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AJ (Oxford)

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Languages of the Amazon (Oxford Linguistics)
Languages of the Amazon (Oxford Linguistics)
by Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £32.90

5.0 out of 5 stars Languages of the Amazon, 29 Aug. 2015
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This is an excellent survey by one of the world's foremost descriptive linguists. Aikhenvald sets out in clear, simple words the main themes in the languages of Amazonia, perhaps the most interesting and poorly-documented area in the world in terms of human languages (aside, perhaps, from New Guinea).

The book begins with a discussion of its scope - a description of the region; an overview of research; a precis of each major language family and the nature of the many isolates. Aikhenvald then proceeds through a range of important topics in Amazonian languages, including a lengthy section of the often-poorly-understood evidential systems of many Amazonian languages.

All of the necessary jargon is defined in simple terms, and I think a beginner or undergraduate linguist would have few problems understanding the main thrust of the text. It would provide an interesting areal adjunct to the drier study of a standard linguistics course, while also shining a light into one of the less-well-known regions of our planet in human terms.

Aikhenvald refuses to romanticise indigenous Amazonians and her introduction serves to humanise them and give some semblance of their history and culture, and I think this would be a necessary work on the shelf of any social scientist or archaeologist hoping to do work in lowland South America.

How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human
How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human
by Eduardo Kohn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £18.60

2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars How Forests... 'Think'?, 29 Aug. 2015
A new trend has emerged in anthropology: focusing on things other than people. That seems prima facie ridiculous - the word 'anthropology' contains 'anthropos', human, and the entire purpose and subject matter of the discipline is centred on humans and what they do. If you translate the title of this book into Chinese, it sounds absurd: towards a study of renlei (humans) beyond renlei. How could such a thing exist? Before reading this book, I hadn't seen any reason to move away from that: anthropology concentrated on understanding human beings, and that's that.

And after reading this book... Well, my mind wasn't changed at all. I'm not convinced that plants can think, and even if we accept that they could (again: they're plants), that would be an appropriate subject for a botanist to unravel, not an anthropologist. Humans are interesting creatures and they are different to other lifeforms for all intents and purposes. They are, at least, sufficiently different from dogs and plants that they should have academic departments devoted solely to their study. Let's be clear here, too, that requiring a separate department for human beings and studying them in different ways to those used for understanding plants in no way entails any kind of metaphysical anthropocentrism, which seems to be what these academics are afraid of.

I'm not really sure what anyone is thinking when they endorse this stuff. It has become commonplace to discuss the domestication of plants by humans in terms of what the plants felt about it and what the plants got out of it, ignoring the fact that humans wilfully killed multitudes of individual plants in their quest to create their tasty cultivars - ignoring, in fact, the obvious truth that it is humans who domesticate plants and not the other way around. I'm not sure where this trend came from, although it is presaged by the work of Bruno Latour, the less said about which the better.

If you're looking for new theoretical works that could be useful to socio-cultural anthropology, I would recommend steering clear of this one. John Searle's social ontology project at Berkeley is much more interesting and much more likely to help us understand the human world than this stuff. If, on the other hand, you're looking for ethnographic texts on South American societies that incorporate knowledge of the flora and fauna of the continent into the analysis, then Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff's oeuvre is a good place to begin - his 'The Forest Within', while not the best-written book in the world, contains a great deal of very useful information on exactly that.

There is some good stuff in this book about the communities in which Kohn worked, but as ever with books like this - intended to make the author's name through some audacious leap of dubious theory - it is mired in dreck. It's a pity.

Again, I can't fathom this move towards ignoring people. If you're bored of people and want to engage with the world of Amazonian flora, take a botany course and read the relevant literature. That seems like a better strategy than trying to convince academia and the general public of self-evident untruths.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 25, 2016 10:06 AM GMT

The Universe Within: A Scientific Adventure
The Universe Within: A Scientific Adventure
Price: £5.49

31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Universe Within, 20 Jan. 2013
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I read 'Your Inner Fish' when it came out a few years ago, and I was deeply impressed. Shubin is a good writer and an excellent scientist with the rare gift of being able to explain complicated ideas succinctly. The excellent material in that book (the roots of human anatomy in much earlier organisms), combined with the great writing, made for a fascinating read.

