Monday, June 28, 2021

The Stranger by Albert Camus

A meaningful testament to meaninglessness
Albert Camus, winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature, was born in Algeria to French parents when the North African nation was ruled as a colony of France. Algeria also serves as the setting for his 1942 novel The Stranger. Its protagonist, Meursault, was born in France and has settled in North Africa with his mother. In his adopted homeland, Meursault lives as a Frenchman and only associates with other European settlers. This makes him “L’Étranger”—the French title of the work, which can be translated as the “foreigner,” “The Outsider” (the book’s British title) or “The Stranger” (its American title). Only a few Arab citizens of Algeria appear in the book, and they remain unnamed, referred to only as “the Arab,” thus emphasizing Meursault’s (and France’s) detachment from his colonial home.

Meursault’s indifference, however, is not directed at any particular race or demographic, but rather at the world and life in general, making him somewhat of a stranger to humanity. Under almost all circumstances, he demonstrates himself peculiarly incapable of feeling empathy or emotion, whether anger, fear, or love. Meursault narrates the novel in a detached, deadpan style that almost mocks everything that happens in the plot. He relates his dramatic saga of crime and punishment, love and sex, life and death in short, choppy sentences of bareboned syntax as if he were mentioning the most mundane of occurrences. This linguistic style is aptly evocative of Meursault’s apathetic attitude towards life and the world around him.

Likewise, the universe itself treats Meursault with harsh indifference. As if driven towards an inevitable fate by random variables beyond his control, he commits a crime almost unthinkingly. The circumstances of the crime exhibit some characteristics of self-defense and some of premeditation, leaving the outcome of his trial uncertain. During the actual court proceedings, however, Meursault finds that he is not being tried for what he has done but rather for who he is. The judge, jury, and courtroom crowd judges him for the very unfeeling personality that characterizes his nature. The details of his life are scrutinized as evidence of his otherness, his indifference to the way people are supposed to be, his status as a stranger among normal humans who dutifully love their mothers and worship God. Despite this negative turn of events, Meursault greets this persecution with his characteristic lack of concern, because life really doesn’t matter anyway.

Camus manages to convey all this in a tone that’s relentlessly bleak but with touches of absurd humor. Though Meursault’s narration remains dispassionate for most of the book, the plot does culminate in a climactic outburst, through which Meursault’s (and presumably Camus’s) philosophy of the absurdity and meaninglessness of existence is revealed with harsh and brutal frankness. Even so, this outlook of pointlessness is oddly liberating. The Stranger is one of the twentieth century’s most thought-provoking works of philosophical fiction. It certainly is no “feel-good” book, however, and it makes for a reading experience that’s obviously not to everyone’s taste. If you just don’t “get” The Stranger, then chances are you’re a rather happy, optimistic, and well-adjusted person. Congratulations!
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Friday, June 25, 2021

Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse, translated and edited by Paul Selver

Eastern European stories and poems in English translation
Wladyslaw Reymont
As the title suggests,
Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse is a collection of short literary works from Eastern Europe. In this context, “Slavonic” means the same as “Slavic.” The book includes selections from Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian authors. This volume was edited by British writer Paul Selver, who also translated all of the works into English. In addition to writing his own novels and poetry, Selver was a multilinguist who also translated German, French, and Norwegian works. He was primarily known for his Czech translations, in particular the works of Karel Capek (who does not appear in this book). This anthology was published in 1919, but the works included date as far back as 1845.

