Friday, February 26, 2021

The Harbor by Ernest Poole



The Jungle on the waterfront
Ernest Poole is far from a household name in American literature, but he bears the distinction of being the first writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction back in 1918, for his novel entitled
His Family. Today he might be better remembered, however, for his preceding novel, The Harbor, published in 1915. Prior to becoming a novelist, Poole worked as a muckraking journalist in Chicago and a war correspondent in the Russian Revolution. He joined the Socialist Party of America and wrote for their newspaper, so it is not surprising that his fiction often centers around issues of labor and the class struggle. Poole’s novel The Harbor focuses on the working conditions of dockworkers, sailors, and stokers on New York’s waterfront.

The narrator of The Harbor, named Bill, grew up in Brooklyn in a house overlooking the New York Harbor. His father owns a shipping business run out of a waterfront warehouse. In his high school and college years, Bill refers to himself as being somewhat “queer,” which in 1915 did not necessarily mean gay. What Bill means is that he is more interested in books, art, and culture than the young men surrounding him whose thoughts revolve around sports, business, and girls. Nevertheless, like many youths, he dabbles in bad behavior, which usually takes place in the vicinity of the harbor. Bill thus comes to identify the harbor with the seamier side of life, which includes his father’s business. Bill seeks escape by going off to live in Paris for a couple years, where he basks in art and beauty while beginning his career as a writer. When he returns to America, however, he finds himself writing about the very harbor he fled. He meets an engineer who is working on a plan to remodel and revitalize the harbor, and he interviews many powerful New York capitalists. Bill begins to idolize these heroes of industry while becoming a financially successful writer himself. His bourgeois bliss is interrupted, however, by an old friend with socialist inclinations who introduces Bill to the plight of the exploited working class whose blood, sweat, and tears drive the harbor’s ships, machinery, and economy.

Like Upton Sinclair, Poole is not a true proletarian author because he came from a wealthy upbringing. He writes from the perspective of a sympathetic outsider advocating for labor reform. Bill is an educated author of means, much like Poole himself. In his great American novel of labor, The Jungle, Sinclair tells his story from the point of view of the downtrodden laborers themselves. Poole, on the other hand, lets middle-class readers identify with Bill before easing them into the working-class milieu of squalor and strikes. Bill’s friend Joe Kramer, a muckraking journalist and labor organizer, serves as the Virgil to Bill’s Dante, guiding him into the inferno. Of the two approaches, Sinclair’s succeeds more effectively by creating a more vivid and visceral experience for the reader. In The Harbor, Poole beats around the bush too much. Only the last quarter of the book is really devoted to labor unrest and the class struggle. The first half of the book calls to mind a watered-down version of Jack London’s novel Martin Eden, as Bill struggles to make his way as a writer while romancing a woman from a higher social class.

Stylistically, Poole’s writing is a touch too flowery to evoke the grittier aspects of urban social realism. His prose sometimes reads more like proto-beatnik poetry than muckraking naturalism, particularly the way “the Harbor” is constantly personified as if it were a human entity. When Poole does get around to writing scenes of abysmal working conditions, capitalist corruption, and strike violence, they really are quite powerful. One just wishes there had been more them.
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Monday, February 22, 2021

The Fiction of Hermann Hesse

An overview
Hermann Hesse
Hermann Hesse (1877–1962) is the winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature. He was born in the Black Forest region of Germany and wrote in the German language. Prior to World War I, Hesse, whose grandparents and parents had previously lived as missionaries in India, developed an interest in Indian culture and Buddhism. He made a journey to the East, visiting Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Burma, which later had a profound effect on his writing. After serving in the German military in World War I he settled in Switzerland and was granted Swiss citizenship in 1923. Both Germany and Switzerland claim him as one of their own.

As a young writer, Hesse was heavily influenced by the German Romanticist movement. This influence is reflected in the style of his earliest novels, which will strike today’s readers as rather conventionally told narratives of German life. As time progressed, however, Hesse’s writings became more modernist and avant garde, incorporating themes related to his interest in Eastern religion and his personal association with the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. It is these later, more experimental works, beginning with Demian (1919) that are now generally seen as Hesse’s essential works. In general, however, his earlier, more traditional novels are also quite good for their genre.

Listed below are the thirteen books by Hesse that Old Books by Dead Guys has reviewed. This is not a complete list of Hesse’s fictional works, but rather an ample sampling of the titles English-language readers are most likely to encounter in their local used bookstore. Click on the titles to read the full reviews.

    

Novels

Peter Camenzind (1904) - 3.5 stars
Hesse’s promising debut novel is a coming-of-age story about one young man’s search for love, happiness, and the meaning of life. The narrative is firmly grounded in the Romantic tradition of German writers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but already in this first book Hesse starts to show his individual style. Peter Camenzind exhibits many elements and themes common to Hesse’s later works, most notably its sensitive, introverted protagonist who feels like an outsider in modern society.

