Tuesday, January 15, 2019

And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov

The perfect realist epic
Russian author Mikhail Sholokhov, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature, began writing his epic work Tikhy Don (The Silent Don) in 1928 and didn’t finish until 1940. Originally serialized in the Russian magazine Okytabr, the work has been published in English translation as a pair of novels, the first of which is entitled And Quiet Flows the Don. The novel chronicles Russian history through the lives of a large ensemble cast comprised primarily of Cossacks from the Don River region of southwestern Russia, near the Ukraine. The Cossacks, a semi-autonomous people whose self-government was democratic rather than feudalistic, farmed their own lands, which put them in a social class above the Russian peasantry. Like modern-day Spartans, the Cossacks placed a great deal of emphasis on military training and were employed by the Russian Tsar as an elite military force.

Beginning around 1912, And Quite Flows the Don is broken up into four parts: Peace, War, Revolution, and Civil War. The first of these sections focuses primarily on the farming life of the Don Cossacks in the village of Tatarsk, and in particular the Melekhov family. Gregor, the younger, hot-headed son of the family, embarks on a tempestuous love affair with Aksinia, his neighbor’s wife, an entanglement that creates repercussions throughout the book. Sholokhov combines beautifully poetic passages of natural beauty with brutally realistic depictions of the harshness and hardships of Cossack life, calling to mind Polish author Wladyslaw Reymont’s classic rural epic The Peasants. The story then follows the turbulent course of Russian history through World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent Russian Civil War, in which multiple parties fought to fill the power vacuum created by the fall of the Tsar. By the end of the book, the Cossacks are split into a confusing array of loyalties and alliances as they struggle to determine the fate of their community amid the turmoil and devastation of war.

This novel is about as perfect a masterwork of literary realism as you’ll ever find. Sholokhov depicts the time and place of the narrative with impeccable verisimilitude, frankness, and detail. The reader is imminently present in this culture and atmosphere and feels deeply for these characters. Nothing ever feels forced, idealized, or contrived. Love and lust are never idyllic. People die unexpectedly and in unglamorous ways. Sholokhov’s tone could be described as deadpan if his prose weren’t suffused with so much beauty. While bearing the truthful ring of naturalism, the book is indubitably modern. Though the Melekhovs may justly be called the main characters, the narrative is by no means singular or linear. Major figures fade into the background while minor characters take center stage. Without deliberately scorning convention, Sholokhov unselfconsciously defies all expectations. Notably stark and gritty war novels like A Farewell to Arms or The Naked and the Dead feel like flowery romanticism by comparison.

And Quiet Flows the Don is arguably the greatest literary masterpiece to come out of the Soviet Union (better than Doctor Zhivago, in my opinion). Though it won the Stalin Prize and is considered a work of socialist realism, the book is not particularly pro-socialist, pro-communist, or pro-Soviet. If anything, it is just pro-Cossack, and focuses on the plight of the people amid whom Sholokhov grew up. Though a military epic, the book is more an anti-war novel than a war novel. Its indelible scenes of Cossack struggle for survival, freedom, peace, and dignity amount to a superb drama of universal humanity. Though some fundamental knowledge of Russian history may be required, everyone, Russian or not, should read this book.
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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Train by Georges Simenon

Refugee love
The Train, published in 1958, is one of Belgian author Georges Simenon’s romans durs, or “hard novels,” a term he devised to distinguish his more serious literature from his popular series of Inspector Maigret detective novels. The story takes place at the outbreak of World War II. Marcel Féron, the narrator, lives with his pregnant wife and daughter in Fumay, a town in northeastern France just across the border from Belgium. When it is reported that the Nazis have invaded Belgium, many of the citizens of Fumay decide to flee westward. In the chaotic rush to load the train for evacuation, women and children are boarded first, and Marcel ends up in a different car than his wife and child. Later in the journey, the train is broken up, the cars are separated, and Marcel has no idea where his family has gone. Meanwhile, in his own car he has met a woman traveling alone. This “woman in the black dress,” later revealed to be named Anna, attaches herself to Marcel. The two soon become lovers and begin living essentially as man and wife.

What differentiates The Train from a typical wartime romance novel, and what makes it classic Simenon, is the disturbing lack of emotional attachment that Marcel feels towards his pregnant wife and daughter. As soon as he hears of the Nazi invasion and the possibility of evacuation, his reaction is not one of fear or concern for his family but rather an overwhelming feeling of relief at being released from the responsibilities and restrictions of his mundane existence. Though he insists throughout the book that he loves his wife, he has no reservations about making love to Anna, and while he seeks the whereabouts of his family a part of him hopes that he never finds them. Marcel is depicted as more delusional than callous. He is so disconnected from his own reality that he doesn’t even realize the right or wrong of his actions. His transgressions come across more as a mental illness than a moral failing. Simenon is renowned for unsentimentally examining the unpleasant realities of human psychology, but while there is a ring of authenticity to his narrator’s thought process, he takes Marcel’s guiltless ambivalence a little far, to the point where it strains believability.

