Monday, February 21, 2022

Dictionary of Discoveries by I. A. Langnas

Who’s Who of world exploration
Dictionary of Discoveries
, originally published in 1959, would be more accurately titled Encyclopedia of Discoverers. Author I. A. Langnas (of whom there is little information to be found) has compiled a commendable reference volume chock full of details on history’s greatest explorers, pioneers, cartographers, and conquistadors, from the famous to the obscure. Arranged in alphabetical order, the book is a series of brief biographical sketches on hundreds of historic personages that highlights their areas of exploration and major achievements. Of course, nowadays one can find more information about any of these individuals by looking them up in Wikipedia, but you can’t search for someone you’ve never heard of, which is where this book comes in handy. It is not only a review of the A-list explorers you heard about in elementary school but also introduces the reader to many unfamiliar or forgotten figures. For those who enjoy reading narratives and memoirs of exploration, this book provides a lot of fascinating facts and suggests many avenues for further reading.

The men (and four women) that Langnas profiles in this book run the chronological gamut from the first recorded ancient explorer (Sargon of Akkad, circa 2800 BC) to those active at the time of publication, such as Jacques Cousteau (pioneering undersea explorer) or Leonid Sedov (leader of the team that developed Sputnik). As one might expect, since the Western history of exploration tends to be the history of “the first white guy to go here,” the bulk of the book is populated by Europeans. Langnas, however, does demonstrate a surprising diligence in chronicling adventurers of other cultures as well, including numerous Arab, Jewish, Chinese, and Indian explorers. The discovery of New Zealand, for example, is credited to both the Polynesian traveler Toi-Kai-Rakan (about 1150) and the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman (1640s). When applicable, Langnas does not shy away from mentioning the unheroic aspects of his selections, including cruelties toward the Indigenous.

If you’ve ever wondered who was the first to circumnavigate the Earth (Juan Sebastian Elcano, after Magellan died en route), who discovered Easter Island (Jacob Roggeveen), or who discovered the pygmy hippopotamus (Hans Schomburgh), this is the book for you. For most of the explorers, place of birth and cause of death are provided. The latter category is a continual source of interest, as many explorers were killed by the Natives upon whose lands they intruded, murdered by their fellow conquistadors, or executed for political reasons when they returned home. Unusual ends are often pithily described in blunt detail: e.g. “A mutiny left him a corpse with 49 bullets” (Cornelis Van Aerssen); “Xerxes had him impaled” (Sataspes). Another valuable piece of information Langnas provides is whether the explorer published a narrative of their journey, allowing interested readers to follow up on the book in question. Although the brief sketches in the Dictionary of Discoveries are not comprehensive biographies, they provide just enough information to decide whether you want to learn more about these historic figures and their expeditions.

The book is not free of errors, and much has been learned in the last six decades, so it’s unlikely anyone would cite this book as a reference in a scholarly paper. For the general reader and armchair explorer, however, this is an enjoyable read that reveals many fascinating facts. As one who enjoys reading explorers’ accounts, this book introduced me to many unsung adventurers and generated enough interest to make me want to seek out more information about them.
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Friday, February 18, 2022

Mardi by Herman Melville

Protracted Pacific allegory
Nowadays Herman Melville is best known as the author of Moby-Dick, but in his lifetime he was popularly known as the writer of Typee and Omoo. These two books, adventure memoirs of Melville’s own travels to islands in the South Pacific, established him as a successful author. Melville had higher literary aspirations, however. With his third book he decided to turn away from nonfiction and become a novelist. The result, his 1849 novel Mardi, was poorly received by the critics of his day and is still regarded as one of his least successful efforts.

At first, Mardi seems like just another variation on the plots of Typee and Omoo. The narrator is a crew member on a whaling ship plying the tropics of the Pacific Ocean. Unable to find a profitable population of whales in equatorial regions, the captain decides to head North to the Arctic. Such a journey is not what the narrator signed on for, so he decides to jump ship, accompanied by his new friend, a brawny Nordic fellow named Jarl. After escaping in a small boat, the two figure that if they continue to head West they will eventually run into some tropical islands. The journey is more arduous and protracted then expected. In fact, a quarter of the entire novel is occupied with their wayward drifting before the pair ever reach land. Along the way they encounter a few other characters, but just as the reader starts to get involved with them, Melville pretty much abandons their story line and takes the book in an entirely different direction.

