Monday, April 27, 2015

Black Robe by Brian Moore

When Old and New Worlds collide
Black Robe, a historical novel by Irish-Canadian author Brian Moore, was originally published in 1985. It is set in the 17th century in what is now Canada. Years ago I saw the excellent 1991 film adaptation, directed by Bruce Beresford, so when I stumbled upon a copy of the novel in a discount bookstore I immediately snatched it up. I am glad I did, because this is a fantastic book.

Father Paul Laforgue is a Jesuit missionary from France who has come to Quebec to help convert the godless natives whom the French refer to as Savages. The Jesuit brotherhood receives a report from a remote mission in the country of the Huron Indians. One of their Fathers has fallen ill, and a replacement is required. Laforgue volunteers for the job, and after permission is granted by Governor Champlain he sets off on his journey, accompanied by a young Frenchman named Daniel and guided by a band of Algonkin Indians. Not only does Laforgue find the conditions of wilderness travel harsh and exhausting, he is also unprepared for life among the Algonkins. He finds their personal habits filthy, their sexual licentiousness disturbing, and their superstitious beliefs abhorrent. The two cultures are literally worlds apart. The Jesuits consider the natives barbaric, while the Indians think the priests, or “Black Robes,” are evil sorcerers. Laforgue tries to convince the Algonkins that life on Earth is merely preparation for the paradise of afterlife. They, on the other hand, prefer earthly life to the dark world of night that awaits them after death. Laforgue wants to baptize them to save their souls, but they think the “watery sorcery” is an evil trick meant to kill them. Their fear and antagonism of Laforgue threatens his own life, and the hardships he faces on the journey cause the Jesuit to question his vocation and his faith.

Although the subject matter of the book is of a religious nature, this is by no means intended to be an inspirational novel for Christian readers. In fact, members of that demographic may take umbrage at some of what Moore has to say about the church. This is the story of one man undergoing a crisis of faith and a crisis of conscience. Man’s relationship with his god is examined from all angles, incorporating viewpoints both devout and skeptical. It neither promotes nor refutes dogma, but definitely provides food for thought.

Moore’s depiction of the Canadian aborigines is unromanticized and not entirely positive. They are self-interested opportunists who will steal and kill when it suits them. However, they are also complex, intelligent people who value a sense of humor. Even in the darkest of moments, they can be seen laughing, joking, and mocking the French. Their culture, manners, and mores are presented matter-of-factly, without judgment. Moore totally immerses the reader in the 17th century, but he wisely departs from period veracity in one crucial way. When the Indians curse, it is 20th-century profanity that springs forth from their mouths. This anachronism makes it easier for the modern reader to identify with them, despite the chronological distance and culture clash.

Black Robe often resembles a James Fenimore Cooper novel that’s been updated with realistic sex, violence, and profanity. Moore’s writing has a classic, timeless quality that elevates it miles above the status quo of most contemporary fiction. Like Cooper’s work, people might still be reading this excellent novel two centuries from now. It’s that good.
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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Status Quo by Mack Reynolds

Cold War counterfeit caper
Mack Reynolds (a.k.a. Dallas McCord Reynolds) was a popular American science fiction writer who was active from the 1950s until his death in 1983. His novella Status Quo was originally published in the August 1961 issue of the pulp magazine Analog Science Fact and Fiction. I had previously read a couple of Reynolds’s short stories—“The Business, As Usual” and “Compounded Interest,” included in Wildside Press’s Second Time Travel Megapack—and found them remarkably creative and delightfully unconventional. Wanting to explore more of this intriguing author’s work, I arbitrarily chose Status Quo from among the Reynolds titles available for free download. This particular work, however, turned out not to be such a wise choice.

