Thursday, January 22, 2015

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

The power of the prairie
O Pioneers! was originally published in 1913. It is the first novel in Willa Cather’s “Prairie Trilogy,” which also includes The Song of the Lark and My Ántonia. The three novels share no common characters or specific setting, but all deal with the lives of farmers on the American Great Plains.

O Pioneers! is set near the town of Hanover in a region of Nebraska known as the Divide. The story begins in the 1880s (“thirty years ago”). The Bergsons are a family of Swedish immigrants who have come to the region to farm this land, but like many of their neighbors they have found the soil an inhospitable host. When the father dies, he designates his daughter Alexandra to run the farm after his passing, as he judges her more capable for the task than her brothers. Given the family’s lack of agricultural success, Alexandra is faced with a tough choice: stay and work this hard land in hopes that the family’s efforts will pay off, or sell out and move on to greener pastures.

Upon reading the opening section of the book, I was worried that it might be a young adult novel along the lines of Little Women. As the story begins, all of the main characters are children, but the narrative soon jumps ahead 16 years and disproves any fears of juvenility. Through beautifully naturalistic prose, Cather relates the farming life of these settlers and their relationship with the land. It’s not all soil tilling and crop yields, however. Rest assured that the book’s primary focus is human relationships. Cather offers up an ensemble cast of characters, and the reader soon becomes deeply involved in their hopes and heartbreaks. For much of the book’s length, there are forebodings of doom on the horizon, but for the most part it is a novel of everyday lives and the choices people make. Some may describe the plot of the story or the lives of the characters as “simple,” but that would be an erroneous assessment. This is a powerful book that proceeds with quiet dignity. Cather uses prairie life as a microcosm by which to elucidate insights into universal human nature. At a time when American literature was largely confined to the spheres of New York, Boston, and San Francisco, Cather proved that gripping drama and powerful emotion could be drawn from the soil of America’s heartland.

Stylistically, the book represents a period when naturalism was just about to turn the corner into modernism. On the surface Cather’s prose is straightforward and descriptive fare, similar to that of Hamlin Garland—another regionalist master—but bubbling up between the lines is a deeper understanding of psychological and philosophical themes. Here you won’t find the verbal gymnastics of William Faulkner, but you will find something akin to the dramatic power of his rural sagas. Cather is such a master of the English language that there are very few scenes from which one can’t pluck some quotable nugget about life, love, or man’s relationship to nature.

I’m a sucker for a good peasant epic, from Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth to Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, and Cather’s O Pioneers! ranks among the top exemplars of the genre. Any discussion of The Great American Novel should at least include an honorable mention for this great entry. I haven’t read Cather’s work in years, but after rereading O Pioneers! I’m eager to take a second look at the rest of the Prairie Trilogy.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Mysteries of Marseille by Emile Zola

A catalog of corruption and misery
This early novel by Emile Zola was originally serialized in the French newspaper Le Messager de Provence in 1867. It could be properly classified as a feuilleton—a 19th century French term denoting a popular serial potboiler. Readers of Zola’s day would await the latest installments of such serials in much the same way many 20th century television viewers faithfully tune into their favorite soap operas, and expecting much the same brand of tawdry thrills. Even Zola would likely admit that this is the most commercially pandering work he ever published. It was written at a time when he was still struggling to make a name for himself as a writer. He hadn’t quite developed the mature naturalistic style that he would employ in his Rougon-Macquart novels. Nevertheless, bits of his trademark naturalism still shine through in this sensationalistic tale.

Philippe Cayol is a happy-go-lucky working class ladies’ man who falls in love with Blanche de Cazalis, an orphaned daughter of nobility. In the heat of passion, these two young star-crossed lovers decide to elope. Nowadays to elope means to run off and get married without permission, but in those days elopement had the more serious connotation of taking the woman’s virginity. Usually after the deed was committed, her family would acquiesce and approve a hasty marriage, in order to preserve the family honor. No such luck for Philippe in this case. Blanche’s uncle and guardian Monsieur de Cazalis has no intention of welcoming such riffraff into the family. Despite the shame and stress it may cause his niece, he goes public and denounces Philippe as a kidnapper and rapist. The shocking scandal rocks Marseille and the surrounding countryside, inciting unrest and violence between the upper and lower classes. Philippe’s brother Marius, more serious and hard-working than his ne’er-do-well kinsman, resolves to free his brother from the clutches of his persecutor and restore his good name.

