Friday, August 23, 2019

Whiteoaks by Mazo de la Roche



Canuck Dynasty
Whiteoaks, or Whiteoaks of Jalna, is the second book in the Jalna series of novels by Canadian author Mazo de la Roche. Whiteoak is the name of a family, and Jalna is the name of their farm in southern Ontario. Over a period of more than three decades, de la Roche published 16 novels in the Jalna series, which became immensely popular in Canada. When all the sequels and prequels are taken into consideration, this is the eighth book in the chronology of the Whiteoak family, but the second to be published. The first book, simply entitled Jalna, was a charming slice of Canadian life that introduced the reader to some interesting characters. Whiteoaks, unfortunately, ventures more into soap opera histrionics and makes for a far less satisfying read.

Whiteoaks picks up shortly after the conclusion of the first novel. Life goes on as usual at the Jalna farm, where horses, apples, and big family dinners are the main concerns, except that some members of the family are still licking their wounds from the romantic turmoil that took place in the previous book. The whereabouts of brother Eden, who took off when his marriage fell apart, are still unknown. His wife Alayne has returned to her former life in New York, though she still feels a sort of psychic connection drawing her to Jalna. Some marital bonds survived the last book, bringing about the arrival of new babies to the Whiteoak clan. The primary focus of Whiteoaks, however, is the prospects of 19-year-old Finch. Music is the one love of his life, but his older half-brother and guardian Renny, who wishes Finch would pursue more practical pursuits, has forbidden him to practice music until he gets his grades up. Meanwhile, Finch strikes up a friendship with Arthur Leigh, a wealthy boy from his school. For the first time in his life, Finch feels the pull of a life outside the confines of Jalna, but the more he struggles to be his own man the more he only inspires disappointment and disdain in his family members.

One problem with this book is that the Whiteoak clan consists mostly of males, and de la Roche just isn’t that great at writing male characters. Renny is a red-headed Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Piers is a macho redneck, Eden is a womanizing egotist, and Finch is so sensitive and effeminate it seems as if de la Roche couldn’t make up her mind whether he’s gay or straight. Though the book was published in 1929, Finch’s friendship with Arthur Leigh is either a throwback to antiquated depictions of male friendships from 19th century romanticism or de la Roche has a definite problem writing from a masculine perspective. (Of course, there are also plenty of male authors who can’t write realistic women.) Even Finch’s two elder brothers question his sexual preference, proving that this homosexual subtext isn’t merely a figment of the reader’s imagination. The point is not whether Finch is or isn’t gay, but rather that he is unrealistically written. What’s worse, he mopes and whines his way through much of the book. Perhaps in the next novel de la Roche will find a better direction for the character, but in this novel his relentless insecurities, failures, and emotional outbursts add up to one depressing protagonist.

There’s still a fun family dynamic among the Whiteoaks at times, particularly when the 101-year-old grandmother is involved. It seems odd, however, that although the men in the distinguished Whiteoak clan would be considered “catches” in their town, their prospects for romance are so limited that they have to resort to chasing after their siblings’ spouses and servants. This volume of the Jalna series veers a little too far from realism into melodrama. I hope the next book recaptures some of the charm that made Jalna so enjoyable in the first place.
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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Micah Clarke by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle



Much historical detail at the expense of excitement
Micah Clarke, a historical novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, was originally published in 1889. This was Conan Doyle’s second novel, following A Study in Scarlet, the novel that introduced Sherlock Holmes. While A Study in Scarlet was a surprisingly remarkable debut and a groundbreaking masterpiece of the mystery genre, Micah Clarke reads like the work of a rather green writer who is still trying to find his literary voice. Like most historical novels of the late nineteenth century, the book bears the strong influence of Sir Walter Scott, and not in a good way (like Ivanhoe) but in a bad way (like Waverley or Rob Roy), in that the author takes every opportunity to veer away from the plot into detailed expository digressions that pile on historical detail but cause the main narrative to crawl forward at a snail’s pace.

The novel takes place during the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, also known as the Pitchfork Rebellion. This was an attempt by Protestants to overthrow the Catholic King of England, James II, in favor of James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, the previous king’s illegitimate son who claimed to be the rightful heir to the throne. The story is narrated in the first person by Micah Clarke himself, who is telling his grandchildren of his involvement in the rebellion 50 years prior. Micah is the son of a leather merchant and tanner in Hampshire. His father had previously fought alongside Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar and is renowned as a devout Presbyterian and outspoken fighter for the Protestant cause. For that reason, when Monmouth’s troops begin to mobilize, a messenger is sent to Micah’s father to enlist his sword in support. The elder Clarke is too old for battle, however, so his son volunteers to go in his place. Micah is a young man of impressive size and strength who can handle a sword, but he is as yet untested in real combat. With his father’s blessing and a pair of traveling companions, he sets out on a quest to join up with Monmouth’s army and put a Protestant king on the throne.

Much more time is spent getting to the fight than in the actual fighting itself. Micah and friends wander from village to village, meeting characters who relate lengthy back stories of their own military feats in various conflicts of the past. Occasionally a skirmish arises with those who oppose the rebellion. Through it all, it is difficult to tell why exactly Micah has chosen to fight in this war, other than to please his father. He seems to be of a nonviolent disposition and not a particularly fervent Protestant. Although Conan Doyle admires the bravery of these men who go off to battle to fight for an ideal, he pokes fun at Puritan extremists who act out of religious zealotry, in contrast to Micah and his more moderate friends. In addition, the Duke of Monmouth is depicted as a coward not worth following into battle. When Micah finally does see combat, Conan Doyle gets so bogged down in the historical accuracy of troop movements that much of the soldier’s experience of war gets lost in the details. To its credit, the last several chapters of the book, which deal mostly with the aftermath of the rebellion, are actually quite good, but it’s a long haul in getting there.

