So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

The Sword of Honor, volumes 1 & 2: or The Foundation of the French Republic, A Tale of The French Revolution

The Sword of Honor, volumes 1 & 2: or The Foundation of the French Republic, A Tale of The French Revolution, by Eugène Sue
The Sword of Honor is the 18th volume of a 19 volume series of novels written by Eugène Sue called The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages that was written between 1849-1857. The author, once called "the king of the popular novel," created this series to depict the struggle between the ruling and the ruled classes in French history. One family, the descendants of a Gallic chief named Joel, represent the oppressed, and the descendants of a Frankish chief Neroweg, typifies the oppressors. Down through the ages the successive struggles between oppressors and oppressed are depicted in a series of stories that culminate in the European Revolutions of 1848.

Considered at one time classics of Marxist/Socialist thought, these books are mostly forgotten today, and the English-language editions published at the beginning of the 20th Century have only recently become available through large-scale digitization projects of Public Domain books. Daniel DeLeon, leader of the Socialist Labor Party of America and translator of this series into English, wrote in his Preface to The Gold Sickle that it was owning class influence that kept English translations of this series from being available for over 50 years. A 2004 article entitled "Eugene Sue : Champion of the Oppressed" in The People, written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the English translations, said the following about the series:

"It is by far the best work ever written for giving the working class reader an intimate picture of society as it evolved in France from the days of Gaul, before the Roman conquest, to the middle of the 19th century. It is especially valuable for the picture that it provides of the various phases of feudal society, and the growth of infant capitalism within the feudal womb."

While Sue's anti-Catholic works The Wandering Jew and The Mysteries of Paris are still known, this Socialist series of 19 novels has been out of print for over 100 years. Here is a listing of them:

The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Age series
1. The Gold Sickle or Hena, the Virgin of the Isle of Sen: A Tale of Druid Gaul
2. The Brass Bell; or, The Chariot of Death: A Tale of Caesar's Gallic Invasion
3. The Iron Collar; Or, Faustina and Syomara: A Tale of Slavery Under the Romans
4. The Silver Cross; or, The Carpenter of Nazareth: A Tale of Jerusalem
5. The Casque's Lark; or, Victoria, The Mother Of The Camps: A Tale Of The Frankish Invasion Of Gaul
6. The Poniard's Hilt; or, Karadeucq and Ronan: A Tale of Bagauders and Vagres
7. The Branding Needle; or, The Monastery of Charolles: A Tale of the First Communal Charter
8. The Abbatial Crosier; or, Bonaik and Septimine: A Tale of a Medieval Abbess
9. The Carlovingian Coins; or, The Daughters of Charlemagne: A Tale of the Ninth Century
10. The Iron Arrow Head; or, The Buckler Maiden: A Tale of the Northman Invasion
11. The Infant's Skull; or, The End of the World: A Tale of the Millennium
12. The Pilgrim's Shell; or, Fergan the Quarryman: A Tale from the Feudal Times
13. The Iron Pincers; or, Mylio and Karvel: A Tale of the Albigensian Crusades
14. The Iron Trevet; or, Jocelyn the Champion: A Tale of the Jacquerie
15. The Executioner's Knife; or, Joan of Arc: A Tale of the Inquisition
16. The Pocket Bible; or, Christian the Printer: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (2 volumes)
17. The Blacksmith's Hammer; or, The Peasant Code: A Tale of the Grand Monarch
18:1. The Sword of Honor; or, The Foundation of the French Republic: A Tale of the French Revolution
18:2. The Sword of Honor: Part II - The Bourgeois Revolution: A Tale of the French Revolution
19. The Galley Slave's Ring; or, The Family of Lebrenn: A Tale of the French Revolution of 1848

Having already enjoyed Sue's The Wandering Jew, I looked forward to starting a work which will unite my interest in serial novels, historic fiction, and Class Warfare. Fortunately, the whole series is now available free to anyone who has Kindle or epub software on their reading device.

