Monday, February 27, 2017

Command the Morning by Pearl S. Buck



The making of the atomic bomb
Pearl S. Buck won the 1932 Nobel Prize in Literature after having published only two novels, East Wind: West Wind and The Good Earth. In the decade that followed, she completed a string of compelling novels set in Asia, which stand as her best known works. Later in her career, however, she branched out into all manner of subject matter to become a sort of all-purpose historical novelist along the lines of James Michener. The results of this diverse late-career output are hit and miss, but fortunately Command the Morning, published in 1959, is one of the hits.

The book is a historical novel about the making of the first atomic bomb. Buck does not use the real Manhattan Project scientists as characters, but creates her own fictional physicists. Real scientists like Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr are mentioned in passing, but don’t play an active part in the story. The only genuine personage who actually becomes a minor character in the narrative is Enrico Fermi. Political figures like FDR and Truman are also discussed, but only indicated by euphemistic nicknames like The Big Boss and The Little Boss, respectively. The story takes place at scientific installations and government sites in Chicago, New Mexico, Tennessee, Washington, DC, Washington State, and Japan.

The novel opens at the beginning of World War II. A reliable means of nuclear fission has yet to be achieved, but the Nazis are rumored to be developing an atomic bomb, and the American government wants to beat them to it. Burton Hall, the scientist tapped as project leader, is assembling a team of America’s greatest minds in the fields of nuclear physics and atomic energy. His top choice, Stephen Coast, is reluctant to participate due to his pacifist misgivings toward building the ultimate weapon. Among the other candidates for the project, one woman holds her own amongst the top minds in this male-dominated field. Jane Earl is a scientist of rare intelligence and ability, who also happens to be beautiful, so of course all the male characters can’t help but fall in love with her, including the married ones.

About half the time the story focuses on the scientific problem and the characters heroic attempts to solve it. The rest deals with the relationships between the scientists and their wives. When Buck concentrates on the science, the novel is truly riveting. She has obviously done her homework and writes about nuclear physics in a way that demonstrates both an admirable knowledge of the subject and a facility for explaining it to laymen. When the story veers away from the science to focus on the love stories, it is less successful, sometimes veering into the sort of melodrama one might expect from a popular novel of its era. The most trying portions of the novel are the cringeworthy chauvinistic advances Burton Hall makes towards Jane Earl, so loaded with corny machismo you not only feel offended for her but embarrassed for him.

What saves the book from these regrettably antiquated romantic subplots is Buck’s thoughtful philosophical consideration of the monumental events she’s writing about. Towards the end of the book, she really delves into the conflicted ethics of the bomb, and as a result, the novel becomes more and more thought-provoking as you near its conclusion. The Good Earth is still Buck’s greatest novel, and other books like it were her strong suit, but Command the Morning may be the best departure from her beaten path.
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Friday, February 24, 2017

A Death in the House and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume 7



Seventh Heaven
I previously read and reviewed the first and second volumes of the Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series, and I have now jumped ahead to Volume 7 (Why Volume 7? Because it was a Kindle Daily Deal!). I don’t think it really matters in what order you read these books because the selections in each volume are arranged neither chronologically nor thematically. Each book in the series is simply an assorted grab bag of great short stories and novellas from Simak. Volumes 1 and 2 were both excellent collections, and I’m happy to report that seven books into the series the quality of the selections has not decreased one bit.

Volume 7, entitled A Death in the House and Other Stories, contains eight science fiction stories, one western, and one war story. The latter entry, “War Is Personal,” is clearly the worst selection in the book. It’s about naval pilots fighting the Japanese in World War II. To be fair, it’s actually pretty good for its genre, and to its credit it’s not racist, but it’s still a typical gung ho war tale about killing “Japs.” The western on the other hand, entitled “When It’s Hangnoose Time in Hell,” is excellent. It’s as good as anything by Elmore Leonard or Max Brand and would have made a great spaghetti western film.

