Monday, July 27, 2015

Showcase Presents: Strange Adventures, Volume 1 by DC Comics

Pushing the envelope of the Fifties’ imagination
As far as comics go, I’ve always been more of a Marvel guy than a DC guy. However, I’ve always felt that one area where DC had Marvel beat was in the science fiction genre. The collection Showcase Presents: Strange Adventures, Volume 1, published by DC in 2008, confirms their long, rich tradition of sci-fi excellence. This volume reprints issues 54 to 72 of Strange Adventures, which were originally published from March 1955 to October 1956. I don’t know why DC chose to begin this reprint series with number 54 rather than number 1. Perhaps they felt like everything prior to these issues was too antiquated to appeal to a 21st-century audience. Whatever the basis for their decision, I won’t argue with it, because this is a fantastic collection of vintage sci-fi comics.

Through the first half of the book, the stories are almost exclusively about visitors or invaders from other planets, and always planets within our own solar system. Representative titles include “Movie Men from Mars,” “The Rock-and-Roll Kid from Mars,” and “Science-Fiction Convention on Mars.” Fear not the domination of the red planet, however. Each of our eight solar neighbors in turn gets their shot at conquering Earth, only to be thwarted by spunky American heroes. Without fail, each of these stories cites mental telepathy as the obligatory miraculous reason for the intelligibility of alien speech. Sprinkled amidst these space visitor stories are a few tales of time travel, as well as stories in which scientific principles or gadgets are used to commit or solve crimes. In the second half of the book, the ratio is reversed, with the science-crime and time travel tales taking precedence over the alien invasions.

Although this time period straddles the boundary between the Golden Age and Silver Age of comics, by today’s standards the days of the six-page story were generally not great times for comic storytelling. It was hard for writers to develop satisfying narratives within that restrictive page count. Even the much-lauded titles of this era always had a fair amount of duds sandwiched between their classic tales. That’s why the consistent quality of these Strange Adventures stories is all the more remarkable. Over the year-and-a-half time span of these issues, the 61 stories maintain a level of quality that almost never drops below a 7 on a scale of 10, with numerous entries reaching an 8, 9, or 10. There’s only one or two stinkers that just don’t make any sense, like the baffling “I Was the Man in the Moon.”

The art is reproduced in crisp black-and-white, which in my opinion is superior to scanning the fuzzy color pages of the actual finished comics, which were often of poor printing quality. This is classic comic art at its best, with a film noir-like judicious composition of lights and shadows that you no longer see in today’s Photoshopped comics. The bullpen of recurring artists includes the greats Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane, but even their lesser-known colleagues turn in top-notch work.

This collection is a wonderful celebration of the power of the imagination. Although the stories seem dated and campy after all these years, the diverse array of fantastic premises these writers came up with is truly amazing. Whether you’re a fan of sci-fi pulp fiction or of good old-fashioned comic art, these early issues of Strange Adventures are an absolute joy to read.
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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Almayer’s Folly by Joseph Conrad

A great author’s mediocre debut
Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was originally published in 1895. The title character, Kaspar Almayer, is a Dutchman who ventures into Borneo as the representative of a trading company. For many years he is the only white man residing at Sambir, a village on the eastern coast of the island. Almayer dreams of discovering a rich gold mine, but all his expeditions toward this end prove fruitless. His mentor, Captain Lingard, adopted a young native girl, the daughter of Malay pirates who were killed in a sea battle. In a business arrangement, Lingard offers the girl to young Almayer as a bride, establishing his new son-in-law as heir to all his enterprises. The Almayers’ marriage is a loveless one. Mrs. Almayer despises her husband for his failures and distrusts his white man’s ways. The one good thing to come from this union is a daughter, Nina, who turns out to be the one thing, other than his dreams of gold, that Almayer truly loves. As the half-caste girl matures into a beautiful young woman, her two parents battle over her future. The father wishes to make a European lady out of her, while the mother wants to raise her according to the Malay traditions of her ancestors.

