Speak of the devil…

The Devil Aspect: A Novel by [Russell, Craig]Title: The Devil Aspect
Author: Craig Russell
Genre: Psychological Horror
Pages: 414
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Psychiatrist Viktor Kosárek believes that horrific criminal behavior is caused by the “devil aspect,” a dark facet of human nature present in everyone to some degree. His new appointment to the Hrad Orlu Asylum allows him to study Europe’s most infamous violent criminals: the “The Devil’s Six.”

The story drips with atmosphere. The asylum is a sinister castle (an Elizabeth Bathory-like nobleman figures in its past) in 1930’s Czechoslovakia (Nazis casting covetous eyes on the Sudetenland) with a serial killer known as Leather Apron on the loose in Prague. The plot splits its focus between the hunt for Leather Apron and Viktor’s sessions with each of the Devil’s Six as he attempts to isolate the “devil aspect.” Add a sprinkling of Slavic mythology, and chilling, gory details abound.

As much as I appreciated the atmosphere, this was only a 3.5 for me. Some of the Devil’s Six material (chilling as it was) felt like it contributed little to the plot. The pacing was slow until the end which was rushed and unsurprising (the foreshadowing of Leather Apron’s identity was fairly obvious much too early in the book). I was also very annoyed by the final coda as it eliminated a certain intriguing ambiguity. Overall, this is worth reading if you are a fan of psychological horror, but I feel like it could have been a lot better in terms of plot & pacing.

The Horror! The Horror!

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by [Hochschild, Adam]Title: King Leopold’s Ghost:
A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
Author: Adam Hochschild
Genre: History
Pages: 306 (plus citations, etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

In the mid-1800’s, Leopold II, King of the Belgians, claimed a massive chunk of central Africa. With the help of trading companies and their armed “sentries” he brutally exploited the people in it for his own personal enrichment while convincing the world that he was a great humanitarian. King Leopold’s Ghost examines the sordid history of the Belgian Congo, the land that inspired Joseph Conrad’s bleak Heart of Darkness.

Hochschild covers everything from the early exploration of central Africa to the results of the international protest movement spearheaded by journalists and Protestant missionaries and all the horror in between. Reading about exploitation, mutilation, and death on such a massive scale is not easy, but is crucial to understanding the history of European colonialism in Africa and its continuing impact.

The author definitely “has it out” for Leopold, but I’m not sure how you would be completely dispassionate about someone responsible for deaths on a scale similar to Hitler or Stalin. Africans are presented in a balanced manner, emphasizing their victimization without falling into the idealized “noble savage” mindset or ignoring the complicity of some in the slave trade. Europeans and Americans working against the cruelties of Leopold’s rule are portrayed sympathetically without glossing over their blind spots, weaknesses, and limited impact.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of Africa and/or European Colonialism. The overall style is a very readable “popular level” but features high quality primary-source research.

(Also, this is my sixth book read for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge).

Historical Hamartiology

Against God and Nature: The Doctrine of Sin (Foundations of Evangelical Theology) by [McCall, Thomas H.]Title: Against God and Nature:
The Doctrine of Sin
Author: Thomas H. McCall
Genre: Theology (Hamartiology)
Pages: 448
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/25/19 (Thank you to the author & publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review)

Last year I reviewed another book from this Foundations of Evangelical Theology series: Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture. That book was by John S. Feinberg, the general editor of the series, and I found it helpful and academically rigorous. I was a bit less impressed with this offering by Thomas H. McCall.

McCall deals with the doctrine of sin; not a pleasant topic, but crucial to a proper understanding of the Christian faith. He approaches the topic with an Arminian point of view, which sets him apart from many of the other authors in the series as they tend to be more Reformed. Though I lean in a more Reformed direction myself, that wasn’t what irked me about this book (though he may have spent more of his page count than was strictly necessary on “Arminian vs. Reformed” related concerns).

The book covers pretty much all the facets of the doctrine that you would expect, but there was relatively little direct exegetical interaction with Scripture compared to other broadly Evangelical systematic theology books I have read. McCall spends much of his page count surveying what different councils and theologians have said about the topic down through history. While I appreciate the use of historical theology (something Evangelical theologians aren’t always very good at), I do not appreciate how it dominates the book. After the second chapter which surveys what the entire Bible says about sin, there is little directly digging into the grammar, examining possible cross-references, or other biblical theology concerns. Instead we get to hear what the Council of Carthage, Augustine, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, etc. thought about the matter.

