Friday, February 27, 2015

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

Monotonous melody
The Song of the Lark, originally published in 1915, is the second novel in Willa Cather’s Prairie Trilogy, coming after O Pioneers! and before My Ántonia. This book bears little resemblance to those other two novels, begging the question whether the trilogy is really a trilogy at all. The story does not take place on the prairie, but mostly in the deserts of Colorado and Arizona. Later it moves on to urban locales and becomes the sort of big-city drama that Frank Norris or Theodore Dreiser might have written. I absolutely loved O Pioneers!, which makes it all the more disappointing to report that I found The Song of the Lark rather dull and lifeless.

When we first meet Thea Kronborg, she is 11 years old. The daughter of a Methodist minister, she resides in the small town of Moonstone, Colorado. The general consensus among the townsfolk is that Thea is brighter and more intelligent than her local peers and is destined for great things. She is a talented pianist and practices diligently to perfect her craft. In her later teen years she begins taking on students of her own. The book follows the progression of her musical career and her struggle to become not just a professional musician but a true artist.

Cather is known for her depictions of rural and small-town life. As a setting, Moonstone is certainly not without its charms, but compared to the locales of other Cather novels it’s neither as realistic nor as inviting. She seems hell-bent on populating her Colorado town with a host of real “characters,” and she devotes way too much effort to delineating all their peculiar personal quirks. Too her credit, however, the depiction of small-town life in this book is at times refreshingly less than positive. For the purpose of the story, Moonstone is to some extent a prison from which the heroine must escape. One interesting touch is that 12-year-old Thea has a 30-year-old boyfriend who’s just waiting for her to come of age so he can take her as his bride.

O Pioneers! was written in beautifully understated prose. In very few words Cather expressed some truly profound insights into human nature. The Song of the Lark, on the other hand, is needlessly and tediously verbose, belaboring every point it makes. In O Pioneers!, Cather did so much with so little. Here she does so little with so much. After sitting through the umpteenth music lesson or yet another interminable dinner conversation, the reader begins to feel like he’s reading the same chapters over and over again. Early in the story Cather goes to great lengths setting up Thea to be the ultimate independent woman, so when a man finally enters her life it ends up being a major disappointment. It’s difficult to see what exactly she sees in the guy, because every time he shows up in the narrative he’s a harbinger of boredom. The stiff, unrealistic dialog prevents the reader from identifying or sympathizing with the main characters, as does the fact that they all seem to carry on this strange, sexless existence for decades. Early in the story I really cared about Thea and rooted for her to achieve the success she deserves, but by the end of the book I couldn’t care less about her. The epilogue is one of the book’s more moving passages, primarily because Thea is largely absent from it.

Cather is a great writer, but this is not a great book. If it didn’t have her name on the title page it would be virtually indistinguishable from a host of other mediocre melodramas published during this era.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tales of Two Countries by Alexander Kielland

Norwegian lit with a French twist
Alexander Kielland
In his native Norway, Alexander Kielland is considered one of the “Four Greats” of Norwegian literature, along with Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Henrik Ibsen, and Jonas Lie. I first encountered Kielland’s work in the Scandinavian volume of the Stories by Foreign Authors series, which includes his story “Two Friends.” After reading that great selection, I was hungry for more work from this intriguing author. Tales of Two Countries, a collection of ten stories by Kielland, was published in English translation in 1891. These works are among Kielland’s earliest writings and were originally published in Norwegian around 1880. The book’s introduction by H. H. Boyeson provides a brief career overview of Kielland’s writing, but I stopped reading it when it started spoiling the plots to all his novels.

The two countries referred to in the title are Norway—Kielland’s homeland and residence for most of his life—and France—where he lived briefly at the start of his writing career. One can definitely see the influence of French literature on Kielland’s work. Many of the pieces included here express a socially conscious concern with class disparity and the living conditions of the poor. The Francophile reader will spot the romantic influence of Victor Hugo in the revolutionary rhetoric of “Pharaoh,” the gritty naturalistic bluntness of Emile Zola in the squalid scenes of “At the Fair,” and the biting sarcasm of Honoré de Balzac as Kielland lampoons upper-class hypocrisy in “A Good Conscience.” Apart from the social commentary, the other half of the book consists of love stories, often told with a comic sensibility. Their brevity and lightheartedness, coupled with a keen, matter-of-fact insight into human relationships, calls to mind some of the short-short stories of François Coppée’s collection Ten Tales.

