Friday, November 29, 2019

God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert

Universal tyrant or humanity’s savior?
God Emperor of Dune, the fourth book in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, features one of the most unforgettable characters in all of science fiction: Leto Atreides II, the god emperor himself. In the first Dune novel, Paul Atreides acquired the power of prescience and became a messiah. In the second book, Dune Messiah, Paul rules as emperor over mankind’s galactic diaspora. In Children of Dune, Paul’s son Leto II, endowed with powers similar to his father, covers his body with sandtrout, a sort of larval stage of the giant sandworms of Arrakis. This living armor transforms him into something more than human. God Emperor of Dune takes place three and a half millennia after the events of Children of Dune. Leto has become a half-human, half-worm hybrid, and his physical transformation has rendered him seemingly immortal. His powers of prescience, omniscience, and ancestral memories far surpass those of his father. He rules as emperor of the known universe and is worshipped and feared as a godhead by his people.

Through his visions of the future, Leto has witnessed the destruction of mankind, but he has also witnessed the means of avoiding this fate—a master plan he calls the Golden Path. This plan dictates that he rule as a tyrant over humanity, holding them in a period of technological stagnation for centuries to prevent them from self-extinction. On the emperor’s home planet of Arrakis, a.k.a. Dune, one of Leto’s soldiers, an Atreides descendant named Siona, is planning a secret rebellion against the god emperor. But can one really keep a secret from a being who can foresee nearly every occurrence? Meanwhile, Leto repeatedly clones the dead flesh of the Atreides’ top soldier Duncan Idaho to act as commander of his guard. Successive models of these Duncans have served Leto faithfully over the centuries, but perhaps it is only a matter of time before one of these reborn Idahos will look beyond his loyalty to the Atreides and resent his role in Leto’s oppressive regime.

God Emperor of Dune provides an in-depth character study of the fascinating and multi-faceted Leto. At times, however, the problem with the book is that it is too much of a character study and not enough of a novel. While the first three Dune novels felt like an epic and complicated chess game, this one feels more like a debate as Leto constantly engages in cryptic philosophical dialogues with his supporting cast. I can’t even pretend to understand all of what he’s saying on the first reading; at times the dialogue is like an endless succession of zen koans. There are also fewer players in the game for interplanetary dominance than there were in the first three novels. Leto’s regime has disbanded the former feudal aristocracy and largely neutered the Bene Gesserit religious order. The only real threats now are the Tleilaxu, masters of genetic manipulation, and the Ixians, masters of technology. Much of the story’s length takes place in the span of only a few days as Leto exits his citadel for a once-a-decade ritual procession to meet the masses. While the earlier Dune novels were both cerebral and action-packed, this book can only claim to have two of what might be called action sequences, but the final one is a doozy.

Despite such reservations, the Dune saga is still the greatest fictional universe ever created, and the original six books by Frank Herbert are still the best glimpses into this fascinating and expansive world. For anyone who made it through the first three novels, God Emperor of Dune is a must-read. Seeing how Herbert’s grand scheme of humanity’s distant future unfolds will heighten your understanding and appreciation of the first three books and leave you wondering where he could possibly go from here.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

A Republic of Rivers: Three Centuries of Nature Writing from Alaska and the Yukon, edited by John A. Murray

A well-edited sampler of natural science, travel, literature, and lore
I have traveled to Alaska and the Yukon once, just on a brief vacation, but it was enough to make me fantasize about a longer stay and deeper exploration of the region. Though I may make it back someday, for now I’ll have to admit I am an armchair adventurer who primarily enjoys the idea of the North vicariously through the accounts of others. Whether you’re a long-term resident of the region or just a dabbler like myself, chances are you will find much to appreciate in A Republic of Rivers, an anthology of 48 writings on Alaska and the Yukon. Edited by John A. Murray, a nature writer himself, the book was published by Oxford University Press in 1990.

