Monday, October 24, 2016

The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition . . . Socialism by John Nichols

Restores pride to a much-maligned label
The term “socialism” has gotten a bad rap in recent years. In current American political discourse, we often hear it bandied about as if it were an insult, even by those who don’t seem to fully understand what the word means. With his 2011 book The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition . . . Socialism, journalist John Nichols hopes to free the term from this newfound pejorative connotation by reminding us that socialism has always held an important place in American political thought.

A few examples of the socialist influence on American politics are obvious—medicare, social security, and the New Deal are often cited as such—but Nichols goes well beyond the expected. He demonstrates, at several points in American history, how confirmed socialists played integral roles in politics and policymaking. He begins by discussing the poetry of Walt Whitman and then turns to the philosophy of Thomas Paine, a radical whose proto-socialistic thought had a profound impact on the formation of the early American republic. The most fascinating chapter discusses Abraham Lincoln, who corresponded with Karl Marx and whose politics were strongly influenced by socialist newspaper editor Horace Greeley.

Nichols also discusses socialism at the state and local levels, focusing particularly on Milwaukee’s long history of socialist politicians and the progressive tradition in Wisconsin. This leads to a chapter on Victor Berger’s battles against the Espionage Act, a draconian law aimed at stifling dissent. Moving into the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, Nichols devotes ample coverage to socialist A. Philip Randolph’s impact on the Civil Rights Movement and Michael Harrington’s contributions to the War on Poverty. The book closes with an afterword that sums up the state of socialism in America today.

Although I enjoyed this book and learned much from it, each chapter overstays its welcome a bit. Once Nichols makes his points he has a tendency to hammer them home repeatedly. The textual excerpts he chooses to support his arguments are unnecessarily extensive, often pages in length when a paragraph or two would have sufficed. I would have preferred more chapters on more topics, even if each were treated with less exhaustive depth. By starting with Whitman, Nichols gives the reader the idea that he will be addressing issues of cultural as well as political identity. However, the rest of the book sticks entirely to politics, and Nichols never covers, for example, the influence of socialism on American literature, and vice versa. Political/artistic figures like Upton Sinclair or Jack London are barely mentioned, if at all.

Nevertheless, this really is an inspiring and enlightening book for anyone who has entertained any sympathy toward the political perspective encompassed by the “S” word. In an era when the word “socialism” is hurled as an inflammatory accusation against Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama, our nation needs a book like this. (While he clearly admires Sanders, Nichols has little good to say about Obama, whom he sees, not surprisingly, as having let down the Left.) American discourse ought to be diverse and inclusive enough to allow input from the left end of the political spectrum. That’s what Nichols is aiming for with this book, and America would have a healthier political climate if more people would read it.
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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon

Pitch black noir
Georges Simenon is best known for his Maigret series of detective novels, but he also published what he referred to as “romans durs” (literally, “hard novels”). These are darker psychological novels that, although they still often fall into the genre of crime stories, transcend mere genre fiction and aspire to the realm of literature. That’s not say that Simenon’s usual brand of crime and detective fiction is lacking in literary merit, but if Dirty Snow is any indication, the romans durs are clearly a cut above the rest of his prodigious body of work. Originally published in 1948 under the French title La Neige était sale, Dirty Snow is a remarkable novel. I’ve only read 14 of Simenon’s books so far—a mere drop in the bucket of the 500 he is rumored to have written—but I feel confident in saying that this has got to be one of his best, if not his absolute masterpiece.

Though written in the third person, the story is told from the perspective of Frank Friedmaier, a 19-year-old thug and thief. The book opens with Frank recalling the first time he ever killed a man, for no other reason than just to prove to himself that he could do it. Frank lives in a whorehouse, run by his mother—not off in some red light district, but in a typical working class apartment building. In a city under foreign occupation during wartime, mother and son are prospering, which draws the ire of their neighbors, who are starving and cold. Through his thoughts and actions, Frank clearly demonstrates himself to be a sociopath, with no empathy or sympathy for other human beings, and no apparent concern for himself, for that matter. Given his seemingly utter lack of conscience, morality, and emotion, how does one explain the strange obsession he develops toward his neighbor, an unassuming street car driver named Holst?

Given the author’s nationality and time of publication, I assume this novel was set in Nazi-occupied France. However, I can’t say for sure whether that’s ever explicitly stated in the narrative. Simenon refers to the invading regime simply as the Occupation. This ambiguity gives the novel a timeless, dystopian quality. It could apply to any nation in wartime, in any era. The shocking thing about the book is that the Nazis, or whoever they are, aren’t really even the villains in the story. Frank is the bad guy; in fact, he’s one of the most despicable human beings you’ll ever encounter in literature, yet you can’t help but identify with him and be compelled by his story.

