Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Stories by English Authors: France by Robert Louis Stevenson, et al.

Oui to Ouida, but otherwise ennui
This book is part of the Stories by English Authors series published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. The ten volumes in the series don’t appear to have any particular order, and each is simply subtitled according to the setting of the stories included. This book of five short stories set in France is the eighth volume I’ve reviewed in the series, after having previously read the collections on England, London, Scotland, Ireland, Germany and Northern Europe, Africa, and The Sea. So far I haven’t been terribly impressed by the series overall. This France volume is middle-of-the-road for the series, and of mediocre quality compared to literature in general.

You would think that leading off with a heavy hitter like Robert Louis Stevenson would start the book on a high note, but “A Lodging for the Night” is not one of his better stories. The narrative takes place in Paris in 1456. A poet passes a cold winter’s evening in a seedy tavern with his gang of friends, all thieves and murderers. Stevenson devotes much of the story’s length to its medieval atmosphere and the witty verbal repartee among the brigands; so much so that the plot is almost an afterthought. That’s a shame because it does get rather interesting toward the end, but by then it’s a little too little, a little too late.

The second entry by Ouida, the pseudonym of Maria Louis Ramé, is far more successful. She has been one of the bright spots in this series, having also provided the great story “A Dog of Flanders” to the Germany and Northern Europe volume. In this France collection, her story “A Leaf in the Storm” is set in a picturesque village on the banks of the Seine, where a 92-year-old woman and her grandson enjoy their simple lives, until the peace of their sleepy hamlet is interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War. Here Ouida’s writing calls to mind the war narratives of Emile Zola in both its brutal pessimism and its compelling emotional power.

Next up, another well-known British author, Wilkie Collins, offers a story of an Englishman traveling in Paris. This one ventures into the territory of horror and mystery. It builds suspense based on a premise that is quite clever but unrealistic. The narrative has an extended prologue, almost as long as the story itself, narrated by an itinerant portrait painter who explains how this tale was related to him during a portrait sitting. The story doesn’t benefit from this protracted setup.

The last two entries, by lesser-known authors, are the worst selections in the book. “Michel Lorio’s Cross,” by Hesba Stretton, is set in the stunning seaside city of Mont St-Michel in Normandy. The hero, one of the town’s native sons, is shunned by his neighbors for having converted to Protestantism. Though ostensibly a religious fable, Stretton uses the schmaltzy tale to portray French Catholics as intolerant and illiterate. The book’s final selection, S. J. Weyman’s “A Perilous Amour,” is set around 1600 and involves a plot to assassinate King Henry IV of France. The story is such a confusing mess, however, little joy is derived from the political intrigue.

This book serves its purpose in the Stories by English Authors series, but France has such a rich literature of its own, why bother reading a bunch of Brits’ takes on the country? In fact, another Scribner’s series, Stories by Foreign Authors, published in 1898, has three volumes of French short stories that are all far superior to this collection.

Stories in this collection
A Lodging for the Night by Robert Louis Stevenson 
A Leaf in the Storm by Ouida
The Traveller’s Story of a Terribly Strange Bed by Wilkie Collins 
Michel Lorio’s Cross by Hesba Stretton
A Perilous Amour by S. J. Weyman 

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Monday, May 29, 2017

Good Night, Mr. James and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Eight

Another nearly perfect collection
This is the fourth book I’m reviewing from The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series. So far I’ve read Volumes 1, 2, 7, and 8, because at one time or another they were all offered as Kindle Daily Deals. This eighth volume, published in 2016, features ten stories and novellas by Simak that were originally printed in science fiction magazines from 1938 to 1977. Overall, Volume 8 may fall a little bit shy of the extremely high mark of quality set by the other volumes I’ve read, but this is still an excellent, five-star collection of stories.

Simak was a highly celebrated Grand Master of Science Fiction who garnered many awards during his long and prolific career, but he also wrote several westerns and a few war stories. Hence, each volume in the series has at least one western, which usually serves as a pleasant change of pace amidst all the time travel, sentient robots, and alien intelligences. In Volume 8, however, the featured western, “The Gunsmoke Drummer Sells a War,” is a full-length novella, and while it is a perfectly fine example of the genre, there’s nothing really exceptional about it. Another lengthy entry, “Reunion on Ganymede,” is a comedic sci-fi piece from early in Simak’s career, and the humor tends to veer a little tiringly toward the slapstick. These two works, however, are minor speed bumps in what is otherwise a wonderful collection of science fiction.

