TBR Challenge Complete!

Over the last month I finished the last three books for the Official TBR Pile Challenge, so here are the reviews (I ended up using my two alternate titles to reach 12 books, but I may still get back to the two that I skipped):

Title: Fear and Trembling
Author: Søren Kierkegaard
Translator: Alastair Hannay
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 160
Rating: 3 out of 5

In this classic, Kierkegaard ponders the nature of faith by considering the account of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). Themes include the relationship and relative merits of faith and reason, the necessity of resignation before faith can occur, belief in “the absurd” (that which is humanly impossible), and more.

I found some of it hard to follow as Kierkegaard is largely interacting with Hegel and I’m not really up on Hegelian philosophy. On top of that, he is writing as the pseudonym/character “Johannes de silentio” whose thoughts do not necessarily fully reflect Kierkegaard’s own (he’s an odd writer/thinker). This is my second time reading Kierkegaard and I don’t know if I’ll dip into his writings again…I think I prefer my theology/philosophy a bit less convoluted.

Title: The 1980 Annual World’s Best SF
Editor: Donald A. Wollheim (Ed.)
Genre: Sci-fi Short Story Anthology
Pages: 284
Rating: 2.5 of 5

It has been quite a while since I read this sort of anthology, though I read them all the time as a teen. It gave me a sense of nostalgia when I started, but that eventually gave way to annoyance. The stories are well-written and memorable (I actually remember reading one of them in a different collection 20+ years ago) but almost all of them were some variation of “let’s imagine a world in which Christianity and/or sexuality and/or the nuclear family has evolved away from the pathetically narrow-minded present.” I don’t know if that was the prevailing theme of late-70’s/early-80’s sci-fi or just the editor’s pet theme. After a while it just kind of felt preachy.

Title: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine 
Author: Gail Honeyman
Genre: Some sort of Psychological Fiction?
Pages: 352
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This isn’t my usual kind of read, and I don’t remember how it originally ended up on my TBR, but I’m glad that I read it. I’m not sure how much I can say about it without spoilers as gradually getting to know Eleanor (a social awkward loner who repeatedly assures us that her life is fine) and seeing her personal development is the whole point of the story. I don’t know that someone with so little self-awareness and understanding of the real world (to say nothing of other issues) would really be as independent as Eleanor is, but her struggles, tragedies, and triumphs provide a moving tale of humor, heartbreak, and hope.

A Patchwork Memory

Title: Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story)
Author: Daniel (birth name: Khosrou) Nayeri
Genre: Slightly Fictionalized Autobiography
Pages: 368
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Over the last week, my church hosted a missions conference with the theme of Sojourners. Much of the focus was on ministry to displaced people (a topic much on our hearts and minds as we have a sister church in Ukraine), and as a follow-up I will be recommending this book on Sunday.

All too often displaced people are reduced to political pawns and depersonalized talking points to shame opponents or outrage the voting base. Everything Sad Is Untrue is an antidote to such lack of personal empathy and compassion. In it, Daniel/Khosrou records a barely fictionalized account of his own life as a refugee. He writes from the point of view of his 12-year-old self, speaking directly to the reader about his memories, confusion, heartaches, and hopes.

We are told repeatedly that “a patchwork memory is the shame of a refuge,” and the extremely disordered and fragmentary narration highlights this theme. Khosrou jumps around wildly in his story from earliest childhood memories to present middle school experience to everything in between (including an odd number of poop-related stories…gotta love middle schoolers). Along the way he frequently references The 1,001 Nights of his native Persia/Iran as a sort of parallel to his own desperately throwing out stories as they occur to him.

The scattery style and 12-year-old voice take some getting used to, but it is worth your time to stick with it. The confusion, loss, and hurt that underly most of the stories will sadden your heart and make you angry at the cruelty of mankind, but there are also some beautiful descriptions of his mother’s courage and faith and his own hope that looks beyond present circumstances. This is not a Christian book per se (in fact, behavior by some of the churchy people in the book really ticked me off!), but his mother’s faith in Jesus is a truly amazing expression of the blessed hope that there is coming a day when “everything sad comes untrue.”

Two Child-in-Peril Books

I don’t usually like child in peril/child suffering/missing child fiction. As a parent, I find them too disturbing. For some reason, two of the books that I read in October were weird missing/suffering child thrillers. I still found them overly disturbing, but there was enough weirdness in them to keep my curiously reading while I cringed. Here are a couple mini reviews for those who can handle such books:

Title: The Last House on Needless Street
Author: Catriona Ward
Genre: Unreliable Narrator Weirdness
Pages: 352
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

If you like unreliable narrators and can handle disturbing/abusive content, this is the book for you. There are multiple first person POV narrators (including a talking, Bible-reading cat) and some third person limited omniscient narration. It’s the kind of story where you spend a lot of it trying to figure out what is going on with dawning horror and some barely believable twists. A lot of it has been done before, but the author does it very well (even if her self-important afterward is a bit overblown).

