Friday, November 27, 2015

The Late Monsieur Gallet by Georges Simenon

Excellent early Maigret
The Late Monsieur Gallet, published in 1931, is the third volume in Belgian author Georges Simenon’s series of mystery novels featuring Inspector Jules Maigret, though the recent line of reprints from Penguin Classics has it as book number two in their series. Originally titled M. Gallet décédé, it has also been published in English under the titles The Death of Monsieur Gallet and Maigret Stonewalled. In all Simenon wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories starring Maigret. I’ve read about ten of the Maigret novels so far, and this is the best one I’ve come across so far.

Maigret is Detective Chief Inspector with the Police Judiciaire in Paris. On a stifling hot summer day, he gets a telegram informing him that a traveling salesman named Émile Gallet has been found murdered at a hotel in Sancerre, a town on the Loire River. Maigret is tasked, much to his chagrin, with travelling to Saint-Fargeau, a town about 20 miles from Paris, informing Madame Gallet of her husband’s demise, and escorting her to Sancerre to identify the body. The widow greets Maigret’s notification of her husband’s death with disbelief, because he was murdered on June 25th, while she has received a postcard from him postmarked on the 26th. Unable to convince her, the reluctant Maigret drags the doubtful woman off to view the corpse. Once they arrive in Sancerre, details begin to emerge that suggest that the mysterious M. Gallet was not all he appeared to be.

Simenon handles this case with expert pacing and plotting. The more Maigret delves into the case, the more baffling details reveal themselves. Surprising revelations are rationed over the course of the book, so the reader is always just one step behind the truth. Some mystery novelists save up too many surprises for the big reveal at the end, causing the reader to become disoriented and disinterested. Not so, Simenon. He leaves the reader just enough of a trail of bread crumbs to see where the path of Maigret’s investigation is leading, but not enough to discern the final destination until the very end. The characters are both realistic and intriguing. There’s no shortage of sufficiently shady suspects among Gallet’s associates, and as is often the case in Maigret’s adventures, the dead man is the most engaging and sympathetic player in the ensemble cast.

This brisk 150-page mystery had me hooked from chapter one until the final page. It’s superior to the two volumes that preceded it—Pietr the Latvian and Lock 14—so if you’ve never read Maigret before and are thinking about giving him a try, this may be a good one to start with. It’s an excellent example of Simenon at his best.
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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Dylan: Disc by Disc by Jon Bream

Dylanologists’ cocktail party
Music critic Jon Bream’s 2015 book Dylan: Disc by Disc presents a series of discussions of each of Bob Dylan’s 36 studio albums. Each chapter consists of a track list, a roster of musicians who played on the album, a brief description by Bream detailing the circumstances surrounding the creation of the work, and a discussion, moderated by Bream, between two commentators. The interviewees in this latter category run the gamut from rock critics, Dylan biographers, university professors, and musicians, some of whom played with Dylan and some of whom are just ardent fans.

I wouldn’t call these discussions debates, because for the most part both parties are heaping adulation upon the Almighty Bob. They may get critical about some of the nitty gritty details, but it seems Bream selected most of the commentators based on their personal affinity for the particular disc they’re discussing. Only a few albums emerge scathed from this lovefest: the 1973 leftovers collection simply titled Dylan, and the late ‘80s duds Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove. I developed a love for Dylan late in life and own about half of his albums. My taste in his work doesn’t always conform to the usual ranked list of his best albums, so it was great to read others praising some of my underappreciated favorites, like Modern Times, Street-Legal, or Saved. Reading about the albums that I’m unfamiliar with was also quite educational and got me to think about purchasing several albums that I might not have previously considered buying. In either case, the commentary also includes informative details and insightful perspective on the writing and production of the songs. Dylan: Disc by Disc does exactly what a book like this should do—inspires an enthusiasm and respect for its subject. In fact, it makes we want to go out and buy another ten Dylan albums.

I don’t always agree with what these Dylan pundits have to say, but I always enjoyed the conversation. In general, the encyclopedic knowledge of the rock journalists makes for more insightful and articulate criticism than the more sentimental perspectives of the recording artists, but each voice makes its own welcome contribution. Reading this book is like attending a cocktail party of Dylan aficionados and overhearing conversations between people like musicians Suzanne Vega and Ric Ocasek, Kansas City DJ Bill Shapiro, and Rolling Stone editor David Browne. The chapters are relatively short and addictive, giving an informal feel to the book that resembles a series of magazine articles, like what you might find in a “Special Collector’s Edition” on Dylan that Rolling Stone or MOJO might put out.