Almayer’s Folly is a difficult story to get into. The main characters are engaging enough, but Conrad throws in a disorienting supporting cast. There’s a lot of scheming going on, and it’s difficult to keep track of who’s working for whom and what each party is after. Also adding to the difficulty is the fact that Conrad seems to value description over storytelling. His work in general, and this novel in particular, is an odd hybrid of the exotic locales and island adventures one might find in the works of Robert Louis Stevenson with the more sensitive, impressionistic realism of a Henry James. Much like Rudyard Kipling, Conrad goes to great lengths to establish the atmosphere of his exotic settings, incorporating lots of local color, foreign-language terms, and native slang. Rather than involving the reader in the story, however, all this ambience only manages to obscure the narrative and prevent the reader from caring about the characters. The details presented here of East Indies history and politics, however authentic they may be, are more confusing than interesting. Meanwhile, Conrad’s lengthy descriptions of facial expressions or clouds in the sky become tedious and only serve to distract the reader from the fundamental human drama of Almayer’s relationship with his daughter. There are some truly memorable moments in Almayer’s Folly, but one feels like he has to slog through too much unnecessary and forgettable verbiage in order to find them.

This is the first work in what is known as Conrad’s “Malay trilogy,” with An Outcast of the Islands and The Rescue being the second and third books, respectively. I’m not sure how closely related those other two books are to this one, but reading Almayer’s Folly doesn’t make me want to follow through and find out. Thankfully, Conrad was a prolific author, and he certainly has better works in his catalog than this. Unless you’re a true Conrad aficionado, stick with his greatest hits—Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Victory—and steer clear of this inauspicious debut.
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Monday, July 20, 2015

Stoicism Today: Selected Writings, Volume One. Edited by Patrick Ussher

Applying ancient philosophy to modern life
Stoicism is an ancient school of philosophy founded in Athens in the 3rd century BC. It is a practical philosophy, intended as a guide for how to live one’s life. The Stoics stressed that we have no control over what happens in our lives, only control over our perceptions. They advocated living one’s life in accordance with nature (not “nature” as in grass and trees, but “nature” as in the order of the universe). By concentrating one’s thoughts and choices on what is good and virtuous, and disregarding the “indifferent” distractions of everyday life, one can avoid negative emotions like fear, anger, grief, and frustration, and live a life of happiness and tranquility.

In recent years, there has been a burgeoning resurgence in Stoicism, with modern writers producing manuals on how to apply Stoic principles to life in today’s world, such as William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life. Along similar lines, Stoicism Today is a blog published out of the University of Exeter in England, edited and largely written by a team of British philosophers. This 2014 book, edited by Patrick Ussher, is the first volume of writings reprinted from the blog. 36 articles are included in the collection, covering a mixed bag of Stoic-related topics.

The collection starts out strong with essays summarizing and explaining the core concepts of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. These ancient Roman writers are the most prominent Stoics whose teachings survive today. The 21st-century writers clarify the ancient Stoic precepts and discuss their applicability to modern life. Though the bloggers hold PhDs in philosophy and command a thorough understanding of their subject, they do a great job of expressing these complex concepts in language that is accessible to the general reader, without dumbing down the subject matter.

While the first half of the book provides a good, broad education on Stoicism, the second half covers a diverse assortment of topics and perspectives. A section called “Life Stories” consists of accounts by people of various walks of life on how they use Stoicism in their daily lives and work, including a lawyer, a doctor, and a woman who suffered a traumatic brain injury. The most fascinating and inspiring story is that of Sam Sullivan, a quadriplegic who became mayor of Vancouver. Next is a section on how Stoicism can be applied to parenthood and the education of children. This is followed by a section on Stoicism and psychotherapy which will mostly appeal to psychiatric professionals, as it will likely be over the head of most general readers. Three articles deal with the concept of Stoic “mindfulness” and its relation or lack of relation to Buddhism. Finally, the book falls apart somewhat with its final section on Stoicism in popular culture. It includes an excerpt from a Stoicism-infused novel about prison inmates which is OK, but also a sample chapter from a horrible science fiction novel. The book’s final selection is a pretty good examination of the portrayal of Stoicism in the Star Trek television series.

