Friday, January 31, 2020

The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem

Heavily medicated humor
Polish author Stanislaw Lem is one of the most widely read and widely translated science fiction writers in the world. Best known as the author of Solaris, he enjoyed a productive and successful literary career spanning roughly half a century. His novel The Futurological Congress, published in 1971, is narrated by the scholar and space explorer Ijon Tichy, a recurring character in several of Lem’s works. Unlike Solaris, the Ijon Tichy stories are mostly satirically comic tales, as evidenced by The Futurological Congress, in which nearly every sentence drips with delightful black humor. The story Tichy tells is not only laugh-out-loud funny but also an oddly thought-provoking piece of speculative science fiction.

The subject of space travel is only mentioned in the first paragraph, as Tichy returns to Earth from who knows where in order to attend the Eighth World Futurological Congress in the fictional city of Nounas, the capital of Costa Rica. Scholars of many nations check into the Hilton to attend the delivery of countless papers theorizing upon the future of life on Earth. The conference takes place at an unspecified time in the near future. Thanks primarily to overpopulation, Earth’s problems—violence, crime, pollution, disease, energy shortages, hunger, etc.—have all escalated to horrific proportions. Tichy and his colleagues, however, seem to take each new misery as merely another everyday matter of course. Lem lampoons the stuffy, academic atmosphere of scholarly conferences while satirizing the lofty, futuristic utopian visions of the sci-fi genre. Tichy’s Earth is a third-world world where mayhem, filth, and bad taste are comically rampant.

The fact that armed rebels have threatened to disrupt the conference is viewed blasély by Tichy and his colleagues as an expected inconvenience. Only when the government bombs the hotel is the monotonous delivery of arcane scientific papers interrupted. Tichy suspects that the tap water in his hotel has been spiked with a chemical designed to inflict a more cheerful and benevolent demeanor upon him. When soldiers start hurling smoke bombs into the Hilton, Tichy discovers it’s not tear gas they’re slinging but more of these mood-changing “benignimizer” drugs. The myriad consciousness-altering possibilities of such “psychem” drugs soon becomes the primary focus of the book. Lem depicts a world where every mood, thought, and vision can be conjured through pharmaceutical means. The exaggerated absurdities compound when Tichy gets a glimpse into a future that the Eighth World Futurological Congress would never have predicted.

Translator Michael Handel deserves a medal for his work on the English edition of 1974. Much of the novel’s humor arises from Lem’s use of puns and invented words, including the names of dozens of fictional drugs such as opinionates, rhapsodines, or amnesol. This book must have been a nightmare to translate, but Handel’s English version reads beautifully with clear, lively prose that smartly delivers the laughs that Lem intended. Because of all the drugs involved, it is often quite difficult to figure out whether what you are reading is Tichy’s reality or simply a hallucination. While this in itself is one of the book’s funnier aspects, sometimes the jumping back and forth between the two can get a little tiresome. Lem relentlessly satirizes the conventions of science fiction by negating the gravity of his own narrative. Nevertheless, the future that Lem has constructed functions well as both a cautionary dystopia and a ridiculous farce. I enjoyed this book very much and look forward to reading the further adventures of Ijon Tichy.
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Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Celebrity by Winston Churchill

Much ado about nothing
Long before Winston Churchill (1874-1965) became famous as the prime minister of the United Kingdom, another Winston Churchill (1871-1947) had already achieved fame and fortune in America as a successful author of fiction. From the late 1890s to the end of World War I, the American Churchill wrote a string of bestsellers, several of which were also adapted into Broadway plays and films. That streak began in 1897 with The Celebrity, his first novel to be published in book form.

The title character of this comedic novel is a pretentious author whose novels are popular but of questionable literary merit. The book is narrated by John Crocker, an attorney and old friend of the Celebrity. Crocker and the other characters refer to the novelist only as the Celebrity; his real name is never mentioned. This gimmick might be amusing the first three times you’ve read it, but it soon grows tiresome and awkward. Luckily, the Celebrity adopts an alias for most of the book, which provides relief from this contrivance and makes the narration and dialogue less cumbersome.

The story takes place in the Great Lakes region of the Midwest, where Crocker works in an unnamed city. Crocker spends his summers at a fictional lakeside resort named Asquith. There he is surprised to run into his old friend the Celebrity, who has likewise decided to vacation at Asquith. To lessen the burden of his fame, the Celebrity has decided to travel incognito. He calls himself Charles Wrexell Allen, a name he has stolen from a man in Boston who looks enough like the Celebrity to be his doppelganger. Another new arrival in Asquith is Farquhar Fenelon Cooke, a wealthy man from Philadelphia who is buying up timber lands in the area. Cooke is kind of like Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack. He’s too loud and unrefined and parties too hard for stuffy old Asquith, so he decides to build his own resort nearby, named Mohair. Meanwhile, of course, there are two attractive young women in Asquith for Crocker and the Celebrity to court, but who will end up with whom remains uncertain until the end of the book.

