Monday, August 29, 2022

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Disorganized lessons from America’s Ashcan School master
Though not a household name to the general public, Robert Henri (he pronounced it Hen-rye, like rye bread) was one of the most important figures in the history of American art. Not only was he a successful painter and the leader of the American impressionist movement known as the Ashcan School, he was also an influential teacher who educated many of America’s greatest modern artists of the early and mid-twentieth century, including Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, and Rockwell Kent. The Art Spirit, published in 1923, is a compilation of writings by Henri, as well as notes taken from his lectures. Most art instruction books are either how-to manuals of painting technique or treatises on the philosophy of art. The Art Spirit does double duty as Henri writes very intelligently and eloquently on matters both theoretical and practical.

Henri was a champion of realist painting and has nothing good to say about abstraction, but his conception of realism is broad enough to include modernists like Cézanne and Matisse. Other artists frequently singled out for praise are Manet, Whistler, Rembrandt, and Velazquez. Henri talks a lot about how artists should find their own path, but at the same time, like any art instructor, he kind of wants you to paint like himself, and the lessons reflect that. Not surprisingly, therefore, this book will mostly speak to those artists and viewers who appreciate realist art. Henri was also primarily a painter of portraits and figures, so much of the how-to instruction is directed towards those subjects, though still lifes and landscapes are occasionally discussed.

Henri’s views on art were very profound and rather groundbreaking for their time (at least in America). His wisdom is imparted in elegant and articulate prose, and I agree with just about everything he has to say about art. The biggest problem with this book is its lack of organization. The Art Spirit was not deliberately written by Henri but rather compiled by one of his students. The assortment of articles, letters, and lecture notes included are arranged haphazardly, like a painter’s version of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. There is really no logic to the way the information is organized or presented (although there is an index). This isn’t the fault of Henri but rather the fault of the editors, publisher, book designer, and typesetter. For no explicable reason, sometimes there are spaces between paragraphs, sometimes not. Sometimes paragraphs begin with capital letters, as if they are starting a new thought, but again that’s not apparent from the contents of the text. Occasionally there are headings, but it is often unclear whether these headings apply to the next paragraph or the next several pages. The book includes many “Letters of Criticism,” in which Henri critiques the paintings of his students. The reader can’t see the paintings being reviewed, so specific comments on the contents of the paintings are useless, but these critiques still have some worthwhile general comments on Henri’s methods and philosophy of art. His articles, reprinted from magazines, are very insightful. The least helpful items in the book are the many one-sentence aphorisms drawn from who knows where.

This lack of organization leads to much repetition of content. The result is a book that annoys as much as it inspires. When one first picks up The Art Spirit, Henri’s wisdom really motivates the reader to want to make art, but by the time one gets to the end of the volume the text has become tedious and tiresome. There is much valuable information here for artists, but instead of plowing through the pages this is a book that would best be savored over the course of a few months and then kept on hand for occasional future reference.

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Friday, August 26, 2022

The Message by Honoré de Balzac

A minor work of the Comédie Humaine
“The Message” is one of the 90-plus works of literature that make up French author Honoré de Balzac’s grand scheme known as the Comédie Humaine. Those works run the gamut from mammoth novels to short stories and even some essays. “The Message,” originally published in 1832, is a short story, and one of Balzac’s shortest. Nevertheless, like all works in the Comédie Humaine it is available as an ebook that is freely downloadable from Amazon or Project Gutenberg. This story doesn’t include any recurring characters from the Comédie Humaine, and no prior knowledge of that series is required of the reader.

The story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator who may possibly be intended to represent Balzac himself. He recalls a stagecoach ride he took as a young man, in 1819, when he struck up an acquaintance with a fellow male passenger of his own age. As two passing strangers exchanging confidences, the two young men bond over their attraction to older women. They trade stories about their mistresses, both of whom are married countesses about the age of forty. To summarize the plot without giving too much away, the newly made friend asks the narrator to deliver a message to his mistress. The narrator then travels to the countess’s chateau and gets a glimpse inside the other man’s love life.

Balzac’s goal in writing the Comédie Humaine was to document, mostly through fiction, all aspects of French society in the early 19th century. If one believes the French literature of this era, this sort of May-December romance between older women and younger men was common among the upper classes. In exchange for the adoration of the young man and an alleviation from loneliness, the older woman helps the younger man get his start in society. These liaisons weren’t necessarily hidden from the husband, who may have quietly assented to the relationship for his wife’s entertainment as long as things remain discreet. In this story, the bond between countess and paramour is depicted as a case of true love. Perhaps that’s the point Balzac is trying to make, that on occasion these illicit affairs can rise to the level of the sublime. In the character of the Countess de Montpersan, he reveals the humanity behind the mistress. Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be much purpose to the story other than to deliver a brief tearjerker.

