Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Best of 2023

Top ten reads of the year
Old Books by Dead Guys managed to post an even 100 book reviews in 2023. Compared to previous years of this blog, that’s not a very high number, but it was a good year for reading, and I took the time to enjoy some lengthy and time-consuming reads. Listed below are my ten favorite books read this year, arranged chronologically by date of publication. (None of them were actually published in 2023; this is Old Books by Dead Guys, after all.) I believe this is the first year when none of the ten favorite reads precedes the 20th century. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.


Red Star by Alexander Bogdanov (1908)
A Russian revolutionary is invited to Mars, where he finds an ideal communist society in operation, the likes of which he and his Bolshevik comrades have envisioned in their dreams. This old-school work of utopian sci-fi reads as remarkably intelligent, eloquent, and relevant more than a century after it was written.

The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan (1917)
This remarkable realist novel relates the struggles of a Russian-Jewish-American immigrant as he chases his fortune in the New York City garment industry. Abraham Cahan’s semi-autobiographical narrative is not only a pioneering work of Jewish-American literature but also a groundbreaking exemplar of American literary naturalism.

My Childhood by Toivo Pekkanen (1953)
In this partial autobiography, Finnish author Toivo Pekkanen vividly brings to life the time and place of his youth and tells the heartbreaking story of his family’s struggle for survival in the face of abject poverty. Pekkanen recounts a poignant coming-of-age story to which anyone can relate, but also gives the reader a revealing glimpse into Finnish life and history.

Maigret and the Headless Corpse by Georges Simenon (1955)
Maigret and the Bum by Georges Simenon (1963)
Maigret and the Loner by Georges Simenon (1971)
Inspector Jules Maigret, Superintendent of the Police Judíciaire in Paris, is the recurring detective in a series of 103 novels and short stories by Belgian-French author Georges Simenon. The Maigret novels are always brief, brisk, and intelligent. I happened upon a mother lode of inexpensive used Maigret paperbacks and read several of them this year. These three are among some of Maigret’s most intriguing and compelling cases.

Mexico (Ancient Peoples and Places series) by Michael D. Coe (1962)
Archaeology is one of my favorite topics in nonfiction reading, and I am particularly fascinated by pre-Colombian Mexico. This entry in the Ancient Peoples and Places series, a line of over 100 books published by Thames & Hudson, delivers a concise but very informative overview of Mexico’s ancient peoples from prehistoric times up to the Spanish conquest. The ancient history of Mexico, as in the Valley of Mexico, is distinct from that of the Yucatan and Mesoamerica, so this book covers the Aztecs but not the Mayans, who have their own volume in the series. 

The Werewolf Principle by Clifford D. Simak (1967)
It’s no secret that Old Books by Dead Guys is a fan of Clifford D. Simak. I have almost finished reading his complete works. The Werewolf Principle is a fascinating sci-fi novel that has nothing whatsoever to do with werewolves. 500 years in the future, a lone John Doe is found drifting in space. He is obviously a space traveler from Earth’s past, but how far in the past? This surprising, entertaining, and thought-provoking sci-fi thriller is one of Simak’s best.

Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages by Gaston Dorren (2014)
Gaston Dorren’s book Lingo was on my top ten list last year, and he’s back again this year with Babel. Dorren writes about languages—their histories, their structural oddities, and their political and cultural controversies. In Babel, he discusses the twenty most widely spoken languages in the world today. Dorren concisely explains the complex intricacies of language in entertaining and intelligent prose that’s accessible to general readers.

Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy 1905–1953 by Simon Ings (2016)
This fascinating and eye-opening book provides a detailed history of the Soviet Union’s attitude and policies towards science, and how scientists and other academics were treated under the Soviet regime. Although so absurd at times it’s almost funny, it amounts to a horror story of what happens when an authoritarian government, led by a despotic dictator, deliberately denies scientific truth in order to further its political aims. Hmmm . . . Sound familiar, America?


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 2024! 

Friday, December 22, 2023

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Much ado about little of interest
The Warden
, published in 1855, is the third novel published by prolific British author Anthony Trollope. It is also the first novel in his Chronicles of Barsetshire series, a string of a half dozen novels that are among his most beloved works..

Centuries ago, in the fictional English county of Barsetshire, a wealthy man named Mr. Hiram left his estate to the church, with the proscription that a portion of his land would be used to establish an old folk’s home for a dozen retired laborers. A small allowance would be granted to each resident, while the rest of the income from Hiram’s lands would go to an appointed warden of the institution. In the 19th century, a minister named Mr. Harding is made warden of Hiram’s Hospital, where he enjoys a cushy job with lucrative pay. The value of Hiram’s lands has greatly increased since medieval times, and the income resulting from rents and such amounts to a salary of about 800 pounds a year for the lucky warden. Over the centuries, however, there has been no cost-of-living increase for the poor inmates, who still receive the allowance mandated in Hiram’s will, now amounting to a mere pittance. A young doctor sees this as an injustice, and files a lawsuit to get more money for the retired laborers. A prideful deacon fights the lawsuit, refusing to let Mr. Harding acquiesce in the least bit to this affront to church authority. Complicating matters is the fact that the doctor and the deacon are involved with Mr. Harding’s two daughters.

