Friday, May 24, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 5 by Jack Kirby, et al.

Kirby’s back!
Though Volume 4 was a bit of a disappointment, I am happy to report that Essential Captain America, Volume 5 is a return to fine form. This black-and-white paperback from Marvel Comics reprints numbers 187 to 205 of the Captain America and the Falcon comic book series, issues that were originally published from July 1975 to January 1977. In addition, it also includes the Captain America King-Size Annual #3 from January 1976. But wait, there’s more! What really makes this volume exceptional is the inclusion of Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles, a Marvel Treasury Special that was an obvious labor of love for writer and artist Jack “King” Kirby.

With the last issue in Volume 4, Steve Englehart’s tenure as writer on the series came to an end. For the first six issues of Volume 5, the writing duties are split between short runs by John Warner, Tony Isabella, and Marv Wolfman. There’s nothing really exceptional about these stories, but the quirky art by Frank Robbins at least makes them a joy to behold. Then the great Kirby returns to the character that he created and assumes both artist and writer roles for the Annual, the Bicentennial Battles special, and the series run from 193 through 205. In contrast to Englehart’s stories, which were rather mundane soap operas, Kirby brings his trademark penchant for epic and cosmic storytelling. While Englehart’s Cap would have seemed woefully out of place tackling threats from outer space, Kirby’s Cap is right at home battling an alien invasion in Annual #3.

The real gem in this collection, however, is Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles, a real tour de force by Kirby. In this giant-sized issue, Cap meets a mysterious man named Mister Buda who sends him on an astral journey through time to experience the true meaning of America. Against his will, Cap is transported to Revolutionary-Era Philadelphia, World Wars I and II, the Wild West, the Great Chicago Fire, a nuclear bomb test, and many other scenes throughout America’s history. Though designed to capitalize on our nation’s 200th birthday, the story is not merely an exercise in gratuitous patriotism. Cap sees the dark side of America as well when he witnesses slavery and the persecution of Native Americans. Kirby uses the special issue to express his own personal views of the American dream, which come across as equal parts utopian optimism and liberal criticism. The reader really learns a lot about Kirby from this work. Kirby even gives himself a guest appearance, as a child, in a scene set in the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, in the Captain America and the Falcon series, Kirby delivers a story about a secret society of neo-monarchists who want to overthrow America’s democratic government and return the nation to the days of pre-Revolution aristocracy. This storyline, which takes up the better part of 1976, is exactly the sort of terrorist threat that a patriotic superhero like Cap should be facing, and in the hands of Kirby it is a rollicking good time. The volume ends with a few stories of interdimensional invaders and other sci-fi monsters that one expects from Kirby’s audaciously bizarre, out-there imagination. Needless to say, throughout the volume his art is absolutely superb. If you are a Kirby fan, this is some of his best Marvel work. After having recently read through the first five volumes of Essential Captain America, I can confidently say that if I were to buy just one of these books, Volume 5 would be the one to get.
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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Birds, Bones, and Beetles: The Improbable Career and Remarkable Legacy of University of Kansas Naturalist Charles D. Bunker by Chuck Warner

An unsung hero of natural history
Though not a scientist myself, I enjoy reading science history and scientific biographies, particularly in natural history. Many pioneering zoologists, botanists, and paleontologists lived enviably fascinating lives centered around an appreciation of nature, outdoor exploration, scientific inquiry, and the building of museum collections. Charles D. Bunker may not be as famous as Louis Agassiz (founder of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology) or Roy Chapman Andrews (former director of the American Museum of Natural History) but he proves that even an unsung worker at a lesser known museum can nonetheless live a fascinating life devoted to natural science and make a lasting and influential impact on natural history and museum methodology. In his recently published book, Birds, Bones, and Beetles, author Chuck Warner details the life and career of Bunker, who was affectionately referred to by friends and colleagues as “Bunk.”

