By the time Firmicus Maternus penned this treatise around 346, Christian polemics against the errors of paganism had been regularly produced for overBy the time Firmicus Maternus penned this treatise around 346, Christian polemics against the errors of paganism had been regularly produced for over a century. Maternus' De errore profanarum religionum, which is ultimately a fairly unassuming example of the genre, did not break any new ground. The timing of the essay separates it from its predecessors, however. While the polemicists that preceded Maternus were writing in a world where paganism was the official religion of the empire, often in an atmosphere of persecution, Maternus was writing after the reign of Constantine had turned the old order on its head. His work, which is addressed to Constantine's sons, adopts a decidedly more triumphant tone than the essays that came before. Also, somewhat ironically, Maternus' attacks on pagan beliefs and rituals in the early fourth century - which are sometimes specific and detailed - provide the modern reader with valuable information on pagan religious culture that otherwise may have been lost.
For the reasons above, this treatise is still of some interest to modern readers. But for the general reader looking for an example of Christian polemic, I would recommend starting with Arnobius' Against the Pagans or the earlier Christian apologists. 2.5 stars....more
A very promising start to the Hellboy series, this volume introduces the reader to Hellboy’s origins and the BPRD (or Bureau for Paranormal Research aA very promising start to the Hellboy series, this volume introduces the reader to Hellboy’s origins and the BPRD (or Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, for the uninitiated). Summoned from the underworld by Nazi paranormal agents in the closing months of World War II, Hellboy spends his post-war years as an agent for good on the side of the BPRD. But the murder of his adopted father leads Hellboy on a quest involving strange cults, occult rituals, and frog-monsters.
I came into this series with high expectations, and I was not disappointed. I loved the dark, Lovecraftian mood of the story, which was perfectly complemented by the excellent artwork. The combination of weird monsters, unearthly powers, mad sorcerers and oddball heroes was a winning mix in my book, and I was thoroughly entertained from start to finish. It did seem like the series was still finding itself a bit; I got the sense that the creative team was still in the process of developing Hellboy and his team as characters, along with the wider world around them. While I loved the sense of mystery on display here, I couldn’t help but feel that this was 50% artistic effect and 50% because Mignola & Byrne themselves were still working on filling in the map, so to speak. But overall I was very impressed by this debut, and I look forward to checking out future volumes to see where this series ultimately goes. 4.5 stars, highly recommended!...more
This is a curious little novella about a boy, his unusual relationship with his mother and father, and an encounter with a mysterious “census-taker.”This is a curious little novella about a boy, his unusual relationship with his mother and father, and an encounter with a mysterious “census-taker.” This stranger’s role is not clearly defined, but he appears to be tasked with roaming around the (post-apocalyptic?) world taking stock of certain individuals. The idea of a mysterious census-taker - with potentially unusual abilities - roaming about an unsettled future taking stock of things is a very cool conceit, and kept me interested in the story. Miéville does a good job creating a hazy, unsettling mood in this story, and his prose is as strong as ever.
However, this is not among his best work. While the central concept is intriguing, it ends up being secondary to the odd relationship between the boy, his mother, and his father. Early on there is a point of conflict between the three characters that the novella is built around, but the details remain hazy. Ultimately much here is tantalizing – the family dynamic, the father’s unusual job, the gloomy and forbidding environment the family lives in, the history of their world, and the census-taker himself – but the reader is left with thin scraps and vague hints. The story left me wanting more, which speaks to Miéville’s skills at setting mood and world-building, but this felt half-formed and unfinished.
An intriguing premise, but the end result was not completely fulfilling. An interesting effort nonetheless. 3.0 stars....more
I have been a fan of Miéville's fiction for some time now, but this was my first taste of his nonfiction writing. Miéville is active in left-wing poliI have been a fan of Miéville's fiction for some time now, but this was my first taste of his nonfiction writing. Miéville is active in left-wing politics - he stood for the House of Commons in 2001 - and his socialist leanings can be detected in many of his works (especially the Bas-Lag novels). This photo-essay from late 2011 describes some of the problems afflicting London on the heels of the Great Recession, particularly the changes in the city's physical landscape (including a growing dearth of affordable housing) and conflicts between different cultures within the city.
An interesting and insightful essay by a talented writer. I knew little about London's problems going into this piece, but still found it engrossing. 4.0 stars, recommended!
A great introduction to the world of wine. I liked how the book broke down wines by country/region, but also had specific chapters devoted to more genA great introduction to the world of wine. I liked how the book broke down wines by country/region, but also had specific chapters devoted to more general matters. Visually appealing with lots of pictures and open space. Zraly is clearly knowledgeable about his subject and his passion for wine is infectious (or, dare I say, intoxicating).
