Back to the Classics Signup 2022

It’s another challenge signup post! Thank you to Karen K over at Books and Chocolate for once again hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge.

The challenge involves completing classic books (50+ years old) in as many of the 12 sub-categories as possible for entries in a prize drawing (Click the picture I lifted from her page to go there, see full details, and sign up). For me, it’s mostly a fun incentive to include some “serious literature” in my reading and an opportunity to see what classics others have enjoyed.

You don’t have to choose which books you will be reading at the start of the year, but I like to start with a list of possibilities. This year I’m starting with two possibilities for each category… we’ll see how it goes. Without further ado, the list:

  1. A 19th century classic:
    The Black Robe by Wilkie Collins
    The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
  2. A 20th century classic:
    The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Oil! by Upton Sinclair
  3. A classic by a woman author
    The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
    Julius by Daphne DuMaurier
  4. A classic in translation
    Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
    Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  5. A classic by BIPOC author
    Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cuba by Machado de Assis
    The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
  6. Mystery/detective/crime classic
    Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
    Nightfall by David Goodis
  7. A classic short story collection
    The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne DuMaurier
    An Obsession with Death and Dying by Cornell Woolrich
  8. Pre 1800’s classic
    Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
    Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
  9. A nonfiction classic
    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
    The Travels by Marco Polo
  10. Classic that’s been on your TBR list the longest (Pretty close between these two)
    For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
    The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
  11. Classic set in a place you’d like to visit
    The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (Middle Earth)
    Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (Oxford)
  12. Wild card classic
    Ashenden: Or the British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham
    Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

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

Best & Worst of 2021

This year I read 139 books with a total page count of 47,713 (~343 pages/book). I now present you with my sixth annual best and worst reads of the year lists (titles linked to my full review if I wrote one; excludes re-reads; presented in groups of five unranked; & starting with the “worst of” list so we can end on a positive note…no purchase necessary; void where prohibited):

Worst of the Year:

  • The Divine Comedy: Paradise by Danté (Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers): Between the constant reference to contemporary Italian politics and what I consider to be idolatrous reliance on Mary and the Saints, I found this hard to get through.
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier: If you like melodramatic Harlequin-esque “historical romance,” this is for you…but that’s not my genre at all.
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac: drugs, sex, jazz, blah blah blah…aren’t I deep!
  • Ripley Underground by Patricia Highsmith: a disappointing sequel to the interesting Talented Mr. Ripley. The complete non-ending was the worst.
  • The Tinfoil Dossier Trilogy by Caitlin R. Kiernan: A mashup of Cthulhu and black helicopter style conspiracies is a cool idea, but the execution was trippy to the point of incomprehensible and just plain gross (in both the splattery and moral senses).

Best Fiction

  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens: If you like Dickens, be sure to read this one. However, this isn’t a good place to start if you’ve never read him before.
  • Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez: This is pretty silly and episodic. Not great literature, but a lot of fun as the author plays with classic supervillain tropes.
  • The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells: This series (5 novellas and a novel so far) is top-tier sci-fi with an AI protagonist/narrator that any introvert can appreciate.
  • The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: I don’t usually enjoy revenge slasher horror, but this “literary horror” worked surprisingly well.
  • Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir: Another masterpiece from Andy Weir for those who like a lot of science in their science fiction.

Best Non-fiction

  • Gentle & Lowly by Dane Ortlund: A thoughtful reminder that “Yes, Jesus loves me,” and biblical Christianity is not based on “Try harder to be better.”
  • God Against the Revolution by Gregg L. Frazer: In a departure from the “fan fiction” version of American history, Frazer examines the anti-revolution arguments of loyalist clergymen in colonial America.
  • Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton: This examination of various eventually-abandoned-due-to-stupidity military and espionage plans is equal parts funny and frightening.
  • The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin: One of my new favorite authors interacts biblically with the kinds of statements that appear on yard signs beginning with “In this house we believe…”
  • Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths Trilogy (Mythos, Heroes, Troy) by Stephen Fry: I’m not sure if this exploration and retelling of the Greek myths counts as fantasy or non-fiction, but either way it’s a lot of fun.

That’s it for 2021. My reading goal for 2022 is my usual standby of “at least 100 books with an average page count of 300+.” Postings to this blog will probably continue to be sporadic unless work become unexpectedly less hectic, but we’ll see what happens. Happy New Year!

Happy Reformation Day!

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’”

– Martin Luther

Top 10 Christian Book Recommendations

After an exhausting week of Vacation Bible School, I don’t feel inspired to write any fresh reviews. However, it’s been too long since I posted anything here, so I’m going to do something a little bit different today. I have compiled a list of the 10 Christian books that I most frequently recommend to friends. Some are an introduction to (or exposition of) what Christians believe, and some are more on the order of “how should we then live?”. I hope you find something useful here (presented in alphabetical order with title linked to a full review if I wrote one):

Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by [Mark Ward]

Title: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible
Author: Mark Ward
Pages: 144

This is probably the most niche book on the list, addressing a concern that only crops up in certain conservative churches. However, if you grew up in “King James Only/Superiority” circles, you should read this balanced defense of modern English Bible translations.

