Monday, January 30, 2023

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

A masterpiece of a story, but long-winded in the telling
An American Tragedy
, a novel by Theodore Dreiser, was first published in 1925. Although these days Dreiser may best be remembered as the author of Sister Carrie, An American Tragedy, from its high-falutin title to its mammoth size, shows all the signs of having been his intended magnum opus. An early dust jacket for the book proclaims that this is “Dreiser’s first novel since 1915,” and judging by the sheer length of this tome, it’s not hard to believe it could have taken him a decade to write it. This novel has some shortcomings in its execution, but nonetheless it is arguably the most powerful story Dreiser ever wrote.

Clyde Griffiths is the son of devoutly religious parents who run a mission in Kansas City. The parents take the children out in the evenings to preach, sing, and collect donations in the streets. While his siblings don’t necessarily seem to mind this lifestyle so much, teenaged Clyde chafes under this enforced proselytizing and the relative poverty that comes with it. He wants to live like a regular young man, wear nice clothes, and date girls. He decides to get a job, both to raise money to help the family and to excuse himself from the street preaching. After a few brief stints at other work, he secures a position as a bellboy at the fancy Hotel Green-Davidson. Clyde starts hanging out with his more experienced coworkers and begins to get involved with alcohol and sex, all the while keeping his new sinful life a secret from his parents.

It’s difficult to summarize the plot of An American Tragedy without spoiling it, because no events of import really occur until halfway through the book. The first half of the novel is mostly overly protracted character development. Dreiser is celebrated for his realism, and he has certainly succeeded here in crafting authentic characters and a realistic narrative. When reading about Clyde’s youth, I felt like I had lived most of his experiences myself as a young man (minus the prostitutes), which speaks to the book’s authenticity, but the familiarity of such scenes also lessens some of the dramatic impact. Readers of Dreiser’s day might have been shocked at Clyde’s teenaged adventures, but today’s audience not so much. If you make it through the rather lethargic first half, the second half of the novel is far superior. Dreiser’s frank and multifaceted depiction of small-town life calls to mind Truman Capote’s creative nonfiction masterpiece In Cold Blood. Dreiser is to be commended for his honest and forthright discussions of premarital sex, birth control, and other matters that would have offended the propriety of many readers of the 1920s. .

The story of Clyde Griffiths may be one of the most compelling and memorable in American literature, one worthy of the illusive “Great American Novel” label. It’s in the telling of the tale, however, that the book has its faults. Even at the height of its tension and suspense, the text is very repetitive, often recounting the same scenes over and over again. Chapters often seem to proceed sluggishly in real time, when some summarization could have sufficed. As one of America’s preeminent literary naturalists, Dreiser’s strength is illuminating the epic dramas that take place in real American lives. At times, however, he seems to forget that this isn’t real life but a novel, and as such should be written as a novel, with a little less procedural tone and a little more poetic license in the storytelling. 
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Friday, January 27, 2023

Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

A dull, unmoving love affair
Alexander’s Bridge,
published in 1912, is the debut novel by Willa Cather. Bartley Alexander is an engineer who, as one might guess, designs bridges. He lives with his wife Winifred in Boston, but his career often involves work in other parts of the world. He is currently working on a major bridge project in Canada, of which much mention is made, but for some reason his job requires spending months at a time in London, without his wife. One one of his trips to England, Alexander hears that a former love from his youth, Hilda Burgoyne, is appearing as an actress in a popular play. The two old flames reconnect and commence having an affair. The rest of the book is basically Alexander feeling bad about the affair as it continues over months and perhaps even years, unbeknownst to his wife.

Cather may be one of America’s great novelists, but Alexander’s Bridge is not one of America’s great novels. A year later Cather would publish O Pioneers! and establish herself as one of the Midwest’s and Southwest’s great regional realists. Alexander’s Bridge, an urban romance set in Boston and London, is not typical of Cather’s work and, although it’s not a terrible piece of writing, doesn’t measure up to her later, greater works.

After reading more renowned works of Cather’s fiction like O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and One of Ours, one comes to expect realism, honesty, and psychological authenticity in her work. Alexander’s Bridge feels more like a string of soap opera scenes than a realistic look at a love affair. Unlike the realistic down-to-earth characters that one comes to know and care for in Cather’s regionalist novels, he characters in this love triangle are unrealistic ideals of beauty and perfection. Alexander and his two loves are pretentious people engaged in pretentious dialogue that reads more like Literature than actual conversation. The Alexanders live a life of luxury. Mrs. Alexander and Hilda Burgoyne are described as if they were the two most beautiful women of all-time. Is one supposed to sympathize with Alexander’s misgivings as he shuttles back and forth between sleeping with the two? Or is one supposed to envy him? The end result was neither, as I really didn’t care about any of these characters.