The Sword of Honor covers events in France from 1789 to 1832, the period leading up to and including the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. Seen through the eyes of John Lebrenn, a Parisian blacksmith and descendent of the Gallic chief Joel, who relates the events of the time as an active member of the French Revolution. This was the hardest book of the series for me to read because Sue was not writing ancient history. Instead he was writing of recent history for an audience who lived through the events portrayed. Throughout the series Sue portrayed the behavior of actual historic figures as they fit into his narrative. He provided footnotes to document his sources to prove he was not fictionalizing their acts. He was writing this series for his French audience and making sure to set the record straight, which has sometimes been hard for me as a non-French reader. This setting the record straight almost overwhelms the story in this volume. Sue was addressing an audience who lived through the events and he wanted to make sure they were aware of the roles played by the significant personalities of the time. He was writing at a time when the leaders of the Revolution had been vilified and the misdeeds of the ruling classes swept under the rug. He wanted to lift up that rug and portray the leaders of the Revolution as the heroes of the People.

John Lebrenn and his sister Victoria are working class heroes in this novel. They were hard working and intelligent, informed of the class struggle between the Gauls and the Franks by the records passed down from generation to generation of their family - the previous novels of this series, each written down and carefully preserved by preceding generations. This volume is John's contribution to the family record. With them we experience the events of this most tumultuous time in French history. We see their victories and then the treacheries of the Church, the Ruling Class, the Bourgeoisie and the Military that betray the People to maintain their Class privilege. It is a long book and often offers much greater detail than a modern reader needs. Yet, the story is compelling and the characters well developed.

TRANSLATOR'S PREFACE.
Most persons know the French Revolution as a tremendous outburst in human affairs. Many know it as one of the race's great steps forward. That, however, it was the revolution which carried into power the then rising bourgeois, now capitalist, class; that this class, while appealing for and using the help of the working class, secretly hated and feared the demands of the latter, and blocked them at every opportunity; that finally the bourgeoisie, having obtained as revolutionists, by the aid of the workers, their end of the revolution, became as violently reactionary as had been the nobility they fought, and ruthlessly shot and guillotined to pieces the then definite proletarian movement for full political equality and collective ownership of the tools of production--that is an insight into the French Revolutionary period hitherto vouchsafed to few. To that insight Eugene Sue's genius has, with the present thrilling novel, made straight the way for all.
This, The Sword of Honor; or, The Foundation of the French Republic, is the eighteenth and culminating unit in Sue's great historic-fiction series, The Mysteries of the People; or, History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages. Following close upon the previous volume, The Blacksmith's Hammer; or, The Peasant Code, in which the popular storm was seen gathering head under the atrocities of the gilded age of the Grand Monarch, the present story portrays that storm breaking in all the accumulated vigor of its centuries of postponement, and sweeping away the empty lay figures of an outgrown feudalism. True, one barrier to human liberty was thrown down only to disclose another. To the empire of birth and privilege was to succeed the empire of the shekel; to the rule of do-nothing kings, the rule of do-nothing plutocracy. But it is in the act of drilling itself for the overthrow of that final parasite class--for the final conquering, in other words, of freedom for the race--that Sue portrays the proletariat in the next and closing work of the series, The Galley Slave's Ring; or, The Family of Lebrenn. Though he minimizes none of the difficulties, his message for the future is of hope only.
Nothing is more unanimous among historians of the period than expressions of commiseration for the condition of the French people before the Revolution. Yet nothing, on the other hand, is more unanimous either than the condemnation showered upon this people the moment it seizes the reins and enters upon the task of putting down its age-long tyrannizers. Into this absurd breach of consistency Sue's genius saved him from falling. In his pages Marat, Danton and Robespierre walk to their doom with head erect, clean from the smut slung at them by their bourgeois enemies, for whom they were going too far. Friends of the People once, so they remained to the end; and in that mantle Sue has preserved their memory for all time. For him who would rail at their summary deeds Sue has far from spread a bed of roses. The memory of the royalist massacres in the Vendee and of the triumphant bourgeois massacres during the White Terror, rescued by his pen from the oblivion in which they were sought to be buried, have thrown the Revolutionary Terror into its proper perspective. It is a bagatelle beside the acts committed by its denouncers.
Sue's clear presentation of the maxim, "To the peasant the land, to the workman the tool"; his unflinching delineation of the debauchery of court and ecclesiastical circles of the time; his revelation of the role of the political machine under the guise of religion sending out its arms as willing regicides or agents provocateurs by turn; and his clear depiction of the cowardly, grasping, double-dealing and fraud-perpetrating character of the bourgeois, all of which is presented in the easy reading of a story, make this thrilling work of fiction an unsurpassable epitome of the period in which its action elapses.
Finally, it is the distinctive test of good literature upon any topic, that it does not sate, but incites to further thought and study. Not the least of the values of The Sword of Honor; or, The Foundation of the French Republic, is that it performs this reverent duty matchlessly for the momentous period of which it treats.
SOLON DE LEON.
New York, April, 1910.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
I started reading this book after I heard that, in addition to the three books in the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, two new books in the series came out in 2017 written by David Lagercrantz. That renewed my interest in the series. When I looked into it and found out that this first book was originally titled in Sweden Män som hatar kvinnor (in English: Men Who Hate Women), I decided that I wanted to at least begin reading the book. I had seen the Swedish and USA movies, so I knew the basic plot and wasn't sure the book would hold my interest. I was put off at the beginning by the large number of characters and felt I would never keep them straight. However, reading the book was as engaging as watching the movies and I devoured this 590 page book quickly. Now I am looking forward to reading others in the series.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

