The Year of the Flood is Margaret Atwood at the height of her powers. Very few authors have the courage to attempt the whole "create a religion" thing, and practically none of them can actually pull it off. Yet Atwood has here a whole book detailing a minor religious sect that isn't ridiculous on the face of it, even writing hymns that (while admittedly tedious to listen to) actually sound like hymns. This all but blows the mind.
Unfortunately, Atwood has set this whole thing in the same universe as her absolute classic, Oryx and Crake. Why? What was the point? It's like watching the greatest conjurer of all time, only to have the climax of her act be a rabbit pulled out of top hat. This book all but ruins its predecessor, filling in gaps, dispelling mysteries, and answering questions that nobody on earth wanted filled, dispelled, or answered.
OK, you know Pulp Fiction, the Quentin Tarantino film? Remember that one scene where Vincent and Jules are shaking down those kids in the apartment, and Vincent opens a mysterious attache case and stares in wonder at whatever is inside? And later, Tim Roth's character does the same thing? And you're like "what's in the case?!" Then what happened? YOU GREW UP. Now, what if Tarantino made a sequel to Pulp Fiction starring, like, Steve Buscemi's Buddy Holly waiter, where he FINDS OUT WHAT'S IN THE CASE and it's like the most obvious thing imaginable. Only fat useless nerds who don't get it at all would be super happy to see this film.
That's what this book is. It's what's in the case. Oryx and Crake was flawlessly built up to an ambiguous ending, where Jimmy's intentions are unclear and subject to a massive amount of debate. Guess what? NOT ANYMORE. Now we know what happens, and it's a load of old bunk. A lame attempt is made to replace it with another kind of cliffhanger, but it's the kind of cliffhanger where a bomb is ticking down and the screen cuts off at 00:01. WILL THE BOMB EXPLODE?
I once had the opportunity to listen to this series, and I did so twice. Now the opportunity to own it on Audible has put tears in my eyes, literally tears in my eyes. This series won't make you an Egyptologist, but you will know so much by the end of it that the uninitiated might mistake you for one. I once visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a friend and when we hit the Egypt section I turned into a tour guide. After explaining how the Temple of Dendur ended up in New York, I turned and drew her attention to the interesting art style of the Amarna panels, and at this point she stopped me and asked, "How do you know all this?" This is how I know all this. I once held a group of people around a campfire in Eastern Washington spellbound for an hour as spoke on what we owed to the Egyptians, the basic ways of thinking and acting that we owe to them. I'm serious... spellbound (it helped that everyone was a bit intoxicated.)
This series will make you interesting. They might as well stick a guarantee on it.
Just to give you an idea... there's a half hour on mummified animals. Mummified ANIMALS. There's already about two solid hours on human mummies, but Brier feels that to be complete you need to know about the animals as well. If you are thinking, "How am I going to get through thirty minutes on dried up animals, let alone 24 solid hours on Egypt?" let me assure you, it will be over before you know it and before you want it to be. I've listened to a lot of Teaching Company lectures in my time, and while they never have anyone truly boring you often are reminded that these people are all university professors. But Brier's delivery is almost mesmerizing, his enthusiasm for the subject positively boyish. This series will never require your patience.
There may be special interest to those with an interest in Biblical history, whether you are Christian or otherwise. Whenever you reach a point where Biblical history intersects with Egyptian, Brier will stop and discuss it. There are several lectures devoted exclusively to the topic. I'll lay it out: Brier is a historian and therefore does not regard the Bible stories as literal truths, but he treats them with true sympathy and interest. His conclusions really surprised me, especially regarding the Exodus. His speculations on Joseph are perhaps more of a stretch.
The one rather slight downside to the whole series is that Brier has some rather fanciful theories about the life and times... and death... of Tutankhamen, a lot of which have been, if I'm not mistaken, disproven in the years since this first came out and which anyway were never taken seriously in mainstream Egyptology. Speculating about the Bible is one thing, but Brier doesn't pretend it's anything but speculation. His Tutankhamen material is, despite disclaimers, told with the passion of a true believer, which makes it slightly tragic when you discover afterwards that some of the basic facts just aren't there. It makes for an interesting listen, at least.
