Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom by Roger Pearson

Not a bad life, OK biography, terrible ebook
I have never been a big fan of Voltaire’s writing. His sense of humor has not held up well over the last two centuries. Nevertheless, the man himself and the life he lived is a source of fascination. It’s hard for today’s American reader to understand his importance or the influential role he played in French and world history. Voltaire is somewhat analogous to our Benjamin Franklin—neither a head of state nor a war hero, but a leading architect and living embodiment of the philosophy of a nation undergoing rebirth. In addition, Voltaire was the most acclaimed living French playwright of his time, a groundbreaking historian, an influential public intellectual, and a major celebrity throughout Europe. As a freethinker, I admire his championing of reason over superstition and his outspoken advocacy for freedom and human rights. Voltaire was a deist, meaning he believed in the intelligent design of the universe by God the creator, but not in the active participation of that God in man’s affairs. He fought tirelessly against religious intolerance and oppression by organized religions, in particular the Catholicism that was dominant in France.

Yet for all his accomplishments, there is a less flattering side to Voltaire that is all too apparent in Roger Pearson’s 2005 biography Voltaire Almighty. His behavior was frequently childish and shallow. He was constantly engaged in petty squabbles and frivolous lawsuits with anyone who criticized his writings. Much of his literary output consisted of thinly veiled digs at those he didn’t like. Despite his iconoclastic image, he spent years kissing up to the royal family, hoping to curry their favor. Toward the end of his life he devoted months if not years to devising a scheme by which he could be granted absolution by the Catholic church without publicly declaring a belief in their faith. While such behavior makes for witty anecdotes, in sum total these shenanigans regrettably lower one’s estimation of the man. Pearson unfortunately revels in Voltaire’s infantile escapades, while the reader is often left wondering why exactly the man was so significant. I would never fault a biographer for providing too much detail—because that’s his job—but Pearson’s account of Voltaire’s life is such a morass of data it’s difficult to see the forest for the trees. He is much more interested in recounting the financial minutiae of a real estate deal than in examining Voltaire’s literary or philosophical achievements. Pearson’s concluding summary is really quite good at encapsulating Voltaire’s life and legacy. If only he had injected some of that big-picture view into the preceding 23 chapters, instead of dwelling on every trivial dispute and investment transaction, the book would have been a more rewarding read.

Through no fault of Pearson’s, this Kindle file is in terrible shape. It is riddled with typographical errors. The reader must acclimate himself to the fact that the letters “t” and “r” appear to be used interchangeably. In addition, someone possessing no familiarity whatsoever with the French language went crazy with the spellcheck. In all cases, the word “duc” (French for Duke), has been changed to “due”; The title of Voltaire’s play Oedipe has been transformed into “(edipe”; and “Mlle” (the abbreviation for Mademoiselle) has become “Mile”. In a few places numeric dates have been inexplicably replaced by a letter “n”, as in “n April 1713”. Almost every word in italics is misspelled. These are just a few examples. Outside of free public domain files, I’ve never seen an ebook this poorly done. The publisher ought to be embarrassed to have put a file in such condition out for public consumption. Perhaps by the time you read this review they will have replaced the file with a corrected version, but I can only review what I bought.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Maigret and the Killer by Georges Simenon

Not the usual suspects
Maigret and the Killer is one of the last books in Georges Simenon’s series of Inspector Maigret mystery novels, being the 98th installment out of 103 appearances by the Parisian detective. It was originally published in 1969 under the French title of Maigret et la tueur. Despite the fact that it was written 38 years after its title character’s debut, Simenon apparently hasn’t run out of ideas, and Maigret hasn’t lost any steam. Out of the half dozen Maigret novels I’ve read so far, this may be the best one yet.

Maigret and his wife are dining at the home of friends, Dr and Mme Pardon, when their evening is interrupted by Pardon’s neighbor, an Italian grocer. He has witnessed a stabbing in the street outside and asks the doctor for medical assistance. Pardon and Maigret rush out in the pouring rain, but the victim is already dead. The murdered young man is found with a tape recorder around his neck. When his family is questioned, it is revealed that he had a passion for recording random voices in public places. Maigret suspects that he may have recorded an incriminating conversation and paid for it with his life.

The Maigret novels are consistently good, but I can’t say I’ve ever been truly blown away by one. The same holds true for this installment, but it did manage to grab my attention from page one and keep me hooked all the way through. Simenon avoids cliché potboiler conventions in favor of a more realistic detective procedural. You won’t find any shootouts, chase scenes, or gratuitous action sequences, but the mystery is sufficiently mysterious and intellectually challenging. This book doesn’t follow the typical genre template with a big shocking reveal at the end. Simenon is not concerned so much with creating nail-biting suspense as he is with examining the psychology of crime—why people kill and what it does to them. Despite the fact that this book was written over 40 years ago—and we’ve seen a lot of killers in literature and film over the past four decades—this tale of murder is still fresh and original. Even the savviest of today’s thriller junkies have rarely seen the interplay between cop and killer rendered so sensitively as this. The ending is quite moving, but like many a good Simenon novel it doesn’t inspire shock or surprise so much as it does a deep pathos and an unsettling discomfort.