The Procedure

The Procedure by Harry Mulisch
The Procedure is about the life of a famous scientist after he has made his ground breaking research, in this case the creation of life from inorganic matter. It starts out with the biblical story of creation, then it moves on to the Jewish esoteric book that deals with how god created life, the Sefer Yetzirah (or Book of Creation), and then to the creation of the golem in the Prague ghetto in the 16th century. It is only after this introductory material that the readers are introduced to the scientist Victor Werker and his research on creating living matter from clay.
However the main body of the novel is about Victor after his famous discovery, and it is a very internal exploration of how his fame and research effect his later life. Struggles with the other scientist in the project, with the mother of their stillborn child, and with his attempts to move on to new areas of study are played out in Victor's thought processes.
The novel delves into the scientific mind as it tries to cope with the emotional and interpersonal realities of life. The translation reads well and the book, while it seemed to get bogged down in details in the middle, was compelling reading for me.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Emma and the Civil Warrior

Emma and the Civil Warrior by Candy Dahl

Set in the two weeks between April 11 and 26, 1865, this book tells the events of the Union Army's occupation of Raleigh NC as seen through the eyes of one 12 year old girl, Emma Graham, who lives a couple of blocks from the state capitol building.

When last heard from, her father was fighting with General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, but the Yankee soldiers say General Lee has surrendered to General Grant. So Emma worries about what has happened to him in the 3 years since he left. She lives with her mother and her 5 year old brother. Jinny, a free black woman, cooks and lives with them. The day before the Union troops marched in, the government officials and Confederate troops marched out of the city and left a single black slave, who author Dahl names Simon Battle, to secure the Capitol building. When the Union soldiers arrive they set up a signal station at the top of the Capitol building with Lieutenant George C. Round in charge.

Emma is initially hostile to Lieutenant Round and the invading troops, who see sees as the enemy, but the lieutenant, knowing that Lee has surrendered to Grant in Virginia and that Confederate General Johnston is in Durham with General Sherman negotiating the terms of his surrender, is so polite and kind.

