Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Medal of Honor by Mack Reynolds

Dubious distinction
Medal of Honor, a novella by Mack Reynolds, was originally published in the November 1960 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories magazine. The story takes place at an undisclosed period in the future when mankind has colonized the solar system and maintains a military presence in interstellar space. Lieutenant Don Mathers is a pilot in the Space Service. He patrols a sector of the galaxy in a one-man scout ship, keeping a look out for the Kradens, an alien race at war with Earth. Mathers is just beginning to grow tired of his military career when he is presented with the possibility of being decorated with the Galactic Medal of Honor. Any recipient of this highest award is said to “do no wrong.” He has carte blanche to do as he pleases, laws do not apply to him, and he needs no money because he can have anything he wants for free. The scheme by which Mathers might come by this prestigious award, however, is not remotely ethical. He faces the moral dilemma of whether he wishes to be the next great hero of the human race, even if his heroism is all based on lies.

The premise is somewhat interesting, but Reynolds never really does anything particularly novel with it. The story just kind of coasts along, proceeding pretty much as you would expect it to go. Reynolds’s sense of humor is evident throughout, and it inspires a chuckle here and there, but there are no real surprises. Beyond the space travel element of the story, there really isn’t any speculative science fiction going on either. Neither is there any great philosophical depth to the story, just a brief point made on the relationship between industry and government. Every once in a while, Reynolds really surprises me with an excellent, fun, and thought-provoking tale (like “Gun for Hire,” “The Business, As Usual,” or “Compounded Interest,”) but, as is perhaps too often the case with his stories, Medal of Honor is basically a military or business story that just happens to take place in the future and gets dressed up in sci-fi trappings.

My reaction to Medal of Honor is one of underwhelmed ambivalence, similar to that inspired by Reynolds’s novellas Mercenary, Ultima Thule, and Status Quo. It is not a bad story, but there is nothing that sets it apart as particularly exciting, funny, or memorable. Reynolds demonstrates that he is clearly a skilled writer and competent storyteller, but one comes away from this work with the feeling that he didn’t quite give his best effort. Nevertheless, I know he’s capable of better, and I will continue to hunt for the gems in his body of work.
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Monday, April 24, 2017

’Isms and ’Ologies: All the Movements, Ideologies, and Doctrines That Have Shaped Our World by Arthur Goldwag

Every idea has its name
In ’Isms and ’Ologies, published in 2007, author Arthur Goldwag takes on the Herculean task of defining hundreds of intellectual buzzwords from the past and present in the areas of politics, science, religion, and the arts. I was greatly intrigued by this concept, but the end result proved less enlightening and less engaging than I expected. I ended up liking the idea of the book more than its execution.

While Goldwag is a skilled writer who has clearly done his research, what he chooses to include in or exclude from his entries is sometimes frustrating. In the Politics & History section, for example, we are told that Straussianism is named after Leo Strauss, and a few notable adherents to the ideology are named, but as to what Straussians believe that specifically makes them Straussian is never really specified. Quite a few of the entries display a similar lack of clarity. For the reader to truly understand these ‘isms, each entry should provide a concise mini-manifesto of each movement. Goldwag, although he’s good at providing historical context, too often gets sidetracked with anecdotes and quotes. He fares better in the Philosophy and Arts section, where delineations between schools are more sharply defined. The Science section is truly fascinating—with entries like Plate Tectonics, Red Shift, and Stockholm Syndrome following each other in rapid succession­—but disappointingly brief.

The section on Religion is the most extensive, taking up a third of the entire book. This is clearly Goldwag’s area of interest and likely what led him to tackle this project in the first place. He obviously enjoys parsing the minute differences between obscure sects of Christianity and Judaism, and other faiths are also thoroughly represented. Goldwag treats each religious ’ism with dignity and respect, never scoffing no matter how bizarre they might be. He doesn’t show the same detached objectivity in the Politics section, however, as he has a tendency to rip on the Bush administration, which was in power at the time of publication. Even though I may agree with his opinions, I would have preferred he stick to defining ideologies rather than criticizing them. Over the course of the book you get to know Goldwag’s political stance and those issues of highest importance to him from what he chooses to emphasize in the entries.

There’s a brief section on sexual perversions, which almost seems as if it were thrown in as a plea for general readership, à la The Book of Lists. (Not everyone’s interested in politics or philosophy, but everyone’s interested in sex.) The closing section, entitled Eponyms, Laws, Foreign Words, is a mixed bag that includes a lot of interesting stuff under terms often derived from the names of literary characters and real historical persons.

This book will make a good reference work for hardcore readers and a fun read for the curious generalist. The question arises, what can this book provide that Google or Wikipedia can’t? The first is its browsability, which makes you aware of ‘isms that you may not have even known existed. The second is the quality of the writing, which is articulate and erudite, though at times could have been more concise and more objective. Despite my reservations, Goldwag has done an admirable job with ’Isms and ’Ologies, and I did learn a lot from it.
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Friday, April 21, 2017

The Titan by Theodore Dreiser

A head for business and a body for sin
The Titan, published in 1914, is the sequel to Theodore Dreiser’s novel The Financier and the second book in his Trilogy of Desire. Those who have read The Financier and are considering taking on this follow-up should ask themselves if they really want to devote a great deal of time to a mammoth novel centered around two unlikable characters. In The Financier, Frank Cowperwood proved himself an unethical egotist while his mistress Aileen came across as an immature, narcissistic floozy. Here they do little to discourage those first impressions. Also, while The Financier was a rags-to-riches story, The Titan is simply a riches-to-riches story, which can never be as compelling. For these reasons and others, The Titan makes an inferior sequel to the book that preceded it.

After the trouble he had in Philadelphia in The Financier, Cowperwood decides to head west and try his hand in Chicago. He manages to free himself from his wife so he can marry Aileen. Despite Cowperwood’s smooth facade and his facility for making advantageous connections in the business world, the couple’s past follows them to their new home. It’s easy for Frank to make money, but with his history of jail time and her reputation as a homewrecker, he and Aileen will never be accepted into Chicago society. Instead, they each find their social outlet in extramarital affairs. While Aileen is hurt by their ostracism from high society, Cowperwood doesn’t seem to care as long as he’s making money. He knows that one day, once he realizes his grand financial schemes, Chicago’s high and mighty will all bend to his will.

