Friday, November 28, 2014

The House on the Borderland by Willam Hope Hodgson

A supernatural bore
William Hope Hodgson was a prolific English writer of genre fiction who was active during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Many consider his 1908 novel The House on the Borderland to be a classic of the horror genre. The acclaimed American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft credited Hodgson’s stories, and this novel in particular, with having a strong influence on his own work. After reading such high praise, however, I found this novel extremely disappointing. It certainly doesn’t merit “classic” status, and it’s not the least bit horrific.

Two travelers on a fishing trip in rural Ireland come upon the ruined remains of an old house, where they discover the tattered journal of one of the building’s former inhabitants. In this manuscript, a nameless narrator describes his relationship to this mysterious abode. Though the house seems to be the source of unspoken dread among the residents of a nearby village, the narrator is heedless of such forebodings and moves in anyway, along with his sister and his dog. One night after dozing off, he has a vision in which he leaves his body and astral projects through space to a bizarre world far outside our solar system. This realm is dimly lit by a blood-red, ring-shaped sun, and is populated by a host of grotesque creatures resembling mythical beasts, among them humanoid creatures part man, part swine. Thankfully, he awakens from this vivid dream to find himself returned to his body and to his house. The reality of his strange vision is confirmed, however, when a crew of swine-men show up on his doorstep and attack him.

Hodgson deserves some credit for his inventiveness, but his storytelling is sorely lacking. The hellish visions and events of the book are all related with a startlingly emotionless, matter-of-fact dullness: “I saw this. Then I saw that. I heard this. Then I saw that.” Rarely does the narrator ever pause to ponder the horrific nature of what’s taking place, therefore the reader doesn’t feel any terror either. Nor is any attempt ever made to understand or explain what is happening or why. Books in the science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres may be excused from following the rules of reality, but to be successful they must establish some kind of alternate rules in their place. In this book anything goes. Astronomical phenomena is mixed with mystical mumbo jumbo. What applies to the narrator does not apply to his dog. The various worlds and creatures depicted don’t even obey the same physical or mystical laws. Things happen for no other reason than simply because Hodgson wants to describe something spooky.

All of which would be forgivable if the story weren’t so boring. It may be too much to expect that Hodgson’s horror could be as scary or as appealing to today’s audience as the works of current authors like Stephen King, yet even when you compare this book to Hodgson’s contemporaries or predecessors like H. G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or Edgar Allen Poe, this work is woefully inferior. There is a scene in the novel that involves the acceleration of time. Wells covered the same imagery beautifully in The Time Machine, but here Hodgson goes on for three chapters describing the rising and setting of the sun and moon. Day, night, day, night, day, night. The reader gets the idea after the first few pages; the rest is just beating a dead horse.

I first became familiar with Hodgson through one of his nautical stories—Jack Grey, Second Mate—which I enjoyed very much. I might consider reading more of his stories in the action/adventure vein, but I’m steering clear of his horror stuff from now on. Once bitten, twice shy.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Jack London’s Nonfiction

A career overview
Jack London
Jack London is best known as one of America’s greatest fiction writers. Over the course of his brief life he produced 22 novels and 197 short stories, yet throughout his career he was a prolific author of nonfiction as well. Because he lived such a fascinating life, many of London’s nonfiction works are based on his own experiences. He was an adventurer who traveled the world, and many of the places he visited show up in both his fiction and nonfiction. For example, he wrote many travel articles and essays on issues related to favorite destinations like the Klondike, Hawaii, and the islands of the South Pacific. Periodicals occasionally hired him as a celebrity journalist to cover major events like foreign wars or championship boxing matches. He was also a public intellectual, offering his views on political, philosophical, and sociological matters. His political preference toward Socialism is unapologetically evident in such works. In addition, as a man of letters, London also reviewed books, wrote essays on literature, and penned articles providing practical advice to aspiring writers.

It has taken me four years, but I have finally finished reading (or rereading) and reviewing London’s complete works. I previously posted a summary of The Novels of Jack London and a list of his Best Short Stories. With this overview of London’s nonfiction, I’m wrapping up the last few pieces of his vast body of work. All of the books listed below have been previously reviewed at Old Books by Dead Guys. Click on the titles below to read the complete reviews.

The People of the Abyss (1903)
Investigative journalism, sociology
London goes incognito to immerse himself in the poverty stricken squalor of London’s East End and reports on the destitute casualties of the Industrial Revolution. (3 stars)
Highlights: Chapter 19, “The Ghetto,” is the book’s best and most representative chapter.