This is a poignant tale, but after an initial surprise up front it follows a very predictable course. All the characters behave pretty much as one would expect, and nothing particularly exciting or profound happens in the plot’s latter half. Like everything that sprung from Balzac’s pen, “The Message” is certainly a well-written narrative, but this feels like one of the least necessary and most inconsequential pieces of the Comédie Humaine. Not being connected to any of the other works in the series, it doesn’t contribute much to Balzac’s fictional universe, and he has covered this kind of relationship in other, more substantial works like Lost Illusions.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Destination: Void by Frank Herbert

Shiploads of techno-speak and psychobabble
Science fiction author Frank Herbert is best known for the six novels in his Dune series, but in between writing those novels he also composed another multi-volume series known as the Pandora Sequence or the WorShip series. The first book in that series, Destination: Void, was originally published in Galaxy Magazine in 1965 and released in book form the following year. Herbert revised the novel in 1978 before publishing its three sequels.

An experimental space ship is launched from Earth to colonize a planet in the Tau Ceti star system. This is the seventh attempt at this mission, the first six ending having ended in disaster. The population of the ship is comprised entirely of clones, who are the expendable lab rat slaves of this future Earth. Thousands of passengers are suspended in hibernation while a handful of crew operate the ship. The voyage is expected to take 400 years. As the novel opens, the ship is somewhere around Saturn. Three of the crew are dead; three remain alive and awake. The ship is too complex for the crew to operate alone, so the vessel’s systems have been hardwired directly into three disembodied human brains. As we join the story, however, these three brains have all gone insane and committed suicide, leaving the crew to their own devices. Their only hope of survival in the far reaches of space is to do something that’s never been successfully done before: create an artificial consciousness from electronic hardware and software. If they succeed, however, what will be the ramifications of spawning the first fully conscious artificial intelligence?

With Destination: Void, somehow Herbert manages to craft a very thrilling novel even though the average reader will have difficult understanding much of what’s going on. The problem of consciousness is an intriguing puzzle, and the crew have many interesting debates about what constitutes consciousness and what an artificial consciousness might require. For example, does a conscious being need to feel pain? Does it require a sense of guilt? Of love? A desire for self-preservation, and consequently, a killer instinct? The crew back up their arguments with psychological theory, some of which is probably authentic scholarship and some of which is a product of Herbert’s fictional future. After such speculations, the crew must then figure out how to implement these traits using computer hardware, and that’s where Herbert really indulges in the sci-fi gobbledygook. The “Ox,” as they call their mechanical Frankenstein’s monster, is made up of a cockamamie almagamation of circuits, wires, pipes, plastic blocks, neuron fibers, eng multipliers, tape loops, and more. You’d have to be a neuroscientist or an electrical engineer to figure it all out, but I suspect Herbert just made a lot of it up as he went along. At least three quarters of the novel is jammed with this nonsensical techno-speak. The amazing thing, however, is that the reader still cares about the characters and remains invested in the plot.

Herbert wrote Destination: Void by himself, but he collaborated with poet Bill Ransom on the remaining novels in the series. Those three sequels—The Jesus Incident, The Lazarus Effect, and The Ascension Factor—comprise a trilogy of sorts. Destination: Void is more of a prelude to that trilogy. Because it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, it doesn’t really feel like a complete novel but rather the lead-in to a larger story. I wouldn’t classify Destination: Void as one of Herbert’s best works, but it does provide the foundation for the Pandora Sequence, which as a whole I think is a worthwhile read. As in the Dune series, the multi-volume arc allows Herbert to take a deep dive into world-building and thoroughly explore some philosophical issues of interest to him. At times he can get too esoteric, but the intellectually challenging nature of his work is also part of the attraction. Herbert fans will like Destination: Void, but don’t expect to understand it.

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Monday, August 22, 2022

Havoc by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Espionage, murder, blackmail on the eve of World War I
E. Phillips Oppenheim was a popular British writer of suspense novels in the early 20th century. His books call to mind some of the old black-and-white films of Alfred Hitchcock or similar movies of the early talkie era. His novel Havoc, published in 1911, is a spy thriller and murder mystery that takes place at the outbreak of World War I. Of course, the Great War didn’t actually start until 1914, so this is all fictional speculation on Oppenheim’s part. By 1911, however, Europeans could see the writing on the wall, and Oppenheim’s depiction of foreign affairs at this time rings reasonably true to life.

