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.

Miscellaneous Mini Reviews

Leading a church through the craziness that is 2020 (trying to keep people compassionate, encouraged, safe, & law-abiding) continues to be exhausting, but I have just enough brain power left right now to catch up with several mini reviews.

Title: Agent Zigzag:
A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: Spy biography
Pages: 310
Rating: 4 of 5

I enjoy Ben Macintyre’s historical accounts of spies. His A Spy Among Friends and The Spy and the Traitor were two of my favorite non-fiction reads over the last couple years. This one was still interesting, but it lacked some of the “wow” factor of the other books.

The author never gave the impression that Eddie Chapman made quite as big of a contribution to history as the spies in the other two books. I was left with the impression that he was colorful (in a self-promoting, bigtime criminal, womanizing cad kind of way) and bold, but he was just one of many double agents working for British intelligence during WWII. It was still a well-written book, but the stakes didn’t seem as high, which slightly lowered my interest.

All Quiet on the Western FrontTitle: All Quiet on the Western Front
Author: Erich Maria Remarque
Genre: Modern Classic / Historical Fiction (barely)
Pages: 296
Rating: 4.5 of 5

What a horrifying book! The author barely fictionalizes his experiences in the German trenches during the Great War (WWI). This is a soldier’s-eye view of the dehumanizing horrors of war. I was especially struck by the question of “how can we possibly go back to living normal lives after experiencing this?” This is a difficult, disturbing read but an important sobering balance to the “war is glorious” way of thinking.

Title: The Moonstone
Author: Wilkie Collins
Genre: Classic Mystery
Pages: 418
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Reading Victorian era books with enjoyment often requires that you look past product-of-its-era casual sexism, racism, colonialism, etc. This is definitely one of those books with an extra helping of cringe. I think that at times Collins was intentionally satirizing the prejudices of his contemporaries, but other times not so much. I quite enjoyed Collins’  The Woman in White even with all its improbabilities and eye rolling moments, but this classic mystery didn’t work for me. I’m not sure if it was really any worse or if I just wasn’t in the mood to charitably overlook his nonsense.

Interview with the Mobster

I Heard You Paint Houses"; Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran and closing the case on Jimmy ...Title: “I Heard You Paint Houses”:
Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran & Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa
Author: Charles Brandt
Genre: True(?) Crime
Pages: 310
Rating: 4 of 5

I was living in Scranton back when this book came out, and it made quite the splash. Russell Bufalino, who figures prominently in the story, had been a local (I lived within walking distance of the borough where some of the early scenes take place…I miss all those little pizza joints!), and the whole Scranton-Wilkes Barre area still has a pretty corrupt “mobby” vibe even if the Bufalino family is allegedly no longer active (I won’t go into local “open secrets” and things observed while working as a bank teller for 3 years). Anyway, I finally got around to reading this, and even though disappointingly little occurs in the SWB area, it was interesting in a horrifying kind of way.

Most of the book is comprised of huge block quotes from Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, culled from years of interviews with the author. The author occasionally interjects paragraphs of his own to explain events, but this is mostly the story of Jimmy Hoffa’s murder (and tangentially connected events related to the Teamsters, the Kennedys,  Cuba, Nixon, etc.) as told in Sheeran’s own words. Some aspects of Sheeran’s story are annoyingly repetitive or confusingly organized, but given how much interview material the author must have had to sift through and edit into a readable story, it’s fairly impressive in its coherence.

Sheeran is cold and largely remorseless as he casually talks about “taking care of” people for the mob and the Teamsters (and, before that, for the US Army). He paints a disturbing picture of the utter corruption, casual violence, and immense influence of both unions and the mafia in their heyday. (Joe Biden even makes a brief appearance as the Teamsters suppress an edition of a newspaper that was running large-scale attack ads against him when he first ran for congress.)

It’s hard to say how much of Sheeran’s story is accurate and how much is braggadocio. The actual description of events immediately surrounding the murder of Jimmy Hoffa takes up a relatively small number of pages and is probably the most believable part since the author offers some corroborating evidence. Other aspects, like Sheeran’s sexual prowess, number of murders, or minor involvement in the JFK assassination, seem a bit more iffy.

Overall, I don’t think there’s any way to know how accurate this is, but it does provide a darkly fascinating look at power, corruption, and murder.

The Confederacy & Nazi Germany

Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil by [Neiman, Susan]Title: Learning from the Germans:
Race and the Memory of Evil
Author: Susan Neiman
Genre: History/Philosophy
Pages: 386 (plus citations, indices, etc.)
Rating: 3 of 5

I reject the romanticized “Lost Cause” interpretation of the American Civil War. A perusal of the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, the “Cornerstone” Speech, and similar primary source documents makes it very clear that for the decision-makers in leadership the war was fought to preserve slavery (whether that is what individual soldiers felt they were fighting for or not). This book is driven by this understanding of the Civil War and the Confederacy coupled with a recognition of the shameful evil of slavery in America and its racist legacy (“Jim Crow,” etc.).

