Wednesday, December 30, 2015

BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google by John Palfrey

A call to arms for America’s information institutions
In his 2015 book BiblioTech, John Palfrey responds to those who declare that the coming of the digital age spells the death of libraries. He argues that public libraries, in providing free and equal access to information for all, are essential to the existence of a true democracy. He does agree, however, that libraries are in trouble, and in order to survive, they’re going to have to adapt. The problem is, libraries are currently expected to provide information services through both traditional analog (print) media as well as new digital media, and few institutions have the money or the personnel to do both. To remedy this, Palfrey recommends a two-pronged attack, on the one hand arguing for increased funding for libraries, while on the other hand encouraging libraries to collaborate and consolidate their services, embrace digital technology, and reinvent themselves as “platforms” or on-ramps to extensive networks of digital content. While making this digital transformation, however, libraries must also protect their role as public spaces without devolving into mere community centers. In the present era of information overload, we need librarians more than ever to act as guides through the morass of digital content and to serve as trained, knowledgeable stewards responsible for the preservation of and access to our cultural heritage. In recent years commercial entities like Amazon and Google have attempted to arrest control of information from libraries, and they’re doing a pretty good job of it. If librarians want this trend to stop, they need to act now. This privatization of knowledge, Palfrey contends, undermines the free access to information necessary to a democratic society.

Those presently working or studying in the field of librarianship are likely already familiar with the issues and debates presented here. To that audience, the book offers few surprises, but Palfrey states his case clearly and concisely. As someone who’s currently halfway through an MLS degree program, I think this book would make a great text for an introductory course in library and information science, as a state-of-the-profession overview of the issues facing librarians today. Palfrey means to deliver a much-needed kick in the pants to those Luddite librarians who are falling behind the times, but mostly his arguments are directed at those outside the field—the stakeholders and policymakers who are in a position to assist libraries in their process of change. But how many of those people, outside of librarians themselves, will actually read it? The real value of this book will be the effect it has in stirring debate in the media over the value of libraries. Hopefully, as Palfrey intends, it will influence an increase in public funding for libraries and archives. Sadly, Palfrey makes the depressing observation that even that probably won’t be enough. What libraries really need is a heroic benefactor—a 21st-century Andrew Carnegie—to philanthropically usher them into the digital age, but will anyone step up to the plate?

As a prospective librarian, BiblioTech left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand it inspires optimistic enthusiasm for the digital future of libraries, while on the other it pessimistically questions if we’ll ever make it there. Despite my misgivings, I much prefer Palfrey’s serious and realistic approach to the profession over Marilyn Johnson’s giddy librarian lovefest This Book is Overdue! Anyone who cares about libraries should read Palfrey’s book. Even if the discussion is familiar, his reasoned, well-stated approach will spur your thoughts on the enduring value of libraries, their present precarious position, and how to convey their importance to the public at large.
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Monday, December 28, 2015

Life Without Principle by Henry David Thoreau

American Stoic
Henry David Thoreau
Life Without Principle, an essay by Henry David Thoreau, was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863. It briefly encapsulates much the same argument in favor of individuality and nonconformism that Thoreau championed in his classic memoir Walden, without all the attention paid to natural phenomena. Here Thoreau focuses strictly on human nature and how one should conduct him- or herself in society. In tackling the question of how to live an ethical and happy life, Thoreau, as always, proves himself a wise and insightful teacher.

He begins by talking about business. He points out that too many people are busy working to make a living when they should be working to make a life. One who is engaged in work he doesn’t enjoy is trading away his life for a paycheck, or “sell[ing his] birthright for a mess of pottage.” A better strategy would be to find work that one enjoys doing and do it for the satisfaction of doing it, the money being merely icing on the cake. The natural and eternal joys of life rarely have a high monetary value; instead, far too much effort is expended on material trivialities in the pursuit of keeping up with the Joneses. The more one lives his life according to his own nature, disregarding the popular conception of fortune, the happier and richer he will be.

Thoreau’s doctrine in this essay sounds a lot like the teachings of the ancient Stoic philosophers Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, who urged their students to take a rational, detached look at what was truly important in life. One should distinguish between those occurrences in life over which he has control and those over which he does not have control, focus on the significance of the former, and disregard the distraction of the latter. After thoroughly discussing business and financial matters, Thoreau applies his rational individualism to science and philosophy, religion, journalism, slavery, and politics. The latter category is where Thoreau perhaps diverges the furthest from ancient Stoicism. The Stoics encouraged active involvement in civic life, while Thoreau advocates a deliberate abstention from public affairs. Though on social issues Thoreau was a liberal, as far as politics go he was a libertarian. If everyone were to take care of himself and get his own house in order, he suggests, we would have no need for politics at all.

