Monday, December 29, 2014

Uller Uprising by H. Beam Piper

The perils of (interstellar) colonialism
Uller Uprising, a novel by H. Beam Piper, is the first piece in his series of works known as the Terro-Human Future History, in which he speculatively delineates the future of human civilization, both on Earth and abroad. The story takes place around the year 2400 and focuses on the human colonization of two planets in the Beta Hydrae system—Uller and Niflheim. Uller is an inhabited world with a native population and an established Terran military presence. Niflheim is a harsh, uninhabitable planet utilized for its mineral resources. Uller Uprising was first published in a collection entitled The Petrified Planet, in which scientist John D. Clark described the scientific characteristics of the two hypothetical planets, and then invited sci-fi authors to write fictional stories about them.

Life on Uller is silicon- rather than carbon-based, and the native Ullerans—nicknamed “Geeks” by the Terrans—are intelligent reptilian creatures with four arms and lizard-like heads. They are organized into all manner of confusing races and kingdoms, some of which are friendly towards the Terran colonists and some of which are hostile. Those in the latter category form an organized revolution against the Terran Federation, and it’s up to General Carlos von Schlichten to put a stop to it.

At its beginning and end this book is clever, imaginative, and fun. In the middle, however, there’s about five chapters that wear on you. Piper describes the battle between the Terrans and the rebels with all the detailed minutiae of a scholarly monograph on military history. It’s more like watching pieces on a chess board than experiencing ground-level combat. There are six or seven space vehicles at play, and the reader is continually kept abreast of where they are, what they’re hauling, and where they’re headed. Piper is an unapologetic gun nut, and he lovingly describes the calibre and capabilities of each and every piece of armament employed in the conflict.

Piper’s works often reveal his rather conservative political views, and rarely is that more apparent than in this novel. Early in the book there’s a smidgen of lip service given to “Geek rights,” but overall the book is clearly in favor of the conquerors subduing their primitive subjects and protecting the imperialist interests of the Federation. Independence is clearly not an option for the Ullerans, as they require the helping hand of their big brothers from Earth to guide them through the process of civilizing themselves. What the Terrans finally come up with as the answer to all their prayers—the linchpin that will put an end to the rebellion—will seem ridiculous to today’s readers, but it’s a beautifully kitschy reflection of the American mindset in the early 1950s.

I don’t agree with the message of the book or with Piper’s political views, nor do I share his ballistic enthusiasm, but I do admire his visionary imagination and his ability to create fascinating and intricately detailed alternate worlds. He does a brilliant job of visualizing Dr. Clark’s theoretical planets and crafting a site-specific adventure story around them. If you take Uller Uprising at face value as futuristic pulp fiction, it’s a lot of fun. Though not as entertaining as some of the works in Piper’s Paratime series, I am now sufficiently intrigued by the Terro-Human Future History concept to want to follow the series and see where it leads.

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Friday, December 26, 2014

Life and Death and Other Legends and Stories by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Short cuts
Despite its unnecessarily long title, Life and Death and Other Legends and Stories is a thin volume of short works by Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz. This collection was first published in 1904 and contains English-language translations of five brief writings.

The collection opens with its title selection, “Life and Death: A Hindu Legend.” As the subtitle indicates, this is Sienkiewicz’s retelling of an ancient Indian myth. It explains how Brahma created a bipartite world consisting of the Plain of Life, governed by Vishnu, and the Plain of Death, governed by Siva, and how he tailored this division to suit the needs of mankind. This is simply a beautiful tale well-told. In “Is He the Dearest One?” a mother is visited by a wanderer who brings her news of her sons. This one’s so brief there’s little point in summarizing it, but despite its brevity it’s a moving piece. “A Legend of the Sea” is the least effective selection of the book. Sienkiewicz describes a majestic ship named The Purple that is obviously a metaphor for some nation, Poland being the most likely candidate. The author makes his point, but the analogy between ship and country feels forced at times, and the story just isn’t all that interesting. “The Cranes,” on the other hand, succeeds far better. It’s an autobiographical sketch of his time spent in California, describing one period when he felt particularly homesick for mother Poland. In addition to being perhaps Poland’s most patriotic author, Sienkiewicz is also unapologetically pro-Christian. Lest we forget, he gives us “The Judgment of Peter and Paul on Olympus,” in which the two apostles journey to the mythical mountain to pass judgment on the pagan gods of the Greek pantheon.

