Monday, December 30, 2019

The Best of 2019

Top ten reads of the year
Old Books by Dead Guys posted a total of 118 reviews in 2019, about the same quantity as last year. In terms of quality, however, it was a better year for books, with a hearty yield of five-star reads and many others that fell just shy of that perfect rating. This year’s list is a diverse one that reflects many of the recurring areas of interest discussed at this blog, including Nobel-worthy world literature, American literary naturalism, ancient cultures, vintage sci-fi, and the history of books and libraries. The ten selections are arranged chronologically by date of publication. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.


The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic (1896)
This forgotten gem is an unsung masterpiece of Victorian-era American literary realism. A Methodist minister is posted to a backwater town in upstate New York, where he finds his faith challenged and his marriage threatened by a modern, sophisticated, liberated woman. Despite the religious subject matter, this novel never succumbs to easy contrasts between good and evil or right and wrong but remains engagingly unpredictable right up to its very conclusion. 

The Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin (1906) A farm boy from Wisconsin, Jeremiah Curtin (1835-1906) grew up to be an expert linguist, learning more than 60 languages. He worked as a diplomat in Russia, a translator of Russian and Polish literature, and an ethnographer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, then traveled all over the world collecting myths and folklore from Indigenous cultures. This autobiography, compiled posthumously by his widow, chronicles their fascinating travels around the world.

Fire and Ice (The Long Journey, Volume 1) by Johannes V. Jensen (1908-1922)
The Cimbrians (The Long Journey, Volume 2) by Johannes V. Jensen (1908-1922)
Christopher Columbus (The Long Journey, Volume 3) by Johannes V. Jensen (1908-1922)
The Long Journey trilogy from Danish author Johannes V. Jensen, winner of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Literature, comprises a Scandinavian-centric epic that chronicles the evolution of man from prehistoric Europe to modern civilization. This lesser-known masterpiece of world literature combines the mystic romanticism of a mythic saga with the brutally rational realism of Darwinian natural science. This is an impressive and fascinating work of fiction that deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

Jack London: Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone (1938)
Jack London was America’s greatest author of adventure literature, but his own life was every bit as adventurous as his fiction. Aimed at general readers, with no footnotes or bibliography, this informative and entertaining retelling of his rags-to-riches life is the best non-academic London biography for those who could care less about literary criticism and just want to learn about his amazing and tragic life, warts and all. 

And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov (1928-1940)
This monumental historical novel follows the Cossacks of the Don River region in southwestern Russia through the turbulent times of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War. Mikhail Sholokhov, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature, has crafted the perfect realist epic with this brutally stark and gritty, viscerally authentic, and emotionally powerful work.

Deliverance by James Dickey (1970)
Certainly one of the best American novels of the second half of the 20th century, Deliverance is the story of four friends who set out on one last canoe trip on a remote, soon-to-be-dammed river in northern Georgia. This gripping adventure novel combines a visceral experience of the beauty and deadliness of wilderness with an insightful examination of modern masculinity. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, this is a stunning read. 

The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, edited by Lawrence Buell (2006)
More than just a collection of essays by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, this book provides a comprehensive education on the Transcendentalists’ intellectual history, philosophical views, and agenda for social change, which included religious liberty, educational reform, feminism, and the abolition of slavery. Editor Lawrence Buell has amassed a diverse collection of authors and styles that provides a full understanding of the movement’s scope and influence.

Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno (2006)
This encyclopedic volume, arranged thematically, provides a historical overview of the Indigenous peoples of Central Mexico from prehistory to the present. It covers all aspects of the Aztec civilization including warfare, food, astronomy and mathematics, economy and trade, religion and philosophy, art, architecture, and literature. This excellent, comprehensive resource is loaded with interesting facts, helpful illustrations, and fascinating detail.

