Sunday, May 20, 2018

Dusty Zebra and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Eleven



An outstanding series, but not the best volume
This is the ninth book I’ve read of The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, a series which will eventually amount to 14 volumes. (I’m not reading them in numerical order.) Overall, the series so far has just been spectacular. I had very little prior experience with Simak before I stumbled upon Volume One, but I immediately became hooked on this series. Volume Eleven, Dusty Zebra and Other Stories, is another great collection of short fiction, but by no means the best book in the series.

Each volume contains at least one example of Simak’s non-sci-fi writing. The longest work in this book is a western novella called “Way for the Hangtown Rebel!” It’s a constant stream of action scenes that might make a decent B-movie but adds up to one pretty formulaic story. Also included in this collection is a tale of World War II combat, “Guns on Guadalcanal,” which has little literary merit and suffers from the expected anti-Japanese racism of its era.

The good news is that the rest of the volume consists of seven science fiction stories. The book opens with its delightfully funny title selection, in which an opportunistic family man stumbles upon a way of communicating with an alien intelligence through the universal language of commerce. Next up is “Hobbies,” which is one of the stories that would eventually make up Simak’s 1952 novel City, but this ingenious and unpredictable vision of the future of mankind, caninekind, and robotkind is excellent even on its own. Another fine selection is “Courtesy,” about an interplanetary expedition party who, when faced with imminent death, must turn to the local aborigines to find a cure. The plot drags at times, but the story imparts a valuable moral lesson.

In his 1955 novella “Project Mastodon,” also included here, Simak gives a lot of creative thought to the political, economic, and military ramifications of time travel, but he has a pretty cavalier attitude toward how actions in the past, such as resource extraction and settlement, would effect the course of history. This story has a great premise which Simak would eventually develop into the excellent 1978 novel Mastodonia, but here the idea feels a little half-baked, and the ending is a disappointment. The 1932 story “Voice in the Void” is about two adventurers stealing a Martian religious relic. Though this early effort is not on a par with Simak’s mature writing, it makes for pretty good pulp fiction. “Final Gentleman” is a Twilight-Zonish piece of conspiracy sci-fi in which a writer finds the life he has known was just a sham and he merely a puppet. It has a good suspenseful buildup, but gets a little too trippy and suffers from a lack of clarity at the end. In “Retrograde Evolution,” another tale of interplanetary contact, Simak comes up with an interesting theory on war, peace, and culture, but he expresses it too obtusely, to the point where the story begins to bore.

Like all the books in the Complete Short Fiction series, I enjoyed Volume Eleven, enough to give it a four-star rating, but that’s actually a weak showing compared to five-star volumes like numbers One, Two, Seven, Eight, and Ten. The whole series, as I’ve seen so far, is well worth reading, but if you’re only going to pick a few of the books to read, this one should not be among them. If you read City (as you should), you’ve already got “Hobbies” covered, and “Project Mastodon” is in the public domain so you can download it for free.

Stories in this collection
Dusty Zebra 
Hobbies 
Guns on Guadalcanal 
Courtesy 
Voice in the Void 
Retrograde Evolution 
Way for the Hangtown Rebel! 
Final Gentleman 
Project Mastodon

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Friday, May 18, 2018

Peony by Pearl S. Buck



Family saga of the Jewish diaspora in China
Though Pearl S. Buck wrote historical novels about a variety of peoples and places, she is best known for her books set in China, the country in which she was raised. In the case of her 1948 book entitled Peony, however, the subtitle “A Novel of China” really doesn’t let you know what you’re in for, as this is quite an unconventional book by Buck. Here she bases her story on the history of Jews in China, particularly the centuries-old Jewish community of Kaifeng, Henan Province, where the story of Peony takes place.

Ezra ben Israel’s Jewish ancestors arrived in Kaifeng four generations prior to the start of the novel. His family has managed to maintain their Jewish identity despite the progressively shrinking membership of their synagogue. Ezra, a successful merchant, is the son of a Jewish father and Chinese mother and displays a healthy respect for Chinese customs. His wife, however, is more of a hardliner in her devotion to the Jewish faith and believes in preserving the racial purity of her community. She envisions her son David as the future rabbi of the Kaifeng synagogue and wants to marry him to Leah, the daughter of the current rabbi. Peony, a young Chinese woman, is a bondmaid in the family household and has been raised almost as a daughter to Ezra and a sister to David. She is secretly in love with David, but realizes that as a bondmaid (a nicer word for slave) she has no chance of being his wife. Instead, hoping to please him, she schemes to encourage his marriage to a wealthy Chinese girl to whom she learns he is attracted.

