Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Gadfly by Ethel Lilian Voynich

The romance of revolution
The Gadfly, published in 1897, is a novel by Irish author Ethel Lilian Voynich. The story takes place in Italy during the 1840s, in the period known as the Risorgimento, when Italy was under occupation by Austria. Despite its author and subject matter, the book was never a big hit in Ireland or Italy, but because of its leftist revolutionary themes it enjoyed an immense popularity and sold millions of copies in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

The novel opens at a theological seminary in Pisa, where English student Arthur Burton is studying with his mentor, Padre Montanelli. The teacher considers the young man one of his finest pupils, and the two enjoy a close relationship. Their peaceful monastic existence is shattered, however, when Arthur confesses to the padre that he wants to abandon his studies in order to fight for the Italian resistance against Austria. From that point forward, the plot of The Gadfly is difficult to summarize without spoiling, though most of the “surprises” are foreshadowed by Voynich far in advance. The plot eventually moves to Florence to focus on the subversive activities of an underground cell of political agitators plotting the revolution.

The Gadfly, to which the title refers, is the pen name of a writer for the revolutionary cause. This mysterious adventurer from South America pens propaganda in the form of scathing satire. As in The Count of Monte Cristo, The Scarlet Pimpernel, or The Mark of Zorro, the secret identity of the Gadfly is painfully obvious from the start. It’s hard to believe that Voynich would really think her audience couldn’t see the truth, yet throughout the book she treats this detail as if it were a secret. The exasperated reader waits for the other characters in the book to discover what he or she has already long known. The result is that those characters come across as not very smart, like Lois Lane and company not realizing that Superman is Clark Kent with glasses.

The Gadfly often reads like a manual for how revolutionaries should conduct themselves, which probably explains its popularity during periods of radical unrest. The character of the Gadfly serves as an example of how to respond irreverently to torture, how to scoff intelligently at the church, how to nobly undertake suicide missions for the cause, and so on. The tone of the book has a romantic pomposity that resembles a propaganda poster from a Communist regime. There is another side to Romanticism, however, that doesn’t really work with this subject matter. Despite the Gadfly’s strident and steadfast devotion to the cause, he is also hopelessly histrionic in his emotional outbursts. While fighting for the cause of a nation, he spends an awful lot of time crying over his personal problems. The climax of the book is a ridiculously overwrought tearjerker, like the overly protracted death scene of an annoyingly melodramatic opera. Also, though the Gadfly spouts plenty of potent anti-church rhetoric and atheist invective, the book is loaded with so much Christian imagery it’s difficult to figure out which side of that argument Voynich is really on. By making the Gadfly a Christ figure, aren’t you simultaneously glorifying Christ?

I love a good freedom fighter story as much as anyone, but this one could have used less romance and more realism. Still, it is an interesting piece of radical fiction, and if nothing else the overly theatrical bits lend a bit of Victorian Era kitsch value. Though millions of Russians may differ with me, The Gadfly is no masterpiece, but it’s an OK read for left-leaning readers who are into this sort of thing.
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Friday, June 23, 2017

Hania by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Assorted selections from the master’s sketchbook
Hania is the title of an 1876 novella by Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz. It is also the name of a collection of short fiction by Sienkiewicz published in English in 1897. As is usually the case with Sienkiewicz’s works, the ten short stories included in the collection were translated by Jeremiah Curtin. The selections are a mixed bag featuring subject matter that readers of Sienkiewicz’s better-known novels will find familiar. In fact, in some cases the pieces included here served as preliminary sketches for the author’s greatest novels.

The title selection, “Hania,” is an autobiographical story, although likely embellished with Sienkiewicz’s Romantic flair. When an old family servant dies, Sienkiewicz assumes responsibility for the man’s granddaughter by welcoming her as a sister into the family. As time goes on, however, his feelings for her become more than brotherly. This story starts out as a very interesting glimpse into the privileges and obligations of a Polish nobleman. As the plot progresses, however, Sienkiewicz’s picture of himself becomes more unflattering as he behaves in stupid and petty ways. The story ends on an unsatisfying note of blunt realism uncharacteristic of the author.

