Friday, March 16, 2018

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

Splendid isolation?
In his 2017 book The Stranger in the Woods, journalist Michael Finkel investigates the extremely unconventional life of Christopher Thomas Knight, the man formerly known as the North Pond Hermit. In the book’s opening chapters, Knight is arrested for burglarizing the kitchen of a summer camp for disabled children. What’s unusual about his crime is that Knight is not robbing the camp’s pantry for profit but for survival. In fact, for many years Knight has lived off the takings from over a thousand such burglaries at the camp and at neighboring cabins and vacation homes in the woods around a lake in central Maine. For decades, property owners in the area have exchanged tales and rumors of a “hermit” living in the forest, and with Knight’s arrest their legends have come true. Shockingly, Knight has lived his entire adult life alone in the woods, speaking only one word (“Hi”) to another human being in 27 years.

As someone who enjoys solitude and often longs to “get away from it all,” I was fascinated by Knight’s story of life “off the grid.” Finkel examines Knight’s solitary existence and survival techniques in great detail. The hermit’s quest for isolation came at the cost of great hardship, as Knight had to survive brutally cold Maine winters while never even building a fire for fear of being discovered. Yet, amazingly, during all that time he never got sick or suffered a serious injury. Knight lived surprisingly close to civilization, yet avoided human contact through sheer relentless willpower. Finkel delves into the hermit’s mind and analyzes his unique code of ethics, which are loosely based on a foundation of ancient Stoicism. Knight felt guilty for every robbery he committed, and there were certain illegal and unethical lines he would not cross. Finkel interviews members of the local community for their responses to the hermit and his crimes. Their reactions run the gamut from disbelief to sympathy to rage.

Finkel also goes beyond Knight’s story to examine the human need for solitude and its naturally beneficial effects. He looks at the history of hermithood and reveals that an astounding number of people around the world today are living in some degree of hermitude, often for religious reasons. Finkel digs into Knight’s past to try to determine what would have driven this man to live his life in such a way. One can’t help but draw parallels between Knight and Christopher McCandless, the subject of John Krakauer’s 1996 book Into the Wild and another social iconoclast who lived on his own terms. (If you liked one of these books, you’ll surely like the other.) However, while one can empathize with McCandless’s wanderlust and envy his nomadic adventures, it would be difficult to covet Knight’s experience of spending almost three decades in the same camp, often through undoubtedly miserable conditions. Knight’s obstinate endurance and unflinching devotion to his odd personal convictions is so far outside the realm of conventional reason that he makes for a delightfully unfathomable enigma. I wouldn’t want to live Knight’s life, but I’m glad there’s someone out there who did.

Finkel’s writing grabs you from page one and doesn’t let go. If I had two and a half hours of uninterrupted reading time, I would have gladly finished this book in one sitting. Only in the book’s last few chapters does enthusiasm begin to flag a bit as Finkel discusses Knight’s readjustment to society. It starts to get a little creepy at that point, not only because of Knight’s asocial behavior but also because of the way Finkel stalks the poor guy. Nevertheless, The Stranger in the Woods is a captivatingly addictive, profoundly moving, and memorably thought-provoking book.
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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge by Mike Resnick

Artful anthropological sci-fi short
Mike Resnick’s science fiction story “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” was originally published in the October/November 1994 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Though the publisher Phoenix Pick is packaging and selling this work on Amazon as if it were a novella, it’s really not long enough to qualify as one. In Resnick’s 2012 collection The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures, “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” only takes up 47 printed pages. So it’s really only a short story, or perhaps a “novelette,” which is fine, as long as you know what you’re getting before you spend your money. Fortunately, it happens to be a very good short story. It won the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella of the year and was nominated for a number of other international sci-fi prizes.

Resnick has repeatedly traveled to Africa and frequently sets his science fiction stories there. For anyone who doesn’t know, Olduvai Gorge is a valley in Tanzania where many of the earliest specimens of human remains have been found. Much of our knowledge of the evolution of mankind has come from the fossils dug from the soil of Olduvai Gorge, which have fleshed out the human family tree with such progenitors and relatives as Homo habilis, Paranthropus boisei, Homo erectus, and early Homo sapiens. Resnick’s story thus falls into the category of anthropological and archaeological science fiction, a subgenre I always enjoy, though good examples of which are infrequent and hard to find.