Born in Illinois in 1870, Bunk moved to Lawrence, Kansas with his parents in 1891. With little in the way of marketable skills other than a love of the outdoors, hunting, and some experience with taxidermy, Bunk doggedly set about going after his dream job, preparing animal specimens for the University of Kansas Natural History Museum. Once hired, he built a lifelong career at the museum. Bunk didn’t even possess a high school diploma, but he proved his value to the institution and rose from assistant taxidermist to the rank of curator. By the end of the 19th century, the KU Natural History Museum had already established a national reputation for excellence. While director Lewis Lindsay Dyche was the charismatic spokesman for the institution, Bunk was content to work quietly behind the scenes, amassing the museum’s admirably extensive collections of specimens. The book follows Bunk on two notable collecting expeditions: a journey by horse-drawn wagon to western Kansas and a trip to Alaska with a party of big game hunters. In both cases, Bunk shot, skinned, and logged hundreds of animal specimens for the museum, and in western Kansas he discovered the fossil skeleton of a mosasaur, a prehistoric marine reptile from the age of the dinosaurs.

Though he was never a professor at the university, Bunk was nonetheless quite influential as a teacher to those who worked for him at the museum. Many of his students would go on to stellar careers in institutions like the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History. Bunk also created a much-copied system of cataloging museum specimens and was a pioneer in the use of beetles to clean skeletons, rather than tediously boiling and scraping them.

Though Warner is Bunk’s grandson, he has researched and written this biography with the scholarly rigor of an objective historian. Those readers who have a connection to the University of Kansas will find much to enjoy in the interesting historical background that Warner provides on the university and the museum. The book is by no means overly Kansas-centric, however, and will appeal to anyone interested in natural history or museum studies. Bunk’s story harkens back to a time prior to the rigorous scientific specialization that exists in academia today. No PhD was required for Bunk to make his mark in his field, just hard work, determination, scientific curiosity, and a remarkable generosity toward his students. Birds, Bones, and Beetles is a fitting memorial to the interesting and inspiring life of this accomplished museum professional.
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Monday, May 20, 2019

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

An indelible portrait of American conformity
Babbitt, originally published in 1922, is a novel of biting social commentary by Sinclair Lewis, who won the 1930 Nobel Prize in Literature. When I first started reading Babbitt, I didn’t much care for it, but it is a book that just kind of sneaks up on you over time. Despite my initial aversion to this novel, by the time I was finished I had to admit that it truly is a literary masterwork.

George F. Babbitt is a realtor in the city of Zenith, a fictional Midwestern metropolis of about 300,000 inhabitants. He is in his late forties, married, with three children. The
Babbitt family lives a respectable middle-class life in a suburban residential community, well-off but not wealthy. He is friends with other businessmen in the city, belongs to the local athletic club, and is involved in various professional associations and community organizations. For a while, that’s about all the plot that Lewis provides. It is basically an extended character study. Whereas in Main Street Lewis pointed out all the conceits, banalities, and pettiness of small town life, in Babbitt he does the same for the city. Babbitt is painted as a buffoon, a caricature with exaggerated negative qualities, the most glaring of which are his conformity to conservative middle-class conventions and his faith in consumerism. For the first several chapters, Babbitt is defined primarily by his possessions. His clothes, furnishings, and so on are lovingly described in minute detail by Lewis, who revels in every mundane detail. Quite frankly, the entire first third of the book is a bit off-putting. Lewis’s social criticism, though humorous, comes with a tinge of cynical smugness that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Who exactly is he making fun of? Pretty much everyone; not just the middle-class but the rich whom they envy and the poor upon whom they look down. There isn’t a positively portrayed character in the entire book, and everyone is a target, even the reader, who can’t help but see him or herself reflected in some of these caricatures.

About a third of the way through, however, things start happening. Babbitt discovers a talent for oratory and starts participating in local political campaigns. He plans a trip with an old college classmate, Paul Riesling, his one true friend. Over time, Babbitt starts to become more open to liberal ideas, which is an improvement in his character, even if it happens for all the wrong reasons. As the book progresses, an interesting thing happens: In short, Babbitt becomes a human being. The reader can’t help but identify with and root for this man who came across as so disgusting in the initial chapters. Not only is Babbitt guilty of blind conformity and rampant materialism, he is also a victim of them, trapped by his faith in the American Dream. In addition, the latter half of the book morphs into a brilliantly realistic portrait of a mid-life crisis, painted with psychological complexity, brutal frankness, and tragic pathos. As the book becomes less funny and more socially conscious, delving into topics of politics, labor, and marriage, it begins to resemble a novel by Upton Sinclair rather than Sinclair Lewis.

