Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Genesis by H. Beam Piper

Two men, six women, and a whole lot of ammo
Genesis, a short novella by H. Beam Piper, was originally published in the September 1951 combined issue of the pulp magazines Future and Science Fiction Stories. Piper is perhaps best known for his Paratime series and his Terro-Human Future History series, but Genesis is simply a stand-alone story and a darn good one.

As the story opens, a spaceship is approaching the planet Tareesh. It has come from the dying world of Doorsha, and is loaded with colonists who intend to transplant their civilization to a new home. They are perhaps the final hope for the future existence of their species. On board the craft, army officer Kalvar Dard and Air Force lieutenant Seldar Glav are performing their routine duties, working and chatting with six attractive young women named Olva, Varnis, Kyrna, Analea, Dorita, and Eldra. Shortly before entering the atmosphere of Tareesh, the ship is struck by a meteor. The eight colleagues pile into an escape pod and aim for the surface of the planet. As the mother ship explodes behind them, they realize that they are the only survivors. It is up to them to perpetuate their race upon this new and unknown world.

Is this the ultimate male fantasy (circa 1950) or what? As in many of Piper’s books, the treatment of women is far from politically correct by today’s standards. Here the female characters aren’t even given last names. They are depicted in much the way women are treated in motion pictures of this era. Their main function is to be flirted with and seduced by the men, or vice versa. At least that’s true in the beginning of the story. To his credit, however, Piper does depict them as independent women who work and fight alongside their male counterparts.

Piper’s visionary science fiction tales of time travel and the future are often very intricate and complex. Genesis, on the other hand, is a rather straightforward adventure novel. Once the party touches down on the planet they fight for survival as hunters and gatherers, like some kind of outer-space Swiss Family Robinson. Tareesh is a brutal world, and to adapt they must themselves become brutish. Like many other castaway stories, all they’ve got to work with are the few items they managed to grab from the ship before departure. Piper, an inveterate gun nut, makes sure everyone is well-stocked with weaponry and keeps the reader constantly apprised of the ammunition inventory. The story is more than just action and violence, however. Piper is one of the most intelligent sci-fi writers of the pulp fiction era, and he definitely leaves the reader with ample food for thought.

I’m a fan of Piper’s work, but I don’t unconditionally love everything he does. Genesis grabbed my attention from paragraph one and held me riveted until the very end. It’s an exciting and memorable story, and more serious than his typical fare. Though it’s brief enough to easily read in one sitting, it may be one of Piper’s strongest works.
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Monday, March 30, 2015

Stories by American Authors, Volume IV by Constance Fenimore Woolson, et al.

Mostly mediocre, with one standout
Noah Brooks
This collection of six short stories is the fourth volume in the Stories by American Authors series published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884. The series as a whole provides an overview of American fiction in the late 19th century and includes many authors that today’s readers are unlikely to have heard of. In this fourth volume, the only name recognizable to me is Constance Fenimore Woolson, the grandniece of author James Fenimore Cooper. The first and second books in this series were terrible, while the third volume was surprisingly very good. Volume IV is a return towards mediocrity, with the exception of one excellent entry.

The book opens with Woolson’s selection, entitled “Miss Grief.” A successful young writer receives frequent visits from a mysterious woman who exhibits signs of poverty. Fearing she’s seeking charity, he avoids her calls, but eventually she catches up with him. When he finally makes her acquaintance, he discovers that she’s an aspiring author who wants him to read her writings. The story is engaging enough to keep you wondering what happens next, but when it’s over you simply wonder what’s the point. “Love in Old Cloathes” by H. C. Bunner is a predictable tale of a man of limited promise attempting to woo a beautiful woman who is promised to another man. What sets it apart from typical fare is that it’s written in the first person in a heavy dialect complete with grammar and spelling errors. This gets annoying at times, but also has its charms. “Two Buckets in a Well” by N. P. Willis is about a promising young painter who, at the urging of his beloved, gives up his artistic aspirations and devotes his energies to the family business. It has a pretentious verbosity to it that values unnecessary ornateness of language over clear and compelling storytelling, exemplifying what’s wrong with much of American fiction written during this time period. J. W. DeForest’s “An Inspired Lobbyist” is the obligatory comic relief of the volume. As with the previous volumes, the laughs have not held up well over the intervening century. It’s a political satire about a state with two alternating capital cities, though it’s unclear why anyone would take the time to satirize a political situation that doesn’t exist.

