Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Pan by Knut Hamsun

A Nordic Eden corrupted
Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun’s novel Pan was first published in 1894. The story begins in 1855 in the Norwegian county of Nordland. The narrator, a Lieutenant Glahn, is spending the better part of a year in a cabin in the woods, living alone with his dog Aesop and hunting for his food. In the opening passages of the book, Hamsun vividly describes the beautiful natural environment and Glahn’s intimate relationship to it through his primitive way of living. Glahn brings to mind other nomadic woodsmen in Hamsun’s body of work, such as the narrator of Under the Autumn Star and A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, or the hero Isak from Growth of the Soil. At first the book reads like it’s going to be a variation on Thoreau’s Walden set in a Norwegian wood. Glahn is never far from civilization, however. He socializes with citizens of a nearby town and even attends parties, though when he does he can’t help but display a marked social awkwardness that often leaves him feeling ashamed. He falls in love with Edwarda, the daughter of a local landowner, and the two embark on what would appear to be an innocent love, the ideal union of wilderness and civilization.

As the relationship develops, however, it becomes less idyllic and more and more twisted. If the two are at a party, for example, and don’t speak to each other for 15 minutes, petty jealousies arise and resentments fester. Hamsun starts to paint Edwarda as a manipulative and fickle coquette, and Glahn proves to be no saint himself. Competition for Edwarda’s affections comes in the form of other suitors, which threatens Glahn’s fragile self-esteem. One can’t help but admire the realism with which Hamsun details the twists and turns in this relationship, yet the relentless pettiness, verbal cruelty, and spiteful retaliations make for an unpleasant read. It is hard to tell whether Hamsun meant this as an authentic portrait of the romantic histrionics of his age, like a modernist version of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, or as a study of mental illness, since Glahn is clearly unhinged. In Pan, Hamsun speaks of nature with a romanticist’s voice, but he takes a bluntly realistic approach to human psychology. He details the landscape of the human mind with the same stark, brutal, yet sensitive insight with which he describes the landscape of the earth.

Pan, the titular Greek god of the wild, is only referred to in passing in a couple of instances. Glahn himself is the real Pan of the story, a dichotomous embodiment of the wisdom of the forest and the lustful abandon of the wild beast. The narrative is interrupted on two occasions by the retelling of folk legends which parallel the main plot. Early in the book the narrator states that he’s writing his thoughts in a notebook, but really the tale is told mostly as stream of consciousness from inside Glahn’s mind, which is not always the most comfortable vantage point for the reader. An epilogue is written in the third person by a new character, who provides us an exterior perspective of Glahn’s appearance and behavior.

Pan is a rather disturbing and depressing work of art, but one can’t deny the masterly hand with which it was created. Hamsun’s novels prove time and again that he is a profound observer of the natural world, yet he could also write keen commentary on the morals and conventions of urban life, as seen in his novel Shallow Soil. Here in Pan those two worlds come together. Looking out over the landscape, Glahn remarks that he may be “seeing now the inner brain of the earth.” Through Hamsun’s expert prose, the reader sees it too, coupled with the sometimes ugly inner soul of humanity.
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Monday, February 26, 2018

The Monster and Other Stories by Stephen Crane

Small-town tales of pioneering realism
The Monster and Other Stories, a collection of short fiction by American author Stephen Crane, was first published in 1899. The book includes two novellas, “The Monster” and “The Blue Hotel,” and one short story, “His New Mittens.”

In “The Monster,” a black servant rescues his employer’s son from a flaming building, but suffers horrible burns in the process. The story takes place in the fictional town of Whilomville, New York, a literary precursor to later imaginary regionalist microcosms like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawhpa County. To the citizens of Whilomville, the disfigured man is a monster, a hideous and frightening problem that they would prefer to dispose of and forget. Crane was a pioneering author of American realism, and this work was no doubt groundbreaking for its time. In “The Monster,” Crane instills small-town happenings with the gravity of high drama while retaining a genuine, unromanticized tone throughout. He approaches the narrative from multiple perspectives, emphasizing the ensemble cast of community over any one protagonist. In the story’s conclusion, Crane doesn’t take the easy way out, refusing to wrap up everything neatly with a cute little bow. While Crane’s unvarnished, sometimes blunt depiction of the details of small-town life is admirable for its authenticity, he is frequently too humorous in his delivery, often portraying his characters as dumb country bumpkins. The prose often bears a tongue-in-cheek flavor that is inappropriate for the life-and-death subject matter being discussed. One can’t help wondering how another realist like Frank Norris, Charles W. Chesnutt, or Theodore Dreiser might have handled the story with more sensitivity and pathos.

