Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Monsters Unleashed Prelude by Stan Lee, et al.

Old monsters gooooood! New monsters baaaaaad!
Before the incredible Hulk, the Thing, or the Man-Thing made their first appearances in the Marvel Comics universe, there were Grottu, Gorgilla, Groot, Goom, and Googam. Prior to the Silver Age superhero explosion, creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby filled the pages of titles like Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, and Tales of Suspense with stories of giant monsters terrorizing humanity. In 2017, Marvel paid tribute to its monster-comics heritage with Monsters Unleashed, a crossover event in which Marvel heroes clashed with a variety of creatures, including some resurrected from those early Lee and Kirby stories. The trade paperback Monsters Unleashed Prelude was published as a companion volume to this event. The first half of the book reprints 13 of those classic Lee and Kirby monster tales of the 1950s and early ‘60s. The second half of the book reruns five issues of monster-related comics from 2015 and 2016. All art is reproduced in full color.

Since comic books like Tales to Astonish were anthology titles, the Lee and Kirby stories generally run about seven pages, or fourteen pages for a two-parter. The stories adhere to a common formula, but with enough variation to keep them interesting. Each monster is either the result of a science experiment gone wrong or an alien visitor set on conquering Earth. Some of the creatures are dumb brutes, but most are highly intelligent and have some way of communicating with English speakers either through telepathy or quick study. After each monster makes his entrance and reveals his fearsome name (e.g. Rommbu, Vandoom, Orrgo, etc.), he will then show off his destructive power for three or four pages. At this time it was prohibited, or at least highly frowned upon, to show anyone getting killed in a comic book, so you won’t find these monsters tearing up big cities like Godzilla. Instead, they are always in rural locations with few people around, and they mostly scare rather than hurt. In the end, one clever fellow, usually a scientist by trade, discovers some ingenious method of outsmarting the monster, neutralizing its power and defeating it. The stories tend to blend into one another after awhile, but the main attraction here is Kirby’s visionary art.

The comics reprinted in the second half of the book include Fearless Defenders #8 and Marvel Zombies #1, which give the reader an introduction to monster hunter Elsa Bloodstone. Next is Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur #1, a recent retread of an old Jack Kirby creation. Rounding out the volume is Totally Awesome Hulk issues #2 and #3, which feature another powerful lady monster hunter named Lady Hellbender. Presumably these issues were chosen because these characters would feature prominently in the Monsters Unleashed crossover. At times the flashy art is appealing, particularly Frank Cho’s work on Totally Awesome Hulk. The writing, however, barely amounts to stories, and the scripts consist of choppy dialogue that rarely includes a complete sentence. In many ways, these random issues demonstrate how far Marvel has fallen from the glory days of the Silver Age.

It was my interest in classic comics that led me to read this volume, so not surprisingly I much prefer the vintage selections to the book’s contemporary latter half. A comprehensive volume reprinting old Kirby monster comics would easily be at least a four-star read, but this volume is severely hampered by its inferior latter half.
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Monday, July 8, 2019

An Introduction to Metaphysics by Henri Bergson

A foggy on-ramp to Bergson’s thought
Henri Bergson
French philosopher Henri Bergson won the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature. I was looking for the easiest way to get a handle on his philosophy, and it seemed An Introduction to Metaphysics would be a good place to start. This book is really just a single essay, originally published in a 1903 issue of the French philosophy journal Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale, but it has been published as a stand-alone volume of 80 to 100 pages in at least a couple of English translations. The edition I read was translated by T. E. Hulme. Though the title may sound like a textbook, this is not so much an introduction to metaphysics as it is an introduction to Bergson’s own philosophical thought, and it really has more to do with epistemology than metaphysics. Though Bergson may have intended this as an introduction to his philosophy, it is certainly no primer, and can make for tough going for the general reader.

Bergson begins by asserting that there are only two ways in which we can say that we know a thing. The first is analytical, in which we experience something either directly or indirectly through sense experience. This knowledge is relative according to our perspective at a given moment in time. The second way of knowing something is intuitive, by experiencing it from within, in the absolute. Bergson’s example of this is the way we each experience our own self or personality. Bergson considers the analytical method to be the domain of science, which measures and analyzes phenomena from various perspectives and then draws conclusions from the parts to the whole. He argues that intuition, on the other hand, should be the domain of philosophy. One must first ponder the absolute, then applicable conclusions can be drawn from the whole to the parts.

