Thursday, December 22, 2022

The Best of 2022

Top ten reads of the year
2022 was a productive year of reading at Old Books by Dead Guys with 112 blog posts over the past twelve months. Listed below are my ten favorite reads of the year, arranged chronologically by date of publication. (None of them were actually published in 2022. This is Old Books by Dead Guys, after all.) Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.


The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard by Anatole France (1881)
This debut novel by Nobel Prize winner Anatole France is narrated by an aged academic scholar who is shaken from the routine of his bachelor bookworm life when he indirectly reconnects with a lost love from his past. Through moments of lighthearted humor and a suspenseful plot, France crafts a novel that is heartwarming without being sappy, with characters the reader can really care about.

The Big Money by John Dos Passos (1936)
The third, final, and best novel in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy presents a kaleidoscopic panorama of American society in the 1920s. This includes a critical view of capitalism in an era in which America was rampant with income disparity, monopolistic trusts, and government corruption, yet somehow much of it feels uncomfortably familiar to the 21st century reader. Of course, you can’t get the full effect without reading all three novels in the trilogy, which I highly recommend. 

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
One of the great masterpieces of American literature that I finally got around to reading. The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joads, Midwestern farmers rendered destitute by the Dust Bowl, who head for California in hopes of finding work to start a new life. Steinbeck’s writing hits the sweet spot between the naturalism of America’s regional realists like Frank Norris and Willa Cather and the modernism of Ernest Hemingway.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)
In this landmark genre-defining work of creative nonfiction, Truman Capote examines the brutal 1959 killing of the Clutter family in the rural Western Kansas town of Holcomb and its effect on the local community. Through a mix of investigative journalism, biography (of both killers and victims), and literary license, Capote crafts a stunning work that reminds us of the indiscriminate arbitrarity of fate and the fleeting fragility of human life.

Valdez is Coming by Elmore Leonard (1970)
Elmore Leonard is best known as a writer of crime fiction. He got his start writing Westerns, however, and Valdez is Coming is an excellent one. Mexican-American Bob Valdez tries to do right by the widow of a man who was wrongfully shot, but he faces brutal opposition from a powerful landowner and his gang of henchmen. A classic Western revenge saga.

Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec (1978)
This remarkable novel, experimental in its form and structure, presents a minutely detailed portrait of a fictional ten-story apartment building in Paris and its scores of inhabitants. Perec comes up with incredibly inventive biographies for the dozens of characters, each more fascinating than the next. The 99 brief and varied chapters amount to a sort of modern Canterbury Tales of twentieth-century France.

Back in the days of Thomas Jefferson, European emigré Constantine Rafinesque was one of America’s great naturalists. His scientific reputation and his valuable discoveries, however, were undermined by his sometimes shoddy scholarship and tendency toward quackery. Leonard Warren delivers a fascinating comprehensive biography of this brilliant but conflicted character.

Bobby Womack: My Story 1944–2014 by Bobby Womack and Robert Ashton (2014)
1960s and ’70s soul and rock hitmaker Bobby Womack relates the story of his own hard and disturbing life in the music business and also serves up a string of meaningful anecdotes on working with some of the biggest names in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Maybe the best rock autobiography I’ve ever read. 

A lovely coffee-table volume loaded with beautiful reproductions of Norma Bassett Hall’s art, along with a well-researched biography. Hall (1889–1957), who was born in Oregon, educated in Portland, Chicago, and Scotland, and lived and worked in Kansas and New Mexico, is one of America’s unsung masters of the color woodblock print.

Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren (2015)
A lively look at the many languages of Europe, from the familiar national languages to lesser-known regional tongues like Breton, Sami, Manx, Gagauz, and Faroese. Gaston Dorren reveals many fascinating details of the unique and bizarre quirks of these languages, how they developed from their prehistoric progenitors, and how they have been influenced by culture and politics in ancient and modern times.


Old Books by Dead Guys has been posting these year-end lists since 2013. To see the top tens from years past, click on the “Best-of lists” tag and scroll through the results. Happy reading in 2023! 

Friday, December 16, 2022

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson

Backpacking through Protestant France

Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson is best remembered as a novelist of classic books like Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In his own lifetime, however, Stevenson was known and respected as an all-around man of letters who also penned nonfiction, poetry, and travel writing. Among the latter category, one of Stevenson’s earliest works is Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, published in 1879.

In 1878, Stevenson made a 12-day trip through the Cévennes, a mountainous region of South Central France. He purchased a donkey named Modestine to carry his belongings, which included a prototypical sleeping bag in lieu of a tent. “Backpacking” (for lack of a better word, since it’s really the donkey’s back that’s doing the work), for pleasure rather than out of necessity, was practically unheard of at this time, so Stevenson was an eccentric rarity. These days we see all kinds of outdoor travel memoirs, but the genre barely existed in the 1870s, so Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes was a pioneering work of travel literature.

Stevenson and his donkey trek from town to town through rugged rural terrain, stopping to spend the night at inns, monasteries, or campsites in the open air. Stevenson interacts with the locals and provides insight into the regional culture. The Cévennes is (or was, in 1878) a predominantly Protestant stronghold in an overwhelmingly Catholic France. The area has a history of religious warfare. In the early 18th century, Protestant insurgents of the Cévennes, known as Camisards, rebelled against France’s King Louis XIV, who had declared Protestantism illegal. Louis made his point by destroying many of the towns in the region. At the time Stevenson visited the Cévennes, the Catholics and Protestants were living side by side in relative peace and harmony, but he is very familiar with this history and occasionally goes off on extended asides to discuss the past events of the religious conflict. Judging by the number of novels written on the subject, British novelists of the 19th century seem to have been fascinated by Catholic vs. Protestant warfare, but to today’s reader such conflicts often seem less romantic and heroic and more of a foolish waste of human life over theological hair-splitting.

