Friday, August 29, 2014

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose

Amazing journey, stunning aftermath
Undaunted Courage, originally published in 1997, is a biography of the explorer Meriwether Lewis by historian Stephen E. Ambrose. As the subtitle indicates, it emphasizes his relationship—both personal and political—with President Thomas Jefferson. Not surprisingly, about three-quarters of the book is devoted to the famed western expedition of 1804 to 1806 led by Lewis and William Clark. I had previously read the three-volume Dover edition of the Lewis and Clark journals, edited by Elliott Coues in 1893. I usually prefer to get history straight from the horses’ mouths, but the journals often get bogged down in the monotony of daily hunts for food or the constant packing and unpacking of boats. Ambrose, on the other hand, does a brilliant job of judiciously selecting the expedition’s most important moments, providing valuable context, approaching events from multiple viewpoints, and augmenting the familiar scenes with little-known details. Every step of the way he analyzes the captains’ decision-making process, making the reader feel like a member of the Corps of Discovery sitting in on campfire conferences.

Few adventures excite the American imagination more than the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the author himself is not immune to the admiration and envy inspired by these adventurers who lived by their wits in the wild, charted unknown territory, and discovered new lands, creatures, and peoples. As if that weren’t enough, here we also have the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Ambrose approaches both Lewis and Jefferson with unapologetic hero worship, often gushing over his subjects with showers of hyperbolic praise. He doesn’t let them off the hook, however, when they make an error in judgment or consciously act in an unethical manner to further their own ends. Ambrose is by no means a revisionist, but he does tell his story with the requisite amount of political correctness. Lewis, Clark, and Jefferson all owned slaves, and Ambrose has a tough time reconciling their participation in such a deplorable institution with their rather egalitarian views toward Native Americans. Although the expedition was the first nail in the coffin for many of the native tribes west of the Mississippi, Lewis and his party treated the Indians for the most part with fairness and respect. Sacagawea is given due credit for her contributions to the expedition, based on the limited record available, but Ambrose doesn’t idolize her.

Although his account of the expedition is excellent, the information Ambrose supplies on what happened before and after the journey is perhaps even more valuable. He provides insight into Lewis and Jefferson’s lives as Virginia gentlemen farmers and how this culture shaped their ideas and influenced their decisions. He examines Jefferson’s conception of the expedition, Lewis’s selection as leader, and the latter’s preparations for the journey in great detail. After the Corps returns from the West, the story becomes even more enthralling. Suddenly Lewis is not such a hero anymore, as he engages in shady opportunistic deals and exhibits unstable and erratic behavior indicative of mental illness. The ultimate fate of Lewis is as shocking and spellbinding as the climax of any Shakespearean tragedy.

The best account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition—even Ambrose admits—is the 13-volume set of The Journals edited by Gary E. Moulton. But let’s face it, that’s a lot to swallow for the general reader. If all you want is a one-volume summary that brings the voyage to vibrant life, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Ambrose has done here.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper

Hardly a grand finale
The Prairie is the fifth and final episode in the life of James Fenimore Cooper’s inimitable character Natty Bumppo, also known by the names of Hawkeye, Deerslayer, Pathfinder, Leatherstocking, and here referred to simply as the trapper. Although this is the conclusion of the Leatherstocking Tales, it was actually the third book to be published, in 1827, following The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans. The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder were prequels published over a decade later. The Prairie is set in 1805, at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Natty has beaten them to the punch, however, having already walked to the Pacific Ocean and back. Now in his 80s, he can no longer hunt like he used to, but still makes a living off the land through fur trapping. The story takes place on the Great Plains about five hundred miles west of the Mississippi. The Platte River is mentioned, so one might assume the events occur in what is now Nebraska.

A small wagon train of settlers makes their way across the prairie, primarily composed of the extensive family of Ishmael Bush, a Kentucky man escaping the confines of civilization for the lawless freedom of the West. The ocean of grass they encounter is more desolate than the party bargained for. When they happen upon the trapper, he offers welcome aid in finding them a suitable campsite equipped with water and wood. The party has little time to enjoy their repose, however, as they are soon attacked by a party of hostile Sioux Indians, also referred to as Tetons, who steal their cattle and horses and leave them stranded on the plains.

Although with the exception of the trapper and his dog, none of the characters here have appeared in previous volumes of the series, they all feel a bit familiar to frequent readers of Cooper. There’s the cantankerous patriarch with the weakness of hubris (Bush); the spunky and intelligent yet demure young woman (Ellen Wade, Bush’s niece); the boisterous, affable, and strapping outdoorsman (Ellen’s boyfriend Paul Hover, a beekeeper); and the pompous intellectual blowhard who provides comic relief (Dr. Obed Bat, a naturalist and makeshift physician). In typical Cooper fashion, introducing all the characters can be a long and somewhat arduous process, but once the scene is populated he then interposes little mysteries to pique the reader’s interest. What is Bush concealing in his tent? Why exactly did he flee Kentucky? Who is this young soldier who suddenly makes an appearance on the plains? Revealing the answers to these questions requires more flashbacks than a Tarantino movie, and Cooper’s thesaurus-wringing prose doesn’t offer much aid in alleviating confusion. With Cooper’s writing, as Natty would say, “it is as hard to find sense in his speeches, as to discover three eagles on the same tree.” If you’ve made it to this fifth book, however, chances are you’ve already grown tolerant of Cooper’s antiquated prose and fitful plotting and have come to realize that there’s a certain delectable charm to it.