In the other Maigret novels I’ve read, Madame Maigret has been almost entirely absent, but in this one Maigret goes home to his wife every night, and she’s a constant presence in the story. This gives the reader a closer look into the human side of the detective that is welcome and refreshing. Maigret also interacts with his subordinate detectives in a much more amiable manner than I’ve seen in the past. In this novel he seems to have mellowed with age and become less of a curmudgeon.

Any fan of the Maigret books should definitely read Maigret and the Killer. Even though this one takes place pretty late in the game, I would also recommend it as an introduction to Maigret for those who have never read Simenon’s work. It aptly demonstrates the author’s mastery of the detective story, while also serving as an example of what separates his mysteries from those of more conventional writers in the genre.
If you liked this review please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Friday, April 25, 2014

De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius

A great work of philosophy; too bad it’s a poem
De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) was written by Roman philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus in the first century BC. It is a lengthy poem, divided into six books. Lucretius was a proponent of the Epicurean school of thought which originated in Athens a couple centuries earlier. In this work, he comprehensively outlines his Epicurean conception of physics, metaphysics, epistemology, and the natural sciences.

Lucretius was a brilliant thinker, and many of his ideas will strike modern readers as shockingly prescient for having been written two millennia ago. He saw that all matter is made up of atoms, which he often refers to as “seeds”. The universe is composed of only matter and void, which are in constant movement and ever-changing, mixing and mingling to create the myriad forms of objects. By asserting that the quantity of “seeds” remains constant, Lucretius presages the law of conservation of matter and energy. He scoffs at an anthropocentric worldview and envisions an infinite universe in which man is but an accidental, insignificant occupant. Mind or soul does not exist outside of matter. Thus Lucretius’s view of the universe resembles the monism of Spinoza, rather than the dualism of Plato (in which the world is comprised of two separate substances, matter and spirit). In fact, Lucretius covers a lot of the same metaphysical ground that Spinoza would cover in his 1677 book The Ethics, but while Spinoza expresses his ideas in the form of Euclidean theorems, Lucretius’s text is penned in dactylic hexameters.

Alas, poetic verse is not the best medium with which to express these ideas. Poetry requires that Lucretius use ten times more words than necessary to say what he wishes to say, and each sentence is written in a jumbled syntax that must be deciphered before it can be comprehended. The result is a quite tedious experience for today’s reader. Occasionally one stumbles upon a beautifully quotable evocation of natural beauty, but mostly the verse is about as dull as sitting through a science lecture delivered in an unfamiliar dialect. My review is based on the 1916 public domain translation by William Ellery Leonard, so perhaps a sizeable portion of the blame should rest on his shoulders.

Perhaps the most valuable purpose On the Nature of Things can serve today is that of an inspirational text for freethinkers. Lucretius is an outspoken opponent of religion and superstition who advocates the exercise of reason in all man’s endeavors. A life lived under the untruths of religion is a life lived in fear, while true happiness can be found in the investigation and appreciation of the natural universe. It’s gratifying to know that over 2,000 years ago this man had the guts to speak out against the irrational beliefs of his time. If only mankind had listened to Lucretius then, instead of venturing down the road of Plato’s dualism, we could have saved ourselves a lot of wasted time spent fearing the spirit world. Lucretius devotes much of this poem to explaining how natural phenomena are the result of physical processes and not the will of Zeus. Though 21st-century readers will admire his scientific diligence, they’re still likely to be bored by lengthy, semi-accurate explanations of the workings of thunder, lightning, volcanoes, earthquakes, and the like.

On the Nature of Things is not a book for casual readers. Only serious students of philosophy should take it on, and to such readers I would strongly suggest seeking out a prose translation.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

A subpar effort by Dumas
I consider myself a fan of Alexandre Dumas. I’ve read enough of his works to know that they’re not all action/adventure novels like the Three Musketeers. Yet, when I pick up a book by Dumas, the bare minimum that I expect from him are at least a few surprises, a certain degree of suspense, and most of all, some good honest entertainment. With The Black Tulip, I was disappointed on all counts.

Originally published in 1850 as Le Tulipe Noire, this novel takes place in 1672 in the Netherlands. Dumas opens the book by depicting an actual event in Dutch history. William of Orange has taken power in Holland. John de Witt, who presided over the previous republican government, and his brother Cornelius de Witt, a high official in his administration, are deposed from their offices and brutally assassinated in the streets of The Hague. This incident takes up the first few chapters of the book, but the main story revolves around Cornelius de Witt’s godson, Cornelius van Baerle. There exists a packet of executive correspondence written by the de Witts that everyone wants to get their hands on, though I cannot for the life of me figure out why these letters are so important when the people they are supposed to incriminate are already dead. Despite the attempts at political intrigue, the main plotline of the novel centers around Cornelius van Baerle’s avocation of tulip growing. The horticultural society of Haarlem has sponsored a lucrative prize to the first successful breeder of a perfectly black tulip. Van Baerle is on the verge of achieving this elusive goal, but a rival tulip fancier, envious of his botanical accomplishments, schemes to rob him of his precious flower.

