Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Redburn: His First Voyage by Herman Melville

A sailor’s life told with humor and poignancy
, the fourth novel by Herman Melville, was published in 1849, two years before his masterpiece Moby-Dick. Like Moby-Dick and the handful of novels that came before, Redburn is a nautical narrative. Similar to Melville’s earlier books Typee and Omoo, Redburn bears an eyewitness immediacy that indicates this is likely a semi-autobiographical work of Melville’s own seafaring adventures, though no doubt portions of the work are fictionalized. The adventure in question is not as exciting as that of Typee, but Melville’s skills as a prose stylist have improved quite a bit since his literary debut. Redburn, which reads a bit like Moby-Dick but without all the deep philosophizing, is also a work in which Melville frequently exhibits his sense of humor.

Wellingborough Redburn, the son of a formerly wealthy gentleman, lives in a village on the Hudson River in New York State. After his father undergoes a fall from grace in business and finances, Redburn is forced to work for a living. Unable to find gainful employment in his hometown, he decides to follow his natural wanderlust into a career as a sailor. In embarking on this new life, he must start at the bottom, and he signs on as a “boy” on the ship Highlander bound for Liverpool. Blue-collar workers derogatorily might refer to Redburn as a “college boy” for the airs of intellect and refinement that he puts on. In the world of nautical employment, however, he is a greenhorn and a bumbler. One can sense that Melville is making fun of his younger self when he points out what a ridiculous fish-out-of-water Redburn is in this harsh new environment. As Redburn learns the ins and outs of the sailing life, the reader learns along with him and shares in his embarrassments. While Redburn is forced to live through these indignities, however, the reader has the luxury of laughing from the sidelines.

In Redburn, Melville presents a very interestingly unglamorized view of shipboard life. Once the boat reaches Liverpool, however, the narrative loses some steam. Melville digresses into some extended travel literature critical of the city of Liverpool, of which there’s a bit too much, but he eventually returns to the seafaring narrative. The laughs are not so forthcoming in the book’s latter half, however. Instead, Melville delivers poignancy and pathos through some memorable incidents in the lives of Redburn’s crewmates.

Masculinity is a theme that’s examined throughout the book. Most of the sailors on board the Highlander are of the aggressively macho variety, the extreme embodiment of which is Jackson, who almost resembles the alpha male of a gorilla troop. The more seasoned members of the crew are always ready to point out what they perceive as a lack of manliness on the part of Redburn. The title character gets off easily, however, compared to his friend Harry Bolton, who is described as such a soft and sensitive dandy that he comes across as somewhat of an androgyne. It seems as if a few characters in the book are intended to be gay (including Bolton, but not Redburn), though Melville couldn’t explicitly state that in a work of 1840s America literature. Nevertheless, he does acknowledge homoeroticism as a fact of life aboard ship. Melville makes it none too subtly clear that after long months at sea the macho sailors, tired of looking at each other’s ugly mugs, would vie for the attentions of a comely, effeminate male passenger or crewmate, even if the attentions paid were nonsexual.

Although this novel isn’t loaded with symbolism and mysticism to the extent of Moby-Dick, it still ends up being surprisingly profound for a book that starts out as a rather lighthearted fictionalized memoir. More so than the earlier novels in his career, Redburn shows Melville rising to the level of literary greatness one would expect from the author of Moby-Dick
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Friday, February 24, 2023

The Ascension Factor by Frank Herbert

Not the strong finale one would hope for
The Ascension Factor
is the final novel in the Pandora Sequence by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom. Herbert’s novel Destination: Void was a prelude of sorts to the series. He then collaborated with his friend, poet Bill Ransom, on a trilogy of novels set on a planet named Pandora, beginning with The Jesus Incident, which was followed by The Lazarus Effect. The Ascension Factor was published in 1988. Herbert died while the book was being written, and Ransom has stated that for that reason he had a bigger hand in writing this final book than he did for the previous two novels. Even if that’s the case, there is no noticeable change in style or narrative voice in this last installment, but the plot is the least interesting of the series.

