Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 7 by Roger Stern, et al.

Saved by John Byrne
Essential Captain America, Volume 7 reprints issues 231 to 257 of the classic Captain America comic book series from Marvel Comics. This run of issues, reproduced here in black and white, were originally published from March 1979 to May 1981. This book picks up where Volume 6 left off, with Roger McKenzie and Sal Buscema continuing their fine work in the roles of writer and artist, respectively. While their issues are by no means masterpieces, this duo consistently cranked out good solid work that is above average for Marvel during this era. Early in this volume they introduce the National Force, a terrorist organization that actually behaves like a real terrorist organization, frighteningly fomenting racism and violence like a latter-day, techno-savvy Klan. This seamlessly leads into an exciting three-issue story arc in which Cap teams up with Daredevil to square off against Dr. Faustus.

As entertaining as that may be, the real highlight of Volume 7 is undoubtedly the nine-issue run with John Byrne as artist. Byrne was one of Marvel’s best artists of the ‘80s, and he draws Cap probably better than any other character he’s ever covered. Byrne was also a very good writer, and from issues 247 to 255 he and Roger Stern are credited as co-plotters, while Stern pens the script. As is often the case with Byrne’s work, these stories are a great mix of nostalgia for Marvel’s glory days and innovative changes for the future. Stern and Byrne also develop the supporting cast of non-super civilian characters so Cap has more going on in his life than just throwing his shield at people. Issue 249, where Cap faces Machinesmith and Dragon Man, is an absolute masterpiece. This is followed by a famous but overrated issue (#250) in which Cap is encouraged to run for President of the United States. After appearances by Batroc and Mr. Hyde, Stern and Byrne then deliver a great two-issue story that delves into the history of Cap’s World War II superteam The Invaders. Cap journeys to England at the request of some of his aged former teammates and ends up tangling with the Nazi vampire Baron Blood.

Unfortunately, in between the McKenzie/Buscema and Stern/Byrne runs, this volume contains a lot of filler in the form of one-issue stories by a miscellaneous assortment of journeyman writers and artists. Some of the art is good—Gene Colan and even Carmine Infantino each draw an issue—but the stories are mediocre Marvel fare at best. As is often the case with such fill-in issues, Cap fights a number of forgettable D-list villains and even the occasional non-super threat, such as garden-variety muggers or your average motorcycle gang. It is as if the editors tell these fill-in writers, you can do whatever you want as long as your story is inconsequential and doesn’t mess with the continuity of any major characters.

Overall, however, the goods outweigh the bads in Volume 7. It is certainly worth a read for fans of John Byrne. Compared to the rest of the Essential Captain America series, this is not as good as Volume 5, which was mostly written and drawn by Jack Kirby, but it is right up there as one of the better volumes in the series, along with Volume 3. Though it has had a lot of ups and downs in terms of quality, the Essential Captain America series has been a fun read, and this was a good way to end it on a high note.
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Monday, June 24, 2019

People in the Summer Night: An Epic Suite by Frans Eemil Sillanpää

Rural Finnish montage
Frans Eemil Sillanpää
Finnish author Frans Eemil Sillanpää won the 1939 Nobel Prize in Literature and is the only writer from his nation so far to have done so. As a result, he is quite beloved in his home country and even has an asteroid named after him. His work is little known among English-language readers, however, as translations are hard to come by. One work of Sillanpää’s that is available in English is his novel People in the Summer Night. Originally published in 1934, this work was published in English in 1966 by the University of Wisconsin Press as part of their Nordic Translation Series. Googling the series name will take you to the UW Libraries website, where all 11 books in the series, including this one, can be read online for free.

In People in the Summer Night, Sillanpää paints a vivid portrait of a community in rural Finland. A number of farms surround a lake, and the residents are equally apt to travel by boat, horse, or automobile. This picturesque landscape is populated by landowners, tenant farmers, and rafters floating timber to market. On summer weekends, city dwellers come to spend time with friends and family or simply to enjoy country life as tourists. During the summer months, Finland is far enough north that the sun never completely sets, and the strange midnight twilight lends a mysterious air to the goings-on in this region.

Sillanpää constructs the narrative in 48 short chapters. Despite the book’s relative brevity, it features a large ensemble cast of characters. The English edition begins with a list of characters, which is useful for telling everyone straight, particularly since Finnish names and their variations can be a bit confusing. The structure of the narrative is more of a montage than a linear story. Sillanpää frequently jumps back and forth between different characters, whose storylines sometimes intersect, like Balzac’s Comédie Humaine in miniature. It doesn’t always appear that the chapters are in chronological order either, as sometimes it seems one has to jump back in time an hour or two to pick up the thread of a story that was previously left hanging. This fragmentation of perspective brings a stylistic modernism to what is otherwise largely a naturalistic depiction of the environs and it inhabitants. Sillanpää’s prose shifts between beautifully poetic descriptions of nature and insightful glimpses into the psychology of his characters. The prose isn’t always easy to follow, but I suspect that may be due in part to the translation by Alan Blair.

The action of the novel takes place almost entirely within one summer night. Two young lovers from the city enjoy a burgeoning romance in the rural countryside. A pregnant woman goes into labor while her husband is absent from home. A marriage suffers from the brutish and abusive behavior of the husband. An artist rows the waters of the lake seeking inspiration. A stoic old charcoal burner plies his ancient craft. A farmer’s wife seeks solace in the company of another while her distant husband is away. A murder is foreshadowed. These are some of the intimate dramas that contribute to the collective history of this fictional rural community. Though the setting often seems idyllic, the plot rings true as authentic incidents of real life.

If People in the Summer Night is any indication, Sillanpää’s work deserves to be better known worldwide. As far as I know, only three of his books have been translated into English: Meek Heritage (1919, available at the Internet Archive), The Maid Silja (1931), and this one.

