Saturday, July 25, 2020


Benjamin Disraeli  (1804-1881)

Venetia Herbert was the daughter of Annabel Herbert.  Her father was Marmion Herbert.  Venetia and Annabel lived in Cherbury, a remote village in southern England;  Annabel had left her husband because of his erratic behavior.  Marmion was a poet/philosopher who tried to make his intellectual fantasies a reality.  After destroying his social standing in England, he emigrated to America, where he became a general in the American army during the Revolutionary War.  Meanwhile, Venetia and her mother lived a quiet life, dining frequently with the reverend Masham, who lived in a neighboring rectory.  Another neighbor was Plantagenet Cadurcis, who lived with his mother just over the hill in the Abbey, the home of the Cadurcis family for generations.  The elder Cadurcis was also separated from his family due to his rake-hell predilections.  He was a member of the English nobility and when he died, his son became Lord Cadurcis.  Plantagenet and Venetia became friends, walking in the local woods and playing together in the gardens and bylanes of the area.

Plantagenet became tired of his mother's nagging and ran off to join the Gypsies.  Mr. Masham tracked him down and returned him to the Abbey, but shortly thereafter, Mrs. Cadurcis passed away and Plantagenet was sent to Eton.  Initially he was a successful student, but when he entered university, he became obsessed with philosophy and poetry to the detriment of his studies.  He read  the works of Marmion Herbert and became enamored of them.  His poetry took London by storm and Plantagenet was in an instant precipitated into the upper echelons of London Society.  He was a popular rage for a period, but viewed his flamboyant position with disgust and apathy.  After five years absence, he returned to Cherbury for a visit.  Venetia and he resume their walks and games and fall in love.  He proposes, but Venetia for various reasons turns him down.

While Plantagenet was in London, Venetia had become curious about a wing of their residence that had been kept locked up ever since she and Annabel had moved there.  One night when her mother was absent, Venetia found a key to the door of the hidden annex and found a very large picture of her dashing father hanging amid ornate and grandiose furnishings.  She immediately fell head over heels in love with him, to the point that her sanity became endangered.  She vowed to find him and restore him to her family.

Partly to distract her daughter, Annabel moves her household to a small villa near Weymouth, a popular watering place near the ocean that attracted many persons from London Society.  One day, Venetia is introduced to the King and Queen and they become friends.  A short time later, the Herberts move to London and are accepted into the most illustrious segments of the aristocracy.  Venetia is presented at court.  She meets George Cadurcis, a cousin of Plantagenet's and a Captain in the British Navy.  Plantagenet is entrapped by a Lady Monteagle, who is infatuated with him,  to the  displeasure of her husband.  A duel ensues in which the latter is wounded and Plantagenet becomes very unpopular as a result.  After visiting Parliament one day, he is mobbed by the citizenry to the endangerment of his life and is only rescued at the last moment by the intercession of his cousin George.  As a result, Lord Cadurcis leaves England.

Venetia and her mother leave England also, traveling in a sort of Cook's tour through Switzerland and Italy.  They take a villa for a while on Lake Maggiore and George, passing through on his way to Sicily to meet Plantagenet, stays with them for several days.  News is exchanged and later mother and daughter continue their travels to Rovigo, where they accidentally meet Marmion.  The father is old now, and tired of fighting the world.  Annabel realizes that much of her behavior for the last fifteen years has been driven by pride and selfishness, but she and Venetia leave precipitately when they discover that Marmion's mistress is lodging in the same inn.  They journey to Venice, where Venetia becomes ill with her longing for her father.  Acting upon the information conveyed to them by a courier, they take a boat ride to a local island, the location of an Armenian monastery, where they once more meet Marmion and come to a sort of resolution of their difficulties.

The Herbert family, now reunited, make their way west to a small villa near Genoa owned by the Malaspina dynasty, and spend happy hours together.  (spoiler ahead, beware...)  They are joined by George and Plantagenet and the five friends rejoice in the peace and comfort of their simple life.  But a white squall arises when Marmion and Plantagenet are out sailing, and they are both drowned.  Returning sorrowfully to Cherbury, Venetia and her mother live a hushed existence until George arrives some time later to cheer them up.  George and Venetia fall in love and are married and they all live happily ever after.

