Back to the Classics Challenge Wrap-Up

Thanks to Karen at Books & Chocolate for hosting the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge! It’s a great way to make sure I get at least a dozen classics mixed in with the year’s reading. I’ve completed books from all 12 categories (3 entries in the drawing!), so here’s the wrap-up post (click any title for the full review).

19th Century ClassicThe Warden by Anthony Trollope: a witty/snarky take on church politics that shows an understanding of human nature (and a dislike of “troublemaking” reformers like that insufferable Charles Dickens)

20th Century Classic – Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak: A flowery account of horrifying conditions in Soviet Russia, an adulterous love affair, and amazingly convenient coincidences

Classic by a Woman – Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor: Surreal loosely connecting storylines dealing with religion, mysticism, and hypocrisy

Classic in Translation – Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy: everything I generally dislike in Christian fiction (morbid introspection, plot secondary to theology, preachiness, etc.) but in the hands of a master like Tolstoy it works…probably my favorite classic of the year.

Classic Tragedy – Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy: an account of all-too-believable life-destroying obsessive discontent

Classic Comic Novel – The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N by Leonard Q. Ross: The joys and travails of trying to teach a student whose “unique” thought process gets in the way of learning the absurd language that is English

Very Long Classic – The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne: A book made up almost entirely of digressions, asides, and slightly off-color (but self-censored) jokes

Classic Novella – Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: A horrifying look at colonial exploitation in the Belgian Congo and the evil that lurks in the human heart

Classic from the Americas or Caribbean – The Prince & the Pauper by Mark Twain: Second-tier Twain; less cynical (but less well-written) than A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Classic from Africa, Asia, or Oceania – The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat: A disturbing descent into murderous insanity

Classic from a Place You’ve Lived – O Alienistsa (The Alienist) by Machado de Assis: Fantastic satire on those who think everything can be perfectly understood by science and fixed by psychiatry

Classic Play – King Lear by William Shakespeare: Grimdark Shakespeare

(on the off-chance I win, I can be contacted here)

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

Happy Reformation Day!

Five hundred and two years ago today Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, inadvertently sparking the Protestant Reformation. I’m not a Lutheran, but I admire his steadfast adherence to the plain sense of Scripture and insistence that “the just shall live by faith”:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scriptures and clear reason, for I do not trust in the Pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves, I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. God help me. – Martin Luther

Image may contain: 1 person, text

(For any pedants out there: yes, I am aware that the exact date and manner of the posting of 95 Theses and wording of the above quote are somewhat debated, but I’m going with the traditional version here)

Oh, and happy Halloween as well!

“Comico, Ergo Sum”

Title: Superhero Thought Experiments:
Comic Book Philosophy
Authors: Chris Gavaler & Nathaniel Goldberg
Genre: Philosophy
Pages: 202 (plus citations, etc.)
Rating: 4.5 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)

It’s Superman vs. Batman: consequentialism vs. deontology! Within these pages you will find this and other astounding speculations as our intrepid authors perform feats of daring philosophy.

Okay, this isn’t actually a high-action book, but if you enjoy philosophy it’s a lot of fun. Gavaler and Goldberg treat superhero comic as thought experiments to explore the nature of doing good, existence, time, identity, communication, etc. (or morality, metaphysics, meaning, and medium if you prefer the alliteration of their section titles). Fodder for philosophizing includes Bizarro world, Dr. Doom’s time machine, Scarlet Witch’s imaginary twins, retcons & reboots, and much more. To me, the first three sections that focus on characters and stories were much more interesting than the last section that focused on comic books as a medium.

If you’re the kind of person who when confronted with someone asking “how do I know I’m really here?” gets annoyed by anything more theoretical than pinching/punching them and asking “did that hurt,” this isn’t the book for you. If you enjoy thought experiments and speculating on the nature of life, the universe, and everything give this a shot.

I survived!

Thanks to my awesome wife I survived this year’s Vacation Bible School. Just for fun, here are a couple pictures.

My Love:

Us4

The kiddos:

IMG_1485

…and (hopefully edifying) fun was had by all.

Restoration

Happy Resurrection Sunday! I hope you enjoy my attempt at blank verse poetry. I wrote this for Easter one year after reading Paradise Lost.

Perfection reigned in Eden’s beauty new.
The man and woman lived in blissful love,
At peace with God, in fellowship divine.
One rule alone they had, a test of faith:
To trust the loving heart of God and live
Or doubting eat and thus give birth to death.

The tempter sowed the seeds of doom-filled doubt:
“True love would not forbid a thing so fair.
This wondrous fruit will make you just like God
Who holds you back from glory, not from death.”
Deceived and proud they ate, defying God
And bringing death upon the human race

And so death reigned o’er Adam’s sinful race
Until the coming of the Lord of Life.
Though God the Son He laid aside His crown,
Came as a servant to this broken world.
He felt its sorrows, wept in grief and pain,
Faced all temptations, yet he did not sin.

As both eternal God and Son of Man
He paid man’s debt in infinite degree.
His guiltless soul was charged with all man’s sins,
And, suffering the Father’s wrath, he died.
Now all was finished; sin was overcome
And death defeated as he rose again.

