Friday, November 30, 2012

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

To make a short story long . . . 
Describe. Describe. Describe. When in doubt, heap on the adjective clauses. That’s the strategy Nathaniel Hawthorne employs in the writing of his novel The House of the Seven Gables, originally published in 1851.

The opening chapter promises a multi-generational drama with Gothic undertones, like an American Wuthering Heights. Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t deliver on that promise. Instead of penning an epic that spans centuries, Hawthorne chooses to focus on minutiae. He revels in the minute description of the titular house—every piece of its furniture, every plant in its garden, every crack in its woodwork. He is equally adept at depicting humanity, in both its exterior appearance and interior psychology. The result, however, is a book populated by vividly drawn characters that don’t do much of anything.

The house in question belongs to the Pyncheons, a once prominent, aristocratic New England family whose glory has faded and whose membership has dwindled. Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, the family’s most notable and prosperous surviving constituent, is the absentee landlord of the place. His cousin, the elderly Hepzibah Pyncheon, inhabits the house. She is joined by Phoebe, her beautiful young niece from the country; Holgrave, a photographer who rents one of the gables; and Hepzibah’s aged and feeble brother Clifford Pyncheon, who has just been released from prison after a decades-long sentence for murder. Though the story revolves around crimes, both past and present, Hawthorne avoids talking about said crimes as much as possible, instead concentrating on the lives of the four people in the house—their habits, their eccentricities, and their relationships with one another. Hawthorne concentrates so intently on every breath and movement that it takes half a chapter just for a character to walk across a room. The atmosphere is so thick you could cut it with a knife, but it leaves little room for activity. When things finally start happening in chapter 16 (out of 20!), it's too little, too late. Despite the macabre events taking place, the pace is still so slow it could put even James Fenimore Cooper to sleep.

The House of the Seven Gables is a book better quoted than read. You can pluck almost any paragraph from this novel and hold it up as an exemplar of English language prose, beautifully poetic in its descriptive elegance. But the sum total of all these perfect passages is one tedious, disappointing book. There were moments in some of the better chapters when the writing reminded me a bit of Balzac, yet Hawthorne could have learned a thing or two from his French contemporary. Balzac excelled at both atmosphere and action, and could juggle the two expertly. Perhaps that’s why his books still feel as fresh, insightful, and entertaining as the day they were written, while Hawthorne’s novel seems just as musty and cobwebbed as the house it so intricately depicts.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

John Toland: Ireland’s Forgotten Philosopher, Scholar . . . and Heretic by J.N. Duggan

A concise introduction to the Irish Voltaire
This brief book amounts to little more than an extensive article, read in about a half hour’s time, but the price of the Kindle file is appropriate for the content. It is not a complete biography of John Toland, but a concise summary of his philosophical career. The text is well written and the author gives a good sense of the personality of the man. Toland was notorious for his championing of reason over religion. He was the first person ever to be referred to as a “freethinker,” and Toland himself coined the term “pantheism” to describe the philosophy of Spinoza, of whom he was a disciple. A contemporary of such philosophical luminaries as Berkeley, Leibniz, and Locke, Toland never enjoyed the renown or respect they received, largely because his works were too controversial for his time. The picture Duggan paints here is of a man who not only welcomed such controversy but enthusiastically pursued it.

Toland was Irish, the author is Irish, and the purpose of this book is largely to bring attention to Toland’s Irishness. As such, some of the material may seem a bit unnecessary to the American reader, such as minute details about the history of Catholicism in Ireland. Overall, however, it’s an enlightening piece of writing and worth the time spent. Its value is increased by a comprehensive bibliography of Toland’s works. Anyone looking to learn more about this lesser-known figure of the Enlightenment should consider this a useful addition to their Kindle library.

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Monday, November 26, 2012

The Debacle by Emile Zola

One of the greatest war novels of all time
In The Debacle, as in all of his greatest works, Emile Zola achieves the wide-ranging scope of a sweeping, romantic epic without romanticizing the details of his settings or the emotions of his characters. As a result, we get an in-depth examination of the effects of war, on both national and personal levels. Zola thoroughly outlines the movements of troops and supplies, the political intrigue happening within the French government, and the diplomatic relations between nations, yet he never loses sight of the individual.

