Monday, March 4, 2019

The Essential Captain America, Volume 2 by Stan Lee, et al.

More 1960s fun with Cap (and introducing the Falcon!)
This second volume of classic Captain America comics from the Marvel Essentials series picks up where Volume 1 left off. The Essential Captain America, Volume 2 reprints issues 103 to 126, which were originally published from 1968 to 1970. All the stories were written by Stan Lee, and initially the art is provided by Jack “King” Kirby, but he departs after the first several issues included here. The middle of the book features brief stints by artists John Romita, John Buscema, and Jim Steranko. The latter was highly regarded back in the day for his innovative page layouts and psychedelic imagery, but in hindsight his art seems overrated and takes too many liberties with the human figure. With issue #116, Gene Colan settles in for an extended stay as artist, and his work is superb. This unsung master’s artistic style, combining the thunderous bombast of Kirby’s work with the anatomical fidelity of Neal Adams, is the perfect graphic complement to Stan Lee’s rollicking adventure stories.

Speaking of which, Lee’s storytelling has improved since the last volume, but it’s still pretty bizarre. The Red Skull continues to make frequent appearances, but thankfully he’s not as ubiquitous as before. MODOK and AIM show up more often, Batroc makes a couple reappearances, Dr. Faustus is introduced, and bad guys from other Marvel titles, like the Trapster and the Scorpion, each stop by for an issue. These villains usually have no plan or objective beyond the assassination of Captain America. Rick Jones (the Hulk’s best friend) decides he wants to be Cap’s sidekick and dons the old costume previously worn by Bucky Barnes. The ease with which he falls into the role defies belief, and his presence is usually more of a burden than a help. In Volume 1, Cap’s secret identity was revealed, and the whole world came to know him as Steve Rogers. In this volume, Lee comes up with a cockamamie plot to fake Steve Rogers’s death, thus negating the identity reveal, but then Cap goes back to being Steve Rogers anyway, as if nothing ever happened. The biggest development within these issues, however, is the debut of the Falcon, one of Marvel’s pioneering black superheroes. He won’t become Cap’s official partner until Volume 3, but he appears in four or five of the issues included here. Although his origin story is a little weird, towards the end of Volume 2 the Captain America title starts to display inklings of an increase in urban realism that would characterize the Falcon’s tenure as co-headliner. 

The tone and subject matter of these issues vacillates between scenes of artfully violent hand-to-hand combat and more pensive moments in which Cap broods over thoughts of loneliness and love. He is still chasing Sharon Carter, but their relationship is not working out because he wants her to give up her career as a SHIELD superspy. (Cap may be a liberal, but he’s not yet a feminist). These moments of heartache and tribulation often seem lifted from a sappy romance comic, but when drawn by Kirby or Colan they at least have the appearance of film noir.

In summation, there’s nothing here that will really go down in history as a Marvel masterpiece, but for the most part it’s just good solid storytelling and art. At times the plot points come across as kitschy or ridiculous, but that’s part of the nostalgic fun. Like it’s predecessor, Volume 2 is an enjoyable trip down memory lane, and I am looking forward to reading the further exploits of Captain America and the Falcon in Volume 3.
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Friday, March 1, 2019

Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life by Scott M. Marshall

The slow train’s still coming
In contrast to the prevailing critical consensus that Bob Dylan did all of his best work in the ‘60s, my favorite period of Dylan’s career consists of his three gospel albums from 1979 to 1981 (Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love) and the two albums that bookended them (Street-Legal and Infidels), which also deal with religious themes. During this era, Dylan was always backed up by a top-notch band, and his lyrics were quite fascinating and compelling. Though I am not a religious man, I appreciate the ever-present biblical references in Dylan’s lyrics in much the same way that a classical philologist appreciates Homer’s references to Greek mythology. Despite our difference in beliefs, the moral message still comes through. Looking to learn more about Dylan’s gospel period and the religious views he’s held throughout his life, I couldn’t have asked for a better guide than Scott M. Marshall’s 2017 book Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life.

For the most part, Marshall examines Dylan’s career chronologically. The book is broken up into chapters devoted to each calendar decade, rather than by any stages in Dylan’s musical development, which seems a strangely arbitrary choice. Marshall’s rather generic thesis, as stated in the introductory chapter, also doesn’t inspire much confidence. He asserts that Dylan has been and is still a monotheist. Gee, ya think? Since Marshall’s not really going out on a limb with that statement, I was worried that this was just going to be a catalog of spiritual references in Dylan’s songs, but it turned out to be much more than that. Beyond an encyclopedic mining of Dylan lyrics, Dylan interviews, and Dylan criticism, Marshall interviews many of Dylan’s associates and does a great job of insightfully connecting the dots between all the data he’s amassed.

I remember growing up in the ‘80s and hearing about how brave U2 was for singing songs with Christian imagery. That was nothing compared to what Dylan did when he became “born again.” He alienated his fan base to the point where he was getting death threats every night he was on tour. He also lost a lot of friends who couldn’t understand this new direction in his music and his life. Marshall covers this period beautifully, providing stories from Dylan’s friends, religious advisors, bandmates, and crew about what those gospel tours were really like, and it is a crazy and fascinating ride. Looking through the notes for the chapters on the ‘70s and the ‘80s, one sees the phrase “Author interview” repeated over and over again, a testament to the diligent legwork Marshall conducted in investigating this mysterious period in Dylan’s life. The chapters after that, not so much, but I still learned a great deal about Dylan, and the book is really an addictive read.

Many critics have argued over whether Dylan is a Jew or a Christian, or have chastised him for not being enough of either. Marshall illustrates that Dylan is both, and he draws his spiritual strength from both faiths. Dylan is essentially a Jew who believes that Christ was the Messiah promised by the Hebrew prophets. Marshall also finds fault with those who think Dylan’s embracing of Christianity ended in 1981. He demonstrates how Dylan has continued to make statements of belief, both Christian and Judaic, in music and interviews up to the present day.

