Friday, November 25, 2022

Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol

The romanticization of war taken to the extreme
Taras Bulba
, a historical novel by Russian author Nikolai Gogol, is set in the 17th century in the Ukraine. The title character is a middle-aged Cossack and veteran of many battles. His two sons, Ostap and Andrij, have finished their studies at the Kiev Academy and have returned home to their father’s house. Taras, an old-school Cossack raised in a Spartan militaristic style, can’t wait to usher his boys into their first battle, thus initiating them into true manhood. The father and two sons gear themselves up for a campaign and head to the Zaporozhian Sich, where thousands of Cossacks have gathered for a drinking binge. Eager for battle but with no one to fight, they decide to break a peace treaty and attack the Poles.

Taras Bulba was first published in 1835 and revised in 1842. The events in this novel are based on the Khmelnytsky Uprising of 1648 to 1657, the same conflict that serves as the basis for the novel With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz, who tells the story from the Polish side. It is interesting how Gogol depicts the Poles as aristocratic dandies, as opposed to the Cossacks, who are salt-of-the-earth he-men. Andrij Bulba falls in love with a Polish woman who essentially converts him into a Pole, setting up a classic brother-against-brother war story.

Gogol has a reputation as a satirist, and aspects of the novel lead one to wonder whether Taras Bulba was written with satire or sincerity in mind. The way Gogol celebrates the drunkenness and machismo of the Cossacks is so over-the-top it reads like caricature, similar to the kind of slurs that are aimed at the “drunken Irish,” for example. On the flip side, in Andriy, the more sensitive and chivalrous of the Bulba brothers, those qualities are amplified to a feminine extreme, to the point where he comes across as a sobbing, subservient milquetoast in the presence of his lover. Despite such exaggerations, however, after the first couple chapters it becomes clear that Gogol wrote the novel with dead seriousness. Everything about this story is ramped up to the nth degree, from the violence and gore to the military brotherhood and self-sacrifice to the bigoted hatred of Catholics and Jews.

Usually I don’t mind novels that take Romanticism to larger-than-life excesses, particularly when it comes to patriotism or nationalism. Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three is a good example, or Sienkiewicz’s trilogy of With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Wolodyjowski. Such books bring to life not only the historical events but the mindsets and values of the periods they portray. As a battle epic, Taras Bulba is sufficiently exciting and not badly written. Gogol’s obsession with violence and die-with-your-boots-on masculinity, however, only serves as a constant reminder that all this torture and mutilation was merely the result of ignorant people fighting pointlessly over minor variations in how they worshipped the same god. The frequent anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews throughout the novel are also quite off-putting.

Novels about the Cossacks comprise a genre of their own in Russian literature, leading one to wonder if the Ukrainian Steppe was the Russian equivalent of the mythic Wild West. It certainly reads that way from the way Gogol romanticizes the Cossacks’ military ethos. With a different costume and weapons, a hard-drinking, grizzled, two-fisted hero like Taras Bulba would be right at home in a vintage Western hunting down Indians instead of infidels. If it’s realism you want, you won’t find it here. Instead, seek out Mikhail Sholokhov’s masterful two-volume epic And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea, or Leo Tolstoy’s semi-autobiographical novel The Cossacks.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2022

When Sunflowers Bloomed Red: Kansas and the Rise of Socialism in America by R. Alton Lee and Steven Cox

A history of radical Kansas
Most people think of Kansas as a conservative “red state,” which may be true today, but historically the Sunflower State has demonstrated markedly progressive and, dare I say, radical tendencies in its political leanings. The cleverly titled When Sunflowers Bloomed Red, published in 2020, is a history of Socialism in the state of Kansas. (Let’s not forget that red was originally the worldwide color of Socialism, before some American TV news executive in the 1980s decided to assign the color to the Republican Party.) The book was written by R. Alton Lee, a historian who has published much on Kansas history, and Steven Cox, archivist at Pittsburg State University, located in the Southeastern and historically reddest corner of the state. The scope of the book spans roughly from the 1890s up to World War II.