In one of his insightful story introductions, editor David W. Wixon points out that Simak was often seen as the “pastoralist of science fiction.” Simak grew up in rural Wisconsin and went on to become a journalist in Minneapolis. His stories are often set in the areas in which he lived and feature ordinary Midwesterners as heroes. In Simak’s stories one often finds a heartfelt attention to nature that comes from a writer with a rural upbringing. The main character in the story “Brother,” for example, is a reclusive nature writer, like some future Thoreau. “Kindergarten” is a tale of alien visitation on a Wisconsin farm in Simak’s neck of the woods. “Galactic Chest” offers a lighthearted look at the daily grind of a struggling newspaper reporter. With such references to his own life, Simak grounds his visionary science fiction in our reality, while rendering his characters and settings with a naturalistic style that calls to mind great American writers like Willa Cather or John Steinbeck.

In brief vignettes like “Senior Citizen” and “Death Scene,” Simak shows he’s capable of conjuring up dismal dystopian visions of the future, which are always keenly cutting in their indictment of mankind’s faults. The title selection, “Good Night, Mr. James” is a scary and suspenseful thriller set in one such future. More often than not, however, Simak tempers his darker speculations with an earnest hopefulness for mankind’s ability to overcome our own self-destructive tendencies. “Census,” one of the stories that would later become part of Simak’s novel City, is one such tale of cautious optimism. Stories like “Kindergarten” and “Galactic Chest” find hope in the possibility of aid from a benevolent universe, as does “Auk House,” a surprising masterpiece that starts out like a Stephen King novel (it’s even set in New England), and ends up taking an unexpectedly bizarre turn into intelligently imaginative science fiction.

Although it’s possible to quibble about which volume or which story is better than another, I really don’t think there’s a bad book in this outstanding series. Simak was a phenomenal writer, and Wixon has really done a great job compiling these books.

Stories in this collection
Good Night, Mr. James 
Senior Citizen
The Gunsmoke Drummer Sells a War 
Reunion on Ganymede 
Galactic Chest
Death Scene 
Auk House

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Friday, May 26, 2017

The Abbé Aubain and Mosaics by Prosper Mérimée

Exotic tales of mystery and history
Prosper Mérimée
This collection of short stories by French author Prosper Mérimée was first published in English in 1903. The 12 stories it contains were originally published in French from 1829 to 1870. The title of the collection is a bit confusing. As one might expect, “The Abbé Aubain” is the title of one of Mérimée’s short stories. Mosaics, on the other hand is the title of a collection of short fiction by Mérimée published as Mosaïque in 1833. Half of the stories in this volume come from that collection. However, there are another five stories included here that have nothing to do with the Mosaics collection. That’s an important point to note because a few of these non-Mosaics stories happen to be among the best entries in the collection.

Mérimée is probably best known for his novella Carmen (not included here), upon which the opera of the same name, composed by Bizet, is based. Mérimée is a Romanticist in style. His stories often take place in exotic settings, which he depicts with encyclopedic cultural erudition. His stories frequently contain elements of horror, and at times approach the Gothic macabre atmosphere of Edgar Allen Poe. The English-language author that Mérimée’s stories most immediately call to mind, however, is the non-Sherlock Holmes work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as seen in such collections as Tales of Terror and Mystery. Both Conan Doyle and Mérimée had a fascination with mysticism and the occult, and both had a keen interest in antiquities, often basing a story of mystery and suspense around an ancient statue, vase, or curio. Mérimée was such a connoisseur of artifacts, in fact, that the French government made him inspector general of historical monuments.

To be honest, I wasn’t too impressed with this collection at first. “The Abbé Aubain” is an epistolary story that is engaging enough for most of its length, but then falters with an anticlimactic conclusion, a problem that’s not unique to this entry. While Mérimée proves himself quite adept at building atmosphere and suspense, too many of the stories suffer from weak and abrupt endings. For example, in “Mateo Falcone,” perhaps the most renowned story in this volume, Mérimée goes to great lengths to develop intriguing characters while capturing the essence of Corsican country life. The story builds to a powerful and shocking climax, but then in the snap of the fingers it’s done, almost as if to say, “So what?” Next up, “The Vision of Charles XI” offers a chillingly spooky scene, then fizzles to a halt with a matter-of-fact explanation of what it symbolizes. “The Game of Backgammon” deliberately deprives the reader of an ending, as if Mérimée is taunting us. The one story from among the Mosaics selections that’s truly outstanding is “Tamango,” a thrilling and tragic drama set aboard a slave ship.