Ms Dahl has researched her topic well and provides an accurate and engaging look at this small piece of a vast war. Through her detailed look the reader gets a glimpse of the issues and complexities of the broader war. Written for young adults, this is a war without the gore approach suitable for the age group that will be especially of interest to North Carolinians and Raleighites.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Sky Pyrates Over Oz

Sky Pyrates Over Oz by Sherwood Smith

Sky Pyrates Over Oz (2013) is the third in a trilogy of novels including The Emerald Wand of Oz (2005) and Trouble Under Oz (2006) that are "founded on and continuing the famous Oz stories by L. Frank Baum." This three book series was originally arranged by Byron Preiss with HarperCollins and the L. Frank Baum Family Trust. While the first two books were published as planned by HarperCollins and illustrated by William Stout, this third book is published by Pumpernickel Pickle and illustrated by Kim McFarland after a hiatus of 7 years. It is good to finally see Smith's trilogy completed and in print.

These three books tell of the adventures in Oz of Dori and Em, two sisters who believe themselves to be great-nieces to Dorothy Gale of the original L. Frank Baum Oz series. In Sky Pyrates Over Oz Dori and Em are magically transported with their father to a sky island by two mischievous princesses. L. Frank Baum first wrote about the floating islands in the sky in his 1912 book Sky Island. Sherwood Smith builds on this by creating a world of sky islands populated, like Oz, with magical and unusual characters like the six Snub-Nosed Princesses, Lanendir the Librarian, tiny butterfly people called Neeper-Geeps, the Nightmare Sorcerer, and, of course, the Sky Pyrates. Into this aerial world land Dori and Em and their dad who is promptly turned into a dog by a magic spell. An adventure in the sky filled with excitement and many new and old Oz friends that completes the the series and adds a new chapter to the history of Oz that will be a great treat for long-time fans of Oz.

Stories from Uzhgorod:

Stories from Uzhgorod: Stories by Sandy McCulloch

When retired biologist Sandy McCulloch of Corvallis Oregon was in his 70s he visited Uzhgorod in western Ukraine and wrote these stories. Corvallis and Uzhgorod are sister cities and share cultural exchanges so Sandy's visit is not completely strange or random.

In his Introduction McCulloch says: "Most of the stories in the book deal in some way with the people of Ukraine or Russia -- my friends. How then shall I write of my friends? It is called fiction. This is a book of fictional stories; but many of them in truth are a mixture of what we call reality and what we call imagination."

Although written in English, Stories from Uzhgorod was edited and published in Uzhgorod by Art Line Publishing House. The book has very limited availability in the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom. Being published in Uzhgorod with a Ukrainian editor lends a sense of authenticity to McCulloch's writing which reflects how a person from the USA might react to the everyday life of Ukraine.

I bought the only copy available on Amazon because I had been to the city myself just two years earlier than the author. It is an amazing city in the heart of Europe, and this literary visit reminded me of the joy I had there. I am sure it has changed much since the writing of this book, but Mr. McCulloch has done a wonderful job of capturing the spirit and the people of this small regional capital at the turn of the century.

The stories are short images of what a retired white man from the USA might glimpse of life in a small Ukrainian city. They deal with the difference in perspective of an everyday American and the Ukrainian community he visits. He writes in the first person, which he explains is his literary style, and the stories are not necessarily all about him.

"An Ordinary Day In Uzhgorod" tells of the events of one day that starts with him buying an engagement ring for his Ukrainian girlfriend. Later she feeds two hungry children they find on the street, and she intercedes with the employer of a friend to get some money paid to his widow. His message is that hunger and hard times cause people to help each other and stay happy.

"Please, Kill Him" - What would you do if you were an American in a foreign country and a child you had befriended asked you to kill someone?

"Hunger" - There are more than one kind of hunger. While many Ukrainians suffered from a lack of food, this story is about an American coming to Ukraine to marry and live with a local woman. Her hunger is not for food, but for his money.

"Americans Can't Understand Us" looks at the differences that an American in western Ukraine must come to terms with in living there.