Because the Jews were welcomed by the Chinese and allowed to live according to their Jewish faith and customs, this is not a tale of religious persecution. The primary threats facing the Jews of Kaifeng are assimilation and attrition. The Chinese were so welcoming that cross-cultural exchange and interracial marriage became common, resulting in cultural dilution. David is faced with the dilemma of to what degree he owes allegiance to his ancestral culture (and his mother) and how free he is to follow his heart and live his own life as he sees fit. As is often the case with Buck’s books, the story sometimes ventures into soap-opera melodrama, but she is such a good transcriber of human emotion, and the characters feel so genuine, that the reader usually doesn’t care. Even when the plot of Peony becomes romantically overwrought, it is anything but formulaic. The narrative takes unexpected turns and neither succumbs to mawkishness nor settles for an easy ending.

For much of the book, the time period of the story is indeterminate. Buck goes out of her way to make the story timeless by eliminating historical detail. For example, neither horses nor automobiles are mentioned as a means of transportation, and the Jewish family acts as if they could be straight out of Ben-Hur. Towards the end of the book, however, the Empress Dowager Cixi makes an appearance, which places the story roughly in the 1890s. The ebook edition from Open Road Media includes a substantial afterword, written sometime after 1990, by Wendy R. Abraham, an expert on the Jewish diaspora in China. She gives a detailed historical overview on the subject, from the arrival of the first Jews in China as early as the 8th century to a summary of the research on the Kaifeng Jews up through the late 20th century. The nonfiction account of this surprising episode in world history is truly fascinating, and the fictional narrative that Buck crafts from it is moving and thought-provoking. Though not as outstanding as The Good Earth trilogy, Peony is one of Buck’s better books.
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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Moneychangers by Upton Sinclair



Financial chicanery and commercial skullduggery
Upton Sinclair’s novel The Moneychangers, published in 1908, is loosely based on the real-life stock market crash known as the Panic of 1907. The story takes place in New York City. In the opening chapter, Allan Montague, an attorney, is reunited with a childhood friend from Mississippi, Lucy Dupree, who is recently widowed and has decided to settle in New York. Lucy wants Montague’s help being introduced into “Society,” but he soon finds himself assuming the role of protector as the beautiful Lucy is sought after by wealthy, married philanderers. Though there is no romantic connection between the two, Lucy is naive to the big-city ways of the metropolis, and Montague takes it upon himself to defend her honor.

The story then makes a segue from chivalry into business. From their days back home in the South, Montague and Lucy are both stockholders in the Northern Mississippi Railroad. Lucy wants to sell her stock, and she asks Montague to act as her financial representative. Though this railroad is a small business, it has the potential to become a lot bigger through a deal with The Mississippi Steel Company. As New York’s wealthy financiers get wind of this, they show an interest in Lucy’s stock and start sniffing into her and Montague’s business. The more he deals with these interested parties, the more Montague learns about the underhanded deals going down in the world of New York finance, and how a handful of wealthy and powerful oligarchs manipulate the market, the courts, and the legislature to their advantage.

Compared to other writers of the muckraker era like Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair always had his own unique style that was more propagandistic and preachy than his contemporaries. He was never afraid to push his political agenda, no matter how blatantly, even at the expense of plot and characterization. (That’s not a criticism, just an observation; I actually admire him for it.) Here in The Moneychangers, however, Sinclair definitely makes an attempt to craft a satisfying melodrama. Stylistically, the book greatly resembles Dreiser’s novels The Financier and The Titan. Sinclair nevertheless still manages to get his digs into the capitalist class, but not so dogmatically as he does in books like The Jungle, 100%, or The Millennium. This may be because none of the book’s characters are members of the lower, working, or even the middle classes. The story is told entirely through the perspective of lawyers, bankers, and well-to-do businessmen. Having covered the proletariat with due diligence elsewhere in his body of work, perhaps here Sinclair was aiming to educate middle-class readers through subtler persuasive tactics.

