Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Executioner (El Verdugo) by Honoré de Balzac

Moving and effective, but all too brief
El Verdugo (The Executioner), a short story by Honoré de Balzac, was originally published in 1830. Though very brief, like all of the components of Balzac’s body of work known as the Comédie Humaine, it is considered an individual work of literature in its own right, and is distributed by Amazon or Project Gutenberg as a stand-alone ebook file.

The story takes place in Spain, in the small town of Menda, at a time when Spain is under French occupation. Victor Marchand, a young officer in the French military, has been stationed in Menda with his battalion of soldiers, partly to defend the coast from British attack and partly to keep an eye on the local Spanish nobleman, the Marquis de Leganes, who may be acting in collusion with the English. Despite the suspicions surrounding the Marquis, Marchand has a cordial relationship with the family and has even fallen in love with one of the Marquis’s daughters. Then one lovely night, the tranquility of this peaceful Spanish village is shattered by unexpected treachery.

Though the story deals with military matters, Balzac chose not to classify this tale under the Scenes of Military Life category of the Comédie Humaine, but rather under the Philosophical Studies category, which gives some indication that it won’t be a typical war story. El Verdugo depicts a tragic and disturbing event, one that inspires contemplation of life, death, love, and honor. Unfortunately, it does little more than depict this event. Upon completion, the reader can’t help wishing it were longer, more fleshed out, and had capitalized more on its merits. Even an epilogue of more than one paragraph would have been a big help. As it stands, it’s like a pivotal scene torn from the pages of an excellent novel. Absent that excellent novel, one can’t help wondering what the point of it all is, except to produce a profound and affecting sadness. Nevertheless, anyone who’s ever enjoyed Balzac’s writing should read El Verdugo. For such a brief story, it packs a powerful emotional punch.

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Monday, October 28, 2013

The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. by Jack London and Robert L. Fish

A philosophical thriller
The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. is a novel that was begun by Jack London in 1910 but left unfinished at the time of his death. It was completed posthumously by crime fiction writer Robert L. Fish, and first published in 1963. The titular organization is led by Ivan Dragomiloff, a Russian immigrant in New York. Dragomiloff and his team of killers, all of whom hold day jobs as respected intellectuals, assassinate public figures for money. The twist, however, is that they will only kill those whom they deem harmful to society. The ultimate arbiter of this ethical verdict is Dragomiloff himself. When Winter Hall, a do-gooder sociologist, discovers the clandestine organization, he pays Dragomiloff to take out a contract on Dragomiloff himself, arguing that the Bureau has done more harm than good. After much philosophical deliberation, Dragomiloff concedes that Hall has convinced him of his own ethical error in establishing the Bureau. Deeming himself deserving of assassination, Dragomiloff orders the very organization he founded to hunt him down and kill him. In keeping with the rules of the organization, if the Bureau’s assassins do not manage to take his life within one year, the contract will be null and void. Thus begins a year-long cross country chase in which Dragomiloff not only fights for survival, but sets about destroying the organization he created.

I must confess that I did not entirely comprehend the ethical justification for Dragomiloff’s sentencing himself to death. London ends the debate pretty abruptly in order to get on with the action. It also seems the simplistic philosophy of the Bureau members could be summed up merely in one sentence: “Never break your word.” The fuzzy logic of the book, however, little hinders one’s enjoyment of its suspenseful story. The cold, calculated way in which the members of the Bureau deliberate life and death is years ahead of its time, and quite prescient in its foreshadowing of World War I. The execution of the book, however, never quite lives up to the promise of its audacious concept. Perhaps that’s why London abandoned the novel before completion. London’s writing ends at page 109, with Fish taking over until the book’s end at page 162. The writing style of the two, to Fish’s credit, is indistinguishable, but Fish greatly rescues the plot of the novel from stagnation. Up to the point where the torch is passed, London has offered the reader a repetitive series of killings, interspersed with periodic truces in which the characters gather in a spirit of mutual brotherhood and discuss philosophical matters as if they were the ancient Stoics. In the back of the book there are three pages of notes sketching how London intended to finish the novel. Fish thankfully does not slavishly defer to the master’s outline, but provides his own ending which is an improvement over London’s original plan.

