Friday, July 31, 2020

The Hotel Majestic by Georges Simenon

Too many unconnected dots
The Hotel Majestic is the 41st work of detective fiction in Belgian author Georges Simenon’s series of Inspector Maigret mysteries. The novel was originally published in 1942 under the French title of Les Caves du Majestic, and it has also been translated into English as The Cellars of the Majestic or Maigret and the Hotel Majestic. The “Cellars” or “Caves” refers to the kitchens and storerooms in the basement of the hotel. The translation by David Watson uses the term “still-room,” which is where coffee, tea, and food are prepared for guests and sent to the upper floors through a dumb waiter. As the book opens, Prosper Donge, who runs the still-room at the Hotel Majestic, arrives for work one morning and discovers a dead body stuffed into a locker, or so he claims. Maigret investigates the murder, and Prosper Donge becomes the prime suspect.

The victim of the crime is the French-born wife of a wealthy American industrialist, both traveling in Paris on business. It is soon revealed that the woman was a former hostess at a nightclub in Cannes, and some of her associates there, now living in Paris, may have been connected with the crime. The American husband is no angel himself, and he lives up to the stereotype of the ugly, entitled American, resulting in some humorous confrontations with Maigret.

The Hotel Majestic sports an interesting cast of characters, and the murder plot itself is well thought out, but the way Simenon tells the story leaves something to be desired. Part of the fun in reading detective fiction is trying to solve the puzzle yourself. On a few occasions in this novel, however, Maigret is privy to information to which the frustrated reader does not have access, which leaves one feeling a little cheated. Early in the book, for example, Maigret asks someone about a baby, and the reader wonders, “How does he know they had a baby?” Names of persons or businesses are mentioned once in passing conversation; then later in the book they become major plot elements when Maigret reveals an entire back story, gleaned from his years of police experience, unbeknownst to the confused reader.

My least favorite aspect of Simenon’s writing is the way he pens dialogue. He composes conversations in fragmentary sentences, interspersed with numerous ellipsis dots ( . . . ). This is intended to reproduce the feeling of actual speech, but in real life people are usually capable of expressing complete thoughts. You would think a police officer interrogating a suspect, in particular, would want to nail down clear and accurate statements. Instead, every one of Simenon’s ellipsis dots represents something the reader has to fill in with inferences or assumptions, which often leads to misunderstanding. The Hotel Majestic seems to have even more of these ambiguous pauses than is typical of Simenon, which contributes to the feeling that the mystery plot has too many unconnected dots.

One thing that usually sets the Maigret mysteries apart from typical detective fiction is the pathos with which Simenon depicts the supporting characters. Here, however, both Simenon and Maigret seem to have little sympathy for The Hotel Majestic’s criminals, suspects, and victims. The result is a competently crafted story that lacks feeling. The Maigret series as a whole is worthwhile reading, but this is not one of its more compelling entries. Of the 14 that I’ve read so far, my favorites are The Night at the Crossroads and The Late Monsieur Gallet.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Facino Cane by Honoré de Balzac

The clarinetist of Monte Cristo
Honoré de Balzac’s series of writings known as the Comédie Humaine consists of around 90 works of literature ranging from tiny short stories to epic novels. All of these works are downloadable as individual ebooks, so I review them all separately as individual pieces of Balzac’s grand design. Facino Cane is one of the briefer entries in the Comédie Humaine. This short story was first published in an 1836 issue of the journal Chronique de Paris.

Facino Cane is only about 20 pages long, and the first 10 pages are all set-up. The reader doesn’t even meet the title character until around the halfway point. Balzac’s story is told by an unnamed narrator, a Frenchman of twenty years of age. In the opening pages he introduces himself, talks about his life in Paris, and describes himself as a curious observer of humanity. While attending a wedding, he notices an interesting-looking musician among the band providing the evening’s entertainment. During a break in the music, the narrator strikes up a conversation with this fellow, an elderly blind clarinetist named Facino Cane.

The name Facino Cane is taken from an actual historical figure, an Italian commander of mercenaries during the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Balzac’s story, however, does not concern him. The real Facino Cane serves merely as the namesake for a fictional descendant living in 19th century Paris. Over the brief course of the story’s second half, Facino Cane tells the narrator his whole life story. He was born in Venice and lived a life of wealth and intrigue. The narrative he relates is like The Count of Monte Cristo condensed into ten pages. Because of its extreme brevity, this story-within-the-story reads more like a rough plot sketch than an actual finished narrative. When Facino Cane concludes his tale, the narrator likewise wraps up his own account with a two sentence epilogue, and the short story is done.

Balzac is always entertaining, but this is not one of his better works. It feels more like an idea for a story than an actual finished work of literature. After reading it, one can’t help but wonder what a great novel it might have made had Balzac chosen to develop it at length. Since the story requires such a minimal investment of time, however, it is certainly worth a read for Balzac fans.

