Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Journey to the Underground World by Lin Carter

A fun homage to Burroughs, Verne, and Conan Doyle
Science fiction and fantasy author Lin Carter’s 1979 novel Journey to the Underground World is the first book in his five-volume Zanthodon series. The story is narrated by Eric Carstairs, a modern-day swashbuckling adventurer in the mold of Han Solo or a precursor to Indiana Jones. In Egypt, Carstairs meets Professor Percival Potter, the sort of all-purpose Renaissance-man scientist one often encounters in these lost-world novels. Potter relates to Carstairs some legends he has turned up in his archaeological research that tell of an ancient, secret, underground world named Zanthodon. The professor hires Carstairs, a helicopter pilot, to fly him into the crater of a volcano in search of this mysterious lost world. Together, in one of the most bizarre helicopter flights ever, the two descend hundreds of miles beneath the surface of the earth to discover that the legends of Zanthodon are a reality. Beneath the Earth’s crust they find a hidden land populated by creatures long extinct in the surface world.

Carter was not the first to come up with the idea of a subsurface realm within a hollow Earth. Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, published in 1864, also depicted an underground world inhabited by prehistoric flora and fauna. That book is not Verne’s best work, and Carter’s is actually more exciting and enjoyable. Edgar Rice Burroughs also published seven novels on this premise, comprising the Pellucidar series, which I have not read. I can say, however, that Journey to the Underground World clearly pays homage to Burroughs’s Caspak series, consisting of The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot, and Out of Time’s Abyss. To a lesser extent, it is also reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Carter doesn’t make any attempt to hide these associations but embraces them and blatantly pays tribute to his predecessors. In several instances in the narration, Carstairs emphasizes the fantastic nature of his adventure, describing Zanthodon with such phrases as “It was like something out of Edgar Rice Burroughs.” For anyone who enjoys this genre of classic adventure fiction, Carter’s respectful tribute is very entertaining. He updates the thrills to suit the modern reader’s attention span, but never loses the pulp-fiction essence of the prior works he’s celebrating.

Conditions in Zanthodon are such that creatures of all time periods are allowed to mix and mingle in the ecosystem, so, for example, you might find a triceratops battling a woolly mammoth. As is usually the case in lost-world novels such as these, primitive humans are also prevalent. This allows Carter to satisfy the mandatory requirement for a scantily clad cavewoman, who delivers a cheesecake factor equivalent to Raquel Welch in the movie One Million Years B.C. At times Carter lays the naked-lady stuff on a little thick, making the reader wonder if he’s reading a book that was intended for 14-year-old boys to get off on. More often than not, however, the author skillfully handles the pulpy excesses of the genre to create a fun and entertaining read.

The book’s biggest fault is its ending, or rather, its lack thereof. Some very surprising developments take place in the final chapter, and then, like The Empire Strikes Back, it just ends with a cliffhanger. Burroughs’s Caspak novels did the same thing, so there is precedence for this decision on Carter’s part, but still it’s a let-down for the reader. As much as I enjoyed this book, I’m not sure I want to read five Zanthodon novels just to come to a resolution. On the bright side, they’re all available in one expensive ebook from Wildside Press, The Zanthodon Megapack.
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Monday, August 28, 2017

100 Five-Star Books

For what it’s worth . . .  
Old Books by Dead Guys has never posted a “Greatest Books of All-Time” list, and this certainly isn’t one. Such lists are admittedly biased and often annoying, yet they can serve the purpose of making readers aware of good works with which they are unfamiliar. I can’t promise you I’ll never compile such a list, but there are plenty of great books I’d want to read or reread before I attempt such a task. Instead, I humbly offer this admittedly miscellaneous list of 100 outstanding reads. 

Since its inception in January of 2012, I’ve posted 710 reviews on Old Books by Dead Guys. I've finally reached a critical mass of 100 books worthy of a 5-star rating. So browse through the list below, click on the titles to read the complete reviews, and if you find one or two books to add to your reading list, then I’ve done my job. 

Why so much Jack London and Emile Zola, you ask? One of the reasons for starting this blog in the first place was to review the complete works of these authors, and provide some perspective on their more obscure works, which I felt was lacking out in the Googleverse. You’ll also find a few pulp fiction novellas that would certainly never make it onto any list of great world literature, but for what they are, they’re excellent. Each book is judged according to its own genre. Try one and enjoy!

