Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Gertrude by Hermann Hesse

Perhaps the best of early Hesse
German author Hermann Hesse was awarded the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature largely on the basis of novels from the second half of his career, books that experimented with Eastern mysticism and psychoanalytic theory, such as Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, or The Glass Bead Game. Prior to these more modern works, however, Hesse was a writer of relatively traditional novels that stylistically straddled the line between German romanticism and impressionistic realism. Though these early novels may not be as flashy as his more avant garde writings, they still constitute a steady stream of quality work from Hesse. One of the better entries from this formative period in Hesse’s career is Gertrude, published in 1910.

The story is narrated by an aspiring composer named Kuhn. As a young man, he is involved in an accident that cripples one of his legs, forcing him to walk with a limp for the rest of his life. He is very self-conscious of this defect and sees it as an obstacle to forming friendships and finding love. He discovers his true calling in life is music, and after graduating from school he sets out to build a career for himself as a musician and composer. Along the way he meets his polar opposite in the form of a singer named Muoth, a brash ladies’ man who is egotistical to the point of rudeness. Opposites attract, as they say, the two become friends, and the outgoing Muoth helps find career opportunities and build confidence in the timid Kuhn. About halfway through the book, Kuhn meets Gertrude, who assists him in the writing of an important composition. Not surprisingly, she becomes the love of his life, but Hesse steers clear of writing a typical love story, and the plot never succumbs to romantic clichés.

By Hesse standards, Gertrude is not a particularly ambitious novel. He’s not trying to introduce a Buddhist message to Western readers or illustrate a complex Freudian theory. The only touch of mysticism in the story is a brief mention of theosophy, which doesn’t have any important bearing on the story. (Perhaps theosophy was the entry point through which Hesse became interested in Eastern philosophy?) I have read that Gertrude is an illustration of concepts formulated by Friedrich Nietzsche in his book The Birth of Tragedy, but though I read that book a long time ago, it never popped into my head while I was reading Gertrude. As far as most of today’s readers are concerned, Gertrude will simply be a moving story of human relationships, told at an intimate scale.

Hesse’s novels often feature introspective protagonists who are involved in some intellectual pursuit, whether it be music, poetry, classical languages, or the futuristic thought exercise known as the Glass Bead Game. This shy hero then meets an outgoing, sophisticated friend who takes him under his or her wing and helps him navigate new social terrain, achieve creative fulfillment, or blossom into a more confident and spiritually realized human being. Such is the formula for Beneath the Wheel, Demian, The Glass Bead Game, and other Hesse novels, and we see it here again with Muoth and Kuhn. Whether accurate or not, one assumes Hesse identified with such protagonists, and his books will likely appeal to introspective, intellectual readers who see themselves in these characters. For such an audience, Gertrude is a satisfying read. There’s nothing here that will blow your mind or change your philosophy of life, just sympathetic characters acting out a compelling drama of art, love, and loss that rings true to life.

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Monday, April 22, 2019

A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium by Chris Harman

The rise of capitalism and the struggle against it
Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World was first published in 1999, but I am reviewing the 2008 ebook edition from Verso Books. In this monumental overview of world history as seen through the lens of class, Harman, a British journalist and Socialist activist, charts the development of class divisions from prehistoric times to the early 21st century. Harman explains how capitalism came to be the dominant economic model, describes how it has oppressed workers, and chronicles efforts by those who have fought against it. Despite his avowed socialism, Harman is not always adulatory toward such anti-capitalists and is often quite critical of their failings.

This truly is a people’s history which explores world events from the ground up, emphasizing social movements rather than famous personages. Up to about the mid-19th century and the coming of Marx, Harman rarely even includes any individual proper names in his history, but rather discusses nations, classes, races, and other groups almost as if they were bacterial cultures fighting for nourishment in a global petri dish. It is a unique way for readers to experience history, and really opens one’s eyes to the hidden motivations behind major historical events. As the book moves into the 20th century, Harman does refer to more individual human beings, but the heroes and villains in this story are not the same as those in your typical history textbook. Any Americans who are still under the impression that the United States has been the good guy on the world stage throughout the past couple centuries will soon be disabused of that notion. In fact, one really gets a better idea of why the rest of the world hates us so much (and this was published prior to the Trump administration). Harman is perhaps even harsher in appraising his own country’s role in world affairs, however. There are no sacred cows here, not even Winston Churchill.

