Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Une Page d’Amour by Emile Zola

A harmless bit of fluff
This book reminds me of a Latin-American soap opera: It stars a plucky young heroine who falls in love (forbidden love, of course); the plot features some preposterous circumstances; it’s overwrought with deliberately tear-jerking emotion; yet you can’t help but watch because the lead actress is so attractive and charming. In this case the star of the show is Helene Mouret, a character so beautiful and likeable that you can’t help but root for her. Unfortunately, she is the most realistically drawn character in the book, and the rest of the cast feel like caricatures. Helene, a widow with a young daughter, falls in love with a handsome doctor, which is not totally understandable to the reader, because as a character the doctor is a bit of a nonentity. The ridiculous set of coincidences that bring the two lovers together approaches the realm of farce. I don’t want to make it sound like a horrible book; it’s just mediocre in every way. The story doesn’t have much to say historically about France’s Second Empire, other than perhaps the plight of young widows at the time. It’s difficult for the reader to feel sorry for Helene, because one never really feels like she is on the verge of destitution or disgrace. The book contains some long descriptive passages about the Paris skyline which are poetically pretty, but don’t add much to the narrative. Those who wish to read the entire Rougon-Macquart series will of course read this book. It is certainly not the worst book of the bunch. Casual readers of Zola’s works can skip it.
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Monday, May 28, 2012

Marvel Chronicle: A Year by Year History by Tom DeFalco, et al.

This beautiful coffee table tome dissects the hallowed history of Marvel Comics into a year by year chronology. Each year gets four pages (or sometimes six, during the glory years) in which the major events of the year are summarized. Selected issues of comics are featured in the order of their release dates. The first appearances of characters, from the most famous heroes to some rather obscure villains, are highlighted, as well as major plot events and multiple-title crossovers. Each year ends with a list of that year’s news events, including mention of a few movies released at the time.

Marvel Chronicle is published by Dorling-Kindersley (DK), a company that produces heavily illustrated coffee table books on every imaginable subject. The writing of the book is by various authors, and is really quite good. Complex plots are pithily summarized in a fun and attention-grabbing way. The book features loads of beautiful art from the Marvel archives, but the design of the book is 100% DK: tiny hard-to-read type, made even more hard-to-read by busy, screened backgrounds, and heaven forbid a quarter inch of white space should be showing on any page. The book also suffers from poor proofreading. You'll find one typographical error on almost every two-page spread, as well as a few factual errors (Charlton Heston did not star in Spartacus, and the Abomination did not make his first appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man).

Nevertheless, Marvel Chronicle is a stunning piece of memorabilia for the Marvel fan. As a guide to the continuity of the Marvel Universe, however, it is sketchy and intermittent at best. This book is first and foremost a business history. It chronicles the evolution of the Marvel corporation, and details all the varied strategies it employed to increase readership, capture market share, and rake in the dollars. The narrative is refreshingly unapologetic in the way it juxtaposes Marvel’s classic story lines and timeless characters with all the silly crap, the outdated trends, the weird toy and TV tie-ins, and the just plain what-were-they-thinkings. The most fascinating part of the book is the early days, the ‘40s and ‘50s, when the company was known as Timely Comics. Back then superheroes were few (Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch), but Timely glutted the market with books of every conceivable genre: romance, western, horror, sci-fi, funny animals, and Archie-esque teen comedy. The change that came in the early 1960’s was truly amazing. With the exception of Wolverine and the aforementioned trio of superheroes, all of the great Marvel characters were created within the span of less than two years. The X-Men and the Avengers debuted in the same month! The creative output of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and company staggers the mind.

This book brought back great memories of the days when I used to go to the drug store after school and scan the comic racks. Once the book passes the mid-‘90s mark, however, my interest waned. My friends and I used to scoff at DC Comics for their parallel universes and “infinite earths.” Around the turn of the 21st century, however, Marvel fell victim to the same idiocy. Now every creator wants to be a revisionist, every story line attempts to reinvent the wheel, and every new issue must bear a number 1. Marvel Chronicle ends on an ironic note, as the company’s recent output shows them turning more and more away from the venerable history so triumphantly celebrated in this book.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Vandover and the Brute by Frank Norris

Should have been written two decades later
Vandover and the Brute is Frank Norris’s first novel, written in the mid-1890’s, but it was not published until 1914, more than a decade after his death. During the intervening twenty years, Norris became a celebrated man of letters, and perhaps the most admired champion of Naturalism in American literature, before suffering an untimely death at the age of 32.

