Book Review: The History of Opera for Beginners

Book Review: The History of Opera for Beginners by Ron David

Opera is one of the great art forms, blending theater and music into a powerful emotional experience.  But it also has a stereotype of being incomprehensible melodrama that boring rich people drag their unwilling spouses to.  And many of the books about opera are written by scholars who got their Doctor of Musicology degrees in the subject and expect you to follow along.

The History of Opera for Beginners

This volume is by an interested layman who presumes that you have very little knowledge on the subject and want a good place to start.   It begins with the roots of opera in older forms of musical theater, then moves on to Italy in the Sixteenth Century, where the opera as such was invented.  It covers the spread of opera across Europe and the major composers that created the most popular or influential pieces.

Then there’s a section on the part of opera that’s most accessible to the casual fan, the singers.  It talks about what castrati were, and the historical performers we know about because the audience wrote about them.  There’s rather more material about singers who have been recorded, starting with Enrico Caruso (who should probably replace Columbus as the official Italian-American holiday celebration.)

This is followed by a selection of the “best” operas with plot descriptions (most fit in a single page as opera tends to very thin plotlines.)

The book winds up with the author’s thoughts on where to proceed if you’re interested in more scholarly approaches to opera, a bibliography, and a guide to his favorite Youtube clips.

The general tone is snarky humor, enhanced by comedic art from Sara Woolley.

Recommended primarily for casual music fans, bright teenagers who want to know more about opera, and as a gag gift for opera lovers.

Speaking of Youtube, let’s all enjoy Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” (“None Shall Sleep”).

Book Review: Respectable Horror

Book Review: Respectable Horror by K.A. Laity

Horror is a wide-ranging genre, which can be tailored to a variety of tastes.  Some folks prefer their scary fiction with a maximum of gushing blood and sharp objects being plunged into soft flesh; others like a more genteel approach that emphasizes the subtle wrongnesses and growing atmospheric dread that comes before the end.  This collection is geared towards the latter audience, with one of the inspirations being the work of M.R. James.

Respectable Horror

There are seventeen stories in all, starting with “The Estate of Edward Moorehouse” by Ian Burdon.  The title character went missing in a remote section of British coastline seven years ago.  He’s been declared dead, and a relative is looking through his estate and discovers that Mr. Moorehouse was searching for traces of a buried village on a beach mentioned in an old text.  He decides to honor the man by visiting the same beaches.

This is a thoroughly modern story with Facebook ™ and SIM cards, but ancient evil has adapted to the new technology.

The final story, “The Astartic Arcanum” by Carol Borden, is more of a period piece.  A Cthulhu Mythos tale, it pits poet Nita Sloan against a cabal of wealthy old men in Detroit who want to change the world.  It would appear that her latest work might be the only thing that can stop them–provided they don’t manage to sacrifice her to their dark god first!

Some other standouts include: “The Feet on the Roof” by Anjana Basu.  Set in 1960s India, there is culture clash between a wealthy widow and her daughter.  The daughter just up and vanishes one day, but then mysterious footprints begin to appear where no footprints should be.  It’s nice to see a horror story set in India that is by someone who actually comes from there.

“Miss Metcalfe” by Ivan Kershner is a Bradburyesque story about a substitute teacher.  It is the day before Halloween, and there’s a new substitute teacher, with a radically different lesson plan.  It involves bats.  Nicely spooky, and dances right up to but not past the line.  Read it to your kids.

“The Well Wisher” by Matthew Pegg concerns a series of poison pen letters.  One target of the letters has already been driven to suicide.  A governess may be able to unravel the mystery of the “Well Wisher”, but can she do so without revealing her own dark secrets?  Innovative, but also comfortably period.

My least favorite story was “Recovery” by H.V. Chao.  An author with writer’s block has moved to a small French village in the hopes it will help.  It hasn’t, but he’s enjoying listening to the guest next door speak to a lover who never answers.  The story never reaches spooky, just barely making it to odd.