Beneath the Wheel (1906) - 3 stars
A young boy, the most promising student in his rural town, is sent off to a seminary school where he flounders in the more competitive educational environment. Hesse intended this novel as a severe criticism of the German educational system, which he felt robbed boys of their youth and stifled their creativity in favor of rote learning and intellectual conformism. I liked this book for all the wrong reasons: Hesse’s naturalistic depictions of the monastery and its rural environs is a picturesque world I would want to live in.

Gertrude (1910) - 4 stars
One of the better works of Hesse’s earlier years, this novel stylistically straddles the line between German romanticism and impressionistic realism. An aspiring composer named Kuhn meets two people who change his life: a brash singer named Muoth who becomes his unlikely best friend, and the title character, with whom he falls in love. This is not a particularly innovative or ambitious novel by Hesse standards, but it is a compelling drama of art, love, and loss that rings true to life.

Rosshalde (1914) - 3 stars
This semi-autobiographical novel charts the deterioration of a marriage between a celebrated painter and his wife who live on an idyllic estate named Rosshalde. Hesse’s depictions of human emotion are authentic and moving, but the plot doesn’t really head anywhere except to a foregone conclusion, which just feels depressing and not remarkably compelling. This one is best reserved for only diehard Hesse fans.

Knulp (1915) - 4.5 stars
The title character in this brief novel is a lovable vagabond who tramps through the German countryside, relying on the kindness of strangers and living life one day at a time. This romantic life of wanderlust and adventure begins to wear on Knulp, however, as he grows older and starts to regret the choices he’s made in life. This is the best of Hesse’s earlier romantic novels, and one that marks his turning point into a more modernist style.

Demian (1919) - 3 stars
This is generally considered the jumping off point for Hesse’s later and greater works. Hesse introduces themes and imagery from the world of Jungian psychoanalysis into this coming-of-age story, resulting in the relating of many dreams and mystical visions. Demian
 may have been groundbreaking for its time, but I found it deeply flawed. Hesse fantasizes about a secret elitist brotherhood of misfits just waiting to accept intellectuals who don’t fit in, which comes across a bit juvenile and pretentious.

Siddhartha (1922) - 4 stars
Many novels can be described as “one man’s search for spiritual enlightenment,” but probably none more appropriately than this one. The story is set around 500 BC in India. Siddhartha is the son of a Hindu Brahmin who turns his back on his father’s teachings, renounces earthly possessions, and sets out on the road to find his own path to the meaning of life. Despite the title and the book’s setting, the protagonist is not Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), but rather another spiritual quester who meets the Buddha and draws inspiration from him.

Steppenwolf (1927) - 4.5 stars
Hesse’s best, in my opinion. Harry Haller envisions himself as having a dual personality. His inability to reconcile the human and animal halves of his nature leaves him depressed and filled with revulsion for his pointless, insignificant life, until he meets a mysterious woman who guides him on a bizarre psychoanalytic tour of his own mind. Hesse liberally departs from realism, using dreams and hallucinations to craft something that might be described as a stream-of-subconsciousness narrative. This is a fearlessly original work that dispenses timeless wisdom for the modern soul.

Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) - 4 stars
Set vaguely in the Middle Ages, this novel tells the story of the friendship between two monks who meet in a monastery. Their contrasting natures of philosopher (Narcissus) and artist (Goldmund) illustrate the dichotomy between pious intellectualism and the pleasures of the flesh, a recurring theme in Hesse’s work. 
The novel’s lofty themes are grounded in an earthy realism as the story focuses mostly on Goldmund’s spiritual quest to reconcile the flesh with the spirit. 

The Journey to the East (1932) - 1.5 stars
This brief book feel less like a novel than a rough sketch of one. The narrator tells of his membership in a mysterious, mystical organization called the League, and a historic Eastward pilgrimage they made to find enlightenment. 
Hesse treats the work like a kitchen sink in which to throw all manner of vague and trippy imagery. Many find this book profound, but I didn’t care much for it at all. Like a sketch quickly tossed off by Picasso, it has value in that it was created by a master, but it doesn’t compare to his masterpieces. 

The Glass Bead Game (1943) - 3.5 stars
Also known by the title Magister Ludi, this is a science fiction novel set in a utopian future. Mankind’s intellectual heritage is safeguarded by a secular priesthood who practice the art of the Glass Bead Game as a form of cerebral meditation. The world Hesse has created here is fascinating, but the story that plays out there is achingly slow and tediously repetitive. Hesse’s final novel is his quintessential book, summing up his life’s work, but that doesn’t mean it’s his best piece of writing.