In “The Blue Hotel,” three unacquainted travelers get off a train in the bleak, snow-swept Nebraska town of Fort Romper, where they are immediately accosted by an innkeeper who directs them to the titular establishment. For a small-town lodging house, the accommodations seem adequately comfortable and friendly until one of the newly arrived guests, a Swede, begins to display signs of insanity and starts picking fights with the other guests and the hotel staff. At first “The Blue Hotel” reads like a picturesque Bret Harte western, but Crane subverts the genre by depriving the story of any vestige of heroism and pointing out the senseless stupidity of violence in the name of masculine pride. A surprising ending also works to the story’s advantage, making it a memorable read.

“His New Mittens,” also set in Whilomville, is about a young boy who, having received a freshly made pair of winter hand warmers, is ordered by his mother to keep them dry at all costs. This injunction makes him the object of ridicule and teasing from the neighborhood boys and eventually leads him to rebel against his mother. Crane vividly recreates universal childhood experiences and insightfully captures juvenile thought processes and behaviors in an authentically realistic manner. Though “His New Mittens” is the shortest of the three stories, and the most intimate in scope, it proves to be the best entry in the book.

Early realist writers were often chastised for deliberately depicting the uglier or unseemly sides of life. Though Crane is certainly guilty on that score with his often intentionally unsavory stories, his innovative and challenging fiction helped propel American literature into modernity. The stories included here may not be as strong as his as his seminal novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, but they do provide ample evidence of Crane’s prodigious talent and his indispensable influence on subsequent fiction.

Stories in this collection
The Monster 
The Blue Hotel 
His New Mittens

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Friday, February 23, 2018

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci

Irvine’s been there, done that
Stoicism is an ancient school of philosophy that originated in Greece in the 3rd century BC. Its most famous spokesmen from ancient times—Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius—taught their followers the path to a life of tranquility and virtue through the mindful exercise of reason in mastering desires, emotions, and judgments. Stoicism has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in recent years because its ancient tenets and techniques have proven to be a timelessly effective code of living. Stoicism is the basis for modern cognitive behavior therapy, and has also given rise to a number of self-help publications, the latest of which is Massimo Pigliucci’s 2017 book How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. As the title suggests, Pigliucci makes the case for Stoicism as a way of life and offers practical suggestions to today’s readers on how to apply Stoic concepts to their daily lives. While this is a great idea, it has been done before, most notably by William B. Irvine in his 2009 book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. In my opinion, the more books about Stoicism the better, and Pigliucci’s entry is a welcome addition to the Stoic corpus, but it doesn’t really cover much new ground.

For those who have never read a philosophy book, Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic may be the easier entry point to the subject, but Irvine’s book is still remarkably accessible and more substantial in its content. The one unique twist to Pigliucci’s approach is that he carries on an imaginary conversation with the ancient teacher Epictetus, whose Discourses is arguably the most important fundamental text of Stoicism. To illustrate Stoic concepts, Pigliucci uses a brief saying or story from Epictetus as the basis for each chapter and elaborates upon it with examples from his own life. The drawback to this approach is that Epictetus’s contributions to the dialogue tend to be oversimplified and overshadowed by Pigliucci’s personal reflections. While I agree with many of Pigliucci’s views on politics and society, I don’t agree that he should have devoted so much ink to them in this book. While examples are important to connect the ancient philosophy to modern life, in this case it feels like examples make up the bulk of the book. Furthermore, while one of the advantages of Stoicism is its adaptability, Pigliucci seems too ready to depart from the ancient teachings in favor of his own personal interpretation or modern compromise. In contrast, Irvine also used helpful personal examples to support his text, but he places the philosophy at the forefront and does a better job of letting the Stoics speak for themselves.