I consider myself a big fan of Dylan, but I don’t consider myself an expert, so I can’t say for sure whether a diehard Dylanologist would gain a lot of new insight from this book. It’s hard for me to believe, however, that any fan wouldn’t enjoy this appreciation of the master’s body of work. When in doubt, buy the inexpensive ebook edition. It may not have as many photos as the attractively designed print version, but it’s definitely worth the price.
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Monday, November 23, 2015

The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Get to the dinosaurs already
The Land That Time Forgot, a science-fiction novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was originally serialized in Blue Book Magazine in 1918 and first published as a book in 1924. The story opens with a narrator, presumably Burroughs himself, describing how on a fishing trip off the coast of Greenland he discovered a manuscript in a bottle which serves as the text of this novel. The narrative is written in the first person by Bowen J. Tyler, the heir to a shipbuilding firm in Santa Monica, California. After enlisting for military service in World War I, he finds himself on a passenger ship out of England, bound for the battlefields of France. He sees action sooner than expected, however, when his ride is sunk by a German U-boat. Tyler and his spunky dog manage to end up alone on a lifeboat with a beautiful woman. Eventually, through a series of convolutions best left unrevealed, he ends up capturing the U-boat. Luckily, it just so happens that his father’s company built the craft, and Tyler himself conveniently helped design it, so he takes command of the ship and attempts to pilot it to a safe port.

The naval action goes on for four chapters (out of ten) before we finally get to what the title promises. After losing their way in the South Pacific, Tyler and his shipmates discover the lost continent of Caprona. I don’t think I’m giving too much away by revealing that they meet dinosaurs there. In fact, the wildlife in Caprona is not a frozen slice of the Mesozoic Era, but rather a spectrum of creatures from all stages of evolution, including various species of primitive man. Tyler later learns that the local name for Caprona is Caspak. While he and his crew were hoping for a short stop to replenish their supplies, through unforeseen circumstances they end up stranded in this strange and dangerous land.

I’m an enthusiast of vintage adventure fiction, so I’m receptive to what Burroughs has to offer, but I’ve never been fully satisfied by the few works of his that I’ve read. The original Tarzan novel struck me as hacky and foolish. The Land That Time Forgot fares better, but not much. It’s not hacky, but it isn’t great either. In Caspak, Burroughs has created a fantasy world with the potential to be fascinating, but he doesn’t do anything interesting with it. Too much time is spent on the U-boat, and not enough time among the prehistoric wildlife. The plot is often driven by miraculous coincidences rather than heroic ingenuity. The prehistoric creatures are too easily killed to engender much suspense. Later in the book Tyler informs us that he has discovered “the miraculous, the gigantic truth” of Caspak, but he doesn’t let us in on the secret. This book is incomplete in and of itself and essentially acts as a prologue to another novel. Like The Empire Strikes Back, its purpose is merely to set up the next installment in the series. That would be The People That Time Forgot, the second book in a Caspak trilogy.

One can’t help but compare this book to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World. Each is flawed in its own way. Doyle’s novel is laden with racism and genocide while Burroughs manages to work in an anti-Bolshevik message sympathetic to the German Empire. In the political correctness department, I’ll give Burroughs the edge, but I still like The Lost World better for its sense of humor and interesting characters. As a hero, Tyler is as dull as dishwater, and his romance with the requisite damsel in distress Lys is insipid and cloying. Perhaps the entire Caspak trilogy adds up to a good novel, but The Land That Time Forgot by itself is a disappointment. Even so, I might just find myself reading the second book, in hopes that it will live up to the potential that this volume squanders.
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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Gladiator by Philip Wylie

If Dreiser wrote Superman
Gladiator, a 1930 novel by Philip Wylie, is rumored to be the inspiration for the comic book character Superman. It features a protagonist who is incredibly strong, virtually indestructible, and bears a head of “hair so dark as to be nearly blue.” At one point he even builds his own fortress of solitude. The likeness ends there, however. I approached this book expecting typical pulp fiction fare, but I got much more than I bargained for when it turned out to be a surprisingly profound and intelligent work of literature.

Abednego Danner is a biology professor at a small college in Indian Creek, Colorado. Ridiculed by his academic colleagues, mild-mannered Danner is the last person anyone would expect to make one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. That’s exactly what happens, however, when he develops a biochemical serum that holds the secret to superhuman strength and invulnerability. Having testing his formula on animals, Danner requires a human test subject. Exercising questionable ethics, he injects his pregnant wife with the serum, thus creating a superhuman son, Hugo.

The opening chapters of Gladiator have a slapstick comedy feel reminiscent of some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s more humorous tales. Once Hugo Danner grows into a man, however, the tone becomes much more serious, even frightening at times. Far from seeing his powers as a great boon, Hugo views them as a curse. Every public display of his prodigious strength is met with fear, contempt, and hatred. He drifts from place to place, struggling to find a way to put his unique talents to some worthy use, but all his efforts end in destruction and/or ostracism.

