July 28, 2008

Your micro-review roundup: 28 July 2008

(Because I make my way through so many books and movies for CCLaP, I regularly come across projects that are interesting enough unto themselves but that I simply don't have much to say about, or at least not enough to warrant an entire entry. I thought, then, that on occasional weekends I would gather up such "micro-reviews" and post them all in one large entry; they can also be found on CCLaP's main book and main movie archive pages.)

1421, by Gavin Menzies
1421: The Year China Discovered America (book; 2004)
By Gavin Menzies
Harper Perennial / ISBN: 978-0-06054-094-4

1434, by Gavin Menzies
1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance (book; 2008)
By Gavin Menzies
William Morrow / ISBN: 978-0-06149-217-4

We Westerners are of course familiar with the historical period known as the Renaissance; taking place between the 1300s and 1600s, it's the period when Europeans finally crawled out of their Dark-Age hole, rediscovered such ancient Greek concepts as science and philosophy, and started doing such things for the first time as sailing to the far corners of the planet. But did you know that China as well went through its own brief Renaissance at the same time, actually sailing around the planet on a regular basis a full 50 years before the Europeans started doing so, and that it was the maps and tips these Chinese gave to the Europeans that allowed the great figures from the "Age of Discovery" to make their voyages in the first place? Well, okay, so not everyone completely agrees with this theory; but it's the surprisingly strong one being espoused in the books 1421: The Year China Discovered America and 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance, both of them by a retired British naval commander named Gavin Menzies, a hobbyist scholar who just happened to start stumbling across more and more evidence during his studies to support the theory mentioned above. See, the whole thing is problematic, because the Chinese actually went through a major period of isolationism right after this brief period of world-traveling, specifically as a overreaction to Ghengis Khan and his Mongol Hoard Horde(!), which had actually held and ruled China all the way up to the beginning of the 1400s, or in other words the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in that country.

According to well-known history, the Chinese were so set on turning inwards at this point, they actually destroyed most of their own records regarding their globetrotting sea voyages from this period, just so no one else would be tempted to make such trips again; according to Menzies, he has slowly been putting the pieces back together through shreds of evidence in other countries, stone markers and rescued scrolls and the like, revealing that the Ming Dynasty's own period of global seafaring was actually much larger than any of us have ever realized, a systematic series of successes that would've virtually guaranteed China's eventual world domination, if they had simply stuck with it instead of embarking on a four-hundred-year period of profound isolationism like they actually did. It's certainly an intriguing theory, and Menzies does a pretty credible job backing it up; these are giant thick books we're talking about (over a thousand pages altogether), just chock-full of evidence both direct and circumstantial. Combine this, then, with Menzies' tech-savvy prose concerning the problems of map-drawing and chart-creating in that period, which is why certain documents from that period need to be widened or narrowed in Photoshop before they'll actually line up with real coastlines; it's just one of the dozens of little issues and problems with all this old evidence, he argues, that prevented it from being all added together by anyone else before now. (See, one of the things Menzies did while in the navy was actually sail the ancient Chinese routes talked about in these books; he therefore has an expert's understanding on what these routes must've been like for the original Chinese sailors, and can thus explain the inconsistencies in the maps and charts they left behind.)

These were great reads, books that really crank the gears of the mind into action (why, just the descriptions of a glittering, wealthy Southeast Asia in the 1400s is worth the cover price alone); I'll warn you, though, that these are denser books than the usual airport and beach reads, not exactly academic in complexity but definitely stories you need to pay careful attention to while reading. That said, they both get a big recommendation from me, especially for the growing amount of people in the western half of the world who are becoming more and more curious these days about the mysterious history of the eastern half.

Out of 10: 9.3

Liverpool 800, edited by John Belchem
Liverpool 800: Culture, Character and History (book; 2006)
Edited by John Belchem
Liverpool University Press / ISBN: 978-1-84931-035-5

Oh, and speaking of big giant thick books that will take you forever to pleasurably make your way through -- guess who just celebrated their 800th anniversary, and used the opportunity to commission a freaking doorstop of a book concerning the fact? That's right, it's the English city of Liverpool, which also happens to be this year's "European Capital of Culture" as designated by the EU. And man, what a job John Belcham and the team at Liverpool University Press have done with the resulting Liverpool 800: Culture, Character and History; it is a gorgeous book, an exhaustive book, a book that could literally take you months to get through if you decided to read every single word and scan every single image. This is one of those books to ask for as a holiday or birthday gift, one that's not only entertaining and intelligent but will look great on your coffee table; ah, I always love it when cities have an excuse to put together giant and beautiful surveys of their history like this.

