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The Secret History of Wonder Woman

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Jill Lepore

2014


A comic-book character who not only has a back-story of her own, but also a fascinating creation story, altogether more interesting than those of the other DC and Marvel universe characters.

It's an unsettling story, though. The creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marsten, is the somewhat discredited inventor of the lie detector who spent decades trying to persuade law enforcement authorities to take his rather bogus claims seriously. (That he eventually partially succeeded probably worth a book in itself.) He also had a position as an advisor to Hollywood during on of its periodic moral panics, and had an unusual home life involving a wife and a live-in lover pretending to be his children's nanny (while actually being mother to some of them).

Despite all this, the women in his life seem to have exerted an enormous influence over his creation, who is far more independent and feminist than anything else in the genre at that time. While Marsten comes across as unbearably creepy to a modern (male) reader, he seems to have tapped into a style of characterisation that had to wait another half a century before becoming mainstream.

5/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine

Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine

Anna Della Subin

2021


Accidental divinity seems to have happened more frequently than one might expect. The mechanisms are very different, ranging from deliberately playing into people's expectations (in the case of Cortés and the Spanish conquest of South America), to possession by spirits in Nigeria and India, to the entirely accidental raising of Britain's Prince Philip to godhead.

In Prince Philip's case the claims are taken very seriously. When his new worshippers want a photograph of him, it initiates a flurry of activity to consult with anthropologists and archaeologists to determine the right way to carry the ceremonial pig-killing stick he is to appear with. There seem to be a mixture of motivations: a sincere desire not to offend, but also an unmistakable impulse to gain a subtle lever of control over a far-away imperial possession. Having a god on your side, as the Roman emperors knew, never hurts.

One perhaps has to feel sorriest for Haile Selassie, the very Christian emperor or Ethiopia who had to run for his life ahead of Mussolini's invasion and spent an exile in England campaigning for is country's liberty. After all this genuine accomplishment, he accidentally becomes a god to people he didn't know or understand as part of Rastafarianism (before becoming emperor he was known as Prince – or Ras – Tafari), which itself emerges from a Jamaican nationalism needing an origin myth. It shows how a need for religion remains entwined into the modern world's most modern impulses towards self-determination and independence.

3/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year

Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year

Carlo Levi

1945


An autobiographical tale set in a minimally-disguised corner of southern Italy, in which an anti-Fascist activist is sentenced to internal exile. And it really is an exile for a cultivated and urbane man who finds himself in a peasant community that's radically different to his experience: almost a different country.

In many ways this is a study of how two different cultures can co-exist almost side-by-side and yet touch only in the most minimal and superficial ways. The peasantry have a fatalistic view of their lot, assuming they'll be mis-treated and used by the rich; the richer members of the villages see themselves as far above the norm; while the visitor from outside remains long enough to uncover the petty jealousies and insecurities of people desperately trying to achieve and maintain their position within a strictly limited environment. The only real way to rise is to leave, to go to America and then either send home money or return and become – hopefully – someone of distinction.

There are some comic insights into how little Fascism actually penetrated into the heartlands of Italy, and how many were willing to unofficially look the other way as Levi practices as a doctor (despite being forbidden to do so) while demanding that he respects the other, most trivial, aspects of his exile. The village already has two doctors, who charge more than the peasants can afford for their services (and so remain poor themselves) but who are both determined to protect their positions – one is tempted to say to the disadvantage of their fellow villagers, but of course they don't see the peasants as "fellows" at all. A perception of social position locks everyone into place, unable to co-operate to improve things or to influence the outside world to bring help.

4/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Darien Disaster: a Scots Colony in the New World, 1698 - 1700

The Darien Disaster: a Scots Colony in the New World, 1698 - 1700

John Prebble

1968


An excellent history of Scotland's attempt to found a colonial empire in the wake of the Spanish, French, and English – and the determined attempts by all three to frustrate this.

The story is impossible to tell without also telling the domestic Sottish and English political history of the time – not least because the two were largely distinct despite the Union of the Crowns. Indeed, the fact that a single king is required to adjudicate the claims of two sets of subjects with different interests is part of the making of the disaster: the English commercial elite are determined not to allow independent Scottish engagement in international trade. The king has to choose a side, and chooses England (while trying to argue to the Scots that he isn't). This sets the scene both for Scotland to go it alone under considerable restrictions, and for England (and later Spain) to try to crush them.

It was a venture that from the modern viewpoint seems entirely doomed, and not only because literally no-one involved in promoting had ever even visited Darien, and because the leaders never developed a clear idea of who was in charge or what they were to regard as success. The alleged commercial benefits were entirely speculative and based on hearsay; the climate was unwelcoming; and the ability to claim the land legally completely at odds with the realities on the ground, which the Spanish could enforce (although they did so rather ineffectually: one has to suspect because they knew there were no riches to be had). Most of the colonists died, from the journey or from disease rather than from enemy action, and also from abandonment by their leaders.

It's a book that lacks a certain spark for the reader, and sometimes comes across as too dense. That's a shame, because Prebble has a good eye for personal foibles that illuminate character, and a very sure touch in explaining the society of the late seventeenth century, which is a period that lies neglected before the better-known Enlightenment and Jacobite eras.

4/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Electronic Brains: Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age

Electronic Brains: Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age

Mike Hally

2005


Some lesser-known tales from the early days of computing. It doesn't provide any new aspects on the stories that are well-trodden, but does illuminate some corners that deserve more attention: the role that the Lyons company of cafes had in transitioning computing from scientific calculations into commercial applications, and the contributions of the Soviet Union to the development of different hardware techniques. (Most of the latter seemed to be carried out in Ukraine.)

4/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)