The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes – #biography #bookreview

 

The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes

 

The Obelisk and the Englishman

The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes

Dorothy U. Seyler

Prometheus Books – hardback, Kindle

 

Early in the 19th century, a young Englishman repeatedly risked death and overcame numerous dangers as he sailed along the Nile River and journeyed into deserts, discovering and documenting important details about ancient Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

William John Bankes and his various crews dug away tons of sand from ruins, giant statues, and other artifacts of ancient cultures. Photography was still several decades in the future, so Bankes used the best available technologies of his time, including drawings and paintings, to create images of ruins, shrines, temple floor plans, and hieroglyphs found on walls and in pyramids. He sometimes dangled dangerously from ropes, as well, as he worked in high places to document details he could not decipher, yet knew were important.  On occasion, he even hired teams of artists to travel with him so he could record as many images as possible.

Once he returned to Great Britain after a few years of travels, he entered politics as his father had desired. He was elected twice to the House of Commons, and he maintained a friendship–and possibly more–with the poet Lord Byron, whom he had known since school days.

But Bankes soon found himself again facing death, this time at the hands of the English justice system. Homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment and execution in early 19th-century England, and Bankes was arrested twice on “unnatural behavior” charges that could have gotten him hanged. In his first trial, he was acquitted, thanks in part to testimony in his favor by the Duke of Wellington. Bankes’s second arrest, however, left him little choice but to flee England and go to France and then Italy, where he would pass away in 1855 at age 68.

Despite his great Egyptian discoveries, Bankes essentially died an outlaw from English justice. Yet, through an odd quirk in English law in force at the time, he had been able to return to England occasionally, as long as he was there only on a Sunday. Both from Italian exile and on quick trips back to his family home, Kingston Lacy, Bankes managed to add one more fascinating chapter to his life. He had become an expert on Italian art, and he began helping rework and remodel his English home in the style of an Italian villa, complete with many paintings and some works of sculpture. The home eventually was given to the National Trust in 1982 and, after “[s]ignificant conservation efforts,” was opened to the public.

Whether you know much about ancient Egypt or not, The Obelisk and the Englishman is a fascinating book about a fascinating explorer. It details his exploration methods and the lasting significance of the numerous discoveries and illustrations he made in the Nile region. And it takes readers inside his troubled life as he tried to find personal happiness within the very narrow confines of 19th-century British society.

“William lives on through his archeological work in both Egypt and Syria,” Dorothy U. Seyler writes in this well-researched, well-written biography of Bankes. “Of special value to Egyptologists are his drawings and notes on temples south of Aswan, since many of these temples were lost under the sand or the Nile waters. His discovery of the Abydos King List and his copies of the hieroglyphs contributed to the decoding of Egypt’s sacred language.”

Si Dunn

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The Sun is God – Adrian McKinty takes readers well off the beaten path with this new historical mystery – #bookreview

 

The Sun is God

Adrian McKinty

Seventh Street Books – Kindle, paperback

Take a weird but true exotic setting. Throw in some real people and real murders. Add to the mix a fictional investigator: Will Prior, an ex-military police lieutenant who deliberately got himself cashiered from the British army during the Boer War following a deadly clash with African prisoners. Wrap it all up with a (very) surprising ending.

The Sun is God, Adrian McKinty’s new historical mystery, likely will please and amaze many readers. Trying to track down a murderer in a 1906 German nudist colony off the coast of New Guinea is a stunning and challenging departure from his Detective Sean Duffy trilogy set in the urban battles and enormous tensions of Northern Ireland in the 1980s.

McKinty is in fine form in this book as he offers up a complicated crime story set within a little-remembered slice of pre-World War I history: Part of New Guinea, north of Australia, was a German colony in the year 1906.

It is here that Will Prior is now living with his “servant girl,” Siwa, amid the colony’s failing banana, rubber and tea plantations.  While still willing to swear allegiance to the British Empire, Will now lives under German rule. So, when a German army officer, Captain Hauptmann Kessler, comes to his house one day, Will fears that it is to take back the money Germany previously loaned him to become a plantation owner. Instead, Will learns that the colony’s governor wants him, because of his past military police experience, to go with Captain Kessler to an island where some German nudists claim to have discovered the secret of immortality.

One of the immortals, unfortunately, has suddenly turned up quite dead. And while the nudists claim the victim died in his bed from malaria, an official autopsy in the capital of German New Guinea has revealed something quite different: the victim drowned and had bruise marks consistent with a struggle.

Things quickly get even more strange after Will and Kessler arrive and have to camp amid the nudists and share their dangerous diet while they attempt to find clues. There’s sex, yes, and drugs. (But the novel is set 50 years before Elvis Presley, so no rock ‘n’ roll.)  And, once danger erupts for the two investigators, they can’t call for backup, and they definitely can’t hide — not on a very small island that boats seldom visit, because it’s thought to be haunted.