The prose section of this volume includes short stories, brief essays, and a couple of one-act plays. A few recognizable names appear in this volume. The great Russian master of short stories Anton Chekhov provides a finely drawn comical tale, “In a Foreign Land.” Polish Nobel Prize-winner Wladyslaw Reymont is represented by a scene excerpted from his novel Promised Land. Polish author Boleslaw Prus’s story “From the Legends of Ancient Egypt” calls to mind his novel Pharaoh, set in the same era. The rest of the names on the table of contents will likely be new to the vast majority of English-language readers. The better entries include Czech author Jan Neruda’s “The Vampire,” which is not the horror story its title implies, but it does deliver a surprisingly morbid ending. Polish writer Wiktor Gomulicki’s portrait of an aged farmer is the literary equivalent of a gritty Gustave Courbet painting. Ukraine’s foremost poet of the 19th century, Taras Shevtchenko, tells his own story in an autobiographical essay written for a literary journal. Reymont’s selection is the best in the book, but if this were a short-story Olympics, the Russians would take the gold with strong showings by Chekhov, Dmitri Merezhkovsky, and Fyodor Sologub.

The latter half of the book is devoted to poetry, about 130 pages worth from the authors of seven nations. Almost all are written in rhyming verse, with Selver doing his best to preserve the rhyme schemes in his English translations. Many are romantic evocations of nature typical of the late 19th century. The more interesting selections deal with subject matter unique to the authors’ nationalities and ethnicity, the most obvious example being Czech poet Petar Preradovic’s anthemic “To Slavdom.” Shevtchenko’s poem “If Lordlings, Ye Could Only Know . . .” depicts a hellish view of serfdom. Petr Bezruc, in his series of poems, laments the plight of the oppressed Silesian Czechs. One surprising entry is Czech poet Antonin Sova’s “To Theodor Mommsen.” Rather than a tribute to the German Nobel laureate and classical historian, Sova’s poem is an extended insult that attacks Mommsen as the “arrogant spokesman of slavery.”

Classic Slavic literature is hard to come by in English translation. Selver’s welcome anthology does the valuable service of introducing the British or American reader to many hitherto unfamiliar authors. He even includes helpful mini-biographies of each writer. If you discover authors you like here, however, it may be impossible to find further samples of their work in English. Overall, the good and bad entries in this volume average out to a middling collection. Those with an interest in Eastern European culture, however, will appreciate the bits of history, artistic heritage, and national customs revealed in these stories and poems. Because of the large quantity of verse, it will especially appeal to readers who enjoy poetry.

Stories in this collection
(Also 130 pages of poems, not listed below)

In a Foreign Land by Anton Chekhov
My Life by Dimitri Merezhkovsky
The Tiny Man by Fyodor Sologub
The Demigod by S. N. Sergeyev-Tsensky
Autobiography by Taras Shevtchenko
The Ploughman by Wiktor Gomulicki
From the Legends of Ancient Egypt by Boleslaw Prus
Chopin by Stanislaw Przybyszewski
In the Old Town at Lodz by Wladyslaw Reymont
Sonia by Jan Svatopluk Machar
The Vampire by Jan Neruda
The Advent of Spring in the South by Arne Novák
June (play in one act) by Frána Srámek
The Latin Boy by Simo Matavulj

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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Growing Soles: A Ninety-Six Year Journey Around the World by Micae Martinet

Circling the globe on foot in 1920 and 2016
I first encountered the name Hippolyte Martinet while doing genealogical research. He is a distant cousin of mine; we share some Belgian ancestors. Whereas my Belgians settled in Wisconsin, Hippolyte’s grandfather settled in New Orleans, where he fell in love with a mulatto slave, purchased her freedom, and married her. Both of Hippolyte’s parents were free Blacks with one-quarter African ancestry, making him one-quarter Black as well. While the circumstances of Hippolyte’s birth are quite interesting, the circumstances surrounding his death are even more so.

In 1920, at the age of 41, Hippolyte Martinet decided to walk around the world, barefoot, relying on the kindness of strangers. Having previously moved to Washington State, he set out from Seattle, marched to New York, and then took a ship to England. After hiking across 16 nations in Europe and Asia, he died of malaria in Yunnan, China. Growing Soles, a book on Hippolyte’s life and travels, was published in 2020. The author, Micae Martinet, is Hippolyte’s great-grandniece. Not only has she researched the story of her great-granduncle’s epic walk, but she and her husband Doug also set out to complete Hippolyte’s journey from his burial site in China to Hong Kong, which would have been Hippolyte’s departure point back to Seattle. The chapters frequently hop back and forth between Hippolyte in the 1920s and Micae in 2015 and 2016. Growing Soles thus combines a historical biography that brings to life this unique figure from a century past with a personal memoir of the author’s own travel adventures in China.

