Friday, May 30, 2014

The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins

A frustrating hodgepodge of the elementary and the arcane
First of all, let me make it clear that I agree with Richard Dawkins on most matters religious and political, so I don’t have any axe to grind with him on that score. I admire his championing of science over superstition, and I respect his academic credentials. I just didn’t like this book very much.

In The Ancestor’s Tale, published in 2004, Dawkins imagines a pilgrimage back through time, following the evolutionary branches of the family tree of life. At certain stops along the way, humanity meets up with its cousins as their branches merge with ours. At each of these rendezvous points, Dawkins provides an essay discussing an issue related to evolution, taxonomy, or the scientific method. The chapters don’t necessarily have much to do with the particular species in question. In “The Grasshopper’s Tale,” for example, he talks about racism. “The Redwood’s Tale” discusses various scientific methods of artifact dating. This hodgepodge approach results in a lot of jumping around, which requires constant and tedious references to other chapters. There’s a Canterbury Tales metaphor running throughout the book that’s clever but ultimately serves no purpose. The backwards-through-time approach may be original but it’s not particularly effective in elucidating human origins. Much of the book isn’t really about our ancestors so much as it is about or cousins—that is, the taxonomic diversity that exists today. A linear, chronological approach may not be creative enough to win book awards, but it would have been a more useful and educational way to present this information.

What surprised me most about The Ancestor’s Tale was how little I learned from it. I’m not an evolutionary biologist—just a guy that reads National Geographic and watches Nova on PBS—yet I didn’t find a whole lot of new information here that I hadn’t seen before. Granted, I’m reviewing this book ten years after its publication, but I still find much to learn from century-old books by Darwin or Haeckel. A few passages come to mind as enlightening, like the discussion of the electrical sensory apparatus of the platypus, or the explanation of how the precursor to our spinal cord evolved from a ventral to a dorsal orientation, but such “eureka” moments are few and far between. Despite the fact that many of the topics covered are familiar, that doesn’t stop Dawkins from explaining them in the most complicated manner possible. Concepts like “most recent common ancestor” are not difficult to understand, but he goes on and on, page after page, beating that dead horse until its barely recognizable. At one point he even goes so far as to explain the structure of the atom. Those who don’t know that an electron revolves around a nucleus made of protons and neutrons are probably reading the wrong book, and it’s unlikely they’re going to get an understanding of the subject from Dawkins’ confusing explanation. Perhaps he intends to reach the broadest audience possible by idiot-proofing the text for readers who are novices to science, but the result is a book that’s too elementary for the science-savvy and too arcane for the uninitiated.

I have the utmost respect for Dawkins as a scientist. As a writer, however, he somehow managed to take a subject that fascinates me and bore the heck out of me with it. I agree with him that the natural world, and the process of evolution in particular, inspires an amazement and reverence greater than any religion could arouse, but unfortunately this book mostly inspired weariness.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Silas Marner by George Eliot

Gets you in the end
The first two chapters of Silas Marner are excellent. We are introduced to the title character, a mild-mannered, hardworking weaver who occasionally suffers from spells of catalepsy. Silas is active in his church and has plans to marry his sweetheart, but his simple, pleasant life is taken away from him when his best friend frames him for the theft of some church funds. Silas is forced to leave his hometown in disgrace. He settles in the village of Raveloe, where he takes up a reclusive existence that inspires suspicion in his neighbors. With no friends, no love, and no church, Silas concentrates solely on his occupation, and begins to fixate on the compensation he receives for operating his loom. He becomes a miser, adoringly hoarding every bit of gold that comes into his hands.

From there the book takes a sharp downturn, as from that point on Silas becomes a supporting character in his own book. Author George Eliot never delves very deeply into Silas’s miserliness. His avarice is not as finely drawn as Charles Dickens’ Ebeneezer Scrooge or Honoré de Balzac’s Gobseck. Rather than thoroughly investigate the psychological causes and effects of Silas’s affliction, Eliot treats the fact that he’s a miser as almost an afterthought, a plot element to be dispensed with in favor of other storylines. We are introduced to the local Squire’s two sons, Godfrey and Dunstan. The former is an inveterate gambler and the latter has a weakness for the ladies. While each of these sinners has some atoning to do, their personal dramas aren’t nearly as interesting as the weaver’s, and the reader finds himself eagerly anticipating the return of Silas. There are plenty of other distractions as well. Entire chapters are devoted to the irrelevant chatter and ignorant superstitions of the townspeople. Such banter may provide atmosphere, but does little to advance the story. Thankfully the book improves in its second half.

