Friday, August 23, 2019

Whiteoaks by Mazo de la Roche

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

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

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

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

Micah Clarke by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the great things about the Marvel Universe is that each of the major titles has its own style and tone: Iron Man is the tech hero, Dr. Strange is the mystical hero, Daredevil is the urban hero, and the Fantastic Four are the sci-fi heroes. Likely no other Earth-based superheroes have encountered as many memorably bizarre alien races, lost civilizations, and alternate dimensions as the FF. Even in these first ten issues, the reader begins to see the epic scope of Lee and Kirby’s sci-fi vision. The Fantastic Four was a truly pioneering comic book, and issues one through ten are still a pleasure to read over a half century later. The series would go on to even bigger and better stories, but it would have never gotten there without the strong foundation of these first ten issues.
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Friday, August 9, 2019

Peter Camenzind by Hermann Hesse

A promising debut
Peter Camenzind, the debut novel of Nobel Prize-winning author Hermann Hesse, was originally published in 1904. It is a coming-of-age story about a young man’s search for love, happiness, and a purpose to his life. At this early stage in Hesse’s career, his writing clearly shows the influence of German romanticism. The novel’s title character and protagonist, for example, grows up in a scene right out of a Caspar David Friedrich painting—an alpine village surrounded by rugged and majestic mountains beset by brutal storms and avalanches. While building upon the literary tradition of writers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, however, this is no Sorrows of Young Werther, as Hesse avoids romantic excesses and ventures toward the more modernist style that would characterize his later and better-known works.

In this first novel one will recognize many elements and themes common to Hesse’s later works. Though Peter is atypical of Hesse’s heroes in that he possesses a robust and powerful physique, he is intellectually inclined and has no interest in farm or factory work. He goes off to a university (reminiscent of the boarding school in Beneath the Wheel or the cloister school in Narcissus and Goldmund) where he develops an enthusiasm for scholarly pursuits. As is often the case with Hesse protagonists, Peter follows an artistic calling, but instead of music (as in Gertrude) or painting (as in Rosshalde), Peter’s chosen vocation is literature. Among his classmates he is an outsider, but he forms one very strong and intense male friendship (see Beneath the Wheel, Demian, The Glass Bead Game, and others). When that friendship is taken away from him (Beneath the Wheel again), Peter becomes disillusioned with life and decides to wander the countryside, looking for some sort of spiritual epiphany (much like Siddhartha or Goldmund).

Love is a common theme throughout the book, but not necessarily romantic love. Peter searches for a love that will make life worthwhile. This first manifests itself in love for woman, at which Peter is not very successful. Alcoholism is another recurring theme in the book, as Peter continually turns to drink as a distraction from the lack of love and meaning in his life. As the book progresses, however, Peter begins to realize that the one love in his life that he could always count on is his love for nature. While nature provides him with a source of spiritual contentment, he realizes that he will never be truly happy until he develops a love for humanity. Peter’s spiritual quest is very engaging, and Hesse imparts some valid wisdom, but the lifestyle which ultimately brings Peter contentment will probably strike many readers as not very appealing.

Hesse’s novels often feature intelligent, sensitive introverts who feel like outsiders in society. I suspect that those who read his books, myself included, tend to be those who see themselves in a similar light. Such readers will easily be seduced by the monastic or nomadic lifestyles of Hesse’s heroes. How wonderful it would be to devote oneself to study in the secluded libraries of a utopian center of learning, or wander the roads of Europe on foot, sleeping in fragrant meadows and taking life as it comes. By no means am I being facetious, for this is exactly what I enjoy about Hesse’s novels. His characters have the time to philosophize and self-actualize, while many of us do not. This only proves that the alienation and disconnect that Hesse felt with modern society is still alive and well today. By Hesse standards, Peter Camenzind is a good novel, not great, but it is an admirable start to what would prove to be an illustrious literary career.
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Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Frank Norris Remembered, edited by Jesse S. Crisler and Joseph R. McElrath

As friends and family knew him
Frank Norris Remembered, published in 2013, is part of the American Writers Remembered series from the University of Alabama Press. Each volume in the series collects posthumous remembrances from friends, family, and professional colleagues of the deceased author to create a sort of oral history of their lives. Frank Norris was one of America’s greatest novelists at the dawn of the twentieth century, but his career as a professional writer only lasted about seven years. He died at the age of 32. The world hardly knew him, or what he was capable of, which makes a volume like this all the more valuable for understanding the author and his life.

This book is edited by Jesse S. Crisler and Joseph R. McElrath, the duo of literature professors who literally wrote the book on Norris’s life (Frank Norris: A Life, published in 2006). Here they demonstrate the same exhaustive thoroughness and meticulous attention to detail that they brought to that authoritative biography. Crisler and McElrath provide introductions and extensive notes to accompany each of the remembrances reprinted here. In all, fifty different individuals offer their personal memories of Norris, including Norris’s wife, his college fraternity brothers, and the editors and publishers with whom he worked. Outside the area of Frank Norris studies, the only readily recognizable names among this assortment of Norris intimates are like-minded authors Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells. The writings take various forms, including published eulogies, personal letters of condolence to the widow Norris, introductions to posthumous editions of Norris works, and interview notes taken by early biographers of Norris. The latter category, being choppy and haphazard in nature, are the least satisfying to read, but perhaps the most valuable inclusions because of their never having been previously published. In gathering together and reproducing documents from various archives around the country, this book serves as a valuable tool for Norris researchers, and the context provided by Crisler and McElrath’s contributions adds to that value considerably.

Not surprisingly, this is a book more for researchers than for readers, as the testimonies can get quite repetitive. Many of the same points are reiterated in several reminiscences, but the varying perspectives help to clarify and corroborate the details of Norris’s life and career. As one would expect, the text contains plenty of praise for the dead, whether for his literary prowess, his physical attractiveness, or his noble character. Such eulogizing goes beyond mere flattery, however, and often provides great insight into Norris’s personality and demeanor, which is what one would hope to get from a book like this. Only one of the interviewees, Bertha Rickoff, really didn’t care for Norris at all, and her contrarian opinion proves to be one of the collection’s most interesting entries.

Frank Norris Remembered is aimed at literary scholars, but an avid layman like myself can find much of interest here as well. As far as general readers go, this is only for diehard Norris fans. Those who haven’t already read Frank Norris: A Life should do so first, and if you still want to know more about this great American author, then Frank Norris Remembered makes a fine companion volume.
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