The novel opens with a conversation between a British spy and an American journalist. They have both come to Vienna for a summit meeting between the Czar of Russia, the Emperor of Austria, and the Emperor of Germany. It is clear that Austria and Germany are formulating a war plan to conquer territories in Europe. What is unclear is the role that Russia will play. Will it side with Austria and Germany or ally itself with Britain and France? Following the meeting, the American journalist is granted an interview with the chancellor of Austria. At that moment, the chancellor happens to have a nervous breakdown, and with his impaired judgment he reveals state secrets that would otherwise be classified information. The chancellor hands the reporter a sealed envelope containing a verbatim transcript of the closed-door meeting between the three heads of state. Who wouldn’t want to get their hands on this vital piece of intelligence regarding the impending war? The journalist, seeing the ultimate scoop, wants to publish the document for fame and fortune, though his friend the British spy advises against it. With secret document in hand, the reporter boards a train headed towards London. But will he survive the trip?

This international intrigue kicks the novel off to a promising start. Once the action moves to London, however, the pace of the plot slows down considerably. A new protagonist is introduced, and a murder takes place that amounts to an extended side track away from the spy story. It’s all related, but often feels like two different stories running parallel to one another. The two male heroes of the novel each have their love interest, so there is plenty of romance, but the time spent on dinner dates and theater engagements tends to stall the plot and needlessly drag things out.

Oppenheim is a skilled storyteller capable of weaving several interesting plot threads into an intriguingly complex web. The thrills of this thriller, however, are deadened by Victorian conventions. This was pre-noir, so there’s very little moral ambiguity to the characters. The heroes are English gentlemen; the villains are evil Germans; the women are lovely virgins. Occasionally someone threateningly points a gun, or a punch is thrown, but there’s little that could really be called violence, which significantly lowers the fear threshold. You know there’s no chance of sex before marriage. There’s never any doubt who’s going to triumph in the end, and even the identity of the killer is predictable. The depiction of women is somewhat annoying also. Although the two female leads each have some degree of independence, their behavior towards the men is very subservient and their obvious destiny is to abandon their careers for marriage.

Havoc is a moderately entertaining espionage adventure, as one would expect from Oppenheim. It certainly isn’t boring, but this one feels more dated and predictable than most of his efforts. Instead of Havoc, I would recommend his novels The Avenger (1907) or The Great Impersonation (1920).

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Friday, August 19, 2022

Hernando Colón’s New World of Books: Toward a Cartography of Knowledge by José María Pérez Fernández and Edward Wilson-Lee

Pioneering information science in a remarkable Renaissance library
Hernando Colón was the second, and illegitimate, son of Christopher Columbus. He also wrote one of the first published biographies of his illustrious father. Hernando, however, was also an important man in his own right, an accomplished scholar, and a collector of books who assembled an ambitious research library of over 15,000 volumes. In 2018, author Edward Wilson-Lee published a very intriguing biography of Hernando entitled The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books. My only complaint about that biography was that I wished it had focused more on Hernando’s library. Well, my wish has been granted, and then some, with the 2021 publication of Hernando Colón’s New World of Books by Wilson-Lee and José María Pérez Fernández.

While The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books was aimed at a more general reading audience, Hernando Colón’s New World of Books reads like a scholarly monograph aimed at an audience of Renaissance historians and rare book librarians. It will also appeal, however, to general readers (like myself) with an avid enthusiasm for bibliographic history and a high tolerance for arcane minutiae regarding books and libraries. Hernando wasn’t just a collector of books; he was an obsessive organizer and cataloger of information. The various schemes he invented to catalog, summarize, and access the books in his massive collection might just make him the most important figure in library cataloging between Kallimachos and the Dewey Decimal System. Pérez Fernández and Wilson-Lee examine Hernando’s numerous projects of information management. They point out how his methods were manifestations of the spirit of Renaissance Humanism yet also ahead of their time in how Hernando ordered, categorized, and made sense of the world. To their credit, the authors do not hammer home this thesis relentlessly like many scholarly monographs do. In fact, any overarching argument often seems lost in a morass of detail. Nevertheless, bibliophiles will find it a pleasurable and fascinating morass of detail.

This book is loaded with information on how Hernando established his library and purchased his books. The authors explain how he adapted existing Renaissance networks and mechanisms of international trade and finance to gather and circulate information rather than money. Hernando was also involved in a massive cartographic project to reconcile and consolidate various existing maps and explorer logs into one cohesive and authoritative master map, as well as a pet project of his own to gather detailed geographic information on all the towns in Spain. Pérez-Fernández and Wilson-Lee delve deeply into Hernando’s intricate practices of cataloging and abstracting (in his Book of Epitomes) the volumes in his collection. They also provide a history of what happened to the library after Hernando’s death. The text closes with a handful of important primary source documents either written by Hernando or pertaining to his library. The most interesting of these is the Memoria written by Hernando’s head librarian Juan Pérez, who provides even more delightful details on the workings of the library.

