Monday, September 29, 2014

Peter Schlemihl by Adelbert von Chamisso

The man who sold his shadow
Peter Schlemihl is an 1814 novella written by Adelbert von Chamisso. Though born in France, von Chamisso lived most of his life in Germany after his aristocratic parents fled the French Revolution. Peter Schlemihl has been translated into English under a variety of titles, such as The Man Who Sold His Shadow or The Marvellous History of the Shadowless Man, either of which gives a more precise indication of the story’s contents. The narrative opens with Peter disembarking a boat in an unnamed country. He arrives with letter of recommendation in hand at the home of a Mr. Jones, who at that moment happens to be entertaining some guests. Among them is a mysterious thin man in a gray coat who offers to buy Peter’s shadow in exchange for a bottomless purse that dispenses gold coins. Peter jumps at this seemingly fortuitous offer and accepts the bargain. The stranger takes possession of his shadow, folds it up, tucks it in his coat, and departs. Peter soon finds however that life without a shadow isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, despite his limitless wealth. Everywhere he goes he is persecuted and reviled for his lack of umbrage.

Traditional in its prose but surprisingly modernist in its unconventionality, Peter Schlemihl resembles what Balzac might have come up with if he wrote scripts for The Twilight Zone. The shadow is obviously a metaphor for something, but what exactly that may be remains unclear. Von Chamisso clarifies later in the book that it doesn’t represent Peter’s soul. Could the sold shadow be analogous to lost innocence, lost youth, lost integrity? The author never gives you enough clues to grab and hold onto in order to decipher the puzzle. Peter’s shame at his shadowlessness, and the lengths he goes to in an effort to conceal it, make one consider the skeletons we all have in our closets, those shortcomings that we do our best to conceal from others as we interact with the world.

The story rambles on in unexpected directions, as if von Chamisso just improvised the whole thing. It goes on far too long, unfortunately. The first chapter is fascinating, but by the time you get to the end the story has become tiresome. The final chapter is truly bizarre, baring little relation to what came before. It calls to mind some of the more absurd writings of Voltaire, like Candide or Micromegas. Absurdity is welcome in literature, of course, but there has to be some kind of consistency to that absurdity—some method to the madness—otherwise it just seems pointless. The idea of a man selling his shadow is an indelible image, but it’s not enough to make the reading of this story worthwhile. Von Chamisso’s vision was incredibly innovative for a writer of two centuries past, but sometimes innovation just isn’t enough.

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

Friday, September 26, 2014

Waverley by Sir Walter Scott

Important and influential, but antiquated and tedious
Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley is often regarded as the first historical novel in western literature, at least in our modern sense of the term. When it was published in 1814, it became the first blockbuster bestseller in the English language. Scott published the book anonymously and went on to publish a whole series of historical novels “by the author of Waverley,” before finally revealing his identity. Though undoubtedly an extremely influential work, Waverley is unlikely to inspire in today’s reader the same enthusiasm that it generated in those readers of two centuries ago.

The story takes place during the Jacobite uprising of 1745, when Scottish Highlanders tried to restore the Stuart family, in the form of “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” to the throne of England, which at that time was in the hands of George I of the House of Hanover. Edward Waverley is a young man from southern England. His father works for the government of Hanover, while his uncle and benefactor, a wealthy Baron, sympathizes with the Stuart cause. Edward’s upbringing is far from strict, and he develops a propensity for idle daydreaming. When he reaches manhood, his family decides that the best course of action for a young man seeking direction in life is to join the military. Edward dutifully acquiesces, but soon takes an extended leave of absence from his regiment to visit a friend of his uncle’s, Baron Bradwardine, in Scotland. When some of the Baron’s cattle are stolen by highlanders, Edward goes on a mission to recover them. In doing so, he makes the acquaintance of some highland clansman, is introduced into their customs, and begins to sympathize with their ideas of rebellion.

This book is perfect for a movie adaptation or a Classics Illustrated comic book because there’s only about two or three sentences of plot in each chapter. The rest is all decorative window dressing, historical context, snippets of poetry, and tangential asides. Scott interrupts the narrative often to directly address the reader, a convention that was all the rage 200 years ago but is apt to inspire groans and eyerolls from the 21st-century reader. To be fair, there are some engaging and entertaining moments in the book’s second half, but you have to plod through a whole lot of unnecessary digression to get there. Back in Scott’s day, fiction was generally considered to be fare for intellectual wimps, which is perhaps why he felt the need to cram the book with so much historical detail, poetic verse, and folklore. By doing so, he made great strides in legitimizing the novel, raising it to a level of highbrow prestige previously reserved for poetry and philosophy.

Waverley is one of the most important books in the history of the novel. Its influence can be felt in almost any novel that’s been written since. This is most apparent, of course, in the historical fiction and adventure genres, beginning with writers like James Fenimore Cooper, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Henryk Sienkiewicz, and continuing to this day. Even literary realism, so antithetical to Scott’s Romanticism, could not have existed without the foundation he built. The problem with Waverley is that most readers of today will find the pupils’ writings far more enjoyable than those of the master. Scott’s writing makes even Cooper look hip and now. Scott himself went on to write much better books. Waverley isn’t in the same league as his classic Ivanhoe, though it’s better written and less boring than his other well-known novel of the Scottish highlands, Rob Roy. The western literary tradition owes a huge debt to Scott. At times, while slogging through the most tedious portions of Waverley, it feels like you’re doing exactly that—paying a debt.

