Cynicism & Greed

Title: Père Goriot
Author: Honoré de Balzac
Translator: Burton Raffel
Genre: Classic
Pages: 384 (actual novel only 217)
Rating: 2.5 of 5

My first reading of a Balzac classic left me with mixed feelings about whether I ever again want to read anything from his large body of work. The writing is witty (but melodramatic), the characters are interesting (but detestable), and the overall plot rings true to life (but the seedier, morally repellent side of life).

The novel explores how love, both familial and romantic, can be exploited for personal advancement. It reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s essay on The Inner Ring (see also The Room Where It Happens from Hamilton). However, where Lewis warns against the compromises and moral corruption that come with obsessively trying to be part of the inner ring, Balzac’s characters simply take a c’est la vie attitude toward it. Balzac invites us along on the young Rastignac’s journey toward embracing this cynical approach to life. I’m half tempted to pick up another book or two from Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine to see what happens to some of these characters, but I have a hard time reading literature where such absolute moral bankruptcy is treated as par for the course.

The edition that I read contained about 150 pages of essays and analysis. Personally, I found most of them to be pretentious rather than helpful: the kind of essays where the author wants to talk about a pet theme, theory, or philosophy and finds a way to impose it on Balzac or his writing (eisegesis rather than exegesis as we would have said in biblical hermeneutics 101). If literary analysis is your thing, you may get more out of them than I did.

Overall, I’m glad I tried a new author but I don’t think he’s my cup of tea.

Also, I’m using this for my Classic by a New-to-You Author category over at the Back to the Classics challenge.

Abandoned Plans

Nuking the Moon: And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left on the Drawing Board by [Vince Houghton]

Title: Nuking the Moon:
And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left on the Drawing Board
Author: Vince Houghton
Genre: Laughable & Disturbing History
Pages: 305 (plus bibliography etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

As the subtitle indicates, this is a compendium of intelligence and military plans that were never put fully into action, though many of them did make it off the drawing board. Most of them combine elements of hilariously stupid and horrifyingly “why would you think that was a good idea (ethically or practically)?!” I mean: exploding bats, glowing foxes, nuking hurricanes, flying ICBM’s around on hovercraft…your tax dollars at work! Much of it was a reminder of just how MAD the Cold War was.

The author, who is a curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., appears knowledgeable and offers numerous links to his (sometimes heavily redacted) primary source material. There were times when I felt like he was trying a little too hard to be funny, but I think his snarky delivery works for the most part. Overall, the book is an amusing yet terrifying reminder that desperate people can try some incredibly stupid things [snarky comment about recent events in DC redacted], and it’s well worth reading.

Best & Worst of 2020

This year I read 116 books with a total page count of 44,163 (~381 pages/book). I now present you with my fifth annual best and worst reads of the year lists (titles linked to my full review if I wrote one; excludes re-reads; presented in groups of five unranked with an additional honorable/dishonorable mention; & starting with the “worst of” list so we can end on a positive note…no purchase necessary; void where prohibited):

Worst of the Year

  • The Comedians by Graham Greene – Our selfish creep of a narrator pursues his sordid little affair amidst the horror of Papa Doc’s Haiti. The secondary characters and setting were interesting, but being in that jerk’s head the whole time was depressing and gross.
  • The Beetle by Richard Marsh – An ambiguously-gendered were-beetle isn’t a strong enough antagonist to make this book worth the boring Victorian nonsense in the middle and abrupt deus ex machina ending.
  • The Necromancers by Robert Hugh Benson – The author seems more interested in warning you against spiritualism than in actually writing a scary story.
  • The Last Ritual by S. A. Sidor – I set the bar for tabletop-game-inspired books pretty low, but this one still failed to clear it with watered-down Lovecraft in a flimsy 1920’s setting.
  • The Scapegoat by Daphne DuMaurier – With this wholly unbelievable tale, DuMaurier becomes the second author ever to appear on both the “best” and “worst” lists in the same year (John LeCarré achieved the same feat last year).
  • Dishonorable Mention: Gwendy’s Magic Feather by Richard Chizmar – The author tried to do way too much in this disappointing sequel to the excellent Gwendy’s Button Box.

