Monday, June 19, 2017

The Tower Treasure by Franklin W. Dixon

A rather bland debut
The Tower Treasure, originally published in 1927, is the first book in the Hardy Boys series of mysteries for juvenile readers. I read dozens of these books when I was a kid, though I don’t think I ever read The Tower Treasure back then. Purists will point out that the original story by Dixon was significantly altered in the 1959 edition. The latter version is the one that I read, and the one I’m reviewing here. I was looking for a chapter book to read with my seven-year-old son, and I thought I’d give the Hardy Boys a try. He reacted rather unenthusiastically to the book, and surprisingly, reading the Boys myself after all these years, so did I.

Frank and Joe Hardy, students at Bayport High, are sons of the renowned detective Fenton Hardy. When their friend Chet Morton’s yellow jalopy is stolen, the boys decide to try their hand at their father’s trade and solve the mystery themselves. In the course of their investigation, a more substantial robbery takes place as $40,000 worth of jewelry and securities is stolen from the Tower Mansion, the palatial residence of the aged Applegate siblings. The Hardy Boys uncover evidence that the same thief perpetrated both crimes, but Hurd Applegate, the cranky old rich man who was robbed, blames the theft on his servant Mr. Robinson, whose son is a classmate of Frank and Joe’s. The boys must solve the mystery to clear their friend’s father and collect the $1,000 reward.

As one might expect, given the time period in which the book was published, The Tower Treasure is a wholesome adventure story imbued with the conservative family values of a bygone era. Everyone in the book is white, mothers don’t work, and that sort of thing. No surprises there. What was unexpected, however, is the classism running throughout the book, with the repeated implication that poor people are evil. When Mr. Robinson loses his job and the family has to take lodgings on the wrong side of the tracks, Frank and Joe just can’t get over what a horrible a fate that is. The Hardys and the families they associate with are virtuous members of the upper middle class, and anyone beneath their station is depicted as seedy and shifty. There’s a rival detective named Oscar Smuff, for instance, who is also vying for the reward. With his shabby clothes and bad manners, he’s the representative of white trash, and thus the Hardy Boys and their friends are justified in deceiving him and making him the butt of their jokes.

These offenses are slight, however, compared to just how boring the book is. Rather than a progressive string of discoveries that builds suspense, chapter after chapter goes by with nary a clue in sight. It’s like an Encyclopedia Brown story that’s been stretched out to 180 pages. Because the plot was significantly altered in the 1959 revision, perhaps the publisher is to blame rather than the author. Or maybe because this is their first case, as often happens the origin story is just not as exciting as the subsequent adventures. Nevertheless, this book deserves some credit for starting the series that has captivated so many young readers. I have fond memories of the Hardy Boys exploring underground caverns, climbing mountains, or flying planes, but there was little excitement in this debut. As my son and I read through it, he repeatedly complained of being bored. Nevertheless, to my surprise, he picked out another Hardy Boys book at the used book store, so it looks like I will be moving on to book two, The House on the Cliff. I hope it delivers more thrills than The Tower Treasure.
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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Erewhon by Samuel Butler

The books-within-the-book are better than the book itself
Erewhon, a novel by Samuel Butler, was originally published anonymously in 1872. Though often described as a utopian novel, it is a satirical take on the genre that satirizes English society during the Victorian Era. The unnamed narrator leaves England to manage a sheep ranch in a distant land, likewise unnamed. While overseeing his flocks, he becomes curious about the country that exists beyond the adjacent mountain range. Despite discouraging warnings from his native employee, Chowbok, the narrator decides to explore the uncharted territory in hopes of discovering a possibly lucrative commercial enterprise in trade or resource extraction.

After five chapters of walking, he enters into the unknown nation, known by its inhabitants as Erewhon. The Erewhonians do not welcome this outsider with open arms, but they do treat him relatively hospitably and assign him to a sort of probationary house arrest under the supervision of the Nosnibor family. The traveler quickly learns the language of his hosts and soon discovers marked differences between Erewhonian society and the customs of the outside world. In Erewhon, for instance, illness is considered a crime, while criminals are treated as if they were ill.