Brevity can also be a drawback, however, as these tales often end abruptly and leave the reader wanting more. In general the longest stories are also the strongest. The aforementioned “Two Friends,” set in Paris, is the best entry in the book. Charles is an introverted, unattractive man with a good head for business. His friend and business partner Alphonse is a good-looking, likable bloke who skates through life. When Charles becomes envious and resentful of his happy-go-lucky comrade, the two have a falling out and part ways. In “Romance and Reality,” a young couple ponders marriage, but the groom wants to wait until he’s more financially secure. After all their friends reassure them that love conquers all, these fools rush in, only to wake up too late to the realities of a hasty matrimony. For its time, this is a remarkably modern and frankly unromanticized look at marriage. Kielland even subtly builds a case for family planning. “The Parsonage” is an engaging and bittersweet tale about a minister’s daughter who has lived a sheltered life on her father’s rural Norwegian estate. When a party of young people stops at their home, she experiences her first taste of love. Another good selection, though further afield, is “The Peat Moor,” a story told from the point of view of a raven.

I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t find anything here of quite the same caliber as “Two Friends,” but overall this is still a strong showing by Kielland, and this collection certainly deserves to be read. The promise of these brief, early pieces makes me eager to see what Kielland can do with a full-length novel.

Stories in this collection
The Parsonage 
The Peat Moor 
“Hope’s Clad in April Green” 
At the Fair 
Two Friends 
A Good Conscience 
Romance and Reality 
Withered Leaves 
The Battle of Waterloo

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Stories by American Authors, Volume III by Lucretia P. Hale, et al.

The third time’s the charm
Celia Thaxter
In 1884 Charles Scribner’s Sons published a ten-volume series entitled Stories by American Authors. Overall, the series presents a broad overview of the state of American short fiction at the end of the 19th century, for better or for worse. Though I generally like literature of this time period, I found Volumes I and II of the series very disappointing. In accordance with the “three strikes you’re out” rule, I decided that I would give this series one last chance, fully expecting that the third volume would be more of the same, in which case I would say goodbye to this series for good. I’m happy to report, however, that Volume III defied my expectations by offering some really high-quality stories.

Right out of the gate this book delivers three strong entries, beginning with “The Spider’s Eye” by Lucretia P. Hale. Through a freak of acoustics, the narrator discovers a spot in an opera house from which he not only can hear all the sounds in the theatre but also read the minds of the audience and performers. While the premise is unapologetically absurd, it provides the author the opportunity to indulge in some interesting and well-drawn character sketches. Throughout the narrative Hale intersperses some really keen insight into human nature. Next up is “A Story of the Latin Quarter” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. An American painter resides among French artists in Paris. He lives for his art, working himself to death. One day he meets a model, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. He asks her to sit for him, and the portrait he paints forces her to view herself in an entirely new way. Although at times it gets overly romantic in its artist stereotypes, it’s quite good overall and calls to mind the writings of Emile Zola. “Two Purse-Companions” by George Parsons Lathrop tells the tale of an odd couple of college chums who are such good friends that they make a habit of pooling their money into a shared fund. Determined to retain their close friendship for life, they make a legal arrangement that secures their financial interdependence, with surprising ramifications. It’s another well-crafted and engaging tale.

Not every entry is a winner. David D. Lloyd’s “Poor Ogla-Moga” represents the obligatory concession to comic relief. A wealthy busybody looking for a philanthropic cause decides to take in a Native American who has fled his reservation. Slapstick arises from the culture shock. Given the date of publication, its political incorrectness may be excused, but what’s not forgivable is the fact that the story’s just not funny. In “Venetian Glass” by Brander Matthews, two American friends traveling in Venice hear of a fabled glass goblet that will shatter when poison is poured into it. Though skeptical of the story, they set out to see the object for themselves. Matthews is aiming for something like Poe with this tale, but it’s predictable and a bit clumsy, and the result is mediocrity.

The best selection in the book by far is the absolutely riveting “A Memorable Murder” by Celia Thaxter. It’s an In Cold Blood-style account of the killing of two Norwegian immigrant women on an island near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I don’t know if this story is based on a real crime, but it seems to be, judging from its richness of detail and remarkable verisimilitude. Despite being written over a century ago, it’s as brutal and unflinching as a Martin Scorcese film.

Thanks to Thaxter, Hale, Burnett, and Lathrop, my faith has been restored in the Stories by American Authors series. Do yourself a favor: skip the first two volumes and dive right into this one.