Best Non-Fiction

  • Before You Vote by David Platt – This is the rarest of finds: a Christian book about participating in elections that truly places godly principles above partisan agenda!
  • The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark – The author makes a valiant (largely successful?) attempt at describing the complex events and motivations that led to World War 1.
  • Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre – Ben Macintyre makes the list three years running with another excellent true espionage tale: how a corpse sowed disinformation in the Nazi war machine.
  • The Trolley Problem by Thomas Cathcart – This book cleverly stretches out the classic ethical dilemma of “the trolley problem” to provide a whirlwind introduction to various ethical theories and theorists
  • Can We Trust the Gospels by Peter J. Williams – The author ably argues from a variety of external sources and internal characteristics that it is reasonable to trust the veracity of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
  • Honorable Mention: Linguistics and New Testament Greek edited by David Alan Black & Benjamin Merkle – This was like a step back into seminary with my favorite professor (who passed away before this book was written, but is mentioned in it several times)

Best Fiction

  • Reimagining Lovecraft by Victor LaValle, Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Kaitlin R. Kiernan – An excellent collection of four novellas that self-consciously riff on Lovecraft while subverting his bigotry. (I would also highly recommend Cassandra Khaw’s followup novella A Song for Quiet)
  • Reggiecide by Chris Dolley – The Reeves & Worcester series is a hilarious pitch-perfect steampunk sendup of P. G. Wodehouse (& golden age detective stories), and this novella is my favorite of the lot.
  • Scythe by Neal Shusterman – I liked each book in this trilogy less than the one before it, but I’m a sucker for good worldbuilding and this first book in the series has it in spades.
  • The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – This seeming “murder at the manor house” kind of mystery evolves into some sort of sinister Groundhog Day.
  • My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier – Is she a murderer and manipulator or a misunderstood and maligned widow? DuMaurier shows her genius for creating tension and ambiguity.
  • Honorable Mention: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe – Any other year this horrific but (extremely) dry fictionalized account of the 1665 Black Plague pandemic in London would have seemed boring, but it was fascinating to see the parallels in human thought and behavior to our current situation.

And that does it for reading in 2020. My reading goal for 2021 is my old standby of 100 books with an average of at least 300 pages/book. It’s a goal that I usually pass without a lot of effort, but I see no reason to pressure myself and turn enjoyable reading into a high-pressure duty. My Goodreads TBR currently has 100 books on it (at around 38,000 total pages) and I’d like to do most of my reading from there (or at least from books that I already own). Given my usual reading habits, I have my doubts whether that will actually happen. Anyway, it’s way past my bed time so, Happy New Year!

Flat Franchise Fiction

The last three free eARC books I received from NetGalley were franchise fiction, and I’ll be reviewing two of those today. No one expects great literary genius from shared-world, movie spinoff sci-fi, but I was hoping for a little better than what I got. Thank you to the authors and publishers for the free copy via NetGalley (this in no way affects the content of the reviews as we shall see).

Marvel's Black Panther: Sins of the King Episode 1 by [Ira Madison III, Mohale Mashigo, Geoffrey Thorne, Tananarive Due]

Title: Marvel’s Black Panther: Sins of the King
Authors: Ira Madison III, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, Mohale Mashigo, Geoffrey Thorne
Genre: Superhero
Pages: 183? (not quite sure…numbering in the eARC was squiffy)
Rating: 2.5 of 5

The episodic plot of this book would make a decent movie or TV series. There’s plenty of action, intrigue, brooding, magic-science… all the usual superhero stuff. I would pay to watch that movie.

However, what works in a movie, cartoon, or comic book does not necessarily work in a novel. Much of the writing was stilted and clunky (to say nothing of uneven since different “episodes” were written by different authors working singly or in pairs). To be charitable I’ll assume the problem lies in the genre rather than the authors’ writing talent…I have tried a couple other (DC) superhero novels in the past and found their writing similarly awkward. Perhaps superhero stories need to be told in a visual medium?

Title: From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back
Authors: Too many to list
Genre: Star Wars Fanfiction Short Stories
Pages: 576
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Any short story collection is a mixed bag, and the mixture in this collection tends toward the “meh.” You can only read so many stories about the evacuation of Echo Base, Vader force-choking an incompetent, or the chaos caused by Lando’s announcement that the Empire has taken over Cloud City before they all start blending together.

To me, the more memorable stories focused on what main characters were doing/thinking when off-camera. Perhaps some of the ones from the “everyman”/”everystormtrooper” point of view would have stood out if there hadn’t been so many of them (and let’s not forget the compulsive need to check the “woke” box by having all 3 or 4 instances of (non-explicit) sex/romance be LGBTQ). Overall, if you’re a big Star Wars fan, you’ll probably enjoy at least some of this collection, but (as with many thematic anthologies) you should only read a story or two at a time to keep the “didn’t I just read this?” feeling at bay.

Merry Christmas!

The “classic” Gospel passages for the Christmas story are Matthew 1 & Luke 1-2, but my favorite is John 1. It’s short on details, but John speaks poetically of its cosmic significance:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

Merry Christmas!

She kills them one by one…

Title: The Bride Wore Black
Author: Cornell Woolrich
Genre: Pulp Mystery/Crime
Pages: 288
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future release date for this edition: 1/5/21 (Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

I like reading Cornell Woolrich (in small doses). His plots are improbable, some of his metaphors are absurd, and his writing just isn’t up to the level of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but that man knew how to ratchet up the tension in his cheap noir potboilers.

