Monday, September 30, 2013

Willard Clark: Printer and Printmaker by David Farmer

Creating the look of Santa Fe
American artist Willard Clark was born in Massachusetts, raised in Buenos Aires, and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1928. Educated in painting, he taught himself how to run a printing press and opened a small printing company in his new hometown. Unlike most other printers of his day, Clark incorporated original woodcut illustrations into his graphic design. The business cards, letterheads, menus, and catalogs he produced for local Santa Fe businesses all carried a distinctive look. His illustrations of a New Mexican landscape dotted with adobe houses, sombreroed farmers, and sleepy burros, executed in a style influenced by Latin American art, established a unique visual identity for the burgeoning city of Santa Fe. Even his favorite choice of typeface, Neuland, became a sort of de facto logotype for the businesses of the area. In addition to his job work, Clark also produced fine art prints in his spare time. He operated his commercial printing business for 13 years while acting as an integral participant in the Santa Fe arts scene.

Willard Clark: Printer and Printmaker, published by the Museum of New Mexico Press in 2008, does a good job of capturing the entrepreneurial spirit and love of craft that flourished in this creative period in Santa Fe’s history. On the other hand, it also evokes some of the monotony and drudgery of the commercial printing industry. Author David Farmer admits that there’s not a whole lot of information available on Clark or his business. What does exist is about six months worth of records of his printing jobs. As a result, a good portion of the text reads like a list of clients and their projects. Those in the printing or graphic arts professions may be interested in the day-to-day operations of Clark’s company or the various printing presses he owned, but the casual art lover may find it rather boring. Farmer also has the tendency—unfortunately common in art history books—of minutely describe images that are pictured within the book, as if they were not right there for you to see.

Despite the flaws in the text, the book is beautifully illustrated with an abundant sampling of both Clark’s commercial work and his fine art prints. A wide range of styles is included, from small cartoony woodcuts to richly detailed wood engravings. His black and white prints call to mind the early work of Mexican printmakers like Leopoldo Méndez or the artists of the Taller Gráfica Popular (without the political subject matter). His color woodcuts bear some resemblance to another well-known Santa Fe printmaker, Gustave Baumann. The two were associates and sometimes collaborators. In general, Clark’s imagery is simpler and more stylized than Baumann’s more realistic color woodcuts. If all you’re looking for is a book of beautiful New Mexican landscapes, you’d be better off seeking out a volume of Baumann’s work, like Gustave Baumann: Nearer to Art, but if you also want a historical glimpse into the formative years of Santa Fe, its arts scene, and its tourism industry, then this illustrated biography of Clark is the book for you.

Clark closed his print shop in 1942 and went to work as a machinist for the Los Alamos National Laboratory. When he retired from LANL, he returned to printmaking from 1981 until his death in 1992. Clark’s story will be inspirational to artists and graphics professionals alike. He charted his own course, created the art he wanted to make, made a living doing it, and left an enduring artistic legacy to his community. This impressive book is a celebration of his devotion to his craft.

Willard Clark, Catalog cover for the Old Mexico Shop, 1939

Willard Clark, Engraving in boxwood, mid-1930s

Willard Clark, Oldest Church—San Miguel, five-color woodcut in basswood, ca. 1930
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Friday, September 27, 2013

The Magic Skin (La Peau de Chagrin) by Honoré de Balzac

Be careful what you wish for
La Peau de Chagrin, also known as The Magic Skin or The Wild Ass’s Skin, is a novel by Honoré de Balzac. The story opens on a young man entering a gambling hall. His face is an advertisement for despair; he has clearly come here as a last resort. After gambling his last coin on the roulette table, and losing, he determines there’s nothing left for him to do but throw himself into the Seine. Procrastinating his inevitable suicide, he wanders into the shop of an antiquities dealer. The dealer, smelling his desperation, offers him a unique item from his collection. It is a piece of leather, of unknown but ancient origin. The bearer of this unusual talisman has the power to see all his wishes granted, but each time a desire is gratified the skin shrinks a little, and along with it the life expectancy of its user. When the skin shrinks into nonexistence, the bearer will die. Partly out of disbelief and partly out of despondency, the young man, Raphaël de Valentin, accepts the responsibility and inextricably bonds his fate to the magic skin.

