Bob G · Essays · Fiction · In the Library · Non-Fiction · Short Stories

Armageddon in Retrospect | by Kurt Vonnegut

Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut
(Berkley Publishing Group, 2008, 232 pages)

As a college student in the 70s, I, like many of my fellow students, was a huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut. His irreverent, satirical novels somehow spoke to my generation with their wry observations on the human condition and pessimistic view of bureaucracies, bores, and bombast. I was therefore intrigued by Armageddon in Retrospect, a compilation of unpublished writings related in some way or another to war. With an introduction by his son, Mark, this book gives us one last peek into the mind of this author, who was a humorist on the scale of Mark Twain or Will Rogers.

When Vonnegut died at age 84 in 2007, America lost a shrewd observer of the human condition and a very funny writer. Having read pretty much all of his other books, many of them more than once, I have always appreciated his wit and unusual writing style. Spare, concise and sometimes accompanied by his own drawings, Vonnegut’s books dwelt on themes of industrialization, futurism and free will.

The book includes a speech that Vonnegut was supposed to deliver in Indianapolis but he died before delivering it. Like his writing, it is filled with short, sometimes biographical factoids and wry observations on Karl Marx, religion, and African-Americans.

As his readers learned in 1969 when Slaughterhouse 5 was released, Vonnegut was taken prisoner after only 5 days on the front during World War II and he spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner. This final book includes his non-fiction account of his experiences, including the burning of victims of the Allied bombing of Dresden. A copy of a letter he sent to his family after being freed is also included. It also provides more detail on his capture, transport and treatment by his German captors.

The rest of the stories, although somewhat uneven, relate in some way to issues of war and peace. Some of them come directly from his experience as a P.O.W..     Prisoners in a camp speculate on what meals they will eat after they are released. A soldier confronts and ultimately kills another American who had returned to Germany to fight for the Nazis. A Czech cabinetmaker is forced to build an elaborate desk for the commanding officer of an American occupying unit.

Each of these stories give us an insight into how Vonnegut’s style and thinking evolved over the years. As a counter-cultural hero, Vonnegut appealed to my generation’s cynicism and his sharp-witted jabs at the follies of warfare endeared him to beats, college students, and peaceniks of all types. This final volume puts a period on the career of this troubled, but gifted, writer.

Bob G · Fiction · History

Century | by Fred Mustard Stewart

Century by Fred Mustard Stewart
(Signet Books, 1981, 546 pages)

Although I read mysteries and science fiction as a young reader, I was late getting to the genre of historical fiction. I always loved history and read historical non-fiction voraciously, but I was slow to recognize the value of fiction as a way to understand historical events. That changed after reading books by James Michener and John Jakes, both writers who take great care to ensure historical accuracy and who obviously spent a great amount of time researching their topics.

Century by Fred Mustard Stewart, although not as lengthy as books by Michener and Jakes, is certainly in the same class and provides an epic journey through the years of 1860-1960. Starting in a small Italian town in the mid 19th Century, the novel follows four generations of an Italian-American family as they struggle to find a life in America after leaving their home country of Italy. Although the characters are fictional, they inhabit a very real world and we are shown how societal events shaped and determined the direction the family takes through the “Gilded Age,” two World Wars, prohibition, and an economic depression. Through the family’s eyes, we see the rise of Mussolini, the control of the mafia over Italian immigrants and the growth of the movie industry all in this tumultuous 100-year period.

By fictionalizing the time period, we are able to get an understanding of how real people would have reacted to the momentous events of the Century, something that is hard to do with non-fiction. I guess this is why I enjoyed the book so much and will seek further reading in this genre.

Bob G · History · Non-Fiction

Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois | by John J. Dunphy

Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois by John J. Dunphy
(The History Press, 2011, 154 pages)

I love reading books about history, but when I come across one about places I am familiar with, I usually can’t wait to read it. When the author is a good friend of mine, it is even better. I have known John for many years and his many articles and other books have taught me a lot about local history.