Just as you don’t need to be a Christian to get the protest message of “Slow Train,” you don’t need to subscribe to any particular faith in order to enjoy this book. In fact, nonbelievers can probably appreciate the book more objectively than those looking to take sides in the argument over Dylan’s beliefs. As an avid fan, this is one of the best books on Dylan that I’ve read.
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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin

A mysterious expedition to Africa
I enjoyed the Danny Dunn series when I was a kid, and now I am having fun reading them with my young son. Despite all the changes in science and technology over the past 40 to 60 years, the books in this series have held up remarkably well over time. A child’s scientific curiosity never goes out of style. Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster, published in 1971, is the twelfth of fifteen Danny Dunn novels by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin. (Abrashkin actually died in 1960, but Williams insisted on crediting him on every volume in the series.) Though the books in the series are consistently good, this is one of the best that I can recall.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Danny Dunn is a teenage boy whose widowed mother works as housekeeper for Euclid Bullfinch, a professor of science (no specific branch, just a scientific jack-of-all-trades) at the local university. Danny and his mom live in the Bullfinch house, which gives the curious Danny the opportunity to observe, assist, and at times co-opt the professor’s experiments and inventions. In contrast to most of the other volumes in the series, Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster is more concerned with nature than with technology, even though Professor Bullfinch does create an invention in the opening chapters that will get used later in the book. Bullfinch receives a surprise visit from a professional colleague, Dr. Fenster, a distinguished biologist who invites Bullfinch, Danny, and Danny’s friends Joe and Irene to accompany him on an expedition to Africa. Fenster has been investigating tales of a legendary monster known as the lau that reportedly dwells in the swamps of the Sudan. The science that is explored, therefore, is more biological than technological, and the book reads like an adventure that some naturalist explorer like a young Charles Darwin, Alexander Humboldt, or David Livingstone might have had tracking down a new species of animal in an exotic land.

The story does a fine job of illustrating how zoologists would actually go about accomplishing such a task. Though this is science fiction for young readers, it does depict the scientific process in a realistic manner. In the course of their expedition, Danny and his party get to know the local indigenous people, the Nuer. The book sets a good tone for these interactions, respectful and not condescending, and imparts a good message of friendship and cooperation between people of different nations, races, and cultures. The novel has a villain, which allows for some suspense, but the danger never reaches a level to scare young readers. The hunt or for the lau is exciting, and when the creature is revealed, it is pleasantly surprising that the beast is actually within the realm of scientific possibility.

The only problem I really have with the book is its illustrations. If you have a print edition, it will likely include the original illustrations by Paul Sagsoorian. (The recent ebook edition probably doesn’t include them.) While Sagsoorian is a fine artist for this type of book, the illustrations give away too many of the story’s surprises. This book would be a lot more fun if you didn’t know what kind of creature the lau is, yet almost every edition (not just those illustrated by Sagsoorian) features a front cover painting of the lau in all its glory, spoiling the big reveal towards the end. Nevertheless, despite that one caveat, Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster, and the Danny Dunn series in general, make great reading for kids interested in science (and their parents).
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Monday, February 25, 2019

The Immortal by Alphonse Daudet

A satirical look at the Académie Française
Originally published in 1888, The Immortal is a novel by French naturalist writer Alphonse Daudet. It has also been published in English under the title One of the Forty, referring to the forty members of the Académie Française, who are informally referred to as “Immortals.” Established in 1635, the Académie is an honorary organization of men of letters, similar to a sort of intellectual knighthood, in which membership comes with a distinctive green-jacketed uniform and ceremonial sword. The Académie is considered the foremost authority on the French language and is responsible for publishing France’s official dictionary. At full capacity, the organization consists of forty members, who once elected serve for life. When one dies, the remaining members elect another illustrious author, poet, playwright, or historian to take his place.

Because of its status as a time-honored, government-sanctioned institution, the Académie not surprisingly has been subject to criticism from iconoclasts, among them Alphonse Daudet, who perceive the organization as stodgy, conformist, and conservative. In The Immortal, Daudet pokes fun at the selection process for membership, pointing out that it is based more on politics than on literary merit. The title of the book refers to Léonard Astier-Réhu, a historian, archivist, and collector of historical manuscripts. Now past the prime of his career and fallen on hard times, he clings to his Académie position—his last vestige of professional dignity—like a life preserver. In hopes of being elevated to a lofty officerial position within the organization, Astier-Réhu awaits the passing of a senior member. Meanwhile, his up-and-coming protége, the Vicomte de Freydet, likewise anticipates the next vacancy in hopes of being initiated into the ranks of the immortals.

Even if the angle Daudet takes on the Académie is cynical and sarcastic, over the course of the book the reader really does learn quite a bit about the institution. The book is aimed at a French audience, however, so some prior knowledge of the organization is assumed, which can make for tough going for the non-French reader. The idea of an official order that celebrates achievement in the humanities (or the arts, or the sciences) sounds like an admirable idea to this reader from America, a nation that celebrates its movie stars and sports heroes far more than its academics. Nevertheless, one can easily see how the election process might be rife with opportunities for bias, manipulation, and corruption, and Daudet is relentless in his lampooning of this process. While the novel is sometimes funny, however, it often merely amounts to a tedious bummer.

The truth is, there isn’t really a single character to like in this book. Beyond Astier-Réhu and his cronies in the Académie, we have his wife and son, who are busy scheming to arrange marriages to their advantage, thus adding immorality to insult. Honoré de Balzac was an expert at satire. He could create stories with comically self-serving protagonists, but somehow he also managed to endow them with identifiable qualities that rendered them inexplicably lovable. Not so with Daudet, whose pointed satire doesn’t bring a whole lot of joy, just bitterness and ugliness. Whether or not you choose to read this novel should depend on your level of interest in French literature. If you are curious about the Académie, then this book may be worth your time. If you just like 19th century fiction and are looking for a dose of French naturalism, stick with Emile Zola.
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Friday, February 22, 2019

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Realist housewives of New Orleans
Published in 1899, Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening has been hailed as a groundbreaking work of feminist literature and a pioneering stylistic precursor to modernism. The book’s examination of gender roles was too ahead of its time for many critics of its day, some of whom belittled it as “sex fiction,” which it certainly is not. Viewing the novel with 21st century hindsight, however, it may be an admirable work of American literary naturalism, but the feminist message seems dulled by Victorian gentility and class cluelessness.

