Friday, August 30, 2013

On the Makaloa Mat by Jack London

London’s Hawaiian swan song
On the Makaloa Mat is a collection of seven short stories by Jack London, all of which are set in Hawaii. The book was published posthumously in 1919, and contains some of the last stories he wrote before his death. They are all tales of love, family, or friendship, told against the background of Hawaiian history, customs, and lore. Often they focus on the interaction between two dichotomous characters—one representing the old, authentic ways of Hawaiian life; the other representing the new, modern Hawaii under the “civilizing” influence of white colonization. London compares and contrasts these two sides of island life without playing favorites.

The best story in the book is “Shin-Bones,” in which a modern, Oxford-educated Hawaiian prince recalls a life-changing adventure from his youth. To satisfy his superstitious mother’s obsession with bone collecting, he accompanied an aged servant on a perilous quest to recover the hidden remains of his ancestors. In a story of similar subject matter, “The Bones of Kahekili,” a wealthy, white rancher persuades his elderly servant to reveal the whereabouts of the remains of an old Hawaiian chieftain and the mysterious events surrounding his burial. “The Tears of Ah Kim” tells the story of a Chinese grocer in Honolulu who incurs the wrath of his aged mother when he reveals his intention to marry a young widow. Mother feels the bride-to-be is too modern, too liberal, and too westernized for her son. In “The Water Baby,” an educated young Hawaiian man is treated to a folk tale while he accompanies a poor, elderly fisherman on a squid hunt. “The Kanaka Surf,” about a love triangle in Waikiki, is easily the worst story in the book. Modern romance was never London’s strong suit.

The stories in this collection exemplify London’s mature writing style, for better or for worse. Over the course of his career, London’s skill as a writer developed immensely. He was a much more proficient wordsmith at the end of his career than he was when he started. As he gained confidence and facility in his writing, his plots became more complex, his characters more fully realized, and his insight into human psychology more subtle and nuanced. Yet, much of his later work lacks the forceful directness and simple, crowd-pleasing fun of his earlier work. In his later years, he developed an annoying tendency to riddle his stories with unnecessary tangential digressions. By throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, he comes across as overly concerned with showing off his erudition and wit at the expense of a satisfying plot. In the stories included here, for example, each character is introduced with a detailed genealogical pedigree. Places casually mentioned in conversation are almost invariably accompanied by a superfluous side story of “Remember what happened there?” At times the dialogue resembles two people reading the index of a Hawaiian atlas. All the local color and atmosphere that London heaps into these tales adds authenticity to the setting but hinders the narrative momentum. The stories in this collection are all rather long, and most seem overloaded with gratuitous filler.

On the Makaloa Mat is a good collection of stories, but not one of London’s best. As far as his Hawaiian stories go, his earlier collection The House of Pride and Other Stories is better overall. Nevertheless, a few of the gems included here make this book necessary reading for true fans of London.

Stories in this collection
On the Makaloa Mat 
The Bones of Kahekili 
When Alice Told Her Soul 
The Water Baby 
The Tears of Ah Kim 
The Kanaka Surf 

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Doings of Raffles Haw by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Being an eccentric millionaire isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
Though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is obviously best known for his tales of Sherlock Holmes, the adventures of that great detective comprise less than half of the author’s prodigious literary output. Conan Doyle wrote dozens of other works in such diverse genres as mystery, science fiction, horror, and historical fiction. The Doings of Raffles Haw, however, does not fit neatly into any of these categories. Originally published in 1891, this delightful work is an unconventional fable on the dangers and woes of possessing great wealth. Cleverly crafted and thoroughly entertaining, it makes a great read for any Conan Doyle fan who’s looking to venture beyond his detective stories.

Siblings Robert and Laura McIntyre live in the rural English town of Tamfield, near Birmingham, with their father, a bankrupt and embittered former gun manufacturer. Their lives are altered irrevocably when a mysterious new neighbor comes to town, taking up residence in the immense house he has constructed next door. The family soon make the acquaintance of this mystery man, who may possibly be the richest man in the world. Raffles Haw is an odd and eccentric, but likable, character. A visit to his palatial estate is like a page from a Richie Rich comic book. Everything one could want is available at the push of a button or the pull of a lever. Raffles Haw does not revel in his luxury, however. He sees his wealth as an immense responsibility. He considers it his duty to spend his fortune and circulate his money in order to keep the world’s economy functioning. He earnestly searches for humanitarian projects that will better mankind, but continually realizes that every beneficence he bestows is accompanied by an unexpected, negative consequence. The influence of his great wealth even begins to effect the McIntyre family, driving them to envy, dishonesty, idleness, and suspicion. Father, son, and daughter alike are nagged by a persistent riddle: Just how did Raffles Haw make all this money anyway?