In the book’s introduction, the authors state flatly, “This is not a definitive history of socialism in Kansas.” That’s disappointing because, given the title, one would expect it would be, and if this isn’t it, what is? Rather than relating Kansas’s socialist history in a chronological narrative, the authors have divided their study into thematic chapters focusing on particular people or movements. One chapter, for example, focuses on the highly successful publishing operations of J. A. Wayland and Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius in Girard, Kansas. The former founded America’s most widely circulated socialist newspaper, the Appeal to Reason, while the latter sold millions of copies of his Little Blue Books. Another chapter covers union organizing among miners, while another is devoted specifically to prominent women socialists in Kansas. The activities of the International Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) and the Nonpartisan League in Kansas are also discussed at length. Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, perhaps the most famous socialist in U.S. history, was not a Kansan, but he was an active campaigner in the state, and the elections in which he figured are frequently mentioned throughout the book.

I already had an interest in this subject before I discovered this book, so I would consider myself predisposed to a favorable reaction. Although the authors deliver much informative content, however, the writing is difficult to get excited about. As confirmed by the notes, almost every paragraph is a summary of a newspaper article, and reads like one. These follow one another in chronological order, amounting to a rapid-fire delivery of names, places, and facts but with little attempt to connect the dots and assemble a cohesive narrative. The text is heavy on election statistics, when tables might have been a better way to impart that data. The thematic arrangement also leads to further confusion with a lot of jumping back and forth in time and repetition of events. The result is a book that would probably serve better as a reference volume for historians than as an enlightening read for the curious general reader. Those in the latter category, like myself, may find themselves so exhausted by the blow-by-blow commentary on policy debates that the more violent incidents of class struggle actually come as a refreshing relief. When Sunflowers Bloomed Red contains a lot of valuable information, but its relentless barrage of detail makes it hard to see the forest for the trees and never really brings this history or the personalities of its prominent activists to life.

Compiling a one-volume socialist history of Kansas is surely a difficult task, since so many of the characters who played a part in that history lived lives that could merit a book of their own. Talkin’ Socialism by Elliott Shore, a biography of J. A. Wayland and the Appeal to Reason, is one commendable example. R. Alton Lee also wrote a book that focuses exclusively on Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, Publisher for the Masses, which I look forward to reading.

Monday, November 21, 2022

An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students by Ronald Brunlees McKerrow

How books were made from 1500 to 1800
Although published in 1927, English bibliographer Ronald Brunlees McKerrow’s An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students is still a fundamental text for scholars and collectors of early printed books. This book is a detailed guide to how books are printed, or rather were printed, in the days before the industrial revolution (although much of the basic process has remained the same even with today’s modern machinery). McKerrow wrote the book for an audience of literary scholars who study old books and manuscripts. In general, he emphasizes the works of authors from Shakespeare’s time and earlier. He asserts, however, that the process of printing books didn’t change much from the years 1500 to 1800, so the information given can be applied to most works printed during that time span.

Nowadays, when a publisher prints 25,000 copies of a book, all of those copies pretty much look identical. That was not the case in the days of hand-set type and hand-cranked presses. Printers would make corrections as they went along, and each copy would have its own distinct characteristics. Sometimes, by studying the differences in printing between two copies, it is possible to surmise which was printed earlier or later, thus helping the literary scholar to discern which iteration could be considered the original, the corrected, the authoritative, or the defective version of the text. McKerrow instructs the reader on how to identify and describe these variations in copies and editions as a means of illuminating a book’s history. McKerrow’s detailed explanation of the printing process also elucidates how errors enter into the text between the author’s manuscript and the final printed book. All of this is useful to the literary scholar in that it helps to establish the author’s original intent and thus broaden understanding of the literary work and the author in question.

As a sort of field guide to rare early printed books, McKerrow’s Introduction to Bibliography is comprehensive and authoritative, but it is far from user-friendly. I have worked most of my adult life in book design, printing, and publishing, yet even I found this book quite difficult to understand at times. That’s not because of the arcane terminology, some of which was familiar to me and the rest of which I actually enjoyed learning, but because of McKerrow’s convoluted explanations. The book is chock full of footnotes, but to be honest the main text of the book reads like footnotes as well. McKerrow spends so much time highlighting irregular examples (he clearly revels in citing the most esoteric anomalies possible) that it’s hard for the reader to see the forest for the trees. Though one needs to know exceptions to the rules, this book often reads like all exceptions and no rules. I read a facsimile of the original 1927 edition, and it clearly could have used more illustrations. When discussing early printing presses, for example, McKerrow goes into a lengthy, almost indecipherable knee-bone’s-connected-to-the-shin-bone description of the machinery, when one simple labeled diagram would have been far more effective. In discussing typography, he even verbally describes typefaces, rather than showing the reader examples.

