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.

Hacking Humanity

Title: Upgrade
Author: Blake Crouch
Genre: Near-future Sci-fi Action Thriller
Pages: 352
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.

Blake Crouch (Dark Matter) is back with another sci-fi thriller that explores a complex scientific concept while having a protagonist run around and be violent in various action set pieces. In this instance, his plot revolves around an attempt to upgrade humanity through genetic manipulation.

How much you buy into the plot will depend on how readily you accept (at least for the sake of the story):

  • The conviction that humanity is almost inevitably headed for self-induced extinction very soon, mostly due to anthropogenic climate change that could be stopped with the right kind of behavior that most people are just too stupid/stubborn to do.
  • The assumption that virtually everything that makes us human, including emotions, ethics, and moral behavior, is the product of our genes as shaped by evolution (and can be changed by genetic manipulation).

Overall, it’s okay for an action-packed “enhanced human / ticking time bomb / special forces” sort of thriller, but the bombast contrasted oddly with the preachiness and scientific jargon that was driving the plot. It reminded me quite a bit of Michael Crichton’s blend of preachy “science” and action, but I generally found Crichton more enjoyable. Obviously, your mileage may vary depending on personal taste.

Two More for the Book Challenges

Life is still pretty chaotic at our house, but I’ve finished another book for each of the two reading challenges I’m doing this year. First, for the Back to the Classics 2022 Challenge I completed this book for the Classics Short Story Collection category:

Title: An Obsession with Death and Dying: Volume 1
Author: Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish, George Hopley)
Genre: Classic Pulp Fiction
Pages: 335
Rating: 4 of 5

Cornell Woolrich falls into my second tier of Pulp crime/detective fiction authors. He’s no Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but still worth reading if you enjoy the genre. Woolrich knows how to crank up and maintain suspense, even if his endings tend to be either painfully predictable or so out of left field that they barely make sense.

This collection in honor of his 50th “death-day” pulls together 10 of his stories that have the word death or die in the title. It’s a mixed bag, that gives a pretty good feel for what Woolrich is capable of. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of classic pulp detectives.

The second book I’m reviewing is from my list for The Official TBR Pile Challenge. This book has been hanging out on my TBR pile for a couple years since Amazon insistently recommended it because of my interest in weird/cosmic horror fiction:

Title: The Twenty Days of Turin
Author: Giorgio De Maria
Translator: Ramon Glazov
Genre: Weird Fiction / Satire
Pages: 224
Rating: 4 of 5

Since I’m not up on 1970’s Italian political history, I doubt that I caught all of the satirical nuances in this Italian novel that recounts a “mass psychosis” tragedy in Turin (as researched and retold by our intrepid narrator). That said, it still works as a creepy piece of weirdness with themes of voyeurism, paranoia, insomnia, uncaring powers, and more.

It became clear to me what was going on fairly early in the book (intentionally on the author’s part, I think). However, the characters’ unwillingness or inability to do anything about it or even acknowledge it is what provided a lot of the disturbing atmosphere. Also, I’m not quite sure what the author intended “the library” to represent in his original context, but it came across as a prescient warning against some of the darker aspects of social media. I’m really not sure what else I can describe without starting to give things away, but if you’re in the mood for something strange and paranoid check this out.

Ukraine

Title: The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine
Author: Serhii Plokhy
Genre: History
Pages: 536
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I highly recommend this book for anyone trying to understand the current situation in Ukraine. The author covers over 2,000 years of history, from the time of Herodotus (400’s BC) through sometime in mid-2020.

The understanding that I gained from this is that Ukraine’s existence as a completely independent or sovereign nation has been sporadic at best until 1991 (though not through lack of desire or trying). Throughout most of recorded history, ethnic Ukrainians have been under the rule of Vikings, Poland, Lithuania, Habsburgs / Austria-Hungary, the Russian Empire / USSR, and others in various combination at various times…it’s pretty complicated, but the whole “it’s always been part of Russia” or “they’ve always been Russians” line is absurd.

While someone who supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would probably reject Plokhy’s interpretation of events out of hand, it seemed relatively evenhanded and well-argued to me. Unfortunately, I think that a total lack of individual citations (at least in the Kindle edition that I read) in favor of a massively detailed bibliography at the end was a poor choice with such a controversial topic. Lack of detailed citations aside, this is an excellent and enlightening overview of Ukrainian history.

On a personal note: postings here will continue to be sporadic as life continues to be crazy. My wife’s health is still very poor, and the doctors now suspect MS, so please keep us in your prayers.

Not a Tame Lion

This is actually a re-posting from about 4 years ago, but I just finished the entire Narnia series for the who-knows-how-manyth time and wanted to share it again because it is more true than ever:

Though the seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia are written as fairytales for children, they follows C. S. Lewis’s philosophy that, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest,” and “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” While I have not yet reached the “fifty and beyond” category, I enjoy these books a little more each time I read them (and I have read them every two or three years since I was in first grade).

The Chronicles of Narnia tell the tale of a magical world of talking animals in which British children have a variety of adventures (defeating a witch, winning the throne for the rightful king, rescuing a lost prince, etc.). Though children from our world are the main characters, the true hero of the series is Aslan, The Great Lion and Son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea. Aslan is clearly a Christ character, intended by Lewis to be “a supposition” of what it would look like for the Son of God to appear in a different world. Lewis recognized that “The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.” Each book, besides being a fun fantasy story, explores a different aspect of Aslan’s character.