This is definitely an introductory volume, and Zraly only has time to cover specific subjects in brief. For readers looking for an in-depth exploration of the topic, I suspect this book would be superseded fairly quickly. Still, this is a great introduction to wine that I would recommend to aspiring oenophiles. 4.0 stars....more
Not bad, but not great. The Riddler has kidnapped a number of babies, for reasons that are obscure. To rescue them, Batman has to follow a bizarre traNot bad, but not great. The Riddler has kidnapped a number of babies, for reasons that are obscure. To rescue them, Batman has to follow a bizarre trail of clues. Riddler stories can be fun, and this collection was most interesting for the first two issues as Batman (and the reader) try to get a grasp of what game Riddler is playing. The quest he leads Batman on is sufficiently strange and dark to be intriguing and entertaining, at least for a while.
The biggest issue for me was the melding of occult aspects with the rest of the story. The supernatural elements - which are substantial - do not seem to fit particularly neatly with the Riddler as a character, and I was disappointed to see the story take such a mystical turn. The artwork was fine, but not enough to elevate an otherwise average story. 3.0 stars....more
2016 was a great reading year for me. Around 2007, I decided to embark on a lifetime reading plan where I would explore the world of Western literatur2016 was a great reading year for me. Around 2007, I decided to embark on a lifetime reading plan where I would explore the world of Western literature from its origins onward, moving in chronological order. The journey has been a slow one at times – I tend to expand my reading list well beyond the “canonical” texts – but I have found it to be richly rewarding. In 2016, I progressed from 200 to 337 AD. While this was a fascinating time historically – the Roman Empire spent much of this time in a state of crisis, both from external threats and from religious controversy within – it was not a golden age of literature, at least in the West. However, if there were few diamonds in the rough, there were plenty of semi-precious stones to interest the curious reader. Highlights included An Ethiopian Romance, one of the last (and best) surviving ancient Greek novels, On the Unity of the Church, an interesting view into the Christian world of the third century, On the Incarnation, perhaps the best written Christian treatise of this era, and Eusebius’ The History of the Church: From Christ to Constantine, a fascinating (if flawed) history of the early Church. Other notable works were The Greek Alexander Romance, a bizarre but entertaining “biography” of Alexander the Great, and The Trojan Epic: Posthomerica, a late epic poem that describes the end of the Trojan War from where Homer left off.
I also read some terrific comics and graphic novels in 2016, finishing Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, catching up on Saga, starting Hellboy and Preacher, and reading plenty of "capes" comics, highlighted by Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke. I just got into this medium a couple of years ago, and I continue to be surprised (and delighted) at the wide variety of excellent, creative work available.
Without further ado, my best reads of the year (in alphabetical order):
Ancillary Justice – An exciting, original sci-fi yarn. The sequels are definitely on my radar for 2017. Highly recommended.
Embassytown – Miéville takes on more traditional sci-fi in this story of conflict between humankind and a strange alien race with an unorthodox method of communication. The result is one of his best two books to date (along with The Scar).
Saga, Volume 5 – I am hardly breaking new ground in stating that Saga is good. If you like graphic novels, or great space opera, or just good stories, read this.
The Sandman, Vol. 10: The Wake – Gaiman ends his iconic series on a high note. A title that has a soft spot for me, as this was the series that got me interested in graphic novels.
Suttree – Something of an outlier among McCarthy’s work, this longer, semi-autobiographical, darkly comic novel about people living on the fringe of society has lingered with me long after turning the last page.
The Sympathizer – Another darkly comic novel, with a unique and engaging narrative voice. This tale of Vietnamese life after the fall of Saigon made for a fascinating companion piece with The Orphan Master’s Son.
In 2017, I aim to cover the years 337-500 in my lifetime reading project, including The Later Roman Empire along with the major writings of Augustine of Hippo. I am going to continue working on Miéville and McCarthy’s back catalog, and plan on wrapping up Shelby Foote’s excellent The Civil War: A Narrative series. I also look forward to reading the reviews of all my Goodreads friends, which are consistently fascinating, informative, enlightening and inspiring. Thank you all for sharing, and best wishes for 2017!...more
Love Among the Chickens represented Wodehouse’s first foray into adult fiction. Prior to Chickens, Wodehouse had focused on children’s or young adultLove Among the Chickens represented Wodehouse’s first foray into adult fiction. Prior to Chickens, Wodehouse had focused on children’s or young adult literature, mostly “school stories” set in English boarding schools. These were often humorous, but one couldn’t help but feel like Wodehouse was holding back a bit by fitting his tales to the tastes of younger readers. Happily, that is not an issue with the present novel.
