Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Rhinoceros and Other Plays by Eugène Ionesco

Theatre of the absurd
Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994) was a Romanian-French playwright. Though born in Romania and fluent in both languages, he wrote his plays in the French language.
Rhinoceros, written in 1959, is his best known work. Regarded as an important work in the history of avant-garde drama, it has seen repeated stage productions since its publication up to the present day. The first English language production, staged in London in 1960, was produced by Orson Welles and featured Laurence Olivier in the starring role. That amounts to a very distinguished pedigree for a literary work that must have come across as an outrageously goofy night at the theatre.

The curtain opens on a street scene with a grocery and a cafe. Two friends, Jean and Bérenger, meet at the cafe. They make an odd couple of the neat vs. slovenly type. Bérenger drinks too much, and Jean scolds him for it. A few residents of the neighborhood also gather outdoors. Occasionally someone pokes their head out of a window to deliver a line. All seems a typically normal day until someone spots a rhinoceros charging through the streets. Though some words of shock are expressed, for the most part the cast takes the unusual event surprisingly in stride. Things escalate quickly, however, with a second rhinoceros sighting. Some witnesses attest that this is not the same rhino as previously, but rather a whole other animal. Arguments ensue over whether there was one rhino or two, whether the rhino or rhinos had one horn or two, and which characteristic applies to African or Asiatic rhinoceroses. At first, the rhinoceroses are merely mentioned as offstage happenings, but soon rhinoceros heads begin to appear around the theatre.

The most surprising thing about Rhinoceros is that it was written in 1959 because it reads like a work of the Dadaist movement of the 1920s. Though Rhinoceros is hailed by theatre historians as a groundbreaking classic, the imagery and humor don’t seem very cutting edge for the late 1950s. Ionesco’s style of playwriting is sometimes referred to as Theatre of the Absurd, a label that aptly applies to Rhinoceros, yet underneath the absurdity is a meaningful message. Rhinoceros is a clever statement on the temptations and perils of conformity, one that could apply to everything from fashion to fascism. It was Ionesco’s intention to satirize the latter evil, which gives the work some of its historical gravitas and elevates it above mere silly farce. Even so, Rhinoceros feels like a joke that has been dragged out a bit too long, particularly in its third act, somewhat like a comedy sketch that has been stretched into a feature film.

The Grove Press in New York published an English translation of the play in 1960 in a book entitled Rhinoceros and Other Plays. This volume also includes two one-act plays by Ionesco: The Leader (1953) and The Future is in Eggs, or It Takes All Sorts to Make a World (1957). These two comical dramas are even sillier than their better-known cousin. In both cases, the brevity of the one-act format only allows for the development and punchline of a single joke. In The Leader, a few adoring fans await the arrival of the unseen “Leader,” whose ludicrous off-stage activities are described by an announcer. In The Future is in Eggs, two newlyweds are surrounded by their parents and grandparents, who insistently encourage them to reproduce. Each play may have inspired a few chuckles when presented on stage, but lacking the metaphorical depth of Rhinoceros, both are likely to be forgotten soon after the closing curtain.

Stories in this collection
The Leader 
The Future is in Eggs, or It All Sorts to Make a World

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Monday, March 29, 2021

Walter J. Phillips by Nancy E. Green, Kate Rutherford, and Toni Tomlinson

Canadian master of the Japanese woodcut
Canadian artist Walter J. Phillips was a master of the color woodcut. Using methods and techniques developed by 18th and 19th century Japanese masters of the art form, Phillips created prints that rivaled the beauty and technical mastery of the medium’s greatest craftsmen. Phillips was born in England, but in his late twenties he moved to Canada, where he lived and worked as an artist and teacher in Winnipeg, Banff, and Victoria. He created images of the Western Canadian landscape in a colorful and lyrical style influenced by European art nouveau. The book Walter J. Phillips, published in 2013 by Pomegranate, reproduces 67 of Phillips’s prints and paintings, accompanied by quotes from the artist and three brief biographical essays.

