Friday, November 09, 2018

Review: Dune

Dune Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dune is an incredible feat of imagination and writing. Frank Herbert intermingles history, religion, politics, ecology, and philosophy into an epic adventure of intrigue and revolution.

One can see the influence Dune has had on later science fiction. It’s hard not to imagine Tatooine as one reads about Arrakis. The intrigue among the great houses will be familiar to Game of Thrones readers. Equally so, Dune is itself influenced by earlier works, such as Asimov’s Foundation series.

The world created by Herbert is complex. A long history. A complicated set of mystical, religious beliefs intermixed with science and politics. Court intrigue that sets up the underlying conflict of the novel. Cultural norms and rules that are unknown. The reader is, to borrow the now hackney phrase, a stranger in a strange land. As such, one needs a little patience when starting Dune. You have to allow yourself to become familiar with this world.

There are many themes explored and played with by Herbert in Dune. To name but a few: The exploration of religion, its influence, and its institutions. The ongoing conflict of civilization v primitivism (city v country; empire v fremen). The evolution and persistence of religion and culture. Man v environment. The appeal and danger of fundamentalism and Messianism. The pitfalls of ‘Great Men’. The role of computers and technology in society.

It is fun to try to untangle and spot the real-world influences. What language is this word coming from? What religion influenced Herbert for this or that practice or mystical belief?

It is also interesting how conservative the whole galactic culture appears to be. It is a deeply aristocratic society. Women occupy traditional roles. There is little in the way of what one might call ‘alternative lifestyles.’ Like many traditional/conservative cultures, honor plays a huge part. I am sure there are many English PhDs that have made their bones chewing on all this!

If I have a criticism, it would be that the characters could be tools of the plot, rather than the driving force of the plot. The grand sweep of time moving everyone along to the conclusion. The motivations of the character could be at times opaque or hidden behind too many layers.

Dune deserves the praise it gets; it deserves its place in literary history (though maybe not quite as high as Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert’s son would place it). If you only know of Dune because of the David Lynch/Sting movie from the 80s, it is worth reading with fresh eyes.


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Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Review: Skinwalkers

Skinwalkers Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bringing Leaphorn and Chee together was a brilliant stroke. Leaphorn is more logical--more like a Poirot or Marple. Chee is more intuitive. Both are smart and perceptive. They respect each other and will work well together.

The mystery here was not terribly complicated, but seeing Leaphorn and Chee bring the clues together and discover the truth was masterfully down by Hillerman. And Hillerman also gives us the beautiful descriptions of landscapes of the southwest. He is able to give the reader the feel of what living in the high desert might be like. The contrast between cultures is also endlessly fascinating.

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Saturday, July 28, 2018

Review: The Other Woman

The Other Woman The Other Woman by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gabriel Allon returns to do battle with the Russians again in another exciting novel by Daniel Silva. The usual cast of characters make their appearances, though the focus is mostly on Allon and Graham Seymour. There are several twists and turns in the plot that keep you guessing and thinking. Silva does a masterful job of weaving in real history and current events into his fictional world. I always enjoy reading his Author Notes after the novel to see what is based on real life and what is made up.
My last thought after finishing this was when is #19 coming out?!

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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Review: Sports: The First Five Millennia

Sports: The First Five Millennia Sports: The First Five Millennia by Allen Guttmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an ambitious project: telling the history of five millennia of sport—and doing so in about 350 pages. And ultimately, it is unrealistic. There is a lot of interesting and fascinating information here, but it is, necessarily, too often superficial, without sufficient context, and skimmed over. There are passages where it turns into the proverbial just one damned thing after another. Dates and names fly at you, interspersed with occasionally amusing or telling anecdotes. As much as I liked the idea of tracing the history of sport from prehistoric communities up to today, there was just too much information with too little space.

There are, nonetheless, many positives to the book. The author, Allen Guttmann, does a good job of including multiple perspectives. There is very rarely any sense that he has an ideological ax to grind. Guttmann also makes sure to bring in sport from a broad range of differing social classes and groups. The role of women in the history of sport was frequently highlighted—though obviously there are many more opportunities in the modern world for women in sport, women have in nearly every culture and every era been involved in some kind of sport.