Stories in this collection
The Spider’s Eye by Lucretia P. Hale 
A Story of the Latin Quarter by Frances Hodgson Burnett 
Two Purse-Companions by George Parsons Lathrop 
Poor Ogla-Moga by David D. Lloyd 
A Memorable Murder by Celia Thaxter 
Venetian Glass by Brander Matthews

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Monday, February 16, 2015

The New Atlantis by Sir Francis Bacon

Might have been great if he had finished it
The New Atlantis is a utopian novel by English philosopher, scientist, and statesman Sir Francis Bacon. It was originally published in 1627, a year after his death. This short work was left unfinished at the time of Bacon’s passing, which is unfortunate, because just when it’s starting to get good, it comes to a premature halt.

On a voyage from Peru to Asia, a European sailing vessel gets lost in the South Pacific. After running out of food, the passengers and crew have already resigned themselves to their impending death when they unexpectedly stumble upon an unknown body of land. To the great surprise of the Europeans, this large island or small continent is not only inhabited but also exhibits an advanced civilization. After some hesitant greetings and a required quarantine period, the lost travelers are welcomed into this previously undiscovered land, named Bensalem. The newcomers receive periodic visits from the nation’s dignitaries, who impart to them the secrets of its history, customs, and government.

The New Atlantis might very well have been a great utopian novel, had Bacon finished it. In its incomplete form, however, it is unlikely to satisfy enthusiasts of utopian literature. A utopian novel requires not only the presentation and description of a new and unusual domain, but also some insight into the workings of that domain and how its governance, economy, living conditions, or general philosophy are superior to the real world in which we live. If it doesn’t hold up a mirror and make us examine our own society, then it’s not really utopian literature but merely a lost civilization story. The problem with The New Atlantis is that the visitors spend a lot of time asking their hosts questions which don’t really shed light on Bensalem as a utopia. How is it that the inhabitants of this land speak European languages? How can it be that they follow the Christian faith? How is it possible that they are kept abreast of issues in the outside world, yet no one knows that they exist? What is the history of this land? These are all questions that need to be answered upon discovering a lost civilization, but they don’t contribute to Bacon’s utopian vision, and he devotes too many pages to them.

Only about the last 20 percent of the book truly qualifies as utopian literature. Here Bacon really starts delving into the workings of Bensalem society. An intellectual order known as Salomon’s House oversees all matters pertaining to science and reason. Its members supervise the execution of theoretical and experimental science in all manner of disciplines. Bacon provides a laundry list of their varied accomplishments, and in doing so outlines the structure of an institution that looks remarkably like a modern research university. This part of the book is fascinating, and invaluable for its vision of a society devoted to knowledge, education, and reason. Unfortunately it’s way too short, and Bacon only manages to whet the reader’s appetite for his intellectual paradise. The book ends abruptly in mid-thought, presumably at the point where the author met his demise.

If only he had finished this work! As it stands, the book has more to say about the Christian religion than it does about scholarship, which I doubt was Bacon’s intention. Nevertheless, the section on Salomon’s House is still a must-read for anyone who values science, education, and reason. Given that Bacon wrote this almost 400 years ago, his futuristic vision is remarkable.

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Friday, February 13, 2015

The Conjure Woman by Charles W. Chesnutt

Folklore of the American South
The Conjure Woman, a collection of short stories by Charles W. Chesnutt, was originally published in 1899. In the opening story, the narrator explains that due to his wife’s poor health, a doctor advises him to move her to a warmer climate. So they pack up, leave Ohio, and move down to central North Carolina. The narrator, named John, has an interest in “grape-culture,” so he buys an old vineyard which he hopes to restore to prosperity. This takes place “a sufficient time” after the Civil War, yet memories of slavery and the old plantation system still linger. Soon after arriving, John and his wife meet an old black man named Julius who in former times was a slave to the vineyard’s previous owner. They hire him on as a farm hand and handyman. Whenever opportunity presents itself, old Julius regales his employers with superstitious folk tales of the old pre-war days.

The seven stories all roughly follow the same format. The couple gets a visit from Julius on their porch, or he takes them for a drive in the wagon. For whatever reason the task or errand at hand is delayed, giving Julius the opportunity to tell one of his imaginative tales. All the stories feature a conjurer—usually a woman named Aunt Peggy, but sometimes another woman or man. For the price of some corn or a chicken these conjurers will mix up their roots and perform their magic. Often this involves transforming people into animals, or putting a “goopher”—or hex—on someone. At story’s end, it’s always revealed that Julius has an ulterior motive for his narrative—he doesn’t want his boss to buy a particular piece of land or go down a certain road. The narrator is a diehard skeptic who doesn’t believe a word of Julius’s fantastical stories, but usually his wife is emotionally affected by the tales. Her husband acquiesces to her wishes, and Julius gets his way. The book’s main weakness is that it never varies from this template. Julius’s stories are always entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny, but the scenes that bookend them get a little tiresome.