Title: The Changeling
Author: Victor LaValle
Genre: Magical Realism/Fairytale Mess
Pages: 448
Rating: 1.5 out of 5

I picked this up in spite of the “missing child” plot because I enjoyed LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, and this book won multiple awards and rave reviews. Unfortunately, I thought the book was an absolute mess. It’s one of those “magical realism” things where “magical realism” is an excuse for incoherent worldbuilding, illogical character behavior, and plot coming in a distant second to preachy ideology. Parts were compelling, but it felt like three largely unrelated stories smashed clumsily together with an eye on portraying big important themes (importance of family, difficulty of being a black woman, dangers of white males and social media) rather than on presenting a coherent narrative.

Two Quirky Classics

Title: Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memories of Brás Cubas)
Author: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Genre: Brazilian Classic
Pages: 223
Rating: 2 of 5

Machado de Assis had one of my favorite reads of the year a few years ago (O Alienista), but I did not enjoy this one. It features the same absurdism and quirkiness (reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman). For example, one chapter was titled something like “How I Failed to Win the Election” and is followed by a blank page. However, the highly digressive story ultimately revolves around an adulterous love affair, which is among my least favorite plot devices when played for humor or romance. Someone who doesn’t have this hang-up would probably enjoy it a lot more than I did. I will be using this for my Classic by a BIPOC Author category at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Title: The Sundial
Author: Shirley Jackson
Genre: Gothic Absurdity
Pages: 241
Rating: 4 of 5

The Sundial is reminiscent of Jackson’s later We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but if feels like she read a lot of Oscar Wilde before writing this one. Ostensibly, it is about a rich blueblood family (and various hangers-on) preparing for the cataclysmic end of the world and dawning of a new age. However, it’s more of an excuse for wicked/clever repartee among eccentric characters who believe crazy Aunt Fanny’s doomsday predictions to varying degrees, but none of whom want to be left out just in case she’s right. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but I did enjoy it. I will be using this for the Classic by a Woman at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

The Heretical Power Couple

Title: Egypt’s Golden Couple: When Akhenaten and Nefertiti Were Gods on Earth
Authors: John Darnell & Colleen Darnell
Genre: History
Pages: 384
Rating: 4 of 5
(Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review – Publication date: 11/1/22).

If you know only one Egyptian Pharaoh, it’s probably “King Tut” (thanks either to the treasures of his fabulous un-plundered tomb or the musical stylings of Steve Martin). This book offers an opportunity to meet his father, the enigmatic “heretic king” Akhenaten as well as Akhenaten’s principal wife, Nefertiti. The book opens with two radically different portraits of Akhenaten: enlightened sun-worshiping monotheist vs. incompetent, nation-destroying pedophile. The authors attempt to sift through these sorts of dramatic claims and produce a believable portrait of this couple, grounded in primary sources.

One big thing that I took away from this book is just how much of Egyptology is painstaking comparison that fuels semi-speculative interpretation of fragmentary, ambiguous writing/art. The portrait that emerges from the authors’ research and interpretation seems balanced and genuinely based on evidence rather than driven by an agenda to present a specific portrait.

As far as writing style, I could have done without the “TV docudrama” style chapter intros and random insertions of “now let us describe one of our field expeditions,” but those may add interest for some people. Overall, Akhenaten’s odd artwork and henotheistic religious reforms are a fascinating part of Egyptian history, and this is a nice balanced take on them. Highly recommended for those interested in Egyptology!

Four Creepy Reads

In keeping with it being October, here are four mini-reviews of some recent creepy reads (ordered from worst to best):

Title: Nothing but Blackened Teeth
Author: Cassandra Khaw
Genre: Haunted House Horror
Pages: 144
Rating: 1.5 out of 5

The author seems more interested in showing off her “writing skills” and knowledge of Japanese folklore than actually writing a good book. The prose is so purple and metaphor-laden that it suffocates the story. For the supernatural elements, she spews out names of mythical Japanese beings with little or no helpful descriptions. The plot drags with everything supernatural happening in a rush toward the end after the spiteful, shallow “friends” have made themselves so petty and loathsome that you couldn’t care less what happens to them and their self-aware discussion of horror movie tropes. Very disappointing.

