Monday, April 29, 2013

Enchiridion by Epictetus

Stoic philosophy in a nutshell
Epictetus, despite being born a slave in Greece, went on to become an influential philosopher of ancient Rome. Today he is considered one of the foremost thinkers of the Stoic school of thought. His teachings were oral; he wrote no books himself. In AD 108, however, a student of his, Arrian, transcribed and collected his lectures into a multi-volume work known as the Discourses. About two decades later, shortly before the death of Epictetus, Arrian compiled another, briefer work know as the Enchiridion (a.k.a. Manual or Handbook), the purpose of which was an attempt to popularize Epictetus’s teachings and gain a wider audience for Stoic thought.

The Enchiridion is divided into 52 chapters or sections, most of which are less than a page long. Some are little more than aphorisms. Each section is filled with helpful pearls of wisdom applicable to facing the trials of everyday life. Stoicism advocates living one’s life in accordance with nature. The only things we really have control of in life are our judgments, opinions, and desires. All else is beyond our control, and handed to us by the universe. The key to tranquility and happiness is to resign ourselves to fate and form our opinions such that we cease desiring or fearing those things which are beyond our control. It is in man’s nature to be a rational animal, and it is only by using our faculty of reason that we can live up to our potential as human beings and live a life free of anger, fear, grief, frustration, and shame. The Enchiridion essentially offers a code of conduct which, when practiced, can allow us to live such a life. Modern readers can still find much use for the ethical code of living that Epictetus prescribed almost two millennia ago.

As good as the Enchiridion is, it is by no means a substitute for reading the Discourses, which are the truly authoritative compendium of Epictetus’s thought. The Enchiridion can be useful to two main types of readers. The first type is the reader who is curious about Stoicism, but not ready to invest the time and energy into tackling the Discourses. For this reader, the Enchiridion offers an accessible introduction to Stoic concepts. The brevity of the Enchiridion, however, requires a much more dogmatic tone—“You must do this. You must not do that.”—that may be off-putting to the newcomer. It lacks the nuance and detail that the Discourses provide in explaining these lofty goals and instructing the student in how to achieve them.

The second type of reader for whom the Enchiridion will prove useful is one who has already read the Discourses. For this reader, the Enchiridion serves as a cheat sheet or crib notes to the Discourses’ complicated contents. Each brief passage provides a reminder of the lessons that were more fully covered in the more extensive work. The Enchiridion can be utilized as an inspirational text for the disciple of reason, a simplified encapsulation of Stoic thought that can easily and frequently be consulted for ethical guidance.

Regardless of your reasons for approaching the Enchiridion, you really can’t go wrong in reading this brief but powerful work. For a minimal investment of your time, it just might change your life.

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Friday, April 26, 2013

Omoo by Herman Melville

Adventures in indolence
Omoo, originally published in 1847, was Herman Melville’s second book and the sequel to his smash hit Typee. Like Typee, Omoo is an autobiographical though somewhat fictionalized account of Melville’s own adventures in the South Pacific. This book picks up exactly where Typee left off, with Melville being rescued in the Marquesas by a whaling ship, the “Julia.” He agrees to serve on its crew until they reach the next port, but his injured leg prevents him from taking much of an active part in the sailing duties. There is a great deal of unrest among Melville’s crew mates on the “Julia.” Conditions are poor on the run-down vessel, the captain is a weak leader, and the mate maltreats the men. When the captain falls ill and must go ashore for medical attention, the crew sees his absence as legitimate grounds for releasing them from their contracts of service. The mate disagrees, and wants to continue the whaling voyage under his own command. The dispute is brought before a British consul, who rules that the crew must remain with their ship. When they refuse, they are branded mutineers and confined to a Tahitian prison.

These are but the first few links in a chain of events that Melville relates in the book. I use the word “events” rather than “adventures” because there’s little action or suspense in the book. Melville and his newfound companion Dr. Long Ghost wander the villages of Tahiti and its neighboring islets, their sole goal being to impose on the hospitality of the natives as much as they can while doing as little work as possible. If they happen to catch the eye of a few of the native damsels, so much the better. The romance of traveling through exotic, unspoiled locales is often lost in the daily monotony of trying to fill one’s belly. At times the chapters read like a string of dinner menus, and the villages tend to blend into one another indistinguishably.

