Friday, June 22, 2018

Poland: A Study of the Land, People, and Literature by Georg Brandes

Life and art under foreign occupation
Georg Brandes
Georg Brandes was a Danish literary critic who influenced European literature’s transition from romanticism to realism. He was a big deal in the world of letters a century ago, when a literary critic could still be a big deal. His writings demonstrate his encyclopedic knowledge of literature from throughout Europe, and he had a particular interest in Polish literature when everyone else was paying attention to Germany, France, and England. Brandes’s 1903 book Poland: A Study of the Land, People, and Literature is part travelogue, part investigative journalism, part political commentary, and part literary critique.

In the first two-thirds of the book, Brandes writes the impressions he formed of Poland from four journeys he made to the country from 1885 to 1894. At this time Poland as a nation did not exist, for it had been conquered and divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Brandes’s first two visits were to Warsaw, in Russian-occupied Poland, and his third to a country manor house nearby. In these travel narratives Brandes vividly describes the lives of Poles under the rule of the Russians, who made every attempt to obliterate Polish culture, including prosecuting anyone who spoke the Polish language and exiling thousands to Siberia. As a literary man and journalist, Brandes pays special attention to censorship and the absurd lengths to which the Russian bureaucrats would go to stifle any inkling of nationalistic expression on the part of the Poles. Clearly sympathetic to the cause of Polish independence, Brandes praises the indomitable spirit of the Poles but frankly and insightfully points out how this systematic oppression has nevertheless affected the mindset of the Polish people and their national literature. More than just a geographical treatise, the book is an in-depth character study of the spirit of a nationless people. In the fourth and briefest trip described in the book, Brandes travels through Austrian Poland (a.k.a. Galicia), stopping briefly in Krakow before spending some time in Lemberg (today Lviv, in the Ukraine), where he is hailed as a visiting dignitary. By including this contrasting vignette, Brandes makes it clear that Austrian rule was far less oppressive than that of the Russians.

After 200 pages on Poland’s political climate, Brandes devotes the final third of the book to a study of Polish literature. This section was somewhat disappointing because Brandes only covers a handful of authors in detail. Mostly he discusses romantic poets of the early 19th century, with an intense focus on Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Slowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński. Today’s readers tend to view novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz as a paragon of romanticism, but Brandes only mentions him briefly as an overrated upstart and an author of “light literature.” Though I have read Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz, I was unfamiliar with the other works referenced, and I suspect most English-language readers are in the same boat as me. Still, some of the biographical information on these writers is very interesting, and Brandes provides a great deal of insight into how Poland’s history of foreign occupation has influenced its literature. Frankly, at times the literature section gets rather boring, but I won’t fault Brandes for providing a thorough examination of romantic poetry simply because the subject doesn’t particularly interest me.

Brandes’s book is a valuable document of Polish life at the dawn of the 20th century. Anyone interested in Polish history and culture—even if you’re not keen on romantic poetry—will find much to discover and appreciate in this frank and thoughtful work of literary travel journalism.
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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Gold by Eugene O’Neill

From pulp fiction to family tragedy
Gold is a four-act play by Eugene O’Neill. It was published in 1920, the same year as his better known works Anna Christie and The Emperor Jones. The first act takes place on a deserted island in the Malay archipelago of the South Pacific. Captain Isaiah Bartlett of the whaling ship Triton and five of his crew members are marooned on the isle after having survived a ship wreck. Having drifted on the open seas for days, they are now starting to feel the pangs of starvation and are on the verge of being driven mad by the lack of drinking water. Though the island is devoid of the bare necessities of life, the castaways have discovered a treasure chest full of gold and jewels, which provides them with yet another reason to go mad. Fortunately, they are rescued by a passing ship at the end of the first act, but what has transpired on the island will continue to haunt them long after they have returned to civilization.

Though depictions of sailors and seafaring life are common in O’Neill’s body of work, there is a pulp-fiction quality to this scene that is refreshingly unexpected. In the second act, however, the play returns to territory more familiar to readers of the Nobel laureate’s dramas. Act Two takes place at Bartlett’s house on the California coast, where we see the sea captain interacting not only with his crew but also with his family. Dysfunctional families are stock-in-trade for O’Neill, and here we witness the Bartlett family being torn apart by the father’s obsession with gold as his greed and guilt drive him further from the ones he loves.

The play’s change in direction from the sensationalistic sea story to the more prosaic and depressing concerns of family dynamics is not unexpected, given O’Neill’s track record, but it is not really a welcome change either. After the first act, which is kind of fun, the audience wants more of the gold-hunting narrative, even if it is uncharacteristic of O’Neill, but he goes out of his way to avoid gratifying those desires and instead delivers another variation on the tragedy of the American family. Though in general I’m a fan of O’Neill’s plays, Gold is not one of his better pieces of writing. The dialogue generally consists of overly protracted arguments that end with predictable results. When the story does occasionally take a surprising turn, it’s usually more of a letdown than an improvement. The behavior and choices of the characters are not always realistic, even when their judgment is not clouded by gold fever. The use of gold as a poisoner of minds and a destroyer of relationships is a convenient and clichéd way of arriving at the sort of emotional turmoil that O’Neill would explore more intelligently in later, greater plays like Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Gold isn’t a terrible play—it is Eugene O’Neill after all—but it’s hard to imagine an audience exiting the theatre or a reader closing the book feeling noticeably excited or moved by it. When compared to other plays in O’Neill’s impressive body of work, Gold may have been a necessary step in his artistic development, but on its own it is an overwrought melodrama that feels a little too simplistic and half-baked to be compelling.