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Monday, July 27, 2020

The Fellowship of the Talisman by Clifford D. Simak

Preachy sword-and-sorcery fantasy
Fantasy literature isn’t really my thing, but I am a huge fan of Clifford D. Simak’s science fiction, so I was more than willing to give this novel a try. The Fellowship of the Talisman was first published in 1978. The poorly chosen title leads one to believe this is going to be a rip-off of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, and as with any book in this genre there are some inevitable similarities. Simak, however, adds some interesting science fiction ideas to this traditional sword-and-sorcery quest narrative. The tone of the storytelling calls to mind Stephen King more than it does Tolkien, but the cast of characters is comprised of representatives of dozens of mythical species straight out of the Dungeons & Dragons handbook, similar to the popular 1970s fantasy literature of authors like Piers Anthony or Fritz Leiber. For that genre, The Fellowship of the Talisman would be a satisfying read had Simak not chosen to add elements of theology and religion that ruin an otherwise adequate story.

The Fellowship of the Talisman takes place in England during the 20th century, but this is not the 20th century that we lived through. In this alternate history, Europe has yet to emerge from the Dark Ages. Medieval feudalism still reigns. The progress of civilization has been halted by waves of evil that periodically sweep across the land. Swathes of territory are decimated by an army of evil nonhuman beings known as the Harriers. Simak partially attributes this evil to the fact that in this timeline the Christian crusaders never took Jerusalem.

Duncan Standish, a nobleman’s son, is asked by his father to undertake a dangerous mission. A rare manuscript has been discovered that purports to be an eyewitness account of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. If proven genuine, this document will bring hope to the good people in their fight against evil. In order to authenticate the manuscript, Duncan must take it to Oxenford, where a noted scholar will examine and translate the document. To fulfill his mission, Duncan must cross the Desolated Lands that are currently under attack by the Harriers. He departs with a small party that grows larger as his journey continues. Beings that we consider mythical are real in this world, and Duncan encounters many of them, both good and evil.

The fundamental flaw of the novel is Simak’s implication that Christianity was the key to freeing Western civilization from the Dark Ages. On the contrary, it was the humanists of the Renaissance and the deists of the Enlightenment who got us out of the Dark Ages. If it were up to the Church, we would all still be living under feudalism and being executed for believing in Copernicanism. The best thing about the Crusades was not that the holy warriors of Western Europe took Jerusalem, but rather that they took the knowledge of Islamic philosophers and mathematicians home with them. The plot premise is acceptable at first, while the pro-Christian theme is kept pretty quiet throughout a story filled with characters of pagan origin. When it comes to the conclusion, however, Simak escalates the religious fervor to the point of ridiculousness. The reader spends the whole book waiting while this band of misfits trudges along on their journey, only to have the entire quest wrapped up in the final 14 pages with a silly and simplistic ending.

Because Simak is a great writer, this book has its fair share of interesting characters and exciting scenes. The novel suffers, however, from a slow pace overall and a cockamamie plot with a preachy ending that adds insult to injury. I’m still an avid fan of Simak, but The Fellowship of the Talisman is among my least favorite of his works.
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Friday, July 24, 2020

Brazilian Tales, edited by Isaac Goldberg

Foundations of a national literature
Machado de Assis
As one might expect, Brazilian Tales, published in 1921, is a collection of short stories by Brazilian writers. The volume was edited by Isaac Goldberg, a literary jack-of-all-trades who translated works from French, Italian, German, Yiddish, Spanish, and in this case, Portuguese. Goldberg also wrote over 30 volumes of the Little Blue Books series in diverse areas such as biography, music, freethought, and world literature, including The Spirit of Brazilian Literature and Brazilian Short Stories. In addition to the six short stories collected in this volume, Goldberg also supplies a brief but educational introduction to the history of Brazilian letters. He explains that Brazilian literature began as an extension of Portuguese literature and often tried to emulate European culture. By the end of the 19th century, however, Brazil had developed its own national literature, unique to Brazilian culture and society, that deserved to be recognized worldwide.

If Brazilians were asked to choose their nation’s greatest author, the consensus would likely be Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. According to Goldberg,“When the Brazilian Academy of Letters was founded in 1897, Machado de Assis was unanimously elected president and held the position until his death.” Half of the six selections Goldberg includes in this volume are authored by Machado de Assis. The first two entries, “The Attendant’s Confession” and “The Fortune-Teller,” are both suspenseful tales somewhat reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe. Though murder figures into both plots, however, they are more about morality than the macabre. The third selection, “Life,” is a horse of a different color. This piece is a dialogue between the legendary “Wandering Jew” Ahasverus and the Greek god Prometheus. Nineteenth century writers loved to invoke classical mythology for such philosophical exercises, but “Life” is unlikely to hold much appeal for twenty-first century readers.

Of the remaining selections, “The Vengeance of Felix” by José Medeiros e Albuquerque is the least satisfying. This tale of revenge concludes with an intended “surprise twist” ending, but the reader sees it coming a mile away. The last two entries are of higher literary merit. Coelho Netto’s “The Pigeons,” uses a native superstition to heighten the poignancy of a family tragedy in an Indigenous household. In “Aunt Zeze’s Tears,” the title character is a proverbial “old maid,” but still young enough to hold out hope for finding love. Author Carmen Dolores delivers a nuanced and psychologically insightful character study that results in a quite moving narrative.

