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.

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.

The Babylon Bee’s Best

Title: How to Be a Perfect Christian:
Your Comprehensive Guide to Flawless Spiritual Living
Author: The Babylon Bee (Adam Ford & Kyle Mann)
Genre: Christian Satire
Pages: 208
Rating: 5 of 5
(Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free review copy. This in no way affects the content of my review)

Make way for some of the best religious satire since the prophet Elijah advised the prophets of Baal that they needed to yell louder because their god might be asleep or in the loo (1 Kings 18:27). The Babylon Bee is a hilarious satire site on the order of The Onion but with an Evangelical Christian slant.

This, The Bee’s first book, absolutely skewers legalistic, self-centered, preference-driven, argumentative, politics-obsessed Christianity. Who needs all that grace and fruit of the Spirit stuff when a little virtue signalling and putting others in their place will have everyone around you noticing how super spiritual you are?

Like any well-written satire, How to Be a Perfect Christian nicely blends funny, sad, and convicting. Depending on your taste, it might feel like it goes on a little too long or occasionally strays into “too mean” territory. However, I appreciate how it managed to hit on most of the common pitfalls to which Evangelical Christians are prone and cleverly wrapped up with a heartwarming summary of the grace and love that is at the heart of a true relationship with God. I highly recommend this book and expect it to make my top 10 list at the end of the year.

Catch-up with Mini Reviews

I’m starting to fall behind on reviews, so it’s time for a bunch of mini-reviews! No unifying theme…this is just the order in which I read them.

Title: Enforcer:
The Shira Calpurnia Omnibus
Author: Matthew Farrer
Genre: Military Sci-fi (Warhammer 40,000 universe)
Pages: 859
Rating: 3 of 5

Space marines bore me, so if I’m going to read a Warhammer 40K book, I usually go for the stories featuring other kinds of characters. This trilogy omnibus features Shira Calpurnia, an “adeptus arbites” – basically a combination of detective, SWAT, and judge. For me, the main interest in these stories came from their exploration of the inner workings and politics of groups like rogue traders, the ecclesiarchy, and the arbites themselves. At times Shira Calpurnia all but disappears from the stories as the scheming going on around her is far more interesting than anything she does in response to it. I never expect Warhammer 40,000 books to be anything more than pulp-y escapist sci-fi, and by that standard this was a decent read.

The Ministry of Fear by [Greene, Graham]Title: The Ministry of Fear
Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Thriller / Espionage
Pages: 226
Rating: 3.5 of  5

In this classic thriller Graham Greene weaves an improbable but entertaining spy yarn. He mixes in all the ingredients of an over the top “ordinary man accidentally caught up in a vast conspiracy” story and a “man with a guilty conscience due to past transgressions” story, all set during the London blitz…and somehow it works. It does have a good dose of Graham’s usual bleak cynicism as well, but it is well worth reading if you like that kind of espionage tale.

Title: A Biblical Answer for Racial Unity
Authors: H. B. Charles Jr., Danny Akin, Juan Sanchez, Richard Caldwell, Jim Hamilton, Owen Strachan, Carl Hargrove, Christian George
Genre: Theology/Philosophy, Race Relations
Pages: 122
Rating: 3 of 5

This is essentially a lightly edited version of nine sermons/speeches given at a conference on racial unity. If you want a very basic survey of some general biblical principles that apply to racial unity, this is worth your time. However, if you are looking for actual “where the rubber meets the road” applications, you won’t find many here other than the most basic and generalized.

1000 Years of Annoying the French by [Clarke, Stephen]Title: 1,000 Years of Annoying the French
Author: Stephen Clarke
Genre: Anglo-French History / Humor
Pages: 506
Rating: 4 of 5

In this humorously biased history, Stephen Clarke chronicles the long history of mutual antagonism between France and England (starting with the Norman Conquest). Along the way he delights in pointing out French self-sabotage and does his best to suck the grandeur out of any French accomplishments. The book is a lot of fun to read and contains a lot of great trivia…just don’t use it as a main source for serious research.

Title: Dear Committee Members
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: Humor/Satire
Pages: 192
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Last year Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement came in 6th on my Top 10 list.  That was the sequel to this book, which was just as enjoyable. As I said with The Shakespeare Requirement: if you’ve ever been involved in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. This one is in the format of dozens of letters of recommendation written by a harassed English professor in a struggling university. Cleverly mixed in with the recommendations is the story of his rather pathetic personal and professional life and ongoing battle with the all-powerful economics department.