  • In The Lion the Witch an the Wardrobe he is the Redeemer
  • In Prince Caspian he is the One who sends help
  • In The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ he is the Guide and Renewer.
  • In The Silver Chair he is the One who guides with his Words.
  • In The Horse and His Boy he is the One in sovereign control of events.
  • In The Magician’s Nephew he is the Creator.
  • In The Last Battle he is the One who ushers his children into paradise.

…and so much more. These books have grown with me through increased understanding in a way described by Aslan in Prince Caspian:

“Aslan,” said Lucy “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

The only book in the series about which I have some reservations is The Last Battle. It contains breathtaking descriptions of paradise but also emphasizes some confused pluralistic ideas that depart from biblical orthodoxy. It is still worth reading, but those who take seriously Jesus’ claims to be the only way to heaven (e.g. John 3:16-18) should approached it with discernment.

The order in which I have listed the books above is C. S. Lewis’s original publication order, and I personally think they are far better when read in that sequence rather than the “chronological” order currently used by publishers. If nothing else, Lewis clearly intended The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to be the readers’ first impression of Aslan. And I will leave you with part of Aslan’s beautiful introduction from that book. Come meet Aslan:

“…Aslan is a lion–the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”
“I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”

Two Strange Classics

I finished one more book in each of the two reading challenges that I’m doing this year. Both are classics and both left me with a bit of that “What did I just read?” feeling. From The Official TBR Pile Challenge I read this collection of classic short stories:

Title: The Overcoat and Other Stories
Author: Nikolai Gogol
Genre: Classic Russian Weirdness
Pages: 144
Rating: 2 of 5

I have read a couple other books by Gogol (Dead Souls and Taras Bulba) and enjoyed them well enough (if enjoy is the right word for appreciating the bleakness that is Russian literature)….this collection, not so much.

Gogol’s work is generally oddly satirical, and in these stories he cranked up the odd part to the max. A couple of them crossed the line into completely surreal nonsense territory which just isn’t my samovar of tea.

Add to this the fact that Gogol is a Russian-speaking (albeit Ukrainian-born) author who frequently pokes fun at Ukraine (which he mostly calls “Little Russia”) and it just wasn’t a good time to be reading this. I have friends in Ukraine who are now refugees and others who spent weeks hiding in their house for fear of being robbed and/or shot by the Russian occupiers, so a Russian-speaker poking fun at Ukrainian culture is the last thing that I wanted to read, even if he is doing it with some level of fondness.

The second book that I read was this modern classic for the Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic category at the Back to the Classics 2020 Challenge:

Title: Picnic at Hanging Rock
Author: Joan Lindsay
Genre: Classic Australian Weirdness
Pages: 225
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I hope that this author thanked her editor for convincing her to drop the final chapter and leave the mystery at the heart of the story open-ended. As it stands, this reads like a bleak Unsolved Mysteries true-crime docudrama.

Three teenage girls and a teacher disappear on a school picnic in the Australian brush, and we get front row seats to the effect it has on their posh boarding school and the surrounding community. Along the way we get a few weird clues about what happened to the missing people with mysterious asides from the author, but the story cuts off with a mass of loose ends. The fact that we don’t get a nice, neat wrap-up puts the focus on well-written characters in heartbreaking situations and makes it the haunting modern classic that it is.

An attached essay gives the gist of the original ending which has since been found. It seems like weirdness just for the sake of weirdness that sucks any reality out of the rest of the book. I would advise against reading it (or a summary of it). Just let the loose ends haunt you…

Two Medieval-ish Reads

Today I will be reviewing a couple books that I received from NetGalley. Both will be published on May 12, 2022. Thank you to the authors and publishers for the free eARC’s (or however you spell the plural of eARC). This in no way affects the content of the reviews.

Title: Equinox
Author: David Towsey
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 368
Rating: 4 of 5

I was first drawn to this book by its fantastic cover, which I’ve left larger than usual so that you can admire it. Choosing this book by its cover worked out just fine for me.

I love good worldbuilding, and this book has it! In this world each body is two distinct people, one during the day and one at night. Our protagonist(s) is (are?) Cristophor the methodical special investigator (witch-hunter) by night and his “day brother” Alexander the musician/libertine. It’s an interesting concept that the author fleshes out pretty well. As far as culture and religion, the world closely resembles an early 18th century Europe where malicious magic is most definitely real.

The plot revolves around Christophor’s investigation into dangerous witchcraft in a small border town where he is a stranger. The pacing is on the slow side for most of the book, which I don’t mind at all. However, the end felt extremely rushed and bombastic by comparison, leaving me a bit confused over the actual role and motivation of some of the characters. Notwithstanding pacing issues and a few loose ends, I enjoyed this (rather dark) fantasy and would highly recommend it to fans of the genre. I would love it if the author wrote more books set in this world!

Title: Howls from the Dark Ages: An Anthology of Medieval Horror
Editors: P L McMillan & Solomon Forse
Genre: Horror
Pages: 354
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This is another book that I was initially drawn to by its cover. I appreciate the blend of Medieval and Lovecraftian elements. However, in this case, choosing a book by its cover didn’t work out so well.

Any horror anthology is a mixed bag, and in this one the mixture just wasn’t to my taste. Quite a few of the stories featured gross body horror and/or blasphemy (of the “God is evil / indifferent / non-existent” variety), and I’m a fan of neither. That said, there are definitely some well-written stories here, and it was interesting to see how the various authors play with elements from the life and religious practices of the whole Medieval time period (the stories are not strictly confined to the early-Medieval “Dark Ages”).

Your enjoyment of the book will depend a lot on your taste in horror. I think that someone from a Roman Catholic background might have even more problems with the book than I did, and someone who likes “gross horror” would probably enjoy it a lot more.