The fundamental difference between analysis and intuition is duration. Science and mathematics reduce reality to symbols that describe conditions at a precise moment or multiple moments in time. Intuition, however, takes into consideration the inherent movement in all things. The universe is in a constant state of flux; everything is in a state of becoming, not being. We cannot really know a thing by studying isolated instances of its existence, no matter how numerous or varied the perspectives, but only by experiencing its inward mobility as a fluid spectrum rather than as a series of sequential states. Bergson insists that this intuitional mode of thought is necessary to productively practice metaphysical philosophy, and he cites it as the impetus for moments of genius throughout the history of science and philosophy. The example of experiencing one’s own consciousness, however, is really the only tangible example he offers of this method of experience, and he doesn’t really provide any guidance on how to reach this desired state of thought. Presumably he will make that the subject of later and longer works.

By propounding an absolute world beyond the reach of empiricism, Bergson’s philosophy, as described here, sounds like a modern updating of Plato’s idealism, with perhaps a dash of Chinese Taoism thrown in. While both of those traditions may have some merit, Bergson’s updated take is off-putting. Over the course of this brief book, he takes many digs at rationalism, empiricism, and science, which doesn’t sit well with my own personal philosophical views. His writing is often vague and obscure, to the point where at times it seems deliberately so. Though An Introduction to Metaphysics may amount to under a hundred pages in length, it feels like a thousand. I think I’ll stick with Bertrand Russell.
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Friday, July 5, 2019

Jenny by Sigrid Undset

Norwegian meet-the-parents nightmare
Winner of the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature, Norwegian author Sigrid Undset is best known for her trilogy about medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter, which I have not yet read. I have an interest in the works of some of Undset’s contemporaries in Scandinavian literature and wanted to give one of her books a try. I settled on her 1911 novel Jenny simply because it was the easiest to get my hands on in English.

I must admit when I first started reading Jenny I absolutely hated it. The novel opens on a group of five Norwegian friends, all artists, who are living, studying, and working in Rome. These five annoying bohemian hipsters engage in extensive inane conversations on topics like buying jewelry, but mostly they verbosely psychoanalyze themselves and each other. Like a throwback to so many Victorian-era novels of all nations, the very mention of an ancient Roman bridge or fountain is supposed to lend depth to these tedious proceedings. Despite the fact that this is a novel about artists, very little of it is actually about art. Helge Gram, who has just arrived in Rome, is the naive, just-fell-off-the-turnip-truck newcomer to this social circle. He falls in love with another member of the group, Jenny Winge, and somehow convinces her to fall in love with him.

The novel improves considerably once the characters return to Norway. After their engagement, Jenny goes to meet Helge’s family at their home. She soon learns that Helge has a very domineering mother, of whom the rest of the family lives in fear, although if anyone should point that out Helge immediately rises to his mother’s defense. Helge’s father is a more sympathetic sort, and he also at one time harbored artistic inclinations, so on the basis of that common ground Jenny begins to spend time with him. Mr. Gram requests that Jenny not tell Mrs. Gram about their meetings, which really puts Jenny in an odd position of having to keep secrets from her future mother-in-law. The disturbing dynamic between Mr. Gram, Mrs. Gram, and Helge inspires second thoughts about her engagement as Jenny is repeatedly asked to construct a web of lies to tiptoe around each family member’s delicate feelings. This is just the beginning, however, as this uncomfortable meet-the-parents scenario escalates to unforeseen repercussions that challenge credibility.

As the story progresses, the reader becomes more intimately familiar with Jenny and more engaged in the life of this well-drawn character. Unfortunately, she is the only likeable character in a book where almost everyone is at least annoying and some are downright creepy. The story eventually morphs into a feminist narrative, examining gender roles and a woman’s right to live independently and determine her own fate, whether financial, romantic, or sexual. One wants to like the book for this reason, but it just gets so bogged down with overly lengthy philosophical discussions about love. The feminist subject matter deserves a more realistic telling, but the characters are too busy behaving like tragic heroes in an opera. Undset should be commended for handling touchy subject matter that was no doubt controversial for 1911, but the way it is handled will likely fail to satisfy the readers of a century later.

Given that much of Jenny is concerned with issues of womanhood, it is probable that a female reader might get more out of this novel than this male reader did. Ultimately the book delivers some quite memorable scenes, but the memories it leaves aren’t exactly fond ones.

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Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Secret of the Caves by Franklin W. Dixon

Spies and saboteurs in Bayport
The seventh book in the Hardy Boys series, The Secret of the Caves, was originally published in 1929 but totally rewritten and republished in 1965. It is this later version that I am reviewing here.