Micah Clarke succeeds as a historical novel, in that Conan Doyle gets across the history lesson that he wants to convey, but as an adventure novel or war story it leaves a lot to be desired. You really have to have an eager interest in the religious history of England to enjoy this book. Conan Doyle has other historical novels that make for a better read, including The White Company and Sir Nigel, both of which take place in medieval times, and The Great Shadow and Uncle Bernac, both set in the Napoleonic era.
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Monday, August 19, 2019

Epic Films: Casts, Credits and Commentary on More Than 350 Historical Spectacle Movies, Second Edition by Gary Allen Smith



An entertaining and informative guide for the sword-and-sandal fan
If you like movies about gladiators, centurions, argonauts, and apostles, then Gary Allen Smith has compiled the book for you. I am an enthusiast of ancient-world movies myself, and Epic Films is the best viewer’s guide that I have found on the genre. In the second edition, Smith catalogs 353 historical epics, providing cast and credits for each, as well as descriptive copy including plot outlines (with spoilers, unfortunately) and interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes on the making of many of these films. Smith’s personal critiques are insightful and articulate, though the book really should have had a better proofreading because it does contain a lot of typos.

The second edition of Epic Films was published in 2004. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is the most recent major film to be profiled, while Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy is mentioned as being in production at the time of publication. Smith mostly skips over the silent era, with a few exceptions. He does include D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, for example, but not the 1914 Italian epic Cabiria. Beyond the dawn of the talkies, the book covers all periods of cinematic history amply, from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the Italian peplum films of the 1960s to the modern era of digital special effects, including many made-for-TV movies and miniseries that have long been forgotten. Smith does not confine himself to ancient Greece and Rome, biblical epics, and caveman films. He explains in his introduction that his definition of epic covers history up to around the year 1200. This allows for the inclusion of more medieval fare, such as stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The lion’s share of the entries, however, focus on ancient times, and when adventures from the Middle Ages are included, such as El Cid or Braveheart, they definitely qualify as epics. Noticeably absent are the Arabian Nights genre, such as The Thief of Baghdad or The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Asian history is represented solely by Genghis Khan, the Mongols, and the Tartars, and, through Hollywood’s fault rather than Smith’s, Kings of the Sun is the only film about the ancient Americas. Mostly Smith focuses on American, British, French, and Italian productions, with an occasional outlier like the Polish film Pharaoh.

Most of the books published on this genre of film have been scholarly monographs by film studies or cultural studies professors, such as The Ancient World in Cinema by Jon Solomon. The only other film-by-film guide I’ve seen is a book called The Encyclopedia of Epic Films, which, although it may have Ben-Hur on its cover, considers everything from Spider-Man to Star Wars as epics. Smith’s Epic Films, on the other hand, is aimed at the general reader who just enjoys grandiose cinematic depictions of prehistoric, ancient, and medieval times. Smith proves himself a very knowledgeable guide and offers much to learn for even the most avid fans of sword-and-sandal cinema. I have only watched about a third of the movies covered in this book, and it has yielded quite a few fortuitous discoveries of interesting films yet to be seen.

Though one might quibble here and there about a film that was or was not included, Smith deserves to be commended for putting together what is likely the most authoritative and user-friendly guide to the genre. Film fans who just can’t get enough of Hercules, Maciste, Samson, Goliath, Ursus, Odysseus, Spartacus, Cleopatra, Jesus, or the various Caesars are sure to enjoy this book. It is high time for a third edition.
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Thursday, August 15, 2019

Humboldt and Jefferson: A Transatlantic Friendship of the Enlightenment by Sandra Rebok



The epic bromance of two Enlightenment geniuses
In her 2014 book Humboldt and Jefferson, historian Sandra Rebok analyzes the complex relationship between two intellectual titans of the Enlightenment. The one time that Alexander von Humboldt and Thomas Jefferson met, in Washington in 1804, no one was there to take notes, so what exactly they talked about is unknown, but hints of that conversation exist in their writings. Their extant correspondence only amounts to 14 letters (included as an appendix in this book), but the two also mentioned each other in diaries, letters to others, and in a few published writings. That’s not a lot of concrete evidence from which to draw conclusions about their friendship, but Rebok gleans much engaging food for thought from the scant surviving record. By examining their writings, Rebok not only reconstructs the relationship between Humboldt and Jefferson but also compares and contrasts their personal views on a variety of issues that were important to them both, while analyzing how each may have influenced the other’s point of view.

The subject to which Rebok devotes the most consideration is that of slavery. Humboldt was a staunch abolitionist who believed in freedom and equality for men of all races, while Jefferson, a slaveholder, had a more pragmatic, paternalistic approach to slavery that has not done his historical memory any favors. In a related chapter, Rebok focuses on the two men’s responses to the Haitian Revolution, in which blacks overthrew their colonial masters and established their own independent government. Also covered are the pair’s contributions to natural history, their defense of the Americas against European critics, and the degree to which each embraced and propagated Enlightenment values. Rebok’s thoughtful and well-researched discussions of such topics reveal much about each man’s character, personality, and philosophy. The theses that Rebok argues in this book—that the two men shared a mutual admiration, that their personal views were shaped by their experience of transatlantic travel, that they influenced one another’s thought, that they established a transatlantic network of scholarly colleagues, that they shared philosophical common ground—are not particularly surprising, but the wealth of information with which the author defends these assertions and fleshes out the narrative of these two men’s lives is really quite fascinating.

This book is more likely to appeal to fans of Humboldt than to those of Jefferson. Humboldt is Rebok’s primary research interest, so he is covered more extensively than his American counterpart. Nevertheless, one thing I enjoyed very much about this book is that Rebok, as did Humboldt, looks at Jefferson more as a scientist than a politician. The book does touch on political issues, the most obvious being slavery, but one really learns a lot of interesting facts about Jefferson’s research achievements in various branches of the sciences. This book is written for a scholarly audience, not the general reader. Not everyone in the latter category is likely to be interested in some of the academic directions in which Rebok pursues her study, such as the history of the science of ecology and the influence of Bernhard Varenius on the two men’s scientific careers, but there is much fascinating content here for nonacademics (like myself) who are receptive to it.

Andrea Wulf’s book The Invention of Nature provides probably the best overall introduction on Humboldt for general readers. That book does contain one chapter on Humboldt’s relationship to Jefferson, but those eager for more detailed information on the interaction between these two stellar luminaries of the Enlightenment will be well served by Rebok’s Humboldt and Jefferson.
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Monday, August 12, 2019

Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four, Volume 1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby



The dawn of Marvel’s Silver Age
The Marvel Masterworks series reprints classic Marvel Comics in hardcover and trade paperback editions. Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four, Volume 1 reprints the first ten issues of The Fantastic Four, which were originally published from November 1961 to January 1963. The FF was created by Marvel’s greatest Silver Age creative duo, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who handle the story and art for all ten issues featured here.

