Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan

Disaster in Nova Scotia
Canadian author Hugh MacLennan’s 1941 book Barometer Rising is a historical novel focusing on the Halifax Explosion of 1917. During World War I, Halifax served as an important seaport for shipping supplies to the war effort in Europe. As the result of an accidental collision, a French munitions ship blew up in Halifax harbor, leveling entire neighborhoods and killing approximately 2000 people. MacLennan, who grew up in Halifax, experienced the event as a young boy.

The novel opens a few days before the disaster. A soldier returns to Halifax after having been wounded in France. He faces a court martial for disobeying an order on the battlefield, and has returned home to seek out other men from his unit who might clear his name. His nemesis and former commanding officer, Colonel Geoffrey Wain, runs a shipbuilding company in Halifax, where Penelope Wain, the colonel’s daughter, works as a ship designer. She previously had a love affair with the soldier in question, but has since begun a relationship with another former member of his battalion. All parties are caught unawares when disaster strikes.

MacLennan is definitely a writer of great literary talent. Though he approaches World War I from a totally different perspective, some passages are reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. On the other hand, the court martial and love triangle storylines get a little melodramatic at times, like something one might find in a war novel by Pearl S. Buck or James Michener. Oddly enough, what the plot of Barometer Rising really calls to mind are those disaster movies of the 1970s, like Airport or The Towering Inferno. Three quarters of the book is spent establishing intrigue and romance, when what the reader is really waiting for is the disaster, at which point all bets are off and the intrigue and romance take a back seat to survival. When MacLennan does finally depict the disaster, it is a tour de force of gripping realism. I knew nothing about the Halifax Explosion beforehand, but reading this book has given me not only a firm grasp of the factual events but also a visceral understanding of the sheer horror of the catastrophe.

Where Barometer Rising really rises above the level of a disaster potboiler, however, is in its thoughtful contemplation of Canadian identity. Just as important as the historical narrative of the disaster is MacLennan’s inquiry into what it means to be a Canadian, a Nova Scotian, or a Haligonian. He questions his nation’s role in the Great War, not only for the jingoism and opportunism that come with wartime but also for the treatment of Canada as a sort of vassal state to Great Britain. At what point does the former colony come into its own as an independent nation? Of course, Canada has gone a long way towards solving this identity crisis over the past century, due in no small part to the work of artists like MacLennan, but this book serves as an insightful time capsule of feelings on Canadian nationalism at the time of its publication. Though a native of Nova Scotia himself, MacLennan’s depiction of Halifax is not always flattering. He paints an objective portrait, at times nostalgically reverential and at times scathingly critical. The novel ends in a hopeful tone, however, as, much like New York after 9/11, the citizenry rises to the occasion and works toward recovery.

In Canada, Barometer Rising is considered a landmark book in the development of that nation’s literature. For readers elsewhere, it’s a powerful reminder that the rich literary history of the Great White North deserves greater recognition and should not be overlooked.
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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Garman and Worse by Alexander Kielland

Family business in a Norwegian coastal town
Alexander Kielland is regarded as one of “The Four Greats” of 19th-century Norwegian literature. His first novel, Garman and Worse, was published in 1880. (This book should not be confused with another Kielland novel entitled Skipper Worse, published in 1882, which is a prequel to this novel.) Garman and Worse takes place in a small town on the coast of Norway. The title refers to the name of a shipping business founded by two families, the Garmans and the Worses. Of the two, the Garmans have the larger stake in the business and are the prominent wealthy family in the town. The novel is largely the saga of the Garman family, though the cast includes a variety of townspeople as supporting players. Richard Garman, the somewhat flighty black sheep of the family, has chosen to man the lighthouse at Bratvold while his brother Christian Frederick Garman, referred to as the young Consul, occupies the nearby family estate of Sandsgaard and acts as president of the family business. When Richard’s daughter Madeleine, who has grown up in rustic isolation at the lighthouse, reaches the age of womanhood, he sends her to Sandsgaard to live at her uncle’s house, where she can acquire the cultured manners necessary to enter society and field potential suitors.

The young Consul has three grown children of his own, and Kielland continues to add new characters in each chapter until the ensemble cast becomes vast and ungainly. I actually had to draw up family trees just to keep track of everyone. With so many intertwining plotlines, the reader wonders when one protagonist is going to rise above the others and become the protagonist of the novel. That never really happens, however, as Kielland constantly shifts perspective from one character to another and distributes the narrative equally among them. Kielland was a realist, and he depicts his fictional microcosm of society with an admirable complexity and authenticity. At times his writing is reminiscent of Emile Zola’s naturalistic novels in his attention to detail and psychological insight, but Kielland’s is a kinder, gentler, realism—less pessimistic, less cynical, and less preachy in its social criticism.

