Persian Insanity

The Blind Owl by [Hedayat, Sadegh]Title: The Blind Owl
Author: Sadegh Hedayat
Translator: D. P. Costello
Genre: Modern Iranian Classic
Pages: 160
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I enjoy Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories of madness and the macabre, and this Iranian classic promised to be like one of those on steroids (in a Persian setting, of course). It delivered convincingly on the madness as our opium-addicted narrator spirals ever deeper into his insanity. We see him struggling with (or giving in to) obsession, loss of identity, sexual frustration, alienation, paranoia, homicidal urges, suicidality, and more. And, I’m sure that people more proficient at literary analysis than I will also find layers of allegory and other juicy things to (over)analyze.

The story of his pathetic life slowly unfolds throughout the course of the story. At least it sort of does…he’s so spectacularly unstable that it’s pretty hard to distinguish fact from delusion. I can definitely see how this book gained its reputation as a modern classic with its exploration of dark psychology and lyrical prose.

That said, I didn’t especially enjoy the book. It is incredibly dark (urban legend has it that many readers have committed suicide), and a lot of the sexual (and other bodily function) stuff was just kind of gross. If you’re into psychological horror this may be right up your alley, but it was a bit much for me.

(Also, I’m using this as my Classic from Africa, Asia, or Oceania at the Back to the Classics Challengewhich means I’ve completed it other than the final wrap-up post!)

Flowery Language & Horrifying Conditions

Image result for Doctor zhivago book coverTitle: Doctor Zhivago
Author: Boris Pasternak
Genre: Modern Russian Classic
Pages: 456
Rating: 3 of 5

My rating on this semi-autobiographical modern classic reflects my own personal taste more than the  quality of the writing. The only thing I really appreciated about this book was the historically important portrayal of the difficulties and horrors of life in Russia/USSR from the October Revolution through WWII.

Aside from the historical value, this just wasn’t my kind of book. I do not enjoy adulterous love stories and that is a central thread to this somewhat plotless book. Description of events takes a backseat to flowery/poetic description of landscapes, feelings, and philosophies. Characters are known by a bewildering profusion of names (as in many Russian novels) and interact with each other through a slew of amazingly convenient coincidences.

While this didn’t really work for me, your mileage may vary. If you’re the kind of reader who places a premium on “sublime” language, you will probably love this book.

(Also, I am using this for my 20th Century Classic category at the Back to the Classics Challenge)

Satire & Insanity

I recently finished two more books for the Back to the Classics Challenge. Because they’re both on the satirical side, I’ve decided to review both in the same post:

43358571Title: O Alienista (The Alienist)
Author: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Genre: Brazilian Classic Satire
Pages: 81
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I grew up in Brazil, but until now I had never read a Brazilian classic (my education was mostly American, and I didn’t have access to a public library). The archaic, literary Portuguese challenged me a bit since even my everyday conversational Portuguese is starting to get a bit rusty after living here in the US  for the last 20 years. However, vocabulary struggles aside, I really enjoyed this book.

This satirical novella follows the life’s work of a pioneering alienist/psychiatrist in colonial Brazil. His belief that science can provide cut-and-dried universal definitions and solutions for identifying and treating mental illness leads to a variety of absurd conclusions and events. This being satire, the author dryly narrates most of these absurdities as if they are perfectly reasonable.

Even though this is 130+ years old, the author’s themes continue to be relevant. Many people still think that science can give them all the answers to the meaning of life the universe and everything, and some people in the mental health field are still much too quick to label any slight quirk, foible, or struggle as a mental disorder in need of treatment/drugs. Truly, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

I am using this book for my “Classic from a Place You’ve Lived” category.

Wise Blood: A Novel (FSG Classics) by [O'Connor, Flannery]Title: Wise Blood
Author: Flannery O’Connor
Genre: Modern Classic American Fiction
Pages: 256
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I must admit, I really didn’t get this book. I understand some of the religious themes and dark irony it is dealing with through characters like a charlatan preacher in it for the money, a young man of doubtful sanity who acts on mystical impulses (“wise blood”), and the main character who claims a sort of atheism (“The Church without Christ”) yet is more religiously dedicated than anyone. However, as a whole the book left me saying “what did I just read?”

