Friday, February 28, 2014

The Pathfinder by James Fenimore Cooper

Hawkeye in love
James Fenimore Cooper may be one of the most popular and influential writers in the history of American literature, but today’s reader may find the quality of his writing woefully inconsistent. You never know what you’re going to get when you open a Cooper novel. It could be a snoozer like The Deerslayer or a masterpiece like The Last of the Mohicans. The Pathfinder lies somewhere in between. Originally published in 1840, The Pathfinder is the third chronological installment in the Leatherstocking Tales, the series of five books featuring the hero Natty Bumppo, a skilled hunter, tracker, and guide. Bumppo is rarely referred to by his birth name, but rather is known by a host of nicknames including Hawkeye, Deerslayer, and La Longue Carabine. In this novel, he is referred to as Pathfinder.

The novel opens with Charles Cap, a sailor, and his niece, Mabel Dunham, being escorted through the forests of western New York by two Indian guides. At a campfire in the wilderness they meet up with the Pathfinder, his Indian companion Chingachgook, and a soldier named Jasper Western. These three new acquaintances will guide Mabel and her uncle to the British fort at Oswego, on the shores of Lake Ontario, where her father serves as a sergeant in the regiment. To get there they must venture through territory occupied by the hostile Indians known as Mingos. While this sounds like an exciting beginning, the first several chapters of the novel are really quite dull. The first half of the book is overly talky, with the conversation often revolving around Bumppo’s favorite topic of “gifts.” The Pathfinder has been blessed with forest gifts, while Cap’s nature lies in sea gifts. Jasper Western, who pilots a cutter on the lake, is endowed with lake gifts. The primary purpose of the novel seems to be to contrast these three individuals, who embody Cooper’s three favorite environments. Cap is particularly proud of his seafaring skills, so much so that he constantly asserts that the ocean is superior to the lake in every way. To the reader’s annoyance, he belabors this point until his monotonous proclamations begin to border on idiocy.

What sets The Pathfinder apart from the other Leatherstocking novels is that Cooper provides Bumppo with a love interest in Mabel Dunham. While Cooper’s love stories sometimes serve as annoying distractions from otherwise entertaining adventure novels, in this case the romance is the most interesting part of the book. It allows us to see the Pathfinder as a genuine human being rather than merely a fount of frontier wisdom. The romantic elements of the story never stoop to the syrupy sweet. Cooper not only concerns himself with affairs of the heart, but delves into the politics of matchmaking as well, as Pathfinder is not the only suitor vying for Mabel’s hand. Meanwhile, the British troops are engaged in a conflict with the Indians that have allied themselves with the French. Matters are complicated by suspicions of treason among the regiment. This part of the story takes forever to get moving, but the final third of the book is actually quite good. Unfortunately one has to spend a lot of time drifting around Lake Ontario to get there.

The Pathfinder is neither the best nor the worst of the Leatherstocking Tales. It doesn’t approach the mythic heights of The Last of the Mohicans, but it’s certainly worth a read. The five Leatherstocking novels are an important achievement in American literature, and for the most part they’re also quite entertaining. For those who enjoy Cooper’s work, I would also highly recommend his 1843 novel Wyandotté. It covers much of the same subject matter as The Pathfinder—misunderstood love, duplicitous agents, a fortress under siege—but far more successfully.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Introducing 007
The first novel in the James Bond series by Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, was originally published in 1953. Though it is the first published adventure of the consummate secret agent, it is not an origin story per se. The book opens in mid-mission, with Bond already an established operative of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. With two previous kills under his belt, he’s already earned his double-0 code name and a license to use lethal force at will.

For those used to the nefarious plots of world domination so common in Bond’s adventures, the plot of Casino Royale will seem small in scope by comparison. A communist agent named Le Chiffre (the Cipher) has a weakness for gambling. Having risked and lost some of his operating expenses he finds himself in debt to his bosses at the Soviet agency SMERSH. Le Chiffre journeys to the French coastal town of Royale-les-Eaux in hopes that some luck at the casino’s baccarat tables will replenish his accounts and save his skin. Bond, who enjoys a reputation as a skilled card player, is sent by the British Secret Service to defeat Le Chiffre at baccarat, thereby bankrupting him, taking him out of commission, and depriving SMERSH of an established agent and millions of dollars.