As early as issue number 3, Marvel began billing The Fantastic Four as “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine,” but the first two or three issues don’t quite live up to such high praise. In the debut issue, the origin story is breezed through very quickly, the FF become instant celebrities without proving themselves, and a very underdeveloped Mole Man shows up for a story not much different than many of the monster comics Lee and Kirby used to crank out in the 1950s. In the next couple issues, the Skrulls are introduced and the Sub-Mariner is resurrected from the 1940s, but the stories so simplistic they make you wonder how Marvel ever went on to build such elaborate mythologies around these characters. In these first few issues, Kirby’s art is also subpar and appears a bit rushed.

By issue number 4, however, the series is in full swing and perhaps worthy of its tagline. Kirby’s art really starts to shine, and one begins to see the complex stories one expects from this creative duo. Doctor Doom makes his debut, and right from the get-go he is one of the most interesting and formidable villains in superhero comics. The odd family dynamic between the group members blossoms, with all their unique quirks and personal grievances on display, such as the constant animosity between the Thing and the Human Torch and the uncertain romance between Reed Richards and Sue Storm. (She’s got a thing for the Sub-Mariner.) The team’s fantasticar and the Baxter Building headquarters are already established by issue 3. In fact, the FF’s mythology gets developed so quickly that by issue 10 one can already see the repetition of familiar themes. In these first ten issues, the Thing reverts back to Ben Grimm three times, and on at least two occasions some form of mind control causes one of the members to battle the others, as will happen again so many times over the next few decades.

Although Lee takes most of the credit for creating the Fantastic Four, the group bears some notable similarities to the DC series Challengers of the Unknown, which Kirby worked on as early as 1957. Though that team was composed of four non-superhero adventurers, they engaged in sci-fi adventures similar to the FF. Two of the Challengers had similar personalities to Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm and engaged in the same persistent bickering, teasing, and attempted clobbering.

One of the great things about the Marvel Universe is that each of the major titles has its own style and tone: Iron Man is the tech hero, Dr. Strange is the mystical hero, Daredevil is the urban hero, and the Fantastic Four are the sci-fi heroes. Likely no other Earth-based superheroes have encountered as many memorably bizarre alien races, lost civilizations, and alternate dimensions as the FF. Even in these first ten issues, the reader begins to see the epic scope of Lee and Kirby’s sci-fi vision. The Fantastic Four was a truly pioneering comic book, and issues one through ten are still a pleasure to read over a half century later. The series would go on to even bigger and better stories, but it would have never gotten there without the strong foundation of these first ten issues.
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Friday, August 9, 2019

Peter Camenzind by Hermann Hesse



A promising debut
Peter Camenzind, the debut novel of Nobel Prize-winning author Hermann Hesse, was originally published in 1904. It is a coming-of-age story about a young man’s search for love, happiness, and a purpose to his life. At this early stage in Hesse’s career, his writing clearly shows the influence of German romanticism. The novel’s title character and protagonist, for example, grows up in a scene right out of a Caspar David Friedrich painting—an alpine village surrounded by rugged and majestic mountains beset by brutal storms and avalanches. While building upon the literary tradition of writers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, however, this is no Sorrows of Young Werther, as Hesse avoids romantic excesses and ventures toward the more modernist style that would characterize his later and better-known works.

In this first novel one will recognize many elements and themes common to Hesse’s later works. Though Peter is atypical of Hesse’s heroes in that he possesses a robust and powerful physique, he is intellectually inclined and has no interest in farm or factory work. He goes off to a university (reminiscent of the boarding school in Beneath the Wheel or the cloister school in Narcissus and Goldmund) where he develops an enthusiasm for scholarly pursuits. As is often the case with Hesse protagonists, Peter follows an artistic calling, but instead of music (as in Gertrude) or painting (as in Rosshalde), Peter’s chosen vocation is literature. Among his classmates he is an outsider, but he forms one very strong and intense male friendship (see Beneath the Wheel, Demian, The Glass Bead Game, and others). When that friendship is taken away from him (Beneath the Wheel again), Peter becomes disillusioned with life and decides to wander the countryside, looking for some sort of spiritual epiphany (much like Siddhartha or Goldmund).

Love is a common theme throughout the book, but not necessarily romantic love. Peter searches for a love that will make life worthwhile. This first manifests itself in love for woman, at which Peter is not very successful. Alcoholism is another recurring theme in the book, as Peter continually turns to drink as a distraction from the lack of love and meaning in his life. As the book progresses, however, Peter begins to realize that the one love in his life that he could always count on is his love for nature. While nature provides him with a source of spiritual contentment, he realizes that he will never be truly happy until he develops a love for humanity. Peter’s spiritual quest is very engaging, and Hesse imparts some valid wisdom, but the lifestyle which ultimately brings Peter contentment will probably strike many readers as not very appealing.

Hesse’s novels often feature intelligent, sensitive introverts who feel like outsiders in society. I suspect that those who read his books, myself included, tend to be those who see themselves in a similar light. Such readers will easily be seduced by the monastic or nomadic lifestyles of Hesse’s heroes. How wonderful it would be to devote oneself to study in the secluded libraries of a utopian center of learning, or wander the roads of Europe on foot, sleeping in fragrant meadows and taking life as it comes. By no means am I being facetious, for this is exactly what I enjoy about Hesse’s novels. His characters have the time to philosophize and self-actualize, while many of us do not. This only proves that the alienation and disconnect that Hesse felt with modern society is still alive and well today. By Hesse standards, Peter Camenzind is a good novel, not great, but it is an admirable start to what would prove to be an illustrious literary career.
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Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Frank Norris Remembered, edited by Jesse S. Crisler and Joseph R. McElrath



As friends and family knew him
Frank Norris Remembered, published in 2013, is part of the American Writers Remembered series from the University of Alabama Press. Each volume in the series collects posthumous remembrances from friends, family, and professional colleagues of the deceased author to create a sort of oral history of their lives. Frank Norris was one of America’s greatest novelists at the dawn of the twentieth century, but his career as a professional writer only lasted about seven years. He died at the age of 32. The world hardly knew him, or what he was capable of, which makes a volume like this all the more valuable for understanding the author and his life.