Hernando Colón’s New World of Books is not for the casual reader. By all means read The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books first, if you haven’t done so already. If you find that book as interesting as I did, and you want a whole lot more information on Hernando and his library, then and only then is this the book for you. Those who dare enter here, however, will be happy to get lost in Hernando’s library. The reader will gain a profound admiration for this important unsung Renaissance man and wonder why the memory of his magnificent library has faded into obscurity.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents by H. G. Wells

Innovative ideas in underdeveloped stories
The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents, a collection of 15 short stories by H. G. Wells, was published in 1895, the same year as his first novel The Time Machine. The stories in the book originally ran in London newspapers over the preceding two years; most of them appeared in the Pall Mall Budget or the Pall Mall Gazette. These are all science fiction or adventure stories, but you won’t find any mention of outer space or time travel, such as one finds in his 1899 collection Tales of Space and Time. Rather, the science in these science fiction stories is mostly within the realms of zoology, botany, or chemistry. The collection also includes a few crime stories concerning thefts or murders of an unusual nature.

The title selection, “The Stolen Bacillus,” is about a terrorist who steals a test tube full of cholera. While that may sound like a terrifying premise, Wells takes a rather comical approach to the idea, turning it into something like a Keystone Cops chase scene. That lighthearted treatment is typical of the stories included here. The books for which Wells is famous—The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man—all have a darker dimension to them that borders on the horror genre, but that harsher edge is missing from almost all of the tales included here.

Most of the selections in this volume are quite short, less than ten pages, which also makes it difficult to get excited about them. Though some of the ideas that Wells comes up with are admirably ingenious, the stories in general feel underdeveloped. Wells spends half the narrative introducing you to his humorous protagonist, then by the time he gets to the science fiction concept it’s already time to wrap up the plot with a hasty ending. As a writer of short stories, Wells is not as adept at developing characters and plot as someone like Arthur Conan Doyle, who also wrote sci-fi and fantasy stories, but Wells has the greater breadth of vision and depth of imagination when it comes to the scientific and fantastical aspects of his fiction. The longest stories in this collection are the most successful, like “Aepyornis Island” and “The Hammerpond Park Burglary,” which are each twice as long as the average entry. The former is about an adventurer hunting for remains of an extinct bird, while the latter is a comical caper in the crime genre. In both cases the longer word count gives Wells the opportunity to satisfyingly engage the reader with interesting characters and a lively plot.

Another problem with this book is the racism. In these stories, Wells brands anyone darker than the White Cliffs of Dover with the n-word, regardless of their land of origin. Wells has a tendency to draw his characters of color as idiots or psychotics, even more so than other writers of his time. This is evident in four or five of the stories included here, which is enough to leave a bad taste in the mouth.

Overall, this collection is fine by the standards of late 19th-century pulp fiction, but it doesn’t really live up to Wells’s esteemed reputation as a science fiction writer or storyteller. These are some of his earliest published writings, so maybe he was still learning to spread his wings and hone his craft. Though there are some creative ideas in these tales, most of the stories suffer from a brevity that ultimately undermines their worth.

Stories in this collection

The Stolen Bacillus
The Flowering of the Strange Orchid
In the Avu Observatory
The Triumphs of a Taxidermist
A Deal in Ostriches
Through a Window
The Temptation of Harringay
The Flying Man
The Diamond Maker
Aepyornis Island
The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes
The Lord of the Dynamos
The Hammerpond Park Burglary
A Moth—Genus Novo
The Treasure in the Forest

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Monday, August 15, 2022

Autobiography of a Pocket Handkerchief by James Fenimore Cooper

Lessons on greed and vanity from an inanimate narrator
Who would have thought that stodgy old James Fenimore Cooper would produce one of the weirdest novels in 19th century American literature? Autobiography of a Pocket Handkerchief, first published in 1843, is exactly what its title indicates: a novel written from the point of view of a glorified snot rag. Why a pocket handkerchief, you may ask? Using the accessory as a symbol of wealth and status allows Cooper to tell a moralistic fable on greed and vanity.

Like many an autobiography of its time, the book begins with a genealogical overview of its handkerchief narrator. The handkerchief, who identifies as a female, explains that she is descended from flaxseed that was bred in Massachusetts, packed in a keg and loaded on a British ship, stolen by French pirates in the Atlantic, then taken to Picardy where it was sown, grown, spun, and woven into a bolt of cambric. Having been cut from the center of this cloth, the narrator considers herself a political moderate, as opposed to her siblings that were cut from the left and right extremes of the sheet. The unadorned fabric of the hanky is then purchased by a down-on-her-luck French maiden who lovingly emblazons the cloth with embroidery and lace, thus producing an exceptional handkerchief that commands high prices. The narrator explains that handkerchiefs not only have the ability to see and hear what is occurring around them but also possess an added power of clairvoyance that even allows them to read the thoughts and feelings of those in their vicinity. This is fortunate because the handkerchief spends long stretches of the narrative shut up in drawers and chests, yet is still able to relate the human events taking place in the houses in which she dwells.