This is an ugly story, no matter how much Trollope tries to inject it with quaintness. The whole premise of the plot makes a mountain out of a molehill. At the same time, Trollope makes fun of his own characters, as if to say, “Look at these silly country people, making mountains out of molehills!” If the parties involved would have just sat down together at a table for an hour, I’m sure they could have reached a compromise. Everyone in this book is guilty of some form of stubbornness or idiocy in the matter. About halfway through, the warden’s daughter comes up with some scheme of how she’s going to solve the problem through a martyr-like self-sacrifice. Her friends don’t understand the logic behind her reasoning, and neither did I. The wealthier characters in the story quibble over their morals and their reputations and make self-righteous decisions with no regard for the poor men who are in their charge. Everyone talks as if 800 pounds is a lot of money, but then we’re supposed to believe the warden is poor. He has no savings, despite his free lodgings. How will he ever survive on a fixed income? Who really cares? There’s satire here, but it’s satire that comes across as rather tone-deaf. We’re supposed to sympathize with Harding and his moral quandary, but neither he nor Trollope seem to care at all about the poor. The latter simply sees poverty as a plot device, not as a real social issue.

Based on a handful of Trollope books I’ve read, his writing is similar to that of Balzac. Both authors created vast bodies of work consisting largely of novels of manners that capture and satirize the society of their time and nation. Both are obsessed with financial transactions, legal proceedings, and clerical bureaucracy. Of the two, Balzac is just a lot more fun. For one thing, he has a better sense of humor. Mainly, however, I think I just prefer the Frenchness of Balzac’s fiction to the Britishness of Trollope’s. Victorian British literature, much like the era in which it was written, tends to be priggish, frumpy, and stuffy. Plots must conform to a strict code of moral conventions. French literature was not hampered by such prudish restrictions, and the characters act more like real people, making it more likely that the reader will care about them. I had a hard time caring about any of the characters in The Warden, and reading about their petty squabbles felt like a waste of my time.
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Thursday, December 21, 2023

In the First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

An eye-opening look inside Stalin’s think-tank prisons
Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, might be best known for his nonfiction opus The Gulag Archipelago, a history of the system of forced labor camps scattered across the Soviet Union during the reign of Joseph Stalin. Less well-known is his earlier novel In the First Circle, published in 1968, a fictional narrative set within a Soviet prison. The prison in this case is a specific kind of gulag called a sharashka, a research and development facility staffed by prisoners with science and engineering backgrounds. Solzhenitsyn had first-hand experience serving time in both a hard-labor gulag and a sharashka. His personal insight lends credence and authenticity to this brutally frank exposé of the Soviet prison system.

Marfino is a sharashka located just outside of Moscow. The inmates there are primarily working on projects of an auditory nature. Stalin has ordered a coding device to scramble top secret telephone conversations that can only be unscrambled by the listener. (This takes place in 1949, so they are trying to accomplish this with pre-digital technology.) Another zek (prisoner) is working on using sonographs of human speech to identify the speaker in a treasonous phone call intercepted by the MGB (a precursor to the KGB). The zeks work side by side with “free workers,” non-prisoners who act as guards while also collaborating on research projects. Though deprived of their freedom, separated from their loved ones, and denied anything approaching the luxuries of life, the prisoners in this sharashka know they are better off than those sentenced to a Siberian gulag. In Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of Marfino, there is no violence, but all the prisoners know that if they don’t cooperate they may at any time be shipped off to a gulag where they may be frozen, starved, or shot.

Despite such depressing subject matter, Solzhenitsyn injects a gallows humor throughout. The absurd excesses of injustice under Stalin’s regime is frequently discussed in a sarcastic tone, likely the only defense mechanism available to those inevitably forced to resign themselves to having their lives taken away. Solzhenitsyn often shows the zeks’ trying to circumvent rules and get away with whatever they can. Such transgressions are not depicted with the goofiness of Hogan’s Heroes’ capers, but rather with a mixture of humor and poignancy reminiscent of M*A*S*H. The narrative of the novel is not confined to the prison, but also covers the lives of prisoner’s wives, free workers, and prison officials outside the walls of Marfino.

The main problem with In the First Circle is its inordinate length, 96 chapters in all. The fact that a book is long doesn’t make it bad, but lengthiness is unjustified when the narrative becomes repetitive and tedious. After a while it feels like you’re reading the same cell-block debates on the pros and cons of Communism over and over again. (Some zeks still believe wholeheartedly in Communism, despite their treatment by the government.) At first it seems as if the novel will focus on a few prisoners, but the cast quickly expands to the point at which it’s difficult to tell all the minor characters apart. Even after the 80th chapter, Solzhenitsyn keeps introducing new characters, whose stories aren’t that much different from those he’s already profiled. When one zek has an affair with a female free worker, it feels realistic; when two or three risk such romances, it feels like overkill.

Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn populates this novel with compelling characters and provides a truly eye-opening look at life under Stalin. Westerners will come away from this novel with a much more informed and vivid understanding of Soviet society. After dozens of chapters, the book starts to feel like hard work, but for those interested in this subject, the work is worth it.
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Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Maigret Has Scruples by Georges Simenon

Waiting for a crime to happen
Maigret Has Scruples
is the 80th of 103 novels and short stories by Georges Simenon featuring his recurring detective Jules Maigret. It was first published in 1958 under the French title of Les Scrupules de Maigret. It has also been published in English as Maigret’s Doubts. This installment in the series finds Maigret and his department, the Police Judiciaire, undergoing a slow period when not much criminal activity is taking place. This novel, however, demonstrates that if there are no crimes to investigate, Maigret is willing to go out and look for one.

Maigret receives a visitor in his office, a Mr. Xavier Marton who sells electric trains for a living. Marton tells Maigret that he thinks his wife may be trying to poison him. He suspects her of going mad, and he knows that she keeps poison in the house. Maigret listens but doesn’t know quite what to make of his visitor. The next day, Marton’s wife shows up, saying that she knows her husband has visited Maigret, and she would like to explain her side of the story. She says it is her husband who has psychological problems, for which he is being treated by a psychiatrist. The poison is for rats, and it is only her husband’s paranoia that makes him think she is trying to kill him. She in turn is worried about her own safety because her husband carries a revolver, and in his unstable state of mind he may use it on her.

Since no crime has been committed and there’s no solid evidence of any imminent threat of violence, Maigret, in his professional capacity as a police inspector, really has no business getting involved in this family’s personal problems. In fact, a judge advises him against taking any action. Maigret decides to follow his conscience, however, and investigate the husband and wife because he thinks it is the right thing to do. That’s where his “scruples” come in, as mentioned in the title. He feels that if there is a chance that someone may commit murder, he should do his best to prevent it.

The idea of the police investigating potential crimes of passion, including putting the “suspects” under surveillance, brings up some troublesome issues of privacy. More importantly, in this case, it makes for an unsatisfying mystery novel. In the Maigret novels, Simenon has always seemed more interested in the psychology of his characters than in crime, detection, and punishment. That strategy usually works for Simenon, as long as Maigret does his job as detective. Here Maigret himself catches the psychology bug, picks up a textbook on the subject, and sets about trying to diagnose the neuroses and psychoses of this couple. He makes a better detective than a psychologist, however. I’m not even sure that Simenon, much less Maigret, understands some of the psychological terminology that’s being bandied about in the course of this story.

This novel is eight chapters long, a typical length for the Maigret books. Only the last two chapters could be considered to comprise a crime story or mystery. The final chapter reveals some cleverly surprising aspects to the crime committed, but that’s the only portion of this novel that really impresses the reader. Maigret spends most of the novel acting as an unauthorized marriage counselor or family therapist. Sure, in Simenon’s hands it’s still interesting. He still keeps you wanting to continue on to the next chapter to find out what’s going to happen, but never at any time do you feel like you’re reading one of Maigret’s better novels. This episode of Maigret’s career is mediocre at best.

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Monday, December 11, 2023

Round the Fire Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A lighter shade of Poe
Round the Fire Stories
, a collection of 17 short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was published in 1908. The stories included within had previously been published in various magazines, and this is their first time appearing in book form. In a brief preface, Conan Doyle explains that the volume brings together tales “which are concerned with the grotesque and with the terrible.” I had previously read about half of these stories in a volume called Tales of Terror and Mystery, published in 1922. Stories included here also show up in the collections The Great Kleinplatz Experiment and Other Tales of the Twilight and Unseen (1925) and The Dealings of Captain Sharkey and Other Tales of Pirates (1925).

To be honest, none of these stories are particularly “grotesque” or “terrible,” but they do all fall into the horror and mystery genres, with more emphasis on the latter than the former. There are a couple ghost stories here, such as the clever “The Brown Hand,” and the less successful “Playing with Fire,” but few other instances of supernatural phenomena. A few suspenseful thrillers involve threats of death or violence from wild animals or insane persons. “The Pot of Caviare” is a war story with a gruesome twist. The remaining selections are mystery and crime stories, with thefts far outnumbering murders. “The Jew’s Breastplate,” for example, is an unconventional story about a jewel thief stealing priceless gems from a museum. Each story concludes with a “surprise twist” ending. In most cases, however, an intelligent reader can see the ending coming well ahead of time. Conan Doyle is so good at fleshing out his stories with interesting characters and clever details, however, one doesn’t really mind. Even when the plot is predictable, his storytelling is not.