For much of its length, Silas Marner, originally published in 1861, is simply a bore. However, it is largely redeemed by its skillful and satisfying ending. At about the three-quarters mark, there’s a major surprise. From that point on, everything comes full circle and each character learns his or her life lesson. You’d have to be carved out of ice not to be moved by the conclusion. Silas’s story is truly heartwarming, and not in a cloying or syrupy way. This novel has some valuable lessons to teach about love and redemption. Too bad it takes such a roundabout way to get there.

Although Silas Marner ends up being a pretty good book, I’m not sure it merits 150 years worth of admiration. If it didn’t have author George Eliot’s name attached to it, allowing it to ride on the coattails of Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, this novel might just have faded into obscurity like so many other romantic morality tales. Fans of Victorian literature will surely enjoy it, but the general reader of classic books can take it or leave it.

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Monday, May 26, 2014

Adventure’s Heart by Albert Dorrington

As vapid and mediocre as its title
Adventure’s Heart, a novella by Albert Dorrington, was originally published in the May 1, 1922 issue of Top-Notch magazine. Darrel Mace, a former boxer, is shipwrecked on a deserted atoll in the South Pacific. There he is discovered by a native who invites Mace back to his home island. When they arrive, Mace is shocked to find that the community of indigenous islanders is ruled by a white woman. The welcome he receives from his new acquaintances is far from warm and, not surprisingly, he must employ his finely-honed fighting skills in order to survive.

This story bears a striking resemblance to many of Jack London’s tales of the South Seas, including the occasional thinly veiled white pride message. Mace is depicted as the physical and intellectual superior of all the natives, and Dorrington seems to consider it perfectly natural that a tribe of Pacific Islanders would willingly submit to the rule of a Caucasian queen. In the early ‘20s, of course, the queen had to be white in order to allow for some romance with the hero, as interracial love would have been taboo. The political incorrectness of it all is not particularly offensive, just cheesily antiquated. The most offensive thing about the story is that it’s rather boring. To its credit it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Through every perilous situation, Mace maintains his sense of humor and spouts a steady stream of light-hearted slang.

Habitual readers of pulp fiction know what to expect from these white-man-in-the-jungle stories, and Adventure’s Heart delivers exactly what’s expected, but nothing more. It serves its purpose while you’re reading it, but there’s nothing original or memorable about it. This vanilla tale is every bit as generic as the title it bears. If you’re looking for adventure in the South Pacific, you’d be better off reading London’s stories in the collections A Son of the Sun and South Sea Tales.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Jack Grey, Second Mate by William Hope Hodgson

High seas adventure done right
Jack Grey is the second mate on the steel sailing ship Carlyle, bound from San Francisco to Baltimore. With a sick captain and a cowardly first mate, Grey is the strongest and most capable man on board. Two passengers are along for the voyage: Miss Eversley, a beautiful, stuck-up young woman who looks down her nose at Grey as typical sailor riffraff, and Mr. Pathan, a creepy and suspicious character who relentlessly hits on the young woman. When the latter passenger incites the motley crew to mutiny, Grey takes it upon himself to save the lady from his barbarous shipmates.

Jack Grey, Second Mate, a novella by British author William Hope Hodgson, was originally published in the July 1917 issue of the pulp magazine Adventure. At first it seems like a blatant rip-off of Jack London’s 1914 novel The Mutiny of the Elsinore. It features the same type of ship, manned by a similar crew of lowlife scum, with the same points of departure and arrival. Grey bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Pike, the ruthlessly violent first mate of London’s novel. Even the passengers’ names are similar—Pathan vs. Pathurst. But whereas London’s novel is long, boring, and racist, Hodgson’s story is lively, exciting, and fun.