The biggest problem with the book is that it just wreaks of male fantasy. The war provides the man with a “hall pass” from his marriage so he can get it on with a hot stranger who acquiesces to his every desire while demanding nothing in return. We learn almost nothing about Anna as a human being. Marcel asks her little about herself, and she rarely speaks unless spoken to. Given Simenon’s history as a womanizer and the accusations of misogyny against him, Marcel’s sexual jackpot seems uncomfortably convenient. Simenon is a great writer, but this particular book never ascends to a level of literature much beyond the dime-store potboiler sold in a rotating rack.

There is some value to Simenon’s depiction of the French and Belgian experience of World War II. The behavior of the passengers in Marcel’s rail car serves as a microcosmic representation of the myriad reactions to wartime upheaval. Though there is one scene of actual armed attack, the story focuses more on the confusion at a series of railroad stations and the prosaic details of daily life in a refugee camp. The reader gets only a few brief glimpses of Nazi occupation.

The Train is certainly not a bad book, and it is worth a read for Simenon fans, but it is probably the least compelling of his romans durs that I’ve read. Some better choices would be Dirty Snow, Tropic Moon, or The Reckoning.
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Monday, January 7, 2019

Under the Andes by Rex Stout

Idiotic adventure with unlikable characters
Rex Stout is best known as the author of the Nero Wolfe detective stories, but he also wrote adventure fiction outside the mystery genre, including his novel Under the Andes, which was originally published in the February 1914 issue of the pulp magazine The All-Story. I’m usually up for a vintage two-fisted adventure from the pulp fiction area, but this novel proved to be a dismally disappointing exercise in idiocy.

The hero of the story is Paul Lamar, a man of the world who is filthy rich for no apparent reason, to the point where he doesn’t think twice about throwing away a million dollars. Paul is so perfect at everything he does and so confident in his manliness he makes James Bond seem humble. He couldn’t possibly make a mistake, which is why he needs a little brother, Harry, who is just as macho as Paul but not quite as smart. They both get mixed up with Desiree Le Mire, a French dancer who alternately serves as femme fatale and damsel in distress. Desiree is obviously Stout’s vision of feminine perfection, which is disturbing. Stunningly beautiful, she behaves like a trashy gold digger, yet inexplicably manages to take high society by storm in every city she travels. Once she and the boys venture away from civilization, Stout has her topless for most of the book. She comes onto both Paul and Harry, and both are dumb enough to adore her.

The trio decide to explore the Andes not for any scientific expedition or rescue mission but rather just to avoid ennui, because they are bored with yachts and casinos. They venture into a cavern where they find the remnants of a legendary lost tribe of Inca who sought subterranean refuge centuries before. What a great premise for a “lost world” thriller! Unfortunately, Stout isn’t at all interested in the former glory of the Inca civilization. Instead, he depicts the Inca’s descendants as having devolved into brutish, ape-like troglodytes too stupid to even speak. Once underground, Paul and Harry proceed at every opportunity to beat and stab the captors who are feeding them, even though they have no escape route or plan for survival. The Inca are so dumb they don’t even recognize a knife until it’s plunged into their chests. Somehow Paul can read an Inca quipu, even though the smartest anthropologists still haven’t figured out how to do it. The book is mostly a maze of indiscriminate caverns and unrelenting spear thrusts, all capped off with one of the most asinine epilogue twists of all time.

Although the story takes place almost entirely underground, Stout gives little consideration to the problem of light. Four or five early chapters take place in total darkness, during which Stout asserts that human eyes can adjust to a total lack of light, then uses that as an excuse to describe subterranean sights in detail as if they were bathed in the light of day. The Inca have lamps in their quarters, which must be inexhaustible because the heroes spend weeks wandering through a labyrinth of uninhabited caverns without any mention of lamps, torches, or fire. Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs would have come up with some contrivance like phosphorescent rocks, but Stout doesn’t bother to give it any thought.

Even fans of vintage adventure fiction have to admit that the old pulp magazines were filled with a lot of garbage, of which Under the Andes is a perfect example. Despite whatever name recognition Stout may have garnered from his mystery writing, this terrible mess is not worth your time.