Overall, this is a MUST PURCHASE. Everyone needs a pair of really good shoes, a couple of good jackets, and a lecture series on Ancient Egypt. Do not hesitate.
This must have been a hard book to write, and it's therefore something of a hard book to review. There are a lot of Popes, over a long time, and this is not ultimately that long of a book. Something had to be sacrificed, and I supposed the author should get credit for not sacrificing any of the Popes. They are all here, and they all have their moment. They all get a biography and a judgement of their reign, even if it only lasts a few lines. Choices are then made about which Popes are the more important and/or interesting Popes, and these Popes get a little more attention. How were these greater Popes chosen? Not difficult, as they are the same Popes every historian considers important and/or interesting. The author makes no attempt to be neutral, as he is not a Catholic and is unapologetically modern in his outlook, but the judgments never take over. If a Pope kept mistresses, built palaces for each of his twenty nephews, started a few wars, and killed some Jews, the author goes ahead and calls that a "bad Pope" and moves on, although such a Pope might get some grudging respect for building a fine library or reorganizing some bureaucracy. If a Pope does warrant a lot of contextual history, that history is almost invariably an account of the wars in which they were involved. And that is the book, pretty much: Names, dates, wars, and the judgments of an elderly British aristocrat. No wonder The Economist reviewed it favorably! It is a fascinating story. It would take a hamfisted historian indeed to make a history of the Papacy seem dull. But couldn't we have had a little less completeness? Couldn't some of the Popes been clumped together in their insignificance, freeing up space for the better ones? There are occasions where you wish he would just let loose with a little more of the dry wit, and stray a little further from century after century of the relentless succession of very old men. When he does do these things, this is a fantastic book. The accounts of the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, the lengthy and unexpected discussion of the myth of Pope Joan, and the delicate, merciless vivisection of Pius XII are worth the price of admission alone. These are but some of the many brilliant parts. The rest, unfortunately, is just history.
This is a book of lists, apparently intended to prove that the author was either alive in the '80s or has access to Wikipedia. Most of us are one or both of those things, so why we need it all explained to us again and again and again is beyond me. Who is picking up this and going, "Con-poo-tur games? I don't understand. Star Wars? Wars in space, what next!"
This is unfortunate, since all this '80s underpin a gripping mystery that is cleverly written and fun to follow. I only managed to solve a handful of the bits myself, and was appropriately charmed and delighted when the rest were revealed. If only that were the entire book, and the vast tiresome gulfs of irrelevant trivia in between were done away with, or at least less of a slog to get through. Instead we get endless explanations of how virtual worlds work like this is Neuromancer, petty revelations packaged in trite soundbites like the last 30 seconds of He-Man, and an agonizing romance constructed entirely out of artificial conflicts, like... that's right! Anakin and Padme, not Han and Leia! See? Anyone can do this. Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps this is all some kind of winking self-referential meta-fiction about how shallowly commercial and self-centered the culture of the '80s actually was. That doesn't make it any easier to read, or its characters any more likable, or its point any more... wait, I can't actually remember what the point was. Hmm.
It's a worthy waste of time anyway. I didn't stop listening to it once I began, just spent the majority of it rolling my eyes and shouting, "Get on with it!!" to nobody in particular. Wil Wheaton is a great narrator who I'd listen to again. I'd just rather have spent my time on some actual stuff from the '80s.
I want to expand on the previous reviewer's comments, which I essentially agree with. The introduction to this book is a blast against both the regressive fallacy that one religion can be better than others and the progressive fallacy that all religions are in a lovey-lovey way all the same. This is not the case, he declares; instead, each religion has its own independent character and instincts, appeals to different needs and desires, and aims to take you to different mental places -- this is what he means by calling them "rivals". It's a bracing call for a full-frontal tolerant plurality without wincing away from points of contention. It's a promising thesis to begin a book with.