Half of the book is taken up by its longest selection, “Friend Barton’s Concern” by Mary Hallock Foote. A Quaker farmer goes off on a preaching tour, leaving his wife and daughter to run the farm. In her father’s absence, the daughter experiences her first love. This piece is long, boring, and predictable, with lots of “thees” and “thys” in the dialogue. It’s unfortunate that so many pages are devoted to it.

Thankfully, the volume ends on a high note with an excellent story, “Lost in the Fog” by Noah Brooks. Two inexperienced seamen accompany the captain of a boat full of butter and eggs on a routine six hour trip from Bolinas to San Francisco. The wind dies, however, and the boat drifts for two days in a thick fog. When they finally emerge from the clouds and reach land, the crew makes an unexpected discovery. Brooks’s approach to storytelling is primarily naturalistic, marking this tale as a precursor to the San Francisco stories of Jack London and Frank Norris. While admittedly the fog bank gets a little boring, the second half of the story is fascinating. The whole point of reading this sort of grab-bag series is in the hope of finding a buried treasure like this one. In fact, Brooks’s well-told tale is the only one here that’s truly worth reading. I would suggest you just skip the other five and enjoy it.

Stories in this collection

Miss Grief by Constance Fenimore Woolson 

Love in Old Cloathes by H. C. Bunner 

Two Buckets in a Well by N. P. Willis 

Friend Barton’s Concern by Mary Hallock Foote 

An Inspired Lobbyist by J. W. DeForest 

Lost in the Fog by Noah Brooks

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Saturday, March 28, 2015

See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody by Bob Mould

Often boring, frequently annoying, never fun
These days it’s common for rock stars to begin their autobiographies by starting in the middle. Though their life story may be a straightforward, chronological narrative, it’s become trendy to single out one prominent episode from the artist’s heyday to serve as an introduction. In his 2011 autobiography See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, Bob Mould opens with a story about how he and his partner got kicked out of a clothing optional resort in Palm Springs. Their TVs don’t work properly, Mould’s boyfriend goes to complain, an argument ensues, and the manager ejects them. As he’s walking out the door, Mould leaves the manager with an I’m-a-rock-star-and-you’re-not kiss-off, then stalks off to play the Coachella Festival. Really, Bob? This is what you want to lead off with? To its credit, the scene is indicative of the book that follows. It establishes Mould as a self-centered jerk and proves that he’d rather write about anything other than music.

Mould is best known as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist in the Minneapolis punk band Hüsker Dü. Later he had a solo career in alternative rock and briefly formed a band called Sugar. One factor that makes Mould’s story somewhat unique among rock stars is that he’s gay, and for most of his career he’s been pretty open about it. In See a Little Light, he recalls what it was like growing up gay in the ‘80s when AIDS first became a household word. He’s quite candid about his relationships, his eventual coming out, and his coming to terms with his own identity as a gay man. His story might possibly be inspiring to other gay men, but for everyone else it gets rather dull. Every minute detail of his personal relationships, from the deliberately provocative to the tediously mundane, is laboriously examined and re-examined. In my youth, angst-ridden songs like “Bed of Nails” or “59 Times the Pain” really spoke to me, but to hear a middle-aged man talk as if every relationship is a power struggle and every breakup is torture just comes across as rather juvenile. Even worse, once Mould embraces his gayness he can’t stop gushing about “cute guys” or “hot guys,” or praising his own physique or his “piercing blue eyes.” While sitting through all this, the reader can’t help wondering, what about the music?

Unfortunately, when Mould does write about music it reads like acknowledgements. He provides a roll call of pretty much everyone he’s ever met, but little is learned about all these dropped names other than that they all briefly crossed paths with Bob Mould. Every gig he's ever played gets a one-or two-sentence synopsis, but rarely, if ever, does the reader get any evocation of the joy, thrill, or fun of making music. For fans of Hüsker Dü, Mould works hard to make it patently clear that he has put all that behind him. With regards to Grant Hart, the other singer/songwriter in the band, Mould occasionally tosses him a backhanded compliment, but mostly he discusses his former bandmate as if he were enumerating grievances in a legal deposition. And poor Greg Norton! Mould has absolutely nothing good to say about Hüsker Dü’s bass player, refusing to even acknowledge he made the slightest contribution to the band. Mould sees Sugar as his crowning achievement (apparently they were huge in the UK?). Readers who agree with him on that judgment will be more likely to enjoy the book.

