Monday, November 30, 2020

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

German history obscured by nonsensical humor
The Tin Drum,
published in 1959, is set in Poland and Germany during the rise of Nazism and World War II, but it views this history through a lens (or perhaps more accurately, a fun-house mirror) of absurd humor and obscure metaphor. It is also surely one of literature’s strangest coming-of-age novels, since it features a protagonist who literally refuses to come of age. German author Günter Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999 largely on the strength of this, his best-known work. The Tin Drum has been critically acclaimed as a masterpiece of modern literature, but it is a tedious ordeal to read.

The Tin Drum is the story of Oskar Matzerath, who is born in 1924 in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland). Oskar relates his story thirty years later from his bed in a mental hospital. Much like the city in which he was born, Oskar’s heritage is a mixture of Kashubian, Polish, and German. His mother has two lovers, and which of them is Oskar’s biological father is a matter of speculation throughout the book. At the age of three, two momentous events occur in Oskar’s life. First, he is given a tin drum as a birthday present. This drum becomes his lifelong companions and primary means of self-expression. Second, Oskar makes a conscious attempt to stop growing, thus suspending his physical development.

The Tin Drum occasionally provides a vivid glimpse of life in Danzig and Düsseldorf during the 1930s and ‘40s, but more often than not Grass opts for deliberately weird, disturbing, and satirical imagery that steers the narrative down a more comical and frivolous path. For example, Oskar discovers that he has the power to shatter glass with his screams. This is pleasantly surprising the first time it happens, but Grass trots out the same image ad nauseam, to the point where Oskar is developing this talent to ridiculous and tedious lengths. Meanwhile, members of the supporting cast begin committing suicide in bizarre ways, further divorcing the story from reality. As he grows up, Oskar becomes precociously horny, and despite his childlike appearance women seem to find him irresistible. This results in a number of sex scenes, all of which have something disgusting about them, such as his partner smells bad or is asleep during the act. Even in its repulsive or tragic moments, the novel is really too whimsical to be offensive, but it seems to constantly invite the reader to laugh at jokes that just aren’t very funny.

If The Tin Drum has a saving grace, it is Grass’s inventive use of language. He plays with words and phrases the way an innovative jazz musician experiments with notes and keys. This would be quite admirable were the book not so inordinately long and relentlessly repetitive. The novel feels like a self-indulgent exercise by an author more interested in hearing himself talk than in conveying anything meaningful to the reader. On the bright side, the 2009 translation by Breon Mitchell does an outstanding job of interpreting Grass’s complex verbal gymnastics into readable English prose.

Though normally I wouldn’t make such a recommendation, before you spend 20+ hours reading this book you might want to watch the movie to see if this story is really your cup of tea. The film adaptation only covers roughly the first two-thirds of the book, but is otherwise mostly faithful to the text. If you like the film and think you want to tackle the novel, be prepared that Grass’s gratuitous wordplay draws out every scene to five times its necessary length.
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Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Project Pope by Clifford D. Simak

Faith from knowledge or knowledge from faith?
Published in 1981, Project Pope is one of the last few novels penned by Clifford D. Simak, a Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master whose career spanned over half a century. This is the 28th book I’ve reviewed by Simak, so I’m definitely a fan. Neither the best nor the worst of his novels, Project Pope could be considered an average work by Simak standards, but it still upholds a higher level of quality than most of his sci-fi contemporaries.

Project Pope takes place in a future in which mankind has populated planets in myriad star systems. Fleeing some legal trouble, James Tennyson, a physician, stows away on a spaceship headed to End of Nothing, a planet situated on the very outskirts of our galaxy. There he finds a society established by robots from Earth, along with a few human citizens. The robots have created a center of religion and research named Vatican 17, complete with a supercomputer as Pope. In their search for a one true universal religion, the robots employ Listeners, humans capable of mental projection, to explore other worlds and gather data on alien cultures and faiths. When one of the Listeners claims to have found Heaven, a political schism develops in the Vatican hierarchy. As dissension escalates, Tennyson and his human companions seek to learn the truth behind this mysterious world propounded to be the one true Heaven.

Simak expresses Christian sentiments and features Catholic characters in several of his works, which leads one to assume he was Catholic. He was, however, open-minded enough not to accept Catholic dogma unconditionally but to thoughtfully question his own religious views through his work. His most overtly Christian work is the 1978 fantasy novel The Fellowship of the Talisman, which concludes with a blatant preachiness almost bordering on the fanatical. Project Pope demonstrates a much more even-handed approach that criticizes organized religion as much as it respects faith. Here Simak examines the dichotomy between knowledge and faith. Should empirical investigation into the workings of the universe lead to the development of a rationally acceptable theism, or should an a priori faith serve as the moral and ethical lens through which man seeks knowledge and defines his relationship to the universe? In Project Pope, Simak gives credence to both views but ultimately settles on the former more than the latter.

