Friday, January 21, 2022

Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec



A 10-story building reveals a 99-story narrative tapestry
Life: A User’s Manual,
a novel by Georges Perec, was originally published in 1978 under the French title of La Vie mode d’emploi. This remarkable book presents a minutely detailed portrait of a fictional ten-story apartment building in Paris and its scores of inhabitants. A melting pot of classes, nationalities, and occupations, the population of this apartment block yields a bountiful harvest of fascinating narratives, each of which is worthy of a novel of its own. As an intertwined whole, they form a sort of Balzacian tapestry of twentieth century Paris.


Perec was one of the founders of the Oulipo movement in literature. To experiment with form and structure, the writers of this French-based literary school applied mathematical and linguistic limitations on their writing. For example, Perec once wrote an entire 300 page novel without using the letter “e” (A Void, published in 1969). Though seemingly a hindrance, such self-imposed restrictions were intended to inspire creativity, much like how some surrealist artists used blindfolded drawings as the basis for their paintings. The mathematical constraints used by Perec in the writing of Life: A User’s Manual are too complicated to explain here (Google it if you want to be confused). The remarkable thing about his writing, however, is that the restrictive rules are unnoticeable in the text, which simply reads like a great work of literature.

Rather than a novel, Life: A User’s Manual almost resembles a scenario written for a role-playing game. A map of the imaginary building is provided. When one enters a room, all the various furnishings are described, right down to every last object on the tables, shelves, and walls. Rather than the treasure chests and magical trappings of Dungeons & Dragons, however, the rooms of Perec’s apartment building are furnished with books, postcards, objets d’art, decorative prints, occupational paraphernalia, and miscellaneous ephemera, all intricately described to the last detail. Like Umberto Eco, Perec has a penchant for extensive lists, whether it be the contents of a refrigerator, the items in a shop window, or the artifacts in an archives. Crafted in such exquisite verbal detail, the ten-story apartment building at 11 rue Simon-Crubellier becomes the ultimate life-sized dollhouse.

The building’s inhabitants are revealed in a similar level of elaborate detail. The people one meets in this building are defined by their pasts. Though the main narrative of the novel takes place in the present of 1975, all the action occurs in flashbacks, as if the building were now frozen in time. One meets not only the present occupants of the building’s many rooms but also its past denizens as well, as if the story of each room were more important than the lives that took place there. But oh, the lives! Perec comes up with incredibly inventive biographies for the dozens of characters in the book, each more fascinating than the next. The 99 brief and varied chapters amount to a sort of modern Canterbury Tales. The stories are even indexed in the back of the book, with such entries as “The Tale of the Acrobat who did not want to get off his trapeze ever again” or “The Tale of the Neurasthenic Lawyer who settled in Indonesia.”

Life: A User’s Manual is the best work of fiction I’ve read in a long time, and I would count it among my ten favorite novels of the second half of the 20th century. Normally I’m not interested in the literary gimmicks and gameplay of modern and postmodern literature, but if this is an indication of the results of the Oulipo group’s experimentation, I look forward to reading more works by Perec and his colleagues.
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Monday, January 17, 2022

The Stars and Planets of Frank Herbert’s Dune: A Gazetteer by Joseph M. Daniels



Astronomical appendix for diehard fans only
Images from the movie Dune (1984)

Atypical of this blog, today’s review is not about a book but rather about an article. The Stars and Planets of Frank Herbert’s Dune was written by Joseph M. Daniels, about whom I know nothing, and published in 1999. I know not where this paper was originally published, perhaps in some fan-fiction zine, but the 44-page essay can be found online. In this article, Daniels tries to nail down the actual stars that might correspond to the fictional stars and planets mentioned in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune and its sequels. To accomplish this, Daniels relies on evidence quoted from Herbert’s six Dune novels, as well as from the non-canonical Dune Encyclopedia compiled by Dr. Willis McNelly and published in 1984.