This book is only about 150 pages long, and the word count on each page is pretty low. It seems that brevity was a major consideration in Goldberg’s selection criteria, and this is the book’s major fault. These stories, each of which is only 10 to 20 pages long, are over before they ever really go anywhere. Most are just character sketches followed by an abrupt ending. Nevertheless, the quality of the writing is quite good all around. Reading these brief scenes makes one wonder what these talented authors could do with an entire novel. To that end, Goldberg does suggest some novels in his introduction. Later in the 20th century, Latin-American literature gained in popularity, and Brazilian writers like Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector, and Paolo Coelho achieved renown. Back in 1924, however, Goldberg was one of the first critics to draw attention to the literature of Brazil. His Brazilian Tales provides an informative and enticing introduction to that country’s literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Stories in this collection

The Attendant’s Confession by Jaoquim Maria Machado de Assis
The Fortune-Teller by Jaoquim Maria Machado de Assis
Life by Jaoquim Maria Machado de Assis
The Vengeance of Felix by José Medeiros e Albuquerque 
The Pigeons by Coelho Netto 
Aunt Zeze’s Tears by Carmen Dolores

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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Jean-Christophe, Volume 1: Dawn, Morning, Youth, Revolt by Romain Rolland

The first four stages of a musician’s life
French novelist, playwright, and essayist Romain Rolland won the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature. This was due in no small part to his recently completed magnum opus Jean-Christophe, a series of ten novels published from 1904 to 1912. In the Jean-Christophe cycle, Rolland charts the cradle-to-grave trajectory of one character, a German-born musical prodigy named Jean-Christophe Krafft. When translated into English, these ten novels were published as a three-volume edition by Henry Holt and Company. The English-language Volume 1, published in 1911, contains the first four of Rolland’s Jean-Christophe novels: Dawn, Morning, Youth, and Revolt.

Christophe is born in a small unnamed German town on the Rhine. He comes from a long line of musicians. His grandfather and father are both professional players in the local symphony, though the elder is semi-retired and the father is an alcoholic has-been. When it is discovered at a young age that Christophe is a prodigy at the piano, he is groomed to follow the family profession, often through abusive methods. Despite his terrible childhood, Christophe does love music, and he achieves a level of virtuosity that exceeds his forbearers. As a child prodigy, Christophe enjoys the patronage of the Grand Duke and is often called to the castle to play his compositions.

Why would a French author choose to set his epic work in Germany? Rolland uses the setting to pontificate upon the “German soul,” to contrast the German and French natures, and to level a fair amount of criticism at Germany and its culture. Despite Rolland’s erudition, his broad generalizations on such topics often come across as nationalistic stereotypes, not only of Germany but also of France. In the process of Christophe’s musical development, Rolland manages to talk trash about the entire history of German classical music, accusing everyone from Beethoven to Brahms to Wagner of composing childish lies built upon false idealism.

Rolland could be considered the last of the great romanticists. Though he wrote at a time when European literature was well on its way into modernism, Rolland was still a holdout for the literary ideals of 19th century romanticism. That is evident in the plot of Jean-Christophe, which features an individualist protagonist who suffers repeated persecution and intense emotional angst in his struggle for self-fulfillment. Like his good friend Hermann Hesse, however, Rolland’s depictions of human nature are informed by modern psychological science, which results in characters more grounded in realism than those of traditional romanticists like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or Victor Hugo. The vivid precision with which Rolland describes the natural environment, social conditions, and human psychology in Jean-Christophe often borders on naturalism.

Nevertheless, Rolland does occasionally lapse into maudlin territory. In Morning, for example, Christophe forms his first male friendship. The day after meeting this new pal, Christophe is writing letters to the guy saying “My soul . . . I love you.” Such effusive expressions of bromance are an unrealistic throwback to the 18th century days of Goethe. Christophe’s relationships with women, however, are much more grounded in 20th century realism. At times, Rolland concentrates so much on his hero’s love life that Christophe’s musical career is almost entirely forgotten. There are also large portions of the book in which Christophe comes across as a conceited jerk, making him difficult to root for, but he does grow as a human being and shows promise of redemption. Despite a few imperfections, Jean-Christophe is a monumental work of literature, and Rolland’s writing is exceptional. He crafts Christophe’s life with such fullness and intricacy that the reader can’t help but follow this narrative through to its end.
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Monday, July 20, 2020

Martin Paz by Jules Verne

Romantic thriller in colonial Peru
Martin Paz, a novella by Jules Verne, was originally published in 1852 as a serial in the French literary magazine Musée des familles. Verne was only 24 years old at the time of publication, and this story predates the science fiction novels for which he is best known. The one element that unites Verne’s prolific body of work, sci-fi or not, is an adventurous love for travel and exploration, often to exotic lands. Here he takes the reader to Peru in a story set during the 1820s. Verne begins by explaining the social stratification of colonial Lima. The governing Spaniards enjoy a domineering position at the highest level of social status. Below them are the mestizos, those of mixed European and Indigenous heritage. At the bottom of the social ladder lie the Indigenous peoples of South America, referred to throughout the book as Indians. Under this rigid system, no matter how high one might rise within his own class, he was forced to suffer the condescension and abuse of those among the higher levels of the racial hierarchy.