The federal government is building a radar station on the coast near Bayport. A series of mysterious accidents at the site have caused officials to fear sabotage, so they call in renowned detective Fenton Hardy to investigate. Meanwhile, a teenage girl shows up at the Hardy home seeking a detective to find her older brother, a college professor who has gone missing. With Mr. Hardy busy on another case, his sons Frank and Joe offer to take the young lady’s case. As if that weren’t enough action for one book, the Hardy Boys’ chum Chet Morton has got himself a new metal detector and is dying to explore some seaside caves in hopes of uncovering buried treasure, even though there have been rumors of strange lights and shots fired in the area. Frank, Joe, Chet, and Biff Hooper take a camping trip to the caves, which leads to a spooky adventure.

Early in the book, when the possibility of sabotage is being discussed, a “foreign power” is alluded to but never named outright. Given the time period at which this later version of the novel was published, one can’t help but see this as a manifestation of Cold War paranoia and assume this foreign power is a stand-in for the Russians. It is never stated explicitly, however, and most of the bad guys who feature in the book are either French or American. To its credit, this novel has more memorable villains than many of the other books in the series. Another good thing about this story is that the female characters play a larger role than usual. At one point, Frank and Joe enlist their girlfriends Callie and Iola for some undercover work. Elsewhere, the boys’ lives are saved by a fisherman’s wife. Even Aunt Gertrude contributes to the plot as her request for the boys to buy her a spinning wheel leads to an important break in the case.

The Secret of the Caves is a perfectly fine but not exceptional entry in the Hardy Boys series. I read this with my son, and he enjoyed it well enough, but it seemed to inspire fewer thrills or laughs in him than some of the others, like The House on the Cliff or The Missing Chums. This mystery lives up to typical Hardy Boys expectations but does not exceed them.
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Monday, July 1, 2019

Cavalcade of the North, edited by George E. Nelson

Showcase of Canadian literature circa the World Wars
Published in 1958, Cavalcade of the North is a volume of fiction and essays by 26 Canadian writers, edited by George E. Nelson. Prior publication information is not provided for every entry in the collection, but for the roughly half that do include copyright notes the original publication dates range from 1912 to 1956, with the majority falling in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Among the 26 works included here are two full-length novels. Hugh MacLennan’s 1941 novel Barometer Rising is a gripping dramatization of the tragic Halifax Explosion of 1917, in which a ship full of munitions destined for European battlefields exploded in the city’s harbor, leveling entire neighborhoods. The second novel, Jalna by Mazo de la Roche, was originally published in 1927 and became the first book in an extensive series chronicling the multigenerational saga of a farming family in southern Ontario. This Cavalcade also includes one novella-length work, The School on the Little Water Hen by Gabrielle Roy, about a family residing on a remote island in northern Manitoba and their quest for a decent education. Fortunately, all three of these longer works are very good, and they alone amount to almost 450 pages of worthwhile reading.

The remaining shorter works vary greatly in quality, and not all are fiction. A few are stories from the history of Canada, such as “Vignettes of French Canada” by Thomas B. Costain, an assortment of biographical sketches from the 17th and early 18th centuries; “This Stubborn Breed” by Joseph Lister Rutledge, concerning the Acadians in the 1750s; and “The Awakening” by Bruce Hutchison, about Canada’s entry into World War II. Also in the nonfiction category is “Read!” an essay by Lord Beaverbrook about self-education and individualism.

Of the remaining fictional selections, two of the best are related to World War II. In “The Czech Dog” by W. G. Hardy, a Canadian woman befriends a Czech refugee and former member of the anti-Nazi underground, while “Resurrection” by Thomas H. Raddall is a thriller about shot-down pilots trapped on the coast of Greenland. “Four Men and a Box” is a brief but excellent tale about jungle explorers in an unnamed, exotic locale. Closer to home, Patrick Waddington delivers a charming, Twilight Zone-ish yarn about a mysterious forgotten neighborhood in Montreal, “The Street That Got Mislaid.” “The White Mustang” by Edward A. McCourt is a John Steinbeck-ish story about a mythical white horse, while “The White Musky” by Scott Young (Neil Young’s dad) is a fisherman’s tale about a mythical white fish. The scope of the selections cover a wide variety of settings, populations, and walks of life. Canadians of French and British extraction get about equal time, with a wee bit of the Irish thrown in. Only one story features First Nations characters: the Jack London-esque “A Prairie Vagabond” by Sir Gilbert Parker.

