Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin



To compute or not to compute?
Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine, published in 1958, is the third novel in the Danny Dunn series by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin. Danny is an adolescent boy who lives with the scientist Professor Bullfinch, for whom Danny’s mother serves as housekeeper. In each book Danny and his sidekick Joe co-opt some invention of the Professor’s and use it to get in and out of trouble. This time the theme is computer science, as the boys get their hands on MINIAC, a computer that Bullfinch is developing for the government.

In the first chapter of this third installment, Williams and Abrashkin introduce the recurring character of Irene Miller, who has just moved into the house next door. Like Danny, she is scientifically minded and intelligent beyond her years. She and Danny make fast friends, much to the chagrin of Joe, who feels he’s losing his best friend. It was smart of the authors to introduce a female character, thus creating a role model for girls as Danny is for boys. Irene proves that anything boys can do girls can do too, and also serves as a voice of reason in response to some of Danny’s cockamamie schemes. Joe expresses his disgruntlement over Irene’s arrival with utterances like “Dames! Who needs ‘em! Nothing but trouble.” While everything works out OK in the end, of course, I hope my sons don’t take to spouting anti-feminist rhetoric in the slang terms of the ‘50s. My 8 year old found the term “dames” to be particularly hilarious.

While Professor Bullfinch is away, Danny comes up with the idea of using the computer to complete his homework and convinces his two companions to go along with his plan. The authors make it clear to young readers that the computer is not a magic box that solves all your problems for you. A computer can only do what people tell it to do. So Danny and his friends have to program the machine, loading it with information before they can extract the answers to their homework assignments. Contrary to Danny’s plans, he thus ends up doing more homework than he was doing before. When Danny’s teacher finds out that he’s using the computer, he has a debate with her about digital ethics. The computer, he insists, is just another tool, like a textbook or slide rule, and why shouldn’t he use what resources are available to him? His teacher, on the other hand, is afraid it will hinder his learning. The discussion of such issues, however elementary, are still relevant to today’s digitally saturated kids who may wonder why studying is even necessary when you can just Google everything.

These books were originally intended for junior high-age readers, but due to the antiquated technology and obvious moral lessons, these days that demographic will probably find them painfully corny. The books will, however, appeal to younger readers with an avid interest in science. I read them with my two boys, who both loved the first book, Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint. They were split on this volume. My 6 year old lost interest halfway through, but my 8 year old was all-in until the very end. In my opinion, this is not one of Danny’s more exciting adventures, especially since computers have become so ubiquitous. Nevertheless, like all of the books in the series, it’s good, solid, entertaining fare for young readers.
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Monday, June 27, 2016

Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist



Searching for a reason to believe
Barabbas, a novel by Swedish author Pär Lagerkvist, was published in 1950. The following year Lagerkvist was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, due in no small part to the critical acclaim this book received. The novel is based on the biblical story of Barabbas, who is briefly mentioned in each of the four Gospels. In the time of Christ, it was customary to pardon one prisoner during the holiday of Passover. The Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, gives the people of Jerusalem the choice of whom to set free. They choose Barabbas, a convicted thief and murderer, leaving Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified.

Lagerkvist’s novel begins with the crucifixion of Christ. Barabbas, a free man, witnesses the event, and can hardly believe his good fortune at having escaped the fate of the man who is dying before him. He knows little about Christ or his teachings, but he finds the man strangely fascinating. Barabbas is tormented by the nagging thought that he should have been the one to die. He undergoes a drastic personality change, no longer enjoying wine, women, and theft as he used to. He seeks out information on Christ, and makes attempts to learn about the Christian faith, but he is not welcomed among the Christians. In many ways Barabbas is incapable of faith or religion. This is not a simple repentant-man-turns-over-a-new-leaf story, but something far more complex.

Having seen the 1961 film adaptation starring Anthony Quinn and Jack Palance, I approached the novel with some pre-conceived notions. Overall, the film is faithful to the general tone and message of the book, but it augments Barabbas’s interior conflict with sword-and-sandal action scenes designed to entertain. In the movie, Barabbas is trained to be a gladiator, but nothing like that occurs in the book. The Jack Palance character doesn’t even exist in Lagerkvist’s novel, and he wouldn’t really belong in it. If adapted for film today, Barabbas would be an introspective art-house indie film rather than an epic blockbuster.

