Monday, February 22, 2016

The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

A mediocre fantasy novel, hardly a utopia
I came across The Blazing World in The Utopia Megapack, a collection of utopian fiction from Wildside Press. Originally titled The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World, this work was written in 1666 by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. The story begins in the “real world” in which we live. A man falls in love with a young woman, but the feeling is not mutual. She refuses to be his bride, so he kidnaps her and spirits her away in a small boat. They drift into the arctic, where all the men freeze to death, leaving the woman the sole remaining passenger of the vessel. When she reaches the North Pole, she floats into a secret world that exists adjacent to our own, connected at the pole like the two halves of a figure eight.

This foreign world, referred to as the Blazing World, is populated by several species of intelligent half-animal, half-human creatures. They usher the lost woman to the Emperor of their world, who quickly makes her the Empress. Each different were-creature specializes in a different area of study: the Bear-men are philosophers, the Bird-men astronomers, the Ape-men chemists, the Spider-men mathematicians, and so on. The Empress engages in a series of philosophical and scientific dialogues with these various manimals. In response to her questions, they explain to her how their world works. Given the antiquity of the piece, it’s difficult to understand whether the scientific theories discussed are meant to apply to our world as well or only to the fantasy realm that Cavendish has created. About halfway through, the book turns into a piece of metafiction when the Empress makes a friend in our world—the Duchess of Cavendish herself. From that point on, the Duchess refers to herself in the third person and takes an active role in the story, even escorting the Empress on a visit to our own world.

Not every novel describing a visit to a strange, unknown land qualifies as a utopian work. A utopian novel must show us a model world that is somehow superior to our own, not just different. A utopia should illustrate the author’s conception of how a society should be properly run and governed. It should instruct us to reconsider our philosophical, moral, and economic ideals. That’s not what’s happening here. The Blazing World is just a fantasy land. When the Empress interviews its inhabitants, the topics discussed include the dichotomy of matter and spirit, the physical nature of light, and the absurdity of the Jewish Kaballah, none of which in any way educates the reader regarding a positive reformation of society.

About the best I can say for this work is that it’s good for the 17th century. Drama and poetry were the strengths of that era; fiction not so much. Though this is a prototypical work of science fiction, I wouldn’t exactly call it seminal. Half-human, half-animal hybrids are its main contribution to the genre, and such characters have been around for thousands of years. The most groundbreaking thing about this work is that it was written by a pioneering woman in a century that offered little opportunity to female authors. Cavendish also wrote nonfiction books on science and philosophy. I would venture a guess that some of those treatises are more worthy of reading than this fantasy piece. This book will mostly interest scholars of the 17th century for what it says about Cavendish and the ideas of her times. Beyond that, it might hold some appeal for retro-fantasy enthusiasts, such as those of the Neil Gaiman set. Fans of utopian literature, however, will find it a disappointment.
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Friday, February 19, 2016

Omnilingual by H. Beam Piper

Archaeologists on Mars
H. Beam Piper’s novella Omnilingual was first published in the February 1957 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. The story takes place in 1996 on the planet Mars. An expedition of archaeologists from Earth has set up camp and is in the process of exploring the ruins of a mighty civilization that died out around 50,000 years ago. As yet, the reason for the Martian culture’s demise remains a mystery. The team has discovered written records, yet there is no way of reading them. Without some sort of Rosetta Stone—a means of connecting the long-dead language to our own­—translation seems impossible. That doesn’t stop Martha Dane from trying, however. She dreams of being the epigrapher who cracks this ancient extraterrestrial code. Among the members of her team, her efforts are met with supportive encouragement by some and caustic derision by others. Undeterred, Martha persists in accumulating linguistic evidence as more ruins are explored, more artifacts uncovered, and more details are revealed about this mysterious civilization.

Omnilingual is considered a part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History series, a multi-work epic that chronicles an alternative vision of Earth’s future. One of the characters briefly mentions the “Thirty Days’ War,” an event which took place two decades earlier and serves as the World War III of that fictional universe. On the other hand, the story also seems connected to Piper’s other major series, the Paratime stories, which mentions an alternate timeline in which human life originally developed on Mars before migrating to Earth tens of thousand of years ago. Regardless to which series it belongs, the connection is tangential at best, and no prior knowledge of either series is required to enjoy Omnilingual. It stands alone as a great sci-fi novella in its own right.

