Friday, September 20, 2019

The Inheritors by Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford

Least exciting conspiracy ever
Published in 1901, The Inheritors is a collaborative novel by English authors Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. The story is narrated by Arthur, who is also referred to by his title of landed nobility, Etchingham Granger. While touring a historic cathedral, Arthur meets an attractive woman in his tour group and begins flirting with her. He initially takes her for an American, but she nonchalantly informs him that she actually hails from the fourth dimension. Her purpose for coming to our world is to maneuver the overthrow of the established societal order and thereby become one of the powerful few who get to “inherit the earth.” She invites Arthur to be her toady and convinces him to let her pose as his sister. He acquiesces because he hopes to sleep with her, but the arrangement soon becomes uncomfortable when her political machinations begin to tarnish his family’s good name.

The situation sounds like it has the potential for farcical humor, but the authors play it deadly serious. Is she really from the fourth dimension, or is she just putting on strange airs? If her claims are true, then this would qualify as a science fiction novel. The authors never really explore the idea any further, however, so the reader never really understands the truth of her origin nor is given any reason to care about it. After the unusual claims she makes in the first chapter, Conrad and Ford pretty much just drop the idea and deliver a rather boring political thriller. Arthur is a writer by trade, and he gets a job penning weekly human interest pieces about celebrities. He becomes friends with one of his subjects, Foreign Minister Churchill (not Winston, but a fictional Edward), who becomes a target of the Dimensionalists. Much of the story focuses on the writer’s life, the business of journalism, and so forth, while spooky references are made to a Machiavellian railroad baron’s sinister plot to annex Greenland.

Try as I may, I just can’t wrap my head around Joseph Conrad. On the one hand, the guy has as great a command of the English language as anyone else in literature. On the other hand, he seems bent on using his talents to take various genres of adventure literature—nautical thrillers, tropical exploration, espionage, and in this case science fiction—and render them as boring as possible. I have no prior experience with Ford Madox Ford, who at this time had not yet found his pseudonym and was still writing under his birth name of Ford M. Hueffer. Whichever of them is to blame for this novel’s relentless obsession with the myriad stratifications of the English class system, I wish he would have stopped minutely describing people’s clothing, furniture, and eyebrow movements and just told me a satisfying story.

For readers living in today’s political climate, where politicians get away with murder, the idea that one corruption scandal is going to tear down the whole order of British government and shift power into the hands of a secret cabal seems incredibly naive. And for a far-fetched thriller, as far as plans for world domination go, this one is quite tame and tepid. For all this novel’s pompous malevolence, the gains that are won in the end feel like small victories, the inconsequential ramifications of a dull plot. Anyone approaching this book from an interest in early science fiction will be disappointed, and fans of Conrad and Ford no doubt have greater, better-known works on which to spend their reading time. The Inheritors is best left avoided.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Children of the Soil by Henryk Sienkiewicz

70 grueling chapters on love and marriage
Henryk Sienkiewicz
The novels of Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature, generally fall into two categories. First there are his historical epics, for which he is best known to English-language readers. Among these include Quo Vadis, set in ancient Rome, and his trilogy of Polish war novels: With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Michael. Secondly, we have his novels of modern Poland, a category that includes Children of the Soil, published in 1894. Although I consider myself a fan of Sienkiewicz, this is the worst work of his that I’ve ever read. This grueling examination of love and marriage proceeds at a sluggish pace without delivering any profound insight to justify its overly protracted length.

Warsaw businessman Stanislav Polanyetski travels to a country estate in order to collect a debt from his distant relative, Pan Plavitski. Polanyetski, commonly referred to in the text as Pan Stas, vaguely remembers playing on this farm as a child with Plavitski’s daughter Marynia. When he meets Marynia again, he finds that she has grown into an attractive woman. He immediately realizes that he is at an age where he should be thinking about taking a wife, and that Marynia would make a fine one. Through a stupid miscommunication, however, Stas and Marynia end up offending rather than courting one another. Disgruntled at his thwarted romantic dreams, Stas then makes a bonehead business transaction that puts the Plavitskis’ estate in jeopardy, a mistake which he must then spend many chapters trying to rectify. This faux pas feels like a rom-com contrivance designed to put obstacles in the way of a couple that are inevitably meant to be together. Sienkiewicz then introduces a dying child into the story as another contrivance to bring the two closer. What’s worse, upon winning Marynia’s love, Stas immediately starts flirting with other women, making him a difficult protagonist to sympathize with. After a while, even Sienkiewicz seems to grow tired of Stas and Marynia and feels the need to introduce a younger couple whose tortured romance predominates the second half of the book. A large ensemble cast of characters, many of whom feel unnecessary, are on hand to represent varied attitudes toward marriage, adultery, bachelorhood, spinsterhood, widowhood, etc.

One of the most disappointing things about this novel is its title. “Children of the Soil,” coupled with the book’s extensive length, would lead one to believe that this is an agricultural epic, like Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, for example, or Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. There is nary a peasant in sight here, however. The characters in this book may own country homes and buy and sell fields and forests, but none of them have ever picked up a shovel in their lives. This is strictly a book about rich people’s problems. Over the course of the novel it becomes exhausting to listen to these characters complain about their fluctuating incomes when their idea of destitution is being excluded from a certain social circle.

In English translation, this novel amounts to about 675 tightly packed pages, comprising 70 mostly lengthy chapters. I’ve read very long books before, including a few by Sienkiewicz. He may have seen this as his Anna Karenina, but there is nothing in the story to merit the exorbitant length of this text. Every chapter is overly stretched out and padded with unnecessary filler, making it feel like a colossal waste of time. Those wishing to read one of Sienkiewicz’s works on modern Poland would be better off going with In Vain or Without Dogma. The latter is pretty good, while the former is rather mediocre but certainly better than Children of the Soil.

