Book Review: The Naturalist

Book Review: The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the United States of America, was big on nature.  Specifically, he had a strong interest in natural history, and wanted to become/be known as a naturalist.  This new biography focuses on that part of Roosevelt’s life, from his boyhood collection of stuffed birds to his African expedition for the Smithsonian Institute.

The Naturalist Theodore Roosevelt

The author is himself a museum naturalist, so the narrative is perhaps a bit biased in favor of those who go out to collect specimens for natural history museums.  Roosevelt considered himself a “hunter-naturalist”, someone who went out, observed nature carefully, then killed animals for scientific study.  Sickly as a boy, with bad asthma, Teddy had to re-invent himself several times in his youth.  He worked hard to build up his body and mind, engaging in outdoor activities and especially learning about animals in nature.  His family was involved with the founding of the New York Museum of Natural History, which gave him a head start.

Interestingly, Roosevelt’s choice to go to Harvard seems to have doomed his ambition to become a full-time naturalist–according to this book, the college’s natural history program was dominated by laboratory work, not the field expeditions Teddy favored, and he met his first wife and realized that a naturalist’s pay wasn’t going to keep them in the style they were used to.

Instead, Roosevelt studied law and got into politics, with the results I mentioned in the first paragraph.  While he certainly made some headway as President, including creating America’s first wildlife reserves and other environmentally friendly actions, Teddy chafed at not being able to hunt properly and the last months of his term were largely taken up with preparations for his African expedition.

There were many bits of knowledge in this book that I either had not known before or had long forgotten.  Theodore Roosevelt’s poor vision meant that he was a bad shot, and often had to use far more bullets to bring down specimens than was ideal (and sometimes this meant he wound up killing more animals than he wanted!)

I found the literary feud between Roosevelt (and other scientifically-oriented naturalists) and the “sentimental” nature writers as exemplified by the Reverend William J. Long interesting.  Dr. Long heavily anthropomorphized the animal behavior in his “non-fiction” stories, and often depicted events that were so unlikely that naturalists accused him of just making things up.  (Side note:  I looked up Dr. Long’s work and among other things he penned an entirely serious book on the subject of animal telepathy-not just non-verbal communication, telepathy.)  In response, Dr. Long said that President Roosevelt could only touch the hearts of animals…with bullets.

The book stops with the aftermath of the successful African expedition-the less happy Amazon expedition does not get mentioned at all.  As is common with these specialized biographies, any parts of Roosevelt’s life that did not have a bearing on natural history get short shrift, and the serious student should also read a more general biography to get a balanced picture.

A heavy emphasis is placed on how Roosevelt’s practical experience with hunting influenced his ideas on conservation.  He could see with his own eyes how over-hunting was wiping out game animal populations, even within the span of a few years.

There’s a center section with black & white photos, and a few more scattered through the book.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.  Bright senior high students should be able to handle the material and language.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to those interested in Theodore Roosevelt, natural history and the role of hunters in nature conservation.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through Blogging for Books for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Book Review: The Killing Moon

Book Review: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

The city of Gujaareh worships Hananja, the goddess of dreams.  Their entire culture is centered around the power of narcomancy to draw magical power from dreams to heal and perform other wonders.  The most powerful of these “humors” is dreamblood, which is only produced by a person’s final dream.  Thus a small group of holy men called the Gatherers are dispatched to bring gentle death to the aged and incurable–and sometimes those that would threaten the peace of the city.

The Killing Moon

Ehiru is considered the most skilled of the Gatherers, in much demand to bring surcease to the suffering.  But his most recent Gathering has gone horribly wrong.  He has condemned a man to eternal nightmare, and threatened his own sanity.  Why, Ehiru is even seeing what looks like a Reaper, a mythical corruption of the Gatherers that has not existed for centuries.

Sunandi is the Voice of Kisua, an ambassador from that ancient land to Gujaareh.  She is suspicious of the magic that pervades the entire city; to her euthanasia and assassination are evil.  Sunandi is investigating the sudden death of her predecessor (and foster father) Kiran.  Is the Sunset Prince of Gujaareh up to something even more sinister than she expected?

Nijiri is a faithful follower of Hananja, whose long loyalty and training are rewarded when he becomes a Gatherer-Apprentice under the tutelage of Ehiru, his personal hero.  However, this is not an auspicious time to become a Gatherer, and Nijiri may end up having to do the unthinkable to remain true to his vows.

