This interesting little novel (the first entry in a trilogy) was a fun mashup of sci-fi, horror, and mystery. Set in the near-future (I presume, anywaThis interesting little novel (the first entry in a trilogy) was a fun mashup of sci-fi, horror, and mystery. Set in the near-future (I presume, anyway), a mysterious zone known only as Area X has manifested itself in our world. Very little is known about the area, but periodically teams of specialists are sent in to investigate. Eleven expeditions have gone before, often with bizarre or deadly consequences for the specialists involved. A team of four females making up the twelfth expedition are thrown into the action as the novel begins, and away we go.
This book reminded me quite a bit of the TV series Lost, the movie Cube, or even the old PC game Myst. The characters are thrown into an unknown environment that appears to be at once wild & uninhabited and strangely menacing at the same time. They encounter a series of mysterious areas that could provide clues to the ultimate nature & purpose of Area X, intriguing the reader. There’s almost nothing in the way of setup here; we are thrown directly into the action, a decision I felt worked for this book. VanderMeer has real talent with horror elements, and the mix of sci-fi & horror here went together like peanut butter and chocolate. Parts of the book could be real page-turners, especially when the characters are investigating some of the more unique sites within Area X.
However, two things kept this book’s score down for me. First, the book can feel very distancing. None of the four expedition members are ever identified by name; this combined with the lack of backstory meant that I didn’t feel much of a connection with any of the characters, or cared deeply about their fates. The fact that their respective destinies are also hinted at early in the book only exacerbated the problem. This element as much as any other reminded me of Myst - I felt at times like the author was guiding me through this area to check out some interesting mysteries/puzzles, and the actual characters were almost incidental.
More damning, there was simply not a lot of payoff with the mysteries introduced here, a problem with this kind of book. Given that this is part of a trilogy, it could be that VanderMeer is saving the big reveals for further down the line. And a good book doesn’t have to necessarily spell out all of the answers anyway, if the other elements are clicking. But with this novel in particular, I felt that the whole draw and the most compelling aspect was the nature of Area X, and the lack of any sort of answer (or even hints to set the reader’s imagination running) was a disappointment.
That said, Annihilation is a quick read and a fun one. If you like your genre fare seasoned with a dash of horror (or mystery), chances are good you will enjoy this book. 3.5 stars, recommended.
This is a short, ethereal little novel that can be read in a single day; although it is listed at 182 pages, the book is divided into a loosely connecThis is a short, ethereal little novel that can be read in a single day; although it is listed at 182 pages, the book is divided into a loosely connected series of short paragraphs and sentences that make for very quick reading. The story is told from the perspective of “the wife” and contains her musings on marriage and motherhood over a period of years. The wife is a woman with an artistic bent, and the book contains a variety of quotes and allusions that liven up the narrative.
I ended up really enjoying the almost stream-of-consciousness-like format here, which felt creative without coming across as gimmicky. The prose was strong and fit the format well; Offill uses her nontraditional design to sometimes insert a sentence or paragraph that might not quite be at home in another book, but works here and can allow her to shine a new light on an emotional situation. Psychologically, the book felt true to its characters, and did a good job at portraying the wife’s evolving emotional state over time.
While the book felt technically strong, it didn’t move me very strongly one way or the other, which would be my biggest criticism of Dept. of Speculation. For all its strengths, the format can feel distancing, and I never felt like I really connected with any of the characters. As a result, I ended up observing the plot unfold without caring very deeply about what was happening to the individuals involved, which kept this book from getting a higher grade from me.
Still, this was an enjoyable novel. Especially given how quick of a read it is, I would certainly recommend it to fans of literary fiction. 3.5 stars.
Winner: New York Times Top 10 Books of 2014...more
Athenagoras was one of the second century Christian apologists - authors who sought to defend Christianity against its detractors through their writinAthenagoras was one of the second century Christian apologists - authors who sought to defend Christianity against its detractors through their writings. Compared to the other apologists of his era, there is reason to believe that Athenagoras had more formal philosophic training than his peers; it seems possible that Athenagoras followed the traditional philosopher's career path before converting to the Christian faith later in life, giving his writings a slightly different flavor than the other early apologies. Just two of his works survive:
Embassy for the Christians: A carefully written plea for justice for the Christians, on philosophical grounds, presented to the emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus. Athenagoras first complains of the illogical and unjust discrimination against the Christians and of the unfair treatment they suffer, before taking on the (commonly raised) charge of atheism. A technically strong piece with a sound logical foundation, although Athenagoras doesn’t really add a lot of new material to the apologies that came before it.
On the Resurrection of the Dead: The first complete exposition of the resurrection doctrine in Christian literature. Written later than the Apology, to which it may be considered sort of an appendix. After dealing with the standard objections, Athenagoras seeks to prove the logical possibility of a resurrection in view of either the power of the Creator or of the nature of human bodies. Going further, he argues that the nature and end of man demand a perpetuation of the life of body and soul. I didn’t find this to be particularly convincing as argued. OK, but significantly less interesting to me than the Embassy.