The fight scenes are very well-depicted, with a level of brutality that is quite surprising for its day. Grey has more in common with the laconic antiheroes of today’s movies than he does with the chivalrous gentlemen so common in the pulp fiction of the early 20th century. Like all damsel-in-distress stories, this one can be formulaic at times, but some memorable scenes of gritty realism elevate this one above run-of-the-mill nautical adventures. Though Hodgson never uses the word “rape,” he makes it quite clear that’s the fate that awaits Miss Eversley should Grey ever succumb to the attacks of the mutineers. 21st-century readers will appreciate that Hodgson faces such matters bluntly and doesn’t sugarcoat the savagery of the situation for the sake of some antiquated code of propriety. Hodgson’s prose is as clear and energetic as a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle caper, but his outlook is as bleak and harsh as a Robert E. Howard gorefest.

Hodgson was a prolific fiction writer who was known for his seafaring tales but penned stories in a wide variety of genres including horror and science fiction. I had never heard of him before this, but after reading Jack Grey, Second Mate, I’m certainly going to seek out more of his work.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Classic Science Fiction Stories by Frank Herbert

Not of the same caliber as his novels
I’m not a habitual reader of science fiction, but I’ve always loved the work of Frank Herbert. In fact, one reason I stopped reading sci-fi is because I couldn’t find another writer who measured up to him. His Dune books are phenomenal, and I also enjoyed his WorShip series of novels, beginning with Destination: Void. Before he achieved fame as a novelist, Herbert, like many sci-fi authors, got his start penning short stories for the pulp magazines. Three of his stories from the late 1950s (only three as far as I can tell, unfortunately) are now in the public domain, and available for free download as ebooks at Amazon or Project Gutenberg.

“Old Rambling House” was originally published in the April 1958 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. A young married couple, expecting their first child, is eager to buy a house. They find another couple who is willing to trade a house for their small trailer. When they visit the house in question, however, and see how large, modern, and luxurious it is, they can’t help but wonder, what’s the catch? The story is obviously leading to a surprise ending, and when it comes it’s even weirder than expected, but a little confusing and hard to follow.

“Missing Link” was originally published in the February 1959 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Field agents Stetson and Orne of the Investigation & Adjustment department of the Galactic Federation, land on a foreign planet. Their mission is to find a crashed Federation ship and to assess the hostility of an alien species in order to determine whether it is worthy of contact or destruction. While plenty of other sci-fi authors create alien races, here Herbert demonstrates his remarkable talent for creating fully realized alien cultures, complete with their own history, mythology, and ethics. The slang-ridden bureaucratic banter between the agents takes some getting used to. Toward the end of the story, one of the agents uses some Sherlock Holmes-style deduction to solve a mystery, but his reasoning is so convoluted that it defies belief. Nevertheless, “Missing Link” is a pretty good story and the best one out of these three.

In “Operation Haystack,” originally published in the May 1959 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, agents Stetson and Orne return. Orne has been investigating a planet where an oligarchy of women rules a slave army of males. He is seriously injured when the mission literally blows up in his face. While he’s lying in critical condition on the capital planet of Marak, Stetson uncovers a plot to overthrow the government of the Marakian League. This is the weakest of the three stories, mainly because it doesn’t contain enough science fiction. It’s like a mediocre political thriller that just happens to take place on another planet. One might see the cabal of women as a precursor to the Bene Gesserit of his Dune books, but it’s a tenuous connection at best.

These three tales are fine specimens of pulp fiction, but they don’t have the psychological, philosophical, or spiritual depth of the novels Herbert is known for. They all have a feeling of big ideas crammed into a small package, as if the short story format is too small too contain Herbert’s sweeping vision. Compared to other late-’50s sci-fi, they seem years ahead of their time, but they read as if they’re decades behind Dune, which was published only about 6 years later. Fans of Herbert can’t go wrong by reading this early work, but don’t expect to be too impressed.