The novel opens at a resort on Grand Isle, an island off the coast of Louisiana where wealthy residents of New Orleans spend their summer vacations. Edna Pontellier and her husband Léonce are frequent visitors here and enjoy the company of a circle of friends and acquaintances who are also regulars at the resort. While her husband is often off doing his own thing, Edna begins spending a great deal of time with Robert Lebrun, the son of the resort owners. The two form a very close attachment, one that might blossom into full-blown love were it not for Edna’s marital status. Edna also forms a friendship with Mademoiselle Reisz, an unmarried pianist, and comes to envy the single woman’s independent lifestyle. After returning to New Orleans, Edna becomes dissatisfied with her role as wife and mother and begins asserting her independence, much to the chagrin of her husband.

Though much of what Chopin has to say about gender roles is pioneering for her time and still bears relevance today, she is less liberal and innovative in her views on class. Like so many writers of the Victorian era, Chopin finds the lives of wealthy people of the leisure class the only lives worth writing about. This novel smacks of “rich people’s problems.” At the island retreat, Edna’s greatest concerns are what to wear, what cushion to recline upon, and what fan to cool herself with. If she feels faint, there is always someone handy to brush her face with cologne water. She and her friends are waited upon hand and foot by black servants, whose problems aren’t worth mentioning. Because of her high social status, Edna is totally excused from the hard work of cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing typically requisite to the gender role of women of her era. It is difficult to identify with or feel sorry for characters among this social set. I’d rather read the novels of Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman—or, for that matter, Theodore Dreiser, Emile Zola, or Frank Norris­­—in which the female protagonists deal with more realistic and less aristocratic problems like poverty, discrimination, sexual harassment, or violence.

The Awakening doesn’t come across as so much a feminist statement as just a depressing look at the confines of marriage. Even so, Mrs. Pontellier enjoys more personal freedom than any other married person I know, male or female, even by 21st century standards. Somebody else takes care of her children, she spends her time and money as she chooses, pursues her artistic dreams, keeps her own apartment, and her spouse lets her run around with other lovers. Her living hell sounds like a fantasy camp to me. So what is she actually rebelling against? Monogamy? The solution to Edna’s problems would be divorce, though unfortunately that wasn’t a common option in 1899, thus leading to the book’s memorable final scene. Chopin is a fine writer who examines the psychology of her protagonist with a naturalist’s precision, but had I known what I was getting into I probably wouldn’t have chosen to spend a few hours of my time with this character and her social circle.
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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Best of Simon and Kirby by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

Golden Age masters of multiple genres
In the Golden Age of Comic Books, from the late 1930s through the 1940s, few comics creators achieved the renown of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The two were among the first writers and artists ever to sign their names to a comic book, and the phrase “by Simon and Kirby” was a badge of quality sought after by readers of that era. The duo operated their own independent studio, and produced comics for a variety of publishers. Their innovative style broke new ground in comic storytelling and exerted an enduring influence on the development of the art form. Published in 2009, The Best of Simon and Kirby publishes an impressive collection of this creative duo’s work, interspersed with brief informative essays by comics historian Mark Evanier.

Though Simon and Kirby are probably best known for the superheroes they created, the superhero stories included here are surprisingly disappointing. A Captain America story is included, as is the Fighting American, Simon and Kirby’s own self-knockoff of Captain America for another publisher. The Vision, the Fly, the Sandman, and Blue Bolt all make rather lackluster appearances. This version of the Sandman bears no resemblance to later characters with that name, and doesn’t appear to have any superpowers at all, just a silly generic purple and yellow costume. The short-lived character Stuntman shows some promise, but in general these 1940s superhero tales come across as somewhat amateurish, both in storytelling and art, especially when compared to Kirby’s later Silver Age glories in the genre. Likewise, the stories in the section on science fiction are nothing to write home about either.  

Though organized thematically, not chronologically, the comics definitely get better as the book goes along. Once past the superheroes and sci-fi, the quality of the stories improves considerably, both narratively and visually. The stories representing the romance, crime, western, and horror genres are excellent; so good, in fact, that they really make you wonder how superhero fiction became the dominant genre in comics at the expense of those other pulp fiction categories. Simon and Kirby’s stories were the result of collaboration both in story and in art, but in the second half of this book one can see the development of Kirby’s mature style, and it is a vast improvement over the stories earlier in the book. My favorite section of the book is the western chapter, largely because the art is just incredible. Nobody could draw western comics with such vivid detail and thrilling action as Kirby. Regrettably, the book ends on a low note with a final chapter entitled Sick Humor. Simon and Kirby produced a comic magazine called Sick to compete with MAD magazine, but the humor is neither very sick nor very funny, just stupid and juvenile.

There’s no denying that Simon and Kirby were groundbreaking creators who changed the course of comics history. Their prolific output and the staggering variety of projects they tackled is truly admirable, and the fun they had producing these comics is contagious. They didn’t hit it out of the park every time, however, and with daring experimentation sometimes comes failure. A lot of the comics in this book feel antiquated and clumsy, particularly when compared to the works of Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman, two individual writer/artists from this era whose works still come across as timeless and innovative when viewed today. Still, this book is a great nostalgia trip back to comics’ Golden Age and at least half of its pages are packed with some really great comics. For anyone interested in comics history, particularly fans of Kirby, this is a must-read.
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Monday, February 18, 2019

They Call Me Carpenter by Upton Sinclair

Jesus as the ultimate socialist
When one thinks of socialists and religion, there may be a natural tendency to assume that all reds, like Karl Marx, are atheists and materialists. That’s not always true, however, and in fact there is a movement of Christian socialism that even predates The Communist Manifesto. Author Upton Sinclair, being an outspoken critic of Christianity and organized religion in general, could not be classified within that movement, but there’s no denying that he is a great admirer of Jesus Christ. In the 1915 book edited by Sinclair, The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest, he devotes an entire chapter to Christ, consisting of excerpts from leftist literature that depict Christ as the ultimate socialist. Sinclair took this idea a step further with his 1922 novel They Call Me Carpenter, which stars Christ himself. In this book, Sinclair speculates what would happen if Christ visited 1920s America and witnessed firsthand the modern class struggle and oppression of the working class.

