July 18, 2013

Review: "The Europeans" By Henry James

The Europeans is an absolutely delightful novel!  Fun from the first page through the last.  Also, it is really more of a novella and can easily be read in one or two sittings.  The Europeans was written by Henry James in 1878.

The Europeans is actually a 'flip', if you will, in the normal Jamesian plot-line.  In other words, rather than the story of an American expatriate in Europe, this is the tale of two American expats who come back to visit family in New England.  This is the story of Eugenia, the Baroness Munster, and her younger brother Felix Young, who leave Germany because of her disintegrating marriage to a German prince.  They end up moving in with the Wentworths, relatives on their late-mother's side of the family.  I gotta say at this point too, the reader is gonna fall in love with Gertrude Wentworth--pretty much like everyone else in the novel!

Obviously, the staid New England Puritan Wentworths and their neighbors are largely over-awed by their European cousins, but everyone settles in after a bit and 'the good times roll'.  Felix is an artist--a genuine good natured fellow and free spirit--and a big hit among all of his American friends and family.  Eugenia, the Baroness, is a bit more of an enigma, and everyone minces about around her, but she too is actually a good soul.  She ends up being a positive influence on several of the novels more important characters.

Romance abounds among all of the young people, and while it is fun to watch the flowers of love open and blossom, it is also worth following James as he guides the reader through the comparisons and contrasts between the pragmatic European continental sensibilities of Eugenia and Felix, and the fresh, but restrained New England practicalities of the Wentworth son and daughters and the Acton brother and sister.

This a free-spirited, flibbertigibbet novel that asks for nothing more than that the reader sit back and enjoy it.  It ain't deep, it ain't all that serious, it is simply a heck of a good little story that upon finishing you realize that you're very glad that you read it.  And you know what?  I'll read it again sometime.  Solid four of five stars for me!


The Europeans
By Henry James, 1878
Penguin Classics Edition
Softcover, 179 pp.

Review: "Daisy Miller" By Henry James

Henry James is a prismatic kind of fellow with his fiction.  I am beginning to understand that he likes to write about his characters and actions from differing perspectives, and his novella Daisy Miller is certainly an excellent example.  Daisy Miller was written by James in 1878, and first serialized in Cornhill Magazine, edited by Virginia Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen. 

In this short tale, the eponymous Daisy Miller is a wholesome and fresh young American woman on her first tour of Europe with her nine-year old brother, and her mother, who seems to be a bit of a hypochondriac.  In Vevay, Switzerland, Daisy meets an American expatriate, Mr Winterbourne, who is visiting his aunt.  In his late-twenties, Winterbourne becomes quite taken with the vivacious Daisy, and accompanies her on an unchaperoned tour of a nearby castle, drawing words of warning from his aunt.  He encounters Daisy again later in the season in Rome and finds that she is spending much of her time with an Italian young man, much to the chagrin of the American expat community who begin to shun her in society. 

Daisy Miller is all about perceptions and misunderstandings, and it seems that most of them work to the detriment of Daisy and her reputation among the expats.  Winterbourne and the reader eventually do come to terms with Daisy and her 'free-wheeling' way of experiencing life, and come to realize that she is genuinely innocent and is much misunderstood and maligned by the Society wags around her.  The reader eventually realizes that perhaps it is not Daisy that has the problem with societal norms and cultural values, but that the expat definition of appropriate behavior is outdated and out-of-touch with the 'modern' Americans that are now coming over to Europe from places like Daisy's Schenectady, New York.

This is an extremely well-written story that quickly engages the reader, with well-constructed characters, and a fascinating plot that provides a terrific snap-shot of what life must have been like in the latter half of the 19th century for Americans traveling abroad in Europe.  While the ending is somewhat unexpected and sad, it makes the story even more powerful and thought-provoking.  Finally, it is worth mentioning that a wonderful book-end to Daisy Miller is a short story written by Edith Wharton in 1934, entitled Roman Fever.  I strongly recommend reading Wharton's short story once you've completed Henry James's Daisy Miller.


Daisy Miller
By Henry James, 1878
Penguin Classics Edition
Softcover, 128 pp. 

Review: "What Maisie Knew" By Henry James

In the annals of classic fiction I have encountered some truly monstrous parents (some of the parents in Austen or Dickens certainly come to mind), but the mother and father of little Maisie Farange must surely be the worst.  They are truly beyond despicable, and if I could reach into the pages of Henry James's What Maisie Knew, I'd throttle them both!  Okay, now that I've gotten that off of my chest, perhaps I can provide an objective review of this novel.  What Maisie Knew was written by Henry James in 1897, while he was still living in London.

The structure of this sophisticated novel is extraordinarily clever, as the entire plot is laid out from the perspective of the little girl, Maisie (and keep the title of the novel in mind as you read too).  The novel starts off with the parents being granted a divorce and the court awarding that custody of Maisie will be shared.  This poor little girl has to spend six months with her father and then be packed off for six months with her mother.  What is even worse is that the parents use Maisie in their on-going fight-to-the-death with one another, while at the same time they take on new spouses (and then immediately begin adulterous relationships!).  And while Maisie is wise beyond her years and quite perceptive to what is going on around her in the world of the grown-ups that she is surrounded by, much of what she observes has to be interpreted through the lens of the experience of her own childhood and the little bit of love and kindness bestowed upon her from a scant few of the adults--but not her own parents--around her. 

Through the course of the novel Maisie does gravitate to the two characters that do seem offer her the hope and opportunity of kindness, love, and some semblance of stability, and those two characters are her governess, Mrs Wix, and her mother's second ex-husband Sir Claude.  Sir Claude has his own 'bag-of-issues' to deal with, but he is really and truly genuinely concerned about Maisie and her long-term welfare.  He ends being more of father-figure to the little girl, by a long-shot, than her own father did on his very best day.   Ultimately, these two people, whom Maisie trusts with her heart and soul, do end up making the right decisions that give this little girl a chance for a wholesome life.

Finally, it needs to be said that there's much in this novel that can offend modern sensibilities, particularly when it comes to how children are looked after (or not), guardianship issues, or even the exercise of parental responsibilities (or not!).  The reader needs to remember that there weren't governmental agencies like 'Child Protective Services' in Victorian England to provide that safety net for children in Maisie's situation.  Henry James, like Charles Dickens before him, seems to have been much affected by child welfare issues, and I have to think he was trying to make a point here that parental responsibility is a duty and an obligation and that love and a nurturing stable environment are what every child needs and deserves.  As painful as it was to read, I'm glad that I read What Maisie Knew, and look forward to reading it again in the future.  At this point, I would give this 3.5 stars out of five.

But I still want to reach into the pages of this novel and throttle both of her parents!


What Maisie Knew
By Henry James, 1897
Penguin Classics Edition
Softcover, 309 pp.

July 15, 2013

My Summer of Henry James--

As you may have noticed from a number of my recent postings, I have been reading a lot of Henry James this summer.  Typically, every couple of years or so I pick an author and read as much of their oeuvre--in the order written--as I can.  This is an immensely rewarding experience, and each author that I have done this with has ended up becoming a 'favorite' author.  To date, I have done this Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and Edith Wharton.  This summer I decided to tackle the novels and some of the shorter fiction of Henry James.

I had read some of Henry James's novels when I was a much younger man and in the U.S. Coast Guard in the early 1970s.  And I must confess that I struggled mightily and ultimately gave him up.  Looking back now, I realize that I simply wasn't ready for the writing of the like of Henry James, George Eliot or even Edith Wharton.  I am a much more thoughtful and close reader and now love immersing myself in not only enjoying the novel that I happen to be reading, but endeavoring to understand authorial intent, and how the author and his/her works fit within the literary movements of the day.  I now also read a significant amount of literary biographies and criticism.  All of this enhances and enriches my overall reading experience, makes me better able to recognize and interpret shifts in writing styles, and has made me a much more mature and critical reader overall.

