The Granddaddy of Epic Poetry

Title: Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Author: Unknown
“Translator”: Stephen Mitchell
Genre: Ancient Narrative Poetry
Pages: 292
Rating: 4 of 5

Last year I read a version of the Gilgamesh Epic by Herbert Mason that amounted to a heavily edited retelling. I found it disappointing because there was no way of knowing the actual extent of the author’s editing and personal interpretation (a review of that version can be found here).

The main text of this version was similarly functional (thought-for-thought rather than word-for-word), as Stephen Mitchell is working off other people’s word-for-word English translations rather than consulting the ancient languages himself. However, he is careful to note where his text becomes especially interpretive. In copious endnotes he carefully cites which specific versions of the epic he is working off in a given section and provides a woodenly literal translation of difficult passage where he resorted to heavy paraphrasing or speculation. To me, this made all the difference in the world…I now feel like I have read a valid translation of Gilgamesh, not just some scholar’s “here’s what I think you should get out of this” paraphrase.

Along with translation notes, Mitchell offers commentary on the cultural setting, comparison to stories found in Genesis, and similar background. I question some of his interpretations at this point, but found much of it to be helpful as well.

If you’re not the kind of person who is into scholarly footnotes, I think that this is still a great version for reading the poem itself. You get a feel for the broad Gilgamesh tradition (including some of the bemusing and inconsistent bits “smoothed out” [i.e. omitted] by Mason) and Mitchell’s phrasing captures the great emotional depth in the timeless friendship and loss of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in a way that doesn’t come across well in a woodenly literal translations. Don’t expect a happy story. Mitchell aptly refers to this as “the epic of the fear of death,” and to me its despair over human mortality offers a sobering contrast to the “living hope” found in Christianity.

**Addendum: I forgot to mention that in the lengthy introduction Mitchell practically tells the whole story of the poem mixed in with his cultural commentary, so depending on your preferences you may want to read the poem and then come back to the introduction (or skip it entirely since a lot of the most important info is repeated in the endnotes in more concise form).

The Befuddled Company

Title: Port of Shadows:
A Chronicle of the Black Company (Book 1.5)
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 400
Rating: 3 of 5

Note: if you haven’t read at least the first 2-3 Black Company books, this review might not make a whole lot of sense. There are no spoilers, but I am assuming that you have a basic idea of the characters & world (I would recommend skipping this your first time through the series)

This book takes place between the original books one and two, so the original gang’s all here. It was great to see Croaker, One-Eye, Goblin, the Captain, and the rest back in action…sort of. Unfortunately, they spend almost the entire book befuddled by sorcery and obfuscation, so they don’t act entirely like themselves. To be honest, this mental confusion and being kept more-than-usually in the dark about what is really going on seems to be a lazy way for the author to gloss over any continuity errors.

The writing style and plotting differ a bit from the other books in the series. There was quite a bit more profanity/vulgarity, more time spent just sitting around waiting for things to happen (i.e. less action), and way more self-pitying introspection from Croaker.

There were some fascinating new characters, including a new Taken Sorceress who is at the center of the action. Interwoven with the Company’s story is a tale from the distant past, which gives some background on the Senjak sisters (aka the Lady’s family). This was probably the most interesting plotline in the book, but parts of it seem to contradict already-established lore. Cook acknowledges this and in a fourth-wall-bending epilogue offers some possible interpretations but chooses to not definitively resolve much of anything. It was a rather unsatisfying ending to a ho-hum book.

If you’re a fan of the Black Company this is probably worth reading for some insights into the Lady’s character. Croaker, on the other hand, is so whiny and muddle-headed throughout that any character development on his part comes off as the result of sorcerous mental illness.

