Monday, June 30, 2014

Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz

Better bone up on your Polish history
Pan Tadeusz is an epic poem written in the Polish language by Adam Mickiewicz. It is considered the national epic of Poland and, though published in 1834, perhaps the last great epic poem in European literature. Although it was written in verse, my review is based on the English prose translation by George Rapall Noyes, published in 1917.

Although many Poles consider this to be their country’s greatest work of literature, the story takes place entirely in Lithuania. Prior to 1795, Poland and Lithuania were united into one Commonwealth, and the two regions traditionally shared a great deal of cultural common ground. The events of the story occur in the years 1911 and 1912. At this time neither Poland nor Lithuania existed as an independent state, as the Commonwealth had been conquered and partitioned by Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Lithuania was under the jurisdiction of Russia, and its inhabitants chafed under the constrictive rule of the Muscovites. Meanwhile, Napoleon was conquering much of Europe, and the Poles and Lithuanians looked to him in anticipation as a possible savior who could free their nation from Russian oppression and help them regain their independence.

During this period in history, Polish society was still operating under a system of feudalism. Poland had a weak central government which allowed a great deal of autonomy on the part of the nobles. Landowners could even summon their own armies and attack their neighbors as a means of settling disputes. This figures into the story of Pan Tadeusz, which deals with a long-standing feud between two Lithuanian families, the Soplicas and the Horeszkos. Tadeusz Soplica arrives at the estate of his uncle, referred to simply as the Judge. There a group of nobles and public dignitaries have assembled, where they all engage in banquets and hunting parties. While a few of the younger attendees occupy themselves with matters of love, a contentious lawsuit between the two aforementioned families engenders an animosity that leads to violence.

Though the plot of Pan Tadeusz is sufficiently engaging, it doesn’t seem to be Mickiewicz’s primary concern. He’s more interested in creating a patriotic tribute to his beloved country. Each chapter opens with a beautiful paean to the natural beauty of Lithuania. Then Mickiewicz minutely describes each meal, dance, and costume in loving detail, while dropping the names of glorious generals from Poland’s military past. Along the way the non-Polish reader learns a lot about that nation’s culture, but a lot of prior knowledge is required to truly understand everything that’s taking place. The Noyes edition is heavily loaded with explanatory footnotes, which provide helpful context but tend to overwhelm the narrative. I’m no scholar of Polish history, but I do know enough to have read the works of Polish authors like Henryk Sienkiewicz, Wladyslaw Reymont, Boleslaw Prus, and others. Yet this one was really tough to get through. Stylistically it bears much resemblance to the romantic epics of Sienkiewicz, but it’s not nearly as accessible to the non-Polish reader.

I certainly won’t fault the author for writing a book that appeals primarily to his countrymen rather than to the American reader. I think the translator does deserve a little blame, however, for some clumsy and mystifying passages. Pan Tadeusz is no doubt a great work of literature, but for this Polish-American reader, reading it was often not so much a labor of love as just simply a labor.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

He Walked Around the Horses by H. Beam Piper

One-trick pony
H. Beam Piper
“He Walked Around the Horses,” a story by H. Beam Piper, was originally published in the April 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Falling somewhere between a long short story and a short novella, it takes about 40 minutes to read.

In 1809, Benjamin Bathurst, a British envoy on a diplomatic mission, is travelling in a four-horse coach from Vienna to Hamburg. Midway through the trip, he and his secretary stop to have lunch at an inn. After their meal, as they return to their coach, Bathurst walks around the horses from one side of the vehicle to the other. As he does so, he momentarily blacks out. When he comes to his senses, his coach is gone, as are his secretary, valet, and coachman. Bathurst reenters the inn, but finds a different innkeeper, and no one on the premises seems to recognize him. At least this is the story that the diplomat asserts when the police find him at the inn, very distraught and raving like a lunatic. But for his momentary anger, he appears to be a sane man, and the authorities wish to assist him in any way they can. Even more puzzling than the alleged vanishing, however, are the mysterious diplomatic documents Bathurst carries in his briefcase.

