Friday, October 30, 2020

Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Literary Classic to Soviet Cinematic Epic by Denise J. Youngblood

The history behind the masterpiece
Though I am a lover of classic literature, I haven’t yet had the courage to tackle Leo Tolstoy’s mammoth novel
War and Peace. Recently, however, I did see the Russian film adaptation directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, which was released in four parts from 1966 to 1967. This film is a true masterpiece of cinematic historical fiction that combines epic battles with intimate human drama. The artistic and technical aspects of the film are superb, and the grand scale of the production truly staggers the mind. The 2019 Criterion Collection DVD set includes a 45 minute interview with historian Denise J. Youngblood, an expert on Russian war films. I enjoyed her commentary so much that I decided to read her 2014 book Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Literary Classic to Soviet Cinematic Epic

Youngblood’s Criterion Collection presentation focuses primarily on the making of Bondarchuk’s film, while her book expands the discussion to include literary and film criticism, adaptation theory, historiography, and the actual historical events upon which the novel and its films are based. The text is organized in a very logical manner. Chapter 1 covers most of the making-of material. If you’ve seen the Criterion Collection interview, then you’ve already heard about 80 percent of what’s here, but the book still contains plenty of new and interesting details. Chapter 2 discusses the definition of an epic, and whether Bondarchuk’s film qualifies as one. This hinges not only on the grand scale of the story and production but also on how well it embodies the culture and national spirit of Russia and the Soviet Union. Chapter 3 discusses Bondarchuk’s War and Peace as an adaptation, how it compares to Tolstoy’s novel, and the decisions Bondarchuk made in interpreting the source material. In Chapter 4, Youngblood examines how well the film reflects historical reality. Chapter 5 compares Bondarchuk’s film with director King Vidor’s 1956 adaptation of War and Peace, an American film that was very popular in Russia. Chapter 6 covers Bondarchuk’s follow-up film, Waterloo, another grand historical epic of the Napoleonic Era. Finally, a brief conclusion sums up, on a somewhat tragic note, the remainder of Bondarchuk’s career.

There is a lot of comparing and contrasting going on in this book: Bondarchuk vs. Tolstoy, Bondarchuk vs. Vidor, War and Peace vs. Waterloo, both films vs. history. The very nature of film studies requires that a large portion of the content be devoted to plot summaries (spoilers included, of course). Therefore, if you’ve read Tolstoy’s novel and have seen all these films, much of the text may be telling you things you already know. Such recapping is necessary, however, for Youngblood to illustrate the conclusions she draws, and her synopses are interspersed with enlightening observations on filmmaking technique. One also learns quite a bit about the history of Russia’s war against Napoleon’s France, as well as the cultural climate and cinematic history of the Soviet Union. Youngblood’s comprehensive knowledge in history, film, and Russian studies allows her to make revealing interdisciplinary connections between the three fields.

With about 130 pages of text and half that much in notes, bibliography, and index, Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is not a cumbersome read for the general reader. I am neither a historian nor film scholar, just a film and literature buff, yet I found Youngblood’s prose quite accessible and never boring. Anyone who appreciates Bondarchuk’s film will enjoy the fascinating behind-the-scenes and between-the-lines details that Youngblood delivers in this comprehensive study.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold

Wisconsin’s Walden, and an ecological call to arms
Published in 1949,
A Sand County Almanac is a landmark book in the field of ecology and one of the seminal texts of the modern American environmental movement. The author, Aldo Leopold, was a professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin after having previously been employed for over two decades by the United States Forest Service.

The book is divided into three parts. The first section, A Sand County Almanac, is a nature-writing memoir similar to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. While at the University of Wisconsin, Leopold purchased a plot of land outside Baraboo in Sauk County (there is no Sand County in Wisconsin; the phrase refers to the region’s sandy soil). Leopold and his family spent their weekends on this farm and woodland, living in a shack that is now a National Historic Landmark. Leopold records a year in the life of this sand county land, describing the sights and sounds of each season and explaining the natural processes taking place. Amidst these empirical observations, Leopold emphasizes the holistic unity of all natural phenomena that comprise an ecosystem. He also frequently recounts the natural history of the region by discussing the changes in the biome over time. Leopold’s nature writing is some of the best ever written in the English language. He combines scientific objectivity with philosophical thoughtfulness, often giving the reader new insights into familiar species. Unlike Thoreau, Leopold doesn’t venture off into philosophical asides or literary flourishes. He sticks to the subject of nature, and his prose is quotably eloquent, articulate, and accessible to readers of all levels.