Conan Doyle’s fiction was influenced by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. That influence is apparent here in some of the horror stories, particularly “The Leather Funnel,” which contains flashbacks to medieval torture. The stories of horror and murder that Conan Doyle presents here, however, have been softened to make them palatable for the general reading audience of his day. One need not be as dark and dreary as Poe to appreciate these stories; their thrills are suitable for Victorian English housewives. Poe also originated the mystery genre with his story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Although influenced no doubt by Poe’s mystery writings, Conan Doyle certainly made the genre his own. A few of the stories here venture into Sherlock Holmes-esque territory. “The Man with the Watches” and “The Lost Special,” for example, are intricate puzzles designed to baffle rather than terrify.

The best stories here are “The Brazilian Cat,” a suspenseful wild-animal horror story, and “The Japanned Box,” which won’t seem very scary or mysterious to today’s readers, but it is quite touching. Another strong entry is “B.24” (I don’t understand the title), a caper told from the point of view of a thief. It has a plot premise that has since shown up in many a film noir or cinematic thriller. The worst selection in this volume is “Playing with Fire,” a comedic story of a séance that applies unfunny slapstick humor to Conan Doyle’s obsession with spiritualism. Overall, this collection has a couple great stories and a couple stinkers, but for the most part the contents are consistently above average. The stories in this volume aren’t quite up to the standard of Sherlock Holmes’s more fascinating cases, but this book still makes for an enjoyable read.

Stories in this collection

The Leather Funnel
The Beetle Hunter
The Man with the Watches
The Pot of Caviare
The Japanned Box
The Black Doctor
Playing with Fire
The Jew’s Breastplate
The Lost Special
The Club-Footed Grocer
The Sealed Room
The Brazilian Cat
The Usher of Lea House
The Brown Hand
The Fiend of the Cooperage
Jelland’s Voyage

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Monday, December 4, 2023

In the Field, Among the Feathered: A History of Birders and Their Guides by Thomas R. Dunlap

The evolution of field guides
I’m a birder, and I also enjoy books about the history of books. So a book about bird books? Right up my alley. Imagine my joy when discovering Thomas R. Dunlap’s 2011 book In the Field, Among the Feathered, which covers both areas of interest. In this book, Dunlap provides a cultural history of birding in the United States, as shown through the proliferation and refinement of birders’ field guides. This history begins in the late 19th century with the first guides created for recreational birders (non-ornithologists) and proceeds to the abundance of bird books we’re faced with today. Along the way, Dunlap examines the publications of major players in the field guide industry, including the Peterson, Golden Books, Sibley, National Geographic, and American Bird Conservancy guides.

This book is written in a very academic style. That’s not to say it’s difficult to read, or that you need a PhD to understand it. It just means that Dunlap, a history professor, is constantly pushing his theses in the reader’s face, as academia requires. Following the Industrial Revolution, birding was a way for urban dwellers to experience the contact with nature that was missing from their lives. As America became more environmentally conscious, ecology and conservation became inextricably entwined with the practice of birding, as is reflected in the field guides. These points are repeated several times in each chapter, to remind you that everything he’s talking about is in support of these assertions. Dunlap is always looking for the cultural studies aspect of every development in the history of birding. How does this field guide or this birding trend reflect upon American society as a whole? Those sorts of arguments are necessary in a history textbook, but not necessarily of interest to those who are just interested in birding and birds.

The book contains quite a few illustrations, all of them reproductions of pages from bird guides, including 12 pages in color. Even so, both the birder and the book lover in me would have liked twice as many images. Dunlap spends a lot of time verbally describing the different layouts and features of each field guide, but the pictures are so much more effective at indicating what information was provided by each guide and how it was presented. In some cases, this is like an art history textbook in that Dunlap shows you a photo and then proceeds to describe to you what’s in that photo, as if you couldn’t see it for yourself. The images he does present are informatively captioned. More reproductions treated in this way and less textual description would have been a plus.

I did enjoy the birding history in this book. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a time when birders only had one or two field guides to choose from, and none of them particularly user-friendly, but that was the case before Roger Tory Peterson came along and basically invented the form of the field guide as we know it today. Dunlap includes some interesting biographical information on Peterson and the other bird-guide writers discussed in the book, as well as behind-the-scenes stories of the publication histories of their guides. It is pretty amazing how the activity of birding has grown exponentially since Peterson’s first guide. Dunlap does a good job of chronicling the why and how of that bird-book explosion.

I’ve seen a few other books about the history of birding advertised in recent years, but Dunlap’s focus on field guides is unique. If, like me, you enjoy bird books just about as much as you enjoy the real-life birds themselves, then this is the history for you.
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Friday, December 1, 2023

Writing (Ancient Peoples and Places series) by David Diringer

Broad, shallow overview of ancient scripts
In 1957, the London publisher Thames & Hudson began publishing a series of books on archaeology entitled Ancient Peoples and Places, which eventually grew to 113 volumes. In most cases, each book synthesizes the current research on a particular region or ancient civilization. The 25th book in the series, however, was the first volume to break that rule by focusing instead on the worldwide ancient history of a particular cultural phenomenon: Writing. That book entitled Writing, written by David Diringer, was first published in 1962.