Murray has done an admirable job of selecting from a wide variety of sources and organizing and presenting them in a manner that truly gives the reader an educational crash course in the literary history of Alaska and the Yukon. The selections are divided into three sections. The Age of Exploration covers the era of Russia’s dominion over Alaska, and contains excerpts from explorer narratives including those of James Cook, George Vancouver, and Alexander Mackenzie. The Age of Exploitation covers Alaska’s period as a U.S. territory and features a wide variety of writers including John Muir, John Burroughs, and Jack London. The Age of Environmentalism covers the time from Alaska’s statehood to the present (1990) and includes many contemporary writers and environmentalists such as Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, and Barry Lopez. These categories are more chronological than thematic, as you will find explorers, exploiters, and environmentalists mixed into all three. The myriad writing styles include exploration diaries, empirical scientific observations, adventure travelogs, personal memoirs, literary nature writing, studies of animal species, poetry, myths and folklore, and more. Murray wisely includes at least a half dozen selections from Native American, First Nations, and Inuit writers, including Koyukon riddles, Eskimo poetry, Haida myths, and a first-person narrative from a Tlingit trapper.

Although this book is 325 pages in length, each selection gets its own title page and author bio page, and it has many intentionally blank pages. As far as the excerpts themselves are concerned, you’re getting at most maybe about 190 pages of text divided among 48 entries. Each selection gets anywhere from one to eight pages. The Age of Exploration excerpts are all very short, which is unfortunate since those are the ones I found the most fascinating. Murray is clearly more interested in the more literary nature writing of the later twentieth century, so he grants those selections a higher page count. At times there’s enough text to leave you feeling content at having read a satisfyingly eloquent piece of natural observation, but often it feels like you’re only getting the barest general idea of what the works from which these excerpts were drawn are actually about. If anything, this collection succeeds as an appetizing variety platter that allows the reader to choose which writers are worthy of further follow-up. To aid the reader in that quest, Murray includes complete citations for each passage and a sizable bibliography in the back matter.

Though the book is attractively designed, a more judicious use of page space would have allowed for the inclusion of more content. The brevity of the selections is really my only major criticism, however. Murray has done a very fine job assembling this collection, and he is both knowledgeable and thoughtful in his selections. Any state or region would be happy to have an anthology of this quality to represent its natural environment and Indigenous culture.

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Monday, November 25, 2019

The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World by Jacques Bosser. Photographs by Guillaume de Laubier

Palatial library architecture of Europe and America
Published in 2003, The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World is an attractive 11.5” x 11.5” photographic study of some of the world’s most lavish palaces devoted to reading, research, scholarship, and the preservation of cultural heritage. Given the coffee table format, the photographs by Gillaume de Laubier are likely the book’s main selling point, but the text by Jacques Bosser is equally valuable and quite informative. Through image and text, this duo gives the reader a brief tour of 23 stunning cathedrals to knowledge. The architecture depicted in this volume is all at least a century old, in styles including the baroque, neoclassical, and a touch of art deco provided by the New York Public Library. You won’t find any modern architecture here. (I state that merely as a clarification, not a criticism.) Contrary to its hyperbolic title, the libraries included in the book are all located in Europe (20 of them) and the United States (3 of them). No libraries from Asia, Africa, South America, or Australia are depicted. (That is both a clarification and a criticism.) At the very least they could have included a few Muslim libraries from the Middle East, since they helped keep Western thought alive while Europe was in the Dark Ages. You can’t tell me there are no beautiful libraries in Turkey or Iran, for example.

Both Bosser and de Laubier are more interested in the architecture of these libraries then their contents. Each of the libraries covered is depicted in about seven to ten of de Laubier’s photographs, depending on whether they are full page or of smaller size. There are usually one or two photographs of the main reading room and then several pictures of architectural details such as murals, sculptures, or decorative reliefs. Very few of the photographs show any of the actual treasures held by these libraries. The exception is the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg, which for some reason is treated differently from the others, with more pictures of documents rather than architectural shots. In addition to the lovely photos, each library gets two or three pages of text by Bosser, who has clearly done his research and delivers a lot of interesting information. He crams so much detail into such a small word count that at times it is difficult to follow his prose. Brevity requires that he assume a fair knowledge of European history on the part of the reader, and he uses architectural terms with which most readers will not be familiar. He really provides a great deal of insight into the history of these important institutions, however, and he also gives a brief description of the prize holdings in their collections. While de Laubier is an excellent photographer, it is really Bosser’s text that makes this book worth its asking price.