Often after reading a rock-and-roll autobio, I feel an urge to purchase that artist’s music, replacing old vinyl favorites with mp3s. Not so in this case. After reading this exercise in narcissism, I feel no desire to relive my days of Mould fandom. Instead, I’ll take a cue from the author himself and put the past behind me.
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Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Straw by Eugene O'Neill

Love in the sanatorium
Eugene O’Neill wrote some of the finest plays in the history of the American theatre, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946 and four Pulitzers. His works combine gripping drama with a frank, naturalistic realism, often depicting ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations. Even for those who’ve never seen one of his dramas performed on the stage, his writing retains its power when read from the printed page—usually. I have read about a dozen of his plays and have always been impressed by his better-known works, such as The Hairy Ape and The Iceman Cometh. The Straw, originally published in 1919, is not one of his better-known works. It is, however, one of the few O’Neill plays that’s in the public domain, and therefore available for free download from Amazon or Project Gutenberg. While you certainly can’t argue with the price of admission, the question remains, is it worth your time?

With three acts consisting of five scenes, The Straw is considered a full-length play, but it’s not a terribly long one. In book form it weighs in at a little over 100 pages. It opens, like many O’Neill works, with the obligatory Irish alcoholic. Carmody is a bit of a hairy ape himself—brutish and uncouth, but capable of artful guile when it serves his purposes. A widower, he is left with five children, most of whom are barely characters in the story. His eldest daughter Eileen, however, is the star of the show. She is clearly the brightest tool in this shed, but unfortunately she has problems with her physical health. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, her doctor recommends she be moved into a sanatorium for rest, recovery, and observation. Eileen is engaged to be married, and the thought of being separated from her fiancé saddens her, but he is turned off by her illness and finds the distance liberating. Fortunately for her, upon arriving at the facility she meets a dashing aspiring writer who takes her mind off her troubles.

Just a couple generations ago, tuberculosis was an everyday fact of life in America. At the time this play was written, most audience members likely would have known someone who spent time in a sanatorium. For today’s readers, on the other hand, it’s a situation that’s tough to identify with. One can’t help but see it as merely a convenient but less-than-clever device to get Eileen away from her boyfriend and into close proximity with another man. Reading this play reminded me that theatre was the television of the early 20th century, and 90% of what’s on television is mediocre at best. The Straw is not a terrible play, but there’s certainly nothing special about it. The plot is neither entirely comic nor tragic, but an odd combination of the worst melodramatic elements of both. It’s a rare substandard effort from O’Neill.

I have no idea to what the title of the play refers. I don’t recall the word “straw” being mentioned at all in the text, and all the “straw” phrases I can think of—the last straw, the straw that broke the camel’s back, grasping at straws, drawing the short straw—don’t really apply. Obviously the title gave me no indication of what the work was about; I simply went into this one cold and without a clue. Sometimes it’s rewarding to approach an unknown work by an acclaimed author, as the result is often a pleasant surprise. This is not one of those times.

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Friday, March 13, 2015

Sir Nigel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

An underwhelming prequel to The White Company
Sir Nigel, a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was originally published in 1906. It is a prequel to his 1891 novel The White Company. Here we learn how Sir Nigel Loring, one of the most beloved characters from that earlier work, became a knight in the first place. Readers of The White Company will recognize many of the same characters, including the indefatigable archer Samkin Aylward, the formidable knight Sir John Chandos, and the virtuous Lady Mary Buttesthorne. You should definitely read the two stories in publication order rather than in chronological order, because Sir Nigel contains some spoilers that give away the ending of The White Company.

The story of Sir Nigel opens in 1350, during the Hundred Years’ War. Nigel Loring is the son of a celebrated knight, but since his parents’ deaths the family has fallen on hard times. Nigel lives with his grandmother in Tilford Manor, in Surrey. They continually face persecution by the monks of a nearby abbey who are constantly trying to steal their land, either through lawsuits or just plain encroachment. Nigel desires to follow in his father’s footsteps by seeking knightly honor in the service of the king. He becomes a squire to Sir John Chandos, and accompanies him on an expedition to France. Before departing on his quest, Nigel makes a vow to perform three valorous deeds of honor.

