Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Empire by Clifford D. Simak

A rare stumble from a sci-fi master
I’ve only recently discovered the writings of Clifford D. Simak, but I already consider myself a big fan of his work. Based on novels like Way Station and his stories in the Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series, I was under the impression that he could do no wrong. His 1951 novel Empire, however, proved to be quite a disappointment.

The story takes place centuries in the future. Earth has developed the solar system, establishing colonies, mines, prisons, and industrial plants on all the worlds from Mercury to Pluto. There’s big business in extracting resources from our neighboring planets, and most of that business is controlled by the Interplanetary Power corporation. Interplanetary manufactures accumulators that harvest energy from the sun and are then shipped throughout the solar system to satisfy humanity’s appetite for power. Without these accumulators, space flight would be impossible. Because of this monopoly on energy, the tycoon who runs interplanetary, Spencer Chambers, is the de facto dictator of the solar system.

However, a rival billionaire aims to change that. Gregory Manning and his chief scientist Russell Page, have made the serendipitous discovery of a new source of power. Or perhaps they’ve made two or three discoveries in rapid succession, it’s really quite unclear. Simak goes to great lengths to describe the forces that Manning and Page have discovered and harnessed, but you’d probably need a physics degree to really make sense of it. There’s much talk about anti-entropy and negative gravity and space fields. Much of it falls within my understanding of physics, but a lot of it just seems to be made up to allow the two heroes to do cool things. For instance, they can propel spacecraft faster than the speed of light. They can capture an instantaneous television feed from anywhere in the solar system or project a three-dimensional television image in return. They can teleport people and things, or reach out and snatch anything, anywhere, and bring it to them. There’s seemingly no limit to what they can do with these remarkable space fields.

Which is really the crux of the book’s problem. This is supposed to be a David and Goliath story about two revolutionary upstarts taking down an empire. It’s hard for that sort of story to be fun, however, when the underdogs are practically omnipotent. Whenever the good guys come up against a challenge, they just snap their fingers and make it go away. Chambers has his own evil genius who is trying to duplicate Manning’s discoveries and use them against him, but the story never builds any suspense. The climactic confrontation is just a mess of confusing detail you’d have to draw a diagram to figure out. Simak is usually so good about maintaining the human element in his visionary sci-fi speculations, but here any emotional engagement is lost. All the characters are like cardboard cutouts, indistinguishable from one another except by name.

A writer whose body of work is as prolific and diverse as Simak’s is bound to have a few lackluster works in his catalog. Empire is definitely far from his best work, though perhaps someone with a more advanced knowledge of the science behind the fiction might appreciate this book more than I did. Simak produced so many exceptional works, however, most readers can afford to skip this one.
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Monday, January 30, 2017

The Vicar of Tours by Honoré de Balzac

Have you heard the one about the priest and the landlady?
The Vicar of Tours, or Le Curé de Tours, a short novel by Honoré de Balzac, was published in 1832. It was originally titled Les Célibataires, but the title was changed in a later edition. Les Célibataires is also the name of a subtrilogy within Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, this being the second volume, preceded by Pierrette and followed by La Rabouillieuse (translated into English as The Black Sheep or Two Brothers/A Bachelor’s Establishment). Don’t worry too much about that, however. The many works in the Comédie Humaine are only loosely related to one another, so even if you’ve never read any Balzac you can still enjoy this book on its own.

The Vicar of Tours stars the Abbé François Birotteau (brother of César Birotteau, who has his own eponymous Balzac novel), a mild-mannered, provincially naive clergyman. Though content with his life overall, Birotteau has two nagging desires: a comfortable home and promotion to the clerical rank of canon. For years he has envied the pleasant furnishings and well-stocked library in his good friend the Abbé Chapeloud’s apartment. When Chapeloud passes away, he generously bequeaths the room and its contents to Birotteau. Part of the attraction of the domicile is the landlady, Mademoiselle Sophie Gamard, an aging spinster who diligently caters to her tenants’ needs and sets one of the best tables in town. After a brief period of domestic bliss, Birotteau begins to suspect that Mlle Gamard is angry with him and purposefully slighting his needs. Unbeknownst to the abbé, she has become irate that he prefers to spend his evenings out with rich parishioners instead of inviting people of quality into her drawing room. While Birotteau strives to keep a low profile and avoid conflict, Mlle Gamard’s disgruntlement only escalates, soon drawing others into her web of vindictiveness.