The best part of Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic is its final chapter, entitled “Practical Spiritual Exercises,” which offers a dozen specific cognitive and behavioral practices that budding Stoics can utilize to hone their thoughts and actions in order to live, as the Stoics say, in accordance with nature. Recommendations such as “Examine your impressions,” “Remind yourself of the impermanence of things,” and “Speak little and well,” may seem like simple rules to follow, but in practice they require repetition, discipline, and fortitude to be effective. Again, many of these exercises have been previously suggested by Irvine and other writers of the new Stoic movement, but Pigliucci does an exceptionally fine job of laying them out in an organized and accessible manner that encourages the reader not only to try them but also to persist and succeed.

Though How to Be a Stoic feels a lot like an Irvine redux, there is still room for one more philosopher under the stoa. Irvine himself gave his blessing to Pigliucci’s book, and it will no doubt succeed in recruiting more than a few new students to this worthy school of thought.
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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Golden Horn by Poul Anderson

Byzantine “Immigrant Song”
Poul Anderson is best known as an author of science fiction and fantasy novels. In 1998 he was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction Writers of America, probably the most prestigious lifetime achievement award in that field. He also, however, wrote historical novels, and if his 1980 book The Golden Horn is any indication, darn good ones. (Wikipedia says he cowrote this novel with his wife Karen Anderson, but the recently published ebook edition from Open Road Media does not bear her name anywhere.) The Golden Horn is the first book in Anderson’s The Last Viking trilogy, a three-part fictionalized biography of Norwegian King Harald Sigurdharsson, also known as Harald Hadrada, who lived from around 1015 to 1066.

Harald is the nephew of King Olaf the Stout, who reigns over Norway during the novel’s opening scenes. When Olaf dies in battle, Harald is not first in the line of succession (Olaf had a son), but he nevertheless sees himself as a contender for the throne. Before he can make a play for the crown, however, he must first acquire wealth, soldiers, and military acumen. To accomplish this, he spends several years fighting as a mercenary, first for a Russian prince and then for the Eastern Roman Empire in Byzantium. The title of the book refers to the body of water in Constantinople known as the Golden Horn, which feeds into the Bosphorus. Harald fights nobly for the Empire, crushing infidels in the name of Christianity, and rises in rank until he reluctantly attains a place in the emperor and empress’s inner circle. While his military success brings him great wealth, it also proves to be a trap, as Byzantine court intrigue threatens to derail his plans to return to Norway and reclaim what he feels is his rightful place as king.

Though there’s a lot of Game of Thrones-style political maneuvering in this novel, despite Anderson’s fantasy background you won’t find any supernatural occurrences here, which is as it should be. Anderson sticks very close to the historical script and displays a hardcore devotion to the facts, perhaps too hardcore for some readers. While I admire the relentless authenticity with which Anderson tells this tale, at times it feels like a full-immersion session in Viking language day camp. The text is so loaded with Norse words and 11th-century proper nouns it is often more difficult to get through than science fiction and fantasy books that invent their own languages. Dune at least has a glossary; The Golden Horn could use one. Instead, the reader is expected to be familiar with words like jarl, carle, byrnie, wadmal, liefer, rede, or thing (in this case, an assembly or meeting). The genealogy of the royal Yngling family is confusing (though Anderson thankfully provides a chart), as is the revolving-door cast of Byzantine emperors. Anderson really makes the reader feel present in that time and place, but the disorienting level of detail does at times hinder one’s appreciation of the narrative. On the plus side, the battle scenes are exquisitely rendered, the characters are well-drawn, and Harald’s mission is compelling. On the other hand, the book does have its slow periods, and Harald’s impatience to return to Norway is contagious.

Sometimes a trilogy means three separate connected novels, and sometimes a trilogy means one epic work split into three sections. Given the biographical nature of this series, The Last Viking is obviously the latter. The Golden Horn reaches an adequate stopping point but doesn’t really feel like a complete novel in itself. Anyone with an avid interest in Viking lore will be happy to tackle all three books, but the casual history buff might find that too daunting a task.
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Monday, February 19, 2018

Colonel Chabert by Honoré de Balzac

An old war horse returns from the dead
Colonel Chabert, a novel by Honoré de Balzac, was first published in 1832 under the title La Transaction in the Parisian literary journal L’Artiste. In subsequent publications Balzac changed the title to the one it now bears. Balzac classified this work under the category of Scenes from Private Life in his grand multi-volume series of novels and stories, the Comédie Humaine.