Can We Trust the Gospels? by [Peter J. Williams]

Title: Can We Trust the Gospels
Author: Peter J. Williams
Pages: 162

This author demonstrates why it is reasonable to believe that the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are accurate accounts of the life of Jesus. This is one of the more scholarly books on the list, but the author does not assume prior knowledge or use unexplained academic jargon.

Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion by [Rebecca McLaughlin]

Title: Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion
Author: Rebecca McLaughlin
Pages: 242

Topics addressed in this insightful book include religious violence, homophobia (she herself has been same sex attracted throughout her life), misogyny, slavery, theodicy (existence of evil/suffering), and much more.

Title: Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ
Authors: Andrew David Naselli & Claton Butcher
Pages: 160

Way too many conflicts that occur between Christians are over issues that the Bible has left up to our individual consciences. This book helps Christians think through Christian love that does not cause unnecessary offense or try to bind others to our own merely cultural preferences.

Title: Gentle & Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers
Author: Dane C. Ortlund
Pages: 224

Sometimes we need to be reminded “Yes, Jesus loves me.” People who grew up in a certain kind of church soaked in the message of “Try harder to do better because God might have deigned to save you, but he doesn’t really like you that much.” This thoughtful book brings out what the Scriptures say about Jesus’ love and compassion.

Title: God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel: How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies
Author: Costi W. Hinn
Pages: 224

The “Prosperity Gospel” of guaranteed health and wealth that is peddled by smarmy televangelists makes me sick. Costi Hinn (nephew of televangelist Benny Hinn) demonstrates how destructive and unbiblical this corrupt teaching is. (for the short version, check out Shai Linne’s hip-hop masterpiece Fal$e Teacher$).

Title: Heaven: A Comprehensive Guide to Everything the Bible Says about Our Eternal Home
Author: Randy Alcorn
Pages: 560

This is by far the longest book on the list, but it is well worth your time to read it. It sweeps away misconceptions of heaven as a stuffy, boring place and digs into what the Bible actually says about the afterlife.

Title: How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil
Author: D. A. Carson
Pages: 240

One of the biggest difficulties for Christianity is “the problem of evil.” If God is perfectly good and all-powerful why is there evil in the world? D. A. Carson provides an excellent biblical framework for understanding this issue. (For a much more difficult in depth treatment check out The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil by John S. Feinberg)

How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age by [Jonathan Leeman]

Title: How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age
Author: Jonathan Leeman
Pages: 252

This is a book that every American Evangelical Christian needs to read! It gives biblical guidance on how and why followers of Jesus should participate in the political process rather than being a poorly disguised partisan guide about who and what to vote for. (See also Before You Vote: Seven Questions Every Christian Should Ask by David Platt).

Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) by [C. S. Lewis, Kathleen Norris]

Title: Mere Christianity
Author: C. S. Lewis
Pages: 227

I had to put at least one book on here from my all time favorite author. I don’t 100% agree with everything Lewis says (e.g. sacraments as a means of applying grace, or the possibility of thwarting God’s will for your life), but this is an excellent introduction to the general beliefs of historical Christianity. Even if you’ve been a devoted Christian your whole life, Lewis comes at things from a different angle that will help you see your faith with fresh eyes.

All the Herods (& Some Nonsense About Jesus)

Title: The Herods:
Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession
Author: Bruce Chilton
Genre: History
Pages: 346 (plus bibliology & indices)
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through Edelweiss+. This in no way affects the content of my review)

If you are acquainted with the Gospels & Acts, you probably remember multiple members of the Herod dynasty putting in less than flattering appearances (starting with Herod the Great’s attempt to murder the infant Jesus in Matthew 2). In this book, Bruce Chilton tells the full story of the Herodian dynasty’s rule over Israel. It is a convoluted tale of political & religious maneuvering, egomania, paranoia, sexcapades, and violence.

Chilton portrayal of the Herods seems fairly balanced. He frequently gives them credit for savvy political moves but does not downplay the cruelty, hubris, and mania that characterized this ruling family. I appreciated getting the full picture of who these people were and how they (and Israel) fit into the broader history of the Roman Empire. If that is what you are interested in, I would definitely recommend this book (especially if you don’t want to wade through Josephus’s Antiquities and Jewish War on your own).

However, I would not recommend coming to this book to learn about the Herods’ interaction with John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early church leaders. The author’s views in this regard are steeped in higher criticism, the “historical Jesus” movement, and all the related academic jargon. He treats the Bible (especially the Gospels and Acts) as distorted legends and propaganda to be sifted through for tiny grains of truth. Jesus is recast to suit a purely naturalistic/sociological/political understanding of religion devoid of true divine revelation. Call me unenlightened, but the “historical Jesus” is a pathetic, unconvincing substitute for the Son of God.

