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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Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

The Golden Age of Comics and Magic
Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay has garnered much critical acclaim, and deservedly so. This remarkable novel tells the story of Brooklyn boy Sammy Klayman and his cousin Josef Kavalier, a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. When Joe moves in with Sammy’s family, Sammy discovers his cousin’s prodigious artistic talents and decides the two should get into the comic book business. Sammy works for a novelty products company, and he persuades his boss to back their publishing venture. The creative duo of Kavalier & Clay make a big splash in the blossoming industry with their costumed hero the Escapist, a crimefighting escape artist. The character proves to be a lucrative hit, but Joe finds it difficult to enjoy his success given the uncertain fate of his family, who have remained in Prague.

Set during the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, this novel vividly depicts the period known as the Golden Age of Comic Books. The careers of Kavalier & Clay are based on the achievements of real-life comics creators like Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and Will Eisner. Kavalier is also an accomplished magician, and the book delves deeply into the history and lore of illusionists and escape artists. At this time both disciplines, comics and magic, were largely dominated by Jews, and Jewish culture and identity is also a recurring theme in the book. Chabon has crafted an ingenious story with a lot of fascinating period detail, but for much of the book’s length that story moves at a sluggish pace. Just when you feel yourself getting involved in the story, Chabon will go off on an extended flashback or digression that yanks you away from the main narrative. As soon as the reader meets the two aspiring creators, Chabon veers into an extended but important flashback to Kavalier’s young adulthood in Nazi-occupied Prague. Other sidetracks feel less relevant and necessary, however, such as stories of Harry Houdini or Salvador Dalí.

With so many balls being juggled, the story about the comics industry often feels lost in the shuffle as Chabon puts more emphasis on the magic angle and the Jewish experience of World War II. While the latter topic is essential to the story, the relentless focus on magic becomes obtrusive at times. Kavalier often dominates the book at the expense of Clay. In the novel’s engrossing final chapters, Chabon skillfully ties together all of the book’s myriad interests and subplots into a satisfying resolution. At times the story, however, with its farfetched departures from realism, inspires more admiration for the cleverness of its telling than it does empathy for its characters.

Despite such reservations, Chabon’s writing is a joy to read. Unlike so many other contemporary practitioners of fiction, there is nothing self-indulgent about his prose. The story is told in an articulate, conversational style that is intelligent without being pretentious. In each chapter, Chabon throws in one or two arcane words that most readers will have likely never heard before. Instead of being off-putting, however, it is actually fun (and easy on a Kindle) to look up these bizarre, little-used terms and discover their mysterious meanings.

The 2012 edition contains additional material under the heading of “Odds and Ends.” This includes two chapters that were deleted from the original novel and two short stories—epilogues, really—that Chabon wrote after the publication of the first edition. The deletion of the two chapters was a wise choice, as they don’t add much to the story. The epilogues are interesting but work against the intriguing uncertainty of the novel’s original ending. Nevertheless, whatever edition you get your hands on, The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier & Clay is a very enjoyable read.
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Monday, January 6, 2020

Niels Lyhne by Jens Peter Jacobsen

Atheist coming-of-age story
Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen is one of a group of writers associated with what’s known as the Modern Breakthrough in Scandinavian literature, in which several writers in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden broke away from the prevailing romanticism in European literature and forged a movement towards naturalism. French author Emile Zola is generally considered the founder of naturalism, but while he was formulating his naturalist school in Paris, Danish literary critic Georg Brandes was simultaneously spearheading a similar movement in Scandinavia. One of Brandes’s recruits was Jacobsen, whose novel Niels Lyhne was published in 1880.

While romantic literature emphasizes individualism and spirituality, naturalist literature emphasizes a more scientific view of the world in which human beings are inescapably formed, governed, and directed by natural forces. One such natural force is heredity, as Jacobsen illustrates in Niels Lyhne. The novel begins with the courtship and marriage of Niels’s parents. His mother lives a sheltered, insular, small-town life. Through a love for poetry, she finds some escape from her mundane existence and develops into an inveterate dreamer. She is attracted to Niels’s father, who comes from a wealthier and more cosmopolitan family, because he has traveled to foreign lands and gained an appreciation for arts and culture. After their marriage, however, the romance of Mr. Lyhne wears off as he becomes just another practical business man. Mrs. Lyhne than shifts her lofty dreams to her son and instills in Niels the romantic visions she can no longer share with her husband. Under her influence, Niels decides to become a poet. As he grows older, however, he finds his life drifting further and further from the idealistic dreams of his youth as his manhood is shaped by a series of events that transform those dreams into lost illusions.