Diringer starts by explaining the distinctions between pictographic, ideographic, transitional, phonetic or syllabic, and alphabetic forms of writing. He then goes on to examine individual scripts of different regions of the world and their chronological development. He starts by discussing the first pictographic symbols of prehistoric peoples. He then examines ancient writing styles of the Near East, including cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Hittite hieroglyphics, and the Minoan or Cretan scripts Linear A and B. This is followed by a chapter on East Asian scripts, which only covers Chinese and Japanese, with a brief addendum on Easter Island writing. Then follows a chapter on the pre-Colombian writing of the Maya and Aztecs. Not surprisingly, the most coverage is reserved for the ancient languages that were precursors to our own alphabet, which arose out of Semitic scripts that precursed the Phoenician, Greek, and finally Latin alphabets. Multiple side trips are taken into other written languages, such as Aramaic, Arabic, and Indian scripts. The book is illustrated with many transcriptions of ancient writing, photographs of inscribed artifacts, and phonetic and alphabetic tables of the languages covered.

The books in the Ancient People and Places series are meant to be concise introductory texts for students and general readers. They typically run about 200 pages, with many illustrations and charts, plus another 60 pages of photographs. In a book of that size, Diringer can’t provide a comprehensive history of every ancient script, so he had to make choices about what to feature and what to omit. Nevertheless, he covers a surprisingly large number and broad variety of languages here. What you get in this book is a little bit of knowledge about a lot of different scripts and their cultures. Diringer provides enough information to pique one’s interest, so the reader can seek out further information on specific languages in more specialized texts.

I read the first edition of this book from 1962. At that time, the Minoan script Linear B had just been deciphered, and the Mayan glyphs had not been completely deciphered. Soviet scholar Yuri Knozorov would put the finishing touches on cracking that code a few years later. I’m sure a lot of other discoveries have been made regarding ancient scripts in the past 60 years. Nevertheless, as emphasized before, this is a basic introduction to the field, and much of the fundamentals have survived the test of time. There’s not enough space here for Diringer to teach you how to read any of these scripts anyway, so if you require that level of detail and accuracy, look for a more advanced text. As a general overview, I enjoyed this book. It provides a clear outline of the development of alphabets over millennia, and it brought to my attention a few ancient civilizations and their scripts with which I was unfamiliar. I have been pleased with the volumes of the Ancient Peoples and Places Series that I have seen thus far, and I look forward to reading more of them.
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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson

My brother the scoundrel
The Master of Ballantrae
, published in 1889, is a historical novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. The story begins in Scotland with the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlie rebelled against King George II. At the estate of Durrisdeer in Scotland lives Lord Durie and his two sons. Not knowing which side will triumph in the rebellion, the family decides to cover both bases. It is determined by the toss of a coin that the elder son James, called the Master of Ballantrae and the rightful heir of Durrisdeer, will go off to fight on the side of the rebels, while the younger son Henry will remain at home to support the incumbent king. Little does the family realize that this coin toss will spark a vicious quarrel over the possession of the family estate.

Film adaptations of The Master of Ballantrae seem to emphasize swashbuckling adventure, but there really aren’t a lot of swords clashing or guns blazing in this book. The Master of Ballantrae has more in common with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights than it does with The Three Musketeers or Rob Roy. Wuthering Heights is a book about a dysfunctional family who live in an isolated estate on the moors of Northern England. Bearing lifelong grudges, the family members devote themselves to making each other’s lives miserable, sometimes in darkly comic ways. Life at Durrisdeer is not far off from that. The plot of The Master of Ballantrae revolves around the bitter rivalry between the two brothers, each obsessed with getting the upper hand over the other. James and Henry each takes pleasure in the misfortune, destitution, or humiliation of his sibling.

Unlike the denizens of Wuthering Heights, however, the characters in The Master of Ballantrae do not stay confined to their manor. This story runs farther afield, with chapters taking place in Paris, India, and the United States—mostly in the woods of upstate New York, home to savage Natives. This globetrotting aspect of the book, coupled with flashbacks of the Master’s wartime escapades, qualify this book as an adventure novel, but by no mean a conventional one.

Stevenson’s books remind me of Joseph Conrad. Both authors write adventure novels that transcend genre fiction to achieve the heights of fine literature, never settling for a formulaic adventure narrative but instead pushing the envelope to defy readers’ expectations. Both tell stories set in exotic locales, or tales of sea travel, painted with loads of vivid local color. The difference between the two is that Conrad’s prose is often confusing, obscure, tedious, and pretentious, whereas Stevenson’s prose is smoothly flowing, clear, lively, and mellifluous. Stevenson is one of the English language’s consummate storytellers. It’s no wonder that he was revered by so many writers of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

About the only thing I don’t like about Stevenson’s writing is that he assumes a good deal of knowledge of Scottish history and politics on the part of the reader. Not having that knowledge myself, I usually feel like I’m not quite getting everything that he’s saying. There are a couple points in The Master of Ballantrae where I wasn’t quite sure of the political or legal ramifications of James or Henry’s strategy. But for those few instances, however, this novel remains remarkably fresh, accessible, and entertaining over a century after it was published. Sir Walter Scott, another author of Scottish historical adventures, wrote prose that reads as if it were written 200 years ago. Stevenson’s writing, on the other hand, reads as if it might have been penned last week. The Master of Ballantrae is a work of classic, timeless storytelling that can still move, amuse, and excite readers of the 21st century.  
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Monday, November 27, 2023