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Mercenaries by H. Beam Piper

Not one of Piper’s best
“The Mercenaries” is a short story by science fiction writer H. Beam Piper. It was originally published in the March 1950 issue of the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. The story takes place in 1965. After the dropping of the atomic bomb, the world has been divided amongst four superpowers. The next big arms race is already underway. All are competing to be the first to put a man on the moon, for the purpose of establishing a fortress there. In this alternate future, scientists form their own independent think tanks and hire themselves out to the highest bidder, essentially functioning as independent nations in their own rite. The story follows one of these mercenary scientific teams as they work through the problems of manned spaceflight. When the leader of the team discovers that, much to the discontent of his employers, one of its nine members is leaking information to the Communists, he sets out to discover and apprehend the mole.

Though essentially it has the plot of a mystery story, Piper doesn’t put a whole lot of effort into the mystery itself. It ends up being about as complicated as a typical case one might find in the files of Encyclopedia Brown. Piper is far more concerned with the world he’s created and its historical and political details. Fortunately, creating alternate worlds is what Piper does best, and he’s one of the best at what he does. In this particular story, however, there’s too much sci-fi window dressing and not enough meaty plot. At times it seems like Piper’s intention is merely to see how many proper nouns he can cram into a single sentence. The unique nature of the scientific team’s political autonomy brings up some interesting legal and ethical issues towards the end, but they’re neither as thought-provoking nor as entertaining as what Piper usually delivers.

Fans of Piper’s work may be interested in knowing that this story is one of the “Hartley yarns,” meaning that it takes place in the same fictional universe as an earlier story, “Time and Time Again,” which featured a character named Hartley. That character is briefly mentioned in “The Mercenaries,” but the two stories are so loosely connected that it’s not necessary to have read that earlier story before reading this one. Readers new to Piper, however, would be better off reading “Time and Time Again” simply because it’s a superior story to this one. Although it’s certainly not bad, “The Mercenaries” is not one of Piper’s better efforts. As an alternative I would recommend reading something from his Paratime series, like “Police Operation,” or his Terro-Human Future History series, beginning with “The Edge of the Knife.”
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Dead Woman’s Wish by Emile Zola

Baby steps toward Naturalism
A Dead Woman’s Wish is an early work by Emile Zola. It was first published in 1866 as a serial in the journal L’Événement, under the French title of Le Voeu d’une morte. The publisher discontinued the serialization due to poor sales. Supposedly there was a whole second part to the novel that was planned but never completed. Regardless, the work as it stands now is certainly a complete novel, and it’s hard to imagine how it could have been dragged out much longer.

As a young child, Daniel Raimboult is orphaned by a catastrophic fire. Left penniless and alone, he is also cursed with an ugliness which will become a source of ridicule throughout his life. A wealthy girl from the neighborhood takes pity on this unfortunate child and becomes his anonymous benefactress, sponsoring his education. When Daniel approaches manhood, his guardian angel reveals her identity as Madame de Rionne and invites her young ward into her home. Daniel is overcome by love and reverence for this mothering figure, and to reside under her roof is for him a veritable paradise. His joy is short lived, however. Despite her wealth, Madame de Rionne has not led a happy life. She is trapped in a loveless marriage, and at the age of thirty she is stricken by a fatal illness. On her deathbed, she confides her dying wish to Daniel, the only person she can trust. She asks him to watch over her daughter Jeanne, who is then six years old. He must see that she leads a good life, sticks to a virtuous moral path, and finds the happy marriage that Madame de Rionne herself never had. Daniel vows that he will devote his life to fulfilling this last request.

This work was written prior to Zola’s development of the mature, naturalistic style that he would employ in later works like Thérèse Raquin and the novels in the Rougon-Macquart series. The plot of this book is a throwback to Romanticism, and utterly predictable. The moment each character is introduced, the reader immediately has an inkling of his or her predestined fate. For a melodramatic morality tale, however, this novel is skillfully written and not without its moving moments. The plot may be overly romanticized, but a nascent Naturalism can be found in the details. Zola’s pessimistic attitude permeates the book. The virtuous hero is surrounded by a supporting cast riddled with greed, conceit, and cynicism. At Madame de Rionne’s funeral, for example, Daniel is the only one who mourns sincerely. For everyone else, the ceremony is either a sham, an inconvenience, or a joke. Later in his career, Zola was often admonished by critics for concentrating on the ugly side of life. This book proves that his jaundiced view of society was developed early.

It’s not too difficult to figure out why this serial novel was prematurely yanked from circulation. It's hard to imagine the readers of Zola’s day gobbling up a story that’s such a total downer. Daniel is the only character remotely worth rooting for, and we so rarely see him happy. When he’s performing his avowed duty as Jeanne’s moral conscience, he displays all the sternness and severity of a fundamentalist minister. The final chapter offers some uplifting relief from all the dourness, but not enough to make the book an enjoyable read. That said, however, this depressing fare is preferable to some of the fluffier pieces Zola produced early in his career. A Dead Woman’s Wish is a prepubescent stage in the evolution of the author’s later, greater masterpieces. Diehard fans might like it, but they won’t love it.