The final chapter is the best-written part of the whole book, perhaps because it deals with something other than the love affair and Alexander’s halfhearted crisis of conscience. Nevertheless, it is a predictable ending that one can see coming from chapter one. The whole book feels as formulaic and one-dimensional as so many Victorian romances, except that it deals with adultery in an open and frank way. That’s really the only sense in which the novel could be seen as modern or daring, and it’s not enough to keep the story interesting.
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Thursday, January 26, 2023

Erhard Ratdolt and His Work at Venice by Gilbert R. Redgrave

Arcane details for scholars and collectors
Printed page by Ratdolt
Of the old masters of the early days of European printing, few have survived in public memory to become household names. Everyone knows Joannes Gutenberg and his famous Bibles, of course, and many in the publishing, printing, or design industries may have heard of Aldus Manutius or William Caxton. Other than that, if these pioneers of the printing press don’t have a font named after them, their names have been lost to all but the most knowledgeable collectors. Alas, one such unsung fontless hero is Erhard Ratdolt, a 15th century printer from Augsburg, Germany. Collectors in the know recognize Ratdolt for the superior quality of his printing work. He is also the first European printer to successfully print multicolor woodcut illustrations beyond just black and red.

There aren’t very many books about Ratdolt, and if you search for one, the first to come up will likely be Erhard Ratdolt and His Work in Venice by Gilbert Richard Redgrave. Published in 1894, this slim book is in the public domain and therefore downloadable for free from sites like HathiTrust and the Internet Archive. If you’re looking for an introduction to Ratdolt’s life and work, however, this is probably not the book for you. The text of this book is a paper that was originally presented by Redgrave at a meeting of the Bibliographical Society in London, so the information is intended for a very specialized audience of scholars, collectors, and experts in early printing.

Redgrave focuses exclusively on the decade that Ratdolt spent in Venice, where he began his career as a printer and did some of his finest and most groundbreaking work. Redgrave doesn’t provide much biographical or historical information because he assumes his audience already knows all there is to know about Ratdolt’s career. Mostly, Redgrave talks about specific books that Ratdolt printed, some of which Redgrave owns in his personal collection, and how his copies differ from other copies due to variations in the printing. In keeping with this topic, the latter half of this book is a detailed bibliography of all the books that Ratdolt and company printed in Venice. Undoubtedly, this compilation of book specifications is a valuable source for collectors of Ratdolt’s work, many of whom would have been members of the Bibliographical Society. For the uninitiated reader, however, this book really doesn’t offer much of use.

The best thing about Redgrave’s monograph is that he includes a few reproductions of Ratdolt’s work that exhibit the printer’s skill and his fine taste in typography and decorative illustrations. These attractive examples offer some sense of Ratdolt’s career, but for the most part any narrative of the pioneer printer’s life or career gets lost in the morass of arcane detail in Redgrave’s text.

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Friday, January 20, 2023

Bread by Charles Norris

Mixed messages for working women
Charles Gilman Norris was a well-respected literary figure in his day, but nowadays he is probably best known for being the little brother of Frank Norris, whose novels (McTeague, The Octopus, The Pit) hold an esteemed place in American literature while Charles’s books have mostly faded into obscurity. In addition, Charles was the husband of Kathleen Norris, also a successful novelist. Like Frank, Charles was a realist and a bit of a muckraker who often wrote fiction exploring social issues. His novel Bread was published in 1923. (Charles had a penchant for one-word titles.)

The meaning behind the title does not remain a mystery for long. In the opening scene, Mrs. Sturgis, a widow and piano teacher living in a New York City apartment with her two daughters, has to borrow a dime from one of her students in order to buy a loaf of bread. Though a middle-class family, the Sturgis women often have trouble making ends meet. Jeannette, the elder daughter, decides she’s had enough of scraping by and decides to go to work. She undergoes training as a stenographer and takes a position with the Corey Publishing Company. Beyond the mere pleasure of a paycheck, Jeannette actually enjoys working. She proves herself a model employee, and her diligent work ethic soon makes her indispensable to the company. When she falls in love with one of her coworkers, however, Jeannette is faced with the dilemma of whether to give up her career to become a wife and homemaker (a foregone conclusion in those days) or to stick with her exciting, independent life as a businesswoman.

