Friday, January 31, 2014

Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile by Herman Melville

A minuteman’s odyssey
Israel Potter, originally published in 1855, is perhaps Herman Melville’s least-known novel, but it is wholly undeserving of the obscurity into which it has fallen. The story is based on the autobiography of an actual American Revolutionary veteran of the same name, though Melville took plenty of liberties in his adaptation. The title character is a farmer from the Berkshires of western Massachussetts who enlists as a minuteman in the colonial army and fights in the Battle of Bunker Hill. He then volunteers for duty with the newborn U.S. Navy, but his ship is captured by the British, and he is taken to England as a prisoner of war. Shortly after his arrival he escapes his captors, but must constantly elude further capture while he does his part to further the American cause on the opposite side of the Atlantic.

I must confess a predisposed fondness for fiction pertaining to the American Revolution. I can’t understand why so many novels about the Civil War are churned out every year while this fascinating conflict that gave birth to our nation is largely ignored. When it comes to literature about the American Revolution, the obvious works to compare this book to are the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper, for better or worse, would have taken this story and romanticized it into a heroic epic. While I would hesitate to call Melville a realist, he as usual scorns romantic clichés and pens the story in his own unconventional style. The first few chapters are tough to engage with. Though I’ve never read the source material, Melville’s adaptation feels like it may be a little too faithful to the original. It’s all “Israel went here; he did this; he went there; he saw that,” with little insight into the character or his thoughts and feelings. Early on there are about seven or eight successive instances of capture and escape, when two or three harrowing examples probably would have sufficed.

Beyond the first few chapters, however, the novel improves considerably. As the story goes on, Israel develops into a sort of 18th-century Forrest Gump. He drifts through the events of the plot like a leaf on a stream, coming into close association with several luminary historical personages of his day, whose identities I won’t reveal here. For much of the novel, it seems the purpose of the book is not to tell Israel’s story, but rather for Melville to present his personal take on these famous historic individuals, and also to recount classic naval battles that were perhaps household names for the readers of his day but are all but forgotten to today’s audience. His treatment of the historical characters is a fun mix of reverence and caricature. Although the subtitle of the novel is His Fifty Years of Exile, the story really only concentrates on the first few years of that fifty. Israel himself is a cipher for much of that time, merely a lens through which we view the events of the narrative. It isn’t until the last few chapters that the reader begins to truly identify with him as a man and sympathize with his plight. Melville’s purpose for writing the book was to draw attention to the forgotten contributions of those who fought for America’s independence. Several wars later, the relevance of such commemoration has been dulled by the distance of time, but by the novel’s close the reader does feel a profound pathos for this humble and dedicated soldier.

The main obstacle to enjoying this work may be Melville’s usual thesaurus-exhausting vocabulary, but that’s also part of the fun. After the first few chapters one becomes accustomed to his highfalutin word choices, his arcane analogies, and his somewhat Shakespearean cadence. Beneath the surface of this ornate prose, the author’s wry sense of humor is constantly bubbling. Israel Potter may not be Melville’s best novel, but it’s still a buried treasure worth digging for.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How to Read Maya Hieroglyphs by John Montgomery

A comprehensive grammar, not a dictionary
Want to read the oldest literature in the Western Hemisphere? First you’ve got to learn the language. John Montgomery’s 2004 book How to Read Maya Hieroglyphs is a good first step toward doing just that. This book is a grammar of sorts that explains how the Mayan written language works. It is not a dictionary, so it’s not going to provide you with every character you’re ever going to find in a Mayan inscription. (Montgomery has published a Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs, which is available for free online at the FAMSI web site.) The topics of this Mayan grammar include the structure of glyphs, the order in which they are to be read, calendrical dates, numerical expressions, proper names and titles, familial relationships, major life events such as births and deaths, locations and objects, deities, and the syntax in which all these elements fit together into historical or literary narratives. In its comprehensive breadth and methodical structure, the book is an impressive achievement.