Variations on this one theme take up half the book. Butler beats the sick/criminal dichotomy like a dead horse, taking it into realms of absurdity that call to mind the satirical humor of Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, only not as funny. Butler then goes on to lampoon the banking system, organized religion, and higher education, among other topics. Perhaps I had too much hope for a real utopian novel, but I kept expecting the criticism to eventually become constructive, and it never did. Instead it just seemed to get more and more pointless. If I were a 19th-century Englishman I might consider this a work of genius, but as a 21st-century American, much of the humor was lost on me, and I found the book very tedious.

Thankfully, there were exceptions. One interesting aspect of Erewhon is that although they at one time had the capability to produce advanced technology, they decided as a society to voluntarily shun machinery in favor of a more medieval existence. A major reason for this opting towards Luddism is attributed to the publication of a volume called "The Book of the Machines," which is summarized in Chapters 23 to 25. The author of this fictional tome proposes that machines have begun to exhibit signs of Darwinian evolution, and he warns that eventually they will gain consciousness and rebel against humanity. These chapters are a fascinating and well-reasoned speculation on artificial intelligence. Even in the 19th century, Butler was prescient enough to presage Skynet from the Terminator movies and the Butlerian Jihad from Frank Herbert’s Dune books (Butlerian/Butler: Coincidence or not?). This is the most successful portion of Butler’s book precisely because it makes the least effort to be funny.

Butler follows this with a farcical look at vegetarianism vs. carnivorism vs. veganism, which serves to mock the prevailing anthropocentric worldview. In Chapter 27, however, an Erewhonian philosopher expounds on the intelligence of plants in an essay which is just as ingenious and thought-provoking as "The Book of the Machines." It is in these books-within-the-book, which break away from the main narrative, where Butler’s writing really shines. The rest of Erewhon I really didn’t care for. I would encourage readers to read these exceptional sections as independent essays and just skip the rest.
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Friday, June 9, 2017

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Provokes more curiosity than it satisfies
In his 2009 book, The Lost City of Z, journalist David Grann details the life and career of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer renowned a century ago for his daring journeys into the wilderness of the Amazon River region. Through the process of exploring and mapping uncharted regions of Brazil and Bolivia, Fawcett became obsessed with the possibility of finding the rumored lost city­ of an advanced Amazonian civilization­. In quest of this city—which he referred to as “Z”—Fawcett disappeared into the rain forest with his son and a family friend, never to return. Grann chronicles not only Fawcett’s life and adventures, but also the subsequent Fawcett followers who likewise ventured into uncharted territory hoping to uncover the fabled Z or perhaps even Fawcett himself. After interviewing James Lynch, who conducted one such expedition in 1996, Grann launches his own Fawcett-finding mission in hopes of unraveling the mystery of Z.

I liked this book overall, but given all the hype it got, I expected more. I have a healthy curiosity regarding the ancient civilizations of the Americas, so I consider myself predisposed towards this subject matter. When the book is a biography of Fawcett, it works well. Grann appears to have done copious research, and his account of Fawcett’s life provides a vivid glimpse into the heroics, chutzpah, and hubris of an Edwardian-era explorer. The contemporary vignettes that deal with Grann’s and Lynch’s forays into the Amazon, however, are less successful and only distract from the main narrative. The whole treasure hunt aspect of the book feels forced, like a Brazilian DaVinci Code, and ultimately yields little payoff. Grann goes out of his way to make it clear how inexperienced he is in jungle exploration. This seems calculated to make the reader identify with him, but instead it only raises the question of what qualifies Grann to relate this story and conduct this investigation into the existence of Z. In terms of journalistic quality, Grann’s travelogue of Brazil doesn’t measure up to the average National Geographic article.