The author, a Jewish American philosopher who currently lives in Germany, explores the difference between how Germany and the US have dealt with government propagated racism in their past history. No direct “more/less evil” or “more/fewer victims” comparison is made between Nazism and slavery. The comparison is in how these events are memorialized, acknowledged, defended, excused, atoned for, and/or (her favorite phrase) “worked off.” Personally, I have pondered this idea before and was interested to see a scholarly book on the topic. It ended up being a very different book than what I was hoping for.

The book meanders through history, the author’s personal experiences (mostly living in Berlin & visiting racially charged locations and racial reconciliation groups in Mississippi), and her own philosophical/political thoughts. Much of it felt scattery and as if she were trying to talk through her ideas on paper and come to conclusions as she was writing. As she does this, she comes from a philosophical/political perspective somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders, and tends to attribute the worst possible (usually racist) motives to those of other political persuasions.

Overall, I did find much to appreciate and ponder in this book even though there are areas where I would strongly disagree with the author. I would love to see this same topic taken on by someone whose forte was history rather than philosophy.

Mixed Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to seriously outpace my reviewing this year, so to catch up a little here is a handful of mini-reviews (each from a different genre).

Title: Answering Jihad:
A Better Way Forward
Author: Nabeel Qureshi
Genre: Theology/Comparative Religion
Pages: 168
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Nabeel Qureshi (a former Muslim) seeks to give an honest assessment of the historical importance and practice of Jihad in Islam. While his assessment is not “politically correct” in relation to the Western narrative of Islam as the religion of peace, Qureshi has done careful, honest research into Islamic history, the Quran, and the Hadith, as well as drawing on his own experience as a Muslim.

He poses the idea of many Muslims coming to a crossroads where they are faced with the violent past of Islam and must decide how to proceed (Endorse jihad/”become radicalized”? Reject some foundational truths of Islam in favor of some new version? Abandon Islam?). His “better way forward” involves interacting with Muslims with love and compassion rather than fear and suspicion. The final section of the book offers the non-violence and self-sacrificing love of biblical Christianity as an attractive alternative to embracing jihad.

Title: The Landmark Arrian:
The Campaigns of Alexander
Author: Arrian
Translator: Pamela Mensch
Genre: Ancient History
Pages: 485 (plus 75 pages of indices, etc.)
Rating: 4 of 5

love the Landmark editions of ancient histories. Prior to this one I had read Landmark’s Herodotus and Thucydidesand this one continues to impress. Arrian’s history of Alexander the Great’s campaigns is a bit hero-worshippy, but gives a good basic overview from someone who had access to primary sources no longer completely available to us. The frequent maps keep this from being an incomprehensible catalogue of place names, and extensive commentary explains cultural issues and alerts to important alternate versions of events found in other sources.

System Failure (Epic Failure Trilogy Book 3) by [Zieja, Joe]Title: Communication Failure and System Failure
(Epic Failure Trilogy: Books 2 & 3)
Author: Joe Zieja
Genre: Science Fiction (Humor/Satire)
Pages: 336 & 432
Ratings: 4 & 3.5 of 5

The first book in this trilogy, Communication Failure, was my favorite fiction last year. The second and third books still had plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments, but book 2 had a little bit of “middle book syndrome,” and I really didn’t care for the way the trilogy wrapped up. I suppose the ending made sense and was humorous in a Monty Python kind of way, but it was surprisingly downbeat and left a lot of loose ends.

Title: Orconomics
(The Dark Profit Saga: Book 1)
Author: J. Zachary Pike
Genre: Satirical Fantasy
Pages: 360
Rating: 4 of 5

The tone of this felt like a slightly less zany Discworld. It’s your typical “unexpected Chosen One and his band of rejects goes on big fantasy quest” fantasy/RPG sendup set in a world where dungeon crawling has become a big commercial enterprise. The story manages to deal with serious issues like racism, market manipulation, economic exploitation, and more without being overly preachy. Some of the pacing was a bit slow, but overall it was enjoyable, and I plan to read the next book, Son of a Liche, sometime this year.

Tales of the Al-Azif: A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology by [Phipps, C. T., Davenport, Matthew, West, David J., Hambling, David, Wilson, David Niall]Title: Tales of the Al-Azif:
A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology
Authors: C. T. Phipps, Matthew Davenport, David J. West, David Hambling, David Niall Wilson
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 264
Rating: 2 of 5

I read a lot of Lovecraftian cosmic horror anthologies, and I don’t expect them to be literary masterpieces. The Cthulhu mythos was born in the pulps and remains escapist pulp fiction for the most part. That said, this was one of the least enjoyable collections I have encountered.

The stories were not really to my taste. Most rely far more on insect-inspired horror than the nihilistic dread usual to cosmic horror, and most were of the “monster hunter” variety favored by Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith rather than the original creeping dread of H. P. Lovecraft.

If that were my only complaint with the book I probably would have given it 3.5 stars as “okay, but not to my personal taste when it comes to Lovecraftian horror.” However, the book (I read the Kindle edition) was riddled with typos. The number of omitted, duplicated, and misplaced words was absolutely ridiculous…completely amateur.