Monday, June 1, 2020

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James



Overly highbrow ghost story
The Turn of the Screw, a novella by American-turned-British author Henry James, was originally published in serial form in 1898 issues of Collier’s Weekly magazine. I’m not sure why it is generally considered a novella, since it is certainly long enough to qualify as a novel. Perhaps amid the oeuvre of Henry James this is a short work, but it is definitely quite longer than it needs to be. Despite being a highly revered example of a Victorian ghost story, The Turn of the Screw proves itself neither horrifying nor entertaining, just rather tedious.

The novella begins with an unnecessary introduction. A group of friends are gathered around a fire exchanging stories. One of them happens to have an extensive manuscript given to him by a former acquaintance, a fictional memoir that makes up the rest of the book. The author of this manuscript, at the time her narrative opens, is a young woman looking for employment as a governess. She receives a peculiar offer from a Londoner to reside at his country estate, called Bly, and educate his niece and nephew, of whose guardianship he has assumed following his brother’s death. The gentleman makes it clear that he rarely if ever visits Bly himself, and he wants the governess to simply handle matters out there without ever bothering him under any circumstances. After having accepted the position, she arrives at Bly and meets her young charges, a girl of eight named Flora and a boy of ten named Miles. Although Miles has been expelled from boarding school for reasons unknown, the two children exhibit unusually angelic behavior—so angelic, in fact, that the governess suspects they may be hiding something.

Since it is common knowledge that this is a ghost story, what they may be hiding should come as no surprise. While the behavior of the children is a little creepy, and the paranormal happenings at Bly are uncanny, neither is by any means frightening. In fact, when apparitions of the dead begin to reveal themselves, the governess and her coworker, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, respond to such terrifying occurrences with remarkably blasé attitudes. They barely feel threatened enough to alter their daily routines. At one point Flora goes missing, and Mrs. Grose is more upset that the little girl went out without her hat than by the fact that a child is missing in an isolated country estate inhabited by spirits of the deceased. In addition to ghosts, another shocking Victorian horror yields its ugly head: a woman who may have fornicated with a man beneath her station. Egads!

Though the title may call to mind a torturous Edgar Allan Poe tale, it’s really just an irrelevant figure of speech that’s uttered twice during the narrative. Unlike Poe (or any number of horror writers of this era—Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert W. Chambers, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Hope Hodgson, H. G. Wells, and so on), James doesn’t realize that horror fiction should be both sufficiently macabre and at least a little fun. Instead, he takes a more Joseph Conrad approach by drowning his tale in pretentious verbiage until all the amusement is smothered out of it.

The introductory fireside scene is not bookended with a conclusion. The story of the governess ends abruptly and quite inconclusively, with many important questions left unanswered. The tepid anticlimax leaves the reader with the feeling that one’s time has been wasted. Given James’s literary reputation, he may very well be one of the English language’s master practitioners of the literary arts, but that doesn’t mean he can write a good ghost story. The Turn of the Screw is a dull and overrated work.
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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Sleeper Awakes by H. G. Wells



Rip Van Winkle’s class war
English author H. G. Wells is best known as one of the fathers of science fiction, but he was also a passionate socialist who wrote many works of social criticism. On more than a few occasions he merged both interests into novels and stories of future utopian and dystopian societies. One such Wells novel, When the Sleeper Wakes, was originally published in 1899. Wells later released a revised version in 1910 under the title of The Sleeper Awakes. It is this latter edition that I am reviewing, though I don’t believe the two versions differ significantly in plot.

Like many futuristic novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, The Sleeper Awakes features a present-day hero who unexpectedly finds himself in the world of the future. The mode of time displacement that Wells relies on in this case is the sleeper scenario from the old folktale of Rip Van Winkle. An Englishman named Graham falls into a coma and wakes up 203 years later in the year 2100, not having aged a bit. One interesting (though rather nonsensical) twist that Wells gives to this old chestnut is that Graham’s financial investments have been compounding for two centuries, making him the richest man in the world. In fact, he literally owns the world. The human race recognizes him as the Master of the World and has eagerly awaited the day he would awake to take his throne. For his own protection, however, Graham’s handlers keep him on a tight leash until he can acclimate himself to the new world order.