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Monday, June 18, 2018

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

Life is but a dream
The Lathe of Heaven, a science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, was first published in 1971. The story takes place in 2002, in a future world plagued by global warming, overpopulation, and war. George Orr, a mild-mannered draftsman, is assigned to court-appointed psychiatric treatment because he is convinced that his dreams can alter reality. When Orr has a particularly lucid dream, he can essentially change the course of world history to suit what his subconsciousness envisions. When he goes to see Dr. Haber, a dream specialist, Orr manages to convince the psychiatrist that his power is real. Instead of trying to cure Orr of this unusual malady, however, Haber decides to use Orr’s power to enact and implement his own personal plan of dream-induced world-shaping.

One’s appreciation of a work of science fiction often depends on which branch of science is being fictionalized. I chose this book solely on the basis of Le Guin’s reputation and had no clue as to its contents before I read it. What I got was a novel about psychology and oneirology (the science of dreams), subjects that don’t really fall within my particular areas of interest. I was more interested in the brief glimpses of the futuristic world than in the main narrative taking place within it. Even Le Guin seems to be conscious that her novel may be too far outside the realm of commercial sci-fi, as she feels the need to use the dreams to introduce more traditional sci-fi subject matter into the story.

The imaginative premise of the book is exciting at first, but it soon sets into a repetitive pattern. In each chapter, the reader has to wade through about 20 minutes of psychobabble about sleep science, just waiting to get to the last couple pages to find out what aspects of reality have changed from Orr’s latest dream. I admired the first half of the book for setting up its own unique laws of existence and reality, but was disappointed when the second half of the book denied those laws and went off in arbitrary directions. Just as in time-travel novels there are always chicken-or-egg conundrums, the cause-and-effect relationships between dreams and reality in this book don’t always make sense. The climactic scene of the novel seems to defy the alternative logic that Le Guin worked so hard to establish at the beginning, and the bizarre, dream-induced manipulations of reality are described in such vague and sketchy terms its really quite a letdown. I ended up enjoying the romantic subplot more than the sci-fi or the philosophy behind it.

The story is set in Le Guin’s hometown of Portland, Oregon. The city is not merely a backdrop to the narrative, but is really quite integral to the plot, and Le Guin discusses Portland and its environs in great detail. At first it is quite refreshing to read a sci-fi novel that doesn’t settle for New York, Washington, or L.A. as the center of the universe, but after a while the level of Portlandia becomes kind of annoying. Just as so many French novels assume the reader has an intimate knowledge of Paris, it often seems as if Le Guin wrote the novel strictly for an audience of Portlanders, or at least expects readers to have a city map spread out before them as they read the book.

This is the first work I have read by Le Guin, and maybe I was just expecting too much since her name is so often uttered with reverence and associated with greatness. Overall, The Lathe of Heaven is a pretty good sci-fi novel but far from a masterpiece. I liked it enough that I’m sure I will give Le Guin another try in the future, but I don’t feel in any hurry to do so.
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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Excursions by Henry David Thoreau

Hikes with Henry
Excursions, a collection of essays by Henry David Thoreau, was published in 1863, the year after the author’s death. The nine essays collected here had all been published previously in magazines and journals. The book opens, however, with a “Biographical Sketch” of Thoreau, written by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. This tribute, penned after Thoreau’s death, is far more than a “sketch” but rather a full-blown eulogy, and perhaps one of the greatest literary eulogies every written. Through personal anecdotes drawn from his close friendship with the deceased, Emerson really gives the reader a deep insight into Thoreau’s personality, convictions, philosophy, and humor.

Thoreau is of course best known for his classic memoir Walden, in which he combined vivid and poetic nature writing with his personal manifesto of individualism and nonconformity. Many readers may also be familiar with his more politically tinged works of social commentary like “Civil Disobedience” or “Life Without Principle.” The essays in Excursions, however, are absent of politics, light on philosophy, and almost solely concerned with nature. The contents really do represent a series of excursions in which Thoreau uses a particular hike as a starting point to expound on topics of natural history. Though Thoreau may offer the occasional poetic stanza or nugget of social commentary, here he primarily acts as naturalist, regaling the reader with his empirical observations of the woods, fields, and mountains. The one exception that does have the qualities of a manifesto is his 1862 essay “Walking,” in which Thoreau criticizes the culture of so-called civilized society as a shameful rejection of nature. He asserts that only by constructing a culture around nature rather than in spite of it can mankind truly advance intellectually.