As in Typee or Moby-Dick, Melville breaks up the primary narrative by inserting periodic essays on diverse subjects related to the tropical islands of the Pacific, such as geography, botany, or politics. For a white man writing over a century and a half ago, Melville displays an astonishingly enlightened attitude toward the Pacific islanders. He expresses great admiration for the natives, and thinks they would have been much better off had they never encountered white men. However, the point is not pressed as strongly here as it was in his first book. In Typee, the corruption and exploitation of the natives is a major theme; in Omoo, it is merely an accepted fact lurking in the background.

The lazy ramblings of Melville and his physician sidekick would be a total bore were it not for Melville’s prodigious talents as a storyteller. Those hoping for a rollicking tale of adventure on the high seas will be disappointed by the lack of action, but there is a definite pleasure derived from living vicariously through these two tropical vagrants. Melville peppers his stories with bits of arcane knowledge and a wry sense of humor. Reading Omoo is like listening to the dubious recollections of the resident windbag at your local pub. The entertainment value of the tale comes not so much from its vitality or its veracity, but from the amusing eloquence with which it is told.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Night-Born by Jack London

A mixed bag of the good, the bad, and the ugly
The Night-Born contains ten short stories by Jack London, first published together as a collection in 1913. These writings take place in diverse settings and belong to various genres. The quality of the selections ranges considerably as well. The title comes from a quote by Thoreau which figures prominently in the book’s first story, also entitled “The Night-Born,” in which a woman relates her epic odyssey in the wilds of the North, fueled by the innate and irresistible wanderlust within her. This particular tale is not an exceptional example of London’s work, but it satisfies.

“The Benefit of the Doubt,” “Winged Blackmail,” “Bunches of Knuckles,” and “To Kill a Man” are all crime stories, a genre at which London did not excel, therefore they’re far from his best work. In many cases there’s a lightheartedness to the violence—slapstick fist fights and so forth—that undermines any attempt at suspense or gravity. “The Benefit of the Doubt” is a courtroom story that satirizes the judicial system, but it’s too absurd to be either relevant or funny. Two stories, “To Kill a Man” and “Under the Deck Awnings,” feature femme fatales in prominent roles, but unlike many thrillers in which such ladies appear as empowered women, these female characters just come across as evil harpies. The whole purpose of the stories in which they star seems merely to express an open hatred toward women. Thankfully, that’s a stance uncharacteristic of London, who usually shows a lot of respect for his women protagonists.

Now for the bright side. The best story in the book, simply entitled “War,” is also the shortest. A cavalry scout in an unnamed war rides through the countryside, ever vigilant, for death my strike anywhere, at anytime. Written with a stoic detachment that denies any honor or glory to battle, it pithily encapsulates the tension, the danger, and the universal senselessness of war. The longest story in the book, “The Mexican,” is another masterpiece. A mysterious youth joins a band of Mexican revolutionaries in Los Angeles, displaying an ardor for the cause so intense he frightens even his fellow believers. In order to aid his comrades south of the border with guns and ammunition, he must come up with five thousand dollars, and he’s willing to fight for it. Another well-crafted story is “The Madness of John Harned,” in which an American watches a bullfight in Quito, Ecuador with some local acquaintances. As the spectacle progresses, Harned, as London’s surrogate, condemns the bullfight as cowardly, and contrasts it with the honorable, manly sport of boxing. Lastly, “When the World Was Young” is a fun sci-fi piece in which London indulges his obsession with human evolution and primitive man. Little more can be said about that one without spoiling its surprises.

So to recap, the good/bad factor overall is half and half. Unless you’re a London fanatic, you’d probably be best served by reading the five good stories and leaving the others alone.

Stories in this collection:
The Night-Born
The Madness of John Harned
When the World Was Young
The Benefit of the Doubt
Winged Blackmail
Bunches of Knuckles
Under the Deck Awnings
To Kill a Man
The Mexican

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Monday, April 22, 2013

The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper

A lackluster prequel to The Last of the Mohicans
Originally published in 1841, The Deerslayer was the last book written by James Fenimore Cooper in his series of five novels known as the Leatherstocking tales. In terms of the narrative sequence of the series, however, it is chronologically the first installment in the story line. The five historical adventure novels which comprise the Leatherstocking saga all relate episodes in the life of Nathaniel Bumppo, a hunter and trapper in colonial America who, though a white man, lives among the Native Americans. Bumppo is known by many names throughout the five books, but in this first volume he is primarily referred to by the appellation of Deerslayer.