In Chickens, a bored novelist (Jeremy Garnet) accepts an offer from his boorish friend Ukridge to assist with the latter’s latest business misadventure, a chicken farm in Dorset. Garnet signed on largely for the opportunity to play golf and swim in the sea, but ends up finding romance in the country as well. Unfortunately, Ukridge’s appalling behavior complicates things for our hero, forcing Garnet into a very unorthodox courtship.
There is plenty of hilarity here: the mercurial Ukridge and his sweet, loving wife, unconventional chicken farming, Ukridge & Garnet’s stoic, deadpan servant, and much more. I thought that this was notably funnier than Wodehouse’s previous books, and the plot (while simple) was interesting and entertaining. One note: this book was apparently revised, perhaps substantially, by Wodehouse in 1921. I read the revised version, which appears to be the one most widely circulated today. Perhaps the original 1906 version was less polished, but the revised version (at least) should definitely appeal to fans of Wodehouse’s later, more famous work. 4.0 stars, recommended!...more
A good overview of Western prehistory, from the first primitive communities of the Paleolithic Era to roughly 3,000 BC (although the time periods coveA good overview of Western prehistory, from the first primitive communities of the Paleolithic Era to roughly 3,000 BC (although the time periods covered vary by geographic region). Particular attention is devoted to Egypt, Anatolia (modern day Turkey), Palestine, Mesopotamia, and the Aegean islands.
Because the time period covered in this volume predates the existence of writing, its authors rely on physical evidence to draw their conclusions. This means that there is a lot of fairly technical discussion about excavations, the remains of ancient cities, and analysis of primitive artifacts that may not appeal to every reader. In addition, this volume is nearly 50 years old as of the time of this writing; I suspect that some of its conclusions have been reevaluated over the years, and doubtless there are many important discoveries that have been unearthed since 1970 that fall outside the scope of this text.
Still, the Cambridge Ancient History series consistently produces fine work, and this volume is no exception. For readers interested in a single-volume introduction to prehistory in the West, this is a good place to start. 4.0 stars....more
A good, comprehensive review of the Roman Empire in the 88 years after the death of Constantine. Covers the political history of the time, along withA good, comprehensive review of the Roman Empire in the 88 years after the death of Constantine. Covers the political history of the time, along with military and administrative developments, economic changes, foreign relations, art and culture, and the seismic shift in religious beliefs within the Roman state.
I did not know much about this period going in, and there is plenty of fascinating material here. Specifically, I enjoyed reading about the rise of the Goths and Huns, the rapid ascension of Christianity and its conflict with the established pagan order, and Julian's quixotic quest to reestablish pagan supremacy. As with the other entries in the Cambridge Ancient History series, there is good scholarship on display here, although it can be a bit dry and a few sections tend to drag.
The fourth and early fifth centuries were not the end of antiquity, but an attentive reader can see the Middle Ages beginning to loom in the distance. A good look at an interesting, transitional period. 4.0 stars, recommended....more
An impressive, ambitious novel. This is a big story on a number of levels: a large cast of POV characters, a plot that unfolds over decades, and a nar
An impressive, ambitious novel. This is a big story on a number of levels: a large cast of POV characters, a plot that unfolds over decades, and a narrative tackling a number of complex problems (Jamaican politics, U.S. – Jamaican relations, the international drug trade, etc.). The story is loosely based upon the real-world 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley and how that event touched the lives of a large and diverse group of characters, although “loosely” is a key word here. While the book is not a consistent page turner, this is counterbalanced by a complex, interesting structure, excellent characterization and voice, and great prose.
I don’t think this is a perfect novel; there are sections that drag a bit more than others, and the disparate characters and storylines don’t come together as completely (or as effectively) as I would have liked. But as other reviewers have noted, any sins James commits here are stemming from ambition, and those are forgivable ones in my book. I suspect this is the kind of story that will linger in my memory long after the final page. 5.0 stars, highly recommended!...more
My re-read project for 2016 was C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels. I didn’t get through all seven, but I did revisit the first four (in chronological order),My re-read project for 2016 was C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels. I didn’t get through all seven, but I did revisit the first four (in chronological order), culminating in Prince Caspian. Following the events of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children find themselves sucked back into the world of Narnia a second time. While the children find much that is familiar, a great many things have changed dramatically in their absence.