Hippolyte is a fascinating character, but there isn’t a whole lot of information available on him—just a few articles, a few letters, a few documents, and a few photos. Micae Martinet has certainly done her due diligence in the research department and reprints what she has found in the book. She has also done a great deal of historical research into the events that were happening at the time Hippolyte passed through the places where he walked. This adds valuable context to his travels, particularly in regards to issues of race, class, and labor unrest during the 1920s.

The majority of the book, however, is about the travels of Micae and Doug as they finish the last 1,200 miles of her great-granduncle’s walk. One learns a bit about Chinese culture from Micae’s experiences, but for the most part this is a memoir composed of personal anecdotes about hiking and roughing it on the road. Recurring topics include Asian bathrooms, food and hotel accommodations, Micae’s medical problems, and run-ins with the Chinese police. At times she digresses into other trips she has taken abroad. As a curious traveler myself, I admire Micae and Doug’s adventurous journey and sometimes envied their off-the-beaten-path view of a foreign country. Often, however, the monotony of following one highway for over a thousand miles did not seem like the most enjoyable or educational way to experience an exotic land.

I read this book because I wanted to learn more about Hippolyte, so I was attracted more to the history than to the memoir. I did find much vicarious interest in Micae’s contemporary travel narrative, but I would have preferred more content on Hippolyte’s era. Still, this is likely the most comprehensive source of information on Hippolyte and his walk, and for that I greatly appreciate Micae Martinet’s efforts in researching and writing this valuable account. It is a fascinating story that deserves to be read.
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Monday, June 21, 2021

The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck

Scientific expedition with Walden-esque philosophizing
When John Steinbeck was beginning his career as a writer, he befriended a marine biologist named Ed Ricketts who had established a laboratory in Monterey, California. Ricketts was the basis for the character of Doc in Steinbeck’s novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. In 1940, Steinbeck accompanied Ricketts and a small crew of workers on a specimen-collecting expedition to the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California, between Baja California and mainland Mexico). Steinbeck wrote up a narrative account of this journey, which was first published in 1941, accompanied by Ricketts’s scientific data. In 1951, a few years after the death of Ricketts, Steinbeck’s account was separated from the scientific findings and published as The Log from the Sea of Cortez. This later edition opens with an extended eulogy/biographical sketch of Ricketts, written by Steinbeck, followed by Steinbeck’s record of the expedition.

Due to frequent references to Charles Darwin and The Voyage of the Beagle, one gets the impression that Steinbeck modelled his account after that earlier expedition narrative. The Log is written in the first-person by Steinbeck, usually employing the collective “we.” One very odd aspect of The Log is that Steinbeck never mentions Ricketts, as if he weren’t even on the boat. A few of the crew members are named—Tiny, Tony, Tex, and Sparky—but none of them ever really rises to the level of an individual character. Steinbeck has no qualms about taking some literary license with the narrative, inserting his personal reflections and emotional impressions, but the lack of any substantial characters renders The Log oddly impersonal, as opposed to the biographical chapter on Ricketts, which is entirely personal.

Steinbeck was not attempting a strictly scientific narrative here. The official catalogue of species was up to Ricketts. Nevertheless, most of the content of Steinbeck’s account is scientific in nature, though written for more of a general audience like the readers of National Geographic rather than the readers of, say, The Journal of Marine Biology. Steinbeck describes each of the stops made by their boat, named the Western Flyer, to collect specimens among the tidal pools along the gulf shore. He also lists the species of marine animals found there, explains some of their distinct characteristics, and describes the crew’s methods of collection. Beyond the zoological content, Steinbeck provides a nautical travel narrative detailing weather activity, ports of call, and coastal terrain, as well as scenes of shipboard life, drinking bouts, and the crew’s adventures on shore. He also adds a great deal of interesting detail about the Mexican peoples they encountered along the way.