The novel takes place in Western City, a thinly disguised surrogate for Los Angeles. The narrator of the story is a young gentleman of the upper class named Billy, who has no apparent occupation and describes himself as a “club man.” Though a fellow of leisure, Billy is a World War I vet who saw combat in France. In the opening chapters, Billy goes to see a film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Upon leaving the theater he is caught up in a jingoistic, anti-German riot, and despite his record as a war hero is beaten for being a German sympathizer, simply for seeing the German film. Dazed and demoralized, Billy takes refuge in a church. As he gazes up at a stained glass image of Christ, he is astonished to see this Christ descend from the window and stand by his side. Christ then decides to go forth into the world, with Billy as his guide, and disguises his identity by adopting the name of Carpenter

The novel starts out pretty farcically. Sinclair lampoons Hollywood by having Carpenter meet up with rich movie moguls and decadent starlets who demonstrate the excesses of the wealthy. Billy and Carpenter venture into a beauty parlor/plastic surgery shop which resembles the face-stretching scene from Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. Then Carpenter meets some members of the working class and begins to see the rampant income inequality of this modern world and the horrible working and living conditions it engenders. He begins speaking out against the exploitation of labor and is branded as a “red prophet” by the press. The capitalist powers use every means to attack him, including legal action, public denunciation, and violence.

The novel eventually turns into a retelling of the Passion, with various characters standing in for figures from the Bible. After beginning the novel in such a looney tone, Sinclair then expects us to feel pathos for Carpenter, and quite frankly the mixture of satire and sermonizing is too incongruous to succeed on either front. Sinclair is good at injecting humor into politically charged novels, such as 100%: The Story of a Patriot or the books in the Lanny Budd series, but when he goes full-on satire he often fails, as in The Millennium. All the silly stuff about Hollywood only detracts from the serious points he’s trying to make about the class struggle. The main thrust of the story is that if Christ were to descend to Earth in the modern era he would be harassed by the police and vilified by the press. That’s not particularly clever and really not all that different from what happened to Christ 2,000 years ago; only now we have newspapers and movies. Though Sinclair has proven himself a great writer in better books, They Call Me Carpenter is neither very enlightening nor very funny, and instead just ends up being mostly a bore.
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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Humboldt’s Mexico: In the Footsteps of the Illustrious German Scientific Traveller by Myron Echenberg

Tangential asides inspired by Humboldt’s travels
Two subjects of great interest to me are the life of Alexander von Humboldt and the history of Mexico, so when I learned about Myron Echenberg’s 2017 book Humboldt’s Mexico I was eager to read it. During Humboldt’s landmark scientific expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804, he spent about a year in Mexico, but Andrea Wulf’s recent biography of Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, barely mentions this period of his travels, and Gerard Helferich’s book Humboldt’s Cosmos only devotes one chapter to it, so the promise of further information on this period of Humboldt’s Latin American journey heightened my interest. As the subtitle faintly indicates, however, there is a lot more about Mexico here than about Humboldt. Echenberg explains in his preface that the odd numbered chapters of the book will focus on Humboldt’s travels, followed by a chapter on a related topic. The truth, however, is that often you only get a few paragraphs of Mexican travelogue quoted from one of Humboldt’s publications, followed by Echenberg expounding at length on whatever subject strikes his fancy. A mix of history and travel writing covering Mexico past and present, the resulting book is not unlike a collection of the sidebar articles one finds in a Lonely Planet guidebook.

Some of the digressions are totally reasonable. There is much in this book about the history of Mexican mining, for example, which is perfectly justifiable since Humboldt was trained as a mining engineer in Prussia, and one of the main reasons he visited Mexico was to examine its silver mines. Echenberg may have taken things a bit far, however, when he devotes an entire chapter to the silver jewelry industry in Taxco, including a lengthy biography of Taxco silver artisan and entrepreneur William Spratling, followed by mini-biographies of Spratling’s students! Echenberg wanders even further afield when he draws tenuous comparisons between Humboldt and Diego Rivera, which provides an opportunity to discuss the Mexican mural movement. Rivera is my favorite artist, but even I found his presence here gratuitous. Even more inexplicably, Echenberg devotes an entire chapter to an archaeological site, Zempoala, that Humboldt didn’t even visit. The author’s justification for inclusion is his own mystification that Humboldt never mentioned the site. That’s just an example of how content with only the slightest connection to Humboldt is included, simply because the author finds it interesting. Humboldt’s Mexico is not a badly written book at all, but really the editor should have reined this one in a bit, because Echenberg goes off on tangents that are all over (and sometimes totally off) the map.

On the bright side, having traveled to about half of the locations that Echenberg discusses in this book, I did enjoy his travel info and informative historical recaps of the sites in question. The chapter entitled Culture and Higher Learning in Humboldt’s Mexico gives a very enlightening overview of the cosmopolitan intellectual landscape of Mexico City in the early 18th century. I mostly enjoyed the book because I am a confirmed Mexicophile, but if you’re specifically looking for information on Humboldt, this probably is not the book for you.

For those wanting to learn more on this subject, a very good documentary entitled Humboldt in Mexico: The Gaze of the Explorer was released in 2017 from Mexican director Ana Cruz. In addition to scenes of reenactment, it features several expert talking heads discussing Humboldt’s life, science, and legacy. As far as I can tell, Amazon doesn’t sell it, but you can perhaps get a copy through your local library.
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Monday, February 11, 2019

A Choice of Gods by Clifford D. Simak

Humanity’s stragglers: immortal but not immoral
Clifford D. Simak’s 1972 novel A Choice of Gods is a post-apocalyptic story of sorts, but without the apocalypse. Sometime around the year 2135, the vast majority of humanity mysteriously disappears from the Earth, leaving only a few hundred people behind. These survivors live somewhere near Minneapolis (Simak lived his entire life in western Wisconsin and Minnesota and set most of his fiction there.) Jason and Martha Whitney reside in a large stone house that tenaciously survives the ravages of time. That’s fortunate because when nearly all the humans vanished, those remaining discovered that they had stopped aging and could perhaps even be immortal, barring accidents. In addition, some have developed advanced parapsychic abilities, like interstellar telepathy. Nearby lives a band of Native Americans who have chosen to abandon modern ways and live off the land like their ancestors. To some degree they were forced to, since there aren’t enough people left to produce technology or operate power plants. There are, however, many robots remaining. Sentient and nearly indestructible, these former servants of mankind are now mostly masterless and searching for a purpose. One robot named Hezekiah takes it upon himself to preserve Christianity, a faith that humans have long abandoned.

