Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Arne: A Sketch of Norwegian Country Life by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

A meandering mix of melancholy and whimsy
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1903, and is considered by Norwegians to be one of their nation’s greatest authors. Arne is one of his earliest works, originally published in 1859. According to the translator’s preface, this novel was instrumental in the formation of a distinctly Norwegian national style of literature.

Arne begins with a surprisingly fantastical opening that features a conversation between talking trees. This serves merely as a prologue, however, and is not indicative of the novel as a whole. Though the subtitle, “A Sketch of Norwegian Country Life” leads the reader to believe they are in for a story of the quaint charms of peasant life, the novel starts out remarkably bleak. Arne is the name of a boy, born of an unwed mother and an alcoholic, philandering father. Tragic events early on, coupled with the tumultuous relationship of his parents, makes for a rough childhood for Arne.

An unlikely protagonist, Arne is a socially inept loner with a sensitive soul. He shuns contact with others, and is more at home alone in the woods. Besides managing his family farm, Arne is a writer of songs. The narrative is interspersed with lyrics, poetry, and folk tales. At times it feels like the sole purpose of the novel is to act as a venue for displaying these poems and fables, as if Bjørnson were more concerned with the poetry than with the primary narrative. The novel has a bit of a schizophrenic feeling. It can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be, or find a tone and stick with it. Early on, the story emphasizes the hardship of rural life. Later in the book, however, this gritty realism is betrayed when everything magically falls into place for Arne, without a whole lot of effort on his part. Arne sort of drifts through the book like a leaf on the sea, buffeted by this wave or that, before finally settling on a rock. There is some pleasantness in drifting along with him, but for the most part the reader is left wanting a little more gravity.

This is a short novel of about 150 pages, so it does not constitute a major investment of reading time. Arne is a good book, but not great. It delivers a contented satisfaction, but it won’t rock your world. For a truly moving and memorable look at Norwegian rural life, I would wholeheartedly recommend Knut Hamsun’s masterpiece Growth of the Soil.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies

A fascinating thesis, but a half-baked defense
In his 2002 book entitled 1421, Gavin Menzies tries to make the case that in the year in question, 71 years before Columbus discovered America, the Chinese not only discovered America but also navigated, charted, and to some extent colonized the entire world, with the exception of Europe. At that time, the Ming Dynasty emperor Zhu Di sent out a fleet of treasure ships to explore the unknown reaches of the earth and establish trade connections with the nations they encountered. The fleet, under the direction of Admiral Zheng He, split into four smaller units led by four intrepid admirals: Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen, and Yang Qing. Menzies traces the itineraries of these four Chinese fleets and catalogs the discoveries they made. He bases his argument on a detailed study of pre-Colombian world maps, asserting that the entire world was already mapped before Columbus set sail. He supports this theory with excerpts from diaries and letters, archaeological findings, and other scientific evidence.

I am not at all uncomfortable with the idea of pre-Colombian intercontinental travel. If we already accept that the Vikings reached North American shores in the year 1000, then the idea that a relatively advanced seafaring civilization like the Chinese might have traversed the world four centuries later is not such an incredible stretch. Yet, even though in my case Menzies is preaching to the choir, his writing is far from convincing. Almost every paragraph in the book contains some kind of qualifier like “it is entirely feasible that,” “it is highly probable that,” “it seems likely that,” or a disclaimer that the research is still out on a particular subject, and the results will be posted to his web site when they come in. Another favorite tactic is the use of the process of elimination in lieu of hard evidence, as in “Who else but the Chinese could have . . .?” or “It must have been the Chinese who. . .”, when in fact, as they say, it ain’t necessarily so. Menzies makes hundreds of claims in this book—Chinese colonies in Peru, Mexico, and Rhode Island; Chinese discovery of the North Pole; the Portuguese colonization of Puerto Rico in the 1430s; Chinese intercontinental distribution of various plant and animal species, including living mylodons (prehistoric giant ground sloths); and more. Each one of these claims would take a full-length scholarly monograph to defend, yet Menzies glosses over many of them in a paragraph or two.

