Friday, April 28, 2023

Maigret at the Coroner’s by Georges Simenon

A French observer in Arizona
Maigret at the Coroner’s
was originally published in 1949 under the French title of Maigret chez le coroner. It is the 59th of 103 Maigret mysteries (75 novels and 28 short stories) written by Belgian author Georges Simenon. I believe this is the 18th Maigret novel I have read, and it is the most unusual book of that bunch, bearing little resemblance to any other Maigret mystery I’ve encountered.

For starters, Jules Maigret, inspector for the Police Judiciaire of Paris, spends the whole novel in America. Maigret is on a training trip to the USA to observe the methods and techniques of various American police departments. It’s really more like a goodwill tour in which his American counterparts take him out for dinners and drinks. Maigret finds himself in Tucson, Arizona, where his American chaperone, an FBI agent, suggests he attend and observe a coroner’s inquest. Maigret is reluctant at first, but then becomes very involved as he watches the case unfold over the course of a few days.

A reputedly loose young woman has been found dead on a railroad track in the desert outside of town. The purpose of the inquest is to determine whether the death was an accident, or if there is sufficient evidence to bring a suspect to trial. On the night of her death, the woman had been partying with five military men from the local Air Force base. After much drinking and a drive out to the desert, the woman never returned. As Maigret listens, the five men recount their conflicting stories of the night’s events. The experienced French detective can’t help thinking how we would handle the case and the questions he would ask if he were running the proceedings.

Simenon is renowned for writing crime novels of great psychological authenticity, and his treatment of the characters and their motives in this book is no exception. Here, however, motives sometimes get lost amid a morass of minutiae. This is a far more detail-oriented mystery than any other Maigret case I’ve read. The story behind the woman’s death rests upon such matters as who got into what car at what time, and whose footprints were pointed in which direction. The reader sits through several different versions of these details, but it’s practically impossible to keep track of the specifics of all the testimony. The book even includes diagrams, but they don’t really help. The oddest thing about this novel, however, is that Maigret is really just a spectator at this hearing. He doesn’t do any investigative work or interrogate any suspects. Because Simenon is such a skilled crime writer, the mystery is very engaging, but one sometimes wonders why Maigret is even in this story at all.

The really compelling aspect of this book is Maigret’s internal commentary on American society. Simenon lived for about a decade in the U.S. and Canada, including at least a year in Arizona, so he had much opportunity to observe American life and culture, and, being a crime novelist, probably American law enforcement practices as well. Maigret finds America to be an astonishing land of plenty where even the poor people have cars, yet where many lead a rather depressing, morally bankrupt, and alcoholic existence. Through Maigret, Simenon delivers the Frenchman’s wry perspective on miscellaneous American customs, and what he notices is interesting and often funny to the American reader. Maigret at the Coroner’s is anything but a typical Maigret mystery, if there is such a thing, but, like just about everything Simenon wrote, this is an intriguing mystery and an absorbing read.
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Monday, April 24, 2023

Essential Thor Volume 7 by Len Wein, et al.

A mighty bore, but the art is very good
Essential Thor Volume 7
reprints issues 248 to 271 of Marvel Comics’ The Mighty Thor title, as well as Thor Annual numbers 5 and 6. These issues were originally published from June 1976 to May 1978. As with all the volumes in Marvel’s Essential series, these classic comics are reproduced in black and white on newsprint paper.

As this run of issues opens, Odin has apparently gone insane. Thor wants to help his father but also must stand against him as Odin’s mania threatens the safety of Asgard. Then Odin goes missing, and Thor must search for him throughout the cosmos, accompanied by the Lady Sif, the Warriors Three, and the Recorder, an android visiting from a distant star. This quest occupies at least half the volume, with the Asgardians running into various villains along the way, such as Hela and the Grey Gargoyle. Thor’s love life is in a confusing state. Somehow the souls of Jane Foster and Sif have come to occupy the same body (usually she’s Sif). That actually makes things easier for Thor but less interesting for the reader as it eliminates the compelling dilemma of his romantic relationships with the two women.