What makes the novel so powerful is the fact that it can be appreciated from either a religious or secular perspective. Devout Christians will likely gravitate toward the novel’s examination of faith and find meaning in its underlying morality. Irreligious readers, however, can approach the book as a historical novel. Lagerkvist’s Jerusalem of two millennia ago is a free market of competing gods and prophets. Everyone is looking for something or someone to believe in and a sense of belonging. Rumors of Christ’s divinity and news of his death spread not like wildfire but in fits and starts, through second-hand testimony and overheard whispering in the streets. This is a far cry from the glorified depictions of early Christianity in romantic novels like Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur or Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis. Lagerkvist doesn’t even take a stand on whether Christ was the divine son of God or just a wise philosopher punished for his revolutionary teachings. He leaves that for the reader to decide, and chooses instead to focus on the faith of the followers. Despite its biblical setting, Barabbas is a modernist, psychological novel that explores the sort of existential themes one might find in a work by Albert Camus. Barabbas’s quest can be seen as analogous to modern man searching for meaning in an empty life.

Barabbas is a brief book that can probably be read in its entirety in under two hours. Nevertheless, it is a great work of literature, filled with stark, moving scenes that will likely stick with this reader for a long time to come.
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Friday, June 24, 2016

Wide is the Gate by Upton Sinclair



Lanny Budd’s Spanish Civil War
Wide is the Gate, published in 1943, is the fourth novel in Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series. In the second novel, Between Two Worlds, Lanny survived a scary encounter with Italian Fascism. In the third novel, Dragon’s Teeth, he came face-to-face with the Nazis. In this fourth book, both menaces are back and on the rise, while a new threat is added to the mix: Spanish dictator-to-be Francisco Franco and his right-wing Nationalists. Through the lens of Lanny’s leftist idealism, Sinclair examines the political turmoil taking place in Europe from 1934 to 1937 and illuminates crucial events leading up to the Second World War.

Lanny returns to Germany and once again meets with Adolph Hitler, with whom he rubbed elbows in the last novel. This time around, Lanny is surprised to find that his wife Irma is quite sympathetic to the Fuhrer’s politics. One of the great benefits of this series is that it enlightens us as to how such a madman ever could have come to power in the first place. It is easy for us now to look back on Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco as evil monsters, but the fact is they were supported by many, Americans included, who saw their Fascist movements as the magic bullet that would save the world from socialism. It’s a valuable lesson to bear in mind as we continue to see right-wing politicians play upon xenophobic fears to advance their agendas. Needless to say, Lanny and Irma don’t see eye to eye on many matters, and their difference of political opinion begins to wear on their relationship. Lanny starts keeping secrets from his wife as he offers his assistance to Trudi Schultz, a Jewish artist working for the resistance movement against the Nazis in Germany.

While the first half of the book is dominated by Lanny’s marital woes, the second half focuses largely on the Spanish Civil War. Lanny travels to Spain to purchase some paintings, and ends up getting caught in the crossfire between the Loyalist forces of the democratically elected leftist government and the Nationalist forces of Franco supported by Italy and Germany. Sinclair goes into a great deal of detail regarding the progression of the territorial struggle between the opposing armies. This historical context is combined with Lanny’s man-on-the-street perspective of the chaos of war­—sometimes comic, sometimes tragic. As is typical of the series, the book culminates in a perilous mission for Lanny to undertake. Though exciting, the ending is a bit too similar to that of the previous novel, leaving the reader with the feeling that Wide is the Gate is somewhat of a watered-down version of Dragon’s Teeth.

Each volume in the Lanny Budd series has its share of disappointments, and this book is no exception. As usual, Sinclair spends hundreds of pages checking in with his gigantic ensemble cast before the plot gains any momentum. Once again, there are annoying digressions into the paranormal. Sinclair was fascinated by séances and the possibility of telepathy, so naturally his fictional hero must share this obsession, however inappropriate to the narrative at hand. Nevertheless, the shortcomings of each individual book are mitigated by the ambitiousness and epic scope of the series as a whole. The enormous cast of characters, meandering story, and intricate web of plot threads can be maddening at times, but after a while you just get sucked into Lanny’s world. The amount of historical detail Sinclair crams into every page is staggering, and his encyclopedic knowledge of world affairs is astonishing. If you’ve made it through the first three books, then you already know what I’m talking about and have probably decided to read on. Far be it from this Lanny Budd junkie to discourage you.
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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Romola by George Eliot



Long-winded but worthwhile
George Eliot is best known for her novels of English country life, but this book set in Renaissance Florence just might be her magnum opus. Romola, Eliot’s fourth novel, was originally published in the pages of Cornhill Magazine from 1862 to 1863. The story opens in the year 1492. The title character, Romola de’ Bardi, is the daughter of a scholar who maintains a large library of classical texts. Romola assists her father, who is blind, with his studies, and in doing so has become an accomplished scholar in her own right. Tito Melema, a handsome young scholar from Greece, arrives in Florence after surviving a shipwreck. Romola’s father hires Tito to help him with his scholarly works, and soon a romance develops between the young man and woman. Tito is eager to establish himself as a figure of prominence in Florence, but events from his past come back to haunt him, threatening his newfound comfort. When Romola discovers too late that her husband is a man quite different from whom she thought he was, she struggles for independence from the confines of her marriage.