In addition to being a fan of vintage science fiction, I also have a personal interest in archaeology, linguistics, and ancient manuscripts, and this story was like a perfect storm of all those elements, so I absolutely loved it. That said, if you’re approaching the story from the Martian angle, hoping for a typical story of space exploration, you might end up being disappointed. One thing that I enjoy about Piper’s writing is that despite all the bizarre worlds he comes up with, his storytelling is always grounded in a procedural realism. The scientists in this story behave like actual scientists. There’s a major subplot about academic rivalry, and each of the feuding scholars hopes that this Martian expedition will advance their careers by leaps and bounds. Although he did not attend college, Piper demonstrates a thorough understanding of academia and its institutional politics, not only here in Omnilingual but also in another Terro-Human Future History story, The Edge of the Knife. Piper realized that science fiction can be about more than just the glamour fields of space or time travel; the scientific method itself is often the subject of his fiction, no matter to which discipline it’s applied. In Omnilingual, Piper tries his hand at archaeology and succeeds in delivering an exhilarating intellectual adventure.
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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

Like an amazing adventure novel, only true
As a young man, ethnographer, geographer, and zoologist Thor Heyerdahl spent his honeymoon on the island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas, where he and his wife lived among the natives. While there, the islanders told him legends of an ancient progenitor, a hero named Kon-Tiki who came from the East, the first of their people to settle these islands. The more Heyerdahl studied Polynesian culture, the more he became convinced that there was truth to these legends. Noticing cultural and artistic similarities between the peoples of South America and the South Pacific, he developed the theory that the Polynesian islands were populated by descendants of the Inca. Most scholars scoffed at his idea on the basis that these ancient cultures did not possess the maritime technology to perform such a monumental nautical feat as crossing the Pacific. Heyerdahl decided the only way to substantiate his theory was to prove this objection false. He resolved to sail across the Pacific from Peru to Polynesia on a raft such as the ancient Peruvian peoples were known to have built. He recruited five of his Norwegian countrymen to accompany him on the journey. In April 1947 they set off into the open sea on their tiny balsa wood craft. Heyerdahl named the raft Kon-Tiki, after the ancient Polynesian forefather. In 1948 he published an account of the journey in Norwegian, titled The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas. The book was published in English in 1950, titled simply Kon-Tiki, and became an international best seller.

Heyerdahl and company’s daring adventure in experimental archaeology makes for a fantastic read. This is due in no small part to the fact that Heyerdahl is not only a bold explorer and talented scientist; he’s also an excellent writer. The prose often reads like literature. Even the more scientific passages are far from dull. Heyerdahl imbues them with the same enthusiasm for discovery, wonder of nature, and reverence for sea life that made Jacques Cousteau famous. The dangers and joys of the expedition are chronicled with gripping immediacy and eloquence. Heyerdahl tracks the process of his journey from the initial conception of his ethnographic theory, through the logistical planning stages and building of the raft, the long perilous ocean voyage, and the triumphant arrival in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Every step of the way, the reader is on the edge of his seat, worrying and cheering for these brave (some might say foolhardy) explorers as they struggle to complete their epic voyage.

I only have two reservations about this book. 1) Was it really necessary to kill so many sharks? 2) Heyerdahl’s continual assertion that the South Americans who settled Polynesia were white-skinned, bearded, and blonde- or red-haired, which leads him to the speculation that the Inca themselves may have had European origins. By today’s standards, the idea that Caucasians may have been responsible for advanced Native American civilizations comes across as a case of White Eurocentric wishful thinking. That portion of his theory may have flown in 1947, but would likely meet with heated opposition were it proposed today. Overall, was Heyerdahl’s theory correct? Was Polynesia settled by South Americans? There’s evidence for and against that contention, and I’m in no position to argue either way. I’m prone to think there was probably a lot of prehistoric intercontinental travel that we don’t know about. Regardless, it is certainly a question to ignite the imagination, and I respect and admire Heyerdahl for laying his life on the line to investigate the possibility. His articulate account of that bold and historic experiment is educational, entertaining, and exhilarating.
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Monday, February 15, 2016

R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Capek

Visionary science fiction meets Dadaist absurdism

Karel Capek is frequently the answer to a historical trivia question: Who came up with the word “robot”? Capek it was, and this was the work in which he introduced it. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), published in 1920, is a four-act science fiction drama. It is the precursor to all the science fiction literature and movies about robots and/or computers becoming self-aware. The robots of R.U.R. can be seen as the great grandparents of Skynet from The Terminator, Hal from 2001, and Agent Smith from The Matrix. Though the concept may seem old hat to 21st-century audiences, this visionary play deserves more than a historical footnote. Almost a century after its debut, R.U.R. is still disturbingly thought-provoking and delightfully entertaining.