The narrative of Bathurst’s baffling case is told entirely in the form of police reports, eyewitness depositions, and letters from one Prussian bureaucrat to another. It starts out as a mystery worthy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but anyone who’s at all familiar with the work of H. Beam Piper will surely have an inkling that there’s probably more to this enigma than your typical detective tale. Sure enough, it soon becomes apparent to the reader what’s going on. This story is founded on a very clever idea, but after the initial surprise wears off it becomes somewhat monotonous. The mysterious occurrence is merely described from different viewpoints, but neither developed nor explained any further. As a result, this feels more like a preliminary sketch for a larger work than it does a complete story in and of itself. “He Walked Around the Horses” is in fact very loosely connected to a later series of stories and novels by Piper, but so loosely connected that no prior knowledge of that series is required to read this particular piece.

Piper is a great writer and this is a good story. Compared to 90% of the science fiction that came out of the pulp magazines this could be considered a great story, but by Piper standards this is not his best work. Diehard fans should read all the Piper they can get their hands on, this one included, but casual readers should avoid this story in favor of better pieces like “The Edge of the Knife,” “Police Operation,” or “Flight from Tomorrow.”

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Adventure Megapack, edited by Wildside Press

An assorted selection that’s neither assorted nor selective enough
Wildside Press is a publisher that resurrects and reprints vintage genre fiction from the classic pulp magazines. They publish a wide variety of “Megapacks”—inexpensive omnibus collections of stories and novellas, each united under a common theme or author. The Adventure Megapack was published in 2012. “Adventure” is a pretty broad category, essentially covering anything that’s not a western, science fiction, mystery, or horror story. Yet somehow, even with such wide latitude, this collection manages to feel homogenous and monotonous.

I understand that once you disqualify every story with a trace of space travel, cowboys, detectives, or ghosts in it, the pool of available pulp fiction has dwindled quite a bit. Yet still the definition of “adventure” feels pretty narrow here. The vast majority of these stories are tales of 20th-century white guys punching and shooting their way through exotic locales. Some good examples of this are Robert E. Howard’s “Son of the White Wolf,” which features his character El Borak battling renegade Turks; “Stories of the Legion: Choc,” by H. De Vere Stacpoole, a tale of the French Foreign Legion in Algeria; and “The Spirit of France” by S. B. H. Furst, in which British and French characters face a Muslim rebellion in Burma. Too many of these two-fisted tales, however, are predictable, politically incorrect, and just plain dull. The absolute nadir of this tough-guy category is “The Fighting Fool,” by Perley Poore Sheehan, in which the lead character is an obnoxious jerk who all-too easily assumes the leadership of a submissive Tibetan tribe.

To give credit for diversity where it’s due, there are a handful of stories set in Asia, with Asian protagonists. Harold Lamb was famous for such stories, though his entry here, “Said Afzel’s Elephant,” is mediocre at best. Dorothy Quick’s “The Black Adder,” a romantic tale of India, and “The Mindoon Maneater” by C. M. Cross, about a tiger hunt in Burma, are two of the better selections. In his central Asian tale “Every Man a King,” on the other hand, author E. Hoffmann Price clumsily tries to out-Kipling Rudyard Kipling in the local color department, and ends up delivering a story so crammed with proper nouns that it’s about as much fun and intelligible as reading the Kandahari phone book.

One story about auto racing (“Checkered Flag” by Cliff Farrell) was a nice surprise and a pleasant relief from the relentless fisticuffs. Another welcome departure was “Another Pawn of Fate,” by F. St. Mars, a hunting story told from the point of view of a jaguar.

My biggest complaint about this Megapack is that it’s almost totally devoid of historical adventure. There were entire pulp periodicals devoted to such tales, yet this collection barely even dips its toe into the late 19th century, with the exception of one story of pirates in the Caribbean (J. Allan Dunn’s “The Screaming Skull”). What happened to all the knights in shining armor, the swashbuckling Three Musketeers knockoffs, or the Roman centurions? If Wildside is saving up their historical adventure for some other Megapack I’m not aware of it. They haven’t produced one yet, while they’ve already put out The Eighth Science Fiction Megapack.

Obviously, you can’t go wrong with the price of these Megapacks, but you don’t just spend your money on books, you also spend your time. There are moments while reading The Adventure Megapack that you feel like your effort is well spent, but by the time you reach the end of the 25th yarn, you may find yourself wishing for a few hours of your life back.