Out of 10: 9.5

The Great Neighborhood Book, by Jay Walljasper
The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-it-Yourself Guide to Placemaking (book; 2007)
By Jay Walljasper
New Society Publishers / ISBN: 978-0-86571-581-3

Gentrification. There. I said it. It's an instantly controversial term, one that means profoundly different things to different people; for some it's ultimately positive, a process of cleaning up slummy inner-city neighborhoods and making them thriving family communities again, while for others it's ultimately negative, conjuring up images of smug middle-class white people taking over a neighborhood like a plague, kicking out the "nasty coloreds, homeless and other undesirables" to make way for their precious little bicycles and their precious little Starbucks and their precious little two-million-dollar condos on every g-dda-n corner. And let's just face facts; Jay Walljasper's The Great Neighborhood Book, a product of the non-profit Project for Public Spaces, is pretty much a detailed blueprint on how to successfully gentrify an urban area, and what you think of the book depends directly on what you think of gentrification in the first place. For those who are down with the cause, for example, this will be an imminently practical and inspirational little guide to urban revitalization (or "placemaking," as Walljasper delicately puts it); it is packed with small, concrete, physical plans for hundreds of neighborhood projects, everything from creating community spaces to increasing neighborhood safety, from getting local traffic to slow down to getting local businesses to move in. If, however, the very concept of gentrification makes you grind your teeth, you need to stay away from this book like it was poison; because to you that's what it actually is, a sanctimonious little manifesto about how freaking great it is to be a Caucasian with money and a white-collar job, and how of course that gives such people the right to tell everyone else how to live too. (After all, isn't that how it works in America? That the people with the most money are the ones most entitled to tell everyone else how to live their own lives?) I'm giving the book a fairly high score today, specifically in consideration for the people out there who will like it; I'm warning you right now, though, that you might not be one of those people, depending on how you look at the issue of middle-class-led city cleanup to begin with.

Out of 10: 8.4

The Caine Mutiny (1954)
The Caine Mutiny (movie; 1954)
Written by Stanley Roberts, from the novel by Herman Wouk
Directed by Edward Dmytryk

I've actually seen this movie several times over the decades now, but recently got a chance to catch it again on television (and hooray, by the way, to Chicago's new digital channel 26.3, for now rerunning a different classic movie in pristine digital format every evening). And man, I'm telling you, once again it didn't disappoint; a gripping wartime psychological drama from famed novelist Herman Wouk, this Americanized "Mutiny on the Bounty" is set during World War Two, on a clunky old battleship that was actually first created for World War One, full of a ragtag team of informal soldiers notoriously lax about military protocol, good for not much else than simply towing targets around in the water for the newer battleships to practice on. The salty old captain who is in charge when our story begins knows exactly how to handle such a crew in such a situation, purposely letting them be lax because he knows it helps them blow off steam; ah, but this is a lesson sorely not understood by the next captain brought in, the weasely little "company man" Philip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart, in one of the best performances of his career), who very quickly goes from "by the book" fastidiousness to full-blown paranoia and mental imbalance, slowly putting the crew in greater and greater danger because of his growing obsession over tucked-in shirts and stolen strawberries. It all comes to a head about two-thirds of the way in, during a nightmarish storm that threatens to sink the ship altogether; the last 45 minutes or so, then, is the actual mutiny court martial that takes place after the fact, which in reality is the contents of the original Broadway play that this movie was inspired by. (And by the way, if you ever get the chance, do make sure to catch the 1988 remake of just the court martial, starring an unbelievably good Eric Bogosian as the trial's brilliant and judgmental defense attorney.) Bogart's monologue at the end of this film still gives me chills, to tell you the truth, which I think is remarkable for a movie that is now 54 years old and counting; it's one I recommend everyone check out at least once, especially when you can just catch it randomly on television one evening like I did.

Out of 10: 8.9

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:31 PM, July 28, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Movies | Reviews |