Here is the reading list that I'm working from--

Roderick Hudson (1875)*
The American (1877)*
The Europeans (1878)*
Daisy Miller (1878)
Washington Square (1880)*
The Portrait of a Lady (1881)*
The Bostonians (1886)*
The Princess Casamassima (1886)
The Aspern Papers (1888)*
What Maisie Knew (1897)
The Turn of the Screw (1898)
The Awkward Age (1899)
The Wings of the Dove (1902)
The Ambassadors (1903)
The Golden Bowl (1904)

Those titles followed by an asterisk (*) are novels/novellas that I have read so far this summer, and many of them have been reviewed in recent postings below.  Also, I have acquired most of these novels in hardcover editions as I know that will be revisiting them for the rest of my life.  It was fiendishly difficult to find hardcover editions of some of them, e.g., The Ambassadors, but by diligently browsing on-line I have managed to fill out my library quite nicely.

Additionally, in an effort to complement my summer of all things Jamesian, I have picked up the following two books--

The Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, by Michael Gorra (Liveright, 2012, 416 pp.).  Gorra's book focuses on James and his writing of The Portrait of a Lady.  This book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 2013, and comes very highly touted.


The Master, by Colm Toibin (Scribners, 2004, 338 pp.).  Toibin's book is a fictional account of James in Europe at the very height of his creative powers, and also comes highly recommended.

I invite you to stay tuned as I share my reading experiences, and thoughts and observations associated with the novels, novellas and short stories of Henry James.  Perhaps some of my postings will inspire you to read a James novel in the near future, or maybe you'll start a summer reading project with an author that you'd like to get to know better.  So, what are you reading this summer?

Review: "The Portrait of a Lady" By Henry James

One of the most enthralling and enchanting novels that I've read in a long, long time.  The Portrait of a Lady is early Henry James (written in 1881), and as cliche as it may sound, it is a veritable masterpiece.  There is simply so much going on within the covers of this elegantly crafted and sophisticated novel that it will take me a while to sort out my swirling thoughts and emotions upon finishing it.  Simply put though, this is the story of the young American woman, Isabel Archer, and her voyage of self-discovery among the staid and traditional landscape of British and European society.  Isabel's ability to 'choose', and the 'choices' she makes are the thread that is carefully woven throughout the novel, and it raises her stature as a fictional heroine, in my opinion, to the level of that of an Anna Karenina or Dorothea Brooke.  The novel's Chapter Forty-Two--with Isabel, by herself, sitting in the darkened room thinking for most of the night--is perhaps the greatest psychological tour-de-force I've encountered in fiction.  I reread that chapter probably four times in a row, and simply marveled at the creative genius that is Henry James in writing this novel and creating the character of Isabel Archer.  Stunning stuff!

This is an immensely powerful and profound novel that I am going to reread again very soon.  I want to reread it in conjunction with a reading of Michael Gorra's recent book, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, a runner-up for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for biography and autobiography.  Give me a couple of weeks to reread The Portrait of a Lady and Gorra's book, and I'll be back in an effort to provide a more comprehensive review that will do justice to what just may be, in my very humble opinion, the 'Great American Novel'.  There really is ever so much to say about this most amazing novel.  There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the best novels I've read in a couple of years--a genuine classic!  Five of five stars!


The Portrait of a Lady
By Henry James, 1881
Everyman's Library Edition
Hardcover, 672 pp.

Review: "The Reef" By Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton's The Reef was written in 1912 when she was essentially at her very best as a novelist, and I think her powers are quite evident in this engaging tale.  Also, this is a very theatrical story that I personally think would lend itself very well to a stage adaptation.  The book could just as easily have been entitled, The Chateau, as basically three-quarters of the novel takes place within the confines of Mrs Anna Leath's French estate, Givre.

This is the story of romantic relationships, double-standards and consequences among four Americans in Europe just before the First World War, and the entire plot turns on the things said and unsaid among the four protagonists.  Wharton, through the course of the novel, puts the reader squarely inside the mind and emotions of each of the four characters.  Consequently, it becomes hard to say with any certainty that this person is right, or that that person is wrong.  It is simply a "Human Story" and mistakes are made by each in turn, and this reader found it damnably difficult to side with one over the other.  Another element that I found intriguing is that Wharton only gives the reader the barest amount of background information about each of the characters throughout the book, as she wants the reader to focus on and fully experience the emotional crisis and psychological struggle that each is undergoing as the tale plays out.

While devastatingly painful to read at times, The Reef is an insightful portrait of the interactions among the men and women of "Society" at the beginning of the 20th century.  In some respects the moral ambiguity and dilemmas faced by Wharton's characters in The Reef really have not changed all that much--people still fall in love, deception still occurs, and feelings still mean everything.  When done with the book, one can't help but realize that Wharton's title--The Reef--is spot-on.  The challenge that each of us faces as we move through life is to sail carefully, but exuberantly, and avoid crashing on the reefs that will always be perilously close.  I am so glad to have read this and look forward to picking it up again sometime.  I unhesitatingly award this novel four of five stars.


The Reef
By Edith Wharton, 1912
Everyman's Library Edition
Hardcover, 290 pp.

Review: "The Touchstone" By Edith Wharton

I just finished reading The Touchstone again, in conjunction with reading Henry James's The Aspern Papers.  I believe that The Touchstone may have been Wharton's first published work of fiction too.

The novella tells the story of Stephen Glennard a youngish gentleman of New York's upper-crust society who is trying to find the financial wherewithal to marry his fiance, Miss Alexa Trent.  Sitting in his club one evening he encounters an advertisement from a Professor Joslin who is looking for any papers and correspondence from the late author, Miss Margaret Aubyn.  Miss Aubyn just happens to be the woman that Glennard had had a long-term intimate relationship with almost up until she died a few years earlier.

In short order, the reader discovers that Glennard has bundles and bundles of very personal letters that he received from Miss Aubyn during the course of their relationship.  He then decides to have them published, and the two-volumes become a huge literary hit with the reading public.

As people begin reading the volumes, particular those in Glennard's circle of friends, he finds out that most people are frankly appalled that anyone would expose these intimate letters to public scrutiny. It is not long before Glennard himself begins to doubt his own motives for publishing the letters, and it begins to negatively impact his own relationship with his now wife, Alexa.  In fact, they've even bought themselves a nice little house on the outskirts of New York City with the riches he's gained by selling the letters.  Even Alexa--who doesn't know that these intimate letters were addressed to Glennard, or that he's sold them--is basically horrified that anyone could be so callous and black-hearted as to open this incredibly personal window into Miss Aubyn's heart and soul.

For much of the novella the story revolves around the struggle and tension between Glennard's desire to do right and provide a meaningful income and life for his new wife, and the increasing guilt he is feeling for his betrayal of his former relationship with Miss Aubyn.  It builds to an important and emotionally powerful climactic scene involving Glennard and Alexa.

I suggest that a reading of Edith Wharton's The Touchstone can be significantly enhanced by first reading Henry James's The Aspern Papers (1888).  The topics of personal privacy, betrayal, trust, and the role of literary biographers and academic research are really front-and-center in both novellas.  Which is perhaps not all that surprising considering that Edith Wharton and Henry James not only knew each other well, but became very good friends.  Finally, The Touchstone truly is a most excellent introduction to the fiction of Edith Wharton, the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921, for her novel, The Age of Innocence (1920).


The Touchstone
By Edith Wharton, 1900
Aegypan Press
Softcover, 124 pp. 

Review: "The Aspern Papers" By Henry James

The Aspern Papers is a brilliant novella written by Henry James and serialized in the Atlantic in 1888.  In short, The Aspern Papers is the story of an academic researcher, the novella's narrator, on the trail of bundles of personal letters and writings of a long-dead American poet, 'Jeffrey Aspern'.  Apparently, these letters and papers are in the possession of a very old woman, Miss Juliana Bordereau, who lives with her middle-aged niece in an old rambling palazzo in a shabbier part of Venice.  Our narrator rents a room from the women under false pretenses and endeavors to elicit the aid of the niece in discovering the whereabouts of the papers.  He is not above using deceit and artifice in ingratiating himself with the women.  It is clear from the outset that he is obsessed and consumed with obtaining the papers--he calls them his "spoils"--and cares little for the old woman's privacy or the memories of her lost love.

This is a creepy read, and one can't help but sympathize with the poor lonely middle-aged niece, Miss Tina, and even for the ancient Miss Juliana who lives for the memories of her love affair with Aspern.  It becomes altogether uncomfortable for the reader as the narrator emotionally and psychologically manipulates the niece into becoming his accomplice in trying to find and acquire the papers.  Frankly, the ending of the tale is incredibly satisfying to my mind.

I think the point that James is trying to make in this novella is that there really is quite the moral dilemma when it comes to personal privacy and the pursuit of information for intellectual or commercial purposes.  In other words, if an author or poet becomes famous and well-read, the question becomes just how much of their life becomes fair game, if you will, for future biographers, researchers, and so forth?  It is a tough question for sure. 

As I read The Aspern Papers, I realized that other authors have written about this dilemma as well.  For example, Edith Wharton's superb novella, The Touchstone, written in 1900 revolves around a man who sells bundles of very intimate personal letters he received from a former lover who was also a very famous author.  A.S. Byatt sort of gets to this same point with correspondence between two fictional Victorian poets in her Booker Prize winning novel, Possession (1990).  Towards this end then, if you read The Aspern Papers, I strongly urge you to immediately follow it up with a read of Wharton's The Touchstone.  It is a wonderful way to link the two novellas, and is made even more meaningful in that Henry James and Edith Wharton spent much time together and became very good friends.


The Aspern Papers & The Turn of the Screw
By Henry James
Penguin Classics Edition
Softcover, 272

Review: "Washington Square" By Henry James

Some truly monstrous fathers can be found among the great works of fiction.  Shakespeare's King Lear and Titus Andronicus certainly come to mind, or Hardy's 'Michael Henchard', and 'Laius of Thebes' may be the worst of the lot.  Having just finished reading Henry James's Washington Square I am now fully prepared to add Doctor Austin Sloper to my top-ten list of 'Worst Fathers of Fiction'.

Washington Square is a short novel (more a novella) by Henry James written in 1880, and is really an excellent introduction to the fiction of James.  The novel is set in the New York City of the mid-19th century, and is the story of the courting of Dr. Sloper's only living child, Catherine, by a handsome young man, Morris Townsend.  Catherine is, according to her father, "a dull, plain girl", but she is very, very rich.  The plot largely revolves around Townsend's efforts to win Catherine's hand in marriage; the Doctor's efforts to thwart the attachment; and the meddling interference of Catherine's busy-body aunt, Lavinia Penniman.  During the course of the courtship the reader is exposed to the monstrosity of Dr. Sloper, and begins to question the motives of Morris Townsend, and most importantly we witness the maturation of Catherine Sloper.

Some authors paint the landscapes of their fictional world and insert their characters and the plot into it, but James takes an entirely different approach.  Henry James portrays the psychological landscape of his characters' minds with his words.  However, he throws a wrinkle into the mix as his narrator is neither omniscient nor completely reliable.  In other words, much of the time the reader knows as little or as much as the characters themselves in the novel.  It is almost as though the reader is sitting in the parlor listening to the conversations, but maybe is only able to comprehend half of what is said.

Read this book slowly and carefully, and try and place yourself in the the thoughts and emotions of each of the protagonists and you'll find that your perceptions sharpen and you're able to detect the psychological nuances that influence the tale's outcome.  I'm of the mind that this is a story to read and reread and continually discover new and important insights.  James seems to prefer to exercise his readers and that is perhaps not altogether a bad thing.  A solid four out of five stars for me.


Washington Square
By Henry James, 1880
Everyman's Library Edition
Hardcover, 232 pp.

Review: "Roderick Hudson" By Henry James

While Roderick Hudson was Henry James's second published novel (Watch and Ward being the first and serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in 1871), he always considered Roderick Hudson his "first novel".  James also freely admitted that Roderick Hudson was his take on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun (1860). 

I went into this book with my eyes wide open and ended up loving it.  This is early James and is completely accessible to any and all readers.  It is, in my humble opinion, a bit of a Byronic--and an almost Gothic--tale that hits on several themes.  First, there's the comparison and contrast between the Old World cultural values of Europe and the New World values of the American expatriate community.  Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, this novel felt very autobiographical in that both the eponymous 'Roderick Hudson' and the novel's other primary protagonist, 'Rowland Mallet', seem to represent the author at various times in his literary life.  This novel really seemed to be the story of the battle--the constant tension--between the Artist and the Muse; and I have to really wonder if this really isn't Henry James pouring his heart and soul out upon every page.

We've all known artistic people like 'Roderick Hudson', and we care for 'em to the very best of our ability.  Sadly though, artistic geniuses like them burn 'hot', and there's just not much that can be done; whether its a Kurt Cobain, a Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Vincent Van Gogh, Egon Schiele, Lizzie Siddal, John Keats, or even a Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  The candle burns hot, gutters, and then its out.  Roderick Hudson is just such a story.  Strange as it may sound, this novel pulsed and throbbed with passion and emotion like that found in the fiction of one of the Bronte sisters or even Mary Shelley.

For a 'first' novel--at least from James's perspective--this is an engaging and durable plot that completely hooks the reader.  The novel also serves as a terrific travelogue as the protagonists travel throughout much of Europe highlighting the experiences of the American nouveau riche and brashness among the Old World European sensibilities.  Who's right?  Who's wrong?  Well, you can gain some perspective on this question through reading about the experiences of Rowland Mallet and Roderick Hudson in this wonderful example of Henry James's early fiction.  If you're just coming to the fiction of Henry James, Roderick Hudson is truly an excellent novel to start with.


Roderick Hudson
By Henry James
Penguin Classics Edition
Softcover, 398 pp.

Review: "Doctor Thorne" By Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope's Doctor Thorne (1858) is a novel that lulls you into a state of complete and blissful immersion in Trollope's fascinating borough of Barsetshire.  This is the story of a country doctor, the eponymous Doctor Thorne, and his lovely niece, Mary Thorne, and of their interactions with the landed 'Old World' gentry and the nouveau riche.  While this is certainly a novel about romance, it is also a hard and critical social commentary directed at class differences and manners.  This novel explores the old adage that "money is the root of all..."

Frankly, I've come to realize that Anthony Trollope is simply one hell of a story-teller, and with this tale I'd swear that the shade of Jane Austen was perched over his shoulder as he wrote Doctor Thorne.  It has a Dickensian cast of characters without the grotesque or patently comedic, and actually ends up leaving the reader with the sense that this was probably a fairly accurate portrayal of life in rural Victorian England.

While Doctor Thorne is included within Trollope's series, The Chronicles of Barsetshire, it stands alone quite nicely, and there are even a few characters from his later series, The Pallisers, that briefly appear in the tale.  In sum, this is a terrific novel that engages the reader right from the start and then rollicks along to its very satisfying conclusion.  I highly recommend Trollope's Doctor Thorne and look forward to picking this up again for a reread sometime in the future.  This was solid four of five stars for me.


Doctor Thorne
By Anthony Trollope
Everyman's Library Edition
Hardcover, 319 pp.

Review: "The Bostonians" By Henry James

This was an interesting novel to read.  In all honesty it was serious step down from the masterpiece that precedes it, i.e., The Portrait of a Lady.  Having said that though, I think James perhaps intended this book to be lighter fare than Portrait.  In fact, The Bostonians, written by James in 1886, is loaded with satire, irony, and a goodly number of comedic moments. 