Thoreau’s vision of life in accordance with nature does not seem as attainable as it may have been a century and a half ago. I’m not sure I would want to live in a society where everyone behaved according to Thoreau’s precepts. Nevertheless, I’m glad there’s a Thoreau, and I think we can all learn a lot from him. We could all stand to take a step back and think about what’s important in life, reconsider the importance of our lives outside of work, waste less time on the pointless trivialities of news and social media (“Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.”), and cultivate our own person rather than slavishly live our lives in response to others’ opinions or conventions. Overall, Life Without Principle is one of Thoreau’s most accessible pieces of writing. Despite references to gold prospectors and slavery, most of the issues he discusses reflect universal aspects of human nature that are still very much applicable to life in the 21st century. This essay will take up less than an hour of your time, and the food for thought Thoreau serves up makes it an hour well spent.
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Friday, December 25, 2015

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

Introducing Lord Peter Wimsey
Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1923 mystery novel Whose Body? is the debut adventure of Lord Peter Wimsey, one of the great gentleman sleuths of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Lord Peter is the second son of the Duke of Denver (England, not Colorado). As an unemployed member of the idle rich, he chooses to spend his free time solving mysteries. He is encouraged in this hobby by his friend Charles Parker, a Scotland Yard detective who consults him on tricky cases. Whose Body? finds Lord Peter with not one but two baffling puzzles on his hands. His mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, comes to him on behalf of a Mr. Thipps, who has inexplicably discovered the dead body of an unknown man in his bathtub. As if to add insult to injury, the corpse is completely naked except for a pair of pince-nez spectacles. Meanwhile, Parker is also working on a case that demands Lord Peter’s attention. Sir Reuben Levy, a prominent financier, has disappeared. Could the stiff in Thipps’s tub be Parker’s missing man?

Comparisons between Wimsey and Sherlock Holmes are inevitable; so inevitable, in fact, that Lord Peter himself makes them. He is an enthusiast of detective fiction, yet a critic of it as well, often pointing out how the killers in mystery novels don’t behave the way real-life murderers would. Though such meta-commentary pokes fun at the classic detective, it’s clear that Lord Peter admires Holmes and likes to consider himself very much in the same league with the fictional detective. As a literary character, however, he doesn’t quite measure up, yet Lord Peter is likely one of the best post-Holmes British investigators, ranking up there with Agatha Christie’s recurring sleuths.

Even less so than Holmes, Lord Peter is not the sort of man I would take a liking to in real life. He has a rather frivolous attitude toward just about everything, including his cases. Often the main concern on his mind is the wearing of proper trousers. He readily admits that his interest in solving mysteries is driven by intellectual exercise; he has little moral interest in punishing wrong-doers. When it comes to crime, he displays a computer-like intelligence, but in all other matters he seems rather air-headed and flighty. If anything the reader identifies with Parker, who fights crime for a living and takes his role as a lawman seriously. One gets the impression that putting up with Lord Peter’s shallow flippancy is a necessity he willing endures in order to get his man and set things right. On the other hand, two qualities I do enjoy about Lord Peter are his interest in collecting rare books and the fact that he enlists the help of his mother—by all measures a charming character—in solving his cases.

As for the mystery itself: “Very pretty,” as Parker remarks, “a bit intricate, though.” For the most part, Sayers’ writing is quite smart and engaging. The solution to the mystery is revealed a little too early, however, and is not surprising enough. Towards the end of the book, a couple passages written in the second person seem like ostentatious stylistic diversions that distract from the story rather than help it. Overall, however, Sayers tells her story very well. Her prose recalls the solid, traditional storytelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Maurice Leblanc sprinkled with risqué suggestions of sex and violence more suited to the modern reader. Though published over 90 years ago, today’s audience will still find Whose Body? fresh and exciting. Despite my few misgivings mentioned above, I enjoyed this book very much and will certainly seek out the further escapades of Lord Peter.
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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Best of 2015

Top ten books of the year
I was in grad school this past year, which put a damper on my pleasure reading. Even so, I still managed to finish just over 100 books this year. This included a satisfying crop of five-star reads—enough for another top ten list. As 2015 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.

The Death of Olivier Becaille by Emile Zola (1884)
Fiction (Novella), Classic Literature
This brief novella is narrated by a dead man. Trapped within his immobilized corpse, he can still hear and feel the goings-on around him. Though the macabre subject matter may call to mind the horror stories of Poe, this novella is actually a fine example of the kind of moving, socially conscious literature one expects from Zola, the French master of naturalism. 

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (1913)
Fiction (Novel), Classic Literature
The powerful story of a family of Swedish immigrants who settle on the plains of Nebraska. When the father dies, he designates his daughter Alexandra to manage the farm, forcing her to face the tough choice between staying put or moving on. Cather finds gripping drama in the everyday lives of these prairie farmers, and her perfect prose relates their epic tale with quiet dignity. Consider this one a prime candidate for Great American Novel.

My Ántonia by Willa Cather (1918)
Fiction (Novel), Classic Literature
A double whammy from Cather! They’re both so good I couldn’t leave one out. Also set in Nebraska; also a masterpiece of American realism. Cather brilliantly depicts the pleasures and pains of growing up in small-town middle America through the story of Ántonia, a Bohemian immigrant girl whose accent and manners brand her as a second-class citizen among the American-born residents of her narrow-minded community.