Naturalism often goes hand in hand with atheism, and Jacobsen was a confirmed atheist. One of the reasons I chose to read this book is because Niels Lyhne has a reputation as a pioneering work of freethought literature. Even the introduction to the English edition of 1921, by translator Hanna Astrup Larsen, calls attention to this particular aspect of the book. While there is an atheist message to this novel, however, Jacobsen sure does make you wait for it. Other than one brief conversation about midway through the text, only the final 10 percent of the novel deals explicitly with atheism and religion. It is worth waiting for, however, as this is one of the most frank and forthright depictions of nonbelief in the literature of its time. Even so, the bulk of the novel primarily concerns itself with the various love affairs one usually finds in a coming-of-age novel. Even though Jacobsen was a professional scientist—a botanist influenced by Darwin—Niels’s adherence to atheism is based more on an emotional rejection of God over the loss of loved ones rather than on any rational philosophical basis. The book’s final chapters evoke the brutally frank detachment and deterministic fatalism one finds in the writings of Zola and his disciples. The rest of the novel, however, feels more tied to the emotionalism of the Romantic era, though in a protomodern style evocative of the early novels of Hermann Hesse or Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.

Given Jacobsen’s strong Darwinian inclinations, Niels Lyhne was not quite the freethought manifesto I was hoping for. It is still advanced for its time, however, and a worthwhile read for those who enjoy Scandinavian literature.
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Friday, January 3, 2020

Ronnie by Ronnie Wood

Multifaceted Stone
Before joining the Rolling Stones, Ronnie Wood had already enjoyed quite a career in rock and roll, having previously played with The Birds, The Creation, The Jeff Beck Group, The Faces, and Rod Stewart, in addition to recording his own very good solo albums. As the junior member of the Stones, Wood is often seen as right-hand man to Keith Richards. The latter could learn a thing or two from his underrated compadre, however. Richards’s 2009 autobiography Life may have been a literary smash, but Wood’s 2007 autobiography Ronnie is really a much more entertaining and satisfying read.

In Ronnie, Wood charts his trajectory from blue-collar upbringing to multimillionaire superstar in charming, articulate, and humorous prose. Unlike Richards, whose biography makes him seem like a rather difficult man with an enormous ego and a dangerous temper, Wood comes across as a truly likable and humble guy that one would really enjoy hanging out with, a good-time bloke who gets along with just about everyone. He has formed friendships and played music with almost all the biggest names in rock history, as well as many younger up-and-coming artists. He also reveals several surprising farther-afield friendships with celebrities like Tony Curtis, Muhammad Ali, and John Belushi. Wood is also an accomplished visual artist, and his forays into the art world add an extra dimension of interest to his narrative. In fact, he has often had to make a living from his art after having blown his Stones money on bad investments. The book is illustrated with Wood’s drawings, as well as many color photographs.

The best thing about this book, however, is that Wood possesses the unique perspective of having been both a fan and a member of the Rolling Stones. He provides the vivid behind-the-scenes look at the band that Keith seems to have purposely avoided in Life. While covering the infamous conflicts in Stones history, Wood doesn’t dwell on them, but rather chooses to focus on the sense of brotherhood between the members and how they have been there for each other over the years. The reader gets a personal inside look at what goes on when the Stones get together backstage, in their hotel suites, or at family weddings. He also provides valuable insight into the sheer insane scale of the Rolling Stones enterprise, and what it is like to be at the center of the publicity and marketing madness that has engulfed the band since the 1980s.

While this is one of the most fun rock-and-roll memoirs I’ve ever read, it may not be the most candid. Wood does discuss his alcohol and drug use, but doesn’t delve too deeply into its negative effects. On the one hand, he doesn’t brag about his substance abuse (as Richards does in Life). On the other hand, he doesn’t try to absolve his transgressions with a shower of mea culpas (see Eric Clapton’s autobiography Clapton). Wood doesn’t whine about his problems or agonize over his sins, but he does appear to have grown up and learned valuable lessons over time. By the end of the book, he appears to be a contented man who puts family first.

That brings us to the book’s main fault, which is prematurity. In 2007, when Ronnie was published, Wood still considered his wife Jo the love of his life. Since then, he has left her for a much younger woman, married another, has been back in rehab at least once, and was treated for lung cancer. It would be interesting to hear what Wood has to say about his later years. As far as things stood in 2007, however, Ronnie offers a very satisfying account of his crazy life up to that point. Any fan of the Stones should not overlook this engaging memoir.
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