Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Best of 2021

Top ten reads of the year
This time each year Old Books by Dead Guys highlights the best books reviewed at this blog over the past twelve months, regardless of when they were published. In 2021 I only posted 83 reviews to the OBDG blog; an all-time low! This year I realized that most of the books I consider worth reading tend to be lengthy opuses. Rather than hunt down a bunch of shorties to fill out the post count, I made a concerted effort to check some major tomes off of my reading list. The result was a very rewarding year of reading. Listed below are my ten favorite reads of the year, arranged chronologically by date of publication. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.


The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti by Charles William Russell (1858)
This biography of one of the world’s greatest polyglots (multilinguists) investigates his level of skill in the dozens of languages in which he was reputed to have been fluent. The remarkable accounts of Mezzofanti’s abilities will fascinate any reader interested in languages.

The Evolutionist at Large by Grant Allen (1881)
The enlightening essays in this book by Canadian-British novelist and science writer Grant Allen combine the science of Charles Darwin with the poetic observations of Henry David Thoreau to illustrate how evolution is at work all around us.

The Great Cycle by Tarjei Vesaas (1934)
This coming-of-age novel by one of Norway’s most acclaimed writers of the 20th century draws a stark naturalistic depiction of Norwegian rural life in a bygone era. Though understated and modest on the surface, this excellent novel delivers a deep and powerful reading experience.

The Don Flows Home to the Sea by Mikhail Sholokhov (1940)
The second half of Sholokhov’s realist epic of the Russian Cossacks (following And Quiet Flows the Don) continues the saga of the Melekhov family through the ongoing Russian Civil War. Sholokhov won the Nobel Prize in Literature for this monumental masterpiece.

The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)
In one of the twentieth century’s most thought-provoking works of philosophical fiction, a French-Algerian is tried for murder, but instead of a standard courtroom drama the reader gets an extended meditation on the absurdity and pointlessness of existence.

The Family of Pascal Duarte by Camilo José Cela (1942)
From the Spanish Nobel laureate comes this dark and disturbing novel in the form of a memoir written by a prisoner on death row for murder. Despite Pascal Duarte’s descent into insanity, the reader can’t help but sympathize with this tragic protagonist.

O, Shepherd Speak! by Upton Sinclair (1949)
This tenth novel in the Lanny Budd series chronicles Lanny’s adventures through the end of World War II and the dawn of the Cold War. This book is the culmination of Sinclair’s landmark series. He should have stopped here instead of writing a substandard eleventh volume.

The Songs He Didn’t Write: Bob Dylan Under the Influence by Derek Barker (2008)
An encyclopedia of all the songs Dylan has covered on record and in concert, this book not only provides insight into Dylan’s musical art but also serves as a fascinating guide to the history of American popular music.

One of the best books on Humboldt in recent years, this study explores the broad range of Humboldt’s intellectual pursuits and traces the lasting ramifications of Humboldtian thought in both the sciences and the humanities. 

History of the Marvel Universe by Mark Waid, et al. (2019)
A comprehensive fictional history of the Marvel Comics Universe, from the Big Bang to the end of time, encompassing its many wonderful and bizarre characters, worlds, and major story lines. Beautifully executed in word and art.

See also my best-of lists for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. Happy reading in 2022! Stay tuned for Old Books by Dead Guys’ 10th anniversary, coming up in a couple weeks.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Around the World with Old Books by Dead Guys

Selected books from 40 nations
Old Books by Dead Guys likes to sample world literature, often starting with the Nobel laureates and branching out from there. While the bulk of this blog has focused on American, English, and French literature, OBDG has also done some deep dabbling into Polish, Mexican, Canadian, and Scandinavian literatures. Not surprisingly, European nations have been reviewed the most, due to what’s available in English translation and the public domain. Nevertheless, in the past ten years since the blog’s inception, we’ve covered enough ground (as evidenced by the highlighted map below) to publish a “Parade of Nations” omnibus post.

Below is a list of some of the best books reviewed from 40 different nations. In some cases I’ve only reviewed one book from a particular country (Finland and Portugal, for example), in which case I didn’t really have much choice of what to feature. For other lands where I consider myself somewhat well-read, however, I’ve tried to pick the quintessential book for that nation—what I consider to be the most American book, the most Mexican book, and so on. Most are novels, but some are nonfiction. Enjoy this tour around the literary world! Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.

Algeria 🇩🇿
The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942) - 5 stars
Existentialist novel about a Frenchman in Algeria who is tried for murder.

Argentina 🇦🇷
A Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges (1961) - 3 stars
Collection of short stories, essays, and poems self-edited by Borges.

Australia 🇦🇺
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901) - 2.5 stars
Proto-feminist novel of a young woman’s coming-of-age in the Australian bush.

Austria 🇦🇹
Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter (1845) - 3 stars
Adventure story of two children lost in a snowstorm in the Alps.

Belarus 🇧🇾
Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz (1834) - 3.5 stars
The national epic of Poland, set in Lithuania, by an author born in what is now Belarus. (Borders have changed a lot since then.)

Belgium 🇧🇪
Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon (1948) - 5 stars
Dark noir crime thriller set in Nazi-occupied France.

Brazil 🇧🇷
Brazilian Tales, edited by Isaac Goldberg (1921) - 3.5 stars
Grab bag of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century short fiction.

Bulgaria 🇧🇬
Under the Yoke by Ivan Vazov (1890) - 3.5 stars
Victor Hugo-esque romantic war epic set during the April Uprising against the Ottoman Empire.

Canada 🇨🇦
Jalna by Mazo de la Roche (1927) - 4.5 stars
Family drama set on an Ontario farm; part Little House on the Prairie, part Wuthering Heights.

China 🇨🇳
Selected Stories by Lu Xun (1918-1926) - 3.5 stars
A collection of short stories by the writer considered the founder of modern Chinese literature.