The story takes place thousands of years in the future. The narrator, a member of an alien species, informs us that mankind is now extinct. While they lived, however, humans ruled the universe, mercilessly conquering millions of worlds and reigning over their interplanetary empire with an iron fist. Now, almost 5,000 years after humanity’s demise, an archaeological expedition made up of scientists of a number of extraterrestrial races makes a pilgrimage to Olduvai Gorge to learn what they can about mankind’s origins. The narrator, known as He Who Views, has the special sensory power of feeling the history of artifacts that are subjected to his examination. As members of the expedition uncover objects from the Gorge, the narrator reveals the stories behind the items, thus sketching out the history of humanity in the region from the prehistoric past to the far-off future.

“Seven Views from Olduvai Gorge” is hard to get into at first. The narrative’s unique time-travel device is admirably innovative, but the first few vignettes, taking place in the past, are more historical fiction than sci-fi, leaving the reader to wonder when Resnick is actually going to venture into speculation about the future of mankind. In its latter half, however, the story really takes off, and Resnick’s dystopian future brings into focus mankind’s destructive propensities for violence, avarice, and environmental degradation. The story succeeds both as mind-expanding science fiction and as thought-provoking social commentary. Resnick has the ability to render extraordinary concepts and events in a way that grounds them in the realm of the realistic. His writing reminds me of the work of Clifford D. Simak, which is one of the best compliments I could give any sci-fi writer. Whether a work of fiction this short is worth the cover price may be up for debate, but there’s no denying that “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” is a worthwhile read.
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Monday, March 12, 2018

Free Air by Sinclair Lewis

Cross-country car-culture rom-com
Free Air, a novel by Sinclair Lewis, was first published in serial form in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post from May to June of 1919. It was the last novel Lewis wrote prior to hitting it big with his monumentally successful book Main Street. These two consecutive novels do share some common ground in that they both feature a female lead and both depict the small-town life of common American folk west of the Mississippi. The similarities end there, however, and the two works differ widely in literary quality. Though Main Street has its flaws, Free Air isn’t even in the same league with it. Lewis may have been the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but you wouldn’t know it from this trivial piece of fluff.

Free Air may be the first road trip novel of the automobile age. It follows the travels of driver Claire Boltwood and her passenger father, two members of the wealthy smart set of Brooklyn Heights, New York, as they engage in a marathon cross-country drive from Minneapolis to Seattle. The book provides a glimpse into early car culture, when few if any western roads were paved, drivers were required to do much of their own repairs on the side of the road, and options for dining and lodging were spotty at best. Soon after departing on their journey, Claire and her father become acquainted with Milt Daggett, a small-town mechanic who also just happens to be traveling to Seattle. While lending roadside aid to the Boltwoods, Milt develops romantic feelings towards Claire, but surely their difference in social class makes an insurmountable obstacle to any possible relationship between the two. Or does it?

The tone of the novel is humorous throughout, though the laughs have faded over the past century. At first it seems that the road to Seattle will be paved with bad jokes, but the rapid-fire delivery of antiquated quips kind of grows on you after a while. The prose is littered with overly clever home-spun similes like “He looked as improbable as an undertaker’s rubber-plant” or “lonely as a turkey in a chicken yard.” My grandfather, who served in World War I, would have no doubt found this book hysterical, but the humor is tame and obvious by today’s standards.

Largely on the basis of Main Street, Lewis is considered an early proponent of feminism. In Free Air, Claire Boltwood may be an independent woman driving cross-country, but as a character she’s really a non-entity. She doesn’t need to work because she’s rich, her sole purpose in life is to make an advantageous marital match, and she really has no personality. She basically just serves as a receptacle for the affections of her suitors, who are the real characters in the book. As far as its perspective on womanhood goes, this novel is roughly the century-old equivalent of a romantic comedy starring Katherine Hiegl or Jennifer Love Hewitt.