If there is a profound message to be learned here about religion, however, it is not carved in stone tablets. The book really raises more questions than it answers, but perhaps that was Simak’s intention. His philosophical investigation isn’t helped any by certain whimsical touches that undermine the gravity of the themes discussed. A planet named End of Nothing seems right at home in a Simak novel, but other worlds mentioned bear unrealistic names that comically evoke the Wild West, such as Gutshot. The humans in the novel designate alien species by cartoonish pet names, such as Bubbly, Plopper, and Haystack. When first presented, these playful word choices may be mildly entertaining, but they do make it difficult to take the story seriously.

To its credit, Project Pope is never boring. It starts out weird and just keeps getting weirder. As the plot progresses, Simak throws logic to the wind and seems to be just making up the rules as he goes along. This is not one of his more expertly crafted novels, but Simak’s visionary imagination still has the power to inspire awe, admiration, and amusement. For newcomers to Simak’s work, this is probably not the best book to start with—try Way Station, City, or All Flesh is Grass—but confirmed Simak fans will find it a satisfying read.
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Thursday, November 12, 2020

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Hamilton as saint, Jefferson as villain
Based on the fine writing and exhaustive research that went into his book Washington: A Life, I would consider anything Ron Chernow writes on the Revolutionary War and the early American republic to be worth reading. Like his Washington book, Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton is a very detailed, comprehensive, thoroughly researched cradle-to-grave life history of one of America’s heroic Founders. The Washington book, however, takes a very balanced look at the first president, showing both his exceptional qualities and his faults. Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, clearly has an agenda to push. History has unfairly bestowed a bad reputation on Hamilton, and Chernow goes to great lengths to debunk negative and distorted myths. He takes it too far, however, resulting in a book that reads like an argument nominating Hamilton for sainthood.

What Chernow does very well is enumerate Hamilton’s numerous positive contributions to America’s government and economic system. There’s no denying that Hamilton was instrumental to the formation of our nation, and Chernow justly restores his valuable accomplishments to the public memory. Every time Hamilton pulls something shady, however, Chernow writes it off as a momentary “hypocritical lapse” in Hamilton’s otherwise impeccable judgment. By today’s standards, Hamilton was a far-right conservative. He really wanted a monarchy, even if he phrased it as an “elective monarchy,” and frequently showed inclinations toward militaristic and authoritarian rule. He supported John Adams’s Sedition Acts, under which anyone criticizing the government could be prosecuted for treason. Although Hamilton himself was an immigrant, he was against immigration. He may have been the architect of American industrial capitalism, but his policies favored the rich, alienated the South, and he even advocated for child labor. Today’s income equality and Wall Street bailouts would have been right at home in Hamilton’s utopia. Chernow, however, continually presents his subject as the personification of virtue.

The villain in this story is Thomas Jefferson, of whom Chernow has nothing good to say. What Chernow fails to admit is that America needed both Hamilton and Jefferson to become a great nation. If Hamilton had his way, presidents would rule for life, the executive branch would have been far too powerful to be curtailed by checks and balances, there would be no separation between church and state, and any dissent on the part of the citizenry would be punished with military might. Of course, despite Jefferson’s contributions to American government, he did own slaves, and Hamilton did not, so Chernow can always use that to negate Jefferson’s accomplishments entirely. Even Jefferson’s atheism and interest in science are treated as insults. John Adams may come off even worse than Jefferson. Chernow’s depiction of him as power hungry, emotionally volatile, and administratively inept bears a surprising resemblance to Donald Trump.

Chernow gives extensive coverage to the deadly duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and really provides the reader with a thorough understanding of its causes and effects. Like Jefferson, Burr is a villain in this story, but more deservedly so. Chernow, however, considers Burr’s triumph in the duel to be cold-blooded murder, which feels like a stretch, given the circumstances.

I have to admit I learned a lot about American history from this book. Chernow does provide a wealth of information, even though I didn’t always care for the way he spins it. This is certainly worth a read for anyone interested in the founding of the American republic, but it will appeal more to conservatives than to liberals.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Stories of Poland by Robin Carver

Polish history for 19th century American youths
Stories of Poland,
a book by Robin Carver, was published in 1834. I don’t know anything about the author, other than he or she was likely a Bostonian who also wrote a History of Boston and The Book of Sports. Carver also did something that probably few Americans of the 1830s could claim to have done—traveled to Poland—which makes him or her relatively qualified to write a book on the nation in question. Despite the word “Stories” in the title, this is a nonfiction book, not a collection of literature. A scanned digital copy can be found at the HathiTrust web site.

Stories of Poland was written for a young audience. Children’s books of the 1830s, however, were apparently a more serious affair than the kid lit of today, since a relatively advanced reading level and substantial attention span would be required for a kid to understand and maintain interest in this book. Carver’s prose is familiar in tone, sometimes addressing young readers directly, but can sometimes be confusing in its relating of events. Most of the historical content is about politics and warfare, with very little softening of the harsh realities for a young audience.