The overall tone was a bit surreal (almost kafkaesque, but not quite that weird), and the plot felt like it was cobbled together from unconnected stories. A little investigation afterward turned up the fact that this is in fact multiple independent short stories smooshed into a single “novel.” Overall, some of the images and plot points were memorable, but it felt like a strange hodge-podge to me.

I am using this book for my “Classic by a Woman” category.

Catch-up Mini Reviews

It’s been a little bit longer than usual between posts as I’ve been furiously reading to rack up entries in the local library’s summer reading prize drawing (can’t let my kiddos show me up!). Here are five of the most recent (out of 22 over the last 2 months):

Monster Hunter International (Monster Hunters International Book 1) by [Correia, Larry]Title: Monster Hunter International
Author: Larry Correia
Genre: Gun Nut Enthusiast Wish Fulfillment
Pages: 715
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I enjoy Dracula and Cthulhu mythos stories, so I figured why not try out this pulp action-spinoff of the Lovecraftian and Gothic tales. While some of the monster lore and overall plot was fun, I give it a “meh” overall.

I think that the intended audience is the we-distrust-the-government-and-LOVE-guns crowd, and while that describes some of my friends, it’s not me. For me, the frequent doting  listing of gun models and specs and the breathless descriptions of firing said guns were absurdly over the top. And these guys would rather just blast away at the monsters with silver bullets (no matter how ineffectual it repeatedly proves to be) than actually try to come up with anything clever. Add to this some ham-handed foreshadowing, sprinkle in some poor word usage and factual errors (e.g. compulsive instead of convulsive, Peloponnesian War instead of Trojan War), and I probably won’t be continuing this series…I’ll stick with Warhammer 40K for my absurdly violent pulp needs.

Title: The Annotated Hunting of the Snark
Author: Lewis Carroll (annotations by Martin Gardner)
Genre: Nonsense Narrative Poem + Pretentious Commentary
Pages: 196
Rating: 4 of 5

I love the nonsense poem Jaberwocky, so I’m not sure how I didn’t know about Carroll’s full-length narrative poem that is very much in the same vein. The poem itself is a lot of fun (if a bit grim) and worthy of a 5 out of 5 rating. However, for the most part the annotations/commentary add very little enjoyment unless you are utterly obsessed with the poem. The one lengthy section of commentary that I really enjoyed was an extended satirical “analysis” of the poem that is clearly making fun of  people who (like our main annotator) pompously try to impose deep, complex meaning on the nonsense.

The Warden - Chronicles of Barsetshire, Book 1 audiobook cover artTitle: The Warden
(Chronicles of Barsetshire – Book 1)
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 240
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I am using this book for my 19th Century Classic category over at the Back to the Classics challenge. My brother-in-law, who is also a pastor, recommended the Barchester series as a humorous take on church politics (with a warning that this first book wasn’t quite as good as the others).

Trollope perfectly captures the earnestness, good intentions, greed, pettiness, and arrogance that swirl together to generate church politics. His characters, squabbling over how a charitable institution should be run, are quirky but believable, and he gets in some good jabs at the press and national politics along the way.

I take issue with the pervading theme that time-honored abuses of the system for personal gain should be allowed to continue so long as they are not really hurting anyone. After all, attempts to reform will only make things worse for everyone…just look at that troublemaker Charles Dickens! That said, there was enough cleverness in here that I’ll probably give the next Barchester book a shot at some point.

Title: The Swordbearer
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 256
Rating: 3 of 5

I read this more out of curiosity than because I expected a good book. It’s one of Glen Cook’s first fantasy books (maybe the first?), and we all know how rough an author’s early works can be. This stand-alone novel feels like three parts Elric of Melniboné, one part Lord of the Rings, and one part semi-original stuff that would later be cannibalized and reused in the much better Black Company stories.