Of the four Narnia novels I read this year (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Magician’s Nephew, The Horse and His Boy, & Prince Caspian), this was my least favorite. The story is divided between the adventures of the heir to the Narnian throne, Prince Caspian, and the Pevensie gang. An awful lot of the book’s first half consists of the Pevensies wandering through the wilderness, and for a book that features a dramatic struggle for the control of Narnia, it often feels like there isn’t much going on.
Still, the book is only weak relative to the other entries in the series; overall this is a very good children’s story with plenty to recommend it (talking animals, magic artifacts, adventure, treachery, etc.). I personally certainly enjoyed all seven of these books as a youngster. And as the book moves towards its climax, and (view spoiler)[Peter and Susan prepare to leave Narnia for the last time (hide spoiler)], even in my 30's that hits square in the feels. 4.0 stars....more
Tales from the Alhambra is a charming, eclectic collection of writings by Washington Irving (of Sleepy Hollow fame). The Alhambra is a palace/fortress
Tales from the Alhambra is a charming, eclectic collection of writings by Washington Irving (of Sleepy Hollow fame). The Alhambra is a palace/fortress located in Granada, in the south of Spain. The Alhambra was developed into a magnificent fortress by its Moorish rulers in the 14th century, and is a major tourist attraction today. However, when Irving first travelled to Spain in the 1820’s, the Alhambra had been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair, and was filled with a colorful collection of squatters. Irving was able to simply wander in and more or less have the run of the place until duty called and he was appointed to a government position in London.
The book itself consists of a collection of enchanting Spanish and Moorish legends, folktales, and myths about the palace and its surroundings, sandwiched between some more traditional travel narratives and observational essays about the country and its customs. The selection and organization of the pieces can feel a little random at times, but this only adds to the book’s charm. I found most of the folktales to be very entertaining – Irving is a gifted storyteller – and the nonfiction essays were interesting.
The gorgeous, romantic Alhambra (and Spain in general) clearly made an impact on Irving, who later returned to the country as U.S. ambassador. One of the best parts of the book is the final essay, where Irving writes about leaving the Alhambra for perhaps the last time. The Tales definitely made me want to visit Spain and experience the magic of Granada for myself, which the mark of a good travel narrative in my book. 4.0 stars, recommended!...more
In the history of the early Church, few events made more of an impact than the ascension of Constantine as emperor of Rome. In a remarkably short spanIn the history of the early Church, few events made more of an impact than the ascension of Constantine as emperor of Rome. In a remarkably short span of time, Christians went from enemies of the state to practitioners of the favored imperial religion. Writing in the early fourth century shortly after Constantine’s rise to power, Eusebius decided that the sea change in state policy towards the Christians called for a comprehensive history of the Church up to that point. The result is his Ecclesiastical History, the earliest extant history written from a Christian perspective.
The History is divided into ten books organized in chronological order. Eusebius begins with a description of the life of Christ, then proceeds to cover the apostles and early fathers of the church. The next two books roughly cover the second century AD, when the “good” emperors refused to condone the Christian faith, but also resisted pressure to actively persecute its practitioners. The next three books cover the third century, as increasingly intense persecutions targeted the Christians, culminating in the Great Persecution of Diocletian and his successors. The History ends on a triumphant note, as Constantine takes sole possession of the empire, halts the persecutions, and (eventually) ensures Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman state.
Eusebius is not known for his gifts as a prose stylist, and Tacitus he is not. But I found his History to be pleasantly readable, and its value as a historical document is unquestionable. Some readers may find the structure of the book to be somewhat puzzling; Eusebius can slavishly follow chronology at the expense of narrative flow (for example, he may jump around geographically to stay within the same year or set of years, rather than finish a story that belongs to a specific province but unfolds over a couple of years). Also, he regularly includes long passages from other writers and works, at times making the History feel less like a history in the modern sense and more like a collection of other texts. Personally, I found these oddities to be kind of charming, but your mileage may vary.
Special mention goes to Eusebius’ descriptions of the many and varied persecutions that the Christians were subjected to, many of which he witnessed firsthand during the Great Persecution of Diocletian. Sensitive readers should be warned that these descriptions can be graphic and quite gruesome. For some readers, these descriptions (while truthful) will make the History a hard book to read. Other readers will find the steadfastness of the early martyrs inspiring, even moving.
This is not a perfect book – in addition to the quirks listed above, Eusebius clearly has more information regarding some geographic areas than others, and he has some biases that shine through. But overall this was a fascinating, engaging look at the early Church, from its beginnings to its ultimate triumph under Constantine. 4.0 stars, recommended for history lovers or readers interested in the early church....more