This fantasy novel is the first in the Dreamblood series by N.K. Jemisin, who recently won a Hugo Award for her book The Fifth Season.  The geographical setting and other details are evocative of Ancient Egypt, but this is very much not Egypt, or even Earth, as is quickly made clear by the existence of the Dreaming Moon.  Ms. Jemisin’s introductory note mentions that one of the difficulties was coming up with names that sounded right, but didn’t mean anything in Egyptian.

Many of the cultural details revolve around Gujaareh’s unique form of magic; for example, the equivalent of temple prostitutes don’t have sex with the worshipers, but instead guide them into erotic dreams from which healing “dreamseed” can be extracted.  The Gatherers are central to this story; they have great power and special training, but must devote themselves to self-control–losing that control makes them vulnerable to becoming Reapers.  Unfortunately, someone has found a way to pervert the system and use it for their own purposes.  Peace is the will of Hananja, but whose definition of “peace” will it be?

There’s quite a bit of world-building, and it’s nice to see a fantasy setting based in ancient African civilizations.  It’s also quite pleasant that it’s not “good vs. evil” as such, either.  Gujaareh’s use of magic does a lot of good for its citizens, but Kisua’s worries about the ethical problems of narcomancy and the dangers of collecting dreamblood are not unjustified.  Is denying a painless death to someone who cannot be cured of their constant pain who might live on for years yet unable to move worth holding to a principle?  But if you allow this “good death”, who is there to stop all deaths that serve Hananja from being declared “good?”

Some of the characters fell a little flat for me, and a map would have been nice at a couple of points to make it clearer why certain journeys had to be made in a specific way.  On the other hand, there’s a glossary, and in the paperback edition I read, there’s an “interview” of the author by the author that explains a great deal of the reasoning behind details of the setting.

Overall, this is an excellent book, well worth searching out if you’re looking for something different in your fantasy worlds.

Book Review: First Contact

Book Review: First Contact by Michael R. Hicks

The scout ship Aurora is searching for new worlds, especially inhabitable ones for the citizens of Earth and the various worlds their descendants have colonized.   What at first seems like a bonus of two viable worlds in the same star system turns into a deadly encounter.  Those worlds are inhabited by members of an alien race that will come to be known as the Kreelan Empire.  And now that the Kreelans are aware humans exist, they are very excited about going to war with us.  All of us.

First Contact

This is the first book in the In Her Name trilogy of trilogies, though the middle trilogy was written first.  It details how the Human-Kreelan War got started.  The series is a cross between military SF and full-on space opera, though this volume tends more towards the former.

It seems that the Kreelans are what TV Tropes call a “Planet of Hats”, a society that is entirely based around one concept or activity for the purposes of moving the plot along.  In this case, their “hat” is honorable battle; Kreelans want to fight, preferably hand-to-hand, and the humans are the first new opponents they’ve had in millennia.  In order to ensure that they aren’t going to accidentally wipe out the humans before the war can really get started, the Kreelans actually go back to their history books and recreate weapons and vehicles of roughly the same technological level as the humans have now.

Early in the first chapter, we are told that most of the characters we’re meeting are not going to make it through the next few hours.  This makes it a bit of a slog as various crew members’ backgrounds and personality quirks are  revealed, often during a combat scene.  The Kreelans are choosing a Messenger to send back to human space and get the squishy people ready to fight.  Once they have that sole survivor, the focus shifts to Earth and the other human worlds’ reaction to the news, and finally to the defense of the first planet on the invasion list.

Many of the people in the book seem to come straight out of Central Casting; the eccentric but brilliant general, the sassy lady reporter, the bungling officer who dies to let a real hero take command, etc.  This is exacerbated by many stereotypes of Earth cultures spreading to their colonies.  For example, people from the Francophone colonies are all some variant of French stereotypes, right down to having their best troops being the Foreign Legion.  One of the heroes comes from the planet of Nagoya, which is basically the Japanese city of Nagoya, but a whole planet of it.  The only mitigating factor is that the casting is a bit more diverse than it would have been in the Twentieth Century.

This means that many of the best passages in the book are those told from the perspective of the Kreelan Empire, which has the advantage of being alien enough to engage the author’s creativity.

There are quite a few exciting combat scenes, and one of the things I like is that the story does not shy away from showing that even the “good guys” can be forced into taking civilian lives as collateral damage.  (The Kreelans have no real concept of “civilian”, seeing them more as “targets that don’t fight back and thus only worthy of extermination.”)

