Posted in book review

‘Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World’, by Philip Matyszak

Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World by Philip Matyszak

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Forty years on our evolutionary scale amounts to a microsecond on our twenty-four biological clock. The millennium years, even Before Christ, feel so alienly anachronistic from our modern sensibility. The sense of time builds upon a fundamental element of consciousness as molded into a collective emotional experience as contemporary citizens of the world, just as the peoples of the misty pasts we tend to overlook felt the same for the civilizations before them. They were the titans of the pre-ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures. They, like the evening sun in its full declination, vanished in the hazy horizons of the time, still dazzling with its scarlet hues of radiating halo lingering on the remnants of human civilization to this date.

Forgotten peoples of the Ancient World is an anthology of the peoples whose feeling of permanence and importance in their time of the world betrayed their fates buried in the tires of cities beneath the earth and returned to the dust in the winds. To illustrate, Akkadians were the first builders of the empire who elevated the Akkadian language to the cultural and political lingua franca of the late Bronze Age. The Hyksos were outstanding charioteers, and their military prowess benefitted their Egyptian subjects. The Bactrian culture was a delightful mixture of Greek and Indian heritages, while the Vandals gave a final, fatal blow to the already destabilized Roman Empire. These peoples affected the celebrity civilizations we are automatically associated with the ancient civilizations. As to why the forgotten peoples became peripheral in our realm of ancient history, it is a question of the immanence of the supreme being in the universe. However, what is certain is that they were the torch-bearers of the first civilizations passing the torch of society they had ignited and encouraged to the next in a relay run of collective humanity.

The book is an excellent anthology of these ancient peoples in chronological order from east to west, showing how civilizations expanded from the cradle across the plains, mountains, deserts, and seas to the Isles of Britons. Divided into the eras marking the epochal changes of history, Matyszak succinctly elucidates the peoples of the misty past with his trademark witty ways of describing historical contexts. Moreover, the exciting historical trivia resurrects the eras in a phantasmagorical display of faces and places.

To conclude, the stories about the forgotten peoples attest to the objectivity of truth applicable to any time of history that that which is here was there, has been, and will be. All things must pass, and there is nothing new under the sun. Our sense of time and culture is a likeness of truth, a matrix-like reality, because our facility is rather instinctive than reasoning, rather physical than metaphysical. Who would have known that people 100 years later now would think our time and us in this time anachronistic and antediluvian? Herodotus felt the same when he arrived in Egypt and saw the wondrous pyramids in awe that the people before his generations had built. So did the Babylonian king, who dug and discovered artifacts from centuries ago. We have seen the hungry ocean gain advantage of the kingdom of the shore, and the firm soil win of the watery main, increase with loss and loss with increase. The forgotten peoples and we are time’s subjects, and time bids are gone.



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‘Leonardo and the Last Supper’ by Ross King

Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I still remember an excellent replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in a tapestry form decorated on the wall of our family living room when I was in elementary school. It was vast and expansive, nonetheless magnificent with the profoundness of the scene and the expressions on the faces in it – all wondrous and curious. Now a stream of time has flown, but the first impression of the art still has become one of the stars in my heart’s constellation. “Leonardo and the Last Supper” by Ross King has added to the star the brilliance with telling stories resurrecting the atmosphere of the time and vividness of the people surrounding the creation and the creator of the art.

The book is an alluring admixture of the biography of Leonardo da Vinci and the history of religion, politics, society, and culture; all skillfully swirled in Ross’s skillful narrative account of the person of da Vinci and his work of the Last Supper. The narrative becomes more intriguing as the chapters replete with entertainingly informative tidbits about personal accounts of people related to da Vinci and involved in creating the Last Supper are ascending. The story’s construction follows how Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English essayist and cultural critic, narrated the lives of poets in The Lives of the Poets, composed of a brief biography of a poet, personal accounts of the poet, and professional criticism of the works. The reader will first be acquainted with da Vinci’s biographic backgrounds: parents, a well-to-do lawyer father, and a middle eastern slave mother owned by his father’s household. Da Vinci’s struggle with spelling and even harder Latin education, his fabrication of engineering work experience in his curriculum vitae to obtain a military commissioned engineer post when coming to Milan from Tuscany, and so forth. All the information is a telltale factor contributing to da Vinci’s rise to celebrity in his and our times, which is refreshingly informative to learn that the perennial polymath also had feet of clay with colors of contrast.

Ross is a scholar with a novelist’s magic wand to wield his writing power, casting a spell on facts and knowledge with the beauty of language and ease of words, captivating readers of all life paths with gripping narrative skills. Another book of his “Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling,” which I enjoyed with great pleasure, is a helpful companion to this book because both Michelangelo and da Vinci were contemporaries, working under their aristocratic patronage the recalcitrant spirits of creative souls in reins of livelihood. It would also be an excellent reference to the social statuses of artists at that time. Contrary to our images of free-spirited artists, artists worked for their royal, ecclesiastical, and wealthy employers. Therefore, they were not free to choose subject matters for their works because their bosses wanted their power and fame to become works of art, as it were.