Aiding Bond in this endeavor are René Mathis of the French intelligence agency le Deuxième Bureau; Felix Leiter, an American CIA agent who will go on to make frequent appearances in Bond novels; and Vesper Lynd, a gorgeous British agent for whom Bond immediately develops an intense attraction. In his interaction with this supporting cast, 007 reveals a friendlier and more sensitive side than we are used to seeing in the Bond films. The Bond that shows up in Casino Royale is far closer to Sean Connery or even George Lazenby than the laconic killing machine portrayed by Daniel Craig in the later films. Although Fleming’s novels are written in the third person, the reader gets frequent glimpses into the inner thoughts and feelings that lie behind Bond’s polished facade, revealing the vulnerability behind the steel. In one memorable torture scene, for example, we discover that despite his apparent personal strength he is not immune to fear, regret, or despair. Over the course of the novel—amid all the cards, cars, and guns—the reader witnesses the gradual evolution of Bond from a relatively idealistic and dutiful agent to a cynical, hardened veteran.

The Bond stories have a reputation for defying realism, and that’s certainly true here. In the gambling scenes, for instance, Lady Luck is clearly on our hero’s side. In his encounters with the enemy, Bond definitely has nine lives, and a fortuitous rescue is always forthcoming whenever he ends up in a life-threatening jam. A little sensationalism is welcome in this genre, however. It’s what makes Fleming’s work more lively and entertaining than the more procedurally realistic espionage thrillers of his contemporary John Le Carré. Thankfully, the Bond of Casino Royale does not exhibit superhuman prowess in all his endeavors, as we too often see in the movies. I’m not a huge fan of the Bond films, for just that reason, but I did enjoy this book. I can’t say I’m ready to rush out and buy the next installment in the series, but I’m sure this isn’t the last time Special Agent 007 will cross this reader’s path.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

OBDG’s Greatest Hits (so far)

Most popular posts
Old Books by Dead Guys has been in existence for a little over two years, during which time 325 reviews have been posted. Below is a list of the top ten most visited posts at this blog. Click on the titles to read the full reviews.

For obvious reasons, the older posts have an advantage in terms of total number of hits. It seems art books also have an upper hand, because those posts often contain art which can be found through Google Image searches. Logically, the most obscure books should get the most hits, since there will be less competition from other reviews. A Polish author takes the top spot, followed by three Mexicans. Rounding out the top ten are two books about Kansas (location of the home office of Old Books by Dead Guys).

1. The Peasants by Wladyslaw Reymont
Although Reymont won the Nobel Prize, his works are extremely hard to find in English. His four-volume masterpiece, The Peasants, is one that many eager readers are searching for, but it has been out of print for almost a century. This is by far the most popular post, which proves that this little-known work deserves a new edition. (5 stars)

2. Leopoldo Mendéz: Oficio de Grabar by Francisco Reyes Palma
Mendéz, one of Mexico’s greatest artists, was a master of the woodcut print. This book, published in Spanish, is likely the best volume ever produced on his work. (5 stars)

3. The Burning Plain by Juan Rulfo
A masterful collection of short stories by Mexico’s greatest writer of fiction. I’m a little surprised at its high showing here, because I would have thought this book popular enough to be reviewed on many different sites. (5 stars)

4. Los de Abajo (The Underdogs) by Mariano Azuela
The third Mexican author in the top four spots. This is generally considered the greatest novel of the Mexican Revolution, but I had problems with the English translation. (3 stars)

5. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville
Melville is clearly the most famous author in this top ten. Bartleby is one of his best works, though it bears little resemblance to his well-known seafaring novels. (5 stars)

6. Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels, edited by George A. Walker
This collection features four woodcut novels by artists Lynd Ward, Frans Masereel, Laurence Hyde, and Giacomo Patri. The artworks are fantastic; the introductory text, not so much. (4 stars)

7. The Edge of the Knife by H. Beam Piper
This is a very recent post, so it’s surprising to see it rank in the top ten. Piper was a visionary science fiction writer whose tales of time travel graced the pages of the 1950s pulp magazines. (5 stars)

8. The Best of 2013
The best reads of last year, though none of the books were actually published in 2013. It’s gratifying to know that this best-of post got some attention. Hopefully some of today’s readers were turned on to some Old Books by Dead Guys. Unfortunately, I never did a Best of 2012 post. (5 stars)