The hero of the novel, Vandover (whether that’s his first or last name is never made clear), is born in Boston. At the age of eight his mother dies, and he moves to San Francisco with his father, who raises him alone. Vandover is not an exceptional student, and he’s a bit self-indulgent and lazy, but he does possess a talent for art. He goes off to Harvard to study, where he meets two fellow San Franciscans, Charlie Geary and Dolliver Haight. After graduation the three return to California and maintain their friendship. Like many young men, they develop a taste for liquor and women during their college years. While his two friends learn to control their sinful ways, buckle down, and start to pursue their life’s ambitions, Vandover slides deeper into a life of vice. The “Brute” mentioned in the title refers to the animal within him that longs for the pleasures of the flesh. Gradually he succumbs to the negative influences of alcohol, sex, and gambling, and begins to see all that he holds dear taken away from him.

This novel is unfortunately ahead of its time. Norris attempts to paint a picture of moral degradation, but the conventions of his time would not allow him the tools to complete the portrait. The vices in question are never explicitly stated, only hinted at. This inhibited expression dulls the effect of the moral lesson. Sexual experiences are replaced by phrases like “She abandoned herself.” Any unmarried woman who’s not a virgin is labeled as “lost” or “ruined.” One of the characters contracts a communicable illness which I assume is syphilis, but I’ll never know for sure because Norris dare not speak its name. The scenes of drunkenness are somewhat more blatantly depicted, but at times the results of these debauches inspire laughter rather than horror. Norris was an enthusiastic disciple of the literature of Emile Zola. What he’s aiming for here is the sort of gradual moral and financial decline experienced by Gervaise Macquart in Zola’s novel L’Assomoir. Zola, however, being French, was not subject to the American prudishness of the late 19th century. He had the freedom to discuss sexual matters more openly, thus his portrayal of a life of sin is more genuine and timeless. To the contemporary reader, Vandover and the Brute seems tepid by comparison, and the various means Norris employs to avoid the outright discussion of vice act as obstacles to the reader’s engagement in the story.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some great writing here. This novel contains some expertly crafted examples of the gritty, blunt realism for which Norris would become famous. Halfway through the book there is a disaster scene that’s so convincingly drawn it will have you on the edge of your seat. He describes with equal authenticity a night at the opera, a marathon game of cards, or the machinations a shady business deal. Though there are some exceptional scenes here, they never quite coalesce into a cohesive novel. Vandover and the Brute is an early work by a great master that offers a glimpse of the shape of things to come. It captures some of the embryonic brilliance that would mature and blossom in later, greater works like The Octopus and McTeague.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Typee by Herman Melville

Nuee Nuee Motarkee! (Very, very good)
These days Herman Melville is famous as the author of Moby-Dick, but during his lifetime he was renowned as the author of Typee. This book—his first, originally published in 1846—became an overnight sensation and instantly made Melville a household name. Typee is a semi-autobiographical work based on Melville’s travels to the Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific, and his life there amid a much feared tribe of cannibals.

After months at sea aboard a whaler, the narrator (presumably Melville himself, but only referred to in the text as Tom or Tommo) decides he’s had enough of the substandard living conditions and abusive treatment on board ship. When the vessel docks at the island of Nukuheva for supplies, he decides to go awol and hide in the jungle until the ship leaves port, thus freeing himself from his servitude. He is joined by a fellow crewman, Toby, and the two climb up into the mountains of the island, hoping to bask in a tropical paradise. They soon discover, however, that island life can be surprisingly harsh. After a few days the two are on the verge of starving, and the narrator has a mysterious and painful swelling in his leg. The two decide to throw themselves at the mercy of the natives, hoping to meet up with the friendly Happar tribe. Instead, they find themselves captives of the dreaded Typees, a tribe renowned for their hostility, ferocity, and cannibalism. It soon appears their fearsome reputation is undeserved, however, as they treat their captives with the utmost respect and benevolence, at times coddling the injured narrator as if he were an infant. Despite their kind treatment, however, for some unknown reason they absolutely refuse to let him go. Are they so obsessed with hospitality that they feel compelled to keep the white man as some kind of tribal mascot, or is there a darker, hidden motive behind their actions? Could they be fattening him up for some cannibal feast?

