Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman

Ornithological pilgrimage
I’m what you might call a casual birder. I don’t get out as much as I’d like to, and I’m certainly not in Kenn Kaufman’s league. When I do go birding, I always carry his Kaufman Focus Guide to the Birds of North America in my back pocket. I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to read his 1997 book Kingbird Highway, but I can finally scratch this birding memoir off my life list.

When Kaufman was 16 years old, he dropped out of high school to pursue his love of ornithology. With his parents’ permission, he left his home in Wichita, Kansas to travel around the country viewing birds in the wild. In this memoir, Kaufman details his 1973 attempt at a Big Year—that is, to be the birder who spots the most species in North America in a given calendar year. At this period in history, birding was gaining popularity and just starting to grow into a national pastime. In this book, Kaufman is to birding what Forrest Gump is to jogging. Through his adventures, we see the youth of the American Birding Association and the nascent beginnings of the extensive birding communications network that exists today.

Too many nature writers err too far on the side of either poetry or science. Thankfully, Kaufman commits neither of these sins; his writing on birds maintains a delicate balance between the two. The book really isn’t so much nature writing, however, as it is travel writing. In his Big Year quest, Kaufman estimates he hitchhiked about 69,000 miles around North America while living on less than a dollar a day. The chronicle of his travels is like a rose-colored version of John Krakauer’s Into the Wild where everything goes right. Birds or no birds, anyone who’s ever felt the tug of wanderlust can’t help but envy Kaufman his adventure. The best passages of the book are those in which he contemplates life on the road. He doesn’t sugar-coat the dangers or the downers, but he more than adequately and eloquently relates the exhilarating liberation of voluntary homelessness. Unlike so many of us caught up in the hamster wheel of life, he followed his dream and lived to tell about it.

As for the birding stories, they engage the reader with mixed success. A few of his quests really impart the excitement of hunting for elusive quarry, like his journey down to Mexico to spot the Eared Trogon, or the general awesome grandeur of his trip to Alaska. After a while, however, the bird trips start to get a little monotonous. Kaufman drops a lot of names of fellow birders in his stories, yet he doesn’t do much to distinguish one from another, so often the less solitary portions of his narrative read like pages of acknowledgements. The only readers likely to recognize these names are those who diligently peruse the field notes in each issue of North American Birds. Towards the end of the book, Kaufman begins to grow tired of his journey and becomes disillusioned with the practice of obsessive listing. The reader comes to share these mixed feelings, yet it seems much of the book is tailored toward that narrow audience of obsessive listers.

The more you are involved in the birding “scene”—the ABA, the Audubon Society, Christmas bird counts, rare bird alerts, listing, etc.—the more you will enjoy the book. If, like me, you’re just a casual nature lover who enjoys birding on your own, this book might be a bit much for you.
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Monday, March 28, 2016

The Keeper by H. Beam Piper

Might wanna let this one go
H. Beam Piper’s sci-fi story The Keeper was originally published in the July 1957 issue of Venture Science Fiction magazine. It’s what the pulp fiction mags used to refer to as a “novelette”—not quite long enough for a novella but too long to be called a short story. It amounts to about 45 minutes of reading. The Keeper is part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History series, in which he invented a detailed fictional chronology of the future of mankind. It’s not necessary to know the whole story of that series to read The Keeper. On the other hand, this isn’t one of Piper’s best efforts, and it will likely appeal mostly to his diehard fans, who will appreciate it as a small component in his grand vision of future world events.

The Keeper starts out, oddly enough, as a Jack London story. A lone traveler, trudging through a snowy landscape, returns to his remote cabin in the woods, where he’s greeted by his two faithful dogs. Though that may sound like a scene from one of London’s Klondike adventures, Piper lets us know right up front that this is taking place in a distant post-apocalyptic future in which Earth is in the throes of another ice age. The man’s name is Raud, but he is known as the Keeper because he acts as guardian over a valuable artifact from man’s distant past. Though he closely guards the relic, rumors of its existence have spread far and wide. Two foreigners from the stars—members of the human diaspora to other worlds—arrive at Raud’s door, asking to see the ancient object.