The play is set sometime in the late 20th century. Harry Domin is general manager of R.U.R., a robot manufacturer founded by Old Rossum in the 1930s. R.U.R. is the world’s foremost supplier of cheap, nonhuman labor. Helena Glory, the daughter of the President, arrives at Domin’s office unexpectedly. He is used to receiving curious visitors at the robot plant, and he gives her the VIP tour. Helena’s motives go beyond curiosity, however; she has come on behalf of a human rights organization called the League of Humanity, with the idealistic intention of liberating the robots. Her plot is thwarted, however, when Domin proposes marriage to her, an offer she somehow can’t resist. While Helena’s apparent change of heart cools her ardor for robot revolution, the robots, on the other hand, just might liberate themselves.

It goes without saying that this work was way ahead of its time. The robots of R.U.R. are not boxy, mechanical constructions, but rather androids built from man-made organic tissues, so as to physically resemble human beings. What differentiates a human from a robot? Just because we can create artificial beings, does that mean we have the right to use them as slaves? Do robots have rights? Do they have a soul? If these robot slaves we’ve created ever gain sentience, what does that mean for the future of the human race? By now we are all familiar with the ethical and philosophical debates regarding artificial intelligence, yet Capek’s take on the issues still feels fresh and provocative.

The wonderful thing about R.U.R. is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The play is quite lively and entertaining, and imbued with an absurdist sense of humor reminiscent of the Dada movement. The marriage proposal scene is outright slapstick. The dialogue is filled with wry little satirical witticisms. The human characters, with the possible exception of Helena, all have a trace of buffoonery about them, while the robots remain rational and dignified, almost noble. I would gladly sit in a theatre for two hours to watch this play. Reading it off the page, you can fancy yourself in a playhouse full of 1920s hipsters and imagine what the retro-futuristic sets and costumes might have looked like. Often a seminal work of classic literature, though groundbreaking, loses its appeal and relevance over time. Not so with R.U.R, which not only merits a spot in the science fiction canon but also deserves to be experienced and appreciated by a whole new generation of readers, performers, and spectators.
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Friday, February 12, 2016

Stories by American Authors

A series overview
The ten-volume Stories by American Authors series was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons from 1884 to 1885. Each volume contains five or six short stories or novellas by 19th-century American authors. Most of the selections are reprinted from literary magazines of the day, like Scribner’s Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Century Magazine, and Overland Monthly. It’s probably safe to say that all these stories were written between the end of the Civil War and the series publication date. There might be one or two from earlier decades.

Here at Old Books by Dead Guys I have previously reviewed the Stories by Foreign Authors series, which Scribner’s Sons published in 1898. I have yet to tackle the Stories by English Authors series of 1896. These two later series make a definite attempt to include the work of some of the best or at least most renowned authors of their day. The Stories by American Authors series, on the other hand, seems to have been published with a different rationale in mind. If I had to guess, I would say the series served as a sort of dumping ground for short fiction by authors that Scribner’s didn’t feel merited their own solo collections. As a result, the quality of the selections is disappointing when compared to the Foreign series. Still, every now and then one stumbles upon a buried treasure. All ten volumes have been reviewed individually here at Old Books by Dead Guys. Click on the links below to read the complete reviews.

1. Stories by American Authors, Volume I
2. Stories by American Authors, Volume II
3. Stories by American Authors, Volume III
4. Stories by American Authors, Volume IV
5. Stories by American Authors, Volume V
6. Stories by American Authors, Volume VI
7. Stories by American Authors, Volume VII
8. Stories by American Authors, Volume VIII
9. Stories by American Authors, Volume IX
10. Stories by American Authors, Volume X

Altogether the ten volumes contain 57 stories by 53 authors. The vast majority of their names will be unrecognizable to today’s readers. The few exceptions are Henry James, Edward Bellamy, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Frances Hodgson Burnett. There’s no rhyme or reason to the arrangement of the volumes; each one is just a grab bag. It would have been interesting if they had pitted the various American literary scenes against one another—New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, etc.—but no such luck.