The Victor of Tours is expertly written, with vividly drawn characters and an engaging story that immediately draws the reader into this provincial microcosm of French society. Nevertheless, the subject matter can’t help but feel a bit inconsequential. The merits of the story are not sufficient to make you forget that you’re reading a book about the petty squabbles of a bumbling priest and a shrewish old maid. For Balzac, that might be the whole point. The reason the book was called Les Célibataires (those who are celibate) is because Balzac is trying to make a point about celibacy, namely that those who do not occupy themselves with sexual relationships or romantic love must find some other outlet for their energies. The result is they often take molehills and blow them up into mountains, as exhibited here by Birotteau, Gamard, and a third character, Abbé Troubert, Birotteau’s fellow tenant and rival clergyman.

Of course, any indictment of celibacy is also a criticism of the Catholic Church and its celibate priests. In fact, much of the story’s delightful humor comes at the expense of organized religion. Here the Church is depicted as a competitive bureaucracy populated by self-interested egotists. Birotteau is often painted as a buffoon, though a likeable one.

Balzac is a great storyteller, so not surprisingly, The Vicar of Tours is a well-told story, but it’s nowhere near as profound in its psychological insights as more substantial works like Lost Illusions, Eugénie Grandet, or Cousin Bette. However, if you don’t take it too seriously (as I suspect Balzac didn’t), it’s a light, fun, and entertaining read.
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Friday, January 27, 2017

Ministry of Disturbance by H. Beam Piper

Imperial intrigue in mankind’s distant future
H. Beam Piper’s science fiction novella Ministry of Disturbance first appeared in the December 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. The story takes place in the fictional universe of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History timeline. Though the stories in the series are, for the most part, unconnected and can be read in any order, they do make reference to common historical events in the future of mankind. The reader will find mention of the planet Uller from Uller Uprising, for example, or the Fuzzies and the Space Vikings from Piper novels that weren’t even written yet. You don’t need to know all the details of this alternative timeline to enjoy the story, but it does give you a greater appreciation for the author’s ingenious grand plan. Piper’s visionary fiction is consistently a cut above his contemporaries, and this is one of his better novellas.

The events of Ministry of Disturbance occur in the 50th century of our calendar. The galaxy is ruled by the Empire, which governs 1,365 inhabited worlds populated by 14 or 15 intelligent species. Despite occasional squabbling between worlds, the Empire has managed to maintain relative peace, stability, and economic prosperity for the past half millennium. The story opens in the private chamber of His Imperial Majesty Paul XII, the supreme potentate of this galactic domain. Though he may be the ruler of a trillion and a half subjects, Paul is far from the typical imperious tyrant one usually finds in these situations. Instead, Piper makes Paul a government bureaucrat who’s grown tired of his job. We follow along on his daily routine as he is beset by a host of occupational annoyances.

Through the Emperor’s slate of meetings, conferences, and state dinners, the reader learns the complex ins and outs of the Imperial government. This is the sort of thing at which Piper really excels. He creates intricately detailed worlds in which political, religious, and economic interests collaborate and compete like the pieces in a grand chess game, allowing for myriad narrative possibilities. In its complexity and ingenuity, the fictional universe of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History reminds me a little of Frank Herbert’s Dune, though the story here is briefer and much lighter in tone.

Over the course of his busy day, Paul is presented with evidence that suggests one of his cabinet ministers is planning a coup d’état to oust him from power. Paul isn’t entirely convinced, but must play his cards right in order to ascertain the seriousness of the threat while not tipping off his potential adversary that he is onto his scheme. The suspenseful plot resembles an espionage thriller but with plenty of Piper’s trademark humor thrown in here and there for comic relief.

