Friday, November 29, 2013

The Riddle of the Universe by Ernst Haeckel

An essential read for freethinkers
It’s a shame Ernst Haeckel was a racist, because this is an excellent book. Haeckel was a biologist, naturalist, artist, and a vigorous proponent of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution who, like many European and American men of the 19th century, thought that the white race was more highly evolved than the other, “primitive” races. Thankfully, with the exception of two or three questionable sentences, that racial view is entirely absent from this book. In The Riddle of the Universe, published in 1901, this Renaissance man sums up his life’s work for the general reader. He provides an overview of the state of scientific knowledge at the close of the 19th century and applies that knowledge to such philosophical mysteries as the creation of the universe, the existence of God, the nature of human consciousness, and the question of free will.

Haeckel uses the “Law of Substance” (now called the law of conservation of matter and energy) as the foundation for a monistic conception of the universe. The idea of monism was best developed by the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. It is opposed to dualism, the prevailing world view of most religions, which envisions the universe as being constructed of two substances—matter and spirit. In monism, the universe is only composed of one substance—matter—and any intelligence or “soul” must be an inherent property of that sole substance. Only by combining into more and more complex structures does this property accumulate into what we recognize as intelligence, from the basic stimulus and response of protozoa to rational human consciousness. The mechanism that accomplishes this is Darwinian evolution. In fact, the entire universe, organic and inorganic alike, can be seen as being in a perpetual state of evolution, and the sharp categorical distinctions we make between living and inanimate things, intelligent and non-intelligent life, matter and space, etc., should be abandoned in favor of more fluid spectra. The religious view that coincides with this monistic cosmology is pantheism, another contribution of Spinoza. Pantheism sees the entire universe itself, the monistic substance, as God. Haeckel acknowledges that pantheism is essentially the same as atheism—the absence of belief in an anthropomorphic God—only looked at from a different perspective. By combining the thought of Spinoza and Darwin into a unified theory of the universe, with help from Schopenhauer and Goethe, Haeckel elucidates a secular cosmology for rational thinkers of the modern world.

Although the text is crammed with scientific and philosophical terminology, the translation by Joseph McCabe is surprisingly easy to read. 21st-century readers will find much of the science elementary. The history of science, on the other hand, is an area most of us could use an education in, and Haeckel provides a good overview, although a German-centric one. Like Darwin, Haeckel didn’t get everything right, but the book’s philosophical value redeems its scientific inaccuracies. The book gradually progresses from scientific matters to religious and ethical issues. There is some anti-Christian, anti-Catholic, and anti-Vatican rhetoric that’s probably unnecessary for today’s audience. Needless to say, readers of a religious persuasion will not like this book, but for freethinkers it’s a must-read. You won’t agree with everything Haeckel says, but you will find many of your own ideas confirmed and gain an understanding of how these ideas can be combined into a cohesive philosophy. After all, what could be more important than establishing your own personal belief system (or lack of belief system, as the case may be)? It is incredibly invigorating to encounter a book that takes on a subject no less than everything in existence and the very nature of existence itself. Perhaps the real riddle of the universe is, why aren’t there more books like this?

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tough Guys Don’t Dance by Norman Mailer

Over-the-top ’80s noir
Amidst the esteemed literary output of Norman Mailer, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, published in 1984, sticks out like a sore thumb. Here the renowned author tries his hand at the genre of crime fiction, in effect saying, “I may have won two Pulitzers, but I can still write like a tough guy.” The result is something akin to if Hemingway wrote porn. The narrator, Tim Madden, distraught over the recent departure of his wife, meets a couple of out-of-towners at a bar and gets loaded. He wakes up the next morning with a new tattoo, a car seat covered in blood, and no memory of what happened. As he tries to piece together the events of that night, he finds himself investigating a murder he himself may have committed.

The novel is set in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a tourist destination at the very tip of Cape Cod. The story takes place in the off-season, when P-town is reduced to a sort of ghost town populated by hardcore lifers and the spirits of the dead. Mailer does a great job of describing the quirky, disturbing characters that lurk in the creepy underbelly of any small town, but he takes it so far to extremes that he approaches surrealism. Every character in the book is hooked on hard drugs and booze, sex-addicted to the point of having a juvenile obsession with genitalia, and firmly convinced of the existence of spirits, ghosts, and other supernatural forces. And above all, every character in the book is capable of murder. If you’re willing to suspend enough disbelief to exist in this world, then you’re in for a pretty good ride.

