Friday, June 14, 2019

Jack London: Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone

A superb telling of an amazing life
Jack London: Sailor on Horseback, a biography by Irving Stone, was originally published in 1938. It began as an authorized biography when Stone was invited by London’s widow, Charmian Kittredge London, to the London family ranch in California to utilize the family’s personal archives. Later Charmian withdrew her blessing and disowned the biography, however, when Stone dug a little too deep. I have read several biographies of London, as well as his own autobiographical writings like John Barleycorn, The Road, and The Cruise of the Snark. I had previously avoided Stone’s book because I thought it was a biographical novel, and I had read some disparaging comments about its level of fictionalization. After reading it, however, I discovered it to be a work of nonfiction, and it turned out to be a truly enjoyable and riveting read.

Despite accusations against Stone by Charmian and others, I didn’t find anything particularly sensationalized about Stone’s account. London’s life was so sensational in the first place, it would be difficult to write about it without making it sound sensationalized. For the most part the portrayal of London is a positive one, though ultimately tragic. Stone clearly admires his subject, but this account is not merely an adulatory tribute. Stone draws attention to London’s faults, but does not delve too deeply into them. London’s white supremacist views on race, for example, are mentioned but not examined in great depth. Perhaps that just wasn’t a hot-button issue in 1938, and London’s opinions on race were certainly not uncommon for Americans of his era. As far as London’s dark side goes, Stone mainly emphasizes his childlike handling of financial matters, his naive trust in friends and family, his marital infidelities, and his tendency toward bouts of crippling depression. London’s alcoholism is also dealt with frankly, but not to the extent of its coverage in John Barleycorn.

It is no wonder that Charmian hated this book, because it really portrays her in a negative light. In this account she comes across as conniving, smothering, unattractive, and infantile. Stone not only holds her responsible for breaking up London’s first marriage but also for negatively altering London’s literary style in the latter half of his career. This book provides a clearer, more thorough insight into London’s two marriages than any other biography that I’ve encountered, including Charmian’s own The Book of Jack London, which is biased, disingenuous, and worst of all, dull. Whereas Charmian tried to hide Jack’s illegitimate birth in her book, Stone brings the facts out into the open. She was also outraged that Stone made London’s death seem like a suicide, but a century later scholars are still debating the exact cause of death.

In my opinion, from a scholarly standpoint, the best biography of London, in terms of comprehensiveness, depth of research, and just good writing, is Earle Labor’s 2013 book Jack London: An American Life. However, for the average reader who just wants to learn about London’s fascinating life, doesn’t care about literary criticism or Jack London Studies, and doesn’t need footnotes or a bibliography, Sailor on Horseback is really the best way to go. It is an excellent read for novices or diehard fans alike. If all you know about London is The Call of the Wild and White Fang, you will be amazed at the breadth, depth, and variety of his adventures and achievements. I have been an avid fan of London’s writing for over 30 years and have read everything he ever published, but Stone’s account of his life has really renewed my interest in this important author and remarkable man. Reading Sailor on Horseback makes me want to go back and reread some of my favorite London novels and stories and do further research into his amazing life.
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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Stark Munro Letters by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The finances and philosophy of a young doctor
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known, of course, as the author of the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and he also wrote many well-known works of fiction in the science fiction, horror, and war genres. In addition to being a successful author, Conan Doyle was also a physician, and his two careers come together in what is likely the least known category of his bibliography, his medical fiction. Among his writings on doctors and medicine are the 1894 short story collection Round the Red Lamp and his 1895 novel The Stark Munro Letters.

The latter work is an epistolary novel, written in the form of letters from recent medical school graduate Dr. John Stark Munro to his former classmate Dr. Herbert Swanborough. The novel only presents one side of the correspondence; the reader never sees Swanborough’s replies. In his letters, Munro confides to Swanborough his struggles in finding gainful employment in his chosen profession. Starting a career as a doctor was apparently very difficult in Victorian England, even to the point where Munro finds himself facing abject poverty as he strives to establish himself in a profitable practice. Conan Doyle takes a predominantly lighthearted approach to these struggles, however. Various opportunities present themselves to Munro and eventually fail to pan out, often with humorous results. Much of Munro’s correspondence is devoted to his relationship with another former classmate, Dr. James Cullingworth, a blustery, greedy, unethical doctor who invites Munro to assist him in his practice. The narrative does not really contain much medical content at all, but mostly focuses on the business aspects of running a doctor’s office. Munro’s finances are examined in detail as he sets about renting a suitable home and office, purchasing medicines, and hiring a servant.