Though it’s not an easy or always pleasurable book to get through, for those interested in old books and bibliography it is worth the work. In the past century, others have no doubt published more accessible guides on the subject, but it’s hard to imagine anyone cramming in as much content and specificity as McKerrow has done here. Though intended for literary students, there is much valuable information here for collectors, librarians, or just curious and avid readers.
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Friday, November 18, 2022

The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau

Roughing it in the Pine Tree State
Henry David Thoreau was a native of Concord, Massachusetts and lived there most of his life, with the exception of his years at Harvard and his sojourn at nearby Walden Pond. Thoreau did get around, however, and his travels and natural explorations make up the bulk of his books. From 1846 to 1857 Thoreau made three trips to Maine that resulted in three lengthy essays that comprise the book The Maine Woods. Although two of these essays had previously been printed in magazines, the book as a whole was unfinished at the time of Thoreau’s death and was published posthumously in 1864.

In Thoreau’s time, the line between civilization and wilderness was not as sharply defined as it is today. Nowadays, however, his three excursions to Maine would probably qualify as “wilderness adventure travel,” meaning he slept outdoors, often traveled by foot and canoe, and his primary objective was to experience nature through hunting, fishing, birding, botanizing, and simply enjoying the scenery. In the first essay, “Ktaadn,” Thoreau climbs to the top of Maine’s highest mountain, now Mount Katahdin. He also observes the lives of the loggers and boatmen who work amid the woods, lakes, and rivers of Maine. In “Chesuncook,” Thoreau accompanies some moose hunters to the lake of the same name. Apparently there were no moose in Massachusetts, so Thoreau enlightens his readers on this fascinating creature. He also shares his views on hunting. Hunting for sport makes him sad, but he’s OK with hunting for subsistence. The third essay, “The Allegash and East Branch,” is a more rambling journey with no apparent objective other than the appreciation of scenery and the collecting of plant specimens.

In all three trips, Thoreau was accompanied by traveling companions, and they enlisted the help of Indian guides. The companions never really develop into characters, and Thoreau usually doesn’t even name them. The Native guides, however, are important presences in the book, particularly in the second and third essays. In “Chesuncook,” Thoreau is guided by Joe Aettion, and in “The Allegash and East Branch” by Joe Polis, both of whom he describes as Penobscot Indians. Aettion competes with the moose for attention in his essay, but Polis is very much the main focus of “The Allegash and East Branch.” In both cases, Thoreau wants to illustrate the character and personality of the Native Americans through character studies of these two individuals, but at the same time he points out how Native life has been altered by colonialism. He sees these men as a bridge between the old ways of the pre-Colombian past and ostensibly “civilized” White America. As a naturalist, Thoreau clearly admires and envies their woodcraft and wilderness survival skills. At times they call to mind Natty Bumppo of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (except he was White), but Thoreau’s two Joes are more realistically drawn than the noble savages of Cooper’s novels. Given his love of wilderness, Thoreau not surprisingly thinks White America could learn some from the Natives on how to live a life more respectful of nature. .

Unlike Walden, which is permeated with Thoreau’s philosophical musings, The Maine Woods is more of a straightforward travelogue and nature study, though Thoreau does occasionally reveal his thoughts on ecology and environmental ethics. In particular, he has a lot to say about logging and laments the rampant cutting of the forests. Because it was published after his death, “The Allegash and East Branch” has an unfinished feel to it, but all three are exceptional pieces of nature writing. Thoreau not only describes the natural environment but also delves into the cultural aspects of Maine life, which results in essays that read like they might have been articles in National Geographic or Outside magazine. Thoreau really transports the reader into the Maine wilderness and vividly encapsulates this period in American history..

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Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Valdez is Coming by Elmore Leonard

A near-perfect Western
I am not a frequent reader of Western genre fiction, but in Elmore Leonard’s case I can make an exception. Leonard is best known as a writer of sharp-witted crime fiction, but he got his start writing in the Western genre. His first published works were short stories in Western pulp fiction magazines, and his first novels were Westerns. Valdez is Coming, the eighth of Leonard’s 45 novels, was published in 1970. The following year it was made into a good Western film starring Burt Lancaster in the title role. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, Valdez is Coming is an excellent Western novel and an exciting read.

