Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Tales of Space and Time by H. G. Wells

Adventures in the past, present, and future
Tales of Space and Time, published in 1899, is a collection of three short stories and two novellas by science fiction writer H. G. Wells. The five selections in this volume had all been previously published in periodicals from 1897 to 1899. The three short stories take place in the present day and all have something to do with space, while the two longer works supply the time component of the collection, with one taking place in the distant past and the other set in the future.

In the opening story, “The Crystal Egg,” the owner of a curiosity shop is loathe to part with one precious object in his collection. He finds that when he gazes into his mysterious crystal egg, he sees visions of an otherworldly landscape. Unlike the crystal ball of fairy tales, however, Wells invents a science fiction explanation for this phenomenon. Though this story is notable for the precocious ingenuity of Wells’s sci-fi vision, the storytelling is a bit awkward at times.

The next entry, however, does not suffer from the same problem. “The Star” is an excellent and riveting apocalyptic tale. A foreign star enters our solar system on a possible collision course with Earth, destroying Neptune in its path. The story that follows is a combination of educated conjecture about what havoc such an event would wreak on Earth and shocking thrills worthy of a late-20th-century meteor disaster movie. The drama is globally epic in scope, and Wells depicts natural disasters with a detached brutality that readers of his day must have found horrendous.

The two novellas included in this volume act as companion pieces to one another. “A Story of the Stone Age” is just what the title advertises. The story takes place 50,000 years ago, and its heroes are a couple of ape-like archaic humans named Ugh-lomi and Eudena. Despite the connection to human evolution, this barely qualifies as science fiction. The plot is so simple it reads like a children’s story, complete with talking animals that call to mind Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Its worst offense, however, is just being way too long and very boring. If you’re looking for a good science fiction novel about prehistoric man, Jack London’s 1907 book Before Adam is far superior to this.

The second novella, its futuristic counterpart, fares much better. “A Story of the Days to Come” is set in the same 22nd-century world as Wells’s 1899 novel When the Sleeper Wakes (later published as The Sleeper Awakes). This novella, however, is far better than the Sleeper novel because it gives the reader a more thorough tour of the future society Wells has conceived, a dystopian vision of London that illustrates his socialist views on the class struggle. Wells also adds a touch of humorous social commentary by focusing on a pair of future lovers who are nostalgic for the romantic days of the Victorian Era. I was disappointed by The Sleeper Awakes, but this exceptional novella proved to be the book I was hoping for.

The closing short story, “The Man Who Could Work Miracles,” is only mildly entertaining. This is a whimsical fantasy about a man who finds he can make anything happen simply by willing it. Though the story does conclude with an element of real science fiction, for the most part it feels too frivolous and foolish. Notwithstanding, Tales of Space and Time is a fine collection overall and worth a read for fans of vintage science fiction. The diverse subject matter and creative premises aptly illustrate the broad scope of Wells’s talents as a sci-fi visionary.

Stories in this collection

The Crystal Egg
The Star
A Story of the Stone Age
A Story of Days to Come
The Man Who Could Work Miracles

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Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand-Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found by Violet Moller

Whirlwind tour through a millennium of scholarship
The intellectual foundations of Western civilization were laid by the philosophers and scholars of ancient Greece. The original scrolls that documented their words of wisdom have long since disintegrated, so the earliest surviving manuscripts of Greek texts are copies of copies. The fact that any of these writings have survived to the present day is rather amazing, and the story of how they survived is fascinating. In her 2019 book The Map of Knowledge, historian Violet Moller gives credit where it’s due to the scribes, translators, scholars, and collectors who kept this knowledge alive through the Dark Ages. Moller covers roughly a thousand years of history, circa 500 to 1500, from the decline of the Western Roman Empire to the birth of the printing press and rise of the Renaissance. In telling this epic story, Moller organizes her narrative around seven cities—Alexandria, Baghdad, Córdoba, Toledo, Salerno, Palermo, and Venice—each of which successively supplanted its predecessor as the Western world’s leading center of books and learning.