While centuries passed between the previous novels in the Pandora series, The Ascension Factor takes place only 25 years after the end of The Lazarus Effect. A couple of characters have returned from that previous novel, but mostly this new book is populated by the children of The Lazarus Effect’s cast. One of the returnees is the recurring character Raja Flattery, the chaplain/psychiatrist of the original mission from Earth. Despite the fact that the astronauts who ventured to Pandora can stay alive for centuries in “hybernation,” this is not the same Raja Flattery who appeared in the previous novels, but rather another clone of the same person. This new Flattery is a tyrant who rules over Pandora with an iron fist, commanding a complex network of intelligence agents, assassins, and media outlets. Fed up with Pandora’s harsh environment and pestered by an underground resistance, Flattery has decided to build a new space ship to migrate humans to another planet where he will re-establish his authoritarian rule. Meanwhile, Pandora’s apex native species of sentient electrokelp, long controlled by humans for its climate-changing abilities, has started to outgrow the rule of its masters, and a legendary human/kelp hybrid messiah has appeared on the scene to challenge Flattery’s dictatorship.

The Pandora Sequence is also known as the WorShip series, after the conscious and omniscient spacecraft known as Ship, whom many humans on Pandora worship as a god. Herbert and Ransom never really followed up with that thread, however, as Ship abandoned Pandora after The Jesus Incident, never to return. The religious titles of the three Pandora novels lead one to believe that Herbert and Ransom might use this sci-fi series to examine religious and theological concepts. That’s true of The Jesus Incident, which contains a lot of Judeo-Christian imagery, but once again the authors pretty much abandoned that idea in the later novels. The only religion that’s really covered in the last two books is the sort of messiah worship that Herbert already explored more intelligently in his Dune series. The Ascension Factor, with its rather simplistic overthrow-the-tyrant storyline, feels too much like a rehash of Dune themes.

In the Dune books, the plots were driven by continuous confrontations between characters. The Ascension Factor, like The Lazarus Effect, suffers from too much going places and not enough getting there. The characters spend so much time in vehicles on their way to meeting each other that you have to wait until the very end of the book for much to happen, and then too much happens. Also plaguing this novel is a return to the technobabble that almost rendered Destination: Void unintelligible. Towards the end of The Ascension Factor, the authors (probably Ransom, mostly) get so bogged down in the technical details of the kelp, submarines, and hologram technology of Pandora that it’s hard to follow exactly what’s going on. Or rather, it’s hard to care when anything goes. Overall, the Pandora series is an entertaining and intriguing sci-fi saga, but it could have used a better finale.
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Thursday, February 23, 2023

On These Walls: Inscriptions and Quotations in the Buildings of the Library of Congress by John Y. Cole. Photographs by Carol M. Highsmith

The public art of America’s secular cathedral
On These Walls
, published in 2008, is a photography book showcasing the art and architecture of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The subtitle, “Inscriptions & Quotations,” makes the book sound less exciting than it is. It’s not really so much about the quotes and text that adorn the LOC’s walls but more about the visuals that accompany them. This book is chock full of beautiful photographs of the murals, mosaics, sculptures, stained glass windows, and architectural details of the world’s largest library. The images include artworks found in the Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams buildings. The Jefferson building, however, being the Library’s flagship edifice that was lavishly decorated in the late 19th century, is the main attraction and gets the lion’s share of coverage.

At 9 x 10 inches and a half an inch thick, this isn’t quite a coffee table book, but it certainly isn’t a pocket guidebook either. The paper is of high quality, and the printing is impeccable. The photography is by Carol Highsmith, one of America’s greatest documentary photographers of the 20th century. After taking hundreds of thousands of photos all over America, she donated her entire body of work to the Library of Congress and graciously entered all her images into the public domain. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting photographer for this subject.

