Thursday, January 23, 2020

Review: Master and Apprentice

Master and Apprentice Master and Apprentice by Claudia Gray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an enjoyable look at the early relationship of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. It was not as good Claudia Gray's Star Wars: Bloodline, but I still enjoyed it. The story itself raises interesting questions about the role of the Jedi in the Republic and the Galaxy--both what it was pre-Civil War and and what it ought to have been. Rael is an interesting character that is explored a bit more. The vague, background references to Dooku added a bit of intrigue. Reading this so soon after listening to Dooku: Jedi Lost both helped and hurt. It helped because it gave me some background to the connections between Qui-Gon, Rael, and Dooku. Hurt in the minor sense that there were ways in which the stories were not always seemingly in line. I wouldn't say conflicted or inconsistent, but I felt like that the authors maybe have had different visions of Dooku post Jedi/pre-sith lord. I liked some of the quirky supporting cast as well. And the way the story unfolds was well done.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Review: Dooku: Jedi Lost

Dooku: Jedi Lost Dooku: Jedi Lost by Cavan Scott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An entertaining exploration of Dooku's fall from grace. In the prequels and Clone Wars, Dooku is a pompous villain with no regard for anything but his power. In Jedi Lost, we see that he was not always that way and makes the character all the more tragic in his downfall. Told in flashback from Ventress's reading of Dooku's journals, there is an element of how much of the story is true--though in keeping with Star Wars, it is true 'from a certain point of view.'

The fact that this was an audio performance, with different voice-actors and sound effects, adds to the overall experience. (Though there are a few voices hear and there that are hard to decipher clearly.)

View all my reviews

Review: Resistance Reborn

Resistance Reborn Resistance Reborn by Rebecca Roanhorse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Enjoyed this immensely. A good lead up to Episode 9.

View all my reviews

Review: Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World

Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World by Andrew Ervin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The subtitle of the book: “how video games transformed our world” is probably a bit too ambitious and overstates what the book is really about. It is far more of a memoir of the author’s, Andrew Ervin, jaunt through the history of video games. I get the sense the point of the book changed over time: that at first Ervin was looking to write a history of the video game — and the book largely tracks that history. Ervin tracks down original versions of old games to play them. He talks with some of the original designers. But along the way, we get more and more of Ervin’s experiences—not just of the game but of his life story. Not a lot, mind you, it’s not an autobiography. But his life forms the context of much of the storytelling about video games, just like the way such narratives set the backstory for many video games.

The other layer is the cultural impact of video games. Ervin weaves in cultural, art, and literary criticism into the discussion of video games. These parts were uneven. Sometimes insightful, other times insipid, and occasionally pompous or overwrought.

The book is definitely at its strongest on the first two fronts: as a history and a memoir of a gamer. Ervin’s own experiences playing Minecraft or Adventure resonated more with me than discussions about Dadaism, Moby Dick, or militarism. Much of the history can be gathered elsewhere, but Ervin’s conversations with the creators and designers added a novel aspect to the standard histories. Lastly, some of the games Ervin plays and discusses are ones that are outside of the mainstream (or are at least ones I had never heard of). This broadens the subject to include different kinds of video games to show how varied and diverse the genre really is.

Overall, the book is interesting and worth a read if you are interested in gaming.

View all my reviews

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Review: Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier: The Penguin Library of American Indian History

Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier: The Penguin Library of American Indian History Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier: The Penguin Library of American Indian History by Timothy J. Shannon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An informative history of the Iroquois's complex relationships with the British(later Americans) and French in the 17th and 18th centuries. At times, I got bogged down in names, dates, and some of the finer details (a function, for me, of listening rather than reading) but the general account was worth it. Granted some of this is limited by the available sources, but I would have liked more about the Iroquois and their relationship to their indigenous neighbors. Most of this history is about the diplomacy with the European powers.

The history here is fascinating and nuanced. The author balances things well; and anyone coming in with a view that the Europeans were simply and only just imperialistic, racist land grabbers or that the Iroquois were innocent noble savages that were exploited will be disabused of these notions. The Europeans were often that but not only or always that. Along with the cynical treaties merely meant to push the Iroquois off their land, there were sincere efforts at relationship building that were successful and long-lasting. And the Iroquois were far from innocent dupes being played and exploited. They were quite astute and played the French and British off each to great effect. And the Iroquois were sometimes intentionally party to the exploitation of other native nations by the Europeans. History is always a lot more complicated and lot more interesting than what we learned in school.

