Book Review: THE ANCIENT CELTS builds a framework for Ancient European history

The Ancient Celts audiobook occupied my listening time during a couple of recent weekend road trips, and it turned out to be enjoyable and informative.

The Ancient Celts is an excellent historical framework through which to view and discuss the identity and meaning of the term Celtic and the ancient peoples to whom it can be applied. This is the type of history where author Barry Cunliffe strays into several other topics in order to build his primary case.

Ancient Greece, Rome, the Scythians, and Phoenicians all make appearances as Cunliffe traces a millennium of migrations and conflicts across Europe involving various Celtic groups. Cunliffe focuses on the material archaeological record for his study, but he does not hesitate to pull in writings of the Classical era, and previously established linguistic evidence to build his case.

Cunliffe’s ultimate case is that the Celts can be identified as a distinct cultural and linguistic group from the Middle Danube region from the end of the Bronze Age, who had a stark impact on the Classical civilizations of Europe and spread as far south as Egypt, as far East as modern Turkey, and as far west as the Atlantic coast of Europe, and whose cultural remnants can still be seen today.

Interestingly, Cunliffe bookends his study with discussions on the revival of Celtic identity over the last few centuries, and what this might mean in relation to the Ancient Celts he tries to understand. He posits the subjective question of who the Celts were and who they are today, and answers with a surprisingly simple, yet effective statement: anyone who considers themselves Celtic, whether that is through spoken language, material culture, or more ephemeral forms of identity.

Steve D

Book Review: THE LAST KINGDOM and engrossing characters and story

After years of watching the show and hearing from my father-in-law that I would love Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories series — now more famously known as The Last Kingdom series — I finally listened to the first story, The Last Kingdom, on Audible.

This was my first introduction to Cornwell’s writing, having watched all of the TV adaptation of “The Last Kingdom” previously. Even though I came into this book with inflated expectations, I was definitely not disappointed.

The Last Kingdom follows young Uhtred, the son of an English noble, from the time he is kidnapped by a Danish earl, Ragnar, until he becomes a man. This first installment is effectively a coming-of-age story, where Uhtred learns how to live like a Dane and how to be a true warrior. He learns early on that he has a strong lust for battle and killing, and he chooses the warrior’s path for himself, becoming caught between his Saxon heritage and his Danish upbringing.

Cornwell’s story is exciting, and his plot is punctuated by thrilling action sequences and scenes of dialogue that do most of the heavy lifting in revealing the characters. Many of the names would be familiar to those who had watched the titular Netflix show, but the story is far more in depth.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing more of Uhtred’s early years, which are largely glossed over in the show. The reader gets to see more of the relationship between Uhtred and Ragnar, which truly becomes a father-son bond as the young Uhtred grows. This story lays a strong foundation for Uhtred to constantly be pulled between the two halves of his heart — the half that wants to help Ragnar the Younger in avenging the death of their father, and the half that wants to reclaim his birthright as lord of Bebbanburg.

This story also sets up what is sure to be a fiery relationship/rivalry between Uhtred and King Alfred of Wessex, as Alfred ensnares Uhtred deeper and deeper in the politics of Wessex (and his liege-ship), and Uhtred tries to angle for a chance to see his homeland in Northumbria reclaimed. The dialogue scenes between Uhtred and King Alfred crackle with tension.

If I had one gripe against this story, it’s that I don’t know if I would enjoy it as much if I didn’t already know the characters. Being able to see the actors’ faces in my mind as I listened brought this story to life in a way that many others cannot be.

Can’t wait to start the next one.

Steve D

Book Review: INTERIOR CHINATOWN and commentary on Othering in America

Charles Yu exposes a ton of insight into what it’s like to be a “Generic Asian Man” in America. In Interior Chinatown he tells the story of an actor, Willis Wu, trying to work his way up the ladder, advancing from Generic Asian Man #3, to #2, through several intermediary roles, until at last he gets the chance to play the dream role: Kung Fu Guy.

That is all Willis thinks he is capable of becoming, a trope of cinema and a caricature of himself.

Through this experience, and with some much needed help from his family, Willis comes to realize that Kung Fu Guy is still just another version of Generic Asian Man, just like Old Asian Man or Asian Seductress.