The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Twelve (2017)
This series from Open Road Media, reprinting Simak’s classic sci-fi short stories and novellas from the 1930s to the 1980s, has been consistently excellent throughout, but Volume Twelve may be the best book yet! It includes nine visionary tales of time travel, space exploration, and speculative futures, plus one pulp-fiction western. It’s too bad the publisher is dragging their feet on volumes thirteen and fourteen of this projected 14-volume series.

The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries by Massimo Listri (2018)
This mammoth large-format coffee table book will take up your entire coffee table with over 15 pounds of Listri’s beautiful photographs of 55 classic libraries in Europe and the Americas. The informative text concisely profiles each institution’s history, architectural significance, and important holdings. An excellent (but expensive) volume for lovers of old books by dead guys.

Also, check out these “omnibus” posts from the past year, which cover topics of frequent interest here at Old Books by Dead Guys:

Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates 2019 (10/10/19)

Literature of the “Soil”: Agrarian Epics from around the World (11/22/19)

See also my best-of lists for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. Old books by dead guys forever! Also, stay tuned for this blog’s 1,000th post, coming soon.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

The final indignity
Originally published in 1886, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a novella by Leo Tolstoy. The story opens on a group of judges having a behind-the-scenes meeting in a court of law. The conversation is interrupted when one among them announces that Ivan Ilyich, one of their colleagues, has died. Though all the men in the room knew and worked with Ivan Ilyich, they respond not so much with grief but rather by considering what such a development might mean to their own career prospects. The setting then switches to Ivan Ilyich’s funeral, where the members of his family, with few exceptions, experience a similarly unsympathetic response to his demise.

Up to this point the deceased is still very much a mystery man to the reader. Tolstoy then proceeds to relate the life of Ivan Ilyich, or at least the end of that life—how he became ill and the events leading up to his death. After exhausting various possible remedies for his ailment, all unsuccessful, the problem is deemed incurable, and Ilyich is condemned to constant pain and permanent confinement in bed. Just as troubling as the physical pain, however, is the mental despair of impending death. Ivan Ilyich’s wife primarily views his illness as an inconvenience to herself and brands him a difficult patient, which only serves to upset and anger him all the more.

The plot can basically be divided into two unequal parts. The first is Tolstoy’s brutally frank and unglamorized portrait of terminal illness as an indiscriminately painful, shameful, and imprisoning experience. The second is the philosophical questioning of what it’s all worth. Is death just the cessation of life, or is there a point to it? Is there any meaning to life at all? Ivan Ilyich feels he has led a “proper” life in accordance with social norms. He has established himself as a prominent member of his community and built a small fortune for his family. Why is he being punished with such a gruesome death? Under closer scrutiny, however, his life has been primarily one of career-driven self-interest, and he has largely avoided his own family. In achieving “success,” he has led a hollow and purposeless life. By the time he finally comes to a deathbed examination of his own bourgeois morality, however, it is too little too late. Oddly enough, the same could be said of Tolstoy’s narrative. The bulk of the book is taken up by the blunt reality of dying, while the deeper philosophical inquiry feels a bit too little too late, rushed at the end and too vague to forcefully get across the moral message that Tolstoy is trying to convey.

In the 1870s, Tolstoy underwent a religious conversion. He began living a more back-to-basics lifestyle of austere self-denial and asceticism in order to achieve a more profound spiritual purity. The Death of Ivan Ilyich reflects this epiphany with its nondenominational philosophical advocacy for reassessing one’s values and establishing a more virtuous moral code. This is hardly a manifesto, however, as Ivan Ilyich teaches the reader more about how not to live one’s life rather than how one should live it. Though the imagery is forthright in its bleak harshness, the moral message could have benefited from more stridence and less subtlety. Personally, I feel a similar lesson was presented more movingly through the life of Levin in Anna Karenina. Nevertheless, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a beautiful work of realist writing, and one that feels surprisingly modern for the late 19th century. It is definitely worth a read for its artistry and insight, but many readers may find it more depressing than inspirational.