As exciting as this story is, I can’t say I was ever really riveted by Grann’s writing, which is not nearly as compelling as that of Charles Mann, who tackled similar subject matter in his books 1491 and 1493. In fact, when all is said and done, the conclusions Grann draws at the end of this book are just a brief distillation of the ideas Mann put forward in 1491, a fascinating and comprehensive investigation into the state of American civilizations before Columbus. For those interested in what the inhabited Amazon might have been like before white men arrived, 1491 is a must-read. Mann’s book, though more scientific journalism than adventure narrative, was so exciting I never wanted it to end; with Grann’s, however, I eventually got to a point where I just wanted to be done with it. Through most of The Lost City of Z, I couldn’t help thinking that I would rather be reading Fawcett’s own writings rather than Grann’s take on them. In that sense, I consider this book valuable for turning me on to this episode in history and providing me with a bibliography for further reading.

Although I don’t consider this book a masterpiece, the bestseller lists could use more books like The Lost City of Z. It is definitely a worthy read for armchair archaeologists, and if it gets more people interested in the archaeology and history of the Americas and the political and environmental issues of the Amazon region, then Grann has performed a valuable service.
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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Diff’rent by Eugene O’Neill

A cautionary tale of romantic idealism
Eugene O’Neill
Diff’rent is a two-act drama by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill that was first published in 1921. The story takes place in a New England fishing port, where, not surprisingly for an O’Neill play, all the male characters are sailors. Emma Crosby, the protagonist of this drama, is in love with one of these sailors, Caleb Williams, a young captain of his own vessel. The two are due to be wed in a few days. Having grown up amid sailors and the sailing life, Emma has become accustomed to the ways of rough men, but when it comes to the man she loves, she insists that Caleb is “diff’rent” from the rest. Though he resists being put on a pedestal, she insists he has a truer heart and a more sensitive soul than the average specimen of malekind. While the other women in town resign themselves to a “What happens at sea, stays at sea” attitude in regard to their men’s activities in foreign ports, Emma aspires to a higher ideal of love which requires no such compromise. When she hears rumors to the effect that Caleb may not be living up to her lofty standards of romance, she exhibits a zero tolerance policy towards deviation from her ideal. Though her moral righteousness may be admirable, will she ultimately live to regret it?

The two scenes in this drama take place 30 years apart and represent the before and after pictures of Emma’s idealistic intractability. While the early scene is somewhat picturesque and hopeful in tone, the latter half of the play takes a decided turn towards the dark. With rare exceptions, O’Neill was not a feel-good playwright. The power of his plays generally relies on his ability to examine the darker sides of human nature. For today’s readers, Diff’rent reminds one of the misanthropic themes and callous characters one finds in a Neil LaBute film. O’Neill not only shatters illusions of romantic love, but escalates the harboring of such illusions to a form of insanity. If this play were produced today, it’s likely O’Neill’s depiction of Emma as obdurate and foolish would be criticized as a misogynistic bitterness toward women, but in this day and age there’s no reason why the genders of the roles couldn’t be switched. It’s more a play against the irrationality and impracticality of love than against women.

Given the abundance of masterpieces in O’Neill’s body of work, it’s unlikely Diff’rent is going to draw anyone’s attention away from Anna Christie, The Iceman Cometh, or Long Days Journey into Night. Nevertheless, amid the catalog of lesser-known works in this master playwright’s catalog, Diff’rent is a noteworthy entry. It is an engaging and thought-provoking read, and relatively brief and brisk compared to O’Neill’s more celebrated opuses. If you’re a newcomer to O’Neill’s plays, you would be better off starting with one of his “greatest hits,” but if you are already a fan of his dramas, this one is worth a look.
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Monday, June 5, 2017

Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown, Volume 1 by DC Comics

The prototypical fantastic four
Showcase is the name of a long-running anthology series from DC Comics that often introduced new characters on a trial basis before they were considered worthy of their own series. Showcase Presents is the title of the series of trade paperbacks in which DC now reprints their classic comics in black and white collections. This volume, published in 2006, collects the first adventures of the hero team The Challengers of the Unknown, starting with their appearances in Showcase issues 6, 7, 11, and 12, which ran from 1957 to early 1958. After that, they were granted their own series, the first 17 issues of which are also reprinted here, running through January of 1961.

