Back to the Classics Wrap-up

Since I just finished my final book for the Back to the Classics 2018 challenge, it’s time for the big wrap-up. A huge thank you to Karen @ Books and Chocolate for putting this together and hosting it. It provides great incentive to include at least a dozen classics in the year’s reading. I read a book for each of the twelve categories, so I get three entries in the final prize drawing. My books for each category were:

A 19th Century Classic: Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome – This collection of humorous essays is a must-read for fans of wry humor (as long as you don’t mind wading through a lot of maudlin sentimentality that may or may not be intended humorously).

A 20th Century Classic: Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann – This modern retelling of the Faust legend explores the connection between genius and madness, but by the end I found it overblown and pretentious.

A Classic by a Woman Author: Silas Marner by George Eliot – I greatly enjoyed this “reclamation” story which is something along the lines of a non-supernatural version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol (Dickens loved it and wrote  her a “fan letter”).

A Classic in Translation: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – I know I’m in the minority, but I didn’t care for this classic tale of revenge.

A Children’s Classic: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – I will be recommending this charming little book to my children.

A Classic Crime Story: The Grifters by Jim Thompson – Thompson provides the fairly standard downward-slide-into-tragedy that you expect from this kind of crime noir but with some creepy oedipal stuff in the mix. Well written, but a bit too sleazy for my taste.

A Classic Travel or Journey Narrative: The Canterbury Tales – In spite of the (to me) unfunny obsession with adultery & misogyny, Chaucer is witty and adept at painting memorable characters.

A Classic with a Single-word Title: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – Conrad displays his trademark bleakness here. Personally, I think it packed more impact in the much shorter Heart of Darkness than in this 400+ page depressing book.

A Classic with a Color in the Title: Black No More by George S. Schuyler – This biting satire is by turns hilarious and grim as the author explores an alternate US in which a medical procedure can turn black people into white people.

A Classic by an Author That’s New to You: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – I wouldn’t necessarily say that I liked this book, but the atmosphere and characterization were superb.

A Classic That Scares You: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway – I hated Hemingway in high school, but decided to be brave and give him another shot. I didn’t hate it this time, but he’s still not my cup of tea.

Re-read a Favorite Classic: The Poetic Edda by Anonymous – Who wouldn’t want to read about cross-dressing Thor, Loki getting in an insult contest with the rest of the gods, and the final showdown at Ragnarok?

And there you have it! (If I happen to win the drawing you can contact me Here.)

Charming Children’s Lit

Title: The Wind in the Willows
Author: Kenneth Grahame
Genre: Classic Children’s Literature
Pages: 104
Rating: 4 of 5

In spite of reading a lot of fantasy and anthropomorphized animal books as a child, I somehow never read the classic The Wind in the Willows, other than a few excerpts in grade school (and in theology books: the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” receives quite a bit of attention from the likes of C. S. Lewis). I needed a book for the Children’s Classic category over at the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge and decided it was high time to remedy the situation.

The primary descriptive word for this book would have to be charming. It is a paean to camaraderie, life on the Thames, and the comforts of home. The helpful Mole,  friendly rat, gruff badger, and outrageous (but likeable) Mr. Toad will pleasantly remind you of people you know. Many of the chapters are only loosely connected, varying from leisurely nostalgia to comedic action. Overall, it’s a nice cozy read that I will be recommending to my children.

Vanity of vanities!

Against Nature (Dover Thrift Editions) by [Huysmans, Joris K.]Title: Against Nature (A Rebours)
Author: Joris K. Huysmans
Translator: unknown (“This Dover Edition first published in 2018 is an unabridged republication of the English translation published by Three Sirens Press, in 1931…”)
Genre: Classic (French Decadent)
Pages: 204
Rating: 2.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

In my last post I mentioned the book that fascinated (and helped corrupt) Dorian Gray. By some accounts, Against Nature might be the book that Oscar Wilde had in mind. In it, Duc Jean des Esseintes retreats from Parisian society to a secluded villa and spends his time contemplating all that is artificial, artistic, and intellectual. It’s basically a more depressing, more decadent version of Ecclesiastes featuring a debauched aesthete instead of the Preacher (Vanity of vanities, says the Aesthete, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.)

Des Esseintes ponders colors, perfumes, prostitutes, affairs, drinks, art, literature, religion, etc. ad nauseum (and there actually quite a bit of literal nausea as his health is in a delicate state). This eventually peters out to a miserable conclusion that led one early critic to opine that, “After such a book, it only remains for the author to choose between the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the cross.”

Interestingly, this edition of the book starts with a preface by the author written about twenty years after original publication. While standing by some of his aesthetic and religious judgments, he indicates that he has returned to the church he so despised. Apparently, like the Preacher he discovered:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. – Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 (the last two verses of the book)

Overall, I found the book tedious and pretentious (and morally pretty gross), but its connection to The Picture of Dorian Gray and similarity to Ecclesiastes provided a degree of interest. The author inadvertently playing out the last two verses of Ecclesiastes with his own life further shows the wisdom of the Preacher:

What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done,
    and there is nothing new under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 1:9

Atmosphere & Neuroses

It has been almost three weeks since I last posted here, but I’m still alive and reading. I have been in a bit of a reviewing slump due to migraines, holidays, and work, but I hope to get back into the “at least once per week” schedule now.