War of the Classes (1905)
Political essays
These seven essays provide the basics of Socialism through London’s eyes. It’s the best and most complete look into his political thought. (4.5 stars)
Highlights: “The Tramp,” “The Scab,” “The Class Struggle,” “Wanted: A New Law of Development”

The Road (1907)
Memoir and essays
London combines his personal experiences as a cross-country hobo with a sociological study of tramp culture in nine entertaining chapters. (5 stars)
Highlights: The whole book is great. “Holding Her Down” is the best chapter.

Revolution and Other Essays (1909)
Essays and one short story
The best work in this hodgepodge collection is the one piece of fiction, “Goliah,” but there are also a few good political essays that continue the arguments begun in War of the Classes. (3 stars)
Highlights: Besides “Goliah,” the best entries are “What Life Means to Me” and “The Dignity of Dollars”

John Barleycorn (1913)
Though it’s not a complete autobiography, it’s the closest London ever came to one. Here he tells the story of his complicated lifelong relationship with alcohol. (5 stars)
Highlights: Read the whole book.

The Cruise of the Snark (1913)
Travel memoir
London’s attempt to sail around the world in a yacht of his own making may have been a failure, but he managed to compile a book’s worth of travel memories on his voyage through the islands of the South Pacific. (2 stars)
Highlights: Surprisingly dull overall. The most memorable destinations are Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas and the leper colony of Molokai.

Posthumous collections

The Human Drift (1917)
Essays, short stories, drama
Cobbled together just after his death, this collection of unimpressive leftovers contains a mixture of essays, articles, and stories, a book review, and two really bad plays. (1.5 stars)
Highlights: None, really

Jack London Reports: War Correspondence, Sports Articles, and Miscellaneous Writings (1970)
Edited by King Hendricks and Irving Shepard
Mostly newspaper articles that London wrote, falling into the three categories listed in the book’s subtitle. (3 stars)
Highlights: All the sports writing is excellent, plus “Our Guiltless Scapegoats: The Stricken of Molokai”

Jack London on the Road: The Tramp Diary and Other Hobo Writings (1979)
Edited by Richard W. Etulain
Diary, memoir, essays, and short stories
A collection of London’s writings on hobo life, both fiction and nonfiction. The previously unpublished “Tramp Diary” chronicles his travels with Kelly’s Army, a cross-country protest march of unemployed laborers. (3.5 stars)
Highlights: “The Apostate,” “The Tramp,” and “What Life Means to Me” are excellent, but can all be found elsewhere. “The Road,” not to be confused with the book of the same name, is also good.

Jack London: The Unpublished and Uncollected Articles and Essays (2007)
Edited by Daniel J. Wichlan
Journalism and essays
26 pieces of short nonfiction that have never been previously published in any collection. For long-lost rarities, there’s a surprising amount of good material included here. (4 stars)
Highlights: Many, including the controversial essay on evolution “The Salt of the Earth,” and articles like “Washoe Indians Resolve to Be White Men,” “Jack London Sees Movies Made of His ‘Sea Wolf’,” and “Jack London Goes to a Burlesque Show”

Jack London, Photographer (2010)
Edited by Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Sara S. Hodson, and Philip Adam
London took over 12,000 photos during his lifetime, but this is the first book to seriously consider his place in the history of photography and photojournalism and treat his pictures as art. (5 stars)
Highlights: Portraiture was his strong suit. He photographed people of many different nations and cultures.

Uncollected Essays and Articles
These pieces sometimes show up in “Complete Works” ebook collections, but do not appear in any of the collections listed above.

“Editorial Crimes—A Protest” (available online)
First published in the February 1901 issue of Dilettante
In this article intended as advice for aspiring authors, London complains about all the editors who were slow to respond to his submissions or failed to pay. (2.5 stars)

“Phenomena of Literary Evolution” (available online)
Published in the October 1900 issue of The Bookman
London explains the modern tendency toward brevity in literature as the product of the evolution of the reading public who, becoming more intelligent over time, no longer wants everything spelt out for them. (3.5 stars)

“Again the Literary Aspirant” (available online)
Published in the September 1902 issue of The Critic
London discusses how writers must please both editors, who are driven by profit motive, and critics, who establish the reputations of the worthy. An overly long and verbose treatment of the obvious. (2 stars)

“What Communities Lose by the Competitive System” (available online)
Originally a lecture, then published in the November 1900 issue of Cosmopolitan
London indirectly pushes Socialism by pointing out the many and varied wastes of time, money, and human effort that are inherent in the Capitalist system. Here his views on business sound a lot like those of Edward Bellamy. (3.5 stars)

“The Impossibility of War” (available online)
Published in the March 1900 issue of The Overland Monthly 
Due to technological advances in modern weaponry, any army choosing to attack is opting for a losing proposition. This, coupled with the economic expense of battle, will mean the end of war. London argues his point well, but of course he was wrong. (3 stars)

I have not included in this list of nonfiction works the three-volume Letters of Jack London, edited by Earle Labor; one reason being because I haven’t read it yet, but also because I think letters not intended for publication fall under the category of biographical research rather than literature. Many volumes of biography and literary criticism have been published on London, several of which I have reviewed here at Old Books by Dead Guys. Eventually when such reviews reach a critical mass I will compile another omnibus post on London biography and criticism, comparing and contrasting the various analyses of this great author’s life and work.

