TBR Challenge Wrap-up

Several weeks ago, I posted my last few reviews for the Official TBR Pile Challenge, and now it’s time for the wrap-up post. You can find my original list (with all linked reviews) here.

The books on the list ended up being a pretty mixed bag for me.

On the negative side:

  • It confirmed that I really don’t like Philip K. Dick (even if his concepts are interesting)
  • I still think that S. T. Joshi is incredibly pretentious (though he does know how to spot quality writing)
  • An early 1980’s anthology provoked some nostalgia for my first forays into sci-fi, but I realized just how obnoxiously preachy a lot of it is.

On the plus side:

  • I now want to read more by Georgio de Maria (The Twenty Days of Turin was excellently weird)
  • I thoroughly enjoyed something completely different from my usual reading with Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine)
  • Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism provided a much more nuanced version of some basic info I got in seminary.

The challenge was a nice “push” to read books that I kept putting off. Thanks to RoofBeamReader for hosting it!

TBR Challenge Complete!

Over the last month I finished the last three books for the Official TBR Pile Challenge, so here are the reviews (I ended up using my two alternate titles to reach 12 books, but I may still get back to the two that I skipped):

Title: Fear and Trembling
Author: Søren Kierkegaard
Translator: Alastair Hannay
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 160
Rating: 3 out of 5

In this classic, Kierkegaard ponders the nature of faith by considering the account of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). Themes include the relationship and relative merits of faith and reason, the necessity of resignation before faith can occur, belief in “the absurd” (that which is humanly impossible), and more.

I found some of it hard to follow as Kierkegaard is largely interacting with Hegel and I’m not really up on Hegelian philosophy. On top of that, he is writing as the pseudonym/character “Johannes de silentio” whose thoughts do not necessarily fully reflect Kierkegaard’s own (he’s an odd writer/thinker). This is my second time reading Kierkegaard and I don’t know if I’ll dip into his writings again…I think I prefer my theology/philosophy a bit less convoluted.

Title: The 1980 Annual World’s Best SF
Editor: Donald A. Wollheim (Ed.)
Genre: Sci-fi Short Story Anthology
Pages: 284
Rating: 2.5 of 5

It has been quite a while since I read this sort of anthology, though I read them all the time as a teen. It gave me a sense of nostalgia when I started, but that eventually gave way to annoyance. The stories are well-written and memorable (I actually remember reading one of them in a different collection 20+ years ago) but almost all of them were some variation of “let’s imagine a world in which Christianity and/or sexuality and/or the nuclear family has evolved away from the pathetically narrow-minded present.” I don’t know if that was the prevailing theme of late-70’s/early-80’s sci-fi or just the editor’s pet theme. After a while it just kind of felt preachy.

Title: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine 
Author: Gail Honeyman
Genre: Some sort of Psychological Fiction?
Pages: 352
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This isn’t my usual kind of read, and I don’t remember how it originally ended up on my TBR, but I’m glad that I read it. I’m not sure how much I can say about it without spoilers as gradually getting to know Eleanor (a socially awkward loner who repeatedly assures us that her life is fine) and seeing her personal development is the whole point of the story. I don’t know if someone with so little self-awareness and understanding of the real world (to say nothing of other issues) would really be as independent as Eleanor is, but her struggles, tragedies, and triumphs provide a moving tale of humor, heartbreak, and hope.

TBR Challenge Signup

My TBR enters the year 103 books long (not counting all the half-remembered mental “I should read that!” thoughts). Some of those books have been on there for over a year, so this challenge seems like good motivation to knock a few of those off the list. Thanks to Roof Beam Reader for hosting, and if you are interested in participating click this picture that I lifted from the challenge signup post.

My challenge list of twelve books (plus two alternates) that have been on my TBR for over a year:

  1. Black Wings of Cthulhu 3 by S. T. Joshi (Ed.)
  2. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
  3. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman: A True Story of Friendship and Espionage by Robert Lindsey
  5. Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard
  6. The Martyr by Liam O’Flaherty
  7. The Miser and Other Plays by Jean-Baptiste Molière
  8. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism by Elijah Hixson & Peter J. Gurry (Eds.)
  9. The Overcoat and Other Stories by Nikolai Gogol
  10. A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
  11. The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio de Maria
  12. William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner by William Hague

Alternates:

  1. The 1980 Annual World’s Best SF by Donald A. Wollheim (Ed.)
  2. Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, the Pastor Who Defied the Nazis by Matthew D. Hockenos

TBR Challenge Wrap-up

Thanks to RoofBeamReader for hosting the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge! It gave me a great excuse for finally reading a bunch of books that had been hanging out on my bookshelves unread. I finished 13 of the books on my original list (11 of 12 on the main list plus both alternates), which counts as challenge completed! Here’s the list (click titles for full review):

Main TBR

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – This is the one I didn’t get to.
  2. Atonement by Ian McEwan – I finished this one a few days ago, but haven’t reviewed it. Short version: very purple prose, flat unlikeable characters, and a sucker punch of an ending
  3. The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction by James M. Cain – a decent short story collection by one of the crime/noir masters that contained some of his early, less grim writing alongside the crime fiction
  4. The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason: Book 1) by Erle Stanley Gardner – a competent tough guy, lawyer, investigator novel…definitely more hardboiled and unscrupulous than the later, fatter TV version
  5. Corum: The Coming of Chaos (Eternal Champion Sequence: Volume 7) by Michael Moorcock – One of the better collections in the Eternal Champion cycle
  6. Ever by Gail Carson Levine – Not as charming as her fairytale-based books, but an interesting take on ancient culture and mythology
  7. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild – Difficult to read about such brutality, but an important work on the exploitation of colonial Africa
  8. The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré – Probably my least favorite LeCarré book to date; basically an anti-Israeli screed
  9. Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey – Less spy-oriented than the title suggests, but a fascinating, unusual view of the American Civil War (and a blow to the “Lost Cause” narrative)
  10. The Roads Between the Worlds (Eternal Champion Sequence: Volume 6) by Michael Moorcock – Typical Moorcock preachiness with minimal connection to the Eternal Champion
  11. Song of Kali by Dan Simmons – Depressing xenophobic horror
  12. The Tyranny of the Night (The Instrumentalities of the Night: Book 1) by Glen Cook – An odd alternate history-ish story in which all the names have been changed and all the major events of the Middle Ages happen simultaneously