As the novel opens, a crowd of armed men are gathered before a shack where they have cornered a suspected army deserter and murderer. Powerful rancher Frank Tanner is the driving force behind this makeshift posse, which consists mostly of his hired gunmen. Town constable Roberto “Bob” Valdez arrives on the scene and suggests trying to talk to the suspect before resorting to violence. That plan goes south, however, and the accused man is killed before it is discovered that he wasn’t the killer after all. Present at the scene is the dead man’s wife, an Apache woman visibly pregnant. Valdez wonders what will become of her and her child now that her husband is gone. He feels everyone present is responsible for the wrongful killing of the man, and they should all chip in and pull together $500 to compensate the widow for her loss. Valdez thinks Tanner, the leader of the group, the one who made the accusation in the first place, and the wealthiest landowner around, should set an example by making the biggest contribution. When Valdez presents this idea to Tanner, however, the response is not only negative but brutally violent and demeaning. Valdez, a Mexican American, has never been taken seriously as a lawman by the powerful Whites of the town. Little do they know, however, of his military past as a tracker and hunter of hostile Apaches, a past that has provided him with a particular set of skills that enables him to take revenge upon Tanner and his henchmen, making them pay for their arrogance and brutality.

While revenge stories are a dime a dozen in the Western genre, rarely do they begin with such an original premise nor feature such a unique hero as Valdez. I often find Western novels boring, but once I picked up Valdez is Coming I didn’t want to put it down. The main attraction here is Leonard’s smart and snappy prose. This book is only 160 pages long, but it’s hard to recall a book in which so much is said in so few words. Each word is carefully chosen and appropriately placed in a terse and taut phrasing. There’s no fat to chew in this lean and sinewy narrative. And every line of dialogue is spot-on, with a wry sense of humor bubbling underneath. Leonard’s characters deliver speech that sounds like real conversation, not literary book-talk. The action sequences are nail-bitingly suspenseful and vividly drawn without getting bogged down in the logistics of who rode where and who shot who. Whether he knew a film adaptation was forthcoming or not, Leonard clearly had a cinematic vision when he wrote the novel, as evident from the screenplay quality of its scene staging and plot trajectory.

I had previously read The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, most of the contents of which were originally published in 1950s magazines. That’s a good collection, but nothing in it is quite in the same league as Valdez is Coming. Now I’d like to read more of Leonard’s early Western novels, like Hombre and Last Stand at Saber River. Judging by Valdez is Coming, if anyone can win me over to this genre of literature, Leonard can.
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Monday, November 14, 2022

Life and Works of Alexander Csoma de Körös by Theodore Duka

Inadequate biography of a fascinating life 
Alexander Csoma de Körös
Alexander Csoma de Körös (1784-1842) is the founder of Tibetology. A Hungarian philologist, he was one of the first Western scholars to venture into Tibet, learn their language, and read their texts. His journey East and his cultural and linguistic studies are really quite fascinating. Unfortunately his biography, Life and Works of Alexander Csoma de Körös by Theodore Duka, doesn’t really do justice to its subject. Due to a lack of concrete information on Csoma, this account of his life is rather boring and repetitive, but it is likely the best source we have for shedding light on the journeys, discoveries, and eccentric personality of this intrepid linguistic explorer.

Born in the town of Körös in Transylvania, Csoma was of Székely origin, a Hungarian ethnic group in Romania. As a young scholar, he decided to research the origins of the Hungarian people. He believed they were descended from the Huns, who came from Asia to make frequent raids into Eastern Europe. This naturally directed his studies Eastward. Today we know that most European languages evolved from a prototypical Indo-European tongue. In his peregrinations Eastward, Csoma was essentially tracing this linguistic family tree backwards to India, where he marked similarities between the Hungarian language and Sanskrit. Eventually he became fascinated with Tibet and Buddhism, and the Tibetan language became the primary focus of his studies and the field in which he made important contributions. Csoma was a gifted polyglot with a facility in many languages, among them Hungarian, Romanian, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, English, Slavonic, Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Bengali, Pashto, Hindustani, Marathi, Tibetan, and Russian.