All this takes place against the backdrop of Florentine history, which at times Eliot lays on a little too thick. Just when you begin to get involved in the lives of the main characters, the author inserts another interminable barbershop conversation or tavern debate on politics. The supporting cast boasts some real historic personages, including Niccolò Machiavelli and Girolamo Savonarola. The latter dominates the latter half of the book as Eliot elevates him to protagonist status. Savonarola was a Dominican friar who championed a Christian reform movement that defied Pope Alexander VI. The religious battle between the pontiff and the heretic escalates into a political war, with the fate of Florence hanging in the balance. To some degree, all this social and political context influences the lives of the fictional characters, but Eliot overdoes it to the point of pedantry. It soon begins to feel like merely pointless, ostentatious flaunting of her encyclopedic knowledge of Florence and its history. The reader never cares about Savonarola the way he cares about the fictional characters, so the overwhelming presence of this heroic preacher whom Eliot so obviously admires becomes an unwelcome distraction from the better parts of the book.

When the narrative does follow Tito, Romola, or the ensemble supporting cast, however, the story is quite engaging. The Renaissance setting, archetypal characters, and classic themes of vengeance, loyalty, and integrity remind one of Victor Hugo’s great romantic works, in particular Notre-Dame de Paris (though Romola is not nearly as good). Yet in the authentically rendered psychology there’s an inkling of realism that foreshadows the naturalism of Emile Zola, as the characters are often slaves to their natures and driven by forces beyond their control.

Reading Romola was a long haul, and I was not completely enamored with it, but in the end I’m glad I read it and will take away from it memorable characters and scenes. I prefer Romola over the other books by Eliot that I have read—Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss—perhaps because I just prefer Renaissance Italy to the Victorian English countryside. Eliot obviously enjoyed the departure from her typical milieu as well, as evidenced by the prodigious amount of research that must have gone into this at times overly erudite epic. Romola’s long-windedness may make it a difficult book to love, but its ambitiousness and intelligence make it an easy book to admire.
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Friday, June 17, 2016

Publisher Profile: Open Road Integrated Media

A great source for “medium-old” books (and more)
As I’ve done once before and hope to do more of in the future, I'm devoting today’s post to one of my favorite publishers. Open Road Integrated Media was founded in 2009 by a former executive from HarperCollins. The company’s business model seems to be to buy up the electronic rights for previously published print books, both fiction and nonfiction, and rerelease them as e-books. It’s possible they may publish some first-run titles as well, as many of their authors are still alive and kicking. Their selection is wide, with over 10,000 titles now available, and their prices are always reasonable.

Open Road has a “daily deal” email blast called Early Bird Books, which I look forward to every day. If you haven't signed up for it, you should. Each day they offer about a half dozen different e-book titles for two or three bucks apiece. Buyer beware: the purpose behind such generosity is often to hook you on the first book in a series, as they have recently addicted me to Clifford D. Simak (see more on him below). Open Road publishes some e-book reprints of public domain classics, which they sell for 99 cents and often give away, but I prefer to just get those for free from Project Gutenberg. What I like about Open Road is that they offer what I would call “medium-old” books; that is, books that are too old to be considered current literature, yet too young to be copyright free.

Below is a list of a few of Open Road’s authors that I’ve sampled, often by taking advantage of their Early Bird Books deals. This is barely the tip of the iceberg as far as what they offer, however, so go browse their website.

  

Authors

Poul Anderson (1926-2001)
Anderson was named a Grand Master of science fiction, and he also wrote historical novels. In the latter category, I have purchased The Golden Horn, book one in the Last Viking Trilogy, but haven’t read it yet. Open Road sells e-books of 33 Anderson novels, including the sci-fi Harvest of Stars trilogy and the King of Ys series, set in ancient Rome and cowritten with his wife Karen Anderson.

Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973)
It was Pearl S. Buck who first turned me on to Open Road. After years of looking for her novels in used book stores, it was a relief to find her works available in e-book format, often offered for very low prices. Open Road sells 29 e-books of Buck’s best-known works, mostly her historical novels of China. Old Books by Dead Guys has reviewed eight Buck books: East Wind: West Wind (1930), The Good Earth (1931), Sons (1933), A House Divided (1935), Dragon Seed (1942), The Promise (1943), China Flight (1943), and The Living Reed (1963). All but China Flight are available from Open Road. I have another handful waiting to be read, including This Proud Heart (1938) and Peony (1948). I hope Open Road eventually expands this line to include Buck’s more obscure, farther afield works. Perhaps there are rights issues standing in the way, or maybe those less critically acclaimed works just haven’t been deemed worthy of resurrection.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
Several collections of Einstein’s writings are published by Open Road, including his landmark work The Theory of Relativity. Books like Essays in Science and Essays in Humanism cover the wide breadth of Einstein’s thought. His personal convictions and idealism are revealed in The World As I See It and Out of My Later Years. A while back I picked these up for free, but they usually go for about ten dollars each.

James Grady (1949 - )
Grady is the author of the Condor series of spy novels, beginning with Six Days of the Condor (1974), upon which the Robert Redford film Three Days of the Condor was based. Open Road has it, along with four other Grady books, including Condor.net (2011), a recent sequel.

James Hilton (1900-1954)
Open Road offers e-books of six of Hilton’s novels, including his best known works Lost Horizon (1933) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934). The former is a pretty good novel about a secret utopia in the mountains of Tibet.

Halldór Laxness (1902-1998)
Icelandic author Halldór Laxness won the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature. Open Road only publishes one Laxness e-book, The Atom Station (1948), which I did not care for. The English-language rights for most of Laxness’s novels are held by Vintage Books.

Fritz Leiber (1910-1992)
Leiber is a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. He was a pioneer of the sword and sorcery genre with his Lankhmar series of “Swords” novels (e.g. Swords in the Mist [1968], Swords against Wizardry [1968]), which I remember reading in junior high. The series chronicles the adventures of two sword-wielding heroes called Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser, the former being a giant barbarian and the latter a diminutive thief. These books are kind of like Robert E. Howard’s Conan series, but with a better sense of humor. Open Road offers the complete Lankhmar Series, as well as several of Leiber’s science fiction and horror novels, including The Big Time (1961).

Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980)
I had previously read all of Porter’s short stories and essay in the volume of her works published by the Library of America (2008). However, her only novel, Ship of Fools (1962), was not included in that volume, and I was able to pick it up in e-book format from Open Road for a couple of bucks. I was not too crazy about the book, to tell the truth, but I’m glad I had an opportunity to read it on my Kindle for a low price.

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957)
Sayers is best known as the creator of the fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey, one of the best sleuths in British literature this side of Sherlock Holmes. I have read the first book in the series, Whose Body? (1923), and gave it a favorable review. Open Road has all 15 of Sayers’ books in the series, which includes both novels and short story collections.

William Shatner (1931- )
Hardly a classic author, but when Shat’s TekWar (1989) came up as a daily deal, how could I resist? Though I’m a fan of pulpy sci-fi, I found it so-so at best. However, if you’re so inclined, Open Road offers e-books of all nine volumes in the Tek series.

Clifford D. Simak (1904-1988)
Simak is one of the most respected and highly decorated science fiction authors of the 20th century, having won multiple awards for sci-fi as well as fantasy and horror (and he wrote westerns!). I have encountered a few of his stories over the years, but never really knew the extent of his prolific career until I read the collection I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume One (2015). This series, published by Open Road, is projected to amount to 14 volumes (the first six are available now). If the first book is any indication, this will be an excellent series. Open Road also publishes e-books of about 20 Simak novels, including his best-known work, City (1952).

Upton Sinclair (1878-1968)
Open Road recently released e-book editions of Sinclair’s 11-volume Lanny Budd series. Previously, one had to hunt for used copies of these books or pay $50 for a hardcover edition. Now they can be dowloaded in seconds for about $10 each. I can’t thank Open Road enough for finally making these books accessible to a broader audience. Lanny Budd is a wealthy American, living in France, who gets involved in many of the most important historical events of the early 20th century, all told through the lens of Sinclair’s leftist views. (Imagine if Howard Zinn wrote spy novels.) Fans of this series include Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and Mahatma Gandhi. So far I have reviewed the first three volumes—World’s End (1940), Between Two Worlds (1941), Dragon’s Teeth (1942)—and I’m currently working on book four, Wide Is the Gate (1943). Open Road also offers inexpensive e-books of several other Sinclair novels, including The Jungle (1906) and King Coal (1917).

