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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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