This focus on historical theology means that most of the time the book is dealing with Scripture at (at least) one remove, occasionally going into Scripturally iffy territory (e.g. some death existing before the fall). I did find some of the discussions profitable (e.g. the section on original sin helpfully explored many possible understandings of the difficult concept), but overall I was disappointed by the relative scarcity of detailed exegesis or direct appeal to Scripture.

Obsessive Discontent

Image result for Jude the obscure book coverTitle: Jude the Obscure
Author: Thomas Hardy
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 414
Rating: 3.5

I read this book for the Classic Tragedy category at the Back to the Classics Challenge. I didn’t know much about it going in other than that it was supposed to be horribly depressing and scandalously frank in its discussion of sexuality for a Victorian Era book…and that’s exactly what it was. Hardy attacks the snobbery of academia and the institution of marriage. I’m not sure whether he is entirely against the idea of marriage as a lifelong commitment or just the way that he sees it being manipulated and abused.

Our protagonist, Jude, spends his whole life discontented and obsessed. His life swirls around the effects of a hasty marriage to a pig farmer’s daughter (Arabella), inability to progress in his scholarly pursuits (due largely to the elitist nature of Christminster / Oxford), and a romantic infatuation with his brilliantly unconventional, narcissistic cousin (Sue). Jude wallows in misery as he repeatedly chucks aside anything good he has going for him in order to pursue immediate lusts or sulk over his dissatisfaction. Between Jude’s obsessive discontent, Arabella’s manipulations, and Sue’s love of being loved (with minimal reciprocation), ugliness and tragedy abound.

Overall, the book is pretty horrifying, but I have to give it credit for a certain kind of realism. As a pastor who does a fair amount of counseling, most of the life-ruining decisions made by the people in this book are sadly familiar. Hardy and I would probably analyze the problems and moral course of action differently in some cases, but the man certainly understood the dark, selfish side of human nature.

Fantastical Fiction

Title: The Big Book of Classic Fantasy
Editors: Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Genre: Fantasy(ish)
Pages: 848
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: July 2, 2019 (Thank you to the editors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Having read and greatly enjoyed Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s massive anthology entitled The Weird, I jumped at the chance to review another one of their tomes. This volume collects “classic fantasy” stories (and excerpts from longer books) ranging in date from the early 1800’s up until World War II when fantasy became more of a defined genre. The blend of authors includes classic fantasy/sci-fi/weird writers, classic literary legends dabbling in the fantastical, and many authors less known to the English-speaking world.

The editors’ most basic definition of fantasy is: “…any story in which an element of the unreal permeates the real world or any story that takes place within a secondary world that is identifiably not a version of ours, whether anything overtly ‘fantastical’ occurs during the story.” This allows for a wide variety of stories, very few of which fall into high fantasy, swords & sorcery, or other popular modern sub-genres.

A large number of the stories have a folklore, fairy-tale, or tall-tale feel with all the incoherencies and random digressions common to them. Quite a few are unclassifiable other than to say that they contain a fantastical element…maybe magic realism or surrealism? Some are more didactic like beast-fables or political satire that dips into the fantastical. A few I would classify solidly in the weird/horror or pulp sci-fi categories rather than fantasy, but such things are always a matter of opinion.

Overall, the editors have produced an interesting blend of the fantastical. How much you enjoy it may depend on your taste and how willing you are to give fantasy an extremely broad definition. Personally, I like a fairly coherent story even when I read fantasy, so the high number of folkloric tales, surreal stories, and small excerpts from longer books sometimes got on my nerves. However, if you’re into fantastical stories or “fantasy before there was a fantasy genre” this book is well worth your time.

Three Pulps

Ever since stumbling across Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest at a library book sale six or seven years ago, noir/hardboiled pulp  has become one of my favorite escapist genres (especially the stuff written from the 1920’s-50’s). I already reviewed a couple noir tales this year – here are three more:

Night Has a Thousand Eyes: A Novel by [Woolrich, Cornell]Title: Night Has a Thousand Eyes
Author: Cornell Woolrich
Audiobook Narrator: Angela Brazil
Genre: Psychological (Supernatural?) Thriller
Pages: 256
Rating: 4 of 5 for the story / 2 of 5 for the narration

Cornell Woolrich doesn’t rise to quite the same level as Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but I would probably place him in my top five pulp authors. He tends to use odd descriptions  that are more weird or unintentionally humorous than atmospheric (e.g. “her hand closed on the bill like a voracious pink octopus”), but those aside he can plot a brooding, paranoid crime story with the best of them.

