Friday, January 29, 2016

Genius Jones by Lester Dent

Pulp fiction hero rescued from obscurity
Lester Dent, a prolific and highly respected author of adventure fiction, is best know as the creator of the popular character Doc Savage. Though Dent’s bibliography may be overwhelmingly Savage-heavy, his novel Genius Jones proves that he was no one-trick pony. This remarkable adventure was originally serialized in Argosy magazine from 1937 to 1938 and has been out of print ever since. We have the pulp fanatics at Altus Press to thank for resurrecting this gem and giving it new life in paperback and ebook.

A German liner comes across an iceberg in the North Atlantic, and the captain is shocked to spot a man riding upon the floating ice. This solitary traveler, who apparently doesn’t realize that World War I has ended, drives off his German rescuers, but not before they broadcast their unusual finding via radio. In the vicinity sails an American yacht, which responds to the call to rescue the mystery man. The owner of this yacht is one Polyphemus Ward, a cantankerous millionaire who reluctantly comes to the aid of the castaway. Also on board is spunky journalist and comic relief Funny Pegger, a requisite femme fatale named Glacia, and a foppish potential nemesis named Lyman Lee. The rescuee, who goes by the name of Jones, is the son of a polar explorer who disappeared decades ago. His father having died when he was young, Jones grew up in isolation in the remote reaches of the arctic. Ward promptly ushers this polar Tarzan to New York City, where his babe-in-the-snow naiveté gets him into all sorts of trouble.

When reading Genius Jones, it is very difficult to believe it was published in 1937. The humor is still fresh after all these years, and the story is as lively and entertaining as if it were published yesterday. It reads like a contemporary Hollywood screenwriter paying homage to the pulp age rather than an actual artifact from that era. Only in the final few chapters does it show signs of antiquation, as a couple of racial stereotypes unfortunately appear, dating the book as a relic of a bygone era. To those familiar with the political incorrectness of pulp adventure tales, however, the book’s offenses on that score are pretty tame.The biggest problem with Genius Jones is that it overstays its welcome. At 30 chapters, this full-length novel is mammoth by pulp fiction standards. Much like an old movie serial, each episode ends with a little cliffhanger. By the time you get to the end you have little memory of what took place at the beginning. The plot gets rather repetitive after a while, with Jones rushing off half-cocked to do something foolish, then returning to seek the assistance of Pegger. Another disappointing aspect of the story is that Jones rarely utilizes any polar expertise in his big-city adventures. His unusual origin serves to make him a fish out of water, but he might as well have been raised in the jungle for all his arctic upbringing figures into the story.

Despite its shortcomings, if you are a lover of pulp fiction, this book embodies everything you love about it: madcap adventure, tongue-in-cheek humor, larger-than-life characters, sexy dames, and villains you just love to hate. Sadly, Dent only published one work featuring Jones. The Altus edition includes the brief outline of a planned second adventure, but Dent never undertook it. Unlike the indestructible Doc Savage, Genius Jones will forever remain a one-hit wonder, but one well worth reading.
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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Time Crime by H. Beam Piper

Slave trafficking in Paratime
Time Crime, a science fiction novella by H. Beam Piper, was originally published in the February and March 1955 issues of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. It is the fifth story in Piper’s Paratime series. The Paratime Police is a law enforcement agency that governs over the myriad possible timelines in our multiverse. Whenever someone tampers with the natural flow of space-time, these cops, equipped with the technology to travel between timelines, go after the offender and set things right. They attempt to perform this function behind the scenes, unbeknownst to the general populace, so as not to interfere with the development of any civilization or culture.

Time Crime takes place in an alternate Earth where the two major world powers are centered in the Western United States and India, yet the culture appears vaguely Arabic. In the U.S., a food corporation utilizes slave labor on one of its fruit plantations. In this world, slavery is apparently legal, but what’s not acceptable is plucking slaves from some other timeline. That practice messes with the natural order of space-time and threatens to change the course of history. When the Paratime Police discover this slave-trafficking scheme, they attempt to set up a sting operation to infiltrate the slave traders and find out who’s behind the plot. Once again, Paratime agent Verkan Vall is on the scene. This time he’s married, and his wife helps out with the investigation. They discover a shadowy organization called—appropriately enough—The Organization, which may have high-level moles within the very Paratime government itself.