Verne adds an interesting twist by introducing a Jewish family into the story. Though looked down upon as a stranger and outcast who fits into none of the above classes, a wealthy and successful Jewish businessman named Samuel is often sought after as a moneylender, and his riches grant him a certain degree of power in Limanian society. Samuel arranges to marry his beautiful daughter Sarah to a wealthy mestizo named André Certa, who has more affection for the family’s wealth than for the girl herself. Certa comes to suspect that an Indian named Martin Paz has eyes for his betrothed, and he fears the feeling may be mutual. One evening Sarah and Martin, she on her balcony and he in the alley below, share an emotional moment. Certa comes upon the scene and draws his sword. In the ensuing fight, Martin wounds Certa, and then must flee. When an Indian harms a mestizo, who drew first is irrelevant. If captured, Martin faces certain execution.

In Martin Paz, Verne overtly displays a respect and sympathy for Indigenous Americans. Martin is clearly the noblest character in the book, and the Indians in general, though not portrayed as saints, are depicted as freedom fighters valiantly struggling for independence from oppressive Spanish rule. Verne’s depiction of the Jewish characters is a little more problematic, however, as Samuel is not portrayed entirely positively, but Verne never stoops to anti-Semitism. If anything, he could be accused of being anti-Spanish.

In style and substance, this early work by Verne could pass for an adventure by Alexandre Dumas, one with enough melodrama and romance to be adapted into an opera. As in the novels of Dumas, the plot threads of multiple characters are braided together throughout the narrative, and all are tied neatly together in the end. So much happens so fast in this novella that it is sometimes difficult to determine exactly what’s going on, though some of the blame for that may fall upon the English translator. In the interest of establishing his setting with verisimilitude, Verne also loads his prose with Spanish terms and Peruvian colloquialisms that hinder the momentum of the action. Verne has clearly done diligent research on Peru, and he vividly brings the setting and time period to life for the reader. This is by no means a realistic work of historical fiction, however, as the plot takes contrived and theatrical turns that defy belief. In the end, Verne delivers an entertaining tour of Lima and the surrounding countryside, but Martin Paz leaves the reader wishing that a stronger, more true-to-life story had taken place there.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery by Captain Adam Seaborn

Hollow-Earth Utopia
These days we still have to contend with a few Flat Earthers, but if you were around two hundred years ago it’s likely you would have encountered some Hollow Earthers. Prior to any scientific exploration of the Earth’s polar regions, the Hollow Earth theory proposed that the planet is a hollow spherical shell, and that the interior surface of that shell may have oceans and land masses just like the exterior surface upon which we live. In addition, this spherical shell may be just one of a number of concentric spheres nestled within the Earth’s outer crust. The way to reach these inner worlds, the theory proposes, is through the Earth’s poles, which are actually large holes, the Earth being pierced through its axis like a giant bead.

Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery, published in 1820, is a utopian novel founded upon this Hollow Earth theory. The book derives its title from the name of John Cleves Symmes Jr., who first proposed this modern take on the age-old idea. Symzonia was published under the pseudonym of Captain Adam Seaborn, who is actually the fictional narrator of the story. The real author of the book is unknown. It may have been Symmes himself or one of his followers. Some scholars speculate that Symzonia may actually be a parody or satire of Symmes’s theories, and the novel’s mixture of earnestness and silliness often makes it difficult to tell. For the most part, however, Symzonia reads as if it were penned by a true believer. Like many of the pseudoscientific theories that persist today, the Symmes theory had its fair share of converts, and the concept of the Hollow Earth left its mark on American literature. Willis George Emerson’s 1908 novel The Smoky God, for example, is faithfully based upon the Hollow Earth theory. Other authors just used the theory as an imaginative premise for science fiction, such as in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth or the Pellucidar series of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Captain Adam Seaborn assembles a sealing expedition to the islands of the far Southern seas. Unbeknownst to his crew, however, his real intention is to sail farther south than anyone has ever gone before, in hopes of finding an entrance into the interior of the Earth. After too much typical sailing narrative, stops on run-of-the-mill islands, and countless astronomical observations (there is a very complex geometry by which the interior world gets its sunlight), the ship finally reaches its destination. Seaborn discovers a continent on the interior of the Earth’s shell, one that it is inhabited by a race of beings with a civilization more technologically and morally advanced than our own. These “internals” (we are the externals) welcome Seaborn into their world and educate him in the ways of their society.

There is an element of racism to the story. The perfect beings of the internal world possess the pale skin of alabaster, while the degraded races of the outer world bear various levels of swarthiness. It is proposed that the Eskimo and Inuit peoples encountered in the Arctic are actually emigrants from the interior world, but they are outcasts, the descendants of sinful internals who were ejected from the Symzonian garden of Eden. The farther they were removed from paradise, the darker their skin and the less civilized their habits became. Surprisingly, however, the narrator makes one comment advocating the abolition of slavery.