The photographs here include very few room-sized interior shots. Almost all the pictures focus on a particular work of art. This is not a comprehensive guide that attempts to document every artwork in these buildings. Instead, it gives the reader a general idea of the decorative theme or scheme in each room or hallway, and then shows a couple examples from each room. The captions provide information on the artists who created the artworks and also describes paintings and sculptures that are not pictured. For example, the text tells you that the Northwest Corridor of the Jefferson Building has nine lunettes (semicircular murals) painted by Edward Simmons depicting the nine Muses of Greek Mythology. It shows you photographs of two of these Muses, then lists the rest, also pointing out that under each Muse is a quotation by Alexander Pope. The photos are so beautiful they leave the reader wishing for more. Perhaps there is a book out there that documents every single artwork in the LOC, but if so it would be a huge and expensive book.

I have an art degree, but I only recognized the name of one artist discussed in this book: Elihu Vedder. Unfortunately, this romantic style of allegorical figurative art from the Gilded Age has since fallen out of favor among art scholars and critics, but On These Walls celebrates these great artists as they deserve. Not only is the art beautiful, but the symbolism is interesting and the subject matter inspiring. The Library of Congress is the ultimate monument to America’s intellectual heritage, similar to the Panthéon in Paris, but minus the tombs. (The art and inscriptions in the LOC actually celebrate achievements of all nations, but with a clear emphasis on European heritage and a predominance of American names.) Each room celebrates great achievements in literature, the arts, sciences, humanities, and industry. Like the cathedrals of Renaissance Europe, the decorative art delivers both an education and a sermon, but in this case it’s a secular sermon, one that champions human intellect and creative intrepidity. That’s a fitting message for an American library, and this is one library, and one book, that will make you proud to be an American.  
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Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Essential Fantastic Four Volume 7 by Gerry Conway, et al.

Three out of Four ain’t bad
Essential Fantastic Four Volume 7
reprints issues #138 to 159 of the Fantastic Four comic book. These issues originally ran with cover dates of September 1973 to June 1975. In addition, this paperback volume of black and white reprints includes Giant-Size Fantastic Four numbers 2, 3, and 4, a one-shot comic called Giant-Size Super-Stars #1, and a crossover issue of the Avengers (#127). Most of the issues in this volume were written by Gerry Conway, one of the better storytellers in Marvel’s bullpen in the ‘70s. The art is drawn mostly by Rich Buckler but with a few issues by the brothers Buscema, John and Sal. None of these artists is quite up to Jack Kirby standards, but they all make a conscious and valiant effort to emulate Kirby’s bombastic, futuristic style, which is appropriate to the Fantastic Four. In doing so, Buckler and company deliver the classic style of Marvel art one expects from this era.

The cover of each issue of the Fantastic Four bore the tagline “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” and they weren’t just whistling Dixie. Fantastic Four had two big strengths going for it. The first was its interesting characters and the unusual family dynamic between them. The second was the fact that the FF were the most sci-fi of Marvel’s superheroes and therefore hosted the most fantastical and innovative stories. The pulp-fiction scope of the Fantastic Four’s world was so broad that no genre or strange occurrence felt out of place. Aliens, time travel, alternate universes, mythical beings, magical wizards, lost civilizations, giant bug-eyed monsters, war stories, soap opera romance—just about everything was fair game in the Fantastic Four, and it all works. I think there’s even a bit of Western in these issues. This run of stories from the 1970s is not the title’s greatest hits by any means, but these comics are still exceptionally entertaining because they are built on the solid foundation created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby: Doctor Doom, the Inhumans, the Negative Zone, Namor, the Watcher, the Silver Surfer, the Frightful Four—with material like that to work with, it’s hard to go wrong.

One disappointing aspect of this period in the FF’s career is that Susan Richards, the Invisible Woman, is almost entirely absent from these issues. She and Reed Richards are separated, and Medusa of the Inhumans is filling her spot on the team. Even after Sue and Reed reconcile, she’s still hardly around, only showing up for an occasional brief cameo. Medusa may have amazing hair, but she’s not a character with much personality. The writers don’t give her a whole lot to do anyway, and the stories concentrate almost exclusively on the three men in the team. Marvel may have broken some ground by introducing many female superheroes into their universe, but in the 1970s they were still a long way from feminism.

