Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Atlantic Narratives: Modern Short Stories, edited by Charles Swain Thomas

Rather tame and genteel for 1918
Margaret Prescott Montague
Atlantic Narratives: Modern Short Stories, published in 1918, is an anthology of fiction originally published in the pages of Atlantic Monthly magazine. Of the 23 authors selected by editor Charles Swain Thomas for this volume, the majority are women, which is a pleasant surprise for a collection published over a century ago. The only readily recognizable name in the contents, however, is Englishman John Galsworthy, winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The volume opens with a lengthy introduction by Thomas on the art form of the short story. This is best read last, however, because he spoils the plots of some of the stories included in the book. One could also skip it entirely because Thomas doesn’t say anything of much importance. What makes a good story, in his view? Characters, plot, setting, theme—hardly an earth-shattering manifesto of literary criticism. The best one might get from this essay is a long list of stories and authors that Thomas recommends.

When looking for common themes among the stories in this collection, two are immediately apparent: children and widows. Writers of this era loved to prove their literary ability by writing stories from the perspective of precocious children, and we have at least four examples here. I’m not sure why the adult readers of the Atlantic would want to read such tales, which usually devolve into hokey slapstick (Amy Wentworth Stone’s “Possessing Prudence”) or unrealistic nostalgic fantasies about what childhood should have been like (“Garden of Memories” by C. A. Mercer, “The Marble Child” by E. Nesbit). As for the widows, this collection includes no less than six stories with a widow protagonist and one with a widower, not to mention a few spinsters! Some wallow too much in chicken-soup-for-the-soul melodrama, but a few are actually quite good, particularly the ones set in World War I.

In fact, three of the four stories that deal with the First World War are among the best entries in the book. “Hepaticas” by Anne Douglas Sedgwick is a touching tale of loss on the home front, and “Little Brother” by Madeleine Z. Doty is a realistic wartime adventure story set in Belgium. The one that really sticks out like a refreshing sore thumb, however, is Margaret Prescott Montague’s “Of Water and the Spirit,” a brutally frank depiction of battlefields so littered with blood and gore it would make Hemingway blush. Other than the war stories, the most modern entries in the book feature businessmen, such as the Theodore Dreiser-esque “The Failure” by Charles Caldwell Dobie, the Frank Norris-esque “Business is Business” by Henry Seidel Canby, and the Sinclair Lewis-esque “Mr. Squem” by Arthur Russell Taylor.

The feeling one gets from these Atlantic Monthly selections is that literary taste in Boston was rather tame and genteel compared to the naturalist literature that was coming out of San Francisco and the Midwest at this time. Most of the authors contained herein seem content to emulate Nathaniel Hawthorne rather than break any “Modern” ground. In his introduction, Thomas admits that the editorial staff of the Atlantic purposely avoids “bleak” authors in the vein of Emile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, or Guy de Maupassant because “the mission of the magazine has in general been in the sunlit fields or near the hearthfire’s glow.” With the exception of a few selections discussed above, this book delivers an assortment of pleasant stories that somewhat prudishly harken back to literature of the Victorian era. Even with that in mind, this is a good collection but by no means a great one.

Stories in this collection

Introduction by Charles Swain Thomas

The Preliminaries by Cornelia A. P. Comer 

Buttercup Night by John Galsworthy

Hepaticas by Anne Douglas Sedgwick 

Possessing Prudence by Amy Wentworth Stone 

The Glory-Box by Elizabeth Ashe 

The Spirit of the Herd by Dallas Lore Sharp 

In the Pasha’s Garden by H. G. Dwight 

Little Selves by Mary Lerner 

The Failure by Charles Caldwell Dobie 

Business is Business by Henry Seidel Canby 

Nothing by Zephine Humphrey 

A Moth of Peace by Katharine Fullerton Gerould 

In No Strange Land by Katharine Butler 

Little Brother by Madeleine Z. Doty 

What Road Goeth He? by F. J. Louriet 

The Clearer Sight by Ernest Starr 

The Garden of Memories by C. A. Mercer

The Clearest Voice by Margaret Sherwood 

The Marble Child by E. Nesbit

The One Left by E. V. Lucas 

The Legacy of Richard Hughes by Margaret Lynn

Of Water and the Spirit by Margaret Prescott Montague 

Mr. Squem by Arthur Russell Taylor

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Monday, December 9, 2019

The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries by Massimo Listri

Cathedrals to knowledge and the treasures they contain
If you are a lover of historic libraries, it would be hard to find a more satisfying tribute to these venerable institutions than The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries, published by Taschen in 2018. This mammoth tome measures in at a whopping 11.5” x 15.5” page size (the dimensions listed on Amazon do not appear to be quite right, unless there’s an even bigger edition than the one I read), and weighs in at more than fifteen pounds. The book is packed with huge full-page photos by Massimo Listri, an accomplished architectural photographer, whose images are beautifully reproduced on top quality paper. The lavish production is impressive, but of course you pay for it with the steep cover price.