Unlike Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which can be appreciated by pretty much any American who is interested in human rights or social justice, Harman’s A People’s History of the World is a lot more intensive in its Marxism. To appreciate this book, you have to have a firmly leftist political bent and some foundational understanding of economics. While I may meet the former qualification I’m not so confident in the latter, and I will confess that at times the economic theory here was a little over my head. Such passages were few, however, and for a layman like myself this book is remarkably accessible. It could and should (but probably won’t) be used in American high schools as an alternative to the mainstream historical narrative. Because this is a comprehensive textbook on world history, it is not always pleasure reading. The extensive chapter on the Reformation, Oliver Cromwell, and the English Civil Wars comes to mind as particularly difficult and disorienting. Overall, however, this book presents a well-reasoned, clearly explained argument and makes for a fascinating and compelling read.

Though Harman’s history is often a catalog of oppression, injustice, and corruption, it does offer a hopeful message as well. In his early chapters on the ancient world, Harman is quick to point out that capitalism is not the default mode for human society that its proponents pretend it to be. He enumerates various points in history when socialists have come very close to overthrowing the capitalist status quo, and he ends the book with a call to arms for socialist-minded readers to keep pushing for revolution and a new social order. Not only is A People’s History of the World a staggering achievement in comprehensiveness and clarity, at times it also proves quite inspiring.
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Friday, April 19, 2019

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Into the wilds of human depravity
Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness was originally serialized in 1899 issues of Blackwood’s Magazine before being published in a 1902 collection of Conrad’s short fiction entitled Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories. The fact that Heart of Darkness wasn’t even designated the title selection of that collection is an indication that it did not garner a lot of notice when it was first released. Since then, however, it has become one of the most highly acclaimed and deeply scrutinized works of literature in the English language. The story is based on a trip Conrad made up the Congo River. In the novella, the river is unnamed, and the word Congo is never used to describe the setting, but the narrative clearly takes place in Africa.

Charles Marlow, a passenger on a Thames River steamboat, narrates the story to a group of fellow travelers. Marlow explains that he has often had an attraction for blank spaces on the map, and one day he selects one of these little explored regions of the world and decides to venture there. Marlow takes a job as a steamboat captain for a British trading company, but in order to take command of his vessel he must first journey to a remote trading post in the interior of Africa. The company’s primary business in Africa is to buy ivory from the natives, and no one brings in as much ivory as Mr. Kurtz, a company man who has apparently gone rogue, disappeared into the deep wilderness, and established an uncommon rapport with the native population. It is even rumored that the local inhabitants worship him as a god. As Marlow proceeds on his trek upriver, he gradually learns more about this mysterious Mr. Kurtz and develops a personal obsession with the man.

This obsession is not entirely contagious. So much of Heart of Darkness is spent proclaiming how extraordinary and astonishing Kurtz is, that when the reader finally meets him it is a bit of a letdown. Perhaps this reader has become jaded by the intervening century of adventure literature and explorer biographies, but the idea of a white adventurer in a remote wilderness “going native” and turning megalomaniacal in the process doesn’t particularly shock or surprise. One wonders if that didn’t happen quite often at the height of 19th century colonialism. The picture Conrad paints of European colonialism in Africa is frightening. He depicts frankly the horrible treatment of the black race by the whites, but he never really portrays the blacks positively either. The novella seems to have been written at a time period between the celebration of empire and the condemning of it, when it was enough to just point out the disgusting aspects of colonialism in a matter-of-fact matter without actually expressing any disgust, outrage, or sympathy.

Conrad is considered one of the all-time masters of the English language, and there is no doubt that the prose in Heart of Darkness is artfully crafted. Perhaps at times it is too much so. Though the book’s best quality is its creepy and dangerous atmosphere, too often this gets lost in a veil of flowery verbiage too pretty for its harsh subject matter. The idea that Marlow is relating this story out loud is ridiculous, since the language doesn’t at all resemble human speech but rather carefully constructed written prose. Almost every sentence in the book is quotable, but cumulatively it adds up to a whole lot of adjectives and metaphors being used to describe every mundane detail of movement or expression. There’s a difference between admiring a great work of literature and actually enjoying the reading of it, and too often Heart of Darkness falls on the wrong side of that line. Though it is worthy of respect, it is not always compelling.

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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 3 by Stan Lee, et al.

Featuring the Falcon
Picking up where Volume 2 left off, Essential Captain America, Volume 3 reproduces issues 127 to 156 of the Captain America comic book, which were originally published from July 1970 to December 1972. I really enjoyed this volume because it begins to get into some of the random issues I own and first read when I was a little kid. After all these years, I finally got to find out what happened with the Scorpion and Mr. Hyde! When I think of Marvel Comics, I remember fondly the visual style and storytelling of the 1970s to the early 1980s, and these issues exemplify that period very well.

At the start of the volume, Stan Lee is still penning the stories himself, but at about the halfway point he starts delegating the writing duties to others, beginning with Gary Friedrich and Gerry Conway, who each get a couple of issues before settling on Steve Englehart. Gene Colan continues as the lead artist for several issues, but his work here, in the hands of a succession of journeyman inkers, doesn’t look as good as it did in Volume 2. John Romita Sr. takes over for several issues, doing an excellent job, before the torch gets passed for an extended run by Sal Buscema, who, after Jack Kirby, might be considered the quintessential Captain America artist.

With issue number 134, the Captain America series underwent a title change to Captain America and the Falcon. Not only was this obviously an important change in the direction of the magazine but it also greatly improved the quality of the stories. The Falcon, though less physically powerful than Cap, is more than just a sidekick like Bucky Barnes. Cap and the Falcon are equal partners, with each getting equal time in the spotlight. Sometimes they fight side by side, sometimes alone pursuing different adversaries, and sometimes, in the Marvel tradition, they end up fighting each other. Black Panther may have been the first black superhero, but he lives in a fantasy land in the jungles of Africa. Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon, lives in Harlem, and he faces the real world problems that an urban black man faced in the 1970s. In his day job as social worker, Wilson is never at his desk, and we never see him with a client, but the stories cover the gamut of African American issues from race riots to slumlords to racial profiling. Since the writers are white, the stories often read like a mixture of well-intentioned liberalism and ‘70s blaxploitation. Conway does the best writing in this vein, but his tenure is short-lived. Then Englehart takes over, and many of the social issues are ditched in favor of immediately retconning Cap’s history.

When not dressed as Captain America, Steve Rogers has a job as a cop who rarely shows up for work, which is a rather silly and unbelievable premise. For bad guys, the Red Skull still shows up occasionally to bore the reader with another giant robot. A-list fascists like Baron Strucker and MODOK make appearances, as does the fan favorite Frenchman Batroc. Odd choices for villains are the Grey Gargoyle, who overstays his welcome, and the cosmic collector The Stranger. Spider-Man teams up with Cap and the Falcon for a couple issues, and SHIELD’s Femme Force makes their debut. Overall, there’s a lot to like in this collection. The stories take silly turns and get a bit kitschy at times, but that’s what makes ‘70s comics so lovable. For the most part, Essential Captain America, Volume 3 is vintage Marvel.
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Monday, April 15, 2019

The Years with Laura Díaz by Carlos Fuentes

Fascinating history made boring
I’m what you might call a Mexicophile. I’ve traveled extensively throughout the country, and I read a lot of books about Mexican history and art. So it was with great enthusiasm that I commenced the reading of Carlos Fuentes’s 1999 novel The Years with Laura Díaz. I’m very interested in the Mexican mural movement, and Diego Rivera and his murals play an important part in this story. I have also been to many of the locations in this novel, such as Veracruz, Xalapa, Mexico City, Cuernavaca, and the Rivera murals in Detroit. While in the process of reading this book, I happened to spend a week in Mexico City walking many of the same streets and seeing many of the same sites mentioned in the book. So if anyone should be predisposed towards liking this novel, it should be me. Why then, did I find the reading of it to be such a terribly boring ordeal?

It seems the one aspect of Mexican culture that I am unable to appreciate is Carlos Fuentes. He has been widely hailed as the greatest Mexican novelist since Juan Rulfo and might have won a Nobel Prize if his countryman Octavio Paz hadn’t beaten him to it. Nevertheless, I’ve always found it difficult to get into his books. The Death of Artemio Cruz is the one work of his that I remember fondly, but I recall The Old Gringo being annoyingly tedious. The problem is that Fuentes tries really hard to be William Faulkner, and not in a good way. He writes in a style that emphasizes verbal creativity at the expense of storytelling. Every scene and emotion must be approached from an oblique angle; every sentiment expressed in sentences of intricate syntax. Rather than augmenting the emotional power of the story being told, all this verbal gymnastics tends to obfuscate the plot and dull any identification with the characters.

The Years with Laura Díaz is a historical novel chronicling the life and loves of a Mexican woman who lived from 1898 to 1972. As such, it contains a lot of Mexican history, but it’s very much in the background. The coming and going of presidential administrations are mentioned. Many historical figures make cameo appearances, but the reader doesn’t learn much about them beyond the dropping of their names. For a while, Laura Díaz works as a personal assistant to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, but they never really register as actual human beings. Rather, they speak only in bon mots and metaphor, serving as mouthpieces for the author’s cleverness. The narrative makes meandering side trips into the Spanish Civil War and McCarthyism in Hollywood. For a historical novel, the history here feels very tangential, hidden behind a veil of gratuitous verbiage. When all is said and done, The Years with Laura Díaz is really just the story of one woman’s love life, and not a very interesting one at that. What really becomes tedious is the way Fuentes feels the need to constantly recap her entire genealogy and history of lovers on almost every page of the book.

Oddly enough, the most satisfying portion of the novel may be the two pages of Acknowledgments at the end of the book, in which the reader finds out that all of the characters are based on members of Fuentes’s family. This could have been a much better book if he had written it as nonfiction, which might have reined in some of the Faulknerian excesses. Fuentes is a very intelligent and talented writer whose personal stylistic choices just really rub this reader the wrong way. I haven’t read enough of his books to gauge whether he deserved a Nobel or not, but I do know that a Mexicophile like me should have enjoyed The Years with Laura Díaz a lot more than I did.
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Friday, April 12, 2019

Deliverance by James Dickey

A literary masterpiece, whether you’ve seen the film or not
The film Deliverance is one of my top ten favorite movies of all time, and after recently rereading the James Dickey novel for I think the third time, I would have to count it among my all-time favorite books as well. Published in 1970, Deliverance is certainly one of the greatest novels of the second half of the 20th century. Fans of the film will find the novel every bit as riveting as its cinematic adaptation, and the book also provides a deeper insight into the characters, setting, and plot elements. Ed Gentry (the Jon Voigt character) narrates the story in the first person, which gives the reader an intimate connection to his thoughts and feelings during what develops into a very tense and harrowing experience. The course of events before and after the canoe trip is more thoroughly explored than in the film, and the reader learns a lot about the characters’ everyday lives—their occupations, their families, their everyday personalities—making it all the more compelling when they are forced to fight for those lives.

For those who have never seen the film, Deliverance is the story of four men who decide to take one last canoe trip on a soon-to-be-dammed wild river in a remote North Georgia wilderness. The adventure is more than they bargained for, however, when the party is attacked and forced to fight for their survival. Deliverance is a gripping adventure novel, but it is also an insightful examination of modern masculinity. Ed Gentry is happy to skate through a life of good-enough contentment that borders on complacency. His friend Lewis Medlock (the Burt Reynolds character), on the other hand, only feels alive when he is pushing himself to the limits of survival. Though more of an everyman realist, Ed can’t help but admire Lewis for his uncompromising machismo. For Ed, the canoe trip is his chance to embark on some sort of Lewis fantasy camp. When things get out of hand, however, what started as grown-ups at play in the wild turns deadly serious, and Ed finds himself faced with the greatest challenge of his life.