Alternates:

  1. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng – An interesting premise (missionaries to faerie) spoiled by a pervasive theme that makes pretty much everyone go Eeeeewww!
  2. Unusual Uses of Olive Oil by Alexander McCall Smith – the fourth installment in the Professor Dr. Von Igelfeld series; less entertaining than the first three

Two from the TBR

I just knocked two more books off my TBR Pile Challenge list. Both were a bit on the”pulp” side, and each is part of longer loosely-connected series.

Title: The Roads Between the Worlds
(Eternal Champion Series, Volume 6)
Author: Michael Moorcock
Genre: Sci-fi
Pages: 391
Rating: 3 of 5

This volume in the Eternal Champion series does not  feature any of the better-known iterations of the Champion (e.g. Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon). In fact, other than the concept of the multiverse and preachy idealizing of anarchic government, most of the plot elements that pop up in Eternal Champion stories are absent or receive only the subtlest of nods.

The three novellas that make up the volume are on the more sci-fi side of Moorcock’s writing and largely involve political maneuvering and/or revolution on alternate versions of the earth. As is usual with Moorcock, the plots are an odd blend of pulp sci-fi and preachiness. If you’re really into the Eternal Champion series, this is probably worth reading, but for casual readers something featuring Elric, Corum, or Hawkmoon would be a more entertaining introduction to Moorcock’s style.

The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason Series Book 1) by [Gardner, Erle Stanley]Title: The Case of the Velvet Claws
(Perry Mason, Book 1)
Author: Erle Stanley Gardner
Genre: Mystery/Crime Fiction
Pages: 193
Rating: 3 of 5

My past exposure to Perry Mason was the older, fatter, gentler version in the later TV shows; this book features the hard-boiled original. Perry Mason’s code of ethics dictates that he works for the interest of his client regardless of how nasty (or even guilty) they might be, and this client is as dishonest and manipulative as they come. The plot twists and turns through a pretty middle-of-the-road pulp mystery. There’s none of the snappy snark that you get from authors like Raymond Chandler, but it’s a decent tough-guy detective/lawyer story.

2019 TBR Pile Challenge

One of my goals for this year is to read some of the books that have been hanging out on my shelves and/or TBR for a while. To make that goal a little more concrete, I’m signing up for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge hosted by RoofBeamReader.com. The challenge is to post a list of 12 books that have been on your shelf and/or TBR for at least a year. Finish all 12 books by the end of the year (2 alternates allowed in case there are a couple you just can’t get through) and you are entered in a $50 Amazon gift card drawing.

To knock even more books off the TBR, I decided not to “double dip” with the books that I’ll be reading for the Back to the Classic Challenge, so none of the books on here are classics (other than some genre fiction old enough to be considered classic). Without further ado, here’s the list:

Main TBR

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. Atonement by Ian McEwan
  3. The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction by James M. Cain
  4. The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason: Book 1) by Erle Stanley Gardner
  5. Corum: The Coming of Chaos (Eternal Champion Sequence: Volume 7) by Michael Moorcock
  6. Ever by Gail Carson Levine
  7. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
  8. The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré
  9. Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey
  10. The Roads Between the Worlds (Eternal Champion Sequence: Volume 6) by Michael Moorcock
  11. Song of Kali by Dan Simmons
  12. The Tyranny of the Night (The Instrumentalities of the Night: Book 1) by Glen Cook

Alternates:

  1. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng
  2. Unusual Uses of Olive Oil by Alexander McCall Smith

Back to the Classics Wrap-Up

Thank you to Karen at Books and Chocolate for hosting the Back to the Classics 2022 challenge! I completed all 12 categories this year for three entries in the prize drawing (I can be contacted here on the off chance that I win). My reads for the year were:

Giving Hemingway Another Shot

Title: For Whom the Bell Tolls
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Genre: American Classic about Spain
Pages: 480
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I try to give most well-known classic authors at least a couple tries before I decide that they’re not for me. After all, theoretically, there must be something of value in their writing since it’s considered classic. This was my third Hemingway and probably my last.

I found the general subject matter interesting: a guerrilla’s-eye-view of the Spanish civil war. Stylistically, the famed stripped-down Hemingway style neither amazes nor annoys me (though the deliberate self-censorship featuring phrases like, “go to the unprintable and unprint thyself” was humorous). What grates on me with Hemingway is the bleak outlook that seems to pervade his work and his obsession with macho manliness. I can see how he would appeal to some people, but I probably won’t bother with anything else by him. I don’t need 400+ pages of “It’s probably going to fail and even if it doesn’t what’s the point of it all?”

I’m using this as for the Classic that has been on your TBR the longest category at the Back to the Classics Challenge (I kept putting off trying Hemingway again, hoping that older me would get more out of it… the experiment was not a success). That’s the last category that I needed to finish, so stay tuned later this week for the wrap-up post.

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.

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.