To narrow down what would otherwise be a huge and ungainly study, Moller focuses on the works of three scholars who were at the apex of their respective fields: Euclid (mathematics), Ptolemy (astronomy), and Galen (medicine). The prolific Galen alone is responsible for roughly half of the extant writings from ancient Greece. Moller not only charts the history of ideas but also the world events and political figures that helped foster those ideas. The book highlights emperors and kings who patronized scholars and established legendary centers of learning, such as the Great Library of Alexandria, the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, and the Schola Medica in Salerno. The chapters on Baghdad and Córdoba are of particular interest because they highlight the contributions of Arab and Muslim scholars and scientists whose invaluable contributions to Western civilization are little known to most American readers.

With so much geographical ground and temporal scope to cover, Moller can only provide a whirlwind tour of these thousand years. Some key characters are granted extensive biographical sketches, but often an important figure will only be mentioned in a sentence or two before the narrative must rush on to the next succeeding stage of scientific enlightenment. Nevertheless, the reader is introduced to many fascinating lesser-known figures, such as al-Khwarizmi, the brilliant Persian mathematician who invented algebra; Gerard of Cremona, the hardest working translator in medieval Toledo; Roger II, the Sicilian king who transformed Palermo into an intellectual mecca; and Erhard Ratdolt, the pioneering book printer whose work rivaled that of the more famous Aldus Manutius.

Intended for general readers, this book is very clearly written without any challenging academic jargon, and explanatory footnotes spell out some very elementary concepts for those unfamiliar with ancient or medieval history. Even so, the very nature of the subject and Moller’s vast breadth of scope demands a confusing tangle of detail that may very well prove exhausting to the general history buff. One really has to be an enthusiast of rare books and their history to appreciate The Map of Knowledge. Such bibliophiles, however may be unsatisfied by the briskness with which Moller rushes through these thousand years. While novice readers might find it hard to see the forest for the trees, more knowledgeable readers will wish the tour bus would slow down a bit so they could enjoy the scenery.

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Monday, August 3, 2020

Tales of Three Centuries by Michael Zagoskin

Balzacian stories of feudal Russia
Mikhail Zagoskin
Tales of Three Centuries is a collection of three short stories by Russian author Mikhail Zagoskin. In the English-language edition, published in 1891, his name is printed as Michael Zagoskin. These stories were translated by Jeremiah Curtin, an American multilinguist who served as secretary to the U.S. minister to Russia. Curtin is perhaps best known and sometimes criticized for his translations of Polish literature. His command of the Russian language was better than his Polish, however, and his prose here is lively and easy to read.

The three stories included in this collection are almost long enough to be considered novellas. These works are lighter than the intimidatingly ponderous epics one often associates with Russian literature. Zagoskin’s writing calls to mind the fiction of French writer Honoré de Balzac, who is even a topic of conversation in one of these stories. Balzac chronicled French society in a series of fictional time capsules that often took the form of comedies of manners. Zagoskin likewise uses his stories to illustrate the social landscape under Russia’s feudalistic system of the 18th and 19th centuries. Like Balzac, Zagoskin is often a satirist who pokes fun at the values and conventions of the upper classes: their obsession with land, measured not in acres but in souls (serfs); their propensity for social climbing, even through deceptive means; and their efforts to distance themselves from their own Russianness by pretending to be French.

In the first story, “An Evening on the Hopyor,” five gentleman guests attend a dinner party at the estate of a wealthy and eccentric host. The gathering turns into a Canterbury Tales-style sharing of stories, resulting in a half dozen sub-narratives, all of which deal with supernatural experiences. The tales they tell are suspenseful but not frightening as Zagoskin brings a sense of humor to his ghost stories that calls to mind Arthur Conan Doyle more than Edgar Allan Poe. Each paranormal phenomenon is cleverly debated by believers and skeptics. All of the storytellers have had military experience, and the tales they tell often relate to their service in Poland, Italy, or the Napoleonic Wars, thus providing the reader with glimpses of Russian history and military life.

“The Three Suitors” is a more typically Balzacian comedy of manners. A young maiden is in love with a handsome young captain of the hussars, but her stepmother won’t allow her to marry for love. Instead, this guardian wants to arrange a marriage between her stepdaughter and one of three competing landowners. The stepmother’s matchmaking tactics border on pimping as she manipulates the three suitors to her own advantage. Luckily, the girl has a godfather who actually cares about her happiness. This story is good fun, though pretty predictable.

