Monday, July 30, 2012

Wolf: The Lives of Jack London by James L. Haley

A competent retelling of an extraordinary life
Since his death almost 100 years ago, Jack London’s legendary life has inspired many biographies, none of which has yet been deemed worthy of being called definitive. This latest attempt at encapsulating the life and spirit of America’s greatest author, published in 2010, comes from James L. Haley, who previously penned several books on Texas history, including a biography of Sam Houston. The book opens with an impressive preface, in which Haley not only praises London’s skills as a writer, but also acknowledges his influence on American cultural history and his relevance to the present day. Unfortunately the rest of the book doesn't live up to this preface, and the biography that follows is a rather straightforward chronicling of London’s life events.

Much of the book is simply a rehash of London’s autobiographical writings and semi-autobiographical fiction. Haley lifts scenes from John Barleycorn, The Road, Tales of the Fish Patrol, Martin Eden, The People of the Abyss, The Cruise of the Snark, and others; rearranges them in chronological order; and rewrites them in workmanlike prose far inferior to London’s original writing. Had I not recently reread all those works I might have enjoyed this book more, but Haley’s account of London’s adventures renders them dull and lifeless by comparison.

Beyond regurgitating what London has already written, Haley has obviously delved deeply into London’s correspondence, and uses it to provide a wealth of information on London’s interaction with his family, friends, acquaintances, and business colleagues. Haley spends an inordinate amount of time speculating upon London’s possible homosexuality. London spent time on sailing ships, in prison, and in hobo camps, where he most likely witnessed homosexual relationships. Even Haley admits there’s no proof that London participated in relationships of this sort, either consensually or unwillingly, but the lack of evidence doesn’t stop him from dwelling on it. Haley also examines the author’s intimate “bromance” with poet George Sterling in minute detail, but his hypothesis that the two were having sexual relations is never convincing. If the best conclusion that he could come up with is that it is “not improbable” that the two men had a physical relationship, then it’s probably not worth devoting so many pages to the topic.

London led such a full and fascinating life that there’s little need to pad the book with a lot of literary criticism. Haley wisely refrains from too much textual analysis, the bane of most literary biographies. He does provide one-paragraph summaries of some of London’s works, and only spoils the endings of a few of the major ones—The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf—assuming that anyone reading London’s biography would have already read those works.

There’s nothing new here that’s going to shake the world of Jack London studies or cause literary scholars to jump up and take notice. Yet, for the average fan of London’s books, it’s a pretty good synthesis of existing information on the author and his life. Haley tells the story with a balanced perspective, neither mudslinging nor adulatory. Perhaps at times he seems to relish depicting the mature author as an overgrown child—all narcissism, pettiness, and tantrums. A little more admiration for London’s remarkable achievements would have been welcome, but overall I think Haley’s treatment is relatively fair and objective. London aficionados will find this book a useful summary of his life, but, far from being definitive, it’s an extraordinary story only adequately told.

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Friday, July 27, 2012

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Original CSI
Little needs to be said of the profound influence that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has had on detective fiction or in the broader realm of literature in general, as well as film. A Study in Scarlet is where it all began. Originally published in 1887, this novel features the first appearance of the great fictional detective and his faithful colleague Dr. Watson. Here Conan Doyle establishes all the familiar elements of Holmes’s world—the apartment at 221B Baker Street, landlady Mrs. Hudson, Inspectors Lestrade and Gregson of Scotland Yard, Holmes’s research into criminal forensics and his exercise of deductive reasoning, and the enjoyable repartee between Holmes and Watson.

Conan Doyle is primarily known for his short stories, most notably the series of mysteries beginning with the collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Though he only wrote four novels featuring Holmes, A Study in Scarlet proves that Conan Doyle’s skill as a novelist may even surpass his facility for crafting short fiction. While his shorter pieces do a great job of showcasing the characters of Holmes and Watson, often the supporting characters are shallowly developed and the actual mysteries are not sufficiently mystifying. In the longer format of the novel, Conan Doyle has the opportunity to construct a more intricate, confounding plot that leaves the reader guessing from chapter to chapter.