Menzies asserts that his experience as a former submarine captain in the Royal Navy gives him an insight into the Chinese expeditions that a library-bound historian would not possess. There may be some truth to that, but the more he brings himself into the narrative, explaining his research methods, the less he furthers his case. He jumps to hasty conclusions based on sketchy logic, which only draws attention to the fact that he is not an academic historian or scientist. I’d like to think that there’s some truth to Menzies’ hypothesis, but he doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Menzies is at his best when he’s writing about the past, describing life in the Forbidden City, for example, or conditions aboard the ships of the Chinese treasure fleet. Even then, he’s prone to exaggeration and speculation, but at least he makes the past come to life. If he really wants to further this theory, he should express it in the form of a Da Vinci Code-style historical novel. He’s as good a researcher as Dan Brown and certainly a better prose stylist (faint praise, indeed). Until then, 1421 will have to do. It’s a fascinating ride, an entertaining read, and a smorgasbord of food for thought, but best swallowed with a grain of salt.

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Friday, January 25, 2013

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

A little rusty, but still manages to entertain
The Castle of Otranto is widely regarded as the first Gothic novel, and it definitely contains all the emotional melodrama, forbidden romance, spooky castle corridors, and supernatural happenings that one expects of that genre. In the preface to the first edition of 1764, Horace Walpole claimed that this work was a translation of a recently discovered Italian manuscript dating back to around the 12th century. The book was successful enough, however, that when the second edition came out, Walpole admitted that was all hogwash and took credit for writing his own work.

The story takes place in the principality of Otranto, in Italy, where Prince Manfred is lord of the land and its castle. Manfred is less than satisfied with the fertility of his wife Hippolita, for she has only given him one son and one daughter, but the impending marriage of his son Conrad serves to reassure him that soon he will have grandchildren to carry on the family line. When the wedding day arrives, however, Conrad is crushed to death by a mysterious giant helmet which falls from the sky. Naturally, all are horrified by this event, but it brings a special anguish to Manfred, for cruel fate has robbed him of his sole male heir. He becomes determined to rectify this matter by divorcing Hippolita and taking Conrad’s bride Isabella for his own, though the union is decidedly against the young lady’s will.

The Castle of Otranto still has some entertainment to offer the modern reader, but it’s definitely acquired a dull patina over the past two and a half centuries. Though the macabre ambience and supernatural events depicted in the book may have filled its 18th century audience with shock and horror, a quarter of a millennium later these elements merely inspire amusement in today’s reader. The reading public of 1764 also had a different attention span than readers of the 21st century. In those days they may not have minded sitting through dialogue that basically repeats the same conversation three or four times, but today these passages seem unnecessarily tedious. Nevertheless, there are enough twists and turns in this skillfully constructed fable to keep one interested. Over the course of the story each character’s secret past is revealed, and all find they are related directly or indirectly to one another in some way, all entwined in a twisted web of connectivity reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo. As the narrative progresses, it is a pleasure to watch Manfred become more and more tyrannical, more obsessed with possessing Isabella. This obsession drives him to behave immorally, betray his family, and scorn the church. The obvious message of the book is that the more you fight the hand of God, the more it’s going to come back to pound you, and there is a gratifying satisfaction in waiting for the inevitable hammer to fall.

I can’t say I’m enamored with this book enough to give it a wholehearted endorsement, but if you enjoy the Gothic literature of writers like Edgar Allan Poe or Bram Stoker, or just historical literature in general, like Sir Walter Scott or Balzac, it might be worth your while to blow the dust off of The Castle of Otranto and give it a try.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Man’s Head by Georges Simenon

A confounding puzzle and a thrilling ride
Joseph Heurtin, convicted murderer and death row inmate at the Santé prison, receives a note with instructions for a prison break. Following the directions in the note, Heurtin leaves his cell, scales the wall, and flees the scene. Little does he know that the unknown benefactor behind the mysterious note is none other than Inspector Maigret, the police detective who originally handled his case. Despite overwhelming evidence in favor of Heurtin’s guilt, Maigret has never been convinced that he acted alone. Maigret engineers the prison break, keeping Heurtin under surveillance, in hopes of discovering the real mastermind behind the crime. What’s at stake is whether or not the wrong man will go to the guillotine, or, as Maigret puts it, it’s a question of a man’s head. The Examining Magistrate in the case, Monsieur Coméliau, gives his permission for this operation, but does not have much confidence in Maigret’s plan. When things go bad and Heurtin eludes the police, Maigret’s career is on the line. If he wants to keep his job, he has ten days to apprehend Heurtin and discover who is really responsible for the murders.

