Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Move by Georges Simenon

Thin walls make for nosey neighbors
Georges Simenon wrote somewhere around 500 novels, and if the dozen and a half that I’ve read are any indication, they’re likely all good. But some are better than others, and The Move is one of those others. Originally published in 1967 under the French title of Le Déménagement, The Move might be considered a good book from some other crime writer, but by Simenon standards it’s just OK.

Emile Jovis works for a travel agency in Paris. He has just moved himself, his wife, and his teenage son from their urban, middle-class lodgings in the city to a brand new apartment complex in the suburbs. One might expect life at this suburban retreat to be safer and more humdrum than the family’s previous neighborhood of residence, but in fact the opposite is the case. As Jovis finds out the first night he spends in the new place, there is a dangerous side to suburban existence lurking beneath the respectable veneer. Lying in bed, he realizes that he can hear his next-door neighbors through the wall, and their bedroom conversation opens his mind to hints of sexuality and crime that seem enticingly depraved to his relatively prudish ears. Jovis develops a deep fascination for this man who lives next door, envies his prowess with women, and feels compelled to learn more about him, even if his investigation takes him far beyond his comfort zone.

The Move had me hooked in the first chapter. The second, third, and fourth chapters, however, were rather slow and failed to capitalize on that initial enthusiasm. Though this is a short book, less than 150 pages, not much of importance really happens until about two-thirds of the way through the story. One of the joys of reading Simenon’s novels is his keen insight into human psychology. In this case, however, too much of a good thing may be the book’s major fault. Though written in the third person, The Move is essentially a stream-of-consciousness piece written entirely from Jovis’s perspective. The problem is Simenon doesn’t give us enough of what’s going on outside of his protagonist’s head. The details are vague, and the ending is rather far-fetched. It is impossible for me to discuss it without giving it away, but something less sensational would have been easier to swallow and probably a more effective way of wrapping up Jovis’s story.

In a nutshell, the story of The Move is that of a mild-mannered man who tries to stretch beyond the confines of his prosaic life and ends up getting in way over his head. Simenon did this sort of thing much better in his 1948 novel The Reckoning. Here he goes to such great lengths to emphasize the mild-manneredness of Jovis that it begins to defy belief. Perhaps it is difficult to shock the 21st-century reader who has seen way too many movies, but it’s hard to fathom an adult male having such a naive and childlike response to overhearing some dirty, dangerous talk. On top of that, Simenon depicts Jovis as such an inconsequential person in the grand scheme of things that the escalation towards the end hardly seems justified.

Perhaps it was cutting-edge for its day, but I doubt it. 1967 was not so long ago. Simenon has written some shocking novels (Dirty Snow comes to mind) but this one feels tame compared to many of his works. Because of his prodigious literary talent The Move is still a pretty good book, but it certainly isn’t great.
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Monday, November 27, 2017

The Townsman by Pearl S. Buck

Kansas: the state beyond Misery
I consider myself a fan of Pearl S. Buck and have looked well beyond The Good Earth to read a dozen of her books so far. When I stumbled upon her 1945 novel The Townsman in a used book store, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Buck had written a historical novel set in Kansas, the state where I’ve been living for the past 25 years. I’ve read enough of Buck’s work to know that not everything she wrote is a masterpiece, and the fact that she penned this one under the pseudonym of John Sedges did little to inspire confidence. Still, I approached it with enthusiasm, but was ultimately disappointed by this dull, dreary book.

If you’re reading a western, you know you’re in for a long haul when the story starts in England. Granted, this isn’t a traditional western, like a shoot-’em-up, but rather a town-building western, more Dr. Quinn than Gunsmoke. English teenager Jonathan Goodliffe reluctantly immigrates to America with his parents and siblings. The father has heard of good farmland in Kansas, so the family ventures west into that territory. Along the way they stop in the barely-there fictional town of Median. The father, always on the lookout for the next big thing, decides to keep moving west, but Jonathan decides he’s tired of chasing after some illusory promised land. Now an adult, he rebels against his father and decides to stay put in Median. He takes up work as the town’s first schoolmaster and works to mold Median into the kind of town he’d like to live in.