Most of the other stories are decent to quite good; this would make a fine Halloween present for a sweetheart or other book  lover.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1 art by Dick Dillin and Charles Cuidero

In September 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union.  The valiant Polish people battled bravely against the two-pronged attack, but it was to no avail.  One aviator was shot down, as it happens, near his family’s farm, only to watch as it was blown to bits by a Nazi bomb.  He discovered his siblings inside the ruined farmhouse, dead or dying.  The aviator vowed vengeance against the Nazis, and particularly the pilot of the plane that had murdered his family, Captain von Tepp of the Butcher Squadron.

Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1

Months later in England, the aviator stewed in frustration.  The RAF did not trust the Polish airmen who’d fled to their shores, thinking that because they’d lost, the Poles were inferior pilots.  Unable to get in the air through the regular channels, the aviator found a small group of other pilots who were refugees (plus one American volunteer) and likewise unable to get into the fight.  They pooled their resources and secretly purchased several Grumman XF5F Skyrockets, as well as supplies for them and a secret island base.

The aviator had discarded his civilian name and now went only by Blackhawk.  His men were the Blackhawk Squadron, or just the Blackhawks.  They operated on behalf of the Allies, but independently of any military command, striking wherever the need was greatest.  After a few missions never detailed, Blackhawk and his men were able to track down von Tepp and Blackhawk took his revenge.  His personal business complete, the Blackhawks were free to fly anywhere at any time to fight the Axis.

The Blackhawks first appeared in Military Comics #1 in 1941, under the Quality Comics label, and got their own title, Blackhawk, in 1944.  They were very popular, at one point selling just below Superman.  In 1952, they even got a film serial, starring Kirk Alyn, who’d previously played Superman in the movies.

But by 1957, sales were waning, and Quality first leased, then sold, its trademarked characters and titles to DC.  Blackhawk was one of only a handful of titles to continue (the other notable one was G.I. Combat.)  It kept its art team, but had an assortment of now-anonymous writers.

This volume reprints the DC run, starting with #108.  At this point, the team had long been stabilized at seven members.  Blackhawk (Polish/American/Polish-American) was the leader.  Hendrickson (Dutch/German) was the team sharpshooter and the oldest member.  Stanislaus (Polish) was generally the second-in-command–at this point he was said to have been a aerialist before the war and was quite acrobatic.  Andre (French) was a mechanical engineer and a bit of a ladies’ man.  Olaf (Swedish) was large and exceptionally strong.  Chuck (American) was a radio specialist.  And Chop-Chop (Chinese) was the team cook.  We’ll get back to him.

Since the Korean War was over and Vietnam was not yet hot, the Blackhawks (now flying Lockheed XF-90 C jets) primarily fought spies, saboteurs and mechanized gangs.  In the first couple of issues, their primary opponents are International Communism, the agents of whom are mostly pure evil (except the one woman who is won over by Blackhawk’s chivalrous behavior and moral rectitude.)

At a guess, these stories were left over from previous writers, as after that contemporary politics vanishes altogether, and much more time is spent on borderline to full science fiction plots.  Lost civilizations, time travel, aliens, and lots and lots of robots and awesome vehicles.  The team also acquired a pet between issues, a black hawk named Blackie who was of human intelligence (even able to tap out complex messages in Morse Code!)

The Blackhawks also ran into supervillains, most often a high-tech pirate calling himself Killer Shark or his marine-life themed minions.  They even fought the first Mr. Freeze DC had.

The plots tended to be simple, as the stories were quite short and mostly meant for kids.  There’s relatively little characterization, with each of the Blackhawks having just a few well-worn quirks.

And then there’s Chop-Chop (who did not even get a proper name until the 1980s!)  It’s worth pointing out that even when he first appeared in the 1940s, Chop-Chop was exceptionally competent and good in a fight.  But he was also clearly a comic relief character, short, round, and with facial features that look pretty darn racist towards Chinese people.

By 1957, this had been toned down considerably.  His face was still stereotypical, but not really more so than say Olaf’s.  He’d ditched the queue and lost weight, but still only came up to chest height on the other men and dressed in a “coolie” outfit that had been outdated even back in 1941.

