Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Quick Shot Reviews

I've read several interesting books lately, so I thought I would share...

The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

Okay, I admit it. I checked this book out from the library almost completely because of the title. Seriously, it's one of the best titles I think I've ever seen. I'm glad I did though, as I learned a huge amount. In a nutshell, at several points in its history, Timbuktu has served as the world centre of Islamic learning and culture, and in the late medieval and early modern areas, hundreds of thousands of hand-written manuscripts were produced in and around the city, covering all sorts of topics. Many of these manuscripts still exist. This book tells the story of how one man helped collect these manuscripts for preservation and then had to try and save them again, when Timbuktu was taken over my Islamic extremists.

The book is part biography, part history, part adventure, and even part military history, and most of it is really fascinating. It's not perfect though. It's a short book and in places it feels a bit padded - with biographies of characters that seem pretty tangential to the story. Also, the story bounces around a bit, with the author himself seeming to intrude on his own story sometimes. Finally - something that really annoyed me. The book opens with a little narrative introduction, where some of the manuscripts are being smuggled through a terrorist checkpoint. It's a great, tense scene, but it also struck me as deliberately misleading. Not the event, that seems to have happened as described, but the author seems to purposely avoid naming the person involved. We are left with the thought that it is the main character of the book, and it is not.

Still, all of these things are minor gripes about a really good book.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - ed. Brian Stone

In my opinion, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the greatest works of the English language, and the pinnacle of medieval Arthurian writing. I have read the story numerous times, in several translations. Unsure if I had read this specific translation, I picked it up at a used book store. I always get something new when reading this poem. This time, in one of the footnotes, I learned that one of the challenges of translating this poem into modern English is that our modern language only really has one word left to describe the weapon wielded by the Green Knight. Today, we'd call it an ax. Apparently, back then, they had lots of different words to better distinguish between many similar weapons.

Only by bring this distinction back do we learn that the Greek Knight is wielding a different weapon at the beginning of the poem than he is at the end. Apparently at the beginning he's wielding a weapon closer to a guisarme and at the end, it's more like a Danish ax. Is that important? I don't know, but it fascinated me!

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield 

This short work is like a literary punch in the stomach. The central theme is 'stop messing around and do the work you were born to do', and Mr. Pressfield approaches it kind of like a marine drill instructor. His main audience is artists - specifically writers and painters, but really, his point applies to everyone.

If you are an artist, or some one who is struggling because they sense (or know) that they are not doing what they really believe they should be, then I strongly suggest you check it out. It's not a book that is likely to make you feel better about yourself, but it just might teach you an important lesson.


  1. Thanks for the reviews, the book first sounds very good, depending on the poem the second sounds possible, I still shiver at the memory of trying to read The Faerie Queen. The third doesn't interest me I'm afraid.

    1. The Sir Gawain translation above was pretty good, as it kept the poem in its alliterative style, without becoming difficult to follow. It's also short enough as to not be overwhelming - it is nothing - nothing - like trying to read The Faerie Queen!