Friday, May 29, 2015

Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo

A terrific story, though hampered by digressions
Victor Hugo’s novel Toilers of the Sea was originally published in 1866. The story takes place in the 1820s and is set mostly on the island of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between France and England. Hugo, who lived in Guernsey for 15 years, depicts the island with obvious fondness, but also portrays it as a rather backwards place where the residents cling to long-held superstitions and are wary of outsiders. Into this insular society comes a boy named Gilliatt, brought to Guernsey by his mother. His father is unknown, his background a mystery. Mother and son move into a house reputed to be haunted, which only increases their unpopularity among the locals. When the boy reaches manhood, the mother dies, and he is left to himself. Gilliatt demonstrates a remarkable ingenuity in all he undertakes—sailing, fishing, carpentry, blacksmithing, even medicine—which only causes the locals to suspect him of sorcery. Nearby lives a merchant named Mess Lethierry who initiates the first steamship service from the island to mainland France. This prominent citizen of Guernsey has a beautiful daughter named Déruchette. One Christmas morning Gilliatt spots Déruchette walking before him along the road, and he immediately falls in love with her. Over the course of the book, this love inspires him to undertake a perilous mission which pits his almost superhuman fortitude and inventiveness against the merciless forces of nature.

That synopsis barely scratches the surface of this book’s fascinating cast and intricate plot. As usual, Hugo hits it out of the park by delivering an epic story. More than any other writer I can think of, Hugo’s novels have a timeless, legendary quality about them that transcends literature and approaches mythology. The biggest problem with Toilers of the Sea is that Hugo often departs from his spectacular story and venture off into often tedious digressions. Like Hermann Melville’s Moby-Dick or Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the novel is interspersed with nonfiction interludes. These might take the form of a catalog of Channel Island superstitions, a comparison of ship designs, or a poetic and profound philosophical essay on mankind’s relation to the natural universe. (Part II, Book II, Chapter V, entitled Sub Umbra, is a phenomenal example of the latter.) Just when you’re getting thoroughly involved in the characters and plot, Hugo will go off on some tangent and draw an extended analogy from some culture on the other side of the world. Another problem is one of precision versus clarity. Much of the book’s action takes place on rocks out in the middle of the sea. Hugo minutely describes every nook, cranny, bay, and inlet in beautiful prose, yet still it’s difficult for the reader to visualize. He goes into the same level of intricacy in depicting the riggings of a ship or the construction of a block and tackle, often employing arcane terminology. The reader ends up feeling lost through many of these passages. Yet, just when you begin to feel bored or exasperated with such episodes, the next chapter will deliver a powerful and indelible scene that knocks your socks off. Despite all the distractions and difficulties, the indomitable humanity of Hugo’s novel shines through.

Hugo was a master—perhaps “the” master—of the French language, and the 1911 English translation by W. Moy Thomas really does justice to his superior prose. Each sentence flows beautifully, while preserving the power and poetry of Hugo’s literary voice. Toilers of the Sea may not be as well known as Notre-Dame de Paris or Les Misérables, but if you appreciate the heroic romanticism of those great classics, you’ll likewise enjoy this unsung epic.
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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Call of the Wild Werewolf by Jack London and Carl Waters

Not enough deviation in this derivation
As a frequent reviewer on Amazon, authors or their representatives sometimes ask me to review their books in exchange for a free copy. This is the first time I’ve ever said yes. I am an enthusiast of all things related to the great American author Jack London, so when Carl Waters’s 2015 book The Call of the Wild Werewolf was brought to my attention, it was difficult to resist. Unfortunately, it has left me wishing I had politely declined.

In London’s original 1903 novel The Call of the Wild, a dog named Buck is kidnapped from Judge Miller’s California ranch and impressed into service as a sled dog in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. In Waters’s variation on the tale, Buck is the son of Judge Miller. He is likewise kidnapped, and then transformed into a dog by the bite of a werewolf. This anthropomorphizing of Buck is what intrigued me about The Call of the Wild Werewolf, as it seemed like a premise full of possibilities. Once Buck becomes a dog, however, he seems to lose most of his human intelligence and behaves exactly like London’s Buck. It’s unclear what the point was of making this Buck human in the first place, since he’s almost an exact duplicate of his predecessor.