Philip Wylie (1902-1971)
I’ve only read one book by sci-fi author Wylie, Gladiator (1930). The bad news is Open Road doesn’t publish it, but the good new is it’s in the public domain, so you can read it for free. Open Road does, however publish seven of Wylie’s sci-fi novels, including The Disappearance (1951), which I hope to get to soon.


  

On their website, Open Road boasts that they publish over 2,000 authors. Granted, that includes the authors of many public domain works that you can get elsewhere. Even so, they’ve still got a sizable stable of talent in the “medium-old” books category. If only all of my favorite early 20th-century authors were so easy to find, purchase, and download. Keep up the good work, Open Road!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Stories by English Authors: London by J. M. Barrie, et al.



Rom-coms and pathetic paupers
Beatrice Harraden
This collection of short stories is one of the ten volumes in the Stories by English Authors series, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. Each volume in the series focuses on a different setting. In this book, subtitled London, all the stories take place in the capital city. I have previously red and reviewed Scribner’s series Stories by American Authors and Stories by Foreign Authors. What I liked about those series was that you never really knew what you were going to get in each grab-bag volume. Every once in a while you might stumble upon a bit of science fiction, horror, or mystery. In this English series, however (this being the second volume that I’ve read so far), it’s been almost all romantic comedies, with an occasional nod to the woes of the poor.

The opening selection of the London volume covers both bases. “The Inconsiderate Waiter” by J. M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame) is told from the point of view of a wealthy gentleman who resents being inadvertently involved in the personal problems of a favorite waiter at his club. Through his narrator, the author pokes fun at the snobbery of the rich by adopting an insulting attitude toward the working class and poor. While Barrie’s wit is admirably sharp, at times his satire is so successful that his disparaging remarks become unpleasant and uncomfortable.

Next come three comedies of courtship and marriage. F. Anstey’s “The Black Poodle” is a typical I-love-her-but-I-hate-her-dog story. It has a satisfyingly dark sense of humor about it, but it’s rather predictable. “That Brute Simmons” by Arthur Morrison is a tired joke about a browbeaten husband looking to get out from under his wife’s domineering yoke. In “A Rose of the Ghetto” by Israel Zangwill, a man hires a matchmaker to help him find a bride. The fact that the author is Jewish might excuse the facetious attitude toward traditional Jewish marriage customs, but doesn’t do much to ameliorate the fact that the women in the story are treated like cattle.

The best selection in the book is “An Idyl of London” by Beatrice Harraden, a touching story of two art students, an old man and a young woman, who form an unlikely friendship while copying paintings in the National Gallery of Art. It’s really quite engaging until the ending, which is forgiveably inevitable but clumsily handled. Rounding out the collection are “The Omnibus” by Arthur Quiller-Couch, a vignette so brief it doesn’t really amount to much, and “The Hired Baby” by Marie Corelli, a poignant tale of a woman who begs for change in the street. Not a bad piece of propaganda for social reform, the latter piece gets a bit cloying at times but earns points for its squalid, unsweetened portrayal of poverty.

Overall, the London volume of the Stories by English Authors series is a little better than the England volume, but I was hoping for a little more variety. Perhaps confining each volume to one location eliminates the opportunity for surprise. Additional books in the series include Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Africa, The Orient, and The Sea. There’s nothing in the London volume that qualifies as a must-read, but there’s nothing terrible here either. If you like 19th-century British lit, these stories might constitute a moderately pleasant way to spend your reading time.

Stories in this collection
The Inconsiderate Waiter by J. M. Barrie 
The Black Poodle by F. Antsey
That Brute Simmons by Arthur Morrison 
A Rose of the Ghetto by Israel Zangwill 
An Idyl of London by Beatrice Harraden 
The Omnibus by Quiller-Couch 
The Hired Baby by Marie Corelli

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Friday, June 10, 2016

The Saint-Fiacre Affair by Georges Simenon



When is a murder not a murder?
The Saint-Fiacre Affair is the 13th entry in Belgian author Georges Simenon’s series of Inspector Maigret detective novels. Originally published in 1932 as L’Affaire Saint-Fiacre, the book has also appeared in English translation under the titles of Maigret Goes Home, Maigret on Home Ground, Maigret and the Countess, and Death of a Countess. Of the 11 Maigret novels that I’ve read so far, I would have to say this is the least satisfying of the bunch.