Nevertheless, there is much for fans of classic Marvel to enjoy in Essential Fantastic Four Volume 7. Deeming these issues “Essential” may be a stretch, but the stories and art are well above average Marvel fare of the period, and this trip down memory lane is a whole lot of fun.  
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Wednesday, February 15, 2023

The Castle of the Carpathians by Jules Verne

Mediocre mystery in Transylvania
Jules Verne is known as a pioneering master of science fiction for penning such works as From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He did not, however, confine himself exclusively to the sci-fi genre. Of the 50-plus novels in Verne’s series of Voyages Extraordinaires, many of the works are adventure stories in what might be termed geographic fiction. Verne chooses an exotic locale and then creates a story based on the environment, culture, and history of that location. Such is the case with The Castle of the Carpathians, a Verne novel published in 1892. The story is set in Transylvania, now in Northern Romania but at that time part of Austria-Hungary. In his depiction of the region, Verne emphasizes the superstitious nature of its inhabitants, which allows him to dabble in the horror genre. Verne, however, has always been a champion of science over superstition, of the natural over the supernatural, so this venture into Gothic horror feels a bit halfhearted, like a Scooby-Doo mystery just waiting for the ghost’s mask to be pulled off.

Near the Transylvanian village of Werst there lies a massive, spooky castle of rough-hewn stone, resembling a ruin from some forgotten dark age. The owner of the castle, the Baron de Gortz, abandoned the estate 15 years earlier and hasn’t been heard from since, leaving the castle uninhabited. A shepherd in the neighborhood, however, spies smoke issuing from the chimney. Who is it that could be residing in the castle? Has Baron de Gortz returned? Have bandits occupied the castle, using it as their hideout? Could the fortress be populated by evil spirits or perhaps even the devil himself? There’s only one way to find out, of course, and that’s to venture into the castle and investigate, but what brave soul would dare enter this dark and forbidding edifice, the source of so many eerie rumors and ghost stories?

That’s basically half the book right there: the townspeople of Werst talking about how spooky the castle is. It is obvious that sooner or later the reader must be taken inside the castle walls, but Verne certainly makes you wait for it. He introduces a romance into the story and goes off into a Baron de Gortz back story that resembles a romantic opera of the era. When we actually enter the castle, it is a confusing array of passages and staircases. One would need a detailed floor plan to decipher all of Verne’s confusing directions. Overall, the plot spends too much time in the local inn with the chattering townspeople and not enough in the castle itself.

I actually like Verne’s non-sci-fi novels. I chose this book because I was interested in the Carpathians, a region not often covered in literature (at least not in novels translated into English). Verne’s depiction of the region, however, seems rather one-dimensional and stereotypical. It’s possible that Bram Stoker might have been inspired by this novel when he chose Transylvania as the setting for Dracula. Even if that’s true, Stoker took the concept much further and really excels in this genre, more so than Verne. The Castle of the Carpathians is not very successful as a horror novel or thriller. (The giant squid scene in Twenty Thousand Leagues is scarier than this.) As an adventure novel it’s rather boring, and as a science fiction novel there just isn’t a whole lot of science. The ending may have been surprising and innovative for the 1890s, but for today’s readers it’s pretty predictable. Really the only thing The Castle of the Carpathians has going for it is Verne’s inimitable style, charm, and enthusiasm. Fans of his will find this book mildly entertaining but not one of his better offerings.

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Monday, February 13, 2023

Making Woodblock Prints by Merlyn Chesterman and Rod Nelson

A very good concise overview of techniques and materials
I’ve been doing linoleum block prints for years, and I recently decided to give wood a try. I haven't done an actual woodcut since college, so I was looking for a refresher course. As an amateur printmaker, I tend to collect books on the subject, and I have quite a number of how-to manuals. Making Woodblock Prints, published in 2015, is one of the better ones I’ve seen in recent years. It was written by two printmakers from the UK, Merlyn Chesterman and Rod Nelson.