The authors of this novel are listed as Jack London and Carl Waters, and for a good reason. For the vast majority of the book, Waters makes almost no alterations to London’s original text, other than to substitute the word “werewolf” for instances of “wolf” or “dog.” There’s one other change later in the book, involving the substitution of one letter, but I won’t give it away because it’s the only thing that could possibly qualify as a spoiler in this otherwise familiar story. Despite the title, Waters never really explores the werewolf idea. In the book’s second paragraph, we learn that a sort of vampire mafia is responsible for kidnapping humans and turning them into work dogs. What sort of horrific deed do these vampires require of their enslaved werewolf subjects? Delivering the mail! Just like in London’s book!

I wish I could use one of those plagiarism detection software programs to compare the two texts and see how identical they are. I bet at least 95% of this book is London’s original text. Of course, Waters is not a plagiarist and has done no wrong. He can do what he wants with London’s work because it’s in the public domain. But what is the point of publishing a work that contains so little original content? Waters doesn’t fundamentally alter the plot or meaning of London’s original work, and the use of the word “werewolf” in itself is not entertaining. If you want to read a five-star book, read the original The Call of the Wild. Waters’s slight variations to the text are not worth your time, money, or notice.

What makes this derivation even more unnecessary is the fact that someone’s already done a mash-up of Jack London and werewolves, and to far better effect. The Secret Journeys of Jack London is a series of young adult novels by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon in which a young London encounters monsters and paranormal phenomena in the Klondike. These books certainly aren’t masterpieces, but at least they’re original. The first volume, subtitled The Wild, is really pretty good and pays clever homage to London’s life and literature. I don’t recommend them wholeheartedly, but The Secret Journeys are certainly more readworthy than The Call of the Wild Werewolf.
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Thursday, May 14, 2015

This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson

Dances frivolously around its subject
I’m currently working toward an MLS degree in the hopes of becoming a librarian. When I found out about Marilyn Johnson’s 2011 book, This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, I was excited to read it. I was hoping it would provide a behind-the-scenes look at the profession and some serious examination of the issues facing librarians today. The subtitle implies that the book will cover some of the important work being done by librarians and information professionals, while perhaps also indulging in some welcome boosterism for an often underappreciated profession. While Johnson is an avid cheerleader for libraries and approaches her subject with enthusiasm, overall I was disappointed with her take on librarianship.

There is a long-standing stereotype of librarians as frumpy nerds, and Johnson is hell-bent on dispelling that erroneous notion. Unfortunately, her way of going about this is to devote an inordinate amount of words to the physical appearance and social lives of librarians, trying to convince us that they’re cool. They have tattoos! And mod retro haircuts! They wear sexy clothes and cat’s-eye glasses! They throw wild theme parties and eat funky food and let their freak flags fly! What it all adds up to is an annoying and distracting catalog of quirks. In an interminably long chapter on the social network Second Life, Johnson lovingly describes the hairdo and accessories of each and every avatar, yet fails to convince the reader that anything of value or of use is taking place in this virtual world. Another chapter on librarian bloggers makes these professionals sound like a bunch of petty, feuding high schoolers. Librarians aren’t nerds; we get it already. What’s really cool about librarians is the important work that they do, and often while reading Johnson’s book you wonder if these hip librarians are getting anything done at all.

When she does focus on the work, the results are mixed. A chapter about a library system undergoing a software migration, for example, is about as exciting as it sounds. Thankfully, there are some bright points. In Chapter 5, she interviews the Connecticut Four, a group of librarians who refused to release patron borrowing records to the federal government, in knowing violation of the USA PATRIOT Act. Chapter 6 covers a program by librarians at St. John’s University to train their counterparts from third world countries. These chapters were both pretty good, but it wasn’t really until Chapters 10 and 11 (out of 12) that I felt like I was getting the book I had hoped for. In Chapter 10 she delves into the backstage workings of the New York Public Library and weighs the pros and cons of recent changes they’ve made in their organization and practices. Chapter 11 examines the profession of archivism. With so much information, what’s worth preserving, who’s going to preserve it, and how does it get preserved? These two chapters quite thoughtfully investigate the kinds of real-life issues and problems that librarians are faced with every day.

