Review of 1491 by Charles Mann

This is the first comprehensive look at the people of the pre-Columbian Americas. I found the style to be very accessible and entertaining, and the book full of new information for this reader. Mann’s work here is considered to be “revisionist” in that he challenges many of the orthodoxies of anthropology and history in regard to Indigenous people. As an outsider to these disciplines –he is a journalist– he is able to filter both the new findings and the old prejudices with a more objective eye than most inside observers.

Title: 1491
Author: Charles Mann,
ISBN:1400032059
Vintage

product

A book review of 1491

This is the first comprehensive look at the people of the pre-Columbian Americas. I found the style to be very accessible and entertaining, and the book full of new information for this reader. Mann’s work here is considered to be “revisionist” in that he challenges many of the orthodoxies of anthropology and history in regard to Indigenous people. As an outsider to these disciplines –he is a journalist– he is able to filter both the new findings and the old prejudices with a more objective eye than most inside observers.

Many of his assertions are startling, and draw on the very latest findings in archeology and dna research. He paints a picture of an early hemisphere teaming with cities and villages and civilizations that compete with the so-called “cradles of civilization” in their advancements and knowledge. He also draws horrifying conclusions about the rapidity with which old world diseases wiped out the indigenous populations.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in exploring American Indian people before contact with Europeans.

My rating: 4.0 stars
****

Review of places we blog in Portland

As I’ve said before, I owe a debt to coffee houses which provide free wi-fi and allow me to sit for hours, sometimes, and work on my website. In that spirit I dedicate this column to those establishments, and provide a small review of each.

The Gold Rush Coffee Bar is my favorite place to blog. It is small, and sometimes very busy, so it’s often not easy to find a table. Since my laptop doesn’t have a working battery (and I can’t afford a new one), I have to claim a table near an electrical outlet, making it even more difficult. Even with this drawback, the neighborhood atmosphere and friendly barristas make it worth while.

The Gold Rush is hip, but not hipster. The music is eclectic, to say the least. If you can’t stand going from Johnny Cash to the theme from The Addams Family in one sitting, you might not like it. The main thing it has going for it, for me, is that it’s my neighborhood place, and I can walk.

My rating: 4.5 stars
****1/2


place

This is a close second to The Gold Rush in my book. Not only are they a socially-conscious workers’ collective, they are super friendly, play great music, and have excellent food. I would go there much more often, if it wasn’t quite a trek across town.

My rating: 4.5 stars
****1/2


The Urban Grind on NE Oregon is very spacious, with lots of tables where you can sit with your laptop, and lots of extension cords. The atmosphere is friendly, the music is good. A great place to go and spend some time.

My rating: 4.0 stars
****


Costello’s is another spot I like because it is fairly near home. It has become very popular of late and only offers wi-fi during weekdays. They also shut it off for occasions such as the World Cup finals which are currently airing on their widescreen monitors.

My rating: 4.0 stars
****


place

Fuel Cafe
1452 NE Alberta St, Portland, 97211
Where I am writing this article. Very friendly little place in Alberta Arts district. Good coffee and sandwiches. Outdoor seating for those whose laptop batteries work!

My rating: 4.0 stars
****


Too many hipsters, but that’s downtown for you. Coffee is primo, but no food to speak of – just bagels and sweets. Music is usually fairly loud. But I go here sometimes for the variety, and it’s close to the max (did I say I don’t own a car, so have to use my legs and public transit?)

My rating: 3.5 stars
***1/2

So, that’s my mini-roundup of places I go to blog. Try them out.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus – A Review

productThe Fifth Head of Cerberus, by Gene Wolfe
When I walked into the Multnomah County Library a few days ago,I stumbled upon The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe’s first novel, published in 1972. It had been over ten years since I read a Gene Wolfe book, and I had somehow passed this one by, so I decided to give it a go. I wasn’t disappointed.

Those who know me, know that I am a s-f fan. I’m not particularly enamored of the hard science variety of sci-fi. Nor do I particularly like that very popular sub-genre which features swashbuckling, castles and medieval fiefdoms set on other planets. But mostly, I like any good writing which explores social, political or philosophical issues with depth. At the top of my list is Ursula K. LeGuin, followed by Philip K. Dick (what is it with those Ks?), Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Octavia Butler, and others, including Gene Wolfe. Wolfe is my exception to the ancient history on planet X type of sci-fi because his writing is just so damn good, so deep and complex, that I can’t put his books down once I’ve started.