Lewis is also known as a spokesman for the common man, but here he falls short on that score as well. Ostensibly, he wants to make fun of class distinctions by lampooning both the unwashed masses and the snooty upper crust, but really the lower and working classes take the brunt of most of his satire. The book is chock full of unflattering depictions of hayseeds, rednecks, and country bumpkins, some intended to be humorous and some just scary. The faults of the rich are by no means given equal time, and Lewis makes it clear that when members of disparate classes come together, they don’t meet in the middle; it is poor Milt Daggett who needs a makeover. Free Air is not a terrible book. It’s just rather tiresome and insignificant. Only the most diehard Lewis fans should spend their time on it.
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Friday, March 9, 2018

Clarence Gagnon: Dreaming the Landscape by Hélène Sicotte and Michèle Grandbois

An authoritative retrospective of Québec’s premier painter-etcher
Canadian art is an unknown realm to most Americans, but undeservedly so. As an American myself, even having graduated from art school, I discovered far too late in life the many superb artists and unsung masterpieces from north of the border that deserve to be viewed, pondered, appreciated, and in some cases revered. In general terms, the qualities that historically characterize Canadian art as distinct from that of its southern neighbor is a greater respect for representational imagery, a healthier regard for the landscape, and a marked appreciation for raw talent and refined craft over a slavish devotion to conceptual innovation. One Canadian artist who embodied these ideals in his life and work is the Montreal painter Clarence Gagnon (1881-1942). Ample proof of his artistic excellence is evident in the stunning book Clarence Gagnon: Dreaming the Landscape, published in 2006 by the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.

Gagnon is best known for his landscape paintings of the Québec countryside. His depictions of the Laurentian Mountains combine the colorful people and architecture of rural village life with the stark natural beauty of the region. Among his most recognized works are a series of beloved illustrations he created to illustrate Maria Chapdelaine, a novel set in Québec by French author Louis Hémon. Though best remembered today as a painter, during his lifetime Gagnon received perhaps more international renown for his etchings. He traveled throughout Europe creating expertly executed intaglio prints of the beautiful scenery he encountered in locales like Venice, Florence, and Brittany. Dreaming the Landscape treats both of Gagnon’s strengths equally. The book is divided not only into two sections but also between two curators: Hélène Sicotte discusses Gagnon’s paintings while Michèle Grandbois handles his prints. Each does an outstanding job in her area of expertise. The text, rich in biographical detail and historical context, meticulously charts Gagnon’s intellectual and artistic development. Rather than pushing their own philosophical interpretations of Gagnon’s art, the authors rightfully put the artist’s life and accomplishments in the forefront.

With its beautiful images, gorgeous printing, and fine quality paper, this lovely tome makes for a perfect coffee table book, but it also succeeds as a scholarly monograph by providing an exhaustive retrospective of this great artist’s career. Given all the art books already in existence, as well as competition from the internet, there is no point in publishing another art book unless it is going to be an authoritative reference on its subject, and this book is certainly that. In addition to the main text, the book includes a chronology of Gagnon’s life, extensive notes, and a deep bibliography. Initially created as an exhibition catalog, the book includes a detailed listing of all the paintings included in the 2006 exhibition, as well as a complete catalog raisonné of Gagnon’s etchings, both illustrated with thumbnails of each work mentioned. But wait, there’s more! Not only is every exhibition in which Gagnon participated listed, but also a list of the works that he showed in each exhibition. The level of detail and depth of research that went into this volume is truly impressive.

This is no doubt an expensive book, especially now that it’s out of print, but any Gagnon enthusiast wondering whether it’s worth the cost will not be disappointed with this excellent volume. Clarence Gagnon: Dreaming the Landscape is everything an art lover would want in an art book and a fitting tribute to this important artist and his unforgettable art.

The Yellow House, 1912 or 1913, oil on canvas, 54.2 x 74.3 cm

The Great Drive, illustration for Maria Chapdelaine, 1932, monoprint, 20.5 x 21.2 cm

Rue des Cordeliers, Dinan,
1907-1908, etching and drypoint, 19.8 x 24.5 cm

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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Honoré de Balzac: His Life and Writings by Mary Frances Sandars

The comic, tragic life of an extravagant genius
Honoré de Balzac
Honoré de Balzac: His Life and Writings, first published in 1904, is a biography by Mary Frances Sandars, an English author who penned several books on French history and literature. Here she traces the life story of the great writer who captured French society with such vivid imagination and exquisite detail in his series of over 90 novels and short stories known as the Comédie Humaine. Although I’m a fan of Balzac and wanted to learn more about his life, I was a little reluctant to start Sandars’s biography because of its length and the antiquity of its publication date. Immediately after I began reading it, however, I found the text to be surprisingly lively and engaging. Balzac lived a fascinating life, and Sandars does an admirable job of relating the exploits and personality of this complex genius in a thoroughly entertaining manner.