I had pretty high hopes for this book. Unfortunately, like much popular science, it is more biography than science. I know publishers believe that the ordinary person is more interested in people than cold, hard facts, but I'm sure this isn't the case.

The theme of 'The Universe Within' is that within every human life is a history stretching back to the beginning of the cosmos. This is conveyed incredibly well in the earlier chapters, when we're dealing with the origins of the universe itself and of the matter that constitutes everything that exists. Each of the atoms in the human body has a truly ancient and diverse history - iron, for instance, produced within the hearts of stars and fired out through supernovae. We get a few choice facts, like the fact that Jupiter's mass played a huge role in determining the mass of the earth and, consequently, its inhabitants. This part is exceptionally good science writing, and it seems to suggest that what we'll get in the rest of the book is a chronological account of how these atoms came together to become the things we know and love.

No such luck. Once the earth has formed, we get a few mini-biographies of the scientists who conducted research on the composition of the earth (almost inadvertently referring to their research), and then biographies of biologists who resolved some problems in biogeography, and then a few more biographies of specialists on human evolution. No subject thereafter is introduced without a biography, and so instead of seeing the world as made up of ever-more-complex structures resulting from the properties of the universe - which could have been a really breath-taking thing to recount - we see it couched within human lives. This makes it readable but, frankly, not of very lasting interest.

It is also much more superficial as it goes along, presumably because of the space taken up by biography. Shubin takes us up to the rise of 'civilisation' in the form of Natufian sedentism and agriculture in the early Holocene (introduced, of course, by a short biography of Dorothy Garrod), but this discussion is short, fails to explain why such things arose, and so on. I appreciate that this section of the book is beyond Shubin's expertise as a paleontologist, but why not choose an earlier stopping point in the Pleistocene?

The flaws in this book are probably due more to the publisher than the author and, as a whole, it is well-written and clear. Its first few chapters are incredibly interesting and worthwhile. It just promised so much more.

Mixtecs Zapotecs Chatinos: The Ancient Civilizations of Southern Mexico (Peoples of America)
Mixtecs Zapotecs Chatinos: The Ancient Civilizations of Southern Mexico (Peoples of America)
by Joyce
Edition: Paperback
Price: £31.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Spoiled, 12 Nov. 2012
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This is a generally good and up-to-date survey of the archaeology of pre-Columbian Oaxaca. It gives relatively detailed information about Mixtec, Zapotec, and Chatino life, and as it is one of the very few books on the market about these civilisations, it is a worthy addition to a library on the peoples of the Americas.

However, the introduction and much of the interpretation has been plastered with awful 'theory' from the dubious likes of Latour, de Certeau, Foucault, and Butler. The discussion of 'structure' and 'agency' is, in this context, utterly pointless, not to mention idiotic (as, of course, will any discussion be that relies on a cavalcade of idiots). The dissection of de Certeau's objections to Foucault adds absolutely nothing to the description and interpretation of Oaxacan archaeology, and serves only to foreground the author's pretensions. It seriously detracts from the book, and is an example of everything that is wrong with archaeology in the twenty-first century.

Either way, if you're looking for a discussion of Oaxacan archaeology that is as thorough, accurate, and sensible as Michael E. Smith's 'The Aztecs', then I'm afraid that you, like me, will have to have to wait. The information here is good and useful, and the book fills an important gap in the market, but it's poorly written, full of continental mumbo-jumbo, and has a theoretical chapter that fails to link to anything meaningful in the rest of the text. It's a shame. If you're a lay-person interested in these civilisations, avoid this book. If you're an academic, read it, raid the bibliography, and - if you can - write a better one.

The Hymns of Zoroaster: A New Translation of the Most Ancient Sacred Texts of Iran
The Hymns of Zoroaster: A New Translation of the Most Ancient Sacred Texts of Iran
by With Introduction and Commentary by M. L. West
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £56.00

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very readable translations, 8 Aug. 2012
These translations are an attempt by M. L. West to understand Zoroaster and his life, using the comparative Indo-European evidence to fill in blanks left empty by other translations. West is clear in his belief that Zoroaster was a real man who lived in western Afghanistan about 2600 years ago, and who composed a set of hymns (those translated in the book) while founding a religious sect using those orally-composed hymns as scripture. It was this sect and these hymns that became the dominant, but not sole, religion of Persia from the Achaemenids to the end of Sasanian rule in the wake of the Arab invasion, and it is fascinating to see how the cow-loving, compassionate, sort-of-monotheistic religion of Zoroaster became something else entirely as the needs of the Persians who had adopted it changed.