While reading Tough Guys Don't Dance, one gets the feeling that Mailer dashed the book off in one fell swoop, with no self-editing. The prose is brisk and addictive. Once you start reading, it’s difficult to stop. The rapid fire dialogue carries you along like a swift current, even though what you’re reading may be totally ridiculous. The book is a noir thriller like Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane used to write, but updated for the 1980s. Where it fails is when Mailer forgets he’s having fun and feels the need to remind us of his literary laurels with passages that are far too lofty to fit the book. Even the low-life druggies and thugs in the book occasionally lapse into the voice of a Harvard-educated poet. As a narrator, Madden is far too sensitive for this book. Mailer wants us to know he’s a tough guy—an ex-boxer and bartender with a prison record—but can’t help reminding us that he’s also a writer. Thus, on his way to his marijuana patch, Tim regales us with an ode to fall colors. If Mailer wanted to write a dirty shocker of a crime novel, he should have immersed himself completely in that atmosphere and stopped shooting for another Pulitzer. There’s a lot of graphic sex in the book, or at least graphic sex talk. Mailer seems to particularly enjoy ribald depictions of homosexuality, as if revelling in his own naughtiness, but thirty years after publication homosexuality isn’t as taboo as it used to be, and 21st century readers are likely to find such passages more silly than shocking.

The actual mystery story is confusing as hell, and the resolution doesn’t particularly satisfy. Memory loss is an old chestnut of the genre that can’t help but feel like a cliché; likewise, the way that killers engage in lengthy confessions of their sins before killing, rather than just pull the trigger and get it over with. Without such confessions there would be no resolution, because Madden’s a lousy detective. Nevertheless, there are some really suspenseful moments here and a cast of delightfully creepy characters that keep you interested enough to want to see what’s around the next turn. Tough Guys Don’t Dance isn’t an exceptionally good book, but it is entertaining. It straddles the line between a disturbing cult classic and a bit of kitsch that’s “so bad it’s good.” The less you take it seriously, the more you’ll enjoy it.

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Monday, November 25, 2013

The Exiles by Honoré de Balzac

Closer to Hell than Heaven
Honoré de Balzac
“The Exiles,” a short story by Honoré de Balzac, was originally published in 1831 under the French title of “Les Proscrits.” Although it is considered part of Balzac’s collection of works known as the Comédie Humaine, the story takes place at the beginning of the 14th century, so there is no interconnectivity with the other works under that heading, most of which take place in the 19th century.

The story opens in 1308 at the home of Sergeant Tirechair, a constable whose home is located on Paris’s Île de la Cité, in the very shadow of the cathedral of Notre-Dame. We find Tirechair vociferously regretting his decision to accept two lodgers into his home. He suspects them of practicing witchcraft and worries he and his wife may be condemned by association. The two lodgers—an aged “stranger” and a beautiful young man named Godefroid—cross the river to attend a lecture on mystical theology. The speaker, Dr. Sigier, describes a world divided into spheres of spiritual existence ranging from the lowliest levels of Hell to the heights of Heaven. Mankind are essentially fallen angels sentenced to dwell in a middle ground, but through piety they have the power to spiritually evolve to a higher plane.

As is the case with many of Balzac’s more philosophical works, it becomes apparent that the contents of the lecture are more important to the author than the story built around it. It seems that the whole purpose of the narrative is to convey this theological concept, which begs the question, why not just write an essay? Balzac stimulates interest and curiosity on the part of the reader by keeping the identities of the two lodgers a secret. Over the course of the story it becomes apparent that the “stranger” is an eminent personage. Balzac gives enough clues for the reader to solve the mystery before the big reveal at the end. The conclusion of the story is pretty good, but it’s a shame one has to wade through so much esoteric discussion of angels and demons to get there.

The cosmology described by Dr. Sigier bears a great deal of resemblance to the metaphysics explored in Balzac’s novel Louis Lambert. Like that novel, most readers of today will find “The Exiles” inaccessible and rather dull. It’s hard to imagine any 21st-century Christians deriving inspiration from this bizarre theology. Only the most devoted fans of Balzac should think about tackling this story, and even they should prepare themselves for a difficult read.