One of the joys of the book is that Raffles Haw, as bizarre as he is, is really the only truly good person in the book. Though his personal integrity has not been tainted by his vast fortune, proximity to his money brings out the selfish motives of everyone else in the book. Although there are moments when Conan Doyle offers serious insight into the effects of greed on human nature, for the most part the novel is relatively lighthearted in tone. The descriptions of the millionaire’s home and his plans to better the world often reach comically fantastical heights, causing some to question his sanity. Though his grand schemes sometimes depend on the erroneous science of a century ago, as in the works of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, instances of questionable physics and chemistry are forgivable when their sheer visionary ingenuity is a pleasure to read.

Of the half dozen or so non-Holmes books I’ve read by Conan Doyle, The Doings of Raffles Haw is by far my favorite. It is a fun and imaginative tale, penned by a master storyteller, starring one truly unforgettable character. Raffles Haw should be a familiar expression in the English language, as in, “That Richard Branson is such a Raffles Haw!” or “Bill Gates, the Raffles Haw of Silicon Valley.” Alas, it’s unlikely such notoriety will ever come to pass, but anyone willing to pluck this novel from obscurity and devote a few enjoyable hours to reading it will certainly not regret it.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville

Philosophical allegory or ridiculous farce?
Herman Melville
Portrait by Joseph O. Eaton
Bartleby, the Scrivener, a novella by Herman Melville, was originally published in 1853. The story is related in the first person by an unnamed narrator—an elderly attorney who runs a small law office on Wall Street. He is assisted in his practice by three clerks, or scriveners, known only by the nicknames of Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. When prosperous times lead the narrator to add another scrivener to his firm, he hires a mild-mannered fellow named Bartleby for the position. Bartleby performs his duties competently at first, but his performance gradually wanes as he simply refuses to do what is asked of him. To all his employer’s commands, Bartleby responds placidly with the simple statement, “I would prefer not to.” The narrator, through a mixture of saintly patience, an overdeveloped sense of propriety, and a brotherly sympathy for this poor and pitiful scrivener, responds to his inactive employee with more compassion and tolerance than seems humanly possible, until eventually Bartleby’s presence becomes unbearable. Nevertheless, no matter how hard he tries, the flabbergasted lawyer cannot manage to rid himself of this useless and hopelessly passive little man who has established himself as a fixture in the office.

There are no doubt great philosophical depths to the story of Bartleby. Like Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick, there is an ambiguity to the piece that opens itself up to multiple interpretations. One could see Bartleby as an admirable exemplar of tenacious human will or as an embodiment of disgraceful societal apathy. Despite Bartleby’s bizarre behavior, his employer comes across as even more deranged for putting up with him for so long. Perhaps Melville is making a satirical or symbolic statement about the social or political climate of his times. I must confess, however, that if there was indeed a valuable moral lesson to be learned here, it was lost on me. My enjoyment of this piece stems not so much from an appreciation for any deep, philosophical or metaphorical meaning, but rather from the fact that I just found it hilarious. The frustrated attempts by the flustered narrator to exorcise himself of Bartleby are an absolute joy to read. Those who only know Melville from Moby-Dick will be pleasantly surprised by his sense of humor, which is apparent in many of his writings, but nowhere more so than here. The characters are insightfully drawn caricatures, like those in some of the more comical novels of Charles Dickens. Though the piece was written 160 years ago, it is surprisingly modern. There is an absurdist quality to it that is more in keeping with the works of Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, or Franz Kafka. The weakest part of the novella is its ending, when Melville makes an attempt to justify Bartleby’s behavior, for it is an incongruous departure from the absurdist tone maintained throughout the rest of the story.

Bartleby, the Scrivener is a story that was years ahead of its time, and it remains relevant and entertaining to the reader of today. It is a far cry from Melville’s sea stories, so even if you’re not a fan of works like Moby-Dick or Typee that’s no indication of whether or not you will appreciate this unconventional work. Anyone who enjoys classic American literature should give Bartleby a try. It is one of the more exceptional pieces of short fiction in 19th-century American literature.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

Still plenty of fight left in this grizzled old-timer
Originally published in 1885, H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon's Mines is a ground breaking adventure novel that has had an indelible influence on popular literature and film. By establishing the subgenre of “Lost World” novels—in which an intrepid explorer ventures into the wilderness to discover a lost civilization—it ignited an explosion of adventure literature, pulp fiction, and motion pictures. Despite showing some signs of age, this renowned classic of its genre still packs plenty of excitement and entertainment for the modern reader.