These books are in the public domain and can be read online and downloaded for free at various sources, including Amazon and Project Gutenberg. After my less-than-glowing review, perhaps you’re not exactly fired up about reading through these ten volumes? Relax, you don’t have to, because Old Books by Dead Guys has already done it for you! Below is a list of the eight best stories in the series. Why only eight? Because, unlike the Foreign Authors series, I really had to stretch to find selections worthy of notice.

“Lost in the Fog” by Noah Brooks
from Stories by American Authors, Volume IV
A routine boat trip on the California coast turns into a two-day ordeal when the vessel drifts into a thick fog bank. When it finally emerges from the haze, the crew makes a startling discovery on shore. This story starts out slow, but the latter half is fascinating.

“A Memorable Murder” by Celia Thaxter
from Stories by American Authors, Volume III
I’m not sure if this is fiction or true crime, but it sure reads like the latter. Thaxter gives an In Cold Blood-style account of the killing of two Norwegian immigrant women on an island near Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

“The Heartbreak Cameo” by Lizzie W. Champney
from Stories by American Authors, Volume VI
An expert jeweler discovers a beautiful gemstone carved into an exquisite cameo. The back story of this gem involves a 17th-century missionary stationed in a Native American village in Illinois. A great piece of historical fiction.

“Split Zephyr” by Henry A. Beers
from Stories by American Authors, Volume VIII
On commencement night, five Yale graduates discuss their future plans. A look at their lives 15 years later reveals the difference between aspirations and reality. A thought-provoking piece on the elusive nature of happiness.

“Brother Sebastian’s Friendship” by Harold Frederic
from Stories by American Authors, Volume VI
This story, set in the 1870s, is narrated by a French monk. Brother Sebastian, a misanthropic sort who has always avoided human contact, relates the story of the one meaningful friendship in his life. Culminates in a surprise ending that’s truly surprising.

“The Ablest Man in the World” by E. P. Mitchell
from Stories by American Authors, Volume X
An American traveler in Switzerland, mistaken for a doctor, is forced to attend to an ailing Russian baron. While examining his “patient,” he makes a startling discovery. A visionary work of sci-fi that’s decades ahead of its time.

“Lost” by Edward Bellamy
from Stories by American Authors, Volume VII
An American student in Germany falls in love with a local girl, only to forget her upon returning to the states. Seven years later he wakes up and realizes she was the love of his life, so he returns to Europe to track her down. An engaging tale from Bellamy, author of Looking Backward.

“Yatil” by F. D. Millet
An artist strikes up an unlikely friendship with a circus performer, and the two cross paths repeatedly in different parts of the globe. The performer struggles through a hard life with plucky perseverance, even though he considers himself cursed with an ill omen.

Check in a year from now, and I’ll likely have a recap of the Stories by English Authors series.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Disjointed, overwritten, and slow
Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim was originally published as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine, running from 1899 to 1900. Jim (no last name given), the son of an English parson, grows up with romantic notions of life as a sailor. When he comes of age, he enthusiastically enters the trade and eventually ends up in Southeast Asia. Jim signs on as first mate of the Patna, a ship overloaded with Muslim passengers bound for Mecca. One night the ship strikes something and begins to take on water. Cut to a month later at a magistrate’s court: an inquiry is being held, and Jim is the accused. That fateful night at sea, Jim and the rest of the Patna crew abandoned the ship, leaving the passengers on board the damaged vessel. While his shipmates flee from the inquest, Jim faces up to his punishment, and takes his medicine like a man. He is stripped of his seaman’s status in public disgrace.

A spectator at the trial, Marlow, strikes up a friendship with Jim and strives to find him a position in which he can start his life anew. Most of the novel is narrated by Marlow, as if speaking to a roomful of listeners. Jim and Marlow have long conversations about the shame and regret brought on by Jim’s cowardice. This shame and regret is painstakingly dissected, analyzed, and dwelled upon for over half the book. Thankfully, the story eventually picks up as Jim seemingly finds his place in the world and is given a shot at redemption.