From a literary standpoint, the most valuable passages in the book are what might be called Steinbeck’s philosophical digressions, which in some sense resemble those of Henry David Thoreau in his nature memoir Walden. While observing the fishes and marine invertebrates of the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck frequently extrapolates theories about human nature and society through the lens of Darwinian evolutionary biology. One extended digression in particular, on teleological thinking, is largely the philosophy of Ricketts, the mentor, as distilled through the literary voice of Steinbeck, his mentee. As in Walden, such lofty asides really elevate The Log from a simple wilderness memoir to an inspirational literary work. The adventurous reader will envy the crew of the Western Flyer for their freedom of wanderlust and the intellectual excitement of their discoveries, but it is Steinbeck’s thought-provoking musings on the universe at large that will compel the reader to return to the book for future perusals.
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Friday, June 18, 2021

The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick

Cracking the ancient Mycenaean code
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, archaeologists working in Greece discovered a number of clay tablets inscribed with a previously undiscovered system of writing. Caches of these tablets were found primarily at two sites: the Minoan palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, and the Mycenaean city of Pylos on the Greek mainland. Eventually linguists and archaeologists established that the writing dates to around 1450 BC. The script was dubbed Linear B (as opposed to Linear A, an even earlier script). From the 1930s to the 1950s, many philologists tried unsuccessfully to decipher this writing, until British architect Michael Ventris discovered the key to cracking the code. Tragically, Ventris died soon after, in his mid-thirties. In his book The Decipherment of Linear B, first published in 1958, classical linguist John Chadwick, who collaborated with Ventris on the decipherment, tells the story of how this ancient writing system was discovered and decrypted. I am reviewing the Second Edition published in 1967.

When first encountered, any unknown script presents two main problems: First, is it a pictographic, alphabetic, or syllabic script, or a combination of the above? Second, all scripts are meant to represent a spoken language, but to which particular language does this script correspond? In the case of Linear B, it might very well be a language that no longer exists. Egyptian hieroglyphics were deciphered with the help of a bilingual text, the Rosetta Stone, but for Linear B there exists no such bilingual text, so the investigators basically had to start with nothing. Ventris and others began this daunting task by looking for familiar syntactical patterns in the texts and comparing them to languages from roughly the same time period, such as Etruscan, Cypriot, and Hittite. Ventris finally cracked the code when he proved that the characters corresponded to an early form of Greek.

Though Chadwick, along with Ventris, published several articles and books intended for specialists in the field, he states in the introduction to The Decipherment of Linear B that this book is intended for a general reading audience. While this is certainly an authoritatively informative book on its subject, Chadwick is not entirely successful at making this topic accessible to the lay reader. To tackle this book, one not only needs to have an avid interest in the ancient Greek world but also a fairly firm knowledge of linguistics. In explaining the decryption process, Chadwick goes into a level of detail that often surpasses the layman’s comprehension. One editorial choice that really makes this book user-unfriendly is that, due to difficulties in typesetting, the bulk of the text does not reproduce the Mycenaean words in the Linear B script in which they were actually written. Instead, Chadwick uses a system of numerals assigned to each character. Thus, the notation 08-60-02-15-04-13-06 may signify the word for “chariots.” Page after page of these numbers is enough to drive the reader nuts. The volume does, however, include 17 figures that illustrate the actual Linear B characters, including a comprehensive numbered syllabic chart (see below).

The tablets found at Knossos and Pylos were not literature, but rather lists of commodities. Still, as Chadwick interprets them, these tablets reveal a surprising amount of information on ancient Mycenaean life, including governmental administration, taxation and tribute, religious practices, the organization of military units, and ancient armaments. This window into the past is the most fascinating aspect of Chadwick’s book. The process of decipherment itself does not make as captivating a story as the decipherment of the Mayan language, as related by Michael Coe in Breaking the Maya Code, but anyone interested in ancient languages, particularly of Greece, will certainly find much intellectual stimulation in Chadwick’s insider account.

