The Play’s the Thing…

Title: Twelve Angry Men
Author: Reginald Rose
Genre: Play
Pages: 96
Rating: 5 of 5

This play demonstrates the positives and negatives of trial by jury as twelve jurymen determine the fate of a young man accuses of first-degree murder. Eleven men enter the room ready to send him to the chair, with only a single juror wanting to discuss the matter enough to establish or dispel reasonable doubt. Tension rises and tempers flare in the ensuing debate as the life of the accused hangs in the balance. Along the way we see apathy, prejudice, malice, reason, and compassion on display. This thoughtful play is well worth reading or, better yet, watching (the 1957 movie version is fantastic). I’ll be using this for the Classic Play category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

THE POT OF GOLD AND OTHER PLAYS : THE PRISONERS; THE BROTHERS MENAECHMUS;  THE SWAGGERING SOLDIER; PSEUDOLUS Translated by E. F. Watling by Plautus -  Paperback - 1965 - from Dromanabooks (SKU: 33720)

Title: The Pot of Gold and Other Plays
Author: Plautus
Translator: E. F. Watling
Genre: Plays (obviously)
Pages: 268
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The last time I tried reading ancient comedic plays I found it boring and annoying overall. Humor does not usually translate well from one language and culture to another, but these plays be Plautus gave me the occasional smile and chuckle (some of the “fourth wall breaks” were quite funny). I am not sure how much of that was the original author’s wit and how much was the translator’s rather free rendering. The translation is prose (the original is poetry), and some of the clever turns of phrase seem anachronistic or otherwise unlikely to be original.

The plots occasionally bordered on the nonsensical, but overall were reminiscent of plot devices (re)used in Shakespeare’s comedies. The treatment of women and slaves as well as some other cultural aspects made me cringe, but also provided a window into what it was like to live in the ancient world. Overall, it was a good reading experience.

Misc. Mini Reviews

It’s that time of year when blogging takes a back seat to holiday family fun and a busy church calendar, but today I have enough time for a few mini-reviews.

Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by [A. Lee Martinez]

Title: Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain
Author: A. Lee Martinez
Genre: Humorous Sci-fi
Pages: 320
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This reminds me of several comedic movies that feature a “genius supervillain” as the protagonist (Megamind, Despicable Me, Doctor Horrible’s Sing-along Blog). The main difference is that Emperor Mollusk is actually (almost) as smart and competent as he thinks he is (having once actually conquered the earth, though he is now semi-retired). The plot is a bit episodic and silly, but the oversize egos, snappy repartee, tongue-in-cheek sci-fi tropes, etc., make this a lot of fun if you like that sort of humor.

Silverview: A Novel by [John le Carré]

Title: Silverview
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage “Thriller”
Pages: 224
Rating: 3 of 5

John LeCarré’s final (posthumous) book doesn’t add much to his body of work. It features the usual brooding disillusionment of “was all this spy stuff worth it?” “do I really believe in anything” and his newer books’ recurring theme of “modern government ideology is incoherent.” Most of the story follows the point of view of a minor secondary player who is largely in the dark, providing some “what is going on here?” interest (but not much). If you’re really into LeCarré, give it a shot, but don’t expect much of anything new.

Title: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
Author: James Hogg
Genre: Classic Gothic Novel
Pages: 265
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Who knew that you could write a Gothic novel based on some sort of warped hyper-Calvinist theology? The author weaves a dark tale of the depths to which someone can sink if they misapply the doctrines of divine election and justification (“God has declared me eternally righteous, so everything I do must be his will…”). The story is told first as a third-person report of murderous events and then largely retold in the first person by the self-righteous cause of it all (urged on by a Mephistophelian “friend”). Read it an interesting exploration of religious mania or just a quirky Gothic novel. Either way, it’s worth a read.