This book is edited by Jesse S. Crisler and Joseph R. McElrath, the duo of literature professors who literally wrote the book on Norris’s life (Frank Norris: A Life, published in 2006). Here they demonstrate the same exhaustive thoroughness and meticulous attention to detail that they brought to that authoritative biography. Crisler and McElrath provide introductions and extensive notes to accompany each of the remembrances reprinted here. In all, fifty different individuals offer their personal memories of Norris, including Norris’s wife, his college fraternity brothers, and the editors and publishers with whom he worked. Outside the area of Frank Norris studies, the only readily recognizable names among this assortment of Norris intimates are like-minded authors Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells. The writings take various forms, including published eulogies, personal letters of condolence to the widow Norris, introductions to posthumous editions of Norris works, and interview notes taken by early biographers of Norris. The latter category, being choppy and haphazard in nature, are the least satisfying to read, but perhaps the most valuable inclusions because of their never having been previously published. In gathering together and reproducing documents from various archives around the country, this book serves as a valuable tool for Norris researchers, and the context provided by Crisler and McElrath’s contributions adds to that value considerably.

Not surprisingly, this is a book more for researchers than for readers, as the testimonies can get quite repetitive. Many of the same points are reiterated in several reminiscences, but the varying perspectives help to clarify and corroborate the details of Norris’s life and career. As one would expect, the text contains plenty of praise for the dead, whether for his literary prowess, his physical attractiveness, or his noble character. Such eulogizing goes beyond mere flattery, however, and often provides great insight into Norris’s personality and demeanor, which is what one would hope to get from a book like this. Only one of the interviewees, Bertha Rickoff, really didn’t care for Norris at all, and her contrarian opinion proves to be one of the collection’s most interesting entries.

Frank Norris Remembered is aimed at literary scholars, but an avid layman like myself can find much of interest here as well. As far as general readers go, this is only for diehard Norris fans. Those who haven’t already read Frank Norris: A Life should do so first, and if you still want to know more about this great American author, then Frank Norris Remembered makes a fine companion volume.
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Monday, August 5, 2019

The Cave by José Saramago



Equal parts captivating and frustrating
Portuguese author José Saramago won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature. His novel The Cave was published in 2000. The book’s protagonist, Cipriano Algor, is an artisan potter who manufactures earthenware dishes in his home workshop and kiln. He lives on the outskirts of an unnamed metropolis and makes periodic trips into the city to deliver his products to his sole customer: the Center. Imagine if Amazon, the company who sells everything, had a skyscraping retail complex that dwarfed the Mall of America, complete with housing for its most valued employees, and you have the corporate nightmare that is the Center. Cipriano Algor lives with his daughter Marta and her husband Marçal, who works as a security guard at the Center. While making a delivery, the potter is informed that the Center will no longer be buying his wares, as they have decided to sell a factory-made product in its place. This unexpected development suddenly leaves Cipriano Algor without a livelihood, forced to face the possibility of having to close his workshop and leave his home.

The story of The Cave is sufficiently interesting to keep the reader involved, but Saramago tells it at a snail’s pace. He begins with an overly detailed description of the potter’s delivery route to the Center. Then a stray dog shows up and joins the family, an event which is dwelt upon for quite some time. It feels as if the story takes forever to get started, when all the while it is slowly growing on you. The reader becomes very fondly engaged in the family dynamic between the three main characters, and the details of the ceramic processes and techniques are surprisingly fascinating. Despite the slow-moving plot, the prose often takes the form of rapid-fire dialogue between the family members in discussions that are often overly protracted and repetitive. There is also quite a bit of interior dialogue, and Saramago very insightfully relates the thought processes of his characters, even the dog. The book has no chapters, and the prose is written in long run-on sentences devoid of punctuation but for commas, forming paragraphs that go on for multiple pages. Dialogue is presented the same way, without quotation marks and with only commas to separate one character’s speech from another. These stylistic choices make for an annoying lack of clarity at times, but they do serve to speed up the reading pace.

For much of the book’s length, the reader finds himself wondering why Saramago chose to title this novel The Cave. About halfway through the book, a cave is briefly mentioned, but it hardly seems worthy of being the novel’s namesake. At some point I began to suspect that perhaps the title might end up being a reference to Plato’s allegory of the cave (from The Republic), and sure enough, eventually that turned out to be the case, and in a very heavy-handed way. After having spent so much time wading through long, circuitous conversations, waiting to find out what the novel is actually about, the climax is disappointingly vague and forced, a metaphor taken too far and too literally. If you are not familiar with Plato’s allegory, then you’d better read up on it, or you will not have a clue as to the point of the novel.

Overall the merits of The Cave outweigh its faults. I quite enjoyed the relationships between the family members (including the dog), and Saramago’s depictions of the Center amount to a beautifully executed dystopian vision of corpocracy that approaches the level of genius in its balance of satire and foreboding. The Cave is not Saramago’s best-known novel (that would be Blindness) and it probably isn’t his best novel, but it is satisfying enough to make me want to read more of his work.
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Friday, August 2, 2019

The Cimbrians (The Long Journey, Volume 2) by Johannes V. Jensen



From Stone Age Denmark to ancient Rome
The Long Journey is a cycle of six novels by Danish author Johannes V. Jensen, winner of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Literature. Originally published in Danish from 1908 to 1922, these six books were published in a 1923 English translation as three volumes. Thus the second of these English volumes, The Cimbrians, is comprised of Jensen’s third Long Journey book, Norna Gest, and his fourth book, The Cimbrians. In The Long Journey series, Jensen creates an alternative creation myth with Scandinavia as the cradle of civilization, and he presents a modern secular mythology that charts the Darwinian development of European peoples.

The first volume, Fire and Ice, begins with prehistoric apeman’s early existence in a tropical jungle in southern Sweden and goes on to cover mankind’s survival of the Ice Age. The second volume, The Cimbrians, begins in the Stone Age. As he did with the previous protagonists of Fire and Ice, Jensen singles out a lone genius hero who leaves his homeland and strikes out on his own to accomplish advances in technology and culture. Here the hero is Gest, a Dane of the seafaring peoples of Zealand, the largest island of Denmark. In the first volume, Jensen allowed one of his heroes a brief mystical view into the future. Here he goes further down the science fiction road by introducing the unexpected element of immortality. Gest morphs into Norna Gest, the hero of a popular Danish folk legend, and becomes a sort of wandering troubadour/fisherman who travels the world, mingling incognito among the people he meets and observing humanity in all its varied forms. Through the eyes of this ageless character, Jensen shows us European man’s progress from the Stone Age through the Iron Age to the Bronze Age.