Sound confusing? It is. But like all the Paratime tales, it’s still a fun ride. Time Crime is like an intricately constructed political thriller, along the lines of The Manchurian Candidate, All the President’s Men, or Clear and Present Danger, but loaded with futuristic tech from some dark episode of The Jetsons. Not only does space-time travel play a large part in the story, there’s also a great deal of mind manipulation as well. The police use narco-hypnosis as an interrogation technique, but this can be counteracted by memory obliteration and psycho-rehabilitation. Piper has created this bizarre, complicated multiverse, but he grounds the story with realistic police procedure, government bureaucracy, and military operations. And the names! No one creates better futuristic names than Piper: Phrakor Vuln, Skordran Kirv, Salgath Trod. The slew of V’s and K’s is disorienting at times, but it adds to the fun.

In general, however, Time Crime is a bit heavier than previous Paratime stories, both in length and in subject matter. There is a dystopian feel to this one, due to the nonchalance regarding slavery and a paranoid Cold War-era distrust of government motives. If you’ve never read any of the Paratime stories before, do not start with this one, because you will be lost. Even after reading the earlier adventures of Verkan Vall, like Police Operation and Last Enemy, I felt lost most of the time myself, but Piper has a way of bringing you back into the know after he’s blown your mind with baffling details. Time Crime is not the strongest of the Paratime stories, but it’s better than the previous episode, Temple Trouble. In any case, the Paratime series is my favorite segment of Piper’s body of work. It combines the campy thrills of the ‘50s pulps with the intellectual challenge of hard science fiction. If you’ve enjoyed the previous installments, you’ll like this one too.
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Monday, January 25, 2016

Stories by American Authors, Volume X by T. A. Janvier, et al.

Series ends on a high note
E. P. Mitchell
This is the tenth and final volume in the Stories by American Authors series published by Charles Scribner’s Sons from 1884 to 1885. The series showcases a grab bag of short fiction from a variety of American writers, the vast majority of whom have since been forgotten. Overall, I’ve been disappointed with the quality of the selections. Even those who ordinarily enjoy 19th-century fiction may find many of the stories to be dull and uninspired. However, the series does have its treasures buried here and there, Volume X more than most.

The first story, “Pancha” by T. A. Janvier, is set in Monterey, Mexico. The title character is a poor young woman who falls in love with the dashing leader of a gang of smugglers. The narrative combines the quaint familiarity of a folk tale with the exaggerated romantic melodrama of an opera. Janvier depicts working-class Mexican life in a realistic manner that’s free of first-world condescension. The biggest surprise in the book is “The Ablest Man in the World” by E. P. Mitchell. An American traveler in Baden, Switzerland is mistaken for a doctor and forced to attend to an ailing Russian baron. From there the story moves into science fiction territory best left unrevealed. “Young Moll’s Peevy” by C. A. Stephens is a Jack Londonesque tale about an enormous log jam on a Canadian river. When conventional methods to free the jam prove unsuccessful, the lumbermen must resort to drastic measures. Charles de Kay’s “Manmat’ha” is a delightfully bizarre yarn in which the narrator, out for a hike along the New Jersey coast, comes into contact with an invisible being. Like Mitchell’s story, this one takes you in directions you’d never expect for 19th century literature. Yet another strong entry is “The Story of Two Lives” by Julia Schayer. In a small western town, a young girl notifies her parents of a brief conversation she had with a tramp who has wandered into the neighborhood. The married couple are obviously disturbed, as if they fear this stranger may be a visitor from their distant past. This story resembles one of the intricate, moving backstories one finds in a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle murder mystery, only without the murder. Each of these five selections is founded on an interesting premise, and all exhibit fine storytelling, yet each is kept from perfection by too much flowery, poetic prose—so appreciated by the readers of a bygone era—that only serves to hinder clarity and deaden excitement.

The one weak entry in the collection is H. H. Boyesen’s “A Daring Fiction.” An American student in Leipzig is hosted by a German family with three marriageable daughters, who all compete for his attention. To cool their ardor, he invents a fictional fiancée named Miss Jones. Imagine his surprise when, the next time he shows up at their door, they have discovered a Miss Jones whom they presume to be his betrothed. This is the one comic effort in the book, and, as is too often the case in this series, the humor has not survived the intervening century intact.

There are no masterpieces here, but some good solid storytelling. A few of the authors included, like Janvier, Mitchell, and Stephens, prove themselves worthy of further investigation. Volume X is one of the best volumes in the Stories by American Authors series, along with Volumes III and VI. If you think you might be interested in this series, but not sure you want to commit to ten books, start with one of these three and see how you like it.