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Friday, June 21, 2019

Fire and Ice (The Long Journey, Volume 1) by Johannes V. Jensen

Darwinian epic of Scandinavian genesis
Danish author Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950) won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Literature. His magnum opus was a series of six novels, completed from 1908 to 1922, collectively titled The Long Journey. In 1923 this work was published in English translation as a three-volume set. The first of these three volumes, Fire and Ice, is comprised, appropriately enough, of Jensen’s Book One: Fire and Book Two: Ice. As a whole, The Long Journey is a historical epic chronicling the development of European man from prehistoric times to the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Jensen creates an alternative to the biblical account of mankind’s creation and early history, one based on rationalistic scientific concepts like Darwinian evolution. His intention is not to create a narrative that is rigorously accurate either scientifically or historically, but rather to craft a sort of secular mythology stylistically akin to the Judeo-Christian Old Testament.

The narrative begins prior to the dawn of Homo Sapiens, when furry, tree-dwelling primates first opted for life on the ground. These proto-humans dwell in a European jungle where their lives center around a volcano called Gunung Api that they both fear and worship as a god. One precocious member of the herd, however, learns to tame the dreaded fire by bringing it down from the mountain and putting it to the service of man. This early hominid Prometheus, named Fyr, is rewarded for his achievement by assuming godlike status within his tribe.

Book Two: Ice jumps ahead an unspecified number of generations and focuses on one of Fyr’s descendants named Carl. The volcano has gone dormant, and the climate is becoming colder. Glaciers descend on Europe as an ice age sets in. While most of the humans migrate to the South, Carl, who has been outcast from his people for having committed a transgression, sets off to the North to live amid the ice. Like their ancestor Fyr, Carl and his descendants use their ingenuity to produce technological advancements that help mankind adapt and evolve. To tell his story, Jensen attributes millennia worth of human progress to a handful of fictional geniuses. Over the course of the story, the mythos of The Long Journey encompasses not only the taming of fire, but also the development of religion and social inequality, the origins of hunting and agriculture, the building of ships and the invention of the wheel, and the spawning of the various races of man.

In this specifically Scandinavian Genesis, the birthplace of humanity is in southern Sweden, just a short boat ride from Jensen’s native Denmark. The underlying thesis to The Long Journey is that those who fled from the ice age to tropical climes became indolent and weak while those who stayed in the North to contend with the cold became heartier, stronger, and smarter. There is some potential for racism here, obviously, but Fire and Ice comes across as more of an expression of intense nationalistic pride. Jensen’s Nordic bias is not any more offensive than the many religions in the world that consider their followers to be “the chosen people.” The difference, of course, is that this is a secular creation story, and what makes it great literature is how Jensen expertly mixes naturalistic scientific theory with romantic grandeur of mythic proportions.

Given the subject matter, it is not surprising that The Long Journey is little known outside of Scandinavia, but Jensen’s writing is powerful, and this fascinating book merits a wider audience. Jensen won his Nobel for a reason, and judging from this excellent novel, he deserved it. I am very much looking forward to the next two volumes of The Long Journey.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Sport of the Gods by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Early 20th century African American urban naturalism
Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African American poet, novelist, playwright, and writer of short stories. Born in Ohio, he was the son of former slaves. The Sport of the Gods, published in 1902, was his final novel, though he continued to publish poetry until 1906 when he died from tuberculosis at age 33.

The Sport of the Gods begins at an unspecified location in the American South. Berry Hamilton and his wife Fannie are former slaves who, following emancipation, found work as butler and housekeeper to a wealthy white landowner named Maurice Oakley. The Hamiltons live in a cottage on the Oakley estate with their teenaged children Joe and Kitty. One day Mr. Oakley’s younger brother, a guest at the estate, reports some money has been stolen from his room. Despite his twenty years of service, Berry is accused of the theft, based on a mixture of circumstantial evidence and Mr. Oakley’s refusal to believe a white gentleman would have committed such a crime. Though a detective expresses doubt as to the butler’s guilt, Mr. Oakley demands that Berry be prosecuted, and Berry experiences firsthand that the Southern justice system has little sympathy for a black man.

This all happens very quickly in the first few chapters of the novel. The story of Berry’s crime and punishment runs more toward melodrama than realism. It feels predictable and a bit rushed, as if Dunbar wished to get the crime out of the way so that he can focus on the book’s main concern, which is what happens to the Hamiltons after Berry is accused of the crime. The entire family are branded as outcasts. Joe, who is trained as a barber, can’t find work with either the white community, who considers him a criminal by association, or the black community, who resents the Hamiltons’ former association with the wealthy whites. Unable to make a living in their hometown, the family decides to follow the path of so many emancipated blacks and migrate north to New York City.

I’m a fan of naturalist literature for the way it frankly chronicles the living conditions and social forces at work in modern society. Relatively few African American writers around 1900 received positive recognition from the white literary establishment, so discovering Dunbar was a pleasant surprise. The Sport of the Gods, however, doesn’t really capture the African American experience in the same way that the novels of Charles W. Chesnutt do. Instead, the narrative that Dunbar creates with this novel could easily apply to just about any member of the poor working class. If there is a message here, it is not racially specific but rather that “Big cities breed bad morals.” Other naturalist writers have done a better job of illustrating a descent into alcoholism or prostitution, such as Emile Zola in L’Assomoir or Theodore Dreiser in Sister Carrie. In The Sport of the Gods, a much briefer work, this moral decline feels rushed, and the social commentary has to compete for space and attention with the potboiler plot of the legal drama.

Despite its flaws, this novel is deeply affecting at times. It may not be a masterpiece of American literary realism, but it is certainly worth a read for those interested in the literature of this time period. Given the obstacles Dunbar faced, his literary accomplishments are impressive, and his body of work certainly deserves further investigation.
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Monday, June 17, 2019

Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science by Carl Sagan

Interdisciplinary grab bag
Broca’s Brain, a book by astronomer and science writer Carl Sagan, was published in 1979. The title refers to the 19th century French neuroscientist Paul Broca, who is discussed in the first chapter. The subtitle, Reflections on the Romance of Science, is not entirely successful as a blanket statement sufficiently generic enough to encompass the contents of what is essentially a grab bag of 25 miscellaneous articles, essays, and lectures that have been repurposed into a book. The writings collected in this volume were previously published from 1974 to 1979 and vary widely in subject matter, interest, and degree of difficulty.