If Buck had written yet another novel with a female protagonist, she would no doubt have given the reader a strong, independent, capable woman. Instead, the male protagonist she gives us here is a weak, dependent man barely capable of surviving on the prairie. For example, Jonathan is terrified of thunderstorms to the point where they actually incapacitate him. For a Western settler, he displays little frontier spirit, giving new meaning to the phrase, “Those who can’t, teach.” Even worse, Buck gives him this bizarre Oedipal relationship with his mother that is really kind of creepy.

The story takes place shortly after the Civil War. Though the novel is set in Kansas, the state is barely recognizable but for the sod houses. There are no references to Kansas history whatsoever. The first half of the novel deals with issues of African American race relations that would be more at home in a novel of the American South. In fact, Buck has to take the reader to New Orleans just to get her point across. When her story requires a big city, she never even mentions St. Louis or Kansas City, but has her Kansan characters running off to New Orleans, which is just ridiculous.

The second half of the book is the most god-awful love story you will ever read. Jonathan’s milquetoast personality leads him to fall in love with a woman he barely knows, and the reader soon sees the cringeworthy writing on the wall. You know how in real life sometimes your dreams don’t work out the way you want, so you settle for second best even if you know it’s a decision you’re going to regret? Imagine an entire novel about that. Ugh. What a drag. At no point during the reading of this book did I finish one of its 41 chapters and feel compelled to start the next one. The Kansas that Buck depicts in her novel is a miserable place full of muddy streets, loveless marriages, and shattered dreams. An optimistic epilogue does little to soften the blow. Buck can be a great writer, so the book does have its occasional moments of literary worth, but for the most part it makes for one tedious ordeal of a read.
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Friday, November 24, 2017

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

Animal or aborigine?
Little Fuzzy, published in 1962, is a novel by science fiction writer H. Beam Piper. The story is part of his Terro-Human Future History series, which depicts a future in which humans from Earth have colonized planets in distant star systems. The stories in this series are only loosely connected, however, so no prior knowledge of Terro-Human Future History is required to enjoy this book.

The story takes place in the late 26th century on the planet Zarathustra, a world that was discovered twenty-five years earlier. Since then a development company has been profitably extracting the planet’s natural resources for trade in interplanetary markets. By this time cities have been established on Zarathustra, but they are still relatively low in population, and the planet maintains a sort of Wild West atmosphere. Jack Holloway, one of the old-timers among the settlers on Zarathustra, works as an independent prospector, hunting gems in the area around a remote outpost he calls home. Though he probably knows the planet as well as anyone, he is greatly surprised one day by a visit from an undiscovered species of animal. This creature, whom he dubs Little Fuzzy, resembles something like a naked Ewok and shows obvious signs of intelligence. The question is, how intelligent is he? If Little Fuzzy turns out to be a sapient life form­—one who’s level of conscious thought approaches that of humans—under the laws of the Terran Federation his existence will legally negate the company’s right to extract resources from Zarathustra. The entire enterprise rests on whether Little Fuzzy is recognized as a sapient being or simply designated a fur-bearing mammal. To protect its investment, the company will stop at nothing to make sure the matter is decided in its favor.

At first this may sound like a novel about environmental ethics and a preachy metaphor for mankind’s poor stewardship of our own planet. There are touches of that, but Piper, who was anything but a hippie, does not lay it on too thick. Mostly he is concerned with the definition of sapience and the amorphous theoretical boundaries of what defines us as human. Piper not only thoroughly examines the psychological and biological aspects of the question but also its ethical and legal ramifications. The worlds Piper creates in his fiction are always fully realized in their political, economic, and legal dimensions, and nowhere is that more true than here in Little Fuzzy. Piper looks at indigenous rights from an interspecies perspective. If mankind ever does colonize the galaxy, what sort of legal and ethical framework will be needed to avoid the genocidal mistakes of our past?