The Moneychangers isn’t very compelling at first, but it improves considerably as it goes along. The first half is rather slow, and the whole storyline about Lucy and her reputation feels a bit unnecessary to a novel that’s ultimately about finance and greed. The second half of the book, however, is really quite good. The instances of financial, commercial, and political corruption start out small but then gradually snowball into an avalanche. One particularly clever scene of journalistic espionage turns the book into a thriller worthy of a 21st-century film adaptation. Though Sinclair develops his case gradually without resorting to diatribes, by the end of the novel he has presented an ample laundry list of evils perpetrated by the oligarchs of American finance. The Moneychangers proves once again that even Sinclair’s lesser known works are often of high literary merit and loaded with valuable perspective on American history.
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Monday, May 14, 2018

Life by Keith Richards



Long-winded and surprisingly tiresome
I’ve been a fan of the Rolling Stones all my life, but I don’t feel any more affinity toward Keith Richards than the other members of the band. I read Life, his 2010 autobiography, because I wanted to learn more about the history of the Stones, not because I’m all that interested in his rebel persona. I feared the book might be a self-indulgent exercise in egomania, but after finally reading it, my biggest surprise was how unexpectedly boring it turned out to be.

With the help of ghost writer James Fox, Life is written in a conversational style intended to give the reader the feeling of an intimate chat with Keith. To some extent this strategy works, but the text is so loaded with colorful slang, gratuitous profanity, home-spun aphorisms, and pointless tangential asides that it takes Richards five times longer to tell a story than it really should. Reading the book is as frustrating as trying to pry pertinent information from a rambling drunk. Time crawled so slowly that I found myself impatiently checking the index to find out how long it would be before Brian Jones dies and we move on to Mick Taylor. When is Ron Wood finally going to show up? Shouldn’t he have married Patti Hansen already?

Readers who play guitar will appreciate that Richards goes into a significant discussion of his musical technique. While I don’t have much knowledge in that area, I can tell that he writes about the craft of music-making more articulately than, say, Bob Dylan’s ramblings in Chronicles. The problem with Life, however, is that Richards doesn’t talk about music enough. The people who will really love this book are those who do drugs—hard drugs—because that’s mostly what he focuses on. He went to such-and-such a party on this-or-that island; these are the people who were there; these are the substances they consumed; this is the aftermath; this is how he cleaned himself up; only to go back to doing more drugs. His drug busts and other legal troubles are also minutely examined. Richards gives detailed biographies of myriad members of his entourage, while the Stones remain shadowy characters on the periphery. Somewhere around page 450 he finally goes into detail about what exactly his beef is with Mick Jagger, and you think now were finally getting somewhere. When he then goes into a track-by-track diary of the making of Bridges to Babylon, one of the Stones worst albums, one can’t help but wonder why he didn’t give the same exhaustive treatment to great albums like Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, or Exile on Main St.

Many Stones fans probably see Richards as a fun guy to party with, but would you really want to be friends with this guy? He comes across as one of those people who would never in a million years admit that he is ever wrong about anything. With all the glee of a teenaged reprobate he brags about pulling knives and guns on people. There’s never any moment of self-reflective realization that his lifestyle of substance abuse is toxic to himself or those around him, like you find in Eric Clapton’s autobiography. Sure, Keith talks about the misery of going cold turkey, but in the end you get the feeling that he thinks it’s all just great fun. The way he talks about his family life, one would think that growing up with heroin addict parents is the best character-building childhood a kid could have. This book didn’t make me like Keith any better as a person, but on that score, it was pretty much what I expected. I have to admit that I did learn a thing or two about the Stones here and there, but not nearly as much as I had hoped. Overall, Life is a necessary document if you want to get the story of the Stones straight from the horse’s mouth, but reading it should not have been such a tiresome ordeal.
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Friday, May 11, 2018

A.J. Casson: An Artist’s Life by Christopher E. Jackson



Brief overview of a Canadian master
The band of painters known as the Group of Seven are the most highly regarded, widely known, and minutely studied figures in the history of Canadian art. They are generally credited with establishing a distinctively Canadian style of visual art that helped Canada forge a national identity in the early 20th century. A.J. Casson (1898-1992) was the youngest and last surviving member of the Group. He was not a founding member, but was invited to join in 1926 after one of the original members resigned. Thus Casson doesn’t quite enjoy the respect of full membership, and though many beautiful books have been published on the Group of Seven, he is often given the short shrift and sometimes barely mentioned at all.

