A Handful of Mini-Reviews

Working from home plus “attending” an online conference (T4G20) kept me busy all of last week, but it’s time for a few mini-reviews to help catch up with what I’ve read (presented in order read):

The Bondage of the Will: Luther, Martin, Packer, J. I., Johnston ...Title: The Bondage of the Will
Author: Martin Luther
Translators: J. I. Packer & O. R. Johnston
Genre: Classic Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 320
Rating: 3 of 5

Martin Luther’s response to Desiderius Erasmus’s The Freedom of the Will is a classic of Protestant theology. It demonstrates that a belief in “total depravity” and “saved by grace alone through faith alone” are the dividing line between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

While I tend to agree with most of Luther’s conclusions, I felt like his arguments were a mixture of straw man, ad hominem, and sound exegesis. Stylistically he comes off as a bully who swings back and forth between bombast and smug sarcasm. I admire some things about Luther, but his polemical writings could have used a dose of Christian charity.

Title: Notre Dame of Paris (aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Author: Victor Hugo
Translator: John Sturrock
Genre: French Classic
Pages: 496
Rating: 3 of 5

This is probably an unpopular opinion, but I don’t really understand the attraction of this book. A large part of the “action” of the story (when Hugo isn’t off on one of his rabbit trails or swooning over Gothic architecture) is two skeezy older men (one of them a supposedly celibate priest and the other engaged) lusting after and attempting to seduce/rape a teenager, and/or purge their obsession with her.

Quasimodo the deaf, deformed rage monster is tragic and memorable in his devotion to Esmeralda, but for me it wasn’t enough to balance the boring digressions and lecherous behavior that dominated the story.

The Plague: Camus Albert: Amazon.com: BooksTitle: The Plague
Author: Albert Camus
Translator: Stuart Gilbert
Genre: French Modern Classic
Pages: 278
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This tale of a modern city quarantined during an outbreak of plague had been lurking on my mental “I should read that someday” list, and this seemed like an appropriate time (or is it an inappropriate time?) to give it a shot. I have to say, Camus has a pretty good grasp on the dark and depressing side of human nature. While the plague in his book is far more deadly than COVID-19, there were some interesting parallels to what is currently playing out around the world.

As a pastor, I found the priest’s second sermon in the book fascinating. It’s basically an appeal to acknowledge the sovereignty and goodness of God in all circumstances (unfortunately followed up by a nonsensical application of rejecting the care of doctors).

Overall, the book was a depressing, largely hopeless slog, which is probably not surprising given its author and subject matter.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's CourtTitle: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court [Audiobook]
Author: Mark Twain
Narrator: Nick Offerman
Genre: American Classic Satire
Pages: 288
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Ron Swanson (I mean, Nick Offerman) is the perfect narrator for this classic tale of a practical, no-nonsense factory boss transported to the court of King Arthur. The Yankee has a bit more braggadocio and showmanship than Ron Swanson, but in their intensely practical outlook and ingenuity they’re the same.

Twain’s biting satire brutally (but humorously) mocks courtly medieval romances along with the concepts of monarchy, aristocracy, state religion, and more. It can be mean-spirited and overly cynical at times, but it’s entertaining and thought provoking at the same time…and Offerman’s narration will delight fans of Parks and Recreation (it bumped it up from a 4 to a 4.5 for me).

The Toll (Arc of a Scythe Book 3) by [Neal Shusterman]Title: The Toll
(Arc of a Scythe – Book 3)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Dystopian Sci-fi with YA vibes
Pages: 637
Rating: 3 of 5

I have mixed feelings about this final book in the series. The convoluted political and religious corruption and intrigue from the previous books escalate and play out in a satisfactory way. A few plot points seemed to come out of left field, but that may have been my own current crop of distractions causing me to miss things rather than any plotting problems by the author.

What really bugged me was that I felt like the series as a whole and this book in particular got more and more overtly preachy in favor of ideas like consequentialist/situation ethics, non-binary gender ideology, and euthanasia. Overall, an interesting series from a philosophical viewpoint quite different from my own that suffers a bit from preachiness.

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

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.