Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Marvel Westerns by Stan Lee, et al.

Old stuff: great! New stuff: meh.
Marvel Comics has a long history of producing comics in the western genre, going back as far as the 1940s, before the company was even called Marvel. Some of their most popular gunfighters, like the Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid, and Kid Colt, even hung on well after the superhero explosion of the 1960s, but it’s been a long time since Marvel put any effort into its western universe. In 2006, they attempted to at least harken back to their cowboy glory days by publishing a four-issue series called Marvel Westerns, which combined classic 1960s stories by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby with 21st-century interpretations of Marvel’s classic western heroes. This hardcover volume contains the four issues of that series, along with some supplemental material.

In addition to the three aforementioned Kids, the contemporary writers and artists involved with this book have dug up a lot of lesser-known characters from the past, including the doctor turned vigilante Black Rider, the avenging Indian Red Wolf, and the superhumanly fast gunfighter Hurricane. Some of the stories include supernatural monsters or cameo appearances from Marvel Universe superheroes, which is perfectly fine. There’s a long tradition in pulp fiction of the “weird western” genre, which incorporates sci-fi and horror elements. Yet despite such creative twists, these new stories feel uninspired. Probably the most famous writer involved here is Joe R. Lansdale, but his story is illustrated in such a murky and expressionistic style that’s it’s difficult to even tell who wins the final gunfight. A few of the artists do turn in very attractive work, but despite all the flashy figures and vivid computer color, these new offerings don’t hold a candle to the visual storytelling of the ‘60s stories written by Lee and drawn by Kirby, Don Heck, and Dick Ayers. Given the subject matter, the fact that these stories are a half century behind the times only adds to their appeal. They have the quality of good old-fashioned campfire yarns, and are drawn in a classic style that doesn’t require gimmicks or city slicker razzle-dazzle. These old masters even manage to build an engaging story around the questionable premise of a living totem pole. Unfortunately, the only classic character represented in these older tales is the Rawhide Kid. The rest of Marvel’s western pantheon is left to the new kids on the block.

The book closes with a collection of fictional newspaper articles, letters, interviews, and other ephemera that act as a sort of unofficial handbook of the Marvel Western Universe. Each piece summarizes a plotline from some old Marvel tale. While it’s interesting to learn about all the different characters, there’s just too much of it, and in the end it feels like you just read 50 Wikipedia entries. This section does succeed in illustrating the wide breadth of Marvel’s rich western heritage. It’s obvious there’s a great deal of potential in all these characters and storylines; potential that’s not realized in this volume. It’s too bad Marvel can’t maintain a western series to utilize all this material. If today’s artists and writers can’t come up with a decent western comic, Marvel should at least reprint more of the old stuff. They have published two volumes of the Rawhide Kid in their Masterworks series, but those are now out of print. They should really round up an assortment of their classic western characters and compile a volume or two for the Marvel Essentials series. This collection proves that there’s still life left in these old western tales.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Samuel the Seeker by Upton Sinclair

Too much sermon, not enough novel
Samuel the Seeker, a novel by Upton Sinclair, was published in 1910. It tells the story of Samuel Prescott, an idealistic young man who has lived a sheltered existence on his parents’ farm somewhere in the midst of an idyllic mountain wilderness. When his father dies, he sells his share of the land to his brothers and heads for New York City. Along the way, however, he is robbed and ends up penniless on the streets of Lockmanville. This babe in the woods, lost in the big city, gets an eye-opening education into the ways of the world. He learns that society is divided between the rich and the poor. The rich often acquire their wealth through corruption and thievery while the poor starve. He is given an introduction into the doctrine of Herbert Spencer, a sociologist who asserted that human society is a competitive struggle for resources, and that the wealthy are the successful combatants in the survival of the fittest. While most of humanity has resigned themselves to this status quo, Samuel refuses to accept this shameful state of affairs and seeks to reform the system.

Samuel is so innocent and naive, he makes Forrest Gump look jaded. Sometimes Sinclair plays Samuel’s ignorance and gullibility for laughs, but most of the time the tone of the book is one of righteous indignation. Sinclair was a critic of organized religion, but he revered Jesus Christ as the ultimate Socialist. Samuel can’t stand the thought of anyone choosing to make money instead of living their life by the example of Christ. After rooting out the guilty perpetrators responsible for Lockmanville’s societal ills, he asks the counsel of a clergyman, who rebuffs him for his unrealistic attitude towards good and evil. The reader can’t help but feel the same way. Spencer, Marx, and Christ could spend all day arguing about how to make the world a better place, but I’m pretty sure they would all agree that whining and pleading is not the way to go about it. Unfortunately, that’s what Samuel does for what seems like three-quarters of the book. He bounces around from offender to offender, beseeching them to turn themselves in. Towards the end he starts to find a more productive means of activism, but it’s too little too late, for he and his story have already grown tiresome.