Throughout the novel Balzac displays a remarkably encyclopedic knowledge by venturing off into discussions of philosophy, politics, art, history, medicine, engineering, and physics. Unfortunately, these extraneous asides also distract from the main thrust of the story, leaving the reader disappointed at the squandering of its novel and ingenious premise. The book is bogged down by too many lengthy descriptive passages and topical tangents. When Valentin enters the antiquities shop, for example, Balzac lovingly describes each and every object in the room. Each sentence is a work of art, but after a half hour of reading such set decoration, the overall effect is exhausting. Next, a decadent banquet is rendered boring by the meticulous transcription of tedious and pointless conversations. Eventually Valentin decides to explain the circumstances that drove him to contemplate suicide. The result is a far too lengthy flashback consisting mostly of a man groveling at the feet of a woman who treats him like garbage. All the while the reader is wondering when the plot will return to the fascinating magic skin.

Thankfully the final third of the book is an improvement over the rest, as it finally concentrates on how Valentin will cope with the regrettable pact he has made with his talisman. Here the story takes some unexpected turns and creatively dabbles in the realms of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Valentin need not express his wishes out loud like he’s talking to a genie; even his subconscious desires take their toll on the shrinking patch of hide. He reacts by attempting to eliminate all hope and desire in an effort to prolong his existence. The Magic Skin is ultimately the story of one man’s quest for happiness in life. He seeks satisfaction in love, riches, vice, intellect, idleness, isolation, and even drugs, all to no avail. Meanwhile his life fritters away inescapably. The magic scrap of leather embodies the conflict between the quality and the quantity of a human life, and the ravenous insatiability of man’s materialistic and romantic desires.

At the time of its publication in 1831, The Magic Skin was a sensation, quickly selling out and bringing fame and fortune to its author. Today’s readers, however, likely won’t be as enthusiastic as their 19th-century counterparts, and will find this novel less accessible and appealing than many of Balzac’s other writings. Although it contains some memorable scenes and has some powerful points to make, ultimately it wastes too much time on description and digression. Diehard Balzac fans may like this book, but it won’t be their favorite. Casual readers who enjoyed Père Goriot or Lost Illusions will unfortunately find this novel more in keeping with esoteric works like Louis Lambert.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon

As heartbreaking yet invigorating as a slap in the face
Before reading I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, I had always considered Warren Zevon a talented, intelligent, acerbically witty man who probably lived a relatively sane and reasonable life. Boy was I in for a shock. Dirty Life and Times, indeed. This riveting 2007 biography is an unflinching and often uncomfortable window into the turbulent life of this intriguing musical genius. The book is written in the form of an oral history, and consists of first-person accounts of Zevon by those who knew him, compiled by his ex-wife, Crystal Zevon. The portrait of Warren Zevon that results is both shocking and touching. Extreme alcoholism, drug use, sex addiction, spousal abuse, child neglect, and occupational backstabbing all rear their ugly heads in this warts-and-all biography. Zevon had obsessive compulsive disorder, which gave rise to a number of bizarre behaviors. In addition, he exhibits a paranoia and insecurity that causes him to relate to others in an almost infantile manner. To his credit he got clean and sober, through the help of AA, but he never managed to outrun his own mental problems. When diagnosed with terminal cancer, his reaction is a mixture of seize-the-day determination and screw-it-all self-destruction. At times while reading this book I simultaneously hated, pitied, and admired the man, as impossible as that may seem.

Over the course of the book it is fascinating to watch Zevon’s progression from struggling songwriter to minor superstar to forgotten has-been to respected icon. In addition to being an incredibly talented musician, songwriter, and band leader, Zevon was the Kevin Bacon of rock and roll. The liner notes of his albums often read like a list of inductees to the Hall of Fame, and his life story is packed with famous names, from Igor Stravinsky to Bob Dylan to David Letterman. As for the contributors, Jackson Browne’s candid and caring testimony is the most invaluable. Bruce Springsteen, on the other hand, has insightful praise for Zevon, but is reluctant to say anything negative about his late friend. He may be the only one with such reservations, however, as dozens of friends, family, girlfriends, musicians, managers, actors, and authors air their grievances here. Despite all the physical and emotional scars, if there’s an underlying theme to the book it is forgiveness. After detailing the petty, malicious, and/or bizarre treatment they received from Zevon, almost all of the interviewees express an undying admiration, respect, and love for the man.