This collection by its very nature is a hodgepodge, and the selections vary greatly in quality as well as subject matter. The core team of philosophers are good writers for the most part, but the ensemble cast of guest bloggers is hit and miss. Nevertheless, if you’ve read all the Stoic classics and are looking for further advice on how to put Stoicism into practice, you’re bound to find something here that will interest you.
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Thursday, July 16, 2015

News from Nowhere by William Morris

A kinder, gentler utopia
News from Nowhere, a utopian novel by English author, artist, and socialist activist William Morris, was published in 1890. The narrator is an active member of the Socialist League, a British revolutionary group. As the book opens, he returns from a League meeting, having engaged in heated debate with his comrades over the ideal society of the future, and turns in for the night. When he awakens the next morning, he has been inexplicably transported to the early 21st century. To his pleasant surprise, he finds that England has been transformed into the socialist society of his dreams.

If this plot sounds identical to Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward, it’s no coincidence. Morris was displeased with Bellamy’s industrial vision of socialism and wrote this work in response. Though the premise of the story is essentially a rip-off of Bellamy’s plot, set in London instead of Boston, overall Morris’s novel is not only a departure from but also an improvement over Bellamy’s rather dull political-economic treatise. Regardless of whether you agree with Morris’s vision of utopia, he presents his ideas in a far more entertaining package than his American counterpart.

The narrator never reveals his real name, but asks his newfound friends of the future to call him William Guest. A fellow named Dick takes Guest under his wing and invites him on a little journey. Of course, Guest is full of questions about this brave new world and interrogates Dick along the way. Unlike Bellamy, Morris manages to keep the conversation lively, interesting, and fun, despite the preachy subject matter. Guest tries to play it cool and not reveal he’s a relic from the past, but when he brings up topics like money, prisons, schools, and politics, almost no one knows what he’s talking about, because they don’t have any of these things in their society. Morris’s socialist vision is a post-mechanical society that resembles an idyllic view of medieval times, only devoid of any class system. All labor is done by hand. Citizens work when they choose, and they often choose to do so, simply for the joy of being artisans. Handcrafts play an integral part in this society, which is not surprising given Morris’s prominent role in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Dick introduces Guest to his grandfather, Old Hammond, who remembers the revolution that led to the overthrow of the old order and the establishment of the new. This lengthy history gets a little long-winded, but includes a few stirring scenes that are a refreshing change from the overall bucolic tone of the book. In its final third, unfortunately, the novel takes a downward slide. Dick and Guest travel up the Thames to a hay-making festival, and Morris treats us to repetitive descriptions of the landscapes and houses they see along the way. Only a denizen of London would appreciate this detailed depiction of how each individual suburb of the city has reverted to its pastoral roots.

Though it fizzles toward the end, News form Nowhere is still an enjoyable read for those who enjoy idealistic literature of the 19th century. Relax, enjoy the smell of the grass and the songs of the birds, and open your mind to a better life. Though I doubt Morris’s utopia will ever come to fruition, I for one certainly wouldn’t mind living there.
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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Stories by American Authors, Volume VI by C. H. White, et al.

Not bad for six 19th-century unknowns
Harold Frederic
This collection of short stories is the sixth volume in the Stories by American Authors series, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884. Overall the series has been a bit disappointing, but this is one of the better volumes so far, along with Volume III. The stories represent the kind of literature one would be likely to encounter in the popular literary magazines of the late 19th century. The six authors included here have since faded into obscurity and are likely to be unknown to today’s readers, with the possible exception of Harold Frederic, author of the novel The Damnation of Theron Ware. Frederic’s entry is one of the three strong selections in the book, which are accompanied by three more mediocre offerings.