View all my reviews

Review: Eight Million Ways to Die

Eight Million Ways to Die Eight Million Ways to Die by John K. Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A classic detective noir retold in graphic novel form. I haven't read the original, but the graphic presentation was excellent. It helped to set the mood and setting; it captured the tension felt by Scudder and his relationship to alcohol. The story was well-plotted and interesting; though the resolution came rather quickly. I wish there were more graphic novel adaptations like this.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Review: Robert B. Parker's Angel Eyes

Robert B. Parker's Angel Eyes Robert B. Parker's Angel Eyes by Ace Atkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really do miss Robert Parker. Nevertheless, Atkins does a great job at capturing Parker's style, the feel of a Spenser novel, and the underlying morality of it. He even gets close to Spenser's wit--though it's not quite as snappy or droll as Parker's dialogue.

Atkins had some fun with this one. He always does some call-backs to earlier Parker novels, but this one had several laugh-out-loud references. One was a hilarious and not-so-subtle dig (maybe?) at the new Wahlberg Netflix series. Another was a completely out of the blue and unprecedented Joe Pike sighting. There was also another not-so-subtle dig at Robert Kraft (which as a Pats fan I found less amusing).

If you miss Spenser and want to spend time in that world, Atkins provides a reasonable simulacrum of it. There is always something a little off, but it is still a good read.

View all my reviews

Monday, November 25, 2019

Review: Ancient Civilizations of North America

Ancient Civilizations of North America Ancient Civilizations of North America by Edwin Barnhart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Barnhart is a great lecturer; and I enjoyed listening to him. The history was very interesting, and I learned a lot. I liked the structure of the lecture of the series, as he moved through the different regions and their history.

I did tend to get lost and daydream as he got into the details of pottery shards, ancient middens, and other archaeological particulars.

As with many teaching company courses, the first half/third of the series was the best. (not sure why that is, but it is very common.) In this case, the latter half was dealing less and less with ancient civilizations and more with pre-contact cultures of the 13th and 14th centuries. Still important, interesting stuff, but not what I was expecting.

View all my reviews

Review: If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir

If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir by Ilana Kurshan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve long had a fantasy of reading and studying the Talmud. I’m intrigued by the history of it; the philosophy and theology that it contains, its structure and methodology, and its centrality to Jewish thought. But it’s such a huge challenge. Never mind language, but the very structure and methodology that fascinates me is one of the significant hurdles to overcome. And then its sheer length. It’s long. Really long. It’s a serious commitment; one that would absorb almost all my time.

But then, in Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All The Seas Were Ink, I learned about Daf Yomi. A project by which one reads one page of Talmud every day, completing the whole Talmud in seven and half years. Still a long time and a commitment, but this made it seem more feasible. I started to look into a bit more after starting her book. A new cycle starts in January. Maybe I could do this.

But, by the end of Kurshan’s book, I’m over it (mostly). I realized through Kurshan’s discussion of her daily reading, ironically, that I don’t want to read the whole Talmud. I’m interested in reading parts and pieces, or reading about parts and pieces. But the whole thing? Every day for seven and half years? That’s a lot of discussion of religious minutiae that holds no interest to me.

The memoir itself is interesting. To be honest, I didn’t love it. There were some beautiful parts; some poignant moments, aspects that prompted self-reflection. But overall, I didn’t connect with Kurshan. I am not sure why: maybe her intensity, her idealistic romanticism, or something else. But whatever it was, she always felt somewhat distant to me—even as she shared intimate aspects of her life.

The book started strong. I was pulled in by the idea of using the reading of Talmud daily to give herself structure and direction as she rebuilt her life. But there were a few things as the book went on that helped to create some of that distance I mentioned above. One, there was a lot of coincidence between the daily study and things in her life. On one hand, that’s kind of the point of the book. Moreover, who doesn’t have that experience of reading about something and then seeing that something everywhere? But on the other hand, after a while, it felt a little inauthentic.

Two, she seemed to be running out of interesting things to say by the end. As her life gets back on track and things are going well, it’s just not as interesting from a story point of view. And at this point, it becomes a lot of being thankful for her blessings and tying this into her study of Talmud. On personal level, that’s great. But as reader, it doesn’t make for great reading.

I did appreciate reading Kurshan’s point of view. Though far more religious and traditional than I could or would ever be, she was not orthodox or dogmatic. She bristled at the sexism in the tradition. She had difficulty with traditional prayer. At the same time, I think some of her more overt religiousness contributed to my felt distance from her. I would have also liked more of daily Israeli life. And more than just Jerusalem. She seemed to live in a somewhat religious bubble in Jerusalem and I didn’t get a sense of the much broader picture of life in Israel.