Typee provides tense moments of gripping suspense interspersed with interludes of comical culture clash. The enjoyment is heightened by Melville’s prose, which is a pleasure to read for its shameless verbosity. His sentences are simple and brisk, yet it’s as if he’s consulted a thesaurus for each noun and verb. College fraternities could make a drinking game out of Typee, downing a beer every time he uses the word “verdure.” The keg would soon run dry.

Given the fact this book was written over 150 years ago, Melville exhibits an astounding degree of racial sensitivity. He shows great respect for the natives and their culture, even going so far as to assert that the islanders of the South Pacific would be far better off had they never encountered a single white trader or Christian missionary—surely an unpopular notion for his time. He clearly feels that the “civilized” tribes of Europe and America could learn a thing or two from the simple and honest lifestyle of these people so unfairly dubbed “savages.” On the other hand, Melville does not shy away from portraying less flattering aspects of native life, thus stopping short of perpetuating the stereotype of the “noble savage.” Though not an entirely factual memoir, Melville’s narrative nevertheless has an overall ring of authenticity, objectivity, and sincerity. For anyone who’s ever dreamed of traveling to a remote, exotic land to immerse oneself in a foreign culture, this delightful hybrid of adventure novel and travel memoir provides a welcome dose of escapist adventure and educational enlightenment.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

The Iron Heel by Jack London

The Great (Red) American Novel
Though best known for his excellent novel The Call of the Wild, Jack London’s greatest work is The Iron Heel. A dystopian vision of the future, it tells the story of the events leading up to a world war fought between socialists and a plutocratic oligarchy of wealthy capitalists. The narrator of the novel is Avis Everhard, the upper-middle-class daughter of a university professor in San Francisco. Avis’s husband Ernest Everhard, a working-class laborer and scholar, is one of the leaders of the socialists and the revolution. First published in 1907, the events of the novel take place from 1912 to 1932. The book is edited by Anthony Meredith, a historian living 700 years in the future, in the age of the Brotherhood of Man, when the world has for centuries been ruled by socialism, and class struggle, violence, and war are only distant memories. Meredith provides an introduction to the newly discovered Everhard manuscript, as well as extensive footnotes detailing an assortment of actual historical events that took place in the history of labor and fictional events that take place at various points in the imagined future.

Jack London was such a prolific writer that often his works feel like they were dashed off in one fell swoop, with little self-editing. Not so this work, which was obviously a labor of love. Every sentence is perfectly crafted and vital to the intricately constructed plot. The book begins with Ernest Everhard lecturing various class groups on socialist politics. (Ernest is basically a socialist superman, always the smartest and toughest guy in the room, and never wrong about anything.) Then, as the socialists gain strength, the oligarchs fight back. The beauty of the plot is the way in which London gradually escalates the conflict between the two, creating a snowball effect, so that by the end of the novel extraordinary events seem completely credible.

The Iron Heel succeeds on many levels. As a political primer, the discourse of Ernest Everhard presents a simplified version of Marxist theory that, while probably not 100% accurate, serves as a good introduction to the philosophy behind socialism. As a piece of propaganda, this book is to socialism what Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is to capitalism—unabashedly one-sided but admirably audacious. As a historic document, like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, it provides an important snapshot of the state of the socialist movement in America in the early 20th century. As a science fiction novel, it is as imaginative as 1984, Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451, and more prescient in its depictions of the future. (While the socialists haven’t lived up to London’s vision, corporate America certainly has.) As an adventure novel, it’s a gripping and suspenseful epic. No matter what side of the political fence you’re on, anyone can enjoy a good freedom fighter story. Lastly, as a work of literature, The Iron Heel is an inspiration because it calls to mind a time when writers felt the purpose of a book was to change the world. Unfortunately, as the novels of today continually attest, that conviction is largely a thing of the past.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate by Tad Brennan

A nuts-and-bolts guide to Stoicism
This book provides a fascinating, in-depth examination of Stoicism, though I think the title is a little misleading. “The Stoic Life” gives the impression that this is a book about practical applications of Stoic thought to one’s life, which is not the case. This book never enters into “self-help” territory, like William Irvine’s Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, for example, nor does it offer the sort of issue-specific Stoic advice (on grief, on anger, etc.) one might find in the writings of Seneca or Marcus Aurelius. Brennan doesn’t advocate Stoicism, and I’m not sure he’s even a fan of it. His primary objective is to define Stoicism, what it is and how it works. To do this he painstakingly dissects ancient texts word by word, phrase by phrase in order to clearly determine what exactly the ancient Stoics believed. While the contents of the book weren’t what I expected, I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