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Monday, September 16, 2019

Christopher Columbus by Johannes V. Jensen

The climactic conclusion of an epic saga
From 1908 to 1922, Danish author Johannes V. Jensen wrote a series of six novels collectively entitled The Long Journey. When these books were translated into English, they were published in three volumes. Christopher Columbus is the third and final volume in this epic work by Jensen, who would later go on to win the 1944 Nobel Prize in Literature. Through a Scandinavian-centric narrative that is part science, part mythology, and much poetic license, The Long Journey chronicles the evolution of man from prehistoric Europe to modern civilization. The first volume of The Long Journey, entitled Fire and Ice, and the second, The Cimbrians, were both excellent reads. This third volume, not surprisingly, devotes a fair amount of its length to Columbus’s voyage of discovery to the New World, but the novel also ventures farther afield, covering centuries of history in its sweeping scope.

Though The Cimbrians ended in ancient Rome, this novel briefly flashes back to the Iron Age, when a mythical hunter gives up his nomadic ways to settle down and build himself a home, one that doubles as a pagan temple. From there, Jensen relates the story of St. Christopher and depicts the building of a Gothic cathedral before diving into the narrative of Columbus and his journey to the Americas. Though Columbus was an Italian who sailed for Spain, Jensen sees him as embodying a union between Northern and Southern European peoples and their natures. (Given the amount of genetic mixing in prehistoric Europe, to claim that Columbus had some Scandinavian DNA would not be a stretch). Columbus is also depicted as the representative of two opposing faiths, a philosophical admixture of his Christian religion and the pagan tradition of empirical scientific exploration passed from Aristotle on down. Jensen presents Columbus as a mythic hero of great size and strength, but also a tragic hero with the flaws of a real mortal man.

Though The Long Journey is essentially an extended saga of white European migration, Jensen displays a surprising sensitivity toward Native Americans. When the whites reach the New World, Jensen makes it clear that the European voyagers are meeting their long-lost cousins who migrated through Asia to the Americas during the Ice Age. Jensen also devotes a few chapters to the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés. In contrasting the Aztecs with the Spanish conquistadors, he asserts that the latter triumphed because the Europeans were technologically superior to the Americans in the realm of warfare, but by no means were they intellectually, morally, or culturally superior. For a Dane, Jensen is surprisingly well-read in the history of the Americas and has done his research well. He even comes up with a novel interpretation of the Aztec myth of the god Quetzalcoatl, one that cleverly harkens back to events in previous volumes of The Long Journey. Readers looking for a historical novel about the expeditions of Columbus and Cortés will find this a satisfying read, but it does allude to some of the characters and events from the prior volumes, so The Long Journey is best appreciated as a three-volume whole. Jensen doesn’t stop with the 16th century either, but continues his exploration of humanity’s cultural evolution right up to modern times, with even Charles Darwin making an appearance along the way.

The Long Journey is really an impressive masterpiece of world literature that powerfully and imaginatively combines the mystical romanticism of a mythic saga with the brutally rational realism of natural science. Jensen’s fascinating work really deserves to be better known by English-language readers, for whom there is fortunately an excellent translation by A. G. Chater.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton

The mouse that roared
The Napoleon of Notting Hill, a satirical novel by British author G. K. Chesterton, was originally published in 1904. Because the story is set in the future (the year 1984), this book qualifies as a science fiction novel, but just barely. In the book’s introduction, Chesterton makes fun of his science fiction contemporaries and their grand visions of the future, insisting that chances are the world of the future will be pretty much the same as the world we live in now. In fact, the London of the future that Chesterton depicts in this novel has more in common with medieval times than the present-day world of 1904. Those readers interested in early works of science fiction, therefore, would best avoid this book, as it is first and foremost a political satire. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except that this satire isn’t very funny at all.

Chesterton presumably set the novel in the future so that he could depict an alternate reality where democracy has overstayed its welcome. The apathetic citizenry of the world’s nations has happily acquiesced to the rule of despots. England no longer worships its aristocracy, so the ruler is no longer chosen by the divine right of heredity. Instead, when one king dies a new one is chosen at random from the general public. The lucky winner is Auberon Quin, an insignificant little man with a silly sense of humor. He takes his newfound regality as one big joke and institutes policies of pomp and pageantry under which minor city functionaries are given grand titles of nobility and forced to wear flashy uniforms bearing heraldic insignia. Unfortunately, Quin’s sense of humor (and Chesterton’s) leaves a lot to be desired. If you find a man putting his coat on backwards or hopping on one leg to be hilarious, then this is the novel for you. Quinn’s absurdities are more annoying than funny. Chesterton also doesn’t seem to realize that there is nothing less funny than a comedian who openly praises his own sense of humor.

King Auberon and his advisors come up with a plan to build a thoroughfare through London, but one stubborn holdout refuses to sell his land to the government. This is Adam Wayne, the Provost of Notting Hill. When the royal troops try to take his neighborhood by force, Wayne rebels against the monarchy, and Notting Hill secedes from England. From here the novel oddly transforms into a military narrative, complete with complex descriptions of troop movements. For some unexplained reason, no one uses guns in the late 20th century, as everyone fights with halberds, swords, and pole axes.

The final third of the book really wallows in its pretentious attempts at profundity, which feels very odd given the ridiculousness that precedes it. Chesterton depicts Wayne as an honest-to-God freedom fighter, but what’s the point when the tyranny in question is the ludicrous regime established in the opening chapters? Hundreds die through violent bloodshed, yet Quin thinks it’s all a joke. Meanwhile, through the character of Wayne, Chesterton seems to be saying that the loss of human life is justified as long as it results in the mythology of heroes and statues of martyrs that keeps mankind aspiring to something beyond complacency. Society needs both the fanatic and the satirist, the author claims, but this is one satirist I could have done without.