The book contains a dozen engravings illustrating various aspects of Polish life. These are all ganged up at the front of the book, prior to the title page. The text consists of 21 brief chapters, some of which serve as a travelogue of contemporary Poland, such as descriptions of Warsaw and Krakow, a visit to the salt mines, or a fancy ball at the villa of a family of Polish nobility. Most of this travel writing concerns the upper classes, though a brief attempt is made to describe the living conditions of the peasants in their thatched cottages. Carver does succeed in granting the viewer a cursory, sanitized view of what life was like in Poland in the early 19th century.

The majority of the chapters, however, are devoted to tales of Poland’s history, from the 17th century to just prior to the date of publication. These condensed historical narratives read like part history and part folklore, the purpose of which is to present the reader with a series of Polish heroes, including King Jan III Sobieski, King Stanislaw I Leszczynski, Karol Stanislaw Radziwill, Casimir Pulaski, and Tadeusz Kosciuszko (these are the spellings from Wikipedia; Carver’s spellings vary). The narrative also occasionally includes villains, like the tyrant Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich of Russia, brother of Tsar Alexander and tyrant governor of Russian-occupied Poland. Carver gives quite a bit of coverage to the recent November Uprising of 1830, a failed Polish rebellion against the Russians. Antonina Tomaszewska, a teenage military heroine of the Polish-Russian War, is hailed as a sort of Polish Joan of Arc.

This book is unlikely to interest youths of today. It will primarily be of interest to adults intrigued by Polish history. Carver provides only the briefest, romanticized summary of events, the details of which are of questionable veracity. This book can, however, generate enough interest to lead the reader to seek out more info on these historical figures and events from other sources. Carver doesn’t cite any references, except for the material on the November Uprising, much of which was drawn from the account of Major Joseph Hordynski, author of the 1832 book History of the Late Polish Revolution. Though Carver’s book may have been written for children, most Americans are basically kids when it comes to knowledge of Polish history, so Stories of Poland can serve as a primer to those readers who are interested in finding out more.

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Friday, October 30, 2020

Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Literary Classic to Soviet Cinematic Epic by Denise J. Youngblood

The history behind the masterpiece
Though I am a lover of classic literature, I haven’t yet had the courage to tackle Leo Tolstoy’s mammoth novel
War and Peace. Recently, however, I did see the Russian film adaptation directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, which was released in four parts from 1966 to 1967. This film is a true masterpiece of cinematic historical fiction that combines epic battles with intimate human drama. The artistic and technical aspects of the film are superb, and the grand scale of the production truly staggers the mind. The 2019 Criterion Collection DVD set includes a 45 minute interview with historian Denise J. Youngblood, an expert on Russian war films. I enjoyed her commentary so much that I decided to read her 2014 book Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Literary Classic to Soviet Cinematic Epic

Youngblood’s Criterion Collection presentation focuses primarily on the making of Bondarchuk’s film, while her book expands the discussion to include literary and film criticism, adaptation theory, historiography, and the actual historical events upon which the novel and its films are based. The text is organized in a very logical manner. Chapter 1 covers most of the making-of material. If you’ve seen the Criterion Collection interview, then you’ve already heard about 80 percent of what’s here, but the book still contains plenty of new and interesting details. Chapter 2 discusses the definition of an epic, and whether Bondarchuk’s film qualifies as one. This hinges not only on the grand scale of the story and production but also on how well it embodies the culture and national spirit of Russia and the Soviet Union. Chapter 3 discusses Bondarchuk’s War and Peace as an adaptation, how it compares to Tolstoy’s novel, and the decisions Bondarchuk made in interpreting the source material. In Chapter 4, Youngblood examines how well the film reflects historical reality. Chapter 5 compares Bondarchuk’s film with director King Vidor’s 1956 adaptation of War and Peace, an American film that was very popular in Russia. Chapter 6 covers Bondarchuk’s follow-up film, Waterloo, another grand historical epic of the Napoleonic Era. Finally, a brief conclusion sums up, on a somewhat tragic note, the remainder of Bondarchuk’s career.

There is a lot of comparing and contrasting going on in this book: Bondarchuk vs. Tolstoy, Bondarchuk vs. Vidor, War and Peace vs. Waterloo, both films vs. history. The very nature of film studies requires that a large portion of the content be devoted to plot summaries (spoilers included, of course). Therefore, if you’ve read Tolstoy’s novel and have seen all these films, much of the text may be telling you things you already know. Such recapping is necessary, however, for Youngblood to illustrate the conclusions she draws, and her synopses are interspersed with enlightening observations on filmmaking technique. One also learns quite a bit about the history of Russia’s war against Napoleon’s France, as well as the cultural climate and cinematic history of the Soviet Union. Youngblood’s comprehensive knowledge in history, film, and Russian studies allows her to make revealing interdisciplinary connections between the three fields.