The story is set in the near future, probably around the 1970s, yet there are already flying cars, hover-cabs, and “TriD” television. Lawrence Woolford works for a U.S. government agency referred to only as “the department” which handles matters of intelligence and national security. Larry is called into his boss’s office and presented with a $50 bill. The money is neither a gift nor a bonus, but evidence in an ongoing investigation. Someone has been passing counterfeit notes, so perfect that they are indistinguishable from real money but for the use of duplicate serial numbers. Though normally counterfeiting falls under the jurisdiction of the Secret Service, there is concern that the Russians may be producing these phony bills in an attempt to destabilize the American economy. The chief assigns Woolford to investigate the matter. He soon discovers that a noted Soviet spy has recently entered the U.S. Suspecting this Russian agent may be behind the counterfeiting plot, Woolford sets out to track him down.

The America that Reynolds creates in Status Quo is an exaggerated parody of Cold War paranoia. It also satirizes a society absolutely obsessed with status symbols. Woolford makes a decent living as a g-man, but he’s in debt from keeping up with the Joneses. He must drive the right car, wear the right clothes, fill his home with the proper furnishings, or else he will be branded as a “weird,” or nonconformist. Reynolds broadens this obsession with status to include what he calls “social labels.” He asserts that when it comes to making decisions about who to employ, who to do business with, or who to place in positions of authority, we place far more emphasis on social labels—the aforementioned status symbols, for example, or where someone went to school, their familial or socioeconomic background, or the degrees they hold—than on competency, intelligence, or integrity. Reynolds seems to be advocating that we replace this unfair and inefficient system with a meritocracy in which everyone succeeds according to his or her capabilities. The problem with Reynolds’s cultural criticism is that his definition of social labels is way to broad. Does anyone really consider an MD or a PhD to be nothing more than a status symbol? In Reynolds’s meritocratic utopia, occupational experience would be worthless. Everyone must be solely judged on their present competency, but how would such judgments be made, and by whom?

The mystery of the counterfeiting plot is well-thought out, and there are a few fun surprises along the way. The ending of the story is particularly good, but getting there is often a dull ride. Status Quo is about three times longer than it needs to be. Despite my dissatisfaction with this novella, however, I still plan to seek out more work by Reynolds. Even amid the tedious plot and misguided message of this failed experiment, his lovably weird imagination shines through.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

The power of the prairie
Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia was originally published in 1918. It is the final novel in her Prairie Trilogy, following O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark. Since the three books don’t share any common characters or setting, the designation of trilogy is questionable, so don’t feel like you have to read either of those preceding volumes in order to enjoy this book.

My Ántonia is set in and around the fictional town of Black Hawk, Nebraska. The story is narrated by Jim Burden, an attorney, who recalls memories of his boyhood, in particular his friendship with a girl named Ántonia Shimerda. Jim loses his parents at the age of ten, and moves from Virginia to Nebraska to live on his grandparents’ farm. On the train out West he encounters the Shimerda family, just arrived from Bohemia, who turn out to be his new neighbors. The Shimerdas are a proud and hardworking family, but they don’t take readily to farming the prairie, and they eke out a poor existence form their land. The Burdens befriend the Bohemian family and offer them as much help as they can, but the two families don’t always see eye to eye.

Jim and his grandparents eventually move into the town of Black Hawk. Ántonia is not far behind, for like many immigrant farm girls, she takes a job in town as a household servant and once again becomes Jim’s neighbor. Because the immigrant families don’t speak the language as well as the native-born residents of Black Hawk, they are treated as second-class citizens. No “American” boy would ever consider marrying one of these Norwegian or Bohemian hired girls, yet that doesn’t lessen their attraction. Having been raised in the country, Ántonia and her foreign friends are more free-spirited than their city-bred counterparts, with no inhibitions about socializing or dancing with men. Thus these girls are branded as bad girls by the gossips of the town, whether they deserve such a reputation or not.

