Reading Challenges: German Edition

Life continues to be unpredictable and chaotic (still working toward a diagnosis on my wife’s chronic/worsening neurological issues). However, I’ve finished another book for each of my reading challenges and finally have time to write a review of each.

We’ll start with the book I read for the Classic in Translation category of the Back to the Classics challenge:

Title: The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr
Author: E. T. A. Hoffman
Genre: Classic German Absurdity
Pages: 384
Rating: 3.5 of 5

If you’ve ever wondered what a tomcat’s autobiography would sound like, look no further! The genius (if he does say so himself) Tomcat Murr, graces his readers with the edifying story of his extraordinary life, interspersed with sometimes unflattering editorial comments and a partial biography of the (fictional) Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler that was “accidentally” bound in the same book. The melodramatic, tongue-in-cheek, “I’m editing someone else’s book” schtick reminds me quite a bit of The Princess Bride.

Unfortunately, the eccentric composer Johannes Kreisler passages are significantly less amusing (and slightly longer) than the arrogant Tomcat Murr ones. I’m sure it’s all very artistic and the juxtaposition of the two has deep philosophical insights. However, when Kreisler intruded, I mostly just wanted to get back to the self-important cat and his snarky editor. Add to this that the book is unfinished (and the editors are lying when they say it feels complete even without the planned-but-never-written Part 3), and I couldn’t give it more than 3.5 out of 5 even though I greatly enjoyed parts of it.

And for the The Official TBR Pile Challenge I read this biography:

Title: Then They Came For Me:
Martin Niemöller, the Pastor Who Defied the Nazis
Author: Matthw D. Hockenos
Genre: Biography
Pages: 303 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Martin Niemöller is best known for the attributed quote:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

While he may or may not have said these exact words, he certainly expressed the sentiment late in his life. Matthew Hockenos traces Niemöller’s journey from ultra-nationalistic WWI U-boat captain (and early Nazi supporter) to Nazi prisoner (albeit in relatively cushy conditions compared to the average concentration camp prisoner) to international champion of pacifism and the ecumenical movement.

It isn’t always a flattering portrait, especially for those who idolize/idealize Niemöller’s work with the Confessing Church in Germany. Hockenos seems intent on highlighting Niemöller’s many flaws while offering guarded praise for his willingness to change his views over time. I don’t know if I’d call it an inspiring read, but it was revealing of human nature, including the tendency to be motivated solely by the interests of the group to which we belong.

Another Two for the Book Challenges

I’m currently on a big family vacation (first one ever where it’s not a trip to visit family), so the brain is in low power mode, and this is going to be pretty short. However, I have finished another book for each of my reading challenges and wanted to post about them. First, for the Official TBR Pile Challenge:

Title: The Miser and Other Plays
Author: Molière
Genre: Classic Plays
Pages: 280
Rating: 3 of 5

They say (whoever “they” are) that plays are meant to be watched rather than read, and I think that is probably the case with these plays by Molière. This collection included mostly his “second tier” plays (e.g. it’s lacking Tartuffe and The Misanthrope), so I don’t feel like I got a good impression of the playwright at the height of his skill. As it was, there was some mildly amusing cleverness that probably would have popped a lot more on stage. Also, I’m pretty sure that he ripped off borrowed heavily from Aeschylus at a few points.

Next, for the Back to the Classics Challenge I completed this book:

Title: The Black Robe
Author: Wilkie Collins
Genre: Melodramatic Victorian Fiction
Pages: 390
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Wilkie Collins produced some pretty melodramatic nonsense in his day, and this is a prime example. The theme of this book: Watch out for the scaaaaaary, scheming Jesuits! (though we’ll put in one nice Jesuit who’s an exception to the rule so we don’t completely tick off the Catholics).

Scaaaary stories…

It was okay if you’re in the mood for Victorian nonsense and don’t mind some Catholic-bashing. I can only take so much Wilkie Collins. There’s a reason that the works of his contemporary, Charles Dickens, are much more highly respected.

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 for the Book Challenges

Over the last month I checked off a book from each of my two reading challenges. From the Back to the Classics 2022 Challenge I finished the “Classic in a Place You’d Like to Visit” category with…

Title: The Hobbit
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 287 (10:25 audiobook length)
Rating: 5 of 5

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this book since first reading it in 2nd or 3rd grade, but I still enjoy it every time. As Tolkien’s friend, C. S. Lewis, said: “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.”