In a strange but emotionally stirring scene in which Willis is “on trial” for boxing himself in racially and socially, he (and the reader) learn some tragic tidbits about how the US has treated immigrants from East Asia, and especially China throughout its history.

This is yet another side of history that we don’t often find in American textbooks; policies like the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which took steps to effectively ban all immigration to the US from China. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first of its kind to ban immigration based on race or country of origin. There were also a series of Supreme Court rulings in the 1920s which sought to exclude Asians from naturalization in the US. (Read more here).

Ultimately, Willis realizes that he is playing into a system which exacerbates his own place as Asian Man; a role which continues to flummox American society at large, even after 200 years of immigration (particularly from China).

I found the structure of this story odd at first. It read like a TV script, with characters delivering lines to each other in such a way that it was difficult to tell at times when Willis was actually acting in a scene for one of his roles, versus when he was “playing” a role as Asian Man in his everyday life. This storytelling mechanism is intentional, of course, and does lend to the author’s crucial commentary, in the form of the protagonist’s monologues.

Overall enjoyed this, but more than anything, Yu makes me want to read more about the Chinese American experience, and the US’s abominable history, distant and not so distant, in this (and many other) regards.

Steve D

Book Review: BRAIDING SWEETGRASS draws you in and inspires

I recently listened to Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. This is another book I happened across while browsing Goodreads, and I gave it a shot to broaden my reading list a bit.

I can’t remember the last time I have been so completely inspired by a book — inspired to take action, but also emotionally.

Kimmerer’s book is a wonderfully woven selection of stories from her personal life, her career as an ecologist, and her own rediscovery of her Potawatomi heritage.

She cleverly leads the reader on a wandering journey as she tells of her own experiences as a student, a teacher, a mother, a scientist, an Indigenous woman, and a being with personhood (other beings with personhood include trees, plants, animals, rivers, basically everything in the natural world), to discuss the damage we have done and are doing to indigenous culture, to the natural world, and by extension, to each other.

I must admit that I found this book hard to follow during the early chapters. Kimmerer seemed to be telling random stories with no clear direction. But this series of vignettes begins to paint a larger picture as she describes a project she worked on with a fellow grad student to prove her hypothesis that sweetgrass would grow better with a human caregiver selectively harvesting it — a notion that goes against traditional Western science’s insistence that humans are separate from the environment, rather than an integral part of it.

In their experiment, Kimmerer, her colleague, and their team demarcate plots of sweetgrass and treat each one according to several variables. There were those they did not harvest at all, those they harvested by snipping at the stem, and those they harvested by pulling entire clumps of sweetgrass from the dirt. Over the course of two years, they consistently found that the plots where they were actively harvesting sweetgrass grew back better the next season. They did not wipe out an entire plot by harvesting, but instead let the sweetgrass regrow on its own terms. And they were right. This technique showed that the plots which were untouched did not regrow well at all — the older taller stalks of sweetgrass went untouched and prevented new growth, eventually choking out younger stems until their plots suffered.

There are almost too many lessons to try to take away from this book in one reading. From sustainable gardening and agriculture to on-the-ground conservation efforts to throwing support to indigenous communities’ efforts to reclaim their language and traditions, this book highlights a long list of efforts we need to make to provide a more sustainable future.

I came away from this reading both angered and inspired, frustrated and hopeful. Kimmerer does not offer hard and fast solutions — there are too many, and too complex, to enumerate in a single volume — but she does present the reader with a call-to-action, to begin pushing for change, or at least enacting change in our daily lives.

I like the idea of a larger, more sustainable garden that we can harvest vegetables from, and allowing sections of our yard to grow “wild” with shrubs and bushes native to our area and beneficial to the other fauna and flora. I also know that I need to identify local organizations focused on ecological restoration and sustainability, but finding these can be tough, at least at first.

It’s still difficult to pin down specific steps I can take as an individual towards a more sustainable future, but this book has laid the path. We just have to follow it.

Steve D

Book Review: DAUGHTER OF BLACK LAKE brings family drama to the Iron Age

I listened to Daughter of Black Lake by Cathy Marie Buchanan recently and quite enjoyed it.

