Friday, October 26, 2018

La Vendée by Anthony Trollope

Counterrevolutionary romance
Anthony Trollope
The historical novel La Vendée is not one of English author Anthony Trollope’s more highly regarded works. Originally published in 1850, it was Trollope’s third novel out of the dozens of books he produced during his prolific career. While Trollope mostly wrote novels of manners set in English country villages, stylistically similar to the works of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, here he directs his pen farther afield to tackle the French Revolution. More specifically, this novel tells the story of a royalist rebellion against the French Republican government in 1793, commonly known by the name of the region in western France where the uprising took place: la Vendée.

After the Republican revolutionaries overthrew and executed Louis XVI, they established a secular Republican government in Paris, headed by Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. Not everyone in France was pleased about this, however, and many citizens in the provinces were unwilling to give up their Catholic faith and their loyalty to the monarchy. When the new French government sent troops to conscript more soldiers to fight its wars, the Vendeans refused to give up their young men to the Republican cause. Instead, they launched an uprising against the Republican forces, or Blues, as they are called after the color of their uniforms. Trollope depicts la Vendée as a holdout of medieval feudalism where the peasants love and faithfully serve the noblemen who preside over their lands. The story focuses on three nobles—Henri de la Rochejacquelein and Louis Marie de Lescure, both actual historical figures, and Adolphe Denot, a brooding fictional antihero reminiscent of Heathcliff from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. In addition, several characters of the working class also figure prominently in the story, including Jacques Cathelineau, a lowly postillion who becomes a commanding general of the Vendean forces.

Though I don’t know for certain, it seems to me that Trollope likely wrote this novel for serialization because each of the book’s 35 chapters feels unnecessarily drawn out to satisfy a length requirement, as if Trollope were being paid by the word. Though the story is interesting, it would have been a lot livelier if it were not bogged down by so much tedious dialogue. Almost every chapter features some protracted discussion in which a simple theme—“I love my country,” “I love my God,” “I love my woman.”—is repetitively rephrased in order to fulfill the word count.

French authors, while acknowledging the brutality of The Terror, usually celebrate the democratic values of liberté, egalité, and fraternité espoused by the Republican cause. (Balzac was a monarchist exception. His novel Les Chouans covers a similar counterrevolution in Brittany, to better effect than this.) British novelists, however, often favor the monarchy to a fanatical extent. (The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fine example.) Here, Trollope paints a relentlessly rosy picture of the feudalistic class structure that reflects his own beloved English class system. Though war can be a great leveler of classes, sometimes elevating servants, merchants, and laborers like Cathelineau to hero status, such heroes must learn that their rise is finite and temporary, and they mustn’t even think of marrying beyond their station. Trollope provides a very romanticized treatment of the Vendean rebellion—a romantic comedy, really—in which the freedom fighters are constantly victorious. In the epilogue he emphasizes that “La Vendée was never conquered,” but in truth, the Vendeans certainly didn’t triumph either. Trollope is not the least bit sympathetic to the Republican cause, yet the one-sidedness of his novel is less offensive than the fact that it is just rather boring. Readers with an avid interest in the French Revolution will find some tidbits of historical knowledge to appreciate, but the typical Trollope fan should probably steer clear of this one.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Under a Lucky Star: A Lifetime of Adventure by Roy Chapman Andrews

Nice work if you can get it
Though it has never been confirmed that Roy Chapman Andrews was the inspiration for Indiana Jones, there’s no denying that his autobiography Under a Lucky Star, published in 1943, delivers thrills and adventure reminiscent of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Andrews was born and raised in Beloit, Wisconsin, where he developed a love for nature and outdoor sport. Upon graduating from Beloit College, he decided he wanted to work for the American Museum of Natural History, so he moved to New York City uninvited and showed up on their doorstep looking for a job. He began by sweeping floors and assisting in taxidermy, but eventually he would end up as director of that prestigious institution. For much of his career, he led scientific expeditions abroad, hunting for zoological and paleontological specimens in China and Mongolia. He achieved fame when members of his expedition to the Gobi Desert were the first to discover dinosaur eggs.

Soon after starting work at the museum, Andrews was sent out to Long Island to retrieve the skeleton of a beached whale. This led to him riding along on a Japanese whaling ship in order to study whales, collect more specimens, and become an expert in cetology. Unlike biologists today, Andrews saw no problems with the whaling industry and in fact harpooned quite a few whales himself. Throughout the book he refers to himself as an explorer, rather than a scientist, but he really comes across first and foremost as a hunter. As was standard practice for natural history museums at the time, Andrews shot thousands of animals on his expeditions and shipped them back home, with no thought given to species endangerment. Though recognized as a zoologist and paleontologist, Andrews really doesn’t talk about science much at all, and one gets the idea that the specimens he collected were examined by others. 