This book differed a bit in subject matter from other Woolrich stories I have read. The same dark paranoia pervaded the plot, but the subject matter centered around prophecy and fate. What do you do when the date of your death is foretold by a man who has repeatedly predicted the future with perfect accuracy? Is there really something supernatural at work or is it some sort of scam? The book was perhaps a bit overlong for extended brooding on this theme, but overall it was an interesting psychological thriller (and had fewer of his weird similes and metaphors than usual).

The narrator of the audiobook I listened to was not great. I think she was trying to affect a cynical, world-weary tone, but it mostly came off obnoxiously flat and slow. Shatnerian pauses added to the painfulness and I ended up listening to it at 1.5X speed to get it up to a more normal reading rate. Avoid the Audible version!

Title: The Getaway
Author: Jim Thompson
Genre: Crime Fiction
Pages: 224
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Jim Thompson has a knack for bringing seedy, nasty criminals to life. He plays on readers’ interest in reading about the underworld but without making the criminals into likeable, sympathetic people. His criminals might have a lot of charisma, but he fully portrays their self-centered exploitive destruction of themselves and the innocents around them.

I have previously read his treatment of con men in The Grifters and a serial killer in The Killer Inside Me. In The Getaway we are treated to an inside look at a husband-and-wife pair of bank robbers. The downward spiral to destruction is typical well-written Jim Thompson, but the ending detours into an unusual dystopian setting. There is an odd shift in tone, but I think it worked very well and rounded out the story satisfactorily. If you like crime noir, this one is well worth reading.

Zero Cool: A Novel by [Crichton, Michael, Lange, John]Title: Zero Cool
Author: John Lange (Michael Crichton)
Genre: Action Thriller
Pages: 240
Rating: 2.5 of 5

While he was in med school Michael Crichton earned money by writing under the pseudonym John Lange. According to some things I read, these books were meant to be cheap, trope-y pulp thrillers completely lacking in originality. If that was truly the goal…bullseye.

Zero Cool features your basic “random guy gets caught in the middle of criminal shenanigans” pulp plot. He hits all the tropes of femme fatale, bizarre Bond-style villains, a mcguffin, amazingly convenient coincidences, etc.. The dialogue in this sort of book is seldom realistic due to smart-mouthed, quippy characters, but Lange/Crichton’s dialogue settled for stilted instead of snarky. This was definitely on the very low end of the pulp fiction scale and probably not worth your time unless you’re a big Michael Crichton fan who is curious about his earliest work.

Using Koine Responsibly

Title: Exegetical Gems from Biblical Greek –
A Refreshing Guide to Grammar and Interpretation
Author: Benjamin L. Merkle
Genre: Biblical Studies / Translation Theory
Pages: 192
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 6/16/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

This book targets a specific audience: people who have already studied at least a semester or two (or equivalent) of koine Greek. If that’s you and you’re looking to enhance your understanding and/or brush up on your long-neglected biblical Greek, I highly recommend this book (also this youtube video). If you don’t fit into that category (which might be almost everyone who regularly reads this blog…sorry to bore you!), this probably isn’t worth your time. It might give you a basic overview of the kinds of things that knowing koine Greek can (and can’t) help you with in New Testament exegesis, but the frequent Greek text and technical jargon will probably make it an exercise in frustration.

The book is divided into many short chapters that cover grammatical issues related to case, tense, voice, mood, etc. Each chapter describes the concept under discussion and provides an example of how understanding it can help in accurate interpretation in a sample passage. There were a few times where I would have liked to see a little bit more thorough argumentation in the interpretation section, but that is the price of brevity I suppose. I appreciate that the author carefully avoids reading more information into a grammatical construction or vocabulary choice than is actually warranted. The whole book illustrates how a knowledge of biblical Greek should be used in ministry, avoiding the pitfalls of common exegetical fallacies.

Overall, this is an excellent resource for sharpening your understanding and use of Koine. If I were a professor of biblical Greek this would be at the top of the collateral reading list for second year (or maybe even second semester) students.

The KJV & Vernacular Translations

Title: Authorized – The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible
Author: Mark Ward
Genre: Theology / Translation Theory
Pages: 154
Rating: 5 of 5

“If the King James Version was good enough for the Apostle Paul, then it’s good enough for me!” Obviously, this statement is (mostly) a caricature of the KJV-Only or KJV-Superiority positions. However, it demonstrates that when it comes to discussing the merits of various English Bible translations, reasonableness and graciousness far too often take a backseat to emotional appeals and exaggerated claims (from both sides).