Short Stories

Klingsor’s Last Summer (1920) - 3.5 stars
This volume includes one short story, “A Child’s Heart,” and two novellas, “Klein and Wagner” and “Klingsor’s Last Summer.” Published about the same time as Demian, these short works also mark the transition from his rather traditional romantic novels to his more avant garde psychological and spiritual literature. These are fine works but nothing that stands out as among Hesse’s best writings.

Stories of Five Decades (1972) - 4 stars
This collection contains 23 short stories by Hesse that were originally published from 1899 to 1948. The well-selected contents cover a fascinating array of diverse subjects and styles, including realistic scenes of German life, historical fiction, mythic fairy tales, and hints of science fiction. Not every story is a winner, but overall the volume provides a panoramic overview of Hesse’s breadth of interests and recurring themes.

  

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Block Prints: How to Make Them by William S. Rice



Just the most elementary basics
Block Prints: How to Make Them
is exactly what the title advertises. This instructional book on relief printmaking was written by William S. Rice (1873-1963), an art educator and woodcut artist. I suspect the original edition, published in 1941, was more of a booklet than a book, since the latest edition from Pomegranate is only 72 pages, most of which are devoted to illustrations.
 

I’ve been making block prints as a hobby for years, and I was hoping to glean a few useful technical tips from a master of the medium. Rice was a very accomplished printmaker of California’s arts and crafts movement. This how-to book, however, yields only the most elementary basics of block printing. It might be suitable as an instructional guide for middle school or high school art students, but much of the information on materials and supplies is outdated. Products do not have the same names as they did in 1941, and at one point Rice points out that if you don’t have a printing press you can use a clothes wringer. Martin Krause, editor of the 2019 edition, has added many footnotes in an attempt to “translate” Rice’s instructions from four score years ago.

Rice clearly intended this book for the novice who has never made a print before. Rice is best known for his Japanese-style color woodcuts, but he barely mentions wood in this book and just assumes that the reader will use a linoleum block. The introductory nature of the text, however, does not mean that it’s easy to follow. Rice’s writing is clunky and confusing, and the book only includes a few instructional diagrams that don’t help much either. I was hoping for some insight into a reliable method of registration for multiple color plates, but I don’t think I would use the method that Rice advocates, for all the sense I could make of his description of it.


For those already familiar with the how-to of block prints, the other reason to buy a book like this is for its images of prints, from which the artist can draw examples of techniques and motifs for use in their own work. Only one of Rice’s beautiful color prints is reproduced in this volume. The book includes 22 of his black and white prints, plus about a dozen examples of student works. For someone who makes block prints of traditional landscape imagery, Rice’s prints may be somewhat helpful as reference, but these don’t appear to be among his better works. The print on the cover, Barn in Calaveras, is the best of the bunch. For printmakers who enjoy landscape subjects, I would recommend the books Walter J. Phillips by Nancy Green, et al., and Gustave Baumann: Nearer to Art, also by Krause. Rice was a very good artist, but this book is disappointing. Printmaking aficionados will appreciate it mostly as an article of nostalgia.

Illustrations from the book, by William S. Rice

Forest Primeval

Winter in Pennsylvania

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Monday, February 15, 2021

The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti by Charles William Russell



Sizing up the world’s greatest polyglot
During his lifetime, Cardinal Joseph (or Giuseppe) Mezzofanti (1774-1849) had the reputation of being the greatest polyglot (multilinguist) in the history of the world, or at least the Western World. Born in Bologna, Italy, Mezzofanti was a librarian and professor of oriental languages at the University of Bologna before being promoted to service in the Vatican, where he taught clergymen from all over the world at the College of the Propaganda. Despite having never traveled outside of Italy, Mezzofanti is said to have spoken at least thirty languages fluently enough that he was often mistaken for a native speaker. In addition, he had varying degrees of familiarity and reading skills with dozens of other languages and dialects. Mezzofanti seems to have possessed a photographic memory, or at least its auditory equivalent, and was able to switch effortlessly from one language to another in mid-conversation without missing a beat. In his 1858 book The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti, Irish clergyman and scholar Charles William Russell provides a biography of this hyperpolyglot and scrutinizes eyewitness reports of his multilingual prowess.

Before Russell can properly assess Mezzofanti’s remarkable linguistic abilities, he first feels the need to establish a baseline of comparison. For this reason, the first quarter of the book is not about Mezzofanti at all, but rather an “Introductory Memoir of Eminent Linguists, Ancient and Modern.” Russell outlines a history of multilingualism from ancient times to the present, highlighting exceptional linguists and polyglots of Europe and the Middle East. Though Russell crams a great deal of arcane history into this brief overview, it is quite interesting and easy to read. Russell establishes that no one prior to Mezzofanti had been recorded to have linguistic abilities approaching his. This is a valuable summary; it’s only fault being that it ends around 1850. Since then, several polyglots have arisen to challenge Mezzofanti’s reputed achievements, including Harold Williams, Emil Krebs, Kenneth L. Hale, and Georg Sauerwein among others.

