Category Archives: book review

Birth of Underworld Train on 01/10/1863

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1863: A contemporary lithograph of a steam locomotive on the Metropolitan line near Paddington Station, courtesy of the Telegraph

As a commuter taking trains – that is, both overground and underground – to work, I deem it appropriate to pay a historical tribute to the opening of the world’s first subterranean railway in London, England on January 10th, 1863. The London Underground is the genesis of all the world’s trains running under the surface of earth, such as the New York City Subway, the Los Angeles Metro Rail, Paris Metro, the Tokyo Subway, et al, and for its perpetual legacies as one of the greatest inventions in human history that reconstructed social and substratum as well as cultural setting, the commencement of the Underground 156 years ago from today deserves of its deferential recognition and universal commemoration. Thus is my reason I write this post as a personal token of my appreciation for the use of the Metro on a daily basis.

When the idea of operating underground railways was proposed, the public and the critics alike decried it, demanded it should be offloaded, for they all shuddered at the thought of going under the surface of earth, which Dante indicated in Inferno as where Hell existed, or a pit fit for the condemned prisoners only. Those who had their disbelief on such daring idea of tunneling underground simply dismissed it as stark nonsense or one big hokum. Some even feared about a remote prospect of the tunnels collapsing due to the weight of the houses. And to some, it’s an express ride to Inferno, because the very thought of traveling underground by train seemed so preposterous, so blasphemous, so revolting that round trips should be used as a severe form of punishment for convicted criminals. Besides, like their modern counterparts grumbling about cacophonous environment of construction nearby, the entire procedural only instigated noisome puncturing of the equilibrium of locals.

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Commuters waving their hats in the air during a trial journey on the London Metropolitan Underground railway, courtesy of BBC.com

However, to the consternation of all those critics and public, the result of the Underground, the subterranean train of Hades,  came to fruition of its revolutionary speedy efficiency and cultural experience that was truly one-of-kind. In fact, it proved a triumph of determination and Victorian engineering feat, creating a dazzling combination of Arts and Science in terms of its technical prowess and the novelty of uniqueness in all things creative and venturesome. In fact, on January 10th, 1863, 38,000 people rode between Farringdon and Paddington stations. There were 3 compartment lit by gas, and each of the compartments was designed with care for passengers because efficiency and beauty could accompany one another, never rival.

When I will be on the Metro tomorrow morning, I will think of those Victorian London passengers on the Underground and will likely to thank Directors and Engineers of the London Metropolitan Railway Company for opening a new era of public transport that has upended our patterns of life and shapes of our perspectives on our everyday life.

Suspenseful and Delightful: ‘Life on Mars’ – review

b5e443781078a20c96d0659effa12d5ed7444463A good detective drama propounds you with an jolting twist in a story line with verve and gusto, making it an enjoyable and enlightening view. In this regard, Life on Mars is an ingeniously crafted TV drama, packed full of elliptically well-written scripts, impressively executed performance of a fine cast, and highly detailed periodical background setting that renders all the more convincing verisimilitude of each episode that resurrects the past in a mind blowing way.

The story evolves around the protagonist Sam (brilliantly played by John Simm), a clever, sharp-witted DCI with a heart who after a near-fatal car accident, finds himself awake in the year 1973, four years later he was born, as DI in the Manchester Police Department. The cause of the mysterious teleportation to the decade and the dilemma of Sam trapped in the past are the gist of this wonderfully thought-provoking drama which otherwise would be just another cop/crime drama with gratuitous hot car pursuits, bloodshed crime scenes, and mindless half-nude scenes. Sam constantly wants to return to what he believes to be the present or the reality, but the police department of the past needs his help. And that’s how the entire two seasons of the drama are unfolded.

Life on Mars is fun to watch with a delightful combination of 70s American cop drama appeal in appearance and scintillating synthesis of SCI-Fi and Psychological Suspense in content. It is a modern detective procedural worth the watching. You will have no guilty feeling of indulging in  the entire two seasons at one setting on your Kindle Fire because it will both entertain your senses and spur your mind on to think about your own reality.

‘A Summer of Hummingbirds’, by Christopher Benfey – review

A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson HeadeA Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade by Christopher E.G. Benfey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Greeks called it Ethos, and the Germans named it Zeitgeist. The world has always seen and experienced epoch-making changes of guiding ideals or beliefs that particularize ideology of an era under the cataclysmic reconstructions of social modus operendi, cultural trends, and memes. Something like that happened in the mid-late 19 century post-Civll War America, and it was something of American Renaissance. Emily Dickinson saw it as a flash of a hummingbird’s flight into a route of evanescence – of the antebellum social arrangements, hierarchies, puritanical morality, and intellectual formations, all of which seemed unseemly and even contumacious in a dawn of new era. So Christopher Benfey presents in this beautifully ethereal book his sensitive and illustrative script of Post-Civil War American literary scenes in which the likes of Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mark Twain are played on the same epochal screen, using the image of a hummingbird as a cross-cutting medium to interweave the lives of the American intelligentsia.