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Friday, January 4, 2019

The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Twelve

Maybe the best volume yet
The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is the twelfth book in The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series, which is projected to be 14 volumes in all. I’ve read all the volumes published thus far, and Volume Twelve is clearly one of the best books in this consistently excellent series.

The title selection, “The Thing in the Stone,” reads like a master’s thesis on Simak literature. After the death of his wife, a man isolates himself on a farm in rural southwestern Wisconsin, the setting of so many Simak stories, where he begins to have visions of prehistoric life in earlier geologic periods of time. The story calls to mind Simak’s novel Mastodonia until it veers off into unexpected but not entirely unfamiliar directions. This masterpiece beautifully captures Simak’s skill at depicting rural life, his visionary inventiveness, and his faith in humanity’s virtues.

Other outstanding stories include “Univac: 2200,” an amazingly prescient story from 1973 that depicts a future with artificially intelligent personal assistants, virtual reality, and an environmentally degraded planet. In “Hunch,” a future high-ranking government official uncovers a solar system-wide conspiracy threatening mankind’s existence. “Aesop” is one of the stories that would later go to make up Simak’s novel City. It is a great piece of that marvelous puzzle, though those unfamiliar with the broader scope of the City epic may find themselves a little disoriented. All three stories are complex tales replete with big ideas that transcend their sci-fi storylines. “The Spaceman’s Van Gogh” is Simak at his most contemplative and literary, while “Construction Shack” is a wonderful example of an outlandish premise well-told.

Often Simak’s earliest stories come across as mediocre pulp fiction, but his first published story from 1931, “The World of the Red Sun,” is a surprisingly entertaining time travel yarn. Throughout the series, editor David W. Wixon has been trumpeting the virtues of another 1930s story called “The Creator,” but now that it finally appears in Volume Twelve it is a bit disappointing. “Skirmish” is another entry that feels a little half-baked. To be honest, however, even the disappointments in this volume are far better than the average sci-fi offerings from this time period. This volume’s western story (each book in the series has one) is also a pretty good entry in its genre: “The Hangnoose Army Rides to Town!” is a satisfying cowboy murder mystery that is refreshingly judicious in its gunplay until its violent finale.

The Thing in the Stone might very well be the best volume in the Complete Short Fiction series. Though not every story is a masterpiece, at least a few of them are, and this collection really captures the variety in style and subject matter of Simak’s writing while touching on quintessential settings, themes, and concepts that reoccurred in his work throughout his career. If I had to recommend one volume to someone looking for a favorable introduction to Simak, this would be it. I have enjoyed all the volumes in the series thus far and look forward to volumes 13 and 14, but the way Open Road Media has been dragging their feet on those last two books makes me wonder if they will ever see the light of day. Here’s hoping the Complete Short Fiction will one day be complete!

Stories in this collection
The Thing in the Stone 
The World of the Red Sun 
The Hangnoose Army Rides to Town! 
Univac: 2200 
The Creator
The Spaceman’s Van Gogh 
Construction Shack

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Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Lionel Lincoln by James Fenimore Cooper

Stodgy Gothic drama set in the American Revolution
Early in his career, James Fenimore Cooper got the idea of writing a series of 13 historical novels about the American Revolution, with one book set in each of the original 13 American colonies. Cooper abandoned the series idea, however, after the first novel, set in Massachusetts, did not live up to the expectations of the author or the public. That book, published in 1825, is Lionel Lincoln. The title character is descended from a British aristocratic family. Though born in Boston, he was raised in England on the family’s historic estate and even serves as a member of parliament. At about the age of 25, he returns to the town of his birth as a major in the British Army. When the story begins, Boston is in a state of unrest. The Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party have already taken place, and the American colonists continue to protest against taxation without representation and other British abuses of power. Over the course of the book, Lionel either witnesses or participates in the battles of Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill.

Writing a half century after the historical events depicted, Cooper is American literature’s foremost fictional chronicler of the Revolution. In his writings on the conflict, including his novels The Spy and Wyandotté, Cooper doesn’t depict the British as evil monsters like so many of today’s movies. Instead, he reminds us that the Revolution was almost a civil war, in that Tories and rebels lived side by side as neighbors and even family. Cooper is very sympathetic to the British side of the war—in fact, most of the characters in Lionel Lincoln are British—but he also expresses great reverence for the colonists’ fight for independence.

Upon his return to America, Lionel is taken in by relatives whom he soon suspects may be involved in supporting the colonists’ underground resistance movement. From this, the reader expects an espionage novel similar to The Spy. Such hopes are dashed, however, when it later becomes apparent that the novel is not so much about the American Revolution as it just happens to be set in it. The book eventually develops into a Gothic novel of family secrets more in the vein of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but nowhere near as good as either.

