Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

Racy saga of a woman’s life of crime
Moll Flanders
was originally published in 1722, though the text itself concludes with the phrase “Written in the year 1683.” Narrated in the first person, this book purports to be an autobiography of the title character. To strengthen the illusion of a memoir, it was first published anonymously. It wasn’t until decades later that the book came to be attributed to novelist Daniel Defoe (1660-1731). The book may have been inspired by the life of Moll King, a criminal who Defoe interviewed in London’s Newgate Prison. Even if the narrative was partially based on fact, the incredible life of Moll Flanders certainly bears the marks of some imaginative fictionalization.

Moll Flanders is not the narrator’s real name, but rather a criminal alias she acquired over the course of a career in thievery. She occasionally calls herself Betty, but never reveals her actual surname. She was born in Newgate Prison, where her mother was an incarcerated convict. The mother then opted for “transportation” (the deportation of criminals to colonies abroad) to Virginia, leaving her young daughter with a foster mother. The girl receives a decent upbringing, but eventually two personal characteristics become problematic: her beauty and her poverty. The former makes her irresistible to men, some of whom lead her away from the path of virtue. The latter leads her, out of necessity, to pursue a life of crime. Constantly seeking to improve her situation through marriage or theft, Moll’s life becomes a twisted saga involving several husbands, several children both in an out of wedlock, adultery, prostitution, bigamy, incest, larceny, fraud, and imprisonment.

When reading Moll Flanders, as with his earlier novel Robinson Crusoe, it is hard to believe Defoe was a writer of the early eighteenth century because his prose is so clear, engaging, and lively. The reader experiences none of the obscurity or ungainliness one finds with later writers like James Fenimore Cooper or Sir Walter Scott whose works, though often of great literary merit, can be tough going for today’s reader. Not so with Defoe. Because his audience of three centuries ago had a much longer attention span than today’s reading public, however, he really belabors every scene. If you were to accidentally skip a page, you probably wouldn’t even notice, because when you jump back in he’s likely still saying same thing.

Something that’s pleasantly surprising about the novel is its admirably progressive lack of prudery. Defoe doesn’t use foul or explicit language, but he does write about matters of sexuality, adultery, or abortion with a refreshing matter-of-factness that puts the puritanism of Victorian literature to shame. Some of this forthrightness can no doubt be attributed to Defoe attempting to attract a wider audience by being deliberately racy and risqué. For a book about crime and punishment, Moll Flanders is delightfully free of righteousness. The moral of the book is not “Crime doesn’t pay,” because here crime frequently does pay, and Moll usually lands on her feet. Defoe includes one brief scene of repentance, but it feels more like obligatory lip service than preachiness.

As a female protagonist, Moll Flanders is an independent woman centuries ahead of her time, and Defoe does a very fine job of telling the story from a woman’s point of view. For the most part, Moll Flanders is an enjoyable read, but it would be more so if the plot weren’t so unnecessarily long and overly drawn-out.
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Friday, April 23, 2021

Rauschenberg: Art and Life by Mary Lynn Kotz

Career retrospective of a twentieth-century master
Like my taste in books, my taste in art tends to run towards the antiquated, but there is one late-twentieth century artist whose prolific body of work provides an endless source of fascination and aesthetic pleasure: Robert Rauschenberg. Highly regarded by many as the greatest American artist of the twentieth century, Rauschenberg has created, through a diverse range of imagery and techniques, a staggering corpus of work that seems to encompass and comment upon the entirety of modern society. Due to his prolificacy and renown, there is no shortage of books on Rauschenberg, but many of them only focus on specific periods in his career. One of the most lavish and comprehensive biographies/retrospective catalogs of the past few decades is Rauschenberg: Art and Life by Mary Lynn Kotz. First published in 1990, it has since been updated twice. The third edition, published in 2018, is the one I am reviewing here. Rauschenberg died in 2008, so the third edition covers his entire life from cradle to grave and also provides an epilogue on the posthumous mission of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Kotz seems to have been friends with Rauschenberg, or at least interviewed him on a number of occasions. Her attitude toward the man is one of abject hero worship, which makes her a great guide to his artworks but not an objective biographer. While most critics would probably agree that Rauschenberg, like many artists, peaked early, Kotz refuses to admit that the work of the last three decades of his life fails to measure up to his game-changing combines of the 1950s and ‘60s. (To her credit, however, Kotz does quote a few unflattering exhibition reviews.) In Kotz’s view, it’s all pure unbridled genius from start to finish, with nary a failed experiment in site. In fact, in terms of both text and images, she seems to devote an inordinate amount of attention to the ROCI initiative of the 1980s and ‘90s (Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange), probably because that was actively underway when the first edition of Art and Life was published.