Had such a collection been published a half century earlier, one probably couldn’t have discerned much difference between Canadian, British, and American literature. By World War II, however, a distinctively Canadian literature had begun to come into its own, drawing from the British and French cultural traditions but with healthy doses of homegrown North American individualism, boreal naturalism, and nationalistic pride. This maturing Canadian style is showcased admirably in this collection. For American readers with little knowledge of the literary scene north of their border, Cavalcade of the North is a very good introduction to the world of Canadian letters. Not every story is great, but the volume is full of fortuitous discoveries. I will definitely be reading more of MacLennan, de la Roche, and Roy.

Stories in this collection
(Novel-length works have been reviewed individually. Click on titles below.)
Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan
Rigamarole by Morley Callaghan 
Mrs. Golightly and the First Convention by Ethel Wilson
A Prairie Vagabond by Sir Gilbert Parker 
The Worker in Sandalwood by Marjorie Pickthall 
The Czech Dog by W. G. Hardy 
Read! by Lord Beaverbrook 
Jalna by Mazo de la Roche 
Dieppe by Lionel Shapiro 
The Princess and the Wild Ones by W. O. Mitchell 
Resurrection by Thomas H. Raddall 
The Street That Got Mislaid by Patrick Waddington 
We Hire a Witch by Kenneth McNeill Wells 
The Awakening by Bruce Hutchison 
The Movies Come to Gull Point by Will R. Bird 
The School on the Little Water Hen by Gabrielle Roy

White Musky by Scott Young 

Vignettes of French Canada by Thomas B. Costain 

The Little Ghost by Gwen Ringwood 

The Speculations of Jefferson Thorpe by Stephen Leacock 

Some Are So Lucky by Hugh Garner 

Beating the Smuggling Game by Thomas Chandler Haliburton 

This Stubborn Breed by Joseph Lister Rutledge 

The White Mustang by Edward A. McCourt 

Four Men and a Box by Leslie Gordon Barnard 

The Wake by Patrick Slater 

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Friday, June 28, 2019

Inside Passage: Living with Killer Whales, Bald Eagles, and Kwakiutl Indians by Michael Modzelewski

Adventures of a houseguest in paradise
I recently took an Alaskan cruise, and Michael Modzelewski was the designated naturalist on board. Through a week of travels up and down the coast of British Columbia and Alaska, I attended a few presentations that Modzelewski gave on the wildlife, ecology, and Native peoples of the region. I was very impressed with the eloquence of his speaking, and his talks were quite inspirational in their appreciation of the environment and evocations for a lifestyle more harmonious with nature. Eager for more of his insight into the lands and people of the Northwest Coast, I sought out his 1997 book Inside Passage.

Based on the lectures I had seen Modzelewski deliver, as well as the marketing copy for the book, I was expecting something along the lines of a latter-day Henry David Thoreau or John Muir. Inside Passage, however, is really more travel memoir than nature writing. I was hoping for something a little wilder and less civilized, a narrative more concerned with solitude and introspection, like a Northwestern Walden, a less intense take on Into the Wild, or perhaps something similar to Rockwell Kent’s Wilderness, in which the author and his son hunker down for the winter in a rustic cabin on an Alaskan isle. In Inside Passage, Modzelewski is a houseguest, and sometimes housesitter, in the home of Will Malloff on Swanson Island, near Vancouver Island. Other than a wood-burning stove that needs to be fed, nothing about these well-furnished digs sounds particularly primitive or untamed. Modzelewski and friends can watch the Canadian wilds through big picture windows while listening to opera and sipping gourmet coffee.

When Modzelewski does write about the natural environment, his prose is often beautifully poetic and quite inspirational. Though sometimes he succumbs to grandiose New Age excesses, one wishes there were more of such passages in this book. There is a chapter about all the tourists who frequent Malloff’s estate, a chapter about the salmon fishing industry, and a chapter about cooking a Thanksgiving turkey. I had seen Modzelewski speak on the First Nations people of the region, and he seemed very knowledgeable about their customs and philosophy. Therefore I had hoped for more on the Kwakiutl Indians mentioned in the subtitle, but most of what he writes on that subject fits into a single chapter here. The best parts of the book are when Modzelewski gets away from Malloff’s homestead and ventures off in a kayak. In these excursions, he meets with enough near disasters to keep adventure sports fans happy. His tales of killer whale encounters are both interesting and enviable, and constitute the best of his wildlife writing in this book.