The Prairie is not a bad book, but there’s nothing particularly good about it either. It feels as if Cooper is just going through the motions, covering ground he’s already trod. This novel is nowhere in the same league as The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans, and only manages to rise to the less-than-stellar heights of The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer. Compared to the other books in the series, this one seems overly bogged down in pointless talkiness, with less action and less of Bumppo’s sagacious frontier-samurai philosophy. Still, the Leatherstocking Tales are the first monumental achievement in American literature, and I would wholeheartedly recommend the series to any lover of classic literature, even though the finale may prove less than grand.

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Monday, August 25, 2014

The Novels of Jack London

A career overview
Anyone who follows this blog knows I’m a big fan of Jack London. He is by far the most reviewed author here at Old Books by Dead Guys. Last Christmas I did a post listing my picks for his Best Short Stories. Today I’m going to focus on London the novelist.

Despite the fact that London was a prolific novelist, having written 22 novels over the course of a decade and a half, he is primarily known these days as a master of the short story. His novels have largely faded into obscurity, with three notable exceptions. Walk into any bookstore in America and you’ll find copies of The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea-Wolf. Of these three household names, only The Call of the Wild is truly worthy of its lasting notoriety. It’s a masterpiece that deserves to be on any top ten list of American novels. White Fang, on the other hand, is a flawed book that has ridden the coattails of its far superior predecessor. Likewise, The Sea-Wolf is a good book, but not a great one. Both novels start out as potential masterpieces, but end as disappointments.

Two excellent books far more deserving of a space on the shelf beside The Call of the Wild are The Iron Heel and Martin Eden. The former is a brilliant sci-fi masterpiece that should be read by all the high school students who are currently reading 1984 or Brave New World. Unfortunately that’s unlikely to happen, at least in London’s homeland, because the book is also a piece of Socialist propaganda. The semi-autobiographical Martin Eden is London’s most literary of novels, a deep and moving work with the power to inspire and change lives. It is the one work that most transcends the category of adventure fiction to which London is so often unfairly confined.

London began his career writing adventure fiction, and even after earning serious respect as an author, he continued to write adventure fiction until the day he died. Critics often regarded the genre as if it were a literary ghetto, and London merely its most uppity inhabitant. London, rather than departing the ghetto once he had struck it rich, chose to stay and renovate it. Although he referred to some of his more shallowly entertaining stories as “hack work,” for London there really was no boundary between high and low culture. He wrote for a popular audience, yet he expected a lot from that audience intellectually. His deeper, more philosophical works are often dressed with the trappings of the adventure genre, while his fun crowd-pleasers were frequently vehicles for a political, philosophical, or scientific message. For example, The Call of the Wild and Before Adam both deal with the topic of Darwin’s theory of evolution, but while the former is a novel of great philosophical depth, the latter is simply a really entertaining piece of pulp fiction. Both books are superb in their own way. This dichotomy is one of the qualities that makes London’s literature a joy to read; it can be appreciated on so many different levels. 

Glancing through the brief overview below will give you an inkling of the wide breadth of London’s thought as expressed through his 22 novels. Click on the titles below to read the complete reviews.

A Daughter of the Snows (1902)
After an education in Europe and the U.S., a Yukon-born maiden returns to her old stomping grounds and proves she can handle the rugged wilderness and fatally cold temperatures just as well as the most grizzled of prospectors. London’s first novel might pass for a Jane Austen novel set in the frozen North, if it weren’t for all the uncomfortable conversations about race. (2.5 stars)

The Cruise of the Dazzler (1902)
This novel aimed at adolescent boys tells the tale of young Joe Bronson who, after getting in trouble with his parents for poor performance in school, runs off and joins the crew of a ’Frisco Bay sloop. It’s based on some of London’s own boyhood experiences. Today grown-up readers will enjoy it even more than their kids. (4 stars)

The Kempton-Wace Letters (1903) co-authored with Anna Strunsky
This is an epistolary novel, written in the form of a series of letters between two men debating the nature of love. Wace is a practical man who thinks one should choose a mate based on compatibility and her motherhood potential. Kempton is a romantic who feels love should be an all-consuming passion. Boring, pretentious, and at times unintelligible. (1 star)

The Call of the Wild (1903)
Buck, a domesticated dog, is stolen from his master and forced to work as a sled dog in the Klondike. Thrust amid this harsh environment populated by brutal humans and savage dogs, Buck must listen to his prehistoric instincts and rediscover his own wild nature. London takes Darwin’s theory of evolution and crafts a stirring adventure tale that’s both exciting and philosophically deep. A masterpiece of American literature. (5 stars)