The relative success of the other eight selections depends on how well Thoreau conveys the sublime experience of his walks and how much interesting scientific information he imparts in the process. “Wild Apples,” for example, is a pleasant read because you really do learn a lot about apple trees, and Thoreau makes apple-tasting sound like it’s the most enjoyable activity ever. “Autumnal Tints” is another fine piece in which he examines various species of colorful New England flora. Essays like “A Winter Walk” and “Night and Moonlight,” on the other hand, are less successful because they provide less practical naturalism and instead opt for more poetic observations and allusions to mythology, meaning the reader learns less about nature. “Natural History of Massachusetts,” “A Walk to Wachusett,” and “The Succession of Forest Trees” all strike a fine balance between keen empirical observation, home-spun wisdom, and charming travel writing. The one anomaly in the book’s contents is “The Landlord,” which isn’t nature writing at all but rather Thoreau’s tribute to the profession of country innkeeper.

In general I prefer Thoreau’s writings of the philosophical manifesto variety, so I was less impressed by this volume of nature writings. There are passages in Excursions where Thoreau’s descriptions of the natural world rival those found in his masterpiece Walden, but with the exception of “Walking,” the pieces here never ascend to the level of an inspirational guide to living or a stirring call to arms the way his greatest works do. Still, reading Excursions is often almost as enjoyable as a real walk in the woods, and if you consider yourself a nature lover, who better to guide you on your virtual hike than Thoreau?

Essays in this collection
Biographical Sketch by Ralph Waldo Emerson 
Natural History of Masachusetts
A Walk to Wachusett 
The Landlord
A Winter Walk
The Succession of Forest Trees 
Autumnal Tints
Wild Apples 
Night and Moonlight

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Monday, June 11, 2018

Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven by Ross King

A detailed history of Canada’s groundbreaking painters
Canadian author Ross King has made a career of taking art history and crafting it into surprisingly enthralling bestsellers. Having previously read his fascinating book The Judgment of Paris, about the rise of French Impressionism, I was excited when I found out that King had written a book on some of my favorite artists, The Group of Seven. Defiant Spirits, published in 2010, tells the story of these groundbreaking painters who strove to forge a distinctly Canadian school of modernist painting at a time when Canada struggled to find its national identity.

I have previously read several books on the Group of Seven, including F. B. Housser’s contemporary account A Canadian Art Movement, but their story has always felt incompletely told. Defiant Spirits is the most comprehensive history of the Group I’ve ever come across. Even so, for such an important group of artists, it still feels as if there’s surprisingly little extant documentation on their lives. The bulk of King’s book is comprised of historical context—what was going on in Canada at the time these painters were active. While the reader gets a meticulous history of Canada during World War I, for example, often the narrative of the artists’ lives just reads like a history of lakes they visited, with little concrete insight into what actually went on there. If the source material is sparse, however, King does a great job of wringing it for all it’s worth.

As is often the case with books about the Group of Seven, some members are given preferential treatment over others. Here as usual Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, and J. E. H. MacDonald receive the most in-depth examination and are credited as the driving forces behind the formation of the Group, with Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley regarded as second-tier members. King provides a surprising amount of information about Varley—in fact, far more than I’ve ever seen him covered in any other book on the Seven. As is often the case, Frank Johnston and Franklin Carmichael are treated as lesser contributors, perhaps because they were less actively involved in the promotion of the Group, but likely also because they generally get an unjustified lack of respect from art historians for producing the most “graphic” or “decorative” work of the original members, as opposed to the others’ more post-impressionistic style of painting. Carmichael is almost absent from King’s narrative, to a shameful degree. The later members to join the group—A. J. Casson, Edwin Holgate, and Lionel LeMoine Fitzgerald—are only mentioned by name once or twice in the epilogue. In a book where we get a mini-biography of every artist, critic, politician, and fishing guide the Group ever met, couldn’t King have at least given the same treatment to the three artists that the Group invited into their ranks?

The book ends with the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Park, London, where the Group were featured in an exhibition showcasing Canadian art. This stopping point feels inconclusive because although the Group were praised by British critics, they still had failed to find much appreciation in their home country. In an epilogue, King explains that there is still little consensus among Canadians as to the value of their most famous painters. Fans of the Group of Seven, who are used to adulatory coffee-table treatments of the artists, will find King’s perspective surprisingly ambivalent. He takes a refreshingly even-handed approach, taking varying critical responses into consideration. Due to this rather dispassionate tone, Defiant Spirits may not be the page-turner that The Judgment of Paris was, but it is highly informative and fills in a lot of the blanks in the historical record of these remarkable artists’ lives and careers.
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Friday, June 8, 2018

Rock and Roll (Auto)biographies

The lives behind the music
Admittedly, the topic of this post is far removed from the usual subject matter of this blog, but I conveniently included the words “and whatever else I happen to be reading” in the masthead for just such an occasion as this. From time to time I read biographies of rock musicians, and Old Books by Dead Guys has finally amassed enough reviews of such books to put together an omnibus post on the subject. 