As expected from a book this old, there is a lot of cumbersome language to overcome, but that’s also part of the charm for lovers of classic books. The attention span of early 19th-century readers was far more forgiving than their 21st-century counterparts, so one also has to put up with Cooper’s lethargic pacing. In a failed attempt to heighten suspense, Cooper has an annoying habit of not revealing the names of characters, merely referring to them as “the stranger” or “the gentleman” far too long before disclosing their identities. The reader’s hopes that these might turn out to be real historic Bostonians is never gratified. The cast includes British generals like Howe and Burgoyne, but real-life American heroes are absent. George Washington is mentioned frequently in conversation but doesn’t appear in person. As is often the case in Cooper’s novels, Lionel and his love interest—the idealized hero and heroine—are surrounded by a quirky cast of characters who cram the text full of colorful conversation, humorous accents, and irrelevant asides. Lionel’s best friend, Captain Polwarth, is a rotund glutton who constantly waxes rhapsodic about gastronomic pleasures at the most inappropriate moments.

Lionel Lincoln is a poor novel, perhaps the worst Cooper novel I’ve read thus far, but amid all the tedious histrionics I still enjoyed reading the author’s perspective on the Revolution.

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Friday, December 21, 2018

The Best of 2018

Top ten reads of the year
Old Books by Dead Guys posted 120 reviews in 2018, a slight increase from the previous year. When it came time to search through those posts for the best reads of the year, however, there weren’t even enough 5-star books to fill out a top ten list, so I had to dip into the 4.5-star reads. A surprising number of nonfiction books were in the running, and, also unusual for this blog, most of the titles that made it into the resulting list were published in the past half century. This year I branched out into some new authors, sampled several previously unread Nobel laureates, and developed a new fascination for the history of science. The result is a rather odd list for Old Books by Dead Guys, but still a pretty good year for reading. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.

Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist (1810)
Michael Kohlhaas, a horse dealer, is cheated out of two prize horses by a nobleman. When litigious means fail to bring him restitution, Kohlhaas takes the law into his own hands. This German classic set in the 16th century begins as a legal drama and then quickly escalates into an intense revenge thriller. Though published over two centuries ago, Michael Kohlhaas is a surprisingly modern, gripping read.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915)
With this remarkable novella, about a salesman who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant bug, Kafka has crafted a fascinating existential black comedy that manages to be both funny and disturbing. Bafflingly open to multiple interpretations, this brief and deceptively simple absurdist narrative possesses a surprising philosophical depth. 

The Long Valley by John Steinbeck (1938)
This volume collects 13 short stories and novellas from the Nobel laureate’s early career, almost all of which feature grittily realistic tales set in his native California. Though not every story is a masterpiece, with excellent selections like “The Red Pony,” “The Raid,” “Johnny Bear,” and “The Vigilante,” overall this collection adds up to one great work of American literary naturalism.

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert (1976)
The saga of the Atreides dynasty continues with the third book in Frank Herbert’s monumental Dune series. The twin children of the now-departed messiah, Paul Muad’Dib, are beginning to show signs of superhuman mental powers similar to those of their father. Assassins and conspirators, some from within their own family, seek to prevent the twins from assuming their father’s imperial throne. Another thrilling episode in the greatest sci-fi epic of all time.

Faces and Masks by Eduardo Galeano (1984)
This is the second book in the Uruguayan author’s Memory of Fire trilogy, in which he chronicles the history of Latin America through a unique literary approach combining fiction, nonfiction, and poetry into a rapid-fire series of fascinating historical scenes. Faces and Masks covers the 18th and 19th centuries, a turbulent period replete with slavery, rebellion, and revolution. Galeano’s take on history provides an eye-opening education and makes for a memorable and moving literary experience.

Humboldt’s Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey That Changed the Way We See the World by Gerard Helferich (2004)
The first of two books on this year’s list focusing on the Prussian explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who launched an epic scientific expedition through South America, Mexico, and Cuba. Helferich’s book gives a blow-by-blow account of this daring and productive journey, with all its thrilling exploits, physical hardships, and marvelous discoveries.

Clarence Gagnon: Dreaming the Landscape by Hélène Sicotte and Michèle Grandbois (2006)
This coffee-table art book is a beautifully conceived and beautifully produced retrospective of the work of Clarence Gagnon (1881-1942), Montreal painter and printmaker extraordinaire. Heavily illustrated and written with an eye for exquisite detail, the book not only provides a gorgeous portfolio of this master artist’s stunning landscapes but also gives the reader a definitive education into his life and career.

