Saturday, January 16, 2021

A Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges

Challengingly erudite assortment of fiction, poetry, and essays
Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) is one of Latin America’s most critically acclaimed authors. Borges was a prolific all-around man of letters who published so much fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that no one seems to have compiled an authoritative bibliography of his work. In 1961, Borges published A Personal Anthology, a sort of self-retrospective of his career up to that time, edited by himself. Translated into English in 1967, the contents of the volume are comprised of short stories, poems, and essays—48 pieces in all—all of which are quite brief. Some of the selections are so short they can best be described as observations.

A fraction of the pieces included here are set in Borges’s native Argentina. In such stories, which sometimes take the form of westerns (or in Argentina’s case, southerns?), Borges contrasts the European culture of metropolitan Buenos Aires with the rugged gaucho life of the surrounding rural pampas. In stories like “The South,” “The Dead Man,” and “The End,” characters try to navigate from one world to the other and often find themselves in over their heads.

Beyond his tales set in South America, the writer Borges most calls to mind is Umberto Eco. The scope of Borges’s writings encompasses all of world history, including ancient and medieval times. Like Eco, Borges has a particular fascination for books and writers of the past, of all languages, and he demonstrates his encyclopedic mind through frequently arcane references. Unlike Eco, who seems to take pride in educating his readers on the world’s intellectual history, Borges just assumes you already know what he knows. While one can’t help but admire his impressive erudition, one also has to wonder if many of the critics and fans who praise Borges really understand what he’s saying much of the time.

Many of the briefer entries in this work, fiction and nonfiction, do little more than draw connections between historical figures and books from different corners of the globe and different eras in time, as if Borges were engaging in the mental gymnastics of Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. This intellectual pinball makes his poetry quite interesting and enigmatic. In his fictional narratives, Borges defies conventional rules of storytelling. Even time itself doesn’t necessarily follow a linear path, and he often injects himself into his stories, blurring the line between author, narrator, and character. Such quirks feel appropriate in works that touch on science fiction and fantasy, like “Funes, the Memorious” or “The Aleph,” but often feel obtrusive elsewhere.

I don’t know if any of the writings in A Personal Anthology can be considered among Borges’s best work, but the volume overall, in presenting an ample and diverse selection of his work, serves as a fine introduction to his writing for the novice. That doesn’t mean that all the works included make for a satisfying reading experience. It seems as if the selections were chosen for their brevity, and they often feel more like incomplete sketches than fully realized ideas. Borges’s narratives are often frustratingly disjointed, and his style is a little too arty and pretentious for all but the highest denizens of the ivory tower to enjoy. If I had to judge his career on A Personal Anthology alone, the verdict would not be entirely favorable, but this collection did pique my interest enough to want to delve further into his extensive bibliography.

Stories and essays in this collection
(Poems and very brief selections are not included in the list below)
Death and the Compass

The South 

The Dead Man

Funes, the Memorious 

A New Refutation of Time 

The Circular Ruins 

Inferno I, 32 

Parable of the Palace 

The Wall and the Books 

The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald 

Averroë's Search 

The Maker 

Everything and Nothing 

From Someone to No One 

Forms of a Legend 

The Zahir 

The Aleph

Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz 

The End

Story of the Warrior and the Captive 

The Modesty of History

The Secret Miracle 

Editor’s Epilogue

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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Meandering history of the Los Angeles Public Library
In 1986, the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library almost burnt to the ground. The largest library fire in American history destroyed or damaged over a million books. Local authorities ruled the cause of the fire as arson, but no one was ever convicted of the crime. Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, learned about the fire after moving to Los Angeles in 2011. She decided to do some research into this tragic event, and the result is The Library Book, published in 2018. The marketing copy for this book leads one to believe this is a true-crime book focusing on the fire and the investigation that followed, as well as some institutional history into how the library recovered from the damage. It is all that, and more. Orlean casts a very wide net that encompasses the entire history of the Los Angeles Public Library while veering off into several tenuous digressions.

Throughout the book Orlean asserts the importance of libraries to their community, not just in L.A. but throughout the United States. Orlean is obviously a lover of libraries and a strong advocate for them. I am also a library enthusiast, have a library science degree, and often read books on the history and present state of libraries. Even though I would consider myself the target audience for this book, I still found it rather boring and underwhelming. The most interesting portions of the book cover the L.A. library’s early history and the quirky characters who directed the institution through the early twentieth century. Orlean’s accounts of her recent visits to the library are laden with praise and amazement but offer few surprises. She writes about libraries as if she’s writing for someone who’s never set foot in one. There is much stating of the obvious here, though to Orlean’s credit, her book provides a more insightful overview of what librarians actually do than Marilyn Johnson’s frivolous exposition of the profession, This Book Is Overdue!