All five stories are very short, so they tend to end abruptly and leave the reader wanting more. That said, for the most part they succeed in what they set out to accomplish. It’s doubtful that Sienkiewicz intended any of these short-shorts to be masterpieces, and they aren’t masterpieces, but together they make for a pleasant 65-page read. The English translations are by Jeremiah Curtin, the perennial translator of Sienkiewicz’s works. If you’re a fan of Sienkiewicz, you’ve no doubt come across reviews that complain about Curtin’s inadequate translation skills. Perhaps that’s true for the complex historical novels, but for these simple stories he does a fine job. The English prose is fluid and elegant.

Sienkiewicz and Curtin published a handful of these hodgepodge collections of short works in translation, among them So Runs the World, Sielanka: An Idyll, Hania, and Lillian Morris and Other Stories. None of them measures up to the power of his great novels, but each has its own buried treasures, and this one’s pretty good overall. Besides, the whole book can be read in little more than a half hour, so what have you got to lose?

Works in this collection
Life and Death: A Hindu Legend 
Is He the Dearest One?
A Legend of the Sea 
The Cranes 
The Judgment of Peter and Paul on Olympus 

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Stories by American Authors, Volume II by Frank R. Stockton, et al.

Second book even worse than the first
Frank R. Stockton
This is the second book in the ten-volume series Stories by American Authors, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884. It contains six short stories by six writers who were perhaps notable in their day but are little-known to today’s readers. While I usually enjoy reading classic literature of this time period, I was not impressed with Volume of this series. Volume II, I’m sorry to say, is even more of a disappointment.

A few of the stories are OK, but nothing that anyone should go out of their way to read. “The Transferred Ghost” by Frank R. Stockton is about a benevolent spirit who helps a wishy-washy young man with his love life. Despite one clever twist to the typical ghost story, it’s basically just another run-of-the-mill “will he propose?” yarn. “Sister Silvia” by Mary Agnes Tincker is set in a mountain village outside of Rome. An Italian girl is raised with the intention that when she reaches womanhood she will become a nun, but at the eleventh hour she falls in love. It starts out well enough but gets more predictable as it goes on, ultimately concluding with an unsatisfying ending. The best story in the book is “Mrs. Knollys” by “J.S. of Dale.” A young couple spends their honeymoon at a glacier in Austria, but the bride becomes a widow when her groom falls into a crevasse. There are some genuinely moving moments in this one, but it’s frustratingly executed. Too many unintelligible passages are clogged up with unnecessary German phrases and dubious glaciology.

And that was the better half. 
“A Martyr to Science” by Mary Putnam Jacobi is about a physiologist, depressed over the death of his wife and kids, who loses himself in his research, much of which is ethically questionable. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the story has a really interesting premise, but it just takes forever to develop, and the result is a major bore. Clearly the worst selection in the book is the story by John Eddy entitled “A Dinner-Party: Was it a Success?” To answer the subtitle: no. This is simply the worst story I’ve read in a long, long time. After an interminably pointless dinner conversation it turns into a convoluted mystery. Half the time it’s an unreadable mess, and the other half just doesn’t make any sense. Not much better is “The Mount of Sorrow” by Harriet Prescott Spofford, which proves yet again that if a character is wearing half a locket around her neck, it’s a pretty safe bet that by the end of the story she’s going to find the other half.

Prior to the invention of movies and television, stories such as these were the primary source of entertainment for our great-grandparents’ generation. The experience of reading this book is likely very similar to picking up the latest issue of a literary review like Harper’s, The Argosy, or Century Magazine at an 1880s newsstand. The problem is, most of the stuff that was published in those scores of pulp magazines was mediocre at best. Somewhere amid all that disposable paper and ink there occasionally lies an exceptional work of literature that deserves to be plucked from obscurity and preserved for posterity. The responsibility for that search and rescue operation lies with the editors of collections such as this. In this case, however, the folks at Scribner’s who assembled this series did not perform their duty conscientiously. It’s hard to believe that anyone would consciously choose to include “A Dinner-Party” or “The Mount of Sorrow.” If this is an accurate representation of the best short stories America had to offer at the time, then our nation should have been collectively ashamed of itself.

