Soviet Spies in the Seventies

Title: The Falcon and the Snowman:
A True Story of Friendship and Espionage
Author: Robert Lindsey
Genre: True Crime (Espionage)
Pages: 359
Rating: 4 out of 5

I enjoy well-written true espionage tales. To me, a good true espionage author sifts through a lot of sketchy half-true information and offers a credible explanation of what motivated the people involved, how they executed their plans and/or were captured, and what impact they may have had on world events. Robert Lindsey does all of this admirably in this Edgar Award-winning book about two California boys from prosperous families who sold top secret spy satellite info to the USSR in the 1970’s.

The Falcon and the Snowman is not a high-action book. In fact, the actual espionage activity seems depressingly easy for the most part. The author focuses more on the spies’ relationships and psychology. He portrays one as a career criminal drug dealer who is only in it for the money and the other as a disillusioned ideologue lashing out at American duplicity and corruption.

As far as writing style, some of the author’s jumping around in the timeline felt unnecessarily confusing and repetitive (especially in the first half), but not to the point of ruining the book. He comes across relatively neutral in his presentation of events but clearly feels some sympathy for (though not necessarily agreement with) the more ideology-driven spy. Overall, I would recommend this to any fan of true espionage, but if you are new to the genre you would be better off starting with something by Ben MacIntyre who is the absolute master of the true spy tale.

(Also, this is my first read finished for the TBR Pile Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader)

Back to the Classics Wrap Up

It’s been nearly a month since my last post here, but I’m still alive…just very busy and a bit burned out (holidays plus three funerals plus trying to find people to serve on church boards…). I’m not sure if postings will get any more frequent in the new year, but I want to at least post my final wrap up for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I managed to finish books in all 12 categories this year. My reads for this challenge were (titles linked to full review):

19th Century Classic: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James – an excellent ghost story…or do we just have an unreliable narrator?

20th Century Classic: On the Road by Jack Kerouac – completely hated this drug and sex fueled ramble to nowhere.

Classic by a Woman: Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier – I loved her Rebecca, liked My Cousin Rachel, but this just felt like a melodramatic Harlequin romance without the sex.

Classic in Translation: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux – This was melodramatic too but in a much more enjoyable way.

A Classic by BIPOC Author: Chaka by Thomas Mofolo – I expected this to be hero-worshippy, but it ended up feeling like a Shakespearian tragedy on the order of Titus Andronicus.

Classic by a New-to-you Author: Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac – The cynicism and greed of this book was just depressing.

New Classic by a Favorite Author: Bleak House by Charles Dickens – Charles Dickens rips on lawyers…excellent as always, but probably better for people who are already Dickens fans.

Classic about an Animal: Moby Dick – An excellent novella on revenge and obsession bloated into an unwieldy novel by the author’s need to infodump every “fact” he knows about whales and whaling.

Children’s Classic: Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll – delightful punny nonsense. I much preferred it to Alice in Wonderland.

Classic Humor or Satire: The Way We Live Now – a look at high society manipulation for money, matrimony, or both…the kind of satire that is caustic rather than humorous.

A Travel or Adventure Classic: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett – a quirky epistolary novel with minimal plot and rude humor.

A Classic Play: Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose – the strengths and weaknesses of trial by jury on display

And that’s it! Thanks to Karen at Books and Chocolate for hosting this again!

The Play’s the Thing…

Title: Twelve Angry Men
Author: Reginald Rose
Genre: Play
Pages: 96
Rating: 5 of 5

This play demonstrates the positives and negatives of trial by jury as twelve jurymen determine the fate of a young man accuses of first-degree murder. Eleven men enter the room ready to send him to the chair, with only a single juror wanting to discuss the matter enough to establish or dispel reasonable doubt. Tension rises and tempers flare in the ensuing debate as the life of the accused hangs in the balance. Along the way we see apathy, prejudice, malice, reason, and compassion on display. This thoughtful play is well worth reading or, better yet, watching (the 1957 movie version is fantastic). I’ll be using this for the Classic Play category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

THE POT OF GOLD AND OTHER PLAYS : THE PRISONERS; THE BROTHERS MENAECHMUS;  THE SWAGGERING SOLDIER; PSEUDOLUS Translated by E. F. Watling by Plautus -  Paperback - 1965 - from Dromanabooks (SKU: 33720)