Though Dumas is most famous for the Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, the best thing about his work is not swashbuckling swordplay but rather the intricacy and ingenuity of his plots. The storyline of The Black Tulip, on the other hand, despite being adorned with a lot of historical details and tulip trivia, is painfully simple and straightforward. Although this is a rather short novel, there’s really only enough plot here to sustain a short story. What’s worse, it’s all very predictable. Dumas basically tells you what’s going to happen ahead of time, so all that’s left is to wait for the characters to experience what you know is coming. He often jumps back in time to portray the same scene from a different perspective, and the reader must sit through the characters explaining events to each other that were already covered in previous chapters. Not surprisingly, there’s a love story. “Whom do you love more, me or your tulip?” she asks. I don’t know, let’s discuss it for three or four chapters. Almost every scene in the book presents a circuitous conversation leading to a foregone conclusion. At no time did I ever feel surprised or wonder what was going to happen next. Other than the obvious historical research that was done to set the stage, it feels like Dumas and his team just phoned this one in to pay the bills.

There’s no doubt that Dumas is one of the world’s greatest storytellers. Perhaps I’m being too harsh because I set my expectations too high. After all, a bad book by Dumas is probably better than the best book by 90% of the authors that ever lived. However, the guy was one of literature’s most prolific authors. He wrote a lot of great stuff, so why read this one?

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Dragon Seed by Pearl S. Buck

Life under occupation
Of all the American writers who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Pearl S. Buck probably gets the least amount of credit. You rarely see her name pop up on any “100 best” lists these days. There is a romanticism and an optimism in her books that was already falling out of fashion with critics back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Those with modernist leanings or cynical outlooks are unlikely to appreciate the unpretentious beauty of her works, but those who aren’t averse to good old-fashioned storytelling with just a hint of hopeful preachiness will find her novels quite moving. I can honestly say I’ve never read a bad book with her name on it. Nevertheless, Dragon Seed, originally published in 1942, is not her best work, and though I did enjoy it I must confess at times it left me scratching my head.

Buck is best-known for her 1931 novel The Good Earth. To those who have read that great work, the opening chapters of Dragon Seed feel like familiar territory. The protagonist of both novels is a farmer who loves his land, works hard to till the soil, and does his best to secure a promising future for his children. The similarities end there, however. Ling Tan and his family live in a rural village outside of Nanjing, a.k.a. Nanking. When the region is invaded by the Japanese, they must adjust to the horrors of life under the subjugation of a hostile enemy. As is typical of Buck’s work, she never uses the words “China” or “Japan,” and deliberately avoids historical specifics in an attempt to tell a story that is more universally human. While that’s a commendable intention, and she almost pulls it off, the lack of detail is slightly annoying. Dragon Seed is a fictional account of the 1937 event known as the Rape of Nanking. The atrocities committed by the Japanese soldiers are an integral part of Buck’s narrative, in particular the indiscriminate rape and murder of Chinese women. The story, told from the perspective of the victims, is understandably one-sided, as are many literary works about World War II. The invaders are all soulless monsters —which may be justified given the historical facts—yet to Buck’s credit, the Chinese are not all saints and martyrs either. Some become collaborators; others form a resistance movement that drives them to commit brutal acts of their own. Ling Tan and his family are altered irrevocably by the tragedy and brutality of war. Buck tells the story with a gritty realism that is unsparingly frank and heartbreakingly powerful.

At about the three-quarter mark, however, a new character is introduced that is just too perfect to be true. The novel changes horses mid-stream and trods down a much more romanticized path, becoming something that calls to mind the golden age of the television miniseries. The purpose of this change of tone is for Buck to inject some hope into the proceedings, but the book’s final act is so incongruous with all that came before that the effect is truly jarring. This is not a bad book by any means, especially if you’re open to a good romantic epic, but in many ways Dragon Seed feels like two separate stories, one dark and one rosy, with a light switch turned on in between.

As always, Buck’s prose is a joy to read. She constructs sentences with a unique syntax that calls to mind the unusual word ordering of Mandarin Chinese. The result is both poetically beautiful and refreshingly forthright. She is a brilliant observer of human nature and capable of creating scenes of great emotional resonance. Though Dragon Seed may not quite measure up to The Good Earth trilogy, it never lets you forget that Buck is a fantastic writer.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Great Shadow by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Coming of age in a time of war
Though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best know for his mystery and science fiction writing—in particular, of course, the Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger stories—he was a very prolific author who excelled in a variety of genres. Of all the categories he ventured into, his work in historical fiction is probably the least known to readers of today. One such work, The Great Shadow, published in 1892, is a novel of love and war set in the Napoleonic Era.

Though the mysterious title makes it sound like it might be right at home among the Holmes or Challenger adventures, the shadow in question here is the French Empire, which has been sweeping its way across the map of Europe, enlarging its territory at the expense of those in its path. The narrator of the story is Jock Calder, a middle-aged man looking back upon the days of his youth. In the early 19th century, Jock lived with his parents on the farm of West Inch, situated on the East Coast of Britain. As to where exactly this estate is located, Conan Doyle is quite specific. When Jock settles into bed for the night, his head lies in Scotland while his feet lie in England. Despite this de facto dual citizenship, the boy proudly considers himself a Scot.