The Bride Wore Black follows a fairly typical Woolrich plot of a group of seemingly unrelated people being killed off one by one while a police officer tries to discover and stop whatever is going on. The author’s usual steadily building suspense is definitely there, though not quite as much as in Rendezvous in Black or Night Has a Thousand Eyes. He varies how much he shows us of the planning and execution of each murder, which keeps things from becoming too repetitive (and he has a trick or two up his sleeve as well). The final explanation comes a bit out of left field (and if it weren’t for the book’s title it would be even more so), but it (mostly) makes sense and provides a satisfactory noir ending.

As far as this new edition from Otto Penzler, there’s not much to say. The only new material is a competent introduction by Eddie Muller who extolls Woolrich without getting too hero-worshippy and without major spoilers. It’s a nice uncluttered edition of a pulp classic.

Back to the Classics Signup

I’ve been having computer problems for the last week, so it’s been a little longer than usual between posts. I now have a fully functioning laptop again, so here we go. As I was going over my TBR list for next year, I realized that it has a lot of classics on it. So, I decided to see if Karen @ Books and Chocolate was running her excellent Back to the Classics challenge again this year, and she is!

The challenge involves completing classic books (50+ years old) in as many of the 12 sub-categories as possible for entries in a prize drawing (Click the picture I lifted from her page to go there, see full details, and sign up). For me, it’s mostly a fun incentive to include some “serious literature” in my reading and an opportunity to see what classics others have enjoyed.

You don’t have to choose which books you will be reading at the start of the year, but I like to start with a list of possibilities. This year I actually have two possibilities for each category… we’ll see how it goes. Without further ado, the list:

  1. A 19th century classic –
    The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
    Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (Tr. Rosemary Edmonds)
  2. A 20th century classic
    For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
    On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  3. A classic by a woman author –
    Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
    Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
  4. A classic in translation –
    The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Tr. David McDuff)
    The Divine Comedy by Danté Alighieri (Tr. Dorothy L. Sayers)
  5. A classic by BIPOC author –
    Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley & Malcolm X
    Chaka by Thomas Mofolo (Tr. Daniel P. Kunene)
  6. A classic by a new-to-you author –
    Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (Tr. Burton Raffel)
    Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
  7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author –
    Bleak House by Charles Dickens
    The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
  8. A classic about an animal or with an animal in the title –
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
    The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
  9. A children’s classic –
    The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
    Through the Looking Glass
    by Lewis Carroll
  10. A humorous or satirical classic –
    The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
    A Tale of a Tub & Other Works by Jonathan Swift
  11. A travel or adventure classic –
    The Travels by Marco Polo (Tr. Nigel Cliff)
    The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett
  12. A Classic Play –
    The Miser by Jean-Baptiste Molière (Tr. John Wood)
    The Pot of Gold by Plautus (Tr. E. F. Watling)

“Did God really say…”

Earlier this week, I said I would probably follow up on my post about reading through the Greek New Testament and looking at all the listed variants. Well, here you go!

If you listen to certain skeptics, they will tell you that there are thousands upon thousands of differences between ancient New Testament manuscripts and that this means we have little to no idea of what the original text actually says. While they might be technically right about the thousands of variant readings, the vast majority of those differences are simply variations in spelling that have no impact on how a given passage is understood or translated (think: honor vs. honour or night vs. nite). These and similarly insignificant variants do not appear in the apparatus of the edition I read, but the more significant ones that were listed (and there are still hundreds of them) are still not of a nature that calls into question the message of Scripture. As I read through them, almost all fell into one of these broad categories:

  • Which title(s) of Jesus or God are used in the passage and in which order do they occur? (e.g. Lord vs. God / Jesus Christ vs. Christ Jesus vs. Lord Jesus Christ)
  • Does the writer use the first person or second person plural? (i.e. we vs. you – which are one letter off and sound virtually identical in later dialects of Koine Greek)
  • Is the wording in parallel passages (e.g. in the synoptic Gospels) identical or merely similar (but virtually identical in meaning)?
  • Which conjunction or preposition (most of which are very flexible and heavily overlap in meaning) is used to connect clauses?
  • Is the subject or object implied or explicitly stated? (e.g. He said vs. Jesus said vs. Jesus said to him)
  • A little more rarely, but a bit more impactful: Which verb tense/voice/mood (or noun case/number/gender) is used? (e.g. we have peace with God vs. let us have peace with God)

In many instances, it is easy to determine which reading is original with a high degree of certainty (based on age, character, and geographic distribution of manuscripts as well as an understanding of scribal practices). However, even when this is not the case, the nature of these variants is not such that it radically alters or calls into question the meaning of the text.