A better book on this subject is photographer Massimo Listri’s The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries, published by Taschen in 2019, but that is a mammoth, large-format twenty-pounder that costs four or five times as much as this book. It also suffers from the same myopic favoritism toward Western civilization, but at least it includes a few libraries in South America. For library lovers not willing to spend a fortune on a photography book, Bosser and de Laubier’s The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World is a very good volume that at least serves as a reasonably satisfying substitute for the experience of touring these amazing libraries in person.
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Friday, November 22, 2019

Literature of the “Soil”

Agrarian epics from around the world
As an enthusiast of classic literature, Old Books by Dead Guys loves to review epic novels. Just because a story is epic, however, doesn’t mean it has to be set in ancient Rome, a war-torn battlefield, or outer space. Some of the best epics take place right at home on the farm. In these “peasant” epics, hard-working multigenerational families carve a living from the soil while contending with poverty, family conflicts, and the unforgiving elements. Such books often bear a strident message of social justice, the dignity of labor, and in some cases perhaps even hints of socialist revolution. Every nation’s literature has got to have at least one great agrarian epic. Realist writers of all nations have captured the heroic drama in the daily life of their homeland’s agriculturalists. Today at Old Books by Dead Guys, we celebrate the literature of “earth,” “soil,” and “dust,” listed below in chronological order. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.


Sons of the Soil (Les Paysans, 1855) by Honoré de Balzac (France) - 3.5 stars
This is Balzac’s final novel, also known as Les Paysans or The Peasantry. The story takes place in the Burgundy region of France and focuses on the antagonism between a land-owning count and the peasants of his district. Rather than glamorizing farming life, Balzac approaches the story from an aristocratic perspective that makes the poor farmers the villains of the story. The plot is like a comical chess game in which the peasants try everything they can think of to rob, cheat, or swindle their landlord. Not exactly the message one usually looks for in an agrarian epic, but it does make for one entertaining novel.

Virgin Soil (1877) by Ivan Turgenev (Russia) - 4 stars
Virgin Soil is Russian realist Ivan Turgenev’s final novel. This is not really a peasant epic, but it does deal with agricultural life. The narrative takes place in the 1860s, at a time when a populist movement was gaining influence in Russia. Urban middle-class intellectuals venture out into the farmlands to preach socialist ideas to workers and the rural poor, hoping to inspire a revolution against the feudal system maintained by the Tsarist government. Like Balzac above, however, Turgenev’s depiction of these revolutionaries is quite unflattering and satirical. Though the main focus of the novel may be political, it does provide a vivid depiction of rural life in Russia.

The Earth (La Terre, 1887) by Emile Zola (France) - 5 stars
The official opinion of Old Books by Dead Guys is that Emile Zola is the world’s greatest novelist, and this is his second greatest novel, after Germinal. The Earth takes place in the Beauce, an agricultural region between Chartres and Orleans, where families have cultivated the same plots of land for generations. When one of these veteran farmers, Old Fouan, feels himself ready for retirement, he divides up his holdings among his three children. Not one of them, however, is happy with the portion he receives, which leads to animosity and treachery. Zola’s depiction of farm life is gritty and unglamorized. He captures both the dirty, exhausting toil and the spiritual satisfaction of agriculture in a range of moods from the terrifying to the hilarious. A masterpiece.

Emanuel, or Children of the Soil (1896) by Hendrik Pontoppidan (Denmark) - 4.5 stars
This is one of only a few works available in English by Pontoppidan, a Nobel Prize winner. The story takes place in rural Denmark in the late nineteenth century. As in Turgenev’s Virgin Soil, discussed above, the proliferation of liberal democratic ideals has begun to undermine the authority of the conservative aristocracy and the Church. A new young priest arrives in a seaside parish in rural Denmark. Rather than adopt the party line of his church, he sympathizes with the peasants and bears a romantic image of the farming life as a more honest and natural way of living. Such liberal ideals infuriate his superiors and threaten his career in the clergy. Through expert descriptive prose, Pontoppidan delivers an authentic slice of Danish rural life.

The Octopus (1901) by Frank Norris (California, USA) - 5 stars
Although it doesn’t have “Earth” or “Soil” in its title, The Octopus is one of America’s greatest agricultural epics. It concerns the lives of wheat farmers in Tulare County, California. Based on a real-life incident, the Mussel Slough Tragedy (1880), this novel tells the story of a violent conflict between the farmers of this community and an all-powerful railroad corporation (the “octopus” referenced in the title). In his portrayal of the rural landscape and agricultural life, Norris displays an extraordinary faculty for natural description and an exceptional talent for drawing gripping scenes of ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances. If you’re looking for the Great American Novel, this is it. 

