Friday, February 3, 2023

Essential Daredevil Volume 5 by Steve Gerber, et al.

Hardly essential, but decent Marvel fare
Marvel’s Essentials series of trade paperbacks reprints the classic comics of Marvel’s early years in black and white on newsprint paper. Essential Daredevil Volume 5 collects the August 1973 to September 1975 issues of Daredevil, issues numbering 102 to 125. Also included is a crossover issue of Marvel Two-in-One, #3, a side vehicle for the Thing of the Fantastic Four, who would team up with a different hero in each issue. Since issue #93, the Daredevil comic was retitled Daredevil and the Black Widow, up through #108, and then back to just plain old Daredevil again. Regardless of whether she is included in the magazine’s title or not, the Black Widow is present and active in almost all of these issues. She and Daredevil are described as “lovers,” but the reader hardly ever gets to see them loving. Mostly they just bicker with each other. As with Karen Page in earlier issues, the Daredevil title is part romance comic, and the romance is mostly of the tortured soul variety, in which poor Matt Murdock never finds true happiness.

The most disappointing thing about Volume 5 is that Gene Colan, the preeminent artist of the Daredevil title up to this point, is mostly absent from these issues. Gene the Dean only draws four nonconsecutive issues in this run. For the most part, the drawing duties are split between Don Heck and Bob Brown, both of whom are competent artists in the classic Marvel mode but nothing exceptional by that era’s standards. On the bright side, inker Klaus Janson makes his Daredevil debut with #124 and inks the last two issues in this volume.

Steve Gerber handles the writing for most of this book, and Daredevil seems to be a little out of his element. He writes Daredevil as if he would rather be writing some other comic. For instance, Thanos is discussed but not present as Daredevil teams up with Moondragon and Captain Marvel to fight cosmic threats, not exactly DD’s area of expertise. (I never realized before reading these issues that Thanos is called a “Titan” because supposedly he came from Titan, Saturn’s moon.) Daredevil also takes a trip to the Everglades to mess around with Man-Thing, a Gerber creation. These strange adventures feel like irrelevant tangents to the traditional Daredevil storyline. Things improve in the second half of the book when Daredevil returns to being an urban vigilante. He also fights a bunch of Hydra agents, which seems appropriately within his bailiwick. Some enjoyable villains making an appearance in this volume are the Mandrill, Death Stalker, and Copperhead. Silver Samurai, mostly known as a Wolverine villain, makes his debut in Daredevil #111.

In the Marvel Essentials series, “Essential” doesn’t necessarily mean “essential,” it really just means old. Sometimes the stories reproduced are essential, and sometimes they’re just plain bad. The issues reproduced in Essential Daredevil Volume 5 fall somewhere in between. This is competently average fare for the Marvel comics of this era. As a fan of the old stuff, however, I find average Marvel Comics of the 1970s to be superior to most of what they’ve put out in the twenty-first century. There’s nothing very essential about this volume, but if you grew up reading Daredevil it’s a decent trip down memory lane. 
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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for the Book Lover by John Sutherland

A decent snack of trivia, if you like English fare
John Sutherland is a professor of English Literature at University College London who has written several books on literature that appeal to both an academic and a general reading audience. His 2011 book Curiosities of Literature likewise has crossover potential, as it is researched with scholarly erudition yet accessible and humorous enough to appeal to the average (as the subtitle indicates) “book lover.” Curiosities of Literature is a book of trivia, plain and simple. It doesn’t claim to be anything more, and if you know that going into it then you know just what to expect. The text is comprised of brief anecdotes and unusual facts about books and authors, mostly famous authors but a few obscure and forgotten writers as well. The important question is, is it interesting and amusing trivia, or is it just a tedious assortment of minutiae? The answer, in this case, is about half and half.