9. Birger Sandzén: An Illustrated Biography by Emory Lindquist
Swedish-born artist Sandzén is widely regarded as Kansas’s greatest painter. This biography is likely the most thorough examination of his life and works. (4 stars)

10. The Prairie Print Makers by Barbara Thompson O’Neill, et al.
This group of artists, based in Kansas (Birger Sandzén among them), produced some really beautiful artworks in the 1930s and ’40s. Not much has been published on them, however, which might explain the popularity of this post. (4.5 stars)

Friday, February 21, 2014

Contes à Ninon by Emile Zola

Zola’s stylistic adolescence
Emile Zola’s first book, Contes à Ninon (or Stories for Ninon, in English), was originally published in 1864. In the introduction, the narrator, ostensibly Zola himself, dedicates the book to his childhood love, Ninon. When the two were young friends and lovers he used to whisper stories to her amidst the fields of their native Provence. Now he sets these tales down in print. The result of this unnecessary convention is that most of the stories are bookended by direct addresses to Ninon, though they would have been better off without them. There’s nothing else that ties the stories together, and this fictional muse merely encourages Zola to wax poetic in excess.

At this early stage in Zola’s career, he had yet to develop his mature naturalistic style and was trying to find his authorial voice. This is evident in the broad variety of styles he employs. A few of the stories are a far cry from any sort of realism and give a good idea of the state of literature before Zola arrived to shake things up. If you happen to like romantic tales of nymphs, sylphs, and fairies, then you’ll be right at home with stories like “Simplice,” “The Ball-Program,” and “The Love-Fairy.” Probably the closest resemblance these idylls bear to any of Zola’s later, greater works is the Garden of Eden imagery in The Sin of Father Mouret or the fairy-tale romance of The Dream.

The most successful stories in the book are the more naturalistic ones that give an inkling of the socially conscious novels for which Zola would later become famous. Probably the best story in the book is “She Who Loves Me,” in which the narrator, lonely and depressed, enters a sideshow tent at a fair and peeps through a hole in the wall, hoping to find the elusive love of his life. Though it’s a very good story, Zola incorporated it almost verbatim into his first novel, Claude’s Confession, so if you’ve already read that then you’ve seen this scene before. In another story entitled “Blood,” four soldiers spend the night on a battlefield littered with dead and experience nightmarish visions. Though beyond that, there’s not much of a plot, one begins to see the power of Zola’s unflinching, even brutal prose. “Sister-of-the-Poor” is a Balzac-esque fantasy story about a poverty-stricken yet generous young girl that is granted the power of unlimited charity. Though it’s hardly an example of realism, it does showcase Zola’s sympathy for the lower classes and his ability to vividly and movingly depict their plight.

The entire second half of the book is taken up by a twelve-chapter novella entitled “The Adventures of Big Sidoine and Little Médéric.” This is an absurd satire along the lines of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Voltaire’s Micromégas. The two title characters grow up together as brothers, yet one is a giant while the other is of miniscule stature. Together they represent the dichotomy of brawn and brains, respectively. Sidoine is big enough to move mountains with his meaty paws, while Médéric is small enough to sit inside his ear. Together they leave their comfortable homeland to venture off in search of the Kingdom of the Happy. It’s all very delightful for about twenty pages; unfortunately, it’s a hundred pages long.

Contes à Ninon is not a necessary read for Zola fans, but it’s not a waste of time either. Stylistically, Zola throws everything into this collection but the kitchen sink, and it’s fun to watch him try his hand in some unexpected genres. Ultimately, however, the only reason anyone would dig up these old stories is out of appreciation for Zola’s masterful novels, so you’d be better off spending your time on those great novels and pushing this collection off to the side.

Stories in this collection
To Ninon 
The Ball-Program 
She Who Loves Me 
The Love-Fairy 
The Thieves and the Ass 
The Adventures of Big Sidoine and Little Médéric

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor

Finally, a definitive biography
Jack London has been the subject of many biographies, but no one’s ever really succeeded in producing a balanced, authoritative account of his life. Earle Labor was one of the first scholars to recognize the literary value of London’s writings and has been a leader in Jack London studies for decades. Jack London: An American Life, published at the tail end of 2013, is the culmination of Labor’s career and likely the best overall biography of London ever written.

