Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1996-2016 Evelyn C. Leeper.


BIBLE STORIES FOR ADULTS by James Morrow (Harcourt Brace, ISBN 0-15-600244-2, 1996, 243pp, trade paperback):

Everyone needs their traditions. For me, these include reading Kim Stanley Robinson's "'History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations'" on New Year's Eve and James Morrow's "Bible Stories for Adults, No. 31: The Covenant" on Passover.

Now the problem is that I'll end up reading all the other stories in this volume at the same time.

This is a great collection.

There are twelve stories in this book. Four are Morrow's traditional "Bible Stories for Adults": Numbers 17 (The Deluge), 20 (The Tower), 31 (The Covenant), and 46 (The Soap Opera). The other eight have varying degrees of connection to the Bible. In his preface, Morrow categorizes these and gives what he sees as the connections between them and the Bible or religion. While there is obviously some validity in what he says, there are other connections to be drawn as well. For example, while "The Confessions of Ebenezer Scrooge" may ask, as Morrow says, "whether charity alone can exorcise the demons that drive monopoly capitalism," it also serves as a companion piece to "Bible Stories for Adults, Number 46: The Soap Opera," examining justification. Or perhaps it connects to "Bible Stories for Adults, Number 20: The Covenant," looking at what motivates human behavior.

Is "Daughter Earth" a miniature version of "Diary of a Mad Deity"--or is it the other way around? Morrow says that "The Assemblage of Kristin" looks at the mystery of consciousness, but it's also about death and resurrection. If Morrow's traditional "Bible Stories' are telling us that we have gotten it all wrong, what is he trying to say with "Spelling God with the Wrong Blocks"?

And to be honest, one might ask what "Known But to God and Wilbur Hines," "Abe Lincoln in McDonald's," or "Arms and the Woman" have to do with Bible stories. On the other hand, they're great stories, so who cares? (In fact, I was surprised to discover that the only award nomination for these stories was a Nebula nomination [and win] for "Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge." There are at least a couple of other stories which are at least as good as anything nominated in their years.)

Morrow manages to put into words feelings that many readers will recognize that they had but never formalized. The most obvious example (to me) is "Bible Stories for Adults, No. 46: The Soap Opera," where he looks at the real meaning of the story of Job and comes to a conclusion that will have many readers shouting, "Right on!" And maybe this is what connects all these stories: their ability to make us look at what we have always been taught and ask what it really means and if it's really true. In this context, even the stories that seem at first unconnected fall into place as examinations of beliefs and belief systems. What motivates the people in all these stories is a belief system, perhaps not Biblical, but certainly ones that could be labeled religious. And Morrow shows us that these belief systems have implications that many proponents would prefer to gloss over. (If I were to suggest a companion piece for these stories, it might well be Mark Twain's "War Prayer.")

I've avoided saying too much about the stories themselves, because I feel they will have the most impact if you don't know a lot about them beforehand. But I will say that I highly recommend this book. (I suppose I should provide a caveat here. If you are distressed by a frank look at your religious beliefs, you may not find this to your tastes. But then, you probably knew that.) Also being reprinted by Harcourt Brace at the same time is Morrow's novel Only Begotten Daughter, the perfect companion piece for this collection.

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BLAMELESS IN ABADDON by James Morrow (Harcourt Brace & Company, ISBN 0-15-188656-3, 1996, 404pp, hardback):

Blameless in Abaddon is the sequel to Towing Jehovah. In that book, the corpse of God has been found, and a disgraced tanker captain is hired to haul it to the Arctic.

In Blameless in Abaddon, the corpse has somehow ended up as the main attraction in a religious theme park cum miraculous shrine. Justice of the Peace Martin Candle hears there is neural activity in God's brain and decides to bring this most infamous criminal to justice. This is part of the age-old attempt to find an answer to mystery of suffering, and in the book, it is clear that Morrow has done his homework in researching the theologians who have attempted to answer this question. (At least from a Jewish or Christian perspective--one might argue that finding "Jehovah" means one needn't look at Buddhist or Hindu explanations, but a few Islamic sources might have been nice. On the other hand, it's unlikely the characters involved would have access to or inclination to look for these.) The person defending Jehovah is based on C. S. Lewis, and the story also involves scrabble-playing dinosaurs. (As Morrow quotes from Dostoyevsky, "If everything on Earth were rational, nothing would happen.") We also find out that God is a Platonist.

Morrow has said that he enjoys writing this sort of work in the genre, because "science fiction makes very literal what in other fiction is metaphorical." He also said that it might be nice if people took these things more seriously here (not "it's just a novel"), but on the other hand, he appreciated being able to write a novel such as this without having to go into hiding as Salman Rushdie did.

I would certainly recommend that you read Towing Jehovah before reading this, but then I would recommend that you read Towing Jehovah in any case. After all, it was nominated for a Hugo, which is a pretty amazing achievement for a story more cerebral than action-packed. Morrow writes books that are thought-provoking and entertaining, and this is certainly both of those.

