That one student…

43358773Title: The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N
Author: Leonard Q. Ross (aka Leo Rosten)
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 176
Rating: 4 of 5

In my college language classes (English & Greek) I had a classmate who was always ready to stand up and enthusiastically share his compositions or translations with the class. His answers frequently left the professor with a look of disbelief on his face while he tried to figure out how to even start correcting the beaming student. More than once, poor Mr. Smith looked like he was thinking about throwing himself out the window (if only it weren’t on the ground floor), and Dr. Brown once said, “No, I said translate verse 10” only to hear “that was verse 10.” This book took me right back to those classes.

The book follows the travails of Mr. Parkhill, the beginners class teacher at the American Night Preparatory School for Adults as he tries to teach English to immigrants, including the irrepressible Hyman Kaplan (aka H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N). Most of the humor revolves around Mr. Kaplan’s enthusiastic mispronunciation and misuse of English (e.g. “Bad, Worse, Rotten”).

Some readers might find this offensive (it certainly isn’t PC), but since the focus is generally on Mr. Kaplan’s self-assurance and unique thought process driving his teacher to distraction I felt that it was more about his charmingly ridiculous personality than a dig at immigrants. The other classmates show a more realistic portrait of someone trying to learn this ridiculous language of ours. After a while the jokes were a little one-note, but Mr. Kaplan reminded me so much of my classmate (who similarly butchered English in spite of it being his native language) and of the frustration of trying to teach English as a second language (which I did part time for about a year) that I was thoroughly amused.

I am using this for my Classic Comic Novel category over at the Back to the Classics challenge.

God & Guns

Title: Beating Guns:
Hope for People Who are Weary of Violence
Authors: Shane Claiborne & Michael Martin
Genre: Theology/Philosophy/Politics
Pages: 288
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: March 5, 2019 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

I come from a denominational background (American Evangelical/Baptist) where it is not uncommon for people to treat the broadest possible interpretation of the Second Amendment (right to bear arms) with practically the same devotion as any of the basic tenets of the faith. Attempts to discuss gun violence are met with, “It’s not a gun problem. It’s a heart problem” or some similar slogan. Over my last eight years as a pastor I have grown increasingly troubled by the gun culture I see among Evangelicals and the not-so-Christlike attitudes that it seems to foster in many people. I picked up this book to try to get another perspective on the issue.

These authors contend that the US has both a heart problem and a gun problem. The book is loaded with history and disturbing statistics on gun sales, ownership, lobbying, laws, crime, self-defense, and suicide in the US (especially as compared to other industrialized nations). Furthermore, they point out Scripture passages where the prophets speak of a future without weapons or warfare (the title Beating Guns is a play on prophetic verses about “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” – Isaiah 2:4) and where Jesus speaks of non-violence and loving one’s enemies (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5-7). While leaving some room for individual conscience as to what “commonsense gun laws” and responsible gun ownership might look like, they rightly challenge Christians to seriously reflect on how we as followers of Jesus Christ should relate to guns as far as ownership, admiration, advocacy, voting, etc.

Unfortunately, there is some serious “cherry picking” going on in their use of Scripture. They completely ignore passages that are in tension with their completely pacifist approach…passages that, if we take the Bible seriously, must be taken into account. For example:

  • Most of the prophets who describe the coming world peace talk about it being preceded by violent judgment from God/Jesus rather than a utopia brought about purely by social reform (e.g. Revelation 19)
  • Jesus’ rebuke of Peter for attacking a member of the party who came to arrest Jesus is preceded by a difficult, variously-interpreted passage in which Jesus talks about his disciples arming themselves (Luke 22:36-38)
  • The government is said to be God’s instrument for restraining evil, including by use of the sword (Romans 13:1-5)

This is not to say that the authors are entirely wrong in their concerns, but their approach to the Scripture is selective and incomplete. This makes me wonder if some of the history and statistics have been similarly oversimplified or misrepresented.

Another minor quibble that I have with the book is that the some of the information gets repeated over and over with very little variation in wording. I did read an eARC so maybe an editor will remove some of the redundancy and tighten things up before publication.

Overall, I appreciated the roundup of information and the challenge to think biblically (not just pragmatically) about the issue, but I do feel that there was some serious oversimplification going on here.

Time Travel & the Fear of Death

Title: The Psychology of Time Travel
Author: Kate Mascarenhas
Genre: Time Travel Sci-Fi
Pages: 336
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: February 12, 2019 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.)

I have always been fascinated by time travel stories in which time travel cannot create reality-altering paradoxes (e.g. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis). As this book’s title suggests, it explores what kind of psychological effect this sort of time travel might have on people. The author does so with a degree of thoughtfulness and complexity that I don’t think I have seen before in time travel sci-fi. Topics explored include crime & punishment, romance, mental illness, bullying, fate/fatalism, and especially the fear of death.

