from high school to public to college should have a copy of this book in case somebody wants to present a unique take on the idea of “exploration” or colonialism that reconsiders not only the significance of “Columbus” contributions, but also the manner in which these apparent achievements continue to be sold to the world’s students.

Between the Land and Sea: A Brilliant Scientific Study of Mercurial Animals

Glynnis A. Hood; Meaghan Brierley, Illustrator, Semi-Aquatic Mammals: Ecology and Biology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020). Hardcover. 470pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-1-4214-3880-1.


While I have reviewed a few previous animal species books, this one is unique in the relatively small number of illustrations and photographs accompanying the text. Unlike typical brief reviews of different characteristics of regional variations on a species, or brisk summaries of a species mating and eating habits, this is an in-depth study of 140 semi-aquatic freshwater mammals as a group.

The blurb explains that this book focuses on “their biology, behavior, and conservation. Semi-aquatic mammals are some of the rarest and most endangered mammals on earth. What binds them together in the minds of biologists, despite their diverse taxa and body forms, are evolutionary traits that allow them to succeed in two worlds—spending some time on land and some in the water… Covering millions of years, Hood’s exploration begins with the extinct otter-like Buxolestes and extends to consider the geographical, physical, behavioral, and reproductive traits of its present-day counterparts. Hood explains how semi-aquatic mammals are able to navigate a viscous environment with almost no resistance to heat loss, reveals how they maintain the physical skills necessary to avoid predation and counter a more thermally changeable environment, and describes the array of adaptations that facilitate success in their multifaceted habitats.” Curiosities described include: “the ‘paradoxical platypus,’ an Australian egg-laying monotreme that detects prey through electroreception; the swamps and mangroves of Southeast Asia, where fishing cats wave their paws above the water’s surface to lure prey; the streams and lakes of South America, where the female water opossum uses its backward-facing pouch to keep her babies warm during deep dives; species that engineer freshwater habitats into more productive and complex systems, including North American beavers and Africa’s common hippopotamus.” Overall, this book is designed for biologists, ecologists, environmentalists, and the less scientifically minded who are just curious to discover the alien creatures that need our protection to preserve their unique contributions to our world.

The book is divided into sections by fields of study. The extended “Introduction” defines this group, its sub-orders and otherwise explain why this is a curious subject. Part I explains “geographical” differences and habits with chapters on paleobiology, continental differences, and ecological specializations. Part II describes the odd “Physical Adaptations” of these bi-habitat species (land and water), with reviews of their morphology, physiology, and even locomotion and buoyancy (a hard science or physics approach to a mammal). Apar III covers feeding, Part IV reproduction and Part V conservation approaches.

The included diagrams are uniquely designed to explain complex topics in the text, rather than acting as pretty illustrations to catch the eye. For example, Figure 7.7 shows the difference between a bipedal pelvic and pectoral “swimming modes of beaver…, water opossum…, and platypus” from M. Brierley. Each of these animals is shown making these unique stroke patterns (229).

Every page I glimpsed includes interesting and informative details. For example, the “creek groove-toothed swamp rat” is described as having a burrowing strategy that is less aggressive than the intense “African marsh rat”. The latter “heavyset rodent” burrows up to “20 cm deep” and aboveground “build a domed nest that immediately links to a subterranean refuge burrow, which then leads directly to stream. They also have a surface entrance to the nest and distinct runways leading from their feeding areas” (119). I have never read a description this detailed of a rat’s construction patterns. I think that if mainstream television more regularly showcased these types of unique structures, people would have an easier time going vegan or supporting animal preservation. It is easier to destroy life if it can be perceived as closer in intellect to grass than to humans, but if a rat can build a more complex house than most humans can…

This book also presents a range of studies that have observed non-typical behaviors in some groups. It has always shocked me that any animal species can exhibit any similar habits to their related species on other continents. Hood mentions for example, “there is plasticity in mating strategies, with other populations of muskrats following a polygynous mating system rather than monogamy”, according to a study by Caley from 1987 (297).  

Key terms throughout are presented in bold with definitions, so this book is designed as a textbook for an advanced class that intersects these fields. When Hood is uncertain about extinct species, these uncertainties are worded as such, instead of being presented as scientific facts. For example, the dinocephalian Moschops capensis is explained to have a name that means “terrible head”, and its head is believed to be “at an angle that suggests semi-aquatic behavior, much like today’s hippopotamus” (44).

A single paragraph manages to explain how these animals face more dangerous winters because they can face “excessive heat loss” in icy water, and thus need “waterproof fur” or when “trapped air is displaced in water as water compresses the pelage” to avoid hypothermia (124).

Anybody from a medical student to a conservationist should just enjoy reading this book cover-to-cover to learn bits of information that would be extremely difficult to gather through individual research of these spread-out topics. The writing style is condensed and intense without adding any information that is irrelevant or digressive. The sections are so well organized that a researcher can find a specific subject that interests them, or take some time to just enjoy reading about strange and fantastic lifeforms inhabiting our little world. Humans’ species ancestors were once living in the ocean before they became semi-aquatic like these animals. Thus, this semi-aquatic state is essential for humans to understand themselves, so the extinction of any of these in-between land-and-sea creatures is a loss that should interest even the most self-consumed among us humans.

Did Caravaggio Copy Himself?

Richard E. Spear, Caravaggio’s Cardsharps on Trial (London: The Burlington Press, 2020). Hardcover. 384pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 1916237819.


This book should be more engaging to readers than murder or suspense mystery novels that describe art heists or art mysteries because it provides the transcript of a trial with legal commentary and details that explain the elements of art dealing and creation that are rarely present this bluntly. The publisher explains it as an “account of Thwaytes v. Sotheby’s—one of the major art trials of recent times—will be of interest to dealers, conservators, and lawyers as well as all admirers of Caravaggio. In 2006, a Caravaggio scholar bought a version of the painter’s famous Cardsharps at Sotheby’s in London for just fifty thousand pounds. He then announced the piece was not a replica, as Sotheby’s had stated, but was in fact Caravaggio’s first version of the masterpiece—potentially worth up to fifty million pounds. Shocked by the news, Lancelot Thwaytes, who had consigned the painting to Sotheby’s, sued the auction house for negligence, and the case came to trial at the High Court in London in 2014.” The author, Richard E. Spear was called as an “expert witness in the case” because he is an “eminent art historian”. “The verdict” has tilted “the art world”. At its core the trial asked a question that should have been answered centuries ago, “whether or not Caravaggio made replicas of his own paintings”.

The book is printed on museum-quality thick paper, and the images of the painting-in-question, scans of it, and related paintings are reproduced in a quality that rivals some of the best art books I have reviewed. The close-ups in Figure 35 shows the slight variations between the “Kimbell and Mahon” versions of this painting show that they can be easily distinguished, s if the artist was drawing slightly different positions, and clothing styles, as well as using slightly different stroke patterns, and even moods between the two. Obviously, the second painting was not designed as a forgery meant to fool viewers into thinking it was the original. These types of details would make great material for an art forgery class (to explain the errors a forger can make that makes distinction easy).

The book is divided into sections that explain the background in Part I, including “Caravaggiomania”, or the various fan-art reproductions that have been made to capitalize on Caravaggio’s fame. Part II explains the “Issues”, including how this debate fits into art history, the technical issues, and the practices of auctioneering that leave room for these types of mistakes or deliberate price-inflations or deflations. Part III presents the transcript of the trial, with the opening submission of evidence, the five “factual witnesses” that described the facts of what took place surrounding the auction, and various expert witness testimonies. Part IV presents and dissects the verdict. Appendix I presents a curious excerpt from the author’s own “Expert Report” wherein he describes his relevant experience as an art historian in general, with Caravaggio in particular, and with the study of conservation. He explains his background in laboratories, examining the technical and historical elements that separate copies from originals from other types of art imitations and originals. It is very unusual for an expert witness to write a book about his own testimony at a trial such as this one, but really these experts should write a lot more books about how they reach these types of decisions because this allows future experts to learn from these examples. And if anybody has doubts about the presented expert opinions or their potential biases, now these opinions have been solidified into this extensive book that can be closely scrutinized.

The chapter on “Technical Issues” opens by explaining that Glanville used a tactic of overwhelming the judge with technical details by providing not only 129 pages of textual evidence but also oddly failing to number 350 images used in support of this text. Also, apparently the researcher had failed to study the “specific pigments” in the potential original work of art. Spear argues pigment analysis in general cannot prove “authorship”, but rather only the “date and region” of creation. Sotheby’s X-rays are questioned, in contrast with more complex tests that could have been applied. The quality of the “Mahon” restoration is also considered as a contributor to the misunderstanding. Spear argued that the “Mahon” painting lacked “searching brushwork…, indecision…, corrections” that would have occurred if it was an original rather than a reproduction (86-9).

It is tempting for me read this entire book closely because it describes art attribution strategies and I am currently working on applying my 27-test computational-linguistics authorial attribution method to texts. The spectrum of ideas Spear presents for artistic attribution shows that there are many concepts that have been explored by art scientists and historians. However, it is odd that art attribution has not been simplified to a more consistent series of tests similar to my own linguistic tests. In one section Spear argues that pigment cannot be used to determine the author, but in another he argues that heavy use of white pigment is typical for Caravaggio’s youth paintings. While some of the Renaissance texts I’m studying a worth a few thousand or “Shakespeare’s” folio might have been sold for a few million, each of these Caravaggio paintings are worth many millions, so the attribution of the entire Caravaggio corpus is worth billions. It is strange that investors buying and selling these paintings are content with uncertainties that need to be decided by a judge/ jury without technical knowledge in this field, instead of by a scientific method by major sellers/ buyers hiring a lab of experts with a series of steps to perform to arrive at decisions that are consistent and replicable, rather than mysterious and based on theories that are revealed in dribbles in complex studies such as this book.

Disclosure of attribution methodologies is the first step to solving the problems of fraud and mis-attribution in the art world, so this is a great step in this direction. All art historians and others connected to this enormous industry should read this book cover-to-cover to understand the challenges that complicate detached and unbiased distinction between originals and fakes. All sorts of libraries, scholars, and textbook searchers can benefit from acquiring this thorough first-person study into their collection.

If You Buy That This Is Art, I Have a Bridge to Sell to You

Hal Foster, Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, Oldenburg (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020). Hardcover. 286pp. 141 color and 41 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-691-20260-0.


Across my graduate studies, I tended to contemplate modern art with respect. Perhaps, it is an exploration of innovative new ideas about what art could become, I pondered. But, between the first art classes I took in the 1990s and the present, the “concept” of “modern art” has remained stagnated, as current artists are replicating the abstractions, childish doodles, geometric simplicities, paint splatters, and other tricks that appeared innovative a century ago, as if they are contributing to a continuing revolution, when they are really perpetrating a greater art fraud than any copier of Caravaggio. It is not art for grown men to make millions on doodles a child would be ashamed to show to their parents. It is sinful for an art critic today to call all of this “modern art” a sham and to truly “brutally” ridicule its idiotic simplicity and plagiarism. There are no “brutal” art reviews in major newspapers or magazines that ask artists to cancel this culture of pampering horrid art as special expressions of their hidden feelings and descriptive of our fraudulent and criminal modern times. The cover of this book makes this point, but the interior argues the opposite. The cover is a childish doodle in black paint of glasses and a devilish boogy-monster over a classical painting of a bored angel.