The title character is a cavalry officer who fought for Napoleon at the Battle of Eylau in 1807. During the combat with the Russians he was struck on the head with a sabre blow, presumed dead, and tossed into a mass grave. Coming to his senses, he climbs out from under the dead bodies of his comrades and is taken in by a local family. For the better part of a decade after that, Chabert slowly makes his way towards Paris—sometimes ill, sometimes imprisoned, always penniless—trying to regain his former life. As the story opens, he seeks assistance at the office of a lawyer, Maitre Derville, who will be recognizable to Balzac regulars as the attorney from Père Goriot, Gobseck, and other novels of the Comédie Humaine. Chabert informs Derville that he has notified his wife of his existence, but she has refused to acknowledge him or grant him a penny of his former estate. Madame Chabert has since married a count to become the Comtesse Ferraud. She has two children by her new husband and enjoys the social status of being espoused to an upwardly mobile councillor of state under the new monarchy. Since Chabert has been declared dead, he has no legal right over her. The old colonel begs Derville to help him reclaim his wife and his identity, and the lawyer agrees to take his case.

Despite the heavy subject matter, Balzac keeps the proceedings relatively lighthearted for most of the story’s length. Humorous scenes of banter between legal clerks provide comic relief. (Balzac, himself once a clerk in a law office, no doubt wrote those passages from his own experience.) The predicament of Colonel Chabert makes for a very compelling narrative, but one can’t exactly call the resolution satisfying. Balzac wrote this novella as a commentary on the Bourbon Restoration of 1814 to 1830. Chabert embodies the principles of honor and glory that characterized the reign of Napoleon, while his wife represents the rampant greed and vapid social climbing of French society under the new regime of Louis XVIII. Balzac’s satirizing of the hypocrisy of the age brings forth humor, but it also brings frustration. In shaping the plot to prove his sociopolitical points, Balzac leaves the reader feeling a little robbed. The story ultimately becomes a conflict between what is honorable and what is right. While readers of the 21st century would likely put right before honor, that would not have been the case in France 200 years ago. The very definition of honor has also changed over the past two centuries. From today’s perspective, the personal code Chabert lives by comes across as an antiquated and foolish mode of chivalry.

Nevertheless, the characters are indelible, the storytelling is top-notch, and one can’t help but be moved by Chabert’s plight. Balzac writes the kind of stories that stick in your mind for years afterward. You may not recall the names of the players from among the bountiful ensemble cast of the Comédie Humaine, but the moral lessons remain entrenched in your psyche. I wouldn’t count Colonel Chabert as one of Balzac’s absolute best works, but even his lesser efforts usually qualify as exceptional literature, and this is certainly no lesser effort.
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Friday, February 16, 2018

The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell by George Santayana

More about Santayana’s thought than Russell’s
Having previously read a couple works by George Santayana and Bertrand Russell, I was interested in learning more about these two philosophers, so when I discovered that the former had written a book about the latter my interest was piqued. The content of The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell was first published as part of a 1913 book by Santayana entitled Winds of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion. At some later date another publisher extracted these essays on Russell and published them as a separate book. This book should not be confused with a 1944 book of the same title edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp with contributions from various authors.

Santayana’s The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell is comprised of four chapters. The first of these chapters, “A New Scholasticism,” is little more than a brief introduction. Santayana writes from the perspective of a senior scholar commenting on an up-and-comer, even though Russell had published close to ten books by this time. Santayana encouragingly intimates that he admires what Russell has accomplished so far but disagrees with him on a number of matters. The overall tone of Santayana’s writing is one of a mentor offering his mentee a mixture of faint praise and mildly reproachful but constructive criticism.

In the second chapter, “The Study of Essence,” Santayana begins by explaining how philosophers since Plato have made a distinction between the ideal world and the world that man is capable of perceiving with his senses. Santayana describes Russell’s contribution to this continuum as a sort of oxymoronic logical idealism in which mathematics is seen as the underlying truth of the universe. The elder scholar then goes on to critique what he sees as the fallacies in this line of reasoning.

At some point prior to the writing of this book, Russell must have published some essay criticizing the philosophy of pragmatism, because chapter 3, “The Critique of Pragmatism,” reads like a response to such a statement. Santayana, who studied under William James, is closer to a pragmatist than Russell, but that doesn’t stop him from finding fault in pragmatic doctrine. In fact, this chapter is really about Santayana’s views on pragmatism and yields little insight into the philosophy of Russell, who’s name is only mentioned a few times in the entire chapter.