The affections of no less than four young women are at stake in the novel, which leads to much jockeying of position among various admirers: a schoolteacher, a businessman, a lawyer, a clergyman, a laborer, a fisherman, and others. Garman and Worse could therefore probably best be classified as a novel of manners, but Kielland’s concerns are broader than that. Early on, the book shows signs of becoming a novel of class conflict, but that thread disappears for many chapters, only to be recovered towards the end of the book. Though the plot contains few of what might be called exciting events, the reader gradually becomes intimately invested in the lives of these characters as each grows over time and learns his or her own moral lesson. As a study of human nature, Garman and Worse is quietly compelling.

I had previously read a collection of short stories by Kielland, entitled Tales of Two Countries, which is similar in style and quality to this novel. Compared to other Norwegian writers, Kielland’s writing is more realistic and less romantic than that of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, another of The Four Greats. Most readers of today would probably prefer a more modernist writer like Knut Hamsun, but those who enjoy classic realist literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries will find Kielland much to their liking.

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Friday, May 25, 2018

The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Good to have him back
The Return of Sherlock Holmes, originally published in 1905, is the third collection of short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring Sherlock Holmes. The volume contains 13 Holmes mysteries that originally ran in issues of the Strand Magazine and Collier’s Magazine in 1903 and 1904. Conan Doyle had killed off his famous character a decade earlier, but popular demand brought the great detective back to life. After the 1902 publication of the successful novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, which takes place before Holmes’s death, Conan Doyle decided to fully resurrect the character by negating his previous demise at the hands of Professor Moriarity.

In the book’s opening entry, “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Holmes reappears and explains to Watson how he faked his own death. Though necessary to get Holmes back in action again, the explanation is more convenient than convincing. In fact, the story isn’t really much of a mystery, just a lot of Holmes telling Watson what’s what. Still, it delivers some thrills as Holmes goes up against Moriarity’s right-hand man, a killer sharp shooter. Another interesting villain is introduced in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” The title character is a professional blackmailer, and to stop him even Holmes and Watson must enter some ethical gray areas.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes is loaded with great stories, like “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” in which Holmes uses cryptography to catch the criminal, and “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” an ingenious tale in which Holmes tracks down a burglar with a bizarrely specific taste in loot. “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” “The Adventure of the Priory School,” “The Adventure of Black Peter,” and “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” are all skillfully crafted cases of murder and abduction. Conan Doyle provides the supporting characters with some really elaborate and complicated back stories, which are revealed through intricate clues parceled out in a tantalizingly measured and piecemeal manner.

Conan Doyle doesn’t hit it out of the park every time. Sometimes the criminal’s back story overpowers the mystery narrative, as in “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez.” Sometimes the crime itself isn’t all that compelling, as in “The Adventure of the Three Students,” a case of who cheated on a test, or “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter,” in which a Cambridge rugby player goes missing the day before the big game against Oxford. Even the latter example, however, ends up with an unexpected and touching resolution. The book ends on a high note, “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” in which Holmes has to track down a lost document that might mean war for Britain if it falls into the wrong hands. In this last entry, Watson informs us that Holmes has now retired from detective work, but somehow I suspect he will be back for more.

Though Conan Doyle may have been reluctant to revive his dead hero, you won’t find any indication of a lack of enthusiasm in any of the selections included here. Overall, the stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes are better than those in the second volume of short stories, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, which at times felt a bit tired. Though not all masterpieces, the 13 stories in The Return are fastidiously crafted with care and detail. Holmes’s earliest stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes will always be the best and most memorable, but The Return of Sherlock Holmes is a satisfying return to form.

Stories in this collection
The Adventure of the Empty House
The Adventure of the Norwood Builder
The Adventure of the Dancing Men
The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist
The Adventure of the Priory School
The Adventure of Black Peter
The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton
The Adventure of the Six Napoleons
The Adventure of the Three Students
The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez
The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter
The Adventure of the Abbey Grange
The Adventure of the Second Stain

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Religion of Science by Paul Carus

Freethinker or not?
German-American writer Paul Carus was a prolific author, editor, and publisher of books and journals on religion and philosophy. He was the editor of the philosophical journal The Monist and managing editor of Open Court Publishing, which were both founded by his father-in-law, zinc magnate Edward C. Heleger. Carus, who referred to himself as “an atheist who loved God,” devoted his life to encouraging interfaith dialogue, introducing concepts of Eastern religions to the West, and seeking common ground between Christians and freethinkers. Towards achieving the latter goal, Carus formulated and promoted his concept of The Religion of Science, of which his 1893 book of the same title provides a concise overview.