Stories in this collection
Pancha by T. A. Janvier 
The Ablest Man in the World by E. P. Mitchell 
Young Moll’s Peevy by C. A. Stephens 
Manmat’ha by Charles de Kay 
A Daring Fiction by H. H. Boyesen 
The Story of Two Lives by Julia Schayer

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Friday, January 22, 2016

Rosshalde by Hermann Hesse

Bleak house
Johann Veraguth is a painter who has achieved world-wide fame and is hailed by his nation as one of their greats. His success allows him to purchase an 8-acre estate named Rosshalde, which he renovates into a little enclave of artistic and domestic bliss, complete with lush gardens, a lake for swimming, and a studio in which to engage in the act of creation undisturbed. After ten years in this idyllic home, however, a sadness rules over the picturesque grounds. Veraguth and his wife no longer live as man and wife. She occupies the manor house, while he lives in his painting studio. Their relations are icy but cordial; the one bond that unites them is their love for their 8-year-old son Pierre, who moves freely between the two camps. When Otto Burkhardt, a former classmate of Veraguth’s, arrives for a visit, he is shocked by the depressing state in which he finds his old friend. He questions how the artist can go on living like this and advises him to make a clean break with his wife, even if it means giving up his young son. Burkhardt, who lives in India, invites the painter to leave Rosshalde and join him in the East.

Rosshalde, originally published in 1914, is a semi-autobiographical novel from German/Swiss author Hermann Hesse, winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature. After achieving literary fame, Hesse, like Veraguth, settled down with his wife and kids at a lakeside retreat. Eventually his marriage deteriorated, and he departed for a trip to Asia. When he returned, he began writing most of the novels for which he is famous among English-language readers—modern, expressionistic works like Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, or The Glass Bead Game that are loaded with Freudian, Jungian, and Buddhist imagery. I enjoy Hesse’s later works—particularly Steppenwolf—but I also appreciate his earlier works like Beneath the Wheel, that depict everyday German life in a style that straddles the line between romanticism and realism. Rosshalde falls into this latter category.

At first I was quite taken with the novel. The natural beauty and contemplative atmosphere of the Rosshalde estate is intoxicating, and Hesse does a great job of portraying the life of a painter, albeit an uncommonly wealthy one. His transcriptions of human emotion are authentic and moving. The dark, brooding relationship that exists between the estranged couple initially presents a perplexing mystery waiting to be solved. The problem is, the novel doesn’t really go anywhere from there. The whole thing feels like a foregone conclusion. Ultimately the plot hinges on the choice Veraguth has to make, but circumstances end up making that choice for him. It’s all quite sad and pathetic, but not particularly compelling. The further the narrative progresses (or fails to progress) the less interesting it becomes.

Rosshalde may not be one of Hesse’s masterpieces, but it still has its charms. Fans of Hesse who have read all the major works might want to give this quiet novel a try. If nothing else, the autobiographical elements provide some insight into the author’s life.
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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos

The bore of war
In his novel Three Soldiers, originally published in 1921, John Dos Passos attempts to present a realistic, unglamourized look at the lives of American soldiers during World War I. Upon its release it was praised by H. L. Mencken for its authentic portrayal of the wartime military experience. In the era of its publication, the book’s anti-war stance may have shocked the patriotic populace, but today’s reader, after having digested countless war stories through books and film, is likely to find this novel tame and dull.

It takes a while to even figure out to which Three Soldiers the title refers. The book starts out by focusing on a Private Fuselli as he moves through training camp and eventually ships out for France. About a third of the way through, however, Fuselli’s story is abandoned, and Dos Passos cuts to Private John Andrews, who takes center stage for the rest of the narrative. A third soldier, Private Chrisfield, shows up periodically as a sort of sidekick to Andrews. The result of this odd arrangement of the three men’s storylines is that the reader ends up feeling like Fuselli’s story was just a waste of time. There seems to be no apparent reason for structuring the book this way other than the modernist’s pretention to scorn convention and confound expectations.