The last several chapters of Lord Jim actually amount to a pretty good book. The trouble is the 37 chapters of digressions and verbosity that you have to wade through to get there. I’m familiar enough with Conrad to know that, despite the exotic locale, you’re not going to get a typical South Seas adventure from him. Nevertheless, seeing as how this book is hailed as one of his great masterpieces, I was hoping for at least a satisfying plot. There may be one here, but unfortunately it’s buried under heaps of overdescription. It’s almost as if Conrad is describing a series of paintings rather than writing a novel. He frustratingly refuses to just tell you what happened, instead opting for confusion and obfuscation. When the story cuts to the inquiry, for example, you don’t know what happened on the Patna, and Conrad makes you wait three or four chapters before he gets around to telling you. The jumps in chronology and switching of narrators feels like ostentatious literary novelty. These techniques in no way enhance the realism or emotional power of the story. If you listen carefully, you can hear the snores of Marlow’s audience.

Based on the kind of literature I enjoy reading, I feel like I should like Conrad, but I always end up being disappointed by his books. I liked Victory a little better than this one, but not much. Those who prefer the straightforward storytelling of Melville or Stevenson won’t take kindly to Conrad’s ornate verbal carpet. One can’t help thinking that he would have made a great fireside storyteller if he didn’t approach every scene obliquely and overanalyze every emotion. He’s got the whole South Pacific as his canvas, but he’s stuck in one corner delineating a supporting character’s eyebrow in exquisite detail. This should have been an interesting, exciting, and moving novel, but instead it’s mostly just tedious. The ending is somewhat compelling, but not enough to redeem the novel as a whole. Lord Jim may have put me off Conrad for good.
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Monday, February 8, 2016

Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin

Captures every kid’s daydreams of space travel
I don’t make a habit out of reading children’s or young adult literature, but when I learned that Wildside Press was bringing back the Danny Dunn series I saw it as an opportunity to relive some fond memories of my youth. I loved the Danny Dunn books when I was a kid. They were published a little before my time, but were a staple in school and public libraries in the ‘70s. The first installment of the 15-volume series, Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint, was originally published in 1956. I’m happy to say that, although the science in this science fiction is now a half century old, the storytelling still has the ability to delight and entertain.

Danny Dunn is a typical small-town American boy, with red hair and freckles just right for a Norman Rockwell painting. His widowed mother works as a housekeeper for Professor Euclid Bullfinch, a scientist at a local college. Danny and his mother live with the professor, who acts as a surrogate father to him. Danny has a precocious intelligence and an enthusiasm for science. Professor Bullfinch, who does not specialize in any particular field but rather functions as a scientific jack-of-all-trades, is always working on some scientific discovery that’s way ahead of its time. He demonstrates his inventions to Danny and explains the science behind them. Somehow, through some well-intentioned mischief, Danny always ends up co-opting the professor’s gadgets, usually to solve some problem or thwart some bad guy.

In this first adventure, as the title indicates, the topic is spaceflight. Professor Bullfinch has developed a fluid that, when charged with electricity, can defy the pull of gravity. The government immediately enlists him in a project to build the first manned spacecraft, right there in Danny’s hometown! It certainly isn’t difficult to see where this story is leading, but in this case predictability is forgivable. It’s all good, clean fun that plays to many a child’s daydreams of space flight. My two boys, ages 6 and 8, read picture books about real space travel and watch the NASA Channel on TV. Even so, despite the fact that this book was written before Sputnik went into orbit, they still managed to get caught up in Danny’s adventure. They weren’t offended by inaccuracies or anachronisms like speculations of plants on Mars. Series authors Jay Willliams and Raymond Abrashkin inject a good sense of humor into the books, and there were several scenes that my kids and I found laugh-out-loud funny.

As of February 2016, Wildside Press has made the first three books in the series available as inexpensive ebooks. The second and third installments are Danny Dunn on a Desert Island
and Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine. It’s been a pleasure to relive this book from my youth and to share it with my own children. As far as kid-lit heroes go, Danny’s a pretty good role model. If my kids were older, they might find these books corny and antiquated, but thankfully they’re still young enough to just enjoy a good story. As long as they remain interested, we’ll follow Danny’s adventures wherever they lead.
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Friday, February 5, 2016

Parisian Sketches by Emile Zola

Hearty, bite-sized literary hors d’oeuvres
Emile Zola
The four short stories by Emile Zola that are referred to as the Parisian Sketches do not constitute a complete book. At best they may amount to about 40 pages of text. These stories can be found in complete works collections or included in old hard cover volumes ganged up with some other novella, like A Dead Woman’s Wish. I’m not sure when these four stories were originally published in French. The 1902 translation by Count C. de Soissons may have been their first appearance in English.