One weakness of this being in the military SF subgenre is that the book has a tendency to make the Kreelans “right”–the only humans of consequence are those that engage in combat or provide support for those that do.   I’d like to see the human tendency to do things that aren’t somehow related to combat or survival as a strength that the Kreelans have discarded in their single-minded pursuit of battle.

Briefly discussed in this book, and apparently a major factor at the beginning of the next one, is that the Kreelan warriors are all female.  Due to a “curse” their males are non-sentient, and mating is only semi-consensual.   Easily triggered readers might want to give that a miss.

Otherwise, this is a pretty clear-cut “no shades of grey” war story where you can root for the human heroes.  Not the best military SF, but readable.

 

Book Review: The Infinite Arena

Book Review: The Infinite Arena edited by Terry Carr

Science fiction, in a way, is a very broad genre, that can easily contain stories of other genres within itself.  Thus space westerns, fantastic romance, star war novels and so forth.   In this case, we have a sample of sports stories set in science fiction terms.

The Infinite Arena

Lead batter in the lineup is “Joy in Mudville” by Poul Anderson & Gordon Dickson.  It’s a Hoka story as the imaginative aliens that look like sentient teddy bears have taken up the sport of baseball.  As is their wont, they have assumed the identities of fictional ballplayers of Earth, including the Mighty Casey, their best batter.  Unfortunately, their latest opponents, the Sarenn Snakes, are masters of psychological warfare.  Alexander Jones, the ambassador from Earth, must summon one of his rarely-appreciated talents to save the day.  It’s all very silly.

“Bullard Reflects” by Malcolm Jameson begins with the Space Patrol celebrating the Jovian armistice with athletic contests, including the sport of Dazzle Dart, played with flashlights and mirrors.  But it turns out not all the Jovians are honoring the armistice, and Captain Bullard’s Pollux is sent to track down diehards who’ve taken over an experimental weapons testing station.  Things look dark for the Patrol when they are ambushed and disarmed, but Bullard figures out a way to make the situation a Dazzle Dart game…to the death!  A fine bit of pulp writing, but Mr. Jameson piles the awesomeness of his heroes a shade high.  Not only are they the fleet champions in Dazzle Dart, but are best at all the other athletic contests too, and the Pollux is the only ship in condition to fly when the crisis arises as all the others slacked off when peace was declared.

“The Body Builders” by Keith Laumer posits a future in which most people who can afford it store their physical bodies away and use humaniform robots by telepresence.  Dueling has become a frequent occurrence thanks to the more or less disposable extra bodies, and the protagonist is a professional gladiator.  Which is all well and good until he’s tricked into a duel in his weak “pretty boy” body used for dates, as opposed to the monstrosity he uses for combat.   He sees no way out except to tarnish his honor temporarily in an effort to get to his backup bodies, but is eventually forced to resort to his original organic form–if this one dies, it’s curtains!  Some of the celebrities name-dropped as body models are now obscure, which may make reading the story a chore for the young.

“The Great Kladnar Race” by Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett has Earthlings stuck on a backwater planet try to create some excitement by organizing a race of the local beasts of burden.   The twist ending is one that could have been thwarted easily if any of the Earthlings had bothered to ask the natives relevant questions.

“Mr. Meek Plays Polo” by Clifford D. Simak involves space polo.  Don’t know how that’s played?  Neither does Mr. Meek, a retired bookkeeper now touring the Solar System in the spaceship it took him a lifetime to save up for.  But he did see a game once, which is more than anyone else in the rowdy frontier of Saturn’s rings has to their credit.  So when the radioactive moss harvesters are talked into a game by a social worker trying to civilize them, Mr. Meek is drafted as a coach for one team, and eventually a replacement player.

As you might guess from his name, Mr. Meek is a timid fellow who tries to explain the reality of the situation, but no one is listening until he is so riled up that he bets his ship on the contest.  (Apparently, he keeps getting into this sort of situation.)  Oh, and there’s an infestation of metal-eating bugs to deal with; that can’t be good.  Things sort themselves out in the end.

“Sunjammer” by Arthur C. Clarke is more “hard” SF than most of the other stories, as solar yachts use the pressure of sunlight to have a race from Earth orbit to the Moon.  One of the ships is manned by the inventor of solar sails, after decades of work finally able to compete; but this will be his last chance.  Soon, solar flares will make it too dangerous to yacht, and he’ll be too old for the sport by the time it’s safe again.  This one has a bittersweet ending.