This remarkable novel began as a novella in Damon Knight’s Orbit anthology. Consisting of three closely related stories, the book explores the subject of identity, particularly in terms of the relationship between colonialists and aboriginal people, and touches on post-colonial theory. I was particularly struck by how the stories resonated with my recent reading of Edouard Glissant and his ideas about “Creolism.”

The setting is the twin planets of St. Croix and Ste. Anne, settled by the French, and later defeated by English speaking Earthlings. St. Croix is the more settled planet which has an aristocratic society based on slavery. Ste. Anne is inhabited by small settlements, but still contains much wild and unexplored terrain. Officially, all the indigenous people have been subjugated on Ste. Anne. However, there is a theory, called Veil’s Hypothesis, which postulates that the original colonialist have been killed and taken over by aboriginal shapeshifters.

Wolfe’s books are never pat, or easy to understand, and require some work from the reader. Each story takes a different narrative approach, exploring the subtleties of identity from another perspective. This is not a light Twilight Zone type of cleverness, but an important novel with literary depth.

Highly recommended.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****

Brecht, St. Patrick, and genocide

This week was Genocide Awareness Week in Portland, and Friday evening Patty and I attended a cultural program at the Unitarian Church which included Zimbabwean dancers, Native American poet Ed Edmo, and a young African man who was one of the “lost boys of Sudan.” All very informative and entertaining.

Also on tap that evening was a performance of something purporting to be Brecht’s Mother Courage. It was so hacked up and awful that we had to leave about 20 minutes into the play. While I wouldn’t normally disparage someone with the courage to attempt something like this, especially for a free presentation, I can’t help but comment, for no other reason that the slim chance that I might save someone an awful embarrassment in the future.

Attempting to stage a Brecht play without understanding Brechtian methodology is the very first mistake. Professional actors and directors should also avoid this, and most do. But even if this play were a standard Jo Schmo creation, this performance would have been awful. Instead of fine Brecht-Weill songs, sung by the actors, we were subjected to awful recorded versions of 60s anti-war songs, played at entirely inappropriate times, while the actors merely stood on stage, evidently immobilize by the ponderous music.

The only thing I can praise is the makeup and costumes.

Now, the real reason I sat down to write this article is that at one point in the evenings program, someone, I think the MC, said something to the effect that we could now go out and celebrate St. Patricks Day with a heightened awareness of genocide.

Now most people don’t know a lot about this guy Patrick who was sainted by the Catholics, so let me fill you in. America’s favorite excuse for drinking beer and celebrating Irishness was made a saint for doing God’s work of driving the original indigenous culture (which we might metaphorically call “snakes”) out of Ireland. In the same way we whitewash the genocidal history of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Christopher Columbus, St. Paddy has been transformed into a cuddly little leprechaun with a pint in his hand. Will the ironies never cease?

Mirrormask – a review

Yesterday, I decided to take the afternoon off and go to a matinee. After some internal debate, I settled on Mirrormask. Even though this film had poor critical reviews, I had heard that the visuals were stunning and the people who have actually seen the movie liked it much better than the critics.

I wasn’t disappointed at all in the visuals. The 3D work was totally gorgeous and extremely creative. I also think that this little film had a lot more to offer than the critics gave it credit for. True, the narrative is weak. But it is not about narrative, it’s more like a lyrical, surrealist poem of a young girls adolescent awakening. The young woman, Helena, is a child of the circus, and desires nothing more than to run away and join real life. She fights with her mother, but when her mother becomes gravely ill and ends up in the hospital, Helena retreats into a fantasy world. There she discovers that an anti-Helena has taken over her real life and is intent on destroying everything. That’s the narrative in a nutshell.

The movies light jazz soundtrack, at times adds to the surreal ambience, but at other times is distracting. The acting too, is uneven, and sometimes I wished that Helena would drop the sweet smile when it seemed entirely inappropriate. This gives the movie a kindy of silly gooiness that you sometimes see in French films. Although Mirrormask is an English production, it very much feels French, occasionally reminding me of City of Lost Children.

One last thing, I was the only one in the theater who was over 30. So, maybe my tastes are just weird. With the caveats, I highly recommend this movie. Just keep in mind you are not there for the story. It’s the art.