The other Blackhawks treated Chop-Chop as an equal, and he remained good in a fight.  But he also didn’t have his own plane (usually acting as navigator for Blackhawk) and sometimes gets left out of Blackhawks group activities.  He’s also the sole Blackhawk to admit feeling fear, having the catchphrase “Wobbly woes!”  In his one spotlight story, he’s held hostage for a time.

This was a relatively good depiction for a Chinese character in the comics of 1957-58, but sets the teeth on edge for modern readers.

Certain plot elements do get reused.  There are no less than four times the Blackhawks fight counterpart teams!  The first is the all-female Tigress Squadron.  They don’t have a Chop-Chop or Blackie equivalent.  At first Blackhawk tries to pitch that crimefighting is man’s work, but after they prove their competence, Blackhawk simply switches to criticizing their plan to execute a criminal mastermind instead of turning him over to the police.  (In fairness to the Tigress Squadron, they’re entirely composed of the widows that criminal murdered after he escaped from the prison the Blackhawks delivered him to multiple times.  They have good reason for wanting to make sure this time.)

Next up is the all-villain Crimson Vultures.  They do have a Chop-Chop equivalent (who never does anything) as well as a crimson vulture named Crimson to fight Blackie.)  Unfortunately for them, Crimson is not as smart as Blackie, and that costs them the battle.

And two entirely separate miniature robot versions of the team created by mad inventors!  (Both have a Chop-Chop but not a Blackie.)

Coordination between writers was plainly not a priority.  In one story, a humanoid robot intelligent enough to infiltrate a criminal gang for months is brought back after several issues of being missing, and the Blackhawks take it back to their island.  In the next issue, Blackhawk needs a humanoid robot for something, and builds one from scratch, without even mentioning the previous robot, who also does not appear again in this volume.

That said, there are some tremendous machines in this series, and the War Wheel is always a joy to see in action.

Primarily recommended to older fans who fondly remember the Blackhawks from their childhood like me.  Others should take advantage of interlibrary loan.

And now, here’s a trailer for the Blackhawk serial!  Hawk-aa!

 

Book Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness

Book Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness by François Lelord

Once upon a time, there was a psychiatrist named Hector, who was very good at his job.  But he didn’t feel that he was as good as he needed to be, because he had patients who were unhappy, and he didn’t know how to make them happy.  So he did what any sensible person would do, and went on a round the world trip to learn more about happiness.

Hector and the Search for Happiness

This is the first novel by M. Lelord, which was a big hit in France, then Europe and then did well enough in the United States to be turned into a movie.  It’s spawned two sequels as well.  The book is essentially a self-help book written as a children’s story.  The language used is simple, and it should be readable even by people who aren’t strong readers, with short chapters.

Hector travels from country to country, meeting up with old friends who now live in those countries, and learning something about happiness in each place.  He also spends time “doing the thing that people in love do” with several different women, which is not something I’d put in a children’s book, and I have to wonder if they’d even do it in France.

If you take the book as a series of events designed to introduce different concepts about happiness, it’s mildly amusing and has some good points.  However, the language sometimes comes off condescending (perhaps a translation problem?) and there’s a lot of male gaze going on here when the narrator talks about Hector’s interactions with pretty women.

The story plays coy with the reader by not naming countries except China; most of them will still be recognizable from context.  They’re mostly seen from Hector’s very privileged viewpoint  (sometimes he even admits it).  And perhaps one of the inadvertent lessons of the book is “happiness is easier if you’re friends with a powerful crimelord.”

All that said, I can see why this book was a hit with certain audiences.  If you like your self-help tips mixed with an actual story, this  is one with plenty of interest-holding events.  If, however, you react badly to perceived condescension, this book may not be your best choice.

Disclaimer:  This book review was sponsored through GoFundMe as an incentive reward.

And now, here’s the trailer for the movie.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWFVAIbIkS4

 

Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1 written by Bill Finger & Gardner Fox, art by Bob Kane & Sheldon Moldoff

Batman was the second full-fledged superhero published by National Periodicals, soon to be better known as DC.  The kernel of the idea was proposed by artist Bob Kane, and fleshed out by writer Bill Finger, with a first appearance in Detective Comics #37.  As the Shadow was to Doc Savage, so Batman was to Superman, a skilled man operating in the shadows, rather than a superhuman operating in the light of day.  But both, of course, dedicated to justice in their own ways.

