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.

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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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Monday, November 7, 2022

The Game Inventor’s Guidebook by Brian Tinsman

Behind the business of fun
I wasn’t looking for a book on this subject, but when it came up as a Kindle Daily Deal I snatched up the ebook. I’ve always enjoyed board games, both as a player and as a graphic designer. The Game Inventor’s Guidebook was published in 2008. As the subtitle indicates, it’s not just about board games but all manner of non-electronic tabletop games. Author Brian Tinsman is a successful game designer and developer himself. At the time of publication he was game design manager for Wizards of the Coast, the company that now owns Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering.

There have been several books published on board game design in recent years. Tinsman’s guide is less about designing games and more about selling them. He outlines different scenarios for accomplishing this, from working with big mass market game companies (think Hasbro/Parker Brothers), small specialty game companies, or self-publishing. He describes the various market niches and emphasizes the importance of finding the right one for your game idea. Since this is a business guide, Tinsman’s primary criteria for judging a good game is the amount of money it makes, so he has much to say about mass market games (the kind you find in Target, for example), but he also provides advice to those interested in more specialized hobby games and strategy games on how to pitch to the companies that publish in those markets. For the prospective game creator, Tinsman imparts much insider information on the do’s and don’t’s of approaching and courting games publishers. He does talk about what makes a good game, but he doesn’t delve too much into the mechanics of specific games. In fact, it seems he purposely avoids that topic because he thinks the best games come from completely new ideas as far removed as possible from previous and familiar games.

If I had discovered a how-to book like this when I was in college, I might have taken a game design career more seriously. As a middle-aged reader and moderate board game enthusiast, however, I just enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at the industry. I work in book publishing, and the two industries are very similar. Much like authors, most game creators don’t make enough to give up their day jobs, but some do, and every once in a while someone strikes it rich with a runaway idea like Trivial Pursuit or Pokemon. It is really interesting to read the histories of how some of the best-known games were created—both the superstar success stories and the horror stories of company failures. There are also quite a few brief interviews with games creators like Reiner Knizia (Lost Cities, Lord of the Rings), Brian Hersch (Outburst, Taboo), and Alan Moon (Elfenland, Ticket to Ride). As a how-to guide, the book is quite comprehensive and practical, even including contact information for many games companies and sample contracts for game creators.

This is a business advice guide, so it’s not always electrifying reading, but Tinsman manages to keep it lively by liberally interspersing anecdotes, interviews, and games industry lore amongst the how-to material. Overall, The Game Inventor’s Guidebook is a brisk and informative read. The ebook is inexpensive enough that it is definitely worth a look for tabletop gaming fans, who are likely to enjoy Tinsman’s insider look at the industry.
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Friday, November 4, 2022

Prince Valiant Volume 1: 1937-1938 by Hal Foster

The consummate Old Master of comics art
For decades, the prettiest page in the Sunday paper was Prince Valiant, the adventure comic created and drawn by Hal Foster from 1937 to 1971. Foster continued to write the stories until 1980, with John Cullen Murphy as artist, which is the Prince Valiant that I grew up with. (The strip continues to this day, in the hands of other artists.) Prince Valiant was unusual in that it was a Sunday-only strip, so every installment was in full color, and readers had to wait a week between episodes. Foster’s work was extremely influential to the adventure comics genre, and he is hailed as an old master of the art form. From 2009 to 2018, Fantagraphics Books republished all of Foster’s Sunday pages in full-color, tabloid-sized hardcover volumes. Volume 1: 1937-1938 reprints the first 98 pages of Prince Val’s adventures.

Val is the crown prince of Thule (part of present-day Norway). When his father is deposed by a coup, the King, Queen, and Prince flee their homeland for exile in Britain. At first they are not welcomed warmly by the barbaric Picts, but then it is agreed that the Thulian royal family and their retinue can have some land in a fen (swamp) that nobody else wants because it’s a spooky place inhabited by prehistoric creatures. Though his family manages to lead a noble but frugal life on their island in the fen, Val chafes under the isolation. He wants to be a knight, so, seeking a heroic quest, he ventures off on his own. He reaches Camelot, where he meets King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Val is too young and inexperienced for knighthood, but he is granted an entry-level position as squire to Sir Gawain.