Despite its sensationalistic science fiction trappings, Gladiator has some serious philosophical undertones. Hugo Danner is a literary manifestation of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the superman. However, Wylie deliberately contrasts his well-intentioned hero with Nietzsche’s predatory “blonde beast” in order to challenge the inherent authority of might and examine the ethical exercise of power. Hugo has to contend with the fact that he is a god among mere mortals and must face the moral dilemma of whether he has the right to dominate his fellow men. This was at a period in history when fascism was rising and eugenics was taken seriously. Wylie alludes to both as fearful possibilities looming on the horizon.

Hugo’s journey can also be seen as everyman’s struggle to find a meaning to life in the modern world. At times Wylie’s writing resembles a Theodor Dreiser novel in its examination of interwar social conditions. Hugo’s life is a naturalistic reflection of his times. Income inequality, the class struggle, political corruption, labor strife, the First World War, and the Sacco & Vanzetti trial are all thoughtfully scrutinized from Wylie’s liberal perspective. Gladiator is also admirably forward in its frank depiction of sexuality. Though devoid of graphic details, Wylie discusses recreational sex in a matter-of-fact and nonjudgemental manner that’s unusual for its time.

Though never proven, it seems unlikely that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman with no prior knowledge of Wylie’s novel. The similarities are just too glaring. Even so, this pleasant surprise is far superior to any pulp strongman action tale. Gladiator is an excellent work of early 20th-century American literature that deserves to be widely known and respected.
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Friday, November 13, 2015

The Death of Olivier Becaille by Emile Zola

Cadaver’s eye view
Emile Zola’s novella The Death of Olivier Becaille was originally published in 1884. This short work consisting of five chapters can be read in its entirety in under an hour. The very first sentence tells you that the story is narrated by a dead man. The title character, always somewhat sickly and frail, has finally succumbed to illness. Nevertheless, he still maintains some awareness from within his immobilized corpse. He can hear what’s going on around him, and for a while can even see out of one eye. He listens to the cries of his grieving wife and her discussions with the neighbors as to his funeral arrangements, all the while wishing he could reach out and comfort her, but being unable to do so. Though the experience of death that Zola presents is certainly unconventional, who’s to say that he’s wrong? In this engaging work, dead men do tell tales.

The grotesque subject matter is reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe, and Zola proves he can find entertainment in the macabre just as skillfully as the American master of horror. Zola was often labeled a literary bad boy for concentrating on the repulsive or loathsome aspects of life, and here he clearly revels in that role. Frequently accused of wallowing in the gutter, here he wallows in the grave. Zola probably wasn’t the first writer to approach a story from this angle, and he certainly wouldn’t be the last, but in his day this tale would likely have been shocking to all and offensive to many. Beyond the chills and the shock value, however, Zola applies his naturalistic sensibility to the proceedings. Much like he did in his collection of short stories entitled Death, he uses the funerary subject matter as an opportunity to depict the living conditions of the lower class. At the time of his demise, Mr. and Mrs. Becaille are new arrivals at a shabby boardinghouse in Paris. Down on his luck, Becaille has come to assume an unspecified “petty appointment.” Through the first-person narration, the reader is privy to Becaille’s memories and dreams. As he recounts the events of his life, his joys and disappointments are revealed. Zola’s social consciousness adds an extra dimension to the narrative that elevates what could have been merely a sensationalistic penny dreadful to a moving work of realist literature. Like Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin, it combines gruesome thrills with pathos and poignancy.

This brief work is not in the same league with Zola’s masterpiece novels of the Rougon-Macquart series, like Germinal or La Terre. It deserves five stars nonetheless because for what it is, it’s quite successful. Though not an incredibly profound work of literature, it is a fun read with hints of deeper meaning and a thoughtful moral lesson. The Death of Olivier Becaille is a must-read for Zola fans, and Poe fans just might like it too.
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Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Hated Son by Honoré de Balzac

Evil dad persecutes preemie
The Hated Son, a novel by Honoré de Balzac, was originally published in 1831 under the French title of L’Enfant maudit. It is one of the “philosophical studies” in Balzac’s mammoth series of works known as the Comédie Humaine. The story is set in Normandy in the late 16th century. The Comte d’Herouville, a hateful and cruel man, has recently married a beautiful young heiress of delicate and saintly demeanor, Jeanne de Saint-Savin. The marriage was arranged for political and financial reasons, and Jeanne rightfully fears her brutish husband. Seven months after the wedding, a pregnant Jeanne goes into labor. The scene of the birth is a frightening ordeal in which d’Herouville treats the expectant mother with all the sensitivity and comfort of a medieval jailer for his prisoner. Given the short term of the pregnancy, d’Herouville suspects the baby is the son of Jeanne’s former lover and threatens to kill the child. In fact, the son, Etienne, is a preemie who is born tiny and frail. The Comte stops short of killing the boy because he needs a male heir to ensure custody of his wife’s estate, yet he openly despises Etienne, and banishes him from the castle, confining him to a seaside cottage where the boy grows up in solitude and isolation.