What makes the plot great isn’t the solution of the mystery (the “whodunnit to whom?” is obvious well before the end). Rather, the fun is in watching the characters figure it out and seeing how the three different story arcs (starting in 1967, 2017, and 2018) fit together. The actual narration of the story was a bit flat (e.g. sometimes something momentous would happen and it would be stated so blandly that I would have to go back and reread to make sure I read correctly), but the plotting and worldbuilding more than made up for it.

To me, the characters seemed a bit contrived to check as many “strong, diverse female character” boxes as possible (e.g. black, immigrant, lesbian, mentally ill, aristocratic…). All the primary and secondary characters are women with a handful of men putting in very brief whiny, overprotective, or leering appearances. Though it felt a bit overplayed, if you are looking for sci-fi with strong female characters, this is it.

Overall, the plotting, worldbuilding, and psychology mostly made up for any bits that felt flat or contrived.

A Love Letter to Paul

Title: Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons
Author: John Piper
Genre: Theology
Pages: 208
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: January 31, 2019 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.)

In the introduction John Piper describes this book as being “personal and idiosyncratic” rather than any kind of systematic treatment of the apostle’s life and teachings. This made for a rather different reading experience than the average serious theology book. Though it was occasionally a bit too gushing for my taste, Piper’s warmth and enthusiasm are moving as he describes the impact that Paul’s testimony and writings have had on on his life. Some people portray paul as harsh and dour, but Piper finds such love, joy, and hope. Overall, it was an encouraging book, though (as advertised) personal and idiosyncratic.

Grimdark Shakespeare

Title: King Lear
(1988 Bantam Classic Edition)
Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Play (Tragedy)
Pages: 222 (actual play: 137 pages)
Rating: 4 of 5

Ego, ambition, lust, and madness swirl into a raging whirlwind of betrayal and death in this grim tragedy. The plot is so bleak that it fell out of favor for 150 years, and modern scholars are deeply divided over what, if anything, is the point of it all. I’m not sure what possessed Shakespeare to transform a legendary story with a relatively happy ending into this grimdark play, but he did so with his typical flair and devastating result.

The Bantam edition that I read had a decent variety of supplemental material. There is a running glossary at the bottom of each page providing definitions of archaic words and difficult phrases. A couple essays and an annotated bibliography explored possible interpretations of the play, and several sections at the end provided excerpts from older writings that probably served as Shakespeare’s sources. There are significant difference between quarto versions and the folio version, and, like many editions, this one smooshes them all together so as not to lose any lines written by the Bard (the text-critical apparatus is inconveniently located all in one place rather than footnoted in the text where variants occur). Overall, an okay edition of one of Shakespeare’s bleakest plays.

(Also, I will be using this for my Classic Play category over at the Back to the Classics challenge.)

Britain & the Confederacy

Title: Our Man in Charleston:
Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South
Author: Christopher Dickey
Genre: History (American Civil War)
Pages: 400
Rating: 4 of 5

This book provides a unique Brit’s-eye view of the American Civil War. Even though “Secret Agent” appears in the subtitle, don’t expect a convoluted spy yarn. This is the story of British consul Robert Bunch whose tireless activities mostly involved schmoozing politicians and sending his superiors reports on the society and goings-on in Charleston (and the South in general).

Bunch’s disgust for slavery and the cruel, pompous hypocrisy of Charlestonians high society filled his reports as he kept his superiors abreast of the political developments up to and beyond South Carolina’s secession. With his Southern friends and acquaintances he hid his disdain well enough that none of them realized how much he abhorred their “peculiar institution” and how foolish he found the “fire eater” secessionists. According to the author, Bunch’s reports on slavery in the South and the possible revival of the African slave trade contributed heavily to Britain’s refusal to fully recognize the Confederacy (good man!).

Besides offering Bunch’s point of view, the book gives a decent overview of the national political maneuvering before and during the war. This includes both the jockeying to preserve slavery that led to secession*  and relations between Britain and both the USA and CSA. The political maneuverings involving Britain and the African slave trade were something with which I had only a passing acquaintance from previous study, so I found them particularly interesting.

The one major weakness that I found with the book is that the author almost always paraphrases or summarizes Bunch’s reports rather than quoting them at any length. I’m not sure if there are any direct quotes that are longer than a sentence in the entire book, and precious few of even that length. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems a bit sparse and interpretive even for a popular level history book.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and appreciated reading about the Civil War from a different perspective.