“Run to Sunlight” by George R.R. Martin is comparatively light considering his reputation.  A spaceport’s amateur football league is thrown into chaos when a team of heavy-worlders apply to play.  The government doesn’t want the coordinator of the league to reject the application as they’re trying to keep a peace treaty going, and this is an obvious propaganda moment.  But the aliens prove to have major advantages in the sport, and the war may start again if they can prove how weak the Earthling really are.  Good use of strategizing and using strengths and weaknesses, but true victory goes to the person with their priorities straight.

I liked the Laumer and Clarke stories best.  The stories were written from the 1940s to the 1970s, so there are none that feature female athletes, and the few women that do appear are largely useless in plot terms.  (The Laumer story has the protagonist choosing between a young woman who hates artificial bodies but genuinely likes his personality and a flashier woman who wants to get married for a five-year trial period so she doesn’t have to work anymore.)

Recommended to fans of “strange sports” stories and fans of particular authors who haven’t seen these stories before.  Check interlibrary loan or the finer used book stores.

Book Review: Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan

Book Review: Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan edited by Chad Nevett

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.

Shot in the Face

Transmetropolitan was a science fiction comic book series co-created by writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson that ran under the Helix and Vertigo imprints for sixty issues from 1997-2002.  It details the journey of “gonzo journalist” Spider Jerusalem as he is forced to return to the sprawling City and becomes involved in presidential politics.  The foul-mouthed and personally noxious Jerusalem has one redeeming quality, an absolute dedication to tell the truth as he sees it, and in the bizarre world of the future, that quality is vital.

This book is a collection of essays on various aspects of Transmetropolitan, from its publishing history to how it compares to other works by Mr. Ellis.  It’s been in my To Be Read pile for a long time, since its publication in 2013, as I had meant to actually read Transmetropolitan first.  But the volumes I needed were checked out at the library, and weeks went by and then I lost track of this book.  Having it surface again, I decided to read it without finishing the original series.

The essays, for the most part, seem pretty solid.  There’s one that compares and contrasts Spider Jerusalem with Hunter S. Thompson, who was a major inspiration for the character, and another on whether Jerusalem counts as a “super-hero” as well as detailed looks at the plot structure and interviews with the creators.  Some of the essays could have used another proofreader pass, as I spotted spellchecker typos and sentence fragments.

The essay “Supporting Players: Women in Transmetropolitan” by Greg Burgas seemed a little off as he does not even mention two minor characters who show Spider Jerusalem’s less stellar qualities, mentioned in a couple of the other essays, and seemingly this essay would have been the place to go into depth about them.

Several pages from the comics are reproduced in black and white to illustrate points, and there are a few stills from a documentary about Ellis.

As one might expect, there’s a lot of rough language in here, mostly in quotes from the series, and discussions of edgy topics–consider this to have the same “mature readers” designation as the comics.

Primarily recommended to fans of Transmetropolitan or of Warren Ellis in general.  If you haven’t read the series yet, you will be better served by doing that first.

Open Thread: Minicon 51 Report

Open Thread: Minicon 51 Report

For those of you new to this blog, Minicon is the Easter weekend science fiction convention put on by MN-StF every year.  I’ve been going to it for somewhere around three decades now, and this year was no exception.  Once again it was at the RadiShTree (Bloomington Doubletree) hotel, and I was able to secure a room in the hotel, which was ready when I checked in!

Art copyright 2016 by Sara Burrier.
Art copyright 2016 by Sara Burrier.

I wandered around the Art Show/Dealers’ Room/Science Exhibit for a while, then visited the Consuite for a late lunch.  One of the nicest things about long-running conventions is meeting and talking to your friends you only see there–I did quite a lot of that this last weekend, as some of these folks I’ve had at least a nodding acquaintance with since the mid-Eighties.

I went to the Cinema Obscura to watch a short film titled Yesterday Was a Lie which is black and white, and involves time becoming unstuck for a detective.  Problems with the sound system made the first ten minutes seem even more “noir” than was intended, but being able to hear the words thereafter didn’t help much in unraveling what was actually going on.

Then I attended the panel “It’s Tough to Be an Introvert These Days” which had all three Guests of Honor: Seanan McGuire (writer), Lojo Russo (musician) and Sara Burrier (artist) and a couple of other people talking about how they balance their social media presence with their creative and personal lives.