Unlike so many previous London biographers, Labor doesn’t have an axe to grind or a sexy thesis to push, like “Jack London committed suicide,” (see Irving Stone’s Sailor on Horseback) or “Jack London had a homosexual relationship” (see James L. Haley’s Wolf). In the preface, Labor asserts that London’s success was a uniquely American phenomenon and a fortuitous product of his times. Yet Labor never really defends this thesis. He simply presents the events of London’s life in as clear and comprehensive a manner as possible, and let’s the reader judge for himself. Labor has read everything that exists on London and has interacted personally with many of the man’s friends and family. He takes the varying accounts, perspectives, and anecdotes from this multitude of sources, reconciles them with one another, and unites them into a cohesive life story. The result is incredibly detail-heavy, but never boring. I have read almost everything London’s ever written, as well as several biographies, but while reading Labor’s version I managed to learn something new on nearly every page.

There’s not a whole lot of literary criticism in this book. Labor has already covered that in other volumes, and there isn’t much room for it here. London’s life was every but as exciting and adventure-filled as one of his novels. The diverse stages of his life—writer, sailor, hobo, oyster pirate, gold seeker, socialist statesman, war correspondent, world traveler, rancher—are familiar to any London fan, but how they all fit together is often a confusing puzzle. Labor doesn’t play games with the chronology and clearly shows how all these fascinating episodes coalesce into the overall arc of London’s life. Though Labor has devoted his entire life to the study of Jack London, this is no exercise in hero worship. The biographer has plenty of praise for his subject’s accomplishments, but doesn’t shy away from his faults. At times Labor dwells on certain events longer than he should. There are four complete chapters on the cruise of the Snark, for example, and he devotes far more ink than necessary to some obscure essays, like “The Golden Poppy.” Yet, as a diehard fan of London, I can forgive sins of inclusion far more easily than sins of omission. Thanks to Labor’s relentless thoroughness, the reader really gets a clear sense of what daily life was like for London and his wife Charmian, through times both extraordinary and mundane.

One inconvenience to the serious reader results from an editorial rather than an authorial choice. Labor supports his research with copious notes, but the publisher—as is far too common these days—commits the annoying sin of not including reference numbers to the notes within the text (at least in the ebook edition), as if a few superscript numerals would scare readers away from buying the book.

The best way to learn about Jack London is to read his own works. Beyond that, if you’re only going to read one biography of London, this is the one to read. London’s perspective on his own life was far from impartial, and he didn’t always adhere to the facts, but, lucky for us, we now have Labor’s book to set the record straight.

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Monday, February 17, 2014

Hard Looks: Adapted Stories by Andrew Vachss

A sampling of dark crime fiction from a great comics series
I often envy my father’s and grandfather’s generations for growing up in the golden age of the pulp fiction magazines. In those days every newsstand was loaded with inexpensive popular fiction of every conceivable genre, setting, and level of quality. In more recent times almost all of the pulp magazines have become extinct, and the niche they occupied has largely been filled by comic books. Ever since the “Silver Age” of the 1950s, however, superheroes have dominated the comics, shoving all other genres from the racks. In the early 1990s, back when I used to haunt the comic shops, one publisher that attempted to rectify this matter was Dark Horse Comics. They published a line of quality titles in the areas of movie adaptations, science fiction, horror, mystery, and crime. One series that fell under the latter category was Hard Looks, which ran from 1992 to 1993 and consisted of graphic interpretations of short stories by crime writer Andrew Vachss. In 1994, Dark Horse published a Hard Looks trade paperback, with a second edition in 2002. This collection includes 17 stories by Vachss. Eleven of them are comic adaptations; the other six are text stories accompanied by spot illustrations.