I most enjoyed the first part of the book where Guttmann focuses on the sport of ancient cultures. He looks, of course, at the Greeks, but also cultures across the globe. He discusses various theories about how sport developed in these societies: from what they evolved and how they become what we might recognize as sport. This is the most interesting and recommendable part of the book. The discussion of sport in the middle ages was also intriguing. Where things start to get bogged down is when Guttmann moves more into the modern period.

Guttmann is a widely respected historian of sport, and I am certainly going to look at his more focused books. I am not sure I’d recommend this book, however. It unfortunately comes too close to turning into a fleshed out timeline.


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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: The Old Testament

The Old Testament The Old Testament by Amy-Jill Levine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This series of lectures on the Old Testament is very good as an overview to the history of the text and the different interpretative approaches to the Old Testament. Levine brings together, at different points, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and secular understandings of the texts. This is not a religion or theology course; there is no presupposition of the divinity of the text, but such a view, for those that have it, is not incompatible with Levine's discussions. Though I am sure those with particular views about the meaning of the Old Testament will disagree at lots of points, Levine doesn't present her interpretation as _the_ definitive one. She acknowledges the reality of many traditions and interpretations.

In 24 lectures, one can hardly get too deep into the books and stories of this text, and Levine acknowledges through out the series this limitation. Nevertheless, in the aspects she discusses, she is able to convey much of the meaning and the history.

Personally, I would have liked even more on the history of these texts, and their comparisons to other texts of the region and period. That's really a different course though.

I wish Levine had more courses at the Teaching Company--ones that individually delved more deeply into select books of the Bible. Her style is pleasant, she cares deeply for her subject, and she has an impressive breadth and depth of knowledge of it.


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Review: A New Dawn

A New Dawn A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For fans of Rebels, this is a great way to spend more time with Hera and Kanan, and to see how they first met. Like Rebels, it gives you a look at the beginnings of the rebellion. Miller also introduces Rae Sloane who goes on to play important roles in the Aftermath trilogy. She is a fascinating character. An imperial, she is not corrupt. She is ambitious, but not blindly so. She is committed to the law and order ideology of the Empire and this guides her character from A New Dawn up through the end of Aftermath. This makes her a great antagonist. She is not a monster like Vidian, Vader, or Palpatine. Sloane is understandable. She is competent, intelligent, and has a kind of integrity.

The book is a little slow to get going as it introduces the characters and the setting, but the story picks up to an exciting conclusion.

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

Review: Dance for the Dead

Dance for the Dead Dance for the Dead by Thomas Perry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second novel in the Jane Whitefield series refreshingly doesn’t follow the same plot structure as the first novel. Jane still guides "people out of the world” but the reasons for the hiding are quite different, and the manner in which Jane goes about it is also different. The story has some rather dark and brutal parts. Jane continues to be an intriguing protagonist. She shows more vulnerabilities in this novel, but is still just as tough, intelligent, and component. Highly recommend this series.

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Monday, June 25, 2018

Review: Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a fascinating and unique little book. The frame is a set of ten letters written by the author to a Palestinian neighbor. He does not know this neighbor, Halevi explains, and doesn’t know to whom to send these letters. And that is part of the story of the letters: the need for these neighbors to speak to each other, but there is seemingly infinite distance to reach each other. The letters to an anonymous neighbor express a sense of hope although one that is shadowed by the vast distance that remains: a hopeful despondence? A despondent hope?

This paradoxical situation is the leitmotif of the book. It is a deeply personal expression of paradox and ineluctable tension of ideas and people. The modern and premodern; religious and secular; Israeli and Arab; Israeli identity and Jewish identity; Judaism and Islam; East and West; the past and the future; and Jew and Jew.

As a book of letters to his Palestinian neighbor, the book is hardly directed at me and yet it is important for an American Jew to read to this book—indeed for anyone looking for some measure of insight into the Israel-Arab conflict—and also for insight into Jewishness.