Title: The Pot of Gold and Other Plays
Author: Plautus
Translator: E. F. Watling
Genre: Plays (obviously)
Pages: 268
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The last time I tried reading ancient comedic plays I found it boring and annoying overall. Humor does not usually translate well from one language and culture to another, but these plays be Plautus gave me the occasional smile and chuckle (some of the “fourth wall breaks” were quite funny). I am not sure how much of that was the original author’s wit and how much was the translator’s rather free rendering. The translation is prose (the original is poetry), and some of the clever turns of phrase seem anachronistic or otherwise unlikely to be original.

The plots occasionally bordered on the nonsensical, but overall were reminiscent of plot devices (re)used in Shakespeare’s comedies. The treatment of women and slaves as well as some other cultural aspects made me cringe, but also provided a window into what it was like to live in the ancient world. Overall, it was a good reading experience.

Misc. Mini Reviews

It’s that time of year when blogging takes a back seat to holiday family fun and a busy church calendar, but today I have enough time for a few mini-reviews.

Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by [A. Lee Martinez]

Title: Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain
Author: A. Lee Martinez
Genre: Humorous Sci-fi
Pages: 320
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This reminds me of several comedic movies that feature a “genius supervillain” as the protagonist (Megamind, Despicable Me, Doctor Horrible’s Sing-along Blog). The main difference is that Emperor Mollusk is actually (almost) as smart and competent as he thinks he is (having once actually conquered the earth, though he is now semi-retired). The plot is a bit episodic and silly, but the oversize egos, snappy repartee, tongue-in-cheek sci-fi tropes, etc., make this a lot of fun if you like that sort of humor.

Silverview: A Novel by [John le Carré]

Title: Silverview
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage “Thriller”
Pages: 224
Rating: 3 of 5

John LeCarré’s final (posthumous) book doesn’t add much to his body of work. It features the usual brooding disillusionment of “was all this spy stuff worth it?” “do I really believe in anything” and his newer books’ recurring theme of “modern government ideology is incoherent.” Most of the story follows the point of view of a minor secondary player who is largely in the dark, providing some “what is going on here?” interest (but not much). If you’re really into LeCarré, give it a shot, but don’t expect much of anything new.

Title: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
Author: James Hogg
Genre: Classic Gothic Novel
Pages: 265
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Who knew that you could write a Gothic novel based on some sort of warped hyper-Calvinist theology? The author weaves a dark tale of the depths to which someone can sink if they misapply the doctrines of divine election and justification (“God has declared me eternally righteous, so everything I do must be his will…”). The story is told first as a third-person report of murderous events and then largely retold in the first person by the self-righteous cause of it all (urged on by a Mephistophelian “friend”). Read it an interesting exploration of religious mania or just a quirky Gothic novel. Either way, it’s worth a read.

All About Whales! (oh, and Ahab…)

Moby-Dick

Title: Moby Dick
Author: Herman Melville
Genre: American Classic
Pages: 464
Rating: 3.5 of 5

To me, Moby Dick feels like an excellent novella that bloated into an unfocused novel. Melville lards on every “fact” and opinion about whales, whaling, and whalers that he can think of, moralizing as he goes. Some of it is relevant, some of it is interesting, some of it is disturbing, but the cumulative effect is to submerge the compelling main story in a sea of tangential boringness.

That said, I can’t think of a better portrayal of the destructive and contagious nature of bitterness, obsession, and vengeance than Captain Ahab and his crew. I won’t even try to analyze what (if anything or many things) the white whale stands for (ask Ron Swanson) since I think that Ahab’s prideful self-obsession and clearly expressed rage against God and nature are the main point.

Overall, this richly deserves its place as an American Classic, even if I wish Melville had saved 80% of his whales and whaling info for a separate non-fiction book.

(Also, I will be using this for my Classic About an Animal category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021)

Right & Justice vs. Law & Lawyers

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Title: Bleak House
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 830
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Everyone loves to rip on lawyers, and Charles Dickens was no exception. Much of this book revolves around a lawsuit in the courts of chancery that has dragged on for generations, destroying lives through false hope in a system of law and lawyers that has little to do with right and justice. Dickens’ views on the English legal system are best summed up in this quote:

“The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.”