Stories in this collection:
Old Rambling House
Missing Link
Operation Haystack

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Realism doesn’t need to be this boring
Arkady Nikolaevich Kirsanov, a recent university graduate, returns to his parents’ farm in a remote Russian province, accompanied by a school friend named Bazarov. Arkady’s father, Nikolai Petrovich, is a widower. His brother Pavel Petrovich lives with him on his estate. Even though the “old men” in the story are only in their mid-forties, it soon becomes apparent that the two generations do not see eye to eye. Bazarov is a self-proclaimed nihilist who has taken Arkady under his wing. Bazarov scoffs at the older men’s romantic ideals and aristocratic pretensions, while they cannot fathom his total lack of moral purpose and conviction. Pavel Petrovich and Bazarov soon develop a strong dislike for one another. Nikolai Petrovich feels uncomfortable in the presence of his own son, for he is ashamed to tell Arkady that he has taken a lower-class woman as a live-in lover.

Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, originally published in 1862, was one of the first Russian works to be widely read throughout Europe and America. The story takes place at a time when Russia was emerging from its feudal past, and the newly reformed system of land ownership was transforming serfs into tenant farmers. Each character is representative of a different social strata and ideology, though apparently reform hadn’t yet spread to the nation’s literature because none of the important characters are peasants. Much of the novel revolves around political and social issues that will be lost on today’s readers, unless you happen to be really well-versed in Russian history. What’s left for those readers who aren’t is a novel about personal relationships. For most of its length, the book is simply a series of conversations in which the characters get to know one another. Unfortunately, these dialogues are often dull and at times even annoying. As I read the book, the adjective that kept popping into my head was “well-described”. Turgenev is an observant student of human nature, extremely skilled at depicting realistic human interaction, but he is either unable or unwilling to make the reader care about these characters. Bazarov ends up being the protagonist, which is unfortunate, because he’s the least likeable person in the book. His juvenile cynicism gets old very fast. He can’t even allow himself to love for fear of cracking his nihilist facade and displaying any sentimentality that may be perceived as a sign of weakness. Arkady is a much more sympathetic character, but unfortunately Turgenev grants him a lot less ink than his unpleasant friend.

Like Bazarov, one can sense that Turgenev, when writing this book, was making a conscious effort to be modern and iconoclastic. He is determined to present a bluntly realistic world where the characters don’t behave according to romantic conventions. It’s almost as if the story is deliberately boring in order to make a point. Yet in the end he resorts to the sentimentality of love and death just to generate some interest and empathy for these characters. The last quarter of the book is much stronger than the rest, because things actually happen.

Fathers and Sons may be Turgenev’s best-known and most highly acclaimed work, but I found it so-so at best. Despite the author’s perspicacity, this novel leaves an empty feeling that would make Bazarov proud. If this is the best Turgenev’s got to offer, I think I’m done with him.

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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Pantheism: Its Story and Significance by J. Allanson Picton

Neither comprehensive nor accessible
Pantheism is a philosophical and/or religious world view that sees the entire universe as a single, eternal, divine unity. It usually goes hand in hand with monism—the idea that the universe is made up of a single substance (matter) in a multitude of changing forms. Since nothing exists outside of this all-encompassing whole, the universe itself must be God. The Pantheistic God is not an anthropomorphic god, and individual believers differ on the level of divinity to ascribe to the deity. This ambiguity allows Pantheism to be compatible with the beliefs of various religions or even with the personal philosophies of secular freethinkers.

Pantheism: Its Story and Significance is an essay by J. Allanson Picton that was originally published in 1905 as a 94-page book. Picton defines Pantheism and offers a brief overview of its history. The whole book centers, not surprisingly, around the writings of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. The title of the work and its brevity might lead you to believe that it’s an elementary overview, but it really requires a good deal of prior philosophical knowledge on the part of the reader. Spinoza’s Ethics is one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read, but somehow Picton manages to make Spinozan Pantheism sound even more complicated than Spinoza himself did.

Picton opens with a discussion of Pantheistic beliefs among the ancient cultures of India, Egypt, and Greece. He explains that Chinese Buddhism is not a form of Pantheism, but he doesn’t even mention Daoism, which is. When Picton discusses whether various philosophies or religions were Pantheistic, he expects the reader to know their doctrines beforehand. When he brings up the Neo-Platonists or Hegel, for example, he assumes that the reader is already familiar with their works. Picton explains clearly how Pantheism differs from Atheism, and tends to emphasize how much Pantheism agrees with mainstream religions rather than how it differs from them. At one point he even goes so far as to compare Spinoza with Jesus. Throughout the book Picton seems to be leery of offending Christians. He doesn’t even mention prominent Pantheists Giordano Bruno, who was burned as a heretic, or John Toland, who published radical anti-Church tracts. Only in the concluding paragraphs does Picton indicate some sympathy towards a freethought viewpoint within the broad assertion that Pantheism can unite believers of all creeds or beliefs.