It’s hard to believe this book was written in 1948, considering how dark, psychologically brutal, and nihilistic it is. The American noir of Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane seem cartoony by comparison. It even makes Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, also published in 1948, seem tame. Critics often liken Simenon to Albert Camus, and there’s definitely some validity to that comparison, but Dirty Snow feels more like one of Franz Kafka’s dark visions. Although it’s a far cry from Maigret, at its heart Dirty Snow is still very much a baffling mystery, as the reader struggles to understand the reasons behind certain events and to figure out just what the hell is going on in Frank’s brain. In the end, as in real life, some questions remain unanswered.

Dirty Snow is a profound and gripping book. I hesitate to say I enjoyed it, given how disturbing it is, but it does produce a powerful, indelible emotional effect. It is the epitome of existential noir thrillers and quite possibly one of the best novels of the mid-20th century.
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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates 2016

Congratulations to Bob Dylan!
Though there has been talk about the possibility for years, I could not have been more surprised to read this morning that American songwriter Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. The American press loves to whine that the Nobel jury are a bunch of stuffy, ivory-tower America-haters. What a way to prove them wrong! I couldn’t be more pleased that Dylan has finally gotten the literary recognition he deserves.

In honor of the annual occasion, it’s once again time to post the cumulative listing of all the novels, stories, plays, poetry, and memoirs written by Nobel Prize-winning authors that have been reviewed at Old Books by Dead Guys. Since last year, several new works have been added, and four new authors have joined the list: George Bernard Shaw, Pär Lagerkvist, and Halldór Laxness, in addition to Dylan, who’s way down at the bottom of this chronological list. I’m currently working on Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, but didn’t finish it in time, so he’ll have to wait until next year. Once again, congrats to Dylan! Click on the links below to read the complete reviews.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903 Nobel) Norway

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905 Nobel) Poland

Rudyard Kipling (1907 Nobel) United Kingdom

Selma Lagerlöf (1909 Nobel) Sweden

Paul von Heyse (1910 Nobel) Germany

Maurice Maeterlinck (1911 Nobel) Belgium

Gerhart Hauptmann (1912 Nobel) Germany

Knut Hamsun (1920 Nobel) Norway

Anatole France (1921 Nobel) France

Wladyslaw Reymont (1924 Nobel) Poland

George Benard Shaw (1925 Nobel) Ireland

Sinclair Lewis (1930 Nobel) United States of America

Eugene O’Neill (1936 Nobel) United States of America

Pearl S. Buck (1938 Nobel) United States of America (raised in China)

Hermann Hesse (1946 Nobel) Switzerland (born in Germany)

Pär Lagerkvist (1951 Nobel) Sweden

Halldór Laxness (1955 Nobel) Iceland

Bob Dylan (2016 Nobel) United States of America

See you next year!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane

American literary naturalism starts here
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, originally published in 1893, is the first novel by author Stephen Crane. It is also widely considered the first example of naturalism in American fiction, and it is by any measure a groundbreaking work in the history of American literature. Naturalism, the literary movement pioneered by French author Emile Zola, made a marked departure from the romantic tradition by calling for the depiction of the world with a brutal realism, scientific detachment, and meticulous attention to detail. Characters are not seen as individualistic heroes, but rather as organisms defined by their environment and the society in which they live.

Crane’s novel is an exemplar of this new, audacious literary approach. Maggie and her family eke out a sordid existence in the Bowery neighbor of New York City. At first she is a supporting character, waiting in the wings, as her brother Jimmie takes center stage. When the book opens, we find him engaged in a deadly street fight with a rival gang. The reader then follows him to his squalid home, where we meet his drunken parents. We thus experience first-hand the environment in which young Maggie is (or isn’t) raised and nurtured. One day Jimmie brings home a friend named Pete, who takes a liking to Maggie. With this first love, Maggie grows from a girl to a woman, and must contend with the challenge of sexuality vs. respectability faced by women in this harsh milieu.

Crane paints a vividly gritty portrait of life in the slums, and transcribes the dialogue of the denizens of Rum Alley in all its idiosyncratic accents. Nevertheless, he clearly pens his narrative in the literary voice of an academically trained writer. The closest stylistic approximation to Crane’s writing would be the impressionist paintings of the American Ashcan School, painters like John Sloan and George Bellows, who rendered scenes of working class life with lush brush strokes and an expert sense of color.

What’s missing from much of Crane’s narrative is sympathy. His descriptions of squalor appear devoid of any social consciousness, as if to empathize with the characters would be too sentimental. When he describes the drunken, uncouth behavior of Maggie’s parents and brother, there’s a ring of, “Look at these poor people. How they carry on!” Compare this to Zola’s much more sympathetic depiction of alcoholism in L’Assomoir. If Zola is guilty of turning the working class into heroes and martyrs, Crane could be guilty of turning them into buffoons. Maggie is the one character that escapes from this tone of condescension, and when she becomes the story’s main focus in the second half the book vastly improves. There’s almost a hint of proto-feminism in the way Crane points out the absurdity of the double standard that punishes women for being sexually active while their male counterparts are free to philander as they please.