Every work of travel writing is a mix of first-person memoir and third-person geography lesson. In this case, I would have preferred less personal reminiscences of Stevenson and his donkey and more revealing insight into the Cévennes and its people. Stevenson does include a fair amount of local color in his encounters with the people, but since this is an outdoor adventure narrative one would expect more attention paid to the natural landscape, which comes across a bit generic here. In his discussions of the local inhabitants, Stevenson gets so wrapped up in the Catholic/Protestant distinction that other aspects of Cévennes life get neglected. It’s almost as if nobody has jobs because they’re too busy practicing their religions. Even so, the most interesting portion of the book is Stevenson’s stay at the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of the Snows, because one really does get some insight into the lifestyle of the monks who live there.

For those who have ever dreamt of wandering the French countryside, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes is a pleasant journey but not one overwhelmingly memorable. This book may have been cutting-edge for its time, but travel writing has come along way since the 1870s, and this could have used a touch more National Geographic-style secular investigation into the environment and culture of its setting.

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Monday, December 12, 2022

Norma Bassett Hall: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Block Prints and Serigraphs by Joby Patterson

American master of the color woodcut
American artist Norma Bassett Hall was born in Oregon, educated in Portland, Chicago, and Scotland, and lived and worked in Kansas and New Mexico. She and her husband Arthur W. Hall were founding members of the Prairie Print Makers, a printmaking society based in Kansas. His medium of choice was etching; hers was the color woodcut. Through the influence of British teachers, Norma learned the traditional Japanese techniques of the art form and become one of the true masters of the medium in North America, along with California’s Frances Gearhart, New Mexico’s Gustave Baumann, and Canada’s Walter J. Phillips. Hall’s exceptional body of work is on impressive display in the book Norma Bassett Hall: Catalogue Raisonné of the Block Prints and Serigraphs by Joby Patterson, published in 2014 by Pomegranate Books.

Norma created her first relief prints in 1922 as part of a collaborative portfolio with Arthur entitled Some Prints of Cannon Beach, in which both artists depicted the scenery of the Oregon coast. Many of Norma’s early prints, however, were inspired by her travels in Europe, most notably images of the towns and countryside of France. By the time of the Great Depression, regional realism became a prominent movement in American art, and Norma and Arthur both concentrated on the landscapes of Kansas and New Mexico. It was in New Mexico that Norma began to work in serigraphy, or silkscreen printing, another medium in which she excelled. The Halls became active members of the art scenes in Santa Fe and Taos, as both printmakers and teachers, although, as Patterson explains, by the time they arrived in the Southwest the New Mexican art scene was already waning. By the end of their careers, the sort of representational art that the Halls were making, influenced by impressionism and Japanese prints, had fallen out of favor as more abstract modes of expression became fashionable. Perhaps it is for this reason, as well as the fact that she never lived and worked in America’s major urban art centers, that Norma’s superb prints aren’t better known. For art lovers who appreciate the landscape art of the regional realist period, this book stands as a testament to the enduring beauty, aesthetic sophistication, and superb craftsmanship of her art.

I’m a sucker for a catalogue raisonné. As an amateur printmaker myself, when I buy a book on a printmaker, I like to see as many prints as I can, preferably an artist’s entire output if possible, even if the images are postage-stamp size. This catalogue raisonné does display a career’s worth of those little images, but it also delivers plenty of full-page reproductions as well, all in full-color when applicable (Norma also did some black and white prints). The biography is equally rewarding. Though her work was highly esteemed by her peers, Norma was not a household name nationwide. It’s often difficult to dig up information on such lesser-known artists, but Patterson has clearly done her homework and turned over all the right stones. This book provides a satisfyingly comprehensive retrospective of Hall’s life and work that does justice to the memory of this unsung master artist.

I greatly appreciate this book both as a print enthusiast and as a Kansan. In my modest collection of books on printmakers, I would consider it one of my most valued volumes. For those interested in color woodcuts, particularly the American manifestation of the art form, this is really an essential portfolio of images. Within the same area of interest, I would also recommend the book Gustave Baumann: Nearer to Art and any book you can find on the Canadian master Walter J. Phillips.

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Prints by Norma Bassett Hall

Gattières - France

Old Sycamore

October in Santa Fe

Friday, December 9, 2022

Bonaventure: A Prose Pastoral of Acadian Louisiana by George Washington Cable

Hardly ragin’ Cajun
The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the golden age of American literary realism, when authors popped up all over the country to write naturalistic novels of their hometowns, states, and regions. George Washington Cable (1844-1925) is one such regionalist whose beat was Southern Louisiana. His novel Bonaventure: A Prose Pastoral of Acadian Louisiana, was published in 1888. Bonaventure Deschamps, an Acadian (a.k.a Cajun) boy, is orphaned at a young age and taken in by the Beausoleil family of Vermilionville. He is raised alongside Zoséphine, the daughter of his guardians, and falls in love with her. Bonaventure grows up assuming that he will one day marry Zoséphine, but as they reach adolescence a rival appears on the scene in the form of her first cousin ‘Thanase, a handsome fiddle player. Romance must wait, however, as the Civil War descends upon their sleepy hamlet.

