Friday, August 31, 2018

Travels in Alaska by John Muir



Exploring the Alexander Archipelago and its glaciers
Travels in Alaska, a memoir by naturalist, explorer, and environmental conservationist John Muir, was published in 1915, shortly after his death. The book chronicles three trips Muir made to the Alexander Archipelago in southeastern Alaska during the summers of 1879, 1880, and 1890. (Muir briefly mentions a fourth trip he made to Alaska in 1881, in which he traveled as far as the Aleutian Islands and Barrow. That trip is not covered here but in another book, The Cruise of the Corwin.) Muir didn’t write this account of his trips until much later, using the notes he took during his expeditions to compose the narrative. Muir was writing Travels in Alaska at the time of his death in 1914, so the book is unfinished and stops abruptly midway through the third journey.

Muir had already distinguished himself as a first-class naturalist by exploring and writing on the Sierra Nevada of California. In Yosemite Valley Muir formulated a theory of how glaciation sculpts the geologic landscape. His primary reason for venturing to Alaska was to explore more glaciers in order to investigate this theory. Muir took steamers from California up to Fort Wrangell in Alaska, then explored the islands and inlets in smaller boats and canoes, camping in the wild and engaging in extensive hiking and mountaineering excursions. Muir enjoyed solitude in the wilderness, but he was no recluse. He often made excursions in the company of Native American traveling companions, as well as missionaries from Fort Wrangell including one adventurous Mr. Young. Muir’s account of these trips is an enjoyable mix of a naturalist’s scientific observations, an adventurer’s travel narrative, and a poet’s love letter to mother nature.


The book is at its best when Muir is describing life among the Native inhabitants of Alaska. Muir’s relationship with the Tlingits and Chilcats he met was one of mutual respect, and it’s unlikely you’ll find a more honest and reverential first-hand depiction of the Natives’ way of life coming from a white man’s pen. His descriptions of the natural environment are both beautiful and informative, particularly in his discussions of the region’s plants and animals. Personally, I’m never too enthusiastic about reading descriptions of geological phenomena, topography, and the like, but Muir’s writings on the subject are better than most. Beyond rocks and minerals, Alaskan earth science has the added dimension of glaciology, which is a fascinating subject in its own right and Muir’s true passion. The reader couldn’t ask for a better guide to the wilderness of the region.


Having recently returned from a trip to Southeast Alaska myself, I greatly enjoyed Muir’s vivid and eloquent descriptions of the scenery there, as well as his insightful scientific explanations of the glacial activity taking place. Due to climate change, the number and size of glaciers has greatly decreased since Muir visited, and this book serves as a valuable time capsule of the state of the Alaskan environment at that time. I visited Glacier Bay by cruise ship, a common practice these days, but even Muir encountered significant tourist activity in his 1890 trip. A couple hundred tourists from a sightseeing cruise stopped to visit his campsite, and he greeted them with goodwill, happy to share the wonders of the landscape he loved so much. That same friendly warmth and love of nature shines through in every line of Muir’s writing, and his enthusiasm is infectious. Travels in Alaska is a beautiful document of the land and its people. Those who have been to Alaska will appreciate it all the more. If you haven’t been, Muir’s book will make you want to go.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Revolution by Mack Reynolds



Pro-socialist Cold War spy story
Revolution, a novella by Mack Reynolds, was first published in the May 1960 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. How it got there, however, is a mystery, since this is not a science fiction story. Though it takes place five years in the future (i.e. 1965), it’s basically just a story of Cold War espionage, and only about as sci-fi as a James Bond film. Unlike his similar novellas Combat and Status Quo, Reynolds doesn’t even bother to sprinkle the narrative with gratuitous hovercars, just a couple of secret agent gadgets reminiscent of something Bond might get from M.

In this very-near-future vision of 1965, the USSR is winning the Cold War. Their totalitarian form of government, coupled with an abundance of cheap labor, has allowed them to outperform the U.S. in almost every sector of manufacturing. Paul Koslov is an operative for an American intelligence agency. Through years of successfully accomplished covert missions and political assassinations, Koslov has earned a reputation as a very effective and lethal agent. This time when he reports to his chief’s office for a new assignment, he is given the mother of all missions. Instead of merely thwarting a commie plot or taking out a high-profile target, he is tasked with nothing less than overthrowing the entire Soviet government. To do so, he must travel to Russia and direct the operations of the anti-Soviet underground movement within the USSR.