A Man’s Head was originally published in 1931 under the French title of La Tête d’un Homme, and has appeared in English under the alternate titles A Battle of Nerves, Maigret's War of Nerves, and The Patience of Maigret. It is the fifth novel in this series of detective novels by Georges Simenon. Though the Maigret books are often unconventional in style and structure, relying more on atmosphere and character development than on the mechanics of detection, this one for the most part sticks to the basic format of mystery novels that began with Sherlock Holmes and continues to this day. The penultimate chapter features the requisite big reveal in which Maigret explains how all the various happenings of the preceding chapters fit into one big ingenious jigsaw puzzle. Sticking to convention doesn’t hurt the book at all, for Simenon is quite successful at working within the prescribed rules of the genre when it suits him. The plot is more than sufficiently intricate to confound the reader. This is one Maigret mystery that truly mystifies. Also, for once Maigret faces a formidable adversary with whom he can verbally and intellectually spar. The “villain,” for lack of a better word, is a devilishly clever mastermind who enjoys playing with Maigret’s head. In the tradition of the genre he lies somewhere between Professor Moriarity and the psychos of today’s serial killer movies who can never seem to commit a crime without seeking affirmation from the police.

A Man’s Head is a captivating ride, and a satisfying read. The entire book can be read in under two hours, and once you get started, you won’t want to stop. Of the few Maigret novels I’ve read so far, this is the best of the bunch, and it leaves me looking forward to reading more.

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Monday, January 21, 2013

The Cruise of the Snark by Jack London

A disappointing voyage
In 1907 Jack London departed San Francisco for a trip around the world. For this voyage he commissioned the construction of a 45-foot yacht he dubbed the Snark. Taking along his wife Charmian, a small crew, a library of books, and a typewriter, he set off for the South Pacific. Along the way he wrote the series of articles that make up this book.

I have read most of Jack London’s works, and this is one of my least favorites. Given the subject matter, you’d think this account would be loaded with exciting adventures, but much of the book lacks interest. Essentially it’s a series of essays about an aging millionaire and his wife who travel around the world on their yacht. Everywhere they go they’re treated like visiting dignitaries. It’s a far cry from the gritty, perilous exploits one finds in London’s fiction. Many of the chapters concentrate on the mundane, technical aspects of the seafaring life. This detracts from the more worthwhile discussions of the exotic destinations that were visited. There are a few good pieces of travel writing here and there. London learns to surf at Waikiki, visits the leper colony of Molokai, and encounters a prototypical American hippie in Tahiti. In the Marquesas he visits the sight of Herman Melville’s Typee, but instead of finding a thriving civilization of noble savages he finds an abandoned jungle sprinkled with a few sickly inhabitants. This letdown is indicative of the book as a whole. In The Cruise of the Snark, the romance of the South Seas proves to be a disappointing illusion.

If you happen to be a sailor or a boat enthusiast you may enjoy this book more than the average reader. The text is peppered with sailing jargon, and at times London details his nautical maneuvers to the point of tedium. Resolving to teach himself celestial navigation en route, he devotes a few chapters to his trial and error in this arcane craft, which will bore the tears out of the typical landlubber. Sailing a small craft on the open ocean for months on end is a daring feat, but most likely the greatest peril faced by the travelers on this voyage was the possibility of getting lost in the empty seas due to a mathematical error on the part of the author.

The original edition contained over 100 photos London took during the trip. Though he was a skilled photographer, in the printed editions I’ve seen the images are too small and murkily reproduced to be of much value. These photos are absent from the Kindle edition, but they’re no great loss.

Jack London wrote many excellent books, both fiction and nonfiction. The Cruise of the Snark is not one of them, and should not be high on your reading list. If you’re looking for South Pacific adventure, I would suggest his short story collections On the Makaloa Mat and South Sea Tales.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Lourdes by Emile Zola

