Tag Archives: book review

Paging the Past: A compelling gaze into “the belly button of the ancient world”

Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World Book Cover Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World
Michael Scott

Note: This book was provided by press.princeton.edu as a review copy, though opinions below are entirely my own.

Living in a world that seems to inject an element of magic in nearly every story of time and place, it's surprising to me that Delphi hasn't attracted more attention to this point in books or film. In "Dephi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World," Michael Scott manages to craft a richly detailed history of this ancient place through an accessible narrative style.

While I confess to a bit of Delphi obsession, my knowledge of it would scarcely fill two pages of this book. The span of history covered is awe-inspiring. Has a historic site—and a relative few individuals (women no less) ever held such influence over world affairs so long a time?

Here are five interesting elements of this book that enlightened my understanding of Delphi, which Scott describes as “the belly button of the ancient world”:

  1. It’s virtually hidden away. Despite its central role in the ancient world, Delphi was never exactly accessible. It lies in the foot hills of the Parnassian mountains, “resembling a fortress that Nature herself had chosen to take care of.” Nature and time have obscured the site even more, but it has never seen more traffic either—about two million visitors per year.
  2. Vapor courage was the secret sauce. The Pythia’s responses were “inspired” by a vapor chasm, over which she sat on a tripod.
  3. It changed hands more often than Chrysler. Nothing speaks to Delphi’s political and cultural influence more than surviving invasions on too many occasions to count. For a small town, it carried tremendous staying power.
  4. It was a monument to heroism (from a certain point of view). Partly because so many cultures occupied Delphi at some time or another, the monuments there are a fairly definitive gallery of world history. It’s regrettable so few have survived, but this book describes them well.
  5. Nero (?!) slept here. Nero was indeed the first Roman emperor to visit Dephi. Initially, he gave much autonomy to the city’s ruling council, and was honored with a statue of himself there. Unsurprisingly, the relationship cooled when Nero claimed some of Delphi’s statues, and the Oracle made a comment to him about mother-murderers.


There are several aspects of how this book was written and organized that I appreciated:

  • Shakespeare framed its structure (kind of). In his introduction, Scott frames the book’s three parts with a quote from Twelfth Night: “some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them.”
  • It’s chronological, but narrative. The book certainly has themes weaved into its narrative, but it is largely chronological. A wise move for making so much history make sense.
  • The illustrations add value. Quality photos and illustrations abound, always adding to the story without overwhelming it. Favorite images: “The Priestess at Delphi” and anything from the chapter on archaeological excavations of the early 20th century.
  • The end matter is a book unto itself. The story of the modern archaeological record is indeed my favorite part of this book, and it leads elegantly into perhaps the best end matter I’ve seen in any work: An insider walkthrough of the Delphi museum as it appears today, Abbreviations, Notes (about 60 pages) and a detailed index.
  • Top-grade construction. The first thing I noted about this book is the quality of its construction. The weight and feel of the paper, the binding and even the typographical presentation, make it a pleasure to read.

If Delphi intrigues you on any level, this book is a masterwork for your library. It’s authoritative and accessible, and only gets better in the final few chapters. Worth the read, in print format especially.

Question: What’s your favorite fact, story or resource about Delphi? Leave a comment below, or share it on social media with hashtag #voicesofthepast. I’ll be listening!

Paging the Past: No Greater Valor and the role of faith in a pivotal WWII battle

No Greater Valor: The Siege of Bastogne and the Miracle That Sealed Allied Victory Book Cover No Greater Valor: The Siege of Bastogne and the Miracle That Sealed Allied Victory
Jerome R. Corsi Ph.D.
Thomas Nelson
October 28, 2014

The role of faith in the military is a worthy subject as it plays a key role in a successful military. Surrounded by death, faith is both weapon and defense. In "No Greater Valor," author Jerome Corsi explores the role of faith in delivering the "Christmas Miracle" at Bastogne, Belgium, during World War II.

The narrative focuses specifically on American military faith in the Christian tradition. It’s a fair thesis in the context of the time and place of the subject matter. And, on the whole, the book is an engaging, solidly researched narrative about the beliefs of the people who experienced this chain of events.

There are several good stories encapsulated throughout the larger narrative. The stories are told from multiple perspectives using primary sources. Chiefly, this includes an exploration of General Anthony McAuliffe’s unlikely “Nuts” response to German demands for surrender. There are some good folkloric elements as well, such as the story of an eleven-man “ghost patrol” that advanced peacefully through no-man’s-land into American lines unchallenged and then disappeared into legend.