In the original printed volume, each paragraph had a subtitle printed along its margin. In the Kindle file that’s available for free on Amazon, these subtitles were converted into separate lines in the text that begin with “[Sidenote:”. Unfortunately the sidenotes don’t always appear next to the paragraph they refer to. Eventually the reader learns to ignore these annoyances and just read the text. There are also footnotes at the end of every chapter, but not necessarily footnote numbers within the text to indicate what passages they refer to.

Though this book isn’t badly written, it may have lost much of its relevance over the past century. Today’s reader would probably learn more from the Wikipedia entries for Pantheism and Spinoza. For serious philosophical scholars, there must be more recent, more in-depth studies of the subject. If you haven’t read Spinoza, read Spinoza. For the general reader who’s curious about Pantheism and its history, Elements of Pantheism by Paul Harrison offers a concise overview that will prove much more accessible and useful to you than Picton’s take on the subject.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Secret Journeys of Jack London: White Fangs by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon

Good things don’t always come in threes
The Secret Journeys of Jack London is a series of young adult novels loosely based on the life and literature of one of America’s greatest storytellers and adventurers. White Fangs is the third episode in the series, and may be the finale of a trilogy, although it does leave enough loose ends for possible further adventures to come. In the first two volumes, authors Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon took the trademark settings and themes of London’s writings and cleverly adapted them to satisfy the tastes of today’s teenage readers and their hunger for supernatural action. Book One: The Wild was based on London’s actual participation in the Klondike Gold Rush and his novel The Call of the Wild. Book Two: The Sea Wolves was an homage to London’s famous novel The Sea-Wolf. White Fangs (they neglected to include “Book Three” in the title, for consistency) unfortunately bears little resemblance to anything London ever wrote. It seems as if the authors came up with the title first—a play on London’s novel White Fang—and then went out of their way to contrive some plot device that would keep that title from becoming irrelevant. What they came up with is so bizarre that even the characters in the book can’t help but comment on how absurd it is.

After the last book’s adventures on the high seas, London returns to the Klondike, now accompanied by some of the mysterious and dangerous friends he made in the previous novel. They are traveling to Dawson and the wilderness beyond in an attempt to find Lesya, the forest spirit young Jack met up with in Book One. Along the way, they are attacked by a ferocious and horrifying foe that stalks them through the forest, aiming to slaughter them before they reach their destination. Thus, the first half of the book delivers the umpteenth variation on the plot template immortalized by the ‘80s Arnold Schwarzenegger film Predator. In the second half we get scenes lifted from Night of the Living Dead and other chestnuts of the horror genre. Golden and Lebbon are skilled writers, capable of delivering moments of suspense and excitement, but this run-of-the-mill thriller is neither very original nor impressive. In the end, everything turns out pretty much how you expected it would. The only surprise in the book is the bizarre revelation mentioned earlier, but just like Book Two the cat is let out of the bag by the cover illustration.

While the first two installments of the series were published by Harper Collins, they must have declined the third book, because Amazon lists its publisher as Daring Greatly Corporation. The new publisher (possibly the authors themselves?) apparently doesn’t place an emphasis on proofreading, because there are a lot of errors in the Kindle edition, although these merely annoy and don’t hinder the reader from following the story. White Fangs also features a new illustrator, Ray Lago, but the images in the Kindle file are so tiny and low-resolution that they might as well not have been included. The only good look you get at his work is the cover image.

I had high hopes for the The Secret Journeys of Jack London. Book One was really good; Book Two was slightly less satisfying; but the third book is adequate at best. 20th Century Fox has acquired the film rights to the Secret Journeys series. These stories should lend themselves well to an effects-heavy cinematic interpretation. If the books are any indication, however, this project has the makings of a typical Hollywood trilogy in which the third film ends up being a major disappointment.