The castaways finally reach an island, where they receive a friendly welcome from the Natives. This island is one of many forming an archipelago the local inhabitants call Mardi. The narrator is given an island name, Taji, and welcomed among the ranks of island kings. Along the way he has found a love interest, named Yillah. Inexplicably, she’s a white woman, probably because the audience of Melville’s day would not have tolerated an interracial romance. One day Yillah disappears, and Taji ventures to the neighboring islands in search of her. This plot development, however, is simply an excuse to send Taji on a Gulliver’s Travels-esque tour of the islands, though the inhabitants of Mardi are not as fantastical as those Gulliver encountered. Rather, Melville uses the various islands to demonstrate various political systems, philosophical beliefs, or moral lessons. One island, for example, is a blatant surrogate for the Confederate States of America. Other islands illustrate the pros and cons of monarchy versus democracy or different denominations of faith. Taji is accompanied on his journey by a handful of local monarchs. At every stop the group engages in spirited philosophical debates reminiscent of Plato’s dialogues.

The text is thick with references to ancient history, classical mythology, and classic literature, all used as metaphors to describe the islanders. Melville also writes in a code of tropical lingo with which the reader must gradually become accustomed. The word “Mardi” is used as a synonym for the world, “Oro” is God, Alma is the name of a Christlike prophet, and so on. Mardi is loaded with beautifully poetic passages of writing, as well as some truly profound thoughts. Each chapter on its own could be studied and quoted for pearls of wisdom, but the cumulative effect of the 195 chapters in total is somewhat of a jumbled mess. Melville just tries to do too much with this novel when he should have spread all these ideas over the course of three or four books. Melville scholars probably love Mardi, because they can no doubt find much insight into the author’s personal philosophy and political views. Most other readers, however, will find Mardi overwhelmingly long, glacially paced, and narratively disappointing.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Through the Magic Door by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A contagious enthusiasum for classic books
Although Arthur Conan Doyle is primarily known as an author of fiction, he also wrote a couple dozen nonfiction books, most of them about military history or his beliefs in spiritualism and the supernatural. He wrote one book of essays, however, that will appeal particularly to fans of his novels and short stories. That book is Through the Magic Door, published in 1907. Though the title may sound like a children’s fantasy novel, the “door” in question is actually the entrance to Conan Doyle’s personal library. The esteemed author invites the reader into his inner sanctum and introduces him to the most treasured volumes on his library’s shelves.

Unlike a typical work of literary criticism, Through the Magic Door is not only educational but also surprisingly lively and entertaining. Conan Doyle injects witty personal anecdotes into the discussion and occasionally goes off on tangents that are relevant enough to be quite interesting. In addition to a list of Conan Doyle’s favorite books, the reader comes away with an inside glimpse of how those works have influenced the author’s writing career.

Many of the writers covered here are to be expected. Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, both clearly influences on Conan Doyle’s work, are each given their due consideration. Other chapters are devoted to the usual suspects of the English canon. Thomas Macaulay’s essays, James Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson, the diary of Samuel Pepys, and Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire are classics that couldn’t go unmentioned in the literary memoir of a 19th-century English gentleman. In addition, however, Conan Doyle brings up some personal choices that are more unfamiliar, at least to the American reader. For instance, he pronounces The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade the greatest historical novel in the English language. (Scott’s Ivanhoe has to settle for second place.) He also extols the merits of George Borrow and George Meredith, the latter of whose novel Richard Feverel is deemed by Conan Doyle “one of the three novels which I admire most in the Victorian era.” Though foreign authors like Balzac, Hugo, Tolstoy, and Melville are mentioned briefly in the text, Conan Doyle mostly reserves his extended discourse for British authors. The exceptions are Edgar Allan Poe and Guy de Maupassant, whom he dubs the greatest and second-greatest artists of the short story.