The Star Trek television and movie universe mostly populated its United Federation of Planets with worlds revolving around real-life stars in our galaxy. Spock’s homeworld Vulcan, for example, orbits 40 Eridani A. On the other hand, the Star Wars universe, as far as I know, uses entirely made-up planets and stars. The Dune universe falls somewhere in between these two extremes, with a combination of both real and imaginary celestial bodies. Author Frank Herbert makes it clear in the first novel that Arrakis, the planet nicknamed Dune, revolves around the star Canopus, also known as Alpha Carinae. For other major recurring planets in the Dune saga, Herbert only hints at the stars they might orbit. Daniels’s mission is to turn these hints into conclusions, and he goes to great lengths to do so.


Unlike Star Trek, Herbert often changed the names of stars, assuming that tens of thousands of years in the future they might go by different appellations. In some cases it is pretty easy to decode the stellar references. For instance, it is a pretty safe bet that the repeatedly mentioned planet Bela Tegeuse likely has a relationship to the star we know as Betelgeuse. Most of Herbert’s star names, however, are more obscure than this. Thus, Daniel’s analysis of Herbert’s fictional planets is less about astronomy than one would expect, and more about linguistics. Daniels traces references to Latin, ancient Greek, Arabic, Persian, and Indian languages. In doing so, he reveals some complex relationships between the cultures of Dune and real Old Earth history. The inhabitants of the multiplanetary Dune universe, remember, are our descendants tens of thousands of years in the future. One of the most important events in Dune history is the Zensunni Wanderings, by which earthlings migrated for thousands of years from planet to planet, eventually becoming the Fremen of Arrakis. As Daniels traces this path of migration, he draws attention to the many references to Arabic and Muslim culture that Herbert snuck into the Dune books.


Some of Daniels’s planetary revelations are commendably well-founded on textual evidence, but many come across as mere educated speculation. Herbert himself was deceased by the time this was published, so he couldn’t comment on the subject. What Daniels does well, however, is compile a sort of concordance of astronomical shout-outs from the Dune texts. There is a whole list of planets briefly mentioned that are purely fictional, but Daniels reminds you of what happened there and why they were mentioned. If you are a big fan of the Dune books like I am, then it is good fun to relive Herbert’s fictional universe through this approach. One gains an even greater admiration for the thought and detail he put into his imagined worlds. Daniels’s rather obsessively detailed prose, however, will only appeal to the most diehard Dune fans. Those who haven’t read the Dune Encyclopedia will have trouble following his reasoning at times.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren



Entertaining kaleidoscope of linguistic history and diversity
Gaston Dorren is a Dutch author who has written and published works both in his native language and in English. Fluent in several languages and able to read several others, Dorren certainly demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of many languages in his book Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages. Published in America in 2015, Lingo is based on a book Dorren previously published in Dutch entitled Taaltoerisme. The American edition, however, reads as if it were expressly written for an English-language audience, not just because of Dorren’s English fluency but also because he constantly makes comparisons between the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of English and that of other European languages. Though he is an accomplished polyglot, it is unclear to me whether Dorren has had any formal education in linguistics. If not, that may be a good thing, because were he an academic he might not write such entertaining prose for the general reader.


As the subtitle indicates, Lingo is comprised of sixty chapters, each of which typically examines a different language. That structure is not strictly adhered to, however, because often several languages will be discussed in a single chapter. Dorren goes well beyond the familiar national languages to cover some of the lesser-known regional tongues of Europe such as Breton, Sami, Manx, Gagauz, and Faroese. The chapters are divided among nine thematic sections that focus on, for example, languages with interesting historical pedigrees, languages with unusual grammar, alphabets, or spelling conventions, or languages that are endangered. Dorren reveals much fascinating detail on the history of languages, how they developed from their prehistoric progenitors, and how they have been influenced by politics in ancient and modern times. The book also delves into the mechanics of languages, pointing out similarities and highlighting structural anomalies, such as the convoluted spellings of Welsh, the confusing cases of Romani, the uncommon ergativity of Basque, the baffling genders of Dutch, and the cumbersome peculiarities of English.