“The Denver Express” by A. A. Hayes is one of the winners in the collection. Uncharacteristic of the series, it has few literary pretensions. It’s just a good, old-fashioned Western adventure—not of the cowboys and Indians type, but the railroad and cavalry type. Major Sinclair, a railroad employee, is sent to frontier Colorado to manage a station. There he runs afoul of a gang of local ruffians and gamblers. Hayes’s storytelling can be a bit confusing at times, but otherwise it’s good fun.

The best story in the book is “The Heartbreak Cameo” by Lizzie W. Champney. A jewelry expert discovers a beautiful gemstone exquisitely carved into a unique cameo. The origin story of this remarkable stone takes the reader back to a 17th-century Native American village in Illinois, where an ambitious French missionary with a lust for precious stones meets a simple-minded Indian maiden who knows where to find them. This is a great piece of historical fiction that keeps the reader guessing until the very end.

Coming in a close second is Frederic’s tale, “Brother Sebastian’s Friendship.” This story, narrated by a French monk, is set in the 1870s. Brother Sebastian is a solitary and misanthropic sort who has lived an intentionally lonely life but for one meaningful friendship. Here he relates the story of that singular friendship, which culminates in a shocking revelation. Frederic delivers a beautifully crafted tale that’s constantly engaging and suspenseful. This is one case where the surprise ending is truly a surprise.

The other three stories included in this volume are run-of-the-mill fare of the period. In C. H. White’s “The Village Convict,” a young man, after serving prison time for burning down the barn of a man who angered him, returns to his hometown and works to forge a new life in small-town society. “The Misfortunes of Bro’ Thomas Wheatley” by Lina Redwood Fairfax, is a character study of an aged black man who works as an “office-boy and messenger” for a white business firm. Labor riots in Baltimore contribute to the story. Albert Webster’s story “Miss Eunice’s Glove” concerns an unmarried young woman who decides to make a charitable visit to a local prison and ends up getting in deeper than she planned.

Overall, for those who are into 19th-century American literature, this is a pretty good collection of short fiction. The Hayes, Champney, and Frederic stories alone are worth a download. As for the other three selections, you can take ‘em or leave ‘em.

Stories in this collection
The Village Convict by C. H. White
The Denver Express by A. A. Hayes 
The Misfortunes of Bro’ Thomas Wheatley by Lina Redwood Fairfax 
The Heartbreak Cameo by Lizzie W. Champney 
Miss Eunice’s Glove by Albert Webster 
Brother Sebastian’s Friendship by Harold Frederic

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Friday, July 3, 2015

Some Words with a Mummy by Edgar Allan Poe

Coffin humor
Edgar Allan Poe
Some Words with a Mummy, a story by Edgar Allan Poe, was originally published in the April 1845 issue of American Review: A Whig Journal. Though considered a short story, it’s a relatively long one, perhaps approaching novella length. Here Poe tries his hand at humor, and succeeds quite admirably. Despite the living dead subject matter, this is not a horror story, but rather a satire, and at times is quite hilarious.

The unnamed narrator is invited to a scientific event at the home of his friend, Dr. Ponnonner. The doctor will be opening an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus to examine the mummy within, and a select group of colleagues gather to watch. Given the title of the story, I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that these modern men of science have a conversation with the mummy. As the American tomb raiders grill their newfound acquaintance on life in ancient Egypt, and vice versa, it becomes difficult to tell which of the two cultures is the more advanced and which the more primitive. Poe satirizes the hubris of scientists and historians, and along the way manages to take digs at everything from the transcendentalist movement to American democracy.

I’m not a diehard Poe fan. I find his work hit-and-miss, but I enjoyed this story greatly and was impressed by his comedic skills. Here Poe exhibits the sort of cynical humor and biting wit that one might expect from Voltaire. A lot of times humor doesn’t hold up well over time, but this work, though published over a century and a half ago, is still fresh enough to make today’s reader laugh out loud.
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