The second half of the book shifts to Jutland, the mainland peninsula of Denmark, where Norna Gest encounters the tribe known as the Cimbrians (a.k.a. the Cimbri). For a time he settles in the Cimbrian village and observes their customs, including an elaborate pagan festival to celebrate the coming of Spring and their agricultural practices through the four seasons of the year. A catastrophic rise in sea level forces the Cimbrians to flee their homeland. Migrating southwards, they clash with the Roman Republic. Here Jensen’s narrative passes from the realm of archaeology and legend to the domain of recorded history, beginning with the Battle of Noreia in 112 BC. In doing so, he chronicles a Danish diaspora that expands the narrative from a Scandinavian-centric focus to a wider European scope, which will presumably set things up for the third volume, entitled Christopher Columbus.

Because of Norna Gest’s immortal presence throughout the volume, constantly observing mankind’s progress, The Cimbrians is more descriptive in nature and less character-driven than Fire and Ice. While that first volume had a style that could be described as almost Biblical, this second volume is more firmly grounded in history, even so far as to include quotes from Plutarch and other Roman historians. Even so, the story of The Cimbrians is no less epic than the awesome events of Fire and Ice. The literary style with which Jensen crafts The Long Journey is a unique and remarkable blend of grandiloquent romanticism, scientific naturalism, and poetic prose. The translator, A. G. Chater, deserves some credit for the fact that each sentence is eminently quotable and a joy to read. So far the first two volumes of The Long Journey have proved to be a stunning literary achievement, leaving the reader to wonder why Jensen has undeservedly faded into relative obscurity compared to other Nobel laureates. Although Jensen certainly aimed The Long Journey at a Scandinavian audience, this is one saga that truly deserves a worldwide readership.
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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck



High on atmosphere, low on plot
John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row was originally published in 1945. The title refers to a waterfront neighborhood in Monterey, California known for its sardine canneries. In this district the reader finds the local grocery store run by a Chinese immigrant, a bordello operated by friendly prostitutes, and a vacant lot and unused building inhabited by bums and squatters. In a neighborhood populated by quirky characters, the Row’s most unusual inhabitant is Doc, a marine biologist who runs a laboratory that sells sea creatures and other animals for scientific and educational use. Doc is beloved by his neighbors for his generosity and wisdom, so much so that the bums decide to throw him a party. Though set during the Great Depression, Cannery Row is predominantly a lighthearted novel focusing on the camaraderie among the denizens of the district.

In the second half of the 19th century, San Francisco established itself as America’s primary literary center west of the East Coast, due in large part to author Bret Harte and his literary journal The Overland Monthly. Born in Salinas, Steinbeck is the culmination of a distinguished tradition of Northern California literature that includes eminent authors Jack London and Frank Norris. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Cannery Row. The quirky characters, comic situations, and depictions of merriment amid squalor call to mind the mining town tales of Harte and London, while Norris’s genius for naturalistic description, as seen in novels like McTeague and The Octopus, is reflected in Steinbeck’s vivid depictions of urban life and the California landscape.

The best thing about Cannery Row is its setting. Steinbeck does a great job creating an inviting atmosphere and involving the reader in the lives of the district’s inhabitants. As great a writer as Steinbeck is, however, there is no denying that as far as plot goes this is mostly just a comedic story about a bunch of bums throwing a party for a friend. Occasionally Steinbeck will inject a more poetic interlude to remind you that you’re reading a work of literature, but often this strategy backfires as one style clashes with another, like when a poetry reading interrupts a wild party (literally in one instance). One chapter, apropos of nothing, inexplicably gives us a glimpse into the lives of a married couple that are unmentioned elsewhere in the book. Though this passage sticks out like a sore thumb, it is one of the few that seriously addresses the social conditions of the Depression, as Steinbeck did much more concertedly and effectively in The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. For the most part, the economic reasons for the preponderance of homeless persons in Cannery Row is glossed over in favor of near-slapstick humor.

Another odd thing about the novel is that while Doc is supposedly the protagonist, he is the character about whom we learn the least. It is hinted in several passages that he is a womanizer, but the reader never actually sees him with a woman. Doc is absent from much of the novel and is largely defined by what the other characters say about him. When he is present in the narrative, Steinbeck lovingly describes his laboratory and his profession in fascinating detail, but we never really get inside Doc’s head the way we do with Mack or the other bums.

Cannery Row may not be Steinbeck’s best-written or most profound novel, but it is still a fine work of American realist literature. It is apparent that he had a lot of fun writing it, and there is certainly enjoyment to be had in reading it.
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Monday, July 29, 2019

Jack Kirby’s OMAC: One Man Army Corps by Jack Kirby



Some interesting ideas rather simplistically executed
Comic book artist extraordinaire Jack Kirby is best known for his pioneering creation of enduring superheroes for Marvel Comics, but later in his career he also briefly worked for DC Comics. In the 1970s, Kirby was granted a fair degree of autonomy to create new titles for DC, and it was during this period that he came up with some of his more outlandish and idiosyncratic creations. One such creation was OMAC, the One Man Army Corps, which only ran for eight issues from 1974 to 1975 (though DC would later resurrect the concept in other incarnations). Jack Kirby’s OMAC, a 2008 volume from DC Comics, reprints all eight issues of Kirby’s OMAC series in full color, along with an introduction by Kirby’s biographer and former assistant Mark Evanier.

OMAC is based on an unrealized idea Kirby had at Marvel to create a Captain America of the future. In a not-so-distant dystopian world, average joe Buddy Blank is transformed into the superhero OMAC, a soldier for the Global Peace Agency. In this new form, he is not only possessed of super strength and speed but also psychically linked to a sentient orbital satellite named Brother Eye, who endows OMAC with auxiliary powers through the transmission of molecular beams. The almost personality-less OMAC is not a particularly compelling hero, but the title allows Kirby to present his science fiction visions of the future of human society. Unfortunately, most of the ideas Kirby comes up with aren’t all that different from what you might see in science fiction movies of the ‘60s, such as android dolls created for human companionship, wealthy oligarchs with private armies, and elderly brains transplanted into beautiful young bodies. Kirby unveils his most original and ingenious idea in issue number 7, “The Ocean Stealers,” but issue 8 ends in a cliffhanger and the storyline is never resolved.