A great deal of Munro’s correspondence, however, is devoted to a more surprising subject: religion. Through his letters to Swanborough, Munro expresses his doubts about Christian dogma and formulates his own personal philosophy of God based on his scientific perspective as a physician. These philosophical musings are often more interesting than the medical story, because one can only assume that Munro speaks for Conan Doyle. Thus the reader gets a fair amount of insight into the author’s views on religion, which seem to fall somewhere between Enlightenment era deism and Spinozan pantheism. Munro does not criticize organized religions, however, and like a good Victorian acknowledges the usefulness of all churches in the maintaining of a moral society.

The ending of the book is utterly predictable, since so many of Conan Doyle’s books seem to end the same way. There is a brief but surprising epilogue, however, that is truly unexpected and elevates this otherwise prosaic work above mediocrity. Overall, there is nothing particularly good about The Stark Munro Letters, but there is nothing offensively bad about it either. This book is simply a mildly pleasant and entertaining read, one crafted by an expert storyteller but not one of his better efforts. The more you like Conan Doyle’s writing, the more you will enjoy the book, but casual dabblers in the author’s works should probably stick to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Professor Challenger.
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Monday, June 10, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 6 by Jack Kirby, et al.

From classic to comical
Essential Captain America, Volume 6 reprints issues 206 to 230 of Marvel Comics’ Captain America series, which were originally published from February 1977 to February of 1979. It also includes Captain America Annual #4 and an issue of The Incredible Hulk (#232) that concludes a Cap and Hulk crossover.

The previous book, Essential Captain America, Volume 5, was written and drawn almost entirely by Jack Kirby, and is a truly excellent collection, the best in this series so far. Kirby’s run continues for almost the first half of Volume 6, ending with issue 214. Again, his bizarre stories and bombastic art are truly a treat to behold. Issue 208 features the debut of one of Kirby’s most inventive creations, Arnim Zola, the half-man, half-robot Nazi scientist with his face in his chest. Zola is a master of biological engineering, which gives Kirby the opportunity to indulge in all kinds of freaky creatures to torment Cap and the Falcon. Kirby also handles Annual #4, in which Cap encounters Magneto. Whether Cap is facing sci-fi monsters from space or spies, assassins, and terrorists threatening democracy, his adventures are always exceptional in the hands of Kirby.

After Kirby’s departure from the title, Sal Buscema takes over the art and does his usual admirably decent job. Authorial duties are taken over by a succession of short-term writers, including Roy Thomas, Don Glut, and Steve Gerber. In most cases, they really don’t do justice to the character, and the stories often get rather ridiculous. Cap goes on a search for his past, because apparently he underwent memory loss when he took the super soldier serum, and doesn’t remember anything about his life as Steve Rogers. Since when? That was never mentioned before in the previous 150 issues, but the writers wanted an excuse to mess with Cap’s back story. One particularly silly plot involves a mad Nazi scientist who transfers his own consciousness into a 12-foot-tall Captain America robot, and then, not surprisingly, regrets the decision when he realizes what a freak he is. After issue 217 the Falcon disappears, meaning the writers just stop including him in the stories. Several issues goes by before Cap notices he’s gone, and then a kidnapping is drummed up to explain his absence. By that time, with issue 223, the title of the comic has already changed from Captain America and the Falcon to just plain Captain America.