Although the audience sympathizes with Paul as the protagonist of the book, some of his decisions as Emperor call to mind the back-room machinations of a right-wing cabal. I don’t always agree with the political points Piper makes with his stories, but I still enjoy them. The Empire may not be a regime I’d want to live under, but it sure is fun to visit for a while.
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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

J’accuse . . . ! by Emile Zola

A cry for justice
Though a newspaper editorial may seem an unlikely subject for a book review, “J’accuse . . . !” may just be the most famous newspaper editorial of all time. Published in the 13 January 1898 edition of the Paris newspaper L’Aurore, the piece was written by Emile Zola in the form of an open letter to the President of the French Republic Felix Faure. In it, Zola passionately defends Alfred Dreyfus, the persecuted artillery officer caught in the center of what became known worldwide as the Dreyfus Affair, a government corruption scandal that rocked the French nation. 

When it was discovered that a French officer was passing military secrets to the Germans, accusations fueled by antisemitism were leveled at Captain Dreyfus, who was of Jewish heritage. With little supporting evidence, army officials convicted him in a military court and sentenced him to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. As evidence arose that indicated another officer was guilty of the espionage, the army covered up the new information, refusing to admit its mistake. The Dreyfus Affair had a tremendously polarizing effect on French society, with the citizenry organizing itself into opposing camps of Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, based on their political and religious inclinations. Into this breach stepped Zola, a literary celebrity and elder statesman with a track record of using his pen to champion society’s downtrodden. Zola’s 4,500-word open letter caused a sensation when it hit the newsstands, igniting the fervor of the Dreyfusards and making himself a target for the opposing faction. 

Unfortunately, if you want to learn about the Dreyfus Affair, reading “J’accuse . . . !” is not the best way to go about doing it. Zola was writing for an audience of readers already familiar with the course of events. You’re unlikely to understand the point of his commentary and criticism unless you have already read a historical synopsis of the scandal. To that end, I would suggest at the very least boning up on Wikipedia before you attempt to tackle “J’accuse . . . !” For more curious readers, Frederick Brown’s biography Zola: A Life gives a very detailed, roughly 150-page, blow-by-blow account of the Dreyfus Affair (and if you’re a Zola fan, you’ll enjoy the rest of the book too). Without some degree of prior knowledge, “J’accuse . . . !” is bound to read like a legal deposition devoid of context.

Beyond its historical import, “J’accuse . . . !” also has literary merit as an exercise in persuasive rhetoric. Not surprisingly, the author expresses his cry for justice with great eloquence and passion. Would-be freedom fighters can draw inspiration from quotable nuggets like, “The truth marches on and nothing will stop it.” Soul-stirring passages are few and far between, however, amid the morass of legal detail. Those seeking moving examples of Zola’s social justice prose would do better to look in novels like Germinal or La Terre. The fiery rhetoric of “J’accuse . . !” may have also suffered the dulling effect of poor English translation (the translator of my copy was anonymous). The most incendiary portion of the letter is its hard-hitting finale, in which Zola points his finger one by one at the various guilty parties and enumerates their crimes with the condemning phrase, “I accuse . . .”

In return for the accusations he penned in “J’accuse . . . !”, Zola was convicted of libel and sentenced to jail time, but he fled to England instead, where he lived in exile for a year until a change of government allowed him to return to France. He died soon after, leaving behind one of the greatest bodies of literary work ever created by a man of letters. Even so, “J’accuse . . . !” stands as testament to the fact that he was more than just a man of letters. Zola was a potent force for change in French society and an outspoken proponent for human rights.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The First Man by Eugene O’Neill

The demands of family
Eugene O’Neill
The First Man is a full-length four-act drama by Nobel Prize-winning American playwright Eugene O’Neill. It was first published in 1922. Though not one of his best known works, it is one of the few O’Neill plays currently in the public domain in America, so it can be downloaded, read, and performed for free.