There’s no doubt that Montgomery is extremely knowledgeable about his subject. The question is, how well does he get that knowledge across to his intended audience? In his introduction, Montgomery states that this book is intended as an introductory text on the Mayan written language for beginners and the general public. That may be optimistic. In truth, this book is not for the light-hearted dabbler. I have enthusiastically studied a few languages, among them written Chinese, but I found portions of this book to be extremely difficult to get through. Part of the problem is that Mayan script is partially phonetic, so you need some basic understanding of spoken Mayan just to get your bearings. Beyond that barrier, however, Montgomery does at times seem to be addressing an audience of professional linguists, and his explanation of the Maya calendar has to be one of the most complicated and confusing takes on the subject that I’ve ever read.

One can’t be too hard on the author, however, for failing to write a simple survey of a subject that’s so complex it can’t be surveyed simply. After reading this book, I don’t feel fully equipped to dive right in and start translating Mayan texts, not even the simplest of the practice samples included in the appendix. Nevertheless, I now feel like that goal is within my reach, if I’m willing to work toward it. With the knowledge I’ve gained from this comprehensive overview, I am now at least in a position to intelligently pursue further study on the subject. What’s more, it’s given me a greater appreciation of the dazzling complexity and sophistication of the Maya’s scriptural achievements. For the amateur Maya enthusiast, reading this book is at times like sitting in on a symposium of epigraphers as they debate the interpretation of a centuries-old stela. Much of the discussion defies understanding, but that doesn’t stop it from being a really cool experience.

Even though the Kindle edition is well-constructed, this may be one book in which owning a paper copy would be better than an e-book. Some of the drawings are reproduced uncomfortably small on the Kindle, even when magnified. Often illustrations are referred to on distant pages, so there’s a lot of flipping back and forth. If you want to browse for some unknown glyph, it would be a lot faster to flip through paper pages the old-fashioned way. For many Mayaphiles, Montgomery’s book may just be the one much-loved, dog-eared, salsa-stained text that protrudes from your pocket as you reverently wander the stunning ruins of Palenque or Tikal.

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Monday, January 27, 2014

The Edge of the Knife by H. Beam Piper

When the future becomes the past
H. Beam Piper
Despite the rather noir title, this novella is not a mystery or horror story, but rather a work of science fiction. The Edge of the Knife was originally published in the May 1957 issue of Amazing Stories. The knife edge referred to in the title is the infinitesimally narrow boundary between the past and future, a line that is inexplicably blurred in the mind of the story’s protagonist. Ed Chambers, a professor of history at Blanley College, experiences unexplained visions of future world events. In one of his history courses, he inadvertently refers to some of these future occurrences as if they were historic events that had already taken place. When word of this slip reaches beyond the classroom, Chambers’ reputation is on the line. The college president demands his resignation and even questions his sanity. Chambers lawyers up and refuses to budge. Matters become extremely complicated when one of the future events Chambers referred to in his lecture becomes a concrete reality.

When is a science fiction story not a science fiction story? This work may be the answer to that question. The book has more to do with university politics then it does with time travel. In fact, no instances of time travel actually take place, and the cause of Chambers’ clairvoyance is never explained. However, the issues discussed throughout the book are entirely in the realm of theoretical science and parapsychology. The plot largely consists of a chain of tense, huddled conversations within the halls of academia, as Chambers, his colleagues, the college president, and other parties attempt to capitalize on the incident to their advantage. The dialogue is both realistic and compelling. Despite being written over a half century ago, it reads like a 21st-century thriller. The only thing that’s dated about the book is the fact that it’s set in 1973 and discusses the late 20th century as if it were the future. Author H. Beam Piper’s imaginative vision of world history never came to fruition, obviously, but that won’t stop the reader of today from marveling at how imaginative and fascinating his vision was.

