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)

Best & Worst of 2021

This year I read 139 books with a total page count of 47,713 (~343 pages/book). I now present you with my sixth annual best and worst reads of the year lists (titles linked to my full review if I wrote one; excludes re-reads; presented in groups of five unranked; & starting with the “worst of” list so we can end on a positive note…no purchase necessary; void where prohibited):

Worst of the Year:

  • The Divine Comedy: Paradise by Danté (Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers): Between the constant reference to contemporary Italian politics and what I consider to be idolatrous reliance on Mary and the Saints, I found this hard to get through.
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier: If you like melodramatic Harlequin-esque “historical romance,” this is for you…but that’s not my genre at all.
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac: drugs, sex, jazz, blah blah blah…aren’t I deep!
  • Ripley Underground by Patricia Highsmith: a disappointing sequel to the interesting Talented Mr. Ripley. The complete non-ending was the worst.
  • The Tinfoil Dossier Trilogy by Caitlin R. Kiernan: A mashup of Cthulhu and black helicopter style conspiracies is a cool idea, but the execution was trippy to the point of incomprehensible and just plain gross (in both the splattery and moral senses).

Best Fiction

  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens: If you like Dickens, be sure to read this one. However, this isn’t a good place to start if you’ve never read him before.
  • Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez: This is pretty silly and episodic. Not great literature, but a lot of fun as the author plays with classic supervillain tropes.
  • The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells: This series (5 novellas and a novel so far) is top-tier sci-fi with an AI protagonist/narrator that any introvert can appreciate.
  • The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: I don’t usually enjoy revenge slasher horror, but this “literary horror” worked surprisingly well.
  • Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir: Another masterpiece from Andy Weir for those who like a lot of science in their science fiction.

Best Non-fiction

  • Gentle & Lowly by Dane Ortlund: A thoughtful reminder that “Yes, Jesus loves me,” and biblical Christianity is not based on “Try harder to be better.”
  • God Against the Revolution by Gregg L. Frazer: In a departure from the “fan fiction” version of American history, Frazer examines the anti-revolution arguments of loyalist clergymen in colonial America.
  • Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton: This examination of various eventually-abandoned-due-to-stupidity military and espionage plans is equal parts funny and frightening.
  • The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin: One of my new favorite authors interacts biblically with the kinds of statements that appear on yard signs beginning with “In this house we believe…”
  • Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths Trilogy (Mythos, Heroes, Troy) by Stephen Fry: I’m not sure if this exploration and retelling of the Greek myths counts as fantasy or non-fiction, but either way it’s a lot of fun.

That’s it for 2021. My reading goal for 2022 is my usual standby of “at least 100 books with an average page count of 300+.” Postings to this blog will probably continue to be sporadic unless work become unexpectedly less hectic, but we’ll see what happens. Happy New Year!

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.

All the Herods (& Some Nonsense About Jesus)

Title: The Herods:
Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession
Author: Bruce Chilton
Genre: History
Pages: 346 (plus bibliology & indices)
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through Edelweiss+. This in no way affects the content of my review)

If you are acquainted with the Gospels & Acts, you probably remember multiple members of the Herod dynasty putting in less than flattering appearances (starting with Herod the Great’s attempt to murder the infant Jesus in Matthew 2). In this book, Bruce Chilton tells the full story of the Herodian dynasty’s rule over Israel. It is a convoluted tale of political & religious maneuvering, egomania, paranoia, sexcapades, and violence.

Chilton portrayal of the Herods seems fairly balanced. He frequently gives them credit for savvy political moves but does not downplay the cruelty, hubris, and mania that characterized this ruling family. I appreciated getting the full picture of who these people were and how they (and Israel) fit into the broader history of the Roman Empire. If that is what you are interested in, I would definitely recommend this book (especially if you don’t want to wade through Josephus’s Antiquities and Jewish War on your own).

However, I would not recommend coming to this book to learn about the Herods’ interaction with John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early church leaders. The author’s views in this regard are steeped in higher criticism, the “historical Jesus” movement, and all the related academic jargon. He treats the Bible (especially the Gospels and Acts) as distorted legends and propaganda to be sifted through for tiny grains of truth. Jesus is recast to suit a purely naturalistic/sociological/political understanding of religion devoid of true divine revelation. Call me unenlightened, but the “historical Jesus” is a pathetic, unconvincing substitute for the Son of God.