Chances are, however, if you’re considering reading this book, you’ve come for the sci-fi, and what Simak delivers will exceed your expectations. He expertly combines the visionary speculative theorizing of a science fiction master with the human drama and insight of a literary novelist. The title selection, “A Death in the House,” is a tale of human-alien friendship that feels a bit like a preliminary sketch for Simak’s 1963 novel Way Station. In “Green Thumb,” the author again tackles one of his favorite subjects, plant-based intelligence, yet somehow each story he pens on this theme reveals an original and imaginative take on the concept. “Tools” raises the bar even higher by proposing an intelligent gaseous life form. “Target Generation” is a superb thinking man’s space travel thriller that could easily be made into a Hollywood blockbuster. On the other hand, “The Sitters,” a tale of future alien visitors who have been welcomed into our society, is a slower and more thoughtfully paced story with riveting suspense and elements of horror. “Nine Lives” and “The Birch Clump Cylinder” both take new and ingenious approaches to the time travel subgenre. The latter in particular is a phenomenal story with expert plotting and pacing that moves in delightfully unexpected directions. Even a predominantly humorous story like “Operation Stinky,” about a skunk-like extraterrestrial, contains incredibly creative conjecture grounded in scientific fact.

As usual, series editor David W. Wixon supplies a brief but informative biographical introduction on Simak, though this one repeatedly references a story called “The Creator,” which does not appear in this volume. The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series was originally projected to be 14 books in all, though for now publisher Open Road Media seems to have stalled at Volume 9. I for one intend to read all nine of those volumes, and everything else they put out by Simak. And when I’m done with that, I will plead for Volumes 10 through 14. As a recent discoverer of Simak, I am blown away by the diversity and excellence of his prolific output. Please, Open Road, keep them coming.
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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Financier by Theodore Dreiser



As real as life itself, and sometimes just as dull
As the title suggests, Theodore Dreiser’s 1912 novel The Financier is a story of stocks and bonds, banking, and business, but it’s also a very human tale of dreams, desires, and defeats. In 1837, Frank Cowperwood is born the son of a bank clerk in Philadelphia. At a young age, he demonstrates notable intelligence, initiative, and a precocious talent for finance. Through perspicacity and hard work, he gradually builds a career from small-time deals to ever greater heights of financial influence and commercial reputation. Cowperwood’s opportunistic streak gets the better of him, however, and he engages in dealings that are less than ethical. This becomes trouble when the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 plays havoc with the stock market. Cowperwood has spread himself too thin, and when creditors start calling in their loans, he must scramble to scrape up any dollar he can in order to save his business and his reputation.

As is typical of Dreiser, Cowperwood’s story is told in a naturalistic style that is about as real as realism gets. Dreiser’s detailed, matter-of-fact prose vividly immerses the reader in the time, place, and social environment of the narrative. When the novel focuses on the human drama surrounding the money matters, it can be very emotionally involving. Even though the protagonist is a somewhat despicable human being whose self-centeredness clouds his judgment of right and wrong, the reader can’t help but root for Cowperwood because Dreiser has drawn him as a complex human being with identifiable faults. At times, Dreiser delves deeper into the financial machinations than I cared to go, and he assumes a fair amount of stock-market knowledge on the part of the reader. If you like novels about hypothecated shares and sinking funds, this is the book for you. Today’s financial world is difficult enough to understand, much less the system that was in place before and immediately after the Civil War. The deals and manipulations taking place in The Financier are more difficult to decipher than similar goings-on in other financially themed naturalist novels like Frank Norris’s The Pit or Emile Zola’s Money.

Any confusion, however, is not due to lack of exposition. The main problem with The Financier is that it is too long-winded and repetitive, particularly in its flabby mid-section. The same conversations seem to take place over and over again. Is it really necessary to include the complete text of the closing arguments of a court case, after the several preceding chapters have already outlined both sides of the argument? Some summarizing would have been appreciated. Dreiser is so thorough in his description, his narrative so protracted, that most of the time I felt like I was experiencing the action of the novel in real time. That’s fine when interesting things are happening, but not when you’re sitting through another meeting in which Cowperwood repeats what he told someone else the day before. While the story as a whole is too drawn-out, the ending feels rushed and too convenient. Then Dreiser caps the work off with two brief epilogues; one unnecessary, the other vague.