That brief plot sketch may sound like the premise for many a formulaic Victorian romance novel, but Bread is a more sophisticated examination of working women’s woes than the typical spunky working-girl tale. Norris delivers a realistic portrait of a working woman’s life in 1920s America, both in and out of the office. Jeannette has to deal with male colleagues who don’t take her seriously, female coworkers who resent her ability, occasional unwanted advances from clients, and the unfair reality of lower pay for women. She also struggles to balance her work and home life while her mother, sister, and boyfriends all continually encourage her to get married, quit her job, and start making babies.

Ultimately, Norris sets up a dichotomy between the lives of a married woman and a working woman, weighing the pros and cons of both, so as to ascertain which is the life better lived. Maybe that argument might be handled better by somebody other than a dude, but this was 1923, long before the term “mansplaining” was coined. To his credit, Norris has written probably the most dignified and authentic look at a working woman that I can recall from the first few decades of the twentieth century. Jeannette is not a cookie cutter heroine—at times she’s not even a sympathetic character—and the book is mostly free of clichés. When push comes to shove, however, Norris reaches pretty much the same conclusions about the role and needs of women as those romance novelists of the Victorian era. He just presents those conclusions in a more realistic and depressing way. Bread is a fine peace of writing, and admirably feminist for its time, but this was a century ago, and feminism still had a long ways to go, at least in the eyes of male writers.
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Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Rhythms of Modern Life: British Prints 1914–1939, edited by Clifford S. Ackley

English linocuts, etchings, and lithographs that evoke Italian futurism
The period between the two world wars was an era of rampant creaative experimentation as artists searched for new formal, technical, and theoretical means of expressing a modern life transformed by industrialization, science, and technology. Painting gets most of the attention, but printmakers were equally restless, inspired, and innovative. Modern industrialization also spawned the new medium of the linoleum cut print, or linocut, a more economical and egalitarian successor to the woodcut. Artist Claude Flight was a staunch proponent of this new modern art form, and the artists associated with his Grosvenor School of Modern Art made great strides in exploring the possibilities of the medium. Published in conjunction with a 2008 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Rhythms of Modern Life, edited by Clifford S. Ackley, examines the futuristic prints that came out of Britain during this era.

The British artists covered in this book were strongly influenced by the visual aesthetics of the Italian futurists, as exemplified by the poetry and philosophy of F. T. Marinetti, the paintings of Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla, and the sculpture of Umberto Boccioni. The Brits shared the futurists’ fascination with modern technology and the accelerated pace of modern life but did not necessarily agree with their Italian counterparts’ ideas on politics and war.

The prints reproduced in the book include some etchings and lithographs, media favored by artists C. R. W. Nevinson and Paul Nash, but the Grosvenor school was particularly known for its linocuts, so most of the images presented here are examples of that technique. Rhythms of Modern Life features the work of a dozen artists, but some of those are only represented by one or two images. For the most part, the book focuses on Claude Flight, Cyril E. Power, Sybil Andrews, Edward Wadsworth, and Swiss-born Lill Tschudi, all of whom predominantly worked in block prints (Wadsworth using wood, the rest linoleum), as well as Nevinson and Nash.

The book is divided into thematic chapters emphasizing particular areas of subject matter: images of war, speed and movement, industry and labor, and sports, for example. The text that accompanies the images in these categories is not terribly informative. There isn’t a whole lot of biographical content on the artists. There is some discussion of how they were influenced by the Italian futurists but differed philosophically from them. Mostly, however, the text consists of curators pointing out the angular forms and swirling vortices that you can clearly see with your own eyes. The book’s appendices are far more educational than its essays. The back matter includes a history of the linocut medium, an examination of the materials and processes used by the artists featured in the book, and a brief biographical sketch of each artist.

Another book was published on this subject in 1995, Linocuts of the Machine Age: Claude Flight and the Grosvenor School by Stephen Coppel. That book, part catalogue raisonné, is a more comprehensive text on this subject, and the authors of Rhythms of Modern Life often refer to it. I prefer the choice of artists and artworks featured in that earlier book, but Coppel’s book was published over 25 years ago, and most of the images are printed in black and white. Printing technology has advanced much since then, and in terms of sheer beauty, Rhythms of Modern Life, loaded as it is with fine color reproductions, is the more attractive book. The text falls short of a satisfyingly comprehensive study of this movement, but for those who really appreciate this art, the collection of images is worth the cover price.
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Cyril E. Power, Air Raid, linocut, c. 1935

Edward Wadsworth, Black Country, woodcut, 1919

Claude Flight, Brooklands, linocut, c. 1929

Monday, January 16, 2023

The Goblin Reservation by Clifford D. Simak

Simak put everything but the kitchen sink in this book
Author Clifford D. Simak was awarded the title of Grand Master of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction Writers of America. I have read most of his works and can say that in general his sci-fi certainly lives up to that distinguished designation. On the other hand, Simak also wrote fantasy novels of the Dungeons and Dragons or Lord of the Rings variety, which in my opinion are not as successful as his purely science fiction works. With his 1968 novel The Goblin Reservation, Simak crafts an odd mash-up of the two genres. In fact, this book is a mash-up of a lot of things. Simak put everything but the kitchen sink into this story, as if it were a garbage disposal of leftover ideas. Nevertheless, he manages to juggle all of the novel’s disparate elements, and through the story’s own perverse logic, somehow it all works together.