The chapters are divided into categories, but even those are loose enough to be almost arbitrary. One chapter is a brief biological sketch of Albert Einstein that focuses as much on his political and humanitarian efforts as his scientific accomplishments. Another chapter is a critical essay on science fiction in which Sagan names some of his favorite novels. The bulk of the book, however, is devoted to Sagan’s bread and butter, planetary science. The contents of this book were written at a time when the Viking spacecraft had recently landed on Mars and Voyager had not yet reached Saturn, so most of Sagan’s speculations on the solar system have since been either confirmed or disproved by subsequent unmanned space exploration. Sagan also devotes much discussion to the possibility of life on other worlds and our ability to find it, and his erudite thoughts on these topics are still very much relevant today. Though Sagan was known for the accessibility of his scientific writings, not every piece in this collection was intended for the general reader. His chapter on the history of 19th century astronomy, for example, is clearly aimed at practitioners in that field, and one would probably need a master’s degree in the subject to fully understand everything the author is saying.

A section of the book entitled Paradoxers includes chapters in which Sagan refutes various forms of faux science. Sagan was one of the world’s foremost advocates for science over superstition and mysticism. While I admire him for taking on that role, those reading a book by Sagan have probably already made up their minds in favor of science. The biggest disappointment with Broca’s Brain is that Sagan spends twenty percent of the entire book disproving the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, who made all kinds of ridiculous and unsubstantiated claims about the history of the solar system. There is also a chapter about a man who declared himself the second coming of Christ. Someone had to step up and answer these false prophets, and I am glad Sagan took up the challenge, but I didn’t feel these chapters were a productive use of my reading time. Rest assured, however, that elsewhere in the book Sagan more thoughtfully and philosophically addresses the contentious relationship between science and religion, proving himself one of rationalism’s most outspoken and eloquent proponents.

After reading Broca’s Brain, I would not hesitate to call Sagan a genius. The man can write intelligently and articulately about any subject he puts his mind to, within or without the realm of science. Even so, I can’t say I enjoyed every one of the 25 essays included here, for the reasons discussed above. Still, I’m glad I read the book, and overall this collection of Sagan’s writings on the wonders of the universe left me with a profound feeling of secular inspiration. If that’s what he means by the “romance of science,” then so be it.
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Friday, June 14, 2019

Jack London: Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone

A superb telling of an amazing life
Jack London: Sailor on Horseback, a biography by Irving Stone, was originally published in 1938. It began as an authorized biography when Stone was invited by London’s widow, Charmian Kittredge London, to the London family ranch in California to utilize the family’s personal archives. Later Charmian withdrew her blessing and disowned the biography, however, when Stone dug a little too deep. I have read several biographies of London, as well as his own autobiographical writings like John Barleycorn, The Road, and The Cruise of the Snark. I had previously avoided Stone’s book because I thought it was a biographical novel, and I had read some disparaging comments about its level of fictionalization. After reading it, however, I discovered it to be a work of nonfiction, and it turned out to be a truly enjoyable and riveting read.

Despite accusations against Stone by Charmian and others, I didn’t find anything particularly sensationalized about Stone’s account. London’s life was so sensational in the first place, it would be difficult to write about it without making it sound sensationalized. For the most part the portrayal of London is a positive one, though ultimately tragic. Stone clearly admires his subject, but this account is not merely an adulatory tribute. Stone draws attention to London’s faults, but does not delve too deeply into them. London’s white supremacist views on race, for example, are mentioned but not examined in great depth. Perhaps that just wasn’t a hot-button issue in 1938, and London’s opinions on race were certainly not uncommon for Americans of his era. As far as London’s dark side goes, Stone mainly emphasizes his childlike handling of financial matters, his naive trust in friends and family, his marital infidelities, and his tendency toward bouts of crippling depression. London’s alcoholism is also dealt with frankly, but not to the extent of its coverage in John Barleycorn.

It is no wonder that Charmian hated this book, because it really portrays her in a negative light. In this account she comes across as conniving, smothering, unattractive, and infantile. Stone not only holds her responsible for breaking up London’s first marriage but also for negatively altering London’s literary style in the latter half of his career. This book provides a clearer, more thorough insight into London’s two marriages than any other biography that I’ve encountered, including Charmian’s own The Book of Jack London, which is biased, disingenuous, and worst of all, dull. Whereas Charmian tried to hide Jack’s illegitimate birth in her book, Stone brings the facts out into the open. She was also outraged that Stone made London’s death seem like a suicide, but a century later scholars are still debating the exact cause of death.

In my opinion, from a scholarly standpoint, the best biography of London, in terms of comprehensiveness, depth of research, and just good writing, is Earle Labor’s 2013 book Jack London: An American Life. However, for the average reader who just wants to learn about London’s fascinating life, doesn’t care about literary criticism or Jack London Studies, and doesn’t need footnotes or a bibliography, Sailor on Horseback is really the best way to go. It is an excellent read for novices or diehard fans alike. If all you know about London is The Call of the Wild and White Fang, you will be amazed at the breadth, depth, and variety of his adventures and achievements. I have been an avid fan of London’s writing for over 30 years and have read everything he ever published, but Stone’s account of his life has really renewed my interest in this important author and remarkable man. Reading Sailor on Horseback makes me want to go back and reread some of my favorite London novels and stories and do further research into his amazing life.
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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Stark Munro Letters by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The finances and philosophy of a young doctor
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known, of course, as the author of the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and he also wrote many well-known works of fiction in the science fiction, horror, and war genres. In addition to being a successful author, Conan Doyle was also a physician, and his two careers come together in what is likely the least known category of his bibliography, his medical fiction. Among his writings on doctors and medicine are the 1894 short story collection Round the Red Lamp and his 1895 novel The Stark Munro Letters.

The latter work is an epistolary novel, written in the form of letters from recent medical school graduate Dr. John Stark Munro to his former classmate Dr. Herbert Swanborough. The novel only presents one side of the correspondence; the reader never sees Swanborough’s replies. In his letters, Munro confides to Swanborough his struggles in finding gainful employment in his chosen profession. Starting a career as a doctor was apparently very difficult in Victorian England, even to the point where Munro finds himself facing abject poverty as he strives to establish himself in a profitable practice. Conan Doyle takes a predominantly lighthearted approach to these struggles, however. Various opportunities present themselves to Munro and eventually fail to pan out, often with humorous results. Much of Munro’s correspondence is devoted to his relationship with another former classmate, Dr. James Cullingworth, a blustery, greedy, unethical doctor who invites Munro to assist him in his practice. The narrative does not really contain much medical content at all, but mostly focuses on the business aspects of running a doctor’s office. Munro’s finances are examined in detail as he sets about renting a suitable home and office, purchasing medicines, and hiring a servant.