The legend of this moment in time extends to three tellings of the origins of “The Patton Prayer” by Chaplain James High O’Neill. This prayer was composed at the behest of General Patton for clear weather for battle, and printed on a Christmas card and distributed to soldiers. The prayer was credited for the unexpected break in bad weather on Dec. 23, 1944, that allowed American fighting planes to repel the Germans while other resupply aircraft relieved Bastogne’s suffering. The fortunate weather also earned O’Neill a medal from Patton.

If you’re interested in this as a historical work, you’ll find it more credible if you skip the author's hyperbolic introduction. Among other things, his remarks connect the end of "don't ask, don't tell" to the conjectural court martial of chaplains who refuse to marry same-sex military officers. The next sentence wonders at the likelihood of the banning of the Christian Bible from military bases.

The final chapter makes a more reasoned argument regarding the role of a moral code for keeping a nation united for the greater good. In “No Greator Valor,” Corsi accomplishes his goal in “picking up the pieces of history, and confronting the puzzles of the past” through compelling storytelling about people whose strength of character made a difference in a pivotal moment in time.

I review for BookLook Bloggers

Book Review: Dek Unu

Dek Unu: Another Tomorrow Book Cover Dek Unu: Another Tomorrow
Gor De Meel
New Generation Publishing
November 24, 2014

When I read a book review that says “I could not put this book down” I’m always a bit skeptical. But Dek Unu qualifies for this superlative statement. The only thing I knew about it when I started to read it was that it had some archaeology in it, and one of the early quotes that hooked me is “Knowledge of the past is knowledge of ourselves, he kept telling himself. If we don’t take history to heart, we have no future.”

While it contains those heritage values I hold dear, it more so blends my other favorite genres—Sci-Fi, fantasy and post-apocalyptic fiction to create the most pleasantly surprising read I’ve experienced in a while. The book is built in layers, with each piece of the narrative taking a slightly different approach as the story builds. Why did mankind fall? Who are the Protectors and what is their interest in us? What the destiny of the select children? Is life without faith a life of choice?

There are many intriguing plot and philosophical issues, but what makes this book shine is the skill of the narrative. It’s clean, well paced and entirely natural. Something you want to savor. Whether it’s debate among scholars or violence in the back alleys, Dek Unu is always accessible. With all the mysteries, the biggest remains who is Gor de Meel, author of such coolness?

Note: This book was provided as a review copy from the publisher

Book Review: The Southern Foodie’s Guide to the Pig

The Southern Foodie's Guide to the Pig: A Culinary Tour of the South's Best Restaurants & the Recipes That Made Them Famous Book Cover The Southern Foodie's Guide to the Pig: A Culinary Tour of the South's Best Restaurants & the Recipes That Made Them Famous
Chris Chamberlain

It's about history, it's about food, it's about the South! During my time in the North, I sought out little bits of southernness I could find. The Southern Foodies Guide to the Pig by Chris Chamberlain is one of those gems that fed my soul, and my mouth. Subtitled “A Culinary Tour of 50 of the South’s best Restaurants and the Recipes that Made Them Famous,” the book more than lives up to its promise.

  • Favorite profile: What sets this book apart is its interviews with the “masters” who make the meat. People like The Pit Master Pat Martin of the Fatback Collective, who raise awareness of heritage hogs and cook whole hogs around the country. The process for whole-hog cooking is described in g(l)orious detail.
  • Favorite Hint: 8 Ways to Use Bacon Grease made my mouth water and brought back fond memories of my grandmother’s cornbread (hint: use a tablespoon of it to grease your skillet before you bake).
  • Favorite tidbit: Then there are the nuggets of folks wisdom and myth busting between chapters. For example, “Wild hogs used to roam the fields of the lower end of Manhattan. Farmers had to build a wall to keep the pigs from digging up their crops. The street that ran alongside this wall became known as ‘Wall Street’.”
  • Favorite Recipe: Tennessee Whiskey Sauce
  • Meal for my bucket list: Central BBQ Baked Beans, Fresh green peas with new potatoes, fried apples, and double-cut pork chops with dirty rice. Blackberry crisp for dessert.

I’m back in the southerly regions now and looking forward to going home to Louisiana this summer to make that meal with my extended family. Thank you Mr. Chamberlain for sharing your storytelling and culinary skills with us in this Southern Foodies Guide.