This is not so much a book about getting back to nature in the wilds of the North as it is about the modern lifestyle of those who migrate to the region. I liked Inside Passage well enough to consider it a fine read, but I wasn’t as impressed by it as I thought I would be. At times it brought back fond memories of my own travels to the region, but it also took my romantic notions of the Canadian wilderness down a couple notches from the mythic toward the mundane. I envy Modzelewski’s adventures in the North, but I don’t think this book really captures them in full.
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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 7 by Roger Stern, et al.

Saved by John Byrne
Essential Captain America, Volume 7 reprints issues 231 to 257 of the classic Captain America comic book series from Marvel Comics. This run of issues, reproduced here in black and white, were originally published from March 1979 to May 1981. This book picks up where Volume 6 left off, with Roger McKenzie and Sal Buscema continuing their fine work in the roles of writer and artist, respectively. While their issues are by no means masterpieces, this duo consistently cranked out good solid work that is above average for Marvel during this era. Early in this volume they introduce the National Force, a terrorist organization that actually behaves like a real terrorist organization, frighteningly fomenting racism and violence like a latter-day, techno-savvy Klan. This seamlessly leads into an exciting three-issue story arc in which Cap teams up with Daredevil to square off against Dr. Faustus.

As entertaining as that may be, the real highlight of Volume 7 is undoubtedly the nine-issue run with John Byrne as artist. Byrne was one of Marvel’s best artists of the ‘80s, and he draws Cap probably better than any other character he’s ever covered. Byrne was also a very good writer, and from issues 247 to 255 he and Roger Stern are credited as co-plotters, while Stern pens the script. As is often the case with Byrne’s work, these stories are a great mix of nostalgia for Marvel’s glory days and innovative changes for the future. Stern and Byrne also develop the supporting cast of non-super civilian characters so Cap has more going on in his life than just throwing his shield at people. Issue 249, where Cap faces Machinesmith and Dragon Man, is an absolute masterpiece. This is followed by a famous but overrated issue (#250) in which Cap is encouraged to run for President of the United States. After appearances by Batroc and Mr. Hyde, Stern and Byrne then deliver a great two-issue story that delves into the history of Cap’s World War II superteam The Invaders. Cap journeys to England at the request of some of his aged former teammates and ends up tangling with the Nazi vampire Baron Blood.

Unfortunately, in between the McKenzie/Buscema and Stern/Byrne runs, this volume contains a lot of filler in the form of one-issue stories by a miscellaneous assortment of journeyman writers and artists. Some of the art is good—Gene Colan and even Carmine Infantino each draw an issue—but the stories are mediocre Marvel fare at best. As is often the case with such fill-in issues, Cap fights a number of forgettable D-list villains and even the occasional non-super threat, such as garden-variety muggers or your average motorcycle gang. It is as if the editors tell these fill-in writers, you can do whatever you want as long as your story is inconsequential and doesn’t mess with the continuity of any major characters.

Overall, however, the goods outweigh the bads in Volume 7. It is certainly worth a read for fans of John Byrne. Compared to the rest of the Essential Captain America series, this is not as good as Volume 5, which was mostly written and drawn by Jack Kirby, but it is right up there as one of the better volumes in the series, along with Volume 3. Though it has had a lot of ups and downs in terms of quality, the Essential Captain America series has been a fun read, and this was a good way to end it on a high note.
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Monday, June 24, 2019

People in the Summer Night: An Epic Suite by Frans Eemil Sillanpää

Rural Finnish montage
Frans Eemil Sillanpää
Finnish author Frans Eemil Sillanpää won the 1939 Nobel Prize in Literature and is the only writer from his nation so far to have done so. As a result, he is quite beloved in his home country and even has an asteroid named after him. His work is little known among English-language readers, however, as translations are hard to come by. One work of Sillanpää’s that is available in English is his novel People in the Summer Night. Originally published in 1934, this work was published in English in 1966 by the University of Wisconsin Press as part of their Nordic Translation Series. Googling the series name will take you to the UW Libraries website, where all 11 books in the series, including this one, can be read online for free.

In People in the Summer Night, Sillanpää paints a vivid portrait of a community in rural Finland. A number of farms surround a lake, and the residents are equally apt to travel by boat, horse, or automobile. This picturesque landscape is populated by landowners, tenant farmers, and rafters floating timber to market. On summer weekends, city dwellers come to spend time with friends and family or simply to enjoy country life as tourists. During the summer months, Finland is far enough north that the sun never completely sets, and the strange midnight twilight lends a mysterious air to the goings-on in this region.