Monism is an ancient philosophical world view that was clarified for the modern era by 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza. Monism asserts that the universe is composed of one substance, matter, as opposed to dualism, which professes that the universe is comprised of both matter and spirit. In The Religion of Science, Carus proposes a monism based on science that modern people can apply to their daily lives. He calls for a rational religion that worships the truth, as revealed by scientific inquiry, rather than one in which reality is obfuscated by ancient myth and superstition. This religion will have an ethics based objectively on duty to mankind rather than on dogma or hedonism. Carus explains his concepts in very straightforward, eloquent, and quotable prose that even philosophically illiterate general readers can easily understand. I loved the first few chapters of this book, which promise an excellent, clearly stated, freethinking “bible” along the lines of Ernst Haeckel’s exemplary monist text The Riddle of the Universe.

As he advances his argument, however, Carus ventures further and further from Spinoza, pushing the envelope of monism, and the book becomes progressively less attractive to materialist freethinkers. While Spinoza’s religious view is generally described as pantheism, Carus calls his religion entheism, which is likely a shortened name for panentheism. Essentially, Spinoza says that God is nature (i.e. matter), while Carus is saying that God is the laws of nature. The difference seems like unnecessary theoretical hair-splitting intended to make Carus’s god more palatable to traditional theists. The most controversial aspect of Carus’s philosophy is his belief in the soul and immortality, though his conceptions of both are nontraditional. To Carus, a man’s soul is the sum total of his ideas, impulses, and will. While acknowledging the materialistic causes of human behavior, Carus then mystifies human consciousness by describing it in spiritual terms. Man achieves immortality, in Carus’s view, by leaving a legacy of ideas and memories, and thus contributing to human evolution and culture. This may be a worthy concept, but Carus deliberately couches it in terms that suggest an afterlife, which seems an attempt to pacify religious readers. In fact, the latter chapters of The Religion and Science are a series of concessions to traditional religion, consciously designed to cast as wide a net as possible to possible converts. In the end, Christians might be more likely to appreciate this book than freethinkers, who may see it as one big cop-out.

Though I certainly don’t agree with everything Carus has to say in The Religion of Science, I still think it’s a valuable text in the history of freethought. It may only be a baby step toward a rational humanity, but it’s certainly an improvement over the prevailing religious dogmas. Neither the faithful nor the freethinking reader is likely to buy wholeheartedly into Carus’s philosophy, but each can draw something useful from it to augment their own personal philosophies.
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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Dusty Zebra and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Eleven

An outstanding series, but not the best volume
This is the ninth book I’ve read of The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, a series which will eventually amount to 14 volumes. (I’m not reading them in numerical order.) Overall, the series so far has just been spectacular. I had very little prior experience with Simak before I stumbled upon Volume One, but I immediately became hooked on this series. Volume Eleven, Dusty Zebra and Other Stories, is another great collection of short fiction, but by no means the best book in the series.

Each volume contains at least one example of Simak’s non-sci-fi writing. The longest work in this book is a western novella called “Way for the Hangtown Rebel!” It’s a constant stream of action scenes that might make a decent B-movie but adds up to one pretty formulaic story. Also included in this collection is a tale of World War II combat, “Guns on Guadalcanal,” which has little literary merit and suffers from the expected anti-Japanese racism of its era.

The good news is that the rest of the volume consists of seven science fiction stories. The book opens with its delightfully funny title selection, in which an opportunistic family man stumbles upon a way of communicating with an alien intelligence through the universal language of commerce. Next up is “Hobbies,” which is one of the stories that would eventually make up Simak’s 1952 novel City, but this ingenious and unpredictable vision of the future of mankind, caninekind, and robotkind is excellent even on its own. Another fine selection is “Courtesy,” about an interplanetary expedition party who, when faced with imminent death, must turn to the local aborigines to find a cure. The plot drags at times, but the story imparts a valuable moral lesson.