The narrative focuses on the friendship between Jean Macquart and Maurice Levasseur, two French soldiers from contrasting backgrounds who are brought together by the war. Jean Macquart, who previously starred in Zola’s novel The Earth (La Terre), is an experienced soldier and a sturdy, dependable, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. Maurice is a novice in the military, was raised in a privileged background, and has an emotional, introspective, and fragile nature. In addition to these two players, Zola presents myriad perspectives on the war. The multitudinous cast includes an emperor and a king; generals, grunts, and officers in between; farmers, shopkeepers, industrialists, doctors, and their wives. The combatants in this war range from highly-skilled military men to peasants with guns thrust into their hands, from the privileged elite to penniless beggars. The chaos of war ensnares them all in a series of events beyond their control or understanding, pushing them to the climactic tragedy of the Battle of Sedan.

Throughout the book, Zola condemns the futility of war in general, and the ineptitude of the French commanders in particular. The book is not totally pessimistic, however, as he does include some romantic concessions to the glory of patriotism, the strength of friendship, and the heroism that can arise when ordinary men are thrust into extraordinary circumstances. This is one of Zola’s greatest works, and I would recommend it to anyone, especially those who enjoy classic literature or historical fiction. It is both intellectually challenging and emotionally moving. I would caution the reader that it does help to have some knowledge of French geography and happenings in French history around the time of the Franco-Prussian War.

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Friday, November 23, 2012

The Strength of the Strong by Jack London

An OK collection with one pleasant surprise
The Strength of the Strong is a collection of short stories, most of which are good but not great. These were written about the middle of London’s career, after his Klondike period and before his South Pacific period, when there was quite a bit of variety in his work, so these stories take place in diverse settings. Many of them deal with political issues, and display London’s devotion to Socialism. Probably the best-known story and one of the better written in the collection is the piece for which the book is named. It’s an allegorical tale set in caveman times, in which London explains the class struggle from a Socialist perspective, with various characters standing as symbols for government, industry, labor, religion, etc. Three stories, “The Unparalleled Invasion”, “The Enemy of All the World”, and “The Dream of Debs”, are “What if?” histories of political events that take place in the near future (London’s future, our past). For the most part they are imaginative in their speculations, but not particularly engaging in character or plot. “The Dream of Debs” is the best of the three. It’s about a general strike that reeks havoc on San Francisco. “The Unparalleled Invasion” tells the story of China’s rise as a superpower and how the West deals with it. Unfortunately it’s marred by a racist attitude toward the Chinese and a glorification of genocide. “South of the Slot” is an unexceptional tale of class struggle in San Francisco. “The Sea-Farmer” is a sailor’s tale, above average but once again not remarkable.

The real surprise in this collection was the final selection, “Samuel”, which tells the story of Margaret Henan of Island McGill, Ireland, and her four sons named Samuel who died untimely deaths. London shows a surprisingly touching sensitivity to human emotion in this story. It’s also quite suspenseful, not because of any action or adventure in the plot, but rather just the skillful way in which London reveals piece by piece the mystery of this old woman’s past, heightening the reader’s interest until the very last page. In terms of the style and skill of the writing, this story seems years ahead of much of London’s work; it could have been written by William Faulkner. As a whole this collection, though nothing earth-shattering, will prove enjoyable to London fans. Those new or indifferent to London’s charms should just read “Samuel”.

Stories in this collection
The Strength of the Strong 
South of the Slot 
The Unparalleled Invasion 
The Enemy of All the World 
The Dream of Debs 
The Sea-Farmer 

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sarrasine by Honoré de Balzac

Love is blind, and absolute love blinds absolutely
Balzac’s Sarrasine could be considered either a long short story or a short novella. The entire piece can be read in an hour and a half. Nevertheless, as usual Balzac packs his pages with delightful entertainment and provocative insight. An unnamed narrator attends a sumptuous soirée at the salon of the Lanty family. This wealthy family is new to Parisian high society, and much speculation abounds as to the source of their fortune. A mysterious, strikingly ancient figure ambulates his way amongst the partygoers like a walking corpse. Balzac spends about a quarter of the book describing this bizarre creature. To the guests, he is a source of fascination and revulsion. They whisper discreetly to each other, debating the identity of this spectre and his relationship to the family. But only our narrator knows the real story, and as he confides it to his female companion, we are also let in on the secret. A tale is told of the sculptor Sarrasine who, while studying his craft in Italy, becomes obsessed with the beautiful opera singer La Zambinella. . . .