While the novel starts out well enough, Cable makes some bizarre narrative choices. In the first of the book’s three sections, Bonaventure makes some stupid decisions that cause him to lose the love of his life. Then he becomes a schoolteacher, which culminates in a silly classroom climax. About halfway through the book, a marriage is mentioned, out of the blue, that makes the reader think, “Huh? Where did THAT come from?” Bonaventure doesn’t even appear in the second half of the book, while we follow another character as he woos Bonaventure’s soulmate. Considering that the bulk of the book revolves around three or four romances, the love stories end up being woefully unsatisfying.

Not only does the story have its flaws, but also the way it’s told. Cable employs an annoyingly “clever” stylistic device that he uses way too often. In many chapters, he relates the story without naming the characters, instead simply referring to “this man,” “that man,” or “the young girl,” etc. Then, at the end of the chapter, he reveals that “this man,” was Bonaventure or “that girl,” was Marguerite, for example. Meanwhile, you just read an entire chapter full of pronouns in which it was very difficult to keep all the nameless characters straight and discern exactly who was speaking to whom. Try getting emotionally invested in that.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Bonaventure, however, is that it doesn’t really succeed as regional realism. After all is said and done, one doesn’t feel like they really learned much about Acadian Louisiana. We’re told that the majority of the region’s inhabitants consists of farmers, ranchers, and fishermen, yet for protagonists we are given a schoolteacher, a surveyor, and an encyclopedia salesman. Other than some occasional French dialogue, the novel is low on local color. The Civil War goes by in a blink, slavery is barely mentioned, and race doesn’t play an integral part in the narrative. For the most part, the story could have taken place in New England, or England, for that matter. The characters may be Cajun, but Cable seems to want them to act out some Jane Austen novel. Perhaps his intention was to assert that Acadians are more educated, refined, and urbane than the prevailing stereotypes of them, but the story often feels unrealistically forced in that direction.

Like much regionalist fiction, Bonaventure will likely appeal mostly to readers of its particular region. It doesn’t have the universal appeal of novels by the likes of Mark Twain, Willa Cather, or William Faulkner, nor does it reveal as much about the American South as the books of Charles W. Chesnutt or Harriet Beecher Stowe. One wishes this “Prose Pastoral” were a little more pastoral. Overall, Bonaventure is pretty mediocre fare and a corny love story that just happens to be set in Cajun country.
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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The Lazarus Effect by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom

Off the deep end: Pandora becomes a waterworld
Beyond the Dune series, the other major multi-novel arc in science fiction author Frank Herbert’s body of work is his Pandora Sequence, a.k.a. the WorShip series. The Lazarus Effect is the third novel to feature the spacecraft-turned-god known as Ship and the second novel to take place on the planet of Pandora, following Destination: Void and The Jesus Incident. Like The Jesus Incident, The Lazarus Effect is a collaboration between Herbert and former poet Bill Ransom. In an introduction published after Herbert’s death, Ransom implies that he played a larger role in the writing of this book than the preceding novel because Herbert was busy writing The White Plague and dealing with his wife Beverly’s battle with cancer.

The Lazarus Effect takes place some unspecified centuries after The Jesus Incident, and much has changed in the interim. Pandora’s human inhabitants have extinguished the sentient kelp, which has caused sea levels to rise (the physics of that is unclear), turning the planet into a waterworld. That species’ DNA, however, still lives on in the genetic experiments of generations past. The human population has divided into two “races”: The Mermen are not fish-people like the mermen of mythology, but rather humans that live underwater through the aide of technology and some minor evolutionary adaptations. Genetically, they are more traditionally human than the Islanders who inhabit the surface and live on floating islands of organic material. The majority of the Islanders, descendants of the genetic anomalies created by the twisted experiments of Jesus Lewis in the last novel, are physically deformed in sometimes hideous but often useful ways. Though prejudices and suspicions exist between the Mermen and Islanders, they have managed to live in peace and cooperation for centuries. A faction of racist terrorists, however, threatens to destroy that peace and remake the world to their liking. Meanwhile, a spaceship full of Earth life, including thousands of human clones, continues to orbit Pandora in a state of hibernation, as it has done for centuries.

As weird as The Jesus Incident was, The Lazarus Effect is much weirder, and Herbert and Ransom drop you right in the middle of it with no orientation whatsoever. At first it is difficult for the reader to get his or her bearings, but once acclimated to this bizarre world it proves fascinating. God and religion play a smaller role in this novel than in the previous one. Ship has ostensibly left Pandora, abandoning the inhabitants to their own devices, though many still hold faithfully to the worShipful beliefs of their ancestors. Like Dune, there is also an ecological dimension to the plot that deals with planet transformation.

The culture and politics of Pandora are really interesting, but the waterworld itself doesn’t make for the most thrilling of settings. Much of the novel takes place on boats, which aren’t anywhere near as interesting as an extraterrestrial landscape. The characters are always trying to get somewhere but never seem to get there. With all the nautical encounters, embarkations, and mutinies, it is difficult to keep track of who’s on what boat, where they’re all going, and who’s holding whom prisoner.