Piper wrote a series of works called the Terro-Human Future History, in which he outlines an elaborate fictional timeline of political events and wars that take place over the next six millennia of human history. The Edge of the Knife is sort of a companion piece to this series, as it refers to events in the Terro-Human chronology. No prior knowledge of this fictional universe is necessary, however, to enjoy this great story as a stand-alone piece. I myself am a newcomer to Piper’s writing, but after reading this tale I am looking forward to delving deeper into his body of work. Much of Piper’s work, including this story and others in the Terro-Human saga, can be found in The H. Beam Piper Megapack, an inexpensive e-book collection from Wildside Press.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

The Virginian by Owen Wister

Love, laughter, and law in Wyoming
The Virginian, originally published in 1902, is considered by many to be the first “true” work of literature in the genre of the American Western, as opposed to the popular pulp magazines and dime novels of the late 19th century. Whether such a distinction is accurate or not, this novel is universally considered a classic of its genre, and deservedly so. Though it contains the requisite pistols and horse thieves, this is not, strictly speaking, an action/adventure novel. It has more in common with an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman than a Clint Eastwood movie, but that’s not such a bad thing. Although it contains a healthy dose of romanticized cowboy lore, it is primarily a story of realistic people living and working in the West, not the stoic supermen gunslingers that have come to dominate the Western genre over the past century.

The novel opens with an unnamed narrator disembarking a train at Medicine Bow, Wyoming. This Easterner has taken his first trip out West for the purpose of visiting his friend Judge Henry, who owns a ranch nearby. Upon his arrival he is informed that “nearby” is 263 miles away. His guide for the trip is a tall, dark, handsome young man with a southern accent, referred to only as the Virginian. What follows is a series of humorous fish-out-of-water episodes in which the novice narrator earns the nickname of “the tenderfoot.” A strong bond of friendship is soon formed between these two nameless men. When a pretty school teacher arrives from Vermont, the Virginian falls in love, but, stuck-up with pretensions of Eastern aristocracy, she resists his advances. Meanwhile, the Virginian acquires a nemesis in the form of Trampas, a shifty fellow cowpuncher with whom he continually finds himself at odds. As the novel progresses, the light-hearted tone turns gradually darker as it delves into issues of morality and justice.

Overall, The Virginian is a great Western novel, but it does have its faults. The narrator is more of a hindrance than a help. Even author Owen Wister seems to think so, as he switches indiscriminately between first-person narration and third-person omniscient perspective. There are several truly memorable scenes in this book, but in between such scenes the novel is way too talky. It seems as if every plot point is debated ad nauseam by the characters, both amongst each other and internally. The humorous scenes in the front of the book make for some rough going. There’s an entire chapter about a chicken; another about a liar’s contest. When Wister slips into Mark Twain mode like this, the punchlines of the jokes don’t justify their agonizingly long set-ups. Once the book starts focusing on the romance between the Virginian and the school marm Molly Wood, however, the story improves immensely and keeps getting better as it goes on. While there’s no gratuitous violence, in the book’s latter half the reader does find the sort of two-fisted, life-or-death suspense one has come to expect from a good Western.

Despite being written over a century ago, Wister’s prose is amazingly contemporary. There’s not a trace of antiquated clunkiness in the language. The 21st-century reader will have no trouble engaging with the story or identifying with the characters. Wister’s descriptions of the cowboy life and the natural beauty of the West are vivid and inviting. I’m a frequent visitor to Wyoming, and I enjoyed very much the historic perspective on familiar places as well as just the general atmosphere of cowboy wit that pervades the book. Over the course of the story, the Virginian’s travels take him far afield from Judge Henry’s ranch, but wherever he roams, the reader will find traveling by his side a scenic and satisfying ride.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Time Travel Megapack, edited by John Gregory Betancourt

Diverse in setting, style, and quality
This e-book file is one of many “Megapacks” offered by Wildside Press, a publisher that reprints content from classic pulp fiction magazines. Editor John Gregory Betancourt, who runs Wildside, has compiled 26 tales of time travel that were originally published from 1928 to 2013. These stories range in size from several novella-length works to three installments of the Ferdinand Feghoot series of one-page jokes that culminate in groan-inducing puns.

