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.

Ugly History

Title: The Sleepwalkers:
How Europe Went to War in 1914
Author: Christopher Clark
Genre: European History (WWI)
Pages: 587 (+160 pages of citations, indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

This is the ugly history of the politics, propaganda, and events that led up to World War I. Prior to reading this, my general impression of WWI (based on fuzzy memories of high school history & reinforced by the fourth season of Blackadder) was that it was a horrifically pointless war started on a pretext by arrogant greedy statesmen whose various alliances dragged all of Europe into a maelstrom of death…and it was somehow mostly Germany’s fault. Having read this amazingly well-researched book, I think the blame could be spread around a bit more liberally, but my general view remains pretty much the same.

Christopher Clark makes meticulous use of primary source material to weave together a coherent account of how the Great War came about. This is a daunting task given the complexity of the issue and massive amount of (often self-justifying) written sources. He does his best to describe for the Balkans (especially Serbia) and for each of the “great powers” what was going on domestically, militarily, colonially, and in their relationship with each other. This required a lot of jumping back and forth over the same material many times to try to cover the myriad of interactions. It could be confusing at times, but given the complexity of the matter, I was impressed overall with the author’s clarity.

The author also interacts with secondary sources, stating when he agrees or disagrees with common conjectures and analysis. He steers away from blaming things primarily on Germany, pointing out different (and constantly shifting) degrees and kinds of paranoia, imperialism, bellicosity, manipulation, etc. in all of the “great powers.” He also maintains that world war was not fatalistically inevitable, conjecturing about specific situations, decisions, policies, and procrastinations that could have completely changed the course of history had this or that person/committee acted differently in the moment. As the title of the book implies, the author sees the forces of Europe stumbling along with woefully incomplete understanding or analysis of the possible effects of their various power games.

Whether you agree with all of the author’s analysis or not, this is a must read if you are trying to understand the causes of WWI. If you’re not the kind of person who can sit down and read a long history book, then I suppose you can settle for Blackadder’s explanation of how the War began or if analogies are more your thing there’s the story of If WWI were a bar fight (though Serbia bumping into and accidentally spilling beer on Austria should probably be Serbia chucking beer in Austria’s general direction and then pretending it was an accident).

Best & Worst of 2019

This year I set a new personal record for number of books and pages read (134 books, 42,308 pages), and the last book I finished was my 1,000th book since I started keeping track in 2008 (and I didn’t even plan it that way!). Without further ado, here are my best & worst lists for the year (excludes rereads). Let’s start with the worst of the year, so we can end on a positive note:

Worst of the Year (Fiction & Non-fiction)

  1. Why Poetry Sucks: [absurdly long subtitle that I’m not going to reproduce here] by Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball – While trying to show that poetry can be amusing, these authors simply demonstrate how much pretentious experimental poetry does indeed suck.
  2. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng – Why, oh why would you spin such an interesting premise around such a creepy/pervy plot point?!
  3. Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block – I didn’t bother to review this, but it is essentially crime noir starring an exploitive misogynistic cad who “wins” in the end through mental and physical abuse of a female partner-turned-victim
  4. Preacher Sam by Cassondra Windwalker – This had everything that I dislike about “Christian fiction”: repetitive morbid introspection, shoehorned-in romance, shoddy plotting, etc.
  5. The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré – This anti-Israeli thriller earns LeCarré the “honor” of being the first author to appearing on both my best and worst lists in the same year.

Dishonorable Mention: Atonement by Ian McEwan – This is another one I didn’t review. I know it’s supposed to be some sort of literary masterpiece, but I thought it was just overwritten and self-indulgent.