The Goblin Reservation takes place on Earth at an unspecified time in the future. By this time, mankind has explored other planets and become acquainted with their various life forms, some of whom have immigrated to Earth. Scientists have also achieved time travel. A Time College, devoted to the firsthand study of the past, has been established in Madison, Wisconsin. (Readers familiar with Simak’s writing will not be surprised at that location, since he frequently sets his stories near his hometown of Millville, WI.) Over the centuries, humans have also discovered that many of the creatures we thought were mythical or supernatural—fairies, goblins, banshees, trolls, ghosts, etc.—are actually real, natural beings that have managed to mostly live in hiding since ancient times. Many of these beings now reside on a Goblin Reservation near Madison; hence the book’s title, although the reservation itself occupies but a small part of the story.

Peter Maxwell, a professor at Time College, returns to Earth after an interplanetary research trip. The method of travel is matter transferral—essentially teleportation. Something went wrong with Maxwell’s trip. Instead of going to his intended destination, he was transported to an unknown crystal planet where mysterious beings gave him a glimpse of their staggering wealth of knowledge of the universe. Upon returning to Earth, Maxwell discovers that during his teleportation his matter was not only misplaced but also duplicated, resulting in two Peter Maxwells, one of whom returned to Earth prior to him and subsequently died. Now officially a dead man, Maxwell sets out to investigate what exactly happened. Aiding him in this endeavour are some of his friends from the university, including a Neanderthal brought forward in time, a ghost with no memory of his prior life, a woman with a saber-toothed tiger for a pet, and visiting lecturer William Shakespeare. Together this motley crew uncovers an alien conspiracy.

Of course, none of this is played dead serious; there is certainly an element of humor to much of the novel. That’s not to say, however, that anything goes, and whimsical events can just take place willy nilly. Despite the fact that the story involves space travel, time travel, and folkloric fantasy, Simak manages to weave everything together into a plot that makes sense, and it is a joy to follow along as he does so. This is not one of his more profound works, however, and at times the reader might wish it would be less comical. The ending feels a little weak as well, given all the bizarre and incredible events that lead up to it. Hard sci-fi purists will probably think The Goblin Reservation is just a load of nonsense, but readers with a tolerance for weirdness and whimsy, particularly habitual Simak fans, should not have much trouble enjoying the fun.
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Friday, January 13, 2023

The Mammoth Book of Crime Comics, edited by Paul Gravett

Mammoth? Yes. Best? Not really.
British publisher Constable & Robinson has an extensive line of “Mammoth Book” anthologies. The Best Book of Crime Comics, published in 2008, is one of the few volumes in that series devoted to graphic storytelling. Edited by comics critic Paul Gravett, this book consists of 24 crime stories taken from comic books and newspaper comics, reprinted in black and white. The reproduction quality of the art varies with the source material but overall is pretty good.

What this collection does well is give a broad overview of the crime comics genre by presenting a wide variety of selections: old and new, American and European, hard-boiled and comical, pulp fiction and avant garde. The individual stories selected to fit those categories, however, are not necessarily exemplary works. The thought process behind putting this collection together seems to have been, “You can’t have a collection of crime comics without including . . . (Will Eisner, Alex Raymond, Alex Toth, Mickey Spillane, Max Allan Collins, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, etc.)” There are also certain characters that seem like must-haves: Eisner’s The Spirt, Dashiell Hammett’s Secret Agent X-9, Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and Collins’s Ms. Tree are all here. Even so, in many cases the story selected for inclusion can’t really be said to be that character’s best. The Ms. Tree story is more of a character-development piece about her pregnancy than an actual mystery. The chosen X-9 adventure is rather tedious and silly, and someone made the unforgivable mistake of printing some of the strips out of order.