Monday, November 24, 2014

No Pasaran! A Story of the Battle of Madrid by Upton Sinclair

The Spanish Civil War through American eyes
No Pasaran!, a novel by Upton Sinclair about the Spanish Civil War, was originally published in 1937. Just a year earlier General Francisco Franco had begun his ultimately successful attempt to overthrow the democratically elected Republican government of Spain and install a Fascist dictatorship. Sinclair’s novel opens with Rudy Messer, a wealthy American college student, romancing a young lady at a dance club in New York City. Later that evening he accidentally befriends a poor young worker who then begins to educate him in the philosophies of Socialism, Anarchism, Communism, Syndicalism, and other leftist movements. All these various “red” factions have come together to form a united front against the Fascists and their coup in Spain. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe, but many conservative Americans were pro-Franco. Those who feared that FDR’s New Deal would lead to American Socialism saw the people’s government of Spain as a similarly dangerous movement that needed to be thwarted. Rudy is ostracized by his family for befriending the reds, and he and his new comrades are persecuted by members of the American Nazi Party, who favor Franco and the Fascists. As the subtitle indicates, Rudy eventually forms a unit of volunteers to go overseas and fight the Fascists on Spanish soil.

The story is inspirational and educational, but regrettably rather predictable and therefore often dull. Given the dark subject matter, it is also far too lighthearted and optimistic. Messer and his comrades march off to war with all the exuberant zeal of Andy Hardy and friends putting on a talent show. About four decades earlier Sinclair was writing pulp fiction novels about the Spanish-American War like A Prisoner of Morro, in which he gushes with pro-American jingoism and paints the Spaniards as nefarious villains. In No Pasaran! his outlook is much more liberal and far more respectful to the Spanish—as long as they’re workers and not Fascists—yet his patriotism is still evident. This novel may be chock full of pro-Socialist and anti-Fascist propaganda, but Sinclair still can’t resist cheerleading for the stars and stripes. Despite the fact that the resistance to Fascism was the result of an international workers’ movement, he never lets you forget that this is a story about American soldiers.

Stylistically, this novel feels like a dry run for Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series, which would be published from 1940 to 1953. Rudy may not be as cosmopolitan as Lanny, but both are young men of means who begin to realize that not everyone was born with a silver spoon in their mouth. As both men learn about the plight of the poor, labor unrest, and workers’ issues, they begin to sympathize with Socialism, and their respective novels start to resemble textbooks of political discourse rather than historical fiction. As in the Lanny Budd books, Sinclair has certainly done his research here, and he makes an honest effort to examine the political debates from all sides, though he clearly displays a bias toward the left.

If you’re a fan of Upton Sinclair, as I am, then you no doubt have a high tolerance for “issue” novels. His work almost always incorporates a healthy helping of political preachiness, and No Pasaran! is certainly no exception. This is not one of his best works, but it’s a good solid effort. Readers will get an enlightening education on the Spanish Civil War, or at least one side of it.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

The White Company by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Like Ivanhoe’s rowdy cousin
This historical adventure novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was originally published in 1891. The story takes place in 1366 and is loosely based on a real-life company of mercenaries known as the White Company. This novel of knights and chivalry goes to show what most readers of classic adventure literature already know: never underestimate the influence of Sir Walter Scott. Like almost every other novelist prior to World War II, Conan Doyle owes a big debt to Scott’s historical novels. Some scenes here, like a jousting match and an archery contest, feel almost as if lifted directly from Scott’s Ivanhoe, yet Conan Doyle puts his own signature stamp on the subject matter, and in many qualities this work of the student surpasses those of the master.

At the Cistercian Abbey of Beaulieu, in Hampshire, England, one of the monks, Brother John of Hordle, is expelled from the order for some shamefully randy behavior involving wine and women. Simultaneously, Alleyne Edricson, an orphaned youth who has been raised and educated at the Abbey, having reached twenty years of age, is sent forth from this sheltered environment to make his way in the world. This odd couple meets up with a third traveler, Samkin Aylward, a career military man, who informs them of a company of soldiers that will be voyaging to France in search of fortune and glory. The trio sets off in search of Sir Nigel Loring, the noble knight who commands this hardy band.