The novel's plot revolves around two cousins, Olive Chancellor and Basil Ransom, and the relationship that each desires to have with a young red-headed woman of magnetic personality, Miss Verena Tarrant.  Verena and Olive are both deeply involved in the suffragette movement of the 1870s in the United States.  Basil Ransom is a Confederate Civil War veteran from Mississippi now trying to eke out a living as a lawyer in New York City.  While the two women spend much time in the novel speechifying on their commitment to women's rights, and Basil spends much of his time jocularly refuting their positions, the novel isn't really about feminism, it is all about relationships and feelings.

While Basil's efforts at establishing a romantic romantic relationship with Verena Tarrant were really rather predictable, it was the relationship between Verena and Olive that perhaps intrigued me the most.  There's an ambiguity about Olive and her motives that puzzles me still, and while it might be easy to interpret Olive's feelings for Verena as a quasi-homosexual love, I also think that interpretation might mostly miss the mark.  It is my understanding that it was this novel that actually gave rise to the term "Boston Marriage" describing the relationship of two unmarried women living together.

Finally, as I sit here and process my thoughts upon completing the novel, I have come to the conclusion that both Olive and Basil use and manipulate Verena for their own purpose.  Verena, in my opinion, when she is first encountered by Olive and Basil, is brimming with the "Joy of Life" and is absolutely true to herself and her own feelings.  Through the course of the novel she falls prey to the machinations and manipulations of both cousins, and ultimately ends up becoming in many ways much more like each of them.  And I'm not sure that this is best for Verena.

Before I settle on my final verdict for James's The Bostonians, I would like to read it again sometime.  I really do think there are a lot of undertones lurking about in this tale that can only be ferreted out upon subsequent reads.  This is most definitely a historical novel, and some knowledge about the suffragette movement and spiritualism of the 1870s and life in post-Civil War America would surely help the reader put many of the themes and discussion topics in context.


The Bostonians
By Henry James 
Everyman's Library Edition
Hardcover, 442 pp.

Review: "An Eye for an Eye" By Anthony Trollope

This is my fourth Trollope, and while not the best I've read (that distinction goes to The Way We Live Now, so far), it was a good story.  I have found that Trollope is a story-teller, and a very good one at that.  An Eye for an Eye, written in 1879, is actually a tale that is much more characteristic of those written by Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy or even George Eliot.  An Eye for an Eye is a tragedy in every sense of the word, and you can see the tragic ending coming like an on-rushing freight train.

Without giving away too much of the plot of this slim little novel (just 201 pages), the gist of the tale revolves around a handsome young Army officer, Fred Neville, whose regiment has been recently billeted in a remote station along the Irish coast.  During the course of his jaunts about the wild Irish countryside, Fred meets a beautiful young Irish Catholic woman, Kate O'Hara.  Concurrent with his Army duties in Ireland, Fred is selected by his elderly uncle, Lord Scroope, to become the heir apparent and inherent the Scroope wealth, lands, and title.  Suffice it to say that his uncle is not particularly interested in Fred bringing a young Irish Catholic woman back to England as the future Lady Scroope.  With the dilemma of both loving the young woman and recognizing the responsibility to his family, Fred takes actions and makes promises to Kate and his uncle that creates an impossible situation that can only end badly for everyone.

In An Eye for an Eye, Trollope definitely puts his reader 'front-and-center' with many of the social issues of the day, including (1) Catholic vs Protestant, (2) Anglo vs Irish, (3) class differences, and, of course, the (4) gender and sexuality issues that dominate the relationship between Fred and Kate.

Like each of the Trollope novels I've read to date, this was an engaging and well-written story that I quite enjoyed.  I guess I really don't know why I don't read Trollope more often.


An Eye for an Eye
By Anthony Trollope
Oxford University Press
Softcover, 256 pp.

March 22, 2013

Review: "The Old Way: A Story of the First People" By Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

The Old Way: A Story of the First People is an absolutely fascinating account of the !Kung, or Ju/wasi ("The People"), people of the Kalahari Desert region of southwestern Africa.  Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wrote this book in 2006, based upon the many years that she and her family spent with these amazing people starting in the early 1950s.  In fact, Thomas's mother ended up publishing several anthropological monographs through Harvard University describing the !Kung hunter-gatherer lifestyle in this desolate and unforgiving landscape.  Thomas herself, as a young woman, spent several years living with and getting to know the !Kung, and recorded her observations in her personal journals.  Her older brother, John, spent most of his life with these people, working tirelessly on their behalf, and even married a Ju/wasi woman.

Like most people, I'd heard about the "Bushmen of the Kalahari" as a boy, but really had no idea what that meant, or really who these people were.  In a nutshell, the !Kung are an ancient people that have essentially lived a nomadic Paleolithic lifestyle in the Kalahari Desert for more than 20,000 years.  Interestingly too, with the recent completion of the Human Genome Project, we now know that these people are some of the most ancient and genetically diverse anatomically modern humans (i.e., Homo sapiens) on the planet.  If you will, the !Kung peoples are the 'rootstock' of most of us.  And as such, I think a book like that which Ms. Thomas has written is incredibly important for all of us to read and think about.  In other words, this book has the capability of putting us firmly in touch with who we were, and who we are. 

The !Kung also speak an incredibly ancient language--one of the African 'click' languages--a mix of phonemes and click sounds made with the palate, lips, tongue, or cheeks.  Linguists believe that the click language that the !Kung speak is at least 60,000 years old, and may rank as one of humanity's oldest existing languages.  In reading this book I discovered that utilizing a click language actually makes great sense when living and hunting in a dangerously hostile environment like the Kalahari, as the click sounds tend to blend in and sound more 'natural' and don't alarm prey or alert potential predators like spoken words can.

Ms. Thomas starts off talking about the relationship of these people to the 1,500 centuries, or more, of modern human existence; and up until the mid-1960s, not much had changed from the way our Paleolithic ancestors lived some 60,000-70,000 years ago.  She then described the complex relationship that the !Kung had with their environment and the animals that occupied the Kalahari and that the people depended upon for meat.  The heart of the book is that these were peoples that were completely connected to the habitat and ecology around them.  They intimately understood the habits of all of the animals and and habitat preferences and uses for the plant species of the savannah and desert. Ms. Thomas describes in fascinating detail how plants are gathered and used among the people, marriage and the importance of lineage, how children were raised, how animals were hunted, religious and mythological beliefs, the interactions and social fabric of the family dynamic and small collections of families that lived and migrated together.  There is even a whole chapter on the relationship of the !Kung with the top predators of the Kalahari, African lions, leopards, and spotted hyenas.

Inevitably though time and the new way of human life caught up to this remote corner of the world, and Thomas reports that by the 1990s most of the Bushmen, including the !Kung, had been forced off of their natural ranges and now live in government-sponsored shanty towns and have largely given up their hunter-gatherer subsistence lifestyle.  And similar to what has happened to many Native American peoples in the United States, it has been a very difficult transition for many of them in trying to adapt to the new ways of 'modern' living.  It made me sad to think that these people, so lovingly described and respected by Ms. Thomas in this book, really no longer exist.  Sure, there are still Bushmen living in southwestern Africa near their old homelands in the Kalahari Desert, but they're not living "The Old Way" as the "First People" any longer, and that, I think, is a loss for all of humanity.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book, and count it as a non-fiction favorite read for 2013, and is certainly a book that I will undoubtedly revisit sometime in the future.