This is the least of the book’s problems, however. Though this is an anti-war novel, don’t expect a story about the horrors of combat. There’s very little of that in this book. Only one scene of physical violence has the potential to truly shock, but the deadpan matter-of-fact manner in which the author relates the event renders it forgettable. Mostly, Dos Passos concentrates on the dehumanization of men forced to submit to military bureaucracy. He portrays the three soldiers as prisoners or slaves, and each handles the yoke of servitude in a different manner. Fuselli is the average joe, eager to make something of himself, who approaches the army as an opportunity. Andrews is the sensitive artist who doesn’t belong anywhere near military life. Chrisfield is the coarse redneck who actually seems to enjoy the brutality of war. Andrews’s plight, which occupies the bulk of the book, is hardly representative of the experience of a typical military man, and the more atypical his story becomes, the more Dos Passos’s arguments become moot.

I sympathize with Dos Passos’s leftist, pacifistic views; I just wish he would express them a little more stridently. The novel is just too darn sensitive. The reader wonders how much more interesting it might have been in the hands of a more blatantly didactic writer like Upton Sinclair. In the last few chapters, Dos Passos finally gets to his point, but prior to that the reader has to wade through chapter after chapter of doughboys wandering the streets of France; pursuing French women; sipping coffee, wine, or beer in French cafes; and engaging in long, pointless conversations. Every step they take, every move they make, Dos Passos writes it down. Dos Passos heavy-handedly sprinkles repetitive snippets of song lyrics throughout the prose and purposefully uses the phrase “putty-colored puddles” seven or eight times. Descriptions of trees and leaves are ubiquitous. Such gratuitous poesy merely inspires tedium and annoyance.

Dos Passos went on to a long, prolific career which included his magnum opus, the U.S.A. trilogy, hailed by many as a masterpiece of American literature. I’m sure there are some good novels among his body of work, but Three Soldiers is not one of them.
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Monday, January 18, 2016

Autobiography by Morrissey

Reader, meet author
Most rock stars aren’t expected to be men of letters, so all that’s asked of their memoirs is an adequate retelling of sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll anecdotes fleshed out by a competent ghost writer. Not so with Morrissey. His brilliant lyrics (for those like myself who consider them so) inspire high literary expectations, and with this long-awaited autobiography Morrissey proves himself up to the challenge.

The first quarter of the book, in which he vividly describes his youth in Manchester, is a phenomenal piece of writing. In eloquently rendered, unconventional prose that resembles a sort of thesaurus-wringing beat poetry, Morrissey depicts latter-20th-century working-class life in Northern England as a bleak, modern Dickensian world in which children are beaten by sadistic teachers and every day is silent and gray. Music is the only means of escape for young Morrissey, and one day he decides to stop idolizing bands and start becoming one. Fans of the Smiths will probably be disappointed by the brevity with which he covers his tenure with that band, but it was after all only 10 percent of his life span. The centerpiece of the book is his Kafkaesque account of The Smiths trial in which drummer Mike Joyce sued Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr for additional royalties. Here Morrissey really piles the acrimonious invective on Joyce, the lawyers, the judge, and the British justice system in general. He insists over and over again how he got the shaft, and, from his one-sided account, it certainly appears that he did. One can understand Morrissey’s desire to state his case once and for all, and his account is quite riveting for a while, but it goes on far too long. What really kills the book, however, is its final quarter, which consists of an elaborate tour diary in which Morrissey travels the world, basking in the glory of his You Are the Quarry renaissance. He recounts every city he stopped in, how the crowd loved him, and how he loved them loving him. This sort of writing would be fine for a what-it’s-like-to-be-a-rock-star fluff piece in Rolling Stone, but it feels out of place in this otherwise uncommonly literary memoir.

There’s not much in this book about writing songs or recording music. If you’re interested in details of that sort, I would suggest checking out Simon Goddard’s Mozipedia. There is, however, quite a bit said about the marketing of music—as in, no record company or manager ever did enough for Morrissey. It’s surprising how much he obsesses over the chart position of each and every recording. Despite all his scorning of the mainstream and his honorary status as a godfather of “alternative” music, what he really wanted all along was to be the next Beatles. Those hoping for bits of show-biz gossip won’t be disappointed, as Morrissey recounts myriad run-ins with musicians, movie stars, and television personalities and how each and every one of them somehow disappointed him.