The Peasants (four volumes, 1904-1909) by Wladyslaw Reymont (Poland) - 5 stars
This lesser-known Polish novel just might be the gold standard by which all peasant epics must be measured. The Peasants (Polish title: Chlopi) was published in four volumes, one for each of the seasons of the year: Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer must be read in order. Over the course of that fictional year, the reader becomes intimately involved in the lives and loves of the residents of the rural town of Lipka. The children of the village’s most prosperous farmer, Mathias Boryna, want him to step down and divide his land among his descendants, but he scoffs at them by marrying a young bride, thus inciting family conflict. Similar in style and subject matter to Zola’s The Earth (see above)—it’s a toss-up as to which of these two epics is the greater work of literature.

Growth of the Soil (1917) by Knut Hamsun (Norway) - 5 stars
This is a masterful peasant epic from Nobel laureate Hamsun. A solitary figure, heavily laden with supplies, trudges into the Norwegian wilds, a day’s walk from the nearest village. He selects a plot of land, cuts the timber, and begins turning the soil. One day a woman comes. Together as man and wife they carve out a living from the earth and build a home, a farm, and a family around which a community forms. Bad influences from the city, however, threaten the peace of their agrarian life. This novel is a truly powerful and moving reading experience.

Dust (1921) by Marcet and Emanuel Haldeman-Julius (Kansas, USA) - 5 stars
Written by Mr. and Mrs. Haldeman-Julius, who ran America’s largest publisher of socialist literature from a little town in Southeastern Kansas. Dust is set in that very region and depicts agricultural life in hard-scrabble, unromantic terms. The novel’s primary concern, however, is a dysfunctional marriage between a husband who believes hard work, livestock, land, and profits are all that’s valuable in life and a wife who longs for love, happiness and beauty while condemned to a life of unrelenting toil. The setting may be reminiscent of Willa Cather, but the story bears the brutal naturalism of one of Frank Norris or Emile Zola’s darker works. A Kansas classic!

The Good Earth (1931) by Pearl S. Buck (USA, raised in China) - 5 stars
Pearl S. Buck, though born in America, was raised by missionary parents in China. Her second novel, The Good Earth, took the Western world by storm, for it was the first authentic literary peek behind the silk curtain of Chinese life. Wang Lung and his wife O-Lan start out as poor farmers in a mud-brick house, but through hard work, personal sacrifice, and a little luck, their family gradually rises from humble beginnings to a position of security and status. The story spans the first few decades of the early twentieth century, including scenes of the Chinese Revolution of 1911 that overthrew the Qing Dynasty. Though steeped in Chinese culture, The Good Earth transcends time and place with universal themes of love, family, pride, and greed. This is the first volume in a trilogy, followed by Sons and A House Divided.

Of course, you can’t really talk about peasant epics without mentioning John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). I have not read that book in the last eight years, so it hasn’t been reviewed at Old Books by Dead Guys. I do have a copy and hope to get to it in 2020.

False Alarms
Judging from their titles, these books might sound like agrarian epics, but in fact they are not:

Shallow Soil (1893) by Knut Hamsun (Norway) - 4.5 stars
Although this is a very good novel by Hamsun, it is not about “soil” or anything remotely agricultural. It is a story of modern urban life in late-nineteenth century Kristiania (present-day Oslo). I believe Hamsun uses the title Shallow Soil as a critical metaphor for the lack of national spirit necessary for Norway to develop into a great nation. (His opinion, not mine.)

Children of the Soil (1894) by Henryk Sienkiewicz (Poland) - 1 star
This is a terrible novel and again has very little to do with farming. Some of the characters do own agricultural lands, which peasants farm for them. This is a book about rich people’s problems, however, and a depressingly grueling examination of the institution of marriage.

The Native Soil (1957) by Alan E. Nourse (USA)
This is actually a science fiction novel about a planet made of mud. Definitely not a peasant epic.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Last and possibly least, but still entertaining
Published in 1927, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes is the fifth and final collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The twelve stories included in this volume were originally published from 1921 to 1927 in various issues of Collier’s, Liberty, and The Strand magazines. At the end of the preceding volume of stories, His Last Bow, Holmes retired from detective work. These stories are recollections by Holmes and Watson of past cases untold. The narrators cite dates for some of the stories, placing them in the years from 1896 to 1907.