Crane is best known for The Red Badge of Courage, his novel of the Civil War. I’ll confess I wasn’t overly impressed with that work, and my dissatisfaction with it temporarily steered me away from Crane. Maggie, on the other hand, I found a very compelling and affecting work, and I’m glad I gave Crane a second chance. I am now looking forward to digging deeper into his body of work.
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Thursday, October 6, 2016

Round the Red Lamp: Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Assorted tales of doctors and patients
In addition to being a successful writer of fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also a physician. He worked as both a general practitioner and as an ophthalmologist. His book Round the Red Lamp, published in 1894, is a collection of 15 short stories of medical life. The title refers to a tradition among doctors of Conan Doyle’s day. British physicians would post a red lamp outside their offices to signify their profession, similar to how a striped pole represents a barber.

The medical scope of the collection is rather loose, admitting pretty much anything that remotely relates to doctors and patients. The only way “A Question of Diplomacy” qualifies, for example, is because one of the main characters suffers from gout. There are also examples of the mystery and horror genres in which doctors feature prominently. “The Los Amigos Fiasco” is a crime story with paranormal elements. “The Case of Lady Sannox,” which also appears in Conan Doyle’s collection Tales of Terror and Mystery, is a medical horror story. Neither of the two are very good, as both require some pretty heavy suspension of disbelief, but another story from the horror genre, “Lot No. 249,” is excellent. It’s an expertly crafted thriller about medical students terrorized by a mummy.

Despite these forays into the genres for which Conan Doyle is famous, most of the stories in the collection do deal directly with the medical profession. A few of the selections, like “A Medical Document” and “The Surgeon Talks” are somewhat patchwork pieces in which fictional physicians relate various anecdotes illustrating the highs and lows of their careers. One of the better entries, “A False Start,” provides a glimpse of the medical profession that we don’t often see. It chronicles the occupational life of a young doctor just starting out in his practice. He faces hard times as he tries to drum up business and build a client base, longing for a big break that will ensure his financial security. Another good specimen, “The Doctors of Hoyland,” concerns a country physician who enjoys the comfort of his own private medical fiefdom, until another doctor invades his domain and competes for his customers. Though a bit formulaic, it offers enough unpredictable turns to prove engaging.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the stories venture into the territory of medical melodrama. More than a century before ER, Grey’s Anatomy, and Chicago Hope, audiences were already finding entertainment in operating table dramas and deathbed dilemmas. The collection also includes a fair amount of romance. “A Physiologist’s Wife” and “A Question of Diplomacy” have more to do with marriage than medicine. “The Curse of Eve” is a typical husband-frets-in-the-waiting-room-while-his-wife-gives-birth story. The medical stories included here seem more deliberate in their emotional manipulation than Conan Doyle’s usual fare. Perhaps that’s simply because while he’s usually inciting thrills or chills, here he’s trying to squeeze the tears out of you.

This is far from Conan Doyle’s best collection of short stories. In fact, it may be one of his worst, along with The Green Flag. Even so, it’s Conan Doyle, and mediocre Conan Doyle is still pretty good literature. So if you’re a fan of this master storyteller, it can’t hurt to give this one a try. If nothing else, “Lot No. 249” is definitely worth a read.

Stories in this collection
Behind the Times 
His First Operation 
A Straggler of ’15 
The Third Generation 
A False Start 
The Curse of Eve 
A Physiologist’s Wife 
The Case of Lady Sannox 
A Question of Diplomacy 
A Medical Document 
Lot No. 249 
The Los Amigos Fiasco 
The Doctors of Hoyland 
The Surgeon Talks

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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Big Front Yard and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Two

Even better than Volume One
I was only slightly familiar with Clifford D. Simak’s work when I purchased a copy of I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume One. I was so impressed by the excellent stories in that first volume, I became instantly hooked. The Big Front Yard and Other Stories is the second collection of Simak’s short stories and novellas in what publisher Open Road Media projects will be a 14-volume series. Although I was thrilled with Volume One, I am pleasantly surprised to report that Volume Two manages to surpass it.

The series is edited by David W. Wixon, Simak’s literary executor and a close personal friend of the author. In this volume, Wixon provides a biographical introduction on Simak’s youth and early years as a writer. He also supplies a brief publication history for each entry in the book. The contents of each volume seem to be a grab bag, with no apparent chronological or thematic rhyme or reason to the selections. Simak mostly wrote science fiction, but he also penned western tales as well. Volume Two includes “Trail City’s Hot-Lead Crusaders,” a very good offering that would have made a great movie back in Jimmy Stewart’s western heyday.