A.J. Casson: An Artist’s Life was published in 1998 by the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art to accompany a traveling exhibition of Casson’s work. Though only 64 pages long, it is a pleasure to see an entire book devoted to Casson, who happens to be one of my favorite artists in the Group of Seven. Franklin Carmichael, a founding member of the group, served as Casson’s mentor, both in their day jobs as graphic artists and in their moonlighting as fine artists. The two share a similar style, and their work is generally less impressionistic and more graphic or illustrative than the other members, with Casson’s paintings even more consciously designed than those of Carmichael. If A. Y. Jackson were the Marsden Hartley of the Canadian landscape and Lawren Harris its Rockwell Kent, Casson might be its Grant Wood or Charles Sheeler. The selection of Casson’s works in this book is about evenly split between his paintings of small Ontario towns and his more mystical-looking uninhabited landscapes. Several examples of watercolors are shown, as well as one print, one drawing, and a few examples of his commercial graphic art. Unfortunately, about half the images are reproduced in black and white. While this is often a necessary cost-saving device, it really prevents the book from being a timeless and essential document of Casson’s life and work.

The text by curator Christopher E. Jackson amounts to about 16 pages of text and therefore can’t be considered a complete biography. It reads more like an artist’s resume that has been fleshed out with more detail. You don’t really get considerable insight into what Casson was like as a human being, but you do learn a lot about his career. What surprised me most was the level of underappreciation and lack of financial success Casson experienced during his lifetime, as he was always regarded as a second-string player in the Group of Seven. Not until all of the other members died was he really recognized as an elder statesman of Canadian art, and he wasn’t able to retire from his graphic art job until he was 60. That’s difficult to comprehend given how the Group of Seven are regarded as national treasures today.

This book is probably not the most authoritative work on Casson. Eminent Canadian art critic Paul Duval published at least three previous books on the artist and his work. Most books on Canadian art, however, were printed in small runs, are now out of print, and copies are either difficult to track down or expensive to purchase. As an American fan of the Group of Seven, I often find that I have to settle for whatever I can dig up in university libraries, and one could settle for a lot worse than A.J. Casson: An Artist’s Life. Though one wishes it were printed in full-color throughout and more extensive in its scope, it’s still a very attractive book, and it did provide me with a more thorough education on Casson than I could find elsewhere.


Credit Forks, c. 1930, watercolor and graphite on paper, 46 x 56.5 cm

Housetops in the Ward, 1927, watercolor over red conte and graphite on paper, 40.5 x 47.3 cm

Anglican Church at Magnetawan, 1933, oil on canvas, 94.3 x 115.1 cm

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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Two Little Misogynists by Carl Spitteler



Mischievous Swiss kids
Carl Spitteler
Swiss writer Carl Spitteler won the 1919 Nobel Prize in Literature, primarily on the strength of his poetry, including his epic work Olympian Spring. English-language readers searching for works by the early, lesser-known Nobel Laureates, however, are often at the mercy of whatever obscure gems someone many decades ago happened to consider worthy of translation. In Spitteler’s case, the only work available in English is not a poem but a novel. Originally published in 1907 under the German title of Die Mädchenfeinde, the English version bears the unlikely title of Two Little Misogynists. The 1922 edition published by Henry Holt and Company is a brief book of 132 pages, with around 20 of those pages devoted to illustrations.

Though the title may be a bit off-putting to today’s audience, the two misogynists referred to in the title are merely two young brothers who, like many boys their age, think girls are icky. Gerold, age 10, and Hänsli, age 9, have been spending a vacation at their grandparents’ house in the village of Sentisbrugg, but the time has come for them to reluctantly return to the military school they attend in the city of Aarmünsterburg. Much to their chagrin, they are informed that for a portion of their trip they will be sharing a ride with a girl their age named Gesima, the daughter of an important local magistrate. The novel is a road-trip story detailing the adventures of the three children on this journey.

Though good boys at heart, the brothers are troublemakers to some degree, like a milder version of the Katzenjammer Kids, if anyone remembers that old comic strip. Their first inclination upon meeting Gesima is to pick on her, but over time, not surprisingly, they develop warmer feelings for her. Gesima in her turn begins to show the inklings of feminine wiles and toys with the boys in retaliation. In early 20th-century Switzerland, it apparently took a village to raise the youngsters, because they are shuttled into the hands of a different group of adults with each town they pass through, but they periodically manage to escape to undertake their own independent exploits in the picturesque Swiss countryside.

