Monday, August 20, 2018

A People’s History of the French Revolution by Eric Hazan

Comprehensive and fascinating, but general readers should proceed with caution
The French Revolution is one of the most fascinating series of events in world history, but it also may be one of the most difficult to grasp in its entirety. Eric Hazan’s A People’s History of the French Revolution provides a detailed and comprehensive guide to the complicated twists and turns in this monumental and convoluted period of political and social upheaval. Originally published in French in 2012 (without the “People’s” in the title), Hazan’s book provides a thorough overview of this complex period. Covering the state of France under Louis XVI at the outbreak of the conflict to the execution of Robespierre in July 1794, this Revolutionary history proved rich in penetrating insight and fascinating detail.

That said, this is no introductory text and does require a fair amount of prior knowledge to fully appreciate and understand. As someone whose education in French history comes primarily from literature, I will admit that at times I was in over my head. Hazan’s purpose in this book is not merely to explain the Revolution, but also to comment upon the accounts of scholars who have preceded him, most repeatedly Jean Jaurès and Albert Mathiez. One need not have read these prior histories to benefit from Hazan’s take on the subject. The reader must, however, have a firm grasp of French geography and more than a general knowledge of the nation’s history. Hazan has clearly written the book for a French audience who have been thoroughly schooled upon the events in question. Throughout the text, he refers to all historical personages by surname only, which seems fine for household names like Danton and Marat, but this rule is applied to even the most minor of characters. Hazan also expects the reader to possess not just a working familiarity with the Republican calendar but almost an intimate knowledge of it. I certainly don’t fault Hazan for my own ignorance, and I admire his encyclopedic knowledge of the topic. I merely offer these caveats to give other general readers an idea of the task at hand.

I’m not sure what qualifies this as a “People’s History,” in the Howard Zinn sense of the phrase, other than Hazan approaches the topic from a perspective favorable to the left. As promised in the marketing copy, he does occasionally highlight the role that peasants, women, and the sans-culottes (lower-class republicans) played in the Revolution, as well as its effect on people of color in France’s colonies in Africa and the Caribbean. For much of the book, however, the main characters are the same deputies, statesmen, and government functionaries who feature largely in mainstream historical textbooks. At times the second half of the book reads like a biography of Robespierre, which perhaps can’t be helped, given the course of history. One thing’s for sure, the royals definitely play a small role in the book. The executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are each dispatched in a single sentence. Blink and you’ll miss them.

Hazan is clearly sympathetic to the liberal promise of “liberté, égalité, and fraternité,” but he is quick to point out when actual events failed to live up to such high ideals. This results in a relatively even-handed mix of admiration for Revolutionary ideals and disgruntlement at lost opportunities. The Revolution remains a compelling subject because so many of the issues at stake are still relevant to this day. A People’s History of the French Revolution greatly broadened my understanding of this fascinating period in history and proved an eye-opening and intellectually stimulating read.
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Friday, August 17, 2018

The Alaskan by James Oliver Curwood

Hyperromantic Northwestern shoot-’em-up
I recently traveled to Alaska and wanted to read some classic literature related to the region. Having read everything by Jack London, I turned to the next best thing, Michigan author James Oliver Curwood. Like London, Curwood wrote many novels of the Klondike Gold Rush, several of them with canine protagonists, and other “Northwesterns”—essentially Westerns set in Alaska and the Yukon. His novel The Alaskan was published in 1923.

As the novel opens, a steamer is heading north from Seattle through the Inside Passage on its way to Nome. On board is Alan Holt, a laconic, rather reclusive reindeer rancher who is returning home to his grazing lands after a long sojourn in the lower 48. Though a white man, Holt is a native Alaskan, meaning he was born in the territory. Also on board is Mary Standish, a beautiful young woman, obviously new to the region, who is traveling alone. The reason for her journey to Alaska is unknown to Holt and to the reader. When the two meet, Mary asks Alan to act as her escort and educate her about Alaska. Neither has any intention of romantic involvement with the other, but how long do you think that’s going to last? Shortly after meeting Mary, Alan notices another passenger on the ship, a shifty character of bad reputation named Rossland. From their behavior, it appears that Mary and Rossland have met before, and Alan wonders what connection these two have shared in the past.

To Curwood, Holt qualifies as a hero because he’s an independent self-made man who has wrestled a fortune from the land through resource extraction. (How does a white man come to own a herd of 10,000 reindeer?) On the other hand, the novel’s villain, John Graham, represents corporate interests who take resource extraction too far, raping the land of its bounty and beauty. Alan respects the Natives and they love him like a father figure. As Curwood depicts it, however, Alan’s role in this relationship comes across suspiciously like that of a benevolent slave holder. Curwood argues that Alaska requires American capital so that more men like Alan can develop its resources, while he naively ignores the rights of the Natives and fails to foresee the inevitability of more John Grahams.