Not at all surprisingly, the Celebrity’s assumed name leads to a case of mistaken identity, and his extrication from this sticky situation occupies the bulk of the book. It also leads to a lot of tedious and unproductive bickering among the members of the cast. Though the 1890s were too early for photo identification, it is very hard to believe that the Celebrity would not have some documentary evidence of his identity, or that the problem could not have been resolved by some much simpler means than the farce Churchill creates from this ridiculous premise. Suspension of disbelief is fine if the farce is funny, but this story is just tiresome. Your great-grandfather might have found this novel hilarious, but today’s readers are likely to find it mildly amusing at best.

Churchill also pokes fun at the restrictive conventions of being a “gentleman,” like the one that requires a gentleman to marry any woman to whom he shows even the slightest nonphysical affection. Churchill doesn’t really have the guts to subvert such ideas, however, so any satire contained herein is very weak and tepid. Though he may make fun of stuffy social mores, he buys into them all the same. Following The Celebrity, Churchill achieved greater success with serious historical novels, so maybe comedy just isn’t his strong suit.
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Monday, January 27, 2020

Views of Nature by Alexander von Humboldt

The man who knew everything
Views of Nature, also known as Aspects of Nature, was originally published in 1808 under the German title of Ansichten der Natur. The author, Prussian explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt, revised the work for second and third editions during his lifetime. I am reviewing an English translation of the third edition of 1849, published in 2014 by the University of Chicago Press, translated by Mark W. Person and edited by Stephen T. Jackson and Laura Dassow Walls.

Two and a half centuries ago, Humboldt may have been the most famous man on earth. He is best known for a daring and scientifically productive expedition he led into South America, Cuba, and Mexico, which he chronicled in detail in his book Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the Years 1799–1804. Views of Nature also uses that exhibition as a starting point but takes a different approach. Though the book is heavy on scientific content, Views of Nature is really the prototype for what we now call “nature writing,” as later practiced by writers like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. When Humboldt writes about the tropics in this book, his intention is to convey to the reader what it really feels like to be in these exotic natural locales. As a romanticist, he is more concerned with capturing the general impression of the natural environment than the details of temperature readings, altitude measurements, and specific species present. As an obsessive empiricist, however, Humboldt can’t resist including all these minute details. What results is a sort of hybrid format with the primary, somewhat literary narrative supported by extensive scientific endnotes that often exceed the length of the main text itself. Chapter 5: Ideas for a Physiognomy of Plants, for example, is under 15 pages in length but has 72 pages of notes!

In addition to his South American adventures, Humboldt traveled extensively in Europe and also made a voyage across Russia. In addition, he studied the accounts of numerous explorers in other parts of the world. When he describes natural environments in Views of Nature, he constantly compares the scene at hand with other biomes throughout the world. Chapter 1: Concerning the Steppes and Deserts, for example, is a survey of all the world’s flatlands, from the Sahara desert to the Arctic tundra, pointing out universal similarities in climate, terrain, and vegetation while also celebrating the differences that make each habitat unique. Humboldt was the ultimate multidisciplinary generalist who eschewed specialization in favor of unifying multiple fields of study. He writes with expert authority on a shocking number of disciplines: geography, botany, geology, zoology, meteorology, mineralogy, astronomy, electricity and magnetism, anthropology, archaeology, history, linguistics, politics, and ecology, a field he practically invented.

Those who have read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species know the feeling of amazement at how Darwin seems to have read and studied every biological text ever published. That amazement is dwarfed by the staggering realization of Humboldt’s extensive polymathic erudition in all the fields listed above. He not only refers to hundreds of scientific and historical works in his notes but even cites specific page numbers. The same herculean stamina he displayed in his journeys is manifested in his research, writing, and editing. Views of Nature contains an atlas worth of obscure place names, countless Latin designations of plant and animal species, and several archaic units of measurement. I can’t claim to have understood it all, but I enjoyed it immensely. Half the time I felt like I was at Humboldt’s side in the jungles of the Amazon basin; the other half I imagined I was sitting across from the great scholar in his library as he regaled me with his seemingly unlimited knowledge of the world. Views of Nature is truly a wonderful trip inside the mind of this great genius adventurer.

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Friday, January 24, 2020

The Dune Encyclopedia, compiled by Dr. Willis E. McNelly

Obsessive authorized fan fiction
The Dune Encyclopedia was published in 1984, following the publication of God Emperor of Dune, the fourth novel in Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Herbert did not write the Encyclopedia, but he did give the project his blessing. He stopped short of recognizing the Encyclopedia as canon, however, and subsequent Dune novels do not intentionally adhere to the book’s contents.