About the best thing I can say about this book is that Chesterton has a fine command of the English language. What he chooses to say with it, however, is neither entertaining or enlightening. If I ever cross paths with Chesterton again, I’ll stick with his mystery stories.
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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

A Life Force by Will Eisner

Even better than A Contract with God
Will Eisner is one of the most acclaimed and influential creators in the history of comics. His 1978 graphic novel A Contract with God is credited with popularizing the term “graphic novel” and pioneering the art form of the literary graphic novel as we know it today. In that landmark work, Eisner presented a series of stories set during the Great Depression in a predominantly Jewish tenement building on fictional Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx. Though not a sequel per se, Eisner went on to revisit this setting and similar subject matter in his graphic novel A Life Force, published in 1988. A Life Force is considered the second book in a Contract with God trilogy, with the third book, entitled Dropsie Avenue, published in 1995.

Though not as well-known as A Contract with God, in many ways A Life Force surpasses its predecessor. While that first book was technically a collection of short stories, A Life Force is truly a novel, one complete work of literature that develops over the course of roughly 140 beautifully illustrated pages. It features an ensemble cast of characters whose lives are interwoven throughout. Jacob Shtarkah is a Jewish carpenter who struggles not only to find enough work to survive but also to find some meaning to his existence. Elton Shaftsbury II is a former industrial aristocrat whose fortune is destroyed by the Stock Market Crash of 1929, forcing him to move into a Bronx tenement and restart his career at the bottom rung of the social ladder. He falls in love with Rebecca, Jacob’s daughter, despite the fact that her mother forbids her to marry a gentile. The tapestry of supporting characters includes rabbis, mobsters, union organizers, immigrants, refugees, neighborhood kids, communists, the homeless, and the mentally ill, all of which add color, complexity, and historical authenticity to the narrative.

Throughout the story, Eisner intersperses newspaper clippings from the era, which help to provide historical context to the social and political landscape of the Depression. These nonfiction interludes call to mind the collage technique employed by author John Dos Passos in his U.S.A. trilogy on American society in the 1930s. In fact, A Life Force bears a strong affinity to many of the great socially conscious novels of labor and class from the early 20th century, such as the writings of Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, or Frank Norris. Rather than a contemporary account of the conditions of that era, Eisner writes from the perspective of hindsight, looking back on the world of his childhood. This novel, however, is not merely an exercise in romantic nostalgia or semiautobiographical reminiscence, as was sometimes the case with A Contract with God. In A Life Force one senses Eisner earnestly and intently striving to craft a literary epic that sheds light and insight on the Depression—his Grapes of Wrath, if you will. He goes far beyond the mere telling of individual stories to draw philosophical speculation into mankind’s universal drive for survival. What is this life force that keeps humanity struggling and slaving, like the cockroach, for some quixotic semblance of immortality?

Even the art in A Life Force is a step above the excellent work in A Contract with God. Here the page layouts are even more innovative, the characters more expressive, and the cityscapes more intricately detailed yet timelessly impressionistic. All three works in the trilogy were originally printed in a sepia-toned ink that subtly evokes both the antiquity of memory and the squalor of Dropsie Ave. Expertly written and drawn, A Life Force is a masterful work of graphic storytelling and a beautiful work of art.
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Friday, September 6, 2019

A Life in Shadow: Aimé Bonpland in Southern South America, 1817–1858 by Stephen Bell

Humboldt’s sidekick no more
Aimé Bonpland is best known for having accompanied explorer Alexander von Humboldt on his expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804. While many narratives of that journey relegate Bonpland to a “sidekick” role, he was a distinguished scientist in his own right. Following their monumental expedition, Humboldt never again ventured to the Americas, but Bonpland did return to South America in 1817 and lived there until his death in 1858. Bonpland was a world-renowned botanist, but he was also a physician who practiced medicine in order to finance his botanical research. During his four decades in South America, Bonpland moved around between Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil and conducted scientific expeditions in the Río de la Plata region. He spent much effort trying to establish profitable agricultural enterprises in the production of maté (a tea-like beverage), tobacco, and wool from merino sheep. Many of his endeavors were thwarted by political turmoil, and he was even imprisoned by the dictator of Paraguay for nine years. In his 2010 book, A Life in Shadow, Stephen Bell tells the story of those years in Bonpland’s life and sheds light on his unsung scientific achievements.

This book is aimed squarely at an academic audience and will likely appeal primarily to scholars of Latin American history. Bell assumes a great deal of prior knowledge on the geography and history of South America, and in particular the various revolutions and rebellions that took place during Bonpland’s tenure there. Researchers who want to know where Bonpland was on a given date and what he was doing there will find this book a treasure trove of data. It often reads, however, like a history of Bonpland’s correspondence rather than a narrative of his life. General readers approaching this book from an interest in Humboldt, hoping to find stories of geographical and scientific exploration, may be disappointed by the fact that Bell chooses to focus more on Bonpland’s political and economic activities. In the process, the scope of Bonpland’s scientific research somehow gets lost. Bell states, for example, that in 1849, “Bonpland identified plant species more rapidly than at any other part of his southern South American residence,” yet none of those species are named, and the reader remains largely clueless as to the range or importance of Bonpland’s botanical discoveries. Instead, Bell chooses to focus intently on Bonpland’s work with maté, merino sheep, tobacco, and to a lesser extent, tea.

If ever a book needed a map it’s this one. One map of vegetation zones is included, but it really could have used an overall political map of the regions, cities, and rivers that Bonpland frequented. A chronology of Bonpland’s life, or at least of his post-Humboldt career, would also have been helpful. Though the wide range of Bonpland’s polymathic interests and activities is staggering, it seems that almost every project he undertook remained unfinished. Bell explains that this was largely due to political instability in the regions in which Bonpland worked. The constant jumping back and forth between uncompleted projects makes it difficult to get any overall sense of the trajectory of Bonpland’s career or the significance of his accomplishments.