As a follower of Jesus who takes the Gospels as divinely-inspired Scripture, I am probably not the intended audience for this book. Nevertheless, it did increase my overall understanding of these people and their time period, and I am glad that I read it (even if the “historical Jesus” parts made me cringe).

Micro Reviews

Recently, by the time I get done preparing my weekly sermons, Bible studies, counseling, fire-dousing, etc. my writing and creative ability is sapped for the day. I am definitely in need of the vacation that I have coming up in a few weeks. That said, I don’t want to completely neglect this blog or leave too many books unreviewed, so here are a handful of one to three sentence reviews (none of the usual formatting…I’m weary):

The First World War by John Keegan – I don’t find WW1 especially interesting, but wanted to get a good overview of it. This book provided just that: a solid surface-level overview in a rather dry, businesslike style. (Rating: 4.5 of 5)

The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin – In this short book, McLaughlin interacts with many of the slogans found on the kind of yard signs that begin “In this house we believe…”. Using a blend of social science data and Scripture she shows if (and how) each one fits into a biblical worldview. After reading this and Confronting Christianity, McLaughlin is one of my new favorite authors. (Rating: 5 out of 5)

Tinfoil Dossier Series (Agents of Dreamland, Black Helicopters, & The Tindalos Asset) by Caitlin R. Kiernan – Blending modern paranoid conspiracy theory thinking with Lovecraftian elements is a pretty cool idea for a series of novellas. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the execution at all as it was trippy to the point of being nearly incomprehensible and laced with massive amounts of profanity and perversion (e.g. incest). (Rating: 2 out of 5)

Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin Series (Master & Commander, etc.) by Patrick O’Brian – Historical fiction isn’t usually my thing, but these books are a lot of fun so far. Three books in, I’m definitely enjoying the Napoleonic Wars era exploits of the the blustering Captain Jack Aubrey & his friend the somewhat eccentric Dr. Stephen Maturin (both at sea and on shore in polite society). (Rating: 4 out of 5)

Single & Single by John LeCarré – This story dives into the world of high-level money laundering and all its attendant corruption. As usual with LeCarré, the book was interesting without really providing any likeable characters. Also, somewhere after his George Smiley books LeCarré seems to have lost the ability/will to write a dénouement, as the last three books I have read by him have ended abruptly with a ton of loose ends. (Rating 3 out of 5)

Zzzzzz…

Title: Sleeper Agent:
The Atomic Spy In America Who Got Away
Author: Ann Hagedorn
Genre: True Spy Story
Pages: 272
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: July 20, 2021 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review.)

This book promised to be “perfect for Ben Macintyre fans.” I loved Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends and The Spy and the Traitor, so I had high expectations. They were not met.

This isn’t a terrible book, and if I hadn’t ever read a Ben Macintyre true spy story I may have given this a higher rating. However, this is definitely second-tier compared to him. The presentation is dry, the reconstruction of many events is not very tight/detailed, and the Amazon blurb gives away practically all the important information. I feel like the author just didn’t have enough available information about this spy to write a compelling book. On a positive note, it does provide interesting glimpses into the Manhattan project and the Red Scare.

I don’t usually mind a dry history book, but Macintyre has spoiled me when it comes to spy stories, and so this one just didn’t cut it for me.

Catch Up with Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to seriously outpace my reviewing, so it’s time for some mini-reviews (presented in order read):

Mistress of the Art of Death (A Mistress of the Art of Death Novel Book 1) by [Ariana Franklin]

Title: Mistress of the Art of Death
Author: Ariana Franklin
Genre: Historical Fiction / Serial Killer Mystery
Pages: 420
Rating: 2.5

This tale of a female medieval forensic pathologist provided interesting/disturbing details of King Henry II’s England (particularly in regard to anti-Semitism). The serial killer mystery element was horrifying and well enough constructed to keep my reading. However the constant center-staging of the hatefulness and/or foolishness of Christians, piggish misogyny of men, and superiority of our “free thinker” heroine became grating and preachy by the end (to say nothing of a fairly awkward romance).