The book is divided into thematic chapters on subjects like food, body parts, sex, or guns, but the boundaries between those topics are not hard and fast, as Sutherland rambles from one story to the next however they seem to strike his fancy. He clearly has an encyclopedic and arcane knowledge of literature, and he relates his anecdotes with style and wit. Sometimes a little too much style and wit, to be honest, as the prose sometimes reads like a showcase for Sutherland’s prodigious vocabulary and clever turns of phrase. As a literary raconteur, sometimes Sutherland the storyteller outshines the stories he’s telling.

Sutherland is a British author, and about 90 percent of the book’s contents pertains to British literature, much of it from the Victorian Era. I don’t fault the author for that, but you really have to be up on your English lit to fully appreciate all the information he’s offering here. Sutherland assumes the reader is well-versed in the Brit-lit canon. Thackeray, Fielding, Trollope, and Wilkie Collins garner repeated mentions, and Thomas Carlyle seems to be a constant presence throughout the text. I’m sure many Brits would probably get bored reading a book full of trivia on American authors they haven’t read, and the reverse is true here. A number of American authors are discussed in the remaining 10 percent of the text. Only a few French writers are mentioned, such as Hugo and Proust. Other nation’s literatures seem to be absent from the discussion, except for a very interesting section on German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, and how it inspired hundreds of young men to commit suicide. Sutherland takes a very humorous and flippant approach to the topics of death and suicide, so beware if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing.

Some of the most interesting items in the book relate to old products that were inspired by literature, or—vice versa—intentional product placement in recent novels. There’s an awful lot of discussion about cigarettes. World record-type entries are always interesting, such as who published the most novels (John Creasey, according to Sutherland) or what’s “the longest novel in the literary canon”? (Clarissa by Samuel Richardson). Whether or not a particular story or factoid interests you will probably depend on your literary tastes. Some bits will no doubt prove fascinating, while others merely seem to take up space. Curiosities of Literature is a rather inexpensive book, and if you truly are a lover of classic literature, then it’s certainly worth a look. You’ll likely get your money’s worth of entertainment out of it.
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Monday, January 30, 2023

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

A masterpiece of a story, but long-winded in the telling
An American Tragedy
, a novel by Theodore Dreiser, was first published in 1925. Although these days Dreiser may best be remembered as the author of Sister Carrie, An American Tragedy, from its high-falutin title to its mammoth size, shows all the signs of having been his intended magnum opus. An early dust jacket for the book proclaims that this is “Dreiser’s first novel since 1915,” and judging by the sheer length of this tome, it’s not hard to believe it could have taken him a decade to write it. This novel has some shortcomings in its execution, but nonetheless it is arguably the most powerful story Dreiser ever wrote.

Clyde Griffiths is the son of devoutly religious parents who run a mission in Kansas City. The parents take the children out in the evenings to preach, sing, and collect donations in the streets. While his siblings don’t necessarily seem to mind this lifestyle so much, teenaged Clyde chafes under this enforced proselytizing and the relative poverty that comes with it. He wants to live like a regular young man, wear nice clothes, and date girls. He decides to get a job, both to raise money to help the family and to excuse himself from the street preaching. After a few brief stints at other work, he secures a position as a bellboy at the fancy Hotel Green-Davidson. Clyde starts hanging out with his more experienced coworkers and begins to get involved with alcohol and sex, all the while keeping his new sinful life a secret from his parents.

It’s difficult to summarize the plot of An American Tragedy without spoiling it, because no events of import really occur until halfway through the book. The first half of the novel is mostly overly protracted character development. Dreiser is celebrated for his realism, and he has certainly succeeded here in crafting authentic characters and a realistic narrative. When reading about Clyde’s youth, I felt like I had lived most of his experiences myself as a young man (minus the prostitutes), which speaks to the book’s authenticity, but the familiarity of such scenes also lessens some of the dramatic impact. Readers of Dreiser’s day might have been shocked at Clyde’s teenaged adventures, but today’s audience not so much. If you make it through the rather lethargic first half, the second half of the novel is far superior. Dreiser’s frank and multifaceted depiction of small-town life calls to mind Truman Capote’s creative nonfiction masterpiece In Cold Blood. Dreiser is to be commended for his honest and forthright discussions of premarital sex, birth control, and other matters that would have offended the propriety of many readers of the 1920s. .