The second part of the book, Sketches Here and There, is a series of writings about places where Leopold lived, worked, or traveled, among them Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Manitoba. The writing is similar in style and quality to A Sand County Almanac but starts to introduce more discussion of land and wildlife management. The highlight is Leopold’s vivid memories of two canoe trips he took through the Sierra Madre in Mexico.

The third section of the book, entitled The Upshot, consists of four chapters in which Leopold stresses the importance of wilderness, criticizes current practices of land management, and outlines his own plan for conservation. A lifelong hunter, Leopold does not object to recreational use, but laments the trend in outdoor sportsmanship towards gadgetry and convenience and away from traditional woodcraft and communion with nature. He proposes the formation of a land ethic where nature and its resources are not judged by their monetary value but by their value to the overall health and well-being of the Earth. To adopt such a land ethic, mankind must view himself as an equal participant in nature rather than a master with dominion over it.

Leopold died shortly after the completion of this book, but his call to arms has not gone unheard, and this book has proven very influential to the American environmental movement. He would no doubt be pleased at some of the developments that have taken place since his passing, such as the establishment of large national parks in Alaska and the reintroduction of predator species. One would also have to admit, however, that we are still a long way from living the land ethic of which Leopold dreamed. Nevertheless, Leopold’s insightful writing does succeed in changing the way one thinks about nature. Whether you are a hunter, a farmer, a birdwatcher, a tree-hugger, or just someone who enjoys a walk in the woods, there is much to learn from A Sand County Almanac, and much to enjoy.
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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Pictures of the Socialistic Future by Eugene Richter

From utopia to dystopia
Examples of utopian literature can be found as far back as Plato’s Republic, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that this category of fiction really ballooned into a full-blown genre. Because utopian literature predicts the future, there is always an element of science fiction to it, but most 19th-century utopias were more concerned with political and social change rather than scientific or technological advances. Many of the utopian novels of this era advocated socialism as the cure for mankind’s ills, among the most popular being American author Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Englishman William Morris’s News from Nowhere. In response to such rosy visions of socialism, Eugene Richter, a member of the German Reichstag (parliament), penned his novel Pictures of the Socialistic Future, published in 1891.

The story takes place in Germany, specifically Berlin at first, at an undetermined point in the near future. As the novel opens, Germany is embarking on a new socialistic path. Very little is said about the political turmoil that preceded this rebirth, but a scenario similar to the French Revolution is implied: The existing government has been overthrown, and it is now day one for the nation to construct a socialist society from scratch. All private property is confiscated, total separation of church and state is established, and policies are immediately rewritten to abolish class and implement total equality among the citizenry.

The beautiful thing about Pictures of the Socialistic Future is that for the first several chapters, it is difficult for the reader to tell whether Richter has written a pro-socialist or an anti-socialist narrative. The narrator is overwhelmingly in favor of the socialist transition and continually trumpets the egalitarianism and brotherhood promised by the regime change. In each chapter, however, a problem arises, and the narrator describes the socialist government’s solution, which often involves the rescinding of civil liberties. Early in the book, such difficulties include the confiscation of citizens’ life savings, workers forced into jobs against their will, and the splitting up of families for occupational relocation. At first, the narrator excuses these developments as unavoidable inconveniences necessary to bring about universal equality and social justice. As the novel progresses, however, the policies become more draconian, and the narrator starts to lose faith in the socialist ideology. Thus the utopia gradually devolves into a dystopia.

In many ways, Richter presents a worst case scenario of what could go wrong with socialism. For example, the chancellor of Germany resigns because he is too busy shining his own shoes and cleaning his own house to get any political work done. (He’s not allowed a housekeeper, because that would be elitist.) Most of the objections raised, however, are realistic, and some presage actual faults that materialized later in the Soviet Union and communist China. Though guilty of exaggeration at times, for the most part Richter keeps the plot well within the believable.