Most local people know at least the basics of the story of Elijah Lovejoy, the Alton newspaper publisher who was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in 1837. Lovejoy’s martyrdom is part of the abolitionist story and reveals the tension and conflicts which tore Illinois apart in the years preceding the American Civil War. But the murder was only part of the overall story of slavery and the state of Illinois and Dunphy’s book gives us the backstory on Lovejoy and many other important figures in the fight to restrict slavery here.

One obscure but important person was Edward Coles, who was elected as Governor of Illinois in 1822. His upbringing had convinced him that slavery was not compatible with the enlightenment views of the Founding Fathers and he worked to make sure the state stayed slave-free, unlike the surrounding states of Kentucky and Missouri. Pro-slavery forces were determined to oppose this view and called for an Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1824 to write legislation that would allow slavery to be established. Despite widespread support for the convention, Coles’ view prevailed and it was voted down handily.

Dunphy describes in detail the efforts of Elijah Lovejoy to overcome the strong slavery sentiment in Alton, Illinois, the town where I presently live. Even though he had two of his printing presses thrown in the Mississippi, Lovejoy persisted in trying to publish his newspaper, the “Alton Observer.” Even more interesting to me was to learn of Lovejoy’s efforts to form the first Anti-Slavery Society in Illinois. As it turns out, this organization was formed in the home of abolitionist Thadeus Hurbut, now called the Old Rock House, which is located just a few blocks from where I live. Shortly thereafter, Lovejoy was to meet his fate at the hands of a mob of enraged pro-slavery activists.

There are many other fascinating parts to this book. Dunphy outlines the many important locations of the “Underground Railroad” which allowed escaped slaves to reach freedom by reaching safe havens in the North. One of the major routes for these escapees led through Alton and we learn of the buildings, tunnels and hideouts used for concealing the “passengers” that came through Alton in those days. Alton was also the site of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate and the book relates the importance of this event in framing the upcoming Presidential election.

Dunphy’s book taught me a lot more about names I was familiar with but knew little about like Elijah Dimmock, Thadeus Hurlbut and Lyman Trumbull, all important individuals who made their own contributions to the abolitionist cause.

The final half of the book deals with the Civil War in our part of Illinois. There were, of course, no battles fought anywhere around our area but Alton figured in the war as an important river town that was instrumental in shipping supplies and troops to support Union operations in the South. More importantly, Alton was the site of an important Civil War prison that held thousands of Confederate prisoners captured during the war.

All in all, this fascinating book takes us back in time to a point in history where our society was extremely polarized over the issue of slavery. It explains how our local community was tied to the events that would eventually consume our nation and makes me feel good knowing that ultimately, the work of these early “radicals” like Lovejoy and Coles helped keep our state on the right track.

Bob G · Fiction · Mystery

The Girl Who Played with Fire | by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
(Vintage Books, 2010, 724 pages)

I have to say I did not know much about the three books written by Stieg Larsson except that he died of a heart attack before they made it into print. I didn’t even know they were a trilogy, so I almost stopped reading The Girl Who Played with Fire when I discovered it was a continuation of the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I was intrigued, however, and it did not seem like knowledge of the first work was necessary to follow the story so I plunged ahead. As the story progresses, you do get enough information to understand the situation, although there are a few cryptic references to past events. Unlike the first work, which featured crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist as the main character, the second novel focuses on Lisbeth Salander, the tattooed, computer genius who saved his life and got revenge on a rapist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Here, Lisbeth is the main character, a troubled, socially-challenged young woman who is linked by evidence to the murders of her legal guardian and two journalists who are about to publish a scandalous book about the Swedish sex trade. The police are convinced of her guilt after psychiatric reports emerge painting her as a violent, unstable woman, with links to Satanism, sadism, and psychotic behavior. As their investigation progresses, we learn more and more of Lisbeth’s backstory and the picture doesn’t look good.

The only person who is convinced of her innocence is Mikael Blomkvist, who has reason to believe that her moral code would not allow her to kill someone unless they truly deserved it. Since the authorities are unable to find her, Blomkvist races the investigators to locate her, encountering various “bad guys” in the process, including a giant thug who is incapable of experiencing pain. Suffice it to say that the conclusion of the investigation reveals all and gives shocking details about Lisbeth’s past life and helps to explain her unusual behavior.