Upton Sinclair writes preachy novels, and that’s a big part of his appeal. Every one of his books is an attempt to change the world, which is what usually makes his work so refreshing and inspiring. His great novel The Jungle was criticized for having a Socialist sermon for its conclusion, but Samuel the Seeker is almost all sermon. Sinclair takes preachiness so far over the top it becomes off-putting. Even for his most avid fans, it’s hard to clearly ascertain the practical purpose of this book. It seems Sinclair’s intention is to point out the ridiculousness of a world where money matters more than people’s lives by viewing society through the eyes of an unsullied man-child. The problem is that Samuel is so clueless it’s difficult for all but those utterly free of cynicism to root for him. When one character tells Samuel, “You take everything with such frightful seriousness,” the vast majority of readers will nod their heads in agreement and utter a sigh of “Amen!” This novel will appeal only to the most religious of card-carrying Socialists—a very small audience indeed. Everyone else would do better to skip this book. If you admire Sinclair for his social conscience and want to learn more about his Socialist ethics, you’d be better off rereading The Jungle, or give his excellent novel 100%: The Story of a Patriot a try.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

WaterMarks: Watercolour Diaries from Swamps to Icebergs by Tony Foster

Art as geographical record
Tony Foster is a watercolor painter who lives and works in Cornwall, England, but his subject matter requires him to travel the world. Foster paints wilderness landscapes, often trekking to remote locales where he works en plein air. WaterMarks is a catalog of a 2003 exhibition of paintings by Foster which was curated by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in England and traveled to museums and galleries across America. The common theme uniting these paintings is water, and to depict his subject in its many forms Foster voyaged to the icebergs of Greenland, the rivers of Honduras and Colorado, the prismatic pools of Yellowstone, the swamps of Georgia, the waterfalls of Guyana, and more. He even drew sketches underwater in the reefs off the Maldives.

Like Thomas Moran, whom the artist mentions in his preface, Foster goes for grand panoramic vistas—the “money shots” of the natural world. Unlike Moran, however, Foster works in watercolors, a more limited medium that doesn’t inspire the power and grandeur of oils. I would not count Foster among the greatest landscape painters of our time. His work has a bit of a too-careful paint-by-numbers quality about it that could benefit from some of the looseness and serendipity one finds in the landscape watercolors of Andrew Wyeth, for example. Foster’s painting could perhaps be mistaken for scientific illustration were it not for his expert use of color. What sets Foster’s paintings apart from his contemporaries is not his technical skill but his methodology. During his extended trips camping, hiking, and canoeing in sometimes harsh and unforgiving conditions, he somehow manages to paint these pictures entirely outdoors on site. Watercolor is not known for its tolerance of the elements, and some of these paintings are as big as five feet wide! In his finished works of art, Foster combines his painting with artifacts—bits of stone, wood, or bone found on site; clippings from maps; indigenous crafts; small sketches from archaeological digs; or vials containing water from the very bodies he’s painted—along with notes detailing his journeys and what he experienced on site. The work that results is superior to the sum of its parts. Foster’s art is an attempt to answer the questions debated by all landscape artists these days: What can a painting express about the natural world that can’t be said by photography? What dimensions of experience of place are added by the human eye, mind, and hand? Should these wild places someday be ruined by the insatiable needs of civilization, mankind will be thankful that Foster has so assiduously documented their beauty and magnificence.

Any landscape artist who works en plein air, particularly those who keep a sketch journal, can benefit from taking a look at Foster’s methods and will enjoy living vicariously through his adventures. For the art lover, this is a beautifully designed little book full of beautiful images of nature. At only 42 pages, it’s biggest fault is it will leave you wanting more. If you’re familiar with Foster and like his work, you’ll certainly be pleased with this attractive showcase of his art.

To learn more about Foster see his website:

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper

Natty don’t do civilization
This novel is part of James Fenimore Coopers’s Leatherstocking Tales, a series consisting of five novels united by the character of Nathaniel Bumppo, an American hunter and woodsman of the late 18th century. The Pioneers, which takes place in 1793, is the fourth installment of the series chronologically, following The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Pathfinder. However, it was the first of the series to be published, in 1823.