Stories in this collection
The Transferred Ghost by Frank R. Stockton 
A Martyr to Science by Mary Putnam Jacobi, M. D. 
Mrs. Knollys by J. S. of Dale 
A Dinner-Party by John Eddy 
The Mount of Sorrow by Harriet Prescott Spofford 
Sister Silvia by Mary Agnes Tincker

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Monday, December 22, 2014

The Best of 2014

Top ten books of the year
As 2014 draws to a close, it’s time to take a look back at some of the best books that have appeared here at this blog over the past twelve months. These are books that I have read (or reread) and reviewed in the past calendar year. Of course, since this is Old Books by Dead Guys, many of these works were published decades ago, but some of them were new to me and may be new to you. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.


Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo (1874)
Fiction (Novel), Classic Literature
Hugo’s novel of the French Revolution (of 1793, hence the title) captures both the glory and the devastation of this epic conflict. It’s a monumental masterpiece of tragedy and triumph, starring an all-star cast of larger-than-life heroes.

The Great Shadow by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)
Fiction (Novel), Classic Literature
A lesser-known work by Conan Doyle, but undeserving of its obscurity. This excellent adventure novel tells a romantic tale of love, war, and intrigue set in the Napoleonic Era.

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (1895)
Fiction (Novel), Classic Literature, Science Fiction
Wells’s groundbreaking sci-fi classic tells the story of a nameless English gentleman’s journey to the year 802,701, where he witnesses a wonderfully dark dystopian vision of mankind’s evolutionary and political future.

The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt (1900)
Fiction (Novel), Classic Literature
In this excellent work of social commentary, Chesnutt, an author of mixed race ancestry, paints a remarkably candid and enlighteningly detailed depiction of race relations in the American South during the years immediately following the Civil War.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)
Fiction (Novel), Classic Literature, Mystery
If you’re only going to read one Sherlock Holmes mystery in your life, this is the one. It’s the great detective’s quintessential case, packed with spooky gothic atmosphere, finely drawn characters, gripping suspense, and brilliant storytelling.

The Treasure by Selma Lagerlöf (1903)
Fiction (Novel), Classic Literature, Horror
In 16th-century Sweden, a quiet coastal village is shaken by violent crime and supernatural phenomena. This dark fable of love and loyalty by Nobel Prize winner Lagerlöf may be brief, but it packs a powerful punch.

Police Operation by H. Beam Piper (1948)
Fiction (Novella), Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction
I read several of Piper’s time-travel novellas this year, a few of which could merit a spot on this list, but I choose this one to represent them all. This novella lays the foundation for his Paratime series of stories about cops who patrol alternate timelines. It combines visionary science fiction with good ol’ fashioned pulp adventure.

Creation by Gore Vidal (1981)
Fiction (Novel), Modern Literature, Historical Fiction
Vidal’s masterpiece chronicles the adventures of a 5th-century-BC Persian diplomat who journeys to India, China, and Greece, interacting with famous political figures and debating the meaning of life with luminaries like Socrates, Confucius, Lao Tzu, and the Buddha. A must-read for anyone interested in the ancient world.

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose (1997)
American History, Biography
Perhaps the best one-volume summary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Ambrose combines a biography of Lewis with a concise retelling of the Corps of Discovery’s cross-country trek. He also delves into the fascinating preparations for and aftermath of the epic journey. 

Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor (2013)
Biography, Classic Literature
The best biography ever written about London, one of America’s greatest authors, whose life was every bit as adventurous as the larger-than-life heroes of his stories.  


Friday, December 19, 2014

Creation by Gore Vidal

An epic philosophical journey through the ancient world
These days a lot of praise, admiration, and money is heaped upon authors who create alternate worlds—J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, for example—with all their myriad characters, intricacies, and intrigues. As they say, however, truth is stranger than fiction, and for my money no fictional world is ever as fascinating as the history of the real world in which we live. Rarely is this more evident than in Gore Vidal’s 1981 novel Creation. Set in the 5th century BC, Vidal’s book depicts the ancient civilizations of Europe and Asia with all the complexity, drama, and wonder of even the most innovative of fictional universes.