Given the time period, Babbitt is likely to remind you of your father’s or grandfather’s generation, but its lessons are still applicable to our lives today. Babbittry is alive and well in our government, in our economy, in our social lives. Lewis helps us laugh at it, but not without a hint of fear as well. Babbitt is an eye-opening wake-up call that forces readers to question narrow-mindedness, greed, and self-centered values in themselves and their society. This insightful and innovative work of literature is a true American classic.
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Friday, May 17, 2019

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking

A valiant attempt at a physics primer
Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was originally published in 1988, but I am reviewing the 2017 ebook edition, which includes an updated afterword. This book, intended for an audience of general readers, provides an overview of physics from the astronomical to the subatomic level. In doing so, Hawking delves into such fundamental yet difficult to comprehend questions as the nature of space and time, what happens inside a black hole, and whether time travel will is possible. Through a mix of proven fact, contentious theory, and informed speculation, Hawking takes the reader on a fascinating tour of the arcane workings of the universe.

There is no doubt that Hawking was a genius and one of the most knowledgeable people in this field. Since this is a book aimed at the general public, however, the real judge of its success is how well Hawking can explain complex concepts to a lay reader. It turns out that although Hawking may very well have been the next Einstein, he was no Bill Nye the Science Guy. Though I am not a scientist, I consider myself pretty well-versed in fundamental scientific concepts, yet there were passages in this book that were quite difficult to decipher. Even after repeated readings, some of Hawking’s explanations suffer from excessive ambiguity and assumptions of prior knowledge on the part of the reader.

Hawking spells out the processes of classical physics with a methodical step-by-step precision, and he explains general relativity pretty well. When he gets to quantum mechanics, however, his explanations are far less clear, and he expects the reader to make a pretty considerable leap in understanding. His discussions of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and particle spin are particularly baffling, and he glosses over the standard model of particle physics pretty quickly. His brief description of string theory, on the other hand, may be the clearest I’ve ever read. Like any other “elementary” work on quantum physics, there is a limit to how far he will clarify, and the reader is expected to take some assertions on faith. Presumably this is because a more thorough explanation would either be too difficult for the layman to understand or would simply make the book too long and cumbersome.

Astronomical phenomena, such as the big bang, black holes, and the expanding universe, are easier for the reader to wrap his or her head around, and Hawking discusses them in a manner that is eye opening and intellectually thrilling. His explanation of time and speculations on time travel also make for entertaining and informative reading. Hawking even delves into philosophy a bit by questioning whether there’s a place for god in the universe and contemplating the validity of the anthropic principle. One of the most important points he makes is that philosophers stopped concerning themselves with cosmology once physics became too complicated for them to understand. Throughout the book, Hawking explains that the fundamental purpose of physics is to strive for a unified theory of everything that explains all the workings of the universe, one that rectifies relativity and quantum physics and unites gravity with the forces of electronuclear interaction. Once that theory is discovered, Hawking asserts, science will be easier for laymen to understand, and the average person will take a much deeper interest in the physical workings of the universe. Until then, even if some answers are yet to be discovered, and others weren’t elucidated entirely to my comprehension, this landmark book certainly did pique my interest on the subject and provided much fascinating food for thought.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells

A barrage of interesting minutiae lacking coherence
Australian author Stuart Kells’s 2017 book The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders is not quite the history of libraries it promises to be. Though it contains a lot of historical information on some libraries of the author’s choosing, the definition of library is about as broad as it could possibly be. Arranged neither chronologically nor strictly thematically, The Library is a haphazard collection of anecdotes, data, and historical trivia on libraries, bookmaking, writers, readers, and just about anything else related in any way to books. Within this very broad range of subject matter, Kells throws in just about anything that strikes his fancy. If you are a lover of books and libraries, there is plenty of interesting content here, but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired.