The book is written by Nancy E. Green, a curator of art at Cornell University; Toni Tomlinson, Phillips’s granddaughter; and Kate Rutherford, Phillips’s great-granddaughter. Green provides a biographical overview of the artist’s life, training, and career that delivers sufficient interesting detail to leave the reader wanting to learn more. Rutherford tackles the question of why her great-grandfather didn’t achieve greater fame during his lifetime. The short answer is that his art was too traditionally pretty in an age when the Group of Seven were formulating a Canadian avant garde style. Phillips didn’t seem to mind, however, and was content with creating well-crafted images of natural beauty. Tomlinson’s brief essay, “Reflections of My Grandfather,” reveals an insider’s glimpse into the personality of the man behind the art.

Phillips was an artist of many talents. The images reproduced include a half dozen of his wood engravings and eight of his watercolor paintings. The rest of the illustrations are the Japanese-style color woodcuts for which he is best known. All artworks are reproduced in full color, except for the black and white wood engravings. Phillips was also an art educator, and the book’s layout pairs images of his prints with paragraphs quoted from his published and unpublished writings on art. Like most art books published these days, the book is printed on bright white matte-coated paper, resulting in a clear, crisp, high-resolution finish. While the quality of printing is excellent, the subtle and hazy coloration of Phillips’s woodcuts looks a bit washed out on the bright white paper. An off-white sheet, perhaps uncoated, would have given a closer approximation to the softness of water-based inks printed on Japanese paper. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful book filled with beautiful art.

The most comprehensive book on Phillips’s art is Walter J. Phillips: The Complete Graphic Works, published in 1981, but that was a limited edition publication, now out of print, and a used copy will cost you a few thousand dollars. Fortunately, the author of that book, Roger Boulet, has created a website at where one can view all of Phillips’s prints online. The images are low resolution, however, so the experience isn’t as pleasurable as holding a high resolution printed copy in your hands, as this book allows you to do. Green, Rutherford, and Tomlinson’s book may not be as comprehensive as a catalog raisonné, but an affordable and informative book of Phillips’s art was sorely needed, and this one fits the bill admirably. Anyone who appreciates the art of the color woodcut will enjoy it.
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Color woodcuts by Walter J. Phillips

Mount Rundle, 1951

York Boat on Lake Winnipeg, 1930

Norman Bay, 1923

Indian Days—Banff, 1950

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Chapterhouse: Dune by Frank Herbert

Wonderful world, boring story
Chapterhouse: Dune is the sixth and final volume in Frank Herbert’s series of
Dune novels. I first read the book shortly after it was published in 1985. Though I have reread some of the earlier Dune books a few times over the years, I just finished rereading Chapterhouse for the first time. In my opinion, the Dune universe that Herbert created in his six books is the most compelling and vividly imagined fictional universe in literature, putting The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter to shame. Despite my avid fandom, however, I have to admit that Herbert didn’t hit it out of the park every time. The phrase “last but not least” does not apply to the Dune series because Chapterhouse: Dune is clearly the worst book of the six.

The story takes place roughly 30,000 years in our future, immediately following the events of Heretics of Dune. At the end of that novel, the planet Arrakis was destroyed by the mysterious Honored Matres. The Bene Gesserit sisterhood, however, absconded with a sandworm and have proceeded to create a new Dune on the planet they call Chapterhouse, which serves as the administrative headquarters of their order. The Honored Matres are hunting the Bene Gesserit to extinction. They have destroyed multiple worlds that housed Bene Gesserit schools and strongholds, but the location of Chapterhouse remains a secret. In previous books, Herbert revealed how elements of Christianity, Islam, and Zen Buddhism have survived mankind’s epic migration throughout the galaxy. In this novel, he introduces a sect of Jews who have secretly preserved their faith for tens of thousands of years and have allied themselves with the Bene Gesserit.