Dreiser is one of America’s great literary naturalists, which is one of the reasons why I like his work. Of the four novels I’ve read by him, however, The Titan is easily the least realistic. While The Financier educated the reader about significant events in America’s financial history, The Titan mostly concentrates on fictional dealings that evoke the general atmosphere of corruption and collusion that was rife during the late 19th century. Compared to the stock market chicanery that took place in the first book, Cowperwood’s business transactions in this volume are harder to follow and harder to find interesting. Never at any time did I find myself caring about his street railway empire. The money he makes in his ventures only serves the narrative purpose of financing his expensive love life, which makes up the other half of the book. In this area, Dreiser goes beyond melodrama and into sexual soap opera. Cowperwood juggles so many mistresses, it’s hard to believe he could conduct any business at all. Meanwhile, Aileen disappears from the story for several chapters at a time whenever it’s convenient for her to do so. New characters are introduced in every chapter, and each one gets a detailed biographical sketch, regardless of how insignificant he is to the narrative. Cowperwood himself isn’t even present for the climactic scene in the novel, which is viewed through the perspective of some of these minor characters.

The Titan is a mediocre work by a great writer. Sometimes, in order to fully appreciate the latter you’ve got to put up with the former. On the bright side, even a bad book by Dreiser is probably better than 90 percent of the other American novels published during this era. Frank Cowperwood’s life story continues in the Trilogy of Desire’s third and final installment, The Stoic. Even though I was disappointed by this volume, I’ve already invested so much time in this humdrum epic, I will likely see it through to the end.
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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Anna Christie by Eugene O’Neill

Social realism on the waterfront
Early in his career, Nobel Prize-winning American playwright Eugene O’Neill wrote many plays about the sea and sailing life. Later on he became better known for serious psychological dramas about dysfunctional families. Anna Christie, first performed in 1921, might be thought of as the turning point where those two phases of his career intersect. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, and is generally considered to be one of O’Neill’s best works.

The play takes place around 1910 and opens at a waterfront bar in New York City. The postman gives the bartender a letter addressed to one of the saloon’s regular patrons, who arrives soon after to receive it. Chris Christopherson is a Swedish immigrant and the captain of a coal barge. The letter informs him that his daughter Anna, whom he abandoned at a young age for life at sea, will be coming to visit him in New York. Christopherson is delighted at the idea of seeing his daughter again after all these years, but filled with trepidation as to how she will respond to him and whether he will live up to her expectations. His own expectations, meanwhile, are unrealistically high. Having only known his daughter as a little girl, he expects her to be the perfect, innocent young woman, destined to be a respectable farmer’s wife. Above all, he wants her to have nothing to do with a live on the water. With an attitude of maritime mysticism, he blames the sea for all the trouble in his life and personifies it as the devil. When he finally meets Anna, it is revealed that she has not led the innocent life he dreamed for her. In order to survive, she has had to resort to less reputable means of making her way in the world. How will her past affect her relationships with the men in her life, and will the sea finally get her in the end?

O’Neill’s depiction of lower and working class characters was revolutionary for his time, though that may be difficult for today’s readers to appreciate. Prior to the 20th century, the dramatic stage was reserved for tales of the rich and royal, whereas nowadays anything goes on stage and screen, and all walks of life are represented. O’Neill’s characters and situations would have seemed crude and harsh to the theater-going public of a century ago, and even today the grittiness of his realism and the bleakness of his outlook can be jarring. His dialogue is authentically faithful to the street slang and international accents of the waterfront dives and coal barge cabins in which the story is set. O’Neill, who worked for years as a sailor and drank heavily, would have been familiar with this world. His plays have the feeling of sketches from life, like the realist paintings of the Ashcan School.

There’s an undercurrent of feminism in the play, as Anna is an independent woman who can provide for herself and even scorns men as the cause of all the problems in her life. This feminist stance is not sustained throughout, but it’s still pretty forward for American literature of the 1920s, and the role of Anna is one of the great meaty stage roles for female performers. This play was no doubt groundbreaking for its day, but a century later the plot comes across as a bit predictable, perhaps because so many unrelated films have since been built upon a similar template.

In reading this book it’s not hard to imagine yourself in the audience, or being right there in the bar with Anna and Chris. Not every playwright’s work translates well into printed form, but O’Neill is one dramatist whose writing really leaps off the page for a great reading experience.
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Monday, April 17, 2017

Giordano Bruno by Walter Pater

Style over substance
Giordano Bruno
When you download these free public domain e-book files from Amazon or Project Gutenberg you never know what you’re going to get. This one turned out to be a ten-page essay. It was originally published in an 1889 edition of the English magazine The Fortnightly Review. Author Walter Pater was a household name among 19th century literati, but he has sense faded into obscurity, at least in the minds of American readers. He was a polymath man of letters who wrote fiction, literary criticism, and essays on a variety of topics. Here he offers a brief sketch of Giordano Bruno, the 16th century Italian philosopher and Dominican monk who was burnt at the stake for heresy against the Catholic church. Among the offenses for which Bruno was executed were his pantheistic conception of God and his belief that the Earth was just one of many inhabited worlds in the universe.

Among freethinkers, Bruno is considered a hero for his intellectual integrity in the face of persecution. Although this essay is written about a man I admire, I found little to enjoy in it. Pater seems less interested in praising Bruno’s defiance of superstition or illuminating his philosophical accomplishments than he is in simply the self-aggrandizement of Walter Pater and his literary style. The whole piece is an overindulgent exercise in pretentious prose. Pater writes in grammatically challenging paragraph-long sentences consisting of strings of comma-separated phrases, the purpose of which seems to be to impress the reader with flowery language while imparting as little information as possible. Almost no facts are given about Bruno’s life and work, just Pater’s speculation of what Bruno’s intellectual development might have been like or what he was thinking at a given time in his life. There is some discussion of the scope of Bruno’s pantheism, but Pater’s way of writing about it obscures more than it reveals.