For those in Christ the fear of death is gone.
Their faith in Him comes ringing down the years:
“In Adam all men die; in Christ they live.”
“For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”
“Although they kill us, they do us no harm.”
“One short sleep past we wake eternally.”

One day the blessed hope will come to pass:
The time of restoration of all things
When Jesus Christ returns the dead are raised,
The earth made new, the Kingdom come at last!
No pain, no grief, no death forevermore,
And so shall we be always with the Lord.

– By Joel E. Mitchell

Indian Evil

Song of Kali by [Simmons, Dan]Title: Song of Kali
Author: Dan Simmons
Genre: Cosmic Horror?
Pages: 320
Rating: 3 of 5

I’m not quite sure what to make of this disturbing tale. In it, an American  travels to Calcutta with his wife (who is Indian) and infant daughter in search of a lost book of poems by an author long thought dead. The plot takes forever to get off the ground, but once it does every parent’s worst nightmare ensues.

The author expertly evokes an atmosphere of human misery, darkness, corruption, and horror (some of it too explicit for my taste) that appears to be driven by a great cosmic evil. There’s just enough wiggle room for possible lying, hallucinations, nightmares, etc. that you can’t be 100% sure how much of what is going on is truly supernatural.

If that was all there was to it I’d probably give it an “amazingly atmospheric but a little too disturbing for me” rating. However, the author also seems to be indicting Indian culture in general as almost completely calloused, corrupt, disgusting, and evil. Putting the fullest expression of that accusation in the mouth of an Indian character doesn’t make it any less insulting.

Overall, the book was horrifying and convoluted enough that I kept reading just to see where it was all going. However, once I was done I felt like I had read the ranting of an ethnocentric tourist who visited India, didn’t deal well with culture shock, and decided to turn his negative experience into a horror story. (Also, this is my fourth book read for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge).

Book Haul from TGC19

This year I was doing fairly well at reading books that I already owned and not buying too many new books (though we won’t speak of $3/bag day at the library book sale), and I had just gotten my TBR under 60 books. Then I spent the last three days at the The Gospel Coalition conference. It’s an excellent conference that I would highly recommend if you want solid biblical challenges to live your faith and not just frothy “you can do it!” prosperity gospel.

But bibliophiles beware: all the best Christian publishing houses are there with 2,500+ heavily discounted books, and we’re not talking “bonnet ripper” barely historical romance tripe (I don’t think there was any Christian fiction outside of the children’s tables). I had more or less controlled myself and bought only 7 or 8…and then I got 4 or 5 freebies…and then a friend/enabler told me to go pick out another $75 worth on him…and, long story short, I ended up with 20 new books.

Ten on social issues / applied theology:

Social

…and 10 that are more straight up systematic theology, philosophy, or biblical studies:

Systematic

Have you read any of these? Where would you start?

Philosophy Wrapped in Story

Resurrection audiobook cover artTitle: Resurrection
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Translator: Louise Maude
Genre: Classic Russian Fiction / Philosophy / Theology
Pages: 398
Rating: 4 of 5

I seldom read modern Christian fiction. With a few exceptions, it tends to be preachy, poorly-researched schlock full of morbid introspection and cheesy romance. I’m not sure where things went wrong, because this Russian classic is most certainly Christian, features quite a bit of morbid introspection, and still managed to wow me. This is one of those books where plot comes in a distant second to the author’s desire to explore and expound philosophical and theological points, but the characters were still sympathetic (or loathsome), and I genuinely wanted to find out what happened to them.

Tolstoy’s tale follows the spiritual journey of a privileged man who realizes that his actions, past and present, have contributed to the downfall of a poor woman: sending her into a down-spiral leading into prostitution and eventual wrongful conviction for murder. We see his inner spiritual struggle over how to rectify the situation as well as the outward struggle of living in a self-centered society that cares nothing for the poor and “criminal class.” To me, Tolstoy’s approach places so much emphasis on doing good that faith (an indispensable part of Christianity) is nearly excluded. However there was much food for thought throughout the book whether I agreed with him or not.

I listened to this as an audiobook read by Simon Vance. His narration was excellent, but I think that I might have preferred reading this myself for the sake of being able to re-read, make notes, etc. when it came to many of the philosophical points.

Overall, even though this had a lot of what I dislike in modern Christian fiction, it worked in the hands of a master like Tolstoy, and I greatly appreciated this book. Also, I am using this for my Classic in Translation category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

2019 Back to the Classics Challenge

For the third year in a row I will be participating in the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen @ Books and Chocolate. The challenge is to read classic books (50+ years old) in the 12 selected categories.

Books don’t have to be chosen at the beginning of the year, but I like to start with a provisional list. I usually end up changing 3-4 of them by the end of the year, but here’s my starting list:

  • A 19th Century Classic: Lilith by George MacDonald
  • A 20th Century Classic: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • A Classic by a Female Author: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
  • A Classic in Translation: Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy
  • A Classic Comedy: The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N by Leonard Q. Ross
  • A Classic Tragedy: Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  • A Very Long Classic: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
  • A Classic Novella: The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
  • A Classic from the Americas: The Prince & the Pauper by Mark Twain
  • A Classic from Africa, Asia, or OceaniaCry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
  • A Classic from a Place You’ve Lived: O Alienista by Machado de Assis
  • A Classic Play: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw