Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Famous Men of Science by Sarah Knowles Bolton

A tasty sampler platter of biographical appetizers
Famous Men of Science, published in 1889, is a collection of 14 biographical sketches written by American author Sarah Knowles Bolton. In the late 19th century, Bolton published a whole series of such biographical collections, with titles like Poor Boys Who Became Famous, Famous American Statesmen, and Famous European Artists. Although it doesn’t appear to be intended for a young audience, Famous Men of Science is definitely a popular history aimed at the masses. The biographical sketches have the feeling of deliberate simplification, like articles out of Reader’s Digest or something from Chicken Soup for the Scientific Soul. Given this approach, it’s hard to tell how much of the information is reliable, and how much is folklore, but Bolton does quote extensively from the letters and diaries of the figures she profiles.

While relating the events and accomplishments of her subjects’ lives, Bolton makes blatant efforts to draw moral lessons from their examples, often concluding paragraphs with chestnuts like “Those only succeed who have sufficient force of character to make time for what they wish to do,” or “Little can be expected from those who are easily satisfied.” She also goes out of her way to emphasize the Christian piety and spiritual fortitude of these scientific heroes, even the ones who were likely materialists. She has a tendency to digress from the scientific research by focusing on stories of love, friendship, and family. In the chapter on Sir Humphrey Davy, for instance, Bolton concentrates so much on his personal character and relationships that I’m not sure I even understand what his great contributions to science were. Bolton just assumes you already know that, as any good student of the 19th century would.

Nevertheless, you do learn a lot of fascinating details about these individuals, like Galileo’s struggles to support a family of deadbeats, or the fact that Louis Agassiz was so blind he had to feel fossils with his tongue. Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, had a very successful career as an artist prior to becoming an inventor, and Bolton gives his artistic accomplishments their proper due. I consider myself pretty well-versed in the life of Charles Darwin, but I knew almost nothing about the personal histories of Carl Linnaeus, Georges Cuvier, or Alexander von Humboldt. Though Bolton’s sketches are anything but comprehensive, she has provided me with enough information to know that I’d like to look into the works of these great naturalists and seek out more recent and complete biographies on them.

Despite the weaknesses in the writing, and the egregious number of typos in the ebook (no spelling check was ever applied to the scanned text), this really is an enjoyable read. It transports you back to the glory days of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, prior to the era of specialization, when science was like the Wild West: full of opportunities for anyone willing to work hard and stake their claim. You didn’t need rigid credentials to make advances in a given discipline; you just did the work. Almost all of these luminaries excelled in more than one field. Humboldt’s range of interests was truly staggering, stretching across almost the entire breadth of the sciences and humanities. It’s difficult to imagine any scientist today having the freedom to explore the diversity of knowledge that these men did. Famous Men of Science is a fun read for anyone who admires these polymaths of the past. It is no substitute for real biographies of Newton, Herschel, Audubon, etc., but it really does generate enthusiasm for the history of science and whets your appetite for more.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The BFG by Roald Dahl

Charming but tedious
I’m sure a lot of people grew up with this story and absolutely love it, but having just encountered it for the first time, as an adult reading it to my own kids, I was underwhelmed. The title of Roald Dahl’s 1982 novel The BFG is an acronym for Big Friendly Giant. The heroine of the story, a young girl named Sophie, spies the giant on the prowl in her neighborhood one evening when she is up past her bedtime. The existence of giants is supposed to be a secret, so the BFG snatches Sophie up and takes her back to his cave, where she’s required to stay forever so she can’t tell anyone that he’s real.

Luckily he’s a gentle and friendly giant, unlike others in the book. There are nine other giants who make their secret rounds at night, but instead of blowing dreams into children’s bedrooms they snatch kids up and eat them. If your children are too old to be scared by this premise (as mine are), then they’re probably old enough to be bored by it. The rather gory allusions to bone crunching and blood bottling get rather monotonous when they are dragged out ad nauseam over the course of a too-lengthy novel. The story is simple enough that Dr. Seuss could have made it work in 48 easy pages, but Dahl stretches it out over three or four hours of reading. And this is one of his shorter books? For most of its length, the novel is just long descriptive passages about the giants and their lifestyles, with an emphasis on the threat from the child-eating carnivores. It isn’t until the last few chapters when Sophie and friend decide to do something about it, but even then the resolution feels overly protracted.

Where the novel succeeds is in Dahl’s playful use of language and touches of humor throughout. The BFG speaks in a dialect that combines barbaric crudeness with childlike cuteness. His lingo is peppered with a bevy of nonsense words like whizzpopping, crodsquinkled, and frobscottle, and Dahl incorporates clever puns into the prose, particularly when he’s describing the flavors of “human beans.” Linguistically, the story occasionally had my elementary school boys and I laughing, but narratively, we were mostly bored by the plot and kept wishing Dahl would get on with it already.

If there’s a moral to the story, Dahl doesn’t hammer it home. The BFG proves that scary people/things can be nice—Don’t judge a book by its cover, that sort of thing. Sophie shows that kids can be heroes too. Mostly, however, it’s just a fight-the-monsters tale that takes forever to get around to fighting the monsters. The story does have a certain charm to it, so I can understand why many have fond memories of the book from their youth, but Dahl’s probably got better books up his sleeve than this. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach seem like better candidates for the kid-lit canon.
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Friday, August 4, 2017

Four-Day Planet by H. Beam Piper

Space whalers revolt!
Four-Day Planet, a science fiction novel by H. Beam Piper, was originally published in 1961. The story takes place in Piper’s Terro-Human Future History universe, which deals with mankind’s colonization of the galaxy centuries in the future. Readers of that series will recognize the familiar convention of planets named after Norse deities, as seen in Uller Uprising and Graveyard of Dreams (though no prior knowledge of the Future History series is required).

The story of Four-Day Planet takes place on Fenris, a world that spins so slowly it only makes four complete rotations a year. This creates extremely long periods of sunlight and shade, resulting in extreme seasons ranging from a Mercury-hot summer to a Jupiter-cold winter (I’m approximating). Because of this, the human population is forced to live either underground or in enclosed cities. Not surprisingly, Fenris is a sparsely populated planet, and somewhat of a galactic backwater. The primary attraction for colonization is resource extraction. The main export of Fenris is “tallow wax,” a substance harvested from the corpses of sea monsters, much like the spermaceti taken from the heads of sperm whales. This substance, valued for its radiation-shielding properties, is collected by hunters operating in ships that are essentially submarines that can fly. The hunters see little profit from their dangerous work, however, as their hunters’ co-op has been co-opted by crooked gangsters and corrupt politicians who steal most of the revenue from tallow wax exports. Fed up with this arrangement, the hunters decide to revolt against this tallow wax mafia and regain economic control of the fruits of their labors.

Piper is an expert on crafting bizarre and complicated fictional worlds that nonetheless maintain a ring of authenticity, but Fenris is not one of his more visionary creations. The four-day year concept isn’t really utilized much, except to justify a harsh environment that serves as the backdrop for a survival story. Mostly this is a novel of political and military strategy, a chess game between two opposing factions using economic, political, and combat tactics to outsmart one another. As always, there are plenty of guns to satisfy Piper’s ballistic obsession.

Though it may not blow you away with theoretical sci-fi speculation, Four-Day Planet is a good adventure story. Sometimes the plot gets bogged down too deeply in the business and chemistry of the tallow wax industry, bringing a slow halt to the action. In keeping with Piper’s libertarian bent, the book delivers a subtle message against labor unions (they lead to corruption) and government regulation (it stifles economic growth) in favor of a free market economy, but compared to some of his other works he doesn’t lay it on too thickly. As in many a good western or film noir, the gangsters who oppress the monster hunters merely serve the narrative purpose of setting up the latter faction as freedom fighters struggling for independence. The large ensemble cast of players in this conflict, each with his own often-hidden motives, is confusing at first, but by the end the reader is fully involved with all the various parties and their complex relationships. Though not one of Piper’s more visionary works, Four-Day Planet is an entertaining read that delivers its fair share of fun and excitement.
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Monday, July 31, 2017

International Short Stories: American, edited by William Patten

From canon to commonplace
Washington Irving
What the rather confusing title/subtitle combination of International Short Stories: American doesn’t tell you is that this is one book of a trilogy which also includes volumes of French and English stories. This particular volume, a collection of 22 short stories by American authors, was edited by William Patten and published by P. F. Collier & Son in 1910. The selections contained within are an odd mix of the classic and the obscure. Glancing down the table of contents one can see that the book begins with some of the greatest names in American literature, followed by some also-rans, and then, with a few exceptions, concluding with the barely-heard-ofs. The result is that the first half of the book reads like a greatest stories of all-time collection, while the latter half comes across as a promotional showcase for up-and-coming unknowns.

In general, not surprisingly, the better-known authors provide the best stories. The book opens with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who’s not one of my personal favorites, but his story “The Prophetic Pictures” is better than his usual fare. This is followed by a line up of heavy hitters including Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, James Fenimore Cooper and Bret Harte. Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was likely America’s first literary masterpiece, and it still holds up excellently today. In the perfect combination of horror and humor, Irving manages to satirize American folklore while creating his own enduring piece of it. From Poe we get not one of his macabre horror tales but rather the satisfying treasure hunt adventure “The Gold-Bug.” Cooper’s offering, “Corporal Flint’s Murder,” is a solemn tale of White vs. Native American conflict, like a scene lifted straight out of the Leatherstocking Tales. From the mining camp sketches of champion yarn-spinner Harte comes “Uncle Jim and Uncle Billy,” a well crafted and vividly drawn tale of two inseparable claim partners who reach a critical point in their relationship.

So far so good, but overall the collection takes a downward dive from there. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s entry “The Notary of Perigueux” is a bit of a disappointment, given his illustrious name. Still, there are gems here and there. O. Henry delivers an entertaining tale with “The Count and the Wedding Guest.” Of the writers I would consider second-tier authors, Frank Stockton scores with a comedic yarn and Anna Katharine Green provides a tale of suspense reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One of the best stories, “Miss Tooker’s Wedding Gift,” is by an author I’ve never heard of, John Kendrick Bangs. It concerns an idle rich man who goes to great lengths to prove his worth to the woman he loves, with hilarious results. Other pleasant surprises spring from the pens of F. Hopkinson Smith and Charles G. D. Roberts. Too many of the remaining selections are mediocre at best, with the worst being two brief fables by George Ade that amount to little more than dumb punch lines. When taken as a whole, however, the balance sheet is favorable, and the collection hits more than it misses.

You’re not going to find many tales of profound insight or emotional power here. Editor William Patten’s intention seems to have been to pleasantly entertain, so, with few exceptions, what you get are clever, lighthearted tales with surprise endings. This is by no means the best collection of century-old short fiction I’ve ever read, but it’s pretty good overall. Readers who like this sort of thing might also check out the Stories by American Authors series, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884, of which volumes III, VI, and X are the best.

Stories in this collection
The Prophetic Pictures by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving 
The Gold-Bug by Edgar Allen Poe 
Corporal Flint’s Murder by James Fenimore Cooper 
Uncle Jim and Uncle Billy by Bret Harte 
The Notary of Perigueux by H. W. Longfellow 
The Widow’s Cruise by F. R. Stockton 
The Count and the Wedding Guest by O. Henry 
Miss Tooker’s Wedding Gift by John Kendrick Bangs 
The Fable of the Two Mandolin Players and the Willing Performer by George Ade 
The Fable of the Preacher Who Flew His Kite, But Not Because He Wished To Do So by George Ade

The Shadows on the Wall by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman 

Major Perdue’s Bargain by Joel Chandler Harris 

A Kentucky Cinderella by F. Hopkinson Smith 

By the Waters of Paradise by F. Marion Crawford 

A Memorable Night by Anna Katharine Green 

The Man From Red Dog by Alfred Henry Lewis 

Jean Michaud’s Little Ship by Charles G. D. Roberts 

Those Old Lunes! by W. Gilmore Simms 

The Chiropodist by Bayard Taylor

“Mr. Dooley on Corporal Punishment” by F. P. Dunne 

Over a Wood Fire by Donald G. Mitchell 

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Friday, July 28, 2017

Into the Wild by John Krakauer

The allure of wanderlust
Journalist and mountaineer John Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, published in 1996, is an expansion of an article he previously published in Outside magazine in 1993. The book is an investigative biography examining the life and death of Chris McCandless, who, immediately after graduating college, gave all his money to charity, broke all ties with his family, and embraced a life on the open road, sometimes living a primitive solitary lifestyle in remote natural areas. Krakauer tracks McCandless’s travels across North America from Atlanta to Alaska and engages in in-depth interviews with the people whom he met along the way. Unfortunately, this is a posthumous biography because McCandless died in Alaska, having chosen to venture alone into harsh conditions with minimal preparation. Krakauer pieces together the final days of McCandless’s life and conjectures as to the young man’s cause of death. The book is more than simply one man’s life story, however, as Krakauer uses McCandless as a case study to draw larger conclusions about our relationship with nature and the motives that drive some to take fatal risks.