These days it seems anyone who publishes an anthology is contractually obligated to put Neil Gaiman’s name on the cover, even though crime fiction is clearly not his area of expertise. His story, “The Court,” is somewhat interesting but has an element of legend and fantasy to it that really doesn’t fit in with the rest of the collection. Likewise, Alan Moore, writer of Watchmen and Swamp Thing, is another big name in comics not known for this genre (From Hell excepted). He gets not one but two stories, both of them pretty bad, one of which doesn’t even involve a crime.

In general, the stories from the 1940s and ‘50s are more successful than the newer selections, the most recent being from 1996. EC Comics great Johnny Craig’s story “The Sewer,” originally published in Crime SuspenStories, is phenomenal. Alex Toth’s “The Crushed Gardenia” is a superb and chilling portrait of a killer. Spillane’s Mike Hammer adventure, a series of Sunday newspaper pages, is also exceptional and surprisingly violent and graphic for its time. Eisner’s “The Portier Fortune” may not be the most innovative Spirit story, but it’s still a quality piece of work like just about everything Eisner ever did. The same could be said for Simon and Kirby’s “The Money-Making Machine Swindlers.” Of the newer entries, Charles Burns’s poisonously macho masked-wrestler detective El Borbah stars in one of the book’s best entries. Spaniards Enrique Sánchez Abuli and Jordi Bernet also deliver an outstanding hard-boiled comic noir story from their Torpedo 1936 series.

In his introduction to the book, Gravett insinuates that if today’s readers think they know the crime genre from reading Frank Miller’s Sin City, they’ve got another thing coming. Although it’s great that Gravett is introducing those readers to classic comics from the golden age of pulp fiction, most of the selections in this volume, particularly the more recent ones, don’t really hold a candle to the Sin City series, either in storytelling or in art. Any collection of EC’s Crime SuspenStories would surely outshine this grab bag, and for those looking for more contemporary crime comics, I would recommend the Hard Looks collections edited by Andrew Vachss.

Stories in this collection

“Old Gangsters Never Die” by Alan Moore and Lloyd Thatcher
“Torpedo 1936: The Switch” by Enrique Sánchez Abuli and Jordi Bernet
“The Money-Making Machine Swindlers” by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
“87th Precinct: Blind Man’s Bluff” by Bernie Kirgstein and unknown writer
“The Murderer of Hung” by Dominique Grange and Jacques Tardi
“Murder, Morphine, and Me” by Jack Cole
“El Borbah: Love in Vein” by Charles Burns
“The Spirit: The Portier Fortune” by Will Eisner
“Secret Agent X-9” by Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond
“Commissario Spada: Strada” by Gianluigi Gonano and Gianni De Luca
“Lily-white Joe” by Bernie Krigstein and unknown writer
“The Crushed Gardenia” by Alex Toth and unknown writer
“Ms. Tree: Maternity Leave” by Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty
“Roy Carson and the Old Master” by Colin McLoughlin and Denis McLoughlin
“Mary Spratchet” by anonymous
“Alack Sinner: Talkin’ with Joe” by Carlos Sampayo and José Muñoz
“The Button” by Bill Everett and unknown writer
“Kane: Rat in the House” by Paul Grist
“Whodunnit?” by Fred Guardineer and unknown writer
“Mike Lancer and The Syndicate of Death” by Mickey Spillane and Harry Sahle
“Mike Hammer: Dark City” by Mickey Spillane and Ed Robbins
“The Court” by Neil Gaiman and Warren Pleece
“The Sewer” by Johnny Craig
“I Keep Coming Back” by Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate

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Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Maigret and the Bum by Georges Simenon

Anything but a conventional mystery
Belgian-French author George Simenon is rumored to have written somewhere around 500 novels, about 90 of which star his recurring sleuth Inspector Maigret. After having read 15 of the Maigret novels, I’ve learned you never know what you’re going to get—sometimes a mediocre mystery novel but often an exceptional genre-pushing whodunit. Maigret and the Bum is one of the great ones that falls into the latter category. This is the 88th installment in the Maigret series (if you count the short stories as well as the novels). Maigret and the Bum was originally published in 1963 as Maigret et le clochard and has since also been published under the English titles of Maigret and the Tramp and Maigret and the Dosser.

Like a latter-day Balzac, Simenon’s novels allow the reader to become intimately acquainted with the myriad cultures and classes of French society. This novel offers a glimpse into the lives of the homeless who live underneath the bridges that cross the Seine. According to Maigret, not much trouble usually arises from this subculture, but one of these Parisian bums has been victimized. For no apparent reason, one homeless man was attacked in his sleep, brutally struck on the head, and tossed into the river. He survived the incident after being fished out of the water by two bargemen. The victim remains unconscious in the hospital, however, unable to tell what happened to him. Like Maigret’s earlier mystery Lock 14, this novel also provides a glimpse into the culture of those families who live on barges and make their living transporting freight through France’s network of canals.