The Sea-Wolf (1904)
A mild-mannered literary critic is “rescued” from drowning by the brutal captain of a sealing schooner, who forces him to work as a member of his crew. In accordance with the sadistic captain’s wishes, the code of conduct on board is strictly “survival of the fittest,” and the captive gentleman must fight for his life. This book brings to light some intriguing philosophical ideas, but ultimately doesn’t do enough with them. (3 stars)

The Game (1905)
A prizefighter promises his fiancée that he’ll only fight one last bout before their wedding. The girl, simultaneously disgusted and aroused by her boyfriend’s chosen profession, sneaks into the arena to watch him at work. Thus in London’s able hands, the boxing ring becomes a laboratory for Darwinian sexual selection. A skillfully crafted and entertaining read. (4 stars)

White Fang (1906)
In a reversal of The Call of the Wild, a wolf-dog is born amid the harsh wilderness of the North. When he encounters mankind, a long and painful process of domestication begins. The beginning of the novel is excellent, with beautiful descriptions of nature, but as the dog gets tamed it’s the novel that suffers. The final chapter is an absolutely terrible piece of writing. (3 stars)

Before Adam (1907)
A 20th-century man experiences the ancestral memories of a distant progenitor. In his dreams he lives the life of a prehistoric hominid, a missing link between ape and man. London depicts the lives of this primate and his companions with surprising drama and excitement. This mixture of evolutionary science and sci-fi imagination is no literary masterpiece, but it sure is a fun piece of pulp fiction. (5 stars)

The Iron Heel (1908)
London’s best novel, a dystopian vision of the future, depicts the breakout of a civil war between the oligarchy of wealthy capitalists who rule the world and the revolutionary socialists who oppose them. The main narrative is accompanied by commentary from a historian living 700 years in the future. Part science fiction, part political propaganda, part wartime adventure—this book is a true masterpiece that deserves to be widely read. (5 stars)

Martin Eden (1909)
For the love of a woman, a working-class sailor resolves to educate himself, transcend his humble beginnings, and make his mark in the world as a man of letters. But if he achieves his goal, will this self-made man be happy with the man he’s made? One of London’s best novels, it deserves a distinguished place in America’s literary canon. (5 stars)

Burning Daylight (1910)
An ex-gold miner from the Yukon decides to try his hand at big business in California, applying the same shrewdness, strength, and tenacity that kept him alive on the sled-dog trail to the world of high finance. Along the way his life becomes complicated by love. A little too light-hearted and rosy to be realistic, but not a bad adventure story centered around a likeable character. (4 stars)

Adventure (1911)
An Englishman manages a coconut plantation on the island of Guadalcanal. He rules over his native laborers with an iron hand. They, in turn, are constantly trying to kill him. Then into his life floats a spunky American woman who irritates him with her independence and proto-feminism. Could there be a less appropriate setting for a romantic comedy? (3 stars)

The Scarlet Plague (1912)
A sci-fi novel set in a post-apocalyptic future where a devastating epidemic kills off the vast majority of the world’s population. The survivors are left to create a new civilization. There’s some great potential here, but its way too brief. None of the ideas are fully developed, so it ends up feeling half-baked. (3 stars)

The Abysmal Brute (1913)
A proverbial babe-in-the-woods is plucked from the wilderness to embark on a big-city boxing career. Though he possesses an almost supernatural talent for pugilism, his poetic soul holds little interest for the sport. London’s enthusiasm for and encyclopedic knowledge of boxing is quite evident in this fun, entertaining, and well-crafted tale of the ring. (4 stars)

The Valley of the Moon (1913)
A boxer and a laundress turn their backs on their urban life of poverty and violence to tramp the California countryside in search of their own little slice of bucolic paradise. The story is not quite the working-class epic London intended, but it does have some valuable things to say about Americans’ views on race and class in the early 20th-century. (3.5 stars)

The Mutiny of the Elsinore (1914)
An author seeking adventure boards a steel sailing ship on a voyage around Cape Horn. The motley crew and the violent life on board fall far short of his expectations of romance on the high seas. This may be London’s most racist work of fiction, with plenty of praise for the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. It’s also far too long and mostly boring. (1.5 stars)

The Star Rover (a.k.a. The Jacket) (1915)
A straitjacketed inmate in San Quentin develops the skill of astral projection, transporting himself through time and space to experience past lives. This gives London the opportunity to try his hand at historical fiction in a variety of unusual settings. An ambitious and innovative work, at times quite inspirational and at others just plain bizarre. (4 stars)

The Little Lady of the Big House (1916)
A love triangle develops when a wealthy California landowner and his wife are visited by an old friend. London spends most of the book crafting his three leads into his idea of perfection, and the story itself is mostly an afterthought. Casual readers will have little use for this strange book, but avid fans of London may be interested in what it reveals about the author. (3 stars)