The Penguin Classics edition of this book opens with an introduction by Donald E. Pease which is an almost unintelligible mess. If you absolutely feel you must read this introduction, by all means read the novel first, otherwise Pease will ruin it for you.

The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. is not one of London’s best novels, but it is certainly deserving of the resurrection so admirably accomplished by Fish. Despite its shortcomings, it does entertain, and London deserves to be commended for attempting to elevate the murder thriller genre by injecting it with a healthy dose of philosophical food-for-thought.

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Friday, October 25, 2013

Tales of Terror and Mystery by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A satisfying and diverse assortment of classic genre fiction
Tales of Terror and Mystery, a collection of short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was originally published in 1923. The twelve stories included here are divided neatly into two categories, with six “Tales of Terror” and six “Tales of Mystery.” Though united by the two genres mentioned in the book’s title, these stories vary widely enough in subject matter to provide a good, diverse sampling of Conan Doyle’s non-Sherlock Holmes work.

The Tales of Terror are obviously influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe, though they feel a little tame by comparison. When reading Poe’s tales one often gets the feeling they were written by an actual psychopath, while Conan Doyle’s tales never let the reader forget he is in the hands of a storyteller skilled in the art of building suspense and delivering chills and thrills. As one would expect from a man with Conan Doyle’s scientific mind, these are not supernatural horror stories. There’s always a rational explanation for the source of the terror. A monster, for example, is the result of evolution, not a demon from hell, but it’s still a scary monster nonetheless. The opening story, “The Horror of the Heights,” is perhaps the book’s best. It focuses on an “aeronaut” in the early days of powered flight. Though maybe not as frightening as some of the other Tales of Terror, it is a wonderful piece of vintage science fiction, with a premise so novel it still shocks you with its ingenuity roughly a century after it was written. Another good offering is “The Brazilian Cat,” which involves a South American jaguar that has been transplanted to an Englishman’s private menagerie. In Conan Doyle’s hands, the natural can be every bit as terrifying as the supernatural.

Under the heading of Tales of Mystery, one finds the Sherlock Holmes-type mystery stories that Conan Doyle is famous for, only without Sherlock Holmes. These stories all seem to share a common format. The first half states the case to be solved and lays out all the evidence in a procedural, just-the-facts manner. Then in the latter half one of the parties involved in the case shows up to explain the whole matter, providing a back story full of human interest. Unfortunately, the endings are often rather predictable, or in some cases even a bit of a cheat to the reader, counteracting information previously given. The result is that the stories are often quite compelling up until the big reveal, which proves to be disappointing. By today’s standards, even many of the Sherlock Holmes adventures are not particularly mystifying, but they succeed because of the entertaining repartee between Holmes and Watson. Here, absent such captivating personalities, the success or failure of these stories relies on how much Conan Doyle can get the reader to sympathize with his characters. To that end, the results are mixed. Only one Tale of Mystery really stands out as exceptional. In “The Japanned Box,” a teacher takes up residence at an old rural manor, where he is to act as tutor to the two sons of a rich widower. He soon discovers that his employer has a tumultuous past, and may not in truth be the quiet and reserved gentleman he appears to be. This story works because the ending is not only surprising but also quite touching.

Thanks to the film and television industries, today’s readers are bombarded by countless mystery and horror stories. To such a savvy audience, the plots of most of the tales included here will fail to shock and the endings may fail to surprise. Nevertheless, they benefit from the prose of an expert storyteller. Fans of Conan Doyle will certainly find much to appreciate in this collection. Anyone looking for an introduction to Conan Doyle’s non-Holmes work would do well to read this book.

Stories in this collection
The Horror of the Heights 
The Leather Funnel 
The New Catacomb 
The Case of Lady Sannox 
The Terror of Blue John Gap 
The Brazilian Cat 
The Lost Special 
The Beetle-Hunter 
The Man with the Watches
The Japanned Box 
The Black Doctor 
The Jew’s Breastplate 

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann

A solid follow-up to the outstanding 1491
In his 2005 book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann challenged traditional notions of pre-Columbian America, demonstrating that the civilizations that existed in America prior to European contact were far more populous and sophisticated than commonly thought. In his latest book, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, published in 2011, Mann turns his attention to the worldwide and centuries-spanning effects of the initial contact between the Old and New Worlds, and the monumental biological, cultural, economic, and political changes that followed the dawn of globalization.