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

Stories in this collection
(Some novella-length works have been reviewed individually. Click on titles below.)
Son of the White Wolf by Robert E. Howard
Every Man a King by E. Hoffmann Price 
Pearl Hunger by Albert Richard Wetjen
The Black Adder by Dorothy Quick 
A Meal for the Devil by K. Christopher Barr 
Jack Grey, Second Mate by William Hope Hodgson 
Said Afzel’s Elephant by Harold Lamb 
Adventure’s Heart by Albert Dorrington 
Another Pawn of Fate by F. St. Mars 
Mystery on Dead Man Reef by George Armin Shaftel 
Hag Gold by James Francis Dwyer 
Maori Justice by Bob du Soe 
Javelin of Death by Captain A.E. Dingle 
The Screaming Skull by J. Allan Dunn 
Six Shells Left by Allan R. Bosworth 
Gods of Bastol by H.P. Holt

The Mindoon Maneater by C. M. Cross 

The Spirit of France by S. B. H. Hurst 

The Box of the Ivory Dragon by James L. Aton 

Checkered Flag by Cliff Farrell 

The Fighting Fool by Perley Poore Sheehan 

Ghost Lanterns by Alan B. LeMay 

Stories of the Legion: Choc by H. De Vere Stacpoole 

The Whispering Corpse by Richard B. Sale 

The Monkey God by Jacland Marmur 

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual by Lauren Coodley

The author and activist as feminist
To most Americans nowadays, if they’re familiar with Upton Sinclair at all it’s as the author of The Jungle, and those who haven’t read that book think it’s just a novel about filthy meat. While he walked this earth, however, Sinclair was a household name, a public intellectual both trusted and reviled, and an unapologetic force for social change. Thankfully readers of today have scholars like Lauren Coodley to remind us of the importance of this great American treasure. Her 2013 biography Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual may just be the start of a Sinclair revival. One can only hope.

Sinclair was known for his socialism and his staunch devotion to many issues of social reform, but Coodley emphasizes that for his time he was also remarkably feminist. Coodley focuses on his interaction with prominent women activists, whom he treated as equals and co-conspirators. His marriages (there were three) were also surprisingly egalitarian, with both partners functioning as coequals in the relationship rather than the wife serving the husband. Sinclair’s interest in health issues, abstinence from alcohol, and attention to his own diet were also departures from the conventional concept of masculinity—departures for which he was often ridiculed by his critics. During a lifetime when masculinity was defined by writers like Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair was a far cry from the macho norm. Coodley rightfully asserts that he was commendably way ahead of his time.

This is a rather brief biography—only 181 pages including a couple dozen photos. It doesn’t seem that Coodley was attempting to write a comprehensive biography of Sinclair in such a brief span, but rather to provide just enough of a biography to support her thesis. This is perfectly fine, but the gender issues should have been reflected in the book’s title, rather than emphasizing Sinclair’s “Socialism” and “Celebrity”. The former is almost an afterthought in this book, though the latter is covered pretty well. Coodley gives the 21st-century reader a pretty good idea of what Sinclair meant to our parents’ or grandparents’ generations. The extent of his celebrity is also apparent from his list of famous friends and admirers, including Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, and George Bernard Shaw. He was even penpals with Gandhi. Sinclair’s politics and his popularity came together in his 1934 run as Democratic candidate for California Governor, to which Coodley devotes the better part of a chapter. Here more than elsewhere in the book one really catches the excitement of Sinclair the underdog battling the oppressive status quo.

Coodley doesn’t clutter her biography with literary criticism. She discusses some of Sinclair’s major works and their reception, offering summaries but thankfully no spoilers. I wish she would have mentioned more of his lesser known works, but I still come away from this biography with a formidable list of Sinclair books I hope to tackle in the near future. This is one illustration of how Coodley successfully captures some of the excitement and controversy that surrounded Sinclair during his lifetime and conveys it to a whole new audience of contemporary readers, generating enthusiasm and admiration for this great author and the causes he championed. What comes across quite evidently in this book is Sinclair’s boundless humanity and his commitment to social justice which, as anyone who’s ever read a Sinclair book knows, is infectious. One can’t help but think we could use a man (or a woman) like Upton Sinclair again.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The quintessential Sherlock Holmes adventure
The Hound of the Baskervilles, originally published in 1902, is one of only four novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that feature the great detective Sherlock Holmes. Though Holmes is probably better known through his short stories, it is in the novels that Conan Doyle truly excels. The lengthier format gives the author the opportunity to develop more complicated plots, delve deeper into Holmes’ methods of detection, and more thoroughly explore the relationship between the two main characters. This novel may very well be Conan Doyle’s best.