The story takes place in the village of Templeton, on the shores of Lake Otsego in western New York. Judge Marmaduke Temple owns most of the land in the area, and presides over all like a benevolent feudal lord. Natty Bumppo—referred to here mostly as the Leatherstocking—is now a septuagenarian. He lives in a hut on the edge of town, where he gazes regretfully on the changes that civilization has wrought upon his beloved wilderness. The book features an ensemble cast of characters that represents a cross section of American pioneers, including immigrants of different nations and workers of every class. Native Americans are largely absent from this book, with the exception of Chingachgook, the Leatherstocking’s lifelong friend.

Like many of Cooper’s novels, The Pioneers has an alternate title, The Sources of the Susquehenna. It also has a subtitle, A Descriptive Tale, which is quite apt. For much of the book, Cooper is more concerned with describing colonial society than he is in telling a story. Unlike the first three Leatherstocking Tales, which are action/adventure novels revolving around Indian combat, The Pioneers is mostly a tale of the social issues of frontier life. In the book’s early chapters, Cooper spends a lot of time describing the architecture, holiday customs, leisure activities, and religious services of the early settlers. This makes the first half of the book quite slow, but a dull historical study is preferable to a dull adventure novel like The Deerslayer. The book picks up considerably in its second half, by which time the reader is quite swept up in the lives of the assorted citizens of Templeton. A young hunter named Oliver Edwards arrives in town, inspiring much speculation into his mysterious past. After much foreshadowing by Cooper, the revelations at the end of the book will surprise only the most comatose of readers, but the circuitous route getting there is a pleasure to follow.

There is a great deal of environmental ethics expressed in The Pioneers, which is quite surprising considering this book came out before any of Emerson or Thoreau’s works. Natty and Judge Temple have differing visions of nature, which inspires conflict between the two. The latter sees the wilderness as a place to be developed for human use. Natty, who has lived on Lake Otsego for forty years, views the declining number of deer, fish, and trees with wariness and sorrow. When Temple tries to introduce law into this virgin land, Natty chafes under the yolk of authority. Cooper’s environmentalism is similar to his attitude toward the Indians. He often laments the progress of American civilization and its deleterious effects, but ultimately he sees such progress as necessary and inevitable. Nevertheless, he pleads that the civilizing of the frontier be undertaken in a thoughtful manner and not carried out with wastefulness and needless destruction.

Like all of Cooper’s novels, one has to make allowances for the slower pace and plodding plotting of the literature of two centuries ago, but despite its faults, this is a great book. The Pioneers is not nearly as famous as its prequel The Last of the Mohicans, but its arguable which of these classic novels is the best of the Leatherstocking Tales. If you are at all interested in the lives of early American settlers, The Pioneers is a must-read.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Jean Gourdon’s Four Days by Emile Zola

Falters in the fourth, but still good overall
Emile Zola
Jean Gourdon’s Four Days is a novella by Emile Zola. It was originally published in 1874, and was included in the collection of short fiction entitled Nouveaux Contes à Ninon. About 80 pages in length, the story is divided into four chapters. Each is a day in the life of the title character, a common farmer who resides along the Durance River in Provence. Each day takes place in a different season, beginning with Spring, and each represents the four seasons of a man’s life, from boyhood to old age. Although the days are spaced decades apart, these brief glimpses are enough to give the reader an understanding of the arc of this man’s life in its entirety.

Although perhaps a little more Romantic than his renowned Rougon-Macquart series of novels, Les Quatre Journées de Jean Gourdon, as it’s titled in French, is nonetheless a brilliant example of Zola’s mature Naturalistic style. He depicts the natural landscape of Gourdon’s homeland and the intricate details of his everyday life with vivid clarity, which allows the reader to intimately inhabit this character’s world. Yet despite the lucid imagery, there is an ambiguous universality to this man’s life that can be applied to the life of any human being. The quadripartite structure of the story allows Zola to write about four of his favorite subjects: love, war, agriculture, and death. Though this is a depiction of ordinary life, ordinary lives are often punctuated by extraordinary events, and Gourdon’s is no exception. Zola draws parallels between the arc of an individual’s life and the eternal life cycle of nature, granting a dignity and gravity to the existence of the common man. The result is incredibly life-affirming and poignant. At least, this is true of the first three chapters.