It is easy to draw parallels between A Choice of Gods and Simak’s 1952 novel City, which is probably his most famous and acclaimed work. Both books deal with the distant future of the remnants of mankind on Earth after almost all the people have departed the planet. The Whitney house is very similar to the Webster house in City, and Jason Whitney serves as the custodian of human history and culture much as the Webster family did in that earlier book. The prevalence of robots, and their peaceful coexistence with mankind, is another common bond that unites the two novels. A Choice of Gods, however, does not have talking dogs or intelligent ants, though some robots in this book behave similarly to City’s ants. Both books speculate thoughtfully on the future of humanity, in particular questioning whether the human race will ever overcome the violent, greedy, and selfish flaws in its nature. What differentiates this book from City is that A Choice of Gods focuses more on religious and environmental issues.

The chronology of A Choice of Gods is a little screwy and difficult to follow. Due to the immortality of the characters, at times it is difficult to tell whether the story takes place 50 years or 5,000 years after the great disappearance. The main narrative of the novel seems to be closer to the latter. However, interspersed throughout the book are first-person journal entries that could take place at any time in the characters’ past (our future). Though these entries are dated, the years often don’t seem to correspond to any logical timeline.

Though A Choice of Gods asks some deep, dark questions about the purpose of mankind, Simak’s tone as usual is predominantly hopeful. This isn’t another post-apocalyptic book about warlords battling for scant resources. This novel emphasizes the cooperation of humans and robots in building a new society from the remnants of the old. This wild Earth, nearly empty of human habitation, constitutes an idyllic landscape that is inviting to the reader, but the peacefulness is not guaranteed and does face its share of threats. As always, Simak depicts mother nature and human nature with incredible sensitivity and insight. This book may be inferior to City, but it is far more than just a retread of old ideas. A Choice of Gods is yet another fine novel from this prolific sci-fi master.

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Friday, February 8, 2019

The Essential Captain America, Volume 1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Cap’s freshly thawed adventures of the 1960s
When I was growing up and reading comics in the 1970s and ‘80s, Captain America was my favorite character. He was never as powerful as most of the other heroes in the Marvel Universe, but he triumphed through sheer bravery, tenacity, and nobility of spirit. Captain America was created in 1941 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for Timely Comics. In 1964, after Timely became Marvel, the character was revived by Kirby and Stan Lee. When Lee and Kirby created the Avengers, Captain America was found frozen in a block of ice and brought back to life to fight evil anew. Shortly thereafter, Cap received his own adventures in the pages of Tales of Suspense, beginning with issue number 59. At issue number 100, Marvel changed the title from Tales of Suspense to Captain America. The Essential Captain America, Volume 1 reprints these adventures of the resurrected hero through issue number 102.

Tales of Suspense was a series shared between Captain America and Iron Man, therefore each character only got 10 pages in each issue. Even so, it’s pretty amazing what Lee and Kirby could do with Cap in just 10 pages, especially when you consider most of those 10 pages were devoted to fight scenes, with the creative duo constantly finding new ways to write and draw hand-to-hand combat. Even though Cap was an active member of the 1960s Avengers, a large portion of the stories here take place during World War II. That’s a bit disappointing, because the war stories get somewhat monotonous, and the only villain who’s in any way remarkable is the Red Skull. These WWII adventures of Cap and Bucky are not nearly as interesting as those created for the Invaders series that Marvel would publish beginning in 1975. 

The latter half of the book more satisfyingly focuses on Cap’s present-day (1960s) adventures, but still the Red Skull dominates almost every story. Although he may be Cap’s arch-enemy, he is not one of Marvel’s more creatively evil supervillains, just a sort of Lex Luthor-type mastermind who once served Hitler. He comes up with master plans, but somehow never manages to kill Cap when he has the chance. The number of times the Red Skull is presumed dead is just ridiculous. Some welcome variety is provided by the first appearances of Batroc the Leaper, MODOK, and the Super-Adaptoid. The scientific mafia A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics) is also featured in several of the later issues. There aren’t many guest stars in these stories but for the occasional Avengers cameo, until issues 98 to 100, in which Cap teams up with the Black Panther. 

Cap has a love interest who makes several appearances in this volume, but although he just about proposes marriage to her at one point, issue after issue goes by without him ever asking her name. Known only as Agent 13, she will eventually be revealed as Sharon Carter, though that doesn’t happen in this book. Cap also remembers a love he lost in World War II, which likely will eventually turn out to be Peggy Carter.

Even when the stories get tiresome, Kirby’s art is phenomenal. In the glory days of the Silver Age, no other artist could touch him. He only draws about two-thirds of this book, with various other artists filling in here and there. Personally, I think the Captain America stories of the ‘70s, when he teamed up with the Falcon, were better than these rather simplistic ‘60s tales. Still, it’s a lot of fun to read these newly-thawed adventures of my favorite childhood hero and to marvel at Kirby’s spectacular art.
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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Mizora: A Prophecy by Mary E. Bradley Lane

She blinded me with science
Mizora: A Prophecy is a feminist utopian novel by Mary E. Bradley Lane. Little is known about the author, though a brief preface states that Lane kept the writing of the novel a secret from her husband. Somehow it made it into the pages of the Cincinnati Commercial, where it received its first publication in serial form, under a pseudonym, from 1880 to 1881. Mizora was first published as a book in 1890.