When the story opens, Britain is enjoying an interlude of peace. Napoleon Bonaparte has been exiled to the island of Elba, yet memories of the recent war with “Boney” darken the collective British psyche like the metaphorical shadow. It’s almost as if the Britons could predict the French Emperor’s return to action in the near future. Most of the story, however, does not concern itself with war, but rather with Jock’s romantic pursuit of Edie, an orphaned cousin who has come to reside with his family. Then one day a mysterious Frenchman appears on the beach and insinuates himself into the lives of the Calder family. The less said about all this the better. Conan Doyle does a great job of keeping the characters’ motives a secret and punctuating the plot with satisfying surprises. With Napoleon on everyone’s minds, of course, war can’t be far off. The book culminates in a climactic battle scene that calls to mind the military epics of Henryk Sienkiewicz crossed with the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.

If you read enough romantic adventure fiction, it all starts to seem rather formulaic and predictable, but here the author adds enough clever touches and unexpected turns to keep the reader guessing. Conan Doyle’s storytelling is captivating and his prose is effortless. By focusing on the lives of Jock, his family, and friends, he wisely avoids the epic perspective in favor of a story more personal and touching. And though he works within the romantic conventions of the adventure genre, the atmosphere he creates feels vividly real throughout, whether it’s the foggy moors of West Inch or the chaotic clash of forces upon the battlefield.

One of the greatest joys in reading classic literature is the discovery of a “buried treasure”—an obscure, underappreciated work by an otherwise celebrated author. The Great Shadow is a perfect example. Of course, you have to be somewhat predisposed toward classic historical fiction to truly enjoy it. Fans of Holmes or Challenger won’t necessarily like it, but anyone who appreciates the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper, or Sir Walter Scott will find The Great Shadow right up their alley.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Stories from Chinese History, Volume 1 by Hsi-chien Wu, Kuo-kuang Ma, and Teh-ming Yeh

An educational and entertaining text for intermediate readers
If you want to learn how to read modern Chinese characters there’s no shortage of books to teach you. If you’re interested in learning traditional Chinese characters, however, good texts are few and far between. This is especially true at the intermediate level. Beginners have a fair number of options for instruction, and advanced students can just read actual Chinese books, but intermediate readers may find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Very few books fit successfully in the goldilocks zone between beginning and advanced, but Stories from Chinese History, Volume 1 is one instructional text that does the job and does it well.

The book contains 20 short stories set in various periods of Chinese history, ranging from ancient to modern. Each story is two to three pages long and accompanied by 20-30 vocabulary terms and about a half dozen idioms. The stories are sufficiently challenging. Above and beyond the vocabulary terms provided, intermediate readers may find themselves consulting a dictionary for two or three words per paragraph, yet for the most part one can still make out the general gist of the text without any added help. This is just what an intermediate text should be—not too easy, not too tough. For writing practice, each story is followed by 20 questions. Ten of these are terms you are asked to use in a sentence. The other ten are questions about the story’s content, which can generally be answered by drawing or paraphrasing sentences from the story itself.

I have the first edition of the book, which was published in 1978. It uses the Yale method of romanization rather than the standard pinyin romanization most readers today are familiar with. So when the vocabulary terms are presented and defined, their phonetic spellings may seem a little odd. This doesn’t really hinder your ability to benefit from reading the Chinese text, however, and students at this level probably won’t have much trouble figuring out pronunciation from an unfamiliar romanization scheme. A second edition was published in 1994, which I have not seen, but according to its description on Amazon it also uses the Yale method.

The content of these stories is both entertaining and educational. They are based on the lives of real historical personages, but there’s also a strong element of folklore to them. They’re like the Chinese equivalent of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. Each story trumpets a defining personality trait of its main character and gives a sample situation exemplifying that trait. Often the protagonists of the tales are children who would grow up to be great men. As you work to decipher the text, you’re also learning about Chinese history and culture, which makes the experience more fun and rewarding. As a bonus, the book is well illustrated with a watercolor painting for each story.

This book provided me with valuable practice in reading traditional characters, and I also enjoyed the stories themselves. I plan to move on to the second volume in this series and read another 20 more.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Walking by Henry David Thoreau

A green manifesto
Walking is a lecture written by Henry David Thoreau. It was first published in print form in 1862, as either a long essay or a short book, depending on how you look at it. As the title indicates, Thoreau discusses the act of walking, specifically in the woods, but the scope of the piece is much broader than that. Thoreau extols the virtues of wilderness and its necessity to mankind, not only for its advantages to our physical health, but also for its emotional, intellectual, and spiritual benefits.