The final entry, “Kuzma Roschin,” is an improvement on the same theme. A father won’t let his daughter marry the soldier she loves because the young man’s family is of a lower social and financial class. This story, however, has the added attraction of a sinister bandit. What starts as a comedy of manners morphs into a melodramatic adventure before concluding as a touching meditation on guilt and justice. Like Balzac, Zagoskin has a tendency for too-abrupt endings that leave the reader wanting an epilogue. Nevertheless, this collection as a whole displays smart, entertaining writing with plenty of historical context and local color to conjure up the atmosphere of Tsarist Russia. Zagoskin may not be a household name among Russian masters, but Curtin made a wise choice when he selected these stories for translation.

Stories in this collection
An Evening on the Hopyor 
The Three Suitors 
Kuzmin Roscha

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Friday, July 31, 2020

The Hotel Majestic by Georges Simenon

Too many unconnected dots
The Hotel Majestic is the 41st work of detective fiction in Belgian author Georges Simenon’s series of Inspector Maigret mysteries. The novel was originally published in 1942 under the French title of Les Caves du Majestic, and it has also been translated into English as The Cellars of the Majestic or Maigret and the Hotel Majestic. The “Cellars” or “Caves” refers to the kitchens and storerooms in the basement of the hotel. The translation by David Watson uses the term “still-room,” which is where coffee, tea, and food are prepared for guests and sent to the upper floors through a dumb waiter. As the book opens, Prosper Donge, who runs the still-room at the Hotel Majestic, arrives for work one morning and discovers a dead body stuffed into a locker, or so he claims. Maigret investigates the murder, and Prosper Donge becomes the prime suspect.

The victim of the crime is the French-born wife of a wealthy American industrialist, both traveling in Paris on business. It is soon revealed that the woman was a former hostess at a nightclub in Cannes, and some of her associates there, now living in Paris, may have been connected with the crime. The American husband is no angel himself, and he lives up to the stereotype of the ugly, entitled American, resulting in some humorous confrontations with Maigret.

The Hotel Majestic sports an interesting cast of characters, and the murder plot itself is well thought out, but the way Simenon tells the story leaves something to be desired. Part of the fun in reading detective fiction is trying to solve the puzzle yourself. On a few occasions in this novel, however, Maigret is privy to information to which the frustrated reader does not have access, which leaves one feeling a little cheated. Early in the book, for example, Maigret asks someone about a baby, and the reader wonders, “How does he know they had a baby?” Names of persons or businesses are mentioned once in passing conversation; then later in the book they become major plot elements when Maigret reveals an entire back story, gleaned from his years of police experience, unbeknownst to the confused reader.

My least favorite aspect of Simenon’s writing is the way he pens dialogue. He composes conversations in fragmentary sentences, interspersed with numerous ellipsis dots ( . . . ). This is intended to reproduce the feeling of actual speech, but in real life people are usually capable of expressing complete thoughts. You would think a police officer interrogating a suspect, in particular, would want to nail down clear and accurate statements. Instead, every one of Simenon’s ellipsis dots represents something the reader has to fill in with inferences or assumptions, which often leads to misunderstanding. The Hotel Majestic seems to have even more of these ambiguous pauses than is typical of Simenon, which contributes to the feeling that the mystery plot has too many unconnected dots.

One thing that usually sets the Maigret mysteries apart from typical detective fiction is the pathos with which Simenon depicts the supporting characters. Here, however, both Simenon and Maigret seem to have little sympathy for The Hotel Majestic’s criminals, suspects, and victims. The result is a competently crafted story that lacks feeling. The Maigret series as a whole is worthwhile reading, but this is not one of its more compelling entries. Of the 14 that I’ve read so far, my favorites are The Night at the Crossroads and The Late Monsieur Gallet.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Facino Cane by Honoré de Balzac

The clarinetist of Monte Cristo
Honoré de Balzac’s series of writings known as the Comédie Humaine consists of around 90 works of literature ranging from tiny short stories to epic novels. All of these works are downloadable as individual ebooks, so I review them all separately as individual pieces of Balzac’s grand design. Facino Cane is one of the briefer entries in the Comédie Humaine. This short story was first published in an 1836 issue of the journal Chronique de Paris.