Bell set out to write the most comprehensive account of Bonpland’s life and career in South America, and in that he has no doubt succeeded, judging by the wealth of information contained in this book. A Life in Shadow will prove valuable to scholars of Latin American history, but nonacademic readers looking for an accessible overview of Bonpland’s life and work may find that Bell’s data-intensive study makes it hard to see the forest for the trees.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The British Barbarians by Grant Allen

Lampooning English respectability
The British Barbarians, a novel by Grant Allen, was published in 1895. Allen, a science writer, novelist, and essayist, was born in Canada but lived most of his adult life in England. He was an outspoken atheist and proponent of evolution. His devotion to rational science and aversion to religion are both evident in The British Barbarians, an iconoclastic work that pokes fun at British customs of class and respectability. Regrettably, the book begins with one of the most unnecessary and pretentious introductions ever to open a novel, an exercise in self-praise in which Allen trumpets his own self-righteousness and unswerving steadfastness of purpose in the face of critical adversity and editorial censure. After having gotten off on that wrong foot, thankfully the book that follows is much better and often displays a refreshingly irreverent sense of humor.

Philip Christy, a railroad clerk and resident of Brackenhurst, Surrey, is just another common middle-class Englishman overly concerned with elevating his social position. One day he is approached by a stranger, an apparent tourist who inquires where one might find lodgings in the neighborhood. The well-dressed stranger speaks perfect English, but is apparently not from England since he has no knowledge whatsoever of English customs. Despite efforts at polite interrogation, Philip is unable to get the stranger to state from where he hails. The man will only admit to being an “alien” in England. After a couple further meetings, Philip develops a reluctant acquaintance with this apparent foreigner, whose name is revealed to be Bertram Ingledew. While Philip remains suspicious of this stranger, Ingledew forms a close friendship with Philip’s sister Frida, also known by her married name of Mrs. Robert Monteith.

As Philip and Frida educate Bertram on English manners and customs, he proves himself incredibly naive and ignorant as to the ways of society. His utter fish-out-of-water strangeness, however, allows him to view English customs objectively, and he openly and unabashedly criticizes British mores. Though a newcomer to English society, Bertram is a well-traveled man and very knowledgeable about other cultures. Viewing English customs as an anthropologist would, he constantly compares England’s restrictive social norms with the taboos of third-world cultures. Starting small with a critique of England’s confusing coinage and moving on to the unreasonable demands of fashion, Bertram eventually works his way up to hot button topics like religion, sex, and marriage, much to the shock and chagrin of his hosts and their social circle.

Allen’s humorous critiques of English social conventions are quite funny and pointedly insightful, though he does tend to dwell too long on each joke. Since the first half of the novel is so funny, it is all the more disappointing when the second half devolves into a melodramatic romance, one that comes across as strangely commonplace for the Victorian era, even though Bertram is an advocate of women’s liberation and free love. What purports to be a statement of feminine independence feels more like a lovestruck woman blindly following a cult leader.

There is a science fiction element to this novel, which makes it a pioneering work in that genre. I won’t reveal what that entails, but it is pretty obvious from chapter one. The book also includes a rather audacious freethought critique of religion, for which Allen is to be commended. The British Barbarians isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but it was cutting edge for 1895. Today, it will mostly appeal to those interested in early science fiction.
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Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Time is the Simplest Thing by Clifford D. Simak

A paranormal pathway to the stars
Although science fiction writer Clifford D. Simak wrote quite a few books about time travel, the misleadingly titled Time is the Simplest Thing isn’t one of them. First serialized in 1961 issues of Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine, this novel was originally entitled The Fisherman, which really isn’t any better at evoking what the book is actually about.

The story takes place at an unspecified time in the future, near enough to seem mostly recognizable yet distant enough to allow for flying cars. Despite this evidence of technological advancement, human society has regressed in some ways. Mankind has given up on the idea of manned space travel, at least to interstellar distances, because of the impossibility of protecting astronauts from cosmic radiation. An alternative method has been developed, however, by which special individuals with paranormal powers can explore other star systems through a form of telepathic travel. A megacorporation named Fishhook holds a monopoly on this method of space travel and uses it to find and develop alien technologies to sell for profit. The consequent advances in the development of paranormal abilities has had an adverse side effect, in that the majority of humans who are not so endowed have reverted to an almost medieval level of superstition, equating telepathic and telekinetic powers with witchcraft. Outside the confines of Fishhook, those with paranormal abilities, or “parries,” are persecuted and lynched like witches of old.

Shepherd Blaine is a telepathic employee of Fishhook tasked with visiting planets orbiting distant stars. On one of his missions, he meets a mysterious alien life form with whom he communicates telepathically. Though not his first encounter with an ET, this meeting will change his life forever. The creature openly shares its mind with Blaine, thus depositing an alien presence within the human explorer’s psyche. This alien mind remains with Blaine even after his consciousness returns to Earth, essentially making him part alien. Fearing that his employers will discover his alienness and eliminate him for it, Blaine flees Fishhook and runs for his life.

Though the plot does feature brief moments of time travel and space travel, the story focuses mostly on the paranormal. A whole spectrum of powers and abilities are exhibited by characters in the book. Sometimes Simak is a little too vague in his descriptions of these phenomena. Rather than just telling us that Blaine has acquired certain powers from his alien stowaway, some more thorough explanation and vivid description of the experience of those powers would have been helpful. As is often the case with a Simak novel, he crams a lot of ideas into this one book, which means not every concept gets fully developed. However, the science isn’t so half-baked that the story lapses into the realm of fantasy (as in his novel Highway of Eternity), and Simak’s conjecture into the political and social ramifications of paranormal activity is quite insightful.

Whatever flaws the book has in its sci-fi speculations are made up for by the fact that it is simply an exciting adventure novel. Blaine’s flight from Fishhook is like one of Jason Bourne’s chase movies but with all sorts of weird extraterrestrial tech and psionic powers thrown in. Time is the Simplest Thing was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel. I don’t think it is among the author’s very best—not on a par with books like City, Way Station, or a personal favorite, Mastodonia—but it is a very good example of Simak’s visionary brilliance and an entertaining read.