Thor is not one of the more interesting characters that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created during the Silver Age of Marvel Comics. Though perhaps the most powerful of Marvel’s A-list heroes, he’s pretty low on personality. What makes him interesting is his supporting cast and the Asgardian world adapted from Norse mythology. The Shakespearean mode of Asgardian speech, laden with thees and thous, is appropriate for the setting and cast, but all the flowery soliloquizing does tend to slow down the pace of the stories. Thor was also low on good villains. Loki is his one big nemesis, but even he’s not anywhere near as interesting as a Doctor Doom, Magneto, or many of Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four’s frequent and flamboyant opponents (talking about the comics here, not the movies). Loki only shows up for a few issues in this run, while Thor spends most of his time fighting giants, trolls, aliens, and robots. With his own stable of decent villains so sparse, Thor must borrow bad guys from other Marvel heroes, like Stilt Man (from Daredevil) and Blastaar (from the Fantastic Four). As for crossovers, the Avengers appear in one or two issues, and Thor Annual #6 features a team-up with the original pre-Star Lord lineup of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Since the stories are rather mediocre, the art is really the main attraction here. Roughly the first half of Volume 7 is drawn by John Buscema, probably the quintessential Thor renderer and likely the second most important artist (behind Kirby) in establishing the mighty Marvel visual style. Buscema is a virtuoso at drawing Asgardian scenery, costumes, and weapons. The second half of the book is drawn by Walt Simonson, another great Thor artist. Simonson had an epic run as writer and artist of the Thor title in the 1990s. Here in the 1970s he has not yet developed his idiosyncratic style of art, but his layouts are somewhat adventurous than the more classical Buscema. In both their capable hands, the Thor title looks like a million bucks, but one wishes Wein had given the thunder god more interesting things to do.
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Friday, April 21, 2023

Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, Volume 4 by Alexander von Humboldt

Disorganized and repetitive afterthoughts
Alexander von Humboldt
In the midst of his exploratory expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804, Prussian scientist and geographer Alexander von Humboldt spent a year in Mexico. His Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, published in 1811, is the detailed summation of his researches in that nation, which at the time also included parts of what are now California and the Southwestern United States. Also in 1811, an English translation of the Political Essay was published in London in five volumes. Because Volume 5 is a thin book of maps and charts, Volume 4 is really the conclusion of Humboldt’s essay on Mexico. Far from a crucial capstone to the work, however, this fourth volume of the Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain is less interesting or necessary than the previous three installments.

The phrase “Political Essay” is really not an accurate description of Humboldt’s study. This is really a comprehensive geographic overview of Mexico encompassing many natural and social sciences. In Volume 3, Humboldt mostly discussed the natural resources of Mexico. He begins Volume 4 by discussing transportation—the roads and ports of Mexico—to explain how those resources are exported to the rest of the world. This opening section is really the only original information in the fourth volume. Everything else seems redundant from previous works. After discussing Mexico’s main seaports of Veracruz and Acapulco, Humboldt then goes into an extensive discussion of the country’s tropical diseases, mainly yellow fever and the “black vomit.” Then, based on detailed statistical research, Humboldt estimates the amount of specie (coinage) circulating in Mexico, and the total monetary value of the nation’s trade in imports and exports. These are topics that Humboldt already discussed at length in previous books. All monetary values are expressed in piastres, which I believe is the Spanish coin of the time (other nations have also had coins called piastres), so today’s reader can only get a general relative idea of the amounts being discussed.

The text of the book is interspersed with many tables, which are a convenient relief from Humboldt’s data-heavy paragraph prose. Roughly the second half of Volume 4 is devoted to notes pertaining to subjects discussed in Volumes 1 through 4. One wonders why such a volume would need notes, since the main text of the book is so minutely specific in its presentation of data that it reads like notes anyway. The answer is likely that these notes present data that Humboldt compiled after the first three volumes were already in the process of publication. Only the most specialized historians will find these notes useful. To the general reader they just seem like digressions and afterthoughts.