Despite my complaints, I’m glad Johnson wrote this book because the general public needs to know more about what exactly librarians do. I wonder, though, how many nonlibrarians will read it. Professional librarians will enjoy Johnson’s positive take on their field, but won’t gain much new information from it. The ideal audience seems to be wannabe librarians like me. Johnson’s latest book, Lives in Ruins, tackles another fascinating subject, archaeology. I was looking forward to diving into that one, but after reading This Book is Overdue! I’m now worried it’ll just be a book about a bunch of hip, quirky nonconformists who only happen to be archaeologists.
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Friday, May 8, 2015

Ultima Thule by Mack Reynolds

Does the end justify the means?
Like many earthlings, Ronny Bronston dreams of going into space. When he scores a job interview with the government of the United Planets, he sees a chance for his dream to become reality. At this unspecified point in the distant future, mankind has emigrated to thousands of new planets. So far no other intelligent life forms have been discovered in space, but over centuries mankind has developed a staggering array of cultures, governments, and religions. Every splinter group and fringe element has fled the mother planet to found their own world. The United Planets, headquartered on Earth, is the government that unites all humanoid life wherever it may reside. Articles One and Two of the UP Charter assert that neither the UP administration nor another member planet may interfere with the political, religious, or socioeconomic development of any member world. Bronston is hired into the mysterious Section G of the United Planets Bureau of Investigation, whose mission it is to enforce these most sacred precepts. A mysterious revolutionary, nicknamed Tommy Paine, has been hopping from world to world, inspiring political revolutions, economic chaos, and religious conflict. Bronston’s first assignment is to track down this galactic troublemaker and put a stop to his world-changing mischief.

Ultima Thule, a novella by Mack Reynolds, was originally published in the March 1961 issue of the pulp magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Reynolds often wrote futuristic works in which he explored political themes. As Bronston chases after Paine, Reynolds has the opportunity to delve deeply into the political and social environments of three or four different UP member planets. Given their diversity, it’s difficult to determine what overarching point he’s trying to make, if any, until the final chapter. The ending of the book is really quite good. Unfortunately, all that comes before it is a bit of a bore. Reading about the structure and workings of the United Planets is about as much fun as perusing an institutional history of any other bureaucracy. H. Beam Piper, one of Reynolds’s contemporaries, also frequently satirizes governmental agencies, but he manages to slip in enough humorous touches and far-out sci-fi gadgets to keep things interesting. Reynolds puts so much effort into making his world seem real that it turns out being too real, and therefore not much fun. Despite the intergalactic travel, Bronston’s investigation is still mainly just a series of over-the-desk interviews. The trail of clues he follows in pursuit of his man is a convoluted line of reasoning that I neither could nor really wanted to follow.

Despite such complaints, the eye-opening final chapter really does compensate for a lot of the book’s shortcomings. Reynolds makes some truly interesting points, but one wishes he didn’t take such a circuitous route to get there. In regards to the quality of Reynolds’s work in general, I’m on the fence. I’ve read a few of his stories that I really liked (e.g. “The Business, as Usual” and “Compounded Interest”) and a couple of novellas that left me ambivalent (Status Quo, and this one). With such a hit-and-miss record, I’m inclined to stick with Piper, who more consistently and reliably satisfies and exceeds expectations.
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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chesnutt

Anatomy of a race riot
The Marrow of Tradition, originally published in 1901, is a novel by Charles W. Chesnutt, an author of mixed African and European ancestry who often wrote about racial issues in the American South. This book is set in Wellington, a fictional surrogate for Wilmington, NC. It is based on an actual event that occurred there in 1898 which has been alternately referred to by different parties as an insurrection, a coup d’etat, a massacre, and a race riot.

Olivia Carteret is the wife of Major Carteret, publisher of the town newspaper. When her mother died, Olivia’s father became involved with one of his black servants, resulting in a second daughter, Janet. Olivia considers her mulatto half sister to be a stain on her good name, yet she also secretly envies Janet’s happiness and success. Janet is married to William Miller, a respected black doctor educated in Europe, who has established a hospital to serve the community’s black population. Many of the town’s white citizens, some of whom still remember the days of slavery, are uncomfortable with the rising fortunes and strides toward equality made by their black neighbors. Major Carteret, a white supremacist, feels that the black folks need a reminder of their proper place in Southern society. He and a couple of like-minded associates start a propaganda campaign to promote their pro-white agenda in an attempt to oust the local black-friendly political party from power.