This paperback book is only 112 pages long, but within that length it provides a very good brief overview of the necessary techniques of block printing. The writing is clear and accessible but not too elementary. Beginners will find the education they seek, and more experienced printmakers will also find some useful tips and techniques. The book is heavily illustrated with photographs showing materials and processes, as well as a few useful diagrams. Overall, the presentation is well thought-out and well executed.

Chesterman and Nelson’s teachings on woodblock printing offer a happy medium between classic traditions and modern convenience. They emphasize the need for planning and persistence in producing a print, but they also encourage the reader to experiment and explore the happy accidents of the medium. Older textbooks on this subject often expect the artist to go cut down trees and plane your own wood blocks. Chesterman and Nelson are aware that most 21st century artists are going to purchase their materials from a printmaking supply store, and they offer intelligent advice on quality tools and materials and how to take care of them.

Unlike many recent publications on this subject, Making Woodblock Prints is not a book of projects—how to make a greeting card, how to make wrapping paper, etc. Chesterman and Nelson want to guide the reader in making his or her own art. In addition to the how-to component, books on printmaking often also present a gallery of images showing the possibility of the medium. Usually that involves showing a variety of styles: for example, Albrecht Durer, German Expressionism, Japanese landscapes. In this book, Chesterman and Nelson mostly show their own work as well as the work of some of their like-minded friends. Some of their fellow artists are Chinese and Japanese, but all the works illustrated in the book display a similar style, an abstraction of natural forms that emphasizes textures like tree bark, flowing water, and craggy stone. So on the one hand, the authors want to teach the artist enough to have the freedom to follow their own path with the medium; on the other hand, it seems like they kind of want you to make art that looks something like theirs. 
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Friday, February 10, 2023

The Cinema Murder by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Less thrilling than typical Oppenheim fare
British author E. Phillips Oppenheim was one of English popular literature’s bestselling novelists of the early 20th century. He cranked out over a hundred thrillers about espionage, murder, and international intrigue. Dozens of his books were adapted into films, and his stories and characters often call to mind suspense films of the early talkie era, such as the early works of director Alfred Hitchcock. Oppenheim’s novel The Cinema Murder was published in 1917 and adapted into a silent movie in 1919. The book has also been published under the title The Other Romilly.

Philip Romilly, a poor English art teacher, goes to visit his sweetheart Beatrice at her home in the dreary hamlet of Detton Magna. To his surprise, he finds evidence that she has taken up with his wealthier cousin Douglas Romilly, who owns a shoe factory. Beatrice admits her defection to another man, insisting she is sick of poverty, and she chastises Philip for his lack of prospects and ambition. Soon after this incident (in chapter 2, so not really a spoiler), it is revealed that the jilted Philip has murdered Douglas, assumed his identity, and fled on a steamer to the United States. Having absconded with some of his dead cousin’s money, Philip hopes to start a new life in New York and pursue a career as a writer. During the transatlantic passage, he meets Elizabeth Dalstan, a famous American actress. With incredible hastiness, he confesses his crime to her, but she has no problem falling in love with a murderer. Can the two pursue a future together in America, or will Philip’s past catch up with him?

This can’t be called a murder mystery, since the identity of the killer is revealed early on. For the most part, it is a love story between Philip and Elizabeth, but of course with obstacles thrown in the way of their happiness. As a result, compared to other Oppenheim novels I’ve read, this one is decidedly low on suspense. There is always the danger that Philip could be arrested for his crime, but Oppenheim is more concerned with establishing a typical love triangle with Elizabeth’s ex-boyfriend. The fact that she is so willing to cozy up to a killer never really rings true. Wouldn’t she be wondering somewhere in the back of her mind if she might be his next victim?