The translations of the yasnas, the hymns, are accompanied by notes by West explaining each verse and its relation both to the hymn as a whole and to the rest of Zoroaster's extant oeuvre. A Zoroastrian liturgical text is also translated. The introduction makes much of the precision of the oral mode of transmission, noting that the accuracy of the Zoroastrian priests who had memorised Zoroaster's hymns was greater than the fidelity of many manuscript traditions.

This translation is a perfect companion to the Rigveda, and I'd recommend reading each side-by-side.

Daily Life of the Aztecs
Daily Life of the Aztecs
by Jacques Soustelle
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential, 7 Aug. 2012
This is a book that has stuck in my mind for over a decade since first reading it. It's one of the essential, classic works on Mesoamerican civilization, and despite the passage of many years since its publication, it is still one of the most readable accounts of Aztec life. The focus of the book is on life in Tenochtitlan, supplemented with material on other Nahuatl-speaking cities (Texcoco, etc), and not on the archaeology or wider history of Mesoamerica. It is an intimate portrait rather than an overview, and as such it has lost little value over time. The details of the development of Aztec civilization as presented by Soustelle are broadly correct, and the understanding of everyday life can hardly have progressed over the decades, especially as most of our sources have remained the same (especially Bernardino de Sahagun). This works as an excellent primer on the Aztecs, and it would be a good choice for a world history or anthropology reading list. Reading this before embarking on Inga Clendinnen's or Caroline Dodds Pennock's more recent works will allow those latter to fill in the blanks and to flesh out the picture provided by Soustelle's easily-readable, erudite, fascinating book.

Soustelle was not simply interested in the Aztecs, and wrote several articles on non-Nahua topics, including Otomi life and society. This means that his account allows for the diversity of people who must have lived in and visited Tenochtitlan and the Valley of Mexico in pre-Cortesian times - and this really brings that world to life.

This is simply one of the best introductory works to any human civilization, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China
Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China
by A. C. Graham
Edition: Paperback
Price: £36.82

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Curate's Egg, 15 July 2012
This book is considered the classic introduction to ancient Chinese philosophy, and especially that developed in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (ca. 7th century - 3rd century BCE). Graham covers every philosophical school of significance, including a very comprehensive section on the Mohists and Logicians. It should be read by every serious student of Chinese philosophy, and perhaps of ancient philosophy generally. It is readable and engaging, and it treats most of the thinkers accurately and relatively comprehensively.

There are problems, however. The purpose of many sections of the book seems to be the resurrection of ancient Chinese philosophers as thinkers of relevance to today. This is occasionally slightly ludicrous. In the part on Confucius and 20th century Western philosophy, Graham echoes the arguments of Fingarette, who claimed that Confucius' famous doctrine of the Rectification of Names was, in fact, an ancient precursor of J. L. Austin's *performative utterance*, and not a fundamentally primitive, magical device attempting to create a peaceful realm through the charisma and magic of the king. This does not seem reasonable, unless one is willing to concede that *any* magical or ritual use of words in spells or mantras is a performative utterance of the same kind as Confucius' - in which case, magicians in eastern Indonesia are just as much precursors of Austin as Confucius is.

Graham should have laid out the facts, and stuck to less speculative interpretations of the thinkers. The interpretive aspect, and the attempt to revive the reputations of the philosophers, takes time away from other aspects that are more important. It seems odd to claim that Confucius' thought rested on a refutation of the is/ought problems thousands of years before the problem had been formulated - and claiming this takes pages away from a discussion of Confucius' (very contentious) biography.