This book is probably the most gracious, even-handed discussion of the King James Version that I have ever read. It starts with a thoughtful chapter on “what we lose as the the church stops using the KJV” – mostly a sense of historical value, continuity, uniformity, and grandeur when it comes to the language.

The author then goes on to talk about what we gain by having the Bible translated into modern vernacular. He discusses the biblical rationale behind having vernacular translations. For example: the New Testament was originally written in vernacular Koine Greek rather than grand/archaic Classical Greek, the Apostle Paul repeatedly speaks of the necessity of communicating in easily understandable language , the KJV itself was intended to be a vernacular translation back in 1611, the continuously changing nature of language, etc. He answers common objections and shows the reliability and spiritual value of many modern language translations (e.g. the ESV & NIV) without disparaging the historic value or scholarship of the KJV.

He does not go into detailed scholarly arguments about manuscripts and textual families since this is a popular level book (and those arguments are tremendously overblown). However, he does provide this website as a resource to show the slight differences between the different editions of the Greek New Testament that underlie the KJV and more modern translations.

If you are curious about Bible translation or think that the KJV is the only “definitive” English Bible translation fit for mature Christians I urge you to read this book. If you are interested in a slightly more scholarly approach that does go into manuscript/textual issues I would also highly recommend The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism by D. A. Carson. It is quite a bit older (1978), but the general principles discussed in it still hold true.

A closing quote from the book:

I want to change the paradigm we’ve all been assuming. Stop looking for the “best” English Bible. It doesn’t exist. God never said it would. Take up the embarrassment of riches we now have. Make the best use of our multi-translation situation, because it’s truly a great problem to have. (p. 137)

Bio of a Megalomaniac

Title: The Great Successor:
The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un
Author: Anna Fifield
Genre: Biography
Pages: 336
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 6/11/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Given the snarky subtitle of this book I wondered if it was going to be a bit on the satirical side. However, the author provides a serious, well-researched portrait of the eccentric North Korean dictator. She is able to offer some details of his early childhood, school years in Switzerland, rise to power, and political maneuvering at home and in the international community.

Rather than portraying Kim Jong Un as nothing more than a deranged lunatic, Fifield seeks to understand him. She strikes an excellent balance between recognizing him as a canny politician and as a brutal, entitled egomaniac who couldn’t care less about the suffering he inflicts on others to maintain absolute power, an obscenely luxurious lifestyle, and the “adoration” of his people.

Personally, I would have liked to learn a little more about what is faced by religious people (who must be in the extreme minority) in North Korea, but maybe there was no way for the author to obtain this information. Overall, I was very pleased with this book as it provided an informative overview of this horrible little man and his devastated country while seeming to maintain a bit more objectivity than is usual with this topic.

Manipulation & Exploitation

Little Drummer GirlTitle: The Little Drummer Girl
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage
Pages: 430
Rating: 2 of 5

I recently noticed that this book had been turned into a TV series, so I decided that it was finally time to knock it off the TBR list. I was curious to see how LeCarré would handle a female protagonist since all the other books I have read by him are pretty male-centric. It turns out that Charlie, a sex-obsessed actress who dabbles in radical left-wing politics, spends most of the book being manipulated and exploited by Israeli intelligence and Palestinian terrorists. Most of the time she is running on pride, stunned shock, lust, and/or anger. Hardly a strong female lead, but most of LeCarré’s male protagonists are some combination of angry, pathetic, and loathsome, so I suppose Charlie is par for the course.

The overall plot of the book follows Charlie’s “recruitment” (aka kidnapping, browbeating, flattery, and Stockholm syndrome) by Israeli intelligence and her subsequent mission to help track down a major Palestinian terrorist operating in Europe. Throughout the book Palestinians are portrayed relatively sympathetically (and who doesn’t feel compassion for people in refugee camps?). Israelis, on the other hand, are seen primarily through the lens of angry statements of suffering Palestinians and in the person of pragmatic, brutally efficient agents. Ethical explanations by the Jewish characters are little more than casual dismissal of concerns (“we’re saving Jewish lives”) or disillusioned near-agreement with the Palestinians that Israel’s behavior is from the same mold as that which perpetrated the Holocaust. To me the whole thing came off very one-sided and anti-Israeli.

Overall, this book featured the usual gritty realism at which LeCarré excels (thus 2 stars instead of 1). However, a plot centering on the manipulation and exploitation of a young woman and laced with anti-Israeli rhetoric was just plain angering and depressing. LeCarré is always on the disillusioned/angry side, but this was a bit much even for him.