Larsson was, of course, Swedish so much of the book is located in that country. Like American books, there are numerous off-hand references to geographic locations that Swedes would immediately know but English readers would be clueless about, but it doesn’t seem to be that much of a problem. I did find the names occasionally confusing and I was always getting the characters named Ekstrom, Sandstrom and Hedstrom confused.

Even so, The Girl Who Played with Fire was a good mystery with just enough edginess to raise it above the average murder who-dunnit and I will probably go on to read the third book. After learning what took place in the first story, however, I’m not sure I want to read the first.

Bob G · Fiction · Mystery

The Templar Legacy | by Steve Berry

The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry
(Ballantine Books, 2006, 496 pages)

The DaVinci Code was a phenomenon. The novel by Dan Brown explored the legacy of the Knights Templar and speculated on the secrets that this shadowy organization had been concealing for centuries. Of course, having Tom Hanks, one of the most popular actors in America, play the main character in the movie adaptation, helped to popularize and expand the audience for this type of story.

When I ran across The Templar Story by Steve Berry, I was initially put off. It was an obvious DaVinci Code knockoff that was trying to piggyback on the success of the earlier novel. But I have always been interested in stories of adventure and mystery, so I thought I would give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised to find it a pleasurable read that treads on the same material but takes a quite different slant on the concept.

The Templars were, if you did not already know, an organization of Knights that were dedicated to protecting travelers to the Holy Land during the time of the Crusades. Although they started out as a humble monastic order, they eventually became the richest and most powerful force in the medieval world. In 1307, the French king vowed to eliminate the order and set about arresting its members, burning their leader Jacques DeMolay at the stake in 1311. Unfortunately the treasure of the Templars was never found, much to the delight of writers ever since. It is the search for this treasure and the accompanying secrets of the Templar organization that provide the main subject of these and many more books.

The Templar Legacy starts out in Copenhagen where former U.S. agent Cotton Malone has retired and now runs a book store. Receiving a call from his former employer, Stephanie Nelle, Malone is asked to help investigate the apparent suicide of Nelle’s husband, a researcher who had devoted his life to search for the Templar secrets. The two join with others and begin a search for traces of the Templars following clues left by guardians of the Order over the years. During this process, they eventually learn that the Templars still exist and are being led by a Master who is following his own agenda and does everything possible to throw the searchers off the track.

Although they eventually locate the treasure, another discovery proves even more shocking, one that will rock the world if it gets out to the public. It is this secret that is the true Templar legacy and the one that raises this book above the mundane.

Bob G · Fiction · In the Library · Short Stories · Thriller

Behind A Mask and Plots & Counterplots | by A. M. Barnard

Behind A Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott
by A.M. Barnard
(Morrow, 1975, 277 pages)

and Plots & Counterplots: More Unknown Thrillers by Louisa May Alcott by A. M. Barnard
(Morrow, 1976, 315 pages)

I must admit to having a lack of interest in Gothic literature. Tales of revengeful heroines living in desolate, bleak landscapes who indulge in drug abuse, jealousy and blackmail aren’t usually the type of reading I enjoy. But when the author is someone held up as one of the finest providers of wholesome family entertainment, I do take notice.

Such is the case with Behind a Mask and Plots and Counterplots, two short story collections by none other than Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, Little Men and many other classics of American literature. Unknown to most, the noted author was forced to support herself and her family by writing a number of lurid “potboilers” for popular publications under the pen name “A.M. Barnard.”

Alcott was the daughter of a famous Transcendentalist, Amos Bronson Alcott, and grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, where she often dined at the tables of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Her father, although a popular writer and public speaker, was not successful financially and the young Louisa was forced to take steps to bring in more money for the family. Like Jo in Little Women, Louisa started out writing plays and short pieces for publications of the time. Her real success came, however, when she began penning sensationalist stories of incest, murder and revenge that were so popular at that time.

