Friday, September 28, 2018

The Book of Jack London, Volume 2 by Charmian Kittredge London

At home and abroad with Mr. and Mrs. London
The Book of Jack London is a biography of the great American author of The Call of the Wild, Martin Eden, The Iron Heel,To Build a Fire,” and other literary classics. Written by his widow Charmian Kittredge London shortly after his death, The Book of Jack London was published in 1921 in two volumes. Volume 1 consisted mostly of secondhand anecdotes of Jack’s life before he met Charmian. In the second volume, which is superior to its predecessor, Charmian writes firsthand about her life, love, and marriage with Jack.

The book is invaluable for the copious level of detail it provides on the author’s life, such as the places to which he traveled, the people he met, the venues where he lectured, his dealings with publishers, his agricultural operations, and the leisure time Mr. and Mrs. London spent with their friends. I’ve read everything Jack London ever wrote and much of what has been written about him, but this is the first book I can recall that even mentions his trips to Cuba and Jamaica, which is just one example of this volume’s thoroughness. On the other hand, Charmian is probably best known for accompanying Jack on an aborted around-the-world yachting voyage, but she all but skips over that trip here because she’s already covered it in another book, The Log of the Snark. The same is true of much of their Hawaiian travels, which she recounted in her book Our Hawaii.

The biggest problem with The Book of Jack London is Charmian’s writing. Her pretentious prose stands as a glaring exemplar of thesaurus abuse, and her convoluted syntax hinders understanding. In constructing the narrative of her husband’s life, Charmian jumps all over chronologically and thematically while haphazardly reproducing quotations, letters, and poetry, whether relevant or not. The fact that this account of Jack London’s life is quite biased should not be surprising, given it was written by his spouse, but the extent to which Charmian sugarcoats and sanitizes every aspect of Jack’s life really tests the reader’s patience. She speaks about her husband as if he were a cross between Hercules and Romeo. When describing his final days, she paints him as a Christ figure who died for humanity’s sins. Charmian goes to great pains to show that she and Jack shared a superhuman love, not only relentlessly praising the man but reproducing every utterance of praise he ever had for her as well. Nevertheless, one can read between the lines and see that all was not paradise in their relationship, and Jack could be a difficult man to live with. One wishes Charmian had been a little more forthright about Jack’s problems instead of constantly making excuses for him.

Mr. and Mrs. London, who constantly referred to each other as “Mate-Man” and Mate-Woman” and spoke about their love in near-mythic terms, would surely have been an annoying couple to hang out with. Despite Charmian’s best efforts to portray Jack as the perfect man, he often comes across as rather childish and petty in this memoir. Charmian’s account actually lessened my admiration for the man, but not my love for his writing. Though I am fascinated by Jack’s amazing life, Charmian managed to turn it into a book that I just wanted to be over and done with. There’s no denying this book’s value as a source for subsequent biographers, however. If you’re unfamiliar with Jack London’s life story, I would recommend Earle Labor’s 2013 biography Jack London: An American Life. Only the great writer’s most diehard fans will appreciate The Book of Jack London, and even they, like myself, might find themselves annoyed and disappointed by it.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Don’t count him out yet
His Last Bow, published in 1917, is the fourth collection of short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring the detective Sherlock Holmes. The book consists of eight Holmes adventures that were previously published in magazines, mostly The Strand but also Collier’s. In the preceding short story collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes, its final selection, “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” published in 1904, mentions that Holmes had retired from detective work. In a brief preface to His Last Bow, Watson explains that Holmes is still retired, and the adventures detailed in this volume occurred prior to his retirement, so presumably these stories take place before 1904. The one exception is the final story, “His Last Bow: The War Service of Sherlock Holmes,” which takes place during World War I and has Holmes squaring off against German spies.

The volume opens with “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge,” which is unusual for being a two-parter, twice as long as a typical Holmes and Watson adventure. The story, involving the murder of a mysterious Spaniard, is not really one of Holmes’s best, so its double length seems unjustified. Other lackluster selections include “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” in which Holmes sends Watson to Switzerland to do his leg work, and “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” which was one of Conan Doyle’s favorites but seemed pretty obvious to me. Still, we’re talking about Sherlock Holmes stories here, so even the mediocre ones are better than most anything else in the mystery genre. Even when the cases aren’t sufficiently baffling, the atmosphere and the character development still satisfy. Although the first short story collection, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, is definitely the best, it is remarkable how Conan Doyle kept up the quality of the stories through the subsequent volumes, as His Last Bow has no shortage of great mysteries.