Colombia 🇨🇴
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez (1967) - 3.5 stars
Multi-generational family saga set in a remote Colombian village, in the style of magic realism.

Czech Republic 🇨🇿
R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Capek (1920) - 5 stars
Futuristic science fiction play, in which the word “robot” was first coined.

Denmark 🇩🇰
The Long Journey by Johannes V. Jensen (1908-1922) - 5 stars
(Published in English in three volumes)
Three-volume epic charting the Scandinavian-centric history of mankind from prehistory to modernity.

England 🇬🇧
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859) - 5 stars
Perhaps the most important science book of all time. Also a great read for nature lovers.

Finland 🇫🇮
People in the Summer Night by Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1934) - 4 stars
Early modernist collage of vignettes set in a rural Finnish village.

France 🇫🇷
Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (1831) - 5 stars
The epic medieval tale of Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

Germany 🇩🇪
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774) - 3.5 stars
This story of unrequited love was the flagship novel of Romanticism. To 18th century teenage German hipsters, this was their Catcher in the Rye.

Greece 🇬🇷
The Elements by Euclid (ca. 300 BC) - Oliver Byrne online edition 3.5 stars
Ancient mathematical text that serves as the foundation of geometry. The Oliver Byrne edition is beautifully illustrated in color.

Hungary 🇭🇺
Tales from Jókai by Mór Jókai (1904) - 3 stars
Short stories by one of Hungary’s most acclaimed writers, with touches of horror and sci-fi.

Iceland 🇮🇸
Seven Icelandic Short Stories, edited by Ásgeir Péturssen and Steingrímur J. Thorsteinsson (1961) - 4 stars
Short stories of Icelandic life including one by Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness.

India 🇮🇳
Mashi and Other Stories by Rabindrinath Tagore (1918) - 3.5 stars
These stories of modern India are a mix of romance, social realism, and a little bit of horror.

Ireland 🇮🇪
The Gadfly by Ethel Lilian Voynich (1897) - 3.5 stars
Though the author is Irish, this novel is about a revolution in Italy and was a big hit in the Soviet Union and China.

Italy 🇮🇹
The City of the Sun by Tommaso Campanella (1602) - 4 stars
17th century utopian novel inspired by Plato’s Republic.

Mexico 🇲🇽
Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo (1955) - 5 stars
Surrealist novel by Mexico’s most revered novelist. A landmark book in Latin American literature. 

The Netherlands 🇳🇱
Ethics by Baruch Spinoza (1677) - 5 stars
Meticulous philosophical treatise that spells out Spinoza’s pantheistic worldview in the logical format of a mathematical proof.

Nigeria 🇳🇬
The Interpreters by Wole Soyinka (1964) - 2 stars
Overly obscure novel about a group of young Nigerians who have returned to their home country after studying in Britain and the United States.

Norway 🇳🇴
Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun (1917) - 5 stars
Powerful novel of a man and his family wrestling a living from the Earth in rural Norway.

Peru 🇵🇪
The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa (2000) - 4.5 stars
Political thriller about a real-life dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.

Poland 🇵🇱
The Peasants by Wladyslaw Reymont (4 volumes, 1904-1909) - 5 stars
Four-volume naturalist novel that charts the lives of peasants in a rural Polish town over the course of the four seasons.

Portugal 🇵🇹
The Cave by José Saramago (2000) - 3.5 stars
Unconventional novel about a humble potter who works for an Amazon-esque megacorporation.

Romania 🇷🇴
Rhinoceros and Other Plays by Eugene Ionesco (1959) - 2.5 stars
Three bizarre dramas that exemplify Theatre of the Absurd.

Russia 🇷🇺
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957) - 4 stars
Epic love story of the Russian Revolution.

Scotland 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1902) - 5 stars
One of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson’s greatest and spookiest cases.

Spain 🇪🇸
The Family of Pascual Duarté by Camilo José Cela (1942) - 4.5 stars
A novel written in the form of a memoir by a murderer on death row.

Sweden 🇸🇪
The Treasure by Selma Lagerlöf (1909) - 5 stars
Chilling horror story set on the icy coast of Sweden.

Switzerland 🇨🇭
Two Little Misogynists by Carl Spitteler (1907) - 3 stars
Despite the strange title, this is a lighthearted novel about three young children—two boys and a girl—lost on an Alpine road.

Turkey 🇹🇷
Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002) - 3.5 stars
An expat reporter returns to his Turkish hometown in hopes of reuniting with a lost love.

Ukraine 🇺🇦
And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov (1940) - 5 stars
Brutally realistic saga of a Cossack family’s struggles through World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War.

United States of America 🇺🇸
The Octopus by Frank Norris (1901) - 5 stars
Naturalist masterpiece about a conflict between a railroad and ranchers in Southern California.

Uruguay 🇺🇾
Genesis by Eduardo Galeano (1982, first volume in Memory of Fire trilogy) - 3.5 stars
A mix of fiction and nonfiction in a series of historical vignettes that chart the course of Latin American history.

(I know that England and Scotland are not separate nations as both are part of the United Kingdom, but I decided to take advantage of the fact that Scotland has its own flag emoji.)

Monday, December 20, 2021

Bob Dylan All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track by Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon

An entertaining and informative track-by-track retrospective
The substantial coffee table book Bob Dylan All the Songs lives up to what its title claims. French authors Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon discuss each and every song from Dylan’s prolific output of studio albums. I have the first edition (with a red cover) published in 2015, which covers Dylan’s recordings through Shadows in the Night. In January of 2022 a second expanded edition (with yellow cover) will be released that updates the coverage through his 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways. I believe this was the second All the Songs book compiled by Margotin and Guesdon, following a volume on the Beatles. They have since produced a whole series of such books on several classic rock bands including the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin.