Cooper obviously wrote this work with some degree of satire in mind. Rarely if ever is it laugh-out-loud funny, however, and the handkerchief relates its story with the poker face of a classic comedy straight man. One wonders what a writer like Balzac, who specialized in comedies of manners with a bitingly satirical sense of humor, could have done with a premise like this. Cooper, on the other hand, is primarily known as a historical novelist, the Sir Walter Scott of colonial America. Humor isn’t exactly his strong point, so instead of satire what really shines through this bizarre story is the moral message that Cooper wishes to impart. The various hands through which the handkerchief passes illustrate the contrast between shallow materialism and virtuous love. Regardless of their French or American origin, the women who possess or covet the handkerchief are either saints or gold diggers; the men who court them run the gamut from noble gentlemen of pure intentions to opportunists looking for advantageous marriages to further their position in society. Those in the latter category suffer the most ridiculous lampooning from Cooper. Overall, the plot resembles something similar to a less skillfully executed take on one of Anthony Trollope’s Victorian romances, except for having the strange added dimension of being narrated by an inanimate object.

Nowadays we know Cooper best for his Leatherstocking Tales and other novels of adventure, war, and wilderness. He was, however, a more versatile author who frequently published fiction and essays of social commentary on political events in Europe, of which this novel is an atypical example. Autobiography of a Pocket Handkerchief is unlikely to make anyone forget The Last of the Mohicans, but this unusual literary curiosity does prove more entertaining than one might expect.

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Friday, August 12, 2022

Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt

A thorough institutional history of Britain’s cartographic bureau
Being an American, I’m not familiar with the British Ordnance Survey maps, but I am interested in the history of geography and how maps were made in the olden days before electronic devices. In her 2010 book Map of a Nation, author Rachel Hewitt provides an in-depth history of the Ordnance Survey, a department of the British military responsible for mapping the British Isles and colonies of the British Empire. In particular, Hewitt focuses on the creation of the First Series of Ordnance maps, which was the first time an accurate scale map of England and Wales had ever been professionally compiled, printed, and released to the general public. The scope of Hewitt’s account ranges from about 1745 to 1870.

The most fascinating portions of the book are those that detail the exploits of the Ordnance surveyors as they are out in the field making maps. Hewitt clearly explains the science behind the instruments used and how they were employed on site. It is very interesting to learn how the surveyors achieved maximum accuracy by calculating and compensating for the effects of temperature change on their instruments or the gravitational pull of land masses. In their rambling journeys over the countryside, the intrepid mapmakers not only faced hardships from the elements but also hostility from landowners who suspected the surveyors to be spies or taxmen. The Ordnance Survey’s mapping projects took far longer than expected, and considering the difficulties they faced, as Hewitt describes them, it is a wonder the maps were ever completed at all.

The history of the Ordnance Survey is not all about rambling over hill and heath, however. It also involves a great deal of politics and military bureaucracy. Before the Ordnance Survey even appears in the book, Hewitt gives a long summary of the Jacobite Rising of 1745, in which the Scots rebelled against the English. Hewitt uses this to establish the context for the birth of the Ordnance Survey, but it makes for an awfully lengthy set-up. Over the course of the Ordnance Survey’s history, Hewitt sketches the biography of each new officer who takes up a managerial position in the department. These biographies often digress into tangled webs of genealogy, peerage titles, descriptions of estates, and tangential relationships to the royal family. Hewitt broadens the scope of her study even further by delving into the role that maps played in popular culture, which involves her quoting just about every contemporary English play or poem in which the word “map” is uttered. Such deviations often feel like a stretch from the topic at hand. As often as not, however, Hewitt’s digressions lead to the discovery of surprising facts and curious trivia.

The thoroughness of Hewitt’s research is impressive, but for many general readers it may just be too thorough. At times this narrative of the Ordnance Survey feels just as arduous and protracted as that institution’s lengthy mapping projects. If you are approaching this book from an interest in cartography, be advised that cartography is only part of the story here. This is, after all, an institutional history, and as such it is bound to contain its fair share of mundane details and figures. That said, as far as government departments go, the Ordnance Survey is more interesting than most, and readers who enjoy exploring maps will certainly learn much about the complex processes behind the making of maps. You will come away from this book with a greater appreciation for the cartographic pioneers who devoted their lives to the science and art of mapping our world.
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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Visitors by Clifford D. Simak

Not your typical alien invasion
Clifford D. Simak had a long and illustrious career as a science fiction writer. Towards the end of his life, after almost a half century as a published author, he was still going strong. One of his later novels, The Visitors, was published in 1980, when Simak was in his mid-70s. This book is apt proof that his prodigious talent did not diminish but only ripened with age. The novel was originally serialized in issues of Analog magazine.