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Friday, November 22, 2013

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

Ancient wisdom for modern times
Philosophy ain’t what it used to be. While today’s philosophers tend to be highly specialized in esoteric realms of thought that bear little relevance on our everyday activities, there was a time when the purpose of philosophy was simply to make people’s lives better. Philosophical schools provided their students with much needed guidance in making decisions, setting priorities, and achieving goals. One such school was the Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome, whose teachings survive today in the writings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Musonius Rufus. In his 2009 book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, author William B. Irvine argues that citizens of the modern world need a philosophy of life now more than ever. Most of us wander through our lives aimlessly with screwed-up priorities, longing for a happiness that never comes. To continue wandering aimlessly is futile, and for those seeking direction, Irvine urges readers to let the Stoics be their guide.

Stoicism asserts that the key to living a good life is achieving tranquility, a state in which negative emotions like anger, grief, and worry are replaced by positive emotions of joy and contentment. This tranquility comes not from without but within. We can achieve it by modifying our perceptions, desires, and goals, and living in accordance with nature. Through diligent rational thought and self-examination we can teach ourselves not to worry about things that are out of our control and to appreciate what we have rather than pursuing one insatiable desire after another. Irvine provides practical and useful exercises for accomplishing this. I’m oversimplifying Stoicism for the purpose of this review, but rest assured that Irvine does not. He gives a thorough overview of Stoic thought, its history and its main precepts. He ingeniously explains how the wisdom of these ancient philosophers is still meaningful to us today. For example, the Stoics wrote much about the ancient punishment of exile. While few us are likely to face that sentence in the 21st century, Irvine insightfully relates it to the exile most of us will eventually face when banished to a nursing home. He also explains why Stoic teachings are still valid in a world where modern scientific discoveries like the theory of evolution have replaced the Stoic conception of God or Zeus.

Philosophical purists may quibble with Irvine’s take on Stoicism, emphasizing the ways in which his interpretation differs from the teachings of the classical masters. There is some truth to that—even Irvine admits it—but the fact is, if there is a resurgence of interest in Stoic thought among the general reading public, it will largely be due to this excellent book. Irvine’s writing is impeccably articulate throughout. He explains Stoicism in a way that’s easily accessible for novices, yet allows those familiar with the classical philosophers to see their work in a whole new light. In recent years, there seems to be a plethora of philosophy books aimed at the nonphilosopher. Most of them relate philosophy to popular culture, but a few, like Irvine’s, focus on the application of philosophy to life in the modern world. What sets Irvine apart from these other authors is that he states his case without a trace of “Aren’t I clever?” His prose is utterly devoid of egotism and condescension, as a true Stoic’s should be. When he’s required to talk about his own experiences with Stoicism, he’s almost apologetic about it. Irvine seems genuinely sincere in his desire to help people better their lives, and with this book he is quite successful toward that end. It provides an excellent road map for anyone interested in engaging in the practice of Stoicism. A Guide to the Good Life is easily one of my top five favorite nonfiction books of the last decade. I highly recommend it to anyone—theist or atheist alike—who’s seeking answers for a happier life.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Plenty of atmosphere but not much plot
Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, published in 1901, is considered a classic tale of adventure and a seminal precursor to the modern spy novel. It even makes frequent appearances on top 100 lists of the best books ever written in the English language. Such high praise creates high expectations, and this novel didn’t even come close to living up to them. Though obviously penned by a highly skilled wordsmith, the novel offers neither enough adventure nor enough espionage to satisfy on either front. It does provide a detailed depiction of India worthy of a vintage issue of National Geographic, but one that is needlessly verbose and unfortunately dull.

Kim is a white boy in India, the orphaned son of a poor Irish soldier. He lives on the streets of Lahore, jovially scraping by as a beggar and errand boy. When a Buddhist Lama from Tibet comes to town, Kim volunteers to accompany him on his journey to find a mystical river of healing. Along the way, he is recruited to practice espionage on behalf of the British government, and becomes a participant in “The Great Game”—the contest between Britain and Russia for dominance in central Asia.

The chronicling of Kim’s travels and training allows Kipling the opportunity to present a vivid panorama of India in the late 19th century. Kipling, who was born in India, obviously has a great love for the land of his birth and proves himself quite knowledgeable on the richness and diversity of Indian culture. There is an overall comical tone to the book, however, that leaves a bit of an aftertaste of imperial condescension. The narrative is populated by a myriad of characters, and each one is indeed a character. While Kipling displays a comprehensive ethnographic understanding of everyone’s races and creeds, he often depicts their beliefs and practices in so quaint and picturesque a manner that he seems to be making fun of them. What’s worse, he’s far more interested in the personal quirks of his characters than in the parts they play in advancing the story. He heaps on so much local color that it’s detrimental to the plot. Every conversation in the book is four times longer than it needs to be. When Kim comes to a figurative fork in the road, the reader knows immediately which way he’s going to turn, but must read through a half hour’s worth of deliberations peppered with proverbs, prayers, and song. One finds himself wishing Kipling would just “get to the yolk of the egg,” as Kim so aptly puts it. The instances of espionage in the book are not the least bit intricate and are far from exciting. With so much talk going on, it takes over half a chapter just to don a disguise.