Halevi’s goal here is to tell the Jewish/Israeli narrative. His hope is that if both sides can express their narratives, there can be some mutual understanding that can be the basis for moving forward. So Halevi presents his personal statement about what Jewishness is and what Israeli life is about. He talks about how these identities connect. And how this relates to the land of Israel and to the Palestinians.

Halevi is reaching out to an audience which may not and mostly will not accept it or appreciate it (An Arab translation is available free online). But he tells the narrative with the intent of trying to respect that Palestinian need for that denial while calling for them to move beyond it. He doesn’t ask for agreement or affirmation; just the space to tell his narrative. He invites Palestinians to tell their narrative and wants to grant them the same space: the space to tell each other our national narratives without dismissal or rejection. The idea is that if we can start there, we can start to see and hear each other; and then we can start a dialogue that might lead to some kind of mutual understanding.

Interestingly, Halevi is also writing to the Israeli far right. They know the Jewish narrative. But they need to see it in relation and conflict with the Palestinian narrative. Halevi is arguing that both narratives have some measure of validity and that both sides need to understand and deal with these perspectives. If we are to see each other we have to stop ignoring, downplaying and denying each other.



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Review: The Wise Man's Fear

The Wise Man's Fear The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second novel in the Kingkiller Chronicle. The first novel was amazing and the follow-up is as good, if not better. It takes us much deeper into the world and culture of Temerant (and beyond). We learn more about Kvothe and see his abilities and character develop more as well. We learn more about the Adem, about naming, about the Chandrian, and about the Fae and their world.

The depth of the world that Rothfuss has created is on par with the greatest of fantasy series. He does a great job of taking the standard tropes of the genre and using them with his own little twist to make the familiar seem novel. He weaves in together many familiar elements to create something new: for example, the Lethani is a sort of mix of the Dao, phronesis, and Falun Gong. I love what he does with the Adem language and culture.

The writing is crisp and creative. Although the book is quite long, it is so well paced, it doesn’t feel long. The character development, the world development, and mythos development are top-notch. If you like fantasy, you have to read this series. It really is not to be missed.


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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Review: The Watchman

The Watchman The Watchman by Robert Crais
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fast-paced and well-crafted. Crais twists his Cole series by telling the story primarily from Pike's point of view (it is, though, still third person). Cole was, up to this point, very much Spenser in LA, but by telling us a mystery from Pike's point of view, Crais takes his Cole series to a place Parker never did.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Review: The Foundations of Eastern Civilization

The Foundations of Eastern Civilization The Foundations of Eastern Civilization by Craig G. Benjamin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a broad, sweeping, Big History course. The lectures span from Neolithic migrations into Asia up to present day. While mostly focusing on China, Benjamin has several what he calls mini-courses on other regions, including Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. He examines how these regions developed on their own but also under the influence of China. The course explores what is meant by 'foundations,' by 'eastern,' and by 'civilization': how should we and how did each of the many cultures and peoples understand and express these? Benjamin looks at the impacts of geology and climate on the cultures and peoples. He looks how the economic and political systems developed and evolved: both from internal developments and external influences.

Each lecture is interesting and well-presented. Benjamin is an excellent lecturer and story-teller. There were many things I learned, but the most surprising for me was how ancient and deep rooted some of the divisions in the region are. For example, like many I presume, I assumed the division between North and South Korea was a Cold War, modern phenomenon, but come to learn that Korea has often historically been divided in a north/south arrangement.

I am doubtful about my recall of much of the detail: the names, places, and dates and so on. But the course provides a grand schema to think about Eastern civilizations. In this way it is a good structure to have before pursuing more close study of a particular time, place, or people.

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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Review: Robert B. Parker's Old Black Magic

Robert B. Parker's Old Black Magic Robert B. Parker's Old Black Magic by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm torn. The 20 year old art heist is interesting and fun; it's a decent, though not difficult, mystery. Atkins does a reasonable enough imitation of Spenser and the other characters. There are nice touches with accents and slang typical of Boston that gives flavor to the book. I like the updating of the BPD and more realism with Spenser's interactions with them (without losing Belson and Quirk).