If you don’t know anything about Bruno, this work is not for you. In order to understand what Pater is saying here, you have to come to this essay with prior knowledge of who Bruno was and why he was important. If you already know that, however, you’re not going to learn anything new here. With this piece of writing, Pater demonstrates the annoying side of those 19th century Renaissance men of letters who just really loved to hear themselves talk. The essay’s one saving grace is its brevity.
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Friday, April 14, 2017

Gregorio by Percy Hemingway

Tragedy in Alexandria
Gregorio is a novella by English lawyer and author Percy Addleshaw, written under the pseudonym of Percy Hemingway. It was first published in 1895 in a collection of short fiction entitled Out of Egypt. Though the story takes place in Alexandria, Egypt, and features a Greek protagonist, it nevertheless is clearly written from a British point of view.

Gregorio is a poor man who struggles to find work and feed his family. Though he can’t scrape up enough coins to put bread into the mouths of his wife and son, all around him he sees  British tourists and sailors flaunting their wealth in the hotels, nightclubs, and bordellos of Alexandria, which inspires in him an intense hatred for the English. Gregorio has borrowed money from a Jewish moneylender named Amos, who will no longer offer him credit and demands prompt payment. Unable to pay back the loan, and fearing that his young son will starve to death, Gregorio orders his wife Xantippe to work as a prostitute to save the family.

This is an engaging story that keeps you guessing, but it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. At times it seems as if everything will wrap up neatly in the end like an O. Henry tale, imparting some moral lesson, but the plot never goes where you want it to go. At first it seems like Hemingway is writing a social justice novel that invites the reader to sympathize with Gregorio’s abject poverty, but eventually he steers you in the direction of viewing the Greek as a despicable human being. The tone of the story feels a bit like a romantic opera with its exotic locale and the way in which, at the convenient drop of a hat, characters fall in love or become intent on murder in order to move the plot forward. On the other hand, in its brutal depiction of the seamier side of life it resembles grittier naturalistic novels like Frank Norris’s McTeague or Emile Zola’s La Bête Humaine (though it’s nowhere near as good as either one of those great works).

What you end up with is a book that’s depressing as hell and pretty racist. Amos is very much the stereotype of the “filthy Jew,” a baby-stealing usurer. The Arab and Greek characters are similarly portrayed in an unflattering light. I don’t expect political correctness from 19th-century European literature, so I wasn’t so much shocked or offended by the racial slurs as I just found them lazy from a literary standpoint. Even more galling is the lofty attitude Hemingway displays toward his own countrymen. Though none of the main characters are English, the author still manages to turn the story into a white savior narrative. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Gregorio, it’s that only an Englishmen can truly satisfy a woman, because there is something about the English nature that makes them unilaterally chivalrous, righteous, and gentlemanly.

Gregorio comes across as the product of an author who exhibits indications of talent but approaches his story from a naive and misguided perspective. This certainly isn’t a terrible piece of literature for its time, but it does inspire mixed emotions today.
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Monday, April 10, 2017

Mastodonia by Clifford D. Simak

The business of time travel
In 1955, science fiction author Clifford D. Simak published a story called “Project Mastodon.” As the title might indicate, this was a tale of time travel that involved journeying into the prehistoric past. With this story, Simak brought a novel and interesting perspective to the subject, exploring not only the adventure potential of time travel, but also the political and economic ramifications such a discovery might bring about. Though the story was pretty good, it felt a bit half-baked and too lighthearted to be taken seriously. Later, however, Simak would take its basic premise, adapt it to a new cast of characters, and develop it into a full-blown novel entitled Mastodonia, published in 1978. Thank goodness he didn’t give up on the idea, because his thoughtful resurrection of this concept has resulted in a very entertaining and thought-provoking book.

Like much of Simak’s fiction, Mastodonia takes place in rural western Wisconsin. Asa Steele, a professor of paleontology, is spending his sabbatical at the farm where he grew up. He is joined there by Rila Elliot, a former paleontological colleague with whom he had a brief love affair twenty years prior. As the two become reacquainted, Asa explains to her that he has isolated himself in this secluded region in order to investigate some strange artifacts he has found on his property. Also a mysterious creature has been seen lurking through the woods. One night, Asa stumbles through a time tunnel into a land populated by prehistoric mammals who walked the earth 100,000 years ago. Through a mechanism best left unmentioned, Asa and Rila discover that they can create similar time tunnels into various periods of the past. Though they recognize the incredible research potential of time travel, they decide that in order to construct the necessary infrastructure to make time travel accessible, they must first develop it into a commercially viable business, one centered around prehistoric safaris. The first step in their business plan is to declare their prehistoric haven an independent nation, which they dub Mastodonia.

Simak has an extraordinary talent for taking the scientifically incredible and rendering it believable within the mundane details of our everyday world. A large part of his ability to do this comes from his keen understanding of human nature and his ability to craft realistic and sympathetic characters that don’t merely serve as shills for his sci-fi speculations but actually function as complex characters worthy of literature. Through Asa’s first-person narration, the reader experiences a roller coaster ride of conflicting feelings from the joy of discovery, to the weight of responsibility, to the pangs of regret.

Mastodonia did not always live up to my expectations. For one thing, I thought there would be more time travel. Unlike other sci-fi novels which concentrate on the wow factor of time travel, this one focuses more on its ethical, legal, and logistical complications. Simak defying my expectations, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, truth be told, it makes for a better narrative. You never know where or when the story is going to lead, and Simak keeps you guessing right up until the very end. Though at times he may have led me down paths I didn’t want to travel, I always ended up admiring the author when we arrived at our destination. It’s a rare novel that can combine the pulp fiction thrills of a dinosaur hunt with a philosophical examination of time travel ethics. Even within Simak’s impressive body of work, Mastodonia is an exceptional read that delivers ample fun, thrills, and intellectual stimulation.
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Monday, April 3, 2017

Library: The Drama Within by Diane Asséo Griliches

A love letter to temples of literacy
I recently received a copy of this book as a graduation present for having completed a master of library science degree. Naturally, I’m a lover of libraries and books, and this artful collection of photographs really speaks to those like me who are so inclined. Library: The Drama Within is not just a showcase of the world’s most beautiful libraries. Photographer Diane Asséo Griliches really attempts to capture the function of libraries and the role they play in people’s lives. Thus, while many of the photos are glamour shots like the one of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris that graces the book’s cover, you’ll also find thoughtful images of students working together at a computer, children sitting enraptured at a story time, or two homeless men seeking companionship in a library courtyard. Most photographs are accompanied by an explanatory caption, many of which offer interesting details of the histories of the libraries depicted. Griliches also pairs each image with a brief quote about books or libraries from the likes of James Joyce, Victor Hugo, or Malcolm X.