Overall these essays are good examples of the early apologetic genre, and Athenagoras’ clinical, philosophic style (compared to the more emotional style of some other earlier apologetic writers) helps them stand out. Recommended for readers interested in the early church. 3 stars....more
This essay - originally published as the introduction to The Best Poems of the English Language - was republished as a stand-alone paperback in 2005.This essay - originally published as the introduction to The Best Poems of the English Language - was republished as a stand-alone paperback in 2005. Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University, has been publishing literary criticism for over 50 years and is perhaps best known for his writings on Shakespeare and The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.
Highly intelligent and even more opinionated, Bloom isn't for everyone. However, even his critics have to concede that he is extraordinarily well read, and I largely enjoy his work even if I don't always agree with every single thing he has to say. Poetry is Bloom's favorite form of literary expression, so getting inside his head for 50 pages and listening to him lecture is an interesting (and entertaining exercise).
Bloom's writings range from the relatively basic (for newer readers) to the highly complex. This introductory essay leans toward the basic side, so for readers who know a lot about poetry, much of this will be a refresher course. Still, even veteran poetry students will likely find something of interest here, and I would definitely recommend it to less experienced readers looking to explore poetics in more depth. Personally, I felt like I learned from this book and gained a deeper understanding of the poetic art. 4 stars, recommended....more
Redeployment is an excellent set of short stories about the Iraq War by Phil Klay, a former Marine officer who served in Iraq from 2007-08. This is qu
Redeployment is an excellent set of short stories about the Iraq War by Phil Klay, a former Marine officer who served in Iraq from 2007-08. This is quite possibly the best book (fiction or otherwise) I have read on the Iraq War for two reasons. First, Klay does a great job of immersing the reader in his stories, using both his first-hand, inside knowledge of what the war was like and a liberal use of that armed-forces lingo (abbreviations and all). I loved this aspect of the book, which reminded me of Tom Clancy armed with an MFA. Second, while all of the stories deal with the Iraq War in some capacity, they cover the war from a wide variety of angles and perspectives, which kept the book fresh and even (I felt) expanded my understanding of the war and its repercussions.
While there wasn’t a bad story in the bunch, three stood out to me. After Action Report was a powerful look at the psychological strain soldiers in the field face on a daily basis. Klay nicely highlights the youth of his subjects, giving the story even more emotional punch. Prayer in the Furnace also does an outstanding job of showing how even the bravest soldiers can crack under the stress of combat, while adding an interesting (without being heavy-handed) religious angle. Finally, Psychological Operations really snuck up on me. It seemed like just another story at first, but it really sunk its claws into me and I couldn’t put it down towards the end. Well-crafted and compelling stuff.
Overall this was an outstanding collection – particularly considering that this was the author’s literary debut. Very good prose, interesting plots, and some unexpected twists make Redeployment entertaining reading, and some quietly moving passages will ensure this is a book you won’t soon forget. A strong 4.5 stars, highly recommended!
Winner: National Book Award (2014); New York Times Top 10 Books of 2014...more
I was very impressed by the first volume of DC’s New-52 Justice League reboot. The second…not so much. I liked it, but just didn't love it. There’s soI was very impressed by the first volume of DC’s New-52 Justice League reboot. The second…not so much. I liked it, but just didn't love it. There’s some interesting table-setting going on here – both in terms of conflict within the team and conflict between the League and the larger world. But the meat of the story is focused on a rather mediocre villain’s quest for revenge. I kept waiting to be hooked, but it just never happened.
It’s not a bad volume by any means, and the artwork remains strong. Definitely a title I will stick with, especially given the promise on display in volume one. But it felt a bit like filler to me; for one of DC’s flagship titles, I was left a little underwhelmed. 3 stars....more
Some random thoughts after reading Go Set a Watchman:
1. This is not a perfect novel. As many readers will be aware, this is not a sequel to the classiSome random thoughts after reading Go Set a Watchman:
1. This is not a perfect novel. As many readers will be aware, this is not a sequel to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird in the traditional sense of the word. Watchman was actually Harper Lee’s first crack at telling the story of the Finch family; essentially, it is the (very different) first draft of Mockingbird. Only when it was rejected by publishers did Lee go back to the drawing board and created TKAM. I actually did not realize this until I finished the book, but even without knowing its history, it’s pretty clear that Watchman is the product of an artist still finding herself. It reads very much like a first novel at times, not the polished gem that Mockingbird ultimately became.
2. That said, Harper Lee’s B-Game is a sight better than many authors’ very best efforts. I really enjoyed this book: even if I’d never read Mockingbird, I think I would have liked this novel quite a bit. Lee’s voice & her presentation of Maycomb County and its colorful inhabitants was a real pleasure to experience, just as with TKAM.
3. Watchman is set 20 years after the events of Mockingbird. Scout is now a 26 year old woman living in New York returning to Maycomb for her annual visit. Many of the characters from TKAM have changed over the intervening decades, as has the town itself. Scout’s struggle with the changes that have come over Maycomb and its inhabitants sets up the central conflict in the book.
