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

GUN STREET GIRL: Detective Sean Duffy is back in action, by popular demand! – #mystery #fiction #bookreview

Gun Street Girl

A Detective Sean Duffy Novel

Adrian McKinty

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle

At first glance, “Gun Street Girl” seems like the title for a cheap, unpromising paperback potboiler. But the good news is, it’s actually Adrian McKinty’s latest Detective Sean Duffy mystery.

Readers literally begged McKinty to keep Duffy alive after the novelist finished writing his “Troubles Trilogy,” which features Duffy as a detective in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) during Northern Ireland’s civil and religious unrest and murderous violence in the 1980s.

The new book not only keeps Sean Duffy investigating murders amid great personal danger (he’s a Catholic cop working in a Protestant police station and living, at high risk, in a Protestant neighborhood). The book also brings greater depth and detail to the whys and hows of his character.

At one point, Lawson, a young cop, tells Duffy that he’s “not interested in promotion, I just want to do good for the community.” And Duffy tells him what an older cop, Dickie Bently, told hm during his first month on the job. “Dickie schooled me pretty quick in the ways of getting things done, Lawson. It’s not just ‘doing good,’ sometimes it’s doing bad too for the greater good, Lawson. It’s a bastard of a job.”

Indeed, Duffy sometimes goes well beyond the accepted limits and laws to achieve justice. He often bends or breaks rules, and sometimes he disobeys direct orders, especially when they get in the way of how he investigates.

In Gun Street Girl, Sean Duffy is fighting total burn-out while he tries to solve a grisly double murder and apparent suicide. Yet his investigative work soon starts uncovering very troubling links to high places, both in Great Britain and across the “pond.” Suddenly, danger is everywhere for Duffy, and the risk of assassination–by bomb or by bullet–now is very high. Meanwhile, he and other members of the Carrickfergus RUC must put aside police work occasionally, suit up in with riot gear and shields, and move into the deadly middle between warring Protestants and Catholics in Belfast and surrounding communities. There, they must endure bricks, firebombs, taunts and other threats to earn a little extra money.

If you’ve never read one of the Sean Duffy novels, Gun Street Girl can be a superb place to start. Then you will want to jump back and read the three books in the Troubles Trilogy: The Cold Cold Ground, I Hear the Sirens in the Streets, and In the Morning, I’ll Be Gone.

I have read and reviewed many detective novels, and Gun Street Girl now has emerged as my all-time favorite. I love its depth of character, its hair-trigger settings, its action, its twists and its turns. And I relish Sean Duffy’s dogged belief that justice must be achieved, no matter how tough or dangerous it can be to follow the necessary and ad hoc procedures.

Adrian McKinty is a master mystery writer. I hope his Detective Sean Duffy will stay on the job for a few more books, even if he has to give in to burn-out, retire from the Royal Ulster Constabulary and become a private eye somewhere else–Australia, maybe?

Si Dunn

The Troubles Trilogy: Adrian McKinty’s Northern Ireland crime novels are powerful, engrossing reading – #bookreview

In the Morning I’ll Be Gone

Book Three: The Troubles Trilogy

Adrian McKinty

(Seventh Street Books, paperback)

I wish I had discovered The Troubles Trilogy and Detective Sean Duffy much sooner than Book Three. I really don’t like reading trilogies in reverse.

But Adrian McKinty is an amazingly good crime novelist. And now that I have also read his two other books in ThTroubles Trilogy,  I can honestly say that it is pleasingly easy to read these works in any order you wish.

In the Morning I'll Be Gone cover

Yes, Book One: The Cold Cold Ground and Book Two: I Hear the Sirens in the Streets are tied together by some of the same characters and settings found in Book Three: In the Morning I’ll Be Gone. Each novel, however, stands solidly on its own.

Detective Sean Duffy is an Irish Catholic cop working for the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland’s decidedly unpopular police force. The three novels unfold during the early 1980s, amid some of the most violent times in a small-scale but deadly civil war that has been raging for decades. On one side are the mostly Protestant Unionists and Loyalists, who want Northern Ireland to stay part of the  United Kingdom. On the other side are the mostly Catholic Nationalists and Republicans who want Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland again.

Duffy, caught in the middle and working for a mostly Protestant police force, must try to solve grisly murder cases while not getting blown up by Irish Republican Army car bombs–he never goes anywhere without first looking beneath his vehicle–or killed by bullets fired by snipers on both sides.

There are neighborhoods where it’s deadly to be a Protestant or a Catholic and neighborhoods where it’s equally deadly to be one of Her Majesty’s cops, or “peelers,” in the local argot.  (Sir Robert Peel, a 19th century British prime minister, is credited with creating the concept of a metropolitan police force. As a result, police officers became known as “bobbies” in England and “peelers” in Northern Ireland.)

Sometimes, in pursuit of leads and suspects, Duffy finds himself on streets that are British territory on one side of the center line and Irish territory on the other. And, a classic tough-guy detective, Duffy seldom hesitates if he needs to sneak into Ireland, where he has absolutely no jurisdiction except his fists and his guns. Also, he sometimes crosses that dark, ill-defined border between good cop and bad cop, in the name of justice as he defines it.

Adrian McKinty has been compared, deservedly so, to Raymond Chandler and a few other leading crime novelists. He is a native of Northern Ireland, and his taut, well-written, realistic prose makes excellent use of that region’s cultures, languages and longstanding sectarian tensions. He draws you in quickly and doesn’t let you escape –not until after gritty Detective Sean Duffy finally has tracked down and confronted the killer face to face.

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