Literary Fiction

  1. Balzac, Honoré de. Cousin Bette
  2. Balzac, Honoré de. Père Goriot
  3. Balzac, Honoré de. Works of Honoré de Balzac (MobileReference Collected Works)
  4. Buck, Pearl S. The Good Earth
  5. Cather, Willa. My Ántonia
  6. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  7. Chesnutt, Charles W. The House Behind the Cedars
  8. Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. The Great Shadow
  9. Cooper, James Fenimore. Wyandotté
  10. Dumas, Alexandre. The Count of Monte Cristo
  11. Haldeman-Julius, Emanuel and Marcet. Dust
  12. Hamsun, Knut. Growth of the Soil
  13. Hugo, Victor. Ninety-Three
  14. Hugo, Victor. Notre-Dame de Paris
  15. London, Jack. The Call of the Wild
  16. London, Jack. The Faith of Men
  17. London, Jack. Martin Eden
  18. London, Jack. Moon-Face
  19. London, Jack. Novels and Social Writings (Library of America)
  20. London, Jack. The Portable Jack London. Edited by Earle Labor
  21. Melville, Herman. Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street
  22. Moore, Brian. Black Robe
  23. Norris, Frank. Novels and Essays (Library of America)
  24. Norris, Frank. The Octopus
  25. Prus, Boleslaw. The Returning Wave
  26. Reymont, Wladyslaw. The Peasants
  27. Rulfo, Juan. The Burning Plain
  28. Rulfo, Juan. Pedro Páramo
  29. Sienkiewicz, Henryk. The Deluge
  30. Sienkiewicz, Henryk. Pan Michael. a.k.a. Fire in the Steppe or Pan Wolodyjowski
  31. Sinclair, Upton. 100%: The Story of a Patriot
  32. Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle
  33. Vidal, Gore. Creation
  34. Zola, Emile. The Debacle
  35. Zola, Emile. The Earth (La Terre)
  36. Zola, Emile. The Flood
  37. Zola, Emile. Germinal
  38. Zola, Emile. L’Assomoir
  39. Zola, Emile. Paris
  40. Zola, Emile. Pot-Bouille. a.k.a. Pot Luck, Piping Hot, or Restless House

Science Fiction

  1. Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale
  2. Capek, Karel. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)
  3. Herbert, Frank. Dune
  4. London, Jack. Before Adam
  5. London, Jack. The Iron Heel
  6. Piper, H. Beam. The Edge of the Knife
  7. Piper, H. Beam. Flight from Tomorrow
  8. Piper, H. Beam. Genesis
  9. Piper, H. Beam. Omnilingual
  10. Piper, H. Beam. Police Operation
  11. Simak, Clifford D. The Big Front Yard and Other Stories
  12. Simak, Clifford D. A Death in the House and Other Stories
  13. Simak, Clifford D. Good Night, Mr. James and Other Stories
  14. Simak, Clifford D. I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories
  15. Simak, Clifford D. Mastodonia
  16. Wells, H. G. The Time Machine
  17. Williams, Jay and Raymond Abrashkin. Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint
  18. Wylie, Philip. Gladiator

Horror Fiction

  1. Lagerlöf, Selma. The Treasure
  2. Poe, Edgar Allen. Some Words with a Mummy
  3. Zola, Emile. The Death of Olivier Becaille

Mystery & Crime Fiction

  1. Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
  2. Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. The Hound of the Baskervilles
  3. Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. A Study in Scarlet
  4. Shaftel, George Armin. Mystery on Dead Man Reef
  5. Simenon, Georges. Dirty Snow
  6. Simenon, Georges. The Late Monsieur Gallet. a.k.a. Maigret Stonewalled
  7. Simenon, Georges. The Night at the Crossroads. a.k.a. The Crossroad Murders

Comics & Graphic Novels

  1. DC Comics. Showcase Presents: Strange Adventures, Volume 1
  2. Evanier, Mark. Kirby: King of Comics
  3. Miller, Frank. Sin City a.k.a. Sin City: The Hard Goodbye

Art & Art History

  1. Ainslie, Patricia. Images of the Land: Canadian Block Prints, 1919-1945
  2. Downs, Linda Banks, et al. Diego Rivera: A Retrospective
  3. Reesman, Jeanne Campbell. Jack London, Photographer
  4. Reyes Palma, Francisco. Leopoldo Mendéz: Oficio de Grabar
  5. Silcox, David P. The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson
  6. Stewart, Hilary. Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast
  7. Tomkins, Calvin. Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time

