Nothing New Under the Sun

Title: The Landmark Thucydides:
A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War
Author: Thucydides
Editor: Robert B. Strassler
Pages: 669
Rating: 4 of 5

A powerful democracy that takes credit for saving the civilized world from tyranny and now dominates an empire of “allies” versus a brutal military oligarchy where most of the people are slaves or second class citizens…it’s Athens vs. Sparta (What? Who did you think I was talking about?). But, seriously, this is an intriguing (if long) ancient history book. One of Thucydides’ points is that history repeats itself with some variations in magnitude/brutality. The realpolitik that drives this conflict shows that human nature hasn’t really changed in the last 2,300+ years.

This particular edition of Thucydides is from the same series as The Landmark Herodotus which I reviewed here. Like its predecessor, this book is stuffed with helpful background information in the form of footnotes, maps, appendices, section summaries, etc. The maps were by far the most helpful feature. They come in a variety of scales, every few pages and show only the sites that are relevant to the section in which they occur.

The one slightly disappointing aspect of this book was the translation. I don’t know how much this would bother the average person, but I studied quite a bit of Greek translation theory in college and seminary so it bugs me (i.e. I’m a translation snob). Rather than a new (or even recent) translation, this book used a Victorian era (1874) translation with modern language “pasted over” any phrasing that sounded too awkward or archaic. It read smoothly enough for the most part, but that is just not great translation methodology for a scholarly publication. It ignores the last 140+ years of scholarship in Greek translation theory, produces a hybrid Victorian-Modern English that was never actually spoken by anyone, and may introduce unnecessarily interpretive paraphrasing when decisions are made based purely on English style. To be fair, I haven’t compared it to the original Greek myself (I studied Koine rather than Classical Greek) so I can’t speak to accuracy…I just question the methodology.

Overall, an excellent book for those who enjoy ancient history and/or the study of human nature in politics and war.

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Eerily Prophetic

Title: Fahrenheit 451
Author: Ray Bradbury
Genre: Dystopian Science Fiction
Pages: 180
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This is the second time I’ve read this book (the first time was 9 or 10 years ago), and I noticed a lot more relevance this time around. The ideas of banal/violent interactive media turning people into inane loners and of government-imposed destruction of independent thought naturally growing out of popular-level boycott/censorship of anything deemed offensive by anyone seem eerily prophetic of the direction our society could be headed.

Bradbury’s dreamy-repetitiveness, synesthesia-filled descriptions, half-mad metaphors, and other poetic touches definitely add to the reading experience. However, to be honest, I can only enjoy his style for so long before I need to read something a little more straightforward.

One thing that makes this stand out from other classic dystopian novels is that there is at least a hint that the age of lonely ignorance does not have to last forever if people are willing to stand together against it in their own small way. It’s not a light, happy book by any means, but it’s not quite as grimdark as the likes of 1984, Brave New World, or A Clockwork Orange.

If you are a lover of books this is a must read. Ray Bradbury’s love of literature shines through the whole work as he provides a moving reminder of the dangers of technology-obsession and the suppression of potentially-offensive and/or contradictory ideas.

The Curse of Capistrano

Title: The Mark of Zorro
Author: Johnston McCulley
Genre: Pulp Adventure
Pages: 311
Rating: 4 of 5

Warning: this review contains the spoiler of Zorro’s secret identity. Of course, that is probably only marginally less known than the fact that Clark Kent is Superman so it’s not much of a spoiler. Still, it would be a huge spoiler for the book if you somehow didn’t know so…you have been warned.

There have been many incarnations of Zorro ranging from truly entertaining to so-bad-it’s-good (the full color 15 minute episodes that came on after MacGyver when I was a teen in Brazil were hilariously lousy). This book is the original and it was good cheesy fun as Señor Zorro (only once or twice is he just plain Zorro) fights against and punishes abuses of power.

My favorite part of this book was the hero’s behavior when he is being Don Diego. This version of Don Diego acts like a ridiculous, languid fop so that no one could possibly associate him with the dashing Señor Zorro. Don Diego’s seemingly naive questioning of those humiliated by Señor Zorro is one of the more entertaining elements of the book.

This Zorro does not wield a whip (except in one instance of avenging a wrongly-beaten friar), preferring to hold people at pistol point long enough to set up a fair one-on-one sword fight. He only carves a into something once, but the plot features the usual mustache-twirling villains, spunky damsels in distress, galloping horse chases, etc. that you expect from the adventures of The Fox. I was expecting the book to end on some kind of cliffhanger setup for Zorro’s next great adventure, but it actually rounds off with what could easily be a “happily ever after” ending…enough so that I’m curious how Zorro ever managed to have any more adventures…I guess I’ll have to track down the next book to find out.