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Monday, June 14, 2021

History of the Marvel Universe by Mark Waid, et al.

Epic fictional chronology from Big Bang to distant future
Billions of years in the future, the universe is coming to an end. The only eyes present to see this momentous event belong to two of the most powerful beings to ever exist: Galactus, consumer of worlds, and Franklin Richards, creator of worlds and son of Reed and Susan Richards of the Fantastic Four. Before the universe collapses, Richards, the younger of the two, asks Galactus to tell him the story of this universe from the beginning, and the elder cosmic entity obliges him.

Such is the premise of History of the Marvel Universe, a six-issue limited series published in 2019 that has since been collected in a beautiful full-color large-format Treasury Edition. The story that Galactus relates begins with the Big Bang (while acknowledging that other universes did exist before this event). He then proceeds to summarize the entire fictional output of Marvel Comics in chronological narrative order, placing all the retconned back stories in their proper sequence. Starting with the first cosmic beings to populate the chaos of primordial space, the saga then proceeds through the formation of Earth, the ancient world, medieval times, the Wild West, World War II, the 1960s explosion of superheroes, and onto the future of Marvel 2099 and centuries beyond. Waid’s overview provides a fun look at the cosmic characters, multiple worlds, and alien races of Marvel, but, not surprisingly, most of the action takes place right here on Earth.

The artwork consists entirely of collage-like splash pages, intricately designed and beautifully drawn by Javier Rodríguez and Álvaro Lopez in a style that combines the pen-and-ink charm of the Silver Age with the digital coloring of today’s technology. A typical page may show a dozen characters, with a text box explaining each one’s relevance to the particular time period, event, or crossover. The ensemble cast goes far beyond the pantheon of hallowed heroes to include all manner of obscure B-list and C-list heroes and villains, though it doesn’t include every kitschy passing fad that Marvel embraced in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Paging through this lovely retrospective, the Marvel fan can not only admire the genius of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and company, but also chuckle or scoff at some of the stranger and sillier plot lines that Marvel has published over the years.

What really makes this book excellent, however, are the “Annotations” for each issue, gathered in the back of the book. These are essentially illustrated footnotes consisting of paragraphs explaining important events in the Marvel Universe accompanied by reprinted panels from past comics, both old and recent. Each annotation helpfully cites the titles and numbers of specific relevant issues. Armed with such a reference, the Marvel fanatic could look up most of these old issues at the Marvel Unlimited website, allowing the curious reader to retain his or her bearings while diving into the confusing timeline midstream. This is really an invaluable companion volume to Marvel’s entire line, and more importantly it’s just a lot of fun to read. I stopped buying comics regularly in the 1990s, but this volume has gotten me up to speed on all the bizarre crossovers, spin-off characters, and visits from the multiverse that Marvel has dreamed up since then.

History of the Marvel Universe is a fine idea superbly executed. It’s one of the few celebratory volumes put out by Marvel in recent years that could be considered a must-have for the diehard fan.
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Friday, June 11, 2021

The Return of Lanny Budd by Upton Sinclair

Sinclair repudiates the Soviets
The eleventh and final book in Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series, The Return of Lanny Budd, was published in 1953. Originally Sinclair had only planned to do ten Budd novels, concluding with the end of World War II, but he felt he had to bring the hero back to address the Cold War. This novel covers the years 1946 to 1949, with Lanny frequently traveling back and forth between the United States and Berlin. Written at a time of the expansion of Soviet totalitarianism and an escalation of anti-communist alarm in America, The Return of Lanny Budd feels like Sinclair’s apology for being too kind to Joseph Stalin in previous novels.

