November 9th, 2008

Books!

Back to the books, eh?

Well, I seem to have gotten quite off-track with my book reviewing given the Elections and all ... the last review I did was just shy of a month ago, and, as I've not stopped reading, I now have a 10-book "backlog" to plow through ... so I'm going to apologize if some of the next few of these aren't my best work (not only will I be trying to get caught up, but my reviews tend to be better when I'm fresh off of reading the book!).

First up is David Howarth's 1066: The Year of the Conquest, I'd picked this up at a used book sale ("fill the bag for $5"), and wasn't sure about how I'd take to it. I ended up, however, being very pleased to find that this "popular history" was, in fact, a history and not "historical fiction" trying to look respectable.

To those of you who weren't paying attention in school (or went to some Leftist brainwashing camp that avoids "dead white guys"), 1066 was the year that William of Normandy defeated the English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings (as commemorated in the famed Bayeux Tapestry).

England, in the centuries prior to this, had evolved a remarkable political structure, with layers of representative government that was, essentially, transparent in that any subsistence-level farmer, blacksmith, carpenter, etc. had the explicit right to petition the King for whatever grievances he might have. However, these matters were typically handled "through channels", where each village (or "hundred", getting the name from the number of "hides" which were the amount of land to support one family) had a Thane, who reported to a low-level noble responsible for the Shire, who then reported to the noble responsible for that Earldom, of which the country was divided (about a half dozen).

Now, prior to Harold, Edward "the Confessor" had been King, and died without specifically naming a successor. At one point it appears that he had at least discussed the possibility with William of Normandy, and William had based a great deal of his power base in France on his eventual succession to the English throne. However, Edward died rather abruptly and, in the confusion following, Harold was named and crowned King.

This, of course, set up the Norman Conquest. William could not just "let this go" as he'd built up affiliations based on his "future power". One of the interesting things in this telling is that William's "people" had arranged to have had sacred relics of a saint placed under/within the table that he and Edward had used when Edward promised the succession to William, thereby making it a "sacred vow", this they took to Rome and had the Pope rule (in a one-sided case, as nobody had bothered to inform Harold that this was even happening) on the English succession. William won the Papal approval, and was even given a Papal banner and ring with a relic of St. Peter in it. As such, William was now leading something of a crusade, which not only allowed him to firm up his political support, but get vast amounts of work done on the force he'd need to cross the Channel.

Harold, while seemingly a good king, was one of the most unlucky ones ... when he got word of what was happening on the continent, he mobilized his army, and had them waiting all summer on the southern coast, for an attack that never materialized. Eventually he had to release them, and as the forces were dispersing back to their home shires, the first of two attacks came. A Norse fleet (roused up by another claimant to the throne) landed on the East coast from the North Sea, and Harold had to counter-attack there ... successfully, as it turns out. A mere matter of days later, William got the shift of wind he was waiting for, and the Norman fleet crossed the Channel.

It appears that Harold was totally disheartened by the Papal imprimatur and seems to have simply awaited his fate, dying in the battle of Hastings, when, had he attacked like at Stamford Bridge, he might very well have defeated William's army. This, essentially, ended the "democracy" of England, as William brought with him a whole new nobility which was used to uncontested feudal control, and whom he'd promised land and income.

Howarth presents this all in as great detail as possible (the sources, Norman, Norse, and English, are few and far between), with a handful of maps and charts. He makes a substantial effort to give a sense of who the English were before the Conquest, how their lives were, how the society was, and how that was going to change (greatly for the worse) under Norman rule. His narrative is quite engaging, and one has a sense of, if not "being there", at least of reading news reports from the scene. This is a very interesting look into a fascinating (and pivotal) year of so of English history.

I have no hesitation in recommending 1066: The Year of the Conquest to anyone with an interest in history. There appears to be a paperback edition of this still in print (so you might be able to get it via your local brick&mortar book seller), and the Amazon new/used guys have this for as little as 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping).


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Books!

(sigh)

Sometimes there really ought to be "an adult in charge" of book projects. This is, of course, not to say that the author, editor, publisher, etc. involved here are not chronological adults, but the direction the book takes just screams "no oversight"! Frankly, I'm disappointed that the usually reliable Arkana let this one see print in this form.

Margot Grey's Return from Death: An Exploration of the Near-death Experience has an interesting premise, looking at the "near-death experience" from what purports to be a clinical perspective, but it is really only about 1/3rd about that, and the rest is a mixture of "agendas".

There are some basic problems with the "research" here as well, such as "sample size". Obviously, those who have experienced a NDE and are willing to speak about it are a limited population, but most of the info in this book is based on a group of under fifty respondents, and when they talk about "cross-cultural" studies they mean U.K./U.S., which is hardly like looking at, say, South America and India, or China and sub-Saharan Africa! Grey seems to base most of her material on the reports of others, notably Kenneth Ring (who provided a Foreword). While she's listed as a "Humanistic Psychologist", most of this book comes across as the work of an enthusiastic amateur ... and I suppose that had this been done in 2005 instead of 1985 it would have been a website rather than a book!

Again, the first third of the book is the "most useful", with things like the typical "pattern of the NDE" defined ... this goes 1) "peace and sense of well-being", 2) "separation from the body", 3) "entering the darkness", 4) "seeing the light", and 5) "the inner world". These also (for a few dozen subjects) have an added set of markers, 1) "some kind of barrier", 2) "the presence", 3) "meeting with deceased spirits", 4) "life review", and 5) "decision to return". As noted, the sample size for the study is quite small, the "cross-cultural" aspects are really within one "culture", and the rigor (such as one might be able to expect for the subject) is "iffy". However, had the book had stopped with section one, it would have at least have made an interesting pamphlet.

Unfortunately, it appears that either Ms. Grey had some axes to grind, or was pushed towards "woo-woo" by her publishers, as the rest of the book goes deeper into "newagey" material, first generalizing from just a handful of respondents a whole array of "developments" following subjects' NDEs ... psychic abilities, healing abilities, and "prophesy". It's in this latter element that the narrative really "falls off the table", with the author spewing page after page of Dire Predictions of "earth changes", political upheaval, nuclear war, global starvation, etc., etc. etc., all to happen by 1988. She lends great credence to all this (which I can only assume was carefully cajoled out of the respondents by herself and Dr. Ring, and, as is the case with all the doomsayers of every decade, is almost frantic that something Has To Be Done (!!!!) because of these "visions". I don't know about you, but I must have been busier than I thought I was at the time to have missed all this stuff 20 years ago!

Additionally, Grey attempts to link the various NDE manifestation to assorted spiritual traditions, but in a general way, and not just, say, in relation to psychopompic materials such as "books of the dead". Sure, modern Western society does not have a beneficial relationship with the dying process, but rather than developing a "suggested approach", the author randomly cherry-picks bits and pieces of unrelated spiritual/mystical traditions to imply a connection.

Needless to say, I can't really recommend Return from Death, it's a poorly supported muddle that's presented without any guiding framework, and quickly devolves into lurid fantasy pretending to be "edgy" science. Mercifully, this appears to be out-of-print at present, but used copies can be had from the usual suspects for as little as $1.00 if you really had a hankering for a bad look at what would otherwise be an interesting subject.


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