With about 130 pages of text and half that much in notes, bibliography, and index, Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is not a cumbersome read for the general reader. I am neither a historian nor film scholar, just a film and literature buff, yet I found Youngblood’s prose quite accessible and never boring. Anyone who appreciates Bondarchuk’s film will enjoy the fascinating behind-the-scenes and between-the-lines details that Youngblood delivers in this comprehensive study.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold

Wisconsin’s Walden, and an ecological call to arms
Published in 1949,
A Sand County Almanac is a landmark book in the field of ecology and one of the seminal texts of the modern American environmental movement. The author, Aldo Leopold, was a professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin after having previously been employed for over two decades by the United States Forest Service.

The book is divided into three parts. The first section, A Sand County Almanac, is a nature-writing memoir similar to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. While at the University of Wisconsin, Leopold purchased a plot of land outside Baraboo in Sauk County (there is no Sand County in Wisconsin; the phrase refers to the region’s sandy soil). Leopold and his family spent their weekends on this farm and woodland, living in a shack that is now a National Historic Landmark. Leopold records a year in the life of this sand county land, describing the sights and sounds of each season and explaining the natural processes taking place. Amidst these empirical observations, Leopold emphasizes the holistic unity of all natural phenomena that comprise an ecosystem. He also frequently recounts the natural history of the region by discussing the changes in the biome over time. Leopold’s nature writing is some of the best ever written in the English language. He combines scientific objectivity with philosophical thoughtfulness, often giving the reader new insights into familiar species. Unlike Thoreau, Leopold doesn’t venture off into philosophical asides or literary flourishes. He sticks to the subject of nature, and his prose is quotably eloquent, articulate, and accessible to readers of all levels.

The second part of the book, Sketches Here and There, is a series of writings about places where Leopold lived, worked, or traveled, among them Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Manitoba. The writing is similar in style and quality to A Sand County Almanac but starts to introduce more discussion of land and wildlife management. The highlight is Leopold’s vivid memories of two canoe trips he took through the Sierra Madre in Mexico.

The third section of the book, entitled The Upshot, consists of four chapters in which Leopold stresses the importance of wilderness, criticizes current practices of land management, and outlines his own plan for conservation. A lifelong hunter, Leopold does not object to recreational use, but laments the trend in outdoor sportsmanship towards gadgetry and convenience and away from traditional woodcraft and communion with nature. He proposes the formation of a land ethic where nature and its resources are not judged by their monetary value but by their value to the overall health and well-being of the Earth. To adopt such a land ethic, mankind must view himself as an equal participant in nature rather than a master with dominion over it.

Leopold died shortly after the completion of this book, but his call to arms has not gone unheard, and this book has proven very influential to the American environmental movement. He would no doubt be pleased at some of the developments that have taken place since his passing, such as the establishment of large national parks in Alaska and the reintroduction of predator species. One would also have to admit, however, that we are still a long way from living the land ethic of which Leopold dreamed. Nevertheless, Leopold’s insightful writing does succeed in changing the way one thinks about nature. Whether you are a hunter, a farmer, a birdwatcher, a tree-hugger, or just someone who enjoys a walk in the woods, there is much to learn from A Sand County Almanac, and much to enjoy.
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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Pictures of the Socialistic Future by Eugene Richter

From utopia to dystopia
Examples of utopian literature can be found as far back as Plato’s Republic, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that this category of fiction really ballooned into a full-blown genre. Because utopian literature predicts the future, there is always an element of science fiction to it, but most 19th-century utopias were more concerned with political and social change rather than scientific or technological advances. Many of the utopian novels of this era advocated socialism as the cure for mankind’s ills, among the most popular being American author Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Englishman William Morris’s News from Nowhere. In response to such rosy visions of socialism, Eugene Richter, a member of the German Reichstag (parliament), penned his novel Pictures of the Socialistic Future, published in 1891.

The story takes place in Germany, specifically Berlin at first, at an undetermined point in the near future. As the novel opens, Germany is embarking on a new socialistic path. Very little is said about the political turmoil that preceded this rebirth, but a scenario similar to the French Revolution is implied: The existing government has been overthrown, and it is now day one for the nation to construct a socialist society from scratch. All private property is confiscated, total separation of church and state is established, and policies are immediately rewritten to abolish class and implement total equality among the citizenry.

The beautiful thing about Pictures of the Socialistic Future is that for the first several chapters, it is difficult for the reader to tell whether Richter has written a pro-socialist or an anti-socialist narrative. The narrator is overwhelmingly in favor of the socialist transition and continually trumpets the egalitarianism and brotherhood promised by the regime change. In each chapter, however, a problem arises, and the narrator describes the socialist government’s solution, which often involves the rescinding of civil liberties. Early in the book, such difficulties include the confiscation of citizens’ life savings, workers forced into jobs against their will, and the splitting up of families for occupational relocation. At first, the narrator excuses these developments as unavoidable inconveniences necessary to bring about universal equality and social justice. As the novel progresses, however, the policies become more draconian, and the narrator starts to lose faith in the socialist ideology. Thus the utopia gradually devolves into a dystopia.