The Stoics believed that the key to happiness was to live in accordance with nature. But how does one put that into practice? Some of the things that we encounter in life are good (virtues), some bad (vices), but most are indifferents (neither good nor bad). How do we recognize which is which, and how should that affect our choices and actions in life? The bulk of the book consists of Brennan’s analytical breakdown of this decision-making process. Once the ethical framework of Stoic behavior is established, Brennan goes on to address the conundrum of why any of it makes any difference at all, given that the Stoics believed that all events were predetermined by fate, even our own thoughts.

Brennan has a real talent for taking complex philosophical ideas and explaining them in clear and precise terminology that is easily accessible to the general reader. He also chooses ingenious analogies that are truly helpful in illustrating Stoic ideas. While the quality of the writing makes this book an enjoyable read, it is in no way a simplistic look at the subject. Brennan essentially starts with the assumption that his audience knows nothing about Stoicism, gives a historical overview, then builds the structure of Stoic thought from its most basic terminology to its most complicated concepts. What results is almost a flow chart of the Stoic thought process that seamlessly marries their metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology into a cohesive whole. The Stoic Life will prove a valuable companion to anyone who plans to read (and hopes to understand) the works of Epictetus, Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World by Lynn V. Foster

An awesome overview
The “Handbook to Life” series from Oxford University Press is an excellent collection of archaeology books. I own several of the volumes in the series, but this one on the ancient Maya world is the first that I’ve read from cover to cover. It’s a great all-purpose resource on the Maya, synthesizing research from hundreds of sources. The book starts with a general summary of the history of the Maya, from prehistory to the present. Then it breaks the information down into categories, with chapters on such topics as warfare, society and government, architecture and building, and daily life. This volume is particularly strong in its treatment of the religion and belief systems of the Maya, explaining their overall world view, providing mini-“biographies” of major gods and goddesses, and giving summaries of important myths and legends, including a rather detailed synopsis of the Popol Vuh. An in-depth examination of the sculptural carvings at Palenque provides an example of how the Maya expressed their beliefs through their art. The chapter on arithmetic, astronomy, and the calendar is probably the best concise explanation of the Maya calendar system that I’ve ever read. The chapter on hieroglyphics provides an abbreviated version of the history of decipherment found in Michael Coe’s book Breaking the Maya Code. Every aspect of Maya life is presented in this book, and it covers every strata of society. While a lot of books about the Maya cover the succession of kings and the religious rites of the high priests, The Handbook to Life also gives you an idea of what life was like for the foot soldier, the scribe, the traveling merchant, or the mother preparing food for her children.

The writing throughout is clear and accessible, and rich in fascinating detail. I wouldn’t exactly say it was exciting prose, but definitely more lively and engaging than the average textbook or encyclopaedia. I’m not a scholar in the field, merely an “armchair archaeologist” who’s been to Palenque, Chichen Itza, and other archaeological sites and anthropological museums in the Maya region. For me, reading this book was the equivalent of attending a full immersion Mayanist fantasy camp. I’m sure that in any further reading I do in the area of Maya studies the Handbook to Life will be a valuable companion.

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Monday, May 14, 2012

L’Assomoir by Emile Zola

After 100+ years, still a relevant and moving work
This is the book that made Émile Zola a star, and rightfully so. It is a gripping and heart-wrenching novel. Of all the books in the Rougon-Macquart series, this one is probably the purest representation of the literature of Naturalism. Zola amasses a palette full of sensory experience and observational detail. With it he paints a gritty, unromantic portrait of life among the lower middle class in Paris. The protagonist, Gervaise Macquart, starts out as a respectable laundress. Then the book follows her descent into destitution, via alcohol and moral dissipation, through succeeding levels of hell on earth. The interaction of the characters and the events that take place ring true each step along the way, so one can completely understand, regrettably, how this character you liked and admired at the beginning of the narrative could become so pitiable by the end of it. True to reality, her downfall stems from both events beyond her control and also from poor choices she makes. There were only one or two instances in the story where I felt like the characters made choices that didn’t seem in keeping with their natures, but the fact that it bothers me is just a testament to how involved I was with these characters in the first place. This novel is a thoughtful examination of social ills, and an excellent study of human nature. Despite its historical context, it gave me a better understanding of people in today’s society who have fallen on hard times. Although this book is a part of the Rougon-Macquart series, you don’t have to know anything about the other novels in the series to appreciate it. It stands alone as a great work of literature, and should be read by all.
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Friday, May 11, 2012

Maigret and the Tavern by the Seine by Georges Simenon

A newcomer’s perspective
This is my first experience with a Maigret novel. Though not an avid reader of detective fiction, I had heard good things about Georges Simenon and thought I’d give it a try. What I encountered was an unconventional crime novel that left me feeling satisfied but not impressed.