Batman Archives Volume 1

This “Archives” edition is a hardbound full-cover reprint of the Batman stories from Detective Comics #37-50.  I believe this was the first of this collector’s bait format, thus the “introductory price.”

We open, of course, with “The Case of the Criminal Syndicate.”  Police Commissioner Gordon is chilling with his young socialite friend Bruce Wayne, talking about rumors of a mysterious “Bat-Man.”  Gordon is informed of a murder among the wealthy citizens of the city, and Bruce tags along as he hasn’t got anything better to do.  Chemical syndicate head Lambert is dead, and the most likely suspect is his son.

The son claims he didn’t do it, and to lend credence to this claim, a call comes from Crane, one of Lambert’s three partners, explaining that both of them had threats made against their lives.  Bruce Wayne becomes bored and goes home.  Crane is murdered too, but before the murderer escapes with a certain paper, a mysterious Bat-Man appears, beats up the murderer and his partner and takes the paper.

From this, Batman is able to figure out which of the two remaining partners is the mastermind.  He saves the fourth partner, and punches the villain into a tank of acid.  Commissioner Gordon explains the plot to Bruce, who finds it all highly unlikely.  But in the last panel, we learn that Bruce Wayne himself is in fact the Batman!  What a twist!

The hyphen was quickly dropped, but Batman’s habit of killing opponents in the heat of battle took a bit longer to disappear.   The art is kind of crude, and the plot borrowed heavily from a Shadow pulp story, but the creators were on to something new in comics, and rapidly improved.  (Plus Bob Kane started having assistants to keep up with the work.)

#29 brings us “The Batman Meets Doctor Death.”  The title opponent is Batman’s first opponent with a catchy nom de guerre (his actual name is the pretty nifty Dr. Karl Hellfern), his first mad scientist enemy, and his first recurring enemy.  In the following issue, Doctor Death also becomes Batman’s first hideously disfigured villian, as his face is burnt off.  These two stories have unfortunate ethnic stereotypes as Doctor Death’s henchmen, and Gardner Fox’s lack of research into authentic ethnic background information is obvious.

Batman is also pretty careless with his secret identity of Bruce Wayne in this story; if Doctor Death had been just a little sneakier Batman’s double life would have been over only a few months after his debut.  There’s a cameo by the man who will become the Crime Doctor much, much later on, Bruce Wayne’s personal physician, who wonders how the lazy upper-class twit managed to shoot himself with no powder burn.

#31-32, “Batman Versus the Vampire” introduces Batman’s first full-fledged supervillain, the Monk, who wears a distinctive costume (red monk’s robes and a red hood with a skull & crossbones sigil), and as a vampire/werewolf has supernatural powers.  He and his sidekick (lover?) Dala kidnap Bruce Wayne’s fiancee Julie Madison (also appearing for the first time) for reasons never fully explained, and after much action and scary stuff, Batman puts silver bullets through their hearts.

This story also makes it clear that Batman operates in New York City, which was changed to Gotham City later for ease of fictionalization.

#33, “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom” is most notable for finally getting around to telling us why Bruce Wayne runs around in a bat costume fighting crime.  This simple two-page origin would eventually be vastly expanded upon and become an important part of the mythos.

#34, “Peril in Paris” has Bruce Wayne run into a man without a face.  Who is not the villain of the story.  That’s the fellow who stole his face.  It’s still not back by the end of the story (and the flowers with women’s heads are not explained either), but this faceless fellow and his beautiful sister are the first people Batman reveals his true identity to.  And then are never seen again.

#36, “Professor Hugo Strange” introduces the title character, another mad scientist, who takes part of his inspiration from Professor Moriarty, but is also large and muscular, able to give Batman a good tussle even without his fog machine, monster men and other gimmicks.

#38 “Introducing Robin, the Boy Wonder” does just what it says.  Circus acrobat Dick Grayson loses his parents to criminals, and is taken in by Batman, who gives the lad a costume and training to become a crimefighter.  (He also reveals his identity to Dick off-camera.)  Thanks to this, Robin gets the quick closure that Batman never did by tracking down and convicting his parents’ killer.