The story of Clyde Griffiths may be one of the most compelling and memorable in American literature, one worthy of the illusive “Great American Novel” label. It’s in the telling of the tale, however, that the book has its faults. Even at the height of its tension and suspense, the text is very repetitive, often recounting the same scenes over and over again. Chapters often seem to proceed sluggishly in real time, when some summarization could have sufficed. As one of America’s preeminent literary naturalists, Dreiser’s strength is illuminating the epic dramas that take place in real American lives. At times, however, he seems to forget that this isn’t real life but a novel, and as such should be written as a novel, with a little less procedural tone and a little more poetic license in the storytelling. 
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Friday, January 27, 2023

Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

A dull, unmoving love affair
Alexander’s Bridge,
published in 1912, is the debut novel by Willa Cather. Bartley Alexander is an engineer who, as one might guess, designs bridges. He lives with his wife Winifred in Boston, but his career often involves work in other parts of the world. He is currently working on a major bridge project in Canada, of which much mention is made, but for some reason his job requires spending months at a time in London, without his wife. One one of his trips to England, Alexander hears that a former love from his youth, Hilda Burgoyne, is appearing as an actress in a popular play. The two old flames reconnect and commence having an affair. The rest of the book is basically Alexander feeling bad about the affair as it continues over months and perhaps even years, unbeknownst to his wife.

Cather may be one of America’s great novelists, but Alexander’s Bridge is not one of America’s great novels. A year later Cather would publish O Pioneers! and establish herself as one of the Midwest’s and Southwest’s great regional realists. Alexander’s Bridge, an urban romance set in Boston and London, is not typical of Cather’s work and, although it’s not a terrible piece of writing, doesn’t measure up to her later, greater works.

After reading more renowned works of Cather’s fiction like O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and One of Ours, one comes to expect realism, honesty, and psychological authenticity in her work. Alexander’s Bridge feels more like a string of soap opera scenes than a realistic look at a love affair. Unlike the realistic down-to-earth characters that one comes to know and care for in Cather’s regionalist novels, he characters in this love triangle are unrealistic ideals of beauty and perfection. Alexander and his two loves are pretentious people engaged in pretentious dialogue that reads more like Literature than actual conversation. The Alexanders live a life of luxury. Mrs. Alexander and Hilda Burgoyne are described as if they were the two most beautiful women of all-time. Is one supposed to sympathize with Alexander’s misgivings as he shuttles back and forth between sleeping with the two? Or is one supposed to envy him? The end result was neither, as I really didn’t care about any of these characters.

The final chapter is the best-written part of the whole book, perhaps because it deals with something other than the love affair and Alexander’s halfhearted crisis of conscience. Nevertheless, it is a predictable ending that one can see coming from chapter one. The whole book feels as formulaic and one-dimensional as so many Victorian romances, except that it deals with adultery in an open and frank way. That’s really the only sense in which the novel could be seen as modern or daring, and it’s not enough to keep the story interesting.
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Thursday, January 26, 2023

Erhard Ratdolt and His Work at Venice by Gilbert R. Redgrave

Arcane details for scholars and collectors
Printed page by Ratdolt
Of the old masters of the early days of European printing, few have survived in public memory to become household names. Everyone knows Joannes Gutenberg and his famous Bibles, of course, and many in the publishing, printing, or design industries may have heard of Aldus Manutius or William Caxton. Other than that, if these pioneers of the printing press don’t have a font named after them, their names have been lost to all but the most knowledgeable collectors. Alas, one such unsung fontless hero is Erhard Ratdolt, a 15th century printer from Augsburg, Germany. Collectors in the know recognize Ratdolt for the superior quality of his printing work. He is also the first European printer to successfully print multicolor woodcut illustrations beyond just black and red.