Before praising this volume, one must first point out its limitations. As is typical of books with similar titles, the “World” means mostly Europe. The contents include photos and text on 50 libraries in Europe, two in North America (The Morgan Library in New York and the Biblioteca Palafoxiana in Mexico), and three in South America (one in Brazil and two in Peru). Even the European selections only extend as far east as Sweden, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Also typical of the “beautiful library” genre of coffee table books, this volume does not include any modern architecture. It is heavy on the Renaissance and Baroque styles, with only a few libraries built in the late nineteenth century and one (The Morgan) in the early twentieth. Amidst all the ornate museum-quality Baroque and Rococo decoration, a few interesting buildings feature more austere monastic architecture and have clearly suffered from the clutter and weathering of age.

The photography in this book is equally focused on the architecture of these libraries and the treasures they hold. Some of the libraries are only represented by two of Listri’s photographs, while others merit as many as ten. The profile for each library features pages from their most prized volumes (not taken by Listri but provided by the institutions themselves) such as centuries-old illustrations from illuminated manuscripts, engraved frontispieces, and rare maps. One great thing about this large-format volume is that Listri’s photos are so large and of such high resolution that you can actually read the spines of the books on the shelves, which really heightens the feeling of being there. (One of the photos is unfortunately printed in reverse, right to left.) One library in Germany no longer contains any books at all, just painted faux spines where the books used to be. The text by art historian Elisabeth Sladek provides an informative and concise summation of each library’s history, architectural significance, and most important holdings. The book also features an introductory essay on the general history of libraries by Georg Ruppelt, a former director of two of the libraries featured. The book is trilingual, with text printed in English, French, and German.

This volume is worth its cover price for enthusiasts who can afford to pay it, but for the rest of us, another beautiful thing about libraries is that you can read books for free, including this one. Knowing Taschen, they will probably eventually come out with a smaller, cheaper edition at a later date, but it won’t compare to the luxurious experience of this large-format edition. In the meantime, a reasonably priced substitute is The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World by Jacques Bosser and Guillaume de Laubier, but this Taschen volume surpasses it in every way.

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Friday, December 6, 2019

Knulp by Hermann Hesse

The freedom of a vagabond life, but at what cost?
Knulp is a novel by German author Hermann Hesse, winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature. It is a short book, about 120 pages in paperback, that can easily be read in a couple hours. The title character is a vagabond who tramps through the German countryside, depending on the kindness of others for a meal and occasional bed or working at odd jobs as a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Through his travels he has made many friends, and in just about every town he visits he can count on running into past acquaintances who are happy to see him. It is also suggested that this attractive youth has no trouble with the ladies and has had his fair share of brief love affairs. All enjoy the company of Knulp, for through him they receive a breath of fresh, liberated air that allows them to vicariously live their own fantasies of wanderlust through him. As his youth slips away, however, Knulp becomes worn down by the hardships of life on the road and begins to regret the choices he’s made in life. He wonders if his many and varied adventures merely add up to a wasted life.

Anyone who has ever read Hesse’s 1930 novel Narcissus and Goldmund will immediately recognize Knulp as a prototype for Goldmund. Both lead the vagabond’s life, living for the moment, taking love where they find it, and pleasing others with their good looks and warm demeanor. Knulp, however, doesn’t carry all the religious baggage that Goldmund totes around, and Knulp’s sexual adventures are only hinted at while Goldmund’s are explicitly depicted as quasi-spiritual experiences. Of the two, Knulp is the more realistic, and the one with which it is easier for the reader to identify. One can’t help but envy Knulp’s lack of restrictions and responsibilities, but Hesse charts the character’s course with an even hand, examining the drawbacks and disappointments of the wanderer’s life as well as its benefits and joys.

