Irony?

Title: Why Poetry Sucks:
An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry in English Written by Canadians for Canadians (or American Bodysnatchers) in the Early Years of the 21st Century with an Overly Long and Not That Clever Subtitle the Publisher Rightly Refused to Put on the Cover
Editors: Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 293
Rating: 1 of 5

Isn’t that subtitle hilarious? Let me point out that the reason it is humorous is that it is significantly longer than a normal subtitle, thus subverting your expectations of what a subtitle should be. Additionally, see with what genius the editors have introduced a subtle tone of self-mockery by acknowledging that the publisher was right to refuse to include it in full on the book’s cover. Only true artists could have used something as banal as a subtitle to craft such delicious poetic irony.

…and that (with a few more academic buzzwords) is more-or-less what it’s like to read this book. The editors’ answer to “Why poetry sucks” is that it is perceived as being too deadly serious. To combat this perception they take us on a tour of experimental “poetry” they deem humorous, explaining exactly why it’s funny. For example:

Cabri’s poems provoke laughter at the place where the materiality of language meets its social construction, by estranging language from its “natural” usage to abstract it to a point where it might ironically do a better job of describing social/political/economic realities. (p. 81)

You know that’s going to be funny stuff! The “poetry” itself is as pretentious as it comes: replacing all the nouns and most of the verbs in a paragraph with the word needle, taking random facebook statuses and attributing them to various poets, posting a meme about experimental poetry and then presenting the resulting comments as experimental poetry, seeing how many puns you can make on an obscenity in a short paragraph, etc.

In my opinion, this whole book is the prime example of why we Philistines think that (pretentious) poetry sucks. Irony?

Catch-up Mini Reviews

It’s been a little bit longer than usual between posts as I’ve been furiously reading to rack up entries in the local library’s summer reading prize drawing (can’t let my kiddos show me up!). Here are five of the most recent (out of 22 over the last 2 months):

Monster Hunter International (Monster Hunters International Book 1) by [Correia, Larry]Title: Monster Hunter International
Author: Larry Correia
Genre: Gun Nut Enthusiast Wish Fulfillment
Pages: 715
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I enjoy Dracula and Cthulhu mythos stories, so I figured why not try out this pulp action-spinoff of the Lovecraftian and Gothic tales. While some of the monster lore and overall plot was fun, I give it a “meh” overall.

I think that the intended audience is the we-distrust-the-government-and-LOVE-guns crowd, and while that describes some of my friends, it’s not me. For me, the frequent doting  listing of gun models and specs and the breathless descriptions of firing said guns were absurdly over the top. And these guys would rather just blast away at the monsters with silver bullets (no matter how ineffectual it repeatedly proves to be) than actually try to come up with anything clever. Add to this some ham-handed foreshadowing, sprinkle in some poor word usage and factual errors (e.g. compulsive instead of convulsive, Peloponnesian War instead of Trojan War), and I probably won’t be continuing this series…I’ll stick with Warhammer 40K for my absurdly violent pulp needs.

Title: The Annotated Hunting of the Snark
Author: Lewis Carroll (annotations by Martin Gardner)
Genre: Nonsense Narrative Poem + Pretentious Commentary
Pages: 196
Rating: 4 of 5

I love the nonsense poem Jaberwocky, so I’m not sure how I didn’t know about Carroll’s full-length narrative poem that is very much in the same vein. The poem itself is a lot of fun (if a bit grim) and worthy of a 5 out of 5 rating. However, for the most part the annotations/commentary add very little enjoyment unless you are utterly obsessed with the poem. The one lengthy section of commentary that I really enjoyed was an extended satirical “analysis” of the poem that is clearly making fun of  people who (like our main annotator) pompously try to impose deep, complex meaning on the nonsense.