All About Whales! (oh, and Ahab…)

Moby-Dick

Title: Moby Dick
Author: Herman Melville
Genre: American Classic
Pages: 464
Rating: 3.5 of 5

To me, Moby Dick feels like an excellent novella that bloated into an unfocused novel. Melville lards on every “fact” and opinion about whales, whaling, and whalers that he can think of, moralizing as he goes. Some of it is relevant, some of it is interesting, some of it is disturbing, but the cumulative effect is to submerge the compelling main story in a sea of tangential boringness.

That said, I can’t think of a better portrayal of the destructive and contagious nature of bitterness, obsession, and vengeance than Captain Ahab and his crew. I won’t even try to analyze what (if anything or many things) the white whale stands for (ask Ron Swanson) since I think that Ahab’s prideful self-obsession and clearly expressed rage against God and nature are the main point.

Overall, this richly deserves its place as an American Classic, even if I wish Melville had saved 80% of his whales and whaling info for a separate non-fiction book.

(Also, I will be using this for my Classic About an Animal category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021)

Right & Justice vs. Law & Lawyers

56155633

Title: Bleak House
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 830
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Everyone loves to rip on lawyers, and Charles Dickens was no exception. Much of this book revolves around a lawsuit in the courts of chancery that has dragged on for generations, destroying lives through false hope in a system of law and lawyers that has little to do with right and justice. Dickens’ views on the English legal system are best summed up in this quote:

“The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.”

Dickens is in top form throughout the book: devastating social critique, politely sarcastic turn of phrase, absurd yet somehow familiar characters, heart wrenching tragedies, amazingly convenient coincidences, and all. In spite of the name, this isn’t Dickens’ bleakest book. He achieves a nice balance between sweet selfless heroes, well-meaning but foolish people, and loathsome villains. For the most part, this is the kind of book where (as Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism would say): “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.” Some romantic situations may be a bit off-putting to modern sensibilities (e.g. guardian-ward & cousin-cousin), but they should be understood as a product of its era (and ended up playing out better than I hoped).

I highly recommend this book for fans of Charles Dickens. If you’re new to his work you might want to start with A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and/or A Tale of Two Cities, but I’d say that this one comes in close behind those. (Also, I will be using this for my Classic by a Favorite Author category over at the Back to the Classics 2021 Challenge)

A Ghost Story?

This is a lightly edited re-post of a review from four years ago. Last week, my oldest daughter and I listened to the Audible version of this on our way to “Halloweekends” at Cedar Point, and it was every bit as good on second reading/hearing. (Also, I’ll be using it for my 19th Century Classic category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.)

The Turn of the Screw

Title: The Turn of the Screw
Author: Henry James
Genre: Classic/Ghost Story?
Pages: 96
Rating: 5 of 5

I love an unreliable narrator, especially in a creepy story, and this classic novella hit the spot! The introduction (which seems like it is meant to be a framing story but the frame is never completed) is a bit long-winded but the first person account by a governess of her ghost-haunted employment is satisfyingly creepy. It’s a bit melodramatic, but that plays right into the ambiguity of the story.

The big question is: are the ghosts real or is the governess mad or is she a manipulative liar, or some combination of the above? I can’t decide whether the ghosts are meant to be real or not, but I’m pretty sure there’s something very wrong with the governess (who is the only person to ever acknowledge seeing the ghosts). Her paranoia, the way she jumps quickly to dramatic conclusions, the way she dotes on people she has just met and deliberately says things to get them “on her side,” and the way she is quick to cast the same people as villains if they cross her all remind me very much of a couple narcissistic pathological liars I have known. Whatever the case, if you like unreliable narrators in creepy stories (or just good creepy ghost stories for that matter) this is a must read!

If you’ve read this, what did you think? (My brother-in-law informs me that it’s just ghosts…but his only reasoning is that he doesn’t like stories where the ghosts aren’t real so he doesn’t want it to be anything else.)

As a bonus, here’s a picture of me, my oldest daughter, and our new photobombing friend at Cedar Point:

May be an image of one or more people, people standing, monument and outdoors

Happy Reformation Day!