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Friday, May 9, 2014

100%: The Story of a Patriot by Upton Sinclair

Behind enemy lines in the war of the classes
I’ve read several novels by Upton Sinclair, but, given how prolific he was, that’s only scratching the surface of his prodigious body of work. I think The Jungle is one of American literature’s true masterpieces, but I could never find another of his books that even belongs in the same league with that great work. Until now, that is. 100%: The Story of a Patriot, originally published in 1920, is a brilliant novel of the struggle between labor and big business in America during the First World War. While combat was raging in Europe, a war between the classes was taking place on the home front. This novel provides a vivid look into the paranoia of that era, and the brutal tactics employed in the conflict between the Reds (Socialists) and the Whites (capitalists). It’s no secret which side Sinclair leans toward, but the best part about the book is that he ingeniously tells the story not from the Reds’ point of view but through the eyes of their enemy.

Peter Gudge is a luckless, loveless loser who’s recently been fired from his job. His resumé lists a string of credentials as assistant to an assortment of con men. While wandering through the streets, bemoaning his present situation, he happens upon a patriotic rally. Suddenly, a bomb goes off, apparently planted by a terrorist. Peter is found at the scene and apprehended by the police. He is imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured by the secret service of the Traction Trust, a shadowy organization of agents who protect the interests of big business. They want to pin the bombing on a prominent labor leader named Goober, so they recruit Peter to become an agent for them and infiltrate the local community of Socialists and Anarchists. Since he was falsely accused and tortured by the police, the Reds welcome him with open arms. Peter proves quite adept at his newfound vocation, and soon becomes an invaluable asset to the capitalist cause. Though he initially undertook the job purely out of self-interest, he soon begins to believe in the cause he’s fighting for and views himself as a true American patriot.

100% consists of 86 brief chapters, and there’s nary a dull moment among them. This is no typical espionage novel, but it is frequently suspenseful. The emotional tone ranges from laugh-out-loud funny to heartbreakingly tragic. Sinclair, true to form, exaggerates the class struggle, or rather, he collects all the most disgraceful, brutal, reprehensible acts ever perpetrated against the labor movement and condenses them into one fictional location dubbed American City. By telling the story from Peter’s point of view, Sinclair elucidates the misguided mindset that allows “patriotic” Americans to see such actions as justified. One can see parallels between the jingoism of the World War I era, as depicted by Sinclair, and the Cold War paranoia of the Reagan Era, the xenophobia that followed 9/11, or the police brutality against the Occupy Wall Street movement. Times of crisis often create an opportunity for civil liberties to be trampled upon. In this book, Sinclair doesn’t push Socialism so much as he merely pleads for an end to such draconian tactics in favor of a fair, non-violent playing field for the clash of ideologies.

The most common criticism against Sinclair’s work is that his fiction is essentially propaganda, as if that were to negate its literary value. Propaganda and literature are not mutually exclusive. Sinclair is like the liberal equivalent of Ayn Rand. Though both are great storytellers, to them a novel’s not just a novel, it’s a means of changing the world. Such conviction is admirable, even if you don’t buy wholeheartedly into the message they’re selling. After all, if a novel’s not preaching something, what’s the point? If nothing else, 100% will open your eyes to a new perspective on American history that you never got from your high school textbooks.

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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

So Runs the World by Henryk Sienkiewicz

What’s wrong with Romanticism
Henryk Sienkiewicz
So Runs the World, a collection of odds and ends from Polish Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz, was first published in English translation in 1898. It contains four short works—an essay of literary criticism, a one-act play, a short story, and a five-act play. The book opens with an introduction by translator S. C. de Soissons that’s heaping with praise. De Soissons singles out Sienkiewicz’s Christianity as one of his work’s most positive qualities. For the most part, the introduction is nearly unintelligible, as if written by someone for whom English is a second language. That’s a problem that plagues the entire book. The translations could be described as at best antiquated and at worst clumsy.

