Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

A pleasant summer in Maine
Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) lived her whole life in Maine and carved out a successful career writing regional realist fiction about her home state. One might think of Jewett as the Willa Cather of Maine, and in fact Cather cited Jewett’s works as having a significant influence on her own writing. The Country of the Pointed Firs, published in 1896, is Jewett’s best known work. This novel is narrated by an unnamed female writer from Boston who arrives at the seaside village of Dunnet Landing to spend the summer. She takes up residence in the home of Mrs. Almira Todd, a widow who gathers and dispenses medicinal herbs for a living. While the narrator finds her lodgings congenial, she requires an adequate quiet space to work on her writings, so she rents out the local schoolhouse to use as her office. Over the course of the next few months, she becomes acquainted with the residents of Dunnet Landing and its environs, listens to the stories of their lives, and is invited into the slow-paced but warm-hearted lifestyle of this picturesque village and its surrounding islands.

To be honest, not a whole lot happens in The Country of the Pointed Firs. An old sea captain relates a story of a shipwreck. The narrator takes a boat trip to visit her landlord’s mother on a neighboring island. Ladies sit around the kitchen table drinking tea and discussing the history and lore of the town. What little action might be said to take place in the story is provided mostly by secondary narrators telling tales of the region’s past, some of which are quite moving. Because the plot is so bare-boned, the book is highly descriptive, but Jewett’s descriptions aren’t just pointless or gratuitous embellishments intended to showcase the author’s pretty prose. She vividly recreates the atmosphere of a Maine village and imparts to the reader a profound sense of place. Dunnet Landing is the kind of town where you can tell by the smoke coming from your neighbors’ chimneys whether or not they are frying up donuts, and if they see you passing by they just might come out and offer you some. Orne guides the reader on a pleasure trip, not a whirlwind tour, of the area. This book will not have you on the edge of your seat, but rather nestled comfortably in an Adirondack chair, as on a relaxing vacation. Some days there’s nothing to do, and you’re just content to sit and listen to the waves or stroll among the wildflowers.

Though Jewett certainly gives fair due to the Maine scenery, this book is not a work of nature writing. It is not the natural environment but the culture and customs of the inhabitants that are the author’s main concern. The characters are fully fleshed out and indicative of the environment without succumbing to regional or occupational stereotypes. Jewett achieves this primarily by revealing the characters’ personalities through their speech. She does a great job of capturing the idiosyncratic language of the region. With the exception of a few dropped consonants, this is not accomplished through the phonetic transcription of accents but rather through the use of unique expressions, idioms, and figures of speech. These Northeasterners describe an island, a boat, or a neighbor with words an Iowan or a Californian wouldn’t even think of. Through this crafty use of language, Jewett recreates the mentality of Dunnet Landing and its inhabitants’ values and dreams.

The Country of the Pointed Firs is a fine work of American realism that enchants the reader with the sights, sounds, and smells of rural maritime New England. It may be as close as one can come to spending a summer in Maine without actually being there.

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Monday, November 11, 2019

The Blazed Trail by Stewart Edward White

Entertaining Michigan timber adventure
A popular subgenre of adventure literature in the late 19th and early 20th century was the resource exploitation romance. In such novels, a plucky young man in dire financial straits ventures into the wilderness to seek his fortune in mining, timber, oil, furs, or maybe even reindeer herding (see James Oliver Curwood’s The Alaskan). While still maintaining a respectable quota of backcountry thrills, these novels differ from your typical wilderness adventure, treasure hunt, or gold rush novel in that they focus less on the call of the wild and the love of nature and more on business matters, real estate deals, and stocks and bonds. Jack London wrote a few of these resource exploitation adventures (Burning Daylight comes to mind). Canadian author Harold Bindloss made a whole career out of them. Michigan-born author Stewart Edward White was a prolific author of adventure literature in the first four decades of the twentieth century. His 1902 novel The Blazed Trail, about the lumber industry in northern Michigan, is an excellent exemplar of the resource exploitation romance and an entertaining and educational read.