The previous Dune novels were often told from multiple perspectives by jumping around among members of an ensemble cast, each player representing one of myriad competing factions in the complex galactic society. In Chapterhouse: Dune, however, probably 80 percent of the story follows the Bene Gesserit Mother Superior Darwi Odrade as she devises a plan to deal with the Honored Matre crisis and ensure the survival of her order. This results in the reader sitting through an endless series of meetings among the Bene Gesserit bureaucracy. The dialogue, both verbal and interior, is mostly written as a string of quotable philosophical aphorisms, each of which could serve as the motto for an intellectual embroidered sampler. No author in fiction writes these aphorisms better than Herbert, but the cumulative effect is one of tedious verbosity. Nothing much resembling action happens in the first three quarters of the book. The intense focus on the Bene Gesserit administration also severely limits the scope and fascination of the Dune universe. The Honored Matres must remain a mystery, so they barely appear. The Tleilaxu have been wiped out but for one survivor. Sheeana, the Fremen girl who can talk to worms, was one of the most interesting characters from Heretics, but she only plays a minor supporting role here. Duncan Idaho is on hand as usual, but his presence feels more obligatory than necessary.

Another mark against Chapterhouse is that it ends on a cliffhanger and therefore feels incomplete. The final chapter, deliberately vague and a little silly, adds insult to injury. Herbert intended to write a sequel but died before he could complete it. His son Brian Herbert has published many posthumous Dune novels since Frank’s death, among them two sequels to Chapterhouse entitled Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. (I haven’t read them.) If you enjoyed the first five books of Herbert’s Dune series, then by all means read Chapterhouse: Dune, but don’t expect it to be as great as the novels that preceded it.

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Monday, March 22, 2021

The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure by Stephen Crane

One masterpiece in an otherwise mediocre collection
The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure, a collection of short stories by Stephen Crane, was published in 1898. The title selection, “The Open Boat,” is one of Crane’s most highly regarded writings and is considered a landmark work in the history of American literary naturalism. The story is based on an actual shipwreck that Crane lived through. Four survivors of a sunken ship are cast about in a small dinghy on stormy seas. The entire story takes place in the small boat as the castaways struggle to reach the beach without being killed by the crashing surf. This is not a glamorous tale of adventure but rather a harrowing disaster story told in deadpan realism with keen psychological authenticity. This excellent work of short fiction combines the bleak, fatalistic action of a Jack London adventure, the suspense of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, and the linguistic mastery of a Joseph Conrad novel. Almost long enough to qualify as a novella, “The Open Boat” is the lengthiest piece in this collection and clearly the selection with the highest literary merit. It is a must-read for anyone who appreciates modern realist literature.

The seven remaining selections are a mixed bag. Crane, one of the most innovative and influential writers of American realism, took the literary world by storm in the late nineteenth century with his groundbreaking novels Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and The Red Badge of Courage. His fame and critical acclaim can be partly attributed to his status as the bad boy of American literature. He trampled formulaic conventions and genteel propriety in ways that previous American writers feared to tread. When reading the stories in The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure, one gets the feeling that Crane felt the need to continually scorn convention and defy expectations in order to maintain his status as an iconoclast. The latter half of the title seems intended to be ironic, since Crane mocks the adventure genre more than he embraces it. Though these tales take place in exotic locales (often in Mexico) and the protagonists are ostensibly manly heroes, Crane never allows himself to succumb to the conventions of the genre or gratify his audience with romance and heroic action. He relates these stories from cynical angles that reveal his heroes’ feet of clay and the absurdity and cowardice that often lingers beneath the deceptive illusion of romance. In a way, it’s kind of a shame. Another groundbreaking American realist, Frank Norris, could embrace the adventure genre without compromising his naturalistic principles, as evidenced by his books Moran of the Lady Letty and The Third Circle. In Crane’s collection, however, one feels the author was unwilling to fully commit to the adventure genre.