Reading Lingo will not help you become fluent in a foreign language, but it will certainly kindle your enthusiasm for linguistic study. If you are already interested in learning foreign languages, then you will definitely enjoy all the arcane trivia that Dorren presents on the languages of Europe. It is really quite amazing how he can take such technical subject matter and generate prose that is not only intelligent and articulate but also lively and fun. If you happen to be studying any European languages, you might pick up a useful skill or an aid to understanding along the way. I know nothing about Russian, for example, but Dorren’s brief primer on the reading of Cyrillic was an enlightening introduction that renders the exotic alphabet less intimidating. This book’s brief linguistic vignettes explain the quirky learning hurdles in many languages while simultaneously demystifying them.

As an avid self-educated language dilettante, I wish there were more books like this—comparative linguistics for the culturally curious general reader and traveler. Dorren followed up Lingo with Babel, published in 2019. This latter book examines the world’s twenty most popular languages, including Asian and African languages. No doubt it will showcase more of Dorren’s comprehensive insight into the idiosyncrasies of planet Earth’s many tongues. After thoroughly enjoying Lingo, I look forward to reading it.
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Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman



Insightful reflections on the ancient philosophy of life
The philosophical school of Stoicism may have been born in the 3rd century BC, but it has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. In modern times, Stoicism served as the basis for cognitive behavioral therapy, a psychotherapeutic technique used to treat depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and other mental maladies. Many contemporary would-be Stoics, however, prefer to bypass CBT entirely and go straight to the source for their life-coaching by using the writings of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome as the basis for a guide to living. With all the Stoic self-help books published in recent years, it was only a matter of time before one utilized the “daily affirmations” format. Such is the strategy of The Daily Stoic, published in 2016. The book was written by Ryan Holiday, a former PR man and marketing director, and Stephen Hanselman, a publisher and literary agent with a master’s degree in philosophy.

As the title of the book indicates, The Daily Stoic delivers 366 mini-lessons in Stoicism, dated January 1st through December 31st. These daily entries are divided into months, each revolving around a different theme, such as “Passions and Emotions,” “Duty,” “Fortitude and Resilience,” and “Virtue and Kindness.” Each daily lesson begins with a quotation from an ancient Stoic—most commonly Epictetus, Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius, but the authors also include selections from less familiar Stoics like Musonius Rufus, Cleanthes, and Zeno (the latter quoted from Diogenes Laertius’s Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers). Holiday and Hanselman then provide a page or two of elaboration on the quote and how it applies to the problems of modern life.

Overall these daily Stoic meditations are really quite well-written. The authors are adept at taking ancient Stoic concepts and translating them into plain English without dumbing-down the philosophical content. Holiday and Hanselman certainly know their stuff and write about Stoicism knowledgably and intelligently. They often use examples from history or current events to illustrate the points made in the ancient quotes, which keeps the text interesting and relevant to 21st century readers. If you have already looked into Stoicism, chances are you’ve probably already read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or the Discourses of Epictetus, but this book will help you see those texts in a new way. Occasionally, the lectures sometimes veer into what one might call “self-help shaming,” implying that if you’re not living your life to the fullest, then your life is a waste. Such instances read more like a 21st-century conceit than what the Stoics had in mind when they promised a life of tranquility. Overall, however, I found the book quite insightful and useful.

Though I believe in Stoicism and its benefits for mental and emotional health, I did not diligently stick to the lesson-a-day schedule the book prescribes. Sometimes I got bored with The Daily Stoic and let several days go by without picking it up; sometimes I would enthusiastically devour half a month’s worth of entries in one sitting. This is not the best book I’ve read on Stoicism (William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life is hard to beat), but it is better than most. If you are serious about Stoicism, these daily contemplations on Stoic thought can be a useful tool to augment your studies. Having just finished the book with the end of the calendar year, I’ll probably just go back to the beginning and read it all over again.
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Monday, January 10, 2022

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799–1804, Volume 3 by Alexander von Humboldt



Even less “personal” than the first two volumes
Alexander von Humboldt
From 1799 to 1804, Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt explored the Americas, gathering multiple volumes worth of geographic and scientific data on the New World’s natural wonders, political systems, and Indigenous cultures. In addition to the scientific texts he published, Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America was to be his chronological first-person account of the journey. In the original French this account occupied seven volumes, the last of which was published in 1829. In English translation, the Personal Narrative was consolidated into three volumes. Volume 1 chronicles the transatlantic voyage of Humboldt and his traveling companion, French botanist Aimé Bonpland, as well as their initial explorations in Venezuela, which are continued in Volume 2. Volume 3 begins in Venezuela before making a side trip to Cuba. In this last installment, Humboldt once again bombards the reader with much fascinating detail, but the third book is not quite as enjoyable a read as the first two volumes.

