Sunday, November 11, 2018

Celebrating Polish Literature

. . . and a century of independence!
November 11, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Celebrated in many nations as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, and in the United States as Veteran’s Day, November 11 is known as National Independence Day in Poland, where the end of the Great War meant the end of foreign occupation and the birth of Poland as a modern nation. At the time of the war, Poland had literally been wiped off the map for more than a century, its territory divided among Russia, Prussia, and Austria. When those conquering nations were defeated in the First World War, the Second Polish Republic was formed, and Poland was once again an independent nation. 

In honor of the occasion, Old Books by Dead Guys takes this opportunity to recognize the underrated literature of Poland. Though by no means an expert on the subject, OBDG does have an interest in Polish literature and has reviewed 28 books by Polish authors, with hopefully more to come in the future. Below is an annotated list of these prior Polish posts. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews. I believe with the exception of the last title on this list, all of these books are in the public domain and therefore available for free download from sources like Amazon, Project Gutenberg, and HathiTrust.


Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855)
Widely regarded as Poland’s all-time greatest poet, Mickiewicz wrote the Polish national epic Pan Tadeusz, the last great epic poem in European literature (though in English translation you are more likely to find it in prose form).

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916)
Winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature. Sienkiewicz, one of the most Romantic of Romanticists, is best known for grand historical epics of Polish History (the With Fire and Sword trilogy) and ancient Rome (Quo Vadis), though he also wrote novels about modern Poland (In Vain).

Boleslaw Prus (1847-1912)
Probably the least-known name on this list to English-language audiences, though highly respected in his home country. In contrast to Sienkiewicz, Prus was a realist who mostly wrote about contemporary Poland, except for The Pharaoh and the Priest, which is set in ancient Egypt.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
Born Józef Theodor Konrad Korzeniowski in the Polish Ukraine. Emigrated to Britain and wrote in English. Considered to be one of the greatest writers in English literature (though to be honest, I’m not a big fan.)

Wladyslaw Reymont (1867-1925)
Winner of the 1924 Nobel Prize in Literature. A naturalist in the vein of Emile Zola, Reymont’s four-volume novel The Peasants (Polish title: Chlopi) is one of the greatest works in Polish literature.

Fiction Collections
  • Stories by Foreign Authors: Polish, Greek, Belgian, Hungarian (1898) - 4 stars
    Includes “The Lighthouse Keeper of Aspinwall” by Sienkiewicz, plus four more stories by authors of other nations.
  • Tales by Polish Authors, edited by Else C. M. Benecke (1915) - 4 stars
    Includes selections by Sienkiewicz, Adam Szymanski, Stefan Zeromski, and Waclaw Sieroszewski.
  • More Tales by Polish Authors, edited by Else C. M. Benecke and Marie Busch (1916) - 4 stars
    Includes selections by Prus, Reymont, Adam Szymanski, Stefan Zeromski, and Waclaw Sieroszewski.
  • Selected Polish Tales, edited by Else C.M. Benecke (1921) - 2.5 stars
    Includes selections by Prus, Reymont, Adam Szymanski, Stefan Zeromski, Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski, and Madame Rygier-Nalkowska.

  • Poland: A Study of the Land, Literature, and People by Georg Brandes (1903) - 4.5 stars
    In this book—part travelogue, part investigative journalism, part political commentary, part literary critique—Danish literary critic Brandes chronicles four trips he made to Poland and provides an insightful portrait of life under Russian occupation.
  • The Essential Guide to Being Polish: 50 Facts & Facets of Nationhood by Anna Spysz and Marta Turek - 4 stars
    Two Polish-American journalists created this guide to all things Polish, covering both the history of the country and the state of the nation in the present day. This guide presents a wealth of information on a variety of subjects, including politics, religion, art, customs, famous Poles, and the Polish diaspora throughout the world.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Our Children’s Children by Clifford D. Simak

Unexpected guests from the future
Clifford D. Simak gets down to business very quickly in his science fiction novel Our Children’s Children. On page one, an interdimensional doorway opens up on a suburban lawn, and out walks a stream of people who claim to be refugees from the future. In their time, five centuries ahead of our own, a highly intelligent and incredibly lethal alien species has attacked Earth. Unable to defeat the extraterrestrial invaders, the human race opts to prevent the extinction of humanity by fleeing into the past. The constant stream of refugees pouring forth from “time tunnels” around the world may eventually add up to as many as two billion people, placing a heavy burden on the present-day population. Though these uninvited visitors are our distant descendants, do we have the means or the wherewithal to help them? And given the threat they faced in the future, perhaps human beings won’t be the only unexpected guests traveling through those time tunnels.