As a follower of Jesus who takes the Gospels as divinely-inspired Scripture, I am probably not the intended audience for this book. Nevertheless, it did increase my overall understanding of these people and their time period, and I am glad that I read it (even if the “historical Jesus” parts made me cringe).

Vacation Finds (and Frank the Bear)

I’m finally on vacation! The phone is set to “do not disturb” for everyone but immediate family, my friend Rabbi Glenn is filling the pulpit for me this Sunday (he’s promised to “introduce subtle heresies” to give me a challenge when I get back), and my wife and I just got back from a trip “up North” to celebrate our anniversary. My brain is in low power mode, so I’m not going to write a review right now. However, to keep this blog at least slightly active, here are my book finds from our anniversary trip…a blend of classics, pulp SF&F, a history book, etc. found at several different antique/junk/book shops:

And, as a bonus, here’s a picture of Frank the bear who accompanies us on our trips up North:

How Long, O Lord?

How long, O Lord, will covid continue to ravage and divide our world?
              Tens of thousands suffer and die.
              Each human contact must be weighed against unknown risks.
              Those who seek to help are branded fools, cowards, or conspirators.

How long, O Lord, will violence and injustice prevail on the earth?
              Each day brings news of further atrocities
              Justice measures with weighted scales.
              Deceit, slander, and malice fill our communications.

How long, O Lord, will your own people live with divided loyalty?
              We have subordinated the Golden Rule to the pursuit of “my rights.”
              The fruit of the Spirit withers as we embrace outrage and self-justification.
              We value the opinions of politicians and talk show hosts more highly than your revealed Word.

Arise, O Lord! Let your power and righteousness shine forth!
              Our Father, deliver us from distress.
              Holy Spirit, convict us of hypocrisy and empower us to live in love and holiness.
              Oh, Son, Our Redeemer and King, may you return quickly to make all things new.
              In you alone I hope and trust!

The Hero of Our Souls

Who has not heard   of the Hero of our souls?
Our almighty Maker   a man became.
Gladly foregoing   the glory he had,
In love, as a lamb,   came the Lion of Judah

To jealous judges   was Jesus betrayed.
His followers fled then;   in fear they scattered.
Submitting to malice,   no mercy was shown him.
In courage he quaffed   the cup of all woe

Thorned crown, fell cross   the Christ endured.
Cruel spikes, spear thrust   spilled his guiltless blood.
Man’s vilest vicious act   victory ensured.
The tempter trembled;   the triumph was not his.

God’s Son was slain;   savagely tortured.
His broken body   buried and guarded.
This hellish horror   our hope secured.
From wrath we were rescued;   our ransom he paid.

On Sunday the Son rose,   the Savior victorious.
Soon death will die;   done is his reign.
Freely by faith   our fellowship mended:
The glory of God   in grace revealed.

Classic Weirdness & Satire

The Back to the Classics Challenge is a fun incentive/excuse to mix some classics into your reading for the year (and there’s a chance to win $30 in books, so win-win!). It’s not too late to sign up if you’re interested…just click the graphic to the left. Anyway, I’ve finished two more books for the challenge, so time for a pair of reviews!

Through the Looking-Glass (AmazonClassics Edition) by [Lewis Carroll]

Title: Through the Looking Glass
Author: Lewis Carroll
Genre: Children’s Classic
Pages: 151
Rating: 4 of 5

A few years ago I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and was unimpressed. I found it obnoxious and shrill as the whole thing consists of Alice being rushed about and berated for being confused by the nonsensical world of Wonderland. The random nonsense level in Through the Looking Glass was about the same, but I enjoyed it a lot more. Alice’s imagining to herself was charming, the wordplay was a lot of fun, and who doesn’t love the poem Jaberwocky (to say nothing of the classic illustrations)? This classic weirdness is well worth reading.

The Way We Live Now by [Anthony Trollope]

Title: The Way We Live Now
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Satire
Pages: 800
Rating: 3.5 of 5

In this satirical novel, Trollope skewers late 19th century British high society. The sprawling story was originally published as a serial, and I think that Trollope couldn’t quite decide (or changed his mind partway through) about which character or plot thread was primary.

No matter which character of plot thread you follow, the overarching concern seems to be the manipulation of other people…usually for money, matrimony, or both. Trollope casts a cynical eye on mercenary marriages, feckless young men, and financial scandals.

None of the characters are pure as the driven snow (except for a couple of the young women who act like complete ninnies for most of the book). Few of the characters are sympathetic, but some of them are interesting. One character particularly caught my attention due to some similarities to a certain orange individual who shall remain nameless: a businessman much fawned upon because of his reputed wealth (despite rumors of past failed businesses and shady dealings) who enters politics as a conservative though having few real personal convictions.

Like a lot of satirical novels, the overall effect of the story arouses disgust more than amusement. Trollope doesn’t often demonstrate the witty turn of phrase that some satirists use to at least elicit a snort of derisive laughter. This makes parts of the book a bit of a slog, but overall it’s readable and insightful as long as you don’t mind a cast almost entirely void of sympathetic characters.