The Old Way--A Story of the First People
By Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Hardcover, 344 pp.
Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2006
ISBN 0374225524


March 10, 2013

Review: "The Real Eve: Modern Man's Journey Out of Africa" By Stephen Oppenheimer

Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer's The Real Eve: Modern Man's Journey Out of Africa (2003) is absolutely one of the very best non-fiction books I've read in a few years!  And I say this on several levels too.  First, if you are at all interested in your own human origins, and what makes us human, you'll love this book.  Second, if you're interested in paleoanthropology, and are interested in what happened after anatomically modern humans (i.e., Homo sapiens) appeared in Africa somewhere around 200,000 years ago and when did we actually become 'behaviorally modern' too, you'll love this book.  Finally, if you're at all interested in how anatomically and behaviorally modern humans then spread out in the great diaspora about 80,000 years ago known as the "Out-of-Africa" dispersal, you'll love this book.

Much of this book is an incredibly compelling melding of the existing paleoanthropological, archaeological, and genetic evidence that, when combined with known ecological and climatological data, tells the story of these robust early modern humans that undertook this grand journey that completely changed the world we live in.  Oppenheimer carefully presents and considers all of the available archaeological evidence and the conclusions drawn from it, and then compares it with the results of the now extensive amount of genetic research associated with maternal mitochondrial-DNA and male Y-chromosome analyses.  Oppenheimer believes that we now have answers or, at a minimum, some pretty compelling hypotheses that go far in addressing questions about who these peoples were that trekked along the coasts colonizing the Near East, eastern and western Europe, India, southeast Asia and eventually even New Guinea, and Australia; while others continued 'coasting' up along the Asian-Pacific coast before turning inland and settling the hinterlands of the ice-age steppe tundra of Siberia and Mongolia.  Finally, Oppenheimer addresses one of the most contentious issues in modern archaeology--that of the settling of the Americas.  When did modern humans reach the Americas?  Who were these early colonizers? Where did they come from?  Did they come in a single wave following the end of the last ice-age, or were there multiple entries?  And were the Clovis peoples really the first to arrive about 12,000 years ago?

The organization of this book in its seven chapters is simply superb too, in my opinion.  Dr. Oppenheimer starts off with the fascinating discussion of our early modern human ancestors in Africa, and what it was that might have compelled them to leave Africa between 80,000 and 90,000 years ago.  He then spends time describing the archaeological evidence associated with the potential routes of initial dispersal from Africa (i.e., a northern route through the Levant, or the southern route--the preferred alternative--via the Bab al Mandab at the bottom of the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa).

The second chapter is equally fascinating, and addresses the all-important question of when did anatomically modern humans become 'behaviorally modern'.  This has been a vexing question to paleoanthropologists and archaeologists for some time now, and there is a considerable body of evidence out there that can be interpreted quite differently.  Frankly though, I'm leaning toward agreement with Dr. Oppenheimer that the appearance of anatomically modern humans between 200,000 years and 170,000 years ago was largely concurrent with the appearance of our behavioral modernity as well.  In contrast, there are many well-respected anthropologists, e.g., Richard G. Klein of Stanford University, who believe that Homo sapiens became behaviorally modern sometime around 50,000 years ago, the result of additional adaptations within the human brain.  Oppenheimer and other geneticists have not yet ferreted out what this change might have been, nor does he believe that the archaeological evidence supports this theory.  All in all, I found this a very thought-provoking chapter.

The remainder of the book's chapters (i.e., 3-7) focus on detailed archaeological and genetic discussions of the timing of the entries into the various regions of the world colonized by the mitochondrial 'Out-of-Africa Eve' and Y-chromosomal 'Out-of-Africa Adam' and their genetic descendants.  Chapter Three describes the types of people and timing of the colonizing of eastern and western Europe.  Chapter Four focuses on the colonization of India, southeast Asia and leading to humans reaching New Guinea and Australia by about 60,000 years ago (implication being you'd certainly have to have been 'behaviorally modern' to fabricate a craft that was capable of 'island-hopping' and crossing many tens of kilometers of open ocean to reach Australia!).  Chapter Five looks at the types of peoples and the timing of the settling of the great interior regions of ice-age Asia and eastern Russia.  Chapter Six tells the story of the impact of the last ice-age in the late-Pleistocene (i.e., the Last Glacial Maximum), that wreaked havoc on the small populations of humans scattered throughout Europe and Asia.  The last chapter of the book is Oppenheimer's take on the peopling of the Americas.  He's of the opinion--based upon archaeology and genetics--that the first 'Americans' arrived between 25,000 years and 22,000 years ago, and that this was followed by a re-expansion of peoples that had occupied Beringia (the huge continent that existed between 25,000-11,000 years ago and linked Asian Siberia with North American Alaska during the run up and through the Last Glacial Maximum).

'So,' you ask, 'having read this fascinating book, what's the upshot?'  Well, first, I can categorically answer that we are all African!  Second, I think the genetic evidence and its most parsimonious interpretations tend to validate and enhance the current "Out-of-Africa" hypothesis for the dispersal of Homo sapiens from eastern Africa around 80,000 years ago.  Third, after reading this book you'll never look at another human being quite the same.  You'll always be thinking about our remarkable kinship, yet more fully understanding the meaning of the differences that exist among the peoples of our world today.  I think it is also important to point out that Dr. Oppenheimer has also very carefully sourced and documented the material he presents in the book with over 50 pages of end-notes.  I strongly recommend reading each of the end-notes too, it made for an even more complete reading experience for me.

Dr. Oppenheimer's The Real Eve: Modern Man's Journey Out of Africa is a grand synthesis of a grand story--our own human origins and subsequent dispersal around the globe.  This book is really the incredible story of how a very small group (1,000-2,000 individuals) from a total population of the approximately 20,000 Homo sapiens that occupied Africa about 80,000 years ago actually got up the gumption to strike out and explore and colonize the rest of the world over the next 40,000 years or so.  Finally, don't be intimidated by the subject matter,  Dr. Oppenheimer is an engaging writer and spends the time and effort to present the material in such a fashion as to be understandable by any reader.  It includes loads of terrific maps and detailed charts illustrating and supporting the genetic evidence and conclusions presented in the book.

In closing, I do want to say that I consider myself more than just a casual student of topics in paleoanthropology and human origins and evolution.  Over my entire adult life I have made a point of staying current with the latest information, via books and technical journal articles, on this intellectually challenging subject, and I can unhesitatingly say that I believe that this is one of the most important books that I've read associated with modern human origins.  This was such a good book that I've gone ahead and found a hardcover edition for my paleoanthropology book collection, as I know that I will be diving into this book time and again in the future.  I highly recommend this book, and feel entirely justified in giving this 'five stars'.

The Real Eve: Modern Man's Journey Out of Africa
By Stephen Oppenheimer
Softcover, 440 pp.
Carroll & Graf Publishing, 2004
ISBN 0-7867-1334-8


March 4, 2013

Review: "The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestor" By Ann Gibbons

Ann Gibbons has written a very solid and fascinating account of the relative recent discoveries of several of our earliest human ancestors. Gibbons is a well known science writer and brings significant journalistic integrity to her story-telling, as well as significant knowledge of her subject matter.  The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors (2006) is the story of the paleoanthropologists behind the incredibly important discoveries of hominin species that are currently some of the oldest yet found, and span a range of ages from 5.0 million years old to perhaps as much as 7.0 million years old.

Gibbons, in telling the story of these discoveries, necessarily focuses much of the book on the out-sized personalities (and, dare I say, egos) of the anthropologists leading the teams exploring various important fossil regions in Africa.  The teams she primarily focuses on in the book include Tim White and his work in the Afar Depression of Ethiopia; Richard and Meave Leakey in the Lake Turkana region of Kenya; Martin Pickford and Brigitte Senut in the Tugen Hills of Kenya; and Michel Brunet and his team in the Djureb Desert of Chad. Each of these teams of highly professional specialists in their respective fields have significantly added to our general understanding and knowledge base associated with the very earliest hominin species found to date, including Australopithecus, Ardipithecus, and two newly identified species, Orrorin tugenensis and Sahelanthropus tchadensis.