Beyond the issues, one thing that makes this novel so enjoyable is that the fuzzies are just so darn cute, if such a term can be applied to words on a printed page. Their behavior is simply adorable, but Piper doesn’t overdo it. Cute never becomes cutesy. He always depicts the fuzzies as a realistic mammalian species and gives a convincing glimpse of what culture might look like among a sapient species other than our own. The scientific and philosophical aspects of Little Fuzzy are truly fascinating, and at times it also happens to be a decent sci-fi thriller.

If you can’t get enough of the fuzzies, there’s more. Piper published a sequel to Little Fuzzy in 1964, entitled Fuzzy Sapiens. This was followed by Fuzzies and Other People, published posthumously. Several other science fiction authors have since written additional books in a Fuzzy series based upon Piper’s original works. While I can’t vouch for those other writers, after reading this excellent novel I fully intend to read the remaining two books by Piper.
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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Secret of the Old Mill by Franklin W. Dixon

On the trail of counterfeiters 
Originally published in 1927, The Secret of the Old Mill is the third book in the Hardy Boys series of mystery novels by Franklin W. Dixon. Like all the early Hardy Boys books, it was revised and updated in 1962, with significant changes made to the original story. The revised version, one of the familiar blue-spined editions from Grosset & Dunlap, is the novel I’m reviewing here.

The mystery begins when brothers Frank and Joe Hardy accompany their pal Chet Morton to the science store to buy that microscope he’s always wanted. He has been saving up his money for this dream purchase, and is utterly disappointed when his legal tender is refused. One of his bills is counterfeit! When the Hardys go to the police to report the phony bill, they are informed that the cops have become aware of several other recent instances of counterfeit currency being circulated in Bayport. The boys decide to take it upon themselves to investigate the problem. Meanwhile, their dad is working on a separate case, the details of which he is not at liberty to divulge to his family. When mysterious threats start being aimed at the Hardys, warning them to drop the case, it is unclear to which case the anonymous notes are referring—the father’s or the sons’.

The plot of The Secret of the Old Mill is confusing, even for a grown-up. The Hardy Boys just seem to tread water for most of the book, not really making any headway in their pursuit of the counterfeiters. It is clear from the title of the book, the cover illustration, and developments throughout the story that the answer can only be discovered by venturing inside the old mill, but it takes forever for the boys to get there. Once they do, it is a pretty quick wrap-up to the finale. The reader never really sees much of the bad guys until the very end, so there’s nothing particularly interesting about them. They don’t have the personality of other Hardy opponents, like Snattman from the previous book. Instead, they come across like the generic wanted men who show up at the end of a Scooby-Doo episode from time to time. Of great assistance to the boys’ investigation, they obligingly spill their guts, revealing all the secrets that should have been figured out earlier in the book.

Despite the lackluster plot, The Secret of the Old Mill is amply stocked with the suspenseful scenes of captures and escapes, boat chases, and secret passages behind the bookcase that succeed in maintaining the interest of young boys. The real attraction here for the juvenile audience is not so much the mystery itself but rather the independence the boy detectives enjoy as they make their own way by car, motorcycle, or speedboat to solving adult problems without adult supervision. I enjoyed the series when I was a kid, and now I’m reading them with my young son. He and I both agreed that this third installment in the Hardy Boys series is not as good as the second book, The House on the Cliff, but it is probably better than their debut, The Tower Treasure.

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Monday, November 20, 2017

The Analects by Confucius

Prior historical knowledge required
The Analects is a collection of aphorisms, anecdotes, and other snippets of instruction compiled by followers of Confucius around 2,000 years ago. There are no doubt many different versions and editions of The Analects in English translation. The one I am reviewing is the ebook edition from Open Road Media, which is likely based on the public domain file of the James Legge translation from Project Gutenberg. There is no denying the importance of Confucius in Chinese history and Eastern philosophy, but how does The Analects hold up as a reading experience for the 21st century reader? To a Westerner, like myself, even if you habitually read philosophy, it is difficult to just pick up a copy of The Analects and extract the wisdom contained within it.