This is perfectly exemplified by two dismal stories, “The Wise Men” and “Five White Mice.” Both stories take place in Mexico City, though the reader learns nothing about the setting other than the names of a few streets. All of the characters in these stories are white, except for three Mexicans depicted as thugs in “Five White Mice.” Both stories star a pair of young American men known only as “the Kids” whose sole purpose in life is to drink, carouse, and gamble. In “The Wise Men,” the two ne’er-do-wells bet on a foot race between two of their favorite bartenders. The reader thinks the story might lead to a surprise ending, but no, the race ends as expected and the bets pay off as expected, resulting in a complete waste of time. “Five White Mice” leads up to a tense showdown that promises action but simply fizzles to nothing.

There are better selections in this collection, most notably “One Dash - Horses,” which features a thrilling chase scene. “Death and the Child” is a variation on The Red Badge of Courage set in modern Greece. For the most part, however, the Other Tales in The Open Boat and Other Tales are disappointing fare that doesn’t live up to this author’s stellar potential.

Stories in this collection

The Open Boat
A Man and Some Others
One Dash - Horses
Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventures
The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky
The Wise Men: A Detail of American Life in Mexico
Death and the Child
The Five White Mice

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Friday, March 19, 2021

Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent by Constance Martin

A nutshell biography with emphasis on his paintings
In the early twentieth century, Rockwell Kent was the premier book illustrator in American publishing. It may have been his illustrations for the 1930 edition of Moby Dick that made him a household name, but Kent’s art adorned numerous literary and commercial publications. He was also a fine artist whose paintings have been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide. Hand in hand with his artistic pursuits, Kent lived a life of adventure. He traveled to remote and exotic lands, drew and painted the landscapes and people he encountered there, and published books detailing his life in far-off places, often harsh wildernesses in cold and arctic climes. The book Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent, published in 2000, details Kent’s life as a traveler and examines the paintings he created of his journeys to Maine, Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, and Greenland.

Distant Shores was published as a catalog for an exhibition of Kent’s work organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The bulk of the book consists of full-page color reproductions of Kent’s paintings. The text is written by Constance Martin, art historian at the University of Calgary, and Richard V. West, director of the Frye Art Museum in Seattle (Those were there positions at the time of publication.) Martin discusses Kent’s travels and the paintings depicted in the book, while West covers Kent’s later career and his controversial political views. Kent was an outspoken socialist during the McCarthy era, which hurt his career in the United States, though he was a big hit in the Soviet Union, to which he donated a large collection of his artworks. Kent really led a fascinating life, but the main attraction of this coffee table book is its images, so the reader only gets the briefest outline of a Kent biography. Nevertheless, it is enough to captivate the reader’s interest for the course of the book’s two essays.

Though an accomplished painter, Kent is best known for his illustrations, usually in the form of pen and ink drawings or wood engravings. Personally, I am not enamored with Kent’s paintings, at least not the period of his career depicted here. His style is a cross between the Northeastern American style of Winslow Homer and the Wyeth family and the Canadian school of impressionists known as the Group of Seven, most notably Lawren Harris and Franklin Carmichael. I prefer the works of all of the aforementioned artists over the works of Kent exhibited in this volume. Kent had a great sense of color, as demonstrated by these works, but his brushwork is clumsy and his compositions often overly simplistic. The fact that his illustrations are so fastidious and precise makes it all the more difficult to understand why his paintings are often so loose and murky. For those who prefer Kent’s more illustrative style, the book does include at least a couple dozen of his black and white paintings and engravings, including several from Moby Dick.