The subject of time travel is open to infinite possibilities, and the stories in this collection cover an appropriately broad sweep of settings, from the Pliocene Epoch in Clifford D. Simak’s “Project Mastodon” to the demise, from old age, of the known universe in the trippy “Nebogipfel at the End of Time” by Richard A. Lupoff. Despite such epic parameters, however, a lot of the stories here fail to impress with their utilization of the time travel element. In many cases, time travel is merely used as a tangential plot device in an otherwise run-of-the-mill adventure story, or as a means of setting up the punchline of a joke. Such stories rise to the level of clever, but strive for little more. One time traveler longs to escape his shrewish sister; another visits Oktoberfest; yet another becomes a con artist. The oldest story in the collection, “Armageddon 2419 A.D.,” is the debut adventure of Buck Rogers in the 25th century. Unfortunately, it’s one of the weaker entries in the book, an uninspired military adventure that capitalizes on the “yellow peril” paranoia of its day by depicting a world ruled by an evil Chinese empire.

A few of the better selections do make the extra effort to really explore the scientific possibilities of time travel and the conundrums it may cause. The best story in the book doesn’t contain any time travel at all, but it nonetheless pushes the envelope of the genre. In H. Beam Piper’s expertly crafted “The Edge of the Knife,” a history professor’s unexplained visions of future world history end up jeopardizing his career. Two other Piper stories are also among the collection’s best: “Time and Time Again,” in which a grown man’s consciousness is transported thirty years backward into his own childhood body, and “The Flight from Tomorrow,” in which a deposed dictator from a hundred centuries in the future escapes his enemies by traveling to the past. In another excellent selection, “The Eternal Wall” by Raymond Z. Gallun, a present-day man dies in a car accident, only to have his mummified corpse revived a million years in the future. The collection’s most recent story—Edward M. Lerner’s 2013 novella “Time Out”—is a crafty and thought-provoking exploration of the mystifying problems that arise when you mess with the continuity of time. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a film adaptation in its future.

Like any other genre or period of literature, probably 90 percent of what was published during the pulp fiction era was garbage. Wildside Press performs a valuable service by not only resurrecting stories from these long-lost magazines but also curatorially separating the wheat from the chaff. Nevertheless, Wildside publishes such a large quantity of work that some mediocre content is bound to sneak in. Perhaps the true value of these Megapacks lies simply in the pleasure of making unexpected discoveries like—in my case—the works of Piper. Yet even the mediocre stories offer a pleasant glimpse into the glory days of the pulps. Reading this collection is a bit like sifting for gems in a bucket of corn. It’s the gems that make the book worth its purchase price, but the corn delivers its own brand of satisfying nourishment.

The Kindle file has a lot of typographical errors; not enough to hinder understanding, but enough to annoy. One of the shortest stories was pasted twice, so it appears duplicated in its entirety. The copy I downloaded even had the wrong cover image. Wildside publishes good stuff, but they should pay more attention to quality control.

Stories in this collection
Time Out by Edward M. Lerner 
These Stones Will Remember by Reginald Bretnor 
Project Mastodon by Clifford D. Simak
12:01 p.m. by Richard A. Lupoff 
Time Considered as a Series of Thermite Burns in No Particular Order by Damien Broderick 
Time and Time Again by H. Beam Piper 
Try, Try Again by John Gregory Betancourt 
The Eternal Wall by Raymond Z. Gallun 
The Man from Time by Frank Belknap Long 
Of Time and Texas by William F. Nolan 
The Edge of the Knife by H. Beam Piper 
Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot (10) by Grendel Briarton 
Time Bum by C.M. Kornbluth 
Nebogipfel at the End of Time by Richard A. Lupoff 
Unborn Tomorrow by Mack Reynolds 
Lost in the Future by John Victor Peterson 

The Winds of Time by James H. Schmitz 

Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan 

The Man Who Saw the Future by Edmond Hamilton 

A Traveler in Time by August Derleth 

Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot (71) by Grendel Briarton 

Flight from Tomorrow by H. Beam Piper 

In the Cracks of Time by David Grace 

Sweep Me to My Revenge! by Darrell Schweitzer 

The Solid Men by C.J. Henderson 

Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot (Epsilon) by Grendel Briarton 