The real attraction here, however, is the science fiction for which Simak is famous. Volume Two opens with the title selection, “The Big Front Yard.” A small-town antiques dealer and fix-it man discovers that the broken objects in his workshop have started fixing themselves. From that simple incongruity, the story escalates, gradually building up to more and more fantastic and mind-blowing phenomena. In “The Observer,” a near perfect story, a being wakes up on a foreign world, with no memory of its past. Simak takes us through the mind of this entity as it gradually gains awareness of itself and its reason for being. In “Junkyard,” an expeditionary force from Earth explores a newly discovered distant planet. When the crew finds a dumping ground of what appear to be alien engine parts, the narrative evolves into a baffling mystery in space. Yet another excellent entry, “So Bright the Vision,” depicts Earth in the 26th century, when our planet’s main interstellar export has become our fiction. Providing entertainment to alien races all over the galaxy, writers ply their trade by mechanically manipulating authorial machines called yarners. Simak not only speculates on the future of literature, he also wryly criticizes the publishing industry of his day, all while managing to craft a fun, engaging, and intelligent sci-fi tale. The three remaining stories, “Mr. Meek - Musketeer,” “Neighbor,” and “Shadow World,” are also very good examples of Simak’s masterful sci-fi skills.

Although the works included here were originally published from 1944 to 1972, they’re not the least bit antiquated. When Simak writes about everyday objects—cars, radios, tractors—you can tell that these stories were written decades ago. Nevertheless, his marvelous visions and ingenious concepts, grounded in science but limitless in imagination, are fresher than much of what passes for science fiction in today’s popular culture. His best stories have great psychological and philosophical depth and attain a level of literary quality that belies genre labels. The stories included here are like the best episodes of the old Twilight Zone TV series—not the kitschy ones, but the ones that have held up incredibly well over time. Needless to say, I will be tuning in for the next installment. Bring on Volume Three!

Stories in this collection
The Big Front Yard 
The Observer 
Trail City’s Hot-Lead Crusaders 
Mr. Meek - Musketeer 
Shadow World 
So Bright the Vision

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Friday, September 30, 2016

Murder in the Gunroom by H. Beam Piper

For the ballistically inclined
From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, H. Beam Piper was a prolific author of science fiction. Among his dozens of novels, short stories, and novellas of time travel and space politics, Piper wrote one mystery novel, Murder in the Gunroom, published in 1953. Piper was a firearms enthusiast, and he uses the mystery format to indulge his interest in that area. As such, the book will primarily appeal to those who share his fascination with the history of guns, but even those who can’t tell a butt from a barrel will still recognize this as a competently written and suitably perplexing murder mystery.

Lane Fleming, founder and president of the Premix Foods corporation, has died of a gunshot wound. Fleming was a collector of historic firearms who amassed one of the best collections in the nation. One night in his gunroom, while cleaning one of his newly acquired weapons, Fleming gets a bullet in the forehead. The shooting is judged to be an accident, but would a firearms expert make such a fatal mistake? Some speculate that the death was a suicide, but such rumors are hushed in order to keep the company stock from falling. Concerned about the distribution of her husband’s estate, the widowed Mrs. Fleming hires Jefferson Davis Rand to assess the value of her husband’s firearms and negotiate a sale of the gun collection that will be advantageous to his heirs. In addition to being a gun expert, Rand is also a private detective, and although he was not hired in the capacity of sleuth, he can’t help noticing indications that Mr. Fleming’s death may have been a murder.

Piper skillfully constructs this mystery narrative with plenty of twists and turns. To its detriment, it may be too intricate. Piper offers the reader a lot of suspects, whom Rand spends much time diligently interrogating. Piper doesn’t do enough to memorably distinguish all the characters from one another, however, which creates more disorienting confusion than mysterious puzzlement. While Piper keeps the reader fed on a steady diet of bread-crumb revelations, there’s no action scenes to alleviate the tedium of the questioning. Instead, there is a lot of detail about a merger between two processed food companies, and, as is to be expected, much ado about guns.

If this mystery had been about a collection of paintings, archaeological artifacts, or even rare gems and minerals, I probably would have found it fascinating. It is a book about guns, however, and Piper goes into a level of detail that assumes a fair amount of prior knowledge on the part of the reader. He obviously loves his subject, and the book is aimed at others who share his passion. When he describes Fleming’s gun collection, he’s both showing off his expert knowledge and sharing his private wish list. As a novice on the subject myself, I couldn’t tell a flintlock from a wheel lock, much less a Leech & Rigdon from a Griswold & Grier.

Piper won’t go down in literary history as the next Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, but he is a pretty good mystery writer. The specificity in which he goes into his favorite subject, however, limits his potential audience. If you’re nuts about historic guns, this is the book for you. If you’re just a curious fan of Piper’s science fiction, reading this mystery won’t be a complete waste of your time, but don’t expect to be thrilled by it.
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