Each of the book’s chapters is devoted to one of 36 Dylan studio albums, presented chronologically. Each chapter begins with an introduction on the making of the album—how it was written, recorded, and what was going on in Dylan’s life at the time. This is followed by a few paragraphs of discussion about each song. The authors shed light on the inspiration for the song, older folk songs that influenced it, the meanings of the lyrics, the musicians who accompanied Dylan, and other production details. Only studio albums from the official Dylan canon merit a chapter. Live albums and the Bootleg Series do not, but previously unreleased selections from the Bootleg albums are included for discussion as outtakes of the albums for which they were originally intended. Odds and ends like isolated non-album singles and movie soundtrack songs are also covered. Each song is only discussed once, so alternate takes do not get their own entry.

Though commendably comprehensive, all albums and songs are not granted equal coverage. Dylan’s first ten albums take up about half the book, while the following 26 records occupy the second half. Even so, Margotin and Guesdon pay respectful attention to albums that many Dylan critics consider terrible or insignificant. The gospel trilogy in particular is reviewed positively and treated thoughtfully, with the authors demonstrating a thorough knowledge of Dylan’s biblical references. They also give due credit to Dylan’s recordings of the ‘80s, instead of, like so many critics, merely bemoaning the fact that they don’t measure up to the glory days of the ‘60s.

This book delivers a very entertaining and educational retrospective of Dylan’s career. It was fun to read a chapter, listen to the album, read the next chapter, listen to that album, and so on. Although occasional song entries come across as vague or conjectural, overall the authors provide much informed and insightful detail, going far above the common knowledge of the casual Dylan fan. The songs are not discussed in as great a level of detail as in Derek Barker’s The Songs He Didn’t Write or Michael Gray’s Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, but the former only discusses Dylan’s cover songs and the latter only singles out his “important” songs. Margotin and Guesdon cover everything. One annoying aspect of Margotin and Guesdon’s song reviews, however, is that they feel compelled to point out the “mistakes” in each song, such as Dylan sings a plosive at 1:56 or the buttons of Dylan’s jacket hit his guitar at 2:32. Who cares? If you’re a Dylan fan, you probably don’t.

The hardcover edition is attractively designed with many photos, making for enjoyable browsing. The main attraction of this book, however, is the detailed examination of Dylan’s songs, and one can appreciate Margotin and Guesdon’s insights just as well through the ebook edition.

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Monday, December 13, 2021

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox Jr.

Appalachian romance outdated in a bad way
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine
bears a title that makes it sound like a Western, but the story takes place in the Appalachian world of coal miners, moonshiners, and hillbilly feuds. Originally published in 1908, the novel by John Fox Jr. is set in a mountainous region on the border between Kentucky and Virginia. John Hale, a college-educated entrepreneur, ventures into this country looking for undiscovered coal beds to exploit into a lucrative career. He discovers his hoped-for mother lode in a secluded hollow called Lonesome Cove. As an outsider, Hale is looked at with suspicion by the region’s inhabitants, but he manages to get involved in the lives of one family in particular. Two local clans, the Tollivers and the Falins, have been engaged in a long-running feud, the kind in which any traveling man might be shot and killed in the woods without warning. As Hale and other speculators begin to develop the mineral resources of the region, the next logical step is the establishment of a boomtown. To protect his investments, Hale founds a police force to maintain law and order in the region, which draws the ire of the locals who resent the “furriners” who have intruded upon their homeland and meddle in their lives.

Just as in any horse opera, West or East of the Mississippi, the dynamics of a feud and the ubiquity of guns offers the potential for some exciting drama and adventure, but Fox never truly realizes the potential for action that the premise allows. All throughout the narrative a showdown between the hero and his nemesis is foreshadowed, but the reader ends up feeling cheated when the confrontation never reaches fruition. It is also difficult to get excited about the commercial side of the story. Unless you’re a geologist or a coal miner, it is hard to understand the plot elements revolving around Hale’s mining enterprises.

Rather than feuding hillbillies or coal riches, however, the bulk of the novel revolves around a romance between Hale and a girl he meets in Lonesome Cove. In this case, “girl” is the appropriate word to use because June Tolliver is literally a schoolgirl when first encountered by Hale. Like some Kentucky backwoods Pygmalion, Hale supervises June’s upbringing, pays for her education, buys her a home, and initiates her education into big-city culture and fashions. All along he intends to marry her, but first he must transform her into a woman worthy of being his wife. In the time and place in which this novel takes place it probably was not unusual for girls to be married at a young age, perhaps even in their early teens. Nowadays, however, what Hale is doing with June would be called “grooming,” and it leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. The hillbillies of Lonesome Cove may not have known any better, but Fox, a Harvard-educated New York journalist should have thought twice before penning what comes across as a pedophilic My Fair Lady sexual fantasy. If Hale and June were closer in age this would just be a dull and corny romance novel, but the repeated referrals to June as a “little girl” are a constant reminder that he is acting as her svengali. On the surface this is an innocent romance in an idyllic woodland setting, which probably explains why this book is regarded in come circles as a beloved classic, but it’s hard to understand how anyone could let this story premise slide in the 21st century.

The basic plot of the book, its local color, and Fox’s descriptions of the natural landscape call to mind a harmless and wistful Western by Zane Grey, but the grooming aspect of the lead couple’s relationship has lain a patina of creepiness over this outdated Appalachian yarn.
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Monday, December 6, 2021

Hordubal by Karel Capek

Compelling psychological drama of Czech rural life
For his spearheading of early 20th-century modernism, Karel Capek (1890-1938) is one of the most important figures in Czech literature. English-language readers will probably know him best as the writer who introduced the word “robot” to the world in his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Capek’s novel Hordubal was published in 1933. It is the first in a trilogy of thematically connected novels—followed by Meteor and An Ordinary Life—often referred to as the Noetic Trilogy. In English, this trilogy of novels is found together in one volume entitled Three Novels, translated by M. and R. Weatherall and first published in 1948.