The book opens with Dr. John Watson recently returned from service in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Temporarily unemployed, he is living off of a government disability check while recuperating form injuries suffered in combat. Due to his strapped financial situation, he seeks a roommate to share lodging expenses, and a friend introduces him to Sherlock Holmes. The two new acquaintances inspect a room at 221B Baker street, find it to their liking, and become flat mates. The rest, as they say, is history. Soon afterward, a dead body is discovered in an empty house, with no visible sign of the cause of death. The word “RACHE” is scrawled in blood on the wall. It takes Holmes little time to discover and apprehend the killer, but it takes Watson and the reader until the end of the book to figure out how he did it.

The story switches perspective in the middle of the book in order to relate the back story of the crime. During this extended flashback, Holmes and Watson are entirely absent for five chapters. This would be an annoyance were it not for the fact that the story is so well written and captivatingly suspenseful. Instead of simply creating cardboard supporting characters designed to act out a mystery for the two leads to solve, Doyle creates memorable characters that the reader actually cares about. When the story finally returns to Watson’s narration, we learn how Holmes solved the case, and, as usual, his talent for the art of deduction is mind-blowing.

Everyone knows who Sherlock Holmes is, and either you like this sort of thing or you don’t. If you belong in the former category, and you haven’t read the book that started it all, then you are doing yourself a great disservice. More than just a historical monument to the birthplace of Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet is a masterful work of literature that certainly ranks as one of Holmes and Watson’s most intriguing adventures.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

A must-read American classic
Any top ten list of American novels should include Upton Sinclair’s masterpiece, both for its literary qualities and its historical significance. The book has unfortunately been stigmatized as the “dirty meat novel”, when in fact there are only a couple of brief passages that talk about the actual processing of meat. Mostly it’s about the exploitation of immigrant workers, and their struggle to survive in a country where they’re treated as little more than beasts of burden. The ending of the book is often criticized, as the last chapter is basically a Socialist manifesto, but Socialism was a powerful force in America in the early 20th century, and this novel paints a vivid picture of that era in American history.

With all the editions of The Jungle out there, why buy the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition? The introduction and foreword are excellent, providing valuable historical context, an in-depth account of the book’s reception by critics and the public, and insight into the long-term effects of The Jungle on the meat industry. Plus, the book is well-designed, with elegant, comfortably readable typography, and a dramatic cover design by Charles Burns that’s sure to turn heads at the coffee shop.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

The Deluge by Henryk Sienkiewicz

A sequel that improves upon its predecessor
The Deluge (also known by its Polish title, Potop) is the second novel in “The Trilogy” by Nobel prize-winning Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz. First published in 1886, it picks up where the first volume, With Fire and Sword, left off. The term “The Deluge” refers to a period in Polish history when the nation was plagued by multiple wars. The story takes place from 1654 to 1657, during which time the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was simultaneously invaded by no less than three occupying forces: the Russians from the northeast, the Cossacks from the southeast, and the Swedes from the northwest. In addition, a civil war erupted within the Commonwealth between those loyal to the elected Polish king Yan Kazimir, and those who aligned themselves with Yanush Radziwill, a powerful noble who advocated a bloodless surrender to the Swedes. (This review is based on the English translation by Jeremiah Curtin, so I am using his spellings of proper names.) The historical context is intricately complex, and Sienkiewicz builds an excellent novel upon this fascinating framework.

The Deluge brings back several characters from With Fire and Sword, among them Pan Michael Volodyovski, Pan Yan Skshetuski, and the inimitable Pan Zagloba. Sienkiewicz also introduces a new protagonist, Andrei Kmita, a fierce but lawless warrior whose headstrong nature often leads him into trouble. To win the hand of Olenka Billevich, the beautiful noblewoman whom he loves, he most atone for his past transgressions through service to God and country. Volodyovski and Kmita, perhaps the two most highly skilled warriors in the Commonwealth, find themselves on opposite sides of the civil war. Though each is faithful to the Commonwealth in his own way, their conflicting ideologies may force one brave soldier to take the life of the other.

