Friday, June 28, 2013

Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas

Just like old times
Originally published in 1845, Twenty Years After is the lesser-known sequel to Alexander Dumas’s classic novel The Three Musketeers. Dumas brings back his legendary heroes Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d’Artagnan, as well as many of the supporting characters from the first book, for an adventure that contains all the action, humor, and suspense of the original installment. If you haven’t read the first book, you will be lost in this one, and even if you have, you might find yourself lost anyway. Twenty Years After relies more heavily on historical events than its predecessor. Dumas ingeniously weaves his fictional characters into the fabric of history, making them integral players behind the scenes of monumental events, without ever altering what’s written in the history books. The story is set in the mid-seventeenth century, a complicated period in France, but Dumas provides enough historical context to keep the reader oriented amid the political turmoil.

As the title indicates, it has been twenty years since the adventures of the first book. The four Musketeers have become estranged over time, and have not spoken in several years. D’Artagnan has spent the last two decades languishing in his post as lieutenant of the Musketeers, with no opportunity for advancement, insufficient pay, and no gratitude whatsoever from the queen for his heroic exploits of the past. Cardinal Richelieu has died. The new prime minister is Cardinal Mazarin, a less formidable but equally devious ruler, who is rumored to be the lover of Queen Anne of Austria. The two rule France on behalf of King Louis XIV, a ten-year-old boy. When Mazarin commissions d’Artagnan to perform a dangerous mission, he must track down his three friends for assistance. The reunion, however, is not entirely amicable. An insurrection arises in France, known as the Fronde. Led by certain members of Parliament, the citizens of Paris rebel against the monarchy in protestation of exorbitant taxation by Mazarin. This threat to the king and queen inspires various princes and dukes to jockey for position in a mad scramble for power. Meanwhile in England, the Puritan rebel Oliver Cromwell hunts down the English monarch King Charles I. Amidst all this intrigue and strife, our four heroes find themselves on opposite sides of two civil wars. As if that were not enough, a mysterious enemy from their past is pursuing them, hell-bent on revenge.

Twenty Years After is every bit as good as The Three Musketeers, if not better. It contains all the excitement and delight of the previous novel, but Dumas develops the characters further and provides a more artfully constructed plot. It’s only flaw is that the narrative requires too much time spent away from the Musketeers in order to keep track of all the historical figures. While the first book was loaded with duels, sword fights, drinking, and gambling, the second is more about political maneuvering and cunningly plotted strategies. What The Musketeers really need is a book that combines the best of both worlds. For that I hold out hope for the third book in the trilogy, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, which is named after the young ward that Athos has taken under his wing, who plays a minor role in this book. After reading Twenty Years After, I can’t wait to tackle the third installment, though this wonderful series of adventure novels is so enjoyable I will be sorry to see it come to an end.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Juan Rulfo’s Mexico by Carlos Fuentes, et al.

A master of words AND pictures
Mexican writer Juan Rulfo was the author of Pedro Páramo--a book that many consider to be the best Latin American novel ever written--and The Burning Plain, an excellent collection of short stories. In addition to being a Nobel-caliber novelist, Rulfo was a world-class photographer. His pictures expertly capture the landscape, architecture, and indigenous culture of Mexico. Juan Rulfo’s Mexico was published in 2002 by the Smithsonian Institution Press. It is a translation of a Spanish-language edition published the same year by Lunwerg Editores in Barcelona. This 11.5 x 11.5" coffee table book contains 175 exceptional photographs by Rulfo, all of which are beautifully reproduced. I didn’t care much for the accompanying essays, however, which are heavy on the type of psychobabble and postmodern philosophy only an art historian could love.

Rulfo was not just a writer who happened to take a few pictures in his spare time. He may be one of the best photographers in the history of Mexico. His pictures bear some stylistic similarity to those of his country’s most renowned photographer, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, and may remind American audiences of the work of Edward Weston. These photographs, taken from about 1945 to 1955, capture rural Mexico at a turning point. Rulfo depicts indigenous cultures engaged in traditions, customs, and lifestyles that have been in existence for centuries, yet are gradually disappearing with the encroachment of modernity. His photographs are not merely sociological studies, however, but artistic portraits imbued with visual poetry and quiet dignity. His images straddle the line between romance and realism, on the one hand evoking the timeless mystery and myth of Mexico, while on the other hand documenting the gritty reality of rural Mexican life. Architecture, a particular fascination of Rulfo’s, is represented by pre-Columbian temples, Spanish colonial churches, the dwellings of Indian villagers, and the skyscrapers of Mexico City. His stunning landscapes of rugged mountains, barren deserts, cascading waterfalls, fertile farmlands, and lush forests call to mind the rich, silvery tonal values of Ansel Adams. There are also a number of photos taken during the production of a film called La Escondida, which appears to be a story of the Revolution, but about which the text offers no information.

