Friday, March 24, 2017

The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

OutMacGyvering Robinson Crusoe
What I liked best about reading Jules Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island is that I came to the book with absolutely no idea what made the island so mysterious. Given the breadth and depth of Verne’s literary output, all manner of scientific oddities could have been possible. The less known about the book ahead of time, the more fun the reading experience. In some editions, however, the chapters have titles that act as spoilers to the story. When I was about halfway through the book, an inadvertent glance at one of these chapter headings let the cat out of the bag, ruining the surprise ending.

The Mysterious Island was originally published in French in 1874, with the English-language version, translated by William Henry Giles Kingston, coming out the following year. The story begins in 1865, during the American Civil War. Five northerners are being held as prisoners in the Confederate capital of Richmond. They make a daring escape by stealing a hot air balloon, and then end up getting caught in a hurricane. Carried thousands of miles from their native soil, the five castaways crash on an uncharted island somewhere in the temperate latitudes of the South Pacific. The group consists of Cyrus Harding, a captain in the Union Army, frequently referred to as “the engineer;” his former slave, now servant, Neb; Gideon Spilett, a reporter for the New York Herald; a sailor named Pencroft, and his teenaged ward Herbert.

For most of its length, the book is a Robinson Crusoe-style survival adventure, though survival may be an overstatement since few castaways have ever had it so easy as these five. Ever since Daniel Defoe published the original Robinson Crusoe novel back in 1719, countless imitators have tried to outdo the godfather of castaways with ever more ingenious feats of invention in the face of isolation. The Mysterious Island resembles James Fenimore Cooper’s The Crater in that it gives its marooned heroes an almost unlimited ability to construct anything from coconut shells and dirt. With “the engineer” as their leader, these five can MacGyver their way out of any problem. In fact, what the book sorely needs is some adversity. Everything that Verne proposes is within the realm of scientific possibility, but there’s never any false starts, failed experiments, or tests of patience, no mistakes made, nor any conflict or disagreement between the five companions. If it’s realism you want, you won’t find it on this island, but the book does succeed as utopian fantasy. The characters are simplistic and one-dimensional, but the reader really does get to like them over time and delight vicariously in their technological successes.

I’m not a unilateral fan of Verne’s work. I enjoyed Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but didn’t care much for Journey to the Center of the Earth. The Mysterious Island is more along the lines of the former example, and is likely one of Verne’s better novels. Like Twenty Thousand Leagues, the joy of scientific discovery is contagious, and the adventure is sufficiently thrilling, especially for those who appreciate the slowly building suspense of 19th-century storytelling rather than the nonstop action of a 21st-century potboiler. Another fun aspect of Verne’s work is the way he draws connections between his various books, creating a precursor to something like the Marvel Universe. Call it the Verniverse. It’s a fascinating world, and great fun to visit.
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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Reckoning by Georges Simenon

Disturbing late-life crisis
Georges Simenon’s novel Le Bilan Malétras was originally published in 1948. An English edition entitled The Reckoning, translated by Emily Read, was published in 1984. This book is considered one of Simenon’s “romans durs” or “hard novels,” which are often bleak, psychological thrillers with existential undertones. Although these romans durs often take the form of noir crime stories, they allow Simenon to explore deeper philosophical questions than he usually tackles in the detective fiction of his popular Maigret series.

The protagonist of the story, Malétras, is a retired businessman who finds himself questioning the pointlessness of his own life as he drifts toward an elderly obsolescence. He was born and raised a poor country boy, but worked his way up to own a chain of seaport warehouses. Once having achieved success, he turned his back on his humble upbringings and embraced the lifestyle of the nouveau riche, often looking with disdain upon those less fortunate or less driven than himself. His career now over, he resides in Le Havre with his second wife, dabbles in a small business venture, and spends most of his time hanging out in a bar with other distinguished professional men of similar social stature.