Russell’s main purpose in charting the life of Mezzofanti is to ascertain as closely as possible what languages Mezzofanti knew and how well he knew him. Since Mezzofanti himself was modest about his abilities and published almost nothing in the field of linguistics, this makes for a difficult task. Since the book was published shortly after Mezzofanti’s death, Russell is able to rely on the testimony of many witnesses and acquaintances of the polyglot cardinal. (Russell himself met Mezzofanti on more than one occasion.) Not all the statements are positive. Some of Mezzofanti’s contemporaries claimed his skills were overhyped and that he was little more than a glorified human parrot. Those affirming Mezzofanti’s legendary powers, however, far outnumber his detractors. By comparing numerous accounts, Russell is able to compile a tentative list of Mezzofanti’s languages and his reputed degree of knowledge in each (see below).

The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti is not a conventional biography. Because of Russell’s investigative focus into Mezzofanti’s specific abilities, the subject’s life story gets the short shrift. The book often reads more like a box of assorted letters than a biography. Russell’s text can get boring and repetitive at times, and the book also includes copious footnotes that veer off into all manner of digressions. Nevertheless, the remarkable accounts of Mezzofanti’s abilities will fascinate any reader interested in languages. Those who don’t want to commit to the long haul can simply read Chapter XVII: Recapitulation, which summarizes Russell’s findings quite adequately and succinctly.

Mezzofanti’s languages
Though there is no definitive list of the languages that Mezzofanti knew, author C. W. Russell draws from the accounts of many who knew, met, and conversed with Mezzofanti. In the conclusion to The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti, Russell sums up his findings on Mezzofanti’s linguistic abilities as follows [my notes in brackets]:

I. Languages frequently tested, and spoken with rare excellence:

  1. Hebrew
  2. Rabbinical Hebrew
  3. Arabic
  4. Chaldee [a.k.a. Chaldean or Aramaic]
  5. Coptic
  6. Ancient Armenian
  7. Modern Armenian
  8. Persian
  9. Turkish
  10. Albanese [Albanian]
  11. Maltese
  12. Greek
  13. Romaic [Byzantine Greek]
  14. Latin
  15. Italian
  16. Spanish
  17. Portuguese
  18. French
  19. German
  20. Swedish
  21. Danish
  22. Dutch
  23. Flemish
  24. English
  25. Illyrian [a language of the Balkans]
  26. Russian
  27. Polish
  28. Czechish or Bohemian
  29. Magyar [Hungarian]
  30. Chinese
II. Stated to have been spoken fluently, but hardly sufficiently tested:
  1. Syriac
  2. Geez [a.k.a. Classical Ethiopic]
  3. Amarinna [possibly Amarhic, an Ethio-Semitic language]
  4. Hindustani
  5. Guzarattee [Gujarati, of India]
  6. Basque
  7. Wallachian [a dialect of Romanian]
  8. Californian [a Native American language, possibly of Baja California]
  9. Algonquin
III. Spoken rarely, and less perfectly:
  1. Koordish [Kurdish]
  2. Georgian
  3. Serbian
  4. Bulgarian
  5. Gypsy language [a.k.a. Romani]
  6. Peguan [a.k.a. Mon, a language of Myanmar and Thailand]
  7. Welsh
  8. Angolese [presumably one of the native languages of Angola]
  9. Mexican [Spanish dialect, or a Native American language?]
  10. Chilean [Spanish dialect, or a Native American language?]
  11. Peruvian [Spanish dialect, or a Native American language?]
IV. Spoken imperfectly; a few sentences and conversational forms:
  1. Cinagalese [a language of Ceylon, a.k.a. Sri Lanka]
  2. Birmese [Burmese]
  3. Japanese
  4. Irish
  5. Gaelic
  6. Chippewa Indian
  7. Delaware
  8. Some of the languages of Oceanica
V. Studied from books, but not known to have been spoken:
  1. Sanscrit [Sanskrit]
  2. Malay
  3. Tonquinese [a Vietnamese language]
  4. Cochin-Chinese [a Vietnamese language?]
  5. Tibetan
  6. Japanese
  7. Icelandic
  8. Lappish [language of the Sami, or Lapps, in Northern Scandinavia]
  9. Ruthenian [a Slavic language of Lithuania]
  10. Frisian [a Germanic language of the Netherlands]
  11. Lettish [a.k.a. Latvian]
  12. Cornish (old British of Cornwall)
  13. Quichua (ancient Peruvian)
  14. Bimbarra (Central African)
VI. Dialects spoken, or their peculiarities understood:
    1. Hebrew
            Samaritan
    2. Arabic
            Syrian dialect (fluently)
            Egyptian dialect
            Moorish
            Berber
    3. Chinese
            Kiang-Si dialect
            Hu-quam dialect
    4. Italian
            Sicilian
            Sardinian
            Neapolitan
            Bolognese
            Lombard
            Friulese
    5. Spanish
            Catalan
            Valencian
            Majorican
    6. Basque
            Labourdain
            Souletin
            Guipuscoan
    7. Magyar
            Debreczeny
            Eperies
            Pesth
            Transylvanian
    8. German
            Ancient Gothic
            Rhetian (Grisons)
            Sette Communi dialect
            Dialects of Northern and Southern Germany
    9. French
            Provençal
            Tolosan
            Burgundian
            Gascon
            Bearnais
            Lorraine
            Bas Breton
    1o. English
            Somersetshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire dialects
            Lowland Scotch