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Monday, January 20, 2014

Publisher profile: In praise of the Delphi Classics

Classics done right
One of the great things about reading classic literature in e-book format is that a lot of it is free. At sites like Project Gutenberg, you can download dozens of works by your favorite dead authors without spending a dime. However, it can be a pain to download all those individual files, and how do you keep them all organized? Free doesn’t necessarily equal convenient. If you’re after a good, comprehensive collection of an author’s work, it’s worth spending a few bucks for a Kindle file that gathers that author’s writings into a user-friendly package. Of course, not all electronic collections are created equal. Some of them are even shoddier than the public domain source files. That’s why anyone with an e-book reader who loves classic literature should be familiar with the Delphi Classics. They make the most convenient, best edited, most complete collections of classic literature available on the market today.

If you’re a lover of classic books, the Delphi Classics puts their files together the way you would if you had the chance. They make a concerted effort to amass as much of an author’s work as they possibly can, even the most obscure bits. Often they include additional biographical or critical works on the author in question. They arrange all this material in an orderly manner, either chronologically or categorically, and link these works to a user-friendly interactive table of contents. Among the contents and title pages you might find a photograph of the author’s boyhood home, a scan of a first edition cover, or a movie poster from a film adaptation. Each individual book within a collection gets a little spoiler-free introductory page telling you a bit about the work or its publication. This is immensely important when you’ve already read the major works of an author and are willing to give a try to books you’ve never heard of. It’s fun just to browse through the descriptions, hunting for a buried treasure.  

When looking through a Delphi Classics file, you get the feeling that someone actually took the time to read it. We’ve all seen e-book files created from scanned books that are riddled with errors. The Delphi Classics consistently produce the cleanest texts I’ve seen in classic e-books. Typographical errors aren’t totally absent, but there’s probably no more than what you would find in the original printed editions. The Delphi Classics are to e-books what the Library of America is to printed books. These are the best classics collections out there, and definitely worth the price tag of a few bucks each.

As with the Library of America, the only complaint I have about the Delphi Classics is that I wish they offered more of my favorite authors. I hope they eventually offer more books by American realists like Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, or Hamlin Garland. Their thorough approach only lends itself well to writers with a large body of work, and all those works must be in the public domain. With foreign authors, even if their works are in the public domain, the English translations may not be, so English language authors make up the majority of their catalog. To some extent, therefore, the Delphi Classics are limited by the material available, though so far they’ve managed to put together a stunning digital library. Here’s a brief look at a small sampling of their offerings:

Complete Works of James Fenimore Cooper
The Leatherstocking Tales (The Last of the Mohicans and other adventures of Natty Bumpo) are featured up front, of course, but this great American author wrote so much more, and it’s all here, fiction and nonfiction, even the most obscure. It’s a joy to browse through the descriptive introductions of these novels just to get an idea of the scope of Cooper’s body of work. I highly recommend the forgotten treasure Wyandotté. Two biographies of Cooper are also included, as well as a section on criticism that even includes Mark Twain’s scathing diatribe on The Deerslayer.

Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Conan Doyle’s prodigious body of work is arranged categorically by Sherlock Holmes works, Professor Challenger stories (The Lost World and The Poison Belt), historical novels, and other novels. This is followed by the non-Holmes short stories, arranged by collection, with chronological and alphabetical indexes. But there’s more! An opera, five plays, three books of poetry, and a whole mess of nonfiction. Inexplicably missing are the other three Challenger tales. Having read most of the Holmes works years ago, I’ve had a lot of fun exploring Conan Doyle’s Holmes-less works, discovering lesser-known gems like The Doings of Raffles Haw and The Tragedy of the Korosko.

Works of Alexandre Dumas
You’ll notice that the word “Complete” is missing from the title of this one. Dumas and his workshop cranked out hundreds of books, if not thousands, many of which aren’t available in English. I doubt a true “Complete Works” has ever been put together, even in French. This collection has 30 Dumas novels, including all of the d’Artagnan Romances, the Cycle des Valois, and the Memoires d’un Medecin series. The Count of Monte Cristo is also here, of course, but so is the sequel The Son of Monte Cristo by Jules Lermina. It also features a few short stories and some non-fiction, but no plays.

