Thursday, October 24, 2019

In Search of the Unknown by Robert W. Chambers

Adventures in paranormal zoology
American author Robert W. Chambers is best known for his book The King in Yellow, a collection of short stories mostly of the macabre horror variety. His book In Search of the Unknown, published in 1904, shows a more lighthearted side to Chambers. This work is ostensibly a novel, but it reads more like a collection of short stories that have been cobbled together, not entirely successfully, into one continuous narrative.

The narrator of the book is a Mr. Gilland, who in the opening chapter begins his new job at the Bronx Park Zoo as general superintendant of the water-fowl department. The first assignment he’s given is in response to a man who claims to have two specimens of the extinct bird the great auk living in his pond. Gilland is sent to investigate the claim, and, if the auks do in fact exist, bring them back alive for the zoo’s collection. Over the course of the book, Gilland undertakes a few other scientific investigations, each of which brings him into contact with strange zoological anomalies. These include extinct species found alive, fictional species invented by Chambers, mythical creatures, and previously undiscovered humanoids. In each adventure, Gilland manages to fall in love, and his often fruitless wooing of the women in question provides comic relief.

In Search of the Unknown is science fiction in the most literal sense, in that it’s not about speculative visions of outer space or the future, but rather about a scientist and the practice of science. In addition to hunting for mysterious species, Gilland has to contend with other hazards of the profession, such as professional rivalries, contentious scholarly conferences, conflicts with management, and the difficulties involved with hiring assistants, outfitting expeditions, and collecting and transporting specimens. This uncommonly professorial take on sci-fi is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book. The formula of Chambers’s plots, however, is less satisfying. Each adventure starts with hints of an unusual creature, followed by two or three chapters of the characters mostly bickering with each other until finally the monster shows up briefly at the end.

At about the halfway point, the book really takes a turn for the worse. Gilland is returning home to New York after just having completed a mission in the Everglades. On the train he meets a fellow New Yorker named Harold Kensett. Kensett, a writer, then proceeds to narrate a story about his own encounter with a bizarre animal. Little does the reader know at that point that Kensett will be narrating the entire second half of the book. This abandoning of one hero with whom the reader has become invested only to switch horses midstream amounts to an unforgivable narrative choice. The only possible reason that would come to mind for Chambers doing so is that these were pre-written short stories that were rather lazily slapped together into a poor excuse for a novel. What’s worse is that Kensett’s final adventure in the book is a terrible story that doesn’t at all fit with the rest of the book. Instead of zoological sci-fi, Chambers delivers yet another Victorian tale of supernatural spiritualism that would have been more at home in The King in Yellow.

In Search of the Unknown shares the main same flaw as The King in Yellow: inconsistency. It is difficult to recommend a book when only about half of it is good. Still, even if Chambers’s writing isn’t quite in the same league with someone like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this work provides some worthwhile entertainment for fans of century-old science fiction.

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Friday, October 18, 2019

Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno

Excellent guide to a fascinating civilization
For anyone interested in archaeology, the “Handbook to Life” series published by Oxford University Press is an excellent collection of comprehensive books on ancient civilizations. If your interests lie in Mexican history or the archaeology of the Americas, the 2006 volume Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno is an excellent resource loaded with fascinating detail.

The Aztec Empire is also known as the Triple Alliance because it was established by three city-states: Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan. While most of the book focuses on this central core of the Aztec civilization, the opening chapters give a broader overview of pre-Columbian Native cultures throughout Mexico. Aguilar-Moreno discusses the earlier civilizations that influenced the Aztecs, such as the Olmec, the Toltec, and Teotihucan. The origins of the Mexica, who would later settle in Tenochtitlan to become known as Aztecs, are examined from both mythical and archaeological perspectives. Also discussed are many of the other Native cultures throughout Mexico with which the Aztecs came into contact. The Maya are barely mentioned, however, because the series has another excellent book on that subject: Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World by Lynn Foster. The Spanish conquest is covered in depth throughout the book. The final chapter gives a concise history of Mexico from the demise of the Aztec Empire to the present, with special notice given to the present state of the Indigenous population.