This is not one of Disraeli's worst novels.  In fact it was a lot better, i thought, that his previous one, Henrietta Temple, which was a monstrous hit in England at that time and which i found tedious and quite boring with repetitious maunderings on why the heroine and her beloved could never get together because of minor problems with the attitudes of some of their relatives.  Disraeli writes glowingly when he wants to, with long sentences flitting across the page like butterflies on a spring day.  He has the gift, not given to every writer, of bringing scenes full-blown into the head of the reader, precipitating him or her bodily into the middle of whatever castle or forest he happens to be describing.  Plus he can turn a trenchant phrase with the best:  "We exist because we sympathize";  want of love, or want of money, lies at the bottom of all our griefs";  " have always been fools and slaves, and fools and slaves they will always be"... 

If long Victorian novels turn your crank, i'd definitely recommend this book;  or if not this one, Vivian Grey, his first novel, that has the most shocking ending of any book of that period i've ever read.  Disraeli is really worth some time and i've frequently wondered why he wasn't just as popular as Dickens or Thackeray...

Saturday, July 18, 2020

For Colorado coal miners, the canary in the coal mine was actually ...


Jules Verne  (1828-1905)

This tale takes place near Loch Katrine, in Scotland.  Simon Ford, his son Harry and wife Madge live in a cottage at the bottom of the abandoned Aberfoyle coal mine.  The mine was closed ten years ago when the seam of coal ran out.  But Simon, ever hopeful, thinks he's discovered evidence of an extension of the old stratum, and writes a letter to his friend, F.R. Starr, a mining engineer, to invite him to dinner and to see something interesting.  When he arrives, they meet at the train station and travel back to the mining site, where they descend into the Dochert Pit, one of the upper levels of the mine.  The Ford residence is dimly lit by a vent extending to the surface.  After dining, Simon, Harry, Madge and Starr descend 1500 feet by ladder into the Aberfoyle mine itself and Simon leads the others to the end of a remote gallery (the mine is a maze of tunnels and passages extending for miles in every direction).  Along the way, Harry checks for firedamp (methane) as they progress.  Methane is explosive when mixed with air.  As they progress, Simon tells the others about the ghost in the mine.  A shadowy figure has been seen flitting by at times, and strange sounds have been heard occasionally, like pounding or cracking inside the tunnel walls.  At one spot, one of the supporting pillars has been blown up.

They reach the end of their long walk (4 miles) and Simon tries to find the firedamp leak that he had noticed sometime earlier, firedamp being an indicator of the presence of coal, but the fissures that he'd previously discovered have been plugged up with lime.  Undeterred, Harry attacks the wall with his pick and opens up a new crack from which firedamp is detected.  Excited, the trio returns later with dynamite and blows open the stope (a producing wall of coal) and reveals a completely unknown labyrinth of passages, all rich with coal and ready to be mined.  They explore the vast new maze for a long time, revealing a bottomless pit and an underground loch in addition to a rich, unlimited source of coal.  Then Harry accidentally drops his lamp and it breaks.  Even though they're stranded without light, they manage to find their way back to their starting point, only to find that what was a blown open entrance has now been filled in, so they are no longer sure of how to return to the old Aberfoyle galleries. 

Meanwhile, the local citizens have seen flames issuing from the top of the old DunDonald castle, a nearby ruin on the edge of a firth.  One stormy night, a ship is wrecked on the rocky shore, having mistaken the flames for the Irvine light, a local channel marker.  After rescuing the crew, one of Harry's friends, Jack Ryan, realizes that Harry has been absent for a while, so he pays the mine a visit and finds that that nobody is home.  A rescue party is organized and the members begin to climb down the series of ladders but are chagrined to find that the bottom 200 feet is ladderless.  They have to use rope to get to the bottom.  Following the tunnel to the end they are able to rescue the four trapped explorers who are still alive after ten days because a mysterious entity has left food and water for them.  They had found a girl unconscious at the lowest level, who helped them backtrack to the entrance of the New Aberfoyle mine.