As in so many other Reynolds stories, the deeper the hero delves into the USSR, the more he (and the reader) discover that the Soviet system isn’t so bad after all. If separated from its totalitarian regime, Reynolds argues, Russia’s brand of socialism could actually solve many of America’s economic problems. Reynolds’s writings often put forth a socialist message, to which I am not entirely unsympathetic. I just wish he would pay more attention to the story he’s using to convey that message. The first half of Revolution is really a pretty good spy thriller, but it falls apart in the end, or in the lack thereof. Having made his political point, he sees no need to continue the story, so he cuts it off with an abrupt and lackluster ending, leaving the reader bemused and unsatisfied.


I’ve read a few great sci-fi stories by Reynolds, which convinced me to work my way through a collection of his novellas. Too often I find, however, that his writings are just half-baked political treatises dressed up in the barest of sci-fi trappings. Here in Revolution, he doesn’t even bother with the trappings. Still, if he had given this story a decent ending, all would be forgiven. As it stands, however, Revolution is disappointingly unremarkable.

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Monday, August 27, 2018

Look Back on Happiness by Knut Hamsun



This wanderer should have wandered further
Look Back on Happiness, a novel by Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, was originally published in 1912 under the Norwegian title Den sidste Glæde, and is also known in English as The Last Joy. Some critics place this novel as the third book in a “Wanderer Trilogy,” following Under the Autumn Star (1906) and A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings (1909), but I don’t know if Hamsun ever designated it as such. Though the three books are similar in style and subject matter, there’s no concrete evidence in the text that the narrator in this book is the same character who featured in those two earlier novels, and Hamsun wrote a lot of books with wandering protagonists.

Here the unnamed narrator, a writer in his early seventies, is successful enough and wealthy enough to live his life as he pleases. Though a man of means, he chooses to leave city life behind and live a nomadic existence in the country. When the novel opens, he is spending the winter in a primitive hut and living off the land like Henry David Thoreau in a Norwegian Walden. The solitude gives him time for philosophical reflection and gives Hamsun the opportunity to indulge in some truly beautiful nature writing. Like Thoreau, however, the narrator is not a total recluse, and he does occasionally entertain visitors in his humble abode. The novel thus becomes less about his life in nature and more about the people he encounters in his travels.


When Spring arrives, the wanderer walks to a farm that operates a country inn for tourists who come to enjoy the mountain scenery. Here he gets to know the staff and the guests and becomes intimately involved in their affairs. From this point, very early on, the narrative veers away from the narrator’s personal journey to focus on these other characters’ lives. This is very much in keeping with Under the Autumn Star and A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, in that the narrator is almost more of a passive observer than a participant in the narrative. Even after he leaves this tourist retreat, he continues to coincidentally and unrealistically run into the inn’s guests wherever he roams. One woman in particular, a Miss Torsen, strikes his interest, and although he is too old for romantic involvement, he concerns himself in her affairs almost to the point of stalking her.


The picture Hamsun paints of this female character is not very flattering. At first she is depicted as a coquette who toys with men to boost her own self-esteem, though she does grow and become a more sympathetic character as the book goes on. As a schoolteacher, she is an educated woman, but the narrator denigrates her education, and Hamsun indicates that she can only find fulfillment through marriage and childbirth. Sexism should hardly be surprising in a century-old book, however, and Hamsun may just be espousing the joys of simpler family values, as his male narrator likewise represents an ignorance-is-bliss and back-to-nature attitude towards life. There is no doubt a fair amount of social and political commentary in the book that a Norwegian in 1912 might have found very insightful, but much of it was likely lost on this 21st-century reader. For example, one character goes off on an anti-Switzerland tirade that falls somewhere between good-natured ribbing and an international incident.


Look Back on Happiness is one of Hamsun’s less successful works. The fact that he so soon abandons the natural and nomadic aspects of the story in favor of a sort of modern novel of manners is a disappointment. He keeps the reader interested enough to want to move from one chapter to the next, but in the end one wonders what the point is and whether it was all just a waste of time.