The book’s blurb sells modernism as the sad response of an atomic-age-traumatized and thus deranged mind-collective: “postwar artists and writers searched for a new foundation of culture after the massive devastation of World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb.” So, the response artists had to seeing millions of people slaughtered with extreme brutality, was to allow art to devolve into styles that predate cave-paintings. And current artists are still repeating these scraping-styles because they remain traumatized even if they do not know anybody who suffered in these wars. The blurb exclaims that “modernist art can teach us how to survive a civilization become barbaric”. Really? Can a black square teach anything but the fact that corruption has seeped so far into art deals that even a white blank canvas can be resold by art fraudsters who are helping drug dealers or other crooks to hide their illegal gains in the reputable trade of art resale? Does a black square or a doodle of a fat woman communicate that people shouldn’t kill all of the Jews, or shouldn’t nuke an entire city of Japanese people? I think these lessons would be communicated much better if they came in realistic drawings of these events that make such actions repelling to all who glimpse these sights brought into tragic heights of artistry. Instead, modern art has escaped into nonsense, and non-communication. The silence of simplistic art is an offense against the suffering endured in the events accused of causing this breech in humanities new incapacity to communicate intellectually sophisticating ideas in art. Instead, Foster repeats the other art historians cliché messages that turn into art-heroes the “key figures from the early 1940s to the early 1960s” who are attributed with developing something “new” in their “‘brutal aesthetics’ adequate to the destruction around them.” One of the drawings included in this book is Asger Jorn’s Life (1952): it is a few massive strokes of red, green and black oil paint that depicts a cartoon of a couple of humanoid blobs and a little dragon-like flying blob, with a little orange sun above them. My description oversells the 50 strokes that make up this monstrously over-sold piece of garbage. This piece is just presented without a single word written about it, as the title is never mentioned in the text. The picture that is given more space in the text than others from John is Yellow Eyes. This is just a blob of a humanoid figure curled into a ball with jiggered teeth and giant yellow eyes (122). Foster sells this babbling of a child slapping paint on a canvas for the first time thus: “It is not only the formlessness of such a creature that disturbs the academic genre of the figure; also disruptive is the intensity of its gaze (not to mention the aggression of its mouth). Although this is programmatic in Yellow Eyes (1953), a swirl of acrid colors punctuated by the shrill orbs of the title, it is also active in other pictures of beasts with wild looks that render aesthetic contemplation all but impossible” (119-21). The entire book is written in this style. “Academic” terms such as “genre” are subverted into negatives or have their meaning changed to fit this upside-down world. The lack of “form” in art is the absence of the essential element that art is designed around. If there is no defined and legible form, this is like writing a book without any words in it, or that has a single word or letter stretched into repeating strings, or a set of 40 words that are repeated in clumps. Here is an example: “lakshf hakslhfal alkskkkkkk sssssssssss laaaaaaaaaaaalalalalala”. Imagine if I was instead writing a review right now of a critic who was repeating these types of quotes from a “modernist” novel, and using equivalent language that celebrated this as “formlessness” that is beyond the restrictive “academic genre” and the intensity of the “sssssssssss” in the snake-like “gaze” and “aggression” is “disruptive”. And this critic added that the “sh” hidden in the first “word” was a punctuation of the “shrill orbs of the” Shf “title” of this work. This type of up-marketing of nonsense is deeply offensive to all current artists that spend a career failing to “make it” because they do not know the only path to success is to pay critics like Foster for this type of a glowing review. In this environment Van Goghs cut off their ears and die in obscurity, while their sales-minded relatives make millions on their work over their graves. Meanwhile, the best artists in the market stop drawing and withdraw into office work or other forms of obscurity. The silencing of great potential is the modern “aesthetic” brutality that is being perpetrated on youths who are sold dreams of artistic greatness, but face the reality of the impossibility of success especially when they truly achieve quantifiable artistic heights.

If as the blurb claims, Foster stripped “art down, or to reveal it as already bare, in order to begin again”; then, he would face these flaws and cover artists from these decades who remain in obscurity because these doodelers and anti-philosophers are still being featured as if they are war-heroes coming home from the Trojan War. The blurb asks: “What does Bataille seek in the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux?” This is referring to Bataille’s plagiarism of the style of the cave paintings. It is the opposite of innovative to copy cave art and resell it for millions. “Why does Jorn populate his paintings with ‘human animals’?” Perhaps, because Jorn thinks people are stupid animals who are going to buy whatever art historians tell them is good? “And why does Oldenburg remake everyday products from urban scrap?” I would imagine Oldenburg has figured out that he can take garbage and sell it for millions, thus achieving every industrial businessman’s dream. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC sponsored this book, just as it is purchasing and sponsoring the “artists” featured in this book and in their halls. Babbling about the “project to connect objects and subjects” (231) to confuse readers into imagining the author is talking about something too sophisticating for commoners to grasp is a trick that’s turning 100 years old this year. It’s too old, and it’s time to retire the strategy of selling literal garbage.

My Childhood Dream of Reading Liliuokalani’s Diaries Realized

David W. Forbes, The Diaries of Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii, 1885-1900 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, June 23, 2020). Hardcover. 576pp. 98 text illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-9887278-3-0.


I wrote an essay about Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii in high school. Everything about her life was the pinnacle of the romantic, historical and revolutionary ideals. A female ruler leading her people in the nineteenth century again the forces of colonialism seemed to be a heroic tale that was too neglected in mainstream histories and media portrayals of the Hawaiian Islands. I felt sad that this Queen lost her island in a coup and was imprisoned in her palace residence for the rest of her life. This sadness and sympathy was unique only towards Liliuokalani, as the coups and revolutions against all other monarchs I had read about were portrayed or were perceived by me as positive ends to tyrannical monarchic rule. Obviously, when I saw this curious Queen’s diaries being released from Hawaii Press, I had to request them in an attempt to understand just who she was and what distinguishes her inherited rights to rule a land from those of European monarchs.  

The publisher describes the book thus: “Queen Liliuokalani, the eighth monarch of the Hawaiian Islands, is known and honored throughout the world, even though she was never ceremonially crowned. Published here for the first time, the Queen’s diaries, which she penned between 1885 and 1900, reveal her experience as heir apparent and monarch of the Hawaiian Islands during one of the most intense, complicated, and politically charged eras in Hawaiian history.” I would have requested this book through Interlibrary loan back in high school, if it had existed. One of the reasons this story was appealing at the time is because there were few accessible sources to explain who the Queen was, but the few segments of her quoted writing, or her general spirit of defiance was sufficient to elicit interest. Since this is the first release of these diaries, it should be of special interests to all international libraries, and I hope it will become a best-seller. I think I saw a version of the Liliuokalani story turned into a movie, but it was done with a pretty girl that barely spoke, when these entries reveal a highly intelligent and strategic woman with layers that deserve a much stronger portrayal in fiction.

Further, Queen Liliuokalani’s diaries “are the sole—and striking—exception” as the diaries of her predecessors and other high-ranking Hawaiians from that era have not survived. So these entries capture a historic period in this distant region in a manner and from a perspective not repeated elsewhere. The colonizers’ perspective of the islands has been the major source cited in history books, and it really should be cancelled in favor of this native and female description of a land under siege.

“The Liliuokalani diaries for 1887, 1888, 1889 (short version), 1893, and 1894 are a part of the group of documents known as the ‘seized papers’ that are now held by the Hawaii State Archives. These are among the records seized by order of Republic of Hawaii officials in 1895 with the intent of obtaining evidence that she had prior knowledge of the 1895 counterrevolution. The government eventually turned these documents over to the territorial archives in 1921, four years after the death of the Queen. Four of the diaries transcribed here were not seized and remained in the Queen’s possession; today these are in the Bishop Museum. The important 1889 (long version) diary is now in the private collection of a member of her family and its contents appear here in publication for the first time”. This explains that these diary entries have been used as evidence that led to her imprisonment for the last decades of her life. Thus, researchers can finally re-examine this evidence to determine if the claims were warranted, or if her imprisonment was a political strategy to avoid having the people of Hawaii potentially elect their Queen as their democratic ruler, if she was allowed to communicate with the public freely without house-confinement. It seems obvious that counter-spies informed her of this counterrevolution to entrap her and to bar her from power. This type of a maneuver would have been necessary if the Queen was uniquely open to helping her people rise and to protecting their interests over any foreign corrupting influences invading her islands.

The notes and entries describe the Queen’s “private life, thoughts, and deeds during her rule as sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands; the overthrow of her government in 1893; her arrest, imprisonment, trial, and abdication in 1895; and her efforts in Washington, DC, to avert the 1898 annexation of her beloved islands to the United States.”

The cover and overall designs of this book is one of the best I have yet reviewed. The cover image is a simple black-and-white photograph, but it is mystical in its capture of a powerful woman, with a simple cross around her neck, and only a decorative flower and honorary strip to signify her power. She does not appear to be wearing any makeup and her hair are a bit wild despite being held in a loose bun. Her eyes are tearing slightly, but her lips are curling into a slight smile. The title pops off the page in a silverish-gold. The spine is covered in an elegant floral motif. Even the back cover is curiously without text, and instead includes a “Sample of Hawaiian kapa collected on Cook’s Third Voyage”, this being a close-up image of a cloth from a 1787 reproduction. Even the inside-the-cover pages are illustrated with a beautiful water-color painting of the Hawaiian coastline. The front page includes a handwritten reproduction of a page out of the journal from June 17, 1893. The handwriting style shows clarity of mind, determination, and an absence of self-correction or pauses. The Contents are divided into sections chronologically. The “Counterrevolution of 1895” is helpfully labeled, as is the “End of the Hawaiian Monarchy, 1893” chapter, to allow those who are not as familiar with this history to briskly find the sections of special interest to them. The front-matter content explains in detail the “History of the Diaries” and why this content is historically significant. Other practically useful for researchers sections are on “Her Family”, where the members of the royal family are presented in photographs and with brief biographies. Most of these biographical sketches are tragic, and explain why the Queen was uniquely sympathetic towards the plight of the poor. They also explain that the Queen married “the son of Captain John Dominis” who was born in New York, but had moved to Hawaii when he was only six. He became the “Prince Consort”, while the Queen retained power (xxviii).

Across the pages I have browsed through, Liliuokalani’s diary entries consistently offer curious information without wasting space on digressions or rhetorical nonsense. Curiously, her activities are very plain and show that she helped herself without much help in chores from servants. In July of 1886, she describes “cleaning up” her own room. She also describes purchasing items such as “Ice” for “$3.50”. She also writes about “Kahae” borrowing $782 for “baby Nihoa” because the Queen cannot will this baby the land she wants to buy for it (94-5). In 1889, she writes about opposing the construction of a roller-coaster being planned on the island (226). In 1893, she reports that the editor of the San Francisco Examiner has told her that she should respond in his paper to “the other party… saying untrue things about me” (325). Later in the year after the overthrow she describes how Senator Blount has asked the Provisional Government: “‘Has the Queen’s overthrow been done by the U.S. or her people?’” She is being advised by Paul Neumann that her people’s “future welfare” and “their rights” need to “be restored and maintained” (341). Thus, across this year she is being bombarded by American propogandists who are telling her that she should start a counterrevolution to defend her people from foreign occupation. This is blatantly a set up designed to corner her into self-incrimination to legitimize an American overthrow of a government America wanted to annex into itself to rob this island paradise of its natural resources for the benefit of its own businessmen and vacationers. These entries are precisely as-advertised, Liliuokalani reports exactly what she was doing on these historic dates. No equivalent records exist perhaps for any deposed monarch, so this is a very humanizing account on the mysterious concept of inherited power. 

It is tempting for me to spend the next few months reading this diary closely and writing research papers about its contents and style, but I am working to physically remove my arm from over this book… I’ve done it! It’s highly addictive, as I must warn you. I am sure that if you spend the money to purchase this book for your private collection, you will return to it on quiet evenings at your leisure. It obviously needs to be in all large and small libraries, but I think this is one of the rare books I also recommend for private home libraries as well. It is sturdy enough that passing it down to your children is a good bet for this book that might become a collector’s item, if this will be the only release of this great Queen’s diaries.

A Painting Without a Concept Is a White Wall

Tony Godfrey, The Story of Contemporary Art (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2020). Hardcover: $39.95. 280pp. ISBN: 978-0-262-04410-3.


The term “contemporary” art is likely to be the reason this book is less artistically offensive than collections of “modern” art. By “contemporary” Godfrey means recent, instead of referring to the nonsense or non-art genres of “modern art”. Thus, Tony Godfrey presents recent experiments in rebellious art that frequently is as pointless and anti-artistic as “modern” art, but occasionally hits on experiments that touch on points that have to be made at least once to express the absurdities in our current reality.  