There aren’t very many books about Ratdolt, and if you search for one, the first to come up will likely be Erhard Ratdolt and His Work in Venice by Gilbert Richard Redgrave. Published in 1894, this slim book is in the public domain and therefore downloadable for free from sites like HathiTrust and the Internet Archive. If you’re looking for an introduction to Ratdolt’s life and work, however, this is probably not the book for you. The text of this book is a paper that was originally presented by Redgrave at a meeting of the Bibliographical Society in London, so the information is intended for a very specialized audience of scholars, collectors, and experts in early printing.

Redgrave focuses exclusively on the decade that Ratdolt spent in Venice, where he began his career as a printer and did some of his finest and most groundbreaking work. Redgrave doesn’t provide much biographical or historical information because he assumes his audience already knows all there is to know about Ratdolt’s career. Mostly, Redgrave talks about specific books that Ratdolt printed, some of which Redgrave owns in his personal collection, and how his copies differ from other copies due to variations in the printing. In keeping with this topic, the latter half of this book is a detailed bibliography of all the books that Ratdolt and company printed in Venice. Undoubtedly, this compilation of book specifications is a valuable source for collectors of Ratdolt’s work, many of whom would have been members of the Bibliographical Society. For the uninitiated reader, however, this book really doesn’t offer much of use.

The best thing about Redgrave’s monograph is that he includes a few reproductions of Ratdolt’s work that exhibit the printer’s skill and his fine taste in typography and decorative illustrations. These attractive examples offer some sense of Ratdolt’s career, but for the most part any narrative of the pioneer printer’s life or career gets lost in the morass of arcane detail in Redgrave’s text.

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Friday, January 20, 2023

Bread by Charles Norris

Mixed messages for working women
Charles Gilman Norris was a well-respected literary figure in his day, but nowadays he is probably best known for being the little brother of Frank Norris, whose novels (McTeague, The Octopus, The Pit) hold an esteemed place in American literature while Charles’s books have mostly faded into obscurity. In addition, Charles was the husband of Kathleen Norris, also a successful novelist. Like Frank, Charles was a realist and a bit of a muckraker who often wrote fiction exploring social issues. His novel Bread was published in 1923. (Charles had a penchant for one-word titles.)

The meaning behind the title does not remain a mystery for long. In the opening scene, Mrs. Sturgis, a widow and piano teacher living in a New York City apartment with her two daughters, has to borrow a dime from one of her students in order to buy a loaf of bread. Though a middle-class family, the Sturgis women often have trouble making ends meet. Jeannette, the elder daughter, decides she’s had enough of scraping by and decides to go to work. She undergoes training as a stenographer and takes a position with the Corey Publishing Company. Beyond the mere pleasure of a paycheck, Jeannette actually enjoys working. She proves herself a model employee, and her diligent work ethic soon makes her indispensable to the company. When she falls in love with one of her coworkers, however, Jeannette is faced with the dilemma of whether to give up her career to become a wife and homemaker (a foregone conclusion in those days) or to stick with her exciting, independent life as a businesswoman.

That brief plot sketch may sound like the premise for many a formulaic Victorian romance novel, but Bread is a more sophisticated examination of working women’s woes than the typical spunky working-girl tale. Norris delivers a realistic portrait of a working woman’s life in 1920s America, both in and out of the office. Jeannette has to deal with male colleagues who don’t take her seriously, female coworkers who resent her ability, occasional unwanted advances from clients, and the unfair reality of lower pay for women. She also struggles to balance her work and home life while her mother, sister, and boyfriends all continually encourage her to get married, quit her job, and start making babies.