The Financier is the first novel in Dreiser’s Trilogy of Desire, followed by The Titan and The Stoic. Honestly, The Financier might have been a better book if it were a stand-alone novel. Perhaps then the conclusion would have been more satisfying. Nevertheless, despite my reservations about this novel, I will probably follow the trilogy through to its end. The Financier may be flawed, but Dreiser is an exceptional author whose work is essential to the history of American literary realism. Even his less successful books are worth reading.
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Monday, February 20, 2017

Wisdom and Destiny by Maurice Maeterlinck



Post-Christian Stoicism
Maurice Maeterlinck, winner of the 1911 Nobel Prize in Literature, was a Belgian playwright, poet, and essayist. His essays often blur the line between literature and philosophy, and perhaps in none of his works is this more true than his 1898 book Wisdom and Destiny. In this volume, Maeterlinck takes on the role of life coach. In 112 numbered passages, he provides his readers with thoughtful guidance on how to achieve a life of virtue, happiness, tranquility, and love.

Much of Maeterlinck’s personal philosophy is built upon a foundation of Greek and Roman Stoicism. In essence, the book is like a 19th-century version of William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Maeterlinck does deviate somewhat from the precepts of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, however, and he expresses his teachings in a literary style all his own. One can also find inklings of Arthur Schopenhauer’s fatalism, but Maeterlinck expresses it in a kinder, gentler, more optimistic manner. Maeterlinck was raised in the Catholic tradition, but became disillusioned with organized religion as he grew older. Writing in the 19th century to a European audience, it was necessary that he must at least address Christianity. The philosophical advice he dispenses in this volume can be utilized by theists and atheists alike, but usually when he references God it sounds like the pantheistic god of the Stoics. Maeterlinck cites Jesus Christ as an example of a “sage” from whom we can learn valuable life lessons, alongside other positive and negative examples, including historical figures like Louis XVI, Marcus Aurelius, and Emily Bronte, or fictional characters such as Hamlet or Balzac’s Pierrette.

As a frequent reader of philosophy and an admirer of Stoic thought, I should have appreciated this book more than I did. Outside of philosophers themselves, no one really likes the jargon and dry, ultralogical prose that’s used to express most philosophical arguments, yet there is a good reason for it. The complex reasoning often requires a precision and clarity that conversational language cannot provide. Here, Maeterlinck errs in the opposite direction, eschewing clarity in favor of ambiguity. His poetic prose and flowery language come across as pretentious, flighty, and ill-suited to getting his point across. If one compares Maeterlinck’s writing to that of another literary/philosophical life coach, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Belgian author uses simpler vocabulary, but his syntax is far more obscurely circuitous than even the transcendentalist’s dense prose. To be fair, the English translation by Alfred Sutro might be partly to blame. Words like wisdom, destiny, love, virtue, happiness, consciousness, truth, and reason are bandied about in vague constructions. These terms are never adequately defined, or rather they are overdefined to the point where their definitions encompass everything and they simply become interchangeable.

Occasional pearls of insightful wisdom emerge from this verbal maze, enough to demonstrate that Maeterlinck was indeed a profound thinker, but such gems are few and far between. The medium does not do justice to the message. I much prefer Maeterlinck’s 1911 book Death, which is written in more straightforward language. If I were to read Wisdom and Destiny three or four times, I might eventually decipher Maeterlinck’s philosophical platform, but I would rather just reread the Discourses of Epictetus or the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
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Friday, February 17, 2017

Emanuel, or Children of the Soil by Henrik Pontoppidan



Danish social realism
Danish author Henrik Pontoppidan won the 1917 Nobel Prize in Literature. English-language readers are unlikely to have heard of him, however, because very few of his works have been published in English translation. Emanuel, or Children of the Soil, was originally published in 1891 under the Danish title of Muld (Soil), and it is the first book in a trilogy known as Det Forjaettede Land (The Promised Land). The English edition was published in London in 1896. Perhaps this first volume didn’t sell well enough to justify publishing the remaining two volumes of the trilogy, or maybe this book was deliberately singled out for translation because, from what I can tell from a little research, it is the happiest portion of the trilogy and therefore most likely to appeal to a broad audience.