In plain-spoken but poetic prose, Cather brilliantly depicts both the pleasures and pains of growing up in small-town middle America. Jim’s recollection of youth includes many nostalgic joys, but it’s not all sunshine and roses. When Cather shows the negative aspects of Black Hawk—its insularity, its conventionality, its narrow-mindedness—she does so in a matter-of-fact way that’s free of condescension or cynicism. The relationship between Jim and Ántonia is fascinating to watch as it progresses, but the supporting cast is equally well-drawn and engaging. Even when Cather goes off on a tangent to examine some of these minor characters, the result is fascinating. The story of Peter and Pavel is a tour de force, and ought to be excerpted and inserted into every high school literature textbook. The book’s final act is a little weak and unimpressive compared to all that came before, yet overall My Ántonia is a masterpiece of American naturalist literature. Cather finds real epic drama in the everyday lives of ordinary people as they try to make a life for themselves in this isolated hamlet on the Great Plains. If you grew up in a small town or rural area, My Ántonia will make you consider your own life and times, and how the people and places you knew in your childhood shaped the person you are today.

My Ántonia is generally considered Cather’s greatest work, though I think it’s a toss-up between this and O Pioneers! The first and third books in the Prairie Trilogy are both excellent, while the middle volume, The Song of the Lark, is clearly the weak link in the chain and a poor fit with the other two in terms of style and subject matter. For any fan of classic literature looking for that Great American Novel, My Ántonia is a must-read.
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Friday, April 17, 2015

First Love and Other Fascinating Stories of Spanish Life by Emilia Pardo Bazán, et al.

The Little Blue Book of Spanish lit
Emilia Pardo Bazán
This collection of short stories was originally published as one of the Little Blue Books, an immensely popular series produced mostly in the 1920s and ’30s by Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius, a radical publisher based in southeastern Kansas who made it his personal mission to educate the masses (while making money, of course). 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. These small, brief, and inexpensive books spanned subjects as diverse as fiction, philosophy, science, history, and sex ed. First Love, volume number 1195 in the series, focuses on Spanish literature and features five short stories amounting to about 64 pages of text. It is one of the very few Little Blue Books that are now available as public domain ebooks at Amazon and Project Gutenberg.

The book opens with its title selection, “First Love” by Emilia Pardo Bazán. Likely the best entry in the volume, it’s the story of a boy falling in love for the first time, not with a person but with a portrait. “Mariquita the Bald” by Juan Eugenio Hartzenbusch is an O. Henry-esque fable about a beautiful woman who is incredibly vain with regards to her thick and lustrous hair. “The Love of Clotilde” by Armando Palacio Valdés concerns an actress’s love affair with a playwright. Two shorter selections, “An Andalusian Duel” by Serafin Estebanez Calderon and “Captain Veneno’s Proposal of Marriage” by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón are so brief they amount to little more than jokes, and to summarize them would be to reveal half their contents. What these five stories have in common is that they’re all love stories, they all possess the flavor of Balzac’s more lighthearted offerings, and they’re all pleasantly predictable. The only one that really offers anything in the way of surprises is the Hartzenbusch entry. If you like 19th-century literature, then predictability shouldn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker. Though the stories may not be “Fascinating” as the title indicates, they do offer a refreshing glimpse into “Spanish Life.”

With the exception of Don Quixote and perhaps a few 20th-century Nobel laureates, Spanish literature (from Spain, not Latin America) is generally unknown to most English-language readers. We just don’t see the abundance of translations that one finds with French, German, or Russian literature, particularly for 19th-century fiction. Another collection that’s available for free download is the Spanish volume of the Stories by Foreign Authors series, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1898. It includes two better works by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón. The quality overall is about on a par with this one, but the stories are lengthier and a little more literary. The pieces included in First Love are oriented toward a broader popular audience.

As for the Little Blue Books series, hopefully more will be digitized and distributed as ebooks. I find Haldeman-Julius’s grand enterprise fascinating, and count myself among the masses longing to be educated by his nickel-a-volume wisdom.

Works in this collection

First Love by Emilia Pardo Bazán

An Andalusian Duel by Serafin Estebanez Calderon

Mariquita the Bald by Juan Eugenio Hartzenbusch 

The Love of Clotilde by Armando Palacio Valdés 

Captain Veneno’s Proposal of Marriage by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón 

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Day of the Moron by H. Beam Piper

An intriguing title, but a dull story
Day of the Moron, a novella by H. Beam Piper, was originally published in the September 1951 issue of the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. It is considered one of three stories in a series known as the “Hartley Yarns,” which began with the 1947 story “Time and Time Again.” Outside of a brief mention of a President Hartley, however, there’s little or no connection to the other two tales. If you haven’t read any of the previous Hartley Yarns, don’t let that stop you from reading this book. On the other hand, what should stop you from reading this book is that it’s mediocre at best and not one of Piper’s better efforts.