If you like nineteenth century science fiction, Symzonia is worth a read, but don’t expect a masterpiece or even a fun kitschy treat. It can be quite boring at times. The utopian stuff is interesting, but it takes a while to get there, and the book has a very long and unnecessary epilogue.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Open Season by C. J. Box

Introducing Wyoming’s Elmore Leonard
I’m a frequent visitor to Wyoming, but the coronavirus put the kibosh on this year’s trip, so I decided to enjoy the next best thing by reading some Wyoming literature. Wyoming native C. J. Box has written a series of at least twenty mystery novels set in his home state that showcase the crime solving skills of game warden Joe Pickett. The first installment and Box’s debut novel, Open Season, was published in 2001. This is the first Pickett mystery that I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be my last.

Joe Pickett is game warden for the fictional Twelve Sleep County. He lives in the town of Saddlestring, which borrows its name from a real Wyoming town but isn’t really based on that town. Joe is a family man with a wife, two daughters, and another child on the way. The Picketts struggle to make ends meet on a game warden’s salary. Joe is relatively new to his position in Twelve Sleep, but he’s already suffered one embarrassing gaffe on the job. While writing up a citation for poaching, the poacher in question, named Ote Keeley, steals Joe’s weapon from out of his holster. Though the situation is resolved without violence, the story eventually gets out, and it’s a hard thing for a lawman to live down. Months later, the Pickett family hears a disturbance behind their house. When Joe goes out to investigate, he finds the body of Ote Keeley sprawled across his woodpile, shot to death. The local police investigate, but Joe finds their conclusions rather hasty and sketchy, so he decides to look into the case himself.

This mystery story is padded with quite a bit of family drama, but that drama is compelling enough to keep the reader interested throughout. Box delivers well-drawn multi-faceted characters, and one really learns a lot about the life of a game warden. The mystery itself is quite intriguing but not an extremely perplexing whodunit. The breadcrumb trail of clues that Box provides makes it possible for the reader to stay a couple steps ahead of Joe at all times. Box is very good at building suspense, however, which makes this novel ideally suited to a film adaptation. In Open Season, he almost draws that suspense out a little too far, to the point where the reader is about ready to cry, “Get to it already,” but the exciting climactic scenes are a rewarding payoff for the anticipation. Box adds one ingenious element to the story that is handled so plausibly he’ll have you Googling to find out whether it’s real or fictional.

One of the best things about Box’s writing is that he establishes his setting with a great deal of realism. The natural environment of Wyoming, Joe’s work as a game warden, and the state government bureaucracy are all depicted with a ring of authenticity. The fictional locations, however, counteract this realism; it would have been better had Box set his novels in a real Wyoming county. The story also sacrifices some dignity with a few unnecessarily juvenile sexual references. A certain amount of sleaze often adds necessary spice and atmosphere to a mystery story, but when the grown men in this novel talk about women, they sound like teenagers from the movie Porky’s. Our hero Joe Pickett, thankfully, is not among the offenders.

Box’s writing in Open Season calls to mind the smartly plotted crime thrillers of Elmore Leonard, but the Wyoming setting and game warden perspective result in something refreshingly original. This proved to be a fun, thrilling, and even educational read, and I look forward to following more of Joe’s cases.
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Monday, July 13, 2020

The Overman by Upton Sinclair

Philosopher Crusoe
The Overman, a story by Upton Sinclair, was originally published in the December 1906 issue of The Windsor Magazine. Though really just a short story, it was published as a hardcover volume of 90 pages in 1907, so it is usually listed among Sinclair’s novels. In 1924, socialist publisher Emanuel Haldeman-Julius also published an edition of The Overman as part of his Little Blue Books series, making it Little Blue Book No. 594.

Given Sinclair’s lifelong preoccupation with labor and the class struggle, I expected the title to refer to some capitalist slave driver, such as a tyrannical factory foreman. What I got, however, was far different. The Overman is not a work of social justice typical of Sinclair’s body of work. Instead, it is a deeply philosophical tale, and one more romantic than realistic. The title refers to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the übermensch, which has been translated into English as “beyond-man,” “superman,” or “overman.” Nietzsche proposed the overman as the next step in evolution to which humanity should aspire. The übermensch would be an “artist-tyrant” who would create new life-affirming, non-theistical values for humanity to supersede the other-wordly values of traditional religions. Nietzsche’s concept has been interpreted in myriad ways and co-opted by a variety movements ranging from fascists to anarchists. In The Overman, Sinclair’s interpretation of the übermensch is rather fantastical, rhapsodic, and transcendental.

The story is narrated by Edward, a scientist. His younger brother Daniel, a gifted musician, was shipwrecked during an ocean voyage and presumed lost at sea. Years later, however, Edward meets a survivor of the voyage, who tells him that a few castaways managed to reach an uninhabited island, where they lived for several months. When the other survivors made an escape attempt in a small craft, Daniel chose to remain on the island. Hearing this, Edward launches a search to find his long-lost brother and ends up shipwrecked himself, on the very same island as his brother Daniel! This brief and not at all realistic setup serves the purpose of getting the two brothers alone on an island, where there two natures can be compared and contrasted.