The point of a lot of the book seems to be an attempt to show that other societies have produced different philosophy that is the equal to that found in Greece or Rome, and that our "Western" categories bind our thoughts and send them off in certain directions that Chinese categories do not. If the author had included etymologies, or a section on the pre-Springs-and-Autumns thought of China, and had put the thinkers in the context that Graham saw as all-important, then that purpose would have enhanced the work instead of turning it into the curate's egg that it is.

This is standard practice in books on Greek philosophy: showing the possible origins of the earliest ideas and going from there. Kirk and Raven, "The Presocratic Philosophers", includes an entire chapter devoted solely to going over the arguments about the Orphics and pre-Classical Greek religion before telling us about Thales. Graham, however, begins with Confucius, presumably in order to make room for speculation about how these thinkers relate to today - something that could be summed up in a single sentence, or even a footnote, for each. It makes the book feel a tiny bit amateurish, when it really shouldn't be. Its author was an academic long considered one of the English-speaking world's greatest sinologists. But it simply doesn't compare to even an average work on Greek philosophy.

Other minor problems include the use of Wade-Giles romanisation instead of Pinyin, and the lack of characters.

If you're interested in Chinese philosophy, then do read this book, but take the interpretations with a pinch of salt.

History of the Ancient Near East: Ca. 3000-323 BC  (Blackwell History of the Ancient World)
History of the Ancient Near East: Ca. 3000-323 BC (Blackwell History of the Ancient World)
by Van De Mieroop
Edition: Paperback
Price: £24.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A clear overview, 13 Jun. 2012
This is a perfect set text for students to introduce them to the history of this part of the world, and I'd recommend it to students and scholars in a variety of disciplines. It could be criticised for being "dry" - I see in reviews here and elsewhere that this criticism has been made. But I found it quite well-written, in the sense that van de Mieroop is more interested in the material than in the writing, and privileges substance over style.

And what material! The world's first city, the first nations, the first empires. The origin of the earliest writing system in the world. The coalescence of international diplomacy in the relations between the rulers of city states and territorial nations. The first forays into bureaucracy, rationing, international trade. I found the sections on the Ur III, or neo-Sumerian, era, particularly interesting, in that the level of documentation for that era was quite literally unprecedented. I was also surprised to learn that the consensus about Hammurabi's code was that it was not a legal text at all, but a statement of Hammurabi's justness and kingly ability.

There are few periods in the history of earth that are as innately fascinating as this, nor as well documented (largely due to the hard clay on which documents were written surviving over the millennia). The writing doesn't need to pop when the writer has material like that to work with, and I found it a very satisfying read.

I did have a couple of problems. Van de Mieroop says that there is no evidence that the Indo-Europeans are not native to Anatolia, echoing the Anatolian hypothesis, a minority position in Indo-European studies. In fact, there are lots of reasons to believe that the Hittites and other Indo-Europeans in Anatolia were invaders who derived from a proto-Indo-European-speaking population somewhere in the Pontic-Caspian steppe. VDM mentions the fact that some of the chariot terminology in manuals (e.g., Kikkuli's) is 'Indo-European', which is hardly surprising, as the manuals were written in Hittite, which is an Indo-European language. What he fails to mention, though, is that the language appears to be an Indic language and a close relative of Sanskrit, something known also from the names of rulers and cities in Mitanni.

That's quite a minor point, but it's still a flaw for a book published in the last decade.

If you're interested in the history of writing, literature, money, gift exchange, diplomacy, warfare, the state, urbanisation; in short, if you're a historian, anthropologist, or archaeologist, amateur or otherwise, then you must read this book, or find that one that covers the same issues as succinctly and clearly as this one. And if you're a student of the Near East, then this is one of many books that you should read. I'm also tempted to say that an understanding of this period in the history of humanity should be part of general knowledge about the earth. It is, I think, that important.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 19, 2015 10:24 PM GMT

Learn Kannada in a Month - Script & Roman (Indian Language Series)
Learn Kannada in a Month - Script & Roman (Indian Language Series)
by S. Sastry
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.95

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars It's the only Kannada book out there, seemingly..., 24 May 2012
I'm giving this book two stars because it's terrible, but it's the only book on Kannada that seems to exist. I bought a copy for a couple of quid a few years ago in Oxford, and it's one of the few language books I know that is less useful than the internet.