Although The Cinema Murder was published on the eve of the roaring ’20s, it is still hampered by the prudish moral codes of the Victorian Era, which does much to dull the excitement and suspense. It is just assumed, for example, that all the unmarried characters are virgins, despite being at least in their late twenties, so don’t expect any sexual tension. In the respectable popular literature of this time, read by gentlemen and ladies, it must always be shown that crime does not pay, so the reader knows all along that Philip can’t be allowed to get away with his murder. Oppenheim comes up with a cockamamie solution to get around that hard fast rule, but despite its unreality the conclusion is still somewhat predictable. The way that women are depicted in Oppenheim’s novels is frequently annoying. The social conventions of the time make relations between the ladies and gentleman of wealthy, urban society seem like unconsummated prostitution. One refreshing breath of fresh air in The Cinema Murder, however, is the supporting character of Martha Grimes, an independent working woman who won’t stand for any bull or sanction any gentlemanly advances.

The biggest mystery is why this book is titled The Cinema Murder, since it has nothing much to do with a cinema or movies at all. Elizabeth is shown to be acquainted with some producers in the film industry, but in this novel she only acts on the stage. The hero is a playwright of a Broadway play. The Theatre Murder might have made sense, but cinema’s got nothing to do with this.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Hunters are for killing
Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was first published in 2009. It was published in English in 2018, shortly after Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The title is a quote from William Blake, a favorite author of two of the characters in the novel. In between buying this book and reading it, I made the mistake of watching a Polish movie called Spoor, which, unbeknownst to me until the closing credits, is an adaptation of this novel. So before I even started reading the book, I knew the ending and all of the secrets behind its murder mysteries. Nevertheless, I enjoy Tokarczuk’s writing and can certainly recognize that this is a worthwhile work of literature, despite the spoilers. The book is far superior to the movie and does a better job of pacing and parceling out its reveals and surprises. The movie adds one ridiculous plot device at the end (involving a hacker) that thankfully is not present in Tokarczuk’s book.

The narrator of the novel is Janina Duszejko, a woman who seems to be in her 60s. She lives in a mountainous region of Southern Poland near the border of the Czech Republic. Her rural village is full of tourists and part-time residents in the summertime, but Duszejko is one of the few who lives there year-round. She lives alone, looks after the vacation homes of absentee landlords, and teaches English courses at the local elementary school. One night, Duszejko (she hates being called by her first name) is awakened by her neighbor Oddball (she assigns personal nicknames to her friends and acquaintances), who informs her that another neighbor, a poacher called Big Foot, is dead in his home. His death seems to have a natural explanation. In the weeks that follow, however, a series of deaths occur in the village that appear to be murders. Duszejko and her friends are not particularly sorry for the victims, who were into some bad activities, but they nonetheless take an interest in the murders and come up with their own theories on the suspicious deaths, with Duszejko’s theory the strangest of all.

The most interesting aspect of this novel is the complex character of its narrator. Duszejko has two obsessions. The first is astrology. She believes everything is governed by the stars, and if she knows a person’s date and exact time of birth, she can pretty much predict the course and outcome of their life. Duszejko’s other defining characteristic is her emphatic belief in animal rights. She abhors all violence and cruelty towards animals, whether from abusive pet owners, hunters for sport, or consumers of meat. This conviction clashes with the community in which she lives, where hunting is a way of life. She lives down the road from a fox farm, and all the men in town are hunters. When she expresses her views on animal rights she is scoffed at as merely a crazy old woman.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is not a conventional murder mystery, in that there isn’t much emphasis placed on finding clues and solving the puzzle. It’s more about the people who live in this town, how they deal with the murders, and what it reveals about their characters. The actual identity of the killer is not difficult to guess, neither in the book nor the film. The killings in this hunting community, however, allow Tokarczuk to examine from a new and interesting perspective the ethics of how people relate to animals and nature. This is not a mystery for mystery genre fans, but the unique narrator and setting, along with Tokarczuk’s talent as a storyteller, make this an intriguing and compelling read for just about everyone else.
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Monday, February 6, 2023