Jerry of the Islands (1917)
An adventure story set in the plantations of the Solomon Islands, which just happens to be told through the eyes of an Irish terrier. Jerry is the mascot on a “blackbirding” vessel which recruits indentured laborers from among the native islanders. Manages to be not only politically incorrect, but also a bit silly and rather dull. (2.5 stars)

Michael, Brother of Jerry (1917)
Another Irish terrier, born in the South Seas, is stolen from his master and forced to participate in a trained animal act, thus giving London the opportunity to pen an exposé on the issue of animal cruelty. Michael’s book is much better than his brother Jerry’s, though by no means one of London’s best. (3.5 stars)

Hearts of Three (1918)
This abysmal offering is London’s novelization of someone else’s idea for a film serial. Two cousins, a rich New York playboy and a laid-back beach comber, team up for an Indian Jones-style treasure hunt in the jungles of Panama. A terrible, meandering story with lots of racist content. Easily London’s worst book. (1 star)

The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. (1963) completed posthumously by Robert L. Fish
The title refers to a shadow organization of respected intellectuals who moonlight as contract killers, assassinating individuals they deem harmful to society. London attempts, somewhat successfully, to combine a crime thriller with ethical philosophy. The ending by Fish actually improves upon London's half-finished work. (3.5 stars) 

I’m about two or three essay collections away from finishing London’s complete works, so look for an overview of Jack London’s nonfiction in the near future.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: Polish, Greek, Belgian, Hungarian by Henryk Sienkiewicz, et al.

The underdogs of European literature
Maurice Maeterlinck
This book is part of the Stories by Foreign Authors series, a ten-volume collection of European short fiction in English translation published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1898. While previous volumes in the series were devoted to French, German, Spanish, Russian, Scandinavian, and Italian authors, this book is a mixed bag of stories from the “leftover” nations of Europe. While the countries represented here may not be as renowned for their literature as some of the aforementioned nationalities, these writers prove that they certainly deserve to be regarded alongside their A-list counterparts.

Poland’s Henryk Sienkiewicz is the first of two Nobel laureates featured in the book. His story “The Light-House Keeper of Aspinwall” takes place in a coastal locale near the Panama Canal. When the local light-house keeper dies, a fitting replacement is found in the form of an aged Pole who has adventured far and wide in the world and now longs for a place of repose. The main character is intriguing and appealing, and Sienkiewicz’s prose has rarely been more elegant. The story is very good, though it does fall prey to over-sentimentality towards the end.

Next up is Greek author Demetrios Bikélas with “The Plain Sister.” Out of gratitude for a friend, a bachelor professor considers marrying the eldest daughter of a merchant, thereby clearing the way for his friend to marry her younger sister. This is a light-hearted story that’s pretty predictable from beginning to end, but the reader will be charmed by the likeable characters and touching moments of humor.

Belgium is represented by two authors, the first of which is Nobel Prize winner Maurice Maeterlinck. Nicknamed “the Belgian Shakespeare,” Maeterlinck is known as a poet and dramatist, but here he proves to be an excellent fiction writer as well. His story “The Massacre of the Innocents” is by far the most powerful in the book. In the Flemish village of Nazareth, a cycle of violence and retaliation escalates between the Belgian villagers and their Spanish conquerors. It’s a brutally realistic and heartbreakingly tragic tale of terrorism in the age of sword, pike, and torch. In the second Belgian entry, “Saint Nicholas Eve” by Camille Lemonnier, a poor Flemish boatman and his family celebrate the titular holiday. The scene is so blissful and picturesque the reader can’t help but suspect that an unexpected tragedy will darken the mood. This has the makings of a good story, but something seems to have been lost in the translation, as scenes that should feel emotionally charged end up coming across as awkward and clumsy.

The book concludes with “In Love with the Czarina,” by Hungarian author Maurice Jokai (or Mór Jókai, in his native tongue). It is based on the true story of Jemeljan Pugasceff (a.k.a. Yemelyan Pugachev), a Cossack who falls in love with Catherine the Great. After her husband Czar Peter III dies, Pugasceff ignites a rebellion in an attempt to capture the crown of Russia and take her for his bride. This story is reminiscent of the military epics of Sienkiewicz, such as With Fire and Sword. Though it starts and ends well, in between it grows a bit tedious with the minutiae of troop movements.

Stories by Foreign Authors is a great series that brings to light quite a few authors of a century ago that are largely forgotten today. While the classic fiction of France and Russia still enjoys a large English-language audience, this volume reminds us that there are treasures of European literature to be discovered off the beaten path as well.

Stories in this collection
The Light-House Keeper of Aspinwall by Henryk Sienkiewicz 
The Plain Sister by Demetrios Bikélas 
The Massacre of the Innocents by Maurice Maeterlinck 
Saint Nicholas Eve by Camille Lemonnier 
In Love with the Czarina by Maurice Jokai 

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Sielanka: An Idyll by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Another day in paradise
This little book of about a hundred pages consists of two short stories by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature. The first story is the title selection, “Sielanka: An Idyll,” followed by a story entitled “Orso.” These two pieces were translated into English by Vatslaf A. Hlasko and Thomas H. Bullick and published together in an 1898 edition. This is not to be confused with an 1899 book entitled Sielanka: A Forest Picture, translated by Jeremiah Curtin, which contains 17 short works by Sienkiewicz. The Hlasko and Bullick edition is the one I’m reviewing, and it’s the one that’s available as a free Kindle file on Amazon.