4. Some of these changes will be surprising, frustrating, or even upsetting to certain readers. TKAM has become such a classic, and its story and characters have become so iconic over the past half century, that it can be striking to view Maycomb & its central characters through a different light. Many readers will find one change in particular to be unsettling: (view spoiler)[the revelation that Atticus’ views on race-relations are far more traditional, even racist, than his presentation in Mockingbird might lead one to believe. (hide spoiler)]
Now, Lord knows there have been sequels & prequels over the years that have trailed their classic predecessors like a stale fart. To wit:
I am happy to report that I did not have that experience with this book, although there will certainly be readers out there who find some of the developments in Watchman to be distasteful to the point that their enjoyment of the novel is ruined. I can’t blame them; all I can say is that personally I found those developments to be logical and realistic, if not always pleasant or inevitable.
5. I’ve seen this book advertised as a “necessary” follow up to Mockingbird. I think that’s a stretch, for two reasons. First, To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic that needs no help from anything else to be enjoyed and understood, thank you very much. That book stands on its own two feet without the need for any outside source. Second, while I quite enjoyed Watchman, it’s just not on Mockingbird’s level as a novel. That said, I’m very glad I read it. It was a pleasure to return to Maycomb and experience Lee’s distinctive prose one more time. 4 stars, recommended.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Pausanias was a second-century cultural geographer and antiquarian. His sole surviving work is his Guide to Greece, a lengthy effort that’s not quite
Pausanias was a second-century cultural geographer and antiquarian. His sole surviving work is his Guide to Greece, a lengthy effort that’s not quite like anything else I’ve read from antiquity. The Guide is divided up into 10 books; this volume contains the five dedicated to Central Greece (i.e., Greece north of the Peloponnesus).
Pausanias’ work is sort of an early guide for travelers – the ancient version of Frommer’s, if you will. Pausanias describes the many, many, many temples, shrines, and ruins dotting Greece at the time, along with notable works of art and descriptions of major cities. He frequently uses his discussion of an area or object to launch into digressions on history or mythology, a welcome habit that helps keep the text from getting too dry. Some of these digressions are one of the only (or the only) descriptions of their kind from antiquity, making Pausanias a valuable resource for better understanding the ancient world.
The other thing that makes Pausanias interesting is the time he was writing in. By the late second century AD, Greece’s glory years were long gone. Independence had been lost for centuries, and while she continued to exert a cultural influence, even that was beginning to fade with time. The Greece Pausanias explores is a haunted world filled with ghosts. For readers that are well versed in Greek history & literature, it is fascinating, if a bit sad, to read a description of this country and culture in the High Roman era, long after its best days were behind it. The culture may be in decline, but it still can fascinate the modern reader just as it fascinated Pausanias nearly 2,000 years ago.
Pausanias had first-hand knowledge of most of the sites & objects he describes, making his work particularly invaluable for specialists across the ages that have sought to retrace his steps. I would not recommend this to the general reader, as its length and subject matter can make it a little inaccessible at times. But for readers with a deep interest in classical studies, there is much of interest here. 3 stars.
Translation Note: Peter Levi, who translated the Penguin edition, has visited many of the sites covered in this book himself, and is able to provide extensive notes. Recommended....more
Tatian, a pupil of the more famous Justin Martyr who lived in the second century, is best known today as the author of the Diatessaron, a harmony of tTatian, a pupil of the more famous Justin Martyr who lived in the second century, is best known today as the author of the Diatessaron, a harmony of the four gospels. A native of Assyria, he labored in Rome for years before departing back east sometime after 165. According to Irenaeus, he was expelled from the church for his extremely ascetic views (including, apparently, a rejection of marriage as being too worldly a pursuit for a true follower of the faith).
His Oratio ad Graecos (Address to the Greeks) was probably written before his expulsion, and while Tatian’s more extreme views were roundly rejected by other Christians of his era, the Oration seems to have escaped widespread condemnation. The essay is an example of early Christian apologetics – a genre where Christian writers sought to defend their beliefs against attacks from the Greco-Roman establishment. Tatian takes a very aggressive stance, ridiculing paganism as illogical and immoral while defending Christian practices as superior in every way. Interestingly, he doesn’t so much contest the existence of Greco-Roman gods & goddesses (Zeus, Hera, Dionysius, etc); instead, he describes them as “demons” – beneath the one, true, God – whose influence on the mortal world (if any) is to mislead, entrap, and waylay mortals from a more virtuous path. To support his arguments, Tatian attacks their less-than-godlike behavior familiar to readers of Greek mythology – infidelity, capriciousness, rape, and even cannibalism. To a modern reader, these myths are colorful and enjoyable, but Tatian points out that actually worshipping this kind of deity is questionable at best.
By the second century, this was shooting fish in a barrel; a growing number of educated individuals in the Greco-Roman world had been struggling to reconcile their religious heritage with the realities of the world around them for some time now, and few still believed (for example) that Atlas was carrying the earth on his shoulders. A number of other apologists have made similar arguments, some more eloquently or effectively. Still, Tatian makes some solid logical points, and his digressions on his personal conversion and the antiquity of Moses vs. Homer are interesting reading. A relatively short essay that’s a solid example of its genre, recommended for readers interested in early Christian literature. 3 stars....more