What truly sets Richter’s novel apart from so much of the utopian fiction of its era is that, in addition to all the political commentary and dead-serious satire, Richter also delivers a very engaging personal story about the narrator’s family. Unlike Bellamy’s and Morris’s novels, Richter’s is not the least bit boring. Prior to what would be more formally considered science fiction (George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Ayn Rand’s Anthem, for example), Pictures of the Socialistic Future may be the perfect anti-socialist novel, just as Jack London’s The Iron Heel is the perfect pro-socialist novel. Like London’s masterpiece, Richter’s novel is an eloquent and thought-provoking read that provides a vivid look into the political climate of its era.
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Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Professor Challenger Short Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

His two remaining adventures

It goes without saying that Sherlock Holmes was the character that made Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famous. The Holmes adventures, however, only constitute a fraction of Conan Doyle’s literary output. Outside of the Holmes universe, the most famous recurring character that Conan Doyle created is Professor Challenger, the hero of The Lost World. Challenger is the world’s preeminent authority on all manners scientific, or at least considers himself to be so, and he has little patience for those who disagree with his theories. He is described as a large man with a “spade-shaped” beard and a quick temper and blustering manner of speech that make him intimidating to all but his closest friends and family. Outside of his study and his laboratory, he is a man of action who, true to his name, never shies away from a challenge.

Conan Doyle featured Professor Challenger in three novels and two short stories. The Lost World, published in 1912, is one of Conan Doyle’s most popular books and has undergone several film adaptations. The rest of Professor Challenger’s adventures, however, have not fared so well. The novel The Poison Belt, published in 1913, features the scientist and adventure hero in a tepid affair with very little science and no adventure. In this apocalyptic story, the Earth passes through a noxious nebula, and the characters are left with nothing much to do but sit around and watch the effects. The third Challenger novel, The Land of Mist (1926) is even worse. In this awful story, Conan Doyle unforgivably sells out his own character by subverting Challenger’s scientific skepticism in order to promote his own beliefs in paranormal activity.

Thankfully, the two short stories are an improvement over the second and third Challenger novels, though their brevity leaves one wanting more. It’s too bad Conan Doyle didn’t produce an entire volume of Challenger stories, because these two turned out pretty well.

“When the World Screamed” (1928) — 4.5 stars

Unlike the other Challenger adventures, this story is narrated in the first-person by Peerless Jones, an expert in artesian wells and an old rugby buddy of Challenger’s journalist sidekick Ned Malone. Challenger hires Jones to join the team of his latest project. Challenger has bored a deep tunnel into the Earth, roughly 8 miles deep, in an attempt to pierce all the way through the planet’s crust and ascertain what lies beneath. He theorizes that the planet is actually a living organism that shows signs of respiration and circulation in its natural processes, like a gargantuan sea urchin. Though the science seems farfetched, the important thing is that Conan Doyle treats it with a ring of authenticity, which results in a well-written and entertaining sci-fi yarn, even better in some respects than The Lost World, though less substantial. At one point in the story, Mrs. Challenger is mentioned as still living, thus chronologically placing this story before The Land of Mist. Challenger’s great borehole might owe a debt of influence to Frank R. Stockton’s subterranean sci-fi novel The Great Stone of Sardis, published in 1891.
Read the story online at Project Gutenberg Australia.

“The Disintegration Machine” (1929) — 3 stars

A scientist named Dr. Nemor claims to have invented a machine that can break matter down into its individual atoms and then reverse the procedure to reassemble the disintegrated object—a process similar to teleportation but without the distance traveled. Assigned by his newspaper to investigate the matter, Malone takes Challenger along to meet the inventor. Nemor makes it clear that he intends to sell his device as a weapon to the highest bidder. This story is much briefer than “When the World Screams,” and it doesn’t delve very deeply into the science of disintegration. It is more of a Holmes-like caper in which Challenger and Malone must thwart a villain. The plot is pretty simplistic and the ending predictable, but Conan Doyle’s telling of it is still enjoyable and Challenger behaves in a matter true to his character.
Read the story online at Project Gutenberg Australia.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Journeys in Diverse Places by Ambroise Paré