In his twenty years alone on the island, Daniel has come to embrace his solitude. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, he hasn’t even bothered to better his life on the island, but instead lives a rather ascetic existence inspired by Diogenes the Cynic. Daniel doesn’t even play his violin anymore, as he is now able to compose entire symphonies in his mind. Emphasizing an internal life of the mind over the needs of the body, he has elevated his existence to a higher intellectual and creative plane, as if he has acquired new senses with which to commune with the universe. Sinclair’s pet fascination with paranormal psychology—telepathy, clairvoyance, and such—also plays into Daniel’s heightened mental and spiritual state, to a degree which Nietzsche himself likely would have frowned upon, as the story crosses the line from philosophy into fantasy.

The Overman is essentially a dialogue between two sides of Upton Sinclair. The Daniel side aspires to be the transcendent artist who reaches lofty literary heights by expressing the sublime. The Edward side is the scientific realist who writes about the world as it is and who must practice his literary craft as an income-producing profession. Coming from Sinclair, The Overman is a very unusual and unexpected piece of fiction, but one that intimately reveals much about the author’s values, dreams, and inner struggles at this period in his literary development.
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Friday, July 10, 2020

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library by Edward Wilson-Lee

Bites off a little more than it can chew
Many histories have been written about Christopher Columbus and his voyages to America. One of the first books to tell his story was written by his own son, Hernando Colón (a.k.a. Ferdinand Columbus), who accompanied his father on his fourth voyage to the New World. Hernando, however, was more than just his father’s son. He led an astonishing life of his own, which author Edward Wilson-Lee chronicles in The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, published in 2018.

Hernando was the second, and illegitimate, son of Christopher Columbus. As a youth, while his father was off exploring the New World for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Hernando was a page in the court of their son, Prince Juan. He spent much of his adult life traveling around Europe with the court of King Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Hernando was an accomplished scholar, author, diplomat, geographer, and cartographer, but his real love was collecting books and printed pamphlets. He established a library in Seville that amounted to more than 15,000 volumes. A true Renaissance man, Hernando attempted to amass a universal collection that would comprehensively encompass all fields of knowledge and culture in all languages.

There’s no question that Hernando Colón led a fascinating life, but in this book his story is somewhat smothered under too much historical context. Wilson-Lee thinks the reader needs to know the life story of every pope and prince in Renaissance Europe, which results in countless tangents that distract from the primary narrative of Hernando, his family, and his library. Although I enjoy reading exploration narratives and explorer biographies, my primary interest in this book was Hernando’s library, which is really what makes his story so unique. After covering Columbus’s voyages, Wilson-Lee doesn’t really even begin to get into Hernando’s bibliophilia until about page 150. Even then, he only gradually eases into Hernando’s collecting habits, while the history of the library competes with all the other threads of political, religious, and legal history. The last few chapters, however, focus almost exclusively on Hernando’s library and art collection.

Hernando was not only an obsessive collector, he was also an obsessive cataloger. The numerous lists and annotated bibliographies he compiled were the precursors of the card catalogs, bibliographic metadata, and search engines employed by modern librarians. Wilson-Lee describes at length the various catalogs that Hernando created for his collections, but it would have been far more effective if he had excerpted a page or two from each list so the reader could get a better idea of each cataloging system and its entries. Wilson-Lee makes much of the fact that the Renaissance was an era in which humanist scholars strove to bring order to our understanding of nature and the universe. Thus, every time Hernando learns something or writes something down he is said to be “ordering the world.” Wilson-Lee hammers this point home so relentlessly that the text often reads more like a dissertation than a trade book for the general public.

The story of Hernando’s battle to save his father’s reputation and legacy deserves a book of its own. So does his quest to build the world’s greatest library. When the two are crammed together into one volume, while also trying to summarize the entire Renaissance history of Western Europe, everything gets short-changed in the process. Nevertheless, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books still delivers a great deal of fascinating information on early print culture and the intellectual history of Renaissance Europe. Wilson-Lee also helpfully provides ample bibliographic references for the reader to launch further research into Hernando and his library. Anyone interested in Columbus or the history of books will find this a very stimulating and informative read.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Direct Descent by Frank Herbert

Library planet under bureaucratic siege
Direct Descent is a work of science fiction by Frank Herbert, the author of Dune. Though considered a novel, the book is really a collection of two short stories, labeled Part I and Part II. Part I is based on a short story by Herbert entitled “Pack Rat Planet,” which was published in the December 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Part II was presumably created specifically for the 1980 publication of Direct Descent. Altogether the book adds up to maybe 100 pages of text. Paperback editions of Direct Descent were padded with illustrations, but the ebook edition I read was not illustrated.

The two stories, Part I and Part II, are only loosely related and do not constitute a continuous narrative. In other words, Part II is not a sequel to Part I. The stories have different characters, but both take place on the same world and build upon similar plot premises. The world in question is Earth, but an Earth much changed from that which we know. Part I takes place in the 81st century, while Part II is set at least two thousand years beyond that. Much like in the Duniverse, mankind has spread outwards from Earth to colonize the galaxy. In Direct Descent, however, the Earth is now home to the Galactic Archives, a sort of gargantuan Library of Congress for the entire galaxy. The holdings of this library are so extensive that much of the planet has been hollowed out to make room for them, right down to the Earth’s very core.