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

Friday, September 19, 2014

World’s End by Upton Sinclair

The education of Lanny Budd
In the 1940s, Upton Sinclair wrote an immensely popular series of eleven novels starring Lanny Budd. Lanny, the son of an American arms manufacturer, is born and raised in Europe, where he receives a cosmopolitan upbringing that leaves him well-versed in foreign languages, fine arts, and the leisure activities of the rich and famous. Throughout the series, Lanny not only witnesses but participates in many major historical events during and between the two World Wars. Along the way he interacts with many famous celebrities and important political figures. Through the life and adventures of Lanny, the series provides readers with an in-depth examination of early 20th-century world history, as viewed through Sinclair’s liberal lens. World’s End, published in 1940, is the first novel in the series. It covers Lanny’s adolescence during World War I.

When we first meet Lanny, he is at a boarding school in Switzerland studying, of all things, modern dance. When not in school he lives with his mother, Beauty Budd, on the French Riviera, just down the road from Cannes. His parents are divorced. His father, Robbie Budd, head salesman for the family munitions business, makes frequent visits to Europe on business. Like many young men, Lanny is trying to find himself. He can’t decided whether to follow his father in the family business, or to chart a course of his own. He spends many of the early chapters traveling around Europe with his mother and her jet-setting friends. Then World War I breaks out and rains on everyone’s parade.

I had heard great things about the Lanny Budd series—Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells were big fans—but I was a little disappointed with this first installment. I think much of the problem lies in the fact that Lanny is a teenager, so the novel must occupy itself with adolescent concerns, like learning the facts of life, losing one’s virginity, and coming to terms with the responsibilities of impending adulthood. Sinclair somehow manages to make even World War I seem boring by concentrating too much on the exploits of Beauty’s rich socialite friends. One wise choice the author makes is making Lanny’s two best friends from school a Brit and a German, thereby providing three differing perspectives on the war. Also to the book’s benefit, Lanny gains an awareness that his privileged upbringing is not the norm, and he starts to develop a consciousness of class issues. He begins to consider the merits of socialism vs. capitalism, which of course is the major theme running through Sinclair’s life’s work. Famous figures stop by for brief appearances: Anatole France, Isadora Duncan, Lawrence of Arabia, Lincoln Steffens, not to mention all the important heads of state. Only in the book’s final third does it live up to expectations in its coverage of world affairs, as it examines the peace conferences that followed World War I, and the wheeling and dealing in the future of nations that occurred there. Still, those pertinent scenes are interspersed with a lot of soap opera drama.

I don’t wish to make World’s End sound like a bad book, because it’s not. It does, however, feel more like a prelude of things to come rather than a complete novel in itself, even though it’s 740 pages long. It lays the groundwork for what’s to come in this acclaimed series, and for that I’m glad I read it, but don’t expect to be blown away by it. The decisions made, agreements reached, and deals struck in Paris at the end of the First World War had important ramifications for the world’s future, which will no doubt be explored later in the series. Lanny will move on to bigger, better, and more interesting things, but here he’s still just a kid.

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: German I by Paul Heyse, et al.

The lighter side of German lit
Paul Heyse
This is the first of two volumes devoted to German literature in the Stories by Foreign Authors series. The ten-volume series, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1898, provides an overview of European literature in the late 19th century. This volume consists of six works of short fiction, translated into English, by six German authors. While other books in the series favor naturalism and realism, this volume tends to lean more towards romanticism.

The book leads off with its most recognizable name, Paul Heyse, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1910. Unfortunately, his entry, “The Fury,” is the weakest in the book. A young Italian boatman ferries a priest and a beautiful young woman to the isle of Capri. The title refers to the nickname of the woman, an independent shrew with no interest in marrying. The story is pure romanticism, utterly predictable, and thus rather boring.

Though German literature may be known for its angst-ridden sturm und drang, the editors of this volume choose to showcase more lighthearted fare. In “The Bookbinder of Hort” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the title character, a Hungarian Jew, moonlights as a ghost writer of love letters. “The Egyptian Fire Eater” by Rudolph Baumbach is a humorous tale about a boy who loves the theatre so much he would do anything to get on stage. It’s a very descriptive piece, with little plot. The longest story in the book, Heinrich Zschokke’s “Adventures of a New-Year’s Eve” is a farcical romance in which a poor gardener trades places with a mischievous prince for one wacky night. It’s like a movie you might see after midnight on TCM, starring Tyrone Power or Ronald Colman. For what it is, it’s a skillfully crafted tale, but the century-old humor is not about to cause a stir among today’s reading audience.

There are, however, two very good selections here that are worthy of note. “The Philosopher’s Pendulum” by Rudolph Lindau is the best piece in the book. A man reconnects with an old friend from his youth, only to find his former classmate much changed. Having suffered disappointments and heartbreak, this long-lost companion has developed his own brand of stoicism by which he expects nothing from life and actively strives for a state of emotional indifference. It’s a thought-provoking premise, and the characters and plot are quite engaging. Stylistically, it calls to mind the novels of Hermann Hesse or Knut Hamsun. Of all the pieces in the book, this one feels the least antiquated.

Another exceptional offering is E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Cremona Violin.” An eccentric lawyer, when he’s not exhibiting extremely bizarre behavior, spends his spare time collecting and building violins. One day a beautiful young woman with an angelic singing voice enters his life, causing everyone to speculate what her connection might be to this aged nut. The story is very Balzacian—convoluted and incredible, but also riveting and fun.