The hero, Harry Thorpe, comes from a well-to-do family, but his father disgraced the Thorpe name by embezzling funds and then died soon afterwards, leaving Harry to support not only himself but also his teenage sister. Being a member of Detroit’s idle class, Harry has no profession, so he decides to start a career in Michigan’s main industry: timber. He ventures to the Saginaw region to seek employment at a lumber camp and ends up being hired by the successful firm of Morrison & Daly. Thorpe starts on the bottom rung of the ladder and gradually learns the ins and outs of the business. In his first winter in the woods, working under an ineffectual boss, he learns many things about how not to run a lumber camp. After that camp closes, Thorpe decides to try his hand at becoming a lumber baron himself. He ventures into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to find his own piece of untouched timberland in hopes of finding a partner to help him finance the harvesting of millions of board feet of lumber.

Obviously, this story is written with the environmental consciousness (or lack thereof) of a century ago, which may seem a little off-putting now, but one can’t deny that lumber has been a big industry in Michigan’s history. The reader really learns a lot of fascinating detail about the cutting and transporting of logs and the hardships and dangers faced by the lumberjacks and woodsmen. Any worries that the narrative would get too bogged down in the business and financial details proved unfounded. It was really very interesting to learn more about the trade that some of my ancestors plied in the north woods of Wisconsin. White also manages to work in several fun and exciting adventure scenes, such as a breakneck race between two competitors to file a claim in the Detroit land office. Despite the tree-cutting subject matter, there’s also a fair bit of Thoreau-like appreciation of nature for its own sake, and the novel concludes with a good moral lesson.

Where the book falters is in its romantic subplot. The novel really takes a downward turn in Part IV: Thorpe’s Dream Girl with an overly saccharine, idealized love story. White is very good at writing the lives of men, but his women are rather two-dimensional and stereotypical. This romance, however, is almost an afterthought to the story, which concentrates more on Thorpe’s coming of age, his relations with his fellow men, and his contentious romance with nature itself. The Blazed Trail is a surprisingly exceptional read for this genre and demonstrates that White’s body of work deserves further investigation

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Friday, November 8, 2019

Children of the World by Paul Heyse

If Balzac were a freethinker
Paul Heyse
by Adolph von Menzel
German author Paul Heyse won the 1910 Nobel Prize in Literature, but his authorial career stretches all the way back to about 1850. His novel Children of the World was first published in 1873 under the German title of Kinder der Welt. Heyse’s work, and this novel in particular, demonstrate a transition in German literature from the Romantic to the early modern. While modern philosophical and social ideas are discussed, stylistically the book harkens back to the earlier, more romantic storytelling of a writer like Balzac. The latter author, in fact, gets a shout out in Children of the World, as a few of the characters discuss the literary merits of his masterwork Père Goriot. Just as that novel depicts the lives of an ensemble cast of characters in a Parisian apartment building, Children of the World likewise focuses on the inhabitants of a Berlin lodging house and their acquaintances in the surrounding neighborhood.

Edwin, a philosopher and tutor, lives with his younger brother Balder, a semi-crippled young man who ekes out a meager living in woodworking. The pair dwell in a small flat above a shoemaker’s shop. With such poor-paying professions, the brothers live a Spartan lifestyle, but the joy they find in each other’s company alleviates the squalor of their surroundings. A few good friends frequent the brothers’ austere salon, armed with contrasting philosophical views that make for lively intellectual discourse. One night, the gift of a theatre ticket gives Edwin a reprieve from this comfortable but limited social circle. In the theatre he spies a beautiful young woman and experiences love at first sight, even though he knows the aristocratic beauty is out of his league.

A big difference between Balzac and Heyse is that the former was a Catholic while the latter was a freethinker. Roughly half the characters in Children of the World, most notably Edwin, are freethinkers—atheists, materialists, pantheists, and the like. The title Children of the World refers to these freethinkers, as opposed to the believers in religion, the Children of God. The main plot of the book does not revolve around Edwin’s atheism, however. The novel is primarily a love story. In fact, there are so many love triangles in this book they practically interlock into a star of David, and this was the era when unrequited love would cause physical illness and even death. The freethinking theme is woven throughout the narrative as a simple fact of the character’s lives. Edwin and his friends express their distaste at how religion is forced upon them at every celebration of birth, death, or marriage. When Edwin’s godless views become public knowledge, his career as a teacher is threatened. For the freethinking reader, it is refreshing to read a novel from this era that treats atheism and the prejudice against it as a matter of simple fact. One of the villains in the story is a religious hypocrite who simulates piety for his own gain. Heyse also tackles the class system by pointing out the shallowness and hypocrisy of the nobility in contrast to Edwin and friends’ more secularly righteous working-class lives.