Dr. Mortimer, a physician from Devonshire, calls upon Holmes and Dr. Watson in their Baker Street flat. Sir Charles Baskerville, a client and friend of Mortimer’s, has died a mysterious death on the grounds of his rural estate in Dartmoor. According to a legend dating back to the 18th century, the Baskerville family is haunted by a terrifying hellhound. When Mortimer reveals that signs of a giant hound were found near the corpse, Holmes’ interest is sufficiently piqued to take on the case. He agrees to investigate the suspicious circumstances of Sir Charles’ death and insure that the same fate does not befall the family heir, Sir Henry Baskerville.

Like Holmes, Conan Doyle was a man of science, but he also had a keen interest in the supernatural. While the Holmes stories are always firmly grounded in the world of natural science, Conan Doyle wrote many other tales of horror and mystery that dealt with matters of the occult. Here the author’s two areas of interest collide, as Holmes is faced with an ostensibly supernatural phenomenon. Up to the very end of the book the reader is kept wondering whether Holmes will ultimately debunk the myth of the hound, solving the mystery through scientific fact, or whether this may finally be the case where Conan Doyle indulges his spiritualist leanings and leaves some of the supernatural questions unanswered.

Today’s mystery aficionados who expect to be baffled by a convoluted plot with unexpected twists and turns may be disappointed by this novel. By today’s standards, many of the Holmes mysteries are not remarkably baffling, and the Hound of the Baskervilles is no exception. The conclusion of the case is not entirely unexpected. Throughout the book I felt like I was always a half step ahead of Watson, if not ahead of Holmes. Nevertheless, when the hound shows up the reader can’t help but be awe-stricken, spooked, and perplexed. What this century-old mystery lacks in complexity and surprises it makes up for in atmosphere, character development, suspense, and brilliant storytelling. A lot of today’s writers can craft an intricate murder far more puzzling than any of Holmes’ cases, but few if any can tell the tale as expertly as Conan Doyle.

The Hound of the Baskervilles may be the quintessential Sherlock Holmes adventure. It not only epitomizes Conan Doyle’s artistry as a novelist, it establishes a template for its genre that has been adopted and adapted by countless imitators. With such iconic standing comes the risk of familiarity, yet even more than a century after its publication, this classic still holds plenty of surprises. If you haven’t read this novel, you don’t know Holmes.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time by Calvin Tomkins

An outstanding biography of America’s Picasso
In the argument over who was the greatest artist of the second half of the 20th century, my vote goes to Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg was like America’s equivalent to Picasso because he was a central hub around which so many different movements interacted and revolved—dada, surrealism, and abstract expressionism which preceded him; pop art and conceptual art which followed him; to name a few. Another reason he deserves such a title is because he had a long, prolific career in which he worked in a variety of styles and media. Always experimenting, never resting on his laurels; his work remained relevant even into his elderly years.

There are at least several beautiful coffee table books available on Rauschenberg, but Calvin Tomkins’ Off the Wall isn’t one of them. Despite a couple dozen black-and-white photos, the text is the main attraction in this 1980 biography. Tomkins brilliantly surveys Rauschenberg’s life and work while chronicling the American art movement as a whole from the end of the Second World War through the 1970s. With the advent of abstract expressionism, New York replaced Paris as the center of the art world, a transformation which culminated in Rauschenberg winning the coveted Grand Prize at the 1964 Venice Biennale. Tomkins doesn’t concentrate solely on Rauschenberg’s part in this watershed. He frequently deviates from the course of Rauschenberg’s life and career to provide mini-biographies of many of the influential artists from whom Rauschenberg drew influence or with whom he interacted, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Frank Stella. Although best known as a painter and printmaker, Rauschenberg also did a lot of work in the performing arts, often collaborating with composer John Cage and dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham. The troupe of performers who worked under this triumvirate were often among Rauschenberg’s closest friends. The author himself was likely a personal friend of the artist, but Tomkins’ treatment of his subject is not entirely adulatory. He doesn’t shy away from pointing out instances of prima donna behavior or periods in which the art Rauschenberg produced wasn’t up to his usual standards.