Despite all the futuristic trappings, the story is basically a Western (or rather, a Northwestern) gunfight. Piper, a ballistics enthusiast, handles the material with skill, but the wilderness adventure and futuristic sci-fi elements end up watering each other down until neither satisfies. Also problematic is the story’s disappointing ending, which leaves the reader wondering, “Why did we just go through all that?” Though Piper wrote a lot of great science fiction adventures, this isn’t one of them. Unless you’re really obsessed with the Terro-Human Future History timeline, The Keeper—despite its title—is one you can safely skip.
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Friday, March 25, 2016

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

A dismal abyss
Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth was originally published in 1864. The first English translation, published by Griffith and Farran, appeared in 1871. A second English translation of 1877, usually titled Journey to the Interior of the Earth, is said to be more faithful to Verne’s original work. The 1871 version, however, is the one that I got my hands on, so that’s what I’m reviewing here. One alteration the 1871 translator made was to change the names of the characters. In this version, the narrator is named Harry. He is a young scientist following in the footsteps of his uncle, Professor von Hardwigg. Paging through an antiquated Icelandic book, Uncle Hardwigg finds a coded note describing a passage to the center of the Earth. He immediately ropes his nephew into a scientific expedition, and the two head for Iceland. Once there, they enlist the services of Hans, a local eider down hunter, as their guide, and the three set off into the crater of an extinct volcano.

As is often the case with 19th-century sci-fi, Verne takes his time getting to the marvels and monsters. The book starts out as a typical scientific expedition, with all the usual discussion of gear and preparations. Then, as is often the case in Verne novels, he segues into a travelogue, giving us a tour of Iceland worthy of National Geographic. When the adventurers enter the crater, they explore the depths of the earth much like the passengers of the Nautilus explore the depths of the ocean in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Harry, Professor Hardwigg, and Hans wander through various strata of the earth’s crust, marveling at the crystals, the granitic formations, and the fossils of prehistoric life that have been deposited through the ages. As hard as Verne tries to jazz up the rocks and minerals, however, the scenery and science is nowhere near as interesting as the marine wonders presented in Twenty Thousand Leagues.

Something else the book lacks is its Captain Nemo. If you’re going to write a book with only three characters, they better be good characters, but as protagonists the three voyagers leave a lot to be desired. The running joke with Hans is that he’s extremely stoic and barely utters a word. Professor Hardwigg exudes a satisfying Professor Challenger-esque vibe with his indefatigable mania for scientific pursuits. Harry, however, makes for a frustrating narrator. It’s usually a good strategy to tell an astonishing adventure story from an everyman’s point of view, but Harry is a far wimpier than your average everyman. Throughout the book he constantly moans about how frightened, tired, and uncomfortable he is, and I lost track of all the times he was sick, injured, or unconscious. If I were leading the expedition, I would have left him behind.

Our three heroes spend most of the book coasting through the subterranean passages on a sort of caveman carnival ride that so defies belief it enters the realm of fantasy. Often all they can do is comment on their surroundings as they whiz by. Toward the end, even Verne seems to grow tired of his story and has to resort to a flashback and a dream sequence. If there isn’t enough interesting stuff to talk about beneath the earth, what are we doing there? I usually enjoy Verne’s work, and I loved Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but apparently geology doesn’t make as interesting a fictional narrative as oceanology or marine biology, and other sci-fi books have covered paleontology to better effect. Five years separated the publication of Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues. It’s amazing how much Verne improved as a writer over that half-decade, because the latter is a masterpiece while the former is mediocre at best.
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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Naïs Micoulin by Emile Zola

Love between rich and poor
Naïs Micoulin, a novella by Emile Zola, was published in 1884. The title character is a young woman who lives with her mother and father at a remote country estate on the coast of Provence. The family manages the land and maintains the house on behalf of its owner, Monsieur Rostand, a lawyer who resides in the nearby city of Aix. Occasionally Naïs ventures into the city to bestow a tribute of fruit and fish on the landlord, and the Rostands spend periodic vacations in the country with the Micoulins. Under this arrangement, Naïs grew up alongside the lawyer’s son, Frédéric, and the two formed a close childhood friendship. As he grows into manhood, Frédéric begins to take his father’s fortune for granted and becomes more and more indolent and rash. Unbeknownst to his parents, his evenings are often spent on wine, women, and gambling. One day, Naïs comes to Aix for one of her periodic visits, and Frédéric is astonished to find that she has blossomed into a beautiful woman. Naturally, he seizes the opportunity of another family trip to the coast to pursue a romantic relationship with her.