I review for BookLook Bloggers

Book Review: The Impact Equation

The Impact Equation: Are You Making Things Happen or Just Making Noise? Book Cover The Impact Equation: Are You Making Things Happen or Just Making Noise?
Chris Brogan and Julien Smith

Chris Brogan is a superstar in the social media world, and engagement with audiences is where he holds most sway. Written with Julien Smith( who I adore for "The Flinch"), “The Impact Equation” is a book focused almost solely on this topic. Centered around the equation “Impact = C × (R + E + A + T + E)”, Brogan and Smith detail foundational principles of influence online. Here’s the quote that hooked me:

“This book is an opportunity that comes from a moment in time. As you read it, you will discover that some of it is relevant to you and some of it isn’t. That’s okay. If you’re in a small town in central Louisiana, your needs will be different from those of someone in New York City. If you’re widely connected, you will have a vastly different experience from that of someone who is just starting out. This is expected. So judge from your surroundings . Figure out what parts of this opportunity work for you. Picture it like a game, and figure out the easiest, most effective moves to make. Do those first, and see what the results are. If you fail, no big deal. Keep trying.”

Having started my career in central Louisiana, and continued it in Philadelphia and now Miami Beach, I can say there is no better advice for the social media practitioner. This book is a philosophical complement to Kawasaki’s “Art of Social Media,” and Michael Hyatt’s “Platform” for building online influence.

Here are my Kindle notes from reading this book. My keyword takeaways, if you will:

  • Add value
  • Be human
  • Distill your message
  • Create wonder
  • Be weird
  • Pass it on

Paging the Past in “Herculaneum: Past and Future”

Herculaneum: Past and Future Book Cover Herculaneum: Past and Future
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill
History › Ancient › Greece
Frances Lincoln

While Pompeii gets most of the play, it was Herculaneum that always seemed to capture my childhood imagination. In the book "Herculaneum: Past and Future," Dr. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill goes beyond imagination to provide a multi-faceted and compelling view of the ill-fated city.

Wallace-Hadrill crafts an engaging narrative that gives unprecedented dimension to the people of Herculaneum and their culture. Besides archaeology, the book covers, architecture, geology, preservation, conservation, anthropology, etc.This is a visually stunning coffee table-sized book that manages to be visually compelling while giving proper consideration to the narrative. More than 300 new images of Herculaneum are featured, including several fold-out panoramic photos. But this book is more than just pretty pictures. The graphs and architectural drawings (e.g. the site plans of the city and locations of excavated skeletons) add a surprising amount of depth you don't realize are typically missing in works that use a visual approach to examine scholarly cultural topics.

Herculaneum in Context

Beginning from the ground up, the first chapter examines the unique geology of the area--the cycle of seismic instability in the region that led to a constant state of repair, redecoration and reconfiguring of the structures there. The chapter also clears up misconceptions about why the city was left so well preserved. It's historic fate was set apart from Pompeii's by the direction of the wind. The chapter on the politics of archaeology poses the question: Why dig up the past? There are many motives, especially for a site whose location and history was never quite lost in the region's communal memory. The noted arrival of Charles Bourbon in the 1730s, was simply the beginning of the "glory years" in a cycle of discovery that occurred over the centuries.

Ruins Restored

The collapse of the ruins at Pompeii have been widely discussed, but researchers have recorded their concerns about decay at Herculaneum as far back as 1832 due to its being less explored by the public. Often good intentions have done more harm than good, as in the case of heavy varnishes damaging paintings and excavations collapsing original structures. This book came out of Wallace-Hadrill's involvement in a 2001 collaboration between the Packard Humanities Institute of California and the Archaeological Superintendency of Pompeii that was designed to address these concerns. This book is a treat for those interested in better understanding heritage preservation practice in historical and sociological context. The book also takes a deeper look into discovery into the conservation of individual artifacts, which has the makings of an interesting volume on its own.

English: Ancient Herculaneum (foreground), mod...
English: Ancient Herculaneum (foreground), modern Ercolano (center), and Vesuvius (horizon). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Town and its Setting

On feature of Herculaneum I find particularly enlightening is its numerous maps (historical and modern) and architectural models, which are key to keeping the reader oriented to what they're seeing and the nature of the cultural and practical influences. One of the most useful to me is a simple line map indicating the location of the Greek colonies founded in the with to sixth centuries BC and the local Oscan foundations under Etruscan influence in the same period.

The People and Culture

Along with delivering all the skeletons and imaginings of gruesome deaths one would expect, the author delivers a good bit of demographic data to fully illustrate the vibrancy and cultural diversity during the heyday of this seaport town. As he states:

The same point of death has the rare advantage, archaeologically speaking, of freezing a cross-section of the population, of different ages and social standing.