One can look at Hesse’s career as being split into two phases, beginning with his “traditional” period, in which he wrote what nowadays seem relatively conventional novels built upon the tradition of German Romanticism. This is followed by his “modern” period, beginning with his novel Demian. In his more modern works, Hesse breaks away from tradition to forge his own style and incorporate themes of Eastern religion and psychoanalysis into his writings. Knulp was the last novel Hesse published before Demian, so it can be seen as the end of his “traditional” period, but the book definitely shows signs of modernism as well, both in its unconventional format—a triptych of stories from different narrators—and in its questioning of modern life. Knulp reads as if Hesse were influenced by the novels of Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, who often featured vagabond protagonists, as in his “Wanderer Trilogy” of Under the Autumn Star, A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, and Look Back on Happiness. Hamsun is more of a brutally frank modernist, however, while Hesse does a better job of capturing the romantic appeal of wanderlust, solitude, and communion with the natural landscape, as evidenced in books like Peter Camenzind, Beneath the Wheel, Siddhartha, and the aforementioned Narcissus and Goldmund.

Having read Hesse’s later novels a long time ago, I have only recently begun to plumb the depths of his early back catalog. Though modernist works like Steppenwolf and The Glass Bead Game get all the attention nowadays, I am continually surprised by the emotive power and keen psychological sensitivity of Hesse’s early novels. In a previous review I called his 1910 novel Gertrude “perhaps the best of early Hesse,” but I spoke to soon because Knulp surpasses it.

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Monday, December 2, 2019

Other Gods by Pearl S. Buck

I married a celebrity
Pearl S. Buck’s 1940 novel Other Gods may spend some time in China and Tibet, but it is not one of the historical novels of Asia for which she is famous. Though Buck references the Dalai Lama in the book’s one-page preface, this is strictly a novel about American (and a few British) characters. The story opens in the Himalaya, as an expedition is attempting the first ascent of a mountain named Therat. Bert Holm, a farm boy from New York state, signed on to the mountaineering crew as a mechanic, but through a series of unusual circumstances he ends up being the only member of the expedition to reach the summit. When word of this feat reaches America, Bert becomes an instant celebrity superstar, on the order of magnitude of a Charles Lindbergh.

By the time Bert makes it from Tibet to Peking, his fame has preceded him. With his handsome good looks and all-American-boy charm, he is considered a very eligible bachelor despite his humble beginnings. At one of the many banquets held in his honor, Bert meets Kit Tallant, the daughter of a wealthy American banker doing business in China. After a whirlwind courtship, the couple marry before returning to America.

Buck frequently refers to Bert and other celebrities of his ilk as “gods,” a metaphor that feels like a stretch. The novel is primarily told from Kit’s point of view as she deals with the difficulties of being married to a major celebrity. The pair are constantly in the public eye, hounded by the press, and must employ a publicist to manage their public image. Bert has some skeletons in his closet, and Kit must deal with her feelings about his past while the publicist frets over how such revelations will be received by Bert’s adoring fans. In addition to the annoyances of Bert’s fame, Kit must deal with the fact that she married a man whom she barely knows. The drama of Bert and Kit’s marital woes gets overly melodramatic at times and is far less gripping than the mountaineering scenes. Nevertheless, this is first and foremost a book about marriage, and as usual Buck displays a talent for sensitively depicting the psychology of human relationships.

Buck was not only a Nobel-caliber author but also a world-class humanitarian who spent her life fighting racism and spearheading several worthy charitable causes. It’s surprising, therefore, that the worst thing about Other Gods is its blatant classism. Every working-class character in the book—Bert, his parents, his hometown friends—are depicted as ignorant and uncouth, even so far as to border on redneck caricature. While the educated and gentile Kit finds solace in poetry, the less refined Bert naturally turns to the bottle for his kicks. He is often referred to as an overgrown child and constantly contrasted unfavorably with Kit’s ex-fiancé Norman, a playwright. When Kit despises Bert’s parents for being simple farm folk, Buck as third-person narrator does little to stand up for them but rather gives the impression that she agrees with Kit’s assessment.

I’ve read over a dozen books by Buck, and this one is middle-of-the road in terms of quality. Though chronologically this is sandwiched between classics like the Good Earth trilogy and Dragon Seed, Other Gods reads more like one of Buck’s later and lesser books written under the pseudonym of John Sedges. It does have its moments, but only Buck’s most diehard fans need venture off the beaten path for this one.