I read a couple Vachss books twenty-some years ago and was never very impressed with him as a novelist. His short stories are better, and lend themselves extremely well to graphic adaptation. What I like best about Vachss is simply his commitment to the comics medium. Hard Looks is only one of several comics projects he’s undertaken. Why don’t more genre fiction writers follow his example? The stories in Hard Looks are gritty tales of urban crime. The images—provided by artists Geof Darrow, Gary Gianni, Dave Gibbons, and others—often have the dark and stark flavor of film noir. Yet for the most part, this is not the sort of glorified, romanticized violence one finds in Frank Miller’s Sin City. Vachss has worked as an attorney, a social worker, a prison director, and a child advocate, and incorporates experiences from these occupations into his stories. His tales are populated by teenage gangsters, dirty cops, shifty lawyers, child molesters, rapists, and serial killers. Occasionally he drifts farther afield. “Half Breed” ventures into fantasy and horror territory, “Warlord” is set in the world of 1950s street gangs, and “Lynch Law” is a racially charged tale set in the American South in 1959. The rest take place in a brutal criminal underbelly of contemporary America that’s all the more shocking because it’s based on reality.

Not every story is a masterpiece, but overall they are quite good. Among the best are “Drive By,” in which a teenager tries to prove his worth to a gangster by attacking a rival gang; “Treatment,” which deals with the psychological rehabilitation of a sex offender; “Step on a Crack,” about two childhood friends who drift apart to opposite sides of the law; and “Hostage,” in which a police negotiator tries to coax an unstable gunman to release his captive. They’re all written in an unflinchingly realistic style and often end with a surprising twist.

The Hard Looks series ran for ten issues. This is not a complete compendium, but rather a “greatest hits” collection. Dark Horse recently published a second collection entitled Harder Looks, which appears to be available only in e-book format. What they should really do is publish a complete collection of all ten issues in one inexpensive, newsprint omnibus edition, similar to the Marvel Essentials series. Hard Looks was a great experiment in comic literature, and deserves to be resurrected and made available to a whole new audience. Until that happens, however, this volume will do just fine.

Stories in this collection
Drive By (art by Gary Gianni)
Replay (art by Bruce Jones)
Half Breed (text; illustrations by Geof Darrow)
Born Bad (art by Doug D’Antiquis)
Lynch Law (art by Warren Pleece)
Head Case (text; illustrations by Geof Darrow) 
A Flash of White (art by David Lloyd)
Cripple (art by George Pratt)
Statute of Limitations (text; illustrations by Tim Bradstreet) 
Treatment (art by Chris Moeller)
Tag (text only) 
Step on a Crack (text; illustrations by Warren Pleece) 
Hostage (art by Gary Gianni)
Dumping Ground (art by Dave Gibbons)
Date Rape (text; illustrations by Tony Fitzpatrick) 
Warlord (art by Paul Guinan and Tony Adkins)

Man to Man (art by Jack Pollack)

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Friday, February 14, 2014

The Pit by Frank Norris

Can’t stop the wheat
The Pit is the final novel by Frank Norris, one of America’s most promising novelists of the early 20th century. It was published in 1903, shortly after his untimely death at the age of 32. The novel revolves around events at the Chicago Board of Trade, and the title refers to the area of the trading floor where wheat is bought and sold. The Pit is the second novel in a planned trilogy known as The Epic of the Wheat that was cut short by Norris’s demise. The first volume of that trilogy was his 1901 masterpiece The Octopus, but no knowledge of that prior book is required to understand or enjoy The Pit.

Following the death of her parents, Laura Dearborn moves from a conservative town in Massachusetts to live in Chicago with her sister and widowed aunt. Within a few months of her arrival, she has already attracted the attention of three suitors. Sheldon Corthell is an artist with the cultured tastes and refined manner of a smooth operator. Landry Court, a stockbroker’s clerk, harbors an intense, boyish infatuation with Laura and places her upon a proverbial pedestal. Curtis Jadwin, a real estate investor and self-made man of wealth, is a bit of a mystery man. While his maturity and self-reliance distinguishes him from the gushing Landry, he lacks the elegant social graces of Corthell. Despite all the attention from these three eligible bachelors, Laura asserts her independence and vows to fly solo. Regardless, the lives of all these characters are soon caught up either directly or indirectly in the financial machinations of wheat trading. As fortunes rise and fall, their lives are all irrevocably changed by the relentless maelstrom of wheat and money.