Besides Sherlock Holmes, Sir Nigel is one of Conan Doyle’s most memorable and lovable characters. This valiant soldier, renowned for his skill and bravery, possesses the short stature, bald pate, and dwindling eyesight of Mr. Magoo. He’s always on the lookout for ways to “advance” himself, meaning any duels to fight, maidens to rescue, or suicide missions to undertake that will contribute to his legendary reputation. Conan Doyle beautifully captures the rough-and-tumble world of these itinerant swordsmen and archers, with a sense of humor that’s much more appealing than Scott’s propensity for overly poetic romanticism.

One thing the novel is lacking is an overarching quest that might serve to unify the book into a cohesive whole. It reads more like a comic book series than a novel. The heroes drift from adventure to adventure, supporting characters come and go, but there’s no single compelling mission that must be accomplished. The soldiers spend most of the novel marching off to war, but it isn’t until the last few chapters that the reader really figures out who they’ll be fighting and what they’re fighting for. Conan Doyle expects his readers to be familiar with the complex political situation of the 14th century, and provides little historical context or explanation. At times he commits the sin so common to Scott: too much atmosphere and not enough plot. He heaps on the local color by the shovel-load, creating a vivid period atmosphere, but is it really necessary to know the life story of every peasant the adventurers pass on the road? The battle scenes are exciting, brutal, and at times surprisingly gory, but they are few and far between.

Ivanhoe may be a more innovative, profound, and important work of literature, but The White Company is simply more fun and entertaining. If you’re in the mood for a rollicking tale of knights and chivalry, this is one of the best examples out there. And if you like this one, Conan Doyle also published a prequel, entitled Sir Nigel, in 1906.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors

A series overview
In 1898, the publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons put out a ten-volume series entitled Stories by Foreign Authors. Each book in the series is a collection of four to six works of European short fiction in English translation, focusing on a different country or region. The breakdown of the ten volumes is as follows. All ten books have been reviewed individually at Old Books by Dead Guys. Click on the links below to read the full reviews.

1. Stories by Foreign Authors: French I
2. Stories by Foreign Authors: French II

3. Stories by Foreign Authors: French III
4. Stories by Foreign Authors: German I
5. Stories by Foreign Authors: German II
6. Stories by Foreign Authors: Spanish
7. Stories by Foreign Authors: Russian
8. Stories by Foreign Authors: Scandinavian
9. Stories by Foreign Authors: Italian
10. Stories by Foreign Authors: Polish, Greek, Belgian, Hungarian

Altogether the ten volumes contain 51 stories by 48 authors, providing a broad and varied overview of European literature in the 19th century. The selections are a pleasant mix of household names (e.g. Zola, Balzac, Tolstoy), Nobel laureates (Bjørnson, France, Heyse, Maeterlinck, Sienkiewicz), lesser-known luminaries, and a few writers who have since faded into obscurity. The best books in the series are the French and Scandinavian volumes. The worst volume, by far, is the Russian volume. Though it features four literary superstars, the editors may well have chosen the most boring stories from each. Despite this one disappointment, the other nine volumes each have their own hidden treasures. If you are interested in classic literature—Romanticism, Naturalism, early Realism—this series is a great way to sample and discover new authors you may not have encountered before.

These books are in the public domain and can be read online and downloaded for free at various sources. For some unexplained reason, Project Gutenberg and Amazon do not have the three French volumes, though they do have the other seven. Wikisource has several volumes, including the French:

If you’re intimidated by the thought of reading ten volumes, you don’t have to, because Old Books by Dead Guys has already done it for you! Below is a list of the ten best stories in the series. These are the ones you just can’t miss.

“Christian Gellert’s Last Christmas” by Berthold Auerbach
from Stories by Foreign Authors: German II
When a peasant is touched by a passage of verse, he makes a pilgrimage to a local university to thank the author in person.

“The Massacre of the Innocents” by Maurice Maeterlinck (Belgian)
from Stories by Foreign Authors: Polish, Greek, Belgian, Hungarian
After a farmer is robbed and his wife and daughters killed, the enraged inhabitants of a Belgian village attack the Spanish soldiers responsible for the act.

“San Pantaleone” by Gabriele D’Annunzio
from Stories by Foreign Authors: Italian
When the sky inexplicably turns blood red, a mob of fanatically religious folk seek solace in their priest, their relics, and their superstitions.

“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant
from Stories by Foreign Authors: French I
A poor woman longs for the luxury and status of a high-class life. When her husband is invited to a ball by his employers, she sees the chance to live her dream, if but for one night.