Three years later, the new New Aberfoyle mine is in full production mode.  Electric light has been installed and a small city has been built to expedite the removal of the coal.  Train tracks have been laid and trams laden with the "black gold" are being shunted to the outside as rapidly as possible.
There are ducks on the underground loch (Loch Malcolm) and domesticity has regularized the existence of the subterranean mining community.  In order to further the education of Nell, the family takes a trip to Edinburgh.  They tour Arthur's seat and admire the view and later take a ferry across Loch Katrine.  In the middle of the lake, they hear a loud roaring sound and all the water vanishes, grounding the ship.  A little surprised, they return home expecting to see everything drowned, but discover that Loch Malcom has only risen a few feet.  After investigation, it's evident that some of the pillars supporting the roof (also the bed of Loch Katrine) have been destroyed by explosives.

Nell and Harry fall in love, and a wedding ceremony is held on the bank of Loch Malcolm.  As the ceremony is being performed, another loud explosion is heard, part of the shore of the Loch vanishes, and water begins to drain into the gallery below.  At the same time an old man with a huge owl is shooting across the water in a canoe, waving a broken safety lamp in an apparent attempt to blow up the entire village by throwing the lamp up toward the ceiling, where firedamp has collected as a result of the explosion.  Nell cries to the owl to catch the lamp, which it does, thereby saving the lives of the inhabitants along with their houses.  The old man, Nell's grandfather, disappears into the depths and the survivors live happily ever after.

I'd never heard of this Verne production before i ran across it on the Gutenberg site.  It's certainly not one of his best known novels, and is rather haphazardly assembled, but it possessed the perhaps questionable feature of having an explosion periodically to keep the reader alert.  There was a major scandal several years ago about the translations of Verne's work.  The most available versions at that time were ones that were translated by a relation of Verne's, and there was a lot of criticism about the quality of his renditions.  Since then, there have been several new translations of some of his works published, but i haven't heard of any comprehensive edition arriving on the market, so perhaps the versions we have, barring knowledge of the French language, may be the only door we have to Verne's original thoughts.  Most of the ones i've read are still pretty interesting, and Verne remains a welcome resource for those attracted by older works of science fiction...

Saturday, July 11, 2020


Vladimir Obruchev (1863-1956)

In 1913 Pyotr Kashtanov, Professor of Geology, was invited by Nikolai Trukhanov, an expert on Siberia and builder of astronomical observatories, to take part in an expedition to the northern Arctic Ocean to discover a new continent.  For years, polar explorers had reported seeing remote mountains in the far north, and there was a theory, current at that time, that a large ice-covered continent lay underneath the polar ice-cap.  Kashtanov had spent several years arranging for financial and material backing for an exploration of that area and now he was ready to undertake the voyage.  He had had a ship constructed after the famous design originated by Fridtjof Nansen, with a double-walled hull and storage room for several years worth of supplies.  The North Star, manned by Trukhanov, Kashtanov, Papochkin (zoologist), Gromeko (botanist), and Borovoi (meterologist), left Vladivostok on May 4th and sailed north through the Sea of Okhotsk, the Kuril Islands and the 16 active volcanos in the Kamchatka rift zone, headed for the Beaufort Sea.  They stopped briefly at Petropavlosk to acquire sledges and a dog manager, Igolkin.  Passing through the Bering Strait, they picked up another member of the party, Yakov Maksheyev, a mining engineer who they discovered paddling a canoe across the Strait, who expressed a willingness to join the expedition.  He had just discovered gold in the Chukotka area of north-eastern Siberia.

At 76 degrees latitude, they sighted a range of mountains in the north, and soon after they dropped anchor in a small bay after sailing through the pack ice for several weeks.  The six left the ship there, planning to mush north with sledges and dogs while the crew members of the North Star mapped the coastline.  The first two days the party covered 34 miles and shortly afterwards they discerned, through the fog and mist, a range of mountains looming above them.  Casting about for a way forward, they came upon a pass of sorts, 4500 feet high, which permitted them to cross the mountains and to descend the far side.  After topping out, they slogged down through 3 feet of snow and fog for what seemed like an overly long interval when they happened to check their barometer and discovered they were 1200 feet below sea level.  Also the compass needle was wavering all over the dial, so they worried about losing their bearings.  Fortunately there was a strong south wind blowing, so they used that as a direction indicator.  They chopped their way through a number of ice walls, cutting steps and path-finding their way through the windy, fractured ice blocks that impeded their progress.  One night while fixing dinner they observed that the boiling temperature of their water for tea was 248 degrees.  Also the atmospheric pressure had increased to 2.5 atmospheres.  All the instruments indicated that they were, although traveling on a more or less flat slope, 4000 feet below sea level.  They continued on and the pressure of the air dropped again at about the same time that the ambient light started to increase.  But the air was a peculiar reddish tint and, as the fog began to clear, they saw that the sun was smaller and dimmer than the one they were used to.  Soon, the snow fields thinned out and vanished altogether, as the temperature warmed up and the south wind died down somewhat. 