Gibbons is quite even-handed in describing the tension and academic conflict that has arisen among some of these researchers associated with the interpretation and meaning of these important fossil discoveries and their role in understanding and explaining human evolution.  Gibbons does a great job of not editorializing or letting her own emotions color the scenes she writes about, and simply factually recounts the stories of the fossil discoveries, the research science that followed, and the resultant back-and-forth academic squabbles that erupted as articles were published and discussed in various academic journals.  As a serious amateur student of paleoanthropology and human evolution, I know that this is pretty much de rigueur, not only in anthropological circles, but among the scientific community as a whole.  All in all, I think that a rigorous and scholarly debate is incredibly healthy and typically results in the advancement of scientific knowledge.  Having said that though, and based upon my interpretation of what Gibbons presents in this book, it is my personal opinion that Martin Pickford--one of the co-discoverers of O. tugenensis--behaved simply deplorably in his much of his dealings with his peers in the academic community over many, many years.

If you're interested in reading about how scientists gear up and conduct scientific expeditions in some very inhospitable portions of the world in their on-going search for the proverbial "needle in the haystack", then I think you'll very much enjoy Ms. Gibbons, The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors.  Additionally, if you're specifically interested in learning more about these new, and incredibly ancient, species that have been discovered (i.e., O. tugenensis and S. tchadensis you'll very much appreciate the detail and solid science that Ms. Gibbons provides in telling this fascinating story.

The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestor
By Ann Gibbons
Softcover, 336 pp.
Anchor Books, 2006
ISBN 140007696X


Review: "Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins" By John Reader

This book is largely a complete rewrite of a similarly titled book that Reader first published in 1981.  This lavishly illustrated book is an excellent and comprehensive survey of the history behind the search for our human origins.  Mr. Reader guides the reader through the first early discoveries and interpretations of the fossils and artifacts that led the great thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries to begin pondering our origins.  From the mid-19th century on, as many of you are aware, things really take off, and significant fossil hominin discoveries are made in Europe, Asia, and then in Africa.  And as we know now, it is in Africa where the cradle of humanity and all of its closest relatives are to be found. 

What Mr. Reader has created in Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins (2011) is a profoundly interesting story.  First, for its detailed description of the expeditions and the 'thrill of the hunt' associated with all of the fascinating fossil discoveries and interpretations of the biological evidence.  Second, Reader uses the book to tell the story of the fascinating personalities (and, in some cases, huge egos) of all of the men and women involved in these searches for hominin fossils and their role in better understanding our own biological history.  This is as much a story of Charles Darwin, Arthur Keith, Eugene Dubois, Raymond Dart, Robert Bloom, the Leakey family, Phillip Tobias, Don Johanson, Tim White, and Michel Brunet, and a host of others, as it is about the fossils themselves.  Another important element that Reader brings to the story is the importance of the integration of many different scientific disciplines when investigating and endeavoring to piece together and tell the complicated story and timeline of our human existence over the past six to seven million years.

In some respects, this book reminded me of the second edition of Ian Tattersall's brilliant book, The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know about Human Evolution (2008).  While Tattersall's book is perhaps more technically oriented to the actual fossil evidence and biological data, Mr. Reader's is more focused on the historical elements associated with the finds and the anthropologists and anatomists doing the work.  All in all, they are actually quite complementary works, and well worth having in your collection.  So, whether you're a professional anthropologist or you are simply interested in better understanding your own biological and evolutionary history and origins, I highly recommend John Reader's Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins.

Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins
By John Reader
Hardcover, 538 pp.
Oxford University Press, 2011
ISBN 0199276854

Review: "In Search of the Neanderthals: Solving the Puzzle of Human Origins" By Christopher Stringer and Clive Gamble

I think that Christopher Stringer, along with Ian Tattersall, are my two favorite writers when it comes to reading books about paleoanthropology and our human origins.  Dr. Stringer's In Search of the Neanderthals: Solving the Puzzle of Human Origins, while somewhat dated (1993), is a fascinating account of the fossil, genetic, ecological, and archaeological data associated with the Neandertals (Homo neanderthalensis) and anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens).  For many years, almost since the first Neandertal fossil was found in the mid-19th century, it has been thought that modern humans (H. sapiens) were descendants of this earlier hominin species.  We now know that this is not the case.  In fact, it is now clear that at one point in time--about 45,000 years ago--there may have been as many as four different and distinct human species living on Earth at the same time, including the Neandertals, modern humans, and then the very ancient Homo erectus in southeast Asia, and perhaps the diminutive hominin on the island of Flores in the Indonesian archipelago, Homo floresiensis.  [Note that this doesn't take into account the status of the still mysterious "Denisovan" hominin found in one cave in Russia's Altai Mountains, and that appear to be genetically distinct from both Neandertals and anatomically modern humans!]

Much of Dr. Stringer's book focuses on describing the fossil, biological, genetic and archaeological data and evidence that actually distinguishes anatomically modern humans (i.e., us) from the Neandertal peoples.  It is Stringer's contention, and that of much of the paleoanthropological community as well, that anatomically modern humans are not descended from Neandertals, but were a contemporaneous species that shared a common ancestor such as Homo heidelbergensis or Homo antecessor between them and the earlier Homo erectus

In this book, Dr. Stringer does an excellent job of making the case for an "Out-of-Africa" dispersal for anatomically modern humans that probably began about 90,000-70,000 years ago, and by 45,000 years ago these modern humans, also known as the "Cro-Magnon", had spread into western Europe, the home of the Neandertals for 200,000+ years and ultimately displaced them.  It appears that the modern behaviors (e.g., planning, art, improved stone-tool and shelter technologies, language, etc.) and tremendous environmental adaptability exhibited by these new modern peoples was probably enough to pressure the Neandertals to have to shift to small isolated enclaves at the margins of their former range across much of western and central Europe.  This diminution of their range and inability to adapt ultimately led to the extinction of the Neandertals approximately 30,000-25,000 years ago.

If you're looking for a good one-volume, easy-to-read, treatment of the origins and relationship between our close cousins, the Neandertals, and ourselves, then I highly recommend this book.  Additionally, this volume is profusely illustrated with a terrific collection of photographs that illustrates and supports the fossil evidence for Stringer's contention that anatomically modern humans evolved separately and apart from Neandertals.  Finally, if you want the latest--state-of-the-science--information about our human origins, I strongly urge you to read Dr. Stringer's latest book, Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth (2012).

In Search of the Neanderthals: Solving the Puzzle of Human Origins
By Chris Stringer and Clive Gamble
Hardcover, 248 pp.
Thames & Hudson, 1993
ISBN 0500050708


Review: "The Neanderthal's Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers" By Juan Luis Arsuaga (translated by Andy Katt)

Juan Luis Arsuaga's The Neanderthal's Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers (2002) is an excellent and compelling addition to my collection of paleoanthropological books.  Dr. Arsuaga is a Spanish anthropologist and has spent much of his career at the famous archaeological sites at the Sierra de Atapuerca.  He and his team are known for discovering the largest collection of pre-Neandertal hominins--some 2,000 human fossils, comprising maybe as many as thirty-two individuals.  According to Professor Arsuaga, all of these fossils are likely an ancestral species to both the Neandertals (Homo neanderthalensis) and anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens), and are classified as either Homo heidelbergensis or Homo antecessor.  This human species occupied the Iberian peninsula and other portions of western Europe for a very long period of time, from approximately 780,000 years before present to perhaps 130,000 years before present.

What Professor Arsuaga accomplishes in this book is to eloquently tell the history of the early human species that occupied western Europe, especially the Iberian peninsula from the Middle Paleolithic through the early Upper Paleolithic and the extinction of the Neandertals.  What I particularly appreciated was Dr. Arsuaga's melding of the data associated with regional climatic and ecological conditions in telling the story of these early hominin species who occupied these habitats so many millenia in our past in Spain during those fluctuating periods of extreme world-wide glaciation and interglacials.  Over the years that I have been reading books and technical papers about human origins, I have come to better understand and appreciate that data and information associated with the effects of global and regional climate change and regional ecological conditions are every bit as important as the fossil and genetic evidence.