The more you know about stock trading, the more you will enjoy this book. Norris offers little assistance and simply expects his reader to know the ins and outs of bulls and bears, selling short, margin calls, and the like. Even readers who get lost in the financial details, however, can nonetheless enjoy the excitement with which Norris portrays the proceedings. In a manner highly evocative of Emile Zola—a writer he very much tried to emulate—Norris vividly emphasizes how the dealings on the floor of the Board of Trade reverberate throughout the world, effecting the lives and livelihoods of millions. The supply of and demand for wheat is a force of nature, a raging river of grain that sweeps up all who become involved with it. In keeping with Zola’s naturalistic style, the characters fates are largely determined by nature and nurture, but in Norris’s novel each is given the opportunity to wrestle their fate through the exercise of free will.

The Pit is one of Norris’s better books, though not quite as good as The Octopus or McTeague. Once the reader becomes aware of the big deal upon which the book centers, the arc of the plot becomes somewhat predictable, but Norris fleshes the story out with so many moving and memorable details that he has no problem sustaining the reader’s interest. At times he ventures a little into soap opera territory, particularly with the romantic elements. Laura is a beautiful and independent woman, yet self-absorbed and prone to high and mighty histrionics. At times the reader can’t decide whether to pity or despise her. Yet though she may be a drama queen, Norris does portray her as a realistic human being. As is typical of his mature naturalistic style, the world that Norris creates is unflinchingly true-to-life and an accurate reflection of the society of his time.

The Pit is now in the public domain, so you can download it for free from Amazon or Project Gutenberg. For those who prefer a paper edition, however, the Penguin Classics paperback has a very good introductory essay by Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. and extensive notes that helpfully illuminate many of the cultural references contained in the book.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Flight from Tomorrow by H. Beam Piper

Seeking refuge in the past
H. Beam Piper’s novelette Flight from Tomorrow was originally published in the September/October 1950 issue of the pulp magazine Science Fiction Stories. A hundred centuries from now, the great dictator Hradzka is overthrown by a rebellion and hunted down by his enemies, led by the military leader General Zarvas. Hradzka escapes in a time machine and ends up in our present century, where he attempts to blend in. Hradzka was clearly not a benevolent ruler in his own time, and he looks down on the people of the 20th century with the same tyrannical attitude. They are merely ants to be squashed on his way to world domination. Having such a protagonist is fun for the reader because half the time you are rooting for him to succeed with his nefarious plans, while the other half of the time you loathe him enough to want to see him destroyed.

This excellent science fiction story happens to be an exciting and suspenseful thriller, but not at the expense of the science. Time travel is not merely a plot element employed to set up action sequences, but an integral part of the story. Piper does a great job of balancing the cat-and-mouse fun of a good chase with some thought-provoking theorizing on what happens when the future clashes with the past. Like any pulp tale from the ’50s, the years have imparted a certain degree of unintentional campiness, but Piper’s sci-fi visions have held up well over the decades, and his well-crafted prose elevates this piece above the typical standards of genre fiction. Today’s sci-fi fans will still find it an engaging and entertaining read.

If you are downloading the free Kindle file from Amazon (with the red and tan cover image), you’re only getting this one story. There have also been one or two paper collections of Piper stories entitled Flight from Tomorrow. Amazon’s web site may jumble the reviews for these various editions, so check to make sure what you’re getting before you download. If you want a sizeable, inexpensive e-book collection of Piper’s work, I would suggest The H. Beam Piper Megapack from Wildside Press.

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Monday, February 10, 2014

Uprooted: The Life and Art of Ernest Lindner by Terrence Heath

More life than art
Ernest Lindner is an Austrian-born artist who emigrated to Canada in 1926 and became one of Saskatchewan’s best known painters. I first encountered his work in a book on Canadian printmaking. After seeing his linocut prints, which are absolutely phenomenal, I wanted to find out more about Lindner and his work, and this book seems to be just about all that’s available on him. To my disappointment, his printmaking is barely covered in this book. The author mentions his linocuts as if there were merely a hobby. Only one linocut print is pictured in the book, and it’s a still life not wholly indicative of his prowess in the medium.