Tomkins is a former writer for The New Yorker, which may explain why the chapters of this book read like brisk and engaging articles rather than art historical essays. This book demands that I haul out the old chestnut: “So good it reads like a novel!” In fact, it reads like an adventure novel, but an intellectual adventure. Anyone who’s an artist can’t help but be caught up in the contagious excitement of these painters who came from every corner of America, converged on the Big Apple, and created an American art that finally rivalled that of their European counterparts. Such creative explosions are rare, and they don’t last forever, as the end of the book indicates. Tomkins has a remarkable knack for clearly and concisely encapsulating the aesthetic theories of artists and movements. After reading this book, even those with no artistic knowledge at all can finally understand modern art (though “modern art” pretty much ended in the ‘80s, so you’ll still be thirty years behind the times).

Rauschenberg lived until 2008, so Off the Wall doesn’t cover his entire life, but what it does cover it covers beautifully. In a later edition published in 2005, this book was resubtitled to eliminate the “Our Time”. This new edition, titled Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg includes a new chapter which revisits Rauschenberg in the early 21st century.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

The Fighting Fool by Perley Poore Sheehan

The Ugly American conquers the Himalaya
The Fighting Fool, a novella by Perley Poore Sheehan, was first published in the July 1932 issue of the pulp magazine Thrilling Adventures. It is one of a series of adventures that Sheehan wrote featuring Pelham Rutledge Shattuck, a character who also goes by the moniker of Captain Trouble. I don’t believe this is the first adventure in the series, at least I hope not, because it alludes to a big, complicated back story that’s almost unintelligible. Shattuck is an American drifter who is kicked out of Russia for reasons too convoluted to explain here. He ends up in the Himalaya, where he stumbles upon a remote village, the inhabitants of which are Tibetan. In short order, Shattuck assumes leadership of the tribe, basically by pointing a gun at someone and demanding it. As is unfortunately all too typical of the pulp fiction of this era, the submissive natives are more than willing to hand over authority to a random stranger with a white face. Of course his coming was foretold by a mystical prophecy, so they bestow upon him the sword of Kubla Khan and worship him as their savior.

Beyond the political incorrectness of all this, it’s just not good storytelling. It’s fun for the reader to see the hero triumph over adversity. When success is just handed to him on a silver platter because he happens to be a macho and savvy American, where’s the fun in that? Later in the story when Shattuck goes into battle, his opponents seem to fall at his feet without much trouble, once again depriving the reader of any thrills or suspense. The purpose of this story seems to be to elevate Shattuck into a position where he will lead an army in his next adventure, but a more difficult and circuitous route to that end would have been nice.

It’s really hard to like a story in which the main character is such a jerk. Shattuck embodies the arrogance and rudeness of the “Ugly American” in a foreign land. Perhaps the best that could be said for him is that he appears to be an equal opportunity jerk, showing no respect for anyone and ordering everyone around regardless of race, color, or creed. The nickname of “Captain Trouble” is self-styled, yet he insists that others call him by it. At other times he adamantly demands they refer to him by his Tibetan name, Shada-khan. “Say it! Repeat it!” Is this obnoxious behavior supposed to be cool? Even by 1932 standards, I find that hard to believe.

Sheehan’s confusing prose doesn’t help the uninspired plot. It’s often difficult to tell who’s getting punched or who’s stabbing whom. Even those who enjoy classic adventure fiction have to admit that a lot of what came out of the pulp era was mediocre at best, and much of it was just plain garbage. Once in a while you come across a real gem that deserves to be reprinted and preserved for posterity, but The Fighting Fool isn’t one of them.

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Friday, June 13, 2014

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

A creepy thriller with philosophical bite
The introduction to H. G. Wells’ classic science fiction/horror novel The Island of Doctor Moreau explains that the text of the book is the account of Edward Prendick, an Englishman who, after departing on a Pacific Ocean voyage, went missing for about a year. When the ship he’s traveling on goes down, Prendick escapes in a life boat, which is discovered a few days later by a passing ship, the Ipecacuanha. On board this ship is a mysterious Mr. Montgomery, who is traveling with a load of African wildlife and a strangely deformed assistant. When the captain of the Ipecacuanha reaches Montgomery’s destination, a remote and little-known island, he refuses to take Prendick any further and kicks him off the ship, despite Montgomery’s objections. Now marooned on this isolated isle, Prendick is granted a modicum of hospitality, but he knows his presence is not welcome there because of secret goings-on that are kept hidden from him. He soon learns that the man in charge on the island is one Dr. Moreau, an expat Londoner and biologist who has fled civilization so that he may carry out his ethically questionable experiments.