Though this sequel is centuries removed from The Jesus Incident and thus features all new characters, the authors find clever ways to connect the story to the characters of the two preceding books. On its own, The Lazarus Effect is not an outstanding novel and would probably be so weird as to be off-putting, but as a part of the greater Pandora saga it advances the story arc in interesting ways, keeps the reader guessing, and makes one look forward to the final installment in the series, The Ascension Factor.
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Monday, December 5, 2022

Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, Volume 3 by Alexander von Humboldt

In-depth analysis of Mexico’s animal, vegetable, and mineral resources
Alexander von Humboldt
Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt embarked on an intensive scientific expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804. During that extended voyage, he spent a year in Mexico, which at that time comprised most of the Spanish territory known as New Spain. In 1811, after returning to Europe, Humboldt published his Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain. Later that same year it was published in a five-volume English edition. The title “Political Essay” only tells part of the story. The work is really an exhaustive geographic overview of Mexico encompassing multiple scientific disciplines and the history of the nation. The subject of politics was mostly covered in Volume 1 and somewhat in Volume 2. In Volume 3, Humboldt focuses on the natural resources of Mexico, delivering a scientific and economic examination heavy on statistics.

While Humboldt frequently discusses botanical, zoological, and geological matters throughout his writings on New Spain, here in Volume 3 he concentrates specifically on plants, animals, and minerals that have an economic or utilitarian value. He begins by discussing various plants native to Mexico—such as cocoa, vanilla, and tobacco—and their potential as agricultural exports. He also assesses the success of transplanted foreign crops, such as sugar cane and coffee, in the soil of New Spain. Humboldt then turns to domesticated animals in Mexico, both native and imported, and their prospects as agricultural commodities. The most extensive consideration is granted to the cochineal, an insect domesticated by the Aztec and Maya that yields a valuable red dye.

The vast majority of Volume 3, however, is devoted to an in-depth study of New Spain’s mining industry. Although Humboldt excelled in just about every branch of science, geology was a particular area of expertise for him because he was educated as a mining engineer and oversaw mines in Prussia. Humboldt begins with a long list of where Mexico’s mines are located. Silver is by far the country’s most important mineral export, and gold is also a much sought-after commodity. Humboldt distinguishes the various ores in which these precious metals are found. He then goes into a thorough examination of the methods of amalgamation used to separate the desired metals from the less valuable components of the ore. The level of detail that he goes into amounts to almost a how-to guide for those who happen to have a steady supply of mercury handy. This is interesting but arcane stuff for the nongeologist, and it makes for a difficult read. You really need to know your porphyries from your amygdaloids and your amphiboles from your grauwakke (which I do not). From there, Humboldt spends about a hundred pages on crafting an educated estimate of the total value of silver and gold that Europe has imported from Mexico since Cortez’s conquest. This analysis is heavy on tables and statistics, and naturally all is expressed in European currencies at 1811 exchange rates, so it’s very difficult for the American reader of today to get a handle on the reality and import of his conclusions.

Humboldt’s Political Essay on New Spain is a landmark study in geography and a remarkable work for its day, notable for its interdisciplinary comprehensiveness and its utilization of empirical data and statistics. For the 21st century reader, however, Volume 3 is not one of Humboldt’s more enjoyable books to read. It will only appeal to the most diehard Humboldt enthusiasts, perhaps to geologists, and to those who have an avid interest in Mexico and its history.

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Friday, November 25, 2022

Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol

The romanticization of war taken to the extreme
Taras Bulba
, a historical novel by Russian author Nikolai Gogol, is set in the 17th century in the Ukraine. The title character is a middle-aged Cossack and veteran of many battles. His two sons, Ostap and Andrij, have finished their studies at the Kiev Academy and have returned home to their father’s house. Taras, an old-school Cossack raised in a Spartan militaristic style, can’t wait to usher his boys into their first battle, thus initiating them into true manhood. The father and two sons gear themselves up for a campaign and head to the Zaporozhian Sich, where thousands of Cossacks have gathered for a drinking binge. Eager for battle but with no one to fight, they decide to break a peace treaty and attack the Poles.

Taras Bulba was first published in 1835 and revised in 1842. The events in this novel are based on the Khmelnytsky Uprising of 1648 to 1657, the same conflict that serves as the basis for the novel With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz, who tells the story from the Polish side. It is interesting how Gogol depicts the Poles as aristocratic dandies, as opposed to the Cossacks, who are salt-of-the-earth he-men. Andrij Bulba falls in love with a Polish woman who essentially converts him into a Pole, setting up a classic brother-against-brother war story.

Gogol has a reputation as a satirist, and aspects of the novel lead one to wonder whether Taras Bulba was written with satire or sincerity in mind. The way Gogol celebrates the drunkenness and machismo of the Cossacks is so over-the-top it reads like caricature, similar to the kind of slurs that are aimed at the “drunken Irish,” for example. On the flip side, in Andriy, the more sensitive and chivalrous of the Bulba brothers, those qualities are amplified to a feminine extreme, to the point where he comes across as a sobbing, subservient milquetoast in the presence of his lover. Despite such exaggerations, however, after the first couple chapters it becomes clear that Gogol wrote the novel with dead seriousness. Everything about this story is ramped up to the nth degree, from the violence and gore to the military brotherhood and self-sacrifice to the bigoted hatred of Catholics and Jews.

Usually I don’t mind novels that take Romanticism to larger-than-life excesses, particularly when it comes to patriotism or nationalism. Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three is a good example, or Sienkiewicz’s trilogy of With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Wolodyjowski. Such books bring to life not only the historical events but the mindsets and values of the periods they portray. As a battle epic, Taras Bulba is sufficiently exciting and not badly written. Gogol’s obsession with violence and die-with-your-boots-on masculinity, however, only serves as a constant reminder that all this torture and mutilation was merely the result of ignorant people fighting pointlessly over minor variations in how they worshipped the same god. The frequent anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews throughout the novel are also quite off-putting.