The final chapter, “Hypostatic Ethics,” is a more pointed critique of Russell, focusing on his conception of ethics. Santayana chides the absolutism of Russell’s ethical philosophy, seeing it as prescribing right and wrong in terms as rigid as mathematical equations. Santayana advocates a more relativistic ethics, not as relativist as the pragmatists, perhaps, but at least a happy middle ground.

If you are looking for an introductory or blanket overview of Russell’s philosophy, this is not that book. Despite what its title indicates, this book really reveals more about Santayana’s thought than Russell’s. A very brief book as far as philosophy texts go, it won’t take up too much of your time, and Santayana’s prose is more accessible and less cryptic here than in The Life of Reason, though he still has a tendency to say with a hundred words what he could have said in ten. Those interested in Russell will likely be disappointed by this book. Those interested in Santayana, however, might find it a satisfying read.
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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

International Short Stories: French, edited by Francis J. Reynolds

Evidence of France’s literary superiority
Guy de Maupassant
International Short Stories: French, compiled by Francis J. Reynolds and published in 1910 by P. F. Collier & Sons, is the third in a trilogy of International Short Stories anthologies, following volumes on American and English stories. This French collection includes 23 stories and novellas by French authors both classic and contemporary (for 1910). Though the American and English volumes were fine, it is remarkable how superior this French volume is to both of those preceding books. While each volume has its household-name superstars, the difference in quality is most notable in the obscure, run-of-the-mill writers long since forgotten. While the minor authors of England and America served primarily as disappointing distractions from the better works in their respective volumes, here the French team proves to have a deep bench of players capable of consistently high performance. This volume captures a moment in time when, whether in the case of romanticism or naturalism, French literature really led the world in narrative innovation and literary merit, until arguably the Americans took the lead with early 20th-century realism.

In terms of big Panthéon-worthy names, the starting five, if you will, includes exceptional selections by Honoré de Balzac (“The Elixir of Life”), Emile Zola (“Jean Gourdon’s Four Days”), and Alexandre Dumas (“Solange”). Victor Hugo’s “A Fight with a Cannon” is actually an excerpt from his novel Ninety-Three, but the lifted scene stands alone as compelling short story. Voltaire’s novella Zadig is also reproduced in its entirety. Though a worthy work, having been published in 1747 it does suffer a bit from its extreme antiquity.

For the most part the second-string players, those who deserve more fame than they presently enjoy, are also represented by admirable offerings. Guy de Maupassant, a true master of the short story, delivers likely the book’s best selection, “Abandoned,” in which a married woman and her former lover visit the love child they spawned 40 years before. “A Piece of Bread” by François Coppée, another greatly underrated storyteller, is a touching tale of a friendship between two soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War. Alphonse Daudet’s excellent entry, “The Last Lesson,” is a moving tale of the last French-language class taught at an Alsatian school before the Prussian takeover. Alfred de Musset’s “Croisilles” is an enjoyable lighthearted romance written in a style reminiscent of Balzac. Another reasonably well-known storyteller, Prosper Mérimée, is less successful with “Mateo Falcone,” perhaps his best-known story but certainly not his best.

The remaining baker’s dozen of authors bear names unlikely to ring a bell with most 21st-century readers. With the exception of one or two disappointments, however, such as A. Chenevière’s African colonial tale “Tonton” and Clémence Robert’s pulpy military adventure “Baron de Trenck,” the quality of these lesser-knowns’ selections is quite good and in some cases truly pleasant surprises. Henry Murger’s “The Passage of the Red Sea,” a delightfully wry satire of the art establishment, is right up there among the volume’s best selections. Offerings by Paul de Kock, Erckmann-Chatrian, René Bazin, Marcel Prevost, and Alain René Le Sage are also impressive works.

For lovers of classic literature, the International Short Stories series is pretty good overall, but the French volume is clearly the one book of the three that definitely deserves a download. Not every story included is a masterpiece, but the goods far outweigh the bads.

