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)

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.

Potpourri

I’m trying to review at least 100 books this year…9 to go. Toward that end, here is a random assortment of 5 mini-reviews.

Title: Our Kind of Traitor
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 320
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This tale of an average British couple whose lives become entwined with a Russian mobster/defector started out as one of LeCarré’s better post-Cold War novels (which, honestly, isn’t a very high bar). However, the ending was just stupid. It felt like LeCarré got bored and just quit writing. The final action of the book made sense, but it was absurdly abrupt and left almost all of the plot lines unresolved.

Title: Fearsome Journeys
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Genre: Dark Fantasy Short Stories
Pages: 416
Rating: 3 of 5

I purchased this primarily because it has a Black Company story in it. That story was mediocre…as was the collection as a whole. I have no idea why this anthology is titled Fearsome Journeys as there are few stories that focus on journeying. The unifying theme actually seems to be people with morally ambiguous (at best) professions: mostly mercenaries, thieves, and assassins. It wasn’t bad, but a bit one-note.

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Russian Fairy Tale Fantasy
Pages: 368
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is ridiculously well-written for a first novel! The fairytale style and 13th century (I think) Russian setting were fascinating. What annoyed me was the “dour, manipulative, fear-mongering Christianity vs. harmonious paganism” narrative that was fairly central to the story. Depending on your particular worldview, your mileage may vary…stylistically it was a well-executed fairy tale (of the original variety, not the the cutesy Disneyfied kind).

Title: Judge Sewall’s Apology:
The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of a Conscience
Author: Richard Francis
Genre: Colonial American History
Pages: 388
Rating: 4 of 5

Samuel Sewall was the only judge from the Salem witch trials to publicly apologize for his involvement. While that apology is the source of the book’s title, the book actually covers his entire life as recorded in his journals. The author presents Sewall as charming and ahead of his time in regard to slavery, the treatment of native Americans, etc. He sometimes lays it on a bit thick and seems to read too much between the lines, but overall this is an interesting, informative look at Puritan culture and religion.

Title: The Shakespeare Requirement
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: General Fiction / Satire?
Pages: 309
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you’ve ever worked in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. I would say that it’s satire, but the woes of the new head of the English department trying to wrangle his colleagues into agreeing to a mission statement while fighting off the economics department (and convince the public that he is not anti-Shakespeare) ring all too true. Hilarious!

“…the difference between man and man”

Title: Figures of Speech:
Six Histories of Language & Identity in the Age of Revolutions
Author: Tim Cassedy
Genre: History/Linguistics
Pages: 296
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 1/3/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, intellectuals commonly believed that language “made the difference between man and man.” That is, certain characteristics of a language (phonemes, orthography, vocabulary, etc.) shaped its speakers’ way of thinking and could allow others to draw valid generalizations about them. Tim Cassedy examines the lives of six individuals who tried to use language as a means of shaping identity (individual, national, or international). He seeks to show that the conclusions drawn from this line of thinking usually did little more than confirm existing biases.

The stories themselves will hold your attention if you have an interest in language, but there is some redundancy in their telling. For me, there was occasionally the feeling of “I think maybe he’s reading too much into this,” but that’s pretty much par for the course in academic books …and he’s the expert so maybe it’s just me. Overall, the book provided me with new historical information and kept my interest.

Unfortunately, the advanced reader copy that I was provided was very poorly formatted and included occasional “words” or “phrases” of gibberish that were clearly placeholders for something else in the finished version. This made parts of the book hard to review. I suspect that some of the charts, illustrations, typefaces, and comments that were nearly unreadable in the ARC will be helpful in the original and probably bump this up from a 3.5 to a 4 star read.

Back to the Classics Wrap-up

Since I just finished my final book for the Back to the Classics 2018 challenge, it’s time for the big wrap-up. A huge thank you to Karen @ Books and Chocolate for putting this together and hosting it. It provides great incentive to include at least a dozen classics in the year’s reading. I read a book for each of the twelve categories, so I get three entries in the final prize drawing. My books for each category were:

A 19th Century Classic: Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome – This collection of humorous essays is a must-read for fans of wry humor (as long as you don’t mind wading through a lot of maudlin sentimentality that may or may not be intended humorously).

A 20th Century Classic: Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann – This modern retelling of the Faust legend explores the connection between genius and madness, but by the end I found it overblown and pretentious.

A Classic by a Woman Author: Silas Marner by George Eliot – I greatly enjoyed this “reclamation” story which is something along the lines of a non-supernatural version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol (Dickens loved it and wrote  her a “fan letter”).