Crystal Zevon does an excellent job of editing together these numerous and disparate voices. She’s not always so great at editing herself, however. Since she married the man and gave birth to his daughter, she understandably dominates much of the book, but tends to let herself run long. Also included are a number of excerpts from Zevon’s own journal, which read like lists of people he saw, shows he played, or songs he wrote on a given day. Though these entries often contain some revealing comments, they could have been more judiciously selected, as about half of them don’t contribute a whole lot to the narrative. Nevertheless, despite these minor complaints, the oral history approach works. Every famous rock star should have such a biography, though few are lucky enough to get it.

The Kindle edition of this book contains dozens of photographs, but they’re all very low resolution. Several scanned documents are included—handwritten lyrics, letters, contracts, etc.—but the pixelation renders them illegible. Even the oldest Kindle models are capable of reproducing fine detail, but not when the source files are of poor quality. One expects better from a major publisher like Harper Collins.

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Monday, September 23, 2013

Dutch Courage and Other Stories by Jack London

A posthumous collection of odds and ends
Dutch Courage is a collection of short stories by Jack London that was originally published in 1922, about six years after his death. It gathers together ten stories that had not been included in any of his previous short story collections. The preface by London’s widow Charmian, which is more confusing than helpful, states that the common thread that binds these stories together is that they are all suitable for young audiences. Be that as it may, even though many of these stories feature teenaged protagonists and were originally published in boy’s pulp magazines like The Youth’s Companion, they don’t seem as dumbed down or as tame as some of London’s more obviously youth-oriented fiction like the short stories in Tales of the Fish Patrol or the novel The Cruise of the Dazzler. However, you won’t find the sort of bleak fatalism that permeates famous London works like The Call of the Wild or “To Build a Fire”. These stories are all straightforward examples of entertaining adventure fiction, devoid of philosophy or politics.

With one exception, the stories included in Dutch Courage are some of the first works London ever wrote. London’s first published story, “Typhoon Off the Coast of Japan,” written when he was 17, was the winning entry in a writing contest sponsored by the San Francisco Morning Call. In this descriptive sketch, seal hunters in their scattered boats struggle to return to their schooner before a big storm hits. Once safely on board, the crew rides out the typhoon as it pummels their ship. It is an impressive piece of work for a teenager, and shows the nascent talent that would spawn a stellar career. There are other selections that are even more auspicious. “Chris Farrington, Able Seaman” is a better, more fictionalized account of the “Typhoon” story. In “The Lost Poacher,” another sealing schooner inadvertently drifts into Russian waters, forcing the crew to face the possibility of capture and imprisonment in the salt mines of Siberia. “In Yeddo Bay” is a more comical tale of a young sailor in Yokohama who loses his purse, then must find a way to get back to his ship with empty pockets.

Not all the stories deal with sailing. The brief and predictable “Bald-Face” is the only tale of the Klondike Gold Rush included here. “The Banks of the Sacramento,” one of the better offerings, features a fourteen-year-old boy, the son of a mine watchman, who is left to mind the operation while his father is out of town. The title selection, “Dutch Courage” involves two young men attempting to climb Half Dome in Yosemite. “An Adventure in the Upper Sea” takes place in a hot air balloon. The originality of the setting, unfortunately, is the only good thing it has going for it.

The final entry in the book, “Whose Business is to Live,” is by far the longest, and unlike the others it was written at the tail end of London’s career. It takes place in 1914 during the Mexican Revolution. When the American Navy lands in Veracruz, the offended Mexicans retaliate against any gringos they can find. A small party of Americans in Tampico must make a 50 mile trip upriver to rescue their stranded loved ones. It offers nonstop action, but it’s somewhat of a confusing mess. It demonstrates the overindulgence characteristic of many of London’s later stories.

Only the most diehard London fans need read Dutch Courage. It’s a hodgepodge of good and bad pieces, with nothing really outstanding. While not a bad bunch of stories overall, when compared to almost any other collection published during London’s lifetime, it just doesn’t measure up.