The Encyclopedia was compiled by Dr. Willis E. McNelly, a close friend of Herbert’s. The entries, however, are the work of 43 different authors, McNelly included. Thus the book is like a glorified compendium of fan fiction, but as if all the fans held PhDs. The entries on the Fremen and Galach languages, for example, were obviously written by a linguist. The sections on imperial law are likely to have been penned by a legal scholar, and there must have been at least a few religious studies professors on hand to elaborate on the Orange Catholic Bible. The Dune Encyclopedia purports to have been written by historians and archaeologists in the year 15540 AG (after Guild), following the discovery of a huge hoard of diaries and documents hidden by Emperor Leto II roughly 2,000 years earlier. The text reads like a collection of essays from an academic journal, complete with citations to an entire library full of imaginary books. For the most part the Encyclopedia evokes the lofty intellectualism that one associates with Herbert’s novels. This is by no means light reading. It sometimes gets bogged down in ponderous prose, but its ingenuity and clever tie-ins to the official narrative make it a fun read for avid Dune fans.

The first three Dune novels are set roughly 25,000 years in the future, and the events of God Emperor of Dune take place about 3,500 years after that. That is a lot of history to uncover, and the authors of the Encyclopedia leave few stones unturned. Extensive biographies flesh out the lives of the characters before, after, and in between the events of Herbert’s novels. Readers learn about the invention of faster-than-light space travel, the causes of the Butlerian Jihad, and the formation of the Empire. The origins of the Spacing Guild, the Bene Gesserit, the Bene Tleilax, the Sardaukar, and the CHOAM corporation are all explored in depth, as well as the Zensunni migrations that brought the Fremen from Earth to Arrakis. The richness of Herbert’s invented universe is unparalleled in fiction, and this is a fitting celebration of his visionary creativity.

Unfortunately, not every entry is a winner. Some of the writers seem to have watched a few too many Joseph Campbell specials on PBS before crafting their new agey mythologies. The entry for Gamont, a planet devoted to the sex trade, is a silly slapstick story that sticks out like a sore thumb amid all the faux scholarly seriousness. Many of the entries are just way longer than they need to be, wallowing in detail that supports the feigned authenticity but challenges attention spans. Through all the character biographies, you sometimes feel like you are reading Herbert’s narrative over and over again, just told from different perspectives. Still, for all its faults, this is a remarkably thorough and imaginative sci-fi companion volume, and Dune fans have to admire the daring ambitiousness of McNelly and his coterie of writers.

The Dune Encyclopedia has long been out of print because the Herbert heirs refuse to rerelease it, but someone has posted a “bootleg” pdf copy online for those willing to search for it. This pdf was made by scanning the original book, and the resulting text is riddled with typographical errors. Considering this is probably the only way most readers will ever be able to access the book, however, it is an acceptable substitute.
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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Smoky God, or A Voyage to the Inner World by Willis George Emerson

Half-baked hollow-Earth adventure
The Smoky God, or A Voyage to the Inner World, published in 1908, is a science fiction novel by American author Willis George Emerson. The book opens with an extensive preface that details how the author was contacted by 95-year-old Olaf Jansen, a Norseman (half Norwegian, half Swedish) who is dying in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Before he passes, he has a story he wants to get off his chest, one so astonishing that for decades he has been afraid to tell it for fear of being thrown into an insane asylum. He then proceeds to relate how as a teenager he accompanied his father, a fisherman, on an extended fishing voyage northward into the Arctic Ocean. At a certain point both men are surprised to find that the climate is becoming milder and warmer despite their far northern latitude. The father tells Olaf that he has heard legends of a paradise at the top of the world. Olaf enthusiastically proposes that they search for this mysterious land, and so the two Norsemen, worshippers of Odin and Thor, set off to find the lost polar Eden.

The Smoky God is one of many sci-fi novels in the Hollow Earth subgenre, which includes such works as Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Mary E. Bradley Lane’s Mizora (1881), and the Pellucidar series (1914-1963) by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Hollow Earth theory proposes that the crust of the Earth is like an eggshell with land, water, and life on both its inner and outer surfaces. At the North Pole, Olaf and his father find a portal into this Inner Earth where they discover a veritable Garden of Eden with a utopian civilization much more advanced than the surface world, inhabited by beings who, in godly fashion, are superior to us surface dwellers in every way. Serving as the sun in this subterranean world is a molten, luminous core that is in some way surrounded by nebulous electrical clouds that simulate night and day. The inhabitants of the Inner World worship this central sun as their “Smoky God.”

For centuries many intelligent people considered the Hollow Earth theory a viable hypothesis, but by the early twentieth century it was mostly relegated to the realm of pseudoscience. Unlike Verne and Burroughs who use the Hollow Earth device merely as an entertaining launching point for farfetched fiction, Emerson actually seems to believe the theory. He proposes that the North and South Poles are the entry points to this inner realm, and he supports his speculations with footnotes referring to the accounts of actual polar explorers such as Charles Francis Hall, Fridtjof Nansen, and Robert Peary. Emerson also quotes from the Bible to support his Garden of Eden theories, which are largely derived from William Fairfield Warren’s 1885 nonfiction book Paradise Found: The Cradle of the Human Race at the North Pole.