Facino Cane is only about 20 pages long, and the first 10 pages are all set-up. The reader doesn’t even meet the title character until around the halfway point. Balzac’s story is told by an unnamed narrator, a Frenchman of twenty years of age. In the opening pages he introduces himself, talks about his life in Paris, and describes himself as a curious observer of humanity. While attending a wedding, he notices an interesting-looking musician among the band providing the evening’s entertainment. During a break in the music, the narrator strikes up a conversation with this fellow, an elderly blind clarinetist named Facino Cane.

The name Facino Cane is taken from an actual historical figure, an Italian commander of mercenaries during the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Balzac’s story, however, does not concern him. The real Facino Cane serves merely as the namesake for a fictional descendant living in 19th century Paris. Over the brief course of the story’s second half, Facino Cane tells the narrator his whole life story. He was born in Venice and lived a life of wealth and intrigue. The narrative he relates is like The Count of Monte Cristo condensed into ten pages. Because of its extreme brevity, this story-within-the-story reads more like a rough plot sketch than an actual finished narrative. When Facino Cane concludes his tale, the narrator likewise wraps up his own account with a two sentence epilogue, and the short story is done.

Balzac is always entertaining, but this is not one of his better works. It feels more like an idea for a story than an actual finished work of literature. After reading it, one can’t help but wonder what a great novel it might have made had Balzac chosen to develop it at length. Since the story requires such a minimal investment of time, however, it is certainly worth a read for Balzac fans.

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Monday, July 27, 2020

The Fellowship of the Talisman by Clifford D. Simak

Preachy sword-and-sorcery fantasy
Fantasy literature isn’t really my thing, but I am a huge fan of Clifford D. Simak’s science fiction, so I was more than willing to give this novel a try. The Fellowship of the Talisman was first published in 1978. The poorly chosen title leads one to believe this is going to be a rip-off of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, and as with any book in this genre there are some inevitable similarities. Simak, however, adds some interesting science fiction ideas to this traditional sword-and-sorcery quest narrative. The tone of the storytelling calls to mind Stephen King more than it does Tolkien, but the cast of characters is comprised of representatives of dozens of mythical species straight out of the Dungeons & Dragons handbook, similar to the popular 1970s fantasy literature of authors like Piers Anthony or Fritz Leiber. For that genre, The Fellowship of the Talisman would be a satisfying read had Simak not chosen to add elements of theology and religion that ruin an otherwise adequate story.

The Fellowship of the Talisman takes place in England during the 20th century, but this is not the 20th century that we lived through. In this alternate history, Europe has yet to emerge from the Dark Ages. Medieval feudalism still reigns. The progress of civilization has been halted by waves of evil that periodically sweep across the land. Swathes of territory are decimated by an army of evil nonhuman beings known as the Harriers. Simak partially attributes this evil to the fact that in this timeline the Christian crusaders never took Jerusalem.

Duncan Standish, a nobleman’s son, is asked by his father to undertake a dangerous mission. A rare manuscript has been discovered that purports to be an eyewitness account of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. If proven genuine, this document will bring hope to the good people in their fight against evil. In order to authenticate the manuscript, Duncan must take it to Oxenford, where a noted scholar will examine and translate the document. To fulfill his mission, Duncan must cross the Desolated Lands that are currently under attack by the Harriers. He departs with a small party that grows larger as his journey continues. Beings that we consider mythical are real in this world, and Duncan encounters many of them, both good and evil.

The fundamental flaw of the novel is Simak’s implication that Christianity was the key to freeing Western civilization from the Dark Ages. On the contrary, it was the humanists of the Renaissance and the deists of the Enlightenment who got us out of the Dark Ages. If it were up to the Church, we would all still be living under feudalism and being executed for believing in Copernicanism. The best thing about the Crusades was not that the holy warriors of Western Europe took Jerusalem, but rather that they took the knowledge of Islamic philosophers and mathematicians home with them. The plot premise is acceptable at first, while the pro-Christian theme is kept pretty quiet throughout a story filled with characters of pagan origin. When it comes to the conclusion, however, Simak escalates the religious fervor to the point of ridiculousness. The reader spends the whole book waiting while this band of misfits trudges along on their journey, only to have the entire quest wrapped up in the final 14 pages with a silly and simplistic ending.