Complete Works of Victor Hugo
This collection provides all of Hugo’s novels in both English and French. (I can’t wait to read Ninety-Three again!) His complete poetry is included in French, along with a huge selection of poems that have been translated into English. The next category, entitled “Selected Non-Fiction” gives the reader the idea that this “Complete Works” is not really complete, but 99% of readers are probably only after the fiction anyway. There’s also a section of criticism featuring writings on Hugo by such authors as Charles Dickens, Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as well as The Memoirs of Victor Hugo by the man himself. 

Complete Works of Jack London (Click title to read complete review)
I own a few different editions of London’s “Complete Works,” because none of them are ever truly complete, but this one is the most complete that I’ve ever seen. It even includes his poetry, his plays, and all the uncollected short stories. All that’s missing are a few of his most obscure essays, and the posthumous novel The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., which wasn’t published until 1963. An added bonus is the biography The Book of Jack London, written by his second wife Charmian Kittredge London. Unfortunately, the short stories are arranged alphabetically, rather than by chronological date of publication or by collection. I think that’s a mistake, as works from the same collection or time period tend to share similar style and subject matter. To jumble them all together into one big bunch obscures any perspective into the trajectory of London’s career.

Complete Works of Herman Melville
A disclaimer up front explains that this collection is missing Billy Budd and two short stories (“The Two Temples” and “Daniel Orme”), due to copyright restrictions. Delphi promises they will offer a free update once those works enter the public domain. In the meantime, while you wait, you can read every other novel, short story, poem, and essay he ever wrote. There’s also a volume of personal letters, literary criticism from D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, and the biography Herman Melville: Man, Mariner, and Mystic by Raymond Weaver.

Complete Works of William Shakespeare
All of Shakespeare’s works, and then some. In addition to the bard’s plays, sonnets, and poems, there are quite a few of the “apocryphal” plays—works that some scholars claim were written by the English language’s greatest playwright. There are plenty of Shakespeare collections out there, but what really sold me on this one is that the plays are typeset in a very easy-to-read manner. This collection also includes a whole lot of biographical and critical content for anyone wishing to delve deeper into Shakespeare’s life and works.

Complete Works of Henry David Thoreau
Their treatment of Thoreau is quite thorough. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Five books of his nature writing and over two dozen uncollected essays are contained herein, plus Familiar Letters and Thoreau’s Journals. Hundreds of poems are indexed chronologically and alphabetically. It even has his translations of Aeschylus and Pindar. A few essays seem to be missing, like “Prayers” and “Died . . . Miss Anna Jones.” There’s also plenty of lit-crit from Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and more.

Complete Works of Leo Tolstoy
Beyond Anna Karenina, I have little familiarity with Tolstoy, but thanks to Delphi’s chronological presentation of his works, I have started with the Childhood, Boyhood, Youth trilogy and am working my way forward. I had no idea Tolstoy wrote so many short stories; there are dozens included here. Once again, a category named “Selected Non-Fiction” makes you wonder what’s missing, but the plethora of good stuff packed into this collection will soon distract you from any such misgivings.

Complete Works of Emile Zola
It took me years to track down the English translations of Zola’s 20-novel Rougon-Macquart cycle in paper editions. Now they can all be yours with the touch of a button, even the ultra-elusive His Excellency Eugène Rougon. All that came before and after the Rougon-Macquart epic is here as well, including the Three Cities and Four Gospels series, short stories, and his famous editorial “J’Accuse . . . !”. One work that appears to be missing from this collection is a book called Death. Valuable reference materials include the biography With Zola in England by perennial Zola translator Ernest Alfred Vizitelly, a Rougon-Macquart family tree, and indexes of the characters and locations in the Rougon-Macquart saga.