Benfey draws on his unparalleled knowledge of the American literary intelligentsia with a tender and intelligent contemplation on action and thought in the culturally sophisticated realms of East Coast America in the aftermath of the Civil War. For instance, he introduces the reader Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a passionate collector of expensive paraphernalia, whose Byronic-like charm and charisma led him to a famous scandal involving a love affair with the wife of his friend and parishioner. But Benfey sees the reverend as breath of a fresh air in the stuffy Protestant tenets of mortification of sensualism, which is only a friori natural to God-given human nature. In fact, Beecher substituted the drab and dreary Calvinist doctrines of predestination and infant damnation with the love of nature, the tender love, and mercy of God who created Beauty to be realized and appreciated, not to be despised and avoided. Besides, Charles Darwin’s Evolutionism manifested a perfection consistent with the Christian views: that all living things evolved into their most advanced forms meant the perfect beauty made in the Image of God. Indeed, such perceptions of God and his creations bespoke liberalization of Protestant moral codes that often yielded to perverted acts of unnaturally repressed desires. It was a leap into a new world of “fluidity and flux”.

All this seemed to conspire to reckon the moment of new arrival of intellectual zeitgeist with a divine revelation or a sibylline prophecy in this book, which is why it is deemed a contemporary nonfiction that reads like a classic fiction. Rich in detail and vivid in description that successfully resurrect the period, it is a riveting tale of the American literary legacy to be told with Benfey’s poetic use of simple language with a fascinating take on the felicitous subject worth the reading. The book embroiders on the lives of the American literary celebrities of the time by interconnecting their lives with the gossamer threads of contemporary providence or fortuity in one way or another, willed or unwilled, when a pre-Civil War mindset and post Civil War necessities still clashed. Nevertheless, Americans after the war came to see a new substratum of social order and diverse directions in all aspects of life, fittingly found in the figure of a hummingbird, an indigenous bird of the American continent, that is uniquely American. IT was also a time of Transit of Venus, as the new tone and sensibility for new era became dawned on the American social and cultural horizon. This book is a tessera elegantly and delicately put together by Benfey’s appealing narrative and approachable scholarship in a mosaic of American Art.

‘The Saga of the Pony Express’, by Joseph J. DiCerto – review

The Saga of the Pony ExpressThe Saga of the Pony Express by Joseph J. DiCerto

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

19th Century America was rapidly expanding her territory to the west with the growth of population. So the inception of a rapid mail service across the continent to deliver important business documents, letters of importance both private and governmental, and newspaper articles was inevitable. But it was a risky business to do because crossing the continents at that time meant a perilous adventure fraught with hostile Indians, highwaymen, treacherous desert weathers and temperature, and other unforeseeable elements indicating danger.

DiCerto tells the reader of historical and cultural backgrounds on which the birth of The Pony Express as a joint venture of William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddel was founded against the odds, when the United States as a young nation in the world started to mark herself as a burgeoning western country with booming commerce and increasing population on a vast land in comparison with the European counterparts. During its operation, the service reduced the time for messages to travel between the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts to about 10 days, which is remarkable even for today’s standard of mail transit time. And it is a notable achievement of the Phony Express that the message carrying President Lincoln’s Inaugural Address was delivered from St. Joseph, MO to Sacramento, CA by a legendary pony rider Bob Haslam in record 8 hours.  In this book, the author explains about how the Pony Express came to exist despite its short lifespan (April 3rd 1860 ~ October 1861) with the advent of the transcontinental telegraphic system.

The author also relates with his consummate story-telling skills venturesome tales of the fearless young riders of the Express and their work routine, work conditions, and their interesting anecdotes, all of which are based upon veritable document records with pictures. The book is never a bore with the scintillating discourse of the historical context smacking of wits and love of the subject matter by the author who, in fact, asserts that this book is his child out of a long labor of love and passion for this awesome historical enterprise in the American history.

‘The Sumerians: A History From Beginning to End’, by Hourly History – review

The Sumerians: A History From Beginning to End (Mesopotamia History Book 1)The Sumerians: A History From Beginning to End by Hourly History

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have always been interested in this mysterious ancient people who were the first inventor of the systematic written language in the history of human civilization. No eminent academics have ascertained where they were from. Subsequently, many a civilization claimed to be their descendants, ranging from the Caucasians to the Indians and even to the Far Easterners. But one thing is certain that the civilization of this enigmatic people merits itself as the cradle of civilization on the grounds of the following characteristics: (1) social structure based upon diverse economic sectors; (2) religious system concomitant with system of government; (3) advances in technology contributing to the cultural and scientific enterprises; and (4) written language, which is the bedrock of any known human civilization. They were the Sumerians. In fact, the Sumerian legacies are the sine qua non of a broad substratum of our modern cultural and social infrastructure. Notwithstanding such contributions, the Sumerians are still veiled in mysterious mist; no one knows for sure where these people came from and then vanished, leaving us with their brilliant legacies as their gifts to human history. Which makes the Sumerians all the more interesting and enigmatic as vividly and elegantly related in this book.

