Monday, January 27, 2020

Views of Nature by Alexander von Humboldt

The man who knew everything
Views of Nature, also known as Aspects of Nature, was originally published in 1808 under the German title of Ansichten der Natur. The author, Prussian explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt, revised the work for second and third editions during his lifetime. I am reviewing an English translation of the third edition of 1849, published in 2014 by the University of Chicago Press, translated by Mark W. Person and edited by Stephen T. Jackson and Laura Dassow Walls.

Two and a half centuries ago, Humboldt may have been the most famous man on earth. He is best known for a daring and scientifically productive expedition he led into South America, Cuba, and Mexico, which he chronicled in detail in his book Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the Years 1799–1804. Views of Nature also uses that exhibition as a starting point but takes a different approach. Though the book is heavy on scientific content, Views of Nature is really the prototype for what we now call “nature writing,” as later practiced by writers like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. When Humboldt writes about the tropics in this book, his intention is to convey to the reader what it really feels like to be in these exotic natural locales. As a romanticist, he is more concerned with capturing the general impression of the natural environment than the details of temperature readings, altitude measurements, and specific species present. As an obsessive empiricist, however, Humboldt can’t resist including all these minute details. What results is a sort of hybrid format with the primary, somewhat literary narrative supported by extensive scientific endnotes that often exceed the length of the main text itself. Chapter 5: Ideas for a Physiognomy of Plants, for example, is under 15 pages in length but has 72 pages of notes!

In addition to his South American adventures, Humboldt traveled extensively in Europe and also made a voyage across Russia. In addition, he studied the accounts of numerous explorers in other parts of the world. When he describes natural environments in Views of Nature, he constantly compares the scene at hand with other biomes throughout the world. Chapter 1: Concerning the Steppes and Deserts, for example, is a survey of all the world’s flatlands, from the Sahara desert to the Arctic tundra, pointing out universal similarities in climate, terrain, and vegetation while also celebrating the differences that make each habitat unique. Humboldt was the ultimate multidisciplinary generalist who eschewed specialization in favor of unifying multiple fields of study. He writes with expert authority on a shocking number of disciplines: geography, botany, geology, zoology, meteorology, mineralogy, astronomy, electricity and magnetism, anthropology, archaeology, history, linguistics, politics, and ecology, a field he practically invented.

Those who have read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species know the feeling of amazement at how Darwin seems to have read and studied every biological text ever published. That amazement is dwarfed by the staggering realization of Humboldt’s extensive polymathic erudition in all the fields listed above. He not only refers to hundreds of scientific and historical works in his notes but even cites specific page numbers. The same herculean stamina he displayed in his journeys is manifested in his research, writing, and editing. Views of Nature contains an atlas worth of obscure place names, countless Latin designations of plant and animal species, and several archaic units of measurement. I can’t claim to have understood it all, but I enjoyed it immensely. Half the time I felt like I was at Humboldt’s side in the jungles of the Amazon basin; the other half I imagined I was sitting across from the great scholar in his library as he regaled me with his seemingly unlimited knowledge of the world. Views of Nature is truly a wonderful trip inside the mind of this great genius adventurer.

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Friday, January 24, 2020

The Dune Encyclopedia, compiled by Dr. Willis E. McNelly

Obsessive authorized fan fiction
The Dune Encyclopedia was published in 1984, following the publication of God Emperor of Dune, the fourth novel in Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Herbert did not write the Encyclopedia, but he did give the project his blessing. He stopped short of recognizing the Encyclopedia as canon, however, and subsequent Dune novels do not intentionally adhere to the book’s contents.

The Encyclopedia was compiled by Dr. Willis E. McNelly, a close friend of Herbert’s. The entries, however, are the work of 43 different authors, McNelly included. Thus the book is like a glorified compendium of fan fiction, but as if all the fans held PhDs. The entries on the Fremen and Galach languages, for example, were obviously written by a linguist. The sections on imperial law are likely to have been penned by a legal scholar, and there must have been at least a few religious studies professors on hand to elaborate on the Orange Catholic Bible. The Dune Encyclopedia purports to have been written by historians and archaeologists in the year 15540 AG (after Guild), following the discovery of a huge hoard of diaries and documents hidden by Emperor Leto II roughly 2,000 years earlier. The text reads like a collection of essays from an academic journal, complete with citations to an entire library full of imaginary books. For the most part the Encyclopedia evokes the lofty intellectualism that one associates with Herbert’s novels. This is by no means light reading. It sometimes gets bogged down in ponderous prose, but its ingenuity and clever tie-ins to the official narrative make it a fun read for avid Dune fans.