As a reviewer, I take no pride or pleasure in taking shots at sacred cows (no pun intended). I have nothing against Kipling in particular—I did enjoy the Jungle Books—but here he’s guilty of overindulgent description at the expense of good storytelling. Readers who don’t care for that sort of thing probably won’t like this book, and can consider themselves warned. Should you choose to tackle Kim, prepare yourself for way too many adjectives and not nearly enough verbs.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Boyhood by Leo Tolstoy

A boy’s life, continued
Leo Tolstoy
Boyhood, originally published in 1854, is the second novel by Leo Tolstoy and also the second book in his autobiographical trilogy, which begins with Childhood and ends with Youth. Largely based on Tolstoy’s own early years, the trilogy is the first-person account of a boy’s transition into manhood. This second installment covers the life of Nicolas, the narrator, roughly from the ages of 14 to 18.

Like Childhood, this book reads less like a novel than a memoir. It consists of a series of recollections of life events on the part of the narrator. These isolated scenes aren’t really interconnected enough to comprise a satisfying plot; the book succeeds more as a psychological study than as a novel. Any forward movement in the narrative is derived from the growing awareness of the boy as his thought processes mature. Through Nicolas we experience the universal daily dramas so important to a child, such as the development of an attraction towards the opposite sex, the making of a new friend, the growing apart of brothers, and the struggle to be taken seriously and earn the respect of one’s elders. These events are covered with great insight and sensitivity by Tostoy, but en masse they feel like a collection of observations in a notebook and never really coalesce into a novel.

That said, Boyhood is slightly better than its predecessor. What really sets this book above the mediocre is the account of the life story of Karl Ivanitch, the narrator’s boyhood tutor. This side story, which takes up chapters 8 through 10, is a very moving tale of the hardships of working class life during the time of the Russian war against Napoleon. These three chapters succeed as a short story in and of themselves and are clearly the best part of the book. Since Nicolas, like Tolstoy, grew up in a relatively wealthy family, much of the book revolves around master/servant relations. The tale of Karl Ivanitch is only one example of how the servants’ lives, in this book, are often more interesting than those of the master himself.

Though Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth were published as separate novels, they are intended to be read as one body of work. Boyhood ends rather arbitrarily, and really makes little sense without the books that come before and after it. Fans of Tolstoy will no doubt find Boyhood a promising and necessary step in the development of his great masterpieces, but it can’t be counted among them. When judged solely on the basis of its own literary merits, it’s clearly good writing, but nothing exceptional.

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Friday, November 15, 2013

The Tragedy of the Korosko by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A terrorism thriller in Victorian Egypt
The Korosko is a small steamer traveling up the Nile with a cargo of European and American tourists. It is 1895. Egypt is occupied by the British, but the authority of the Empire only effectively extends to the green, populated strip along the banks of the great river. In the desert beyond roam the unconquered Dervishes, nomadic tribes of north-African Arabs. The travelers, having heard rumors of these savage marauders, have some reservations about venturing too far from the water’s edge, but ultimately they trust that the overarching umbrella of the British Empire will keep them safe and secure. On a scenic outing to the rock of Abousir, their worst fears are realized as they are taken captive by a troop of Dervish warriors. The captors inform the prisoners that they will be taken to Khartoum, where they will either be released for ransom or sold into slavery.

The Tragedy of the Korosko, a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was published in 1898. Given that it was written over a century ago, one mustn’t expect a great deal of political correctness, but Conan Doyle’s depiction of the Dervishes is relatively enlightened for its time. Not so surprisingly, he takes a very pro-British view toward Egyptian political affairs, essentially stressing the point that Egypt would be better off with a larger British military presence. But to his credit he does portray the Arab and African characters as human beings rather than mere racial stereotypes. As the villains of the story, most of the Muslim characters are depicted with some degree of religious fanaticism, but no more than what we often see in Hollywood movies, even to this day. On the other hand, Conan Doyle makes some attempt to explain the motivations behind the actions of the Muslims, and even expresses admiration for their history, culture, and devotion to their faith. There is one unfortunate passage where the Dervishes display a foolish degree of gullibility, but thankfully it is a brief incident and not particularly integral to the story as a whole.