Agree with Me or You’re a Fascist

Title: How Fascism Works:
The Politics of Us and Them
Author: Jason Stanley
Genre: Politics
Pages: 240
Rating: 2 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for give me a free review copy via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

This could have been such a helpful, insightful book. The word fascist is hurled at political / ideological opponents so often that it has started to lose its meaning. I hoped that this book would provide a historical perspective on fascism by examining actual fascist governments and drawing some parallels to the more egregious / worrisome trends in US & European politics. The chapter titles in the table of contents were promising:

  • The Mythic Past
  • Propaganda
  • Anti-Intellectual
  • Unreality
  • Hierarchy
  • Victimhood
  • Law & Order
  • Sexual Anxiety
  • Sodom & Gomorrah
  • Arbeit Macht Frei

Ironically (given the book’s subtitle) the author used his book divisively: to laud his left-wing political views and demonize virtually all distinctively right-wing views. He uses the term liberal democracy inconsistently throughout, disengenuously equivocating between the meaning of representative democracy as opposed to autocratic or oligarchic government (which most readers would agree is a good thing) and American left-wing political views (which he treats as equally self-evidently superior if you are a right-thinking person). Virtually all American right-wing political views are presented in straw-man form, defined in such a way that they fit his definition of fascist politics.

I was expecting there to be a pretty heavy smear-job on President Trump and his cronies (much of it richly deserved…the man’s demagoguery and autocratic tendencies are frightening), but for this to turn into “let’s find a way to define virtually everything the Republicans are and do as fascist politics” was massively disappointing. The absurdly biased portrayal of all things conservative and constant hymns of praise to all things and all people left-wing buried some good historical research and valid parallels under an avalanche of partisanism.

If you want a more historical, less partisan view of the rise of fascist politics, I would highly recommend Darkness Over Germany by E. Amy Buller (Review Here). It was written during World War II (based on interviews with Germans before WWII), so you will have to draw your own contemporary parallels…but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Analyzing the “Culture Wars”

Title: Pagans and Christians in the City:
Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac
Author: Steven D. Smith
Genre: Philosophy/Theology & History
Pages: 384
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/15/18 (thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley! This in no way affects the content of the review)

This book takes as its starting point a statement by T. S. Eliot to the effect that people are better off living in a Christian society than a pagan one. A hefty chunk of the book is taken up with defining what is meant by “Christian society vs. pagan society.” The author comes down on a basic definition of “transcendent religion (acknowledging or at least open to a God and objective ultimate good beyond the universe and in eternity) vs. immanent religion (finding ultimate good in this world and lifetime).

He purports to show how these incompatible views have constantly fought to be the dominant view undergirding society. He starts with the early Christians in the Roman Empire and then jumps to modern Western civilization in general and the US in particular. He examines how each view shapes society, what kinds of conflicts arise (and why), the meaning of religious freedom for each side (I found the historical and legal issues related to this to be especially interesting and relevant), and a host of other implications.

When someone talks as if they have discovered the key to understanding a massively complex issue, I take it with a grain of salt, but overall this was a thought-provoking book. The hysteria and paranoia that frequently underlie “culture war” discussions is replaced with calm, relatively even-handed description of both sides of most arguments. I don’t necessarily agree with the author’s sometimes vague conclusions (I’m deeply suspicious of trying to “Christianize” society, especially via politics), and the book is pretty lacking in the “how shall we then live?” element, but there’s a lot to chew on here. If you’re looking for an academic analysis of the “culture wars” without the usual hysterical rhetoric, this is worth reading.

Info-Dumping Trumpian Sci-Fi

Robot Depot by [F. Moran, Russell]Title: Robot Depot
Author: Russell F. Moran
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 202
Rating: 1.5 of 5

I seldom accept requests to review self-published books because of their tendency to be lacking in quality (professional editors and publishers’ rejection letters exist for a reason!). However, the premise to this one (ISIS must be stopped from using consumer-grade robots to deliver bombs) sounded interesting enough that I decided to risk it…that risk did not pay off.

Stylistically this was amateurish. The dialogue was stilted and little more than over-explained info-dumping. The narration switched erratically between first and third person. Most of the characters were so flat as to be virtually indistinguishable.

The actual plot of the story involving ISIS didn’t really begin until almost halfway through the book. The first 88 pages was a little setting and lots of meandering regarding current and near-future breakthroughs in robotics & AI technology and their implications for economics, politics, ethics, etc.  Most of the plot threads in this first half became completely inconsequential or remained unresolved once the actual story started.