A great deal of Munro’s correspondence, however, is devoted to a more surprising subject: religion. Through his letters to Swanborough, Munro expresses his doubts about Christian dogma and formulates his own personal philosophy of God based on his scientific perspective as a physician. These philosophical musings are often more interesting than the medical story, because one can only assume that Munro speaks for Conan Doyle. Thus the reader gets a fair amount of insight into the author’s views on religion, which seem to fall somewhere between Enlightenment era deism and Spinozan pantheism. Munro does not criticize organized religions, however, and like a good Victorian acknowledges the usefulness of all churches in the maintaining of a moral society.

The ending of the book is utterly predictable, since so many of Conan Doyle’s books seem to end the same way. There is a brief but surprising epilogue, however, that is truly unexpected and elevates this otherwise prosaic work above mediocrity. Overall, there is nothing particularly good about The Stark Munro Letters, but there is nothing offensively bad about it either. This book is simply a mildly pleasant and entertaining read, one crafted by an expert storyteller but not one of his better efforts. The more you like Conan Doyle’s writing, the more you will enjoy the book, but casual dabblers in the author’s works should probably stick to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Professor Challenger.
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Monday, June 10, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 6 by Jack Kirby, et al.

From classic to comical
Essential Captain America, Volume 6 reprints issues 206 to 230 of Marvel Comics’ Captain America series, which were originally published from February 1977 to February of 1979. It also includes Captain America Annual #4 and an issue of The Incredible Hulk (#232) that concludes a Cap and Hulk crossover.

The previous book, Essential Captain America, Volume 5, was written and drawn almost entirely by Jack Kirby, and is a truly excellent collection, the best in this series so far. Kirby’s run continues for almost the first half of Volume 6, ending with issue 214. Again, his bizarre stories and bombastic art are truly a treat to behold. Issue 208 features the debut of one of Kirby’s most inventive creations, Arnim Zola, the half-man, half-robot Nazi scientist with his face in his chest. Zola is a master of biological engineering, which gives Kirby the opportunity to indulge in all kinds of freaky creatures to torment Cap and the Falcon. Kirby also handles Annual #4, in which Cap encounters Magneto. Whether Cap is facing sci-fi monsters from space or spies, assassins, and terrorists threatening democracy, his adventures are always exceptional in the hands of Kirby.

After Kirby’s departure from the title, Sal Buscema takes over the art and does his usual admirably decent job. Authorial duties are taken over by a succession of short-term writers, including Roy Thomas, Don Glut, and Steve Gerber. In most cases, they really don’t do justice to the character, and the stories often get rather ridiculous. Cap goes on a search for his past, because apparently he underwent memory loss when he took the super soldier serum, and doesn’t remember anything about his life as Steve Rogers. Since when? That was never mentioned before in the previous 150 issues, but the writers wanted an excuse to mess with Cap’s back story. One particularly silly plot involves a mad Nazi scientist who transfers his own consciousness into a 12-foot-tall Captain America robot, and then, not surprisingly, regrets the decision when he realizes what a freak he is. After issue 217 the Falcon disappears, meaning the writers just stop including him in the stories. Several issues goes by before Cap notices he’s gone, and then a kidnapping is drummed up to explain his absence. By that time, with issue 223, the title of the comic has already changed from Captain America and the Falcon to just plain Captain America.

The quality of the stories in this volume vary widely in quality from the superb (Kirby’s work) to the dismal. Towards the end of the volume things perk up a bit with a multi-issue arc from writer Roger McKenzie. Cap and SHIELD face a mysterious organized crime ring called the Corporation. Both sides have their share of assorted super-powered agents, which culminates in a big battle royale. Things get really exciting when the Hulk joins in for the final two-issue crossover. After some of the poorer stories, it is good to see this inconsistent volume wrapped up on a high note. Volume 6 has some pretty good issues in it, but it is clearly inferior to Volume 5. I am looking forward to Volume 7 and the coming of John Byrne.
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Friday, June 7, 2019

Spinoza by Berthold Auerbach

From aspiring rabbi to excommunicant
Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza (a.k.a. Benedict de Spinoza) is a philosopher whose work I greatly admire. Berthold Auerbach is a German writer of the 19th century who has since faded into relative obscurity, but I have previously enjoyed reading his short story “Christian Gellert’s Last Christmas” and his book Black Forest Village Stories. When I discovered that Auerbach had written a biographical novel about Spinoza, I was eager to read it, hoping the book would provide insight into Spinoza’s intellectual development. This 1837 novel did not turn out to be the masterpiece I had hoped, but it does have its merits, both literary and philosophical.

Spinoza was born in Amsterdam, the son of Portuguese-Jewish immigrants who fled the Inquisition to find religious freedom in the Netherlands. Spinoza lived from 1632 to 1677, but Auerbach’s biographical narrative only covers his life from about 1647 to 1657. The novel begins with a teenage Spinoza undergoing studies to become a rabbi in his community synagogue. It ends a decade later with his being excommunicated from the Jewish faith for heresy. In the intervening years, Auerbach focuses on two main plot threads. One is Spinoza’s drifting away from the Jewish faith as he develops his own individual pantheistic philosophy. The second is a love story between Spinoza and Olympia van den Ende, the highly educated daughter of his Latin teacher. Both are freethinkers, but Spinoza was raised a Jew and Olympia a Catholic, and neither of their communities will accept an intermarriage. In addition, Spinoza feels compelled to abandon earthly pleasures such as love so that he may concentrate solely on his intellectual pursuits.