“Laurette or the Red Seal” by Alfred de Vigny
from Stories by Foreign Authors: French III
An old soldier recalls a story from his naval days when he captained a ship transporting prisoners to the penal colony of Cayenne, Guiana.

“When Father Brought Home the Lamp” by Juhani Aho (Finnish)
from Stories by Foreign Authors: Scandinavian
When a poor family becomes the first in their town to purchase an oil lamp, it becomes an immediate status symbol, elevating them in the eyes of their neighbors.

“The Philosopher’s Pendulum” by Rudolph Lindau
from Stories by Foreign Authors: German I
After having lived a life of disappointment and heartbreak, a man adopts a personal philosophy by which he expects nothing and therefore feels nothing.

“The Substitute” by François Coppée
A petty criminal, raised in reform schools and prisons, decides to turn his life around, gets a real job, and forms a close bond with a new friend.

“Moors and Christians” by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón
from Stories by Foreign Authors: Spanish
The owner of a historic estate finds an old parchment on his property. He suspects it to be a treasure map, but, unable to read Arabic, he must first have it translated.

“The Railroad and the Churchyard” by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (Norwegian)
from Stories by Foreign Authors: Scandinavian
Two close friends suddenly find themselves at odds in a power struggle over local politics. Matters reach a boiling point with the proposal of a new railroad through town.

I have recently learned that this series was a follow up to two previous series published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, Stories by American Authors and Stories by English Authors. Together they add up to twenty more volumes of 19th-century literature, all available for free download from Amazon or Project Gutenberg. Look for them in upcoming posts at Old Books by Dead Guys.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Jennie Gerhardt by Theodore Dreiser

Beats the heck out of Sister Carrie
Jennie Gerhardt is a young woman of eighteen years of age, the daughter of a poor family living in Columbus, Ohio. Her father scrapes by with a series of odd jobs, but he can’t support seven children by himself, so Jennie and her mother call at a downtown hotel looking for housekeeping work. While cleaning at the hotel, they meet Senator Brander, a resident there, who hires the mother and daughter to do his washing. Brander, a charming and attractive man in his fifties who has never married, is immediately taken by Jennie’s unassuming but uncommon beauty. He takes an interest in her family and helps them out financially from time to time. Over the course of regular laundry deliveries, Jennie and Brander become more closely acquainted, and it soon becomes clear that, despite their difference in age and class, his interest in her is more than platonic. Jennie is a good girl, but how can she resist this attractive, charming, older man?

Though Theodore Dreiser is best known for his debut novel Sister Carrie, his second novel Jennie Gerhardt, published in 1911, is superior in almost every way. It’s surprising how similar these two consecutive novels are in terms of subject matter. Both feature a female protagonist born of a lower class who attracts a man from a higher station in life. Both women are thus elevated above their humble breeding into a higher social sphere, but never quite find comfort or safety in their new situation. In the eleven years between the two novels, it appears that Dreiser learned a lot about women. Jennie is a much more complex, realistic, and likeable character than Carrie Meeber. The male leads in each novel are quite similar also—men with established and prestigious positions in the business world who endanger their reputations by taking up with a woman socially beneath them. The one area where Sister Carrie surpasses Jennie Gerhardt is in its depiction of the social and economic conditions of its time, particularly in its scenes of labor unrest. Jennie Gerhardt does explore poverty to some extent, but mostly its an examination of the constricting social conventions and hypocritical moral righteousness rampant in the stratified social structure of the era. It was a time when one instance of premarital sex would brand a woman as a harlot, and anyone who strove to mingle with those financially above them would be firmly reminded of their proper place. Dreiser takes a feminist stance in pointing out the absurdity of such restrictions. Given such a rigid moral code, it’s a wonder how anyone ever got together to make babies.

The most compelling quality of Dreiser’s novel is its authenticity. Jennie is an exceptional girl, by some real-world standards, but she’s no idealized heroine. She makes some stupid mistakes in this book, but they’re real-life mistakes, the kind that you or I or the people we know make every day. Dreiser finds drama in the choices and tribulations of common people and elevates their everyday lives to the level of Greek tragedy. Stylistically, his prose is very much in the vein of Emile Zola’s naturalism. His descriptive passages are marked by an unflinching, almost microscopic realism, yet he goes off into eloquent philosophical asides that ponder the very nature of humanity itself. He’s kinder and gentler than Zola, though. Nothing feels forced or overwrought. I kept expecting that the next turn of the page would bring some monumental tragedy, but it never came. Dreiser shows us realistic people dealing with real-world troubles, yet it’s never dull, sappy, or melodramatic. Though not without its flaws, this novel is an exemplary work of American realism and a compelling read for anyone who enjoys the classic literature of the early 20th century.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: Russian by Ivan Turgenev, et al.