The book is at its most interesting when Kurshan weaves together ideas from the Talmud and how it helped her to think about her life. While I complained above that there were a lot of coincidences between her life and study, it didn’t bother me when she used this to show how this affected her thoughts and actions. It was more the hokey way she sometimes used the coincidences to introduce or set up the chapter. That’s when it felt forced and inauthentic.

I’m glad to have read it. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it. It gave me some insight and inspired some reflection, but also left me with the feeling that something was missing or incomplete.

View all my reviews

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Review: Loyalty

Loyalty Loyalty by Ingrid Thoft
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is a lot to like here. The main character, Fina, is solid. She's not all the way hard-boiled or all that original; but she's tough, smart, and a wise-cracker. The setting is Boston--always a plus, though there wasn't that much Boston in it. It could have been Philly for all you knew. The story moves along and though not terribly original, it wasn't totally obvious.

The writing itself was not strong. Plenty of cliches and too much telling instead of showing. The secondary characters were also a bit 'standard-issue' and stereotypical of the genre.

Fina is strong enough that I'd be willing to give #2 a try; though in the summer. This is definitely more of a beach/summer read. It's fun, it moves and entertains, but not much more than that.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Review: Thrawn: Alliances

Thrawn: Alliances Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An ambitious book with some great ideas that ultimately doesn’t come together as tightly as one would like. Still, I enjoyed it. Thrawn is a great character, one of my favorite Star Wars characters. The setting of the book both in the midst of the Clone Wars and also in the time period before the Battle of Yavin, and going back and forth between these throughout the book was a great choice on how to tell the story. The parallels between the interactions of Anakin and Thrawn and then Vader and Thrawn were fun to play with. And then also seeing Vader react to and struggle with the memories of his old self was a neat spin (Anytime we can get inside that helmet and see what Vader is thinking is fun).

But the plots in both story lines tended more towards the convoluted. This is in part because in order for Thrawn to do his thing, a lot of pieces need to be moving in the background and everyone else has to be seemingly unaware of these. But with two story lines and all that intrigue, it was just a bit too much. I was also a bit let down on how the stories ultimately came together.

Another weakness is that Vader and Thrawn’s interactions got a little tiresome and predictable. And man did I forget how whiny Anakin could be.

That said, the story adds interesting elements to the Star Wars universe: in particular some new aspects of the Force. And, did I mention Thrawn?

View all my reviews

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Review: The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians

The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians by Naomi Schaefer Riley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fascinating and disturbing book. Riley details the terrible ways in which the policies of the US and the Canada continue to screw over the indigenous peoples of North America. She focuses on property rights issues, education, child welfare, and criminal issues. Many of the current policies in place in these areas, often well-intentioned, have exacerbated previous injustices or created new ones. Too many of the anecdotes Riley reports are terrible and horrifying. Others are frustrating and maddening. This book will make you sad and angry.

Riley does discuss some proposals for possible solutions, but not in any detail (and its not always clear these proposals are much better). This is a weakness, but not a damning one. I took the point of the book as more diagnosis than treatment. Most people, like myself, are ignorant of most of these policies and laws that are doing real damage and injustice, and so this is more about shining sunlight on these.

(Note on the audio: this was mixed. The reader was good, but there were issues with sound quality. At times the voice sounded too mechanical or too flat. It seemed to be that the equalizer settings were changing throughout, creating varying quality.)

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Review: Trail of Lightning

Trail of Lightning Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rebecca Roanhorse crafts a wonderfully imaginative and unique post-apocalyptic tale. The Navajo (Dine) creation stories (much like many other Mesoamerican/native American myths), our current world, the fifth, is the result of a cycle of creation and destruction. Roanhorse continues this cycle with destruction of the fifth world in the near future. Arising from the destroyed fifth world, the Sixth World makes real the gods and legends of the Dine. Roanhorse plays with these stories and legends in delightful and frightening ways.

The former Navajo Nation reservation survived the destruction of the fifth world and become a distinct political unit: Dinetah. We are not told much about the world outside of the Dinetah—there are mentions of the Exalted Mormon Kingdom in parts of what was Utah and Arizona. But that’s it. Nevertheless, there are some hints that in other parts of the world that have survived the old gods, the gods of indigenous people have also become real as well. Hopefully we learn a bit more in later Sixth World novels.

The lead character, Maggie Hoskie, is a bad-ass with some incredible clan powers (another feature of the sixth world) that allow her to hunt and kill the dangerous monsters of Dine legend that now terrorize her people. She connects up with Kai, a medicine man with his own incredible powers. Together they discover some disturbing facts about these monsters and where they are coming from. (No spoilers, nothing here that is not on the book jacket.)

