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

2019 TBR Pile Challenge

One of my goals for this year is to read some of the books that have been hanging out on my shelves and/or TBR for a while. To make that goal a little more concrete, I’m signing up for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge hosted by RoofBeamReader.com. The challenge is to post a list of 12 books that have been on your shelf and/or TBR for at least a year. Finish all 12 books by the end of the year (2 alternates allowed in case there are a couple you just can’t get through) and you are entered in a $50 Amazon gift card drawing.

To knock even more books off the TBR, I decided not to “double dip” with the books that I’ll be reading for the Back to the Classic Challenge, so none of the books on here are classics (other than some genre fiction old enough to be considered classic). Without further ado, here’s the list:

Main TBR

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. Atonement by Ian McEwan
  3. The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction by James M. Cain
  4. The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason: Book 1) by Erle Stanley Gardner
  5. Corum: The Coming of Chaos (Eternal Champion Sequence: Volume 7) by Michael Moorcock
  6. Ever by Gail Carson Levine
  7. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
  8. The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré
  9. Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey
  10. The Roads Between the Worlds (Eternal Champion Sequence: Volume 6) by Michael Moorcock
  11. Song of Kali by Dan Simmons
  12. The Tyranny of the Night (The Instrumentalities of the Night: Book 1) by Glen Cook

Alternates:

  1. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng
  2. Unusual Uses of Olive Oil by Alexander McCall Smith

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!

Christmas Reflection

 

El-Gibbor: The Mighty God
Will rule the earth with an iron rod
The Son of Man, worthy of praise
Dominion receives from the Ancient of Days
The Word was God, Creator of all
The Word became flesh, helpless and small
Born in humility, swaddled in cloth
A newborn infant asleep in a trough
The gift so great no words can tell
God with us: Emmanuel

by Joel E. Mitchell
(References: Isaiah 9:6-7, Psalm 2:7-9, Daniel 7:13-14, John 1:1-3, John 1:14, Luke 2:4-12, 2 Corinthians 9:15, Matthew 1:22-23)

A Guided Tour of Atheism

Title: Seven Types of Atheism
Author: John Gray
Genre: Philosophy/Theology
Pages: 176
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley – this in no way affects the content of this review)

I believe that it is important to understand where other people are coming from in terms of differing culture, beliefs, and worldview. It can help foster respectful dialogue rather than talking past each other or yelling at each other. To that end, I picked up this overview on atheism.

Just as no major religion is monolithic in its belief and practice, those who espouse atheism have a wide variety of arguments, beliefs, ethics, worldviews, etc. John Gray gives a guided tour of seven kinds of atheism, describing major proponents and beliefs of each category and pointing out its strengths and weaknesses. He strongly criticizes most versions, mostly alleging inconsistency via partial dependence on a monotheistic or even Christian worldview. He speaks favorably only of what he calls “Atheism without progress” (George Santayana & Joseph Conrad) and “The Atheism of Silence” (Arthur Schopenhauer & Benedict Spinoza).

Obviously, the seven categories are Gray’s own generalizations, but they were helpful in getting an overview of a huge topic. As far as persuasiveness, some of Gray’s argumentation is pretty shoddy. For example, he summarily dismisses certain topics touched on by some atheists philosophers (e.g. Nietzsche & Rand) as “silly” without any further explanation, and his main argument against Christianity is little more than “there are much more likely explanations of who Jesus was than the one offered by Christianity.” Overall, this was a helpful overview, and that is what the author stated as his primary goal, so I guess he was successful in spite of occasionally lackluster arguments.

Info-Dumping Trumpian Sci-Fi

Robot Depot by [F. Moran, Russell]Title: Robot Depot
Author: Russell F. Moran
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 202
Rating: 1.5 of 5

I seldom accept requests to review self-published books because of their tendency to be lacking in quality (professional editors and publishers’ rejection letters exist for a reason!). However, the premise to this one (ISIS must be stopped from using consumer-grade robots to deliver bombs) sounded interesting enough that I decided to risk it…that risk did not pay off.

Stylistically this was amateurish. The dialogue was stilted and little more than over-explained info-dumping. The narration switched erratically between first and third person. Most of the characters were so flat as to be virtually indistinguishable.

The actual plot of the story involving ISIS didn’t really begin until almost halfway through the book. The first 88 pages was a little setting and lots of meandering regarding current and near-future breakthroughs in robotics & AI technology and their implications for economics, politics, ethics, etc.  Most of the plot threads in this first half became completely inconsequential or remained unresolved once the actual story started.

The actual story lacked believability. Like most people who were alive in 2001, I remember the national fear, anger, and bravado that followed the 9/11 attacks. I sense very little of that here even though the attacks are of a similar magnitude. Our plot is mostly about the CEO of Robot Depot sitting around with his lawyers, PR people, and the FBI and discussing how to save his company (and stop further attacks, of course). There is little sense of a nation in crisis outside the boardroom, and it just doesn’t ring true. Then, in the last few chapters this becomes a completely different style of book and it all ends in sadistic vigilante “justice” to which the government turns a blind eye.