The narrowness of the novel’s scope is a bit disappointing. I was hoping for a more lifelong view of the development of Spinoza’s philosophy, but instead Auerbach concentrates on this one period of its nascency. Auerbach himself was a Jew, and it is clear from this book that he is enthralled by Jewish history and ritual. The entire first half of the book is strictly about Judaism; freethought doesn’t rear its ugly head until roughly the halfway point. There are only a couple chapters where Auerbach really discusses Spinoza’s mature philosophy in detail, but when he does delve into the philosopher’s Ethics, for example, Auerbach explains Spinoza’s ideas clearly and insightfully. We see how Spinoza’s conception of monism emerges from the dualism of Descartes. Much of this is revealed through extensive dialogues between Spinoza and a small circle of friends that includes Olympia. While the scenes dealing with Judaism seem authentic in their level of detail, the love story never really rings true. It feels like fictional license on Auerbach’s part but not necessarily in a bad way, much like Shakespeare’s fictionalizations of the lives of historical figures.

I don’t know enough about Auerbach to say to what extent he was a faithful Jew and to what extent he was a Spinozan freethinker, but as a member of the latter category myself I can say that when all is said and done the author certainly does justice to the philosopher’s freethought. He paints Spinoza as a secular Christlike figure who sacrificed much in his search for rational truth. Spinoza’s pantheistic conception of a deity is portrayed as his attempt to seek out divinity in the universe rather than turning away from God. Reason is a gift from God, Spinoza believed, even when the exercising of that reason clashes with religious tradition and dogma. I wish there had been less about Judaism and more about monism in this book, but in the end I found this to be an interesting, though romanticized, look at Spinoza’s life and thought.
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Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Melted Coins by Franklin W. Dixon

Better-than-average Hardy Boys adventure
The Melted Coins is the 23rd book in the Hardy Boys series of mystery novels. It was originally published in 1944, when the story had to do with a pirate’s buried treasure. Many of the early Hardy Boys books were revised for republication decades later, however, and in this case a totally different story was created with the same title. In this new version, published in 1970, the Hardys help to recover a sacred Native American artifact. My young son and I have read several of these books together (though not all 23), and The Melted Coins is one of the better mysteries we’ve encountered so far in the series.

This mystery commences in much the same way as most of the Hardy Boys books. The ever-absent detective Fenton Hardy is busy on a case somewhere. Since he can’t be in two places at once, he sends his sons to investigate a second case that has been brought to his attention. Someone has stolen a number of ceremonial masks from the Seneca Indian tribe in western New York State, including one particularly sacred mask that is made from melted gold coins. Meanwhile, the Hardys’ friend Chet Morton has enrolled in courses at nearby Zoar College, so they decide to check out the campus while they are in that neck of the woods. The more they learn about this institution of higher learning, however, the fishier it seems, and they begin to suspect it may be a sham school created to swindle unsuspecting students out of their money. Their investigations take the boys to Cleveland, Ohio and Niagara Falls. Everywhere they go, the boys face danger as the bad guys try to scare them off the trail with threats of violence.

As is often the case with these books, it features three or four different crimes that all end up being related. What makes this one better than most is that it actually all makes sense in the end. Whoever wrote this one under the blanket pseudonym of Franklin W. Dixon did a fine job of tying all the loose ends together. There are still plenty of unbelievable occurrences. In the very first chapter, for example, the boys visit a construction site, where they are allowed to take an elevator up to the top floor and walk around on the steel girders. This provides the opportunity for one of them to almost fall to his death, thus cheaply creating instant suspense. Such sensational happenings can be forgiven in a kids’ adventure novel, however, and at least the solution of the mystery follows a logical course.

The story imparts a good message through the treatment of its Native American characters, who are portrayed positively and about as realistically as one could expect from young people’s literature of this era. The Senecas still celebrate their traditional tribal rituals, but they also hold down modern jobs. The Hardys are welcomed into their homes, and a Native American teenager accompanies the boys as part of their investigative team. Prejudice against the Indians is addressed, and it is made clear that living conditions on the reservation are harsher and more impoverished than the Hardys’ upper middle class upbringing in idyllic Bayport.

Beyond that, there is nothing particularly exceptional about The Melted Coins. It pretty much sticks to the basic Hardy Boys formula, but within that formula it is at least competently written. It is neither as confusing nor as tedious as some of the other books in the series (The Shore Road Mystery comes to mind). Overall my son and I enjoyed it.
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Monday, June 3, 2019

Torn from Their Bindings: A Story of Art, Science, and the Pillaging of American University Libraries by Travis McDade

Tragic true crime story for book lovers
In his 2018 book Torn from Their Bindings, book crimes expert Travis McDade chronicles the criminal career of Robert Kindred, who, along with his partner Richard Green, embarked on a cross-country spree of thefts from academic libraries in the 1980s. Sometimes the two would steal rare and valuable books, but more often than not they would simply remove pages of lithographs and etchings from illustrated volumes, which Kindred would then sell as framed art prints. In this thoroughly researched and well-written history, McDade gives the reader an inside look into the motives and methods of these book thieves, who enjoyed great success up until Kindred’s eventual apprehension at the University of Illinois, where McDade works as a curator of rare books.

Prior to reading Torn from Their Bindings, I had no idea of the truly shocking extent of Kindred’s crimes, which amounted to a cross-country swath of carnage in numerous libraries that were specifically targeted for their valuable holdings. Thousands of pages were excised by razor blade from scientific journals and illustrated periodicals. Kindred amassed enough material to keep entire retail galleries stocked with stolen merchandise. Although Kindred is the main focus of this study, McDade also briefly covers other book thieves whose methods were similar to Kindred’s and whose crimes rivaled or exceeded Kindred’s in their staggering scope.

Lovers of libraries and old books will be filled with dismay at how easy it was to perpetrate these crimes. Most of the materials Kindred and Green pillaged were shelved in stacks open to the public, with no security to stop them from just walking in, spending an entire day cutting out what they wanted, and walking out. Kindred didn’t get caught until he really stretched beyond this easy modus operandi and boldly ventured into breaking and entering. As a library school graduate with a fondness for academic libraries, I have always been a staunch believer in the value of open stacks and the opportunity for serendipitous discovery amidst printed books. The level of devastation McDade reveals, however, really raises troubling questions of access vs. preservation, making it harder to justify open stacks. Also troubling is the question of how many of such thefts go undiscovered, and how many gutted volumes may lie waiting on the shelves of America’s university libraries for that unfortunate researcher or librarian who will find them damaged beyond repair and unsuitable for use.