(Morrow is now working on a third book, titled The Eternal Footman.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/20/2007]

I re-read BLAMELESS IN ABADDON by James Morrow (ISBN-10 0-156-00505-0, ISBN-13 978-0-156-00505-0), the middle book of his "Towing Jehovah" trilogy, and the one which most discusses theodicy, its defenses, and the flaws in them. I suppose one can get one's philosophy in a more traditional philosophy book, and in some sense Morrow is as enamored of the "expository lump" approach as Kim Stanley Robinson. But as with Robinson's work, the exposition is part of what makes it good.

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THE CAT'S PAJAMAS & OTHER STORIES by James Morrow:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/26/2004]

James Morrow's THE CAT'S PAJAMAS & OTHER STORIES (ISBN 1-892-39115-5) is Morrow's third collection of stories. As with all his other works, Morrow looks at morality from all angles and in all its aspects. Of all the current writers, I would say he is the most Swiftian in his approach, and also that he is one of my favorite authors. His writing at times achieves a level of bizarreness also reminiscent of Howard Waldrop, another of my favorites. If I asked who would write a story about King Kong, Godzilla, and 9/11, you would be likely to guess Waldrop, but it's Morrow. Or of a real Martian invasion--ditto, it's Morrow. The collection includes several pieces never before published, making it a must-read for Morrow fans.

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CITY OF TRUTH by James Morrow:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/26/2010]

I recently watched CITY OF TRUTH, ..., I mean THE INVENTION OF LYING. I'm sure people will claim that the premise is so basic--like time travel or alien invasion--that using it does not mean that James Morrow deserves some credit. I disagree. "A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People"? That sounds like something straight out of CITY OF TRUTH, but it is really from THE INVENTION OF LYING. Now, I will admit that, for example, THE INVENTION OF LYING looks at what spontaneously discovered lying would be like in a world where everyone had to believe everything you said, while CITY OF TRUTH shows someone having to learn to lie. But even there, THE INVENTION OF LYING seems to be a copy: just as in CITY OF TRUTH, it's a dying relative that promotes the development of lying. I think there is enough here to warrant Morrow at least asking the writers where they got the idea.

To order City of Truth from amazon.com, click here.


GALAPAGOS REGAINED by James Morrow:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/29/2016]

I did not finish GALAPAGOS REGAINED by James Morrow (ISBN 978-1-250-05401-2). Although obviously an author has to take some liberties with history, when one finds what appear to be egregious errors, rather than intentional changes, one's suspension of disbelief becomes less willing. The Great God Contest was a wonderful idea, but calling Charles Darwin a geologist, and saying that he was the (official) naturalist on the Beagle is just too jarring. In addition, the whole book seems highly melodramatic (possibly intentionally so) and reminiscent of Charles Dickens. (I can't say "Dickensian"-- that refers to the conditions Dickens wrote about. Dickensonian, maybe?) And finally, Morrow used to write nice, compact books that conveyed his ideas economically. I realize there is a trend towards longer novels now, but I do not have to like it. At 496 pages this was just a bit too long.

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SHAMBLING TOWARDS HIROSHIMA by James Morrow:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/20/2009]

SHAMBLING TOWARDS HIROSHIMA by James Morrow (ISBN-13 978-1-892391-84-1, ISBN-10 1-892391-84-8) is an alternate history in which the United States developed a secret biological weapon towards the end of World War II: Gorgantis, a giant lizard designed to stomp Japanese cities. But in order to demonstrate its power, they enlist the aid of Hollywood to fake a demonstration using a man in a suit, and that man is horror film star Syms Thorley.

Now, Syms Thorley is a fictional character, as are many of the other Hollywood personages, but many others are real (though in our world not involved in a giant reptilian weapon). Just to cover a few that appear relatively early: James Whale and Willis O' Brien are of course real, and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is a real movie. Gorgantis is obviously a copy of Gojira/Godzilla. Kha-Ton-Ra is obviously a copy of the cinematic Im-ho-tep (who is also mentioned). Crepuscula is completely made up. Siegfried K. Dagover appears to be a fictional relative of Lil Dagover (from THE CABINET OF CALIGARI). Producer Sam Katzman, director William ("One-Take"), cinematographer Mack Stengler, and art director Dave Milton are real.

All this should make clear that the book is aimed at fans of the horror films of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. If you like Morrow's other work, but are unfamiliar with the films, this book is not going to be very meaningful.

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THE SFWA EUROPEAN HALL OF FAME edited by James Morrow and Kathryn Morrow:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/31/2007]

I am not going to review THE SFWA EUROPEAN HALL OF FAME edited by James Morrow (ISBN-13 978-0-7653-1536-6, ISBN-10 0-7653-1536-X), but I will make a couple of comments on it. First, look for this in your library at Dewey Decimal 808.83(9762) if you cannot find it in fiction or science fiction, as the Dewey Decimal number is the cataloguing data Tor provided. It seems like a great way to hide from its main audience in libraries, though it should not affect bookstore placement.