Unfortunately, that's as far as it goes. The rest of the book consists of eight essays concerned separately with a "major" world religion (sorry Sikhs, Jains, Shintoists, and Scientologists... nothing here for you) that, while pleasant to read/listen to, are ultimately nothing more than pedestrian glosses. This book is, in fact, a direct sequel to Prothero's previous book, "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know" which called for Americans to learn more about the religions of the world. As he say towards the end of the introduction, people were writing to him asking for a book to GIVE them that literacy. This is that book, and if that is what you want then this is the book for you. Each essay starts from basic facts, breezes through some history and contemporary issues, and ends there. Without a rhetorical connection between them the original thesis is nowhere to be seen. I was hoping for more depth.
There is still much of value here, particularly in the surprising choice of Yoruba as one of the major world religions. I like to think that I'm slightly more literate than most Americans when it comes to world religions, but was frankly ignorant about this West African religion and its many New World descendants. Touche, Mr. Prothero; consider me educated.
The first half of the book, like all of Tuchman's work, is 5-stars of exceptional. Interesting and erudite, it pounds enthusiastically over the landscape of the century, shaking hands with the people and sticking it's nose into the culture. It does this to explain the background of the eventual subject of the biography. Unfortunately, when this subject, de Coucy, appears and grows up enough to start acting on history, the book stiffens its back and starts marching along the path of that history like someone was whipping it. Better on the page, in audiobook form it becomes an impossible tangle of names and dates, where de Coucy in April goes to A and meets X and Y and flirts with W and then in May may have gone on to the Italian state of B or perhaps was in C with S and P to campaign against N during the war that year between P and Q. And it goes on like that for hours, without any of the digression or deep explanation that made the buildup so entertaining. When the guy finally bites it, he does so in a pinch conveyed so perfunctorily that it comes kind of as a relief. This is not the Tuchman who would later convey the mechanical ticking of the first month of World War One (in "The Guns of August"), with its myriad dates and cast of thousands, with famous joie and vivre. However, don't mistake this minor criticism as a prohibition, please! A half-excellent book by Tuchman will nevertheless leave you half-again as entertained and informed as any other book on the subject in existence. I highly recommend.
An unfortunately workmanlike straight accounting of facts with little colorful digression. The narrator is good but can't do much with the material. If you have a specific historical interest it will inform you, but in any case it will not entertain you.
I read this book as a teenager not long after it first came out, and it holds up pretty well. Sadly, Gaiman is not the man to read it. His breathy, heavy and serious intonation turns much of what should be slightly camp and ridiculous into a parody of an amateur reading of Shakespeare's sonnets. He brings his characters across decently but everything else... A scene where an angel dances to Irving Berlin should not be read in hushed and swestruck tones. A nice cup of tea before a lethal test of courage is not a dolorous concept. And on and on. Not enough to ruin it though.
This book is not scary. Do I need to elaborate? Okay... all the creepiness involves the idea that someone is watching, ALWAYS. That's it, really, and it involves an excessive suspension of disbelief. Also the author errs from the start in making Dracula a vaguely sympathetic character. Up until almost the end we wonder why he shouldn't kill those coming after him... can't a guy have his privacy? So he killed people 500 years ago for political reasons. Is this so unusually bad we need to lord it over his head, still? He asks to be left alone, you didn't, he attacks you, and you think you're the victim? To remedy this, we get a hackneyed "Haw haw! I'm eeeevil!" speech that comes across as jarring and silly. Worst of all, the conclusion is one of those, "Now let's all sit down and wrap up the loose ends with a massive long exposition" affairs. The entire end feels rushed, like the author ran out of patience with her own swollen construction.
The narrators work together quite well, but their attempts to do any accent that isn't British fail miserably, and we have to labor patiently through the broken, choppy results. It... makes it... very... hard.
Still, I listened to it. Three stars.
An absorbing book! I've listened to it twice already. The author flawlessly mixes hard historical context with gossip, scandal, and delightful facts that were obviously gleaned from obscure sources. The narrator is fantastic too - a deep, booming English voice, full of pomp and gravity.
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