The publisher introduces this book as covering a range “from Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes to Marina Abramović’s performance art to today’s biennale circuit and million-dollar auctions… Contemporary art seems totally unlike what came before it, departing from the road map supplied by Raphael, Dürer, Rembrandt, and other European masters… Godfrey, a curator and writer on contemporary art, chronicles important developments in pop art, minimalism, conceptualism, installation art, performance art, and beyond.” Godfrey covers “what art is or should be: object versus sculpture, painting versus conceptual, local versus global, gallery versus wider world.” This summary of seeming opposites explains that while the art covered might be experimental, the descriptions of it that Godfrey presents are mainstream repetitions of standard points raised to justify nonsense art. If we stop and consider why somebody would debate the difference between an “object” and a “sculpture”, we must conclude that he who raises this question is arguing that any piece of garbage, or industrially-produced consumer “object” is just as artistically valuable as a “sculpture” designed and executed by a master craftsman and artist who creates an original masterpiece. If the artistic community thus objectifies art and accepts that it can slide down to zero on the creativity scale and still be worthy of coverage in art history; then, our human culture is going down with it. It is similarly morally and philosophically evil to create an equal duality between a “painting” and the “concept”. A painting without a concept, are a baby or a cap spilling paint over a canvas. The painting of a wall in a house in a solid blue is distinct from a painting worthy of a museum display because the latter has to have a superior “concept”. A critic that asks, “But is it still a painting if it has no concept?” and is willing to accept a “Yes” from the public as affirmative that he should celebrate wall-painting as superior to Raphael is… an idiot. The last two points on this list appear to be two random location opposites that the author added because he felt only two parallel phrases was insufficient, while four was just enough.  

The blurb continues, as if picking up on my point regarding if audiences or critics have control over what art is: “He presents multiple voices—not only critics, theorists, curators, and collectors but also artists and audiences.” Nearly all of the quotes across the book are solely from these artists themselves, as they are asked to sell their own work with their standard selling-points. Exceptions are when Godfrey actually quotes from the promotional materials of an art fair: “the idea of contemporary art as a lifestyle choice” (225). Most of the artists are speechless or are struggling to explain what is special about their art or why it’s valuable. For example, Adrian Ghenie says it’s “Weird” that a piece he sold “for a few thousand dollars” is now “coming to auction and selling for millions.” Ghenie is careful to add that the inflation is not his fault, but rather the art world’s (201). Dumas explains her paintings as deliberately designed to “have the same kind of sex appeal as soul music” (125). When Godfrey quotes from a critic this critic is merely called the “one critic”, who said: “is it these art-loving, culturally committed trustees who are waging the war in Vietnam” (49). This sentence ends with a period, and not with a question, so this is a direct attack on art as a violent propagandistic tool. The remainder of the page questions if some artists are making anti-art. And, yes, those who make propaganda art to start a war in Vietnam are indeed also waging a war on the nature of art itself. These perspectives are not useful. The “contemporary” experiments presented in this book need to be discussed by a scientific art historian that can explain how they differ from pervious experiments, and how they echo them. The author of a book on this subject cannot surrender the microphone or the decisions on these pieces to the artists or unnamed critics, but rather has to take responsibility for works being presented in one of the few published art books of the year. If these pieces are selling for millions, it is fraudulent for art historians to fail to object if these prices are falsely inflated through speculation or money-laundering without any merit to them as “art”. If objects are being manipulated for enrichment under the guise of “art”, then these attempts are massacres of the chances of great artists to break through this noise. A critic’s silence or echoing of these fraudsters’ self-perceptions is them acting as assistants in these schemes.  

The blurb advertises this book for “upending of the once widespread perception that art is made almost exclusively by white men from North America and Europe.” While some white men in North American and Europe might have perceived “art” as predominantly made by them, everybody else was making “art” and seeing themselves at its center. For example, in 2017, there was a discovery of what is now believed to be the oldest 44,000-years-old cave painting in South Sulawesi, Indonesia of human-animals hunting pigs and buffaloes. from the cave paintings onwards. Other oldest cave paintings are from Australia, India, and southern Africa, but the paintings in western Europe in Spain, France, Russia and Bulgaria have received more publicity and art historians’ attention. It is not radical to point out that some past art historians have been sexist and racist, it would be more radical if this book simply reviewed contemporary art in equal measures from the various world regions covered without focusing on the color of the artists as a relevant element in the quality of the art.

It is amusing to look over some of the projects covered in this book. One of them, Maurizio Cattelan’s Untitled (2018) plagiarizes Michelangelo’s chapel painting, only shrinking it down to a tiny one-room size. The Bodies (III) by the Belgian Michael Borremans appears to be making a radical anti-war statement, as it seems to depict two dead youths in their coats that have been killed in the prime of life; but Borremans explains that the image is a joke that represents two sleeping men as a statement on the “softer” or more feminine side of men while they are asleep on soft pillows (180-2). The image that stands out the most is Tania Bruguera’s El Peso de la Culpa (The Burden of Guilt) (1997-9), which portrays a headless lamp cut open to expose its ribs, and hunt from the shoulders of Tania’s naked body, as Tania is eating what looks like dirt or its meat. While I would have assumed this is a vegan’s anti-meat-consumption crusade, Tania explains that this was what the Cuban rebels did to fight against Spanish invaders to demonstrate their defiance as they ate dirt until they died (136-8). But most of the pieces illustrating this book are more like John Baldessari’s The Pencil Story (1972-3), which shows an old dull pencil and then the same pencil sharpened, with a handwritten paragraph under it that explains that the artist was frustrated and sharpened this old pencil, and “I think that this has something to do with art” (11). While this is a funny way to repeat the “What is art?” rhetorical question this and other “contemporary” art books tend to ask, it still insists that viewers respond to it be agreeing that Baldessari is showing art in his two badly made photographs of a pencil. It is not art. Humanity needs to make a pact to move forward in its evolution instead of devolving into idiotic flattery of those who are just trying. If we are going to reward bad art just because it was made by a human who believes he is making art, then art books need to be thousands of pages long as they include every single person who believes they are deserving of inclusion in art history.

I do not recommend that anybody buys this book. I do recommend that the publisher of this book should find the most negative critic of contemporary art out there and ask this very sour and dissatisfied critic to write their next art history book, and that version will be a book that libraries will need on their shelves because it will kick future artists into seeking the heights of artistic excellence or risk being devoured in this very grumpy critic’s next book… 

A Brief Guide on Healing Plants (and on How to Keep Them from Killing Us)

Catherine Whitlock, Botanicum Medicinale: A Modern Herbal of Medicinal Plants (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2020). Hardcover: $29.95. 224pp. ISBN: 978-0-262-04447-9.


As advertised, this is: “A beautifully illustrated, informative, and engaging guide to 100 plants used for medicinal purposes.” Every other page is a detailed biological illustration of a plant from flower to root (though in some the root is excluded, perhaps because it lacks medicinal applications), which is followed by its classification, habits, caution warning, harvesting, and medicinal application. The drawings are elegant and yet detailed. The color designs of the pages are intricate and welcoming. Even the fonts are well-chosen.

“Remedies derived from plants are the world’s oldest medicines. Used extensively in China, India, and many African countries, herbal medicine has become increasingly popular in the West along with other holistic and alternative therapies… Readers will learn… that absinthe, the highly alcoholic, vividly green potable, was traditionally flavored with bitter wormwood (Artemesia absinthium); that cannabis may have been used by Queen Victoria for menstrual pain; and that willow bark contains a chemical similar to aspirin.” The negative “cautionary notes” next to cannabis state that “traditional” cannabis had a 10% THC level, whereas some modern varieties (i.e. skunk) are 67% THC, and this skunk has been shown to lead to “psychosis”. The history section further explains that it had been used by the Chinese and in the Middle East centuries before it made its way to Europe when a Muslim invading sect spread it during their attacks on the Crusaders in the 11-12th centuries. Dr. William Brook O’Shaughnessy introduced cannabis into mainstream British medicine in 1842, and it was from him that Queen Victoria learned to use it (potentially) for menstrual pain (56-7).

The alphabetic order makes it easy to find a specific plant to consider potentially growing or taking it: “from Adonis vernalis (a perennial in the buttercup family) to Vinca minor (also known as the common periwinkle). The 100 plants featured in the book all have a long history of medicinal use or are the subject of new medical research. Many treat a range of conditions, from insomnia to indigestion. Some plants are lovely enough to be in a bridal bouquet; others are considered weeds. Cross-reference features at the end of the book connect specific medical conditions and the plants used to treat them.”

The cross-references in the back-matter are indeed very helpful as they identify one or several plants that help with common ailments, such as fungus, anemia and asthma. The glossary provides brief definitions for those who need a bit of help with the technical terms used throughout. The cover includes marijuana leaves next to a flowering plant, so it can be a funny pro-marijuana statement for somebody to make if they display this book in a home. The descriptions of these plants are given in precise terms that provide the necessary information for an intelligent reader. This is a great approach unlike the ultra-technical or the conversational books I’ve seen on related subjects. The cautionary notes are also chosen to address specific problems that one might not find easily in a brief research before somebody decides to acquire and try a plant. For example, the caution on Cytisus Scoparius is that some hybrids of this plant listed in “horticultural catalogs are… not suitable for medicinal use”. I was recently watching a film about hallucinogenic mushrooms; an American filmmaker travels to Russia and goes into a forest to consume red-hatted and white-dotted mushrooms; as I child, when I learned to pick mushrooms the first major lesson learned was to avoid this mushroom in particular and all other bright-colored mushrooms because they are poisonous and can cause death; and there is a whole group of Russians in this film who are eating this poison and selling it to stupid American filmmakers… Maybe they were eating a variety of more hallucinogenic and less poisonous red mushrooms, but I think they were just poisoning themselves with a doze that brought them to a near-death state, and the users are just happy to still be alive when the vomiting stops. Thus, given humanities tendency to skim over information and try stuff because somebody else said it’s good, the warning labels on a book like this one are essential to avoid major disasters.

Another example of a curious plant with a warning is the Devil’s claw, which is not to be stepped on by mice, or used by those with ulcers (120-1). And the thorn apple can cause hallucinations or coma (94-5). The abundance of caution is such that the general message appears to be that people should eat “tablets or capsules” that have a precise doze of the portion that is meant for consumption vs. growing it in a yard and doing your best to self-medicate (178-9). I would have been more interested in a book that focused on entirely non-lethal or non-harmful plants that I could grow in my home, but those plants would probably be made illegal b modern pharmaceutical companies…

This is a great book for all who are studying plant biology casually, or those who have considered taking “natural” medicines. This book also needs to be in public libraries, so those who are considering some of these cures can briefly check if a given idea is feasible and how to make the most out of an attempted usage.

The History of a Neglected Italian City in the Early Dark Ages (That Were Relatively Bright)

Judith Herrin, Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, October 27, 2020). Hardcover: $29.95. 576pp. ISBN: 978-0-691-153438.


This is a history of a place and events that took place between 390 and 813 AD. Few documents or art pieces have survived from these centuries, so history books tend to glide over these epochs with general mentions or stereotypes. Thus, historians like Judith Herrin who is brave enough to venture into these historically darkened times are undertaking the essential challenges needed to further the study of history. In contrast, histories that simply rephrase and recycle established European histories from the ages that have been at the forefront of mainstream portrayals of world storytelling are not really adding anything useful to the human discussion of our past.

The book as advertised thus: “At the end of the fourth century, as the power of Rome [Italy] faded and Constantinople [Turkey] became the seat of empire, a new capital city was rising in the West. Here, in Ravenna on the coast of Italy, Arian Goths and Catholic Romans competed to produce an unrivaled concentration of buildings and astonishing mosaics. For three centuries, the city attracted scholars, lawyers, craftsmen, and religious luminaries, becoming a true cultural and political capital.” It is a bit disappointing that Herrin chooses to present this time from a Judeo-Christian-Islamic perspective, as she focuses on the how during the pre-Islamic period, this city spread “Christendom” across medieval East and West. Herrin presents this spread as a positive, whereas these were propagandistic elements that crushed local independent cultures and substituted them with the “Christian” culture and theology. As this summary explains before Christianity came to this region, its science and scholarship was flourishing, but Christians sterilized and made many forms of learning heretical and illegal in the centuries that followed. This doctrine of science being anti-Christian probably set the world back by a thousand years, as innovation in knowledge was replaced with the doctrine deemed to be the “truth” against which all new discoveries were deemed to be attacks. And the cultural imagery and history from these centuries is already Christian from the onset till its end, so it’s unclear what changed across it.