Novels about the Cossacks comprise a genre of their own in Russian literature, leading one to wonder if the Ukrainian Steppe was the Russian equivalent of the mythic Wild West. It certainly reads that way from the way Gogol romanticizes the Cossacks’ military ethos. With a different costume and weapons, a hard-drinking, grizzled, two-fisted hero like Taras Bulba would be right at home in a vintage Western hunting down Indians instead of infidels. If it’s realism you want, you won’t find it here. Instead, seek out Mikhail Sholokhov’s masterful two-volume epic And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea, or Leo Tolstoy’s semi-autobiographical novel The Cossacks.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2022

When Sunflowers Bloomed Red: Kansas and the Rise of Socialism in America by R. Alton Lee and Steven Cox

A history of radical Kansas
Most people think of Kansas as a conservative “red state,” which may be true today, but historically the Sunflower State has demonstrated markedly progressive and, dare I say, radical tendencies in its political leanings. The cleverly titled When Sunflowers Bloomed Red, published in 2020, is a history of Socialism in the state of Kansas. (Let’s not forget that red was originally the worldwide color of Socialism, before some American TV news executive in the 1980s decided to assign the color to the Republican Party.) The book was written by R. Alton Lee, a historian who has published much on Kansas history, and Steven Cox, archivist at Pittsburg State University, located in the Southeastern and historically reddest corner of the state. The scope of the book spans roughly from the 1890s up to World War II.

In the book’s introduction, the authors state flatly, “This is not a definitive history of socialism in Kansas.” That’s disappointing because, given the title, one would expect it would be, and if this isn’t it, what is? Rather than relating Kansas’s socialist history in a chronological narrative, the authors have divided their study into thematic chapters focusing on particular people or movements. One chapter, for example, focuses on the highly successful publishing operations of J. A. Wayland and Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius in Girard, Kansas. The former founded America’s most widely circulated socialist newspaper, the Appeal to Reason, while the latter sold millions of copies of his Little Blue Books. Another chapter covers union organizing among miners, while another is devoted specifically to prominent women socialists in Kansas. The activities of the International Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) and the Nonpartisan League in Kansas are also discussed at length. Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, perhaps the most famous socialist in U.S. history, was not a Kansan, but he was an active campaigner in the state, and the elections in which he figured are frequently mentioned throughout the book.

I already had an interest in this subject before I discovered this book, so I would consider myself predisposed to a favorable reaction. Although the authors deliver much informative content, however, the writing is difficult to get excited about. As confirmed by the notes, almost every paragraph is a summary of a newspaper article, and reads like one. These follow one another in chronological order, amounting to a rapid-fire delivery of names, places, and facts but with little attempt to connect the dots and assemble a cohesive narrative. The text is heavy on election statistics, when tables might have been a better way to impart that data. The thematic arrangement also leads to further confusion with a lot of jumping back and forth in time and repetition of events. The result is a book that would probably serve better as a reference volume for historians than as an enlightening read for the curious general reader. Those in the latter category, like myself, may find themselves so exhausted by the blow-by-blow commentary on policy debates that the more violent incidents of class struggle actually come as a refreshing relief. When Sunflowers Bloomed Red contains a lot of valuable information, but its relentless barrage of detail makes it hard to see the forest for the trees and never really brings this history or the personalities of its prominent activists to life.

Compiling a one-volume socialist history of Kansas is surely a difficult task, since so many of the characters who played a part in that history lived lives that could merit a book of their own. Talkin’ Socialism by Elliott Shore, a biography of J. A. Wayland and the Appeal to Reason, is one commendable example. R. Alton Lee also wrote a book that focuses exclusively on Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, Publisher for the Masses, which I look forward to reading.

Monday, November 21, 2022

An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students by Ronald Brunlees McKerrow

How books were made from 1500 to 1800
Although published in 1927, English bibliographer Ronald Brunlees McKerrow’s An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students is still a fundamental text for scholars and collectors of early printed books. This book is a detailed guide to how books are printed, or rather were printed, in the days before the industrial revolution (although much of the basic process has remained the same even with today’s modern machinery). McKerrow wrote the book for an audience of literary scholars who study old books and manuscripts. In general, he emphasizes the works of authors from Shakespeare’s time and earlier. He asserts, however, that the process of printing books didn’t change much from the years 1500 to 1800, so the information given can be applied to most works printed during that time span.

Nowadays, when a publisher prints 25,000 copies of a book, all of those copies pretty much look identical. That was not the case in the days of hand-set type and hand-cranked presses. Printers would make corrections as they went along, and each copy would have its own distinct characteristics. Sometimes, by studying the differences in printing between two copies, it is possible to surmise which was printed earlier or later, thus helping the literary scholar to discern which iteration could be considered the original, the corrected, the authoritative, or the defective version of the text. McKerrow instructs the reader on how to identify and describe these variations in copies and editions as a means of illuminating a book’s history. McKerrow’s detailed explanation of the printing process also elucidates how errors enter into the text between the author’s manuscript and the final printed book. All of this is useful to the literary scholar in that it helps to establish the author’s original intent and thus broaden understanding of the literary work and the author in question.