“The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” is among the absolute best of Holmes’s adventures. In this delightfully complex case, Sherlock’s brother Mycroft asks him to recover some missing blueprints for a top secret submarine and to investigate the death of the government clerk who apparently stole them. In “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box,” a woman receives two human ears in the mail, and the most remarkable thing of all: they don’t match! In “The Adventure of the Dying Detective,” Watson, finding Holmes deathly ill and delirious, must discern the cause of his friend’s sudden failing health and bizarre behavior. In “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” a landlady asks Holmes to investigate an extremely reclusive tenant who may be involved in criminal activity. In some instances, the final outcomes of these cases may not be entirely baffling, but Holmes still manages to surprise the reader with the perspicacity of his deductive reasoning, and Conan Doyle provides satisfyingly unique and intricate back stories for the supporting characters.

In the final selection, “His Last Bow,” Conan Doyle really deviates from format and begins with a conversation between two German spies, which continues through roughly half the story before our heroes show up. With Holmes in the service of British intelligence and the story’s concluding patriotic message, this adventure calls to mind the Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone, which often pitted Holmes and Watson against the Nazis during World War II. Chronologically, “His Last Bow” is the final Holmes adventure, but one more volume of 12 prequels, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, would be published in 1927. I haven’t yet read that fifth volume of short stories, but if this fourth book is any indication, Holmes and Conan Doyle still have a lot of life left in them.

Stories in this collection
The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge
The Adventure of the Cardboard Box
The Adventure of the Red Circle
The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans
The Adventure of the Dying Detective
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax
The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot
His Last Bow: The War Service of Sherlock Holmes

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Monday, September 24, 2018

North: Adventures in the Frozen Wild by Nicolas Vanier

Photographic retrospective of a life of wilderness expeditions
French adventurer Nicolas Vanier has made a career out of traveling to remote places and documenting his expeditions in books and on film. Specifically, he has spent over three decades exploring northern wildernesses in such locales as Alaska, the Yukon Territory, Siberia, Lapland, and Labrador. North: Adventures in the Frozen Wild, published in 1997, is one of only a few of Vanier’s books that have been translated into English. This 10” x 12” coffee table book presents a photographic retrospective of Vanier’s northern expeditions from 1983 to 1995.

The book is divided into 15 chapters of from 12 to 30 pages, each of which is devoted to a journey through a northern wilderness that Vanier undertook by canoe, dogsled, pack train, or raft. Vanier prefers to travel using the traditional methods of the region’s Indigenous inhabitants, so you won’t find any Gore-Tex, Spandex, or Thinsulate among his gear. He only uses time-honored materials such as wood, leather, and fur, and he prefers to make his own gear himself, including sleds, harnesses, boots, and snowshoes. He sometimes travels in the company of the region’s Native inhabitants, learning their way of life, such as when he makes a trek by reindeer sled with the nomadic Even people of Siberia. In the final chapters, he and his wife build a cabin by hand in the remote woods of the Yukon, where they live with their toddler daughter. Ostensibly the three lived there in complete solitude, though there was also a photographer present to document their lives.

Each chapter begins with a very brief textual introduction stating where Vanier’s journey leads and the methods used to get there. The bulk of the pages, however, are filled with photographs, which are augmented by captions. Overall, the book resembles a series of National Geographic articles without the text. Occasionally there are brief sidebars that offer lessons about a region’s history or its inhabitants. The book also includes many diagrammatic drawings, similar to what you might find in the Boy Scout Handbook, that illustrate Vanier’s tips for how to make your own moccasins, build an igloo, tie appropriate knots, and so forth. These drawings really aren’t thorough enough to function as a how-to manual, but they do give you an idea of what Vanier went through and a fuller appreciation of his methods. The text does not mention any dates for Vanier’s expeditions, and it is sometimes unclear which chapters were stand-alone adventures and which were performed as consecutive stages in one grand tour.

The photographs, though beautiful, are not your typical coffee-table shots of amazing scenery. Almost every image depicts Vanier or members of his team in the act of traveling through the landscape. There are many two-page spreads of dogsled teams, for example. The best images in the book depict the Indigenous peoples and illustrate their way of life. To appreciate a volume such as this, you really have to have a sense of adventure and a desire to live vicariously through Vanier. Perhaps, like him, you grew up reading the stories of Jack London and have always dreamt of an independent, self-sufficient life in the wilderness. If so, you will not only admire Vanier but also envy him. What this book really needs, however, is just more information. While the photos may be stunning, the paucity of text really lessens one’s understanding and appreciation for what Vanier actually accomplished with these expeditions and what he learned from them. Still, it is an enjoyable experience for any armchair adventurer who has ever fantasized about exploring the great wild North.
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Friday, September 21, 2018

Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science by Christoph Irmscher