The actual story lacked believability. Like most people who were alive in 2001, I remember the national fear, anger, and bravado that followed the 9/11 attacks. I sense very little of that here even though the attacks are of a similar magnitude. Our plot is mostly about the CEO of Robot Depot sitting around with his lawyers, PR people, and the FBI and discussing how to save his company (and stop further attacks, of course). There is little sense of a nation in crisis outside the boardroom, and it just doesn’t ring true. Then, in the last few chapters this becomes a completely different style of book and it all ends in sadistic vigilante “justice” to which the government turns a blind eye.

If that’s not enough, the author’s Trumpian political opinions drive the book’s main conflicts. I’m not a fan of politically preachy books in general whatever the politics, and this one was particularly cringey. Just look at the cast of characters –

  • Good guys: our billionaire CEO and his potty-mouthed wife (both veterans), his lawyers and PR people, a couple Arabs who we are clearly informed are definitely not Muslims, and students who beat down violently protesting “lefties” and “academics” and thus provide “a win for Western civilization.”
  • Bad guys: “Academics,” left-wing protestors (most of whom “don’t even know what they’re protesting”), ISIS, “Islamic culture and the ‘Religion of Peace'”

In summary (since I’ve already gone on way too long), I seldom give a book fewer than 2 stars, but this one is so lacking in style and plot that it richly deserves 1.5 (the extra .5 is because some of the economic and ethical questions raised in meandering bits were somewhat interesting).

Peril in the North Country

Title: The Winter Riddle
Author: Sam Hooker
Genre: Humorous Fantasy
Pages: 338
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/1/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.)

I discovered Sam Hooker’s writing a few months ago with his Black Spot Press debut: Peril in the Old Country (review here). I enjoyed that book so much that I jumped at the chance to read this one.

Stir together a mirthfully unhinged monarch who is best friends with Loki, her sister who is the Winter Witch, Santa Claus (seen wielding a war hammer on the cover…so you can expect someone a little different from the “right jolly old elf”), battle-loving Vikings, and various other mythical/magical beings and you just know this is going to be good! Our protagonist is the Winter Witch who just wants to be left in peace to do witchy things – but what fun would that be for our story? When she helps Loki play a prank on himself, things quickly spiral out of control…and that’s about all I can say without spoilers. Along the way there are plenty of laugh out loud moments and some genuine character growth that didn’t feel preachy or moralizing.

Apparently this is a reworked version of the author’s previously self-published first novel, and I think it shows a little bit. The pacing and plotting weren’t as even and tight as in Peril in the Old Country, but it was still a rolicking good tale.  And this one didn’t end on a major cliffhanger, which is a big plus for me! Pacing issues aside, this is definitely worth reading if you enjoy humorous fantasy, and I am looking forward to whatever Sam Hooker writes next.

“Success to Crime”

Today I will be giving a couple of quick reviews of story collections featuring successful criminals…sort of.

Title: Sleep No More
Author: P. D. James
Genre: Murder Mystery Short Stories
Pages: 208
Rating: 4 of 5

Sleep No More collects six short stories that defy standard expectations for “cozy” mysteries. The settings are what you would expect: manor houses, small English villages, etc. However, in each story the point of view is not that of the primary investigator, and the murderer is not necessarily brought to justice (which does not always mean truly “getting away with it” in the sense of avoiding all consequences). The stories provide a quick, entertaining read as long as you don’t mind your fiction a touch dark and morally ambiguous.

My one criticism would be that the stories are so similar in subject matter that after the first two or three it’s pretty easy to guess where the last three or four are going very early on in the story. It seems a shame to lessen the impact of cleverly out-of-the-ordinary stories by packing them all into one collection rather than interspersing them with more standard fare.

This was my first P. D. James, and I was impressed enough that I’ll definitely have to try one of her full-length books in the future. Any suggestions?

Title: The Saint: Five Complete Novels
(The Man Who Was Clever, The Lawless Lady, The Saint Closes the Case, The Avenging Saint, The Saint vs. Scotland Yard)
Author: Leslie Charteris
Genre: Pulp Vigilante Fiction
Pages: 663
Rating:  2.5 of 5

My previous exposure to the character of Simon Templar, aka the Saint, was the 1997 movie starring Val Kilmer (my wife’s distant cousin). This book stars the original, and there’s very little resemblance to the movie version. Charteris’s Saint is a suave vigilante whose goal is to bring seemingly untouchable criminals to justice, usually also relieving them of a significant amount of money which he donates to charity …after taking his 10% cut, of course.