The subtitle tells you most of what you need to know about “Sielanka.” It describes the idyllic life of a father and daughter who reside in a picturesque forest glade, surrounded by flowers, birds, and insects. All is pretty and pleasant in this little world. A young man shows up, obviously very much in love with the girl, and they spend the day together gathering herbs in the forest. The story has almost no plot, but it’s not without its charms. It starts out with some very beautiful depictions of the natural environment that are a joy to read. In the latter half of the narrative Sienkiewicz introduces more religious imagery. It eventually became too much for me when the trees, birds, and humans all began offering their vociferous prayers to God. Sienkiewicz at times is an overtly Christian author, which is great for some readers, but not my cup of tea.

The second story, “Orso,” is set in America, where Sienkiewicz lived from 1876 to 1878. It describes a paradise of a different kind: Southern California. It’s harvest time in Anaheim, and the population, mostly of Mexican and Native American origin, are celebrating with a fair. Part of the festivities includes a traveling circus. The main attraction among the performers is Orso the strong man, a teenage half-breed Hercules. His partner Jenny, whom he loves dearly, is a petite young acrobat billed as the world’s most beautiful girl. Fed up with the abuse of the ringmaster, these two long to escape from the circus and start a new life. Sienkiewicz sets the stage beautifully by describing the setting in a vividly naturalistic style, reminiscent of the writing of California author Frank Norris in such pieces as “The Santa Cruz Venetian Carnival.” More than just a pretty picture however, the story is also very engaging, and the reader becomes quite taken with this young couple and their hopes and fears.

Sienkiewicz is known for his epics, but these two stories illustrate that he could also write compelling fiction on a smaller scale. Stylistically, he straddles the line between romanticism and realism, taking what he needs from both and combining them as needed. Neither of these two stories is an earth-shattering masterpiece, but together they sure do make for a pleasurable hour of reading. “Orso” in particular is a gem that makes me want to seek out more of Sienkiewicz’s writings on America.

Stories in this collection

Sielanka: An Idyll 

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Friday, August 15, 2014

The Glass Bead Game (a.k.a. Magister Ludi) by Hermann Hesse

Deep waters run still
Hermann Hesse’s 1943 novel The Glass Bead Game, also known by the title Magister Ludi, is set in a utopian future. Following the brutal wars and cultural decay of the 20th century, mankind sanctions the formation of a brotherhood to act as stewards to the world’s intellectual heritage. This secular priesthood is headquartered in the European province of Castalia, a sort of secular Vatican. The Castalians do not create new art, science, or literature, but rather analyze, interpret, and preserve existing cultural artifacts. Their highest ceremonial act of intellectual “worship” is the Glass Bead Game. This Game utilizes a sort of gigantic alphabet in which various intellectual concepts like a passage of music, a mathematical theorem, or a philosophical postulate are signified by graphic symbols akin to Chinese characters. With this vocabulary of symbols, the players artfully construct a drawing or map which illuminates parallels and relations between interdisciplinary fields of thought. The novel relates the fictional biography of Joseph Knecht, a member of the order who rose to the high office of Magister Ludi, or Master of the Glass Bead Game. The future biographer expresses admiration for Knecht as a model Castalian, but illustrates that he was also in many ways a rebel and an iconoclast.

Shortly after publishing this book, Hesse won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This was his final book, and it definitely feels like the culmination of his career, as it combines so many themes from his earlier novels. Here we have the critique of the educational system from Beneath the Wheel, the coming of age story from Demian, the spiritual journey of Siddhartha, and the conflict between scholarly and worldly pursuits from Narcissus and Goldmund. The Journey to the East can be seen as a sort of prelude to this book, and events from that earlier novel are in fact mentioned in the first chapter of this one. The Glass Bead Game is the quintessential Hesse novel, summing up his life’s work, but that doesn’t mean it’s his best piece of writing.

Four words continually sprang to my mind as I read this novel: Get on with it. Hesse delves so deeply into the minutiae of Castalian hierarchy and policy that often the book reads exactly like what it pretends to be—an institutional history. Hesse examines Knecht’s personal life with the same fine-toothed comb. Knecht has four or five close friends over the course of his life, each of which brings out certain qualities in him, and vice versa. While these relationships are important elements of the book, Hesse belabors them to the point of tedium. The novel could have been shortened considerably by eliminating all the redundant conversations. The idea of Castalia is a brilliant concept, and Hesse does a great job establishing setting and atmosphere, but he doesn’t put the same degree of effort into the plot, and the novel suffers as a result. Though the philosophical concepts are quite thought-provoking, the story itself is a bore.