Dust by Emanuel and Marcet Haldeman-Julius (1921)
Fiction (Novel), Classic Literature
This forgotten gem of American realism, penned by the Kansas couple who published the Little Blue Books, tracks the trajectory of a dysfunctional marriage amid a hardscrabble life on the prairie far more bleak and brutal than that depicted by Cather. This buried treasure deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

Gladiator by Philip Wylie (1930)
Fiction (Novel), Classic Literature, Modern Literature, Science Fiction
Quite possibly the inspiration for the comic book Superman, this novel tells the story of a scientific “guinea pig” endowed with superhuman strength and invulnerability. Although, given the subject matter, one might expect a pulp fiction action tale, Gladiator is really a philosophical work of literature examining man’s search for meaning in the modern world.

The Late Monsieur Gallet by Georges Simenon (1931)
Fiction (Novel), Modern Literature, Mystery
The third book in the Inspector Maigret series (75 novels in all), this one turns out to be one of the Parisian detective’s most intriguing cases. Maigret travels to a town on the Loire River to investigate the murder of a traveling salesman. Simenon handles it masterfully, providing a great ride for the reader. If you’ve never read Maigret, this is a good place to start.

Black Robe by Brian Moore (1985)
Fiction (Novel), Modern Literature, Historical Fiction
In this excellent historical novel, set in 17th-century Canada, a Jesuit priest undertakes a treacherous journey through rugged wilderness to a remote mission among the Huron Indians. Though his job is to convert the Natives, he is plagued by a crisis of faith, while the very people he’s been sent to evangelize view him as a sorcerer. Reads like a James Fenimore Cooper novel with modern sex, violence, and profanity.

Showcase Presents: Strange Adventures, Volume 1 by DC Comics (2008)
Comics, Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction
This collection reprints issues 54 to 72 of the DC Comics series Strange Adventures, originally published in 1955 and 1956. It contains over 500 pages of science fiction classics in beautiful black and white. While the 61 stories included here aren’t all masterpieces, in total they comprise a wonderful celebration of Fifties pop culture and the power of the imagination.

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (2010)
American History, Biography
Everything you’d ever want to know about the Father of Our Country, and then some, in one monumental cradle-to-the-grave biography. This exhaustive study of the life of George Washington may be a long haul, but it’s always accessible, frequently fascinating, and never boring. Chernow strikes a healthy balance between hero worship and myth-busting.

Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike by Charlotte Gray (2010)
American History, Biography
This engrossing history of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-1899 vividly details the meteoric rise and abrupt decline of Dawson City, Yukon. Gray examines the lives of six fascinating characters—prospector Bill Haskell, author Jack London, entrepreneur Belinda Mulrooney, Jesuit priest Father William Judge, journalist Flora Shaw, and Mountie Sam Steele—and the part each played in the birth and death of the ultimate boomtown. 


And since this is Old Books by Dead Guys, the top ten lists never go out of style. See also my best-of lists for 2013 and 2014. Happy reading in 2016!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Black Forest Village Stories by Berthold Auerbach

The shorter the better, the longer the duller
Berthold Auerbach
I first became aware of Berthold Auerbach from his story “Christian Gellert’s Last Christmas,” included in the 1898 collection Stories by Foreign Authors: German II. After reading this excellent short story, I decided to seek out more fiction from this masterful storyteller. Black Forest Village Stories was Auerbach’s first published book, originally appearing in 1843 under the German title of Schwarzwälder Dorfgeschichten. Regrettably, I didn’t find any of the pieces in this collection to be as compelling as the Christian Gellert story, but overall the short stories are of good quality. The problem is, there’s a lot more going on here than just short stories. The collection also contains two novellas and one work that could qualify as a complete novel by itself. Unfortunately, Auerbach’s literary talents have not translated well to these longer format works.

The collection opens with six short stories which together comprise a mere quarter of the book’s total length. The best of these are “The Gawk” and “Manor-House Farmer’s Vefela.” The former is about an awkward young man, nicknamed the gawk, who suffers the jokes and insults of his neighbors in their small Black Forest town. His cousin is the only person who shows him any kindness, so he falls in love with her. To prove his manhood to her, he becomes a soldier. The latter selection tells the tale of a manor-house farmer who is wealthier than his neighbors, a fact for which they resent him. As a result, his daughter, Vefela, suffers the sins of the father and grows up in an antagonistic environment devoid of friends. Auerbach’s stories exhibit a sort of proto-realism—too romantic to be called naturalistic and vice versa. Realistic details of German village life are interspersed with philosophical interludes displaying keen insight into human nature. The stories all take place in the village of Nordstetten, in Wurtemberg, and feature recurring characters throughout. The effect is similar to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, suffused with a touch of the earthy authenticity of Wladyslaw Reymont’s The Peasants.

Ivo, the Gentleman,” about a young man’s journey to the priesthood, is a novel of 15 lengthy chapters, most of which are unnecessary. By the time you get around to caring about the characters, the plodding pace has grown tiresome. Likewise tedious is the novella “The Lauterbacher,” in which a new school teacher arrives in Nordstetten full of idealism, only to be shocked by the close-minded anti-intellectualism of the peasant population. Though ultimately the message of the story turns out to be moving and inspirational, it takes forever to get there. Faring slightly better, but likewise suffering from long-windedness, is “Florian and Crescence.” Florian, a butcher, has just returned to his hometown from Alsace. He finds that his sweetheart Crescence has taken up with a surveyor from the city. While her new boyfriend is educated, has career prospects, and has been granted her father’s approval, Florian is merely a lovable good ol’ boy with tendencies toward gambling, partying, and unemployment. The touching and pathetic story of the titular couple ends up resembling a Bruce Springsteen song set in 19th-century Germany.