Overall, this collection is a mixed bag of the worthwhile and the undistinguished. For readers who appreciate premodernist literature—romanticism, naturalism, early realism—the Stories by Foreign Authors series is a good way to introduce yourself to some new authors. This volume will appeal primarily to those with more romantic inclinations.

Stories in this collection
The Fury by Paul Heyse 
The Philosopher’s Pendulum by Rudolph Lindau 
The Bookbinder of Hort by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch 
The Egyptian Fire-Eater by Rudolph Baumbach
The Cremona Violin by E. T. A. Hoffmann 
Adventures of a New-Year’s Eve by Heinrich Zschokke 

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

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper

A series overview
James Fenimore Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper was born on this day 225 years ago. In celebration of America’s first blockbuster author, let’s take a look back at his famous series The Leatherstocking Tales and a couple of other books that may be of interest to fans of the series.

The Leatherstocking Tales consist of five episodes in the life of Nathaniel Bumppo, an early American hunter, trapper, woodsman, and guide. Natty is a white man, but has lived much of his life among Indians, specifically the Delaware tribe of New York state. Despite his affinity for the Native American lifestyle and culture, Natty does have frequent dealings with white men. He trades in furs and meat, hires himself out as a guide, and even fights alongside the British Army in the French and Indian Wars. As a boy he received the basics of a Christian education from some Moravian missionaries, though he cannot read or write. His bicultural upbringing has led him to develop a unique personal philosophy and code of ethics. He often speaks of each person living according to his or her own “gifts.” Indians and white men were made with different gifts. For example, it is a white man’s gift to go to the Christian Heaven after death, while it is a red man’s gift to meet his ancestors in the happy hunting ground. It is an Indian’s gift to take the scalp of a vanquished foe, while such a practice goes against the gifts of a white man.

In general the novels of the series are romantic adventures, often meant to impart a moral lesson. One recurring theme throughout the books is a burgeoning environmentalism which is quite remarkable considering Cooper was writing before Emerson and Thoreau. Natty often scolds the pioneers for their wastefulness and laments the loss of timber and game that has resulted from the white man’s westward encroachment into the wilderness. His longing for the pristine forests of an untouched America parallels Cooper’s own nostalgia for the idyllic, sparsely settled landscape of western New York that he enjoyed in his youth. Natty’s preservationist attitude toward America’s forests and rivers is similar to his feelings toward the continent’s native population. With the dwindling of the wilderness comes the gradual decimation of the Indians and the loss of their more eco-friendly way of life. Cooper is no doctor of ethnography, and he often depicts the Native Americans as “noble savages,” but he always displays respect and reverence for the Indians and has certainly made an effort to do his research on the subject. Considering the age in which he was writing, he shows an exceptional amount of enlightened racial sensitivity towards his Indian characters. His black characters, on the other hand, don’t fare as well, and are often depicted as benevolent but unflattering stereotypes.

The five episodes of Natty Bumppo’s life that comprise the Leatherstocking Tales were not published in chronological order. To read the fictional narrative in its correct chronological sequence, the books should be read in alphabetical order, as listed below. Click on the titles below to read full reviews.

The Deerslayer, or The First Warpath (1841)
The first novel in the series takes place in the early 1740s, in and around Otsego Lake in central New York state. Natty Bumppo is a young man known for his hunting prowess, and is therefore referred to throughout the book by the nickname of Deerslayer. Though he is renowned as a crack shot, he’s never yet had to use his rifle in man-to-man combat. War has just been declared between Britain and France (the French and Indian Wars), however, and Deerslayer awaits a rendezvous with his Delaware Indian comrade Chingachgook. Together they plan to fight on the side of the British. Their plans are delayed, however, when a white family living on the lake is attacked by a hostile band of Huron Indians, and the Deerslayer must come to their rescue. This novel is essentially an action/adventure tale and not much else, yet it’s unfortunately also quite slow-moving and dull. The last of the books in  the series to be published, it is also the poorest in quality. (3 stars)

The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826)
This is the best-known of Cooper’s novels, and for good reason. Unlike its clumsily plotted prequel, this romantic adventure is suspenseful and riveting. The story takes place in 1757, during the French and Indian Wars. A troop of British soldiers are marching through the Adirondack Mountains, escorting two general’s daughters to their father’s fort. They run into Natty, now known by the name of Hawkeye, his companion Chingachgook, and the latter’s son Uncas. The British party has been deliberately led astray by their Indian guide, a Huron loyal to the French. Hawkeye sets them straight and volunteers the services of himself and his friends to guide the soldiers and their precious cargo through the hostile wilderness. The book has a few awkward and antiquated moments, but still it’s held up well over the past two centuries and deserves its place in the American literary canon. If you’re only going to read one book by Cooper, this should be it. The film adaptation with Daniel Day-Lewis is hardly faithful to the novel at all. (Remember, in that movie, the British were the bad guys.) (4.5 stars)