But Atkins is missing some important elements of Spenser. He's still a smart-ass tough who quotes Thoreau, Frost, and Shakespeare. He still has his code. But Spenser qua detective is not quite there. He gets tailed several times in ways that would make Hawk lose all respect for Spenser. And he's not quite as perceptive or intuitive as Parker's Spenser was.

Compared to Parker at his best, this doesn't compare. But it's still better than Parker at his laziest.


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Sunday, May 13, 2018

Review: Bloodline

Bloodline Bloodline by Claudia Gray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are books that you just don’t want to end. You read through them quickly because you need to know what is going to happen next, but you dread that with each page you are getting close to the end. This is one of those books. Claudia Gray presents us with one of the best versions of Princess Leia in all the canon. Leia is just as strong, witty, and haughty as we see her elsewhere, but we also see her inner strength, her vulnerability, her concerns and fears. She is thoughtful and introspective about her past without being nostalgic. This is not a bratty, arrogant teen-age princess, this is sabacc playing bad-ass.

The story itself is engaging, action-packed, and suspenseful. The secondary characters are well-drawn. There is plenty of foreshadowing for the events of the new trilogy. For those who whine about the where the Resistance comes from in TFA and TLJ, this books shows and explains the roots. So stop ya bitchin’!

One of the many things I liked about the book was Leia’s continual struggle with dealing with the knowledge of Vader as her father. She is not as forgiving as Luke – that is, she is not as willing to accept Anakin’s redemption at the end of Jedi. She also has to come to grips with who Anakin was before he becomes Vader and why he becomes Vader. And all of this plays important roles in the plot.

The Chuck Wendig trilogy is great and moves the story forward from Jedi. Bloodline plays just as important role of connecting the original series to the new. It plays an essential role in the canon. More than this, it is just a damn good story.

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Sunday, May 06, 2018

Review: Davita's Harp

Davita's Harp Davita's Harp by Chaim Potok
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chaim Potok’s books are so engulfing: they suck me into a world that is both familiar and foreign; a world that appears both enchanting and soul-crushing. Davita’s Harp, though different than many of Potok’s other novels, nonetheless shares these features. One major difference is that the protagonist is a young girl: Ilana Davita. The second is the way the story is told. It is much more like a memoir. It starts with some of Ilana’s earliest memories as her world starts to take shape. It has a collage quality to it without a lot of continuity. As she grows the story becomes more robust and continuous, though never losing that memoir feel.

One of the reasons I love reading Potok is that he captures my own ambivalence about American Judaism (of the more religious variety). He, and his characters, are pulled to it, but at the same time he shows it’s darker, uglier side. The push/pull of the secular and religious is the dramatic tension in Potok’s novels. Davita’s Harp adds several other layers to this push/pull with conflicts of gender, politics, and family.

This is a much sadder novel than Potok’s other works that I’ve read. There is repeated tragedy, injustice, and death. And lots of pain and inner torment. The memories of past traumatic events haunt the characters and change them. A major theme of the books is that the characters are all driven to embrace some kind of ideology to help make sense of and give purpose to the world. For Ilana’s parents this was communism and Marxism; for others it was religion: Orthodox Judaism or the Catholicism of her Aunt. Ilana, struggling to make her own sense of things, turns to each of these as well. Mostly, though, she is looking for a home, a community. Part of the sadness, the tragedy of the book is that for most of the characters, and for some more than others, the individual gets let down, hurt, even rejected by their chosen ideological community. This is somewhat, though possibly unintentionally, mirrored by the grand conflicts in the background of the book between fascism and communism as they ate their own and the rest of Europe in the Spanish Civil War and World War Two.

The Jakob Daw character and his stories are intriguing. They add a somewhat mystical element to the novel. I’m not sure – much like Ilana – what they mean, but they provide a texture to the novel. And they are important for Ilana’s growth and development as she comes of age.