Given Maigret’s usual slate of heinous crimes, this bum-rolling attempted murder may not seem like a high-priority case, but it has piqued the inspector’s curiosity, and he is determined to uncover the motive behind this crime. After some investigation, Maigret finds that the homeless man was a former doctor who abandoned a wealthy lifestyle, perhaps due to mental illness, and chose to live as a vagrant. As is often the case with Maigret mysteries, the crime itself is not as important in the narrative as the motive behind it. Simenon’s primary concern is human psychology—why people commit crimes. Over the course of the novel, Maigret uncovers the back story of this enigmatic bum, as well as the secret pasts of the various suspects. Some of the conclusions Maigret comes up with seem like a bit of a stretch. It’s not entirely explained how he comes up with all the answers he does. Maybe more of his investigative process could have been revealed to the reader at times, but the investigation never oversteps the bounds of realism.

Nothing about this amounts to a conventional mystery. The details of the police procedural seem almost mundane, and Maigret is not so much a heroic detective as a curious voyeur, a sleuthing bulldog who burrows into the dirt of people’s lives until they crack under the strain. The resolution of the mystery is not formulaic either and tends to break some of the standard rules of detective fiction. Perhaps the fact that Simenon wrote so many books gave him the opportunity to experimentally scoff at the templates of the crime genre without worrying about disappointing his audience. If they don’t like this book, the next one will be something very different. In this case, the unconventionality works in the book’s favor, and the psychological authenticity of the characters makes up for any lack of romantic gumshoe heroics.
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Monday, January 9, 2023

The Bookshop of the World: Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

Oh, to be a printer in 17th century Holland!
In the 17th century, the Netherlands was one of the most literate countries in the world and published more books per capita than any other nation. In fact, as authors Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen convincingly argue in their 2019 book The Bookshop of the World, books should be the export for which Holland is renowned, rather than its tulips and cheese. During the 1600s, not only were wealthy collectors, intellectual professors, and studious clergymen amassing impressive personal libraries, but even common Dutch working stiffs also managed to prioritize much of their meager disposable income towards the purchase of books. In this copiously researched and detail-rich study, Pettegree and der Weduwen take the reader on a comprehensive tour of the publishing, printing, and bookselling industries in the 17th-century Netherlands. Along the way, they impart a wealth of information on the region’s political, religious, and economic history, perhaps more than most book lovers would ever want to know.

In the 1600s, the Netherlands included what is now Belgium and Luxembourg, or at least parts of them. The authors’ particular focus of concern here, however, is specifically Holland, the Protestant stronghold of the Dutch Republic of the North, as opposed to the predominantly Catholic Spanish Netherlands of the South. Holland included the two major centers of publishing, Amsterdam and Leiden, the latter home to the nation’s flagship university and therefore a center of scholarly publishing. Pettegree and der Weduwen also cover the rest of the Netherlands to a lesser extent. The Dutch were not only master publishers but also master marketers, allowing them to dominate the book trade in other European countries and languages, often drawing the ire of those nations whose own publishing industries suffered from the competition.

The text is divided into thematic chapters examining various aspects of the printing and publishing industries, such as political pamphlets, newspapers, religious treatises (of both Protestant and Catholic persuasion), exploration narratives, university dissertations, medical texts, and schoolbooks, prayer books, and almanacs aimed at the working and middle classes. Despite such categorical divisions, readers never lose sight of the overarching chronological history of the Netherlands, which the authors skillfully maintain throughout. At times they assume a pre-existing knowledge of Dutch history on the part of the reader, but for the most part a reasonably historically informed reader can follow along without getting lost.

The thoroughness of Pettegree and der Weduwen’s research is staggering. They seem to have read, catalogued, and statistically analyzed just about everything published in the Netherlands during this period. They combine all this data into an incredibly informative and well-written historical study. The problem is the question of who would want to read it. This is really a very specialized scholarly monograph on 17th-century Dutch history. The primary audience is the authors’ academic peers in the field. The authors, however, obviously consider this subject eminently fascinating and write the book as if everyone should be equally fascinated by it. They almost pull it off by doing a very good job of making the subject accessible to general readers. Even so, only the most avid enthusiasts of book history—rare book librarians and collectors, for example—will be willing to wade through so much arcane knowledge of early Dutch printing. I work in scholarly publishing, so I found the information on the origins of the university press and the Elzevier publishing empire quite interesting. As someone with Dutch heritage, I also enjoyed the vivid historical glimpse into the politics and religion of the literate and intellectual culture in which my ancestors lived. This book may not be for casual readers, but it provides an eye-opening education for those open to learning a lot about this subject.
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Friday, January 6, 2023

Essential Daredevil Volume 4 by Gerry Conway and Gene Colan, et al.