Memoirs of a 16th-century medic
Amboise Paré
In the early years of Saturday Night Live, Steve Martin played a character called Theodoric of York, a medieval barber who performs surgery. Though that sketch is ridiculous, it does have a foundation in historical fact. Perhaps it was even based on the real-life memoirs of 16th-century French barber-surgeon Ambroise Paré. In his book Journeys in Diverse Places, Paré recalls how he was employed as a medic by the King of France and other French nobleman, who often sent him on military expeditions to treat their wounded soldiers. Paré’s recollections of his medical career yield a very interesting historical document that provides a detailed look at both medicine and warfare during the Renaissance. 

Journeys in Diverse Places consists of 19 chapters, each of which details a different trip taken by Paré for medical purposes, often to the site of a battle or siege. These travels took place from 1537 to 1569. Paré wrote these accounts at the age of 70, in response to some criticism of his medical procedures by the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, whom he addresses in several chapters as “mon petit maistre.” Given the carnage that was going on all around him, Paré’s curative methods seem surprisingly advanced and humane for his era, with some barbaric exceptions, of course. In one notorious passage, Paré recommends boiling puppies in turpentine to create a salve for applying to gunshot wounds. On the battlefield, amputations and trepannings are frequent occurrences. Paré describes gruesome head wounds from which their victims surprisingly survived. In quieter times, however, Paré spends months living in luxury as he rehabilitates the shattered kneecap of a marquis, a case for which he describes his treatments in extensive detail. Paré even prescribes the creation of “artificial rain” to help his patient sleep.

Renaissance warfare as depicted in Paré’s account is every bit as gruesome and sadistic as today’s medieval action movies make it out to be. Tactics include dropping lime from castle walls to burn the enemy’s eyes, tying cats on the end of poles to taunt one’s opponents, or simply executing prisoners in cold blood. Of the book’s 19 chapters, almost all are quite brief except for three entries: The Journey to Metz, The Journey to Hesdin, and The Journey to Flanders. While the latter is the case of the nobleman’s kneecap, the other two are incidents of besieged castles where many died not only in battle but also of starvation. Rather than surrender to the Spaniards, Paré tells us, the French were “determined to eat the asses, mules, and horses, dogs, cats, and rats, even our boots and collars, and other skins that we could have softened and stewed.” In some cases there were so many thousands of dead littering the battlefield that their bodies were used as filler in the construction of defensive walls.

Given the title and the table of contents, I thought this was going to be a more traditional geographic travelogue describing the sites and people of 16th-century Europe. Had I known Journeys in Diverse Places was a book about battlefield medicine, I probably wouldn’t have read it, since neither military history nor medicine are subjects of particular interest to me. Once I got into it, however, this proved to be an engaging read full of fascinating historical detail. The fact is, warfare was a big part of Renaissance life, and here one really gets a sense of the horrors that faced the common foot soldiers, as well as the lifestyles of the dukes and marquises who sent them into battle. Journeys in Diverse Places is a relatively short read, and history buffs will find the education acquired is more than worth the time invested in reading it.
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Monday, October 19, 2020

The Confessions of a Collector by William Carew Hazlitt

Arcane anecdotes for book and coin experts 
As someone with an interest in book history and rare book libraries, I sometimes enjoy reading books about book collectors and their collections. This led me to William Carew Hazlitt’s book The Confessions of a Collector, published in 1897. Hazlitt (1834 -1913) came from a long line of men of letters. His grandfather William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was a famous essayist and literary critic. William Carew Hazlitt’s published writings are mostly on literary history and bibliography. He was also a collector of books, coins, china, postage stamps, paintings, and furniture. The Confessions of a Collector is a memoir about his collecting activities in these various areas.