History & Archaeology

  1. Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West
  2. Foster, Lynn V. Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World
  3. Gray, Charlotte. Gold Diggers: Striking it Rich in the Klondike
  4. Heyerdahl, Thor. Kon-Tiki
  5. Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Biography & Memoir

  1. Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life
  2. Krakauer, John. Into the Wild
  3. Labor, Earle. Jack London: An American Life
  4. London, Jack. John Barleycorn
  5. London, Jack. The Road
  6. Reiss, Tom. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
  7. Wheeler, Joseph Mazzini. A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations

Science & Nature

  1. Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species
  2. Haeckel, Ernst. The Riddle of the Universe
  3. Stott, Carole, et al. Space: From Earth to the Edge of the Universe
  4. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden


  1. Epictetus. Discourses
  2. Irvine, William B. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
  3. Marcus Aurelius. Meditations
  4. Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy

Foreign Language

  1. DeFrancis, John. Beginning Chinese Reader (Parts I and II)
  2. DeFrancis, John. Intermediate Chinese Reader (Parts I and II)

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Red Thumb Mark by R. Austin Freeman

Edwardian era forensic science
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a lot of scientific detectives cropped up in the wake of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary success with Sherlock Holmes. Judging by The Red Thumb Mark, published in 1907, British author R. Austin Freeman’s detective Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke is one of the better fictional sleuths to emulate Holmes. This book is the first in a series of 22 novels and 40 short stories starring Thorndyke which Freeman published through 1942.

The story is narrated by Christopher Jervis, a medical doctor. In the opening chapter he runs into Dr. Thorndyke, a professional colleague and former coworker. Thorndyke has left the practice of medicine to become a medical-legal consultant, essentially an expert witness who uses scientific investigation to assist in legal cases. He invites Jervis to assist him in his latest case, and Jervis agrees. An Englishman by the name of John Hornby, who works for a company that operates mines in South Africa, is entrusted by his employer with the safekeeping of some diamonds. Being too late to deposit the precious stones in a bank, Hornby puts them in his home safe for the night. The next morning the diamonds are gone. A finger print in blood is found at the scene, which points to Hornby’s nephew Reuben Hornby as the primary suspect. Thorndyke has been hired by the defense to help exonerate the accused.

At first, Thorndyke comes across as an obvious knockoff of Holmes, or rather, Jervis is a blatant imitation of Holmes’s sidekick Dr. John Watson. Both are medical doctors and narrators. Both are mystified by the methods of the detectives they shadow, who only reveal to them the bare minimum of information, so as to keep them bewildered until the final reveal. In The Red Thumb Mark, Jervis, like Watson in The Sign of the Four, also falls in love with a client, though Freeman devotes a lot more ink to the romance than Conan Doyle ever would. Over the course of the book, Freeman does manage to satisfactorily differentiate Thorndyke from Holmes. Thorndyke’s detective work relies less on deductive reasoning (although there’s some of that) and more on scientific experimentation. He is the Edwardian forerunner of so many TV medical examiners and forensic scientists, from Quincy to CSI. Freeman gets a bit too long-winded with his scientific explanations, to the point where I was always a few pages ahead of Thorndyke’s conclusions. Nevertheless, Thorndyke is one of the best scientific sleuths I’ve encountered in detective fiction. His debut novel is far superior, for example, to the cases of Arthur B. Reeve’s Craig Kennedy, who is often unjustifiably referred to as “The American Sherlock Holmes.”

Although this is a pretty good mystery, it is not without its flaws. Regrettably, the ending is really not very satisfying at all. For one thing, it feels rather unfinished. Much is left unresolved, and we never see justice served to its completion. In addition, the resolution is telegraphed far in advance. The ending could have been far more shocking or surprising if Freeman had pinned the crime on a different suspect, but instead he takes the easy and obvious way out. There aren’t enough suspects in the first place, so really the ending is almost a foregone conclusion. To make matters worse, instead of giving us an epilogue that wraps up the loose ends of the case, Freeman chooses to focus on the romance, delivering a rather cheesy, melodramatic ending.

My four-star rating of The Red Thumb Mark is given somewhat reluctantly. Though it was disappointing in many respects, however, I did enjoy the science behind the detective work, and I definitely think I will look into more of Thorndyke’s cases.
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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Stories by English Authors: The Orient by Rudyard Kipling, et al.