John James Audubon: The Making of an American by Richard Rhodes

The artist as immigrant entrepreneur in the early republic
American author Richard Rhodes won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1986 book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. He has subsequently written a few more books on the Cold War, the arms race, nuclear energy, and nuclear terrorism, thus carving out a niche for himself in that area. In 2004, however, Rhodes played against type by publishing a biography of John James Audubon (1785–1851), the French-American artist and ornithologist whose paintings of American birds comprise what may be the greatest coffee-table book ever published, The Birds of America. In his ambitious biography John James Audubon: The Making of an American, Rhodes provides a complete life and times that not only recounts the fascinating events of this great artist’s life but also reveals much about American society and westward expansion during Audubon’s lifetime.

I had previously read William Souder’s biography of Audubon, Under a Wild Sky, which was also published in 2004. Souder concentrates more on Audubon as a naturalist, and places much emphasis on the making of The Birds of America book. Rhodes’s book is more of a full cradle-to-grave biography that leaves no stone unturned. All periods of Audubon’s life, from birth to death, are treated with more or less equal attention. Rhodes clearly wants to write the definitive biography of Audubon and is therefore hesitant to leave anything out. As a result, Audubon’s early business ventures and extensive travel itineraries are covered in great detail, whether those ventures were fruitful or not. The text is also peppered with plenty of mini-biographies of every brother-in-law, cousin, or casual acquaintance. This comprehensive omit-nothing treatment reminds me of Ron Chernow’s biographies of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. The advantage is you learn a lot, but a compelling narrative can sometimes get bogged down in too much encyclopedic detail.

Much discussion is devoted to Audubon’s marriage. The artist was separated from his wife, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, for years as he finished and promoted The Birds of America in Europe while she remained in America. Lucy earned a living as a teacher and raised their children, often facing financial hardship, while Audubon pursued his dream project in the hopes of future financial security. Souder makes Audubon out to be the villain in that story, a man who basically neglected his wife and kids. Rhodes, on the other hand, paints Audubon as a lonely lover constantly begging his wife to join him in Europe, only to be inexplicably refused again and again. Either way, I got more marital drama than I really wanted. Both Souder and Rhodes mine the couple’s prolific correspondence to provide blow-by-blow accounts of this transatlantic marital tug of war, when really some more concise summarization would have sufficed.

Rhodes’s biography of Audubon is not just for bird lovers. (In fact, bird lovers might prefer Souder’s book). As the subtitle indicates, this book will also appeal to readers of American history for the light it sheds on the Early Republic and the antebellum South. Rhodes doesn’t so much emphasize Audubon the artist or the ornithologist but rather Audubon the entrepreneur. Like many immigrants, Audubon came to America for a better life but found more struggle than manna from heaven. To pursue his American dream, Audubon had to navigate the frequently unstable and precarious economic climate of a young nation with growing pains. In John James Audubon, Rhodes delivers almost a dual biography of the man and the nation growing up together. Though the narrative sometimes gets dry at times, it’s an informative history lesson.  
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Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz

OCD: The Novel
Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) is widely considered one of Poland’s greatest modern writers. His novel Cosmos was published in 1965. It won the Prix International (International Prize for Literature) in 1967. I read the 2005 translation by Danuta Borchardt, who did a very fine job of interpreting Gombrowicz’s avant-garde prose into lively, smooth-flowing English.

The narrator of Cosmos, also named Witold, and his friend Fuks are scholars of some sort. They leave Warsaw for a sojourn in Zakopane, a Polish vacation destination, where they hope to relax, study, and write. In a sort of B&B arrangement, they take up lodging with a family in their country home. As they enter the grounds of their new home, the pair discover a dead sparrow hanging from a string. Who would do such a thing? This is seen as a bad omen and immediately sparks paranoia in the two young men. After taking up residence in the household, Witold and Fuks notice other possible “signs” of what they perceive to be some intelligent design concealing a message or a warning. These signs could be as esoteric as water spots on a ceiling that form the shape of an arrow, an arrow that the two can’t resist following until it leads them to other clues, real or imagined, to this mysterious puzzle. Katasia, a member of their host family, has a disfigured lip that Witold fixates on and inexplicably becomes obsessed with until he sees the form of this woman’s mouth just about everywhere he looks. Any repetition of visual or audial cues, such as two straight lines, two pieces of string, or two banging noises, are interpreted by Witold and Fuks as part of a sinister pattern. The pair are compelled to decipher this secret code that may only exist in their paranoid minds.