In the hands of a more lighthearted writer like Alexander Dumas this might have been a delightful piece of frivolous trash, but here very little fun flows from Zola’s pen. The book is comprised of 63 chapters, none of them short, and most of them far too long. Zola uses the narrative of Philippe and Blanche as an opportunity to catalog every variety of corruption and vice that southern France has to offer. For example, in trying to raise money to bribe a jailer, Marius goes to see a usurer about a loan. This chapter is followed by another chapter in which Marius and friends just sit around talking about other usurers they have known and the dastardly deeds they have done. The same exhaustive treatment is given to shady real estate deals, investment fraud, forgery, government kickbacks, and a host of other white collar crimes. When Zola’s not listing off the sins of the upper classes, he’s wallowing in the squalor of the lower.

The Mysteries of Marseille is obviously influenced by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, but whereas Hugo romanticizes the class struggle with the intention of inspiring reform, Zola merely sensationalizes it for the purpose of selling copies. There’s no doubt that Zola was a socially conscious author, as evidenced in his later, greater works, but in this early effort he comes across as heavy handed and shallow. Audiences of his day might have been titillated by such sordid fare, but today’s readers are likely to find it tedious and hackneyed. Diehard fans of Zola may feel compelled to read it out of simple curiosity, but will come away with the realization that he’s got at least 20 novels that are better than this one.

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss

The legend made flesh
Spartacus. The very name is the stuff of legends. His slave rebellion against the Roman Empire in the first century BC has served as inspiration for countless dissenters and revolutionaries over the past two millennia. But who was he, really? In his 2009 book The Spartacus War, Barry Strauss attempts to shed some light on the age-old story of this gladiator, insurgent, and icon. Those familiar with the film and literary adaptations of this hero’s saga will find his true story every bit as fascinating and stirring as the fictional epics he inspired.

Unfortunately, not many ancient accounts of the Spartacus uprising still exist, and most of those that are extant are second- or third-hand accounts. Strauss knows these original sources inside and out, and summarizes the available historical record clearly and concisely. Where gaps appear in the scanty narrative, he fills them in with contextual information and educated speculation. For example, we know very little about Spartacus’s wife, except that she was a priestess of the god Dionysius. Strauss describes the religious rituals of the Dionysius cult at this period of time and details what the life of such a prophetess might have been like. We know Spartacus was a gladiator, so there’s plenty of information in the book about the daily lives of gladiators and those who owned them. Strauss situates the Spartacus rebellion within a broader history of slave uprisings and rebellions faced by ancient Rome. The political and military careers of all the Roman generals who attempted to quell the rebellion are also examined in detail. If any first-hand blow-by-blow accounts were ever written of the battles fought between the rebels led by Spartacus and the forces of Rome, they have not survived the ages, but Strauss knows an awful lot about ancient warfare and makes the reader feel like he’s right there on the ground amidst the fighting, spattered with blood, sweat, and gore. Some scholars may complain that there’s too much imaginative license taken in The Spartacus War, but for general readers with an avid interest in the ancient world this is a gripping and informative read.

The least interesting portions of Strauss’s study occur when he attempts to pin down the exact geographical location where an event took place. Unless you’re a scholar on the subject or intimately familiar with the regional topography, these passages are about as entertaining as reading an Italian road atlas. Beyond these occasional exceptions, however, the book is a smooth and lively read. It’s packed with information, but Strauss’s prose is always crisp, engaging, and accessible.

In closing this review, I must confess that one of my guilty pleasures is the Spartacus TV series from Starz. Like-minded fans will be surprised to find out how closely the makers of that program stuck to the actual history of the Spartacus rebellion. Of course, Strauss’s take on the subject is far less sensationalized, but no less sensational. This book is definitely a must-read for anyone who’s ever admired Western history’s most illustrious freedom fighter.

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Monday, January 12, 2015

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

Short but sweet
The Autobiography of Charles Darwin was originally published in 1887. Darwin began writing it in 1876, though the final chapter was not completed until 1881. He explains that he began writing this sketch of his life to satisfy a German editor who requested details on his intellectual development, but his son Francis Darwin, who edited the published version, states that the work was intended as a memento from the great scientist to his children. There are brief parenthetical notes by Francis throughout the text, but they are few and far between and don’t interfere with his father’s narrative voice. The reader can easily imagine himself in a lamplit room of some 19th-century London academic club, filled with wingback armchairs and pipe smoke, as Darwin regales a select few listeners with his tales of yore.