In his 1955 novella “Project Mastodon,” also included here, Simak gives a lot of creative thought to the political, economic, and military ramifications of time travel, but he has a pretty cavalier attitude toward how actions in the past, such as resource extraction and settlement, would effect the course of history. This story has a great premise which Simak would eventually develop into the excellent 1978 novel Mastodonia, but here the idea feels a little half-baked, and the ending is a disappointment. The 1932 story “Voice in the Void” is about two adventurers stealing a Martian religious relic. Though this early effort is not on a par with Simak’s mature writing, it makes for pretty good pulp fiction. “Final Gentleman” is a Twilight-Zonish piece of conspiracy sci-fi in which a writer finds the life he has known was just a sham and he merely a puppet. It has a good suspenseful buildup, but gets a little too trippy and suffers from a lack of clarity at the end. In “Retrograde Evolution,” another tale of interplanetary contact, Simak comes up with an interesting theory on war, peace, and culture, but he expresses it too obtusely, to the point where the story begins to bore.

Like all the books in the Complete Short Fiction series, I enjoyed Volume Eleven, enough to give it a four-star rating, but that’s actually a weak showing compared to five-star volumes like numbers One, Two, Seven, Eight, and Ten. The whole series, as I’ve seen so far, is well worth reading, but if you’re only going to pick a few of the books to read, this one should not be among them. If you read City (as you should), you’ve already got “Hobbies” covered, and “Project Mastodon” is in the public domain so you can download it for free.

Stories in this collection
Dusty Zebra 
Guns on Guadalcanal 
Voice in the Void 
Retrograde Evolution 
Way for the Hangtown Rebel! 
Final Gentleman 
Project Mastodon

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Friday, May 18, 2018

Peony by Pearl S. Buck

Family saga of the Jewish diaspora in China
Though Pearl S. Buck wrote historical novels about a variety of peoples and places, she is best known for her books set in China, the country in which she was raised. In the case of her 1948 book entitled Peony, however, the subtitle “A Novel of China” really doesn’t let you know what you’re in for, as this is quite an unconventional book by Buck. Here she bases her story on the history of Jews in China, particularly the centuries-old Jewish community of Kaifeng, Henan Province, where the story of Peony takes place.

Ezra ben Israel’s Jewish ancestors arrived in Kaifeng four generations prior to the start of the novel. His family has managed to maintain their Jewish identity despite the progressively shrinking membership of their synagogue. Ezra, a successful merchant, is the son of a Jewish father and Chinese mother and displays a healthy respect for Chinese customs. His wife, however, is more of a hardliner in her devotion to the Jewish faith and believes in preserving the racial purity of her community. She envisions her son David as the future rabbi of the Kaifeng synagogue and wants to marry him to Leah, the daughter of the current rabbi. Peony, a young Chinese woman, is a bondmaid in the family household and has been raised almost as a daughter to Ezra and a sister to David. She is secretly in love with David, but realizes that as a bondmaid (a nicer word for slave) she has no chance of being his wife. Instead, hoping to please him, she schemes to encourage his marriage to a wealthy Chinese girl to whom she learns he is attracted.

Because the Jews were welcomed by the Chinese and allowed to live according to their Jewish faith and customs, this is not a tale of religious persecution. The primary threats facing the Jews of Kaifeng are assimilation and attrition. The Chinese were so welcoming that cross-cultural exchange and interracial marriage became common, resulting in cultural dilution. David is faced with the dilemma of to what degree he owes allegiance to his ancestral culture (and his mother) and how free he is to follow his heart and live his own life as he sees fit. As is often the case with Buck’s books, the story sometimes ventures into soap-opera melodrama, but she is such a good transcriber of human emotion, and the characters feel so genuine, that the reader usually doesn’t care. Even when the plot of Peony becomes romantically overwrought, it is anything but formulaic. The narrative takes unexpected turns and neither succumbs to mawkishness nor settles for an easy ending.

For much of the book, the time period of the story is indeterminate. Buck goes out of her way to make the story timeless by eliminating historical detail. For example, neither horses nor automobiles are mentioned as a means of transportation, and the Jewish family acts as if they could be straight out of Ben-Hur. Towards the end of the book, however, the Empress Dowager Cixi makes an appearance, which places the story roughly in the 1890s. The ebook edition from Open Road Media includes a substantial afterword, written sometime after 1990, by Wendy R. Abraham, an expert on the Jewish diaspora in China. She gives a detailed historical overview on the subject, from the arrival of the first Jews in China as early as the 8th century to a summary of the research on the Kaifeng Jews up through the late 20th century. The nonfiction account of this surprising episode in world history is truly fascinating, and the fictional narrative that Buck crafts from it is moving and thought-provoking. Though not as outstanding as The Good Earth trilogy, Peony is one of Buck’s better books.
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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Moneychangers by Upton Sinclair

Financial chicanery and commercial skullduggery
Upton Sinclair’s novel The Moneychangers, published in 1908, is loosely based on the real-life stock market crash known as the Panic of 1907. The story takes place in New York City. In the opening chapter, Allan Montague, an attorney, is reunited with a childhood friend from Mississippi, Lucy Dupree, who is recently widowed and has decided to settle in New York. Lucy wants Montague’s help being introduced into “Society,” but he soon finds himself assuming the role of protector as the beautiful Lucy is sought after by wealthy, married philanderers. Though there is no romantic connection between the two, Lucy is naive to the big-city ways of the metropolis, and Montague takes it upon himself to defend her honor.