Hazlitt was an expert on early English literature (pre-1700) and wrote a muli-volume bibliography of printed books from that era. To support his scholarly endeavors, he worked as a personal librarian to wealthy book collector Henry Huth. While purchasing books on Huth’s behalf, thousands of rare volumes passed through Hazlitt’s hands. Unfortunately, the reader learns very little about those books from Hazlitt’s memoir. The text is basically a catalog of London book dealers and anecdotes about Hazlitt’s dealings with each of them. Hazlitt assumes a great deal of knowledge on the part of the reader. He expects one to have read all the books he’s written, read all the books he’s read, and met all the dealers he mentions. The intended audience for the book seems to have been his closest colleagues in the London collecting community. Although he mentions famous early printers like William Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde, Hazlitt never discusses the exceptional qualities of the books they produced, other than their monetary value. In fact, he never expresses any sort of affection whatsoever for the books in which he’s dealing. The point of each anecdote is simply that Hazlitt bought such-and-such a book for five pounds and sold it later for fifteen. Of course, a century later, all the information on prices and the relative rarity of volumes will be obsolete to today’s bargain hunters, so Hazlitt’s tales of book collecting will likely only be of interest to museum curators or rare book librarians.

After nine chapters on books, there is one chapter on collecting china and one chapter on postage stamps and paintings. The remaining five chapters are on coin collecting. This latter section of the book is far more informative than Hazlitt’s thoughts on book collecting. On the topic of coins, Hazlitt does a better job of communicating his enthusiasm for numismatics (coin collecting) and his appreciation for the art form. I am not a coin collector, but Hazlitt certainly did pique my interest on the subject. He describes his decision-making process when examining and purchasing rare coins, which might actually prove valuable advice to a reader who is starting a collection of European coins. One wishes Hazlitt had approached the subject of books in the same helpful manner, instead of merely rattling off an assortment of random deal-making anecdotes.

Other than the division of topics into chapters as described above, there is little organization to the information that Hazlitt provides here. He simply meanders on each subject, often repeating the same points. If you were an avid collector of books and coins in the late 19th century, this memoir might have replicated the experience of a fireside chat in Hazlitt’s study (and perhaps not an entirely pleasant one, since he does come across as a bit of a blowhard). These days, however, only expert collectors, those privy to the most arcane knowledge in their areas of interst, are likely to find much use for The Confessions of a Collector.
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Friday, October 16, 2020

The Land of Mist by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Prof. Challenger betrayed for spiritualist propaganda
Outside of his Sherlock Holmes stories, the most famous recurring character in the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is Professor Challenger, the bearded, blustering scientist who led the expedition to The Lost World. Conan Doyle featured Challenger in three novels and two short stories. Unfortunately, with the exception of The Lost World, none of them are regarded very highly. The Land of Mist, published in 1926, is the third novel in the Challenger series, which follows Challenger’s second adventure, 1913’s The Poison Belt. The two short stories were published later, but I believe they are prequels to The Land of Mist.

One of the things (among many) that makes this novel so disappointing is that Challenger is merely a guest star in this book and only present for small portions of the narrative. The story centers around Ned Malone, journalist and sidekick from The Lost World. Professor Challenger’s daughter Enid Challenger is also a reporter and plays a major role in the story. Malone and Enid are assigned by a newspaper to co-write a series of articles on the spiritualist movement. Though both begin as skeptics, they resolve to keep an open mind while investigating possible paranormal phenomena at a series of seances where mediums claim to receive communications from the dead. (Gee, I wonder if the two reporters will fall in love.) Lord John Roxton, another supporting character from The Lost World, also appears in a couple chapters.

Conan Doyle wrote many works on spiritualism and the paranormal, both fiction and nonfiction. He was a firm believer in the supernatural world and gave pubic lectures on the topic. Sometimes he even managed to craft an entertaining story around the subject, such as in The Parasite. The Land of Mist, however, reads more like one of his lectures than one of his entertaining stories. As Malone and Enid attend more seances and meet more mediums, they become more convinced of the veracity of spiritualist claims. Meanwhile, mediums are being persecuted in London for their beliefs. If they could only convert a confirmed materialist into seeing the truth and beauty of the spirit world, it would go a long way towards popularizing spiritualism for the good of the masses. Thus, Ned and Enid conspire with the spiritualists to convince Professor Challenger to attend a seance where he will see the light and become converted. By following this course, Conan Doyle betrays the integrity of his own character in order to push his spiritualist propaganda.