As a sort of field guide to rare early printed books, McKerrow’s Introduction to Bibliography is comprehensive and authoritative, but it is far from user-friendly. I have worked most of my adult life in book design, printing, and publishing, yet even I found this book quite difficult to understand at times. That’s not because of the arcane terminology, some of which was familiar to me and the rest of which I actually enjoyed learning, but because of McKerrow’s convoluted explanations. The book is chock full of footnotes, but to be honest the main text of the book reads like footnotes as well. McKerrow spends so much time highlighting irregular examples (he clearly revels in citing the most esoteric anomalies possible) that it’s hard for the reader to see the forest for the trees. Though one needs to know exceptions to the rules, this book often reads like all exceptions and no rules. I read a facsimile of the original 1927 edition, and it clearly could have used more illustrations. When discussing early printing presses, for example, McKerrow goes into a lengthy, almost indecipherable knee-bone’s-connected-to-the-shin-bone description of the machinery, when one simple labeled diagram would have been far more effective. In discussing typography, he even verbally describes typefaces, rather than showing the reader examples.

Though it’s not an easy or always pleasurable book to get through, for those interested in old books and bibliography it is worth the work. In the past century, others have no doubt published more accessible guides on the subject, but it’s hard to imagine anyone cramming in as much content and specificity as McKerrow has done here. Though intended for literary students, there is much valuable information here for collectors, librarians, or just curious and avid readers.
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Friday, November 18, 2022

The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau

Roughing it in the Pine Tree State
Henry David Thoreau was a native of Concord, Massachusetts and lived there most of his life, with the exception of his years at Harvard and his sojourn at nearby Walden Pond. Thoreau did get around, however, and his travels and natural explorations make up the bulk of his books. From 1846 to 1857 Thoreau made three trips to Maine that resulted in three lengthy essays that comprise the book The Maine Woods. Although two of these essays had previously been printed in magazines, the book as a whole was unfinished at the time of Thoreau’s death and was published posthumously in 1864.

In Thoreau’s time, the line between civilization and wilderness was not as sharply defined as it is today. Nowadays, however, his three excursions to Maine would probably qualify as “wilderness adventure travel,” meaning he slept outdoors, often traveled by foot and canoe, and his primary objective was to experience nature through hunting, fishing, birding, botanizing, and simply enjoying the scenery. In the first essay, “Ktaadn,” Thoreau climbs to the top of Maine’s highest mountain, now Mount Katahdin. He also observes the lives of the loggers and boatmen who work amid the woods, lakes, and rivers of Maine. In “Chesuncook,” Thoreau accompanies some moose hunters to the lake of the same name. Apparently there were no moose in Massachusetts, so Thoreau enlightens his readers on this fascinating creature. He also shares his views on hunting. Hunting for sport makes him sad, but he’s OK with hunting for subsistence. The third essay, “The Allegash and East Branch,” is a more rambling journey with no apparent objective other than the appreciation of scenery and the collecting of plant specimens.

In all three trips, Thoreau was accompanied by traveling companions, and they enlisted the help of Indian guides. The companions never really develop into characters, and Thoreau usually doesn’t even name them. The Native guides, however, are important presences in the book, particularly in the second and third essays. In “Chesuncook,” Thoreau is guided by Joe Aettion, and in “The Allegash and East Branch” by Joe Polis, both of whom he describes as Penobscot Indians. Aettion competes with the moose for attention in his essay, but Polis is very much the main focus of “The Allegash and East Branch.” In both cases, Thoreau wants to illustrate the character and personality of the Native Americans through character studies of these two individuals, but at the same time he points out how Native life has been altered by colonialism. He sees these men as a bridge between the old ways of the pre-Colombian past and ostensibly “civilized” White America. As a naturalist, Thoreau clearly admires and envies their woodcraft and wilderness survival skills. At times they call to mind Natty Bumppo of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (except he was White), but Thoreau’s two Joes are more realistically drawn than the noble savages of Cooper’s novels. Given his love of wilderness, Thoreau not surprisingly thinks White America could learn some from the Natives on how to live a life more respectful of nature. .

Unlike Walden, which is permeated with Thoreau’s philosophical musings, The Maine Woods is more of a straightforward travelogue and nature study, though Thoreau does occasionally reveal his thoughts on ecology and environmental ethics. In particular, he has a lot to say about logging and laments the rampant cutting of the forests. Because it was published after his death, “The Allegash and East Branch” has an unfinished feel to it, but all three are exceptional pieces of nature writing. Thoreau not only describes the natural environment but also delves into the cultural aspects of Maine life, which results in essays that read like they might have been articles in National Geographic or Outside magazine. Thoreau really transports the reader into the Maine wilderness and vividly encapsulates this period in American history..

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Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Valdez is Coming by Elmore Leonard

A near-perfect Western
I am not a frequent reader of Western genre fiction, but in Elmore Leonard’s case I can make an exception. Leonard is best known as a writer of sharp-witted crime fiction, but he got his start writing in the Western genre. His first published works were short stories in Western pulp fiction magazines, and his first novels were Westerns. Valdez is Coming, the eighth of Leonard’s 45 novels, was published in 1970. The following year it was made into a good Western film starring Burt Lancaster in the title role. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, Valdez is Coming is an excellent Western novel and an exciting read.

As the novel opens, a crowd of armed men are gathered before a shack where they have cornered a suspected army deserter and murderer. Powerful rancher Frank Tanner is the driving force behind this makeshift posse, which consists mostly of his hired gunmen. Town constable Roberto “Bob” Valdez arrives on the scene and suggests trying to talk to the suspect before resorting to violence. That plan goes south, however, and the accused man is killed before it is discovered that he wasn’t the killer after all. Present at the scene is the dead man’s wife, an Apache woman visibly pregnant. Valdez wonders what will become of her and her child now that her husband is gone. He feels everyone present is responsible for the wrongful killing of the man, and they should all chip in and pull together $500 to compensate the widow for her loss. Valdez thinks Tanner, the leader of the group, the one who made the accusation in the first place, and the wealthiest landowner around, should set an example by making the biggest contribution. When Valdez presents this idea to Tanner, however, the response is not only negative but brutally violent and demeaning. Valdez, a Mexican American, has never been taken seriously as a lawman by the powerful Whites of the town. Little do they know, however, of his military past as a tracker and hunter of hostile Apaches, a past that has provided him with a particular set of skills that enables him to take revenge upon Tanner and his henchmen, making them pay for their arrogance and brutality.