The story is set in the near future of 1968. Engineer Scott Melroy is working at a nuclear power plant in Long Island, supervising the installation of a new cybernetic control system. A number of strict security measures have been put in place at the plant to prevent against sabotage. Melroy, however, is concerned about another deadly threat: idiot employees. He brings in a psychologist to examine everyone on his staff to determine if anyone is mentally deficient. This draws the ire of the Industrial Federation of Atomic Workers, a union which claims such intelligence testing violates the rights of their members. While this controversy heats up, can Melroy keep the reactor running safely and securely?

I can imagine the readers of Astounding Science Fiction being pretty disappointed with this offering from Piper, as I was. The only thing that qualifies it as science fiction is its setting at a nuclear power plant. Mostly it’s a series of legal arguments between Melroy and representatives of the union. Piper uses the story as a voicebox for his anti-union views. Another important issue at hand is nuclear security, a matter that’s still a concern today. Piper doesn’t mention the possible theft of radioactive materials for making weapons, but rather focuses on the possibility that a saboteur or a moron could wipe out the power supply to millions of people. He points out that the consolidation of electricity into giant grids managed by a few companies increases the chances for catastrophe. Along the same lines, he also briefly mentions food and water sabotage. These are all important topics, and holding forth on them is Piper’s prerogative, but in this case they don’t make for an interesting or entertaining story. Piper’s a great writer, and he handles this material in a competent manner, but it’s far from exciting. What’s missing is Piper’s wacky visionary audacity. The intriguing and unorthodox title promises more than this mundane novella delivers.

For Piper fans, pretty much everything he wrote is worth reading, but this is far from his best work. Day of the Moron may be a difficult title to resist, but unless you’re set out to tackle his complete works, you can safely avoid reading this one.
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Monday, April 13, 2015

Lillian Morris and Other Stories by Henryk Sienkiewicz

A Polish perspective on the American West
Lillian Morris and Other Stories is a collection of works by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature. The volume contains a novel of about 150 pages, entitled Lillian Morris, and three short stories, each of 50 pages or less. It’s unclear if these works were ever published together in Polish. The English-language edition, consisting of translations by Jeremiah Curtin, was published in 1894. Two of the works, including Lillian Morris, are set in the American West, while one short story is set in Poland and another in Spain.

From 1876 to 1878 Sienkiewicz lived in America, mostly in California. During those years he explored the West, traveling through mountains and deserts and visiting mining camps and Native American villages. In a brief introduction to Lillian Morris, Sienkiewicz explains that the novel is based on a tale related to him over a campfire in the Santa Lucia Range. The narrator is Captain Ralph, a Polish immigrant charged with leading a wagon train from the East Coast to California. Along the way he meets Lillian Morris, a young woman traveling alone, and falls in love with her. Sienkiewicz’s literary style and the distinctly American subject matter make for a curious mix. At first his European Romanticism overpowers the narrative, resulting in a familiar two-lovers-in-a-Garden-of-Eden story that just happens to take place on the Great Plains. Once Sienkiewicz starts to get into the nitty gritty of Indian relations and the harsh reality of traversing rugged mountains and hellish deserts, however, the story makes a turn for the better into the type of Western lore one expects from Zane Grey or Owen Wister. Still, Sienkiewicz stays true to his Romantic roots. The final chapter is as emotionally intense as any of the military epics for which he’s primarily famous. Lillian Morris is a great read for fans of Sienkiewicz, or even anyone who just enjoys a great Western yarn.