The first three Dune novels are set roughly 25,000 years in the future, and the events of God Emperor of Dune take place about 3,500 years after that. That is a lot of history to uncover, and the authors of the Encyclopedia leave few stones unturned. Extensive biographies flesh out the lives of the characters before, after, and in between the events of Herbert’s novels. Readers learn about the invention of faster-than-light space travel, the causes of the Butlerian Jihad, and the formation of the Empire. The origins of the Spacing Guild, the Bene Gesserit, the Bene Tleilax, the Sardaukar, and the CHOAM corporation are all explored in depth, as well as the Zensunni migrations that brought the Fremen from Earth to Arrakis. The richness of Herbert’s invented universe is unparalleled in fiction, and this is a fitting celebration of his visionary creativity.

Unfortunately, not every entry is a winner. Some of the writers seem to have watched a few too many Joseph Campbell specials on PBS before crafting their new agey mythologies. The entry for Gamont, a planet devoted to the sex trade, is a silly slapstick story that sticks out like a sore thumb amid all the faux scholarly seriousness. Many of the entries are just way longer than they need to be, wallowing in detail that supports the feigned authenticity but challenges attention spans. Through all the character biographies, you sometimes feel like you are reading Herbert’s narrative over and over again, just told from different perspectives. Still, for all its faults, this is a remarkably thorough and imaginative sci-fi companion volume, and Dune fans have to admire the daring ambitiousness of McNelly and his coterie of writers.

The Dune Encyclopedia has long been out of print because the Herbert heirs refuse to rerelease it, but someone has posted a “bootleg” pdf copy online for those willing to search for it. This pdf was made by scanning the original book, and the resulting text is riddled with typographical errors. Considering this is probably the only way most readers will ever be able to access the book, however, it is an acceptable substitute.
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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Smoky God, or A Voyage to the Inner World by Willis George Emerson

Half-baked hollow-Earth adventure
The Smoky God, or A Voyage to the Inner World, published in 1908, is a science fiction novel by American author Willis George Emerson. The book opens with an extensive preface that details how the author was contacted by 95-year-old Olaf Jansen, a Norseman (half Norwegian, half Swedish) who is dying in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Before he passes, he has a story he wants to get off his chest, one so astonishing that for decades he has been afraid to tell it for fear of being thrown into an insane asylum. He then proceeds to relate how as a teenager he accompanied his father, a fisherman, on an extended fishing voyage northward into the Arctic Ocean. At a certain point both men are both surprised to find that the climate is becoming milder and warmer despite their far northern latitude. The father tells Olaf that he has heard legends of a paradise at the top of the world. Olaf enthusiastically proposes that they search for this mysterious land, and so the two Norsemen, worshippers of Odin and Thor, set off to find the lost polar Eden.

The Smoky God is one of many sci-fi novels in the Hollow Earth subgenre, which includes such works as Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Mary E. Bradley Lane’s Mizora (1881), and the Pellucidar series (1914-1963) by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Hollow Earth theory proposes that the crust of the Earth is like an eggshell with land, water, and life on both its inner and outer surfaces. At the North Pole, Olaf and his father find a portal into this Inner Earth where they discover a veritable Garden of Eden with a utopian civilization much more advanced than the surface world, inhabited by beings who, in godly fashion, are superior to us surface dwellers in every way. Serving as the sun in this subterranean world is a molten, luminous core that is in some way surrounded by nebulous electrical clouds that simulate night and day. The inhabitants of the Inner World worship this central sun as their “Smoky God.”

For centuries many intelligent people considered the Hollow Earth theory a viable hypothesis, but by the early twentieth century it was mostly relegated to the realm of pseudoscience. Unlike Verne and Burroughs who use the Hollow Earth device merely as an entertaining launching point for farfetched fiction, Emerson actually seems to believe the theory. He proposes that the North and South Poles are the entry points to this inner realm, and he supports his speculations with footnotes referring to the accounts of actual polar explorers such as Charles Francis Hall, Fridtjof Nansen, and Robert Peary. Emerson also quotes from the Bible to support his Garden of Eden theories, which are largely derived from William Fairfield Warren’s 1885 nonfiction book Paradise Found: The Cradle of the Human Race at the North Pole.