Deliverance is the best wilderness survival film ever made. Truly good wilderness adventure movies are hard to find, and the same is true for literature. Dickey may be the best wilderness adventure writer since Jack London. Reading this book gives one a visceral experience of the beauty and deadliness of the wild. Dickey makes the reader feel the woods, the river, and the rocks like few authors can. In addition, he brings a rich psychological depth to the characters that is on a par with writers like Hemingway or Steinbeck. Though the first person narrative occasionally veers into stream of consciousness, the book never succumbs to modernist excesses of verbal cleverness. The prose is taut and relevant, and the gripping story never relents.

Another unique aspect of Deliverance is that, unlike most action/adventure stories, after the life and death struggle takes place, the survivors must return to civilization and explain themselves. This adds another dimension of realism to the story that really elevates it above typical genre fiction into the realm of great literature. Author James Dickey (who played the sheriff in the movie) considered himself first and foremost a poet. He only wrote three novels, which is a shame considering how great this book is. His subsequent novels, Alnilam and To the White Sea, didn’t quite measure up to the same standard of greatness, but Deliverance will always stand as a masterpiece of modern American literature.
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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Chasing New Horizons: Inside the First Epic Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon

From drawing board to Kuiper Belt
When I was growing up there were nine planets orbiting our sun, but as of 2006, planet number nine, Pluto, has been demoted to a dwarf planet. Prior to that redesignation, however, Pluto remained the last unexplored planet in our solar system. The Voyager space probes were immensely successful in exploring the rest of the outer planets, but somehow Pluto could not be worked into their flight plans. As early as the 1980s, a number of Plutophile scientists began plotting how to rectify that omission. The result was the New Horizons spacecraft, which launched in 2006 and reached Pluto (or rather, passed within a mere 8,000 miles of it) in 2015. The book Chasing New Horizons: Inside the First Epic Mission to Pluto, published in 2018, charts the trajectory of this spacecraft from conception through development to historic success.

If you are looking for a book that details all the discoveries that New Horizons made on its journey to Pluto, this is not it. For the latest Plutonian research, you would be better off hunting for articles in Science magazine or even National Geographic. Here, most of the mission’s scientific yield is briefly summarized in an appendix. Concrete conclusions will require more time for all of the collected data to be processed and analyzed in a thoroughly scientific manner. What this book does cover, however, is the process by which the New Horizons probe was conceived, designed, built, tested, approved, launched, and operated. The reader really gets an inside look at what it is like to be a scientist working for NASA and the planning and politics that go into a mission.

The book’s authors, Alan Stern and David Grinspoon, are both planetary scientists who worked on New Horizons. The preface explains that Stern was the project leader and primary driving force behind the project. Grinspoon played a smaller role on the New Horizons team, but he has more experience as a professional author, so he did most of the writing of the book based on extensive interviews with Stern and other members of the New Horizons team. Grinspoon is very skilled at explaining complicated scientific concepts in language that a lay person can understand, but his writing does have its annoying quirks. For starters, he is so set on portraying Stern as a herculean hero that anyone who opposes Stern’s grand vision, whether a scientific competitor or just a government bean counter, is unrealistically painted as a villain. Also, at times the book reads almost as if it were written to satisfy a grant proposal, justifying every expense and making sure that each stakeholder is heartily patted on the back.

The narrative is often exciting and fascinating, but the book does drag at times. It doesn’t really seem necessary to catalog every last test and drill the team went through in preparing New Horizons for its final approach. On the other hand, one really does get a great education into the workings of NASA. Executing a mission isn’t just about scientific discovery; there is quite a bit of tedious routine and bureaucratic red tape as well, and this book captures it all, for better or worse. Grinspoon’s erring on the side of verbosity rather than omission will ultimately make this book the authoritative chronicle of this historic event. Fear not, science lovers, there is certainly enough science here to make up for the excess of board meetings, software uploads, and public relations opportunities. Chasing New Horizons is really an enjoyable and enlightening book. Every NASA mission would be lucky to have such a thorough and accessible document of its triumphs.

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