Upon closing the last page of Leonardo and the Last Supper, I reminded myself of Plato’s aesthetic definition. Art is a copy of Form, the perfect, pristine Beauty. It exists only in Idea because da Vinci was also a scientist and an engineer who found perfect beauty in perfect numerical and astronomical elements of nature. However, da Vinci’s Last Supper is filled with pathos, contrasts of human emotions, paradoxes of light and dark, good and evil, constantly changing, never-ending. Da Vinci was a humanist, finding beauty in nature as it is, regardless of perfect Form, the unattainable ideal that is out of touch. One thing right about Plato’s Aesthetics is that art is at best entertainment and at worst a dangerous illusion. That says it. Leonardo’s Last Supper is a soul’s entertainment, and so is Ross’s “Leonardo and the Last Supper.”



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‘The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes’, by Raoul McLaughlin – review

The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes: The Ancient World Economy & the Empires of Parthia, Central Asia & Han China by Raoul McLaughlin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


We are easily apt to presume that what we can do was an impossibility for those of different eras and places. Yet, what is happening now has happened before, although in various modes of Operandi. Global trade was also part of the ancient world’s economy that affected civilization’s fortune just as it is today in our time. This book shows the reader how ancient commerce happened thousands of years ago across a great distance of continents from the Far East to the West to propagate the prospects and prosperity of Europe and Asia’s far-flung regimes via silk routes through Central Asia.

The book is a fine organization of roads, resources, and governments involved in the ancient business world that surprise the modern reader that without airplanes, cars, and computers even, our forefathers of humankind found ways to travel a great distance for profits with flares for adventure. First, the term “Silk Roads” became famous by the 19th Century German geographer/explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, who surveyed the land routes crossing Central Asia from Afghanistan to China as used in the ancient Chinese and Roman texts. His ambitious plan was to construct a railway line across Central Asia that would have linked the German economy to Chinese markets. In ancient times, the Romans imported Chinese silk that came to Roman Syria from Iranian caravan routes crossing the Parthian Empire from Uzbekistan to Mesopotamia. The Romans’ Eastern business also included Indian valuables via the Persian Gulf that reached Parthian markets in Babylonia. An ancient text reveals that one Indian sailor from the wreckage of a trade ship from India around the Red Sea rescued by a Greek patrol ship from the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt around the Arabian Peninsula told the Greeks how to sail from India via season Monsoon winds.

The Romans had already known about India but not the Far East until 1 B.C., when silk began to reach the Mediterranean Sea through the Parthian Empire ruling in ancient Iran via caravan routes, aka the silk roads. It appears that commerce contacts and cultural interactions indeed existed. Modern archeologists discovered the graves of slave workers of textile production during the first century A.D. at Vagnari in southern Italy; one of them had a DNA of Far Eastern ancestry inherited from his mother. From Julius Caesar to Caligula, silk both ornamental and devotional in the panoply of magnificent Roman authority. The Romans made ceremonial silk curtains dyed in royal Tyrian purple as awnings in public ceremonies to protect spectators’ eyes from the fiery Mediterranean Sun’s glare. Silk also made beautiful garments and garlands presented to classical gods’ images and offered to the protective household deities. The reader would be pretty surprised to learn that the end of Cleopatra VIII and her paramour Mark Anthony was a purple augury of lucrative Roman trade from the eastern world. The accumulated Roman economy from Ptolemaic Egypt’s annexation and control over the eastern legions made the distribution of the Roman citizens’ funds possible. The empire gained direct sovereignty over the Red Sea shipping lanes into the Indian Ocean.

Reading this book confirmed my conviction that people would find the way to do what they needed. However, the younger generations of our time often make the anachronistic mistake of judging the previous generations as culturally retrogressed and hemmed in insular thoughts. It is only a different way of doing business, however slow or primitive it may seem. The ancient commerce contacts show that a country cannot stand alone and survive alone in the world if it refuses to measure the truth with the desire based on ethnocentrism growing into xenophobia. Human cultural progress is a collective enterprise. We live not in isolated islands but a global village.



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Aesop’s Fables

Aesop’s Fables by Aesop

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Last week, I reread Aesop’s Fables as an adult (that is, in terms of the ages on an evolutionary scale) in the 21st century and found them just as attractive as the first time reading it as a child. What a feeling! A freed slave once, Aesop’s natural wit combined with protean imagination made him able to investigate the essence of things, the nature of things, and attribute it to human nature’s characteristics, which ultimately brought him mortal death and immortal life. He was, in a way, a lot like Hephaestus, the god of fire, blacksmith, presider of the arts, and the only legal husband of the goddess of love and beauty Aphrodite who found him unbearably unromantically ugly.