The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea (1840)
This installment in the series is set in 1759 and takes place in the vicinity of Lake Ontario, including the British fort of Oswego, in northwestern New York. Once again Natty, now known as Pathfinder, and his Indian friend Chingachgook meet a party of travelers in the forest. A sailor is escorting his niece to her uncle, a sergeant at the fort. The Pathfinder agrees to guide them there, and not surprisingly they are attacked by hostile Indians. Though the plot synopsis may sound remarkably similar to The Last of the Mohicans, this novel is set apart from the others by two notable differences. The first is that in this novel the Pathfinder has a love interest. The second is that much of the action takes place aboard boats on Lake Ontario. Outside the Leatherstocking series, Cooper wrote a lot of Melvillian sailing stories, and his enthusiasm for nautical subject matter is evident here. He devotes a lot of ink to the contrasting of three main characters and their specialized skill sets: the Pathfinder, whose area of expertise is the forest; the sailor Charles Cap, who knows the sea; and the young soldier Jasper Western, an expert at sailing the Great Lakes. The plot is slow going at first, but it gets better in the book’s latter half. This is neither the best nor the worst of the series. (3.5 stars)

The Pioneers, or The Sources of the Susquehanna (1823)
This was Cooper’s second novel, and his first success. The story takes place from 1793 to 1794 in Templeton, New York, a fictionalized surrogate for the author’s hometown of Cooperstown. What sets this book apart from the others is that it mostly takes place in a civilized setting and is primarily concerned with depicting the life of early settlers in a frontier town. It features an ensemble cast of characters representing a cross section of American pioneers, including immigrants of various nations and workers of every class. Natty, referred to here as the Leatherstocking, is now in his seventies, but still lives in a cabin on the shores of Lake Otsego, making his living as a hunter. Indians do not figure largely in this tale, but environmentalism does, as Natty views the effects of white settlement on his beloved wilderness with sorrow and vexation. He wants no part in the problems of village society, but somehow he can’t avoid being implicated in the doings of the settlers. This book bears little similarity to The Last of the Mohicans, nor is it anywhere near as well-known, but in its own way it’s every bit as good. (4.5 stars)

The Prairie: A Tale (1827)
The final episode in the series takes place in 1805 on the Great Plains. A wagon train of settlers from Kentucky is heading westward across this sea of grass. About 500 miles west of the Mississippi River, possibly in Nebraska, they run into Natty, now in his eighties and referred to simply as the trapper. He makes the acquaintance of the settlers, and helps them find a suitable campsite. Soon, however, the party is attacked by a band of hostile Sioux, who steal their cattle and horses and leave them stranded on the prairie. The trapper provides the settlers with as much assistance as he can, but when he discovers they’re hiding dark secrets of their own, he ends up getting caught between a rock and a hard place. This is definitely not one of the better books in the series. It’s boring at times, and far-fetched at others. As a final send-off for a beloved character, it’s a bit of a disappointment. But for fans of Cooper it’s not without its charms, and if you’ve gotten this far, you might as well see the series through to the end. (3 stars)

Of related interest
America’s first literary hit, The Spy was Cooper’s second novel, immediately preceding The Pioneers. It takes place during the American Revolution in Westchester County, New York, a territory contested by both sides of the conflict, where tories and patriots often lived side by side. When a British officer dons a disguise in order to visit his family behind enemy lines, it is construed as an act of espionage. Stylistically, The Spy is quite similar to The Pioneers. Though both books are romantic adventures, their primary aim is to depict the life and society of their respective periods in American history, and both employ a diverse ensemble cast of characters to that end. Observant readers will notice that two characters from this book, Sergeant Hollister and Betty Flanagan, go on to make cameo appearances in the first of the Leatherstocking Tales. (3 stars)

My favorite Cooper novel, Wyandotté, covers some of the same themes as The Leatherstocking Tales and The Spy—the settlement of the frontier, relations between whites and Indians, the effect of civilization on the natural environment, and the romance and tragedy of war. A British veteran of the French and Indian Wars retires from military service and builds a fortified homestead in the secluded forests of western New York. When the American Revolution breaks out, he fears for his family’s safety. Will his large retinue of servants remain loyal to his family? Or will they rise up against their English master? And what side will the Indians take in the conflict? Written after the completion of the Leatherstocking Tales, Wyandotté is the virtuoso work of a veteran author at the top of his game. (5 stars)

Cooper’s signature series is a landmark work in American literature, but the latter two novels prove that  there’s more to this author than just the Leatherstocking Tales. I’m looking forward to sampling more selections from his large and diverse body of work, so expect more Cooper reviews here at Old Books by Dead Guys.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan

More about what he likes than what he’s like
Bob Dylan has been the subject of many biographies, but not until the publication of his first memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, in 2004, did curious fans receive any autobiographical disclosure from the bard himself. Rather than using the book as an opportunity to set the record straight, however, the most curious thing about Chronicles is how Dylan goes out of his way to write about everything but himself. Nevertheless, it’s a lively and literate book that does, however indirectly, provide much-longed-for insight into the thought process of this great musician and songwriter.

Chronicles is not a typical autobiography, but rather an examination of five different points in Dylan’s life. These stages do not appear in chronological order, and in the telling of them Dylan often flashes backward and forward to other scenes that happen to pop into his head. Three of the chapters focus on his early career, up to the point where he signed with Columbia Records. Too often the text reads like a catalog of influences, with Dylan listing off the acts he admired, the records he listened to, the books he read, and the movies he saw. In these early scenes, however, he does a great job of authentically recreating the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the 1960s. He purposely avoids making himself the star of these vignettes but rather functions literally as a chronicler, capturing in eloquent and vivid prose the sights and sounds of afternoons in smoky coffee shops and nights on borrowed couches. The reader at times feels as if he were young Dylan, just arrived from Minnesota and hunting for a gig.