Conan Doyle doesn’t confine himself to fiction but discusses works of history and science as well. In the former category, he delves as far back as the medieval chronicles of Froissart and de Comines. Having written historical novels on the Napoleonic Wars (The Great Shadow, Uncle Bernac) and medieval times (The White Company, Sir Nigel), it is not surprising that Conan Doyle has a large collection of histories and memoirs pertaining to those eras. Another chapter is devoted to exploration narratives, with an emphasis on Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. The science books he admires also tend to have an element of exploratory adventure to them, such as Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and Alfred Russell Wallace’s Malay Archipelago.

I expected to walk away from this book with a short list of recommended readings, but Conan Doyle delivers much more than that. Through the Magic Door was truly an enjoyable reading experience. For the brief length of the book, one feels as if he were Conan Doyle’s personal friend, spending a pleasant afternoon of conversation in the gentleman’s study.

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Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Meteor by Karel Capek

Clairvoyant character study
, a novel by Czech author Karel Capek, was originally published in 1934. The title of the work and Capek’s reputation as the author of the futuristic play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) might lead one to believe that this is a science fiction novel, but it is not. The “meteor” in question is metaphorical, not literal. This is the second novel of Capek’s Noetic Trilogy, in which Meteor follows Hordubal and precedes An Ordinary Life. I do not know enough about Capek’s work to explain what “noetic” means in this case or why these three novels with unrelated stories are considered a trilogy, but I have read Hordubal and enjoyed it so I expected good things from Meteor.

The plot of Meteor takes place largely within a hospital in an unspecified location in Europe. The “meteor” that the title refers to is a patient in this hospital, the victim of a plane crash, who fell out of the sky in a ball of fire. He is unconscious, burnt beyond recognition, and bears no identification, therefore nothing is known about the man. His past is a blank slate and thus fuel for speculation among those who come in contact with the patient, who is referred to as Case X. A doctor and a specialist make inferences about the man’s recent past based on his medical condition. A nun attending the patient has visions of him speaking to her in her dreams, revealing details of his life. Another patient in the hospital is a man known to have the gift of clairvoyance, who is able to “feel” aspects of the mystery man’s personality and past experiences. Lastly, the doctor has a friend who is a poet (though “poet” probably should have been translated as “author,” since we only find him writing prose fiction rather than poetry). Overcome with curiosity over this unusual case, the writer crafts his imagined life of Case X into a novella. Thus, the reader comes to know the protagonist through second-hand perspectives that are suspect for their subjective and speculative natures.

Meteor is quite captivating and intriguing as one begins to learn about Case X. The possibilities of this man’s past gradually expand as the nun and the clairvoyant elaborate upon his identity. The book takes a turn for the worse, however, when the poet chimes in, and unfortunately his narrative occupies at least half the book. This writer crafts a somewhat formulaic melodrama around Case X. Though skillfully done, it is not as interesting as the first half of Meteor, which promises a more unconventional novel. While the poet relates his fiction to the doctor, he also veers into reflective asides about the craft of writing, which feel like self-indulgent digressions only a writer could love. Capek himself is a far better writer than the fictional author he has created, who comes across a bit hacky. Though the latter half of Meteor doesn’t quite live up to its beginning, it does not descend into mediocrity. This novel is still a strong showing by Capek, but overall it is not as successful a work of literature as Hordubal nor as audacious as R.U.R.

In his homeland, Capek is regarded as the twentieth century master of Czech literature. Though English-language readers primarily know him as a science fiction writer because of a few prominent pioneering works in that genre (R.U.R., War of the Newts, Krakatit), Capek demonstrates in the first two books of his Noetic Trilogy that he is equally adept at portraying the drama of human lives in the real world. I look forward to seeing how he concludes the trilogy with An Ordinary Life.
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Monday, February 7, 2022

Avengers: Operation Galactic Storm by Mark Gruenwald, et al.

Run-of-the-mill ‘90s crossover
Though a big fan of Marvel Comics in my youth, I never really got into the Avengers. It always seemed like the solo adventures of Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor were more interesting than their group outings. The Avengers title seemed mostly a showcase for second-tier heroes who didn’t merit their own book. A few of these characters stood out as intriguing (Hawkeye, the Vision, the Scarlet Witch) but the halls of Avengers Mansion have been haunted by all manner of ridiculous bit players as well. At some point in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, Marvel discovered the marketing value of the crossover, a scheme to force readers to buy titles they wouldn’t normally buy if they wanted to read the complete title-hopping narrative. Crossovers became an annual event for most Marvel comics, to the point where they became mundane occurrences. One such crossover is Avengers: Operation Galactic Storm, which ran through several titles from March to May 1992. The 19 issues of the crossover, plus one epilogue issue, are assembled in one of Marvel’s Epic Collection paperbacks, published in 2017.