The library director informs us that “The first rule of the Galactic Library Code is to obey all direct orders of the government in power.” How can the library management be expected to follow that directive, however, when the government is antagonistic towards the library and aims to shut it down? Such is the premise of both stories. Following a regime change, the new governing power sends auditors to the Library looking to disband it due to financial or ideological reasons. Besides hoarding archival materials from all of mankind’s planets, another mission of the Galactic Library is to disseminate information, which it does by sending out thousands of broadcasts of randomly selected content from its holdings. If one were to compare Direct Descent to present-day politics, the story is less analogous to the U.S. government’s treatment of the Library of Congress than it is to the government’s treatment of the Public Broadcasting Service. When conservative administrations take power, they look to cut the funding of PBS, which they see as a liberal enterprise. Direct Descent presents two gross exaggerations of this sort of ideological squabble.

I’m very interested in libraries and their history, so I enjoyed the library planet that Herbert envisioned for this novel. I can’t help thinking, however, that a more whimsical science fiction writer—Clifford D. Simak, perhaps—could have handled the idea better. The wonders of knowledge contained in this planet-sized institution are hardly explored at all. Herbert is more interested in government bureaucracy than he is in the library itself. Both stories in Direct Descent rely on legal technicalities for their resolutions. These technicalities are so technical, in fact, that they confuse the reader and may even defy logic. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my visit to the Galactic Archives for the most part. As a work of literature, this isn’t in the same league with the Dune saga or Herbert’s other major works. It’s just a light, fun read that doesn’t require much heavy mental lifting or a major investment of time.
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Monday, July 6, 2020

Broken to the Plow by Charles Caldwell Dobie

From social realism to farfetched noir
Born in San Francisco, author Charles Caldwell Dobie (1881-1943) was a prominent figure in that city’s burgeoning literary scene of the early twentieth century. He was a prolific author of novels and short stories, received critical acclaim and awards for his work, and headed the San Francisco chapter of the PEN association of writers. His novel Broken to the Plow was published in 1921. Like all of Dobie’s work, the story takes place in the city he called home.

Fred Starratt is an insurance agent with Ford, Wetherbee, & Co. As a low man on the company totem pole, his salary is modest, and he often has trouble making ends meet as he and his wife strive to uphold a respectable standard of living. One evening, Mr. and Mrs. Starratt have their friends the Hilmers over for dinner. Mr. Hilmer, a self-made man and successful shipbuilding entrepreneur, accuses Starratt of being “middle class.” Starratt grew up in a world where his parents’ generation saw humanity as being divided into two social strata: the “right kind of people” and the undesirables or riff raff. The idea that he might have somehow slipped from that top category of social status into a less respectable strata of society comes as a disturbing revelation to Starratt. When the arrogant Hilmer asserts that the middle class are defined by their complacency and lack of ambition, Starratt can’t help but notice that his wife looks to Hilmer with admiration. Shocked into activity by this attack on his character, the very next day Starratt demands a raise from his boss. When his boss refuses, Starratt quits his job and decides to go into business for himself.

Despite its title, there is nothing agrarian about this novel. The phrase is just an expression used a few times in the story, as in, “A man who’s been through hell is like a field broken to the plow. He’s ready for seed.” Broken to the Plow starts out as a novel of urban realism, reminiscent of the works of the great San Francisco naturalist author Frank Norris. Dobie’s novel gradually morphs into something far different, however, as it becomes more and more sensationalistic and drifts into the territory of a film noir, replete with corruption, betrayal, and an evil femme fatale. Even so, the novel still manages to serve as a largely realist document of the era in which it was produced. Things were different back then, particularly in regards to crime and punishment, with swifter prosecution and harsher punishment for crimes that wouldn’t be considered imprisonable offenses today. Prohibition, labor unrest, and anarchism, all signs of the times, also figure into the plot. The novel’s ensemble cast also includes a prostitute, and Dobie’s poignant portrayal of the character is surprisingly bold for the prudish American literature of his day.

Though Broken to the Plow gets increasingly more farfetched as it goes along, it is a pretty enjoyable and compelling ride for most of its length. Though Starratt is rather a milquetoast of a hero, he does make halting efforts towards becoming a latter-day Count of Monte Cristo as he plots vengeance against those who have wronged him. The conclusion of the story is a major disappointment, however. Starratt learns some valuable moral lessons, but the reader is left with the feeling that no one really got what he or she deserved. That’s a shame, because Dobie proves himself a fine writer up until the very end.
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Friday, July 3, 2020

Polyglot: How I Learn Languages by Kató Lomb

Anecdotes and tips from a master multilinguist
Hungarian author Kató Lomb (1909-2003) has been called “the world’s most multilingual woman” and “possibly the most accomplished polyglot in the world.” After earning a PhD in chemistry, Lomb taught herself 16 languages well enough to work as a professional translator and interpreter in all of them, including Russian, Chinese, and Japanese. Lomb was also one of the world’s first simultaneous translators (like the ones who talk in the United Nations headphones). After achieving renown as a polyglot (master of many languages), Lomb wrote four books about languages and language learning. Her first book, Polyglot: How I Learn Languages, was published in Hungarian in 1970. An English translation can be downloaded for free from the website of TESL-EJ: The Electronic Journal for English as a Second Language.