When he’s writing about the actual making of music, however, he’s far less successful. In the chapter entitled “Oh Mercy,” about the recording of the album of the same name in 1989, he talks in-depth about a new vocal technique that revolutionized his performances and a mathematical method of guitar playing that likewise transformed his music, but what he has to say about these topics is largely unintelligible. As to the album itself, he really gets into the nuts and bolts about how each song was written and recorded, but once again he’s virtually incomprehensible because he strings together more strange, folksy metaphors than a parody of Dan Rather. One would expect such a brilliant poet to be more articulate when talking about his craft. In this respect, Dylan could learn a thing or two from Neil Young. In his autobiography Waging Heavy Peace, Young jumps all over the map topically and chronologically, but you never have trouble understanding what he’s saying. With Dylan it seems like deliberate obfuscation, either because he’s too shy for self-revelation, or he simply wants to preserve some of his rock-star mystique.

In the most candid portion of the book, which revolves around the recording of the 1970 album New Morning, Dylan expresses his reluctance to adopt the mantle of “voice of a generation” that was so often thrust upon his shoulders. All he wanted was to make music and be a family man. Another highlight of the book is the final chapter, in which he details his youth in Minnesota and explains how he went from a Woody Guthrie tribute act to a songwriter in his own right.

Though Chronicles may not be the perfect autobiography Dylan aficionados have long waited for, there’s plenty of nourishment here to at least temporarily satiate hungry fans. Perhaps the most gratifying thing about Chronicles is its subtitle, Volume One, indicating there’s more to come.

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Almost Holmes-less
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote dozens of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, but he only completed four novels starring the great detective. The Valley of Fear, published in 1914, is the fourth and final of these novels, and unfortunately also by far the worst. It’s evident that at this point, 27 years after Holmes’ debut, Conan Doyle was running short of ideas for this detective series.

Holmes and Watson are called to investigate the murder of a Mr. Douglas in Sussex. Douglas struck it rich in American mines and retired to an English country manor, only to have his face blown off by a shotgun. As far as mysteries go, this one is not very mysterious. Astute readers will have it figured out very early, and then must wait for Holmes and Watson to catch up. The basic premise of the murder is familiar, particularly to those who have read Conan Doyle’s non-Holmes short story collection Tales of Terror and Mystery. (The Valley of Fear was published first, so it’s the other story, “The Black Doctor,” that’s the knockoff.) Given that most of the Holmes mysteries were written over a century ago, it’s not too unusual to find one that’s less than baffling, but usually in such cases this defect is compensated for by the witty repartee of Holmes and his sidekick Dr. John Watson. No such luck here. In this case there are two other investigators at the crime scene, Inspector Alec MacDonald, and local cop White Mason. These two do most of the talking while Holmes sits quietly in a corner and keeps his thoughts to himself. Halfway through the book, he reveals the solution to the puzzle the reader has already figured out.

All that’s left is the back story. Just as he does in the novels A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, Conan Doyle uses the extra page count to depart from Holmes and Watson for a few chapters and explore the history of the murderer and/or the victim. While that strategy was quite successful in those earlier novels, here it’s neither as effective nor as interesting. As is too often the case, a secret society is at work. This time it’s a lodge/labor union/mafia that perpetrates all the organized crime in Vermissa Valley, an American coal-mining region. Like a 19th-century Goodfellas, the story does have a few suspenseful moments, but in the end it proves just as predictable as the first act. In an attempt to add some spice to this dull offering, Professor Moriarity is mentioned at the beginning and end of the book, but his involvement in the story is mostly a case of gratuitous stunt casting that doesn’t add much to the narrative.

The Valley of Fear was inspired by the real-life story of the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irish immigrants, and their criminal activity in Pennsylvania coal mining country. Conan Doyle probably could have crafted a pretty decent historical novel out of this raw material, if he had only left Holmes out of it. I enjoyed the first three Holmes novels very much, and have always considered these long-form mysteries superior to the short stories, but this book is the glaring exception to that rule. Only Holmes completists should bother with this subpar effort.

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

Monday, September 8, 2014

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

The cinematic comic book that launched comic book cinema
Originally published in 1986 as a four-issue comic book miniseries, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was written and drawn by Frank Miller, with inks by Klaus Janson and colors by Lynn Varley. Almost immediately, the four issues were collected into a trade paperback. Nearly 30 years later, it’s still one of the all-time greatest graphic novels in superhero comics. As the story opens, Batman has not been seen in Gotham for the past decade. Now 55, Bruce Wayne sees the rising tide of violent crime that’s sweeping his city’s streets as an invitation to come out of retirement. This ain’t your daddy’s Batman, however. Though this is a DC comic, Miller was primarily known for his work at Marvel Comics, and he definitely brought the Marvel sensibility to his Batman work for DC. Rather than a nimble detective matching wits with clue-dropping lunatics, Miller’s caped crusader is a hulking, brutal vigilante who fights violence with violence.

Judging by today’s comics and the movies that spring from them, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when superheroes weren’t trying to kill their adversaries. Back in the late ‘80s, however, Marvel and DC were just emerging from the confines of the Comics Code Authority and testing the waters of sex and violence. This graphic novel was like a big fat belly flop into the latter category. It’s much more than just a mindless slugfest, however. Watchmen is often hailed for its philosophical vision of superheroes in the real world, but Miller presents a more realistic and cynical view of how mankind might react if giants walked among us.