I have no doubt that when this book was originally published in 1896, its audience was simultaneously terrified and delighted by its shockingly unique premise. For many of today’s readers, however, the cat has unfortunately been let out of the bag. Wells spends the first half of the book playing hide and seek with the island’s creatures, but any reader who’s aware of the movie adaptations of this story already knows what horrific surprises lie in wait. Once Prendick encounters Moreau the book gets a lot better, as it starts to get into the scientific and philosophical aspects of the story. I would have preferred a little more discourse between Prendick and Moreau, and a little less chasing each other around the island. Nevertheless, there are a good many suspenseful scenes that keep the reader thrilled and chilled. The science may have been a bit implausible by the standards of the nineteenth-century, but not entirely impossible by those of the twenty-first, and the issues of scientific and medical ethics are even more relevant in today’s age of genetic modification than at the time the book was published. Moreau, the arrogant scientist who dares to play God, is a fascinating character, as is his enforcer Montgomery, an alcoholic so disillusioned with human society that he feels more at home with the beasts.

I recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and The Island of Doctor Moreau covers many of the same issues. Though a man of science may have the ability to tamper with the natural order of life and the universe, does he have the right? Is the infliction of pain justified when it advances scientific knowledge? Does the scientist have a responsibility to his creations, just as the father has to his son? If man is capable of bending nature to his will, does this call into question the existence of God? Wells tackles all these issues more successfully than Shelley, and what’s more important, his book isn’t boring. This novel is first and foremost an adventure tale, but Wells as usual elevates his work far above typical genre fiction by injecting his narrative with thought-provoking philosophical inquiry.

If you’ve seen the various film versions of this novel, Wells’ original text is still well worth reading. If you’re not familiar with the movie versions at all, then you’re in for an astonishing wild ride.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

A great idea inadequately executed
Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was originally published in 1818. The author later revised the manuscript with the intention of making it more appealing to a broader audience. This revised edition, published in 1831, is the one that I’m reviewing. The novel tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a gifted scientist who dares to play God when he discovers the secret of animating dead flesh. This primary narrative is bookended by the letters of Robert Walton, an Englishman who is leading an expedition to the North Pole. While his ship is trapped amid ice floes, Walton receives an unexpected visitor in the form of Dr. Frankenstein, who is trekking across the frozen Arctic Ocean in pursuit of his nemesis. Frankenstein comes aboard and tells his story to Walton, who in turn writes it down in epistles to his sister. The doctor delivers a full-blown autobiography, so it takes quite a while to get to the meat of the matter. When the monster is finally created, his birth is hardly the show-stopping scene one sees in the movies. Instead, it’s glossed over in rather perfunctory fashion. While I hardly expected lightning bolts or cries of “It’s alive!”, such a momentous event merits a more thorough and memorable telling. Even more unforgivable is the fact that once the monster is created Frankenstein just seems to forget that it even exists. The thing wanders off, and for a couple years it’s like nothing ever happened. How is that possible?

When the monster finally does return, he threatens to bore his creator to death with an interminably long back story. In Shelley’s novel the monster speaks, which is a good thing, but he’s prone to operatic soliloquies, which is not. Each level of narration becomes more boring than the one before. The reader’s patience is also tested by some courtroom proceedings founded on circumstantial evidence. Perhaps that’s an accurate portrayal of the justice system of the eighteenth century, but such scenes only inspire eye rolls in the reader of the twenty-first. The last few chapters of the book are more interesting as it finally gets to its point, but once again it’s more tediously verbose than it needs to be. I usually like Romantic literature, but the manner in which Frankenstein and his monster belabor their every anguished emotion is too histrionic for even my tolerant tastes.