As the novel opens, Juraj Hordubal is leaving America to return to his homeland, where he owns a farm in the Carpathians. He has spent the last eight years working as a coal miner and sending most of his earnings home to his wife and daughter. Having communicated with his wife only sparsely during his absence, Hordubal has given her no warning of his arrival, yet he nostalgically expects all at home to be just as he left it. His wife is understandably shocked when he shows up unannounced. Rather than pining away for her husband, Polana Hordubalova has been running the family farm successfully with the help of a hired man named Stepan Manya. Polana and Manya’s ideas on profitable agriculture clash with those of Hordubal, who is set in his ways with old-fashioned notions of bucolic life. As a result, in the management of his own property, Hordubal is made to feel like an ineffectual and unwanted interloper.

In personal matters, Polana treats Hordubal more like a stranger than a husband. Not surprisingly, it is hinted that Polana and Manya were lovers during her husband’s absence. Despite all the signs pointing in that direction, Hordubal either fails to ascertain the romantic relationship or deliberately denies it so as not to face up to the fact. Gossip among the neighbors eventually forces him to address the issue, causing conflict between the three parties concerned.

The narrative of Hordubal is related partly through third-person prose and partly through Hordubal’s first-person interior monologue, the two voices alternating seamlessly. As the reader gets to know the characters and become intimately involved in their lives, the story becomes more and more addictive. Despite the deceptively mundane milieu of rural life, each chapter manages to conclude with what feels like a psychological cliffhanger, leaving the reader anticipating what comes next. The suspense culminates in a shocking turn of events in the novel’s latter half. Capek’s storytelling has some of the deadpan objectivity of Franz Kafka’s The Trial or Albert Camus’s The Stranger, as if the characters are but guinea pigs in a philosophical experiment, their fates at the mercy of an indiscriminate universe. What makes this novel different, however, is the pathos and warmth one feels for Juraj Hordubal himself, who comes across as a much more likable and human character than Camus’s existential hero Mersault.

The “noetic” aspect of Capek’s Noetic Trilogy has to do with epistemology—the branch of philosophy that concerns how humans think and know. I won’t know what to say about that aspect of the novel until I’ve read the other two books in the series, which I fully intend to do. Regardless of Capek’s theories on epistemology, I just found Hordubal to be a very compelling story, one I was reluctant to put down until reaching the very end.
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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Who is Scorpio? by Jim Steranko

Overrated art, idiotic stories
In the classic days of Marvel Comics, Nick Fury was a character who did double duty. He started out as Sgt. Fury, a soldier in World War II and leader of the Howling Commandos. A few years later, Marvel’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decided to cash in on the spy-movie craze by writing contemporary adventures for Nick Fury, now an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Fury’s first espionage missions graced the pages of Strange Tales, one of Marvel’s anthology series. In 1968, Strange Tales was cancelled, and Nick Fury’s ‘60s incarnation was granted his own comic book series (World War II’s Sgt. Fury had had his own book since 1963). Up-and-coming creative talent Jim Steranko was selected to write and draw the new series. The Marvel trade paperback Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Who is Scorpio?, published in 2001, reprints issues 1, 2, 3, and 5 of Steranko’s S.H.I.E.L.D. series.

As an artist, Steranko was noted for his innovative page layouts and experimental use of mixed media, such as photo collages and psychedelic op art. Kirby had previously experimented with such techniques in titles like Fantastic Four, but Steranko took it to a whole new level. Much of Steranko’s visual experimentation is obviously inspired by Will Eisner’s The Spirit, particularly his opening splash pages, in which the title of each story is worked into the art, for example as a piece of architecture or a newspaper headline. Like Eisner, Steranko rarely settled for a grid of rectangular panels but conceived of the entire page as a dynamic whole. Unlike Eisner, however, Steranko really didn’t have the skill for human figure drawing to back up his innovative layouts. Instead of an exemplary anatomist like Neal Adams or John Byrne, Steranko drew figures that were often goofily distorted for dramatic effect. Like a late ‘60s Rob Liefeld, his art was more flash than substance, and his stories often feel like an afterthought, the only purpose of which is to generate splashy pages. Steranko is at his best when drawing futuristic technology, though his style in such matters is clearly derivative of Kirby’s. The artwork in this book is printed in full color on a bright white, semi-gloss coated paper. The reproduction quality is adequate but not exceptional.

While Eisner was able to insert The Spirit successfully into stories of almost every genre and style, Steranko takes his superspy in far-flung directions that just feel goofy from the get-go. Before the first three issues are done, Steranko has already had Fury fighting dinosaurs and leading an uninspired pastiche of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles—not exactly what James Bond fans would have hoped for from Marvel’s chief spy. The more standard spy-genre S.H.I.E.L.D. tales, however, are just as bad. The titular villain in this collection, Scorpio, shows up twice in these four issues, sporting one of the silliest costumes in the Marvel rogues’ gallery, complete with fire-engine red skin, a cowl, and what looks like an armor-studded adult diaper. Scorpio, whose powers are undefined and vaguely magical, doesn’t seem to have any goal other than to kill Fury, which makes for rather lazy and uninteresting plots.

At the end of issue 5, the answer to the question “Who is Scorpio?” remains a mystery, leaving the reader to wonder what’s the purpose of this trade paperback. There’s no arc to the stories included. They might as well be four random issues, and why only four? The volume seems intended merely to be a showcase for Steranko’s art, but it leaves the reader with the impression that the artist’s talents have been overrated.
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Monday, November 29, 2021

Special Deliverance by Clifford D. Simak

Wild goose chase in an alternate universe
Since discovering the science fiction of Clifford D. Simak a few years ago, I have been steadily chipping away at his complete works. Thanks to the inexpensive ebook editions offered by Open Road Media, I have been able to read over two dozen of his books. While I am favorably disposed towards anything Simak has written, Special Deliverance is not one of his stronger works. This novel, his second to last, was originally published in 1982.