Morrissey, in his own words, makes himself sound egotistical, cantankerous, petty, vindictive, querulous, ungrateful, and mean-spirited. Nevertheless, he somehow comes across as quite likeable and frequently hilarious. After reading Autobiography, I don’t think I’d want to hang out with the guy, but one can’t help but admire what he’s achieved in his music career and what he has accomplished with this exceptional book. This may not be quite the memoir diehard fans have been waiting for, but still it’s definitely well worth its cover price.
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Friday, January 15, 2016

Six Days of the Condor by James Grady

Run, bookworm, run!
Six Days of the Condor, an espionage thriller by James Grady, was published in 1974. Shortly thereafter it was adapted into the film Three Days of the Condor, starring Robert Redford. The basic premise of the two are the same, though they differ quite a bit in plot details, bad guys, character names, and the basic underlying reason for it all.

Ronald Malcolm is an analyst in the CIA (code name: Condor). He works for an obscure department headquartered in an unassuming DC town house, masquerading as the American Literary Historical Society. Malcolm’s job is to read mystery novels and spy stories, analyze their plots, and report on their contents. Needless to say, this area of intelligence doesn’t see much field-agent action. One afternoon, however, Malcolm comes back from lunch to find that everyone in his office has been murdered. It’s only by a stupid mistake on the part of the assassins that he himself has been spared. He calls his CIA panic line, setting the entire DC intelligence community into action. Malcolm, realizing he’s still a target, wants to turn himself into his superiors for protection, but it soon becomes apparent that someone within the CIA had a hand in the killings. With nowhere to turn, he enlists, at gunpoint, the help of a young woman to hide him until he can figure out why all this is happening and how to stop it.

Grady, a former investigative journalist, peppers the story with insight into the inner workings of the CIA. How much of this detail of the American intelligence bureaucracy is true and how much of it fiction is unclear, but such expositional interludes ground the sensationalistic thriller and add welcome authenticity and gravitas to what might otherwise have been a formulaic spy story. These behind-the-scenes asides are the best part of the book. Malcolm’s actions as a secret agent, however, are less satisfying. Grady endows his hero with just too much dumb luck. Malcolm’s survival ends up depending more on the kindness of strangers than on his own smarts. Whenever he gets into a jam, some fortuitous samaritan always seems to come along just at the right time to provide convenient aid. On those occasions when Malcolm is required to con someone into assistance, they acquiesce far too easily. Perhaps people were that friendly and gullible in 1974, but four decades later such ready compliance defies plausibility.

Further annoyance is inspired by Grady’s treatment of the bad guys in the book. He conceals their names until the end, which is fine, but in the meantime he tags them with confusing generic appellations like the big man, the tall man, the old man, the distinguished man, the striking man. Perhaps only one adjective is the bare minimum required to distinguish one character from another, but for clarity and memorability, why not give each some more distinctive characteristics to set them apart from the rest of humanity?

The idea of a CIA bookworm getting in way over his head is an inspired one, and despite its imperfections, this book is a good ride. It’s lighter fare than a typical Robert Ludlum novel, but packs the same sort of electric thrills. If you liked the movie, you’ll enjoy the book. If you haven’t seen the movie, all the better; more surprises are in store for you. Grady eventually followed this book up with four sequels, the next installment being Shadow of the Condor.
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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Crater, or Vulcan’s Peak by James Fenimore Cooper

From Robinson Crusoe to Utopia
James Fenimore Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Crater, or Vulcan’s Peak, harkens back to the days of great maritime explorers like Captain Cook, when unknown lands were ripe for discovery. Though published in 1847, the story begins in 1796. Mark Woolston (pronounced “Wooster,” as Cooper goes to great lengths to point out) is a skilled seaman from Pennsylvania. Shortly after marrying his sweetheart, he ships out as second mate on the Rancocus, a vessel bound for Fiji and Canton. Along the way it stumbles upon some uncharted rocks in the middle of the Pacific. To make a long story short, Woolston and his faithful sidekick Bob Betts end up marooned alone on a small volcanic island (the “crater” of the book’s title). The ship remains intact, but is surrounded by rocky barriers that prevent its escape to the open ocean.

The two set about to “Robinson Crusoe it” on their new island home. Like the hero of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, the survival of the duo is greatly aided by access to their ship’s stores. The environment of the crater, however, is far less forgiving than Crusoe’s island. Since the crater is merely barren rock, devoid of vegetation, Woolston and Betts must first set about creating soil before they can engage in agriculture to feed themselves. Through ingenious means, they manage to eke out an existence in their forced isolation, but will Woolston ever see his bride again?