This work bears a great deal of thematic similarity to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature. Both are manifestoes for the Transcendentalist movement, and both advocate the appreciation of nature for its own sake, rather than merely for the material benefits it provides to mankind. This was a revolutionary concept in the mid-19th century, and the works of Emerson and Thoreau mark the beginning of the American environmental movement. Yet despite the philosophical common ground they shared, Thoreau and Emerson were distinctly different writers. Emerson’s style is more loftily cerebral, at times difficult to decipher. Thoreau’s writing is much more down-to-earth and practical, and at times even tongue-in-cheek. Emerson was the chief conceptual thinker of Transcendentalism, but Thoreau put the group’s philosophical ideas into practice, and encouraged others to do so as well. To oversimplify, one could say that Emerson talked the talk, while Thoreau walked the walk.

To become closer to nature, one need not exile oneself to a remote log cabin, as Thoreau himself did when he wrote his masterpiece Walden. To experience the wonders of the natural world around you, all you have to do is walk. Of course, Thoreau could stroll outside his front door and enjoy twenty miles of fenceless forest. Few of us today are so lucky. Yet the broader message of the work is still valid. Thoreau confesses that he feels like a prisoner when confined within the borders of a town or within the conventions of society. His prescription for this ill is the rejuvenating effects of the wild. When one immerses oneself in the timeless workings of nature, it becomes apparent that the concerns of human society are petty and insignificant by comparison. Thoreau criticizes culture in general as a shameful removal from nature. Only by constructing a culture around nature rather than in spite of it can mankind truly advance intellectually. Instead of gazing back at the achievements of civilizations past, we should be focusing our thoughts and energies on the world outside our front door and the present moment in time.

The essay is about as serpentine and spontaneous as one of Thoreau’s hikes. Under the vast canopy of his guiding thesis he rambles through all manner of topics, from the uselessness of names to the superiority of mythology over literature to the description of a particularly beautiful sunset. It’s a difficult work to summarize because each passage is a succinct nugget of brilliantly quotable wisdom. The essay’s bits and pieces don’t readily appear to fit together, yet somehow all the disparate elements are ultimately unified by Thoreau’s overarching message. Walking is a beautiful piece of writing, perhaps not as easily accessible to the general reader as Walden, but fans of the latter work will certainly derive much valuable knowledge and inspirational pleasure from this profound paean to the wild.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lone Star Planet by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire

Libertarians in space
Prior to its annexation into the United States, the state of Texas was once an independent nation. What if future Texans decide to relive the glory days of their 19th-century autonomy by relocating to another planet? That’s the premise that underlies the 1958 science fiction novel Lone Star Planet, written by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire. The story takes place in the year 2193. Stephen Silk is a diplomat working for the Solar League, an interplanetary coalition. After publishing an essay that criticizes his government’s policies, he is promoted to the undesirable post of Ambassador to Capella IV, also known as New Texas. A century earlier the planet was founded by a group of colonists from the Lone Star State, and many of their homeland’s traditional customs live on in the planet’s present culture. Silk’s mission is to persuade the reluctant New Texans to join the Solar League, while also investigating the assassination of his predecessor. His task is complicated by the fact that, in the New Texas legal code, the killing of politicians is legal, as long as you can prove that they deserved it.

Piper and McGuire take obvious delight in poking fun at Texan cultural stereotypes. New Texas is the meat supplier of the galaxy. The preferred livestock is a dinosaur-sized race of supercows. The native costume consists of boots, loud shirts, and a pistol on each hip. A raucous barbecue accompanied by square dance music and gunshots is considered a state dinner. While cleverly lampooning the popular image of Texas, the authors simultaneously celebrate the independent spirit and self-sufficiency for which the Lone Star State is famous. This novel is chiefly a work of political satire, but it’s not so much the Texans that are being satirized. It’s the bureaucracy and imperialism of the Solar League. The Texan philosophy of government is pithily summed up as, “Keep a government poor and weak and it’s your servant; let it get rich and powerful and it’s your master.” Thus, the ideological conflict between the Solar League and New Texas is one of big vs. small government. As a result, the novel has been praised by Libertarians.

Lone Star Planet is clever and hilarious at first, but the further one gets into it, the less interesting it becomes. Despite the lively sense of humor and all the sci-fi trappings, its difficult to ignore the fact that you’re reading a book about government, and at times it’s about as much fun as a policy debate. The centerpiece of the plot is a trial, which requires delving deeply into the minutiae of the planet’s fictional judicial system. There is a subplot about an alien invasion by a race of dogmen called the z’Srauff—who may perhaps be intended as the 22nd-century allegorical surrogates for Mexicans—but this intriguing aspect of the book is never satisfactorily developed. This element could have added some much-needed action to the story, but instead it’s treated almost as an afterthought. The book just can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a science fiction novel, a tongue-in-cheek satire, a political thriller, a murder mystery, a philosophical dialogue, or an old-fashioned Western. In striving for all of the above, the different approaches compete with one another and none succeeds.

Piper is a great sci-fi writer, and I’ve never read a bad book by him, but this one is mediocre at best. If you’re a fan of his writing, it won’t be a total waste of your time. The novel inspires some laughs, makes some good points, and at times is surprisingly prescient of contemporary politics and current ideological debates.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Parasite by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

She’s messing with my head
When he wasn’t writing Sherlock Holmes detective tales, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was cranking out all manner of short stories and novels in the genres of science fiction, mystery, horror, historical adventure, and what might best be described as medical fiction. Conan Doyle, being a physician himself, obviously had an interest in science, but he was also fascinated by the occult. Somewhere betwixt those two areas of interest lies the realm of parapsychology and his short novel of 1894, The Parasite. Though the title may lead one to believe the book is a medical thriller, the host for this particular parasite is actually mental rather than physical. The Parasite is a suspenseful tale of mind control by mesmerism.

