Obsessive Discontent

Image result for Jude the obscure book coverTitle: Jude the Obscure
Author: Thomas Hardy
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 414
Rating: 3.5

I read this book for the Classic Tragedy category at the Back to the Classics Challenge. I didn’t know much about it going in other than that it was supposed to be horribly depressing and scandalously frank in its discussion of sexuality for a Victorian Era book…and that’s exactly what it was. Hardy attacks the snobbery of academia and the institution of marriage. I’m not sure whether he is entirely against the idea of marriage as a lifelong commitment or just the way that he sees it being manipulated and abused.

Our protagonist, Jude, spends his whole life discontented and obsessed. His life swirls around the effects of a hasty marriage to a pig farmer’s daughter (Arabella), inability to progress in his scholarly pursuits (due largely to the elitist nature of Christminster / Oxford), and a romantic infatuation with his brilliantly unconventional, narcissistic cousin (Sue). Jude wallows in misery as he repeatedly chucks aside anything good he has going for him in order to pursue immediate lusts or sulk over his dissatisfaction. Between Jude’s obsessive discontent, Arabella’s manipulations, and Sue’s love of being loved (with minimal reciprocation), ugliness and tragedy abound.

Overall, the book is pretty horrifying, but I have to give it credit for a certain kind of realism. As a pastor who does a fair amount of counseling, most of the life-ruining decisions made by the people in this book are sadly familiar. Hardy and I would probably analyze the problems and moral course of action differently in some cases, but the man certainly understood the dark, selfish side of human nature.

Fantastical Fiction

Title: The Big Book of Classic Fantasy
Editors: Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Genre: Fantasy(ish)
Pages: 848
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: July 2, 2019 (Thank you to the editors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Having read and greatly enjoyed Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s massive anthology entitled The Weird, I jumped at the chance to review another one of their tomes. This volume collects “classic fantasy” stories (and excerpts from longer books) ranging in date from the early 1800’s up until World War II when fantasy became more of a defined genre. The blend of authors includes classic fantasy/sci-fi/weird writers, classic literary legends dabbling in the fantastical, and many authors less known to the English-speaking world.

The editors’ most basic definition of fantasy is: “…any story in which an element of the unreal permeates the real world or any story that takes place within a secondary world that is identifiably not a version of ours, whether anything overtly ‘fantastical’ occurs during the story.” This allows for a wide variety of stories, very few of which fall into high fantasy, swords & sorcery, or other popular modern sub-genres.

A large number of the stories have a folklore, fairy-tale, or tall-tale feel with all the incoherencies and random digressions common to them. Quite a few are unclassifiable other than to say that they contain a fantastical element…maybe magic realism or surrealism? Some are more didactic like beast-fables or political satire that dips into the fantastical. A few I would classify solidly in the weird/horror or pulp sci-fi categories rather than fantasy, but such things are always a matter of opinion.

Overall, the editors have produced an interesting blend of the fantastical. How much you enjoy it may depend on your taste and how willing you are to give fantasy an extremely broad definition. Personally, I like a fairly coherent story even when I read fantasy, so the high number of folkloric tales, surreal stories, and small excerpts from longer books sometimes got on my nerves. However, if you’re into fantastical stories or “fantasy before there was a fantasy genre” this book is well worth your time.

Nothing but Rabbit Trails

Title: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Author: Laurence Sterne
Genre: 18th Century Classic
Pages: 540
Rating: 3 of 5

Have you ever wanted to read a book that was one long string of digressions and rabbit trails, detouring through risqué jokes and never quite getting to the alleged point of the story? Then this is the book for you! Our narrator and eponymous hero isn’t even born until somewhere in volume 3 (of 9), and we learn far more about the life and opinions of his absurdly opinionated father and sweet, eccentric Uncle Toby than his own.

The whole series-of-ridiculous-digressions “plot,” naughty jokes (more than half left to the imagination and self-censored with lines of asterisks), and other weird typographical  choices (a marbled page, curly lines representing the plot up to this point, chapter lengths varying from a couple dozen pages to a single sentence, etc.) were amusing at first and made my chuckle occasionally. However, 540 pages of it (and this is a relatively low page-count edition) was a bit much. Also, I read this in an edition completely without explanatory notes of any kind, so I’m sure that a lot of the literary-allusion humor was lost on me. It was interesting to read as an example of British humor before the straight-laced Victorians, but I’d suggest getting an annotated version of some sort if you decide to read it so that you can fully appreciate it.