The book opens with a brief biography of Columbus and the story of his famous voyage. Next, Mann gives an account of the settlement of Jamestown. Packed with lots of myth-busting factoids and anecdotes, these retellings of history seem far removed from the textbook versions we grew up with. When the Spanish begin trading with the Chinese in the Philippines, globalization has begun. American crops become overnight sensations on the world’s dinner tables: potatoes feed a starving Europe, sweet potatoes perform much the same function in China, and tobacco hooks everybody. Mann is very good at establishing chains of cause-and-effect relationships between the voyage of 1492 and later historical events. He postulates how malaria encouraged the slave trade and helped win the American Revolution, Mexican silver contributed to the fall of the Ming Dynasty, the Irish potato famine spawned the agro-industrial complex, and rubber made possible the Industrial Revolution. In the book’s latter half, Mann delves into the diverse racial makeup of the early post-conquest Americas, as embodied by the first truly global metropolis, Mexico City. He goes on to emphasize that, for centuries after the establishment of the slave trade, Africans constituted the majority of the American population. He details how many slaves departed into the wilderness, mixed with the indigenous inhabitants, and established their own communities, some of which still exist today.

While 1491 was an absolute joy to read from cover to cover, at times reading 1493 feels like work. Part of this is due simply to the subject matter. The ancient civilizations discussed in 1491 are inherently awe-inspiring, while the subject matter of 1493 is obviously more depressing—malaria, potato famine, slavery. Though Mann does briefly mention some of the positive effects of globalization, much of the book is a catalog of pestilence, cruelty, and misery. In addition, the theses presented here are not as novel or as shocking as those of 1491. Most readers will already have an inkling of the main ideas of the book, though Mann, skilled journalist that he is, fleshes out the familiar theories with plenty of facts and figures that are sure to surprise even the most historically savvy reader. Mann’s wide breadth of knowledge and minute attention to detail can be both a blessing and a curse. Some chapters feel like a disorienting morass of detail, devoid of focus, leaving the reader wondering what point is really being made.

Mann is an excellent writer, and perhaps such objections arise simply because 1491 set the bar too high. Despite its flaws and dull moments, it’s hard to imagine a better synthesis of the present state of research on the Columbian Exchange. Those who are at all interested in this subject can’t help but read it, and, for the most part, they will find it quite fascinating and insightful.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I, Patroclus
The Song of Achilles, the 2011 debut novel by Madeline Miller, retells the life story of the titular Greek hero as related through the first-person perspective of his friend and constant companion Patroclus. In Homer’s Iliad, it is the death of Patroclus that so enrages Achilles that he hunts down the Trojan warrior Hector, slays him, and defiles his corpse. Here Miller provides us with the back story behind Achilles’ terrible rage. In this novel, Achilles and Patroclus share a homosexual relationship. While that in itself is not so unexpected—some would say even Homer implies it—what is surprising is how much the romance dominates the book. Those hoping for tales of Achilles’ battlefield heroics may find themselves waiting awfully impatiently for the boats to leave for Troy.

The ancient Greek tale of the Trojan War is one of the greatest stories ever told, which leaves one to wonder what Miller could possibly hope to add to it. What she does is make the story more compelling and palatable to a modern audience by making the mythical heroes less idealized, adding psychological depth to the characters, and staging scenes that descriptively recreate life in the ancient world. While some readers may find the explicit gay love scenes offensive, I was more put off by the way that supernatural events are treated in the book. In Homer’s epic poems, of course, the gods and goddesses exist and interact with the characters. What works for Homer, however, doesn’t necessarily work for Miller. On the one hand she humanizes Achilles and Patroclus by depicting them in a realistic homosexual relationship. On the other hand she has them riding on the back of a centaur. The incongruity is jarring, and totally yanks the reader out of any semblance of verisimilitude into the world of young adult fantasy literature. Most of the time the mythology is handled with more subtlety. The gods exercise their influence behind the scenes and are mentioned by the characters in conversation. The few instances, however, when the story does go into Clash of the Titans mode, the effect is detrimental to the novel’s mature literary examination of love, honor, and glory. Chiron was a centaur, after all, so what’s to be done? While Miller’s faithfulness to the classic texts is to be respected, for this modern retelling she could have exercised more poetic license.