As is true with all of Balzac’s works, the less said about the plot the better. He is a writer who thrives on surprise, and the best course of action in reading his work is to wander in with little prior knowledge and no expectations. Balzac’s style of writing is like a cross between a naturalist novel and a mythological fable. On the one hand, he is a keen observer of nature and society, brilliantly describing the world of his story and the characters who inhabit it. On the other hand, his characters are largely allegorical, and the events that take place are often larger than life. He’s far more concerned with making a philosophical point than he is with creating any semblance of realism. Though firmly grounded in historical verisimilitude, Sarrasine seems more removed from reality, more of a fairy tale, than much of Balzac’s work. It often feels like there’s a bit of a wall between the reader and the action, as if you’re watching an opera on a stage rather than moving amongst the characters of a novel. Had the book been a little longer, and the reader given more time to become emotionally involved with these characters—to see them more as human beings who love each other and less like merely symbols for an obsessive lover and his coquettish quarry—it would have delivered more emotional impact. The book would also have benefited from more time spent on the flashback and less on the party scene that bookends it. These are minor criticisms, however, which amount to the difference between a masterpiece and a very good book. Sarrasine may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a prime showcase for Balzac’s masterful storytelling skills. Perhaps I liked it so much it left me wanting more.

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Pan Michael by Henryk Sienkiewicz

A stunning conclusion to a monumental trilogy
Pan Michael is the third volume in what is simply known as “The Trilogy,” a series of three historical war epics by Polish Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz. Published in 1888, this book completes the saga that began in With Fire and Sword and continued in The Deluge. Originally titled Pan Wolodyjowski, it has also been published in English under the title Fire in the Steppe. The title character, Michael Volodyovski, was a supporting character in the first two books; here he finally gets a starring role. (This review is based on the English translation by Jeremiah Curtin, so I am using his spellings of proper names.) The story takes place from 1668 to 1673, during a war between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire.

This final volume of Sienkiewicz’s spectacular trilogy differs from the first two installments in that, for most of the book, warfare takes a back seat to romance. Like the two previous books, Pan Michael is an epic adventure of love threatened by war, so the first order of business is to find a love interest for Michael. At the end of The Deluge, he was engaged to Anusia Borzobogati, but, perhaps because Sienkiewicz didn’t feel she was a sympathetic enough character, she dies of a mysterious illness in chapter one. Stricken by grief, love is the last thing on Michael’s mind, but the indomitable Pan Zagloba makes it his personal mission to find a new bride for his old friend. The first twenty chapters of Pan Michael constitute a sort of self-contained romance novel worthy of Balzac or Anthony Trollope. Michael, the “little knight” renowned as the finest swordsman in all the Commonwealth, doesn’t see any combat until about halfway through the book, but once he unsheathes his sword sparks fly and blood flows. The final quarter of the book is devoted to the epic warfare this trilogy is famous for, and the battles are as intense, brutal, and powerful as anything Sienkiewicz has written.

The books in The Trilogy take place in roughly the same time period as Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers novels, and they share much of the same atmosphere of swashbuckling adventure and brotherly camaraderie. Sienkiewicz’s books, however, are much more realistic in their portrayal of military life, more accurate in their depiction of historical events, and more solemnly respectful of life and death. There is a gravitas to the Polish trilogy that is missing from the Musketeers books. While his books are still fun to read, Sienkiewicz deals much more seriously with universal themes like love, honor, duty, and vengeance. At times Pan Michael is reminiscent of Homer’s Iliad. Religion is a constant presence in this novel, not in a preachy way, but as an accurate representation of the importance of Catholicism in Polish culture, particularly during this time period. Though the motivations of the Turks are handled with far more brevity, Sienkiewicz shows equal respect to the religious piety of his Muslim characters. While both sides refer to each other as “dogs,” “infidels,” or “non-believers,” Sienkiewicz demonstrates how both forces are motivated by their conception of God, and those soldiers of either side who remain faithful to their ideals are worthy of honor and reverence.