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’”

– Martin Luther

Two Weird Reads

Title: Area X – The Southern Reach Trilogy
(includes Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Genre: Trippy Weirdness
Pages: 608
Rating: 4 of 5

There is a fine line between “fascinatingly weird” and “trippy to the point of being incomprehensible.” Jeff VanderMeer balances right on that line. His mind-bending blend of Lovecraftian elements, Area 51/Men-in-Black style conspiracy, and alien landscape exploration makes for a disorienting reading experience. This guy knows how to write weird fiction! If you need your stories wrapped up in a nice little bow, this is not for you, but I think that there are enough answers and hints for a satisfying reading experience that will keep you pondering long after you finish.

Title: Entropy in Bloom
Author: Jeremy Robert Johnson
Genre: Gross, Angry Weirdness
Pages: 280
Rating: 2 of 5

Amazon insistently recommended this book based on my reading of Lovecraftian cosmic horror…stupid Amazon! There were some memorable stories in here, but they relied mostly on gross and morally shocking elements for their punch, rather than anything particularly Lovecraftian. Mostly it felt like the author was morally outraged about something (President George W., reality TV, straight-edge macho culture, addiction, etc.) and decided to write a shocking story that pushed it to a weird and horrifying extreme, including plenty of profanity and sexuality. Overall, I can see how some people would really like this, but it was just too angry and gross (viscerally and morally) for me.

None Dare Call It Treason

Title: God Against the Revolution:
The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the American Revolution
Author: Gregg L. Frazer
Genre: History (plus Theology & Philosophy)
Pages: 280
Rating: 5 of 5

“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” – John Harrington

This book helped fill a gap in my understanding of US history. In school (kindergarten through master’s degree), I remember only one teacher who (rather tentatively) expressed any serious doubt over whether the American Revolution was morally justifiable. After all, if you’re a red-blooded American, you know that the patriots were absolutely justified in their rebellion against English tyranny. We won against all odds, so that must prove that God was on our side.

If such a facile argument doesn’t work for you, this book provides interesting historical (and theological/philosophical) information that should be integrated into your understanding of the American Revolution. Gregg Frazer dares to stir the waters by presenting the arguments and life circumstances of colonists who stayed loyal to their king.

Because most writings by such people were repressed and destroyed (so much for freedom of speech and of the press), he is limited in his sources to the writings of five or six loyalist clergymen. He presents their arguments largely without direct comment on whether or not he finds them convincing (though he is clearly sympathetic to some of them). The arguments are divided into categories: biblical, theoretical on the nature of government, legal, rational regarding the American situation, and rational based on colonial actions.

Personally, I was most interested in the biblical arguments since I views the principles and commands of Scripture as my basis for morality. As I suspected, most arguments revolved around Romans 13:1-7 & 1 Peter 2:13-17 which both command Christians to be law-abiding citizens/subjects who honor, obey, and pay taxes to the existing authorities (with the exception that laws commanding a Christian to directly disobey God must be disobeyed with a willingness to accept the consequences -e.g. Acts 5:29, Daniel 3:15-18). The point was well-argued, and I myself have preached/taught these passages in a similar way (to similar, though less violent, pushback from “patriotic Americans”)…there truly is nothing new under the sun!

Overall, this is a fascinating book. If you are at all interested in the American Revolution and/or the nature of a Christian’s responsibility toward human government, I challenge you to read it. Don’t settle for the “fan fiction” version of American history. You may or may not agree with the loyalist clergy view of “God against the revolution,” but for the sake of intellectual integrity, it is good to hear out both sides in a complex issue. And of course, examining the triumphs and failures (military, cultural, moral, etc.) of the past helps us make wiser decisions in the present.