The story of King Solomon’s Mines is told through the first-person perspective of Allan Quartermain, a veteran big-game hunter and native Englishman living in South Africa. Although in the movie adaptations of Haggard’s books Quartermain is often portrayed by handsome, burly action heroes, Haggard’s take on the character is far less heroic. In King Solomon’s Mines, Quartermain is described as elderly, wiry, and, by his own admission, cowardly. Nevertheless, when danger presents itself, this is one coward who rises to the occasion. Because of his expertise in the African bush, Quartermain is invited by Sir Henry Curtis to accompany him on an expedition into uncharted Africa in search of Sir Henry’s long lost brother, who years ago had set off on a hunt for the diamond mines of the biblical King Solomon and never returned. Although Quartermain considers it a suicide mission, he agrees to go along with Sir Henry and his companion Captain John Good, a retired navy man, on the condition that Sir Henry make arrangements to insure the financial security of Quartermain’s son. Once that’s settled, the three white men, accompanied by their African servants and armed with an old treasure map, set off on a perilous trek across a vast desert toward a distant, mysterious mountain range where, rumour has it, untold riches await.

Despite being written over a century and a quarter ago, there’s surprisingly little racism in this book. For today’s reader, the most offensive scene in the novel may be the killing of nine elephants for their ivory. In terms of its portrayal of the African characters, Haggard displays a surprising amount of political correctness for his time. The book does feel antiquated in some respects, however, most notably in the nineteenth-century pacing of its plot. Though King Solomon’s Mines was strikingly original for its time, after 100 years worth of adventure novels and lost treasure films, much of it will seem familiar to the 21st-century reader. For today’s audience, there are few unforeseen plot twists here. When a battle takes place between two warring tribes of African natives, for example, Haggard provides a thrilling blow-by-blow narrative of the combat, but the outcome of the conflict is never really in question. The dubious reward for being so influential and inspiring so many imitators is that it now feels somewhat conventional, clichéd, and predictable. When compared to comparable novels of its time, however, King Solomon’s Mines is more compelling than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and is worlds better than Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes.

Readers expecting this book to compete with the fast-paced, nonstop action of today’s thrillers will most likely be disappointed by King Solomon’s Mines, but enthusiasts of classic adventure fiction—those who appreciate the “classic” as much as the “adventure”—will find it a fun and enjoyable expedition.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Raylan: A Novel by Elmore Leonard

An odd hybrid of Justified and Leonard’s previous novels
Elmore Leonard first introduced readers to Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in the 1993 novel Pronto, then quickly followed it up with Riding the Rap, and later delved deeper into the character’s origins in the 2001 short story “Fire in the Hole.” A lot has happened to Raylan since then, of course. He now has his own television series, Justified on FX. Leonard’s latest novel, simply entitled Raylan, although published in 2012, was written before the second season of the TV show. While the first season of Justified was pretty faithful to “Fire in the Hole,” they did depart from Leonard’s writings in many instances, creating new characters and plot lines. With this new novel, Leonard now has the opportunity to reciprocate by borrowing ideas from the show. In turn, the writers of the show have heavily mined this novel’s characters and plot for the second, third, and fourth seasons of Justified, though altering them liberally. The result is a strange correspondence between Leonard’s writings and the TV show. Though often identical, at times they are like parallel universes.

When Raylan and fellow marshal Rachel Brooks set out to apprehend a drug dealer named Angel Arenas, they find him in a bath tub full of ice with his kidneys removed. The next day, the mysterious organ thief tries to sell Angel’s kidneys right back to him. Raylan figures Angel’s associates the Crowes are involved in the scheme. This marijuana dealing family consists of patriarch Pervis Crowe and his dim-witted sons Coover and Dickie. Fans of Justified will recognize these characters as Coover and Dickie Bennett. Their father Pervis was replaced by mama Mags Bennett, one of the more unforgettable characters in the show’s run. This is just one instance of how the two narratives differ. In Leonard’s world, to offer another example, Raylan has kids, though they are only mentioned and never seen.

Leonard is known for his snappy, intelligent dialogue, and he plays to his strength here. The book is at least 90% dialogue, and reads very much like a screenplay. In fact, it could have benefited from less talk and more action. The brief gunfights are hardly suspenseful, as the characters can barely shut up long enough to draw their weapons. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Raylan is that it’s not really a novel, but rather a collection of three episodes. After the kidney thief story line is resolved in the first hundred pages, Leonard just moves on to another matter entirely. There’s little continuity from beginning to end, and thus none of the complex overall structure that one expects from a book subtitled “A Novel”. Fans of Leonard’s writing who don’t watch Justified might find themselves a little lost in this book. Viewers of the show seem to be his intended audience. On the other hand, Justified enthusiasts may find the book too light and fluffy for their tastes. Leonard softens many of the harder, grittier edges of his story in favor of a more comedic approach. Toward the end of the book there are a couple of near slapstick scenes which are too over-the-top to be believable.