Simak usually sets his science fiction stories in rural Wisconsin or Minnesota, but in this novel the main plot line takes place in Virginia, so that the author can have easy access to Washington, DC. The phenomenon is not localized, however, as the time tunnels have opened in various nations, and international relations plays a part in the overall story. One solution that’s suggested for the refugee problem is to start a new civilization in the prehistoric past, an idea that Simak would further develop to better effect in his 1978 novel Mastodonia. As ingenious a premise as that may be for a science fiction novel (or two), Simak never really addresses the fact that every animal that’s killed, tree that’s burned, or rock that’s overturned might have a butterfly effect that alters the course of human history. Still, it makes for some fun speculation if you don’t take it too seriously.

Though this was published in 1974, relatively late in Simak’s career, it feels rather simplistic, like the plot of an early ‘60s monster movie. I kept expecting some startling revelations that would turn conventions on their ear, but such twists never came, just a few small surprises at the end. Simak doesn’t really even delve too deeply into the theory of time travel, but instead just uses it to set up the refugee crisis, which he explores from various political, social, and economic dimensions. The character development is weaker here than in most of Simak’s stories. Only one person, a White House press secretary, is really fleshed out in more than two dimensions. Simak opts for quantity instead, introducing new characters in almost every chapter. Since almost everyone is a white, Anglo-Saxon male (except for two female characters), after a while it becomes very difficult to tell the difference between a Steve Wilson, Tom Manning, or Sam Henderson, especially when their occupations are the only factor that distinguishes one from another.

The ending of Our Children’s Children is rather inconclusive. Instead of a problem being solved, only a plan has been formed that may solve the problem. If this were a longer book, such a lack of closure might be truly annoying, but since this book is only about 200 pages, and a rather brisk and engaging read, the reader doesn’t much regret the fact that all the loose ends aren’t tied up in a neat little bow. Our Children’s Children reads like Simak lite. This novel is not a science fiction masterpiece by any means, and I wouldn’t want anyone to judge Simak on the basis of this work. To those who have never read Simak’s writing before, I would recommend better novels like Way Station or City. For Simak fans, however, this is an entertaining read, even if it’s not as intellectually deep as his typical fare.
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Monday, November 5, 2018

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

House Atreides, the next generation
Children of Dune, the third book in Frank Herbert’s epic Dune series, was published in 1976, seven years after the preceding volume, Dune Messiah. At the end of that last book, Paul Atreides, the emperor/messiah known as Muad’Dib, walked off into the desert to die, thus leaving his twin children Leto II and Ghanima to reign as co-emperors over the known universe. Until the children reach an appropriate age to rule, however, the empire is governed by Paul’s sister Alia, who acts as regent. Alia and the twins share an unusual congenital anomaly. Through a combination of eugenics and the effects of the planet Arrakis’s most valuable export, the spice that alters human consciousness, all three were born with ancestral memories going back hundreds of generations, and thus attained full awareness and adult intelligence within the womb. The drawback to such a gift, however, is the danger that one might become what’s called an “abomination,” possessed by the very ancestors whose consciousness they carry within their minds. It is also possible that when the twins grow up they may share their father’s ability to foresee the future. Their own future, however, is in jeopardy, as the ruling members of House Corrino, the former imperial dynasty that was overthrown in the original Dune novel, have developed a plot to assassinate the twins.

Even for a confessed Dune nut like myself, this is a tough book to get into. This is my second or third time reading this, but it’s been a while, and though I had a pretty good idea how this one ended, the getting there was sometimes a challenge. Much of the “action” takes place within the characters’ heads, in the form of visions and ancestral conversations. Characters who can see millions of years into the past and future don’t always explain their motives or actions to those of us who can’t, and Herbert seems to delight in disorienting the reader as much as possible. As the Dune series moves forward, Herbert seems to opt more and more for psychological over physical action, although there’s still plenty of the latter to be found in Children of Dune. At times it can be as frustrating as watching a multi-player chess game undertaken by people who are exponentially smarter than you are, but a big part of what makes the Dune books so admirable is the intelligence with which they are written and the multiple levels of depth in the narrative, which can be enjoyed merely as a space opera or explored further for its philosophical and theoretical riches.