After the opening historical and geographical overviews, the book delivers a series of thematic chapters examining different aspects of Aztec life. Topics discussed include warfare, clothing, food, astronomy and mathematics, economy and trade, and the role of women in Aztec society. The book is especially strong on the religion and philosophy of the Aztecs, giving you an idea of the underlying belief system that permeated every aspect of daily life, including the practice of human sacrifice for which the Aztecs are notorious. Aguilar-Moreno reveals a society in many ways more sophisticated than its European conquerors. The chapters on art, architecture, and literature are heavily illustrated with photographs and line drawings of archaeological sites, artifacts from the Museo Nacional de Antropología, and codices of Nahutl pictographic writing. The book concludes eloquently with a selection of Aztec poetry translated into English.

While it seems intended as a text for undergraduate courses, this book is perfectly accessible to general readers, armchair archaeologists, and Mexicophiles. Because of the textbook organization, there is a fair bit of repetition of information. For example, major battles discussed in the historical overview are also discussed in the section on warfare. Such repetition never becomes annoying, however, and only serves to reinforce the lessons learned, as any textbook should. The thematic presentation also strengthens the book’s usefulness as a reference guide.

This book was published in 2006, and there have no doubt been archaeological discoveries since then that may call some of the information here into question. But has a more comprehensive, well-organized, and accessible overview of the Aztec civilization been published since? Experts in the field might quibble with some of the details, but for the vast majority of interested readers this handbook is an excellent and educational read. If you require further information on any of the topics discussed, the book cites an extensive list of references for further study.
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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Angel of the Revolution: A Tale of the Coming Terror by George Griffith

Dreary world-war fantasy with racist aftertaste
The Angel of the Revolution, a novel by British author George Griffith, was originally serialized in 1893 issues of the periodical Pearson’s Weekly. It is a work of science fiction that is set in the near future of 1903. A young scientist named Richard Arnold, working in his own private laboratory, has invented a flying machine. A major advance over the technology of his time, Arnold’s invention is not merely a modified balloon but an actual powered flying machine capable of great speed, agile maneuverability, and a heavy carrying capacity. So far, however, Arnold has only been able to construct a scale model of his design. He lacks the money to build a full-sized prototype. At the moment of his greatest financial difficulty, he is approached by a mysterious man named Colston who offers to help him bring his concept into production. Colston introduces Arnold to a secret organization of anarchists and nihilists who call themselves the Brotherhood of Freedom, though the rest of the world refers to them as The Terrorists. The Brotherhood wants to use Arnold’s flying machine to crush the world’s military forces, in particular those of the Russian Tsar, in order to bring about world peace. Being sympathetic to their ideals, Arnold joins the Brotherhood and becomes their admiral of the air.

The Angel of the Revolution is a very well-written pulp fiction adventure novel. Griffith’s prose is consistently brisk, often exciting, and surprisingly fresh. His writing is less antiquated than even exemplary contemporaries like H. G. Wells or Jules Verne. While the way Griffith tells his story is quite commendable, however, what he actually has to say is not so appealing. This is really an ugly story, the purpose of which is to rack up as much carnage and as high a body count as possible. One really has to have an appetite for destruction to appreciate this novel. Much of the plot revolves around troop movements and airpower strategy and reads like some pompous wargamer pontificating over a game of Risk.

Though the Brotherhood are supposedly men with no nation, the story clearly favors the Brits over the evil Russians. The Tsar’s regime is depicted as institutionalized torture and murder, yet the Brotherhood itself doesn’t come across as much more humane. We are supposed to admire these “heroes” as they mercilessly destroy all opposition before them, but their methods and their speech ring of fascism. The system with which they propose to replace the existing world order is vaguely socialist, but in the hands of the psychotic Brotherhood it would no doubt devolve into an iron-handed oppression even worse than the Soviet Union’s heyday of human rights violations.

In addition, there’s the racism. In Griffith’s world war England and Germany team up against an alliance of France, Russia, and Italy, thus pitting the palest, blondest nations in Europe against the swarthy Southerners and Slavs. The novel explicitly states in several passages that the Anglo-Saxon race is destined to inherit the Earth. Once they conquer Europe, the Brotherhood plan to then exert their influence over the colonies of Africa and the “yellow barbarism” of the East.

If you want to read an excellent science fiction novel about a future socialist revolution, read Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1907). London himself was an Anglo-Saxon supremacist, but not blatantly in that book, and the political theory is a lot smarter than the pointless bloodlust on display in The Angel of the Revolution.