For much of the book, Patroclus is not the most satisfying of narrators. He’s overly whiny, too passive, and too often gushes like a lovesick puppy. At about the halfway point, the Greeks depart for Troy and the book vastly improves from then on. In fact, it keeps on getting better and better up until the end, and Patroclus manages to earn the reader’s respect. Despite the fact that the conclusion is foregone, Miller adds dimension, complexity, and sensitivity to the proceedings, providing the reader with an opportunity to view this ancient tale in a new light. It’s no substitute for the Iliad, but an admirable supplement to it. One character that’s handled very well in the book is Odysseus. It would be interesting to see what Miller could do with the Odyssey.

The Song of Achilles is a well-crafted literary mashup of classic myth, peplum film, and fantasy romance. Fans of any of those genres will surely find something to like in it, but to truly love this book you’d have to be enthusiastic about all three.

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast by Hilary Stewart

A Rosetta Stone for deciphering this beautiful visual language
From the native cultures of the Northwest Coast (southern Alaska to northern Oregon) have sprung some of the most spiritually powerful and visually stunning artworks ever created in the Western hemisphere, rivaling even the Mesoamerican art of the Aztecs and Maya in their complexity and sophistication. The indigenous artists of this region preceded the European modernists by at least a century in their flattening of three-dimensional figures into two-dimensional space, their simplification of reality into geometric forms, and their depictions of subject matter through a simultaneity of multiple viewpoints. This excellent little book helps to translate this unique visual language, and truly broadens the reader’s appreciation and understanding of this rich cultural legacy.

Hilary Stewart explains the motifs that recur in Northwest Coast art and provides a field guide to the animals and people—both natural and mythological—most often depicted. The book is generously illustrated with designs by contemporary artists working in the traditional style of the Northwest Coast, as well as black and white photographs of museum pieces, murals, and totem poles. The images are accompanied by insightful text pointing out the cultural significance of each graphic element. No doubt this book is too thin to be the authoritative scholarly reference on the subject, but it provides an excellent introduction for beginners and would serve as a valuable pocket companion for those more knowledgeable in the field. It’s also an instructive visual dictionary for artists hoping to try their hand at this style of imagery. If you’re at all interested in Northwest Coast art, you’ll find this book both helpful and enjoyable.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Acorn Planter by Jack London

Best avoided by even the most avid London fan
Jack London is primarily known as a novelist and writer of short stories, but during his brief but prolific career he did find time to dabble in poetry, drama, and even film. Given the fame and respect he achieved during his lifetime, one would think the theatrical world would have been clamoring to see this great author’s works upon the stage. Unfortunately for him, however, that was not the case, and none of his efforts for the stage proved successful. London wrote a handful of plays, roughly half of which were based on previously published short stories. Though The Acorn Planter, originally published in 1916, is not one of these recycled stories, it nevertheless provides a rehash of many of the common themes that permeate London’s books.

The cast of the Acorn Planter is composed mostly of members of the Nishinam Indian tribe of California. The core of the allegorical ensemble consists of Red Cloud (the philosopher chief of the tribe), Shaman (who symbolizes religion), War Chief (self-explanatory), and Dew-Woman (representing womankind in general). Eventually the Nishinam encounter the Sun Men, a group of white explorers. Hundreds or thousands of years may pass between acts, but the characters remain the same, that is to say, the archetypal roles are seamlessly filled by the descendants of the characters in the preceding act. The play’s dialogue is almost exclusively written in poetic verse, either in the form of songs or of call-and-response chanting between the aforementioned characters and the chorus of tribespeople.

In The Acorn Planter, London essentially takes an idea that could be summed up in three or four sentences and stretches it out to about a 45 minute play, while adding little emotional resonance to justify such protraction. One can imagine a stage populated with scores of white people dressed in loin cloths, uttering London’s verse in their best stoic Indian voices, to the delight of an equally white audience at some turn-of-the-last-century chautauqua. The main thrust of the play’s message is to once again assert that it was the destiny of the white man to conquer the Native American. The Acorn Planter appends to this argument the added hypothesis that if the Natives had only greeted their white conquerors with love instead of violence, they would not have been massacred. The play’s only redeeming quality is an underlying affirmation that regardless of death and destruction the cycle of life goes on. Sprouting acorns replace fallen oaks, and newborn babies replace their fallen elders.