The art was also pretty ground breaking for its time, but in hindsight it’s not Miller’s best work. Most pages are cluttered with too many tiny panels. Batman is usually depicted as a blocky chunk of muscle while the bit players are often rendered with the wispy sketchiness of a Jules Feiffer caricature. Overall the art here is like a prepubescent stage in the development of the mature, in-your-face style of his Sin City books. One look at the neon-punk couture of the street gang known as The Mutants leaves little doubt that this book was a product of the 1980s. Regardless of the dated fashions, it’s a brilliant document of that decade’s Cold War paranoia. At times Miller gets a little heavy-handed, like depicting Reagan in a star-covered blazer, but he vividly calls to mind a time when a Russian-induced armageddon seemed an imminent possibility.

The Dark Knight Returns reads more like a movie storyboard than it does a typical comic book. With the finesse of a skilled film editor, Miller interweaves several competing narratives. A television is always on in the background, alternating between newscasters, talking heads, and pundits who provide political subtext and ethical discourse. More than any other American comics creator, Miller is responsible for the explosion of comic book action movies over the last quarter century. The comic books he created were so much like the movies we all wanted to see, the moviemakers were forced to follow his lead. 300 and Sin City are obvious examples, but rarely does a superhero film appear that doesn’t lift ideas from him in some way. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy owes a great debt to Miller’s work. The Dark Knight Returns started it all. Though Miller has garnered his fair share of critical acclaim, he’s just as likely to be accused of being sadistic, misogynistic, or perpetually adolescent. Heck, if it’s Keats and Shelley you want, try Neil Gaiman. But if you like hard-boiled pulp fiction, visceral action, and epic thrills, Miller’s your man, and The Dark Knight Returns is the place to start.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: Italian by Edmondo De Amicis, et al.

D’Annunzio stands out
Gabriele D’Annunzio
This collection of Italian writings translated into English is the ninth volume of the ten-volume Stories by Foreign Authors series published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1898. It contains five short works by four Italian authors. I suspect that the vast majority of English-language readers probably have little knowledge of 19th-century Italian history. At least that’s true of myself, and I confess that this information deficit probably hampered my appreciation of some of these stories. The opening selection, “A Great Day” by Edmondo De Amicis, for example, takes place during the 1870 Italian invasion of Rome, which at that time was part of the Papal States. De Amicis delves deeply into the effect of this church/state conflict on the Italian national psyche, but outsiders unfamiliar with the event will have trouble figuring out which parts of the story are historical fact and which are the exercise of poetic license.

De Amicis has a second entry in the book, “College Friends,” which has more universal appeal. This piece is technically not a story at all, but rather a memoir or essay. De Amicis reflects fondly on his time spent in a military college and speculates as to the ultimate fate of his old friends and classmates. Even though he’s only 25 looking back at 19, he contemplates youth, old age, and death with a mixture of regret and optimism. More than just self-indulgent navel-gazing, this piece is quite moving and life-affirming.

In Antonio Fogazzaro’s “Pereat Rochus,” a simple parish priest finds himself embroiled in an ethical battle when he refuses to turn out a servant who is accused of having an affair with a local bandit. The tone is a bit too frivolous and the clergyman becomes the butt of a few too many jokes. “It Snows” by Enrico Castelnuovo is another story that ultimately leaves the reader underwhelmed. A widower has developed a window-to-window friendship with an attractive widow across the alley, but any thoughts of marriage are stifled by the loyalty he feels toward his dead wife and young daughter. It’s a pleasant enough tale, and sensitively rendered, but it’s too much of a garden-variety melodrama to deservedly represent a nation’s literature.

The real revelation in this book is Gabriele D’Annunzio’s “San Pantaleone.” When the sky inexplicably turns blood red, the inhabitants of a small town seek solace from their priest, their holy relics, and their superstitions. Their panic and fanaticism lead them to a violent confrontation with a rival village. This story has a very medieval feel, but for the brief mention of guns. The stark imagery and bleak atmosphere is reminiscent of the stories of Mexican writer Juan Rulfo, but with the over-the-top violence of a Robert E. Howard gorefest. It’s truly a stunning piece of writing.

Incidentally, three of the selections in this book were translated by Edith Wharton, author of Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence. As a whole, I did not enjoy this Italian collection as much as some of the other volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series, but these books are nonetheless valuable for the introduction they provide to lesser-known authors. This time around D’Annunzio was a great discovery for me, and I look forward to tracking down more of his work.

Stories in this collection
A Great Day by Edmondo De Amicis 
Pereat Rochus by Antonio Fogazzaro 
San Panteleone by Gabriele D’Annunzio 
It Snows by Enrico Castelnuovo 
College Friends by Edmondo De Amicis 

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

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Last Enemy by H. Beam Piper

Politics in Paratime
Last Enemy, a novella by H. Beam Piper, was originally published in the August 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It is the third story in Piper’s Paratime series, and the second to feature the adventures of Verkan Vall, special agent for the Paratime Police, who was introduced in the 1948 novella Police Operation. (The first story to take place in the Paratime universe, He Walked Around the Horses, is more of a prologue. It barely relates to the Vall stories.)