He can’t stay isolated forever, of course, or there wouldn’t be much of a story. Eventually Etienne grows up into a sensitive, artistic young man with the naive innocence of a veritable babe in the woods. I enjoyed the dark tone of the book’s gothic opening; Balzac is at his best when he’s being bad. Etienne’s idyllic existence, however, is dull and cloying by comparison. It is hard to identify or sympathize with a character who is so unrealistically wholesome and pure. If anything, the one character you end up rooting for is Beauvouloir, the “bonesetter” who delivers the baby and ends up having a prominent role in Etienne’s upbringing. The Hated Son has a few enjoyable moments, but overall it suffers from unnecessary protraction. Unlike Balzac works with large ensemble casts and convoluted story lines, this is a relatively simple tale revolving around five characters. There’s only enough material here for a short story, yet Balzac drags it out into a novel by adding lengthy descriptive passages that only belabor the degree of Etienne’s naivete or his uncommonly intense adoration for his mother.

Although this novel takes place centuries before the bulk of the Comédie Humaine, it nevertheless has ramifications for other works in the series. Later generations of the d’Herouville family would go on to figure prominently in the novel Modeste Mignon and receive mention in other Balzac works. There’s also a reference here to the family of prostitutes known as Les Marana, from the novel of the same name. Despite such connections, I wouldn’t consider The Hated Son to be an essential read for any but the most fervent fans of the Comédie Humaine. It’s perfectly fine writing when compared to other fare of the period, but in a ranking of Balzac’s works this one would likely fall somewhere in the bottom half.
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Friday, November 6, 2015

A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

Pioneering, profound, and perplexing
A Voyage to Arcturus, a novel by Scottish author David Lindsay, was originally published in 1920. Given the time frame, I was expecting something along the lines of an Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure, but what I got was something far more surprising and profound. Lindsay’s novel is decades ahead of its time and presages the later philosophical sci-fi of writers like Frank Herbert or Philip K. Dick.

The book opens with a scene at a séance. Maskull, one of the guests at that event, is then invited by a couple of mysterious characters to take an interstellar voyage. They travel to the planet of Tormance, in the star system of Arcturus. After falling unconscious during the voyage, Maskull wakes up alone in an alien body. He then proceeds on a spiritual quest, wandering through various regions of Tormance seeking the meaning of life, death, and love. Along the way he encounters a variety of unique characters, each of whom imparts a valuable and/or cryptic lesson.

The first half of the book is classic sci-fi, loaded with ingenious ideas and impressive imagery. The voyagers’ space ship is powered by “back rays,” a form of stellar light that pulls toward a star rather than emanating outward from it. Arcturus is a binary system with two different colored stars that produce all the colors in our spectrum as well as two new colors, ulfire and jale, that have never been seen before by human eyes. Later in the book, Mazkull rides an aquatic tree with optical membranes that navigate it toward light. These are just a few examples of Lindsay’s amazing visions. Some of the book’s early scenes lead me to believe that it may have influenced James Cameron’s film Avatar. The book’s later half, on the other hand, is more philosophical and mythological, with a bizarre pantheon of characters reminiscent of a Jack Kirby comic book.

A Voyage to Arcturus is saturated with Lindsay’s unorthodox ideas on religion, drawn heavily from the Gnostics with a smattering of Norse mythology. Tormance is governed by a god with at least four names—Shaping, Crystalman, Surtur, and Faceny—who in turn is part of a more complex trinity. Like Plato proposed a couple millennia ago, Lindsay sees the “real” world of our senses as a lie and an illusion behind which true reality is concealed. The novel is the epic saga of Maskull’s journey to uncover that hidden truth. I don’t know anything about Lindsay’s sexual preference, but there’s enough gender-bending sexual transformation going on in this book to occupy an LGBT Studies course for an entire semester. Given the novel’s overwhelmingly pessimistic and melancholic tone, one also wonders if Lindsay might have been suicidal.

I’ll have to confess that there are more than a few chapters in this book where I didn’t know what the heck was going on. There is some weird, wacky stuff at play in this world. However, it’s not a senseless weird-for-weird’s-sake fantasy novel like William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, nor does it ever descend to the so-strange-it’s-fun kitsch of an Ed Wood movie. It can be frustratingly obscure, but there is an incredible earnestness to the novel that demands admiration and respect. One could read and analyze this book ten times over and make unexpected discoveries with each reading. The best way to approach it is to think of it like a surrealist painting. Let the imagery soak into your head, and see what connections develop. This trippy voyage may just blow your mind.
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