Though chronologically later than London’s tales of the North, Curwood’s novel reads as more old-fashioned, more genteel, more romantic—a sort of “London lite,” if you will. Curwood’s writing more closely resembles British-Canadian author Harold Bindloss’s novels of manners set in British Columbia and Alberta. The Alaskan positively drips with Victorian-era chivalry. If the book were written a couple decades later, Alan and Mary would bicker for a while before they found love, but here there’s nothing to argue about because they are both flawless specimens of their type: he the knight in shining armor and she the damsel in distress. The romance between the two is expressed in the most idealistic of terms, and the slow-moving narrative is really too concerned with each and every interior emotion at the expense of action.

It takes about 20 chapters just to figure out Mary’s back story, but once the plot gets down to business it turns into a surprisingly gritty shoot-’em-up. Curwood may be prudish about sexuality, but he’s not prudish about brutality. Rape is a threat constantly hinted at throughout the book, and when the good guys and bad guys clash it makes for a no-holds-barred battle. While much of the novel is predictable, it does not end the way one would expect, which is to its credit. If the whole book were as good as its last four or five chapters, it might have been a great adventure classic. As it stands, however, it’s just pretty good.
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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

No Life of Their Own and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Five

A few weak entries, but excellent overall
No Life of Their Own and Other Stories, published in 2016, is the fifth volume in the projected 14-volume The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series from Open Road Media. This is the tenth book I’ve read in the series so far (I’m not reading them in order, since order doesn’t really matter), and Volume Five is neither the best nor the worst of those ten. Like every volume in this consistently outstanding series, this collection of stories and novellas is well worth the cover price and your reading time. Even so, the title cut, “No Life of Their Own,” is surprisingly disappointing. Set in a future world in which Earth is home to extraterrestrial immigrants, a farming community serves as a metaphor for the multiethnic American frontier. Though an interesting premise, the story is a bit goofy (perhaps intentionally) and veers too far away from science fiction into the realm of fantasy.

Simak’s first writings from the 1930s and early ‘40s tend to be somewhat formulaic and sensationalist compared to his later, more mature work. Often such stories begin as future tales of solar system colonization and mining and end up with a monster attack or laser-gun battle. “The Space-Beasts” from 1940, included here, is one example. Another, 1939’s “Message from Mars,” feels like a half-baked preliminary sketch of Simak’s 1965 novel All Flesh Is Grass. Though these early works usually stick to the conventions of pulp fiction adventure storytelling, they often contain inklings of great ideas. “The Loot of Time,” for instance, is an ingenious time travel tale that’s very entertaining, and its hokey pulpiness only contributes to the fun. In addition to the science fiction for which Simak is known, this volume, like others in the series, contains one western, “Cactus Colts,” which is pretty good, and also a World War II combat story, “A Hero Must Not Die,” easily the volume’s worst selection.

Three stories included here really stand out as exceptional and are among Simak’s best. 1944’s “Huddling Place” is one of the stories that would eventually end up as part of his 1952 novel City. It is an integral chapter to that epic narrative of man, dogs, robots, and Martians, but also an ingenious short story in its own right. In “Party Line,” a team of humans on Earth communicates telepathically with other intelligent beings throughout the universe in an attempt to gather scientific and philosophical knowledge for the benefit of mankind. This near-perfect story is so chock full of brilliant ideas it could easily have been expanded into a great novel. Another excellent selection, “The Whistling Well,” is about a writer who is commissioned by an elderly relative to research his family’s history. To do so, he must visit the family’s ancestral homestead, which sits on a patch of land shrouded in mystery and creepy rumors. Excellently paced and very subtle and patient in its building of suspense, the story begins as another one of Simak’s moving tributes to rural life, but then morphs into a chilling horror tale.

The remaining selections, “Spaceship in a Flask,” “To Walk a City’s Street,” and “Contraption,” are all strong stories too, but each Simak collection presents such an embarrassment of riches it is impossible to adequately praise them all. Volume Five collects 12 stories, which is the most that’s ever been packed into one of these volumes. High quantity allows for great variety, but at times you wish the shorter stories could have been longer because they are just so good. Volume Five proves once again that you really can’t go wrong with buying any of the volumes in this series.