Austin Gilroy is a young professor of physiology who places immense value in the certainty of scientific fact. His colleague Professor Wilson, however, who studies the relatively newborn field of psychology, is more open to the possibility of unexplained phenomena. Wilson invites Gilroy to his home to witness a demonstration of mesmerism by the mysterious Miss Penclosa. Gilroy skeptically volunteers to be entranced by Penclosa, and to his surprise she is actually capable of doing so. He decides to research the physical science behind mesmerism, and asks Miss Penclosa to perform a series of experiments with him. After several sessions in which she hypnotizes him, Gilroy begins to realize that she has a powerful psychic hold over him. He is horrified to discover that she is in love with him and intends to make him her slave. Since this woman is capable of controlling him just as a puppeteer directs the actions of a marionette, how will he ever escape her evil clutches?

The Parasite is a fun gender-bending variation on the countless tales of helpless women forced into the harem of a domineering svengali. In this case it’s the man who must fear for the loss of his precious virtue. Perhaps Conan Doyle’s novel is an expression of a late 19th-century fear of powerful, independent women. If Gilroy’s antagonist were a male, he would have more options available for retaliation, such as violence or public denunciation. Since his nemesis is a woman, however, his is bound by Victorian era societal codes on how to deal with the fairer sex, no matter how evil they may be. Conan Doyle’s hands are unfortunately tied by these same codes, which may be what prevents him from capping the story off with a satisfying finale.

Though this is a positive review overall, I must offer a warning to the reader: the ending of this story absolutely sucks. How do you rate a work that is 99% entertaining when it’s ruined by its final sentence? Looking on the bright side, the disappointment inspired by the weak conclusion does not negate the suspenseful ride it took to get there. The Parasite really is a fun psychological thriller that keeps you guessing as to what’s going to happen next. This premise and plot could easily be made into an exciting Hollywood blockbuster, if only someone would come up with an ending that finishes it with a bang rather than a fizzle.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Shakespeare of pirate speak
Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure novel Treasure Island was originally published in serial format from 1881 to 1882 in the British periodical Young Folks. Despite its being aimed at young readers, these days Stevenson’s original text will more likely appeal to adult fans of classic historical fiction whose children are probably off reading about vampires or wizards. Other than the fact that it has a teenage protagonist, there’s really no obvious indication that the book was written for a juvenile audience. Stevenson doesn’t dumb down the language or ideas, nor does he shy away from violence, and the book is free from overt moralizing. Many adult readers vaguely recall Treasure Island from one of the myriad illustrated adaptations they encountered back in elementary school. If so, you may think you know Long John Silver, but if you haven’t read the actual text by Stevenson, do yourself a favor and give this exceptional book a try.

Jim Hawkins, a boy in his early teens, lives at an English coastal inn owned and operated by his parents. One day an old sailor named Billy Bones takes up residence at the inn. At first Jim is frightened by this rough-mannered, rum-drinking stranger, but through their daily interaction the two develop a tentative friendship of sorts, with Bones confiding his old pirate tales to the boy. Just as Jim begins to become accustomed to one salty old sea-dog, however, even scarier characters start showing up at the inn inquiring after Bones. Jim realizes that Bones has been hiding out from his former shipmates, and that the old sailor possesses something of great value that his dangerous colleagues will stop at nothing to get their hands on.

It should come as no surprise that there’s a treasure involved. Treasure Island is one of the few great genre-defining novels in the history of literature. So many of the trappings of pirate lore—peg legs, parrots, treasure maps, and knives clenched between teeth—were introduced to popular culture through Stevenson’s seminal work. One of the familiar chestnuts of pirate films—the invasive boarding of a ship amid sword clash and cannon fire—is notably absent from this book, since most of the action takes place on the titular island. Having been written in the 19th century, the book is not as action-packed as many of its later imitators. At times it can be quite talky, but that’s really a blessing rather than a curse, for Stevenson is the undisputed Shakespeare of pirate speak. The beautifully rendered dialects, slang, and unorthodox pronunciation of the various pirates is a joy to read, and as good as any dialogue that’s been written in the genre since.

To the 21st century reader the plot of the book is at times predictable, but it definitely contains enough twists and turns to maintain suspense. It feels like it takes an awfully long time to get to the island, but perhaps Stevenson just does such a good job of inspiring eagerness that one can’t wait to open the treasure chest. Though this is a tale of epic adventure, there’s not a lot of romanticized heroics, and as for the pirates, there’s clearly little honor among these thieves. The characters’ behavior is generally motivated by self-interest, which brings a touch of realism to the proceedings that modern readers will appreciate.

