• The Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price *** (of 4)

    Truly, everything you might ever want to know about Vikings and how they ruled with terrible violence is scrutinized. Scandinavia, Western Europe, and the British Isles from roughly 700 – 1,000 CE were all under Viking rule. What makes the book so compelling, however, is the degree to which the author explains the tools of modern archaeology. Long gone are simple descriptions of dates, rulers, eras, and material culture. In the olden days of archaeology, the past was filtered through strongly clouded lenses. Thusly, the Vikings have largely been described by Christian missionaries who were at first overwhelmed by pagan invaders and later rationalized their missionary zeal for conversion by re-imagining Viking perceptions of the world. Price puts on a pair of 21st century lenses.

    To take one example, Viking religion and belief in their gods was understood only in relation to Christianity, while Price argues rather effectively that even the concept of religion is a construct of monotheism. Price cross-references material objects found in archaeological digs, nordic sagas which mostly tell us what Vikings wanted to believe and fossilize about themselves, and a handful of written accounts left by traders, mostly Arab and a few Jewish who ventured north. The result is a description of life that does its best to describe Vikings as they saw themselves and to expand our vision of the past to include women, LGBTQIA, slaves, immigrants, emigrants, mealtime, daily work, child rearing, and so forth.

    Most remarkable is the degree to which the combination of story and artifacts make clear the extent to which even in the first millennia the Vikings were integrated into a global economy. There are Vikings and Viking things in Egypt, Iraq, India, and China. Walrus tusks, for example, and Viking swords are found along the Silk Road. Simultaneously, there are Vikings buried in silk.

  • The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff ** (of 4)

    Lantern_Bearers_coverIt is the middle of the fifth century, though you would have to know that on your own, as there is no indication in the book, and the Roman Empire is coming to an end.  For Rome the benefit of maintaining its long-term occupation of Great Britain is no longer worth the cost and it withdraws its forces.  Aquila, an 18-year-old Roman soldier, having lived his entire life in Britain deserts the Roman army only to be instantly subdued by the first invasion of  Saxons.  In this book, Saxons are brutish vikings, and despite the fact they are to become the forebears of the Anglo-Saxons of Great Britain, they are described as not much more than seafaring guerillas.  Written ostensibly as a children’s book in 1959, and winner of many awards, now more than half a century later, The Lantern Bearers can be difficult to penetrate.  It presumes mastery of mid-century British language interspersed with working knowledge of early British history.  As historical fiction runs, this one is not all bad, but by today’s standards the characters are thin and the plot more than a little contrived.

  • The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny **** (of 4)

    TBMSixteen monks live in an isolated Canadian monastery dedicated to Pure Gregorian Chant, God, and the obscure Saint Gilbert.  Until there are fifteen monks because the Priar has his skull crushed.  Inspector Gamache and his sidekick Jean-Guy Beauvoir are called to the northern waters and deep forests of Quebec to investigate their eighth mystery in this Louise Penny series.  It is Penny’s best.  Gamache and Beauvoir do waht they can to penetrate the silent, mysterious, centuries old abbey while the monks practice the same analysis on the inspectors of the Quebec Surete.  The monks love chants, the chants mesmerize all who hear them, and questions arise: why are some men called to become solitary monks; others find solace in solving murderous crimes; a few succumb to their inner demons with murder; and some men turn away from music and can only find inner peace through drugs.  This is a multi-layered novel that also performs what we so often want from a good mystery.  Yes, we have suspense, but we also learn something.  Here we are treated to the invention of music, the inner workings of a contemporary, if very remote monastery, and the simple beauty of Gregorian Chant.

  • In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh *** (of 4)

    egyptGhosh recounts the life of a Medieval Jewish trader, Ben Yiyu, who transported goods by ship from India to Egypt.  Evidence of his trader emerge on scraps of paper from the famed Egyptian geniza, a millennial trove of sacred papers in Cairo’s synagogue.  In order to fill in the gaps in Ben Yiyu’s life, Ghosh moves to a small village in Egypt, and then a second nearby village, to live among the Felaheen, farmers on the Nile’s banks.  It is the early 1990s and rural Egyptians are being pulled from the timeless habits of sowing seeds and tending cows to the trappings of refrigeration, TVs, and urban colleges for able youth.  So with the aid of the eyes and ears of a trained anthropologist, we find ourselves immersed in the daily rhythms of growing children, greedy landlords, temperamental imams, ambitious businessmen, and village elders serving endless rounds of mint tea.  It is not lost on anyone that frequently we are observing a Hindu researcher explaining to his Muslim hosts his search for information about a Jewish trader.  Because men and women in traditional Islamic culture lead such separate lives, you will need to read Guests of the Sheik, if you want to get an insider’s view of female lives.