Two Creepy Reads

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Title: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Author: Jack Finney
Genre: Classic Sci-Fi
Pages: 224 (6 hours, 39 minutes Audiobook as read by Kristoffer Tabori)
Rating: 4 of 5

The otherworldly “what is going on?!” suspense of this book hits the exact tone that I like when I read a creepy story. Sure, everyone knows the gist of the story by now, and the “science” is a bit hokey and dated, but it can still ratchet up the tension if you take it on its own terms.

That said, one aspect of the story grated a bit, even if it was a “product of its era.” The protagonist’s leering, condescending tone toward women got old really fast (and the bored, macho tone of the audiobook narrator really emphasized it). At one point his love interest kind of calls him on it, but her overall demeanor goes right along with it.

Overall, if you want a quick suspenseful read and are willing to overlook a bit of B-movie style hokeyness and product-of-its-era casual sexism, this is worth your time.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus Audiobook By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley cover art

Title: Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus
Author: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Genre: Classic Gothic
Pages: 222 (8 hours, 20 minutes Audiobook as read by Simon Vance)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I know that this classic is widely lauded as a work of pioneering genius. I even understand why: we have the cool backstory of how the book came to be written, we have the hubris of Victor Frankenstein, we have the tragic “monster,” we have the question of who is to blame for the “monster’s” evil, and we have all kinds of other great themes and wonderfully gothic moral dilemmas. But for all that, I have a hard time appreciating this book. This is the third time I’ve read this, and it just annoys me every time no matter how much I want to like it.

Victor Frankenstein is such an absurdly overemotional, egotistical drama queen that he just makes me roll my eyes in disgust the whole time. He seems to spend most of his time swooning, languishing near death, and moping around because he’s just soooo overcome with emotion. He’s so self-absorbed that he can’t be bothered to tell anyone that there’s a powerful, murderous “creature” on the loose thanks to him…not even when it could potentially save people’s lives by doing so! Victor’s melodramatic twit act that morphs into vengeful monomania when there’s nothing left to lose is just too much gothic nonsense for me.

Betrayers’ Backstory

The Horus Heresy Volume One (The Horus Heresy Omnibuses Book 1) by [Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Ben Counter, James Swallow]

Title: The Horus Heresy, Volume 1
Authors: Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Ben Counter, & James Swallow
Genre: Grimdark Military Sci-Fi
Pages: 1433
Rating: 3.5

The first time I started reading the Horus Heresy series, I quickly gave up in annoyance. Having now read quite a few Warhammer 40,000 books and become acquainted with the lore and characters, I decided to give it another shot. This time I found it much more interesting, approaching it as a detailed history of how the WH40k universe came to be.

The five books in this omnibus (Horus Rising, False Gods, Galaxy in Flames, The Flight of the Eisenstein, and Fulgrim) tell a coherent story of pride, corruption and betrayal from multiple points of view. I am more convinced than ever that there are no “good guys” in this universe. There are just bad guys who maybe mean well (the xenophobic manifest-destiny-spouting loyalists bringing the “light” of atheism and iron-fisted rule to the galaxy) and worse guys (rebelling against the Emperor but for purely corrupt, increasingly vile reasons). If you don’t mind ultraviolent grimdark, it’s an interesting escapist read complete with huge action set pieces and rather ham-handed philosophizing on honor, religion, tyranny, etc.

As far as style goes, the storytelling is competent (though some authors overuse certain stock phrases or words) and the plotting of the series so far is well executed. Some key events are covered in multiple books from different points of view but never in a way that is needlessly repetitious. There is a decent balance between each book telling of a complete enough set of events that you don’t feel cheated of an ending and each book contributing to the overall story arc of the series.

Random aside: One fun thing to watch for as you read is that Graham McNeill seems to slip in little nods to other SF&F…in Fulgrim I spotted a subtle passing reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and in his Forges of Mars omnibus I noticed an homage to The Princess Bride and one or two other little things.

As I’ve said before with other Warhammer-related books, this isn’t great literature by any stretch of the imagination, but it is entertaining escapist sci-fi.