Following the conclusion of the novel, there is another hundred pages of supplemental materials, billed as the writings of Joseph Knecht. Included among these are several poems and three “lives”—short stories penned by Knecht during his student days. Each is a piece of historical fiction that describes the personal spiritual and ethical journey of its protagonist. These three stories are better than the actual novel itself and call to mind Hesse’s great novels Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. While The Glass Bead Game is a good book, it’s not quite in the same league with those two exceptional works.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells

Slapstick before science
In the village of Iping in West Sussex, England, a stranger shows up at the door of the local inn. After coming in from the cold to rest beside the fire, he refuses to remove his overcoat and gloves. While this in itself may not be so unusual, the stranger’s face is almost completely obscured by a wide-brimmed hat, dark glasses, beard, and a wrapping of bandages around his head. The curious locals, surprised by this concealment, assume the stranger has some hideous disfigurement and allow him his privacy. After a short time lodging in the inn, however, he begins to show erratic behavior and becomes more difficult to ignore. He seems to be conducting scientific experiments in his room. What could this peculiar man be up to?

The first several chapters of H. G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man, originally published in 1897, have the makings of a well-crafted mystery story, but for the fact that the title of the book gives away the big secret. There’s an invisible man on the loose, of course. When the locals finally discover this, a series of chase scenes follows in which the villagers stumble over one another in pursuit of their slippery foe while marveling at objects floating in mid-air and falling prey to blows from unseen fists. All this is rendered in the slapstick style of an old Keystone Cops film. While Wells’ earlier novels The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau worked hard to establish a theoretical basis for their incredible premises, the author makes little attempt to do the same in The Invisible Man. There’s only one chapter in the middle of the book in which the science of light and optics is discussed, but much of the phenomenon of the title character’s transparency is merely left unexplained. The last few chapters of the book take a turn for the better, as Wells switches to a darker and more suspenseful tone. If only the whole book had been written in this manner. Instead, too many chapters are wasted on frivolous humor that only seems hackneyed and obvious to today’s reader.

Wells was not the first author to write about invisibility, but his take on the subject was original enough to spawn countless imitations and film adaptations. Today’s reader, having no doubt seen more than a few of such movies, will find that reading Wells’ descriptions of floating pistols and disembodied voices just can’t compete with actually seeing such images brought to life through the visual wonder of special effects. The story would have improved immensely if Wells had delved deeper into the theoretical concepts behind visibility and invisibility. The book needs more scenes in the laboratory and fewer silly chases through the streets of Iping. In his better works, Wells has proven to be a visionary who’s capable of making the impossible seem plausible, even when the scientific basis behind his theories may seem antiquated by 21st-century standards. The Invisible Man, however, is not one of his better works. There’s just not enough science in this science fiction. For a better fictional take on the science of invisibility, see Jack London’s short story of 1903, “The Shadow and the Flash.”

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Who I Am: A Memoir by Pete Townshend

Can you see the real me? Can you?
Pete Townshend has always been one of rock’s most intelligent and articulate songwriters, so when he published his memoir Who I Am in 2012, fans of The Who may have expected an epic masterpiece. The result, however, is adequate at best. Those looking for insight into the personal dynamics and conflicts within The Who will unfortunately be disappointed. From reading this book, you would think that The Who was a power trio consisting of Townshend and two guys named Kit and Chris (Lambert and Stamp, respectively, the band’s managers). Almost every paragraph of the book is peppered with these two names, while Townshend’s bandmates are rarely mentioned. The only time Keith Moon and John Entwistle receive more than cursory treatment is in discussion of their deaths. Roger Daltrey is a shadowy figure lurking around the periphery, possibly because he’s still alive and therefore potentially litigious.

Over the years Townshend has kept personal journals, which you would think would aid in the narrative, but instead this practice has resulted in a morass of tangential detail. He remembers every gig he ever played, what he drank afterwards, whether or not he vomited, and which woman he pursued that night. The length of the biographical narrative could have been cut in half if Townshend had simply provided four appendices: the first for a list of every car he’s ever bought; a second for boats; a third for houses and their furnishings; and a fourth for recording equipment. In matters of music and love, Townshend has an irritating propensity for the melodramatic. Every time he has a great idea, he attributes it to a vision from God or a choir of angels. Such lofty rhetoric hinders our understanding of the man. Why he decided to devote his life to the Indian guru Meher Baba, for example, is never adequately explained, so the motivations behind many of his subsequent actions are baffling. Equally mysterious is why he’s spent so much of the past quarter century rehashing the same three ideas—Tommy, Lifehouse, and Quadrophenia—rather than making new music.