Warts and all without the all
One often comes across references to Louis Agassiz while reading 19th century books on science, history, and literature. Wanting to learn more about this scientist of eminent renown, I turned to Christoph Irmscher’s 2013 book Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science. The book’s honorific subtitle leads one to believe that this is going to be a biography of Agassiz that emphasizes his career accomplishments. Instead, this book discusses Agassiz’s life and career in a series of thematic chapters, each of which focuses on one of his egregious faults. He abandoned his first wife. He treated his grad students like garbage. He was obsessed with his own popularity. He stole the credit for others’ scientific achievements. His arguments against Darwinism were ridiculous. He was a racist. And his wife did most of his writing. I’m all in favor of a balanced, warts-and-all treatment of a historical figure’s life. It can also be fun and educational to tear down monuments, but the problem with this book is that Irmscher never bothers to erect Agassiz’s statue before he starts pulling it down.

The one thing I hoped to learn from this book was never really satisfied: Why was Agassiz such an acclaimed scientist and so popular with the general public? What exactly did he discover or accomplish in his career that was so important? He studied glaciers in Switzerland, but from Irmscher’s account I don’t really see any monumental discovery that would cause Agassiz to be mentioned in the same league with Humboldt or Darwin. As for his opposition to evolution, Agassiz believed that species were created as is by God, but this was done in a series of successive periodic stages, which accounts for the extent of the fossil record. I really don’t understand the fundamental mechanics of this theory because Irmscher starts picking apart Agassiz’s beliefs before he even thoroughly explains them, which makes it difficult for the reader to understand why so many people, scientists included, bought into such a tenuous and unworkable theory even after Darwin had published On the Origin of Species. Agassiz is described as a great lecturer, and he published well-illustrated books on jellyfish. Was that enough to make him a scientific celebrity like some sort of Neil deGrasse Tyson of the 19th century? I wish Irmscher had built up Agassiz’s résumé a little more before ripping it to shreds. He just assumes the reader is already familiar with Agassiz’s accomplishments, but I doubt that’s the case for most 21st-century readers.

Irmscher is a literary scholar and an expert on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was an associate of Agassiz, so he is very knowledgable about the time period and the intelligentsia of this era. Irmscher doesn’t approach Agassiz’s life from the perspective of a scientist or even a historian but rather through the lens of a literary critic. Much of the content of the book comes from Irmscher’s deep reading of texts, in which he often fixates on certain word choices, which he then uses to construct psychological profiles of the authors. Chapters frequently begin with an interesting biographical vignette on Agassiz, Mrs. Agassiz, or one of their colleagues, but then get bogged down in tedious textual analysis that’s less about what these people are saying in their diaries and letters and more about how they are saying it.

Irmscher’s critical study will likely be valuable to scholars in his field, if for no other reason than the sheer level of detail provided. For general readers looking for an education on Agassiz, however, this is not the biography its title implies. In the end, I regret having spent several hours reading a book about a man whom I don’t admire, respect, agree with, and probably wouldn’t have liked, without having learned why I was supposed to find him so important in the first place.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Cosmic Computer (a.k.a. Junkyard Planet) by H. Beam Piper

A stagnating planet searches for its techno-savior
This science fiction novel by H. Beam Piper was originally published in 1963 as Junkyard Planet, but the following year the title was changed to The Cosmic Computer. Though the latter title is certainly more attractive, in many ways the former is far more accurate of its contents. This novel is a revised and expanded version of a 1958 novelette by Piper entitled Graveyard of Dreams. The story takes place in Piper’s Terro-Human Future History timeline, at year 2837 of our calendar. Mankind has populated numerous planets, which are united by a Terran Federation. An interplanetary civil war has recently taken place. Rebellion has been quashed and peace restored. The planet Poictesme was an important Federation military base during the war, but now the armed forces have departed, leaving Poictesme to succumb to economic stagnation. The planet is now a sort of Wild West backwater, with its one major export being a melon-based liquor. One good result of the war, however, is that the Federation forces left a lot of their military hardware behind, and salvage becomes big business on Poictesme, hence the title Junkyard Planet.

In need of more sustainable long-term economic solutions, the citizens of Poictesme pin their hopes on a mythical strategic supercomputer that the military supposedly left buried in a secret location. With its ability to run complex models and simulations, this computer, dubbed Merlin, is seen as a techno-messiah that can revitalize Poictesme’s economy and ensure the planet’s longevity and prosperity. The leading citizens of Litchfield, a city on Poictesme, send their brightest son, Conn Maxwell, off to an Earth university to study computer science and hopefully uncover Merlin’s secret hiding place. As the novel opens, Conn returns to Poictesme with bad news.