Ultimately, the character of Raylan Givens has been molded and shaped by actor Timothy Olyphant to the point where it’s not wholly Leonard’s creation anymore. Although he incorporates elements from Justified in this book, it only sporadically captures the spirit of the show. When judged solely on its merits as a Leonard novel, it’s good but nothing spectacular. “Fire in the Hole” is still the best Raylan story Leonard has ever written.

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Monday, August 19, 2013

The Little Lady of the Big House by Jack London

Love among the flawless
Dick Forrest owns a sizeable chunk of farmland in northern California. A thoroughly modern agriculturalist, he raises all manner of livestock and crops, all of the highest quality, using the latest, most advanced scientific methods. Ensconced within these fertile lands is his home, a palatial estate combining the best of traditional and modern architecture. In his youth Dick led a life of adventure, and now that he has put down some roots, he applies the same adventurous spirit to his agricultural ventures. Sharing in this pleasant and prosperous life is his wife Paula, an exceptionally attractive woman who likewise succeeds at all she touches. She plays piano like a professional pianist and breeds horses like a professor of animal husbandry. This remarkable couple surrounds themselves with a rotating entourage of family, friends, and scholars. Every night is a dinner party in which wine and song are accompanied by spirited debates on various and sundry topics. Thus the reader is treated to chapters on philosophy, music, poetry, animal husbandry, and—not uncommon for London—the superiority of the white race. Into this eclectic intellectual enclave wanders Evan Graham, an old friend who is described as being almost exactly like Dick, but a bachelor. He quickly develops an attraction towards Paula, admires her secretly, and tries to ascertain if the feeling is mutual.

That’s pretty much all that happens for the first twenty chapters. Most of the book consists of the many dinner-party and horseback-ride conversations on London’s pet subjects. The story of Dick Forrest is like a fantasy autobiography for London. Anything London ever dabbled in, Dick excels at. He runs the kind of farm London would want to run, he lives in the house London would love to build, and he’s married to the perfect woman of London’s dreams. Because of his affinity for Dick and Paula, London spends so much time describing this idealized couple and their varied interests that there’s very little room left for plot.

Thankfully, in the latter third of the book, the love triangle actually gets quite interesting. To its credit, The Little Lady of the Big House is rarely boring. It’s just rather weird. Typically, the success of a love story hinges on how well the reader can identify with the characters. Today’s readers, however, will likely find they have more in common with medieval kings and queens than with Dick and Paula Forrest. Often in literature a character’s faults contribute to the situation they find themselves in, but that’s not the case here, simply because London doesn’t allow his three lead characters to have any faults.

The dialogue throughout is a mixture of pretentious poetry, intellectual posturing, and self-invented slang that is so removed from actual speech it effectively divorces the story from reality. Dick is frequently asked to compose impromptu songs, which he does with relish. (“Hear me! I am Eros! I stamp upon the hills!”) The Forrests have Native American pet names for each other. They refer to their Asian servants by the demeaning appellations of Ah Ha, Oh My, and Oh Dear. Only in Jack London’s house, perhaps, would people ever speak in this way. In fact, The Little Lady of the Big House, originally published in 1916, is less valuable for its literary merits than for what it says about Jack London. Scholars and fans of his work, looking for insight into his philosophies of life, love, and death; his views on agricultural science; his favorite leisure activities, cocktails, songs, and poems; will find plenty of material here. In terms of literary quality it is a mediocre novel at best, but it’s a pleasantly unconventional work that only London could have written.

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Friday, August 16, 2013

The Returning Wave by Boleslaw Prus

A brief but profoundly moving masterwork
The Returning Wave is a short novel of about 100 pages by Polish author Boleslaw Prus, originally published in 1880. An English translation of the novel by Else C. M. Benecke and Marie Busch is included in their collection More Tales by Polish Authors, and Amazon also sells a bilingual Polish and English edition in paperback, under its Polish title of Powracajaca Fala. I have only read the English version, but I can say that this is an excellent little piece of literature that’s worth reading in any language.