In form and structure, the Western text that most closely resembles The Analects would likely be the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The Analects is divided into 20 books, which are then divided into numerous chapters, most of which are only a sentence or a paragraph long. Some chapters consist of a few brief numbered passages. Like the Meditations, there is no discernible order to these chapters; for the most part they just fall where they may. While each individual chapter can be studied for its own merits, you’d really have to develop an intimate knowledge of the book as a whole in order to understand all the connections between the various chapters and form a complete picture of Confucian thought.

Though the teachings of Confucius form the basis for the Chinese religion of Confucianism, the philosophy of Confucius is really a secular philosophy that concentrates on ethics and politics rather than any metaphysical worldview. Confucius’s teachings were intended as training for scholars wishing to enter public service and work their way up the bureaucratic ladder of government. He also, however, looks into broader issues of ethics, interpersonal relations, right living, and personal happiness that may be relevant to anyone’s daily life. Some of the advice on governing may be applicable to the political and business worlds of today, but Confucius’s emphasis on knowing one’s place in the social strata is unlikely to be embraced by ambitious Western individualists. There are some similarities between The Analects and the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius in their advocation of resigning one’s self to the reality of one’s place in life. While the Stoic attitude might be simplistically summed up as, “You may be born a slave, but no one can enslave your mind,” the Confucian view in a nutshell might be something more like, “If you’re born a servant, be the best servant you can be.”

Just as the first book of the Meditations refers to a number of ancient Roman personages that the average modern reader is unlikely to be familiar with, The Analects is peppered with references to historical figures of China’s ancient past. Such references are pervasive throughout The Analects, to the point where you’d really need a master’s degree in Chinese history to figure out much of what’s being alluded to. There are plenty of passages that clearly state a code of conduct for right living, or list the admirable qualities of a superior man, but these are interspersed between anecdotes of dukes, government functionaries, and students of the Master, some of which seem to require prior knowledge of the characters mentioned. What’s a Westerner to make of such passages without detailed explanatory annotations? There is relevant wisdom in The Analects if you’re willing to dig for it, but rather than reading the original text most readers would probably be better off consulting a textbook that explains the teachings of Confucius in an orderly and accessible manner.

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Monday, November 13, 2017

International Short Stories: English, edited by William Patten

More clunkers than classics
W. Clark Russell
International Short Stories: English is the second volume in a trilogy of books edited by William Patten and published by P. F. Collier & Son in 1910. The first volume of the series featured American stories, and the third book French. This English volume features stories by English authors, of course, but as is often the case with these sorts of literary anthologies (as seen in Scribner’s Stories by English Authors series), the word “English” as used here is take to be synonymous with “British” as the book includes Scottish authors (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, J. M. Barrie), at least one Irish author (Samuel Lover), and perhaps a Welshman or two for all I know. Though Patten dipped back into the 19th century when editing the volume, it doesn’t appear to be intended as a Greatest British Literature of All Time anthology, but rather just a collection of what might be pleasing to a 1910 audience. With a few exceptions, most of the selections tend to be lighthearted fare that might be expected to inspire relaxing fireside chuckles.