Myopic British views of Asia
Rudyard Kipling
This is the tenth volume I’ve read in the ten-volume series Stories by English Authors, which was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. Subtitled The Orient, this book collects six short stories set in Asia and Australia. From the free ebook editions available online, the volumes in the Stories by English Authors series don’t appear to be numbered, so I’ve just been reading them in random order. I will confess, however, that I’ve avoided The Orient volume until the end, in anticipation of what antiquated 19th century notions of racism and colonialism might lie within. It turns out that for the most part my concerns were well-founded, and most of these stories just haven’t stood up well to the test of time.

The book opens with Rudyard Kipling’s story “The Man Who Would Be King,” perhaps best known today as the basis for a movie adaptation starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. Two English vagabonds in India decide to assume the kingship of a secluded tribe of natives. I’ve never been a big fan of Kipling’s writing, and this offering did nothing to convert me. He crams his stories with so much gratuitous local color and slang that the atmosphere becomes more important than the narrative and the prose becomes almost unintelligible. This one suffers from its white-conquerors-over-dumb-natives premise and its rather silly climax.

Next up, “Tajima” by “Miss Mitford” (likely Mary Russell Mitford) is a fable about a ronin, or masterless samurai. All the characters are Japanese, and Mitford treats them respectfully. The story is just OK, its biggest offense being dullness. The best story in the book, which isn’t saying much, is “A Chinese Girl Graduate” by R. K. Douglas. Set in China, it’s about a girl who masquerades as a boy in order to study with male scholars. Imagine if Pearl S. Buck wrote Yentl. There’s a lot of gender-bending disguise along the lines of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Though it defies belief, it’s pretty good as far as fluffy romances go.

It’s all downhill from there. Set in New Zealand, Mary Beaumont’s “The Revenge of Her Race” is a tale of interracial marriage between an Englishman and a Maori woman. Though Beaumont likely thought she was being sympathetic to the indigenous, the story is anything but enlightened, since it’s all about how this native woman hates herself because she’s not white. Morley Roberts’s story “King Billy of Ballarat” is a Kiplingesque accent fest about an Australian aborigine who befriends a young white girl in order to beg for her father’s hand-me-down clothing. The “black fellow” (as he’s referred to in the story) is portrayed as a drunken buffoon, and the prose is so inarticulate I couldn’t even figure out the ending. Lastly, Netta Styrett’s “Thy Heart’s Desire” is a dreary soap opera about a British couple with marital problems. Since its only connection to the East is one use of the word “Persian,” it’s difficult to see why this story is even included in this collection. It’s hard to believe that these dismal entries were the best examples of “Oriental” English fiction that the editor could come up with.

Overall the Stories by English Authors series has been a disappointment, and I am glad to be done with it. This particular volume on The Orient is the worst of the bunch. For those who enjoy 19th century fiction and are looking for good short story collections, I would recommend Scribner’s later series from 1898, Stories by Foreign Authors, which features some of the best writers from various nations in Europe.

Stories in this collection
The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling 
Tajima by Miss Mitford 
A Chinese Girl Graduate by R. K. Douglas 
The Revenge of Her Race by Mary Beaumont 
King Billy of Ballarat by Morley Roberts 
Thy Heart’s Desire by Nyetta Styrett

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Monday, August 21, 2017

The Life of Reason, Volume I: Reason in Common Sense by George Santayana

Anything but accessible
George Santayana
Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana enjoyed an immense popularity in the early 20th century (at least as far as philosophers go in the consciousness of the general public). From 1905 to 1906 he published a comprehensive five-volume encapsulation of his philosophical thought entitled The Life of Reason. In the first volume, Reason in Common Sense, Santayana lays out his theory of epistemology, or the philosophy of knowledge. He traces the evolution of human intelligence, both in the species as a whole and in the individual human being, explaining the progression from sensory data to the formation of thoughts and ideas to the development of consciousness. I was interested in reading Santayana because of his fame and acclaim a century ago, but I made the mistake of equating popularity with accessibility. After reading Volume I of The Life of Reason I find it hard to believe anyone outside of philosophical academia could understand Santayana’s writing, much less enjoy it.

