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Saturday, July 11th, 2009

Time Event
Disappointing ...
This is one of those books which had developed a mystique around it in the years when it was out of print. As is (unfortunately) often the case, the reality of the book did not live up to the buzz. Charles Hapgood is an interesting character, having been a History professor, worked in the CIA, etc. Known best for his (quite excellent) Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings, he was willing to publish theories far off of the mainstream. The Path of the Pole (a re-named second edition of his The Earth's Shifting Crust) is certainly in that zone.

There have been tantalizing bits of information out there regarding arctic discoveries of frozen megafauna (most notably Mammoths) with temperate climate spring/summer plant matter in their stomachs, and in some cases mouth/teeth (having been being chewed when the animal died). I've read of these in a number of books, and they certainly suggest a sudden shift of climate. I've also read other books which have traced out the "ice age" glaciations which neatly fit with a pattern of movement of the polar region in relation to the continents. This book is one of the seminal sources cited by many of these others, and yet ... this is only peripherally about that. Hapgood did not believe in continental drift (which, I take it, has been pretty much solidly accepted and understood in the half century since this book was first released), and sought an alternative theory to explain various phenomena. Perhaps one of the things that gives his theorizing so much weight is that he managed to get Albert Einstein to write a foreword to the first edition ... and while Einstein isn't "on board" with everything, he pretty much says "interesting stuff, should be researched". At the core of Hapgood's theory here is the concept that as ice builds up at the poles, the weight is "spun" towards the equator and causes crustal shifting and distortion, with volcanism, etc. resulting.

One of the most glaring "errors" here is his view of the Hawaiian islands. He keeps going back to them as an "anomaly", suggesting that the mass of these huge mountains should be distorting the crust under them. Needless to say, within the context of continental drift, it's clear that these were created by the Pacific plate moving over a "hot spot" with upwelling lava, building up each of the islands in the chain as it went. It was almost humorous to see him trying to calculate solutions to fit these with his theory.

Again, perhaps my expectations were misguided (I had really hoped that this would have discussed the previously-mentioned "pole shifts" resulting in the historic pattern of glaciation), but this book is more about an alternative theory to continental drift than being about movements of the pole. Given that Hapgood's underlying theories were incorrect, it's difficult to figure out what might be of use here. I've had numerous discussions with folks who totally reject polar shifting (for various physical reasons), but there are many things which would be "best explained" by this theory. Unfortunately, that's not what Hapgood was concerned with here.

The fact that Hapgood was not a PhD, and that his specialty was history and not science, come up from time to time in this. There are whole areas not approached here (such as the frequent flipping of the magnetic poles) which a specialist would have spent a considerable time with, and there is so much here that anybody who watches the science channels on cable TV would "know better" about, that it is frequently uncomfortable reading.

Still, there are some fascinating bits in this. Hapgood implies that South America has only very recently been "raised", with the area of Lake Titicaca (now at 12,500ft elevation) having at one point been at sea level, and tracing out "fossil shorelines" which indicate that the region is at a definite incline to the original water level. If one is to take the "conservative" estimates of the Tiwanaku (whose "harbor" features are currently fairly removed from the lake) ruins, this would mean that much of the uplift in the are has only been in the past 2,500 years (of course, these are "mainstream" dates for that culture, and not the "mystical" dates which would push that site into a far more ancient context).

Anyway, The Path of the Pole goes a long way to prove what is unlikely to be provable, and is more embarrassing than interesting for most of it. While it has elements of the stuff I was hoping to read in it, they are incidental to Hapgood's main premise, a premise which is evidently incorrect. If you're still interested in it, it's still in print, and you might as well get it via Amazon (which has it for a discount, and available bundled with the far more satisfying Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings at just over the "free shipping" line). Frankly, I could have skipped this one, as it was a rather substantial read for a very minor pay-off.

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Interesting ...
OK, so those of you who have been following this space with a "stalker-esque" attention to detail (comparing what's been coming through here with the record of my reading over on LibraryThing) will know that I kind of got behind on my reviewing a number of months back, leaving me with a stack of books that were read between November '08 and February '09 still to be addressed. This is one of those. Needless to say, returning to a book six months or more after having read it is not the most ideal context for writing a review (the books hardly being "fresh" in my thought stream), and for this I apologize. So, if some of the upcoming reviews are a bit more "mechanical" than usual, please don't quit reading thinking "I've lost it" as I work my way through the backlog!

Those regulars will know that I've read many books in "alternative Biblical interpretation" (to give a "big tent" name to a number of associated genres), and Hugh J. Schonfield's The Passover Plot is certainly among that part of my library. The tone of this one, however, is rather different, rather than trying to re-write the theological base of Christianity, it takes a more "investigative" look at the stories and what, realistically, was likely to have been behind them. As one could guess from the title, Schonfield's conclusion is something of a well-planned conspiracy aimed at an actual Messianic kingship for Jesus, hatched by him and certain key associates.

This is not to say that the book doesn't have something of a theological axe to grind, the failings and hypocrisies of Christianity are frequently pointed out:

The Christian message obtained the most recruits among the slaves and underprivileged. Many of them, as we find in Paul's letters, were not only of low morality, but factious, restless and disaffected. ...

The message about Jesus found a lodging among peoples who believed in the commerce of gods with mortals and were accustomed to the deification of rulers and other outstanding personages. ...

There is a widespread desire for a realistic rather than an idealized representation of Jesus. The Traditional portraiture no longer satisfies: it is too baffling in its apparent contradiction of the terms of our earthly existence. The God-man of Christianity is increasingly incredible, yet it is not easy to break with centuries of authoritative instruction and devout faith, and there remains embedded deep in the sub-conscious a strong sense of the super-natural inherited from remote ages. ...