The characters are so flat and numerous as to be difficult to keep track of, and there is frequent info-dumping, but I’ve read much worse first attempts. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed the Elric books, this is worth a read… if the whole book being an “I feel like a pawn of this evil soul-devouring sword” mope-fest grates on your nerves you might want to give it a miss.

The Fall of Arthur by [Tolkien, J.R.R.]Title: The Fall of Arthur
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien (Christopher Tolkien, Editor)
Genre: Epic Poem Fragment + Page-count Padding Commentary
Pages: 233
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is just another Christopher Tolkien publication of a fragment from his father’s work padded out to book length with commentary. As always, the narrative poem fragment is well-written and interesting (as long as you have some interest in Arthuriana), but it is even shorter than usual (cutting off well before the actual battle in which Mordred dies and Arthur maybe-dies). Christopher’s notes are much better organized than usual, but still overlong. The tracing of various versions of the fall of Arthur through medieval literature is probably the most interesting part of his contribution. Unless you are the kind of fan who has to have every published fragment by J. R. R. Tolkien, this isn’t worth buying…just borrow it from the library, read the poem fragment, and skim the notes to see if any of the sections sound interesting to you.

Second Tier Twain

Title: The Prince and the Pauper
Author: Mark Twain
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 253
Rating: 3 of 5

In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court Mark Twain wrote scathing satire of medieval England. In this historical fiction (written earlier than Yankee) he pokes gentle fun at the pampered life of royals and points out the barbaric harshness of Tudor punishments, but his overall tone is much lighter…almost cutesy.

This kinder, gentler Twain felt a bit flat to me. A lot of the historical “color” consisted in paraphrasing or outright quoting chunks of historical documents that described the clothing and royal ceremonies of Tudor England. The well-known “identical strangers switch places” plot wasn’t especially believable, but it lets Twain look at different aspects of society through the eyes of outsiders and has some nice little dramatic tension at the end.

Sometimes I find Twain’s caustic wit in other books to be a bit much, but I prefer it to this book. Overall, I think I would have enjoyed The Prince and the Pauper a lot more when I was a child. As it is, I’m using this as my “Book from the Americas (author or topic)” category over at the Back to the Classics ChallengeSeven categories down; Five to go!

Sympathy for the Devil?

Image result for heart of darkness and the secret sharer bantamTitle: Heart of Darkness & The Secret Sharer
Author: Joseph Conrad
Genre: Classic Novellas
Pages: 237
Rating: 4 of 5

I would categorize these classic novellas as interesting rather than enjoyable. In them, Conrad displays his usual bleak view of human nature and society.

Heart of Darkness records a barely fictionalized account of Conrad’s own experience piloting a steamer in the Belgian Congo. It pairs well with King Leopold’s Ghost (which discusses it at some length). Unlike King Leopold’s Ghost, which reflects current attitudes toward racism and colonialism, Heart of Darkness is loaded with product-of-its-era prejudices. The narrative deplores the dark and horrifying nature of the European characters while at the same time showing a general contempt for the Africans who are on the receiving end of their cruelty.

Our narrator’s response to “what evil lurks in the hearts of men” is complex. He is disgusted by the pettiness, greed, and violence of the Belgian traders but fascinated by the charismatic Kurtz who started out with seemingly higher ideals but has done far more horrifying things. His feelings for Kurtz teeter between sympathetic defense and disgusted horror. Trying to untangle the message of this bleak classic provides an interesting challenge. (Also, I’m using this for my Classic Novella category for the Back the the Classics Challenge)

The Secret Sharer features another narrator who sympathizes with a dark-hearted character. In this tale, a young captain hides a fugitive aboard his new ship. He becomes oddly obsessed with the idea that this self-confessed murderer (“justifiable homicide” of course) is his double. Tensions escalate between the captain and his new crew due to the secretive, bizarre behavior required to keep the “secret sharer” of his cabin hidden. While quite different in tone from Heart of Darkness, it includes the same tangled message of a sort of sympathy for a cruel person paired with a cynicism toward society.

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.