The drama takes place in Bridgetown, Connecticut, a rather stuffy New England town where families pride themselves on their aristocratic pedigree and irreproachable family history. Curtis Jayson is a member of one such family, though he gives little thought to such matters. Curtis is a geologist and anthropologist, about to embark on an important expedition to Asia in search of mankind’s prehistoric missing-link progenitor. His wife Martha is his indispensable research assistant and the love of his life. Curtis met her in a mining town in the American West, where she was born and raised. As such, she has a freer spirit and more open nature than that typically found in conservative blue-blooded East Coast society, and she suffers from the scrutiny of Curtis’s sanctimonious and judgmental family. Her siblings-in-law can’t help noticing that while Curtis has been busy writing a book, Martha has been spending a lot of time with his old friend Bigelow, which sparks gossip and rumors of infidelity.

O’Neill does a great job of establishing all the family conflicts in the first act. It’s easy for the reader to get quickly invested in the troubles and desires of these characters. That holds up through most of the play, but starts to weaken towards the fourth and final act. Dysfunctional families are O’Neill’s strong suit, but this one doesn’t hold up as well as most. The women’s parts, with the exception of Martha, are written in a manner that’s so catty and harpyish it begins to annoyingly detract from the realism of the family dynamic. The wholeheartedness with which everyone latches onto unfounded rumors also defies believability.

The one unique element of the play that makes it stand out from other family dramas is Curtis’s attitude toward children. He has a very uncompromising stance on parenthood that is shocking to his family and perhaps even to the reader in its utter lack of conventional sentimentality. Curtis’s rationalized self-interested aversion to fatherhood likely reflects some of O’Neill’s own thoughts on the subject. Whether one sympathizes with Curtis or finds him reprehensible, the fact remains that this is the most interesting aspect of the play. I wish O’Neill had stuck by his guns with this unpopular idea, instead of allowing Curtis to waffle on the subject. Perhaps the result would have been too intense for the 1920s, so he felt the need to pull his punches.

O’Neill may be America’s greatest playwright, and this is a pretty good play, but it won’t go down in history as a revered classic. O’Neill has too many other masterpieces in his repertoire. Only diehard readers of his work looking to dig deeper into his varied career need venture this far off the beaten path. The First Man has been recently staged in London and New York, however, and someone’s working on an indie film version, so perhaps a resurgence of interest will prove me wrong.
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Friday, January 20, 2017

The Gold Hunters by James Oliver Curwood

Mystery in the Canadian North
The Gold Hunters, published in 1909, is an adventure novel by American author James Oliver Curwood. As I was reading the book, I got the feeling it might be a sequel because the characters kept referring to events in the past. Upon investigation, I found that, sure enough, it follows Curwood’s 1908 novel The Wolf Hunters, which was made into a John Wayne movie (1934’s The Trail Beyond). Despite the recurring characters, even though I hadn’t read the earlier book, I had no trouble getting into The Gold Hunters.

Roderick Drew is an American enjoying an extended visit at a trading post in the wild country near Hudson Bay, somewhere north of Montreal. His closest companions are two indigenous Canadians, one a young man Rod’s age named Wabigoon, the other an elder gentleman named Mukoki. Apparently, The Wolf Hunters ended with the three adventurers prying a treasure map to a fortune in gold from the fingers of a skeleton. Now they’ve decided to follow that map where it will lead, in hopes of finding untold riches hidden in the remote wilderness. Before they can begin their treasure hunt, however, they must first rescue Rod’s sweetheart, the Indian maiden Minnetaki, from the clutches of the evil tribe known as the Woongas.

Reading this novel today, it’s hard to tell whether it was intended for an audience of teenage boys or grown adults. I would tend to assume the latter, since there are some beautiful passages of nature writing that clearly demonstrate lofty literary aspirations. The Gold Hunters is obviously influenced by the works of James Fenimore Cooper. The trio of heroes bears a suspicious resemblance to the triumvirate of Natty, Chingachgook, and Uncas from The Last of the Mohicans, while the Woongas are blatant stand-ins for the Mingoes. Curwood even repeatedly refers to Mukoki as “pathfinder.” As far as the adventure narrative goes, the action here is too squeaky clean to be mistaken for Jack London’s dark and violent tales of the North, yet wilder than the more genteel boreal romances of Canadian author Harold Bindloss. Curwood’s vision of wilderness strikes a healthy balance between danger and wonder.