In the tenth installment, O Shepherd, Speak!, Lanny retired from spy work to produce a liberal radio show. Now he is called back into action by President Truman. A ring of neo-Nazis or communists or both is flooding Europe with counterfeit British pounds and American dollars, thus threatening economic havoc. Because of his European connections, Lanny is sent to Germany to investigate. Following World War II, Berlin has been subdivided by the U.S., France, Britain, and Russia, but the Wall has not yet been built. Spies, dissidents, and refugees fluidly move back and forth between East and West, creating a dangerous atmosphere where abductions and executions can occur anywhere at any time. While at first the book focuses on postwar Nazis, the enemy quickly switches to the Soviet Union, and the book becomes an extended piece of anticommunist propaganda

One of the commendable aspects of the book is that Lanny finally encounters some of the dangers inherent in being a spy, dangers he has for the most part unrealistically avoided over the course of the series. Even so, he still gets off relatively easy. He proves far luckier than most political prisoners, and even his torturers are surprisingly tolerant and reasonable. In his verve to quash communism wherever it rears its ugly head, Lanny displays uncharacteristically nonheroic behavior with his surprisingly callous attitude towards informing on friends and family members.  

Ideologically, there’s nothing particularly wrong with Sinclair’s approach to The Return of Lanny Budd, but it is a marked departure from his earlier work. It’s hard to deny that the Soviet Union under Stalin was a totalitarian regime with little concern for human rights. When you read a Sinclair book, however, you’re hoping to get a different perspective on history than what you’ll usually find in mainstream literature. This novel hammers home the same unilateral Cold War paranoia that was drilled into our heads from the McCarthy era to the Reagan era. What’s worse, Sinclair lays it on so thick that one really gets the idea that he wrote this book to avoid being blacklisted for his socialist rhetoric of the past. While previously Lanny (and Sinclair) had been critical of American imperialism, there’s none of that here. Sinclair praises J. Edgar Hoover, overlooking the FBI’s police-state disregard for civil liberties while excoriating the USSR for the same. Sinclair also pushes religion in this book far more than I’ve ever encountered in the two dozen books of his that I’ve read. The author who wrote The Profits of Religion was never a full-blown atheist, but here, in the guise of Lanny, he advocates a surprisingly conventional view of deity and prayer that feels like he’s pandering to American puritanism.

When focusing on actual events, Sinclair is still a fine historical novelist who provides detailed insight into the time period he’s depicting. Here, however, the narrative too often devolves into preachy sermons. The Return of Lanny Budd is by no means a terrible novel, but as a capstone to this monumental and impressive series it is a disappointing departure from form.

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Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Four Corners of the World by A. E. W. Mason

Poor man’s Conan Doyle
English author A. E. W. Mason (1865-1948) is best known as the author of The Four Feathers, a military adventure novel that has been adapted for film and television at least six times. Mason published over thirty novels, many of which were adapted for the screen (about half of them silent films). He also published three collections of short stories, among them The Four Corners of the World, published in 1917. This volume contains 13 pieces of short fiction including one novella-length work.

Chronologically, Mason falls between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, and the same could be said of his work stylistically. Of the two, Conan Doyle is probably more analogous since Mason did not confine himself to mysteries but also wrote works in the horror, adventure, historical fiction, and espionage genres, all of which are represented in The Four Corners of the World. Besides The Four Feathers, Mason’s other claim to fame is his recurring detective character Inspector Hanaud, a Frenchman transplanted to London. Hanaud is the star of the novella The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel, included in this volume. The format of the story is very similar to a Sherlock Holmes case. Hanaud even has his own Dr. Watson in the hapless Mr. Ricardo, whose destiny is to always be one step behind the genius detective’s deductive abilities. If this work is any indication, however, Mason is not nearly as skillful a crafter of mysteries as Conan Doyle. In this case involving theft and murder, Mason goes off on pointless digressions and makes the silly mistake of treating a dream sequence as if it were evidence.