The best volume in Sienkiewicz’s trilogy is The Deluge, but Pan Michael takes a close second. These books constitute a truly monumental achievement. Together they offer months of exciting reading and about a semester’s worth of education in Eastern European history. For anyone who loves historical literature and epic adventure, Sienkiewicz’s trilogy is an essential read.

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Friday, November 16, 2012

The Burning Plain by Juan Rulfo

One of the best short story collections of the 20th century
The Burning Plain is a collection of fifteen short stories by Mexican author Juan Rulfo, originally published in 1953 under the Spanish title of El Llano en llamas. Rulfo is widely considered by his countrymen to be Mexico’s greatest author, even though he only published two books of fiction during his lifetime, this collection of stories and the novel Pedro Páramo.

The stories in The Burning Plain take place in rural Mexico, around the time of the Revolution of 1910, and often focus on the harsh aspects of peasant life. While some of the stories are very specifically Mexican, others are so stark and devoid of detail that their time and place are indeterminate. Common to all is a harsh, desolate landscape whose inhabitants struggle to eke out a living, some by coaxing a meagre crop from the arid soil, others by violently wielding a gun or machete. Poverty and murder permeate these stories, and death is a ubiquitous presence that Rulfo treats with an alternatingly bleak and comic fatalism.

Rulfo’s writing style is as sparse and severe as the land he depicts. No one can say as much with as few words as Juan Rulfo. His characters are often just the faint outline of human beings, his stages set with but a few rocks and trees, yet from these paltry ingredients he manages to craft complex narratives that vividly capture the drama of human existence. His prose is terse and stark, almost crude in its poetic simplicity, yet he also uses modernistic literary devices such as switching from first to third person in mid-story or alternating simultaneous stream-of-consciousness narratives. When Rulfo employs such techniques, it never feels gratuitous or forced, but always effortless and vital to the tale being told. The plots often start out deliberately obscure, sometimes frustratingly so, then slowly coalesce and develop like a figure emerging from a fog.

Reading this collection is like strolling through a gallery of masterpieces. The stories are consistently excellent throughout. In the bluntly titled “We’re very poor,” a flood inundates a rural village, washing away a cow belonging to the narrator’s sister. Without that cow for her dowry, her family fears she will become a “bad woman” like her sisters. In “Tell them not to kill me!”, an elderly man awaits his impending execution, grasping for a shred of hope, as he recalls his past 40 years as a fugitive and the murder that led to his downfall. In the bleak but powerful “No dogs bark,” an old man, carrying his grown son on his back, stumbles through darkness in search of medical attention, lamenting the trouble brought about by his son’s evil ways. “Remember” starts out as a folksy anecdote, with the narrator detailing the personality quirks of his home village’s inhabitants. It then slowly and unexpectedly escalates into an account of a brutal killing. If there’s one brilliant gem to be singled out from this treasure chest it would probably be “Talpa.” Tamilo, whose body is covered in mysterious, disgusting sores, convinces his wife and his brother (or sister, perhaps; I don’t believe Rulfo ever specifies) to take him on a pilgrimage to the Virgin of Talpa, little knowing that the two are carrying on an affair behind his back.

The Burning Plain is a landmark work, not only of Latin-American literature but of literature in general. I can’t think of a better collection of short stories overall. Even for those who have absolutely no interest in Mexico, its history or its culture, Rulfo’s stories transcend their setting to offer profound and unblinking insight into the universal human condition.

Stories in this collection
They gave us the land 
The Hill of the Comrades 
We’re very poor 
The man 
At daybreak 
The burning plain 
Tell them not to kill me! 
The night they left him alone 
No dogs bark 
Paso del Norte 
Anacleto Morones 

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon

A noir thriller with moral and psychological depth
Joseph Timar, a naive young Frenchman, travels to Gabon, a French colony in West Africa, to work for a lumber company. When he gets there, he discovers the position is not actually available yet, so he finds himself with nothing better to do than hang out at a hotel in Libreville, associating with the other whites residing there. Soon after his arrival a black boy is murdered, and though suspicion points toward the innkeeper’s attractive wife, Timar becomes involved with her anyway.