In the book’s preface, Kells reveals that he is a collector of rare books, which explains why this really is a book about book collecting more than it is a book about libraries. Most of the libraries Kells discusses in the book are private collections, not public institutions. He expresses his admiration for illustrious book collectors of the past and envies their shrewd purchases and acquisitive luck. Many of these great collectors of centuries gone by were clergymen, so there is quite a bit of coverage of monastic libraries as well. Most of Kells’s bibliographic interests seem to fall prior to 1800, though he does cover a few more recently founded institutions such as the Morgan Library and the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale.

Some chapters tell a single story in exhaustive detail while others are just a hodgepodge of loosely related bits and pieces. A chapter on library fires, for example, is just a string of one-paragraph summaries of different libraries that burned, without any discernible organization to their sequence. Some chapters drift farther afield, as when Kells makes the case that the traditional oral histories of Australian aborigines constitute a library. In another chapter he discusses fictional libraries in the works of Umberto Eco and J. R. R. Tolkien. There are some good chapters on papermaking, printing, and binding, but again, that’s more about bookmaking and collecting than about libraries. One gets the idea that Kells is far more interested in the physical packaging of books than the actual content of them. Books are objects to be owned, not knowledge to be used. Only one chapter really deals with issues of public or academic libraries today, and Kells uses it to assert the inferiorities of digitized texts when compared to the heft and smell of old tomes.

Though Kells often ventures off into irrelevant asides, many of the stories are fascinating, and the book is packed with interesting information. It’s all delivered with such a lack of structure and organization, however, that it is difficult to remember anything from this verbal quagmire. Kells seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of these subjects, but without any notes or bibliographical references there’s no way to gauge the truth or accuracy of any of the data. I don’t know about the print edition, but the ebook has zero illustrations, which is a shame. It is only natural that after reading about these wonderful libraries and beautiful bindings readers would want to see some photographs of them, but no such luck.

Perhaps I would have had a more positive opinion of this book if it had been titled more accurately. The Library is worth a read, but its constant barrage of tangentially related factoids is also a frustrating mess, somewhat like a book composed entirely of footnotes. Readers who really love libraries and old books will likely find it equal parts delightful and disappointing.
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Monday, May 13, 2019

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson

The best Viking novel you’ll ever read
Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson (1894-1954) was a poet, essayist, and biographer before writing his one and only novel, The Long Ships. The book was originally published in Sweden in two parts in 1941 and 1945 under the title of Röde Orm before being published in English translation in 1954. One of the most widely read books in Sweden, The Long Ships is an adventure novel set in the time of the Vikings, around 1000 AD. It chronicles the adventures of Orm Tostesson, also known as Red Orm, a Danish Viking who hails from Skania, a portion of present-day Sweden that was at that time under the rule of Denmark. When a young man, Orm is stolen from his home by maritime marauders who make him a willing member of their crew. His subsequent voyages take him from Moorish Spain to the British Isles to the Ukrainian steppe in search of treasure, love, and a peaceful home to call his own.

I am by no means a connoisseur of the genre, but The Long Ships is easily the best work of Viking fiction that I’ve ever read. It is much more lively and engaging than Poul Anderson’s historical novel The Golden Horn, for example. Pulp adventure writers who are known for this sort of thing, like Harold Lamb or Robert E. Howard, tend to get bogged down in the minutiae of armor and weapons in an attempt at historical authenticity. Bengtsson, on the other hand, doesn’t emphasize the visual trappings of the time period but instead really adopts the mindset of his Viking characters. He does a splendid job of thinking like a Viking, which enables him to come up with surprising details that delight the reader with their ingenuity. Though written around the time of World War II, Bengtsson’s prose has the gravitas of a 19th century masterwork but a clarity and timeless creativity that make it seem as if the book were published just last week. Some credit for this is due, no doubt, to Michael Meyer, who provides the English translation for the New York Review of Books edition. In the introduction to that edition, novelist Michael Chabon accurately describes the tone of the book by stating that it “feels at once ancient and postmodern.”