The ordeal of the Korosko’s passengers has all the excitement and suspense of a modern Hollywood action drama, yet the tone of the narrative is mostly realistic, in the sense that the characters behave in a realistic manner, albeit conforming to 19th-century mores and codes of conduct. Conan Doyle gives us moments of heroism, but doesn’t stoop to sensationalistic superheroics. Given the culture clash between the captors and captives, there naturally develops an opposition between Christianity and Islam. This sets up a test of faith for the prisoners. For that reason, I imagine the book would be especially appealing to readers of a Christian persuasion for its inspirational content. As one would expect from the rational, scientific mind of Conan Doyle, however, he’s not extremely preachy about it, and readers more secularly inclined can certainly enjoy the tale solely on its merits as a thriller.

The Tragedy of the Korosko is essentially a Victorian tale of Islamic terrorism. As in any story of terrorism, there is a temptation to depict one ethnic or religious group as the good guys and the opposing side as the bad guys, but Conan Doyle does a fair job of resisting this temptation and manages to paint a few shades of gray between the black and white. Today’s readers should approach this novel as an adventure story and appreciate it as such. Fans of Conan Doyle or other classic writers of the late 19th- and early 20th- centuries will enjoy this exciting and suspenseful thriller.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Surrender of Santiago by Frank Norris

The nascent novelist as war correspondent
Before achieving renown as one of America’s best novelists of the early 20th century, Frank Norris began his writing career as a journalist. He was sent to Cuba by McClure’s magazine as a war correspondent during the Spanish-American War. “The Surrender of Santiago” is a piece he wrote at that time, though it never saw publication during his lifetime. In 1917 it was resurrected and published in the form of a booklet, which explains why this very brief piece is now sold on Amazon as an individual ebook file. The article is a little over twenty pages long and amounts to about fifteen or twenty minutes of reading.

This is not a battle story, for at the opening of the piece the battle has already ended. Rather, the article presents Norris’s eyewitness view of the ceremony of July 17, 1898, at which the Cubans surrendered to the American military, thus ending the war in Cuba. As one expects of Norris, it contains beautiful passages of descriptive prose that capture the scene in all its vivid and gritty glory. Atypical of Norris, however, is the overwhelmingly gung ho patriotic rhetoric. There is a particularly fervent passage of Anglo-Saxon chest thumping in which he proclaims it was the racial destiny of the (white) Americans to conquer the Cubans. Such jingoism was common in the days of “Remember the Maine!” but comes across as a bit simplistic and xenophobic to readers over a century later. This blatant celebration of American pride, however, was no doubt the very reason the piece was reprinted as America was entering World War I.

Fans of Frank Norris will find this article interesting and worth their time, but it’s not one of his best pieces of work. For those curious about his early career as a journalist, I would suggest checking out the two volumes of The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, edited by Joseph R. McElrath and Douglas K. Burgess.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

A House Divided by Pearl S. Buck

An epic of China’s transformation
Pearl S. Buck’s 1935 novel A House Divided is the concluding installment of her House of Earth trilogy. The first volume, The Good Earth, told the story of the farmer Wang Lung. The second, Sons, primarily focused on his son Wang the Tiger, who rose to power as a warlord. A House Divided is the story of the Tiger’s son Wang Yuan. Yuan has more in common with his grandfather than his father and would prefer a life cultivating the land to one following in the military footsteps of the Tiger. The more the Tiger tries to bend Yuan to his will, the more Yuan desires to free himself from his father’s influence. As he seeks his own path in life, matters are complicated by the tumultuous events of Chinese history. Revolution sweeps the land, and with it come great changes. The older generations cling to the values and customs of the Qing Dynasty, while the younger generations embrace modern ideas from foreign lands. Yuan finds himself an outsider in either camp, caught somewhere in between China’s past and future. He struggles with the simultaneous feelings of pride and shame that he feels for his mother country. Though he venerates the history and culture of his homeland, he awakens to the plight of the poor and develops a distaste for the antiquated customs which restrict freedom and progress. Unlike most of his generation, however, he realizes the revolution is no panacea for his nation’s ills.