Robin was the first superhero’s boy sidekick in comic books, and soon the market was flooded with them.  He lightened up the Batman character and gave the Caped Crusader someone to have dialogue with rather than think out loud to himself.

Also about this time, Batman got his own solo comic book series, but that’s another volume.

#40, “Beware of Clayface!” introduces the first villain to wear that name, crazed horror actor Basil Karlo (a riff on Basil Karloff, who was a swell guy in real life.)  Julie Madison begins her career as a movie actress.  In #49, the Basil Karlo Clayface returns (and then would not be seen again for decades) and Julie decides to break her engagement to Bruce for his fecklessness.  (Little realizing it’s only a cover for his activities as Batman.)

#44, “The Land Beyond the Light!” is the first full-on fantasy story for Batman, as the Dynamic Duo is transported to another dimension and interfere in a war between giants and little people.  It’s all Dick Grayson’s dream in the end, but soon such stories would become a regular thing.

#50 ends this volume with “The Case of the Three Devils.”  Three circus acrobats have turned to crime using devil costumes and their ability to pull off outrageous physical stunts.  They give Batman and Robin quite a chase before the Caped Crusaders can finally corner them.  Batman’s superior use of terrain gives him the victory.

Again, lots of exciting action portrayed in a new way for 1939-40.  Some plots are overly simplistic, while others become nonsensical if you think about them too carefully, but the writing gets much better as it goes along.   There’s also an illuminating foreword by comics scholar Rick Marschall.

This is a must have for the serious Batman collector; other Batman fans should check it out at the library to see the early development of the classic characters.

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by  Victor Hugo

The Year of Grace 1482 is going to be the big one for Pierre Gringoire; he just knows it!  The poet, philosopher and would-be playwright is debuting his new mystery play for the Cardinal of Bourbon and the Flemish ambassadors on January 6th, the Day of Kings and Feast of Fools.  A good reception will net him rich rewards and fame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Poor Gringoire!  First, the important guests are delayed coming to the Hall of Justice, and the audience nearly riots to get the play started on time.  Then a cheeky beggar heckles the audience for spare change.  Then the Cardinal and crew finally arrive, drawing all attention from the stage.  The Flemish ambassador pans the performance, and starts the election of the Pope of Fools.  And the few audience members left are drawn away by the mysterious La Esmeralda!

Gringoire is in for even more suffering tonight, but he is not the fellow the book is named for, but just one of the many characters who live near the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Victor Hugo wrote two great novels that still inspire adaptations today; Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris.  The latter got a title change in English to focus on the most memorable character.  Quasimodo isn’t the protagonist either; the closest to a central character is La Esmeralda (“the Emerald”, named after her necklace), the beautiful dancer and goat trainer.  All the important male characters are defined by their relationship to her.

The 15th-Century date seems significant, a decade before the discovery of the New World would change everything, and so the characters behave as though the Old World will always be.

It’s interesting to me how the changing fashions in literature affect some of Victor Hugo’s story beats.  In the Nineteenth Century, the tall, brave and handsome warrior on a horse was almost invariably the hero of books, while a deformed or disabled or ethnic minority character (Quasimodo is apparently Roma by birth) is cast in a villainous role.  The partial reversal of roles between Phoebus (who is only interested in La Esmeralda for sex) and Quasimodo (who defends La Esmeralda even though it’s clear she is revolted by him) was shocking at the time.  Nowadays, there’s more variation in who gets to be the hero of stories.

And then there’s Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame and very much the villain of the story.  A teen genius and rising star in the religious hierarchy, he loved his little brother Jehan and had good intentions when he adopted Quasimodo.  Claude Frollo was a loving (if excessively stern) adoptive father to Quasimodo, and the local expert on alchemy.  Until he saw La Esmeralda dance, and for the first time had sexual feelings he could not pray away.

With no experience of how to deal with women, and bound by a rigid set of personal and religious codes, Frollo chose to interpret the girl’s effect on him as witchcraft, and began the rapid mental decline that ends with him seeing La Esmeralda hang rather than be with anyone else.