The inclusion of “and Writings” in the subtitle also had me worried that the book would contain a lot of literary criticism in addition to factual biography. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I didn’t want Sandars to give away the plots of all the Balzac books I haven’t read. Luckily, those fears were unfounded. Sandars only provides the barest general synopses of works in the Comédie Humaine, without dropping any spoilers. The fact is, she doesn’t have room for a lot of lit-crit in this book because Balzac’s life itself was every bit as interesting as one of his elaborate novels.

Balzac’s prolific literary career was a study in self-imposed Herculean labor, but his personal life was marked by continual emotional histrionics and extravagant spending. One could easily write him off as an overgrown child if he wasn’t such a workaholic. Despite his copious productivity, Balzac was constantly in debt and never managed to break even financially up until the day he died. To supplement his income as an author, he comes up with a number of get-rich-quick schemes to achieve financial security, from printing shops to silver mines to pineapple plantations. He initiates several literary journals, which fold after a couple issues; he runs for political office, but never wins; he lobbies for admittance to the Académie Française, but all for nought. Nevertheless, he approaches each new disaster with the comically boundless optimism of a lovable loser. The reader can’t help rooting for the guy through each financial setback and wishing him the best in his turbulent love life. His one true love was Madame Hanska, a married Russian countess, whom he pursued for most of his life even though she was above his station. Though much of Balzac’s life inspires mirth, Sandars’s account does turn tragic in the closing chapters as his brilliant life of creativity and vivacity comes to a pitiful end.

Researchers have no doubt turned up a lot of new information on Balzac over the past century. Graham Robb’s 1994 book Balzac: A Biography, the most recent comprehensive retelling of the author’s life, probably looks under at least a few stones that Sandars left unturned. There is something to be said, however, for the style of biographical writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Biographers in those days approached their writing with the goal of crafting an informative and inspirational narrative of the subject in question, without digging for too much dirt or getting bogged down in a morass of detail. Even though Sandars does her due diligence, her research methods might not stand up to the exhaustive scrutiny of today’s academic literary scholars, but so what? Her book is fun to read, and you do learn a lot about the man and his art. Even if you’re just mildly curious about Balzac’s life, there is much to enjoy in this engaging biography.
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Monday, March 5, 2018

A Plea for Pantheism by John Shertzer Hittell

Plagued by drunk-uncle reasoning
Pantheism is the belief that god exists in all matter and the entire universe is divine. This god is not the anthropomorphic god of the Judeo-Christian tradition but rather something more like a force of nature or an eternal universal intelligence. Pantheism has been around since ancient times, with some traditions taking the form of pagan nature worship and others philosophically approaching atheism. The 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza is considered the father of modern pantheism. With his concept of monism, he asserted that the universe is only made up of one substance (matter), thus denying the dualism of matter and spirt that is fundamental to so many religious traditions since Plato.

The scientific advances of the 19th century brought a resurgence in Spinozan pantheism, led by scientific-minded writers rebelling against the superstitious dogma of organized religions. One such writer of this “Golden Age of Freethought” was the historian and journalist John Shertzer Hittell. His book A Plea for Pantheism was published in 1857. In its first printing, the book only ran about 64 printed pages, but the prose and the typesetting are both dense enough to amount to a fairly substantial read. The contents consist of a brief preface and four chapters in which Hittell refutes the existence of the following: an afterlife, an anthropomorphic god, any ideal ethical basis for right and wrong, and the ability of man to ever discern any absolute truth about the universe.