Not being a psychologist, I don’t know the textbook definition of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but my amateur diagnosis would be that these two are suffering from an extreme form of that behavioral malady. Cosmos is quite comic in its initial chapters, as the lengths to which Witold and Fuks obsess over every detail of their surroundings is absurd, ridiculous, and delusional. The strange humor and Gombrowicz’s creative use of language reminded me a bit of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. The book takes a darker turn at about the midway point, however, as Witold’s obsessions become sexual in nature. His attraction to one of his housemates is as obsessive as his compulsion to establish patterns where there are none. One not only fears for his sanity but for the safety of those around him.

Written from the point of view of Witold, the prose reflects his obsessive-compulsive nature. The text is riddled with the constant repetition of key words and phrases, basically all the “signs” over which Witold is obsessing. Usually I don’t care much for modernist writers who play a lot of word games, but there’s a method to Gombrowicz’s madness that I appreciated and enjoyed. His style is not just verbal masturbation but actually enhances the narrative rather than obscures it. The best thing about this novel is that it is so unpredictable. The plot could just as easily end in violence as in comedy, and the reader can never be sure if the grand design that Witold and Fuks are pursuing is real or imagined. With so many options on the table, I was disappointed with the ending, which felt like a weak resolution to a fascinating novel. Overall, however, I found Cosmos to be a very thought-provoking and satisfyingly original work of literature.
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Monday, November 20, 2023

Mexico (Ancient Peoples and Places series) by Michael D. Coe

Great concise overview of everyone northwest of the Maya
In 1957, the London publisher Thames & Hudson began publishing a series of books on archaeology entitled Ancient Peoples and Places. These books were republished in America by Frederick A. Praeger. In most cases, each book synthesized the current research on a particular region or ancient civilization. These books are authoritative enough to perhaps be used in undergraduate courses but accessible enough to educate general readers. The series eventually included at least 112 volumes. Some of these books are still in print and have been updated over the years.

Mexico, the 29th book in the Ancient Peoples and Places series, was first published in 1962 and is now in its eighth edition. It was written by Michael D. Coe, a distinguished archaeologist of pre-Colombian Mexico and Mesoamerica. Of the major scholars of Mexico’s ancient peoples, Coe has perhaps done the most to educate non-academics by writing books accessible to the general public, such as his popular 1992 book Breaking the Maya Code, which won a National Book Award. The reader won’t find any Maya here, however. Coe explains that the Maya need their own book in the series, which he wrote and published a few years later. Here Coe makes a cultural distinction between Mesoamerica, home of the Maya, and Mexico proper, being everything northwest of the Yucatán. Much of the ancient history presented here centers around the Valley of Mexico, location of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (site of modern Mexico City).

Later editions of this book are subtitled From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, but the book is really a broad overview of all the ancient cultures that inhabited Mexico from the first humans who walked down from the Bering Land Bridge thousands of years ago to the conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish conquistadores in 1521. The Olmecs and the Aztecs only get one chapter each. (They both later got their own books in the Ancient Peoples and Places series.) The absence of the Maya and the brevity with which the Olmecs and Aztecs are treated may be perceived by some as a detriment to the book, but I actually see it as a strength. One can find hundreds of books on those three civilizations, while the rest of Mexico’s ancient peoples go ignored or neglected. Here Coe provides a concise but comprehensive overview that gives everyone their due consideration. Centuries before the rise of the Aztecs, Native Mexican peoples had already left monumental testaments to their great civilizations, such as the metropolis of Teotihuacán northeast of Mexico City, Monte Albán in Oaxaca, and El Tajín in Veracruz. An archaeologically curious traveler wandering around Mexico today will hear all about the ancient histories of the Toltec, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Chichimec peoples, and many more. It is hard to grasp the broader picture of where and when these different cultures lived, and how they interacted and influenced one another. This book provides a clear key to how they all fit together geographically, chronologically, and culturally.

The content is a combination of historical synopses and mini-field reports of what was found at particular archaeological digs. Although this is an introductory text, Coe doesn’t dumb down the subject matter. The reader is expected to quickly grasp archaeological terminology, for example the official designations for specific Ice Age periods, pottery cultures, or styles of spear points. The many photographs, illustrations, charts, and maps are helpful. I’m not an archaeologist, just a layman and tourist, but I have read much on Mexican history, and I still learned a lot of fascinating facts from this book. If this is an indication of the quality one can expect from the Ancient Peoples and Places series, then I look forward to reading many more of these books.
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Friday, November 17, 2023

What Not: A Prophetic Comedy by Rose Macaulay

Intelligence-based eugenics in a future Britain
English author Rose Macaulay wrote her novel What Not during World War I, and it was published in 1918. The story is set in the near future following the end of the war. Of course, at the time of writing, no one knew when the war was going to end. This near future is far enough along to allow for flying cars and buses. Such mentions of future technology, however, don’t factor much into the story. The primary focus of the novel is a government-established program of eugenics and the political and popular reaction to it.