Title: Superheroes Can’t Save You:
Epic Examples of Historic Heresies
Author: Todd Miles
Genre: Theology (Christology)
Pages: 208
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Theology professor and self-professed comic book aficionado Todd Miles uses seven different superheroes to illustrate various Christological heresies (wrong beliefs about Jesus Christ according to classic Christian theology). For example, Ant-Man illustrates modalism in which rather than the Trinity being three separate co-equal co-eternal persons, it is simply one person who presents himself in three modes. For each heresy Miles gives a brief survey of its history, a biblical explanation of why it is unscriptural, and a warning as to why (even though this makes for a cool superhero) a Jesus with this nature would be insufficient to provide eternal salvation. This is fairly basic theology, but it’s a fun way to be exposed to the classic Christian understanding of who Jesus is.

Title: The Red Record
Author: Ida B. Wells
Genre: History of Lynching
Pages: 102
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This book/pamphlet was an emotionally difficult read but it is historically important. Ida B. Wells records (sometimes in heartrending detail) many instances of racially motivated lynchings in the late 1800’s and pleads for people to take notice and speak out against it. For me it was a painful reminder that far too many white Christians have been (and sometimes still are) shamefully complicit in racial injustice either actively or through passively standing by and doing nothing while mumbling some variation of “they brought it on themselves.” The writing itself is a little repetitive and spends maybe a bit too much time on the feud between Ida Wells and the head of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, but that does not detract from its importance.

A Worthy/Hilarious Sequel

Soul Remains (Terribly Serious Darkness) by [Hooker, Sam]Title: Soul Remains
(Terribly Serious Darkness: Book 2)
Author: Sam Hooker
Genre: Dark Fantasy / Satire
Pages: 330
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 4/23/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Warning: to avoid angry swearing (and the resultant summoning of goblins) be advised that after this initial paragraph there will be terribly serious spoilers for the first book in the series: Peril in the Old CountryNot only should you not read beyond this paragraph if you have not read Peril in the Old Country, but you should also not read Soul Remains. The absurdist plot to this book picks up shortly after the previous one left off and does not bother to do much in the way of reintroducing characters or recapping storylines in the web of plots that have ensnared the pathetic, neurotic Sloot Peril. Suffice it to say, it is well worth your time to read both of these hilarious books as long as you don’t mind cliffhanger endings. Now, off you go to check out the first book if you want to avoid having its ending spoiled…

…Okay, if you’re still here you know (or are about to find out) that the first book ended with many of the characters dying (very Blackadder), including poor Sloot crushed to death under a pile of goblins. Sloot, being the unlucky fellow that he is, is not permitted to rest in peace (though possibly in pieces). He remains enmeshed in all the various plots and counterplots with the added inconvenience of being a ghost who can be summoned, banished, etc. All of this makes the book a bit more disjointed and surreal than the first one, but no less entertaining. The author takes satirical potshots at a wide variety of topics and tropes (he has a whole new set to work with since half of the characters are now dead-ish) and throws in witty turns of phrase that kept me chuckling throughout. The book again ended on a cliffhanger, which I’m still not a fan of, but at least I was expecting it this time…and I can’t wait for the next book to come out.

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!

Potpourri

I’m trying to review at least 100 books this year…9 to go. Toward that end, here is a random assortment of 5 mini-reviews.

Title: Our Kind of Traitor
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 320
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This tale of an average British couple whose lives become entwined with a Russian mobster/defector started out as one of LeCarré’s better post-Cold War novels (which, honestly, isn’t a very high bar). However, the ending was just stupid. It felt like LeCarré got bored and just quit writing. The final action of the book made sense, but it was absurdly abrupt and left almost all of the plot lines unresolved.

Title: Fearsome Journeys
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Genre: Dark Fantasy Short Stories
Pages: 416
Rating: 3 of 5

I purchased this primarily because it has a Black Company story in it. That story was mediocre…as was the collection as a whole. I have no idea why this anthology is titled Fearsome Journeys as there are few stories that focus on journeying. The unifying theme actually seems to be people with morally ambiguous (at best) professions: mostly mercenaries, thieves, and assassins. It wasn’t bad, but a bit one-note.

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Russian Fairy Tale Fantasy
Pages: 368
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is ridiculously well-written for a first novel! The fairytale style and 13th century (I think) Russian setting were fascinating. What annoyed me was the “dour, manipulative, fear-mongering Christianity vs. harmonious paganism” narrative that was fairly central to the story. Depending on your particular worldview, your mileage may vary…stylistically it was a well-executed fairy tale (of the original variety, not the the cutesy Disneyfied kind).

Title: Judge Sewall’s Apology:
The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of a Conscience
Author: Richard Francis
Genre: Colonial American History
Pages: 388
Rating: 4 of 5

Samuel Sewall was the only judge from the Salem witch trials to publicly apologize for his involvement. While that apology is the source of the book’s title, the book actually covers his entire life as recorded in his journals. The author presents Sewall as charming and ahead of his time in regard to slavery, the treatment of native Americans, etc. He sometimes lays it on a bit thick and seems to read too much between the lines, but overall this is an interesting, informative look at Puritan culture and religion.