The group decided to establish a base camp, as they had to abandon the sledges and dogs in order to continue their explorations.  They found a convenient hill and built a small cabin and a storage hut.  The decision was made to leave two members at the camp while the rest continued exploring the unknown region ahead.  By this point they realized that they were no longer traveling north, but had somehow gotten turned around and were descending into a warmer environment, with fields of coarse grass and occasional patches of shrubbery.  In the distance they could see small grey hills, which, as they watched, moved from place to place.  Maksheyev and Kashtanov left to investigate and they found that the hills were actually mammoths browsing on the yellow grasses and shrubbery.  Not paying attention to their surroundings, they were unpleasantly surprised by a crashing in the brush and, turning around, saw a very large rhinoceros charging them.  They managed to escape and return to camp, where speculation was rife as to what was actually going on.  At first they thought the Earth had rotated on its axis while they were traveling, but later they realized that the red sun was probably a captured red dwarf star, and that they were in fact inside the planet, apparently living in a portion of a past geological era that had somehow been preserved through some sort of ancient cataclysm in which a meteor (so they speculated) had penetrated the earth's surface and dragged part of the Tertiary fauna and flora with it, creating another sub- surface Terra.  They spent time examining the local rocks and botany and realized that they were indeed in the presence of living fossils from the Tertiary period.  There was some discussion about the gravitational anomalies that should effect life traveling upside down on the inside of the planet, but none of the scientists could agree on what exactly could account for such a situation.

Two party members, Igolkin and Borovoi stayed at the cabin to take care of the dogs and supplies and the other four men prepared themselves to further explore the southern regions of the territory.  There was a small creek or brook nearby, so they built two canoes and began paddling downstream.  The savannah disappeared fairly quickly and as the river widened, the banks became laden with bushes and trees, interspersed with glimpses of vast plains with mammoths, giant yak-like kine, giant deer, shaggy proto-horses, rhinoceroses, hordes of giant mosquitos, horse-flies and gnats.  Giant boars and saber-toothed tigers occasionally made an appearance.  Once, when camped for the night, Gromeko was picked up in the twilight by vulture with a 15 foot wing span.  A dose of buckshot discouraged him, however, and the botanist suffered nothing more than indignity and a few bruises.  Wandering on the prairie one day, Kashtanov saw another moving mountain and discovered it to be a giant turtle.  Several times, giant hippopotami charged the camp, once dragging off a canoe until Maksheyev raced after it and cut the rope by which it was being carried off.  Monster storms were frequent, with thunder like cannon shots and rivers of rain accompanied by sheets of lightning.  Kashtanov found outcrops to analyze occasionally, some of which he was able to identify as aerolites from a mesosiderite group, half iron with olivine and nickel. 

Eventually the party arrived at a large lake, which they paddled across and found themselves, briefly, in a Cretaceous environment with the appropriate fossils living around them.  Soon, as they continued south, they entered a Jurassic zone, however, with it's brontosauri, camel-giraffes, glyptodonts,  iguanodons and other titanotheriums.  They had run-ins with Creodonts, Triceratops, Hesperornis (large birds), and foot long dragonflies that bit.  There was an archeopteryx, some ammonites, pterodactyls and plesiosuarises.  An ichthyosaur made its appearance with a stinky stegosaur that was 12 feet high and 25 feet long.

The worst encounter they had was with an ant colony.  These insects were 3 feet long and voraciously aggressive.  They stole most of the party's supplies at one point, and after considerable thought, two of the party climbed a local volcano and scraped 200 pounds of sulfur off the inside walls of the crater, with which they made a poisonous gas that they used to kill all the ants in their nest.  They were able to recover their provisions and accouterments and journey onward.  Inside another volcano, they felt the ground shake and a deep rumble;  they left with all dispatch, just in time to observe a Plinian eruption, like Mt. St. Helens, with nuee ardentes (flowing ash clouds), explosive eruptions and ejecta flying about their ears.