Stylistically, Chesnutt was a naturalist, and he depicts Southern society with unflinching clarity. He illustrates the tense relations between the black and white races through a series of discriminatory acts. For starters, Dr. Miller is kicked out of a white train car, then denied access to a medical procedure. Chesnutt also depicts the working lives of lower class blacks—laborers and servants—who are treated with insulting condescension and threatening disdain by their white employers and customers. Beatings and lynchings are still a threat for those who don’t toe the line. As the story proceeds, the racial unrest intensifies and the incidents of white antagonism toward the blacks escalates from unjust discrimination to violent persecution. This is by no means a simple us vs. them story, however. A large cast of characters and a wide array of subplots allows for Chesnutt to explore a variety of motives and perspectives, presenting a black and white society blurred by shades of gray. In contrast to Major Carteret’s cronies, some whites sympathize with the plight of the blacks. Among the black men, some are like caged prisoners ready to strike at their captors, while others are compliant subjects resigned to the perceived inevitability of their second-class citizenship. Chesnutt explores class issues as well as race. One of the white supremacists, Captain McBane, represents uppity “white trash,” despised by the aristocratic Major Carteret for his lack of breeding. Conversely, Dr. Miller is resented by whites for displaying admirable gentility in spite of his African pedigree.

Amidst the generally realistic discussion of such serious fare, Chesnutt mixes in a fair amount of soap opera melodrama. For example, a young white woman is courted by two white suitors—one a wealthy, rakish cad; the other an earnest, hardworking underdog. Given the era of the book’s publication, such frivolities can be forgiven. If written today, the narrative would no doubt be darker and grittier. Overall, however, The Marrow of Tradition is an eye-opening history lesson that’s remarkably frank for its time. The reader comes away with an admiration for Chesnutt’s brave forthrightness as well as his formidable skills as a novelist.
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Monday, May 4, 2015

Lost Horizon by James Hilton

Utopia found, but squandered
James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, published in 1933, was one of the most popular and bestselling books of the 20th century. It tells the utopian tale of a secret civilization hidden away in the mountains of Tibet. The narrative is bookended by a conversation between two Oxford alumni discussing an esteemed former classmate of theirs, “Glory” Conway. Conway is working as a diplomat for the British government in India when an uprising forces him to evacuate all white residents from the town where he is stationed. The plane on which he himself escapes, accompanied by three fellow passengers, makes an unscheduled landing deep within the mountainous terrain of Tibet. There the aerial castaways are greeted by a Chinese man named Chang, who leads them to a lamasery nestled within the majestic mountain crags overlooking an idyllic valley. Despite its extremely remote location, this mysterious lamasery, dubbed Shangri-La, is equipped with modern comforts and cultural artifacts from all over the world. Its lamas live a serene and cerebral existence, devoting their time to study, contemplation, and music. Though they are eager to return to civilization, the four foreign guests are informed that it will take some time to make arrangements for their safe departure, so they resign themselves, not altogether reluctantly, to an extended stay in paradise.

The first criteria for judging any utopian novel is whether or not you would really want to live in the utopia in question, or at least settle down for a prolonged visit. As far as Shangri-La is concerned, count me in. The problem with Lost Horizon, however, is that the story that Hilton builds around this utopia just doesn’t do justice to his fascinating creation. The setting far outshines the plot. Like many a utopian or lost civilization story, it takes half the book to get to Shangri-La in the first place, and once you’re there, the action is as sparse as the oxygen in the Himalayan air. The book does have its suspenseful moments, but every time the reader feels like the story is about to take off, Hilton brings the momentum to a dead halt in order to psychoanalyze Conway. Instead of reading descriptions of Conway’s laziness, indolence, passionlessness—whatever you want to call it—for countless page after page, I would have appreciated it if Hilton had illustrated his hero’s psychology through his actions. On the other hand, while Conway’s every twitch of eyebrow is examined ad nauseam, his three fellow passengers are almost as simply drawn as cartoon characters, including an American who says things like “pi-anno” (I guess we Yanks should be thankful that the “o” wasn’t traded for a “y”.) Most egregious of all is that the whole book hinges on a choice that Conway must make, yet the outcome of that choice was already revealed in the prologue.

Conway is an embodiment of the shell-shocked angst and careworn apathy of modern man as he emerged from the horrors of World War I. He has witnessed mankind at its worst, yet he foresees an even more terrible war, perhaps even an Armageddon, looming on the horizon. This encapsulation of the mindset between the two World Wars reminded me of another utopian novel, Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, which shares many of the same faults as Hilton’s book. Both authors caution against humanity’s burying its head in the sand, no matter how attractive that proposition may be. Today’s reader is grateful for the historical perspective, but would much prefer to get lost in the intriguing mysteries of Shangri-La, if only Hilton would let him.
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