Back to the Classics Wrap-up

Since I just finished my final book for the Back to the Classics 2018 challenge, it’s time for the big wrap-up. A huge thank you to Karen @ Books and Chocolate for putting this together and hosting it. It provides great incentive to include at least a dozen classics in the year’s reading. I read a book for each of the twelve categories, so I get three entries in the final prize drawing. My books for each category were:

A 19th Century Classic: Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome – This collection of humorous essays is a must-read for fans of wry humor (as long as you don’t mind wading through a lot of maudlin sentimentality that may or may not be intended humorously).

A 20th Century Classic: Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann – This modern retelling of the Faust legend explores the connection between genius and madness, but by the end I found it overblown and pretentious.

A Classic by a Woman Author: Silas Marner by George Eliot – I greatly enjoyed this “reclamation” story which is something along the lines of a non-supernatural version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol (Dickens loved it and wrote  her a “fan letter”).

A Classic in Translation: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – I know I’m in the minority, but I didn’t care for this classic tale of revenge.

A Children’s Classic: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – I will be recommending this charming little book to my children.

A Classic Crime Story: The Grifters by Jim Thompson – Thompson provides the fairly standard downward-slide-into-tragedy that you expect from this kind of crime noir but with some creepy oedipal stuff in the mix. Well written, but a bit too sleazy for my taste.

A Classic Travel or Journey Narrative: The Canterbury Tales – In spite of the (to me) unfunny obsession with adultery & misogyny, Chaucer is witty and adept at painting memorable characters.

A Classic with a Single-word Title: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – Conrad displays his trademark bleakness here. Personally, I think it packed more impact in the much shorter Heart of Darkness than in this 400+ page depressing book.

A Classic with a Color in the Title: Black No More by George S. Schuyler – This biting satire is by turns hilarious and grim as the author explores an alternate US in which a medical procedure can turn black people into white people.

A Classic by an Author That’s New to You: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – I wouldn’t necessarily say that I liked this book, but the atmosphere and characterization were superb.

A Classic That Scares You: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway – I hated Hemingway in high school, but decided to be brave and give him another shot. I didn’t hate it this time, but he’s still not my cup of tea.

Re-read a Favorite Classic: The Poetic Edda by Anonymous – Who wouldn’t want to read about cross-dressing Thor, Loki getting in an insult contest with the rest of the gods, and the final showdown at Ragnarok?

And there you have it! (If I happen to win the drawing you can contact me Here.)

Charming Children’s Lit

Title: The Wind in the Willows
Author: Kenneth Grahame
Genre: Classic Children’s Literature
Pages: 104
Rating: 4 of 5

In spite of reading a lot of fantasy and anthropomorphized animal books as a child, I somehow never read the classic The Wind in the Willows, other than a few excerpts in grade school (and in theology books: the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” receives quite a bit of attention from the likes of C. S. Lewis). I needed a book for the Children’s Classic category over at the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge and decided it was high time to remedy the situation.

The primary descriptive word for this book would have to be charming. It is a paean to camaraderie, life on the Thames, and the comforts of home. The helpful Mole,  friendly rat, gruff badger, and outrageous (but likeable) Mr. Toad will pleasantly remind you of people you know. Many of the chapters are only loosely connected, varying from leisurely nostalgia to comedic action. Overall, it’s a nice cozy read that I will be recommending to my children.

Vanity of vanities!

Against Nature (Dover Thrift Editions) by [Huysmans, Joris K.]Title: Against Nature (A Rebours)
Author: Joris K. Huysmans
Translator: unknown (“This Dover Edition first published in 2018 is an unabridged republication of the English translation published by Three Sirens Press, in 1931…”)
Genre: Classic (French Decadent)
Pages: 204
Rating: 2.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

In my last post I mentioned the book that fascinated (and helped corrupt) Dorian Gray. By some accounts, Against Nature might be the book that Oscar Wilde had in mind. In it, Duc Jean des Esseintes retreats from Parisian society to a secluded villa and spends his time contemplating all that is artificial, artistic, and intellectual. It’s basically a more depressing, more decadent version of Ecclesiastes featuring a debauched aesthete instead of the Preacher (Vanity of vanities, says the Aesthete, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.)