Best Fiction

  1. Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – I feel a little silly selecting this ridiculous “military sci-fi” book for top honors, but I guess I really needed a good laugh this year.
  2. O Alienista (The Alienist) by Machado de Assis – My first time reading a Brazilian classic was a great success with this satire about psychiatry & science
  3. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy – This is basically philosophy wrapped in story. It’s the kind of thing I usually hate in Christian fiction, but Tolstoy makes it work.
  4. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo – The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to impress. Macbeth retold as a gritty, slightly over the top crime drama works quite well.
  5. Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield – This tale of the glory and horror of war provides a surprisingly humanising portrait of the 300 Spartans and their allies.

Honorable Mention: Agent Running in the Field by John LeCarré – This isn’t anywhere near the level of his Cold War novels, but it was a solid spy story.

Best Non-Fiction

  1. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre – Macintyre makes the “best of” list two years running with another fascinating true spy story culminating in an edge-of-your-seat exfiltration attempt.
  2. How Long, O Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson – This provides a compassionate yet solid biblical framework for understanding suffering and evil.
  3. Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin – McLaughlin’s thoughtful answers demonstrate the continuing value and viability of Christianity
  4. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild – I finally knocked this off my TBR. Reading about such exploitation and suffering is difficult, but important. Those who forget history…
  5. The Proverbs of Middle Earth by David Rowe – This fed my Tolkien-geek soul…and it’s based entirely on the books, so that’s an added bonus!

Honorable Mention: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by Mark Ward – “King James Onlyism” is one of my pet peeves, and this book ably defends and promotes vernacular Bible translations without denigrating the venerable KJV.

Plans for Next Year

This year the two challenges I was in were fun, but I felt a little locked into reading certain books, so in 2020 I’m not planning on entering any challenges. I don’t think that I’ll read anywhere near as many books because quite a few of the titles on my TBR are in the 500-1000 page range. I’m going to set my goal at 78 books (2 books every 3 weeks) with an average page count around 400 pages/book.

Well, that’s it for this year. Happy New Year, everyone!

Down with Eurocentric History!

Title: Toward a Global Middle Ages:
Encountering the World Through Illuminated Manuscripts
Editor: Bryan C. Keene
Genre: “Medieval” History
Pages: 263 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 3 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review) 

As a bibliophile who has an interest in old manuscripts, exploring world history via illuminated manuscripts sounded right up my alley. It turned out to be pretty dry, which probably shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise for a book of academic essays. Overall, the collected essays focus on challenging a Eurocentric view of the “Middle Ages.”

Some of the essays heavily analyze a few manuscripts, mining them for cultural practices, prejudices, parallels, and points of contact. Others give more of a generalized overview or a mere passing nod to manuscripts and then focus on what the author really wants to say about global history and/or Eurocentrism. Some came off as just having an ax to grind (e.g. complaining that the Queen of Sheba was usually painted light-skinned but then belittling the supposed motives of the few who painted her dark-skinned).

The book does present an interesting diversity of manuscripts (and manuscript analogues) from all over the world, complete with numerous pictures (about 2/3 of which were missing in the eARC I read). How much you appreciate the accompanying analysis will depend on your tolerance for Academic buzzwords and interest in this fairly specific aspect of history.

The Traumatized Mermaid

The Deep by [Solomon, Rivers, Diggs, Daveed, Hutson, William, Snipes, Jonathan]Title: The Deep
Authors: Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, & Jonathan Snipes
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 175
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: November 5, 2019 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free copy via NetGalley)

The worldbuilding and overarching concepts in this book are very interesting. We are introduced to an underwater society (basically mermaids though that word is never used) descended from enslaved African women who were tossed overboard during the middle passage. As long as you are willing to suspend disbelief and accept that quite a few things about them can best be explained as “because magic,” it’s a pretty cool concept.

The authors explore themes related to painful history and identity. Our protagonist is the society’s “historian”: a role that seems to be ripped straight out of Lois Gowry’s The Giver (though repurposed a bit). Most of the book focuses on her trauma from having to bear the painful memories of all her ancestors while the rest of her society live essentially without memory.