Ultimately, Norris sets up a dichotomy between the lives of a married woman and a working woman, weighing the pros and cons of both, so as to ascertain which is the life better lived. Maybe that argument might be handled better by somebody other than a dude, but this was 1923, long before the term “mansplaining” was coined. To his credit, Norris has written probably the most dignified and authentic look at a working woman that I can recall from the first few decades of the twentieth century. Jeannette is not a cookie cutter heroine—at times she’s not even a sympathetic character—and the book is mostly free of clichés. When push comes to shove, however, Norris reaches pretty much the same conclusions about the role and needs of women as those romance novelists of the Victorian era. He just presents those conclusions in a more realistic and depressing way. Bread is a fine peace of writing, and admirably feminist for its time, but this was a century ago, and feminism still had a long ways to go, at least in the eyes of male writers.
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Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Rhythms of Modern Life: British Prints 1914–1939, edited by Clifford S. Ackley

English linocuts, etchings, and lithographs that evoke Italian futurism
The period between the two world wars was an era of rampant creaative experimentation as artists searched for new formal, technical, and theoretical means of expressing a modern life transformed by industrialization, science, and technology. Painting gets most of the attention, but printmakers were equally restless, inspired, and innovative. Modern industrialization also spawned the new medium of the linoleum cut print, or linocut, a more economical and egalitarian successor to the woodcut. Artist Claude Flight was a staunch proponent of this new modern art form, and the artists associated with his Grosvenor School of Modern Art made great strides in exploring the possibilities of the medium. Published in conjunction with a 2008 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Rhythms of Modern Life, edited by Clifford S. Ackley, examines the futuristic prints that came out of Britain during this era.

The British artists covered in this book were strongly influenced by the visual aesthetics of the Italian futurists, as exemplified by the poetry and philosophy of F. T. Marinetti, the paintings of Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla, and the sculpture of Umberto Boccioni. The Brits shared the futurists’ fascination with modern technology and the accelerated pace of modern life but did not necessarily agree with their Italian counterparts’ ideas on politics and war.

The prints reproduced in the book include some etchings and lithographs, media favored by artists C. R. W. Nevinson and Paul Nash, but the Grosvenor school was particularly known for its linocuts, so most of the images presented here are examples of that technique. Rhythms of Modern Life features the work of a dozen artists, but some of those are only represented by one or two images. For the most part, the book focuses on Claude Flight, Cyril E. Power, Sybil Andrews, Edward Wadsworth, and Swiss-born Lill Tschudi, all of whom predominantly worked in block prints (Wadsworth using wood, the rest linoleum), as well as Nevinson and Nash.

The book is divided into thematic chapters emphasizing particular areas of subject matter: images of war, speed and movement, industry and labor, and sports, for example. The text that accompanies the images in these categories is not terribly informative. There isn’t a whole lot of biographical content on the artists. There is some discussion of how they were influenced by the Italian futurists but differed philosophically from them. Mostly, however, the text consists of curators pointing out the angular forms and swirling vortices that you can clearly see with your own eyes. The book’s appendices are far more educational than its essays. The back matter includes a history of the linocut medium, an examination of the materials and processes used by the artists featured in the book, and a brief biographical sketch of each artist.

Another book was published on this subject in 1995, Linocuts of the Machine Age: Claude Flight and the Grosvenor School by Stephen Coppel. That book, part catalogue raisonné, is a more comprehensive text on this subject, and the authors of Rhythms of Modern Life often refer to it. I prefer the choice of artists and artworks featured in that earlier book, but Coppel’s book was published over 25 years ago, and most of the images are printed in black and white. Printing technology has advanced much since then, and in terms of sheer beauty, Rhythms of Modern Life, loaded as it is with fine color reproductions, is the more attractive book. The text falls short of a satisfyingly comprehensive study of this movement, but for those who really appreciate this art, the collection of images is worth the cover price.
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Cyril E. Power, Air Raid, linocut, c. 1935

Edward Wadsworth, Black Country, woodcut, 1919

Claude Flight, Brooklands, linocut, c. 1929