About halfway through the book, the story takes an unexpected turn, one that to some extent defies belief, but in the spirit of adventure the game reader should be willing to overlook improbability. I don’t know much about Cooper’s writing process, but it appears to have gone something like this: He decides to write a novel of 30 chapters. He establishes the setting, introduces the characters, and gives them a problem to solve. When that problem is solved, he creates another one, and so on, until he hits his 30 chapter limit. His plotting lacks any overall structure or buildup of momentum. It’s the same meandering approach one finds in The Deerslayer. The Crater starts out with the makings of a thriller, but it ends up being an experience similar to sitting next to Cooper on the couch while he plays Minecraft, constructing his own private utopia out of blocks of adobe brick, sandal wood, whale oil, and volcanic tufa. What the story really lacks is adversity. Things are just too easy for Woolston. Only in the final chapters does Cooper introduce some trouble into paradise.

Though The Crater may not be the most artful story he ever constructed, Cooper fans will enjoy the book for what it reveals about its author. Cooper uses Woolston’s island as a microcosm in which to express his social and political views. He outlines his ideal of a democratic society and the roles that law, commerce, journalism, religion, and politics should play in it. Sadly, Cooper won’t let go of class distinctions, continually asserting that a gentleman must be born a gentleman. Once white trash, always white trash in Cooper’s world. His dream democracy is surprisingly monarchical. Though he explicitly refutes the hereditary divine right of kings, one gets the idea he would have been very happy had George Washington been made ruler for life.

Though Cooper is best known for his Leatherstocking Tales of early America, he wrote books in an admirably diverse assortment of settings and genres. Those who enjoy the Natty Bumppo novels should really explore some of the author’s more off-the-beaten-path works. The Crater can be frustratingly slow, monotonous, and disorienting at times (if ever a book needed a map, it’s this one!), but if you’re a Cooper fan, it’s definitely worth reading.
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Monday, January 11, 2016

The Night at the Crossroads by Georges Simenon

Maigret, man of action
The Night at the Crossroads is the seventh novel in the Inspector Maigret series of detective novels by Belgian author Georges Simenon. It was originally published in 1931 under the French title of La Nuit du carrefour. Alternate titles include Maigret at the Crossroads and The Crossroad Murders. I’ve often heard Simenon described as a “noir” author, but I never put much stock in that until reading this novel. This is the tenth Maigret book that I’ve read, and it’s definitely the one that most resembles an American film noir gangster movie of the 1920s or ‘30s. This book shows us Maigret at his most physical, displaying the sort of macho behavior one expects from a tough guy detective: dodging bullets and punching out perps—a marked departure from the sort of passive pursuit tactics employed in some of his later adventures.

The novel opens with an interrogation. Maigret is grilling a suspect for 17 hours and the guy just will not crack. A murder has taken place at a crossroads near Arpajon, an hour or two outside of Paris. Only three buildings stand at this crossroads: a gas station/mechanic’s garage and two houses, one the home of an insurance agent and the other the residence of Maigret’s interrogee, Carl Andersen, a Danish immigrant. A dead diamond merchant was found in a car in Andersen’s garage. The most baffling aspect of the case is that although the garage belongs to Andersen, the car belongs to the insurance agent. Meanwhile, Andersen’s car has somehow ended up in the insurance agent’s garage. Confusing? Maigret thinks so. Most of the novel is spent at the crossroads itself, a secluded stretch of road where the dark and foggy ambience is only alleviated by a sporadic stream of passing headlights. Every film noir needs its femme fatale, and that role is performed here by Andersen’s sister Else, a cinematic beauty who attempts to disorient Maigret with her seductive wiles.

In a couple places, The Night at the Crossroads reads a little too much like a familiar old movie, leaving one longing for the unconventionality Simenon usually brings to the genre. Thankfully, such passages are brief and far between. Though much of the police work in the novel is more muscular than cerebral, the mystery is sufficiently puzzling to keep you engrossed until the very end. I could barely put this one down and read the entire book in one day. This is one of the best Maigret novels I’ve read, ranking up there with The Late Monsieur Gallet. It may be somewhat atypical of Simenon’s work, but it’s nonetheless an exciting and captivating read.
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Friday, January 8, 2016

Stories by American Authors, Volume IX by Thomas Nelson Page, et al.