Des Esseintes ponders colors, perfumes, prostitutes, affairs, drinks, art, literature, religion, etc. ad nauseum (and there actually quite a bit of literal nausea as his health is in a delicate state). This eventually peters out to a miserable conclusion that led one early critic to opine that, “After such a book, it only remains for the author to choose between the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the cross.”

Interestingly, this edition of the book starts with a preface by the author written about twenty years after original publication. While standing by some of his aesthetic and religious judgments, he indicates that he has returned to the church he so despised. Apparently, like the Preacher he discovered:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. – Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 (the last two verses of the book)

Overall, I found the book tedious and pretentious (and morally pretty gross), but its connection to The Picture of Dorian Gray and similarity to Ecclesiastes provided a degree of interest. The author inadvertently playing out the last two verses of Ecclesiastes with his own life further shows the wisdom of the Preacher:

What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done,
    and there is nothing new under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 1:9

The Love of Money…

Image result for Nostromo Signet book coverTitle: Nostromo
Author: Joseph Conrad
Genre: Classic
Pages: 448
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This is my third Joseph Conrad book, and I don’t know if I’ll bother with any more. He creates memorable, believable characters and situations, but his message/theme is always the same and is just plain depressing. He basically finds different ways to say “Society is rife with exploitation and everyone is vain, greedy, cruel, violent, and/or cowardly” while describing any action in the most dully dispassionate way possible and unexpectedly throwing in flashbacks or sudden leaps forward.

In Nostromo we follow the political travails of a fictional South American country, focusing especially on Nostromo, the vain Italian expatriate who is foreman of the dockworkers. He is constantly flattered and used as a tool by the European aristocracy but never really admitted to their society. Most of the conflicts, personal and political, revolve around the local silver mine as the story illustrates that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”

The narrations is surprisingly dull for a book about violent revolution. It focuses primarily on the pettiness, vanity, and greed of individuals and skips quickly over any large-scale action, mentioning it fairly dismissively in flashback form. Four hundred forty-eight tightly-packed pages of this was a bit much, and I was thoroughly tired of it by the end. If you’re interested in Conrad, I’d recommend Heart of Darkness over this one… all of the vivid bleakness with a fraction of the page count packs a much bigger punch.

And one final thing: I am using this as my Classic with a single-word title over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

A Dish Best Served Cold

Title: The Count of Monte Cristo
Author: Alexandre Dumas
Translator: Robin Buss
Genre: Classic
Pages: 1,276
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This classic tale of revenge served cold was entertaining enough, but was ultimately a bit disappointing. In my limited experience with Dumas (The Three Musketeers & The Count of Monte Cristo), I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’re going to really enjoy his stories you need to just cheer for his heroes without thinking too much about the morality of the actions that you’re supposed to be applauding. There’s some token introspection from Dantes about whether he is truly right in seeing himself as God’s instrument of justice, but it tends more toward self-justification than interesting moral consideration.

Personally, I found Dantes/Monte Cristo to be so coldly calculating and unsympathetic toward anyone he did not personally know and love that he was almost completely unappealing. I don’t necessarily mind antiheroes, but something about the way Dumas tries to get us to adore and cheer for his deeply flawed heroes as if they were remarkably admirable human beings grates on me. Your mileage may vary (Obviously, I’m in the minority on this since Dumas has enduring popularity).

I’m not sure how this translation compares to others, but I can say that it flowed nicely without feeling stilted. According to the forward, the translator restored parts that were removed or toned down in older Victorian translations. I appreciate this, because even though the plot was overlong and meandering, I want to read an author’s work as close as possible to how they intended it. The footnotes provided helpful historical information for those (like me) not well acquainted with French history. Overall: I’d say that this was an excellent edition of a classic that is more about enjoying the plot than wrestling with the morality of vengeance.

One last thing: I’m using this for my Classic in Translation category at the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Fish Drags Man for 50 Pages

Image result for the old man and the seaTitle: The Old Man and the Sea
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Genre: Classic
Pages: 93
Rating: 3 of 5

I read this in literature class back in high school and hated it (“a man hooks a fish and it drags him for 50 pages” was my summary then). When it was selected as the read of the month for the Dewey Decimators book club, I decided to give it another shot thinking that maybe 21 years had changed my taste in literature enough that I’d enjoy it now.