Title: On the Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
Genre: Pretentious Modern Classic
Pages: 307
Rating: 1.5 of 5

I guess I can see why this would be considered a classic: it’s a window into the mind of “the beat generation,” and some of the stream of consciousness prose approaches the lyrical (or the pretentious, depending on your inclination). That said, I would have been perfectly okay with never having looked through that window into a world of drunken, drug-fueled feckless wandering interspersed with petty theft, promiscuous sex, adultery, bigamy and pedophilic lusting. (I am using this for my 20th Century Classic over at the Back to the Classics Challenge).

Title: Voodoo Histories:
The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History
Author: David Aaronovitch
Genre: History of Paranoia
Pages: 372 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 4 of 5

Occam’s Razor states that, “entities should not be multiplied without necessity” (i.e. the simplest explanation should usually be preferred). David Aaronovitch applies this principle as he examines a number of popular conspiracy theories (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Kennedy assassinations, the Priory of Sion, 9/11 Truthers, etc.). Along the way he explores the real-world impact of these theories and what leads people to believe in conspiracies. Some of his argumentation was a bit weak/incomplete due to the overview nature of the book, but overall it is a worthwhile read. The book was published in 2010, and I would love to see a sequel or updated edition to cover the lunacy of the last 10 years.

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife by [Ariel Sabar]

Title: Veritas:
A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife
Author: Ariel Sabar
Genre: Investigative Journalism
Pages: 393 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 4 of 4

In 2012 a Harvard professor caused a stir by unveiling a tiny, purportedly ancient papyrus fragment that contained the phrase  “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…’.” In this book, journalist Ariel Sabar recounts his involvement in tracing the actual origin of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. In the end, it is a tale of a scholar who valued ideological “truth” over objective historical truth. In my opinion, the author spent way too much time expounding the theory that Gnosticism vied with orthodox Christianity from the beginning, but overall this was a fascinating read.

Abandoned Plans

Nuking the Moon: And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left on the Drawing Board by [Vince Houghton]

Title: Nuking the Moon:
And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left on the Drawing Board
Author: Vince Houghton
Genre: Laughable & Disturbing History
Pages: 305 (plus bibliography etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

As the subtitle indicates, this is a compendium of intelligence and military plans that were never put fully into action, though many of them did make it off the drawing board. Most of them combine elements of hilariously stupid and horrifyingly “why would you think that was a good idea (ethically or practically)?!” I mean: exploding bats, glowing foxes, nuking hurricanes, flying ICBM’s around on hovercraft…your tax dollars at work! Much of it was a reminder of just how MAD the Cold War was.

The author, who is a curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., appears knowledgeable and offers numerous links to his (sometimes heavily redacted) primary source material. There were times when I felt like he was trying a little too hard to be funny, but I think his snarky delivery works for the most part. Overall, the book is an amusing yet terrifying reminder that desperate people can try some incredibly stupid things [snarky comment about recent events in DC redacted], and it’s well worth reading.

Carthago Delenda Est

Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization by [Richard Miles]Title: Carthage Must Be Destroyed
Author: Richard Miles
Genre:  Ancient History
Pages: 471 (plus indices, etc.a0
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you want to know more about Carthage than “Aeneas abandons Dido…Hannibal crosses the Alps with elephants…Carthago delenda est,” this is a great place to start. The author manages to make it a fairly popular level overview without giving the feeling that he’s dumbing it down or skimping on research.

Compiling an accurate history of Carthage is no easy task since most of our extant primary sources were written by their enemies. Overall, the author does an admirable job of comparing and stitching together available sources while trying to sort out truth from slander. He probably swings too far in the other direction at times, giving Carthage the benefit of the doubt while emphasizing Roman hypocrisy and perfidy…but I think that most historians tilt things in favor of their chosen topic.

Throughout the book the author emphasizes the propagandizing of mythology/religion by both the Romans and the Carthaginians, with special attention on Heracles/Hercules. Whether or not this was always done as intentionally as the author seems to think, it provides an added dimension that makes the book all the more interesting.