Dickens is in top form throughout the book: devastating social critique, politely sarcastic turn of phrase, absurd yet somehow familiar characters, heart wrenching tragedies, amazingly convenient coincidences, and all. In spite of the name, this isn’t Dickens’ bleakest book. He achieves a nice balance between sweet selfless heroes, well-meaning but foolish people, and loathsome villains. For the most part, this is the kind of book where (as Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism would say): “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.” Some romantic situations may be a bit off-putting to modern sensibilities (e.g. guardian-ward & cousin-cousin), but they should be understood as a product of its era (and ended up playing out better than I hoped).

I highly recommend this book for fans of Charles Dickens. If you’re new to his work you might want to start with A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and/or A Tale of Two Cities, but I’d say that this one comes in close behind those. (Also, I will be using this for my Classic by a Favorite Author category over at the Back to the Classics 2021 Challenge)

A Ghost Story?

This is a lightly edited re-post of a review from four years ago. Last week, my oldest daughter and I listened to the Audible version of this on our way to “Halloweekends” at Cedar Point, and it was every bit as good on second reading/hearing. (Also, I’ll be using it for my 19th Century Classic category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.)

The Turn of the Screw

Title: The Turn of the Screw
Author: Henry James
Genre: Classic/Ghost Story?
Pages: 96
Rating: 5 of 5

I love an unreliable narrator, especially in a creepy story, and this classic novella hit the spot! The introduction (which seems like it is meant to be a framing story but the frame is never completed) is a bit long-winded but the first person account by a governess of her ghost-haunted employment is satisfyingly creepy. It’s a bit melodramatic, but that plays right into the ambiguity of the story.

The big question is: are the ghosts real or is the governess mad or is she a manipulative liar, or some combination of the above? I can’t decide whether the ghosts are meant to be real or not, but I’m pretty sure there’s something very wrong with the governess (who is the only person to ever acknowledge seeing the ghosts). Her paranoia, the way she jumps quickly to dramatic conclusions, the way she dotes on people she has just met and deliberately says things to get them “on her side,” and the way she is quick to cast the same people as villains if they cross her all remind me very much of a couple narcissistic pathological liars I have known. Whatever the case, if you like unreliable narrators in creepy stories (or just good creepy ghost stories for that matter) this is a must read!

If you’ve read this, what did you think? (My brother-in-law informs me that it’s just ghosts…but his only reasoning is that he doesn’t like stories where the ghosts aren’t real so he doesn’t want it to be anything else.)

As a bonus, here’s a picture of me, my oldest daughter, and our new photobombing friend at Cedar Point:

May be an image of one or more people, people standing, monument and outdoors

Two Weird Reads

Title: Area X – The Southern Reach Trilogy
(includes Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Genre: Trippy Weirdness
Pages: 608
Rating: 4 of 5

There is a fine line between “fascinatingly weird” and “trippy to the point of being incomprehensible.” Jeff VanderMeer balances right on that line. His mind-bending blend of Lovecraftian elements, Area 51/Men-in-Black style conspiracy, and alien landscape exploration makes for a disorienting reading experience. This guy knows how to write weird fiction! If you need your stories wrapped up in a nice little bow, this is not for you, but I think that there are enough answers and hints for a satisfying reading experience that will keep you pondering long after you finish.

Title: Entropy in Bloom
Author: Jeremy Robert Johnson
Genre: Gross, Angry Weirdness
Pages: 280
Rating: 2 of 5

Amazon insistently recommended this book based on my reading of Lovecraftian cosmic horror…stupid Amazon! There were some memorable stories in here, but they relied mostly on gross and morally shocking elements for their punch, rather than anything particularly Lovecraftian. Mostly it felt like the author was morally outraged about something (President George W., reality TV, straight-edge macho culture, addiction, etc.) and decided to write a shocking story that pushed it to a weird and horrifying extreme, including plenty of profanity and sexuality. Overall, I can see how some people would really like this, but it was just too angry and gross (viscerally and morally) for me.