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Monday, October 14, 2019

The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, edited by Lawrence Buell

An excellent guide to the movement as a whole
While Transcendentalism was an extremely important development in the history of American literature and philosophy, likely few readers today could define the movement beyond calling up the names of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. A few enlightened souls might stretch so far as to mention Margaret Fuller. Despite its name recognition, Transcendentalism is a very difficult school of thought to pin down. Many of the Transcendentalists themselves, and Emerson in particular, denied the existence of any “school” or “movement,” likening the group to an amorphously diverse congregation of vaguely like-minded individuals. Nevertheless, Transcendentalism was a genuine movement with concrete philosophical precepts and an agenda for social change. In the 2006 book The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, editor Lawrence Buell not only amasses an excellent collection of writings but also delivers a thorough demystification of this crucial and confusing period of development in American thought.

Buell opens the book with an enlightening introduction that outlines the history of American Transcendentalism, its intellectual origins, and a summary of the philosophical views common to its members. The movement originally arose when a number of liberal Unitarian ministers including Emerson, influenced by German philosophers, departed from the strict confines of the Unitarian church to found their own independent congregations. These heretics embraced a more pantheistic conception of deity in which a divinity exists in all human beings. This philosophy emphasized the sacredness of the individual, who, to live up to the divinity within, must follow his or her own path to personal actualization and spiritual fulfillment. An intimate experience of nature, as evident from the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, was a means toward accomplishing this, as was a love for one’s fellow man exerted through virtuous social activism. Emerson at first was reluctant to get involved in social issues, wishing to keep Transcendentalism on a purely intellectual plane, but over time the movement’s members became more outspoken as advocates for religious liberty, educational reform, feminism, and the abolition of slavery.

The writings included here are a mix of essays, journal entries, memoirs, letters, aphorisms, utopian constitutions, articles from the group’s journal The Dial, and a generous helping of poetry. Many of the selections are relatively brief, well-chosen excerpts from longer works, but a few major manifestoes are reproduced in their entirety, such as Emerson’s “Nature,” “Divinity School Address,” “Self-Reliance,” and “The American Scholar,” and Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” This collection goes well beyond the two household names to feature many of the movement’s lesser-known movers and shakers. Highlights include Fuller’s feminist manifesto “The Great Lawsuit,” Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s essay on nature and health “Saints, and Their Bodies,” Theodore Parker’s antislavery writings “The Function of Conscience” and “The Fugitive Slave Law,” and the poetry of William Ellery Channing II and Jones Very. Buell also includes commentary, some of it critical, from notable writers outside the movement such as Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James. In all cases, Buell provides excellent introductions that provide insightful historical context.

Not every selection in this volume is a pleasure to read, as some of the writers are deliberately obscure and overly mystical in their delivery. As a whole, however, this is an excellent collection that provides a fascinating and comprehensive education into the history, literature, and philosophy of the Transcendentalists.
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Thursday, October 10, 2019

Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates 2019

Congratulations to Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke!
This year the Nobel committee delivered a double whammy, making up for last year’s aborted 2018 prize (it’s a long story) as well as bestowing this year’s regularly scheduled 2019 prize. Old Books by Dead Guys congratulates both lucky winners, Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk (2018 prize) and Austria’s Peter Handke (2019 prize). As is often the case, I haven’t heard of either one of them because I’m too busy reading old books by dead guys, but I may get around to reading their critically acclaimed works in decades to come.

Each year Old Books by Dead Guys presents the cumulative list of works by Nobel laureates that have been reviewed at this blog. From now on, this list will be featured as a permanent page on the blog, with a link in the navigation bar, and will be regularly updated to serve as a reference for those interested in exploring the works of the Nobel laureates.

Over the past year, Old Books by Dead Guys has reviewed 22 works by Nobel laureates. Making their first appearance on the list this year are France’s Henri Bergson and François Mauriac, Sweden’s Sigrid Undset, Finland’s Frans Eemil Sillanpää, Russia’s Mikhail Sholokhov, Portugal’s José Saramago, Turkey’s (still very much alive) Orhan Pamuk, and a monumental trilogy by Denmark’s Johannes V. Jensen. Plus, more new works by the likes of Henryk Sienkiewicz, Hermann Hesse, John Steinbeck, and more! Check out the authors below and click on the titles to read the complete reviews.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

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

Selma Lagerlöf (1909 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Paul von Heyse (1910 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪

Maurice Maeterlinck (1911 Nobel) Belgium 🇧🇪

Gerhart Hauptmann (1912 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪

Rabindranath Tagore (1913 Nobel) India 🇮🇳

Romain Rolland (1915 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Verner von Heidenstam (1916 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Henrik Pontoppidan (1917 Nobel) Denmark 🇩🇰