Libraries in New York and Boston feature prominently among the selections, but there are also several photos of rural libraries in the American South. Photos from France, Israel, Croatia, Bosnia, and Italy are also included. Asia is represented by only one photo from Japan, though that particular image looks like it could have been taken anywhere. The subjects include public libraries, academic libraries, and private subscription libraries. Griliches clearly has a soft spot for rare book libraries and includes shots of many antiquated volumes in appropriately classic settings. At times the book can’t seem to decide what it wants to say. Is it about the valuable services that libraries provide, or is it merely about the books? Is it about prestigious libraries of monumental beauty, or is it about the typical libraries that most of us visit on a regular basis?

The photos are beautifully reproduced in black and white or perhaps a very subtle duotone. Though the book was published in 1996, the captions indicate that some of the pictures may have been taken as early as the 1970s. They are definitely pre-digital images, exhibiting the graininess and rich silvery tones of film photography. For its textual component, the book reproduces a 1974 essay by former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin. In this essay, the contents of which may be familiar to many book lovers, Boorstin argues that the book is the perfect technological device for conveying information, one that is unlikely to ever be replaced by a computerized substitute.

In keeping with Boorstin’s argument, Library: The Drama Within is clearly a love letter to the bibliocentric view of the library. Libraries have changed a lot in the past 20 years, however, and at times this book can be a depressing glimpse into a nostalgic past. Television, the Internet, and video games have not killed the book, as many have predicted. In fact, it’s likely that more books are being published now than ever before. However, books are no longer the main attraction at libraries, as more and more volumes are stuffed away into cold storage to make room for computer labs, coffee shops, and maker spaces. Gone are the days when browsable open stacks would put the full range of the world’s knowledge at your fingertips. For better or worse, the library that Griliches celebrates is increasingly a thing of the past. Thank god she was there to document it.
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Friday, March 31, 2017

Timaeus by Plato

Plato’s theory of everything
This review pertains to the public domain version of Timaeus that is given away as a free ebook by Amazon and Project Gutenberg. The English translation of this edition was done by Benjamin Jowett in the late 19th century. The very first sentence of the introduction states, “Of all the writings of Plato the Timaeus is the most obscure and repulsive to the modern reader.” How’s that for an inauspicious beginning? Jowett then goes onto explain that the reason this dialogue gets little attention and respect is because it is concerned not so much with philosophical discourse as it is with the natural sciences. Not surprisingly, since Plato wrote the work around 360 BC, few if any of his scientific speculations have stood the test of time. Nevertheless, the Timaeus has value for its detailed illumination of Plato’s physical and metaphysical views on the nature of the universe and his admirably ambitious attempt at constructing a unified theory of everything.

Participants in the dialogue include Socrates, Critias, and Hermocrates, but the title character does 90% of the talking. After Critias offers up a brief discussion of the lost continent of Atlantis, Timaeus jumps right into the creation of the universe and then goes on to cover the nature of matter and soul, the structure of the heavens, and the workings of human anatomy and the senses. Plato describes the universe as an intelligent “world-animal” that encompasses all of matter, energy, and space. Building upon the atomism of Leucippus and the mathematical mysticism of Pythagoras, Plato asserts that all matter is made up of triangles which combine to form different geometrical forms for each of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. For a brief moment, this sounds remarkably like a pantheistic system, and the assertion that all matter is created from one universal “mother substance” hints at a materialistic monism. Of course, Plato, the godfather of dualism, soon dispels that notion. He speaks of God as a guiding creator entity clearly outside of this world-animal, and he constantly refers to the soul—in fact, there are three kinds of soul—as an essence not confined by the geometrical structure of matter. God (sometimes plural) is the primary mover who created the universe by bringing order from chaos. Plato finishes the dialogue by imagining the thought process of “the creators” as they constructed the human body.

In the Jowett edition, the Introduction and Analysis takes up more space than the dialogue itself. The analysis includes a nearly unabridged restatement of the entire dialogue, rendered in slightly more accessible vocabulary. So if you read the entire Kindle file, you’re basically reading two different translations of the dialogue. Though the analysis gets quite repetitive, it does offer some fascinating insight into the state of the sciences in the time of ancient Greece.

Perhaps because I’m of a predominantly Aristotelian mindset, I see few lessons of wisdom to take away from Timaeus that might be relevant to modern life. At times there is an underlying message that resembles Stoicism, with Plato suggesting that he who seeks the divine nature in God’s system and lives in accordance with nature will enjoy the healthiest, most pleasurable life. Though philosophically this is not regarded as one of Plato’s stronger dialogues, it does provide a fascinating glimpse into the world of ancient science. Despite the contradictions in his reasoning, Plato’s unified theory of nature is quite ingenious. Even those with a more materialistic mindset, though unlikely to agree with his idealistic vision, can admire his intellectual achievement.
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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Virgin Soil by Ivan Turgenev

You say you want a revolution?
Virgin Soil, published in 1877, is the final novel by Russian author Ivan Turgenev. The narrative takes place in the late 1860s, at a time when the Narodnik or Populist movement was gaining influence in Russia. Middle-class intellectuals preached socialist ideas to workers and the rural poor, urging them to organize, rise up against their masters, and seize farmlands and factories, with the long-term goal of a nationwide overthrow of the feudal system maintained by the Tsarist government. The story focuses on one such populist revolutionary, Alexai Dmitrich Nejdanov (the spellings of names used here are from the English translation by R. S. Townsend). He and his circle of bohemian friends in St. Petersburg carry on the work of their revolutionary cell, spreading propaganda and taking orders from a mysterious Moscow superior named Vassily Nikolaevitch. Despite their objections to the capitalist system, these insurgents still need to make a living, so Nejdanov accepts the job of live-in tutor at the country estate of Sipiagin, an aristocrat and ministerial chamberlain. While in the country, Nejdanov decides to take advantage of his proximity to the peasantry by converting some to his radical cause.

