Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Best of 2021

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Around the World with Old Books by Dead Guys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 20, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox Jr.

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

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

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

The basic plot of the book, its local color, and Fox’s descriptions of the natural landscape call to mind a harmless and wistful Western by Zane Grey, but the grooming aspect of the lead couple’s relationship has lain a patina of creepiness over this outdated Appalachian yarn.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon and leave me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Hordubal by Karel Capek

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

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

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

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

The “noetic” aspect of Capek’s Noetic Trilogy has to do with epistemology—the branch of philosophy that concerns how humans think and know. I won’t know what to say about that aspect of the novel until I’ve read the other two books in the series, which I fully intend to do. Regardless of Capek’s theories on epistemology, I just found Hordubal to be a very compelling story, one I was reluctant to put down until reaching the very end.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

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

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

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

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

At the end of issue 5, the answer to the question “Who is Scorpio?” remains a mystery, leaving the reader to wonder what’s the purpose of this trade paperback. There’s no arc to the stories included. They might as well be four random issues, and why only four? The volume seems intended merely to be a showcase for Steranko’s art, but it leaves the reader with the impression that the artist’s talents have been overrated.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon and leave me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.