There are a few variants that are a verse long, and two that are longer than a verse (the longer ending of Mark and the story of the woman caught in adultery). Most of these are easily resolved by looking at the textual evidence, and none of them contain a teaching whose presence or absence changes a teaching of the faith (unless you are “snake-handler,” but that practice is a gross misapplication of those verses anyway).

This is kind of “pet topic” of mine, so I’m trying to refrain from babbling on or going into a lot of technical jargon. Short version: personally looking at all the variants listed in the UBS5 Greek New Testament confirmed/increased my confidence that we do indeed have a highly reliable, absurdly well-preserved New Testament.

NT in Koiné

Title: The Greek New Testament (GNT)
Edition: United Bible Society, 5th Edition (UBS5)
Genre: Sacred Scripture
Pages: 886 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

For my Bible reading this year, I decided to read the New Testament in the original Koiné Greek. Because it’s been 10+ years since my last seminary class, I used the electronic Logos software edition where tapping on an unfamiliar word provides its gloss & parsing (I used this feature a lot in Luke, Acts, Hebrews, & 2 Peter).

Reading Scripture in the original language doesn’t give it some sort of magical power boost, nor is each Greek word brimming with extra-deep insights unavailable to the uninitiated. However, as with reading any work in its original language, you do get a better feel for the flow of thought, vocabulary choices, and idiosyncrasies of the individual writers…and there is a certain thrill to reading the words as read by the original recipients unmediated by someone else’s translation.

But, how do we know that what we’re reading almost 2,000 years later hasn’t been corrupted (on purpose or accidentally) over generations of hand-copying? Well, we have thousands of hand-written manuscripts containing all or part of the New testament, with dates ranging from early 2nd century through about the 16th, and they overwhelmingly agree with each other. Obviously, some minor differences between manuscripts occur, but in scholarly editions of the Greek New Testament (like the UBS5 I read) there is an apparatus at the bottom of each page the notes significant variations between manuscripts and lists the evidence for each possible reading (the Nestle-Aland 28th Edition (NA28) lists more variants, but most of the additional ones are of little interest/importance for translating the text).

As I read, I looked at each of the variants recorded in the UBS5, often consulting Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament which provides a scholarly rationale for which reading is deemed most likely to be original (and the level of certainty). In college and seminary I was always taught that most variants have little to no effect on the meaning of the verse in which they occur, and none of them affect a major doctrine of the faith. After this read-through, I have to agree with that assessment…not that I really doubted it, but I wanted to see for myself. I’ll post more on this later in the week, but right now I’m too tired to go into it.

For now, I’ll end by saying that this was a great experience, and if you’ve had enough college/seminary classes to be comfortable with it, I highly recommend trying to read through the whole GNT (examining each variant not necessary…that’s just my own interest in textual criticism popping up).

Eternity Ends

Title: The Chronicles of Castle Brass (Eternal Champion Volume 15)
(Count Brass; The Champion of Garathorm; The Quest for Tanelorn)
Author: Michael Moorcock
Genre: Trippy Dark Fantasy
Pages: 432
Rating: 3 of 5

This volume concludes the story of the Eternal Champion (so apparently he isn’t quite as eternal as his title suggests?). The three stories contained in the volume focus primarily on Dorian Hawkmoon, but three other aspects/incarnations/versions/whatevers of the Champion play major roles: Erekosë, Corum, and everyone’s favorite emo albino, Elric (complete with evil soul-sucking black sword).

These stories would make little sense without reading previous volumes in the series that deal with these four aspects of the Champion. In the Orion/White Wolf volume numbering that would be volumes 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, & 12 (and possibly 13 which I haven’t read). Other volumes seem to have little or no bearing on the overall story arc (and many of the stories in them seem to have been clumsily reimagined/rewritten as Eternal Champion stories simply to lengthen the series).

The stories in this volume a pretty much par for the course. There’s plenty of trippy jumping between planes of the multiverse, some repetition of previous stories from a slightly different point of view, some escapist swords and sorcery style action, a lot of moping and whining from the Champion about being the pawn of fate, and quite a bit of preachiness from the author.

The series ends appropriately for the direction it has been taking since the beginning. It wasn’t actually as unremittingly dark as I was expecting, which was a nice surprise. However, it did turn into a paean to atheism (and disparagement of theism) that echoed somewhere between William Ernest Henley’s Invictus and John Lennon’s Imagine. While not entirely surprising, this is diametrically opposed to my own worldview of a sovereign, loving God, so this somewhat curtailed my enjoyment of the book.

Overall, if you’ve read all about Erekosë, Corum, Elric, and Hawkmoon this is worth your time to round out the storyline.