The “personal stories of Ravenna” is really the interesting part of this book, whereas the Christian theology overlayed on them is clouding their innate significance for understanding these distant ancestors of us all. It is also curious to learn about “the lives of the Empress Galla Placidia and the Gothic king Theoderic” and “the achievements of an amazing cosmographer and a doctor who revived Greek medical knowledge in Italy, demolishing the idea that the West just descended into the medieval ‘Dark Ages’”.

There are several high-quality paper color illustrations across this book, which are essential for visualizing this place during this period. The style of the coin designs, the flowery church ceiling paintings, the Gothic writing style and the color parchment these were drawn on, the relief sculptures of gift deliveries to Virgin Mary and Child, a genealogical table diagram, and sarcophagus designs all present unique styles and approaches to art and decoration that are very different and yet have some small similarities with the arts of the adjacent regions and periods. For example, the ceiling paintings must have contributed to inspiring the Sistine Chapel paintings Michelangelo did a millennium later between 1508 and 1512.

The book is divided by periods and by the monarchs and bishops that ruled over them, such as Honorius, Theoderic the Goth, and King Albion. The history is related in a narrative style that is done well in this instance. For example, the “ceremonial entry into the city through the historic Golden Gate in the southern fortification wall”, where Lombards were “greened by the local elite: Archbishop Agnellus” and others, who “would have been wearing their colorful clothing, the guilds carrying their banners, the garrison soldiers their flags” (205). This descriptions accompanied by a note that explains the Lombard invasion might have been more of a corporate take-over that staffed the city’s influential positions by non-natives (444). The attention to the outfits and the political or fiscal roles of the actors in this invasion demonstrates a desire to arrive at both a truthful and a detailed version of this history. Too often historians are either lost in adding too much unresearched fiction over the few known facts, or they choose a political interpretation of events, while ignoring alternate versions.

Another curious description is of rival Christian churches being formed in these early centuries such as the Arian (Homoian) faith that developed by 325, as they not only chose their own priests, but also developed distinct church “services” or rituals. This group did not have the same hierarchical structure, and they wrote their own versions in Latin and Gothic and commentaries on the Bible and the supporting doctrine (70-1).

This history is supported by letters from players such as Pope Hadrian, who accuses Archbishop Leo of being too independent and thus being “false” in “faith” and “refuses to obey our commands” as he “stands alone in the pride of his savagery” (359). Given the presence of these letters and other documentary evidence of a vibrant cultural, literary and political life in these centuries, it is unclear why Europeans damned this period as the Dark Ages. The distinct appears to be that Europeans did not want to research whatever happened in their own countries in the preceding millennium, preferring to study ancient Greco-Roman history, philosophy and culture. 

There is such a wealth of information in each of the pages of this book that it is strange that all of these stories are entirely foreign to modern films, or to high school history books. This might even be the first time I am seeing the name of a city called Ravenna. Thus, this is a great book for libraries, and especially for those who fall short on non-European and pre-Renaissance histories. This should also make a curious textbook for a non-traditional history class, though the professor would have to pick out essential historic movements, characters and other elements that are more significant than others to allow students to focus on learning these for tests. Then again, asking students to find curious details in this book and research them further to see where this would lead might be a more interesting and engaging approach to employing this study as a textbook.

The Nonsense-Rhetoric Used to Support the Funding of Junk Soft and Hard Sciences, and to Defund Rational Thought

Mark Solovey, Social Science for What? Battle Over Public Funding for the “Other Sciences” at the National Science Foundation (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2020). Softcover: $50. 398pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-262-53905-0.


The significance of how and what sciences and individuals are funded appears to be a philosophical or political choice, but whoever makes these decisions really controls if our world is going to end due to bad science this coming year or in billions of years. Humanity has been putting its money into anti-science across the past century. The propogandists are selling the idea that new scientific discoveries are being made, but instead those who make breakthroughs have their ideas stolen by the few mega-monopolies that control human commerce. The Covid-19 vaccine was just approved yesterday in mid-December 2020 in the US after the first case was detected in China in November 2019, or over a year earlier. Is a year a short time-span for the world’s scientific community to develop a vaccine? Is it a good thing that most international governments are primarily purchasing the first drug-to-market from Pfizer? Are the competing drugs really any different? Is it acceptable that the “scientists” on the news daily are repeating the “wash the hands”/ 3 W’s rules instead of being busy researching the precise method of spread, the precise effectiveness of the vaccine and the like. It is absurd that 4 members of the FDA panel rejected the Pfizer vaccine because there was not enough research data separated on pregnant women or kids between 16-18. If there was any data collected in the trials, it should have been easy to manipulate the data set to check the outcomes for these groups of people. Surely some pregnant women and youths participated if this is a question, so some members of the panel were really saying that Pfizer failed to make the full raw data set available to the committee far enough in advance for them to research the effectiveness and results in any group that interested them. Drugs that give the appearance of fixing high blood pressure, without making a dent are favored in research funding, while research into the harms of all processed meat and milk in causing the high blood pressure is nearly entirely absent. The people who make billions on these “drugs” are making the decisions on self-funding, and denying funding to groups that might oppose them. Just as horrid art is favored because it is easier to fraudulently resell garbage, horrid science has been winning funding across the past century because corporations can entirely control and profit from idiotic “scientists”. So, this is an important book because it begins to approach these essential to our survival questions of the beneficiaries and the rejects in the scientific funding process.

Here’s how the publisher explains this project: “How the NSF became an important yet controversial patron for the social sciences, influencing debates over their scientific status and social relevance.” The social sciences are not as life-saving as most of the hard-sciences, but they cover history, politics and other fields without which criticizing that funding is going to the wrong places would be impossible. The blurb then adds that: “The open access edition of this book was made possible by generous funding from the MIT Libraries.” In other words, those who are curious about this book, can find it for free online thanks to a grant from MIT Libraries.

“In the early Cold War years, the U.S. government established the National Science Foundation (NSF), a civilian agency that soon became widely known for its dedication to supporting first-rate science. The agency’s 1950 enabling legislation made no mention of the social sciences, although it included a vague reference to ‘other sciences.’ Nevertheless, as Mark Solovey shows in this book, the NSF also soon became a major—albeit controversial—source of public funding for them. Solovey’s analysis underscores the long-term impact of early developments, when the NSF embraced a ‘scientistic’ strategy wherein the natural sciences represented the gold standard, and created a social science program limited to ‘hard-core’ studies. Along the way, Solovey shows how the NSF’s efforts to support scholarship, advanced training, and educational programs were shaped by landmark scientific and political developments, including McCarthyism, Sputnik, reform liberalism during the 1960s, and a newly energized conservative movement during the 1970s and 1980s.” In other words, Solovey reviews how political biases such as anti-communism and anti-liberalism has prevented these rebellious or pro-humanist groups from being funded in a space that was instead dominated by mega corporate interests that were sold as more “American” because they were pro-runaway-capitalism. “Finally, he assesses the NSF’s relevance in a ‘post-truth’ era, questions the legacy of its scientistic strategy, and calls for a separate social science agency—a National Social Science Foundation.” It’s absurd that Solovey has to ask how social science is relevant to lying politicians: political science and media studies are designed to discover the lies politicians and media are telling us to uncover, reveal and prevent these lies from remaining without such countering.

Solovey explains in the “Introduction” that this project was pushed into existance by news such as Trump’s 10.4% proposed decrease to the “Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences” part of NSF (2). Solovey defense this branch by arguing that economists funded have won the Nobel Prize in Economics among other honors in exchange for only 5% of the NSF budget (3).

The main problem behind this project soon becomes apparent, Solovey goes into a tail-spin of arguing philosophically on the distinction between requiring data and facts or hard scientific analysis and the proposed opposing forces of more digressive or less strictly controlled soft social sciences. He digresses into generalities about “scientific unity, scientific hierarchy, and natural science superiority” instead of looking at the facts and asking where the money has gone and what good it has done (8). He is still repeating these ideas chapters later: “Budgetary pressures, growing skepticism about the social sciences and their policy relevance…” (137). In some sections, he describes the ethnic background and government career of a researcher who became an agency director; this paragraph ends and begins with a statement that this director contradicted a strategy that others were favoring (202). Thus, this paragraph fails to explain the strategy, or the biases of this director, or what the precise proposal was, and instead digresses into personality politics. Similarly, another administrator and scientist is brought in chapters later, who repeats the same hard versus soft sciences rhetoric. The discussion digresses into Homo sapiens’ behavior before concluding on the note that these fields have to be “judged by the same criteria as other sciences” (231).

Considering that Trump’s emergence as a political “leader” of America can be largely blamed on the familiar of American institutions to educate youths in what makes good governance and what political policies are in their own best interests, there is much useful information that could have been communicated in this book, and that can be funded in research if the process was not biased. Instead, we have this awful book that leaps around in nonsensical circles and fails to arrive at any clear point. Publishers really need to start reading the books they are accepting for publication. The hard versus soft sciences “debate” has been made millennia ago, either something new has to be said about it, or academic publishers should branch out into the many more earth-shaping topics in this field that need to be addressed for the benefit of its readers. 

Teach Yourself to Make Great Innovative Music

Karen Collins, Studying Sound: A Theory and Practice of Sound Design (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2020). Hardcover: $45. 236pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-262-04413-4.


This is one of the rare practical class texts in how musical sounds are created. “An introduction to the concepts and principles of sound design practice, with more than 175 exercises that teach readers to put theory into practice.” It covers topics “from technical aspects of sound effects to the creative use of sound in storytelling. Most books on sound design focus on sound for the moving image.” Well, in my own research, most tend to be digressive nonsense about the philosophy of sound. This project promises to diverge by digesting sound’s “medium and rhetorical device.” The opening chapters are a bit on the nonsense-philosophy end, as they contemplate “the distinction between hearing and listening (with exercises to train the ears)”. Then it moves into the science of “sound as an acoustic phenomenon. It introduces recording sound, covering basic recording accessories as well as theories about recording and perception; explores such spatial effects as reverberation and echo; and surveys other common digital sound effects, including tremolo, vibrato, and distortion.” Also covered: “mixing; explains surround and spatial sound; and considers sound and meaning, discussing ideas from semiotics and psychology.” Then, it joins ideas together to explain how sound can “support story, with examples from radio plays, audio dramas, and podcasts.”

The book is truly designed both as a textbook for classes and for individual study. For example, the section on “Amplitude” begins by defining this concept as: “The height of the sound wave from the center of the waveform to the peak”. It explores a few other related terms, then explains the logarithmic scale. Finally, it jumps into an exercise in sound loudness on the SPL meter. The tools needed for this exercise is a phone, a downloadable sound pressure measuring software, and the sounds you might hear on a walk outside. Once you have recorded and tested some sounds, the lecture dives into more complex concepts such as “digital decibels” and “clipping”. Thus, there is no irrelevant information here. Each portion of the chapter either helps a reader to exercise and test a concept, or explains its science, philosophy and artistry. The more complex concepts towards the end of the book, such as “digital phasing” require students to have read the opening chapters first. But these opening basics are thorough enough that this might be the only book you will need to go from being merely a music-listener to a music-maker or a music-seller. Some of the concepts can be applied to a DJ designing sound for a concert to reverberate in strange and curious ways, while others are meant for recording sounds for standard reproduction. Even the philosophical sections toward the end of the book that defy practical applications are funny, readable and can be applied to making better music. In one instance Karen Collins asks what lemons sound like, before noting that lemons do not make a sound, but can be imagined in sound by blocking off one’s visual senses. Thus, sounds can be made to imitate taste and other senses to create a unique strange musical composition that provides a multi-dimensional sensory experience for listeners (186). The section on “Audio Research” is inspiring as it proposes exploring the outdoors to collect sounds to add to one’s musical portfolio (207).