If that’s not enough, the author’s Trumpian political opinions drive the book’s main conflicts. I’m not a fan of politically preachy books in general whatever the politics, and this one was particularly cringey. Just look at the cast of characters –

  • Good guys: our billionaire CEO and his potty-mouthed wife (both veterans), his lawyers and PR people, a couple Arabs who we are clearly informed are definitely not Muslims, and students who beat down violently protesting “lefties” and “academics” and thus provide “a win for Western civilization.”
  • Bad guys: “Academics,” left-wing protestors (most of whom “don’t even know what they’re protesting”), ISIS, “Islamic culture and the ‘Religion of Peace'”

In summary (since I’ve already gone on way too long), I seldom give a book fewer than 2 stars, but this one is so lacking in style and plot that it richly deserves 1.5 (the extra .5 is because some of the economic and ethical questions raised in meandering bits were somewhat interesting).

Kafkaesque Police Procedural

Image result for the city and the cityTitle: The City & the City
Author: China Miéville
Genre: Surreal Police Procedural
Pages: 312
Rating: 3.5 of 5

In the Surreal world of The City & The City, two antagonistic city states locked in a Cold War-like relationship share the same geographic location. The citizens of each city employ doublethink worthy of Orwell’s 1984 to unsee, unhear, etc. anything that is not in their city. Violations are an unthinkable crime and are summarily dealt with by the shadowy agents of Breech.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation with “international” complications. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the more run-down, Eastern-European-flavored city of Beszel must cooperate with Detective Qussim Dhatt of the more prosperous Middle-East-flavored Ul Qoma. The murder mystery plot wraps up in a satisfactory manner after plenty of twists, turns, and conspiracy theories. Along the way we learn quite a bit about how the politics and culture of the two cities and Breech operate. However, we never really receive solid answers as to why the cities exist as they do and why Breech does what they do.

The lack of solid “why are things like this?” answers didn’t really bother me since that was not the main plot. If the author wants to leave his setting unexplained, I’m okay with that…especially in a book this surreal. What did detract from my personal enjoyment of the book (knocking it down from a 4.5 to 3.5) was the pervasive profanity. Call me a prude, but I’m not a fan of F-bomb-strewn dialogue. Overall: if you’re a fan of fantastic world-building and don’t mind profanity or non-answers to some questions, this might be a good book for you.

Shelfies!

Just over two weeks ago we closed on our new house and moved all of our stuff in. Unpacking is going slowly, and much of the house still looks like the aftermath of some sort of disaster…but most of our books are unpacked and arranged on the shelves, so things are looking up! In celebration, here are some shelfies (please ignore any bits of disaster area that you can see around the edges):

The Sermon on the TV

Time for a rare non-book review post. It’s been a while since I’ve posted any of my own creative writing, but that’s what you’re getting today. This is my first ever attempt at satire and comes from a sermon series I started a few weeks ago on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). There seems to be a vast gulf between what Jesus identifies as the values of his Kingdom and the shape that Christianity has taken for many American Evangelicals. From the way some of us behave you would think that this is what Matthew 5:1-12 says:

Now when Pete Johnson got home from work sat down in his recliner, turned on his TV, and the televangelist began to teach him. He said:

Blessed are those who believe in themselves,
     for they shall accomplish great things.

Blessed are those who never express sorrow,
     for they are more well-adjusted and spiritually mature.

Blessed are the brash and arrogant,
     for they shall not be mistaken for sissies.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for possessions, wealth, and ease,
    for they shall live their best life now.

Blessed are the cynical,
     for they shall not be taken advantage of.

Blessed are those who are good at following a list of rules,
     for they are clearly righteous.

Blessed are the angry and argumentative,
     for their passion draws many to righteousness.

Blessed are those who always experience religious freedom,
     for that shows how great this country is.

How shocking for you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of your faith. Complain and be outraged because how dare they?! For this is America, and that shouldn’t happen here.

Here’s what Matthew 5:1-12 actually says

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit [those thrust upon divine resources],
     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,
     for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek [i.e. humble, gentle],
     for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [includes the idea of justice],
     for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful [i.e. unconditionally compassionate],
     for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,
     for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
     for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Let’s not let cultural, political, or nationalistic preferences/tendencies control our worldview and actions more than the priorities of the Kingdom of Heaven! And if by any chance you’re interested in hearing my sermon series it can be found here. It starts on the sermon called Citizens of the Kingdom from June 3. It’s posted on a week delay, and the website is pretty out of date (one of my upcoming projects), but there you go.

A Quick Personal Update

It’s time for a rare “what’s going on in my life” update. You may remember that for the last few months I’ve been looking for a new job. After a lengthy candidate process, last Monday I was officially called to be pastor of a church in Port Huron, Michigan! This means moving back to the state that I consider to be home here in the US (my other home is the Distrito Federal in Brazil) and we’ll be only an hour and a half away from my parents, grandmother, and one of my brothers (we’re currently 500+ miles away and have never lived closer than that)…so we’re pretty excited! There is no set moving date since we still have to find a place to rent in Port Huron, so between trying to find a house in a city 8.5 hours away and getting everything packed (the one time I regret owning so many books) things will be pretty crazy around here for a while. I’m going to try to keep posting here once or twice a week, but it may be even more sporadic than usual until the chaos dies down.