In total, The Political Essay on New Spain really is an impressive, monumental work. The book is a pioneering masterpiece of what geographers today would call area studies. It serves as a detailed time capsule of the state of Spanish America at the dawn of the nineteenth century. That said, Volume 4 is the least vital piece of that grand design. Even the most ardent admirers of Humboldt and the most avid scholars of Mexican history are likely to find the volume a disorganized and repetitive mess.
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Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Cemetery World by Clifford D. Simak

Earth: interstellar humanity’s burial ground
Cemetery World
, a novel by Clifford D. Simak, was originally published as a serial in three issues of the magazine Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact from November 1972 to January 1973. In 2022, publisher Open Road Media released an ebook that includes both Cemetery World and another Simak novel from the ‘70s, Destiny Doll.

Thousands of years in the future, mankind has colonized many planets throughout the galaxy. The vast majority of people were neither born on Earth nor have they ever visited humanity’s home world. Fletcher Carson, a native of the planet Alden, arrives on Earth for his first visit. Fletch is an artist whose medium of choice is the compositor, a large robotic recording device that captures stimuli for all five of the human senses. Fletch hopes to create a work of art that encapsulates what Earth is really like, not just what’s shown in promotional brochures.

Such brochures are put out by Cemetery, now the largest corporation on Earth. Though few humans have set foot on the planet, Old Earth has become an object of fond nostalgia. Billions of people want to be buried there, which has resulted in an industry of mortuary services and funerary tourism that dominates the planet. The undeveloped areas of Earth, however, those untouched by Cemetery, are still very much like the wildernesses of today. It is this authentic Earth ambience that Fletch hopes to capture in his art with the help of his two assistant robots. Cemetery wants to control humanity’s perceptions of Earth, however, and when Fletch defies their attempts at artistic control he becomes a threat to him that they wish to extinguish.

Like many a Simak novel—A Heritage of Stars, Where the Evil Dwells, and The Fellowship of the Talisman come to mind—Cemetery World is a quest novel, involving not only the flight of fugitives but also a treasure hunt. Much of the plot, therefore, is occupied by traveling and by camping in particular, with various monsters, robots, and ruffians invading Fletch’s campsites. This gives Simak the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the woods, a place he clearly enjoys, as evidenced in many of his novels and stories. Simak may be science fiction’s most outdoorsy writer, the genre’s preeminent pastoralist. As his characters of the future reconnect with nature, Simak asserts the importance of nature and the value of rural life in today’s world.

The idea of Earth as a burial planet is an interesting idea, but Simak doesn’t really explore it thoroughly. Cemetery just becomes another evil corporate empire bent on persecuting the book’s heroes. The commodity they’re dealing in doesn’t really matter much to the story. Simak often populates his books with bizarre beings, and here some of them come across a bit too fanciful. This novel is high on imaginative occurrences but low on any sort of logical (even sci-fi logical) explanation for them.

Cemetery World is not a great book, but it’s not a bad one either. As far as Simak’s bibliography is concerned, this is a middle-of-the-road work amid an exceptional career. Simak fans won’t mind spending the time on it. Those unfamiliar with Simak’s work would be better off reading Way Station, City, Mastodonia, Time and Again, or any of the volumes in the Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series.
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Monday, April 17, 2023

The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells

New money/old money romance with unrealistic realism
William Dean Howells (1837-1920) was once nicknamed “the Dean of American Letters,” but despite his esteemed reputation his novels don’t seem to be widely read these days. The Rise of Silas Lapham, published in 1885, is likely his best known work. It was originally published in serialized form in The Century Magazine. Howells is considered by many literary critics to be the father of American literary realism, and many of the writers he favored in that genre would go on to become more recognizable names than himself, among them Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Hamlin Garland. During his lifetime, romantically inclined writers would criticize Howells for his concentration on the more mundane details of life. For readers of today who enjoy realist and naturalist literature, however, The Rise of Silas Lapham really isn’t realistic enough, and feels a bit too tethered to the sentimental conventions of an earlier age.