After that was Opening Ceremonies, which were very short this year as the new MC was no-nonsense.  Dave Romm retired from the job after thirty years!

I went up to my room for a couple of hours to rest, then came down for the first panel I was on, “How to Survive a Horror Movie.”  As Seanan McGuire writes horror (among other things) she was also on this panel.  She got a corn-based trophy from some fans, referencing something I’m not familiar with.  We had a lot of fun, and I got to use my “don’t be a security guard” line.

After that, I dropped in on a couple of parties.  Dave Romm also retired from his day job, it seems, and has been spending time traveling with his mother, who was also there–the party was mostly so she could meet people.  Also got a review copy of a book you’ll be hearing more about once I’ve finished with it.

Next morning, I enjoyed the consuite breakfast–big thank you to the dedicated people that make that possible every year!  Then it was off to the spendy room again–unfortunately the one thing in the Art Show I’d wanted had been outbid.  My niece will be getting a different birthday present.  I noticed a headache coming on, but ignored it at that point so I could go to the Seanan McGuire interview.

She mentioned some things about the October Daye series that increased my desire to read it considerably.  Also a fun story about her visit to Tam Lin’s Well.  Afterwards, Ms. McGuire did a signing, and I got my copy of Indexing signed.  (More on that book in its review.)

By that time, my headache had spiked, and my need to obtain aspirin distracted me, so I was just barely in time for my first panel of the day, “Being a Fan of Problematic Things.”  I was the moderator, so I really had to be there.  Much thanks to my panelists Aimee Kuzinski and Katie Clapham for being willing to do most of the talking!  We covered a lot of ground, from “what does ‘problematic’ actually mean?” through “how to react when you find out something you like is problematic to other people” to “how do we teach our children about problematic elements in their fiction?”

My headache was mostly gone by the next panel, “Psy Phi” (psionic powers in comics) which I again shared with Seanan McGuire, who brought badge ribbons to vote for Jean Gray or Emma Frost as “best X-psychic.”  We talked about psi powers in science fiction and how the use of them evolved, a bit about developing the ethics of telepathy, and how comics tended to give psychic powers to women, the disabled and the “othered.”

A lot of the audience was the same for the next panel I was on, “Being an X-Men Means Never Having to Attend a Serious Funeral”, which was about revolving-door deaths in comics.  Mind, that’s mostly a thing with Marvel and DC–smaller companies and single-creator comics can permanently kill characters and not really hurt their bottom line.  The death of a character (and subsequent return) can be done well, but too often it’s subject to lazy writing.

Did other things for a while, then the headache came back, so I took more aspirin and laid down (I love having a room at the hotel!) for a while before my last panel, “50th Anniversary of Star Trek”  (The pilot was filmed in 1964, but the show didn’t hit the air until 1966.)  Unfortunately, the scheduled panelist who had worked with Gene Roddenberry back in the day took ill, but we managed to find a knowledgeable substitute.  Indeed, all the other panelists were way more informed about Star Trek than I am, so I fell back on the moderator’s privilege of asking questions and letting everyone else talk.

Apparently the JJ Abrams reboot is attracting new fans who can still get into the better old stuff.  (I was happy to see a few people in the audience who were actually younger than Star Trek itself.)

I quickly visited a few more parties, had more conversations, got a root beer float at the Consuite, then went up to my room to watch some dubbed anime on Cartoon Network before turning in.

Woke up late, breakfast in the Consuite again, then packed for the journey home.  (Checkout time is noon, and I am not made of money.)  Made a last sweep through the booksellers, then it was off to “The Year in SF”.  Lots of good stuff last year, the one noticeable trend was more “climate disaster” novels.

Then it was time for the “Mega Moneyduck Reveal.”  “Moneyduck” is kind of like a pen and paper version of “Telephone”–you start with a word or phrase, the next person draws a picture of it, the next next person writes a description of the picture, etc.  This particular game had been played on a long roll of paper all weekend.  The starting phrase was “Shall we play this again next year?” and the mutations took us through sentient alcohol, suicidal teddy bears, and alien preachers to “Batman and Robin caught the Hot Dog Bandit.”  Very silly.

Closing ceremonies were fun, and the assassination of the outgoing MN-StF President was accomplished by informing him that he’d been chosen as Trump’s running mate, bringing on a heart attack.

The bus ride back to Minneapolis was not so much fun–the sky had clouded over and the wind picked up, the local bus took forever to arrive, and the connecting bus drove away just as the local pulled up, requiring another half hour wait in the cold.

Back to work tomorrow!

 

Manga Review: Ooku 10 & 11

Manga Review: Ooku 10 & 11 by Fumi Yoshinaga

Quick recap:  In an alternate Shogunate Japan, a plague wipes out 80% of the men, requiring women to take over most of the jobs previously held by males.  This includes being shogun (military leader, the day to day ruler of Japan, as opposed to the Emperor, who reigned but did not rule.)  As part of the flip, the female shogun had a male harem named the Ooku (“Inner Chambers.”)

Ooku 10

In Volume 10, Aonuma and the other students of Western medicine in the Ooku make great strides in devising a way to immunize boys against the redface pox.  Unfortunately, their method will still kill three in one hundred from the pox itself, and one of those three is the son of a powerful lord who in grief turns into an anti-vaxxer.  Meanwhile, the modernizing shogun and her reasonable chamberlain who have made the research possible find themselves blamed for a series of disasters, including famine and a volcanic eruption.  When the shogun’s health takes a turn for the worse, Aonuma is finally allowed to diagnose her, but he discovers that her “disease” is not what the court physicians have said, and he has no cure for arsenic.  Disaster ensues.

As is often the case in this series, hope is followed by tragedy and injustice.  There is a brutal rape in this volume, though the actual act is off-page during a flashback sequence.

Ooku 11

Volume 11 opens with the first male shogun in a century and a half, Ienari.  But his mother Harusada makes it clear that he’s a puppet, and all power is to remain with her.  Study of Western science is now forbidden, as are many other fun and useful things under “frugality” laws.  Which would be less hated, perhaps, if the shogun’s court were not still spending money like water.  After decades of succession crises because of low-fertility shogun women and a high mortality rate among their few children, Ienari is a problem because of his unusual potency, siring children left and right.

Interestingly, the changed circumstances make Ienari far more sympathetic than he is generally portrayed in Japanese historical dramas.  Danger stalks the halls of the Shogun’s palace as more people become fully aware of just what kind of person Harusada is and what she’s been up to.

However, the few remaining men who had access to the Inner Chamber’s records and Western medical training at last learn of a safer vaccination method–the redface pox could be eradicated, if they were allowed to do so!

It looks like Volume 12 will be the conclusion of this series (and I am hoping it will not take the “and all the changes in history were whitewashed away by a government conspiracy so as far as you know this actually happened” line.)

As before, excellent art and effective writing.  Some scenes do go for more melodrama than is necessary.  Be aware that the “Explicit Content” label is there for good reason–this is not a series for children.

Recommended to alternate history fans and those looking for more mature stories in their manga.

Book Review: The Black Tulip

Book Review: The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

The year is 1672, and the Haarlem Tulip Society has offered a hundred thousand florin prize to the tulip breeder who can create a black tulip, without imperfection or spot of other color.   Cornelius van Baerle of the sleepy village of Dordrecht is one of the leading contenders for the prize.  He’s a medical doctor who knows something of science, a skilled painter, so knows something of art, and absolutely obsessed with tulips.  It doesn’t hurt that he’s independently wealthy already, so he doesn’t have to worry about a lack of funding while he concentrates on the project.

The Black Tulip

Cornelius van Baerle is entirely indifferent to politics, so is unaware that his godfather and namesake Cornelius de Witt and his brother Johan de Witt are in deep trouble with the supporters of William of Orange, the new Stadhouder of Holland.  Nor does Cornelius realize that he has inadvertently made an enemy of his next door neighbor, rival tulip breeder Isaac Boxtel.  Thus it comes as a complete surprise to Cornelius when he’s arrested for treason and sentenced to death.  How is he ever to create the black tulip now?

This 1865 novel by Alexandre Dumas starts with a real historical event, the mob murder of the de Witt brothers after Cornelius de Witt was (falsely, probably) accused of plotting to assassinate William of Orange, as he’d opposed reinstating the regal office of Stadhouder.  The rest of the novel is romantic fiction, as Dumas felt a good story was far more important than strict historical accuracy (or scientific accuracy–the description of Cornelius’ plans for creating a black tulip owe more to Jacob’s spotted and smooth staves than Mendel.)

Despite their relative closeness on the map, most Frenchmen of the Nineteenth Century considered the Netherlands an exotic foreign land, preferring to travel to the south for their vacations and education.   Dumas draws heavily on the fine tradition of Dutch painters both thematically and as an aid to the reader in imagining the events.