Operation Galactic Storm tells the tale of a brief but catastrophic war between two of Marvel’s outer space empires, the Kree and the Shi’ar. This was obviously designed to emulate the Kree-Skrull War of the 1970s, one of the landmark events in Marvel Comics history. This ‘90s sequel, however, has neither a comparable literary quality nor the same level of impact on the Marvel Universe as its predecessor. Galactic Storm requires the original New York Avengers and the spin-off West Coast Avengers to team up in an attempt to broker peace between the warring empires and protect bystander Earth in the process.

The story line proceeds round robin across seven titles: Avengers, West Coast Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Quasar, and Wonder Man. Unfortunately, the latter two characters are two of the most boring Avengers ever created. Quasar is basically a rip-off of the Green Lantern, while Wonder Man is a garden-variety strong man. Altogether 22 Avengers take part in the action, among them two Eternals (Sersi and Gilgamesh), one Inhuman (Crystal), Avengers regulars like She-Hulk and Hercules, and several also-rans like Starfox, Living Lightning and the Julia Carpenter Spider-Woman. The Kree and the Shi’ar each have a few teams of several super-powered characters, so the story is mainly getting two or three groups together in each issue to square off against each other. The most ridiculous aspect of the story is the inclusion of one of the most destructive cataclysms in the history of the universe, killing billions, yet every named character walks away with nothing but a few tears in his or her costume.

Several writers and several artists were involved. These kinds of crossovers were more editor-driven than writer-driven, the main purpose being to shuttle the story from title to title. The art is unilaterally below average. This was a bad period for Marvel, when many of their top artists had fled to Image, DC, or Dark Horse, hence the mediocrity on display here. The page and panel compositions are stiff and awkward, and the inkers seem reluctant to add the slightest shadow. One thing the artists do well, however, is drawing the technology, spaceships, and the like.

The Avengers films are a lot of fun, making this Marvel fan want to learn more about the historic comics upon which they are based. This trade paperback, however, doesn’t engender any enthusiasm for “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”
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Friday, February 4, 2022

Celebrated Travels and Travelers, Volume III: The Great Explorers of the Nineteenth Century by Jules Verne

Voyages of discovery to all corners of the globe
Author Jules Verne wrote a great deal of fiction involving explorers and adventurers who traveled to exotic locales and discovered unknown lands. Of lesser renown are his nonfiction books on the subject. From 1878 to 1880 Verne published a three-volume work on world exploration entitled Découverte de la Terre, which was translated into English as Celebrated Travels and Travelers. The first two volumes recounted expeditions from ancient times to the end of the eighteenth century. In the third volume, subtitled The Great Explorers of the Nineteenth Century, Verne continues the history of exploration and discovery up to the current events of his time.

Volume III recalls intrepid journeys to every continent except Europe. English explorers search for the sources of the Niger and the Gambia rivers in Africa, American explorers venture West into the Rocky Mountains, Russian explorers scout the coasts of Alaska and Canada, German and Spanish explorers investigate the archaeological sites of Mexico and South America, French explorers chart the islands of Oceania, and everybody dips their toes in the Arctic and the Antarctic. The place names Verne uses are not always immediately recognizable. Hawaii is still the Sandwich Islands, for example, and the island of Oahu is called Waihou. Most readers with reasonable geographical knowledge, however, shouldn’t have too much trouble following the itineraries.