Though With Fire and Sword is a great novel, The Deluge far surpasses it. There is never a dull moment in this one. Sienkiewicz grabs your attention in chapter one and holds it all the way through chapter 97. While With Fire and Sword was a book that dripped with gore galore, the action in The Deluge relies more on political intrigue and military strategy. It very much resembles the Three Musketeers novels of Alexandre Dumas, but with less comic relief (though Zagloba is always good for a laugh). In addition to the swashbuckling, mano-a-mano sword fights, there’s plenty of detailed blow-by-blow battlefield commentary for tactical enthusiasts. Lovers of romantic literature will enjoy the epic adventure, and history buffs will be more than satisfied with the wealth of knowledge they receive in Eastern European history. The Deluge never reads like a textbook, however; in fact it rivals masterpieces of historical fiction by Dumas, Victor Hugo, or Sir Walter Scott.

One warning: this may be the longest book I’ve ever read. It’s definitely up there in the Anna Karenina range. Though that’s not necessarily a fault, readers should be prepared for a significant investment in time. This book will occupy you, enjoyably, for quite a while.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) by Emile Zola

Not Zola’s best, but still a good read
The eleventh novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, this book picks up where the last installment left off. Octave Mouret, featured in Pot-Bouille, also has a lead role in this novel. Through a fortunate marriage to a bride who dies not long afterward, young business man Mouret is left with a thriving department store named Au Bonheur des Dames. Through a natural business sense and a flair for promotion, he builds this store into the grandest mecca for shopping in all of Paris, in fact in the entire world. Soon the store swallows up the neighboring real estate, putting his old-school competitors out of business with his new brand of commerce. A few of the established firms, however, hang on for a grueling battle with this Goliath of retail.

At this point in history, department stores were a new invention, and a few stores in Paris totally revolutionized the way the world did business. Zola captures the excitement of that time. He obviously admires the revolutionary entrepreneurs for their efficiency, ingenuity, and showmanship, but he also laments the fall of the traditional Parisian shopkeeper. As Zola often does, he sets up a conflict between the two opposing philosophies, then brilliantly defends both sides of the argument. He also studies the consumers, and explores the growing obsession with shopping that blossomed among an enlarging middle class with disposable income. The depiction of the workings of the giant enterprise are interesting, and the store is staffed by a host of vividly drawn characters. The main protagonist of the book is not Mouret, but Denise Baudu, a poor girl from the provinces who comes to Paris to work as a saleswoman. Zola is usually so good at creating realistic characters, warts-and-all, but Denise is so squeaky clean and noble that she comes across as too perfect to be true. She belongs in a melodrama, and the more the book concentrates on her, the more the story devolves into just that. Zola’s literary style, Naturalism, calls for an exhaustive accumulation of sensory details. Unfortunately, these details form long, often tedious descriptions of store displays. On the whole, this is a good book, worth reading, though not one of Zola’s masterworks. I would recommend reading Pot-Bouille (aka Pot Luck or Restless House) instead. It is a much better novel.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tales of the Fish Patrol by Jack London

The word “adequate” comes to mind
When Jack London was a teenager, he hooked up with a gang of sailors who pirated oysters from the beds around San Francisco Bay. After proving himself skilled in this form of larceny, he was persuaded to convert to the right side of the law and contribute his sailing skills to the California Fish Patrol. This agency monitored the waters of the bay, arresting poachers and scofflaws who violated the state fishing regulations. Tales of the Fish Patrol is a collection of short stories that, though highly fictionalized, are based on this period in London’s life.

Although each of these seven tales could stand alone as a self-contained short story, they feature recurring characters and are intended to be read in sequence. They are narrated by an unnamed 16-year-old boy, presumably a surrogate for London himself. This narrator is aided by his partner, Charley Le Grant, and mentored by a supervisor, Neil Partington. All seven stories have the same basic structure. In the first few paragraphs, London describes a particular regulation in the fishing code, and the corresponding method of fishing that violates said code. The fish patrolmen find some suspects practicing this illegal angling, and they move to apprehend them. Most of the action in the book is boat vs. boat, rather than man vs. man, though the occasional shot is fired. Usually there is not much trouble in capturing the perpetrators, but difficulty arises in returning the criminals to shore. To this end the narrator and his pal Charley come up with some clever means of outsmarting the bad guys and completing their mission.