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Friday, December 20, 2019

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The ultimate unrequited love story
When published in 1774, The Sorrows of Young Werther caused a literary sensation throughout Europe. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote the book, his first novel, at the age of 24, and it immediately catapulted him to stardom. This novel epitomizes the sturm und drang period in German literature that presaged Romanticism, the dominant literary movement of the 19th century. Though Goethe would later distance himself from Romanticism, in many ways this book was the flagship publication that launched the movement, much in the same way that Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) was the flagship publication of American literary naturalism. In hindsight, The Sorrows of Young Werther may not be one of the greatest books in Western literature, but it is likely one of the more important books for the profound influence it had on subsequent authors who either tried to emulate or repudiate it.

The book is an epistolary novel, meaning it is written in the form of letters, mostly from the young protagonist Werther to his friend Wilhelm. Werther has recently left his hometown and taken up residence near the village of Wahlheim. While attending a ball he meets Charlotte, a young woman who cares for her younger siblings since her mother has passed away. Werther falls in love with Charlotte, even though he knows she is betrothed to another man named Albert. Werther makes frequent visits to Charlotte’s home, becoming almost an honorary member of the family. He even develops a friendship with Albert. Charlotte is grateful for his platonic companionship, but when he makes open protestations of love towards her she becomes uncomfortable and asks him to visit less frequently. The situation becomes intolerable to Werther as he is gradually consumed by emotional agony over his unrequited love.

Later in the book some of Werther’s letters are addressed directly to Charlotte, and towards the end Goethe does depart from the epistolary format in favor of third-person narrative. With most of the prose penned in Werther’s own words, however, the novel amounts to an in-depth examination of this one character’s psychology, and a very perceptive and compelling one at that. Werther is a deep thinker who often expresses very profound thoughts on life, love, and nature. This makes the book a very thought-provoking read, but as Werther becomes more and more unhinged the story becomes more uncomfortable than insightful. In what should have been the book’s climactic moment, Goethe inserts an extended reading from the epic poems of Ossian. Proto-Romantics of Goethe’s era would have gladly eaten that up, but readers of today are likely to find it a disappointing narrative choice. The ending is inevitable but nonetheless moving.

As a protagonist, Werther definitely has some off-putting qualities that may not have even been intentional on Goethe’s part. A man who sacrifices himself for love certainly qualifies as a literary hero, at least from a Romantic perspective, but the behavior Werther exhibits in getting there is less than admirable. Readers of today are likely to see the novel as a penetrating study of mental illness, whereas readers of Goethe’s era, the emo hipsters of their day, may have viewed Werther’s sensitivity, petulance, and emotional histrionics as commendable expressions of a poetic soul and a steadfast heart. Even Goethe himself, who based the novel on one of his own youthful loves, had mixed emotions about the book as he got older. Though readers of the 21st century are unlikely to wholeheartedly sympathize with Werther’s plight the way those of the 18th did, there is still great literary value to this novel, and it delivers a more satisfying read than much of the later Romantic literature it inspired.

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Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin

The fascinating world travels of a master linguist
Jeremiah Curtin
If you recognize the name Jeremiah Curtin, chances are you are a reader of Polish or Russian literature. Curtin was the foremost English translator of Polish literature in the 19th century, most notably the works of Henryk Sienkiewicz, and he also translated a few Russian novels. Curtin’s life, however, was much more adventurous than that of a typical bookworm, as evidenced by this fascinating autobiography. Published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in 1940, The Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin covers the full extent of this remarkable man’s life, from his birth in 1835 to just a few months prior to his death in 1906.