Beyond each story’s presentation of the futuristic villains’ nefarious plans, the stories presented in these eight issues are mostly just simplistic punchfests with terrible dialogue. There is little of the narrative complexity and attention to character development that marked the early Stan Lee and Kirby masterpieces. These 18- to 20-page OMAC stories feel like 7- or 8-page sci-fi tales from 1950s issues of Strange Adventures that have been stretched out to fill a larger page count. The art is not quite up to Kirby’s usual standard of excellence either. Perhaps his herculean workload caused him to cut corners, perhaps one can blame it on the inkers, or maybe the fault lies with DC. While Kirby’s layouts for Marvel were always bombastically action-packed and dynamic, his OMAC frames are much more static and simple, as is historically characteristic of DC’s artistic style, though occasionally you get one great, highly detailed splash page that calls to mind his former glories. After his ‘70s tenure at DC, Kirby would return to work for Marvel and do much better work, both writing and drawing, on their Captain America title (see the paperback volume Essential Captain America, Volume 5). OMAC, however, calls to mind Kirby’s early ‘80s work in animation for Hanna-Barbera, like the cartoon series Thundarr the Barbarian.

Kirby’s 8-issue run on OMAC inspires mixed emotions. On the one hand, you get to see a genius at work; on the other hand, this isn’t exactly a work of genius. If you are not a diehard Kirby fan, you might be better off skipping OMAC and exploring other Kirby worlds like those of the Eternals or the New Gods.
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Friday, July 26, 2019

Century of the Wind by Eduardo Galeano



Four score and seven years of dictators, diplomats, and dissenters
Originally published in 1986, Century of the Wind is the final book in the Memory of Fire trilogy by Uruguayan journalist and novelist Eduardo Galeano. Like the two volumes that preceded it, Century of the Wind is not exactly a novel, but rather a unique literary composition of hundreds of brief historical vignettes based on fact but creatively embellished by the author. Through these myriad scenes, arranged chronologically, Galeano gives the reader a sweeping overview of Latin American history. While the first book in the trilogy, Genesis, covers the years 1492 to 1700, and the second volume, Faces and Masks, focuses on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Century of the Wind chronicles most of the twentieth century, from 1900 to 1986.

Though the narrative pieces are arranged in strict chronological order, Galeano jumps around considerably from topic to topic and from country to country. Early on, one would think that this is a book about the Mexican Revolution since the author devotes so much coverage to the political turmoil in that nation. Other themes eventually arise to take center stage in their turn, however, such as the United States’ imperial interventions in Nicaragua and the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Galeano intersperses such political and military events with cultural developments as well, highlighting artists, writers, and movie stars, most but not all of whom are Latin American. (Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, for example, make repeat appearances.) Overall, however, Galeano’s main concern is to provide a people’s history of social injustice, and Century of the Wind stands as a record of the political oppression and brutal violence inflicted on Latin American peoples throughout the twentieth century.

The result can be both shocking and depressing, as a horrific cycle repeats itself over and over in nation after nation, not only in Mexico and Nicaragua but also in Guatemala, Panama, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, Venezuela, Haiti, and on and on. Homegrown revolutionaries attempt to rise up against capitalist colonialism by fighting to establish socialist regimes. To protect its corporate interests, the United States supports reactionary rulers in crushing these rebellions. These puppet leaders then rise into full-blown dictators who rape the resources of their nations for their own profit and practice institutionalized torture and murder against Indigenous people and the laboring classes. The book is frequently punctuated by shockingly graphic descriptions of atrocities. Galeano clearly writes his eye-opening history from a leftist perspective, and not surprisingly the book is more likely to appeal to those with a similar political outlook.

One of the most valuable aspects of Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy is his extensive bibliography. Each historical vignette is typically supported by at least one cited source, but many of the scenes in Century of the Wind are missing their citations, which I suspect may be an editorial error on the part of the ebook publisher rather than an oversight by the author. Because of the way history repeated itself relentlessly in nation after nation, at times reading Century of the Wind feels like treading a brutal hamster wheel. This third volume lacks some of the epic grandeur of Faces and Masks, which highlighted several successful wars for independence over the course of two centuries. Nevertheless, Century of the Wind makes an estimable capstone to Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy, the whole of which is an impressive achievement that I would recommend to anyone interested in Latin American history, literature, and culture.
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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Proposed Roads to Freedom by Bertrand Russell



Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism demystified
Bertrand Russell
In Proposed Roads to Freedom, Nobel Prize-winning philosopher, mathematician, and essayist Bertrand Russell thoroughly and thoughtfully explains the political and economic systems of three potentially viable alternatives to capitalism: Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism. The book was published in 1918, when these movements were likely at their height on the world political stage and in the public’s collective consciousness. At that time, all three were ambitiously active in Europe and America, but it is hard to imagine the average reader having a minute understanding of their doctrines, which is where Russell comes in, as an eloquent interpreter of political economy for the masses. Today, in the age of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, when the term Socialism inspires knee-jerk anger, Anarchism inspires fear, and Syndicalism inspires a head-scratching “Huh?”, we could use a book like this now more than ever.

Russell begins by devoting a chapter to each of the movements, defining their basic premises and providing historical background for each. He then goes into exploring specific issues of government and society by comparing and contrasting the three systems, examining such questions as how many hours workers should work and how they would be paid under each system, how would a nation operating under one of these philosophies conduct itself in international relations and war, and to what degree would art and science flourish or stagnate in a Socialist, Anarchist, or Syndicalist society. Russell states honestly that he does not think capitalism is the ideal economic system under which mankind should conduct itself, and that we should be working towards an alternative system. What’s refreshing about this book, however, is that Russell is no utopian optimist. Rather, he admits that any of the three systems in question are likely to fail in the face of mankind’s inherent greed and propensity to violence. Russell doesn’t advocate any of the three as his personal preference, but rather proposes a fourth alternative, a British form of Syndicalism known as Guild Socialism, which combines some of the better elements of all three. In the final chapter he outlines what his perfect world under Guild Socialism might look like, but again he states his case in a tone more hopeful than dogmatic.