Despite the faults of its plot and its prose, the novel does find some success in its philosophical themes. The story of Frankenstein calls into question what it means to be human, and chastises the arrogance of man for thinking he can tame the unknown. The monster scorns his creator for making him ugly and less than human, just as man has often scorned the gods for his own inferiorities. The monster rightfully hates his creator for abandoning him and depriving him of the love of a father towards his son. Unfortunately this isn’t explored enough, as their relationship soon develops into a dynamic similar to that of Ahab and his white whale. Ultimately the book has less to say about the creator and father issues than it does about ugliness and deformity. The reason the monster is so horrific and terrible is because he was made ugly. Because of his deformity he doesn’t belong, which makes him angry, which makes him dangerous. If he were made beautiful, would anyone, even the monster himself, have a problem with Frankenstein’s hubris? Would the doctor then be justified in playing God?

One can’t help but compare Shelley’s novel to the pop culture version of the Frankenstein story that was spawned by the 1931 Boris Karloff movie. I fully expected that the original literary text would put the horror film to shame, but after reading this book, honestly, I think I prefer the guy with the bolts in his neck.

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Monday, June 9, 2014

The Screaming Skull by J. Allan Dunn

Predictable pirate pulp
When the captain of a pirate ship is mortally wounded in a battle with the King’s navy, three of his crew members scheme to recover the treasure that he buried on an island off the coast of North Carolina. Thus begins J. Allan Dunn’s story “The Screaming Skull,” which was originally published in the October 1924 edition of the pulp magazine Frontier. This story is probably long enough to qualify as a novella, but it’s not divided into chapters. The plot is too thin to merit such extensive treatment, however, and it drags on far too long.

Although Dunn dresses up the story with the requisite spooky trappings of typical pirate fare, the plot is obvious and predictable from beginning to end. Dunn’s prose is a bit clumsy throughout. He needlessly delves a little too deeply into the thesaurus at times, and his sentences have a blunt choppiness to them that hinders the momentum of the story. The reader never really feels swept up in the action so much as merely dragged along for the ride. It all amounts to one tediously long wait to get to the treasure isle. There are a couple good, brief scenes of well-rendered violence toward the end, but what is meant to be the climactic surprise is not surprising at all. “The Screaming Skull” resembles one of those five-page stories you’d find in an EC comic like Two-Fisted Tales, but laboriously stretched out to fit a longer word count. Like such comics, the pictures Dunn draws—that is, the atmosphere he creates—is more appealing than the formulaic story being told.

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Friday, June 6, 2014

Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo

An absolutely superb novel, but a tough history lesson
1793 was one of the most turbulent years of the French Revolution. A republican government was put in place following the execution of Louis XVI, but a counterrevolution erupted in the northwestern regions of Brittany and the Vendée. An army consisting mostly of peasants, loyal to the monarchy and their Catholic faith, waged a guerrilla war against the republican forces of the Parisian government. In his final novel, Ninety-Three, originally published in 1874, Victor Hugo vividly captures the devastation and the glory of this epic conflict.

The book opens with a troop of republican soldiers marching through a Breton forest, where they find a recently widowed peasant woman and her three children hiding in the brush. Though the sergeant of the troop at first sees them as enemies, he ultimately shows them compassion by adopting them into the care of the troop. Meanwhile, in the English Channel, the royalists are attempting to land their leader, the Marquis de Lantenac, on the shores of Brittany, in hopes that he will unite their scattered bands and lead them to victory.

Ninety-Three is perhaps the most Romantic of Romantic novels. By that I don’t mean love story, because there’s none to be found here, but rather Romanticism as opposed to Realism. Every emotion evoked in this book is bombastically larger than life in its intensity. The honor, the glory, the bravery, and the brutality are all idealized to the utmost degree. All events come full circle, each character fulfills his destiny, and everyone’s a hero, though their heroism is directed toward opposing ends. Although Hugo primarily sympathized with the republican cause, he expresses equal admiration for the Whites (royalists) and Blues (republicans). He manages to celebrate the highest ideals of both factions, yet he also doesn’t fail to criticize both parties’ shortcomings and attribute to each their own contributions to the horrors of civil war.

One obstacle to enjoying this book for the general (American) reader is the immense amount of historical detail that Hugo crams into the story. You’d have to have a master’s degree in French history to understand everything Hugo is saying. If a French person were to read a book about the American Revolution, they would certainly be familiar with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, but might scratch their heads at supporting characters like Patrick Henry, Ethan Allen, or Nathan Hale. In Ninety-Three, American readers will likewise recognize Robespierre, Danton, and Marat, but in his section on the National Convention, Hugo must rattle off the names of at least 200 French Patrick Henrys, along with anecdotal references that you’re expected to know and understand. He assumes a high-level of prior knowledge on the part of the reader, which makes a couple sections in the middle of the book really tough going. I don’t fault Hugo’s book for my own ignorance of the subject matter, however. I only wish I knew all the myriad details required to fully appreciate this great work.

