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THE CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSEWriter: Larry Gonick
Synopsis: A whirlwind tour of world history, staring with the beginning of everything, executed in a hilariously amusing series of cartoon commentaries. But don't be fooled: this isn't for kids. Indeed, its witty, informative and challenging style might prove too much for some adults.
How Is It?: I wish Larry Gonick's excellent book had been around when I was in school; it would have kept me a little more open-minded about the facts my teachers spewed at me. Gonick's take, as informative as it is, is probably the most entertaining history book of this magnitude: it's just hilarious. Gonick has a healthy irreverence for just about everyone, historians and historical figures alike. He's always searching for alternate explanations to contrast the "official" versions of history, and he blows away sacred cows left and right. And did I mention he was hilarious?
Volume 1: The Big Bang to Alexander the GreatSynopsis: We see the creation of the Universe up til the appearance of humanity in "The Evolution of Everything"; watch those ape-like critters become (semi-)civilized in "Sticks and Stones"; see the origins of the ancient lands of Egypt and Sumer in "River Realms"; follow the wacky adventures of a bunch of escaped slaves in "The Old Testament"; Watch Greece pull out of the dark ages in "Brains and Bronze"; get the buck-fifty version of Herodotus in "Who Are These Athenians?"; and watch Athens pretty much invent western civilization in a depressingly short time in "All About Athens".
How Is It?: A highly entertaining romp through ancient history--even a fan of the subject like myself found dozens of interesting facts and theories I'd never heard before. The "Primordial Sandwich", Gonick's take on the Rite of Moloch, and the theoretical aquatic stage of human evolution are just some of the many fascinating ideas Gonick has stumbled across in his research. The art is something of a mixed bag, with volumes 1 and 5 having some of the best artwork in the series, and volume 7 having the worst (a shame to see the glorious golden age of Athens rendered in a style that resembles Quentin Blake, but uglier). With each issue being 50 pages, and bursting with insight and info, this book should find a place on your coffee table right away.
Volume 2: The Springtime of China to the Fall of RomeSynopsis: Indian history is covered in "Is Everything Sacred?"; China gets a major breakdown in "Family Matters" and "Jaded Princes"; Rome goes from democracy to empire in "Republicans"; some guy claiming to be the son of God pops up in Judea in "Render Unto Caesar"; and the fall of Rome and the China's Han Dynasty (and the rise of Christianity and Buddhism) are paralleled in "One Way or Three?"
How Is It?: Having studied history fairly extensively beforehand, I knew a lot of the events in the previous volume--but here Gonick provides looks at the less-frequently chronicled eastern nations, which were almost entirely new to me. Chinese history, in particular, comes alive in Gonick's retelling as a bustling epic that spans thousands of years and gives the country the attention it rarely gets from western historians. Gonick seems to have a special affection for the story of the brutal Hsiang Yu and the daringly inventive Liu Pang, who competed to become the first Han emperor (this story unfolds as a downright exciting epic). Oh yes, and religious folk should definitely skip volume 5, which deals with a strictly historical Jesus, no less worthy of ridicule than any of the other characters Gonick's been lampooning so far. If anything, this book is more fascinating than the first.
Volume 3: The Rise of Arabia to the RenaissanceSynopsis: Delve into the fascinating origins of the Islamic world in "No Pictures, Please!"; African history makes its appearance with "Diversity"; learn about the "middlemen" of history (the Turks and Mongols) with "The Middle of Somewhere"; time for the dark ages in "Dim and Dimmer"; The Crusades get a-hoppin' in "Cross People"; and then it's the Black Death & the beginnings of the Renaissance in "The Pest & the West".
How Is It?: Well, I'm glad it finally came out! Gonick's third volume is more of the same--that's a good thing. This volume mostly covers the era between 500-1500 AD, and in keeping with his wide-ranging approach, much of the time is spent on the Middle East--which was, after all, the home of true civilization during that millennium between the fall of Rome and the Rennaissance. Europe gets plenty of attention, though, and of course the two cultures clash--big time!--when the crusades come around. There's also welcome detours concerning African history and the Mongol invasion of China (which also reveals why Ghengis never swept into Europe). Gonick's batting three for three so far. Now, I need to get my hands on this "Cartoon History of America" I've heard about...
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