Stories in this collection
No Life of Their Own 
Spaceship in a Flask 
The Loot of Time
Huddling Place 
To Walk a City’s Street 
Cactus Colts 
Message from Mars 
Party Line 
A Hero Must Not Die 
The Space-Beasts 
The Whistling Well

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Book of Jack London, Volume 1 by Charmian Kittredge London

Tedious rehash of stories better told elsewhere
The Book of Jack London is a biography of the great American author and adventurer. Published in 1921, five years after his death, it was written by London’s widow Charmian Kittredge London. Not surprisingly, the book is a rather biased account of Jack’s life, prone to hero worship and often sugar-coating any unseemly details. To cite one example, Charmian passes Jack’s stepfather off as his biological father, thus concealing the sketchy details of his birth, which may or may not have been out of wedlock. Despite such inaccuracies, the book is packed with a sufficient amount of detail that just about every subsequent London biographer has used it as a primary source.

Charmian’s account of Jack’s life was lengthy enough to be published in two volumes, with Volume 1 ending around 1905. This results in much of the content of the first volume having taken place before Jack and Charmian met. Thus, much of what’s related in the first volume is second-hand information. In fact, those familiar with London’s work will recognize most of the anecdotes from his own published writings. Charmian lifts heavily from London’s autobiographical works, most notably from his memoir John Barleycorn, with bits and pieces of The Road, The People of the Abyss, and various nonfiction articles thrown in.

As one of the great practitioners of American literary naturalism, London often wrote his novels in a stark and almost brutal prose that evoked the harsh wilderness landscapes in which his stories took place. In some of his lesser known works, however, there were times when he felt the need to prove himself a poet and would indulge in overly romantic, flowery language. Unfortunately, Charmian’s writing falls squarely into the latter camp. Her pretentious, thesaurus-wringing prose is a constant annoyance throughout the book and renders previously exciting stories an ordeal to read. What you get for most of the book is a rehash of John Barleycorn, retold in this god-awfully verbose and convoluted syntax.

About two-thirds of the way through, even Charmian seems to realize that this has grown tiresome, so she starts to reprint Jack’s correspondence to two friends: Cloudesley Johns, a fellow struggling writer and lifelong penpal; and Anna Strunsky, a close friend and authoress with whom Jack collaborated upon the novel The Kempton-Wace Letters. Charmian reproduces these letters verbatim, with very little editing. While they shed a little light on Jack’s personality, most of their content deals with the submission of manuscripts and payments from publishers. This correspondence may provide some welcome detail for researchers, but feels out of place in a book devoted to London’s life story. If you wanted to read unedited letters, you could do so to your heart’s content in the three-volume The Letters of Jack London. Charmian also reproduces some of London’s personal notebooks of his tramping days, as well as some letters from his time covering the Russo-Japanese War. Though penned in choppy, abbreviated prose, they still yield some insight into his travels.

In the final few chapters of Volume 1, it begins to become clear that Jack and Charmian have become more than friends, though that’s not stated explicitly because he’s not yet divorced from his first wife. Hopefully Volume 2 will contain more first-hand information from Charmian’s perspective. As far as Volume 1 is concerned, diehard London fans will find little here that they weren’t already aware of. For those who just want a good biography of London, Earle Labor’s excellent 2013 book Jack London: An American Life is likely the best there is.

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Friday, August 10, 2018

Historical Novels of the Ancient World

“Epic” doesn’t always mean good
Historical novels are a favorite genre here at Old Books by Dead Guys, and ancient civilizations are also a preferred area of interest, but it is rare that the two come together to make a great book. Below is a recap of some novels of the ancient world that have been reviewed here at this blog, including books set in ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Carthage. Click on the titles below to read the full-length reviews. While there are a couple masterpieces included in this list, sometimes even great authors set out to craft an ancient epic and end up delivering a dud.  

Acté by Alexandre Dumas (1838) - 2.5 stars
This was the first historical novel by Dumas, who would go on to write dozens of them, if not hundreds. The story takes place around AD 54. Acté was a Corinthian woman who became the favored lover of Roman Emperor Nero. The romantic storyline, however, gets lost in a morass of non-fictional detail that chronicles Nero’s career and climaxes with his downfall. From the author of such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, this is a surprisingly dull affair, though it does feature a riveting chapter about a gladiatorial exhibition. Acté served as the inspiration for Quo Vadis (see below), a much better book.

Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert (1856) - 4 stars
After achieving fame and success with Madame Bovary, Flaubert did a literary 180 with this romantic epic set in ancient Carthage (in present-day Tunisia). During the First Punic War of the third century BC, Carthage hired many mercenaries to help them fight the Romans. Failing to pay those mercenaries, however, Carthage then suffered the revolt of its hired warriors. Salammb̂ô, the daughter of one of Carthage’s chief military commanders, becomes the object of desire for the leader of these mercenaries. The story takes a backseat to its opulent window dressing, as Flaubert loving describes the clothing, furniture, and decor of each scene as if he were writing a Carthaginian Sears catalog. To its benefit, the novel is also loaded with gore galore. Salammbô is a flawed novel, but a good read nonetheless.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace (1880) - 3 stars
According to some sources, this is the best-selling novel of the 19th century, but today’s readers will likely find this book inferior to its film adaptation of 1959. Judah Ben-Hur is the son of a wealthy aristocratic Jewish family in Jerusalem who, through misfortune and foul play, is condemned to a life of slavery. The lethargic pacing of the plot is far slower than the Charlton Heston movie, and the action scenes are comparatively anticlimactic. The story is a discordant mix of minute archaeological detail and supernatural mumbo jumbo, and author Wallace, a former Civil War general, too often settles for merely paraphrasing the New Testament. After much heavy-handed preaching, the book ultimately leaves the reader with mixed moral messages.

Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1895) - 4.5 stars
Inspired by Alexandre Dumas’s Act́é (see above), Quo Vadis (the title is Latin for “Whither goest thou?”) also depicts the reign of Emperor Nero, a ruler known for his insanity and brutality. Marcus Vinicius, a Roman patrician and military tribune in Nero’s court, falls in love with Lygia, the beautiful daughter of a foreign king. In the process of pursuing her, Vinicius discovers that she is a member of a new and mysterious religious sect, the Christians. Nobel laureate Sienkiewicz exquisitely captures the minute details of Roman life, whether he’s depicting an orgy, a gladiatorial battle, a crucifixion, or Nero’s burning of Rome. Though Sienkiewicz, a devout Catholic, implanted the novel with a strong religious message, the book is great reading for theist or atheist alike. As far as ancient epics published in the 19th century go, Quo Vadis may be the gold standard.

The Pharaoh and the Priest by Boleslaw Prus (1895) - 2.5 stars
Another ancient epic from Poland, published in the same year as Quo Vadis, but Prus has a much more realistic style than the hyper-romantic Sienkiewicz. The Pharaoh and the Priest is set in ancient Egypt in the year 1087 BC. Young Ramses XIII, heir to the throne of Egypt, has just reached the age to begin learning the intricacies of his nation’s administration. His father, Pharaoh Ramses XII, sends him on a mission to investigate the cause of Egypt’s declining revenue, diminishing population, and loss of arable land. Young Ramses learns that the priestly bureaucracy is undermining the Pharaoh’s authority for its own financial and political gain. What follows is a lesson in ancient Egyptian government that suffers from slow pacing and tedious detail. Prus wrote better novels set in his native Poland, including The Returning Wave (1880).

Creation by Gore Vidal (1981) - 5 stars
This is one of my all-time favorite novels. Set in the 5th century BC, Creation chronicles the adventures of Cyrus Spitama, a Persian ambassador who travels the known world rubbing elbows and matching wits with historical figures like Socrates, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Confucius, Themistocles, Pericles, and several rulers of ancient kingdoms in present-day India and China. All the while Cyrus engages in his own personal philosophical quest for the meaning of life. Rarely will you find a work that’s both as entertaining and as intellectually stimulating as Creation. Vidal also wrote a very good novel set in ancient Rome, Julian (1964), about the emperor of the same name, but I haven’t read it in many years and have not reviewed it.

Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011) - 3.5 stars
This isn’t so much a historical as a mythological novel. One of the characters, for example, is a centaur, and it occasionally goes into full-on Clash of the Titans mode. Mostly the story focuses on a homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, his dear friend from the Iliad. The latter serves as the novel’s narrator. Miller freshens the ancient Greek tales for a modern audience by making the mythical heroes less idealized, adding psychological depth to the characters, and staging scenes that vividly recreate life in the ancient world. I found the supernatural content rather annoying and wasn’t crazy about the way the story of the Trojan War is overpowered by the romance, but the book improves greatly in its second half when the Greeks finally sail for Troy. While this novel is no substitute for the Iliad, it is an admirable supplement to it.