Born in Detroit, Curtin was raised on a farm in Greendale, Wisconsin (now suburban Milwaukee). Rather than work the family farm, young Curtin decided to pursue a first-class education. In a very short time, he learned enough Greek and Latin to get into Harvard. From there, he began learning languages at an alarming rate. Over the course of the book, Curtin claims a facility in over 60 languages, including almost all the national languages of Europe, the major languages of Asia, and many off-the-beaten-path tongues such as Mingrelian, Abkhasian, Seneca, Wintu, Bengalese, Maya, Welsh, and Buriat. Even if Curtin only possessed a PhD-level mastery of three languages—English, Russian, and Polish—he seems to have studied the rest well enough to be able to read texts, translate stories, and/or converse with native speakers.

Curtin’s linguistic prowess led him to a multifaceted globetrotting career as a diplomat in Russia, a translator of literature, an ethnographer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and an independent scholar who traveled the world gathering the myths and folklore of Indigenous cultures. Among his acquaintances he lists Longfellow, Emerson, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Theodore Roosevelt, Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, and Tsar Alexander II of Russia. On multiple transoceanic voyages, Curtin traveled through dozens of nations, including Ireland, Guatemala, Egypt, Japan, and the Balkans. At times he describes lavish banquets where he is hailed as a visiting dignitary. In more austere settings, however, he is forced to sleep with livestock in squalid, flea-infested hovels.

This book offers a fascinating look at a period in time when a Harvard education, some letters of introduction, and unbridled arrogance could open just about any door. Curtin did not have an ounce of humility in his body, which actually makes his memoirs more enjoyable. His self-aggrandizing storytelling calls to mind the legendary yarn-spinner Baron Munchausen or the 1960s cartoon character Commander McBragg. Curtin no doubt exaggerates his accomplishments, and there was a shadier side to the man that is not revealed in these pages. Reading between the lines one can tell, for example, that Curtin is essentially stalking Sienkiewicz, upon whose back he made his living. Still, Curtin did travel the world, met many interesting people, and studied the language and history of multiple world cultures. You may not end up liking the guy, but this lively and fascinating travelogue contains nary a dull moment in its entire 900 page length.

The Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin were posthumously compiled by his widow Alma Cardell Curtin, who accompanied him on all his travels and served as his assistant and secretary. Some historians assert that these memoirs are based more on her own diaries than on his. Alma never published any writings under her own name, however, so Jeremiah is still the author of record. As she wished, this is ostensibly his autobiography, even if ghost-written. No doubt Mr. Curtin could not have accomplished all he did without the help of Mrs. Curtin, and she is to be commended for crafting such an engrossing narrative of his life.
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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Atlantic Narratives: Modern Short Stories, edited by Charles Swain Thomas

Rather tame and genteel for 1918
Margaret Prescott Montague
Atlantic Narratives: Modern Short Stories, published in 1918, is an anthology of fiction originally published in the pages of Atlantic Monthly magazine. Of the 23 authors selected by editor Charles Swain Thomas for this volume, the majority are women, which is a pleasant surprise for a collection published over a century ago. The only readily recognizable name in the contents, however, is Englishman John Galsworthy, winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The volume opens with a lengthy introduction by Thomas on the art form of the short story. This is best read last, however, because he spoils the plots of some of the stories included in the book. One could also skip it entirely because Thomas doesn’t say anything of much importance. What makes a good story, in his view? Characters, plot, setting, theme—hardly an earth-shattering manifesto of literary criticism. The best one might get from this essay is a long list of stories and authors that Thomas recommends.

When looking for common themes among the stories in this collection, two are immediately apparent: children and widows. Writers of this era loved to prove their literary ability by writing stories from the perspective of precocious children, and we have at least four examples here. I’m not sure why the adult readers of the Atlantic would want to read such tales, which usually devolve into hokey slapstick (Amy Wentworth Stone’s “Possessing Prudence”) or unrealistic nostalgic fantasies about what childhood should have been like (“Garden of Memories” by C. A. Mercer, “The Marble Child” by E. Nesbit). As for the widows, this collection includes no less than six stories with a widow protagonist and one with a widower, not to mention a few spinsters! Some wallow too much in chicken-soup-for-the-soul melodrama, but a few are actually quite good, particularly the ones set in World War I.