Even better is the short story that follows, entitled “Sachem.” A small town in Texas is forced to confront its genocidal past when a traveling circus comes to town. The program’s headline act is a performance by an Indian chief of the very tribe they exterminated. Here Sienkiewicz expertly straddles the line between shameful tragedy and biting wit. The next selection, “Yamyol” (or “Angel”) doesn’t fare as well. A funeral takes place at a Polish village church on a snowy night. At the conclusion of the ceremony, an orphan girl, left behind by the deceased, departs for a nearby mansion where she will be housed as a servant. If you read enough about Polish literature on the web, you’ll find a fair amount of complaints about the work of Jeremiah Curtin, Sienkiewicz’s most prolific translator. Though I don’t read or speak Polish, it seems that this story in particular contains many awkward passages that were likely caused by too-literal interpretations of slang expressions or idioms. The final piece in the book, “The Bull Fight: A Reminiscence of Spain,” is exactly what the title indicates. Sienkiewicz describes in exquisite detail a bull fight in Madrid. Though there’s little storyline, it is a well-rendered, naturalistic evocation of its topic, at times exciting and always educational.

Though the subject matter of these works may be atypical for Sienkiewicz, for the most part the quality of the writing is what you would expect from this Nobel-calibre author. Lillian Morris and Other Stories is a testament to his versatility and a satisfying showcase of his short fiction.

Works in this collection

Lillian Morris



The Bull Fight 

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Friday, April 10, 2015

An Antarctic Mystery, or The Sphinx of the Ice Fields by Jules Verne

Better than the book it pays homage to, but not much
Jules Verne’s novel An Antarctic Mystery, also known as The Sphinx of the Ice Fields was originally published in 1897 under the French title of Le Sphinx des glaces. It is a sequel to Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. If you haven’t read Poe’s novel, don’t worry. You don’t have to. Verne summarizes the entire narrative in chapter five of this book, and it’s far more entertaining than Poe’s original telling of the story. The whole time I was reading Poe’s book I kept thinking to myself that Jules Verne would have handled this material much better. After reading Verne’s homage to Poe’s work, it turns out I was right about the “better” but not right about the “much.”

Mr. Jeorling, the narrator, is an American geologist doing some research in the Kerguelen Islands, located in the Southern Ocean. Upon completing his study, he looks for a ride back home. The next ship to arrive in port is the Halbrane, an American schooner. The boat’s mysterious skipper, Captain Len Guy, is not willing to accept a passenger at first, but when he finds out that Jeorling is from Nantucket he welcomes him aboard. It turns out that Len Guy is the brother of William Guy, the captain of the Jane, a ship that disappeared in the Antarctic eleven years earlier. Among the passengers on board that vessel was Arthur Gordon Pym. Though Pym’s narrative made it back to Nantucket and into the hands of Poe, the captain and most of the crew of the Jane never returned. Captain Len Guy is heading toward the South Pole in hopes of finding survivors. Jeorling is shocked to find out that Poe’s fantastic novel has a factual basis. Like Pym, he possesses a curious nature and an adventurous soul. Intrigued by the mystery, he boards the Halbrane as it departs on its Antarctic expedition.

Like Poe, Verne makes the reader wait forever before the ship gets anywhere, but at least he keeps things interesting along the way. As in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Verne’s curiosity about natural phenomena is infectious. His descriptions of flora, fauna, and oceanic and atmospheric conditions provides a vivid travelogue for those with an enthusiasm for science. He also interjects suspenseful moments of conflict between crew members, some of whom have mysterious backgrounds and ulterior motives. Unfortunately, one story element involving secret identity is carried through most of the book, yet it’s painfully obvious from the very beginning who the person in question really is.