Though Georges Simenon is primarily famous for his Maigret series of detective novels, he is also well respected for what he called his “romans durs,” more serious literary novels often dealing with psychological themes, of which this book is an example. Tropic Moon is in fact a mystery story and a noir thriller, but the instances of crime and punishment take a back seat to the setting in which they take place. Though Timar enters Gabon with romantic notions about the glamor of the exotic Dark Continent, Simenon indulges no such illusions. His portrait of Africa is viscerally stark. Tropic Moon blatantly depicts the everyday injustices of the colonization of French West Africa. Though this may have been shocking to the audience of 1933, when the book was first published, today the fact that European empires exploited the resources of their third-world territories and oppressed the inhabitants of those territories is common knowledge. Nevertheless, through the direct matter-of-factness of Simenon’s descriptive prose, the reader finds himself inescapably effected by the palpable racism permeating the events of the book. The mystery story is what propels the book forward, enticing the reader to greedily gobble up each successive chapter, but the racial tension is ever-present just beneath the surface. The contemporary reader is not so much shocked by the racism as gradually suffocated by it. “They were whites, and they did whatever they wanted to—because they were whites.” The French characters in this book take what they want when they want it, whether it’s a piece of fruit, a centuries-old tree trunk, a native girl’s virginity, or the life of a black boy. We watch as Timar incrementally loses the inexperience and idealism of his youth, becoming ever more acclimated to the injustice and barbarism around him. The real mystery becomes whether he will completely succumb to the callous, brutish attitude of his white peers, or rise above their bigotry and assert his humanity.

Tropic Moon is a riveting thriller, set within a startlingly vivid slice of time and place. Although it takes you down dark roads you may not want to travel, the ride is captivating. Once I picked the book up, Simenon had me from page one, and I didn’t want to put it down. At a scant 133 pages, those with an adequate chunk of free time will want to read the whole book in one sitting.

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Monday, November 12, 2012

South Sea Tales by Jack London

The Tropics as Wild West
South Sea Tales is a collection of eight short stories by Jack London, first published in 1911. It is the first of his collections in which all the stories are set among the islands of the South Pacific. This region of the globe would become predominant in the writings of the second half of his career, much as the first half of his career was dominated by stories of the Klondike Gold Rush. In the stories included here, London paints a picture of life in the South Seas that is far from a tropical idyll. He shows us a brutal world in which the native islanders and their white oppressors are constantly at each other’s throats.

The stories take place in the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tahiti, the Paumotus, and elsewhere throughout Polynesia and Melanesia. Many of the natives make their living gathering the natural fruits of the sea, including pearls, and must deal with white traders who continually try to swindle them. White corporations own plantations on the islands, where they harvest copra (coconut meat), cocoa, sugar cane, or other agricultural exports. White men’s boats known as “blackbirders” patrol the island coasts, gathering up cheap labor to work these plantations. Once signed on, the islanders are held in indentured servitude and brutalized by their masters. London depicts these slaves as constantly trying to kill their masters, steal their goods, and escape. When these attempts take place, the whites slaughter them mercilessly and indiscriminately.

London displays little sympathy for the brutalized natives here. In fact, he treats the violence and killing with an almost comic nonchalance, much in the way that stories set in the Wild West often make light of gunfights and hangings. The unfortunate difference between the two genres, of course, is that what we’re talking about here is racial violence, black vs. white. In some of the stories, the natives are depicted as little more than a relentless tide of savages who must be exterminated in order to defend the white man’s life and livelihood. The story entitled “The Inevitable White Man,” for example, begins with a conversation about manifest destiny, then goes on to glorify a man whose only discernible talent is the shooting of blacks. Modern audiences are likely to find such tales off-putting, if not downright offensive.