It soon becomes apparent that the committee of trustees who has been managing Graham’s affairs for two centuries have set themselves up as a tyrannical oligarchy, known as the White Council, who govern the world with an iron hand. When word gets out of Graham’s awakening, a revolution erupts. He is freed by a group of rebels under the leadership of a man named Ostrog. As these two warring factions reign destruction on each other with futuristic weapons, Graham is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of war. Knocked about in all directions by the frenzied mobs, he finds himself lost amid the war-torn streets of London.


Wells deliberately makes the battle scenes chaotic and disorienting, with the result that it’s often difficult to tell exactly what’s going on. Equally confusing is the fact that very few of the characters have names. Most are simply referred to as “the man in black,” “the man in yellow,” etc. This futuristic society has a color-coded system of apparel based on class. The oligarchy wears white and the laborers light blue, but I could never get a bearing on what the various other hues were supposed to stand for. The novel’s most cringeworthy color category is the Black Police—literally, black police—stormtroopers imported from Africa to rain hell on “poor white trash” (Wells actually uses that phrase). Wells rather blatantly and bigotedly implies that their very blackness brings with it a heightened degree of barbarity and cruelty.


All the uprisings, coups, and carnage leave almost no time for Wells to explain what these people are actually rebelling against. The reader has to wait until chapter 20 (out of 25) to get the political, economic, and social overview that usually comprises the bulk of utopian or dystopian novels. Considering Wells was such a staunch socialist, it’s surprising that there’s really only one chapter that focuses on the plight of the working class. For the most part, The Sleeper Awakes reads like an adventure that Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Rider Haggard might have written, and not a particularly good one. The racism certainly doesn’t help. If it’s a dystopian novel of socialist revolution you’re looking for, there is none better than Jack London’s The Iron Heel.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck



Powder keg with a slow-burning fuse
Prior to his better-known rural epics The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck wrote another novel about California farm workers. In Dubious Battle, published in 1936, focuses on a strike by apple pickers in the (fictional) Torgas Valley. The story opens with a young man named Jim Nolan being interviewed for employment with the Party (assumed to be the Communist Party, but never stated outright). After he’s accepted for the job, a Party veteran named “Mac” McLeod takes Jim under his mentorial wing. Soon the pair are headed to Torgas, where they go undercover as fruit pickers in order to organize their fellow laborers to strike against the local Growers’ Association.

For a novel about labor unrest, this book proceeds in a surprisingly calm and deliberate manner. Don’t expect the fiery rhetoric, revolutionary call to arms, or romantic idealism of pro-socialist novels like Jack London’s The Iron Heel or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Steinbeck’s approach here is decidedly more sensitive and even pastoral. The bulk of the novel is occupied with depicting the working life of the fruit pickers and their daily activities in the strikers’ camp. Like Of Mice and Men, the largely dialogue-driven narrative often reads more like a play than a novel. The reader listens as Mac educates Jim on the values and methods of the Party, while Jim undergoes a coming-of-age epiphany in the development of his political ideals. Very little that could be considered action occurs until about four-fifths of the way through the book. As a result, the story feels far more drawn-out than it needs to be. In his 1938 collection The Long Valley, Steinbeck published a short story about party workers entitled “The Raid” that, in roughly twelve pages, creates a more powerful and moving statement on the class struggle than this entire novel.

Steinbeck’s biggest mistake was focusing too much on the Party activists at the expense of the workers themselves. Very few of the actual fruit pickers even have names in this book, and of those that do only a few amount to full-fledged characters. By inviting readers to identify with the strike organizers—Mac and Jim—rather than the strikers themselves, the reader never really gets invested in the workers’ plight. One doesn’t sympathize with these laborers the way one does in other novels of labor strife like Steinbeck’s own The Grapes of Wrath, Sinclair’s The Jungle, Frank Norris’s The Octopus, or Emile Zola’s Germinal. Even Steinbeck acknowledges that the workers here are often just pawns in Mac and Jim’s game. While the two Party men are primarily portrayed in a positive light, Steinbeck also points out how they use manipulative tactics to goad the workers into striking and violence, even though they know that innocent lives will be destroyed.