To the 21st-century reader, the authors listed in the table of contents represent a mixture of famous immortals and obscure unknowns. In general, not surprisingly, the household names turn in the best selections. Conan Doyle is represented by a non-Sherlock Holmes piece, “The Secret of Goresthorpe Grange,” a comic tale about a recent purchaser of a medieval fortress who tries to find a ghost to haunt to place. “The Stolen Body” by H. G. Wells also deals with the paranormal, but from a more serious perspective. J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, provides a pair of humorous tales, “My Brother Henry” and “Gilray’s Flower Pot,” the latter of which is a hilarious yarn told by a narrator who regrets having promised to water his friend’s plants. Sir Walter Scott’s “The Two Drovers,” about two cattlemen fighting over a patch of grass, escalates into a moving drama. Charles Dickens’s “Dr. Manette’s Manuscript” is like a cross between an Edgar Allen Poe story and The Count of Monte Cristo, with a lot of Les Misérables-style invective against the nobility. Robert Louis Stevenson, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Wilkie Collins are represented by mediocre entries that are far from their best work. Rudyard Kipling’s story “The Courting of Dinah Shadd” is just plain bad, dull, and annoying, though I must confess I’ve never been a fan of his work, which always seems low on plot and loaded with tedious “atmosphere.”

Among the second-tier authors of English lit, Charles Reade’s novella-length crime story “The Knightsbridge Mystery” is admirable for its legal and psychological authenticity. “Three Thimbles and a Pea” by George Borrow is a fun look into the profession of a shell-game con man. W. Clark Russell, known for his sea stories, offers up what he knows best with “The Lazarette of the ‘Huntress,’” an engaging tale about a stowaway. It may be adventure genre fiction, but it’s probably the best selection in the book.

Though I’ve tried to point out what’s good about the collection, the fact is there’s more bad than good here. The jokes fall flat in two of S. R. Crockett’s seemingly pointless tales of country priests. Samuel Lover’s “The Burial of the Tithe” is an interminable slog through phonetically rendered Irish dialect, with little payoff. Too many of the stories settle for quaintness and cheeky laughs. There’s too few serious entries like those of Scott, Dickens, or Wells. There’s also a tendency by many of these authors to wallow in medievalism while their counterparts in France were moving on to realistic depictions of the modern world. As a whole, neither the American nor the English volumes of International Short Stories really impressed me much. A glance at the table of contents for the French volume leads me to believe it will be far superior to this one.

Stories in this collection

The Two Drovers by Sir Walter Scott
Mr. Deuceace by William Makepeace Thackeray 
The Brothers by Edward Bulmer Lytton 
Doctor Manette’s Manuscript by Charles Dickens 
The Caldron of Oil by Wilkie Collins 
The Burial of the Tithe by Samuel Lover 
The Knightsbridge Mystery by Charles Reade 
The Courting of Dina Shadd by Rudyard Kipling 
The Sire de Maletroit’s Door by Robert Louis Stevenson 
The Secret of Goresthorpe Grange by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 
A Change of Treatment by W. W. Jacobs

The Stickit Minister by S. R. Crockett 

The Lammas Preaching by S. R. Crockett 

An Undergraduate’s Aunty by F. Anstey 

The Sillhouettes by A. T. Quiller-Couch 

My Brother Henry by J. M. Barrie 

Gilray’s Flower Pot by J. M. Barrie 

Mr. O’Leary’s Second Love by Charles Lever 

The Indifference of the Miller of Hofbau by Anthony Hope Hawkins 

The Stolen Body by H. G. Wells

The Lazarette of the ‘Huntress’” by W. Clark Russell

The Great Triangular Duel by Captain Frederick Marryat 

Three Thimbles and a Pea by George Borrow

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Detective Megapack, edited by John Gregory Betancourt

High on variety, low on satisfying mysteries
When one thinks of detective fiction, two subgenres tend to come to mind: the cerebral clue-and-reveal mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, or the two-fisted, hard-boiled gumshoes of the Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler set. The Detective Megapack, published in 2013 by Wildside Press, does cover both with the Sherlock Holmes adventure “The Five Orange Pips” and two stories by Hammett, “Arson Plus” and “The Assistant Murder.” Editor John Gregory Betancourt and his crew at Wildside, however, seem to have made a deliberate effort here to broaden the definition of the detective genre to include just about anything involving a crime. In fact, not all of the 30 stories collected here even feature a detective. This envelope-pushing approach even extends to the plots of many of the stories, which go out of their way to subvert the conventions of the genre to the point where that very subversion becomes a cliché. In an inordinate number of the entries included here, if it’s a murder mystery, the victim isn’t really dead. If the story involves theft, it’s not really robbery but insurance fraud. After being hit with these “surprise” twists enough times, the reader finds himself longing for good old-fashioned straightforward mysteries where bad guys commit crimes and detectives solve them.