Si Dunn

The Ides of April – An entertaining new Lindsey Davis detective series debut – #mystery #bookreview

The Ides of April

A Flavia Albia Mystery

Lindsey Davis

(Minotaur Books, hardback, paperback, Kindle, Audio CD)

Many fans of the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries set in first-century Rome will delight in this new spin-off series by London author Lindsey Davis. Readers eagerly seeking another unusual detective to follow may relish this series debut, as well.  

In The Ides of April, Flavia Albia, the adopted daughter of Falco and Helena Justina, makes her series debut as a private informer in Rome during the reign of Domitian, an emperor who later will be ranked somewhere in the safe middle between the best and worst rulers of the Roman Empire.

The year is A.D. 89, and a young widow named Flavia Albia has taken over Falco’s old apartment and is struggling to build up her business as an investigator. Flavia is British-born and served as nursemaid to Falco’s children before Falco and his “unofficial” wife Helena Justina adopted her.

The pay scale for a private informer is “no win, no fee.” Also: “As a female, I had no rights at all in matters of law, but why let that stop me?” Flavia has two other qualities that work in her favor as a detective in Rome: She doesn’t like to be defeated, and her adoptive parents taught her how to comfortably blend into virtually all levels of society.

Of course, it’s never easy to be a female detective in ancient Rome. As Flavia points out: “Fortune never favoured me and the problem with being a woman was that sometimes I could only obtain business that all the male informers had sniffed and refused.”

One of those “refused” cases, of course, starts out simple and soon turns into a murder investigation that includes the hunter being hunted by the killer.

The cast of characters in The Ides of April extends for two pages, and new readers of a Lindsey Davis novel likely will find themselves frequently flipping back to it for reminders of who exactly Junillus or Robigo or Felix or Serena is.

Indeed, if this is your first exposure to Lindsey Davis’s well-detailed, history-based fiction, you might consider photocopying the extensive cast list and keeping it close at hand so you won’t have to keep flipping back to the front of the book.

One other note. While the setting is ancient Rome, many of the descriptions, attitudes, and dialogue exchanges would not seem out of place in a 21st century English detective novel. This can be at least momentarily jarring for new readers of a Lindsey Davis mystery. However, we must remember that English had not yet been cobbled together in A.D. 89. And, thankfully, the author does not throw a lot of Latin at us.

Fans of Marcus Didius Falco may grumble about Falco being downsized to a much smaller character in this tale. Yet as Lindsey Davis points out on her website:

“After 20 novels, I need a break and have no current plans for a new Falco novel. I am enjoying the ‘spin-off’ series about Flavia Albia….” (The one that will follow The Ides of April will be titled Enemies at Home).

“I am also excited to be writing a ‘QuickRead’ for 2014. These are a special series of short books for adults who came to reading late or who don’t read very much. Mine is called A Cruel Fate and is set in the Civil War.”

So Marcus Didius Falco is not dead. He has just been put out to pasture while Flavia gets an entertaining and engrossing chance to make her mark in the family business.

Si Dunn

The Book of Ruby: A Hands-On Guide for the Adventurous – #ruby #programming #software #bookreview

The Book of Ruby: A Hands-On Guide for the Adventurous
By Huw Collingbourne
(No Starch Press, $39.95, paperback; $31.95, Kindle) 

Ruby, first introduced in 1995, is “a cross-platform interpreted language that has many features in common with other ‘scripting’ languages such as Perl and Python,” says Huw Collingbourne,  who is director of technology for SapphireSteel Software and has 30 years’ experience in computer programming.

“Many people are attracted to Ruby by its simple syntax and ease of use. They are wrong,” he cautions in his new book. “Ruby’s syntax may look simple at first sight, but the more you get to know the language, the more you will realize that it is, on the contrary, extremely complex. The plain fact of the matter is that Ruby has a number of pitfalls just waiting for unwary programmers to drop into.”

Collingbourne  has written The Book of Ruby to help those new to the programming language successfully jump over the hazards. Ruby, he notes, can look a bit like Pascal at first glance. But: “It is thoroughly object-oriented and has a great deal in common with the granddaddy of ‘pure’ object-oriented languages, Smalltalk.”  

He cautions programmers to get a good handle on Ruby by itself before rushing ahead to use the popular web development framework known as Ruby on Rails.”Understanding Ruby is a necessary prerequisite for understanding Rails,” he warns.

“Indeed, if you were to leap right into Rails development without first mastering Ruby, you might find that you end up creating applications that you don’t even understand. (This is all too common among Ruby on Rails novices.)”

Collingbourne’s well-written 373-page book covers Ruby 1.8 and 1.9. He takes a “bite-sized chunks” approach, so that each chapter “introduces a theme that is subdivided into subtopics.” And: “Each programming topic is accompanied by one or more small, self-contained, ready-to-run Ruby program.”