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Friday, November 29, 2019

God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert

Universal tyrant or humanity’s savior?
God Emperor of Dune, the fourth book in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, features one of the most unforgettable characters in all of science fiction: Leto Atreides II, the god emperor himself. In the first Dune novel, Paul Atreides acquired the power of prescience and became a messiah. In the second book, Dune Messiah, Paul rules as emperor over mankind’s galactic diaspora. In Children of Dune, Paul’s son Leto II, endowed with powers similar to his father, covers his body with sandtrout, a sort of larval stage of the giant sandworms of Arrakis. This living armor transforms him into something more than human. God Emperor of Dune takes place three and a half millennia after the events of Children of Dune. Leto has become a half-human, half-worm hybrid, and his physical transformation has rendered him seemingly immortal. His powers of prescience, omniscience, and ancestral memories far surpass those of his father. He rules as emperor of the known universe and is worshipped and feared as a godhead by his people.

Through his visions of the future, Leto has witnessed the destruction of mankind, but he has also witnessed the means of avoiding this fate—a master plan he calls the Golden Path. This plan dictates that he rule as a tyrant over humanity, holding them in a period of technological stagnation for centuries to prevent them from self-extinction. On the emperor’s home planet of Arrakis, a.k.a. Dune, one of Leto’s soldiers, an Atreides descendant named Siona, is planning a secret rebellion against the god emperor. But can one really keep a secret from a being who can foresee nearly every occurrence? Meanwhile, Leto repeatedly clones the dead flesh of the Atreides’ top soldier Duncan Idaho to act as commander of his guard. Successive models of these Duncans have served Leto faithfully over the centuries, but perhaps it is only a matter of time before one of these reborn Idahos will look beyond his loyalty to the Atreides and resent his role in Leto’s oppressive regime.

God Emperor of Dune provides an in-depth character study of the fascinating and multi-faceted Leto. At times, however, the problem with the book is that it is too much of a character study and not enough of a novel. While the first three Dune novels felt like an epic and complicated chess game, this one feels more like a debate as Leto constantly engages in cryptic philosophical dialogues with his supporting cast. I can’t even pretend to understand all of what he’s saying on the first reading; at times the dialogue is like an endless succession of zen koans. There are also fewer players in the game for interplanetary dominance than there were in the first three novels. Leto’s regime has disbanded the former feudal aristocracy and largely neutered the Bene Gesserit religious order. The only real threats now are the Tleilaxu, masters of genetic manipulation, and the Ixians, masters of technology. Much of the story’s length takes place in the span of only a few days as Leto exits his citadel for a once-a-decade ritual procession to meet the masses. While the earlier Dune novels were both cerebral and action-packed, this book can only claim to have two of what might be called action sequences, but the final one is a doozy.

Despite such reservations, the Dune saga is still the greatest fictional universe ever created, and the original six books by Frank Herbert are still the best glimpses into this fascinating and expansive world. For anyone who made it through the first three novels, God Emperor of Dune is a must-read. Seeing how Herbert’s grand scheme of humanity’s distant future unfolds will heighten your understanding and appreciation of the first three books and leave you wondering where he could possibly go from here.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

A Republic of Rivers: Three Centuries of Nature Writing from Alaska and the Yukon, edited by John A. Murray

A well-edited sampler of natural science, travel, literature, and lore
I have traveled to Alaska and the Yukon once, just on a brief vacation, but it was enough to make me fantasize about a longer stay and deeper exploration of the region. Though I may make it back someday, for now I’ll have to admit I am an armchair adventurer who primarily enjoys the idea of the North vicariously through the accounts of others. Whether you’re a long-term resident of the region or just a dabbler like myself, chances are you will find much to appreciate in A Republic of Rivers, an anthology of 48 writings on Alaska and the Yukon. Edited by John A. Murray, a nature writer himself, the book was published by Oxford University Press in 1990.

Murray has done an admirable job of selecting from a wide variety of sources and organizing and presenting them in a manner that truly gives the reader an educational crash course in the literary history of Alaska and the Yukon. The selections are divided into three sections. The Age of Exploration covers the era of Russia’s dominion over Alaska, and contains excerpts from explorer narratives including those of James Cook, George Vancouver, and Alexander Mackenzie. The Age of Exploitation covers Alaska’s period as a U.S. territory and features a wide variety of writers including John Muir, John Burroughs, and Jack London. The Age of Environmentalism covers the time from Alaska’s statehood to the present (1990) and includes many contemporary writers and environmentalists such as Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, and Barry Lopez. These categories are more chronological than thematic, as you will find explorers, exploiters, and environmentalists mixed into all three. The myriad writing styles include exploration diaries, empirical scientific observations, adventure travelogs, personal memoirs, literary nature writing, studies of animal species, poetry, myths and folklore, and more. Murray wisely includes at least a half dozen selections from Native American, First Nations, and Inuit writers, including Koyukon riddles, Eskimo poetry, Haida myths, and a first-person narrative from a Tlingit trapper.