The general consensus among Holmes aficionados is that the earliest stories by Conan Doyle are the best, and as time went on he began to run out of ideas. Thus, The Case-Book, coming at the tail end of Conan Doyle’s career, is typically regarded as the worst of the short story collections. I would agree that of those five books, this is the worst overall, but there is still much to enjoy in this fine collection. A mediocre book by Conan Doyle still surpasses the work of so many lesser storytellers. Even when the mystery is not difficult to figure out, the character development and repartee between Holmes and Watson still makes for an enjoyable read, and if you discover the killer before Watson does, it’s still fun to hear Holmes relate the details of the crime.

That said, “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” is the worst Holmes story I have ever read. Rather than being narrated by Watson, it is inexplicably told in an anonymous third-person voice. The story is simplistic and rather too conveniently resolved, and Holmes’s behavior seems very out of character. One wonders if Conan Doyle even wrote this. “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” is narrated by Holmes himself, with Watson nowhere to be found. Holmes is hired by a Boer War veteran to investigate an old army buddy who may be held in captivity by his father. The resolution is predictable, and the epilogue is an unrealistic cop-out. Another solo adventure, “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” is also narrated by Holmes. It takes place at his retirement property in Sussex, where one of his neighbors is found dead on the beach. This one is so easy to resolve it barely qualifies as a mystery.

The collection does have its share of good stories as well. My favorite is “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs” because it has a bizarre premise reminiscent of my all-time favorite Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League.” In fact, one could say the plot is a direct rip off of that earlier story, but I didn’t mind. The murder mystery “The Problem of Thor Bridge” is a perplexing puzzle with an admirably innovative solution. One of the more entertaining cases, “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” is a very good story, but it cheats in the end by using science fiction to resolve its mystery. “The Adventure of the Three Gables,” starts out with an interesting premise but unfortunately includes an unflattering depiction of a black character. “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” concludes with an ingenious resolution, but if the accused would have just spoken up in the first place there would have been no need to hire Holmes.

This may not be Conan Doyle’s best work, but it is still a good read and far better than his imitators. If you haven’t read the previous four short story collections (Adventures, Memoirs, Return, and His Last Bow), by all means do so first. Save this one for when you just can’t get enough.

Stories in this collection

The Adventure of the Illustrious Client
The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier
The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone
The Adventure of the Three Gables
The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire
The Adventure of the Three Garridebs
The Problem of Thor Bridge
The Adventure of the Creeping Man
The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane
The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger
The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place
The Adventure of the Retired Colourman

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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Journal of Julius Rodman by Edgar Allan Poe

Unfinished faux Lewis & Clark-ish expedition
Edgar Allan Poe is most famous for his horror and mystery writing, but he also dabbled in adventure literature, most notably with his 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, about an Antarctic expedition. Another foray into this genre, The Journal of Julius Rodman, was serialized in 1840 issues of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. Only six chapters of this novel ever saw publication. After that, Poe had a disagreement with the editor William Burton and refused to finish the work, so these six chapters are all that remain of what would have been Poe’s second novel.

Had the novel been completed, the fictional Julius Rodman would have been the first white man to cross the Rocky Mountains and reach the Pacific Ocean. The Journal of Julius Rodman is ostensibly the recently discovered memoir of this pioneering explorer. Most of the narrative is told in the first person by Rodman, but the text also contains extensive passages of third-person commentary by an anonymous editor. In the introductory chapter, this editor gives a historical overview of North American exploration, explaining that Alexander Mackenzie crossed the continent in 1793, Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean in 1805, but Julius Rodman beat them both by crossing the Rockies in 1792.

Accounts of the Lewis and Clark expedition were published in the early 19th century, and it is clear that Poe read them. The journals of Lewis and Clark are not high in literary merit but are valuable for their wealth of empirical observation. The prose is often dry but rigidly factual: “We stopped here. This is what the topography was like. The rapids were difficult. We shot such-and-such an animal and ate it. We met some Indians or a bear.” If anything, one would hope that for this sort of project Poe would apply his prodigious literary talents to crafting a more exciting and more literarily satisfying narrative. Instead, Poe writes Rodman’s journal in the same empirical style as the Lewis and Clark account, relating a series of stops along the river and what was seen there. There is no interpersonal drama between the members of the expedition, as one might find in a Jules Verne adventure. Rodman exhibits no personal growth through his battles with nature as one finds in a book like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. No spiritual or supernatural occurrences take place in the wilderness, like those Poe injected into The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Poe’s intention here is to write a false but believable expedition narrative, and in fact some members of Congress who read The Journal of Julius Rodman believed the faux explorer to be real. The lack of artistic license, however, makes for a dull and unsatisfying novel.