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Friday, August 24, 2018

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf



Restores a forgotten genius to the pantheon of science
Two centuries ago, Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most famous men in the world, but these days he is far from a household name. More places in the world are named after Humboldt than anyone else, yet the man and his accomplishments are anything but common knowledge today. Andrea Wulf sets out to remedy this with her 2015 book The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. In this must-read volume on all things Humboldt, Wulf relates in exquisite detail the man’s fascinating life, his impressive accomplishments, and his enormous intellectual impact on world history.

Humboldt (1769-1859) was a Prussian scientist who traveled the world investigating the workings of nature. He first achieved fame for his daring and scientifically productive expedition to South America. This was in the days prior to scientific specialization, when an ambitious scholar could stake his claim in any number of fields, and Humboldt was an interdisciplinary Renaissance man who excelled in many branches of biology, geology, meteorology, and anthropology. Humboldt was the first to see nature as a holistic system that functioned much like an organism and the first to propose the idea of human-induced climate change. A skilled writer who not only published important scientific works but also popular bestsellers, he essentially established the genre of nature writing as we know it today. In addition, Humboldt socialized, collaborated, or corresponded with many of the greatest minds in the Western world. Wulf not only chronicles Humboldt’s amazing life and career but also examines in detail his interaction with and influence on several historical personages—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Siḿon Bolívar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel, and John Muir.

Every attempt has been made to make this book as accessible as possible to the general reader. The chapters are short. The prose is brisk. The sentences are clear, and the vocabulary is not challenging. If the book has a flaw, that may be it. At times it simplifies too much and reads almost like a young adult book. Besides an occasional brief footnote, the endnote references are inconveniently hidden so as not to scare away casual readers. Despite the biological and ecological subject matter of the narrative, very few specific species are mentioned, and only a handful of Latin species names appear throughout the book. Wulf does an excellent job of conveying the prodigious breadth of Humboldt’s scholarship, but at times one wishes for more depth in the scientific content.

Some may argue that the chapters on Goethe, Jefferson, Bolivar, Muir, etc. detract from the main narrative of Humboldt’s life, but the various side biographies really enlarge the reader’s understanding of the scientific and political landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries, while also succeeding in demonstrating Humboldt’s monumental impact on world history. The book’s eight “[Famous Person] and Humboldt” chapters are all just as engrossing as those strictly devoted to the man himself. I have read much on Darwin, Thoreau, and Haeckel, yet I still discovered many new and fascinating details in Wulf’s coverage of their lives. I had never heard of George Perkins Marsh before, and I am grateful for the education that Wulf provides on his life and work.

Humboldt should be as big of a household name as Darwin, Newton, or Einstein, and if any book can spark his resurgence in the public consciousness, it’s this one. The Invention of Nature provides the perfect foundational education on Humboldt’s life and work. It’s a must-read for science and history enthusiasts and deserves to be a bestseller.
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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Mashi and Other Stories by Rabindranath Tagore


A modern Indian mix of romance, social realism, and a dash of horror
Rabindranath Tagore
In 1913, India’s Rabindranath Tagore became the first non-European author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in Calcutta, Tagore wrote most of his works in his native Bengali language and was prolific in both poetry and prose. Mashi and Other Stories, a collection of his short stories, was published in English translation in 1918.

The 14 stories collected here depict life in modern India in the early 20th century. Appropriate for this time period, Tagore’s writing style displays characteristics of an early modernism, though mixed with more traditional romantic and realist storytelling techniques. Tagore’s depictions of India feel a century ahead of those of British author Rudyard Kipling, who was also born in India, despite the fact that Kipling won the Nobel just six years prior to Tagore. Kipling would ladle on the local color to emphasize the exoticism of India. Tagore’s stories, on the other hand, may touch upon social issues unique to their setting like arranged marriages, income inequality, or the plight of widows in Indian society, but ultimately they succeed by emphasizing the universality of human experience through themes of love, honor, family, fidelity, loss, and regret that strike a chord in readers of all cultures.