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Friday, August 30, 2019

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

Would have benefited from more realism and less humor
In his satirical political novel It Can’t Happen Here, Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis envisions the rise and reign of a totalitarian fascist dictatorship in the United States of America. Published in 1935, the characters and events portrayed in the book are patterned after the rise of fascist regimes in Italy and Nazi Germany, as well as the platform of political demagogue Huey Long, the Louisiana governor who planned to run for president but was assassinated just before this book was published. Though Lewis presents a bleak and brutal depiction of America’s possible future, he often does so with tongue in cheek, and not entirely successfully. Nevertheless, more than a few of the acts of corruption, chicanery, and atrocity that Lewis depicts here bear a startling resemblance to the political climate in 21st century America. If ever this novel were due for a revival, now is the time.

The story is mostly told from the perspective of Doremus Jessup, an aging newspaper editor in Fort Beulah, Vermont. Jessup watches in chagrined disbelief as populist candidate Buzz Windrip wins the presidency with a ludicrous platform emphasizing wealth redistribution and racism. The Windrip administration, having amassed its own private army of conservative zealots, strips the Congress and Supreme Court of their powers, thus eliminating any checks to Windrip’s agenda. Soon martial law, forced labor, censorship of the press, executions without trial, and other familiar tactics of fascism become the norm in America. The government takes Jessup’s newspaper from him and forces him to operate it as a propaganda tool for the new regime.

Having an inkling of the basic premise of this novel, I approached this book with enthusiasm, but I soon became exasperated by its flippant and frivolous tone, as Lewis’s sense of humor frequently clashes with the disturbing subject matter he’s depicting. I realize this was intended to be a work of satire, but even when he is talking about torture, concentration camps, and executions, Lewis inappropriately loads his prose with ostentatiously clever turns of phrase, homespun metaphors, and sarcastic witticisms. All the silly character names and period slang make the text genuinely uncomfortable to read and only serve to trivialize the points Lewis is trying to make. Those humorous embellishments may have worked in Babbitt, but they feel woefully out of place here. This would have been a much better book if Lewis had gone dark and serious with it, like Jack London’s The Iron Heel or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. At several points in the novel, Lewis pokes fun at Upton Sinclair and his utopian ideas, but the fact is Upton Sinclair can write a better novel of antifascist social commentary than this one, and still manage to do so with a sense of humor, as can be seen in 100%: The Story of a Patriot, for example.

When compared to developments in American politics over the last couple decades, Lewis’s vision of a fascist America seems startlingly prophetic. It Can’t Happen Here? Oh, yes it can! Thankfully, reality seems to be moving at a slower pace than the plot of this novel. Let’s hope we can rise to the occasion and stop short of unbridled authoritarianism. One can’t help but admire Lewis’s audacity in publishing this politically charged work, particularly at the time period in question, when fascism was openly enjoying its European heyday. For that Lewis is to be commended, but admiring and enjoying are two different things, and at times the writing in It Can’t Happen Here just gets on the reader’s nerves.
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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Best of The Spirit by Will Eisner

Not the best collection, but superb comics nonetheless
The Spirit, created by Will Eisner, may very well be the most influential comics series ever created. Each week from 1940 to 1952, Eisner produced a syndicated newspaper supplement with a 7-page Spirit story. He wrote and drew most of the stories himself, though over time he did enlist help from other creative talent, particularly while he was off serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. The Spirit is more of a police detective than a superhero, though he does wear a mask and miraculously survives a great deal of physical abuse. Although the series has a film noir style that grounds it in the mystery and crime genre, The Spirit gave Eisner the opportunity to explore multiple genres, including comedy, romance, horror, and even science fiction. Anyone who has read superhero or sci-fi comics from the 1960s knows how mind-numbingly simplistic the typical seven page stories of this “Golden Age” often were, but with The Spirit Eisner often turned out complex and innovative narratives comparable to a cinematic experience. For decades to come, comic books and newspaper strips in multiple genres would be influenced by Eisner’s groundbreaking work.

In 2000, DC Comics began reprinting The Spirit comics in their Spirit Archives series, and in 2005 they published The Best of The Spirit. Since this collection is published by DC, you of course get the obligatory foreword by Neil Gaiman, whose work has little in common with that of Eisner’s, but he does lavish sufficient praise on the master. To anyone who has never read The Spirit before, the 22 stories included in this “greatest hits” anthology provide more than ample demonstration of Eisner’s genius as a graphic storyteller.

But is this really “The Best” of The Spirit? The selections here seem to be chosen on the basis of two criteria: First, to include as many as possible of the sexy “dames” that were one of the series’s claims to fame. These femme fatales were certainly an important factor in the popularity of the strip, so their inclusion is no surprise, but I think the editors went a little overboard in that direction. Secondly, a wisely conscious attempt is made to eliminate any appearance by Ebony White, the Spirit’s African American sidekick who was unfortunately drawn as a stereotypical blackface caricature. He shows up in only two panels in this entire volume, including one unavoidable cameo in the very first Spirit adventure. This origin story itself is certainly not among Eisner’s better works, but one can understand the desire to include it here. It is one of two pre-WWII stories included, neither of which is artistically exceptional. In the selection of stories, one wishes there had been less emphasis on the Spirit’s female adversaries and more attention paid to Eisner’s innovation in page layout.

The often murky and sometimes blurry quality of the reproductions in this volume is disappointing. The unavoidable fact that the original Spirit comics were printed on a tabloid-sized sheet, and are thus reduced to about a quarter of their size here, contributes to a frustrating lack of clarity. I remember when Kitchen Sink Press used to publish reprints of The Spirit, however, and their reproductions, even at reduced size, looked a lot better. They even had a series, The Spirit Color Album, printed in full color in a large 9 x 12-inch format. When Kitchen Sink went under in 1999, DC somehow got the rights to The Spirit, and they’ve been reprinting the series ever since. If this volume is any indication of the reproduction quality of their Spirit Archives series, however, I’d rather hunt up the old Kitchen Sink editions.
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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Great Stone of Sardis by Frank R. Stockton

From the top of the world to its deepest depths
Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902) was a popular American author of fiction in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries. His novel The Great Stone of Sardis was originally published in 1891, which is good to know before reading this novel. Otherwise, the reader may wonder what’s going on when the story opens in the year 1947 and Stockton starts describing futuristic ocean liners. This is a science fiction novel similar in style and subject matter to the works of Jules Verne. Stockton isn’t quite the writer Verne is, however, and although The Great Stone of Sardis was likely groundbreaking for its time, to the 21st century reader it feels a little pedestrian.