While every autobiography has an agenda, Who I Am is more manipulative than most. It’s constantly apparent that Townshend is striving to mold the reader’s opinion of him. He wants so much to be liked. This is most blatantly manifested in the way he repeats every word of praise that he’s ever received, dropping famous names left and right, and then somehow finds a way to heap more plaudits upon himself. Not wanting to appear egotistical, however, he tries hard to paint himself as a lovable loser, a sensitive soul who’s socially awkward and unlucky in love. There’s an awful lot of personal disclosure, but the sincerity behind it is often questionable. After he’s boasted about all the coke he’s snorted and the tail he’s chased, it’s hard to take him seriously when he expresses regret for cheating on his wife. Ultimately, one comes away from the book with an image of Townshend as an emotional child, desperate for approval, who happens to have millions of dollars at his disposal.

As a writer, Townshend has an excellent command of the English language and can turn a clever phrase. Like a bag of chips, his prose can be addictive but in the end yields little nourishment. Avid fans of The Who can’t help but come away from this book with a boatload of trivia, but what it all adds up to is less than satisfying. Rather than renew my interest in Townshend and his music, Who I Am may have actually diminished my admiration for the man and his accomplishments.

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: Scandinavian by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, et al.

Get some northern exposure
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
This collection of Scandinavian short fiction was originally published in 1899 by Charles Scribner’s Sons as one of ten books in their Stories by Foreign Authors series, each volume of which focuses on a different nation or region of Europe. Most of the books in the series have been scanned and are now available for free online through sites like Project Gutenberg, Hathi Trust, and Amazon. Of the authors featured in this volume, the only name that’s likely to be recognizable to today’s English-language readers is that of Norwegian writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, simply because he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1903. After having previously read a mediocre novel by Bjørnson, I was pleasantly surprised by his two exceptional pieces in this collection. In fact, five of the six stories included in this volume are very good; only the final entry disappoints.

The book kicks off with a very brief piece by Bjørnson entitled “The Father.” It concisely encapsulates one father’s relationship with his son in an unconventional and touching way. “When Father Brought Home the Lamp” by Finnish author Juhani Aho is the best story in the book. When a rural family buys a brand new oil lamp, freeing them from the necessity of burning wood chips, it immediately elevates their social status within their rural village. At times it has the same tongue-in-cheek, warmly nostalgic flavor of the movie A Christmas Story. In “The Flying Mail” by Danish author M. Goldschmidt, a bachelor lawyer writes a love letter to his ideal dream girl and casts it to the wind, letting fate decide his romantic future. The rather whimsical premise stretches the boundaries of credibility, but still it’s an engaging piece. Bjørnson’s second offering, “The Railroad and the Churchyard,” is another very strong work. When two lifelong friends disagree over a matter of local politics, it brings years worth of envy and resentment boiling to the surface. “Two Friends” by Alexander Kielland deals with a similar falling out between two old friends and business partners. Though the author is Norwegian, the story takes place entirely in Paris.

The final piece in the book, entitled “Hopes,” is by Swedish author Frederika Bremer. It’s a stream-of-consciousness narrative from the point of view of a poor man with neither enough food to eat nor wood for a fire. He doesn’t mind his lifestyle all that much, until he begins to feel an uncontrollable longing to be loved. Bremer tries hard to be clever, but mostly it’s just a rambling string of unintelligible drivel. The stories in this book represent a period at which Scandinavian literature was making its transition into modernism. The first five stories all have a naturalistic style that’s reminiscent of the literature of French writer Emile Zola. The Bremer story, on the other hand, feels more modern than the rest, and suffers from the pointlessness of experimentation for experimentation’s sake. For a more successful attempt at the same style and subject matter, read Norwegian author Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger.

These days Scandinavian literature is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, thanks in large part to the murder mystery genre, but beyond Henrik Ibsen the classic authors of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are still largely unfamiliar to English-language readers. This volume provides a good introduction to some worthy authors who deserve greater notoriety. Had they been born in France or Russia, perhaps they’d be household names. Based on the stories included here, Bjørnson, Aho, and Kielland definitely deserve further investigation.

Stories in this collection
The Father by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson 
When Father Brought Home the Lamp by Juhani Aho 
The Flying Mail by M. Goldschmidt 
The Railroad and the Churchyard by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson 
Two Friends by Alexander Kielland 
Hopes by Frederika Bremer 

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Monday, August 4, 2014

Legends of Vancouver by E. Pauline Johnson

Indigenous tales well-told
I recently made my first trip to the city of Vancouver, and in preparation for the journey I wanted to read some literature on the area. I heard that Legends of Vancouver by E. Pauline Johnson was the quintessential Vancouver book and one widely read among the locals. Published in 1911, this book is a collection of 15 short stories based on legends of the Native American tribes (or as they say in Canada, First Nations) of the British Columbian coast.

Johnson was born in Ontario, of mixed European and Mohawk Indian ancestry. She is not only the author but also the first-person narrator of these stories, in which she describes herself as an Iroquois. In a typical story, Johnson travels around the Vancouver area meeting various chiefs or tillicums (tribal members) of the Squamish, Haida, or other indigenous peoples of the area. These Indian acquaintances then grace her with one of the traditional legends of their people, usually related to a specific mountain, rock, or lake in the vicinity and how it came to be. As far as Indian legends go, there are no epics here. These are very brief and simplistic tales, almost like a Native American variation on Aesop’s Fables. Each relates a tale of love, loyalty, bravery, or revenge, often concluding with God turning someone into a rock. Thus are explained the origins of such landmarks as Siwash Rock, Point Grey, Deadman’s Island, the two mountains known as “the Lions,” and more. The final story has nothing to do with Vancouver at all, but rather gives an account of Prince Arthur of England’s visit to the Iroquois tribes of Ontario.