The fact that Kotz treats all stages of Rauschenberg’s career relatively equally, however, does accomplish one important function. This book really helps to make sense of the countless series of works that the artist produced over the course of his career. One really gets a sense of his innovation in changing technologies over time, and how each phase of his artistic development led into the next in an ever-broadening scope of curiosity and experimentation. As a biography, Art and Life doesn’t really delve very deeply into Rauschenberg’s personal life. At times it reads more like an illustrated curriculum vitae chronicling his exhibitions, collaborations, and awards. The best biography of Rauschenberg is Off the Wall by Calvin Tomkins, first published in 1980, which also does a better job of detailing his interaction and influence among the broader art world. Off the Wall is a minimally illustrated book, however, not the sumptuous feast for the eyes that is Kotz’s Art and Life.

Since the original publication of Art and Life, few books have been published that can compete with its size and scope. Contenders include Rauschenberg: A Retrospective, published by the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 and the 2016 catalog Robert Rauschenberg, published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I haven’t seen enough of those books to fairly compare them to the Kotz volume. If it’s just the story of Rauschenberg you want, then Tomkins’s book is hard to beat, but if you’re looking for a heavily illustrated coffee-table volume showing the wide range of Rauschenberg’s artistic efforts, then Kotz’s Art and Life should amply satisfy your craving for this master artist’s unique and groundbreaking vision.
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Booster, 1967, lithograph and screenprint on paper. To view hundreds of images of Rauschenberg’s work, see the website of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Friday, April 16, 2021

The Don Flows Home to the Sea by Mikhail Sholokhov

Second half of the great realist epic of the Russian Civil War
One of the greatest literary works of the Soviet Union is the epic Tikhiy Don (The Quiet Don), which was serialized in the pages of Russian magazines from 1928 to 1940. It was written by Mikhail Sholokhov, who would go on to win the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature, largely on the strength of this work. When published in book form, the historical novel occupied four volumes of Russian text. When translated into English, however, it was released as two novels entitled And Quiet Flows the Don (1934) and The Don Flows Home to the Sea (1940).

And Quiet Flows the Don depicted the lives of the Don Cossacks in the village of Tatarsk during World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War, focusing in particular on one family, the Melekhovs. The Don Flows Home to the Sea continues the family saga through the ongoing Russian Civil War. Gregor Melekhov, who previously sympathized with the Bolsheviks, now finds himself leading a squadron of White resistance forces against the Red Army of the new Communist government. Not only are the Cossacks waging a war of rebellion; their families are living in the midst of it, as the war rages through their homeland. Characters who were friends and neighbors in the first novel now find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.

Just like And Quiet Flows the Don, The Don Flows Home to the Sea is a masterpiece of realist writing, with nary a cliché nor hint of pretentiousness to be found. No character enjoys a tragic Shakespearean trajectory, lives up to his heroic potential, or realizes his or her dreams. Instead, just as in real life, they perish unexpectedly and almost randomly in a war that yields little heroism. The reader feels himself thrust into the bleak violence of Cossack life during wartime, replete with alcohol, typhus, and lice. Amid scenes of human destruction, however, the beauty of nature persists in Sholokhov’s brilliant naturalistic descriptions of the change of seasons, cyclical blossoming of the land, and resilient wildlife of the steppe. Despite being praised by Joseph Stalin, the novel is neither pro-Communist nor anti-Communist, but rather anti-war and pro-humanity.

The only aspect of the book that could be considered the least bit romantic is the love affair between Gregor and his mistress Aksinia. Even this relationship, however, is far from the idealized love of Yuri and Lara in Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. Neither Gregor nor Aksinia are particularly virtuous or likable characters. Their attraction is depicted almost more as the lustful obsession of two animal natures rather than a poetic mating of souls. Like Zhivago and Lara, both parties are married to other people, but here Sholokhov makes the cruel repercussions of adultery more clear than Pasternak. These lovers are not absolved of their guilt by the inevitability of their passion. Also, just as in the military and social aspects of the work, Sholokhov refuses to give the reader the expected dramatic scenes one expects from fictional romance and opts instead for a more haphazard and fatalistic series of events that rings truer to real life.