Although this book is 325 pages in length, each selection gets its own title page and author bio page, and it has many intentionally blank pages. As far as the excerpts themselves are concerned, you’re getting at most maybe about 190 pages of text divided among 48 entries. Each selection gets anywhere from one to eight pages. The Age of Exploration excerpts are all very short, which is unfortunate since those are the ones I found the most fascinating. Murray is clearly more interested in the more literary nature writing of the later twentieth century, so he grants those selections a higher page count. At times there’s enough text to leave you feeling content at having read a satisfyingly eloquent piece of natural observation, but often it feels like you’re only getting the barest general idea of what the works from which these excerpts were drawn are actually about. If anything, this collection succeeds as an appetizing variety platter that allows the reader to choose which writers are worthy of further follow-up. To aid the reader in that quest, Murray includes complete citations for each passage and a sizable bibliography in the back matter.

Though the book is attractively designed, a more judicious use of page space would have allowed for the inclusion of more content. The brevity of the selections is really my only major criticism, however. Murray has done a very fine job assembling this collection, and he is both knowledgeable and thoughtful in his selections. Any state or region would be happy to have an anthology of this quality to represent its natural environment and Indigenous culture.

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Monday, November 25, 2019

The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World by Jacques Bosser. Photographs by Guillaume de Laubier

Palatial library architecture of Europe and America
Published in 2003, The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World is an attractive 11.5” x 11.5” photographic study of some of the world’s most lavish palaces devoted to reading, research, scholarship, and the preservation of cultural heritage. Given the coffee table format, the photographs by Gillaume de Laubier are likely the book’s main selling point, but the text by Jacques Bosser is equally valuable and quite informative. Through image and text, this duo gives the reader a brief tour of 23 stunning cathedrals to knowledge. The architecture depicted in this volume is all at least a century old, in styles including the baroque, neoclassical, and a touch of art deco provided by the New York Public Library. You won’t find any modern architecture here. (I state that merely as a clarification, not a criticism.) Contrary to its hyperbolic title, the libraries included in the book are all located in Europe (20 of them) and the United States (3 of them). No libraries from Asia, Africa, South America, or Australia are depicted. (That is both a clarification and a criticism.) At the very least they could have included a few Muslim libraries from the Middle East, since they helped keep Western thought alive while Europe was in the Dark Ages. You can’t tell me there are no beautiful libraries in Turkey or Iran, for example.

Both Bosser and de Laubier are more interested in the architecture of these libraries then their contents. Each of the libraries covered is depicted in about seven to ten of de Laubier’s photographs, depending on whether they are full page or of smaller size. There are usually one or two photographs of the main reading room and then several pictures of architectural details such as murals, sculptures, or decorative reliefs. Very few of the photographs show any of the actual treasures held by these libraries. The exception is the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg, which for some reason is treated differently from the others, with more pictures of documents rather than architectural shots. In addition to the lovely photos, each library gets two or three pages of text by Bosser, who has clearly done his research and delivers a lot of interesting information. He crams so much detail into such a small word count that at times it is difficult to follow his prose. Brevity requires that he assume a fair knowledge of European history on the part of the reader, and he uses architectural terms with which most readers will not be familiar. He really provides a great deal of insight into the history of these important institutions, however, and he also gives a brief description of the prize holdings in their collections. While de Laubier is an excellent photographer, it is really Bosser’s text that makes this book worth its asking price.

A better book on this subject is photographer Massimo Listri’s The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries, published by Taschen in 2019, but that is a mammoth, large-format twenty-pounder that costs four or five times as much as this book. It also suffers from the same myopic favoritism toward Western civilization, but at least it includes a few libraries in South America. For library lovers not willing to spend a fortune on a photography book, Bosser and de Laubier’s The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World is a very good volume that at least serves as a reasonably satisfying substitute for the experience of touring these amazing libraries in person.
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