Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “kemp ridley”

Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #23: Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation by Elaine Pagels

I’ve lived my whole life deep in the Bible Belt.  This is both amusing and frustrating for me as an agnostic.  Pretty much everything, everywhere is awash in religion and religious culture, from the t-shirts ahead of me in the checkout line to the fact that you can’t swing a cat without hitting a church of some kind.  Even the checkout person at the local liquor store isn’t above telling me to “have a blessed day” when I’m on the way out the door.

I dimly remember reading some of Revelation back when I was in high school, and again for a class in college, but I was not in any way familiar with it.  I picked this book up a while ago – it was on the shelf at the local library within reach of The Year of Living Biblically, which I reviewed a while back – and so I figured what the hell.

Revelation was written by a second-generation follower of Jesus named John of Patmos.  John was a Jew, but a Jew who had accepted the messianic nature of Jesus.  He was writing about 20 years after the Romans put down a bloody Jewish revolt in Judea and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, and Pagels argues that much of John’s symbolic language is directed at the Roman Empire.  The book was intended as both a condemnation of the Romans and a promise to the Jews that the empire would, one day, get its comeuppance.

What fascinated me is how, in the following years, the interpretations of the book changed to reflect contemporary controversies.  When the early Christian movement – which was still largely Jewish – began seeing a large influx of Gentiles, the apocalyptic language was repurposed so that the Antichrist, et al referred to non-Jews.  Later, when Constantine the Great converted to Christianity and the faith began to spread throughout the empire, the church began to be divided by doctrinal differences and the “orthodox” factions declared that the Whore of Babylon symbolized heretical doctrine, and those who spread heresy were antichrists.

Needless to say, the book has been hugely controversial within the church practically since the ink dried.  It made it into the New Testament canon by the skin of its teeth, and mostly on its merits as a condemnation of non-orthodox beliefs.  And there it’s sat ever since, continuing to spawn off newer and newer interpretations as needed.

I found this book to be really fascinating, if a bit dry at times.  At a slender 246 pages, Pagels does a fine job of distilling the theological and social disputes of the early church into easily read chunks, and, with a few exceptions, the book moves along surprisingly quickly.  Overall, very nicely done.



Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #22: One Shot by Lee Child

So I started reading the Jack Reacher series.  I did this at least in part to try to understand the internet rage over Tom Cruise’s casting, but also because, after reading a whole lot of nonfiction, I desperately needed something light to reset my brain. There’s no better antidote to Edward Gibbon’s sprawling, never-met-a-comma-I-didn’t-like prose than a good thriller.

This shit is actually pretty good.  I was actually kind of surprised by how much it didn’t suck.  The hero, Jack Reacher, is an ex-MP who spends his days walking the earth, having adventures and beating the crap out of people who desperately need it.  In this case, an ex-Army sniper snaps, shoots a whole bunch of people from a parking garage and is arrested soon after.  When Reacher hears a news broadcast about the crime he recognizes the shooter’s name from his time in the army, travels to the scene and gets sucked into the investigation.

Of course nothing is even vaguely as clean-cut as it appears, starting with Reacher’s relationship with the shooter and spiraling out from there. I am not even going to attempt to encapsulate what happens from there, as it would be way, way too easy to drop spoilers. Let me just say that I was a very nice, very quick, kind of pulpy read. I’ve got a nice stack of other Child novels from the library that I’ll be working my way through in the near future and hopefully reviewing.  (Because holy shit, you guys, am I ever behind on my reviewing. I’m lucky if I’m able to review one out of every five or so books I read.)

Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #21 – Peter the Great: His Life and Times by Robert K. Massie

Although I’m a big fan of more recent Russian/Soviet history, I know next to nothing about their pre-Lenin story.  I picked this book up pretty randomly, mostly because I recognized Peter’s name and because it won a Pulitzer.  Randomness served me well, because it was pretty fantastic.

At the end of the 1600s Russia was still a largely medieval place.  The Renaissance never made it that far east, and the country was deep in thrall to an apparently limitless fear of modernization and, above all, of western Europe.  Into this frozen place steps 10-year-old Peter, who was appointed co-czar with his half-brother Ivan.  Peter very nearly didn’t survive childhood thanks to a palace coup led by his sister, Sophia, but survive he did, wresting power away from her in his late teens.