Into the Wild is one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books, and I recently reread it for the second or third time. McCandless’s journey really speaks to me on a personal level. He and I are roughly the same age and both lovers of the literature of Jack London and classic literature in general. McCandless took the works of London, Tolstoy, and Thoreau to heart, adopting the ethical code of individualism and living in accordance with nature that they advocated and turning it into his own personal quest for spiritual enlightenment. In many ways I envy the freedom of McCandless’s deliberately nomadic existence. The conventions of society, the demands of work, the responsibilities of civilization, and the rules and regulations we are all constantly subject to leave little room for personal freedom or the nurturing of personal ethics. How many of us have occasionally thought life would be so much more meaningful if we could strip away all the bull and get back to the basic necessities of life? Well, McCandless pulled it off, for a while anyway. Sadly, it killed him in the process.

McCandless’s story combines romantic idealism with sometimes stupid mistakes and unforgivable hubris—wandering into the wilderness without a map and little food, for example. Krakauer does not let McCandless off the hook for his poor choices. McCandless’s wandering lifestyle is not portrayed as idyllic, but rather described with a balanced consideration of its rewards and faults. Thus, there’s something for everyone in this book, as one can make a case either to admire McCandless or to despise him.

In addition to his study of McCandless, Krakauer provides a fascinating overview of other idealists who chose to live “off the grid” under dangerous conditions. Most of these often foolhardy individuals ended up disappearing without a trace. One shocking example is Carl McCunn, who had himself flown into the remote Alaskan bush to live off the land for a few months but failed to arrange a pickup for a return trip. Krakauer adds a mountain climbing story of his own to the mix, which may or may not be relevant, but at least it’s well-told. All of these examples demonstrate a need for mankind to commune with the wild, partly to withdraw from society and partly to test one’s own mettle and fortitude. Though one may choose to write McCandless off as a crackpot hippie, one cannot deny that the call to go “into the wild” exists, and Krakauer gives it its proper due here by examining it in psychological and philosophical depth. Into the Wild is a thought-provoking, soul-stirring, and heart-wrenching book that I wholeheartedly recommend.
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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Ghost of a Model T and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume 3

Weaker than other volumes in the series (but still very good)
The Ghost of a Model T and Other Stories is the fifth volume I’ve read in the Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series. I’m not reading them in numerical order, but rather just buying whichever ebooks get offered as Kindle Daily Deals. So far I’ve read and reviewed Volumes 1, 2, 7, and 8, all of which I rated five stars for excellence. Volume 3 proved to be less impressive than those other volumes. While it’s still a great collection of short stories that I enjoyed very much, I wasn’t blown away by it the way I had been by those other volumes.

That’s not to say there aren’t some exceptional stories here. The title selection, which closes the book, is likely the best of the bunch. In a tale told with great sensitivity and pathos, an aged man is picked up by a mysterious Model T that takes him on a nostalgic time travel trip. Another excellent piece is “Mirage,” about an archaeologist on Mars who meets up with some of the planet’s indigenous inhabitants. “Leg. Forst.” is a humorous tale of stamp collecting and alien visitation. “Condition of Employment” and “Founding Father” both deal with the hallucinations of space travelers, while “Byte Your Tongue!” highlights the desires of a daydreaming computer. “The Autumn Land” and “The Street That Wasn’t There” are spookier stories in which the very fabric of reality itself seems to unravel.

Also included in this collection is the story “City,” which would later be combined with several other stories to form the novel City, perhaps Simak’s best-known work. The story “City” is a tale of suburban flight run amok. On some points time has proven it prophetic, on others it’s just unrealistically exaggerated. “Physician to the Universe,” in which robots enforce a draconian system of health care, is another example of a social issue being taken to extremes. Last and also least, like other volumes in the series, this collection contains one western story, “No More Hides and Tallow.” Simak’s westerns are hit and miss, and this one is not so great, suffering from too much action without enough story to back it up.