Stories in this collection

A Piece of Bread by François Coppée
The Elixir of Life by Honoré de Balzac 
The Age for Love by Paul Bourget 
Mateo Falcone by Prosper Mérimée 
The Mirror by Catulle Mendes 
My Nephew Joseph by Ludovic Halevy 
A Forest Betrothal by Erckmann-Chatrian 
Zadig the Babylonian by François Marie Arouet de Voltaire 
Abandoned by Guy de Maupassant 
The Guilty Secret by Paul de Kock 
Jean Monette by Eugene François Vidocq

Solange by Alexandre Dumas 

The Birds in the Letter-Box by René Bazin 

Jean Gourdon’s Four Days by Émile Zola 

Baron de Trenck by Clémence Robert 

The Passage of the Red Sea by Henry Murger 

The Woman and the Cat by Marcel Prevost 

Gil Blas and Dr. Sangrado by Alain René Le Sage 

A Fight with a Cannon by Victor Hugo 

Tonton by A. Chenevière 

The Last Lesson by Alphonse Daudet

Croisilles by Alfred de Musset
The Vase of Clay by Jean Aicard

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, edited by Jonathan Cott

With age comes wisdom
Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews was originally published in 2006 by Wenner Books, a division of Rolling Stone magazine. Though published by Rolling Stone and edited by Rolling Stone writer Jonathan Cott, the 31 collected interviews are not limited to Rolling Stone articles but also include selections from Playboy, the New York Times, the L.A. Times and several other publications. In 2017, Simon & Schuster published an updated edition with three additional interviews, all of them from Rolling Stone, the most recent being from 2009.

At first, even for a huge Dylan fan like myself, this book is a difficult slog to get through. Dylan made some great music back in the ‘60s, but he was a terrible interview subject. This is the same smart-aleck Dylan you see in the movie Don’t Look Back, who answers questions with questions or responds with surrealistic wordplay that’s often just nonsense masked as profundity. He aims for an image of irreverence but usually achieves deliberate disrespect, and very little of worth is revealed in the process. The most frustrating thing about reading these early interviews is that the journalists never call him on it. They either let his half-baked answers slide or eat them up wholeheartedly. The best interview from the ‘60s is by Jay Cocks, then an undergraduate at Kenyon College when Dylan gave a concert there. That piece really gives you an idea of what Dylan and his crazy life were like back then. Other interviewers, like A.J. Weberman of the East Village Other, just love to hear themselves talk and discuss themselves more than they do the man in question. Editor Cott himself is not the greatest of interviewers. He seems to want to impress Dylan with his knowledge of Bartlett’s Quotations, and he raves about Dylan’s film Renaldo and Clara as if it were a Fellini masterpiece, an assessment with which few movie critics are likely to agree.

Finally, around page 200, Dylan matures and so do his interviewers. By this time he has a wife and kids, and he seems to have realized that journalists are just people doing their jobs, not evil antagonists. Most importantly, he finally starts to answer questions with real answers, even though they are still often rendered in his own unique cryptic syntax. He comes to terms with his role as a rock star, respects his fans and the people he’s speaking to, and seems genuinely concerned about imparting the legacy of his musical knowledge to future generations. At this point the book really gets interesting as it delves deeply into the writing, playing, and recording of music. The interviews included here provide some truly fascinating insight into Dylan’s born-again Christian period, his lackluster ‘90s, and his Time Out of Mind renaissance. One really learns a lot about the man and his career, his artistic motivations, his approach to songwriting, and his philosophy towards life.

Because all the interviews are reprinted in their entirety (as they should be), it can be quite a repetitive read. Even in the 21st century, each journalist feels the need to provide a nutshell retrospective biography—born and raised in Hibbing, MN; idolized Woody Guthrie; etc.—so you get to read that 34 times. Still, for such a book it is better to err on the side of thoroughness, and the result is an invaluable reference for Dylanologists. One hindrance for researchers, however, is the lack of an index. Maybe that doesn’t matter in the age of ebooks, but if you’ve got the print edition, good luck finding that pertinent passage about a particular song or album. Ultimately, however, the opportunity to get Dylan’s story straight from the horse’s mouth outweighs the book’s faults and makes this volume a must-read for Dylan fans.
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Friday, February 9, 2018