What’s disappointing about Volume 3 is that it is less of a travelogue and more of a series of essays comprised of after-the-fact research. There are very few first-person instances of “We went here, where we saw this,” and they all occur in the first couple chapters. The centerpiece of this volume is Humboldt’s “Political Essay on the Island of Cuba.” The chapter covers much more than politics, however, as Humboldt describes all geographical aspects of the island nation from topography and meteorology to agriculture, commerce, and ethnography. This is followed by a chapter on “Cuba and the Slave Trade,” in which Humboldt proposes a plan for phasing out slavery on the island. Don’t expect too much inspirational abolitionist rhetoric, however. Most of this chapter reads like a string of statistics on agricultural production, imports, and exports.


The final third of the book is devoted to Humboldt’s “Geognostic Description of South America,” which is basically a detailed catalog of all the mountains, valleys, and plains not only in South America but North America as well. (Humboldt sees the Rocky Mountains, up to Alaska, as an extension of the Andes.) The entirety of this extensive section consists of Humboldt rattling off topographic information that would have been better conveyed by a physical map of the Americas and perhaps some charts or elevation diagrams. Of course, maps were more difficult and expensive to produce and reproduce in those days, so instead the reader gets page after page of prose in which Humboldt names off geographic features and their directional relationship to one another. The explorer’s comprehensive knowledge is admirable, but the text is mind-numbing.


The most egregious fault of the Personal Narrative is its incompleteness. The multi-volume account only covers Humboldt and Bonpland’s travels in Venezuela and Cuba, not their time spent in Colombia, Ecuador, or Mexico (though the latter nation is discussed in Humboldt’s Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain). In three lengthy tomes, Humboldt only manages to recount less than half his time spent in the Americas. Nevertheless, Humboldt’s monumental journey was admirably adventurous and yielded a mother lode of valuable scientific information. Any account he left behind is welcome, and those with an interest in the history of science or with fantasies of exotic exploration will experience many vicarious thrills of discovery.

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Friday, January 7, 2022

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote



True crime masterpiece of murder on the Kansas prairie
Although I have lived in Kansas for roughly half my life, this is the first time I’ve read In Cold Blood, the book by Truman Capote that figures prominently in the literary history of my adopted home state. Capote conducted extensive research and interviews in the Sunflower State during the writing of this book about the murders of the Clutter family in the small rural Western Kansas town of Holcomb, near Garden City. In Cold Blood has been described as a “non-fiction novel,” which sounds like an oxymoron. Nowadays we would recognize this format as the prototype for the same sort of investigative journalism that comprises the books of John Krakauer or Sebastian Junger. There isn’t enough fiction in the book to qualify it as a historical novel, but Capote does include fictionalized conversations and occurrences at which he couldn’t possibly have been present nor gleaned verbatim from interviews.


In the early morning hours of November 15, 1959, Holcomb farmer Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their two teenaged children Nancy and Kenyon were tied up and brutally murdered in their home. To Kansas law enforcement officers, there was no apparent motive for the crime and no leads as to the identity of the killer or killers. Capote’s account, however, reveals early on that the perpetrators were two drifter ex-cons, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. As he gradually reveals the how and why behind the shocking crimes, Capote alternates back and forth from the perspective of Hickok and Smith to the townspeople of Holcomb and the detectives of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Capote goes beyond the murders to detail the manhunt, apprehension, interrogation, trial, and sentencing of the murderers and the effect of the crime on the lives of Holcomb’s citizenry.