McDade diligently covers all aspects of Kindred’s crime and punishment, including minutely detailed police procedures and courtroom proceedings. At times it is probably more detail than the general reader really needs, but if McDade’s goal is to document the definitive history of these crimes, then he succeeds. This book is more likely to appeal specifically to those with an avid interest in old books and libraries, since the average true crime buff may not be interested in the history of zoological and botanical journals, the artists who illustrated them, or the specific species of plants and animals that Kindred chose to pilfer. If, however, you find such matters of bibliographic history fascinating, as I do, then Torn from Their Bindings is really an absorbing read. It makes for a disturbingly eye-opening exposé into the world of library theft, one that any academic librarian or archivist should read.
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Friday, May 31, 2019

Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss

Neither as fun nor as exciting as its title implies
Edison’s Conquest of Mars, a science fiction novel by American author and astronomer Garrett P. Serviss, was published in 1898. It was written as a sequel to Fighters from Mars, an Americanized version of the H. G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds, that was serialized in the New York Evening Review in December of 1897 and January of 1898. Neither Wells nor Thomas Edison had anything to do with the writing or publication of Edison’s Conquest of Mars, but apparently copyright laws were lax enough back then to allow this unauthorized sequel to be released.

Serviss immediately picks up right where Wells left off. The aliens, having invaded Earth in The War of the Worlds, have departed our planet in defeat. In doing so, however, they set off an enormous explosion that levels New York City. Eager for retaliation and unwilling to wait passively for the next Martian strike, the citizens of Earth decide to go on the offensive and attack the Martians where they live. Several prominent scientists gather to solve the technological problems necessary to accomplish this feat, led by American inventor Thomas Edison. Edison invents a spaceship that uses electricity to achieve anti-gravity propulsion and a disintegrator ray that serves as a powerful weapon. The monarchs and heads of state of all the nations of the world gather in Washington, DC to discuss the plan of attack and contribute financial support to the war effort. Soon enough war machines are manufactured to launch a military campaign against Mars. A force of 100 electric ships departs Earth, each staffed with 20 men. Edison himself captains the flagship and leads the Earth forces into battle.

The story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator who rides alongside Edison in the flagship. Even so, it might as well have been written in an impersonal third person voice, since all events are described in a very bland journalistic style. Edison never really becomes a character in the book, nor does the narrator for that matter. In fact, there is almost no character development in this novel. Only a few people are named, and they never develop personalities. The size of the Earth force allows hundreds of nameless fighting men to perish in battle, but they are all unknown soldiers as far as the reader is concerned. The Martians are not the fearsome octopus-like creatures of The War of the Worlds, but rather humanoid beings not too different from us. The males are extremely tall and bug-eyed, but of course the females are beautiful, even by Earth standards. Also disappointing is the fact that Earth wins its victory not so much on the basis of technological superiority or intelligent strategy, but rather just because they take advantage of a convenient loophole that magically wins the war in one fell swoop. Even when you take into account that this story is set on a Victorian-era Mars with oceans, canals, and cities, this climactic maneuver defies belief as it seems to violate the laws of nature.

With his optimistic faith in technology and trust in the worldwide brotherhood of man, Serviss’s writing bears more resemblance to that of Jules Verne than to the often pessimistic visions of Wells. Serviss certainly seems to have a firm grasp on the science of his era, and his depictions of spaceship dogfights are surprisingly advanced considering the airplane hadn’t even been invented yet. There is a reason, however, that Wells and Verne are household names and Serviss is not. This novel just isn’t very good. There is no denying this book was ahead of its time, but that doesn’t keep it from being dull and lacking in literary merit.
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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Jalna by Mazo de la Roche

Classic Canadian family saga
Though little known south of the border, Jalna is an immensely popular novel in its native Canada. The book was originally published in 1927. Over the course of the next three and a half decades, author Mazo de la Roche would follow it up with nine sequels and six prequels, resulting in a 16-volume Jalna series that has sold tens of millions of copies. Perhaps the closest equivalent to the series in American literature might be the Little House on the Prairie books, but Jalna is more modern in time period and more modernist in literary style. Rather than Laura Ingalls Wilder, de la Roche’s writing is more reminiscent of Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, or Pearl S. Buck.

This first Jalna book introduces us to the Whiteoak family, who live on a farm in southern Ontario. The family is comprised of six siblings and half-siblings ranging in age from 38 to 9. Their parents are deceased, so the eldest brother Renny is the acknowledged head of the clan, but two elderly uncles and a 99-year-old grandmother also reside in the household. Jalna is the name of the family’s estate, which sits on the shores of Lake Ontario. It was named after a city in India where the late patriarchal grandfather served with the British Army. In this first book, the Whiteoaks seem neither poor nor well-off as far as farming families go. They appear to enjoy a prominent position in the local community due to their distinguished family history. Two of the older brothers, Renny and Piers, manage most of the duties on the farm. Their sister Meg, a spinster, manages domestic matters and mothers the youngsters. Brother Eden has just begun a career as a published poet, while younger brothers Finch and Wakefield attend school. Uncles Ernest, a lifelong bachelor, and Nicholas, divorced, are eccentric old fellows, and Grandmother is still active, opinionated, and cantankerous as she approaches her centenary.

Jalna is heavy on atmosphere and light on plot. The entire first half of the book is spent simply introducing us to all the characters. Then some family members get married, which brings new characters into the fold, and a few friends and relatives come by for a visit. The bulk of the text is devoted to illustrating the personality quirks of all these individuals and the interpersonal dynamics between them. What little there is of plot veers toward soap opera romance and defies belief. By the time the narrative commits such offenses, however, the reader is so charmed by Jalna and the Whiteoak family that one is complicitly willing to overlook the sensational excesses of the potboiler plot just for the pleasure of spending time with this ensemble cast. While Jalna is certainly no idyllic paradise, the real strength of the novel is the inviting way that de la Roche picturesquely describes this Ontario homestead. By the end of the book, you’ll want to live there.