The narrator, Vera Zarovitch, is a Russian aristocrat who, for speaking out against her own nation’s oppressive regime, is sentenced to Siberia. She escapes from this fate, only to be separated from her husband and daughter and lost in the Arctic. Her boat descends into a whirlpool, and she ends up in the mysterious land of Mizora, which is populated only by members of the female sex. The Mizorans are all beautiful blonde specimens of physical and mental perfection. Their civilization is much more scientifically advanced than our own, and through science they have achieved a society free of crime, poverty, and disease.

In addition to being a utopia, Mizora also falls into the category of Hollow Earth literature, along with science fiction works by Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Little attention is given to the fact that Mizora is underground, however. The Mizorans cannot see the sun, moon, or stars, but they do have clouds and rain. Light is provided by some sort of electrical phenomenon generated from an inconspicuous source. Another example of the Mizorans’ technological mastery is a “reflecting apparatus” that works like a videophone and can be used to simulcast events and presentations to a wider audience. The Mizorans are very advanced in chemistry, and are able to create food, including meat, from its molecular components, kind of like the food replicator from Star Trek: The Next Generation. By creating perfectly healthy food and environmental conditions, the Mizorans are able to ensure themselves perfect health and an extended life span, which in turn yields superb intellectual development. And, of course, they’ve found a way to reproduce without men.

For much of its length, Mizora feels like more of a fantasy wish list than a utopia. The land is full of good things, but there’s little logical explanation of how they came about. In that sense, as well as in literary quality, it is inferior to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 feminist utopian novel Herland. Sure, all things being possible, who wouldn’t opt for free education and financial security for all, but how? Perhaps the lack of defense spending might account for that, since Mizora apparently has no military. Lane too often uses vague references to science as a panacea for all ills and thus is less clear than Gilman in how the development of her utopian society was actually shaped by femininity. To its credit, Mizora doesn’t sound quite as fascistic as Herland, but both utopias rely on eugenics and the forced sterilization of criminals. At one point in Mizora, the Preceptress of the National College, “the leading scientist in the country,” drops one big racist bombshell. The fact that the Mizorans are all blonde and fair-skinned is no mere coincidence.

Mizora is quite critical of religion and perhaps succeeds more as a freethought utopia than a feminist utopia. Unlike many utopias, the book is not much of a political treatise. The Mizoran government is barely mentioned, but it comes across as vaguely libertarian. Lane gets points for originality, feminism, pacifism, and religious skepticism, but the racism and eugenics really taint the reading experience.
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Monday, February 4, 2019

The Shore Road Mystery by Franklin W. Dixon

Three jumbled mysteries and a lot of fat jokes
The Shore Road Mystery is the sixth book in the Hardy Boys series of mystery novels (those published by Grosset & Dunlap, with the blue spines). The author, Franklin W. Dixon, is a blanket pseudonym for any number of authors who worked on the series. The original version was published in 1928, but then, like all books in the series, the story was significantly revised to keep up with the times, and the new version was rereleased in 1964. It is the latter version that I’m discussing here.

In this installment, the boys have no less than three mysteries to solve. Their father, detective Fenton Hardy, is in New York hunting down a ring of gun smugglers. The Hardy Boys, in their hometown of Bayport, are faced with a string of auto thefts along Shore Road. In addition, one of their school chums has brought to their attention a clue to the location of a mysterious treasure buried by a pilgrim centuries ago. It should come as no surprise to anyone who reads these books that the three mysteries all end up being related.

Though this may be a children’s book, my middle-aged self had trouble keeping up with all the twists and turns in this convoluted plot. There are so many unmemorable villains it is difficult to tell them all apart, and by the end of the book I still couldn’t figure out who all was doing what and how each profited from the schemes they had hatched. Nevertheless, I am reading these books with my nine-year-old son, and there was enough excitement to keep him interested from start to finish. As always, there are plenty of chase, capture, and escape scenes to keep the plot moving, and every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. The amount of unconcern on the part of the Hardy parents, who allow their sons to roam around at all hours of the night chasing dangerous criminals, is truly ridiculous. Towards the end of the book, the boys come up with a plan to catch the car thieves that in real life would have surely ended in the termination of their young lives, but of course, through dumb luck everything works out all right in the end.

The Hardy Boys are meant to stand as exemplars of good manners and breeding, and for the most part they succeed. One thing I didn’t like about this book, however, is the extent to which it makes fun of their “stocky” friend Chet Morton. Poor Chet is the butt of so many fat jokes, both from his schoolmates and from the author, that it really constitutes bullying, albeit a form of bullying that was acceptable in the 1960s. This book includes an entire humorous subplot about Chet being on a diet. He has suddenly developed an interest in botany and decides to take a crack at vegetarianism. The whole thing is just an excuse to make fun of his weight and portray him as a hopeless glutton. Given that most of today’s children are probably heavier than what was considered “stocky” in the 1960s, it doesn’t set a great example for the young readers of today.

My son liked the book enough that he’s already talking about moving onto book seven. The more I get into this series, however, the more I realize how hacky these books are and wonder how I ever enjoyed them so much when I was younger. I guess in the minds of young readers the fantasy of crime-fighting independence counts for more than any coherence in the mystery itself.
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Friday, February 1, 2019

Fruitfulness by Emile Zola

Secular pro-life argument
Originally published in 1899 under the French title Fécondité, Fruitfulness is the first book in Emile Zola’s final series of novels, Les Quatre Évangiles (The Four Gospels). It would be followed by Travail (Labor or Work), Vérité (Truth), and Justice (never published because Zola had barely begun writing it when he died). The Four Gospels were intended to sum up Zola’s personal philosophy by exploring the four qualities he felt were necessary to a healthy society or, more specifically, to a flourishing France. In Fruitfulness, Zola proposes that the prosperity of France depends upon a robust birth rate and an ardent devotion to agricultural development.

The protagonists of The Four Gospels are all sons of Pierre Froment, who starred in Zola’s previous trilogy, The Three Cities. Mathieu Froment lives in the suburbs of Paris with his wife and children. He ventures into the city every day to work as a designer for a company that manufactures farming implements. Pierre and his wife Marianne have a loving relationship and a devil-may-care attitude toward producing children. As they gradually crank out more and more babies over the course of the book, a cast of supporting characters views them with disgust, contempt, and envy. Among the couples in the Froments’ social circle, representing a variety of social classes, each has an excuse for choosing to have few or no children. To them, the happiness that the Froments enjoy among their burgeoning brood is a slap in the face highlighting their own discontent. Mathieu inspires further ridicule and disbelief when he decides to leave his job at the factory and become a farmer. 