Santayana is easiest to comprehend when he’s commenting on other philosophers, whether he’s praising Aristotle and Spinoza or criticizing Plato, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant. Like Aristotle, he is a staunch proponent of empiricism over idealism, and has little patience for mysticism, superstition, or religion, at least when it comes to philosophical reasoning. Nor will he stand for skeptics who assert that empirical thought is unreliable because the limitations of our senses prohibit us from a totally accurate perception of reality. His metaphysics seem to be quite similar to Spinoza’s brand of deterministic materialism, yet he backs off from embracing Spinoza’s pantheism because he doesn’t like its emphasis on man’s insignificance in the universe.

As a layman reading this work a century later, it’s difficult for me to tell what new contributions Santayana brings to the discipline of philosophy above and beyond those who preceded him. I agree with just about everything Santayana has to say, but I don’t agree with the way he says it. Though I’m not a philosophical scholar, I’m far from a novice in the reading of philosophy; yet I found Santayana’s writing to be among the most vague and confusing that I’ve ever encountered. He seems more concerned with crafting lyrical prose than with building a philosophical argument. Most philosophers establish a consistent vocabulary and stick with it, proceeding in a logical manner to build a case towards what they’re trying to say. Santayana eschews a consistent vocabulary because the constant repetition would interrupt the graceful flow of his poetic writing. Each sentence he writes is like an aphorism that can be pulled out of context and admired for its elegance and eloquence, yet this diminishes the coherence of the text as a whole. Rather than a logically structured argument, Volume I reads more like a disconnected series of observations. Even Spinoza’s Ethics is easier to decipher than the convoluted syntax in this book, and Santayana’s prose is more obscure than other overly poetic literary philosophers (or philosophical men of letters) like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Maurice Maeterlinck.

To be fair, of the five branches of philosophy, epistemology is my least favorite, though I did enjoy Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy. I chose to read Reason in Common Sense for the obvious reason that it is Volume I of Santayana’s treatise. Perhaps I would find more satisfaction in Volumes II through V, which deal more with ethics, metaphysics, and esthetics—subjects of more personal interest to me. After my tiring slog through Reason in Common Sense, however, I’m unlikely to pursue The Life of Reason any further.

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Friday, August 18, 2017

Les Paysans (Sons of the Soil) by Honoré de Balzac

War between the classes
Honoré de Balzac’s final published work, Les Paysans, also known by the English titles of The Peasantry or Sons of the Soil, was released posthumously in 1855. The novel takes place in the French region of Burgundy and focuses on the history of antagonism between a land-owning count and the peasants of his district. Though Balzac sets the scene with vivid descriptions of the beautiful countryside, his depiction of rural life in this novel is far from picturesque. Sons of the Soil is the antithesis of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, in that here the poor people are the villains. The book is closer in tone to the more humorous scenes of Emile Zola’s novel The Earth, in that the country folk are depicted as lazy and shiftless ne’er-do-wells. The treatment of the peasantry in Sons of the Soil is even less sympathetic than Zola’s, however, as Balzac grants them almost no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Over the course of a complex back story, a retired general and count named Montcornet purchases the estate of Les Aigues in the Burgundy wine country. Though he makes frequent trips to Paris, the general is far from an absentee landlord and resides most of the year at his country estate. The tenants who work the land are constantly trying to rob, cheat, or swindle Montcornet for as much as they can get out of him, often instigated by a few petit bourgeoisie resentful of the general’s aristocratic status and avaricious for his lands. The poor are allowed to gather dead wood from the grounds of Les Aigues for their fires, but they steal whole trees. They are allowed to glean scraps from the fields where crops have been harvested, but they fill their aprons with pilfered produce. The count and countess bestow charitable gifts upon the poor, but their generosity is frequently taken advantage of by lies and deceit. The whole novel is essentially a chess game in which Montcornet’s middle-class enemies scheme to steal his profits and lands, using the farmers as pawns, while the general in return seeks to thwart their thievery.

Sons of the Soil is a lengthy and incredibly complicated book with an ensemble cast likely surpassing a hundred characters. Each player in the narrative has a cousin or a brother-in-law that somehow factors into the story, and each gets his or her own personal biography, detailed physical description, and tailor-made domestic environment. This is a book that really needs charts and family trees to keep everyone straight. Not realizing that until it was too late, I was often lost amid the Byzantine relationships among the characters. The novel is much longer than it needs to be because it is so loaded with descriptive digressions that distract from the main narrative. Balzac attempts to fully immerse the reader into this fictional world, but at times he only manages to disorient and distance his audience.