Title: Rebecca
Author: Daphne Du Maurier
Genre: Modern Classic/Gothic
Pages: 416
Rating: 4 of 5

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian describes a book as, “I didn’t say I liked it…I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.” I’ve used that quote in a few other book reviews (e.g. The Great Gatsby, and Dorian Gray itself), and it applies to this book as well. The characters sparkle with realism, but are some of the most unpleasant people you can imagine and treat each other appallingly.

Our unnamed narrator is painfully shy, socially awkward, and pathetically affection-starved. When she marries the brooding Maxim de Winter she is thrown into an upper class country manor lifestyle for which she is completely unprepared. Between the coldness of Maxim and the spiteful hatred of Mrs. Danvers the housekeeper (that window scene!), our narrator is adrift in a sea of insecurity and neuroses. She has little idea of her responsibilities or others’ expectations, and she constantly wonders what others are thinking and saying about her. She mentally plays out vivid imagined scenes of the disapproval that might be going on behind her back and the painful course that future events could take. Much of her awkwardness and self-doubt rang true to me as I am an extreme introvert in a job that involves a lot of social interaction and public scrutiny (though I hope I’m not anywhere near as neurotic and needy as she is).

Hovering over all this, driving it, and making it oh so much worse is the memory of Maxim’s first wife: the beautiful, masterful Rebecca. Her life was cut tragically short, and the more that our narrator learns about her and how much everyone seemed to adore her, the more insecure she becomes…and (because this is a Gothic novel) the more she begins to suspect that something sinister is boiling below the surface.

Eventually things come to a head, giving our heroine a chance to step up and show what she’s really made of. She does change and develop in her relationship with Maxim, but whether that is ultimately a good thing is questionable at best. The behavior of several “good” secondary characters in the later part of the book (though understandable and true to life) was disappointing to me.

Overall, this is a wonderfully atmospheric read featuring a neurotic narrator, plenty of moral ambiguity, and some downright despicable behavior. To me, its tone felt like a cross between The Great Gatsby and The Woman in White. I think that it worked, but it’s probably not for everyone.

One final thing: I am using this for my Classic By a New-To-You Author category over at the Back to the Classics 2018 reading challenge.

Ender’s Hunger Games

Apocalypse Five (Archive of the Fives Book 1) by [Rourke, Stacey]Title: Apocalypse Five
Author: Stacey Rourke
Genre: Dystopian Sci-Fi
Pages: 252
Rating: 2 of 5
Future Release Date: 2/12/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Smoosh together Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games, tack on Children of Men for good measure, and you have this book. I’m not sure if I have ever read such derivative sci-fi. It went straight past cliché and into aping popular franchises while stopping short of actual intellectual property theft. There were a few clever twists on the concepts involved, but not enough to raise this above a “seen it all before and the other guys did it better” 2.5-3 stars plot.

The physical descriptions knocked this the rest of the way down to 2 stars. There was way too much “flexing pecks” “chiseled abs” “ebony locks” “tangle of lashes” “mahogany stare” etc. for me. And only about half of those descriptions came in the (frequent) lusting-after-each-other scenes!

Between the Harlequin Romance-esque vocabulary and painfully derivative plot this book did not work for me at all.

(There were also way too many misused/misspelled words – repel instead of rappel, alude instead of elude, toe-head instead of towhead, etc. – but hopefully those are due to my reading a proof copy and won’t remain in the published edition)

Not My Usual, but Fun

Title: The Flash: Starting Line
(Issues #0-12 plus Annual #1)
Author: Brian Buccellato
Illustrator: Francis Manapul
Genre: Superhero Comic Book
Pages: 344
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Even though I enjoy superhero movies, I’ve been a bit annoyed by comic books the couple times I’ve tried to dip into them. For me, there’s just not enough plot per issue, and crossover plot points from other heroes leave you with the choice of spending more money on other titles or having only a vague idea of what is going on. This format does away with some of that, and I quite enjoyed it. With all the issues for the year bundled together, the “artificial cliffhanger after minimal exposition followed by a month-long wait” annoyance wasn’t there, and there were no major plot points that hinged on knowing something from another title. An acquaintance with Flash and his recurring villains would add to the experience, but a newbie would not be lost or frustrated.

The stories themselves fairly skillfully combined origins & explanation of the Flashverse (if that’s a word) kind of plotlines with regular superhero fare (foiling bad guys, balancing romance and secret identity, etc.). The artwork wasn’t bad, but did feature more talking head panels than I was expecting. Honestly, since I’m not a comic connoisseur, I don’t know how it stacks up against similar efforts. Overall, I’m probably not the usual audience for this book, but it was fun.