Ultimately, the reader’s patience is rewarded as all the unexpected twists and tangled threads come together into a satisfyingly colossal conclusion. While the story of Dune Messiah feels narrower in scope, Children of Dune equals the epic bombast of the original Dune. Nothing less than the future of humanity is at stake!

At the time it was published, Children of Dune was seen as the climax of a trilogy, but by page 100 one can already see Herbert laying the foundation for a fourth book. The first three books do constitute a trilogy of sorts in that this is the last book to feature many of the characters introduced in the first volume. From here, Herbert takes a leap forward centuries into the future for the fourth book, God Emperor of Dune. To be honest, Children of Dune is probably my least favorite of the first three volumes, but still it is so much better than the vast majority of science fiction that’s out there, and it is an invaluable piece of the monumental masterpiece that is the Dune saga. The six books that Herbert set in this world (I haven’t read any of the posthumous prequels or sequels) make up one of the most ambitious novel cycles in all literature, science fiction or otherwise.
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Friday, November 2, 2018

Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson

Layman’s perspective for a novice reader
In her 2014 book Lives in Ruins, author Marilyn Johnson applies her “irrepressible wit and curiosity” (quoted from the jacket copy) to the field of archaeology. I approached this book with some trepidation because I had previously read Johnson’s book on the profession of librarianship, This Book Is Overdue!, and found it disappointing. In the end, however, having long had an avid armchair interest in archaeology, I couldn’t resist the promise of an inside look into the lives of archaeologists. The good news is that Lives in Ruins is better than Johnson’s previous book. She doesn’t gush over the personality quirks of her subjects as much as she did with the librarians, and she concentrates more on the actual profession itself. The bad news is in many ways it’s more of the same, a little too frivolous and elementary to amount to a worthwhile read.

Indiana Jones has unrealistically colored everyone’s conception of what an archaeologist is or does, not only because he’s a death-defying tomb raider but also because he’s a tenured professor. As Johnson points out, most archaeologists aren’t so lucky, and many struggle to get by on contract work for low pay and no benefits, hopping from job to job like nomads. The most valuable take-away from this book is the realistic view of how difficult it is to achieve security and success in the profession, and the degree to which the important work that archaeologists do is so underappreciated. I was also surprised to learn the extent to which the U.S. Department of Defense acts as a patron of archaeological research.

For the most part, however, the problem with Lives in Ruins is that if you are interested enough in archaeology to want to read this book, then you probably already know most of what’s in it. I’m not an archaeologist, but I do read a little on the subject. I subscribe to Archaeology magazine and National Geographic, both of which are intended for a general readership, but Johnson writes in a style of journalism that is even more casual in tone and elementary in content. The effect is similar to getting a guided tour of a museum by a docent who doesn’t know much more about the collections than you do. I certainly wasn’t expecting a textbook on the subject, but the marketing copy promised behind-the-scenes, inside knowledge of archaeologists’ lives, and the book doesn’t deliver enough of that. Instead, Johnson mostly just summarizes the research of the archaeologists she’s interviewed from a layman’s perspective for a novice reader.

Johnson attends field school and works at some dig sites. In her reporting on what goes on there she emphasizes her amateur status and indulges in fish-out-of-water humor that undermines the relevance of her narrative. In a few chapters she sits in on meetings at the American Institute of Archaeology conference and reports on what she heard there. She has access to many distinguished professionals in the field and reports on everything they say with the amazement of a novice: Archaeologists are doing this! Who knew?! Well, I knew, and I’m far from an expert.

I’m not saying this is a bad book by any means. It just depends on your level of knowledge on the subject. This would be a great book to give to a high school student who is considering studying archaeology as a profession. On the other hand, most people who have ever dreamed of being an archaeologist would probably get a better grasp of what archaeologists actually do and what’s going on in the field by picking up a typical issue of Archaeology magazine.
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Friday, October 26, 2018

La Vendée by Anthony Trollope

Counterrevolutionary romance
Anthony Trollope
The historical novel La Vendée is not one of English author Anthony Trollope’s more highly regarded works. Originally published in 1850, it was Trollope’s third novel out of the dozens of books he produced during his prolific career. While Trollope mostly wrote novels of manners set in English country villages, stylistically similar to the works of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, here he directs his pen farther afield to tackle the French Revolution. More specifically, this novel tells the story of a royalist rebellion against the French Republican government in 1793, commonly known by the name of the region in western France where the uprising took place: la Vendée.