Because the book covers hundreds of years, it provides only the briefest description of most battles in the Punic wars, spending no more than a few paragraphs on all but the most important of them. So, if you are looking primarily for a military history you may want to look elsewhere. However, if you want a solid overview of Carthaginian history, culture, and religion, give this a read.

Back with Some Mini Reviews

I’m back! I think that this has been my longest stretch without a post since starting this blog. Pastoring during a pandemic with a major hotspot 45 minutes up the road is no joke, and I was starting to feel pretty burned out. Thankfully, I was able to take almost a week off, including a few days’ getaway with my wife for our 18th anniversary, and I’m feeling a little less stressed. No promises, but maybe I’ll return to my pre-COVID “approximately once per week” schedule. To that end, here are a handful of mini reviews (presented in order read):

Title: “He Descended to the Dead”
An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday
Author: Matthew Y. Emerson
Genre: Theology
Pages: 225 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The Apostles Creed contains a poorly understood line, variously translated, that says Jesus “descended to hell” or “descended to the dead.” The author takes this as his starting point to examine what the Bible (and Christian tradition as guided by Scripture) says about what happened between Jesus’ death and resurrection. I don’t agree with all of his lines of reasoning (or his condescending tone toward less “creedal” denominations), but overall his discussion was helpful and his conclusions seem biblical.

If you don’t want to wade through all 225 pages, here’s his concise explanation: “Christ, in remaining dead for three days, experienced death as all humans do: his body remained in the grave, and his soul remained in the place of the dead. He did not suffer there, but, remaining the incarnate Son, proclaimed victory procured by his penal substitutionary death to all those in the place of the dead – fallen angels, the unrighteous dead, and the OT saints. Christ’s descent [to the dead / hades] is thus primarily the beginning of his exaltation, not a continuation of his humiliation”

The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by [Dan Jones]Title: The Wars of the Roses
The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors
Author: Dan Jones
Genre: Medieval British History
Pages: 416
Rating: 4 of 5

Dan Jones knows how to write an interesting history book! He writes on a more-or-less popular level, but not in a way that feels like he is sensationalizing events or dumbing things down. In this book, he engages with the complex series of conflicts commonly lumped together as “the Wars of the Roses.” I’m not sure how his interpretation of events stacks up against other histories since my only other reading on this time period is R. L. Stevenson’s heavily romanticized Robin-Hood-inspired The Black Arrow. Whatever the case, I’d highly recommend this for those interested in Medieval British history.

David Copperfield by [Charles Dickens]Title: David Copperfield
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classic
Pages: 856
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This is one of my favorite Dickens books (second only to A Christmas Carol). It is home to the perfectly loving Mr. Peggotty, eccentric but good-hearted Aunt Betsey Trotwood, completely loathsome Uriah Heep, and so many other unforgettable characters. I must admit that the childish Dora really grated on my nerves this time through, but it’s still Dickens in top form.

Title: Operation Mincemeat
How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
Genre: WWII Espionage History
Author: Ben Macintyre
Pages: 325
Rating: 4.5 of 5

The first “real spy book” that I remember reading is The Man Who Never Was by Ewen Montagu. It tells the story of a corpse given a fictitious identity and floated ashore to sow disinformation in the Nazi war machine. It is a triumphant self-congratulatory book, written by one of the men involved in the plot. It is a fascinating look at how “all war is deception” and how British intelligence was the master of deception. It is also a load of of half-truths and misinformation.

This is the de-propagandized version of that story. Ben Macintyre digs into recently declassified documents and pieces together what really happened, including the actual identify of the corpse and just how touch and go the operation was. This is another highly recommended true spy tale by one of my favorite authors of the last few years.

Title: The Things They Carried
Author: Tim O’Brien
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 273
Rating: 4 of 5

This fictional memoir of the Vietnam War reminded me of All Quiet on the Western Front. It is a series of loosely connected stories/vignettes  depicting the everyday horrors of war. Diehard “don’t ever criticize Vietnam vets or the Vietnam War” types will not like it at all.

The author blurs the line between fact and fiction by making himself one of the characters and dedicating the book to the men of the (fictional) Alpha Company. Overall, it is a brutal, difficult read but provides a balance to the macho “rah rah war is glorious and the US military can do no wrong” sort of war story.