Weak selections from superstar authors
Ivan Turgenev
This collection of Russian short fiction is part of a ten-volume series published in 1898 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, entitled Stories by Foreign Authors. Though the other books in the series offer a mix of famous and lesser-known writers, this volume features nothing but superstars. Despite the fame and glory achieved by these illustrious authors, the selections included here are not their best work, and the collection as a whole is a major disappointment.

Russian literature rose to prominence among world readers during the transition from romanticism to realism. Russian writers, along with those of France, led the vanguard in breaking away from the conventions of the past and defining the new realist style. In Ivan Turgenev’s “Mumu,” a wealthy old woman presides over a house full of servants in Moscow. Among them is a frighteningly gigantic laborer who is both deaf and dumb. After being spurned by a woman, this gentle giant develops a loving attachment to a puppy. In “The Shot,” by Alexander Pushkin, the narrator, an army officer, forms a friendship with a retired soldier. He later questions his judgment of character, however, when his new friend displays indications of cowardice. Both of these are adequately good stories, but they both give an inkling of what’s wrong with Russian realism. Turgenev and Pushkin seem to go out of their way to bore the reader, as if providing any degree of entertainment or satisfaction would be pandering to romantic conventions. Tugenev’s story is a little too cutesy at times, with characters that are often little more than cartoon caricatures. Pushkin’s narrative leads toward two possible outcomes, but in the end he opts for a third option that’s neither interesting nor gratifying but merely fizzles to a halt.

Nikolai Gogol’s story “St. John’s Eve” is a horse of a different color entirely. It’s yet another man-sells-his-soul-to-the-devil story, this time about a servant who wants to marry his rich master’s daughter. That’s my best guess anyway, because it’s really an unintelligible mess. It delivers loads of spooky Halloween imagery expressed in interminable run-on sentences. It opens with a bizarre and pointless intro that makes even the identity of the narrator unclear. It’s hard to say who’s to blame for this epic failure, the author or the translator, so I blame them both.

Not even the greatest Russian writer of all time, Leo Tolstoy, can save this collection. The book closes with a selection that poorly represents this great master, “An Old Acquaintance.” This story is set in an army camp in the Caucasus. What war they’re fighting isn’t important, since the narrative doesn’t concern itself with combat, but revolves around the relationships within the Russian ranks. A former gentleman of the higher class who has fallen on hard times volunteers for military service in hopes of improving his station in life. The officers don’t respect him because he’s poor, and he looks down on the common soldiers because they’re uncultured. 19th-century Russians may have found these class issues fascinating, but for everyone else the story is just a bore. None of the characters, of any rank or class, inspire any interest or sympathy.

Out of all ten volumes of the Stories by Foreign Authors series, this book is clearly the worst. Although intended to showcase the best that Russian literature had to offer in the late 19th century, it only showcases poor editorial choices and weak translations. If you’re looking for an introduction to classic Russian literature, you’d be better off searching elsewhere.

Stories in this collection
Mumu by Ivan Turgenev 
The Shot by Alexander Pushkin 
St. John’s Eve by Nikolai Gogol 
An Old Acquaintance by Leo Tolstoy 

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Salute to University Presses

November 9-15, 2014 is University Press Week
In honor of this occasion, Old Books by Dead Guys pays tribute to these unsung heroes of the publishing world. What is a university press, you ask? As the name indicates, they are usually affiliated with a university or some other scholarly organization, research institute, or think tank. Most are non-profit entities, but they have nothing against selling books and making money. They come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny skeleton-crew outfits to gargantuan behemoths (e.g. Oxford, Cambridge). They differ primarily from commercial publishers in that their mission is to publish works of scholarly import, whether profitable or not. Many books published by university presses are aimed at an academic audience, with the main purpose of advancing the body of knowledge in a particular field of study. 

Prior to the invention of the ebook and the subsequent easy access to free public domain literature, university presses were one of the few places one could turn to for obscure old books by dead guys. They are still the source of most books on literary criticism and biography, as well as many works of foreign literature in translation. Here at OBDG we’re mainly concerned with the humanities—literature, history, philosophy—but of course there are many UPs that focus on the sciences as well.

All I can offer in humble homage to these valuable institutions is to spread the word on some university press editions that have graced the pages of this blog. Looking over the list of titles below, you’ll see that many of these books are so narrow in scope and appeal that they’re unlikely to take the world by storm, yet for those interested in these particular subject areas these are valuable volumes that, were it not for the scholarly mission of university presses, would likely have gone unpublished. Thank you, university presses, for publishing the little books that matter! 