What’s worse, at times Poe steals too blatantly from the Lewis and Clark story. The dog on the Rodman expedition is suspiciously similar to Meriwether Lewis’s dog Seaman, both being of the Newfoundland breed. Rodman’s expedition also includes a black slave named Toby, and Poe includes a scene lifted straight from the life of William Clark’s slave York, in which Native Americans respond with amazement at their first sight of a black man.

The final chapter of this incomplete novel concludes with an exciting adventure scene that shows some promise of what might have been had Poe continued with the narrative. As it stands, however, this is not among Poe’s best work. Why read Poe’s descriptions of places he’s never seen when you can read the accounts of real explorers (Lewis and Clark, Mackenzie, Zebulon Pike, Stephen H. Long, the Astoria expedition) who actually made perilous journeys into the American West?

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Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

A pleasant summer in Maine
Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) lived her whole life in Maine and carved out a successful career writing regional realist fiction about her home state. One might think of Jewett as the Willa Cather of Maine, and in fact Cather cited Jewett’s works as having a significant influence on her own writing. The Country of the Pointed Firs, published in 1896, is Jewett’s best known work. This novel is narrated by an unnamed female writer from Boston who arrives at the seaside village of Dunnet Landing to spend the summer. She takes up residence in the home of Mrs. Almira Todd, a widow who gathers and dispenses medicinal herbs for a living. While the narrator finds her lodgings congenial, she requires an adequate quiet space to work on her writings, so she rents out the local schoolhouse to use as her office. Over the course of the next few months, she becomes acquainted with the residents of Dunnet Landing and its environs, listens to the stories of their lives, and is invited into the slow-paced but warm-hearted lifestyle of this picturesque village and its surrounding islands.

To be honest, not a whole lot happens in The Country of the Pointed Firs. An old sea captain relates a story of a shipwreck. The narrator takes a boat trip to visit her landlord’s mother on a neighboring island. Ladies sit around the kitchen table drinking tea and discussing the history and lore of the town. What little action might be said to take place in the story is provided mostly by secondary narrators telling tales of the region’s past, some of which are quite moving. Because the plot is so bare-boned, the book is highly descriptive, but Jewett’s descriptions aren’t just pointless or gratuitous embellishments intended to showcase the author’s pretty prose. She vividly recreates the atmosphere of a Maine village and imparts to the reader a profound sense of place. Dunnet Landing is the kind of town where you can tell by the smoke coming from your neighbors’ chimneys whether or not they are frying up donuts, and if they see you passing by they just might come out and offer you some. Orne guides the reader on a pleasure trip, not a whirlwind tour, of the area. This book will not have you on the edge of your seat, but rather nestled comfortably in an Adirondack chair, as on a relaxing vacation. Some days there’s nothing to do, and you’re just content to sit and listen to the waves or stroll among the wildflowers.

Though Jewett certainly gives fair due to the Maine scenery, this book is not a work of nature writing. It is not the natural environment but the culture and customs of the inhabitants that are the author’s main concern. The characters are fully fleshed out and indicative of the environment without succumbing to regional or occupational stereotypes. Jewett achieves this primarily by revealing the characters’ personalities through their speech. She does a great job of capturing the idiosyncratic language of the region. With the exception of a few dropped consonants, this is not accomplished through the phonetic transcription of accents but rather through the use of unique expressions, idioms, and figures of speech. These Northeasterners describe an island, a boat, or a neighbor with words an Iowan or a Californian wouldn’t even think of. Through this crafty use of language, Jewett recreates the mentality of Dunnet Landing and its inhabitants’ values and dreams.

The Country of the Pointed Firs is a fine work of American realism that enchants the reader with the sights, sounds, and smells of rural maritime New England. It may be as close as one can come to spending a summer in Maine without actually being there.