Emanuel, or Children of the Soil, is a naturalistic novel that depicts a period of class conflict in Danish history. In the late 19th century, the proliferation of liberal and democratic ideals among the peasantry began to undermine the authority of the conservative aristocracy and the Church. This story takes place in two adjacent villages of a seaside parish in rural Denmark. The town of Veilby is where the wealthier landowners reside, while Skibberup, a fishing village along the fjord, is populated by a lower class of peasants. Governing over the religious interests of this domain is Provst Tönnesen, a conservative clergyman of the old school who believes the rabble out to know their place. His condescending attitude incites dissent among the Skibberup masses.

Into this insular conflict comes Emanuel Hansted, a newly ordained priest assuming his first clerical appointment as the Provst’s subordinate. He lives under the Provst’s roof and assists him in the spiritual duties of the parish. Unlike the Provst, Emanuel is sympathetic to the peasantry and bears a romantic conception of the farming life as a truer, more honest way of living in communion with nature. At first Emanuel is reviled by the residents of Skibberup for his association with the Provst. Over time, however, he begins to win them over with his sincerity and good intentions. This only draws the ire of his superior, however, and Emanuel soon finds that contradicting the Provst may prove threatening to his clerical career.

Pontoppidan’s novel provides a vivid slice of Danish rural life. The villages and their inhabitants are rendered lucidly real by his descriptive prose. Like any story in a pastoral setting, it can get picturesque at times, but there are glimpses of a darker, grittier side to country life that grounds the narrative in a sense of authenticity. Likewise, the accompanying love story gets a bit too cute from time to time, but Emanuel’s social awkwardness and the rituals of 19th-century courtship bear a ring of truth. The class struggle and conflicting ideologies, as played out in this Scandinavian microcosm, are really quite interesting, and take the story to a higher philosophical level than a typical peasant romance. The story not only engages the reader but also provides an introductory education in the social history of Denmark.

It’s a shame that so few of Pontoppidan’s writings have been translated into English, because if this book is an accurate indication of his body of work, he appears to be a writer of rare quality and a deserving recipient of his Nobel laurels. Emanuel is an admirable work of early 20th-century world literature worth seeking out.
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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak



Difficult genius
I consider myself a voracious reader, and rarely am I intimidated by a challenging work of literature, but Doctor Zhivago may just be the most difficult work of fiction I’ve ever tackled. This monumental work of art makes Anna Karenina seem like light beach reading. Russian literature in general is a tough nut for outsiders to crack, and Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel is more impenetrable than most. For starters, it presupposes an encyclopedic knowledge of Russian history, for the lack of which I blame myself, not Pasternak. More than a few times I had to consult Wikipedia just to keep track of which war I was in. Even more frustrating, however, is the enormous cast of characters Pasternak employs to tell his epic story. My edition (from Everyman’s Library) has a list of characters in the front, with brief explanations of their relationships, but it covers probably less than a quarter of the people in the story. Compounding the confusion is the fact that each character has at least three names, and Pasternak uses them all interchangeably. Oftentimes characters would disappear from the narrative for hundreds of pages, and by the time they reappear they may have already been forgotten or been transformed into someone unrecognizable.

Despite the frustrations, this great book is definitely worth the effort. Pasternak, though primarily a poet, won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature largely on the strength of this novel. Though a sweeping epic that covers Russian history from the Russo-Japanese War through World War II, Pasternak never loses sight of the intricate details of individual human lives. For the most part, the narrative follows the life trajectory of its title character, a physician and poet who reluctantly undergoes the violent modernization of his mother country. Because of its brutally realistic depictions of life during wartime, I’m tempted to call this a naturalist novel, but its idealistic love story, cyclical plot elements, and lofty moral debates call to mind the romanticism of an earlier era. Nevertheless, this is a modernist novel of unorthodox structure and shifting perspectives, in which seemingly random occurrences of happenstance counteract any attempt at a heroic narrative.

Though Pasternak proves himself a novelist of rare talent and exceptional skill, he never lets you forget he is first and foremost a poet. At times he might give only the vaguest suggestion of what the characters are doing in the story, but he never misses the opportunity to describe the leaves of a tree or the clouds in the sky. His descriptive facility with language is impeccable, if the English translation is any indication. Passages of natural description are beautifully authentic, and through the relations and behavior of the characters Pasternak demonstrates a profound understanding of human psychology. Following the completion of the novel, the book ends with about 50 pages of poetry, ostensibly written by Yuri Zhivago himself. Though I’ve never been much of a poetry reader, Pasternak might just convert me. His haunting images left me wanting more.