Detective Chief Inspector Jules Maigret of the Police Judiciaire receives an anonymous letter at his office in Paris indicating that a crime will be committed during a church service in the small town of Saint-Fiacre, near Moulins. Though such a vague threat and possible wild-goose chase hardly seems worthy of police resources, Maigret chooses to investigate the matter because of a personal connection to the town. He was born in Saint-Fiacre, where his father served as estate manager for the count and countess of the local chateau. While Maigret is present at the mass in question, the aged countess of Saint-Fiacre drops dead in her pew. As predicted, a murder has taken place, and Maigret sets about finding the killer.

A homecoming for Maigret is a very intriguing idea, as I hoped it would shed some light on this enigmatic character’s past. The reader gets a few brief glimpses into the inspector’s youth, but not as much as one would hope. The setting, however, does allow for some interesting exploration of class relations. The citizens of this small town still figuratively bow in deference to the noble family of the chateau, even as they’re headed for financial and moral bankruptcy. Regardless of the count and countess’s faults and disgraces, the residents of Saint-Fiacre still treat them as aristocrats, almost as if they were beloved mascots of the community’s feudal past. The family’s fortunes and foibles are the town’s as well.

The big problem with this murder mystery is that technically there’s really no murder. The cause of death, as all the characters in the story admit, is not a crime prosecutable by law. More importantly, the fact that a person could be killed in this way is questionable, but the idea that a person could be killed in this way with enough certainty to predict the “crime” beforehand is ridiculous. From this dubious beginning, the story just kind of limps along for a while as we get to know the seven or eight suspects. The novel definitely improves toward the end, however. Chapters 8, 9, and 10 are riveting, with a gradual crescendo of suspense and one true I-didn’t-see-it-coming moment. Simenon engenders further disappointment, however, by allowing one of the supporting characters to do most of the detective work and essentially solve the mystery, while Maigret merely serves as a spectator.

The dialogue in the book is frequently frustrating because it consists entirely of quotes without attribution, so one often has to read two or three times to figure out who’s talking to whom. The characters speak in choppy, incomplete sentences, leaving the reader to guess what exactly they’re getting at, though that may be the fault of the translator rather than the author. Although I generally like the Maigret novels, and I’ve read a few great ones (The Late Monsieur Gallet, The Night at the Crossroads, A Man’s Head), this one is just OK at best.
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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

I Am Crying All Inside And Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume One



Visionary storytelling from a sci-fi Grand Master
Clifford D. Simak is one of the most respected and award-winning science fiction authors of the 20th century. I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories, published in 2015, is the first volume in a projected fourteen-volume series of Simak’s complete short fiction, currently in the works from publisher Open Road Media. The series is edited by David W. Wixon, a good friend of Simak’s and his literary executor. Wixon provides an introductory essay and a brief introduction to each of the stories. This added material not only provides a mini-biography of Simak but also offers an interesting look into the career of a working writer during the pulp fiction era. Although Simak’s stories are great, Wixon’s contributions make the book even better.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to Wixon’s arrangement of the stories and novellas within the series. The ten selections in Volume One are not ordered chronologically. They run the gamut from 1939 to 1969, plus one story which was previously unpublished. There is no thematic cohesion to the entries either. In fact, there’s even one Western tale included among all the science fiction. As someone who appreciates vintage sci-fi but has had little experience with Simak, the grab-bag approach worked just fine for me. It was a joy to begin each story with no expectation of where Simak would go with it. By putting himself in Simak’s hands, the reader straps himself in for a roller coaster ride of visionary speculation, thrilling entertainment, and intellectual stimulation.

Simak’s range of subjects and interests is admirably diverse. “Installment Plan” is a tale of economic competition and industrial espionage, but on a distant planet. “Ogre” deals with intelligent plant life and alien music. “Small Deer” and “Gleaners” are two great time travel tales, the former horrific and the latter almost comic. There’s a whole lot of weird science going on in “The Call from Beyond,” but it comes across as a film noir set on Pluto. The previously unpublished selection, “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air” is a brilliantly creepy sci-fi/horror masterpiece. “Madness from Mars” is the one story that feels a little antiquated and formulaic, but Simak still manages to inject it with some thought-provoking ideas.

There’s a strain of dark pessimism that runs through a lot of the stories, even the Western, “Gunsmoke Interlude.” However, there’s also a resilient and enduring humanity that shines through, regardless of whether the characters are human, animal, vegetable, or synthetic beings. What separates Simak from so many of the sci-fi writers of his era is his ability not only to create fantastic worlds but also to enrich them with moving emotion. “I Am Crying All Inside” and “All the Traps of Earth” both feature robot protagonists who are more sympathetic and heartbreaking than many of their human counterparts in literature.