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Monday, February 8, 2021

O Shepherd, Speak! by Upton Sinclair



Lanny Budd from World War to Cold War
Published in 1949, O Shepherd, Speak! is the tenth volume in Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series. Following on the heals of One Clear Call, this installment covers events of the years 1945 and 1946, chronicling Lanny’s adventures through the end of World War II and the dawn of the Cold War. As the novel opens, the Allies have just about wrapped up the war in Europe and are pushing the Nazis out of many of their formerly occupied territories. Lanny is still serving as an “assimilated colonel” in the U.S. Army, meaning he wears a uniform but plays a noncombatant role. Since he has lived most of his life in Europe and speaks German fluently, he assists the Allied forces in the interrogation of prisoners. Also, as an art expert, he is working as one of the Monuments Men in recovering works of art stolen by the Nazis and returning them to their rightful owners. In addition, because he has previously done some spy work regarding Germany’s nuclear weapons efforts, Lanny lends his expertise to the Alsos Mission, in which Allied intelligence personnel track down and interview German scientists about Nazi military technology, secure their laboratories, and confiscate their records and equipment.


Lanny’s previous experience as a secret agent masquerading as a Nazi sympathizer makes him a valuable asset to the Allied forces in the European Theatre, and once again Lanny crosses paths with his old acquaintance Hermann Göring. The Pacific Theatre, on the other hand, does not get much coverage in the series because there’s really no good reason for Sinclair to send Lanny to Asia. Instead, Sinclair finds many interesting war-related activities to keep Lanny occupied in America and Europe. This book also answers the question of what Lanny will do in peacetime. He inherits a million dollars from his childless godmother, who specifies that he spend the money towards the cause of world peace. (This plot element seems rather an unnecessary gimmick, since Lanny was already rich.) With the help of his wife and a few close friends, Lanny then transforms himself into someone very similar to Upton Sinclair—not exactly a writer, but the founder and editorial head of an indie media mini-empire that broadcasts a socialist perspective on current events. This peacetime enterprise is not as exciting as Lanny’s wartime exploits, but it does help to tie up many of the series’s loose ends. Almost all of the various supporting characters of the series are revisited, and each gets his or her own “Where are they now?” recap.

One recurring plot element that’s largely absent from this episode is paranormal phenomena. Since the beginning, Sinclair has used the series not only to outline his leftist history of the World Wars but also to propound his beliefs in extra sensory perception, communication with
the spirit world, and possibly telepathy. In O Shepherd, Speak!, thankfully, Sinclair keeps the séance shenanigans to a minimum, though he does allow some discourse on the topic towards the end. He can’t resist one incredible message from the dead, but his treatment of the incident feels more sentimental than serious.

Sinclair intended O Shepherd, Speak! to be the conclusion of the Lanny Budd series, as is evident by its feeling of closure. Later, however, he felt the need to write an eleventh novel, The Return of Lanny Budd, published in 1953, which presumably follows Lanny further into the Cold War. O Shepherd, Speak! is not the best novel in the series (that would probably be One Clear Call), but it certainly falls within the top half of the ten books so far. The series as a whole is truly amazing. The sheer number of plot threads that Sinclair juggles and the wealth of historical information he imparts to the reader are awe-inspiring. Were it truly the final volume, O Shepherd, Speak! would have proved a fitting capstone to this monumental achievement.
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Monday, February 1, 2021

The Dreyfus Case: Four Letters to France by Emile Zola



Zola’s incendiary editorials
Emile Zola
Alfred Dreyfus was a captain in the French Army who was court-martialed and convicted of treason for disclosing secret information to the Germans. In reality, however, Dreyfus was framed for the crime by military and government officials who considered him an easy target because he was a Jew. At the height of this divisive scandal, author Emile Zola emerged as an outspoken defender of Dreyfus. Zola published four newspaper editorials in which he vehemently criticized this gross miscarriage of justice, spoke out against antisemitism, and demanded a reopening of the Dreyfus case. The book The Dreyfus Case: Four Letters to France, published in 1898, reprints these four editorials in English translation. Zola wrote these articles in the form of open letters addressed to particular officials or groups of French citizens. The purpose of these letters was to bait the accused parties into charging Zola with libel, thus bringing about legal proceedings that would make public new evidence in Dreyfus’s favor. The strategy worked, and Zola was convicted of libel. He fled the country and lived in exile in England from July 1898 to June 1899. 