In this installment, Vall travels to the Akor-Neb Sector, an alternate timeline of Earth’s future, to rescue a psycho-science researcher who happens to be his ex-wife. On the Akor-Neb world, reincarnation is a proven fact. They don’t even have a word for “death,” but rather refer to the end of a life as “discarnation.” Views differ as to the mechanics of this phenomenon, however, and from two opposing views have sprung two opposing political parties. The statisticalists believe that reincarnation occurs at random. They favor a socialistic society, so that each new incarnation gets a fair chance in the world. The volitionalists believe that individual identity lives outside the body, and consciously chooses the newborn vehicle for its next incarnation. They push for a feudalistic society where the strongest individuals will be rewarded for their ability to reincarnate upwards through the social strata. When the scientist’s research begins to tip the scales in favor of the latter party, she draws the ire of the statisticalists and becomes a target for assassination.

Like Police Operation, Last Enemy is essentially a police procedural in which the cops have the ability to travel to alternate realities. Each new story gives Piper the opportunity to create a whole new civilization, a task at which he is extremely gifted. The Akor-Neb Sector is not just a future Earth with rayguns and airboats. It is a rich and complex universe that Piper endows with intricate cultural, philosophical, political, legal, linguistic, and religious details. He uses this parallel world to make statements about our own. On one page he may be criticizing socialism while on the next he’s giving a Malthusian argument for population reduction. I don’t always agree with Piper’s politics, but I love the creatively ingenious way in which he expresses them. Despite being published over 60 years ago, his ideas are still fresh and thought-provoking. The only thing that dates this story is the way he depicts women with an antiquated chauvinism that is more kitschy than offensive.

The world that Piper has created here may be eminently fascinating, but the story that takes place within it has its weak points. The book suffers a major distraction around its mid-point with an extended scene involving the fighting of duels. Though Piper renders the action sequence quite well, the scene really serves no purpose other than to inject some gratuitous violence into the proceedings. Besides being a sci-fi visionary Piper was also a gun enthusiast, and despite all the deep theoretical thinking that goes on in this story, ultimately it all comes down to ballistics. Piper never lets you forget that this is a cop thriller, after all.

Piper may well be the best time travel writer since H. G. Wells, and the Paratime universe is a fantastic creation. This series is screaming for a television or comic book adaptation to explore its myriad possibilities. Last Enemy is not as good as Police Operation, but I still can’t wait to find out where and when Verkan Vall is headed next.

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

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Attack on the Mill by Emile Zola

Beware of the altered ending
“The Attack on the Mill” is a short story by Emile Zola. It was originally published as “L’Attaque du moulin” in an 1880 collection entitled Les Soirées de Médan, which featured stories by six writers including Guy de Maupassant, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Paul Alexis. Zola owned a house at Médan, outside Paris, where he would gather with his writer friends to discuss literature. From these evenings arose the literary school of Naturalism. Les Soirées de Médan was meant to serve as a sort of manifesto for this new literary philosophy. All the stories were set in the recent Franco-Prussian War. The aim of the authors was to depict the events of war in a more realistic light than the romantic and patriotic battle narratives which were prevalent at the time. Zola’s unglamorous style was quite ground-breaking and controversial for his day, but today’s readers can see how his Naturalism was a giant leap forward for world literature, the influence of which is still felt today. I have yet to find an English translation of Les Soirées de Médan in its entirety, but “The Attack on the Mill” is available as an individual ebook file and is included in many omnibus collections of Zola’s work. It is sometimes also found under the English title of “The Miller’s Daughter.”

Zola opens the story by describing the picturesque scene of the mill, nestled amid the foliage along the river Moselle in a village in Lorraine. Here lives the old miller and his daughter Françoise. She has found love in the form of Dominique, a youth from across the river, and the two have just announced their betrothal. A month later, however, their peaceful happiness is interrupted by the war, and their wedding day is postponed by the arrival of a troop of French soldiers. The old mill has all the advantages of a makeshift fortress, so the soldiers establish their camp there and hunker down in wait for the Germans. The miller and his family are forced to resign themselves to this unwelcome tide of events. The war shall go on, regardless of their love, hopes, or dreams.

Compared to some of Zola’s later works, like the Rougon-Macquart novels, “The Attack on the Mill” doesn’t quite exemplify Naturalism in its purest form. There’s still a fair amount of Romanticism and melodrama in the story, particularly in the earlier chapters, but it’s nevertheless a drastic departure from the literary tradition that came before. Zola’s war lacks the ideological bombast of a Victor Hugo battle. Here not everything happens for a reason, people are killed by stray bullets, and sometimes death is just pointless. Honoré de Balzac at times displayed the same bitter cynicism toward war, but where he might express such feelings with a rakish wit, Zola manifests his with a brutal realism. The story is riveting, and the reader never knows who’s going to live or die until the final shot is fired.

Unfortunately, matters are complicated by which edition you happen to find. The original version from Les Soirées de Médan has a bleak and abrupt ending. However, in later editions, a happy ending was added! I’m not sure if Zola himself crafted this new ending to make the story more palatable to a wider audience, or if some editor took it upon himself to tack on this blissful abomination, but either way it’s a betrayal of the original intention of the work. Your experience of the story will differ drastically depending on which incarnation you read. If you’re unclear which version you have, just stop reading when you get to the word “Victoire!”

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