In examining the lives of the supporting characters, Zola highlights a number of societal ills related to reproduction and child-rearing, including neglectful nannies, corrupt child care professionals, exploited wetnurses, ghoulish orphanages, back-alley abortions, and unwarranted hysterectomies. The novel primarily consists of Zola contrasting the idyllic happiness of the baby-making Froments with the shameful and depressing lifestyles of their acquaintances who have chosen to limit their reproductive output. After a while, even Zola seems to realize how simplistic and unrealistic this dichotomy is, so about halfway through he attempts to balance the scales a little by inflicting some melodramatic tragedy upon his heroes. Despite some of the eyeroll-inspiring plot turns, however, the last several chapters are really quite entertaining, and the reader truly does care about the characters, even though the ensemble cast is so vast it is often difficult to tell them all apart. If ever a novel needed an explanatory list of characters or a genealogical tree, it’s this one.

Fruitfulness is not Zola’s best work. While he often crafts the lives of his characters to illustrate social ills, here he has the Froments and friends unrealistically debating the French birth rate in almost every chapter. It is also odd to see the liberal Zola taking such a conservative stance on these particular issues. At one point he suggests that any mother who doesn’t breastfeed her own children should be convicted of a crime. Alas, times were different back then. Though Zola wrote the novel to controvert Malthusian theory, we now can see how so many of the world’s problems are caused or heightened by overpopulation, making the book’s arguments seem antiquated and naive. Nevertheless, it’s still a good piece of writing for diehard fans of Zola. Those unfamiliar with his work, however, would be better off sticking to one of the better-known novels in his Rougon-Macquart series.
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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Native Soil by Alan E. Nourse

As exciting as mud
Alan E. Nourse was an American science fiction writer who was active from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. Like Michael Crichton, Nourse was also a physician and worked his way through medical school with the income he earned from his writing. Nourse also wrote nonfiction works on science and medicine, including children’s books, and often inserted medical ideas and subject matter into his science fiction. His novella The Native Soil, for example, briefly works a medical concept into a story of interplanetary exploration. It was originally published in the July 1957 issue of Fantastic Universe magazine.

After much speculation as to what sort of world might exist beneath the thick clouds of Venus, the first Earth expedition to reach the planet discovers that its terrain rather disappointingly consists almost entirely of gooey mud. Nevertheless, a pharmaceutical company finds a valuable resource buried within the mud and sets about trying to extract it. The problem is that every mining base or piece of equipment they set down on the surface ends up either sinking or becoming hopelessly mired in the muck to the point of malfunction. The company enlists Venus’s indigenous inhabitants, a race of intelligent beaver-like creatures who dwell in the mud, to help with the extraction. Though eager to assist, they are not smart enough to operate the Earth tech and end up hindering more than they help.

That’s pretty much it for most of the story’s length. The plot becomes a repetitive one-trick pony, humorously chronicling the foibles and failures of the extraction team. After about a half an hour of that, the reader comes to a twist ending that is clever but not really surprising. Though there are a few interesting ideas here, it is difficult to get excited about a story that is mainly about mud.

The Native Soil is the first work I’ve read by Nourse. In subject matter and tone, it reminded me of the writing of H. Beam Piper, whose work I enjoy quite a bit. Nourse shows enough promise that readers who enjoy vintage sci-fi pulp fiction will probably find at least a few good stories among his body of work, but this particular offering isn’t very impressive.
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Monday, January 28, 2019

One of Ours by Willa Cather

From Nebraska farm to French battlefield
Willa Cather’s novel One of Ours was published in 1922 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. Though not quite a masterpiece like My Ántonia or O Pioneers!, One of Ours is yet another strong work of literature from this master of Great Plains regionalism. As in those earlier works, Cather provides a naturalistic depiction of Nebraska farm life, but in this novel the scope broadens from its rural setting to the larger world stage with the outbreak of the First World War.

Claude Wheeler lives on his parents’ farm in Frankfort County, Nebraska. More thoughtful and sensitive than the average farm kid (as one would imagine Cather herself must have been), Claude chafes at the role in which the circumstances of his birth have placed him. He attends a local Christian college, but longs to go to the state university, both to satisfy his intellectual curiosity and to enjoy a more cosmopolitan social scene than his rural community affords. He wants the freedom to be his own person and live a life of his choosing, but family demands require him to quit school and manage the farm.

Trying to make the best of his situation, he enters into a misguided marriage. Cather telegraphs the inappropriateness of this match to such a degree that the reader wonders why Claude would go through with it, but within his insular community it seems his options for finding a life partner are limited. For a work written by a female author, it is surprising how unsympathetically the wife character is depicted. Cather’s take on this marital union is really quite one-sided, amounting to a trap for Claude that smothers any hopes and dreams he may have harbored. When America enters World War I, Claude enlists in the Army. For him, the war is a liberating experience, as it finally frees him from the stifling role that he’s lived his whole life.

Cather’s war narrative is rather meandering, focusing more on the mundane side of military life than on combat, and Claude is far more contemplative than the average doughboy. Music is a common theme in Cather’s fiction (see The Song of the Lark), and she couldn’t resist making one of the soldiers a classical violinist. There are hints of a nonphysical homosexual relationship between this character and Claude. Nevertheless, the book is neither as dull nor as wistful as John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers, and probably more true to the life of a typical soldier than Ernest Hemingway’s idiosyncratic A Farewell to Arms. The tone of One of Ours strikes a fine balance between disgust for war and reverence for military service. It has been criticized for not being anti-war enough, for making the Great War seem too glamorized or romantic, but the perspective from which Cather approaches the war, as viewed through Claude’s eyes, is truthful to the psychology of the character. She admirably captures the mixture of bravery, fear, shell shock, and awakening sense of purpose that might have fought it out in the mind of a Midwestern farm boy who finds himself at war in France.