Nevertheless, it is this very frustrating intricacy that makes Sons of the Soil such an admirable work of literature. Few writers could pull off the creation of a realistic microcosm so rich in detail and abundant in social commentary as Balzac so expertly manages to accomplish here. At the end of his career, he was clearly still at the height of his literary powers. However, I didn’t care much for the message of the book, which relentlessly paints the poor country folk as evil and immoral riff raff. Though in other works Balzac occasionally displays a post-Revolutionary sympathy toward the lower classes, overall he had a decidedly monarchical bent that is nowhere more apparent than in Les Paysans. Even so, although I usually prefer more leftist takes on the class struggle, I still managed to enjoy this entertaining and skillfully constructed novel.
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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Famous Men of Science by Sarah Knowles Bolton

A tasty sampler platter of biographical appetizers
Famous Men of Science, published in 1889, is a collection of 14 biographical sketches written by American author Sarah Knowles Bolton. In the late 19th century, Bolton published a whole series of such biographical collections, with titles like Poor Boys Who Became Famous, Famous American Statesmen, and Famous European Artists. Although it doesn’t appear to be intended for a young audience, Famous Men of Science is definitely a popular history aimed at the masses. The biographical sketches have the feeling of deliberate simplification, like articles out of Reader’s Digest or something from Chicken Soup for the Scientific Soul. Given this approach, it’s hard to tell how much of the information is reliable, and how much is folklore, but Bolton does quote extensively from the letters and diaries of the figures she profiles.

While relating the events and accomplishments of her subjects’ lives, Bolton makes blatant efforts to draw moral lessons from their examples, often concluding paragraphs with chestnuts like “Those only succeed who have sufficient force of character to make time for what they wish to do,” or “Little can be expected from those who are easily satisfied.” She also goes out of her way to emphasize the Christian piety and spiritual fortitude of these scientific heroes, even the ones who were likely materialists. She has a tendency to digress from the scientific research by focusing on stories of love, friendship, and family. In the chapter on Sir Humphrey Davy, for instance, Bolton concentrates so much on his personal character and relationships that I’m not sure I even understand what his great contributions to science were. Bolton just assumes you already know that, as any good student of the 19th century would.

Nevertheless, you do learn a lot of fascinating details about these individuals, like Galileo’s struggles to support a family of deadbeats, or the fact that Louis Agassiz was so blind he had to feel fossils with his tongue. Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, had a very successful career as an artist prior to becoming an inventor, and Bolton gives his artistic accomplishments their proper due. I consider myself pretty well-versed in the life of Charles Darwin, but I knew almost nothing about the personal histories of Carl Linnaeus, Georges Cuvier, or Alexander von Humboldt. Though Bolton’s sketches are anything but comprehensive, she has provided me with enough information to know that I’d like to look into the works of these great naturalists and seek out more recent and complete biographies on them.

Despite the weaknesses in the writing, and the egregious number of typos in the ebook (no spelling check was ever applied to the scanned text), this really is an enjoyable read. It transports you back to the glory days of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, prior to the era of specialization, when science was like the Wild West: full of opportunities for anyone willing to work hard and stake their claim. You didn’t need rigid credentials to make advances in a given discipline; you just did the work. Almost all of these luminaries excelled in more than one field. Humboldt’s range of interests was truly staggering, stretching across almost the entire breadth of the sciences and humanities. It’s difficult to imagine any scientist today having the freedom to explore the diversity of knowledge that these men did. Famous Men of Science is a fun read for anyone who admires these polymaths of the past. It is no substitute for real biographies of Newton, Herschel, Audubon, etc., but it really does generate enthusiasm for the history of science and whets your appetite for more.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The BFG by Roald Dahl

Charming but tedious
I’m sure a lot of people grew up with this story and absolutely love it, but having just encountered it for the first time, as an adult reading it to my own kids, I was underwhelmed. The title of Roald Dahl’s 1982 novel The BFG is an acronym for Big Friendly Giant. The heroine of the story, a young girl named Sophie, spies the giant on the prowl in her neighborhood one evening when she is up past her bedtime. The existence of giants is supposed to be a secret, so the BFG snatches Sophie up and takes her back to his cave, where she’s required to stay forever so she can’t tell anyone that he’s real.