A Slave is a Slave by H. Beam Piper

A great sci-fi author’s worst story
A Slave is a Slave, a novella by science fiction author H. Beam Piper, was originally published in the April 1962 issue of Analog Science Fact – Science Fiction magazine. This work is part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History series of loosely related stories and novellas that chronicle mankind’s extraterrestrial future. In Piper’s fictional timeline, A Slave is a Slave takes place around the year 4093 of our calendar. By this time, the Terran Federation that features so prominently throughout the series has evolved into the Galactic Empire. A Slave is a Slave follows a recurring template in Piper’s fiction of interplanetary colonization: an expeditionary force from the interstellar government, made up of distant descendants of Earth’s humans, arrive at an outlying planet with the intention of annexing it into the Empire. In order to complete their mission, they must overcome the unusual political, economic, and religious customs of the planet’s inhabitants, also members of the human diaspora who settled this new world centuries before.

In this case, the planet in question is Aditya, which is visited by the Empress Eulalie, an Empire ship complete with an imperial prince, government bureaucrats, military commanders, and a noble viceroy ready to be installed into office. The single unique characteristic of Aditya is its system of universal slavery. The planet is currently ruled by a small oligarchy of masters who own the rest of the population outright. Since chattel slavery is illegal in the Galactic Empire, the new conquerors inform the Adityans that this system of slavery must be abolished. The transition proves to be more difficult than expected, however, not only because of resistance on the part of the Adityans but also because of the difficulty of finding what to do with all these emancipated slaves.

I’m a fan of Piper’s fiction and only a few novellas shy of having read his complete published works. Though I typically find much to enjoy in his work, I have to say that A Slave is a Slave may be the worst Piper story I’ve ever read. That’s not to say it is poorly written. He still manages to skillfully structure and craft the narrative with his usual complexity of detail, but there is little to like or enjoy here, and it all feels rather pointless. Worse, it barely qualifies as science fiction. Unlike other worlds of Piper’s creation, Aditya has no interesting environmental conditions, no unique natural resources or industrial exports, no fascinating native life forms. The only aspect of Aditya that’s even discussed is its system of slavery. The story is merely thinly veiled political commentary dressed up with a few space ships. It could just have easily been told in a third world nation on Earth.

That said, it is difficult to tell what comment Piper is actually trying to make. Early on, he briefly touches on the idea that capitalist wage slavery is just a modified form of chattel slavery. Eventually, he seems to be using the story to justify American imperialism, a stance common to Piper’s fiction. He certainly sympathizes more with the colonizers putting down the rabble than with the rabble itself. Finally, Piper, ever the libertarian, pejoratively compares the slaves to proletariats, which allows him to take a few digs at socialism. Coincidentally, the issue of Analog in which this story debuted also featured the novella Mercenary by Mack Reynolds, another case where sci-fi speculation takes a back seat to boring political and military theorizing. It’s hard to understand why sci-fi magazines would publish such mundane stories of military and political bureaucracy, or why sci-fi fans would want to read them. Just about anything Piper wrote is more exciting and imaginative than A Slave is a Slave.
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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Croisilles by Alfred de Musset

Balzacian comedy of class
Alfred de Musset
Croisilles, a novella by French author Alfred de Musset, was originally published in 1839. The story takes place in the early 18th century. The title is a man’s name, in this case the hero of the narrative. Croisilles is the son of a goldsmith who lives in Le Havre. As the story opens, Croisilles is returning to his hometown after his father has sent him to conduct a business transaction in Paris. Upon reaching Le Havre, he is surprised to find his father’s shop closed and unoccupied. A neighbor informs Croisilles that his father has gone bankrupt and fled to America to escape his creditors. Disgraced and alone, Croisilles considers suicide. On the verge of killing himself, however, he realizes his one reason for living: his love for the beautiful Mademoiselle Julie, the daughter of a family much wealthier than his own. Despite their difference in class and the disapproval of her father, Croisilles decides to win Julie’s love by achieving great wealth of his own.

This is all related by de Musset in a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek manner. Croisilles is a rather flighty individual, in many ways a man-child who can’t survive without his parents. Julie is vain and contemptuous. Her father is as implacable as any other father who doesn’t want his daughter to marry beneath her station. Quite frankly, at first there’s not a lot to admire from any of these characters, but the humor that de Musset injects into the story makes it enjoyable. Croisilles may be a buffoon, but he does come across as lovable. You find yourself rooting for him even when he acts like an idiot or squanders his money on stupid schemes. By the end of the story the reader is thoroughly involved with this odd love story, and even the icy Julie begins to appear sympathetic. De Musset caps the tale off with an delightfully unexpected ending.