As one would expect, Russell uses the writings of Karl Marx as the basis for his explanation of Socialism. For Anarchism, his main source is Peter Kropotkin. With Syndicalism, no one sage rises to the top, so Russell draws from a variety of texts, mostly of French origin. If Russell commits one error in his writing of this book it is that he quotes too extensively from the original doctrinal texts. I’m reading this book because I don’t want to read Marx’s Das Kapital, so I prefer it when Russell explains these ideas in his own words. Those wishing to read deeper can draw a very good bibliography from his 61 footnotes. Because the book was published a century ago, it contains a few unfortunately antiquated comments on race, such as when Russell expresses concern over “the exploitation of inferior races” where we today would use the term “developing countries.”

Russell doesn’t claim to have all the answers in Proposed Roads to Freedom, but he sure does provide the reader with an in-depth education on the subjects at hand. If more philosophers could write like Russell, using clear and accessible language without insulting the reader’s intelligence, perhaps philosophy wouldn’t be so frightening to the typical nonacademic reader (in America, at least). Russell’s body of work is a treasure trove for the rationalist and freethinking reader, and I look forward to digging deeper into his extensive catalog of writings.
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Monday, July 22, 2019

Highway of Eternity by Clifford D. Simak



All over the (space-time) map
Award-winning and critically acclaimed science fiction author Clifford D. Simak’s final novel, Highway of Eternity, was originally published in 1986. Since publisher Open Road Media recently began rereleasing Simak’s works in ebook form, I have reviewed over 20 of his books and given many of them five-star ratings. Simak is easily one of my favorite science fiction writers of all time, and one subject in which he particularly excels is time travel. Therefore I had high hopes for Highway of Eternity, but unfortunately it is not one of his better novels. While the book contains some good ideas, it may contain too many, for few if any are developed to the point where they amount to much more than mere foggy notions.

The weirdness starts right out of the gate, as the reader is immediately introduced to two characters with unusual powers. Boone has the ability to inexplicably “step around a corner,” which is his rather inadequate way of describing the fact that when he feels threatened he somehow involuntarily transports himself to a realm seemingly outside of time and space as we know it. His friend Corcoran, on the other hand, at times experiences the power to see things that normal humans cannot see, such as beings or object that are invisibly present but out of phase with our own time-space. In the course of investigating a mysterious disappearance, these two stumble upon a family of revolutionary refugees from mankind’s future who dwell in an 18th century English manor house that has been removed to an isolated bubble outside of time and space. The cast thus enlarges to about eight or nine main characters, and the rest of the novel follows their diverse travels through time and space as they flee persecution from a foe that threatens the end of humanity as we know it. Over the course of their space-time peregrinations, they encounter everything from saber-toothed tigers to sentient robots to various races of aliens.

As one might surmise from that description, there isn’t a great deal of rhyme or reason to the goings-on here. It is as if Simak merely came up with a bunch of “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if” moments and then lumped them all into one book. The robots and aliens are barely described, leaving much to the reader’s imagination, and the same could be said for most of the novel’s scientific concepts. Six or seven different methods of space and/or time travel are presented over the course of the story, and they are all so vaguely defined as to border on the magical, making this more of a fantasy novel than anything firmly rooted within the science fiction genre. Though Simak, as he often does, addresses deep philosophical issues of mankind’s purpose and future, the prose is often written with a deliberate simplicity that evokes the feel of young adult literature. The dialogue frequently consists of rapid exchanges of vague phrases of five words or less, a stylistic choice that annoys more than it enlightens. It is as if Simak was after some sort of fairy-tale feel to his prose that garishly clashes with the speculative sci-fi subject matter at hand.

Highway of Eternity is by no means a terrible novel, and those who enjoy Simak’s writing will still find patches to admire and enjoy amidst this hodgepodge quilt of meandering plotlines and partially developed concepts. Those wishing he had gone out on a high note, however, are likely to find this a disappointing swan song.
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Friday, July 19, 2019

Presidential Mission by Upton Sinclair



Lanny Budd’s North African interlude
Presidential Mission is the eighth book in Upton Sinclair’s 11-novel Lanny Budd series, not to be confused with the similarly titled fifth book in the series, Presidential Agent. Published in 1947, Presidential Mission is set amidst the events of World War II from 1942 to 1943. As established earlier in the series, Lanny is a wealthy French-born son of American parents who uses his career as an art dealer to gather intelligence for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Pretending to be a Nazi sympathizer, he is able to strike up acquaintances with high-level Germans including Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, and Rudolf Hess, as well as other powerful personages in Europe and America. Lanny’s globetrotting occupation and access to world leaders offers Sinclair the opportunity to provide a detailed look at historical events of the twentieth century, as told through his leftist perspective as an outspoken American socialist.

Presidential Mission opens at the point when the United States has decided to enter the war in Europe, but they have yet to make a decision as to where to land their troops. FDR sends Lanny to North Africa to gather intelligence, gauge the response of the locals to an American invasion, and recruit sympathetic anti-Nazi agents to work with the OSS (the precursor to the CIA). France controls most of North Africa, but France itself is occupied by the Nazis, and it is unclear to what extent the French armed forces will greet the U.S. troops as friend or foe. Lanny travels extensively in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, pretending to shop for Islamic mosaics while spying for FDR and forming alliances to support an Allied invasion.

As always, the intricacy with which Sinclair plots the events of World War II is impressive, and the way he works Lanny into the proceedings is ingenious. Lanny’s seemingly unlimited access to FDR strains realism, however, as does the fact that he only reports to the President in person. This causes Lanny to repeatedly trod a triangle from Washington to Vichy France to North Africa and back again. The novel treads water like this rather tediously for two-thirds of its length. From there, however, the pace picks up considerably and veers off into a totally different direction about which the less said the better, to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that the final third of the novel is a considerable improvement over what comes before.

Thankfully, Sinclair devotes very few pages in this novel to Lanny’s annoying hobby: séances, mediums, and talking to the dead. Unlike in other novels of the series, the supernatural plays no important part in the plot of Presidential Mission. The main fault of this novel, and of the series in general, is that for an espionage narrative it lacks any real sense of danger. Because the plot is so firmly tied to historical events, the outcome of Lanny’s efforts is rarely ever in question. We know how the war is going to end. We know Lanny is going to survive until the 11th book. He almost never fails at any mission he undertakes, because to do so would be to alter the course of history, which would defeat Sinclair’s purpose for the series, to provide a leftist history of the war. As a result, though Lanny is integrally involved in major historical events, his contribution to those events feels largely inconsequential. By the end of Presidential Mission, even Lanny himself admits that the intelligence he gathered really wasn’t all that crucial to the war effort.

