Best & Worst of 2020

This year I read 116 books with a total page count of 44,163 (~381 pages/book). I now present you with my fifth 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 with an additional honorable/dishonorable mention; & 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 Comedians by Graham Greene – Our selfish creep of a narrator pursues his sordid little affair amidst the horror of Papa Doc’s Haiti. The secondary characters and setting were interesting, but being in that jerk’s head the whole time was depressing and gross.
  • The Beetle by Richard Marsh – An ambiguously-gendered were-beetle isn’t a strong enough antagonist to make this book worth the boring Victorian nonsense in the middle and abrupt deus ex machina ending.
  • The Necromancers by Robert Hugh Benson – The author seems more interested in warning you against spiritualism than in actually writing a scary story.
  • The Last Ritual by S. A. Sidor – I set the bar for tabletop-game-inspired books pretty low, but this one still failed to clear it with watered-down Lovecraft in a flimsy 1920’s setting.
  • The Scapegoat by Daphne DuMaurier – With this wholly unbelievable tale, DuMaurier becomes the second author ever to appear on both the “best” and “worst” lists in the same year (John LeCarré achieved the same feat last year).
  • Dishonorable Mention: Gwendy’s Magic Feather by Richard Chizmar – The author tried to do way too much in this disappointing sequel to the excellent Gwendy’s Button Box.

Best Non-Fiction

  • Before You Vote by David Platt – This is the rarest of finds: a Christian book about participating in elections that truly places godly principles above partisan agenda!
  • The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark – The author makes a valiant (largely successful?) attempt at describing the complex events and motivations that led to World War 1.
  • Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre – Ben Macintyre makes the list three years running with another excellent true espionage tale: how a corpse sowed disinformation in the Nazi war machine.
  • The Trolley Problem by Thomas Cathcart – This book cleverly stretches out the classic ethical dilemma of “the trolley problem” to provide a whirlwind introduction to various ethical theories and theorists
  • Can We Trust the Gospels by Peter J. Williams – The author ably argues from a variety of external sources and internal characteristics that it is reasonable to trust the veracity of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
  • Honorable Mention: Linguistics and New Testament Greek edited by David Alan Black & Benjamin Merkle – This was like a step back into seminary with my favorite professor (who passed away before this book was written, but is mentioned in it several times)

Best Fiction

  • Reimagining Lovecraft by Victor LaValle, Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Kaitlin R. Kiernan – An excellent collection of four novellas that self-consciously riff on Lovecraft while subverting his bigotry. (I would also highly recommend Cassandra Khaw’s followup novella A Song for Quiet)
  • Reggiecide by Chris Dolley – The Reeves & Worcester series is a hilarious pitch-perfect steampunk sendup of P. G. Wodehouse (& golden age detective stories), and this novella is my favorite of the lot.
  • Scythe by Neal Shusterman – I liked each book in this trilogy less than the one before it, but I’m a sucker for good worldbuilding and this first book in the series has it in spades.
  • The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – This seeming “murder at the manor house” kind of mystery evolves into some sort of sinister Groundhog Day.
  • My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier – Is she a murderer and manipulator or a misunderstood and maligned widow? DuMaurier shows her genius for creating tension and ambiguity.
  • Honorable Mention: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe – Any other year this horrific but (extremely) dry fictionalized account of the 1665 Black Plague pandemic in London would have seemed boring, but it was fascinating to see the parallels in human thought and behavior to our current situation.

And that does it for reading in 2020. My reading goal for 2021 is my old standby of 100 books with an average of at least 300 pages/book. It’s a goal that I usually pass without a lot of effort, but I see no reason to pressure myself and turn enjoyable reading into a high-pressure duty. My Goodreads TBR currently has 100 books on it (at around 38,000 total pages) and I’d like to do most of my reading from there (or at least from books that I already own). Given my usual reading habits, I have my doubts whether that will actually happen. Anyway, it’s way past my bed time so, Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas!

The “classic” Gospel passages for the Christmas story are Matthew 1 & Luke 1-2, but my favorite is John 1. It’s short on details, but John speaks poetically of its cosmic significance:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

Merry Christmas!

Back to the Classics Signup

I’ve been having computer problems for the last week, so it’s been a little longer than usual between posts. I now have a fully functioning laptop again, so here we go. As I was going over my TBR list for next year, I realized that it has a lot of classics on it. So, I decided to see if Karen @ Books and Chocolate was running her excellent Back to the Classics challenge again this year, and she is!