None Dare Call It Treason

Title: God Against the Revolution:
The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the American Revolution
Author: Gregg L. Frazer
Genre: History (plus Theology & Philosophy)
Pages: 280
Rating: 5 of 5

“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” – John Harrington

This book helped fill a gap in my understanding of US history. In school (kindergarten through master’s degree), I remember only one teacher who (rather tentatively) expressed any serious doubt over whether the American Revolution was morally justifiable. After all, if you’re a red-blooded American, you know that the patriots were absolutely justified in their rebellion against English tyranny. We won against all odds, so that must prove that God was on our side.

If such a facile argument doesn’t work for you, this book provides interesting historical (and theological/philosophical) information that should be integrated into your understanding of the American Revolution. Gregg Frazer dares to stir the waters by presenting the arguments and life circumstances of colonists who stayed loyal to their king.

Because most writings by such people were repressed and destroyed (so much for freedom of speech and of the press), he is limited in his sources to the writings of five or six loyalist clergymen. He presents their arguments largely without direct comment on whether or not he finds them convincing (though he is clearly sympathetic to some of them). The arguments are divided into categories: biblical, theoretical on the nature of government, legal, rational regarding the American situation, and rational based on colonial actions.

Personally, I was most interested in the biblical arguments since I views the principles and commands of Scripture as my basis for morality. As I suspected, most arguments revolved around Romans 13:1-7 & 1 Peter 2:13-17 which both command Christians to be law-abiding citizens/subjects who honor, obey, and pay taxes to the existing authorities (with the exception that laws commanding a Christian to directly disobey God must be disobeyed with a willingness to accept the consequences -e.g. Acts 5:29, Daniel 3:15-18). The point was well-argued, and I myself have preached/taught these passages in a similar way (to similar, though less violent, pushback from “patriotic Americans”)…there truly is nothing new under the sun!

Overall, this is a fascinating book. If you are at all interested in the American Revolution and/or the nature of a Christian’s responsibility toward human government, I challenge you to read it. Don’t settle for the “fan fiction” version of American history. You may or may not agree with the loyalist clergy view of “God against the revolution,” but for the sake of intellectual integrity, it is good to hear out both sides in a complex issue. And of course, examining the triumphs and failures (military, cultural, moral, etc.) of the past helps us make wiser decisions in the present.

Two Creepy Reads

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Title: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Author: Jack Finney
Genre: Classic Sci-Fi
Pages: 224 (6 hours, 39 minutes Audiobook as read by Kristoffer Tabori)
Rating: 4 of 5

The otherworldly “what is going on?!” suspense of this book hits the exact tone that I like when I read a creepy story. Sure, everyone knows the gist of the story by now, and the “science” is a bit hokey and dated, but it can still ratchet up the tension if you take it on its own terms.

That said, one aspect of the story grated a bit, even if it was a “product of its era.” The protagonist’s leering, condescending tone toward women got old really fast (and the bored, macho tone of the audiobook narrator really emphasized it). At one point his love interest kind of calls him on it, but her overall demeanor goes right along with it.

Overall, if you want a quick suspenseful read and are willing to overlook a bit of B-movie style hokeyness and product-of-its-era casual sexism, this is worth your time.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus Audiobook By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley cover art

Title: Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus
Author: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Genre: Classic Gothic
Pages: 222 (8 hours, 20 minutes Audiobook as read by Simon Vance)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I know that this classic is widely lauded as a work of pioneering genius. I even understand why: we have the cool backstory of how the book came to be written, we have the hubris of Victor Frankenstein, we have the tragic “monster,” we have the question of who is to blame for the “monster’s” evil, and we have all kinds of other great themes and wonderfully gothic moral dilemmas. But for all that, I have a hard time appreciating this book. This is the third time I’ve read this, and it just annoys me every time no matter how much I want to like it.

Victor Frankenstein is such an absurdly overemotional, egotistical drama queen that he just makes me roll my eyes in disgust the whole time. He seems to spend most of his time swooning, languishing near death, and moping around because he’s just soooo overcome with emotion. He’s so self-absorbed that he can’t be bothered to tell anyone that there’s a powerful, murderous “creature” on the loose thanks to him…not even when it could potentially save people’s lives by doing so! Victor’s melodramatic twit act that morphs into vengeful monomania when there’s nothing left to lose is just too much gothic nonsense for me.