The book contains six brief essays by six different authors, the only really recognizable name among them being the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. In an essay by Jorge Alberto Lozoya, the author states, “In an age that confuses chatter with the deeper meaning of existence, Rulfo’s work is resplendent, presaging the dawn of a new era.” Though he may be right about Rulfo, these six essays unfortunately fall into the chatter category. Mostly the authors offer their lofty opinions of Pedro Páramo, expressed in the obscure jargon of art theory, while failing to address the photography altogether. Only the last two essays, by Victor Jiménez and Erika Billeter, offer some useful biographical information on Rulfo and his photographic art, hidden amid the references to Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes.

Juan Rulfo’s Mexico provides a beautiful collection of Rulfo’s photographic work in a well-designed package. Fans of Rulfo’s writings will be fascinated by the correspondence between his photographic imagery and the verbal imagery in his stories. Any enthusiast of Mexican culture, history, and art should not be without it. If the writing were worthy of the master himself, this would be a five-star book.

Juan Rulfo, Acceso a un atrio

Juan Rulfo, Indígena de Ayutla, Mixes, Oaxaca

Juan Rulfo, Actor de La Escondida entre magueyes

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Monday, June 24, 2013

The Third Circle by Frank Norris

Deserves to be plucked from obscurity
Frank Norris
Frank Norris is primarily known for his novels, most notably The Octopus and McTeague, but he also wrote a great deal of short stories, essays, and articles for various newspapers and periodicals. Following his untimely death in 1902, a portion of his short fiction was published in two posthumous collections. The first, A Deal in Wheat, published in 1906, is the better-known of these two volumes. Containing mostly mediocre adventure stories, it is not an exemplary collection of his work. The second volume of stories, The Third Circle, published in 1909, is virtually forgotten today to anyone but Norris scholars. Such obscurity is unmerited, however, for The Third Circle is far superior to A Deal in Wheat and much more indicative of Norris’s formidable literary talents.

The Third Circle consists of pieces written by Norris during his employment as a staff writer for the San Francisco Wave. At the Wave, Norris wrote everything from literary and art criticism to sports to travel pieces, but he was also given the opportunity to hone his craft as a fiction writer. The book features an informative introduction by Will Irwin, an editor of the Wave, after Norris’s time, who apparently compiled the collection from pieces he gleaned from the newspaper’s files. These days, the idea of a staff writer cranking out loads of fiction for a weekly periodical is almost ludicrous, and the quality of Norris’s stories renders the concept even more incredible. Equally staggering is the remarkably wide breadth of subject matter and variety of tone. Norris seems to be able to master any genre he tackles, and each subject he touches, no matter how fantastic, is handled with his distinctive, true-to-life naturalistic style.

The book opens with the title selection—a sensationalistic, pulpy tale of white slavery in Chinatown. This is followed by a few shorter pieces which are too fragmentary to satisfy. Norris beautifully captures slices of life from the streets of San Francisco, but he ends the stories too abruptly with weak or pointless endings. This unfortunate trend doesn’t last long, however. “A Reversion to Type,” the comical, action-packed tale of a department store salesman who suffers a mid-life crisis and goes off on a monumental bender, is excellent from beginning to end. Though the first few stories are confined to California, eventually the settings branch out to such exotic locales as a South African graveyard (“The Strangest Thing”), the Algerian desert (“Son of a Sheik”), and a Parisian art school (“‘This Animal of a Buldy Jones’”). There’s even a retelling of an Icelandic folk saga (“Grettir at Drangey”). The longer, better stories occupy the latter half of the book. Two of the best, “Toppan” and “A Caged Lion,” both feature a famous Tibetan explorer who has reluctantly returned to civilization—a character reminiscent of the hero of Norris’s novel A Man’s Woman. “Dying Fires” is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young newspaper man turned novelist who moves to New York and falls in with a bunch of literary types. The book closes with “The Guest of Honour,” an expertly paced, suspenseful tale that borders on horror.