The novel takes place in the early 1740s in New York State. Deerslayer and his traveling companion “Hurry Harry” arrive at a secluded, placid lake where resides the Hutter family. Thomas Hutter has built a house on piles in the center of the lake, known as the “castle,” where he lives with his two daughters—Judith, who is renowned for her incomparable beauty, and Hetty, who is considered simple-minded. The family also travels the lake’s waters in a sort of houseboat called the “ark”. While Hurry has come to the lake to court Judith, Deerslayer has come to rendezvous with his friend Chingachgook, a Delaware Indian. At this early point in Deerslayer’s life, he is renowned for his hunting skills but has never killed a man. As war has been recently declared between the British and French, along with their Indian allies, the two young friends have come together to embark on their first warpath, in hopes of proving themselves as warriors.

The lake is besieged by a band of Huron Indians, who are loyal to the French. They capture members of Deerslayer’s party, and he and his remaining companions strive to rescue them. The scope of the story never expands beyond the lake. Characters move back and forth from the castle to the ark to the shore as characters are captured, rescued, or recaptured. It reads very much like an action movie—a sort of 18th century Die Hard—yet its one of the slowest, most tedious adventure tales you’ll ever encounter. The action sequences consist of Cooper delineating the trajectory of every boat and bullet with a fastidious attention to detail that dulls much of the excitement. Such scenes are interspersed with long conversations between the characters, which mostly serve the purpose of contrasting their personal philosophies. The last half of the book focuses on an impending doom which threatens Deerslayer, yet, since this is a prequel, the fact of his survival is never really in question.

The colonial period of American history is a truly fascinating time, and Cooper is our best literary chronicler of the era. His narrative voice is an enjoyable combination of the skillfully crafted prose of a distinguished man of letters and the campfire tales of a rugged frontiersman. Unfortunately, one wishes he were a better plotter. Unlike his masterpiece The Last of the Mohicans, this novel shows little sign of a preconceived structure. It seems as if Cooper just started with chapter one and made it up as he went along. The result is an awful lot of boring passages and redundant dialogue.

Though not a great book in its own right, the true value of The Deerslayer lies in its position within the Leatherstocking saga. Much is revealed about the character of Natty Bumppo—how he fared in his first experience with combat, how he earned the name of “Hawkeye,” and how he acquired his famous rifle Killdeer. Cooper deeply delves into the Deerslayer’s personal moral philosophy, which resembles a sort of frontier Samurai code. The five Leatherstocking books unquestionably constitute a monumental achievement in American literature. The Deerslayer is certainly not the best book in the series, but in light of its being part of a greater whole it does deserve to be read.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Sin City by Frank Miller

Unleash your inner psychopath!
This is the first and best of Frank Miller’s Sin City graphic novels. Originally published in 1992, the first edition was simply entitled Sin City. It was later named The Hard Goodbye to distinguish it from the later stories in the series. Here we are introduced to the incomparable character of Marv—a big ugly psychotic lowlife with a heart of gold. Marv wakes up next to a dead hooker who just gave him the night of his life. In gratitude for his good fortune he vows to track down her murderer, even if he has to torture and kill everyone who stands in his way. Miller plucks the choicest cliches from every gritty noir thriller of the past three-quarters of a century, then exaggerates and magnifies them until they meld into something totally original and exhilarating. Miller simultaneously critiques and revels in America’s love affair with violence in pop culture. Through Marv’s interior monologue we are allowed entrance into the mind of this brutal antihero who possesses the mind of a child, the loyalty of a faithful dog, and the blood lust of a maniac. It is a testament both to Miller’s skill as a writer and to the depravity of our violence-jaded culture that we can root so enthusiastically for this demented sadist. The effect is truly liberating. Reading The Hard Goodbye is a ride like no other.

In the past two decades so many artists have copied Miller’s stark black and white art that it’s difficult to remember just how shockingly original this style was when these comics first came out. I remember seeing this book for the first time, as someone who had enjoyed superhero comics for most of my life, and thinking it was like nothing I had ever seen before. Miller’s work still stands as superior to all his imitators. The art of Sin City pays homage to the classic newspaper comics of masters like Milton Caniff and Will Eisner, yet Miller pares down the imagery to its sparsest elements, distilling each panel until it resembles something like a Japanese woodblock print. Though he takes plenty of liberties with human anatomy, Miller’s ingenious manipulation of positive and negative space would make this book an excellent supplemental text for an undergraduate drawing course. Of course, it wouldn’t be politically correct to use the book for such a purpose because the story is so delightfully perverse.