Nothing to write home about
Thomas Nelson Page
This is the ninth volume in the Stories by American Authors series published by Charles Scribner’s Sons from 1884 to 1885. I haven’t been pleased with the series as a whole, though I’m toughing it out until the end in hopes of uncovering the occasional buried treasure. While Scribner’s Stories by Foreign Authors and Stories by English Authors series feature some of the world’s greatest authors, it seems the American series was primarily conceived as a dumping ground for a host of unknowns who weren’t worthy of their own solo collections. Needless to say, I approached Volume IX with low expectations.

The best entry in the book, simply by the process of elimination, is its opening selection, Thomas Nelson Page’s “Marse Chan: A Tale of Old Virginia.” It’s a Civil War-era love story of a young plantation master and his steadfast devotion to a Southern belle from the neighboring estate. Narrated by a former servant of the hero, the story is transcribed in a heavy Southern black accent, like what you might find in some of the works of Mark Twain or Charles W. Chesnutt. For its day, it’s not overtly racist, and it makes for an engaging tale, if a bit predictable.

Nothing else in the collection really satisfies. “Mr. Bixby’s Christmas Visitor” by Charles S. Page is an attempt at an Edgar Allen Poe-style tale of the macabre, but ends up coming across as merely foolish. “Eli” by C. H. White is a New England courtroom drama that doesn’t make much sense from a legal standpoint, and the bank robbery around which it’s centered makes for a terrible mystery. “Young Strong of ‘The Clarion’” by Milicent Washburn Shinn shows some promise at first. In a small town in California the shifty local judge and the young newspaper editor find themselves at odds over the hiring of a new schoolteacher. Of course, a love story develops between the newspaper man and the school marm, leading the two to analyze the nature of love in tedious, poetic dialogue that no two actual human beings would ever utter. “How Old Wiggins Wore Ship” by Captain Ronald T. Coffin is an adequate seafaring yarn, penned in a thick sea-dog patois. Heavy on the nautical jargon, it’s plot is primarily concerned with the raising and lowering of sails. In the final selection, Leonard Kip’s “—mas Has Come,” a city slicker falls in love with the daughter of a lighthouse keeper on a remote stretch of coast. Though it strives to be clever, it ends with a predictable punchline that inspires groans of annoyance. The narrator/leading man, so likeable for most of the story, ends up looking like a boob in the end.

This is almost the worst volume in a very mediocre series (Volume II just barely wins that dubious distinction). There’s nothing offensively terrible here, but nothing worth spending your time on either. With one volume left in the series, I’m hoping it will end with a bang rather than a whimper, but if this penultimate volume is any indication, I won’t hold out much hope.

Stories in this collection
Marse Chan by Thomas Nelson Page 
Mr. Bixby’s Christmas Visitor by Charles S. Gage 
Eli by C. H. White 
Young Strong of “The Clarion” by Milicent Washburn Shinn 
How Old Wiggins Wore Ship by Captain Roland T. Coffin 
“—mas Has Come” by Leonard Kip

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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Shallow Soil by Knut Hamsun

Modern love in fin de siècle Norway
Knut Hamsun
Shallow Soil, a novel by Knut Hamsun, was originally published in 1893 under the Norwegian title of Ny Jord. Hamsun, a prolific writer with a long career, would later go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920. Though generally regarded as Norway’s pre-eminent modernist, Shallow Soil is a book that harkens back to a naturalistic style of storytelling that bears more resemblance to earlier writers like Emile Zola or Norway’s own Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson than to Hamsun’s more experimental works.

The story takes place in Kristiania (present-day Oslo). Hamsun depicts cosmoplitan urban life in early modern Norway through the lives of a clique of young city-dwelling artists and professionals. Included among this group are a few prominent upstart writers and painters, as well as working men such as merchants, a lawyer, and a journalist. While the artistic members of the coterie strive for recognition and compete for public funding, their bills are often paid by their friends the businessmen, who seem happy to support their comrades as a way of contributing to their nation’s artistic development. These young gentlemen, along with their wives and mistresses, meet and socialize at cafes, restaurants, theatres, and offices, arguing over politics and debating the merits of the latest literary productions. When Ole Henriksen, who runs his father’s shipping and trading company, gets engaged to Aagot, a girl from the country, he brings her to the city where she is welcomed into the group. This beautiful young woman, with her small-town innocence and wide-eyed enthusiasm, is a rare commodity in the cynical city, and soon Ole is not the only gentleman who hopes to win her heart.