The best-written and best-known of these essays is the third editorial, “Letter to M. Felix Faure, President of the Republic,” also commonly referred to as “J’Accuse . . . !” Certainly one of the most famous newspaper editorials of all time, this work is an artful exemplar of persuasive rhetoric with several quotable nuggets of liberal eloquence. In the last several paragraphs of the essay, Zola singles out specific officials who contributed to the railroading of Dreyfus and introduces his itemization of each party’s crimes with a condemnatory “I accuse.” The fourth letter in this book, “Letter to the Minister of War,” is merely a brief recapitulation of the points made in “J’Accuse . . . !”

In the book’s first two entries, “Letter to the Youth of France,” and “A Letter to France,” Zola addresses the general public. In both cases, he recounts details from the case and persuasively lays out his argument for Dreyfus’s innocence. The one addressed to youth is aimed at students of high school and university age, criticizing their apathy and urging them to care about injustice. At the time these letters were published, the audiences to which they are addressed would have been quite familiar with the details of the case, so while Zola does recap certain events and evidence, he does not provide a comprehensive narrative of the Dreyfus affair. This English edition includes a brief summary, but even American and British readers of the time were expected to know the fundamentals of the scandal, so while these editorials from Zola are valuable historical documents, they don’t provide the reader with a complete education into the details of the Dreyfus case.


Of the four letters, “J’Accuse . . . !” is the only one that really rises to any remarkable level of literary merit. The rest are well-crafted essays that inform more than they stir the soul. Nevertheless, this book provides admirers of Zola with a good look at his role in the Dreyfus affair and his persona as a public intellectual in fin-de-siècle France.

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Thursday, January 28, 2021

Soul Catcher by Frank Herbert



Spiritual thriller of Native American vengeance
Frank Herbert, author of
Dune, is one of the most highly regarded science fiction writers in the history of the genre. Soul Catcher, published in 1972, is the only non-science fiction novel that Herbert published during his lifetime. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Herbert made friends with members of the Native American community and became interested in Indigenous affairs. Soul Catcher is a reflection of those concerns and an expression of outrage over Native American oppression.

The story takes place in the state of Washington, near the Pacific Coast. Charles Hobuhet is a young Native American graduate student in anthropology. (His tribal nation is never specified.) His sister committed suicide after being raped by a gang of white men. This drives Hobuhet to plan an act of retaliation against white society. He withdraws from white America, embraces his Indigenous heritage, and adopts the Native name of Katsuk. Posing as a camp counselor, he kidnaps one of his campers, David Morgenstern, the 13-year-old son of the Undersecretary of State. Leaving notes behind as a political statement, Katsuk draws David deep into a remote wilderness area with the intention of killing the boy as a ritual human sacrifice.

While Herbert’s novels, such as the Dune series, often juggle multiple plot lines from different character perspectives, Soul Catcher consists of just one continuous story line that runs throughout the book. As he often does, Herbert opens each chapter with a fictional epigraph, here consisting of brief quotes from law enforcement officers, journalists, and family members. Beyond these epigraphs, however, the focus remains permanently fixed upon the relationship between Katsuk and David and their adventures in the wild. There is a trippier side to the story that deals with Native American mythology and Katsuk’s communications with the spirit world. Some mystical events in the story are open to supernatural interpretation, but never exclusively so. As he proved in the Dune books, Herbert is very skillful at rendering psychological imagery, visions, and the like. There is quite a bit of such interior drama in Soul Catcher, for which Herbert probably draws as much on Freud and Jung as he does on Native American folklore and religion.

Katsuk is essentially a terrorist, but the reader sympathizes with him because he is acting out of rage against the repression and genocide of his race. Even so, nowadays a novel with a Native American villain would likely have a hard time finding a publisher. I’d like to think, however, that literature and film give rise to enough villains that there is occasionally room in the rogues’ gallery for a person of color. Another mark against the book, by today’s standards, is that Herbert interprets Native American culture through his white perspective. If a Native American author had written Soul Catcher, it likely would have garnered more long-lasting attention and acclaim. Herbert’s close friend Howard Hanson, an elder of the Quileute tribe of Washington State, did not approve of this novel. In my opinion, however, Herbert should be commended for the problematic, challenging, and uncomfortable aspects of his narrative when he could have just taken the easy way out by delivering a feel-good story of racial understanding.