Capote’s treatment of the subject is insightful, disturbing, poignant, and dare I say, entertaining. There isn’t a dull moment in the entire book as the reader becomes intimately involved in the lives of the victims, predators, and the surrounding community. For a big-city writer, Capote’s depiction of small-town Kansas is respectfully realistic. There is a touch of country-bumpkin hokum in the lives of Holcomb, but overall the Kansans come across as honest, competent working folk with a strong sense of communal concern and generosity. The KBI detectives are admirably tenacious and clever in their investigation. Capote also examines the upbringings and motives of the killers, revealing intriguing psychological facets that transcend two-dimensional stereotypes.

Capote’s take on the trial leads one to believe that he is against capital punishment, but he isn’t preachy about it. At the time, the method of execution in Kansas was hanging, and the author isn’t shy about detailing the barbaric details particular to that sentence. Capote consciously strives to make the reader sympathize with the killers as well as their victims. This is not done with the intention of excusing their crimes, however, but rather to illustrate that inside every monster is a man who somewhere went wrong. The humanity with which Capote portrays Hickok and Smith doesn’t make you like them, but it does make you more engaged in their stories. Ultimately, the book raises questions about the philosophical definitions of sanity and responsibility. To what degree are we as humans culpable for our actions, as opposed to what’s predetermined by nature and nurture? The chilling senselessness of the Clutter murders is a reminder of the indiscriminate arbitrarity of fate and the fleeting fragility of human life. Through Capote’s brilliant literary lens, this tragic story of a seemingly random family in Kansas becomes an indelible emotional experience that will haunt the reader for life.
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Thursday, January 6, 2022

Ten Years of Old Books by Dead Guys

Recapping the first decade
The Old Books by Dead Guys blog turns ten years old today! The first post back on January 6, 2011 was a review of Emile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin. One decade and 1,181 blog posts later we’ve reviewed Zola’s complete works, as well as the complete works of Jack London, Frank Norris, and a few others, while continuing to chip away at the extensive oeuvres of many other classic writers, including the usual suspects listed below. Here is a nutshell recap of the highlights from ten years of active and curious reading.

Most Reviewed Authors
Writers with the most blog posts devoted to books by or about them.

  
Pictured: Simak (6th), Sinclair (7th), Simenon (9th)

1. Jack London (80 reviews)
Best books include The Iron HeelThe Call of the WildMartin EdenBefore AdamThe Faith of MenMoon-FaceThe RoadJohn Barleycorn. The best biographies of London are Earle Labor’s Jack London: An American Life and Irving Stone’s Sailor on Horseback. The most viewed blog post at Old Books by Dead Guys, by far, is my list of The Best Short Stories of Jack London.

2. Emile Zola (54 reviews)

Best books include GerminalLa TerrePot-BouilleThe DebacleL’AssomoirParisThe Death of Olivier BecailleThe Flood. Frederic Brown’s comprehensive biography Zola: A Life is also a good read.

3. Honoré de Balzac (39 reviews)

Best books include Père GoriotCousin BetteLost IllusionsEugénie GrandetThe Hidden MasterpieceFarewellalso the biography Honoré de Balzac: His Life and Writings by Mary Frances Sandars.

4 (tie). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (33 reviews)
Best books include The Adventures of Sherlock HolmesA Study in ScarletThe Hound of the BaskervillesThe Great ShadowThe Captain of the PolestarThe Doings of Raffles Haw.

4 (tie). H. Beam Piper (33 reviews)

Best books include Police OperationGenesisFlight from TomorrowThe Edge of the KnifeLittle FuzzyFind them all in The H. Beam Piper Megapack.

6. Clifford D. Simak (30 reviews)
Best books include Way StationCityMastodonia, and the excellent series The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak.


7. Upton Sinclair (28 reviews)
Best books include The Jungle100%: The Story of a Patriot, and the Lanny Budd series.

8. Frank Norris (22 reviews)
Best books include The OctopusMcTeagueThe Third CircleThe PitMoran of the Lady Letty. Read the post Frank Norris: An Overview for more info.