As Morrow notes, all but one of the sixteen stories are from the Indo-European family of languages (that one being from Finnish). Of the fifteen, seven are from Romance languages, four from Slavic, two Germanic, one Nordic, and one Greek. (No Hungarian?) Clearly "European" here means continental Europe and does not include Britain. (One wonders if there will be future anthologies for Latin America, Asia, and Africa.)

Finally, let me talk about translations. This has a new translation of Richard de la Casa and Pedro Jorge Romero's "The Day We Went Through the Transition". This translation is by Yolanda Molina-Gavilan and James Stevens-Arce. The story previously appeared in English in COSMOS LATINOS (edited by Andrea L. Bell and Molina-Gavilan) in a translation by Molina- Gavilan alone. (That earlier translation was a finalist for the Sidewise Award in 2004.) The most obvious change is that the new translation is in the present tense, while the older one is the past tense (as is the original). In addition, though, sentence structure is different, sentences and even paragraphs are in a different order, and so on. If you cannot decide which translation to read, the original Spanish is available on-line.

As an example of what I mean, here are the third and fourth paragraphs from each, which explain the Transition:

Spanish:

La transición es un clásico. Al menos una vez por semana hay que hacerla, y en ocasiones hasta dos o tres veces en un mismo d¡a. ¿:Por qué todos los terroristas, de uno u otro bando, tienen semejante fijación con ese per¡odo? ¿:Por qué no intervienen más a menudo en la guerra civil o en el asunto de la armada invencible? Supongo que, simplemente, la transición está tan llena de posibilidades, hay tantos caminos abiertos simultáneamente que todo bando pol¡tico o grupo económico se cree capaz de ajustar el proceso de forma que triunfe su particular posición.

Parece tratarse también de una fijación particularmente española. Otros pa¡ses sufren también ataques terroristas que pretenden cambiar la historia a su gusto, pero esos casos se producen una o dos veces al año. Sin embargo nosotros tenemos que lidiar hasta con treinta casos a la semana y más de la mitad pueden situarse en la transición. Parece que los españoles estamos tan insatisfechos de nuestra historia y somos tan incapaces de aceptar que otros hayan triunfado en el pasado que realizamos grandes esfuerzos por cambiarla. En cualquier caso, no importa: el trabajo del Cuerpo de Intervención Temporal de la GEI es evitar que esas situaciones se den, y en particular cuidamos mucho de la transición.

Yolanda Molina-Gavilan (2003):

The Transition is a classic. Someone has to go through it at least once a week, and sometimes even two or three times on the same day. Why are all the terrorists, from both sides, fixated on that time period? Why don't they intervene more often in the Civil War, or in that Invincible Armada affair? I suppose that the Transition is just so full of possibilities, there are so many simultaneously open paths, that every political camp or economic group believes it self capable of adjusting the process so that its particular position triumphs.

It seems to be a particularly Spanish fixation as well. Other countries also suffer from attacks by terrorists who attempt to change history to their own liking, but those cases happen once or twice a year. We, however, have to manage up to thirty cases a week, and more than half of them may be placed at the Transition period. It seems that we Spaniards are as unsatisfied with our own history and are so incapable of accepting that others have triumphed in the past, that we make great efforts to change it. It doesn't matter, in any case: the work of the GEI Temporal Intervention Corps is to stop these situations from happening, and we pay particular attention to the Transition.

Yolanda Molina-Gavilan and James Stevens-Arce (2007):

The Transition is our hottest troublespot. We must restore it constantly, sometimes two or three times a day. Most countries endure timeshift attacks no more than twice a year, but El Gripo Espanol de Intelligencia registers as many as thirty a week--over half targeting the Transition.

Apparently, we are so unhappy with our own history and so resentful of other nations' triumphs that every disaffected group feels the past can be altered to its advantage. But our territories don't show much interest in reconfiguring the eras of the Civil War or the Invincible Armada. Perhaps because the Transition was our last major cultural paradigm shift prior to the discovery of Temporal Theory, it seems especially rich in potential futures, especially ripe with possibilities. ..."

I have no idea where that last sentence came from--the original has nothing like it. My impression is that Molina-Gavilan's translation is the more accurate one; the joint one by Molina- Gavilan and Stevens-Arce is more a retelling that a translation.

And the reason may be in the introduction, where James Morrow describes working on a translation of a French story, and says, "I found myself intuitively noodling with the sentences: striking out arguably superfluous words, hunting down needless repetitions, searching for le mot juste, all the usual things. By the midpoint of the trip I was in a bittersweet mood, lamenting the sorry circumstance that so few SF translations ever receive this sort of joyful tweaking." I have great respect for Morrow, but he and I have very different philosophies of translation: I want a translation to be as accurate (though not necessarily literal) to the original as possible, while he seems to think a translator should also function as an editor.

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