A Classic in Translation: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – I know I’m in the minority, but I didn’t care for this classic tale of revenge.

A Children’s Classic: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – I will be recommending this charming little book to my children.

A Classic Crime Story: The Grifters by Jim Thompson – Thompson provides the fairly standard downward-slide-into-tragedy that you expect from this kind of crime noir but with some creepy oedipal stuff in the mix. Well written, but a bit too sleazy for my taste.

A Classic Travel or Journey Narrative: The Canterbury Tales – In spite of the (to me) unfunny obsession with adultery & misogyny, Chaucer is witty and adept at painting memorable characters.

A Classic with a Single-word Title: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – Conrad displays his trademark bleakness here. Personally, I think it packed more impact in the much shorter Heart of Darkness than in this 400+ page depressing book.

A Classic with a Color in the Title: Black No More by George S. Schuyler – This biting satire is by turns hilarious and grim as the author explores an alternate US in which a medical procedure can turn black people into white people.

A Classic by an Author That’s New to You: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – I wouldn’t necessarily say that I liked this book, but the atmosphere and characterization were superb.

A Classic That Scares You: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway – I hated Hemingway in high school, but decided to be brave and give him another shot. I didn’t hate it this time, but he’s still not my cup of tea.

Re-read a Favorite Classic: The Poetic Edda by Anonymous – Who wouldn’t want to read about cross-dressing Thor, Loki getting in an insult contest with the rest of the gods, and the final showdown at Ragnarok?

And there you have it! (If I happen to win the drawing you can contact me Here.)

Charming Children’s Lit

Title: The Wind in the Willows
Author: Kenneth Grahame
Genre: Classic Children’s Literature
Pages: 104
Rating: 4 of 5

In spite of reading a lot of fantasy and anthropomorphized animal books as a child, I somehow never read the classic The Wind in the Willows, other than a few excerpts in grade school (and in theology books: the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” receives quite a bit of attention from the likes of C. S. Lewis). I needed a book for the Children’s Classic category over at the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge and decided it was high time to remedy the situation.

The primary descriptive word for this book would have to be charming. It is a paean to camaraderie, life on the Thames, and the comforts of home. The helpful Mole,  friendly rat, gruff badger, and outrageous (but likeable) Mr. Toad will pleasantly remind you of people you know. Many of the chapters are only loosely connected, varying from leisurely nostalgia to comedic action. Overall, it’s a nice cozy read that I will be recommending to my children.

Vanity of vanities!

Against Nature (Dover Thrift Editions) by [Huysmans, Joris K.]Title: Against Nature (A Rebours)
Author: Joris K. Huysmans
Translator: unknown (“This Dover Edition first published in 2018 is an unabridged republication of the English translation published by Three Sirens Press, in 1931…”)
Genre: Classic (French Decadent)
Pages: 204
Rating: 2.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

In my last post I mentioned the book that fascinated (and helped corrupt) Dorian Gray. By some accounts, Against Nature might be the book that Oscar Wilde had in mind. In it, Duc Jean des Esseintes retreats from Parisian society to a secluded villa and spends his time contemplating all that is artificial, artistic, and intellectual. It’s basically a more depressing, more decadent version of Ecclesiastes featuring a debauched aesthete instead of the Preacher (Vanity of vanities, says the Aesthete, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.)

Des Esseintes ponders colors, perfumes, prostitutes, affairs, drinks, art, literature, religion, etc. ad nauseum (and there actually quite a bit of literal nausea as his health is in a delicate state). This eventually peters out to a miserable conclusion that led one early critic to opine that, “After such a book, it only remains for the author to choose between the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the cross.”

Interestingly, this edition of the book starts with a preface by the author written about twenty years after original publication. While standing by some of his aesthetic and religious judgments, he indicates that he has returned to the church he so despised. Apparently, like the Preacher he discovered:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. – Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 (the last two verses of the book)

Overall, I found the book tedious and pretentious (and morally pretty gross), but its connection to The Picture of Dorian Gray and similarity to Ecclesiastes provided a degree of interest. The author inadvertently playing out the last two verses of Ecclesiastes with his own life further shows the wisdom of the Preacher:

What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done,
    and there is nothing new under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 1:9

Atmosphere & Neuroses

It has been almost three weeks since I last posted here, but I’m still alive and reading. I have been in a bit of a reviewing slump due to migraines, holidays, and work, but I hope to get back into the “at least once per week” schedule now.