The human drama of Yuan’s journey of self-discovery is undeniably moving. There were few if any passages in which I was not enthralled by Buck’s story. Her style is unquestionably romantic, but it’s an understated romanticism. Sweeping, epic events occur, millions of lives are affected, yet all of this takes place on the periphery while Buck focuses on the joys and hardships of this one man and his family. In any historical novel, there’s always a delicate balancing act between the big picture and the personal stories, and few strike that balance as well as Buck. Her prose is a joy to read, combining the best qualities of naturalism and modernism. Every sentence is expertly crafted, yet without a trace of self-indulgence.

One annoying convention that Buck sticks to throughout the book (and throughout the trilogy, for that matter), is a refusal to use proper nouns other than the character’s names. Thus, places are designated by descriptive phrases like “a coastal city” or “the new capital,” while the actual names of Shanghai and Beijing are never mentioned. The word “revolution” occurs throughout the book, but never the words “republic” or “communism.” Yuan meets a general who may be intended to represent an actual historical figure (Chiang Kai-shek, perhaps?), but if so it’s never clarified. At one point, even November is referred to as “the eleventh month.” I imagine the intention behind all this deliberate ambiguity was to make the story more universal and thus more palatable to an American audience with little knowledge of Chinese history. This strategy worked for The Good Earth, but it’s not as successful here. Readers with an interest in Chinese history can’t help but think this would have made a great historical novel if only Buck hadn’t chosen to leave out all the details. The period between the Qing Dynasty and the People's Republic is a confusing time, and Buck doesn’t do Westerners any favors by refusing to inform them of even which revolution she's writing about.

Nevertheless, those who have read The Good Earth and are wondering if they should read the entire trilogy need wonder no more. This book answers that question with a resounding yes. Though Sons is not quite up to the same standard, A House Divided is definitely in the same league as The Good Earth and offers ample evidence that Buck did indeed deserve her Nobel Prize.

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Friday, November 8, 2013

Jerry of the Islands by Jack London

Not for all dog lovers
Early in his literary career, Jack London became famous with the publication of two novels centered around dogs, The Call of the Wild and White Fang. Later, after the primary focus of his writing had shifted from the Klondike Gold Rush to the islands of the South Pacific, he would try to duplicate that success with two more dog novels, Jerry of the Islands and Michael, Brother of Jerry, both published in 1917. Jerry of the Islands takes place in the Solomon Islands of Melanesia, where Jerry, an Irish terrier, was born on a plantation. His owner, a white man who overseas a work force of native islanders, gives Jerry to a friend of his, Captain Van Horn, of the boat named the Arangi. Van Horn and his crew go on a “blackbirding” expedition, hopping from island to island, returning indentured laborers who have served their time and hoping to pick up new labor in the process. It’s a dangerous business, as the natives will gladly, any chance they get, kill a white man, steal his goods, and eat his flesh.

In The Call of the Wild and White Fang, it made sense to have canine protagonists because London was making a statement about evolution and the nature of wildness. In this book, however, he’s merely telling an adventure story in which the main character just happens to be a dog. Being a dog, Jerry doesn’t really do a whole lot in the book except take what comes to him. Much of the action of the story revolves around the succession of humans who come to own him as fate transfers him from the hands of one master to another. The only readers who are really going to enjoy this book are dog lovers who are fascinated by every twitch of ear and wag of tail. As in his previous dog adventures, London does an admirable job of channeling the canine thought process. What are the chances, however, that one of those dog-loving readers will also have an interest in the slave plantations of the South Pacific? (Technically, they were indentured servants, but they’re treated as slaves.) Should these two spheres of interest intersect, one may find that this is not a badly written adventure story. There are a few genuinely exciting scenes. However, Jerry of the Islands is certainly nowhere near London’s best, and fans of the author will find that it often reads like self-plagiarism. When he’s not rehashing plot ideas from his novel Adventure or his short story collection South Sea Tales, he’s ripping off the ending from White Fang.

There’s quite a bit of racism in this book, though it’s the sort of racism you might find in an old Tarzan film. The black islanders are all savage cannibals and head collectors. London shows no sympathy for the plight of the blacks under colonialism and relishes the opportunity to portray them as brutal villains. The paradox with London is that he was one of the first white writers to really depict people of other races as true human beings with complex thoughts, emotions, and motivations, yet he also never fails to reiterate his view that these other races are inferior to whites in every way. In fact, Jerry himself is a racist, favoring white masters over black, and even a classist with the ability to distinguish a gentleman from common white riff raff. The n-word is bandied about quite a bit, as it would have been in this time and place. Frequent readers of classic fiction, being accustomed to such antiquated views on race, probably won’t find this novel terribly offensive. They may, however, find it a bit silly, frequently dull, and just an overall bad idea. The dog-and-master romance passages often read like they came out of a children’s book, only to be followed by a brutal killing or racial epithet. This incongruity makes Jerry of the Islands a textbook example of what happens when you bring together two genres that were perhaps best left asunder.