Edward Lansing is a professor of English literature at Langmore College in New England. Through a series of odd circumstances best left unspoiled, he finds himself transported to a mysterious forest he knows not where. After wandering a bit, he eventually finds an inhabited inn and meets up with a handful of displaced individuals like himself. Together they form a band of six: a professor, an engineer, a parson, a military man, a poet, and a sentient robot. They ascertain that they have all been abducted from different universes—Earths with alternate histories—and brought together in this place, though none of them have any idea the reason why. Convinced that they have been brought together to undertake some mission that might allow them to return to their homes, the half dozen characters explore this unknown world looking for clues to the mysterious purpose of their involuntary journey.

Though the setup involving the exploration of the unknown has the potential for an intriguing premise, the problem with Special Deliverance is that too much remains unknown throughout the length of the book. The travelers wander about looking for answers, occasionally experiencing some unusual phenomena, but nothing much is really learned along the way. It’s kind of like a long and poorly conducted role-playing game in which the players roam blindly through terrain they can’t see. Only when they accidentally bump into something interesting does the narrative pick up a little. Simak occasionally inserts a device, a monolith, or a creature that demonstrates his knack for original visionary concepts. Only in the final chapter is all conveniently explained; everything up until that point is merely the blind leading the blind. One can’t help thinking that all this aimless wandering could have been avoided or at least condensed for the reader’s benefit. Simak should have parcelled out bread crumbs of knowledge throughout the narrative instead of dumping all the answers in the final act.

Despite the theory about alternate universes, this novel is more fantasy than science fiction—not Dungeons and Dragons-type fantasy but something like Twilight Zone fantasy. There isn’t really much scientific rationale given for any of the happenings in the plot. The narrative is just a string of cool ideas strung sparsely along a meandering thread. By Simak standards, Special Deliverance is a novel of average quality. If you are a Simak fan it may be worth a read, but it is not a book to go out of your way for. If you are new to Simak and haven’t done so already, check out any of the volumes in The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series. Each volume is quite good, and they often pop up as Kindle Daily Deals.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Home Life of the Ancient Greeks by Hugo Blümner

From cradle to grave in Athens and Sparta
Hugo Blümner was a German archaeologist who wrote several books on ancient Greece and Rome. His book The Home Life of the Ancient Greeks was published in English in 1895. It was first published in German in 1887 as Leben und Sitten der Griechen. The book is a synthesis of what was known in the late nineteenth century about the daily lives of ancient Greeks, not just the kings and warriors of renown but also the common folk and even slaves. Much of the book’s conclusions are drawn from extant texts and works of art left behind by the Greeks rather than from archaeological digs in which remains and artifacts are found in situ. For example, Blümner frequently refers to Homer’s descriptions of the archaic Greek world, as well as vase paintings and statues pictured in over 200 illustrations

The book opens with a very extensive chapter on clothing that really challenges the reader’s attention span with its charting of every fold, stitch, and pleat in the ancient Greek wardrobe. Next is a discussion of childbirth and childhood that covers not only how children were cared for but also how they amused themselves. After describing the kind of education Greek children of different classes would have received, Blümner then delves into marriage customs. This is followed by a dawn-to-bedtime study of daily life in a Greek household, paying close attention to the different activities practiced by men and women. A chapter on sickness and death explains the birth of the medical profession in Greece as well as burial customs. Succeeding chapters deliver copious details of the athletic, musical, and religious activities of the Greeks. A section on public festivals provides a vivid look at the Olympics and the Festival of Dionysus, among other events. Blümner’s very interesting chapter on Greek theatre does not go into the literary history of drama but rather describes how the plays were performed and the experience of the theatergoers. The book then delves into the lives of soldiers, farmers, and artisans before closing with a chapter on slaves, who greatly outnumbered the free population of ancient Greece.

Blümner admits that most of his book applies specifically to Athens and its vicinity, for that was the area of Greece on which most archaeological knowledge had been accumulated. On many subjects, however, he also provides specific information on Spartan life and customs, and on rarer occasions he discusses some of the outlying regions of Greece. Blümner also makes a distinction between the “heroic age” (the time of Homer’s works) and the “classic” period of Greek history, from about the sixth to the third century BC. He often discusses both eras, pointing out differences between the two.

A lot of archaeological digs have taken place over the past century, which no doubt have expanded upon our knowledge of ancient Greece, so there are bound to be some errors in accuracy and omissions of detail in Blümner’s work. For the non-archaeologist like myself, however, Blümner draws a sufficiently clear picture of the ancient Greek world to satisfy the curious general reader. Blümner’s writing, and its translation, were aimed at a nineteenth-century audience, so his prose often comes across as stilted and dry by today’s standards. For a more up-to-date, detailed, and user-friendly synthesis on the subject, I would recommend the Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece by Lesley and Roy Adkins, from Oxford University Press’s exceptional Handbook to Life series. Though it wasn’t always the most engaging text, I did learn much from The Home Life of the Ancient Greeks and found it a rewarding read.