Another problem with the book is that in addition to the history and the investigative journalism, Orlean feels the need to make this a memoir, so one gets to hear a lot about her personal thoughts and feelings on libraries, which aren’t necessarily any more valid or articulate than the reader’s own. In one such first-person chapter Orlean wants to know how it feels to burn a book, as if that would put her inside the mind of an arsonist. Instead, it just feels like pointless self-indulgence or a means of padding the page count. A chapter on the worldwide history of book burning is more interesting, but it still feels like a stretch to equate political book burning with pyromaniacal arson. In regard to the arson itself, Orlean provides a mini-biography of the prime suspect, whom she oddly tries to make into some sort of tragic hero. Harry Peak was never convicted of the arson, and the evidence against him was circumstantial, so the true-crime narrative feels disappointingly inconclusive. If Peak did commit the crime, then Orlean treats him far too sympathetically. If he didn’t commit the crime, then the in-depth attention paid to him seems rather unnecessary.

If you live in Los Angeles and feel a connection to your Public Library, then by all means read this book. You will likely enjoy it very much. Those who live elsewhere, however, no matter how much you love books and libraries, won’t necessarily feel a connection to Orlean’s meandering love letter to L.A.’s central branch. Library professionals, who would usually love a book like this, may find Orlean’s coverage of the field too elementary to educate and too bland to entertain.

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Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Defies belief, but still fun
English author E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) was a writer of immensely popular thrillers in the early 20th century. His novel The Great Impersonation, likely his best-known work, was published in 1920 and sold more than a million copies that year. It also spawned three film adaptations.

The novel tells a story of international intrigue involving German spies in London just prior to the outbreak of World War I. The narrative begins, however, in Africa. Two former college friends meet at a camp in German East Africa. Leopold von Ragastein is a German baron and the military commandant of the colony. Everard Dominey is a down-on-his-luck English baronet, drifting around Africa in an alcoholic stupor after his plans for acquiring a fortune have fallen apart. Back when the pair were studying at Oxford, their friends always said they could be mistaken for twins. Von Ragastein sees an opportunity in taking advantage of their similarity of appearance. He decides to kill Dominey, assume his name, and take his place in English society, thus providing himself with a cover to spy for the Germans.

Despite the fact that the false Dominey is an imposter, he is the protagonist of the book and thus the character with whom the reader sympathizes most. At first von Ragastein’s mission for the Germans is unclear, even to himself. He gets mixed messages from his German “handlers” in London. He may be there to act as an active saboteur in case the two nations go to war, or he may be there to function as a propagandist urging for peace and economic cooperation. Both Dominey and von Ragastein have skeletons in their closet, and the imposter ends up having to deal with both of their mysterious pasts. Despite all the talk about war and espionage, the main focus of the novel for most of is length is romance. The primary conflict is not whether von Ragastein will do harm to England but rather whether his undercover work will require him to have sexual relations with Dominey’s wife, which would be ungentlemanly, even for a German spy. The espionage plot isn’t really clarified until the final four chapters, which cap the novel with an exciting finish.

Admittedly, the general premise of the plot is rather ridiculous. The idea that two unrelated men could look enough like one another to fool even one of their wives is hard to believe, as is the fact that von Ragastein could learn enough about Dominey’s affairs in London over the course of a few conversations to be able to pass for him without slipping up. This book was published in the 1920s, however, when such plot devices were common in movies and spy novels. Suspension of disbelief is forgivable as long as the author keeps us entertained, and Oppenheim does, with ample twists, turns, and close calls. Out of Oppenheim’s 100+ works, why is this his most popular? Its renown likely rests largely on one audacious climactic plot twist. I could see it coming, however, based on foreshadowing hints that Oppenheim provides earlier in the book.

This is only the second book I’ve read by Oppenheim, both of which I have enjoyed. The first was The Avenger, published in 1907, which I actually prefer over The Great Impersonation. In both cases, Oppenheim crafts intricate and suspenseful plots with an interesting ensemble cast of characters. His novels resemble cinematic thrillers from the early days of Alfred Hitchcock. They may be too farfetched for verisimilitude, but they do make for a fun ride.