From very young, Ilana has to deal with heartbreak and loss. She is not always successful at it but she does seem to find a home in the synagogue and yeshiva. They too, though, end up causing her great pain. One of the best and chilling sequences in the book is her response to the injustice she experiences. I believe, though, that she eventually finds an outlet for her pain and finds peace through her writing and storytelling – as suggested by the hopeful ending.


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Sunday, April 08, 2018

Review: The Sackett Brand: The Sacketts

The Sackett Brand: The Sacketts The Sackett Brand: The Sacketts by Louis L'Amour
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This takes up almost right after Mojave Crossing with the story of Tell and Ange. It takes a dark turn and turns into a thrilling man hunt and trial of survival through the canyons of the Mogollon Rim in Arizona. Many Sacketts, familiar and new, arrive to come to Tell's aid and gives this book a classic Western revenge movie feel. As with all L'Amour books, the story telling is crisp, the descriptions beautiful, and there is plenty of philosophical musings about the mores and norms of the West.

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Review: The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age

The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age by Eamonn Gearon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

These lectures are a captivating tour of the Islamic world from the 8th to the 13th centuries. Eamonn Gearon is a great storyteller and each lecture in this series could stand on its own as fascinating and engaging. His deep knowledge of the history and ideas of the Islamic world is evident throughout all the lectures.

The breadth of Gearon’s discussion shows that the Islamic Golden Age produced achievements in nearly all branches of science, philosophy, mathematics, and technology. The achievements during the Islamic Golden Age across all areas of human thought and life is unparalleled until the European Enlightenment – which owes no small influence to the Islamic Golden Age. There is much in our modern world that has its roots in the Islamic Golden Age. Gearon makes a point to underline that these intellectual and practical achievements are not necessarily religious or particularly tied to or driven by Islam. The achievements came from all kinds of people, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Arab, European, African, Persian, and so on. What makes it the Islamic Golden Age is that this a period ruled by Muslims, by states that had Islam has the state religion.

One of the most interesting questions that runs throughout the lectures is why was there so much progress during this period and then why did it come to an end? The thread one gets from these lectures is that with regional stability from the Abbasid Empire came the relatively free movement of goods, peoples, and ideas. This along with the relative toleration and interaction of ideas and people set the ground for the flourishing of human thought and achievement. As the Abbasid Empire weakened, the stability, tolerance, and trade weakened as well. And as a consequence, as Gearon says, the Golden Age become silver and then the bronze.

So why did the Abbasids weaken? Gearon explores this a bit but not in great detail. Essentially a combination of foreign invasions (Christians and Mongols), internal divisions (the Fatmids, the Almohads), and the natural complacency of the ruling class contributed to the Abbasids fall and with it the Islamic Golden Age.

There are remarkable parallels to the Roman and English empires. In all these, there was a general correspondence of (relatively) liberal trade and immigration policies, (relative) tolerance of ideas, and the health of the culture and achievement of people under the empires. This is not to say that there were not awful problems, people excluded and dominated, and so on, but compared to other periods and other regions, there was remarkable growth and achievement. And when these more liberal and tolerant policies ebbed, so do the achievement and progress, and then the empires themselves. Important lessons for our times.



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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Review: Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man

Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man by Timothy Sandefur
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the words of my eight-year-old son: “Frederick Douglass is cool!” Timothy Sandefur’s new book on Douglass is a pithy account of why he is so cool. In this tightly and clearly written account of Douglass’ life and legacy, Sandefur persuasively makes the case that Douglass is an important and central figure of 19th century American politics and should be for the 20th and 21st centuries as well. He highlights the nuance, depth, and breadth of Douglass’ intellectual achievements: not just on the abolition movement but also on constitutional and political theory more broadly.

Sandefur shows how Douglass’s ideas, style, and methods influenced in various ways thinkers and activists such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He details Douglass’ self-made rise from bondage to dining with and influencing U.S. Presidents.

The one “problem” with the book is that it will inspire you to go out and read more about Douglass and by Douglass.


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