The story then makes a segue from chivalry into business. From their days back home in the South, Montague and Lucy are both stockholders in the Northern Mississippi Railroad. Lucy wants to sell her stock, and she asks Montague to act as her financial representative. Though this railroad is a small business, it has the potential to become a lot bigger through a deal with The Mississippi Steel Company. As New York’s wealthy financiers get wind of this, they show an interest in Lucy’s stock and start sniffing into her and Montague’s business. The more he deals with these interested parties, the more Montague learns about the underhanded deals going down in the world of New York finance, and how a handful of wealthy and powerful oligarchs manipulate the market, the courts, and the legislature to their advantage.

Compared to other writers of the muckraker era like Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair always had his own unique style that was more propagandistic and preachy than his contemporaries. He was never afraid to push his political agenda, no matter how blatantly, even at the expense of plot and characterization. (That’s not a criticism, just an observation; I actually admire him for it.) Here in The Moneychangers, however, Sinclair definitely makes an attempt to craft a satisfying melodrama. Stylistically, the book greatly resembles Dreiser’s novels The Financier and The Titan. Sinclair nevertheless still manages to get his digs into the capitalist class, but not so dogmatically as he does in books like The Jungle, 100%, or The Millennium. This may be because none of the book’s characters are members of the lower, working, or even the middle classes. The story is told entirely through the perspective of lawyers, bankers, and well-to-do businessmen. Having covered the proletariat with due diligence elsewhere in his body of work, perhaps here Sinclair was aiming to educate middle-class readers through subtler persuasive tactics.

The Moneychangers isn’t very compelling at first, but it improves considerably as it goes along. The first half is rather slow, and the whole storyline about Lucy and her reputation feels a bit unnecessary to a novel that’s ultimately about finance and greed. The second half of the book, however, is really quite good. The instances of financial, commercial, and political corruption start out small but then gradually snowball into an avalanche. One particularly clever scene of journalistic espionage turns the book into a thriller worthy of a 21st-century film adaptation. Though Sinclair develops his case gradually without resorting to diatribes, by the end of the novel he has presented an ample laundry list of evils perpetrated by the oligarchs of American finance. The Moneychangers proves once again that even Sinclair’s lesser known works are often of high literary merit and loaded with valuable perspective on American history.
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Monday, May 14, 2018

Life by Keith Richards

Long-winded and surprisingly tiresome
I’ve been a fan of the Rolling Stones all my life, but I don’t feel any more affinity toward Keith Richards than the other members of the band. I read Life, his 2010 autobiography, because I wanted to learn more about the history of the Stones, not because I’m all that interested in his rebel persona. I feared the book might be a self-indulgent exercise in egomania, but after finally reading it, my biggest surprise was how unexpectedly boring it turned out to be.

With the help of ghost writer James Fox, Life is written in a conversational style intended to give the reader the feeling of an intimate chat with Keith. To some extent this strategy works, but the text is so loaded with colorful slang, gratuitous profanity, home-spun aphorisms, and pointless tangential asides that it takes Richards five times longer to tell a story than it really should. Reading the book is as frustrating as trying to pry pertinent information from a rambling drunk. Time crawled so slowly that I found myself impatiently checking the index to find out how long it would be before Brian Jones dies and we move on to Mick Taylor. When is Ron Wood finally going to show up? Shouldn’t he have married Patti Hansen already?

Readers who play guitar will appreciate that Richards goes into a significant discussion of his musical technique. While I don’t have much knowledge in that area, I can tell that he writes about the craft of music-making more articulately than, say, Bob Dylan’s ramblings in Chronicles. The problem with Life, however, is that Richards doesn’t talk about music enough. The people who will really love this book are those who do drugs—hard drugs—because that’s mostly what he focuses on. He went to such-and-such a party on this-or-that island; these are the people who were there; these are the substances they consumed; this is the aftermath; this is how he cleaned himself up; only to go back to doing more drugs. His drug busts and other legal troubles are also minutely examined. Richards gives detailed biographies of myriad members of his entourage, while the Stones remain shadowy characters on the periphery. Somewhere around page 450 he finally goes into detail about what exactly his beef is with Mick Jagger, and you think now were finally getting somewhere. When he then goes into a track-by-track diary of the making of Bridges to Babylon, one of the Stones worst albums, one can’t help but wonder why he didn’t give the same exhaustive treatment to great albums like Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, or Exile on Main St.

