Friday, January 20, 2017

The Gold Hunters by James Oliver Curwood



Mystery in the Canadian North
The Gold Hunters, published in 1909, is an adventure novel by American author James Oliver Curwood. As I was reading the book, I got the feeling it might be a sequel because the characters kept referring to events in the past. Upon investigation, I found that, sure enough, it follows Curwood’s 1908 novel The Wolf Hunters, which was made into a John Wayne movie (1934’s The Trail Beyond). Despite the recurring characters, even though I hadn’t read the earlier book, I had no trouble getting into The Gold Hunters.

Roderick Drew is an American enjoying an extended visit at a trading post in the wild country near Hudson Bay, somewhere north of Montreal. His closest companions are two indigenous Canadians, one a young man Rod’s age named Wabigoon, the other an elder gentleman named Mukoki. Apparently, The Wolf Hunters ended with the three adventurers prying a treasure map to a fortune in gold from the fingers of a skeleton. Now they’ve decided to follow that map where it will lead, in hopes of finding untold riches hidden in the remote wilderness. Before they can begin their treasure hunt, however, they must first rescue Rod’s sweetheart, the Indian maiden Minnetaki, from the clutches of the evil tribe known as the Woongas.

Reading this novel today, it’s hard to tell whether it was intended for an audience of teenage boys or grown adults. I would tend to assume the latter, since there are some beautiful passages of nature writing that clearly demonstrate lofty literary aspirations. The Gold Hunters is obviously influenced by the works of James Fenimore Cooper. The trio of heroes bears a suspicious resemblance to the triumvirate of Natty, Chingachgook, and Uncas from The Last of the Mohicans, while the Woongas are blatant stand-ins for the Mingoes. Curwood even repeatedly refers to Mukoki as “pathfinder.” As far as the adventure narrative goes, the action here is too squeaky clean to be mistaken for Jack London’s dark and violent tales of the North, yet wilder than the more genteel boreal romances of Canadian author Harold Bindloss. Curwood’s vision of wilderness strikes a healthy balance between danger and wonder.

What makes the book fun is that it’s really a mystery story that just happens to be set in the wilderness. You never know where the trail will lead, and there are surprises around every bend. Curwood doesn’t haul out the usual lazy adventure-novel clichés. The story is more imaginative than a run-of-the-mill treasure hunt yarn. At times Curwood’s prose lacks clarity, and it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. How’d they escape that whirlpool again? What did they use to get down into the chasm? Overall I liked the novel, but I would have enjoyed it more if I didn’t have to decipher Curwood’s murky action sequences. There's also one odd scene that’s so unintentionally(?) homoerotic it reads like a Saturday Night Live parody.

The ending of The Gold Hunters clearly sets up the characters for another sequel, one that hints at something akin to an Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure. Whether that sequel was ever produced, and what its title could be, I do not know. Nevertheless, as a stand-alone novel, The Gold Hunters is a pretty good read for those who like classic adventure stories.
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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Maigret in Montmartre by Georges Simenon



Sex, drugs, and Maigret
Maigret in Montmartre was originally published in 1951 under the French title of Maigret au Picratt’s. It has since been published in English under the title of Maigret and the Strangled Stripper. This is the 64th work in author Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret series of 103 novels and short stories.

As evident from the aforementioned titles, the plot involves a dead stripper who worked at a club in Montmartre named Picratt’s. One night after work, the young woman, named Arlette, shows up at her local police station and reports that she heard two men in the club talking about how they are planning to murder a countess. Her story is taken seriously enough that she is sent to Maigret’s office for further questioning. As day breaks and she begins to sober up, however, she starts to back away from her story and wants to leave. Without the corpse of a countess, the police have no reason to hold her, and she is allowed to depart. A few hours later she is found strangled to death. There must have been some truth to her story, since it got her killed, but Maigret has no idea to which countess she was referring, and all he knows about the two killers in the club is that one of them was named Oscar.

In his search for Arlette’s murderer, Maigret spends a fair amount of time at Picratt’s, where the owners, a married couple, and their young women employees share a kind of dysfunctional family relationship. Maigret actually seems to enjoy the place, though the stories he uncovers there contain sordid details of prostitution and morphine. All of the Maigret mysteries are somewhat dark, but this one is darker than most. Compared to American film noir of the same era it’s really quite nonchalant in its discussions of vice. As a thriller, it’s an intelligent precursor to the bleak serial killer movies of which we see so many in cinema these days.