These tales feature some of the standard plot elements of this genre of literature. The heroines are willful, determined women who lie, steal and kill to right a past wrong, seek revenge on someone who crossed them and misrepresent themselves to achieve a better “position” in society. The short stories contain references to drug addiction, incest, kidnapping and blackmail, something the March sisters of Little Women would definitely be shocked at.

It is easy to see how Alcott used these early writings to develop her own writing style. Although the female characters in these stories are not always likeable, Alcott gives them a personality that is not soon forgotten. While the loveable character of Jo March was largely autobiographical, these women display a determination and vindictiveness completely unlike the author. Because she wrote under a false name, it would be many years before the real author of these thrillers was revealed. With the publication of these two collections, however, it is possible to look behind the mask and appreciate the full range of Alcott’s writing skills. Although your children will still no doubt enjoy her classics of family literature, you might want to wait until they get a little older to expose them to this side of the author.

Bob G · Fiction · In the Library

The Sea Wolf | by Jack London

The Sea Wolf by Jack London
(Oxford University Press, 1992, 375 pages)

Literature is filled with stories of ordinary people getting thrown into extraordinary circumstances.  Such is the case with The Sea Wolf, a novel written by Jack London and first published in Century Magazine in 1904.  Having read Call of the Wild as a teenager, I was familiar somewhat with London’s approach to writing but was unprepared for the deep psychological issues of this seafaring tale.

Basically, the book tells the tale of an effete, literary lion named Humphrey Van Weyden who is thrown overboard from a sinking San Francisco ferry boat and fished out by an outgoing seal hunting vessel “The Ghost.”  Instead of depositing the soggy writer ashore before leaving port, the captain of the ship, Wolf Larsen, shanghais him and forces him into servitude, replacing a recently deceased crew member.

During the voyage, Van Weyden is transformed from a weak, intellectual “gentleman” to a capable full member of the crew and it is this change that gives the book its compelling interest.  At first, Van Weyden becomes simply “Hump” the cabin boy, which is the lowliest position in the rigid hierarchy of a sailing ship crew.  Having never done any meaningful labor in his life, he was unprepared for the grueling, repetitive and often demeaning work required of him by Larsen and the crew.  Eventually, as sailors die and desert the ship, Van Weyden learns to function as a capable sailor and is established as the first mate, second in command to the captain.

The Sea Wolf, however, is not really just about Van Weyden, even though he is the narrator of the tale.  The most compelling character in the story is Wolf Larsen, a contradicted figure whose brutality and selfishness balance out his interest in literature and human psychology (he was played by Edward G. Robinson in the 1941 movie).  Although Larsen does not hesitate to kill and kidnap to further his own interests, he seems fascinated by the ordered, rational world represented by his new cabin boy.  Long discussions about human nature ensue as Larsen extols his Social Darwinist philosophy and criticizes Hump’s view of the noble aspirations of human beings.

After a terrible storm, the vessel takes on two additional shipwrecked castaways, including a beautiful female poet named Maud Brewster.  The female presence wreaks havoc in the all-male world of a sailing ship and both Van Weyden and Larsen fall under her spell.  Shielding Maud from Larsen’s brutish behavior as much as possible, Hump eventually talks her into escaping with him in a small boat.  Their journey eventually lands them on a deserted island where they are destined to confront Wolf Larsen and “The Ghost” one last time.

Jack London served himself on a sailing schooner and The Sea Wolf, although not autobiographical, contained characters and settings he had witnessed in his travels.  He captures the claustrophobic boredom of shipboard life as well as any writer and his knowledge of navigation, seamanship and the handling of sails and rigging is detailed and realistic.  Although the book relies on a number of improbable events, the reader never feels like the narrative is particularly contrived and is carried into the adventure willingly as events unfold.

All in all, The Sea Wolf is an entertaining read that takes you into an unfamiliar world, one with no shortage of thrilling moments and psychological standoffs.  The forces of rationality and nobleness, represented by Van Weyden, are constantly pitted against the brute force, intimidation and subjugation of his main protagonist, Wolf Larsen.  The struggle, as old as humanity itself, makes for a novel you won’t soon forget.