Dumas was of mixed ancestry (his paternal grandmother had been an Afro-Caribbean slave and his grandfather a French nobleman) and his father, a general, had fallen out of favor with Napoleon when Alexandre was very young, impoverishing the family.  It’s been suggested that the struggles caused by these factors explain why false accusations and injustice show up so often in his novels.

Back to the novel.  His sentence commuted to life imprisonment, Cornelius van Baerle is put under the cruel administration of jailer Gryphus, but also meets the jailer’s beautiful daughter Rosa.  Cornelius shares that he managed to save three offsets from a bulb that very likely blossom into the black tulip.  Rosa agrees to help him attempt to grow the tulip, and their affection for each other grows as well, also helped by Cornelius secretly teaching Rosa to read and write.

Unfortunately, Isaac Boxtel has realized that Cornelius must still have the offsets.  He begins a campaign to obtain the black tulip by any means necessary.   Boxtel makes an interesting villain for the book, because he never confronts Cornelius directly, and Cornelius only vaguely recognizes him at the end of the book, never learning about his motives.  Boxtel loves tulips as much as Cornelius, and has had a small success.  But he’s not as wealthy or smart, and when Cornelius accidentally cuts off light to Boxtel’s tulip garden, Boxtel realizes that he can never catch up.  Resentment and envy lead him to ever more openly criminal tactics in order to claim the prestige of presenting the black tulip (and the prize money would be good too.)

Cornelius is good-hearted, but often puts his passion for tulips ahead of other considerations.  (For example, he first plans donating the entire prize to the poor, then a few minutes later switches that to half the prize so he can fund more tulip research.)  It takes Rosa to show Cornelius that some things are more important to him even than tulips…but not by much.

Rosa is perhaps a bit much as a heroine–she’s beautiful (of course), pure-hearted and pretty smart.  Considering her father’s abusive nature and crudity, I presume this all comes from her never-mentioned mother’s side.  Rosa realizes that her illiteracy is a weakness, and takes the initiative to ask Cornelius to teach her to read and write, which helps her immensely towards the end of the narrative.  The narrator describes her as the sort of woman who is fearful over trifles, but has great courage in an actual crisis, which comes out towards the end.

Both are believing Christians, and their prayers seem to be answered, but not without suffering along the way.  The narrator flat out states that God is behind some of the coincidences that move the story along.

William of Orange is enigmatic–he clearly orchestrates the mob attack on the de Witt brothers at the beginning from behind the scenes, but afterwards is helpful to Cornelius and Rosa, and is never confronted for his part in the horrible events of the opening.  Part of this is because Dumas has added in character traits of his grandfather, William the Silent.  Another part is that William went on to become King of England in 1689.

The narration is old-fashioned, and often addresses the reader directly.  For example, after the first paragraph establishes that there’s a lynch mob on the loose, the second paragraph essentially says, “yo, I know you readers want to get to the exciting parts, but the historical background is a must-have.”  And so there ensue several pages of recent Dutch history to set up why there’s a lynch mob.

This is a relatively short book with fewer characters than some of Dumas’ more famous works, so is a quick read.  The Penguin edition is translated from the complete 1865 text, and comes with an introduction by the translator that covers such topics as the tulipomania of the 1830s and where Dumas played fast and loose with history, and footnotes for cultural references.

For those of you who prefer to watch movies, there’s a British film version from 1937, There were BBC miniseries in 1955 and 1970 as well.  The 1963 movie La Tulipe Noir was an adaptation in name only, making the Black Tulip a Scarlet Pimpernel-style masked crusader for justice.  That movie then inspired the Japanese anime series La Seine no Hoshi (“Star of the Seine) which mixed in some Rose of Versailles aspects in the story of a young woman who adopts a masked guise to aid the Black Tulip.

The Australian Burbank studio animated film version at least keeps the tulip-growing and false accusation, but adds talking mice and reimagines Boxtel as an evil alchemist who needs the black tulip to summon Azatoth and gain unlimited power.  There’s also a Black Tulip film from 1988, but that’s a documentary about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan.  Oh, and the story “A Coffin for the Avenger” which I reviewed a bit back has a German villain who calls himself the Black Tulip.

Recommended to fans of Dumas’ other work and to tulip fanatics.