Roland Clewe is a scientific genius and inventor who operates a laboratory in Sardis, New Jersey. A modern-day Renaissance man in the vein of Thomas Edison, Clewe’s major area of expertise is electrical technology, but his scientific explorations lead him to dabble in all areas of the sciences. The novel consists of two main story lines that run parallel to each other throughout the book. First, Clewe sponsors an expedition to discover the North Pole. He chooses not to go himself, but he creates the technologically advanced submarine that makes the journey possible, and he selects the crew to undertake the voyage. While that mission is in progress, Clewe remains at his lab in Sardis to work on his latest invention, the Artesian ray. This is a device capable of projecting a powerful beam of light deep into the Earth, rendering successive layers of rock and soil transparent so that one can view and study the subterranean strata. With the aid of telescopes directed downward, Clewe is able to peer several miles beneath the surface of the Earth.

Surprisingly, the polar expedition proves rather dull. The narrative consists primarily of uninspired descriptions of water and ice. Unlike in a Verne book, one doesn’t learn interesting facts about the environment along the way. Stockton does liven up the story a bit by giving the explorers an adversary, an evil Pole named Rovinski who attempts to sabotage the voyage and claim scientific glory for himself. Far more entertaining, however, is the book’s other half, which deals with Clewe’s investigations beneath the surface of the Earth. The Artesian ray is a truly unique and original concept, and it is fun to follow Clewe’s experiments as he uses the ray to draw conclusions about the Earth’s composition. The reader has to wait a long time, however, before discovering the nature of the “Great Stone” mentioned in the title, which is only revealed a few chapters before the book’s conclusion.

Looking back in hindsight, the science depicted in this science fiction comes across a bit silly. What makes up for that, however, is the fact that Stockton has populated the tale with likable characters, and the whole thing is told in a fun, lighthearted style that makes for a brisk and mildly charming read. Clewe and his companions never really encounter the sort of deadly dangers faced by Verne’s heroes. Instead, they live pretty happy lives and genuinely seem to enjoy scientific discovery, a feeling that proves contagious to the reader. Even romantic subplots are handled in a realistically untroubled manner, opting for comfortably contented married couples rather than tempestuous lovers. In terms of scientific vision, The Great Stone of Sardis doesn’t really measure up to the better science fiction works of Verne or H. G. Wells, but it is a fun read for fans of early sci-fi.
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Friday, August 23, 2019

Whiteoaks by Mazo de la Roche

Canuck Dynasty
Whiteoaks, or Whiteoaks of Jalna, is the second book in the Jalna series of novels by Canadian author Mazo de la Roche. Whiteoak is the name of a family, and Jalna is the name of their farm in southern Ontario. Over a period of more than three decades, de la Roche published 16 novels in the Jalna series, which became immensely popular in Canada. When all the sequels and prequels are taken into consideration, this is the eighth book in the chronology of the Whiteoak family, but the second to be published. The first book, simply entitled Jalna, was a charming slice of Canadian life that introduced the reader to some interesting characters. Whiteoaks, unfortunately, ventures more into soap opera histrionics and makes for a far less satisfying read.

Whiteoaks picks up shortly after the conclusion of the first novel. Life goes on as usual at the Jalna farm, where horses, apples, and big family dinners are the main concerns, except that some members of the family are still licking their wounds from the romantic turmoil that took place in the previous book. The whereabouts of brother Eden, who took off when his marriage fell apart, are still unknown. His wife Alayne has returned to her former life in New York, though she still feels a sort of psychic connection drawing her to Jalna. Some marital bonds survived the last book, bringing about the arrival of new babies to the Whiteoak clan. The primary focus of Whiteoaks, however, is the prospects of 19-year-old Finch. Music is the one love of his life, but his older half-brother and guardian Renny, who wishes Finch would pursue more practical pursuits, has forbidden him to practice music until he gets his grades up. Meanwhile, Finch strikes up a friendship with Arthur Leigh, a wealthy boy from his school. For the first time in his life, Finch feels the pull of a life outside the confines of Jalna, but the more he struggles to be his own man the more he only inspires disappointment and disdain in his family members.

One problem with this book is that the Whiteoak clan consists mostly of males, and de la Roche just isn’t that great at writing male characters. Renny is a red-headed Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Piers is a macho redneck, Eden is a womanizing egotist, and Finch is so sensitive and effeminate it seems as if de la Roche couldn’t make up her mind whether he’s gay or straight. Though the book was published in 1929, Finch’s friendship with Arthur Leigh is either a throwback to antiquated depictions of male friendships from 19th century romanticism or de la Roche has a definite problem writing from a masculine perspective. (Of course, there are also plenty of male authors who can’t write realistic women.) Even Finch’s two elder brothers question his sexual preference, proving that this homosexual subtext isn’t merely a figment of the reader’s imagination. The point is not whether Finch is or isn’t gay, but rather that he is unrealistically written. What’s worse, he mopes and whines his way through much of the book. Perhaps in the next novel de la Roche will find a better direction for the character, but in this novel his relentless insecurities, failures, and emotional outbursts add up to one depressing protagonist.