This is a flawless book to which I will probably return if I ever decide to attempt to make another musical project. There are many DJs, rappers and other musicians in modern times who are self-taught and begin using the nearly automatic software tools that allow for them to turn from average-joes to musicians in moments. If all of them stop at some point and read this book cover-to-cover, they might all learn to create entirely new musical creations that are unlikely all previous attempts of human musicology. Being self-taught with help from a textbook like this one can mean being better taught than most classically taught current musicians, because this is a more practical book for the types of tools available for music-making today than the ancient music theory that has been taught in music schools for thousands of years.

Sexuality and Race in the Middle Ages

Roland Betancourt, Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, October 6, 2020). Hardcover: $35. 288pp, 6X9”. 8 color + 50 b/w illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-691-179452.


The blurb for this book opens thus: “While the term ‘intersectionality’ was coined in 1989, the existence of marginalized identities extends back over millennia.” Oxford Languages defines “intersectionality” as: “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” Thus, the opening sentence is nonsensical. Even the first humans were multi-racial because there were two species: Homo sapiens and Neanderthal. And you have to go back to near-microbes to find a single-sex species in our predecessors. The connection between race, gender and class as categories only became relevant after humans developed these concepts and began writing these down at the dawn of history, and this have happened “over” merely “millennia” versus millions or even billions of years. Even if the term “intersectionality” was made up in 1989, the relationship between these categories has been studies as early as when the categories were initially defined. Thus, by making this the central point of the book, Roland Betancourt declares that this book runs in circles and makes false proclamations throughout that sound truthful, while disguising or subverting basic known facts.  

The element that sells this book is that it is unique in addressing previously taboo subjects about the Byzantine Empire “in medieval thought and visual culture around matters of sexual and reproductive consent, bullying and slut-shaming, homosocial and homoerotic relationships, trans and nonbinary gender identities, and the depiction of racialized minorities.” It is “using sources from late antiquity and early Christianity up to the early modern period. Highlighting nuanced and strikingly modern approaches by medieval writers, philosophers, theologians, and doctors”. The study reviews “art, literature, and… texts to investigate depictions of sexual consent in images of the Virgin Mary, tactics of sexual shaming in the story of Empress Theodora, narratives of transgender monks, portrayals of same-gender desire in images of the Doubting Thomas, and stereotypes of gender and ethnicity in representations of the Ethiopian Eunuch.” And it dives into “medical manuals detailing everything from surgical practices for late terminations of pregnancy to save a mother’s life to a host of procedures used to affirm a person’s gender.”

The opening pre-title-page quote is from Monica Lewinsky, where she complains that her being called a “whore” was a form of “online harassment”. Then, the “Introduction” opens by describing the reincarnations across centuries of a story of Mary of Egypt who “isolates herself to protect herself from being raped by” men. Betancourt explains that the narrative that this Mary goes into isolation to protect herself from attacks by men, to a Palestinian story in Life of Mary of Egypt where she goes into isolation to protect men from her own lustful desire for sex (1). This opening is pretty offensive and loudly accusatory coming from a male author called Roland. This set up stresses that women who prostitute themselves to powerful men in exchange for career advancement, as Monica Lewinsky did represent the new moral correctness. Anybody who calls their actions by their factual terms are bullying them. And this morality is reinforced by Mary narratives’ claim that women’s lustfulness can be an offensive measure that deserves rape unless a woman goes into self-isolation. I have spent the past twenty years of my working life constantly fighting off men who assume that because I am a single woman attempting to succeed in the workplace, I should be willing to prostitute myself for this advancement. I have been repeatedly forced out of jobs because I have never stooped into these traps. Once on a Birthright trip to Israel, a rabbi attempted to rape me. When I complained by calling for help to stop him, the women in charge of the trip forced me to leave early, as they accused me of doing something wrong by stopping him. Every time a woman like Lewinsky agrees to sleep with her boss (it doesn’t matter if she’s in love, in lust, or in greed), she makes it more likely that a man will try to rape or seduce me in exchange for a basic job that I’m more qualified than this boss for. And it is also uniquely offensive to read that a woman’s escape from the world of raping men into isolation can be taken to mean that she is too lustful and a danger to these men. I am currently in self-isolation and I feel absolutely no lust towards any man. It is not a sexual revolution for women to claim to want sex as much as men do, because it is now far more revolutionary (or counter-cultural) for a woman like me to insist that sex is grotesque and discussing the way it is currently practiced and that being an anti-sexual woman is now the abnormal position that deserves society’s respect.

While the opening and blurb triggered a pretty negative response, most of this book simply delivers information on gender, racial and other categories that are seldom discussed about medieval times. The section on “Transmasculinity in Early Christianity” describes cross-dressing women like Saint Thecla and Basilina. The latter, “to visit a holy elder, ‘planned to put on masculine attire’” (96). A section on “Homoeroticism” open by explaining the “interplay between finger and penis in experiencing the body of Christ” (134). And a section how westerners viewed “Racial Difference in Constantinople” quotes at length from an appearance a king made in 1203 before a court, which observed that the king’s “skin was all black, and he had a cross in the middle of his forehead that had been made with a hot iron”. Betancourt complains that the narrative leaves out this important king’s name because the narrator’s judgement is clouded by his black skin-tone (173-4). A section on “Abortions and the Aristocracy” explains that Betancourt is for sex workers, versus shaming them; he quotes from Chrysostom, who held this position by arguing “‘you cannot repudiate her for doing this’” because it is “her profession”; instead, the blame should be “with the men” (79). It is difficult to see how there can be any morally justified party in a transaction that sells sex, but it is a moral certainty that the prostitute cannot be more wrong in the exchange than the purchaser of the sex act. These same debates are still repeating in our “modern” times, as if our laws, religions, and our morals are frozen in these medieval notions. The surest way to convince modern humans they are old-fashioned might be to quote back to them what they are saying from these medieval sources, so from this perspective any study that looks back for these types of arguments in the past are making a positive contribution to the furtherment of humanity’s understanding of itself.

Basically, Betancourt gathered together curious and tantalizing sex, gender, and race oddities from medieval times and compressed them into a single book. Then, he explained that he blended these different fields together to practice the modern field of “intersectionality” studies to sell this hodgepodge project to a publisher. Well, it works better than some other attempts I’ve seen. The cases presented in this book have been neglected by most scholars across the past couple of centuries because they are not exactly delicate, so there is a need to bring these subjects to the surface as Betancourt has done. This is a curious book that should be kept in major academic libraries, so scholars in these narrow fields can find inspiration for sources and ideas that demand closer exploration.

Commercial Anti-Art Celebrated as Quote-Worthy

Keith Haring; Larry Warsh, Editor, Haring-isms (Princeton: Princeton University Press, September 29, 2020). Hardcover: $12.95. 168pp, 4.25X5.25”. 2 b/w illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-691-209852.


The blurb and mainstream sources describe Keith Haring as “one of the most important and celebrated artists of his generation and beyond.” While it is blatantly true that he is celebrated in collections such as this one, and in a myriad of other events in his honor. The fact that this blurb begins with the mere claim that Haring is in fact celebrated points to the absence of a reason for why he is celebrated. What about his art made a change for the better in humanities comprehension or enjoyment of art? The blurb attempts to describe it thus: “Through his signature bold graphic line drawings of figures and forms dancing and grooving, Haring’s paintings, large-scale public murals, chalk drawings, and singular graffiti style defined an era and brought awareness to social issues ranging from gay rights and AIDS to drug abuse prevention and a woman’s right to choose.” If you google Haring’s images, you will find a variation on stick-people that are at the extreme of simplistic cartoons. An example that explains the problem that troubles me about Haring’s art is one of his more detailed pieces with words that explain the significance intended by the artist—Absolute Vodka (1986) with the subtitle repeated twice on the label, “Country of Sweden”. In other words, Haring created an alternative “artsy” label for a corporate brand, and it is being treated as if it is high art. The simplifying style Haring uses across his pieces includes the elements essential for product label design—it uses: 1. Only a few basic flat colors (there can only be 3 or so colors in logos and other corporate branding items), 2. Simple large figures that can be shrunk without losing the basic image, 3. The images are mostly open to interpretation, or make a very simply core-message or brand-message. Thus, celebrating Haring as the leading artist of the 80-90s means to confirm that commercialism and corporations who control it are the value-judges we have allowed to determine if their monopolistic products are high art. And instead of collecting Haring’s “art”, this book collects stuff he said, as if he has a message to deliver that is more significant than the scientists, historians and other scholars who are never going to see a book of their sayings released from an academic press. These sayings were taken from “journals and interviews”. All of the sources are listed at the back, and they include a “Lecture at Cranbrook” and an “Art in Transit” essay posted online at the Keith Haring Foundation. Several other links to these sources are provided, so those who want to read the context can follow these links. The quotes cover “birth and death, possibility and uncertainty, and difference and conformity.” The book is divided by topics such as “Youth”, “Method”, and “Pop Culture”. The “Chronology” at the end explains that at 18 he entered the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, but dropped out within the first or second year without completing a commercial art degree. Instead, he became a graffiti artist. Months into this attempt, he returned to academia by enrolling in the New York City School of Visual Arts, and then dropped out again a year or two later by the summer of 1980. By this point, he starts exhibiting his work, and is immediately accepted as a great artist, with exhibits in MoMA and other lead stages for art. By 1981, he was wealthy enough to rent a large apartment with a basement in Manhattan. This meteoric rise of a drop out graffiti artist might seem miraculous, but there were hundreds of his fellow students who might have gone on to finish grad school and were never invited to exhibit at MoMA. Who were these gate-keepers that decided that Haring was “great”, while brilliant oil paintings that take months of toil and execute ideas the evoke deep feelings and stimulate the mind were not worth being granted access to the public? This is the true tragedy in Haring’s story: he succeeded when if he had instead failed or had been rejected for making commercial reproductions or graffiti and branding it with big words, he would have tried harder to reach real greatness in art. Here are some of the quotes the publisher offers from the collection:

“Art is one of the last areas that is totally within the realm of the human individual and can’t be copied or done better by a machine.” This is an ironic statement. While most types of classical art cannot be replicated with equal skill by a machine, basic line drawings can easily be achieved with any computer. By celebrating this type of reproducible art, we doom our artists to obscurity while we reproduce and cheer corporate product-objects.

“I couldn’t go back to the abstract drawings; it had to have some connection to the real world.” This second ironic statement confirms that Haring was addicted to lying. The only other option is that Haring paid no attention in art schools, and does not know what the term “abstract” means.

The Adventures of Goya, the Rebellious Court Artist

Janis Tomlinson, Goya: A Portrait of the Artist (Princeton: Princeton University Press, September 15, 2020). Hardcover: $35. 436pp, 6X9”. 35 color + 46 b/w illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-691-192048.


It is delightful to read a biography of a Spanish master painter in our current moment in the history of human culture. The publisher can be trusted not to over-puff this canonical artist: “The life of Francisco Goya (1746–1828) coincided with an age of transformation in Spanish history that brought upheavals in the country’s politics and at the court which Goya served, changes in society, the devastation of the Iberian Peninsula in the war against Napoleon, and an ensuing period of political instability. In this revelatory biography, Janis Tomlinson draws on a wide range of documents—including letters, court papers, and a sketchbook used by Goya in the early years of his career—to provide a nuanced portrait of a complex and multifaceted painter and printmaker, whose art is synonymous with compelling images of the people, events, and social revolution that defined his life and era. Tomlinson challenges the popular image of the artist as an isolated figure obsessed with darkness and death, showing how Goya’s likeability and ambition contributed to his success at court, and offering new perspectives on his youth, rich family life, extensive travels, and lifelong friendships. She explores the full breadth of his imagery—from scenes inspired by life in Madrid to visions of worlds without reason, from royal portraits to the atrocities of war. She sheds light on the artist’s personal trials, including the deaths of six children and the onset of deafness in middle age, but also reconsiders the conventional interpretation of Goya’s late years as a period of disillusion, viewing them instead as years of liberated artistic invention, most famously in the murals on the walls of his country house, popularly known as the ‘black’ paintings.”