While revenge stories are a dime a dozen in the Western genre, rarely do they begin with such an original premise nor feature such a unique hero as Valdez. I often find Western novels boring, but once I picked up Valdez is Coming I didn’t want to put it down. The main attraction here is Leonard’s smart and snappy prose. This book is only 160 pages long, but it’s hard to recall a book in which so much is said in so few words. Each word is carefully chosen and appropriately placed in a terse and taut phrasing. There’s no fat to chew in this lean and sinewy narrative. And every line of dialogue is spot-on, with a wry sense of humor bubbling underneath. Leonard’s characters deliver speech that sounds like real conversation, not literary book-talk. The action sequences are nail-bitingly suspenseful and vividly drawn without getting bogged down in the logistics of who rode where and who shot who. Whether he knew a film adaptation was forthcoming or not, Leonard clearly had a cinematic vision when he wrote the novel, as evident from the screenplay quality of its scene staging and plot trajectory.

I had previously read The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, most of the contents of which were originally published in 1950s magazines. That’s a good collection, but nothing in it is quite in the same league as Valdez is Coming. Now I’d like to read more of Leonard’s early Western novels, like Hombre and Last Stand at Saber River. Judging by Valdez is Coming, if anyone can win me over to this genre of literature, Leonard can.
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Monday, November 14, 2022

Life and Works of Alexander Csoma de Körös by Theodore Duka

Inadequate biography of a fascinating life 
Alexander Csoma de Körös
Alexander Csoma de Körös (1784-1842) is the founder of Tibetology. A Hungarian philologist, he was one of the first Western scholars to venture into Tibet, learn their language, and read their texts. His journey East and his cultural and linguistic studies are really quite fascinating. Unfortunately his biography, Life and Works of Alexander Csoma de Körös by Theodore Duka, doesn’t really do justice to its subject. Due to a lack of concrete information on Csoma, this account of his life is rather boring and repetitive, but it is likely the best source we have for shedding light on the journeys, discoveries, and eccentric personality of this intrepid linguistic explorer.

Born in the town of Körös in Transylvania, Csoma was of Székely origin, a Hungarian ethnic group in Romania. As a young scholar, he decided to research the origins of the Hungarian people. He believed they were descended from the Huns, who came from Asia to make frequent raids into Eastern Europe. This naturally directed his studies Eastward. Today we know that most European languages evolved from a prototypical Indo-European tongue. In his peregrinations Eastward, Csoma was essentially tracing this linguistic family tree backwards to India, where he marked similarities between the Hungarian language and Sanskrit. Eventually he became fascinated with Tibet and Buddhism, and the Tibetan language became the primary focus of his studies and the field in which he made important contributions. Csoma was a gifted polyglot with a facility in many languages, among them Hungarian, Romanian, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, English, Slavonic, Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Bengali, Pashto, Hindustani, Marathi, Tibetan, and Russian.

Despite his formidable achievements, Csoma was a very modest man, and didn’t write much about himself or his travels. The result of this is a paucity of information on the man. Duka based this biography mostly on a series of letters, many reproduced verbatim, between Csoma and officials of the English government in India who financed his travels. In these letters, Csoma summarized his studies, much like a professor today might write a grant report to a funding agency. Much of the correspondence discusses the stipend granted to Csoma by the English, some of which he refused to accept. In India and Tibet, Csoma lived a very ascetic existence similar to the Buddhist monks with whom he studied. He resided in small cells, sleeping on the floor, surviving on tea and rice, and devoting all his time to his studies. He seemed to be addicted to self-denial, eschewing not only luxuries but also what most would consider bare necessities, perhaps viewing himself as a martyr to knowledge. Out of gratitude to his English benefactors, Csoma published his research in English, including the first Tibetan-English dictionary.

While the biography feels sparse, one thing Duka does very thoroughly is summarize Csoma’s writings, perhaps too thoroughly for all but Csoma’s peer Tibetologists. About the last quarter of the book is devoted to this extensive annotated bibliography of Csoma’s published research.

I enjoy reading biographies of scientists, explorers, and ethnographers because they allow one to live vicariously through the subject’s travels and discoveries. That’s difficult to do with Life and Works of Alexander Csoma de Körös, because the person in question never shared his experiences of world travel, only his scholarly research. Even so, I’m glad I read this to learn more about this interesting historical figure. Thankfully, I also have a healthy interest in foreign languages, because this book will probably only appeal to those who do.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Where the Evil Dwells by Clifford D. Simak

Plodding dungeons and dragons quest
I’m a big fan of author Clifford D. Simak and am close to finishing off his complete works. Among his career catalog of superb science fiction, however, he did write a few novels in a genre that isn’t really my cup of tea: fantasy of the Dungeons and Dragons variety. Among these books are Enchanted Pilgrimage, The Fellowship of the Talisman, and one of his last few novels, Where the Evil Dwells, published in 1982. As much as I love Simak’s writing, I don’t think this genre was really his strong suit, and Where the Evil Dwells does little to elevate my appreciation for sword and sorcery fiction.