Many Stones fans probably see Richards as a fun guy to party with, but would you really want to be friends with this guy? He comes across as one of those people who would never in a million years admit that he is ever wrong about anything. With all the glee of a teenaged reprobate he brags about pulling knives and guns on people. There’s never any moment of self-reflective realization that his lifestyle of substance abuse is toxic to himself or those around him, like you find in Eric Clapton’s autobiography. Sure, Keith talks about the misery of going cold turkey, but in the end you get the feeling that he thinks it’s all just great fun. The way he talks about his family life, one would think that growing up with heroin addict parents is the best character-building childhood a kid could have. This book didn’t make me like Keith any better as a person, but on that score, it was pretty much what I expected. I have to admit that I did learn a thing or two about the Stones here and there, but not nearly as much as I had hoped. Overall, Life is a necessary document if you want to get the story of the Stones straight from the horse’s mouth, but reading it should not have been such a tiresome ordeal.
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Friday, May 11, 2018

A.J. Casson: An Artist’s Life by Christopher E. Jackson

Brief overview of a Canadian master
The band of painters known as the Group of Seven are the most highly regarded, widely known, and minutely studied figures in the history of Canadian art. They are generally credited with establishing a distinctively Canadian style of visual art that helped Canada forge a national identity in the early 20th century. A.J. Casson (1898-1992) was the youngest and last surviving member of the Group. He was not a founding member, but was invited to join in 1926 after one of the original members resigned. Thus Casson doesn’t quite enjoy the respect of full membership, and though many beautiful books have been published on the Group of Seven, he is often given the short shrift and sometimes barely mentioned at all.

A.J. Casson: An Artist’s Life was published in 1998 by the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art to accompany a traveling exhibition of Casson’s work. Though only 64 pages long, it is a pleasure to see an entire book devoted to Casson, who happens to be one of my favorite artists in the Group of Seven. Franklin Carmichael, a founding member of the group, served as Casson’s mentor, both in their day jobs as graphic artists and in their moonlighting as fine artists. The two share a similar style, and their work is generally less impressionistic and more graphic or illustrative than the other members, with Casson’s paintings even more consciously designed than those of Carmichael. If A. Y. Jackson were the Marsden Hartley of the Canadian landscape and Lawren Harris its Rockwell Kent, Casson might be its Grant Wood or Charles Sheeler. The selection of Casson’s works in this book is about evenly split between his paintings of small Ontario towns and his more mystical-looking uninhabited landscapes. Several examples of watercolors are shown, as well as one print, one drawing, and a few examples of his commercial graphic art. Unfortunately, about half the images are reproduced in black and white. While this is often a necessary cost-saving device, it really prevents the book from being a timeless and essential document of Casson’s life and work.

The text by curator Christopher E. Jackson amounts to about 16 pages of text and therefore can’t be considered a complete biography. It reads more like an artist’s resume that has been fleshed out with more detail. You don’t really get considerable insight into what Casson was like as a human being, but you do learn a lot about his career. What surprised me most was the level of underappreciation and lack of financial success Casson experienced during his lifetime, as he was always regarded as a second-string player in the Group of Seven. Not until all of the other members died was he really recognized as an elder statesman of Canadian art, and he wasn’t able to retire from his graphic art job until he was 60. That’s difficult to comprehend given how the Group of Seven are regarded as national treasures today.

This book is probably not the most authoritative work on Casson. Eminent Canadian art critic Paul Duval published at least three previous books on the artist and his work. Most books on Canadian art, however, were printed in small runs, are now out of print, and copies are either difficult to track down or expensive to purchase. As an American fan of the Group of Seven, I often find that I have to settle for whatever I can dig up in university libraries, and one could settle for a lot worse than A.J. Casson: An Artist’s Life. Though one wishes it were printed in full-color throughout and more extensive in its scope, it’s still a very attractive book, and it did provide me with a more thorough education on Casson than I could find elsewhere.