Aesop’s Fables still scintillates in the brilliance of affabulation and humor that nicely relates to Nietzsche’s concept of immanence, the understanding of nature of all things; the Natural Law called conscience the supreme ruler of the universe has inculcated in us. The Fables are full of lessons that are akin to Jesus’s parables employed in his teaching of ethical codes for Christians in daily life. Of course, Aesop was of the Pre-Jesus era. Still, his stories bespeak something of human nature that had already existed, which is ongoing and will continue as long as humanity exists. The cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, and Christian values of faith, hope, and charity are all embroidered on the elliptical, imaginative, and impressive episodes of and among humans, animals, and even gods in this immemorial anthology of ancient wits. “The North Wind and the Sun” teaches about the force of gentility over the fear of intimidation. “The Woman and Her Hen” resonates with the timeless adage of everything in moderation. “The Milkmaid and her Milk Pail” corroborates the famous proverb that you should keep a bird in your hand than catch two in a bush. Treating others in a way you want in reciprocity illustrates the dinner scenes in “The Fox and the Stork.” And yes, I believe President Ted Roosevelt must have gotten inspiration from “The Astronomer” that you should look at the stars while keeping your foot firmly on the ground. And there are more stories to wow modern readers.

Aesop’s Fables are so practical and amusing that all of them collapse millenniums between his telling and our reading it. Besides, all of them read like Book of Proverbs or Psalms in free verse or prose version, which makes the reader unburdened with textual analysis to decipher meanings intentionally obfuscated by the high intellect the academic writers of the sort. The Fables are comprehensive to all, serving a purpose of providing tenets of reading; to bestow pleasure of the sense and satisfaction of reason in a way you do not consult a help of a dictionary or other lexical or literary reference. Reading the Fables gives a feeling of watching a TV cartoon, say Woody Woodpecker, which tells something about man’s nature wrapped in an animal hide. So do not fear reading Aesop’s Fables now. It is well worth spending your free time discovering the universality of the truth with that “A-Ha!” moment regardless of the subjectivity of time.



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The Wings of Writing – on reading Samuel Johnson’s essay on writing

Suppose a brownie or a leprechaun I happen to rescue from a Gargamel lookalike wizard insists what my three wishes are as a quid pro quo (depending upon how friendly the fairy is). In that case, I will say forthwith one of them is the Marvel of Writing, which I have lost somewhere in the course of life. I can turn myself into a great writer with the magical pyramid of power from a hodge-podge reality of indigested letters of reality as black as Persian Night.

Johnson’s essay on the role of the scholar evolves from Francis Bacon’s adage: “Reading makes a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” It rings a bell with the Nietzschean idea of Superhuman, superseding any mortals known for their erudition perennially enshrined in the history of human civilizations. A truly knowledgeable person I principally associate with a great writer can digest what he reads, explain it to others in facile terms, and substantialize it in writing, a mental Osmotic process that nourishes the mind and invigorates the body.

Although I agree with Bacon as Johnson did, I am more with their ancient Greek teacher Socrates. Socrates warned his pupils about regurgitating what they heard from his lectures without putting it in their own words. That was one reason why the great philosopher disapproved of writing practice that had just emerged in his time. Copying letters of others without understanding them on his own would stun the cognitive powers rather than promote a broader and deeper range of cognition. Reading was not as popular in Socrates’ time as in ours because it was at the beginning of the new intellectual dawn of Greek Civilization. So, Socrates was a thinker, neither a reader of texts, nor a writer of tablets. Does this make him less of his students Plato and Aristotle?

Does the amount of reading necessitate that of writing? Wouldn’t too many words go undigested inside and clog the pipes of thoughts when writing? For example, an ambitious amateur writer wants to write as if she were possessed by the spirit of Patience Worth, who transformed an ordinary homemaker into a brilliant writer. She adheres to a writer’s gospel of “Read a lot. Write a lot,” but it is easy to be said than to be done. The more she reads, the worse she writes. She wants to reason the perplexing reason with frustration and disappointment. She feels lost in the middle of midtown Manhattan where there are many streets and avenues but nowhere is her niche. Yet once she gets out of town, the state, the coast, her mind becomes clear, imbued with a fresh breath of inspiration that moves her hands on the keyboards automatically. Contrary to Johnson’s opinion that grandstands with all other established writers and academics, the amateur writer feels liberated from a siege of letters that intimidated her army of thoughts equipped in her design of armors and shields with her coat of arms sovereign and beautiful. Her reasoning power was buried under a chaos of indigested learning.

Although Johnson’s magnanimous advice of the equilibrium of reading, writing, and speaking on a writer’s continuum is respectful and worth reading, its reality is subject to the individual aptitudes of learning, ways of reasoning, and natural dispositions. One may write better because of reading more, while the other has the opposite consequence. A hermit – let us say more realistically, an introvert – is not always an incompetent, anti-social, sullen loner whose airy petulance barricades against others whose intelligence may seem intimidating to be dealt with. I think to write more is far better critical than to read more because writing is a sovereign act of expressing an individual mind and spirit, free from the comparison of the florid words of others with the writer’s own that would dispirit the vivacity of the creative spirit. To conclude, I thank Thomas Mann for his affirmative saying:” Solitude produces originality, bold and astonishing beauty, poetry.” Truth is truth to the end of reckoning. Then it is yet another truth of others, not necessarily yours.