Unless you are a true completist attempting to read London’s entire body of work, avoid The Acorn Planter at all costs. Even the most diehard London fan won’t find much enjoyment in it. It is probably the least read-worthy piece of literature he ever wrote. Thankfully, The Acorn Planter was never produced for the stage, and after reading it one can see why.

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Domestic Peace by Honoré de Balzac

Love and marriage, French Empire style
Honoré de Balzac
Domestic Peace, a short story by Honoré de Balzac, was originally published in 1831 under the French title of La Paix du Ménage. It takes place in November of 1809 at the height of Napoleon’s empire, a time of great splendor and decadence. Everyone who’s anyone in the Parisian aristocracy is gathered at a grand ball at the home of the Comte de Gondreville. Two friends, General Montcornet (also referred to, confusingly, as Colonel) and the Baron Martial de la Roche-Hugon, an up-and-coming lawyer, are discussing a newcomer to the scene, a beautiful mystery woman of melancholy demeanor who has isolated herself in a corner of the room. Martial is immediately smitten with her, despite being engaged to the eminently lovely and wealthy young widow Madame de Vaudremont, who is also present at the party. Will he be willing to sacrifice the advantages of such a fortuitous match in order to chase after this unknown beauty? To complicate matters, Colonel Soulanges, one of Napoleon’s favorite military men, also shows an interest in the mystery woman, and angrily declares he’ll kill Martial if he so much as goes near her.

Thus a complicated love pentagon is established, in which each player schemes to satisfy his or her own romantic and financial interests. The atmosphere Balzac creates is one in which sentimental notions of love and honor are meaningless and reputation is the only inhibition. The story never takes itself too seriously, and it’s fun to watch the fortunes of the two gentlemen friends rise and fall over the course of the evening. Eventually the identity of the mystery woman is revealed, but it’s not as shocking as Balzac intended. There is an enjoyable cleverness to Domestic Peace. Its twists and turns are entertaining, but in the end it feels rather insubstantial. It is, after all, just a party. What it has to say about love and marriage was much more relevant to the society in which Balzac lived than to the audience of today, and readers of the 21st century will find it far less scandalous and titillating than those of the 19th. It is a competently executed piece, but not even close to Balzac at his best. Unless you are an enthusiastic fan of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, there’s no reason to go out of your way for this one.

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Frank Norris’s writings for The Overland Monthly

The good, the bad, and the masterpiece
Frank Norris
Technically this is not a book review, because no such book exists. The topic of this post is a group of stories that have never been brought together between the covers of any one volume. Early in his career, before he became a famous novelist, Frank Norris wrote several stories for The Overland Monthly, a literary journal published in San Francisco that was founded by the writer Bret Harte. Norris, who had studied art in Paris before deciding on a literary career, not only wrote these stories but also illustrated most of them. With one or two possible exceptions, these writings have never been published in book form. Today’s reader, however, can access them all for free online. The entire archives of The Overland Monthly have been digitized by the University of Michigan Libraries as part of their Making of America project. A search by author for Norris yields eight results.

Not all of the pieces included here are winners. “Crepusculum,” from the April 1892 issue, is a brief and forgettable poem contemplating life and death. “Travis Hallett’s Half-Back,” a short story from the January 1894 issue, is the tale of a young woman who falls in love with a football player. When the couple faces a potentially dangerous situation, her hero uses his gridiron skills to rescue her from imminent peril. Some of the descriptive passages show inklings of Norris’s burgeoning talent, but overall the plot is predictable and silly.

Five stories, published from March 1894 to February 1895, comprise a series entitled “Outward and Visible Signs”. I have no idea what the title refers to or even what the five pieces are supposed to have in common. They all deal in some way with a male/female relationship, but they are by no means traditional love stories. The first three pieces in the series are nothing to get excited about, but installments four and five are quite good. In “IV. After Strange Gods,” a sailor from Brittany and a flower seller from China meet at the World’s Fair and fall in love. Though the piece has the fanciful tone of a folk tale, it is unpredictable and surprisingly poignant. In “V. Thoroughbred,” two men, the complete opposite of one another, both court the same young woman. When their quiet afternoon tennis match is interrupted by a threat of violence, one gentleman exhibits behavior that sets him apart from his rival. Despite a message that is alarmingly classist, it is an entertaining and well-crafted story.