This book includes black-and-white illustrations throughout and several pages of high-quality color paintings in the center-pages. The earliest color image that represents the beginning of Goya’s peak as an artist (which continued through a year or so before his death) is from 1774, The Visitation, depicting men and women in robes in an ancient setting. Goya was 28 by 1774, and he finally attained the knowledge necessary for a work of art to show master-craftsmanship deserving of preservation centuries later. Only two years later, in The Picnic, his style has significantly evolved, as he manages to capture the different classes of people, as well as their pets and food choices much better than any photograph might have. A decade later he commences focusing on intricate high-society portraits that he is best known for. And a decade later, he is depicting rebellions and subsequent executions on enormous canvas that attempt to capture the motivations, the actions, the heroism, and the fear of armies and individuals in The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808. His demonic or mystic paintings such as Witches’ Sabbath (1820-3) abstract humans and insert the devil into the witches’ midst in a manner that anticipates the scream, while preserving some realism of human features and conveying feeling through their tortured movements. The cover-drawing is Goya’s self-portrait before the easel from 1795. He stresses the thick paint on his paint wheel in contrast with his typically thin brush-strokes that aim to disguise the artist’s hand to create the illusion of reality. While he exaggerates the beauty of his models, he presents himself as a short, chubby and rather sad man in an oversized hat. There is also a second self-portrait from 1815 inside, where he lets his wild hair free and wears a simple outfit without attempting to rig himself up in gentlemanly attire. Between the publisher’s blurb and the stories that leap out of these dramatic, intricate drawings, this book should entice all intellectual readers with some curiosity about how a man develops into a great artist.

The “Introduction” summarizes the popularly known biography of Goya, as he moved to Madrid in 1775, where he “witnessed the downfall of the Bourbon monarchy” at Napoleon’s hands and the subsequent restoration. His last four years were a bit less productive because he self-exiled or asked for leave in 1824 to move to France. When he started his career, his father had rebelled against the guilds’ control over the methods and tools of artistic production, and this caused a breach with the guilds that meant Goya was not left an inheritance by his artistic father, and had to commence on a lifetime of fiscal ambition. The many letters that Goya wrote across his life allow this first major English-language biography of Goya to capture precise facts about this interesting life. After becoming the official court painter, at one point he refused to paint the required propagandistic “tapestry cartoons ordered by the king”, and instead was granted leave to go on vacation in Valencia. Then, when Napoleon came into power, Goya willingly painted courtiers in this group, and maybe Napoleon himself, but was “cleared in 1814 of any collusion” and managed to resume his court position. Tomlinson argues that by hunting and otherwise socializing with aristocrats he gained their special favor, whereas the same behavior from others might have had deadly consequences. This mixture of defiance and subservience to the powerful is apparent from a letter Goya wrote to Sir Don Martin Zapater after he and his friends were entertained at Zapater’s expense after Zapater won the lottery in December of 1797. He calls Zapater the “Most Powerful, most generous, and most splendid”, and then sarcastically says that he is shocked at the sponsorship from such “a cheapskate… a misanthrope” has managed to sponsor the “bottles”, the “coffee”, the flying “glasses” and the other luxuries that entertained them (159-60).

This book should be taught in a class on Goya in art school as well as in art history classes because every artist needs to understand how some artists manage to find friends and patrons in high places while convincing them to allow them to speak freely in their art, instead of merely recycling the required propaganda. This is a splendid and uplifting biography of an artist who achieved much and had a life with dramatic turns that deserves much closer study. And this is just an amusing and adventurous life that folks would enjoy reading about in their leisure hours.

The Beautiful Garbage Can

Svetlana Alpers, Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, October 20, 2020). Hardcover: $39.95. 208pp, 6X9”. 15 color + 170 b/w illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-691-195872.


This book begins with a long series of full-page photographs without any introduction; the text instead begins later after the central photos are thus displayed. This is a humorous and curious approach that breaks the traditional insertion of images into the middle, or in sections across a book that, as this one, includes a lot of text to accompany the works of art. Walker Evans’ photographs do not appear in mainstream culture as frequently as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936) image, which is included in this project for comparison. But their styles are very similar, as both use high-contrast predominantly black-and-white images of impoverished rural Americans.

Princeton offers this book summary: “Walker Evans (1903–75) was a great American artist photographing people and places in the United States in unforgettable ways. He is known for his work for the Farm Security Administration, addressing the Great Depression, but what he actually saw was the diversity of people and the damage of the long Civil War.” It “explores how Evans made his distinctive photographs.” It draws “parallels between his creative approach and those of numerous literary and cultural figures, locating Evans within the wide context of a truly international circle… Evans’s practice relied on his camera choices and willingness to edit multiple versions of a shot, as well as his keen eye and his distant straight-on view of visual objects.” It also describes Evans’ combinations of text and photographs. Evans’ style is compared with artists “from Flaubert and Baudelaire to Elizabeth Bishop and William Faulkner—underscoring how Evans’s travels abroad in such places as France and Cuba, along with his expansive literary and artistic tastes, informed his quintessentially American photographic style.”

A couple of the best photographs in the book are of a homeless person sleeping under and on a newspaper in leather shoes, and of two black-dust covered coal miners with shovels and in disintegrating hats (38-9). The editing of a few shots into a single image must be the technique that makes these images so powerful because they are almost layered or positioned and colored as if with oil paint into grand massages, whereas snapping any number of unedited photos is unlikely to approach this intensity. The “Introduction” includes one quote from a Yale interview with Evans from 1974 that summarizes the emotion-triggering element of his photography: “A garbage can, occasionally, to me at least, can be beautiful. That’s because you’re seeing. Some people are able to see that – see it and feel it. I lean towards the enchantment, the visual power, of the esthetically rejected subject” (2). The preceding few quotes offered by Alpers are more general and show a lack of foresight or self-awareness, as Evans merely states that he photographs what he sees; which would not be as artistically significant as if he specifically found beauty in a garbage can that could be communicated affectively to convince others of this notion. After describing the facts, Alpers explains Evans’ artistry by comparison: “Airlessness in Flaubert is due to verbal reduction. Evans’s airlessness is a spatial compression produced here by cutting out the foreground.” He goes on to explain that Evans “achieved the airless, compressed effect” by using an “8X10 camera with a triple convertible lens” that added “two of the longer-than-normal-length focal lengths” (30).

Overall, it is a bit frustrating to read about how Evans’ passion for wagons or garbage cans is of a special kind or to attempt to explain why these particular images of these old objects are more artistically valuable than any picture I might take of the rural Texas town I live in. These images just achieve a magic trick of convincing the viewer that they are unique, innovative, and carry an important message. They stand out because of something indescribable, combined with the practical techniques of crafty photography that this book explains deliberately positioned these images to stand out from the normal photographs a standard camera and a standard walk around town can capture. While this book would have been better by having an editor delete some more of the repetitive elements in the text that repeat the same ideas about common objects, seeing and other cliches, it is presenting a good deal of interesting information about photography and a famous American photographer that should be useful for all who hope to imitate Evans’ success in this field.

Piranesi: Etching Out the Illustrations That Sell the Books

Carolyn Yerkes and Heather Hyde Minor, Piranesi Unbound (Princeton: Princeton University Press, September 1, 2020). Hardcover: $65. 240pp, 9X11.5”. ISBN: 978-0-691-206103.


Millions of books are published annually in the modern world that use programs that replicate some of the design, typesetting and artistry elements that were developed in the first couple of centuries after the invention of the printing press. One of the major leaps in the development of intricate artistic elements in bookmaking was overseen by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the subject of this collection of and introduction to his works. Piranesi is not a familiar name in the mainstream because his contributions altered the quality of the book Europe was reading in a manner that did not focus on their artist as the lead creator of a work. Instead his pieces decorate and celebrate the writers or other contributors by giving a sense of grandeur to their creations. Thus, it is great to see an academic publisher stopping to take a closer look at Piranesi’s contributions. Afterall, the design of this book itself in its half-fabric-clothed and half polished-cardboard illustrated cover and the opening emblem owe some credit to the framework for highbrow publishing built by Piranesi. If books are judged by their covers and by the front-matter designs, well, Piranesi is the reason many of these judgements pass and readers proceed to the interior.

“A draftsman, printmaker, architect, and archaeologist, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–78) is best known today as the virtuoso etcher of the immersive and captivating Views of Rome and the darkly inventive Imaginary Prisons. Yet Carolyn Yerkes and Heather Hyde Minor argue that his single greatest art form—one that combined his obsessions most powerfully and that he pursued throughout his career—was the book. A fundamental reinterpretation of Piranesi by recognizing him, first and foremost, as a writer, illustrator, printer, and publisher of books. Featuring nearly two hundred of Piranesi’s engravings and drawings, including some that have never been published before, this visually stunning book returns Piranesi’s artworks to the context for which he originally produced them: a dozen volumes that combine text and image, archaeology and imagination, erudition and humor.” It “uncovers the social networks in which Piranesi published, including the readers who bought, read, and debated his books. It reveals his habit of raiding the wastepaper pile for cast-off sheets upon which to draw and fuse printed images and texts. It shows how, even after his books were bound, they were subject to change by Piranesi and others as pages were torn out and added.”

The “Introduction” explains that with help from assistants, Piranesi created a workshop that allowed him to make over a thousand originals prints. The steps involved in bringing a sketch into a copperplate and then to turn it into a printed book were daunting, but this multiplicity of steps and re-drawings appear to have helped Piranesi refine his drawing method until the final products are intricate in detail and appear as if magical in their flighty inspiration. Piranesi began his career by arriving in Rome and putting himself to work on drawing the city’s monuments to show his skills as an architect, but these creations were more in demand among the book publishers. Illustrations for guidebooks were in demand because Rome was and continues to be a tourist magnet; selling Rome as a destination required an enormous propagandistic or advertising effort, and this effort was rewarded with book purchases by those who were seduced by this call. As with other artists who started their own publishing businesses over the centuries, Piranesi began retaining some of his prints and reselling them. He only managed to begin printing his own complete books in 1761 with the Catalogo of his available prints, and a few other books. One of the obstacles to Piranesi starting a more robust book publishing business was apparently the difficulty he had with writing and reading. A biography of Piranesi by Giovanni Ludovico Bianconi that appeared shortly after his death in 1778 claimed that Piranesi “cleverly enrolled some eminent men of letters who, in admiration of his genius and his etchings, were not above working for him, composing texts to fit his beautiful prints, and generously permitting him to publish them under his own name.” Bianconi insists Piranesi “could barely read” the books being attributed to him. Yerkes and Minor question if this was a character-assassination or if there had to be truth behind this claim given its authorship immediately after Piranesi’s death (1-4). Since I am currently research the British Renaissance ghostwriting workshop that dominated this period, and previously detected that some authors in Britain worked in a similar collaborative anonymous relationship, I am fairly certain that if this accusation was made, it had to have been true. This also casts into doubt how much of the art work was also done by Piranesi’s assistance versus by himself alone. It might be fairer to label this book not only with Piranesi’s name, but also with the names of his staff of collaborating assistants, but this title might not fit into the beautifully-designed cover.

This is a wonderfully-designed book that presents beautiful, elegant, uplifting and artistically-inspiring drawings. All book designers should at least browse throughout it for potential ideas to add spice to their own work. This book is also needed in most libraries to allow those curious about art to read about one of its foundational moments.

The Water Behind Mona Lisa

Leslie A. Geddes, Watermarks: Leonardo da Vinci and the Mastery of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, August 25, 2020). Hardcover: $60. 256pp, 7X10”. ISBN: 978-0-691-192697.


This is another art collection that attempts to find a new angle in a highly covered canonical artist. With thousands of previous art and scholarly books written on Leonardo da Vinci, Leslie Geddes decided to focus this study on da Vinci’s portrayal of water to explain the roots of industrialization as this budding new approach to conquering nature was taking hold in the Renaissance. It is always risky to be another voice in an enormous critical opus. A researcher either has to mine the thesauruses and the archives new evidence that has not been discussed before because the chosen field is so narrow, or one risks repeating or quoting from previous critics on just one of many common sub-subjects explored in most previous attempts. The illustrations alone across this book suggest that the author succeeded in the former because they include various lesser-known drawings of da Vinci’s as well as his brisk doodles all the way through his mainstream pieces like Mona Lisa. It would have taken a great deal of research to find a pen with brown inks sketch such as Tuscan Landscape (1473), which is currently stored in a Florence archive (122). This landscape is juxtaposed next to pen sketches by Fra Bartolommeo and Piero di Cosimo just to describe the different stroke styles these three artists employ in their private notebooks. Cosimo is judged to employ a “heavier” approach “in his use of materials and in the blocking out of the composition” (122-30). The preceding paragraphs describe the technique in practical terms useful for both artists attempting to replicate these classical methods and for art critics who are in need of unique ways to describe art. Thus, it seems in this instance the narrow-sub-subject approach has worked for Geddes.