The main reason I wanted to read this collection is for Sienkiewicz’s essay on French novelist Emile Zola, simply entitled “Zola”. I’m a big fan of both authors, but Sienkiewicz does not share my enthusiasm for Zola. The essay is vehemently negative. Sienkiewicz attacks Zola’s lack of godliness and his concentration on the dirty, immoral side of life. He also criticizes Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels, asserting that the theories of heredity that Zola employs in the series simply defy logic. While there may be some validity to that point, and that portion of the essay is well-argued, for the most part Sienkiewicz comes across as a prudish and intolerant enemy of any realist work that doesn’t strive to depict the ideal. He admits that Germinal and The Debacle are good books, but considers La Terre to be filth, presumably because it discusses manure, vomit, and farts (although Sienkiewicz only mentions the first of the three). Personally, I think there’s room for both Naturalism and Romanticism in the literary pantheon, and both writers were excellent novelists within their own stylistic spheres.

“Whose Fault?” is a one-act play about two former lovers who reunite after two years apart. They have both gone on with their lives, but still have unresolved issues between them. It’s a mediocre scene that seems disembodied and pointless, as if arbitrarily plucked from a larger work. “The Verdict” is a short story in which Apollo and Hermes bet on whether the former can seduce an Athenian baker’s wife. As the story goes on, it seems to be building into a joke or a fable, but the punchline/moral is so lame and disappointing it doesn’t succeed as either.

The last and longest piece in the book is its best, though that’s faint praise indeed. Win or Lose is a play of substantial length that is pretty entertaining throughout. It’s about a Polish princess who has recently become engaged, yet there’s still three other suitors vying for her hand. Two favorites soon rise to the top, but it’s difficult to tell which of them Sienkiewicz favors until the very end. Matters are made more interesting by a parliamentary election in which two of the men are candidates. One is a wealthy son of blue-blooded nobility, while the other is an uppity member of the lower classes who has elevated his station in life through hard work and determination. The play has promise, and makes some good points in its fifth act, but it’s ruined by an abrupt and underwhelming ending.

Sienkiewicz is a great novelist whose epics, like those of Victor Hugo, epitomize the power and glory of Romanticism. Yet, as is all too evident here, Romanticism also has its downside. There’s a pretentiousness and an irrelevance to these short works that doesn’t reflect well on their author. Even the title of the book, which bears no relation to its contents, is unnecessarily pompous. If Zola were to employ such a title, at least we could take comfort in knowing he was being sarcastic.

Works in this collection
Introduction by S. C. de Soissons 
Whose Fault? 
The Verdict 
Win or Lose 

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Son of the White Wolf by Robert E. Howard

Sand, swords, and severed heads
While much of the globe was engaged in the First World War, another conflict was raging in the Middle East. Arabs, aided by the British (including the famous Lawrence of Arabia), were revolting against the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which was allied with the Germans. During this war-torn period a band of renegade Turks, fed up with doing the bidding of their Ottoman and German masters, breaks off and forms their own independent tribe. Under the leadership of the fierce warrior Osman, they repudiate the Muslim faith and return to worshipping the pagan gods of their ancestors, exchanging their crescent flag for the banner of the white wolf. Osman and his band sweep across the desert in a rampage of pillaging and plundering. Along the way they capture a beautiful German agent named Olga. Her situation is hopeless, until a lone man comes riding out of the desert, an American gunfighter known to locals only by the name of El Borak.

All of the above is fictitious, of course, except for the first sentence. El Borak, born Francis Xavier Gordon, is a recurring character in the tales of pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard, better known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane. His novelette Son of the White Wolf was first published in the December 1936 issue of the pulp magazine Thrilling Adventures.

Like many pulp-era adventure stories, this one is somewhat formulaic and predictable, but within the expected formula Howard pushes the boundaries as much as possible and injects enough surprises to elevate this piece well above the norm of its genre. Of all those writers who filled the pages of the vintage pulp magazines, Howard is perhaps the one who best appeals to today’s audience because he was the one who took things the farthest. Despite being written in the 1920s and ‘30s, his work is just as violent, gory, and nihilistic as the action movies being made in the 21st century. Nevertheless, he still manages to maintain some of the romantic spirit of a bygone age that one finds in the classic writings of Sir Walter Scott or Alexandre Dumas. The Middle Eastern and Central Asian setting of the El Borak stories is not what Howard is known for. This subject matter is more typical of the writings of another famous pulp writer, Harold Lamb, who specialized in tales of this region. Yet Lamb’s writing is much tamer by comparison. Lamb could never let go of the ideals of chivalry and honor long enough to indulge himself in scenes that are violent enough to be scary. Howard, on the other hand, is not afraid to cross the line into brutality. Severed heads are the norm. Beyond providing gratuitous gore, such no-holds-barred violence actually creates a more historically accurate tone, as it seems history has proven that those engaged in warfare or torture in past centuries would have been more likely to employ unscrupulous cruelty rather than mercifully conform to some romantic code of ethics. In the heat of battle they wouldn’t have relented, so neither does Howard.