Title: Rebecca
Author: Daphne Du Maurier
Genre: Modern Classic/Gothic
Pages: 416
Rating: 4 of 5

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian describes a book as, “I didn’t say I liked it…I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.” I’ve used that quote in a few other book reviews (e.g. The Great Gatsby, and Dorian Gray itself), and it applies to this book as well. The characters sparkle with realism, but are some of the most unpleasant people you can imagine and treat each other appallingly.

Our unnamed narrator is painfully shy, socially awkward, and pathetically affection-starved. When she marries the brooding Maxim de Winter she is thrown into an upper class country manor lifestyle for which she is completely unprepared. Between the coldness of Maxim and the spiteful hatred of Mrs. Danvers the housekeeper (that window scene!), our narrator is adrift in a sea of insecurity and neuroses. She has little idea of her responsibilities or others’ expectations, and she constantly wonders what others are thinking and saying about her. She mentally plays out vivid imagined scenes of the disapproval that might be going on behind her back and the painful course that future events could take. Much of her awkwardness and self-doubt rang true to me as I am an extreme introvert in a job that involves a lot of social interaction and public scrutiny (though I hope I’m not anywhere near as neurotic and needy as she is).

Hovering over all this, driving it, and making it oh so much worse is the memory of Maxim’s first wife: the beautiful, masterful Rebecca. Her life was cut tragically short, and the more that our narrator learns about her and how much everyone seemed to adore her, the more insecure she becomes…and (because this is a Gothic novel) the more she begins to suspect that something sinister is boiling below the surface.

Eventually things come to a head, giving our heroine a chance to step up and show what she’s really made of. She does change and develop in her relationship with Maxim, but whether that is ultimately a good thing is questionable at best. The behavior of several “good” secondary characters in the later part of the book (though understandable and true to life) was disappointing to me.

Overall, this is a wonderfully atmospheric read featuring a neurotic narrator, plenty of moral ambiguity, and some downright despicable behavior. To me, its tone felt like a cross between The Great Gatsby and The Woman in White. I think that it worked, but it’s probably not for everyone.

One final thing: I am using this for my Classic By a New-To-You Author category over at the Back to the Classics 2018 reading challenge.

Ender’s Hunger Games

Apocalypse Five (Archive of the Fives Book 1) by [Rourke, Stacey]Title: Apocalypse Five
Author: Stacey Rourke
Genre: Dystopian Sci-Fi
Pages: 252
Rating: 2 of 5
Future Release Date: 2/12/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Smoosh together Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games, tack on Children of Men for good measure, and you have this book. I’m not sure if I have ever read such derivative sci-fi. It went straight past cliché and into aping popular franchises while stopping short of actual intellectual property theft. There were a few clever twists on the concepts involved, but not enough to raise this above a “seen it all before and the other guys did it better” 2.5-3 stars plot.

The physical descriptions knocked this the rest of the way down to 2 stars. There was way too much “flexing pecks” “chiseled abs” “ebony locks” “tangle of lashes” “mahogany stare” etc. for me. And only about half of those descriptions came in the (frequent) lusting-after-each-other scenes!

Between the Harlequin Romance-esque vocabulary and painfully derivative plot this book did not work for me at all.

(There were also way too many misused/misspelled words – repel instead of rappel, alude instead of elude, toe-head instead of towhead, etc. – but hopefully those are due to my reading a proof copy and won’t remain in the published edition)

Not My Usual, but Fun

Title: The Flash: Starting Line
(Issues #0-12 plus Annual #1)
Author: Brian Buccellato
Illustrator: Francis Manapul
Genre: Superhero Comic Book
Pages: 344
Rating: 3.5 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)

Even though I enjoy superhero movies, I’ve been a bit annoyed by comic books the couple times I’ve tried to dip into them. For me, there’s just not enough plot per issue, and crossover plot points from other heroes leave you with the choice of spending more money on other titles or having only a vague idea of what is going on. This format does away with some of that, and I quite enjoyed it. With all the issues for the year bundled together, the “artificial cliffhanger after minimal exposition followed by a month-long wait” annoyance wasn’t there, and there were no major plot points that hinged on knowing something from another title. An acquaintance with Flash and his recurring villains would add to the experience, but a newbie would not be lost or frustrated.

The stories themselves fairly skillfully combined origins & explanation of the Flashverse (if that’s a word) kind of plotlines with regular superhero fare (foiling bad guys, balancing romance and secret identity, etc.). The artwork wasn’t bad, but did feature more talking head panels than I was expecting. Honestly, since I’m not a comic connoisseur, I don’t know how it stacks up against similar efforts. Overall, I’m probably not the usual audience for this book, but it was fun.