The Sumerian civilization burgeoned in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, also known as one of the River-Valley Civilizations, in modern day Iraq for almost 4,000 years. The staging of the Sumerians in history was akin to a dramatic entrance of a dark horse on stage. In around 3,300 B.C. a group of outsiders with “straight black heads” from nowhere, and they called themselves “Sumerians.” However shady and murky their backgrounds might be, the Sumerians were already smart and practical when they arrived at the land with their already fully developed written language and scientific knowledge, especially on irrigation systems. To elucidate, the priests oversaw the design and building of irrigation systems as something of civil engineers who also controlled the building of embankments to prevent flooding of agricultural land during rainy season in order to allow the rapid transport of produce from farms to cities. In fact, these two inventions are regarded as the most highly advanced and influential enterprises that betoken their cultural sophistication and engineering feats that are hardly inferior to those of ours in modern time. The irrigation resulted from a need of bringing water from the rivers to the fields, and the whole procedure was exclusively operated by the priests, who negotiated with farmers for water supply in exchange of a portion of the harvested crop.

With respect to the writing system, it is known as “the cuniform” engraved in the form of wedge-shaped markings made in wet clay using sharp reeds. And this the necessity of writing came from an accounting need of recording the amounts of agricultural produce. But the Sumerian writing was more than a language of commerce. It also blossomed into an art of literature modeled for other writings, such as famous biblical stories of the Garden of Eden, the Ark of Noah, and the Book of Job were all based upon Sumerian stories allegedly based upon true events that had occurred to them. Also, the words “saffron” and “cane” we use today are derived from the cuniform.

Since Sumerians also instituted farming of the land, instead of being a nomadic hunter-gather people, they established a village as a permanent settlement, which begot food surpluses, creating diverse social structures, including a compartmentalized class system and various types of work unrelated to farming. Sumerians also produced the first codes of law and the first written literature in the form of pieces of writing, such as the Sumerian proverbs as wittingly inserted in the beginning of every chapter of this book. For instance, on the subject of married life one Sumerian man uttered thus: “For his pleasure he got married. On his thinking it over, he got divorced.”Which also bespeaks a permission of divorce in Sumerian society. Sumerians treasured monogamous marriage in which a man gave gifts to the bride and her family upon agreement to a marriage contract. Besides, women were not confined in domestic restraints; they could work as scribes, weavers, and proprietress of businesses.

There were four strata of social class in Sumerian society as follows:

  • Nobles: Senior priests and warriors and their families who owned the most of the land. The nobles distinguished themselves by resplendent clothing made of fine fabrics and impressive jewelry with their shaved heads. They all lived in temples and palaces in the center of the cities where the irrigation systems and commercial centers were located.
  • Commoners: Traders, artisans, merchants, scribes, and craftsmen. In fact, scribes were held in high esteem because of their dual role as accountants. Commoners also owned a small portion of land.
  • Clients: Senior administrators and temple personnel working for nobles who lived in small houses in highly congested streets close to the city walls or outside cities on farms.
  • Slaves: Manual laborers who were prisoners of war or sold into slavery due to the inability to pay the debts. Also, fathers of free people could sell their children into slavery to raise the funds. (So Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge in which a man sold his wife and daughter in a public market had its legal foundation in the Sumerian practice.) However, slaves could merry free people and purchase manumission themselves.

The emergence of the above-referenced class system indicates that the Sumerian economic infrastructure was constituted by a variety of business sectors developed in the cities with food surpluses, highly advanced irrigation systems to transport water from the rivers to the farms, and solid military prowess endowed by professional solders and inventions of steel chariots used at war for the first time in history.

In conclusion, the Sumerian contributions to our modern civilization as a collective enterprise are deeply entrenched in many aspects of our life, whether or not we know or even care, because well, let’s face it, history is written by a winner, a victor, a survivor who lives to tell beyond the boundaries of time and space. In this regard, the Sumerians might not be ostentatious de riguer per se victors because just like their mysterious origin, their demise as a sovereign entity with their direct descendants to whom their cultural artifacts and legacies stunned the proliferation of its heritage. Nonetheless, the Sumerian civilization bestrides one of the world’s most significant ancient civilizations that left indelible marks on our cumulative cultural progress as elliptically put by the following Sumerian proverb: “What comes out from the heart of the tree is known by the heart of the tree.” You see, the Sumerians were indeed brilliant. Nothing could be further from the truth.