This is a very brief work, consisting of only about 64 pages. For that reason, serious scholars of Darwin’s life and works will likely be disappointed by the lack of detail, but for the general reader with a fascination for the man, the brevity of the piece works to its advantage. Darwin’s concise encapsulation of his life provides surprising insight into his mind and personality. Judging by the short length of the work and its table of contents, I was worried that it would be merely a curriculum vitae of his research accomplishments, but there are plenty of personal anecdotes here that make for a lively read, particularly in the passages where he’s discussing his childhood and youth. This autobiography will be most enjoyable and accessible to those who already have some knowledge of Darwin’s works. It helps to have read The Voyage of the Beagle first, because Darwin pretty quickly glosses over that period—having already written and entire book about it—but he does allude to some of his discoveries from that journey, such as his theory of the formation of coral reefs. The latter portions of the book are less personal and more career-focused, discussing the work that went into his various scientific publications, yet still for Darwin enthusiasts its quite entertaining to hear accounts of his research methodology related straight from the horse’s mouth. The only dull moments in the book are when he’s describing some of his scientific colleagues. He’s so hesitant to characterize anyone in a negative light that the relentlessly polite praise becomes repetitive.

The overwhelming feeling that permeates this text is one of a boundless enthusiasm in scientific discovery and a wonder for the natural world. The period in which Darwin practiced his naturalistic profession was like a scientific Wild West. So much was left to be discovered, that anyone with talent willing to work hard could stake his claim in whatever disciplines he chose, and the opportunity for eureka moments was virtually limitless. This was definitely not the age of specialization, and Darwin’s breadth of knowledge in all matters of natural science is truly staggering. Another quality of the man that comes shining through is his remarkable modesty. When speaking of other scientists, he’s not afraid to say, “I was right; he was wrong,” but when it comes to his general career success he speaks as if the theory of evolution was something that just fell into his lucky lap.

Of course, that’s not the case. Darwin was a singular genius, and his success was the result of a tenacious work ethic. This autobiography is a fitting memorial to this brilliant man and his myriad achievements. Every Darwin admirer should read it.

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Friday, January 9, 2015

The Blockade Runners by Jules Verne

A competent but bland adventure
Jules Verne is best known for his science fiction novels, but he wrote plenty of down-to-earth adventure fiction as well. While his most famous works tend to lean toward the fantastic visions of H. G. Wells, The Blockade Runners, originally published in 1865, has more in common with the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson or James Fenimore Cooper. Vincent Playfair is a wealthy merchant of Glasgow. The American Civil War has put a damper in his profits because he is unable to get his hands on enough cotton to keep his mills running. The Union has blockaded all the major ports of the Confederacy, prohibiting the trafficking of goods in or out. Playfair comes up with a plan to run through the blockade at Charleston and exchange a shipload of guns and provisions for a fortune’s worth of cotton. He commissions the construction of an ultra-fast steamship, The Dolphin, and assigns his nephew and protégé James Playfair to captain the mission. Young Playfair sets out for the New World to test his mettle against the American fleet.

As far as adventure stories go, this one’s pretty tame. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with The Blockade Runners, but there’s nothing exceptional about it either. Verne goes through the formulaic motions and pens a competently constructed piece, but there’s few if any surprises and no instances of edge-of-your-seat thrills. A mysterious crew member named Crockston introduces one major complication into the proceedings, but this new problem is resolved in such an effortless manner it barely registers as a plot point. This is a brief work of ten short chapters. It feels as if Verne was writing to fit the word-count restriction of a periodical, and therefore didn’t put much effort into the development of plot and characters. Opportunities for suspense are squandered in favor of brevity.

The story provides an interesting Frenchman’s perspective on America’s Civil War. Verne doesn’t take sides in the conflict, but through the Playfairs he approaches the subject from the detached point of view of a European businessman only concerned with how the war effects his bottom line. While the characters mostly display indifference to America’s political and military affairs, they do briefly debate the morality of slavery. Different viewpoints on the subject are expressed, but ultimately the argument is inconclusive. This is meant to be a lighthearted novel of nautical adventure and not a serious political or historical commentary.

Verne was a great writer who could work skillfully with just about any setting or subject matter. The Blockade Runners is no exception, but this is clearly not one of his more imaginative or memorable works. Unless you’re really interested in Civil War stories, you’d be better off skipping this one in favor of one of the sci-fi novels for which he’s famous, like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. If you’re interested in sampling some of his non-sci-fi adventure fiction, I would suggest Michael Strogoff.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

BadAzz MoFo’s Book of Spaghetti Westerns by David F. Walker

Only for the “uninformed”
The introduction to this book explains that BadAzz MoFo is the name of a magazine devoted to pop culture, focusing in particular on blaxploitation films. In 1999, author David F. Walker published a spaghetti western edition of the ‘zine, the contents of which comprise this ebook. It contains reviews of 40 different western films, most of which were filmed in Europe by Italian directors during the 1960s. The most valuable thing about this book is its table of contents, which provides a good, varied list of spaghetti westerns that interested parties should see. Most of the reviews are favorable, but not all. They are somewhat loosely arranged in categories—Sergio Leone films, Sergio Corbucci films, films starring Franco Nero, Lee Van Cleef, Terrence Hill/Bud Spencer team-ups, and kung fu westerns, for example.