Picnic on Paradise by Joanna Russ

Pointless story about idiots on a camping trip
Picnic on Paradise
, a science fiction novel by American writer Joanna Russ, was published in 1968. It features a recurring character named Alyx who appears in a handful of Russ’s stories. Alyx is a thief and warrior woman of ancient Tyre (in present-day Lebanon) who was plucked from the past and brought forward by time machine to what would be our future. In this novel, Alyx is assigned by a lieutenant (a lieutenant of what is unclear) to guide several people on a backpacking exercise through the mountainous country of the planet Paradise. None of these people seem to be in the military (two are nuns, for example), so why are they taking orders from a lieutenant? Who knows? The planet Paradise is a nature preserve of sorts, but it is hardly paradisiacal. The mountains are snowy and cold, and the hikers have to face such hazards as freezing to death, falling in crevasses, and attacks by wildlife.

Alyx is the only member of the party who has any experience in this sort of wilderness adventure, and she’s the only one who acts remotely like an adult human being. The rest of the gang behave like children, speak in nonsensical non-sequiturs, and constantly break out crying for no apparent reason. Hardly a page goes by when one of these idiots isn’t weeping. It’s not just the characters that are dumb but the way they are written. Russ’s prose is merely a string of sentences that often make no sense and don’t really belong together in sequence. In the 1960s this might have been seen as creative, but to the intelligent reader of the 21st century it’s just annoying. It’s like listening to a bunch of children in a kindergarten shouting out whatever pops into their heads. The plot doesn’t really go anywhere, and the whole journey seems pointless. If there’s a larger philosophical meaning to this narrative, it escapes me. I question if this can even be considered science fiction because, with the exception of the occasional mention of a raygun or flying machine, it’s really just a camping story, and not a very good one.

I discovered this novel in the Library of America’s collection American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1968–1969. This is the second novel I’ve read from that book, after R. A. Lafferty’s Past Master, and both were just terribly written and utterly pointless. Picnic on Paradise was nominated for a Nebula Award, which makes you wonder about the tastes of such award committees, science fiction critics, and the editors who put together “classic” anthologies. Were the sci-fi literati of that time so hard up for good books that anything remotely “different,” however foolish, is hailed as groundbreaking? I find that hard to believe. Alyx may be a feminist heroine, but doesn’t a feminist heroine deserve a better book than this? Russ may have some decent works in her oeuvre, but this isn’t one of them.

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Friday, February 3, 2023

Essential Daredevil Volume 5 by Steve Gerber, et al.

Hardly essential, but decent Marvel fare
Marvel’s Essentials series of trade paperbacks reprints the classic comics of Marvel’s early years in black and white on newsprint paper. Essential Daredevil Volume 5 collects the August 1973 to September 1975 issues of Daredevil, issues numbering 102 to 125. Also included is a crossover issue of Marvel Two-in-One, #3, a side vehicle for the Thing of the Fantastic Four, who would team up with a different hero in each issue. Since issue #93, the Daredevil comic was retitled Daredevil and the Black Widow, up through #108, and then back to just plain old Daredevil again. Regardless of whether she is included in the magazine’s title or not, the Black Widow is present and active in almost all of these issues. She and Daredevil are described as “lovers,” but the reader hardly ever gets to see them loving. Mostly they just bicker with each other. As with Karen Page in earlier issues, the Daredevil title is part romance comic, and the romance is mostly of the tortured soul variety, in which poor Matt Murdock never finds true happiness.

The most disappointing thing about Volume 5 is that Gene Colan, the preeminent artist of the Daredevil title up to this point, is mostly absent from these issues. Gene the Dean only draws four nonconsecutive issues in this run. For the most part, the drawing duties are split between Don Heck and Bob Brown, both of whom are competent artists in the classic Marvel mode but nothing exceptional by that era’s standards. On the bright side, inker Klaus Janson makes his Daredevil debut with #124 and inks the last two issues in this volume.

