Saturday, August 31, 2019

Bonus Book! The Moon and Sixpence

August has a proud history of being a month when I read, and discuss, a lot of books. In 2012, during Book a Week, I posted about five books, in genres spanning science fiction, low fantasy, social history and moral philosophy. In 2015, I birthed the Bonus Book tradition by posting about The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. In a sense, Bonus Books are the remnant of Book a Week: a striving to read and discuss more than one book per month, while acknowledging that a weekly standard would be invasive into the rest of my life, or else result in shorter and/or worse blog posts.

This next book is not the book that was recommended to me, but it's close. In 2012, my master's advisor recommended Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. For those who have read it, or even picked it up off of a table or shelf, it's a very long book. Nonetheless, I acquired an e-book of it, and proceeded, over 2012-2013, to read approximately 365 pages. That was a third of the book.

The next best thing is the follow-up. After the success of Of Human Bondage in 1915, W. Somerset Maugham released The Moon and Sixpence in 1919. The Moon and Sixpence also sold well, and is widely regarded to be one of the classics of World War I-era English literature. Its subject matter, though, could not be farther from the war. With that, I leave you...


The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
Literature (1919 - 250 pp.)

In The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham's passive narrator follows the life of Charles Strickland, a stockbroker turned painter who flees his London family for Paris, Marseilles, and finally Tahiti. The narrator, who befriends Mrs. Strickland, is sent to Paris at her behest, where most of the novel takes place. Strickland is simultaneously a case study of the motivation to abandon a profession to become an artist, and an outlet for Maugham to pontificate on the place of art in 20th-century society. Now, 100 years after the book's release,* the book's questions about art are still impossible to answer, as they may be for eternity.

Strickland as a person inspires either indifference or hatred. Maugham uses the narrator's less than flattering impressions of Strickland as a constant source of witticisms, such as the initial thought that "[o]ne would admire his excellent qualities, but avoid his company. He was null." (30) In the first part of the book, Strickland acts as a proto-Ned Flanders. When Strickland leaves his wife and children in London to become a starving artist in Paris, the narrator switches toward a quasi-religious take: "You evidently don't believe in the maxim: Act so that every one of your actions is capable of being made into a universal rule." (65) As someone who has lived this way, it's stressful. Whether Strickland embodies that part of any of us who would want to live as an artist in Paris, or whether Strickland is simply an irresponsible, selfish man, is up to the reader to decide.

The other characters add colour without adding plot points. Dirk Stroeve is a Dutch artist who cooks wonderful spaghetti but, according to the narrator, cannot produce a painting better than the equivalent of a Harlequin romance novel. (95) Stroeve, like the narrator and Strickland, acts as a vehicle for Maugham's one-liners. His greatest line comes early, before Strickland has an affair with his wife, before every character vacates Paris. He asks the narrator the question every artist loathes hearing, and receives the answer that makes every impoverished night sound pointless:
'And how, then, will you recognize merit?' asked Dirk, red in the face with anger.
'There is only one way - success.' (96)

The value of art is a recurring theme in The Moon and Sixpence. Strickland produces paintings that are alternately called beautiful and horrible. Whether Strickland's art is praise-worthy is a constant point of contention between the narrator, Stroeve, and Strickland himself, who, unlike the other characters, abandoned a successful career. The narrator ponders about the consumers of art: "They call beautiful a dress, a dog, a sermon; and yet when they are face to face with Beauty cannot recognise it." (159) It is exhausting, yet it follows the life of every artist, that this is the ultimate audience. The narrator considers himself discerning, yet the reader never hears what the narrator actually paints, only his impression of Strickland's and Stroeve's paintings, and his frustration with the market for art. The last hundred years has not made the market for art any kinder.

Although the novel famously follows the life of Paul Gauguin, Strickland's last years in Tahiti are analogous to Francisco Goya's last years. When the narrator pieces together Strickland's life in Tahiti, he learns that Strickland, afflicted with leprosy, painted murals on the walls of his small house. According to Strickland's doctor, these murals were Strickland's masterpieces, and "brought to mind vague recollections of black magic". (239) Strickland spent the last year of his life blind but still gazing at these murals. Goya spent the last years of his life in a two-storey house outside Madrid where he, too, painted murals on the walls; these became his famous Black Paintings. Goya was deaf at the time he lived in the house, one of the reasons the house was called "Deaf Man's Villa". In The Moon and Sixpence, Strickland orders the house burnt to the ground upon his death, which his wife obliges to the doctor's dismay. Thankfully, Goya's Black Paintings suffered no such fate, and they hang on canvas in Madrid today.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 4

*Last month's book, F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, was released 99 years ago. This blog is on a century streak!