This series of stories was originally published in the magazine The Youth’s Companion in 1905, so the intended audience was the teenage boys of a century ago. The children of today will most likely not have much interest in these tales, unless they happen to sail boats on a daily basis. For contemporary adults, there’s not much attraction here either. There’s really nothing wrong with the stories in this collection, but there’s nothing memorable about them either. They are merely unexceptional examples of adventure genre fiction that happen to be written by a great author. If you’re hoping to gain some biographical insight into London’s youth, his nautical adolescence is covered far more vividly and colorfully in the first several chapters of his excellent memoir John Barleycorn. No doubt in its day Tales of the Fish Patrol served its purpose by entertaining America’s youth in a workmanlike manner. Nowadays it should only be read by the most enthusiastic of London fans who just can’t get enough of his work.

Stories in this collection
White and Yellow 
The King of the Greeks 
A Raid on the Oyster Pirates 
The Siege of the ‘Lancashire Queen’ 
Charley’s Coup 
Demetrios Contos 
Yellow Handkerchief 

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

“It was tediousness made tangible . . .”
Carol Milford graduates from a small St. Paul college with idealistic notions of taking some backward prairie town and transforming it into a cultured utopia of the plains. When she marries small-town doctor Will Kennicott, she optimistically sees a chance to put her ideas into practice. After arriving in his hometown of Gopher Prairie, however, her ideas for reform fall on deaf ears, and she finds herself not the town’s savior, but rather its prisoner.

Having grown up in a small town in Wisconsin, and lived in larger cities, I can see both the pros and cons of small-town life. Sinclair Lewis’s portrait, however, is relentlessly one-sided and bleak. Gopher Prairie is so abysmal, and its denizens so unsympathetic, that it almost defies believability. Lewis doesn’t treat his protagonist any kinder, either. We are privy to Carrie’s every shallow thought, every flighty notion, every petty grievance, to the point where there’s not much left in her to root for.

The title of this review is a quote from the book that encapsulates much of its plot. Chapters and chapters go by detailing Carol’s dismal existence. I kept waiting and waiting for something—anything—to happen. Will she cheat on her husband? Will she run away? Will she kill herself? Finally around chapter 30 things start happening, but rather than satisfy me they just made me cringe. The book redeems itself a little in the last few chapters, adopting a more positive tone and injecting a dash of feminism, but it was a little too little and a little too late.

One thing’s for certain, Lewis is an incredible wordsmith. His prose is elegant and effortless, with a beautiful poetic quality about it even when he’s being sarcastic, ironic, or just plain depressing. With a simple turn of phrase he can describe a detailed scene or a complex human emotion that would take lesser authors whole pages to relate. I’m sure at the time it was written, this was a groundbreaking novel, and years ahead of its time in its feminism and liberalism. I admired this book more than I enjoyed it. I am looking forward to reading more of Lewis’s work, but I’ll probably never read Main Street again.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Beginning Chinese Reader (Parts I and II) by John DeFrancis

This is the way to learn Chinese.
This series of textbooks by John DeFrancis is an excellent way to learn Chinese characters. I’ve looked around for other textbooks, but have never found another with such a structured, systematic approach. You learn ten characters in each lesson, and about 40 combinations (words and phrases) composed of those characters. Their usage is illustrated in sample sentences; then you are given dialogues and narratives to read. Every sixth lesson is a review lesson, in which you don’t learn any new characters or combinations. In Volume I and Volume II combined there are 48 lessons, for a total of 400 characters.

One of the great things about this system is that it doesn’t require a lot of memorization. You learn the characters from reading them in actual sentences and paragraphs. When you’re working on chapter 12, for example, the characters you learned in chapter 11 may be difficult to remember, but by the time you get to chapter 16 you’ve read them so many times that they are second nature to you.

As for the actual text, the book is intended for college students majoring in Chinese, so a lot of the stuff you’re reading relates to academia: attending classes, taking exams, teaching, reading and writing books. As you go on in the series and learn more characters, the topics get broader and you start to learn about Chinese culture, geography, politics, and everyday life. It can seem a little counterintuitive at times; before you know the words for colors or food items, you already know the words for 20 different academic disciplines. Since these books were published in the 1960s, some of the narratives are a little outdated. There’s a lot of talk about “I remember before the People’s Republic . . .” and “That old man was an official in the Qing Dynasty . . .” (if the book were written today, that old man would be dead), but you do learn a little about Chinese history and, more importantly, you do learn how to read and write Chinese characters.