 The chapter line-up shows the book’s structure:

  •  Introduction
  • 1: Strings, Numbers, Classes, and Objects
  • 2: Class Hierarchies, Attributes, and Class Variables
  • 3: Strings and Ranges
  • 4: Arrays and Hashes
  • 5: Loops and Iterators
  • 6: Conditional Statements
  • 7: Methods
  • 8: Passing Arguments and Returning Values
  • 9: Exception Handling
  • 10: Blocks, Procs, and Lambdas
  • 11: Symbols
  • 12: Modules and Mixins
  • 13: Files and IO
  • 14: YAML
  • 15: Marshal
  • 16: Regular Expressions
  • 17: Threads
  • 18: Debugging and Testing
  • 19: Ruby on Rails
  • 20: Dynamic Programming
  • Appendix A: Documenting Ruby with RDOC
  • Appendix B: Installing MySQL for Ruby on Rails
  • Appendix C: Further Reading
  • Appendix D: Ruby and Rails Development Software
  • Index

The author gives links for downloading the latest version of Ruby, plus the source code for all of the programs used in this book.

Collingbourne notes that The Book of Ruby “covers many of the classes and methods in the standard Ruby library – but by no means all of them! At some stage, therefore, you will need to refer to documentation on the full range of classes used by Ruby.” He provides links to the online documentation for both Ruby 1.8 and Ruby 1.9.

True to his word, he begins at the “hello world” level of Ruby:

puts 'hello world'

From there, he keeps surging forward in small, careful steps, offering good examples to illustrate each new topic. In each chapter except the Introduction, he also includes a subsection known as “Digging Deeper.”

“In many cases, you could skip the ‘Digging Deeper’ sections and still learn all the Ruby you will ever need,” he states. “On the other hand, it is in these sections that you will often get closest to the inner workings of Ruby, so if you skip them, you are going to miss out on some pretty interesting stuff.”

Collingbourne previously has released two free ebooks on Ruby: The Little Book of Ruby and The Book of Ruby.

He knows his Ruby – and he wants you to know this elegant and unique programming language, too.

Si Dunn

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The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible, 1611-2011 – #bookreview

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible, 1611-2011
By Melvyn Bragg
(Counterpoint Press, $28.00 hardback; $20.00 Kindle)

As a child, I liked and respected the King James Bible. But I hated religion. I had been born into a “Christian” demonination that tried incessantly to pound hellfire, damnation and, sadly, white supremacy, into my young head. And it used the King James Version as its grim hammer.

Some of my less-educated relatives, in fact, believed not only that the King James Version was the literal Word of God but that it had come directly from God, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, as well as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — in English.

Once I turned 18 and moved away, I abandoned that denomination quickly. But I took a King James Bible with me. And, 50 years later, I still keep one close by and sometimes refer to it — not always as a writer’s reference.

Melvyn Bragg’s The Book of Books is a magnificent work of religious and historical scholarship, adroitly timed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible’s first publication in 1611. His book is eye-opening, entertaining reading and full of surprises as he pulls together startling examples of the King James Bible’s powerful and pervasive reach within English and American culture. 

 “You may be a Christian. You may  be anti-Christian, or of any other religion, nor none. You may be an athiest fundamentalist and think the Bible is monstrous, a book to be dismissed or derided,” Bragg writes. “But whoever you are in the English-speaking world, I hope to persuade you to consider that the King James Bible has driven the making of that world over the last 400 years, often in the most unanticipated ways.”

His 370-page book smoothly covers an amazing amount of religious, historical, political and cultural ground, both in England and the United States. And he makes the compelling case that America owes much of its language, government, literature and national values to the King James Bibles that accompanied the early colonists and settlers to the New World. 

“There has never been a book to match it,” Bragg states. “It has a fair claim to be the most pivotal book ever written, a claim made by poets and statesmen and supported by tens of millions of readers and congregations.” In his view, “everyone. even athiests, has benefited from many of its unexpected consequences.”

Not all of its consequences have been good, of course. “It was the consolidating voice of two world empires [Great Britain and the United States]. It unleashed and motivated philanthropic movements of a size and effectiveness which bettered the lives of ordinary people throughout the English-speaking world.” But it likewise encouraged a “ferocious sense of mission” that “transformed and sometimes destroyed native cultures.”

Also: “For centuries the King James Bible fed some of the finest thinkers and artists and men of science and politics; others it persecuted.”

For me, one intriguing aspect of Bragg’s book is its examination of the King James Bible’s strong influence on American literature all the way into the 20th century and beyond. Writers such as William Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Golding,, John Steinbeck and many others composed novels and short stories with strong echoes of Bible stories no doubt heard and learned in childhood from the King James Bible.

Bragg also examines how America’s Civil War was “a war of the Bible,” for both sides. “The King James Version provided the intellectual and emotional structure for the politics” of that devastating conflict. He notes: “It would be overly simplistic to conclude that the Bible alone ’caused’ the Civil War. But: “The Bible was the gate through which the thoughts and passions of the majority were marshalled.” 

Bragg’s well-honed skills as a novelist and nonfiction author help enrich The Book of Books as a reading and learning experience. He keeps his focus carefully centered on demonstrating the impact of the King James Bible and does not wander off  into wider examinations of Christianity and its myriad controversies.

Si Dunn