Despite its rocky start, the book redeems itself in its second half with three ingenious first-class chillers, loaded with suspense and dripping with Romantic ambience, that represent Mérimée at his best. In “The Venus of Ille,” an archaeologist goes on a sketching trip through the French region of Roussillon. In “Lokis,” a particularly superb tale, a philologist travels to a Lithuanian castle to translate a biblical text into an obscure dialect. In “The ‘Viccolo’ of Madam Lucrezia,” a young Frenchman ventures to Rome, where he becomes intimately familiar with centuries-old legends of Lucrezia Borgia. All three meet with the strange and unexpected, as does the reader who chooses to follow them. Mérimée doesn’t score a hit when every story, but when he does, one gets an enchanting thrill ride through some offbeat and arcane corners of history and art.

Stories in this collection
The Abbé Aubain 
Mateo Falcone
The Vision of Charles XI 
How We Stormed the Fort
The Game of Backgammon
The Etruscan Vase 
The Venus of Ille
The Blue Chamber
The “Viccolo” of Madam Lucrezia 

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Essays Towards a Theory of Knowledge by Alexander Philip

“Towards,” perhaps, but never gets there
Essays Towards a Theory of Knowledge was originally published in 1915. The author, Alexander Philip, was a Scottish lawyer best known for his advocacy of calendar reform. Among other modifications to the Gregorian calendar, he proposed taking a day from August and adding it to February and permanently fixing the date of Easter. You may wonder how someone of Philip’s background would end up writing a philosophical treatise on the workings of the human mind. After reading his book, I’m still asking myself that question.

Essays Towards a Theory of Knowledge offers an in-depth investigation into epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge. To what extent do our sense perceptions accurately represent reality? Is our faculty of reasoning entirely dependent on sense data or are we born with some form of innate knowledge? How do we judge the accuracy of our perceptions and thoughts? These concerns of epistemology are some of the questions that Philip addresses in this book. The fundamental dilemma of epistemology goes back to Plato and Aristotle, whose doctrines of idealism and empiricism, respectively, differed on whether we have an innate understanding of abstract concepts or whether all our knowledge is derived from sense data. Later philosophers have tried to reconcile these two opposing viewpoints, and here Philip puts his two cents in.

I hesitate to offer a summary of Philip’s argument because I must confess I really did not understand a great deal of it. His prose is written in such convoluted syntax, it is extremely difficult to follow his labyrinthine train of thought. The universe is made up of energy, which is constantly transmuting itself into different forms. So far, so good, if one thinks of matter as a form of potential energy. Not only do we perceive this universe of energy, we are a part of it. “It is only by a visual fiction that we come to regard our active selves as distinct from the dynamic system.” Philip goes to great lengths to emphasize that we experience reality not only with our senses but also through activity, exertion, dynamism. We form a conception of space by moving through it. “The laws of space, therefore, are laws, so to speak, of motion, not of position.” Philip draws heavily on Kant’s theory of a priori knowledge and on Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the Will. The way he states his case is so confusing, however, it is hard to tell exactly where he agrees or disagrees with them. Even the most fundamental aspects of Philip’s philosophy is vague. Throughout the entire book he seemed to be describing a form of materialism (or rather, energism), until the very end, when he mentions Spirit for the first time, as if it were an established fact. Though I don’t claim to understand Philip’s book, I will say that I didn’t recognize any new ideas that I hadn’t encountered in the works of better known philosophers. Philip’s contribution to the field reads more like mere hair-splitting of terminology rather than any unique view on the subject.

A real philosopher would no doubt get more out of this book than I, but would probably rather be reading Kant, Schopenhauer, Hume, Locke, or any of the other philosophers Philip draws from. For the curious armchair philosopher less well-versed in epistemology, I would suggest Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy, which is much more accessible in its delivery and more rewarding in its conclusions.
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Monday, May 22, 2017

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A delightful dozen
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, originally published in 1892, is the first collection of short stories featuring the world’s most famous detective. This volume contains the first 12 Holmes stories that were published in The Strand Magazine from June 1891 to July 1892, following the publication of two Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of the Four (1890). The stories included here may not be the absolute 12 best adventures of Holmes and Watson, but there are several here that certainly rank among their greatest cases. Overall, this is the best of the five collections of Holmes stories published during Conan Doyle’s lifetime.

The collection opens with “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which is famous for introducing the character of Irene Adler, perhaps the only woman who could have been a match for Holmes. Another choice selection, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” has been the top-rated Holmes story in numerous reader polls, and Conan Doyle himself chose the story as his personal favorite. Personally, I didn’t find the mystery in that case all that baffling, but it is a great suspense story with delightfully spooky atmosphere. A few other cases, like “The Man with the Twisted Lip” and “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” are not too difficult to figure out, given the clues that Conan Doyle provides, but it doesn’t really matter because the storytelling is so good. What sets these adventures apart from those of so many other fictional detectives are the complex, well-developed recurring characters and the entertaining process they go through to follow each mystery to its conclusion. Even the supporting casts are well-drawn; clients and criminals alike often have rich back stories and compelling motivations for their actions. Of course, if its a baffling puzzle you want, there are plenty of ingenious crimes to be had as well. “The Red-Headed League” is one of Conan Doyle’s most original creations, a case so wonderfully bizarre one can’t help but laugh, while “The Five Orange Pips” is an example of a darker, more sinister murder case.