Be warned before starting, this is a very long book. When first published in English in 1882, it was split into three volumes. Later editions crammed it all into about 600 tightly packed pages. Once the reader gets involved in these characters lives, however, it is a pleasure to watch the story unfold. The book’s main fault lies in one of Edwin’s love interests, who is portrayed too idealistically and is prone to annoying emotional histrionics. Though the book is quite modern in its philosophical ideas, its treatment of romance is still very much rooted in whatever was the German equivalent of the Victorian Era. Nevertheless, this is still a very worthwhile read for lovers of classic literature, particularly for those who share Edwin’s godless inclinations.
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Thursday, November 7, 2019

Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson

A fine introductory text to applied Stoic philosophy
In the past few decades, the ancient philosophy of Stoicism has seen a resurgence in appreciation as it has been rescued from the arcanity of academic philosophy textbooks and repackaged as a self-help program, which really was its original intention all along. British-Canadian psychotherapist Donald Robertson has distinguished himself as one of the current leading writers on Stoicism. His book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, published in 2013, is a volume in the Teach Yourself series published by Hodder & Stoughton. True to the self-educational mission of that series, this book is an instructional manual for readers with little or no knowledge of Stoic philosophy. In this well-organized text, Robertson defines and expands upon Stoic principles and guides the reader in their practical application to modern life.

Perhaps the most popular book in the recent Stoic renaissance (at least in the U.S.) has been William B. Irvine’s Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. While Irvine is a professor of philosophy, Robertson writes from the perspective of a psychotherapist. He repeatedly points out that ancient Stoic philosophy was the basis for modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and in this book you will often find excerpts from Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius alongside quotes from the twentieth-century founders of CBT. Robertson points out, rightfully so, that Irvine’s conception of modern Stoicism is not entirely faithful to the ancient writings of the Stoic philosophers. Robertson is more of a purist who prefers to stick to the wisdom of the ancients as closely as possible. Of the two writers, however, Irvine’s text is the more accessible and more likely to make inspired converts of philosophically challenged general readers. Robertson is more methodical and systematic in his approach, perhaps because of the textbook format required by the Teach Yourself series, which sometimes renders the subject a bit dry and lifeless. Overall, however, both books are great introductions to Stoicism, and a novice couldn’t really go wrong with either one.

Because of its textbook format, the contents are quite repetitive. After Robertson discusses concepts in the main chapter text, those same concepts are then repeated in sidebars, instructions for exercises, and a list of points to remember at the end of each chapter. This repetition supports the book’s function as an introductory text, but it can prove tedious for those who have already put some study into Stoicism. Even for those readers already familiar with Stoicism, however, the book can serve as a useful reference and refresher course. One annoying thing about the edition I purchased is that Robertson states on a few occasions that those reading the ebook will get an extra bonus chapter dealing with the subject of death. First of all, I’m reading the ebook, and that chapter is not included. Secondly, if I were reading the print edition, I would feel ripped off.

Despite that editorial fault, this really is one of the best non-academic books on Stoicism that I’ve encountered and one well worth reading for curious beginners or well-read enthusiasts. (By “non-academic” I mean not intended solely for grad students in philosophy.) The lessons are clear, and the psychological exercises are genuinely useful. Those wishing to apply Stoic principles to their daily life will find this book a worthy practical guide.
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Thursday, October 24, 2019

In Search of the Unknown by Robert W. Chambers

Adventures in paranormal zoology
American author Robert W. Chambers is best known for his book The King in Yellow, a collection of short stories mostly of the macabre horror variety. His book In Search of the Unknown, published in 1904, shows a more lighthearted side to Chambers. This work is ostensibly a novel, but it reads more like a collection of short stories that have been cobbled together, not entirely successfully, into one continuous narrative.