Judging from Miller’s art, I always thought Marv was a black man until Mickey Rourke was cast to play him in the movie. Rourke turned out to be an excellent choice, and the movie did justice to this great story. There’s still a few scenes here that never made it into the film, however, and Miller’s fabulous art alone makes it worthwhile to experience this story in its original form. For comics enthusiasts, this is one of those modern masterpieces you must own. Even if you don’t normally read comics, if you like hard-boiled crime stories of any media, you’ll love this book. Of all Frank Miller’s Sin City stories, this is the one essential must-have.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

A tropical-island Walden
Even for those who have never read the actual novel, the premise of Robinson Crusoe is well known. In the late 17th century, the title character, while on a voyage from Brazil to Africa, is shipwrecked alone on an uninhabited island in the Caribbean. While various movie adaptations and condensed children’s versions of the story have tried to make this book out to be an adventure novel, that label really only applies to the last few chapters. The majority of the book actually more closely resembles a tropical-island take on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The overall tone of the novel is one of contemplation rather than action. There is a strong Christian message to the book. At first Crusoe sees his isolation as a punishment from God for disregarding his father’s wishes. To the 21st-century audience, who don’t necessarily believe it is a son’s duty to follow his parents’ choice of career, this seems like an awfully harsh sentence. Over time, however, Crusoe renews and strengthens his relationship with God. He comes to tolerate and at times even to enjoy his solitude. He learns to count his blessings, resign himself to what fate hands him, and give thanks to providence for what he’s got. Though Defoe expresses these thoughts in blatantly Protestant terms, even Atheists of a Stoic persuasion can appreciate the book’s message. Truth be told, the novel does contain some profound thoughts, which would explain why it’s still being read three centuries after its initial publication. The modern reader, however, ends up wishing they would have been expressed in a less tedious manner.

After his arrival on the island, Crusoe is able to recover an amazing amount of stuff from the wrecked ship, to the point where he’s really wanting for nothing but companionship. For decades he makes no attempt to get off the island, and industriously applies his time and effort to the contrivance of various desert-island technologies to make his stay more comfortable. He sets about building houses, fences, even shelves; plants barley; and domesticates livestock; with each process described in minute detail by Defoe. This how-to narrative, coupled with Crusoe’s reflections on his lot in life, makes up the bulk of the text.

Although the book was first published in 1719, the prose has a conversational feel that is remarkably contemporary. The plotting, on the other hand, is hopelessly antiquated and frustratingly slow. The first three chapters leave the reader screaming, “Get to the damn island, already!” Soon afterwards there are a couple of chapters reproducing excerpts from Crusoe’s diary, which agonizingly repeat everything which took place in a preceding chapter. The soul searching discussed above occupies about two-thirds of the book, followed by a few chapters of action which at times defy belief. Defoe then unforgivably wraps up the entire book with a chapter that is almost totally unrelated to everything that came before, and is therefore quite unnecessary.

While reading Robinson Crusoe, one can’t help thinking, “What would I do if I were in his place?” After reading the novel, one realizes that pondering that question is more fun than reading the actual narrative that Defoe delivers. Though the book was no doubt ground breaking for its time, and has been extremely influential in subsequent literature, 21st-century readers may find it difficult to enjoy. The book does have its merits, but if you are expecting an adventure novel, prepare to be disappointed.

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Monday, April 15, 2013

The Recruit by Honoré de Balzac

Provincial paranoia in 1793
Honoré de Balzac
The Recruit, also known as The Conscript, was originally published in 1831 under the French title Le Réquisitionnaire. It was written by Honoré de Balzac as part of his monumental series of works known as the Comédie Humaine. Though it is a short story of maybe 50 pages at most, like all pieces in the Comédie Humaine it is considered a stand-alone work of literature, and it is thus offered by Amazon in a Kindle file unto itself.

The story takes place shortly after the French Revolution. The royal court of Louis XVI has fled Paris and the palace at Versailles, and an overwhelming tide of anti-royalist sentiment has swept the nation. Madame de Dey is a wealthy and socially prominent widow living in the sleepy provincial town of Carentan, in Lower Normandy. She is beset by a flock of suitors who arduously strive for the attainment of her hand and her property, and surrounded by nosey neighbors of republican inclination who are just waiting for her to make a slip and betray her royalist sentiments. Her son, a soldier who has remained loyal to the royal cause, has followed the royals in their exile, leaving his mother alone to defend herself. When she cancels her weekly salon and closes her doors to visitors, it inspires a great deal of speculation and rumor among the suspicious citizens of Carentan.

