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History of the Persian Empire (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 18 March 2012 09:29

History of the Persian Empire, by A.T. Olsmtead, came out in 1948. It's quite a monster - 524 pages - and must have been the epic of that time. Anything you wanted to know (at least in 1948) is in this book.

My point in picking this up was to reacquaint myself with the Persians before having to speak about them at book functions. After all, its been twelve years since I did my heavy-lifting research for Early ReTyrement and, no, I don't remember everything I'd read or known or discovered, not that long ago.

It's interesting though - he really covers a lot of ground. In fact, there are sinkholes of tedium in his research on the Zoroastrian religion, the astrological advances, and some of the other details. Missing are more of the interesting slice-of-life moments, how people lived, what they did, the problems they faced. It's more at the empirical level, the sweep and thrust of the Persians and their subject races.

Interesting are the references that are "assumed", names of people, places, and legends that Olsmtead figures our world-class education (again, 1948) have provided us in the classics. For example, I know about Croesus and the muddled oracle he received, but I'm certain not one in a hundred do now. That he passes lightly over this speaks to our focuses as a society in ways I don't find comforting.

And time has advanced our knowledge of these histories. For example, at the Battle of Gaugamela, he knows the order of battle but not what occurred. Evidently, new research has revealed the sweep of the battle, of Alexander's cavalry feint, of his drive up the middle and the risk to his baggage train that checked him in that critical moment. All this we know and he didn't. But that's history, always changing (or being tampered with).

It was interesting for me, after reading much of the earlier empire that I vaguely remembered, to suddenly find myself with Philip, Alexander and Darius again (in the final pages of the book). It was suddenly like coming through a dimly-remembered city to a street you once lived on and remembered vividly. And there we were, with Alexander pushing past the blood-soaked coast at Issus, of Darius issuing his pleading notes to cease and desist, of the Phoenician city-states beginning to position themselves for his arrival. Somewhere in all that, maybe Mason was there.

Anyway, good read for the historians out there, but maybe not for John Q.

Last Updated on Sunday, 18 March 2012 15:18
The Helmsman (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 11 March 2012 15:50

Every now and then, while wading through a stiff read (in this case, Olmstead's 524 page History of the Persian Empire), I have to take a break. In this case, I fell into something I got out of a used bookstore, Bill Baldwn's The Helmsman from 1985.

So the universe apparently is a very class-conscious place, with the nobles on the top, and Carescrian ore-miners (such as our hero, Wilf Brim) on the bottom. Evidently recent legislation has opened up the academy to guttertrash such as Wilf and he's made it through with a sub-Luitenancy, ready to report to his first ship, the destroyer Truculent. And, of course, nobody likes him, which is to be expected. And he'll go on to prove himself, which is also expected.

Still, I really liked the novel. When Brim is given the helm of the ship to move out (at restricted speed, in a blinding snowstorm, and a noble-helmed ship pressing close), it's quite a nail-biter, especially since his career is on the line should he scuff one fleck of paint. The action is fun and furious, with Brim falling from one desperate situation to the next (the land battle, where he is stuffed in an alien tank with no training and forced to make do, was a little bit of a stretch, but still fun).

Of course, in an infinite universe, one can only expect to find a nemesis that you are always tripping over and our hero is no exception, repeatedly foiling (and insulting) Overprefict Valetin. And of course, in their showdown ship-to-ship slugfest, just before the baddie's ship explodes, something (clutter, wreckage, an escape pod, perhaps?) flies clear.

And it's a good thing, since Baldwin went on to write more of these yarns. If interested, you can find links on this site HERE to purchase the set.

Nothing Earth-shattering or new here, just a good space opera. I'd give it a guarded approval.

Last Updated on Sunday, 11 March 2012 16:30
Piece of Cake (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 04 March 2012 19:38

So why do I like Piece of Cake, outside of the fact that it's a World War Two flying story?

Well, as a writer, I love the book because it does two things I respect any book in doing. These are...

1) It takes a perception of our world (here, the nobility of "the few") and skews it.

2) Characters get killed.

It turns out that Hornet Squadron is made up of infallible, bungling, selfish, vain, and stupid humans. The squadron CO taxis into a slit trench the first day of the war and breaks his neck while trying to angrily clamber out. Later, there are bungled attacks (as fitting with the RAF at the start of the war), bureaucracy and confusion. And the pilots? There is a shirker. A brute. A know-it-all Yank. All led by an upper-crust yob who treats the squadron like his own private flying club and blindly follows fighter command's dictates, no matter how stupid they are.

And, with all these items from point (1), it leads, naturally, to point (2).

Robinson writes strong. His flying scenes are top notch. He knows how to write areal confusion and panic, and also the beauty of flying. And he knows how to write people; his dialog chatters along like a crowded mess on a rainy afternoon, snippets and inside jokes and cutting remarks. He did much the same in his earlier Goshawk Squadron, and he pulled it off here as well.

I'll mention that, in regards to point (1), the book was stunningly adapted into a Masterpiece Theater six-parter that followed the high-points of the story fairly well and brilliantly cast its characters (so when I read it now, I see the actors in their places). Apparently there was a swelling roar of indignation among the Brits over this. The could understand point (2). They didn't get point (1).

But I got it. And I liked it. So Piece of Cake gets a recommendation from me.

Last Updated on Sunday, 04 March 2012 21:07
Moby Dick (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 26 February 2012 20:07

Yes, I know. This book should speak to me as a writer for the themes it explores. And it should speak to me, personally, about the mad pursuit of the unobtainable.

But I just...


get through it.

Forgive me, for I have sinned. I've read Three Musketeers (and all the companion books). I've read Candide and Anna Karenina. I've read Don  Quixote. I've even read Tom Brown's School Days. Even Gilgamesh! I know how to set aside the twenty-first century me and become a simpler, less-expectant, slower-paced me, to read a book for its merit and discover the charm as those did hundreds of years before. But Moby Dick - I simply can't get through it.

I've tried. I've forced myself to focus on it, to not lose my way when Melville spends thirty pages on the types of whales. All I know is that twice I've challenged this novel and twice I've failed. Last time, I got to where Starbuck wanders the deck, babbling though the night and keeping the crew awake. But no, I can't do it. I simply can't get through this windy, dusty tale.

And that's too bad, since tales with a cautionary take on the weaknesses and foibles of humans really appeal to me. But no, there is something about Melville (just as there is something about lettuce) that I can't get down.

And it's not just that tale: I've tried Billy Budd and barely made it out of that novella alive. I just can't read Melville, no matter how hard I try.

So sorry - there is your review. Good luck with this fish story. I simply can't force it into my eyeballs.

Last Updated on Sunday, 26 February 2012 20:27

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