Stories in this collection:
Dutch Courage
Typhoon Off the Coast of Japan
The Lost Poacher
The Banks of the Sacramento
Chris Farrington, Able Seaman
To Repel Boarders
An Adventure in the Upper Sea
In Yeddo Bay
Whose Business Is To Live

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Friday, September 20, 2013

The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, 1896–1898. Volume 2: 1897–1898. Edited by Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Douglas K. Burgess

The aspiring novelist hones his craft
In the second volume of The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, editors Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. and Douglas K. Burgess have collected all of Norris’s writings that were published in the San Francisco Wave from the end of June 1897 to late September of 1898. Although Volume 2 contains more fiction, it is a bit less satisfying than Volume 1. Part of this may be due to the fact that many of the pieces included here have already been published in other collections like The Third Circle or the Library of America volume Frank Norris: Novels and Essays. Nevertheless, for anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the author and his writings, this collection encapsulates an important stage in his literary development. As was the case with Volume 1, the editors have done an excellent job with the material, even though the material itself in many cases is not Norris’s best work. McElrath and Burgess provide a very good introduction, though it does contain quite a few spoilers, so you may want to save it for the end.

While Volume 2 does not contain any of the sports writings that were so cumbersome in Volume 1, it does contain the annoying series “The Opinions of Leander,” consisting of five or six transcriptions of inane conversations between two country club chaps who feel it their duty to debate the proper behavior of a society girl. Even if the character of Leander is intended to be a buffoon, the series still amounts to Norris preaching to young women on how to conduct themselves. Some of the better selections in the book include “Miracle Joyeux,” an unconventional and irreverent story of Jesus; “Sanitary Reduction,” in which Norris the naturalistic journalist visits the San Francisco trash dump, and “Perverted Tales,” a delightful series of humorous stories in which Norris parodies the style and subject matter of Rudyard Kipling, Stephen Crane, Bret Harte, Richard Harding Davis, Ambrose Bierce, and Anthony Hope.

The nonfiction pieces do not have quite the enthusiasm and originality that marked Norris’s writing of the previous year. It’s as if he had something better to do than expend his time and energy on journalism. Fortunately, of course, that something better was writing novels, at which he would go on to become a master. The best thing about The Apprenticeship Writings Volume 2 is that it contains stories that serve as preliminary sketches for his later, greater novels. “From Field to Storehouse,” in which Norris discusses the California wheat harvest, reads like research for his great agricultural epic The Octopus. “Judy’s Service of Gold Plate” is the story of Maria Macapa and Zerkow from McTeague, under different names. “Fantaisie Printanière” is another scene lifted from McTeague, this time featuring the title character himself. “The End of the Beginning” is a condensed version of the excellent opening chapters of A Man’s Woman. “The Drowned Who Do Not Die,” the haunting and mysterious tale of a deep sea diver charged with recovering bodies from a shipwreck, is perhaps the best story in the collection. It was later incorporated into Norris’s novel Blix.

Casual fans of Norris would do best to stick to his novels, but for those wishing to delve deeper into the life and work of this great author, The Apprenticeship Writings provides a welcome window into his early literary career. Avid aficionados and scholars of Norris’s work will find much here that is familiar, but they will discover many pleasant surprises as well.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Red Shadows by Robert E. Howard

Brutal good fun
Red Shadows, a brief novella by Robert E. Howard, was originally published in the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales magazine. It is the story in which Howard introduces his popular recurring character Solomon Kane, and for that reason it is often reprinted under the alternate title of Solomon Kane.

In the first few pages, Kane stumbles upon a girl who has been “violated” and left for dead. With her dying breath, she tells him that she was attacked by a group of bandits under the direction of Le Loup (The Wolf). With five simple words—“Men shall die for this.”—Kane vows to avenge her. Let the carnage begin. The narrative structure of Red Shadows is like the disembodied second half of a spaghetti western—all righteous retribution with no back story to precede it. There is no Solomon Kane origin story here. In fact, the reader ends the story knowing very little about the character. In a couple of spots he is described as an Englishman and a Puritan. The description of his dress and choice of weapons indicates the story perhaps takes place in the 17th century. Beyond that, there are few clues given to establish time and place, and little character development to get in the way of the action.

Kane eventually tracks his prey to Africa, where he encounters a tribe of savage natives. The African characters are not described in a flattering light, but this has less to do with any overt racism on Howard’s part than with his desire to create a nightmarish atmosphere populated with frightening villains. From reading Red Shadows it is easy to understand the enduring appeal of Howard’s stories and characters. The 21st-century action movie fan will feel right at home in his bleak and brutal world. Other classic pulp adventure writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, or Harold Lamb always hang on to some vestige of propriety in their tales which makes them seem tame by comparison. In their stories, the violence has been romanticized to the point where the bloodshed loses its harsh edge. Howard’s writing is no holds barred. He turns all the knobs up to 11. When someone dies in a Howard story, it hurts.