The struggle between Faith and Reason
Lourdes, originally published in 1894, is the first volume in Emile Zola’s Three Cities Trilogy. In 1858, in a grotto outside the town of Lourdes, a girl named Bernadette Soubirous had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary. From that moment on, Lourdes became a site of religious pilgrimage, and the local spring water was proclaimed to miraculously cure all manner of ailments. Zola’s novel takes place in the late 19th century, during a weekend of national pilgrimage, when faithful Catholics from all over France are converging on the shrine in hopes of obtaining a heavenly miracle. The story opens in a train car filled with all manner of sufferers and their clerical caretakers. In the first chapter alone the reader is introduced to at least fifty characters, and over the course of the book it becomes difficult to remember who is plagued by which crippling infirmity. The main story line revolves around Pierre Froment, a young priest, and his childhood friend Marie de Guersaint, who was paralyzed by a freak injury suffered in a riding accident at the age of thirteen. Marie prays that Our Lady of Lourdes will grant her a miracle cure. Pierre, despite being a man of the cloth, is a rationalist and a skeptic. He is a priest who has lost his faith and hopes perhaps the pilgrimage to Lourdes will rejuvenate his dying belief.

The novel takes place over a period of five days, but this pilgrimage feels like a long haul. The first half of the book is really tough to get through, though the reader’s efforts are rewarded with a stronger second half. What makes it so difficult is that Zola seems less interested in providing the reader with an engaging plot than with accurately capturing the experience of Lourdes. Many of the chapters read more like a National Geographic article than a novel. Zola not only depicts in minute detail the mysterious ambience of the grotto and the lush grandeur of the basilica, but also the shameful cheesiness of the gift shops and the military efficiency of the food service. He clearly revels in describing the pilgrims and their various ills. Long paragraphs read like laundry lists of decaying flesh and suppurating sores. In addition, weaving its way through the book is the historical narrative of Bernadette and her visions, and the subsequent transformation of the tiny town of Lourdes into an ecclesiastical mecca.

The overall purpose of the novel is to dwell upon the question of what function religion still serves for humanity in a world where so many of its superstitions have been debunked by science. Zola was an outspoken disciple of Darwin and clearly a skeptic on religious matters. As such he examines the phenomenon of Lourdes from a secular perspective, through the rational mind of Pierre. Does faith have a beneficial effect on human health? To what extent are illnesses psychosomatic? Is religion a necessity for human happiness? Readers of a devout Catholic persuasion are not going to like this book. Conversely, Atheists may consider it a waste of effort to devote so much reading time to a novel on Catholic history. Nevertheless, in today’s world the conflict between faith and skepticism is still a heated battle, and the issues Zola raises in Lourdes are still relevant and meaningful to a twenty-first century audience.

Lourdes is the first novel Zola published following the completion of his monumental twenty-novel series, the Rougon-Macquart cycle. It probably doesn’t deserve a spot in a top ten list of his finest works, but it would manage to squeeze into the better half of his prodigious literary output. After reading this auspicious opening volume, I am looking forward to following the Three Cities Trilogy to Rome and Paris.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

“That government is best which governs least”
In Civil Disobedience, first published in 1849, Henry David Thoreau asserts that when a government acts in a way contrary to the conscience of one of its individual subjects, that individual has a duty to deny any allegiance to that government by ceasing to pay taxes and refusing to obey unjust laws. While Thoreau was focused on the issues of slavery and the Mexican-American War, much of the rhetoric in Civil Disobedience is broad enough that it can be used as an inspirational rallying cry for dissenters of every stripe, from anarchists to Tea Partiers. By today’s standards, Thoreau’s own political thought was a fiercely individualistic mix of liberalism and libertarianism. He was a staunch pacifist, anti-military, and critical of the judicial and penal systems, yet he was also against big government, trade regulation, and taxation. In Thoreau’s view, all governments are inherently corrupt. Just because democracy is based on majority rule doesn’t make it any less corrupt, because the approval of the majority is no guarantee of justice and right. Instead of waiting for their government to become just, citizens should behave justly, even if that means breaking the law.