Two childhood friends, Martin Boehme and Gottlieb Adler, grew up together in Germany. As adults, they are neighbors and friends in a small town in Poland. Boehme is the town’s protestant pastor, while Adler owns the textile factory and is the town’s primary employer. Adler is a self-made man who worked his way up from nothing to a position of wealth. His motivation for hard work is the hope of someday living a life of leisure, yet he becomes so addicted to work that he little enjoys the riches he has acquired. Adler allows his son Ferdinand to live an idle, self-indulgent life, so that the father may live vicariously through the young man’s frivolous adventures. Adler looks forward to the day when his savings reach a million roubles, so he can retire and travel the world with his son. In the meantime, Ferdinand racks up tremendous debts, which Adler transfers to his factory laborers through economizing measures which extend the workers hours and lower their wages. Adler considers his wealth and power equivalent to the divine right of kings. He consciously exploits the lower classes and sees himself as immune to any repercussions for doing so. Under his iron hand, however, the workers begin to show signs of unrest.

Prus does an expert job of shifting perspective between Adler, Boehme, Ferdinand, and the workers. The characters are all superbly well-drawn, and the plot is captivating. This story has a fabulistic tone that resembles the better morality tales of Honoré de Balzac. The title refers to a conversation between two characters in the book. One speaker uses ripples or waves in the water as a metaphor for what is essentially the concept of karma—the idea that if you do bad things they will eventually come back to haunt you, like a wave returning to shore. Despite the ethical lessons being taught, the story never departs from the naturalistic realm of gritty reality. Prus displays a social consciousness and a precision of detail reminiscent of some of Emile Zola’s best novels. The Returning Wave is just one example of how the great authors of Polish literature—though lesser known than their French, Russian, or English counterparts—deserve a place of renown among the highest ranks of world literature.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

One slow-moving oater
Originally published in 1912, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage is considered a seminal classic in the genre of literature of the American West. Set in 1871, the story takes place in a Mormon settlement in southern Utah. Jane Withersteen, orphaned and unmarried, is the wealthiest landowner in the town of Cottonwoods. Though a Mormon herself, Jane is independently minded and doesn’t always follow the dictates of the church elders. When she starts a relationship with Bern Venters, a gentile cowhand (“gentile” in this book means anyone who’s not a Mormon), the local Mormon authorities express their disapproval by arresting him. A Mormon elder named Tull has his eyes on Jane’s lands, riches, and beauty, and wants to make her his wife. When she declines, Tull and his fellow churchmen, with the blessing of the Mormon bishop, attempt to coerce her through intimidation tactics. Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Lassiter arrives in town—a gentile gunfighter with a fearsome reputation as a killer of Mormons. Though Jane abhors his brutal tactics, this Lassiter just might be her savior.

The main problem with Riders of the Purple Sage is a problem that plagues many books in the western genre: an obsession with topography. Early in the book, Venters, in an attempt to save Jane further persecution, flees Cottonwoods and discovers a secret valley hidden amidst the Utah canyon lands. Grey unfortunately feels the need to enumerate every rock he treads over along the way. Way too many tedious chapters are spent describing this idyllic cowboy Garden of Eden. An excellent nature writer, like Henry David Thoreau or Frank Norris, might be able to pull this off, but in the hands of Grey it reads like a laundry list of canyon after canyon, ridge after ridge, wash after wash, ad nauseam. He obviously has a vivid picture in his head of what this landscape looks like, but he lacks the verbal eloquence necessary to get that image across sufficiently for the reader to visualize. The relentless repetition of the words “purple” and “sage” is tiresome at first and actively annoying by the end. So much ink is devoted to these inadequate descriptive passages that there isn’t much room for the plot to move. The first two-thirds of the book lurch along with the slow pace of an obstinate mule. The final chapters offer some more compelling drama, though it’s more soap opera than horse opera. There are three or four major revelations towards the end, but the story is so predictable they fail to surprise.

One audience that should definitely avoid this book are Mormons, for they’re likely to find offensive the depiction of the Cottonwoods church as a totalitarian theocracy. The only good Mormon in the book is Jane Withersteen, and she spends the entire narrative defending herself against her evil brethren. This one-sided depiction of an entire religion as villainous may have been acceptable a hundred years ago, but these days it comes across as unrealistic and prejudiced. In battles between good and evil, today’s reader expects more shades of gray.

I enjoy western movies, but as far as western literature is concerned, I’ve never found much satisfaction. I had high hopes for Riders of the Purple Sage, which is often billed as “the most popular western novel of all time.” In the end, however, it has done nothing but confirm my suspicion that the western may be the one realm of literature where the book is not better than the movie. If this is considered a classic example of the genre, I’d hate to see what a mediocre example would be.

