Friday, April 30, 2010

The Conquest of New Spain (Bernal Diaz del Castillo) (7.5/10)

Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a captain under the command of the conquistador, Hernan Cortez, presents a straightforward, if less than poetic, chronology of his adventures in the New World. Diaz was party to two failed expeditions from the Spanish beachhead on the island of Cuba to the Yucatan prior to the attempt of Cortez, and each was soundly defeated by Maya warriors at Cozumel and Champoton, respectively. Then, in March of 1519, Cortez mounted a larger expedition intending to establish trade with the Maya and perhaps establish a permanent settlement for Spain. Ambition and glory soon eclipse these plans as Cortez’s victories over small bands of Maya lead to gifts of gold and tales of the strength of far-off Montezuma lead to visions of conquest.

At bottom, Cortez is able to take advantage of a Maya civilization in disarray before the violent strength of the Aztecs and he deftly plays one group off against another and all against the Mexicans on his march toward Tenochtitlan. What stands out in stark detail throughout is the degree to which Cortez and his men relied upon their asserted “duty” to spread the word of God to the natives in order to justify their rape and pillage of two decidedly advanced (if not also violent) cultures.

Told in the style of a soldier, the account still makes for fascinating reading. Diaz is sometimes brutally honest (in admitting, for example, that the vast majority of Cortez’s soldiers joined his quest to bring native slaves back to their plantations on Cuba) and sometimes transparent (in repeatedly stating their intent to do God’s work in civilizing the natives, while raping and pillaging from morning until night), and he is always nauseatingly deferential to Cortez (who was supremely powerful in both Spain and New Spain at the time of the book’s publication), but the book remains a good read both for its historical significance and to remind us all that there were fully-functioning societies—no more barbarous than the nations of Europe—long before any white man set foot on what was known to them as the New World.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Salt: A World History (Mark Kurlansky) (9.0/10.0)

Who knew a book about a cooking condiment could be so exciting?

It’s hard to imagine a world where salt is more than just a food complement, but for most of human history no element on earth has played a more critical role in society’s evolution than sodium chloride. In the aptly named, Salt: A World History, author Mark Kurlansky paints a rich and fascinating portrait of salt’s pivotal role in shaping the world as we know it.

Gold? Diamonds? Oil? All are mere historical footnotes compared with the role salt has occupied over the past five millennia of the human journey. In fact, until quite recently, salt was the most valuable commodity on the planet. Wars were waged, civilizations collapsed, and empires rose and fell as people throughout the ages sought to acquire this once scarce mineral. Salt has since shed its glamour with only the poorest and most backward countries still in the salt mining business and damning medical evidence curtailing its consumption. But Kurlansky transports us to a time when salt was the cornerstone of life and the epitome of opulence.

Transcending both time and space this running historical narrative takes us from China in 5,000 BC to England in the 19th century as this swift-paced tale unfolds. From the key ingredient in early animal domestication and antiseptic in Egyptian times, to soldier pay in Roman times, to a food preservative during the European Age of Exploration, salt has been humanity’s companion and catalyst through the ages. It’s done more than just spice up our food, harden our arteries, and provided us with witty sayings (ever wonder where the expression “salt of the earth” came from?) and that long forgotten and intriguing past is compellingly revealed in this 449-page ode to NaCl.

Kurlansky has a rare talent for making the mundane fascinating (he’s also written mesmerizing biographical accounts of both the cod fish and the oyster) and his powers are at their greatest in this enthralling read. You’ll never look at a salt shaker the same way again.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Comedians (Graham Greene) (9.1/10)

As the tragedy in Haiti continues to unfold, Graham Greene's treatment of the corruption and terror of the regime of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and the Tonton Macoute seems newly relevant.  Obviously, the government has changed, though one still hears the cries of corruption from every corner, and the secret police are no longer the primary source of fear for a population that now battles daily for its very survival.  But the core message of The Comedians remains a pointed criticism not only of Haiti's failings, but of our own as mere bystanders (i.e., comedians) in observing a society descend into utter chaos.

Greene is perhaps the most consistently successful writer in the English language when it comes to crafting characters that are hopelessly conflicted within themselves.  The Comedians is no exception.  The American hotelier, Mr. Brown, is a bit player in the revolutionary movement and is occassionally persecuted by the Tonton Macoute, but declines to ever dedicate himself to the cause, instead preferring to focus on his budding affair with Martha Pineda, the wife of a South American Ambassador.  Of course, ultimately the affair is a mere distraction (as are the Smiths' efforts to establish a vegetarian center in a country that is literally falling to pieces about them) and the larger events of Haiti pass them by as they eventually decide one by one to leave the country to its madness.

The counterpoint to the indifference of Brown and Smith is Major Jones, who ultimately dedicates himself to the cause entirely, though he has little actual experience in such affairs.  Greene does not paint him as a hero, however, as his ultimate sacrifice leads not to a new dawn in Haiti, but only to the loss of his life and the flight of his routed troops over the border to the Dominican Republic.  Ultimately, The Comedians is a masterpiece of do-gooder desire and shameful impotence, and the reader walks away as conflicted as the characters that inhabit the story.