A more successful effort is “Tartar Captivity,” a violent piece of historical fiction about a 17th-century impoverished noble who goes off to fight the Tartars in the Ukraine. This piece is a worthy precursor to Sienkiewicz’s famous trilogy of With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Michael. Another good selection is the short story “The Organist of Ponikla” which eschews historical grandeur in favor of a more personal, intimate focus. “Lux in Tenebris Lucet” is another pretty good offering with a solemn atmosphere and poignant plot, but it settles for a rather easy religious ending. The volume closes with “That Third Woman,” an enjoyable comic piece about an artist who finds fame and fortune overnight, and the effect his newfound notoriety has on his love life.

The less successful entries include “Let Us Follow Him,” a rather dull retelling of the crucifixion of Christ that can be seen as a preliminary work to Sienkiewicz’s religious opus Quo Vadis. “Be Thou Blessed” is a blessedly brief Hindu fable that gratifies the Romantic’s taste for the exotic. “At the Source” and “On the Bright Shore” are both dreary romances which annoy with their unlikable characters and overdramatic touches. Lastly, in “Charcoal Sketches,” a municipal functionary schemes to force a rival into military conscription in order to make advances to the man’s wife. Though Sienkiewicz tries to be funny by satirizing corruption at various levels of government, the broad humor never gels with the unpleasant events, and the whole thing just comes across as mean-spirited and overdone.

Though the tone of these works varies from dreary fatalism to lighthearted comedy, Sienkiewicz’s devotion to Romanticism is evident throughout, sometimes to the point of detriment to the stories he’s telling. This is a long book, and over its course you start to feel bogged down with the pomposity of classical literary references, tortured artists, and inflexible codes of honor. When he starts to make fun of such pretensions in “That Third Woman,” it’s quite a relief, but that’s the last stop on an exhausting trip. Overall, there’s no denying that these short pieces are not as strong as Sienkiewicz’s long-form masterpieces. Only the most diehard of Sienkiewicz fans, seeking to consume his complete works, need bother with this collection.

Stories in this collection
Hania (includes a Prologue to Hania: The Old Servant) 
Tartar Captivity 
Let Us Follow Him
Be Thou Blessed 
At the Source 
Charcoal Sketches 
The Organist of Ponikla
Lux in Tenebris Lucet 
On the Bright Shore 
That Third Woman

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Monday, June 19, 2017

The Tower Treasure by Franklin W. Dixon

A rather bland debut
The Tower Treasure, originally published in 1927, is the first book in the Hardy Boys series of mysteries for juvenile readers. I read dozens of these books when I was a kid, though I don’t think I ever read The Tower Treasure back then. Purists will point out that the original story by Dixon was significantly altered in the 1959 edition. The latter version is the one that I read, and the one I’m reviewing here. I was looking for a chapter book to read with my seven-year-old son, and I thought I’d give the Hardy Boys a try. He reacted rather unenthusiastically to the book, and surprisingly, reading the Boys myself after all these years, so did I.

Frank and Joe Hardy, students at Bayport High, are sons of the renowned detective Fenton Hardy. When their friend Chet Morton’s yellow jalopy is stolen, the boys decide to try their hand at their father’s trade and solve the mystery themselves. In the course of their investigation, a more substantial robbery takes place as $40,000 worth of jewelry and securities is stolen from the Tower Mansion, the palatial residence of the aged Applegate siblings. The Hardy Boys uncover evidence that the same thief perpetrated both crimes, but Hurd Applegate, the cranky old rich man who was robbed, blames the theft on his servant Mr. Robinson, whose son is a classmate of Frank and Joe’s. The boys must solve the mystery to clear their friend’s father and collect the $1,000 reward.