As a fan of historical adventure, I prefer Solomon Kane over Howard’s more famous creation, Conan, because Kane is more grounded in historical reality. Nevertheless, this is fantasy fiction, and supernatural events do take place. Howard’s great strength as a storyteller is that he has a knack for treating such fantastical occurrences with the same gritty authenticity in which he would describe a sword fight or a pursuit on horseback. For those who appreciate pulp fiction, Red Shadows is a gripping and entertaining ride. When all is said and done and the last man’s standing, you’ll be dying for more tales of Solomon Kane.

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Monday, September 16, 2013

Blood Song by Eric Drooker

Fabulous art, disappointing story
Blood Song is a wordless novel by Eric Drooker, first published in 2002. The book is composed of illustrations created using a combination of scratchboard and watercolor media. The pictures are composed almost entirely in black, white, and shades of bluish gray, with the exception of occasional touches of color added for emphasis—a yellow butterfly, a green bird, a red drop of blood. The art in this book is absolutely beautiful! Each panel is suitable for framing. In this book Drooker displays a more mature, refined, and fluid style than the jagged, raw imagery of his 1992 graphic novel Flood! That’s not to say that either style is better; both books stand as contemporary masterpieces of graphic art.

Unfortunately the storytelling of Blood Song doesn’t meet the same standard as the art. The beginning of the book is strikingly similar to Laurence Hyde’s excellent wordless novel of 1951, Southern Cross. Drooker depicts a rural village in what appears to be southeast Asia. Here a young woman lives out an idyllic existence with her family and her faithful dog. While out fetching water one day, her paradise is invaded by a military force that looks an awful lot like Americans. The girl and her dog flee, embarking on a journey that will take them far away from their homeland. About nine out of ten images in the book depict the girl on her way to some place. Only about one in ten show what happens when she actually gets somewhere. The result is a book loaded with beautiful images but possessing little literary content. While Flood! contained some ambiguity in its narrative, allowing for varied interpretations, Blood Song is a very linear and straightforward story. Drooker seems to be striving for the allegorical feel of a modern-day fairy tale, but even fairy tales require more depth than one finds here. It doesn’t help that the heroine here is a literal babe-in-the-woods innocent, creating a good vs. evil dichotomy that is as absolute as black and white. Drooker’s apparent assertion that all cops, all soldiers, all figures of authority are evil comes across as immature. In Flood! Drooker handled his characters and plot with much more subtletly and nuance. Blood Song, though stunning to look at, leaves the reader wanting more.

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Friday, September 13, 2013

A Prisoner of Morro by Upton Sinclair

Pulp fiction of the Spanish-American War
Upton Sinclair is best known for political writings like The Jungle, but when he was just getting started on his career he worked his way through college by writing adventure fiction. A Prisoner of Morro, or, In the Hands of the Enemy was penned under the pseudonym of Ensign Clark Fitch, USN, and published in 1898 when Sinclair was just 20 years old. The story takes place in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Naval Cadet Clif Faraday ships out of Key West on the gun boat Uncas, bound for the northern coast of Cuba. While en route the Uncas encounters a Spanish merchant steamer. After a hot pursuit the Americans capture the vessel. Young Faraday is put in command of the Spanish boat and charged with bringing it back to Florida. Clif is unable to accomplish his mission, however, as he and his small crew meet with treachery at the hands of the Spaniards. Given the book’s title, it should come as no surprise that Clif becomes a prisoner of war. The Morro referred to in the title is Morro Castle, in Havana Bay, a fortress notorious for its dungeons of no return.

A Prisoner of Morro seems to have been written for an audience of adolescent boys. The book’s hero is such a boy scout, always exercising the most noble and brave behavior, he is obviously meant to serve as a role model for America’s youth. References to past events in the first chapter indicate that this is not the first episode in the adventures of Clif Faraday, though I’m not sure how many novels Sinclair wrote in this series. Somewhere along the way Clif has even managed to acquire his own personal nemesis, a particularly nefarious Spaniard named Ignacio, who exemplifies the over-the-top villains who flourished in the age of pulp fiction. Ignacio is endowed with “claw-like fingers,” wears a perpetual scowl, and enjoys torturing “Yankee pigs.” At first it’s quite disconcerting to find Sinclair, a socialist and frequently outspoken dissenter, indulging in the jingoism and xenophobia of his time. The Spaniards in the book are mostly caricatures, like the Japanese characters in a World War II era movie. Although he never descends too far into the realm of racial stereotypes, Sinclair definitely depicts the conflict between America and Spain as a battle between good and evil that’s as clear as black and white. Thankfully, about halfway through the book he introduces a sympathetic Spanish character that actually displays the qualities of a human being. In fact, as the book goes on, it becomes less and less sensationalistic and thus more palatable to today’s reader.