Although Nejdanov and his friends talk like idealists, the reader is never quite sold on the courage of their convictions or the efficacy of their actions. The collective portrait Turgenev paints of these revolutionaries is frequently unflattering. Nejdanov and his cronies often come across as posers who talk a good game but don’t actually accomplish anything. Nejdanov fails miserably in his initial attempts to mingle with the common folk. The peasants he’s trying to incite to rebellion are not excited by his socialist rhetoric, and he begins to question his own devotion to the cause. Meanwhile, Sipiagin is ostensibly a liberal as far as government bureaucrats go, but he shares little ideological common ground with his new employee. This brings about almost immediate conflict between the tutor and his boss. When Nejdanov falls in love with Sipiagin’s niece, it only aggravates the already strained relations between the two.

Though Virgin Soil deals with serious matters, it is often quite comical. After taking up residence at the Sipiagin estate, Nejdanov meets with other revolutionaries in an attempt to organize a resistance movement. The reader is thus introduced to a series of characters, representing various positions on the political spectrum, who resemble caricatures from the sketchbook of Daumier, each more laughable than the next in their hypocrisy or cluelessness. This satirical tour culminates with a visit to Fomishka and Fimishka, a married couple who live as if they were frozen in the 18th century.

Even though Nejdanov makes for a pathetic hero much of the time, one still becomes sufficiently engaged by his story and actively involved in the lives of his circle of acquaintances. Their very failure to live up to their revolutionary ideals makes them all the more identifiable as realistic human beings, and you sympathize with their hopes and fears. Although Fathers and Sons may be Turgenev’s best known work, at least to English language readers, it is positively boring compared to the much livelier Virgin Soil. Despite of, or perhaps because of, its satirical bent, this social tragicomedy ultimately succeeds as a naturalistic depiction of its time and place, and one learns a lot about the history of Russia from reading it.
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Friday, March 24, 2017

The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

OutMacGyvering Robinson Crusoe
What I liked best about reading Jules Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island is that I came to the book with absolutely no idea what made the island so mysterious. Given the breadth and depth of Verne’s literary output, all manner of scientific oddities could have been possible. The less known about the book ahead of time, the more fun the reading experience. In some editions, however, the chapters have titles that act as spoilers to the story. When I was about halfway through the book, an inadvertent glance at one of these chapter headings let the cat out of the bag, ruining the surprise ending.

The Mysterious Island was originally published in French in 1874, with the English-language version, translated by William Henry Giles Kingston, coming out the following year. The story begins in 1865, during the American Civil War. Five northerners are being held as prisoners in the Confederate capital of Richmond. They make a daring escape by stealing a hot air balloon, and then end up getting caught in a hurricane. Carried thousands of miles from their native soil, the five castaways crash on an uncharted island somewhere in the temperate latitudes of the South Pacific. The group consists of Cyrus Harding, a captain in the Union Army, frequently referred to as “the engineer;” his former slave, now servant, Neb; Gideon Spilett, a reporter for the New York Herald; a sailor named Pencroft, and his teenaged ward Herbert.

For most of its length, the book is a Robinson Crusoe-style survival adventure, though survival may be an overstatement since few castaways have ever had it so easy as these five. Ever since Daniel Defoe published the original Robinson Crusoe novel back in 1719, countless imitators have tried to outdo the godfather of castaways with ever more ingenious feats of invention in the face of isolation. The Mysterious Island resembles James Fenimore Cooper’s The Crater in that it gives its marooned heroes an almost unlimited ability to construct anything from coconut shells and dirt. With “the engineer” as their leader, these five can MacGyver their way out of any problem. In fact, what the book sorely needs is some adversity. Everything that Verne proposes is within the realm of scientific possibility, but there’s never any false starts, failed experiments, or tests of patience, no mistakes made, nor any conflict or disagreement between the five companions. If it’s realism you want, you won’t find it on this island, but the book does succeed as utopian fantasy. The characters are simplistic and one-dimensional, but the reader really does get to like them over time and delight vicariously in their technological successes.

I’m not a unilateral fan of Verne’s work. I enjoyed Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but didn’t care much for Journey to the Center of the Earth. The Mysterious Island is more along the lines of the former example, and is likely one of Verne’s better novels. Like Twenty Thousand Leagues, the joy of scientific discovery is contagious, and the adventure is sufficiently thrilling, especially for those who appreciate the slowly building suspense of 19th-century storytelling rather than the nonstop action of a 21st-century potboiler. Another fun aspect of Verne’s work is the way he draws connections between his various books, creating a precursor to something like the Marvel Universe. Call it the Verniverse. It’s a fascinating world, and great fun to visit.
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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Reckoning by Georges Simenon

Disturbing late-life crisis
Georges Simenon’s novel Le Bilan Malétras was originally published in 1948. An English edition entitled The Reckoning, translated by Emily Read, was published in 1984. This book is considered one of Simenon’s “romans durs” or “hard novels,” which are often bleak, psychological thrillers with existential undertones. Although these romans durs often take the form of noir crime stories, they allow Simenon to explore deeper philosophical questions than he usually tackles in the detective fiction of his popular Maigret series.

The protagonist of the story, Malétras, is a retired businessman who finds himself questioning the pointlessness of his own life as he drifts toward an elderly obsolescence. He was born and raised a poor country boy, but worked his way up to own a chain of seaport warehouses. Once having achieved success, he turned his back on his humble upbringings and embraced the lifestyle of the nouveau riche, often looking with disdain upon those less fortunate or less driven than himself. His career now over, he resides in Le Havre with his second wife, dabbles in a small business venture, and spends most of his time hanging out in a bar with other distinguished professional men of similar social stature.