The plot device of the unidentified countess is at first reminiscent of 1944’s Maigret and the Fortuneteller (a.k.a. Signé Picpus), in which a man learns of the impending murder of a fortune teller, but nobody knows which fortune teller. Despite the similar premise, this story develops into a different book entirely. Maigret in Montmartre isn’t really a mystery in the sense of Simenon giving you clues and then you figure it out. It’s more of a police procedural in which you follow Maigret on his quest for truth. Over time, details are revealed about the victims and suspects, and you become intimately involved in their lives. It’s less cerebral than some Maigret books, but more visceral.

I was hooked from the first chapter, and I really didn’t want to put the book down until I saw it through to the end. The Maigret novels are consistently very good. One would be hard pressed to find a mediocre mystery in the bunch. I wouldn’t say Maigret in Montmartre is the best in the series, but if you’re looking for a thrilling detective story you will be more than satisfied with this exemplary file from the Inspector’s casebook.
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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe



From excelsior to excess
At first I was a little skeptical about the subtitle of Sean Howe’s 2012 book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. I grew up reading Marvel Comics and have read other books on the company’s history. After finishing Howe’s version, however, I’m happy to report that his investigative journalism into Marvel’s past is quite impressive, and the book makes for a truly fascinating read.

For the first couple chapters, I wasn’t so sure. In Chapter 1 Howe covers the entire history of Marvel, formerly known as Timely Comics, up through the 1950s. That’s the entire Golden Age in less than 30 pages! Howe isn’t really concerned, however, with the myriad genres that Timely used to publish—western, horror, romance, funny animals, and so on. This is really a history of what Marvel is most famous for—the superheroes, beginning with the Silver Age pantheon created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and in some cases, Steve Ditko. Chapter 2 covers the birth of the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, the Avengers, X-Men, and Spider-Man. Howe’s recaps of origin stories and mythologies get a little long-winded, leaving one to wonder when the “untold story” is going to begin.

From that point on, however, the book really hits its stride and becomes incredibly addictive, with vivid details and surprising revelations on every page. This isn’t a literary history of Marvel’s creative glories, but rather a true business history, replete with mergers, acquisitions, and struggles for administrative power. I’ll confess some of the financial and legal details were over my head, and at times, I could have used a little less detail. Over the course of superhero comics history, writers and artists continually defected from Marvel to DC and back again, and Howe keeps you apprised of each and every arrival and departure. Nevertheless, it’s better to commit sins of excess than omission, and Howe’s thorough, behind-the-scenes exposé of life inside the Marvel bullpen is probably the next-best thing to working there.

Though written in the third person, the book has the feel of an oral history, likely because Howe interviewed about 150 former Marvel employees. Howe lets all sides get their two cents in without passing judgment. The long-fought battle between Lee and Kirby over creative ownership of certain characters, for example, is handled in a fairly balanced manner. Howe diligently follows the trail of rancor, and neither party comes out smelling like a rose. Stan the Man comes across as somewhat pathetically clueless, while King Kirby is depicted as taking his justifiable grievances to delusional excess. In general, Howe subtly favors individual creators over big business, but he always presents both sides of an argument.

Though Howe celebrates the company’s creative triumphs, his overall picture of the Marvel empire is rather unflattering. As he charts the trajectory of the publisher through boom and bust periods, he makes it pretty clear that over time the company has sacrificed creative quality in favor of commercialism, diluting the integrity of its treasured characters for a quick buck. As one of the many fans Marvel lost in the ‘90s, I have a tendency to agree with him, which is perhaps why I enjoyed the book so much. There are other good books on Marvel history out there, like the self-congratulatory Marvel Chronicle: A Year by Year History or Mark Evanier’s excellent biography Kirby: King of Comics, but if you’re looking for one book that’s going to give you the clearest, most complete picture of the Marvel story, this is it.
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Friday, January 13, 2017