Colan delivers excellent art, and the stories are getting better
Marvel’s’ Essentials line of trade paperbacks reprints classic runs of their comic books in black and white on newsprint paper. Essential Daredevil Volume 4 reproduces issues 75 to 101 of the Daredevil title, as well as one crossover issue of the Avengers (#111). These comics were originally published with cover dates from April 1971 to July of 1973. Though at this time Daredevil was probably not one of Marvel’s more popular or groundbreaking heroes, for the most part this is a very good run of issues thanks to its talented writer and artist.

With issue #92, the Daredevil comic was retitled Daredevil and the Black Widow. The former Russian spy Natasha Romanoff plays a major role in the stories throughout this volume. Daredevil has always been somewhat of a romance comic in addition to a crime comic. Daredevil/Matt Murdock spends the first half of the volume lamenting his breakup with Karen Page until the Black Widow becomes his new love interest. The two lovers move out to San Francisco, which may seem like a radical departure from DD’s usual association with Hell’s Kitchen, but it’s actually a refreshing change of pace. The Black Widow isn’t quite an equal partner in these comics. She gets rescued a lot more than she rescues. This early in the ‘70s Marvel was still trying to get a handle on feminism, but this was a step in the right direction.

I last read Volume 2 in this series (haven’t gotten my hands on Volume 3 yet), which was written mostly by Stan Lee, and not very well. Here in Volume 4 most of the stories are written by Gerry Conway, who has really improved the quality of the Daredevil magazine immensely. Even some of Daredevil’s sillier villains (Man-Bull, for example, who makes his debut in issue #78) become reasonable and formidable opponents in Conway’s crafty stories.

The main attraction to these years, however, is the superb art of Gene Colan, who was the primary penciller of the Daredevil title throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s before Frank Miller took over. Colan’s work is particularly stunning with the inking of Tom Palmer. Colan was a great anatomist, and every Daredevil fight he draws is like a well-choreographed ballet. He was also very skilled at balancing light and shadow, amounting to a style that calls to mind film noir. His creativity continued to evolve and improve over time, which is evident when one follows the run of his Daredevil issues. The reproduction quality of the black and white art in Volume 4 is very good, with the exception maybe of a few murky pages here and there.

Unfortunately, the final four issues included in this volume do not feature Conway or Colan, and the writing and art suffers as a result, amounting to a descent into mediocrity. Steve Gerber takes over the writing and delivers a forgettable crossover with the Avengers and the X-men, as well as introducing some goofy villains like Angar the Screamer, a macho hippie whose shrieks have an effect equivalent to LSD. Conway and Colan’s work is so good overall that it is a shame to end the book with these lackluster issues. Nevertheless, the volume as a whole is pretty good and should please any fan of 1970s Marvel Comics.
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Thursday, January 5, 2023

Past Master by R. A. Lafferty

Nonsensical take on Utopia
R. A. Lafferty’s science fiction novel Past Master was first published in 1968. I encountered the novel when I purchased the Library of America’s collection American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1968-1969, in which Past Master is included. I’ve come to expect great things from the Library of America, editorially speaking, but in this case I was disappointed by their selection of this work. The editor of the collection talks about Past Master as if it were a seminal work of the science fiction genre, and the book was nominated for Nebula and Hugo Awards, but I just found it terribly annoying, tedious, and pointless.

In the year 2535, on the world of Astrobe, an Earth colony circling another star somewhere in space, a trio of political powerbrokers gather to discuss the fate of their civilization. Astrobe was meant to be a Utopia for humanity, but things aren’t quite working out that way. The prevailing regime on Astrobe faces rebellion from both human and “programmed” (android) inhabitants. What’s needed to save this society is a new leader, a man of honesty and integrity who can inspire Astrobe to keep the dream alive. The Astrobian illuminati have the power to reach back into time and summon forth historical figures from humanity’s past. It is decided that Thomas More, author of the original Utopia published in 1516, would be the best man to lead this new Utopia. Once More is brought to Astrobe, however, not all are in favor of his ascension to the throne, and he faces threats of assassination and enticements toward corruption.

That may sound like a clever premise for a novel, but the result is far less than satisfying. The plot involves some not-so-profound commentary on how Utopias are not all they’re cracked up to be. The drive to implement a universal perfection results in a totalitarian squelching of individuality. Lafferty merely tells us this, however, rather than really showing us through thoughtful narrative and imagery, as do better dystopian novels like George Orwell’s 1984 or Ayn Rand’s Anthem.