Though this novel does have its faults, it does succeed as an eye-opening alternative perspective on world history. The Lanny Budd novels often fall short of perfection, and Presidential Mission is certainly not the best book of the bunch (so far that would probably be A World to Win), but the series as a whole is undoubtedly a monumental achievement.
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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell



Innovative and inspiring, if a bit grueling
Though the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas got its fair share of bad reviews, I rather liked it, so when the 2004 novel by David Mitchell came up as a Kindle Daily Deal, I snatched it up. By the time I got around to reading it, a couple of years had passed since I had seen the film, so I had forgotten the details of the plot, and the novel was by no means predictable. Cloud Atlas is a truly unique reading experience, primarily due to its unusual structure. The book consists of six intertwined stories that take place in six different time periods, from the nineteenth century to a post-apocalyptic future. These narratives are nested within one another, arranged in an ABCDEFEDCBA pattern. The links between the stories are varied and often fleeting. The protagonist of one story might read a book or enjoy a work of art created by his or her predecessor in an earlier narrative. One repeated but only briefly mentioned symbol hints at reincarnation, but that concept is never overtly explored.

Because two of the book’s six narratives take place in the future, Cloud Atlas is classified as a science fiction novel, but it certainly doesn’t read like one. In the mid-nineteenth century, American lawyer Adam Ewing takes passage on a ship through the Chatham Islands near New Zealand, where he witnesses British colonialism and the enslavement of the Indigenous population. In 1931, Robert Frobisher, a young man hoping to carve out a career as a composer, takes up residence in the Belgian home of an established mentor and becomes intimately involved in his host family’s personal lives. In a mystery novel set in 1970s California, journalist Luisa Rey investigates corruption at a nuclear power plant. In present-day Britain, aging publisher Timothy Cavendish finds himself, through a series of comical circumstances, imprisoned in a home for the elderly. In a dystopian Korea of the future, Sonmi-451, a clone manufactured for the food service industry, begins to awaken to her own humanity. On one of the Hawaiian islands, centuries in the future, a man named Zachry and his fellow survivors in a post-apocalyptic society struggle to eke out a peaceful agrarian existence while suffering the attacks of a warlike, cannibalistic tribe.


No matter the time period, Mitchell proves himself an author of rare talent and eloquence. The problem with Cloud Atlas is that each of the six narratives overstays its welcome. The book is not six connected short stories but rather six complete novellas. Once you enter each world, you might be stuck there for an hour and a half of reading. This is too long for even the better of the narratives (the future scenes and the mystery novel), and can prove quite tedious in the case of the book’s worst entries (the stories of Timothy Cavendish and Robert Frobisher). In Mitchell’s world, almost every narrator is a veritable James Joyce of thesaurus-wringing verbosity. Overall, however, the impressive achievement of the whole outweighs the faults of its parts. If there is a point to all this interconnection, it lies in the fact that each of the six protagonists is struggling in his or her own way to achieve personal freedom and social justice. Thus, as a whole Cloud Atlas amounts to an epic centuries-long affirmation of the human spirit that leaves the reader astonished and inspired.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Monsters Unleashed Prelude by Stan Lee, et al.



Old monsters gooooood! New monsters baaaaaad!
Before the incredible Hulk, the Thing, or the Man-Thing made their first appearances in the Marvel Comics universe, there were Grottu, Gorgilla, Groot, Goom, and Googam. Prior to the Silver Age superhero explosion, creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby filled the pages of titles like Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, and Tales of Suspense with stories of giant monsters terrorizing humanity. In 2017, Marvel paid tribute to its monster-comics heritage with Monsters Unleashed, a crossover event in which Marvel heroes clashed with a variety of creatures, including some resurrected from those early Lee and Kirby stories. The trade paperback Monsters Unleashed Prelude was published as a companion volume to this event. The first half of the book reprints 13 of those classic Lee and Kirby monster tales of the 1950s and early ‘60s. The second half of the book reruns five issues of monster-related comics from 2015 and 2016. All art is reproduced in full color.

Since comic books like Tales to Astonish were anthology titles, the Lee and Kirby stories generally run about seven pages, or fourteen pages for a two-parter. The stories adhere to a common formula, but with enough variation to keep them interesting. Each monster is either the result of a science experiment gone wrong or an alien visitor set on conquering Earth. Some of the creatures are dumb brutes, but most are highly intelligent and have some way of communicating with English speakers either through telepathy or quick study. After each monster makes his entrance and reveals his fearsome name (e.g. Rommbu, Vandoom, Orrgo, etc.), he will then show off his destructive power for three or four pages. At this time it was prohibited, or at least highly frowned upon, to show anyone getting killed in a comic book, so you won’t find these monsters tearing up big cities like Godzilla. Instead, they are always in rural locations with few people around, and they mostly scare rather than hurt. In the end, one clever fellow, usually a scientist by trade, discovers some ingenious method of outsmarting the monster, neutralizing its power and defeating it. The stories tend to blend into one another after awhile, but the main attraction here is Kirby’s visionary art.

The comics reprinted in the second half of the book include Fearless Defenders #8 and Marvel Zombies #1, which give the reader an introduction to monster hunter Elsa Bloodstone. Next is Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur #1, a recent retread of an old Jack Kirby creation. Rounding out the volume is Totally Awesome Hulk issues #2 and #3, which feature another powerful lady monster hunter named Lady Hellbender. Presumably these issues were chosen because these characters would feature prominently in the Monsters Unleashed crossover. At times the flashy art is appealing, particularly Frank Cho’s work on Totally Awesome Hulk. The writing, however, barely amounts to stories, and the scripts consist of choppy dialogue that rarely includes a complete sentence. In many ways, these random issues demonstrate how far Marvel has fallen from the glory days of the Silver Age.

It was my interest in classic comics that led me to read this volume, so not surprisingly I much prefer the vintage selections to the book’s contemporary latter half. A comprehensive volume reprinting old Kirby monster comics would easily be at least a four-star read, but this volume is severely hampered by its inferior latter half.
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