Something shocking happens in the first few pages, making this a tough book to summarize without spoiling. Since this is a Simenon novel, however, it’s probably not revealing too much to say that a crime is committed. At that point it shows signs of becoming a suspenseful thriller, but it never really progresses too far in this direction. Mostly this is a character study, through which details of Malétras’s past and personality are gradually revealed as his sanity seems to slowly unravel. He is all but estranged from his family, has few if any meaningful friendships, and seems to be almost entirely devoid of human emotions. The book often adopts the callous tone of its antihero, displaying at times an almost offensive disregard for human lives and feelings. Malétras wanders the streets and cafés of Le Havre trying to figure out how he’s gotten to this point in his life and what it is that drives him towards the few pleasures that he seeks.

Simenon’s grasp of human psychology is very impressive, and his multi-dimensional study of this character’s mind is fascinating. After a while, however, the book starts to get somewhat repetitive. The crime plot falls by the wayside and is forgotten for a stretch as the story moves in a more prosaic direction that examines themes of aging, regret, illness, and coming to terms with death. The ending is a bit of a disappointment, but it seems to be an intentional one. Simenon refuses to conform to the conventions of a crime thriller and grant the reader easy satisfaction. There’s an admirable audaciousness to this strategy, and it closes the story with a ring of truth in keeping with the inconvenient realities of life.

If you wanted to read a formulaic crime story, you probably wouldn’t be reading Simenon anyway. The man wrote about 500 novels, and few if any that I’ve encountered so far could be described as “typical.” This isn’t one of Simenon’s absolute best books, but it’s certainly an engaging work of literature written by an expert at his craft. The Reckoning is one more surprising book among the prolific output of a writer who consistently defies expectations.
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Friday, March 17, 2017

Showcase Presents: Strange Adventures, Volume 2 by DC Comics

Not as much fun as Volume 1
This is the second volume of Strange Adventures reprints in DC Comics’s Showcase Presents series. Published in 2013, this collection reproduces the complete narrative contents of Strange Adventures issues 74 to 93, which originally ran from November 1956 to June 1958. Though I’ve never been a fan of DC’s superhero pantheon, I have always admired their science fiction comics, particularly those from this era. I absolutely loved Showcase Presents: Strange Adventures, Volume 1, and this second installment contains another 500+ pages of the same brand of bizarre sci-fi fun. Yet while reading through Volume 2, I couldn’t help feeling the series had lost some of its luster. If you like pulp fiction from this era, these stories are still good, but not as delightfully imaginative as those of the first volume. Judging by these issues, the Strange Adventures series appears to have been losing some of its creative steam.

The cover is certainly promising, with its illustration of angry extraterrestrial snowmen shooting laser beams from their eyes. The story it references, “Invaders from the Ice World,” is one of the more entertaining entries in the book. In Volume 1, alien invaders usually came from other planets in our solar system, but in Volume 2 the writers have broadened the scope of possibility to include interstellar villains. To overcome the language barrier, mental telepathy is obligatorily cited as the means of communication in almost every story, a convention so overused it’s even called out in “Secret of the Silent Spacemen.” In addition to alien invasion, intelligent simians are always a great plot device, as in “Secret of the Man-Ape!” and “The Gorilla War Against Earth.” There are some good time travel selections as well, such as “The Paul Revere of Time” and “The Warning Out of Time.” As you can see, even the titles start to sound familiar after a while. “The Amazing Tree of Knowledge!” and “The Amazing Ray of Knowledge!” appeared in consecutive issues. A recurring problem with these stories is that too much time is spent setting up the threat, which only leaves a page or two for the generic hero to solve the problem and save mankind. While the perils are fantastical, the solutions always rely on some everyday principle of science, as if DC intended the series to educate as well as to entertain.

Generally speaking, I think DC’s Showcase Presents series of classic comics reprints is much better than Marvel’s Essentials series in terms of its production values—cover design, paper quality, clarity of reproduction, and so on. This vintage art really looks beautiful in black and white. They don’t draw ‘em like this anymore! The artistic workhorses of the series were Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, and Sid Greene. The three of them probably pencilled at least 90 percent of the stories included here. Towards the end of the volume, however, new talents start to appear that don’t really measure up to their predecessors, like Manny Stallman and John Giunta. As the series rounded its 90th issue, it appears that changes were taking place. The stories in Volumes 1 and 2 are almost invariably six pages in length, yet issue #93 leads off with a 14-page whopper, “Heart of the Solar System.” Perhaps this was a hint of things to come.

Maybe I’ve just reached a saturation point with this stuff, but if DC ever publishes a third volume of Strange Adventures, I’m unlikely to pursue it. I would rather they put out a volume of material from their Mystery in Space series, which seemed to run more creative work less confined by formulaic conventions.
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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations by Joseph Mazzini Wheeler

Comprehensive catalog of atheists, pantheists, deists, and heretics
J. M. Wheeler
A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations was originally published in 1889. As the title suggests, the book is a who’s who of nonbelievers, commemorated with brief biographical entries arranged in alphabetical order. It was compiled by Joseph Mazzini Wheeler, a British atheist and freethought essayist, who clearly did an enormous amount of research for this herculean undertaking. As an encyclopedic reference volume, this biographical dictionary is not going to emotionally engage the reader the way a philosophical novel or a stirring essay might, but there is still nonetheless a great wealth of knowledge and inspiration to be mined from this rich text.

Wheeler wisely chose the term “Freethinkers” rather than “Atheists” because the book includes a broad range of the skeptical spectrum including agnostics, pantheists, deists, positivists, and other dissenters against Christian dogma. The qualifier “All Ages” is accurate, as Wheeler covers freethought luminaries from ancient times to the present. “All Nations” may be stretching it a bit, but not from a nineteenth-century Western perspective. The personages cited are considered British unless stated otherwise, but Wheeler gives equal space to the intellectual revolutionaries of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United States, and a surprising number of Belgians. As one would expect from the era of publication, no Africans are included, except for one South African transplant and maybe a few Moroccans. Asia is represented by the great Arab and Persian philosophers of ancient and medieval times, such as Averroes, Avicenna, and Omar Khayyam. From farther East, Wheeler only recognizes the most obvious giants of Eastern thought like Confucius and the Buddha. Only a handful of Latin Americans are represented. About one out of every fifty entries is a woman. The diversity of the selections or lack thereof is probably more an accurate reflection of the published writings available to Wheeler at the time than of any deliberate bias on his part.