The longest story among this group is by far the best. “Lauth,” published in the March 1893 issue, is perhaps the best short story Norris ever wrote. In medieval Paris, a scholar participates in a mass riot in the streets. While fighting in a skirmish with a brigade of gendarmes, he is killed. A physician colleague of his reclaims the body and, after pondering the nature of life and death, decides to attempt to bring his old friend back to life. “Lauth” is a gripping tale that alternates between gritty action and lofty philosophical discourse, with elements of science fiction and horror. It combines the exceptional literary quality of one of Emile Zola’s better novels with the action and suspense of an adventure tale by Robert Louis Stevenson or Robert E. Howard. Despite its gothic undertones, “Lauth” is an early masterpiece in the development of American naturalism. Although the subject matter and setting are atypical of Norris’s work, it is a must read for fans of his work.

The stories Norris wrote for The Overland Monthly illustrate the preliminary stages on the road to the mature naturalistic writing style he would later employ in his famous novels. With the exception of “Lauth,” these early pieces are not necessarily his best work, but those who enjoy Norris’s excellent novels will certainly appreciate these long-lost stories.

Stories in this collection
Travis Hallett’s Half-Back 
Outward and Visible Signs: I. She and the Other Fellow 
Outward and Visible Signs: II. The Most Noble Conquest of Man 
Outward and Visible Signs: III. Outside the Zenana 
Outward and Visible Signs: IV. After Strange Gods 
Outward and Visible Signs: V. Thoroughbred 


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Taiwan Today: An Intermediate Course by Shou-hsin Teng and Lo Sun Perry

More advanced than intermediate
Taiwan Today is a Chinese-language textbook designed for use in intermediate level college courses. I, however, did not use it in conjunction with a course, but rather for self study. It is hard to find good textbooks that concentrate on traditional rather than modern Chinese characters, and almost impossible to find one that focuses on Taiwan rather than the mainland. Taiwan Today does more than just fill this void; it is a well-thought-out and very useful instructional tool for learning written Chinese.

Each chapter in the book focuses on a different aspect of Taiwanese culture. Some of the topics covered include exercise and leisure activities, eating at a food stand, marriage customs, religion and folk beliefs, the changing role of women in the family and the workplace, and environmental issues. Each chapter begins with a one-page reading passage, shown both in traditional and modern characters. These passages are really quite easy, and all the necessary vocabulary is defined for you. Following these reading passages are exercises, all in traditional characters, which are far more challenging. Each chapter has a section on grammar in which several expressions are demonstrated in sample sentences, followed by opportunities for readers to fill in the blanks or translate entire sentences from English to Chinese. Then comes a series of exercises which vary from chapter to chapter. They can be anything from multiple choice, fill in the blanks, crossword puzzles, and so on. There are also exercises designed for classroom use like role playing scenarios or topics for group discussion. Each chapter ends with some photographs illustrating concepts discussed in the lesson, and some excerpts copied from Taiwanese newspapers.

The only problem I have with this book is that I think it may be more advanced than its “Intermediate” label implies. While the reading passages are easy, the exercises can be quite difficult. You are expected to be able to construct mutiple-clause sentences or compose entire paragraphs from unfamiliar vocabulary. The exercises use many characters and phrases that are not defined in the vocabulary lists. In the chapter on food, for example, you’re expected to know the character for everything in the refrigerator. I had previously completed the five volumes of the John DeFrancis Chinese Reader series, from Beginning to Advanced, and approached this book with a vocabulary of about 1,500 characters. Still I found myself frequently reaching for the dictionary. So I used this book primarily as a vocabulary builder, and ended up adding another 300 characters to my repertoire, almost none of which were defined within this text and had to be looked up on my own. Consider carefully your own skill level before tackling this book. It will be most useful to students on the far side of intermediate, heading toward advanced.

I have been to Taiwan once and plan on returning in the next few years. This book has provided me with some valuable linguistic and cultural lessons which will serve me well on my next visit.