In fact, three of the four stories that deal with the First World War are among the best entries in the book. “Hepaticas” by Anne Douglas Sedgwick is a touching tale of loss on the home front, and “Little Brother” by Madeleine Z. Doty is a realistic wartime adventure story set in Belgium. The one that really sticks out like a refreshing sore thumb, however, is Margaret Prescott Montague’s “Of Water and the Spirit,” a brutally frank depiction of battlefields so littered with blood and gore it would make Hemingway blush. Other than the war stories, the most modern entries in the book feature businessmen, such as the Theodore Dreiser-esque “The Failure” by Charles Caldwell Dobie, the Frank Norris-esque “Business is Business” by Henry Seidel Canby, and the Sinclair Lewis-esque “Mr. Squem” by Arthur Russell Taylor.

The feeling one gets from these Atlantic Monthly selections is that literary taste in Boston was rather tame and genteel compared to the naturalist literature that was coming out of San Francisco and the Midwest at this time. Most of the authors contained herein seem content to emulate Nathaniel Hawthorne rather than break any “Modern” ground. In his introduction, Thomas admits that the editorial staff of the Atlantic purposely avoids “bleak” authors in the vein of Emile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, or Guy de Maupassant because “the mission of the magazine has in general been in the sunlit fields or near the hearthfire’s glow.” With the exception of a few selections discussed above, this book delivers an assortment of pleasant stories that somewhat prudishly harken back to literature of the Victorian era. Even with that in mind, this is a good collection but by no means a great one.

Stories in this collection

Introduction by Charles Swain Thomas

The Preliminaries by Cornelia A. P. Comer 

Buttercup Night by John Galsworthy

Hepaticas by Anne Douglas Sedgwick 

Possessing Prudence by Amy Wentworth Stone 

The Glory-Box by Elizabeth Ashe 

The Spirit of the Herd by Dallas Lore Sharp 

In the Pasha’s Garden by H. G. Dwight 

Little Selves by Mary Lerner 

The Failure by Charles Caldwell Dobie 

Business is Business by Henry Seidel Canby 

Nothing by Zephine Humphrey 

A Moth of Peace by Katharine Fullerton Gerould 

In No Strange Land by Katharine Butler 

Little Brother by Madeleine Z. Doty 

What Road Goeth He? by F. J. Louriet 

The Clearer Sight by Ernest Starr 

The Garden of Memories by C. A. Mercer

The Clearest Voice by Margaret Sherwood 

The Marble Child by E. Nesbit

The One Left by E. V. Lucas 

The Legacy of Richard Hughes by Margaret Lynn

Of Water and the Spirit by Margaret Prescott Montague 

Mr. Squem by Arthur Russell Taylor

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Monday, December 9, 2019

The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries by Massimo Listri

Cathedrals to knowledge and the treasures they contain
If you are a lover of historic libraries, it would be hard to find a more satisfying tribute to these venerable institutions than The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries, published by Taschen in 2018. This mammoth tome measures in at a whopping 11.5” x 15.5” page size (the dimensions listed on Amazon do not appear to be quite right, unless there’s an even bigger edition than the one I read), and weighs in at more than fifteen pounds. The book is packed with huge full-page photos by Massimo Listri, an accomplished architectural photographer, whose images are beautifully reproduced on top quality paper. The lavish production is impressive, but of course you pay for it with the steep cover price.

Before praising this volume, one must first point out its limitations. As is typical of books with similar titles, the “World” means mostly Europe. The contents include photos and text on 50 libraries in Europe, two in North America (The Morgan Library in New York and the Biblioteca Palafoxiana in Mexico), and three in South America (one in Brazil and two in Peru). Even the European selections only extend as far east as Sweden, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Also typical of the “beautiful library” genre of coffee table books, this volume does not include any modern architecture. It is heavy on the Renaissance and Baroque styles, with only a few libraries built in the late nineteenth century and one (The Morgan) in the early twentieth. Amidst all the ornate museum-quality Baroque and Rococo decoration, a few interesting buildings feature more austere monastic architecture and have clearly suffered from the clutter and weathering of age.