What do I look for in a rock and roll biography? Mostly insight into the making of the music I love, the musician’s artistic development, and some insight into the rock star as human being—their personalities, warts and all. I usually opt for autobiographies, because I like to get the stories straight from the horse’s mouth. Rock-star anecdotes about sex, drugs, and partying are fun in small doses, but shouldn’t overpower the music-making narrative (I’m talking to you, Keith Richards!). Lastly, it’s always a bonus when the rock star you admire doesn’t come across as a dick (Bob Mould). If your interest in the subject diminishes after reading his life story, it’s not a successful memoir. On the other hand, a really good biography will make me want to hit the used CD stores in search of more of that artist’s recordings. 

Of the eight books listed below, all are autobiographies except for the Warren Zevon book, which also happens to be the best of all the books listed here. The books are listed in order from best to worst. Click on the titles to read the complete full-length reviews.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon (4.5 stars)
Crystal Zevon, Warren’s ex-wife, compiled this oral history from interviews with dozens of the deceased musician’s closest friends, family, and business associates, including rock luminaries like Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne. The portrait of Warren Zevon that results is both shocking and touching. More than anyone else on this list, Zevon lived the crazy life of a rock star, and not in a good way. Extreme alcoholism and drug use, sex addiction, obsessive compulsive disorder, spousal abuse, child neglect, occupational backstabbing, and a general tendency toward insecurity and paranoia all rear their ugly heads in this unflinchingly frank portrait of Zevon. The testimonies provided often read like an airing of grievances, yet almost all the interviewees express an undying love, admiration, and respect for the man. Over the course of the book, the reader simultaneously comes to hate, pity, and admire Zevon. It’s a powerful read. 

Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young (4.5 stars)
Neil Young is the son of a newspaper columnist, and this articulate, entertaining memoir proves that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. In Waging Heavy Peace, Young’s writing is unpolished but articulate, with the casual, conversational style of a born blogger. The narrative jumps around all over the chronological map, yet he still manages to give a complete biography of his life and career, interspersed with scenes from his present life. The latter includes his two current obsessions at the time of publication, the high-def audio format Pono and LincVolt, the 1959 Lincoln Continental he transformed into an electric car. Fans of Young’s music will be pleased to know that he delivers loads of personal insight into the writing of songs, the recording of albums, and the living of a rock star’s life on the road. Through candid revelations of his personal life, the reader gains a broader insight into Young’s personality and personal philosophy. Well done, Neil.

Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan (4 stars)
Chronicles is not a full autobiography, but rather five distinct, closely examined periods in Dylan’s life. Those hoping to finally get some candid personal disclosure from this elusive bard will be disappointed to find that Dylan still goes out of his way to hide his inner self from the public. Nevertheless, he has crafted a lively and literary memoir. Dylan does an excellent job of evoking the sights and sounds of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s, allowing the reader to live vicariously through his personal history. He also talks at length about his reluctance to wear the “voice of a generation” mantle that was so often thrust upon him earlier in his career, and he discusses his techniques of songwriting and musician ship in great detail, though not always intelligibly. Dylan’s prose is often as artfully obtuse and metaphor-laden as the lyrics of his songs, but fans of his music will find his unique writing style more fascinating than frustrating. 
Also of Interest: Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, edited by Jonathan Cott; Dylan: Disc by Disc by Jon Bream

Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton (3.5 stars)
Clapton the book is satisfyingly candid, articulate, and revealing. Your really do a learn a lot about the man, in regards to both his personal and professional lives, though you might not like him as much when you’re done with it. Clapton made a lot of poor ethical choices in his life and treated a lot of women like dirt. There’s something refreshing, however, about the matter-of-fact way in which he admits his wrongs without sugar-coating them or asking for forgiveness. Clapton also engaged heavily in substance abuse, but eventually learned the error of his ways, and the story of his recovery from addiction and his efforts to help others is truly inspiring. Overall I enjoyed this book, but I’d have to say that my respect for the man diminished a little. Because of some of his off-putting moral choices, Clapton just doesn’t come across as smart as you would expect a musical genius to be.

Autobiography by Morrissey (3.5 stars)
An autobiography from Morrissey comes with high literary expectations, since the former singer and songwriter of The Smiths, like some alt-rock Oscar Wilde, is known for his intelligent and acerbic wit. For the most part, Morrissey meets those expectations. The first quarter of the book is a masterful piece of writing in which he depicts growing up in working-class Northern England as a bleak Dickensian hell. His career with The Smiths is covered pretty briefly until he delves into the band’s legal troubles (Morrissey was sued by the drummer), which goes on a bit too long. The book is killed by its final quarter, a tour diary loaded with self-praise. Overall, however this is a strong rock star memoir, both educational and entertaining. Morrissey comes across as egotistical, cantankerous, petty, vindictive, ungrateful, and mean-spirited as you would expect him to be. I’m not sure I’d want to hang out with the guy, but on paper he is hilarious.