The narrator of the book is a Mr. Gilland, who in the opening chapter begins his new job at the Bronx Park Zoo as general superintendant of the water-fowl department. The first assignment he’s given is in response to a man who claims to have two specimens of the extinct bird the great auk living in his pond. Gilland is sent to investigate the claim, and, if the auks do in fact exist, bring them back alive for the zoo’s collection. Over the course of the book, Gilland undertakes a few other scientific investigations, each of which brings him into contact with strange zoological anomalies. These include extinct species found alive, fictional species invented by Chambers, mythical creatures, and previously undiscovered humanoids. In each adventure, Gilland manages to fall in love, and his often fruitless wooing of the women in question provides comic relief.

In Search of the Unknown is science fiction in the most literal sense, in that it’s not about speculative visions of outer space or the future, but rather about a scientist and the practice of science. In addition to hunting for mysterious species, Gilland has to contend with other hazards of the profession, such as professional rivalries, contentious scholarly conferences, conflicts with management, and the difficulties involved with hiring assistants, outfitting expeditions, and collecting and transporting specimens. This uncommonly professorial take on sci-fi is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book. The formula of Chambers’s plots, however, is less satisfying. Each adventure starts with hints of an unusual creature, followed by two or three chapters of the characters mostly bickering with each other until finally the monster shows up briefly at the end.

At about the halfway point, the book really takes a turn for the worse. Gilland is returning home to New York after just having completed a mission in the Everglades. On the train he meets a fellow New Yorker named Harold Kensett. Kensett, a writer, then proceeds to narrate a story about his own encounter with a bizarre animal. Little does the reader know at that point that Kensett will be narrating the entire second half of the book. This abandoning of one hero with whom the reader has become invested only to switch horses midstream amounts to an unforgivable narrative choice. The only possible reason that would come to mind for Chambers doing so is that these were pre-written short stories that were rather lazily slapped together into a poor excuse for a novel. What’s worse is that Kensett’s final adventure in the book is a terrible story that doesn’t at all fit with the rest of the book. Instead of zoological sci-fi, Chambers delivers yet another Victorian tale of supernatural spiritualism that would have been more at home in The King in Yellow.

In Search of the Unknown shares the main same flaw as The King in Yellow: inconsistency. It is difficult to recommend a book when only about half of it is good. Still, even if Chambers’s writing isn’t quite in the same league with someone like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this work provides some worthwhile entertainment for fans of century-old science fiction.

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Friday, October 18, 2019

Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno

Excellent guide to a fascinating civilization
For anyone interested in archaeology, the “Handbook to Life” series published by Oxford University Press is an excellent collection of comprehensive books on ancient civilizations. If your interests lie in Mexican history or the archaeology of the Americas, the 2006 volume Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno is an excellent resource loaded with fascinating detail.

The Aztec Empire is also known as the Triple Alliance because it was established by three city-states: Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan. While most of the book focuses on this central core of the Aztec civilization, the opening chapters give a broader overview of pre-Columbian Native cultures throughout Mexico. Aguilar-Moreno discusses the earlier civilizations that influenced the Aztecs, such as the Olmec, the Toltec, and Teotihucan. The origins of the Mexica, who would later settle in Tenochtitlan to become known as Aztecs, are examined from both mythical and archaeological perspectives. Also discussed are many of the other Native cultures throughout Mexico with which the Aztecs came into contact. The Maya are barely mentioned, however, because the series has another excellent book on that subject: Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World by Lynn Foster. The Spanish conquest is covered in depth throughout the book. The final chapter gives a concise history of Mexico from the demise of the Aztec Empire to the present, with special notice given to the present state of the Indigenous population.

After the opening historical and geographical overviews, the book delivers a series of thematic chapters examining different aspects of Aztec life. Topics discussed include warfare, clothing, food, astronomy and mathematics, economy and trade, and the role of women in Aztec society. The book is especially strong on the religion and philosophy of the Aztecs, giving you an idea of the underlying belief system that permeated every aspect of daily life, including the practice of human sacrifice for which the Aztecs are notorious. Aguilar-Moreno reveals a society in many ways more sophisticated than its European conquerors. The chapters on art, architecture, and literature are heavily illustrated with photographs and line drawings of archaeological sites, artifacts from the Museo Nacional de Antropología, and codices of Nahutl pictographic writing. The book concludes eloquently with a selection of Aztec poetry translated into English.