The Challengers arrived a little too early to be part of the Silver Age superhero renaissance led by Marvel Comics in the early 1960s, but they could be considered precursors to it. The team was created by superhero artist extraordinaire Jack Kirby, possibly in collaboration with writer Dave Wood. The Challengers are four tough guys who, after having survived a plane crash, consider themselves living on “borrowed time” and decide to devote their lives to facing danger, solving bizarre mysteries, and combatting unusual menaces. The roster includes pilot Ace Morgan, champion wrestler Rocky Davis, underwater explorer Prof Haley, and circus acrobat (later described as mountain climber) Red Ryan. Though not endowed with superpowers, the team bears a nascent resemblance to the Fantastic Four, not only in quantity and matching suits but also in the brand of science fiction dangers they face.

The main attraction of the early Challengers adventures is Kirby’s art. His visual storytelling is superb, his panels action-packed, and he populates each page with a wondrously visionary array of awesome extraterrestrial beasts and stunning futuristic technology. The stories, on the other hand, are nothing to write home about. In a typical issue, the four encounter an evil scientist who digs up some ancient relics that grant him superpowers or allow him to conjure up giant monsters. Another common plot device is an alien who comes to Earth to enlist the Challengers’ help in fighting an evil mad scientist on his own planet. Though utterly predictable, what makes these stories enjoyable is the audacious imagination and hyperbolic rhetoric with which each peril is drawn and described. The most disappointing thing about the early Challengers stories is that, despite their various areas of expertise, there’s little to distinguish one team member from another, and they never disagree on anything. The key method of identifying each Challenger seems to have been hair color, which of course doesn’t help those reading these comics in black and white.

Kirby left the Challengers series after issue #8 (June/July 1959), which is about halfway through this volume. From that point on, the creative duties were taken over by artist Bob Brown and a writer unknown. Brown is a more than competent comics artist for the era, but needless to say he doesn’t measure up to King Kirby. The stories also get noticeably less exciting in the second half of the book. Surprisingly, however, once Kirby leaves, the Challengers begin to behave more like the Fantastic Four! Red Ryan assumes the mischievous personality of the FF’s Johnny Storm, while Rocky Davis becomes the spitting image of Ben Grimm. The prankster picks on the big lug, while the latter promises to clobber the former. This starts around 1959, two years before Kirby would cocreate the Fantastic Four. The Challengers comics don’t quite measure up to Kirby’s later greatness, but they are an interesting episode in comics history, particularly for those who enjoy DC’s science fiction comics of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The Kirby material merits a rating of four stars, while the post-Kirby stories are only good for about three.
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Friday, June 2, 2017

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume

Assume nothing
David Hume
Published in 1748, David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding was intended to be a more accessible distillation of his earlier work A Treatise of Human Nature. Given that this is a philosophical treatise written in the mid-18th century, just how accessible could it be? The answer is surprisingly so, at least for its first half. Hume explains his theory of epistemology clearly and logically in straightforward language free of undefined philosophical jargon. Each chapter builds upon the one before, so over the course of the book the concepts discussed become more complex and the line of reasoning more serpentine.

In his philosophy of human thought, Hume argues in favor of empiricism and skepticism. He asserts that we can only learn from experience. All ideas are formed from the building blocks of sensory information. Although by witnessing phenomena around us we make judgments about cause-and-effect relationships, these are merely assumptions. Because the forces by which one event directly influences another are unseen, we can never truly be 100% certain of the connection between adjacent events. Nevertheless, we can through custom or habit judge the probability of cause-and-effect relationships based on the number and frequency of like occurrences we have experienced in the past. Though he asserts that some knowledge of reality will never be attainable by mankind, Hume goes on to clarify that an excessive skepticism which overemphasizes the unreliability of ideas formed through custom only leads to a pointless end. Though mankind may ultimately be ignorant of how the world truly works, we nevertheless must rely on knowledge gained through custom in order to get through life. The important thing is to use our reason wisely and only trust in reasoning based on empirical data.