I enjoyed the deathbed memoir format of the work, with Olaf Jansen as narrator, and even the footnotes add to the fun. The problem is, Olaf and his dad barely spend any time in the Inner World (two years for them, but only a chapter and a half for the reader), so Emerson really doesn’t have a whole lot to say about what’s going on in there. Most of the book focuses on the getting there and the getting back, which is mostly just about a ship navigating through icebergs. Fans of early science fiction might enjoy the campiness of this work, but it never really lives up to its ambitious premise. Whereas Verne or H. G. Wells could have developed the idea into a full-fledged narrative with engaging characters, Emerson’s story never really takes off.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Miss Lulu Bett by Zona Gale

Surprisingly compelling Midwestern realism
Zona Gale was born in Portage, Wisconsin. After several years writing for newspapers in Milwaukee and New York, she returned to her hometown to embark on a literary career. Drawing from the life she lived, Gale penned realist novels and stories depicting small-town Midwestern life. Her bestselling novel, Miss Lulu Bett, was published in 1920. Later that same year Gale adapted the work into a play, for which she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1921. A silent film adaptation soon followed. I am reviewing the novel, not the play.

Miss Lulu Bett, aged 34 and unmarried, lives in the household of her sister Ina, who is married to Dwight Herbert Deacon, a dentist and justice of the peace in the town of Warbleton. The Deacons have two daughters, and Ina and Lulu’s mother, Mrs. Bett, also lives with the family. Since Lulu has no source of income, she lives rent-free under the good graces of Dwight, who never lets her forget it. Dwight and Ina essentially treat Lulu like an unpaid servant. She cooks and cleans for her room and board, receives no allowance, and rarely ever even leaves the house. When word arrives that Dwight’s brother Ninian will be visiting from Oregon, Dwight facetiously teases Lulu that Ninian might just might want to snatch Lulu up for his wife. While such insinuations at first make Lulu embarrassed and uncomfortable, she can’t help but entertain any fantasy that might release her from her compulsory dependence on Dwight.

This novel is essentially a study of a small-town spinster’s life and a critique of the social order that denies her independence and dignity. As a work of Midwestern realism, Gale’s novel might immediately draw comparisons to Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, but the tone is far different. This is no lighthearted comedy or satire; some of the scenes get downright uncomfortable. Rather than making fun of small-town life and simple middle-class folk, Gale sympathizes with her characters and reveals the extraordinary drama in ordinary lives. Her writing is more akin to the realism of Theodore Dreiser in novels like Sister Carrie or Jenny Gerhardt. Unlike Dreiser, however, who writes about the social conditions of womanhood as a keen observer, Gale has lived the life of a small-town Midwestern woman. She knows firsthand the restrictive mores under which her feminine protagonist lives. Gale didn’t get married until she was 54, eight years after the publication of Miss Lulu Bett, so she has an intimate knowledge of the title character’s feelings and concerns. The frustration that Gale expresses in this novel over the lack of freedom and opportunity for women has an urgency and poignancy that goes beyond well-intentioned empathy. Though Lulu Bett may be meek and mild, one senses the rebel in Zona Gale.

As an enthusiast of American literary realism, this work was a very pleasant surprise for me. The settings, characters, and relationships all bear a feeling of frank authenticity, and its discussion of women’s issues stands as a relevant historical document of its time. The dialogue is thoughtful and clever, and the plot moves in unexpected directions for most of its length. The novel’s one flaw is its ending, which is just too easy. Instead of a depressing slice of reality or a stirring declaration of independence, the plot is capped off with a rather formulaic resolution. (The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, from what Wikipedia tells me, had a different ending that seems an improvement.) In Gale’s hands, however, even a contrived plot element is handled sensitively and feels emotionally genuine. Though Miss Lulu Bett achieved financial success in print, on stage, and on screen, it doesn’t pander to the crowd and was likely challenging for audiences of its day. Times have thankfully changed since then, but a century later this is still a compelling read.

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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Mogens and Other Stories by Jens Peter Jacobsen

Danish modernist pioneer
Jens Peter Jacobsen
Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-1885) was an important writer in Scandinavian literature’s transition from romanticism to modernism. Jacobsen was a scientist by trade, and he died at a rather young age, so his career in literature was brief. His entire literary output consists of two novels—Marie Grubbe (1876) and Niels Lyhne (1880)—one volume of poetry, and a handful of short stories. Four of these stories are collected in the English-language volume Mogens and Other Stories, translated by Anna Grabow and published in 1921.