The adventures continued, including yet another erupting volcano (which they named "Old Grouchy" because it spit black gravel at them) which trapped them in a mudslide and caught them between two lava flows.  There was a battle with more ants, there were boggy sloughs that stole their boots, and they had constant battles with iguanodons.  At one point, on top of a high peak, they saw nothing to the south but bleak, arid desert that was lifeless so far as they could tell, so they decided to return to base camp.  Winter was coming on, and they hurried to avoid being trapped in the northern snows.  Making about 25 miles a day, they reached the camp only to find that it was deserted.  After investigation, they found that Igolkin and Borovoi had been kidnapped by a tribe of primitive ancestors of modern humanity who worshipped the captives as gods because of their weapons and clothes.  So there was an episode of tracking and rescuing, after which the reunited explorers made their way back through the snowy mountains to the North Star.  Setting sail for home, the ship was accosted by a destroyer which captured them and stole all their records and samples.  World War One had just begun, and travel was discouraged by the authorities.  Abandoned at Kamchatka, the friends drifted away one by one, until only Kashtanov and Trukhanov were left.  These last two finally got a Japanese fishing boat to carry them to Japan from which they took a ferry to the Chinese mainland and contrived to catch the train across Siberia and back to Moscow.

This was an exciting and well written book.  Obruchev lived a very long time and supposedly wrote one thousand books, only a few of which have been translated.  The geology was interesting and the portrayal of the antediluvian creatures was accurate and detailed.  The plotting was well thought out and realized.  I have to say that this was the most believable and convincing account of hollow earth experiences that i've read, comparing it to the works of Margaret Cavendish, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Captain Symm, and the others i've had the opportunity of perusing.  It's a subject that was of considerable importance and interest in centuries past even though it's not paid much attention today.  But studying all the various ramifications and theories , from scientific based ones, to spiritually oriented productions, has given me a kind of overview of how humans have dealt with unusual concepts, or actually how they have gone about explaining the real world to themselves.  Curious clues to the operation of the psyche, one might say...

NB:  this novel meets Cirtnecce's challenge of reading a summer book of more than 400 pages...  it had 404...

Saturday, July 4, 2020


Observe these Pirates bold and gay,
That sail a gory sea:
Notice their bright expression:-
The handsome one is me.

We plundered ships and harbours,
We spoiled the Spanish main;
But Nemesis watched over us,
For it began to rain.

Oh all well-meaning folk take heed!
Our captain's fate was sore;
A more well-meaning Pirate,
Had never dripped with gore.

The rain was pouring long and loud,
The sea was drear and dim;
A little fish was floating there:
Our Captain pitied him.

"How sad," he said, and dropped a tear
Splash on the cabin roof,
"That we are dry, while he is there
Without a waterproof.

"We'll get him up on board at once;
For Science teaches me,
He will be wet if he remains
Much longer in the sea."

They fished him out; the First Mate wept,
And came with rugs and ale:
The Boatswain brought him one galosh,
And fixed it on his tail.

But yet he never loved the ship;
Against the mast he'd lean;
If spoken to, he coughed and smiled,
And blushed a pallid green.

Though plied with hardbake, beef and beer,
He showed no wish to sup:
The neatest riddles they could ask,
He always gave them up.

They seized him and court-martialled him,
In some excess of spleen,
For lack of social sympathy,
(Victoria Xll. 18).

They gathered every evidence
That might remove a doubt:
They wrote a postcard in his name,
And partly scratched it out.

Till, when his guilt was clear as day,
With all formality
They doomed the traitor to be drowned
And threw him in the sea.

The flashing sunset, as he sank,
Made every scale a gem;
And, turning with a graceful bow,
He kissed his fin to them.

This piece of doggerel caught my eye and i said (he said),
why not share it with others?
There is a mystery associated with it:  who wrote it?
Dodgson, Tennyson, Chesterton, Lear, Nash, Wodehouse,
Atwood, Seuss, or maybe Walt Kelley?

If you think you know the answer, let me know in the Comments section,
and you'll receive (he said with frabjous glee) a slice of literary pie,
and a bowl of poetical porridge!