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 More for the Book Challenges

Life is still pretty chaotic at our house, but I’ve finished another book for each of the two reading challenges I’m doing this year. First, for the Back to the Classics 2022 Challenge I completed this book for the Classics Short Story Collection category:

Title: An Obsession with Death and Dying: Volume 1
Author: Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish, George Hopley)
Genre: Classic Pulp Fiction
Pages: 335
Rating: 4 of 5

Cornell Woolrich falls into my second tier of Pulp crime/detective fiction authors. He’s no Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but still worth reading if you enjoy the genre. Woolrich knows how to crank up and maintain suspense, even if his endings tend to be either painfully predictable or so out of left field that they barely make sense.

This collection in honor of his 50th “death-day” pulls together 10 of his stories that have the word death or die in the title. It’s a mixed bag, that gives a pretty good feel for what Woolrich is capable of. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of classic pulp detectives.

The second book I’m reviewing is from my list for The Official TBR Pile Challenge. This book has been hanging out on my TBR pile for a couple years since Amazon insistently recommended it because of my interest in weird/cosmic horror fiction:

Title: The Twenty Days of Turin
Author: Giorgio De Maria
Translator: Ramon Glazov
Genre: Weird Fiction / Satire
Pages: 224
Rating: 4 of 5

Since I’m not up on 1970’s Italian political history, I doubt that I caught all of the satirical nuances in this Italian novel that recounts a “mass psychosis” tragedy in Turin (as researched and retold by our intrepid narrator). That said, it still works as a creepy piece of weirdness with themes of voyeurism, paranoia, insomnia, uncaring powers, and more.

It became clear to me what was going on fairly early in the book (intentionally on the author’s part, I think). However, the characters’ unwillingness or inability to do anything about it or even acknowledge it is what provided a lot of the disturbing atmosphere. Also, I’m not quite sure what the author intended “the library” to represent in his original context, but it came across as a prescient warning against some of the darker aspects of social media. I’m really not sure what else I can describe without starting to give things away, but if you’re in the mood for something strange and paranoid check this out.

Not a Tame Lion

This is actually a re-posting from about 4 years ago, but I just finished the entire Narnia series for the who-knows-how-manyth time and wanted to share it again because it is more true than ever:

Though the seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia are written as fairytales for children, they follows C. S. Lewis’s philosophy that, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest,” and “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” While I have not yet reached the “fifty and beyond” category, I enjoy these books a little more each time I read them (and I have read them every two or three years since I was in first grade).

The Chronicles of Narnia tell the tale of a magical world of talking animals in which British children have a variety of adventures (defeating a witch, winning the throne for the rightful king, rescuing a lost prince, etc.). Though children from our world are the main characters, the true hero of the series is Aslan, The Great Lion and Son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea. Aslan is clearly a Christ character, intended by Lewis to be “a supposition” of what it would look like for the Son of God to appear in a different world. Lewis recognized that “The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.” Each book, besides being a fun fantasy story, explores a different aspect of Aslan’s character.

  • In The Lion the Witch an the Wardrobe he is the Redeemer
  • In Prince Caspian he is the One who sends help
  • In The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ he is the Guide and Renewer.
  • In The Silver Chair he is the One who guides with his Words.
  • In The Horse and His Boy he is the One in sovereign control of events.
  • In The Magician’s Nephew he is the Creator.
  • In The Last Battle he is the One who ushers his children into paradise.

…and so much more. These books have grown with me through increased understanding in a way described by Aslan in Prince Caspian:

“Aslan,” said Lucy “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

The only book in the series about which I have some reservations is The Last Battle. It contains breathtaking descriptions of paradise but also emphasizes some confused pluralistic ideas that depart from biblical orthodoxy. It is still worth reading, but those who take seriously Jesus’ claims to be the only way to heaven (e.g. John 3:16-18) should approached it with discernment.

The order in which I have listed the books above is C. S. Lewis’s original publication order, and I personally think they are far better when read in that sequence rather than the “chronological” order currently used by publishers. If nothing else, Lewis clearly intended The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to be the readers’ first impression of Aslan. And I will leave you with part of Aslan’s beautiful introduction from that book. Come meet Aslan:

“…Aslan is a lion–the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”
“I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”

Two Strange Classics

I finished one more book in each of the two reading challenges that I’m doing this year. Both are classics and both left me with a bit of that “What did I just read?” feeling. From The Official TBR Pile Challenge I read this collection of classic short stories:

Title: The Overcoat and Other Stories
Author: Nikolai Gogol
Genre: Classic Russian Weirdness
Pages: 144
Rating: 2 of 5

I have read a couple other books by Gogol (Dead Souls and Taras Bulba) and enjoyed them well enough (if enjoy is the right word for appreciating the bleakness that is Russian literature)….this collection, not so much.

Gogol’s work is generally oddly satirical, and in these stories he cranked up the odd part to the max. A couple of them crossed the line into completely surreal nonsense territory which just isn’t my samovar of tea.

