Monday, 12 November 2018

Review: The Singing Mountaineers: Songs and Tales of the Quechua People by José María Arguedas & Ruth Stephan

The Singing Mountaineers is a book about the songs and folk tales told by Quechua speakers in South America. Quechua being the language that the Inca empire required all its subjects to learn, this means people living in the Andean region, from Ecuador to Bolivia, but primarily in Peru.

Published in 1957, the book is sadly of its time. Sentences like "Since the Andean people have always been a singing, a poetically disposed, race, the songs have their own proud past." or "Their race is noted for its ancient skill in catching and taming animals instead of killing them, and birds and animals exist as possible friends, as integral living relations in the Indian world." caused me to cringe. There is useful information in the introduction, in between all the patronising, vaguely racist, noble-savage bullshit, but you may find your teeth grating as you read it: mine certainly did.

Fortunately, once the lengthy introduction is over, the songs and tales themselves are more interesting. Unfortunately, about half the length of the book is the introduction, which is a wasted opportunity. The most interesting thing of all, the folk tales, is frustratingly short. Of the 60 or so tales that had been recorded by the author in Spanish, only 17 (if I remember correctly) were included in the English book, much to my chagrin.

The tales were collected in the 20th century. Therefore, they are heavily influenced by Catholicism and the legacy of the conquistadors. Nonetheless, there are glimpses of a different culture, and a few tales seem like they could have been told, with relatively few changes, back in Inca times...

As a resource, The Singing Mountaineers is useful: English translations of Quechua folk tales and songs are not that easy to find. As a book, it's lopsided, with an overly long introduction that is filled with outdated thinking and attitudes, and not enough collected tales and songs. Nonetheless, it's worth reading, for any glimpse of authentic Quechua culture in English is too rare to ignore.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Review: America's First Cuisines by Sophie D. Coe

America's First Cuisines is a unique book: it is an accessible account of what the peoples living in the Americas used to eat, before the conquest of the continent by Europeans.

Food history is not a topic I knew much (ahem, anything) about before I read this book. I had started to get an inkling that huge swathes of the foods I'm used to are not actually traditional European fare, after reading books about South American archaeology. Among other things, they mentioned various plants that had been domesticated in the Americas - and which were unknown in Europe and Asia until the 'discovery' of America by Columbus.

Everyone knows about the potato, right? As a German, it's one of those things that surprise you when you are a small child, that this most German of vegetables didn't exist in Germany until comparatively recently. Maybe Portuguese people feel the same way about maize. Maybe Italians feel the same way about tomatoes. Maybe Balkan people feel the same way about aubergines. Maybe Asian people feel the same way about chile peppers. The variety of fruit, vegetable, roots, tubers, and plant-based domesticated crops that were introduced to Eurasia and Africa after the conquest is mindboggling. There may well be no single world cuisine that was not enhanced significantly as a direct result of the conquest. (Of course, some things travelled the other way: bananas, onions, garlic, milk, cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, etc.)

So America's First Cuisines was bound to be interesting. The book lays its ground work by discussing what had been domesticated and where, mentioning almost in passing that there may have been many more domesticated crops that are lost now, after the disasters that followed America's discovery (the waves of disease that killed up to 90% of all the continent's inhabitants), and because the Europeans were primarily interested in crops that they could easily map onto European equivalents. So maize was an instant hit ("the American grain!"), but potatoes took much longer to gain traction in Europe, and quinoa was of little interest until recently, when it became a fad. 

Much of the early part of the book deals with basic foodstuffs / ingredients, because that is what archaeological and genetic evidence can prove. Once the basics are established, the book fastforwards to the conquest, because it is then that written records start being generated by conquistadors, describing the meals and dishes they are served by the different cultures. So, first the ingredients, cultivated and made available over millennia, and then the snapshot of the early 1500s, and a glimpse of what was being made out of those ingredients.