The Indian tales that serve as Johnson’s raw material are underwhelming at times, but they are elevated considerably in quality and effect by the storytelling skills of the author. Johnson’s writing bears a striking resemblance to the Indian stories of Jack London in their campfire atmosphere, but without all the machismo, the racism, and the gratuitous violence. Her descriptions of the natural environment are strikingly painted, and she displays a great deal of reverence for the local landscape. She also spins a good yarn, giving the reader a vivid glimpse into what life may have been like in Vancouver before the “Palefaces” arrived. There’s never a surprise ending, but though the plots may be predictable the stories are often uplifting and inspirational in their honest and forthright illustrations of human nature. Johnson’s opening remarks about Coastal Indian culture are frequently more fascinating than the stories themselves. She describes how these Indians value kindness above all qualities—even over strength, intelligence, and bravery; how they appreciate the value of a good mother more than the power of a great hunter or warrior; how they venerate the trees for all the gifts they provide; and how they have a strange fascination with Napoleon Bonaparte.

I can see how residents of Vancouver would be quite taken by these stories, for they deal in the lore of places and sites that they see every day. For outsiders, however, this is not an essential read by any means. Don’t expect to gain any insight into the modern city or its history, or you’ll be disappointed. Those who are predisposed to literature of the West, however—like the stories of London, Bret Harte, or Frank Norris—will appreciate Johnson’s naturalistic storytelling and enjoy this picturesque look back at the early days of the Pacific Northwest.

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Friday, August 1, 2014

Nouveaux Contes à Ninon by Emile Zola

Zola’s sketchbook
Emile Zola’s first book, published in 1864, was Contes à Ninon, a collection of short fiction of various styles, tones and subject matter. The stories are ostensibly narrated by a writer who has just left Provence to try his fortune in Paris. He dedicates the stories to Ninon, the love that he left behind. Ten years later, Zola published a second collection of short writings, Nouveaux Contes à Ninon. In this volume’s address to Ninon, Zola speaks as a writer who has experienced some success in his field, but also some persecution for his unconventional style. While the first volume of Contes was a hodgepodge produced by a writer finding his way, in Nouveaux Contes it is evident that Zola has come far in the development of his mature Naturalistic style.

The last two pieces in the book are novella-length works, but the other thirteen entries are all very brief. One hesitates to call these very short works stories, because in many cases they are merely sketches and feel like disembodied scenes lifted from a novel. The most successful of these brief pieces, surprisingly, is “The Paradise of Cats” (and I am not a cat lover), primarily because it is one of the few that has the structure of a complete story: a beginning, a middle, and an end. As for the rest of these brief sketches, many of them are attempts to be cute and clever, and the humor falls flat. The best offerings in this category are the ones in which the social consciousness Zola is famous for shines through, such as “My Neighbour Jacques” and “The Blacksmith,” both studies of working men, or “The Slack Season,” a tragic depiction of mass unemployment.

The piece entitled “Souvenirs” (“Memories,” in French) is a hundred pages of rambling thoughts divided into fourteen sections. These are neither fiction nor essays, but rather subjective reflections. Zola starts out with rather frivolous and tiresome pieces on birds, flowers, hunting, or public bathing. In these vignettes he seems merely to be flexing his descriptive muscles for the sake of literary exercise, and it’s all quite modernist in its pointlessness. The last three pieces, however, in which Zola discusses his personal memories of war, are quite moving and do much to redeem this disparate assortment as a whole.

The final piece, “Jean Gourdon’s Four Days,” is a novella of about 80 pages that’s divided into four chapters, each of which describes a day in the life of the title character, a Provençal farmer. Each day takes place in a different season of the year, and each represents a different stage in a man’s life. Though the days are spaced decades apart, the reader gets a sense of the full arc of Gourdon’s life. Though the fourth day is weaker than the rest of the book, overall it’s a very powerful and moving piece that celebrates the life cycle of the natural world and dignifies man’s place within it.

As a collection overall, Nouveaux Contes à Ninon is a mixture of the good and the bad. The one must-read piece here is "Jean Gourdon’s Four Days." As for the rest, there’s not much here that’s indispensable. Only the most avid Zola fans need read this collection in its entirety.

Stories in this collection:
To Ninon
A Bath
The Strawberries
Big Michu
The Fast
The Shoulders of the Marchioness
My Neighbour Jacques
The Paradise of Cats
The Legend of Cupid’s Little Blue Mantle
The Blacksmith
The Slack Season
The Little Village
Jean Gourdon’s Four Days

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