"Footprints" is the author's musings, illustrated with four examples from his own experiences, on the idea that when some significant event happens in a certain place, the event leaves a residue that can be felt over time by later visitors.

"The Mirrormaker" is written in the style of a traditional folk tale and tells of a female mirrormaker and the young boy who is infatuated with her.

"The Best Talk In The World" is the author's memories of several great discussions he has had with Slavic people in his or their homes over drinks and/or dinner.

"Fire In The Desert" - what would cause a man who had put together a library of 4,000 books to burn them?

"Chekhov's Angels" is a brief story about 22 year old Leila whose mother plans to marry an American from Corvallis.

"Chekhov's Angels - Anna" is a story about the author meeting a Russian prostitute named Anna during a visit to Istanbul.

"The Cat That Walks By Herself" is a short story by Rudyard Kipling. McCulloch tells the story of Ukrainian Natalie who reminds him of the cat from Kipling's story.

"Plato's Magic Box"is the author's retelling of Plato's Cave for the television age.

"The Health House" tells of the author's visit to a health spa in the Carpathian Mountains near Uzhgorod. This spa, which is not usually frequented by tourists, was one I visited in 2000, so I found the story especially interesting.

"Moments Out Of Time" is exactly that, brief images of life in Central Europe that stood out in an American man's mind.

"A Perfect Suicide" tells the story of retired librarian facing her life after the library.

"Only Two Laws" tells a story based on two laws: Vengeance and Gratitude.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Death of a Red Heroine

Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong
Set in Shanghai one year after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Death of a Red Heroine is a police murder mystery that gets overshadowed by the political implications of the case. In a time when Communist Party ideals were being challenged by new marketplace values, the police detectives have to navigate political implications as well as follow the clues in order to solve the case. The city itself is a major character as the case takes us from the palatial homes of the Communist Party elite to the families of workers living in single rooms and sharing communal kitchens. But above all, the book is about honest cops trying to do the right thing in a shifting moral environment.
If you like to visit different times and cultures through well-written books, this may appeal to you. As a Best First Novel it was nominated for an Edgar Award and received an Anthony Award. The author was a Chinese scholar born in Shanghai who was studying in the USA at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests. He stayed in the USA and this was his first mystery novel in English.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Samba for Sherlock

A Samba for Sherlock by Jô Soares
Originally published in Brazil in 1995 as O Xangô De Baker Street and translated into English in 1997, this novel features Sherlock Holmes and his partner Dr. John Watson being summoned to Rio by the real life actress Sarah Bernhardt who, on the first stop of her 1886 world tour, suggests to the Emperor of Brazil that the famous detective may help him find a stolen Stradivarius violin. While they are on board ship to Rio matters take a macabre turn as a prostitute is found in an alley stabbed to death with a violin string curled into her pubic hair and a flap of skin cut from her body. So when they arrive, it is not only a theft, but a murder they are asked to solve.

The author José Eugênio "Jô" Soares is a Brazilian television talk show host known for his observational comedy, surreal humor, and deadpan style, and this is his first novel. He takes liberties with his portrayal of Sherlock making the book both humorous as well as a mystery. I fear that a lot of his Brazilian humor gets lost in translation to an American audience. His willingness to make the detective the butt of much of his humor may not endear this work to diehard Holmesians. Readers willing to go along with the joke may find his portrayal a lot of fun.

Soares fills the book with a large cast of characters, as well as locational and historic details, that make it a rich and rewarding experience. I have not come across many novels like this one where the author provides a five page Bibliography of references, although I am sure other authors have done even more research than he in creating their historical fiction. I found it hard to keep track of all the names of the players and, even though the book came with a detailed endpaper map of Rio, impossible to follow the geographic references. So while I enjoyed the book, I was left feeling I had missed half the jokes, found the cast of characters confusing, and was in the dark on most of the local references.

The book was made into an award winning Portuguese/Brazilian movie O Xangô de Baker Street in 2000.