The best story in the collection, “The Supreme Night,” is an excellent example of this. A young man grows up with dreams of becoming an important lawyer and freedom fighter. In his self-important zeal, he passes on the marriage arranged for him by his parents. The story then becomes a very sincere and moving tale of regret as the protagonist realizes the opportunity for a happy life that he has squandered. Arranged marriage features in quite a few of the stories. In “The River Stairs,” a young woman is married and widowed by the age of eight. “Subha” is about a mute girl who enjoys a simple life on her parents’ farm, until her parents decide to marry her off. Inheritance is another common plot element, as in “The Elder Sister,” in which an adult married woman loses her family’s estate to a newborn brother. For the most part, not much prior knowledge about India is required to enjoy these stories, but there is one notable exception. “The Trust Property” is really only understood after reading a closing explanatory footnote provided by the English editor. Elsewhere, Indian terms and customs are clarified by brief footnotes when needed.


A few of Tagore’s stories wander into the horror genre. In “The Skeleton,” for example, a former medical student listens to the reminiscences of the spirit of the anatomy skeleton he studied in school. Murder and suicide factor into a few others. The horror elements are not so much chilling, like the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, but rather more melancholic, like the works of French writer Théophile Gautier. Tagore is a very capable and eloquent writer, but endings are his weakness. Many of the stories here suffer from disappointing and inadequate conclusions. Often a tale will end with an abrupt twist followed by a vague resolution, leaving the reader to wonder what just happened. The feeling of melancholy is not confined to the horror tales but permeates the entire book, resulting in depressing endings that just leave the reader feeling bummed. If there is a sad way to end a story, Tagore will find it.


Overall, Mashi and Other Stories is a fine collection but fails to live up to Nobel-level expectations. Moments of emotional power and literary genius are mixed with instances of predictable and formulaic romance. There are almost as many misses as hits in the collection. Even so, for lovers of classic fiction the book is an enjoyably refreshing change from the European literary tradition.


Stories in this collection
Mashi 
The Skeleton 
The Auspicious Vision 
The Supreme Night 
Raja and Rani 
The Trust Property 
The Riddle Solved 
The Elder Sister 
Subha 
The Postmaster 
The River Stairs 
The Castaway 
Saved 
My Fair Neighbour

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Monday, August 20, 2018

A People’s History of the French Revolution by Eric Hazan



Comprehensive and fascinating, but general readers should proceed with caution
The French Revolution is one of the most fascinating series of events in world history, but it also may be one of the most difficult to grasp in its entirety. Eric Hazan’s A People’s History of the French Revolution provides a detailed and comprehensive guide to the complicated twists and turns in this monumental and convoluted period of political and social upheaval. Originally published in French in 2012 (without the “People’s” in the title), Hazan’s book provides a thorough overview of this complex period. Covering the state of France under Louis XVI at the outbreak of the conflict to the execution of Robespierre in July 1794, this Revolutionary history proved rich in penetrating insight and fascinating detail.

That said, this is no introductory text and does require a fair amount of prior knowledge to fully appreciate and understand. As someone whose education in French history comes primarily from literature, I will admit that at times I was in over my head. Hazan’s purpose in this book is not merely to explain the Revolution, but also to comment upon the accounts of scholars who have preceded him, most repeatedly Jean Jaurès and Albert Mathiez. One need not have read these prior histories to benefit from Hazan’s take on the subject. The reader must, however, have a firm grasp of French geography and more than a general knowledge of the nation’s history. Hazan has clearly written the book for a French audience who have been thoroughly schooled upon the events in question. Throughout the text, he refers to all historical personages by surname only, which seems fine for household names like Danton and Marat, but this rule is applied to even the most minor of characters. Hazan also expects the reader to possess not just a working familiarity with the Republican calendar but almost an intimate knowledge of it. I certainly don’t fault Hazan for my own ignorance, and I admire his encyclopedic knowledge of the topic. I merely offer these caveats to give other general readers an idea of the task at hand.

