Two Quirky Classics

Title: Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memories of Brás Cubas)
Author: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Genre: Brazilian Classic
Pages: 223
Rating: 2 of 5

Machado de Assis had one of my favorite reads of the year a few years ago (O Alienista), but I did not enjoy this one. It features the same absurdism and quirkiness (reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman). For example, one chapter was titled something like “How I Failed to Win the Election” and is followed by a blank page. However, the highly digressive story ultimately revolves around an adulterous love affair, which is among my least favorite plot devices when played for humor or romance. Someone who doesn’t have this hang-up would probably enjoy it a lot more than I did. I will be using this for my Classic by a BIPOC Author category at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Title: The Sundial
Author: Shirley Jackson
Genre: Gothic Absurdity
Pages: 241
Rating: 4 of 5

The Sundial is reminiscent of Jackson’s later We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but if feels like she read a lot of Oscar Wilde before writing this one. Ostensibly, it is about a rich blueblood family (and various hangers-on) preparing for the cataclysmic end of the world and dawning of a new age. However, it’s more of an excuse for wicked/clever repartee among eccentric characters who believe crazy Aunt Fanny’s doomsday predictions to varying degrees, but none of whom want to be left out just in case she’s right. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but I did enjoy it. I will be using this for the Classic by a Woman at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Reading Challenges: German Edition

Life continues to be unpredictable and chaotic (still working toward a diagnosis on my wife’s chronic/worsening neurological issues). However, I’ve finished another book for each of my reading challenges and finally have time to write a review of each.

We’ll start with the book I read for the Classic in Translation category of the Back to the Classics challenge:

Title: The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr
Author: E. T. A. Hoffman
Genre: Classic German Absurdity
Pages: 384
Rating: 3.5 of 5

If you’ve ever wondered what a tomcat’s autobiography would sound like, look no further! The genius (if he does say so himself) Tomcat Murr, graces his readers with the edifying story of his extraordinary life, interspersed with sometimes unflattering editorial comments and a partial biography of the (fictional) Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler that was “accidentally” bound in the same book. The melodramatic, tongue-in-cheek, “I’m editing someone else’s book” schtick reminds me quite a bit of The Princess Bride.

Unfortunately, the eccentric composer Johannes Kreisler passages are significantly less amusing (and slightly longer) than the arrogant Tomcat Murr ones. I’m sure it’s all very artistic and the juxtaposition of the two has deep philosophical insights. However, when Kreisler intruded, I mostly just wanted to get back to the self-important cat and his snarky editor. Add to this that the book is unfinished (and the editors are lying when they say it feels complete even without the planned-but-never-written Part 3), and I couldn’t give it more than 3.5 out of 5 even though I greatly enjoyed parts of it.

And for the The Official TBR Pile Challenge I read this biography:

Title: Then They Came For Me:
Martin Niemöller, the Pastor Who Defied the Nazis
Author: Matthw D. Hockenos
Genre: Biography
Pages: 303 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Martin Niemöller is best known for the attributed quote:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

While he may or may not have said these exact words, he certainly expressed the sentiment late in his life. Matthew Hockenos traces Niemöller’s journey from ultra-nationalistic WWI U-boat captain (and early Nazi supporter) to Nazi prisoner (albeit in relatively cushy conditions compared to the average concentration camp prisoner) to international champion of pacifism and the ecumenical movement.

It isn’t always a flattering portrait, especially for those who idolize/idealize Niemöller’s work with the Confessing Church in Germany. Hockenos seems intent on highlighting Niemöller’s many flaws while offering guarded praise for his willingness to change his views over time. I don’t know if I’d call it an inspiring read, but it was revealing of human nature, including the tendency to be motivated solely by the interests of the group to which we belong.

Another Two for the Book Challenges

I’m currently on a big family vacation (first one ever where it’s not a trip to visit family), so the brain is in low power mode, and this is going to be pretty short. However, I have finished another book for each of my reading challenges and wanted to post about them. First, for the Official TBR Pile Challenge:

Title: The Miser and Other Plays
Author: Molière
Genre: Classic Plays
Pages: 280
Rating: 3 of 5

They say (whoever “they” are) that plays are meant to be watched rather than read, and I think that is probably the case with these plays by Molière. This collection included mostly his “second tier” plays (e.g. it’s lacking Tartuffe and The Misanthrope), so I don’t feel like I got a good impression of the playwright at the height of his skill. As it was, there was some mildly amusing cleverness that probably would have popped a lot more on stage. Also, I’m pretty sure that he ripped off borrowed heavily from Aeschylus at a few points.

Next, for the Back to the Classics Challenge I completed this book:

Title: The Black Robe
Author: Wilkie Collins
Genre: Melodramatic Victorian Fiction
Pages: 390
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Wilkie Collins produced some pretty melodramatic nonsense in his day, and this is a prime example. The theme of this book: Watch out for the scaaaaaary, scheming Jesuits! (though we’ll put in one nice Jesuit who’s an exception to the rule so we don’t completely tick off the Catholics).

Scaaaary stories…

It was okay if you’re in the mood for Victorian nonsense and don’t mind some Catholic-bashing. I can only take so much Wilkie Collins. There’s a reason that the works of his contemporary, Charles Dickens, are much more highly respected.