It's still slightly worthwhile. I really love south Indian scripts. I've studied the languages and cultures of Indonesia for a long time, and the epigraphy of western Indonesia mostly (but not entirely) derives from a script called Pallava (not to be confused with another, later, script of the same name, used in south India), which was also the source of the Kadamba script and thus also the Kannada script. I can read Pallava and transcribe it, and that has helped a lot in reading the Kannada script, which is, however, vastly more complicated. It's quite a beautiful script, and logical, and that makes me want to learn it. That's fortunate, as this book removes all transliteration fairly early on. If you haven't mastered the script and want to learn the vocabulary for speaking purposes, you're out of luck. That's a terrible decision on behalf of the editors. The book tells you how to write the letters, but not the order of the strokes. The print is so small, and of such poor quality, that making out what the letters are supposed to be even after you've spent all that time learning them properly is a real chore.

The English in the book is also fairly poor quality. Of course, it's Indian English, and you can expect some of the idiosyncracies of Indian dialect English to pop up (why wouldn't they?), but this goes beyond that. It needed a better copy editor. It needed a severe overhaul of practically everything in it.

It needed a much better structure. There are very few basic phrases learnt early on. Case endings are provided in the Kannada script, but the case in each instance is not explained well. Example sentences are given instead, poorly rendered in English.

In short, it's a really bad book, and if you manage to learn good Kannada from it, I'll be very surprised. I certainly haven't managed. This is a particularly strange thing in India. Kannada is spoken in the third largest city in India, and its most important technological hub. Even if English is used for most of these things, do the people there not take any pride in their language, or in promoting an awareness of it outside of the region? This isn't a minor language spoken on a little island with a few thousand speakers. I expect to find little in English on many Indonesian languages. But Kannada is one of the forty most spoken languages on earth, with an dual language English-fluent upper middle class, and this incomprehensible little book is really all it has to show for itself! Very odd situation indeed, and one that hopefully will be rectified in the future.

Suma Oriental of Tome Pires
Suma Oriental of Tome Pires
by Tome Pires
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tome Pires, 15 May 2012
This edition of Tome Pires' text may be found for free online if you are only looking for the material relating to the Malay archipelago (as I was). A website called "Sejarah Melayu" ('Malay history'; also the name of the Malay Annals) has this and many other texts by assorted travellers, historians, sailors, explorers, and vagabonds on PDF. If that's what you're looking for, then I recommend going to that site and reading it there, instead of paying the rather high price for this double edition.

To give some background, Tome Pires' "Suma Oriental" was not discovered until the 1940s, when it was brought to light by Armando Courtesao. It was not published before then, but was likely written around 1515/1516. Pires travelled extensively in the Indian Ocean and the Portuguese possessions in Indonesia, India, and Persia, and he wrote accounts that are thought to be reasonably accurate. He is probably the earliest European to have written about Java (given that Afonso d'Albuquerque's "Commentaries", composed by Afonso's son on the basis of the father's letters, date from the 1550s). The reliability of his information in this regard has been assessed by Rouffaer (working from an early Italian translation) and Noorduyn, who had access to more of Pires' material, and the articles that these men produced may be found online and without charge in the archives of the Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-, en Volkenkunde, a Dutch journal, if Pires' Javanese data interest you.

This particular edition suffers from many of the problems of facsimile printing, including the odd blotch, printing error, mis-spelling, and what have you, but it's perfectly readable, and it's good to have this useful work published in English. I apologise for focussing on the Malay material, but that is what brought me to the text in the first place, and is a large part of Pires' utility today.

Pires may have died in China in 1524 after the unfortunate early sixteenth century confrontations between China and Portugal. Portuguese conquerors were used to challenging weak, decadent, technologically-challenged, and divided civilizations, as d'Albuquerque found at Goa and Melaka, and as de Almeida had found when fighting the Venetian-Croatian-Gujarati-Egyptian-Ottoman confederation at the battle of Diu. China, a powerful and unified empire with a then-relatively strong army, navy, and economy, did not yield to Portuguese demands. It is possible that Pires died in a Chinese prison. It is also possible that he continued to live for at least another decade. It is moreover possible that we will never know. Regardless, this is a useful European source on Asia, and we should be glad to have it.

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