This time around I didn’t hate it. I could appreciate some of the artistry in the vivid descriptions, and some of the Christ-figure imagery of the old man was interesting to spot, but it still wasn’t my favorite. I find Hemingway’s style of short choppy sentences and very basic vocabulary annoying after a while, and have never really been into “man against nature” stories (especially ones that end depressingly). Overall, I give it a “meh,” due primarily to personal taste.

Also, because I have been putting off reading anything Hemingway since a couple negative experiences in lit classes, I am using this for my “Classic that Scares You” category over at the Back to the Classics 2018 challenge.

Miscellaneous Mini Reviews

It’s time to get caught up with some mini reviews:

Camber of Culdi (The Legends of Camber of Culdi Book 1) by [Kurtz, Katherine]Title: Camber of Culdi
(Volume 1 of The Legend of Camber of Culdi)
Author: Katherine Kurtz
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Pages: 277
Rating: 3.5 of 5

If you’re into court intrigue featuring a race (the Deryni) with telepathic, telekinetic, teleportation, teletcetera powers, this may be the book for you. In this alternate Medieval Gwynedd, the new Deryni monarch is an oppressive tyrant to his human subjects. The wise Deryni lord, Camber MacRorie, must step up and counteract this unjust ruler. Cue pages and pages of plotting and counter-plotting and trying to prod a reluctant conspirator into assuming his birthright. It was well-written and had a certain building tension, but the “chivying someone into ‘doing the right thing'” trope is one of my least favorites so my personal reading experience suffered a bit. Also, I’m pretty sure this is a prequel trilogy to a long-established series in which Camber is a legendary character of the distant past, so I think I would have enjoyed it more had I read the original books first. (kind of like how The Magicians Nephew is actually not the best place to start The Chronicles of Narnia…read them in order of writing! And I won’t go any further with that thought lest I get up on my soapbox)

Title: Killer in the Rain
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre:  Noir/Hardboiled Detective Short Stories
Pages: 394
Rating: 4 of 5

When Raymond Chandler wrote his Philip Marlowe novels, he “cannibalized” a number of his short stories for characters and plots. This collection assembles eight of those short stories. None star Philip Marlowe, but you can see the protagonists becoming increasingly like him. Some of the plots are almost identical to the novels that came out of them, and some differ fairly significantly.  This is worth reading if you’re a Chandler fan, but I’d strongly recommend reading the novels first so that you can appreciate the superior works without spoilers.

Title: The Code of the Woosters
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 272
Rating: 4 of 5

If you’ve read one Jeeves & Wooster book you’ve read them all. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as they’re all good for a laugh. However, don’t read them too close together or they all sort of run together and you can’t remember what to say about them other than that they are enjoyable, which is pretty much what happened with this one…Bertie was good-hearted but inept, Jeeves saved the day with the magic word Eulalie, and it was enjoyable.

Title: Now That’s a Good Question:
How to Lead Quality Bible Discussion
Author: Terry Powell
Genre: Teaching Theory
Pages: 96
Rating: 4

This book has excellent suggestions for how to generate useful, thought-provoking discussion questions for small groups (or any other ministry that allows for interactive teaching). It also has some decent guidelines for putting together a Bible study if you are a beginner. To me, the few “teamwork” exercises scattered throughout the book felt like the kind of stupid “rah-rah let’s all pretend that this is beneficial but it’s really just obnoxiously cheery and insulting to our intelligence” exercises that I had to suffer through at various job orientations (though maybe I’m just emotionally scarred by past experience).

The biggest weakness of the book was in its formatting. Some pages looked like the content was just barfed onto it in a jumble of font sizes and styles, bullet points, block quotes, infoboxes, and awkward stock photos. I think it’s supposed to look light and playful, but it comes across amateurish. I mean, what is this?!

Tacky Formatting
Where do I look first?!

Overall, despite the tacky formatting, I highly recommend this book for new teachers in church ministries.

Brutality & Redemption

Title: A Tale of Two Cities
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 466
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I enjoy Charles Dickens. I don’t (usually) mind his wordy style, ridiculous names, amazingly convenient coincidences, or overblown page counts because he creates such wonderful, memorable characters and situations. That said, it took me several tries over quite a few years before I managed to slog through the first chapter or two of this book. Once the book gets going, it becomes clear that its status as one of Dickens’ most celebrated novels is richly deserved.