Silas Lapham grew up on a farm in Vermont. His family lived a modest rural lifestyle until one day his father discovers a mother lode of ore on the family land. This ore is high in peroxide of iron, a key ingredient in the making of mineral paint. After his father’s death, Silas Lapham establishes a mine and develops a successful paint business that makes him a millionaire. Despite its emphasis in the novel’s title, the trajectory of this “Rise” is mostly summarized in the book’s first chapter.

As the novel opens, Lapham now runs his paint empire from an office in Boston, where he lives with his wife and two grown daughters. The Lapham family lives a comfortably upper-class life, but Lapham still very much has the manners and personality of a no-nonsense Vermont farm boy. He couldn’t care less about fitting in to Boston society until he considers the prospects of his daughters and their finding a suitable match. When Tom Corey, the son of a blue-blooded old-money family of Boston aristocrats, shows an interest in one of Lapham’s daughters and in his paint business, Lapham and his family take the leap into society, trying to live up to the snooty Coreys, who look down on the Laphams as if they were hopeless hillbillies.

The romance that ensues between young Mr. Corey and Miss Lapham reads like something out of an old Victorian novel. As in any romance, an obstacle must be put in the way of the lovers’ happiness, and the one that Howells employs here is a bit ridiculous, a mole hill that’s made into a mountain. Another plot thread concerns Lapham’s business. Earlier in his career, Lapham bought out his business partner in a way that Mrs. Lapham considers unethical, and she insists that her husband atone for it. This dilemma also seems overblown because the business decision that Mrs. Lapham finds so egregious really doesn’t seem that bad. Her meddling leads to financial trouble for the paint business and the family. Unfortunately, Howells does not write about business with the perspicacity of Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser. Whereas either of those realist writers would have outlined the problem in minute detail, making the reader fell involved, Howells settles for vague references to “troubles” and “ruin.”

The Rise of Silas Lapham feels pretty contrived and formulaic compared to the groundbreaking works of realism written by Norris, Crane, and other of Howells’s protégés. The one commendable aspect of this work is that Howells doesn’t settle for an easy conclusion that panders to a popular audience. In that sense, this novel is a move forward from much of earlier romantic fiction, but the story here is still too firmly rooted in Victorian conventions to feel authentic.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Nova by Samuel R. Delany

Interesting sci-fi bogged down in melodrama and metaphor
Samuel R. Delaney’s science fiction novel Nova was published in 1968 and nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel the following year. The story takes place in the 32nd century. Mankind has spread to other planets. Earth is the home world to an interstellar government known as the Draco Sector, consisting of hundreds of inhabited worlds, but pioneer settlers have ventured beyond even its boundaries to farther stars, establishing the Pleiades Federation and the Outer Colonies. The main characters in the book are the interstellar equivalents of sailors. To conduct their work, almost all humans are equipped with cybernetic ports in their bodies through which they plug into the starships, computers, mining equipment, or other machinery that they use to perform their manual and intellectual labors.

Although humanity has emigrated far and wide into the vast heavens, Earth cultures have remained remarkably preserved through the centuries, with many people speaking Greek, Turkish, and Portuguese in space. One of the main characters is a gypsy. This multiculturalism seems pretty farfetched, or at least wishful thinking. If anything, mankind will likely become more ethnically homogenous over the next thousand years. Delaney, however, seems to revel in the romance of likening future space travel to the ancient days of Mediterranean seafaring.