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Monday, January 4, 2021

Clarence Gagnon: The Maria Chapdelaine Illustrations by Ian M. Thom

A suite of masterpieces, complete and in sequence
According to Canadian art historian and curator Ian M. Thom, the 1933 edition of Maria Chapdelaine is “arguably the most famous illustrated book by a Canadian artist.” The novel by French writer Louis Hémon, based upon his travels in Canada, was originally published in 1913. Since 1933, however, the memory of Hémon’s picturesque narrative of rural Québécois life has been inextricably linked with a series of 54 illustrations by Montreal artist Clarence Gagnon. The 1933 edition of Maria Chapdelaine was published by Éditions Mornay in Paris, where Gagnon was living at the time, but Gagnon’s original paintings eventually ended up in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection outside of Toronto. The text of Maria Chapdelaine is in the public domain and can be downloaded in French or English from Project Gutenberg. Illustrated copies with the complete set of Gagnon illustrations, however, are difficult to come by. That’s why the 2020 book Clarence Gagnon: The Maria Chapdelaine Illustrations, published by the McMichael Collection, is such a welcome volume for lovers of Gagnon’s work.

This new book does not include the complete text of the novel, but it does reproduce all 54 of Gagnon’s illustrations in narrative order, accompanied by the passages of text they are meant to illustrate. When coupled with the public domain text, this beautifully illustrated volume gives today’s reader an idea of what the 1933 Paris edition was like. The wonderful thing about Gagnon’s Chapdelaine illustrations, however, is that almost none of them literally depict the characters and events of the novel. Instead, Gagnon has created a series of paintings that depict the landscape, lifestyle, and change of seasons in rural Québec. These images of farm, forest, and small-town life are not married to the text but can be appreciated for their own sake as documents of Canadian cultural heritage, which is why they are so highly regarded as works of art in and of themselves.

Though Gagnon was not involved in the school of modern Canadian painters known as the Group of Seven, his color sense does evoke the vivid palette characteristic of their work. His pictorial style, however, is less impressionistic and more graphic than the majority of the Group of Seven’s landscapes. Gagnon’s work somewhat resembles the small-town scenes of A. J. Casson, but more prominently shows the influence of earlier Montreal artists Maurice Cullen and James Wilson Morrice. Gagnon’s paintings for Maria Chapdelaine are surprisingly small considering the level of detail he includes in each illustration. Most of the original works are only roughly eight inches wide, meaning that in the McMicheal’s book they are reproduced at approximately 80 percent of their actual size. As one would expect from one of the leading art museums in Canada, the reproduction quality of the printed images is excellent.

This book’s only fault is that it is very light on text. A very brief essay by art historian Ian M. Thom gives only the barest outline of Gagnon’s career and background on the Maria Chapdelaine project. The most comprehensive retrospective study of Gagnon is the beautiful 2006 coffee-table tome Clarence Gagnon: Dreaming the Landscape by Hélène Sicotte and Michèle Grandbois. Even that impressive publication, however, does not have the complete Chapdelaine paintings. Compared to Sicotte and Grandbois’s book, The Maria Chapdelaine Illustrations is also a much less rare and expensive volume, making this an easy and affordable way to get your hands on a superb collection of Gagnon’s art.
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Illustrations by Clarence Gagnon from Maria Chapdelaine, 1933 edition

Leaving Church

Village Life


Friday, January 1, 2021

Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen by H. Beam Piper

Military history of an alternate universe
H. Beam Piper’s science fiction novel Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen is the final installment in his Paratime series. The novel, published in 1965, is actually an amalgamation of two novellas, Gunpowder God and Down Styphon!, that were previously published in the pages of Analog Science Fiction magazine. In the Paratime series, an advanced human civilization has discovered that multiple universes exist, each with its own unique timeline that varies from the history of our Earth. A law enforcement agency, the Paratime Police, is charged with keeping this discovery a secret and stopping those who criminally use paratemporal travel for their own personal gain.

When paratime travelers jump from one timeline to another, bystanders occasionally get caught in the time displacement field of the conveyor equipment. Calvin Morrison, an officer of the Pennsylvania State Police, is one such hapless victim of this phenomenon. Though he knows nothing about paratime, he is accidentally pulled from our Earth and transported to an alternate world. The Pennsylvania landscape is still recognizable, but the civilization that resides there is very different. Morrison finds himself in an America with a European feudal society that has reached a level of technology roughly equivalent to our Earth’s 17th century. Rather than lament his involuntary displacement, Officer Morrison decides to make lemons from lemonade. As a history buff, he has studied enough wars to enable him to introduce military technologies that the inhabitants of this world have never seen. For example, one religious cult has maintained a monopoly on the manufacture of gunpowder, attributing its powers to magic. Morrison, however, knows the basic underlying chemistry of gunpowder and is able to impart that knowledge to his allies. In reward for his military prowess and scientific contributions, Calvin is dubbed Lord Kalvan of the kingdom of Hostigos and assumes command of that nation’s armed forces.