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 actually have two possibilities for each category… we’ll see how it goes. Without further ado, the list:

  1. A 19th century classic –
    The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
    Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (Tr. Rosemary Edmonds)
  2. A 20th century classic
    For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
    On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  3. A classic by a woman author –
    Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
    Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
  4. A classic in translation –
    The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Tr. David McDuff)
    The Divine Comedy by Danté Alighieri (Tr. Dorothy L. Sayers)
  5. A classic by BIPOC author –
    Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley & Malcolm X
    Chaka by Thomas Mofolo (Tr. Daniel P. Kunene)
  6. A classic by a new-to-you author –
    Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (Tr. Burton Raffel)
    Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
  7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author –
    Bleak House by Charles Dickens
    The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
  8. A classic about an animal or with an animal in the title –
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
    The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
  9. A children’s classic –
    The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
    Through the Looking Glass
    by Lewis Carroll
  10. A humorous or satirical classic –
    The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
    A Tale of a Tub & Other Works by Jonathan Swift
  11. A travel or adventure classic –
    The Travels by Marco Polo (Tr. Nigel Cliff)
    The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett
  12. A Classic Play –
    The Miser by Jean-Baptiste Molière (Tr. John Wood)
    The Pot of Gold by Plautus (Tr. E. F. Watling)

“Did God really say…”

Earlier this week, I said I would probably follow up on my post about reading through the Greek New Testament and looking at all the listed variants. Well, here you go!

If you listen to certain skeptics, they will tell you that there are thousands upon thousands of differences between ancient New Testament manuscripts and that this means we have little to no idea of what the original text actually says. While they might be technically right about the thousands of variant readings, the vast majority of those differences are simply variations in spelling that have no impact on how a given passage is understood or translated (think: honor vs. honour or night vs. nite). These and similarly insignificant variants do not appear in the apparatus of the edition I read, but the more significant ones that were listed (and there are still hundreds of them) are still not of a nature that calls into question the message of Scripture. As I read through them, almost all fell into one of these broad categories:

  • Which title(s) of Jesus or God are used in the passage and in which order do they occur? (e.g. Lord vs. God / Jesus Christ vs. Christ Jesus vs. Lord Jesus Christ)
  • Does the writer use the first person or second person plural? (i.e. we vs. you – which are one letter off and sound virtually identical in later dialects of Koine Greek)
  • Is the wording in parallel passages (e.g. in the synoptic Gospels) identical or merely similar (but virtually identical in meaning)?
  • Which conjunction or preposition (most of which are very flexible and heavily overlap in meaning) is used to connect clauses?
  • Is the subject or object implied or explicitly stated? (e.g. He said vs. Jesus said vs. Jesus said to him)
  • A little more rarely, but a bit more impactful: Which verb tense/voice/mood (or noun case/number/gender) is used? (e.g. we have peace with God vs. let us have peace with God)

In many instances, it is easy to determine which reading is original with a high degree of certainty (based on age, character, and geographic distribution of manuscripts as well as an understanding of scribal practices). However, even when this is not the case, the nature of these variants is not such that it radically alters or calls into question the meaning of the text.

There are a few variants that are a verse long, and two that are longer than a verse (the longer ending of Mark and the story of the woman caught in adultery). Most of these are easily resolved by looking at the textual evidence, and none of them contain a teaching whose presence or absence changes a teaching of the faith (unless you are “snake-handler,” but that practice is a gross misapplication of those verses anyway).

This is kind of “pet topic” of mine, so I’m trying to refrain from babbling on or going into a lot of technical jargon. Short version: personally looking at all the variants listed in the UBS5 Greek New Testament confirmed/increased my confidence that we do indeed have a highly reliable, absurdly well-preserved New Testament.

Follow Up

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. – Isaiah 1:17

This is just a quick follow up to my last post. I am thankful for my community where citizens, law enforcement, and government can peacefully come together to protest injustice and to pray and pursue understanding and change. I was pleased to see about a dozen pastors and at least a handful of my church members there.

Keep praying for our leaders to make courageous, wise choices that promote justice and for concerned citizens to passionately plead for justice in ways that are compassionate and profitable rather than violent or hateful.

Below are a couple pictures from the march and a link to some pictures taken by the local paper.

Link to Times Herald pictures  Here.  

(I’m in the third one down…black mask behind one of my church members who has his mask pulled down)

#georgefloyd

It’s time for another non-book review post (I seem to be doing more of those than usual lately). When I read American church history, I am deeply disappointed and saddened by the silence (at best) of most white conservative churches during the era of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. I hate talking politics, but what kind of hypocrite would I be if I kept silent right now? I posted this on my church’s Facebook page yesterday and wanted to share it with you as well.

Also, I don’t know if anyone local follows this blog, but if there is anyone, consider this event:

Protest

Notes from Lockdown

And now for an extremely rare personal non-book-review post: In a comment on my last post I said that I thought that our governor’s “stay at home” order would give me extra time to blog…silly me! I spent significant time over the last couple weeks trying to coordinate and mobilize my congregation of 150ish people to keep in contact, encourage and fellowship with each other, and make sure everyone’s needs are cared for (all from the safety of their own homes, of course). This is a situation they don’t cover in seminary!

Thankfully, I have a great leadership team at the church, and it has been a joy to see people stepping up and looking for ways to care for each other and brighten each others’ days…and tomorrow we get to celebrate the resurrection together on Facebook Live!

All that to say, I’m still around but my posting may become even more sporadic than usual in the coming weeks. Stay safe, and live in hope because He Is Risen!

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!