Luckily he’s a gentle and friendly giant, unlike others in the book. There are nine other giants who make their secret rounds at night, but instead of blowing dreams into children’s bedrooms they snatch kids up and eat them. If your children are too old to be scared by this premise (as mine are), then they’re probably old enough to be bored by it. The rather gory allusions to bone crunching and blood bottling get rather monotonous when they are dragged out ad nauseam over the course of a too-lengthy novel. The story is simple enough that Dr. Seuss could have made it work in 48 easy pages, but Dahl stretches it out over three or four hours of reading. And this is one of his shorter books? For most of its length, the novel is just long descriptive passages about the giants and their lifestyles, with an emphasis on the threat from the child-eating carnivores. It isn’t until the last few chapters when Sophie and friend decide to do something about it, but even then the resolution feels overly protracted.

Where the novel succeeds is in Dahl’s playful use of language and touches of humor throughout. The BFG speaks in a dialect that combines barbaric crudeness with childlike cuteness. His lingo is peppered with a bevy of nonsense words like whizzpopping, crodsquinkled, and frobscottle, and Dahl incorporates clever puns into the prose, particularly when he’s describing the flavors of “human beans.” Linguistically, the story occasionally had my elementary school boys and I laughing, but narratively, we were mostly bored by the plot and kept wishing Dahl would get on with it already.

If there’s a moral to the story, Dahl doesn’t hammer it home. The BFG proves that scary people/things can be nice—Don’t judge a book by its cover, that sort of thing. Sophie shows that kids can be heroes too. Mostly, however, it’s just a fight-the-monsters tale that takes forever to get around to fighting the monsters. The story does have a certain charm to it, so I can understand why many have fond memories of the book from their youth, but Dahl’s probably got better books up his sleeve than this. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach seem like better candidates for the kid-lit canon.
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Friday, August 4, 2017

Four-Day Planet by H. Beam Piper

Space whalers revolt!
Four-Day Planet, a science fiction novel by H. Beam Piper, was originally published in 1961. The story takes place in Piper’s Terro-Human Future History universe, which deals with mankind’s colonization of the galaxy centuries in the future. Readers of that series will recognize the familiar convention of planets named after Norse deities, as seen in Uller Uprising and Graveyard of Dreams (though no prior knowledge of the Future History series is required).

The story of Four-Day Planet takes place on Fenris, a world that spins so slowly it only makes four complete rotations a year. This creates extremely long periods of sunlight and shade, resulting in extreme seasons ranging from a Mercury-hot summer to a Jupiter-cold winter (I’m approximating). Because of this, the human population is forced to live either underground or in enclosed cities. Not surprisingly, Fenris is a sparsely populated planet, and somewhat of a galactic backwater. The primary attraction for colonization is resource extraction. The main export of Fenris is “tallow wax,” a substance harvested from the corpses of sea monsters, much like the spermaceti taken from the heads of sperm whales. This substance, valued for its radiation-shielding properties, is collected by hunters operating in ships that are essentially submarines that can fly. The hunters see little profit from their dangerous work, however, as their hunters’ co-op has been co-opted by crooked gangsters and corrupt politicians who steal most of the revenue from tallow wax exports. Fed up with this arrangement, the hunters decide to revolt against this tallow wax mafia and regain economic control of the fruits of their labors.

Piper is an expert on crafting bizarre and complicated fictional worlds that nonetheless maintain a ring of authenticity, but Fenris is not one of his more visionary creations. The four-day year concept isn’t really utilized much, except to justify a harsh environment that serves as the backdrop for a survival story. Mostly this is a novel of political and military strategy, a chess game between two opposing factions using economic, political, and combat tactics to outsmart one another. As always, there are plenty of guns to satisfy Piper’s ballistic obsession.

Though it may not blow you away with theoretical sci-fi speculation, Four-Day Planet is a good adventure story. Sometimes the plot gets bogged down too deeply in the business and chemistry of the tallow wax industry, bringing a slow halt to the action. In keeping with Piper’s libertarian bent, the book delivers a subtle message against labor unions (they lead to corruption) and government regulation (it stifles economic growth) in favor of a free market economy, but compared to some of his other works he doesn’t lay it on too thickly. As in many a good western or film noir, the gangsters who oppress the monster hunters merely serve the narrative purpose of setting up the latter faction as freedom fighters struggling for independence. The large ensemble cast of players in this conflict, each with his own often-hidden motives, is confusing at first, but by the end the reader is fully involved with all the various parties and their complex relationships. Though not one of Piper’s more visionary works, Four-Day Planet is an entertaining read that delivers its fair share of fun and excitement.
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