On the fourth day, some stumbling blocks arise. The problem with the book’s final section is that it’s almost identical to another novella Zola published in 1880, which I had previously read. Finding the same narrative here again in only slightly altered form was somewhat disappointing. I’m not going to give the name of this other work of short fiction because the title of the piece would reveal a plot spoiler. The occurrence that takes place in both works is handled much better in the exceptional work of 1880. In the life of Jean Gourdon, it just feels out of place, an unfortunate departure from the tone of the overall story. Even if I had not read that other work, and had not been aware of the redundancy, I still think the effect of the final chapter would have been jarring. This incongruity prevents Jean Gourdon’s Four Days from rising to the level of masterpiece, but nevertheless, this is still a great piece of literature. It’s not one of Zola’s absolute best, but certainly a successful effort, and one that any true fan of Zola should read.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A People’s History of the United States: 1492–Present by Howard Zinn

A chronicle of tyranny and dissent
Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was originally published in 1980. Subsequent editions have been released since then, with revisions and additions. I am reviewing the ebook edition of 2009, based on the 2003 print edition, which contains an extensive chapter on the Clinton administration and a brief discussion of the events of 9/11 and their aftermath.

Zinn’s objective in writing A People’s History is to tell the story of our nation from the perspective of the common people. His work stands in direct opposition to the traditional textbooks on American history that most of us studied in school, in which the history of America is determined by a succession of famous leaders and patriotic heroes. Zinn has little patience for such romantic constructs, and he lays waste to myths of American righteousness wherever they crop up. While the prevalent narrative of American history tells us that this country was founded on the principles of equality and liberty, Zinn argues that the American government was tailored to protect the interests of wealthy white businessmen. Furthermore, it continues to serve that function to this day, at the expense of the vast majority of the nation’s citizens. In Zinn’s view, no American President ever performed a noble act without an ulterior motive. Lincoln freed the slaves to prevent black rebellion. FDR gave us the New Deal to curb the rise of Socialism. Since 1492, any true progress toward life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has been made by oppressed groups fighting for their rights. Zinn at long last gives voice to the Native Americans, Blacks, women, workers, pacifists, and other dissenters who struggled against the system, either to win a small but vital triumph or to be crushed beneath the iron heel.

While the message of this book is extremely valuable, the way it’s expressed is not always entirely satisfactory. Zinn’s research is astounding, but his writing often leaves much to be desired. Most chapters focus on a common theme (slavery, the massacre of Native Americans, the fight for women’s rights) or time period (various wars, the 1960s, the Reagan Era). Under each such category the book often reads like merely a laundry list of incidents fired off in rapid succession. While the sheer multitude of data implies a trend in a certain direction, Zinn rarely steps back and elaborates on the ramifications of these myriad events, allowing the reader to see the forest for the trees. When he does, as in Chapter 23, which in a prior edition was likely the book’s conclusion, he is quite eloquent and incredibly inspiring. Though the view of history it provides is startlingly alternative, this people’s history too often suffers from the same fault as so many traditional textbooks: too many dates and figures and not enough humanity.

If you’re not liberally inclined, you’re probably not going to like this book. If you are, then you’re likely to love it. Either way, there is much to learn, whether you enjoy it or not. Even those who consider themselves quite history-savvy will find reading A People’s History an eye-opening experience. It brings to light so many important episodes that were never even mentioned in your high school history class. The picture it paints of America may not be a pretty one, but it is an important one. This book should be taught in America’s schools right alongside the traditional textbooks with their sanitized vision of an America that can do no wrong. Likely the truth falls somewhere between the two, but if I had to choose sides, my money’s on Zinn. He’s the ultimate devil’s advocate of American history, and every citizen owes it to himself and his country to give a listen to his remarkable perspective.

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Friday, July 4, 2014

Police Operation by H. Beam Piper

Patrolling Paratime
Police Operation was originally published in the July 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The story opens on a farm somewhere in America. A farmer, a state trooper, and a game warden examine the mutilated carcasses of a cow and a dog, debating the question of what or who is killing livestock in the region. Could it be a bobcat, a lynx, or a psycho with a machete? Given that this novella was written by sci-fi visionary H. Beam Piper, you can bet that the real answer is going to be a lot weirder than all of the above.