Treasure Island has held up extremely well over the past 130 years, and anyone who enjoys adventure fiction should definitely put it on the top of their reading list. While the term “classic” is bandied about perhaps too often, and applied to books of every stripe, Treasure Island is a book that truly deserves the designation, in every sense of the word.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Rougon-Macquart Cycle by Émile Zola

Outline of a masterpiece
Émile Zola, painting by Edouard Manet
On this, the date of his birth, April 2nd, Old Books by Dead Guys takes this opportunity to honor the great French author Émile Zola by celebrating his 20-novel magnum opus, the Rougon-Macquart cycle. Published from 1871 to 1893, this series of books comprises one of the most ambitious achievements in the history of literature. J. G. Patterson, in his reference work A Zola Dictionary, states that Les Rougon-Macquart “occupied nearly twenty-five years in writing, consists of twenty volumes containing over twelve hundred characters, and a number of words estimated . . . at two million five hundred thousand.”

The only endeavor in French letters that’s comparable to Les Rougon-Macquart is Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, a collection of over 90 novels, short stories, and essays written from 1799-1850 in which the author attempted to explore every aspect of French society. While Balzac’s stories vary widely in setting from medieval times to the present, Zola’s focus in the Rougon-Macquart books is much narrower and sharper. His 20 novels all take place during the Second French Empire (1851-1870)—the reign of Emperor Napoleon III (the nephew of the more famous Napoleon I). Zola concentrates on the members of one family who lived during this crucial period of modernization in France. Through the lives of these sons, daughters, siblings, and cousins, Zola examines various social, political, and economic phenomena of the era.

The Rougon-Macquart novels are united not only temporally but also stylistically. With a few incongruous exceptions, these 20 novels all exemplify the literary movement known as Naturalism. Though a few writers preceded Zola in the development of Naturalism, his work is acknowledged as the apex of the movement, and he its most ardent proponent. Naturalism sprang out of the scientific advances of the 19th century, most notably Darwin’s theory of evolution. Naturalist writers seek to show how external forces such as heredity, environment, and social conditions mold the characters of individuals. They often employ a very descriptive style of prose based on empirical observation of the real world, even when such observation requires them to unflinchingly depict the uglier, baser sides of life, such as poverty, immorality, and violence.

It was not merely for stylistic or dramatic reasons that Zola chose to connect these 20 books by familial links. The focus on related family members gives Zola the opportunity to illustrate evolutionary concepts. The members of this fictional family are all descended from one woman, Adélaide Fouque, and her two lovers, Monsieurs Rougon and Macquart. From book to book, Zola shows how hereditary characteristics, both physical and behavioral, are passed down from generation to generation. He saw these novels as laboratories, and the cast of characters as test subjects in an experiment. Regardless of the accuracy of that viewpoint, the introduction of scientific themes into fiction resulted in a significant departure from the existing state of literature. Naturalism, as exemplified by Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, combines the epic drama of old-school Romanticism with the gritty honesty and social consciousness of modern Realism. 

Click on the titles below to read my complete reviews of the individual books. The ratings may seem harsh, but when I give a Zola book one or two stars, that’s relative to the high standards one expects from Zola, not compared to literature in general.

Novels in the series

La Fortune des Rougon (The Fortune of the Rougons) (1871)

In the fictional town of Plassans (a surrogate for the author’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence) Zola plants the roots of the Rougon-Macquart family tree and outlines its first three generations. When the coup d’etat takes place in 1851 that puts Napoleon III on the throne of France, the fates of the various family members rise and fall according to which political side they’ve chosen. (4 stars)

La Curée (The Kill) (1872)

Aristide Saccard (born Aristide Rougon) strikes it rich in Paris through a series of shady real estate deals. He pours his wealth into the building of a magnificent mansion where he throws lavish parties for the wealthiest Parisians. With the extravagant flow of cash comes the loosening of morals. A vivid portrait of the corruption of the Second Empire, but probably the worst book in the series. (1 star)

Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris; The Fat and the Thin) (1873)

Lisa Quenu, the daughter of Antoine Macquart, operates a butcher shop in the neighborhood of Les Halles, the huge central marketplace of Paris. She finds her comfortable middle-class lifestyle threatened when her husband’s brother Florent, an escaped political prisoner, arrives and takes up residence in her home. (4 stars)

La Conquête de Plassans (The Conquest of Plassans) (1874)

A new priest arrives in Plassans, Abbé Faujas, who rents a room in the home of the Mourets (François Mouret of the Macquart family, and his wife Marthe Rougon). The clergyman soon begins to wield his social and political influence in the affairs of the town, and insinuates himself more and more into the lives of his hosts. (4 stars)

La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (The Sin of Father Mouret) (1875)

Serge Mouret (son of François) becomes parish priest in the small rural village of Les Artaud. His severe religious fervor is shaken when he falls in love with a local girl. This novel is one of the more Romantic in the series—a departure from Zola’s trademark Naturalism—and thus one of the least successful. (1 star)

Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (His Excellency Eugene Rougon) (1876)

Eugène Rougon is a powerful Minister in the government of Napoleon III. Through his own vanity and ambition, and some political maneuvering on the part of his rivals, he falls into disfavor with the Emperor and with the public, but he won’t go down without a fight. (3 stars)