And one more thing: I’m using this for my Very Long Classic (>500 pages) category over at the Back to the Classics ChallengeMy edition was 540 pages and many (most?) are significantly longer.

Philosophy Wrapped in Story

Resurrection audiobook cover artTitle: Resurrection
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Translator: Louise Maude
Genre: Classic Russian Fiction / Philosophy / Theology
Pages: 398
Rating: 4 of 5

I seldom read modern Christian fiction. With a few exceptions, it tends to be preachy, poorly-researched schlock full of morbid introspection and cheesy romance. I’m not sure where things went wrong, because this Russian classic is most certainly Christian, features quite a bit of morbid introspection, and still managed to wow me. This is one of those books where plot comes in a distant second to the author’s desire to explore and expound philosophical and theological points, but the characters were still sympathetic (or loathsome), and I genuinely wanted to find out what happened to them.

Tolstoy’s tale follows the spiritual journey of a privileged man who realizes that his actions, past and present, have contributed to the downfall of a poor woman: sending her into a down-spiral leading into prostitution and eventual wrongful conviction for murder. We see his inner spiritual struggle over how to rectify the situation as well as the outward struggle of living in a self-centered society that cares nothing for the poor and “criminal class.” To me, Tolstoy’s approach places so much emphasis on doing good that faith (an indispensable part of Christianity) is nearly excluded. However there was much food for thought throughout the book whether I agreed with him or not.

I listened to this as an audiobook read by Simon Vance. His narration was excellent, but I think that I might have preferred reading this myself for the sake of being able to re-read, make notes, etc. when it came to many of the philosophical points.

Overall, even though this had a lot of what I dislike in modern Christian fiction, it worked in the hands of a master like Tolstoy, and I greatly appreciated this book. Also, I am using this for my Classic in Translation category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Noir, Old and New

The Baby in the Icebox: And Other Short Fiction by [Cain, James M.]Title: The Baby in the Icebox:
And Other Short Fiction
Author: James M. Cain
Genre: Classic Crime Noir (and other random short stories)
Pages: 312
Rating: 3.5 of 5

James M. Cain is best known for gritty crime tales like The Postman Always Rings Twice. If watching guilt-ridden criminals spiral downward into self-destruction is your thing, Cain is your man…though not so much in the first part of this book. This volume collects short stories from various points in Cain’s career, so the first half features vaguely humorous social commentary and back-hills rubes rather than the crime noir you might expect from the title and the ominous fedora-clad silhouette on the cover. Overall, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to have some lighter fare at the start because a full 300+ pages of Cain’s typical seedy protagonists and trainwreck lives may have been a bit much. As it was, it was entertaining enough for 3.5 stars, and I can check this off my list for the TBR Pile Challenge.

Title: My Sister the Serial Killer
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Genre: Modern Crime Noir
Pages: “240”
Rating: 3.5

The title gives you the main plot point: our protagonist’s much doted upon younger sister would appear to be a serial killer, and the book follows her life and thoughts as she decides how to handle it. The plot jumps right in with her cleaning up after the her sister’s latest killing. From there it is by turns tense, humorous, and disturbing.

Both the “bond of sisterhood” theme and the Nigerian setting gives a slightly different feel from similar crime noir books, which I appreciated. As far as cultural and language differences go, a few small words such as exclamations, kinds of food, and articles of clothing go untranslated but enough can be gathered from context that they add “color” instead of being annoying.

This is really more of a novella than a full length novel. The page count says 240, but the tiny chapters that cover 1-3 pages with widely spaced lines and manage to spill a few lines onto the next page seem designed to seriously pad the page-count. As a noir story, it is competently executed and worth a read if you don’t mind moral ambiguity, a little grim humor, and loose ends.

A Cheap Dupin Knockoff

The Old Man in the Corner: The Teahouse Detective: Volume 1 (Pushkin Vertigo) by [Orczy]Title: The Old Man in the Corner:
The Teahouse Detective, Volume 1
Author: Baroness Orczy
Genre: Armchair Detective Mystery
Pages: 224
Rating: 2.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the contents of this review in any way)

In 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle  stole  borrowed Edgar Allan Poe’s eccentric detective C. Auguste Dupin, and transformed him into the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes. While Holmes is arguably more entertaining than Dupin, the host of imitations created by other authors trying to cash in on the “genius detective” craze were seldom more than pale imitations. Such is Baroness Orczy’s unnamed Old Man in the Corner.