Balzac does a brilliant job of encapsulating the paranoia and vindictive opportunism that pervaded provincial France following the Revolution. For American readers, imagine what it would be like if there were a civil war between liberals and conservatives in this country, and the persecution members of the losing side would face at the hands of the winners. While the Terror was taking place in Paris, with heads falling to the guillotine, personal dramas like those of Madame de Dey’s were taking place throughout the provinces, where the newly victorious Republicans looked for any excuse to confiscate the property of the rich. Here Balzac captures the danger and urgency of this situation in a lively and suspenseful tale.

Balzac does, however, commit a sin that is common to his short stories, which is capping the story off in an all too abrupt ending. He manages to cleverly tie up all the loose ends in one pithy paragraph, but the reader feels slightly cheated. The conclusion of the plot is itself satisfying, just the curt manner in which it is handled leaves one with the feeling of a door slammed in the face. I’ve always preferred Balzac’s novels to his short stories, and this story does little to change that, but there’s no denying this master’s Herculean literary talents in any format, large or small. The primary value of The Recruit lies in its role as a scrap in the grand quilt of the Comédie Humaine. When judged on its own merits, it’s a good story, but not a must-read for casual fans of Balzac’s work.

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Friday, April 12, 2013

Burning Daylight by Jack London

You can take the man out of the Yukon, but you can’t take the Yukon out of the man.
Although he has just marked his 30th birthday, Burning Daylight is considered an old-timer among the populace of Circle City, Alaska. Long before the dawning of the Klondike Gold Rush he was hitting the snowbound trails in search of the precious yellow dust. Blessed with seemingly limitless stamina, intelligence and strength, the former Elam Harnish earned his colorful nickname from his oft-repeated, good-natured scolding to softer and lazier men reluctant to wake up and hit the trail. A born gambler, Daylight thrives in the environment of the northern wilds, where fickle fortune can make or break a man in the blink of an eye. His gambler’s mentality, however, drives him to seek ever bigger stakes, prompting him to return to civilized society, settle in San Francisco, and try his hand in the world of big business.

This novel by Jack London was originally published in 1910. The first third of the book takes place in the North, and with the exception of The Call of the Wild it may be his best Klondike novel. At times it resembles a collection of scenes lifted from his early short stories, but London does a fine job of integrating these scenes into a compelling, well-crafted adventure story. Unfortunately, Burning Daylight is one of those books that gets worse as it goes along. It doesn’t descend so far as to be a bad book, but Part II never quite lives up to the promise of Part I. When London writes about Daylight’s financial adventures, such as hostile takeovers or stock market maneuverings, he uses so many poker and boxing metaphors it’s often difficult to tell exactly what is being transacted. At times the book shows inklings of becoming a superman-versus-the-corrupt-establishment narrative, but about halfway through, Daylight finds a love interest. Though love was never London’s strong suit, the relationship between Daylight and Dede is more realistic and less annoying than most of his romances, but the dialogue between the two does become tediously repetitive. Though it would have made a great subplot to the business adventure story, instead their romance dominates the latter half of the book. This unfortunate turn is easily forgiven, however, because Daylight is such a likeable and engaging character that the reader will willingly follow him anywhere.

For those familiar with London’s writing, it’s obvious that the hero of Burning Daylight shares many personal characteristics with his creator. Daylight is an incredibly idealized version of the already larger-than-life London. He is the man London wants to be, and he lives the life London wants to live. Even Daylight’s business dealings reflect the moves London would make at a Wall Street fantasy camp. Writing this book was probably a labor of love for the author, and maybe that’s why the story feels a little too happy, too pleasant, too idyllic to be satisfyingly realistic. You won’t find here the pessimistic fatalism so blatant in grittier works like The Call of the Wild or Martin Eden. What Burning Daylight could use is more conflict. Nevertheless, if you find yourself in the mood for a lighter and more optimistic story, this novel might be just what you’re looking for. It may be lacking in gravity, but Daylight’s personal quest does impart some meaningful life lessons. Burning Daylight is not one of London’s masterpieces, but it still amply displays the talents of this master storyteller, and will prove an enjoyable and satisfying read for long-time fans of London or newcomers to his work.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Blix by Frank Norris

A light-hearted romance from one of America’s best novelists
The cryptically titled Blix is an early novel by the great American writer Frank Norris. Originally published in 1899, it is probably his least-known work. Later that same year he published the novel McTeague, a now highly regarded masterwork that was controversial for its time. While McTeague put Norris on the map as a force to be reckoned with in American letters, the unassuming Blix was most likely forgotten soon after its publication. Nevertheless, this obscure novel from the early years of Norris’s brief but illustrious career displays ample evidence of his characteristic excellence as a storyteller.