The stories are written in a heavy black Southern dialect, like what you might find in passages of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The “n-word” is ubiquitous. Chesnutt was a mixed race author, and I think it’s implied that the narrator and his wife have African ancestry as well. There’s no racism in Chesnutt’s telling of these tales, but there is a hint of classist condescension. John and his wife are like that couple on the old TV series Green Acres who move to the country and find themselves surrounded by bumpkins. Because these tales delve into the realm of fantasy, they don’t provide the realistic portrait of Southern life that one finds in Chesnutt’s naturalistic novel The House Behind the Cedars. The Conjure Woman does, however, provide some insight into life under slavery. Not all of the masters are depicted as cruel and heartless, yet almost every story involves the separation of slave families when husbands, wives, or children are sold or transferred to another plantation. The conjurers and their witchcraft offer the only hope of circumventing the harsh reality of slave life. They represent the hope of freedom amidst a life of bondage.

The original edition of The Conjure Woman contained seven stories. Later editions, like the one available for free at Amazon or Project Gutenberg, entitled The Conjure Woman, and Other Stories, contain three additional “uncollected Uncle Julius stories” and a short essay by Chesnutt called “Superstitions and Folk-Lore of the American South.”

Stories in this collection
The Goophered Grapevine 
Po’ Sandy 
Mars Jeems’s Nightmare 
The Conjurer’s Revenge 
Sis’ Becky’s Pickaninny 
The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt 
Hot-Foot Hannibal

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Between Two Worlds by Upton Sinclair

Lanny went a-courtin’
Between Two Worlds, originally published in 1941, is the second novel in Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series. The first novel, World’s End, covered Lanny’s teenage years through World War I. This second installment, as the title indicates, covers the period between the two World Wars, following Lanny through his twenties and around the corner into his thirties. Lanny is still living the life of leisure on the French Riviera. His former schoolmate Rick, a wounded British war vet, is now a journalist, and his trade grants him access to all the important diplomatic conferences taking place in Europe. Lanny, who never can seem to stay out of political matters, goes along for the ride. Meanwhile their old classmate Kurt, a former German agent, is licking his wounds over his homeland’s defeat in the Great War. Like many of his countrymen, his disgruntlement over the political and economic beating Germany received in the post-war treaty negotiations leads him to sympathize with his nation’s rising radical right wing.

Lanny’s political views are drifting more and more to the left, and he begins to think of himself if not as a “Red” at least as a “Pink.” The rest of the world, on the other hand, is moving in the opposite direction. Fascism and Nazism arise in opposition to the Bolsheviks, and many around the world perceive these movements as either harmless or good for business. Lanny and Rick encounter both Mussolini and Hitler in their travels and witness firsthand the anti-Red brutality doled out by their followers. For today’s readers, looking back almost a hundred years at this period, Sinclair provides an invaluable perspective on how these two dictators were able to rise to power unchecked.

If this book has one major flaw, it’s long-windedness. The first couple hundred pages basically recap World’s End and catch up with all the characters introduced in that volume. If you haven’t read that one, however, you’re still likely to get lost here. Mussolini doesn’t show up until about page 200, and Hitler maybe a hundred pages later, and they both make limited appearances. Like its predecessor, Between Two Worlds concentrates less on world affairs than on affairs of the heart. Although this is only the second book, Lanny and his mother are both already on their fourth potential life partners, and the ones that they finally settle on leave the reader a bit dissatisfied. Over the course of the book, Lanny revisits every old girlfriend he’s ever had, sometimes more than once, as well as pretty much every acquaintance he made in the first book. The ensemble cast is constantly changing as Lanny and his entourage sail around Europe, play classical music at his villa, or rendezvous in New York City. At times everything seems like a digression, but you can’t help getting involved in these character’s lives. The amount of detail Sinclair stuffs into his narrative is staggering. He reports upon what everybody wears, eats, reads, or listens to, and all this minutiae coalesces to form a vivid experience of the time period being pictured. With this second book, I’m really starting to understand the rave reviews that Sinclair got for this series and the comprehensive depiction of world history it provides.