As one might expect, given the time period in which the book was published, The Tower Treasure is a wholesome adventure story imbued with the conservative family values of a bygone era. Everyone in the book is white, mothers don’t work, and that sort of thing. No surprises there. What was unexpected, however, is the classism running throughout the book, with the repeated implication that poor people are evil. When Mr. Robinson loses his job and the family has to take lodgings on the wrong side of the tracks, Frank and Joe just can’t get over what a horrible a fate that is. The Hardys and the families they associate with are virtuous members of the upper middle class, and anyone beneath their station is depicted as seedy and shifty. There’s a rival detective named Oscar Smuff, for instance, who is also vying for the reward. With his shabby clothes and bad manners, he’s the representative of white trash, and thus the Hardy Boys and their friends are justified in deceiving him and making him the butt of their jokes.

These offenses are slight, however, compared to just how boring the book is. Rather than a progressive string of discoveries that builds suspense, chapter after chapter goes by with nary a clue in sight. It’s like an Encyclopedia Brown story that’s been stretched out to 180 pages. Because the plot was significantly altered in the 1959 revision, perhaps the publisher is to blame rather than the author. Or maybe because this is their first case, as often happens the origin story is just not as exciting as the subsequent adventures. Nevertheless, this book deserves some credit for starting the series that has captivated so many young readers. I have fond memories of the Hardy Boys exploring underground caverns, climbing mountains, or flying planes, but there was little excitement in this debut. As my son and I read through it, he repeatedly complained of being bored. Nevertheless, to my surprise, he picked out another Hardy Boys book at the used book store, so it looks like I will be moving on to book two, The House on the Cliff. I hope it delivers more thrills than The Tower Treasure.
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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Erewhon by Samuel Butler

The books-within-the-book are better than the book itself
Erewhon, a novel by Samuel Butler, was originally published anonymously in 1872. Though often described as a utopian novel, it is a satirical take on the genre that satirizes English society during the Victorian Era. The unnamed narrator leaves England to manage a sheep ranch in a distant land, likewise unnamed. While overseeing his flocks, he becomes curious about the country that exists beyond the adjacent mountain range. Despite discouraging warnings from his native employee, Chowbok, the narrator decides to explore the uncharted territory in hopes of discovering a possibly lucrative commercial enterprise in trade or resource extraction.

After five chapters of walking, he enters into the unknown nation, known by its inhabitants as Erewhon. The Erewhonians do not welcome this outsider with open arms, but they do treat him relatively hospitably and assign him to a sort of probationary house arrest under the supervision of the Nosnibor family. The traveler quickly learns the language of his hosts and soon discovers marked differences between Erewhonian society and the customs of the outside world. In Erewhon, for instance, illness is considered a crime, while criminals are treated as if they were ill.

Variations on this one theme take up half the book. Butler beats the sick/criminal dichotomy like a dead horse, taking it into realms of absurdity that call to mind the satirical humor of Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, only not as funny. Butler then goes on to lampoon the banking system, organized religion, and higher education, among other topics. Perhaps I had too much hope for a real utopian novel, but I kept expecting the criticism to eventually become constructive, and it never did. Instead it just seemed to get more and more pointless. If I were a 19th-century Englishman I might consider this a work of genius, but as a 21st-century American, much of the humor was lost on me, and I found the book very tedious.

Thankfully, there were exceptions. One interesting aspect of Erewhon is that although they at one time had the capability to produce advanced technology, they decided as a society to voluntarily shun machinery in favor of a more medieval existence. A major reason for this opting towards Luddism is attributed to the publication of a volume called "The Book of the Machines," which is summarized in Chapters 23 to 25. The author of this fictional tome proposes that machines have begun to exhibit signs of Darwinian evolution, and he warns that eventually they will gain consciousness and rebel against humanity. These chapters are a fascinating and well-reasoned speculation on artificial intelligence. Even in the 19th century, Butler was prescient enough to presage Skynet from the Terminator movies and the Butlerian Jihad from Frank Herbert’s Dune books (Butlerian/Butler: Coincidence or not?). This is the most successful portion of Butler’s book precisely because it makes the least effort to be funny.