What makes the book fun is that it’s really a mystery story that just happens to be set in the wilderness. You never know where the trail will lead, and there are surprises around every bend. Curwood doesn’t haul out the usual lazy adventure-novel clichés. The story is more imaginative than a run-of-the-mill treasure hunt yarn. At times Curwood’s prose lacks clarity, and it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. How’d they escape that whirlpool again? What did they use to get down into the chasm? Overall I liked the novel, but I would have enjoyed it more if I didn’t have to decipher Curwood’s murky action sequences. There's also one odd scene that’s so unintentionally(?) homoerotic it reads like a Saturday Night Live parody.

The ending of The Gold Hunters clearly sets up the characters for another sequel, one that hints at something akin to an Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure. Whether that sequel was ever produced, and what its title could be, I do not know. Nevertheless, as a stand-alone novel, The Gold Hunters is a pretty good read for those who like classic adventure stories.
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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Maigret in Montmartre by Georges Simenon

Sex, drugs, and Maigret
Maigret in Montmartre was originally published in 1951 under the French title of Maigret au Picratt’s. It has since been published in English under the title of Maigret and the Strangled Stripper. This is the 64th work in author Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret series of 103 novels and short stories.

As evident from the aforementioned titles, the plot involves a dead stripper who worked at a club in Montmartre named Picratt’s. One night after work, the young woman, named Arlette, shows up at her local police station and reports that she heard two men in the club talking about how they are planning to murder a countess. Her story is taken seriously enough that she is sent to Maigret’s office for further questioning. As day breaks and she begins to sober up, however, she starts to back away from her story and wants to leave. Without the corpse of a countess, the police have no reason to hold her, and she is allowed to depart. A few hours later she is found strangled to death. There must have been some truth to her story, since it got her killed, but Maigret has no idea to which countess she was referring, and all he knows about the two killers in the club is that one of them was named Oscar.

In his search for Arlette’s murderer, Maigret spends a fair amount of time at Picratt’s, where the owners, a married couple, and their young women employees share a kind of dysfunctional family relationship. Maigret actually seems to enjoy the place, though the stories he uncovers there contain sordid details of prostitution and morphine. All of the Maigret mysteries are somewhat dark, but this one is darker than most. Compared to American film noir of the same era it’s really quite nonchalant in its discussions of vice. As a thriller, it’s an intelligent precursor to the bleak serial killer movies of which we see so many in cinema these days.

The plot device of the unidentified countess is at first reminiscent of 1944’s Maigret and the Fortuneteller (a.k.a. Signé Picpus), in which a man learns of the impending murder of a fortune teller, but nobody knows which fortune teller. Despite the similar premise, this story develops into a different book entirely. Maigret in Montmartre isn’t really a mystery in the sense of Simenon giving you clues and then you figure it out. It’s more of a police procedural in which you follow Maigret on his quest for truth. Over time, details are revealed about the victims and suspects, and you become intimately involved in their lives. It’s less cerebral than some Maigret books, but more visceral.

I was hooked from the first chapter, and I really didn’t want to put the book down until I saw it through to the end. The Maigret novels are consistently very good. One would be hard pressed to find a mediocre mystery in the bunch. I wouldn’t say Maigret in Montmartre is the best in the series, but if you’re looking for a thrilling detective story you will be more than satisfied with this exemplary file from the Inspector’s casebook.
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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe

From excelsior to excess
At first I was a little skeptical about the subtitle of Sean Howe’s 2012 book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. I grew up reading Marvel Comics and have read other books on the company’s history. After finishing Howe’s version, however, I’m happy to report that his investigative journalism into Marvel’s past is quite impressive, and the book makes for a truly fascinating read.