Two for the Book Challenges

Over the last month I checked off a book from each of my two reading challenges. From the Back to the Classics 2022 Challenge I finished the “Classic in a Place You’d Like to Visit” category with…

Title: The Hobbit
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 287 (10:25 audiobook length)
Rating: 5 of 5

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this book since first reading it in 2nd or 3rd grade, but I still enjoy it every time. As Tolkien’s friend, C. S. Lewis, said: “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.”

It is written with a much younger audience in mind than The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, but (to quote Lewis again), “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children isn’t a good children’s story in the slightest.” It is less grim than his other writings. The overall tone could even be described as charming with small dashes of silly, but Tolkien’s favorite theme of the courage and perseverance of “regular people” (with a few nudges from Providence) shaping the course of events is in full bloom.

This time through, I listened to the Audible audiobook version narrated by Andy Serkis. He did an excellent job with all the voices (not just Gollum) and narrated with enthusiasm and humor. It’s well worth a listen.

My read from The Official TBR Pile Challenge was something completely different, but still a 5-star book:

Title: Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism
Editors: Elijah Hixson & Peter J. Gurry
Genre: Biblical Studies
Pages: 352 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

New Testament textual criticism is the branch of biblical studies that seeks to ascertain the original wording of the NT writings, especially in places where there are differences between ancient manuscripts. Extreme skeptics like Bart Ehrman try to make it sound like the text is hopelessly corrupt, as if it had been passed along and muddled in the party game “telephone.” Such an analysis is needlessly pessimistic. However, in their zeal to disprove it, some Christian apologists grossly overstate, oversimplify, and/or misuse the text-critical evidence of the accurate preservation of New Testament Scripture.

The essays in this book offer a corrective to such mistaken arguments while demonstrating the high textual accuracy of the New Testament we possess and the place of textual criticism in ensuring this. This area of study has always interested me, and I thoroughly enjoyed these essays, learning about the topic in more detail than what could be covered in my introductory seminary classes.

While I highly recommend this book, it isn’t necessarily a good introductory book if you have no background in the topic. For that I would suggest The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration by Bruce Metzger & Bart Ehrman (from before Ehrman went off the hyper-skeptical deep end).

Also, on a personal note: postings here will continue to be sporadic as we are still dealing with major health problems triggered by my wife’s bout with covid.

Back with Two Classics

I’m back! My wife still has quite a ways to go in her recovery, but we’re out of the woods. So, for the first time in a few weeks, here are a couple short reviews. These are books that I read for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Moll Flanders ( illustrated ) by [Daniel Defoe]

Title: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who Was Born in Newgate, and During a Life of Continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, Besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, Five Times a Wife (Whereof Once to her Own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at Last Grew Rich, Liv’d Honest, and Died a Penitent. Written from Her Own Memorandums.
(aka Moll Flanders)
Author: Daniel Defoe (Probably)
Genre: Classic Picaresque
Pages: 376
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The full title pretty much sums up the book (and should probably come with a *SPOILERS* tag). Like a lot of picaresque novels, mixed in with our hero’s roguish adventures is satirical commentary on the “polite society” that has led her to this lifestyle. The whole thing feels a bit tongue-in-cheek as Moll’s “penitent” confession of her wickedness frequently has an undertone of pride in her own cleverness. I’m really not quite sure what to make of the book, but I enjoyed it overall.

(I will be using this as my pre-1800 classic)

Title: Oil!
Author: Upton Sinclair
Genre: Socialist Propaganda
Pages: 541
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This starts out as a captivating (if saddening) tale of a young man torn between loyalty to his unscrupulous oil magnate father and his friends (and other workers) exploited by the oil industry. It shines a light on the abuses and corruption in the oil industry and provides a largely sympathetic look at the broad spectrum of union, socialist, and communist movements in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, after a certain point, heavy-handed socialist propaganda (with plenty of sneering at religion and even an encouraging nod toward Soviet Bolshevism) pretty much drowns out any actual compelling story.

(I will be using this as my 20th century classic)

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

Epistolary Meandering

Title: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker
Author: Tobias Smollet
Genre: Classic Epistolary/Picaresque Novel
Pages: 392
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This reminded me of a slightly less silly The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. In both of them, the titular character is not the protagonist for the majority of the book (in this book, he isn’t even the narrator!), in both of them the plot is pretty minimal (though this book has a bit more), and in both of them the humor is a bit rude (Tristram Shandy more bawdy & Humphry Clinker more gross).

The plot (such as it is) follows the curmudgeonly (but good-hearted) Welshman, Matthew Bramble, and his household as they play the tourist from Bath up through parts of Scotland and home again. The story is told through letters from various members of the party, each with their own voice. Plot threads include acquiring a new servant (the eponymous Humphry Clinker), a secret romance, and a straight-laced old aunt’s desperate attempts to catch a man. The eccentric characters and ridiculous situations along the way are fairly entertaining, but there were places where it really dragged. I have the feeling that a more thorough understanding of the era and knowledge of the places they visit would make this an even more enjoyable book. Overall, not a bad read, but I can’t see ever bothering to read it again.

Also, I am using this for the Travel or Adventure Classic category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.

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.

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)