I enjoyed the deathbed memoir format of the work, with Olaf Jansen as narrator, and even the footnotes add to the fun. The problem is, Olaf and his dad barely spend any time in the Inner World (two years for them, but only a chapter and a half for the reader), so Emerson really doesn’t have a whole lot to say about what’s going on in there. Most of the book focuses on the getting there and the getting back, which is mostly just about a ship navigating through icebergs. Fans of early science fiction might enjoy the campiness of this work, but it never really lives up to its ambitious premise. Whereas Verne or H. G. Wells could have developed the idea into a full-fledged narrative with engaging characters, Emerson’s story never really takes off.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Miss Lulu Bett by Zona Gale

Surprisingly compelling Midwestern realism
Zona Gale was born in Portage, Wisconsin. After several years writing for newspapers in Milwaukee and New York, she returned to her hometown to embark on a literary career. Drawing from the life she lived, Gale penned realist novels and stories depicting small-town Midwestern life. Her bestselling novel, Miss Lulu Bett, was published in 1920. Later that same year Gale adapted the work into a play, for which she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1921. A silent film adaptation soon followed. I am reviewing the novel, not the play.

Miss Lulu Bett, aged 34 and unmarried, lives in the household of her sister Ina, who is married to Dwight Herbert Deacon, a dentist and justice of the peace in the town of Warbleton. The Deacons have two daughters, and Ina and Lulu’s mother, Mrs. Bett, also lives with the family. Since Lulu has no source of income, she lives rent-free under the good graces of Dwight, who never lets her forget it. Dwight and Ina essentially treat Lulu like an unpaid servant. She cooks and cleans for her room and board, receives no allowance, and rarely ever even leaves the house. When word arrives that Dwight’s brother Ninian will be visiting from Oregon, Dwight facetiously teases Lulu that Ninian might just might want to snatch Lulu up for his wife. While such insinuations at first make Lulu embarrassed and uncomfortable, she can’t help but entertain any fantasy that might release her from her compulsory dependence on Dwight.

This novel is essentially a study of a small-town spinster’s life and a critique of the social order that denies her independence and dignity. As a work of Midwestern realism, Gale’s novel might immediately draw comparisons to Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, but the tone is far different. This is no lighthearted comedy or satire; some of the scenes get downright uncomfortable. Rather than making fun of small-town life and simple middle-class folk, Gale sympathizes with her characters and reveals the extraordinary drama in ordinary lives. Her writing is more akin to the realism of Theodore Dreiser in novels like Sister Carrie or Jenny Gerhardt. Unlike Dreiser, however, who writes about the social conditions of womanhood as a keen observer, Gale has lived the life of a small-town Midwestern woman. She knows firsthand the restrictive mores under which her feminine protagonist lives. Gale didn’t get married until she was 54, eight years after the publication of Miss Lulu Bett, so she has an intimate knowledge of the title character’s feelings and concerns. The frustration that Gale expresses in this novel over the lack of freedom and opportunity for women has an urgency and poignancy that goes beyond well-intentioned empathy. Though Lulu Bett may be meek and mild, one senses the rebel in Zona Gale.

As an enthusiast of American literary realism, this work was a very pleasant surprise for me. The settings, characters, and relationships all bear a feeling of frank authenticity, and its discussion of women’s issues stands as a relevant historical document of its time. The dialogue is thoughtful and clever, and the plot moves in unexpected directions for most of its length. The novel’s one flaw is its ending, which is just too easy. Instead of a depressing slice of reality or a stirring declaration of independence, the plot is capped off with a rather formulaic resolution. (The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, from what Wikipedia tells me, had a different ending that seems an improvement.) In Gale’s hands, however, even a contrived plot element is handled sensitively and feels emotionally genuine. Though Miss Lulu Bett achieved financial success in print, on stage, and on screen, it doesn’t pander to the crowd and was likely challenging for audiences of its day. Times have thankfully changed since then, but a century later this is still a compelling read.

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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Mogens and Other Stories by Jens Peter Jacobsen

Danish modernist pioneer
Jens Peter Jacobsen
Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-1885) was an important writer in Scandinavian literature’s transition from romanticism to modernism. Jacobsen was a scientist by trade, and he died at a rather young age, so his career in literature was brief. His entire literary output consists of two novels—Marie Grubbe (1876) and Niels Lyhne (1880)—one volume of poetry, and a handful of short stories. Four of these stories are collected in the English-language volume Mogens and Other Stories, translated by Anna Grabow and published in 1921.