For the first couple chapters, I wasn’t so sure. In Chapter 1 Howe covers the entire history of Marvel, formerly known as Timely Comics, up through the 1950s. That’s the entire Golden Age in less than 30 pages! Howe isn’t really concerned, however, with the myriad genres that Timely used to publish—western, horror, romance, funny animals, and so on. This is really a history of what Marvel is most famous for—the superheroes, beginning with the Silver Age pantheon created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and in some cases, Steve Ditko. Chapter 2 covers the birth of the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, the Avengers, X-Men, and Spider-Man. Howe’s recaps of origin stories and mythologies get a little long-winded, leaving one to wonder when the “untold story” is going to begin.

From that point on, however, the book really hits its stride and becomes incredibly addictive, with vivid details and surprising revelations on every page. This isn’t a literary history of Marvel’s creative glories, but rather a true business history, replete with mergers, acquisitions, and struggles for administrative power. I’ll confess some of the financial and legal details were over my head, and at times, I could have used a little less detail. Over the course of superhero comics history, writers and artists continually defected from Marvel to DC and back again, and Howe keeps you apprised of each and every arrival and departure. Nevertheless, it’s better to commit sins of excess than omission, and Howe’s thorough, behind-the-scenes exposé of life inside the Marvel bullpen is probably the next-best thing to working there.

Though written in the third person, the book has the feel of an oral history, likely because Howe interviewed about 150 former Marvel employees. Howe lets all sides get their two cents in without passing judgment. The long-fought battle between Lee and Kirby over creative ownership of certain characters, for example, is handled in a fairly balanced manner. Howe diligently follows the trail of rancor, and neither party comes out smelling like a rose. Stan the Man comes across as somewhat pathetically clueless, while King Kirby is depicted as taking his justifiable grievances to delusional excess. In general, Howe subtly favors individual creators over big business, but he always presents both sides of an argument.

Though Howe celebrates the company’s creative triumphs, his overall picture of the Marvel empire is rather unflattering. As he charts the trajectory of the publisher through boom and bust periods, he makes it pretty clear that over time the company has sacrificed creative quality in favor of commercialism, diluting the integrity of its treasured characters for a quick buck. As one of the many fans Marvel lost in the ‘90s, I have a tendency to agree with him, which is perhaps why I enjoyed the book so much. There are other good books on Marvel history out there, like the self-congratulatory Marvel Chronicle: A Year by Year History or Mark Evanier’s excellent biography Kirby: King of Comics, but if you’re looking for one book that’s going to give you the clearest, most complete picture of the Marvel story, this is it.
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Friday, January 13, 2017

Presidential Agent by Upton Sinclair

Lanny Budd, paranormal secret agent
Presidential Agent is the fifth book in Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series, which chronicles the adventures of a wealthy American art dealer in Europe who gets actively involved in some of the most important events in 20th-century world history. (Take care not to confuse this one with the almost identically titled eighth book in the series, Presidential Mission.) Published in 1944, Presidential Agent takes place from 1937 to 1938, and covers critical events in Europe leading up to World War II, including Hitler’s forced annexations of Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Through a mutual friend, Lanny is introduced to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who grants him a private meeting in the White House. Because of Lanny’s extensive travels in Europe and his acquaintance with many world leaders and dignitaries, FDR finds him to be an invaluable source of information. He asks Lanny to be his eyes and ears in Europe and periodically report back to him on the events taking place there. He even gives Lanny a code name, Agent 103. At first Lanny functions mostly as a news service, but the more he witnesses firsthand the terrifying threat of the Nazis the more involved he becomes in active espionage. Having previously met Adolph Hitler and Hermann Göring, Lanny cultivates his friendships with these two Nazi leaders and also develops a camaraderie with Hitler’s Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess. Though a socialist at heart, Lanny must pretend to embrace the Nazi party line in order to acquire valuable intelligence. Beyond helping FDR, Lanny has personal reasons for embarking on this dangerous mission. In the last novel, he found love in the form of a German Jewish artist who works for the underground resistance. She has now gone missing, possibly held by the Nazis in a concentration camp, and Lanny will risk everything to find her.

