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.

Two for the Book Challenges

Over the last month I checked off a book from each of my two reading challenges. From the Back to the Classics 2022 Challenge I finished the “Classic in a Place You’d Like to Visit” category with…

Title: The Hobbit
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 287 (10:25 audiobook length)
Rating: 5 of 5

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this book since first reading it in 2nd or 3rd grade, but I still enjoy it every time. As Tolkien’s friend, C. S. Lewis, said: “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.”

It is written with a much younger audience in mind than The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, but (to quote Lewis again), “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children isn’t a good children’s story in the slightest.” It is less grim than his other writings. The overall tone could even be described as charming with small dashes of silly, but Tolkien’s favorite theme of the courage and perseverance of “regular people” (with a few nudges from Providence) shaping the course of events is in full bloom.

This time through, I listened to the Audible audiobook version narrated by Andy Serkis. He did an excellent job with all the voices (not just Gollum) and narrated with enthusiasm and humor. It’s well worth a listen.

My read from The Official TBR Pile Challenge was something completely different, but still a 5-star book:

Title: Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism
Editors: Elijah Hixson & Peter J. Gurry
Genre: Biblical Studies
Pages: 352 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

New Testament textual criticism is the branch of biblical studies that seeks to ascertain the original wording of the NT writings, especially in places where there are differences between ancient manuscripts. Extreme skeptics like Bart Ehrman try to make it sound like the text is hopelessly corrupt, as if it had been passed along and muddled in the party game “telephone.” Such an analysis is needlessly pessimistic. However, in their zeal to disprove it, some Christian apologists grossly overstate, oversimplify, and/or misuse the text-critical evidence of the accurate preservation of New Testament Scripture.

The essays in this book offer a corrective to such mistaken arguments while demonstrating the high textual accuracy of the New Testament we possess and the place of textual criticism in ensuring this. This area of study has always interested me, and I thoroughly enjoyed these essays, learning about the topic in more detail than what could be covered in my introductory seminary classes.

While I highly recommend this book, it isn’t necessarily a good introductory book if you have no background in the topic. For that I would suggest The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration by Bruce Metzger & Bart Ehrman (from before Ehrman went off the hyper-skeptical deep end).

Also, on a personal note: postings here will continue to be sporadic as we are still dealing with major health problems triggered by my wife’s bout with covid.

Conference Book Haul!

My wife and I just got back from the Together for the Gospel conference, and in addition to hearing a lot of good speakers (John Piper, Shai Linne, Sinclair Ferguson, David Platt, etc.), we acquired a ton of good books…not quite literally, but I did just about injure myself trying to get the book suitcase into and out of the car (yes, we took an empty suitcase to bring back books).

I tried to take a picture of the conference bookstore, but with thousands of pastors, theology nerds, and related bibliophiles wandering around a conference center ballroom with about a dozen publisher tables, multiple kiosks, and scattered piles of heavily discounted books it was impossible. Plus there were palettes of 2-3 free books per attendee before each session.

Here are the ones that are immediately going onto my TBR (two are from a used bookstore we hit up after leaving the conference…shouldn’t be too hard to pick them out):

The TBR just keeps growing

…and here are the ones my wife is adding to her list and collection of teaching resources:

Plus plenty of other freebies, duplicates, church resources, and more:

No such thing as too many books!

Best conference ever!

The Serpent’s Doom

Mankind fulfilled the devil’s wish
As God the Son lay dead.
Yet hell’s hosts quaked; their doom was sealed.
Their “vict’ry” brought but dread.

It was God’s plan, this sacrifice,
Incarnate God had bled.
The wrath of God against our sins
Was borne by Christ instead.

But three short days death held the Son.
Then God’s plan moved ahead
As Jesus Christ stepped from the tomb
And crushed the serpent’s head.

(See Genesis 3:15, Acts 2:22-24, 1 Corinthians 15:20-26)

Conflict Within and Without

Title: The Martyr
Author: Liam O’Flaherty
Genre: Depressing Historical Fiction
Pages: 216
Rating: 3 of 5

This fictionalized account of the capture of a small town in Ireland requires a basic understanding of the Irish Civil War. The edition that I read included a basic overview in the introduction, but my knowledge of Irish history was sketchy enough that I had to supplement from Wikipedia.

This falls into the “War is stupid and depressing and twists people into something ugly” category of war fiction rather than the “honor, heroism, and glory!” variety. O’Flaherty examines the character, motivations, and ideologies of people on both sides of the brother-against-brother conflict. Characters range from a vengeful atheistic communist soldier of fortune to a pacifistic religious officer with a martyr complex (both on the same side) and every shade of zealotry, nationalism, and religiosity in between. There is as much conflict within most of the characters as there is between characters (pacifism vs. patriotism, vengeance vs. love, faith vs. fear, etc.)

After a lot of angry disillusioned “ugliness and heartbreak of civil war and macho soldiers” stuff, the story devolves into an increasingly outrageous faith vs. atheism confrontation which ends with neither side in a particularly flattering light. I appreciated the book for a look at a part of history I hadn’t read about before and for some astute observations about the darker side of human nature, but it certainly wasn’t an enjoyable read.