Jacobsen’s scientific and atheistic mindset is evident in his literary works, which tend toward naturalism, a school of early modern realism influenced by recent developments in science, particularly Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Jacobsen’s specific discipline was botany, and plant imagery is often prominent in his writings, particularly in the story “Mogens,” in which the blooming and withering of vegetation charts the change of seasons and the passage of time in human relationships. In this story, a councillor and his daughter Camilla venture into the country on a leisure trip. There they meet a young local named Mogens, with whom Camilla eventually falls in love. References to Cape Trafalgar would seem to situate the story in Spain, though Mogens is clearly a Danish name. What starts out as an idyllic romance turns into a more profound meditation on love, loss, and redemption. Mogens, like Jacobsen, is also an atheist whose faith lies in nature rather than in deity. “Mogens” is the longest selection in this volume, taking up half the book’s length, and it is also the collection’s best story.

On to something completely different, “The Plague in Bergamo” seems to be set in medieval times or perhaps some unspecified dystopian future. When a plague strikes an isolated town, the inhabitants go into a rapid moral decline, making their city the new Sodom or Gomorrah. A procession of devout religious penitents marches in to hold a service begging God for mercy. The message preached, however, does not follow the typical church doctrine. Instead, it reflects Jacobsen’s antithetical views on religion. This makes for an odd story, powerful yet confusing. Another unusual entry is “There Should Have Been Roses.” Stylistically this is a very modern piece, with a feel reminiscent of Katherine Anne Porter. The story has no real plot. It is more like a description of a stage set—an old manor house, a decaying wall covered in foliage (again with the plant motif)—where a scene might take place. The imagery is rather romantic, but expressed in avant-garde prose.

The final selection, “Mrs. Fonss,” returns to the more realistic style of “Mogens.” A Danish widow is traveling with her two children in Avignon, France. There she meets an old boyfriend from her youth, and they decide to get married. The drama springs from the teenaged children’s reaction to this decision. Jacobsen’s take on the situation is by no means sappy or clichéd. This is a fine work of naturalist writing, but the behavior of some of the characters seems too extreme to be realistic.

Overall, this is an impressive offering by Jacobsen, though not quite as good as his novel Niels Lyhne. One wishes he would have lived longer to produce more fine literature. The English translation is a bit clunky at times, making for uncomfortable reading. In the hands of a better English-language prose stylist, this book would likely merit a higher rating.

Stories in this collection

The Plague in Bergamo 
There Should Have Been Roses 
Mrs. Fonss

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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Mantle and Other Stories by Nikolai Gogol

Russian satire and Ukrainian folklore
Nikolai Gogol
The Mantle and Other Stories is an English-language collection of short fiction by Russian author Nikolai Gogol. The date of publication for this volume is unclear, but the five stories in the collection were originally published in Russia from 1831 to 1842. The title selection “The Mantle” is perhaps better known as “The Overcoat.” In addition to Gogol’s writing, this volume also includes a preface by French author Prosper Mérimée, a distinguished crafter of short stories himself. The funny thing about this preface is that Mérimée delivers a quite unflattering critique of Gogol’s writing. In fact, throughout the entire essay he goes on and on about all the things he doesn’t like about Gogol’s stories: Gogol takes satire to far, to the point where it becomes farce. Gogol’s characters depart from reality to become mere caricatures. Gogol’s humor is too broad; his criticism too general and too severe. Gogol’s short stories have a “vagueness” that makes them feel like “experiments” rather than mature works. This preface by Mérimée was likely reproduced from a previous publication, and it is a very odd choice on the part of the editor to include it in this volume. Nevertheless, after reading this collection, I mostly agree with Mérimée.

For roughly the first half of his career, Gogol wrote stories set in his native Ukraine. His writings of the latter half of his career are mostly set in St. Petersburg. This collection reverses the chronology and presents the St. Petersburg stories first. “The Mantle” is about a meek government clerk who is the butt of jokes at his office. Given his limited means, he gets upset when he discovers that he needs to buy a new overcoat, but once he purchases the garment he becomes rather obsessed with it. This satire of government bureaucracy has a tendency toward broad humor and feels like a 19th century Russian counterpart to the film Office Space. The comedy is even more outlandish in “The Nose,” which begins with a barber finding a nose in a loaf of bread. Its bizarre premise in a way calls to mind strange works by Franz Kafka like The Metamorphosis, but without the existentialism, “The Nose” is too absurd to even function as satire and just comes across as silly. “Memoirs of a Madman” (a.k.a. “Diary of a Madman”) is another bureaucratic satire featuring a low-level government functionary. Given the title, one wishes this might have been a realistic look at mental illness, but instead, once this madman goes off the deep end his narrative devolves into pure farce, good for a few chuckles and not much else.