Something shocking happens in the first few pages, making this a tough book to summarize without spoiling. Since this is a Simenon novel, however, it’s probably not revealing too much to say that a crime is committed. At that point it shows signs of becoming a suspenseful thriller, but it never really progresses too far in this direction. Mostly this is a character study, through which details of Malétras’s past and personality are gradually revealed as his sanity seems to slowly unravel. He is all but estranged from his family, has few if any meaningful friendships, and seems to be almost entirely devoid of human emotions. The book often adopts the callous tone of its antihero, displaying at times an almost offensive disregard for human lives and feelings. Malétras wanders the streets and cafés of Le Havre trying to figure out how he’s gotten to this point in his life and what it is that drives him towards the few pleasures that he seeks.

Simenon’s grasp of human psychology is very impressive, and his multi-dimensional study of this character’s mind is fascinating. After a while, however, the book starts to get somewhat repetitive. The crime plot falls by the wayside and is forgotten for a stretch as the story moves in a more prosaic direction that examines themes of aging, regret, illness, and coming to terms with death. The ending is a bit of a disappointment, but it seems to be an intentional one. Simenon refuses to conform to the conventions of a crime thriller and grant the reader easy satisfaction. There’s an admirable audaciousness to this strategy, and it closes the story with a ring of truth in keeping with the inconvenient realities of life.

If you wanted to read a formulaic crime story, you probably wouldn’t be reading Simenon anyway. The man wrote about 500 novels, and few if any that I’ve encountered so far could be described as “typical.” This isn’t one of Simenon’s absolute best books, but it’s certainly an engaging work of literature written by an expert at his craft. The Reckoning is one more surprising book among the prolific output of a writer who consistently defies expectations.
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Friday, March 17, 2017

Showcase Presents: Strange Adventures, Volume 2 by DC Comics

Not as much fun as Volume 1
This is the second volume of Strange Adventures reprints in DC Comics’s Showcase Presents series. Published in 2013, this collection reproduces the complete narrative contents of Strange Adventures issues 74 to 93, which originally ran from November 1956 to June 1958. Though I’ve never been a fan of DC’s superhero pantheon, I have always admired their science fiction comics, particularly those from this era. I absolutely loved Showcase Presents: Strange Adventures, Volume 1, and this second installment contains another 500+ pages of the same brand of bizarre sci-fi fun. Yet while reading through Volume 2, I couldn’t help feeling the series had lost some of its luster. If you like pulp fiction from this era, these stories are still good, but not as delightfully imaginative as those of the first volume. Judging by these issues, the Strange Adventures series appears to have been losing some of its creative steam.

The cover is certainly promising, with its illustration of angry extraterrestrial snowmen shooting laser beams from their eyes. The story it references, “Invaders from the Ice World,” is one of the more entertaining entries in the book. In Volume 1, alien invaders usually came from other planets in our solar system, but in Volume 2 the writers have broadened the scope of possibility to include interstellar villains. To overcome the language barrier, mental telepathy is obligatorily cited as the means of communication in almost every story, a convention so overused it’s even called out in “Secret of the Silent Spacemen.” In addition to alien invasion, intelligent simians are always a great plot device, as in “Secret of the Man-Ape!” and “The Gorilla War Against Earth.” There are some good time travel selections as well, such as “The Paul Revere of Time” and “The Warning Out of Time.” As you can see, even the titles start to sound familiar after a while. “The Amazing Tree of Knowledge!” and “The Amazing Ray of Knowledge!” appeared in consecutive issues. A recurring problem with these stories is that too much time is spent setting up the threat, which only leaves a page or two for the generic hero to solve the problem and save mankind. While the perils are fantastical, the solutions always rely on some everyday principle of science, as if DC intended the series to educate as well as to entertain.