As told in Graveyard of Dreams, this story felt somewhat half-baked, so it benefits from the expansion it receives here but at times feels a bit overdone. Fascinating at first, it drags in the middle but thankfully picks up at the end with an innovative conclusion. The story includes a few battle scenes for excitement, but although Piper is a ballistics enthusiast and a wannabe military commander, the main attraction here is not combat but commerce. While dangling the carrot of Merlin before Litchfield’s techno-worshipping chamber of commerce, the level-headed Conn encourages everyone to invest in infrastructure that will further their current industries. The book is all about the progress of Poictesme’s economic development, and at times reading Piper’s complex industrial scenarios is like watching a master player in a civilization-building role-playing game. For Piper, the establishment of a limited liability corporation is just as exciting as a laser gun battle, and boy are there a lot of companies chartered in this book. It becomes very difficult to keep track of the large ensemble cast of characters and all the various enterprises they are involved in. The ending, which hinges on an ethical dilemma, is a welcome philosophical respite from the logistical chaos that characterizes the middle of the book.

Nevertheless, in Piper’s novels such frustrating complexity is as much a blessing as it is a curse. Piper really excels at creating fictional worlds, and the intricacy with which he explores every political, economic, and spiritual dimension of those worlds really adds authenticity to his sci-fi visions. The Cosmic Computer is a perfect example of the depth of forethought that he invests into every planet he envisions. Though it is not necessary to know the whole Terro-Human Future History timeline to enjoy this book, the sweeping scope and level of detail in Piper’s grand plan is very impressive and really adds to one’s appreciation of each individual story in the series.
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Monday, September 17, 2018

All God’s Chillun Got Wings by Eugene O’Neill

Mixed marriage with mixed messages
Eugene O’Neill
Likely one of the reasons that Eugene O’Neill won the Nobel Prize in Literature is because he pushed the boundaries of realism on the American stage, thoughtfully confronting audiences with uncomfortable subject matter previously unseen in theaters. In plays like Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, and The Hairy Ape, O’Neill gave audiences unflinchingly frank portrayals of dysfunctional families and grittily authentic depictions of the working class. In his 1924 play All God’s Chillun Got Wings, O’Neill pushed the envelope even further by tackling the topic of race. The curtain opens on a city street corner where white and black tenement neighborhoods converge. Black and white children play in the street, all but oblivious too their differences. As those children grow older, however, their attitudes change and they become more divided by prevailing racial prejudices. Nevertheless, one young black man, Jim Harris, retains his love for his childhood sweetheart Ella Downey, a white woman.

When first staged in 1924, the play was quite controversial. Predominantly white audiences were outraged by O’Neill’s portrayal of love between an African American man and a white woman. Today we can see that O’Neill deserves to be commended for his groundbreaking depiction of an interracial marriage. On the other hand, his representation of that mixed marriage is certainly not a positive one, and if anything he seems to be saying that such relationships are bound to end in tragedy, despair, and perhaps even insanity. That’s hardly the enlightened attitude towards race that today’s theater-going audiences would expect, yet it is characteristic of the well-intentioned but rather half-hearted attempt at racial justice that pervades this drama.

By the end of the play, O’Neill makes Ella such a racist that it’s unbelievable that she could ever have married a black man in the first place. She is paralyzed by guilt for betraying her white race, and she sabotages her husband’s chances at success in order to keep him from reaching above his accepted station in society. Ella’s “keeping the black man down” attitude doesn’t make any sense in the context of their marriage. On the other hand, if the two characters are meant to stand for their races as a whole, then it does make some sense as a commentary on white society’s treatment of the black population in the early 20th century. In truth, however, O’Neill really doesn’t treat Jim much better than Ella does. He depicts Jim as the exceptionally intelligent son of an upwardly mobile black family, but then he renders him incapable of succeeding in his studies towards becoming a lawyer. In one scene O’Neill has Jim overtly begging to be Ella’s “slave,” a surely intentional word choice on the part of the playwright that would be considered offensively inappropriate today. On the bright side, the most positively portrayed character in the play is Jim’s sister Hattie, who is depicted as a smart, capable, independent black woman and an outspoken straight shooter in conversations about race.