Black Forest Village Stories would have been a much better collection if it were comprised entirely of short stories. Instead, the three longer works feel like short story plots that have been stretched out well beyond their welcome and are really an ordeal to get through. Auerbach later wrote a novel entitled On the Heights which is often described as his finest work, but frankly, after reading the three dull novellas included here, I’m scared to even attempt it.

Stories in this collection
The Gawk 
The Pipe of War 
Manor-House Farmer’s Vefela 
Nip-Cheeked Toney 
Good Government 
The Hostile Brothers 
Ivo, the Gentleman 
Florian and Crescence 
The Lauterbacher

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Friday, December 18, 2015

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

There is such a thing as too weird
A war is underway to determine the fate of the universe. Both sides use time travel to change the course of historical events to suit their own ends. These opposing powers, known only as the Spiders and Snakes, exist outside of our known time-space continuum, and thus are able to move freely throughout space and time as we know it. They recruit soldiers and agents by plucking people out of their mortal existences in regular time and offering them a sort of conditional immortality as spatial-temporal nomads if they fight in this universal conflict known as the Change War. Outside of our universe exists an isolated pocket of space-time that serves as a recuperation station (kind of like a USO center) for the Spider soldiers. A motley crew of characters end up together at this facility, including a Nazi commandant, a Roman legionnaire, a Civil War soldier, an ancient Greek amazon, a prehistoric moon creature, and a Venusian satyr. Though they’ve all come to this way station for rest and relaxation, they soon find themselves faced with a predicament possibly even more perilous than the war that rages outside.

Fritz Leiber’s novel The Big Time was originally published in the March and April 1958 issues of Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine. It won the Hugo Award that year for best novel. I have an interest in time travel literature, particularly from the pulp fiction era. Given the acclaim this book has received, I approached it with optimistic enthusiasm but was sorely disappointed. The Big Time hasn’t aged well, and it serves as an example of what’s wrong with a lot of old-school sci-fi.

The novel is narrated by Greta Forzane, an “entertainer” at the station, whose duties seem similar to those of a dance-hall girl in an old Western saloon. She tells the story with a slang-peppered rapid-fire delivery that recalls the style of vintage hard-boiled detective novels. Each of the various visitors to the station speaks with the peculiar accent of his original time and place, though all are up on the latest hipster slang. No matter where or when they’re from, however, each eventually breaks into a stream-of-consciousness soliloquy that reads as if it were lifted from a Virginia Woolf novel. All this unnecessary verbosity soon becomes quite annoying and tedious. It seems like Leiber may have been going for an effect similar to beat poetry, but it ends up sounding like a schizophrenic Robin Williams comedy routine. In addition, though the scientific concepts he envisions in this novel are quite interesting, Leiber doesn’t do himself any favors with the terms he uses to describe them. Spiders and Snakes? Really? That’s the best you could come up with? The players in the war are divided into different categories with inappropriate supernatural names—demons, zombies, ghosts—none of which are ever satisfactorily explained. Change War, Change Winds, Change World—it all sounds rather kitschy and infantile.

At about the halfway point, the novel turns into a mystery story, and not a very good one. The resolution of the puzzle hinges on a pseudo-scientific concept that was previously concealed from the reader, so it feels like a cheat. The whole novel is kind of like that. Leiber just makes up new rules as he goes along. Every time you think you know how things work in this fictional universe, he introduces some new device or Change phenomenon that alters the possibilities. That’s not creative; that’s just annoying, and kind of lazy. The idea of the Change War, fought by forces from beyond time and space, is a good one, but Leiber himself doesn’t take his own brainchild seriously enough, and the result is one messy, silly, and frustrating book.
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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Miraculous Revenge (Little Blue Book No. 215) by George Bernard Shaw

Brevity its only virtue
The Miraculous Revenge is a short story by George Bernard Shaw, originally published in 1885. The e-book version you’re likely to find online, however, is a reproduction of the story as it was reprinted in one of the Little Blue Books, an immensely popular series of inexpensive pocket paperbacks published by Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius, a radical publisher based in southeastern Kansas. Haldeman-Julius, sometimes referred to as the “Henry Ford of Literature,” published thousands of titles in the series and sold hundreds of millions of copies. This story from Shaw is number 215 in the series, which was probably published around 1923 or 1924. Shaw, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925, is best known as a playwright, but he was also an influential public intellectual who championed the same sort of socialist political causes as Haldeman-Julius. Given his prolific output, it was inevitable that Haldeman-Julius would publish the work of Shaw, a man for whom he probably held great admiration and esteem. That makes it all the more unfortunate and baffling, however, that he picked such a terrible story to showcase.