I’m not sure what qualifies this as a “People’s History,” in the Howard Zinn sense of the phrase, other than Hazan approaches the topic from a perspective favorable to the left. As promised in the marketing copy, he does occasionally highlight the role that peasants, women, and the sans-culottes (lower-class republicans) played in the Revolution, as well as its effect on people of color in France’s colonies in Africa and the Caribbean. For much of the book, however, the main characters are the same deputies, statesmen, and government functionaries who feature largely in mainstream historical textbooks. At times the second half of the book reads like a biography of Robespierre, which perhaps can’t be helped, given the course of history. One thing’s for sure, the royals definitely play a small role in the book. The executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are each dispatched in a single sentence. Blink and you’ll miss them.

Hazan is clearly sympathetic to the liberal promise of “liberté, égalité, and fraternité,” but he is quick to point out when actual events failed to live up to such high ideals. This results in a relatively even-handed mix of admiration for Revolutionary ideals and disgruntlement at lost opportunities. The Revolution remains a compelling subject because so many of the issues at stake are still relevant to this day. A People’s History of the French Revolution greatly broadened my understanding of this fascinating period in history and proved an eye-opening and intellectually stimulating read.
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Friday, August 17, 2018

The Alaskan by James Oliver Curwood



Hyperromantic Northwestern shoot-’em-up
I recently traveled to Alaska and wanted to read some classic literature related to the region. Having read everything by Jack London, I turned to the next best thing, Michigan author James Oliver Curwood. Like London, Curwood wrote many novels of the Klondike Gold Rush, several of them with canine protagonists, and other “Northwesterns”—essentially Westerns set in Alaska and the Yukon. His novel The Alaskan was published in 1923.

As the novel opens, a steamer is heading north from Seattle through the Inside Passage on its way to Nome. On board is Alan Holt, a laconic, rather reclusive reindeer rancher who is returning home to his grazing lands after a long sojourn in the lower 48. Though a white man, Holt is a native Alaskan, meaning he was born in the territory. Also on board is Mary Standish, a beautiful young woman, obviously new to the region, who is traveling alone. The reason for her journey to Alaska is unknown to Holt and to the reader. When the two meet, Mary asks Alan to act as her escort and educate her about Alaska. Neither has any intention of romantic involvement with the other, but how long do you think that’s going to last? Shortly after meeting Mary, Alan notices another passenger on the ship, a shifty character of bad reputation named Rossland. From their behavior, it appears that Mary and Rossland have met before, and Alan wonders what connection these two have shared in the past.

To Curwood, Holt qualifies as a hero because he’s an independent self-made man who has wrestled a fortune from the land through resource extraction. (How does a white man come to own a herd of 10,000 reindeer?) On the other hand, the novel’s villain, John Graham, represents corporate interests who take resource extraction too far, raping the land of its bounty and beauty. Alan respects the Natives and they love him like a father figure. As Curwood depicts it, however, Alan’s role in this relationship comes across suspiciously like that of a benevolent slave holder. Curwood argues that Alaska requires American capital so that more men like Alan can develop its resources, while he naively ignores the rights of the Natives and fails to foresee the inevitability of more John Grahams.

Though chronologically later than London’s tales of the North, Curwood’s novel reads as more old-fashioned, more genteel, more romantic—a sort of “London lite,” if you will. Curwood’s writing more closely resembles British-Canadian author Harold Bindloss’s novels of manners set in British Columbia and Alberta. The Alaskan positively drips with Victorian-era chivalry. If the book were written a couple decades later, Alan and Mary would bicker for a while before they found love, but here there’s nothing to argue about because they are both flawless specimens of their type: he the knight in shining armor and she the damsel in distress. The romance between the two is expressed in the most idealistic of terms, and the slow-moving narrative is really too concerned with each and every interior emotion at the expense of action.

It takes about 20 chapters just to figure out Mary’s back story, but once the plot gets down to business it turns into a surprisingly gritty shoot-’em-up. Curwood may be prudish about sexuality, but he’s not prudish about brutality. Rape is a threat constantly hinted at throughout the book, and when the good guys and bad guys clash it makes for a no-holds-barred battle. While much of the novel is predictable, it does not end the way one would expect, which is to its credit. If the whole book were as good as its last four or five chapters, it might have been a great adventure classic. As it stands, however, it’s just pretty good.
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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

No Life of Their Own and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Five



A few weak entries, but excellent overall
No Life of Their Own and Other Stories, published in 2016, is the fifth volume in the projected 14-volume The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series from Open Road Media. This is the tenth book I’ve read in the series so far (I’m not reading them in order, since order doesn’t really matter), and Volume Five is neither the best nor the worst of those ten. Like every volume in this consistently outstanding series, this collection of stories and novellas is well worth the cover price and your reading time. Even so, the title cut, “No Life of Their Own,” is surprisingly disappointing. Set in a future world in which Earth is home to extraterrestrial immigrants, a farming community serves as a metaphor for the multiethnic American frontier. Though an interesting premise, the story is a bit goofy (perhaps intentionally) and veers too far away from science fiction into the realm of fantasy.