I was drawn to this story mostly by the setting, the concept of a fiction set in Iron Age Britain. Daughter of Black Lake is not a military story of Romans and druids and seething tribesmen, although these devices make their appearances throughout the story. Instead, this is essentially a family drama that switches point of view between a daughter and her mother as a girl, whose lives and those of the people of their village are intertwined across generations.

This POV switching feels unexpected at first, but you quickly settle into the differing viewpoints between Hobble and her mother, Devout, even though Devout is narrating a decade or more in the past.

They each tell their versions of events impacting their family, with Hobble able to “see” more than most people know. She is gifted as a seer.

The story follows them both as Devout comes to find love and choose her mate, and as Hobble learns the dangers that outside influences can have on her quiet village of bog-dwellers. This back-and-forth narrative is a really interesting way to see characters interact across generations, first as children and adolescents interacting with each other or their elders, and then as adults, trying their best to help their families and their village survive.

The setting is vivid with pre-Roman and pre-Christian rites, prayers, social structures, and behaviors that guide each character’s decisions. These traditions are then thrown into conflict with the encroachment of Roman soldiers into the region, whose very presence, though distant, hangs over the bog-dwellers as an ominous threat to their way of life.

Although I typically don’t get into village drama-style narratives, I enjoyed the story for what it was. The characters were well written and distinguished, and the story was compelling. Mostly, I just wanted to spend time in the boggy village of Black Lake. Buchanan’s description give just enough detail to paint a clear picture, and her world felt entirely accurate, even as an astute reader questions how much we really know about the traditions and beliefs of pre-Roman Britons.

I would definitely pick up another book by Buchanan set in the same era, regardless of the plot, just to be able to step back into this world.

Steve D

Book Review: JURASSIC PARK delivers thrills and layered plot-building

I just finished listening to Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton on Audible, a book I probably should have read years ago, but I’m glad I finally checked it off my list.

Jurassic Park the movie is one of my favorites ever, so I was excited to finally read the original novel that inspired it — and compare how the film adaptation differed from the novel.

I really enjoyed this book and basically couldn’t put it down for a few days. Overall, the characters each had unique voices, and the plot was compelling.

To my surprise and enjoyment, the first part of the novel builds up the background of Ingen, Hammond, and some other key players. There is a fair amount of techno jargon, but Crichton writes it in such a way that is accessible and, just as importantly, believable, at least as far as science fiction can be believed. These sections serve to enliven the story as it progresses, providing the reader with much-needed context to feel the weight of the story.

These early sections are then interspersed with vignettes of doctors or others encountering unidentified “lizards”, but none of the characters are able to piece together the clues. In this way the tension very slowly builds.

By the time the main characters arrive at Isla Nublar to tour the park, the reader is nearly overwhelmed with dread over the mystery “lizards” terrorizing the local population, the industrial espionage of a rival bioengineering company, and the shady, or perhaps negligent, designs of Hammond and the creators of Jurassic Park.

The story is incredibly layered with detail about all of the flaws with the park. There is no fatal flaw, but there are many tiny ones that create a perfect storm of a disaster, isolating the characters on this island in a nightmare scenario.

The action was thrilling but not overwhelming, and the plot kept pace as the situation continued to unravel. Ian Malcom’s continuous diatribes about chaos theory could be tiresome for some readers, but I found these more philosophical sections quite engaging.

The narration of the audiobook was great as well.

Regarding the film versus the novel, I find it quite remarkable how well the film adheres to the spirit of the novel, even if several key characters and plot points are either changed or omitted entirely. Those types of changes are to be expected when adapting such a detailed novel to film, but it only makes me enjoy the movie more knowing that it is a worthy reflection of Crichton’s story, even if it looks a little different.

Steve D

Book Review: THE FORT, continues Goldsworthy’s run of compelling Roman military fiction

The Fort, City of Victory Book One is the first in what I assume is a new series of Roman military fiction novels by Adrian Goldsworthy, author of The Vindolanda Saga. I had read and thoroughly enjoyed that trilogy last year, so I jumped at the chance to read Goldsworthy’s newest work, only released in June.

I further hoped that this series would continue the saga of Flavius Ferox, the Roman Centurion and Prince of the Silures of Britannia whose dual-lives are always in conflict as he serves Rome.

The Fort once again follows Ferox, who has just arrived to a new posting in Dacia, a Roman province long troubled by local tribes and in which the Emperor Trajan had only recently established a more permanent foothold.