The Devil Went Down to Moscow

Title: The Master & Margarita
Author: Mikhail Bulgakov
Translators: Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky
Genre: Modern Russian Classic
Pages: 432
Rating: 2 of 5

A subtitle to this review could be: “What did I just read?” This is one of those books where I have to wonder if some of its critical acclaim doesn’t come from the “I didn’t understand half of what was going on but it sounded so deep!” factor. The book mixes together historical fiction, magical realism, and romance to tell the intertwined stories of Pontius Pilate’s interaction with Jesus and Satan visiting Soviet era Moscow with his entourage (complete with gun-wielding talking cat). I’d probably have to read the book another time or two to fully understand how the stories play off each other, but I didn’t enjoy it enough to do so any time soon.

The aspect of the book that I enjoyed most was the social commentary. I’m not sure  how Bulgakov managed to publish this without ending up “disappeared” or in the gulag. He points out the absurdity of atheism (or at least anti-supernaturalism), the housing shortage, censorship of literature, the greed and privilege of the rich, the climate of silence surrounding arrests and disappearances, cowardice (especially cowardice), and more, but he does it all in a light humorous tone.

Some of the antics of Satan’s associates are entertaining as they expose the nastiness in society, but the overall portrayal of spiritual issues and characters in the book twisted them from their biblical portrayal so much that it irked me. Given the central position of Jesus Christ the Son of God in my worldview, I have a hard time appreciating a book that portrays him as a slightly loony, naively optimistic travelling philosopher of illegitimate birth while playing the devil as a clear-sighted cynic capable of giving people true peace.

A Bit Too Hercule Poirot

Title: The IPCRESS File
(Secret File #1)
Author: Len Deighton
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 230
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I prefer the realistic-if-depressing John LeCarré flavor of spy thriller to the uber-macho Ian Fleming variety. The blurb at the start of this book said that the press used it to “beat Ian Fleming about the head” when it came out at the same time as the first James Bond movie, so I decided to give it a shot.

Unlike most of the other spy fiction I have read, this was narrated in the first person by a somewhat shady member of British intelligence (Deighton has no illusions about how nasty the spy business is). This gave it a similar feeling to a lot of the old hard-boiled detective stories, complete with a lot of jargon and slang that took a little while to get used to but added good color to the story. I was also impressed by the appendices in the back that gave some back-story at appropriate points, increasing the impression that this actually happened.

The plot seemed a bit all over the place, and it was hard to figure out how things connected and if there was some kind of overriding plot that our hero was supposed to be foiling. Sometimes this works in spy novels as everything ties together in the end, but I wasn’t very pleased with the resolution on this one. It turns out that our narrator has been holding back information and knew more-or-less what was going on a lot of the time but didn’t bother to let us in on any of it until the end. It was a bit too Hercule Poirot for my taste. Aside from that, it was well-written enough that I’ll probably be giving Deighton another try sometime soon.

Robot Noir

Title: Made to Kill
(Ray Electromatic Mysteries: Book 1)
Author: Adam Christopher
Genre: Science Fiction Noir
Pages: 237
Rating: 4 of 5

First, a huge thank you to The BiblioSanctum for hosting the book giveaway where I won this (and its sequel)!

I love both science fiction and detective/noir fiction (of the 1920’s-50’s variety – especially Raymond Chandler). This excellent book is a mashup of the two, and to make things even better it intentionally follows the style of Raymond Chandler. The author pictures it as the sci-fi novel Chandler never wrote and prefaces it with this quote from one of his letters: “Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It is written like this…”

Our first person narrator protagonist is the last robot on earth. He used to work as a PI, but now uses that as a cover for his new profession of hit man in an alternate 1960’s Los Angeles. His rechargeable battery and 24 hour memory limit are a challenge, so the room-size computer, Ada, is his boss and the real brains of the operation. The only part of the worldbuilding that felt a little “off” was that he didn’t get more attention from average people on the street, what with being the last robot on earth. I don’t want to say much about the case due to spoilers, but you can expect a lot of the kinds of elements you’d find in the pulps (of both the Amazing Stories and Black Mask varieties).

The narration is delightfully snarky like Chandler, though not rising to the level of cleverness found in his Philip Marlowe stories. The one narration things that got on my nerves after a while was how often he commented that when he smiled, raised an eyebrow, etc. it was only on the inside because his face is immobile. It got a bit repetitive (kind of like how Harry Dresden mentions his duster every few pages in the Dresden Files series). The ending was a little abrupt and some of the characters’ actions/motivations were a bit confusing, but that’s pretty par for the course for this kind of detective story (e.g. in Chandler’s The Big Sleep we’re never told who committed one of the murders). Overall: a fun mashup, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one (though I’m putting it off until I finish a couple other books I’m in the middle of so that I can make it last).

A Rare Politics-related Post

I hate debating political topics or commenting on politics in a forum where a flame war could erupt (so don’t expect a lively debate in the comments section here). However, as a relatively conservative Christian who happens to be white, I am saddened and appalled at the way in which many of my fellow Christian are responding to this:

Image result for white nationalist protests torches

I don’t know anyone personally who is openly in favor of white nationalism, but I am seeing a shocking tendency of white, conservative Christians to brush it off as “no big deal.” Because men like these torch-wielding bigots would claim to speak/act on our behalf, those of us who are white Christians need to pause from the “sure, white supremacists are bad, but what I really want to rant about is…[antifa, confederate monuments, the media, BLM, Obama, the Left, Trump, etc.]” and make it very clear that by no stretch of the imagination is the white nationalist cause justifiable, defensible, or “no big deal” for a follower of Jesus Christ (who walked the earth as a Middle-Eastern man).