I've heard a lot about the boat sheds where many inhabitants met their deaths, and Herculaneum includes the story, photographs and even a breakdown by gender and age of the skeletons found there, and even a map that show the location and depth where they were found. The book backtracks to examine legal documents and statues of political leaders to construct a fascinating tale of the city's slave culture. Likewise, the architecture of the famous Suburban Baths attracted affluent visitors, which defined the public face of Herculaneum.

One of the most captivating stories in book details the Herculaneum Conservation Project's excavation and conservation of a marble head of a statue of an Amazon. There are photos of the half-buried artifact at the moment of discovery and an exquisite detail shot of painting around the eye. The rare preservation of the pigment (which is also extensively evident in the hair) is owed due to immediate involvement by professional conservators in its cleaning.

Standards of Living

It turns out, home size was not an indicator of class and wealth in Herculaneum. Indeed the town's growth over eras led to intriguing interpretations of architectural styles. The author usefully illustrates his insights with three-dimensional floor plans. The architecture and sculpture is most noted in these cultures since they are mostly what survived the catastrophe. Some carbonized wooden furniture survived in Herculaneum and is included. The small tables, cupboards and cradle provide a strikingly human element to this story. Perhaps because they are objects that the inhabitants would have interacted with (indeed, they look like those modern humanity uses), and not just dwelt in or admired.

The author thoroughly contextualizes class, architecture and everyday living. Most interesting was the Conservation Project's excavation of the sewers beneath the Palaestra block. The sewer was divided into one-meter lengths and excavated stratigraphically. Occasional sandy layers marked flood events. The finds there reveal more about the daily lives of the inhabitants as their art and architecture.

The Tale of Two Cities

The book's penultimate chapter provides an interesting comparison between Pompeii and Herculaneum. As the author states:

Put Pompeii and Herculaneum together, and it is like looking through two eyes. They may be close together, but that is enough to restore a sense of depth. It is because they are both similar and different that they give us a more three-dimensional view.

Here we learn that Herculaneum was a relative "small town" compared to Pompeii's metropolis. They had different political standings. Part of our fascination with Pompeii may be its famed brothels or the fact that it was one of the best places in the world to study gladiatorial games. The intimacy and complex personal relationships of Herculaneum's inhabitants put a damper on vice.

The Future of the Past

Wallace-Hadrill concludes "Herculaneum" fittingly with an analysis of the town's present, and the challenges it continues to face. These cities, though ironically well preserved by the disaster that befell them, were fundamentally damaged by it. Now exposed, their conservation is an ongoing challenge. This is especially true in Herculaneum, where carbonized material like structural wood beams are being held together by wax treatments. The politics of competing interests has played a role and has been famously blamed for structural failures in Pompeii in recent years,

Still, there are conservation victories, like the "House of the Gems" which is illustrated with before-and-after photographs. Regarding expansion of excavation versus conservation of what's already been unearthed, the author's closing thoughts comment on Herculaneum's being likened to a time capsule...

But a buried treasure lies secure for future generations. For our own generation, it is enough to appreciate the extraordinary value of the treasure that has already been dug up, to look after its merits, and to pass it on to future generations.

Note: This book was a review copy provided by the publisher. More information can be found at www.franceslincoln.com



Paging the Past with “St. Francis” by Robert West

St. Francis Book Cover St. Francis
Robert West
Thomas Nelson

There are two historical figures who intrigue me like none other: Ben Franklin and St. Francis of Assisi. Indeed, few religious figures are as universally admired as Francis. In the inspiring biography "Saint Francis," Robert West crafts and engaging, succinct narrative of the Saint's life.

Francis grew up in a merchant class home at the end of the feudal era. The young man enjoyed a frivilous, but not trouble-free, existence in his lust to become a knight. Abject defeat and humiliation in a prison stay set his path to one of the most storied conversion stories of all time. The author initially takes a lot of liberties surmising scenes from what little is known about Francis' youth. This decreases as the historic record clarifies after his conversion.

For a man who valued solitude and renounced all worldly goods and ambition, Francis often found himself in the center of difficult  events. West explores the corruption of the church, and the struggles Francis encountered in trying to bring peace to one of the crusades, only to return home and find the brothers of his order were laxing rules he viewed as critical to the Franciscan way of life. He was a man of peace, but one of passion.

Noteworthy is West's dedication to weave the narrative both chronologically and thematically. Every detail and personality introduced throughout the story continues to play a role in the story throughout the events that follow.

The story of Francis' final months is both beautiful and heartbreaking, concluding with a tribute to Francis composed by an unlikely source.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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