The problem with Volume 3 may be more editorial than authorial. The contents here just seem more homogenous in style and tone than the other books in the series. Series editor David W. Wixon has not arranged Simak’s stories chronologically or thematically. Instead, each volume is just a grab bag of whatever Wixon chooses to put in, and the diversity is a big part of the fun. As you finish one story, you never know what you’re going to encounter next. With the exception of the one western, however, the selections in Volume 3 almost all seem to fall into that amorphous area of science fiction best exemplified by The Twilight Zone: strange and mysterious phenomena take place that are never satisfactorily explained or justified. The approach is more emotional than scientific, emphasizing the psychological effect on the characters. These tales are sometimes humorous, often wistful and nostalgic. The darker ones mildly touch on the horror genre, but they’re more thought-provoking than scary. What this collection really could have used is a few more examples of theoretical hard science fiction like “Mirage” mixed into the bunch.

I plan to read the entire fourteen-volume series of Simak’s complete short fiction, and I certainly don’t regret reading this one. If you’re only planning on reading a few volumes, however, I would recommend books 1, 2, 7, or 8 over this one.

Stories in this collection
Leg. Forst. 
Physician to the Universe 
No More Hides and Tallow
Condition of Employment 
The Autumn Land 
Founding Father
Byte Your Tongue! 
The Street That Wasn’t There 
The Ghost of a Model T

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Monday, July 24, 2017

Wind River by James Reasoner and L.J. Washburn

Where the railroad ends, trouble begins
When I travel to Wyoming I like to read a Wyoming novel. This year I decided to give James Reasoner and L.J. Washburn’s 1994 book Wind River a try. The story takes place in the fictional town of Wind River, which is confusingly described as being about 80 miles west of Laramie. That would put it more likely on the North Platte than the Wind River and closer to the Snowy Range than the Wind River Range, though the novel often mentions the latter as being visible from the town.

Anyway, when the story opens, the young town of Wind River has just become the western terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad. Railroad construction has brought some undesirable characters with it, from rough-and-tumble track workers to shiftless drifters or “hardcases” with seemingly no other purpose than to cause trouble. Violent clashes between these two groups have drawn attention to the need for law and order in the town. With work on the tracks recently completed, the citizens of Wind River gather to celebrate the arrival of the first locomotive. A fistfight breaks out among the crowd, and one of the town’s eminent founders is killed by a stray gunshot. Present at the incident is Cole Tyler, who has been hunting buffalo in the region, providing meat for the railroad workers. When the trouble goes down at the train station, he demonstrates a level head, a quick draw, and a commanding presence that demands respect. Tyler is invited to serve as the town’s first marshal, and he reluctantly accepts. He soon finds himself not only keeping the peace in this frontier town, but also working to solve a murder.

I’m not a habitual reader of westerns but I am an avid fan of western films. Wind River reads as if it were written with hopes of a movie adaptation. Each scene and character is familiar, like those you’ve seen in countless westerns on the silver screen, yet Reasoner and Washburn skillfully manipulate the players in this drama to keep the story from being bogged down in western clichés. The introduction of each new character is intriguing, as each has their own personal mysteries that keep the reader engaged. Since this is a town western rather than a range western, you not only get cowboys and cattle rustlers but an entire ensemble cast of characters including the doctor, the newspaper editor, the blacksmith, and the woman who runs the local cafe. This opens up a lot of narrative possibilities and provides a broader picture of western life than a simple good vs. evil shoot-’em-up, though it’s still a romanticized depiction of the West.

As the book goes on, Wind River becomes less like a movie and more like a TV series, along the lines of Gunsmoke or Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman. As the mystery reaches its resolution and the bad guys are revealed, the story lines become more predictable, and the action starts to feel safe. It becomes apparent that this will be the first novel in a Wind River series, and once the reader figures that out then it’s obvious that none of the important characters will die, since they all have to return for the next installment. As the stakes become lower, the novel becomes less exciting, and one can expect the ending to be wrapped up with a neat little bow.

Still, Wind River is better than a lot of western literature I’ve read. Like the TV series mentioned above, it’s easy to get involved with these characters. Though I generally prefer my western tales darker and grittier, I might pick up the next Wind River book the next time I go to Wyoming.
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