Maigret visits a condemned prisoner shortly before his execution. This prisoner, Lenoir, confides to Maigret that he once witnessed a man dumping a body into the Canal Saint-Martin. He then blackmailed this murderer for months. Lenoir provides Maigret with neither the identity of the murderer nor that of the victim, but he recalls that the killer used to hang out at a tavern on the Seine called the Guinguette à Deux Sous. Even with so little to go on, Maigret decides to pursue the case. He soon locates the tavern in Morsang, and becomes involved with the clique of regulars who flee Paris every weekend to gather there for recreation.

Some suspension of disbelief is required to make it through chapter one. Why would this prisoner, apropos of nothing, confide such a secret to Maigret? And what reason would Maigret have to believe him? The main reason, of course, is that if Maigret didn’t follow up on the dubious lead, there would be no novel. Maigret displays a rather passive method of detection. He insinuates himself into the crowd of possible suspects, becomes a fixture among them, then says little, and waits for them to spill the beans to him. Which they do. On the one hand, I was disappointed by the lack of action, suspense, and even intellectual challenge in this mystery. On the other hand, I admire Simenon for eschewing the cliches and conventions of the genre, and creating a police procedural that is truer to life than the stereotypical heroes vs. villains narrative. He is less concerned with any cat-and-mouse game and more interested in the workings of human psychology. What I enjoyed most about the book was just the atmosphere that Simenon creates. The view he presents of life in France is refreshingly unglamorous and unglorified. While an American author would have given us gunfights under the Eiffel Tower, Simenon instead provides a realistic portrayal of how the middle class lives. Despite the lack of excitement, I can’t deny that I did look forward to diving into each new chapter. Simenon is known for stripping all the unnecessary adornment from his prose. Often the words between two periods fail to constitute a complete sentence. The choppy rhythm of his phrasing takes some getting used to, but soon the cadence becomes second nature and the pages flow by briskly.

Though the Tavern by the Seine achieves mixed results, I’m eager to give Maigret another chance in hopes that he may surprise me yet. If, however, what I’ve read online is true, and this is “one of the best” offerings in the series, then I’m probably not going to stick with him for long.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Road by Jack London

Hallelujah, I’m a bum!
The Road is Jack London’s memoir of his days spent tramping across North America. Each of the nine chapters of this book discusses a different aspect of hobo life, such as jumping trains, begging for meals, or run-ins with the law. Part autobiography, part instruction manual, part glossary of hobo jargon—The Road provides an excellent first-hand account of the tramping experience. It brilliantly encapsulates a way of life practiced by thousands of unemployed men during the glory days of the railroad at the turn of the last century.

London vividly captures the siren call of the wanderlust within his soul, which finds satisfaction only in the freedom of the open road. Yet despite the fond reflections of his tramping youth, he does not sugarcoat his experiences. While much of the book is lighthearted in tone, he also gives ample treatment to the dangers of the road, including injury or death from locomotives, brutality by police or railroad employees, and violent altercations with other tramps.

The most fun and exciting chapter of the book is “Holding Her Down,” in which London describes in detail his intricate strategy for catching a train, riding the blinds, and avoiding being ditched by the train crew on a wild ride across Canada. In “Pinched” and “The Pen,” London tells of his arrest for vagrancy at Niagara Falls, his speedy trial (or lack thereof), and his incarceration in the Erie County Penitentiary. In “Two Thousand Stiffs,” London joins up with Kelly’s Army, an organized group of tramps who marched eastward toward Washington, DC in 1894 to protest unemployment. London’s involvement in the group, however, was purely motivated by self-interest rather than political activism. In recalling the Army’s trek across Iowa, he admits he was anything but a model recruit in this ragtag band of poverty’s soldiers.