How the “historian’s” trauma was handled is where the book lost me a bit. Apparently the authors felt that the best way to convey the depth of this trauma is to have her go over and over and over it in almost the exact same words for pages on end, circling back to it repeatedly while giving short shrift to actually describing the memories. Repetitive morbid introspection is a pet peeve of mine, and this book has it in spades. Add to this a completely tangential semi-detailed discussion of “mermaid” sexuality that seems designed purely to check off the “look how woke we are” box, and I feel like the book’s pace was completely off. Overall, interesting story, but it would have been much better as a short story (there was that much traumatized whining).

(Also, this book developed out of a rap song by Clipping which you can find here)

The Horror! The Horror!

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by [Hochschild, Adam]Title: King Leopold’s Ghost:
A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
Author: Adam Hochschild
Genre: History
Pages: 306 (plus citations, etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

In the mid-1800’s, Leopold II, King of the Belgians, claimed a massive chunk of central Africa. With the help of trading companies and their armed “sentries” he brutally exploited the people in it for his own personal enrichment while convincing the world that he was a great humanitarian. King Leopold’s Ghost examines the sordid history of the Belgian Congo, the land that inspired Joseph Conrad’s bleak Heart of Darkness.

Hochschild covers everything from the early exploration of central Africa to the results of the international protest movement spearheaded by journalists and Protestant missionaries and all the horror in between. Reading about exploitation, mutilation, and death on such a massive scale is not easy, but is crucial to understanding the history of European colonialism in Africa and its continuing impact.

The author definitely “has it out” for Leopold, but I’m not sure how you would be completely dispassionate about someone responsible for deaths on a scale similar to Hitler or Stalin. Africans are presented in a balanced manner, emphasizing their victimization without falling into the idealized “noble savage” mindset or ignoring the complicity of some in the slave trade. Europeans and Americans working against the cruelties of Leopold’s rule are portrayed sympathetically without glossing over their blind spots, weaknesses, and limited impact.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of Africa and/or European Colonialism. The overall style is a very readable “popular level” but features high quality primary-source research.

(Also, this is my sixth book read for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge).

Historical Hamartiology

Against God and Nature: The Doctrine of Sin (Foundations of Evangelical Theology) by [McCall, Thomas H.]Title: Against God and Nature:
The Doctrine of Sin
Author: Thomas H. McCall
Genre: Theology (Hamartiology)
Pages: 448
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/25/19 (Thank you to the author & publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review)

Last year I reviewed another book from this Foundations of Evangelical Theology series: Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture. That book was by John S. Feinberg, the general editor of the series, and I found it helpful and academically rigorous. I was a bit less impressed with this offering by Thomas H. McCall.

McCall deals with the doctrine of sin; not a pleasant topic, but crucial to a proper understanding of the Christian faith. He approaches the topic with an Arminian point of view, which sets him apart from many of the other authors in the series as they tend to be more Reformed. Though I lean in a more Reformed direction myself, that wasn’t what irked me about this book (though he may have spent more of his page count than was strictly necessary on “Arminian vs. Reformed” related concerns).

The book covers pretty much all the facets of the doctrine that you would expect, but there was relatively little direct exegetical interaction with Scripture compared to other broadly Evangelical systematic theology books I have read. McCall spends much of his page count surveying what different councils and theologians have said about the topic down through history. While I appreciate the use of historical theology (something Evangelical theologians aren’t always very good at), I do not appreciate how it dominates the book. After the second chapter which surveys what the entire Bible says about sin, there is little directly digging into the grammar, examining possible cross-references, or other biblical theology concerns. Instead we get to hear what the Council of Carthage, Augustine, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, etc. thought about the matter.

This focus on historical theology means that most of the time the book is dealing with Scripture at (at least) one remove, occasionally going into Scripturally iffy territory (e.g. some death existing before the fall). I did find some of the discussions profitable (e.g. the section on original sin helpfully explored many possible understandings of the difficult concept), but overall I was disappointed by the relative scarcity of detailed exegesis or direct appeal to Scripture.