In many ways, Richter presents a worst case scenario of what could go wrong with socialism. For example, the chancellor of Germany resigns because he is too busy shining his own shoes and cleaning his own house to get any political work done. (He’s not allowed a housekeeper, because that would be elitist.) Most of the objections raised, however, are realistic, and some presage actual faults that materialized later in the Soviet Union and communist China. Though guilty of exaggeration at times, for the most part Richter keeps the plot well within the believable.

What truly sets Richter’s novel apart from so much of the utopian fiction of its era is that, in addition to all the political commentary and dead-serious satire, Richter also delivers a very engaging personal story about the narrator’s family. Unlike Bellamy’s and Morris’s novels, Richter’s is not the least bit boring. Prior to what would be more formally considered science fiction (George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Ayn Rand’s Anthem, for example), Pictures of the Socialistic Future may be the perfect anti-socialist novel, just as Jack London’s The Iron Heel is the perfect pro-socialist novel. Like London’s masterpiece, Richter’s novel is an eloquent and thought-provoking read that provides a vivid look into the political climate of its era.
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Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Professor Challenger Short Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

His two remaining adventures

It goes without saying that Sherlock Holmes was the character that made Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famous. The Holmes adventures, however, only constitute a fraction of Conan Doyle’s literary output. Outside of the Holmes universe, the most famous recurring character that Conan Doyle created is Professor Challenger, the hero of The Lost World. Challenger is the world’s preeminent authority on all manners scientific, or at least considers himself to be so, and he has little patience for those who disagree with his theories. He is described as a large man with a “spade-shaped” beard and a quick temper and blustering manner of speech that make him intimidating to all but his closest friends and family. Outside of his study and his laboratory, he is a man of action who, true to his name, never shies away from a challenge.

Conan Doyle featured Professor Challenger in three novels and two short stories. The Lost World, published in 1912, is one of Conan Doyle’s most popular books and has undergone several film adaptations. The rest of Professor Challenger’s adventures, however, have not fared so well. The novel The Poison Belt, published in 1913, features the scientist and adventure hero in a tepid affair with very little science and no adventure. In this apocalyptic story, the Earth passes through a noxious nebula, and the characters are left with nothing much to do but sit around and watch the effects. The third Challenger novel, The Land of Mist (1926) is even worse. In this awful story, Conan Doyle unforgivably sells out his own character by subverting Challenger’s scientific skepticism in order to promote his own beliefs in paranormal activity.

Thankfully, the two short stories are an improvement over the second and third Challenger novels, though their brevity leaves one wanting more. It’s too bad Conan Doyle didn’t produce an entire volume of Challenger stories, because these two turned out pretty well.

“When the World Screamed” (1928) — 4.5 stars

Unlike the other Challenger adventures, this story is narrated in the first-person by Peerless Jones, an expert in artesian wells and an old rugby buddy of Challenger’s journalist sidekick Ned Malone. Challenger hires Jones to join the team of his latest project. Challenger has bored a deep tunnel into the Earth, roughly 8 miles deep, in an attempt to pierce all the way through the planet’s crust and ascertain what lies beneath. He theorizes that the planet is actually a living organism that shows signs of respiration and circulation in its natural processes, like a gargantuan sea urchin. Though the science seems farfetched, the important thing is that Conan Doyle treats it with a ring of authenticity, which results in a well-written and entertaining sci-fi yarn, even better in some respects than The Lost World, though less substantial. At one point in the story, Mrs. Challenger is mentioned as still living, thus chronologically placing this story before The Land of Mist. Challenger’s great borehole might owe a debt of influence to Frank R. Stockton’s subterranean sci-fi novel The Great Stone of Sardis, published in 1891.
Read the story online at Project Gutenberg Australia.

“The Disintegration Machine” (1929) — 3 stars

A scientist named Dr. Nemor claims to have invented a machine that can break matter down into its individual atoms and then reverse the procedure to reassemble the disintegrated object—a process similar to teleportation but without the distance traveled. Assigned by his newspaper to investigate the matter, Malone takes Challenger along to meet the inventor. Nemor makes it clear that he intends to sell his device as a weapon to the highest bidder. This story is much briefer than “When the World Screams,” and it doesn’t delve very deeply into the science of disintegration. It is more of a Holmes-like caper in which Challenger and Malone must thwart a villain. The plot is pretty simplistic and the ending predictable, but Conan Doyle’s telling of it is still enjoyable and Challenger behaves in a matter true to his character.
Read the story online at Project Gutenberg Australia.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Journeys in Diverse Places by Ambroise Paré

Memoirs of a 16th-century medic
Amboise Paré
In the early years of Saturday Night Live, Steve Martin played a character called Theodoric of York, a medieval barber who performs surgery. Though that sketch is ridiculous, it does have a foundation in historical fact. Perhaps it was even based on the real-life memoirs of 16th-century French barber-surgeon Ambroise Paré. In his book Journeys in Diverse Places, Paré recalls how he was employed as a medic by the King of France and other French nobleman, who often sent him on military expeditions to treat their wounded soldiers. Paré’s recollections of his medical career yield a very interesting historical document that provides a detailed look at both medicine and warfare during the Renaissance. 