The photography in this book is equally focused on the architecture of these libraries and the treasures they hold. Some of the libraries are only represented by two of Listri’s photographs, while others merit as many as ten. The profile for each library features pages from their most prized volumes (not taken by Listri but provided by the institutions themselves) such as centuries-old illustrations from illuminated manuscripts, engraved frontispieces, and rare maps. One great thing about this large-format volume is that Listri’s photos are so large and of such high resolution that you can actually read the spines of the books on the shelves, which really heightens the feeling of being there. (One of the photos is unfortunately printed in reverse, right to left.) One library in Germany no longer contains any books at all, just painted faux spines where the books used to be. The text by art historian Elisabeth Sladek provides an informative and concise summation of each library’s history, architectural significance, and most important holdings. The book also features an introductory essay on the general history of libraries by Georg Ruppelt, a former director of two of the libraries featured. The book is trilingual, with text printed in English, French, and German.

This volume is worth its cover price for enthusiasts who can afford to pay it, but for the rest of us, another beautiful thing about libraries is that you can read books for free, including this one. Knowing Taschen, they will probably eventually come out with a smaller, cheaper edition at a later date, but it won’t compare to the luxurious experience of this large-format edition. In the meantime, a reasonably priced substitute is The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World by Jacques Bosser and Guillaume de Laubier, but this Taschen volume surpasses it in every way.

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Friday, December 6, 2019

Knulp by Hermann Hesse

The freedom of a vagabond life, but at what cost?
Knulp is a novel by German author Hermann Hesse, winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature. It is a short book, about 120 pages in paperback, that can easily be read in a couple hours. The title character is a vagabond who tramps through the German countryside, depending on the kindness of others for a meal and occasional bed or working at odd jobs as a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Through his travels he has made many friends, and in just about every town he visits he can count on running into past acquaintances who are happy to see him. It is also suggested that this attractive youth has no trouble with the ladies and has had his fair share of brief love affairs. All enjoy the company of Knulp, for through him they receive a breath of fresh, liberated air that allows them to vicariously live their own fantasies of wanderlust through him. As his youth slips away, however, Knulp becomes worn down by the hardships of life on the road and begins to regret the choices he’s made in life. He wonders if his many and varied adventures merely add up to a wasted life.

Anyone who has ever read Hesse’s 1930 novel Narcissus and Goldmund will immediately recognize Knulp as a prototype for Goldmund. Both lead the vagabond’s life, living for the moment, taking love where they find it, and pleasing others with their good looks and warm demeanor. Knulp, however, doesn’t carry all the religious baggage that Goldmund totes around, and Knulp’s sexual adventures are only hinted at while Goldmund’s are explicitly depicted as quasi-spiritual experiences. Of the two, Knulp is the more realistic, and the one with which it is easier for the reader to identify. One can’t help but envy Knulp’s lack of restrictions and responsibilities, but Hesse charts the character’s course with an even hand, examining the drawbacks and disappointments of the wanderer’s life as well as its benefits and joys.

One can look at Hesse’s career as being split into two phases, beginning with his “traditional” period, in which he wrote what nowadays seem relatively conventional novels built upon the tradition of German Romanticism. This is followed by his “modern” period, beginning with his novel Demian. In his more modern works, Hesse breaks away from tradition to forge his own style and incorporate themes of Eastern religion and psychoanalysis into his writings. Knulp was the last novel Hesse published before Demian, so it can be seen as the end of his “traditional” period, but the book definitely shows signs of modernism as well, both in its unconventional format—a triptych of stories from different narrators—and in its questioning of modern life. Knulp reads as if Hesse were influenced by the novels of Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, who often featured vagabond protagonists, as in his “Wanderer Trilogy” of Under the Autumn Star, A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, and Look Back on Happiness. Hamsun is more of a brutally frank modernist, however, while Hesse does a better job of capturing the romantic appeal of wanderlust, solitude, and communion with the natural landscape, as evidenced in books like Peter Camenzind, Beneath the Wheel, Siddhartha, and the aforementioned Narcissus and Goldmund.