Simon is reckless and debonaire. He trades snarky quips with criminals who have the drop on him, laughs in the face of death, and uses his agility and physical prowess to save the day, though not always without personal loss. He seems to be the author’s conception of the ideal manly man in a world full of sad sacks, moral cowards, and sensitive snowflakes. It was definitely a mistake to read all five novels close together as his charmingly contemptuous man-boy act wore thin pretty quick (and some casual racism in one book and plot-centric antisemitism in another didn’t help matters). I generally enjoy snarky pulp heroes, but I’ll probably give the Saint a miss from now on.

A Love Letter to Liturgy

Title: Disruptive Witness
Author: Alan Noble
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 192
Rating: 3 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free review copy via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Recently I have noticed a number of books riffing on Charles’ Taylor’s tome, A Secular Age. I have never read A Secular Age in all its 900-page glory, but it was interesting to be exposed to the ideas of someone whose thinking has been shaped by it. This is my first detailed encounter with his philosophies, so I may not be entirely accurate in my understanding of them, but here are my initial impressions:

The first half of this book offers the author’s perception of the constantly-distracted, non-introspective-yet-identity-obsessed culture in which we live. In this culture, says Noble, Christianity is seen as a collection of options in a buffet of more-or-less equal ideas, preferences, and opinions that I can adopt to express what I perceive as “the real me.” Noble desires some way to “disrupt” this “secular” way of thinking and make it clear that the Christian faith is a transcendent reality, that tells us who we are and our place in the universe (loved by God, deeply in need of his grace, etc.).

Much of his diagnosis in the first section is insightful (or at least thought-provoking), but I was uncomfortable and bemused with much of the second half. To me, he comes across as nostalgic for his (Charles Taylor’s?) vision of pre-Reformation days when Christianity was generally accepted because it was imposed from the outside by “Christendom” and “the Church” (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church) who spoke with a unified voice. Throughout the second section, fidelity to Scripture (a major concern of the Protestant Reformation and the “noble” people in Acts 17:11) takes a back seat to promoting a sense of awe and transcendence.

The primary ways he suggests promoting this disruptive awe are: prayer before meals, sabbath-keeping, and especially solemn liturgy with a strong anti-technology bias. He offers little or no biblical support for anything he says. To me, he communicates far more about his own “high church” sensibilities than he does about what is at the heart of the Christian faith and the sanctifying truth of God’s Word (John 17:17).

Overall, I appreciated the thought-provoking perspective on society in the first half of the book, but was entirely unimpressed with his solution for effectively sharing the faith (and disturbed that the days of “orthodoxy” imposed by raw power should be idealized).

Loosely Linked Mini Reviews

Title: George MacDonald: An Anthology
Author: George MacDonald (duh)
Editor: C. S. Lewis
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 152
Rating: 4 of 5

C. S. Lewis made no secret of the fact that he was heavily influenced by George MacDonald. In this slim volume he collected 365 excerpts from MacDonald’s writings. Most of these gems come from his (deservedly) lesser-known writings rather than his beautifully crafted fantasy novels which Lewis claims must be taken as a whole to be fully appreciated. The writings of Lewis (especially Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters) do indeed echoe many of these thoughts, though I would say that MacDonald has a more mystical bent and many of his ideas smack of perfectionism of a rather Methodist variety (a doctrine I find unsustainable both Scripturally and through observation of the real world). Overall, this is a great little book with many thought-provoking ideas. However, to see MacDonald at his best I’d recommend reading the two books of the Curdie series.

Title: Creed or Chaos
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 85
Rating: 5 of 5

This book also has a vague connection to C. S. Lewis as Dorothy Sayers is considered to be an associate of the “Inklings” literary circle. In this collection of essays she discusses the need of sound, objective doctrine over a more subjective “all you need is sincerity” approach to Christianity. I have previously admired Dorothy L. Sayers as a translator of The Divine Comedy and author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective series, and I must say she is equally engaging as a theologian/philosopher.