The ideal way to experience Sholokhov’s epic work would be to read both novels back-to-back as one extended narrative. To not do so, as I found out the hard way, will cause disorientation at the start of the sequel as one tries to recall the details of the preceding volume. Nevertheless, the reader soon finds himself once again drawn into the compelling lives of the Don Cossacks through Sholokhov’s powerful and moving writing. Despite the roughly 1200 page combined length of the two installments, the Don epic is so good I didn’t want it to end.
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Monday, April 12, 2021

Black Panther Epic Collection, Volume 2: Revenge of the Black Panther by Jack Kirby, et al.

A less than kingly collection, except for Kirby
Among the many trade paperbacks put out by Marvel Comics are the Epic Collection series, which gathers classic stories of the past and reproduces them in full color. The Black Panther Epic Collection: Revenge of the Black Panther, was published in 2019. It reprints issues 1 to 15 of the Black Panther’s solo series (1977-1979), which continues in three issues of Marvel Premiere (#51-53, 1979-1980). Also included is a short story from Marvel Team-Up #100 (1980) featuring Black Panther and Storm, and the four-issue Black Panther miniseries from 1988. The editors also throw in a few relevant pages from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

Though it’s not clearly marked on the cover, this Epic Collection is actually Black Panther, Volume 2. The character Black Panther debuted in Fantastic Four #52 (1966). His solo adventures in the pages of the Marvel title Jungle Action are generally considered to be the quintessential Black Panther adventures prior to the Modern Age of Comics (mid-1980s to the present). Those early adventures are collected in Black Panther Epic Collection, Volume 1: Panther’s Rage. The stories included in Volume 2: Revenge of the Black Panther are not at all quintessential Black Panther comic; at least I hope not, because they are not of particularly distinguished quality. The one remarkable thing about this volume, however, is that issues 1 through 12 of the 1977 Black Panther series were written and drawn by Jack Kirby, one of the most important figures in the history of not only Marvel Comics but comics in general. Kirby’s art in these issues is spectacular, and his stories are characteristically bizarre. Don’t expect to learn a lot about Wakanda or the history of the character, however, as Kirby mostly has the Panther fighting space aliens and monsters, similar to what he just got done doing with Captain America in the mid- to late ‘70s.

No doubt one of the reasons for reprinting old Black Panther comics is to capitalize on the recent motion picture. Those who only know T’Challa from the movie, however, may be surprised or disappointed from what they find here in Volume 2. Although I enjoyed Kirby’s take on the character, I can’t say I learned much about T’Challa or Wakanda from reading this book. In the movies, Wakanda is depicted as a technologically advanced society. While that’s hinted at in these comics, a lot of the Panther’s power comes from magic and mysticism. In the 1988 miniseries T’Challa inexplicably has cat’s eyes. Though his suit is laced with vibranium, it doesn’t have a lot of gadgets in it. In his early days the Black Panther was mostly just a good fighter, on a par with Captain America’s strength but with more kung fu skills.

The second half of the book, without Kirby, is not very good at all. The ten-page story from Marvel Team-Up by Chris Claremont and John Byrne is fine, but the remaining issues are handled by artists and writers whose talents are middling at best. The Panther’s archenemy is Klaw, a being made of “solid sound,” who makes for a rather silly nemesis. The 1988 miniseries has the Panther battling the Ku Klux Klan and South African apartheid, but any social realism is undermined by the extensive emphasis on the Panther’s mystical origins. As the first Black superhero, Black Panther was a groundbreaking character, but in the ‘70s and ‘80s, most of the Black superheroes were still treated as second-rate characters who got second-rate powers and story lines. That’s apparent from this collection, though one has to give credit to Kirby for the Herculean effort he puts into his issues.

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Friday, April 9, 2021

Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece by Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins

Encyclopedic book of lists
The Handbook to Life series is a set of comprehensive books on ancient civilizations (and has recently expanded into medieval and Renaissance times as well). The Handbooks seem intended as undergraduate textbooks but are suitable and satisfying reading for any armchair archaeologist interested in the ancient world. I believe the Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece, compiled by British archaeological power couple Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins, was the first volume published in the series, and it set a high standard of quality for the books that followed. It was originally published in 1997 by the publisher Facts on File, but the series has since been acquired by Oxford University Press, who have published the series in paperback editions.

I have read three other volumes in the Handbook to Life series, those on Prehistoric Europe, the Ancient Maya World, and the Aztec World. The Aztec and Maya volumes are excellent at examining all aspects of a civilization and providing a vivid look at what life was like in those periods, not just for royalty but for the common people as well. The Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece is less successful on the latter score. Like all of the Handbooks, the text is arranged in thematic chapters highlighting various aspects of the culture in question. In this Greek volume, only one brief chapter covers common aspects of everyday life such as food, clothing, and funerals, though an extensive chapter on economy and trade also helps to illuminate the lives of common working stiffs. The authors devote their heaviest coverage to religion, warfare, and historical events.

