What I’m Reading

This page is a running list of interesting books I am reading or rereading.

March 18, 2013: Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family by Frank Ching (1988, Fawcett Columbine: New York).

March 27, 2013:

I’m really enjoying Ancestors. It traces 900 years of Chinese history through one family’s experiences. Since the family has been deeply involved with Imperial politics so far (I’m on page 330 of 470) it’s not just interesting reading about one lineage, but rather a microcosm of imperial history. I just read a chapter on a White Lotus rebellion. Good reading!

April 1, 2013:

I finished Ancestors last night. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It’s a very different, more personal look at Chinese history. I will admit that I was a bit surprised that there was no summary to the narrative at the end. Overall, though, it was well-written, kept moving, and gave a real sense of the people and their challenges in many different historical periods.

April 1, 2013: Understanding Witchcraft and Sorcery in Southeast Asia, edited  by C. W. Watson and Roy Ellen (1993, University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu).

This book is a collection of academic papers, and was the first book I read for graduate school. Going back and re-reading the introduction, I was surprised at how much more sense it makes now compared to the first time I read it.

April 3, 2013:

The second article in the book is, “The Relativity of Magical Malevolence in Urban Thailand” by Louis Golomb. One of its more interesting points is the common use of “outside” groups to perform sorcery. This is a fairly common phenomenon, apparently; people looking for  someone to do magic will seek out an “outsider” to do it. If we just think about how Westerners tend to pay “gypsies” to do their palm reading, it makes sense.

April 11, 2013:

I’m really enjoying rereading Understanding Witchcraft and Sorcery in Southeast Asia. While not every chapter in the book is riveting, the book is extremely well done overall. Since I read it at the beginning of graduate school, I missed a lot of the context for the arguments put forth. Reading it again, sometimes it seems like the first time for me.

One real difference that I’ve found is that having a knowledge of both the colonial history of the area, and the political shifts that have happened since, opens up a whole new level of interpretation of the findings.

April 14, 2013:

I just finished Understanding Witchcraft and Sorcery in Southeast Asia today. The last several chapters didn’t change my mind about the contents.

I enjoyed “Knowledge, Power, and Personal Misfortune in a Malay Context” by Michael G. Peletz and “Return to Sender: A Muslim Discourse on Sorcery in a Relatively Egalitarian Society” by John R. Bowen the most of all the chapters in the book. Their case studies and social settings were particularly interesting. I realized that some of the local terms, and some of the names in the case studies, have stuck with me over the fourteen years since I read them the first time.

For anyone interested in the anthropology of sorcery and witchcraft, I recommend this book as an adjunct to Evans-Pritchard’s classic work on the Azande.

May 6, 2013: Zen in the Martial Arts, by Joe Hyams (1982 (1979), Bantam Books: New York).

I first read this book years ago (I was probably in graduate school), and found it simplistic. Upon rereading it, however, I found it to be powerful in its simplicity. I recommend this book to pretty much anyone, not just those with an interest in the martial arts.

August 17, 2013: The Gallic Wars, by Julius Caesar (trans. by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn)

My latest reading project is The Gallic Wars. If I can find a translation at the local used bookstore, I’ll update the bibliography information.

I’m a few chapters into the book, and it’s actually pretty interesting. So far, I’m just reading about how the Gauls prepared for war, and the author’s interpretation of why they chose to go to war.

We don’t think about the challenges of supply lines in the time period of the Gallic Wars, but the various tribes took two years to lay in supplies, and then burned their villages when they left. That means, or implies, that they weren’t sending just the warriors off to fight. Instead, they were moving the whole tribe. Maybe that’s one difference we can mark between the soldiers of Rome and the warriors of the various tribal groups.

If I read it right, Caesar’s interpretation of why the groups went to war was cultural. There is no discussion of economics, of population pressure, or anything like that. It’s simply a matter of the tribes being warlike, but not living in a place where they have good access to enemies. Is this accurate? I’m in no position to say.

September 6, 2013:

I finished Book I of The Gallic Wars. The book is as interesting for what it doesn’t say as what it does. The local politics involved are neat, when one local leader comes up against another, with the first trying to stop a war and the second rabble-rousing to get things started.

The battles are spoken of in a matter-of-fact manner that is probably made more interesting by the fact that I’m already familiar with both basic Roman military technology and strategy (thank you, Wikipedia and a year of Latin classes).

One of the things left out, at least so far, is field conditions. They’re marching around Gaul, and fighting with the Belgae (a German tribe that had come across the river). The food doesn’t show up on time because of local interference, the auxiliaries get their horses “borrowed” by the Tenth Legion (Caesar’s favorites) and negotiations go awry. You can almost hear Caesar swearing as you read between the lines.

All in all, I’m enjoying it more than many action movies. The terse descriptions can, at times, be quite moving.

February 2, 2014: The White Lotus: Teachings in Chinese Religious History, by B.J. ter Haar (1999(1992)), University of Hawai’i Press: Honolulu).

I got frustrated with Caesar after Book I. I’ll probably come back to it when I find it in hard-copy, but reading on my phone was terribly frustrating.

I’m now reading a book that’s been on my reading list for a couple of years: The White Lotus Teaching in Chinese History.

I’m somewhere deep in the introduction of the book, where the author lays out his premise of the book (as I understand it so far): that the White Lotus Society and the White Lotus Teachings are not all tied together in a neat package, but are rather a collection of disparate groups associating themselves, or being associated by others, with the White Lotus.

I am really enjoying the book so far.

2 thoughts on “What I’m Reading”

  1. That is very fascinating about the book on Witchcraft and Sorcery in Southeast Asia. I’ll have to find that. When I have time I will have to tell you more about the healing of my stepdaughter by a peasant farmer in the Philippines. She had a mental breakdown after the death of her biological father. She was only 9 years old and doctors said that this kind of breakdown was very unusual in someone so young. (She acted like a scared little animal, didn’t talk, didn’t eat, was relatively non-responsive, and her eyes looked just like the eyes of a scared animal—-that is the vibe I got). The doctors gave very little hope of recovery. My Filipina wife wanted to take her to an exorcism. I had already seen one of those, and did not want to subject her to that. Out of the blue I suggested we find a traditional healer that did things the old way before the Spanish. The taxi driver knew this old man, and took us to him the next day.

    I could relate more to the story, but in a nutshell he consulted with his spirit helpers and we walked to a nearby stream and a few moments later she was healed—it was a case of soul retrieval. She suddenly looked up and said, “Mama, where am I?”

    It was an event that certainly changed my life. My wife’s great grandparents were old healers, and the family all claims gifts that were handed down from them. None of them understand much about the gifts, because the Spanish and Catholicism did a good job of stamping out all those old ways. I try to learn all I can of the older Philippine traditions but there is much less on that than Indonesian traditions or Thai, or Balinese and so forth. I am convinced that the old ways could help the family. My wife has a half sister who suffers from epilepsy. My father-in-law says that the night she started to suffer from this, she started speaking in an old-ladies voice in Visayan, a language from the Central Islands that she does not speak. My father-in-law speaks Visayan and asked her who she was, then demanded, what he says, was a dead relative of his wife, to leave his daughter alone. There are other stories I could tell too.

    Unfortunately we never learned how to get in touch with that farmer again. At the time, I was actually a bit stunned by what happened.

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