Although written in the first person and ostensibly an autobiographic work, London makes himself out to be such a supertramp that it’s hard to believe he accomplished all the remarkable exploits pictured here. More likely the book is an amalgamation of his personal experiences and hobo lore he picked up in the course of his travels. Regardless, The Road is a thoroughly enjoyable ride through the cities, towns, and farmlands of late 19th-century America. If you have ever felt the siren call of wanderlust yourself, some time spent with these tramping tales will make you want to pack yourself some provisions and head for the nearest railroad tracks.

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Monday, May 7, 2012

Swords from the Desert by Harold Lamb

Grab your scimitar and saddle up
In recent years The University of Nebraska Press has published eight volumes collecting the stories of Harold Lamb. Swords from the Desert is the first one I’ve read, and after finishing it I find myself wanting more. From World War I through the 1960s, Lamb wrote adventure stories for pulp fiction magazines. What sets his work apart from many of his better-known contemporaries is that he wrote meticulously researched historical-based fiction devoid of any supernatural or fantasy elements. Well-written, action packed historical fiction is hard to find, so kudos to editor Howard Andrew Jones for bringing this somewhat forgotten author to the attention of today’s readers.

The stories in Swords from the Desert all have Arab protagonists. They take place in the Middle East or Central Asia, with the exception of one tale set in Paris. A few of the stories feature the Arab hero facing off against a foe from the West, but most contain no European characters at all and are solely populated by Arabs, Persians, Pathans, Hazaras, Rajputs, and Moguls. The heart of the book consists of its three longest stories starring Daril Ibn Athir, a semi-retired swordsman turned physician in the early 17th century, who travels east from the Arabian desert through Kandahar to India.

Lamb traveled through many of the places depicted in these stories. He was fascinated by Arab and Muslim culture and history, and his love and respect for the subject shows through in his writing. Lamb’s tales are definitely a cut above typical pulp fiction. Though his work here never rises to the literary heights of the historical fiction of Sir Walter Scott, Alexander Dumas, or Henryk Sienkiewicz, Lamb admirably combines the yarn-spinning talent of a Jack London with the researching skills of a James Michener. His Arab characters don’t just wear the costumes, ride the horses, and talk the talk of the Middle East. Lamb really makes an effort to capture the philosophy of these Arab warriors—their chivalrous code of conduct, their insistence of honor over death, and the importance they place on hospitality, even toward their enemies. Granted, it’s adventure fiction, so it’s still a romanticized look at Arab culture, but Lamb is a more conscientious anthropologist than the typical scribbler of sword and sandal operas. He has a real gift for making the reader feel like he’s present in these distant places and far-off times. There’s nothing incredibly memorable about the plots of these stories, but while you’re reading them they’re a great ride, and you’ll find yourself lost in the sights, sounds, and smells of these wondrous lands.

In addition to the stories, the book contains some nonfiction components that are equally valuable. The foreword and introduction provide biographical details on Lamb, who led a fascinating life, and offer important context for the stories without spoiling them for you. There is also an appendix containing several editorials Lamb wrote for Adventure magazine, in which he discusses the history behind his stories and his experiences while traveling in the countries where the narratives take place. From these brief essays one gets a real sense of what an erudite scholar Lamb was, and his enthusiasm for the subject matter becomes infectious. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on another Lamb collection soon.

Stories in this collection:
The Rogue’s Girl
The Shield
The Guest of Karadak
The Road to Kandahar
The Light of the Palace
The Way of the Girl
The Eighth Wife

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Friday, May 4, 2012

How to Live, or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell

Preaching to the converted
Though I’ve often considered reading Montaigne’s Essays, I’ve always ended up finding some reason to avoid it. From descriptions of the work, I’ve never been able to figure out whether the Essays is an invaluable source of philosophical wisdom or merely a collection of casual ramblings on the mundane events of everyday life. As someone who is eager to learn more about Montaigne, has an avid interest in the philosophical schools which influenced him, and possesses an enthusiasm for French history and literature, I considered myself to be the target audience for How to Live, Sarah Bakewell’s 2010 biography of Montaigne. After reading her book, however, it’s hard to ascertain the intended readership. Bakewell includes a lot of introductory material suitable for those who have never even heard of Montaigne, yet she delves into debates over scholarly minutiae only the most informed expert on the Essays could appreciate.