Cyrus Spitama is the grandson of the holy man Zoroaster and a citizen of the Persian Empire, at that time the world’s most powerful kingdom. Through his hereditary position as a religious leader, coupled with his conniving mother’s diplomatic skills, he develops close ties to the royal family. He and Prince Xerxes are raised almost as brothers. After reaching manhood, he is commissioned as an ambassador and leads diplomatic missions to present-day India, China, and Greece. Over the course of his journeys he meets a host of historic personages. To protect and further the interests of Persia, he matches wits with political figures like Themistocles and Pericles of Athens, Bimbisara and Ajatashatru of Maghada, Pasenadi of Koshala, and several rival nobles of the states of Qin and Lu. Spitama also takes advantage of the opportunity to debate metaphysics with some of the most notable philosophical and religious figures of all time, including Socrates, Mahavira, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, and Confucius. One question that continually puzzles Spitama is one that Zoroaster failed to adequately answer: What is the origin of everything—the secret of creation?

The list above merely represents the highlights of Vidal’s all-star cast. The fact that all of these luminaries existed on earth at the same time is truly amazing. Of course, it defies belief to think that one man could ever meet them all, but this is fiction after all, and great fiction it is. Rarely will you find a work that’s both as entertaining and as intellectually stimulating as Creation. In the 1970s and ‘80s, historical novelists were a dime a dozen, but Vidal’s work is clearly a cut above the rest. His comprehensive research and attention to detail is easily a match for the works of James Michener, but his literary skills are far superior, more on a par with classic authors like Henryk Sienkiewicz or Alexandre Dumas. Vidal’s characters are not just cardboard cutouts meant to represent famous figures in a history pageant. In addition to recreating the sights and sounds of the past, he populates his story with realistically complex characters who not only look and act like people of ancient times, they think like them too.

The one caveat with Creation is that it requires a fair amount of concentration. This is not a book you read on the beach while your kids are building a sand castle next to you. There’s a lot of historical data packed into every page. It helps to have some prior knowledge of the Persian Empire and its wars with Greece. In fact, the more you know about the history of this era the more you will appreciate how Vidal brings it to life. Anyone with an avid interest in the ancient world will love this book. It’s one of my all-time favorite novels.
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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Insurgent Mexico by John Reed

Sensationalized, but not sensational
Journalist John Reed is most famous for his coverage of the Russian Revolution, but prior to that he was a war correspondent in the Mexican Revolution. Insurgent Mexico, published in 1914, collects 42 of Reed’s reports from Mexico. Reed’s writing is really a cut above typical journalism and often approaches the vivid imagery and emotional power of well-written historical fiction. By comparison, Jack London’s writings from Mexico at about the same time period seem wooden and tame, like the observations of a detached sociologist. Reed makes you feel like you’re on the ground with the soldiers. This is the book’s great strength, but it may also be its biggest fault. Though he excels at describing the gritty reality of camp life and the details of troop movements, Reed rarely steps back and takes a broader view of the war.

As individual articles, most of the pieces included here are pretty strong, but when read together in book form there is a great deal of redundancy that gradually becomes more and more tedious as the book progresses. I have travelled extensively in Mexico and have an avid interest in the history of the nation, but this book managed to bore even me. When battles appear they are riveting, but they’re few and far between. Mostly, the book is a series of campfires around which the revolutionaries and peons chew the fat and party while waiting to be called into action. Reed traveled around northern Mexico where Pancho Villa and his Constitutionalist forces were fighting the Federal army, and he spent a great deal of time with Villa himself. Whenever Villa appears in the book, he lights up the page. Reed’s portrait of him is complex, colorful, and captivating. The President of the Constitutionalist movement, Venustiano Carranza, gets less coverage than Villa, but Reed provides an equally intriguing profile of this enigmatic leader.