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Friday, November 19, 2021

Travels to Oaxaca by Nicolas-Joseph Thiéry de Menonville

Biological espionage in New Spain
Nicolas-Joseph Thiéry de Menonville (1739-1780) was a French botanist and physician. In 1776 he came up with a plan to venture into Mexico to steal samples of the cochineal insect, valued for its production of a vibrant red dye, and its natural habitat and food source the nopal cactus. Thiéry de Menonville hoped to then transplant these natural resources to French colonies in the Caribbean, thus breaking the Spanish monopoly on the cochineal’s carmine dye. Because such biological and mineral treasures were so closely guarded in the American colonies, the French and other foreigners were not allowed into the territories of New Spain without obtaining rarely granted passports for each checkpoint in their journey. Unable to obtain the proper papers to venture beyond the coastal city of Veracruz, Thiéry de Menonville embarked on a clandestine journey to Oaxaca, home of the cochineal, thus making his foray into Southern Mexico a hazardous spy mission.

In 1787, Thiéry de Menonville published his scientific text Traité de la Culture du Nopal, et de l’Education de la Cochenille dans les Colonies Françaises de l’Amerique, which included the narrative of his Voyage a Guaxaca as an introduction. The Voyage portion of this book was then translated into English and published in 1812 as a chapter in A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels to All Parts of the World, Volume 13 (pages 753 to 876), edited by John Pinkerton. Whether published in French or in English, these early editions are quite phonetically inventive in their spellings of Mexican place names, and the species names of plants are sometimes vague and outdated. It helps to have some prior knowledge of Mexican geography because today’s reader must frequently employ educated guesses in order to determine to where and what Thiéry de Menonville is referring.

I’ve traveled to many of the places Thiéry de Menonville discusses in this book, so it was very interesting to read about what Veracruz, Orizaba, and Oaxaca were like two centuries earlier. As I recall, the trip to Oaxaca was rough even by bus, and this account reveals it was quite an adventure making the journey by foot and horse when the land was even wilder and more sparsely populated. Though Thiéry de Menonville is forced to rough it in some harsh conditions, he seems to have an unlimited supply of gold and silver in his pockets, which comes in handy when wrangling over the purchase of horses, mules, or ship fare to transport his botanical specimens.

As a storyteller, Thiéry de Menonville is an entertaining raconteur. His writing reveals him to be quite arrogant, and not surprisingly he considers France the greatest nation in the world. He never passes up an opportunity to rip on the Spanish, whom he denigrates for their idleness, lack of culture (compared to Paris), and what he sees as poor management of their New World colonies. He expresses more respect for the Indigenous inhabitants of Mexico because as a botanist he admires their waste-not-want-not approach to utilizing nature’s bounty. As one might expect in an 18th-century text, the author does engage in some unfortunate racial profiling of the Black and Native populations, but only briefly, and his criticisms are more the insults of a disgruntled traveler than racial slurs. One aspect of Mexico that pleased Thiéry de Menonville very much is its natural beauty and diversity. When he describes the animals and plants that he encounters, his joy of discovery is infectious, making this a very interesting read for anyone interested in the early scientific exploration of the Americas.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Phillips in Print: The Selected Writings of Walter J. Phillips on Canadian Nature and Art, edited by Maria Tippett and Douglas L. Cole

A staunch advocate for representational art
Walter J. Phillips (1884-1963) was one of Canada’s greatest printmakers. He was also a very accomplished watercolor painter, but he is more widely known for his color woodcuts made using traditional Japanese methods. Born in England, Phillips emigrated to Canada in his late twenties. He lived and worked in Winnipeg for almost three decades, than moved West to take up a position at the Banff School of Fine Art in Alberta. In addition to being an artist and teacher, Phillips also wrote extensively on art and artists. Cultural historians Douglas L. Cole and Maria Tippett have collected a number of Phillips’s essays in the book Phillips in Print: The Selected Writings of Walter J. Phillips on Canadian Nature and Art, published in 1982 by the Manitoba Record Society in Winnipeg. Many of the selections included in the book were previously published as newspaper columns in the Winnipeg Tribune, while others were taken from unpublished manuscripts left among Phillips’s surviving papers held by a private collector. A pdf file of Phillips in Print can be found online with a Google search and downloaded for free.

Of the pdf edition’s roughly 200 pages, about two dozen are devoted to reproductions of Phillips prints, some in color and some in black and white. You can find better reproductions in other books and websites, however, so the real attraction here is Phillips’s writings, many of which have not been published elsewhere. The brief essays are not presented chronologically but arranged thematically into chapters on the practice and business of art, the four seasons of landscape sketching in Canada, favorite scenic sketching grounds, Canadian art (in Toronto), Western Canadian art, and the art of the woodcut. Cole and Tippett also open the publication with a biography of Phillips that is more extensive than one typically finds in coffee-table books of his art.

In Canada, everything west of Ontario is considered The West, at least as far as art is concerned. Phillips was proud to be a Western Canadian artist and was active in trumpeting the accomplishments of his artistic colleagues west of Toronto. At this time, however, if you wanted to find fame and fortune as an artist in Canada you had to live and work in Toronto. Phillips acknowledges that settling in the West was not a great career move, but rather than resign himself to second-class status he chose to promote Western art and lay the foundation for future geographic equity by pioneering the establishment of art scenes in Winnipeg, Banff, and Vancouver.