This series concentrates mostly on the traditional characters. At the end of Beginning Chinese Reader Volume II there is an extended lesson on simplified (or modern) characters. So you spend about 90% of your time on traditional, and 10% on simplified. Because you spend less time reading the simplifed characters, they require more memorization. Between the two versions about two-thirds of the characters are the same, so you just have to learn the simplified equivalents of the other one-third.

One important thing to note is that in the back of Beginning Reader Volume II, besides the aforementioned lesson on modern characters, there is a glossary/index of all 400 characters and their combinations, plus charts listing the characters by lesson, by radical, and by number of strokes. There’s also some diagrams on stroke order (how to actually draw the characters). If you just buy Volume I you won’t have access to all that helpful material, yet it’s still possible to complete Volume I without it.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper

Surprisingly devoid of espionage
The Spy is James Fenimore Cooper’s second novel. When published in 1821, it was an instant hit and became the first truly successful novel in American literature. In style, it greatly resembles the works of the eminent historical novelist Sir Walter Scott, whom Cooper idolized and strove to emulate.

The story takes place in 1778 in the midst of the American Revolution. While much of the nation at that time had been divided into pro-royal and pro-rebel districts, the county of Westchester, New York, was considered “neutral ground,” a territory contested by both sides, where tories and patriots often lived next door to each other. Mr. Wharton, a prominent estate holder in the county, attempts to maintain a prudent neutrality throughout the conflict. A widower, he resides on his estate, “The Locusts,” with his two daughters and his late wife’s sister. Sarah, the eldest daughter, favors the side of the Crown, while the younger daughter Frances is disposed toward the rebel cause. Frances’s patriotic inclination may be due in no small part to her love for Major Peyton Dunwoodie, a soldier in the Virginia Dragoons. Mr. Wharton also has a son, Henry, who serves as a Captain in the British Army. Despite fighting on opposite sides of the war, Henry Wharton and Dunwoodie are old school chums and maintain a close friendship. On a week of leave from His Majesty’s service, Henry dons a disguise in order to cross enemy lines to see his family. Though his intentions are honorable, this subterfuge may be interpreted as an act of espionage, and his seemingly harmless visit leads to a series of life-threatening events.

Though the Revolution makes for fascinating subject matter and offers the potential for some exciting drama, Cooper never takes full advantage of its possibilities. The action in the book takes a back seat to the characters’ love lives, and the plot is constantly diverted by tangential conversations which contribute little to the momentum of the story. The pace is frustratingly slow and meandering. Cooper’s greatest offense is that despite being entitled The Spy, his book contains little or no espionage. We are told that Harvey Birch, a traveling peddler and friend to the Whartons, is selling secrets to one side or the other, but no example of such a transaction is ever actually depicted. Periodically Birch shows up in disguise, offers a warning to one of the characters, then vanishes. This may make him a master of disguise and an escape artist, but it doesn’t make him a spy. The stealing or selling of state secrets plays no part in the plot. Unfortunately, instead of an espionage thriller or a war story, The Spy is primarily a romantic melodrama.

Nevertheless, despite the book’s disappointing elements, it does kind of grow on you. The last two chapters are quite satisfying and do much to redeem the book as a whole. Though the slow pacing makes for irksome reading, upon completion of the novel one looks back on the large ensemble cast of characters and the major plot events with some fondness. If a screenwriter were willing to expend some effort separating the wheat from the chaff, this book could be cut down into an enjoyable two hour movie. Though this novel is not on par with a great work like The Last of the Mohicans, readers who enjoy Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels or the works of Scott, and can tolerate the occasional periods of poetic digression and narrative lethargy one often finds in early 19th century literature, will find some merit in The Spy.