Generally speaking, I think DC’s Showcase Presents series of classic comics reprints is much better than Marvel’s Essentials series in terms of its production values—cover design, paper quality, clarity of reproduction, and so on. This vintage art really looks beautiful in black and white. They don’t draw ‘em like this anymore! The artistic workhorses of the series were Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, and Sid Greene. The three of them probably pencilled at least 90 percent of the stories included here. Towards the end of the volume, however, new talents start to appear that don’t really measure up to their predecessors, like Manny Stallman and John Giunta. As the series rounded its 90th issue, it appears that changes were taking place. The stories in Volumes 1 and 2 are almost invariably six pages in length, yet issue #93 leads off with a 14-page whopper, “Heart of the Solar System.” Perhaps this was a hint of things to come.

Maybe I’ve just reached a saturation point with this stuff, but if DC ever publishes a third volume of Strange Adventures, I’m unlikely to pursue it. I would rather they put out a volume of material from their Mystery in Space series, which seemed to run more creative work less confined by formulaic conventions.
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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations by Joseph Mazzini Wheeler

Comprehensive catalog of atheists, pantheists, deists, and heretics
J. M. Wheeler
A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations was originally published in 1889. As the title suggests, the book is a who’s who of nonbelievers, commemorated with brief biographical entries arranged in alphabetical order. It was compiled by Joseph Mazzini Wheeler, a British atheist and freethought essayist, who clearly did an enormous amount of research for this herculean undertaking. As an encyclopedic reference volume, this biographical dictionary is not going to emotionally engage the reader the way a philosophical novel or a stirring essay might, but there is still nonetheless a great wealth of knowledge and inspiration to be mined from this rich text.

Wheeler wisely chose the term “Freethinkers” rather than “Atheists” because the book includes a broad range of the skeptical spectrum including agnostics, pantheists, deists, positivists, and other dissenters against Christian dogma. The qualifier “All Ages” is accurate, as Wheeler covers freethought luminaries from ancient times to the present. “All Nations” may be stretching it a bit, but not from a nineteenth-century Western perspective. The personages cited are considered British unless stated otherwise, but Wheeler gives equal space to the intellectual revolutionaries of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United States, and a surprising number of Belgians. As one would expect from the era of publication, no Africans are included, except for one South African transplant and maybe a few Moroccans. Asia is represented by the great Arab and Persian philosophers of ancient and medieval times, such as Averroes, Avicenna, and Omar Khayyam. From farther East, Wheeler only recognizes the most obvious giants of Eastern thought like Confucius and the Buddha. Only a handful of Latin Americans are represented. About one out of every fifty entries is a woman. The diversity of the selections or lack thereof is probably more an accurate reflection of the published writings available to Wheeler at the time than of any deliberate bias on his part.

One would think the most recognizable freethinkers like Giordano Bruno, Thomas Paine, or Robert Ingersoll would get the longest entries, but that’s not necessarily the case. The lengthiest treatment goes to either Annie Besant or George William Foote, neither of which I had ever heard of. The life summaries usually only amount to a paragraph each, but that’s still room enough for some of them to be quite fascinating. The basics of birth, death, career trajectory, and philosophical slant are covered, often accompanied by interesting facts and anecdotes. The best feature of the book is its highlighting of the most important writings of each author, making it an excellent bibliography of freethought texts.

The antiquity of this volume should not be considered a disadvantage. If a book like this were published today, it would contain many movie stars and pop singers who once made an offhand comment about not going to church. The freethinkers listed in this book, on the other hand, gave great consideration to their personal philosophies, published books on the subject, and lived their lives of nonbelief in the face of persecution. For today’s freethinkers, this biographical dictionary is an inspiring look into the lives of those who fought for whatever scrap of nonreligious freedom we might enjoy today. If you consider yourself a freethinker, browsing through this encyclopedia of kindred spirits will assure you that you are in good company.
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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott

Social satire through interdimensional contact
Flatland, a delightfully odd science fiction novel, was originally published in 1884. English author Edwin Abbott Abbott wrote the book under the pseudonym of A. Square. The story is narrated by an actual square, an intelligent geometric figure who lives in a universe of only two dimensions. Speaking to an audience of third-dimensional readers, the Square introduces us to his flat-plane world, describing in detail not only its physical characteristics but also its societal and political structure. The result is a strange combination of geometry lesson, social commentary, and utopian parody.