Sinclair demonstrates that he can be a skilled writer of adventure tales. The book is peppered with exciting chases and skirmishes. I suspect this story was originally serialized in some pulp magazine, because every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. Though each individual chapter is packed with action, there’s little attempt to combine them into a cohesive novel. I hesitate to call this book a novel at all, for it seems as if Sinclair just made it up as he went along, then stopped when he reached a page count sufficient to be called a book. There is a tediously repetitious cycle of capture and escape throughout the story, and as soon as Clif completes one mission he just starts on another in the following chapter, with little relation to what came before. By the time you get to the end, what took place at the beginning is long forgotten. Even fans of classic pulp fiction, who are often willing to suspend disbelief and can tolerate a clumsy plot, may find A Prisoner of Morro to be just too tame and antiquated to be worth their time.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Scorn of Women by Jack London

A good story turned into a bad play
Though Jack London is famous for his novels, short stories, and essays, he also tried his hand as a playwright. Success in the theatrical world eluded him, however. He managed to publish a handful of plays during his career, but none were considered worthy of production during his lifetime. Scorn of Women, one of these forgotten plays, was published in book form in 1906. It is an adaptation of an earlier short story of the same name which is included in London’s 1901 collection The God of His Fathers. While the original story is quite entertaining and engaging, much of its charms have been lost in translation for the stage.

Floyd Vanderlip has struck it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush. Not only does he enjoy an abundance of wealth, but he also finds himself with an abundance of women. He is all fired up to leave Dawson with a Hungarian beauty, but two other ladies try their utmost to hinder his departure. The lovely and respectable Mrs. Eppingwell, despite having a husband, begins to show an interest in him, as does Freda Moloof, a gorgeous Greek dancer and reputed man-eater. Little does Floyd know that the sudden outpouring of affection from these two beauties is only a ruse meant to detain him from fleeing with his mistress, just long enough for his fiancée Flossie, en route from the lower 48, to arrive in Dawson and claim her man.

The original short story “The Scorn of Women” is a delightful comedy of manners. Not only does it humorously illustrate the power of intelligent women over a clueless man, it also satirizes the pretentious class distinctions—even in the remote Yukon Territory—between the upper class miners’ wives and the dance hall girl of ill repute. For the dramatic adaptation, London has emphasized the class conflict between the female leads at the expense of the humor, in an attempt to make Freda into some sort of Ibsenesque heroine. While in the short story Floyd was mostly a harmless comic boob, in the play he develops into more of a villain, which leaves one to question whether the happy ending is truly a happy one.

The short story develops its plot over time, providing back story on the characters and establishing the relationships between them. It all leads up to a climactic ball in which all the players come together under one roof. The play, on the other hand, begins on the day of the ball, when the scheming of the women is already underway, and the audience must figure out the back story from disconnected bits of dialogue. If I hadn’t already read the short story, I doubt I would have been able to figure out what was going on. Yet, having read the short story, I couldn’t help feeling the stage adaptation was inferior and pointless.

It’s doubtful any of us will ever see Scorn of Women at our local theatre, and the only people who are likely to seek out the book are diehard fans of Jack London who have read almost everything else he’s ever written. Even to that devoted audience, this play is an unnecessary read. Better to go back and enjoy the short story again. It’s much more worthy of your time.

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Monday, September 9, 2013

Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope

The small-town perils of innocent love
Rachel Ray, a novel by Anthony Trollope, was originally published in 1863. The title character, a young woman of 19, lives with her mother and elder sister, both of whom are widows, in a cottage outside the rural town of Baslehurst, in Devonshire, England. Rachel is beautiful, bright, and well-intentioned, but naive in the ways of love and somewhat defiant or perhaps ignorant of social conventions. A minor scandal erupts when she is seen walking alone with a young man in the town churchyard. The person most upset by this error in judgment is Rachel’s sister, Dorothea Prime, a puritanical Christian who, though having once been married herself, feels it is improper for young ladies to interact with young men when their time would be better spent sewing clothes for the poor. The young man in question is Luke Rowan, who has inherited a share of the local brewery from his departed uncle, and has come from London to learn the ways of hops and malt. Rowan pursues a romance with Rachel, all the while conducting himself in a respectful manner, but when he has a falling out with his bosses at the brewery, rumors are spread which tarnish the reputations of the couple and threaten to stifle their young love in its infancy.