The problem, of course, is that so much is known about ancient Greece, what do you cram in between the covers of a one-volume synthesis? The Adkins’s strategy for solving the problem is to devote the bulk of the volume to a series of comprehensive lists, with each alphabetical entry elaborated by a paragraph or two of text. Thus, in addition to an extensive historical chronology (12 pages), the reader is treated to a smorgasbord of historical personages (42 pages), regions and alliances (24 pages), place names (11 pages), authors (17 pages), gods and mythological beings (49 pages), artists and architects (5 pages), and philosophers and scientists (9 pages). This makes the Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece a very good reference for looking up individual facts, but for those readers seeking a general overview of Greek civilization, this is not the most satisfying text for linear reading. Amid the morass of detail, it is often hard to see the forest for the trees.

Like other books in the series, this volume is heavily illustrated. Most of the illustrations are photographs of architectural ruins or artifacts such as sculptures, pottery, and coins. There are also some helpful labeled diagrams, though one wishes there would have been more of those, particularly in the architecture and art sections. The maps of Greek regions and city-states are very detailed. They are not the easiest to read but are more than informative enough for all but professional archaeologists.

New discoveries are constantly being made, so the information in this book can’t help but become dated with time. I’m sure professional archaeologists could find details to quibble about, but the layman or student will find this an abundant source of knowledge on the complex history and culture of the ancient Greek civilization. The Adkinses also wrote Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, which I look forward to reading next.
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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Complete Original Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, Volume I

Tales of the Franco-Prussian War
Guy de Maupassant
Literary critics could argue long and hard about who’s the best novelist in French literature, but when it comes to short stories, few would deny that Guy de Maupassant is the master. In his short career (he started late and died young), de Maupassant wrote over 300 short stories, as well as half a dozen novels, some poetry, a few travel books, and several plays. Like his Russian counterpart Anton Chekhov, the short stories are his claim to fame. The Complete Original Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, a 13-volume set of his short fiction translated into English, was published in 1911. Despite its title, the set is not really complete, but it does contain 182 stories in all, a dozen of which comprise Volume I.

The Complete Original Short Stories does not arrange its entries chronologically or in any discernible order. The first story in Volume I, however, is in fact the first story that de Maupassant published, entitled “Boule de Suif.” It is also the story that made him famous, and it is still regarded by many as his best. De Maupassant was a protégé of Gustave Flaubert and an associate of Émile Zola. “Boule de Suif” was first published in 1880 in an anthology entitled Les Soirées de Médan. Médan is a village near Paris where Zola had a house and would host gatherings of like-minded writers. Zola was the founder of the Naturalist school of French literature, and Les Soirées de Médan is essentially a manifesto of Naturalism. In addition to Zola’s story “The Attack on the Mill,” the collection included five stories by younger writers including de Maupassant and Joris-Karl Huysmans. Despite Zola’s established fame, it was “Boule de Suif” that garnered the most acclaim and attention, thus launching de Maupassant’s literary career.

The story is an expertly written tale of class conflict and hypocrisy. Ten passengers share a stagecoach ride from Rouen to Le Havre. The party is made up of three wealthy and snobbish couples, two nuns, a Republican, and a prostitute. Boule de Suif, meaning “Ball of Tallow” or “Dumpling,” is the latter character’s nickname. When the coach stops at an inn, the party is detained by a Prussian officer, who refuses to let the coach go on until Boule de Suif agrees to sleep with him. The remaining passengers, therefore, are put in the awkward position of both despising her profession and encouraging it.

“Boule de Suif” may be the best entry in the book, but all the stories are quite good. The one common element that unites all the stories in Volume I is that they are all set during or shortly following the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871. Some, like the aptly titled “The Horrible,” deal with the horrors of war, while others like “Coup d’Etat” are more lighthearted and satirical in tone. A few selections are love stories set during wartime, such as the poignant “Two Little Soldiers.” De Maupassant often capitalizes on the inherent romance and adventure of war but ends with an antiwar message of universal humanity, as in “The Lancer’s Wife.”