Two Little Misogynists is mostly charming, sometimes boring, and often seems as if some of its humor has been lost in translation or is just intentionally absurd. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the book, but it never truly impresses either. Mostly it just comes across as a harmless piece of fluff and not the kind of work that would have in any way contributed to Spitteler’s Nobel win. One can venture that the book is perhaps autobiographically based on Spitteler’s own childhood memories of growing up in Switzerland, though with events exaggerated for comedic effect. One doesn’t learn a whole lot about Swiss culture, however. The illustrations probably do more to establish the specificity of the Swiss setting than does the text. One wishes to learn more about the lives of the adult characters, but they exist only in the periphery while the author tells the tale from a child’s perspective. To that end, Spitteler does demonstrate a knack for capturing the naive wonder of the juvenile mind. This brief work of prose may be far from the Nobel-caliber epic verse for which Spitteler is known, but it does make for a pleasantly lighthearted read.

Illustration by A. Helene Carter, from Two Little Misogynists by Carl Spitteler, 1922 English edition published by Henry Holt and Company

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Disappearance by Philip Wylie



A great sci-fi premise bogged down in preachy social criticism
The Disappearance, a science fiction novel by Philip Wylie, was originally published in 1951. I had previously been very impressed by Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator, but found The Disappearance to be much less satisfying. More than many of his sci-fi contemporaries, Wylie aimed for highbrow literature by infusing his work with philosophical depth. In The Disappearance, however, he goes overboard and smothers his own story with deep thoughts.

Bill Gaunt is an eminent philosopher who lives in Miami. His wife Paula is a brilliant former student of his, but like most women of her time she gave up her career to manage a home and family. The couple have two grown children, Edwin and Edwinna (ugh, really), and a young granddaughter. One day without warning, as Bill is working at his typewriter, all the women on Earth instantaneously disappear, leaving him in a world inhabited solely by men. In chapter two, however, we see the same incident from Paula’s perspective, and it is the men who disappear. Thus, the two sexes live in parallel worlds, ignorant of each other’s existence. While each makes attempts to discover the cause of the disappearance and perhaps reverse its effects, the survivors of each gender must rebuild civilization to serve the needs of its half of humanity.

What an excellent premise for a science fiction novel! Wylie, however, only provides the thinnest of plots while concentrating most of his efforts on social commentary, using the disappearance to critique western civilization’s ideas on sex roles, sexuality, education, and religion. As one might expect, Wylie chose to make Bill Gaunt a philosopher in order to give himself the opportunity to philosophize, and that’s what he does, tediously so. The centerpiece of the book is a long essay in which Wylie exhaustively enumerates his grievances against the present state of society, and much of the rest of the novel either comments or elaborates upon this essay. The plot, consisting mostly of wordy conversations and debates, is almost an afterthought, and Wylie lazily wraps it up with an ending that is the epitome of the phrase “deus ex machina.” Though a complete list of Wylie’s philosophical issues are too extensive to enumerate here, among them he lobbies for greater equality between the sexes, more openness about sexuality, greater independence for women, and a freer attitude toward marital infidelity.

Many of the ideas that Wylie expresses come across as progressively feminist for 1951. Upon closer inspection, however, it’s a very selective brand of feminism. The book has only one truly positive female character—Paula Gaunt—who presents a very idealized picture of womanhood. All the other female characters are depicted as stupid, flighty, self-serving, shallow, and/or incompetent. It’s as if Wylie were saying I believe in equal rights for women, as long as they have a PhD intelligence, speak six languages, display exemplary leadership, and maintain their good looks well into their forties. The rest of womankind is written off as shoddy products of the faulty society in which they were raised. Meanwhile, the depiction of the “colored” characters in the book, who even after half of humanity disappears continue to work as servants for the whites while living in tents and shacks, indicates that racial equality was not among Wylie’s concerns.

All great science fiction has a philosophical component, but The Disappearance so relentlessly beats its readers over the head with its diatribes, one wonders why Wylie didn’t skip the science fiction and just write the essay.
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