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Monday, July 9, 2012

Introducing Rousseau by Dave Robinson

Does exactly what the title promises
This is the first book I’ve read in the Introducing series, and for the most part I was pleased with it. For those not familiar with the series, the Introducing books provide concise “CliffsNotes”-type summaries of complex philosophical and scientific subjects, combined with comic art. Not so much graphic novels per se, the books feature one or two paragraphs of text per page along with a black and white illustration often superimposed with dialogue or thought balloons.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a fascinating character who captivated Europe by subverting the rationalist Enlightenment with the revolutionary idea that civilization was actually bad for humanity. This book offers an abbreviated biography of Rousseau, interspersed with summaries of his works. The majority of the text is devoted to in-depth discussions of the novel Émile and the political treatise The Social Contract. Dave Robinson does an admirable job of explaining Rousseau’s philosophical concepts clearly and concisely. This book is by no means a Rousseau lovefest; Robinson is quite critical of Rousseau’s ideas and if anything I wish he had been a little more complimentary, as it might give the reader a better idea of why exactly Rousseau was so admired and so influential. In this account Rousseau comes across a little like a kook who had no business being buried in the Pantheon. Nonetheless, the writing is lively and engaging, providing about two hours of entertaining and educational reading. I was less impressed by the art, which I felt was not particularly well executed and did little to enhance the text. I can appreciate how difficult it must be to find graphic representation for abstract philosophical ideas such as these, but since that is the whole purpose of existence for the Introducing series, I expected more from the graphics.

This book, of course, is by no means a substitute for reading the actual works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I approached this book with the intention of answering two fundamental questions: 1) Do I really want to read Rousseau? 2) If so, what work(s) do I want to read? Upon completion of this book, I feel those questions have been adequately answered.

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Friday, July 6, 2012

The War of the Classes by Jack London

Socialism 101
War of the Classes is a collection of political writings by Jack London first published in 1905. London was a prominent socialist, and here he writes primarily about economic issues related to the struggle between labor and capital. At the time this book was compiled, socialism was gaining strength in America and abroad, massive strikes were causing frequent clashes between labor unions and the National Guard, and Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs had just garnered over 400,000 votes in the Presidential election. London uses the current events of his day to educate the reader in basic Marxist principles. What results is both an instructive text on socialist theory and a snapshot of the state of labor issues in the early 20th century.

Though London was noted for his zealous radicalism, here he mostly avoids fiery rhetoric and states his case clearly and rationally. He doesn’t get distracted with a lot of anecdotes, metaphors, or poetic rhetoric, but rather stays focused on the facts, at least the facts as seen through his admittedly biased red-colored glasses. At times the book gets a little bogged down with statistics, but overall, through his skillfully penned prose, London renders the complex subject matter intelligible and the text a pleasure to read.

The meat of the book consists of five long essays that were originally written as speeches. In “The Class Struggle,” London outlines the basic conflict between labor and capital, and depicts the two sides as opposing armies preparing for all-out war. In “The Tramp,” London discusses the “surplus labor army” and its necessity within a capitalist society. “The Scab” details the myriad ways by which individuals and parties in our capitalist society are forced to “scab” each other, that is, to provide more labor for less payoff. In “The Question of the Maximum” London addresses the problem of surplus capital and asks the question, “How much economic growth is too much?” In “Wanted: A New Theory of Development,” he makes the case that the rise of the common man is actually antithetical to the evolutionary law of survival of the fittest. Once the socialist revolution is accomplished, London asks, what will be the new law of development that insures the continued evolution of the species? Also included are three shorter essays, including the autobiographical “How I Became a Socialist,” but due to their brevity and shallower depth of discourse they’re less compelling than the five longer pieces.

Many of the labor issues of London’s time are still relevant today, and lessons learned from this book are still applicable. The difference between London’s day and ours is that he and millions of his comrades believed that a worldwide socialist revolution was imminent, whereas today, after the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and the ongoing capitalization of China, socialism remains anything but a potent force in world politics. If nothing else, London’s quixotic political thought provides a healthy dose of romantic nostalgia for a lost utopian dream.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Louis Lambert by Honoré de Balzac

A strange fiction/philosophy hybrid
Prior to the twentieth century, philosophy was the driving force behind all literature. Authors used the novel as a means to communicate their ideas on man’s purpose and his place in the universe. With Louis Lambert, however, Balzac takes the idea of the philosophical novel a little too far in giving us this odd, chimerical mashup of philosophical treatise and coming-of-age novel.