Title: The Shakespeare Requirement
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: General Fiction / Satire?
Pages: 309
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you’ve ever worked in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. I would say that it’s satire, but the woes of the new head of the English department trying to wrangle his colleagues into agreeing to a mission statement while fighting off the economics department (and convince the public that he is not anti-Shakespeare) ring all too true. Hilarious!

Innuendos & Poop Jokes

Title: Kill the Farm Boy
Authors: Kevin Hearne & Delilah S. Dawson
Genre: Fantasy Satire
Pages: 384
Rating: 2 of 5
Future Release Date: 7/17/18 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

This book promised to be a hilarious romp through every imaginable fantasy trope. If your sense of humor is that of the average young teenage boy, it might deliver on that promise. There were some laugh out loud moments, but the truly clever bits were buried under a flood of adolescent humor. The book is essential one big compilation of gross-out jokes and innuendos (e.g. the elven kingdom of Morningwood provides the authors a seemingly endless source of raunchy puns).

I can’t say much about the plot without spoilers, but I will say that they did indeed cleverly tweak most of the classic tropes. What they did with the “chosen one” trope was particularly entertaining. For me, the constant stream of poo & sex jokes got old very quickly and overshadowed the cleverness. For humorous/satirical fantasy I’d recommend sticking with Discworld or maybe Peril in the Old Country (another eARC I reviewed here).

The Sermon on the TV

Time for a rare non-book review post. It’s been a while since I’ve posted any of my own creative writing, but that’s what you’re getting today. This is my first ever attempt at satire and comes from a sermon series I started a few weeks ago on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). There seems to be a vast gulf between what Jesus identifies as the values of his Kingdom and the shape that Christianity has taken for many American Evangelicals. From the way some of us behave you would think that this is what Matthew 5:1-12 says:

Now when Pete Johnson got home from work sat down in his recliner, turned on his TV, and the televangelist began to teach him. He said:

Blessed are those who believe in themselves,
     for they shall accomplish great things.

Blessed are those who never express sorrow,
     for they are more well-adjusted and spiritually mature.

Blessed are the brash and arrogant,
     for they shall not be mistaken for sissies.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for possessions, wealth, and ease,
    for they shall live their best life now.

Blessed are the cynical,
     for they shall not be taken advantage of.

Blessed are those who are good at following a list of rules,
     for they are clearly righteous.

Blessed are the angry and argumentative,
     for their passion draws many to righteousness.

Blessed are those who always experience religious freedom,
     for that shows how great this country is.

How shocking for you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of your faith. Complain and be outraged because how dare they?! For this is America, and that shouldn’t happen here.

Here’s what Matthew 5:1-12 actually says

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit [those thrust upon divine resources],
     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,
     for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek [i.e. humble, gentle],
     for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [includes the idea of justice],
     for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful [i.e. unconditionally compassionate],
     for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,
     for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
     for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Let’s not let cultural, political, or nationalistic preferences/tendencies control our worldview and actions more than the priorities of the Kingdom of Heaven! And if by any chance you’re interested in hearing my sermon series it can be found here. It starts on the sermon called Citizens of the Kingdom from June 3. It’s posted on a week delay, and the website is pretty out of date (one of my upcoming projects), but there you go.

Hilarious Dark Fantasy

Title: Peril in the Old Country
(Terribly Serious Darkness – Book 1)
Author: Sam Hooker
Genre: Dark Fantasy / Satire
Pages: 312
Rating: 4
Future Release Date: 6/5/18 (thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a free eARC – this in no way affects the content of the review)

Sloot Peril the accountant is a nervous/befuddled/pathetic character on the order of Arthur Dent or Rincewind the Wizard, and he lives in a world that sounds like 1984 as written by Terry Pratchett who has just read a bunch of dark fantasy (be careful which characters you get emotionally attached to). Poor Sloot, the most law-abiding of citizens, renders great service to an important man (correcting an accounting report that implied he wasn’t so rich that he didn’t have to count his money) and is plunged into a world of plots within plots.

The characters are ridiculous, the situations are absurd, and the narration is hilarious and snarky (beware if you are easily offended by something you value being satirized). This was on it’s way to being a 4.5 to 5 star book, but the end really annoyed me. There are plot unveilings, deaths, swearing (e.g. “the one that rhymes with elbow” or “the one that starts with m and refers to the face you make right before sneezing”), true love…and then the book ends before we find out how the situation resolves…I hate that kind of cliffhanger ending. If you’re a good author you don’t need to string me along like that! You should be able to offer some resolution and still keep my interest. It annoyed me so much that I almost dropped this clear down to 3 stars, but I had too much fun overall to do that.