One undeniably good thing that came from this play is that it launched the theatrical career of the great black actor Paul Robeson, who would also go on to star in the 1925 revival of O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones. While today All God’s Chillun Got Wings seems a bit antiquatedly tone deaf in its discussion of race, in the 1920s it was a big leap forward for the realistic depiction of blacks in mainstream white culture. When it’s faults are taken into consideration today, that leap may seem more like two steps up and one step back, but nevertheless it amounted to one important baby step forward.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Humboldt’s Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey That Changed the Way We See the World by Gerard Helferich

Blow-by-blow recap of Humboldt’s New World adventures
During the 19th century, Prussian explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was one of the most famous men in the world. By the age of 30, he had already received much acclaim in Europe for his scientific research, but it was his expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804 that really made Humboldt a household name worldwide. Humboldt was one of the first European scientists to travel extensively through South America, Cuba, and Mexico. While traversing the desolate llanos of Venezuela, dodging jaguars in the jungles of the Orinoco basin, canoeing on tributaries of the Amazon, and climbing the highest volcanoes of the Andes, Humboldt collected thousands of plant and animal specimens, gathered copious geological and meteorological data, researched the history and culture of the Native inhabitants, and tested and developed new theories of geological processes. Through the numerous books he published about his expedition, Humboldt captivated the public with his descriptions of the natural wonders of the New World and changed the way people viewed nature in general. In his excellent 2004 book Humboldt’s Cosmos, Gerard Helferich recounts this amazing journey in comprehensive detail.

Given the blow-by-blow nature of Helferich’s narrative, the main narrative of the book is likely heavily based on Humboldt’s own Personal Narrative of Equinoctial Regions of America, but it is a heavily annotated version, as Helferich adds much historical context and supplemental content to Humboldt’s story. Helferich deftly compares each of Humboldt’s achievements to the discoveries of his scientific predecessors and points out how Humboldt influenced the scientists who followed him. Sometimes Helferich gets a little carried away with his historical asides, like when he gives multi-page mini-histories of the Spanish conquests of the Inca and Aztecs, which happened centuries earlier, but the subject matter is so fascinating that such excesses are soon forgiven.

Because the book is so loaded with detail, one might accuse Helferich of not seeing the forest for the trees. In contrast, I just recently finished Andrea Wulf’s 2015 book on Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, which mainly focuses on the forest at the expense of the trees. Wulf does a better job of showing the big picture of Humboldt’s overall impact on world history, politics, and science, as well as the extent of his fame. Helferich, however, does a much better job of making you feel like you’re on the ground with Humboldt, experiencing what he experienced. For instance, Wulf only cursorily touches on Humboldt’s time in Cuba and Mexico, while Helferich devotes whole chapters to those portions of the journey. Wulf, however, provides an entire chapter on Humboldt’s Siberian expedition, which Helferich only briefly mentions because it is outside the Latin American scope of this book. In general, Wulf’s book covers Humboldt from more of a historian’s perspective, while Helferich’s account is more science intensive. Both books are excellent and full of fascinating insight. For those unfamiliar with Humboldt, Wulf’s book is likely the best one-volume introduction to the man’s life and work. Helferich’s book is for those who prefer more of an expedition narrative than a historical biography, or who simply want more specific detail.

For even greater specificity, I plan to proceed to Myron Echenberg’s 2017 book Humboldt’s Mexico. With all the books on Humboldt lately, it would seem we are in the midst of a resurgence in Humboldt appreciation, which is a very good thing, because this important scientist and fascinating historical figure certainly deserves to be better known today. Helferich’s account of Humboldt’s Latin American odyssey will give 21st-century readers a thorough understanding of why Humboldt, so undeservedly forgotten today, was such a big deal two centuries ago.
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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A Short History of Greek Philosophy by John Marshall

A good concise overview from Thales to Chrysippus
A Short History of Greek Philosophy was written by John Marshall, a classicist and educator who translated classic Greek texts and also worked as rector of the Royal High School in Edinburgh, Scotland. Though published in 1891, the text is still very accessible to 21st-century readers. Marshall provides a very good concise overview of Greek philosophy from Thales—the first philosopher of the Western world—through the various pre-Socratics schools, the triumvirate of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the Epicureans and Stoics who followed them.

Throughout the book, Marshall discusses the thought of these ancient philosophers in clear and intelligent prose. The amount of detail he provides is enough for the reader to get a general understanding of each philosopher’s major tenets without getting bogged down in every twist and turn of their philosophical arguments. The text is not in any way dumbed-down, though it is much easier to get through than more extensive studies of Greek philosophy, such as a book like Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy, Volume 1, which probably delivers more information than the average non-philosophy major needs to know. In his Short History, Marshall really does a fine job of showing the continuous threads of thought weaving from one philosopher to the next through the course of history as each influenced his successors. Marshall also pauses periodically throughout the text to compare and contrast the important concepts of different philosophers.