What about the Aztecs, Inca, and Maya?
I wish I could include some great novels about the ancient Americas, but unfortunately I haven’t found one. I gave a mediocre review to Leonide Martin’s book The Visionary Maya Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque (2013) and a bad review to Graham Hancock’s novel of the ancient Mexica (a.k.a. the Aztecs), War God: Nights of the Witch (2013). Both are the first books in series I chose not to follow. The history of these great empires isn’t interesting enough, apparently, because the authors felt the need to resort to supernatural embellishment. Eduardo Galleano’s Genesis (1982) is a much better book, but it only touches on ancient myths before focusing on the Western colonization of the Americas. I’m still looking for a good epic of ancient Mexico or Mesoamerica that takes place before the arrival of the Europeans.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Mad Scientist Megapack, edited by John Gregory Betancourt

One big bad apple spoils the bunch
The Mad Scientist Megapack, published in 2014, is one of many inexpensive ebook fiction collections compiled by Wildside Press. Like many of the books in Wildside’s Megapack series, this one is a mixed bag of classic literature, vintage pulp fiction, and more recent contributions from contemporary science fiction writers. The Megapacks often mix short stories and novellas with full-length novels, a strategy which doesn’t always pay off. This volume, for example, consists of a single novel that takes up a whopping 35% of the ebook file, followed by 22 pieces of short fiction. If you’re going to devote so much space to one work, the novel in question better be a pretty good one, but unfortunately David V. Reed’s Myshkin is not. This 1953 book is about an inventor who creates a device strikingly similar to today’s 3D printers, but then uses it for unethical purposes, the results of which ultimately come back to haunt him. While the premise is interesting, the book is a tedious and nonsensical string of poorly written dialogue and bad jokes, and I greatly regret the time I spent reading it. By contrast, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a classic mad scientist tale well worth reading, is the second-longest selection in the book but still less than a third the length of the interminable Myshkin.

These megapacks are so cheap there’s hardly any point asking whether they’re worth the money, but is this one worth your time? For most of the stories here, the answer is probably no. This is not one of Wildside’s better compilations. About a third of the selections, however, are good enough to make this collection worth checking out. “Food for Thought” by Jack Dolphin, for example, is an excellent story told in the form of transcripts from an inquiry investigating the disappearance of an oceanological expedition. It delivers great sci-fi suspense that calls to mind the ‘80s horror movie The Thing. Matthew Johnson’s “Public Safety” is a delighfully innovative murder mystery that takes place in New Orleans. This New Orleans, however, exists in an alternate world where the French Revolutionary government of 1793 never ended and apparently the U.S. never bought the Louisiana Purchase. What a fascinating concept and a pleasant surprise!

Of the older authors, H.P. Lovecraft’s novella “Herbert West—Reanimator” is a great horror story that really pushes the boundaries of creepiness for 1922. Hugh B. Cave’s “The Corpse on the Grating” is another fine horror tale similar in style and subject matter to Lovecraft’s entry. Clark Ashton Smith also delivers a diabolical yarn, “Devotee of Evil,” about a mysterious modern-day alchemist attempting to distill the pure essence of evil. 
In Edmond Hamilton’s “The Man Who Evolved,” a mad doctor discovers how to accelarate human evolution. Meanwhile, on the kitschy side, “Dr. Varsag’s Experiment” by Craig Ellis is exactly the kind of enjoyably dumb, corny weirdness one might expect to encounter in a volume of this title.

Another selection worth mentioning is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1843 story “The Birthmark,” but despite the author’s reputation it’s a pretty mediocre and predictable affair. All in all, there’s a fair amount of drivel in this anthology, but if you like pulpy sci-fi the selections mentioned above are sure to satisfy. As for the rest, you might be thinking, well, as long as I’ve bought the thing I might as well read it all. While that’s an admirable attitude, for god’s sake skip Myshkin.

Stories in this collection
(Some novel-length works have been reviewed individually. Click on titles below.)

Myshkin by David V. Reed

A Light That Shamed the Sun by C.J. Henderson 

Incomplete Data by H.B. Fyfe

The Corpse on the Grating by Hugh B. Cave 

The Cosmic Teletype by Carl Jacobi 

Monster Kidnaps Girl at Mad Scientist’s Command by Lawrence Wyatt-Evans 
Great Minds by Edward M. Lerner 
The Man Who Evolved by Edmond Hamilton 
No Guts, No Glory by Edward M. Lerner 
The Devotee of Evil by Clark Ashton Smith 
Song of Death by Ed Earl Repp 
Status: Complete by Leslie J. Furlong 
Food for Thought by Jack Dolphin 
Dr. Varsag’s Experiment by Craig Ellis 
Public Safety by Matthew Johnson 
The World in a Box by Carl Jacobi 
Machine Record by Theodore Cogswell
The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne 
Herbert West—Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft
Zapt’s Repulsive Paste by J.U. Giesy 
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Man Who Stopped the Earth by Henry J. Kostkos 
Sympathy for Mad Scientists by John Gregory Betancourt
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