Butler follows this with a farcical look at vegetarianism vs. carnivorism vs. veganism, which serves to mock the prevailing anthropocentric worldview. In Chapter 27, however, an Erewhonian philosopher expounds on the intelligence of plants in an essay which is just as ingenious and thought-provoking as "The Book of the Machines." It is in these books-within-the-book, which break away from the main narrative, where Butler’s writing really shines. The rest of Erewhon I really didn’t care for. I would encourage readers to read these exceptional sections as independent essays and just skip the rest.
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Friday, June 9, 2017

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Provokes more curiosity than it satisfies
In his 2009 book, The Lost City of Z, journalist David Grann details the life and career of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer renowned a century ago for his daring journeys into the wilderness of the Amazon River region. Through the process of exploring and mapping uncharted regions of Brazil and Bolivia, Fawcett became obsessed with the possibility of finding the rumored lost city­ of an advanced Amazonian civilization­. In quest of this city—which he referred to as “Z”—Fawcett disappeared into the rain forest with his son and a family friend, never to return. Grann chronicles not only Fawcett’s life and adventures, but also the subsequent Fawcett followers who likewise ventured into uncharted territory hoping to uncover the fabled Z or perhaps even Fawcett himself. After interviewing James Lynch, who conducted one such expedition in 1996, Grann launches his own Fawcett-finding mission in hopes of unraveling the mystery of Z.

I liked this book overall, but given all the hype it got, I expected more. I have a healthy curiosity regarding the ancient civilizations of the Americas, so I consider myself predisposed towards this subject matter. When the book is a biography of Fawcett, it works well. Grann appears to have done copious research, and his account of Fawcett’s life provides a vivid glimpse into the heroics, chutzpah, and hubris of an Edwardian-era explorer. The contemporary vignettes that deal with Grann’s and Lynch’s forays into the Amazon, however, are less successful and only distract from the main narrative. The whole treasure hunt aspect of the book feels forced, like a Brazilian DaVinci Code, and ultimately yields little payoff. Grann goes out of his way to make it clear how inexperienced he is in jungle exploration. This seems calculated to make the reader identify with him, but instead it only raises the question of what qualifies Grann to relate this story and conduct this investigation into the existence of Z. In terms of journalistic quality, Grann’s travelogue of Brazil doesn’t measure up to the average National Geographic article.

As exciting as this story is, I can’t say I was ever really riveted by Grann’s writing, which is not nearly as compelling as that of Charles Mann, who tackled similar subject matter in his books 1491 and 1493. In fact, when all is said and done, the conclusions Grann draws at the end of this book are just a brief distillation of the ideas Mann put forward in 1491, a fascinating and comprehensive investigation into the state of American civilizations before Columbus. For those interested in what the inhabited Amazon might have been like before white men arrived, 1491 is a must-read. Mann’s book, though more scientific journalism than adventure narrative, was so exciting I never wanted it to end; with Grann’s, however, I eventually got to a point where I just wanted to be done with it. Through most of The Lost City of Z, I couldn’t help thinking that I would rather be reading Fawcett’s own writings rather than Grann’s take on them. In that sense, I consider this book valuable for turning me on to this episode in history and providing me with a bibliography for further reading.

Although I don’t consider this book a masterpiece, the bestseller lists could use more books like The Lost City of Z. It is definitely a worthy read for armchair archaeologists, and if it gets more people interested in the archaeology and history of the Americas and the political and environmental issues of the Amazon region, then Grann has performed a valuable service.
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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Diff’rent by Eugene O’Neill