I really enjoyed the novel. It does just enough world-building and background without detracting from the pace and action of the main story. The characters: from the humans to the gods are well developed and interesting. I love the way Roanhorse plays with the mythology. It gives the world she is creating a refreshing feel and provides a rich well on which to draw. There is more to this world to explore; more stories to tell.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Review: Washington: A Life

Washington: A Life Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fantastic and thorough biography. Chernow gives the full picture of Washington-at least as full as one can get in a biography.

Chernow doesn't shy away from the warts, mistakes, and errors of Washington's life, but the core greatest of the man shines through. Washington's biggest mistake, like all to many of his contemporaries, was slavery. One can't help but wonder how history would have been different if Washington was able to overcome this. Of all the founders, he probably had the best chance of pushing for emancipation. Both because of his southern standing but also the widely recognized strength of his moral character, he might have been to pull together a coalition that could have brought an end to slavery. He seems like he got close to trying this at times, but the imagination was lacking or the pressing needs of the present blinded him. Washington clearly understand the contradictions of slavery with the founding principles in the Declaration and Constitution for which he was fighting as first a general and then a president. As well, he seemed to see the weakness of the economic argument for slavery: rather than enriching him and the other southerners, it was bankrupting many of them and more of a drain then an economic gain. And yet, for all his moral wisdom and tactical brilliance, he tragically couldn't imagine a way forward and out of slavery.

It still astounds me that Washington walks away from power. It's now part of the American Mythos but we all know that Washington could have been king, but retires instead. And really, he doesn't even seem tempted. That's all the more amazing. This moral fortitude and his shepherding of the US in its early years certainly makes him as one of history's greats.

View all my reviews

Review: Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages

Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages by Robert Garland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I hate to admit it but I was a bit underwhelmed by this course. It's hard to put my finger on why. I certainly learned some things, but it wasn't the course I was expecting. I would have liked more in depth focus on the historical development and operations of the democracy. Garland obviously covers that, but I still walked away feeling like it wasn't enough of the focus. Though I appreciate the attempt to connect this to contemporary times, the manner that Garland did this sometimes was off-putting and distracting. As a philosopher, I was hoping for much more on the philosophical foundations of the democracy. Again, Garland covers that but not sufficiently.

View all my reviews

Review: An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Part literary criticism, part biography, and part memoir, this book weaves together a touching and wonderful story. On the surface, it is a story of a father attending his son’s seminar on the Odyssey. Making use of the very ring structure that Mendelsohn is lecturing his students about, he presents his interpretation of the Odyssey and how to study it, explores his relationship with his father, and tells the story of his father’s life. This mirroring of the structure of Odyssey is tightly done: it is not forced. Mendelsohn doesn’t call attention to what he’s doing, but he’s not burying it either.

As college professor, I enjoyed the retelling of the classroom settings and the interactions of the students. As a lover of the classics, I appreciated the insight into the Odyssey. As a father and a son, I found the story deeply touching. My relationship with my father is not at all like his—but the deeper idea of coming to see your father as person and seeing him (or trying to at least) for real is true for all fathers and sons (and as Mendelsohn shows us, is part of the theme of the Odyssey).

Mendelson is courageously honest about the portrayal of himself. Although at times he comes off as a rather stereotypical haughty professor of classics, he doesn’t shy away from highlighting his own failures to connect to his father; the ways in which he missed opportunities to see his father. In this way, the book can be sad. And yet, for all these failures, there is a connection made; their relationship is transformed, and I think, father and son do come to know each other better.

View all my reviews

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Review: The New Girl

The New Girl The New Girl by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with most spy thrillers, it is very hard to give a review without spoilers. I’ve tried to avoid any direct spoilers, but there are aspects that might be given away by what I say. So be warned.

The worst part about a Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novel is that it comes to an end. The New Girl is just as fun, exciting, moving, and thought-provoking as the previous 18. It’s hard to top the early novels, but this is up there.

I do so wish Gabriel Allon (GA) was real. Maybe there are people like him and they are so good at what they do, we don’t hear about them and the problems they prevent. But it’s also a bit like hoping Batman was real. No one person is capable of this – and even if they were it is probably not a good idea to have them doing these things in the way they are done in the stories. It works in Batman and GA because we know, because they are the protagonists of the story, that they are good guys. In real life, without an omniscient narrator, we cannot know that.

The best part about The New Girl was the relationship that develops between GA and Khalid. They are, understandably, skeptical and weary of each other at first, but through the events of the story they seem to learn to trust each other and develop what seems like it could be a deep and long friendship – though the way the story unfolds that may not turn out to be the case.