In the final fifty pages or so, Steinbeck finally turns up the tempo and cranks up the heat. In Dubious Battle never really stirs the soul to the same degree as any of the aforementioned novels, but in the end there’s just enough brutality and tragedy to inspire sympathy for these characters and indignation against social injustice. Oddly enough, this strangely picturesque and ambivalent depiction of Depression-era labor troubles is ultimately redeemed by sacrificial blood.

As the first book in Steinbeck’s unofficial Dustbowl trilogy, In Dubious Battle is not in the same league with the two masterpieces that followed, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Those interested in social realist novels of the early 20th century, however, while find it a worthwhile, if somewhat underwhelming, read.
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Friday, May 22, 2020

Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson



The future president as scientist and statesman
During his lifetime, Thomas Jefferson wrote enough documents, papers, letters, and addresses to fill many volumes, but he only published one full-length book. Notes on the State of Virginia was first printed in a limited edition in 1785 and then published for the American public in 1787. Jefferson wrote the book after the Declaration of Independence but before the completion of the U.S. Constitution, at a time when America was engaged in the Revolutionary War with Britain and the colonies were governed by the Articles of Confederation (an early form of American government at which Jefferson levels some criticism). In response to inquiries from a French diplomat, Jefferson penned the work in the form of 23 questions and their answers. While Jefferson writes mostly on the specifics of his home state, he does broaden his scope to encompass the American colonies as a whole, thus leaving behind a valuable document of the colonial era.

Prussian scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was a great admirer of Jefferson and of Notes on the State of Virginia in particular. The reason for this is because Jefferson approaches his study of Virginia very much as an explorer or scientist would. This book is almost a prototype for what geographers today refer to as “area studies.” It would be hard to imagine any of today’s state politicians possessing the encyclopedic knowledge of their state that Jefferson displays here. His thorough examination of Virginia reveals Jefferson the polymath or Renaissance man who possesses a boundless curiosity in numerous disciplines. He recites in detail the breadth and depth of every river mouth, the navigability of rapids, the productivity of mines, the most successful species of crops and breeds of livestock, and the geographical distribution of mammoth fossils. He presents tables of self-gathered climate data, calculates population demographics, catalogs all of America’s known mammals and birds, and outlines a geographic history of all the Native American tribes east of the Mississippi. He even compiles a bibliography of historical texts on the exploration and founding of America, ranging from Newfoundland to Jamaica.


Of course, as one would expect from the future president, Jefferson also includes plenty of political philosophy and law. Slavery and Indian relations are two topics much discussed. Jefferson meanders from an explanation of homestead laws to a discussion of slaves as property and then to a comparison of racial characteristics among whites, blacks, and Indians. Some of the opinions expressed on race are certainly not politically correct by today’s standards, but for his time white Southern males didn’t get much more liberal than Jefferson. In several passages he advocates for Indian rights and the abolition of slavery, though the historical record shows on the latter issue he didn’t really put his money where his mouth was. He was sympathetic to the plight of slaves and Indigenous peoples, but he saw them as children who needed to be guided by a white hand. He equivocally talks about emancipation and racial equality as indefinite long-term goals.


As appendices, Jefferson provides an outline of the Virginia state constitution, as well as an act establishing religious freedom in the state of Virginia. Editions after 1800 also include an appendix of conflicting legal depositions pertaining to an Indian massacre Jefferson discusses in the text, which is quite tragic. Notes on the State of Virginia does have some boring and antiquated passages, but it is loaded with interesting historical detail, even for those who aren’t specifically interested in Virginia. This book really gives the reader a fascinating look inside the mind of Jefferson and also provides a multifaceted glimpse into colonial life in an America on the verge of independence.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk



A tangled web of wanderlust and mummification
Flights, a work of fiction by 2018 Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, was originally published in 2007 under the Polish title of Bieguni. Though not a novel in the traditional sense of the word, Flights is considered a novel because there really isn’t any better word to describe its narrative structure. The text consists of 116 very loosely connected scenes, some of which are long enough to qualify as short stories, but most only a page or two in length. These vignettes are a mix of contemporary and historical fiction, as well as mini-essays, all jumbled in sequence both chronologically and thematically.