Works of Honoré de Balzac
I already own another Kindle file of Works of Honoré de Balzac (from MobileReference), which has served me well, so I don’t have much need for this edition. Although the word “Complete” is missing from the title, it does have the complete Comédie Humaine, as well as the Droll Stories, which is all most readers will require. There’s also some plays, some critical essays on Balzac, and no less than five biographies of the author. In addition, it includes a helpful Glossary of Characters in La Comédie HumaineBalzac’s writings are arranged according to his categories of the Comédie Humaine, but regretfully there is no alphabetical index to this file, which is inexcusable.

Complete Works of the Brontës
Not just the sisters, but the brother and dad, too! How’s that for “Complete”?

Delphi also has an extensive poetry series, a line of classics from ancient Greece and Rome, and a large German-language series. See their complete catalogue at their web site,, or find their books at Amazon.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan

Buck Rogers vs. the Chinese
This novella is the first adventure of the famous character Buck Rogers. Shortly after its initial publication in the August 1928 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories, author Philip Francis Nowlan was commissioned to write the syndicated comic strip Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D., which gave rise to radio shows, movie serials, and the 1979 TV series that I grew up with. While many have enjoyed Rogers’ futuristic adventures in their various media incarnations, few likely realize that this entertainment empire was spawned by a xenophobic tale of “yellow peril.” In Nowlan’s vision of the 25th century, the world has been taken over by the Chinese, who throughout the book are designated as “Hans” (as in the Han ethnic group of East Asia) or “Mongolians” (as in the Mongoloid race). Thankfully, Nowlan doesn’t indulge in racial stereotypes. In fact, we don’t get to see much of the Hans at all. They are simply portrayed as generically evil, but Nowlan does play on his reader’s fears of Asian invasion.

In this first installment of his adventures, our hero has yet to earn his familiar nickname and is simply referred to by his given name of Anthony or “Tony” Rogers. While on an exploratory expedition for a gas corporation, Rogers is trapped in a cavern filled with radioactive gas and falls into a state of suspended animation for five centuries. He awakens to a time when the Hans rule the world and Americans are a persecuted race, reduced to warring bands that live in the woods. These forest dwellers are not technologically challenged, however, and in fact possess weapons and inventions that rival those of their enemies. But mankind has lost much of its killer instinct over the preceding 500 years and has forgotten how to fight. This veteran of the Great War proves to be just what these people need to shake them from their complacency. He shows them a thing or too about kickin’ butt, quickly rises among their ranks, and leads them in the fight against their oppressors. The story is basically a military adventure, told with rocket guns and anti-gravity belts. As a freedom fighter story, it resembles a futuristic take on the ’80s movie Red Dawn, with tactics gleaned from the First World War.

What racism there exists in this book can be excused as a product of its time, but when coupled with the fact that the story is mostly a bore, the result is that this influential work of pulp fiction holds little charm for readers of the 21st century. There are a few good action sequences, but most of the suspense is obliterated by the fact that Rogers and his comrades must be the luckiest revolutionaries in world history. They suffer very little adversity, and everything just seems to go their way in a predictably triumphant manner. The prose is certainly not as clumsy as what one often finds in vintage pulp fiction, but the plot has a lot of dry spots. The worst passage is halfway through the book, where there’s a long and boring newscast that repeats in minute detail exactly what you just read a few pages earlier. Novels about the future should either impart the reader with a sense of wonder or a thought-provoking dystopian dread. The feeling one gets from Armageddon 2419 A.D., on the other hand, is merely mean-spiritedness. Nowlan so unapologetically delights in the slaughter and destruction of the Americans’ enemies and their collaborators, it makes one wonder if he’s harboring some residual animosity against the Germans and cathartically taking it out on these fictional Asians. One can understand how such a book may have been popular following World War I, but most sci-fi fans of today can do without it.

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Complete Short Stories of Jack London (Di Lernia Publishers)

Review of the Kindle book, not the hardcover edition
Back in 1993, Earle Labor, a renowned scholar of Jack London’s work, put together a collection of The Complete Short Stories of Jack London which was published in three hardcover volumes. This Kindle edition of The Complete Short Stories of Jack London, from Di Lernia Publishers, is NOT a reissue of that work. This e-book does not contain Labor’s introductory essay or any of the bibliographic information on the publication history of these stories. This file is just the stories; that’s it. I don’t bring that up as a criticism, just a clarification. It’s great that these stories are now all readily available in e-book format, so London fans no longer have to shell out the money for those expensive hardcover volumes.