Life by Keith Richards (3 stars)
Life attempts to recreate the experience of having an intimate conversation with Keith Richards. To some extent this strategy works, but the prose is so chock-full of colorful slang, gratuitous profanity, and pointless asides that it takes five times longer for him to say anything of note than it should. The result is an autobiography that is a lot more boring than you would expect it to be. Richards spends more time talking about drugs than he does about music. He delves deeply into the lengths he would go to get smack when he needed it and the legal battles over his various drug busts. Though he survived being a heroin addict, he doesn’t seem to have learned much from it. For the most part, the rest of the Rolling Stones remain shadowy characters on the periphery. Though late in the book 
Richards does finally address his contentious relationship with Mick Jagger, in the end I learned a lot less about the Stones than I thought I would.  

Who I Am: A Memoir by Pete Townshend (3 stars)
In his autobiography, Townshend doesn’t spend enough time talking about his music and spends too much time cataloging all the things he has bought: houses, cars, boats, and recording equipment. Amid a morass of tangential detail, one gets little insight into the musical dynamics and interpersonal conflicts of The Who. In fact, he barely mentions his bandmates, almost as if he were afraid of being sued by them (or their surviving relatives). Throughout the book, Townshend comes across as an emotional child who wants so desperately to be liked. Thus, the tone of Who I Am is terribly manipulative. Townshend repeats every word of praise he’s ever received, tries to paint himself as a lovable loser, but then brags about the drugs he’s taken, the women he’s chased, and the money he’s spent. There’s an awful lot of personal disclosure, but the sincerity behind it is often questionable. The reader does learn a lot of trivia about Townshend’s life and career, but you don’t like or understand him any better in the end.

See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody by Bob Mould (2 stars)
Mould is best known as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist in the Minneapolis punk band Hüsker Dü. He later embarked on a solo career and briefly formed the band Sugar. I was a big fan of his music for many years, but reading this memoir really soured my opinion of the man. From page one, he comes across as a total self-centered jerk, dissing his former bandmates and relentlessly praising himself. There is a lot here about Mould’s personal life, but little about the making of music, and Hüsker Dü fans will be flummoxed to find how little Mould thinks of that period in his career. The book’s one saving grace that rescues it from pointlessness is the fact that Mould is gay and has been open about it for most of his career. His candid memories of growing up gay in the ’80s, his eventual coming out, and his coming to terms with being an openly gay rock star provide a few interesting and inspirational moments in an otherwise dull and dreary memoir.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Space Viking by H. Beam Piper

A circuitous path to revenge
Space Viking, a novel by H. Beam Piper, was originally serialized in the November 1962 to February 1963 issues of the magazine Analog Science Fiction – Science Fact before being published in a paperback edition. Part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History series, the story takes place in the 37th century of our calendar. For over a millennium mankind has been colonizing other planets, and now humanity’s descendants live in varying states of civilization on different worlds. By this time the Terran Federation, which figured prominently in works like Uller Uprising and Little Fuzzy, has now fallen apart. A group of outlying planets called the Sword Worlds have developed a feudalistic system of government replete with royal titles and dynastic conflicts. The economy of these Sword Worlds is largely driven by the pillaging and plundering of planets of the Old Federation by wayfaring adventurers known as Space Vikings.

Lucas Trask is a nobleman on the Sword World of Gram. He is set to marry the love of his life, but on the day of their wedding the bride is assassinated by Trask’s rival, an insane baron named Andray Dunnan. Dunnan flees the planet to parts unknown, and Trask vows to get his revenge, if it means combing every planet in the galaxy. To that end, Trask renounces his land and titles and becomes a Space Viking. While that may sound like the start of a thrilling revenge epic, the path to vengeance in this novel is quite circuitous. Before he can track down Dunnan, Trask ends up spending years building a civilization on a formerly primitive planet called Tanith.

Though at times it’s good fun, Space Viking isn’t the smartest of Piper’s novels. Why Trask would choose to lead a band of Space Vikings—looters, murderers, rapists—in response to his wife’s killing never seems logical, although atrocities are only hinted at and never committed by Trask’s own hand. The revenge theme gets totally lost in the development of Tanith—yet another Piper fantasy-camp in the exercise of world-building. Though this is not exactly a satirical work, Piper uses different planets in the story to critique various forms of government. Fascism, socialism, and democracy all have their faults pointed out. Dunnan is overtly presented as a stand-in for Hitler, and there is a race of interplanetary traders who might double for the Jews. If there’s a message, however, it is pretty convoluted and murky. Piper is known as a libertarian, but here if anything he seems to be advocating authoritarian monarchy as the best form of government, and he demonstrates a “might makes right” attitude towards imperialism and colonialism that shows up in a lot of his works. He’s always contemptuous of “the rabble” and seems to believe in the myth of an elite class of rulers born with the hereditary power to lead.