It is written with a much younger audience in mind than The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, but (to quote Lewis again), “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children isn’t a good children’s story in the slightest.” It is less grim than his other writings. The overall tone could even be described as charming with small dashes of silly, but Tolkien’s favorite theme of the courage and perseverance of “regular people” (with a few nudges from Providence) shaping the course of events is in full bloom.

This time through, I listened to the Audible audiobook version narrated by Andy Serkis. He did an excellent job with all the voices (not just Gollum) and narrated with enthusiasm and humor. It’s well worth a listen.

My read from The Official TBR Pile Challenge was something completely different, but still a 5-star book:

Title: Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism
Editors: Elijah Hixson & Peter J. Gurry
Genre: Biblical Studies
Pages: 352 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

New Testament textual criticism is the branch of biblical studies that seeks to ascertain the original wording of the NT writings, especially in places where there are differences between ancient manuscripts. Extreme skeptics like Bart Ehrman try to make it sound like the text is hopelessly corrupt, as if it had been passed along and muddled in the party game “telephone.” Such an analysis is needlessly pessimistic. However, in their zeal to disprove it, some Christian apologists grossly overstate, oversimplify, and/or misuse the text-critical evidence of the accurate preservation of New Testament Scripture.

The essays in this book offer a corrective to such mistaken arguments while demonstrating the high textual accuracy of the New Testament we possess and the place of textual criticism in ensuring this. This area of study has always interested me, and I thoroughly enjoyed these essays, learning about the topic in more detail than what could be covered in my introductory seminary classes.

While I highly recommend this book, it isn’t necessarily a good introductory book if you have no background in the topic. For that I would suggest The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration by Bruce Metzger & Bart Ehrman (from before Ehrman went off the hyper-skeptical deep end).

Also, on a personal note: postings here will continue to be sporadic as we are still dealing with major health problems triggered by my wife’s bout with covid.

PKD on Drugs

Title: A Scanner Darkly
Author: Philip K. Dick
Genre: Drugged-out Sci-Fi
Pages: 304
Rating: 2.5 of 5

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live with a bunch of people who are slowly destroying themselves through drug use, this is the book for you. While it includes definite sci-fi elements (e.g. undercover narcs wear “scramble suits” that completely hide their identity when interacting with other law enforcement), it is primarily PKD’s semi-autobiographical portrayal of the 70’s drug scene.

We are presented with a constant stream of paranoia, delusion, mania, lust, deception, desperation, crime, and any other form of mental illness and misery you can think of. Law enforcement and rehab people serve as little more than sources of additional cruelty, misery, and corruption. I suppose that this has value in that it gives a gritty inside look into the world of addiction and mental illness, but it was just plain depressing and hopeless. This is my third PKD book, and I’m pretty much done with him…writing skill and cool concepts aren’t enough to keep my coming back to his bleakness and cynicism.

(Also, this is my second book completed for Roofbeam Reader’s TBR Pile Challenge)

Soviet Spies in the Seventies

Title: The Falcon and the Snowman:
A True Story of Friendship and Espionage
Author: Robert Lindsey
Genre: True Crime (Espionage)
Pages: 359
Rating: 4 out of 5

I enjoy well-written true espionage tales. To me, a good true espionage author sifts through a lot of sketchy half-true information and offers a credible explanation of what motivated the people involved, how they executed their plans and/or were captured, and what impact they may have had on world events. Robert Lindsey does all of this admirably in this Edgar Award-winning book about two California boys from prosperous families who sold top secret spy satellite info to the USSR in the 1970’s.

The Falcon and the Snowman is not a high-action book. In fact, the actual espionage activity seems depressingly easy for the most part. The author focuses more on the spies’ relationships and psychology. He portrays one as a career criminal drug dealer who is only in it for the money and the other as a disillusioned ideologue lashing out at American duplicity and corruption.

As far as writing style, some of the author’s jumping around in the timeline felt unnecessarily confusing and repetitive (especially in the first half), but not to the point of ruining the book. He comes across relatively neutral in his presentation of events but clearly feels some sympathy for (though not necessarily agreement with) the more ideology-driven spy. Overall, I would recommend this to any fan of true espionage, but if you are new to the genre you would be better off starting with something by Ben MacIntyre who is the absolute master of the true spy tale.

(Also, this is my first read finished for the TBR Pile Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader)