Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Native Soil by Alan E. Nourse

As exciting as mud
Alan E. Nourse was an American science fiction writer who was active from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. Like Michael Crichton, Nourse was also a physician and worked his way through medical school with the income he earned from his writing. Nourse also wrote nonfiction works on science and medicine, including children’s books, and often inserted medical ideas and subject matter into his science fiction. His novella The Native Soil, for example, briefly works a medical concept into a story of interplanetary exploration. It was originally published in the July 1957 issue of Fantastic Universe magazine.

After much speculation as to what sort of world might exist beneath the thick clouds of Venus, the first Earth expedition to reach the planet discovers that its terrain rather disappointingly consists almost entirely of gooey mud. Nevertheless, a pharmaceutical company finds a valuable resource buried within the mud and sets about trying to extract it. The problem is that every mining base or piece of equipment they set down on the surface ends up either sinking or becoming hopelessly mired in the muck to the point of malfunction. The company enlists Venus’s indigenous inhabitants, a race of intelligent beaver-like creatures who dwell in the mud, to help with the extraction. Though eager to assist, they are not smart enough to operate the Earth tech and end up hindering more than they help.

That’s pretty much it for most of the story’s length. The plot becomes a repetitive one-trick pony, humorously chronicling the foibles and failures of the extraction team. After about a half an hour of that, the reader comes to a twist ending that is clever but not really surprising. Though there are a few interesting ideas here, it is difficult to get excited about a story that is mainly about mud.

The Native Soil is the first work I’ve read by Nourse. In subject matter and tone, it reminded me of the writing of H. Beam Piper, whose work I enjoy quite a bit. Nourse shows enough promise that readers who enjoy vintage sci-fi pulp fiction will probably find at least a few good stories among his body of work, but this particular offering isn’t very impressive.
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Monday, January 28, 2019

One of Ours by Willa Cather

From Nebraska farm to French battlefield
Willa Cather’s novel One of Ours was published in 1922 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. Though not quite a masterpiece like My Ántonia or O Pioneers!, One of Ours is yet another strong work of literature from this master of Great Plains regionalism. As in those earlier works, Cather provides a naturalistic depiction of Nebraska farm life, but in this novel the scope broadens from its rural setting to the larger world stage with the outbreak of the First World War.

Claude Wheeler lives on his parents’ farm in Frankfort County, Nebraska. More thoughtful and sensitive than the average farm kid (as one would imagine Cather herself must have been), Claude chafes at the role in which the circumstances of his birth have placed him. He attends a local Christian college, but longs to go to the state university, both to satisfy his intellectual curiosity and to enjoy a more cosmopolitan social scene than his rural community affords. He wants the freedom to be his own person and live a life of his choosing, but family demands require him to quit school and manage the farm.

Trying to make the best of his situation, he enters into a misguided marriage. Cather telegraphs the inappropriateness of this match to such a degree that the reader wonders why Claude would go through with it, but within his insular community it seems his options for finding a life partner are limited. For a work written by a female author, it is surprising how unsympathetically the wife character is depicted. Cather’s take on this marital union is really quite one-sided, amounting to a trap for Claude that smothers any hopes and dreams he may have harbored. When America enters World War I, Claude enlists in the Army. For him, the war is a liberating experience, as it finally frees him from the stifling role that he’s lived his whole life.

Cather’s war narrative is rather meandering, focusing more on the mundane side of military life than on combat, and Claude is far more contemplative than the average doughboy. Music is a common theme in Cather’s fiction (see The Song of the Lark), and she couldn’t resist making one of the soldiers a classical violinist. There are hints of a nonphysical homosexual relationship between this character and Claude. Nevertheless, the book is neither as dull nor as wistful as John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers, and probably more true to the life of a typical soldier than Ernest Hemingway’s idiosyncratic A Farewell to Arms. The tone of One of Ours strikes a fine balance between disgust for war and reverence for military service. It has been criticized for not being anti-war enough, for making the Great War seem too glamorized or romantic, but the perspective from which Cather approaches the war, as viewed through Claude’s eyes, is truthful to the psychology of the character. She admirably captures the mixture of bravery, fear, shell shock, and awakening sense of purpose that might have fought it out in the mind of a Midwestern farm boy who finds himself at war in France.

One of Ours reads like two separate books connected by only a single thread: Claude. Not surprisingly for Cather, the first half set in Nebraska is really very good. Claude’s military career in Europe, however, is hit or miss. The book often defies expectations, but the ending feels like a foregone conclusion. Altogether, however, the pros outweigh the cons. I prefer One of Ours over both Three Soldiers and A Farewell to Arms. Even though it does have its share of faults, it may be the best American novel of World War I that I’ve read thus far.
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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Like a classical tragedy in novella form
Though John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men is often required reading in American high schools, I’m just getting around to reading this one in my middle age. I have run across film versions of this over the years, of course, so the plot held few surprises for me, but I still found it to be a very compelling read. The story is set in California during the Great Depression, but the themes it explores transcend time and place. Of Mice and Men is a master work of American regional realism, yet it has the taut concision and the mythic quality of one of Aesop’s fables or a classical Greek tragedy.

George Milton and Lennie Small are two migrant farm workers who drift together from ranch to ranch looking to take on work. George is a small, wiry, intelligent man while Lennie is a big, hulking fellow with a mental disability. Though not related, the two grew up in the same town, and George promised Lennie’s aunt before her death that he would take care of her nephew. Among their fellow migrant workers, the fact that the two travel together is unusual, and the pair share an uncommon loyalty to one another. That said, George isn’t always happy about the arrangement, as he continually scolds Lennie for being such an encumbrance. It is revealed that Lennie’s childlike intelligence has caused problems at their previous places of employment, bad enough that the two have had to flee violent repercussions. When the play opens, they have just landed a new position harvesting barley, and George hopes such troubles with Lennie will not repeat themselves. Despite their poverty, the two have a dream of saving enough to own a small patch of land, where they can grow their own crops and Lennie can tend to a herd of rabbits.

Steinbeck obviously wrote the book with the intention of it being adapted for stage and screen. Despite being written in prose, the structure of the narrative is very much that of a play. Each chapter is a different scene and begins with a couple paragraphs briefly describing the setting and the characters present. From that point forward, the text is almost entirely dialogue. What little physical description is present is written in the cursory style of stage directions. Though the story takes place in rural settings, there is little description or the natural environment. Most of the action occurs within barns or bunkhouses. Steinbeck offers no interior views into the character’s minds; instead, they soliloquize. Events that take place towards the conclusion of the drama are heavily foreshadowed in a manner that would probably go over just fine in a stage production but feels a bit heavy-handed in a prose work. In fact, if anything’s keeping Of Mice and Men from perfection it is this script-like format, which prevents Steinbeck from taking full advantage of the novella art form.

If this were set on the East Coast, rather than in Steinbeck’s beloved Salinas Valley, one could easily mistake this for a Eugene O’Neill drama. Though stark in its stage setting, Steinbeck’s grittily naturalistic depictions of human behavior generate a gripping psychological realism. Despite the Depression setting, the reader recognizes these characters and feels the plight of ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary situation. Whereas The Grapes of Wrath may have the grandeur of a historical epic, Of Mice and Men is a more personal, microcosmic study of humanity, yet the actions of its characters impart a universal moral lesson, almost like a biblical parable if not for its brutal fatalism. Belying its brevity, Of Mice and Men is a profound reading experience that despite its age has lost none of its emotional resonance.
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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown by David Yaffe

Four topical essays: two hits, two misses
David Yaffe’s 2011 book Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown is divided into four chapters, each of which is a thematic essay focusing on one aspect of Dylan’s art. The subjects are Dylan’s singing voice, Dylan and film, Dylan and blackness, and Dylan and plagiarism. Yaffe attacks these topics in a manner neither chronological nor systematic, but rather in a free-form style that often mimics the cadence of Dylan’s own writing, cherry-picking whatever bits of his encyclopedic knowledge of Dylanology is required to support each essay’s thesis.

The first two chapters were quite disappointing. Though I would consider myself an ardent fan of Dylan’s music, I’m certainly not a scholar on the subject, nor would I even call myself an aficionado, yet still I learned almost nothing new about Dylan from these first two essays. They are not so much about Dylan as they are about Yaffe’s opinions on Dylan. Their primary purpose is not to educate the reader but to showcase Yaffe’s writing, as if a clever turn of phrase were of the utmost importance. The chapter on Dylan’s vocal development is really just Yaffe giving you a summary of Dylan’s recording output while coming up with creative adjectives to describe the singer’s voice, “adenoidal” being the author’s oft-repeated favorite. The chapter on Dylan’s life in film also yielded little new information. The reader learns more about Martin Scorsese and Todd Haynes than about Dylan himself.

Fortunately, the latter two essays are a vast improvement over the first half of the book. Here is where the reader begins to see how a music critic approaching Dylan from a cultural studies perspective can actually enlarge your understanding of the man’s music. Essay number three, “Not Dark Yet,” examines Dylan’s relationship to African American musical culture, his periodic adoption of a “blackish” performing persona, and even his preference for African American women. Yaffe enlightens the reader on music history and makes insightful points, like when he draws parallels between Dylan’s emulation of black blues singers and the history of 19th and early 20th century minstrel shows. The final chapter focuses on accusations of plagiarism against Dylan and his penchant for alluding to or lifting from existing lyrics and melodies. Here one learns much about the sources of inspiration for many of Dylan’s songs. Though Yaffe points out there is some truth to the plagiarism rap, particularly in the case of Dylan’s borrowing from a contemporary Japanese novelist, in general Yaffe sees Dylan’s cut-and-paste songwriting in a positive light (as do I) and portrays Dylan as an artist who has deftly mined the public domain to become a master sonic assemblagist, a sort of Robert Rauschenberg of American music.

Yaffe finishes the book with a list of what he considers the 70 most important Dylan songs. His choices are not unexpected and pretty much trumpet the usual suspects, with selections heavy on the Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde, and Blood on the Tracks albums. He doesn’t really draw attention to any unsung gems, so again, not much to learn here. Every fan has probably already made up his or her mind what Dylan songs are the best. Likewise, if you are conversant enough in Dylanology to want to read this book, chances are you already know much of what is contained herein. Still, there are nuggets of insight here and there to make it worthwhile for hardcore fans.
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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov

The perfect realist epic
Russian author Mikhail Sholokhov, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature, began writing his epic work Tikhy Don (The Silent Don) in 1928 and didn’t finish until 1940. Originally serialized in the Russian magazine Okytabr, the work has been published in English translation as a pair of novels, the first of which is entitled And Quiet Flows the Don. The novel chronicles Russian history through the lives of a large ensemble cast comprised primarily of Cossacks from the Don River region of southwestern Russia, near the Ukraine. The Cossacks, a semi-autonomous people whose self-government was democratic rather than feudalistic, farmed their own lands, which put them in a social class above the Russian peasantry. Like modern-day Spartans, the Cossacks placed a great deal of emphasis on military training and were employed by the Russian Tsar as an elite military force.

Beginning around 1912, And Quiet Flows the Don is broken up into four parts: Peace, War, Revolution, and Civil War. The first of these sections focuses primarily on the farming life of the Don Cossacks in the village of Tatarsk, and in particular the Melekhov family. Gregor, the younger, hot-headed son of the family, embarks on a tempestuous love affair with Aksinia, his neighbor’s wife, an entanglement that creates repercussions throughout the book. Sholokhov combines beautifully poetic passages of natural beauty with brutally realistic depictions of the harshness and hardships of Cossack life, calling to mind Polish author Wladyslaw Reymont’s classic rural epic The Peasants. The story then follows the turbulent course of Russian history through World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent Russian Civil War, in which multiple parties fought to fill the power vacuum created by the fall of the Tsar. By the end of the book, the Cossacks are split into a confusing array of loyalties and alliances as they struggle to determine the fate of their community amid the turmoil and devastation of war.

This novel is about as perfect a masterwork of literary realism as you’ll ever find. Sholokhov depicts the time and place of the narrative with impeccable verisimilitude, frankness, and detail. The reader is imminently present in this culture and atmosphere and feels deeply for these characters. Nothing ever feels forced, idealized, or contrived. Love and lust are never idyllic. People die unexpectedly and in unglamorous ways. Sholokhov’s tone could be described as deadpan if his prose weren’t suffused with so much beauty. While bearing the truthful ring of naturalism, the book is indubitably modern. Though the Melekhovs may justly be called the main characters, the narrative is by no means singular or linear. Major figures fade into the background while minor characters take center stage. Without deliberately scorning convention, Sholokhov unselfconsciously defies all expectations. Notably stark and gritty war novels like A Farewell to Arms or The Naked and the Dead feel like flowery romanticism by comparison.