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Monday, October 7, 2013

Childhood by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s semi-autobiographical debut
Leo Tolstoy
Childhood is the first novel by Russian author Leo Tolstoy. It was originally published in 1852, and is the first in a trilogy of three short novels, of which the second and third volumes are entitled Boyhood and Youth. Childhood relates events in the life of a ten-year-old boy, Nicolas Petrovitch. Although the narration is in the first-person, the story is not told from a child’s point of view, but rather in the voice of a grown man looking back on his youth. Thus there is often a dual perspective between the observations and emotions of the young boy and the intelligent reflections of the adult.

Nicolas is the child of an aristocratic family with an estate in Petrovskoe. Under the feudalistic system that existed in Russia at the time, his father governs over a large retinue of servants and serfs. The book begins by depicting the boy’s idyllic life on this country estate. It is hinted, however, that the family’s financial situation is not entirely secure, and soon it is revealed that Nicolas and his brother Woloda are to be sent to live in Moscow with their grandmother. From that point the book switches focus to more urban matters, such as the social scene among the nobility. In keeping with the time, place, and aristocratic milieu in which the story takes place, the book depicts a hunting party, a society ball, and meetings with princes and princesses. The novel’s real strength, however, lies in its depiction of universal childhood experiences like the comfort and security of home life, the rise and fall of friendships, a first taste of love, or the death of a family member.

Although this is a work of fiction, Tolstoy obviously based some of it on his own experiences. The book does not read like a debut novel at all, but rather like the memoirs of an aged, successful writer who feels sure that his every anecdote will fascinate the reader. Unfortunately that’s not necessarily true for today’s audience. Though Tolstoy’s debut caused a sensation when it was published, and reputedly revolutionized Russian literature, to the 21st-century reader it does not stand out as a remarkable work. Tolstoy does a fine job of depicting the experience and psychology of a child, but for much of the book the plot is not particularly compelling. It’s simply a series of recollections and character sketches that bear little relation to each other, until far into the book’s latter half when events finally start to coalesce into a satisfying narrative. To its credit, Childhood ends on a high note. The final three or four chapters are very powerful. If only the first half of the book were as effective.

Tolstoy’s debut definitely shows the promise of great things to come, but this book is not in the same literary league with later masterworks like Anna Karenina. It’s quite possible that the rather clunky translation by C.J. Hogarth, which is far from a poetic read, may not be doing Tolstoy’s prose any favors either. All the same, Childhood’s strong finish definitely makes me want to move on to Boyhood and see how the trilogy develops. Perhaps after reading Nicolas’s life in its entirety I will gain a new appreciation for this first installment. As it stands, however, Childhood’s primary value lies not so much in its literary merits as in the autobiographical insights it offers on its illustrious author.

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Friday, October 4, 2013

The Valley of the Moon by Jack London

In search of the American Dream
The Valley of the Moon, a novel by Jack London, was first published in 1913. Saxon Brown, a petite and pretty laundry worker, meets Billy Roberts, a former prizefighter turned teamster, and they immediately fall in love. All looks rosy for a while, until labor unrest rocks San Francisco, and the Teamsters Union goes on strike. The couple falls on hard times, and Billy becomes involved in the violence between strikers and scabs. Saxon resolves that the two should leave the city, and search for a better life as farmers in the country. So they set off tramping to search for their dream homestead, which they facetiously dub the “Valley of the Moon”.

This novel seems to have been London’s attempt at writing a literary epic of the laboring class like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Frank Norris’s The Octopus. Though it never quite rises to the same level of literary quality or importance as those works, The Valley of the Moon does have some valuable things to say about the social condition of the working class in the early 20th century. The name of the heroine, Saxon, should give some indication that London’s controversial racial views are also at work here. The main characters in the book constantly express great pride in their Anglo-Saxon heritage and the achievements of their ancestors. They consider the American Dream to be their birthright, by extension of the Manifest Destiny that drove their pioneer parents across the plains to the West Coast. Yet the reality in which they live is far from a dream. One character describes himself and his peers as “the white folks that lost out.” They feel that they have been robbed by the “Dagoes,” “Chinks,” “Japs,” and other ethnic groups that have taken all the land and jobs. Yet admiration is also expressed for the hard work, intelligence, and shrewdness of those same ethnic groups. The Portuguese, for example, are praised as excellent farmers, while white farmers are denounced as either lazy and uneducated or guilty of having raped the land for quick profit. These views are based partly on London’s own prejudices, but they are also valid expressions of the mindset of the white working class of his day. When one character makes a fiery diatribe, another character usually responds as the voice of reason. In this manner, the issues and concerns of the time are debated in a pretty even-handed manner—by London standards, anyway.