This collection of short stories features conversations between a young reporter and an “odd scarecrow” of a man who sits in the corner of a teahouse tying complex knots in a piece of string while quietly (but arrogantly) expounding to her the answers to unsolved crimes. His deductions are based almost exclusively on attending inquests and reading the stories as they appear in the newspaper. The old man has no desire to bring the criminals to justice and offers no concrete evidence that could do so. He is content with working out to his satisfaction (and his listener’s amazement) what must have happened.

For me, everything about the book was very bland. The characterization was shallow, relying on the same few stock descriptions (“scarecrow” “sarcastic” “tying and untying complex knots”). The subject matter of the stories was the usual assortment of blackmail, gambling debts, unhappy marriages, inheritance disputes, etc, with nothing terribly unexpected, exotic, or spine-tingling, and the solutions to the mysteries became tediously similar after the first two or three. The eARC Pushkin Vertigo edition that I read provided nothing in the way of background, commentary, or any other added interest.

Overall, if you’re really into classic armchair detectives, you will probably enjoy this, but if you’re just dipping into the “genius detective” genre go with Holmes or Dupin.

That one student…

43358773Title: The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N
Author: Leonard Q. Ross (aka Leo Rosten)
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 176
Rating: 4 of 5

In my college language classes (English & Greek) I had a classmate who was always ready to stand up and enthusiastically share his compositions or translations with the class. His answers frequently left the professor with a look of disbelief on his face while he tried to figure out how to even start correcting the beaming student. More than once, poor Mr. Smith looked like he was thinking about throwing himself out the window (if only it weren’t on the ground floor), and Dr. Brown once said, “No, I said translate verse 10” only to hear “that was verse 10.” This book took me right back to those classes.

The book follows the travails of Mr. Parkhill, the beginners class teacher at the American Night Preparatory School for Adults as he tries to teach English to immigrants, including the irrepressible Hyman Kaplan (aka H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N). Most of the humor revolves around Mr. Kaplan’s enthusiastic mispronunciation and misuse of English (e.g. “Bad, Worse, Rotten”).

Some readers might find this offensive (it certainly isn’t PC), but since the focus is generally on Mr. Kaplan’s self-assurance and unique thought process driving his teacher to distraction I felt that it was more about his charmingly ridiculous personality than a dig at immigrants. The other classmates show a more realistic portrait of someone trying to learn this ridiculous language of ours. After a while the jokes were a little one-note, but Mr. Kaplan reminded me so much of my classmate (who similarly butchered English in spite of it being his native language) and of the frustration of trying to teach English as a second language (which I did part time for about a year) that I was thoroughly amused.

I am using this for my Classic Comic Novel category over at the Back to the Classics challenge.

Grimdark Shakespeare

Title: King Lear
(1988 Bantam Classic Edition)
Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Play (Tragedy)
Pages: 222 (actual play: 137 pages)
Rating: 4 of 5

Ego, ambition, lust, and madness swirl into a raging whirlwind of betrayal and death in this grim tragedy. The plot is so bleak that it fell out of favor for 150 years, and modern scholars are deeply divided over what, if anything, is the point of it all. I’m not sure what possessed Shakespeare to transform a legendary story with a relatively happy ending into this grimdark play, but he did so with his typical flair and devastating result.

The Bantam edition that I read had a decent variety of supplemental material. There is a running glossary at the bottom of each page providing definitions of archaic words and difficult phrases. A couple essays and an annotated bibliography explored possible interpretations of the play, and several sections at the end provided excerpts from older writings that probably served as Shakespeare’s sources. There are significant difference between quarto versions and the folio version, and, like many editions, this one smooshes them all together so as not to lose any lines written by the Bard (the text-critical apparatus is inconveniently located all in one place rather than footnoted in the text where variants occur). Overall, an okay edition of one of Shakespeare’s bleakest plays.

(Also, I will be using this for my Classic Play category over at the Back to the Classics challenge.)

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

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!