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Monday, November 11, 2019

The Blazed Trail by Stewart Edward White

Entertaining Michigan timber adventure
A popular subgenre of adventure literature in the late 19th and early 20th century was the resource exploitation romance. In such novels, a plucky young man in dire financial straits ventures into the wilderness to seek his fortune in mining, timber, oil, furs, or maybe even reindeer herding (see James Oliver Curwood’s The Alaskan). While still maintaining a respectable quota of backcountry thrills, these novels differ from your typical wilderness adventure, treasure hunt, or gold rush novel in that they focus less on the call of the wild and the love of nature and more on business matters, real estate deals, and stocks and bonds. Jack London wrote a few of these resource exploitation adventures (Burning Daylight comes to mind). Canadian author Harold Bindloss made a whole career out of them. Michigan-born author Stewart Edward White was a prolific author of adventure literature in the first four decades of the twentieth century. His 1902 novel The Blazed Trail, about the lumber industry in northern Michigan, is an excellent exemplar of the resource exploitation romance and an entertaining and educational read.

The hero, Harry Thorpe, comes from a well-to-do family, but his father disgraced the Thorpe name by embezzling funds and then died soon afterwards, leaving Harry to support not only himself but also his teenage sister. Being a member of Detroit’s idle class, Harry has no profession, so he decides to start a career in Michigan’s main industry: timber. He ventures to the Saginaw region to seek employment at a lumber camp and ends up being hired by the successful firm of Morrison & Daly. Thorpe starts on the bottom rung of the ladder and gradually learns the ins and outs of the business. In his first winter in the woods, working under an ineffectual boss, he learns many things about how not to run a lumber camp. After that camp closes, Thorpe decides to try his hand at becoming a lumber baron himself. He ventures into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to find his own piece of untouched timberland in hopes of finding a partner to help him finance the harvesting of millions of board feet of lumber.

Obviously, this story is written with the environmental consciousness (or lack thereof) of a century ago, which may seem a little off-putting now, but one can’t deny that lumber has been a big industry in Michigan’s history. The reader really learns a lot of fascinating detail about the cutting and transporting of logs and the hardships and dangers faced by the lumberjacks and woodsmen. Any worries that the narrative would get too bogged down in the business and financial details proved unfounded. It was really very interesting to learn more about the trade that some of my ancestors plied in the north woods of Wisconsin. White also manages to work in several fun and exciting adventure scenes, such as a breakneck race between two competitors to file a claim in the Detroit land office. Despite the tree-cutting subject matter, there’s also a fair bit of Thoreau-like appreciation of nature for its own sake, and the novel concludes with a good moral lesson.

Where the book falters is in its romantic subplot. The novel really takes a downward turn in Part IV: Thorpe’s Dream Girl with an overly saccharine, idealized love story. White is very good at writing the lives of men, but his women are rather two-dimensional and stereotypical. This romance, however, is almost an afterthought to the story, which concentrates more on Thorpe’s coming of age, his relations with his fellow men, and his contentious romance with nature itself. The Blazed Trail is a surprisingly exceptional read for this genre and demonstrates that White’s body of work deserves further investigation.

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Friday, November 8, 2019

Children of the World by Paul Heyse

If Balzac were a freethinker
Paul Heyse
by Adolph von Menzel
German author Paul Heyse won the 1910 Nobel Prize in Literature, but his authorial career stretches all the way back to about 1850. His novel Children of the World was first published in 1873 under the German title of Kinder der Welt. Heyse’s work, and this novel in particular, demonstrate a transition in German literature from the Romantic to the early modern. While modern philosophical and social ideas are discussed, stylistically the book harkens back to the earlier, more romantic storytelling of a writer like Balzac. The latter author, in fact, gets a shout out in Children of the World, as a few of the characters discuss the literary merits of his masterwork Père Goriot. Just as that novel depicts the lives of an ensemble cast of characters in a Parisian apartment building, Children of the World likewise focuses on the inhabitants of a Berlin lodging house and their acquaintances in the surrounding neighborhood.

Edwin, a philosopher and tutor, lives with his younger brother Balder, a semi-crippled young man who ekes out a meager living in woodworking. The pair dwell in a small flat above a shoemaker’s shop. With such poor-paying professions, the brothers live a Spartan lifestyle, but the joy they find in each other’s company alleviates the squalor of their surroundings. A few good friends frequent the brothers’ austere salon, armed with contrasting philosophical views that make for lively intellectual discourse. One night, the gift of a theatre ticket gives Edwin a reprieve from this comfortable but limited social circle. In the theatre he spies a beautiful young woman and experiences love at first sight, even though he knows the aristocratic beauty is out of his league.