Phillips was personally acquainted with many of Canada’s most renowned artists, including the great Tom Thomson. Phillips’s relationship with the Group of Seven, the superstars of Canadian painting, is somewhat contentious. When he writes about them as individuals, he expresses much respect and admiration for their work. As a movement, however, Phillips takes umbrage with the implication that the Group of Seven style is the only true Canadian art. Their rough, impressionistic technique, saturated colors, and geometric mountains were too modernist for him. For Phillips, the purpose of art is to interpret the beauty of nature. In these essays he champions representational art and frequently chastises modernism as a “cult of sheer ugliness.” To those who appreciate Phillips’s realistic landscapes and classical craftsmanship, this probably won’t come as a surprise. His tastes in art are not unilaterally one-sided, however, and his insightful writings shed light on the entire varied panorama of Canadian art in the early 20th century. Though the reader may not agree with all of Phillips’s assertions about art, anyone interested in printmaking, landscape painting, or Canadian art history will enjoy his articulate discourse on these subjects.
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Monday, November 15, 2021

Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Russian Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Alexander Levitsky

More an academic monograph than a sci-fi anthology
Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Russian Fantasy and Science Fiction was published in 2007. The target audience for this book seems to be editor Alexander Levitsky’s fellow scholars in Russian studies or literary criticism. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. For what it is, it’s quite well done. When this book pops up as a Kindle Daily Deal, however, the average reader may think it’s simply an anthology of short stories from Russian authors that will appeal to a curious science fiction or fantasy buff. While there certainly is material here that the general reader will enjoy, there is also quite a bit of historical and cultural analysis in the form of critical essays between the entries. The works collected here are not chosen for their entertainment value but rather for what they reflect of Russian and Soviet culture and to support Levitsky’s theses on those topics. Some of the greatest writers in Russian literature are included here, but in order to fit all their works into the volume many of the selections had to be abridged. Much of the book’s contents consists of truncated stories or isolated chapters from novels. Even if those chapters pique your interest, you may not be able to find the complete novel in English translation.

All the reservations mentioned above are forgivable, given what Levitsky is trying to accomplish with this book. What really disappointed me about this volume, however, is the extremely broad parameters of what is considered to constitute fantasy or science fiction. In one sense, just about anything that’s fiction could be considered fantasy, but most readers would probably apply the word to the Lord of the Rings genre or at least fiction in The Twilight Zone vein. Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky are certainly among Russia’s greatest authors, but one could question whether some of their works included here really qualify as fantasy. In Levitsky’s definition, however, all manner of dreams, ghosts, angels, folktales, and religious visions of the afterlife are included. As an analogy, imagine if someone were to compile a book on English fantasy and science fiction that started with Beowulf and proceeded through Arthurian legends, Robin Hood folktales, Thomas More’s Utopia, the Romantic poets, and Dickensian ghost stories before ever getting to William Morris, H. G. Wells, or J. R. R. Tolkien, abridged excerpts from whose works would occupy only the final quarter of the volume. The result would say a lot about British culture but would likely leave typical fans of the science fiction and fantasy genres disappointed with the overall offering of selections. Such is the case here. I learned a lot about Russian literature, but wasn’t interested in much of the literary content presented.

Of course, there is much to like in this volume as well. Valery Iakovlevich Briusov’s story “Republic of the Southern Cross” is a delightful horror story of a utopian city in Antarctica. Alexander Ivanovich Kuprin’s “Liquid Sunshine,” about an eccentric scientist’s visionary experiments in South America, calls to mind the sci-fi tales of Wells or Arthur Conan Doyle. Mikhail Bulgakov’s entertaining satirical novella The Fatal Eggs appears to be reproduced in its entirety. Space travel doesn’t factor much into the collection until four-fifths of the way through, where there’s a special section devoted to it. Three fragmentary stories by Andrei Platonovich Platonov contain enough innovative scientific theories to spawn at least a half dozen sci-fi novels. Ivan Antonovich Efremov’s novel The Andromeda Nebula is an intriguing Star Trek-style saga of mankind’s exploration of the galaxy, but the reader only gets portions of the first two chapters.

None of my comments are intended to be negative criticism of Levitsky’s scholarship. Kudos to him for writing this book. I’m just trying to help other readers decide if they want to read it.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2021

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

The reign, fall, and aftermath of a Latin American dictator
Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, is likely the most renowned and acclaimed author in contemporary Peruvian literature. His historical novel The Feast of the Goat, published in 2000, is set in the Dominican Republic. It examines the reign and fall of the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, who ruled over the Caribbean nation from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Vargas Llosa’s outstanding novel provides a realistic look inside the regime of one of the most brutal autocrats of the twentieth century.

In 1996, a Dominican American woman named Urania Cabral returns to her homeland for the first time in 35 years. She fled the island nation as a teenager and was raised in the United States, where she built a successful career for herself in New York City. Since her departure from the Dominican Republic so long ago, Urania has not spoken to her now aged father, a former high-ranking senator in the Trujillo administration, nor to any of her relatives. Now, seeing her father for the first time in over three decades brings to the surface anger and resentment for a wrong he inflicted on her all those years ago, the nature of which is initially concealed from the reader.

The story is not a strictly linear narrative but rather jumps around chronologically. In scenes of 1961 the reader sees both the Trujillo regime at the height of its power and the assassination that brought about its downfall. In between chapters on Urania and the Cabral family, Vargas Llosa examines in great detail the killing of the dictator and its aftermath, telling the story from the multiple perspectives of Trujillo’s enemies and allies. While the Cabral family is entirely fictitious, nearly all the other characters in the book, Trujillo included, are actual historic personages. The large ensemble cast comprise a complex web of corruption, oppression, and atrocity that illuminates in intricate detail the horrors of life under the unchecked power of a brutal autocrat.

What’s pleasantly surprising about The Feast of the Goat is that, for the work of a Nobel laureate, it is a remarkably accessible read. That’s not to say that Vargas Llosa has dumbed down the work in any way, only that he writes in engaging, articulate prose, free of gratuitous verbal ostentation, that emphasizes substance over style. This novel reads like a political thriller that might have been written by an author of bestselling potboilers were it not for the unflinchingly frank authenticity with which Vargas Llosa sets his scenes. While Trujillo is an infamous monster and Urania somewhat of a saint, the remaining cast of characters are painted in varying life-like shades of gray that blur the lines between heroes and villains, predators and prey. The plot includes a few very disturbing scenes of torture, execution, and rape that illustrate the violent excesses of authoritarian oppression in startling detail.