Jacobsen’s scientific and atheistic mindset is evident in his literary works, which tend toward naturalism, a school of early modern realism influenced by recent developments in science, particularly Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Jacobsen’s specific discipline was botany, and plant imagery is often prominent in his writings, particularly in the story “Mogens,” in which the blooming and withering of vegetation charts the change of seasons and the passage of time in human relationships. In this story, a councillor and his daughter Camilla venture into the country on a leisure trip. There they meet a young local named Mogens, with whom Camilla eventually falls in love. References to Cape Trafalgar would seem to situate the story in Spain, though Mogens is clearly a Danish name. What starts out as an idyllic romance turns into a more profound meditation on love, loss, and redemption. Mogens, like Jacobsen, is also an atheist whose faith lies in nature rather than in deity. “Mogens” is the longest selection in this volume, taking up half the book’s length, and it is also the collection’s best story.

On to something completely different, “The Plague in Bergamo” seems to be set in medieval times or perhaps some unspecified dystopian future. When a plague strikes an isolated town, the inhabitants go into a rapid moral decline, making their city the new Sodom or Gomorrah. A procession of devout religious penitents marches in to hold a service begging God for mercy. The message preached, however, does not follow the typical church doctrine. Instead, it reflects Jacobsen’s antithetical views on religion. This makes for an odd story, powerful yet confusing. Another unusual entry is “There Should Have Been Roses.” Stylistically this is a very modern piece, with a feel reminiscent of Katherine Anne Porter. The story has no real plot. It is more like a description of a stage set—an old manor house, a decaying wall covered in foliage (again with the plant motif)—where a scene might take place. The imagery is rather romantic, but expressed in avant-garde prose.

The final selection, “Mrs. Fonss,” returns to the more realistic style of “Mogens.” A Danish widow is traveling with her two children in Avignon, France. There she meets an old boyfriend from her youth, and they decide to get married. The drama springs from the teenaged children’s reaction to this decision. Jacobsen’s take on the situation is by no means sappy or clichéd. This is a fine work of naturalist writing, but the behavior of some of the characters seems too extreme to be realistic.

Overall, this is an impressive offering by Jacobsen, though not quite as good as his novel Niels Lyhne. One wishes he would have lived longer to produce more fine literature. The English translation is a bit clunky at times, making for uncomfortable reading. In the hands of a better English-language prose stylist, this book would likely merit a higher rating.

Stories in this collection

The Plague in Bergamo 
There Should Have Been Roses 
Mrs. Fonss

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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Mantle and Other Stories by Nikolai Gogol

Russian satire and Ukrainian folklore
Nikolai Gogol
The Mantle and Other Stories is an English-language collection of short fiction by Russian author Nikolai Gogol. The date of publication for this volume is unclear, but the five stories in the collection were originally published in Russia from 1831 to 1842. The title selection “The Mantle” is perhaps better known as “The Overcoat.” In addition to Gogol’s writing, this volume also includes a preface by French author Prosper Mérimée, a distinguished crafter of short stories himself. The funny thing about this preface is that Mérimée delivers a quite unflattering critique of Gogol’s writing. In fact, throughout the entire essay he goes on and on about all the things he doesn’t like about Gogol’s stories: Gogol takes satire to far, to the point where it becomes farce. Gogol’s characters depart from reality to become mere caricatures. Gogol’s humor is too broad; his criticism too general and too severe. Gogol’s short stories have a “vagueness” that makes them feel like “experiments” rather than mature works. This preface by Mérimée was likely reproduced from a previous publication, and it is a very odd choice on the part of the editor to include it in this volume. Nevertheless, after reading this collection, I mostly agree with Mérimée.

For roughly the first half of his career, Gogol wrote stories set in his native Ukraine. His writings of the latter half of his career are mostly set in St. Petersburg. This collection reverses the chronology and presents the St. Petersburg stories first. “The Mantle” is about a meek government clerk who is the butt of jokes at his office. Given his limited means, he gets upset when he discovers that he needs to buy a new overcoat, but once he purchases the garment he becomes rather obsessed with it. This satire of government bureaucracy has a tendency toward broad humor and feels like a 19th century Russian counterpart to the film Office Space. The comedy is even more outlandish in “The Nose,” which begins with a barber finding a nose in a loaf of bread. Its bizarre premise in a way calls to mind strange works by Franz Kafka like The Metamorphosis, but without the existentialism, “The Nose” is too absurd to even function as satire and just comes across as silly. “Memoirs of a Madman” (a.k.a. “Diary of a Madman”) is another bureaucratic satire featuring a low-level government functionary. Given the title, one wishes this might have been a realistic look at mental illness, but instead, once this madman goes off the deep end his narrative devolves into pure farce, good for a few chuckles and not much else.

The Ukrainian stories are more satisfying because they at least make an attempt at regional realism. In “May Night,” which takes place in a Cossack village, a young man swoons with love for his sweetheart until he finds out his father is also trying to woo her. Gogol still makes fun of his subjects—provincial small-town folk—but the story is relatively engaging. It includes some slapstick scenes and some supernatural elements drawn from folk tales. “The Viy” is also based on folklore, the title being the name of a supernatural being. Three seminary students from Kiev ramble into a remote village in Cossack country, where one has an encounter with a witch. This horror story is the most successful entry in this collection, probably because it takes its subject more seriously than the others.