There’s still a fun family dynamic among the Whiteoaks at times, particularly when the 101-year-old grandmother is involved. It seems odd, however, that although the men in the distinguished Whiteoak clan would be considered “catches” in their town, their prospects for romance are so limited that they have to resort to chasing after their siblings’ spouses and servants. This volume of the Jalna series veers a little too far from realism into melodrama. I hope the next book recaptures some of the charm that made Jalna so enjoyable in the first place.
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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Micah Clarke by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Much historical detail at the expense of excitement
Micah Clarke, a historical novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, was originally published in 1889. This was Conan Doyle’s second novel, following A Study in Scarlet, the novel that introduced Sherlock Holmes. While A Study in Scarlet was a surprisingly remarkable debut and a groundbreaking masterpiece of the mystery genre, Micah Clarke reads like the work of a rather green writer who is still trying to find his literary voice. Like most historical novels of the late nineteenth century, the book bears the strong influence of Sir Walter Scott, and not in a good way (like Ivanhoe) but in a bad way (like Waverley or Rob Roy), in that the author takes every opportunity to veer away from the plot into detailed expository digressions that pile on historical detail but cause the main narrative to crawl forward at a snail’s pace.

The novel takes place during the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, also known as the Pitchfork Rebellion. This was an attempt by Protestants to overthrow the Catholic King of England, James II, in favor of James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, the previous king’s illegitimate son who claimed to be the rightful heir to the throne. The story is narrated in the first person by Micah Clarke himself, who is telling his grandchildren of his involvement in the rebellion 50 years prior. Micah is the son of a leather merchant and tanner in Hampshire. His father had previously fought alongside Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar and is renowned as a devout Presbyterian and outspoken fighter for the Protestant cause. For that reason, when Monmouth’s troops begin to mobilize, a messenger is sent to Micah’s father to enlist his sword in support. The elder Clarke is too old for battle, however, so his son volunteers to go in his place. Micah is a young man of impressive size and strength who can handle a sword, but he is as yet untested in real combat. With his father’s blessing and a pair of traveling companions, he sets out on a quest to join up with Monmouth’s army and put a Protestant king on the throne.

Much more time is spent getting to the fight than in the actual fighting itself. Micah and friends wander from village to village, meeting characters who relate lengthy back stories of their own military feats in various conflicts of the past. Occasionally a skirmish arises with those who oppose the rebellion. Through it all, it is difficult to tell why exactly Micah has chosen to fight in this war, other than to please his father. He seems to be of a nonviolent disposition and not a particularly fervent Protestant. Although Conan Doyle admires the bravery of these men who go off to battle to fight for an ideal, he pokes fun at Puritan extremists who act out of religious zealotry, in contrast to Micah and his more moderate friends. In addition, the Duke of Monmouth is depicted as a coward not worth following into battle. When Micah finally does see combat, Conan Doyle gets so bogged down in the historical accuracy of troop movements that much of the soldier’s experience of war gets lost in the details. To its credit, the last several chapters of the book, which deal mostly with the aftermath of the rebellion, are actually quite good, but it’s a long haul in getting there.

Micah Clarke succeeds as a historical novel, in that Conan Doyle gets across the history lesson that he wants to convey, but as an adventure novel or war story it leaves a lot to be desired. You really have to have an eager interest in the religious history of England to enjoy this book. Conan Doyle has other historical novels that make for a better read, including The White Company and Sir Nigel, both of which take place in medieval times, and The Great Shadow and Uncle Bernac, both set in the Napoleonic era.
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Monday, August 19, 2019

Epic Films: Casts, Credits and Commentary on More Than 350 Historical Spectacle Movies, Second Edition by Gary Allen Smith

An entertaining and informative guide for the sword-and-sandal fan
If you like movies about gladiators, centurions, argonauts, and apostles, then Gary Allen Smith has compiled the book for you. I am an enthusiast of ancient-world movies myself, and Epic Films is the best viewer’s guide that I have found on the genre. In the second edition, Smith catalogs 353 historical epics, providing cast and credits for each, as well as descriptive copy including plot outlines (with spoilers, unfortunately) and interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes on the making of many of these films. Smith’s personal critiques are insightful and articulate, though the book really should have had a better proofreading because it does contain a lot of typos.

The second edition of Epic Films was published in 2004. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is the most recent major film to be profiled, while Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy is mentioned as being in production at the time of publication. Smith mostly skips over the silent era, with a few exceptions. He does include D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, for example, but not the 1914 Italian epic Cabiria. Beyond the dawn of the talkies, the book covers all periods of cinematic history amply, from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the Italian peplum films of the 1960s to the modern era of digital special effects, including many made-for-TV movies and miniseries that have long been forgotten. Smith does not confine himself to ancient Greece and Rome, biblical epics, and caveman films. He explains in his introduction that his definition of epic covers history up to around the year 1200. This allows for the inclusion of more medieval fare, such as stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The lion’s share of the entries, however, focus on ancient times, and when adventures from the Middle Ages are included, such as El Cid or Braveheart, they definitely qualify as epics. Noticeably absent are the Arabian Nights genre, such as The Thief of Baghdad or The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Asian history is represented solely by Genghis Khan, the Mongols, and the Tartars, and, through Hollywood’s fault rather than Smith’s, Kings of the Sun is the only film about the ancient Americas. Mostly Smith focuses on American, British, French, and Italian productions, with an occasional outlier like the Polish film Pharaoh.

Most of the books published on this genre of film have been scholarly monographs by film studies or cultural studies professors, such as The Ancient World in Cinema by Jon Solomon. The only other film-by-film guide I’ve seen is a book called The Encyclopedia of Epic Films, which, although it may have Ben-Hur on its cover, considers everything from Spider-Man to Star Wars as epics. Smith’s Epic Films, on the other hand, is aimed at the general reader who just enjoys grandiose cinematic depictions of prehistoric, ancient, and medieval times. Smith proves himself a very knowledgeable guide and offers much to learn for even the most avid fans of sword-and-sandal cinema. I have only watched about a third of the movies covered in this book, and it has yielded quite a few fortuitous discoveries of interesting films yet to be seen.