Carl Spitteler (1919 Nobel) Switzerland 🇨🇭

Knut Hamsun (1920 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Anatole France (1921 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Wladyslaw Reymont (1924 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

George Benard Shaw (1925 Nobel) Ireland 🇮🇪

Henri Bergson (1927 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Sigrid Undset (1928 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴
  • Jenny (1911) - 2.5 stars

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

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

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

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

Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1939 Nobel) Finland 🇫🇮

Johannes Vilhelm Jensen (1944 Nobel) Denmark 🇩🇰

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

Bertrand Russell (1950 Nobel) United Kingdom 🇬🇧

Pär Lagerkvist (1951 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

François Mauriac (1952 Nobel) 
France 🇫🇷

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

Halldór Laxness (1955 Nobel) Iceland 🇮🇸

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

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

Mikhail Sholokhov (1965 Nobel) Soviet Union 🇷🇺

José Saramago (1998 Nobel) Portugal 🇵🇹

Orhan Pamuk (2006 Nobel) Turkey 🇹🇷
  • Snow (2002) - 3.5 stars

Mo Yan (2012 Nobel) China 🇨🇳

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

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

See you next year, Nobel!

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought by Robert J. Richards

Vindicating evolution’s controversial champion
Charles Darwin may have formulated the theory of evolution, but most people learned about it from Ernst Haeckel. Following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Haeckel, a German biologist, became one of the theory’s earliest and most outspoken champions. He spread the gospel of evolution through his popular books, many of which he illustrated himself with beautiful works of zoological art. While Darwin’s revolutionary theory was very controversial for its time, Haeckel’s presentation of it was even more so. Haeckel built an entire atheistic philosophy around evolution and used evolutionary theory to vehemently attack religion. Over the course of his career, Haeckel was accused of overzealously fabricating fraudulent illustrations to support his scientific claims. He has also been posthumously accused of having inspired Nazi ideology. In his 2008 biography of Haeckel, The Tragic Sense of Life, author Robert J. Richards closely examines the life and work of this controversial figure and assesses the validity of the accusations that have been leveled against Haeckel, both during his lifetime and after his death.

While, as the subtitle indicates, much of the book deals with the “Struggle over Evolutionary Thought,” The Tragic Sense of Life is also in fact a true cradle-to-grave biography of Haeckel, and a very good one. The early chapters on Haeckel’s intellectual development are particularly fascinating. Richards elegantly delineates a chain of thought from Kant to Goethe to Humboldt to Darwin to Haeckel, illustrating each figure’s influence on his follower and how the ideals of Romanticism trickled down the chain and filtered into Haeckel’s work. Richards also makes a strong case that events in Haeckel’s personal life, most notably the death of his first wife, altered his philosophical outlook and thus affected the course of his scientific career.

Like most Europeans of the 19th century, Haeckel was a racist, or more specifically, a racialist. When the theory of evolution burst upon the scientific landscape, most biologists believed that the races of mankind were separate species, perhaps even descended from different families of apes. Whites were seen as more highly evolved than the “primitive” or “lesser” races. (Richards cites biologist Friedrich Tiedemann as one exception who did not hold these views.) This racialist view of humanity is evident in Haeckel’s work, an unfortunate relic of the times in which he lived. Richards disproves, however, any assertions that Haeckel was an anti-Semite, demonstrating in fact that he had a very enlightened attitude toward the Jews. Richards addresses the scandal over Haeckel’s “fraudulent” illustrations by weighing the arguments on both sides, concluding the fiasco was more of a stupid mistake than intentional chicanery. The same thorough scrutiny is applied to the accusations of proto-Nazism. There seems little doubt that racialism and a twisted interpretation of evolutionary theory were a part of Nazi ideology, but Haeckel’s atheistic philosophy and favorable attitude towards the Jews make him an unlikely progenitor of the Nazi party line. The Nazis themselves, at one point, officially denied Haeckel as an ideological influence.

This book is a very comprehensive examination of Haeckel’s scientific career and delves quite a bit into 19th century philosophical theory. Nevertheless, though aimed at a scholarly audience it is quite accessible to the general reader and makes a fascinating read for any admirer of Haeckel’s work. The second appendix, however, a lecture on historiography and a recapitulation of the Nazi debate, is aimed strictly at historians and is best skipped by the nonacademic reader.
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