Uprooted: The Life and Art of Ernest Lindner was published in 1983 by Fifth House, a Saskatoon publisher. It’s no coincidence that the word “Life” comes before “Art” in the subtitle, because this is primarily a biography, not a showcase for his work. The book is chock full of historical photos of Lindner and his family, but there aren’t a whole lot of artworks pictured. Of the paintings that are included, half of them aren’t very good. Even the author Terrence Heath, a close friend of Lindner’s, admits that Lindner’s painting work really didn’t reach a remarkable level of quality until he was in his sixties. There are 16 pages of color plates in the back of the book. Among these there are about 8 paintings from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that are excellent. These extremely detailed close-ups of forest undergrowth and tree bark are rendered in a hyperrealistic manner that combines the subtle attention to detail of Andrew Wyeth with the photographic clarity of Richard Estes. They succeed both as faithful representations of nature and as beautiful, abstract tapestries. Outside of this impressive period of work, the rest of the landscapes are pedestrian by comparison. There’s also a series of drawings of nudes from the 1970s, but they look like typical nudes from the ‘70s—well-executed, but by now a bit dated.

The text by Heath is above average. Unlike a lot of regional artist biographies, it’s more than just an elaborate resumé or an adulatory eulogy. Lindner himself contributes a chapter on his experiences with the Austrian army in World War I. Heath covers Lindner’s childhood and young adulthood quite well. He goes beyond mere facts and delves into Lindner’s psychology and philosophy of life. Despite the fact that the author and artist were friends, some passages paint a rather unflattering portrait of “Ernie”. He comes across as a womanizer and at times emotionally childish. He fled Austria to avoid bankruptcy, leaving a wife and child behind. All these details make for an interesting life story, but what’s missing from this artist’s biography is the art. There is some interesting coverage of Lindner’s involvement with the Kingston Conference of 1941, an important gathering of Canadian artists. Later in his career, Lindner encountered New York art critic Clement Greenberg, the spokesman for abstract expressionism, who had a positive impact on his art. Overall, however, there’s very little about Lindner’s development as a painter. One theme that’s repeated throughout the book is that with all his teaching and administrative work with arts organizations, Lindner just didn’t have any time to paint. Perhaps that explains the poor selection of images in the book.

The fact that the book was printed in the 1980s doesn’t do it any favors either. Today’s printing technologies would allow for more color and better reproduction. Heath’s text is good enough to merit resurrection in a new edition. It would be great if some Saskatchewan publisher would step up to the plate and reissue this much-needed retrospective of Lindner, hopefully adding about 50 more images. Should that ever happen, please, next time, don’t forget the prints.

Forest, 1940, linocut print, 11.5 x 14" (Not pictured in book)

Puffballs, 1971, watercolor, 29.5 x 21.25"

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Friday, February 7, 2014

Micromégas by Voltaire

Science fiction in the Age of Enlightenment
I have the utmost respect for Voltaire as a thinker, a historical personage, and an outspoken advocate of reason and freedom. During the Age of Enlightenment, he may very well have been the most influential man in the Western world. He left his indelible mark in the realms of philosophy, literature, politics, history, culture, and science. Nevertheless, despite my admiration for the man, I don’t usually enjoy his writings all that much. Most of his literary output was satirical, and regrettably his humor has not held up well over the last quarter of a millennium. This work, however, is a notable exception.

Micromégas, originally published in 1752, is a short story consisting of seven brief chapters. Despite being written almost three centuries ago, it is a work of science fiction, and remarkably innovative for its time. The story, in a nutshell, could best be described as Gulliver’s Travels in outer space. In this case the traveler is a being from a gargantuan planet in the Sirius star system. Named Micromégas, this creature is of a colossal size proportionate to his home world, being 120,000 feet tall. Upon arriving in our solar system his first stop is the planet Saturn, where he makes the acquaintance of a local scholar of only 6,000 feet in stature. After some conversation on the nature of their two worlds, the two decide to go traveling together. They make a trip to Earth, where they encounter mankind.

Voltaire’s humor is hilarious and thought-provoking throughout, even for the 21st-century reader. Micromégas and his Saturnian companion prove to be quite adept at cultural criticism. The difference in perspective between the three planetary cultures is analogous to the difficulties in foreign relations between the giant empires of Europe and the tiny kingdoms they dominate, or the insensitivity of the wealthy aristocracy to the unwashed masses. Despite their obvious superiorities, these beings are not without their own problems and faults. The Saturnian possesses 72 senses; the Sirian 1,000. Yet, they both have “plenty of time to be bored.” Their life spans are proportionately long, and their worlds are blessed with a corresponding abundance, yet, much like their human counterparts, neither is satisfied with their lot and only wants more. Initially, the two extraterrestrial visitors can’t even perceive the existence of life on earth, and once they do make contact with the earthlings, they doubt that the tiny beings possess any intelligence whatsoever. Through this outsider perspective, Voltaire points out the insignificance and pettiness of much of our earthly affairs. Out of the scientific awakening of the Renaissance arose a realization that mankind is nothing but a speck of dust amid the workings of the universe. This rejection of the anthropocentric view that had persisted for centuries rocked the religious establishment. Voltaire, on the other hand, revels in such iconoclasm.