Thus the novel promises us at least a trio of satisfying action sequences, and for the most part it delivers on that promise. The problem is that in between Nigel’s honorable feats lie some pretty tedious scenes of talk and more talk. If you are looking for a novel that captures the romantic charm of this chivalrous age, nobody does it better than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The atmosphere he creates in The White Company and Sir Nigel is more engaging and entertaining, at least for modern readers, than even the celebrated works of Sir Walter Scott. The problem with this book, however, is that while it’s crammed with atmosphere, the plot feels underwhelmingly slow and sparse. The first seven or eight chapters of the book, before Nigel sets out on his life-changing journey, are quite boring. It’s like sitting through the umpteenth variation of Spider-Man’s origin story when all you want is to see him fight Dr. Octopus. The fact that Nigel sleeps through the book’s first major battle doesn’t help either. Also, because this is a historical novel, Conan Doyle feels the need to introduce dozens of real-life knights into the proceedings, often distracting from the adventures of the title character.

Something else that’s missing from this book is the sense of humor so prevalent in The White Company. In that book, Sir Nigel was an elder knight, who exhibited some of the comic characteristics of Mr. Magoo. In this novel, he is an earnest young man coming of age, which is harder to make fun of. As a result, with the exception of a few violent scenes, it often reads as young adult literature, like something that might be serialized in Boys’ Life magazine.

I don’t mean to make it sound like this novel is all bad. There are some exciting and memorable scenes here, including jousts, naval battles, and the storming of castles. Overall, however, I found it inferior to The White Company and thus somewhat of a disappointment. Still, a mediocre book by Conan Doyle is probably superior to 90% of what’s available today in this genre.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Juana, or The Maranas by Honoré de Balzac

The comic and the tragic
Les Marana, a novel by Honoré de Balzac, was originally published in 1834. In English translation it appears under the title of Juana or The Maranas, or both. The story takes place in 1811 during the French storming of Tarragona, a Spanish coastal city, during the Peninsular War. Balzac introduces us to two officers, neither of whom is a model soldier. Captain Montefiore is a handsome Italian marquis and inveterate ladies’ man. His friend Diard is a quartermaster from Provence with a penchant for stolen art and gambling. As their regiment enters Tarragona, the city is in a state of unbridled pillage and plunder. Diard decides to profit from the general disorder by chasing after some priceless paintings. Montefiore, on the other hand, is enchanted by a beautiful woman firing a gun from the window of a house. The next day, when relative order is restored, he arranges to be quartered in that same house, in hopes of plundering her affections.

Montefiore has to cozy up to the parents of his host family before he can get close to the girl. He later finds out that the young woman in question, named Juana, is actually the daughter of a wealthy courtesan called La Marana. In fact, Juana is the descendant of a long line of such courtesans. Her mother, however, hopes that her beloved Juana will not follow in her ancestors’ footsteps. Wishing a respectable life for her daughter as a wife and mother, La Marana goes to great lengths to protect Juana’s virtue.

That may sound like the setup for a bawdy romantic comedy, and the book certainly starts out that way. Montefiore’s concerted quest to deflower this virgin is as humorous and entertaining as any comic opera. The lighthearted hijinx does not continue, however, and the book takes a darker turn. Balzac divides the novel into three long chapters, and by the time you get to the end of the third the sex and romance has been replaced by degradation and violence. When critics used to accuse Balzac of always concentrating on the uglier, baser aspects of life, this might very well have been one of the works they had in mind. For today’s readers, however, the problem with the book is neither its beginning nor its end but rather its middle, which is slow and rather dull. Balzac goes off on one of his favorite topics—marriage—providing an in-depth relationship examination that is a little too philosophical to be emotionally engaging or vicariously interesting. Thankfully, the plot does pick up again and the book finishes with a moving and memorable ending. Its long-windedness prevents it from being one of Balzac’s strongest works, but the story of Juana is likely to stick with the reader for a long time.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Death by Maurice Maeterlinck

Toward an enlightened demise
It takes a certain degree of audacity to write a book entitled Death, as if anyone could ever say everything there is to say about the subject. That said, Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck, winner of the 1911 Nobel Prize in Literature, comes pretty darn close with this one. Death, originally published in 1911, is an extended essay, amounting to a little over a hundred pages in length. In that brief span, Maeterlinck does his titular topic justice by examining the subject from a variety of perspectives.

The main thrust of the book is that the fear of death that plagues mankind is an irrational superstition. If we cannot completely eradicate this fear we can at least partially subdue it by applying our faculty of reason. Since death offers the cessation of all pain, Maeterlinck advocates for euthanasia instead of the mandatory prolongation of suffering by any medical means necessary. He also briefly argues for cremation over burial. Maeterlinck then explains how the fear of death is really a fear of the unknown, and that if we indulge in some rational speculation as to what lies beyond the grave, we will find that we have little to fear. The majority of the book concerns the afterlife. Maeterlinck proposes various scenarios of what happens to the human soul after death—including the possible nonexistence of the soul altogether—and points out the strengths and weaknesses of each theory. In doing so, his scope broadens beyond the subject of death to encompass metaphysical questions such as the substance of human consciousness and the very nature of the universe itself.