My Grandfather’s War

Title: Damn Lucky: One Man’s Courage During the Bloodiest Military Campaign in Aviation History
Author: Kevin Maurer
Genre: WW2 History
Pages: 320
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: April 19, 2022 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via Netgalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

My grandfather was the waist gunner in a B-17 during World War 2. He rarely talked about it, but after he passed away we found a certificate declaring him a member of “The Lucky Bastard Club” for surviving 25 missions over Germany. When I saw this book about a pilot (John “Lucky” Luckadoo) with the same experience I had to read it.

The overall style of the book is a bit uneven. Parts read like a relatively impersonal history book and other parts seem very informal and reads a bit like a “docudrama” in that the author seems to be filling in what his subjects “must have been thinking/feeling” (unless he’s working off amazingly detailed interviews from someone with an incredibly precise memory).

Stylistic oddity aside, I found the subject matter riveting. The author manages to give a sense of the helpless doing-my-duty-and-waiting-to-die feeling of flying repeated WW2 bombing runs. It’s truly amazing that anyone survived the “magic number” 25 missions! This is well worth a read if you are into military history.

Please Help If You Can

I’ve never done this before on this site, but a close family friend is in desperate need of help. He has been dealing with cardiac and GI issue for the last year, including three major life-saving surgeries and at least four other hospitalizations. During that time, he has been largely unable to work…a couple times he was cleared to work, secured a job, and ended up right back in the hospital within weeks.

His recovery is not going well, as he is still frail, needs a cane to get around (and he is only 40ish years old), and seems to spend more time in the hospital than out. my family and I are trying to raise funds via GoFundMe for his ongoing medical bills and other monthly bills so that he at least doesn’t have that pressure nagging at him along with everything else.

Thank you for any help you can provide via this link!

Here is a picture of Dan from a couple years ago when we had a family outing to see the latest Star Wars movie:

Slightly Pretentious Cosmic Horror

Title: Black Wings of Cthulhu 3
Editor: S. T. Joshi
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 400
Rating: 3 of 5

Despite having Cthulhu in the title, the Black Wings short story collections feature fewer appearances of Lovecraft’s alien-god-monsters than most cosmic horror collections. They aren’t absent by any means, but S. T. Joshi tends to avoid stories that he considers to be mere Lovecraftian pastiches. Instead, he collects stories that deal with cosmic horror themes (e.g. the utter insignificance of humanity in the face of a vast uncaring cosmos) that may or may not feature Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, and company and may or may not be set in Innsmouth, Arkham, Miskatonic University, etc.. That said, there is enough Lovecraftian name dropping that a person not acquainted with the mythos will probably miss the full impact of some of the stories (some of it gets pretty meta).

One of the things that I like about cosmic horror is that (unlike a lot of horror) it doesn’t usually rely on graphic gore or sex for its thrills and chills. Unfortunately, that doesn’t hold true for all of the stories in this collection, so that was a bit of a disappointment. Overall, this was a pretty typical S. T. Joshi-edited collection. Personally, I think that he is a bit of a snob who takes Lovecraft waaaay too seriously, but he does know how to pick well-written stories.

(Also, this is another book off my list for The Official TBR Pile Challenge.)

Two More Classics

Finished two more books for the Back to the Classics 2022 Challenge!

Title: The Travels
Authors: Marco Polo & Rustichello da Pisa
Genre: Classic Travelogue
Pages: 480
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I read this for the Nonfiction Classic category, but there were enough obvious fabrications and scholarly footnotes noting embellishments and errors that its “nonfiction” status is borderline. However, that’s pretty par for the course for ancient and medieval history books (looking at you, Herodotus!), so I think it counts.

I have read a few other ancient and medieval histories (Thucydides, Arian, various sagas, etc.) and found them mostly informative and enjoyable. Marco Polo, not so much. The seemingly endless catalogue of the climate, religion, political allegiance, natural resources, and market goods of each region through which he travels becomes tedious very quickly.

There are some descriptions of interesting (though not always especially believable) political maneuvering, cultural practices, legends, and cityscapes. You get some sense of what life was like in and around Kublai Khan’s empire but filtered through Marco’s (and Rustichello’s) sycophancy, self-aggrandizement, and ethnocentrism.

I can see why people of his era who were unlikely to ever travel into “mysterious and exotic” Asia would be fascinated by this eyewitness testimony, but it falls kind of flat today unless you’re a historian trying to pick it apart for historical goodies.

Title: Ivanhoe
Author: Sir Walter Scott
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 528
Rating: 3.5 of 5

For the 19th century classic category, I reread Ivanhoe. This is a melodramatic, over-romanticized “Knights in shining armor and outlaws in Sherwood Forest” piece of escapist fluff…and it’s pretty fun if you want a mindless classic read. The author does deal with a serious theme of the evils and foolishness of antisemitism (somewhat muddied by his own portrayal of an important Jewish characters using all the prevailing negative stereotypes), but mostly the book is an excuse to string together all the “age of chivalry” and Robin Hood tropes that you can imagine. If you are willing to roll your eyes and go with the flow, it’s worth a read (though I prefer R. L. Stevenson’s The Black Arrow).