Personally, I think Professor Arsuaga's book, The Neanderthal's Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers, is an important book and goes far in helping fill in the details about our human origins between what we currently know about the dispersal of Homo erectus from Africa between approximately 1.5-1.2 million years ago, and the arrival of fully-functioning anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) in western Europe about 45,000 years ago.  I also strongly suggest that Professor Arsuaga's book makes an excellent companion to Clive Finlayson's relatively recent (2010) book entitled, The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived.  In reading both of these books, the reader will come away with a clear understanding of the role of the early hominin species in western Europe and the role that climate change and ecological conditions played in ultimately reaching the point that only one human species--Homo sapiens--remained on the planet.

The Neanderthal's Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers
By Juan Luis Arsuaga, translated by Andy Katt
Hardcover, 320 pp.
Basic Books, 2002
ISBN 1568581874


February 4, 2013

Review: "Deadhouse Gates" By Steven Erikson

Deadhouse Gates is the second book in Steven Erikson’s brilliant and uber-epic ten-volume fantasy series, "The Malazan Book of the Fallen" (MBotF).  I think this is now the third time I’ve read this book and it still remains one of my favorites.  Deadhouse Gates is nothing short of a ‘nail-biter’ from the get-go and the pacing is utterly relentless.  I have to say that Deadhouse Gates is an easier read than Erikson’s first book in the MBotF series, Gardens of the Moon, and much of that is because the reader is slowly, but surely, becoming more familiar with Erikson’s writing style and more comfortable with the unique qualities of the Malazan world that he has crafted.

In my opinion, Deadhouse Gates is a fine example of what I truly love the most about the MBotF series, and that is Erikson’s ability to make his readers empathize with the characters in his books.  One thing that really impresses me about Erikson’s characters is that they are all typically people that the reader can relate to, and there are really very few, if any, characters that aren’t flawed in one fashion or another.  Also, Erikson’s MBotF characters exhibit a strong dose of egalitarianism, as men and women in the books commonly occupy positions of authority and responsibility across all walks of life in the Malazan world.

Much of Deadhouse Gates occurs on the continent of “Seven Cities” and introduces a whole new cast of characters from those presented in Gardens of the Moon.  Never fear though, of the multiple story arcs in Deadhouse Gates, one arc does involve a small group of characters that the reader met in Gardens of the Moon and who become quite important to the storyline in this episode.  As is typical of Erikson novels in the MBotF series, there are plots and sub-plots galore swirling around throughout this 600+ page book (trade-paperback edition), and each of them is an attention-grabber, and at times contain a powerful ‘punch to the gut’.

Without giving away anything of significance away, Deadhouse Gates revolves around the rebellion of many of the subjugated peoples of the Seven Cities continent.  This rebellion is known as “The Whirlwind” and is intended to rid the continent of all of the Malazan occupiers, both administrative and military.  The main plot of the novel is one that just takes your breath away—that of the tactical retreat of the Malazan Seventh Army over several hundred leagues from one city to another.  The Malazan Seventh is commanded by Coltaine, a Wickan Crow Clan warchief, and now a Fist (General) in the Malazan Army.  Fist Coltaine and many of the other Wickan characters are some of my favorites in the entire MBotF series, and the Wickan Clans themselves—with names like “Foolish Dog Clan”, “Weasel Clan, and “Crow Clan”—reminded me of some of the Native American tribes that so effectively battled the U.S. Army in the latter half of the 19th century.

Honestly, the story of the Seventh Army’s retreat across the landscape of Seven Cities is truly nothing short of epic, as Coltaine must try and not only preserve the fighting capacity of the Seventh Army, but protect more than 50,000 refugees that his forces are endeavoring to shepherd to safety.  This plot thread that weaves through much of the novel becomes known as “Coltaine’s Chain of Dogs”, a moniker of significant distinction and pride to the members of the Seventh Army, as well as the rest of the Malazan Empire. As a veteran of the military myself, there was something in this story of the “Chain of Dogs” that truly tugged at the heartstrings of my very soul, and I cannot begin to tell you how many times while reading about the desperate attempts of the Seventh Army to survive its horrifying trek across Seven Cities that I had to set the book aside for a few moments and simply let the tears roll down my cheeks.  While at times a terribly tragic story, the tale of Coltaine’s “Chain of Dogs” is also one that exhibits the finest qualities of humanity—courage, compassion, comradeship, and Love. 

Erikson's description of this epic journey, and the battles fought along the way, rivals any that have been written about in numerous superb non-fiction military histories.  Examples that immediately come to mind include the U.S. Continental Army’s retreat from New York to Valley Forge, or Napoleon’s Grande Armee’s retreat from Russia, or Field Marshal von Manstein's strategic retreat of several German armies across the frozen steppes of southern Russia in early 1942 (after the fall of Stalingrad).  Erikson’s tale of the “Chain of Dogs” in Deadhouse Gates is some of the best military fiction I’ve ever read, and should appeal to readers with even a passing interest in military or historical fiction or non-fiction.

But wait, there’s even more—So much more!  Deadhouse Gates is also chock full of important plot and story lines that really help to begin to open up the full breadth and scope of the Malazan world to the reader.  There are significant tie-backs to important events and happenings in Gardens of the Moon, as well as explanations of the fascinating and complex system of magic and sorcery, and loads of new information about the mythology and significance of the pantheon of gods and goddesses who occupy the Malazan world.  Deadhouse Gates can perhaps be best characterized as the ‘tale of multiple journeys’, with Coltaine’s “Chain of the Dogs” being the centerpiece, but there are also the journeys of several other groups of characters that are just as meaningful to the overall plot and are very, very important to future episodes in the MBotF series.

I continue to be completely blown away with the sheer quality of the writing, the plotting, the character development, the pacing, the pathos and drama, and the sheer inventiveness and originality of the world that Erikson has created. Mr. Erikson doesn't pull his punches, this is truly some hard, bleak, and dark fiction; and it is at times viscerally tragic and profoundly sad.  At the same time though, Erikson soars to heights almost unknown in fantasy fiction with his moments of triumph, success, and the joy of experiencing those fleeting instants of pure and unbridled goodness and humanity.

In closing, I highly and unhesitatingly recommend this series; and, in my opinion, Deadhouse Gates is much more than a quantum step forward from the first novel in the series, Gardens of the MoonDeadhouse Gates was the book in the MBotF series that cemented my love affair with all things Malazan.  Read Deadhouse Gates--you’ll become a believer too!

Deadhouse Gates
By Steven Erikson
Tor Books, 2005
Trade Paperback Edition, 608 pp


January 25, 2013

Review Redux: "Gardens of the Moon" By Steven Erikson (Malazan Book of the Fallen #1)

For those of you that follow ProSe bear with me, as I will be reviewing a book in this posting that I reviewed two years ago hereGardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson is an amazing novel on so many levels, and I guess part of my rationale in providing another look at it is to encourage more readers to discover the incredible world and story that Erikson has created in his ten-volume series known as "The Malazan Book of the Fallen".

Gardens of the Moon, and the entire "Malazan Book of the Fallen" series is generally classified as fantasy fiction, and while that is an appropriate designation, it is also so much more than that.  I'd like to use this posting to briefly describe why I think it is actually kind of hard to simply pigeon-hole this series safely in the fantasy genre.