Presidential Agent by Upton Sinclair



Lanny Budd, paranormal secret agent
Presidential Agent is the fifth book in Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series, which chronicles the adventures of a wealthy American art dealer in Europe who gets actively involved in some of the most important events in 20th-century world history. (Take care not to confuse this one with the almost identically titled eighth book in the series, Presidential Mission.) Published in 1944, Presidential Agent takes place from 1937 to 1938, and covers critical events in Europe leading up to World War II, including Hitler’s forced annexations of Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Through a mutual friend, Lanny is introduced to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who grants him a private meeting in the White House. Because of Lanny’s extensive travels in Europe and his acquaintance with many world leaders and dignitaries, FDR finds him to be an invaluable source of information. He asks Lanny to be his eyes and ears in Europe and periodically report back to him on the events taking place there. He even gives Lanny a code name, Agent 103. At first Lanny functions mostly as a news service, but the more he witnesses firsthand the terrifying threat of the Nazis the more involved he becomes in active espionage. Having previously met Adolph Hitler and Hermann Göring, Lanny cultivates his friendships with these two Nazi leaders and also develops a camaraderie with Hitler’s Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess. Though a socialist at heart, Lanny must pretend to embrace the Nazi party line in order to acquire valuable intelligence. Beyond helping FDR, Lanny has personal reasons for embarking on this dangerous mission. In the last novel, he found love in the form of a German Jewish artist who works for the underground resistance. She has now gone missing, possibly held by the Nazis in a concentration camp, and Lanny will risk everything to find her.

Once again, Sinclair’s leftist view of history yields fascinating insights into the course of world events. Hitler’s taking of Austria and Czechoslovakia might be covered in a few sentences in a typical history textbook, but Sinclair really gives a detailed rendering of how these events gradually unfolded. The reader gains a clear understanding of how the Nazis came to power while many Americans and Europeans either welcomed them as saviors from communism or timidly buried their heads in the sand. The most disappointing aspect of the novel, as usual, is Sinclair’s indulgence in his fascination with the paranormal, which is even more evident here than in the previous books. One of Lanny’s hobbies is communicating with the dead through séances. Because Hitler and Hess are also interested in the occult, Lanny is able to exploit their mutual interest in spirit communication as a way to get close to them. While that is a valid way to advance the story, instances where séance revelations actually influence the course of events only thwart the credibility of what is otherwise a very intelligent, thoroughly researched historical novel.

I had ten per cent of the ebook file left when, to my surprise, the book just ended—the remainder being a preview of the next book. Presidential Agent feels like an incomplete novel meant to function as a bridge between the books before and after. By this point in the series, Sinclair seems to have stopped trying to give these novels a beginning, middle, and end, and simply treats them all as one long book. Some plot lines are resolved halfway through, while new threads are only begun. The books in this series really don’t function as independent novels, so the reader has to commit for the long haul. Though I have my reservations about each individual installment, I can’t help but admire the entire series as a monumental achievement. For those interested in 20th-century world history, the Lanny Budd series is worth the effort.
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Monday, January 9, 2017

Readings from Modern Mexican Authors by Frederick Starr



Mexico’s 19th-century Renaissance men
Federico Gamboa
The title Readings from Modern Mexican Authors may lead one to believe this book, originally published in 1904, to be a collection of short stories. Surprisingly, however, the majority of its contents consists of nonfiction. Editor Frederick Starr has compiled the writings of 29 Mexican authors into this compendium. About two-thirds of the selected works are essays on the geography, history, and indigenous culture of Mexico, as well as biography and literary criticism. Only the final third of the book consists of fiction, in the form of excerpts from novels and stories.

To describe the selections included here as “Modern” may seem premature to today’s readers, who won’t recognize them as modernism. Rather, the use of that term in the title indicates that all the featured writers were alive and active at the time of publication, with the exception of two recently deceased. From a literary standpoint, the individual works included here are not particularly impressive or memorable. This is likely due not to any shortcomings of the authors, but rather to the fact that these are disembodied chunks of prose that Starr has excised from longer works. The fictional selections, in particular, are not served well by this format. Starr typically provides a synopsis of a novel, thus spoiling the ending for the reader, before offering a few seemingly arbitrarily selected scenes.

Far more interesting are the short introductory biographies that Starr has written about each author. These nineteenth-century men of letters were true Renaissance men. They come from all corners of the Mexican nation, from cities big and small. Most were trained to be lawyers, some educators, a few as medical doctors. Almost all served in their state or national legislatures or supreme courts. Many dabbled in scientific as well as literary pursuits. Politically, they represent both the liberal and conservative sides of the Mexican spectrum. Some were supporters and confidants of Benito Juárez, Emperor Maximilian I, or Porfirio Díaz. In sum total, the biographical sketches of the 29 luminaries give an interesting picture of Mexico’s intelligentsia at the turn of the last century. In their works, these writers in turn highlight additional historical and literary figures from their country’s past.

