The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols by Genevieve von Petzinger. A non-fiction but breezily readable book about cave paintings. Many people are aware of the famous Ice Age paintings of animals – the horses and bison of Lascaux, the lions and bears at Chauvet – but less well-known are the abstract, geometric signs which pop up in this art just as often: dots, lines, X's, empty squares, etc. Mostly this is because the geometeric signs have been largely ignored by archaeologists themselves, who have a tradition of assuming that they're meaningless doodles, patches where the artists were testing their paints, or otherwise unimportant. Fortunately those assumptions are beginning to change.
von Petzinger is an archaeologist herself, one whose research has focused on documenting and analyzing the geometric signs, but this book is very much aimed at a non-specialist audience. She does a great job at providing the background to understand why this is such a fascinating topic (short version: it's the beginning of humans' making art, and may well be evidence of the oldest human language and capacity for symbolism as well). She is also great at mixing her theories with more tactile, personal experiences of crawling around in dark caves or visiting obscure museums, keeping the book from spending too much time in the realm of the abstract. She covers various theories for what the art might "mean" (were they painting animals they wanted to hunt? painting their religious experiences? representing a battle between maleness and femaleness?), and though von Petzinger makes her own personal favorite explanation clear, she keeps from ultimately declaring any single one to be THE answer. Which I appreciate. I've seen some reviewers annoyed that the signs remain mysterious, but honestly, any book claiming to definitively solve a centuries-old scientific mystery is probably a book you should be suspicious of.
Overall, a really great introduction to the topic, and one that I think could be interesting to a lot of people, especially if you like worldbuilding in fantasy or sci-fi. I always think that the Upper Paleolithic art is a great example of how utterly alien other humans can be while still being recognizable as ourselves, and it's endlessly fun to speculate on what they were like.
Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade by Joe Lansdale. Hap & Leonard is a mystery/thriller series that I discovered a year or two ago and have been slowly making my way through. The basic premise is that Hap is a liberal white straight ex-hippie, Leonard is a black gay conservative Vietnam vet, and together they fight crime! And also are best friends in rural East Texas, despite the problems that caused in the 60s and 70s and sometimes still today. Lansdale writes with an ironic, self-deprecating tone that makes the series appeal to me much more than a more straightforward 'tough guys beat up bad guys' take on the same idea would.
This book is collection of short stories, though Lansdale himself describes it as a "mosaic novel". In summary: Hap and Leonard spend a night driving around town, shooting the shit and doing nothing much in particular. As their conservation drifts along and they pass by places they used to know, memories spark off flashbacks which lead into short stories, mostly about Hap's childhood, his parents, and particularly his relationship to racism, but also covering the first time Hap and Leonard met and the first time they got into trouble together. (Two of the stories were published previously in another context, but they're integrated so well into the rest that I wouldn't have known if I hadn't already read them: "The Boy Who Became Invisible" and "Not Our Kind".) But despite mostly taking place in the past, I don't think this would make for a good introduction to the series; a lot of the power of the stories depends on already knowing these characters and having an emotional connection to them and their relationship. On the other hand, if you do know them, this is a wonderful expansion of their history.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
Mount TBR update: No new additions this week! My yearly total is still at 2.
What are you currently reading?
The Enthusiast by Josh Fruhlinger. A comedy novel. I've been in desperate need of light, escapist reading material for the last week, and this is fulfilling that desire.
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