Although Norris is renowned for his novels, and rightfully so, there are a few pieces here that can hold their own against his most famous books. The Third Circle is a very good showcase of this great American author’s work. Any fan of Norris’s writing will enjoy it.

Stories in this collection
The Third Circle 
The House With the Blinds 
Little Dramas of the Curbstone 
Shorty Stack, Pugilist 
The Strangest Thing 
A Reversion to Type 
The Dis-Associated Charities 
Son of a Sheik 
A Defense of the Flag 
A Caged Lion 
“This Animal of a Buldy Jones” 
Dying Fires 
Grettir at Drangey 
The Guest of Honour 

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Theft: A Play in Four Acts by Jack London

London’s best play, for what that’s worth
Jack London was one of America’s most successful writers of all time, achieving worldwide fame with his short stories and novels. Despite being a household name in the literary world, he was never able to translate that success to the stage, but not for lack of trying. He published about a half dozen plays during his lifetime, the majority of which were never produced. Theft was originally published in book form in 1911, but did not see the inside of a theatre until it was staged by the Lithuanian National Drama Theater in 1955. There is nothing in Theft that will make you think London’s failure as a playwright is undeserved, yet it is probably the best play he ever wrote.

Theft takes place in Washington, DC. Howard Knox is a well-intentioned Congressman crusading for reform. He is scheduled to make a speech in which he will expose the corrupt activities of an industrial magnate and his congressional stooges. The wealthy capitalist in question, Anthony Starkweather, along with his son-in-law and political puppet, Senator Thomas Chalmers, will do everything in their power to foil Knox’s great speech and publicly disgrace him. To complicate matters, Margaret Chalmers, wife of Senator Chalmers and daughter of Starkweather, forms a friendship with Knox and begins to sympathize with his cause. The play opens with Knox in the lion’s den, attending a tea party surrounded by his corrupt adversaries. Knox chastises them in a political dialogue that is reminiscent of the debates between Ernest Everhard and the oligarchs in London’s novel The Iron Heel, though Knox never mentions the word “socialism”. He accuses Starkweather, Chalmers, and others of stealing the fruits of the working class’s labor, including the labor of children. The success of Knox’s upcoming speech hinges on the possession of a bundle of documents, a “smoking gun” which will provide the American public with proof of his shocking accusations.

Like many plays written a hundred years ago, Theft is dreadfully overdramatic at times. The romantic subplot alone is nauseatingly histrionic (“Kiss me, my dear lord and lover. Kiss me”). Really the only readers today who are going to be interested in this play are fans of Jack London, and perhaps those of Upton Sinclair, for it’s very similar to the latter author’s dramatic works, in particular his play The Machine. Though Theft is essentially a piece of political propaganda, London manages to strike a good balance between preachiness and entertainment. He injects enough sensationalistic melodrama into the narrative to elevate a dry political treatise into something that you might actually sit through for two hours in a theatre. The story defies believability at times. One instance, when a character forgets that someone else is in the room, is particularly unforgivable. But to London’s credit, the plot is not predictable. It takes some unexpected twists and turns, and the ending is neither trite nor obvious.

Theft didn’t take the theatrical world by storm a century ago, and it’s unlikely to experience a revival anytime soon. Jack London enthusiasts who have some interest in his muckraking political works may find some enjoyment in this unconventional treatment of his familiar political themes. Casual fans of London would do better to stay away from his dramatic works and stick to the novels and short stories that made him famous.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wyandotté, or, The Hutted Knoll by James Fenimore Cooper

Better than many of Cooper’s more famous works
James Fenimore Cooper
Wyandotté, an excellent novel by James Fenimore Cooper, opens in 1775. Captain Willoughby, an officer with the British Royal Army in the American colonies and a veteran of the French and Indian Wars, decides to live out his retirement at a secluded estate in the wilderness of western New York. With the perspicacity of a seasoned military commander, he selects a site that is not only scenic and fertile but also strategically secure. He drains a large beaver pond, revealing a sizeable spread of rich, ready-cleared farmland, then builds a house of stone upon an isolated knoll that juts up amidst the fields. There he lives with his wife and two daughters while his son, Major Robert Willoughby, serves with the British forces. When news of the outbreak of the Revolutionary War reaches this idyllic outpost, Captain Willoughby fears the safety of his family may be threatened by Colonial soldiers, hostile Indians, or roving robber bands. Though they may be far from the battlefields, they are far from immune to the effects of the war.