Princeton summarizes the book thus: “Formless, mutable, transparent: the element of water posed major challenges for the visual artists of the Renaissance. To the engineers of the era, water represented a force that could be harnessed for human industry but was equally possessed of formidable destructive power. For Leonardo da Vinci, water was an enduring fascination, appearing in myriad forms throughout his work.” It covers the “range of Leonardo’s interest in water and shows how artworks by him and his peers contributed to hydraulic engineering and the construction of large river and canal systems.” There are schematics and explanations included for early water-engineering ideas that eventually led to running water and sewage in the US by 1850-90s. There were water systems earlier than this, like the water conduits in Milan that led to “illegal water tapping”, but these did not deliver water directly to the impoverished households (20). It is shocking that it took hundreds of years between the time a human invented these solutions and when “capitalism” or monarchic patrons managed to invest in realizing these ideas. Thus, tracing what da Vinci and his fellow artistic engineers designed and why these were not immediately developed on a large scale is essential for future scientific progress that is currently being delayed by a similar lag between the mind and the wallet.

“From drawings for mobile bridges and underwater breathing apparatuses to plans for water management schemes, Leonardo evinced a deep interest in the technical aspects of water. His visual studies of the ways in which landscape is shaped by water demonstrated both his artistic mastery and probing scientific mind. Analyzing Leonardo’s notebooks, plans, maps, and paintings, Geddes argues that, for Leonardo and fellow artists, drawing was a form of visual thinking and problem solving essential to understanding and controlling water and other parts of the natural world. She also examines the material importance in this work of water-based media, namely ink, watercolor, and oil paint.”

The world’s best artists developed their brilliant methods and compositions by doing extensive research into the fine details involved in the larger conclusion or masterpiece. This book explains the written proof in notes and diagrams that demonstrates that da Vinci and his peers were not driven by flighty inspiration, but rather by these studies of elements that appear as simple as water, but turn out to have many complex layers that can be communicated both in a drawing as well as in an engineering project that changes the world. Geddes explains: “he devised experiments to better see and picture water flow, such as one where he tosses handfuls of millet seeds into pots of boiling water” (24). Thus, these classical artists developed their brilliant paintings by experimentation and innovation with a scientific eye, rather than by replicating their predecessors’ techniques in the manner of a mere craftsman. Thus, when modern artists refer to experimentation as a new element in art, it really is the oldest and most essential element in art, without which one is not making “art”, but rather merely replicating the techniques that previous artists developed by this type of close labored research.

While these artists tended to put their research into images with a few brief notes, some have described their studies in a longer form. Leonardo does this in his description of rock formations with architectural terms in Codex Atlanticus: “the rocky summits of the mountains the live stone itself has in the course of time swallowed up by its growth some leaning column, and how such a column, once pried off with the sharp crowbars, has left the impress of its fluted form int eh living rock?” (117) When describing the Mona Lisa, Geddes focuses on the water behind the iconic woman: “The back-ground calls upon the viewer to navigate heterogeneous terrain and wending, even obfuscating, passages… roads are comprised of switchbacks and overgrowth, waterways rendered poorly navigable by flooding and erosion” (138).

This book’s language is rhythmic and melodic, and the ideas are enticing and intellectually engaging, so even those who are not students or researchers into these subjects should find it to be an enjoyable read. It is just delightful in this mad world to stop and to read something that is the equivalent of listening to a calm little stream in the woods tickling along the forest floor at the same steady pace year after year. Thus, all sorts of libraries will benefit from carrying this book, as all patrons will appreciate having access to this study and to its fresh ideas. And private collectors with home libraries might enjoy opening this book at a random page on-occasion and reading a few pages to meditate on an age when art and science were celebrated and funded.

Angelica Kauffman: If She Is New to You…

Bettina Baumgärtel, Editor, Angelica Kauffman (London: Royal Academy of Arts: Chicago University Press, July 2020). Hardcover: $45, 9.25X11/25”. 144 color plates. 208pp. ISBN: 978-3-7774-3462-9.


This book celebrates the achievements of a barrier-breaking female artist. It is odd that this celebration of this achievement of occurring three hundred years after the achievement itself. The reason for this delay is because it has been legal for a woman to draw across the preceding thousands of years, but men have managed to prevent women from becoming the power-wielders in the art industry across this time. There is obviously nothing special about female or male reproductive organs that might impede or improve an artist’s abilities. The legal and academic barriers to women’s ability to obtain an equal education and to create art for money have thus been the obstacles that have been used to block women from gaining absolute equality in this field. But even if a woman has had the money to pay for her own education, it has been impassable for her to display her art in the periodicals, museums and other selling-platforms where men have been acting as curators of what is “great” versus what is “inferior”. Without a woman to question every sexist distinction where a great woman has been deemed to be inferior without a justification, men have managed to suppress mainstream awareness of artists such as Angelica Kauffman. Her art has been frozen and unchanged for three hundred years, but we can come to it now as if she is exhibiting it for the first time because unlike Francisco Goya and his famous male counterparts. A couple of issues ago, I similarly reviewed one of the first collections of Sofonisba Anguissola’s (ca. 1535–1625) art. Thus, it seems that as the world is swirling into an environmental and health crisis in 2020, publishers are stopping to reconsider if giving women power might not be the solution to all of the idiocies that powerful men have contributed to.  

Chicago advertises this book thus: “One of the outstanding artistic personalities of the Classical Age of art in London and Rome, Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) is regarded as the first woman artist of truly broad European standing. Well educated and very well connected, she enjoyed an international reputation, admired by Goethe and Herder and counting among her clients queens and emperors from across the continent. This publication explores the larger-than-life story of Kauffman myth, which arose even while she was still working. Her remarkable life and work are presented here through beautiful reproductions of more than one hundred of her best paintings and drawings, including many never before seen. The book pays particular attention to Kauffman’s impact in England, where she was the first female member of the Royal Academy of Arts. Angelica Kauffman stakes a claim for the artist as a pioneering history painter, fashionable portraitist, and champion of a new ideal of masculinity.”

The “Foreword” explains that this collection was sponsored by the Royal Academy of Arts, so this explains partially why this achievement is featured as the most ground-breaking in the blurb. She created four ceiling paintings for this Academy, which still decorate their halls. One of the “Foreword’s” authors, Rebecca Salter, is also the President of the current Academy. In the chapter on the Academy, Helen Valentine clarifies that Angelica Kauffman was admitted into the Academy because she was one of its founding members, and her ceiling paintings were contributed before society’s first major meeting open to a wider audience in 1780.

In Inken Maria Holubec’s chapter on technique includes revealing scans and different versions of paintings that are explained with the precise steps it took to create Kauffman’s compositions. In two compared paintings she uses “a layering technique in the flesh tones and garments and the alla prima technique in the background. The way the paint is textured during application is highly nuanced Some local areas feature impasto, flesh tones are established with opaque, evenly distributed paint layers, the garments are produced in thinner layers with visible brushwork, and in the background, the frottis technique allows the light ground of the painting to shine through” (33). To follow the directions in this passage an artist has to look up the terms applied to arrive at the precise strategies that can be mimicked to create a similar effect, style and both realistic and idealistic portrayal.

The majority of the book is a “Catalogue” of Kauffman’s art that includes some of her more obscure pieces; this “Catalogue” is described and annotated by Bettina Baumgartel, the main editor for the book. This “Catalogue” is divided by themes and periods, such as “Training in Italy”. This section explains that Kauffman was largely self-taught in Italy, as she learned from touring artists and intellectuals, before spontaneously becoming famous after creating a portrait of Johann J. Winckelmann, who taught her such “dictums” as: “noble simplicity and serene grandeur” (12).

Some collections by multiple authors end up as disjointed pieces, but these fit nicely together, as each other is contributing a part that they specialize in, and the resulting whole explains Kauffman and her artistry. This is a polished and thoroughly explained scholarly look at a neglected artist, so it deserves a spot on library shelves.

Ideas for Home Gardeners from the Seventeenth Century

Margaret Willes, The Domestic Herbal: Plants for the Home in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Bodleian Library: University of Oxford: University of Chicago Press, 2020). Hardcover. 224pp, 6.25X8.25”. 60 color plates. ISBN: 978-1-85124-513-0.


This set of reviews includes another book on eatable herbs, but that one covers rarer plants that mostly have to be purchased in pill-form to use them safely. Instead, this book considers practical herbs that were grown at home in the seventeenth century, so they can easily be grown at home today. Since we live at a time when going to the store for groceries can be deadly, this is the perfect moment to consider growing some food in the safety of our homes in case infection rates reach heights that prevent even basic grocery shopping all together.

The blurb explains the project: “In the seventeenth century most English households had gardens. These gardens were not merely ornamental; even the most elaborate and fashionable gardens had areas set aside for growing herbs, fruit, vegetables, and flowers for domestic use. Meanwhile, more modest households considered a functional garden to be a vital tool for the survival of the house and family. The seventeenth century was also a period of exciting introductions of plants from overseas, which could be used in all manner of recipes. Using manuscript household manuals, recipe books, and printed herbals,” it reviews “the productive garden… to show how these plants were used for cooking and brewing, medicines and cosmetics, in the making and care of clothes, and to keep rooms fresh, fragrant, and decorated. Recipes used by seventeenth-century households for preparations such as flower syrups, snail water, and wormwood ale are also included.” It includes “the herbs used for common tasks like dyeing and brewing, and those that held a particular cultural importance in the seventeenth century.” It is illustrated with images “from John Gerard’s herbal book of 1597 as well as prints, archival material, and manuscripts”.

One other difference between the other herbal book in this set and this one is that there is not a single mention of “marijuana” here. The section on medicinal uses explains that in “1700 there were only 136 doctors in London, serving a population of about 600,000”, and these patients were “supplied with medicines and ointments by about 400 apothecaries. A special Quack’s Act of 1543 had allowed specialists in “herbs, roots and waters to practice and use them as a gesture of Christian charity”. This sector was dominated by female healers, who were gradually discredited as “bawds and witches” by their male physician rivals who were allowed licenses, unlike the female healers. One of these female practitioners was Lady Grace Mildmay (1552?-), who studied a preceding Dr. Turner’s herbal book (1551-68), and inspired Mildmay’s garden that advertised plants such as Carduus benedictus for “treatment of the heart and arteries” (133-5).

This book is a history rather than a practical guide on the precise uses, planting strategies and the like for household herbs. It should be especially useful for those who have some experience in household gardening and are looking for some inspiration in plants that have previously been planted at home, even if today such home planting seems strange. This study is also of interest to those who want to understand more intimately the household lives of seventeenth-century Europeans (mostly Brits). Thus, this is a good addition mostly for academic libraries.

Islamic Book Design in Terms Few Will Understand

Cailah Jackson, Islamic Manuscripts of Late Medieval Rum, 1270s-1370s: Production, Patronage and the Arts of the Book (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Studies in Islamic Art: Edinburgh University Press, 2020). Hardcover. 306pp. ISBN: 978-1-4744-5148-2.


While working on the first modernized translation of William Percy’s (1570-1648) plays, I have realized more acutely how narrow our canon is of accessible texts from the first two millennia of human history. A few ancient Greco-Roman texts have been repeatedly quoted and re-edited and re-translated, but a sea of texts from other cultures and from the centuries between ancient Greece and Rome and the modern times have been neglected, despite the survival of these texts in the dustier corners of the archives. This is why it is exciting to see a study like this one that reproduces in color some of these manuscripts and offers explanations as to their meaning, significance and context. Islamic manuscripts from pre-Renaissance times are especially foreign to modern readers, as even recently written Islamic texts are not taught in literature or history classes in western institutions. 