That said, the book does have its charms. With the exception of Frank Herbert’s Dune, nobody builds fictional universes with as much intricacy as Piper. He comes up so many countless details of government bureaucracy, diplomatic protocol, political economy, and technological logistics, from the grandiose to the mundane, that one can’t help but admire his boundless creativity. At times this complexity works against the book, as many passages read like laundry lists of proper nouns of Piper’s own invention (but again, no one invents better space names than Piper). In Space Viking, the final showdown is terribly anticlimactic and the whole plot feels a bit pointless, but it is fun to live in this world for a while. After Piper’s death, the authors John F. Carr, Dietmar Wehr, and Terry Mancour wrote several sequels to Space Viking. The fictional universe Piper created certainly seems to have endless narrative possibilities, but this novel often feels like he tried to cram all those possibilities into one book.
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Monday, June 4, 2018

Inspector Maigret in New York’s Underworld by Georges Simenon

Retirement doesn’t suit him here
Inspector Maigret in New York’s Underworld was originally published in 1947 under the simpler title of Maigret in New York. Of the 103 Maigret novels and short stories by author Georges Simenon, this book was the 50th, putting it at about the middle of the pack chronologically. Even so, in this book Maigret is already retired from his job as Inspector with the Police Judiciaire in Paris and acting purely as a private citizen. This is the 14th Maigret novel that I’ve read, and I’ve given the rest favorable reviews. Maigret in New York, however, is the worst Maigret book I’ve read so far.

While adjusting to retirement in suburban Paris, Maigret is consulted by a young man of 19, Jean Maura, the son of a wealthy French-born businessman residing in America. Based on troubling letters he has recently received from his father and odd financial transactions made through the family attorney, Jean fears that his father, who goes by the American name of John Maura, may be in danger. Maigret agrees to accompany Jean to America to investigate. When the ship arrives in New York, however, Jean Maura immediately disappears. Maigret goes to see John Maura, but is perturbed by the father’s lack of concern over his son’s unexplained disappearance. Maigret resolves to find out what has happened to young Jean. With the help of a colleague in the NYPD, he starts to investigate and turns up some suspicious stories about the father’s past.

While Simenon novels frequently hook me from page one, this was a hard one to get into. The very premise of the book is faulty to begin with. Maigret, who has never been to America, is going to cross the ocean on account of the vague fears of a teenager he’s never met before? After that unlikely beginning, it seems to take forever before a crime is committed. I never really felt invested in the story until around chapter seven or eight (out of ten), and even then it was only halfheartedly compelling. Despite the addition of the word Underworld to spice up the title, the reader doesn’t get to experience much of the seedy underbelly of society or the gangsters that such a word implies. Instead, Maigret spends his time interviewing elderly circus performers. Other than that, the detective doesn’t really do much detective work at all. Almost everything he learns about the characters and their crimes is handed to him, either by police officers who acquired the information by means left unsaid or by drunks who happened to be feeling confessional.

Mystery novels, Maigret’s included, often end with all the important characters gathered together for a big reveal. The odd way that scene is conducted in this novel, however, is quite anticlimactic and unsatisfying, not to mention difficult to decipher. When it comes to dialogue, Simenon is king of the ellipsis dots. In real life people don’t always speak in complete sentences, but in Maigret novels they almost never do, and the reader is often frustratingly left to fill in the chunks that Simenon chose to leave out. The back story that’s revealed has its share of unexpected twists, as well as the characteristic psychological pathos one comes to expect from a Simenon novel, but the way it is told is just awkward and stultifying.

Simenon was a great writer, but a man who is rumored to have written 500 novels can’t be expected to crank out a winner every time, and he didn’t with Maigret in New York. It’s no
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Friday, June 1, 2018

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by The Library of Congress

A brief illustrated history of bibliographic metadata
The book entitled The Card Catalog, published in 2017, is an illustrated history of the Library of Congress’s old-school database of the same name. The authorship of the book is credited to The Library of Congress in general, though it does include a brief introduction by the current Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. I purchased the ebook edition of this title when it came up as a Kindle deal, so that’s what I’m reviewing here. The book is probably more successful as a print volume, however, because even on a large screen the Kindle app doesn’t display the photos very large and doesn’t allow zooming.

I am a recent library school graduate with a particular interest in cataloging and classification, so I’m about as close to the intended audience for this book as you can get, though it does make an attempt to appeal to a broader readership of general book lovers. This book succinctly explains, in terms accessible to the lay reader, the continuous struggle to make an ever-expanding inventory of library materials findable and accessible. It is essentially a historical overview of the development of pre-digital metadata used to catalog library collections, beginning with ancient and medieval libraries and then progressing to the modern American library. Along the way, the reader also gains a lot of insight into the broader history of the Library of Congress—its origins, its transformation from a legislators’ reference library to a national public treasure, and its initiation as the bestower of copyright in America. After developing its own card catalog, the Library of Congress instituted its Cataloging Distribution Service, which sent copies of its cards to libraries all across the country, thereby influencing the development of library operations nationwide.