The members of the Willoughby family are politely divided in their loyalties, with some favoring England and some the colonists. In fact, despite the Captain’s history in His Majesty’s Army, his sympathies tend toward the American cause. Cooper reminds us that the American Revolution was a civil war, as it took place in a nation where Rebels and Tories often lived side by side. Cooper depicts an additional dimension to the Revolution by showing it was also a class war. When news of the Declaration of Independence and “All men are created equal,” reaches the Willoughby estate, many of the family’s servants and subordinates begin to question why they’re serving this rich British master, and they hope that the conflict may offer an opportunity to confiscate his lands. At first it’s difficult to tell who will remain loyal to the Captain and who may betray him. As the novel progresses, hidden loyalties are gradually and surprisingly revealed. It’s particularly difficult to determine the allegiance of a long-time companion of the family named Old Nick, a Tuscarora Indian who during wartime goes by his warrior-chieftain name, Wyandotté.

The novel Wyandotté, originally published in 1843, covers some of the same ground as Cooper’s earlier and better-known novel The Spy, but covers it to much better effect. While The Spy and the famous Leatherstocking novels are intended to be action thrillers, Wyandotté is more of an attempt at a realistic depiction of what life was like on the American frontier at the time of the Revolution. The novel proceeds at a steady, measured pace, but is never boring. The political issues of the Revolution are related intelligently through the debates of the characters. For the most part, suspense is built not through physical action but through the decisions the characters are forced to make. When knives are drawn or guns are fired, such scenes are neither gratuitious nor overly romanticized, but rather the heroic actions of ordinary people placed under extraordinary circumstances in time of war. There are a couple of romantic subplots, but, unlike The Spy, they remain subplots and don’t dominate the book.

The American Revolution is a fascinating period in history, and no writer does it better than James Fenimore Cooper. Having read some of his previous works, I expected to like Wyandotté, but was nevertheless pleasantly surprised by how good it is. Written rather late in his career, Wyandotté displays the skill of a veteran author at the top of his game, one who has learned from his mistakes and ripened with age. This book not only deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as The Last of the Mohicans, in many respects it even surpasses that venerable classic.

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Monday, June 17, 2013

San Zi Jing (Three Character Classic) by Anonymous

Confucian crib notes
The Three Character Classic, or San Zi Jing, is a Chinese text that dates to about the 13th century (according to Wikipedia. I have seen other sources that date it a millennium earlier.) Though it is sometimes attributed to various writers, it’s authorship is unclear and often listed as Anonymous. The book’s title refers to the fact that it is written in lines composed of three characters each. These three-character phrases are arranged into stanzas, each consisting of four lines. For centuries this book was used to introduce the basic concepts of Confucianism to children, and it also served as a beginning language text. Children were often required to memorize the complete text, which is less than 1200 characters long, much like Catholic children were required to memorize the Catechism.

The San Zi Jing is divided into five sections, or paragraphs. The first is an introduction to basic Confucian concepts like the three principles, five elements, five virtues, and so on. The second lists a number of Confucian Classics recommended for study. The third provides a history of the dynasties that ruled China. Paragraph four gives examples of individuals who exhibited behavior exemplifying the Confucian code. The fifth paragraph is a brief conclusion urging children to work hard and study diligently. 

Those learning the Chinese written language might think that a book that’s been memorized by millions of Chinese schoolchildren would be a good place to start. That’s not the case with this one, however. The vocabulary is by no means elementary. It contains a lot of obscure characters, many of them proper names. The three-character phrases are so condensed that they read more like abstract suggestions of sentences, rather than complete thoughts. It takes a lot of effort and imagination for a novice to derive an English translation from them. Often the San Zi Jing reads not like a text or a poem but rather as a mnemonic device. When it lists the “Six Classics,” for example, it abbreviates the titles of the six books to a mere six characters. The dynastic history of China is almost a roll of surnames presented in chronological order, with no dates and little elaboration. Such linguistic condensation makes it difficult for a Westerner unfamiliar with the subject matter to make much sense of it. For those hoping to decipher this Confucian classic, you need either a Chinese teacher to guide you through the process, or an annotated bilingual edition. 