And Quiet Flows the Don is arguably the greatest literary masterpiece to come out of the Soviet Union (better than Doctor Zhivago, in my opinion). Though it won the Stalin Prize and is considered a work of socialist realism, the book is not particularly pro-socialist, pro-communist, or pro-Soviet. If anything, it is just pro-Cossack, and focuses on the plight of the people amid whom Sholokhov grew up. Though a military epic, the book is more an anti-war novel than a war novel. Its indelible scenes of Cossack struggle for survival, freedom, peace, and dignity amount to a superb drama of universal humanity. Though some fundamental knowledge of Russian history may be required, everyone, Russian or not, should read this book.
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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Train by Georges Simenon

Refugee love
The Train, published in 1958, is one of Belgian author Georges Simenon’s romans durs, or “hard novels,” a term he devised to distinguish his more serious literature from his popular series of Inspector Maigret detective novels. The story takes place at the outbreak of World War II. Marcel Féron, the narrator, lives with his pregnant wife and daughter in Fumay, a town in northeastern France just across the border from Belgium. When it is reported that the Nazis have invaded Belgium, many of the citizens of Fumay decide to flee westward. In the chaotic rush to load the train for evacuation, women and children are boarded first, and Marcel ends up in a different car than his wife and child. Later in the journey, the train is broken up, the cars are separated, and Marcel has no idea where his family has gone. Meanwhile, in his own car he has met a woman traveling alone. This “woman in the black dress,” later revealed to be named Anna, attaches herself to Marcel. The two soon become lovers and begin living essentially as man and wife.

What differentiates The Train from a typical wartime romance novel, and what makes it classic Simenon, is the disturbing lack of emotional attachment that Marcel feels towards his pregnant wife and daughter. As soon as he hears of the Nazi invasion and the possibility of evacuation, his reaction is not one of fear or concern for his family but rather an overwhelming feeling of relief at being released from the responsibilities and restrictions of his mundane existence. Though he insists throughout the book that he loves his wife, he has no reservations about making love to Anna, and while he seeks the whereabouts of his family a part of him hopes that he never finds them. Marcel is depicted as more delusional than callous. He is so disconnected from his own reality that he doesn’t even realize the right or wrong of his actions. His transgressions come across more as a mental illness than a moral failing. Simenon is renowned for unsentimentally examining the unpleasant realities of human psychology, but while there is a ring of authenticity to his narrator’s thought process, he takes Marcel’s guiltless ambivalence a little far, to the point where it strains believability.

The biggest problem with the book is that it just wreaks of male fantasy. The war provides the man with a “hall pass” from his marriage so he can get it on with a hot stranger who acquiesces to his every desire while demanding nothing in return. We learn almost nothing about Anna as a human being. Marcel asks her little about herself, and she rarely speaks unless spoken to. Given Simenon’s history as a womanizer and the accusations of misogyny against him, Marcel’s sexual jackpot seems uncomfortably convenient. Simenon is a great writer, but this particular book never ascends to a level of literature much beyond the dime-store potboiler sold in a rotating rack.

There is some value to Simenon’s depiction of the French and Belgian experience of World War II. The behavior of the passengers in Marcel’s rail car serves as a microcosmic representation of the myriad reactions to wartime upheaval. Though there is one scene of actual armed attack, the story focuses more on the confusion at a series of railroad stations and the prosaic details of daily life in a refugee camp. The reader gets only a few brief glimpses of Nazi occupation.

The Train is certainly not a bad book, and it is worth a read for Simenon fans, but it is probably the least compelling of his romans durs that I’ve read. Some better choices would be Dirty Snow, Tropic Moon, or The Reckoning.
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Monday, January 7, 2019

Under the Andes by Rex Stout

Idiotic adventure with unlikable characters
Rex Stout is best known as the author of the Nero Wolfe detective stories, but he also wrote adventure fiction outside the mystery genre, including his novel Under the Andes, which was originally published in the February 1914 issue of the pulp magazine The All-Story. I’m usually up for a vintage two-fisted adventure from the pulp fiction area, but this novel proved to be a dismally disappointing exercise in idiocy.

The hero of the story is Paul Lamar, a man of the world who is filthy rich for no apparent reason, to the point where he doesn’t think twice about throwing away a million dollars. Paul is so perfect at everything he does and so confident in his manliness he makes James Bond seem humble. He couldn’t possibly make a mistake, which is why he needs a little brother, Harry, who is just as macho as Paul but not quite as smart. They both get mixed up with Desiree Le Mire, a French dancer who alternately serves as femme fatale and damsel in distress. Desiree is obviously Stout’s vision of feminine perfection, which is disturbing. Stunningly beautiful, she behaves like a trashy gold digger, yet inexplicably manages to take high society by storm in every city she travels. Once she and the boys venture away from civilization, Stout has her topless for most of the book. She comes onto both Paul and Harry, and both are dumb enough to adore her.

The trio decide to explore the Andes not for any scientific expedition or rescue mission but rather just to avoid ennui, because they are bored with yachts and casinos. They venture into a cavern where they find the remnants of a legendary lost tribe of Inca who sought subterranean refuge centuries before. What a great premise for a “lost world” thriller! Unfortunately, Stout isn’t at all interested in the former glory of the Inca civilization. Instead, he depicts the Inca’s descendants as having devolved into brutish, ape-like troglodytes too stupid to even speak. Once underground, Paul and Harry proceed at every opportunity to beat and stab the captors who are feeding them, even though they have no escape route or plan for survival. The Inca are so dumb they don’t even recognize a knife until it’s plunged into their chests. Somehow Paul can read an Inca quipu, even though the smartest anthropologists still haven’t figured out how to do it. The book is mostly a maze of indiscriminate caverns and unrelenting spear thrusts, all capped off with one of the most asinine epilogue twists of all time.

Although the story takes place almost entirely underground, Stout gives little consideration to the problem of light. Four or five early chapters take place in total darkness, during which Stout asserts that human eyes can adjust to a total lack of light, then uses that as an excuse to describe subterranean sights in detail as if they were bathed in the light of day. The Inca have lamps in their quarters, which must be inexhaustible because the heroes spend weeks wandering through a labyrinth of uninhabited caverns without any mention of lamps, torches, or fire. Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs would have come up with some contrivance like phosphorescent rocks, but Stout doesn’t bother to give it any thought.

Even fans of vintage adventure fiction have to admit that the old pulp magazines were filled with a lot of garbage, of which Under the Andes is a perfect example. Despite whatever name recognition Stout may have garnered from his mystery writing, this terrible mess is not worth your time.

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Friday, January 4, 2019

The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Twelve

Maybe the best volume yet
The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is the twelfth book in The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series, which is projected to be 14 volumes in all. I’ve read all the volumes published thus far, and Volume Twelve is clearly one of the best books in this consistently excellent series.

The title selection, “The Thing in the Stone,” reads like a master’s thesis on Simak literature. After the death of his wife, a man isolates himself on a farm in rural southwestern Wisconsin, the setting of so many Simak stories, where he begins to have visions of prehistoric life in earlier geologic periods of time. The story calls to mind Simak’s novel Mastodonia until it veers off into unexpected but not entirely unfamiliar directions. This masterpiece beautifully captures Simak’s skill at depicting rural life, his visionary inventiveness, and his faith in humanity’s virtues.

Other outstanding stories include “Univac: 2200,” an amazingly prescient story from 1973 that depicts a future with artificially intelligent personal assistants, virtual reality, and an environmentally degraded planet. In “Hunch,” a future high-ranking government official uncovers a solar system-wide conspiracy threatening mankind’s existence. “Aesop” is one of the stories that would later go to make up Simak’s novel City. It is a great piece of that marvelous puzzle, though those unfamiliar with the broader scope of the City epic may find themselves a little disoriented. All three stories are complex tales replete with big ideas that transcend their sci-fi storylines. “The Spaceman’s Van Gogh” is Simak at his most contemplative and literary, while “Construction Shack” is a wonderful example of an outlandish premise well-told.