If there is a fault to these stories, it is that many are too brief. “Boule de Suif” is by far the longest work in the collection and clearly the best because its length allows de Maupassant to demonstrate his talent for character development. Even in his briefest stories, however, de Maupassant exercises an attention to detail that vividly brings his characters and settings to life, and his plots often feature surprising (but not gratuitous) twists. I have been a Zola fan for many years and have almost finished his complete works, and now I look forward to reading as much de Maupassant as I can find in English.

Stories in this collection

Boule de Suif
Two Friends
The Lancer’s Wife
The Prisoners
Two Little Soldiers
Father Milon
Coup d’Etat
Lieutenant Lare’s Marriage
The Horrible
Madame Parisse
Mademoiselle Fifi
A Duel

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Monday, April 5, 2021

A Manual of Scientific Enquiry, edited by Sir John F. W. Herschel

Data collection handbook for explorers
While the British Royal Navy’s primary function was military, it also made great strides in the scientific exploration of the globe. The expeditions of Captain Cook and the voyage of the HMS Beagle, on which Charles Darwin served as ship’s naturalist, are just the best known examples of scientifically productive voyages sponsored by the Admiralty. To further its research agenda, the Royal Navy published A Manual of Scientific Enquiry in 1851. This era is often considered the age of Humboldtian science because of the standard set by the meticulous data-gathering methods of Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt. The Royal Navy’s Manual is an instruction guide on scientific intelligence gathering for physicians, naturalists, geographers, and other scientifically minded sailors voyaging abroad or stationed in exotic foreign ports.

The list of contributors in the table of contents reads like a who’s who of the British scientific community in the mid-nineteenth century. The Manual is edited by the distinguished polymath Sir John Herschel (his dad discovered Uranus), who also contributes the chapter on meteorology. Charles Darwin delivers the chapter on geology (He studied geology extensively before making his indelible mark in biology), while the outstanding naturalist Richard Owen handles zoology. William Hooker, director of the Kew Gardens, writes on botany, and George Biddell Airy, the then-current Astronomer Royal, covers his celestial area of expertise.

Each contributor takes a different approach to his subject. Some chapters are little more than wishlists of data these scientists would like naval officers to gather towards solving unanswered research questions. Other chapters go into great detail on how to take precise measurements with very complex instruments, and in some cases how to first construct those instruments. The book contains very few illustrations, so it’s often hard for today’s reader to imagine what a barometer, thermometer, or actinometer might have looked like in 1851. The chapters on botany and zoology give detailed instructions on how explorers should preserve specimens of plants and animals in the field. In the latter case the processes can be quite disgusting and surprisingly toxic. Darwin’s chapter is supposed to be on geography, but his wide range of interests veers off into various digressions from dredging up coral samples to inspecting the stomach contents of seabirds. Some authors assume a certain level of prior knowledge in their given disciplines, particularly those dealing with the nautical sciences. Others are more novice-friendly, such as Sir Henry De la Beche, whose chapter on mineralogy provides a helpful introduction to the discipline.

After reading this manual, the reader walks away with a newfound respect for the sailors of old. The audience for this book were no common seabound laborers. Readers were expected to be well-versed in all aspects of celestial navigation, surveying, and mathematics. Most readers of today, who can get their GPS coordinates off of Google Earth, will find the chapter on terrestrial magnetism hopelessly confusing and unintelligible. Taking accurate measurements with the difficult and delicate instruments of the era required a great deal of patience and skill. It may have taken five steps just to get a reading off of a thermometer, and often one had to run one’s numbers through a complex equation to get the desired result. From reading this book, one would think that British sailors had nothing better to do than take readings and keep tabular journals all day and night, which hardly seems believable. Perhaps the scientists who wrote the manual had unrealistic expectations of their audience? Nevertheless, the exploratory vessels of the Royal Navy made great strides in our understanding of the world’s natural environment and the people who inhabit it. This book gives the armchair explorer an educational glimpse into the scientific work of these intrepid explorers and a renewed admiration for their accomplishments.

Table of contents
Astronomy by Sir George Biddell Airy
Magnetism by Sir Edward Sabine
Hydrography by Captain Frederick William Beechey
Tides by Rev. Dr. William Whewell
Geography by William John Hamilton
Geology by Charles Darwin
Earthquake Phenomena by Robert Mallet
Mineralogy by Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche
Meteorology by Sir John F. W. Herschel
Atmospheric Waves by William Radcliffe Birt
Zoology by Sir Richard Owen
Botany by Sir William Jackson Hooker
Ethnology by James Cowles Prichard
Medicine and Medical Statistics by Dr. Alexander Bryson
Statistics by George Richardson Porter

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