I enjoyed Distant Shores more for the book’s biographical content than for the paintings included in the exhibition. While it only provides a bare bones biography of Kent, Distant Shores is very successful in piquing the reader’s curiosity about his fascinating life. After reading this book, I have an overwhelming desire to read Kent’s autobiography It’s Me, O Lord and get the details of his adventurous life straight from the horse’s mouth.
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Moby Dick, Chapter II (Harbor), 1930

Conception Bay, Newfoundland, 1915

Artist in Greenland, c. 1935/1960

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The World: Or, Instability by Constantine S. Rafinesque

A natural scientist’s cosmological poem
Constantine Rafinesque
Naturalist Constantine Rafinesque (1783-1840) was born in Constantinople to French and German parents. In his adulthood he moved to America, where he remained. Like John James Audubon, whom he knew, Rafinesque wandered the wilds of America, studying its natural wonders and logging new species. Unlike Audubon, who specialized in birds and mammals, Rafinesque studied everything—animals, plants, rocks, Native American tribes, and more—and considered himself an expert on just about every subject under the sun. He published research in dozens of fields but was considered by many of his scientific contemporaries to be a dilettante, a crackpot, or a fraud. Rafinesque did not confine his pursuits to the sciences but dabbled in the humanities as well, including poetry. In 1836, he published The World: Or, Instability, an extended poem in which he expounds upon his scientific and philosophical views.

In the 19th century, when everyone read poetry and it seems nearly everyone wrote it, poetic verse was considered a legitimate medium through which to convey scientific observations and theories, at least to the general public. Rafinesque uses The World to outline his own personal cosmology, encompassing everything from science to religion to ethics. The nearest equivalent in American literature might be Edgar Allen Poe’s Eureka: A Prose Poem. A flattering preface to The World, likely written by Rafinesque himself, overstates that “it is as if Newton had explained his laws of attraction and repulsion in a poem, instead of a mathematical work.” Rafinesque’s main “law” is that all matter is in a state of instability and change, destruction and renewal. This is hardly a groundbreaking thesis, but his argument does contain some foreshadowings of evolutionary theory. While the concept of instability is constantly referred to in the poem, it is really just a vague foundation from which Rafinesque pontificates on a variety of subjects.

The main body of The World is a poem of 5400 lines. This is supplemented by some introductory matter, appendices, and 88 endnotes. The entire poem is written in metric verse, unrhymed but for the occasional random rhyming couplet. The text is thematically divided into twenty chapters, then closes with “The Universal Prayer and Hymn of Mankind.” Religion is a main concern of the poem, perhaps more so than science. Rafinesque believes strongly in God, and also in angels, though he criticizes organized religion and does not hold to a literal creationist interpretation of the Bible. Although he sees nature as the ultimate expression of God, he makes it clear that he is no subscriber to pantheism, which he ridicules. Nor is he a materialist. He believes in the dualism of Descartes, not the monism of Spinoza, and in human free will. Rafinesque also asserts himself an abolitionist, a pacifist, and a Republican in the French sense of the word. He also speaks of life on other worlds and reincarnation. The poem occasionally brings up some antiquated scientific beliefs, such as volcanoes on the moon and spontaneous combustion caused by alcoholism.

The World is unlikely to garner praise from poetry critics. As someone who is not a habitual reader of poetry, however, I enjoyed the clear didactic style of Rafinesque’s poesy. He often uses metaphoric imagery and lofty turns of phrase, but never to the point where such flourishes obscure the lesson he is trying to impart. This work is primarily valuable not for its literary quality or even its scientific content, but rather for the insight it gives us into Rafinesque’s personality and values. Readers are unlikely to agree with everything he has to say, but one can still find practical pearls of wisdom. I would have preferred much less talk about God and angels and far more about the natural world, but I nonetheless enjoyed The World as an inspiring celebration of natural science, even if it is a bit heavy on Christian sermonizing.