The Trujillo regime is just one example of what took place in many Latin American nations in the twentieth century, sometimes with the complicity of the United States. As a historical novel, The Feast of the Goat encapsulates that tragic era in South American history. It serves as a monument to all who suffered and died under the Trujillo regime and dictatorships like it. Though this novel may read like a political thriller, may it also stand as a cautionary tale of unbridled power.
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Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov

Satirical novella of science gone wrong
Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) is best known for his novel The Master and Margarita, which has become something of a cult classic in English translation. Prior to writing that magnum opus, Bulgakov had published several novellas including The Fatal Eggs, a satirical work of science fiction. The Fatal Eggs was originally published in the Russian literary journal Nedra in 1925, but the story takes place in the near future of 1928 and 1929.

Professor Vladimir Persikov is a zoologist who specializes in amphibians. One day while peering through a microscope in his laboratory, he discovers an optical abnormality arising from the light refracted through his device’s lenses. After serendipitously isolating a specific red wavelength of the visible spectrum, he notices that the microorganisms within this ray of light experience remarkable fertility, growth, and physical fortitude. When word gets around of the professor’s findings, it is said that he has discovered the “ray of life.” Meanwhile, a mysterious plague has struck the chickens of Russia and decimated their population. Before he has been able to conduct satisfactory experiments on his invention, Persikov’s red ray is co-opted by the government to combat the poultry plague. In science as in love, however, only fools rush in, and the unwise haste with which the ray is applied to the chicken problem leads to unforeseen and terrifying consequences.

The first third of The Fatal Eggs is quite fascinating science fiction. Though the concept of the red ray is not entirely realistic, it is treated realistically in terms of the scientific method of its discovery. This results in a tone of verisimilitude similar to the science fiction novels of H. G. Wells, who was a major influence on Bulgakov. After a gradual crescendo of suspense, the plot of The Fatal Eggs climaxes in scenes of chilling horror and thrilling action worthy of a vintage monster movie.

In between its promising start and exciting finish, the mid-section of the novella is more satirical in nature. Through Persikov’s dealings with the government, Bulgakov lampoons the Soviet socialist bureaucracy, particularly in regards to its policies toward science and public safety. Today’s reader may not find Bulgakov’s satire entirely successful at generating laughs, however, since the humor is almost a century old and the comedy has somewhat of a Dadaist sensibility reminiscent of fellow Russian Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We. The English translation (by Carl R. Proffer in my edition) may also be at least partially to blame. The English text reads awkwardly, as if the Russian prose may have been translated too literally, and the translator perhaps assumes too much knowledge of Russian history and culture on the part of the reader, resulting in some disorientation for Westerners.

Overall, The Fatal Eggs is a little too comical, to the point where the humor undermines the impact of the story’s science fiction elements. Bulgakov’s writing is more effective in the suspenseful scenes than in the satirical passages, leaving one to wish that he had devoted more energy in the horror direction. Even so, there is still plenty to enjoy in this truly off-beat and uniquely Russian work of science fiction. Fans of writers like Wells and Jules Verne should certainly give it a try.
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Friday, October 29, 2021

My Travels by Maria Hackett

An Irishwoman’s uncommon anecdotes of exotic lands
Maria Hackett, the author of My Travels, was neither a famous nor professional writer. She was merely a grandmother with some interesting stories to tell of her past. As happens in many families, her children encouraged her to write her memories down for the benefit of her descendants. Unlike the stories of your average grandmother, however, Hackett’s recollections were deemed worthy of publication in her local newspaper, the Sunday Press of Albany, New York. Her writings were then published in book form in 1912 and now exist for perpetuity in the public domain.

What is unusual about Hackett’s life is her extensive travels. She was born and raised in County Cork, Ireland, but shortly after her marriage she and her husband, a distiller of whiskey, emigrated to Tasmania (then called Van Diemen’s Land) where they settled for 13 years before returning to their homeland. This round-trip voyage amounted to 36,000 miles on sailing ships, and they made the return journey with eight children in tow. After the death of her husband, Mrs. Hackett then emigrated to America and settled in Albany with some of her adult children.

The fascinating aspect of Hackett’s peregrinations is that they took place between 1828 to 1854, when traveling involved a great deal more hardship than we can even dream of today. For example, passengers on these early sailing voyages had to provide their own food for the trip, which included livestock of several species that had to be fed and slaughtered along the way. Shipwrecks and pirates were dangers faced by seafarers of the era, and Hackett had thrilling encounters with both perils. One shocking episode of her journey involves a bizarre nautical custom. When a ship crossed the equator, sailors were traditionally granted a day of license to participate in all manner of mayhem without repercussions, even to such extreme lengths as physical torture of the passengers. On the bright side, Hackett describes life in the town of Hobart, Tasmania, as a veritable paradise. The Hacketts eventually were forced to leave for business reasons, but while there they enjoyed impeccable weather, glamorous balls at the governor’s mansion, and a friendship with Sir John Franklin, the arctic explorer who would ultimately disappear while searching for the North Pole.

Not surprisingly, this 19th-century narrative isn’t exactly “woke” by today’s standards. Though she expresses disgust at witnessing a slave market in Rio de Janeiro, Hackett does make derogatory comments about a Jewish passenger and reveals some nasty views on Australian Aborigines. Antiquated prejudices aside, Hackett’s travelogues are quite fascinating glimpses of her time. The main problem with the book is that it’s so brief, only 80 pages in print, that each anecdote barely scratches the surface of its potential interest. The last 11 pages of the book don’t even relate to Maria’s adventures at all, but are occupied by a summary of the military career of one of her grandsons.

My Travels is what it is: a brief personal memoir written for family members. The book’s biggest fault my be its brevity, but that brevity also means it will only occupy an hour of your time. For those who derive vicarious enjoyment from tales of historic journeys to exotic lands, it is certainly worth the hour spent.

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