This continuation of the saga of Flavius Ferox is well written and narrated. The plot beats will feel very familiar to readers of Vindolanda, but I did not find the story as compelling as Goldsworthy’s earlier series. Ferox arrives in his new post in command of a detachment of Brigantes, all sworn to their new Queen Claudia Anica (herself sworn to Rome and now Ferox’s wife), and expecting a battle against the Dacians. The battle comes, of course, and becomes a siege of the fort whose name I can neither spell nor find online. (It’s possible this was fabricated for Goldsworthy’s story, like the titular fortification of Vindolanda of the previous series.)

Aside from mainstays like Vindex, Claudia Anica, and Sulpichia Lepidina, there is a largely new cast of characters. I found the politicking of Roman bureaucrats a bit dull in this story and even difficult to follow. It seemed like several characters were introduced and then discarded before the end of the story, except for Hadrian, tribune sent to Dacia, nephew of Trajan, and (for anyone who knows a bit of Roman history) the future emperor. Without giving away the ending to The Fort, Hadrian’s relationship with Ferox is likely drive much of the personal and political conflict in upcoming stories, and that is something to look forward to.

Other than that, I found myself leaning pretty heavily on Ferox’s interactions with his three close friends to stay attached to this story. I think the best scenes were those between Ferox and Claudia Anica, who lightened the tone of the story while carrying great narrative weight as a character.

The scenes which followed Brassus, a leader among the Dacians, were interesting but only scratched the surface of that people. I don’t feel I really know anything about the Dacians except that they obsess over “ascending” and “purity”, supposedly sacred concepts that are tossed around with no real explanation.

Overall, I enjoyed the story but pretty much knew what to expect from Goldsworthy’s writing and narrative.

The narration in the audiobook version (on Audible) was good, although the pronunciations have all changed. The narrator used softer s sounds in place of the Roman c, which I’m not here to quibble about. It’s just an interesting choice after the strictly Latin pronunciations in the Vindolanda stories.

Steve D

Book Review: EXIT WEST and relatable worlds

Exit West has been in my Audible library for at least over a year — when Audible used to make their Originals content available as part of a monthly selection.

I picked it up and sort of forgot about it, buried at the bottom of my Not Started list. I finally decided to give it a shot.

I ended up enjoying Exit West much more than I had anticipated when I first started. Mohsin Hamid’s narrative starts off slowly, the first couple chapters introducing the protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, in terms of their relationships, families, and how they were raised in a predominantly conservative Muslim society.

What’s interesting is that Hamid never names the country in which Saeed and Nadia live, and the particulars of the political conflict that upends their lives is inconsequential. Hamid chooses to focus on how it impacts them to tell a story that could apply to any two people, from any society, at any time in human history.

This is reinforced in the structure of the story. Hamid uses a methodical narrative style to capture vignettes of the lives of his characters. He then extends this to nameless characters we meet only once, snapshots of people’s lives who on the surface have no relation to the protagonists but whose shared experiences enliven the story.

Hamid presents a fictional future that likely already exists in some countries and will be more widespread over the coming decades. As the political conflict quickly turns to civil war around them, Saeed and Nadia are forced to hide out in their own homes before making the heart-wrenching decision to escape through one of the many doors that transports people from one life to another.

This is a world in which human societies are more divided but also more interconnected, where large groups of migrants have to eke out their existence in new places, fundamentally reshaping the identity of the places they come to inhabit, as well as themselves.

Saeed and Nadia try to hold their fraying relationship together among this emotional tumult, and their bond becomes the strongest force holding the narrative itself together.

Speaking of the audiobook version, Hamid’s narration is steady, and emotional notes come not in his inflection, but in the meaning and rhythm of his words.

I’m pleased to find two other stories by Hamid available on Audible, and regret not listening to him sooner.

Steve D

Book Review: SUPER BLACK and the cultural imprint of black superheroes

I picked up Super Black: American Pop CUlture and Black Superheroes by Adilifu Nama on Audible recently, and really enjoyed the information and lessons Nama presented.

Nama’s central theme is that black superheroes are more than tokenism brought to the comics page, which is how they are often talked about or analyzed. Instead, Nama explores how black superheroes have engaged in or even shaped the narrative of race and racial identity in American culture.