Travis Bessemer is an attractive young woman of 19, mature for her age and independent-minded for her time. She resides with her father, a widower, in a moderately well-off home in San Francisco, where she helps to raise her younger sister and brother. She enjoys the companionship of a 28-year-old suitor, Condy Rivers, who bears some resemblance to a young Frank Norris, in that he writes hack articles for a local paper while waiting for his big break as a fiction writer. Although they have been a couple for about eighteen months, Travis forces Condy to admit that the two don’t really love each other, and that they should stop pretending they will be married some day and simply be friends. She also decides to renounce her membership in San Francisco society, turning her back on the debutante balls and society teas that have tediously occupied so much of her time. Determined to find her own means of enjoying life, she invites Condy along for the ride, as chums only. The two then embark on a series of unconventional adventures, such as spending a leisurely afternoon in a Chinese tea house or embarking on their first fishing trip. The more Travis enjoys her nonconformist lifestyle, the more independent she becomes, and, not surprisingly, the more she becomes her own woman, the more Condy falls in love with her.

Though the subject matter of Blix is quite frivolous in comparison to the life-and-death struggles one encounters in Norris novels like The Octopus and McTeague, for what it is—a story of two young people enjoying one another’s company—Blix is actually quite good. There’s not a great deal of conflict here, but the reader finds a pleasant joy in sharing in the enthusiasm of the two main characters as they go about their humble adventures. To his credit, Norris treats this story with the same naturalistic precision that he imparts to all his novels. His vividly detailed descriptions of a sunset over San Francisco Bay, the bustling streets of Chinatown, or even the wares on display at a sporting goods store show an observational gift worthy of his literary idol Emile Zola. Here and there the Norris fan can find scenes that would go on to be repurposed and reused in later works, like a scene of wheat being loaded onto a cargo ship that reads like it’s straight out of The Octopus. One major drawback to Blix is the annoying century-old slang which Condy spews forth with each and every sentence. A few chapters into the book, he gives Travis the nickname “Blix,” apropos of nothing, and the reader is stuck with it for the rest of the book. The novel also unfortunately bears a weak final chapter, which is too convenient and conventional for the book that precedes it.

In its entirety, however, Blix is a well-crafted, fun, and engaging little romance. It doesn’t deliver the shock and awe of a Norris masterpiece, but those who have enjoyed his other works, or naturalist literature in general, won’t regret plucking this novel from obscurity and giving it a try.

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Gustave Baumann: Nearer to Art by David Acton, Martin F. Krause and Madeline Carol Yurtseven

Beautiful landscapes from a master of the color woodcut
German-born artist Gustave Baumann (1881-1971) immigrated to American at the age of ten. After beginning his career in Chicago and the artist colony of Brown County, Indiana, he settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lived and worked for more than five decades. Baumann was a master of the color woodcut who combined traditional European relief printing methods with a modernist sensibility of color and form. Applying his craft to the Western landscape and subjects relating to Native American culture, Baumann created an impressive body of work which is lovingly celebrated in this excellent retrospective published in 1993.

The book begins with an introductory preface and two illustrated essays on Baumann’s life, work, and methods. Together they combine to form an admirable abbreviated biography of the artist. At times the writing can be a little dry, reading like an annotated resumé, but personally I prefer the just-the-facts approach over the many artist biographies that read like psychological profiles. The essays are illustrated with a variety of works chronicling all stages of Baumann’s career, as well as photographs of the artist. One of Baumann’s prints, Spring Blossoms, is singled out for a technical demonstration of his artistic process. The eight color layers which comprise the work are reproduced individually to illustrate how they progressively combine to form the final artwork. Following the essays, the book concludes with 70 pages of color plates.