Conan Doyle was also a church-goin’ man, so he does not view spiritualism as a departure from the Bible. In fact, a few of the ghosts who appear in this story have actually met Christ, and the prophets mentioned in the Bible were nothing but mediums who received messages from the dead. The spiritualists’ belief system, as sketched by Conan Doyle in this novel, is an absurd house of cards built on convenient rationalizations. When a seance fails to achieve results, for example, it is because a skeptic in the room disturbs the energy. In addition to messages from beyond the grave, Conan Doyle asserts physical manifestations such as ectoplasmic apparitions, spirit photography, and poltergeists. Even those who believe in ghosts and TV mediums who speak to the deceased will find many of the Victorian Era spiritualist beliefs to be ridiculous.

Besides all the pseudo-science, this is just a poorly written story, boring for most of its length, that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be an essay or a melodrama. Conan Doyle presents a dull catalog of dozens of paranormal occurrences he’s read about, which leaves room for only the thinnest of stories, every turn of which is predictable. Although Conan Doyle has every right to write about his supernatural beliefs, he should have left Professor Challenger out of it.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Tragicomedy of race and class in America
Any discussion of the most important works in African American literature is sure to include Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, first published in 1952. The novel depicts and comments upon the racial and social climate of its era, including the black nationalist movement, the American Communist party, and social conditions in the American South. This groundbreaking work of modern literature, however, goes beyond social realism to address more existential issues of black identity. While it often deals with heavy themes, Ellison eloquently mixes tragedy and humor to deliver an engaging and thought-provoking read.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator who grew up in a small town in the American South. He wins a school contest in speech-making, for which he earns a scholarship to a black college. Before he can collect his prize, however, he must first undergo a harrowing and brutal racist hazing ritual for the amusement of the town’s leading white men. As a college student, he is assigned to act as chauffeur and guide to one of the school’s wealthy white donors. When, at the donor’s request, he ushers the white man to some unseemly sites that display the harsher realities of black life in the town, he draws the ire of the college’s president, who expels him from the school. He then heads to New York, where he is recruited by a socialist group called the Brotherhood that ostensibly advocates reforms for the poor and working classes of all races. Due to his prowess as a public speaker, the narrator is assigned to be the Brotherhood’s spokesman in Harlem.

At least half of the novel is devoted to the protagonist’s career with the Brotherhood, which is easily the narrative’s biggest fault. Way too much time is spent on the internal politics and behind-the-scenes strategies of this organization. The reader sits through a series of protracted dialogues in which members of the group’s hierarchy accost each other in accusatory tones without ever really saying what they mean. In the end this yields some interesting conclusions, but Ellison sure takes a long and circuitous route in getting there. Just as in John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, a novel about labor organizers among oppressed white farm workers, focusing so much on the supposed reformers often leaves the reader feeling one step removed from the problems they’re trying to reform. In both cases, the author is critical of these purported saviors and exposes the self-interested exploitation behind their agendas. Ellison’s criticisms of the Communists and their treatment of black Americans may be valid, but the 21st century reader finds himself wishing more time had been spent focusing on the realities of black life in Harlem. The beginning and end of the novel—the narrator’s life in the South, his time at college, the frenzied climax, and the thoughtful epilogue—are superior to what’s in between.

Those who prefer a more traditionally naturalistic social realism will find that Ellison ventures a little too much into a verbose, Faulknerian stream-of-conscious style that obscures his arguments more than it elucidates them. Thankfully, only portions of the novel are written in this manner. Despite my few reservations, Invisible Man is still a great novel and an enlightening read. Though published almost seven decades ago, many of the issues Ellison raises have proven regrettably timeless, thus Invisible Man still retains its relevance. For those receptive to what it has to say, this book still has the power to change one’s views on race in America.

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Friday, October 9, 2020

Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates 2020

Congratulations to Louise Glück!
It was announced yesterday that American poet Louise Glück has won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” I’ll have to take their word for it, because I’ve never read any of Glück’s work (this blog tends to avoid poets), but it is always a pleasant surprise when an American takes the award.