Civil Disobedience amounts to about thirty pages in printed form, and takes about an hour to read, depending on how much time you want to spend dissecting Thoreau’s antiquated grammar and syntax. From the perspective of the language alone, this is a more difficult, less accessible read than his best-known work, Walden. More effort is required to decipher Thoreau’s prose in order to extract the kernel of his message. The Kindle file that’s available for free on Amazon was created by Project Gutenberg. The text was typed rather than scanned, but doesn’t seem to have been proofread, as it still contains several typographical errors. The file includes only the text of Thoreau’s essay, with no introduction or notes. In this case, notes can be helpful in clarifying some of Thoreau’s historical references, so a well-edited paperback edition may provide a more helpful reading experience for first-time readers. For those familiar with Thoreau and this great work, however, a digital, highlightable copy makes for a welcome addition to your portable e-book library.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

The sacred and the profane
During his illustrious career, Noble Prize-winning novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz created an impressive array of epic historical novels chronicling the history of his native Poland, yet to international audiences he is best known for another epic work, Quo Vadis, a novel of ancient Rome. Originally published in 1895, Quo Vadis—the title is Latin for “Whither goest thou?”—is set around the year AD 64 during the reign of the emperor Nero. Marcus Vinicius, a Roman patrician and military tribune, falls in love at first sight with Lygia, the beautiful daughter of a foreign king. He immediately determines to possess her at any cost. Through the influence of his uncle Petronius, Nero decrees that the maiden be taken from her family and granted to Vinicius. Though Lygia loves Vinicius, she does not wish to be taken by force as his concubine. With the aid of friends she escapes, and a maddened Vinicius pursues her. His search leads to the discovery that the girl is a member of a new and mysterious religious sect, the Christians. Through his investigations, Vinicius discovers that, contrary to reports that the Christians worship donkeys and eat babies, there are some truly worthwhile aspects to their teachings, and he begins to sympathize with their faith. When Nero sets in motion a merciless persecution of the Christians, rounding them up for torture and slaughter, Vinicius’s search for Lygia becomes a race to save her life.

More than any other novelist, with the possible exception of Victor Hugo, Sienkiewicz knows how to deliver Romanticism with a capital R. Everything about the book is grandiose, bombastic, and larger than life, each character a colossus in and of themselves. Yet Sienkiewicz also captures all the minute details of Roman life with a vivid, naturalistic clarity. Whether he’s depicting an orgy, a gladiatorial battle, a crucifixion, or Nero’s burning of Rome, the reader feels himself totally immersed in the scene. Sienkiewicz also expertly interprets the mind-set of ancient Rome—from its glory and honor to its depravity and debauchery—and the environment of fear under Nero’s despotic regime. The bloody, sexy, grittily realistic vision of Rome that we come to expect today in our movies, television shows, and novels most likely originated with Quo Vadis. This book was inspired by Alexandre Dumas’s 1838 novel Acté, which also tells the story of Nero, but Sienkiewicz’s Rome is a far cry from the picturesque, sanitized vision of Rome that prevailed in the literature of Dumas’s time.

Sienkiewicz, a fervid Catholic, implanted Quo Vadis with a strong religious message. Devout Christians could certainly read this novel as a work of inspirational literature. Yet Sienkiewicz is not overly preachy or dogmatic. Though Saints Peter and Paul have supporting roles, most of the story is told through the eyes of the Romans. Non-believers can read this story simply as a historical novel about the clash between the Roman Empire and a burgeoning religious movement. It must be admitted that, while the Roman characters run the gamut from honorable to depraved, the Christians are all depicted as perfectly virtuous, without a coward or a Judas among them. On the other hand, perhaps the most sympathetic character in the book is not a Christian at all, but Petronius, an Epicurean. Theist or Atheist alike can enjoy Quo Vadis simply as a masterful work of historical literature. Its only literary fault is that the plotting drags a bit in its final third, a defect that’s mostly wiped from memory by the book’s monumental and unforgettable closing scenes. Regardless of your religious inclination, if you have any interest in ancient Rome or a taste for historical fiction, Quo Vadis is a must-read.

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Friday, January 11, 2013

Acté by Alexandre Dumas

Too much fact, not enough fiction
Acté, also known as Acté of Corinth, originally published in 1838, was the first historical novel written by Alexandre Dumas. The story takes place about AD 54, and opens in the Greek city of Corinth. Greece has fallen from the heights of its classical glory, and is now a colony of the Roman Empire. Acté, a beautiful Corinthian maiden, is gathering wildflowers along the seashore when a boat lands upon the beach. A handsome, dashing Roman steps ashore and is immediately bewitched by the Greek beauty. He has come to Corinth to compete in games of wrestling, chariot racing, and poetry. Over the course of his stay he sweeps the young girl off her feet, and when he departs he carries Acté back to Rome with him. Upon arrival in the imperial capital, she is shocked and dismayed to discover that her lover is none other than the ruler of the world himself, the Emperor Nero.