The same can be said of the novel as a whole. Though it took me a good 150 pages to really get into this book, by the second half I was deeply involved emotionally and intellectually. In the end, Doctor Zhivago made me want to be a better reader. Had I known more about the Russian Revolution, I would have gotten more out of it. Beyond the history and politics, this book has some remarkable things to say about humanity, love, and fate. It is a rich literary tapestry that rewards on many levels, for those readers willing to commit to the long haul.
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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Library Fuzz Megapack by James Holding



The Book Cop Files
Hal Johnson is a former homicide detective who has voluntarily left the police force to pursue a kinder, gentler career with the public library. His new job involves tracking down overdue library books and collecting fines from delinquent borrowers. You wouldn’t think such work would require a firearm, but for some unexplained reason Johnson is allowed to carry one. It’s a good thing, too, because in the course of his daily work as a book cop, he turns up an astonishing number of murder, theft, and kidnapping cases. Johnson is the creation of mystery writer James Holding, whose first short story in this series, entitled “Library Fuzz,” appeared in 1972. Further tales of Johnson’s cases appeared throughout the 1970s and early ‘80s in publications like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. The Library Fuzz Megapack, published by Wildside Press in 2015, collects 20 short stories from the series.

In keeping with the era in which they were written, these stories often have a feel similar to The Rockford Files. Johnson is always running into sexy dames to flirt with, though he saves his true love for library coworker Ellen Corby. He has a friend in the local police, Lieutenant Randall, who supplies gruff banter and investigative assistance. Too few of the stories actually have anything to do with books. “More Than a Mere Storybook,” with deals with the theft of a rare volume, is one of a few exceptions. Usually, however, the stories revolve around a slip of paper used as bookmark, upon which someone has written incriminating information. To his credit, Holding demonstrates a decent working knowledge of library operations, but Johnson is always too willing to hand over confidential patron information to the police. That may have flown in the 1970s, but librarians today would consider that a serious ethical no-no.

Most of these stories are pretty short, amounting to about 20 minutes of reading, yet they feel long and drawn out, like Holding was padding the narrative with unnecessary filler in order to reach an assigned word count. However, the best entry in the volume is its longest, “The Savonarola Syndrome,” the only selection that aspires to novella length. Because it is given the time to actually develop suspense, it is far more effective than the shorter stories, which add up to little more than Encyclopedia Brown tales for grown-ups, but without the deductive reasoning. These aren’t the kind of mysteries where the reader is given the clues to the puzzle and then has the opportunity to solve the case himself. Instead, they’re more like police procedurals where you follow along as Johnson and Randall tail and question suspects or search crime scenes. All too often clues just seem to miraculous fall into their laps, or they reap the benefits of unrealistically fortuitous coincidences. The crucial clues in each case are often hidden from the reader, only to be revealed at the end as the suspect is apprehended.

Some of these stories can be quite fun, but after a while the plots start to get repetitive, and even Holding seems to realize he’s running out of ideas. Hal Johnson isn’t even present in the last five stories of the collection, which feature police detective Lieutenant Randall in run-of-the-mill cop cases that have nothing to do with the library. Twenty stories may just be too much library fuzz for one reader to take. The idea of a library cop who solves book-related mysteries is an attractive premise, but the resulting stories, for the most part, are lackluster and merely adequate.

Stories in this collection
Library Fuzz
More Than a Mere Storybook 
The Bookmark 
The Elusive Mrs. Stout 
Hero with a Headache 
Still a Cop 
The Mutilated Scholar 
The Savonarola Syndrome 
The Henchman Case 
The Young Runners 
The Honeycomb of Silence

The Jack O’Neal Affair 

The Reward 

The Search for Tamerlane 

Sideswipe 

The Book Clue 

The Vapor Clue 

The Misopedist 

Cause for Alarm 

Hell in a Basket 


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Thursday, February 9, 2017

An Atheist Manifesto by Joseph Lewis



An eloquent secular sermon
Joseph Lewis
Author, activist, and publisher Joseph Lewis was one of the most eminent American atheists of the early 20th century. He was founder and president of The Freethinkers of America, as well as the publisher of the organization’s newsletter of the same name. He actively wrote and published atheist literature from the 1920s through the 1950s. Though I am unfamiliar with his earlier writings, An Atheist Manifesto, published in 1954, very much has the feeling of a late-career summation of his thought and ideals.