Title: The Dante Chamber
Author: Matthew Pearl
Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction
Pages: 357
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Speaking of The Divine Comedy, Matthew Pearl has returned to the world of his wildly popular The Dante Club with this sequel. Now people are turning up dead in London, gruesomely killed in ways reminiscent of The Purgatorio. Pearl’s main historical characters for this one are Christina Rossetti (and family), Robert Browning, and Alfred Lord Tennyson (with an encore appearance by Oliver Wendell Holmes). There’s lots of info-dumping of interesting historical tidbits about these people and fawning commentary over the greatness of Danté wrapped around a twisted mystery. It’s basically the exact same formula as the first one and as such felt a bit played out…for me it was only okay.

Title: The Magic of Recluce
(Saga of Recluce: Book 1)
Author: L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 512
Rating: 2.5 of 5

“Only okay” brings us to our next book. I found The Magic of Recluce to be pretty disappointing and almost DNFed it a couple times. The main character is a sullen brat who constantly complains about being bored and whines that no one tells him the answers to his questions but zones out when given the opportunity to learn anything important. The plot is a wandering “find yourself” narrative where mister whiney-pants suddenly makes huge deductive leaps, vast progress in his skills, or sudden increases in maturity seemingly at random. At the end he’s a better person but it all felt pretty haphazard. The Order vs. Chaos dynamic of the author’s world is interesting enough that I’ll give the next book a shot, but it had better be a whole lot better than this one.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Hercule Poirot) Agatha Christie 0425200477 9780425200476 And when the second and final colume of Williams Collected Poems is published, it should become even more apparent that he is this centurys major American poet. --LTitle: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
(Hercule Poirot, Book 4)
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 358
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book is one reason I’m willing to give an author or character a second chance. I do not care for Hercule Poirot; I am annoyed by his smug manner and holding back information so he can make a big splash at the end. However, this book has one of the best twist endings ever in a “cozy” mystery, so it’s worth putting up with the smarmy little Belgian.

Not a Tame Lion

The Chronicles of NarniaTitle: The Chronicles of Narnia
Author: C. S. Lewis
Genre: Children’s Fantasy
Pages: 870
Rating: 5 of 5!

Though the seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia are written as fairytales for children, they follows C. S. Lewis’s philosophy that, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest,” and “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” While I have not yet reached the “fifty and beyond” category, I enjoy these books a little more each time I read them (and I have read them every two or three years since I was in first grade).

The Chronicles of Narnia tell the tale of a magical world of talking animals in which British children have a variety of adventures (defeating a witch, winning the throne for the rightful king, rescuing a lost prince, etc.). Though children from our world are the main characters, the true hero of the series is Aslan, The Great Lion and Son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea. Aslan is clearly a Christ character, intended by Lewis to be “a supposition” of what it would look like for the Son of God to appear in a different world. Lewis recognized that “The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.” Each book, besides being a fun fantasy story, explores a different aspect of Aslan’s character.

  • In The Lion the Witch an the Wardrobe he is the Redeemer
  • In Prince Caspian he is the One who sends help
  • In The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ he is the Guide and Renewer.
  • In The Silver Chair he is the One who guides with his Words.
  • In The Horse and His Boy he is the One in sovereign control of events.
  • In The Magician’s Nephew he is the Creator.
  • In The Last Battle he is the One who ushers his children into paradise.

…and so much more. These books have grown with me through increased understanding in a way described by Aslan in Prince Caspian:

“Aslan,” said Lucy “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

The only book in the series about which I have some reservations is The Last Battle. It contains breathtaking descriptions of paradise but also emphasizes some confused pluralistic ideas that depart from biblical orthodoxy. It is still worth reading, but those who take seriously Jesus’ claims to be the only way to heaven (e.g. John 3:16-18) should approached it with discernment.

The order in which I have listed the books above is C. S. Lewis’s original publication order, and I personally think they are far better when read in that sequence rather than the “chronological” order currently used by publishers. If nothing else, Lewis clearly intended The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to be the readers’ first impression of Aslan. And I will leave you with part of Aslan’s beautiful introduction from that book. Come meet Aslan:

“…Aslan is a lion–the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”
“I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”

(Note: I was just taken on as a volunteer writer for a local online magazine and this is a copy of the second article I will be submitting to them)