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Monday, August 12, 2013

Yvernelle by Frank Norris

For completists only
Frank Norris achieved renown as one of the greatest American novelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His first published book, however, was not a novel. It was Yvernelle, a novella-length tale of medieval chivalry written entirely in poetic verse. Originally published in 1892, the work is heavily influenced by the writings of Sir Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe. With the possible exception of a few of his short stories, it is unlike anything else Norris ever wrote, and bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to the naturalistic novels for which he is famous.

The story opens with a curse. Somewhere in Spain, the lady Guhaldrada is chastising her lover for toying with her affections and abandoning her to return to his native France. The spurned woman places a dire hex upon the departing knight, stating that the next woman he kisses will suffer tragic sorrow and ruin. Sir Caverlaye of Voysvenel, the recipient of this curse, returns to his homeland to reunite with his one true love, the beautiful maiden Yvernelle. When she offers him her lips, however, he refuses to kiss her in order to save her from the terrible fate promised in the evil spell. This rejection of her love devastates Yvernelle and enrages her guardian, Sir Raguenel, an intimate friend of Caverlaye’s who cannot forgive such a betrayal of the young woman’s love. Separated from his soul mate and despised by his best friend, Caverlaye wanders off to lead a solitary life. Will these two estranged lovers ever be reunited?

Yvernelle is not bad for what it is, but what it is holds little appeal for today’s reader. Norris has a good command of the English language and can skillfully craft a stanza of poetry, but a hundred pages of rhyming couplets produces a decidedly mind-numbing effect. The plot of the narrative is painfully simple, yet it takes a hundred words of verse to express what could be said in ten words of prose. Even if you really enjoy tales of knights and chivalry, you’d be better off sticking to the works of Scott or the Arthurian legends. Most likely the only audience that’s going to seek out Yvernelle are diehard fans of Frank Norris, in particular those attempting to finish his complete works. My advice to such readers would be to tackle all his novels first, his short stories second, and if you absolutely can’t get enough, Yvernelle should be the last work to check off your list.

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Friday, August 9, 2013

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Gripping at first, but fails to sustain interest
In his 2002 novel The Years of Rice and Salt, award-winning science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson presents an alternate world history in which 99% of Europeans are killed by the Black Death, leaving Asian civilizations, primarily the Muslims and Chinese, to become the dominant forces in world history. Despite being marketed as a sci-fi novel, the book will appeal mostly to history buffs and those interested in Eastern cultures.

The structure of the book resembles that of a typical James Michener historical novel. Because the chronological scope spans centuries, it is divided into ten parts, each being a separate slice of history presenting a whole new cast of characters. Whereas in a Michener novel the heroes of one section would be the descendants of the characters in the preceding chapter, in Robinson’s book the thread that connects the characters of one story to another is not heredity but reincarnation. In between each historical stage we are given brief glimpses into the bardo, a spirit world where souls await judgment between incarnations. Unfortunately, at times this reincarnation story overpowers the historical narrative. Also, when reading a 750-page novel, oftentimes the only thing that keeps a reader going through such a sustained effort is a deep involvement with the book’s characters. Here, however, it soon becomes clear that every 75 to 100 pages the characters you’ve come to know will meet their demise, rendering such intimate engagement with them impossible.

Nevertheless, the novel is quite gripping for about the first 500 pages. Although this alternate history is by no means a conventional science fiction novel, it does fit into the sci-fi category for the very fact that many of its main characters are scientists, and it therefore deals extensively with the history of science. The most fascinating part of the book involves an Arab alchemist and a Tibetan mathematician who, in a world without Galileo and Newton, set out to uncover the primary laws of physics. Other sections of the book follow the lives, studies, and works of an anatomist, a nuclear physicist, and a budding archaeologist. Another excellent chapter features a former Samurai who wanders the New World, uniting the indigenous population and encouraging them to rise up against their Old World oppressors. Philosophers and historians also feature heavily in the book, with mixed results. While Robinson’s knowledge of Eastern religions and philosophy is admirable, the book regrettably features far too many long and tedious dialogues on interpretations of the Quran, Islamic law, or historiographic theory. Such talky digressions really kill the forward momentum of the historical narrative. The final third of the book leaves the reader just wanting to get it all over with. The penultimate chapter, entitled “Nsara” is the longest and dullest in the book, ambling along aimlessly before coasting to an unsatisfying resolution. Though the final chapter is not quite as boring, the book still manages to end not with a bang but with a whimper.