Having read Hesse’s later novels a long time ago, I have only recently begun to plumb the depths of his early back catalog. Though modernist works like Steppenwolf and The Glass Bead Game get all the attention nowadays, I am continually surprised by the emotive power and keen psychological sensitivity of Hesse’s early novels. In a previous review I called his 1910 novel Gertrude “perhaps the best of early Hesse,” but I spoke to soon because Knulp surpasses it.

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Monday, December 2, 2019

Other Gods by Pearl S. Buck

I married a celebrity
Pearl S. Buck’s 1940 novel Other Gods may spend some time in China and Tibet, but it is not one of the historical novels of Asia for which she is famous. Though Buck references the Dalai Lama in the book’s one-page preface, this is strictly a novel about American (and a few British) characters. The story opens in the Himalaya, as an expedition is attempting the first ascent of a mountain named Therat. Bert Holm, a farm boy from New York state, signed on to the mountaineering crew as a mechanic, but through a series of unusual circumstances he ends up being the only member of the expedition to reach the summit. When word of this feat reaches America, Bert becomes an instant celebrity superstar, on the order of magnitude of a Charles Lindbergh.

By the time Bert makes it from Tibet to Peking, his fame has preceded him. With his handsome good looks and all-American-boy charm, he is considered a very eligible bachelor despite his humble beginnings. At one of the many banquets held in his honor, Bert meets Kit Tallant, the daughter of a wealthy American banker doing business in China. After a whirlwind courtship, the couple marry before returning to America.

Buck frequently refers to Bert and other celebrities of his ilk as “gods,” a metaphor that feels like a stretch. The novel is primarily told from Kit’s point of view as she deals with the difficulties of being married to a major celebrity. The pair are constantly in the public eye, hounded by the press, and must employ a publicist to manage their public image. Bert has some skeletons in his closet, and Kit must deal with her feelings about his past while the publicist frets over how such revelations will be received by Bert’s adoring fans. In addition to the annoyances of Bert’s fame, Kit must deal with the fact that she married a man whom she barely knows. The drama of Bert and Kit’s marital woes gets overly melodramatic at times and is far less gripping than the mountaineering scenes. Nevertheless, this is first and foremost a book about marriage, and as usual Buck displays a talent for sensitively depicting the psychology of human relationships.

Buck was not only a Nobel-caliber author but also a world-class humanitarian who spent her life fighting racism and spearheading several worthy charitable causes. It’s surprising, therefore, that the worst thing about Other Gods is its blatant classism. Every working-class character in the book—Bert, his parents, his hometown friends—are depicted as ignorant and uncouth, even so far as to border on redneck caricature. While the educated and gentile Kit finds solace in poetry, the less refined Bert naturally turns to the bottle for his kicks. He is often referred to as an overgrown child and constantly contrasted unfavorably with Kit’s ex-fiancé Norman, a playwright. When Kit despises Bert’s parents for being simple farm folk, Buck as third-person narrator does little to stand up for them but rather gives the impression that she agrees with Kit’s assessment.

I’ve read over a dozen books by Buck, and this one is middle-of-the road in terms of quality. Though chronologically this is sandwiched between classics like the Good Earth trilogy and Dragon Seed, Other Gods reads more like one of Buck’s later and lesser books written under the pseudonym of John Sedges. It does have its moments, but only Buck’s most diehard fans need venture off the beaten path for this one.

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