Click on the titles below to read the full reviews:

University of Georgia Press

University of Illinois Press

University Press of Kansas

University of Nebraska Press (and their Bison Books imprint)

Oxford University Press

Princeton University Press

Smithsonian Institution Press

University of Texas Press

Utah State University Press

University of Washington Press

Yale University Press

Friday, November 7, 2014

Jack London Reports: War Correspondence, Sports Articles, and Miscellaneous Writings. Edited by King Hendricks and Irving Shepard

Disappointing war stories, exceptional sports journalism
Jack London is one of America’s greatest fiction writers, but throughout his career he was quite a prolific author of nonfiction as well. Jack London Reports, published in 1970, is a collection of his journalism. The book contains 65 articles, divided into three categories: war correspondence, sports articles, and miscellaneous writings.

You would think that war correspondence would be something that London would excel at, but this section of the book is really an ordeal to get through. In 1904, London traveled to Korea to cover the Japanese-Russian War, but the Japanese military would not allow him to get anywhere near the actual combat, and his attempts to sneak off to the front lines were thwarted. London still managed to write 22 articles complaining about how he wasn’t being allowed access to the war, and his disappointment and disgust are palpable. The result is a series of boring stories about horses and dreary accounts of travel over muddy roads. Despite his animosity for the Japanese, London expresses admiration for their military precision, but he unsympathetically portrays the Koreans as if they were all dumb country bumpkins.

His attitude toward the Mexicans isn’t much better. His coverage of the American occupation of Veracruz in 1914 makes it clear that he views our southern neighbors as a nation of children who need a white savior to come and clean up their third-world mess. Even so, his writing on the Mexican Revolution is definitely better than his work from Korea. In his excellent essay “The Trouble Makers of Mexico,” he demonstrates a keen understanding of the complex web of Mexican politics. Still, though I have a personal interest in Mexican history, London still managed to bore me with most of these articles.

His sports writing, on the other hand, far exceeded my expectations, and I am by no means a sports fan. London wrote ten articles on the Schützenfest, a shooting competition that took place in San Francisco in 1901. There are also fifteen articles about boxing, culminating in the 1910 “Fight of the Century” between James Jeffries and Jack Johnson. I couldn’t care less about either one of these sports, but London’s writing is truly enthralling. He thoroughly examines the mechanics of each sport, its history and customs, and finds ingenious ways to connect modern athletic competition with the evolutionary survival of the fittest. These pieces are truly a cut above typical sports reportage.

The final section of the book includes 11 articles on miscellaneous subjects. About half of these can be found in other collections; the rest are rarities only found here, though they cover familiar ground. Standouts include “The Story of an Eye-Witness,” London’s account of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906; “The Road,” a sociological study of tramp culture; and “Our Guiltless Scapegoats: The Stricken of Molokai,” about the Hawaiian leper colony.

This book begs comparison with The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, a two-volume collection of journalism by the author of The Octopus and McTeague, who started out as a staff writer for the San Francisco Wave. In most cases, Norris is the better journalist, able to draw interesting, poetic prose from even the most mundane subject matter, but London is by far the superior sports writer. His boxing analyses beat the heck out of Norris’s dull football stories any day. Overall, the articles contained in Jack London Reports are hit and miss. Only the most curious of London aficionados, or avid boxing enthusiasts, should delve into this book.

Articles in this collection:
The Japanese-Russian War (22 articles)
The Mexican Conflict (7 articles)
Sports Articles (25 articles)
Miscellaneous Writings (11 articles, listed below):
The Home-Coming of the Oregon
The Road
Housekeeping in the Klondike
The Terrible and Tragic in Fiction
Stranger Than Fiction
The Yellow Peril
The Story of an Eye-Witness
If Japan Wakens China
Navigating Four Horses North of the Bay
Our Guiltless Scapegoats: The Stricken of Molokai
My Hawaiian Aloha

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Promise by Pearl S. Buck

The sequel to Dragon Seed
The Promise, a novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck, was originally published in 1943. It is a sequel to Buck’s 1942 novel Dragon Seed, but the publisher of the ebook edition gives no indication of this whatsoever. Only after I began reading the book did I realize, “Hey, I already know all these characters.” It’s important to note because if you haven’t already read Dragon Seed you’ll be lost in chapter one. Dragon Seed described the 1939 Japanese invasion of eastern China, as told through the eyes of Ling Tan and his family, who live in a village outside Nanking. The Promise opens in 1941. The family is still living under Japanese occupation. One son, Lao San, who goes by the name of Sheng in this novel, has left home and is battling the invaders as a freedom fighter.