Acté was a real person, a mistress of Nero’s. In fact, every character in this novel is an actual figure from Roman history, with the possible exception of the most minor servants and soldiers. Dumas’s knowledge of Roman history and mythology is stunning. Each sentence positively drips with references to gods, legends, or historic personages from ancient times. In keeping with the tastes of his day, Dumas presents a Rome that’s relentlessly romanticized, populated by characters that seem as if they were carved out of marble. This picturesque portrayal will prove a bit off-putting to contemporary readers that favor a grittier, bloodier, sexier vision of Rome.

In his desire to accurately detail all the historical facts, Dumas ends up being a slave to the history rather than an interpreter of it. Several of the chapters read like non-fiction and carry about as much drama as a Wikipedia entry. When Acté meets up with a band of Christians, for instance, Dumas feels the need to summarize the entire New Testament. At about the three-quarter mark, Acté disappears from the narrative entirely, and we are provided with a multi-chapter account of the downfall of Nero. What’s lacking throughout is a little poetic license. The cleverly intricate plotting, the emotional drama, and the sense of humor Dumas showcases in masterpieces like The Count of Monte Cristo and the Three Musketeers books are absent from this book. The best chapter of Acté features a gladiatorial exhibition that is absolutely riveting. If the rest of the book had lived up to the standard of that chapter, this would have been a great novel.

This novel was the inspiration for another famous work of literature, the 1895 novel Quo Vadis by Nobel Prize-winner Henryk Sienkiewicz, which tells the story of two fictional Christian characters who suffer Nero’s persecution. Quo Vadis is all around a much better novel than Acté, with a more exciting plot, more engaging characters, and a depiction of ancient Rome that rings truer in the eyes of the contemporary reader.

I’m a big fan of Dumas’s better known novels, and I enjoy stories of ancient Greece and Rome, but here the meeting of the two is hardly a match made in heaven. Though not a bad debut, it bears little resemblance to the excellent novels of the author’s later career. Fans of Dumas or historical fiction in general certainly won’t hate this book. It’s not terrible, merely a bit boring. Overall Acté comes across as a novel that’s competent rather than compelling.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Secret Journeys of Jack London, Book One: The Wild by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon

A wonderful homage to the master of adventure
In the interest of full disclosure, I will start by stating that I’m a middle-aged man who never reads young adult fiction. I made an exception in this case, however, because what I do read a lot of is Jack London. So when I heard about this series so audaciously titled The Secret Journeys of Jack London, I immediately wanted to check it out to see if these books were worthy of bearing the name of their illustrious subject. Once I started reading Book One: The Wild, I was pleasantly surprised by how well written and entertaining this book is. Authors Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon have crafted a clever coming-of-age tale with all the characteristics of a classic London adventure.

The beginning of the story is loosely based on the actual events of London’s life. Spurred on by the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, teenage Jack and his brother-in-law Shepard venture up to the Yukon Territory hoping to strike it rich. The two make it as far as Dyea, but when the ailing Shepard lays eyes on the grueling Chilkoot pass, he decides to head back to San Francisco, leaving young Jack on his own. Jack, far from disappointed at this unexpected parting of the ways, relishes his newfound independence. He soon hooks up with two companions, and together the three embark on the arduous journey up river to Dawson. From that point the plot departs from the semi-biographical narrative, and the authors take the story in a completely different and unexpected direction.

Though London was a strident Darwinist, atheist, and rationalist, he was not averse to introducing supernatural elements into his work as long as it resulted in a good story. The most obvious examples of this are his novel The Star Rover and the novella “Planchette”. In this book, however, Golden and Lebbon step way beyond London’s paranormal comfort zone and take it to a whole new level. Almost every chapter, much like the lion’s share of young adult literature today, is loaded with supernatural occurrences and superhuman feats. The genre of wilderness adventure has all but disappeared from bookstore shelves in the past few decades, while vampires, werewolves, and zombies have multiplied like rabbits. If introducing a few monsters and spirits into the wilderness is what it takes to breathe new life into this underappreciated genre, then more power to the authors for trying. Golden and Lebbon have done their research well. Not only are they well versed in London’s life and work, they also make creative use of the Native American myth of the Wendigo and the Russian folktale of the forest spirit known as the Leshii. They have created a very original story that definitely departs from London’s familiar territory, yet they still manage to vividly and contagiously convey his spirit of adventure and his love for the wild.