9. Georges Simenon (21 reviews)
Best books include Dirty SnowTropic Moonand the Inspector Maigret mysteries The Late Monsieur GalletA Man’s HeadThe Night at the CrossroadsMaigret and the FortunetellerMaigret and the Killer.

10 (tie). Pearl S. Buck (17 reviews)
Best books include The Good EarthSonsA House DividedDragon SeedThe PromiseCommand the Morning.

10 (tie). Henryk Sienkiewicz (17 reviews)

Best books include With Fire and SwordThe DelugePan MichaelQuo VadisOf related interest: The Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin (Sienkiewicz’s English translator).

12. Jack Kirby (15 reviews)
Kirby is known for his art more than his writing, but as one of Marvel Comics’ pioneering creators he did both. Some of his best work can be found in Essential Fantastic Four, Volume 1 and Essential Captain America, Volume 5. Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King of Comics is a great biography and retrospective of his art.

13 (tie). Hermann Hesse (14 reviews)
Best books include SteppenwolfSiddharthaNarcissus and GoldmundGertrudeKnulp. My post The Fiction of Hermann Hesse gives an overview of his career.

13 (tie). Frank Herbert (14 reviews)
Best books include Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God Emperor of Dune. If you get that far you might as well read Heretics of Dune, Chapterhouse: Dune, and The Dune Encyclopedia. His best non-Dune book that I’ve encountered is Soul Catcher.

13 (tie). Alexander von Humboldt (14 reviews)
The best books about Humboldt are The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf and The Passage to Cosmos by Laura Dassow Walls. Books written by Humboldt include Views of Nature and his three-volume Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804.

  
Pictured: Kirby (12th), Herbert (13th), Humboldt (13th)

Most Reviewed Nations
While American, French, and English literature lead the pack as far as books reviewed, Old Books by Dead Guys likes to explore books of many nations. Below are the most frequently visited literary destinations.

1. American (568 reviews) 🇺🇸
Jack LondonFrank NorrisUpton SinclairJames Fenimore CooperKatherine Anne PorterJohn Steinbeck

2. French (187 reviews) 🇫🇷
Emile ZolaHonoré de BalzacAlexandre DumasVictor HugoJules Verne

3. English (162 reviews) 🇬🇧
H.G. WellsCharles DarwinJoseph ConradBertrand Russell; also includes the Scottish authors (below)

4. German (49 reviews) 🇩🇪
Hermann HessePaul HeyseKarl MarxAlexander von HumboldtErnst Haeckel

5. Scottish (44 reviews) 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

Sir Arthur Conan DoyleSir Walter ScottRobert Louis Stevenson

6. Canadian (42 reviews) 🇨🇦
Margaret AtwoodHarold BindlossBrian MooreMazo de la RocheGrant AllenHugh MacLennan, and art books featuring Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven 

7. Polish (39 reviews) 🇵🇱

Henryk SienkiewiczWladyslaw ReymontBoleslaw PrusAdam Mickiewicz

8. Mexican (29 reviews) 🇲🇽
Juan RulfoMariano AzuelaCarlos Fuentes, artists Diego Rivera and Leopoldo Mendéz

9. Belgian (25 reviews) 🇧🇪
Georges SimenonMaurice Maeterlinck

10. Chinese (24 reviews) 🇨🇳
Pearl S. Buck (American raised in China), ConfuciusLu XunMo Yan, and some Chinese-language textbooks

11. Russian (23 reviews) 🇷🇺
Leo TolstoyIvan TurgenevBoris PasternakMikhail Sholokhov

12. Norwegian (18 reviews) 🇳🇴
Knut HamsunBjørnstjerne BjørnsonAlexander KiellandThor Heyerdahl


13. Swedish (12 reviews) 🇸🇪
Selma LagerlöfFrans G. Bengtsson
Werner von Heidenstam, August Strindberg

14 (tie). Danish (10 reviews) 🇩🇰, Greek (10 reviews) 🇬🇷, Italian (10 reviews) 🇮🇹


Top Ten Most Reviewed Genres and Subjects
These categories of subject, format, genre, and/or chronology are the most tagged among OBDG’s 1,181 reviews. Some books fit into more than one category.

