Thursday, December 22, 2022

The Best of 2022

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, December 16, 2022

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson

Backpacking through Protestant France

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, December 12, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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Prints by Norma Bassett Hall

Gattières - France

Old Sycamore

October in Santa Fe

Friday, December 9, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lazarus Effect by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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