“Young adult” is a good label for this book, as it contains quite a bit of violence and gore, and a hint of sex. It’s probably too mature for a junior high audience. Hopefully this book will succeed in turning some young readers on to London’s classic works like The Call of the Wild and The Iron Heel. I wish the authors the best of luck with this series. This book, by the way, would make an excellent movie. It’s about time Jack London became a household name again.

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Monday, January 7, 2013

The Leaning Tower by Katherine Anne Porter

Not her best work
The Leaning Tower is a collection of short stories and novellas by Katherine Anne Porter. It was originally published in 1934, sandwiched chronologically between her two other collections of short fiction, Flowering Judas and Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Compared to those excellent books, The Leaning Tower is a bit of a disappointment. While Porter’s prodigious ability to craft realistic settings and render psychologically authentic characters is evidently on display here, the selections tend to be too heavy on description and too light on plot.

The opening novella, “The Old Order,” is composed of a series of chronologically jumbled vignettes in the life of a family in rural Texas, told from the third person perspective of Miranda, presumably the same Miranda featured in Porter’s stories “Old Mortality” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” Miranda recounts memories from her childhood, concerning in particular her grandmother and the family’s black servants. The insights into black/white relations in the changing American South are fascinating, but too much attention is devoted to the imperious grandmother, who treats everyone as a servant, whether black or white, old or young.

This is followed by the short story “The Downward Path to Wisdom,” told from the point of view of a young boy about five years old. It feels a bit pointless, as if the story’s sole purpose is for Porter to prove she can write from this unusual perspective. In “Holiday,” a young city woman decides to spend her spring vacation living with a large farming family in East Texas. There she develops a friendship of sorts with the family’s crippled servant, who carries a dark secret. The story finishes well, but the first two-thirds is spent merely describing in detail the daily life of the family, at times from an overly critical, condescending perspective. The best selection in the book by far is “A Day’s Work.” The Hallorans are an Irish couple in New York whose marriage has devolved into hatred. The husband, unemployed, blames his wife for missed opportunities, while she views herself as a martyr to his sins. It is an excellent story until the final paragraph, in which one character behaves in a manner which seems to be a complete reversal of everything that came before.

The collection ends with its longest piece, the title novella “The Leaning Tower.” Charles Upton, an aspiring painter, lives out a childhood dream by traveling to Berlin, but ultimately finds Germany a disappointing destination. Porter’s depiction of Berlin is about as flattering as a George Grosz cartoon. There is much dwelling upon the myriad ways in which Germany sucks, its people are ugly and rude, etc. The story provides a vivid glimpse into the atmosphere and mindset of a nation licking its wounds from one disgraceful World War while lurching towards another. Once again, however, there’s just too much description and not enough action. When things finally start happening to Charles, it’s too little, too late.

Katherine Anne Porter is one of the best American short story writers of the 20th century, and her brilliant talents do shine forth at moments here and there among these selections, but the entries here never rival masterpieces like “Flowering Judas,” “The Cracked Looking-Glass,” or “Noon Wine.” Flowering Judas and Pale Horse, Pale Rider are much better collections of her work, and should be given higher reading priority over The Leaning Tower.

Stories in this collection
The Old Order 
The Downward Path to Wisdom 
A Day’s Work 
The Leaning Tower 

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Friday, January 4, 2013

Codex Bodley: A Painted Chronicle from the Mixtec Highlands, Mexico by Maarten Jansen and Gabina Aurora Perez Jimenez

An in-depth examination of a beautiful and historic manuscript
The Codex Bodley is a painted manuscript of the Mixtec people who lived in the highlands of what is now the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. It was created around the early 16th century, shortly before the Spanish Conquest. It is a remarkable example of the beautiful visual language of this ancient culture. Unlike the written literature of the Maya, which utilizes both pictographic and phonetic components, the codices of the Mixtec are rendered in a mostly pictographic form of writing, largely independent of their spoken language. The subject matter of the Codex Bodley covers several centuries of the genealogical history of the Mixtec ruling families in the Oaxacan highlands region.