Between this book and Les Miz, I get the distinct feeling that Victor Hugo was not a fan of the French legal system.  Every time a character comes up against the courts and law enforcement, injustice is what ensues.  This is most symbolized by the auditor (assistant judge) who is deaf, and cannot hear that Quasimodo (who is also mostly deaf) isn’t responding to his questions.  He condemns the bellringer based on what he imagines Quasimodo might have said, and increases the punishment when someone tries to convey the truth to him.

The representation of Quasimodo as a person with disabilities is pretty good for the time when the novel was written.  I can’t say the same for the representation of the Roma people, called “Gypsies” or “Egyptians” here.  They’re depicted as a thieving, superstitious lot who hang out with the other worst elements of society.  Part of establishing La Esmeralda as a good person is the reveal that she’s adopted.  (As part of the “stolen by gypsies” myth.)

Mr. Hugo often takes the opportunity to spend a chapter talking about architecture, geography or how technology changes culture.  This can be fascinating, but may irritate people who just want to get on with the story.  He also uses some contrived coincidences to move the tale along.  (In particular, one moment towards the end of the book would in a normal melodrama have been the end of Frollo’s scheme and La Esmeralda’s triumph.  But it is ultimately useless.)

Definitely worth reading if you’ve liked any of the movies and are ready for more moral complexity.

Here’s a bit from the 1939 Charles Laughton film:

Book Review: The Rebels

Book Review: The Rebels by John Jakes

Philip Kent, nee Phillipe Charboneau, would much rather be at home, caring for his pregnant wife Anne.  But after he was forced to kill his murderous half-brother in self-defense, Philip has gone all in for the cause of the rebels against British rule.  Thus it is that on June 17, 1775, Philip finds himself on Breed’s Hill near Boston, waiting for the order to fire on the advancing Redcoats.  Too soon, Philip will discover that the price of liberty is steep indeed.

The Rebels

Far to the south in Virginia, young wastrel Judson Fletcher dissipates himself with strong drink and other men’s wives.  Denied the woman he truly loves, and disgusted with the system of slavery that gave his family wealth but too weak to stand up against it, Judson dreams of the West, but does not have the courage to go.

Neither man knows it, but destiny will entwine the fates of these rebels who never meet.

In the mid-1970s, America’s mood was pretty glum.  We’d lost the Vietnam War, Watergate had done a hatchet job on trust in the federal government, and the economy was not doing at all well.  But we did have an important anniversary coming up, the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, generally treated as the birthday of the United States.  Two hundred years of freedom (more or less) was something to celebrate, and thoughts turned more and more to that period in our history as 1976 drew near.

One of the most successful tie-ins to the Bicentennial was this series of books, “The Kent Chronicles”, a sweeping saga of one family’s fortunes during the first century or so of the United States of America.  Extensively researched and well-outlined (the family tree in this volume indicates which family members appear in volumes that hadn’t been published yet), the series was well received, and at one point John Jakes had three volumes of the series on the New York Times bestseller list at once.

The story is told in tight third-person from the viewpoints of the two men (except for a brief section where Anne Kent is the viewpoint character.)  Philip and Judson both meet many historically famous people while never quite making it into the history books themselves.

Philip serves the Continental Army in several important battles and behind the scenes actions.  (It helps that he’s close friends with the Marquis de Lafayette.)  A series of hard knocks musters him out before the British surrender, but some wise investments by Anne allow him to start his own printing business.

Judson acts as a substitute delegate to the Continental Congress for his ailing brother Donald, even helping to craft the Declaration of Independence.  Unfortunately, his alcoholism and inability to keep it in his pants rob Judson of the chance to sign the document.  He then has an even worse failure of character before his last chance at redemption comes up.  His old friend George Rogers Clark needs men for a expedition in the West.  Beset by some of the worst luck a man can have, will Judson arrive in time?

There’s plenty of exciting action, but it’s interspersed with lengthy sections where Mr. Jakes catches the reader up on events our protagonists weren’t there for, but read about in the papers.  This is historical fiction with an emphasis on history.