Given the alternate universe angle, this is technically science fiction, but it reads more like military history. Piper obviously revels in the minutiae of troop movements within the fictional world he has created. The resulting novel is like sitting beside a weapons enthusiast as he plays a solitary wargame you only partially understand. Personally, I didn’t really care much when Hostigos deployed 500 cavalry and 1500 infantry with four eight-pounders of artillery to outflank their enemies. Those sorts of details are what make up the bulk of the text in this novel. Readers who are interested in that degree of specificity in military matters will feel right at home in Piper’s personal military fantasy camp.

The science fiction, fan, however, will likely be more interested in what Piper has to say about Paratime. As always, Paratime Police officer Verkan Vall is on the case. This novel’s opening chapters and epilogue go into much fascinating detail about the mechanics of Piper’s Paratime multiverse. For that reason, this is a valuable book in the Paratime series, but such passages only occupy a small portion of what is mostly a military narrative.

After Piper’s death, a few science fiction writers published a Kalvan series of half a dozen novels set in this alternate history. Though I haven’t read any of those non-Piper works, Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen hardly seems to merit such treatment. This is a fine science fiction novel, but not one of Piper’s best works. I prefer other Paratime adventures that focus more on Verkan Vall, such as Police Operation, Last Enemy, or Time Crime.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Best of 2020

Top ten reads of the year
This time each year Old Books by Dead Guys highlights the best books reviewed at this blog over the past twelve months, regardless of when they were published. One would expect that COVID distancing would have allowed more time for reading, but in reality splendid isolation did not yield an increase in books logged. In a typical year, about a quarter of the books I review are audio books, but working at home has cut my commute time down to nothing, so I didn’t get to spend an hour and a half listening to literature five days a week. Old Books by Dead Guys posted 114 reviews this year, about the same as in the past few years. The top ten selections are listed below, arranged chronologically by date of publication. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.


Views of Nature by Alexander von Humboldt (1808)
This scientific travel memoir by Prussian explorer Humboldt is the prototype for what we now call “nature writing.” The romantic, literary narrative conveys the sights and sounds of exotic destinations, while extensive notes deliver loads of empirical data from his scientific observations. Humboldt compares similar biomes from different parts of the world in an attempt to draw universal ecological laws. His staggering breadth of knowledge makes this a fascinating read for anyone interested in natural history.

Pictures of the Socialistic Future by Eugene Richter (1891)
Written by a member of the German parliament, this novel is an anti-Communist political statement masquerading as a socialist utopia. A revolution installs a socialist government in Berlin. At first all is happiness and cheers for the nation’s bright future and the brotherhood of man, but soon the new regime begins to show signs of ineptness, corruption, and totalitarianism. In addition to the political commentary and satire, Richter delivers a moving story about one family’s struggles under this new world order.

French author Rolland, winner of the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote a series of ten novels charting the life of Jean-Christophe Krafft, a German musical prodigy born to humble beginnings but destined for great things. In English translation, these ten novels are divided into three volumes, the first of which details Jean-Christophe’s childhood and adolescence.

Kallocain by Karin Boye (1940)
This science fiction novel by Swedish poet and author Boye is the fictional memoir of Leo Kall, a scientist living in a dystopian future, who develops an effective truth serum that aids his society’s tyrannical government in crushing dissent and destroying individuality. Published almost a decade before George Orwell’s 1984, Kallocain is a poignant and prophetic warning cry against totalitarian dictatorships and the military-industrial complex. 

One Clear Call by Upton Sinclair (1948)
The ninth volume in Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series follows the American art expert/secret agent through the events of 1943 and 1944. Pretending to be a Nazi sympathizer, Lanny gleans intelligence from Hitler and Göring and performs a behind-the-scenes role in preparations for the Normandy landing. Sinclair’s monumental series provides a unique and detailed perspective on the history of the World Wars.

A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (1949)
Half of this book is a beautiful work of nature writing describing the natural history of Leopold’s own private corner of southeastern Wisconsin, reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The other half is a series of important essays on wilderness conservation and wildlife management, Leopold’s areas of expertise. This book is one of America’s foundational texts on ecology and environmentalism, but it’s also an enjoyable and accessible read for nature lovers of all reading levels.

This landmark study is a treasure trove of knowledge on the science of seeing. By synthesizing the research of many psychologists, Arnheim explains how the human eye and brain perceive line, shape, form, space, light, color, and movement, and how artists use such visual phenomena in the creation of art. This is a fundamental textbook for artists and an eye-opening read for art lovers. 