Edinburgh describes this book: “The first in-depth survey of illuminated manuscripts from Anatolia before the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Meticulously analyses 15 Persian and Arabic manuscripts including the Mas̲navī of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (1278), the Qaramanid Qur’an (1314-15) and the Dīvān-i Kabīr of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (1368). Translates new and unpublished primary sources on the cultural history of the period, including manuscript colophons, dedications and endowment notes… Between the Mongol invasions in the mid-13th century and the rise of the Ottomans in the late 14th century, the Lands of Rūm were marked by instability and conflict. Despite this, a rich body of illuminated manuscripts from the period survives…” Works covered include “mirrors-for-princes, historical chronicles and Sufi works”. The history that describes these works “traces the development of calligraphy and illumination in late medieval Anatolia.” This “city of Konya, in particular, was a dynamic center of artistic activity and” the “local Turcoman princes, Seljuk bureaucrats and Mevlevi dervishes all played important roles in manuscript production and patronage.”

The book is divided by chronology and geography, as different centuries and cities like Konya and Rum are handled separately. The “Introduction” explains that most of the included manuscripts were produced in Konya, the former capital of Rum, or a region more commonly called the Byzantine Empire during these centuries; but “Rum” refers more broadly to “a region at the intersection of multiple languages, religions and cultures”. The front-matter provides three black-and-white maps of Anatolia across these centuries to show how the region changed; the names of countries, and cities jump and change significantly, so these were politically and militarily active periods. For example, the first map from 1275 lists the Byzantine Empire in at least two different regions on the Mediterranean and Black seas; one of these Byzantine labels disappears in the second map and is replaced by Garmiya Nids by 1330, and then in the third map this region is dominated by the Ottomans by 1370. The “Introduction” provides a dense background on these sources and histories that might be entirely foreign to readers without a background in this field.

The fourth chapter has a special focus on the central role patrons played in sponsoring a “community of artists” and how the works created under their patronage tended to propagandize these donors such as Sharaf al-Din Sati ibn Hasan (d. 1386), who is presented as the leading patron of writers. By sponsoring workshops of writers, rulers could glorify or advertise their achievements to rivals. It begins with a brief history of the rulers and military conflicts of this period. Then, the cultural life is reviewed, as Rum is presented as an intellectual hub, with sub-hubs of intellectuals of different religions (Christian and Muslim) in different cities. Hasan is credited as the author of one Persian text, Tarikh-i Chingiz Khan (1378), an adaptation of a world history by Rashid al-Din Hamadani, Jami’ al-Tavarikh (1306-11). The handwriting, design, cost of production, and stylistic comparisons of these texts with other texts presented across the book take precedence. It is troubling that transcriptions and translations are not provided even for the pages that are included in photographic reproductions. It is unclear how somebody can benefit from understanding their designs if the words in these books are not provided in English for close scrutiny. There are also several design images that are nearly identical, such as the Finispiece panels from “probably” Divan-I Kabir’s Erzincan (1368): these are the same flower and rope patterns with minor alterations without any text on them; there are a few other neighboring pages with similar designs as well. It is unlikely that there is a significant enough technical or symbolic distinction between these that necessitated the duplication of all of them (193). Other pages include extensive texts, such as Masnavi’s Erzincan (“probably”) from 1372, without an accompanying transcription or translation from this ancient version of the original language (199). The accompanying text instead repeats the same basic concepts regarding “gold interlacing split palmettes and knots with central star-like shapes”, and the “artistic community” or artist who might have created these, though no evidence to support these attributions exits (208). One of the only transcriptions is of the puffing line, “the most exalted vizier… the best of the Arab and Persian ministers” from Masnavi-i Valadi (1366) (210).

This book is unreadable for anybody other than a scholar who has already been studying this period and culture, and is familiar with these ancient languages. It is also unreadable because paragraphs repeat some of the same information over and over again, but do so in extremely dense paragraphs that are cluttered with the names of the few books, authors and patrons reviewed, which are mixed together in slightly different orders. This repetition makes it impossible for a casual reader to read this book cover-to-cover without extreme boredom. And searching for a given name of a text would lead to many small repetitions of the same ideas, instead of a section that might have explained the meaning, intention and other elements of a given text in enough depth to fully inform a reader on the subject. Thus, I do not recommend this book for purchase by libraries or casual scholars. It is only useful for those who are in this narrow field and who do not mind mining through extremely convoluted text to find the pieces of evidence and research that have not been previously made available to the English book market.  

The “Other” Translating the “Other” Under the Byline of “Another”

Tom McInally, George Strachan of the Mearns: Seventeenth-Century Orientalist (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press: Scottish Religious Cultures and Historical Perspectives, 2020). Hardcover. 204pp. ISBN: 978-1-4744-6622-6.


This is another promising project in its concept. It proposes a close biographical scrutiny of a Scottish Orientalist. I have read several studies of Scottish travelers and authors, or of British Orientalists who handled this subject with various degrees of bias, but to combine a Scot writing about another “other” is a curious melding.

“George Strachan (1572–1635), Scottish Humanist scholar, Orientalist and traveler. Draws on a wealth of newly discovered archival material to offer new insights into Strachan’s life and work. Explores Strachan’s key role in advancing European scholarly understanding of Islam and Arabic culture. The book explains the voyages that the Catholic exile took to many of the Catholic courts of Europe as a scholar and spy before turning eastwards to embark upon a 22-year journey around the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires. By becoming fully literate in Arabic and Farsi, he was able to gain a unique knowledge of Eastern societies. Strachan’s collection of Arabic and Farsi texts on Islam, philosophy and humanities, which he translated and sent to Europe for the advancement of European knowledge of Islam and Islamic societies, became Strachan’s real intellectual legacy.”

The translation of these foreign-language text was an enormous undertaking. There have been few translations into English of these types of ancient to Dark Ages Arabic and Farsi texts since the Renaissance, so Strachan and his contemporaries froze some of these texts and made them mainstream in Europe, while the texts they failed to adopt and translate remain obscure today. Thus, the study of what Strachan chose to translate and why he undertook this effort should help modern scholars to question why Strachan’s undertaking cannot be taken up again in modern times when translation of ancient languages is much easier with digital dictionaries and other helpful tools and sources that were inaccessible in these earlier centuries. One problem with the Renaissance translations is that my current research into the British Renaissance uncovered that it appears to be exclusively the production of six ghostwriters working collaboratively. The travelogues I tested from Raleigh and others have all matched these ghostwriters. This suggests that the “explorers” provided brief notes in their letters or journals that the ghostwriters padded with formulaic travel elements that described various regions with the same standard allusions to natives, trees, storms and other tropes of exciting travel narratives. The Workshop’s translation of the Old and New Testaments are so heavy-handed that both overuse the same “of the son” phrase that should logically only be common in the New Christian Bible. Thus, if Strachan claims to have learned several eastern languages and his translations still remain unchecked and the dominant translations of these archival eastern texts, then it is really time for somebody who is a native speaker of each of these eastern languages to check and re-translate these. It is possible that native speakers were used to assist the initial translations, but otherwise scholars have been putting too much trust in British exceptionalism in trusting that a Scot could learn enough of these languages and cultures having commenced on these journeys outside of his formative years. The “Introduction” explains that this “Scotsman” is “a shadowy figure”, as even somebody who wrote a biography searching for sources about him is confirming; this shadowiness is likely to indicate that “Strachan” was a pseudonym used by the Workshop. The author explains that without documentary proof or an autobiography, this and other biographies of “Strachan” have relied on gossip biographies from relative contemporaries, the books and other evidence he shipped from the east, and a few scattered letters attributed to him. “Chapter One” opens with the claims “Strachan” has made that he is of an aristocratic family with a lineage that connects him to James I of Scotland; the Strachans’ family home was Thornton Castle. Based on my findings regarding the Workshop, if this lineage is supportable with facts, it is likely that “Strachan” purchased ghostwriting services from the Workshop as part of his family’s attempts to acquire more lands, grants and favors from James I, after he took the English throne in 1603.

Given that I am close to concluding firmly that “Strachan” was a pseudonym for a Workshop member, I am going to stop this review here, or I am going to have to dive into a full examination of this topic, which would include a computational-linguistics analysis of the texts attributed to “Strachan”.

It is great to have this book on my digital shelf, and I probably will return to do a closer reading of this information at a later date. All those who are curious about the mercurial biographies of likely ghostwriting-contractors should similarly find a lot to ponder in these pages. And those who can ignore these suspicions and take this biography and history at face-value, should benefit from learning about a curious Scottish traveler who is attributed as the leading Renaissance translator of the East. 

The Anti-English Journal

English Journal: Volume 110, No. 1 (Champaign: National Council of Teachers of English, September 2020). 118pp.


Why does the English Journal, which is sold as NCTE’s “ideas for English language arts teachers in junior and senior high schools and middle schools”, have the pictures of cartoonish multi-ethnic children on its September 2020 cover? If the journal is designed for “teachers” and is published by the richly sponsored National Council of Teachers of English, the cover should really reflect the adult-level content that should be inside. It seems counter-mission to use simplistic language or art when this is a journal that: “presents information on the teaching of writing and reading, literature, and language, and includes information on how teachers are applying practices, research, and multimodal literacies in their classrooms.” There are very few journals that cover the practice of teaching, rather than focusing on the various fields of research within each of the fields that might be taught. Thus, this is one of the only places where a teacher might submit their innovative teaching approaches, but this cartoonish façade proves that in-depth self-reflection in the most affective teaching methodologies are not welcome in this mainstream or pop periodical.

The first page advertises a book on teaching “Shakespeare’s” drama that NCTE released in 2019: this just a page-long advertisement with the summary of this book. Several pages of submission guidelines follow. The section that draws my attention is “Books in Review”, something that I do regularly for this PLJ column. The call asks for submissions to address one of “two thematic questions: What delights and surprises us? And What are we reading that sparks an idea about teaching in different, delightful ways?” It further specifies that books that are about “professional development” are not invited. Basically, the editor is asking for flighty digressions on mainstream fiction or silly non-fiction that kind of mentions teaching, but is not about the “heavy” subject of teaching. This is a symptom of our anti-intellectual society. The very institutions that are funded to enforce high standards in public education, are advertising their anti-scholarship positions in their submission guidelines. Those who have deep ideas are asked to refrain from submitting them, to avoid any chance on suggesting to teachers that teaching methodology has to be arrived at through close research and contemplation, rather than by assuming kids are “visual learners” or that it’s okay to allow kids to remain semi-literate as they are rewarded merely for showing up to class. The drop in American K-12 grades across this past pandemic year has not been due to the inferiority of online teaching, but rather because American students frequently harass and intimidate teachers into giving them much higher grades than their deserve with threats of violence, with actual violence, or by other disruptive behaviors. If the teaching is done online, these threats are far less actionable, so teachers feel safer to give students grades they actually deserve, instead of inflating grades just to avoid being victimized. This is a topic that should be addressed in this 2020 issue of this journal.

Instead, this is a special issue on “Affirming LGBTQ+ Identities”, which includes several articles on trans/queer-inclusivity, as if the inclusion of all students is not a basic requirement in our Equal Rights laws. It’s illegal not to include gay or transexual students. Discussing their inclusion as an achievement or a success-story only stresses the fact that some teachers are excluding these students, and are managing to escape without repercussions. Meanwhile, the one book covered in the “Books in Review” section begins by stating that the book “made me rethink how teaching grammar relates to teaching writing, specifically, how using a few powerful grammatical structures can speed students’ development into stronger, more sophisticated writers” (98). If an English teacher thinks that grammar is not a sub-category of teaching writing, but rather a separate related subject, it is troubling that this teacher alone was invited to write a review for this major teaching journal. There are also no specific “few” “grammatical structures” that can expedited the “development” of students as writers; they have to learn all of the structures to understand the rudiments of what writing is before they can begin to write something.

I have been occasionally reading these types of popular industry magazines across the past couple of decades and they have always disturbed me for their anti-intellectual and frankly idiotic content. Am I alone in this general belief that human stupidity is growing at an unprecedented rate?


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