Multiple Unreliable Narrators

Title: Someone Like Me
Author: M. R. Carey
Genre: Psychological Horror?
Pages: 512
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/6/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

This book is messed up…and I mean that in the best possible way! I love unreliable narrators (especially of the quite-possibly-bonkers variety), and this book is full of them. Our two main characters have suffered physical and emotional trauma (trigger warning for spousal domestic abuse & peril to children), and they both know that it has left them with psychological issues.

Liz has discovered a dark, violent side that first surfaced when she had to defend herself against her murderous ex-husband, and Fran, a teenager, has had hallucinations and other mental aberrations since surviving an abduction as a child. As their lives intertwine (Liz’s son becomes Fran’s friend), their interactions and perspectives on each other give us some hints of what is really going on while things spin increasingly out of control…and I can’t go into any more detail than that without spoilers.

There were a few points in the book where I felt that the teenage characters’ catty bickering and sneaking around to keep parents/adults in the dark took this into clichéd YA territory, but overall I enjoyed it. I would highly recommend it if you enjoy the kind of book where you get popped right into the action and have to figure out what is going on (and even what genre you are reading).

Cromwell in Painstaking Detail

Title: Thomas Cromwell:
A Revolutionary Life
Author: Diarmaid MacCulloch
Genre: Biography/History
Pages: 575 (plus citations & indices)
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 10/31/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way reflects the content of the review)

In his exhaustive portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the author focused largely on Cromwell’s scheming and plotting overseeing and subtly nudging the English Reformation in an Evangelical (i.e. Protestant) direction. The English branch of the Protestant Reformation was seemingly driven more by lust and greed than concern for godly living or doctrinal purity (as aptly summarized my Rowan Atkinson and Horrible Histories here). However, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s thesis is that Cromwell was driven, at least in part, by real (but cautiously concealed) Evangelical leanings.

MacCulloch’s biography is built on an examination of what must have been reams and reams of correspondence and court documents. The whirl of names, titles, legislation, favors granted, animosities provoked, etc. can be a bit dry and confusing, but no one can accuse the author of not being thorough!

Throughout the book, MacCulloch assumes that the reader has a basic knowledge of the major events of the Tudor period especially ones relating to Henry VIII’s marriages and relationship with the church. His goal is to describe Cromwell’s role and motivations in this history, not to give an “entry level” summary of it.

Cromwell is treated fairly sympathetically throughout, though the author admits more than once to “blood on his hands.” I can’t help but wonder if in an effort to save him from being portrayed as a monstrous “mustache-twirling villain,” MacCulloch hasn’t gone a little too far in the other direction. Many of Cromwell’s actions (e.g. participation in the destruction of Anne Boleyn) seem to be more about personal vengeance and/or advancement rather than Protestant idealism. Whatever the case, this book filled in some gaps in my understanding of the Tudor period in general and the English Reformation in particular. I recommend it to anyone interested in the time period who appreciates (or at least doesn’t mind) painstaking detail derived from primary sources.

Relatable Awkwardness

Title: Super Chill:
A Year of Living Anxiously
Author/Artist: Adam Ellis
Genre: Comic Strips
Pages: 120
Rating: 4.5 of 5
(Thank you to the artist and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

If you’re anxious and socially awkward, this book is for you (it might also be for you if you just like laughing at anxious, socially awkward people, but that’s not very nice). With this collection of autobiographical comics, Adam Ellis invites us into his struggles, neuroses, and obsessions. I’m an extremely introverted person whose job requires a lot of social interaction, and I found a lot of these both relatable and hilarious. A few of them seem to be just weird for the sake of being weird, but as a fan of Gary Larson those work for me too. Overall, I highly recommend this for a good laugh (and the reassurance that you’re not the only anxious person out there).

Trivia (and Poop)

Title: True or Poo?:
The Definitive Guide to Filthy Animal Facts and Falsehoods
Authors: Nick Caruso & Dani Rabaiotti
Genre: Science (Zoology/Scatology)
Pages: 160
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 10/23/18 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

The subtitle says it all: look no further for an entertaining collection of gross animal trivia. Apparently this is number two in the authors’ juvenile yet educational zoology series that began with Does It Fart?.

This collection is a little less one note than the first one, in that it gives a statement about an animal and asks whether it is “true or poo.” The facts are loosely grouped into topics like mating/parenting, eating, and (of course) pooping. While a few “true or poo” questions are about common animal myths (e.g. camels store water in their humps), most are just a way to introduce an odd fact about an animal and then launch into a short description of some of its interesting characteristics. I learned some things, even in the sections that started with a common animal myth that everyone over the age of 6 knows to be false.

The explanations are light and humorous with occasional innuendoes that might not be appropriate for a younger audience (but might just go over their heads) and plenty of gross facts sure to delight people like my 9-year-old son (I’m honestly not sure what age group this is aimed at). Fun little cartoony illustrations are scattered throughout the book as an added bonus.

For me, the preoccupation with poo (while not surprising given the title) wore thin after a while. However I did have a lot of fun reading this and definitely recommend it as a fun read and a source of great trivia to astound and disgust your friends and family.