A large black box, reminiscent of the black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, descends upon the small town of Lone Pine, Minnesota. The mysterious object appears to defy the law of gravity, hovering just above the ground with no visible means of propulsion. The unexplainable nature of this strange thing leads to speculation that it may have come from another world. It is unclear, however, whether this alien visitor is a living being or a mechanical probe. The visitor displays no hostile attention towards humans or the Earth, other than to munch some trees for fuel. It’s attitude towards mankind seems to be one of total indifference, and no one can find a way of communicating with it, except perhaps for one bystander fly fisherman who momentarily feels a telepathic bond with the black box.

The Visitors is not your typical novel of alien invasion. The book is not so much about the visitors themselves as it is about mankind’s reaction to them. How would the government, the press, and the general public respond to such an event? Simak illustrates this through an ensemble cast of characters including the aforementioned fly fisherman, the townspeople of Lone Pine, a team of journalists from Minneapolis, and the presidential administration in Washington, DC. Reporters are frequently employed as protagonists by Simak, who was a newspaperman himself, and the Minnesota setting should come as no surprise to Simak fans. He was born in Southeastern Wisconsin and worked at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune for most of his life. He has been called the pastoralist of science fiction for his frequent use of the rural Midwest as a setting for his stories. His affinity for small-town life and the natural landscape has a way of grounding fantastical happenings within the realm of believable reality.

The Visitors is riveting from start to finish. Simak expertly builds suspense by tantalizingly doling out piecemeal clues of the nature and purpose of the visitors over the entire length of the novel. He generates excitement not through War of the Worlds-style action sequences but rather through more cerebral scenes of intellectual discovery. In Simak’s fiction, a meeting of two worlds is rarely a conflict of good-vs.-evil but rather a question of whether the species involved will come to an understanding or succumb to fear and destruction. Simak has an exceptional talent for bringing out the humanity in his characters, even when his characters aren’t human.

Simak wrote The Visitors in a very cinematic style. With its brisk pace, engaging cast, and quick jumps between scenes in multiple locations, it is easy to imagine this novel being adapted into a Hollywood movie. Towards the end of the book, however, the sci-fi concepts become a little too high-end for the general viewing public. The unconventionality of Simak’s story admirably challenges the reader’s intelligence. The only drawback to this excellent novel is that the ending doesn’t go quite far enough and falls just short of satisfying, as Simak decides to leave the conclusion somewhat to the reader’s imagination. Nevertheless, The Visitors is one of his best novels and one that every Simak fan should read.
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Monday, August 8, 2022

Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay by Watkin Tench

Establishing Australia’s first British colony
Botany Bay, a natural harbor on the southeastern coast of Australia, was discovered by Captain James Cook in 1770. When Britain decided to colonize Australia, Botany Bay was judged the most promising location to establish a settlement. In 1787, a fleet of 11 ships set out from England to do just that. With several hundred convicts on board to serve as settlers of the new colony, the ships arrived in Botany Bay in January of 1788. Finding the land too swampy for settlement, however, the expedition opted instead for another harbor nearby, Port Jackson. The settlement they established there would eventually become the city of Sydney. Watkin Tench was an officer on one of the vessels in this company of ships (now known as the First Fleet). Prior to departure, Tench made a deal with a London publishing firm to write an account of the voyage. His memoir was published in 1789 as Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay.

Tench begins his narrative with the embarkation of the convicts in England. It isn’t until almost halfway through the book that the ships arrive at Australia. Along the way, Tench discusses stops the fleet made at Teneriffe (in the Canary Islands), Rio de Janeiro, and the Cape of Good Hope. These chapters mostly consist of information that would be valuable to mariners, such as geographic coordinates and the availability of supplies and fresh water. Tench also describes the conditions on board ship and the dangers of transporting prisoners, but in general he has nothing but good things to say about the behavior of the convicts. Because of Australia’s unique status as a prison colony, Tench delves into some of the legal and penal codes that applied to the settlement’s convict colonists. It seems like just about every infraction, major or minor, was punishable by death. For the most part, however, the convicts seemed pleased with their second chance at life and worked hard to create a new home amid the hardships of wilderness.