The quality of the stories in this volume vary widely in quality from the superb (Kirby’s work) to the dismal. Towards the end of the volume things perk up a bit with a multi-issue arc from writer Roger McKenzie. Cap and SHIELD face a mysterious organized crime ring called the Corporation. Both sides have their share of assorted super-powered agents, which culminates in a big battle royale. Things get really exciting when the Hulk joins in for the final two-issue crossover. After some of the poorer stories, it is good to see this inconsistent volume wrapped up on a high note. Volume 6 has some pretty good issues in it, but it is clearly inferior to Volume 5. I am looking forward to Volume 7 and the coming of John Byrne.
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Friday, June 7, 2019

Spinoza by Berthold Auerbach

From aspiring rabbi to excommunicant
Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza (a.k.a. Benedict de Spinoza) is a philosopher whose work I greatly admire. Berthold Auerbach is a German writer of the 19th century who has since faded into relative obscurity, but I have previously enjoyed reading his short story “Christian Gellert’s Last Christmas” and his book Black Forest Village Stories. When I discovered that Auerbach had written a biographical novel about Spinoza, I was eager to read it, hoping the book would provide insight into Spinoza’s intellectual development. This 1837 novel did not turn out to be the masterpiece I had hoped, but it does have its merits, both literary and philosophical.

Spinoza was born in Amsterdam, the son of Portuguese-Jewish immigrants who fled the Inquisition to find religious freedom in the Netherlands. Spinoza lived from 1632 to 1677, but Auerbach’s biographical narrative only covers his life from about 1647 to 1657. The novel begins with a teenage Spinoza undergoing studies to become a rabbi in his community synagogue. It ends a decade later with his being excommunicated from the Jewish faith for heresy. In the intervening years, Auerbach focuses on two main plot threads. One is Spinoza’s drifting away from the Jewish faith as he develops his own individual pantheistic philosophy. The second is a love story between Spinoza and Olympia van den Ende, the highly educated daughter of his Latin teacher. Both are freethinkers, but Spinoza was raised a Jew and Olympia a Catholic, and neither of their communities will accept an intermarriage. In addition, Spinoza feels compelled to abandon earthly pleasures such as love so that he may concentrate solely on his intellectual pursuits.

The narrowness of the novel’s scope is a bit disappointing. I was hoping for a more lifelong view of the development of Spinoza’s philosophy, but instead Auerbach concentrates on this one period of its nascency. Auerbach himself was a Jew, and it is clear from this book that he is enthralled by Jewish history and ritual. The entire first half of the book is strictly about Judaism; freethought doesn’t rear its ugly head until roughly the halfway point. There are only a couple chapters where Auerbach really discusses Spinoza’s mature philosophy in detail, but when he does delve into the philosopher’s Ethics, for example, Auerbach explains Spinoza’s ideas clearly and insightfully. We see how Spinoza’s conception of monism emerges from the dualism of Descartes. Much of this is revealed through extensive dialogues between Spinoza and a small circle of friends that includes Olympia. While the scenes dealing with Judaism seem authentic in their level of detail, the love story never really rings true. It feels like fictional license on Auerbach’s part but not necessarily in a bad way, much like Shakespeare’s fictionalizations of the lives of historical figures.

I don’t know enough about Auerbach to say to what extent he was a faithful Jew and to what extent he was a Spinozan freethinker, but as a member of the latter category myself I can say that when all is said and done the author certainly does justice to the philosopher’s freethought. He paints Spinoza as a secular Christlike figure who sacrificed much in his search for rational truth. Spinoza’s pantheistic conception of a deity is portrayed as his attempt to seek out divinity in the universe rather than turning away from God. Reason is a gift from God, Spinoza believed, even when the exercising of that reason clashes with religious tradition and dogma. I wish there had been less about Judaism and more about monism in this book, but in the end I found this to be an interesting, though romanticized, look at Spinoza’s life and thought.
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Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Melted Coins by Franklin W. Dixon

Better-than-average Hardy Boys adventure
The Melted Coins is the 23rd book in the Hardy Boys series of mystery novels. It was originally published in 1944, when the story had to do with a pirate’s buried treasure. Many of the early Hardy Boys books were revised for republication decades later, however, and in this case a totally different story was created with the same title. In this new version, published in 1970, the Hardys help to recover a sacred Native American artifact. My young son and I have read several of these books together (though not all 23), and The Melted Coins is one of the better mysteries we’ve encountered so far in the series.