The entire book can be read in about two hours, so it is by no means a comprehensive, authoritative overview on its subject, yet it provides much more information than one would expect from a coffee-table illustrated volume. For those interested in this topic, it gives enough detailed information to make you want to do further research on some of these fascinating people and projects. Towards the end the text touches on the creation of MARC records and computerized catalogs, but that’s pretty much where the narrative ends. The book doesn’t go into detail about the Library of Congress’s digital methods of cataloging because the book is primarily a nostalgic love letter to the physical, many-drawered oak cabinets full of 3 x 5 inch index cards.

This fondness for the tactile card catalog many of us grew up with is evident in the illustrations as well. The book features many historical photos of The Library of Congress—its building, its directors, and its operations. The majority of the illustrations, however, consist of cover images and title pages of classic books coupled with their corresponding cards plucked from the Library’s actual cabinets. Some are handwritten, some typed; some contain annotations and corrections. As a book lover, I could look at pictures of old books all day, and this book contains a lot of beautiful images, but the pictures of the cards really didn’t interest or surprise me much. The overall card catalog system is a monumental achievement, but I didn’t feel the fondness for each individual card that the compilers of this book hoped I would.

Any librarian will definitely enjoy this book. For the general book lover, it’s hard to say, as the text is more about book cataloging than the books themselves. Though the ebook version is a great bargain, the printed volume no doubt provides a far superior reading and viewing experience.
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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan

Disaster in Nova Scotia
Canadian author Hugh MacLennan’s 1941 book Barometer Rising is a historical novel focusing on the Halifax Explosion of 1917. During World War I, Halifax served as an important seaport for shipping supplies to the war effort in Europe. As the result of an accidental collision, a French munitions ship blew up in Halifax harbor, leveling entire neighborhoods and killing approximately 2000 people. MacLennan, who grew up in Halifax, experienced the event as a young boy.

The novel opens a few days before the disaster. A soldier returns to Halifax after having been wounded in France. He faces a court martial for disobeying an order on the battlefield, and has returned home to seek out other men from his unit who might clear his name. His nemesis and former commanding officer, Colonel Geoffrey Wain, runs a shipbuilding company in Halifax, where Penelope Wain, the colonel’s daughter, works as a ship designer. She previously had a love affair with the soldier in question, but has since begun a relationship with another former member of his battalion. All parties are caught unawares when disaster strikes.

MacLennan is definitely a writer of great literary talent. Though he approaches World War I from a totally different perspective, some passages are reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. On the other hand, the court martial and love triangle storylines get a little melodramatic at times, like something one might find in a war novel by Pearl S. Buck or James Michener. Oddly enough, what the plot of Barometer Rising really calls to mind are those disaster movies of the 1970s, like Airport or The Towering Inferno. Three quarters of the book is spent establishing intrigue and romance, when what the reader is really waiting for is the disaster, at which point all bets are off and the intrigue and romance take a back seat to survival. When MacLennan does finally depict the disaster, it is a tour de force of gripping realism. I knew nothing about the Halifax Explosion beforehand, but reading this book has given me not only a firm grasp of the factual events but also a visceral understanding of the sheer horror of the catastrophe.

Where Barometer Rising really rises above the level of a disaster potboiler, however, is in its thoughtful contemplation of Canadian identity. Just as important as the historical narrative of the disaster is MacLennan’s inquiry into what it means to be a Canadian, a Nova Scotian, or a Haligonian. He questions his nation’s role in the Great War, not only for the jingoism and opportunism that come with wartime but also for the treatment of Canada as a sort of vassal state to Great Britain. At what point does the former colony come into its own as an independent nation? Of course, Canada has gone a long way towards solving this identity crisis over the past century, due in no small part to the work of artists like MacLennan, but this book serves as an insightful time capsule of feelings on Canadian nationalism at the time of its publication. Though a native of Nova Scotia himself, MacLennan’s depiction of Halifax is not always flattering. He paints an objective portrait, at times nostalgically reverential and at times scathingly critical. The novel ends in a hopeful tone, however, as, much like New York after 9/11, the citizenry rises to the occasion and works toward recovery.

In Canada, Barometer Rising is considered a landmark book in the development of that nation’s literature. For readers elsewhere, it’s a powerful reminder that the rich literary history of the Great White North deserves greater recognition and should not be overlooked.
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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Garman and Worse by Alexander Kielland

Family business in a Norwegian coastal town
Alexander Kielland is regarded as one of “The Four Greats” of 19th-century Norwegian literature. His first novel, Garman and Worse, was published in 1880. (This book should not be confused with another Kielland novel entitled Skipper Worse, published in 1882, which is a prequel to this novel.) Garman and Worse takes place in a small town on the coast of Norway. The title refers to the name of a shipping business founded by two families, the Garmans and the Worses. Of the two, the Garmans have the larger stake in the business and are the prominent wealthy family in the town. The novel is largely the saga of the Garman family, though the cast includes a variety of townspeople as supporting players. Richard Garman, the somewhat flighty black sheep of the family, has chosen to man the lighthouse at Bratvold while his brother Christian Frederick Garman, referred to as the young Consul, occupies the nearby family estate of Sandsgaard and acts as president of the family business. When Richard’s daughter Madeleine, who has grown up in rustic isolation at the lighthouse, reaches the age of womanhood, he sends her to Sandsgaard to live at her uncle’s house, where she can acquire the cultured manners necessary to enter society and field potential suitors.