The next book in the series, Dragon’s Teeth, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943 and is rumored to be the best of the Lanny Budd books. Since it deals with the rise of the Nazis and the start of World War II, one would expect it to focus more closely on historical events than this one. I will confess, however, that even if I have to sit through another parade of Lanny’s girlfriends, Sinclair has already got me hooked.

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Monday, February 9, 2015

The Second Time Travel Megapack, edited by John Gregory Betancourt

More temporal fun from the sci-fi pulps
As the title indicates, this 2014 collection of science fiction stories is a follow-up to the original Time Travel Megapack, both part of the vast Megapack series of inexpensive pulp fiction omnibuses published by Wildside Press. John Betancourt and his editorial gang at Wildside have once again cobbled together a diverse assortment of tales and novellas. Overall, I don’t think The Second Time Travel Megapack is as good as the first, but it does include some treasures that certainly deserve to be read.

It’s almost impossible to give a grab bag collection like this five stars. You’re bound to find something you like, but you’re also bound to find the opposite. The original publication dates of these stories run from 1936 to 2013, though most are from the 1940s and ‘50s. Although there’s 23 selections here, only 17 authors are represented, so some appear twice or thrice. I certainly didn’t mind this when I was reading two great stories by Mack Reynolds, but I could have done without the double dose of Arthur Leo Zagat and John York Cabot. Their entries from the Golden Age may have thrilled in their day, but today smell like something resurrected from a musty attic. One unfortunate trend in this collection is that the longer pieces tend to be the least entertaining. When one of Grendel Briarton’s “Ferdinand Feghoot” puns falls flat, it’s only two pages long, so no big loss. The longest novella in the book, however, Carlos McCune’s “Caverns of Time”—a juvenile imagining of what might happen if the Three Musketeers got their hands on motorcycles and machine guns—really does wear on the nerves.

Now for the bright side: there are some excellent stories here. Reynolds’s comic tale “The Business, As Usual” follows a hilarious fifteen minute conversation between a twentieth-century time traveler and a thirtieth-century local. “In the Cards,” by Alan Cogan, explores just what life would be like if people really could see the future. Someone invents a time projector allowing humanity to look two years forward into their lives, but the effect on society is far from positive. In Tim Sullivan’s “Inside Time,” a time traveler wakes up in a “time station” where he’s trapped with a beautiful woman. It’s a good suspenseful thriller, though the time science is almost tacked on as an afterthought. “Saving Jane Austen,” by Robert Reginald is a fun and quirky novella about a team of historians who travel back in time to study the famous authoress. In Robert J. Sawyer’s delightfully weird entry “Seems Like Old Times,” a serial killer’s consciousness is sent back into the body of a tyrannosaurus rex.

In between all these great selections there’s a fair amount of mediocre fluff, but all is forgiven when you get through the final story, Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s 1991 novella “The Gallery of His Dreams.” This piece is so good it rises way above typical genre fiction and ascends to the heights of great literature. It is a moving fictional biography of Matthew Brady, the pioneering photographer famous for his shots of Civil War battlefields. Brady saw little appreciation and no financial success during his lifetime, and Rusch portrays him with touchingly tragic pathos. The way time travel enters into the narrative is best left unspoiled.

At a buck a piece, Wildside’s Megapacks are certainly never a waste of money, but are they a waste of time? Not in this case. There’s enough good stuff here to make it worth reading for would-be chronic argonauts, but don’t expect to be bowled over by every tale.

Stories in this collection
Seems Like Old Times by Robert J. Sawyer 
The Business, as Usual by Mack Reynolds 
Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: 18 by Grendel Briarton
Time Well Spent by George Zebrowski 
The Day Time Stopped Moving by Bradner Buckner 
Saving Jane Austen by Robert Reginald 
In the Cards by Alan Cogan 
A Witch in Time by Janet Fox 
Yesterday’s Paper by Boyd Ellanby 
A Matter of Time by Robert Reginald 
The Man Who Saw Through Time by Leonard Raphael 
Caverns of Time by Carlos McCune 
Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: 110 by Grendel Briarton 
Lost in Time by Arthur Leo Zagat 
The Land Where Time Stood Still by Arthur Leo Zagat 
Outside of Time by Carroll John Daly 

Bull Moose of Babylon by Don Wilcox 

Compounded Interest by Mack Reynolds 

The Man Who Changed History by John York Cabot 

Time on Your Hands by John York Cabot 

Inside Time by Tim Sullivan 

Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: 116 by Grendel Briarton 

The Gallery of His Dreams by Kristine Kathryn Rusch 

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