With a few exceptions, the 123 illustrations are reproduced beautifully, and the majority are given full-page treatment. The illustrations among the essays are sometimes layed out in a two-column format, rendering the prints so small they don’t do justice to the beauty of Baumann’s detailed carving. In such cases the reader may find himself hunting for a magnifying glass. Baumann often began his print designs from studies painted in gouache, several of which are reproduced here. These gouache studies look fuzzier than the woodcut prints, though I suspect this has more to do with Baumann’s painterly technique than with issues of photographic reproduction. There are a couple isolated instances where images have a blurry appearance that suggests they were reproduced from lower resolution scans than the rest of the book (namely figures 3 and 82). It is unfortunate that these few bad examples have to mar an otherwise exceptionally printed book.

Though Baumann utilized European printing techniques, there is a subtlety to his work that evokes the Japanese woodcut style. His ink application is somewhat mottled in its consistency, allowing the white paper to show through. This gives his prints a decidedly impressionistic feel, as opposed to the in-your-face patches of solid color often associated with block prints. Baumann’s sublime landscapes call to mind the paintings of the California Impressionists or the Canadian artists The Group of Seven. As for fellow woodcut artists, his closest stylistic counterpart might be Norma Bassett Hall of the Prairie Print Makers.

For fans of Baumann, this book is an exceptional tribute to the man and his work. For those who possess a love for the art of woodcut printing but may be unfamiliar with Baumann, this volume offers an excellent opportunity to get to know this master and his art. For either class of reader, browsing these pages is a joy and a revelation.

Morning Sun, 1932, color woodcut, 10.75 x 9.625"

White Desert, 1930, color woodcut, 9.5 x 11.125"

To view more images of Gustave Baumann’s prints, check out the web site of the Zaplin Lampert Gallery in Santa Fe.

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Friday, April 5, 2013

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

You already know the ending
Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become an indelible part of pop culture, having been adapted into many different forms since its original publication in 1886, from plays to movies to comic books. Despite everyone’s familiarity with the story, the readership of the original work has most likely dwindled over the past century, and the question must be asked whether or not it still deserves to be read.

Though it contains some of the elements of a science fiction tale, horror story, or psychological thriller, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is essentially a mystery novel. A lawyer named John Gabriel Utterson attempts to determine the basis of the strange relationship between his friend and client, Dr. Henry Jekyll, and the mysterious Mr. Hyde, an individual of questionable moral character who inspires revulsion in all he meets. Jekyll has recently altered his will, leaving all his belongings to Hyde, which leads Utterson to suspect that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll. Upon further investigation, Utterson discovers the incredible and tragic truth.

Of course, anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last century is already privy to the horrible secret which Utterson uncovers. The phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” has become such a common expression in our language, one can’t help but already know the solution to this mystery. It is a testament to Stevenson’s excellent writing that the story of Jekyll and Hyde has transcended its original form and evolved to the level of mythology. One can only imagine the shock and awe that Stevenson’s contemporaries would have experienced when reading this book for the first time. That’s part of the problem for today’s reader: one can only imagine it. While the final two chapters of the book are riveting, everything leading up to that point consists of the rather dull Mr. Utterson striving to solve a riddle that the reader already knows the answer to.

If you are thinking of reading Jekyll and Hyde because you’re looking for the entertainment value one expects from a science fiction or horror story, then you will probably be disappointed. As explained above, the whole book revolves around the big secret, and that cat has already been let out of its bag long ago. If however, you wish to read Jekyll and Hyde because you are a fan of Victorian literature, can appreciate the excellent writing of Stevenson, and wish to gain further insight into the psychological dimensions of his famous dichotomous character, then you may very well enjoy this classic work. It is slow going at first, but one’s anticipation is aptly rewarded by the memorable and moving ending.

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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Adventure Tales #1 by Hugh B. Cave, et al.

Classic pulp-fiction tales for the 21st-century reader
Adventure Tales is an infrequent periodical published by Wildside Press that reprints forgotten fiction from classic pulp magazines of the early twentieth century. This first issue of the series collects eight short stories and one novella. The subject matter is divided fairly evenly between mystery/crime stories and tales of adventure in exotic locales, from the South Pacific to India to Africa and ocean-going vessels in between. Sprinkled amongst the stories are several poems also taken from the pulps, penned by authors as diverse as Robert E. Howard (of Conan fame) and George Sterling.

In addition to the fiction and poetry, editor John Gregory Betancourt contributes an introduction. This is followed by an essay on Edgar Rice Burroughs by Mike Resnick, and there is even a letters column. This issue also contains an enlightening interview with Hugh B. Cave, author of more than a thousand stories, which provides a really interesting glimpse into the life of a pulp-fiction writer. These nonfiction components are valuable in that they provide today’s reader with a helpful education in the history and lore of the pulp magazines.