The Warden - Chronicles of Barsetshire, Book 1 audiobook cover artTitle: The Warden
(Chronicles of Barsetshire – Book 1)
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 240
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I am using this book for my 19th Century Classic category over at the Back to the Classics challenge. My brother-in-law, who is also a pastor, recommended the Barchester series as a humorous take on church politics (with a warning that this first book wasn’t quite as good as the others).

Trollope perfectly captures the earnestness, good intentions, greed, pettiness, and arrogance that swirl together to generate church politics. His characters, squabbling over how a charitable institution should be run, are quirky but believable, and he gets in some good jabs at the press and national politics along the way.

I take issue with the pervading theme that time-honored abuses of the system for personal gain should be allowed to continue so long as they are not really hurting anyone. After all, attempts to reform will only make things worse for everyone…just look at that troublemaker Charles Dickens! That said, there was enough cleverness in here that I’ll probably give the next Barchester book a shot at some point.

Title: The Swordbearer
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 256
Rating: 3 of 5

I read this more out of curiosity than because I expected a good book. It’s one of Glen Cook’s first fantasy books (maybe the first?), and we all know how rough an author’s early works can be. This stand-alone novel feels like three parts Elric of Melniboné, one part Lord of the Rings, and one part semi-original stuff that would later be cannibalized and reused in the much better Black Company stories.

The characters are so flat and numerous as to be difficult to keep track of, and there is frequent info-dumping, but I’ve read much worse first attempts. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed the Elric books, this is worth a read… if the whole book being an “I feel like a pawn of this evil soul-devouring sword” mope-fest grates on your nerves you might want to give it a miss.

The Fall of Arthur by [Tolkien, J.R.R.]Title: The Fall of Arthur
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien (Christopher Tolkien, Editor)
Genre: Epic Poem Fragment + Page-count Padding Commentary
Pages: 233
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is just another Christopher Tolkien publication of a fragment from his father’s work padded out to book length with commentary. As always, the narrative poem fragment is well-written and interesting (as long as you have some interest in Arthuriana), but it is even shorter than usual (cutting off well before the actual battle in which Mordred dies and Arthur maybe-dies). Christopher’s notes are much better organized than usual, but still overlong. The tracing of various versions of the fall of Arthur through medieval literature is probably the most interesting part of his contribution. Unless you are the kind of fan who has to have every published fragment by J. R. R. Tolkien, this isn’t worth buying…just borrow it from the library, read the poem fragment, and skim the notes to see if any of the sections sound interesting to you.

The Zealot & The Sociopath

Title: Vicious
(Villains – Book 1)
Author: V. E. Schwab
Genre: Superhero/Supervillain Sci-Fi
Pages: 365
Rating: 4 of 5

If you enjoy antihero or supervillain-as-protagonist stories, this book is a must read! I won’t comment much on the plot because V. E. Schwab presents the story in a non-linear manner that slowly reveals what is going on, and that slow revelation is half the fun. Suffice it to say that this occurs in a world that contains people with X-Men-like powers (though not from mutation).

Both of our main characters are, as the title states, vicious in their own way. Neither is particularly sympathetic, but their ambition and rivalry make for a great story (and one of them has a little bit more of a “you should be cheering for this one” vibe).

Occasionally I wondered “why don’t they just use their power to [fill in the blank] and solve this problem right now?” but I think that’s a common plot difficulty with any story involving overpowered supers. If you can do the suspend-disbelief-and-ignore-a-few-plot-holes to enjoy a superhero movie, this is a lot of fun. The ending was satisfactory and tied up enough loose ends to be considered stand-alone while allowing for future stories in the same world with at least some of the same characters.

Vengeful (Villains Book 2) by [Schwab, V. E.]Title: Vengeful
(Villains – Book 2)
Author: V. E. Schwab
Genre: Superhero/Supervillain Sci-Fi
Pages: 478
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Speaking of which…this was an okay followup to Vicious. Throw a couple more nasty EO’s into the mix, make last time’s “you should be cheering for this one” sociopath even less sympathetic, give a lot more background on last time’s bad guy (worse guy?), end on an even bigger bang than last time, and you have this book.