In many ways, this story is Zola’s love letter to Provence. He obviously delights in describing the beautiful countryside of his homeland—the forests, fruits, and flowers—and the rural lifestyle of the families that work the land and sea. Naïs goes about her chores with a naturalness and simplicity, as if she were an extension of the picturesque landscape itself. As one would expect from Zola, however, things aren’t all sunshine and roses at this seaside retreat. The old fisherman Micoulin beats the girl and treats her more like a slave than a daughter. Unwilling to allow Naïs a single ounce of happiness, her newfound romance with Frédéric infuriates him. With the master’s son as her lover, however, what can he do? As the relationship between Naïs and Frédéric progresses, the tension between the three key players escalates, and Zola ramps up the suspense accordingly.

Unfortunately, the ending of the story is a bit of a letdown. It’s almost as if Zola goes out of his way to disappoint the reader. He leads you to expect a climactic, romanticized conclusion, then pulls the rug out from under you. Though it may end with more of a whimper than a bang, the story nonetheless stays true to Zola’s naturalistic philosophy toward literature. Real lives don’t often culminate with bombastic confrontations or passionate romance. Nature is much more random, and we are often prisoners to the fate it deals us. Just as he so frankly portrays the darker, less idyllic side of this Provençal paradise, Zola opts for a bluntly realistic ending that spurns expectations honed by literary conventions. Balzac or Hugo might have given you the operatic climax you crave, but Zola makes you wake up and smell the stark reality. This work adheres closely to the mature naturalistic style in which Zola wrote the Rougon-Macquart series of novels for which he’s famous. Naïs Micoulin may not be perfect, or even one of Zola’s best works, but it’s still a beautiful piece of writing that holds true to the master’s literary convictions.
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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line by Charles W. Chesnutt

Black and White was not so black-and-white
Charles W. Chesnutt is one of America’s great realist writers. Perhaps the reason he’s not better known today is because he was only active for about a decade around the year 1900, and the subject matter of his writing has a very narrow focus. All of his literary works are about the lives of Americans of mixed black and white ancestry in the years following the Civil War. Chesnutt himself was a mixed-race African American. The stories in his collection The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line, published in 1899, take place in Patesville, North Carolina and Groveland, Ohio—fictional towns based on the communities in which the author was born and raised. With vivid authenticity, blunt candor, and often a wry sense of humor, Chesnutt examines the Byzantine, restrictive, and unjust social structure that governed black, white, and mixed-race relations during this period in American history.

In the time about which Chesnutt is writing, any drop of African blood would put you into the “colored” category, regardless of the hue of your flesh. Stories like “The Wife of His Youth” and “A Matter of Principle” reveal a light-skinned aristocracy of mixed-race blacks who consider themselves superior to those of darker skin. The former story takes the subject seriously, while the latter plays it for laughs. There’s not a trace of humor to be found in “The Sheriff’s Children,” the best entry in the book. When a black man is accused of a crime, the white sheriff who protects him from being lynched receives a stunning revelation. It’s a riveting story just begging for a film adaptation.

In most cases the endings of the stories are pretty predictable, but the subtle touches of humor and pathos that Chesnutt adds make the ride worth while. Not every conclusion is foregone. At the end of “Her Virginia Mammy,” there’s a wonderfully crafted, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of ambiguity where one character appears to know the big secret while the other clearly does not. Sometimes the ending serves to tame the story a bit, possibly to make it more acceptable to readers of Chesnutt’s era. In “The Passing of Grandison,” a story about a slave who doesn’t want to be freed, the title character’s sheepish acceptance of his enslavement is so ridiculous that after a while you end up feeling guilty for laughing at slavery. In the end, however, Chesnutt relents a little with the satire, letting his readers off the hook. “Uncle Wellington’s Wives” is a story about a former slave who, finding his marriage under slavery to be legally invalid, dreams of running off to the North to marry a white woman. It likewise stirs up mixed emotions by depicting the harsh reality of black life—even in the North—while generating humor from Wellington’s comeuppance.

This is the fourth book I’ve read by Chesnutt, which is about half of his total career output. All of his works are exceptional, but this is one of his better ones. Only his excellent novel The House Behind the Cedars supersedes this one. Chesnutt’s other 1899 short story collection, The Conjure Woman, is concerned with Southern black culture, its folk tales and superstitions. While it provides a frank portrayal of African American life in the South, its fairy tale elements often overpower its depictions of social conditions. The Wife of His Youth is a much more forthright call for social justice and really opens one’s eyes to the conundrums—from the comical to the dangerous—that blacks had to face in navigating the societal norms of the time. If you like realist or naturalist literature, and are thinking of giving Chesnutt a try, this book is a good one to start with.