Unfortunately, most of the works in The Four Corners of the World range from the boring to the dismal, and each of the 13 protracted entries feels lengthier than it needs to be. As one progresses through the book, Mason’s style becomes more and more repetitive. I don’t know how many of these stories feature a Londoner secluding himself in an English country house, but I bet it’s more than half. The tales of mystery and suspense are often quite predictable, and endings are frequently anticlimactic. When Mason reveals a clue to the reader he does so in a fashion that feels like he’s announcing “Pay attention! Here’s a clue!” The only relief from the monotony is the diversity of settings and genres. “One of Them” is a World War I naval espionage tale. “The House of Terror” is Gothic horror on a Scottish isle. “Peiffer” is a semicomical spy tale set in and around Gibraltar. “Under Bignor Hill” is a one-act play set in Britain during ancient Roman times. “North of the Tropic of Capricorn” has an unfortunate tinge of “yellow peril” paranoia.

One tall stalk of wheat that rises above the chaff is “The Crystal Trench,” an exceptionally good story about a climbing accident in the Alps. This is not an adventure tale but rather a poignant character-driven drama, very skillfully told. It is by far the best story in the book, though a couple of others, the Latin American adventure “Green Paint” and the Franco-Prussian war story “The Ebony Box,” at least rise to the level of the mediocre.

Other than “The Crystal Trench,” there’s nothing about The Four Corners of the World to recommend. If this collection is indicative of Mason’s writing, one would be better off sticking to the more suspenseful and entertaining work of Conan Doyle, Christie, or E. Phillips Oppenheim.

Stories in this collection

The Clock
Green Paint
North of the Tropic of Capricorn
One of Them
Raymond Byatt
The Crystal Trench
The House of Terror
The Brown Box
The Refuge
The Ebony Box
The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel
Under Bignor Hill

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Monday, June 7, 2021

The Infinity Gauntlet by Jim Starlin, et al.

Granddaddy of Marvel megacrossovers
Although I read plenty of Marvel comics in the 1980s and ‘90s, somehow I missed The Infinity Gauntlet when it first came out in 1991. Marvel began doing line-wide megacrossovers in 1984 with Secret Wars, followed soon by Secret Wars II. The Infinity Gauntlet, a six-issue limited series published in 1991, was the next giant event in the Marvel Universe. The series has been reprinted in paperback and hardcover editions since 1992. The recent Infinity War movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe have renewed interest in The Infinity Gauntlet, but those who know Marvel only from the movies will find little in common between the comic and film versions of this story other than the presence of Thanos and the Infinity Stones.

The Infinity Gauntlet was written by Jim Starlin, who specialized in Marvel’s “cosmic” heroes. It’s hard to imagine another Marvel writer of the era who could conceive of a story of this universe-spanning scope. When the miniseries opens, Thanos already has the gauntlet and the stones. He is in love with the entity known as Death, but she spurns his advances. Seeking to impress her, he makes half the life in the universe disappear. This all happens in the first issue. The rest of the series consists of the Marvel heroes gathering forces to battle Thanos in space. Unlike the movies, there’s no time travel involved here. The superheroes hope to overpower or trick Thanos, get the gauntlet, and undo what he has wrought.

Not every Marvel hero is present in The Infinity Gauntlet, but all the major players make an appearance, as well as representatives from most of the hero groups: The Avengers, X-Men, Guardians of the Galaxy, etc. (The Fantastic Four were among the vanished.) Some of the guest appearances are brief and gratuitous, but overall Starlin does a good job of working hundreds of characters into the story. Artists George Pérez and Ron Lim excel at drawing the multiple-character splash pages. The art, innovative in layout but still rendered in the pre-digital style, is quite attractive and exciting.

The fun thing about The Infinity Gauntlet is that Starlin really delves into the cosmic aspects of the Marvel Universe. Sure, the Silver Surfer plays a major part, but Starlin features a lot of god-like entities that only diehard fans of The Avengers comics are likely to recognize. With such powerful beings at play, the events depicted are truly cataclysmic, and the art lives up to the challenge. The downside is that some of these cosmic characters can get silly (like Thanos’s brother Starfox, for example). Also odd is the inordinately large role played by Adam Warlock, who even in his prime was never more than C-list Marvel hero. The poorly defined scope of his practically omnipotent powers makes for an anticlimactically ambiguous ending.