One of Ours reads like two separate books connected by only a single thread: Claude. Not surprisingly for Cather, the first half set in Nebraska is really very good. Claude’s military career in Europe, however, is hit or miss. The book often defies expectations, but the ending feels like a foregone conclusion. Altogether, however, the pros outweigh the cons. I prefer One of Ours over both Three Soldiers and A Farewell to Arms. Even though it does have its share of faults, it may be the best American novel of World War I that I’ve read thus far.
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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Like a classical tragedy in novella form
Though John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men is often required reading in American high schools, I’m just getting around to reading this one in my middle age. I have run across film versions of this over the years, of course, so the plot held few surprises for me, but I still found it to be a very compelling read. The story is set in California during the Great Depression, but the themes it explores transcend time and place. Of Mice and Men is a master work of American regional realism, yet it has the taut concision and the mythic quality of one of Aesop’s fables or a classical Greek tragedy.

George Milton and Lennie Small are two migrant farm workers who drift together from ranch to ranch looking to take on work. George is a small, wiry, intelligent man while Lennie is a big, hulking fellow with a mental disability. Though not related, the two grew up in the same town, and George promised Lennie’s aunt before her death that he would take care of her nephew. Among their fellow migrant workers, the fact that the two travel together is unusual, and the pair share an uncommon loyalty to one another. That said, George isn’t always happy about the arrangement, as he continually scolds Lennie for being such an encumbrance. It is revealed that Lennie’s childlike intelligence has caused problems at their previous places of employment, bad enough that the two have had to flee violent repercussions. When the play opens, they have just landed a new position harvesting barley, and George hopes such troubles with Lennie will not repeat themselves. Despite their poverty, the two have a dream of saving enough to own a small patch of land, where they can grow their own crops and Lennie can tend to a herd of rabbits.

Steinbeck obviously wrote the book with the intention of it being adapted for stage and screen. Despite being written in prose, the structure of the narrative is very much that of a play. Each chapter is a different scene and begins with a couple paragraphs briefly describing the setting and the characters present. From that point forward, the text is almost entirely dialogue. What little physical description is present is written in the cursory style of stage directions. Though the story takes place in rural settings, there is little description or the natural environment. Most of the action occurs within barns or bunkhouses. Steinbeck offers no interior views into the character’s minds; instead, they soliloquize. Events that take place towards the conclusion of the drama are heavily foreshadowed in a manner that would probably go over just fine in a stage production but feels a bit heavy-handed in a prose work. In fact, if anything’s keeping Of Mice and Men from perfection it is this script-like format, which prevents Steinbeck from taking full advantage of the novella art form.

If this were set on the East Coast, rather than in Steinbeck’s beloved Salinas Valley, one could easily mistake this for a Eugene O’Neill drama. Though stark in its stage setting, Steinbeck’s grittily naturalistic depictions of human behavior generate a gripping psychological realism. Despite the Depression setting, the reader recognizes these characters and feels the plight of ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary situation. Whereas The Grapes of Wrath may have the grandeur of a historical epic, Of Mice and Men is a more personal, microcosmic study of humanity, yet the actions of its characters impart a universal moral lesson, almost like a biblical parable if not for its brutal fatalism. Belying its brevity, Of Mice and Men is a profound reading experience that despite its age has lost none of its emotional resonance.
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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown by David Yaffe

Four topical essays: two hits, two misses
David Yaffe’s 2011 book Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown is divided into four chapters, each of which is a thematic essay focusing on one aspect of Dylan’s art. The subjects are Dylan’s singing voice, Dylan and film, Dylan and blackness, and Dylan and plagiarism. Yaffe attacks these topics in a manner neither chronological nor systematic, but rather in a free-form style that often mimics the cadence of Dylan’s own writing, cherry-picking whatever bits of his encyclopedic knowledge of Dylanology is required to support each essay’s thesis.

The first two chapters were quite disappointing. Though I would consider myself an ardent fan of Dylan’s music, I’m certainly not a scholar on the subject, nor would I even call myself an aficionado, yet still I learned almost nothing new about Dylan from these first two essays. They are not so much about Dylan as they are about Yaffe’s opinions on Dylan. Their primary purpose is not to educate the reader but to showcase Yaffe’s writing, as if a clever turn of phrase were of the utmost importance. The chapter on Dylan’s vocal development is really just Yaffe giving you a summary of Dylan’s recording output while coming up with creative adjectives to describe the singer’s voice, “adenoidal” being the author’s oft-repeated favorite. The chapter on Dylan’s life in film also yielded little new information. The reader learns more about Martin Scorsese and Todd Haynes than about Dylan himself.

Fortunately, the latter two essays are a vast improvement over the first half of the book. Here is where the reader begins to see how a music critic approaching Dylan from a cultural studies perspective can actually enlarge your understanding of the man’s music. Essay number three, “Not Dark Yet,” examines Dylan’s relationship to African American musical culture, his periodic adoption of a “blackish” performing persona, and even his preference for African American women. Yaffe enlightens the reader on music history and makes insightful points, like when he draws parallels between Dylan’s emulation of black blues singers and the history of 19th and early 20th century minstrel shows. The final chapter focuses on accusations of plagiarism against Dylan and his penchant for alluding to or lifting from existing lyrics and melodies. Here one learns much about the sources of inspiration for many of Dylan’s songs. Though Yaffe points out there is some truth to the plagiarism rap, particularly in the case of Dylan’s borrowing from a contemporary Japanese novelist, in general Yaffe sees Dylan’s cut-and-paste songwriting in a positive light (as do I) and portrays Dylan as an artist who has deftly mined the public domain to become a master sonic assemblagist, a sort of Robert Rauschenberg of American music.

Yaffe finishes the book with a list of what he considers the 70 most important Dylan songs. His choices are not unexpected and pretty much trumpet the usual suspects, with selections heavy on the Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde, and Blood on the Tracks albums. He doesn’t really draw attention to any unsung gems, so again, not much to learn here. Every fan has probably already made up his or her mind what Dylan songs are the best. Likewise, if you are conversant enough in Dylanology to want to read this book, chances are you already know much of what is contained herein. Still, there are nuggets of insight here and there to make it worthwhile for hardcore fans.
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