As a source of knowledge about Chinese culture in general or Confucianism specifically, the Three Character Classic raises more questions than it answers, but that in itself is valuable. It is essentially a book of lists that offers a series of topics, each of which requires further investigation to comprehend. Though it only provides a shallow overview of the Confucian tradition, it is a good starting point for those hoping to gain a better understanding of Chinese history and culture. 

Project Gutenberg offers a free ebook of the San Zi Jing, in Chinese, unannotated. At least five of the book’s characters are missing, however, having been inexplicably replaced by empty boxes. The Kindle does a fine job of displaying Chinese characters in the ebook file, but for some reason it is unable to display such characters on its home page, so where the book is listed the title of San Zi Jing is replaced by three boxes with question marks. For online study, the Chinese language learning site Yellow Bridge provides the Three Character Classic in its entirety with English translation and explanatory notes.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Higher Hill by Grace Campbell

A slice of Canadian life during the War of 1812
I bought this book for its illustrations. It contains fifteen beautiful wood engravings by Franklin Carmichael, an excellent printmaker who is best known as a member of the school of Canadian landscape painters known as the Group of Seven. Also a professional graphic artist, Carmichael not only illustrated the book, but also designed and typeset the first edition.

The Higher Hill is a historical novel by Canadian author Grace Campbell. Originally published in 1944, it tells the tale of a few Scotch-Canadian families who live in rural villages along the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Kingston. The parents are immigrants with memories of the Scottish highlands; the children are native-born Canadians. The heroine of the story is Felicity McKay, a young woman rounding the corner from adolescence to adulthood. Felicity has an enthusiasm for painting and discovers that she has real talent as an artist. Though she feels it may be her true calling, like many young women she must decide whether to pursue her dream or give it up for the more traditional feminine roles of wife and mother.

Since it focuses on the growing pains of a teenage girl, The Higher Hill might very well have been meant as young adult literature for the readers of its day. In some respects it resembles a Canadian take on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. For today’s audience, however, the book will probably appeal more to parents whose daughters are off reading about vampire romance. The prose, written in an unadorned, naturalistic style, makes for a pleasant read. The book’s biggest fault is that it has too many characters, and Campbell doesn’t make them distinctive enough to distinguish them from one another. It’s hard to keep track of who everyone is and how they are all related to one another. The first half of the book mostly follows the daily lives of these characters as they manage their farms and homes and engage in their various romances. The second half of the book takes a more suspenseful turn when war comes to the region. The conflict in question is the War of 1812, in which the Canadians fought on the side of the British against the Americans. The book starts out very languidly and picks up steam as it goes along, but the plot is neither particularly exciting or memorable.

That’s not such a bad thing, however, for this really isn’t a book about plot, but more of a book about atmosphere. The real value of Campbell’s novel is the vivid picture it draws of what life was like in this time and place. She has obviously done her historical research well. She picturesquely depicts the agricultural practices, seasonal activities, social conventions, and the menu of every meal with a ring of authenticity. The characters and settings vary enough that the reader is given a broad spectrum of experience—rural and urban, rich and poor, military and civilian. Although the book wraps up its final chapter with a life lesson, it’s almost an afterthought. It’s evident that Campbell’s chief reason for writing the book is simply to document what life was like for these Canadians of the past, who I’m guessing were her forefathers. To that end she is quite successful. This is probably one of those regional classics that’s beloved in its native realm but little known outside of it. Even so, anyone who appreciates historical literature and has an interest in the history and culture of Canada will enjoy The Higher Hill.

Franklin Carmichael, wood engraving llustrations from The Higher Hill, 1944

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Une Double Famille (A Second Home) by Honoré de Balzac

Twice the romance, half the suspense
In a dark, narrow street in Paris lives an old widow and her pretty young daughter. They share a poor but contented existence, supporting themselves through embroidery work. All day long they sit before the barred window that looks out upon their dank alleyway. Observing the passers-by who file past their modest home is their sole source of entertainment. Over time they come to know the familiar faces as if they were old acquaintances, but one day they notice a new pedestrian—a dark, attractive gentleman of about forty—who has begun to frequent their neighborhood. The window goes both ways, and the mystery man likewise takes notice of beautiful young Caroline Crochard as she stitches away at her needlework. After months of passing glances, the gentleman finally makes the acquaintance of the young woman and her mother. Soon Roger, as he comes to be called, assumes the role of benefactor to the two women. He sets Caroline up in a private love nest where they share stolen moments of unwedded bliss.