Sillanpää constructs the narrative in 48 short chapters. Despite the book’s relative brevity, it features a large ensemble cast of characters. The English edition begins with a list of characters, which is useful for telling everyone straight, particularly since Finnish names and their variations can be a bit confusing. The structure of the narrative is more of a montage than a linear story. Sillanpää frequently jumps back and forth between different characters, whose storylines sometimes intersect, like Balzac’s Comédie Humaine in miniature. It doesn’t always appear that the chapters are in chronological order either, as sometimes it seems one has to jump back in time an hour or two to pick up the thread of a story that was previously left hanging. This fragmentation of perspective brings a stylistic modernism to what is otherwise largely a naturalistic depiction of the environs and it inhabitants. Sillanpää’s prose shifts between beautifully poetic descriptions of nature and insightful glimpses into the psychology of his characters. The prose isn’t always easy to follow, but I suspect that may be due in part to the translation by Alan Blair.

The action of the novel takes place almost entirely within one summer night. Two young lovers from the city enjoy a burgeoning romance in the rural countryside. A pregnant woman goes into labor while her husband is absent from home. A marriage suffers from the brutish and abusive behavior of the husband. An artist rows the waters of the lake seeking inspiration. A stoic old charcoal burner plies his ancient craft. A farmer’s wife seeks solace in the company of another while her distant husband is away. A murder is foreshadowed. These are some of the intimate dramas that contribute to the collective history of this fictional rural community. Though the setting often seems idyllic, the plot rings true as authentic incidents of real life.

If People in the Summer Night is any indication, Sillanpää’s work deserves to be better known worldwide. As far as I know, only three of his books have been translated into English: Meek Heritage (1919, available at the Internet Archive), The Maid Silja (1931), and this one.

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Friday, June 21, 2019

Fire and Ice (The Long Journey, Volume 1) by Johannes V. Jensen

Darwinian epic of Scandinavian genesis
Danish author Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950) won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Literature. His magnum opus was a series of six novels, completed from 1908 to 1922, collectively titled The Long Journey. In 1923 this work was published in English translation as a three-volume set. The first of these three volumes, Fire and Ice, is comprised, appropriately enough, of Jensen’s Book One: Fire and Book Two: Ice. As a whole, The Long Journey is a historical epic chronicling the development of European man from prehistoric times to the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Jensen creates an alternative to the biblical account of mankind’s creation and early history, one based on rationalistic scientific concepts like Darwinian evolution. His intention is not to create a narrative that is rigorously accurate either scientifically or historically, but rather to craft a sort of secular mythology stylistically akin to the Judeo-Christian Old Testament.

The narrative begins prior to the dawn of Homo Sapiens, when furry, tree-dwelling primates first opted for life on the ground. These proto-humans dwell in a European jungle where their lives center around a volcano called Gunung Api that they both fear and worship as a god. One precocious member of the herd, however, learns to tame the dreaded fire by bringing it down from the mountain and putting it to the service of man. This early hominid Prometheus, named Fyr, is rewarded for his achievement by assuming godlike status within his tribe.

Book Two: Ice jumps ahead an unspecified number of generations and focuses on one of Fyr’s descendants named Carl. The volcano has gone dormant, and the climate is becoming colder. Glaciers descend on Europe as an ice age sets in. While most of the humans migrate to the South, Carl, who has been outcast from his people for having committed a transgression, sets off to the North to live amid the ice. Like their ancestor Fyr, Carl and his descendants use their ingenuity to produce technological advancements that help mankind adapt and evolve. To tell his story, Jensen attributes millennia worth of human progress to a handful of fictional geniuses. Over the course of the story, the mythos of The Long Journey encompasses not only the taming of fire, but also the development of religion and social inequality, the origins of hunting and agriculture, the building of ships and the invention of the wheel, and the spawning of the various races of man.

In this specifically Scandinavian Genesis, the birthplace of humanity is in southern Sweden, just a short boat ride from Jensen’s native Denmark. The underlying thesis to The Long Journey is that those who fled from the ice age to tropical climes became indolent and weak while those who stayed in the North to contend with the cold became heartier, stronger, and smarter. There is some potential for racism here, obviously, but Fire and Ice comes across as more of an expression of intense nationalistic pride. Jensen’s Nordic bias is not any more offensive than the many religions in the world that consider their followers to be “the chosen people.” The difference, of course, is that this is a secular creation story, and what makes it great literature is how Jensen expertly mixes naturalistic scientific theory with romantic grandeur of mythic proportions.