For the most part Hittell’s reasoning is sound, but he occasionally lapses into antiquated prejudicial statements that resemble the kind of cringeworthy bigoted statements someone’s embarrassingly drunk uncle might spout after a few too many beers. In the first essay on the afterlife, Hittell uses physiological evidence to support his argument that the human mind is a function of the brain and therefore ceases to exist when the body dies. In doing so, he manages to offend just about everybody. For starters, he refers to non-Caucasian races as “the lowest tribes of savages” and emphasizes the similarity of these “brutes” to apes. There is also a stunning mention of human-animal hybrids which seems like a bizarrely out-of-place bit of science fiction until you realize what he’s talking about are interracial relationships. Hittell also points out that the average woman’s brain is ten percent smaller than the average man’s, and suggests that “their mental faculties may be that much weaker.” It’s a shame to find such repellent views in an otherwise well-reasoned philosophical argument. To some extent, such remarks are typical of European and American writers of this time period. The evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel, for example, lets one slip from time to time in his pantheistic writings, but never so blatantly or egregiously as Hittell does here.

The book is further hampered by an overall tone that is more antagonistic than inviting. Hittell writes the book as if he’s preaching to the converted. Though the text reinforces the arguments in favor of a pantheistic worldview, this tract is unlikely to win any new recruits to the cause. While Spinoza and Haeckel manage to work some optimism into their pantheistic proselytizing, Hittell is blunt and bleak throughout. He asserts that there is no right or wrong in the universe, only the indifference of natural forces, but never bothers to propose an alternate code of ethics by which mankind might live. Likewise, his essay on epistemology so strongly emphasizes the fallibility of human thought it makes one wonder why anyone would ever bother to write or read a book. I admire Hittell for tearing into age-old superstitions, but he doesn’t offer any alternative wisdom in place of the beliefs he debunks. For much better texts on pantheism, read Spinoza’s Ethics or Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe.
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Friday, March 2, 2018

The Birth of God by Verner von Heidenstam

Romantic longing for classical antiquity
Verner von Heidenstam
Swedish author Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1916. Though primarily known as a poet and novelist, he was also a playwright. His drama The Birth of God is a one-act play that would likely take up less than 15 minutes of running time on the stage. Nevertheless, it was translated into English and published in 1920 as a stand-alone book of 32 pages. This English translation is now in the public domain and available for free at HathiTrust.

A modern man, known only as Stranger, travels to Egypt. There, among the ruins of Karnak, he meets a seemingly ancient, possibly immortal man named Dyskolus, with whom he engages in conversation. In the background, idols of ancient Egyptian gods, with their animal heads, dance and occasionally speak. The Stranger tells Dyskolus that he has travelled the world looking for a god. He feels trapped by the “daily sham” of modern life and seeks true meaning and purpose. Dyskolus acts as an intermediary for the old pagan gods, who, now long forgotten, yearn for new worshippers to restore them to their ancient glory.

As you can tell from the plot description, with its heavy-handed symbolism and reverence for ancient Egypt, The Birth of God is about as romantic as romanticism gets. Because Heidenstam’s career crept into the age of modernism, his writing style is late enough in history to be called neo-romanticism. The Birth of God paints modern life, represented by the Stranger, as empty and meaningless, while classicism is held to be pure and profound. Modern man longs for a new deity to rescue him from his vapid life of industry and commerce. Heidenstam doesn’t really seem to be advocating that man should believe in these pagan gods; rather, he expresses an envy towards the ancients’ lives of superstition and worshipful purpose. There is veneration in this view, but also a hint of condescension: If only I could be as ignorant as these primitives, my existence would at least seem meaningful! The dialogue includes a brief mention of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar who was executed for heresy, perhaps suggesting that pantheism may be the answer to modern man’s spiritual crisis, but this thread is never followed up and the play just proceeds to an ending that’s not only rather simplistic and silly but also describes imagery that would have been difficult to pull off with the special effects of 1920. If a pantheism worthy of Bruno were established in modern times, it would have to be a pantheism that embraces science, yet Heidenstam seems to reject science along with the rest of modernity in favor of a nostalgia for more primitive superstitions.

If you are looking to sample Nobel Prize winners of the past, reading The Birth of God is probably the quickest way to get an idea of Heidenstam’s writing, since only a few of his works have been translated into English. Another brief play from 1919, The Soothsayer, is also available in the public domain. I’m sure there’s more to Heidenstam than what’s indicated by these 32 pages, but reading this play doesn’t really make the reader eager to invest a lot of time and energy into one of his longer novels.
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