The Literary Review of Canada once called Jalna “the quintessential Canadian novel.” As an American reader, I can neither confirm nor dispute that claim. However, as a Canadaphile tourist and dabbler in that nation’s literature, art, and music, I really enjoyed living vicariously through this Ontario family for a few brief years in the 1920s. There’s definitely a uniquely Canadian tone to the book that brings with it a breath of fresh air from the Great White North. Though I doubt I’ll make it through all 16 books, this certainly won’t be my last visit to the Jalna farm.
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Monday, May 27, 2019

Time and Again by Clifford D. Simak

Ingenious time travel mystery thriller
Having read at least 20 of Clifford D. Simak’s books, I can confidently say that he is an author that rarely disappoints. As a big fan of his writing, I approach his work with high expectations, yet he almost never fails to impress with his boundless creativity, prodigious literary skill, and visionary sci-fi speculation. Time and Again, originally published in 1951, is yet another great novel by Simak. This one is a mystery thriller of sorts that incorporates time travel, interstellar exploration, and warring factions fighting over humanity’s future.

The year is 7990. Aided by a workforce of androids and robots, mankind has spread throughout the galaxy and conquered a multitude of planets. Twenty years ago, Asher Sutton was dispatched to the star system of 61 Cygni as one of many advance scouts sent forth from Earth to make first contact with other worlds. Unlike so many others sent on similar missions, however, Sutton was never heard from again. Christopher Adams, a high-level government functionary, was the man who sent him there. Adams had given up Sutton for dead until one night a visitor shows up unexpectedly on his doorstep. This visitor claims to be from the future, a future in which time travel has become a reality. He informs Adams that Sutton will soon be returning from 61 Cygni, and when he does, this visitor urges that Adams have Sutton killed immediately.

Thus in the very first chapter Simak quickly and skillfully sets up a science fiction mystery with two baffling questions: What happened to Sutton on 61 Cygni? And what exactly is he going to do that merits this death sentence from the future? The story grips the reader from page one and never lets go. Sutton himself, once he enters the story, is largely clueless as to the answers to these questions, and the reader follows along with him as he gradually uncovers the truth. The story that Simak constructs is intricately complex and delightfully ingenious. Time travel is a frequent topic of Simak’s fiction, and he is consistently one of the best writers to tackle the subject. Here he constructs a plot with just about as many time travel twists, turns, and paradoxes as the Terminator series. At times, quite frankly, it can get a little too complex, to the point where necessary explanations slow down the otherwise riveting forward momentum of the story.

Though most of the narrative takes place in the 80th century, the element of time travel allows Simak to return to one of his favorite settings: the rural Wisconsin of his youth. Simak grew up in the farming country of southwestern Wisconsin, and perhaps for that reason he writes with an appreciation of nature and a sensitivity to the natural environment that few science fiction writers possess. His work is also characterized by a heartfelt compassion and a deep philosophical questioning of the purpose and fate of humanity, which manifests itself here in the form of a philosophical manifesto that ignites a future ideological war. The details of this fictional future philosophy, however, are a little sketchy. While its sentiment is commendable and compelling, the terminology in which it is expressed is sometimes rather vague and confusing.

Time and Again may not be quite as good as better known Simak works such as Way Station, City, or Mastodonia, but it’s right up there alongside them, likely among his top five novels. I will be able to judge for certain after I finish his complete works, which is something I fully intend to do, because Simak never ceases to amaze.
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Friday, May 24, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 5 by Jack Kirby, et al.

Kirby’s back!
Though Volume 4 was a bit of a disappointment, I am happy to report that Essential Captain America, Volume 5 is a return to fine form. This black-and-white paperback from Marvel Comics reprints numbers 187 to 205 of the Captain America and the Falcon comic book series, issues that were originally published from July 1975 to January 1977. In addition, it also includes the Captain America King-Size Annual #3 from January 1976. But wait, there’s more! What really makes this volume exceptional is the inclusion of Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles, a Marvel Treasury Special that was an obvious labor of love for writer and artist Jack “King” Kirby.

With the last issue in Volume 4, Steve Englehart’s tenure as writer on the series came to an end. For the first six issues of Volume 5, the writing duties are split between short runs by John Warner, Tony Isabella, and Marv Wolfman. There’s nothing really exceptional about these stories, but the quirky art by Frank Robbins at least makes them a joy to behold. Then the great Kirby returns to the character that he created and assumes both artist and writer roles for the Annual, the Bicentennial Battles special, and the series run from 193 through 205. In contrast to Englehart’s stories, which were rather mundane soap operas, Kirby brings his trademark penchant for epic and cosmic storytelling. While Englehart’s Cap would have seemed woefully out of place tackling threats from outer space, Kirby’s Cap is right at home battling an alien invasion in Annual #3.

The real gem in this collection, however, is Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles, a real tour de force by Kirby. In this giant-sized issue, Cap meets a mysterious man named Mister Buda who sends him on an astral journey through time to experience the true meaning of America. Against his will, Cap is transported to Revolutionary-Era Philadelphia, World Wars I and II, the Wild West, the Great Chicago Fire, a nuclear bomb test, and many other scenes throughout America’s history. Though designed to capitalize on our nation’s 200th birthday, the story is not merely an exercise in gratuitous patriotism. Cap sees the dark side of America as well when he witnesses slavery and the persecution of Native Americans. Kirby uses the special issue to express his own personal views of the American dream, which come across as equal parts utopian optimism and liberal criticism. The reader really learns a lot about Kirby from this work. Kirby even gives himself a guest appearance, as a child, in a scene set in the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, in the Captain America and the Falcon series, Kirby delivers a story about a secret society of neo-monarchists who want to overthrow America’s democratic government and return the nation to the days of pre-Revolution aristocracy. This storyline, which takes up the better part of 1976, is exactly the sort of terrorist threat that a patriotic superhero like Cap should be facing, and in the hands of Kirby it is a rollicking good time. The volume ends with a few stories of interdimensional invaders and other sci-fi monsters that one expects from Kirby’s audaciously bizarre, out-there imagination. Needless to say, throughout the volume his art is absolutely superb. If you are a Kirby fan, this is some of his best Marvel work. After having recently read through the first five volumes of Essential Captain America, I can confidently say that if I were to buy just one of these books, Volume 5 would be the one to get.
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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Birds, Bones, and Beetles: The Improbable Career and Remarkable Legacy of University of Kansas Naturalist Charles D. Bunker by Chuck Warner