Title: I Strahd: The Memoirs of a Vampire
Author: P. N. Elrod
Genre: Dark Fantasy (Ravenloft)
Pages: 324
Rating: 3 out of 5

Franchise fiction does not make for great literature, but it can be entertaining. This Dracula-like vampire origin story was competently executed. There’s nothing terribly original here, but it was fun escapist reading. I wouldn’t mind reading another Ravenloft book at some point in the future.

Title: The Living Shadow
Author: Maxwell Grant
Genre: Pulp Fiction (The Shadow)
Pages: 224
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Violent vigilante justice prevails in this first novel of the Shadow. The Shadow falls somewhere between hardboiled detective and dark superhero who may or may not have creepy supernatural powers (I’m pretty sure Batman is a Shadow rip-off). In spite of some amazingly convenient coincidences and an awkward attempt to tie it to the original radio show, this was a lot of fun and I’ll definitely be reading more in the series.

Title: The Oubliette
Author: J C Stearns
Genre: Grimdark Sci-fi (Warhammer Horror)
Pages: 252
Rating: 4 out of 5

More franchise fiction, but this one was better than most. This tale of supernatural corruption, set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, deftly combines byzantine politics and an ancient evil. It’s a slow burn “seduction to the dark side” kind of story that doesn’t require a lot of previous knowledge of WH40k lore to make sense.

Reading Challenges: German Edition

Life continues to be unpredictable and chaotic (still working toward a diagnosis on my wife’s chronic/worsening neurological issues). However, I’ve finished another book for each of my reading challenges and finally have time to write a review of each.

We’ll start with the book I read for the Classic in Translation category of the Back to the Classics challenge:

Title: The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr
Author: E. T. A. Hoffman
Genre: Classic German Absurdity
Pages: 384
Rating: 3.5 of 5

If you’ve ever wondered what a tomcat’s autobiography would sound like, look no further! The genius (if he does say so himself) Tomcat Murr, graces his readers with the edifying story of his extraordinary life, interspersed with sometimes unflattering editorial comments and a partial biography of the (fictional) Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler that was “accidentally” bound in the same book. The melodramatic, tongue-in-cheek, “I’m editing someone else’s book” schtick reminds me quite a bit of The Princess Bride.

Unfortunately, the eccentric composer Johannes Kreisler passages are significantly less amusing (and slightly longer) than the arrogant Tomcat Murr ones. I’m sure it’s all very artistic and the juxtaposition of the two has deep philosophical insights. However, when Kreisler intruded, I mostly just wanted to get back to the self-important cat and his snarky editor. Add to this that the book is unfinished (and the editors are lying when they say it feels complete even without the planned-but-never-written Part 3), and I couldn’t give it more than 3.5 out of 5 even though I greatly enjoyed parts of it.

And for the The Official TBR Pile Challenge I read this biography:

Title: Then They Came For Me:
Martin Niemöller, the Pastor Who Defied the Nazis
Author: Matthw D. Hockenos
Genre: Biography
Pages: 303 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Martin Niemöller is best known for the attributed quote:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

While he may or may not have said these exact words, he certainly expressed the sentiment late in his life. Matthew Hockenos traces Niemöller’s journey from ultra-nationalistic WWI U-boat captain (and early Nazi supporter) to Nazi prisoner (albeit in relatively cushy conditions compared to the average concentration camp prisoner) to international champion of pacifism and the ecumenical movement.

It isn’t always a flattering portrait, especially for those who idolize/idealize Niemöller’s work with the Confessing Church in Germany. Hockenos seems intent on highlighting Niemöller’s many flaws while offering guarded praise for his willingness to change his views over time. I don’t know if I’d call it an inspiring read, but it was revealing of human nature, including the tendency to be motivated solely by the interests of the group to which we belong.

Ness Vs. The Torso Murderer

Title: American Demon:
Eliot Ness and the Hunt for America’s Jack the Ripper
Author: Daniel Stashower
Genre: True Crime
Pages: 308 (plus citations, index, etc.)
Rating: 4 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review.)

Eliot Ness’s fame rests on his involvement in taking down Al Capone, especially as portrayed in the various incarnations of the highly sensationalized The Untouchables. In this book, Stashower recounts what came next for Ness as safety director of Cleveland, though he also rehashes & demythologizes Ness’s Chicago days. As the title suggests, the book focuses mostly (but by no means exclusively) on Ness’s investigation of the string of gruesome murders and dismemberments that rocked Cleveland at this time.

If you are a fan of true crime, this book is worth your time. Don’t expect everything to wrap up in a nice, neat bow (the torso murders are still technically unsolved), but the author brings it to a satisfactory conclusion. You should be aware that this is more about the career of Eliot Ness than about any sort of innovative new approach to the murders. As long as you go into it with that understanding, it is an excellent true crime read.