His enthusiasm and humor is infectious. Micromégas is a thoroughly entertaining read. Like any work from the 18th century, some of the cultural references may be lost on today’s reader. The ending of the story is also weak. Voltaire wraps it up too abruptly. The last few sentences comprise a punchline that’s not equal to the joke that came before. Yet there’s plenty to enjoy in this little story, and its importance as one of the earliest works of science fiction is undeniable. Even those who would never dream of reading any literature of the French Enlightenment should give Micromégas a try. It’s truly in a class by itself.

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Silent Bullet by Arthur B. Reeve

American Sherlock? Hardly.
Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective, was a popular character in fiction magazines of the early 20th century. At least 80 Kennedy stories by Arthur B. Reeve were published in Cosmopolitan, and he appeared in other periodicals as well. These stories were later gathered into collections and published in book form. The Silent Bullet, originally published in 1912, is the first of these collections. It contains twelve Kennedy cases, including the title selection.

Kennedy is a professor of chemistry and an ardent proponent of the application of science to the solving of crimes. His sidekick Walter Jameson, a reporter for the New York Star, narrates the stories. Former college roommates, the two have continued to live together into their adult bachelorhoods, and their apartment is frequented by visitors desiring their advice on mysterious matters. This is all blatantly derivative of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, of course. Instead of Holmes’ method of deductive reasoning, however, Kennedy usually employs laboratory experimentation or utilizes some technological apparatus in solving his cases.

I enjoy vintage pulp fiction, and I really wanted to like this collection, but once I got into the stories I was quite disappointed. Because Kennedy’s adventures take place about 40 years after those of Holmes, the science is a little more advanced, but still, today’s readers will find many of Kennedy’ scientific methods either faulty or just not very interesting. In a couple of cases, for example, he employs the newfangled invention known as the microphone. Thankfully, no one seems to notice the hundreds of yards of wire he strings about to make it work. In another instance he uses a light bulb and two wires to warn the police—hardly cutting edge technology. Even worse, much of the evidence he uncovers is circumstantial. Apparently in Kennedy’s time a lie detector test, to cite but one example, was enough for a conviction. The best of these stories are mediocre, the rest are just bad. They are disappointing individually, but taken as a whole they’re even more annoying because they are so repetitive. Because Kennedy is a chemist, almost every crime involves some kind of poison, and in almost every case, the most obvious suspect ends up being the guilty party. The second half of the book is a slight improvement on the first, as Reeve deviates from his monotonous template and introduces a little variety into the proceedings. In “Spontaneous Combustion,” Kennedy does the kind of blood work one might find in today’s CSI television shows, and the ending is not entirely predictable. In “Artificial Paradise,” Kennedy and Jameson ingest peyote. The latter’s description of his hallucinations is quite enjoyable, but the story is ruined by some questionable science that defies belief.

Despite his exceptional intelligence, Kennedy is not as arrogant as Sherlock Holmes. In fact, Kennedy has no personality whatsoever. I don’t believe we are ever even given a physical description of Kennedy or Jameson, other than Kennedy smokes cigars. The two merely say and do the bare minimum to push the story forward. What Reeve apparently did not learn from reading Conan Doyle is that the personality quirks of the protagonist are a vital part of the story. Without them, the proceedings are dull and lifeless. Since these are some of the earliest Kennedy stories, it’s possible that Reeve improved with time and that not all of the scientific detective’s adventures are as lame as those found in The Silent Bullet. I, however, don’t intend to find out. I’d rather go back and reread The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Stories in this collection
The Silent Bullet 
The Scientific Cracksman 
The Bacteriological Detective 
The Deadly Tube 
The Seismograph Adventure 
The Diamond Maker 
The Azure Ring 
“Spontaneous Combustion” 
Terror in the Air
The Black Hand 
Artificial Paradise 
The Steel Door 

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