Add to this the fact that Gogol is a Russian-speaking (albeit Ukrainian-born) author who frequently pokes fun at Ukraine (which he mostly calls “Little Russia”) and it just wasn’t a good time to be reading this. I have friends in Ukraine who are now refugees and others who spent weeks hiding in their house for fear of being robbed and/or shot by the Russian occupiers, so a Russian-speaker poking fun at Ukrainian culture is the last thing that I wanted to read, even if he is doing it with some level of fondness.

The second book that I read was this modern classic for the Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic category at the Back to the Classics 2020 Challenge:

Title: Picnic at Hanging Rock
Author: Joan Lindsay
Genre: Classic Australian Weirdness
Pages: 225
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I hope that this author thanked her editor for convincing her to drop the final chapter and leave the mystery at the heart of the story open-ended. As it stands, this reads like a bleak Unsolved Mysteries true-crime docudrama.

Three teenage girls and a teacher disappear on a school picnic in the Australian brush, and we get front row seats to the effect it has on their posh boarding school and the surrounding community. Along the way we get a few weird clues about what happened to the missing people with mysterious asides from the author, but the story cuts off with a mass of loose ends. The fact that we don’t get a nice, neat wrap-up puts the focus on well-written characters in heartbreaking situations and makes it the haunting modern classic that it is.

An attached essay gives the gist of the original ending which has since been found. It seems like weirdness just for the sake of weirdness that sucks any reality out of the rest of the book. I would advise against reading it (or a summary of it). Just let the loose ends haunt you…

Two More Classics

Finished two more books for the Back to the Classics 2022 Challenge!

Title: The Travels
Authors: Marco Polo & Rustichello da Pisa
Genre: Classic Travelogue
Pages: 480
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I read this for the Nonfiction Classic category, but there were enough obvious fabrications and scholarly footnotes noting embellishments and errors that its “nonfiction” status is borderline. However, that’s pretty par for the course for ancient and medieval history books (looking at you, Herodotus!), so I think it counts.

I have read a few other ancient and medieval histories (Thucydides, Arian, various sagas, etc.) and found them mostly informative and enjoyable. Marco Polo, not so much. The seemingly endless catalogue of the climate, religion, political allegiance, natural resources, and market goods of each region through which he travels becomes tedious very quickly.

There are some descriptions of interesting (though not always especially believable) political maneuvering, cultural practices, legends, and cityscapes. You get some sense of what life was like in and around Kublai Khan’s empire but filtered through Marco’s (and Rustichello’s) sycophancy, self-aggrandizement, and ethnocentrism.

I can see why people of his era who were unlikely to ever travel into “mysterious and exotic” Asia would be fascinated by this eyewitness testimony, but it falls kind of flat today unless you’re a historian trying to pick it apart for historical goodies.

Title: Ivanhoe
Author: Sir Walter Scott
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 528
Rating: 3.5 of 5

For the 19th century classic category, I reread Ivanhoe. This is a melodramatic, over-romanticized “Knights in shining armor and outlaws in Sherwood Forest” piece of escapist fluff…and it’s pretty fun if you want a mindless classic read. The author does deal with a serious theme of the evils and foolishness of antisemitism (somewhat muddied by his own portrayal of an important Jewish characters using all the prevailing negative stereotypes), but mostly the book is an excuse to string together all the “age of chivalry” and Robin Hood tropes that you can imagine. If you are willing to roll your eyes and go with the flow, it’s worth a read (though I prefer R. L. Stevenson’s The Black Arrow).

Back to the Classics (Kind of)

Title: Classic Monsters Unleashed
Authors: 30 of “the biggest names in the genre” (according to Amazon)
Editor: James Aquilone
Genre: Horror Story Anthology
Pages: 443
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: July 12, 2022 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.)

Your enjoyment of this collection will hinge quite a bit on how much you know and appreciate classic monster stories, especially as they have been portrayed on the big screen. With most of the entries you need at least a passing knowledge of the original (or classic screen-adapted) version for the “unleashed” story to really make sense.

There is good variety in the monsters/creatures featured across the collection. I think that Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and werewolves are the only ones to make multiple appearances with 2-3 apiece (pretty impressive in a collection of 29 stories).

That being said, most of the plots fell into just a handful of categories used in various combinations:

  1. Classic monster returns to cause more mayhem.
  2. Try to guess which monster this is about before the big reveal…
  3. Recast monster as misunderstood victim and/or hero as the villain.
  4. Gender swap characters.
  5. Engage in social commentary on gender or race.

I preferred the stories that built on the already-established characters rather than completely re-imagining them, but that’s just my personal taste.

Stylistically, this was a mixed bag. Some stories felt stilted, as if the author was just phoning it in and checking off the boxes needed to make a creature feature. Others demonstrated creativity and variety in language usage (including annoying but clever use of textspeak in Dacre Stoker’s offering). I would say that the well-written outnumber the “meh.”

Overall, this is worth a read if you are into classic monster horror. However, as with many bulky themed anthologies, you might want to take some time between stories so that they don’t start to sound repetitive.

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