Simak’s first writings from the 1930s and early ‘40s tend to be somewhat formulaic and sensationalist compared to his later, more mature work. Often such stories begin as future tales of solar system colonization and mining and end up with a monster attack or laser-gun battle. “The Space-Beasts” from 1940, included here, is one example. Another, 1939’s “Message from Mars,” feels like a half-baked preliminary sketch of Simak’s 1965 novel All Flesh Is Grass. Though these early works usually stick to the conventions of pulp fiction adventure storytelling, they often contain inklings of great ideas. “The Loot of Time,” for instance, is an ingenious time travel tale that’s very entertaining, and its hokey pulpiness only contributes to the fun. In addition to the science fiction for which Simak is known, this volume, like others in the series, contains one western, “Cactus Colts,” which is pretty good, and also a World War II combat story, “A Hero Must Not Die,” easily the volume’s worst selection.

Three stories included here really stand out as exceptional and are among Simak’s best. 1944’s “Huddling Place” is one of the stories that would eventually end up as part of his 1952 novel City. It is an integral chapter to that epic narrative of man, dogs, robots, and Martians, but also an ingenious short story in its own right. In “Party Line,” a team of humans on Earth communicates telepathically with other intelligent beings throughout the universe in an attempt to gather scientific and philosophical knowledge for the benefit of mankind. This near-perfect story is so chock full of brilliant ideas it could easily have been expanded into a great novel. Another excellent selection, “The Whistling Well,” is about a writer who is commissioned by an elderly relative to research his family’s history. To do so, he must visit the family’s ancestral homestead, which sits on a patch of land shrouded in mystery and creepy rumors. Excellently paced and very subtle and patient in its building of suspense, the story begins as another one of Simak’s moving tributes to rural life, but then morphs into a chilling horror tale.

The remaining selections, “Spaceship in a Flask,” “To Walk a City’s Street,” and “Contraption,” are all strong stories too, but each Simak collection presents such an embarrassment of riches it is impossible to adequately praise them all. Volume Five collects 12 stories, which is the most that’s ever been packed into one of these volumes. High quantity allows for great variety, but at times you wish the shorter stories could have been longer because they are just so good. Volume Five proves once again that you really can’t go wrong with buying any of the volumes in this series.

Stories in this collection
No Life of Their Own 
Spaceship in a Flask 
The Loot of Time
Huddling Place 
To Walk a City’s Street 
Cactus Colts 
Message from Mars 
Party Line 
A Hero Must Not Die 
The Space-Beasts 
Contraption 
The Whistling Well

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Monday, August 13, 2018

The Book of Jack London, Volume 1 by Charmian Kittredge London



Tedious rehash of stories better told elsewhere
The Book of Jack London is a biography of the great American author and adventurer. Published in 1921, five years after his death, it was written by London’s widow Charmian Kittredge London. Not surprisingly, the book is a rather biased account of Jack’s life, prone to hero worship and often sugar-coating any unseemly details. To cite one example, Charmian passes Jack’s stepfather off as his biological father, thus concealing the sketchy details of his birth, which may or may not have been out of wedlock. Despite such inaccuracies, the book is packed with a sufficient amount of detail that just about every subsequent London biographer has used it as a primary source.

Charmian’s account of Jack’s life was lengthy enough to be published in two volumes, with Volume 1 ending around 1905. This results in much of the content of the first volume having taken place before Jack and Charmian met. Thus, much of what’s related in the first volume is second-hand information. In fact, those familiar with London’s work will recognize most of the anecdotes from his own published writings. Charmian lifts heavily from London’s autobiographical works, most notably from his memoir John Barleycorn, with bits and pieces of The Road, The People of the Abyss, and various nonfiction articles thrown in.