The reviews themselves are not very enlightening. I’ve seen about half the films covered in the book. For the movies that I have seen, Walker doesn’t provide a whole lot of insight into their production or reception. For the movies that I haven’t seen, I usually chose to skip the paragraph of plot synopsis, so as to avoid spoilers. Walker has certainly watched many spaghetti westerns, but beyond that it doesn’t seem that he’s done much research on the topic other than checking the Internet Movie Database to see what other films were made by certain actors and directors. The reviews are mostly just Walker’s opinions about what’s good, similar to those you might find posted by the Average Joe on Amazon or Netflix. To his credit, he does provide a few insightful comments about the leftist political undertones in many of these films. Although these reviews all appeared in a magazine together, for some reason they’re written as if they were meant to be read individually. The result is that they’re relentlessly repetitive. The most disappointing aspect of the book is that Walker doesn’t really even like spaghetti westerns all that much. He repeatedly stresses that with the exception of a few notable films—the Leones, the Corbuccis—almost all the movies produced in this genre were junk. True lovers of spaghetti westerns, however, are capable of finding much to appreciate in even the lowliest examples of the genre, despite all their faults.

Walker often refers to those who know less about spaghetti westerns than he does as “the uninformed,” though half the time it’s misspelled as “the uniformed.” The book was edited by Spell Check, if it was edited at all. There are lots of typos and missing words. Stylistically, Walker aims for an intelligent but irreverent tone, but often comes across as merely juvenile. It’s hard to take his criticism seriously when he resorts to phrases like “unless you can perform oral sex on yourself, I just ain’t impressed,” or “What do spaghetti westerns and pornos have in common?” Given the book’s title, I didn’t expect the intellectual discourse of a Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert, but I did expect a certain level of education on the subject, perhaps expressed from a Quentin Tarantino-esque perspective. Unfortunately, only newcomers to the genre will really gain much insight from this shallow take on the topic. Spaghetti western enthusiasts hoping to learn more would be better off investigating online sources like Wikipedia, IMDb, or the Spaghetti Western Database.

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Monday, January 5, 2015

Caverns of Time by Carlos McCune

Musketeers and motorcycles
Carlos McCune’s science fiction novella Caverns of Time was originally published in the July 1943 issue of the pulp magazine Fantastic Adventures. A truck driver named Clive is hauling gasoline through the Utah desert when he stumbles upon four gentlemen in anachronistic dress. They turn out to be the heroes of Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers novels—Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d’Artagnan. The four adventurers have inadvertently wandered through a time tunnel into 20th-century America. Clive not only kindly helps the Frenchmen find their way back to their own proper time and place, he follows them into 17th-century France, fights alongside them as they battle Cardinal Richelieu’s guards, and even manages to fall in love with Queen Anne.

I have been unable to turn up any information on author McCune, but judging from the writing one would expect him to have been a junior high school student when he penned this yarn. The whole purpose of the piece seems to be to show the Musketeers riding motorcycles, firing machine guns, driving tanks, and other “Wouldn’t it be cool if . . . ?” moments. The plot, if there is one, is an afterthought. McCune is clearly a fan of Dumas’s books, as am I, but he doesn’t do justice to the characters in this schlocky effort. The four legendary heroes are reduced to taking orders from Clive, an incredible McGyver-like figure who seems to know how to build just about anything, in addition to being an accomplished surgeon and a master swordsman. Unlike most time travel fiction, in which efforts are made not to change the events of the past, Clive unapologetically introduces as much modern technology and culture to his newfound bons amis as he possibly can, cutting a swath of mayhem and destruction from Normandy to Bohemia. He also hasn’t the slightest ethical qualm whatsoever with bringing an automatic weapon to a sword fight.

Caverns of Time is included in The Second Time Travel Megapack, a grab bag of sci-fi short stories and novellas from pulp fiction purveyors Wildside Press. It is the lengthiest selection in the collection, and also unfortunately the worst. Those who appreciate adventure stories from the pulp era recognize that when reading such material it’s necessary and often even enjoyable to suspend one’s disbelief, embrace absurd situations, and revel in gratuitous violence. One still has to have standards, however, and this train wreck doesn’t meet ‘em.