Although the Holmes stories have served as a template for countless imitators and subsequent detective literature, what makes the Holmes stories so wonderful is that Conan Doyle never allowed them to get formulaic. Each is unique in tone, approach, and plot structure. In the rich fictional world he created, the narrative possibilities are endless and unpredictable. Sometimes a client comes to Baker Street seeking help, and sometimes Holmes and Watson simply fall into a case by accident. In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” Holmes starts out trying to a return a misplaced Christmas goose to its rightful owner, and ends up stumbling upon a jewel heist.

If you’re only going to read one Sherlock Holmes book, this should be it. The only other possible contenders would be A Study in Scarlet, which introduced the characters, or The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is Holmes’s greatest adventure in novel form. The short stories, however, with their concise focus on the puzzling cases and deductive detective work, come closer than the novels to the popular conception of Sherlock Holmes that one finds in the film adaptations. If you’re familiar with Conan Doyle’s works, then you likely already know how good this book is and should treat yourself by reading it again. I would go so far as to say this may be the best collection of short stories in the English language. When judged not only on literary quality but also on popularity, influence on subsequent literature, and prominence in the world’s cultural consciousness, I think it would be tough to argue otherwise.

Stories in this collection
A Scandal in Bohemia 
The Red-Headed League
A Case of Identity 
The Boscombe Valley Mystery
The Five Orange Pips 
The Man with the Twisted Lip
The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle 
The Adventure of the Speckled Band
The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb
The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor
The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet 
The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Adaptation by Mack Reynolds

Civilizing the interstellar diaspora
Adaptation, a novella by science fiction author Mack Reynolds, was originally published in the August 1960 issue of Astounding Science Fact and Fiction magazine. The story takes place in a distant future in which mankind has branched out from Earth to colonize other planets throughout the galaxy. After a thousand years of such colonization, human civilizations exist on numerous worlds but in different stages of development. Now, for the first time, the Office of Galactic Colonization sends out an expeditionary team to make contact with some of these civilizations. The goal is to help these extraterrestrial societies reach a level of modernization at which they can become productive members of the Galactic Commonwealth.

To this end, the ship Pedagogue travels to the Rigel system to examine two planets located there, which are referred to as Genoa and Texcoco. The former has reached a stage of technological and economic development similar to that of medieval Europe, while the latter is roughly analogous to the civilizations of pre-Columbian Mexico. Over the course of the long trip to Rigel, the scientists of the exploratory team argue long and hard over the proper methods for modernizing the two planets. With no consensus reached, the two opposing factions of the expedition agree to divide their forces into two teams, each of which will attempt to stimulate the development of one of the two planets. In this way, the mission becomes a competition between the two parties to see who can bring their planet to a more advanced state of development. The Genoan team decides to spur development by instituting a system of free-market capitalism, while the team on Texcoco opts to impel industrialization by establishing a form of totalitarian communism.

It’s not difficult to see this as a metaphor for the Cold War, with Genoa standing in for the United States while Texcoco functions as a surrogate for Soviet Russia. The clash between capitalist and socialist ideologies is a frequent topic of discussion in Reynolds’s writings. Here he portrays both systems in a cynical matter, quick to point out the deficiencies and faults of each while bestowing little praise on the merits of either. Both sides in this game of empire building are guilty of ethical transgressions. They are, after all, here to exploit the resources and populations of these two worlds, much like, as Reynolds seems to propose, the imperialist governments of Earth exploit the resources and labor of their own colonies and workers. While neither side is portrayed sympathetically, Reynolds clearly makes the Texcocans/Russians the more evil of the two, which is not too surprising given he was probably using the regime of Stalin as a model.

It’s fascinating to watch as these two societies develop over time. Every ten years the two teams meet on the mother ship to compare progress reports in a series of meetings that become more belligerent and militant as time goes on. While the scientists from Earth manipulate their planetary societies like masters in a chess game, the inhabitants of the two worlds are reluctant to play their roles as pawns. The ending delivers a surprise that the reader is unlikely to see coming.

Having read several of Reynolds’s novellas and short stories, I have found his work to be hit-and-miss, but Adaptation is one of the good ones. Skillfully combining high-brow sociological theory with low-brow pulp fiction entertainment, it makes for a fun and thought-provoking read.
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