 

 

* The “lost cause” narrative of the Civil War that portrays slavery as a red herring is unsustainable in light of primary source material (e.g. secession documents) even if you ignore Bunch’s eyewitness accounts

A Worthy/Hilarious Sequel

Soul Remains (Terribly Serious Darkness) by [Hooker, Sam]Title: Soul Remains
(Terribly Serious Darkness: Book 2)
Author: Sam Hooker
Genre: Dark Fantasy / Satire
Pages: 330
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 4/23/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Warning: to avoid angry swearing (and the resultant summoning of goblins) be advised that after this initial paragraph there will be terribly serious spoilers for the first book in the series: Peril in the Old CountryNot only should you not read beyond this paragraph if you have not read Peril in the Old Country, but you should also not read Soul Remains. The absurdist plot to this book picks up shortly after the previous one left off and does not bother to do much in the way of reintroducing characters or recapping storylines in the web of plots that have ensnared the pathetic, neurotic Sloot Peril. Suffice it to say, it is well worth your time to read both of these hilarious books as long as you don’t mind cliffhanger endings. Now, off you go to check out the first book if you want to avoid having its ending spoiled…

…Okay, if you’re still here you know (or are about to find out) that the first book ended with many of the characters dying (very Blackadder), including poor Sloot crushed to death under a pile of goblins. Sloot, being the unlucky fellow that he is, is not permitted to rest in peace (though possibly in pieces). He remains enmeshed in all the various plots and counterplots with the added inconvenience of being a ghost who can be summoned, banished, etc. All of this makes the book a bit more disjointed and surreal than the first one, but no less entertaining. The author takes satirical potshots at a wide variety of topics and tropes (he has a whole new set to work with since half of the characters are now dead-ish) and throws in witty turns of phrase that kept me chuckling throughout. The book again ended on a cliffhanger, which I’m still not a fan of, but at least I was expecting it this time…and I can’t wait for the next book to come out.

Best & Worst of 2018

In 2018 I read 121  books (38,307 pages) and reviewed 101 of them. Here are my year-end best and worst lists (excluding re-reads / click book titles for full review where available):

Top 10

  1. How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith & Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman – A much needed, truly non-partisan book about how American Christians should view and participate in the political process without losing their integrity
  2.  Darkness Over Germany by E. Amy Buller – A sobering look at the rise of Nazism, written during World War II (but with some worrisome parallels to current events)
  3. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – A whimsical dystopia about letters (in both senses of the word) & censorship
  4. Silas Marner by George Eliot – A classic story of providence & redemption that led Charles Dickens to write a well-deserved fan letter
  5. A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre – A true account of Ken Philby’s career as a Soviet mole in MI-6 (explains the cynicism of espionage authors like John LeCarré & Graham Greene)
  6. The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher – A satirical tale of academia & bureaucracy that rings all too true
  7. A Middle Earth Traveler: Sketches from Bag End to Mordor by John Howe – A collection of John Howe’s gorgeous, detailed sketches of Middle Earth
  8. Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey – A creepy thriller with multiple unreliable narrators
  9. Christianity at the Crossroads (no review) by Michael J. Kruger – An examination of the church in the 2nd Century (very similar to Destroyer of the Gods (reviewed) by Larry Hurtado but with a broader focus and better organization)
  10. Peril in the Old Country and Soul Remains (no review yet) by Sam Hooker – The first two books of the hilarious dark fantasy series, Terribly Serious Darkness

Honorable Mention: Robots vs. Fairies Edited by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe – An anthology of stories featuring our future overlords (robots, fairies, or both)

Bottom Ten

  1. Robot Depot by Russell F. Moran – A muddled near-future sci-fi thriller featuring Trumpian political views and pages of tangentially related roboethics infodumping
  2. Apocalypse 5 by Stacey Rourke – An incredibly derivative dystopian sci-fi story with Harlequin Romance-esque physical descriptions
  3. Our Kind of Traitor by John LeCarré – An espionage thriller with a ridiculously abrupt ending that leaves most plotlines unresolved
  4. The Magic of Recluce by L. E. Modesitt Jr. – A fantasy tale starring a sullen brat and oddly frequent use of onomatopoeia
  5. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley – A political screed with solid potential marred by extreme partisanism
  6. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs – A classic pulp adventure story complete with all the cheesiness and product-of-its-era racism you would expect
  7. Killing Floor by Lee Child – The first novel starring Jack Reacher in all his sociopathic vigilante glory
  8. Against Nature by Joris K. Huysmans – A tedious exploration of a hedonistic aesthete’s vain search for fulfillment
  9. Kill the Farm Boy by Kevin Hearne & Delilah S. Dawson – A satirical take on fantasy tropes that buries any cleverness under an avalanche of adolescent toilet humor
  10. Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, & a New Way Forward by Skot Welch, Rick Wilson, & Andi Cumbo-Floyd – A book about a genuine problem that offers few practical solutions and shames those who ask the wrong questions

Dishonorable Mention: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – An overlong, depressing classic on the consequences of greed and pride

And there you have it…I have one more NetGalley book to review (Soul Remains) and a couple sign-up posts for 2019 reading challenges to write, but this is probably the last post of 2018. Happy New Year!