The Ministry of Brains, headquartered in London, regulates the intellectual development of every citizen in Britain. The government has determined that the best way to avoid another war is to elevate the intelligence of the populace. (That doesn’t seem logical to me, since I think greed and arrogance would be bigger factors to worry about than stupidity, but that’s Macaulay’s premise.) Each individual is given a grade for their mental acuity. A1 for the brainy, for example; C3 for the dense. In order to encourage the birth of more intelligent children, men and women are only allowed to marry partners who have a brain rating within a prescribed close proximity to their own. Some individuals with a history of mental deficiency in their families are forbidden from marrying at all. To discourage the disregarding of these laws, parents with stupid babies are taxed for their dumb offspring, while those with smart babies receive benefits. The Ministry of Brains also administers a system of Mind Training Courses, designed to raise the intelligence and mental efficiency of even the lowest rated brains. The government has made these courses mandatory, unless a citizen is able to obtain an exemption, usually given in cases of mental incompetence.

What Not isn’t so much about the science, philosophy, or morality of this eugenics program. This isn’t a science fiction novel like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s more about the public’s reaction to the program, as explored through debates between the characters. The story focuses primarily on four civil servants who work for the Ministry of Brains. They spend their weekends in a rural town outside of London called Little Chantreys, where we are introduced to a confusing array of what seems like dozens of minor characters. Most of the small-town residents are conservative in nature and object to the new-fangled ways of the government’s Brains program, while the employees of the Ministry are duty-bound to defend their department and its policies.

The purpose of all this is social satire, at least for the first half of the book. Every sentence of Macaulay’s prose is dripping with sardonic humor of a peculiarly British nature. She indiscriminately makes fun of the rich, the poor, the smart, the stupid, Christians, Atheists, government, clergy, and labor alike. Since so much of the satire is directed specifically towards British society, the jokes don’t always connect with the American reader. About the halfway point, the novel takes a more serious turn as it focuses more emphatically on a love story between a man and a woman forbidden by government policy to marry. This love story is a cut above the typical romance one finds in century-old English literature. In fact, the book’s romance is more successfully compelling than its humor is successfully funny.

In the end, Macaulay doesn’t really have anything profound to say about the subject of eugenics, but one can see how the intelligence policies of the Ministry of Brains could be a symbol of encroachments upon civil liberties in general. Macaulay would have certainly witnessed plenty of such encroachments during the Great War. Her viewpoint as expressed here leans to the side of liberalism. Macaulay never seems to take her subject too seriously, however, so why should the reader? It all just feels like an excuse to tell a love story, and not a bad one at that.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2023

The System of the World by Sir Isaac Newton

The mathematics of planets, tides, and comets
The System of the World
(De mundi systemate, in the original Latin) is the third volume of Sir Isaac Newton’s magnum opus Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). The Principia, for short, is Western Civilization’s fundamental text on physics, including the mathematics necessary to establish and prove the physical laws that govern nature. Volume I of the Principia is written in the logical structure of mathematical proofs, much like Euclid’s Elements. Volume III: The System of the World, on the other hand, is written in plain prose text, for the most part. This foolishly led me to believe that The System of the World might be like the Principia for Dummies, that is, Newton’s attempt to interpret his findings to a wider readership. Alas, this was not the case. While I was certainly able to get the general gist of Newton’s astronomical conclusions, one really needs a PhD in mathematics or physics to fully appreciate all that the great genius has to say in The System of the World.

In this third book of the Principia, Newton demonstrates how the laws of physics that he defined in the earlier volumes are evident in the movements of astronomical bodies in our solar system. Newton focuses on three main topics. First he discusses planets and moons. Newton explains how gravity determines the movements of astronomical bodies, and how the relationship between such factors as mass, distance, speed, and density dictates the amount of gravitational force that these bodies exert on one another. This section of the book is the most accessible to the general reader, but it’s also the briefest. From here, Newton then moves on to an extensive discussion of tides and how they are affected by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun. At this point, Newton’s still not speaking in logical proofs or hauling out geometrical diagrams, but he does use geometrical and astrophysical terms that are not common knowledge to laymen, such as “syzygies,” “quadratures,” and “librations.”

Newton reserves his longest and most difficult discourse for the third major topic of this book: comets, which occupies roughly the second half of the book. Newton begins by recapping much anecdotal and historical research from comet sightings of the past. He then proceeds into mathematical formulae for how to determine a comet’s speed or distance from the sun. Much consideration is given to the tails of comets, what causes them, and what their size and direction says about the comet from which they sprang. Eventually, Newton outlines the necessary mathematics for calculating the trajectories of comets, which was way beyond my understanding. By the end of the book, Newton has returned to the logical syntax of Euclidian geometry, outlining his arguments in the structure of problem, lemmas, and proof.

The System of the World is no doubt a work of genius, but for non-geniuses it doesn’t make for pleasant reading. I’m sure the knowledge that Newton presents here has proven invaluable to scientists, mathematicians, and astronomers for the past three centuries. I’m very glad he wrote it for them, but this was way more than I ever wanted to know about tides and comets. While I won’t blame Newton for my ignorance, I can’t really recommend his book either since 99 percent of the people reading this review will probably find this as mystifying as I did. If you’re part of that other 1 percent, good for you.

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