Luckily, three of the stories break from this pattern and redeem the collection somewhat overall. These three exceptions focus primarily on conflicts between man and nature. “The House of Mapuhi” tells the story of a native who discovers a giant pearl on a remote atoll. Three white traders vie for the prize, all of whom try to swindle the pearl diver. All deals are off, however, when the island is devastated by a hurricane. In “The Seed of McCoy,” a ship with a hold full of flaming cargo pulls up to Pitcairn Island. There they are met by a descendant of the Bounty mutineers who offers to guide them to another island with a suitable port, in hopes that they can save their ship before it burns up entirely. In “The Heathen,” by far the most positive story in the book, a trading vessel sails into the heart of a hurricane. The two survivors of the disaster, the white narrator and a native Bora Boran, form a close, lifelong friendship.

These three worthy stories provide some relief from the relentless brutality. As a collection overall, however, South Sea Tales leaves the reader with the impression that London was a master of adventure storytelling who could have used a little sensitivity training.

Stories in this collection
The House of Mapuhi 
The Whale Tooth 
“Yah! Yah! Yah!” 
The Heathen 
The Terrible Solomons 
The Inevitable White Man 
The Seed of McCoy 

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Friday, November 9, 2012

More Tales by Polish Authors by Boleslaw Prus, et al.

Another great collection of Polish short fiction
Boleslaw Prus
As is apparent from the title, this is the second volume in a series collecting the short stories of Polish authors. This collection, with English translations by Else C. M. Benecke and Marie Busch, was originally published in 1916.

The book leads off with two stories by Adam Szymanski, “Maciej the Mazur” and “Two Prayers.” Both depict the lives of Polish political exiles and colonists in Siberia. In Szymanski’s portrayal, Siberia is a bleak, frozen place inhabited by lonely souls who desperately seek each other out for any opportunity to share their memories, both good and bad, of the former lives they led in the beloved mother country. “The Chukchee” by Waclaw Sieroszewski is also set in Siberia, but deals with the indigenous population. A Polish colonist meets with a band of the nomadic Chukchee people, in hopes of opening a trading relationship with them. After the tribe departs his village, he joins a missionary expedition through treacherous terrain to visit the native people at their home camp in the remote tundra.

The bleak atmosphere that permeates this book is not confined to Siberia, but is applied to the small towns and rural villages of Poland as well. In “The Trial” by Nobel Prize winner Wladyslaw Reymont, when a mob of peasants discover the thieves who have been committing robberies in their village, they take the law into their own hands, trying and sentencing the accused with their own brutal brand of jurisprudence. Stefan Zeromski’s “The Stronger Sex” tells of a poor, idealistic doctor who opens a practice in a small provincial town. The overwhelming ignorance, superstition, and conservatism of the peasant populace deadens his intellect and robs him of any professional drive he once possessed. He is shaken from his lethargy one night, however, when he is informed that a school teacher in the next town has taken deathly ill.

The longest and best piece in the book is a 100-page novella by Boleslaw Prus entitled “The Returning Wave.” Gottlieb Adler is a self-made man who worked his way up from nothing to a position of wealth. As owner of a textile factory, he is the primary employer in his small town. Adler allows his son Ferdinand to live an idle, self-indulgent life. When the young man racks up tremendous debts, Adler transfers them to his factory laborers through economizing measures which extend the workers hours and lower their wages. Under his iron hand, however, the workers begin to show signs of unrest. This is an excellent piece of literature reminiscent of some of the best works by Emile Zola and Honoré de Balzac.

I don’t read Polish, so I can’t critique the translation, but I will say that at times the English prose is a bit awkward and hampers readability. Occasionally the text could use some clarification in simple matters like who’s speaking in a conversation or which direction a character is moving. This is more evident in the works of Szymanski and Sieroszewski, but not much of a problem in the Reymont or Prus entries. This collection has no introduction and only very limited footnotes, so you are expected to know the historical context behind these stories. American readers unfamiliar with Polish history may have to consult Wikipedia to get their bearings. These stories are worth the extra work, however. If you enjoy naturalistic literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, you will find that the Polish offerings in this series deserve a distinguished place in the canon of world literature.

Stories in this collection
Maciej the Mazur by Adam Szymanski 
Two Prayers by Adam Szymanski 
The Trial by Wladyslaw Reymont 
The Stronger Sex by Stefan Zeromski 
The Chukchee by Waclaw Sieroszewski 
The Returning Wave by Boleslaw Prus 

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