H. G. Wells may have invented time traveler fiction, but Piper built his whole career around it, perfected the subgenre, and made it his own. Police Operation is the foundational installment in a sequence of stories Piper wrote through the mid-’60s known as the Paratime series. There’s actually an earlier story, He Walked Around the Horses, that touches on the Paratime universe, but the connection is tangential at best, and it’s here in Police Operation that Piper really lays the groundwork for the Paratime concept. As one would expect from Piper, this ain’t your typical time travel. Rather than going back to the past or forward to the future, paratime travelers explore the multiple alternate timelines that form from myriad deviations in historical events. The timeline in which we live, presumably the same as the story’s opening scene, is only one of a possibly infinite variety of timelines that simultaneously exist in parallel universes.

The rather mundane title of the story is actually quite fitting in an ironic way. The police in question are the Paratime Police, an organization that patrols the various timelines, keeping the temporal peace, if you will. One of the fun things about the story is that Piper has written it much in the style and tone of a traditional cop story. The Paratime Police practice their profession and talk shop just like normal cops, except their daily work involves the intricate complexities of theoretical physics and a lot of futuristic gadgets. When the timecops are sitting around the station jawing with one another, it could be an episode of Dragnet or Barney Miller but for the references to “mavrads” and “hypno-mech indoctrination.”

Like any good cop story, this is more than just a police procedural; it’s an action-adventure story as well. As if the fascinating universe Piper has created isn’t enough, there’s also more than enough suspense to keep you interested. For today’s readers, Police Operation offers plenty of pulp fiction nostalgia, yet it’s still remarkably fresh and thought-provoking as if it could have been written just yesterday. If you’ve never read Piper before, this would be a good place to start. I for one am hooked, and look forward to further adventures in the Paratime series.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Uncle Bernac: A Memory of the Empire by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

An encounter with Napoleon, and not much else
Uncle Bernac, a historical novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was originally published in 1897. The story takes place in 1805, at which time the narrator, a Frenchman named Louis de Laval, is living in England. During the French Revolution de Laval’s father had fought on the side of the Royalists while his mother’s brother, Uncle Bernac, had sided with the Republican cause. When the King was ousted and the Revolutionaries triumphed, the de Laval family fled to England, taking up residence in a village in Kent, while Uncle Bernac took possession of the family estate of Grosbois, near Boulogne. Thirteen years later, Napoleon has assumed control of the French government and named himself Emperor. After the death of his father, de Laval receives a letter from Bernac. The uncle, who now works for Napoleon, invites his nephew to come back to his native soil, promises to let bygones be bygones, and assures him a position in the Emperor’s service. Though the young man is suspicious of his uncle’s intentions, he can’t resist an opportunity to return to his homeland.

Though the novel is called Uncle Bernac, the title character is little seen and doesn’t figure very largely into the book’s plot. He functions merely as a device to get de Laval into the presence of Napoleon. In fact, the book’s main purpose is to provide an opportunity for Conan Doyle to give a character study of the great French Emperor. The author obviously harbors a healthy hero worship for his nation’s former nemesis. The Napoleon that Conan Doyle depicts in this novel is pretty much the stereotypical image that one would expect—part monomaniacal genius and part petulant child. Conan Doyle also provides accompanying sketches of the Empress Josephine, various members of the Imperial Court, and several heroes of the French military. He describes them all with loving enthusiasm, detailing their individual quirks of mannerism and the decorative details of their uniforms as if he were a child showing off the action figures in his toy box. While all these characters engage in protracted conversation, the reader is left to wonder what’s the point. When, if ever, will the book return to the story of de Laval? The young man ostensibly came to Napoleon to receive a commission, yet orders are not forthcoming, and the initial enchantment with the Emperor and his court soon fades into tedium.

There are a couple of good scenes at the end that redeem the story from total mediocrity, but it sure takes a long time to get there. Ultimately, Uncle Bernac would be a better novel if it spent less time on the meeting with Napoleon and more time on the adventure story that bookends it. Conan Doyle wrote a much better novel on the Napoleonic Era, The Great Shadow, which covers the military might and historical impact of the French Emperor from the perspective of a British narrator. There Napoleon barely gets a cameo, but his almost mythic presence is felt far more keenly in that novel than it is in this one. The Great Shadow proves that a little Napoleon goes a long way, while Uncle Bernac demonstrates that a lot of Napoleon leaves little room for anything else. Conan Doyle undoubtedly has a knack for making an interesting story out of even the thinnest of plots, but Uncle Bernac is average at best. Only the most avid fans of the author should spend their time on this one.

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