Much of the text is written from the first-person perspective of an unnamed female narrator who is a writer by trade. In the book’s early scenes, this narrator explains that she is essentially addicted to travel and leads a nomadic globe-trotting existence. Of all the wonders the world has to offer, the sites that most fascinate her are “cabinets of curiosities,” particularly those museums and exhibitions focusing on human anatomy. Like an Atlas Obscura junkie, this traveler seeks out the curious and the bizarre, relishing every opportunity to gaze at centuries-old organs preserved in jars, relics of freakish physiological anomalies, or dissected human bodies encapsulated and displayed in blocks of transparent lucite. Thus, two thematic streams flow throughout the book: travel and anatomy. While Tokarczuk expounds very eloquently and creatively on both subjects, the connection between the two is very tenuous at best, which often makes Flights feel like you are reading two separate novels that have been shuffled together like mismatched decks of cards.

In the travel portions of the book, the narrator sometimes relates the stories of fellow travelers she has met in her journeys. Other passages describe the sights, sounds, and customs of exotic locales. Usually the destinations are not named, which can be frustratingly disorienting. Often the shorter entries read like nonfiction asides, consisting of the kind of observational humor on airports, hotels, and the inconveniences of travel that Jerry Seinfeld might come up with if he had a PhD in psychology. Of the fictional vignettes, the most interesting “short story” concerns a Polish family vacationing on a Croatian island. The husband pulls their car over to the side of a road to let his wife and child go to the bathroom in the bushes. They never return to the car and appear to have vanished, leaving him to figure out what happened. Unfortunately, like many of the scenes in Flights, the fragmentary nature of the storytelling proves unsatisfyingly inconclusive.

The anatomical vignettes, in general, are more compelling. In addition to the narrator’s visits to modern medical museums, Tokarczuk delves back in time as far as the 17th century to deliver fictional sketches on pioneering anatomists of the past, including some characters based on actual historical personages. The common thread uniting these flashbacks is the scientists’ search for an ideal method of preserving, embalming, or “plasticizing” human tissue—­a problem ultimately solved by the polymers used in today’s anatomical exhibitions.

Judging from the English translation by Jennifer Croft, Tokarczuk is a very talented writer with an expert command of language, keen insight into human nature, and an acute and amusing wit. Each scene in Flights is captivating in its own way, but the work as whole feels disjointed, indeterminate, and meandering. Though its parts may be greater than its whole, Flights is nonetheless worth a read, and it makes one want to delver further into Tokarczuk’s body of work.

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Monday, May 11, 2020

Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert by Brian Herbert



But first, more about me . . .
The subtitle of Dreamer of Dune is deliberately misleading. This 2003 nonfiction book is not so much a biography of Frank Herbert as it is an autobiography of Brian Herbert. The first half of the book is really quite engaging, and you do learn a lot about Frank Herbert. At times, however, it comes across a bit too much like a memoir that genealogists write about their parents and grandparents for other family members to read, in which every story Dad ever told is taken as the God’s-honest truth, and Daddy could do no wrong in the eyes of his son. The only negative comments Brian has about his super-dad is that Frank was dismissive of his young children and sometimes practiced corporal punishment, as many fathers in the 1950s did. The way Brian speaks about his parents’ marriage is even more sweetly idealized. Mr. and Mrs. Herbert apparently shared the greatest love since Romeo and Juliet, never had a fight, and treated each other like saints. It’s hard to take such one-sided romanticized portraits seriously. To his credit, however, Brian does seem to have done some diligent research into his father’s early writing career.

The second half of the book takes a major turn for the worse. Frank Herbert is absent from much of it as Brian concentrates on his mother’s illness, his own writing career, and his own wife and kids. At one point Brian became an obsessive journaler, and it shows, as he feels the need to tell us every bottle of wine the family drank at dinner, what they were wearing, or the fact that on two occasions Brian was eating a banana while talking to his father. The reader sympathizes with Beverly Herbert and her battle with cancer, but Brian thinks you need to know the tedious details of every doctor’s appointment she ever had. On the other hand, he doesn’t even bother to interview his stepmother, who was with Frank for the last year of his life and was present at his death.