Ninety-Three not only provides a detailed lesson in French history, it also brilliantly encapsulates the spirit and ideals of the French Revolution. I still think Notre-Dame de Paris (a.k.a. The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is Hugo’s greatest work, but Ninety-Three is even better than the more famous Les Misérables. The latter work is better known likely because it’s more accessible to the non-French reader, and its social concerns are more universal than those confined to the Revolution. In terms of plot, characters, and emotional power, however, I think Ninety-Three has Les Mis beat. I highly recommend you read all three great works and judge for yourself.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Jack London on the Road: The Tramp Diary and Other Hobo Writings. Edited by Richard W. Etulain

A companion to The Road
The year 1894 was a defining year for author Jack London. Fed up with toiling as a “wage slave,” London quit his job, hit the road, and spent much of the year tramping across America and Canada. Part of that journey was spent as a member of Kelly’s Army, which was an offshoot of Coxey’s Army, a protest march of jobless laborers who converged on Washington, DC to protest the government’s inadequate response to rampant unemployment. During this time, London kept a “Tramp Diary” of his travels, which only covers the two months spent traveling from Oakland, CA to his aunt’s house in Michigan. This collection, edited by Richard W. Etulain and published by Utah State University Press in 1979, reprints “The Tramp Diary” along with an assortment of related London writings about hobos and tramps.

Though the darker underbelly of society that London experienced on his cross-country journey was instrumental in convincing him to make a living with his brains and pursue a career as a writer, he would later look back on his hobo days with nostalgic fondness. London immortalized his tramp adventures in the excellent 1907 book The Road. An essay from 1897, also entitled “The Road,” can be seen as a preliminary sketch for that book, but less light-hearted in tone. London breaks trampdom down into several social substrata, from the experienced “profesh” to the novice “road-kids.” In this essay, he views America’s tramps through the same sociological lens he employed in his book on poverty in the city of London, The People of the Abyss, expressing both admiration and pity for his subjects. The 1900 article “Jack London in Boston” is a rather uneventful account of his tramping through that city. He seems more concerned with demonstrating his own erudition than with elucidating the reality of tramp life. “Rods and Gunnels” is a largely unintelligible explanation of the difference between the two parts of a train car and the ways in which they are ridden by hobos. London rather smugly corrects the misunderstanding between the two means of conveyance, in essence trumpeting himself as an expert “profesh” who has dared ride the rods and lived to tell about it.

The rest of the hobo writings included here can be found elsewhere. “Frisco Kids’s Story” and “And ‘Frisco Kid Came Back” are two of London’s “uncollected stories” which can be found in many Complete Works collections. “How I Became a Socialist” and “The Tramp” are included in his collection of essays The War of the Classes. Another essay, “What Life Means to Me” appears in the collection Revolution. One poem is included, entitled “The Worker and the Tramp.” There are also four short stories: “Local Color”, from Moon-Face; “The Apostate,” from When God Laughs; “The Hobo and the Fairy,” from The Turtles of Tasman; and “The Princess,” from The Red One. Etulain also contributes an introduction that provides an overview of London’s tramp literature. Etulain is a prominent historian of the American West, but not particularly known as a Jack London scholar. He doesn’t even seem to be a fan of London, and expresses a dislike for almost every piece he’s included in this collection, even “The Apostate,” which I consider to be one of London’s best short stories.

Much of this book falls under the category of ground already covered, and there’s nothing here that really competes with London’s book The Road. For those scholars or fans hoping to learn a bit more about the story behind that book, however, the rarities included here are worth reading.

Pieces in this collection:
Introduction by Richard W. Etulain
The Tramp Diary
’Frisco Kid’s Story
And ’Frisco Kid Came Back
The Road
Jack London in Boston
The Worker and the Tramp (poem)
Rods and Gunnels
How I Became a Socialist
Local Color
The Tramp
What Life Means to Me
The Apostate
The Hobo and the Fairy
The Princess

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