Journeys in Diverse Places consists of 19 chapters, each of which details a different trip taken by Paré for medical purposes, often to the site of a battle or siege. These travels took place from 1537 to 1569. Paré wrote these accounts at the age of 70, in response to some criticism of his medical procedures by the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, whom he addresses in several chapters as “mon petit maistre.” Given the carnage that was going on all around him, Paré’s curative methods seem surprisingly advanced and humane for his era, with some barbaric exceptions, of course. In one notorious passage, Paré recommends boiling puppies in turpentine to create a salve for applying to gunshot wounds. On the battlefield, amputations and trepannings are frequent occurrences. Paré describes gruesome head wounds from which their victims surprisingly survived. In quieter times, however, Paré spends months living in luxury as he rehabilitates the shattered kneecap of a marquis, a case for which he describes his treatments in extensive detail. Paré even prescribes the creation of “artificial rain” to help his patient sleep.

Renaissance warfare as depicted in Paré’s account is every bit as gruesome and sadistic as today’s medieval action movies make it out to be. Tactics include dropping lime from castle walls to burn the enemy’s eyes, tying cats on the end of poles to taunt one’s opponents, or simply executing prisoners in cold blood. Of the book’s 19 chapters, almost all are quite brief except for three entries: The Journey to Metz, The Journey to Hesdin, and The Journey to Flanders. While the latter is the case of the nobleman’s kneecap, the other two are incidents of besieged castles where many died not only in battle but also of starvation. Rather than surrender to the Spaniards, Paré tells us, the French were “determined to eat the asses, mules, and horses, dogs, cats, and rats, even our boots and collars, and other skins that we could have softened and stewed.” In some cases there were so many thousands of dead littering the battlefield that their bodies were used as filler in the construction of defensive walls.

Given the title and the table of contents, I thought this was going to be a more traditional geographic travelogue describing the sites and people of 16th-century Europe. Had I known Journeys in Diverse Places was a book about battlefield medicine, I probably wouldn’t have read it, since neither military history nor medicine are subjects of particular interest to me. Once I got into it, however, this proved to be an engaging read full of fascinating historical detail. The fact is, warfare was a big part of Renaissance life, and here one really gets a sense of the horrors that faced the common foot soldiers, as well as the lifestyles of the dukes and marquises who sent them into battle. Journeys in Diverse Places is a relatively short read, and history buffs will find the education acquired is more than worth the time invested in reading it.
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Monday, October 19, 2020

The Confessions of a Collector by William Carew Hazlitt

Arcane anecdotes for book and coin experts 
As someone with an interest in book history and rare book libraries, I sometimes enjoy reading books about book collectors and their collections. This led me to William Carew Hazlitt’s book The Confessions of a Collector, published in 1897. Hazlitt (1834 -1913) came from a long line of men of letters. His grandfather William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was a famous essayist and literary critic. William Carew Hazlitt’s published writings are mostly on literary history and bibliography. He was also a collector of books, coins, china, postage stamps, paintings, and furniture. The Confessions of a Collector is a memoir about his collecting activities in these various areas.

Hazlitt was an expert on early English literature (pre-1700) and wrote a muli-volume bibliography of printed books from that era. To support his scholarly endeavors, he worked as a personal librarian to wealthy book collector Henry Huth. While purchasing books on Huth’s behalf, thousands of rare volumes passed through Hazlitt’s hands. Unfortunately, the reader learns very little about those books from Hazlitt’s memoir. The text is basically a catalog of London book dealers and anecdotes about Hazlitt’s dealings with each of them. Hazlitt assumes a great deal of knowledge on the part of the reader. He expects one to have read all the books he’s written, read all the books he’s read, and met all the dealers he mentions. The intended audience for the book seems to have been his closest colleagues in the London collecting community. Although he mentions famous early printers like William Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde, Hazlitt never discusses the exceptional qualities of the books they produced, other than their monetary value. In fact, he never expresses any sort of affection whatsoever for the books in which he’s dealing. The point of each anecdote is simply that Hazlitt bought such-and-such a book for five pounds and sold it later for fifteen. Of course, a century later, all the information on prices and the relative rarity of volumes will be obsolete to today’s bargain hunters, so Hazlitt’s tales of book collecting will likely only be of interest to museum curators or rare book librarians.

After nine chapters on books, there is one chapter on collecting china and one chapter on postage stamps and paintings. The remaining five chapters are on coin collecting. This latter section of the book is far more informative than Hazlitt’s thoughts on book collecting. On the topic of coins, Hazlitt does a better job of communicating his enthusiasm for numismatics (coin collecting) and his appreciation for the art form. I am not a coin collector, but Hazlitt certainly did pique my interest on the subject. He describes his decision-making process when examining and purchasing rare coins, which might actually prove valuable advice to a reader who is starting a collection of European coins. One wishes Hazlitt had approached the subject of books in the same helpful manner, instead of merely rattling off an assortment of random deal-making anecdotes.