The writings of Honoré de Balzac usually bear titles that give the reader no indication whatsoever of what they’re about. Such is not the case with Une Double Famille (A Second Home), a novella originally published in 1830. The title lets the cat out of the bag, confirming any suspicions the reader may have in regards to the unusual nature of the lovers’ relationship. Even the main characters seem to see the shocking revelation coming a mile away. The fact that the ending is a foregone conclusion is not the story’s biggest flaw, however. The main problem with this novella is its structure. The book is essentially cut in half. The first story, as described above, deeply involves the reader in the lives of Madame Crochard and her daughter. Just when things are really starting to take off, however, Balzac flashes back several years and begins a second, parallel story, this time from the gentleman’s perspective, with the promise that the two tales will eventually meet in the end. The man’s tale is as engaging as the woman’s, but when the twain finally meet the conclusion is less than impressive. The narrative just grinds to a depressing halt. Balzac builds the foundations for two good stories, but caps them off with a conclusion that is worthy of neither.

Marriage—what makes one work or fail—is a favorite topic of Balzac’s, but this is not his best take on the subject. Another topic he covers to better effect in Une Double Famille is religion. In the translation by Clara Bell, done about a century ago, the word “bigot” is frequently used, not in the way we use it today, to mean a racist, but in an earlier sense of the word, meaning a religious zealot. In his depiction of the “bigot” in question, Balzac delivers some of his most biting commentary on religion, which must have been quite shocking for his time. The scandalous subject matter of Une Double Famille may have provided the Parisian audience of its day with a fair degree of titillation, but for today’s reader the work holds few surprises. While Balzac’s admirable talent for creating memorable characters and situations is quite evident, this piece is by no means an outstanding example of his body of work. Ardent fans of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine will like it, but casual readers of Balzac shouldn’t go out of their way for it.

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Adventure by Jack London

Not enough of what the title promises
To bestow the simple title of Adventure upon a novel is a pretty bold move. It’s almost a challenge of sorts, as if proclaiming that the book in question epitomizes its genre. If anyone could back up such an audacious claim, it would be Jack London, the premier adventure writer in American literature. Unfortunately, the choice of title for this novel is intended to be somewhat ironic. Adventure, originally published in 1911, doesn’t come close to living up to the excitement and romance inherent in its title.

David Sheldon, an Englishman, is proprietor of the copra (coconut meat) plantation of Berande, located on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. The lone white man on his estate, he reigns over a staff of hundreds of native islanders who are technically indentured servants, but for all intents and purposes are treated like slaves. Sheldon rules his “blacks” with an iron hand, punishing them with whip and gun. The natives, in their turn, are continually attempting to rob and kill their white master, so any sign of weakness on his part is essentially an invitation to his own murder. As the novel opens, it appears Sheldon is about ready to die anyway, from one of the island’s pestilential diseases. Into this grim and dangerous world enters Joan Lackland, a spunky American woman who is shipwrecked off the shore of Berande. Joan is a proto-feminist who asserts her independence by drifting around the South Seas in search of fortune. A sort of overgrown tomboy, she has romantic notions of finding “adventure” among the islands, but soon discovers that her ideal is an elusive one. Sheldon, a gentleman trained in traditional notions of chivalry, has no clue how to deal with this modern liberated woman, and her arrival at Berande turns his world upside down.

It’s impossible to read about such subject matter without encountering some moments of cringeworthy racism, especially in a century-old book written by a white man. That said, Adventure inspires less disgust than London’s short story collection South Sea Tales, which deals with the same setting and subject matter. While in South Sea Tales the islanders are depicted as little more than wild animals, in Adventure they’re portrayed more as the unwashed masses ripe for revolution. The white characters actually debate over the proper methods of managing the blacks. One argues for strict and violent rule, while another advocates more humane measures and positive reinforcement. Despite this attempt at a balanced perspective, there is a constant and overarching assertion that it is the destiny of the whites to rule over the natives. London may question the abuse of the islanders, but he never questions the white man’s right to colonize the islands and exploit their resources.