For this greatest hits album, the librarians, curators, and scientists at the American Museum of Natural History selected twenty of their favorite books in the institution’s collection. Each historic volume is represented by selected illustrations and a brief historical essay. The result is a grand and gorgeous tour of the history of natural history from 1551 to the 1920s, including such artists as John James Audubon, Robert Hooke, and Ernst Haeckel. 

Before science fiction was called science fiction, it was called scientific romance. Its undisputed giants were H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, but this volume covers authors farther afield, both the famous and the forgotten. The collection includes 27 short stories by American, British, and French authors from the 1830s to World War I. Not only has editor Stableford selected fine stories, he also provides valuable historical context on the genre.

Diego Rivera: The Complete Murals by Luis-Martín Lozano and Juan Rafael Coronel Rivera (2019)
This giant 10" x 15" tome is the most comprehensive and authoritative compendium of the murals of Mexican artist Diego Rivera, the modern master of fresco painting. Each mural is documented in detail with numerous large and beautiful photographs, including many fold-outs, accompanied by explanatory diagrams and knowledgeable essays. Rivera’s work has never looked better in print!

Also this year, Old Books by Dead Guys celebrated its 1000th Post! (10 Feb 2020) by taking a detailed look at what’s been covered over the previous eight years.

And the list of reviews by Nobel Prize-winning authors continues to grow:
Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates (a continually updated list)


See also my best-of lists for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. Happy reading in 2021!

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip by Michael Barclay

Downie-centric Hipology, with digressions
The Tragically Hip is arguably Canada’s greatest rock band. They were immensely successful in their homeland for over three decades, though they never reached a high level of renown in the United States. (Though an American, I’m a big fan.) When lead singer Gordon Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2015, the band decided to stage one final tour, which culminated in a farewell concert that became a national event. In his 2018 book The Never-Ending Present, Canadian rock journalist Michael Barclay chronicles the career of The Hip from the band’s inception to Downie’s death and investigates their cultural impact on Canada.

For most of the book’s length, the even-numbered chapters constitute the biographical narrative by detailing the making of an album or two, the accompanying tour(s), and what was going on in the lives of the band members during that time period. The odd-numbered chapters focus on thematic topics and delve into the sort of minutiae that’s usually reserved for Dylanologists’ books on Bob Dylan. Such topics include why The Hip never made it big in America (or did they?), The Hip and hockey, Downie and poetry, Downie and dance. Barclay even includes extensive chapters in which The Hip are barely mentioned, such as a history of Canadian record companies or a lengthy survey of other celebrities who were diagnosed with terminal illnesses. When discussing Downie’s project Secret Path, Barclay recounts the history of First Nations residential schools and the Canadian government’s treatment of the Indigenous population. While these topics are interesting and somewhat pertinent to the band, Barclay frequently digresses to excessive lengths, going into a deeper level of trivial detail than necessary for most fans.

Early on, Barclay states that the band members of The Tragically Hip are notoriously guarded about their private lives, and it certainly shows here. Barclay interviewed Downie three times and Gord Sinclair once, but that was back in the early 2000s. He did not interview the band specifically for this book, so most quotes by them are pulled from previous published articles. Barclay did, however, interview just about anyone who ever worked with The Hip, including managers, record producers, musician friends, and opening acts. The result is that you get a lot of information and opinions about The Hip, but it feels like you’re always on the outside looking in. By comparison, much is known about the personal dynamics between The Rolling Stones, but the reader of Barclay’s book gets little insight into the personalities of the band members (other than Downie) and how they relate to one another.

Musicians Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, Paul Langlois, and Johnny Fay are not given anywhere near the same consideration as their lead singer. Although in part this is understandably due to Downie’s cancer diagnosis, overall it feels disappointingly unfair. Barclay makes The Hip seem like Downie’s back-up band in much the same way that Martin Scorsese made The Band look like Robbie Robertson’s subordinates in The Last Waltz. Downie’s solo albums are examined with the same thoroughness as Hip recordings, while Baker’s excellent side project Stripper’s Union and Langlois’s fine solo albums are only mentioned in two paragraphs. As a reader who loves the music as much as the voice, I would have liked to learn more about the other four guys.

While reading The Never-Ending Present, I often found myself wishing that Barclay had done things differently. But is there a better book out there on The Hip? Probably not. If nothing else, Barclay’s book will probably stand for years to come as the definitive printed record of the farewell events of 2016, though the tour documentary Long Time Running covers much of the same ground.
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