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Monday, March 15, 2021

The Great Cycle by Tarjei Vesaas

Coming of age in rural Norway
In the 1960s, the University of Wisconsin Press published its Nordic Translation Series, which introduced lesser-known works of Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and Icelandic literature to English-language audiences. Eleven of the books from that series are now available to read online for free at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries website. One of these volumes is The Great Cycle by Tarjei Vesaas, originally published in Norway in 1934. Vesaas is widely considered one of Norway’s most important authors of the twentieth century. While critics often classify Vesaas as one of his nation’s groundbreaking modernists, The Great Cycle is pretty traditional stylistically and reads like a naturalistic depiction of Norwegian rural life in a bygone era.

Per Bufast, the protagonist, is six years old when the novel begins. He lives on an isolated farm in the Norwegian countryside with his mother, father, aunt, and little brother Botolv. As the eldest son in the family, Per is expected to take over the family farm when his father retires. At a very young age, Per overhears his father say that Per will live the rest of his days at Bufast. Once heard, this statement hangs over Per’s head like a death sentence. He rebels against this restriction of his personal freedom, though in a rather mild way. He decides that if he excels at his studies, his parents will have no choice but to send him to the seminary to train him for the priesthood, which he sees as his ticket off the farm.

The title of The Great Cycle can be interpreted in two ways. The first is the natural cycle of the seasons, as viewed through the age-old operations of a farm. The second is the cycle of human life consisting of, to put it bluntly, birth, school, work, and death, with each generation successively following upon the footsteps of the last. This same cycle (minus the school) also applies to the livestock on the Bufast farm as Per watches them live out the usefulness of their lives. The novel only covers Per’s life from ages six to twenty-six, but over the course of the book he learns much about death through family and friends. He also comes to an awareness of love and sex, though acquiring such knowledge is difficult when the sheer remoteness of his existence limits his prospective mates to the handful of farm girls his own age with whom he comes into contact. Per’s relationship with his only male friend is strained by the fact that both are attracted to the same girl. Apparently, the outward expression of emotion does not come naturally to the Nordic soul, creating distances between Per and those he loves that prove difficult to bridge. While the Norwegian setting is made intimately real for the reader, the life events and feelings they engender are universally human.

Though Per experiences his share of tragedy and anxiety, this is a quiet and introspective novel, without much overt turmoil. It reads like a kinder, gentler variation on Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil. Both books romanticize a turning away from civilized society to the primitivism of nature, but Vesaas’s nature is not as harsh and brutal as Hamsun’s. In fact, the Bufast farm is often so comforting it becomes an enticing trap that deceptively stifles lives. Appropriately, the language with which Vesaas tells the story often feels as confined and reticent as the setting and characters. His prose consists of stark imagery and curt phrasing that nonetheless evoke great natural beauty and psychological depth, each and every word carefully chosen with the skill of a master poet. Though understated and modest on the surface, this excellent novel delivers a deep and powerful reading experience. The Great Cycle has a sequel, published in 1835, entitled Women Call Home (Kvinnor ropar heim), though I don’t think it’s ever been translated into English. If not, it’s a shame, because reading The Great Cycle will leave you wanting to follow Per into the next stage of his life.
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Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America by Laura Dassow Walls

The legacy of Humboldtian science
Prussian scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt achieved worldwide renown for his daring scientific expedition to South America from 1799 to 1804. In his research of the natural world and the publishing his findings, Humboldt established a whole new method of conducting natural science by collecting mountains of empirical data and comparing and connecting the evidence to form an interdisciplinary view of nature as a holistic ecological system. Among his achievements, Humboldt founded the fields of ecology, environmentalism, and nature writing, and he was an outspoken advocate for Indigenous rights and the abolition of slavery. His career culminated in the publication of his magnum opus, the five-volume work entitled Cosmos. In her book The Passage to Cosmos, published in 2009, Laura Dassow Walls explores the broad range of Humboldt’s intellectual pursuits and traces the lasting ramifications of Humboldtian thought in both the sciences and the humanities. Walls also shows how some scientific and political figures perverted Humboldt’s scientific methods and liberal ideals to promote racist, nationalist agendas in favor of manifest destiny, slavery, and imperialism, much like Charles Darwin’s works were co-opted by Fascists to justify racism and genocide.