The Miraculous Revenge takes place in Ireland, and is narrated by an Englishman named Zeno Legge. He is described as “mad,” which in literary terms is an undefined mental illness that allows the hero to act like a jerk in public, speak in non-sequiturs, and generally annoy people. Legge travels to Dublin to visit his uncle, a Cardinal Archbishop. Soon fed up with his nephew and a little frightened of him too, the Cardinal dispatches the crazy man as a poorly chosen emissary to the small town of Four Mile Water, where a Christian miracle has been recently reported. Legge is tasked with investigating the veracity of the miraculous claims and reporting back to his uncle. The madman can’t help but engage in mischief, of course, and soon the townspeople are tired of him also.

As is the reader. The story is intended to be comic, and it’s written as slapstick dressed up in the vocabulary and syntax of high-brow 19th-century literature. It’s infused with anti-religious sentiment, which is just fine by me, but one wishes the commentary would have been more biting and less absurd. If anything, the silly miracle that occurs in Four Mile Water is viewed with approbation rather than skepticism. The only one who really comes out looking like a fool is the madman, and what’s so novel about that? The tale ends with a twist which fails to surprise or delight. Turn-of-the-last-century intellectuals may have guffawed at this satirical farce, but today’s readers are unlikely to chuckle.

Very few of the Little Blue Books are available as downloadable e-books, and unfortunately this is one of them. Shaw may have been an important figure in the literature and politics of his day, and for all I know he probably deserved his Nobel Prize, but this story is clearly not indicative of his talents and doesn’t deserve to be read. Even though it only costs about twenty minutes, there are better ways to spend that time.
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Monday, December 14, 2015

The Return by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire

Post-apocalyptic reconstruction
Two centuries have passed since the nuclear war of 1996. Mankind has been decimated, and much of the surface of the earth is still encrusted with a glassy slag. Two scientists fly by helicopter over what once was America, looking for isolated pockets of human population. They have so far encountered several tribes, ranging from beast-like cannibals to more civilized bands experimenting with primitive technology. They seek the latter sort, in hopes of reestablishing communication and cooperation between distant representatives of humanity. In what used to be Pittsburgh, they discover a village showing evidence of agriculture. Like anthropologists descending upon an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon, these two ambassadors of civilization touch down to make first contact with the mysterious strangers.

The Return, a short novella by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, was originally published in the January 1954 issue of the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. It is a stand-alone work, not associated with any of Piper’s ongoing series. As typical of a Piper tale, the authors quickly draw you in and immerse you in the futuristic world of the narrative. The first half of the book is very engaging and has the makings of a good post-apocalyptic adventure yarn. Piper has always shown a visionary talent for creating alien worlds, and the new society he depicts here likewise displays an admirable creativity. Though rooted in the history of America’s past, this isolated band of survivors has developed their own technology, culture, and religion. The story starts to weaken in its latter half, as the reader begins to realize that it’s all leading up to a sort of punchline. The authors set up a riddle about this newly discovered tribe, one the scientists struggle to unravel, but enough clues are dropped that one is able to figure it out long before they do. When the big secret is revealed in the novella’s last sentence, it’s already a foregone conclusion to the observant reader.

I consider Piper to be one of the greatest science fiction writers of the pulp fiction era, so I approach his works with high expectations. The Return is a fine story, but not up to the calibre of his typical output. In general, I think his collaborations with McGuire produced some of his weakest material. A mediocre offering from Piper is still probably better than 90% of the sci-fi pulp stories out there, but you’d be better off reading one of his solo works from the Paratime series, like Police Operation or Last Enemy.
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Friday, December 11, 2015

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Healthy, wealthy, and wise
Benjamin Franklin began writing his autobiography in 1771 for the benefit of his son William. When he died in 1790, the work was unfinished. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was first published in France in 1791, and in England in 1793. Since then, as more material was discovered more was added to the text of subsequent editions. The editions in print today generally consist of four parts, covering Franklin’s life up to about 1758. It’s a relatively brief work—given Franklin’s extensive accomplishments—and written in a brisk, unassuming, and conversational tone. Despite its advanced age, the language is surprisingly contemporary with few awkward passages to impede modern readers. In fact, 21st century readers can still learn much from Franklin. His autobiography is not only a history lesson but also a sort of self-help book in which Franklin divulges his wisdom on life.

If you’ve ever worked in the printing industry (as I have), you’ll enjoy the book all the more. The first half of the book details his course in establishing himself as a printer and newspaper publisher in Philadelphia. Book lovers will appreciate the details Franklin provides on his founding of America’s first public library. This institution grew out of a club called the Junto which Franklin formed with several friends, to aid each other in mutual intellectual and moral improvement. Franklin is very candid about his religious views, describing himself early on as a deist, meaning he believes that God created the universe but does not interfere in the natural course of the universe. Though his views disagree with those of the prominent Christian sects of his day, he recognized the social and moral benefits of organized religion, participated in religious services, and appreciated a well-written, practical sermon.