Other than the division of topics into chapters as described above, there is little organization to the information that Hazlitt provides here. He simply meanders on each subject, often repeating the same points. If you were an avid collector of books and coins in the late 19th century, this memoir might have replicated the experience of a fireside chat in Hazlitt’s study (and perhaps not an entirely pleasant one, since he does come across as a bit of a blowhard). These days, however, only expert collectors, those privy to the most arcane knowledge in their areas of interst, are likely to find much use for The Confessions of a Collector.
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Friday, October 16, 2020

The Land of Mist by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Prof. Challenger betrayed for spiritualist propaganda
Outside of his Sherlock Holmes stories, the most famous recurring character in the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is Professor Challenger, the bearded, blustering scientist who led the expedition to The Lost World. Conan Doyle featured Challenger in three novels and two short stories. Unfortunately, with the exception of The Lost World, none of them are regarded very highly. The Land of Mist, published in 1926, is the third novel in the Challenger series, which follows Challenger’s second adventure, 1913’s The Poison Belt. The two short stories were published later, but I believe they are prequels to The Land of Mist.

One of the things (among many) that makes this novel so disappointing is that Challenger is merely a guest star in this book and only present for small portions of the narrative. The story centers around Ned Malone, journalist and sidekick from The Lost World. Professor Challenger’s daughter Enid Challenger is also a reporter and plays a major role in the story. Malone and Enid are assigned by a newspaper to co-write a series of articles on the spiritualist movement. Though both begin as skeptics, they resolve to keep an open mind while investigating possible paranormal phenomena at a series of seances where mediums claim to receive communications from the dead. (Gee, I wonder if the two reporters will fall in love.) Lord John Roxton, another supporting character from The Lost World, also appears in a couple chapters.

Conan Doyle wrote many works on spiritualism and the paranormal, both fiction and nonfiction. He was a firm believer in the supernatural world and gave pubic lectures on the topic. Sometimes he even managed to craft an entertaining story around the subject, such as in The Parasite. The Land of Mist, however, reads more like one of his lectures than one of his entertaining stories. As Malone and Enid attend more seances and meet more mediums, they become more convinced of the veracity of spiritualist claims. Meanwhile, mediums are being persecuted in London for their beliefs. If they could only convert a confirmed materialist into seeing the truth and beauty of the spirit world, it would go a long way towards popularizing spiritualism for the good of the masses. Thus, Ned and Enid conspire with the spiritualists to convince Professor Challenger to attend a seance where he will see the light and become converted. By following this course, Conan Doyle betrays the integrity of his own character in order to push his spiritualist propaganda.

Conan Doyle was also a church-goin’ man, so he does not view spiritualism as a departure from the Bible. In fact, a few of the ghosts who appear in this story have actually met Christ, and the prophets mentioned in the Bible were nothing but mediums who received messages from the dead. The spiritualists’ belief system, as sketched by Conan Doyle in this novel, is an absurd house of cards built on convenient rationalizations. When a seance fails to achieve results, for example, it is because a skeptic in the room disturbs the energy. In addition to messages from beyond the grave, Conan Doyle asserts physical manifestations such as ectoplasmic apparitions, spirit photography, and poltergeists. Even those who believe in ghosts and TV mediums who speak to the deceased will find many of the Victorian Era spiritualist beliefs to be ridiculous.

Besides all the pseudo-science, this is just a poorly written story, boring for most of its length, that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be an essay or a melodrama. Conan Doyle presents a dull catalog of dozens of paranormal occurrences he’s read about, which leaves room for only the thinnest of stories, every turn of which is predictable. Although Conan Doyle has every right to write about his supernatural beliefs, he should have left Professor Challenger out of it.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Tragicomedy of race and class in America
Any discussion of the most important works in African American literature is sure to include Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, first published in 1952. The novel depicts and comments upon the racial and social climate of its era, including the black nationalist movement, the American Communist party, and social conditions in the American South. This groundbreaking work of modern literature, however, goes beyond social realism to address more existential issues of black identity. While it often deals with heavy themes, Ellison eloquently mixes tragedy and humor to deliver an engaging and thought-provoking read.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator who grew up in a small town in the American South. He wins a school contest in speech-making, for which he earns a scholarship to a black college. Before he can collect his prize, however, he must first undergo a harrowing and brutal racist hazing ritual for the amusement of the town’s leading white men. As a college student, he is assigned to act as chauffeur and guide to one of the school’s wealthy white donors. When, at the donor’s request, he ushers the white man to some unseemly sites that display the harsher realities of black life in the town, he draws the ire of the college’s president, who expels him from the school. He then heads to New York, where he is recruited by a socialist group called the Brotherhood that ostensibly advocates reforms for the poor and working classes of all races. Due to his prowess as a public speaker, the narrator is assigned to be the Brotherhood’s spokesman in Harlem.