This mystery commences in much the same way as most of the Hardy Boys books. The ever-absent detective Fenton Hardy is busy on a case somewhere. Since he can’t be in two places at once, he sends his sons to investigate a second case that has been brought to his attention. Someone has stolen a number of ceremonial masks from the Seneca Indian tribe in western New York State, including one particularly sacred mask that is made from melted gold coins. Meanwhile, the Hardys’ friend Chet Morton has enrolled in courses at nearby Zoar College, so they decide to check out the campus while they are in that neck of the woods. The more they learn about this institution of higher learning, however, the fishier it seems, and they begin to suspect it may be a sham school created to swindle unsuspecting students out of their money. Their investigations take the boys to Cleveland, Ohio and Niagara Falls. Everywhere they go, the boys face danger as the bad guys try to scare them off the trail with threats of violence.

As is often the case with these books, it features three or four different crimes that all end up being related. What makes this one better than most is that it actually all makes sense in the end. Whoever wrote this one under the blanket pseudonym of Franklin W. Dixon did a fine job of tying all the loose ends together. There are still plenty of unbelievable occurrences. In the very first chapter, for example, the boys visit a construction site, where they are allowed to take an elevator up to the top floor and walk around on the steel girders. This provides the opportunity for one of them to almost fall to his death, thus cheaply creating instant suspense. Such sensational happenings can be forgiven in a kids’ adventure novel, however, and at least the solution of the mystery follows a logical course.

The story imparts a good message through the treatment of its Native American characters, who are portrayed positively and about as realistically as one could expect from young people’s literature of this era. The Senecas still celebrate their traditional tribal rituals, but they also hold down modern jobs. The Hardys are welcomed into their homes, and a Native American teenager accompanies the boys as part of their investigative team. Prejudice against the Indians is addressed, and it is made clear that living conditions on the reservation are harsher and more impoverished than the Hardys’ upper middle class upbringing in idyllic Bayport.

Beyond that, there is nothing particularly exceptional about The Melted Coins. It pretty much sticks to the basic Hardy Boys formula, but within that formula it is at least competently written. It is neither as confusing nor as tedious as some of the other books in the series (The Shore Road Mystery comes to mind). Overall my son and I enjoyed it.
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Monday, June 3, 2019

Torn from Their Bindings: A Story of Art, Science, and the Pillaging of American University Libraries by Travis McDade

Tragic true crime story for book lovers
In his 2018 book Torn from Their Bindings, book crimes expert Travis McDade chronicles the criminal career of Robert Kindred, who, along with his partner Richard Green, embarked on a cross-country spree of thefts from academic libraries in the 1980s. Sometimes the two would steal rare and valuable books, but more often than not they would simply remove pages of lithographs and etchings from illustrated volumes, which Kindred would then sell as framed art prints. In this thoroughly researched and well-written history, McDade gives the reader an inside look into the motives and methods of these book thieves, who enjoyed great success up until Kindred’s eventual apprehension at the University of Illinois, where McDade works as a curator of rare books.

Prior to reading Torn from Their Bindings, I had no idea of the truly shocking extent of Kindred’s crimes, which amounted to a cross-country swath of carnage in numerous libraries that were specifically targeted for their valuable holdings. Thousands of pages were excised by razor blade from scientific journals and illustrated periodicals. Kindred amassed enough material to keep entire retail galleries stocked with stolen merchandise. Although Kindred is the main focus of this study, McDade also briefly covers other book thieves whose methods were similar to Kindred’s and whose crimes rivaled or exceeded Kindred’s in their staggering scope.