Steve Gerber handles the writing for most of this book, and Daredevil seems to be a little out of his element. He writes Daredevil as if he would rather be writing some other comic. For instance, Thanos is discussed but not present as Daredevil teams up with Moondragon and Captain Marvel to fight cosmic threats, not exactly DD’s area of expertise. (I never realized before reading these issues that Thanos is called a “Titan” because supposedly he came from Titan, Saturn’s moon.) Daredevil also takes a trip to the Everglades to mess around with Man-Thing, a Gerber creation. These strange adventures feel like irrelevant tangents to the traditional Daredevil storyline. Things improve in the second half of the book when Daredevil returns to being an urban vigilante. He also fights a bunch of Hydra agents, which seems appropriately within his bailiwick. Some enjoyable villains making an appearance in this volume are the Mandrill, Death Stalker, and Copperhead. Silver Samurai, mostly known as a Wolverine villain, makes his debut in Daredevil #111.

In the Marvel Essentials series, “Essential” doesn’t necessarily mean “essential,” it really just means old. Sometimes the stories reproduced are essential, and sometimes they’re just plain bad. The issues reproduced in Essential Daredevil Volume 5 fall somewhere in between. This is competently average fare for the Marvel comics of this era. As a fan of the old stuff, however, I find average Marvel Comics of the 1970s to be superior to most of what they’ve put out in the twenty-first century. There’s nothing very essential about this volume, but if you grew up reading Daredevil it’s a decent trip down memory lane. 
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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for the Book Lover by John Sutherland

A decent snack of trivia, if you like English fare
John Sutherland is a professor of English Literature at University College London who has written several books on literature that appeal to both an academic and a general reading audience. His 2011 book Curiosities of Literature likewise has crossover potential, as it is researched with scholarly erudition yet accessible and humorous enough to appeal to the average (as the subtitle indicates) “book lover.” Curiosities of Literature is a book of trivia, plain and simple. It doesn’t claim to be anything more, and if you know that going into it then you know just what to expect. The text is comprised of brief anecdotes and unusual facts about books and authors, mostly famous authors but a few obscure and forgotten writers as well. The important question is, is it interesting and amusing trivia, or is it just a tedious assortment of minutiae? The answer, in this case, is about half and half.

The book is divided into thematic chapters on subjects like food, body parts, sex, or guns, but the boundaries between those topics are not hard and fast, as Sutherland rambles from one story to the next however they seem to strike his fancy. He clearly has an encyclopedic and arcane knowledge of literature, and he relates his anecdotes with style and wit. Sometimes a little too much style and wit, to be honest, as the prose sometimes reads like a showcase for Sutherland’s prodigious vocabulary and clever turns of phrase. As a literary raconteur, sometimes Sutherland the storyteller outshines the stories he’s telling.

Sutherland is a British author, and about 90 percent of the book’s contents pertains to British literature, much of it from the Victorian Era. I don’t fault the author for that, but you really have to be up on your English lit to fully appreciate all the information he’s offering here. Sutherland assumes the reader is well-versed in the Brit-lit canon. Thackeray, Fielding, Trollope, and Wilkie Collins garner repeated mentions, and Thomas Carlyle seems to be a constant presence throughout the text. I’m sure many Brits would probably get bored reading a book full of trivia on American authors they haven’t read, and the reverse is true here. A number of American authors are discussed in the remaining 10 percent of the text. Only a few French writers are mentioned, such as Hugo and Proust. Other nation’s literatures seem to be absent from the discussion, except for a very interesting section on German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, and how it inspired hundreds of young men to commit suicide. Sutherland takes a very humorous and flippant approach to the topics of death and suicide, so beware if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing.

Some of the most interesting items in the book relate to old products that were inspired by literature, or—vice versa—intentional product placement in recent novels. There’s an awful lot of discussion about cigarettes. World record-type entries are always interesting, such as who published the most novels (John Creasey, according to Sutherland) or what’s “the longest novel in the literary canon”? (Clarissa by Samuel Richardson). Whether or not a particular story or factoid interests you will probably depend on your literary tastes. Some bits will no doubt prove fascinating, while others merely seem to take up space. Curiosities of Literature is a rather inexpensive book, and if you truly are a lover of classic literature, then it’s certainly worth a look. You’ll likely get your money’s worth of entertainment out of it.
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