These travelers of the 32nd century all seem to be scholars or enthusiasts of some 20th century writer or painter. Artworks of our recent past maintain an unrealistic level of esteem in this distant future, mainly so that Delaney can indulge in cultural criticism of the present day. Another of the main characters is an aspiring novelist, which gives Delaney the mouthpiece through which to pontificate on his own philosophy of literature. Another holdover from an earlier time that appears repeatedly throughout the novel is the tarot deck. Delaney presents a clever twist by making the majority of this future society firm believers in the tarot, while the few who denounce card-reading as mere superstition are considered kooks. Unfortunately, the tarot cards don’t really serve much purpose in the narrative other than that Delaney really seems to find them interesting, so the inordinate amount of time spent on them just feels like a waste.

All of these idiosyncratic literary touches just distract from the science of this science fiction, which is really quite interesting. Delaney’s conception of mankind’s colonization of the galaxy has the potential to develop into another Dune- or Star Trek-sized mythology. The method he has envisioned for how man flies and navigates his spacecraft through interstellar space is quite inventive and plausible within the fictional universe he has created. As the title of the book indicates, the plot of Nova also has something to do with the life cycle of stars, and the speculative astrophysics with which Delaney peppers the story results in some fascinating theories.

To enjoy these interesting ideas, however, the reader must wade through a melodramatic space opera, complete with a tortured romance and a villain who resembles Darth Vader as a high school bully. I liked the story of where these characters were going and what they were trying to accomplish, but their inner dialogues just seemed to amount to a lot of unnecessary digressions intended to add depth and interest to the story. More often than not, such musings ended up feeling shallow rather than profound. Nova is not a bad novel by any means, but it is hardly a timeless classic of its genre. The reader is left feeling halfheartedly interested and only partially satisfied.

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Monday, April 10, 2023

Hard Boiled by Frank Miller and Geof Darrow, et al.

Dystopian perversion and gore rendered in loving detail
Hard Boiled
, a graphic novel written by Frank Miller and drawn by Geof Darrow, was first published by Dark Horse Comics as a three-issue series in 1990. It was published as a trade paperback in 1993 and as a hardcover edition in 2017. It is this latter edition that I read. I have read that the 2017 release featured new coloring by comics colorist Dave Stewart. Some readers complained that the new colors altered the original work, but this is the only version I’ve read, so I can’t compare it to the original. The whole time that I was reading the book, however, I couldn’t help thinking how much Stewart’s striking coloring enhanced and intensified the artwork.

When Hard Boiled was first published, Miller was already famous for his gritty work on Marvel’s Daredevil and his Dark Knight graphic novels for DC. Dark Horse comics was a relatively young company at the time, but had already established a reputation for publishing daring work. As was characteristic of much of Miller’s work from this era, Hard Boiled is ultraviolent. In fact, it’s likely one of the most violent and gory comics ever published, and that’s saying a lot. The story takes place in a dystopian future reminiscent of Blade Runner. The main character is either a tax collector or insurance investigator (he’s not really sure himself), who will stop at nothing to hunt down and punish those he feels have broken the law, often putting himself in the way of bodily harm in the process. Hard Boiled is 128 pages long, and much of that is without dialogue. This is not really one of Miller’s more original or complex narratives. It bears some similarities to the film Robocop 2, which Miller wrote.

The real revelation here is Darrow’s art, which was like nothing else seen in American comics. With Stewart’s coloring, which calls to mind the colors of a Moebius comic, Hard Boiled resembles the European comics one finds in Heavy Metal magazine. Darrow’s distinct talent is to render every panel in hyper detail. When a car explodes, you see every nut and bolt that springs from the carnage, and the destruction of human bodies is rendered with the same exhaustive intricacy. This attention to minute detail extends to the backgrounds, in which Darrow renders the urban America of the future as a filthy landscape of wrecked cars, corporate logos, and perverse sex acts. Imagine if Where’s Waldo were porn, and you kind of get the idea.