These four short stories are very short indeed, and “sketches” is a good word to describe them. Only one of them really has a plot. The other three are primarily just descriptive pieces in which Zola pays homage to a Parisian “type.” Despite their brevity and paucity of narrative, these four selections are pretty strong snippets of Zola’s writing. He not only demonstrates his uncanny talent for naturalistic description and scientific insight into human nature, but also injects each story with a humor that exemplifies the risqué irreverence for which he was renowned. The slices of Parisian life shown here are such that in his day might have made a respectable woman blush.

The subjects of these four studies are all female. In “The Boot-Polishing Virgin,” Zola examines the role of the mistress. The title character is a working class girl set up in a Parisian love nest by her lover, a count. Zola gives us a peek at what goes on behind the curtains in such a relationship. On the one hand, it’s a descriptive piece about a beautiful woman. On the other, it’s a commentary on class, and a bit heavy-handed one at that. In “The Old Women with Blue Eyes,” Zola confesses his fascination with little old ladies. He likes to watch their shrunken, childlike bodies walking down the street and imagine what romantic lives they might have led in their youths. His descriptions of these elderly women are about as close to poetry as Zola gets. He is deliberately provocative in the way he sexualizes these ladies—a little too provocative, to the point where it feels like forced humor. “Contrasts,” on the other hand, is simply hilarious. A tradesman named Durandean comes up with an ingenious business idea. He recruits all the ugliest women in Paris and rents them out to pretty women as a fashion accessory, to make them look even more beautiful by comparison. The lengths to which Zola analyzes ugliness and vanity (and the ugliness of vanity) is great fun. This is the kind of audacious humor which would have shocked the audiences of his day, and after more than a century it’s still good for a laugh. In “Love Under the Roof,” Zola offers a very brief sketch of the type known as the grisette. She is a working class girl who lives in a garret, supporting herself on needlework. She is pretty enough to be the kept lover of a rich man, but she chooses to be independent in hopes of one day finding true love. This character study is successful not only for the sensitive portrayal of its subject, but also for the insight it gives us into the social conditions of the era.

Overall, the quality of these four quick reads more than belies their brevity. For fans of Zola, reading these four selections is like paging through the sketchbook of a master painter. None of them would qualify as a masterpiece, but each offers a glimpse of the artist’s prodigious talents.

Stories in this collection
The Boot-Polishing Virgin 
The Old Women with Blue Eyes 
Love Under the Roof

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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Atom Station by Halldór Laxness

The humor is an acquired taste
The Atom Station, published in 1948, is a novel by Icelandic author Halldór Laxness, winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature. I had previously read his novel Independent People, which I enjoyed, so I thought I’d give this one a try. Though Laxness writes novels of modern Iceland, he depicts Icelandic life and culture as being firmly grounded in the classic sagas of his nation’s literature. There’s often a tension between the nation’s entry into the modern world and a harkening back to the traditions of the past. Chances are, the more you understand Iceland’s history and literature, the more you will enjoy Laxness’s work, which may prove a problem for many English-language readers, myself included. The Atom Station is a political satire, which complicates matters even further, and I’ll confess much of the humor was lost on me.

Ugla, a girl from a rural village in Northern Iceland, moves to Reykjavik to take up work as a servant in the home of Búi Arland, a member of parliament. The wealthy urban lifestyle of the legislator’s family is a culture shock to the small-town girl, but she soon earns the family’s trust and becomes an integral member of the household. Arland and his political cronies are plotting to “sell the country” to America, which wants to build a nuclear missile site in Iceland. Not only is this a threat to Icelandic sovereignty; it also endangers the lives of all the nation’s citizens if nuclear war should break out between the two Cold War superpowers. Part of the pro-American faction’s strategy for winning the hearts and minds of the populace, or at least distracting them, is to repatriate the bones of the Nation’s Darling, a revered poet who had been buried in Denmark. Ugla becomes involved with a communist cell who opposes the government’s plan. This episode, based on actual events, gives Laxness the opportunity to contrast rich and poor, urban and rural, North and South, conservative and communist—lampooning everyone in the process.