At the time this book was written, no one had yet reached the South Pole, and it was not yet clear whether there was even an Antarctic continent or just a huge sheet of sea ice. In his novel, Poe created an entire Antarctic civilization. The scientific-minded Verne seems uncomfortable with some of Poe’s flights of fantasy, so he ignores them altogether. The titular mystery is primarily concerned with the fate of the Jane’s crew. The people or creatures that Pym described in his narrative are of secondary importance. This grounds Verne’s story more firmly in reality, but it also unfortunately squanders some opportunities to delight in the weirdness of Poe’s vision. As a result, Verne’s novel ends up being mostly a book about ice. It’s a good example of 19th-century exploratory adventure literature, but there’s nothing remarkable about it that makes it stand out from Verne’s better-known science fiction works. If you enjoyed Twenty Thousand Leagues it’s a safe bet you’ll like this one too, but it’s not nearly in the same league, no pun intended.
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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

East Wind, West Wind by Pearl S. Buck

An unremarkable debut
East Wind, West Wind is the debut novel of Pearl S. Buck, winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature. It was published in 1930, just one year before Buck would become a literary superstar upon the publication of her second novel, The Good Earth. Though born in America, Buck was raised in China, where her parents worked as missionaries. She lived there for most of the first forty years of her life, departing in 1934. The story of East Wind, West Wind is narrated by a Chinese woman named Kwei-Lan, as told to an American woman (presumably Buck herself) whom she addresses as My Sister. The purpose of the novel is to contrast the traditional marriage customs and family life of the East (China) with those of the West (America). To that end, it is quite successful in educating Western readers about Chinese customs and values. As far as literary quality is concerned, however, it’s not quite up to the standard of Buck’s better-known works, but it does reveal some promise of great things to come in her future career.

Kwei-Lan comes from a family of relative wealth. Her mother and father are married, yet her father also supports three concubines and their children in the household. According to Chinese custom, Kwei-Lan’s parents arrange a marriage for her. She enters into this union with enthusiasm, willing to serve her husband and his family as tradition dictates. Her husband, however, has a different perspective on things. He was educated in America, where he experienced firsthand the Western way of life. He wears Western clothes, practices Western medicine, and favors Western attitudes toward relationships and family. He honors the obligation of his marriage to Kwei-Lan, but treats her more as a roommate than a wife. He refuses to let her assume the traditional subservient role towards his family and insists they get a house of their own. As a doctor educated in modern medicine, he considers the practice of foot binding barbaric, and urges Kwei-Lan to unbind her own feet. Each break with tradition is painful to Kwei-Lan, as her inability to fulfill the customary obligations of a Chinese wife makes her feel like a failure in her matrimonial duties. Her husband is alien to her, yet she resolves to win his love, even if she must adapt to his modern Western ideas.

East Wind, West Wind probably would have been a better novel if it were written in the third person. China has had some strong and powerful women in its history, but Kwei-lan isn’t one of them. Though the reader wants to root for her, Buck’s main purpose for the character is to portray her as a victim to China’s antiquated customs. The reader soon grows tired of her relentless obsequiousness and naiveté. The slightest deviation from the norm sets her off into a paroxysm of shock. “Oh, My Sister!” Buck seems to grow tired of it too, as she switches gears to a different story line in which Kwei-lan’s brother refuses to go through with his own arranged marriage and weds an American woman instead. Once again this makes for some fascinating culture clash, but the histrionics with which it is rendered becomes tedious at times.

East Wind, West Wind is an OK book, but not a great one. As in all her works, Buck’s humanity and optimism shine through, but stylistically this novel is much more melodramatic and contrived than classics like The Good Earth or Dragon Seed. It’s worth a read for diehard Buck fans, but if all of her novels were of this caliber she wouldn’t have won a Nobel Prize.
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Monday, April 6, 2015

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe is out of his element here
Edgar Allan Poe is best known for his short stories and poems, but he did write one novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, published in 1838. The story is told in the first person by the title character, sometimes in the form of journal entries, other times not. Pym relates the details of a perilous and bizarre nautical adventure. The book begins as the sort of seafaring tale one might expect from Herman Melville or James Fenimore Cooper. About halfway through it takes a turn toward science fiction and evolves into something more reminiscent of Jules Verne. Unfortunately, neither of these genres is really Poe’s strong suit.