There is a political element to the novel as well. These young people clamor for radical reform and constantly complain about the weakness and indecision of their country’s parliament. A mysterious stranger named Coldevin arrives from the country, however, and criticizes the whiney indolence of Norway’s youth. Instead of gushing over the latest poets and playwrights, he suggests Norway’s young people should invest their energies in science and industry. Instead of whining about their government, they should take pride in their nation and encourage its development. I don’t know much about Hamsun’s politics, except that later in life he supported the Nazis. Here in Shallow Soil, one gets a taste of his conservative, nationalistic views. Nevertheless, the novel is primarily a love story—actually two or three love stories—and a very good one. Surprisingly forward and frank in its depiction of what would have been called “loose morals” in the 19th century, this book still holds a great deal of appeal for audiences of the 21st. Despite the book’s antiquity, the scenes of human drama that Hamsun portrays here—falling in love, seduction, rejection, betrayal, breakup, heartache—are ones that readers will recognize from their own lives. Here they are eloquently rendered with sensitivity, authenticity, and pathos.

To American audiences, Hamsun is perhaps best known for his novel Hunger, a work that’s a little too angst-ridden and self-consciously modernist for my tastes. Shallow Soil, coming out a few years later, feels more mature and less pretentiously artsy. This work should not be confused with Hamsun’s 1917 novel Growth of the Soil, which is a totally different book and a true masterpiece. As explained above, however, Shallow Soil is also exceptional, so if you find yourself reading either one of Hamsun’s “Soil” novels, you really can’t go wrong.
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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter

Never-ending boat trip
Katherine Anne Porter is best known as a writer of short stories and essays, but she did publish one novel, Ship of Fools, in 1962. I’ve read all of Porter’s stories and essays, and consider myself a fan of her work, though with some reservations. In books like Flowering Judas and Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Porter has proven herself a master of short fiction, but her prodigious talents do not translate well to the long form, as evidenced by this arduous and frustrating test of patience.

The title of the book is not merely an expression, but rather a literal representation of the novel’s contents. The story takes place in 1931 on a German passenger liner traveling from Veracruz, Mexico to various ports in Europe; its final destination being Bremerhaven. Porter based the novel on an actual voyage she took that year from and to those ports of call. An ensemble cast of characters of various nationalities and backgrounds comprises the passenger list, and the novel is essentially a series of scenes detailing the interactions between this disparate company of travelers thrown together into forced proximity by a sheer coincidence of booking. Throughout the novel, Porter’s prose is impeccable and her insight into human behavior authentic and perspicacious. Each succeeding vignette inspires the reader to remark, “What a beautifully rendered scene!” but regrettably in sum total they don’t add up to anything but a trying bore. Really only two events of note occur over the entire voyage form the New World to the Old. The rest is just overindulgent description. Perhaps Porter’s intention was to capture the relentless tedium and frustrating lack of privacy of nautical transatlantic travel. If so, she has succeeded, but such success does not translate into enjoyable or meaningful reading.

Despite the “Cast of Characters” list at the front of the book, it’s difficult to even tell many of the characters apart. There’s little to distinguish one German Frau from another. Not a single likeable character exists on the entire boat. The smart ones are all evil; the nice ones are all stupid. Each is defined by his or her faults. Prejudice is a recurring theme in the book, and everyone on the ship proves themselves a bigot in one way or another. Race, religion, sex, class, nationality—all are grounds for social warfare in these international waters. Not surprisingly for this time period, anti-Semitism is rampant, and takes a prominent role in the tenuous plot. Porter does a fine job of depicting all these various shades of hate, but to what end? What’s even more baffling is how Porter displays her own prejudices—whether intentionally or inadvertently is unclear. Although she lived in Mexico for a few years and professed a love for the country and its people, her depictions of Mexicans and other Hispanic persons is far from flattering. The Mexican, Cuban, and Spanish characters in the book are all dancers, prostitutes, or drunks. While the Germans and Americans all have backstories complete with degrees and careers, the Hispanic characters don’t even get last names.

As I said earlier, I’m an admirer of Porter, and don’t relish bashing her work. Having spent some time in Veracruz, I enjoyed the book’s opening passages and looked forward to embarkation with enthusiasm. Perhaps, however, I was too optimistic for a satisfying plot. What I got instead was the modernist description-for-description’s-sake approach in which every emotional inkling merits scores of pages. Despite all the navel-gazing, no one learns anything. No one changes. By all means, spare yourself this pointless and unpleasant voyage.
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