To me, much of the book’s impact was in the setting and events more than in individual characters, as is more usual with Dickens. I’m not sure how the people of France view the French Revolution, but this book crystallizes the horrified British view of the bloody affair. Dickens vividly portrays both the cavalier abuse of the poor by the Ancien Regime and the almost bestial vengeance of the mob once the tables were turned.

As always, Dickens’ cast of characters contain a wonderful mixture of the pathetic, the loving/virtuous, the ridiculous, and the loathsome. The two most prominent women were the best of characters and the worst of characters (come on…you know I had to make at least one comment like that). Lucie Manette is virtuous, loving, and completely flat: very much the ideal Victorian “angel in the house”…blech. Madame DeFarge, on the other hand, is truly terrifying as she embodies the bloodthirsty implacability of the Revolution. She may have been the most interesting/memorable character in the book until she was beautifully upstaged at the end by true love and redemption (“It is a far, far better thing that I do…”).

Overall, Dickens’ lone foray into historical fiction deserves its reputation. As long as you don’t completely hate Dickens’ style, you should read it. Don’t let the first chapter or two stop you.

Music, Madness, & Mephistopheles

Image result for Doctor Faustus book cover Knopf

Title: Doctor Faustus:
The Life of German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend
Author: Thomas Mann
Translator: H. T. Lowe-Porter
Genre: Classic
Pages: 510
Rating: 3 of 5

Despite the review title, don’t expect Mephistopheles to show up much in this modern retelling of the Faust legend. The suave devil (who never actually gives a name) doesn’t put in an appearance until about halfway through the book, if he’s real at all. Mann leaves it up to the reader whether the devil is actually there or is a product of syphilitic madness …or whether it even matters one way or the other.

To Mann, the important thing seems to be exploring a variety of philosophical themes. Most central to the plot is the connection between artistic genius and suffering, especially in the form of madness & alienation. Other themes includes the character and history of the German people (especially as it relates to losing both World Wars), avant garde art, apocalyptic imagery, and highly detailed music theory.

As the subtitle indicates, the novel is presented as a biography of the tragic life of (fictional) composer Adrian Leverkuhn. The narrator sounds agitated, apologizing for his poor organization, jumping around in the story, and digressing into his own personal life (he, like the author, is a German living through World War II). I found the style believable but somewhat irritating. Leverkuhn himself is presented as a sociopathic genius whose musical masterpieces are only fully appreciated by the few truly cultured people. As in any Faust story, in the end, there’s a price to be paid when you make a deal with the devil (or contract syphilis).

Overall, there were a lot of interesting ideas in this book, but after 500+ pages it felt overblown and pretentious.

Additionally: I’ll be using this for my 20th Century Classic category at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Wise, Beautiful Fantasy

Related imageTitles: The Princess and the Goblin / The Princess and Curdie
Author: George MacDonald
Genre: Classic Children’s Fantasy
Pages: 256 each
Ratings: 4.5 of 5 (both of them)

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest” – C. S. Lewis

I like to think that Lewis learned this from reading George MacDonald…I know that both he and J. R. R. Tolkien admired (and were influenced by) his works, including the two Curdie books. Echoes from these two books sound in The Lord of the Rings and Narnia: hostile goblins living in mines, a hero who comes singing to frighten away that baddies in the old forest, and a character who embodies the guidance and care of God Himself (more on her in a minute).

Each story is so full of symbolism and clever little nuggets of wisdom that the relatively simple plots sparkle with wonder. In The Princess and the Goblin, the unseen goblin threat and Princess Irene’s mysterious great-great-grandmother provide opportunities for the princess and the miner boy, Curdie, to exercise trust and belief. In The Princess and Curdie, Curdie, sent and empowered by the great-great-Grandmother, must confront corruption in the King’s capital, discovering inner character and true beauty.

Occasionally Princess Irene borders on being a little too big-eyed and sweet (think Lucy Pevensie in Narnia), and Curdie can be irritatingly dim, but the author never allows them to become too annoying. The character who really shines is the mysterious great-great-Grandmother. In many ways she beautifully symbolizes the ministry of the Holy Spirit; not in the direct way that Aslan = Jesus in the Narnia books, but by powerfully fulfilling many of the Spirit’s roles (convicting, comforting, guiding, empowering)…and she’s frequently associated with white pigeons just in case you miss the connection.

Another C. S. Lewis quote provides a perfect summary of these sparkling fantasy gems: “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.”