This is quite simply one of the best short story collections I’ve read in years, science fiction or otherwise. I’m definitely down for Volume Two. Kudos to Wixon and Open Road for putting together this comprehensive series of the Grand Master’s work. If this first volume is any indication of the quality to expect in volumes to come, I may just work my way through all fourteen books.

Stories in this collection
Installment Plan 
I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air 
Small Deer 
Ogre 
Gleaners 
Madness from Mars 
Gunsmoke Interlude 
I Am Crying All Inside 
The Call from Beyond 
All the Traps of Earth

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Monday, June 6, 2016

One Hundred Best Books by John Cowper Powys



What one Brit literati was reading a century ago
I see a lot of “Top 100” book lists on the Internet, and I always find them annoying, mostly because they give too much credit to recent books. As a fan of classic books, I don’t agree with those who act as if literature was invented 50 years ago. That’s why my interest was piqued when I came across this list of One Hundred Best Books from 1916, written by John Cowper Powys, an English poet, novelist, and literary critic. Powys opens the book with an essay on reading, which comes across just as pretentious as the very literary snobbery he’s criticizing. Far more successful is the thoughtful praise that Powys heaps upon the books within his list. The selections offer a taste of what books were hot topics among English-language readers a century ago.

Powys begins his list with some golden oldies, apparently in chronological order. He makes it from the Psalms of David to John Milton’s Paradise Lost in ten easy steps. He then proceeds along nationalistic lines, tearing through Germany (5 authors), Norway (Ibsen), Sweden (Strindberg), America (Emerson, Whitman, Edgar Lee Masters, and Theodore Dreiser), Spain (Cervantes), France (8 authors), Italy (Gabriele d’Annunzio), and Russia (5 authors). Not surprisingly, Powys reserves half of the hundred for his British countrymen, proving once again the bias inherent in such lists. Though his list contains 100 books, Powys only covers 61 authors, some of whom are represented by more than one work. 19th-century English writer Walter Pater, far from a household name these days, scores a whopping five entries on the list, while Homer only gets one for the Odyssey (to hell with the Iliad, apparently). Henry James takes the cake with six. As expected for the era, it’s all white guys, except for two ladies (Jane Austen and Emily Brontë).

I’m sure if I were to compile such a list, mine would be just as biased and uneven as Powys’s, so I wasn’t too surprised by his idiosyncratic choices. As a fan of classic literature, I hoped that Powys would turn me on to some authors and works that I had never heard of or never would have thought of reading. To that end, he has introduced me to Hermann Sudermann (“the most remarkable of modern German writers”), Russian naturalist Mikhail Artsybashev, and a handful of his “modern” English contemporaries including Gilbert Cannan, Vincent O’Sullivan, Arnold Bennett, and the picturesquely named Oliver Onions. Will I actually follow up on any of Powys’s suggestions? Probably not, except for maybe the Russian guy. The overwhelmingly British cast was a bit off-putting. Nevertheless, I’m thankful that Powys’s list wasn’t just a rehash of the usual suspects, and I did manage to glean a bit of literary education.

Roughly the final quarter of the Kindle file consists of advertisements for other books from Powys’s publisher, G. Arnold Shaw, including several books by Powys himself. Though this was not an unusual practice for the time, it leads me to suspect that Powys’s list was published as a promotional pamphlet for said publishing company. Even so, the ads comprise an interesting list in and of themselves.

If you like old books, you might enjoy browsing through Powys’s One Hundred Best Books. I won’t endorse it wholeheartedly, but it’s free and it won’t take up much of your time. Skip the introductory essay and just go right to the list.
 

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Friday, June 3, 2016

The Living Reed: A Novel of Korea by Pearl S. Buck



Should have been a trilogy
I would consider myself a pretty big fan of Pearl S. Buck. Although I’m not crazy about every last thing she’s written, my appreciation for her work goes well beyond The Good Earth. The Living Reed, published in 1948, is the eighth of Buck’s novels that I’ve read and reviewed so far, and more than any of the others, this one really tested my patience. I’m a voracious reader, but it took me months to get through this book. It is just way too long. That in and of itself is not a fatal flaw, but length becomes an annoyance when there’s little overarching unity to the book. The novel follows the lives of one family over four generations, but it has a meandering plot that feels like several novels of different styles and messages stuck together into an ungainly montage. This family saga really could have been more effective had she divided it into a trilogy.