A cautionary tale of romantic idealism
Eugene O’Neill
Diff’rent is a two-act drama by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill that was first published in 1921. The story takes place in a New England fishing port, where, not surprisingly for an O’Neill play, all the male characters are sailors. Emma Crosby, the protagonist of this drama, is in love with one of these sailors, Caleb Williams, a young captain of his own vessel. The two are due to be wed in a few days. Having grown up amid sailors and the sailing life, Emma has become accustomed to the ways of rough men, but when it comes to the man she loves, she insists that Caleb is “diff’rent” from the rest. Though he resists being put on a pedestal, she insists he has a truer heart and a more sensitive soul than the average specimen of malekind. While the other women in town resign themselves to a “What happens at sea, stays at sea” attitude in regard to their men’s activities in foreign ports, Emma aspires to a higher ideal of love which requires no such compromise. When she hears rumors to the effect that Caleb may not be living up to her lofty standards of romance, she exhibits a zero tolerance policy towards deviation from her ideal. Though her moral righteousness may be admirable, will she ultimately live to regret it?

The two scenes in this drama take place 30 years apart and represent the before and after pictures of Emma’s idealistic intractability. While the early scene is somewhat picturesque and hopeful in tone, the latter half of the play takes a decided turn towards the dark. With rare exceptions, O’Neill was not a feel-good playwright. The power of his plays generally relies on his ability to examine the darker sides of human nature. For today’s readers, Diff’rent reminds one of the misanthropic themes and callous characters one finds in a Neil LaBute film. O’Neill not only shatters illusions of romantic love, but escalates the harboring of such illusions to a form of insanity. If this play were produced today, it’s likely O’Neill’s depiction of Emma as obdurate and foolish would be criticized as a misogynistic bitterness toward women, but in this day and age there’s no reason why the genders of the roles couldn’t be switched. It’s more a play against the irrationality and impracticality of love than against women.

Given the abundance of masterpieces in O’Neill’s body of work, it’s unlikely Diff’rent is going to draw anyone’s attention away from Anna Christie, The Iceman Cometh, or Long Days Journey into Night. Nevertheless, amid the catalog of lesser-known works in this master playwright’s catalog, Diff’rent is a noteworthy entry. It is an engaging and thought-provoking read, and relatively brief and brisk compared to O’Neill’s more celebrated opuses. If you’re a newcomer to O’Neill’s plays, you would be better off starting with one of his “greatest hits,” but if you are already a fan of his dramas, this one is worth a look.
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Monday, June 5, 2017

Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown, Volume 1 by DC Comics

The prototypical fantastic four
Showcase is the name of a long-running anthology series from DC Comics that often introduced new characters on a trial basis before they were considered worthy of their own series. Showcase Presents is the title of the series of trade paperbacks in which DC now reprints their classic comics in black and white collections. This volume, published in 2006, collects the first adventures of the hero team The Challengers of the Unknown, starting with their appearances in Showcase issues 6, 7, 11, and 12, which ran from 1957 to early 1958. After that, they were granted their own series, the first 17 issues of which are also reprinted here, running through January of 1961.

The Challengers arrived a little too early to be part of the Silver Age superhero renaissance led by Marvel Comics in the early 1960s, but they could be considered precursors to it. The team was created by superhero artist extraordinaire Jack Kirby, possibly in collaboration with writer Dave Wood. The Challengers are four tough guys who, after having survived a plane crash, consider themselves living on “borrowed time” and decide to devote their lives to facing danger, solving bizarre mysteries, and combatting unusual menaces. The roster includes pilot Ace Morgan, champion wrestler Rocky Davis, underwater explorer Prof Haley, and circus acrobat (later described as mountain climber) Red Ryan. Though not endowed with superpowers, the team bears a nascent resemblance to the Fantastic Four, not only in quantity and matching suits but also in the brand of science fiction dangers they face.

The main attraction of the early Challengers adventures is Kirby’s art. His visual storytelling is superb, his panels action-packed, and he populates each page with a wondrously visionary array of awesome extraterrestrial beasts and stunning futuristic technology. The stories, on the other hand, are nothing to write home about. In a typical issue, the four encounter an evil scientist who digs up some ancient relics that grant him superpowers or allow him to conjure up giant monsters. Another common plot device is an alien who comes to Earth to enlist the Challengers’ help in fighting an evil mad scientist on his own planet. Though utterly predictable, what makes these stories enjoyable is the audacious imagination and hyperbolic rhetoric with which each peril is drawn and described. The most disappointing thing about the early Challengers stories is that, despite their various areas of expertise, there’s little to distinguish one team member from another, and they never disagree on anything. The key method of identifying each Challenger seems to have been hair color, which of course doesn’t help those reading these comics in black and white.

