So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Brass Bell

The Brass Bell: Or, The Chariot of Death, a Tale of Caesar's Gallic Invasion by Eugène Sue
The Brass Bell is the second of a series of 19 novels called The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages that was written from 1849-1857. It was translated 1n 1907 by Solon De Leon the son of Daniel De Leon, Marxist theoretician and leader of the Socialist Labor Party who published the series in his New York Labor News Press. Sue created the series to be a European history depicting the struggle between the ruling and the ruled classes.
One family, the descendants of a Gallic chief named Joel, represent the oppressed who write and pass on the story as a reminder to their descendants to never forgive their oppressors. The Brass Bell, written down by Joel's son Guilhern, tells the story of Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul at the Battle of Vannes in Brittany from the Gallic point of view. The first 5 chapters tell of Guilhern's brother Albinik the mariner and his wife Meroë as they seek to destroy the Roman fleet. This is followed by Guilhern's account of the land battle and his capture. The book ends with the aftermath of the battle as Guilhern is sold into slavery.
Gallic virtues and Roman decadence are the theme of this book. The good farmers tilling their soil and the professional soldiers who attack them are contrasted sharply. Sue has provided a thoughtful alternative to Caesar's own writings on The Gallic Wars.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Gold Sickle

The Gold Sickle, or Hena, the Virgin of the Isle of Sen: A Tale of Druid Gaul by Eugene Sue

The Gold Sickle is the 1st volume in a series called The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages that was written from 1849-1857. The author, once called "the king of the popular novel," created this series to be a European history that depicted the struggle between the ruling and the ruled classes. 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 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, writes 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, says 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 in 21 volumes has suffered, and I only find one listing of them on the Internet in the Eugène Sue entry in The Authors' Calendar

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 seems to be available free to anyone who has Kindle or epub software on their reading device.

This first volume is a prelude, setting the scene for the grand drama the author planned. Set in 58 BC, we are at the home of Joel on the coast of Brittany as he and his large extended family are preparing to celebrate the 18th birthday of his daughter Hena. While returning home the night before the party, Joel meets a stranger riding toward the sea whom he coerces into spending the night at his table. Hospitality to strangers is how isolated families like Joel's received news. In exchange for dinner and a warm bed, visitors were expected to tell stories of their travels and what is going on in other parts of the land. This traveller tells that the Romans, who have long occupied southern Gaul, are now, under Julius Caesar, beginning to move their armies north. His mission is to unite the families of the north to fight back and drive out the invaders.

The book is short and related from the point of view of Joel. In this manner we the readers get into the Gallic mindset, so different than that of the Roman invaders whose culture we know. We learn of their spiritual beliefs, customs and daily life as their routine is interrupted by the call to war.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Round-Heeled Woman

A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance by Jane Juska

Jane Juska wrote this sex-positive autobiography when she was 67 years old. While it promotes itself as "late-life adventures in sex and romance," most of the book is a review of her life prior to placing an ad at age 66 saying she would "like to have a lot of sex with a man" before she turns 67. Keeping with the theme of the title, her biographical writings do focus on how sexuality fit into her rather mundane white middle-class upbringing in the midwest and her 30 years of celibacy following her divorce. It is refreshing to read a fairly straightforward look at physical love from someone making such a strong change in her life.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Shanghai Gesture: A Play by John Colton

The Shanghai Gesture: A Play by John Colton

I became interested in this play after watching the 1941 movie of the same name that was adapted from it. To get the movie past the Hollywood censors many changes had to be made to the story and I wanted to see what the original 1918 play was about. Fortunately my local university library has a copy.

Here are some excerpts from a review of a 2009 production of this play.

"Written in 1918 and last produced in New York on Broadway in l926 The Shanghai Gesture is a 100-year-old historic American play that has always been controversial for its bold confrontation of still-relevant issues."

"The Shanghai Gesture confronts issues of women's rights, the sex trade, child abuse/slavery, and what happens when one country imposes its culture upon another."

"It takes place in China in the roaring twenties when Shanghai was a truly cosmopolitan city filled with Russian refugees, its people exploited by opium traders and adventurers from all over Europe and Great Britain, and visited by American entrepreneurs. Mother Goddam is a Manchu princess shamed and discarded by an aristocratic English merchant and sold into sex slavery who can never return to her home. A survivor, she has risen to great power and reputation within a complex society where she runs an elegant brothel frequented by governors, mandarins, and princes who chose amongst women who are beautiful and tastefully dressed. Tonight there is great excitement, for she is having a dinner party - and society folk, the British and other European aristocrats and their wives are coming to dinner. What transpires during the dinner is hypnotic, humorous, erotic, terrifying, shocking, surprising, sad, and utterly fascinating. Many secrets - those of each guest - are revealed, and the ultimate secrets - those of Sir Guy Charteris - literally change lives. Even Mother Goddam must face an unanticipated revelation of a secret of her own. Unlike Madame Butterfly, Mother Goddam chooses not to view herself as a victim. Instead she outwits and punishes her male oppressors. This single fact made this play (produced so soon after women had gotten the vote) a great favorite with female audiences as well and it was taken up as a popular feminist tract. It played the Martin Beck (now the Hirschfeld) for an extraordinary 210 performances and then moved to the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers) where it continued to play for many months more."

To read the whole review go to

There is not a lot to add to a review like that. In the book's introduction, John D. Williams talks about the significance of the title. The verb "shanghai" as in "to be shanghaied" originally meant to kidnap or force someone to work on a ship by drugging them. It is not much used these days but it came to take on the more general meaning of being coerced into doing something against your will.

From this comes the gesture that some know as the Shanghai Gesture. We all have seen it at one time or another. In the UK they call it "cocking a snook." Williams describes how it is made. "Place the fingers of your right hand extended. Distend the thumb of your right hand until it touches your nose. The little finger of your right hand is stretched venomously toward the world. You say nothing but you think much, and that is that." He goes on to say: "When the world puts its heel on a derelict, when life is just a little too hard, when a man is marooned, by parents or otherwise, before he has a chance to plead, he is wont to accept his condition -- if there is no way out -- but he only accepts his fate after making the Shanghai Gesture." It has a long history. The gesture can be seen in The Festival of Fools, a print made in 1560 by artist Pieter Bruegel (the elder). This may explain why a fool is pictured on the cover of Gary Indiana's 2009 novel The Shanghai Gesture.