And now, a video about the tulip:

Book Review: Jewish Noir

Book Review: Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia

Many of the themes of noir fiction, alienation, hostile society, darkness and bitter endings, resonate with the experience of Jewish people.  So it’s not surprising that it was easy to find submissions for an anthology of thirty-plus noir stories with Jewish themes.  (Not all of the authors are themselves Jewish; see if you can guess which ones.)

Jewish Noir

The volume opens with “Devil for a Witch” by R.S. Brenner.   A man caught embezzling for what he thinks are good causes has his death faked by the FBI so that he can go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan.  The title comes from an old saying about trading a known danger for an unknown one, and this assignment turns out to be perilous indeed.  The author bio mentions that this is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.

Most of the stories in this collection are appearing for the first time, but two are not.  “A Simke (A Celebration)” by Yente Serdatsky was first published in Yiddish in 1912, and this is its first publication in English.  It’s a melancholy tale of a woman whose refusal to conform to the social norms of Russian-Jewish immigrants made her popular in her youth, but isolates her now that she is middle-aged.  Harlan Ellison® contributes a story first published in 1960. “The Final Shtick”, about a comedian returning to the small town he had good reason to flee, and his feelings concerning this.

As one might expect, several of the stories concern Nazis, neo-Nazis and/or the Holocaust.  “Feeding the Crocodile” by Moe Prager is perhaps the strongest of these–a writer tells stories to a death camp commandant in hopes of surviving just a bit longer.  But the crocodile gets greedy.

There’s a fairly wide variety of protagonists in these stories.  Good people who do bad things, bad people who try to do good things, evil people who sink even lower, men and women, religious Jews and secular ones, Jews of different sexual orientations and skin colors.  Ethnic slurs and antisemitism are peppered throughout, and there is mention of child sexual abuse, suicide and rape.

“The Golem of Jericho” by Jonathan Santlofer is on the borderline with supernatural stories.  A bullied boy and his grandfather build a golem, which may or may not have killed the bullies; it’s certainly a mysterious coincidence.

The weakest story is “Her Daughter’s Bar Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi” by Adam D. Fisher which is just one long kvetch.  (My spell checker doesn’t flag that word, interesting.)  No crime, no hopeless ending, just complaining.

It should be noted here that this volume published by PM Press has no connection to the series of regional noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books despite the very similar presentation and book structure.

Most of the stories are good; recommended to noir fans who are willing to stretch their focus a little.

 

Book Review: In the South Dakota Country

Book Review: In the South Dakota Country by Effie Florence Putney

This is a history of South Dakota written for grade school children in the 1920s, when the frontier days were still in living memory.  (Indeed, my mother was educated in a one-room schoolhouse some years later.)  This was before Mount Rushmore and Wall Drug, so the emphasis is somewhat different than a current history book might cover.

State Seal of South Dakota
State Seal of South Dakota

In the introduction, Ms. Putney explains that she’s tried to write the book in “stories” to make it easier for children to read, but never past the point of it not being good history.  The majority of the story is or intersects with Native American history, and the author tries to be evenhanded.  The war between the Ree (who were in the territory first) and the Dakota (a.k.a. Sioux) is covered in separate tales for each side.  However, there’s a lot of use of words like “savage” and “rude” (meaning crude, without craftsmanship) to refer to the native peoples.

Many of the short chapters are not so much about South Dakota as they are about people who passed through South Dakota on their voyages, such as Lewis & Clark.

The efforts of missionaries and others to “Christianize” and “civilize” the Native Americans are depicted entirely positively, and when the various difficulties between the races are brought up it’s always phrased that the Indians thought that the whites had broken treaties, rather than just admitting that the treaties had indeed been broken.

Towards the end of the book, there’s a chapter on the political shenanigans around the choosing of the state capital, with two major railroads offering free rides to encourage the citizens to vote for that railroad’s favorite.  (It wound up being Pierre.)  The last chapter is about the activity of the South Dakota Volunteers in the Philippine insurrection.  Their heroism is emphasized, though it is mentioned that the Filipinos thought they had been ill-used when the U.S. refused to let them be independent after the Spanish-American War.

This book is primarily of local interest to South Dakotans, but may also be instructive to students of history who want to see how it was taught to children in the early 20th Century.  Parents of younger readers will want to discuss the history of Native Americans as we now understand it, and how prejudice can distort our images of those who are different.  This volume was reprinted in 2010, so you may be able to find a reasonably-priced copy.

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