At this point, 19 books in, we don’t get a lot of character development from the main cast. And there is very little of that. Keller, Mihkail, Seymour, Gabriel are who they are. So you need the new characters to drive that aspect. Silva always does a great job at this, both with new protagonists and the antagonists. Sarah’s story arc is interesting – not so much specifically for the plot of The New Girl, but across the several books she has been in. I think there are some exciting things Silva could (and will) do with this character in future novels (which is part of why she was in The New Girl – as set up for the future).

Silva also usually does a great job of humanizing his antagonists. They are rarely mindless fanatics: they have motivations that might have started out reasonable enough, but have gone deeply astray. Part of what he does well with this is that it is not a matter of some hackneyed, lazy moral grayness, where the good guys are a little bad, and the bad guys are a bit good. It’s more that Silva shows us these are human beings that have a complex history and that they have made (often bad) choices that have brought them to this point. We don’t sympathize with them, but we understand them. They are not merely monsters. However, some of the main antagonists in the New Girl come off a bit shallow. They are either just the tools of some mostly off-stage actor directing them (I’m trying not to spoil things) or they are motivated in fairly basic ways (sex and/or power). Nevertheless, I suppose there is some truth in that—but it does take away slightly from the drama.

There are several surprising elements to this story—I can’t discuss them without spoiling them, but I will say Silva allows the story to unfold without introducing any dues ex machinas. I sort of expected a few or at least Silva to pull back. So I’m glad he had the storytelling integrity to go forward with it.

There were several moments in the story related specifically to Israel that, although they are not essential to plot, I found quite moving; even got choked up a bit.

I enjoy how Silva weaves in current real world events – though I do have to be careful not to confuse Silva’s world for the real one!

I am not sure what I think of the ending. It’ll take some time to process it. Partly, I’m not sure what precisely happened. Time will tell.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Review: Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel

Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel by Matti Friedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On the surface, this concise book is a thrilling untold history of Israel’s first spies. It is in some ways a tale out of a Daniel Silva Gabriel Allon novel. As the title tells us, these were spies of no country: they become spies and operated before the state came into existence. Friedman focuses primarily on four men of the Arab Section. They were recruited to be spies because they could pass as Arabs: they knew the language, the customs, the way of life, in a way only a local could.

And this gets to the second layer. These four men were born and raised in the Arab world: they were from Syria, Yemen, and Jerusalem. They were not from Warsaw or Minsk. The Mizrahi, Jews of the Islamic world, were largely invisible in the early days of Israel and in the founding stories of Israel. Friedman’s book is telling the story of these four to help us see the Mizrahi and their importance to Israel; then and today. The title is, I suspect, also part of this layer: the Israel that they become spies for didn’t fully see them. They believed in and spied for the Land of Israel: but the state of Israel came into existence when they were already operating in Beirut and Damascus. By the time they returned to Israel, it was already a very different from the place they left. In this sense too, maybe, they were spies of no country.

Another layer of the book is the slipperiness and messiness of identity. This was a time of gigantic shifts and things got very messy, very quickly. The uneasy, yet relatively stable world in Europe was finally destroyed by WWII and now that was happening in the Middle East as new countries, including Israel, created themselves with new identities. This is given some measure of reality with the lives of these four spies. They were Jews born in the Arab world; they grew up speaking Arabic. As these shifts began, they left the Arab world to live among the Jewish, Hebrew speaking communities in what soon would be Israel. But then as spies, they are sent to live as Arabs among the Arabs. This is highlighted by this quote about the men as they were training to be spies: “But were they Arabs? They would have said no, and most Arabs would have said no. But they were native to the Arab world—as native as Arabs. If the key to belonging to the Arab nation was the Arabic language, as the Arab nationalists claimed, they were inside. So were they really ‘becoming like Arabs’? Or were they already Arabs? Were they pretending to be Arabs, or were they pretending to be people who weren’t Arabs pretending to be Arabs?” (58). It’s enough to give anyone an identity crisis!

Another layer is the ambiguity of founding stories and myths. This not unique to Israel. Americans face this too in trying somehow to make sense of the intellectual and practical achievements of liberty by men such as Jefferson and Washington with the horrors and evils of slavery in which they partook. Friedman’s book highlights the seeming paradox that Israel born out of the ideas in 19th century Europe is peopled by a population half of whom have grandparents from places like Iraq rather than Poland. Friedman’s spies come from and teach us something about this half of the population. Largely invisible for the first part half of Israel’s existence, they are becoming more and more a prominent part of the country’s culture and politics. Understanding the future of Israel means, in part, understanding this invisible past.

Friedman’s book is an opening, an invitation to this past.

View all my reviews