Despite his formidable achievements, Csoma was a very modest man, and didn’t write much about himself or his travels. The result of this is a paucity of information on the man. Duka based this biography mostly on a series of letters, many reproduced verbatim, between Csoma and officials of the English government in India who financed his travels. In these letters, Csoma summarized his studies, much like a professor today might write a grant report to a funding agency. Much of the correspondence discusses the stipend granted to Csoma by the English, some of which he refused to accept. In India and Tibet, Csoma lived a very ascetic existence similar to the Buddhist monks with whom he studied. He resided in small cells, sleeping on the floor, surviving on tea and rice, and devoting all his time to his studies. He seemed to be addicted to self-denial, eschewing not only luxuries but also what most would consider bare necessities, perhaps viewing himself as a martyr to knowledge. Out of gratitude to his English benefactors, Csoma published his research in English, including the first Tibetan-English dictionary.

While the biography feels sparse, one thing Duka does very thoroughly is summarize Csoma’s writings, perhaps too thoroughly for all but Csoma’s peer Tibetologists. About the last quarter of the book is devoted to this extensive annotated bibliography of Csoma’s published research.

I enjoy reading biographies of scientists, explorers, and ethnographers because they allow one to live vicariously through the subject’s travels and discoveries. That’s difficult to do with Life and Works of Alexander Csoma de Körös, because the person in question never shared his experiences of world travel, only his scholarly research. Even so, I’m glad I read this to learn more about this interesting historical figure. Thankfully, I also have a healthy interest in foreign languages, because this book will probably only appeal to those who do.

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Friday, November 11, 2022

Where the Evil Dwells by Clifford D. Simak

Plodding dungeons and dragons quest
I’m a big fan of author Clifford D. Simak and am close to finishing off his complete works. Among his career catalog of superb science fiction, however, he did write a few novels in a genre that isn’t really my cup of tea: fantasy of the Dungeons and Dragons variety. Among these books are Enchanted Pilgrimage, The Fellowship of the Talisman, and one of his last few novels, Where the Evil Dwells, published in 1982. As much as I love Simak’s writing, I don’t think this genre was really his strong suit, and Where the Evil Dwells does little to elevate my appreciation for sword and sorcery fiction.

The story takes place during the time of the Roman Empire. In between the Romans to the South and the Germanic barbarians of the north lies a no-man’s zone called the Empty Land. Here dwells the Evil, a mystical hoard of evil creatures right out of the D&D Monster Manual. Charles Harcourt is a young nobleman in Northern France. His father’s lands lie adjacent to the boundary of the Empty Land. One day a beloved uncle shows up injured, having just returned from an adventure in the Empty Land. He tells Charles of a magical prism in which the soul of a saint is imprisoned. This holy relic rests deep within the Empty Land, and the uncle was not able to wrest it from the clutches of the Evil. Charles resolves to embark on a quest to recover the prism, in hopes that its holy powers will be useful in countering the Evil. Volunteering to accompany him on this quest are an abbot with a taste for battle, a neighbor girl with a secret past, and the Knurly Man, an inhuman humanoid of mysterious origin.

Like so many quest novels, particularly in this fantasy genre, the bulk of the book is occupied with the getting there. For the reader, this is a slow and tedious journey as the party trudges through one more forest, one more swamp, one more campsite. Reading this book really does make one feel like you are a spectator at a session of Dungeons & Dragons in which you are in no way invested. Occasionally the trekkers encounter monsters or meet other humans (typical non-player characters). Simak draws most of his monsters from mythology and folklore—ogres, trolls, dragons, unicorns. Occasionally he’ll serve up something a little more creative. Action is sparse in the plot, and nobody really learns anything along the way. Nothing much of import happens until the last twenty pages of the book, which is hastily wrapped up in a less than satisfying ending.

Fans of Simak’s science fiction will be disappointed with this work. I can’t imagine even those who habitually enjoy sword and sorcery fiction would find this novel exciting. One can’t blame Simak for wanting to branch out, but he should have left this genre to Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Piers Anthony. Simak doesn’t bring anything new to fantasy literature with this book. The biggest fault with Where the Evil Dwells is that it’s just boring. It’s not offensively bad like The Fellowship of the Talisman; just passively bad. There is nothing to really hate about it but not much to love either.
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