A few chapters into the book, Ugla goes to an organist’s house to take lessons on the harmonium. There she meets two men referred to as the atom poet and the god of Brilliantine, who speak mostly nonsense. There’s also a character named Two Hundred Thousand Pliers, an industrialist who serves as one of the villains in the book. Do we have Laxness to blame for these goofy names, or are these poorly handled puns on the part of the English translator? Hard to tell, but it was all a bit too heavy-handed and slapstick for me. Later in the book, there are some more serious scenes that give a better idea of Laxness’s talents as a writer. Ugla’s relationship with the family who employs her, and her own family in the North, allow for some moving moments, as does her desire to live as an independent woman. You really do feel for the character, and there’s a definite feminist message to the book that’s ahead of its time. But just when you think Laxness has given you something to hold onto, something to care about, he forces you to wade through another absurd conversation that feels like an utter waste of time.

I can see how The Atom Station might be hailed as a comic masterpiece in Iceland, much like the movie Dr. Strangelove is regarded in the U.S. However, few English-language readers will have the prior knowledge of Icelandic politics and culture necessary to get the jokes. What I liked about Independent People is that it gave me a glimpse into the life and history of a nation I know little about, but the social realism of that novel is a lot more accessible than the parody of this one. I don’t think I’m done with Laxness yet, but if I see another book of his described as “comedy” or “satire,” I’m going to steer clear.
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Monday, February 1, 2016

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

A letdown, given the hype

 When it was published in 2006, Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home received rave reviews from critics, with many major media outlets placing it on their annual ten-best lists. I am a lifelong comics fan and a firm believer in the graphic novel as literature. That said, the confessional memoir is one category of graphic storytelling that has never appealed to me much. Such books tend to be exercises in excessive self-indulgent navel-gazing. Although Fun Home is skillfully written and drawn, it has done little to improve my opinion of the genre.

In Fun Home, Bechdel explores her relationship with her father. She begins by detailing his obsessive devotion to the interior decoration of the family’s home, which also serves as a funeral parlor. In addition to being a mortician, Mr. Bechdel is an English teacher, and a love of literature is one quality that father and daughter share. Mr. Bechdel has restored the family’s historic home with laborious care, creating an environment like something from a Victorian novel, yet the house’s ornate, picturesque facade masks the dysfunctional dynamics of the family who dwells within. The father is a distant, cold man who keeps secrets from his children. Shortly before his death, the adult Alison, a lesbian, discovers that her father was gay and had affairs with a number of men, some of whom she knew. When her father is struck by a truck and killed, the author asserts­—not entirely convincingly—that his death was a suicide.

The art, printed in black and blue ink, is capably done, but as a graphic storyteller, Bechdel doesn’t rank among the greats. The figures are a little too simplistic, and the deadpan facial expressions can’t quite pull off the emotion the story requires, but Bechdel’s knack for detailed background scenery is admirable and does much to draw the reader into the narrative. I think it’s safe to say, however, that the prose is the main attraction here, not the illustration.

Fun Home has been the target of censorship in the form of bannings from libraries and schools. Any assertion that the book is pornography is unfounded; it is a bona fide work of art and literature. However, just because it deals with controversial subject matter doesn’t make it a landmark in the history of the graphic novel. The story just isn’t that compelling. Bechdel’s coming-of-age as a lesbian may be inspirational to some, and there are some touching moments when she and her father connect, but they are few and far between. One might argue that the only thing particularly interesting about this memoir is that the two main characters are gay. Beyond that, it’s just another story about a bad dad who cheats. To overcompensate for this, Bechdel draws parallels between her family’s story and great works of literature, including Marcel’s Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Homer’s Odyssey. That may explain why it was such a critics’ darling, but it comes across as a pretentious dressing up of a mildly interesting personal narrative in high-brow literary trappings. As Bechdel admits at one point in the book, “Maybe I’m trying to render my senseless personal loss meaningful by linking it, however posthumously, to a more coherent narrative.” Bingo. Fun Home is not bad, but one expects more from a book that has had so many golden laurels heaped upon it.
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