The storytelling is wholesome yet violent. Serving as an inspiration for boys everywhere, Val demonstrates impeccable ethics in all his doings, but he does kill people in battle. In typical newspaper serial fashion, the first panel of each page is always a recap of the last episode, and the last panel foreshadows the next. I never read Prince Valiant as a kid, though I did admire the pictures. I’m not sure I would have had the patience to wait for Foster’s stories to unfold over months, but when binge-reading them in the Fantagraphics volume they are quite impressive and fun to follow. You may think you’ve seen it all in this knights-and-chivalry genre, but in these first 98 pages Foster comes up with an amazing variety of adventures and plot twists.

The main attraction here, however, is the fantastic art. As an introduction, the book reprints an interview with Foster in which he says he spent 56 hours per page on Prince Valiant. It shows in his meticulously detailed drawings. It is also evident that Foster put a great deal of research into his renderings of castles, armor, weapons, and other medieval trappings. If one could nitpick on Foster’s impeccable art, it could be said that his drawings could use more shadow. The art of Prince Valiant calls to mind the intricate line work of 19th-century book illustration. I prefer the more heavily shaded film noir style of newspaper comics masters like Milton Caniff and Alex Raymond. Granted, the phrase “film noir” wouldn’t really apply to Foster’s medieval subject matter, but in old master terms I would have appreciated more Caravaggio and less Tiepolo.

Nevertheless, the overall effect of these first Prince Valiant adventures, as beautifully reproduced in this Fantagraphics volume, is quite majestic. Foster took the comics art form to a level of classical beauty it has rarely seen since. If there were a Louvre for cartooning, these debut adventures of Prince Valiant would be its Mona Lisa.

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Wednesday, November 2, 2022

The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Takes forever to get underway
Daniel Defoe
When published in 1719, Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe was so successful that he published a sequel later that year, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. These days, the title is more commonly published as “Further” rather than “Farther.” It is often said that sequels are never as good as the originals, and after reading The Further Adventures one can surmise that people have been making that comment for at least 300 years.

The story opens in 1693, several years after Crusoe left the island upon which he was stranded for so much of his life. He is now 61 years old, living comfortably on a farm in England, married with children, yet an uncontrollable obsession with his island fills him with unrest. When Crusoe’s nephew, a ship’s captain, plans a trading voyage to the East Indies, he offers to take his uncle along for a visit to his former island home.

While that sounds like a recipe for adventure, the stopover proves to be a bore for the reader, and the Adventures are had by everyone but Crusoe. When he left the island at the end of the last novel, a few Englishmen and Spaniards had arrived there, and they remained as colonists. Four or five chapters go by relating what happened to these people during those years while Crusoe was in England. This back story amounts to a tedious string of skirmishes and truces. What makes it worse is that, with one exception, none of the characters even have names, so the text is all about this or that Englishman, this or that Spaniard, this or that “savage.” Then follows a couple chapters in which Crusoe tries to get the settlers to marry their Native wives under the formalities of Christian matrimony. Not surprisingly, like the last novel, Christian piety is a major theme here. The only surprise here is that for a 17th-century Englishman, Crusoe has some remarkably tolerant things to say about Roman Catholics.

The real “Adventures” don’t start until Crusoe leaves the island halfway through the book. He travels onto far-flung exotic locales and undergoes more bad luck and hardship, but he perseveres through faith and his pronounced ingenuity. By 19th- or 20th-century standards, this is not a great adventure novel, but by early 18th-century standards, it’s pretty good. I’ve always found it remarkable how Defoe’s prose, written three centuries ago, still reads with a fresh and clean conversational tone, unlike later writers like Sir Walter Scott or James Fenimore Cooper, who often sound antiquated and clunky. This is not one of Defoe’s better works, but it is good enough to call to mind the travel adventures written by Jules Verne. I’m sure Defoe never traveled to China, India, or Southeast Asia, but like Verne might have done he has clearly researched the accounts of those who have. The big difference is that whereas Verne’s plots revolve around scientific discovery, The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe revolve around commerce and trade. Defoe provides some very vivid descriptions of the exotic lands visited, but the main thrust of these travelogues is that anywhere in the world is barbaric compared to pious mother England.

Fans of the first novel will be disappointed at the offhand manner in which one important character from the first novel is summarily dispatched. In all aspects, The Further Adventures is disappointing compared to the preceding novel, but one can’t help but admire the precocious ambition and enduring accessibility of Defoe’s novel. A century before Scott, Cooper, and Alexandre Dumas, Defoe was a pioneer in elevating the adventure genre to the heights of literature.

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Monday, October 31, 2022

The Mountains Wait by Theodor Broch

Life under the Nazis in a northern Norwegian town
This book came to my attention because it features pictures by Rockwell Kent, one of America’s great book illustrators. Finding the subject matter interesting, I decided to read it, and I’m glad I did. The Mountains Wait was written by Theodor Broch, a Norwegian lawyer and politician. In this memoir, published in 1942, Broch recounts Norway’s involuntary entry into World War II when the Nordic nation was invaded by the Nazis.

The book opens with Broch fleeing through the mountains trying to escape into neutral Sweden. He then flashes back ten years to when he first moved to the small, far northern city of Narvik a decade earlier. Narvik is a seaport town from which the iron ore of Swedish mines is shipped out to the world. Broch, raised and educated in Oslo, moved to Narvik following graduation from law school because his father, a military man, was stationed there. In the first few chapters of the book, Broch relates how he began practicing law, became a city councilman, and was then elected mayor of Narvik. As he gets to know the inhabitants of the remote community, the reader gets a glimpse into the peaceful and picturesque life of this small Norwegian town.

That all changes on April 9, 1940, when the Nazis invade Norway. Narvik is taken and occupied for its crucial seaport. The British launch a savage naval battle in the adjacent fjord, but it fails to win the town’s freedom. Soldiers from Norway, Britain, Poland, and even the French Foreign Legion are all engaged in combat in and around Narvik. As mayor of the town, Broch is required to meet with the Nazi commanding officers and cater to their demands. He provides a realistic glimpse at life under Nazi occupation. At times relations are reluctantly cordial between the Norwegians and their captors, but the residents of Narvik still covertly resist the Nazis at the risk of punishment by death. Because the Nazis claim the Nordics as their racial brethren, the overt atrocities of ethnic cleansing are not an issue, but the Nazis certainly do not behave themselves as gentleman combatants when they engage in all kinds of dirty tricks from donning Norwegian uniforms, hiding behind the red cross symbol, or using civilians as human shields. As time goes on and their hold on the town becomes less secure, the Nazis become more violent and abusive towards the Norwegians. Many citizens of Narvik are killed by bombing raids, and some by friendly fire, as their town is destroyed around them.

The title of the book refers to the fact that while Broch and many of his countrymen have fled to live in exile, he hopes that one day the Nazis will be driven from Norway, and his native land will once again welcome its children back to its beautiful snow-covered landscapes. A word that is used often in the text is “quisling,” denoting a traitor who collaborates with the enemy. This common noun was derived from the proper name of Vidkun Quisling, head of the Norwegian government under Nazi occupation, who briefly makes an appearance early in the book.

Kent’s illustrations for the book are excellent. He provides headpieces and tailpieces for each chapter. These are mostly lovely scenic views of the Narvik region. Only a few of the illustrations specifically depict views of war. Regardless of the art, however, readers with any connection to Norway or an interest in the second world war in Europe will find Broch’s historical memoir a compelling read.
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Illustrations by Rockwell Kent, from the book

Friday, October 28, 2022

Bobby Womack: My Story 1944–2014 by Bobby Womack and Robert Ashton

Maybe the best rock autobiography I’ve ever read
Soul and rock singer Bobby Womack first published his autobiography in 2006 under the title of Midnight Mover (named after one of his hit songs). Following his death, it was rereleased in 2014 as Bobby Womack: My Story 1944-2014. Womack may not be as famous as fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, or Pete Townshend, but his autobiography is better than theirs. In fact, this may be the best rock and roll autobiography I’ve ever read.

Womack was born in Cleveland. At the urging of his religious father, Bobby and his brothers grew up singing gospel. They achieved success first as the Womack Brothers and then as the Valentinos. As a teenager, Bobby came under the wing of soul singer Sam Cooke, who mentored his career as he branched out from gospel into the soul and rock genres. After Cooke was killed under questionable circumstances, Womack married Cooke’s widow Barbara, ten years his senior, when he was only 21. A few years later, Womack had an affair with his 17-year-old stepdaughter. When Barbara found out, it resulted in a violent and harrowing scene that serves as the book’s opening chapter. From page one, Womack’s narrative grabs the reader’s attention and never lets go.