At least half of the novel is devoted to the protagonist’s career with the Brotherhood, which is easily the narrative’s biggest fault. Way too much time is spent on the internal politics and behind-the-scenes strategies of this organization. The reader sits through a series of protracted dialogues in which members of the group’s hierarchy accost each other in accusatory tones without ever really saying what they mean. In the end this yields some interesting conclusions, but Ellison sure takes a long and circuitous route in getting there. Just as in John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, a novel about labor organizers among oppressed white farm workers, focusing so much on the supposed reformers often leaves the reader feeling one step removed from the problems they’re trying to reform. In both cases, the author is critical of these purported saviors and exposes the self-interested exploitation behind their agendas. Ellison’s criticisms of the Communists and their treatment of black Americans may be valid, but the 21st century reader finds himself wishing more time had been spent focusing on the realities of black life in Harlem. The beginning and end of the novel—the narrator’s life in the South, his time at college, the frenzied climax, and the thoughtful epilogue—are superior to what’s in between.

Those who prefer a more traditionally naturalistic social realism will find that Ellison ventures a little too much into a verbose, Faulknerian stream-of-conscious style that obscures his arguments more than it elucidates them. Thankfully, only portions of the novel are written in this manner. Despite my few reservations, Invisible Man is still a great novel and an enlightening read. Though published almost seven decades ago, many of the issues Ellison raises have proven regrettably timeless, thus Invisible Man still retains its relevance. For those receptive to what it has to say, this book still has the power to change one’s views on race in America.

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Friday, October 9, 2020

Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates 2020

Congratulations to Louise Glück!
It was announced yesterday that American poet Louise Glück has won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” I’ll have to take their word for it, because I’ve never read any of Glück’s work (this blog tends to avoid poets), but it is always a pleasant surprise when an American takes the award.

Each year Old Books by Dead Guys presents the cumulative list of works by Nobel laureates that have been reviewed at this blog (even though now you can see this list any time you want simply by clicking on “Nobel Laureates” in the above menu bar). 
Unlike the previous year, I haven’t read a great deal of Nobel books since last October, so the only new authors added to the list this time around are England’s John Galsworthy (1932 winner) and Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk (2018 winner). Plus I added a few new works from Paul Heyse, Hermann Hesse, Romain Rolland, Pearl S. Buck, and John Steinbeck. Check out the authors below and click on the titles to read the complete reviews.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

Rudyard Kipling (1907 Nobel) United Kingdom (born in India) 🇬🇧

Selma Lagerlöf (1909 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Paul von Heyse (1910 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪

Maurice Maeterlinck (1911 Nobel) Belgium 🇧🇪

Gerhart Hauptmann (1912 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪

Rabindranath Tagore (1913 Nobel) India 🇮🇳

Romain Rolland (1915 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Verner von Heidenstam (1916 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Henrik Pontoppidan (1917 Nobel) Denmark 🇩🇰

Carl Spitteler (1919 Nobel) Switzerland 🇨🇭

Knut Hamsun (1920 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Anatole France (1921 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Wladyslaw Reymont (1924 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

George Benard Shaw (1925 Nobel) Ireland 🇮🇪

Henri Bergson (1927 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Sigrid Undset (1928 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴
  • Jenny (1911) - 2.5 stars

Sinclair Lewis (1930 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

John Galsworthy (1932 Nobel) United Kingdom 🇬🇧

Ivan Bunin (1933 Nobel) France (born in Russia) 🇫🇷 🇷🇺

Eugene O’Neill (1936 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Pearl S. Buck (1938 Nobel) United States of America (raised in China) 🇺🇸

Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1939 Nobel) Finland 🇫🇮

Johannes Vilhelm Jensen (1944 Nobel) Denmark 🇩🇰

Hermann Hesse (1946 Nobel) Switzerland (born in Germany) 🇨🇭 🇩🇪

Bertrand Russell (1950 Nobel) United Kingdom 🇬🇧

Pär Lagerkvist (1951 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

François Mauriac (1952 Nobel) 
France 🇫🇷

Ernest Hemingway (1954 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Halldór Laxness
 (1955 Nobel) Iceland 🇮🇸

Borris Pasternak (1958 Nobel) Russia (Soviet Union) 🇷🇺
     (1957) - 4 stars

John Steinbeck (1962 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Mikhail Sholokhov (1965 Nobel) Soviet Union 🇷🇺

José Saramago (1998 Nobel) Portugal 🇵🇹

Orhan Pamuk (2006 Nobel) Turkey 🇹🇷

  • Snow (2002) - 3.5 stars

Mo Yan (2012 Nobel) China 🇨🇳

Bob Dylan (2016 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Olga Tokarczuk (2018 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

Bonus: Albert Einstein (1921 Nobel in Physics) Germany/Switzerland 🇩🇪 🇨🇭