Lovers of libraries and old books will be filled with dismay at how easy it was to perpetrate these crimes. Most of the materials Kindred and Green pillaged were shelved in stacks open to the public, with no security to stop them from just walking in, spending an entire day cutting out what they wanted, and walking out. Kindred didn’t get caught until he really stretched beyond this easy modus operandi and boldly ventured into breaking and entering. As a library school graduate with a fondness for academic libraries, I have always been a staunch believer in the value of open stacks and the opportunity for serendipitous discovery amidst printed books. The level of devastation McDade reveals, however, really raises troubling questions of access vs. preservation, making it harder to justify open stacks. Also troubling is the question of how many of such thefts go undiscovered, and how many gutted volumes may lie waiting on the shelves of America’s university libraries for that unfortunate researcher or librarian who will find them damaged beyond repair and unsuitable for use.

McDade diligently covers all aspects of Kindred’s crime and punishment, including minutely detailed police procedures and courtroom proceedings. At times it is probably more detail than the general reader really needs, but if McDade’s goal is to document the definitive history of these crimes, then he succeeds. This book is more likely to appeal specifically to those with an avid interest in old books and libraries, since the average true crime buff may not be interested in the history of zoological and botanical journals, the artists who illustrated them, or the specific species of plants and animals that Kindred chose to pilfer. If, however, you find such matters of bibliographic history fascinating, as I do, then Torn from Their Bindings is really an absorbing read. It makes for a disturbingly eye-opening exposé into the world of library theft, one that any academic librarian or archivist should read.
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Friday, May 31, 2019

Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss

Neither as fun nor as exciting as its title implies
Edison’s Conquest of Mars, a science fiction novel by American author and astronomer Garrett P. Serviss, was published in 1898. It was written as a sequel to Fighters from Mars, an Americanized version of the H. G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds, that was serialized in the New York Evening Review in December of 1897 and January of 1898. Neither Wells nor Thomas Edison had anything to do with the writing or publication of Edison’s Conquest of Mars, but apparently copyright laws were lax enough back then to allow this unauthorized sequel to be released.

Serviss immediately picks up right where Wells left off. The aliens, having invaded Earth in The War of the Worlds, have departed our planet in defeat. In doing so, however, they set off an enormous explosion that levels New York City. Eager for retaliation and unwilling to wait passively for the next Martian strike, the citizens of Earth decide to go on the offensive and attack the Martians where they live. Several prominent scientists gather to solve the technological problems necessary to accomplish this feat, led by American inventor Thomas Edison. Edison invents a spaceship that uses electricity to achieve anti-gravity propulsion and a disintegrator ray that serves as a powerful weapon. The monarchs and heads of state of all the nations of the world gather in Washington, DC to discuss the plan of attack and contribute financial support to the war effort. Soon enough war machines are manufactured to launch a military campaign against Mars. A force of 100 electric ships departs Earth, each staffed with 20 men. Edison himself captains the flagship and leads the Earth forces into battle.

The story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator who rides alongside Edison in the flagship. Even so, it might as well have been written in an impersonal third person voice, since all events are described in a very bland journalistic style. Edison never really becomes a character in the book, nor does the narrator for that matter. In fact, there is almost no character development in this novel. Only a few people are named, and they never develop personalities. The size of the Earth force allows hundreds of nameless fighting men to perish in battle, but they are all unknown soldiers as far as the reader is concerned. The Martians are not the fearsome octopus-like creatures of The War of the Worlds, but rather humanoid beings not too different from us. The males are extremely tall and bug-eyed, but of course the females are beautiful, even by Earth standards. Also disappointing is the fact that Earth wins its victory not so much on the basis of technological superiority or intelligent strategy, but rather just because they take advantage of a convenient loophole that magically wins the war in one fell swoop. Even when you take into account that this story is set on a Victorian-era Mars with oceans, canals, and cities, this climactic maneuver defies belief as it seems to violate the laws of nature.

With his optimistic faith in technology and trust in the worldwide brotherhood of man, Serviss’s writing bears more resemblance to that of Jules Verne than to the often pessimistic visions of Wells. Serviss certainly seems to have a firm grasp on the science of his era, and his depictions of spaceship dogfights are surprisingly advanced considering the airplane hadn’t even been invented yet. There is a reason, however, that Wells and Verne are household names and Serviss is not. This novel just isn’t very good. There is no denying this book was ahead of its time, but that doesn’t keep it from being dull and lacking in literary merit.
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