After the Republican revolutionaries overthrew and executed Louis XVI, they established a secular Republican government in Paris, headed by Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. Not everyone in France was pleased about this, however, and many citizens in the provinces were unwilling to give up their Catholic faith and their loyalty to the monarchy. When the new French government sent troops to conscript more soldiers to fight its wars, the Vendeans refused to give up their young men to the Republican cause. Instead, they launched an uprising against the Republican forces, or Blues, as they are called after the color of their uniforms. Trollope depicts la Vendée as a holdout of medieval feudalism where the peasants love and faithfully serve the noblemen who preside over their lands. The story focuses on three nobles—Henri de la Rochejacquelein and Louis Marie de Lescure, both actual historical figures, and Adolphe Denot, a brooding fictional antihero reminiscent of Heathcliff from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. In addition, several characters of the working class also figure prominently in the story, including Jacques Cathelineau, a lowly postillion who becomes a commanding general of the Vendean forces.

Though I don’t know for certain, it seems to me that Trollope likely wrote this novel for serialization because each of the book’s 35 chapters feels unnecessarily drawn out to satisfy a length requirement, as if Trollope were being paid by the word. Though the story is interesting, it would have been a lot livelier if it were not bogged down by so much tedious dialogue. Almost every chapter features some protracted discussion in which a simple theme—“I love my country,” “I love my God,” “I love my woman.”—is repetitively rephrased in order to fulfill the word count.

French authors, while acknowledging the brutality of The Terror, usually celebrate the democratic values of liberté, egalité, and fraternité espoused by the Republican cause. (Balzac was a monarchist exception. His novel Les Chouans covers a similar counterrevolution in Brittany, to better effect than this.) British novelists, however, often favor the monarchy to a fanatical extent. (The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fine example.) Here, Trollope paints a relentlessly rosy picture of the feudalistic class structure that reflects his own beloved English class system. Though war can be a great leveler of classes, sometimes elevating servants, merchants, and laborers like Cathelineau to hero status, such heroes must learn that their rise is finite and temporary, and they mustn’t even think of marrying beyond their station. Trollope provides a very romanticized treatment of the Vendean rebellion—a romantic comedy, really—in which the freedom fighters are constantly victorious. In the epilogue he emphasizes that “La Vendée was never conquered,” but in truth, the Vendeans certainly didn’t triumph either. Trollope is not the least bit sympathetic to the Republican cause, yet the one-sidedness of his novel is less offensive than the fact that it is just rather boring. Readers with an avid interest in the French Revolution will find some tidbits of historical knowledge to appreciate, but the typical Trollope fan should probably steer clear of this one.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Under a Lucky Star: A Lifetime of Adventure by Roy Chapman Andrews

Nice work if you can get it
Though it has never been confirmed that Roy Chapman Andrews was the inspiration for Indiana Jones, there’s no denying that his autobiography Under a Lucky Star, published in 1943, delivers thrills and adventure reminiscent of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Andrews was born and raised in Beloit, Wisconsin, where he developed a love for nature and outdoor sport. Upon graduating from Beloit College, he decided he wanted to work for the American Museum of Natural History, so he moved to New York City uninvited and showed up on their doorstep looking for a job. He began by sweeping floors and assisting in taxidermy, but eventually he would end up as director of that prestigious institution. For much of his career, he led scientific expeditions abroad, hunting for zoological and paleontological specimens in China and Mongolia. He achieved fame when members of his expedition to the Gobi Desert were the first to discover dinosaur eggs.

Soon after starting work at the museum, Andrews was sent out to Long Island to retrieve the skeleton of a beached whale. This led to him riding along on a Japanese whaling ship in order to study whales, collect more specimens, and become an expert in cetology. Unlike biologists today, Andrews saw no problems with the whaling industry and in fact harpooned quite a few whales himself. Throughout the book he refers to himself as an explorer, rather than a scientist, but he really comes across first and foremost as a hunter. As was standard practice for natural history museums at the time, Andrews shot thousands of animals on his expeditions and shipped them back home, with no thought given to species endangerment. Though recognized as a zoologist and paleontologist, Andrews really doesn’t talk about science much at all, and one gets the idea that the specimens he collected were examined by others. 