The Promise referred to in the title is explained in chapter one. The people of Mei and Ying promised to come to the aid of China if they were ever attacked. Now the Chinese people are waiting and hoping that these two great nations will live up to that promise. Mei is America and Ying is England. Sheng leads a military expedition into British-occupied Burma to help the Brits repel the Japanese invasion there. While in Burma, the Chinese forces are commanded by an American, who may or may not be based on a real historical figure. As she typically does, Buck writes this historical novel with almost no specific proper nouns. For example, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Chinese military, and his wife are referred to simply as the Ones Above. Nevertheless, despite the deliberate obscurity, the reader does get an education into this lesser-known campaign of World War II. Told from a Chinese perspective, the story depicts the Americans and Brits as well-intentioned imperialists whose racist attitude toward their Asian subjects leads to the needless loss of human lives.

Stylistically, Buck’s writing is like a cross between the socially conscious realism of the early 20th century, like The Grapes of Wrath and The Jungle, and the romantic television miniseries of the 1970s, like The Thorn Birds or Rich Man, Poor Man. Her novels are intelligent, moving, and skillfully crafted, with just a hint of sweet, sticky sap flowing beneath the surface. Still, those with a tolerance for romanticism will not only not mind this aspect of Buck’s work but will in fact come to enjoy it. This sequel is actually superior to its predecessor. Dragon Seed was marked by an uncomfortable inconsistency. The first half of the book consisted of brutally realistic depictions of war crimes, while the second half was all rosy optimism. The Promise proceeds on a much more even keel, rarely resorting to either extreme, and the book is better for it. Though it lacks the shocking, indelible scenes of atrocity that punctuate Dragon Seed, The Promise is a thoroughly engaging saga that convincingly conveys the stirring urgency of the life and death struggles of wartime. The final chapter is a bit weak, but not enough to discount the strength of the book as a whole.

Buck is best-known, of course, for her House of Earth trilogy, consisting of The Good Earth, Sons, and A House Divided. Could Dragon Seed and The Promise be the beginning and middle volumes of another trilogy? Though I’ve found no evidence to support this theory, given the ending of this book and the title of her next novel, China Flight, I suspect this is the case. After the experience I had reading this book, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Ling Tan and his family show up unannounced in another of Buck’s books.

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Monday, November 3, 2014

Temple Trouble by H. Beam Piper

Get me to the church on (para)time
Paratime Police officer Verken Vall is at it again. H. Beam Piper’s science fiction novella Temple Trouble was originally published in the April 1951 issue of the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. In this fourth installment of the Paratime series, Vall is once again tasked with maintaining order and keeping the peace in one of the myriad alternate timelines that exist in a different space-time reality than our own. On many of these parallel timelines, in the Fourth Level Proto-Aryan Sector, there exists a pre-mechanical civilization that worships a six-armed god named Yat-Zar. The same bureaucracy that governs the Paratime Police has co-opted this god for their own ends and installed their transtemporal agents as priests within his temples. They use this religious subterfuge to conceal the fact that they are mining these worlds’ uranium and transporting it back to their own timeline. In Piper’s Paratime universe, there are all sorts of rules and regulations that restrict transtemporal travelers from messing with other timelines, but apparently raping other civilizations of their resources is OK as long as one can go about it undetected. On one particular timeline, however, a political coup has overthrown the existing king in favor of a new ruler, who establishes a new god, Muz-Azin, in place of the convenient Yat-Zar. Some of the priests/miners are captured and sentenced to brutal torture and human sacrifice. It’s up to Vall and his team to rescue these prisoners before the bloodshed starts.

If that sounds confusing as all get out, I assure you Piper’s telling is even more bewildering. The first half of Temple Trouble is basically a disorienting mess of proper nouns which, typical of ‘50s sci-fi, are composed primarily of X’s, K’s, and V’s. It’s difficult if not impossible to keep track of who exactly belongs to which religious sect or political faction. In Piper’s works, overwhelming the reader is intentional; he draws you into his complex world by subjecting you to full immersion. Thankfully, the second half of the book is basically a rescue operation, and an entertaining one at that. As usual, Piper combines familiar action-movie gunplay with mind-bending futuristic gadgets. The fictional universe of Paratime is a brilliant construction, and Piper exploits his creation’s possibilities to the fullest. He never settles for the most simple or convenient solution to a story, but always opts for a complicated plot with political intricacy and philosophical depth.

If you’ve never read H. Beam Piper, this is not the way to introduce yourself to his work. You’d be better off starting with the earlier and more user-friendly novella Police Operation. Those who already enjoy Piper’s writing and are familiar with his Paratime universe will have to admit that this is not the best installment in the series, but it does deliver enough of its author’s visionary imagination and wry sense of humor to satisfy ardent fans. Verken Vall has had more interesting and exciting adventures than this, but a ride-along with him on Paratime patrol is never a waste of time.

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