Trollope does a brilliant job of capturing the complex social interactions of everyday small-town life. He details Baslehurst and its environs so vividly the reader soon feels like a resident, and the trials and tribulations of Rachel and Luke assume the importance of the affairs of kings and queens. The supporting cast of characters are as familiar as caricatures and yet as unique and original as the people one might meet in their own hometown. Interesting subplots include a feud between rival ministers, a contentious lawsuit, and a local parliamentary election. It’s all handled in a relatively lighthearted manner. This is not a book to be read with a furrowed brow. Trollope delicately walks a tightrope between acknowledging the magnitude of everyday crises and simultaneously winking at their insignificance. His keen sense of humor is pervasive throughout the book, particularly when he is describing the foul brew produced by the local brewery.

Trollope makes the two young lovers so likeable, the reader can’t help but root for them. At times, however, the opposition to their courtship comes across as more frivolous than formidable, to the point where the incessant quibbling over Rachel’s alleged improprieties or Luke’s rumored debts begins to grow tedious. The circumstances don’t seem to bear enough gravity to merit the book’s 30-chapter length. It runs long in the middle, and could have used a little trimming of the fat. When all is said and done, however, and the covers are closed, the reader will look fondly on the time spent in picturesque Baslehurst, and will miss its quirky inhabitants.

This is the first book I’ve ever read by Trollope, and it certainly won’t be the last. At times I wondered if Balzac had relocated to England and adopted a pseudonym. Like his French contemporary, Trollope combines compelling drama with keen social insight and an intelligent wit. Rachel Ray is a fun and entertaining read that doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet it’s skillfully crafted and substantial enough to transcend the typical Victorian romance.

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Friday, September 6, 2013

The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, 1896–1898. Volume 1: 1896–1897. Edited by Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Douglas K. Burgess

The formative years of a literary giant
Though Frank Norris achieved his literary fame as a novelist, he got his start in the newspaper business, as a staff writer for the weekly periodical the San Francisco Wave. Norris contributed both fiction and nonfiction to the Wave, and was given wide latitude in his choice of subject matter. In The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, editors Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Douglas K. Burgess have compiled all of Norris’s writings from his two-year tenure at the Wave into two volumes, each about 350 pages in length. This first volume, published in 1996, covers the period from April 1896 to June 1897. Although a few of these pieces have been featured in previous collections, most of them haven’t seen print since they debuted in the Wave. This collection not only rescues some of Norris’s lesser known work from obscurity, but it also provides valuable insight into the development of the naturalistic style he employed in great novels like The Octopus and McTeague.

The introduction to this volume provides an excellent in-a-nutshell biography of Norris’s early years. As for his writings of this time, one surprising thing about Volume 1 is how little fiction it contains. Little more than a dozen of the items included are fiction, and most of them occur in the first 100 pages of the volume. The best of these are the “Man Proposes” series—five separate vignettes in which couples of various walks of life reach the decisive moment in their courtship. There are also a few insightful character studies of “Western types,” and unfortunately a few one-act plays which aren’t very good. The bulk of the book is nonfiction, and it’s in Norris’s depictions of San Francisco people, places, and events that we start to see the development of his mature style. Just a few of the high points are “On a Battleship” in which Norris likens the USS Oregon to a great beast; “Italy in California,” a travel piece in which he vividly describes the Italian-Swiss wine region of Asti; and “Inside an Organ,” in which he visits a giant electric pipe organ and beautifully exhibits his talent for sonic description. During his tenure at the Wave, Norris also interviewed actresses and artists, covered sporting events and military maneuvers, reviewed books and plays, translated stories from the French, and penned a few excellent literary essays in which he clarifies his concept of Naturalism.

The main problem with Volume 1 can be summed up in one word: football. It is almost all he wrote about in the Fall of 1896. Norris was a Harvard man, and his football articles often revolve around his assertion that “coastal” football is far inferior to the way the game was played back East. Though it’s interesting at first to read details of the way the game has changed over the past century, the football commentary gets monotonous after a while. Of Norris’s other journalistic writings, some are exceptional and some are forgettable, but at least the topics are sufficiently varied to keep your interest.