With no conception of height, only length and width, the inhabitants of Flatland can only see each other as straight lines and must distinguish each other through hearing, touch, and visual techniques acquired through training. This is very important because the society of Flatland is built upon a strict social hierarchy. Circles, or Priests, are the highest social strata, while the lowly workers and soldiers take the form of very acute isosceles triangles. The higher the number of sides and the wider the angles that compose a figure, the greater his intelligence and the higher his social standing. Women, unfortunately, are not even factors in the class struggle, as they always take the form of straight lines. Through his description of this fictional society, Abbott wryly criticizes England’s restrictive class system. When in this satirical mode, the book entertains with an absurdism reminiscent of the sci-fi satire of Voltaire’s story Micromégas. The humor is so dry at times that in some cases, like the extreme chauvinism with which women are discussed, it’s difficult to tell whether Abbott intends to be funny or not.

Flatland is based around an ingenious idea, but the execution is not always all it could be. Though only composed of 155 sparse pages, the book feels long-winded. At times reading through Abbott’s convoluted prose is like trying to run through molasses. Particularly in the first half of the book, he spends a lot of verbiage in making his points and often goes off on annoying digressions. The second half of the novel is much better. The Square describes his visit to the one-dimensional Lineland and his attempts to explain Flatland to the inhabitants there. Then he relates how he originally became aware of the third dimension when he was approached by a sphere from Spaceland. Here the geometry takes precedence over the satire, and the book is better for it, as Abbott illustrates the difficulty in comprehending dimensions above and beyond those which we experience with our senses. The book ends on a high note as Abbott delves deeper and deeper into the philosophical implications of multi-dimensional geometry. On the one hand, the Square and his third-dimensional awakening stands as a sympathetic surrogate for those who claim to have experienced religious revelations. On the other hand, the spirituality of those revelations are called into question as possibly being sensory experiences of geometrical dimensions higher than our own. Once again, how much of such speculation is intended to be serious or humorous is unclear.

For the mathematically minded, the contemplation of fourth-, fifth-, or higher-dimensional worlds is a perplexing but fascinating pursuit. Though the relevance of some of its social satire may have worn off with the end of the Victorian Era, Flatland can still speak to those with an interest in such abstract intellectual exercises, and it does so in a way that is both provocative and amusing.
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Friday, March 10, 2017

The Water Tower by André Stil

A proletarian novel against American imperialism
The Water Tower was originally published in 1951 under the French title of Au château d’eau. It is the first volume in a trilogy entitled Le Premier choc, or The First Clash. At the time of publication, author André Stil was editor of the Communist newspaper L’Humanité, and The Water Tower reads as if it could easily have been serialized in that party organ. In fact, the Soviet Union awarded the book the Stalin Prize for literature in 1952. The plot is based on real historical events that took place at the port of La Rochelle in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of France’s Atlantic coast. It focuses on a community of dockworkers who live under conditions of extreme poverty in a squalid shantytown.

As is often the case with people’s history, this novel opened my eyes to historical events which were previously unknown to me. The dockworkers in this novel are not just struggling against unfair labor practices, crippling poverty, and capitalist persecution, they are also resisting what they term the “American occupation” of France. In the early years of the Cold War, America was working toward rearming defeated Germany to help protect western Europe from Russian encroachment. Needless to say, many French people, who had just undergone years of Nazi occupation during World War II, were not too pleased about this. The Americans, with the cooperation of the French government, had commandeered ports on the coast of France to serve as military bases, which they shared with German submarines. Americans were unloading arms at these ports and shipping them by train across France to Germany. In response, the French dockworkers, many of whom were members of the communist party, went on strike against this practice and refused to receive American ships in their ports. These workers also envisioned their ports being used to fuel wars in Korea and Indochina, wars they saw as furthering American imperialism to the destruction of their brother workers in other lands. The conflict escalates when the Americans begin to seize portions of the workers’ lands and enclose them in a military compound.