When it comes to the lesser generals, common soldiers, and the average peasants, however, Reed’s subjects are largely indistinguishable from one another. The view he offers of the Mexican people is the romanticized perspective one often associates with the Revolution. He emphasizes their joie de vivre with many scenes of drinking, dancing, singing, and gambling. He also revels in depictions of their fearlessness of death and nonchalance toward violence. These Mexicans gaily fire guns at one another over the most trifling matters. Reed’s intention is to entertain American readers by playing up the Mexicans’ devil-may-care attitude, but in doing so he unintentionally reinforces a stereotype that they’re all a bunch of dumb, third-world rednecks. To be fair, there are also quite a few passages where Reed poetically captures the sublime beauty of the landscape or the artistic richness of Mexican culture. Despite my quibbles about political correctness, my biggest complaint about the book is that it’s far duller than it should be. The final chapter is its absolute nadir—an interminably long description of a religious play that offers little insight into the nation in question or its people.

Reed’s take on the Revolution is more sensationalized than the perspective one gets from reading works of Mexican fiction like Mariano Azuela’s Los de Abajo or Juan Rulfo’s The Burning Plain. Nevertheless, he does provide a first-hand account of Mexico during this tumultuous period, even if it is from an outsider’s perspective. Anyone with an ardent interest in the Mexican Revolution should read Insurgent Mexico—there are enough informative details to make it worth your while—but those with only a casual interest in the subject can skip it.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Ten Tales by François Coppée

Master of the short-short story
François Coppée
Ten Tales is a collection of short stories by French writer François Coppée, published in English translation in an American edition of 1890. The introduction by Brander Matthews explains that Coppée is a master of the Conte, a distinctly French form of fiction which falls somewhere between a brief sketch and a full short story. Though Coppée is not a household name among today’s English-language readers, the quality of these stories makes a strong case that perhaps he should be.

Coppée’s writing lies somewhere between the naturalistic realism of Emile Zola and the more fanciful, allegorical storytelling of Honoré de Balzac, but with a lighter, less pessimistic outlook than either. Though he at times covers some tragic subject matter, he does so from a matter-of-fact perspective without resorting to gratuitous melodrama. A common theme that runs through many of these stories is sacrifice. Characters give up their freedom, their vices, or their lives for the benefit of family, friends, and loved ones. There is a romantic heroism to such renunciations, but Coppée presents them frankly as unidealized instances of the dignity of the common man. These tales speak for the shopkeepers, retired soldiers, petty criminals, and working stiffs of Paris. Coppée’s characters are ordinary individuals who, just like real people, are sometimes thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

One of the strongest stories in the book is simply titled “At Table.” Coppée describes a sumptuous banquet thrown by wealthy nobles, but one guest, dubbed the Dreamer, contemplates the misery that the lower classes had to endure to make such a luxurious repast possible. Though it’s poetic rather than preachy, it could serve as a stirring socialist manifesto. The weakest piece in the book is “The Sabots of Little Wolff,” a brief Christmas fable, predictable and cloying, that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the selections here.

This book is not without its flaws, but most of them are the fault of the translator or editors rather than the author. Do not read the introduction before reading the stories, because Matthews will spoil them all for you. Unfortunately, a few otherwise perfect stories like “The Substitute” and “A Voluntary Death” are spoiled by their own titles. The translation can be awkward at times, employing a fair amount of clunky, antiquated vocabulary that may hinder the understanding of today’s readers. The ebook file that’s available for free on Amazon has one other weird defect. The original printed edition was illustrated, but the ebook version does not contain the illustrations, which is fine. However, someone inserted written descriptions of the illustrations into the text, and they are typographically indistinguishable from Coppée’s prose. So in mid-paragraph you might come across a sentence like “Two geese, strolling across the bottom of the page.” The reader has to learn to overlook such distractions in order to fully enjoy the book.

Coppée’s work deserves a better Kindle file, but these tales are worth the trouble. Anyone enthusiast of A-list French writers like Zola, Balzac, or Flaubert should familiarize themselves with Coppée. These days he may be considered a member of the B-team, but he’s an overachiever that will surprise you.

Stories in this collection
The Captain’s Vices 
Two Clowns 
A Voluntary Death 
A Dramatic Funeral 
The Substitute 
At Table 
An Accident 
The Sabots of Little Wolff 
The Foster Sister 
My Friend Meutrier

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Friday, December 12, 2014

The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill

Workingman’s blues
I’m not big on reading plays, but in Eugene O’Neill’s case I can always make an exception. His stirring and thought-provoking plays, among the best ever written in the history of American drama, earned him the 1936 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Hairy Ape, first produced in 1922, is one of O’Neill’s better-known works and also one of his most affecting and unforgettable.