Credit Forks, c. 1930, watercolor and graphite on paper, 46 x 56.5 cm

Housetops in the Ward, 1927, watercolor over red conte and graphite on paper, 40.5 x 47.3 cm

Anglican Church at Magnetawan, 1933, oil on canvas, 94.3 x 115.1 cm

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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Two Little Misogynists by Carl Spitteler

Mischievous Swiss kids
Carl Spitteler
Swiss writer Carl Spitteler won the 1919 Nobel Prize in Literature, primarily on the strength of his poetry, including his epic work Olympian Spring. English-language readers searching for works by the early, lesser-known Nobel Laureates, however, are often at the mercy of whatever obscure gems someone many decades ago happened to consider worthy of translation. In Spitteler’s case, the only work available in English is not a poem but a novel. Originally published in 1907 under the German title of Die Mädchenfeinde, the English version bears the unlikely title of Two Little Misogynists. The 1922 edition published by Henry Holt and Company is a brief book of 132 pages, with around 20 of those pages devoted to illustrations.

Though the title may be a bit off-putting to today’s audience, the two misogynists referred to in the title are merely two young brothers who, like many boys their age, think girls are icky. Gerold, age 10, and Hänsli, age 9, have been spending a vacation at their grandparents’ house in the village of Sentisbrugg, but the time has come for them to reluctantly return to the military school they attend in the city of Aarmünsterburg. Much to their chagrin, they are informed that for a portion of their trip they will be sharing a ride with a girl their age named Gesima, the daughter of an important local magistrate. The novel is a road-trip story detailing the adventures of the three children on this journey.

Though good boys at heart, the brothers are troublemakers to some degree, like a milder version of the Katzenjammer Kids, if anyone remembers that old comic strip. Their first inclination upon meeting Gesima is to pick on her, but over time, not surprisingly, they develop warmer feelings for her. Gesima in her turn begins to show the inklings of feminine wiles and toys with the boys in retaliation. In early 20th-century Switzerland, it apparently took a village to raise the youngsters, because they are shuttled into the hands of a different group of adults with each town they pass through, but they periodically manage to escape to undertake their own independent exploits in the picturesque Swiss countryside.

Two Little Misogynists is mostly charming, sometimes boring, and often seems as if some of its humor has been lost in translation or is just intentionally absurd. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the book, but it never truly impresses either. Mostly it just comes across as a harmless piece of fluff and not the kind of work that would have in any way contributed to Spitteler’s Nobel win. One can venture that the book is perhaps autobiographically based on Spitteler’s own childhood memories of growing up in Switzerland, though with events exaggerated for comedic effect. One doesn’t learn a whole lot about Swiss culture, however. The illustrations probably do more to establish the specificity of the Swiss setting than does the text. One wishes to learn more about the lives of the adult characters, but they exist only in the periphery while the author tells the tale from a child’s perspective. To that end, Spitteler does demonstrate a knack for capturing the naive wonder of the juvenile mind. This brief work of prose may be far from the Nobel-caliber epic verse for which Spitteler is known, but it does make for a pleasantly lighthearted read.

Illustration by A. Helene Carter, from Two Little Misogynists by Carl Spitteler, 1922 English edition published by Henry Holt and Company
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Monday, May 7, 2018

The Disappearance by Philip Wylie

A great sci-fi premise bogged down in preachy social criticism
The Disappearance, a science fiction novel by Philip Wylie, was originally published in 1951. I had previously been very impressed by Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator, but found The Disappearance to be much less satisfying. More than many of his sci-fi contemporaries, Wylie aimed for highbrow literature by infusing his work with philosophical depth. In The Disappearance, however, he goes overboard and smothers his own story with deep thoughts.

Bill Gaunt is an eminent philosopher who lives in Miami. His wife Paula is a brilliant former student of his, but like most women of her time she gave up her career to manage a home and family. The couple have two grown children, Edwin and Edwinna (ugh, really), and a young granddaughter. One day without warning, as Bill is working at his typewriter, all the women on Earth instantaneously disappear, leaving him in a world inhabited solely by men. In chapter two, however, we see the same incident from Paula’s perspective, and it is the men who disappear. Thus, the two sexes live in parallel worlds, ignorant of each other’s existence. While each makes attempts to discover the cause of the disappearance and perhaps reverse its effects, the survivors of each gender must rebuild civilization to serve the needs of its half of humanity.

What an excellent premise for a science fiction novel! Wylie, however, only provides the thinnest of plots while concentrating most of his efforts on social commentary, using the disappearance to critique western civilization’s ideas on sex roles, sexuality, education, and religion. As one might expect, Wylie chose to make Bill Gaunt a philosopher in order to give himself the opportunity to philosophize, and that’s what he does, tediously so. The centerpiece of the book is a long essay in which Wylie exhaustively enumerates his grievances against the present state of society, and much of the rest of the novel either comments or elaborates upon this essay. The plot, consisting mostly of wordy conversations and debates, is almost an afterthought, and Wylie lazily wraps it up with an ending that is the epitome of the phrase “deus ex machina.” Though a complete list of Wylie’s philosophical issues are too extensive to enumerate here, among them he lobbies for greater equality between the sexes, more openness about sexuality, greater independence for women, and a freer attitude toward marital infidelity.

Many of the ideas that Wylie expresses come across as progressively feminist for 1951. Upon closer inspection, however, it’s a very selective brand of feminism. The book has only one truly positive female character—Paula Gaunt—who presents a very idealized picture of womanhood. All the other female characters are depicted as stupid, flighty, self-serving, shallow, and/or incompetent. It’s as if Wylie were saying I believe in equal rights for women, as long as they have a PhD intelligence, speak six languages, display exemplary leadership, and maintain their good looks well into their forties. The rest of womankind is written off as shoddy products of the faulty society in which they were raised. Meanwhile, the depiction of the “colored” characters in the book, who even after half of humanity disappears continue to work as servants for the whites while living in tents and shacks, indicates that racial equality was not among Wylie’s concerns.

All great science fiction has a philosophical component, but The Disappearance so relentlessly beats its readers over the head with its diatribes, one wonders why Wylie didn’t skip the science fiction and just write the essay.
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Friday, May 4, 2018

A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future by John Jacob Astor IV

To Jupiter and Saturn in the year 2000
When he perished from the sinking of the Titanic, fur empire heir and real estate tycoon John Jacob Astor IV was one of the richest men on Earth. Among his lesser known accomplishments, Astor also wrote a science fiction novel, A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future, published in 1894. Set in the year 2000, the novel is divided into three parts. The first depicts America at the dawn of the 21st century, the second details an expedition to the planet Jupiter, and the third follows the space voyage to Saturn.

According to Astor’s utopian vision of the future, all our problems will be solved in the year 2000, at least if you’re an American. The United States has clearly become the world’s superpower and enjoys the advantages of many remarkable technological marvels. Astor was well-versed in the science of his times, and his sci-fi speculations are exhaustively wide-ranging. The book reads as if someone binge read every issue of Popular Science magazine and then unloaded every possible idea into one story. In addition to such prescient ideas as airplanes, universal telecommunications, and various schemes of renewable energy, Astor envisions a project to alter the tilt of the Earth’s axis in order to ensure a pleasant climate year round (for America and Europe, anyway; to hell with everyone else). Colonel Bearwarden is the president of the corporation undertaking this task. Together with his young stockholder Dick Ayrault and Dr. Courtlandt, a “government expert” in all branches of science, he comes up with a plan for an interplanetary expedition. This is made possible by the (fictional) force of apergy, a means of electrically charging objects, such as spaceships, so that gravity repels rather than attracts them. Together, in a spacecraft that sounds a lot like a motor home, curtained windows and all, the three set out for Jupiter.

Once they get to their destination, the trio conduct themselves less like a scientific expedition and more like a hunting party, shooting everything in sight. By 19th-century standards, Astor provides a reasonable scientific justification for every aspect of Jupiter’s environment: its comfortable climate, breathable atmosphere, drinkable water, and its inhabitation by dinosaurs. While the book definitely deserves kudos for its audacity and imagination, it is unfortunately a bore to read. Too many chapters are simply long discussions on astrogeology, which might have been interesting if 95% of what the three men are saying hadn’t already been proven wrong over the past century. The book gets worse when it moves on to Saturn. There Astor abandons science altogether and dives wholeheartedly into the supernatural, depicting Saturn as a world inhabited by the spirits of dead humans from Earth. Though scientifically minded, Astor’s fervent religious piety is evident in his attempts to propose half-baked scientific explanations for everything from biblical stories to the afterlife. What started out as a farfetched but scientifically grounded work of speculative fiction simply devolves into yet another 19th-century Romantic paean to love and divinity.

Astor also makes it clear that his brave new world is only intended for Whites. His vision of utopian America rests largely on colonization and exploitation, whether of Africa or Jupiter. By 2000, the “progressive Anglo-Saxons” have conquered much of the globe and will soon “absorb or run out all inferior races.” While racism is common in 19th-century literature, rarely is it stated so blatantly as that. Though in many ways A Journey in Other Worlds is admirable science fiction for its time, there are good reasons, both literary and ethical, why it’s not popularly regarded as a classic.
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