The prose of the manifesto is written with the flavor of soapbox oratory. Each sentence is its own paragraph, calling to mind lines of poetry or a volume of aphorisms. In fact, almost every line in the work is quotable, and would be suitable for use as the headline of an atheist propaganda poster. As you follow the text, you can imagine some orator reading it aloud as the liturgy in some atheist induction ceremony. If you are already an atheist, this manifesto won’t likely provide you with any new information or perspective that you haven’t already thought of yourself. It does, however, take familiar arguments in favor of atheism and encapsulate them in a very eloquent and concise package. This work would make a good source of rhetorical ammunition for anyone about to engage in debate with a clergyman. If you’re not sympathetic to freethought, however, this essay is unlikely to convert you. If you are on the fence, Lewis just might win you over.

At about the halfway point, Lewis goes off on an extended tangent, building on the statement that more scientific progress has been made since the signing of the Declaration of Independence than was made in the previous history of mankind. He supports this thesis with a list of scientific accomplishments, mostly medical, and how they destroyed previous unhealthy and injurious superstitions. Though he may have successfully made the point that scientific discovery has advanced at an exponential rate since the Age of Enlightenment, he fails to make a firm connection between this phenomenon and the establishment of the American Republic. Progress was not a uniquely American accomplishment, and America is hardly the exemplar of secularity. Statements like, “The more intelligent a person is, the less religious he is,” are music to a freethinker’s ears, but are too absolute to stand up to scrutiny. That may be the whole point of a manifesto, however. It is intended as an inflammatory proclamation. Unlike an essay or treatise, one can make broad claims without backing them up.

Like many atheist texts, Lewis takes a little too much pleasure and spends a bit too much time poking fun at the falsehoods of religion. Chances are if you’re reading An Atheist Manifesto, he’s just preaching to the choir. Though he does discuss evolution to some extent, I would have preferred that he put a little more effort into propounding a rationalist, scientific justification of natural phenomena, like Spinoza or Haeckel might have done. A pro-atheist argument is always more interesting than an anti-theist one. Still, for the most part I enjoyed Lewis’s manifesto. If you are inclined toward a godless worldview, it instills a sense of pride to hear someone elegantly express that view in pithy and articulate discourse. For freethinking readers, An Atheist Manifesto can be intellectually invigorating and, dare I say it, inspirational.
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Monday, February 6, 2017

Stories by English Authors: Germany, and Northern Europe by Beatrice Harraden, et al.



One of the better volumes in this series
Robert Louis Stevenson
This is the fifth book I’ve read in the Stories by English Authors series, which was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. Each of the ten volumes in the series presents a collection of five or six works of short fiction by British (not necessarily English) authors. Each book highlights stories set in a particular location. In this volume, subtitled Germany, and Northern Europe, the narratives take place in Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and of course, Germany. Up to now I haven’t been too impressed with the Stories by English Authors books, but this installment in the series is clearly a cut above the others that I’ve come across so far.

The book opens with Beatrice Harraden’s “The Bird on Its Journey.” A young woman shows up alone at a Swiss resort. Her profession is apparently piano tuner, and she is looked down upon by the high class English tourists. It all leads up to a surprise ending that is no surprise. The story benefits from its likeable female lead, but of course in 19th-century literature she must have a suitor, and the one provided is annoyingly inane. Next up is “Koosje: A Study of Dutch Life,” by John Strange Winter. A Dutch girl in Utrecht finds a starving woman in the street and invites her into her father’s home, a decision that leads to unforeseen consequences. The writing is a bit awkward at times, but the story has warmth, and it’s not entirely predictable. The book closes with “Queen Tita’s Wager,” by William Black, a comic romance about British tourists vacationing in the Black Forest of Germany. A young Brit tries to win the heart of the innkeeper’s daughter. There’s some good humor in this one, but it would have been a lot better if the Romeo you’re supposed to be rooting for weren’t such a snobbish jerk.