As is often the case with Wildside’s Megapacks, the selections included in this collection are a mixture of short stories and full-length novels. The success of such a collection often depends on the quality of its longer entries. Fortunately, the longest selection included here, taking up almost a quarter of the ebook, is Monsieur Lecoq, an absolutely outstanding detective novel from 1869 by Emile Gaboriau. Unfortunately, like many lengthy 19th-century novels, Monsieur Lecoq was published in two volumes, and this Megapack only includes the first volume, so you only get half the story! Another novel-length entry, The Rome Express by Arthur Griffiths (1896), is also pretty good, while Richard Harding Davis’s novella In the Fog (1901) and R. Austin Freeman’s novel The Red Thumb Mark (1907) are among the collection’s strongest pieces.

The Detective Megapack offers a mix of both classic and contemporary writers, and in general the older works are of better quality. It’s hard to go wrong with Edgar Allen Poe’s masterful work “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), widely considered the first modern detective story. Catherine Louisa Pirkis’s “The Murder at Troyte’s Hill” from 1893, starring pioneering female detective Loveday Brooke, also stands out from the pack. Among the mid-range, chronologically, are plenty of mediocre specimens of pulp fiction. Though Johnston McCulley wrote some great stories in his day, “Thubway Tham, Fashion Plate” (1920), is not one of them. The title character is a pickpocket with a lisp, not a detective, and the story is not a mystery but rather a silly piece of fluff in which Tham buys some fancy clothes. As for the more recent authors, most of them go the hard-boiled route and end up writing what come across as overdone C-grade movie scripts. David Dean, however, proves himself a rare talent head and shoulders above his peers with his 2011 story “Tomorrow’s
Dead,” an excellent thriller that deserves a Hollywood adaptation.

Having read and reviewed several of these Megapacks, this is one of my least favorites. Overall, this collection just proved too inconsistent, and the editors seem to have concentrated more on the diversity of the selections than on their quality. The ebook is certainly worth its low price, but many of the stories aren’t worth your time.

Stories in this collection
(Some novella-length works have been reviewed individually. Click on titles below.)
Arson Plus by Dashiell Hammett
It Tore the Laugh from My Throat by Meriah L. Crawford 
The Taggart Assignment by Vincent Starrett
Tomorrow’s Dead by David Dean 
The Flaming Phantom by Jacques Futrelle 
Message in the Sand by John L. French 
The Assistant Murderer by Dashiell Hammett 
All’s Well That Ends Well by C.J. Henderson 
The Red Thumb Mark by R. Austin Freeman 
Monsieur Lecoq by Emile Gaboriau 
The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe 
Hell-Bent for the Morgue by Don Larson 
Death of the Flute by Arthur J. Burks 
Oh Fanny by Raymond Lester 
Clancy, Detective by H. Bedford-Jones 
The Tattooed Many by William J. Makin 
Trigger Men by Eustace Cockrell 
Butterfly of Death by Harold Gluck 
My Bonnie Lies . . . by Ted Hertel 
Thubway Tham, Fashion Plate by Johnston McCulley 
The Murder at Troyte’s Hill by Catherine Louisa Pirkis

The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch 

Secret Suggestion by Vincent H. O’Neil 

The Five Orange Pips by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 

Black Sunrise by Jack Halliday 

The Lion’s Smile by Thomas W. Hanshew 

The Nail by Pedro de Alarçon 

The Rome Express by Arthur Griffiths 

In the Fog by Richard Harding Davis 

Officer Down by Robert J. Mendenhall 

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