Cave is the “featured author” of this first issue, and his pieces are clearly the best. In “The Man Who Couldn't Die,” a luckless drifter, sick with fever, is left for dead on a barren rock called Fortune Island. There he encounters four treasure hunters, who abuse him as if he were a common slave, yet fail to break him. It’s an excellent story, and Cave’s writing calls to mind some of Jack London’s best tales. One more offering from Cave, also set in the South Pacific, is “Island Feud,” which details the confrontation between a young, idealistic doctor and an unethical boat captain. Another fine selection, “Rats Ashore” by James C. Young, may best be described as nautical horror. The captain and first mate of a ship departing South America begin to wonder where all the customary rats have gone. Although the story gives the answer away a little too quickly, once it gets rolling it offers all the suspense and fun of a classic B movie. Renowned pulp veterans H. Bedford-Jones, Harold Lamb, and Henry de Vere Stacpoole are also represented by good contributions.

The weakest stories in the book are two mysteries, “The Evil Eye” by Vincent Starrett, featuring his Chicago detective Jimmie Lavender, and “‘Watson!’” by Captain A.E. Dingle. The latter tells of two yachting playboys who fancy themselves sleuths along the lines of Holmes and Watson, but the storytelling in no way compares to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Faring better in the crime category is the novella “The Spider Strain” by Johnston McCulley, which takes up over a quarter of the volume. Though McCulley is best known as the creator of Zorro, this story features one of his other popular recurring characters, The Spider, a criminal supergenius who, despite being confined to a wheelchair, oversees a complex network of organized crime.

With the exception of “The Man Who Couldn't Die,” I wouldn’t say I was blown away by any of these stories, but they are almost all good solid examples of pulp storytelling. These well-selected pieces, coupled with the editorial content, really give the reader of today a chance to experience what it must have felt like to browse a newsstand during the golden age of the pulps. As of the time of posting this review, Wildside Press has published six installments of Adventure Tales. After enjoying issue one, I am looking forward to exploring this series further.

Stories in this collection:
Skulls by H. Bedford-Jones
Under the Flame Trees by Henry de Vere Stacpoole
Rats Ashore by Charles C. Young
The Evil Eye by Vincent Starrett
“Watson!” by Captain A. E. Dingle
The Make-Weight by Harold Lamb
Island Feud by Hugh B. Cave
The Man Who Couldn’t Die by Hugh B. Cave
The Spider Strain by Johnston McCulley

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Monday, April 1, 2013

John Barleycorn by Jack London

A glimpse into the mind of a troubled genius
Because Jack London led such a fascinating life, any autobiographical information he left behind is priceless. Luckily, we have this excellent book, the closest thing he ever wrote to an actual autobiography. John Barleycorn is an unconventional memoir centered around London’s relationship with alcohol, from his first experience with a bucket of beer at the age of 5 to the serial downing of cocktails in his late thirties. Written on the eve of prohibition, London speaks out about the deleterious effects of alcohol in hopes of saving others from an affliction which ultimately led to his death three years later.

Despite the serious message, this memoir is anything but preachy or depressing. Throughout the first half of the book, the reader finds himself wondering why London chose to write about alcohol at all, since he’s primarily telling a series of adventure tales that just happen to involve drinking. By spinning yarns of his days as an oyster pirate in San Francisco Bay, his time spent tramping across the U.S., and his various sailing trips to far points of the globe, London gradually builds his case that for most human beings the need for alcohol is not a biological but a mental need, continually reinforced by alcohol’s ubiquitous use as a social lubricant.

In the latter half of the book, however, London’s drinking becomes more than just social, and despite his frequent assertions to the contrary, we see him spiraling downward into dependency. Alcohol is not merely a topic of the book but a character, anthropomorphized into the figure of John Barleycorn, a trickster henchman of the grim reaper who cons his victims into succumbing to his sweet embrace. London gives us a taste of the “White Logic”—the thought process of the alcoholic—in which John Barleycorn strips away the illusions of the drinker and reveals to him the pointlessness and insignificance of man’s existence in the face of the inevitability of death.

London writes about alcoholism and mental illness with eloquence and candor. His style somehow manages to combine the detachment of a scientist with the intimacy of a dear friend. John Barleycorn is an invaluable document of London’s life, a vivid and moving study of human psychology, and an urgent call to arms against a formidable foe.

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