Friday, August 30, 2019

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

Would have benefited from more realism and less humor
In his satirical political novel It Can’t Happen Here, Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis envisions the rise and reign of a totalitarian fascist dictatorship in the United States of America. Published in 1935, the characters and events portrayed in the book are patterned after the rise of fascist regimes in Italy and Nazi Germany, as well as the platform of political demagogue Huey Long, the Louisiana governor who planned to run for president but was assassinated just before this book was published. Though Lewis presents a bleak and brutal depiction of America’s possible future, he often does so with tongue in cheek, and not entirely successfully. Nevertheless, more than a few of the acts of corruption, chicanery, and atrocity that Lewis depicts here bear a startling resemblance to the political climate in 21st century America. If ever this novel were due for a revival, now is the time.

The story is mostly told from the perspective of Doremus Jessup, an aging newspaper editor in Fort Beulah, Vermont. Jessup watches in chagrined disbelief as populist candidate Buzz Windrip wins the presidency with a ludicrous platform emphasizing wealth redistribution and racism. The Windrip administration, having amassed its own private army of conservative zealots, strips the Congress and Supreme Court of their powers, thus eliminating any checks to Windrip’s agenda. Soon martial law, forced labor, censorship of the press, executions without trial, and other familiar tactics of fascism become the norm in America. The government takes Jessup’s newspaper from him and forces him to operate it as a propaganda tool for the new regime.

Having an inkling of the basic premise of this novel, I approached this book with enthusiasm, but I soon became exasperated by its flippant and frivolous tone, as Lewis’s sense of humor frequently clashes with the disturbing subject matter he’s depicting. I realize this was intended to be a work of satire, but even when he is talking about torture, concentration camps, and executions, Lewis inappropriately loads his prose with ostentatiously clever turns of phrase, homespun metaphors, and sarcastic witticisms. All the silly character names and period slang make the text genuinely uncomfortable to read and only serve to trivialize the points Lewis is trying to make. Those humorous embellishments may have worked in Babbitt, but they feel woefully out of place here. This would have been a much better book if Lewis had gone dark and serious with it, like Jack London’s The Iron Heel or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. At several points in the novel, Lewis pokes fun at Upton Sinclair and his utopian ideas, but the fact is Upton Sinclair can write a better novel of antifascist social commentary than this one, and still manage to do so with a sense of humor, as can be seen in 100%: The Story of a Patriot, for example.

When compared to developments in American politics over the last couple decades, Lewis’s vision of a fascist America seems startlingly prophetic. It Can’t Happen Here? Oh, yes it can! Thankfully, reality seems to be moving at a slower pace than the plot of this novel. Let’s hope we can rise to the occasion and stop short of unbridled authoritarianism. One can’t help but admire Lewis’s audacity in publishing this politically charged work, particularly at the time period in question, when fascism was openly enjoying its European heyday. For that Lewis is to be commended, but admiring and enjoying are two different things, and at times the writing in It Can’t Happen Here just gets on the reader’s nerves.
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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Best of The Spirit by Will Eisner

Not the best collection, but superb comics nonetheless
The Spirit, created by Will Eisner, may very well be the most influential comics series ever created. Each week from 1940 to 1952, Eisner produced a syndicated newspaper supplement with a 7-page Spirit story. He wrote and drew most of the stories himself, though over time he did enlist help from other creative talent, particularly while he was off serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. The Spirit is more of a police detective than a superhero, though he does wear a mask and miraculously survives a great deal of physical abuse. Although the series has a film noir style that grounds it in the mystery and crime genre, The Spirit gave Eisner the opportunity to explore multiple genres, including comedy, romance, horror, and even science fiction. Anyone who has read superhero or sci-fi comics from the 1960s knows how mind-numbingly simplistic the typical seven page stories of this “Golden Age” often were, but with The Spirit Eisner often turned out complex and innovative narratives comparable to a cinematic experience. For decades to come, comic books and newspaper strips in multiple genres would be influenced by Eisner’s groundbreaking work.

In 2000, DC Comics began reprinting The Spirit comics in their Spirit Archives series, and in 2005 they published The Best of The Spirit. Since this collection is published by DC, you of course get the obligatory foreword by Neil Gaiman, whose work has little in common with that of Eisner’s, but he does lavish sufficient praise on the master. To anyone who has never read The Spirit before, the 22 stories included in this “greatest hits” anthology provide more than ample demonstration of Eisner’s genius as a graphic storyteller.