The Autobiography is a practical sermon in and of itself, as Franklin outlines his own personal guide to the good life. He presents his plan for attaining “moral perfection,” listing 13 essential virtues, and his attempts to cultivate each of them. Though he readily admits he never achieved the perfection he sought, he avers that his life has benefited greatly from trying. And looking at his life, that’s an assertion that’s hard to dispute. Reading The Autobiography harkens one back to a time when a gentleman of a certain class, through intelligence and hard work, could literally achieve whatever he wanted in life. Opportunities abounded, and Franklin took full advantage of them. Prior to the age of specialization, he was able to excel in business, politics, philosophy, letters, and science.

Despite the great admiration I have for Franklin, even I have to admit there are some extremely yawnworthy passages here, but it’s worth slogging through them to get to the good stuff. I found Franklin’s political endeavors the least interesting, such as when he recounts certain legislative squabbles in great detail. There’s also an entire chapter on how he acquired horses and wagons at the request of the British military. Those hoping for cameos by Washington, Jefferson, and the like will be disappointed. All this took place before the Revolution, of course, and the only names likely to be recognized by history buffs are perhaps those of various British governors.

I’m sure there are more complete biographies of Franklin out there, but there’s certainly something to be said for getting one’s history straight from the horse’s mouth. Though you may not get the full story of his life, reading The Autobiography will surely give you a taste of what it might have been like to meet this remarkable man and bask in his wise and witty conversation.
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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Mountain City by Upton Sinclair

Saga of a social climber
Mountain City, originally published in 1930, is a novel by Upon Sinclair, better known as the author of The Jungle. The story takes place in an unnamed state somewhere in the American West. Jed Rusher grows up on a cattle ranch where his father serves as a hired hand. Seeing his dad exploited and abused by the rich landowner, Jed develops a respect for money and power, and a desire to possess both. Later, when the family switches to sugar beet farming, their fortunes improve slightly, but the life is hard enough that Jed develops a healthy aversion to manual toil. Luckily, he’s got a good head on his shoulders—good enough to score a scholarship to attend university in Mountain City, the nearest metropolis. Jed diligently attends to his studies, earning good marks, but wonders what good it does to study poetry, history, and Latin in a world where money’s all that matters. He longs for an opportunity to get in with the rich folk, and when he sees a chance, he jumps on it, securing a position as caretaker to an invalid millionaire. Spending his days in the halls of the rich, Jed seeks to take advantage of his situation any way he can in order to further his own financial interests.

The novel is thus a rags-to-riches story, but don’t expect the inspirational moralizing of a Horatio Alger tale. The hero of Mountain City is anything but ethical, and that’s a big part of the fun. Though Jed starts out as a good boy, Sinclair uses his hero’s financial machinations to illustrate all the unethical business strategies and fiscal chicanery being perpetrated by the wealthy capitalists and big business barons of his day. It’s an odd strategy for Sinclair­—asking us to root for the likeable but avaricious Jed as he builds his empire—and I’m not sure it pays off the way the author intended. Many of the wealthy supporting characters are treated like cartoon caricatures illustrating the foibles of the rich. Jed makes them look stupid by beating them with their own dishonest capitalist tricks, but it’s unclear how that serves Sinclair’s socialist agenda. Nevertheless, Jed’s adventures in big business are quite lively and engaging, for the most part. Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t really live up to the rest of the book, and it just sort of grinds to an abrupt halt, feeling inconveniently truncated.

There’s an economic theory that factors into the story that may be unfamiliar to many 21st-century readers. Much reference is made to the idea of the “single tax,” popularized in Henry George’s 1879 book Progress and Poverty. This system of taxation proposes that landowners should, in effect, rent their land from the American public by paying taxes equal to its rental value. Sinclair doesn’t really explain this concept, he just expects the reader to understand it. Perhaps the single tax was common knowledge in 1830, but 85 years later, not so much. As used here, it isn’t really crucial to the story and feels like an afterthought. It serves as a topic upon which Jed can bond with his rich employer, who for some sketchy reason is a devotee of this seemingly anti-capitalist theory. Regardless, don’t let the single tax keep you from reading this book; failure to understand it will not detract from your enjoyment of the story.

Mountain City seems to have gone out of print after its first edition, only to be resurrected in recent years with the onset of print-on-demand publication. Even Project Gutenberg doesn’t have it, but you can read it for free at HathiTrust. This lesser-known work certainly doesn’t deserve the obscurity into which it has faded. Though perhaps not Sinclair’s best work, it’s a strong novel his fans will enjoy.
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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Ivo, the Gentleman by Berthold Auerbach

The long, tiring road to the priesthood
Berthold Auerbach
Ivo, the Gentleman is included in German author Berthold Auerbach’s 1843 fiction collection Black Forest Village Stories, but, comprised of 15 lengthy chapters, it is a complete novel in its own right and merits a separate review. Ivo, the son of a carpenter, lives in the village of Nordstetten. As a little boy, he witnesses a young man from his hometown perform his first Catholic mass as a member of the clergy. After the ceremony, Ivo’s father suggests that perhaps he too could one day become a “gentleman”—that is to say, a minister or parson. Young Ivo, awed by the respect shown by the townsfolk to this new priest, greets the idea with enthusiasm. From that point on, the course of his studies is planned out for him with this goal in mind, and he begins his long journey to the priesthood.