An unsung hero of natural history
Though not a scientist myself, I enjoy reading science history and scientific biographies, particularly in natural history. Many pioneering zoologists, botanists, and paleontologists lived enviably fascinating lives centered around an appreciation of nature, outdoor exploration, scientific inquiry, and the building of museum collections. Charles D. Bunker may not be as famous as Louis Agassiz (founder of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology) or Roy Chapman Andrews (former director of the American Museum of Natural History) but he proves that even an unsung worker at a lesser known museum can nonetheless live a fascinating life devoted to natural science and make a lasting and influential impact on natural history and museum methodology. In his recently published book, Birds, Bones, and Beetles, author Chuck Warner details the life and career of Bunker, who was affectionately referred to by friends and colleagues as “Bunk.”

Born in Illinois in 1870, Bunk moved to Lawrence, Kansas with his parents in 1891. With little in the way of marketable skills other than a love of the outdoors, hunting, and some experience with taxidermy, Bunk doggedly set about going after his dream job, preparing animal specimens for the University of Kansas Natural History Museum. Once hired, he built a lifelong career at the museum. Bunk didn’t even possess a high school diploma, but he proved his value to the institution and rose from assistant taxidermist to the rank of curator. By the end of the 19th century, the KU Natural History Museum had already established a national reputation for excellence. While director Lewis Lindsay Dyche was the charismatic spokesman for the institution, Bunk was content to work quietly behind the scenes, amassing the museum’s admirably extensive collections of specimens. The book follows Bunk on two notable collecting expeditions: a journey by horse-drawn wagon to western Kansas and a trip to Alaska with a party of big game hunters. In both cases, Bunk shot, skinned, and logged hundreds of animal specimens for the museum, and in western Kansas he discovered the fossil skeleton of a mosasaur, a prehistoric marine reptile from the age of the dinosaurs.

Though he was never a professor at the university, Bunk was nonetheless quite influential as a teacher to those who worked for him at the museum. Many of his students would go on to stellar careers in institutions like the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History. Bunk also created a much-copied system of cataloging museum specimens and was a pioneer in the use of beetles to clean skeletons, rather than tediously boiling and scraping them.

Though Warner is Bunk’s grandson, he has researched and written this biography with the scholarly rigor of an objective historian. Those readers who have a connection to the University of Kansas will find much to enjoy in the interesting historical background that Warner provides on the university and the museum. The book is by no means overly Kansas-centric, however, and will appeal to anyone interested in natural history or museum studies. Bunk’s story harkens back to a time prior to the rigorous scientific specialization that exists in academia today. No PhD was required for Bunk to make his mark in his field, just hard work, determination, scientific curiosity, and a remarkable generosity toward his students. Birds, Bones, and Beetles is a fitting memorial to the interesting and inspiring life of this accomplished museum professional.
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Monday, May 20, 2019

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

An indelible portrait of American conformity
Babbitt, originally published in 1922, is a novel of biting social commentary by Sinclair Lewis, who won the 1930 Nobel Prize in Literature. When I first started reading Babbitt, I didn’t much care for it, but it is a book that just kind of sneaks up on you over time. Despite my initial aversion to this novel, by the time I was finished I had to admit that it truly is a literary masterwork.

George F. Babbitt is a realtor in the city of Zenith, a fictional Midwestern metropolis of about 300,000 inhabitants. He is in his late forties, married, with three children. The
Babbitt family lives a respectable middle-class life in a suburban residential community, well-off but not wealthy. He is friends with other businessmen in the city, belongs to the local athletic club, and is involved in various professional associations and community organizations. For a while, that’s about all the plot that Lewis provides. It is basically an extended character study. Whereas in Main Street Lewis pointed out all the conceits, banalities, and pettiness of small town life, in Babbitt he does the same for the city. Babbitt is painted as a buffoon, a caricature with exaggerated negative qualities, the most glaring of which are his conformity to conservative middle-class conventions and his faith in consumerism. For the first several chapters, Babbitt is defined primarily by his possessions. His clothes, furnishings, and so on are lovingly described in minute detail by Lewis, who revels in every mundane detail. Quite frankly, the entire first third of the book is a bit off-putting. Lewis’s social criticism, though humorous, comes with a tinge of cynical smugness that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Who exactly is he making fun of? Pretty much everyone; not just the middle-class but the rich whom they envy and the poor upon whom they look down. There isn’t a positively portrayed character in the entire book, and everyone is a target, even the reader, who can’t help but see him or herself reflected in some of these caricatures.

About a third of the way through, however, things start happening. Babbitt discovers a talent for oratory and starts participating in local political campaigns. He plans a trip with an old college classmate, Paul Riesling, his one true friend. Over time, Babbitt starts to become more open to liberal ideas, which is an improvement in his character, even if it happens for all the wrong reasons. As the book progresses, an interesting thing happens: In short, Babbitt becomes a human being. The reader can’t help but identify with and root for this man who came across as so disgusting in the initial chapters. Not only is Babbitt guilty of blind conformity and rampant materialism, he is also a victim of them, trapped by his faith in the American Dream. In addition, the latter half of the book morphs into a brilliantly realistic portrait of a mid-life crisis, painted with psychological complexity, brutal frankness, and tragic pathos. As the book becomes less funny and more socially conscious, delving into topics of politics, labor, and marriage, it begins to resemble a novel by Upton Sinclair rather than Sinclair Lewis.

Given the time period, Babbitt is likely to remind you of your father’s or grandfather’s generation, but its lessons are still applicable to our lives today. Babbittry is alive and well in our government, in our economy, in our social lives. Lewis helps us laugh at it, but not without a hint of fear as well. Babbitt is an eye-opening wake-up call that forces readers to question narrow-mindedness, greed, and self-centered values in themselves and their society. This insightful and innovative work of literature is a true American classic.
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