The curtain rises on a group of stokers lounging in the forecastle of a transatlantic steamship. Each in turn displays the brutish characteristics of the Neanderthal, but one among them in particular is clearly King of the Cavemen. Yank is an immense, troglodytic figure with a simple mind and a simple pride in the work he performs with his massive muscles. This pride is shaken, however, when a beautiful young socialite with a desire to see how the other half lives ventures into the filthy stokehole. At first sight of Yank she is gripped with horror, as if viewing some monstrous subhuman creature. This reaction is an eye opener for Yank, as he is forced for the first time to recognize his position in the class structure of society. He no longer feels the same enthusiasm for his labor and struggles to find a place where he belongs.

On the printed page, O’Neill’s realistic dialogue and vividly descriptive stage directions create an effect not unlike that of reading a novella, allowing the habitual reader of prose fiction to momentarily forget he’s reading a dramatic work. Yet realism for the stage doesn’t always translate into realism on the page. At times in this play O’Neill can carry things a bit too far. The way some scenes are physically described, they seem to venture dangerously close to slapstick. Every image and event in The Hairy Ape is exaggerated to larger-than-life proportions in order to prove a point. Yet this amplification of reality is also one of the play’s strong points, as it makes for some truly indelible imagery. Yank is a symbol of the American laborer, dehumanized by his industrial habitat and left behind in the stratified system of social evolution. Though he makes the modern world go, he fails to reap any benefit for his labors, instead suffering the derision of unworthy parasites who have outsmarted him and live off of his sweat and blood.

Though The Hairy Ape discusses the conflict between labor and capital, it bears little resemblance to many of the leftist “message” dramas produced during the early 20th-century. Upton Sinclair’s plays, for example, focus on specific political or social issues and discuss them in a fairly straightforward, didactic style. The Hairy Ape, on the other hand, uses expressionistic imagery and allegorical narrative to make a grand statement about universal humanity in the modern era. While in Sinclair’s works, Socialism is always the answer, O’Neill offers no answer for Yank. He merely forces the audience to confront the epic tragedy of this working man’s existence.

Even reluctant readers of drama should give O’Neill a try. Unfortunately, only a few of his works are in the public domain, but luckily this is one of them. If you enjoy realist writers of the early 20th century, in particular socially conscious authors like Sinclair, Jack London, or John Steinbeck, The Hairy Ape will be right up your alley.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt

Fable of the Reconstruction
Charles W. Chesnutt was an author of mixed African American and white European ancestry. His first novel, The House Behind the Cedars, was published in 1900. It takes place in the American South a few years after the Civil War. John Warwick pays a visit to Patesville, North Carolina, the town where he grew up. He has since made a name for himself as a successful lawyer in Clarence, South Carolina. Despite his admirable position and achievements, he chooses to keep his hometown return a secret. Warwick is an assumed name, and he sneaks through the streets avoiding recognition. He has come seeking his sister Rena, with the intention of taking her back with him to South Carolina, in hopes of elevating her station in life to a level equal with his own. His family has a big secret that must be kept at all costs if his plan is to succeed.

Chesnutt doesn’t tell the reader what this secret is. He skillfully keeps that detail hidden, slowly dropping hints and innuendos. If you know anything about the author, you’ve got a pretty good idea as to the nature of this skeleton in the closet, and by the time Chesnutt reveals the truth it’s more like a recognition of assumed fact than the dropping of a bomb. The House Behind the Cedars offers a fascinatingly nuanced portrait of race relations in the American South. After the Civil War, blacks were nominally free, but few enjoyed the full rights of free people. One drop of African blood was enough to mark someone as a second-class citizen. Chesnutt illustrates the difficulty of living under this oppressive code of racial segregation. Some of the whites are outright racists, while others are favorably disposed toward equality. Some appear one way on the surface, but beneath a liberal facade lie deep-seated prejudices. Chesnutt also explores racism within the black community between those of lighter and darker complexions. The picture he paints of the Southern social landscape is intriguingly complex and diverse. While the subject matter calls to mind William Faulkner, Chesnutt tells his story in the straightforward naturalistic voice of turn-of-the-last-century realists like Hamlin Garland and Frank Norris.