Given the subject matter, it is not surprising that The Long Journey is little known outside of Scandinavia, but Jensen’s writing is powerful, and this fascinating book merits a wider audience. Jensen won his Nobel for a reason, and judging from this excellent novel, he deserved it. I am very much looking forward to the next two volumes of The Long Journey.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Sport of the Gods by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Early 20th century African American urban naturalism
Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African American poet, novelist, playwright, and writer of short stories. Born in Ohio, he was the son of former slaves. The Sport of the Gods, published in 1902, was his final novel, though he continued to publish poetry until 1906 when he died from tuberculosis at age 33.

The Sport of the Gods begins at an unspecified location in the American South. Berry Hamilton and his wife Fannie are former slaves who, following emancipation, found work as butler and housekeeper to a wealthy white landowner named Maurice Oakley. The Hamiltons live in a cottage on the Oakley estate with their teenaged children Joe and Kitty. One day Mr. Oakley’s younger brother, a guest at the estate, reports some money has been stolen from his room. Despite his twenty years of service, Berry is accused of the theft, based on a mixture of circumstantial evidence and Mr. Oakley’s refusal to believe a white gentleman would have committed such a crime. Though a detective expresses doubt as to the butler’s guilt, Mr. Oakley demands that Berry be prosecuted, and Berry experiences firsthand that the Southern justice system has little sympathy for a black man.

This all happens very quickly in the first few chapters of the novel. The story of Berry’s crime and punishment runs more toward melodrama than realism. It feels predictable and a bit rushed, as if Dunbar wished to get the crime out of the way so that he can focus on the book’s main concern, which is what happens to the Hamiltons after Berry is accused of the crime. The entire family are branded as outcasts. Joe, who is trained as a barber, can’t find work with either the white community, who considers him a criminal by association, or the black community, who resents the Hamiltons’ former association with the wealthy whites. Unable to make a living in their hometown, the family decides to follow the path of so many emancipated blacks and migrate north to New York City.

I’m a fan of naturalist literature for the way it frankly chronicles the living conditions and social forces at work in modern society. Relatively few African American writers around 1900 received positive recognition from the white literary establishment, so discovering Dunbar was a pleasant surprise. The Sport of the Gods, however, doesn’t really capture the African American experience in the same way that the novels of Charles W. Chesnutt do. Instead, the narrative that Dunbar creates with this novel could easily apply to just about any member of the poor working class. If there is a message here, it is not racially specific but rather that “Big cities breed bad morals.” Other naturalist writers have done a better job of illustrating a descent into alcoholism or prostitution, such as Emile Zola in L’Assomoir or Theodore Dreiser in Sister Carrie. In The Sport of the Gods, a much briefer work, this moral decline feels rushed, and the social commentary has to compete for space and attention with the potboiler plot of the legal drama.

Despite its flaws, this novel is deeply affecting at times. It may not be a masterpiece of American literary realism, but it is certainly worth a read for those interested in the literature of this time period. Given the obstacles Dunbar faced, his literary accomplishments are impressive, and his body of work certainly deserves further investigation.
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Monday, June 17, 2019

Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science by Carl Sagan

Interdisciplinary grab bag
Broca’s Brain, a book by astronomer and science writer Carl Sagan, was published in 1979. The title refers to the 19th century French neuroscientist Paul Broca, who is discussed in the first chapter. The subtitle, Reflections on the Romance of Science, is not entirely successful as a blanket statement sufficiently generic enough to encompass the contents of what is essentially a grab bag of 25 miscellaneous articles, essays, and lectures that have been repurposed into a book. The writings collected in this volume were previously published from 1974 to 1979 and vary widely in subject matter, interest, and degree of difficulty.

The chapters are divided into categories, but even those are loose enough to be almost arbitrary. One chapter is a brief biological sketch of Albert Einstein that focuses as much on his political and humanitarian efforts as his scientific accomplishments. Another chapter is a critical essay on science fiction in which Sagan names some of his favorite novels. The bulk of the book, however, is devoted to Sagan’s bread and butter, planetary science. The contents of this book were written at a time when the Viking spacecraft had recently landed on Mars and Voyager had not yet reached Saturn, so most of Sagan’s speculations on the solar system have since been either confirmed or disproved by subsequent unmanned space exploration. Sagan also devotes much discussion to the possibility of life on other worlds and our ability to find it, and his erudite thoughts on these topics are still very much relevant today. Though Sagan was known for the accessibility of his scientific writings, not every piece in this collection was intended for the general reader. His chapter on the history of 19th century astronomy, for example, is clearly aimed at practitioners in that field, and one would probably need a master’s degree in the subject to fully understand everything the author is saying.