Casual readers looking for picturesque tales of Old Mexico will not find them in this book. It will really only appeal to those readers with an active interest in Mexican history and culture. This collection encapsulates an interesting period in Mexican letters just prior to the dawn of true modernism. The Revolution had yet to take place, and Mexico’s cultural trajectory was at a turning point. Reading through these works, one can feel inklings of tension between leftist and right-wing factions, Spanish and indigenous influences, elitist and proletarian sensibilities.

Though Starr’s choice of works often seems haphazard or sloppy, the writers represented here deserve respect as cultural precursors to the likes of Mariano Azuela, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, and Octavio Paz. After experiencing this volume, the reader is inclined to agree with Ignacio M. Altamirano, a writer of Nahua heritage, when he points out, “There are talents in our land which can compete with those which shine in the old world.” If nothing else, this collection can serve as a starting point for those who wish to conduct further investigation into Mexico’s literary riches.
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Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Best of 2016



Top ten reads of the year
As 2016 draws to a close, it’s time to take a look back at some of the best books that have appeared here at this blog over the past twelve months. I spent the last year working on a master’s degree, so I didn’t have as much time for pleasure reading as I would have liked, but I ended up reviewing about 90 books for Old Books by Dead Guys. This year’s top crop features a surprising 6-out-of-10 preponderance of science fiction, supplemented by two Georges Simenon thrillers, one nonfiction book, and only one true pre-modernist classic, from Balzac.

The ten titles below are books that I have read (or reread) and reviewed in the past calendar year. Of course, since this is Old Books by Dead Guys, many of these works were published decades ago, but some of them were new to me and may be new to you. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.


  

Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac (1846)
An aging spinster schemes to get revenge on her more fortunate cousin by teeming up with a beautiful seductress who robs men of their money and morals. Balzac gives us his most cynical view of Parisian society. Just about everyone in the book is despicably greedy, corruption and depravity are commonplace, and love is just another commodity to be traded. It all adds up to an immensely entertaining read, with a few valuable moral lessons taught along the way.

R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karl Capek (1920)
Czech playwright Capek was the first to coin the term “robot.” This science fiction drama is the precursor to all the movies you’ve seen and books you’ve read about robots becoming self-aware, but Capek’s take on the ethics of artificial intelligence feels remarkably fresh almost a century later. The play is also quite lively and entertaining, with an absurdist sense of humor reminiscent of the Dada movement.

The Night at the Crossroads by Georges Simenon (1931)
When Parisian police detective Inspector Maigret is sent to investigate a murder at a country crossroads, the result is something akin to an American gangster film noir. Though usually quite patient and methodical in his investigations, here in the seventh installment of the series Maigret’s a regular action hero, dodging bullets and punching out perps. This may be atypical of the 100 or so adventures in Maigret’s casebook, but it’s one of the more entertaining ones.

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl (1948)
An epic tale of adventure, all the more thrilling because it’s true. In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and a crew of five sailed a balsa wood raft from Peru to Polynesia to support his theory that the Pacific islands were settled by South Americans. His account of this bold archaeological experiment makes for a wild and exciting ride.

Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon (1948)
One of Simenon’s roman durs (hard novels), Dirty Snow is about as dark as noir gets. Taking place in what might be Nazi-occupied France and told from the point of view of a 19-year-old thief and killer, this excellent and disturbing novel calls to mind Camus and Kafka as it transcends the crime thriller genre and ventures into existential philosophy. Possibly one of the best novels of the mid-20th century.

Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin (1956)
This one is a throwback to my childhood. Danny Dunn was the star of 15 novels by Williams and Abrashkin, published from 1956 to 1977. Danny is a precocious boy who loves science. Luckily for him, a real live scientist, Professor Bullfinch, is a lodger in his mother’s house. Danny and his friend Joe usually end up commandeering the Professor’s futuristic inventions and getting themselves into a mess of trouble. This first volume, about space travel, is good fun for kids and a great trip down memory lane for those who grew up reading the series, which is now being rereleased as ebooks by Open Road Media.