The biggest disappointment of Adventure is that it concentrates so heavily on the daily management of the plantation. At times it resembles a Wild West ranching romance, only instead of wrangling cattle they’re wrangling human beings. I kept hoping Dave and Joan would go off on some mission and stumble upon some genuine adventure, but the thrills come too little too late. The ending of the book is a bit ludicrous, yet it provides some welcome action to the story. Ultimately, this novel suffers from the uncomfortable incongruity between its bleak setting and its rather frivolous plot. Adventure is not a badly written book. If you happen to be looking for a romantic comedy set in colonial Melanesia, this one may very well do the trick, but, after all, who’s really looking for that?

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Friday, June 7, 2013

A Deal in Wheat and Other Stories of the New and Old West by Frank Norris

Not his best work
Though Frank Norris is primarily known as a novelist, he did write quite a bit of short fiction during his brief but stellar career. This collection of short stories was published shortly after his death. Compiled by his brother and his widow, the primary purpose of the volume was to generate income to support the author’s family. To that end, the stories included here are mostly inoffensive crowd pleasers intended to sell copies. When viewed against the standard set by his great novels, these stories are tame and predictable by comparison.

The book leads off with its title selection. A Kansas farmer is forced by the low cost of wheat to abandon his land and move to Chicago, where he becomes homeless and unemployed. Meanwhile, the Bull and Bear factions of the grain market make a killing buying and selling wheat, while farmers and laborers everywhere suffer. It’s a rather simplistic look at the economic forces at work in Norris’s day, but it serves as a preliminary sketch for Norris’s novels The Octopus and The Pit, both part of an unfinished trilogy of the “Epic of the Wheat.” Though “A Deal in Wheat“ displays the social consciousness Norris is now known for, it is in no way indicative of the contents of this collection as a whole. In the second story, “Chino’s Wife,” a young mining engineer falls in love with the sexy wife of one of his Mexican laborers. Not only does Norris depict this woman as a stereotypical latina femme fatale, he blatantly states that being Mexican she can’t help but be slutty and “degenerate.” This racist attitude is a far cry from Norris as spokesman for the downtrodden. By this point, the collection is off to an inauspicious start, but thankfully things lighten up from here.

The rest of the stories in the book are simply entertaining adventure stories, similar in style and subject matter to the early short stories of Jack London. Norris utilizes a recurring cast of characters, including Bunt McBride—a miner, cattle driver, and jack of all trades with a talent for spinning yarns—and the “three black crows”—a trio of ne’er-do-wells who will tackle any nautical adventure, legal or illegal, as long as it’s lucrative. For the most part, these are lighthearted stories. The one time Norris tries to go dark and serious, in “A Memorandum of Sudden Death,” a story of three cavalry troopers and a Mexican scout who are stalked by a band of Indians, the result is tedious rather than shocking. The best piece in the book, “The Passing of Cock-Eye Blacklock,” features the exact same plot twist as London’s story “Moon-Face.” It’s possible that in this case, and this case alone, Norris may have told it better. Another favorable entry, “Two Hearts Beat as One,” in which two gun runners fight over the affections of a beautiful Mexican revolutionary, offers a surprise ending so audacious and unbelievable even London wouldn’t have tried it.

Norris’s talent for depicting the sights, sounds, and smells of the “New and Old West” is quite evident in these stories, but beyond that they’re neither innovative nor memorable. Even if you love Norris’s novels, there’s no guarantee you won’t find this book an utter waste of your time. Fans of London will find the book more appealing, though it definitely leaves the reader with the feeling that, in the short story department, Norris isn’t even in the same league with the man who penned “To Build a Fire.” Best remembered as the author of The Octopus and McTeague, Norris has never been renowned for his short stories, and nothing in this collection is going to change that.

Stories in this collection:
A Deal in Wheat
The Wife of Chino
A Bargain with Peg-Leg
The Passing of Cock-Eye Blacklock
A Memorandum of Sudden Death
Two Hearts that Beat as One
The Dual Personality of Slick Dick Nickerson
The Ship that Saw a Ghost
The Ghost in the Crosstrees
The Riding of Felipe

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