The H. Beam Piper Megapack by H. Beam Piper (2013)
This inexpensive ebook compendium of 33 novels, novellas, and short stories amounts to almost a complete collection of the writings of Piper, a great American science fiction author active from the late 1940s through the 1960s. Piper’s stories of time travel, galactic empires, interplanetary warfare, and the future history of mankind combine masterful sci-fi world-building, fun pulp fiction adventure, and intelligent political and social commentary.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf (2015)
Yes, another book on Alexander von Humboldt (see Helferich’s book, above), and this one is even better! Find out why this Prussian scientist and explorer was once the most famous man on Earth and marvel at his monumental impact on the subsequent history of the world. In the process you’ll find out even more than you thought you knew about Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and other illustrious historical personages. Wulf’s superb book is a must-read volume on all things Humboldt!

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (2017)
Journalist Finkel investigates the life of Christopher Thomas Knight, who lived his entire adult life as a hermit in the woods of central Maine, speaking only one word (“Hi”) to another human being in 27 years. A fascinating exploration into mankind’s need for solitude and the lengths to which one unusual man went in order to live an extreme life “off the grid.”

Also, check out these “omnibus” posts from the past year, which cover topics of frequent interest here at Old Books by Dead Guys:

Rock and Roll (Auto)biographies (6/8/18)

Historical Novels of the Ancient World (8/10/18)

Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates 2018 (10/4/18)

Celebrating Polish Literature (11/11/18)

See also my best-of lists for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. Old books by dead guys never go out of style!

Monday, December 17, 2018

Ancient and Modern Celebrated Freethinkers by Charles Bradlaugh, A. Collins, and J. Watts

Poorly written sketches of interesting people
Ancient and Modern Celebrated Freethinkers is the American reprint of a work previously published in England in 1857 under the title Half-Hours with the Freethinkers. It is a collection of what appear to have been columns in a periodical, though the title of the journal is never named. The book provides profiles of 23 important freethinkers throughout history, a group that broadly includes atheists, pantheists, deists, and other heretics who publicly disagreed with Christian dogma. The essays are written by Charles Bradlaugh (writing under the pseudonym of Iconoclast), A. Collins, and J. Watts.

Bradlaugh was a prominent spokesman for freethought in his own right, but his writing here, and that of his colleagues, leaves much to be desired. The essays are a mixture of biographical sketches, philosophical summary, adulatory tribute, and textual excerpts. Unfortunately the authors rely far too heavily on the latter. Many of the chapters contain very little biographical content and instead rather lazily reproduce extensive and not judiciously edited excerpts of the subjects’ writings. Baruch Spinoza, for example, led an interesting life, but his chapter is mostly one big chunk taken from his Ethics, which I’d already read. One of the reasons I pick up a book like this is because I don’t want to read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry; I just want to get an idea of his philosophical thought. Bradlaugh, however, chooses to reprint page after page of Shelley’s poetry when two summary paragraphs on the poet’s freethought views would have been more useful and effective. As far as biographical content goes, the best you can hope for is maybe two or three interesting facts about each person’s life, and for some of the lesser known personages you get almost no idea of who they were. Rather than really trying to educate readers, the authors write in a “but of course you already know this” tone that is strange and off-putting.

Because of the heavy reliance on excerpts, two of the more interesting entries are about ancient authors whose written works no longer exist: Epicurus and Zeno of Citium (the founder of Stoicism). With the exception of these two ancient thinkers and Spinoza, almost all the remaining figures are 17th or 18th century deists, meaning those who believed in an impartial creator god as opposed to the anthropomorphic Judeo-Christian deity who judges man and answers his prayers. The authors themselves are atheists, but they view the heretical thinking of these deists with admiration as necessary precursors toward modern atheism. A few of the subjects were bona fide members of the clergy who departed from church doctrine, and their excerpts tend to be long and tedious catalogs of biblical inaccuracies. Robert Taylor’s chapter consists almost entirely of Bible quotes while Joseph Barker focuses on the error-prone process of translating holy scripture. To 21st century freethinkers, this stuff is old hat and makes for a boring read, unless you are a fundamentalist Christian thinking of leaving the Church, in which case you could probably find a better book to guide you than this 19th century anthology.

I was hoping for a collection of biographical sketches, but what I got was far less interesting. The book did very briefly introduce me to some thinkers of which I was unfamiliar, and for that I am thankful. There are a few choice chapters, like the ones on David Hume or Frances Wright D’Arusmont, the only woman represented here. In general, however, the text was mostly dull and annoying. For those interested in the history of freethought, I would recommend the 1889 work compiled by Joseph Mazzini Wheeler, A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations, a far more interesting work than this collection by Bradlaugh and company.

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