The story takes place during the time of the Roman Empire. In between the Romans to the South and the Germanic barbarians of the north lies a no-man’s zone called the Empty Land. Here dwells the Evil, a mystical hoard of evil creatures right out of the D&D Monster Manual. Charles Harcourt is a young nobleman in Northern France. His father’s lands lie adjacent to the boundary of the Empty Land. One day a beloved uncle shows up injured, having just returned from an adventure in the Empty Land. He tells Charles of a magical prism in which the soul of a saint is imprisoned. This holy relic rests deep within the Empty Land, and the uncle was not able to wrest it from the clutches of the Evil. Charles resolves to embark on a quest to recover the prism, in hopes that its holy powers will be useful in countering the Evil. Volunteering to accompany him on this quest are an abbot with a taste for battle, a neighbor girl with a secret past, and the Knurly Man, an inhuman humanoid of mysterious origin.

Like so many quest novels, particularly in this fantasy genre, the bulk of the book is occupied with the getting there. For the reader, this is a slow and tedious journey as the party trudges through one more forest, one more swamp, one more campsite. Reading this book really does make one feel like you are a spectator at a session of Dungeons & Dragons in which you are in no way invested. Occasionally the trekkers encounter monsters or meet other humans (typical non-player characters). Simak draws most of his monsters from mythology and folklore—ogres, trolls, dragons, unicorns. Occasionally he’ll serve up something a little more creative. Action is sparse in the plot, and nobody really learns anything along the way. Nothing much of import happens until the last twenty pages of the book, which is hastily wrapped up in a less than satisfying ending.

Fans of Simak’s science fiction will be disappointed with this work. I can’t imagine even those who habitually enjoy sword and sorcery fiction would find this novel exciting. One can’t blame Simak for wanting to branch out, but he should have left this genre to Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Piers Anthony. Simak doesn’t bring anything new to fantasy literature with this book. The biggest fault with Where the Evil Dwells is that it’s just boring. It’s not offensively bad like The Fellowship of the Talisman; just passively bad. There is nothing to really hate about it but not much to love either.
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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

The Plattner Story and Others by H. G. Wells

Good science fiction mixed with mediocre romance
Nowadays we know H. G. Wells as an early master of science fiction, but during his lifetime he was known for fiction and nonfiction in many different genres and subject areas. Looking through Wells’s bibliography, one gets the idea that he never wanted to be confined to the sci-fi ghetto and likely craved recognition as a “mainstream” writer. To today’s reader, however, his science fiction seems remarkably creative and advanced for its age, while his non-sci-fi works often come across as unremarkable run-of-the-mill British fiction of its era, stuffy and rather predictable. This presents a problem when reading a collection of short fiction by Wells, as his anthologies tend to be a grab bag of various genres. The Plattner Story and Others, published in 1897, is a collection of 17 short stories, most of which originally ran in British periodicals from 1894 to 1896. This volume starts out with six or seven science fiction stories, followed by one ghost story and a trio of Edgar Allan Poe-style murder tales. The book then closes with half a dozen mundane tales of Victorian life focusing on romance and inheritances. As one reads through the volume, the sci-fi works are initially quite promising, but it’s all downhill from there.

Although Wells doesn’t hit it out of the park with every sci-fi and fantasy yarn, the first half of this book is impressive for its wide range of subjects and styles, worthy of a season of The Twilight Zone: alternate dimensions (“The Plattner Story”), futuristic air travel (“The Argonauts of the Air”), minds switching bodies (“The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham”), undersea exploration (“In the Abyss”), a glimpse into the afterlife (“Under the Knife”), a haunted house horror story (“The Red Room”), and a good old-fashioned cryptozoologic monster attack (“The Sea-Raiders”). As the stories get less science-based and move more into the realm of Poe, however, one can feel Wells’s talent begin to wane as he ventures out of his element.

All of that seems like genius, however, compared to the book’s latter half, which consists of dull stories with insipid endings. In most of these, Wells also attempts a more lighthearted style, and humor isn’t exactly his strong suit. Or at least, his humor hasn’t held up well over the intervening century and a quarter. “The Sad Story of a Dramatic Critic,” for example, is a bad joke only a pretentious Victorian gentleman could love. “A Catastrophe” starts out as a realistic look at middle class life, but ends with a lazy deus ex machina. The one standout among the last half dozen entries is “In the Modern Vein,” a story about a married man who falls in love with another woman. The only remarkable thing about this is that the other woman is Indian. Given that it was written in the Victorian Era, when divorce, infidelity, and interracial romance were not considered proper in literature, the story can only end one way, and it does, as expected.

As a short story writer, Wells’s efforts are hit and miss. His success rate in that department is nowhere near as good as Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, or Jack London. In The Plattner Story and Others, the cons outweigh the pros. The farther Wells’s stories are removed from reality, into science fiction and fantasy territory, the more successful they are. Like Conan Doyle, however, his sci-fi sometimes suffers from venturing too far into spiritualism. For an atheist, Wells seems overly preoccupied with spirits and the afterlife (though not nearly as much as Conan Doyle). Those who are only interested in Wells as a science fiction writer would be better off reading his 1899 collection Tales of Space and Time, which is more specifically devoted to that genre.

Stories in this collection

The Plattner Story
The Argonauts of the Air
The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham
In the Abyss
The Apple
Under the Knife
The Sea-Raiders
Pollock and the Porroh Man
The Red Room
The Cone
The Purple Pileus
The Jilting of Jane
In the Modern Vein
A Catastrophe
The Lost Inheritance
The Sad Story of a Dramatic Critic
A Slip Under the Microscope

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