Mount TBR 2016 – Recap

For this recap, something a little different.  I was mighty pleased with the little mountain of to-be-reads I climbed, so everyone’s a winner – and they all get awards!  Thanks to Bev for hosting this challenge!

*** The Unexpected New Favorite Award ***
 An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
This was a thrift store find I bought on a whim.  I was greatly moved by this fictional historical memoir, written by Ishiguro (of The Remains of the Day fame).  An aging Japanese man realizes his past is not creating the bright legacy he had envisioned.  Subtly written, yet incredible.
*** The Finally, Finally Read It Award ***
The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
I liked the beginning of this book a lot.  That made the ending somewhat disappointing.  However, I had to admit it is a worthy American classic, with good writing and thought-provoking scenes.
*** The History Is Disturbing Award ***
Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron – Nicholas Fraser, Marysa Navarro
This is supposedly the best, most judicial biography of Eva Peron out there.  After that masterful T. E. Lawrence biography by John Mack, I was underwhelmed by Fraser and Navarro’s sources; this book read more like magazine articles than a scholarly paper.  More than once, there was a statement that was an opinion, and there was no easy way for me to tell from whence the opinion originated.  Writing aside, the topic matter was chilling.  Eva, Juan, the political situation in Argentina at the time – all of it was very depressing.  An interesting read nonetheless.  Especially pertinent was reading how the Perons controlled the media and depictions of themselves.
*** The Polar History Is More My Thing Award ***
In the Land of White Death – Valerian Albanov
This little book deserves all the glowing reviews it has.  If you’re looking for an introduction to polar literature, I highly recommend the Russian navigator Albanov’s account of his survival trek through the Arctic.  The human element comes through strongly in his narrative; it’s great that he did not edit out the personal side to his story.
*** The I Need to Read More Hoffmann Award ***
Nutcracker and Mouse King and The Tale of the Nutcracker – E.T.A. Hoffmann, Alexandre Dumas
(Side note: E.T.A. is such a great set of initials.)
I let myself forget the Nutcracker I knew before, and I really, really loved the Hoffmann original.  Dumas’s version is also great, but more polished.  Read them both!  What better month to do so?

*** The Unexpectedly Disappointing Award ***
Tales of Unrest – Joseph Conrad
I’ve come to the conclusion that Conrad wrote in two ways: sheer genius, and not.  This series of depressing (unrestful) tales is not genius.  It’s not great, unfortunately.  I didn’t like any of them.
*** The Terrifying, Also Would Not Recommend Award ***
Dracula’s Guest – Bram Stoker
Friends, when a Goodreads reviewer advises you to skip a story, do not try to be a completionist.  Heed their advice.  They know what they’re talking about.  You don’t need to read all the creepy stories.  You really don’t.
*** The Beautifully Written, Tough to Understand Award ***
Memories of the Future – Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
This author was new to me; I read the book because he’s supposed to be similar to Kafka.  Even in translation, Krzhizhanovsky is a lovely writer; his analogies and word choices seem so fresh, even original, compared to other writers.  The trouble is, I was confused most of the time.  I did like the last story, “Memories of the Future,” but it’s very similar to The Time Machine.  Would read more by him in the future (ha. ha.).
*** The Better Than the Movie Award ***
Pinocchio – Carlo Collodi
I’m not big on this fairytale, but it was certainly entertaining.  Pinocchio is such a bad son to Geppetto, and still I felt sorry for him.  Like most fairytales, the amount of exaggeration makes it hard to believe at times (I really think Pinocchio would have learned his lesson faster than he does!).  I’ll probably keep this one, though; it’s definitely a classic.
*** The Childhood Heroine Award ***
Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words
Joan of Arc has always been an inspiration to me.  This books is a compilation of quotes by her, which forms something of an autobiography.  It’s sobering to realize that the main reason we have these quotes is because she was captured and spoke the majority of these statements at her trial.  I really recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about her.  Reading what she did and said 600 years ago makes you feel both how long ago and recent it was.
*** The Childhood Memory Award ***
The Silent World – Jacques Cousteau
I have a vague memory of watching a Jacques Cousteau film as a child.  He is probably one of the many reasons I grew up with a fascination for all things to do with the ocean.  This memoir talks about Cousteau’s early diving career, his various diving projects, and general opinions on topics related to diving.  It wasn’t gripping, but I learned quite a few things, historical and scientific, and the writing style is accessible.  A good read to learn more about him.
*** The Changed My Life Award ***
Works of Love – Søren Kierkegaard 
I left the sticky notes in this book – and not just the few that are pictured.  It’s difficult to describe a book like this without feeling vulnerable, because I can’t adequately summarize it, and I can’t say I agree with him 100%, and I can’t tell you it’s a must read.  I have no idea how Works of Love affects one reader from the next.  Yes, it changed my life; it made me look at something familiar in a new way.

I think of Kierkegaard as this lonely person who is thinking through everything out loud, and some of it is confusion, and some of it is inspired, and he offers it all up to the reader without apology, because he is only human and never expected to think “perfect” thoughts, only to strive for truth.  I don’t know if that’s Kierkegaard, or me projecting myself onto the impression of him.  I think he was born to write this book, in any case.