It's not just an interesting and educational book. For me, it was also full of surprises. There are one or two instances when America's First Cuisines debunks other theories that are still quoted by historians today - generally theories that were originally based on pure conjecture, but which became entrenched simply because no one bothered to investigate or look for evidence. (Much like the theory that Komodo dragons have such a vile mouth flora that it is the bacteria killing their prey once bitten. This was common knowledge until just a few years ago, when someone checked and found that actually, Komodo dragons are venomous, and inject venom into the prey through their teeth, like snakes. Similarly, many historians quote a "three sisters" theory about crops in Central America, which claims that a convenient combination of three plants growing together in a field would provide all the nourishment a people need, and that the "three sisters" were almost worshipped for it. Turns out they were not worshipped, and while they can grow together neatly, there is little evidence that any people relied on that combination to the extent historians now claim, and in fact, the diet produced by such a reliance would be insufficient in protein for pregnant women and possibly for men). Basically, Sophie D Coe has done her homework properly even when others haven't and her book shows it.

America's First Cuisines is a great book. It illuminates an aspect of history and knowledge that most people are probably quite ignorant of. It does so accessibly and reliably. The one thing I would have liked to see included is some recipes, but I understand why there are none: it would have been conjecture, and the book is strictly factual. Still, even without any recipes, this is a book worth reading.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review: The Elephant and Macaw Banner by Christopher Kastensmidt

The Elephant and Macaw Banner is a historical fantasy adventure novel, set in 16th century Brasil. There, Dutch adventurer Gerard van Oost and Oludara, a former Yoruban warrior and former slave, have a series of adventures fighting monsters and entangling with local folkloric characters and gods. They join a native tribe of cannibals, they work for colonial governments, and take part in the odd skirmish or two.

It's fairly obvious that the book did not start out as one novel, but is a collection of a series of novelettes and novellas (with, apparently, some additional material). Each chapter is a self-contained adventure / quest, usually bookended by vignettes featuring a wild animal that encounters the heroes of the story. There is some development over time, but very little in terms of overarching plotlines. Perhaps Gerard's problems with his nemesis Antonio (a competing bannerman) or Oludara's desire to return to Africa to continue his family line offer some through-lines, but they're very secondary to whichever quest the adventurers are currently caught up in. The final chapter ties up the narrative, but is also the least enjoyable part of the book. There are other chapters of dubious enjoyment (I got quite cross at one which was rich in prophecy and "Gerard is chosen" to be the chosen one who must choose who shall rule the future empire of Brasil, yada yada yada), but for the most part, the adventures are entertaining, swashbuckling romps.

The novel is quite similar in tone and structure to Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, which is also a book about two heroes adventuring together. What sets this novel apart is the setting (colonial era Brasil) and the atmosphere (jungles, monsters, cannibals, sorcerers, and forest spirits), which are a refreshing change from vaguely-Nordic & pseudo-European settings. The book doesn't take itself too seriously, so I was never sure whether any particular creature / element was based on actual mythology and history, or made up by the author.

Our heroes are pleasant enough, if not quite as iconic or charismatic as Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Oludara is clearly the brains and the muscles of this outfit, while Gerard is a slightly pompous ass a lot of the time, constantly harping on about his Protestantism and Christianity. In fact, Gerard's main contribution is to free Oludara at the start and make him an equal partner: Gerard supplies their company's autonomy, ability to have agency, and respect in a colonial and racist era, while Oludara supplies everything else. Alas, this is never milked for humorous purposes: the setup might slightly resemble Jeeves and Wooster, but the tone does not. The narration really believes the two are equal partners. 

The Elephant and Macaw Banner is a pleasant adventure romp. Not too taxing, with an intriguingly different setting. The episodes are somewhat too self-contained, but they're engaging enough that I was never too tempted to give up on the book entirely. There are a few sequences that let down the book, but on the whole, it's worth a read.

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday, 9 November 2018

Review: The Dreaming Stars by Tim Pratt

The Dreaming Stars is the sequel to The Wrong Stars, picking up more or less where the previous novel finished. The crew of the White Raven, along with the people they have rescued from the machines left behind by evil alien gods, are loitering around inside an old mining asteroid they've taken from space pirates by ruthlessly murdering the lot. Everyone's feeling a bit bored, but snarky and bantering away and being cute at each other. They're waiting to find out whether they can resume adventuring as themselves, or whether they have to make up new identities and start new lives somewhere.