I already own a few different e-books of “The Complete Works of Jack London,” because it seems none of them is ever truly complete. I bought this edition of the Complete Short Stories for the content that those other collections lacked. London’s short stories were originally published in various periodicals, then reprinted in hardcover collections. Most Complete Works collections organize London’s stories according to the collections in which they appeared, which is as it should be. However, in doing this, most editions omit the Uncollected Stories—stories which never appeared in one of these hardcover collections. This Kindle edition does have these Uncollected Stories, which is the main reason why I bought it. It also has the final six stories of Smoke Bellew, which are often erroneously omitted from many collections. In addition to all the short stories, this collection throws in the novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang as a bonus. It also includes the nonfiction books War of the Classes and Revolution and Other Essays (which does include one fiction piece), as well as about a dozen other short nonfiction pieces in the form of essays, letters, and journalism.

As I’ve already read the vast majority of London’s works in other Kindle files, I only read 42 of the stories included here. From that sampling, however, I did get the impression that the text is not in very good shape. It has many of the typographical errors that arise from scanned texts, and there appears to have been little attempt at editing. These errors are not bad enough to hinder you from reading the stories, just bad enough to be annoying. I also noticed two short stories that are missing. One is an obscure piece called “The ‘Fuzziness’ of Hoockla-Heen.” The other is the 1902 version of “To Build a Fire,” a preliminary draft of the more famous 1908 story of the same title. The earlier version was watered-down for a younger audience and features a different ending, but it’s still considered a story in its own right within the London canon.

I don’t regret purchasing this Kindle book. It served my purposes. However, for those looking for one “definitive” Kindle collection of London’s work, I would recommend the Delphi Classics Complete Works of Jack London. It has the most complete contents of any such collection I’ve seen, and in my experience the Delphi Classics always provide the best edited, cleanest text of any public domain collections on the market.

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Time and Time Again by H. Beam Piper

Who says you can’t go home again?
“Time and Time Again” is a short story by science fiction writer H. Beam Piper. It was originally published in the April 1947 issue of the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. The story opens in 1975, in the midst of World War III. Allan Hartley—a scientist, novelist, and army officer—is hit by a bomb blast and knocked unconscious, or so it seems. In reality, his consciousness has traveled back in time. Hartley awakens in 1943, at his father’s house, trapped in his own 13-year-old body. He struggles to find a way out of his bizarre predicament and return to his proper time, which leads to some intricate and thought-provoking speculation on the actual possibility and plausibility of time travel. The ending of the story, though a bit abrupt, is admirably unexpected without being pretentiously clever.

Piper’s prose throughout is a cut above typical pulp fiction, with none of the clumsiness that one finds in hack writers of the period. Like any other work of its day, the dialogue seems dated at times, but the scientific concepts are still interesting and valid for a 21st-century audience. I’m not sure if Piper was the first to come up with the man-trapped-in-child’s-body plot device, but in his hands it certainly feels original. He pushes the envelope of the story’s possibilities and doesn’t settle for predictability. “Time and Time Again” was Piper’s first published story, and, though it’s no masterpiece, it’s an auspicious debut and a good, solid, engaging read for those who enjoy vintage science fiction.

The Kindle file that’s available for free on Amazon (with the red and tan cover) is not a collection of stories; it’s just one story. It’s not 120 pages, as stated on Amazon, but only about 25. A collection of stories has also been published under the same title, in paperback and hardcover. Amazon’s database can't distinguish between two books with the same title and author, so it treats them as different editions of the same book, even when they're not. If you’re looking for a collection with multiple stories, make sure that’s what you’re getting before you purchase. For e-book readers, I would suggest The H. Beam Piper Megapack from Wildside Press.

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