I have read several books on Humboldt over the past couple years, and this is one of the best. If you don’t know much about Humboldt, however, this probably isn’t the best book to start with, as it goes into a degree of scholarly depth perhaps too arcane for novice readers. If you want to learn the basic facts about Humboldt’s adventures in South America, Humboldt’s Cosmos by Gerard Helferich provides a good blow-by-blow summary. Overall, probably the best introductory book on Humboldt is Andrea Wulf’s 2015 study The Invention of Nature, which strikes a good balance of coverage between Humboldt’s life and legacy. The Passage to Cosmos is much more concerned with his legacy than his life. Only two chapters are biographical; the rest focus on Humboldt’s formidable influence on American history, science, politics, arts, literature, and environmentalism. While Wulf and other recent writers have pointed out Humboldt’s profound effect on key figures like Darwin and Henry David Thoreau, Walls delves far deeper into Humboldt’s scholarly network and paints a much more comprehensive and precise picture of his worldwide impact. Though I went into this book thinking I knew a lot about Humboldt and the importance of his works, Walls delivers surprising connections and keen insights on every page. Her prose is smooth and articulate throughout, making for an enjoyable and quotable reading experience.

How did Humboldt go from being perhaps the second most famous man in the world (behind Napoleon) two centuries ago to being largely forgotten in America today? Walls has a lot to say on that subject, while asserting that the world would be a better place if we had listened closer to what this genius had to say and took his advice to heart. As she argues and convincingly defends, “What the twenty-first century needs, now that biodiversity as well as cultural diversity are everywhere in crisis, is a neo-Humboldtian concept of Cosmos.” I was an admirer of Humboldt before I read Walls’s elegant and well-defended argument, but reading her take on the man has exponentially increased my esteem for him. This excellent and enlightening book is a must-read for Humboldt enthusiasts.
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Monday, March 8, 2021

Cane by Jean Toomer

Harlem Renaissance modernism
published in 1923, is a work of fiction by African American author Jean Toomer. (Toomer is a male author, so presumably Jean is pronounced in the French fashion.) This is a modernist work arising out of the Harlem Renaissance cultural movement. Many literary critics consider Cane a novel, but it does not conform to the conventional structure of a novel. It is really a collection of short stories and poetry that all share thematic and stylistic similarities. Each story or poem functions as a vignette depicting a view of African American life in the United States. In terms of formal structure, its closest approximation in mainstream literature would be Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.

The book is roughly divided into thirds. The first section consists of scenes set in the rural South, frequently in the state of Georgia. The title of the book is derived from the sugar cane that grows on Southern plantations. The stories and poems of the second third of the book take place in urban settings including Washington, DC, and Chicago. The final third of the book is a novella entitled “Kabnis” that returns to the South for a story set in the fictional town of Sempter, Georgia. “Kabnis” is named after its main character, Ralph Kabnis, but surprisingly Toomer overwhelmingly favors female protagonists in the Cane stories. The book often feels like a study in womanhood as much as an exploration of the African American experience.

The Southern portions of the book are more powerful than the urban stories. Toomer combines the gritty reality of the modern South and echoes of slavery’s past with evocative images of the natural environment to create a new type of Southern Gothic atmosphere permeated by a lingering sense of dread. Toomer does for the Black South what William Faulkner did for the White South, but Toomer did it first. Without the added dimensions of the natural and Southern historical imagery, Toomer’s urban scenes are less compelling. The plots tend to be less about race and more about romantic relationships. These love stories aren’t conventional or formulaic by any means, however, but rather complex psychological portraits of sexual power politics. In the city stories, Toomer’s prose tends to be more ostentatiously modern. Like so many modernists of the 1920s, it seems like he wants to be the next James Joyce, which results in a lot of deliberate verbal gymnastics that turn the narrative into a puzzle that must be deciphered before it can be understood or appreciated. While this sort of experimental wordplay gets annoying in the fiction, it is quite at home in the poetry, which is intriguingly evocative throughout the book.