One thing that surprised me while reading Dreamer of Dune is the remarkable number of similarities between the life of Frank Herbert and that of Jack London (who also wrote science fiction). Both were born to humble beginnings and developed a love for the outdoors and boating. At the age of 9, Herbert was making solo sailing trips around Puget Sound, just as young London was doing in San Francisco Bay a half century earlier. Both lived largely nomadic lifestyles in their young adulthood, sometimes experiencing extreme poverty as they struggled to sell their short stories. Both worked as journalists to supplement their income and hone their craft. Both adventured to Alaska as young men, and both fell in love with Hawaii later in life. Both divorced their first wives before finding their soul mates. After achieving success, both became public intellectuals and traveling lecturers on social issues—London on socialism and Herbert on environmentalism. Both dabbled in experimental farming and spent their authorial earnings on expensive yachts and quixotic construction projects that never reached completion. Despite great financial success, both spent money faster than they earned it.

From reading Dreamer of Dune, one gets the impression that it was written for two reasons. The first is Brian Herbert’s natural desire to be a dutiful son to the father he loved. The second reason, however, is less admirable. This book seems to be a calculated attempt by Brian Herbert to justify his inheritance of the Dune franchise, implying that because Frank taught him everything he knew, he has a right to milk the Dune universe for all its worth, and he’s every bit the science fiction writer his father was. If Dreamer of Dune is any indication of Brian’s talents as a writer, however, the acorn has fallen far from the oak. A hundred years from now, when scholars are researching Frank Herbert’s life and literature, this book will be a source that they consult, but it won’t be THE source. That biography has yet to be written.

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Thursday, May 7, 2020

Celebrated Travels and Travellers, Volume II: The Great Navigators of the Eighteenth Century by Jules Verne



From Captain Cook to Humboldt
During his prolific authorial career, Jules Verne penned a series of 54 novels entitled Extraordinary Journeys, which included such famous works as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Not all of Verne’s books qualify as science fiction, but the one common theme that unites all of his adventure novels is travel and exploration. It is therefore fitting that Verne’s only nonfiction work should be a history of the explorers who have broadened our geographic and scientific knowledge of the world. Celebrated Travels and Travellers was published in three volumes from 1878 to 1880. In Volume I: The Exploration of the World, Verne covered European explorers and travelers from ancient times through the seventeenth century, which brings us to Volume II: The Great Navigators of the Eighteenth Century.

About a third of this volume is devoted to the three Pacific Ocean voyages of Captain James Cook, the British explorer who was the first to extensively explore Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and a number of other Pacific islands. One immediately senses a change in tone from the previous volume. While Volume I was all about conquest, colonization, and commerce, in Volume II we’re starting to see explorers making voyages for specifically scientific motives. Granted, trade and natural resources are still very much of interest to these explorers, so their dealings with the Indigenous inhabitants of these exotic lands are often directed towards those ends. Verne includes a lot of fascinating details about the first encounters between European and Oceanic cultures, with anthropological observations on the appearance, customs, and personalities of the Natives. Verne displays the same remarkable cultural sensitivity he showed in the first volume by speaking as an advocate for Indigenous peoples and chastising occasions of European brutality.

Verne follows Cook’s story with a series of briefer accounts of lesser-known explorers who also explored the South Pacific. He tends to favor his fellow countrymen, so he devotes a lengthy chapter to French explorers such as La Perouse, d’Entrecasteaux, and Baudin. Because these explorers followed much of the same path as Cook, their voyages are less interesting, and it feels like you’re visiting the same islands over and over again. The only differences lie in the degrees of hospitality or hostility with which the Natives greet their visitors. Verne frequently states that he is omitting portions of the explorers’ narratives due to redundancy and irrelevance, as if even he realizes that this portion of the book is dragging. Beyond narrating the history of exploration, Verne almost seems to be writing these books as a guide to those wishing to sail the South Seas themselves. As such, he pays more attention to geographic information such as coordinates and safe harbors, rather than to any zoological or botanical discoveries made along the way.

Fortunately, Verne rescues the book from tedium by devoting its final third to explorers of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. These chapters are too brief, but the variety is welcome. Scottish explorer Mungo Park features prominently in the African chapter. The Asian chapter deals primarily with early visitors to the imperial court of China. The American chapter finishes the book on a high note with an account of Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition. This is likely the book’s most compelling voyage, due both to the ambitiousness of the journey and the quality of the writings Humboldt left behind.

On the whole, Verne’s skills as a historical summarizer do not measure up to his talents as a novelist, but I have enjoyed the first two books of Celebrated Travels and Travellers and look forward to Volume III: The Great Explorers of the Nineteenth Century.
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