Monday, August 12, 2019

August's Book: 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed

1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric Cline
History/Archaeology (2014 - 179 pp.)

Eric Cline's 1177 BC takes the reader through one of the most fascinating periods in human existence, using a multi-disciplinary approach centred on history, archaeology and science. Looming figures like Ramses III and Nefertiti reign. The Trojan War is current news. The Hittites send ships across the Mediterranean while the Babylonians and Assyrians cling to past glory. This is the Late Bronze Age, which ended, at least approximately, in the year that lends itself to the title of this book.

The Sea Peoples are the starting point for Cline's analysis. Who were they? Where were they from? (Early guesses include Sardinia and Sicily, but they may have been from the north of Greece.) Why do they only appear in Egyptian records, primarily the diaries of Ramses III? (Cline is confident Ramses III did not fabricate their existence.) From there, Cline tells stories of war, massacre, drought, earthquakes and infighting - essentially all the reasons a country can collapse. For all the Sea Peoples' notoriety, it is notable just how little of 1177BC is about them, whomever they were. They could have been anything from proto-Viking-style raiders to refugees.

Each of the Late Bronze Age's great civilizations experienced some combination of causes for its collapse, depending on factors from political culture to terrain. One of the most notable examples is the Hittites, denizens of what is now Anatolia, whose arid inland location made them impervious to Sea Peoples but prone to famine. Cline's thesis is that the Late Bronze Age civilizations suffered a global collapse that cannot be attributed to any one cause: "...the end of the Bronze Age empires in the eastern Mediterranean was not the result of a single invasion or cause, but came about because of multiple incursions and manifold reasons." (174) This collapse is reminiscent, postulates Cline, of the precarious situation the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East find themselves in today.

Partially, the book is a literature review of the discipline, which is incredibly useful for the scholar who is not as immersed in the late Bronze Age as Cline. These sources span different countries, languages and disciplines. Just as curiously, they differ in their own origins, from the bull-in-a-china-shop digs of Heinrich Schliemann in the 19th century to Howard Carter's discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 to the latest publication from Princeton University Press. With the multitude of voices came just as many pet theories on what went wrong, including Colin Renfrew's "systems collapse" theory favoured by Cline. (161) Then there are the critical studies types: Christopher Monroe of Cornell University "...suggests that dependence, or perhaps overdependence, on capitalist enterprise, and specifically long-distance trade, may have contributed to the economic instability seen at the end of the Late Bronze Age." (150) This quotation arises in Cline's discussion of the collapse of Ugarit, a semi-major city-state in the Levant. As tempting an explanation as this is due to the effect collapsing civilizations can have on each other, it may be too much an effort to see ourselves in the past; historians generally agree that modern capitalism surfaced no earlier than Medieval Italy. Similarly, identifications of ancient droughts and famines with the modern term "climate change" (142) may be only partially illustrative.

One of the book's more notable sources of archaeological material is the Uluburun shipwreck. (75-79) The origin and destination of the ship are unclear, but may be Hittite, Cypriot, Egyptian or Mycenaean. The ship carried bronze armaments, ivory, and a (literal) ton of resin made from pistachio trees, "a fortune". That the ship appeared to carry so much military gear and also so many commercially valuable products suggests that it could have been "on a shopping trip", or that it could have been used to resupply an invasion force of some kind: writers of Ancient Greek-themed fantasy fiction should have a field day with Uluburun.

Where the evidence is less conclusive is for the events of Exodus. Best estimates place Exodus sometime in the 75 years preceding the Bronze Age Collapse, although some sources place it in the mid-1400s BC; Cline postulates that the Exodus occurred during the reign of Ramses II in approximately 1250BC, which is 200 years after Biblical stories imply. (91) Fascinatingly, Cline's 1250BC dating would make the Exodus contemporaneous with the Trojan War. Less convincing is Cline's attempts to record the possibility of forty years wandering in the desert, as Biblical timelines are notoriously mythological.* The events themselves, though, were certainly feasible. Where difficulty arises is in Cline's apt observation that the Exodus wouldn't leave many traces: "On the other hand, what might one expect to find as artifacts of Israelites camped in the desert for forty years more than three thousand years ago?" (93) The ten plagues that struck Egypt during this era face similar difficulty in tracking, considering, for example, the tendency for dead pests to decay.