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Mexican Muralists: Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros by Desmond Rochfort

The definitive history of the Mexican mural renaissance
This 1993 book by British scholar and artist Desmond Rochfort is perhaps the most authoritative work covering the “big three” artists of the Mexican mural movement: José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The book functions as both a scholarly monograph on the subject and as a coffee table book, combining an in-depth examination of the murals of these three artists with over 150 beautifully reproduced photographs.

Rochfort begins with an overview of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, outlining the historical and political context out of which the Mexican mural movement arose. He then goes on to describe how the mural renaissance in Mexico grew out of the influence of three important people: inspirational precursor José Guadalupe Posada, artist and educator Gerardo Murillo (a.k.a. Dr. Atl), and educational administrator José Vasconcelos. From this starting point, Rochfort interweaves the stories of Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros, following their lives and careers from the Revolution until their deaths. He explains the evolution of each individual artist, how they influenced and competed with one another, and how they jointly created a uniquely Mexican form of artistic expression that examined national identity and advocated social and political reform. Rochfort does not cover every mural that each of these artists produced, but he does cover the lion’s share of each, not only the best-known examples but also some more obscure selections as well. The focus of the book is strictly limited to the “big three.” Other Mexican muralists are barely mentioned, and none of their works are pictured.

The text is insightful and informative throughout, though it is definitely penned by a Ph.D. and not intended as an introduction for the general reader. Some prior knowledge of Mexican art and history is required to fully understand the points Rochfort is making, but his prose is clear and precise, and he never diverges into esoteric art theory. The book is lavishly illustrated with stunning photographs, and Rochfort does a great job of discussing the images without insulting the reader’s intelligence by pointlessly describing what’s right there on the printed page. It’s impossible to show every inch of each mural discussed, but the detail shots are well chosen. A couple dozen of the photos are in black and white. Many of these are period photos, but even some of the big mural shots are printed in black and white, for no apparent reason other than to save money on printing. Were the book published today, rather than two decades ago, most likely such images would all be printed in color. At least one photo—Orozco’s mural at the National Teachers’ School—is flipped horizontally. Also, the design of the book results in some of the smaller photos being so small as to hinder their usefulness. 

Despite these nitpicking complaints, the book is a stunning achievement. For each of the three artists examined here, one could find a more comprehensive text covering their individual work—Diego Rivera: A Retrospective, published by the Detroit Institute of Arts, for example, comes to mind. However, for an overview of the mural movement as a whole and its historical, cultural, and social context, Mexican Muralists: Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros is the best book I’ve ever seen. Even though the challenging text may be intimidating for some, any fan of Mexican art should own this book for the pictures alone.

Diego Rivera, El hombre controlador del universo, 1934, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Nueva Democracía, 1945, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City

José Clemente Orozco, Katharsis, 1935, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City

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Monday, November 4, 2013

The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter by Ambrose Bierce and Adolphe De Castro

A shocking ending doesn’t redeem an unexceptional story
The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter is the translation and/or retelling of an 1891 novel by German author Richard Voss. It was translated by Adolphe De Castro (a.k.a. Adolphe Danziger), who submitted it to Ambrose Bierce for editing. The resulting English version was published in a San Francisco newspaper later that same year, and in book form in 1892. Afterwards De Castro and Bierce fought over the story’s rights. Eventually it ended up in a collection of Bierce’s complete works, and since he’s the most famous of the three authors involved, he generally gets the credit for it.

The story takes place in 1680. Brother Ambrosius, a Franciscan monk, is sent to the Monastery of Berchtesgaden, in the Bavarian Alps near Salzburg. Approaching his destination, he meets a pretty girl frolicking in a meadow beneath a corpse hanging from a gallows. Her name is Benedicta, and she is the hangman’s daughter. After taking up residence in the monastery, Brother Ambrosius continues to take an interest in the young woman. She and her father are shunned by the townspeople because of his useful but loathsome profession. Ambrosius pities Benedicta, and tries to provide her with aid and comfort. He must admit to himself that he is attracted to her, but is determined to overcome his desire and behave like a proper spiritual advisor. His superiors do not approve of his association with the hangman’s daughter, however, and punish him for it.