There’s the expected period racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.  Violence abounds, and a couple of characters commit suicide just off-screen.  I had forgotten since I read the book as a teen just how much rape there is too.

Rereading this book after forty years, it’s pretty clear that the enormous popularity of the series was at least partially because they were the right books at the right time.  They’re very much a product of the Seventies, made for 1970s America.  That said, a blast of nostalgia every so often doesn’t hurt.

And now, a video about the Declaration of Independence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrSeCYSnj5Y

Book Review: Jefferson’s America

Book Review: Jefferson’s America by Julie M. Fenster

In 1803, many people in the fledgling United States expected a Louisiana War, as the Spanish had forbidden American shipping from passing down the Mississippi and through the port of New Orleans.  That didn’t happen, as the Spanish were induced to yield the Louisiana Territory to their allies the French.  France’s then-leader, Emperor Napoleon, said he would “never relinquish” the territory.  But when European troubles drew his attention, the French offered to sell Louisiana to the Americans for a cool fifteen million dollars.

Jefferson's America

President Thomas Jefferson got the U.S. to pay the money, but other than the important ports of New Orleans and St. Louis, it wasn’t clear what all was included in  the Louisiana Purchase.  Someone had to be sent out posthaste to learn river routes through the territory, and apply some scientific curiosity to what might be found there.  And so he chose the men of Jefferson.

This book is primarily about six men who led expeditions into the West, and the outcomes of those adventures.  Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson’s personal secretary and a man who suffered bouts of depression. William Clark, younger brother of a Revolutionary War hero who had been cast aside by his country.  William Dunbar, slaveholder and scientist.  George Hunter, a chemist bent on making his fortune.  Thomas Freeman, one of the surveyors that laid out Washington, D,C,  And Zebulon Pike, an United States Army lieutenant who was intrepid beyond all reason.

It’s emphasized that other than Lewis, most of these men were not Jefferson’s first choices.  Many better trained people simply didn’t want to risk their lives on perilous journeys, or couldn’t get away from previous commitments.

Of course, they are not the only people covered in this history text.  We also meet the legendary Sacajawea, without whom Lewis & Clark might well not have made it past the Shoshone.  Aaron Burr, who you may remember from that recent musical.  Blackbird of the Omaha, whose dinner invitations you should find a way to politely refuse.  And many others.

The story is primarily chronological, and skips back and forth between expeditions happening at the same time.  But it’s not all “this happened, then that happened.”  There is room for a certain amount of editorial opinion, and oddball moments.  The book begins with a visit to New Orleans in 1820 by John James Audubon, who was later to gain fame painting birds.  At the time, he was seeking wealthy patrons who needed their portraits done, to fund his passion.  He met one of the famous Jeffersonian explorers, who alas had not aged well.

While the book is matter-of-fact about the issue of slavery, including some of the worst consequences of the system, it very carefully does not mention Jefferson’s own slaves, even when talking about his time at Monticello.  I have to wonder if the author felt she’d have to put in another chapter just to explain President Jefferson’s complicated relationship with slavery and felt it best to avoid the issue.

The treatment of Native Americans is more directly dealt with, as they occupied parts of the lands the explorers were moving through.  There’s quite a bit of politics involved, both between tribes, and their relationships with the various nations who wanted their goods or land.  Zebulon Pike is mentioned as having noticed that the introduction of strong liquor as a trade good was distorting tribal life.

There are many direct quotes from letters and journals, and these are sourced in the extensive endnotes.  There’s also a bibliography and index, several maps, and a thin section of illustrations in the center.

The age of Jeffersonian exploration lasted only a few years, but established the workability of scientific expeditions into the wilderness, rather than just cash and land grabs.  It’s briefly mentioned that unlike the slapdash American expeditions, the Spanish science explorers under Carlos III were well-trained and equipped for their journeys–it’s just that they’d never gotten around to the Louisiana Territory.  (I would like to read more about those expeditions, please.)

I found this book a pleasure to read, and recommend it for senior high students on up (there’s some frank talk about sex) who are interested in this period of history.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume through Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, more about Sacajawea:

 

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

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