If there is a protagonist in a book like this, it is Ramses III, Egyptian pharaoh from 1184-1153. He repelled the Sea Peoples, oversaw a multitude of governmental reforms, and, in case ancient lineage ever got boring, died in a murder conspiracy launched by his harem. During his lifetime, he oversaw one of the most aggressive conquest campaigns of the era; artifacts from his regime have been found at the destruction sites of Megiddo, (117) Lachish (120) and Hattusa (125). Troy's destruction is less certain, but Cline estimates that it was some combination of Sea Peoples, earthquake and fire, rather than the Mycenaeans of Trojan War fame. (127) All of these destructions hearken back to the Bronze Age Collapse itself, a series of events so much better recorded than the era directly afterward in part due to the detail of Ramses III's diaries. This may be an example of winners writing history, though, as the book's map of Late Bronze Age destruction sites includes cities in (what is now) Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria and Israel, but none whatsoever in Egypt. (110-111)

Cline explores Egypt's more glamorous side in his analysis of Nefertiti and King Tut. After the death of Akhenaten, who declared there to be two gods, one of them reserved exclusively for his worship, Egypt normalized somewhat. King Tut did not accomplish much as a monarch, becoming famous to 20th-century audiences simply because of the wealth of material that is known about his short, tragic life. The late Akhenaten's wife Nefertiti takes up a greater part of the story, being one of two likely queens involved in the Zannanza Affair, the largest diplomatic incident of its time. The Hittite king's son was promised the Egyptian throne in return for marrying an Egyptian queen; en route, he was ambushed and killed, sparking a protracted conflict. Cline declares it more likely King Tut's wife Ankhsenamen was the queen in question. (69-70) On a modern note, Nefertiti's bust has been in demand by the Egyptian government since 1924, but it remains in Berlin.** (62) Millennia after Nefertiti's death, governments are still in uproar over her.

A brief word on the Minoans and Mycenaeans is in order. Unlike the Egyptians and Israelites, who are immediately recognizable, the Minoans and Mycenaeans don't seem like the Athenians and Spartans of the Classical Age afterward, let alone the Greeks of today. Mycenaean civilization was almost completely obliterated, ushering in the Greek Dark Ages (c. 1200BC-800BC), a time when early ironworking sported "technical deficiencies" compared to its bronze ancestors. Its language, Linear B, was lost forever, resulting in a complete lack of written documents for the few centuries following the Bronze Age Collapse. It was only in 1952 that Michael Ventris definitively linked Linear B to Ancient Greek, so for much of the history of scholarship of Mycenae, it was almost purely an archaeological site. (39) By learning ancient languages, archaeologists can turn sites into history.

Take note, prospective readers of the Ancient world: this is not an easy read. It's relatively quick due to its reasonable page count, but many of the pages require 2-3 reads. The book also has a glossary and numerous chronologies for ease of reference. I feel privileged to be able to remember a quarter of the events that took place so long ago.

Ease of Reading: 1
Educational Content: 10

*On the plus side, Cline never attempts to record all 969 years of Methuselah's life.

**The bust was transported to Berlin in 1912 but was not exhibited to the public - or, apparently, the Egyptian government - until 1924.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Congratulations, Vince Carter!

Vince Carter is now set to begin his 22nd NBA season this fall, an all-time record.

As a Raptors fan, I haven't seen Carter suit up for my team in almost fifteen years. However, when he was a Raptor:

I attended his basketball camp in Toronto for two straight years. The first year, he dunked on me. The second year, he couldn't make it, so I got to meet Steve Nash. (Here's a video of Carter's Orlando camp.)

I saw him win the Slam Dunk Contest back when it felt much bigger than it does today.

I bought his jersey 70% off a few days after the Raptors traded him to the Nets on December 17, 2004, a day that lives on in basketball infamy. I figured the jersey would be a collector's item, and I'd frame it; I'm technically not wrong yet.

Image result for Vince Carter Raptors jersey
Similar to mine, although mine's Medium rather than 48. It's flattering to see my old jersey on I guess my old times going to the Air Canada Centre during the Carter Era are more vintage than I realize.
It's hard to believe there are incoming high school students who were never able to see Carter play in a Raptors uniform. "Vinsanity" is, to them, a historical term.

Although Carter hasn't averaged 20 points per game in over a decade, he averaged double-figures until he turned 38.

For those who missed Monday's announcement,

According to
Veteran forward Vince Carter has agreed to a deal to return to the Atlanta Hawks, according to a report from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. The 2019-20 season will mark Carter's 22nd, breaking a record shared by Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Willis and Robert Parish.

As Global News aptly points out, Half-Man, Half-Amazing will be the first player in NBA history to play in four decades ('90s, '00s, '10s, '20s).

All this said, there's still another year of Carter. This is far from a retirement announcement. While I don't have the Hawks in the playoffs, I'm big on their recent drafts of DeAndre Hunter and Cameron Reddish, both of whom will no doubt love playing with the first greatest Raptor.

Here's to what looks like one last season of VC: the player who after starting with such a flash, has lit his way to the unexpectedly longest career in NBA history.