The young Consul has three grown children of his own, and Kielland continues to add new characters in each chapter until the ensemble cast becomes vast and ungainly. I actually had to draw up family trees just to keep track of everyone. With so many intertwining plotlines, the reader wonders when one protagonist is going to rise above the others and become the protagonist of the novel. That never really happens, however, as Kielland constantly shifts perspective from one character to another and distributes the narrative equally among them. Kielland was a realist, and he depicts his fictional microcosm of society with an admirable complexity and authenticity. At times his writing is reminiscent of Emile Zola’s naturalistic novels in his attention to detail and psychological insight, but Kielland’s is a kinder, gentler, realism—less pessimistic, less cynical, and less preachy in its social criticism.

The affections of no less than four young women are at stake in the novel, which leads to much jockeying of position among various admirers: a schoolteacher, a businessman, a lawyer, a clergyman, a laborer, a fisherman, and others. Garman and Worse could therefore probably best be classified as a novel of manners, but Kielland’s concerns are broader than that. Early on, the book shows signs of becoming a novel of class conflict, but that thread disappears for many chapters, only to be recovered towards the end of the book. Though the plot contains few of what might be called exciting events, the reader gradually becomes intimately invested in the lives of these characters as each grows over time and learns his or her own moral lesson. As a study of human nature, Garman and Worse is quietly compelling.

I had previously read a collection of short stories by Kielland, entitled Tales of Two Countries, which is similar in style and quality to this novel. Compared to other Norwegian writers, Kielland’s writing is more realistic and less romantic than that of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, another of The Four Greats. Most readers of today would probably prefer a more modernist writer like Knut Hamsun, but those who enjoy classic realist literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries will find Kielland much to their liking.

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Friday, May 25, 2018

The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Good to have him back
The Return of Sherlock Holmes, originally published in 1905, is the third collection of short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring Sherlock Holmes. The volume contains 13 Holmes mysteries that originally ran in issues of the Strand Magazine and Collier’s Magazine in 1903 and 1904. Conan Doyle had killed off his famous character a decade earlier, but popular demand brought the great detective back to life. After the 1902 publication of the successful novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, which takes place before Holmes’s death, Conan Doyle decided to fully resurrect the character by negating his previous demise at the hands of Professor Moriarity.

In the book’s opening entry, “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Holmes reappears and explains to Watson how he faked his own death. Though necessary to get Holmes back in action again, the explanation is more convenient than convincing. In fact, the story isn’t really much of a mystery, just a lot of Holmes telling Watson what’s what. Still, it delivers some thrills as Holmes goes up against Moriarity’s right-hand man, a killer sharp shooter. Another interesting villain is introduced in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” The title character is a professional blackmailer, and to stop him even Holmes and Watson must enter some ethical gray areas.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes is loaded with great stories, like “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” in which Holmes uses cryptography to catch the criminal, and “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” an ingenious tale in which Holmes tracks down a burglar with a bizarrely specific taste in loot. “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” “The Adventure of the Priory School,” “The Adventure of Black Peter,” and “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” are all skillfully crafted cases of murder and abduction. Conan Doyle provides the supporting characters with some really elaborate and complicated back stories, which are revealed through intricate clues parceled out in a tantalizingly measured and piecemeal manner.

Conan Doyle doesn’t hit it out of the park every time. Sometimes the criminal’s back story overpowers the mystery narrative, as in “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez.” Sometimes the crime itself isn’t all that compelling, as in “The Adventure of the Three Students,” a case of who cheated on a test, or “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter,” in which a Cambridge rugby player goes missing the day before the big game against Oxford. Even the latter example, however, ends up with an unexpected and touching resolution. The book ends on a high note, “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” in which Holmes has to track down a lost document that might mean war for Britain if it falls into the wrong hands. In this last entry, Watson informs us that Holmes has now retired from detective work, but somehow I suspect he will be back for more.

Though Conan Doyle may have been reluctant to revive his dead hero, you won’t find any indication of a lack of enthusiasm in any of the selections included here. Overall, the stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes are better than those in the second volume of short stories, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, which at times felt a bit tired. Though not all masterpieces, the 13 stories in The Return are fastidiously crafted with care and detail. Holmes’s earliest stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes will always be the best and most memorable, but The Return of Sherlock Holmes is a satisfying return to form.

Stories in this collection
The Adventure of the Empty House
The Adventure of the Norwood Builder
The Adventure of the Dancing Men
The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist
The Adventure of the Priory School
The Adventure of Black Peter
The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton
The Adventure of the Six Napoleons
The Adventure of the Three Students
The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez
The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter
The Adventure of the Abbey Grange
The Adventure of the Second Stain

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