In terms of quality, the plot of the novel could be graphed as a bell curve. It peaks in the middle. The best part of the story is the labor trouble, as discussed in the preceding paragraph. The rest of the book is guilty of the sin of long-windedness. Towards the beginning of the book, there are a ridiculous three or four chapters devoted to the topic of how the foundation of a successful marriage is a well-stocked lingerie drawer. In the latter half, London wanders off into familiar digressions. The travelers meet up with a group of wealthy vagabond poets, and everyone bonds over philosophical discussion and feats of strength. Another of the book’s glaring faults is that the heroes have got to be the two luckiest people on Planet Earth, since they encounter almost no adversity in their journey. They are hard workers, granted, but good fortune seems to fall into their lap, and everyone they meet is friendly and helpful. Through this rosy outlook London pictures a sort of Green Acres fantasy camp.

I would not recommend this book to anyone who’s not already a fan of Jack London, unless you’re just really interested in the social history of northern California. For habitual readers who are accustomed to his familiar themes and obsessions, however, The Valley of the Moon is a pretty good read. It’s not quite the epic masterpiece he intended, but a solid example of his socially conscious novels.
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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Untamed by Max Brand

The wild, the innocent, and the damned
I’m a big fan of western movies but have found myself perpetually disappointed by western fiction. Even many of the reputed “classics” and lionized authors of the genre have left me feeling dissatisfied. All is forgotten and forgiven, however, since The Untamed has rekindled my faith in cowboy literature. This novel is a real gem of its genre, and a joy to read for anyone who appreciates a good western.

There’s something odd about Whistlin’ Dan Barry. Even his adopted family notices it. Despite his mild-mannered, almost childlike demeanor, somewhere behind those dark eyes lurks the soul of a wild animal. As a young boy, he was found wandering in the open desert, and he still prefers the big sky to a roof over his head. He moves more like a panther than a man, wild beasts seem to obey his gentle commands, and he wields a six-shooter with preternatural skill. And when he gets angry, watch out. When Dan—while minding his own business, of course—runs afoul of a gang of bandits led by the notorious criminal Jim Silent, he starts down an irreversible trail that leads toward an inevitable kill-or-be-killed showdown.

The Untamed has all the atmosphere, suspense, and heart of a classic western film. This is not, however, one of today’s post-spaghetti westerns where the hero is a total misanthrope and the villains are all sadists. Nor is it a corny, singing cowboy horse opera like the early talkies of its day. It’s more akin to the great westerns of the 1940s and ’50s, with an ensemble cast of characters and a plot that emphasizes emotional tension over violence. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its fair share of shootin’ and brawlin’, but the action is not gratuitous and each character acts like a human being rather than a gunslinging automaton. Typical for its genre, vengeance is the primary motivating factor for much of the action, but there are subtleties and shades of gray that set it above common pulp fiction. The characters aren’t necessarily realistic—Whistlin’ Dan is a bit of a superhero—but their psychology and behavior are believable. The villains are distinctive individuals and not cardboard cutouts with targets painted on them. The prose is expertly crafted throughout. The landscapes are vividly drawn, the action sequences are suspensefully paced, and the dialogue is as rustic and clever as a vintage honky-tonk song. The only thing that really dates the book is its romantic subplot, which doesn’t dominate the story but at times counteracts the dark, gritty ambience with its sentimental innocence.

Max Brand was one of several pseudonyms used by Frederick Schiller Faust, a pulp fiction writer who penned about 500 novels. The Untamed, one of his earliest efforts, was originally serialized in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly from December 1918 to January 1919. Like many magazine serials, which were required to fill a certain quota of words or chapters, it runs long in the middle. The beginning is gripping, the ending is riveting, but in between there’s a cycle of capture and escape that seems like the simple postponement of a foregone conclusion. The face-off between Dan Barry and Jim Silent is worth waiting for, but that doesn’t change the fact that the course taken to get there sometimes feels like beating around the bush. Despite such minor quibbling, The Untamed is a solid piece of pulp adventure well worth reading for fans of the genre. It may be the closest thing that exists to a definitive exemplar of the western pulp novel.

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