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Posts about reviews (old posts, page 5)

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife

Ariel Sabar

2020


What happens when an academic is offered the physical support for their theories? This is the story of the "Gospel of Jesus' wife", a Coptic fragment purporting to contain and almost-contemporaneous quote of Jesus referring to Mary Magdalene in this way. If that sounds like The Da Vinci Code, well, yes it does – and one of the many ironies is that the academic receiving the fragment was a consultant on the film....

The details of this simple-sounding con – and it does sound like a con, even from such a short description – involve a deep-dive into the provenance of ancient documents, the international market in papyri, the intricacies of Coptic linguistics, and other high-culture sub-cultures. Very few people come out well.

But there's no physical evidence to link the papyrus' creation to the specific individual, and while the circumstantial case is compelling, there's still something slight unsatisfactory about the investigation. Why did the forger – if indeed he was the forger – do it? He seems to have had no motive. Even though he had the background, did he have the practical skills? And indeed, might he have been more skilled than he turned out to be?

4/5. Finished 20 March 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

November 1918: The German Revolution

November 1918: The German Revolution

Robert Gerwarth

2020


The Weimar Republic is a period often forgotten and often treated merely as a failed precursor that led to dictatorship. This book deals with its formative period. It's extremely focused, dealing with only the period between the Kaiser's abdication and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and the focus gives it momentum. The interpretation is balanced and not overly distorted by what the author (and reader) knows comes next.

4/5. Finished 01 March 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road

American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road

Nick Bilton

2017


The Silk Road occupies an interesting place in the history of the internet. To many it is the "dark web", the place where people can buy contraband with cryptocurrency. (Indeed, this is basically the only real-world use case for cryptocurrencies so far.)

It's a strange tale of someone who didn't seek to create the world's dark marketplace, but once he had was sucked-in to a vortex of ever-expanding crusade to support "freedom", of that particularly libertarian kind in which no harms are admitted and no constraints regarded as valid. Ross Ulbricht also seems curiously divorced from the success of his creation, in the sense that he never spent any of the millions he made, and never seems to have much intention of doing. It's a fascinating to ask what would have happened to him if he'd walked away (as he told his girlfriend he had) in the relatively early years.

There are some questions left largely unanswered, though. Does having a safe, legal, marketplace for drugs reduce harms, by removing the criminals and violence? It's hard to say, as the Silk Road never really removed the criminals from the equation. Is a recommender system sufficient to regulate a marketplace for contraband? Is the middleman as guilty as the seller – or the buyer? Taking down the Silk Road didn't end the dark web, and indeed it's now a fragmented and dynamic place that's more difficult for both law enforcement and consumers to navigate. Another thing Ulbricht never seems to have foreseen.

4/5. Finished 18 February 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce

Colm Tóibín

2018


While the description may be over-the-top when applied to Sir William Wilde or John Butler Yeats, it certainly applies in spades to John Stanislaus Joyce, whose life is almost a caricature of an artist in search of himself at the expense of his family. This is a wonderful book, full of telling character observations and synthesising a wide range of sources.

But actually the most moving part for me (as a former Dublin resident) was the loving description of one street: Westland Row, that runs along the back of Trinity College up towards Merrion Square. Tóibín moves up it almost house-by-house, detailing what happened where and how it's change in the intervening century. It gave me a sudden pull of nostalgia, so poignant that I could see the street and hear the trains on the Dart bridge above. That was an unexpected additional pleasure from an excellent biography.

5/5. Finished 03 February 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Light Brigade

The Light Brigade

Kameron Hurley

2019


A war fought in non-linear time – and that's the lived experience of the protagonist, not simply a narrative structure. Faster-than-light transportation leads to time shifts for some and worrying injuries for others.

It doesn't quite hang together as a novel, in my opinion, but the writing is evocative and the society – a post-climate change corporate dystopia with echoes of 1984 – is detailed and well-drawn. It needs a clearer arc to carry the complexities.

3/5. Finished 30 January 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)