Not every character in the book is a socialist or communist. Stil represents the bourgeoisie as well, though there’s little doubt where his sympathies lie. The narrative delves deeply into the workings of the local communist cell and its party politics. The reader attends heated meetings where issues and strategy are debated and accompanies the characters on a dangerous mission of resistance. Through Stil’s engaging storytelling, the reader becomes intimately involved with these characters and drawn into their world. One can’t help but sympathize with these poor workers struggling against the forces that enslave them. The Water Tower calls to mind great classic social novels like Emile Zola’s Germinal, yet it is written in a more modernist style, with shifting perspectives and occasional stream-of-consciousness passages, reminiscent of Man’s Fate by André Malraux.

The English translation by Mollie Guiart and Yvonne Kapp can be a bit clumsy at times. Nevertheless, the power and passion of Stil’s prose shines through. The only fault I find with the book is its lack of an ending. As a stand-alone novel, it is incomplete. Sometimes a trilogy consists of three interrelated novels arranged in sequence; other times a trilogy is simply just a novel cut into thirds. The First Clash appears to fall into the latter category. After having read the exceptional first installment, I am definitely going to seek out the other two volumes to get the whole story.
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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Frank Norris, 1870–1902 by Charles Gilman Norris

A brother’s eulogy
Frank Norris
Prior to his untimely death at the age of 32, Frank Norris was hailed by some critics as one of America’s greatest novelists. Old Books by Dead Guys has already reviewed Norris’s complete works, but there are still a few pieces of Norrisiana out there that fans of this great author might find interesting, such as this booklet published by Doubleday circa 1914.

Norris’s brother Charles Gilman Norris was a successful novelist in his own right. Charles is best known for the novel Salt, which was highly praised by no less than F. Scott Fitzgerald. As stated on the first page of this booklet of roughly 30 pages, here Charles provides, “An intimate sketch of the man who was universally acclaimed the greatest American writer of his generation.” In addition to eulogizing his brother, Charles’s purpose for publishing this booklet was likely to draw attention to the posthumous publication in 1914 of Frank’s previously lost novel Vandover and the Brute

In this brief biographical sketch, Charles doesn’t just restate Frank’s literary accomplishments. He also provides personal recollections from the brothers’ youth. Those who know Frank as the king of American naturalism might be surprised at the extent to which he was once obsessed with Sir Walter Scott’s brand of medieval adventure. Charles shares fond memories of the two playing with lead soldiers. The younger Charles would marvel at the characters and stories his older brother Frank would construct with the tiny figures. Just as kids of my generation might have drawn superhero comics to share with each other, Frank would write out entire novels about knights and chivalry and give them to his brother to read.

Some interesting details on the writing of Frank’s published novels, in particular McTeague and The Octopus, are also revealed. In addition, Charles mentions a proposed trilogy on the battle of Gettysburg that Frank planned to write but never started. Little known details such as these make this booklet worth reading for Frank Norris fans, even though Charles’s essay is only 13 pages long. The narrative is interspersed with photographs, most of them dark and murky with age, and one drawing by Frank, who considered a career in art before turning to literature. The book closes with an admirably complete 10-page bibliography of Frank’s work, which includes all of his newspaper articles and short stories, almost all of which can be found in the two-volume collection The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, 1896-1898, edited by Joseph R. McElrath Jr. and Douglas K. Burgess.

If you want to read a complete biography of Frank Norris, turn to the comprehensive account Frank Norris: A Life by McElrath and Jesse S. Crisler. Even if you are well-versed in Frank’s life, or you just want the brief synopsis, this short work is worth a download from HathiTrust, or maybe a trip to your local university library. If you find this booklet useful, McElrath and Crisler have edited an entire volume of remembrances such as these, entitled Frank Norris Remembered, which will surely provide deeper insight into Norris’s life and work.