One would think the most recognizable freethinkers like Giordano Bruno, Thomas Paine, or Robert Ingersoll would get the longest entries, but that’s not necessarily the case. The lengthiest treatment goes to either Annie Besant or George William Foote, neither of which I had ever heard of. The life summaries usually only amount to a paragraph each, but that’s still room enough for some of them to be quite fascinating. The basics of birth, death, career trajectory, and philosophical slant are covered, often accompanied by interesting facts and anecdotes. The best feature of the book is its highlighting of the most important writings of each author, making it an excellent bibliography of freethought texts.

The antiquity of this volume should not be considered a disadvantage. If a book like this were published today, it would contain many movie stars and pop singers who once made an offhand comment about not going to church. The freethinkers listed in this book, on the other hand, gave great consideration to their personal philosophies, published books on the subject, and lived their lives of nonbelief in the face of persecution. For today’s freethinkers, this biographical dictionary is an inspiring look into the lives of those who fought for whatever scrap of nonreligious freedom we might enjoy today. If you consider yourself a freethinker, browsing through this encyclopedia of kindred spirits will assure you that you are in good company.
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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott

Social satire through interdimensional contact
Flatland, a delightfully odd science fiction novel, was originally published in 1884. English author Edwin Abbott Abbott wrote the book under the pseudonym of A. Square. The story is narrated by an actual square, an intelligent geometric figure who lives in a universe of only two dimensions. Speaking to an audience of third-dimensional readers, the Square introduces us to his flat-plane world, describing in detail not only its physical characteristics but also its societal and political structure. The result is a strange combination of geometry lesson, social commentary, and utopian parody.

With no conception of height, only length and width, the inhabitants of Flatland can only see each other as straight lines and must distinguish each other through hearing, touch, and visual techniques acquired through training. This is very important because the society of Flatland is built upon a strict social hierarchy. Circles, or Priests, are the highest social strata, while the lowly workers and soldiers take the form of very acute isosceles triangles. The higher the number of sides and the wider the angles that compose a figure, the greater his intelligence and the higher his social standing. Women, unfortunately, are not even factors in the class struggle, as they always take the form of straight lines. Through his description of this fictional society, Abbott wryly criticizes England’s restrictive class system. When in this satirical mode, the book entertains with an absurdism reminiscent of the sci-fi satire of Voltaire’s story Micromégas. The humor is so dry at times that in some cases, like the extreme chauvinism with which women are discussed, it’s difficult to tell whether Abbott intends to be funny or not.

Flatland is based around an ingenious idea, but the execution is not always all it could be. Though only composed of 155 sparse pages, the book feels long-winded. At times reading through Abbott’s convoluted prose is like trying to run through molasses. Particularly in the first half of the book, he spends a lot of verbiage in making his points and often goes off on annoying digressions. The second half of the novel is much better. The Square describes his visit to the one-dimensional Lineland and his attempts to explain Flatland to the inhabitants there. Then he relates how he originally became aware of the third dimension when he was approached by a sphere from Spaceland. Here the geometry takes precedence over the satire, and the book is better for it, as Abbott illustrates the difficulty in comprehending dimensions above and beyond those which we experience with our senses. The book ends on a high note as Abbott delves deeper and deeper into the philosophical implications of multi-dimensional geometry. On the one hand, the Square and his third-dimensional awakening stands as a sympathetic surrogate for those who claim to have experienced religious revelations. On the other hand, the spirituality of those revelations are called into question as possibly being sensory experiences of geometrical dimensions higher than our own. Once again, how much of such speculation is intended to be serious or humorous is unclear.

For the mathematically minded, the contemplation of fourth-, fifth-, or higher-dimensional worlds is a perplexing but fascinating pursuit. Though the relevance of some of its social satire may have worn off with the end of the Victorian Era, Flatland can still speak to those with an interest in such abstract intellectual exercises, and it does so in a way that is both provocative and amusing.
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Friday, March 10, 2017

The Water Tower by André Stil

A proletarian novel against American imperialism
The Water Tower was originally published in 1951 under the French title of Au château d’eau. It is the first volume in a trilogy entitled Le Premier choc, or The First Clash. At the time of publication, author André Stil was editor of the Communist newspaper L’Humanité, and The Water Tower reads as if it could easily have been serialized in that party organ. In fact, the Soviet Union awarded the book the Stalin Prize for literature in 1952. The plot is based on real historical events that took place at the port of La Rochelle in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of France’s Atlantic coast. It focuses on a community of dockworkers who live under conditions of extreme poverty in a squalid shantytown.

As is often the case with people’s history, this novel opened my eyes to historical events which were previously unknown to me. The dockworkers in this novel are not just struggling against unfair labor practices, crippling poverty, and capitalist persecution, they are also resisting what they term the “American occupation” of France. In the early years of the Cold War, America was working toward rearming defeated Germany to help protect western Europe from Russian encroachment. Needless to say, many French people, who had just undergone years of Nazi occupation during World War II, were not too pleased about this. The Americans, with the cooperation of the French government, had commandeered ports on the coast of France to serve as military bases, which they shared with German submarines. Americans were unloading arms at these ports and shipping them by train across France to Germany. In response, the French dockworkers, many of whom were members of the communist party, went on strike against this practice and refused to receive American ships in their ports. These workers also envisioned their ports being used to fuel wars in Korea and Indochina, wars they saw as furthering American imperialism to the destruction of their brother workers in other lands. The conflict escalates when the Americans begin to seize portions of the workers’ lands and enclose them in a military compound.

Not every character in the book is a socialist or communist. Stil represents the bourgeoisie as well, though there’s little doubt where his sympathies lie. The narrative delves deeply into the workings of the local communist cell and its party politics. The reader attends heated meetings where issues and strategy are debated and accompanies the characters on a dangerous mission of resistance. Through Stil’s engaging storytelling, the reader becomes intimately involved with these characters and drawn into their world. One can’t help but sympathize with these poor workers struggling against the forces that enslave them. The Water Tower calls to mind great classic social novels like Emile Zola’s Germinal, yet it is written in a more modernist style, with shifting perspectives and occasional stream-of-consciousness passages, reminiscent of Man’s Fate by André Malraux.