1. Classic Literature (697 reviews)

2. Modern Literature  (331 reviews)

3. Adventure (247 reviews)

4. Science Fiction (205 reviews)

5. Short Stories (200 reviews)


6. Biography (152 reviews)

7. Nobel Prize (150 reviews) See the complete list of Nobel reviews here.

8. Pulp Fiction (141 reviews)


9. History (129 reviews)

10. Recent books (120 reviews)


Best Omnibus Posts
Occasionally Old Books by Dead Guys publishes a post that doesn’t focus on a single book, but rather explores a particular author, topic, or theme. 

100 Five-Star Books

The Rougon-Macquart Cycle by Émile Zola

The Best Short Stories of Jack London

The Novels of Jack London

Jack London’s Nonfiction

Frank Norris: An Overview



Here’s to another 10 years! Keep on reading Old Books by Dead Guys!

Monday, January 3, 2022

This Proud Heart by Pearl S. Buck



Aspiring sculptress seeks work-life balance in 1930s America
I’ve read about 15 of Pearl S. Buck’s books and consider myself a fan, but with some reservations. Buck won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature, but not all of her books are award-worthy. This Proud Heart is one of her earlier but lesser-known works. It was originally serialized in issues of Good Housekeeping magazine from 1937 to 1938 before being published in book form.

Buck is best known for writing historical fiction, particularly set in Asia, and her novels often admirably address social issues like racism, human rights, and child welfare. This Proud Heart, however, is set in Buck’s present day of the 1930s, and the protagonist is a middle-class American woman. The issue at hand this time is feminism, more specifically a woman’s right to work. Though written prior to the World War II explosion of women into the workplace, This Proud Heart is an early take on the woman who wants to “have it all”—work, family, love, romance, success, and self-actualization. Unfortunately, the 1930s were still pretty early for such a feminist aspiration, and the only way Buck seems to be able to express the concept is through the medium of what reads like a romance novel, and a rather simplistic and dreary one at that.

Susan Gaylord is an intelligent young woman who seems to stand out as exceptional in everything she does. She sticks out like a sore thumb in her small hometown (somewhere in the northeastern U.S.) and doesn’t quite fit in with the other ladies in her social circle. The biggest dream of her young life is to marry her sweetheart Mark, which she accomplishes in the first chapter, yet she’s far too remarkable to be limited by the standard housewife role of the 1930s. Susan has artistic talent and dreams of becoming a professional sculptor. She self-censors those dreams, however, so as not to threaten her happy home life by intimidating or inconveniencing her devoted but insecure husband.

The most disappointing aspect of This Proud Heart is that for a novel about an artist, Buck really doesn’t demonstrate that she knows anything about art. I don’t believe a single actual sculptor is mentioned by name in the entire book; only the Venus de Milo is namechecked once. Very little technical or aesthetic detail is given to the discussion of Susan’s artistic education. In fact, Buck seems to think that an artist born with a “gift” is capable of generating masterpieces at will without much education or sustained hard work. As a character, Susan is obviously a surrogate for Buck herself and her own experiences with marriage, but Buck’s genius is literature, not art. As the story of an artist’s life and career, This Proud Heart never feels authentic enough to be believed or even interesting.

On the subject of marriage, family, and women’s rights, however, the novel does make some valid points. Mostly it succeeds at pointing out the way marriage sucks, in that it hinders the individual’s ability to reach her full, unbridled potential—a fact certainly true for most American women 85 years ago. A recurring fault in some of Buck’s less successful novels is that in order to showcase strong women she resorts to pairing them with weak men. Susan’s first love interest is practically an emotional and intellectual child, and her second is a creepy chauvinist who makes you dislike her for loving him. This Proud Heart offers a few moments when you really root for Susan, but mostly you’re just annoyed by her and bored with her troubles. Buck’s intentions may have been ahead of her time, but this story comes across too tame, hesitant, and old-fashioned to engage most readers of today.
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