Gogol is one of Russia’s most highly regarded writers, but personally this collection just didn’t appeal to me. Though he was considered a pioneering realist, in most of these selections any realism is undermined by sheer absurdity. Humor doesn’t always translate well between cultures and over centuries, and despite my enthusiasm for classic literature I fear many of Gogol’s witticisms were lost on me.

Stories in this collection
Preface by Prosper Mérimée 
The Mantle 
The Nose
Memoirs of a Madman 
May Night 
The Viy

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Friday, January 10, 2020

The Danger Trail by James Oliver Curwood

Moronic mystery in Manitoba
Michigan author James Oliver Curwood specialized in the writing of Northwesterns, a genre comprised of wilderness adventures set in Canada and Alaska. In this genre, Curwood was second only to Jack London in terms of popularity and financial success. His 1910 novel The Danger Trail, however, gives no indication that such success was deserved. This mystery adventure novel set in northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba is an irksomely tedious and witless affair.

After years of hard work, engineer John Howland finally gets his big break when he is hired to manage the completion of the Hudson Bay Railroad. Construction on this railway across Manitoba from Le Pas to Churchill began in 1910, but you won’t learn that from Curwood’s book because it has very little to do with the actual railroad. The novel opens with Howland, a Chicago native, reporting for duty in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. There he meets a beautiful and mysterious woman named Meleese, a damsel in distress who asks for his assistance. She lures him into the woods, where he is jumped, knocked unconscious, and tied up by a gang of thugs led by a shifty Frenchman named Jean Croisset.

This sort of thing happens to Howland not once but four or five times over the course of the novel. Through chapter after chapter of capture and escape, he occasionally encounters Meleese, who tells him he must return southward, or he will be killed. He repeatedly asks her what she means. Who wants to kill him and why? She refuses to answer, and Howland seems OK with that, as he never presses her enough to get a satisfying response. It is not OK for the reader, however, who has to sit through these monotonous and unproductive exchanges. Howland refuses to run from his persecutors and instead decides to pursue them into northern Manitoba. From there, most of the story consists of altercations between Howland and Croisset in which the two relentlessly threaten each other with “I will kill you,” yet neither manages to make good on his promise.

Howland may be a macho he-man outdoorsman and pugilist, but when it comes to love he is as virginal and ingenuous as any heroine of a Harlequin Romance novel. He falls in love with Meleese at first sight, even though she keeps luring him into deadly traps. There is no conflict between the two characters, no snappy banter or sexual tension. Like a stray lamb, he simply devotes himself to her from the start, blindly and blandly.

Curwood doesn’t seem to realize that there is more to building suspense than simply keeping the reader in the dark. He doesn’t parcel out any clues, so the reader simply has no idea what is going on until all is explained in the second to last chapter. Even that explanation turns out to be a bust when the motivation for all this abduction and violence proves totally pointless. Other than maybe one or two well-written fight scenes, The Danger Trail really has nothing going for it. I have read Hardy Boys mysteries with more complex and intelligent plots.

Curwood has written better books than this, among them The Gold Hunters and The Alaskan. His work is nowhere in the same league with London’s, however, and this book is far inferior to the Northwesterns of Stewart Edward White (The Blazed Trail) or Harold Bindloss (The Lure of the North).

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Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

The Golden Age of Comics and Magic
Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay has garnered much critical acclaim, and deservedly so. This remarkable novel tells the story of Brooklyn boy Sammy Klayman and his cousin Josef Kavalier, a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. When Joe moves in with Sammy’s family, Sammy discovers his cousin’s prodigious artistic talents and decides the two should get into the comic book business. Sammy works for a novelty products company, and he persuades his boss to back their publishing venture. The creative duo of Kavalier & Clay make a big splash in the blossoming industry with their costumed hero the Escapist, a crimefighting escape artist. The character proves to be a lucrative hit, but Joe finds it difficult to enjoy his success given the uncertain fate of his family, who have remained in Prague.

Set during the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, this novel vividly depicts the period known as the Golden Age of Comic Books. The careers of Kavalier & Clay are based on the achievements of real-life comics creators like Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and Will Eisner. Kavalier is also an accomplished magician, and the book delves deeply into the history and lore of illusionists and escape artists. At this time both disciplines, comics and magic, were largely dominated by Jews, and Jewish culture and identity is also a recurring theme in the book. Chabon has crafted an ingenious story with a lot of fascinating period detail, but for much of the book’s length that story moves at a sluggish pace. Just when you feel yourself getting involved in the story, Chabon will go off on an extended flashback or digression that yanks you away from the main narrative. As soon as the reader meets the two aspiring creators, Chabon veers into an extended but important flashback to Kavalier’s young adulthood in Nazi-occupied Prague. Other sidetracks feel less relevant and necessary, however, such as stories of Harry Houdini or Salvador Dalí.