A big difference between Balzac and Heyse is that the former was a Catholic while the latter was a freethinker. Roughly half the characters in Children of the World, most notably Edwin, are freethinkers—atheists, materialists, pantheists, and the like. The title Children of the World refers to these freethinkers, as opposed to the believers in religion, the Children of God. The main plot of the book does not revolve around Edwin’s atheism, however. The novel is primarily a love story. In fact, there are so many love triangles in this book they practically interlock into a star of David, and this was the era when unrequited love would cause physical illness and even death. The freethinking theme is woven throughout the narrative as a simple fact of the character’s lives. Edwin and his friends express their distaste at how religion is forced upon them at every celebration of birth, death, or marriage. When Edwin’s godless views become public knowledge, his career as a teacher is threatened. For the freethinking reader, it is refreshing to read a novel from this era that treats atheism and the prejudice against it as a matter of simple fact. One of the villains in the story is a religious hypocrite who simulates piety for his own gain. Heyse also tackles the class system by pointing out the shallowness and hypocrisy of the nobility in contrast to Edwin and friends’ more secularly righteous working-class lives.

Be warned before starting, this is a very long book. When first published in English in 1882, it was split into three volumes. Later editions crammed it all into about 600 tightly packed pages. Once the reader gets involved in these characters lives, however, it is a pleasure to watch the story unfold. The book’s main fault lies in one of Edwin’s love interests, who is portrayed too idealistically and is prone to annoying emotional histrionics. Though the book is quite modern in its philosophical ideas, its treatment of romance is still very much rooted in whatever was the German equivalent of the Victorian Era. Nevertheless, this is still a very worthwhile read for lovers of classic literature, particularly for those who share Edwin’s godless inclinations.
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Thursday, November 7, 2019

Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson

A fine introductory text to applied Stoic philosophy
In the past few decades, the ancient philosophy of Stoicism has seen a resurgence in appreciation as it has been rescued from the arcanity of academic philosophy textbooks and repackaged as a self-help program, which really was its original intention all along. British-Canadian psychotherapist Donald Robertson has distinguished himself as one of the current leading writers on Stoicism. His book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, published in 2013, is a volume in the Teach Yourself series published by Hodder & Stoughton. True to the self-educational mission of that series, this book is an instructional manual for readers with little or no knowledge of Stoic philosophy. In this well-organized text, Robertson defines and expands upon Stoic principles and guides the reader in their practical application to modern life.

Perhaps the most popular book in the recent Stoic renaissance (at least in the U.S.) has been William B. Irvine’s Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. While Irvine is a professor of philosophy, Robertson writes from the perspective of a psychotherapist. He repeatedly points out that ancient Stoic philosophy was the basis for modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and in this book you will often find excerpts from Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius alongside quotes from the twentieth-century founders of CBT. Robertson points out, rightfully so, that Irvine’s conception of modern Stoicism is not entirely faithful to the ancient writings of the Stoic philosophers. Robertson is more of a purist who prefers to stick to the wisdom of the ancients as closely as possible. Of the two writers, however, Irvine’s text is the more accessible and more likely to make inspired converts of philosophically challenged general readers. Robertson is more methodical and systematic in his approach, perhaps because of the textbook format required by the Teach Yourself series, which sometimes renders the subject a bit dry and lifeless. Overall, however, both books are great introductions to Stoicism, and a novice couldn’t really go wrong with either one.

Because of its textbook format, the contents are quite repetitive. After Robertson discusses concepts in the main chapter text, those same concepts are then repeated in sidebars, instructions for exercises, and a list of points to remember at the end of each chapter. This repetition supports the book’s function as an introductory text, but it can prove tedious for those who have already put some study into Stoicism. Even for those readers already familiar with Stoicism, however, the book can serve as a useful reference and refresher course. One annoying thing about the edition I purchased is that Robertson states on a few occasions that those reading the ebook will get an extra bonus chapter dealing with the subject of death. First of all, I’m reading the ebook, and that chapter is not included. Secondly, if I were reading the print edition, I would feel ripped off.

Despite that editorial fault, this really is one of the best non-academic books on Stoicism that I’ve encountered and one well worth reading for curious beginners or well-read enthusiasts. (By “non-academic” I mean not intended solely for grad students in philosophy.) The lessons are clear, and the psychological exercises are genuinely useful. Those wishing to apply Stoic principles to their daily life will find this book a worthy practical guide.
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