The modern dilemma of Christianity is patent and stems from a creed which down the centuries has so insisted on seeing God in Jesus Christ that it is in danger, as is now evident, of being unable to apprehend the existence of God without him. Far too many Christians do not know God in any other way than through Jesus. Take away the deity of Jesus and their faith in God is imperiled or destroyed. The New Testament is not entirely to be blamed for this. The major fault lies with those who have pandered to the ignorance and superstition of the people in giving them a God created in the image of man.
So, ultimately, what the author attempts here is to strip away the "superstition", and get to a view of the realistic, human, and historical milieu in which these individuals acted. In this, much of the book unfolds like a TV "procedural" looking at events and trying to pry out of the descriptions a likely 1st century scenario. Much of this hinges on peripheral (yet recurring) characters from the biblical narrative, and positing that some of these were closer to "the inner circle" than the "big name" apostles. To give one example: when folks are sent ahead to get an ass for Jesus' entry into Jerusalem (carefully adhering to the Old Testament "script") it's not a miracle that the animal is just where Jesus tells them to look, or that the owner allows them to take it when told a particular phrase, these sorts of things have all been pre-set to allow the mythic elements to accrue to Jesus.

It would appear that the timing, situations, and activities all point to a plan to have Jesus suffer on the cross, but not to die there (the crucifixion coming so close to the sundown on the Sabbath, when his associates could beg for the body, not being a coincidence), however the "piercing of the side" seems to have complicated things, and, rather than rising to reestablish the Jewish Theocracy, Jesus dies and leaves his followers at loose ends.

The book is in two parts, the stuff leading up to the crucifixion, and the stuff that ended up coagulating into Christianity after the crucifixion. There is a lot of very interesting evidence brought forth for both sides, but way too much to even sketch out here. Needless to say, The Passover Plot is a fascinating read, and I'd highly recommend it to anybody looking to make sense of the generally absurd Christian religion! It is still in print, and has a very low cover price, so this is one that you might as well grab at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor (Amazon has a minor discount on it, and their used guys aren't much lower than that when you figure in shipping). It's not a "light" read, but is nonetheless very illuminating!

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Well, the price was right ...
This was another dollar store find. Again, I wonder what the dynamic is that lands pristine hard-cover books which are in general retail circulation there at a buck, but I try not to "look a gift horse in the mouth", and I'm really more picky than one might think from my reviews (there were three "plausible" books there today that I just wasn't motivated to read at the moment) in what I'll get there.

The "self-help" genre is not a major factor in my library (despite several recent entries), and, while I recognized the titles of the author's previous mega-sellers, I'd certainly never actually read them. Richard Carlson, Ph.D., is the "Small Stuff" guy, which gives some context to the title What About the Big Stuff?: Finding Strength and Moving Forward When the Stakes Are High, this being his look at getting through the "crunchy" parts of life (and, as anybody who reads my main journal knows, I'm going through one of those right now financially, so hoped to "pick up some pointers" for fending off the depression of joblessness in this).

I wonder, however, who "his audience" is ... I was never able to "connect" here (unlike that Robert Fulghum book of a couple of weeks back) and even the "to the point" entries of the several dozen in here seemed to be at a distance. This had a disjointed feel (to me) like tuning into a TV program that one had never seen and never heard of and having to figure out what was happening, where the characters were coming from, etc. Carlson never grounds this in his own existence (although he references his experiences frequently), and it's like he's approaching each of the sections from some randomly selected stance, one quasi-Sufi, one quasi-Buddhist, most fairly new-agey. It was a bit of a "curveball" when late in the book he starts talking about his having attended a Christian university, as his vibe up to that point was definitely not of the "preachy" variety! Perhaps he's writing for the great grey mass out there who never get particularly reflective, nor have spiritual training beyond the basic Sunday School rhetoric to help guide them through life's challenges, but the over-all impression I got from this was that it was "tepid", and while his suggestions for various situations were well-considered they were (for somebody who has read widely) a bit like suggesting that one put a band-aid on a cut, or a lotion on a burn.

There are forty sections here, which tackle (to quote from the dust jacket) "the difficult issues - from illness, death, injury and aging, to alcoholism, divorce, and financial pressures - with his trademark wise and eminently helpful advice". Again, there is nothing that jumped up here and started to trigger the B.S. sensors (well "wise and eminently helpful" came close) but there was also nothing that stood out and made me say (in the words of the late great Johnny Carson) "I did not know that!" ... and, as finding new stuff is one of my main pleasures of reading, this proved to make this something of a disappointment.

Of course, I return to the fact that this isn't my genre of choice. There are plenty of folks out there who would no doubt find this an inspirational book, but it just never connected for me, although, as noted, it's all "useful" advice. I do have one personal issue with this, however (not that all the preceding couldn't be taken as "personal issues"), I found that in reading this I kept spinning into depressive states ... but perhaps that's on me and my current situation (it could happen reading the Sports pages, I guess), and not so much on the book, but it was definitely triggering stuff for me (and not in a constructive way).

Needless to say (although I did so in the post's title) the price was right on What About the Big Stuff? for me (via the dollar store) ... if you want a copy, you're going to have to shell out more than that, although the Amazon new/used vendors do have "new" copies for as little as a penny (well, $4 with shipping). Oddly, there is a substantial discrepancy between the "cover price" on the copy I have ($19.95) and the "cover price" that Amazon (and BN) list ($27.95) ... I would not recommend paying either of those for this, of course!

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