Marshall gives ample coverage to the pre-Socratic schools, including the Pythagoreans, the Eleatics, and the Atomists, and satisfactorily distinguishes the differences and similarities between each thinker’s underlying conception of the cosmos. The bulk of the book, not surprisingly, is devoted to the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Marshall gives the best simplified explanation of Plato’s ideas that I’ve ever read, and he provides a brief summary guide to Plato’s dialogues so that the reader can intelligently choose which texts to pursue for further reading. Plato is clearly Marshall’s favorite in the Greek philosophical pantheon, though he covers Aristotle with almost the same level of detail and regard. Marshall makes no secret of the fact that he feels the glory days of Greek philosophy ended with Aristotle. He gives the Sceptics and Epicureans cursory treatment and even expresses some disdain towards them. He ends the book with the Stoics, for whom he likewise gives short shrift. To be fair, however, all the best Stoics—Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca—were Romans, not Greeks, so Marshall only mentions them briefly if at all.

One point that repeatedly shines forth in Marshall’s book is how so much of the philosophical output of these ancient Greek thinkers ended up being subsumed into Christian dogma. Marshall overtly makes that connection in a few brief passages, acknowledging the intellectual debt that Christianity owes to these early philosophers. It is easy for us today to dismiss the ancient Greeks as being too remote in antiquity to affect our daily lives, but in reality their influence is all around us. By reinforcing that relevance, A Short History of Greek Philosophy makes for a far more interesting read than I expected from a 19th-century philosophical history. Anyone looking for an introduction or a refresher course to the main ideas of ancient Greek thought will be well served by this commendable book.
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Monday, September 10, 2018

Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska by Rockwell Kent

Bad weather and father-son bonding
In the early 20th century, Rockwell Kent was a household name in book illustration, most notable for his work on the 1930 Lakeside Press edition of Moby-Dick. He also wrote and illustrated his own books, mostly relating his personal artistic adventures in remote locations in the Far North. His book Wilderness: A Journey of Quiet Adventure in Alaska, published in 1920, is Kent’s account of one such journey to Fox Island in Resurrection Bay, near what is now Kenai Fjords National Park. Kent and his son, also named Rockwell, traveled to Alaska in the Summer of 1918 for the express purpose of finding a cabin somewhere in which they could temporarily live like hermits in the wilderness. In Resurrection Bay they meet an elderly man named Olson who tells them he has a cabin out on Fox Island that they can rent. After purchasing and packing their supplies for a long stay, the two Rockwell Kents settle in to be Olson’s sole neighbors on the otherwise uninhabited isle. The book details their stay from August 1918 to March 1919.

Though I admire Kent for the journey he undertook, as far as life-in-the-wilderness memoirs go, this one is a bit disappointing. It contains little naturalistic observation of wildlife and not even much scenic description. Moments of philosophical reflection are likewise few and far between. So what does Kent write about? Mostly the weather, and it’s almost always bad. Relentless rain, fog, and snowfall are the norm, often keeping the father and son indoors. Kent also writes a lot about cutting down trees, chopping wood, and other household chores. He also makes frequent trips to the city of Seward that also detract from the wilderness narrative.

Though Kent is an artist, he doesn’t write much about painting either. He frequently mentions that he’s painting or drawing, but never gives much indication of his artistic process or even his subject matter. In fact, he probably writes more about stretching canvases than about actual painting. He does occasionally surprise the reader, however, by going off into a mini-essay on art in general, written with keen insight and profound eloquence. Another subject Kent covers well is his relationship with his son and the effect their sojourn in the Alaskan wilds is having on the boy’s own independent spirit. Though at times the trip sounds miserably cold and dreary, the warmth that develops between the bonding father and son is infectious and enviable. In addition, the Kents’ narrative benefits from frequent visits by Olson, who turns out to be not just a goofy hermit but also a former adventurer, an entertaining conversationalist, and a lovable codger.

The book includes dozens of illustrations by Kent. About half are realistic drawings of Alaskan scenery, and the rest are more idealized, allegorical pictures inspired by the trip, with figures in dramatic poses against abstracted backgrounds. The former category are more successful, at times evoking his famous illustrations for Moby-Dick. The digitized versions of the book online don’t really do justice to Kent’s art, so if the illustrations are of importance to you you’ll have to get your hands on a printed copy to get their full effect.

Despite the surprising paucity of both nature and art in this painters’ wilderness memoir, it does make for an enjoyable read. Whether you are an artist, a lover of solitude, or just someone who’s ever dreamed of making an extended trip to Alaska, it is fun to live vicariously through the Kents at their hermits’ fantasy camp, even if the weather sucks.