Stories in this collection
The Wife of His Youth 
Her Virginia Mammy 
The Sheriff’s Children 
A Matter of Principle 
Cicely’s Dream 
The Passing of Grandison 
Uncle Wellington’s Wives 
The Bouquet 
The Web of Circumstance

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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Didactic Ladyland
Herland, a utopian novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was originally serialized in The Forerunner, a magazine she wrote and published from 1909 to 1916. The novel was not published in book form until it was rediscovered in 1979. Herland is considered the middle volume in a utopian trilogy by Gilman. However, I have read the first novel in the trilogy, Moving the Mountain, and it’s about an entirely different society than the one depicted in Herland, so the designation of trilogy is based on a mere topical connection at best. I didn’t care much for Moving the Mountain, as I thought the utopia depicted in that novel displayed fascistic tendencies. Herland, thankfully, is a far different kettle of fish, and far superior to its predecessor.

Three gentleman friends take part in a scientific expedition into the wilds of an unnamed continent. When the expedition comes to a conclusion, the three pals decide to launch their own side expedition to investigate legends of a remote and mysterious land rumored to be inhabited entirely by women. A short plane ride later, they find themselves in unknown territory, captured by a band of strong, athletic, independent women, with nary a man in sight. This may sound like the makings of a macho lost-world adventure novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Rider Haggard, but Gilman turns the genre on its head. Far from having touched down amid a harem of odalisques, the men learn that Herland is hardly tailor-made for the realization of lustful male fantasies. The female populace graciously invites the outsiders to join their society, but the men feel like proverbial fish out of water as they learn the workings of this world founded on and governed by feminine principles.

Herland was born 2,000 years earlier when all the men in this isolated civilization were killed by war and a natural disaster. Of the women who survived, one was a mutant capable of virgin birth, or parthenogenesis. Her descendants, likewise, were born with this gift, and they only gave birth to females. Hence, the society continued to replenish itself for two millennia despite the nonexistence of males. Over time, the women of Herland acquired the ability to control their parthenogenesis and consciously choose whether or not they wish to reproduce. Because the inhabitants of Herland are all cousins, descended from the first mother, issues of romantic love or physical lust conveniently aren’t an issue. This all makes for a clever science-fictional justification of Herland’s existence, but the contrivance of this foundation tends to undermine the utopian house of cards that Gilman builds upon it, as the farther Herland becomes divorced from reality the less applicable Gilman’s utopian ideas become to the real world in which we live.

Nevertheless, it’s a well-written, important, and even entertaining book. It is a stroke of genius on Gilman’s part to show us Herland through the eyes of men. Of the three explorers, Terry is the macho womanizer who sees women as objects to be conquered, Jeff is the sensitive milquetoast who puts all women on a pedestal, and the narrator, Vandyck Jennings, is the everyman who falls somewhere in between. As these three dumbfounded and confused dudes gradually come to a realization of feminism, Herland is revealed as a world founded on motherly love and free of competition, where all women take a cooperative “it-takes-a-village” attitude towards building a just and nurturing society. Herland may not be the most realistic of utopias, but it’s one of the more inspiring. Like Jennings and his buddies, we can all learn a lot from what these women, and Gilman, have to teach us.
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Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A dystopia too close for comfort
I don’t read much current fiction (the 1980s are pretty current for me), but I had heard so many good things about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, that as a fan of dystopian novels it seemed inevitable that I would get around to reading it eventually. I approached the book with trepidation, however, as I tend to have a “Don’t believe the hype,” attitude when it comes to books hailed as “modern classics.” Such reluctance quickly disappeared, however, as The Handmaid’s Tale had me riveted from page one. This is a book that truly deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon it and can wear the mantle of modern classic with pride.

The novel is set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, which used to be the United States. A Christian theocratic regime has overthrown the government and established a totalitarian state. A civil war is still being fought somewhere out on the periphery between this military theocracy and a rebel resistance, but where the story takes place (likely in Maine), the new order is firmly established. The Gilead regime’s ultra-conservative “family values” have rolled back feminism at least a century and established a rigid class hierarchy in which the female population is allocated to a few regimented societal roles. The narrator of the story, Offred, has been forced into the caste of the Handmaids. Disease and environmental degradation have caused fertility rates to drop drastically. The Handmaids are assigned as surrogate mothers for the important Commanders of the religious oligarchy. Offred is a member of the inaugural class of Handmaids, meaning she can still remember the old order before Gilead—the world as we know it today—and her former life of freedom before she was forced into the role of a birthing slave.