This is no doubt an important work in the history of philosophy, but is it essential reading for a 21st-century audience? I tend to be of a skeptical bent myself and agree with almost everything Hume is saying here, but in a way that makes the book less of a must-read in my eyes. Many of the points Hume makes fall under the heading of common sense, and even in this purportedly abbreviated work he has a tendency to beat those points like so many dead horses. Given that nothing can be taken for granted in philosophy, at some point someone had to address these points in a thoroughly detailed manner, and Hume certainly does that in this book. For that, we owe him a debt of gratitude. In his day, Hume’s empirical skepticism no doubt broke new ground and was considered highly heretical, but most rationalists today would probably take many of his assertions for granted. Unless you’re a philosopher looking for quotes to support your own thesis, I’m not sure this is a necessary read. The general philosophically minded reader could circumvent Hume’s verbosity and likely glean the book’s main arguments just as well by perusing a reasonably detailed summary online.

One group of readers who might find pleasure in reading the Enquiry are atheists and freethinkers. In the book’s latter chapters, such as “Of miracles” and “Of a particular providence and of a future state,” Hume shoots down a lot of faulty reasoning made in the name of God, and not without a touch of humor. Those skeptics seeking ammunition for similar arguments will find a kindred spirit in Hume.
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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Stories by English Authors: France by Robert Louis Stevenson, et al.

Oui to Ouida, but otherwise ennui
This book is part of the Stories by English Authors series published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. The ten volumes in the series don’t appear to have any particular order, and each is simply subtitled according to the setting of the stories included. This book of five short stories set in France is the eighth volume I’ve reviewed in the series, after having previously read the collections on England, London, Scotland, Ireland, Germany and Northern Europe, Africa, and The Sea. So far I haven’t been terribly impressed by the series overall. This France volume is middle-of-the-road for the series, and of mediocre quality compared to literature in general.

You would think that leading off with a heavy hitter like Robert Louis Stevenson would start the book on a high note, but “A Lodging for the Night” is not one of his better stories. The narrative takes place in Paris in 1456. A poet passes a cold winter’s evening in a seedy tavern with his gang of friends, all thieves and murderers. Stevenson devotes much of the story’s length to its medieval atmosphere and the witty verbal repartee among the brigands; so much so that the plot is almost an afterthought. That’s a shame because it does get rather interesting toward the end, but by then it’s a little too little, a little too late.

The second entry by Ouida, the pseudonym of Maria Louis Ramé, is far more successful. She has been one of the bright spots in this series, having also provided the great story “A Dog of Flanders” to the Germany and Northern Europe volume. In this France collection, her story “A Leaf in the Storm” is set in a picturesque village on the banks of the Seine, where a 92-year-old woman and her grandson enjoy their simple lives, until the peace of their sleepy hamlet is interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War. Here Ouida’s writing calls to mind the war narratives of Emile Zola in both its brutal pessimism and its compelling emotional power.

Next up, another well-known British author, Wilkie Collins, offers a story of an Englishman traveling in Paris. This one ventures into the territory of horror and mystery. It builds suspense based on a premise that is quite clever but unrealistic. The narrative has an extended prologue, almost as long as the story itself, narrated by an itinerant portrait painter who explains how this tale was related to him during a portrait sitting. The story doesn’t benefit from this protracted setup.

The last two entries, by lesser-known authors, are the worst selections in the book. “Michel Lorio’s Cross,” by Hesba Stretton, is set in the stunning seaside city of Mont St-Michel in Normandy. The hero, one of the town’s native sons, is shunned by his neighbors for having converted to Protestantism. Though ostensibly a religious fable, Stretton uses the schmaltzy tale to portray French Catholics as intolerant and illiterate. The book’s final selection, S. J. Weyman’s “A Perilous Amour,” is set around 1600 and involves a plot to assassinate King Henry IV of France. The story is such a confusing mess, however, little joy is derived from the political intrigue.

This book serves its purpose in the Stories by English Authors series, but France has such a rich literature of its own, why bother reading a bunch of Brits’ takes on the country? In fact, another Scribner’s series, Stories by Foreign Authors, published in 1898, has three volumes of French short stories that are all far superior to this collection.

Stories in this collection
A Lodging for the Night by Robert Louis Stevenson 
A Leaf in the Storm by Ouida
The Traveller’s Story of a Terribly Strange Bed by Wilkie Collins 
Michel Lorio’s Cross by Hesba Stretton
A Perilous Amour by S. J. Weyman 

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