Tench describes the land, climate, wildlife, and agricultural prospects of the Australian terrain. His prose has the no-nonsense style of a military report, but there is also a tone of disappointment and disgust that runs throughout. Tench seems to regret his mission to this godforsaken place and doesn’t express much hope for those required to settle there. He also grumbles about the lack of governmental support of the expedition and the colony. In describing the land’s natural attributes, Tench often has to apologize for his own ignorance, since the British government didn’t see fit to send any scientists along on the mission. As a makeshift naturalist, however, Tench does express some admiration for the beautiful birds and plants of Australia, and he finds much of interest to say about the kangaroo. Tench readily admits that he doesn’t know much about the aborigines, who mostly kept their distance from the colonists. From his few encounters with the natives, Tench makes it clear thhe finds them physically repulsive. In general, however, he finds their behavior neither hostile nor amiable, simply aloof

Tench’s Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay only covers the first few months of the Australian colony. He would later follow it up with a second book, the Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson. For anyone interested in Australian history, Tench’s books are a must-read, but compared to other expedition narratives, like those of Captain Cook for example, Tench’s Narrative is not very exciting and only moderately informative.

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Friday, August 5, 2022

Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Civilization as a curse not a blessing
French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men as a contest entry in an essay competition sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. Although he did not win the prize, Rousseau’s treatise was published in 1754 and became one of his most famous and influential works. The political ideas that Rousseau outlines in the Discourse on Inequality helped inspire the French Revolution, and his conception of the natural state of man was instrumental in spawning the cultural movement of Romanticism.

The Dijon competition asked its entrants to consider the question, “What is the origin of inequality among people, and is it authorized by natural law?” Rousseau begins by envisioning man in a pre-civilized state in which he is subject only to natural law. Free of reason and language, this “savage” man is driven by self-preservation and a preference for solitude and yet possesses a natural compassionate pity for the pain of other beings. Rather than look down on this pre-rational man, as one might expect from an Enlightenment intellectual, Rousseau expresses admiration for his natural virtue and envy of his blissful ignorance. While the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes conceived of natural man as a brute motivated by fear, Rousseau idolizes his prehistoric progenitors. Like the Biblical fall from Eden, Rousseau posits that the birth of civil society was the beginning of the end of happiness and the origin of all moral wrongs. In Rousseau’s view, civilization has not been a blessing to man but rather a curse.

Rousseau then hypothesizes upon how civilization began in the first place, conjuring up scenes of the invention of language and the initial establishment of private property. Without the benefit of as much archaeological knowledge as we possess today, much of Rousseau’s hypothetical history of mankind is conjectural, but the narrative he creates is cogently reasoned and unfolds in a rational progression. A century before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Rousseau clearly views man and society in evolutionary terms and at one point even expresses a concept akin to natural selection.

In Rousseau’s view, civil society began when the first man claimed a piece of land as his own, land that was previously freely available to all. Thus it is private property that sparks mankind’s fall from grace and is the root of all evil, self-loathing, and discontent. Although Rousseau doesn’t elaborate too much on economics in the Discourse, his longing for an anteproprietary past brings with it a connotation of socialism. The French Revolution was a socialist and secularist revolution. Rousseau fueled the socialist ideology with works such as this, while Voltaire provided the atheism. After Napoleon, they are probably the two most influential men in modern French history, which is why they get the most prominent tombs in the Panthéon.

Even if the reader doesn’t agree with everything Rousseau asserts in this treatise (the archaeological truth of “natural man” likely falls somewhere between Rousseau and Hobbes), one can’t help but admire his unconventional thought and well-reasoned argument and the profound effect his ideas had on world history. Rousseau is also simply a great writer, with a prose style that transcends philosophy to become literature. The Discourse on Inequality is a rare example of an important philosophical text that is not only thought-provoking but also a genuinely entertaining read.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Bertram Cope’s Year by Henry Blake Fuller

Landmark gay novel and a fun comedy of manners
Henry Blake Fuller (1857-1929) was a Chicago author known for regional realist novels like The Cliff-Dwellers. Fuller was also gay, which in itself is not so remarkable, but he has left his stamp on history with what some literary critics have called the first gay novel in American literature: Bertram Cope’s Year, published in 1919 (although at least two other books can vie for that title: Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend [1870] and Xavier Mayne’s Imre: A Memorandum [1906]). In recent years, Fuller has been posthumously recognized for his achievements by induction into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame and the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.

What’s amazing about Bertram Cope’s Year is how Fuller was able to cleverly write a realist novel about a gay man’s life and same-sex relationships without ever overtly mentioning either. The prudish world of American literature in 1919 would not have stood for explicit descriptions of physical affection or even verbal expressions of romantic love between two men, so Fuller does not include any, yet he gets his story told nonetheless. I suppose it is possible that some quite clueless reader of a century ago might read this as a story of platonic relationships, but one would have to be truly naive indeed to miss what Fuller implies between the lines.