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Friday, September 7, 2018

The Long Valley by John Steinbeck

California realism at its best
Published in 1938, The Long Valley is a collection of short stories by Nobel-Prize winning author John Steinbeck. The stories included here (with one exception) were written in 1933 and 1934, and most of them had seen prior publication in magazines. Among the selections is “The Red Pony,” which is probably just long enough to qualify as a novella. Steinbeck’s writing is the culmination of a long and distinguished tradition of California realism extending from Bret Harte to Frank Norris and Jack London. All but one of these stories are set in Steinbeck’s homeland of Salinas County, and they stand as wonderful exemplars of American regional realism.

To be honest, I was a bit underwhelmed by the volume’s first few selections. “The Chrysanthemums” and “The White Quail” are two contrasting, almost Ibsen-esque studies of wifehood that are perhaps too subtle to serve as captivating lead-off hitters. “Flight” starts out as a great piece of social realism about a poor Mexican family, but then turns into a sluggishly paced tale of a manhunt. “The Snake” is a precursor to Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row in that it stars a marine biologist named Doc who works in a lab on the Monterrey waterfront. Though the main character and the setting are fascinating, the story that unfolds is OK at best. “The Breakfast,” a 3-page description of a memorable campfire meal, may be vividly rendered, but it amounts to little more than a sketch. Though the first third of the book is a bit lackluster, the opening pages of “The Raid” will blow you away, and from that point on the masterpieces just keep coming..

“The Raid” is a brilliantly suspenseful tale of two socialist party members who are determined to hold a meeting, even though they know they will be beaten and possibly killed. Steinbeck’s storytelling is grimly realistic with a dash of the workingman’s leftist idealism that would be further developed in The Grapes of Wrath. On to something completely different, “The Harness” is a lighthearted slice of agrarian life in which a farmer gets a new lease on life after the death of his overbearing wife. Next, the shocking story “The Vigilante” is told from the point of view of a man who has just participated in his first lynching. Nothing prepares the reader for the bizarre title character of “Johnny Bear,” a creepy helping of rural gothic that reads like a classic episode of The Twilight Zone or The X-Files. In “The Murder,” a farmer marries a beautiful foreign woman who makes a cold and distant wife. The story turns brutal and a bit sexist, but real for its times, like a harsh blues song. The one oddball in the collection is “Saint Katy the Virgin,” a humorous piece set in medieval France. This story of a demonic pig is not without its satirical charms, but it bears no resemblance to any of the other selections and doesn’t really belong in The Long Valley.

The novella “The Red Pony” presents a series of scenes in the life of a boy growing up on a Salinas Valley ranch. In the opening chapter, the boy receives the red pony as a gift from his father, and his relationship to the animal becomes the defining moment of his life. Depending on the edition, the story “The Leader of the People” is sometimes considered the final chapter of “The Red Pony” and sometimes a separate story in its own right, a sequel with the same characters and setting. Together the “Red Pony” stories stand as expertly crafted works of American literary naturalism. Dealing with issues of life, death, coming of age, and the passing of the Old West, they are beautifully written, starkly authentic, and truly moving. For the most part, these same adjectives of praise can be applied to The Long Valley as a whole. Despite a few shortcomings here and there, overall the collection is a great work of American literature and a powerful reading experience.

Stories in this collection
The Chrysanthemums 
The White Quail 
The Snake 
The Raid 
The Harness 
The Vigilante 
Johnny Bear 
The Murder 
Saint Katy the Virgin 
The Red Pony 
The Leader of the People

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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Pierre and Luce by Romain Rolland

Love in the face of war
Pierre and Luce is the story of two young lovers in Paris during World War I. Published in 1920, it was written by French author Romain Rolland, who won the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature. The novel begins in January of 1918. Pierre, an 18-year-old Parisian, is scheduled to enter military service in six months, but despite the atmosphere of fervent patriotism that runs rampant during wartime, he is by no means enthusiastic about his impending entry into the French Army. He spots pretty young Luce on a train, and the two are brought together at the next station when they hold hands during a German bombing raid. Over the course of the book, the two get to know each other and fall in love, while ever the threat of war and Pierre’s future departure looms over them.

There is no combat depicted in novel, and only the briefest mention of air raids. Rather than focus on physical destruction or wartime hardships, Rolland concentrates primarily on the psychological effects of the war. Pierre and Luce are depicted as members of a lost generation who are disillusioned with the governing powers of the world and the false promises of nationalism. Their lives are out of their control, they no longer feel the freedom to dream, and they don’t plan for the future because they (at least Pierre) feel that they will have none. Nevertheless, Pierre and Luce manage to build a strong love in the face of this adversity. Throughout the book, Rolland expertly crafts a narrative that walks a delicate line between hope and hopelessness.