The book’s one major flaw is that it relies far too heavily upon coincidence to move the plot forward. The Carolinas must be small territory indeed if people run into each other as often as they do in this novel. But this is fiction, after all, and at times departures must be made from reality in order to make a point or simply to entertain. After a while the story morphs into a romance like something Anthony Trollope might have written. Readers of today, so used to cinematic and literary depictions of white brutality against blacks in the 19th-century South, might consider this story a bit too rosy to be credible. Nowadays when it comes to this subject matter, we almost expect violence and cruelty. Though that threat is ever-present, Chesnutt’s tale is more concerned with social and moral dangers. He lived through these times, as a man of mixed race, and there is a ring of truth in his forthright prose that begs to be believed.

This is my first experience reading Chesnutt’s work, and he is a remarkable storyteller. The House Behind the Cedars is not only an educational and thought-provoking piece of social commentary, it’s also immensely entertaining. Though it defers to the conventions of Victorian romance fiction when convenient, the story is anything but conventional and the outcome is unpredictable until the very last page. Anyone with an appreciation for classic books should read this excellent novel.

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Monday, December 8, 2014

Stories by American Authors, Volume I by Bayard Taylor, et al.

A lackluster showcase of late 19th-century short fiction
Rebecca Harding Davis
This collection of short stories, originally published in 1884, is the first book in a ten-volume series from the publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons entitled Stories by American Authors. This volume contains five short stories. Even to someone who reads a fair amount of literature from this time period, none of the names on the table of contents are familiar, except Rebecca Harding Davis, who was the mother of the more recognizable Richard Harding Davis. I read collections like this with the hope of discovering new authors that might be of interest to me, but alas, none of the five writers included here offer any evidence that their obscurity is undeserved.

The book opens with “Who Was She?” by Bayard Taylor. A man hiking at a resort finds a notebook dropped by a woman. After reading the contents he falls in love with her, sight unseen, and strives to ascertain her identity. It’s about as silly as it sounds, and is only notable for its precocious inkling of feminism.

In “The Documents in the Case,” by Brander Matthews and H.C. Bunner, an English baron dies, and a search commences for his long-lost eldest son, a ne’er-do-well who fled to America decades ago. The story is told entirely through a series of documents and letters—a clever idea in theory, but in practice the result is tedious, confusing, and often redundant.

The next selection shows more promise. “One of the Thirty Pieces” by William Henry Bishop is built upon the fascinating premise that the thirty pieces of silver that Judas received for betraying Christ are still in circulation. These ancient coins are cursed money that has wreaked havoc through the ages. This very intriguing concept is squandered, however, on a lame story about a shy clerk trying to win the heart of a vivacious beauty.

The aforementioned Mrs. Davis’s offering, “The Balacchi Brothers,” is a run-of-the-mill tale about a duo of circus acrobats. It’s not badly written, and the characters are likable and engaging, but the plot is utterly predictable.

Finally, there’s “An Operation in Money” by Albert Webster. This unrealistic caper tale concerns a bank teller who takes revenge upon the board of directors who refuse to grant him a raise. It tries to be funny while simultaneously making a preachy statement about workers’ rights. These two aims counteract one another so that neither is successful.

After publishing the Stories by American Authors series, Scribner’s put out two more ten-volume series, Stories by English Authors and Stories by Foreign Authors, the latter of which I have read. With the Foreign Authors series, the editors really made an attempt to choose the best writers from each nation of Europe. The purpose of this American Authors series, however, seems to be simply to serve as a dumping ground for stories by writers who don’t merit a collection of their own. At least that’s the impression one gets from reading the lackluster material contained in this debut volume. I have enough faith in Scribner’s to move onto Volume II, but if the selections don’t improve it’s unlikely I’ll put up with all ten books.

Stories in this collection
Who Was She? by Bayard Taylor 
The Documents in the Case by Brander Matthews and H.C. Bunner 
One of Thirty Pieces by William Henry Bishop 
The Balacchi Brothers by Rebecca Harding Davis 
An Operation in Money by Albert Webster 

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