Kirby left the Challengers series after issue #8 (June/July 1959), which is about halfway through this volume. From that point on, the creative duties were taken over by artist Bob Brown and a writer unknown. Brown is a more than competent comics artist for the era, but needless to say he doesn’t measure up to King Kirby. The stories also get noticeably less exciting in the second half of the book. Surprisingly, however, once Kirby leaves, the Challengers begin to behave more like the Fantastic Four! Red Ryan assumes the mischievous personality of the FF’s Johnny Storm, while Rocky Davis becomes the spitting image of Ben Grimm. The prankster picks on the big lug, while the latter promises to clobber the former. This starts around 1959, two years before Kirby would cocreate the Fantastic Four. The Challengers comics don’t quite measure up to Kirby’s later greatness, but they are an interesting episode in comics history, particularly for those who enjoy DC’s science fiction comics of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The Kirby material merits a rating of four stars, while the post-Kirby stories are only good for about three.
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Friday, June 2, 2017

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume

Assume nothing
David Hume
Published in 1748, David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding was intended to be a more accessible distillation of his earlier work A Treatise of Human Nature. Given that this is a philosophical treatise written in the mid-18th century, just how accessible could it be? The answer is surprisingly so, at least for its first half. Hume explains his theory of epistemology clearly and logically in straightforward language free of undefined philosophical jargon. Each chapter builds upon the one before, so over the course of the book the concepts discussed become more complex and the line of reasoning more serpentine.

In his philosophy of human thought, Hume argues in favor of empiricism and skepticism. He asserts that we can only learn from experience. All ideas are formed from the building blocks of sensory information. Although by witnessing phenomena around us we make judgments about cause-and-effect relationships, these are merely assumptions. Because the forces by which one event directly influences another are unseen, we can never truly be 100% certain of the connection between adjacent events. Nevertheless, we can through custom or habit judge the probability of cause-and-effect relationships based on the number and frequency of like occurrences we have experienced in the past. Though he asserts that some knowledge of reality will never be attainable by mankind, Hume goes on to clarify that an excessive skepticism which overemphasizes the unreliability of ideas formed through custom only leads to a pointless end. Though mankind may ultimately be ignorant of how the world truly works, we nevertheless must rely on knowledge gained through custom in order to get through life. The important thing is to use our reason wisely and only trust in reasoning based on empirical data.

This is no doubt an important work in the history of philosophy, but is it essential reading for a 21st-century audience? I tend to be of a skeptical bent myself and agree with almost everything Hume is saying here, but in a way that makes the book less of a must-read in my eyes. Many of the points Hume makes fall under the heading of common sense, and even in this purportedly abbreviated work he has a tendency to beat those points like so many dead horses. Given that nothing can be taken for granted in philosophy, at some point someone had to address these points in a thoroughly detailed manner, and Hume certainly does that in this book. For that, we owe him a debt of gratitude. In his day, Hume’s empirical skepticism no doubt broke new ground and was considered highly heretical, but most rationalists today would probably take many of his assertions for granted. Unless you’re a philosopher looking for quotes to support your own thesis, I’m not sure this is a necessary read. The general philosophically minded reader could circumvent Hume’s verbosity and likely glean the book’s main arguments just as well by perusing a reasonably detailed summary online.

One group of readers who might find pleasure in reading the Enquiry are atheists and freethinkers. In the book’s latter chapters, such as “Of miracles” and “Of a particular providence and of a future state,” Hume shoots down a lot of faulty reasoning made in the name of God, and not without a touch of humor. Those skeptics seeking ammunition for similar arguments will find a kindred spirit in Hume.
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