The book is divided into 31 short sections, each only a page or few in length. Its message is reminiscent of the great Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, though less solemn and more optimistic in style. Both books encourage readers to conquer their fear of death through reason, but while the Meditations is a disordered hodgepodge of thoughts and aphorisms, Maeterlinck’s book is an organized argument, with each bite-sized chunk building upon the passage that came before. Maeterlinck shares the view of the Stoics that the doings of human life don’t really matter in the grand scheme of the universe. What we conceive of as good and bad is really just an illusion. There is only the machinery of nature at work, before which we are powerless. We cannot stop death, but we can stop the control we allow it to have over us while we live. Beyond Stoicism, Maeterlinck also includes inklings of Spinoza’s monism and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Over-soul. Maeterlinck’s writing is very clear and accessible, in fact far more so than either Spinoza or Emerson. The English translation by Alexander Texeira de Mattos is quite good. There are a few convoluted passages that frustrate and confuse, as is the case with much literature of this time period. Books were written in a less conversational style back then. Given its philosophical subject matter, however, it’s a very smooth read.

Maeterlinck is best known as a playwright and poet. Here he proves himself an accomplished author of the philosophical essay as well. Death is a thought-provoking and eye-opening book. Though he was speaking to audiences of a century ago, readers of today will still find much to learn from Maeterlinck’s enlightened discourse.

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Monday, March 2, 2015

Maigret and the Fortuneteller by Georges Simenon

A murder foretold
Maigret and the Fortuneteller is the 44th adventure of Inspector Jules Maigret, the Parisian detective created by Belgian author Georges Simenon. It was originally published in 1944 under the French title of Signé Picpus. It has also been published in English under the title of To Any Lengths.

As the story opens, Maigret and his men have most of the fortune tellers in Paris placed under surveillance. Earlier that day, a clerk named Mascouvin is dining at a café when he decides to write a letter. He asks the waiter for paper, ink, and a blotter. On the previously used blotter he finds the impression of a note from someone named Picpus stating that he is going to kill a fortune teller that evening. Mascouvin takes the blotter to the police, and a mad scramble ensues to find the intended victim before the crime is committed. This premise may seem a bit incredible to the 21st-century reader. The idea that the police would grant such urgent attention to so thin lead is dubious, but perhaps in the 1940s death threats weren’t tossed about as casually as they are these days. Despite the questionable setup, the mystery that follows is a good one. The police are unable to prevent the murder, leaving Maigret with a perplexing case to solve.

I’ve read several of the Maigret books, and this is one of the best ones I’ve encountered so far. The novels in this series sometimes read like straightforward just-the-facts procedurals, albeit with deeper psychological undertones, but in this book Simenon experiments a bit with the usual template. Here and there he takes literary license with the chronology. The first chapter described above, for example, opens in mid-investigation, and only through flashbacks do we figure out the purpose of the fortune teller dragnet. One chapter opens with a beautifully written montage in which all the characters of the story wake up simultaneously in various neighborhoods of Paris under vastly different circumstances. In other novels, I’ve found that Maigret’s investigative method often amounts to little more than lingering amongst the suspects and intimidating them until someone cracks. In this book, however, he really does some crafty detective work to solve the case. Some judicious stream-of-consciousness passages let us in on his thought process as he unravels the tangled web of clues. The way in which all of the various characters end up being connected in the end is truly ingenious and unexpected.

One of the things I enjoy most about the Maigret novels is the glimpse that they offer into French life. Simenon’s perspective is much more frank and authentic than the romanticized images of Paris that we get from English-language authors. Most of the story takes place in Paris, with a brief trip to Morsang, a riverside weekend getaway spot which was also the setting of Maigret and the Tavern by the Seine. In the way he reveals French society through his novels, Simenon is like a modern Balzac. By including characters of every conceivable background, class, and walk of life, the cumulative creation of Maigret’s world amounts to a sort of 20th-century Comédie Humaine.

Whether you’re a fan of Maigret, or just a mystery genre enthusiast who’s new to Simenon’s works, you’ll find much to enjoy in this book. It’s simply a well-crafted, engaging whodunit.

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