The African chapter is the least interesting because it often reads merely like a string of towns separated by stretches of starvation. One doesn’t learn much about the culture of the African people other than which kings treated the explorers nicely and which ones robbed and imprisoned them. Mention is made of many discoveries of new species of plants and animals, but Verne rarely gives examples of the plants and animals in question. You never know which explorers Verne is going to treat cursorily and which ones he will grant an extensive travel narrative. Verne is definitely more interested in nautical voyages than overland exploration. Lewis and Clark, for example, are passed over pretty quickly. Not surprisingly, Verne tends to favor French explorers, though in this volume he also focuses on a few Russians like Krusenstern and Kotzebue. The bulkiest section of the book is devoted to French circumnavigators, with detailed stop-by-stop narratives of the voyages of Freycinet, Duperrey, Bougainville, and Dumont d’Urville. The book closes with a chapter on polar exploration—a work in progress at the time of publication—including the discovery of Antarctica and attempts by John Ross, William Parry, and John Franklin to reach the North Pole. The most pleasurable aspect of reading this book is discovering explorers that I had never heard of or didn’t know much about. A lot of these men were household names 150 years ago but have since faded into relative historical obscurity.

I enjoyed Volume III more than the previous two volumes, perhaps because these nineteenth century explorers took better notes than their predecessors, leaving Verne more to work with. The range of exotic destinations is also widest in this third installment, and the expeditions are more scientific in nature rather than voyages of conquest and commerce. The summary nature of the work, requiring Verne to pare down a great deal of history into abridged synopses, insures that the exploration narratives always leave a little something to be desired. The material that Verne does provide, however, is enough for the curious reader to decide if it is worth pursuing more extensive biographies of these illustrious explorers. Celebrated Travels and Travelers is quite an informative and enjoyable read, and with Volume III it finishes on a high note.

Map from the book showing the “unknown regions” of the world left unexplored at the time of publication (1880).

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Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Composition of Outdoor Painting by Edgar Payne

The go-to how-to bible for representational landscape artists
Landscape painter Edgar Alwin Payne (1883-1947) was born in the Ozarks of Missouri, but he achieved renown as one of the California Impressionists, a loosely associated group of artists that included William Wendt and Granville Redmond. In 1941, Payne published the book Composition of Outdoor Painting, in which he helps artists develop fundamental skills of picture construction and imparts his personal philosophy of making art from nature. This book is truly a valuable asset for any artist engaging in representational depictions of landscape, regardless of medium.

The primary purpose of this book is to teach the artist how to take the wealth of visual detail one encounters when viewing the natural world and distill it down to a visual arrangement worthy of being called art. To this end, Payne has outlined a loose but comprehensive system of compositional structures that can be employed as formal scaffolding for the creation of landscape art. He does so in a way that is suggestive and encouraging without being dogmatic. As a fan and amateur practitioner of realist art, impressionism included, I agree with everything Payne has to say in this book. That doesn’t mean he always says it well. Though he makes his points articulately, his writing is often as dry and repetitive as a software instruction manual. However, though the prose couldn’t be called lively, each intelligently rendered sentence reads like an eternal verity of artistic practice.

More valuable than the text, however, are Payne’s illustrations, in which he elegantly illustrates his method of compositional sketching. In these drawings he presents examples of each compositional template, suggests multiple treatments of the same natural vista, and simplifies other landscape artists’ works down to their barest schematics. By providing myriad variations on Payne’s recommended compositional strategies, these thumbnail sketches deliver an ample education on how to imbue balance, rhythm, and visual interest into one’s drawings and paintings. Payne doesn’t tell you how to paint a tree or shade a mountain. For that type of brushstroke-level advice, I would suggest Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting. What makes Composition of Outdoor Painting different from so many other painting manuals is that probably at least 90 percent of the content concerns the artist’s thought process before he or she ever touches brush to canvas.

More recent editions of the book include a section of color illustrations and an addenda by Payne’s daughter, Evelyn Payne Hatcher, herself an artist. Though brief, this afterword does add some valuable content to the discussion as she reveals more of her father’s, as well as her mother’s, artistic processes. This section includes instructional color studies by Edgar Payne as well as helpful color reproductions of his landscape paintings of different styles, subjects, and states of completion.

For the past thirty-odd years, Composition of Outdoor Painting has been self-published by Payne’s daughter. It used to be you could only get this book by mail order from one art gallery in California, but nowadays anyone can easily buy a copy online, which hopefully will mean more widespread knowledge and implementation of this useful resource.

Sierra Divide, painting by Edgar Payne

Illustrations from Composition of Outdoor Painting by Edgar Payne

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