At times I wondered whether Andrews was even qualified to do the work he was doing, but as the title of the book indicates, he was a very lucky man. What is quite evident in the book is the workings of an “old-boy network” in science—a lot of white Anglo-Saxon men eager to hand out money and careers to each other, with plenty of work and opportunity for anyone who proves himself a good chap. Business deals are done in tuxedoes over cocktails. Andrews writes more about the fund-raising parties for his expeditions than about their scientific yields. Never in the narrative does it seem like Andrews ever had to struggle for anything, and much of his “luck” can be attributed to having powerful friends like Theodore Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan. 

Andrews’s attitude toward women is also off-putting. He barely mentions his first wife, and makes it clear that he married his second wife for her looks, which is the same way he chooses secretaries, nurses, and waitresses. He devotes less ink to his wives than he does to the madam of a Japanese geisha house he frequented, and never passes up an opportunity to brag about partying with dancing girls. The only time he mentions a female scientist—one of his classmates, a “very attractive girl”—he does so with disdain. Andrews displays some racism as well, mostly directed at the Japanese, which may be attributed to the fact that this was written in the middle of World War II. Overall, however, he is respectful of Asian cultures and loved living in China for many years. 

This was a different era, so if you’re looking for political correctness, you aren’t going to find it here. If it’s adventure you want, however, this book has plenty. I wish it had more science than shooting, but it is still an entertaining read for anyone who has ever dreamt of being an explorer.
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Monday, October 15, 2018

In Desert and Wilderness by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Awfully slow for an adventure novel, no matter how old you are
In Desert and Wilderness, published in 1911, is a novel by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature. The story takes place in northeastern Africa during the 1880s. Though Sienkiewicz wrote other historical adventure novels, In Desert and Wilderness is notable for being the only book he wrote that is intended for a young audience.

Fourteen-year-old Polish boy Stanislas (Stas) Tarkowski and eight-year-old English girl Nel Rawlinson live in Port Said, Egypt, where their widower fathers work as engineers for the Suez Canal. Because of the close friendship between their dads, Stas and Nel are raised almost as brother and sister. When their fathers are called away for various engineering projects, the kids are left at home in the hands of trusted servants. At this period in Africa’s history, a Muslim preacher known as the Mahdi has incited a rebellion against British rule. While the dads are away, Stas and Nel are kidnapped by Arabs who intend to exchange the children for prisoners held by the British. The kidnappers hope to take their little hostages as an offering to the Mahdi in Khartoum. The children, however, set out to escape their captors and undertake an arduous journey to reunite with their fathers.

Though this book may be intended for children, in the typical fashion of a century ago it is in no way dumbed-down as is so much young adult literature published today. Even grown-ups will have trouble keeping up with the intricate political history of Egypt and the Sudan. The series of events that leads to the kidnapping is quite convoluted and tests the patience of readers of all ages. When the captors and captives finally hit the road, it often reads less like a novel than an atlas, each sentence crammed with exotic place names. For a children’s story, there’s an awful lot of realistic violence that’s more suited to grown-up reading. On the other hand, adults won’t appreciate the more fairy tale aspects of the story, in which whatever the children need to survive miraculously falls right into their laps. The book contains some quite thrilling scenes, most involving encounters with wildlife, but they are few and far between, interspersed among long trudges through the desert.

Something else that dulls the excitement of this wilderness survival tale is the fact that the children are accompanied by servants throughout their ordeal. Though the kids show some ingenuity at times, and Stas is good with a rifle, the servants do much of the daily work required to keep them alive. When the children receive help from African characters, it’s never just because the Africans are good people who want to help two kids find their way home, but rather because they are silly, superstitious rubes who view the white kids as gods or benevolent spirits. The whole book is written as a justification of European rule in Africa, where the blacks would be lost without the guidance and governance of the whites.

The story has little to offer girls, as Nel mostly serves as the damsel in distress to Stas’s knight in shining armor. To anyone who has ever read a book by Sienkiewicz, the ending is a foregone conclusion. Adults who read this novel as children may have fond memories of three or four important scenes, but the book is 47 chapters long, and most of those chapters are a bore. Sienkiewicz is a talented writer, so In Desert and Wilderness is not without some literary merit, but it counts among his worst works.

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