Final Mini-Reviews

It’s time for one last round of mini-reviews: Two on Tolkien and two on grace.

Title: The Fall of Gondolin
Authors: J. R. R. Tolkien & Christopher Tolkien
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 303
Rating: 4 of 5

The tale of the destruction of the hidden elven kingdom of Gondolin was one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s earliest (and most oft-rewritten) creations. In this book, Christopher presents every available version of the story from his father’s papers. Almost everything here could be found in previously published  works, but it was nice to have all of Tolkien’s brilliant writing on this grand tragedy in one place. As usual, I found many of Christopher’s notes pedantic and redundant, but am thankful for his work in collecting and publishing his father’s work.

Title: A Middle-Earth Traveler:
Sketches from Bag End to Mordor
Author/Artist: John Howe
Genre: Fantasy/Art
Pages: 192
Rating: 4.5 of 5

My wife gave me this beautiful book for Christmas. It showcases John Howe’s gorgeous sketches, focusing primarily on the lands, peoples, and creatures of Middle Earth rather than main characters. A few colored pictures are mixed in with the sketches, but most are so dark that they lack the exquisite detail of the sketches. John Howe’s brief commentary throughout was okay, but I did catch at least one error (he mentions that Sauron was incorporeal and trapped in Barad-Dur which is not the case in the books). The fantastic artwork more than makes up for the so-so narration.

Title: The Grace and Truth Paradox
Author: Randy Alcorn
Genre: Applied Theology
Pages: 96
Rating: 4 of 5

Randy Alcorn reminds Christians that Jesus is described as “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), and that we are called to be like him. The strength of this book is in beautifully describing the depth of God’s grace (undeserved favor) toward us. It is a reminder of why the Gospel is the Good News. Unfortunately, the applications about what it looks like to reflect that same kind of love and grace to others without compromising on objective truth were almost too generic. It would have been nice to see a few “where the rubber meets the road” examples…which is what the next book provides.

Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ by [Naselli, Andrew David, Crowley, J. D.]Title: Conscience:
What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ
Authors: Andrew David Naselli & J. D. Crowley
Genre: Applied Theology
Pages: 160
Rating:  5 of 5

Andrew Naselli & J. D. Crowley give a detailed overview of what the New Testament has to say about the conscience: that inner sense of right and wrong. A large part of the book is taken up with what people in my circles like to call “issues of Christian liberty” (i.e. issues on which God has not given explicit moral guidance and over which committed Christians may differ). The authors offer wise, biblical advice on showing grace and love to those whose consciences differ from our own. I highly recommend this book to any Christian, especially if you grew up in the kind of rules-y (don’t drink, go to theatres, use playing cards, listen to rock music, etc.) environment that tends to go along with conservative theology.

No, Bonhoeffer is on MY side!

Title: The Battle for Bonhoeffer:
Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump
Author: Stephen R. Haynes
Genre: History / Theology / Politics
Pages: 190 (plus bibliography & index)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The tone of this book differed from what I was expecting, but I still appreciated it. Stephen Haynes critiques how various groups have invoked, used, and abused the name and writings of anti-Nazi pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I was hoping for a full-orbed (if brief) analysis of Bonhoeffer and his theology, but the author mostly pointed out where he believed others were wrong without ever giving a complete summary of his own understanding of the man and his work (though frequently mentioning “complexity” and the “give and take” of scholarly opinion).

Though Haynes covers a wide variety of those who have sought to co-opt Bonhoeffer’s legacy, his primary animus is directed against Eric Metaxas. In fact, the subtitle to the book could have been “Why Eric Metaxas’ book is oversimplified, erroneous tripe and his political advocacy disgusts me.” Haynes spends much of his page count criticizing Metaxas’ book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and excoriating his invocation of Bonhoeffer in support of Donald Trump. The book crescendos with this denunciation:

“You [Metaxas] were grossly irresponsible to use your role as an influential interpreter of Bonhoeffer to endorse someone whom Bonhoeffer would have found repulsive. You are entitled to your political opinions, of course. But you used credibility gained largely from your association with Bonhoeffer’s estimable humanity to imply that voting for Donald Trump was incumbent on American Christians. You thus gave them permission to ignore their spiritual intuition that the man was a repudiation of everything they held dear. In the process you did a disservice to Bonhoeffer, to Americans, and to the cause of Christ” – p. 131

This is shortly followed by a final chapter entitled Your Bonhoeffer Moment: An Open Letter to Christians Who Love Bonhoeffer but (Still) Support Donald Trump. As far as calm, thoughtful political rants (if that’s a thing) go, it was pretty good. Overall, I would have liked more detail on historical Bonhoeffer and some warning that this book was primarily about confronting Metaxas, but there was plenty of food for thought here.