The events of the story flows naturally out of what happened in the first book and add some interesting elements and characters. However, it is a bit harder to discern a central plot, and the wrap-up leaves quite a few loose ends. It is clearly intended as a setup for one or more sequels, and I personally find that annoying. I didn’t dislike the book as a whole, but the scattery plot, increasingly psychopathic characters, and partially unresolved ending meant it didn’t wow me like the first one.

Heroism, Greed, & Betrayal

Title: The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun
Authors: J. R. R. Tolkien
Editor/Commentator: Christopher Tolkien
Genre: Narrative Poetry (plus tedious commentary)
Pages: 377
Rating: 4.5 of 5

J. R. R. Tolkien’s description of Norse poetry is that it “aims at seizing a situation, striking a blow that will be remembered, illuminating a moment with a flash of lightning…” In this retelling of the tragic Volsung/Rhinegold legends Tolkien’s terse, alliterative poetry does just that. He interweaves strands from The Poetic Edda, The Prose Edda, The Volsung Saga, and The Nibelungenlied, smoothing out discrepancies while adding a few elements of his own invention.

Tolkien’s most interesting innovation is providing Sigurd the dragon-slayer with a “special function.” For all of Tolkien’s insistence that he prefers the pagan, pre-Christian version of the story, he gives Sigurd some elements of a Messianic/Christ character that are not present in the original:

If in the day of Doom
one deathless stand
who death hath tasted
and dies no more
the serpent-slayer
seed of Odin
then all shall not end
nor earth perish.

(cf.And I will put enmity between thee [the serpent/Satan] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) and “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8b) and “I [Jesus] am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.” (Revelation 1:18))

The copious explanatory notes by Christopher Tolkien are an oddly organized jumble that cover plot, vocabulary, use and alteration of sources, and possible historical origins of the legends. If you are already acquainted with the Volsung stories these notes can be a bit tedious and repetitive, but they contain some interesting elements and may be of help to someone new to the Volsung legends.

Despite Christopher’s rambling notes, this is one of my favorite books. This tragic tale of heroism, greed, and betrayal illuminated by the flashing lightning of Tolkien’s poetry takes the reader on an intense journey back to the heroic age.

Second Tier Twain

Title: The Prince and the Pauper
Author: Mark Twain
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 253
Rating: 3 of 5

In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court Mark Twain wrote scathing satire of medieval England. In this historical fiction (written earlier than Yankee) he pokes gentle fun at the pampered life of royals and points out the barbaric harshness of Tudor punishments, but his overall tone is much lighter…almost cutesy.

This kinder, gentler Twain felt a bit flat to me. A lot of the historical “color” consisted in paraphrasing or outright quoting chunks of historical documents that described the clothing and royal ceremonies of Tudor England. The well-known “identical strangers switch places” plot wasn’t especially believable, but it let’s Twain look at different aspects of society through the eyes of outsiders and has some nice little dramatic tension at the end.

Sometimes I find Twain’s caustic wit in other books to be a bit much, but I prefer it to this book. Overall, I think I would have enjoyed The Prince and the Pauper a lot more when I was a child. As it is, I’m using this as my “Book from the America’s (author or topic)” category over at the Back to the Classics ChallengeSeven categories down; Five to go!

Sulky Sam

Title: Preacher Sam
(Same Geisler, Murder Whisperer – Book 1)
Author: Cassondra Windwalker
Genre: Mystery / Christian Fiction
Pages: 284
Rating: 2 of 5
Future Release Date: 9/17/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Preacher Sam is not your typical Christian/Religious fiction. It includes profanity (including “the F bomb”), it discusses sexual addiction and lustful thoughts frankly (and occasionally explicitly), there is no strategically placed “get saved” speech, and it falls into the mystery genre rather than historical romance.