There is a monumentality to The Years of Rice and Salt that one can’t help but admire. Robinson’s detailed research and sweeping vision are worthy of praise. Such erudition and imagination, however, don’t necessarily make for an enjoyable read. Ultimately, the Asia-centric world that Robinson creates is not different enough from the world in which we live to sustain the reader’s fascination. Science fiction fans won’t be sufficiently marveled by its innovations, and history buffs will be left feeling they would have been better off devoting their time to reading yet another novel about the history of the real world.

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Hearts of Three by Jack London

London’s Worst
I have been an enthusiastic reader of Jack London’s work for 25 years, and have read about three-quarters of his writings. With the advent of the Kindle, and the easy availability of even his most obscure books, I have set myself the task of finishing his complete works. Never have I regretted that decision so much as when I undertook the grueling ordeal of reading Hearts of Three.

In his introduction to the work, London explains that this book was originally written as the scenario for a film serial by Charles Goddard, and London was hired to write a novelization of Goddard’s story outline. It’s hard to believe that an outline was ever written, for it reads as if London just made the book up as he went along. Though this may be a collaborative work, the reader need not fear that the book may not have enough London in it. This novel certainly bears the inimitable stamp of its famous author, particularly in its ever-present preoccupation with race.

Francis Morgan, a rich New York playboy, bored with the stock market, decides to venture down to Panama to search for the long lost treasure of his dead grandfather. Once he arrives, he meets a long lost cousin, Henry Morgan, a laid back beach comber. The two are the spitting image of one another, distinguishable only by the presence or absence of moustache, a plot device that provides all the entertainment value of a bad Jackie Chan or Jean Claude Van Damme movie. Both men fall in love with the same woman, Leoncia Solano, and the three set off together to find the treasure. By the way, Henry is wanted for murder, and an inordinate amount of time is spent freeing him from the authorities. Not until chapter 13 does the book finally become the sort of Indiana Jones-style adventure story that it purports to be. Eventually the treasure hunt runs its course, and in its final chapters the book devolves into a dull drama about stock trading.

If you were to summarize the action of each of the 29 chapters in two or three sentences, Hearts of Three might sound like an exciting book. Unfortunately, the narrative is horribly clogged up with pointless digressions, inane conversations, and London’s questionable views on race. Each new character is introduced with a racial pedigree, then subsequently defined by the stereotype that accompanies that pedigree. More than one character laments that his bad fortune is the result of being punished by God for engaging in an interracial relationship. Of course, London makes it clear early on that Leoncia Solano is not really Spanish but adopted, thereby rendering it acceptable for the two Anglo-Saxon heroes to woo her. Despite his fascination with race, his knowledge of Panamanian ethnography is a little sketchy. London uses the word “Maya” as a blanket term to encompass all Mesoamerican native peoples. One of the Mayan characters reads a quipu, or knotted string of cords, which was not a Mayan invention at all but rather an information transmittal device employed by the Inca.

London throws a lot of lowbrow slapstick humor into this book in an attempt to make it a crowd pleaser, yet he also wants to make it clear that he’s an intellectual, so he has all the characters speak in flowery, poetic language, with literary references and Yoda-esque syntax. Hearts of Three is easily the worst London book I’ve ever read (though there are still a few out there I haven’t touched yet). The only pleasure one derives from reading this novel is similar to that of witnessing a train wreck, or watching a horrible old movie that’s “so bad it’s good.” Thankfully, this is one film concept that never made it to the silver screen.

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Monday, August 5, 2013

The Naturewoman by Upton Sinclair

Social commentary that misses its mark
Upton Sinclair
The Naturewoman, a four-act play by Upton Sinclair, was originally published in 1912 in the collection Plays of Protest. To call this a protest play is a bit of a stretch. At times it’s difficult to figure out what exactly Sinclair is rebelling against. Instead of focusing on a particular political or social issue, Sinclair’s intention seems to be to simply scorn societal conventions in general and point out the irrational hypocrisy of the upper class.

The play starts out well enough, as a somewhat typical romantic comedy for its time, yet laced with the subversive liberal undertones one expects from Sinclair. The Mastersons, a wealthy Boston family, await the arrival of their cousin Anna. Though born in Boston, Anna, who now calls herself Oceana, has spent most of her life on a fictional tropical island in the South Pacific, and knows little or nothing about the ways of American city life. As the title suggests, she is a free spirit, prone to wearing revealing clothing, practicing pagan dances, and speaking frankly and openly about sexuality. Naturally, her conservative relatives are aghast at her behavior, with the exception of a few kindred cousins who admire her for her independence and spunk. There is a subplot about an inheritance that isn’t really developed much; mostly the play is about the culture shock between the iconoclastic Oceana and her shrewish aunt Sophronia. Unlike other Sinclair plays I’ve read in the past—such as the unfunny comedy The Millennium or the preachy exposé The MachineThe Naturewoman reads like it might actually be fun to watch in a theatre.