Louis Lambert is a boy of modest means, born in Vendôme. At a very young age he develops a passion for reading and soon begins to exhibit signs of a genius intelligence. He captures the attention of the writer Madame de Staël, who offers to finance his education at the Collège Vendôme, a boarding school run by the Catholic order of the Oratorians. There he develops a close friendship with the narrator of the novel, presumably Balzac himself. Lambert’s intellectual development is profoundly affected by the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish philosopher who proposed a dualistic philosophy in which man is composed of an animal body and an angelic spirit, a person’s nature being determined by the preponderance of one or the other of these independent influences. Eventually Lambert goes on to develop his own more materialistic version of Swedenborg’s philosophy, though it’s still a quite mystical, dualistic form of materialism. In Lambert’s view, the universe is created of one substance which resembles an electrical energy. Ideas are like living things inhabiting the internal world of the mind, which coalesce to form the Will, through which man is able to affect the external world. At about the age of 15, Lambert consolidates these ideas into an essay entitled The Treatise on the Will, much to the chagrin of his educators, who abruptly confiscate the manuscript.

Though Louis Lambert was published in 1832, Balzac displays an almost modernistic experimentation with form and style. The first quarter of the book is a straightforward narrative of Lambert’s youth and his time spent at the Collège, which is mostly based on Balzac’s own educational experiences. This is the most intelligible and enjoyable portion of the book. The second quarter of the book concentrates on the contents of the Treatise, mostly related through Lambert’s ecstatic, confusing disclosures to his friend. This is followed by three-eighths of the book comprised of love letters from Lambert to a woman he adored. While these epistles are eloquent and lyrical expressions of love, they do little to move the story forward or shed light on Lambert’s philosophical thought. The final eighth of the book consists of a couple laundry lists of philosophical postulates, arranged and enumerated with the intention of resembling the Euclidian order of Spinoza’s Ethics, but much more illogically constructed.

There is some validity to Balzac’s ideas on metaphysics and epistemology. This novel has value in that it does give the reader some insight into the philosophical thought of this great man of letters. The medium used to express that thought, however, is less than satisfying. Balzac could have conveyed these ideas far more successfully in a series of essays, or even a memoir of his own intellectual development. Instead, the book is too philosophical to be good literature, and too literary to be good philosophy. Failing on both counts, Louis Lambert is a book best skipped by all but the most enthusiastic of Balzac’s admirers.

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Monday, July 2, 2012

Pot-Bouille by Emile Zola

An underappreciated masterpiece
This lesser-known novel is one of Emile Zola’s greatest works. It has been translated into English under various titles, among them Pot Luck, Piping Hot!, and Restless House. It is the tenth book in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, though that’s not vitally important because they all stand alone as individual works of literature. 

Pot-Bouille gives us a revealing window into the secret lives and discrete liaisons of the inhabitants of a middle-class apartment building in Paris during France’s Second Empire. Within that “middle class” there are many levels of status, and each character in the book attempts to find some way of clawing and scratching his or her way up to a higher step on the societal pyramid. Among the ensemble cast of characters is Octave Mouret, son of Francois Mouret and Marthe Rougon from Zola’s earlier work The Conquest of Plassans. Upon moving into the building, Octave soon begins seeking an affair with an older, wealthier woman who will provide him with a foot-in-the-door of Parisian society. Elsewhere in the building, a mother pimps her daughters at dinner parties, trying to secure a match that will improve the family’s bleak financial future. Meanwhile, siblings of a well-to-do family squabble over the leavings of their dead father. Men squander their wealth on mistresses. Illicit affairs take place from the basement to the attic, all covered by a veneer of respectability. Away from the street-side facade of righteousness, however, the servants in the courtyard know the real goings-on and offer commentary like a sort of Greek chorus. 

This is what Zola does best. He creates a setting, populates it with a cast of diverse characters, engages them in an intricate series of events, and puts the reader right in the middle of it. This book is a real treat for any reader of classic literature, even if you’re not familiar with Zola or the Rougon-Macquart series. Fans of Zola’s other works will find it on a par with his great masterpieces Germinal and La Terre.
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