The bulk of the book is occupied by whimsical excesses. I guess because this is a science fiction universe, Lafferty thinks that anything goes, with no rules, so there’s no reason to make any sense. The book reads as if the fictional world he’s creating is just made up as he goes along. More is introduced to a motley crew of characters with goofy names, some of whom have special powers—witches, wizards, immortals, transmigrants—with no logical justification. The narration is a tapestry of nonsensical sentences, while the dialogue is a running banter of non-sequiturs. Although there are intentional moments of humor here and there, it doesn’t seem as if the novel is intended as satire. Instead, the prose simply comes across as silly without being funny. Much of the text just seems like unnecessary wordplay, which may have been more palatable in the era of beat poetry but now feels like a waste of time.

Perhaps critics and experts of the genre consider Past Master to be a classic of New Wave science fiction, but I found nothing in it to merit such praise. I prefer sci-fi that has some logic to it, even if it establishes its own logic, rather than just a willy-nilly stream of words that only add up to style without substance.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Publisher for the Masses: Emanuel Haldeman-Julius by R. Alton Lee

The man behind the Little Blue Books
Many would be surprised to learn that in the early twentieth century, the tiny town of Girard, Kansas, was, as historian R. Alton Lee proclaims, “the literary and publishing Mecca of the United States, and thus the international center of Western civilization.” That claim may be a stretch, but not a very big stretch. In 1915, Jewish Philadelphian Emanuel Haldeman-Julius moved to Girard to take over the Appeal to Reason, America’s most widely circulated socialist newspaper of all time. The appeal of the Appeal was on the decline, however, which gave Haldeman-Julius the impetus and opportunity to experiment with his own radical ideas of publishing. His big brainchild was the Little Blue Books, a line of inexpensive publications, designed to bring useful knowledge and quality literature to readers of all classes, that spawned thousands of titles, hundreds of millions of copies sold, and a variety of subjects so broad as to constitute a self-proclaimed “university in print.” In his 2017 book Publisher for the Masses, Lee provides a biography of this exceptional and enigmatic publishing mogul.

I have read many of the sources listed in Lee’s bibliography, so the story of Haldeman-Julius’s life was familiar to me. At first it didn’t seem like Lee was going to dig deep enough to make this biography worthwhile. The first few chapters seem to be taken entirely from Haldeman-Julius’s autobiographies, My First 25 Years and My Second 25 Years, so why not just read those? In subsequent chapters, however, Lee does dig deeper into the archival record. He has clearly perused the Haldeman-Juliuses’ correspondence and many of the myriad editorials Emanuel wrote for his multiple periodicals. From these Lee uncovers enough lesser-known details to enlighten even well-read fans of Haldeman-Julius. In particular, this biography provides a great deal of insight into the Haldeman-Juliuses’ marriage (Marcet Haldeman-Julius was an active partner in her husband’s enterprises) and the financial problems faced by the couple during the Great Depression. Lee may hail Emanuel the publisher as a heroic figure, but this book is not a unilateral exercise in hero worship. Emanuel the husband and father was not quite the knight in shining armor, and Lee doesn’t let his subject off the hook for his less praiseworthy qualities and actions.

This book could have used a better edit by the University of Nebraska Press because there are several noticeable errors, and not just typos, of which there are quite a few. One sentence is repeated verbatim at the end of two paragraphs within a page of each other (pages 77-78). Haldeman-Julius’s book A Trip to Plutopia is erroneously titled A Trip to Utopia (p. 96). His book The Big American Parade is described as a novel, when in fact it is a nonfiction book of cultural criticism (p. 143). Someone named Fagnani is quoted without any indication of who he might be (p. 141). Maybe he was just some random reader of the Little Blue Books who wrote a fan letter to Haldeman-Julius, but if that’s the case then say so.

Despite such flaws, Publisher for the Masses is likely the best one-volume biography written about Haldeman-Julius thus far. Kansans, socialists, freethinkers, autodidacts, and other fans of the Little Blue Books who may have only a passing knowledge of Girard’s great publishing entrepreneur will certainly get an admirably comprehensive education on the man’s life from this book, without having to hunt down and read through all the obscure articles and dissertations heretofore written about him. The wide-reaching radical publishing industry in Girard, Kansas, is an episode of American history that merits better recognition. Haldeman-Julius has long deserved an engaging biography for contemporary readers, and Lee has delivered one with this book.
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