Unfortunately Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert, in his biography Dreamer of Dune, spoiled the ending of Soul Catcher for me. Even though I knew what was coming, however, I still found this narrative riveting. Combining elements of wilderness survival and crime fiction with an impassioned plea for Indigenous rights, Soul Catcher is a compelling and thought-provoking novel that is better than many of Herbert’s non-Dune science fiction books.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

In the Valley by Harold Frederic



The American Revolution in Upstate New York
Harold Frederic (1856-1898) is one of many talented but undeservedly forgotten regional realists in American literature. His novel In the Valley, published in 1890, is one of several historical novels he set in his home state of New York. The “Valley” of the title is the Mohawk Valley west of Albany. Frederic’s hometown of Utica, New York lies in the Mohawk Valley, but the town was not named Utica until after the War, so that place name does not appear in the book. The novel opens during the French and Indian Wars and proceeds through the American Revolution.

Douw Mauverensen is the son of Dutch immigrants. When his father dies at a young age, his mother allows him to be taken in as ward by Mr. Stewart, a wealthy English gentleman of a neighboring estate. Though Dutch is Douw’s first language, through Mr. Stewart he learns the English language and the manners of an English gentlemen. The English aristocrats with whom he associates, however, never let him forget that he is just a lowly Dutchman and not one of their own. Animosity escalates when the Revolutionary War breaks out. Like most of the Dutch and German settlers, Douw takes the side of the colonists. The English aristocrats, however, are staunch Tories who attempt to take the Mohawk Valley by force in the name of King George III.


The first several chapters of In the Valley might give one the impression that it was written for a young audience. This is because Douw is eight years old when the novel opens, but the story grows up with its hero. The Revolutionary War doesn’t start until about midway through the book, at which point the narrative relies more and more on historical research. Real events and personages of the Revolutionary era are discussed, and the characters include actual figures from New York State history. The most prominent of these is Philip Schuyler, a Continental Congressman and general who nowadays is probably best remembered as the father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton. The plot climaxes with the Battle of Oriskany, which Frederic depicts with horrific details that call to mind Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.


There is much in this book about racism, not just against Blacks and Indians, but white-on-white racism based on European ethnicity. Classism is also explored, resulting in contrast and conflicts between English and Dutch, rich and poor, landholders and peasant farmers, conservatives and liberals, Tories and patriots. Racist comments uttered in the novel are realistic to the time period and the narrator, therefore it is hard to tell exactly what Frederic’s views are on race, except that when it comes to the Revolution he is decidedly anti-English. With the exception of Mr. Stewart, the English characters, though wealthy aristocrats, are depicted as ruffians, drunkards, philanderers, and sadists.


The historical and military aspects of In the Valley are clearly realistic, but the relationships between the characters are rendered in a more romantic and artificial style that calls to mind Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels of the Napoleonic War, such as The Great Shadow. James Fenimore Cooper is another obvious comparison and likely influence for this work, particularly his Revolutionary War novel Wyandotté, also set in New York, which is a much better novel than this. Later in his career, Frederic would adopt a more strictly naturalistic style, as in his novel The Damnation of Theron Ware, an unsung masterpiece of American realism. Those having first read Theron Ware can’t help but find In the Valley disappointing by comparison. This is still a fine novel of the Revolution, but most readers will prefer Cooper’s writings on the era.

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Saturday, January 16, 2021

A Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges



Challengingly erudite assortment of fiction, poetry, and essays
Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) is one of Latin America’s most critically acclaimed authors. Borges was a prolific all-around man of letters who published so much fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that no one seems to have compiled an authoritative bibliography of his work. In 1961, Borges published A Personal Anthology, a sort of self-retrospective of his career up to that time, edited by himself. Translated into English in 1967, the contents of the volume are comprised of short stories, poems, and essays—48 pieces in all—all of which are quite brief. Some of the selections are so short they can best be described as observations.

A fraction of the pieces included here are set in Borges’s native Argentina. In such stories, which sometimes take the form of westerns (or in Argentina’s case, southerns?), Borges contrasts the European culture of metropolitan Buenos Aires with the rugged gaucho life of the surrounding rural pampas. In stories like “The South,” “The Dead Man,” and “The End,” characters try to navigate from one world to the other and often find themselves in over their heads.


Beyond his tales set in South America, the writer Borges most calls to mind is Umberto Eco. The scope of Borges’s writings encompasses all of world history, including ancient and medieval times. Like Eco, Borges has a particular fascination for books and writers of the past, of all languages, and he demonstrates his encyclopedic mind through frequently arcane references. Unlike Eco, who seems to take pride in educating his readers on the world’s intellectual history, Borges just assumes you already know what he knows. While one can’t help but admire his impressive erudition, one also has to wonder if many of the critics and fans who praise Borges really understand what he’s saying much of the time.