Further stacking the cards against them, Pierre and Luce are of two different social classes. The son of a judge, Pierre is firmly situated within the bourgeoisie while Luce is a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. She makes her living by painting decorative copies of masterpieces, while her widowed mother labors in a munitions factory. Pierre has lived a sheltered life in which he has had no experience with the lower classes, and through getting to know Luce his eyes are opened to a whole new awareness of the lives of others. Though neither puts any stock in the restrictive system of social stratification, they both realize that Pierre’s family and social station would prohibit their marriage. What difference does it make, however, when Pierre will likely be marching off to his death in a few months? In that sense, war is the great leveler of class and serves as a unifying force between the two. Rolland does a great job of examining all the subtle implications of this class disparity, as well as supplying supporting characters who briefly demonstrate a shallowness and conformity in French society that contrasts with the genuineness of the lovers’ bond.

While Rolland’s depictions of war, class, and their effects on society and the human psyche are admirably realistic, the two young lovers are a bit too innocent to be believed. Pierre and Luce share a very idealized and idyllic love in the midst of the woes of the modern world. It’s almost as if Rolland is making a leap from romanticism to modernism while skipping over realism entirely. The over-romantic passages might prove annoying if it weren’t for the book’s brevity. To its credit, Pierre and Luce does not overstay its welcome. Compared to depictions of the World War I experience in other classic novels, Pierre and Luce is neither as bogged down in navel-gazing sensitivity as John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers, nor as stoically deadpan as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The tone of Rolland’s novel falls somewhere squarely between the two, and ends up being a more satisfying read than both.

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Monday, September 3, 2018

A World to Win by Upton Sinclair

Around the world with Lanny Budd
A World to Win is the seventh of eleven novels in Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series. Published in 1946, this historical novel covers events in world history from the Summer of 1940 to early 1942. Lanny, the wealthy and well-educated son of an American arms manufacturer, was born and raised in the South of France. Working as an art dealer, Lanny has traveled throughout Europe and America, meeting many famous and powerful people along the way. Though a leftist at heart, in the past couple books Lanny has pretended to be a Nazi sympathizer in order to gather intelligence from prominent Nazis with whom he has struck up an acquaintance, including Adolph Hitler, Hermann Göring, and Rudolf Hess. In A World to Win, Hitler’s power continues to increase. Germany has invaded and occupied a large portion of Europe and now has its sights set on Russia.

There’s no denying that the Lanny Budd series is a monumental achievement in American literature. The grand scope of the narrative is truly impressive, and the intricate detail with which Sinclair chronicles historical events is immensely educational. Nevertheless, the books in this series are often quite frustrating due to the glacial pace with which they proceed and the myriad subplots which digress from the main narrative, including Sinclair indulging his own avid interest in psychic communication with the spirit world. The first half of A World to Win is discouragingly slow, but the latter half is far more engaging, enough to grab the reader’s attention and hold it captive until the very end. While all the Lanny Budd books have their flaws and frustrations, overall I’d have to say that this may be the series’s best volume yet.

Thankfully, this novel contains fewer séances than the previous installments, and the paranormal does not play as integral a role in the plot as it has before. Lanny’s love life, however, does feature largely in this novel’s narrative, and the reader is often diverted from the events of World War II in favor of matters of the heart. Sinclair likes to point out that Lanny is one of the world’s most eligible bachelors, and here our hero has three or four women, all of them about twenty years his junior, vying to be the next Mrs. Budd. Because of his secret agent responsibilities, Lanny is reluctant to commit to any of these prospective brides, but that doesn’t stop him from making constant mental comparisons of their merits and faults. About halfway through the book, I finally got what I have been waiting for in this series: a genuinely exciting secret agent mission! Soon, however, circumstances rob the reader of such easy gratification, and the narrative reverts to romantic comedy mode, though as far as rom-coms go, one must admit that Sinclair sets up a pretty ingenious scenario.

While Lanny has been concentrating his efforts on the Nazis, Japan has begun to assert its military might on the world stage. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor takes place during this novel, though Lanny does not witness the event first-hand. This marks America’s official entry into the war, which will likely put a damper on Lanny’s ability to enter Germany and work among the Nazis. Lanny travels to Asia for the first time, as a tourist. Not surprisingly, given his socialist inclinations, Sinclair paints rather rosy pictures of Communist China and the Soviet Union. Mao and Stalin, our allies in the war, are portrayed as mostly benevolent rulers, their atrocities only hinted at as Sinclair focuses on the worldwide brotherhood of those opposed to the Axis powers. As always, Sinclair gives an interesting alternative perspective on world events and combines fact and fiction into an educational and entertaining reading experience. If you’ve already made it this far in the Lanny Budd series, you will certainly not be disappointed by A World to Win.

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