The Ukrainian stories are more satisfying because they at least make an attempt at regional realism. In “May Night,” which takes place in a Cossack village, a young man swoons with love for his sweetheart until he finds out his father is also trying to woo her. Gogol still makes fun of his subjects—provincial small-town folk—but the story is relatively engaging. It includes some slapstick scenes and some supernatural elements drawn from folk tales. “The Viy” is also based on folklore, the title being the name of a supernatural being. Three seminary students from Kiev ramble into a remote village in Cossack country, where one has an encounter with a witch. This horror story is the most successful entry in this collection, probably because it takes its subject more seriously than the others.

Gogol is one of Russia’s most highly regarded writers, but personally this collection just didn’t appeal to me. Though he was considered a pioneering realist, in most of these selections any realism is undermined by sheer absurdity. Humor doesn’t always translate well between cultures and over centuries, and despite my enthusiasm for classic literature I fear many of Gogol’s witticisms were lost on me.

Stories in this collection
Preface by Prosper Mérimée 
The Mantle 
The Nose
Memoirs of a Madman 
May Night 
The Viy

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Friday, January 10, 2020

The Danger Trail by James Oliver Curwood

Moronic mystery in Manitoba
Michigan author James Oliver Curwood specialized in the writing of Northwesterns, a genre comprised of wilderness adventures set in Canada and Alaska. In this genre, Curwood was second only to Jack London in terms of popularity and financial success. His 1910 novel The Danger Trail, however, gives no indication that such success was deserved. This mystery adventure novel set in northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba is an irksomely tedious and witless affair.

After years of hard work, engineer John Howland finally gets his big break when he is hired to manage the completion of the Hudson Bay Railroad. Construction on this railway across Manitoba from Le Pas to Churchill began in 1910, but you won’t learn that from Curwood’s book because it has very little to do with the actual railroad. The novel opens with Howland, a Chicago native, reporting for duty in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. There he meets a beautiful and mysterious woman named Meleese, a damsel in distress who asks for his assistance. She lures him into the woods, where he is jumped, knocked unconscious, and tied up by a gang of thugs led by a shifty Frenchman named Jean Croisset.

This sort of thing happens to Howland not once but four or five times over the course of the novel. Through chapter after chapter of capture and escape, he occasionally encounters Meleese, who tells him he must return southward, or he will be killed. He repeatedly asks her what she means. Who wants to kill him and why? She refuses to answer, and Howland seems OK with that, as he never presses her enough to get a satisfying response. It is not OK for the reader, however, who has to sit through these monotonous and unproductive exchanges. Howland refuses to run from his persecutors and instead decides to pursue them into northern Manitoba. From there, most of the story consists of altercations between Howland and Croisset in which the two relentlessly threaten each other with “I will kill you,” yet neither manages to make good on his promise.

Howland may be a macho he-man outdoorsman and pugilist, but when it comes to love he is as virginal and ingenuous as any heroine of a Harlequin Romance novel. He falls in love with Meleese at first sight, even though she keeps luring him into deadly traps. There is no conflict between the two characters, no snappy banter or sexual tension. Like a stray lamb, he simply devotes himself to her from the start, blindly and blandly.

Curwood doesn’t seem to realize that there is more to building suspense than simply keeping the reader in the dark. He doesn’t parcel out any clues, so the reader simply has no idea what is going on until all is explained in the second to last chapter. Even that explanation turns out to be a bust when the motivation for all this abduction and violence proves totally pointless. Other than maybe one or two well-written fight scenes, The Danger Trail really has nothing going for it. I have read Hardy Boys mysteries with more complex and intelligent plots.

Curwood has written better books than this, among them The Gold Hunters and The Alaskan. His work is nowhere in the same league with London’s, however, and this book is far inferior to the Northwesterns of Stewart Edward White (The Blazed Trail) or Harold Bindloss (The Lure of the North).

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