The editors have done a five-star job of compiling this volume, but Norris’s writing is all over the map in terms of quality. Probably the only people who are going to read this book are Norris scholars and his most diehard fans. To such an audience, the primary concern is not so much the quality of the work as it is how much these writings tell us about Norris’s literary development, and how these early pieces inform the renowned novels that would follow. This book is very successful on both counts, and Norris enthusiasts will find it a valuable addition to their collections.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Leopoldo Méndez: Revolutionary Art and the Mexican Print by Deborah Caplow

4-star text, 2-star pictures
Leopoldo Méndez is one of the greatest printmakers of the twentieth century, yet in the U.S. he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry! From the early 1920s to the mid-1960s he produced a prolific output of beautiful and powerful woodcut prints which illustrated the plight of the Mexican working class, demanded political and social reform, condemned Fascism, and promoted peace. He definitely merits a book that will bring deserved recognition to his impressive body of work. This book is only moderately successful in achieving that goal. The main problem with this book is one of design and execution. This is a 6 x 9 scholarly monograph masquerading as a 9 x 12 coffee table book. As a coffee table book, it fails; as a monograph, it’s quite successful.

The book is generously illustrated, but only about half the illustrations are works by Méndez. The rest are photographs or artworks by his associates, or those who influenced him. The selection of works by Méndez is very good. Unfortunately, they’re not reproduced very well. Although this is a big book, 9 x 12 inches, the illustrations are relatively small; almost all are 4.5 inches wide or less. Instead of scanning the woodcut prints as black and white line art, to accentuate the stark contrast of light and dark in Méndez’s work, the prints are scanned as grayscale, which adds a dull gray halftone pattern over the entire image, killing the contrast and in some cases interfering with the fine detail of Méndez’s line work. There is a color section in which the images are larger and, for the most part, of better quality, but it’s only 16 pages long.

The main attraction of this book is its text. This is the most detailed examination of Méndez in the English language, and perhaps in any language. Caplow goes beyond Méndez to provide an overview of the entire history of art in Mexico following the Revolution. While this gives us valuable perspective on the era in which Méndez lived and worked, at times it makes him seem like a supporting character in his own biography. The depth of detail in this book is truly impressive. In addition to mining every printed source on Méndez, Caplow also interviewed several of his colleagues. The only fault I can find with the writing is that Caplow feels the need to describe in detail every one of the hundreds of illustrations, even to the point of often stating the obvious.

If you want to see big, beautiful reproductions of Méndez’s work, get your hands on a copy of Leopoldo Méndez: Oficio de Grabar, by Francisco Reyes Palma. If you want to learn everything you can about Méndez—his life, his art, and his times—Caplow’s book is a rewarding read.

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Monday, September 2, 2013

Christ in Flanders by Honoré de Balzac

An unconventional plea for church reform
Christ in Flanders, originally published in 1831, is a short story by Honoré de Balzac. Like almost all of Balzac’s writings, it is considered part of his multi-volume body of work entitled The Comédie Humaine, but it is one of the tiniest pieces in the mosaic and bears little or no connectivity to other works in the series. The story takes place on the coast of Flemish Brabant, in present-day Belgium. A ferry from the island of Cadzand to the town of Ostend on the mainland encounters rough weather that threatens the lives of the passengers. Balzac examines how the travelers on board, representing various social classes, react to their impending doom, and to the mysterious Christ-like stranger who travels among them.

As is obvious from its title, Christ in Flanders deals with religious subject matter, but for the most part it’s far from preachy. The story reads less like an inspirational fable and more like a gothic tale of supernatural horror or an episode of The Twilight Zone. The atmosphere is delightfully spooky and the plot captivatingly suspenseful. Only toward the end does it devolve into a sermon of sorts. The ultimate purpose of the story is for Balzac to both scold and implore the Catholic Church to cast off its hunger for riches and its gloomy, judgmental facade and embrace its foundational values of faith, love, and benevolence. Perhaps this unconventional tale was not the best choice of venue to express such lofty ideas. Those receptive to such a message may not appreciate the macabre manner in which it is expressed, while those just looking for a good story are likely to consider the concluding lecture a major let-down. Christ in Flanders is not an essential read by any means, but avid fans of Balzac won’t mind giving it a brief 20 minutes of their time.

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