Each year Old Books by Dead Guys presents the cumulative list of works by Nobel laureates that have been reviewed at this blog (even though now you can see this list any time you want simply by clicking on “Nobel Laureates” in the above menu bar). 
Unlike the previous year, I haven’t read a great deal of Nobel books since last October, so the only new authors added to the list this time around are England’s John Galsworthy (1932 winner) and Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk (2018 winner). Plus I added a few new works from Paul Heyse, Hermann Hesse, Romain Rolland, Pearl S. Buck, and John Steinbeck. Check out the authors below and click on the titles to read the complete reviews.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

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

Selma Lagerlöf (1909 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Paul von Heyse (1910 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪

Maurice Maeterlinck (1911 Nobel) Belgium 🇧🇪

Gerhart Hauptmann (1912 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪

Rabindranath Tagore (1913 Nobel) India 🇮🇳

Romain Rolland (1915 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Verner von Heidenstam (1916 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Henrik Pontoppidan (1917 Nobel) Denmark 🇩🇰

Carl Spitteler (1919 Nobel) Switzerland 🇨🇭

Knut Hamsun (1920 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Anatole France (1921 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Wladyslaw Reymont (1924 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

George Benard Shaw (1925 Nobel) Ireland 🇮🇪

Henri Bergson (1927 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

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

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

John Galsworthy (1932 Nobel) United Kingdom 🇬🇧

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

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

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

Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1939 Nobel) Finland 🇫🇮

Johannes Vilhelm Jensen (1944 Nobel) Denmark 🇩🇰

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

Bertrand Russell (1950 Nobel) United Kingdom 🇬🇧

Pär Lagerkvist (1951 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

François Mauriac (1952 Nobel) 
France 🇫🇷

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

Halldór Laxness
 (1955 Nobel) Iceland 🇮🇸

Borris Pasternak (1958 Nobel) Russia (Soviet Union) 🇷🇺
     (1957) - 4 stars

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

Mikhail Sholokhov (1965 Nobel) Soviet Union 🇷🇺

José Saramago (1998 Nobel) Portugal 🇵🇹

Orhan Pamuk (2006 Nobel) Turkey 🇹🇷

  • Snow (2002) - 3.5 stars

Mo Yan (2012 Nobel) China 🇨🇳

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

Olga Tokarczuk (2018 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

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


Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Avenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Somewhere between Conan Doyle and Hitchcock
In a career that spanned from the 1880s to the 1940s, English author E. Phillips Oppenheim produced over 100 novels and dozens of volumes of short stories. His novel The Avenger was originally published in England in 1907 under the title of Conspirators before being released in America the following year under its present title. The Avenger is the first of Oppenheim’s books that I have read, and if the quality of this novel is an accurate indication of his overall body of work, I look forward to exploring more of his prolific literary output.

The Avenger is presumably set during the early 20th century, an era when one would see both hansom cabs and electric broughams plying the streets of London. Herbert Wrayson returns to his apartment one evening to find an intruder rummaging through his desk. His shock and indignation are relieved a bit when he realizes said intruder is a beautiful woman. It turns out she has the wrong apartment. She had meant to break into the flat of Wrayson’s upstairs neighbor, Morris Barnes, a man with whom Wrayson is acquainted but does not count among his friends. After some inconclusive grilling, Wrayson is distracted by a phone call while the woman slips away. Later that night, Wrayson finds Morris Barnes’s dead body in a cab out in front of his building. When questioned by the police, Wrayson leaves out any mention of the woman he met that evening. Even he is not really sure why he does so. Perhaps as a gentleman, he simply feels honor-bound to protect a woman he suspects may be in some distress, or maybe he has fallen in love with her? Either way, Wrayson decides to find this mystery woman and get to the bottom of Barnes’s murder.