If I had not seen de Musset’s name on this story, I would have sworn it were written by Balzac. It’s about as Balzacian as a story can get without actually having been written by Balzac. The subject matter is very in keeping with the concerns of class distinctions, societal conventions, and financial hardships so often explored in the works of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, and de Musset attacks the issues with a similarly wry sense of humor. The story makes a wrong turn early on, right after Croisilles experiences the shock of finding himself destitute. De Musset relents somewhat from that dire sentence with a bit of a cop out: Oh wait, Croisilles really does have some money. It would have been a more effective rags-to-riches tale if the rags had been bleaker. Nevertheless, despite this one narrative misstep, overall Croisilles is a satisfyingly charming read.
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Monday, February 5, 2018

Earth for Inspiration and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Nine

Strong overall despite a few weaker entries
Earth for Inspiration and Other Stories, published in 2016, is the ninth volume in Open Road Media’s excellent series The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak. I’ve been reading these ebooks in a somewhat haphazard order, and this is the eighth volume I’ve completed thus far out of a planned 14 books in the series. Simak’s writing is typically outstanding and frequently superb, making each book definitely worth its purchase price. I feel it my job as a conscientious reviewer, however, to quibble over which volumes are better than others. The verdict on Volume 9 is that it is neither the best nor the worst book in the series, but falls about the middle of the pack, meaning it adheres to the consistently exceptional level of quality exemplified by this series.

Volume 9 sports an abundant eleven stories and novellas, but at times the content does feel a little sub-par compared to other collections in the series. As in all the other volumes, this one features one western, “Good Nesters are Dead Nesters!” It also contains a war story about World War II aerial combat, “Green Flight Out!” These are both pretty good entries in their respective genres, but nothing that would make you forget that Simak is primarily a science fiction author. The collection also includes two stories published very early in Simak’s career that seem a bit clunky and amateurish compared to his mature style. “Asteroid of Gold” is a belief-defying pulp fiction action piece, while the novella “Hellhounds of the Cosmos” is an absurd and illogical tale of interdimensional warfare that nevertheless manages to be bizarrely entertaining.

These less satisfying offerings are thankfully balanced by some truly remarkable selections. The 1944 story “Desertion” would eventually become one of the chapters of the 1952 novel City, perhaps Simak’s best-known work. Readers who have already read that novel, however, will find that familiarity does nothing to diminish the magnificence of “Desertion.” On its own it is one of Simak’s greatest stories and probably one of the best science fiction stories to come out of its decade. In a more humorous vein, “Carbon Copy” is another excellent selection that starts out as a mystery about a real estate scam before venturing far into sci-fi territory. Despite its slow build-up and reveal, it is consistently suspenseful from start to finish. “The Golden Bugs” also unveils its secrets slowly, revealing an ingeniously innovative vision of a unique alien life form. “Honorable Opponent” cleverly satirizes Cold War tensions with a surprisingly charming tale of interplanetary warfare.

In between the best and the worst, the collection is rounded out by three solid thought-provoking entries. “Earth for Inspiration” is about a future science fiction writer who returns to long-abandoned Earth looking for fuel for his stories. In “Idiot’s Crusade,” a mentally challenged man suddenly finds himself possessed of heightened senses and intelligence. Told in the first-person by this individual, the narrative has a delightfully dark and spooky atmosphere but doesn’t quite go far enough in the end. The volume’s final selection, “Full Cycle,” follows a recently laid-off history professor’s pilgrimage through a future post-urban America in which a “decentralization” of culture has brought about a return to nomadism, tribalism, and superstition.

I can’t say enough good things about The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak project as a whole. Though Volume 9 may not be quite as good as books 1, 2, 7, 8, or 10, it certainly upholds the high standard one has come to expect from this exceptional series.

Stories in this collection
Earth for Inspiration 
Idiot’s Crusade 
Hellhounds of the Cosmos
Honorable Opponent 
Green Flight Out! 
Carbon Copy 
Asteroid of Gold 
Good Nesters are Dead Nesters! 
The Golden Bugs 
Full Cycle

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