A Corrupt Translation?

Title: NRSV, The C. S. Lewis Bible: For Reading, Reflection, and Inspiration
Genre: Study Bible (English Bible translation + Commentary)
Pages: 1312
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I love C. S. Lewis, so I was pretty excited when I discovered that there was a C. S. Lewis study Bible. Then, I was a bit disappointed to find that it only came in the NRSV translation. I am all for accurate modern-language translations of the Bible (See: this review), but in my circles the New Revised Standard Version has a reputation for being a translation that is untrustworthy, biased, and corrupted by the liberal theology of its translators. Nevertheless, I know that cries of “it’s a corrupt translation!” are usually nitpicking and overblown so I decided to read and evaluate it for myself, both in terms of the NRSV translation and the C. S. Lewis excerpts used as commentary.

The Translation:
Admittedly, I went into this biased by what I had heard in the past, but I don’t think the concerns are completely unfounded (though they are a bit overblown). The translators offer a huge number of notations that provide alternate readings or say, “exact meaning is uncertain.” By itself that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – there are minor differences between ancient manuscripts (see this post) and any attempt at translation reveals the ambiguity in language.

However, the ways that many these alternate readings and ambiguities of language are handled by the NRSV seem questionable. For example:

  • Some supposed ambiguities are left nearly nonsensical rather than making a good-faith effort to provide a meaningful translation.
  • Some alternate readings are completely conjectural, amending the underlying text without any ancient manuscript evidence
  • Unlikely alternate readings are often given as much weight as well-attested ones
  • More subjectively, there does appear to be some theological bias in deciding which variant to put in the main text and which to put in the footnote (especially in sections relating to prophecy and the Holy Spirit).

Overall, I wouldn’t call this an unusably corrupt translation, but it certainly wouldn’t be in my top 5 recommended English Bible translations. Other modern English translations (e.g. ESV & NIV) are more helpful in their handling of ambiguous phrases and less likely to include alternate readings that are clearly secondary or conjectural in nature.

C. S. Lewis Notes:
For me, the editorial choices regarding C. S. Lewis excerpts were a mixed bag. Most of them were insightful and moving (because Lewis is amazing), but some of them (especially in the Old Testament) seemed barely related to the passage in which the footnote occurred.

Additionally, there seemed to be an inordinate number of quotes from Reflections on the Psalms in which Lewis questions the historicity and/or goodness of certain parts of the Bible. Lewis was definitely influenced by the “higher criticism” of liberal theology, and even though he rarely mentions it in his writings, the editors seem intent on highlighting this (including in a concluding essay). That said, they do include Lewis’s insights on the veracity of Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, and bodily resurrection, all of which are frequently denied in liberal theology.

Overall Impression:
Fusing the NRSV translation with a selection of explanatory/inspirational C. S. Lewis quotes isn’t the worst thing ever, but I think you would be a lot better off just reading Lewis on his own and reading a different modern-English translation.

Another Two for the Book Challenges

I’m currently on a big family vacation (first one ever where it’s not a trip to visit family), so the brain is in low power mode, and this is going to be pretty short. However, I have finished another book for each of my reading challenges and wanted to post about them. First, for the Official TBR Pile Challenge:

Title: The Miser and Other Plays
Author: Molière
Genre: Classic Plays
Pages: 280
Rating: 3 of 5

They say (whoever “they” are) that plays are meant to be watched rather than read, and I think that is probably the case with these plays by Molière. This collection included mostly his “second tier” plays (e.g. it’s lacking Tartuffe and The Misanthrope), so I don’t feel like I got a good impression of the playwright at the height of his skill. As it was, there was some mildly amusing cleverness that probably would have popped a lot more on stage. Also, I’m pretty sure that he ripped off borrowed heavily from Aeschylus at a few points.

Next, for the Back to the Classics Challenge I completed this book:

Title: The Black Robe
Author: Wilkie Collins
Genre: Melodramatic Victorian Fiction
Pages: 390
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Wilkie Collins produced some pretty melodramatic nonsense in his day, and this is a prime example. The theme of this book: Watch out for the scaaaaaary, scheming Jesuits! (though we’ll put in one nice Jesuit who’s an exception to the rule so we don’t completely tick off the Catholics).

Scaaaary stories…

It was okay if you’re in the mood for Victorian nonsense and don’t mind some Catholic-bashing. I can only take so much Wilkie Collins. There’s a reason that the works of his contemporary, Charles Dickens, are much more highly respected.