With so many balls being juggled, the story about the comics industry often feels lost in the shuffle as Chabon puts more emphasis on the magic angle and the Jewish experience of World War II. While the latter topic is essential to the story, the relentless focus on magic becomes obtrusive at times. Kavalier often dominates the book at the expense of Clay. In the novel’s engrossing final chapters, Chabon skillfully ties together all of the book’s myriad interests and subplots into a satisfying resolution. At times the story, however, with its farfetched departures from realism, inspires more admiration for the cleverness of its telling than it does empathy for its characters.

Despite such reservations, Chabon’s writing is a joy to read. Unlike so many other contemporary practitioners of fiction, there is nothing self-indulgent about his prose. The story is told in an articulate, conversational style that is intelligent without being pretentious. In each chapter, Chabon throws in one or two arcane words that most readers will have likely never heard before. Instead of being off-putting, however, it is actually fun (and easy on a Kindle) to look up these bizarre, little-used terms and discover their mysterious meanings.

The 2012 edition contains additional material under the heading of “Odds and Ends.” This includes two chapters that were deleted from the original novel and two short stories—epilogues, really—that Chabon wrote after the publication of the first edition. The deletion of the two chapters was a wise choice, as they don’t add much to the story. The epilogues are interesting but work against the intriguing uncertainty of the novel’s original ending. Nevertheless, whatever edition you get your hands on, The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier & Clay is a very enjoyable read.
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Monday, January 6, 2020

Niels Lyhne by Jens Peter Jacobsen

Atheist coming-of-age story
Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen is one of a group of writers associated with what’s known as the Modern Breakthrough in Scandinavian literature, in which several writers in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden broke away from the prevailing romanticism in European literature and forged a movement towards naturalism. French author Emile Zola is generally considered the founder of naturalism, but while he was formulating his naturalist school in Paris, Danish literary critic Georg Brandes was simultaneously spearheading a similar movement in Scandinavia. One of Brandes’s recruits was Jacobsen, whose novel Niels Lyhne was published in 1880.

While romantic literature emphasizes individualism and spirituality, naturalist literature emphasizes a more scientific view of the world in which human beings are inescapably formed, governed, and directed by natural forces. One such natural force is heredity, as Jacobsen illustrates in Niels Lyhne. The novel begins with the courtship and marriage of Niels’s parents. His mother lives a sheltered, insular, small-town life. Through a love for poetry, she finds some escape from her mundane existence and develops into an inveterate dreamer. She is attracted to Niels’s father, who comes from a wealthier and more cosmopolitan family, because he has traveled to foreign lands and gained an appreciation for arts and culture. After their marriage, however, the romance of Mr. Lyhne wears off as he becomes just another practical business man. Mrs. Lyhne than shifts her lofty dreams to her son and instills in Niels the romantic visions she can no longer share with her husband. Under her influence, Niels decides to become a poet. As he grows older, however, he finds his life drifting further and further from the idealistic dreams of his youth as his manhood is shaped by a series of events that transform those dreams into lost illusions.

Naturalism often goes hand in hand with atheism, and Jacobsen was a confirmed atheist. One of the reasons I chose to read this book is because Niels Lyhne has a reputation as a pioneering work of freethought literature. Even the introduction to the English edition of 1921, by translator Hanna Astrup Larsen, calls attention to this particular aspect of the book. While there is an atheist message to this novel, however, Jacobsen sure does make you wait for it. Other than one brief conversation about midway through the text, only the final 10 percent of the novel deals explicitly with atheism and religion. It is worth waiting for, however, as this is one of the most frank and forthright depictions of nonbelief in the literature of its time. Even so, the bulk of the novel primarily concerns itself with the various love affairs one usually finds in a coming-of-age novel. Even though Jacobsen was a professional scientist—a botanist influenced by Darwin—Niels’s adherence to atheism is based more on an emotional rejection of God over the loss of loved ones rather than on any rational philosophical basis. The book’s final chapters evoke the brutally frank detachment and deterministic fatalism one finds in the writings of Zola and his disciples. The rest of the novel, however, feels more tied to the emotionalism of the Romantic era, though in a protomodern style evocative of the early novels of Hermann Hesse or Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.

Given Jacobsen’s strong Darwinian inclinations, Niels Lyhne was not quite the freethought manifesto I was hoping for. It is still advanced for its time, however, and a worthwhile read for those who enjoy Scandinavian literature.
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Friday, January 3, 2020

Ronnie by Ronnie Wood

Multifaceted Stone
Before joining the Rolling Stones, Ronnie Wood had already enjoyed quite a career in rock and roll, having previously played with The Birds, The Creation, The Jeff Beck Group, The Faces, and Rod Stewart, in addition to recording his own very good solo albums. As the junior member of the Stones, Wood is often seen as right-hand man to Keith Richards. The latter could learn a thing or two from his underrated compadre, however. Richards’s 2009 autobiography Life may have been a literary smash, but Wood’s 2007 autobiography Ronnie is really a much more entertaining and satisfying read.