The most aggravating thing about the novel is how unbelievably slow it is. As a habitual reader of classic literature, I’m well aware that Poe was not writing for a 21st century attention span, but even when you compare this novel to the works of his aforementioned contemporaries, it’s like it was written in slow motion. Even Daniel Defoe’s plodding Robinson Crusoe, published more than a century earlier, seems positively frenetic by comparison. In the first chapter of Pym’s narrative, Poe describes a shipwreck scene in such extensive and minute detail that he manages to render it a tedious experience. Next, Pym’s pal Augustus gets a job aboard the ship Grampus. Pym, hungry for adventure, decides to accompany his friend as a stowaway. Pym gets trapped in the hold and seemingly forgotten by his friend. When Augustus finally reappears days later, it takes a flashback of three entire snail’s-pace chapters to get Pym and the reader up to speed on the story’s event. Like Melville’s Moby-Dick or Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the novel is interspersed with nonfiction interludes, allowing Poe to discourse on topics like the stowage practices of ocean-going vessels, the history of Antarctic exploration, or the procedure for harvesting and processing sea cucumber. Yawn. With the exception of a gripping moment here or there, it’s surprisingly pedestrian. Finally in chapter 18 (out of 25) events begin to occur that distinguish the book from run-of-the-mill nautical genre fare.

Horror is really Poe’s forte, and the best portions of the book are the more macabre scenes in which he’s describing a corpse or a hideous death. The book does include a few memorably chilling moments. Poe is less successful with the sci-fi material, however. Science fiction is best when it’s based on science. Pym’s adventure really more accurately falls under the realm of fantasy, as it bears little grounding in reality. When a new animal species is discovered, for example, Verne would provide some evolutionary reason for the creature’s appearance. Poe, on the other hand, merely strives to envision something weird-looking. Red teeth? Sure, why not. No justification needed. Despite these complaints, the bizarre second half of the book is an improvement in entertainment value over its tedious beginning. Poe gives the reader another reason to dislike the novel, however, when he refuses to provide an ending. He merely truncates the tale at an awkward point of incompletion and tacks on a dull epilogue.

Poe is a great writer, but this is not a great book. In my opinion, it most likely would have faded into obscurity by now if it didn’t have Poe’s name on it. Jules Verne, on the other hand, liked The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym so much he wrote a sequel for it, entitled An Antarctic Mystery. I look forward to reading that one, as I’m sure Verne will handle this subject matter far better than his predecessor.
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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Captain Burle by Emile Zola

A brief gem masterfully crafted
Captain Burle is a short novella in four chapters by Emile Zola. The title character is an army quartermaster whose best days are long behind him. A widower, he lives in a squalid hovel with his mother and son. In the early days of his military career, he showed signs of heroic promise, but these days he’s content to contribute the bare minimum to his nation in exchange for an adequate paycheck. Much of his income is squandered on gambling and a woman of ill repute. His mother, the stern widow of a distinguished colonel, is ashamed of her son and laments his lost potential. One stormy night, her son’s commanding officer shows up on her doorstep. Major Laguitte has discovered that Burle is stealing funds from the army coffers. In order to save his old friend from a court-martial and hanging, as well as cover his own hide, Laguitte looks for a way to quickly and discreetly resolve the matter before any of the military higher-ups find out the money is missing.

Captain Burle was originally published in 1882. This was the same year Zola published Pot-Bouille, the tenth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series. At this point in his career he was at the top of his game, and it shows in this brief but satisfying tale. From page one, Zola masterfully pulls the reader into the lives of his vividly drawn characters, skillfully manipulating the emotional tone of the narrative in any direction he chooses. There’s an underlying sense of humor throughout the piece. You laugh at Burle’s naughty shenanigans and Laguitte’s frustrating efforts to force him back onto the straight and narrow path. Ultimately the work does examine serious themes like respect, honor, dignity, and friendship. Anytime the story threatens to become too uplifting, however, Zola makes sure to throw in some pessimistic detail to bring it back down to earth, as if reminding the reader to “get real”. Captain Burle is a great example of Zola’s mature naturalistic style, injected with some Balzacian cheekiness. There’s nothing monumentally impressive about this short work, but if you’re a fan of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels then you’ll enjoy Captain Burle as well.
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