The story begins in 1881. Korea is governed by a monarchy, which is in the midst of a power struggle, and surrounded by neighbors—Russia, China, Japan—that wish to make it a vassal state. Il-han, a scholar of the aristocratic yangban class, is a loyal advisor to the Queen. She favors siding with China, but Il-han tries to convince her to develop a strategic relationship with the U.S. The King, however, has other plans. After much political intrigue, as history well tell you, Japan annexes Korea. From there, the novel becomes a story of life under foreign occupation, somewhat resembling Buck’s 1942 book Dragon Seed.

Buck grew up in China and had a great love for and knowledge of Chinese culture. While she doesn’t seem to have the same affinity for Korea, she has certainly done her research well. The problem is that the research often overpowers the storytelling. The first third of the book is a morass of historical context and cultural exposition. Early in the book, for example, when a major character dies, it’s unclear whether that death is necessary to the story or whether Buck just needed an opportunity for a detailed discussion of Korean funerary customs, right down to the methods by which the mourning clothes are manufactured. The second half of the book requires less heavy lifting of historical detail and concentrates more on the life of the fictional family. At times it ventures into melodrama, but every now and then you get one of those powerful emotional moments that one expects from Buck. The ending is particularly moving, but too much of what precedes it is rambling and listless.

The book concludes with the end of World War II. Much of the story focuses on Korea’s struggle for independence, and the role that America plays in realizing that dream. During World War I, Buck has the Koreans worshipping Woodrow Wilson as if he were some kind of god. While it may be true that Korea looked to America as their savior from Japan, the Korean characters’ attitude of adoration toward the U.S. often feels like wishful thinking on the part of an American author. To her credit, however, Buck makes it clear that the American government didn’t always live up to the hero Korea wanted it to be.

Like so many of Buck’s novels, The Living Reed is a monumental achievement. Her research is extensive and her narrative is epic. However, reading the book inspires more admiration than enjoyment. Compared to better books like The Good Earth trilogy and Dragon Seed, this one feels a bit empty, despite its mammoth size. Sometimes the human element can get lost in the epic.
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Thursday, June 2, 2016

Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony



A fascinating look at the other side of the space race
Starman, Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony’s biography of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, was originally published in 1998 and rereleased in 2011 to capitalize on the 50th anniversary of the first manned flight into space. The book covers Gagarin’s childhood under Nazi occupation during World War II, his cosmonaut training, his historic flight as the first human being to leave the earth’s atmosphere, his triumphant yet troubling tenure as perhaps the most famous person in the world, and his mysterious death. It is a fascinating and compelling story, and Doran and Bizony have done an admirable job in researching and telling it.

While following the course of Gagarin’s exciting but all too brief life, the book provides a fascinating glimpse behind the Iron Curtain into the early days of the Soviet space program. Struggling to compete with the Americans for the greater glory of their country, the Soviet scientists stumbled toward greatness as they rushed to figure out how to put a man in space. A great deal of trial and error was involved, and safety was not always priority one. The same was true for the U.S. The authors periodically check in with the American side of the space race to illustrate each superpower’s competitive standing and how decisions on one side influenced those on the other.

One surprising detail regarding Gagarin’s road to space is that the Soviets trained two cosmonauts for that first epic spaceflight, waiting until very late in the process to decide their fates. Only a few days before the launch was Gherman Titov notified that he would be sitting this one out while Gagarin rode into glory. There is some great insight into all the politics behind the final selection, as well as the political struggles behind other decisions in the space program. After his brief rocket ride, Gagarin became phenomenally famous and was treated as a national treasure, carted around the world to make countless personal appearances. He shouldered the role as best he could, but his first love was flying. He wanted to go back into space, hopefully on a moon mission, but the Soviet government treated their cosmonaut heroes with surprising overprotectiveness, not only hindering them from further spaceflight but also severely prohibiting their piloting of aircraft. Gagarin’s rise to greatness is inspiring, but the subsequent aftermath is often surprisingly tragic.

The authors dug up a great deal of documentation from Soviet archives and interviewed many key players in the space program, as well as Gagarin family members. While the research is extensive, the writing isn’t always all it could be. Rather than taking their documents and interviews and distilling them into a compelling and cohesive narrative, Doran and Bizony at times make you feel like you’re reading a bunch of documents and interviews. The research really takes precedence over the writing. There is a sort of magazine journalism style to the prose that sometimes feels out of place within an authoritative account of a man’s life. I also felt like the foreword promised more mystery and controversy than the story ultimately delivered. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal from this book and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Gagarin is a great hero, yet like all heroes—as the authors point out—he had his flaws. The authors go beyond the superstardom to expose the humanity beneath, thereby bringing this stellar hero down to earth for us to appreciate more fully his accomplishments and struggle.
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