And the reader begins his long journey of reading this novel. Like the other entries in Black Forest Village Stories, the narrative presents a vivid slice of rural life in 19th century Germany. The various stories and novellas in the collection are tied together by a common village and recurring characters for an effect that falls somewhere between Balzac’s Comédie Humaine and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. While I have enjoyed Auerbach’s Black Forest stories so far, this novel was an ordeal to get through. Ivo goes about his business attending school. He has a crush on a young neighbor girl, but of course his future calling won’t allow him to act on any feelings of earthly love. The plot just kind of lopes along with the leisurely pace of changing seasons, nothing worthy of note really happening until about the ninth or tenth chapter (out of 15). At that point it starts to get a little more interesting, but by that time it’s already been a long haul. The reader can see that it’s all building up to a will-he-or-won’t-he decision toward the priesthood, yet is too tired to really care what the resolution to this conflict might be. The most interesting parts of the books are the two stories-within-a-story that don’t have anything to do with Ivo: one the story of Aloys, an emigrant to America, and the other the tale of Nat, Ivo’s former family servant and closest friend. 

The narrative of Ivo’s education reminds me a lot of Hermann Hesse’s novel Beneath the Wheel (Unterm Rad), enough to think that the latter was likely familiar with this work. Hesse’s novel is darker than this one, and a little less dull, but not much. Auerbach is an impressive writer of short stories, as evidenced by “Christian Gellert’s Last Christmas” (included in Scribner’s Stories by Foreign Authors: German II) or “The Gawk” (in Black Forest Village Stories), but Ivo, the Gentleman doesn’t say much for his talents as a novelist. One can see how Auerbach’s realistic portrayals of village life were a refreshing departure from the romantic fiction that preceded them, and how his work presages that of later authors like Hesse, Anderson, or even William Faulkner’s tales of Yoknapatawpha County. Admiration doesn’t always equate to enjoyment, however, and this novel is a bit of a bore. On the other hand, I have heard high praise for Auerbach’s novel On the Heights, so perhaps this is a just one failed effort in an otherwise illustrious career.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Crystal Age by W. H. Hudson

An irritating Rip Van Winkle romance
A Crystal Age, published in 1887, is a utopian science fiction novel by English author W. H. Hudson. I hesitate to use those adjectives in describing the book, however, because it barely qualifies as either. The book reads like a tepid, watered-down ripoff of William Morris’s novel News from Nowhere, and Hudson even acknowledges the similarities in his preface to the 1906 edition. It turns out, however, that Hudson’s book preceded Morris’s by three years, so the former deserves credit for that. Wikipedia states that A Crystal Age “has been called a ‘significant S-F milestone.’” I don’t know who would call it that, however, because it is vastly inferior to News from Nowhere and just about any other utopian or dystopian novel I’ve ever read. Regardless of what influence it may have had on the genre, A Crystal Age is merely a baby step towards futurism and suffers from being too deeply rooted in the histrionic romantic literature of the past.

The story is narrated by a man named Smith. While out hiking the English countryside, he stumbles off a cliff and is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, he is covered in earth and entwined in tree roots. After digging himself out he discovers that the world he has awoken to is very different from the one he fell down in. At first, Smith doesn’t comprehend what has happened, but the reader recognizes that, much like the fairy tale of Rip Van Winkle, Smith has been asleep for a long time indeed. The sylvan landscape in which he now finds himself is largely uninhabited, but he soon encounters a party strolling in the woods, engaged in an apparent funeral procession. These beautifully dressed strangers gaze in horror at Smith’s antiquated and dirt-covered garments, and they are equally disturbed by his attempts at conversation. Although they speak the English language, they have no comprehension of words like “England,” “city,” or “money,” and do not recognize the names of any of a long list of historical personages. Though they suspect Smith may be insane, they recognize a traveler in need and invite him to accompany them back to their home. This fish-out-of-water scenario is humorous at first, but it becomes annoying as it goes on for half the book. The others’ take so much offense at everything Smith says, they come across as a bunch of annoying, puritanical pricks.

Smith is taken to a mansion which seems to function as an independent city state. One patriarchal couple governs over this domain, and the mother is worshipped as a goddess. Unlike Morris’s novel, which contemplates in great detail the social conditions of a future world, this is about the extent of Hudson’s utopian thought. The world depicted has a vaguely Pre-Raphaelite vibe, and only serves as background to a plot about Smith chasing after a 15-year-old girl. To be fair, the narrator is only 21, but his pursuit of the fair Yoletta borders on stalking. Despite all his waxing poetic about the nature of love, it’s clear his attraction towards her is purely physical. Much to his chagrin, her world does not comprehend romantic love, only a sort of universal brotherhood and affection, which makes his task more difficult. He soon realizes that to win the girl he must win over the mother, so he sets about kissing up to the matriarch.