Bengtsson also has a great sense of humor, and the text is riddled with wry wit. The story takes place at a time when Scandinavia was somewhat reluctantly undergoing a process of Christianization. The topic of faith is treated irreverently throughout the book, as characters tend to adopt whatever beliefs—Christian, Muslim, or pagan—that will be advantageous to them, either in the acquisition of worldly goods or simply in the never-ending quest for good luck. Christian missionaries are sometimes depicted as selfless martyrs but also as schemers aiming to tally up the most baptisms, even if it means converting ignorant Vikings under false pretenses. The book also features a Jewish character who is portrayed in a positive light and accepted by the Vikings because of his ability to lead them to treasure. In addition to religion, Bengtsson finds humor in marital relations, courtship rituals, and gender roles. He humorously captures the chauvinism of 1000 AD without succumbing to the chauvinism of the 1940s. The female characters of the book are depicted as intelligent and strong-willed, with a resilient resolve towards the horrible hardships that women faced daily in the 10th and 11th centuries.

If The Long Ships has a flaw, it would be its somewhat excessive length. For an adventure story, the pace can get a bit lethargic at times. Though each chapter is engaging, after finishing one I can’t say I felt compelled to immediately start another. Still, in the end this pleasant surprise proved itself worth the effort and a very enjoyable read.
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Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Kiss to the Leper by François Mauriac

A sacrifice for love
French author François Mauriac won the 1952 Nobel Prize in Literature and was a member of the Académie Française, France’s honorary society of literary “immortals.” His novel Le Baiser au lépreux was published in 1922 and the following year was translated into English as The Kiss to the Leper. The story takes place in the region of Les Landes, on the southwestern coast of France, near Mauriac’s hometown of Bordeaux. This area is rich in pine forests from which are harvested both timber and resin for the making of turpentine. In the novel, the wealthiest landowners in the region are the Péloueyre family, or at least what’s left of them. Jean Péloueyre is the only child of his widower father, Monsieur Jêrome Péloueyre, who is plagued by chronic illnesses.

The title of the novel is a biblical metaphor; no actual leper appears in the story. Jean, however, is cursed with a physical ugliness that renders him almost as repulsive as one afflicted with that disfiguring disease. Conscious of his own hideousness, he lives a mostly solitary life on his family estate, but his isolation does not spare him from indulging in romantic thoughts. He envies a young servant’s handsomeness and health, and he nurses a crush for a local girl of exceptional beauty, Noémi d’Artiailh. Though Jean may be viewed as a pitiful freak by his neighbors, his family’s estate nonetheless makes him an attractive catch. One day his father informs him that, with the help of the parish priest, a marriage has been arranged for Jean. This is a surprise to Jean, and his shock is amplified when he finds that his betrothed is none other than Noémi, the woman of his dreams.

Though Noémi’s father may have had financial motives for the match, she herself is no gold-digger. She wants to be a good wife to her new husband, but cannot overcome her physical repulsion to him. Though she masks her aversion as much as possible, Jean clearly senses it. He withdraws from his wife out of self-consciousness of his own ugly and stunted form and self-sacrifice to his beloved’s happiness. Though both parties are well-intentioned, their behavior results in an unhappy and unstable marriage that cannot continue for long in its present state before something must be done to either save or dissolve the union.

With its picturesque setting and archetypal characters, The Kiss to the Leper often has the feeling of a fairy-tale fable or—in keeping with Mauriac’s devout Catholicism—a religious parable. The plot events are clearly calculated to serve the moral lesson of the story, somewhat in the romantic style of a Victor Hugo novel. (One can’t help thinking of Quasimodo and Esmeralda from Notre-Dame de Paris.) The characters, however, are depicted with a touch of naturalism and a psychological authenticity that grounds the story in a bleak realism. The overall tone of the book is rather depressing, and Mauriac does not shy away from the unseemlier aspects of disease or lust, but ultimately the novel’s depictions of sacrifice and redemptive love are quite moving.

The inherent sadness of the story is also countered by its brevity. At 132 rather sparse pages, it makes for a brisk read. Despite the small package, Mauriac delivers a Nobel-quality work that quickly and deeply involves the reader in the characters’ lives in a profound and compelling way. This is the first work I’ve read by Mauriac, but it certainly won’t be the last.
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