I was immediately impressed with Nama’s academic approach to this effort. He spends the first chapter laying out his thesis, his methodology, and refuting the arguments of previous analyses. He also is shy in criticisms of specific comics or stories for their over-reliance on stereotypes and insincere storytelling. It is not difficult to tell that he is a fan of comics, and he even mentions the effect that comics had on him as a boy, but he also wants to provide a considered analysis, and he does.

Nama looks at each of the most prominent black superheroes, as well as a few who made a particular mark on the discussion of racial issues.

He takes this a step further by examining other genres of media to discuss how black superheroes, at their best, have presented an encouraging image of Afro-Futurism, and often led the way in bringing those themes to the sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Even for someone without a deep knowledge of comics lore or history, this book is an engaging review of the most prominent Black superheroes and their depictions over the decades. Analyses of Black Panther, John Stewart’s Green Lantern, Power Man / Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Brother Voodoo, the Falcon, and Storm jumped out to me. Nama also discusses a run of Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern and the Green Arrow, which managed to touch on social justice issues in America in the 70s, not long before John Stewart debuted as the Green Lantern.

Nama then spends some time examining the superhero status that Barack Obama attained in the American psyche in the run-up to his election in 2008.

I really enjoyed this book and will definitely be looking for some of the comic arcs that Nama discusses to better understand these stories.

Looking Forward

Super Black was originally published in 2011, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just getting started — really before “MCU” became a widely understood pop culture term. I am curious how Nama would examine the growing on-screen prevalence of black superheroes since then.

Black Panther became one of the MCU’s most iconic characters almost overnight when that movie debuted in 2018. Before that, both Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie had supporting character roles in various films, as War Machine and the Falcon, respectively.

And now Marvel presents us with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a limited series that earnestly shines a light on racial injustice in America and wrestles with the notion of a man being both black and Captain America in 21st-century America.

I think it’s easy to be cynical about a huge corporation owned by an even huger corporation trying to convince viewers that they care about social justice, but the fact is that Black Panther (and it’s upcoming sequel) and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are stories about black superheroes with strong themes of Afro-Futurism (especially in Black Panther) told by black directors and writers. That’s not nothing, at least in my view.

I’d still like to hear what Nama thinks about those stories of significant black superhero figures though.

Steve D

Book Review: CROSSROADS OF TWILIGHT, and middle-book syndrome

I just finished reading Crossroads of Twilight, the tenth book in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. I’ve already mentioned this book a couple times in recent posts, mostly because it took me longer than I expected to get through it. And not in a good way.

Ten books into this series, I’ve run into more than a couple of stretches where there doesn’t seem to be any real narrative movement, and the characters’ insistence on running in place when there’s a path laid out for them has been frustrating.

This book, however, was the hardest installment of this series for me to get through. Rather than running in place, or even building up to something, the characters in this book just did nothing.

There were a lot of conversations, a lot of plans being made without any details as to what they were, or even what they were aiming to achieve, and a lot of schemes.

Always with the schemes in these books.

Schemes within schemes that are so convoluted, so tepidly hinted at by the POV character of the moment, that the reader can’t possibly have any real clue of what’s really happening. There are so many characters now in this series, and they all have their perfect little plans laid out and ready to spring, except the reader has no idea what any of them are, and there are 200 of them!

Ugh.

So, yeah, this book took me some time to get through. I was simply not interested in most of what was happening. I read the last third of this book in fits and starts just trying to get to the end.

The structure of the chapters was at first intriguing to me. The book is structured in such a way that you follow one particular character or set of characters for several chapters in a row before abruptly pivoting to another character. I think this would have been an effective mechanism to develop specific character arcs if most of the chapters didn’t feel like filler content.

Without getting into details, I was particularly interested in both Elayne’s and Mat’s narratives in this book, but I haven’t heard from Elayne since the first third, and Mat’s story took an unexpected if interesting turn at the end.

All of this is to say that I’m happy to be done with this book, and I’m taking a break before getting into book 11.

Jordan has always toed the line between being just vague enough while building suspense. This story did not build anything. The last few chapters are interesting and definitely set up for book 11, but they do not make up for the 700+ pages of what felt like filler content.

Steve D