  • Dissolution by C.J. Sansom ** (of 4)

    In the 1530s, Thomas Cromwell, working for a surly King Henry, is in battle with the Roman Catholic church.  The Pope’s monasteries have dominated rural life for centuries and his monks have grown fat and lazy with largesse, corruption, and sexual misconduct.  Henry, wanting to solidify power for the throne, and wrest it from Rome, seeks the dissolution of the monasteries.  Enter CJ Sansom with a fictional account of the debauchery and demise of one such house of worship.  Cromwell sends his chief commissioner, Shardlake, a hunchbacked, middle-aged lawyer to investigate a murder.  Only thing is the story moves as slowly as a cripple riding a horse through a snowstorm, which is more or less how the story begins.  Not only is the tale telling tedious, but almost none of the characters are likable.  Shardlake is a supercilious, self-righteous prig and everyone else is suspected of murderer.  On the up side I did learn a lot about life inside a medieval monastery, how the British reformation played out as only one more power play among elites, and how religious doctrine when taken to extremes can be so insidious.  No surprise there to learn that religious fanatics can become lunatics and that power corrupts.

  • Lost to the West by Lars Bronworth *** (of 5)

    OK, I did not know a thing about the Byzantine empire before I read this book and now not only do I have a sense of what was going on in Byzantium for 1200 years, but I also care.  Bronworth makes a compelling case that Byzantine leaders really conceived of themselves as the continuation of the Roman empire, a civilization most historians describe as vanishing in the mid 300s.  Moreover, Bronworth does a great job of calling out what matters in any particular century:  threatening advances by the Persians, church disputations over the importance of iconography (and the ensuing rise of Iconoclasts, literally “image breakers”), divisions between the Pope in distant Rome and the seat of power in Byzantium (Constantinople), when a King’s love life got in the way of governing, or the architectural and metaphorical significance of the magnificent Hagia Sofia.  There is probably no avoiding keeping track of a long list of Kings and hundreds of  wars necessary to keep an empire afloat for more than a millennium. Brownworth does a great job of moving quickly through the less important ones, but the campaigns and battles do get tedious so it takes more work than some readers will be willing to put in to stick with the empire for another couple of centuries.  A greater emphasis on the lives of ordinary citizens, and a little less focus on royalty, would have interested me more, but I didn’t write the book, I only read it.

  • Sacred Trash by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole ** (of 4)

    All the critics have raved about this recounting of a collection of a thousand years of written documents crammed in a synagogue vault in Cairo, Egypt.  Because Jews, the People of the Book, find written words to be sacred, many documents, such as Torahs when they are no longer kosher or viable, are buried, rather than thrown away.  A Geniza such as this one in a Cairo synagogue is a room to store discarded sacred documents.  This congregation considered nearly all of its written documents deserving of special treatment.  The Jews of this neighborhood in Cairo tossed together their ancient texts, wedding contracts, prayer books, parables, donor lists, receipts, and business documents creating a disorganized “battlefield of books.”  While the interesting thing to me would be what those documents revealed, the book is almost entirely about the people who discovered the Geniza, a topic of far less interest.

  • The Jewel Trader of Pegu by Jeffery Hantover ** (of 4)


    A Sixteenth Century Jew from the Venetian ghetto travels to the east Indies to trade for Jewels so we can compare the lives of Jews in anti-Semitic Europe (Abraham must wear a yellow cap when he leaves the ghetto), Buddhists in Pegu, and Christian traders.  I can’t put my finger on it, but the book lacks depth.  The characters are superficial, the love story between Abraham and the local rice farmer, Mya, can be seen a hundred miles off, and the religious comparisons feel heavy handed.  There are better books to read on Jews in the Middle Ages.  Start with A Journey to the End of the Millennia.

  • A Journey to the End of the Millennium by A.B. Yehoshua **** (of 4)

    The year is 999. European Christians are awaiting the return of the Messiah. Ben Attar a Jewish Moroccan trader packs a ship with his desert wares, his two wives, his Islamic business partner, and a Rabbi to confront his nephew in Paris. The nephew used to be the third member of the trading partnership, but his new Parisian wife cannot tolerate the notion her husband consorts with bigamist Jews and repudiates the partnership. It is Sephardic cosmopolitanism versus the Ashkenazim living in the swamps, ghettoes, and drizzly dark forests of Christian Europe. Ultimately the book wrestles the question of love: a nephew for his uncle and his new wife; Ben Attar for his two wives (is that really possible or practical in 999 or ever?). November 2008.

  • Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon ** (of 4)

    Subtitled “Jews with Swords,” Chabon writes an adventure story of a pair of Jewish adventurers in the year 995: one from Frankish Europe and another a black African.  They have wandered into the Caucuses only to find themselves enmeshed in battles among Azeris, Kyrghs, and Kazahks.  The story would be fun and funny if Chabon weren’t so in love with his own erudition. His paragraphs are as dense as ironwood and pages become as thick as nighttime forests.  Matters were made worse because I listened to a recorded version read by one of the worst performers ever to record a voice.  December 2008.