Smith doesn’t even seem to realize that he’s been transported to the future. Only in the final two chapters is there any degree of philosophical reflection on mankind’s present or future existence. I enjoy 19th-century literature and utopian novels of all stripes. Even by the standards of its day, however, A Crystal Age is merely a dull, pedestrian love story, and 21st-century readers will learn little from it. News from Nowhere is no masterpiece either, but it’s a lot better than this.
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Friday, November 27, 2015

The Late Monsieur Gallet by Georges Simenon

Excellent early Maigret
The Late Monsieur Gallet, published in 1931, is the third volume in Belgian author Georges Simenon’s series of mystery novels featuring Inspector Jules Maigret, though the recent line of reprints from Penguin Classics has it as book number two in their series. Originally titled M. Gallet décédé, it has also been published in English under the titles The Death of Monsieur Gallet and Maigret Stonewalled. In all Simenon wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories starring Maigret. I’ve read about ten of the Maigret novels so far, and this is the best one I’ve come across so far.

Maigret is Detective Chief Inspector with the Police Judiciaire in Paris. On a stifling hot summer day, he gets a telegram informing him that a traveling salesman named Émile Gallet has been found murdered at a hotel in Sancerre, a town on the Loire River. Maigret is tasked, much to his chagrin, with travelling to Saint-Fargeau, a town about 20 miles from Paris, informing Madame Gallet of her husband’s demise, and escorting her to Sancerre to identify the body. The widow greets Maigret’s notification of her husband’s death with disbelief, because he was murdered on June 25th, while she has received a postcard from him postmarked on the 26th. Unable to convince her, the reluctant Maigret drags the doubtful woman off to view the corpse. Once they arrive in Sancerre, details begin to emerge that suggest that the mysterious M. Gallet was not all he appeared to be.

Simenon handles this case with expert pacing and plotting. The more Maigret delves into the case, the more baffling details reveal themselves. Surprising revelations are rationed over the course of the book, so the reader is always just one step behind the truth. Some mystery novelists save up too many surprises for the big reveal at the end, causing the reader to become disoriented and disinterested. Not so, Simenon. He leaves the reader just enough of a trail of bread crumbs to see where the path of Maigret’s investigation is leading, but not enough to discern the final destination until the very end. The characters are both realistic and intriguing. There’s no shortage of sufficiently shady suspects among Gallet’s associates, and as is often the case in Maigret’s adventures, the dead man is the most engaging and sympathetic player in the ensemble cast.

This brisk 150-page mystery had me hooked from chapter one until the final page. It’s superior to the two volumes that preceded it—Pietr the Latvian and Lock 14—so if you’ve never read Maigret before and are thinking about giving him a try, this may be a good one to start with. It’s an excellent example of Simenon at his best.
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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Dylan: Disc by Disc by Jon Bream

Dylanologists’ cocktail party
Music critic Jon Bream’s 2015 book Dylan: Disc by Disc presents a series of discussions of each of Bob Dylan’s 36 studio albums. Each chapter consists of a track list, a roster of musicians who played on the album, a brief description by Bream detailing the circumstances surrounding the creation of the work, and a discussion, moderated by Bream, between two commentators. The interviewees in this latter category run the gamut from rock critics, Dylan biographers, university professors, and musicians, some of whom played with Dylan and some of whom are just ardent fans.

I wouldn’t call these discussions debates, because for the most part both parties are heaping adulation upon the Almighty Bob. They may get critical about some of the nitty gritty details, but it seems Bream selected most of the commentators based on their personal affinity for the particular disc they’re discussing. Only a few albums emerge scathed from this lovefest: the 1973 leftovers collection simply titled Dylan, and the late ‘80s duds Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove. I developed a love for Dylan late in life and own about half of his albums. My taste in his work doesn’t always conform to the usual ranked list of his best albums, so it was great to read others praising some of my underappreciated favorites, like Modern Times, Street-Legal, or Saved. Reading about the albums that I’m unfamiliar with was also quite educational and got me to think about purchasing several albums that I might not have previously considered buying. In either case, the commentary also includes informative details and insightful perspective on the writing and production of the songs. Dylan: Disc by Disc does exactly what a book like this should do—inspires an enthusiasm and respect for its subject. In fact, it makes we want to go out and buy another ten Dylan albums.

I don’t always agree with what these Dylan pundits have to say, but I always enjoyed the conversation. In general, the encyclopedic knowledge of the rock journalists makes for more insightful and articulate criticism than the more sentimental perspectives of the recording artists, but each voice makes its own welcome contribution. Reading this book is like attending a cocktail party of Dylan aficionados and overhearing conversations between people like musicians Suzanne Vega and Ric Ocasek, Kansas City DJ Bill Shapiro, and Rolling Stone editor David Browne. The chapters are relatively short and addictive, giving an informal feel to the book that resembles a series of magazine articles, like what you might find in a “Special Collector’s Edition” on Dylan that Rolling Stone or MOJO might put out.

I consider myself a big fan of Dylan, but I don’t consider myself an expert, so I can’t say for sure whether a diehard Dylanologist would gain a lot of new insight from this book. It’s hard for me to believe, however, that any fan wouldn’t enjoy this appreciation of the master’s body of work. When in doubt, buy the inexpensive ebook edition. It may not have as many photos as the attractively designed print version, but it’s definitely worth the price.
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