Often Simak’s earliest stories come across as mediocre pulp fiction, but his first published story from 1931, “The World of the Red Sun,” is a surprisingly entertaining time travel yarn. Throughout the series, editor David W. Wixon has been trumpeting the virtues of another 1930s story called “The Creator,” but now that it finally appears in Volume Twelve it is a bit disappointing. “Skirmish” is another entry that feels a little half-baked. To be honest, however, even the disappointments in this volume are far better than the average sci-fi offerings from this time period. This volume’s western story (each book in the series has one) is also a pretty good entry in its genre: “The Hangnoose Army Rides to Town!” is a satisfying cowboy murder mystery that is refreshingly judicious in its gunplay until its violent finale.

The Thing in the Stone might very well be the best volume in the Complete Short Fiction series. Though not every story is a masterpiece, at least a few of them are, and this collection really captures the variety in style and subject matter of Simak’s writing while touching on quintessential settings, themes, and concepts that reoccurred in his work throughout his career. If I had to recommend one volume to someone looking for a favorable introduction to Simak, this would be it. I have enjoyed all the volumes in the series thus far and look forward to volumes 13 and 14, but the way Open Road Media has been dragging their feet on those last two books makes me wonder if they will ever see the light of day. Here’s hoping the Complete Short Fiction will one day be complete!

Stories in this collection
The Thing in the Stone 
The World of the Red Sun 
The Hangnoose Army Rides to Town! 
Univac: 2200 
The Creator
The Spaceman’s Van Gogh 
Construction Shack

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Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Lionel Lincoln by James Fenimore Cooper

Stodgy Gothic drama set in the American Revolution
Early in his career, James Fenimore Cooper got the idea of writing a series of 13 historical novels about the American Revolution, with one book set in each of the original 13 American colonies. Cooper abandoned the series idea, however, after the first novel, set in Massachusetts, did not live up to the expectations of the author or the public. That book, published in 1825, is Lionel Lincoln. The title character is descended from a British aristocratic family. Though born in Boston, he was raised in England on the family’s historic estate and even serves as a member of parliament. At about the age of 25, he returns to the town of his birth as a major in the British Army. When the story begins, Boston is in a state of unrest. The Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party have already taken place, and the American colonists continue to protest against taxation without representation and other British abuses of power. Over the course of the book, Lionel either witnesses or participates in the battles of Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill.

Writing a half century after the historical events depicted, Cooper is American literature’s foremost fictional chronicler of the Revolution. In his writings on the conflict, including his novels The Spy and Wyandotté, Cooper doesn’t depict the British as evil monsters like so many of today’s movies. Instead, he reminds us that the Revolution was almost a civil war, in that Tories and rebels lived side by side as neighbors and even family. Cooper is very sympathetic to the British side of the war—in fact, most of the characters in Lionel Lincoln are British—but he also expresses great reverence for the colonists’ fight for independence.

Upon his return to America, Lionel is taken in by relatives whom he soon suspects may be involved in supporting the colonists’ underground resistance movement. From this, the reader expects an espionage novel similar to The Spy. Such hopes are dashed, however, when it later becomes apparent that the novel is not so much about the American Revolution as it just happens to be set in it. The book eventually develops into a Gothic novel of family secrets more in the vein of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but nowhere near as good as either.

As expected from a book this old, there is a lot of cumbersome language to overcome, but that’s also part of the charm for lovers of classic books. The attention span of early 19th-century readers was far more forgiving than their 21st-century counterparts, so one also has to put up with Cooper’s lethargic pacing. In a failed attempt to heighten suspense, Cooper has an annoying habit of not revealing the names of characters, merely referring to them as “the stranger” or “the gentleman” far too long before disclosing their identities. The reader’s hopes that these might turn out to be real historic Bostonians is never gratified. The cast includes British generals like Howe and Burgoyne, but real-life American heroes are absent. George Washington is mentioned frequently in conversation but doesn’t appear in person. As is often the case in Cooper’s novels, Lionel and his love interest—the idealized hero and heroine—are surrounded by a quirky cast of characters who cram the text full of colorful conversation, humorous accents, and irrelevant asides. Lionel’s best friend, Captain Polwarth, is a rotund glutton who constantly waxes rhapsodic about gastronomic pleasures at the most inappropriate moments.

Lionel Lincoln is a poor novel, perhaps the worst Cooper novel I’ve read thus far, but amid all the tedious histrionics I still enjoyed reading the author’s perspective on the Revolution.

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