Womack lived a hard life, enduring much tragedy and hardship, and as a result the book is not always a pleasant read. He tells his story with an unflinching honesty that is admirable and captivating. Womack owns up to his mistakes, even the dumb ones, without asking for sympathy, hiding behind excuses, or making himself out to be a better person than he is, unlike many other rock star autobiographers (Clapton and Townshend come to mind). Womack’s music career was up and down, interspersed with lean years, and he had his bouts with heavy drug use. He is brutally frank about sexual matters, without bragging. In fact, most of the stories in that category are humorous but not for the prudish. Womack displays an almost childlike attitude towards love, and at times comes across a little creepy with his stalkerish methods of pursuing the women he’s attracted to, but it was the 1970s after all. In the end he comes across as a likable guy and a battle-scarred survivor. Womack’s life story will make you laugh, might make you cry, and every once in a while may even give you the heebie jeebies. Regardless of what fame and fortune he achieved, you wouldn’t want to trade your life for his.

I’m a fan of Womack’s recordings, but I was unaware of the extent to which he wrote songs for others and worked as a hired-gun session man. He played guitar on Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” the Boxtops’ “The Letter,” and Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman.” The roster of legends with whom Womack worked also includes Jimi Hendrix, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Sly Stone, Janis Joplin, and the Rolling Stones. Womack doesn’t just drop their names to make himself sound more important, nor does he simply dish out gossip and dirt. Rather, he has a way of telling stories about these famous acquaintances that really reveals their personalities and enlarges your understanding of each individual.

My Story is written in very conversational prose that allows you to imagine Womack relating these anecdotes to you personally. (He did have help from a ghost writer, Robert Ashton). Even if you’re not a big fan of Womack’s music, if you’re interested in ‘60s and ‘70s rock, including the stars mentioned above, this autobiography makes for a riveting read.
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Wednesday, October 26, 2022

The Conquest of Bread by Peter Kropotkin

Anarchist-Communism as the cure for society’s ills
The Conquest of Bread
by Russian author Peter Kropotkin was first published in 1892 as a series of essays in the French journal Revolté (Kropotkin wrote the text in French). The book is a political treatise that proposes Anarchist-Communism as the world government of the future. Just as Karl Marx is the patriarch of Communism and his book Das Kapital could be considered the “bible” of that movement, Kropotkin is the godfather of Anarchist-Communism and The Conquest of Bread its sacred text. Unlike the works of Marx, Kropotkin seems to have written The Conquest of Bread for the common man, and one doesn’t need a PhD to understand it.

Kropotkin asserts that Capitalism is a form of economic feudalism not much different from medieval feudalism, under which the majority of the world’s population exists as wage slaves to a wealthy aristocracy, just as peasants, slaves, and serfs have served their masters for centuries. The solution to this problem of inequality and exploitation is a Communist economic system that values labor over private property and distributes the wealth of society accordingly to satisfy the needs of all. Kropotkin’s particular take on Communism is Anarchist-Communism (or Anarcho-Communism). Kropotkin felt that a revolution was inevitable and imminent, and Anarchist-Communism would be the result. The bulk of the book consists of Kropotkin outlining how that future society would function to create a classless utopia.

What exactly is Anarchist-Communism? Kropotkin states that “Anarchy leads to Communism, and Communism to Anarchy,” because both are driven by the pursuit for equality. The difference is that Kropotkin would have never condoned the authoritarian bureaucracy of the Soviets. Rather, he advocates abolishing centralized government in favor of a government by free agreement. He cites as an example how multiple companies established a continent-wide network of railways without any overarching governing body such as a ministry of railroads. Kropotkin’s anarchy seems like a wise solution for many industrial and agricultural problems, but it’s hard to comprehend how it might work for every function of government. Like many utopian socialists, Kropotkin downplays the need for such institutions as law enforcement and the military by refusing to account for the lazy, the stupid, the selfish, and the evil in humanity.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of sense in much of what Kropotkin has to say. Most governments have become more socialistic and labor-friendly since the late nineteenth century (e.g. the eight-hour work day, no more child labor, public education, social security), which would please Kropotkin, but his Communist utopia still hasn’t materialized, and income equality and poverty still run rampant even in “first-world” nations. Kropotkin has some insightful things to say about the industrial revolution, decentralization of industry, and the beginnings of globalism. As a historical document, the book provides insight into radical movements of the past. For what did Sacco and Vanzetti die? For what was Archduke Franz Ferdinand assassinated? Reading The Conquest of Bread sheds light on these historical events and the history of labor in general.