Though one might quibble here and there about a film that was or was not included, Smith deserves to be commended for putting together what is likely the most authoritative and user-friendly guide to the genre. Film fans who just can’t get enough of Hercules, Maciste, Samson, Goliath, Ursus, Odysseus, Spartacus, Cleopatra, Jesus, or the various Caesars are sure to enjoy this book. It is high time for a third edition.
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Thursday, August 15, 2019

Humboldt and Jefferson: A Transatlantic Friendship of the Enlightenment by Sandra Rebok

The epic bromance of two Enlightenment geniuses
In her 2014 book Humboldt and Jefferson, historian Sandra Rebok analyzes the complex relationship between two intellectual titans of the Enlightenment. The one time that Alexander von Humboldt and Thomas Jefferson met, in Washington in 1804, no one was there to take notes, so what exactly they talked about is unknown, but hints of that conversation exist in their writings. Their extant correspondence only amounts to 14 letters (included as an appendix in this book), but the two also mentioned each other in diaries, letters to others, and in a few published writings. That’s not a lot of concrete evidence from which to draw conclusions about their friendship, but Rebok gleans much engaging food for thought from the scant surviving record. By examining their writings, Rebok not only reconstructs the relationship between Humboldt and Jefferson but also compares and contrasts their personal views on a variety of issues that were important to them both, while analyzing how each may have influenced the other’s point of view.

The subject to which Rebok devotes the most consideration is that of slavery. Humboldt was a staunch abolitionist who believed in freedom and equality for men of all races, while Jefferson, a slaveholder, had a more pragmatic, paternalistic approach to slavery that has not done his historical memory any favors. In a related chapter, Rebok focuses on the two men’s responses to the Haitian Revolution, in which blacks overthrew their colonial masters and established their own independent government. Also covered are the pair’s contributions to natural history, their defense of the Americas against European critics, and the degree to which each embraced and propagated Enlightenment values. Rebok’s thoughtful and well-researched discussions of such topics reveal much about each man’s character, personality, and philosophy. The theses that Rebok argues in this book—that the two men shared a mutual admiration, that their personal views were shaped by their experience of transatlantic travel, that they influenced one another’s thought, that they established a transatlantic network of scholarly colleagues, that they shared philosophical common ground—are not particularly surprising, but the wealth of information with which the author defends these assertions and fleshes out the narrative of these two men’s lives is really quite fascinating.

This book is more likely to appeal to fans of Humboldt than to those of Jefferson. Humboldt is Rebok’s primary research interest, so he is covered more extensively than his American counterpart. Nevertheless, one thing I enjoyed very much about this book is that Rebok, as did Humboldt, looks at Jefferson more as a scientist than a politician. The book does touch on political issues, the most obvious being slavery, but one really learns a lot of interesting facts about Jefferson’s research achievements in various branches of the sciences. This book is written for a scholarly audience, not the general reader. Not everyone in the latter category is likely to be interested in some of the academic directions in which Rebok pursues her study, such as the history of the science of ecology and the influence of Bernhard Varenius on the two men’s scientific careers, but there is much fascinating content here for nonacademics (like myself) who are receptive to it.

Andrea Wulf’s book The Invention of Nature provides probably the best overall introduction on Humboldt for general readers. That book does contain one chapter on Humboldt’s relationship to Jefferson, but those eager for more detailed information on the interaction between these two stellar luminaries of the Enlightenment will be well served by Rebok’s Humboldt and Jefferson.
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Monday, August 12, 2019

Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four, Volume 1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

The dawn of Marvel’s Silver Age
The Marvel Masterworks series reprints classic Marvel Comics in hardcover and trade paperback editions. Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four, Volume 1 reprints the first ten issues of The Fantastic Four, which were originally published from November 1961 to January 1963. The FF was created by Marvel’s greatest Silver Age creative duo, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who handle the story and art for all ten issues featured here.

As early as issue number 3, Marvel began billing The Fantastic Four as “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine,” but the first two or three issues don’t quite live up to such high praise. In the debut issue, the origin story is breezed through very quickly, the FF become instant celebrities without proving themselves, and a very underdeveloped Mole Man shows up for a story not much different than many of the monster comics Lee and Kirby used to crank out in the 1950s. In the next couple issues, the Skrulls are introduced and the Sub-Mariner is resurrected from the 1940s, but the stories so simplistic they make you wonder how Marvel ever went on to build such elaborate mythologies around these characters. In these first few issues, Kirby’s art is also subpar and appears a bit rushed.

By issue number 4, however, the series is in full swing and perhaps worthy of its tagline. Kirby’s art really starts to shine, and one begins to see the complex stories one expects from this creative duo. Doctor Doom makes his debut, and right from the get-go he is one of the most interesting and formidable villains in superhero comics. The odd family dynamic between the group members blossoms, with all their unique quirks and personal grievances on display, such as the constant animosity between the Thing and the Human Torch and the uncertain romance between Reed Richards and Sue Storm. (She’s got a thing for the Sub-Mariner.) The team’s fantasticar and the Baxter Building headquarters are already established by issue 3. In fact, the FF’s mythology gets developed so quickly that by issue 10 one can already see the repetition of familiar themes. In these first ten issues, the Thing reverts back to Ben Grimm three times, and on at least two occasions some form of mind control causes one of the members to battle the others, as will happen again so many times over the next few decades.

Although Lee takes most of the credit for creating the Fantastic Four, the group bears some notable similarities to the DC series Challengers of the Unknown, which Kirby worked on as early as 1957. Though that team was composed of four non-superhero adventurers, they engaged in sci-fi adventures similar to the FF. Two of the Challengers had similar personalities to Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm and engaged in the same persistent bickering, teasing, and attempted clobbering.

One of the great things about the Marvel Universe is that each of the major titles has its own style and tone: Iron Man is the tech hero, Dr. Strange is the mystical hero, Daredevil is the urban hero, and the Fantastic Four are the sci-fi heroes. Likely no other Earth-based superheroes have encountered as many memorably bizarre alien races, lost civilizations, and alternate dimensions as the FF. Even in these first ten issues, the reader begins to see the epic scope of Lee and Kirby’s sci-fi vision. The Fantastic Four was a truly pioneering comic book, and issues one through ten are still a pleasure to read over a half century later. The series would go on to even bigger and better stories, but it would have never gotten there without the strong foundation of these first ten issues.
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