The intended audience for Polyglot includes those who teach themselves foreign languages, those who teach languages to others, and those thinking of becoming professional interpreters. I fit into the self-taught category, but nowhere near the level of Lomb’s achievements. This book can be read by language learners of any skill level, even beginners, but one must have an avid curiosity for languages to find it interesting and useful. This book is for people who want to do more than just learn travel phrases, but who actually wish to read texts, have meaningful conversations, and go beyond mere memorization to learn the actual mechanics of a foreign language.

Despite the subtitle, only a few of the chapters really function as a how-to manual for language learning. This book is really a combination of Lomb’s personal anecdotes, learning tips, and educated reflections on languages. Even so, there is still plenty of concrete practical advice for those wishing to learn foreign languages. In addition to her own expertise as a polyglot, Lomb draws upon the work of educators who have researched the most efficient and successful methods of language instruction. First and foremost, Lomb dispels the myth that language learning is easier for children and that adults are too psychologically immutable to learn foreign languages effectively. Not only is she herself living proof that this is incorrect, having acquired almost all of her languages as an adult, Lomb also cites research opposing this assumption. In discussing her personal methods of language learning, Lomb enumerates her “Ten Commandments of Language Learning,” as well as a list of ten “dont’s” of language study. In a brief nutshell, her methods promote the deciphering of books (fiction, for example) over textbook learning, thus emphasizing the acquiring of words and phrases in context rather than memorizing vocabulary lists. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but too much to summarize here. Lomb also offers advice to those thinking of pursuing a career as a translator or interpreter.

Not surprisingly, Lomb credits enthusiasm and time invested as the most important factors for success. She obviously made language learning the most important activity in her life, and one would have to do the same to achieve her level of success. Those wishing to learn one or two languages rather than 16, however, need not be intimidated by Lomb’s methods. There is no panacea for acquiring fluency in an unfamiliar tongue, but Lomb’s insights and practical knowledge will surely prove helpful to readers with more than a passing interest in foreign languages. The advice she offers here is more rational and realistic than so many of the “learn in 30 days” methods on the market. In addition to her linguistic erudition, Lomb writes with a charming personality and sense of humor that makes the book an enjoyable read. I look forward to reading more of her works.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Kallocain by Karin Boye

Dystopian swan song
Though best known as a poet in her native country of Sweden, author Karin Boye also wrote five novels, the last of which, Kallocain, was published in 1940. In 1966, Gustaf Lannestock translated the novel into English as part of the University of Wisconsin Press’s Nordic Translation Series. Kallocain and ten other Scandinavian novels in the Nordic Translation Series can be read for free online at the University of Wisconsin Libraries’ Digital Collections website.

Kallocain is the memoir of Leo Kall, a scientist living in a dystopian future. The world he describes is a highly militarized society in which every resource and every action is directed towards the might of the Worldstate, a draconian bureaucracy that strives for military supremacy over the rival states threatening its borders. The architectural structures of this civilization lie largely underground in the form of bunkers, tunnels, and subways, though one can venture surfaceward to a rooftop terrace if granted a permit. As in ancient Sparta, children are taken from their parents at a young age and groomed for military service. The citizens, who call each other “fellow-soldiers,” live under constant surveillance, though they don’t resent it much since their every thought and action is devoted to the almighty state.

Besides his obligatory military duties, Kall works as a chemist in the Worldstate’s Chemistry City No. 4. With little material benefit to gain from his labors in such an austere society, Kall’s only aspiration is to gain respect by ascending to higher and higher rungs of the corporate-military ladder. He has developed a new type of truth serum that forces suspected criminals and traitors to reveal their innermost thoughts. Hoping to enshrine his name in history, he dubs his invention Kallocain. As a devoted servant of the state, Kall hopes that his chemical will be used to root out treasonous individualistic thoughts that poison the rigid communalism of the Worldstate. While questioning volunteer subjects during the testing phase, however, he exposes some contrary thoughts and opinions that cause him to question his values, his career, and his marriage.

Despite some similarities to Big Brother, Boye wrote Kallocain almost a decade before George Orwell published his novel 1984. The dystopia that Boye has conceived in Kallocain bears a closer resemblance to that of Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We, published in 1924. Unlike We, however, Kallocain is more realistic, not at all satirical, and more authentic in its portrayal of human psychology and emotion. Published during the rise of the Nazis and Stalin’s reign over the Soviet Union, Kallocain can rightly be considered a warning cry against totalitarian dictatorships and the military-industrial complex. Boye, however, emphasizes the personal over the political. This is not a science fiction adventure story of resistance and revolution, but rather a metaphorical investigation into issues of human nature: the need for love, the fear of intimacy, the allure of conformity, the poison of jealousy, the paranoia of betrayal, and the reluctance to acknowledge or reveal one’s true self. Though set far in the future, Boye’s empathetic insights apply to real lives in today’s world.

While writing the novel, Boye may have been dealing with some of these issues herself. She committed suicide less than a year after finishing Kallocain. Her feelings of melancholy and dread are palpable throughout the book, which remains as a tragic testimony to both her personal struggles and her immense literary talent.
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