One problem with Communism is that no one can seem to agree how it should be implemented, and that’s evident here as Kropotkin picks apart the dogma of other Communist and Socialist sects. (The Capitalists don’t seem to have the same troublesome disagreements over free-market enterprise.) The Conquest of Bread will leave left-leaning readers with a melancholy for what might have been in a perfect world, but there’s still a lot to learn here. Kropotkin’s great Anarchist-Communist revolution is unlikely to happen soon, if ever, but there may still be some seeds of reform here that have yet to sprout.
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Monday, October 24, 2022

Essential Daredevil Volume 2 by Stan Lee and Gene Colan

Gene the Dean gives great art, but Stan the Man’s writing is poor
Marvel’s paperback Essential series features reprints of their classic comics in black and white on newsprint paper. The lack of color is made up for by the fact that you get at least two dozen issues of continuity in one volume. Essential Daredevil Volume 2 reprints Daredevil issues 26 to 48, plus Daredevil Special #1, a “giant-sized” issue. These comics were originally published from March 1967 to January 1969. All these issues were written by Stan Lee and drawn by Gene Colan. The volume also includes one crossover issue of the Fantastic Four written by Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby.

While Kirby was Marvel’s heavy lifter throughout their Silver Age, Colan carved out a name for himself as the artist of the Daredevil title for most of its run up until Frank Miller took over in 1979 with issue #158. Colan was a consummate anatomist along the lines of Neal Adams. In his hands, every Daredevil fight scene looks like a well-choreographed ballet, if shot by a director of film noir. Colan’s art is exceptional throughout this volume and greatly exceeds the quality of Lee’s writing, which really isn’t very good here. Through these 24 issues, one can see Colan’s personal style develop to become more innovative and expressive over time. His art would continue to evolve further as the Daredevil title progressed, making him one of the most impressive and expressive Marvel artists of the ‘70s.

Unfortunately, Lee’s writing is not up to the same level. With the exception of perhaps the last few issues in this volume, Lee just doesn’t seem to know what to do with Daredevil. What was great about Marvel’s Silver Age is that every comic had its own unique atmospheric niche. Fantastic Four was the amazing sci-fi comic, Dr. Strange was the mystical fantasy comic, X-Men was the mod teenage comic, etc. Daredevil, on the other hand, seemed to have trouble finding a personality. Ostensibly he’s an urban vigilante, like Batman, but there’s no sense of darkness to these early issues. Lee just gives DD the same wise-cracking personality as Spider-Man. Because of Matt Murdock’s love affairs, there was also often a soap opera element to the Daredevil title that called to mind the romance comic genre. For the most part, however, the stories are just fights, which thankfully look beautiful under Colan’s pencil. Daredevil wins by kicks and punches, and rarely uses his wits. Lee also gives DD the most absurd secret identity since Clark Kent when blind lawyer Matt Murdock pretends to be his own identical twin, non-blind blowhard Mike Murdock.

The Daredevil of these issues is a second-tier hero badly in need of a decent villain. At this time, Bullseye and the Hand hadn’t been invented yet, and the Kingpin was still a Spider-Man villain. What the reader gets instead is a slew of unpowered bad guys dressed in silly super suits: Stilt Man, Leap Frog, Gladiator, Cobra, Matador, the Masked Marauder. Appearances by Dr. Doom are refreshing but incongruent. Other than that, the only really interesting baddies are the Ani-Men and the Jester.

Judging from this volume, the early run of the Daredevil title was not one of Marvel’s better offerings of the 1960s. Fans of Colan’s art, however, will enjoy this volume. As is often the case with these Essential volumes, however, the reproduction quality of the art is not always great.

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