At times I wondered whether Andrews was even qualified to do the work he was doing, but as the title of the book indicates, he was a very lucky man. What is quite evident in the book is the workings of an “old-boy network” in science—a lot of white Anglo-Saxon men eager to hand out money and careers to each other, with plenty of work and opportunity for anyone who proves himself a good chap. Business deals are done in tuxedoes over cocktails. Andrews writes more about the fund-raising parties for his expeditions than about their scientific yields. Never in the narrative does it seem like Andrews ever had to struggle for anything, and much of his “luck” can be attributed to having powerful friends like Theodore Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan. 

Andrews’s attitude toward women is also off-putting. He barely mentions his first wife, and makes it clear that he married his second wife for her looks, which is the same way he chooses secretaries, nurses, and waitresses. He devotes less ink to his wives than he does to the madam of a Japanese geisha house he frequented, and never passes up an opportunity to brag about partying with dancing girls. The only time he mentions a female scientist—one of his classmates, a “very attractive girl”—he does so with disdain. Andrews displays some racism as well, mostly directed at the Japanese, which may be attributed to the fact that this was written in the middle of World War II. Overall, however, he is respectful of Asian cultures and loved living in China for many years. 

This was a different era, so if you’re looking for political correctness, you aren’t going to find it here. If it’s adventure you want, however, this book has plenty. I wish it had more science than shooting, but it is still an entertaining read for anyone who has ever dreamt of being an explorer.
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Monday, October 15, 2018

In Desert and Wilderness by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Awfully slow for an adventure novel, no matter how old you are
In Desert and Wilderness, published in 1911, is a novel by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature. The story takes place in northeastern Africa during the 1880s. Though Sienkiewicz wrote other historical adventure novels, In Desert and Wilderness is notable for being the only book he wrote that is intended for a young audience.

Fourteen-year-old Polish boy Stanislas (Stas) Tarkowski and eight-year-old English girl Nel Rawlinson live in Port Said, Egypt, where their widower fathers work as engineers for the Suez Canal. Because of the close friendship between their dads, Stas and Nel are raised almost as brother and sister. When their fathers are called away for various engineering projects, the kids are left at home in the hands of trusted servants. At this period in Africa’s history, a Muslim preacher known as the Mahdi has incited a rebellion against British rule. While the dads are away, Stas and Nel are kidnapped by Arabs who intend to exchange the children for prisoners held by the British. The kidnappers hope to take their little hostages as an offering to the Mahdi in Khartoum. The children, however, set out to escape their captors and undertake an arduous journey to reunite with their fathers.

Though this book may be intended for children, in the typical fashion of a century ago it is in no way dumbed-down as is so much young adult literature published today. Even grown-ups will have trouble keeping up with the intricate political history of Egypt and the Sudan. The series of events that leads to the kidnapping is quite convoluted and tests the patience of readers of all ages. When the captors and captives finally hit the road, it often reads less like a novel than an atlas, each sentence crammed with exotic place names. For a children’s story, there’s an awful lot of realistic violence that’s more suited to grown-up reading. On the other hand, adults won’t appreciate the more fairy tale aspects of the story, in which whatever the children need to survive miraculously falls right into their laps. The book contains some quite thrilling scenes, most involving encounters with wildlife, but they are few and far between, interspersed among long trudges through the desert.

Something else that dulls the excitement of this wilderness survival tale is the fact that the children are accompanied by servants throughout their ordeal. Though the kids show some ingenuity at times, and Stas is good with a rifle, the servants do much of the daily work required to keep them alive. When the children receive help from African characters, it’s never just because the Africans are good people who want to help two kids find their way home, but rather because they are silly, superstitious rubes who view the white kids as gods or benevolent spirits. The whole book is written as a justification of European rule in Africa, where the blacks would be lost without the guidance and governance of the whites.

The story has little to offer girls, as Nel mostly serves as the damsel in distress to Stas’s knight in shining armor. To anyone who has ever read a book by Sienkiewicz, the ending is a foregone conclusion. Adults who read this novel as children may have fond memories of three or four important scenes, but the book is 47 chapters long, and most of those chapters are a bore. Sienkiewicz is a talented writer, so In Desert and Wilderness is not without some literary merit, but it counts among his worst works.

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Friday, October 12, 2018

Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World by Noah Strycker

Birding as endurance sport
Among birdwatchers (or birders, as they prefer to be called), a “big year” is the ultimate test of birding prowess. The goal is to spot as many different bird species as possible within the span of a calendar year. Often these contests are confined to a specific geographic area, such as North America, but over the past half century a few adventurous souls have expanded the big year to worldwide proportions. In 2015, a young Oregonian named Noah Strycker set out not only to put his name in the record books as the winner of the big year, but also to break the world record for most bird species in a year, a mark previously set at 4,341. As if that weren’t enough, Strycker set himself the ultimate goal of sighting at least 5,000 species, or roughly half the world’s known species of birds. To do so, he would bird nonstop for 365 days, traveling through 41 countries and hitting many of the world’s hottest birding hotspots. Strycker, a self-described “bird man,” naturalist, and birding journalist, recounts this epic journey in his 2017 book Birding Without Borders.