A section of the book entitled Paradoxers includes chapters in which Sagan refutes various forms of faux science. Sagan was one of the world’s foremost advocates for science over superstition and mysticism. While I admire him for taking on that role, those reading a book by Sagan have probably already made up their minds in favor of science. The biggest disappointment with Broca’s Brain is that Sagan spends twenty percent of the entire book disproving the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, who made all kinds of ridiculous and unsubstantiated claims about the history of the solar system. There is also a chapter about a man who declared himself the second coming of Christ. Someone had to step up and answer these false prophets, and I am glad Sagan took up the challenge, but I didn’t feel these chapters were a productive use of my reading time. Rest assured, however, that elsewhere in the book Sagan more thoughtfully and philosophically addresses the contentious relationship between science and religion, proving himself one of rationalism’s most outspoken and eloquent proponents.

After reading Broca’s Brain, I would not hesitate to call Sagan a genius. The man can write intelligently and articulately about any subject he puts his mind to, within or without the realm of science. Even so, I can’t say I enjoyed every one of the 25 essays included here, for the reasons discussed above. Still, I’m glad I read the book, and overall this collection of Sagan’s writings on the wonders of the universe left me with a profound feeling of secular inspiration. If that’s what he means by the “romance of science,” then so be it.
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Friday, June 14, 2019

Jack London: Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone

A superb telling of an amazing life
Jack London: Sailor on Horseback, a biography by Irving Stone, was originally published in 1938. It began as an authorized biography when Stone was invited by London’s widow, Charmian Kittredge London, to the London family ranch in California to utilize the family’s personal archives. Later Charmian withdrew her blessing and disowned the biography, however, when Stone dug a little too deep. I have read several biographies of London, as well as his own autobiographical writings like John Barleycorn, The Road, and The Cruise of the Snark. I had previously avoided Stone’s book because I thought it was a biographical novel, and I had read some disparaging comments about its level of fictionalization. After reading it, however, I discovered it to be a work of nonfiction, and it turned out to be a truly enjoyable and riveting read.

Despite accusations against Stone by Charmian and others, I didn’t find anything particularly sensationalized about Stone’s account. London’s life was so sensational in the first place, it would be difficult to write about it without making it sound sensationalized. For the most part the portrayal of London is a positive one, though ultimately tragic. Stone clearly admires his subject, but this account is not merely an adulatory tribute. Stone draws attention to London’s faults, but does not delve too deeply into them. London’s white supremacist views on race, for example, are mentioned but not examined in great depth. Perhaps that just wasn’t a hot-button issue in 1938, and London’s opinions on race were certainly not uncommon for Americans of his era. As far as London’s dark side goes, Stone mainly emphasizes his childlike handling of financial matters, his naive trust in friends and family, his marital infidelities, and his tendency toward bouts of crippling depression. London’s alcoholism is also dealt with frankly, but not to the extent of its coverage in John Barleycorn.

It is no wonder that Charmian hated this book, because it really portrays her in a negative light. In this account she comes across as conniving, smothering, unattractive, and infantile. Stone not only holds her responsible for breaking up London’s first marriage but also for negatively altering London’s literary style in the latter half of his career. This book provides a clearer, more thorough insight into London’s two marriages than any other biography that I’ve encountered, including Charmian’s own The Book of Jack London, which is biased, disingenuous, and worst of all, dull. Whereas Charmian tried to hide Jack’s illegitimate birth in her book, Stone brings the facts out into the open. She was also outraged that Stone made London’s death seem like a suicide, but a century later scholars are still debating the exact cause of death.

In my opinion, from a scholarly standpoint, the best biography of London, in terms of comprehensiveness, depth of research, and just good writing, is Earle Labor’s 2013 book Jack London: An American Life. However, for the average reader who just wants to learn about London’s fascinating life, doesn’t care about literary criticism or Jack London Studies, and doesn’t need footnotes or a bibliography, Sailor on Horseback is really the best way to go. It is an excellent read for novices or diehard fans alike. If all you know about London is The Call of the Wild and White Fang, you will be amazed at the breadth, depth, and variety of his adventures and achievements. I have been an avid fan of London’s writing for over 30 years and have read everything he ever published, but Stone’s account of his life has really renewed my interest in this important author and remarkable man. Reading Sailor on Horseback makes me want to go back and reread some of my favorite London novels and stories and do further research into his amazing life.
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