Once again, Sinclair’s leftist view of history yields fascinating insights into the course of world events. Hitler’s taking of Austria and Czechoslovakia might be covered in a few sentences in a typical history textbook, but Sinclair really gives a detailed rendering of how these events gradually unfolded. The reader gains a clear understanding of how the Nazis came to power while many Americans and Europeans either welcomed them as saviors from communism or timidly buried their heads in the sand. The most disappointing aspect of the novel, as usual, is Sinclair’s indulgence in his fascination with the paranormal, which is even more evident here than in the previous books. One of Lanny’s hobbies is communicating with the dead through séances. Because Hitler and Hess are also interested in the occult, Lanny is able to exploit their mutual interest in spirit communication as a way to get close to them. While that is a valid way to advance the story, instances where séance revelations actually influence the course of events only thwart the credibility of what is otherwise a very intelligent, thoroughly researched historical novel.

I had ten per cent of the ebook file left when, to my surprise, the book just ended—the remainder being a preview of the next book. Presidential Agent feels like an incomplete novel meant to function as a bridge between the books before and after. By this point in the series, Sinclair seems to have stopped trying to give these novels a beginning, middle, and end, and simply treats them all as one long book. Some plot lines are resolved halfway through, while new threads are only begun. The books in this series really don’t function as independent novels, so the reader has to commit for the long haul. Though I have my reservations about each individual installment, I can’t help but admire the entire series as a monumental achievement. For those interested in 20th-century world history, the Lanny Budd series is worth the effort.
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Monday, January 9, 2017

Readings from Modern Mexican Authors by Frederick Starr

Mexico’s 19th-century Renaissance men
Federico Gamboa
The title Readings from Modern Mexican Authors may lead one to believe this book, originally published in 1904, to be a collection of short stories. Surprisingly, however, the majority of its contents consists of nonfiction. Editor Frederick Starr has compiled the writings of 29 Mexican authors into this compendium. About two-thirds of the selected works are essays on the geography, history, and indigenous culture of Mexico, as well as biography and literary criticism. Only the final third of the book consists of fiction, in the form of excerpts from novels and stories.

To describe the selections included here as “Modern” may seem premature to today’s readers, who won’t recognize them as modernism. Rather, the use of that term in the title indicates that all the featured writers were alive and active at the time of publication, with the exception of two recently deceased. From a literary standpoint, the individual works included here are not particularly impressive or memorable. This is likely due not to any shortcomings of the authors, but rather to the fact that these are disembodied chunks of prose that Starr has excised from longer works. The fictional selections, in particular, are not served well by this format. Starr typically provides a synopsis of a novel, thus spoiling the ending for the reader, before offering a few seemingly arbitrarily selected scenes.

Far more interesting are the short introductory biographies that Starr has written about each author. These nineteenth-century men of letters were true Renaissance men. They come from all corners of the Mexican nation, from cities big and small. Most were trained to be lawyers, some educators, a few as medical doctors. Almost all served in their state or national legislatures or supreme courts. Many dabbled in scientific as well as literary pursuits. Politically, they represent both the liberal and conservative sides of the Mexican spectrum. Some were supporters and confidants of Benito Juárez, Emperor Maximilian I, or Porfirio Díaz. In sum total, the biographical sketches of the 29 luminaries give an interesting picture of Mexico’s intelligentsia at the turn of the last century. In their works, these writers in turn highlight additional historical and literary figures from their country’s past.

Casual readers looking for picturesque tales of Old Mexico will not find them in this book. It will really only appeal to those readers with an active interest in Mexican history and culture. This collection encapsulates an interesting period in Mexican letters just prior to the dawn of true modernism. The Revolution had yet to take place, and Mexico’s cultural trajectory was at a turning point. Reading through these works, one can feel inklings of tension between leftist and right-wing factions, Spanish and indigenous influences, elitist and proletarian sensibilities.

Though Starr’s choice of works often seems haphazard or sloppy, the writers represented here deserve respect as cultural precursors to the likes of Mariano Azuela, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, and Octavio Paz. After experiencing this volume, the reader is inclined to agree with Ignacio M. Altamirano, a writer of Nahua heritage, when he points out, “There are talents in our land which can compete with those which shine in the old world.” If nothing else, this collection can serve as a starting point for those who wish to conduct further investigation into Mexico’s literary riches.
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