One would have to be a little sick to draw these images, but I guess one would also have to be a little sick to enjoy them, which I did. Though the subject matter is dark and gruesome, Darrow sneaks a wry sense of humor into each disgusting panel. This really is a visual masterwork. Shortly after Hard Boiled’s original publication, Miller went in exactly the opposite direction with his Sin City series. Though the violent, film noir style of storytelling is similar, the art of Sin City, drawn by Miller himself, is stark black and white with an intentional lack of detail and brutal absence of nuance. In my opinion, Sin City was the greater contribution to comics. The stories are more complex and inventive than Hard Boiled, and the lengthier narratives allow for more character development of an interesting ensemble cast. Nevertheless, Hard Boiled is certainly a unique and intense experience. I’m not sure “enjoy” would be the right word for something this perverse, but this graphic novel will appeal to most Miller fans.
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Monday, April 3, 2023

A Brief History of Jazz Rock by Mike Baron

Really just one guy talking about his record collection
Although A Brief History of Jazz Rock, published in 2014, discusses bands and albums in chronological order, it becomes clear pretty quickly that this book is not a history but rather just one guy writing his opinions about his favorite albums. There doesn’t seem to have been a whole lot of historical research done. Author Mike Baron, who states “I like to read about music,” and “I follow jazz and power pop,” pretty much just talks about whatever bands he likes.

Baron asserts that jazz rock is different from jazz fusion, and on that I do agree. He spells out three criteria for a band to qualify as jazz rock: 1) instrumental virtuosity, 2) improvisation, and 3) must have vocals. Without vocals, in Baron’s opinion, it’s not jazz rock; it’s just jazz. One could quibble with the details, but Baron’s definition is not bad. He doesn’t always stick to his own rules, however. There are a few bands discussed in the book that he states are not really jazz rock, but he devotes a chapter to them anyway, simply because he likes them. There is an entire chapter on Dexys Midnight Runners, for example, highlighting their album with “Come On, Eileen.”

A music critic should not just write about what he likes; sometimes he has to write about music he doesn’t like, especially in any book purporting to be a “History.” Baron’s preferences encompass a rather narrow range of jazz rock, in fact it could perhaps be called horn rock or brass rock: Chicago, Tower of Power, Sons of Champlin, and Blood, Sweat, and Tears are among his favorites. No problem there. When I think of jazz rock, however, the first group that comes to mind is Steely Dan. Baron only spends two pages on Steely Dan, and only quotes someone else’s opinion. Baron doesn’t have to like Steely Dan, but how can you write a history of the jazz rock genre without having listened to their albums? Santana also gets the short shrift, perhaps because they do too many instrumentals? What about Traffic, War, the Keef Hartley Band, Jeff Beck’s jazz years, Ginger Baker’s Air Force? Some are mentioned once, in reference to some other artist, but none are discussed.

Baron writes like he might be a music critic for an alternative weekly newspaper. He’s better at writing about music than the average person, but his writing comes across as not quite professional. His tone is a bit too casual, and he talks about himself too much: e.g. “I saw so-and-so in concert once, and they were great,” “This is what my friend thinks of such-and-such a band.” There is a two-page chapter entitled “How to Clap,” in which Baron, I kid you not, instructs the reader in how to applaud. This book has the feel of something self-published. That is, it reads as if it were self-edited, or rather, not edited at all. Baron really could have used a good editor to tell him, “That’s not relevant,” or, “Elaborate on that,” or how to cite a source.

What Baron clearly enjoys is describing songs, which gives him the opportunity to demonstrate his facility with adjectives and metaphors. He truly does have a way with words, but such descriptions are not really helpful to anyone who hasn’t heard these songs. What’s more valuable is the biographical or historical content on the bands and their careers, but the quantity of such information is far exceeded by the song reviews. I was already a fan of some of these bands before I read this book. When it came up as a Kindle Daily Deal, I bought it hoping to be introduced to some artists with which I was unfamiliar. I came away from reading this book with a list of six or eight bands to investigate, so in that sense I got my money’s worth, but I could have gotten the same from a Google search or a list on somebody’s blog.
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