This is an odd and disjointed novel, which is not necessarily bad, but it’s not particularly good either. In the beginning it is pretty pedestrian and rather lighthearted in tone. There are frequent sprinklings of humor in which the author (Voss or De Castro?) pokes fun at Brother Ambrosius’s blind faith, Benedicta’s babe-in-the-woods innocence, and the randiness of the townspeople. Women are often throwing themselves at the handsome monk, who piously pretends not to notice their amorous advances. The atmosphere is reminiscent of the jolly, wine-sipping friars and romping shepherdesses of a nineteenth-century German genre painting. Yet the unmerited persecution of Benedicta is undeniably cruel. There is nothing funny about the way she is reviled, slandered, and ostracized for no other reason than her father’s unpleasant but necessary occupation. The story turns darker as it goes along, and an incongruity develops between the elementary vocabulary of the fairy-tale prose and the serious, almost operatic events of the plot. The surprising ending is the best part of the book, but it’s just twisted enough to offend pretty much anybody, whether devout Christian or Atheist.

I’m not sure to whom I would recommend this novel, if anyone. Renaissance enthusiasts, perhaps? It’s not even a must-read for Bierce fans, since he didn’t really write it. When all is said and done, it’s just a mediocre story with a memorable ending. Should you choose to read it, it won’t be a complete waste of your time, but it’s nothing to get excited about either.

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Friday, November 1, 2013

Spartacus: Swords and Ashes by J.M. Clements

A tasty fix for sword-and-sandal addicts
Spartacus: Swords and Ashes, published in 2012, is the first novel to be offered as an official companion to the Spartacus TV series from the Starz network. It is not a novelization of a pre-existing script, but rather an original adventure featuring characters from the series. If you’ve never seen the show, don’t read this book, but start watching the videos immediately! For fans of the series who just can’t satisfy their Spartacus addiction, set to reading and see needs gratified.

This story takes place about midway through season one. Crixus is injured, Spartacus is the Champion of Capua, and he has asked Batiatus to search for his wife. One of the great things about season one was the way all the gladiators schemed and fought against one another. That’s not possible here, however, because the events of the book can’t contradict the continuity of the television series, and everything has to even out in the end. So several new characters are introduced for the show’s regulars to interact and spar with. Pelorus, a ludista in Neapolis, is killed by one of his slaves, a mysterious tattooed barbarian priestess. Batiatus, his childhood friend, travels to the coastal city to attend the funeral, accompanied by his wife Lucretia and her friend Ilithyia. He also brings along a few gladiators to perform in games of tribute, among them Spartacus, Varro, and Barca. The planned festivities prove to be no simple exhibition match, however, and the delegation from Capua soon discovers that the House of Pelorus is fraught with secrets, treachery, and lies.

Like the TV show, there are frequent scenes of gratuitous sex and violence in this novel, though of course they’re not quite as much fun on the printed page as they are on a high-def flat screen. The book is definitely much talkier than the show, but it still admirably captures the overall atmosphere and tone of the series. Author J.M. Clements does an excellent job of writing dialogue that sounds like it’s coming right out of the actors’ mouths. In fact, despite the photo on the cover, you can even tell he was writing for the Andy Whitfield Spartacus rather than the Liam McIntyre Spartacus. Clements doesn’t just settle for a routine rehash of the show’s stories and themes. I was pleasantly surprised by how ambitious the book was. The plot is complex, even to the point of confusion at times. There is a definite effort made to educate the reader about ancient Roman customs, such as funerary practices and slave law. Clements introduces into the mix the famous Roman statesman Cicero, who engages the rest of the cast in philosophical discussions on the ethics of slavery. Though the book succeeds as an adventure independent of its source, it cleverly plays off of events from the TV show, even foreshadowing developments to come in future seasons.

As a spin-off to the excellent television series, the novel can’t help but be inferior to its source of inspiration. Nevertheless, though it’s by no means a masterpiece, Spartacus fans will enjoy this take on their beloved series. A second companion novel, Spartacus: Morituri, was published later in 2012. Unfortunately, now that the series has come to an end, it appears those two books are all we’re going to get. That’s a shame, because the Roman Empire envisioned by Steven S. DeKnight for the Spartacus series is a world full of fun and exciting possibilities, as this book aptly proves.

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