While those three stories are all fair to good in quality, it’s the remaining two selections that really make this collection worthwhile. The novella “A Dog of Flanders” by Ouida (pseudonym of Marie Louise de la Ramée) is a touching tale of love between a boy and his dog. Nello, a young orphan, lives in a village outside of Antwerp with his grandfather. The two are as poor as beggars, but when they find an injured dog left for dead by his master, he becomes a loyal member of the family and brings happiness to their lives. While melodramatic at times, it’s very well done as far as melodramas go.

Even better, however, is Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Markheim.” (There’s nothing to indicate that this one takes place in Northern Europe, other than the German flavor of the titular surname.) On Christmas evening, a lone customer enters an antique dealer’s shop. After a brief exchange of words, the customer kills the shopkeeper and proceeds to rob the place. Like Edgar Allen Poe might have done, Stevenson focuses less on the actual crime than he does on the psychological state of the murderer after the deed is done. The story then takes a very unexpected turn and morphs into a riveting philosophical thriller.

The ten volumes in the Stories by English Authors series are not numbered, so you don’t have to read them in any particular order. I would suggest starting with this one, since it’s clearly one of the better books in the bunch. If you’re interested in 19th-century literature, you might also want to check out two other Scribner’s series: Stories by American Authors, from 1884, and Stories by Foreign Authors, from 1898. The former ten-volume collection is rather disappointing, but the latter is particularly good.

Stories in this collection
The Bird on Its Journey by Beatrice Harraden 
Koosje: A Study of Dutch Life by John Strange Winter 
A Dog of Flanders by Ouida 
Markheim by Robert Louis Stevenson 
Queen Tita’s Wager by William Black

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Friday, February 3, 2017

Prince Hagen by Upton Sinclair



Sinclair’s revenge phantasy
Upton Sinclair originally wrote Prince Hagen as a novel, which was published in 1903 with the subtitle A Phantasy. He later rewrote the story as a play, which debuted in 1909 at the Valencia Theatre in San Francisco. The play, published as Prince Hagen: A Drama in Four Acts, was printed in book form later that year. It was also included in his 1912 anthology Plays of Protest, along with The Naturewoman, The Machine, and The Second-Story Man. This review discusses the play, not the novel.

The curtain rises on a forest scene, where Gerald Isman, a poet and son of a wealthy railroad magnate, is sitting at a campfire. He is approached by a representative of the Nibelungs, a race of centuries-old beings who dwell in an underground civilization. Sinclair, an avid classical music fan, adapted the characters from Richard Wagner’s series of operas known as The Ring of the Nibelung. The Nibelungs spend their lives digging for gold and hoarding it in a massive treasure trove. Gerald is invited into their world and introduced to the king. The Nibelungs would like to send the king’s son, Prince Hagen, to the surface world, to learn the ways of Earth society. They ask Gerald to act as his guardian, and he agrees.

Once let loose in America, Prince Hagen develops an intense hatred of our corrupt capitalist system. He uses his seemingly unlimited fortune in gold to manipulate the stock market and crush the world’s wealthy industrialists and financiers, punishing them for their exploitative sins. The original subtitle of the novel was quite apt, as this is clearly Sinclair’s revenge “phantasy,” his way of saying, “If I had all the money in the world, I would beat those bastards at their own game!” Hagen’s cutthroat tactics would seem to run counter to Sinclair’s socialist ethos, but at least the author embraces the absurdity of his own premise. The story is all rather silly, but there’s moments of good humor in it, and the characters are occasionally given the opportunity to go off on the sort of ranting soliloquy one expects from Sinclair. For example, there’s a delightfully acerbic passage about how religion and morality are used to subjugate the masses, and another brief dialogue about how money is the great oppressor of the people.

Of course, these philosophical points are standard fare for readers of Sinclair. Here he simply attempts to repackage them in a novel way. The use of mythological beings seems like a dumb idea at first, but at least it lifts this drama above the level of mediocre propaganda tracts like The Millennium or The Second-Story Man. That said, Prince Hagen got bad reviews when it hit the stage and is unlikely to undergo a revival anytime soon. Only the most curious Sinclair enthusiasts are likely to read it, and that’s about all it’s good for.
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