Of all the dystopian futures I’ve read, this is perhaps the most disturbing because it’s the one that could most likely actually happen. Within the 20th century we’ve seen religious revolutions (Iran, Saudi Arabia) and the rise of totalitarian regimes (too many to list). When such fascistic regimes take power, women’s rights are often set back decades. In the United States, a male-dominated Congress continues to display antediluvian views on women’s issues, influenced by the ever more vocal religious right. Even in our comparatively free society, one can see inklings of Gileadean policy. Civil liberties are no longer something to be taken for granted. The fact that Atwood’s vision of the future has a firm grounding in reality makes it all the more frightening.

There were a few moments in the book where I felt like the plot was treading water a bit, but such passages were few and far between, and as soon as I was lulled into a false sense of complacency the story would go off in an unexpected and sometimes shocking direction. Atwood’s prose is superb throughout. Though narrated in the first person, the plot doesn’t get bogged down in a lot of stream-of-consciousness rambling. There are many brilliant, subtle touches that exquisitely enhance the verisimilitude of the story, like a scene where curious Japanese tourists want to snap pictures of the Handmaids, as if they were curious oddities from some exotic third-world kingdom.

Though published in 1985, I have no doubt people will still be reading this book 200 years from now, much like the scholars who debate the story’s historical significance in the book’s epilogue. The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just a clever vision of the future or an alarming thriller warning us of what might happen if we’re not careful. It’s a reflection of our times that presents powerful lessons to be learned.
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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Protector by Harold Bindloss

Extracting resources and romance from British Columbia
Harold Bindloss
Harold Bindloss, an English-born Canadian author, was a prolific early twentieth-century writer of popular adventure novels set in western Canada. The Protector, published in 1918, takes place in the city of Vancouver and the surrounding wilderness of British Columbia. I had previously read Bindloss’s novel Northwest!, and though I wasn’t thrilled with it, it was good enough to convince me that this author deserved a second look. As an enthusiast of outdoor adventure fiction and a fan of all things Canadian in general, Bindloss’s work should be right up my alley. Once again, however, I find myself disappointingly unimpressed.

Wallace Vane came to Canada from England nine years earlier to try his hand at wresting a living from the natural riches of the land. One of the lucky ones, he discovered a mine in a remote corner of Vancouver Island and has struck it reasonably rich. The money has not gone to Vane’s head, however, as he is content to spend his time paddling, sailing, and trekking around the forests, islands, and waterways of the region with his right-hand man Carroll. Nevertheless, duty calls, and Vane must attend to business matters in Vancouver. His fortune may be in danger as some sneaky shareholders attempt to launch a hostile takeover of the mine. At this inopportune moment, a promise to a dying man sends Vane and Carroll on a wild goose chase into the wilderness, searching after a legendary grove of spruce trees that can be lucratively converted into wood pulp.

As the previous sentence indicates, this is hardly a typical wilderness adventure novel. The Protector is really more Jane Austen than Jack London. Within the first few chapters, at least three female characters are introduced as prospective brides for Vane, and the rest of the book more or less revolves around which one will end up the lucky lady. The plot combines the financial adventures of the rugged-outdoorsman-as-businessman from London’s novel Burning Daylight with the West Coast urban society rom-com of Frank Norris’s Blix, but the resulting amalgamation is less compelling than either. Tedious chapter after chapter of sailing in hard weather is meant to inspire thrills, but the reader just ends up thinking that Vane and Carroll should have been better prepared before venturing into the wild. One distinctive quirk of Bindloss, that’s common to both The Protector and Northwest!, is his decision late in the game to make the sidekick the protagonist. After spending the greater part of the novel building up Vane as an ideal hero, the climax of the novel ends up resting on Carroll’s everyman shoulders.

The message of The Protector is that a life lived in touch with wild nature can be more satisfying than all the money in the world. While that may seem like an admirable lesson to impart, the characters of Bindloss’s novels primarily enjoy nature by extracting its resources. The trees are beautiful because they can be chopped down. The rivers are picturesque because they can carry the logs to port. The mountains are majestic because one can imagine the mineral riches hidden beneath. One can’t be too judgmental towards the environmental ethos of a century ago. The main offense of The Protector is not its view of wilderness as something to be conquered by man. That could be forgiven as an artifact of its time, if the story weren’t so darn boring.
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