This article by Kevin DeYoung (written after the 2015 church shooting in Charleston) articulately explains why racism is a serious sin against God and humans who are made in His image, not just a stepping stone to rant against perceived hypocrisy.

Fascist Utopia

Image result for starship troopers coverTitle: Starship Troopers
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Genre: Classic Military Science Fiction
Pages: 208
Rating: 4 of 5

This classic sci-fi novel has surprisingly little action compared to the sub-genre that it spawned/influenced (e.g. the Warhammer 40,000 franchise). The entire middle section of the book is essentially a philosophical glorification of militarism and fascistic government (“…the power of the Rods and the Ax…political authority is force.” – p. 145). Most of the book focuses on our narrator’s education in “History and Moral Philosophy,” brutal military training, camaraderie with fellow infantry, and experience in the chain of command. The various lectures and conversations along the way serve as an opportunity for the author to express his views.

In this “glorious” future, the “noble but misguided” democratic governments of the 20th century have failed, and humanity is united into a multi-planet federation in which citizenship and the right to vote and participate in politics (i.e. wield force – p. 145) is limited to military veterans (from an all-volunteer military in which anyone can try to serve out a discouragingly-difficult term). This arrangement is justified with the argument that a veteran is the only one who has demonstrated “that he places the welfare of the group ahead ahead of personal advantage” (pp. 144-145). No exposition is given of how non-citizens fare in this “utopia.” Any mention of civilians quickly dismisses them as mostly-contented, ignorant, cowardly sheep who very occasionally need to be kept in line with public flogging or hanging.

Throughout the course of the book, there is much more exposition of questionable (at best) views on the nature of morality, warfare, leadership, etc.. Humanity’s war against “the bugs,” an aggressive hive-mind race, provides some plot and a couple action sequences that keep the book from being a purely philosophical treatise.

As much a I found most of Heinlein’s views disturbing, the book was very interesting. Its vivid description of military service and unashamed advocacy and explanation of fascistic oligarchy provide a useful perspective on how and why some (by no means all or even most!) veterans and/or extreme-right-wing people think…not to mention that it’s just good, solid sci-fi.

Fun Spooky Doom!

Title: Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom:
A Novel of Retropolis
Author: Bradley W. Schenck
Genre: Retro Science Fiction
Pages: 383
Rating: 4 of 5

First, a big thank-you to BiblioSanctum for sponsoring the giveaway where I won this. It was a fun read!

This lighthearted adventure is set in Retropolis, a city of the future as imagined by pulp sci-fi authors: hoversleds, personal rockets, mad scientists, priests of the spider god (who live on the moon), robots, and don’t forget the switchboard from the title. The author works in plenty of tropes without obscure in-jokes, so anyone can enjoy it. Either that or the obscure jokes went over my head…either way, it was great! Most of the characters are delightfully quirky, if a little one-note. I don’t want to describe them here because meeting them is a big part of the enjoyment.

Rather than straight up good vs. evil, this is more of an order vs. chaos story with a nice twist (though it does bear similarities to a popular children’s movie from a few years ago).  There were parts where the action was a little slow and messy, and I was wavering toward a three-star rating, but in the end the scattery style worked. The narration had occasional silly comments or clever turns of phrase that reminded me of a slightly saner Douglas Adams. Overall: not a literary masterpiece (after all, it is based on pulp sci-fi), but charmingly enjoyable.

Image result for yay we're doomed

But did they say “ARRRR!”?

Title: The Golden Age of Piracy:
The Truth Behind Pirate Myths
Author:
Benerson Little
Genre: History
Pages: 307
Rating: 4 of 5

Don’t read this book if you are the kind of person who gets angry when someone takes the wind out of a great story with cold, hard facts. This book mostly seeks to describe what the average pirate was like during the golden age of piracy (~1655-1725), and in the process it systematically destroys the image of bad-but-misunderstood-and-noble-at-heart swashbuckling heroes.

The author makes heavy use of primary sources to describe what various typical pirate activities (seizing a ship, attacking a town, fighting a duel, practicing democracy, dealing with slaves, etc.) actually looked like. He also describes rarer, more dramatic events that served as the basis of how most Literary/Hollywood pirates behave.

Sometimes he uses typical history book explanations and sometimes he reconstructs and retells events in more dramatic fashion (with quite a bit of “might have” “could have” “must have” speculation). Occasionally he is repetitive (a danger in any topically arranged history) and  tends to take the least dramatic interpretation of almost every event, but overall this is an excellent, informative book that that seeks to draw its views out of the primary sources rather than reading a pet theory into them.