Bertram Cope is a young teacher pursuing a PhD. He works as an adjunct instructor at a university in the town of Churchton, which is likely meant to be a lakeside suburb of Chicago, though that’s never overtly specified. Cope realizes he must work the college-town social scene if he wishes to advance his academic career, so he befriends local society hostess Medora Phillips and makes further connections with those who frequent her salon. Like many a handsome young man, Cope unwittingly draws the attention of straight young women who, unaware of his sexual orientation, try to snare him for a husband. Cope is also pursued by Basil Randolph, a 50-year-old businessman who enjoys the company of college men. Meanwhile, Cope carries on a long distance relationship with his boyfriend in Wisconsin, whom he hopes to persuade to relocate to Churchton. All of these relationships complicate the mild-mannered Cope’s life as he tries to live discreetly as a gay man while keeping up the appearance of a heterosexual bachelor.

Bertram Cope’s Year is not a comedy in the laugh-out-loud sense but it is a comedy of manners that satirizes social conventions. Fuller maintains a wry and dry humor throughout. Most of the characters in the novel end up looking foolish, and not simply because of the way they fall all over Cope. Fuller lampoons the very society that Cope is trying to fit into, with its constricting code of etiquette, annoying obligations, and matrimonial negotiations. Cope himself comes across a bit ridiculous as he reluctantly and bemusedly navigates this social landscape of dull cocktail parties, unwanted heart-to-heart confabs, and obligatory country outings.

Bertram Cope’s Year may not actually be the first gay novel in American literature, but it is nevertheless a groundbreaking and genre-founding work. Beyond its historical importance, however, it is quite an entertaining read with an enjoyably ironic sense of humor. This novel of manners calls to mind the earlier satirical melodramas of Honoré de Balzac or Anthony Trollope, but Fuller updates the genre for the modern era by pioneering a more inclusive representation of American society. This lesser-known work from a century ago is a pleasantly surprising gem.
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Monday, August 1, 2022

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

A beautiful trip with unpleasant companions
After having made a name for himself in literary circles with his short stories, future Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway published his first novel in 1926. The Sun Also Rises is an autobiographical novel based on Hemingway’s experiences as a foreign correspondent in Europe. It centers around a group of American and British expatriates living in Paris who travel into Spain to go fishing and attend the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona, which includes the famous running of the bulls. The novel is narrated by Jake Barnes, a wounded war vet and reporter from Kansas City. In Paris he encounters an old flame, Lady Brett Ashley, for whom he still has feelings. At least two other men in his social circle, however, are also in love with her. A thoroughly modern woman, she bestows her affections freely upon whomever captures her interest. This results in much in-fighting among the men in the traveling party as they booze their way around Spain.

Ninety percent of this novel isn’t really fiction at all but rather travel writing, and good travel writing at that. Hemingway is obviously recalling real travels that he undertook in Spain, and he vividly brings the setting to life with his descriptive prose. As for the fictional content of the book—the relationships between the characters—there is really only about enough plot here to fill a short story. Though the novel is set in France and Spain, it contains no French characters and only a few Spanish characters important enough to warrant names. The travelogue is heavy with tourist experiences of hotels, cafes, and trains. Mostly what the traveling party does is drink and get drunk, but in the background the week-long festival in Pamplona brings interest and vivacity to what would otherwise be a dreary narrative. The most effective passage in the book is Hemingway’s expertly rendered account of a bullfight. One can draw whatever conclusions they wish by considering this as a metaphor for masculinity, nature, or freedom, but even if one just takes the scene face-value as sports journalism it is an exceptional piece of writing, calling to mind the verbal artistry with which Jack London used to recount boxing matches.

Hemingway garnered praise for his sparse use of language, particularly in this novel. His economical, journalistic style of prose employs few words to say what he wants to say and deliberately leaves much unsaid, leaving the reader to deduce many of the characters’ inner thoughts and emotions. Hemingway’s modern rapid-fire style does make for brisk and addictive reading that propels the reader through the narrative. On the other hand, one could argue that The Sun Also Rises is awfully repetitive with its endless scenes of alcohol consumption and often pointless dialogue. Of course, many conversations in real life are pointless too, so in that sense the characters are more a reflection of reality than those of the romantic literature that prevailed before Hemingway’s modern era. The blunt shallowness of the characters, however, does make many of them unlikable and difficult to care about. There’s also an anti-Semitic portrayal of a Jewish character that tarnishes the book and reflects poorly on the author.

The Sun Also Rises was likely a groundbreaking novel for its day, one that took critics and readers by surprise for its modernist innovations. By now, however, we’ve lived through two generations of writers who grew up reading Hemingway and trying to emulate him, so much of the book’s cutting-edge originality is lost on readers of today, as is the author’s commentary on the “Lost Generation” of our grandparents and great-grandparents age. Stripped of that context, this is a very good piece of realist writing about a time and place, but it is inhabited by a group of characters who fail to move the reader with their angst, self pity, and disillusionment.
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