The English translation by Mollie Guiart and Yvonne Kapp can be a bit clumsy at times. Nevertheless, the power and passion of Stil’s prose shines through. The only fault I find with the book is its lack of an ending. As a stand-alone novel, it is incomplete. Sometimes a trilogy consists of three interrelated novels arranged in sequence; other times a trilogy is simply just a novel cut into thirds. The First Clash appears to fall into the latter category. After having read the exceptional first installment, I am definitely going to seek out the other two volumes to get the whole story.
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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Frank Norris, 1870–1902 by Charles Gilman Norris

A brother’s eulogy
Frank Norris
Prior to his untimely death at the age of 32, Frank Norris was hailed by some critics as one of America’s greatest novelists. Old Books by Dead Guys has already reviewed Norris’s complete works, but there are still a few pieces of Norrisiana out there that fans of this great author might find interesting, such as this booklet published by Doubleday circa 1914.

Norris’s brother Charles Gilman Norris was a successful novelist in his own right. Charles is best known for the novel Salt, which was highly praised by no less than F. Scott Fitzgerald. As stated on the first page of this booklet of roughly 30 pages, here Charles provides, “An intimate sketch of the man who was universally acclaimed the greatest American writer of his generation.” In addition to eulogizing his brother, Charles’s purpose for publishing this booklet was likely to draw attention to the posthumous publication in 1914 of Frank’s previously lost novel Vandover and the Brute

In this brief biographical sketch, Charles doesn’t just restate Frank’s literary accomplishments. He also provides personal recollections from the brothers’ youth. Those who know Frank as the king of American naturalism might be surprised at the extent to which he was once obsessed with Sir Walter Scott’s brand of medieval adventure. Charles shares fond memories of the two playing with lead soldiers. The younger Charles would marvel at the characters and stories his older brother Frank would construct with the tiny figures. Just as kids of my generation might have drawn superhero comics to share with each other, Frank would write out entire novels about knights and chivalry and give them to his brother to read.

Some interesting details on the writing of Frank’s published novels, in particular McTeague and The Octopus, are also revealed. In addition, Charles mentions a proposed trilogy on the battle of Gettysburg that Frank planned to write but never started. Little known details such as these make this booklet worth reading for Frank Norris fans, even though Charles’s essay is only 13 pages long. The narrative is interspersed with photographs, most of them dark and murky with age, and one drawing by Frank, who considered a career in art before turning to literature. The book closes with an admirably complete 10-page bibliography of Frank’s work, which includes all of his newspaper articles and short stories, almost all of which can be found in the two-volume collection The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, 1896-1898, edited by Joseph R. McElrath Jr. and Douglas K. Burgess.

If you want to read a complete biography of Frank Norris, turn to the comprehensive account Frank Norris: A Life by McElrath and Jesse S. Crisler. Even if you are well-versed in Frank’s life, or you just want the brief synopsis, this short work is worth a download from HathiTrust, or maybe a trip to your local university library. If you find this booklet useful, McElrath and Crisler have edited an entire volume of remembrances such as these, entitled Frank Norris Remembered, which will surely provide deeper insight into Norris’s life and work. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche

Straight talk for skeptics
On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic, originally published in 1887, is one of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s most important and influential works. Through three interrelated essays, Nietzsche calls into question our most basic values and attempts to reconstruct how the western world’s system of morality arose in the first place. Though many of the ideas advanced in this book were touched upon in earlier works, On the Genealogy of Morals synthesizes and clarifies Nietzsche’s philosophical thought into a well-organized argument.

In the first essay, Nietzsche questions the very meaning and intention of the words “good,” “bad,” and “evil.” He explains that the dichotomy between “good” and “bad” was originally established by the powerful, the wealthy, and the nobility. Anything relating to the aristocracy was deemed good, while those beneath them were bad. This polarity was later inverted by the “meek shall inherit the earth” philosophy of the Judeo-Christian tradition, through which the powerless and downtrodden expressed their resentment toward the powerful by branding them as “evil” in opposition to the “good” of the meek and pious. Nietzsche lays heavy blame on the Jews for originating this “slave revolt” mentality. In this book, his attacks on Judaism are not so much anti-Semitic as anti-theistic. In fact, he lays into the Christians with equal gusto. Here Nietzsche essentially myth-busts the very values which our society holds dear. As such it is unlikely to appeal to the devoutly religious reader. Even atheists may be disturbed by the antidemocratic tenor of his rhetoric, which often comes across as fascistic.

Nietzsche develops his argument further in the second essay on “guilt” and “bad conscience.” These concepts are likewise indoctrinated by the strong onto the weak as a deterrent against individual freedom and rebellion against the state. Nietzsche goes on to analyze the purposes of punishment and to speculate upon the very origin of the idea of God itself. In the third essay, he examines ascetic ideals. Nietzsche sees the glorification of poverty, humility, and chastity by religious clerics as a means of enforcing the inverted “good/evil” dichotomy discussed earlier. He likens asceticism to a widespread illness that weakens mankind. Religion is not the only purveyor of this sickness, however, as Nietzsche goes on to explain how the arts and sciences practice their own forms of self-negation and cynicism.

Nietzsche was not the first philosopher to call into question the validity of good-and-bad or good-and-evil value judgments. The ancient Stoics, among others, denied the existence of good and evil, seeing them as merely relative abstractions. Nietzsche contributes admirably to the discussion by seeking out the origins of these terms and the thought processes that lie behind them. The way he unsentimentally picks apart the most basic values upon which human society is founded, pointing out the motives of self-interest and “will to power” that lie behind them, is provocative and even liberating. Perhaps even more important is the way he states his case. While he clearly revels in slaughtering sacred cows, he does so in an orderly and well-structured manner. Many of Nietzsche’s other books can be serpentine mazes of literary indulgence and disjointed thoughts. While I would hesitate to call this book accessible, because it certainly isn’t always easy to decipher, On the Genealogy of Morals may be the clearest, most logical statement of his philosophy that Nietzsche ever wrote.
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