In Ronnie, Wood charts his trajectory from blue-collar upbringing to multimillionaire superstar in charming, articulate, and humorous prose. Unlike Richards, whose biography makes him seem like a rather difficult man with an enormous ego and a dangerous temper, Wood comes across as a truly likable and humble guy that one would really enjoy hanging out with, a good-time bloke who gets along with just about everyone. He has formed friendships and played music with almost all the biggest names in rock history, as well as many younger up-and-coming artists. He also reveals several surprising farther-afield friendships with celebrities like Tony Curtis, Muhammad Ali, and John Belushi. Wood is also an accomplished visual artist, and his forays into the art world add an extra dimension of interest to his narrative. In fact, he has often had to make a living from his art after having blown his Stones money on bad investments. The book is illustrated with Wood’s drawings, as well as many color photographs.

The best thing about this book, however, is that Wood possesses the unique perspective of having been both a fan and a member of the Rolling Stones. He provides the vivid behind-the-scenes look at the band that Keith seems to have purposely avoided in Life. While covering the infamous conflicts in Stones history, Wood doesn’t dwell on them, but rather chooses to focus on the sense of brotherhood between the members and how they have been there for each other over the years. The reader gets a personal inside look at what goes on when the Stones get together backstage, in their hotel suites, or at family weddings. He also provides valuable insight into the sheer insane scale of the Rolling Stones enterprise, and what it is like to be at the center of the publicity and marketing madness that has engulfed the band since the 1980s.

While this is one of the most fun rock-and-roll memoirs I’ve ever read, it may not be the most candid. Wood does discuss his alcohol and drug use, but doesn’t delve too deeply into its negative effects. On the one hand, he doesn’t brag about his substance abuse (as Richards does in Life). On the other hand, he doesn’t try to absolve his transgressions with a shower of mea culpas (see Eric Clapton’s autobiography Clapton). Wood doesn’t whine about his problems or agonize over his sins, but he does appear to have grown up and learned valuable lessons over time. By the end of the book, he appears to be a contented man who puts family first.

That brings us to the book’s main fault, which is prematurity. In 2007, when Ronnie was published, Wood still considered his wife Jo the love of his life. Since then, he has left her for a much younger woman, married another, has been back in rehab at least once, and was treated for lung cancer. It would be interesting to hear what Wood has to say about his later years. As far as things stood in 2007, however, Ronnie offers a very satisfying account of his crazy life up to that point. Any fan of the Stones should not overlook this engaging memoir.
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Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Harvest Gypsies by John Steinbeck

Factual basis for The Grapes of Wrath
The Harvest Gypsies is a series of seven nonfiction articles that John Steinbeck wrote about migrant farm workers in California. They were originally published in October 1936 editions of The San Francisco News. These articles were eventually reprinted, along with an eighth piece entitled “Starvation Under the Orange Trees,” in a pamphlet entitled Their Blood Is Strong, published by the nonprofit Simon J. Lubin Society, a group dedicated to helping migrant workers. Like many journalistic writings produced by literary authors, The Harvest Gypsies would likely have faded quietly into obscurity were it not for the fact that these articles serve as the factual basis for Steinbeck’s 1939 magnum opus The Grapes of Wrath.

In The Harvest Gypsies, Steinbeck articulately explains how California agriculture has always relied on migrant workers for temporary low-cost labor, with successive waves of Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and Filipino immigrants filling the role over the course of the state’s history. During the Great Depression, however, the ranks of migrant workers harvesting California-grown produce were swelled by American farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. Steinbeck describes from firsthand observation the squalid living conditions of migrant families. He also reveals ways in which these workers are exploited by landowners or neglected by state, local, and federal governments. Steinbeck then offers suggestions for reform by outlining a plan to set aside state and federal lands as subsistence farms for migrant workers and encouraging workers to organize and fight for their rights.

Throughout The Harvest Gypsies, Steinbeck’s prose alternates between pathos-inducing on-the-ground depictions of migrant poverty and a more rationally detached focus on statistics and economics. The writing calls to mind Jack London’s book-length work of 1903, The People of the Abyss, an exposé of working-class living conditions in the East End of London during the Industrial Revolution. Steinbeck is less of a blatant propagandist than London, however, and his motivations seem more humanitarian in nature than London’s strident pushing of a political agenda. Steinbeck’s articles remain vital and important today because some of the problems he describes still persist among California’s migrant workers, though those hardships are now faced mostly by immigrants rather than Dust Bowl refugees. Steinbeck does acknowledge and sympathize with laborers of other races, but since these articles were written before the civil rights movement The Harvest Gypsies primarily focuses on white labor with the intention of drawing sympathy from white landowners, politicians, and taxpayers.

Just as The Grapes of Wrath is a brilliant encapsulation of the social order of its time, The Harvest Gypsies is likewise a valuable historical document of the Great Depression in America. These brief but eloquent articles provide historical context that deepens the reader’s understanding of Steinbeck’s greatest novel.
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