As one of the great practitioners of American literary naturalism, London often wrote his novels in a stark and almost brutal prose that evoked the harsh wilderness landscapes in which his stories took place. In some of his lesser known works, however, there were times when he felt the need to prove himself a poet and would indulge in overly romantic, flowery language. Unfortunately, Charmian’s writing falls squarely into the latter camp. Her pretentious, thesaurus-wringing prose is a constant annoyance throughout the book and renders previously exciting stories an ordeal to read. What you get for most of the book is a rehash of John Barleycorn, retold in this god-awfully verbose and convoluted syntax.


About two-thirds of the way through, even Charmian seems to realize that this has grown tiresome, so she starts to reprint Jack’s correspondence to two friends: Cloudesley Johns, a fellow struggling writer and lifelong penpal; and Anna Strunsky, a close friend and authoress with whom Jack collaborated upon the novel The Kempton-Wace Letters. Charmian reproduces these letters verbatim, with very little editing. While they shed a little light on Jack’s personality, most of their content deals with the submission of manuscripts and payments from publishers. This correspondence may provide some welcome detail for researchers, but feels out of place in a book devoted to London’s life story. If you wanted to read unedited letters, you could do so to your heart’s content in the three-volume The Letters of Jack London. Charmian also reproduces some of London’s personal notebooks of his tramping days, as well as some letters from his time covering the Russo-Japanese War. Though penned in choppy, abbreviated prose, they still yield some insight into his travels.


In the final few chapters of Volume 1, it begins to become clear that Jack and Charmian have become more than friends, though that’s not stated explicitly because he’s not yet divorced from his first wife. Hopefully Volume 2 will contain more first-hand information from Charmian’s perspective. As far as Volume 1 is concerned, diehard London fans will find little here that they weren’t already aware of. For those who just want a good biography of London, Earle Labor’s excellent 2013 book Jack London: An American Life is likely the best there is.

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Friday, August 10, 2018

Historical Novels of the Ancient World

“Epic” doesn’t always mean good
Historical novels are a favorite genre here at Old Books by Dead Guys, and ancient civilizations are also a preferred area of interest, but it is rare that the two come together to make a great book. Below is a recap of some novels of the ancient world that have been reviewed here at this blog, including books set in ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Carthage. Click on the titles below to read the full-length reviews. While there are a couple masterpieces included in this list, sometimes even great authors set out to craft an ancient epic and end up delivering a dud.  

Acté by Alexandre Dumas (1838) - 2.5 stars
This was the first historical novel by Dumas, who would go on to write dozens of them, if not hundreds. The story takes place around AD 54. Acté was a Corinthian woman who became the favored lover of Roman Emperor Nero. The romantic storyline, however, gets lost in a morass of non-fictional detail that chronicles Nero’s career and climaxes with his downfall. From the author of such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, this is a surprisingly dull affair, though it does feature a riveting chapter about a gladiatorial exhibition. Acté served as the inspiration for Quo Vadis (see below), a much better book.

Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert (1856) - 4 stars
After achieving fame and success with Madame Bovary, Flaubert did a literary 180 with this romantic epic set in ancient Carthage (in present-day Tunisia). During the First Punic War of the third century BC, Carthage hired many mercenaries to help them fight the Romans. Failing to pay those mercenaries, however, Carthage then suffered the revolt of its hired warriors. Salammb̂ô, the daughter of one of Carthage’s chief military commanders, becomes the object of desire for the leader of these mercenaries. The story takes a backseat to its opulent window dressing, as Flaubert loving describes the clothing, furniture, and decor of each scene as if he were writing a Carthaginian Sears catalog. To its benefit, the novel is also loaded with gore galore. Salammbô is a flawed novel, but a good read nonetheless.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace (1880) - 3 stars
According to some sources, this is the best-selling novel of the 19th century, but today’s readers will likely find this book inferior to its film adaptation of 1959. Judah Ben-Hur is the son of a wealthy aristocratic Jewish family in Jerusalem who, through misfortune and foul play, is condemned to a life of slavery. The lethargic pacing of the plot is far slower than the Charlton Heston movie, and the action scenes are comparatively anticlimactic. The story is a discordant mix of minute archaeological detail and supernatural mumbo jumbo, and author Wallace, a former Civil War general, too often settles for merely paraphrasing the New Testament. After much heavy-handed preaching, the book ultimately leaves the reader with mixed moral messages.

Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1895) - 4.5 stars
Inspired by Alexandre Dumas’s Act́é (see above), Quo Vadis (the title is Latin for “Whither goest thou?”) also depicts the reign of Emperor Nero, a ruler known for his insanity and brutality. Marcus Vinicius, a Roman patrician and military tribune in Nero’s court, falls in love with Lygia, the beautiful daughter of a foreign king. In the process of pursuing her, Vinicius discovers that she is a member of a new and mysterious religious sect, the Christians. Nobel laureate Sienkiewicz exquisitely captures the minute details of Roman life, whether he’s depicting an orgy, a gladiatorial battle, a crucifixion, or Nero’s burning of Rome. Though Sienkiewicz, a devout Catholic, implanted the novel with a strong religious message, the book is great reading for theist or atheist alike. As far as ancient epics published in the 19th century go, Quo Vadis may be the gold standard.

The Pharaoh and the Priest by Boleslaw Prus (1895) - 2.5 stars
Another ancient epic from Poland, published in the same year as Quo Vadis, but Prus has a much more realistic style than the hyper-romantic Sienkiewicz. The Pharaoh and the Priest is set in ancient Egypt in the year 1087 BC. Young Ramses XIII, heir to the throne of Egypt, has just reached the age to begin learning the intricacies of his nation’s administration. His father, Pharaoh Ramses XII, sends him on a mission to investigate the cause of Egypt’s declining revenue, diminishing population, and loss of arable land. Young Ramses learns that the priestly bureaucracy is undermining the Pharaoh’s authority for its own financial and political gain. What follows is a lesson in ancient Egyptian government that suffers from slow pacing and tedious detail. Prus wrote better novels set in his native Poland, including The Returning Wave (1880).

Creation by Gore Vidal (1981) - 5 stars
This is one of my all-time favorite novels. Set in the 5th century BC, Creation chronicles the adventures of Cyrus Spitama, a Persian ambassador who travels the known world rubbing elbows and matching wits with historical figures like Socrates, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Confucius, Themistocles, Pericles, and several rulers of ancient kingdoms in present-day India and China. All the while Cyrus engages in his own personal philosophical quest for the meaning of life. Rarely will you find a work that’s both as entertaining and as intellectually stimulating as Creation. Vidal also wrote a very good novel set in ancient Rome, Julian (1964), about the emperor of the same name, but I haven’t read it in many years and have not reviewed it.

Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011) - 3.5 stars
This isn’t so much a historical as a mythological novel. One of the characters, for example, is a centaur, and it occasionally goes into full-on Clash of the Titans mode. Mostly the story focuses on a homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, his dear friend from the Iliad. The latter serves as the novel’s narrator. Miller freshens the ancient Greek tales for a modern audience by making the mythical heroes less idealized, adding psychological depth to the characters, and staging scenes that vividly recreate life in the ancient world. I found the supernatural content rather annoying and wasn’t crazy about the way the story of the Trojan War is overpowered by the romance, but the book improves greatly in its second half when the Greeks finally sail for Troy. While this novel is no substitute for the Iliad, it is an admirable supplement to it.

What about the Aztecs, Inca, and Maya?
I wish I could include some great novels about the ancient Americas, but unfortunately I haven’t found one. I gave a mediocre review to Leonide Martin’s book The Visionary Maya Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque (2013) and a bad review to Graham Hancock’s novel of the ancient Mexica (a.k.a. the Aztecs), War God: Nights of the Witch (2013). Both are the first books in series I chose not to follow. The history of these great empires isn’t interesting enough, apparently, because the authors felt the need to resort to supernatural embellishment. Eduardo Galleano’s Genesis (1982) is a much better book, but it only touches on ancient myths before focusing on the Western colonization of the Americas. I’m still looking for a good epic of ancient Mexico or Mesoamerica that takes place before the arrival of the Europeans.