Oppenheim was an immensely popular novelist during his lifetime, and after reading this book it is easy to see why. The Avenger may be intended as popular entertainment for the masses, but it is very intelligently written. Oppenheim’s storytelling style (in 1907, anyway) reads like a cross between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the early thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock. The narrative retains some Victorian propriety in its somewhat antiquated belief in a rigid class structure. Gentlemen are born a breed above the riff-raff and live by a gentlemanly code. Women of the upper classes are presumed eminently virtuous while those of the lower classes are prone to vice. Nevertheless, the story reads as surprisingly modern in its lack of prudishness concerning murder, infidelity, women of ill repute, and philandering cads. Like Hitchcock’s earlier films, it delivers danger and suspense while stopping shy of the more hard-boiled and violent film noirs. Though there is a murder mystery here, it is not a detective story in the vein of Sherlock Holmes; deciphering clues is not the main concern. It is a sophisticated adventure in which classy characters find themselves involved in international intrigue. The storytelling is always dignified but never boring. Oppenheim constructs a complex and engaging plot that always keeps the reader guessing.

I read a lot of classic literature and vintage pulp fiction, and it is rare that I encounter a “new” (to me) author that really impresses me. Oppenheim is one such fortuitous discovery. His work bears similarities to that of Edgar Wallace and John Buchan, but I found The Avenger superior to novels I’ve read by either of those writers. Though no longer a household name, Oppenheim is a 100-hit wonder that definitely deserves further consideration.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert

Life after Leto II
Heretics of Dune,
the fifth book in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, was published in 1984, three years after the previous Dune novel. That fourth volume, God Emperor of Dune, was very much the culmination of the epic saga that began with 1965’s original Dune novel. God Emperor ended with a finality that brought closure to so many of the plot threads and grand schemes that Herbert conceived in the first four novels. As a result, Heretics of Dune often feels more like a spin-off than a sequel. When reading it, one gets the impression that Heretics is to the Dune universe what Rogue One is to the Star Wars universe: a stand-alone story with all new characters, surprisingly different in tone (somewhat of a spy thriller) and only tenuously related to the Duniverse timeline. By the time one finishes with the novel, however, it is clear that Heretics is only the beginning of a much grander narrative to come. It was, in fact, the beginning of a new trilogy envisioned by Herbert, but he died after having only completed two of the three novels.

Heretics of Dune takes place about 1500 years after God Emperor, or roughly 30,000 years in our future. The death of Leto II and the chaotic power vacuum that followed led to the Scattering, a tremendous diaspora of humanity to unknown stars and planets. What has taken place on those myriad far-flung worlds remains a mystery, but now descendants of those long-lost peoples, some with sinister intent, are beginning to return to the core planets of the former Imperium. While the first three novels of the Dune saga centered around a game of thrones between aristocratic houses, those dynasties disbanded during Leto II’s marathon reign. The Atreides and other noble families live on as DNA in the gene pool, but they no longer exist as political powers. The power struggle in Heretics of Dune takes place not between families but between bureaucracies: the religious/political sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, the genetic manipulators of the Bene Tleilax, the technological wizards of Ix, and the priests of Rakis (the planet formerly known as Arrakis). From the Scattering, a new and terrifying faction enters the mix: the Honored Matres, an order of warrior women armed with supreme skills in both physical combat and sexual conquest.

The plot of Heretics of Dune is basically a strategic chess game among these various players, and like a chess game, it is sometimes thrilling, often intellectually stimulating, but occasionally just plain boring. While the story may not live up to Dune books past, Herbert still enchants Dune fans with the Byzantine ingenuity of his Dune universe. The action takes place on three planets: Rakis, Gammu (formerly Geidi Prime) and the Bene Gesserit’s Chapterhouse planet. While the earlier Dune books mostly focused on emperors, aristocrats, and their retinues (the Fremen excepted), Heretics gives the reader a broader glimpse into the lives of the common residents of Gammu and Rakis and the rank and file of the Bene Gesserit and Tleilaxu.

Heretics of Dune is not as strong as the four books that preceded it. Nevertheless, don’t believe those Dune fans who complain that everything sucked after God Emperor. It’s still Frank Herbert’s work, and he still manages to deliver gripping suspense, philosophical food for thought, and beautiful richness of detail. As a whole, Herbert’s six canon Dune books stand as a literary masterpiece. His fictional universe is more intricately complex and intelligently conceptualized than those of Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, or any other multi-volume sci-fi/fantasy narrative. While the foundation of the Duniverse was laid by earlier novels, Heretics of Dune does add a few more fascinating levels to Herbert’s monumental vision.
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