Because Simak is a great writer, this book has its fair share of interesting characters and exciting scenes. The novel suffers, however, from a slow pace overall and a cockamamie plot with a preachy ending that adds insult to injury. I’m still an avid fan of Simak, but The Fellowship of the Talisman is among my least favorite of his works.
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Friday, July 24, 2020

Brazilian Tales, edited by Isaac Goldberg

Foundations of a national literature
Machado de Assis
As one might expect, Brazilian Tales, published in 1921, is a collection of short stories by Brazilian writers. The volume was edited by Isaac Goldberg, a literary jack-of-all-trades who translated works from French, Italian, German, Yiddish, Spanish, and in this case, Portuguese. Goldberg also wrote over 30 volumes of the Little Blue Books series in diverse areas such as biography, music, freethought, and world literature, including The Spirit of Brazilian Literature and Brazilian Short Stories. In addition to the six short stories collected in this volume, Goldberg also supplies a brief but educational introduction to the history of Brazilian letters. He explains that Brazilian literature began as an extension of Portuguese literature and often tried to emulate European culture. By the end of the 19th century, however, Brazil had developed its own national literature, unique to Brazilian culture and society, that deserved to be recognized worldwide.

If Brazilians were asked to choose their nation’s greatest author, the consensus would likely be Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. According to Goldberg,“When the Brazilian Academy of Letters was founded in 1897, Machado de Assis was unanimously elected president and held the position until his death.” Half of the six selections Goldberg includes in this volume are authored by Machado de Assis. The first two entries, “The Attendant’s Confession” and “The Fortune-Teller,” are both suspenseful tales somewhat reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe. Though murder figures into both plots, however, they are more about morality than the macabre. The third selection, “Life,” is a horse of a different color. This piece is a dialogue between the legendary “Wandering Jew” Ahasverus and the Greek god Prometheus. Nineteenth century writers loved to invoke classical mythology for such philosophical exercises, but “Life” is unlikely to hold much appeal for twenty-first century readers.

Of the remaining selections, “The Vengeance of Felix” by José Medeiros e Albuquerque is the least satisfying. This tale of revenge concludes with an intended “surprise twist” ending, but the reader sees it coming a mile away. The last two entries are of higher literary merit. Coelho Netto’s “The Pigeons,” uses a native superstition to heighten the poignancy of a family tragedy in an Indigenous household. In “Aunt Zeze’s Tears,” the title character is a proverbial “old maid,” but still young enough to hold out hope for finding love. Author Carmen Dolores delivers a nuanced and psychologically insightful character study that results in a quite moving narrative.

This book is only about 150 pages long, and the word count on each page is pretty low. It seems that brevity was a major consideration in Goldberg’s selection criteria, and this is the book’s major fault. These stories, each of which is only 10 to 20 pages long, are over before they ever really go anywhere. Most are just character sketches followed by an abrupt ending. Nevertheless, the quality of the writing is quite good all around. Reading these brief scenes makes one wonder what these talented authors could do with an entire novel. To that end, Goldberg does suggest some novels in his introduction. Later in the 20th century, Latin-American literature gained in popularity, and Brazilian writers like Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector, and Paolo Coelho achieved renown. Back in 1924, however, Goldberg was one of the first critics to draw attention to the literature of Brazil. His Brazilian Tales provides an informative and enticing introduction to that country’s literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Stories in this collection

The Attendant’s Confession by Jaoquim Maria Machado de Assis
The Fortune-Teller by Jaoquim Maria Machado de Assis
Life by Jaoquim Maria Machado de Assis
The Vengeance of Felix by José Medeiros e Albuquerque 
The Pigeons by Coelho Netto 
Aunt Zeze’s Tears by Carmen Dolores

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