The rural Southern stories don’t suffer as much from the obtuse modernist style, but some of it leaks into “Kabnis,” a story about a Black Northerner transplanted into a small Southern town. Much of the novella is consists of dialogue, much like a play but written in prose form rather than as a dramatic script. “Kabnis” is more effective in its atmosphere and psychological authenticity than in its plot, which meanders to a conclusion that’s open to interpretation.

One’s appreciation of Cane will largely hinge upon the reader’s tolerance for the impressionistic stream-of-consciousness prose stylings of early modernist writers like Joyce or Faulkner. For those willing to decode the plot and all its symbolism, this groundbreaking work yields much insight into the racial reality of early twentieth-century America.
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Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

Prehistoric fiction at a glacial pace
The Clan of the Cave Bear,
published in 1980, is the first of a half dozen books in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, which has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide. The story is set 30,000 years ago on the Crimean peninsula in what is now the Ukraine. Following a devastating earthquake, a young girl finds herself orphaned and alone. Luckily she is found by a neighboring tribe who save her life, but this newfound family is reluctant to accept her as one of their own. The girl, named Ayla, is a Cro-Magnon, a founding member of the Homo sapiens species. The titular Clan, on the other hand, is made up of Neanderthals who find the skinny blonde girl ugly and strange.

Early on, the narrative develops a pattern that is repetitively carried through for the remainder of the book: The Clan is a very civilized organization with many complicated social rules and religious laws. These regulations delineate very strict gender roles. Ayla, acting as a precocious feminist, frequently breaks the rules and is threatened with punishment, including death sentences. She always gets off on some technicality or loophole, however, and becomes an exception to the rule, thus negating much of the effort Auel put into conceiving the Clan’s societal codes in the first place. One can understand why Auel, writing for a twentieth-century audience, would want to write a story with a strong female protagonist, but the author so often projects today’s values onto prehistoric society that the events often seem to defy reality. The tameness of this prehistoric world is unbelievable, and largely to Ayla’s advantage. To her credit, Auel does relent from the gratuitous girl power long enough to draw a reasonably credible picture of what sexual relations and parenthood might have been like during the Pleistocene.

Although Auel’s straightforward prose style, lacking in ostentation, is commendable at first, once she outlines the scientific parameters of the world she’s depicting the rest of the text reads like a young adult novel. Teenaged readers would not have the attention span to get through the book, however, because the plot proceeds at a glacial pace with way too much description and not enough action. What little could be called “action” is soap opera melodrama that doesn’t really take advantage of the possibilities of the book’s unique setting. A prehistoric science fiction novel should not be this boring. Occasionally plot elements also add the insult of ridiculousness to the injury of boredom.

It’s obvious that Auel did a fair amount of research before writing this novel, but it still feels like there’s an awful lot of speculation amid the science. Much attention is given to details regarding the food and cooking of the Neanderthals, as well as the medicinal plants utilized by their medicine women. The religious views of the Clan, however, come across as very New Agey, as if written by someone with an interest in late-twentieth century Wicca. In Auel’s world, because the Neanderthals are a more primitive, animalistic species than us, they rely more heavily on instinct than cognition. Auel pushes this into the realm of pseudoscience, however, when she endows her characters with ancestral memories. One scene of a religious ceremony seems directly lifted from Frank Herbert’s Dune, particularly when the characters experience devolutionary flashbacks and prescient visions similar to those of Dune’s hero Muad’Dib. The era of early man is rife with narrative possibilities (Jack London proved this in 1907 with his novel Before Adam), but Auel feels the need to ladle on the mysticism in an attempt to keep the reader interested, when in fact the result is just the opposite.
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