For a long time, very little happens but people talking with each other about their relationships, and flirting, and bantering and then talking about their relationships some more.

Eventually, they go out to find the captain's ex, and to get a job, so they can then talk about their relationships en route, followed by some more talks about relationships. (Not that there is anything particularly interesting going on in the relationships. It's just people flailing "I <3 U! Let's have sex! We had sex! I <3 U!  U R HOT! I AM CUTE!" at each other ad infinitum.)

As you might guess from the plot summary so far, The Dreaming Stars is very different from its predecessor. Sure, everyone is still chattering away like a somewhat more murdery Joss Whedon ensemble cast, but there is very little plot movement in the first half of the book. And in the second half? The plot gets very very silly, in an unintentional and unfunny sort of way.

As hammy as the first novel was, it kept moving. This one is hammy, clunky and filled with mindbogglingly annoying rehashes of the first book. Exposition done poorly is one thing, but when the book starts to rehash "remember how we once had a metaphor-rich conversation about ants?", it's not just important plot points that are being given the clunky exposition treatment, it's half the previous novel.

It's still readable because it's very simple, much like Twilight or the newspaper The Sun, but The Dreaming Stars has run out of steam before it began. With a plot that barely moves and, once kicked into gear, turns daft, the poor writing becomes the coup de grace that sinks the ship. The first book might have been fun, but it seems the series is not worth persevering with.

Rating: 2.5/5

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Review: The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt

The Wrong Stars is a lightweight, fun space opera novel in the tradition of Firefly and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Our heroes this time around are freelance security operatives / salvagers operating a small ship around Neptune. They stumble upon an ancient "Goldilocks ship" - a ship sent out with a frozen crew five hundred years ago during mankind's desparate attempts to find a future on planets other than the one they'd mismanaged into ruin. One crew member is still inside, and, waking up, yells a warning about aliens and first contact, before fainting again. As mankind has been in contact with aliens for about 300 years by that point, the crew are not unduly alarmed - until they notice strange data in the ship's computer, and a history that cannot be true... or can it?

The Wrong Stars starts out briskly and keeps up a good pace. Unlike Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, there is actually a plot moving the story forward, and not just a sightseeing expedition around the galaxy by a bunch of cheerful space truckers. This makes it a more brisk read. However, just like Long Way, the novel is seemingly written with a wish list of 'representation' topics in mind. So we get gay characters, bi characters, trans characters, asexual characters, people who have pronoun preferences, people into drug filled religious sex orgies, people into casual sex... the only thing that does not exist in the novel is heterosexual characters or people in a monogamous relationship. Amusingly, the novel goes so far out of its way trying to be non-traditional that it tries to define people who are sexually attracted to those they fall in love with as "demisexual". The key idea appears to be that there is no "normal" when it comes to sex and gender, and that there is a spectrum and infinite variety, and that therefore there should be an infinite variety of labels none of which can be allowed to imply that they are just "normal", etc. etc. etc.

The Wrong Stars is not the work of a subtle writer. It wears its thematic heart on its sleeve, as you might guess from the last paragraph. The text also handles romance with all the subtlety of E.L. James or Stephanie Meyer.

As for the cast, the characters are wisecracking smartasses who have some external differences, but are all more or less the same underneath: slightly witty, friendly smartasses. In fact, the group dynamic is so consistent that on one or two occasions, other characters who are met for the first time instantly join in the bantering, with zero transition period or getting-to-know-each-other. However, it's a bit baffling that a novel so fluffy in those matters is also quite happy to treat deadly force and violence as something that has no real consequences. At times, there are deadly conflicts that had all the depth of kids yelling "pow pow" at each other while playing cowboys & injuns.

But a novel needn't be all subtle, abstract, character-analytical, philosophical book-club-discussion-material to be fun. It's shallow, but The Wrong Stars succeeds at being fun. Hammy romance, identikit character and uber-keen representation messaging aside, it's a story of grand space adventures, filled with mystery, evil aliens, likeable aliens, dangerous missions, world-saving drama, and a complete and total lack of boredom. The Stainless Steel Rat for 21st century readers. Worth a look if you like that sort of thing.

Rating: 3.5/5