But is this really “The Best” of The Spirit? The selections here seem to be chosen on the basis of two criteria: First, to include as many as possible of the sexy “dames” that were one of the series’s claims to fame. These femme fatales were certainly an important factor in the popularity of the strip, so their inclusion is no surprise, but I think the editors went a little overboard in that direction. Secondly, a wisely conscious attempt is made to eliminate any appearance by Ebony White, the Spirit’s African American sidekick who was unfortunately drawn as a stereotypical blackface caricature. He shows up in only two panels in this entire volume, including one unavoidable cameo in the very first Spirit adventure. This origin story itself is certainly not among Eisner’s better works, but one can understand the desire to include it here. It is one of two pre-WWII stories included, neither of which is artistically exceptional. In the selection of stories, one wishes there had been less emphasis on the Spirit’s female adversaries and more attention paid to Eisner’s innovation in page layout.

The often murky and sometimes blurry quality of the reproductions in this volume is disappointing. The unavoidable fact that the original Spirit comics were printed on a tabloid-sized sheet, and are thus reduced to about a quarter of their size here, contributes to a frustrating lack of clarity. I remember when Kitchen Sink Press used to publish reprints of The Spirit, however, and their reproductions, even at reduced size, looked a lot better. They even had a series, The Spirit Color Album, printed in full color in a large 9 x 12-inch format. When Kitchen Sink went under in 1999, DC somehow got the rights to The Spirit, and they’ve been reprinting the series ever since. If this volume is any indication of the reproduction quality of their Spirit Archives series, however, I’d rather hunt up the old Kitchen Sink editions.
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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Great Stone of Sardis by Frank R. Stockton

From the top of the world to its deepest depths
Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902) was a popular American author of fiction in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries. His novel The Great Stone of Sardis was originally published in 1891, which is good to know before reading this novel. Otherwise, the reader may wonder what’s going on when the story opens in the year 1947 and Stockton starts describing futuristic ocean liners. This is a science fiction novel similar in style and subject matter to the works of Jules Verne. Stockton isn’t quite the writer Verne is, however, and although The Great Stone of Sardis was likely groundbreaking for its time, to the 21st century reader it feels a little pedestrian.

Roland Clewe is a scientific genius and inventor who operates a laboratory in Sardis, New Jersey. A modern-day Renaissance man in the vein of Thomas Edison, Clewe’s major area of expertise is electrical technology, but his scientific explorations lead him to dabble in all areas of the sciences. The novel consists of two main story lines that run parallel to each other throughout the book. First, Clewe sponsors an expedition to discover the North Pole. He chooses not to go himself, but he creates the technologically advanced submarine that makes the journey possible, and he selects the crew to undertake the voyage. While that mission is in progress, Clewe remains at his lab in Sardis to work on his latest invention, the Artesian ray. This is a device capable of projecting a powerful beam of light deep into the Earth, rendering successive layers of rock and soil transparent so that one can view and study the subterranean strata. With the aid of telescopes directed downward, Clewe is able to peer several miles beneath the surface of the Earth.

Surprisingly, the polar expedition proves rather dull. The narrative consists primarily of uninspired descriptions of water and ice. Unlike in a Verne book, one doesn’t learn interesting facts about the environment along the way. Stockton does liven up the story a bit by giving the explorers an adversary, an evil Pole named Rovinski who attempts to sabotage the voyage and claim scientific glory for himself. Far more entertaining, however, is the book’s other half, which deals with Clewe’s investigations beneath the surface of the Earth. The Artesian ray is a truly unique and original concept, and it is fun to follow Clewe’s experiments as he uses the ray to draw conclusions about the Earth’s composition. The reader has to wait a long time, however, before discovering the nature of the “Great Stone” mentioned in the title, which is only revealed a few chapters before the book’s conclusion.

Looking back in hindsight, the science depicted in this science fiction comes across a bit silly. What makes up for that, however, is the fact that Stockton has populated the tale with likable characters, and the whole thing is told in a fun, lighthearted style that makes for a brisk and mildly charming read. Clewe and his companions never really encounter the sort of deadly dangers faced by Verne’s heroes. Instead, they live pretty happy lives and genuinely seem to enjoy scientific discovery, a feeling that proves contagious to the reader. Even romantic subplots are handled in a realistically untroubled manner, opting for comfortably contented married couples rather than tempestuous lovers. In terms of scientific vision, The Great Stone of Sardis doesn’t really measure up to the better science fiction works of Verne or H. G. Wells, but it is a fun read for fans of early sci-fi.
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Friday, August 23, 2019

Whiteoaks by Mazo de la Roche

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

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

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

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

Micah Clarke by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Camenzind by Hermann Hesse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cave by José Saramago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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