Omnilingual by H. Beam Piper (1957)
H. Beam Piper’s sci-fi adventures of the 1950s and ’60s are consistently inspired and exciting, and here is one of his best novellas. This story of archaeologists investigating an extinct culture on Mars really captures the thrill of exploration and the joy of scientific discovery. All of Piper’s work is in the public domain, so you can read it for free, or get his complete works in one download for 99 cents with The H. Beam Piper Megapack from Wildside Press.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
The grim future presented by Atwood in this dystopian science fiction novel is scarier than most because it feels like it could actually happen in our lifetime if we’re not careful. The story is narrated by a woman forced into servitude as a surrogate birthing slave, or “Handmaid,” in an ultraconservative society ruled by a religious oligarchy. This is a powerful and moving novel that casts a dark reflection on the state of women’s rights and civil liberties in America today.

I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume 1 (2015)
Clifford D. Simak, one of the most respected and award-winning science fiction authors of the 20th century, was active from the early 1930s to the mid-1980s. Open Road Media aims to reprint all of his short stories and novellas in a 14-volume series, The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, available in ebook and paperback. Simak’s science fiction was truly visionary for its time, and today’s readers will find his stories show almost no signs of age. You might even run across a western or a horror story, because Simak wrote those as well. This series may be my best discovery of 2016.

The Big Front Yard and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume 2 (2015)
And Volume 2 is even better than Volume 1!

  

And since this is Old Books by Dead Guys, the top ten lists never go out of style. See also my best-of lists for 2013, 2014, and 2015. Keep on reading old books by dead guys in 2017!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Conjuror’s House: A Romance of the Free Forest by Stewart Edward White



Harsh wilderness, tame plot
Conjuror’s House, published in 1903, is a novel by Stewart Edward White, a popular American author of adventure fiction in the early 20th century. The title might lead one to believe the book has supernatural elements, but such an assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. Conjuror’s House is the unexplained name of a trading post in the remote Canadian wilderness, located where the Moose River flows into Hudson Bay in northern Ontario. Here resides Virginia Albret, a young woman who has lived her entire life in this far-flung corner of the North. Her father, Galen Albret, is the Hudson Bay Company’s head factor of the region. The isolation of the outpost invests his office with an authority far greater than a typical businessman. Albret is the only law in this land, and he rules his little kingdom with a stern hand.

A party of French and Indian trappers arrives at the post to conduct their usual business, but this time they’ve brought with them a stranger. Ned Trent is a free trader, unattached to the Hudson Bay Company, who feels the bounty of the wilderness should be free to all. Galen Albret, however, sees Trent as a poacher encroaching on the Company’s territory. The punishment for this offense is a tradition known as “La Longue Traverse.” The offender, allowed only minimal provisions and no weapon, must walk hundreds of miles through the wilderness to reach the nearest sign of civilization. As if starvation and the forces of nature weren’t enough to contend with, the sentenced man will also be hunted down by Indian trackers in the Company’s employ.

This may sound like the premise of a great Jack London novel, but this book really has more in common with the northwestern romances of Canadian author Harold Bindloss. Galen Albret may be one mean and grizzled gangster, but he still maintains the illusion of gentility in his makeshift manor house. His inner circle dresses for dinner every evening and observes the rules of etiquette, thus allowing Virginia to grow up as a proper society lady. Despite her rugged surroundings, she’s still very much a damsel waiting to be plucked from her father’s house by some knight in shining armor. Not surprisingly, she falls in love with Trent.

To its credit, the story is not entirely predictable and does offer some unexpected twists and turns. On the other hand, such departures from convention end up robbing the reader of the very action and confrontation he was hoping for. Like most of Bindloss’s books, this is primarily a Victorian romance novel that just happens to be set in the North, rather than a Jack London-esque adventure where the love story is subservient to the thrills. I really enjoyed White’s writing in the early chapters. His depiction of trading-post life is filled with interesting details, and his descriptions of the wilderness include some beautiful naturalistic passages. He may very well have a great adventure novel in his body of work, but Conjuror’s House isn’t it. Ultimately, the plot let me down as everything fell into place a little too conveniently, resolving conflicts in ways that only squandered the potential for excitement. Conjuror’s House was published the same year as London’s The Call of the Wild. While the latter novel was clearly the harbinger of a new movement in American literature, White’s novel feels like a relic of a bygone era.
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