The title of How to Live misleadingly implies that the book includes some element of practical philosophy, that the biographical narrative will be accompanied by life lessons gleaned from the Essays. However, that’s not the case. Bakewell offers the reader very little in the way of applicable wisdom from the mind of Montaigne. The twenty answers to one question structure comes across as a bit of an unnecessary stylistic gimmick, and the novelty wears off fast. By jumbling the chronology somewhat, it actually hinders the biography more than it helps.

Despite these shortcomings, Bakewell’s prose is lively and engaging. She’s obviously extremely knowledgeable about her subject and has done her research thoroughly. In one of the better chapters of the book, she discusses some of the philosophical schools of ancient Greece and Rome that influenced Montaigne’s thought and writing. Focusing on the Stoics, Epicureans, and Pyrrhonian Skeptics, Bakewell does an effective job of summarizing and simplifying their teachings into a clear and concise encapsulation. Another highlight of the book explores Montaigne’s fascination with Native Americans. Bakewell compares and contrasts Montaigne’s rational admiration for the American Indian with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s more romanticized conception of Americans as “noble savages.” As for the biographical account, the times that Montaigne lived through are far more fascinating than the life of the writer himself, and the book is at its best when Bakewell depicts the broader picture of French history. Her account of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572 is absolutely gripping.

Throughout the book, Bakewell constantly asserts that all readers see themselves in Montaigne’s essays. This continual insistence that Montaigne is all things to all people only serves to muddy the waters as to what the Essays are actually about. Apparently, whether you’re on a life-changing quest for profound philosophical wisdom or simply looking to kill some time over the navel-gazing reflections of a 16th century blogger, Montaigne’s got you covered. Radical freethinker or devout Christian? You’ll both love Montaigne! No matter what you’re looking for, we’re assured, you’ll find it in the Essays. Bakewell casts her net so wide for converts that the reader is left with a very amorphous understanding of what Montaigne really stood for. I’m less likely to take on the Essays now than I was before I read this book, and I doubt very much that’s what the author intended. Perhaps a more objective viewpoint is needed for clarifying Montaigne’s message, as Bakewell’s treatment of him is relentlessly adulatory and forgiving. The proper audience for this book are those who already share her unconditional love for the author and his work.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

A must read, but not necessarily a must like
Though originally written in 1848, The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels ended up exerting its greatest influence in the following century. No other book had a more profound effect on 20th-century history in terms of lives affected, governments overthrown, nations transformed, people killed or displaced, and the expenditure of time, money, and energy either for or against it. Given the fact that America was so preoccupied with the threat of Communism for decades, it’s surprising how few Americans ever took the time to read the actual battle cry of their nemesis. Due to its historical importance, Communism is a political philosophy that must either be accepted or refuted, but cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, my intention here is not to critique Communism as a philosophy but rather to critique the Manifesto as a book.

A common misconception is that this book is the founding document of Communism, but in reality Communism was well-known as an active political school in Europe at the time the Manifesto was published. The purpose of the Manifesto was to ignite and unite the faithful, recruit the curious, and frighten the bourgeoisie. The authors assumed a prior knowledge of Communism on the part of the reader, and as such the text spends more time clarifying the doctrine of Communism than it does declaring it outright. Because it’s a manifesto rather than a full-fledged philosophical treatise, it’s full of bold, undefended statements. Here you won’t find well-reasoned arguments extolling the virtues of Communism, nor detailed explanations as to how exactly the world would be run following the triumph of the Revolution. For that you’ll have to look elsewhere in Marx’s oeuvre. The subject matter of the Manifesto is restricted to a description of the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, along with some general statements about the abolition of private property. There’s also some discussion of how Communism differs from earlier forms of Socialism, and the state of its activity in Europe in the mid-19th century.

The Kindle file that’s offered for free on Amazon was originally created by Project Gutenberg. It’s a very short file, and one-fifth of it is taken up by the Project Gutenberg license agreement. The entire Manifesto can be read in under an hour. This is a no-frills file; it contains no introduction, commentary, or footnotes. There’s no table of contents, but a file this small doesn’t really need one. The English translation is from the 1888 edition edited by Engels. For the modern audience it’s a bit of a clunky read. There are a few grammatical errors, subject-verb disagreements for example. Absent from this volume, however, are the annoying typographical errors often found in Project Gutenberg files created by optical character recognition of scanned books. In that respect the text is clean and user-friendly.

As a historical document, The Communist Manifesto is an invaluable artifact. As a philosophical text, it’s brevity undermines its necessity. For any in-depth knowledge of the subject, you’ll have to dive into Marx’s Das Kapital.

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