Our protagonist is a disgraced, porn-addicted ex-pastor who is living with his atheist single-mom sister while trying to get his life and marriage back together. In the past he was instrumental in getting a murderer to confess. References to this abound, but the details remain so sketchy that it feels like we’ve missed out on book 1 of the series. When one of his former parishioners is jailed for murder and refuses to defend herself or speak to anyone but him or the victim’s husband, Sam must figure out what really happened.

Unfortunately, the story focuses far more on Sam whining and sulking about his life and family relationships than it does on the murder mystery. His pursuit of “what really happened?” proceeds in a desultory, mopey fashion, and the amazingly convenient item that finally helps him solve it is ill-explained and/or doesn’t quite make sense. Add a shoehorned-in romantic subplot for his sister, some preachy bits, and a final line that undercuts any apparent character growth, and this really didn’t work for me.

Using Biblical Hebrew Responsibly

Exegetical Gems from Biblical Hebrew: A Refreshing Guide to Grammar and Interpretation by [Hardy, H. H. II]Title: Exegetical Gems from Biblical Hebrew –
A Refreshing Guide to Grammar & Interpretation
Author: H. H. Hardy II
Genre: Biblical Studies / Translation Theory
Pages: 224
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 7/16/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

A Couple months ago I reviewed the companion volume to this book (Exegetical Gems from Biblical Greek) and strongly recommended it. Pretty much everything that I said about that book goes for this one. It is an excellent resource for second year (or maybe even second semester) biblical Hebrew students or those (like me) wishing to brush up on what they studied back in college/seminary.

Each short chapter provides a sample verse and discusses one major aspect of grammar and interpretation. It shows the proper way to use your knowledge of biblical Hebrew rather than the “gold nuggets” approach that reads way too much into every little nuance of the language. This book did seem to have a little more technical jargon in it than its Greek counterpart, but it may just be that my Hebrew is way rustier than my Greek, so I can’t say for sure.

The eARC that I read had some serious formatting issues with the Hebrew font (it frequently read left-to-right with no vowel pointings). I am assuming that this will not be the case in the finished product. With that assumption, I highly recommend this book to anyone in the middle of learning biblical Hebrew or who needs a little refresher course.

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.

Sympathy for the Devil?

Image result for heart of darkness and the secret sharer bantamTitle: Heart of Darkness & The Secret Sharer
Author: Joseph Conrad
Genre: Classic Novellas
Pages: 237
Rating: 4 of 5

I would categorize these classic novellas as interesting rather than enjoyable. In them, Conrad displays his usual bleak view of human nature and society.

Heart of Darkness records a barely fictionalized account of Conrad’s own experience piloting a steamer in the Belgian Congo. It pairs well with King Leopold’s Ghost (which discusses it at some length). Unlike King Leopold’s Ghost, which reflects current attitudes toward racism and colonialism, Heart of Darkness is loaded with product-of-its-era prejudices. The narrative deplores the dark and horrifying nature of the European characters while at the same time showing a general contempt for the Africans who are on the receiving end of their cruelty.

Our narrator’s response to “what evil lurks in the hearts of men” is complex. He is disgusted by the pettiness, greed, and violence of the Belgian traders but fascinated by the charismatic Kurtz who started out with seemingly higher ideals but has done far more horrifying things. His feelings for Kurtz teeter between sympathetic defense and disgusted horror. Trying to untangle the message of this bleak classic provides an interesting challenge. (Also, I’m using this for my Classic Novella category for the Back the the Classics Challenge)

The Secret Sharer features another narrator who sympathizes with a dark-hearted character. In this tale, a young captain hides a fugitive aboard his new ship. He becomes oddly obsessed with the idea that this self-confessed murderer (“justifiable homicide” of course) is his double. Tensions escalate between the captain and his new crew due to the secretive, bizarre behavior required to keep the “secret sharer” of his cabin hidden. While quite different in tone from Heart of Darkness, it includes the same tangled message of a sort of sympathy for a cruel person paired with a cynicism toward society.

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.