Many of the briefer entries in this work, fiction and nonfiction, do little more than draw connections between historical figures and books from different corners of the globe and different eras in time, as if Borges were engaging in the mental gymnastics of Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. This intellectual pinball makes his poetry quite interesting and enigmatic. In his fictional narratives, Borges defies conventional rules of storytelling. Even time itself doesn’t necessarily follow a linear path, and he often injects himself into his stories, blurring the line between author, narrator, and character. Such quirks feel appropriate in works that touch on science fiction and fantasy, like “Funes, the Memorious” or “The Aleph,” but often feel obtrusive elsewhere.


I don’t know if any of the writings in A Personal Anthology can be considered among Borges’s best work, but the volume overall, in presenting an ample and diverse selection of his work, serves as a fine introduction to his writing for the novice. That doesn’t mean that all the works included make for a satisfying reading experience. It seems as if the selections were chosen for their brevity, and they often feel more like incomplete sketches than fully realized ideas. Borges’s narratives are often frustratingly disjointed, and his style is a little too arty and pretentious for all but the highest denizens of the ivory tower to enjoy. If I had to judge his career on A Personal Anthology alone, the verdict would not be entirely favorable, but this collection did pique my interest enough to want to delve further into his extensive bibliography.

Stories and essays in this collection
(Poems and very brief selections are not included in the list below)
Death and the Compass

The South 

The Dead Man

Funes, the Memorious 

A New Refutation of Time 

The Circular Ruins 

Inferno I, 32 

Parable of the Palace 

The Wall and the Books 

The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald 

Averroë's Search 

The Maker 

Everything and Nothing 

From Someone to No One 

Forms of a Legend 

The Zahir 

The Aleph

Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz 

The End

Story of the Warrior and the Captive 

The Modesty of History

The Secret Miracle 

Editor’s Epilogue

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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Library Book by Susan Orlean



Meandering history of the Los Angeles Public Library
In 1986, the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library almost burnt to the ground. The largest library fire in American history destroyed or damaged over a million books. Local authorities ruled the cause of the fire as arson, but no one was ever convicted of the crime. Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, learned about the fire after moving to Los Angeles in 2011. She decided to do some research into this tragic event, and the result is The Library Book, published in 2018. The marketing copy for this book leads one to believe this is a true-crime book focusing on the fire and the investigation that followed, as well as some institutional history into how the library recovered from the damage. It is all that, and more. Orlean casts a very wide net that encompasses the entire history of the Los Angeles Public Library while veering off into several tenuous digressions.


Throughout the book Orlean asserts the importance of libraries to their community, not just in L.A. but throughout the United States. Orlean is obviously a lover of libraries and a strong advocate for them. I am also a library enthusiast, have a library science degree, and often read books on the history and present state of libraries. Even though I would consider myself the target audience for this book, I still found it rather boring and underwhelming. The most interesting portions of the book cover the L.A. library’s early history and the quirky characters who directed the institution through the early twentieth century. Orlean’s accounts of her recent visits to the library are laden with praise and amazement but offer few surprises. She writes about libraries as if she’s writing for someone who’s never set foot in one. There is much stating of the obvious here, though to Orlean’s credit, her book provides a more insightful overview of what librarians actually do than Marilyn Johnson’s frivolous exposition of the profession, This Book Is Overdue!


Another problem with the book is that in addition to the history and the investigative journalism, Orlean feels the need to make this a memoir, so one gets to hear a lot about her personal thoughts and feelings on libraries, which aren’t necessarily any more valid or articulate than the reader’s own. In one such first-person chapter Orlean wants to know how it feels to burn a book, as if that would put her inside the mind of an arsonist. Instead, it just feels like pointless self-indulgence or a means of padding the page count. A chapter on the worldwide history of book burning is more interesting, but it still feels like a stretch to equate political book burning with pyromaniacal arson. In regard to the arson itself, Orlean provides a mini-biography of the prime suspect, whom she oddly tries to make into some sort of tragic hero. Harry Peak was never convicted of the arson, and the evidence against him was circumstantial, so the true-crime narrative feels disappointingly inconclusive. If Peak did commit the crime, then Orlean treats him far too sympathetically. If he didn’t commit the crime, then the in-depth attention paid to him seems rather unnecessary.


If you live in Los Angeles and feel a connection to your Public Library, then by all means read this book. You will likely enjoy it very much. Those who live elsewhere, however, no matter how much you love books and libraries, won’t necessarily feel a connection to Orlean’s meandering love letter to L.A.’s central branch. Library professionals, who would usually love a book like this, may find Orlean’s coverage of the field too elementary to educate and too bland to entertain.

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