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

Best & Worst of 2021

This year I read 139 books with a total page count of 47,713 (~343 pages/book). I now present you with my sixth 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; & 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 Divine Comedy: Paradise by Danté (Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers): Between the constant reference to contemporary Italian politics and what I consider to be idolatrous reliance on Mary and the Saints, I found this hard to get through.
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier: If you like melodramatic Harlequin-esque “historical romance,” this is for you…but that’s not my genre at all.
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac: drugs, sex, jazz, blah blah blah…aren’t I deep!
  • Ripley Underground by Patricia Highsmith: a disappointing sequel to the interesting Talented Mr. Ripley. The complete non-ending was the worst.
  • The Tinfoil Dossier Trilogy by Caitlin R. Kiernan: A mashup of Cthulhu and black helicopter style conspiracies is a cool idea, but the execution was trippy to the point of incomprehensible and just plain gross (in both the splattery and moral senses).

Best Fiction

  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens: If you like Dickens, be sure to read this one. However, this isn’t a good place to start if you’ve never read him before.
  • Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez: This is pretty silly and episodic. Not great literature, but a lot of fun as the author plays with classic supervillain tropes.
  • The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells: This series (5 novellas and a novel so far) is top-tier sci-fi with an AI protagonist/narrator that any introvert can appreciate.
  • The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: I don’t usually enjoy revenge slasher horror, but this “literary horror” worked surprisingly well.
  • Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir: Another masterpiece from Andy Weir for those who like a lot of science in their science fiction.

Best Non-fiction

  • Gentle & Lowly by Dane Ortlund: A thoughtful reminder that “Yes, Jesus loves me,” and biblical Christianity is not based on “Try harder to be better.”
  • God Against the Revolution by Gregg L. Frazer: In a departure from the “fan fiction” version of American history, Frazer examines the anti-revolution arguments of loyalist clergymen in colonial America.
  • Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton: This examination of various eventually-abandoned-due-to-stupidity military and espionage plans is equal parts funny and frightening.
  • The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin: One of my new favorite authors interacts biblically with the kinds of statements that appear on yard signs beginning with “In this house we believe…”
  • Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths Trilogy (Mythos, Heroes, Troy) by Stephen Fry: I’m not sure if this exploration and retelling of the Greek myths counts as fantasy or non-fiction, but either way it’s a lot of fun.

That’s it for 2021. My reading goal for 2022 is my usual standby of “at least 100 books with an average page count of 300+.” Postings to this blog will probably continue to be sporadic unless work become unexpectedly less hectic, but we’ll see what happens. Happy New Year!

Back to the Classics Wrap Up

It’s been nearly a month since my last post here, but I’m still alive…just very busy and a bit burned out (holidays plus three funerals plus trying to find people to serve on church boards…). I’m not sure if postings will get any more frequent in the new year, but I want to at least post my final wrap up for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I managed to finish books in all 12 categories this year. My reads for this challenge were (titles linked to full review):

19th Century Classic: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James – an excellent ghost story…or do we just have an unreliable narrator?

20th Century Classic: On the Road by Jack Kerouac – completely hated this drug and sex fueled ramble to nowhere.

Classic by a Woman: Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier – I loved her Rebecca, liked My Cousin Rachel, but this just felt like a melodramatic Harlequin romance without the sex.

Classic in Translation: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux – This was melodramatic too but in a much more enjoyable way.

A Classic by BIPOC Author: Chaka by Thomas Mofolo – I expected this to be hero-worshippy, but it ended up feeling like a Shakespearian tragedy on the order of Titus Andronicus.

Classic by a New-to-you Author: Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac – The cynicism and greed of this book was just depressing.

New Classic by a Favorite Author: Bleak House by Charles Dickens – Charles Dickens rips on lawyers…excellent as always, but probably better for people who are already Dickens fans.

Classic about an Animal: Moby Dick – An excellent novella on revenge and obsession bloated into an unwieldy novel by the author’s need to infodump every “fact” he knows about whales and whaling.

Children’s Classic: Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll – delightful punny nonsense. I much preferred it to Alice in Wonderland.

Classic Humor or Satire: The Way We Live Now – a look at high society manipulation for money, matrimony, or both…the kind of satire that is caustic rather than humorous.

A Travel or Adventure Classic: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett – a quirky epistolary novel with minimal plot and rude humor.

A Classic Play: Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose – the strengths and weaknesses of trial by jury on display

And that’s it! Thanks to Karen at Books and Chocolate for hosting this again!

All About Whales! (oh, and Ahab…)

Moby-Dick

Title: Moby Dick
Author: Herman Melville
Genre: American Classic
Pages: 464
Rating: 3.5 of 5

To me, Moby Dick feels like an excellent novella that bloated into an unfocused novel. Melville lards on every “fact” and opinion about whales, whaling, and whalers that he can think of, moralizing as he goes. Some of it is relevant, some of it is interesting, some of it is disturbing, but the cumulative effect is to submerge the compelling main story in a sea of tangential boringness.

That said, I can’t think of a better portrayal of the destructive and contagious nature of bitterness, obsession, and vengeance than Captain Ahab and his crew. I won’t even try to analyze what (if anything or many things) the white whale stands for (ask Ron Swanson) since I think that Ahab’s prideful self-obsession and clearly expressed rage against God and nature are the main point.

Overall, this richly deserves its place as an American Classic, even if I wish Melville had saved 80% of his whales and whaling info for a separate non-fiction book.

(Also, I will be using this for my Classic About an Animal category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021)