Peter is a hell of a character.  He stood a gargantuan six feet, seven inches at a time when most European men were under six feet tall. Peter enjoyed dressing as a laborer and working alongside his subjects in shipyards and on great construction projects. Even more horrifying to his subjects was his habit of rubbing shoulders with western European expatriates.  European ideas quickly took root in Peter’s mind, and he worked tirelessly to drag Russia into the modern world.  He reformed everything from the church to the military to women’s rights; women in Peter’s childhood were little more than prisoners in their own homes, yet in the next century four of its sovereigns were women (culminating in Catherine the Great).

The story of Peter’s exertions – and the rebellions and conspiracies they spawned – was fascinating.  I know very little of European history in this period, but Massie had me covered.  He took great pains to fill in the blanks and give context, complete with chapters that are mini-biographies of Charles XII and Louis XIV.  (And these intrusions were handled so organically that I never felt like I was being subjected to an exposition dump.)

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in either Russia or seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe.  Massie’s Catherine the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra just got added to my to-read list.


Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #20: The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs

AJ Jacobs, an editor for Esquire magazine, decided that he would attempt to live by every rule in the Bible for one year.  When he says “every rule”, he means every rule, from the obvious stuff like “thou shalt not lie” to the obscure stuff like “don’t wear clothes made of mixed fibers.”  Along the way Jacobs made a point to interact with as many different religious groups as he could: the Amish, Hasidic Jews, creationists, evangelicals, gay evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others, to get their unique points of view.

I was pleasantly surprised by how even-handed the book is.  I am an agnostic, but I try to respect my religious friends’ beliefs to the greatest extent I can, and I was a bit worried that Jacobs would turn out to be one of those irritating Bill Maher-esque douches who is just out to mock.  This wasn’t the case.  Jacobs made a great effort to learn not just that the Bible says this or that wacky thing, but to consult with scholars and religious authorities to try to understand why it says what it says.  He also bent over backwards to be fair to, say, creation scientists, while still making it clear that he doesn’t share their beliefs.  Disagreeing without being disagreeable…what a concept!

Needless to say, the nature of the experiment had a huge impact on Jacobs’s day-to-day life, from the way he did business to the way he interacted with his wife.  For instance, he strove valiantly not to experience lust while interviewing Rosario Dawson for Esquire, and engaged in constant struggles with his wife over the segregation-during-menstruation rules.  One of the requirements put on men is that they not have any contact with anything a menstruating woman has touched, including not sitting in a chair that an “unclean” woman had sat in.  So of course his wife made it a point to sit on every chair in their apartment to force him to stand all day.

Overall I found the book funny, informative and oddly touching.  In these increasingly polarized times, it was nice to see someone make a real, honest effort to view the world through someone else’s eyes, and come away from the experience with a deeper respect for his opposites.  I think that’s an example we could all profitably follow.


Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #19 – The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham

This book shows why it’s a good idea to stick with something, even if it seems lackluster at first.  Although it started out as a fantasy trope-fest, it quickly gained its own identity and became quite good.

Abraham is apparently a friend of George RR Martin’s, and Abraham clearly learned a lot from Martin.  This book, the first in an ongoing series, is structured pretty much exactly like A Song of Ice and Fire in that there is a core of scattered characters who swap the point of view from chapter to chapter.  Each of them start out as being self-contained but are slowly drawn together, and so on.  The characters are, at first blush, pretty standard fantasy fare: the clever orphan; the now obscure but once infamous general who is haunted by A Dark Past; the clueless young lord thrown into the deep end of imperial politics; the once mighty but now failing king.  I’ll admit that I was bored, and kept reading the first half of this book out of sheer momentum.  I hate leaving books unfinished.

Then, halfway through, the damnedest thing happened.  The characters took off, the plot unfolded in interesting and unexpected ways and, all of a sudden, I found myself paying attention.  Flew through the rest of it, in fact.

Abraham definitely has some shortcomings.  His reach slightly exceeds his grasp when it comes to character.  I got the feeling that several characters were supposed to come across as more nuanced than they did in actuality, and some of the bits of the setting came across less like actual places and more as cool names on a map that hadn’t quite been fleshed out.  That being said, you could do a lot worse than The Dragon’s Path if you like epic fantasy.  The series seems like it’s heading for some interesting places, and I expect the slight glitches will be ironed out as Abraham gets more of the series under his belt. (In fact I’m nearly done with the second book in the series, and I like it a lot. I’ll review it soon.)


Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #18: Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey

I am really super behind on my reviewing.  It has been quite a while since I read this book, so this post may be short on details.

Leviathan Wakes is a piece of New Space Opera.  While a lot of space opera deals with gigantic galactic empires, or the fall of same, there’s not a lot that deals with the very early stages of expansion to the stars.  Enter Leviathan Wakes, which is set entirely within the solar system.  There are basically three power blocs in play: Earth, which is the source of a lot of raw materials (eg food, water and air) but is becoming somewhat of a technological backwater; Mars, which is in the process of being terraformed and is the technological powerhouse; and the Belt, which includes not just the asteroid belt but the moons of the outer planets as well.

While there is a good bit of cyclic Cold War-style tension between the Earth and Mars, the real divide is between the Inner System and the Outer System.  Earthers and Martians grow up in a gravity well.  Belters don’t.  Humanity has been out in the solar system long enough that this makes a difference: Belters have begun to adapt to their environment, and so look different enough from other humans that their origin is immediately apparent.  Both the reality of these differences and the prejudices on both sides are causing steadily mounting tension between the Belters and their inner system cousins.  When a ship hauling water to the Belt is destroyed, apparently by the Martian Navy, those tensions explode, pitching the solar system into war.

Perspective shifts between two characters: Holden, an Earthborn crewman on the water hauler who escapes his ship’s destruction, and Detective Miller, a Belter who works for a corporate security firm and who has been tasked with finding the missing daughter of wealthy family of Earthers.  I’m not going to say much more about the plot than that, both because of my increasingly foggy memory as to the details and because it would be very, very easy to spoil bits of the plot.

I will say that the book goes in directions that I did not expect at all, and is full of great twists.  The multiple tensions that wind through the solar system are well defined and used to great effect, and the combination of space opera with a more hardboiled detective story works surprisingly well.  This is the first book in what is to be a trilogy (because of course it is), and I’m looking forward to the next book.


Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #17: Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles

Carthage was the Roman Republic’s deadliest enemy, and their rivalry was one of the greatest in the ancient Mediterranean.  In Carthage Must Be Destroyed archaeologist Richard Miles chronicles the city’s history from its founding to its eventual destruction and resurrection by the Romans.

The city began as a colony of the Phoenicians, founded near the modern day city of Tunis.  After the Phoenicians found themselves conquered by the Persians, Carthage became a powerful independent city and built a substantial empire in the western Mediterranean, including the island of Sardinia and bits and pieces of Spain and Sicily.  Although the city was eventually conquered and destroyed by the Romans, it would later get a second life after being reestablished by the Roman emperor Augustus. (Later it would serve as the capitol for the Vandals’ North African kingdom, and eventually be destroyed a second time by the Arabs.)

Although Carthage was the ancient equivalent of a superpower and its wars with Rome shook the Mediterranean, very little is known about the city’s culture.  The Romans did their very best to replace Carthage’s legacy with negative propaganda, and almost no accounts of Carthage written by Carthaginians survive.  Miles, who has led several excavations at the city, tries to fill in the blanks.  While hitting the high points of the Punic Wars, and especially Hannibal’s famous campaigns in Italy, Miles also spends a lot of time on the Carthaginians’ religious beliefs.  Carthage – and many of its satellite cities – were enthusiastic practitioners of child sacrifice, a holdover from their origins in the Middle East.  However, at the same time, Carthage tried to blur its Middle Eastern connections – unfashionable in the western Mediterranean in the aftermath of Persia’s wars with Greece – by associating itself with the Greek hero Hercules.

Throughout Miles does a good job of giving the Carthaginians an identity beyond “those guys the Romans fought.”  The one criticism I had is that he gets really, really bogged down in the details sometimes, causing an otherwise interesting story to drag.  I don’t think excluding the dietary details would really cause the story to lose anything, for example.

Interesting book overall, though. I give it three stars.

Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #16: The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1, by Edward Gibbon

While I’ve always loved history, and I’ve always especially loved ancient Rome, I’ve never gotten around to reading Decline and Fall.  At first this was because…well, damn.  Have you seen that thing?  It’s enormous.  The Nook version I have is 6,808 pages.  That makes the most egregiously self-indulgent Neal Stephenson manuscript look dainty by comparison.  It was also written in the Times of Olde (1776 for Vol. 1, I think), and so, I assumed, prone to that old-school every-sentence-should-contain-at-least-150-words-and-no-fewer-than-seven-semicolons style of writing, real Faulkner-on-a-bender territory.  And who in their right mind wants to subject themselves to that?  And so, for years, I avoided it assiduously, in the same way I avoid certain exes and that one editor who told me I had a problem with hyphens.

Recently, however, I decided what the hell, sure, why not, let’s wade in.  I need a challenge.  If nothing else, it’ll feed nicely into the sorts of literary dick-measuring contests people around me tend to engage in (an unsightly, if common, drawback to a workplace composed nearly entirely of writers).  “Oh, you read that new Murakami? It was 946 pages?  That’s 13 percent of a Gibbon!  No, you dolt, not the monkey.”

Here’s the thing: once you get past the long-ass sentences, and the apparently random sprinkling of commas, it’s really…good.  Gibbon is a talented historian with an obvious love for the subject, and he’s also, most surprisingly of all, damn funny, albeit in a dry, extremely sarcastic way.  And who doesn’t love dry, lacerating sarcasm?

Gibbon starts by setting up his baseline of Roman awesomeness: the reign of the emperors Antoninus Pious and Marcus Aurelius.  Gibbon goes so far as to say that there was no better time to be alive in history than this period in Rome; one assumes he means “as long as one is a dude and wealthy,” but whatever.  Rome is stable, Rome is prosperous, Rome is the single biggest and most stupendous badass in the Mediterranean.  Things are good.  Then Marcus Aurelius dies, and the wheels begin to fall off of the empire.  Marcus’s son, Commodus, thinks he’s the reincarnation of Hercules and takes to the arena, where he tries to prove his martial ability by beating amputees and cripples to death.  He is eventually assassinated, leading to a protracted period of civil wars and barbarian invasions; in one 50-year period in the third century, the empire goes through something like 26 emperors.  Vol. 1 ends with Diocletian becoming emperor and, at least temporarily, slowing the decay.

Beyond the flavor-of-the-week emperors and humiliating military defeats, the other big development during this period is the emergence of Christianity.  The latter bits of Vol. 1 are given over to a lengthy and deeply irreverent history of the Christian church in which he takes the church to task for straying from its early, charitable origins and attacks the number of martyrs reported by the early Christians as being grossly inflated.  (Here I intended to cite his numbers and comments directly, but, due to some kind of snafu with my Nook, all the passages I’ve highlighted have disappeared, and I’m too lazy to try to track them down via the internet.)  He also points out that, for an institution based on the veneration of an itinerant holy man who couldn’t shut up for five seconds about the poor, the church has a remarkably unimpressive track record when it comes to opposing oppressive governments: “The influence of the clergy, in an age of superstition, might be usefully employed to assert the rights of mankind; but so intimate is the connection between the throne and the altar, that the banner of the church has very seldom been seen on the side of the people.”  Ouch.

While I’m really enjoying Gibbon so far, I would give some warnings to anyone considering tackling this thing.  The language does take some getting used to.  Imagine Tolkien, but with less singing and a perceptible sense of humor, and you’ve got the general idea.  Gibbon also presupposes a certain amount of knowledge of the earlier empire; the book is, after all, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, not The History of the Roman Empire.  He tends to toss off references to earlier emperors and events with the assumption that the reader knows what he’s talking about.  If you know your Julio-Claudians and Flavians you’ll do pretty okay, otherwise you’re going to be running for the Wikipedia rather a lot.

I’m gnawing away at Vol. 2 right now, and I hope that I’ll be able to read and review all six parts by the end of the Cannonball.  Then again, I’ve also read and failed to review at least 10 books over the past month or so, so who knows?

Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #15: The Hunter by Richard Stark

Richard Stark’s Parker novels constitute one of the best hardboiled series I’ve ever read.  The University of Chicago has been bringing the early books back into print in lovely new editions, and so I’ve used that as a good excuse to re-read the series.