This book was first published in 2005 by the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, which owns the Codex Bodley, and for which it was named. The first half of the book consists of introductory material which provides valuable historical, cultural, and linguistic context for understanding the Codex. The second half of the book is comprised of photographic reproductions of all 40 pages of the Codex, with English translation running underneath. The book is beautifully designed, illustrated, and printed, and the text examines the history and contents of the Codex in minute detail. This book will no doubt serve as the standard reference on the Codex Bodley for scholars in the field, but it’s also sufficiently accessible to non-scholars with an enthusiasm for the native cultures of Mexico.

In a few spots, it is a book to be admired more than enjoyed. At times the translation makes for a mind-numbing read. At least 90% of the narrative of the Codex is composed of genealogical information, which takes the form of lists of proper nouns. It seems the most efficient and effective way to present this information would have been to “translate” it into the form of genealogical charts, in the modern tree form, rather than into paragraph prose. Doing so would have made it much clearer to see just who is marrying whom, a task made difficult by the intermarriage of close relatives and the repetitive nature of Mixtec names, which are actually the date and month of birth. Yet no such charts exist in the book. The second half of the Codex is less monotonous, as in addition to the genealogy it also features instances of diplomacy, warfare, and religious pilgrimages.

If you’re interested in this subject matter, the excellent reproductions of this beautiful work of art alone are worth the purchase. By comparing the images to the translation, even a novice will to some extent acquire the ability to read the Mixtec pictographs and decipher the names, dates, and places. Despite my reservations in the preceding paragraph, this book is in many ways a model of how historical manuscripts should be presented and explained. Every Mesoamerican codex should receive the same thorough treatment and elegant presentation.

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

Deserving of its status as an American classic
The Last of the Mohicans takes place in New York state in 1757, during the French and Indian Wars. A troop of British colonials, led by the young Major Duncan Hayward, travels through the wilderness on their way to Fort William Henry. Accompanying the soldiers are Cora and Alice Munro, the daughters of the general who presides at the fort. By happenstance they encounter the frontiersman known as Hawkeye, his Indian companion Chingachgook, and the latter’s son Uncas. Hawkeye informs the party that their Indian guide, Magua, has been leading them astray, and that he is a member of the Huron tribe who is friendly with the French. Magua escapes, but later returns with a band of Indians who take the two women captive, along with Hayward and David Gamut, a teacher of religious singing who seems to exist in the book only to serve as the Christian antithesis of the stoic Hawkeye. The only hope these four prisoners have for salvation is that Hawkeye and his Indian companions will rescue them from the clutches of their hostile captors.

The settlement and founding of America is such a fascinating period in history, and James Fenimore Cooper brings it vividly to life. Like his idol Sir Walter Scott, Cooper combined his own experiences of the region and its inhabitants with extensive historical research to create a romanticized version of his country’s past. I have read other works by Cooper (The Spy, The Deerslayer), and found his plotting to be too meandering and haphazard in its construction. The Last of the Mohicans, on the contrary, is expertly paced, with frequent moments of intense action and suspense punctuated by interludes of more quiet contemplation. The story is captivating from beginning to end, with the exception of a couple incongruous scenes in which characters don disguises that challenge the reader’s belief. Despite these low points, Cooper’s writing is beautiful throughout. He describes the Adirondack wilderness with the keen observation and lyrical expression of a Thoreau. His depiction of the Native Americans in the book may not be entirely accurate, but he is always very respectful toward them. He has a tendency to portray the Indians as being too cold in their demeanor and too reliant on superstition, though never so much as to the point where his characterizations become insulting. He exhibits great reverence for the land and the traditions of its native inhabitants.

If there’s an obstacle preventing today’s readers from tackling The Last of the Mohicans, it’s the language. While the text does not contain a great deal of archaic words, the sentences are constructed with the complex, convoluted syntax of a bygone era. Everyone in the book, from the highest general to the lowliest fur trapper, speaks with the poetic voice of a Lord Byron. A dictionary is not required, but every sentence does require some thought. After a while Cooper’s narrative voice grows on you, and you’ll come to enjoy the antiquated cadence of his prose. There is a dignity and a gravitas to the language that no longer exists in contemporary literature. Reading The Last of the Mohicans takes you back to a now forgotten time when those who wrote books were smarter than you, and they intended every work to be a masterpiece. To that end Cooper was largely successful. Almost two centuries after its publication this novel still provides a vital and invigorating reading experience.

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