Whatever the world takes away from you, thought it be most cherished, whatever happens to you in life, however you may have to suffer because of your striving, for the good, if you please, if men turn indifferent from you or as enemies against you…if even your best friend should deny you – if nevertheless in any of your strivings, in any of your actions, in any of your words you truly have consciously had love along: then take comfort, for love abides. (p. 279)


By Adymark (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-ro], 
 via Wikimedia Commons

Young solicitor Jonathan Harker is sent on a business trip to Transylvania, where he must meet with an elderly count who has recently bought property in London.  So far so good, until Jonathan realizes there are some strange goings-on at Castle Dracula that defy both science and sanity.  Meanwhile, John Seward–doctor at a London insane asylum–has been noticing some weird behaviour in one of his patients.  He is only called away by the illness of the woman he loves, Lucy Westenra, in the seaside town of Whitby, where an eerie shipwreck has taken place.  As worse comes to worst, Dr Seward sends for the help of his friend and mentor Prof. Van Helsing, who alone seems to know how these supernatural mysteries tie together.

Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Bram Stoker‘s gothic classic?  My first real introduction was the book Sherlock Holmes Versus Dracula, which I enjoyed and plan to re-read.  (Fortunately, however, the story did not leave enough impression upon me to give me any spoilers.)  My tendency to avoid ghost and vampire stories, as well as my preconceptions of the character, made me wait so long to read Dracula proper. Which, as I’ve found out, is a real shame, since I liked it so much I’m giving it 4.3 out of 5 stars.

This is a quite a page-turner of a book, formatted in letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, and telegrams.  It takes place in the same era and setting as Sherlock Holmes, and the protagonists use such technology as portable typewriters and phonographs to make audio recordings.  I thought that was pretty cool.  Suffice it to say Dracula is pretty contemporary for its day, and you get that feeling even as a modern-day reader.

The characters were really good.  Jonathan Harker, young and initially naive; John Seward, the doubting man of science; Quincey Morris, the good-natured Texan; and Arthur Holmwood, who finds out he has more courage than he could have fathomed.  For most of the book, I also liked Mina, Jonathan’s wife. Mina is very intelligent and analytical, “not of a fainting disposition”, and even more fearless of death than any of the men, but when they insist she stay home and rest, she humours them. 

And Dracula?  Oddly enough, he is gets very little “screen time”, though when he is around he is certainly sinister enough to make up for it.  In case you were wondering, there is no conceivable way to have a crush on the real (book) Dracula.  He is nasty and repulsive from beginning to end.  He is not at all attractive.  He does not sparkle in the sunlight, and when he has eaten he’s hideously bloated.  Pop culture would tell us there are romantic connotations to vampires, but in this book, Dracula himself isn’t much like that.  He’s chiefly interested in survival and gaining/keeping power.  This is one reason I liked this book–vampires are not good guys or romantic interests. 

Another reason–Van Helsing.  Most of the book, he is a truly great character.  He appreciates science, but he never puts all his faith in science.  “For in this enlightened age, when men believe not even what they see, the doubting of wise men would be his [Dracula’s] greatest strength.”  Van Helsing understands that man can’t make it on his own, that evil will inevitably overpower our puny science and we must trust God to save us from spiritual disaster.  Van Helsing is willing to give his life to stop the spread of vampirism, and yet he’s still human, dueling with temptation and prone to hysteria.  He’s got plenty of nerve, but it’s fragile nerve.  And, as a somewhat frail, elderly character, he’s the perfect antagonist to the unnaturally energetic, artificially youthful Dracula.

In short, Dracula is highly symbolic fantasy to be read with a grain of salt.  The first 2/3 of the book were epic and hard to put down.  None of the book was really scary, but it does keep you wondering what Dracula, a kind of serial killer, will do next. There were some really great scenes, and perhaps the most nerve-wracking were the blood transfusions.  Probably my favorite part–it was a very eerie way of showing Dracula’s power.

The last 1/3 of the book, as I half-expected, was not so great.  I attribute it mainly to Stoker’s addiction to milking the pathos for all it’s worth.  He couldn’t seem to be satisfied with the brilliance he achieved in the first 2/3, so to take it up (or down!) several notches, he went way too far (in my opinion).  The good guy started to take the “end justifies the means” approach, which was cheesy and bothered me a lot.

Then the thing that bothered me the most was how one of the characters, having been forced into slowly becoming a vampire, was supposedly “unclean” and “outcast from God”, even though they still maintained their faith and were not a vampire yet.  Even taken symbolically, this doesn’t seem very Biblical, the idea that being the weak, unwilling victim of some evil still separates them from God.  Now, if you really want to get analytical, you could interpret this as an allegory of original sin and say that the ending/climax of the book–in which the character is freed–can be viewed as symbolism for salvation.  Even that’s doubtful, though, since the victim was a victim, not a rebel; and apart from that, it’s still a stretch, especially since up until then Dracula reads as symbolic of temptation in general, not a large-scale allegory.  Hence, read with a large grain of salt and don’t look for accurate allegory.

How, then, can I rate Dracula so highly?  Because I found it, overall, unexpectedly inspiring and deep.  It was not the twisted romance story or questionable ghost story one would expect.  It’s a book about loathsome evil that is portrayed as such.  It’s about men and woman who love each other as brothers and sisters and will fight to the death to protect each other from a vampire’s possession.  It’s about “the curse of immortality” and how natural death is favorable to an “undead” prolonged life.  And it’s about trusting in God and bracing yourself against temptation, even if you must brutally distance yourself from someone you love.  I don’t know if I’ve ever read a piece of literature which emphasized that so forcibly.

The sentiments behind the book and the characters’ undaunted trust made Dracula worthwhile for me.  From a Christian perspective, what faults I found in the book also worked to inspire me, because they made me think.  Yes, the protagonists’ great fear is to be attacked by a vampire and become, as they think, spiritually outcast.  But the real world isn’t like that.  I believe we have free will; we don’t have to live in fear of being forced to do evil, and when we do our utmost to follow God, He will protect us.  There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it. (I Corinthians 10:13)  Fantasy’s limits can never do justice to our beautiful reality.