The key to Strycker’s success in this big year challenge would be his previously unparalleled level of strategic planning, as well as roughly $60,000 dollars spent on airfare, lodging, and gear, which he claims was paid for mostly by the publisher of this book. The reader circles the globe with Strycker as he navigates exotic locales on all seven continents, but don’t expect a typical travel narrative. All Strycker does in these far-flung nations is bird, relentlessly. For the average adventurous soul who yearns for foreign travel, it may seem like a big waste to spend three weeks in Peru without seeing Machu Picchu, or to travel all over India without stopping at the Taj Mahal. On the other hand, Strycker spends his time in remote wilderness areas and national parks, often traveling through rugged terrain and barely passable roads to get there. He visits many places that most tourists never see, guided by locals whom he has met online through birding websites, and on whose couches and floors he often sleeps. Though he may be gazing through binoculars most of the time, Strycker’s experience of his exotic destinations and their natural environment is far more authentic, personal, and enlightening than any packaged highlight tour.

Birding Without Borders will inevitably be compared to another big year memoir, Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway, in which Kaufman relates his 1973 attempt at a North American big year. Though Kaufman is a very good writer, I personally prefer Strycker’s book. Kingbird Highway was more of a coming of age story that often gave Kaufman’s personal life precedence over his ornithological pursuits. Birding Without Borders is almost strictly about the birds and Strycker’s quest to find them. Strycker goes off on some interesting asides about birding history, local customs, and conservation efforts, but it never gets bogged down in birder jargon, and he doesn’t feel the need to give you an entire history of the American Birding Association like Kaufman seems to feel obligated to do.

One nice added feature to the book is an appendix that lists every one of the thousands of bird species Strycker logged in 2015, listed in chronological order with the names of the countries in which they were spotted. Even if you’re just a casual birder like me rather than a hardcore lister, you will enjoy Strycker’s engaging narrative of his admirable and enviable journey. At times the fascinating trip turns into an exhausting whirlwind tour. Strycker visited so many countries that some are barely mentioned in the book, but even so he still manages to cram a lot of great birding and travel stories into this entertaining travelogue.
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Thursday, October 4, 2018

Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates 2018

Congratulations to Nobody!
In case you haven’t heard, the Swedish Academy decided earlier this year that they would not be awarding a Nobel Prize for literature in 2018. While in the past the literature prize has been cancelled due to war or to a lack of deserving nominees, this year’s cancelation is in response to allegations of sexual misconduct, misuse of Academy funds, and the premature leaking of past winners’ names by the husband of a member of the prize jury. Here at Old Books by Dead Guys, however, we’re going to celebrate the Nobel as we usually do by bringing attention to the works of Nobel laureates of the past.

Each year Old Books by Dead Guys presents the cumulative list of works by Nobel laureates that have been reviewed at this blog. This year, to facilitate browsing for those hunting down a Nobel-caliber read, OBDG’s ratings are clearly marked beside each title to more easily separate the wheat from the chaff. Making their first appearance on the list this year are India’s Rabindranath Tagore, Frances’s Romain Rolland, Sweden’s Verner von Heidenstam, Switzerland’s Carl Spitteler, France’s (and Russia’s) Ivan Bunin, America’s John Steinbeck, and—still alive and kickin’—China’s Mo Yan. Plus, more new works by the likes of Knut Hamsun, Pearl S. Buck, Eugene O’Neill, and more! Check out the authors below and click on the titles to read the complete reviews.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

Rudyard Kipling (1907 Nobel) United Kingdom (born in India) 🇬🇧

Selma Lagerlöf (1909 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Paul von Heyse (1910 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪

Maurice Maeterlinck (1911 Nobel) Belgium 🇧🇪

Gerhart Hauptmann (1912 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪

Rabindranath Tagore (1913 Nobel) India 🇮🇳

Romain Rolland (1915 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Verner von Heidenstam (1916 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Henrik Pontoppidan (1917 Nobel) Denmark 🇩🇰

Carl Spitteler (1919 Nobel) Switzerland 🇨🇭

Knut Hamsun (1920 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Anatole France (1921 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Wladyslaw Reymont (1924 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

George Benard Shaw (1925 Nobel) Ireland 🇮🇪

Sinclair Lewis (1930 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Ivan Bunin (1933 Nobel) France (born in Russia) 🇫🇷 🇷🇺

Eugene O’Neill (1936 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Pearl S. Buck (1938 Nobel) United States of America (raised in China) 🇺🇸

Hermann Hesse (1946 Nobel) Switzerland (born in Germany) 🇨🇭 🇩🇪

Bertrand Russell (1950 Nobel) United Kingdom 🇬🇧

Pär Lagerkvist (1951 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Ernest Hemingway (1954 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Halldór Laxness (1955 Nobel) Iceland 🇮🇸

Borris Pasternak (1958 Nobel) Russia (Soviet Union) 🇷🇺

John Steinbeck (1962 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Mo Yan (2012 Nobel) China 🇨🇳

Bob Dylan (2016 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Bonus: Albert Einstein (1921 Nobel in Physics) Germany/Switzerland 🇩🇪 🇨🇭

See you next year! In the meantime, get your Nobel on!