Parker stands as one of the greatest antiheroes in all of crime fiction.  He is ruthless, utterly focused on the job at hand, and largely lacking in any of the softer virtues.  Either you’re part of the job, and so he works with you; uninvolved, so he ignores you; or a problem, in which case he eliminates you.  Stark said that he wanted the Parker novels to be about a workman at work, and it’s riveting to watch Parker and his accomplices do exactly that.  These men are professionals, and they do their jobs with cold, solid precision and a minimum of BS.

While The Hunter is a little unpolished compared to the later books, it’s an excellent novel in most respects.  The basics of the setup are familiar to anyone who has seen either Point Blank or Payback: Parker arrives, penniless, in New York City, looking to get even with his wife, Lynne, and a mobbed-up scumbag named Mal.  The three of them were part of a group of criminals who were trying to steal money from an in-progress arms deal, and, while the heist went off perfectly, Lynne and Mal killed the rest of the team and left them for dead.  Unfortunately for them they didn’t finish the job with Parker, who wants both revenge and the money he’s owed from the theft.

The book follows Parker as he both drags himself up from the gutter and plays detective, tracking first his wife and then Mal through New York’s underworld.  As I said above, the Hunter is a little unpolished – Parker is a little too abrasive, a little too robotic to be an entirely attractive antihero.  Part of this is because Stark never intended for Parker to survive the first book; he was originally going to get revenge, get his money and then die in the final pages.

In spite of the not-quite-perfect portrayal of Parker, The Hunter is an excellent piece of crime fiction, and a great introduction to one of the best series in the genre.

Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #14: Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Foundation is one of those books/series that is constantly mentioned as being Very Important.  I dimly remember trying, and failing, to read it when I was a teenager, and decided to give it another whirl.

In the far future, humanity has spread throughout the Milky Way and is ruled by a great empire.  A scientist within that empire, one Hari Seldon, invents the science of psychohistory, which uses the laws of mass action to predict, in a very general way, the future.  Psychohistory apparently only works on vast numbers of people, and it becomes less and less accurate as the number of people declines.  Seldon forecasts that the fall of the empire is nigh and will be followed by 30,000 years of barbarism and anarchy before a new empire arises.  Seldon and his acolytes – the “Foundation” of the title – attempt to set into motion a great plan that will jump-start the process and bring about the Second Empire after a mere millennium.

The book is broken up into a number of short-story length chapters, each of which chronicles the growth of the Foundation and the crises it faces in the first centuries of its existence.

Although the concept is fascinating, I had several problems with this book.  The first is that, at no point, does the reader ever feel that the Foundation is in any real danger.  Seldon himself, in the form of holographic recordings, even pops up from time to time to reassure the Foundation’s members that he has foreseen what they’re going through and that they’ll be okay if they just hang in there.  This lack of suspense killed a lot of my motivation to keep reading, and I found myself skimming some passages of the book because it just wasn’t grabbing me.

Asimov, in interviews later in his life, admitted that Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was a major influence and that bits and pieces of the plot were due to his “cribbin’ from Gibbon.”  I am reading Gibbon myself right now, and this connection was at times a little too obvious.  Because I’m that kind of nerd, I often found myself saying, “Oh, look. This guy is clearly supposed to be General X and the emperor is So-and-So.  Isn’t that cute?”  Once again, this did not lead me to become particularly invested in the story.  If you’re basing stuff on actual history, for god’s sake change it up a little.  Otherwise some wise-ass shutin will see your plot points coming a mile away.

Asimov – like many of the classic sci-fi writers – also has some serious shortcomings when it comes to, you know, people and stuff.  His characters have little to no depth, serving instead to just recite their lines, make sure we all know what point we’re being hit over the head with, and then go away.  I could have let this go up to a point, but the conversations his characters do manage to have with one another are so wooden that I wonder if Asimov had ever actually talked to another human being.  Finally, the whole book is pretty much a total sausage party: I don’t remember a single female character.

I wanted to like this book, I really did.  I adore sci-fi.  This just didn’t do it for me.  That said, I’ll likely continue with at least the next several entries.  I bought the first three in the series at a recent library book sale, and I hate leaving books unread, but I’m not terribly enthusiastic about it.  I give it high marks for ideas, but find the poor execution to be nearly crippling.

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