L’Assomoir (The Dram Shop) (1877)

A gritty portrait of working class life and an unflinching study of the destructive effects of alcohol, L’Assomoir follows Gervaise Macquart’s decline from a respectable life as a hard-working laundress to a living hell of chemical dependence, abject poverty, and moral depravity. A masterpiece of Naturalism. (5 stars)

Une Page d’Amour (A Love Episode) (1878)

Hélène Mouret, a beautiful young widow, unexpectedly falls in love again but finds herself in a situation in which her virtuous reputation may be compromised. This melodramatic love story doesn’t fit in with this series of novels at all, but it’s not without its charms. (2 stars)

Nana (1880)

Nana Coupeau, the daughter of Gervaise Macquart of L'Assomoir, escapes her humble beginnings by becoming an actress. Despite having little talent, through her sheer natural beauty she proceeds to enslave the wealthiest men of France and suck them dry of their funds and their dignity. A baudy commentary on the decadence and decay of Parisian morals. (4 stars) 

Pot-Bouille (Pot Luck; Piping Hot; Restless House) (1882)

Focusing on a middle-class apartment building, its inhabitants, and its servants, Zola illustrates how individuals of various social strata scheme, strategize, and compromise their personal ethics in order to claw their way up the societal pyramid. A lesser-known work, but one of Zola’s best. (5 stars)

Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) (1883)

In this sequel of sorts to Pot-Bouille, Zola turns his attention to the world of commerce. Octave Mouret, who stars in both books, inherits a thriving business—one of Paris’s first department stores. He enlarges the shop into the grandest shopping mecca in Paris, swallowing up neighboring real estate and bankrupting his small-time competitors. (4 stars)

La Joie de Vivre (Zest for Life; Love of Life; How Jolly Life Is!) (1884)

It becomes clear early on that the title of this book is meant to be sarcastic. Pauline Quenu is sent to a bleak village on the Normandy coast to live with relatives of her departed father. There she leads a persecuted existence with little joy to speak of. One of Zola’s most depressing books. (2 stars)

Germinal (1885)

Zola’s greatest work, and my favorite novel of all time. Étienne Lantier, another child of Gervaise Macquart, arrives in the northern town of Montsou and finds employment at the local coal mine. When he experiences first-hand the appalling working and living conditions, he becomes a labor organizer and urges the miners to strike for better wages. (5 stars)

L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece) (1886)

Claude Lantier (brother of Étienne), ekes out a bohemian existence while struggling to make a living as a painter. The academic establishment that controls the annual salon exhibitions repeatedly scorn his modern, innovative style. A tale of artistic obsession and a vivid look at the Parisian art world at the dawn of impressionism.  (4 stars)

La Terre (The Earth) (1887)

When the aged patriarch of a farming family decides to divide up his holdings among his three children, they respond not with gratitude but with mutual animosity and treachery. Jean Macquart, an honest, hard-working farmhand, is caught up in the siblings’ private war. This grittily realistic portrayal of agricultural life is one of Zola’s greatest works. (5 stars)

La Rêve (The Dream) (1888)

Angélique Rougon lives in the shadow of a centuries-old cathedral, where she embroiders tapestries and vestments for the church with her adopted parents. The serenity of her sheltered existence is suddenly interrupted when a young man enters her life. Almost a fairy tale, the novel bears little resemblance at all to Zola’s more Naturalistic works. (2 stars)

La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) (1890)

Jacques Lantier, an engine driver on the railway line from Paris to Le Havre, feels an uncontrollable urge to kill every woman he’s attracted to. He’s not the only one with murderous intent, however, in this violent thriller that combines film noir suspense with social commentary on the negative societal effects of industrialization. (4 stars)

L’Argent (Money) (1891)

Aristide Saccard, previously featured in La Curée, has since lost his great fortune to some bad investments. He soon comes up with a new plan for a big score, however, and doesn’t shy away from unethical deals or fraudulent tactics to see his get-rich-quick scheme become reality. A study of greed and the financial opportunism rampant in Paris at the time. (4 stars)

La Débâcle (The Debacle; The Downfall) (1892)

This excellent war novel focuses on two soldiers from contrasting backgrounds—Jean Macquart (from La Terre), and Maurice Levasseur—who fight in the service of France at the devastating Battle of Sedan. Zola brilliantly details the tragic effects of the Franco-Prussian War on all walks of French life. (5 stars)

Le Docteur Pascal (Doctor Pascal) (1893)

Pascal Rougon is a retired physician with a scientific interest in evolution. To aid him in his research on the subject, he studies his own family history (as depicted in the previous 19 novels). This book is more than just an epilogue, however, but a novel in its own right. In his old age Pascal falls in love with a younger woman, which forces him to examine his priorities and question whether his has been a life well lived. (4 stars)

After completing the Rougon-Macquart cycle, Zola went on to write two more series: the Three Cities trilogy—consisting of Lourdes, Rome, and Paris—and the Four Gospels—Fruitfulness, Labor, Truth, and Justice (the last unfinished at the time of his death). His Naturalism had a powerful influence on world literature, including the work of American writers like Frank Norris, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and John Steinbeck.