Obviously you’ve got to be in the mood for this sort of thing. It ain’t Shakespeare, but it sure is fun. I was unfamiliar with El Borak before reading this story, but if they’re all as well-done as Son of the Wolf, I’ll definitely be seeking out more of his adventures.

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Friday, May 2, 2014

The Complete Poetry of Jack London

Don’t give up your day job
Jack London
Jack London is famous for his short stories and novels, but he also enthusiastically studied poetry and even made an attempt to establish a reputation for himself as a poet. Despite publishing about a dozen and a half poems, however, he never successfully achieved this goal. Nevertheless, the craft of poetry certainly informed his prose. One can find in his works passages that have a definite poetic quality—the depictions of nature in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, for example, or the opening scene of his short story “All Gold Canyon” come to mind. On the contrary, however, when London injects passages of poetry into his fiction, it’s often the most annoying part of the book, like the irritating “Abalone Song” that keeps showing up in The Valley of the Moon, or the snippets of tiresome verse with which the married couple in The Little Lady of the Big House serenade each other. London even wrote an entire play in verse—The Acorn Planter—which is one of the most mind-numbing works he ever produced. 

Where can one find London’s poetry? It is included in a few of the ebook collections of his complete works, such as the Delphi Classics edition. Much of it is available online at the World of Jack London web site. Daniel J. Wichlan edited a volume of The Complete Poetry of Jack London that was published in 2007, which not only collects all the poems but also provides publication information for each. It also contains a lot of bibliographic material that I haven’t read, so I can’t review that book as a whole, but Wichlan is usually a thorough and conscientious editor. The book’s introduction, however, tries to make the case that London was “a poet first” and a reluctant writer of fiction. That’s pushing things a little too far. A movie actor might want to be a rock star, but putting out an album doesn’t make him Bob Dylan. London himself stated that he “dabbled a little in poetry.” His entire surviving poetic output, published and unpublished, only takes up about 75 pages and will occupy a little over an hour of your time. 

There was a time when a writer wasn’t considered a true man of letters unless he wrote poetry. By the time London achieved his literary fame, that era was coming to a close and novels had gained acceptance as the dominant literary medium. Nevertheless, London and other writers of his day looked back on the glory days of literature with fondness and tried to emulate their poetic forefathers. The result is that London often seems more interested in working within the meter and rhyme scheme of established poetic forms than he is in what he’s actually trying to say. At times even the subject matter is nostalgic and antiquated. “The Sea Sprite and the Shooting Star” is about a love affair between the two title “characters”. That stuff may have been cute back in the eighteenth century, but it don’t fly in the twentieth. “The Way of War” is a more modern piece that’s sufficiently clever to amuse. At least half of London’s poems were written with humorous intent or aim for cleverness with a cute twist of an ending. Rarely does he try to express anything truly profound. When he does, the results aren’t bad. The best poem he wrote was “Lover’s Liturgy,” which exhorts us to enjoy the life we live rather than deprive ourselves of pleasure in hopes of some eternal reward. Some other better efforts in a more serious vein are “A Heart,” “George Sterling,” and “When All the World Shouted My Name.”

Though I may not be particularly qualified to critique poetry, I am a knowledgeable (albeit non-academic) fan of Jack London’s work, and can speak to members of that audience about whether these are worth reading. The short answer is that these poems are only valuable to the most intensive of London scholars. To the avid reader, not particularly interested in poetry, who’s just looking to finish London’s complete works, you can in all good conscience skip his poems.