I read the 2018 “Deluxe Edition” which has some extra stuff in the back—promotional snippets from Marvel Age, reproductions of pencil and ink art, additional cover designs—but none of those bells and whistles really matter. The original six issues are what’s worth reading, regardless of which printing you get your hands on. Although The Infinity Gauntlet saga isn’t quite the masterpiece Marvel makes it out to be, any fan of Marvel comics will find it an enjoyable episode in Marvel history.

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Thursday, June 3, 2021

A Modern Utopia by H. G. Wells

Ploddingly didactic and stylistically annoying
Thomas More may have coined the term Utopia in 1516 with his book of the same name, but utopian fiction has a history that goes back to ancient times. As the science fiction genre came to prominence in the late 19th century, however, utopias multiplied like rabbits. H. G. Wells, one of the pioneering masters of science fiction, penned a number of works set in utopian societies, among them When the Sleeper Awakes (1899) and Men Like Gods (1923). It is with his 1905 book A Modern Utopia, however, that Wells seems bent on writing a utopia to end all utopias by not merely contributing to the utopian subgenre but also critiquing it.

Amid Wells’s prolific bibliography, one will find A Modern Utopia listed among his novels, but it really isn’t one. Though it contains a fictional scene here and there, the bulk of the text is written as a series of essays. The occasional fictional content is mostly in the style of philosophical dialogues rather than literary narrative. The book opens with an annoying introduction in which Wells constantly employs the second-person plural and breaks the “fourth wall,” asking how can we build a better utopia? Rather than just show us his utopia, Wells prefers to talk about how he’s going to make his utopia, and how it will differ from More’s Utopia, William Morris’s News from Nowhere, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, or Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun. The reader can’t wait for this irritating prologue to end and for the real novel to start, but it soon becomes apparent that the whole book is written in this frustrating style. Wells ploddingly proposes his vision of the future while delivering smug lit-crit asides on past utopian literature.

On his journey through this utopia, Wells is accompanied by a companion known only as “the botanist” who serves as his foil in philosophical debates. The utopia itself is set in the Switzerland of a parallel universe. Wells describes the setting in a very pretentious manner that assumes anyone who’s anyone has been to Switzerland, an odd choice for an author usually so sympathetic to the working class. It seems as if Wells is not content to be regarded as a fine storyteller or philosopher but instead wants to be recognized as a Writer of literary merit. Thus, the prose drips with verbal ostentation, using a hundred flowery words to say what could have been stated in ten.

What Wells actually says about the future is not so different from many of his contemporary futurists: The economic system will be based on socialism, but not to the rigid extremes of Bellamy’s future. There’s no eugenics, but deformed babies will be euthanized. A woman can work, but the family is her first priority. Wells’s one ostensibly original contribution is a class of “voluntary noblemen” he calls “samurai,” who will run the world. The term, however, is really just a rebranding of the same old fantasy of meritocracy where birth and wealth mean nothing, and the smart and driven triumph over the lazy and dumb. I would have given this drudgerous book an even worse rating were it not for the surprisingly forward views that Wells expresses on racial equality. He even condones interracial marriage, a definite taboo in Victorian England. Wells does, however, advocate a melding of world cultures that would basically eliminate cultural diversity in favor of a universal language, currency, and customs.

Literary scholars have described A Modern Utopia as a “postmodern utopia.” In this case Wells’s postmodernism smothers all the fun out of what is usually an amusing and stimulating genre. The purpose of utopian literature should be to make political and philosophical theory accessible to general readers. Otherwise, why not just write scholarly essays? A Modern Utopia is so dull, dry, and pompously arty it could cause readers to lose their taste for utopian fiction entirely.
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