The good times last for the first two or three acts, then the play takes a turn for the worse as Sinclair starts to take his subject too seriously. By the fourth act he has abandoned the farcical tone and is attempting to channel Henrik Ibsen. Through the forthright and independent heroine of the play, Sinclair asserts a proto-feminism. Oceana speaks out for the right of a woman to support herself, to make her own choices in sexual matters, and to enter marriage, if she chooses, as an equal partner rather than a slave. Yet, given the time period in which he wrote, Sinclair can’t help but cling to some of the conservative societal norms he’s attempting to lampoon. He makes it clear, for instance, that, despite Oceana’s frankness toward sexuality, she remains a proper virgin, because to have done otherwise would have insured that his play would never see the lights of a stage.

Though Sinclair trumpeted socialism in most of his work, his politics are nowhere to be found in this piece, save for some buffoonish caricatures of the rich. His conception of how the ideal male/female relationship should be conducted in the modern world sounds as if it were lifted directly from the writings of Jack London, whose work Sinclair admired. In fact, the title of the play and the character of Oceana are likely directly influenced by the “Nature Man,” a prototypical American hippie that London met in Tahiti, as chronicled in his book The Cruise of the Snark. The Naturewoman is far from typical of Sinclair’s writing. Those readers who sympathize with his politics and admire his writings against social injustice won’t find anything resembling that here. If he had stuck with the comic tone throughout, this might have been a fun and provocative play, but by closing the curtain on a solemn and sanctimonious note he ends up with a work that’s mediocre at best.

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Friday, August 2, 2013

The Poison Belt by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The apocalypse has never seemed so dull
The Poison Belt is the second of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventures to feature the brilliant but arrogant scientist Professor G. E. Challenger. Published in 1913, it takes place three years after the events of the first episode in the series, The Lost World. A century after Conan Doyle wrote these stories, The Lost World is the only installment of the Challenger series that’s still widely read, and after reading The Poison Belt it’s easy to see why. The latter book captures little of the excitement and wonder of its predecessor.

Challenger has called his three companions from the Lost World expedition—Professor Summerlee, Lord John Roxton, and journalist Edward Malone—to join him at his home for a reunion, with the cryptic request that they each bring a tank of oxygen. When the three arrive, Challenger informs them of his latest startling discovery. Evidence indicates that our solar system is drifting into an anomalous region of the interstellar ether, the chemical composition of which will be harmful to human life. Challenger sees no way of preventing this impending catastrophe, but he invites his guests to join him and his wife in a sealed room where the oxygen from the tanks will briefly prolong their lives. By gazing out the windows of Challenger’s country house, onto the English countryside below, this party of survivors are witnesses to the end of the world as we know it.

The term “ether,” as used here, may be unfamiliar to today’s reader. It is meant to signify the rarefied substance that exists in the empty space between celestial bodies, essentially a sort of gaseous interstellar ocean in which the planets and stars “float”. If the book were written today, the concept of ether might be replaced by dark matter, and perhaps a century from now people will wonder what the term “dark matter” meant. Unfortunately, this is not the only antiquated scientific concept in the book. When the effects of the poison belt begin to be felt on Earth, a few references are made to the fact that the “less developed races” are more susceptible to the phenomenon than the Caucasian race. Even the n-word makes a few appearances. Although such instances of racism are to be expected in literature from this time period, for fans of Conan Doyle the effect of these slurs is similar to the embarrassment caused by the regrettable utterings of a lovable but ignorant uncle.

The main problem with The Poison Belt is that, for a science fiction adventure, there’s very little science and absolutely no adventure. The adventurers spend almost the entire book locked up in Challenger’s room. There is no mission for them to undertake, they don’t attempt to stop the disaster, and there’s no problem for them to solve. They are merely observers of this bizarre event. While the world perishes, they engage in philosophical discussions of death. Is it better to go quickly or linger on? Is there a higher power? None of the characters come up with particularly profound answers. The idea of the poison belt is an interesting one which offers the possibility for a good sci-fi novel, but why on earth did Conan Doyle decide to put Challenger and his team into this story? The daring men who strode bravely through the jungles of South America in The Lost World are here left to sit around and twiddle their thumbs while the world dies. Most Conan Doyle fans would agree that Challenger is a far less interesting and likeable character than the author’s most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. Here the disappointing story makes the contrast even more glaringly apparent. Even those who loved The Lost World are likely to find The Poison Belt a bummer and a bore.

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