First of all, let's talk about what this series is not.  The "Malazan Book of the Fallen" (or, MBotF) is not a recounting of an epic struggle between Good and Evil.  Nor is the MBotF a bildungsroman of some young poor farmer boy or girl who sets out upon a grand and desperate quest to save the world from an evil sorcerer or ruler.  Finally, the MBotF series is not the story of one, or even a few, main characters, but contains a cast of hundreds.  Frankly, very few of the typical fantasy tropes are in play in this series, the MBotF is some seriously new and cutting-edge stuff, and it probably is not going to appeal to all who pick it up.  I'm also convinced that the MBotF is destined to ultimately be viewed as 'classic' and will be read for many, many years to come.  It really is that original.

Up front you need to realize that Steven Erikson does not 'hold your hand' while reading this series.  By that I mean there are no big 'information dumps' that explain the Malazan world, or detailed character backgrounds, or in-depth descriptions of how the magic systems works, or even what's going on at any precise moment in time.  You really gotta work for it in reading this series, and sometimes its bloody hard work and can be quite frustrating.  In some respects, reading the MBotF is kinda like assembling a giant 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a Jackson Pollack painting--it takes time, and it can be confusing as hell; but when it 'clicks' it becomes an immensely satisfying reading experience, and one that you'll want to revisit and delve into for the rest of your life.

To me, the MBotF is like reading the history of a whole planet, as you will be learning about new cultures and events that have occurred over the span of several hundred millenia.  This characteristic is actually very reflective of Erikson's educational background and years of work experience.  'Steven Erikson' is the pen-name for Steve Rune Lundin, a Canadian anthropologist and author.  Apparently, a lot of the original concepts associated with elements of the MBotF were 'ginned up' by Erikson and his friend, Ian C. Esslemont (more on Esslemont later) during anthropological/archaeological field trips and sitting around the campfire at night.  As you read these books you do recognize similarities between some of the characters and cultures in Erikson's Malazan world and historic and prehistoric human cultures.  For example, there are human-like peoples that very much reminded me of early hominid species like Neanderthals and the even earlier hominid, Homo erectus, and there are races of peoples that certainly remind me of various Native American cultures.  The Malazans themselves bear some similarity to the peoples and cultures of the ancient Greek or Roman empires.

The mythopoeic quality of the MBotF series is astounding and maybe one of the more important elements that sets this series apart from all other modern fantasy fiction.  The only other book, in my humble opinion, that creates such a fantastical and intellectually creative fictional mythology is The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Erikson's mythology, like Tolkien's, is an elegant amalgam of creation and origin myths, religious elements, and cultural and social geography all of which seems to be strongly connected to the environment and geology of the Malazan world.  The MBotF contains an enormous and complex pantheon of goddesses and gods that rivals the Greeks, Romans, Norse, Celts and other human cultures.  Much of this mythology is presented in the MBotF as epigraphical poetry or fictional bits of history leading off chapters in each of the books, that when initially read can seem quite enigmatic but ultimately help illuminate plot points and/or foreshadow events to come.  Interestingly, the Malazan world goddesses and gods, like the Greek gods of Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey delight in meddling in the affairs of the mortals, and are perhaps even somewhat envious of the Human condition, i.e., the capacity to love, to experience pain, sadness, joy, and even to die.

The MBotF, while a series of ten interconnected books, is not an entirely linear plot structure.  Each book in the series could, I suppose, be read on its own with varying degrees of success.  The point is that each book is largely a self-contained 'chapter' in this magnificent saga, this 'history', of the Malazan world.  Each novel also tends to introduce a whole host of new characters, cultures, a new geographic locale and environmental conditions, and sometimes even new gods and goddesses, but--and its an important "but"--each book and its individual story arc is hugely significant in successfully making the intellectual journey from the first book in the series, Gardens of the Moon, to the tenth and final book, The Crippled God.  And you just gotta make this journey, as it is some of the most mind-bogglingly awesome fiction you'll likely ever encounter.  There is a storyline and cast of characters that you genuinely care about, and enough pathos and drama to carry the reader through the full gamut of emotions--from the heights of great joy and laughter to the depths of profound grief.

Gardens of the Moon is arguably the toughest book to read in the entire series, and much of that is simply related to the reader having to become accustomed to Erikson's writing and story-telling style.  As I said earlier, he makes you work for it.  It took me two attempts before I successfully read and completed Gardens of the Moon, and from what I understand I'm not particularly unique in that experience.  I think if you can just 'hang tough' and get through the first four chapters, you'll start being able to put some pieces of the puzzle together and I'm betting that your interest will be piqued enough to see you through the end of the novel.  This novel, like all in the series, is full of a gritty, but heart-felt realism that I think we can all relate to, i.e., it just feels right some how.  And once you've finished Gardens of the Moon and start Deadhouse Gates (one of my personal favorites in the series), I predict that you'll be hooked and then you're in for the long-haul.

Gardens of the Moon opens with a great battle involving a Malazan army and its mages attacking the city of Pale and a bizarre gigantic chuck of basalt that is suspended in the sky over Pale that is known as "Moon's Spawn".  While you will likely leave the first couple of chapters somewhat 'dazed-and-confused', you should probably take the time to go back and reread sections of this opening section again and again, and the 'muddy waters' will slowly begin to clear for you.  I recommend that new readers get used to the notion that being 'dazed-and-confused' initially is really okay, and that eventually you will come across information later that helps explain things and start answering your questions.  Erikson rewards you as you figure things out, as you get these significant 'aha', or 'lightbulb', moments.  For example, the 'Siege of Pale' (Chapter Two) is an important event, and will be referred to time and time again throughout all ten books in the series, but you'll not quite have it all figured out until you're well into the series.  Anyway, following the events at Pale, the scene shifts south to the large city of Darujhistan and the Malazan Empire's efforts to covertly infiltrate the city and bring it to heel.  To the best of your ability, pay attention to everything, for just about everything that Erikson gives you is important, including events as well as things said.  Utilize the "Dramatis Personae" and maps (at the front of the book) and the "Glossary" (at the end of the book) liberally.  Slowly, but surely, you'll begin to get your 'sea-legs' in the Malazan world and you'll soon find yourself swept up in the tale.

Finally, I want to come back to Erikson's friend, Ian C. Esslemont, or as we Malazan fans refer to him, ICE.  Esslemont is also an archaeologist and author, and is the co-creator of the Malazan world with Steven Erikson.  In fact, ICE has now authored five novels in his "Malazan Empire" series, and the plots of his books are inter-woven and connected with the ten books in Erikson's MBotF.  It is my understanding that ICE has a couple more Malazan Empire novels in him and then we'll have "the rest of the story".  The cool thing is that ICE uses his novels to tell the stories about events and happenings or topics about which Erikson has been specifically vague or even silent on.  So, by reading the books of both authors a reader really can start figuring it all out.

In conclusion, I highly recommend both the MBotF series by Steven Erikson, and the Malazan Empire books by Ian Esslemont.  I have read the entire "Wheel of Time" series by Robert Jordan (and capably finished by Brandon Sanderson), and the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series by George R.R. Martin, and while they are both very, very good, the Malazan world created by Messrs. Erikson and Esslemont kicks their collective asses!  Don't take my word for it though, give Gardens of the Moon a try, and see what you think.  Try your best not to give up, and just persevere through the first one-hundred pages or so; and if you do give up, just set it up on the shelf and come back a few weeks later.  It'll 'click' at some point, and you be so glad that it did.  It is one of my favorite series of books, and I know that the Malazan world is going to be a part of my literary life as long as I live.

If you're interested, here's a listing of Erikson's books in the "Malazan Book of the Fallen" series--

Gardens of the Moon
Deadhouse Gates
Memories of Ice
House of Chains
Midnight Tides
The Bonehunters
Reaper's Gale
Toll the Hounds
Dust of Dreams
The Crippled God

And here's a listing of Esslemont's books in his "Malazan Empire" series (so far)--

Night of Knives
Return of the Crimson Guard
Orb Sceptre Throne
Blood and Bone