While it seems intended as a text for undergraduate courses, this book is perfectly accessible to general readers, armchair archaeologists, and Mexicophiles. Because of the textbook organization, there is a fair bit of repetition of information. For example, major battles discussed in the historical overview are also discussed in the section on warfare. Such repetition never becomes annoying, however, and only serves to reinforce the lessons learned, as any textbook should. The thematic presentation also strengthens the book’s usefulness as a reference guide.

This book was published in 2006, and there have no doubt been archaeological discoveries since then that may call some of the information here into question. But has a more comprehensive, well-organized, and accessible overview of the Aztec civilization been published since? Experts in the field might quibble with some of the details, but for the vast majority of interested readers this handbook is an excellent and educational read. If you require further information on any of the topics discussed, the book cites an extensive list of references for further study.
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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Angel of the Revolution: A Tale of the Coming Terror by George Griffith

Dreary world-war fantasy with racist aftertaste
The Angel of the Revolution, a novel by British author George Griffith, was originally serialized in 1893 issues of the periodical Pearson’s Weekly. It is a work of science fiction that is set in the near future of 1903. A young scientist named Richard Arnold, working in his own private laboratory, has invented a flying machine. A major advance over the technology of his time, Arnold’s invention is not merely a modified balloon but an actual powered flying machine capable of great speed, agile maneuverability, and a heavy carrying capacity. So far, however, Arnold has only been able to construct a scale model of his design. He lacks the money to build a full-sized prototype. At the moment of his greatest financial difficulty, he is approached by a mysterious man named Colston who offers to help him bring his concept into production. Colston introduces Arnold to a secret organization of anarchists and nihilists who call themselves the Brotherhood of Freedom, though the rest of the world refers to them as The Terrorists. The Brotherhood wants to use Arnold’s flying machine to crush the world’s military forces, in particular those of the Russian Tsar, in order to bring about world peace. Being sympathetic to their ideals, Arnold joins the Brotherhood and becomes their admiral of the air.

The Angel of the Revolution is a very well-written pulp fiction adventure novel. Griffith’s prose is consistently brisk, often exciting, and surprisingly fresh. His writing is less antiquated than even exemplary contemporaries like H. G. Wells or Jules Verne. While the way Griffith tells his story is quite commendable, however, what he actually has to say is not so appealing. This is really an ugly story, the purpose of which is to rack up as much carnage and as high a body count as possible. One really has to have an appetite for destruction to appreciate this novel. Much of the plot revolves around troop movements and airpower strategy and reads like some pompous wargamer pontificating over a game of Risk.

Though the Brotherhood are supposedly men with no nation, the story clearly favors the Brits over the evil Russians. The Tsar’s regime is depicted as institutionalized torture and murder, yet the Brotherhood itself doesn’t come across as much more humane. We are supposed to admire these “heroes” as they mercilessly destroy all opposition before them, but their methods and their speech ring of fascism. The system with which they propose to replace the existing world order is vaguely socialist, but in the hands of the psychotic Brotherhood it would no doubt devolve into an iron-handed oppression even worse than the Soviet Union’s heyday of human rights violations.

In addition, there’s the racism. In Griffith’s world war England and Germany team up against an alliance of France, Russia, and Italy, thus pitting the palest, blondest nations in Europe against the swarthy Southerners and Slavs. The novel explicitly states in several passages that the Anglo-Saxon race is destined to inherit the Earth. Once they conquer Europe, the Brotherhood plan to then exert their influence over the colonies of Africa and the “yellow barbarism” of the East.

If you want to read an excellent science fiction novel about a future socialist revolution, read Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1907). London himself was an Anglo-Saxon supremacist, but not blatantly in that book, and the political theory is a lot smarter than the pointless bloodlust on display in The Angel of the Revolution.

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