Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2019 Evelyn C. Leeper.

"The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi" by Pat Cadigan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/28/2013]

"The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi" by Pat Cadigan was fine after I managed to dig through all the jargon Cadigan created ("decs", "Dirt years", "jellies, "two-stepper", and so on). it's a somewhat traditional premise, but the style is definitely more modern.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/18/2003]

Time to play catch-up. It's actually been a couple of weeks since I read NOT SO FUNNY WHEN IT HAPPENED, edited by Tim Cahill. This is a collection of "travel humor and misadventure," and is certainly more light-hearted than the Granta book I mentioned earlier. The first story was about how the Vietnamese ask travelers personal questions. The most common are "Are you married?" and "How many children do you have?" followed by "What is your salary?" or "How much did your camera/shoes/whatever cost?" But more than that, they are very disturbed if you are not married or have no children. So the advice is to say something like, "We have no children yet." (This advice, I have to say, is not very helpful when you are fifty or so.) John Wood was divorced and his attempts to conceal this led to the story, "How I Killed Off My Ex-Wife." There are also pieces by well-known humorists Bill Bryson, Dave Barry, David Sedaris, and Douglas Adams, and some travel cartoons as well. (Disclaimer: even though Mark's writing has been published in another book in the "Travelers' Tales" series, we have no other connection to them.)

To order Not So Funny When It Happened from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/01/2003]

Tim Cahill's travel essays are also cynical, though with more of a touch of humor (at least at times). In PECKED TO DEATH BY DUCKS, the first few essays, having to do with war, are less humorous (perhaps surreal is a better word), but it comes through in the rest. I'm not talking about rolling-on-the-floor-laughing funny, or even funny at the level of Bill Bryson, but a recognition of the basic ridiculousness of the situations Cahill finds himself in.

To order Pecked to Death by Ducks from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/26/2011]

One of the books chosen for discussion at the Worldcon this year was THE WONDERFUL FLIGHT TO THE MUSHROOM PLANET by Eleanor Cameron (ISBN 978-0-31612-540-6, although my copy is the 1966 first printing of the Scholastic Book Services edition--and looks it!). I read this ages ago (around 1960, if you must know), in a hardback edition checked out from the Rantoul, Illinois, public library, and I do not think I have read it since. How, when, and why I acquired this copy, I have no idea.

"It was a different time." That phrase shows up a lot, usually to explain why the incorrect attitudes of people in the past did not make them bad people. (One hears it repeatedly, for ironic effect, in the 2003 short alternate history film "The Negro Space Program".) Well, when one reads of an ad placed by an older man looking for "a boy, or two boys, between the ages of eight and eleven," and that parents would not be alarmed at such a thing, one can only conclude, "It was a different time."

Cameron tries to follow science, saying that it seems impossible that such a small moon as Basidium-X could have an atmosphere, and what a spectroscope is. But she gets a couple of things wrong. She has David talk about the "frozen, dark side [of the moon] nobody else has ever seen"--but the far side of the moon is not frozen or dark all the time. (Okay, maybe it is David who is confused, but that is just a rationalization for presenting incorrect science.)

Cameron refers to "mushrooms and other peculiar plants"; now we say that mushrooms are not plants at all. But that is reasonable, because in 1954, we said that mushrooms were plants. Now we define plants as life forms with chlorophyll, hence mushrooms are not plants, but fungi (a separate kingdom). It is an example, though, of how science fiction can become dated.

There is also a problem with David's conclusion about why the flight is noiseless. He thinks it is because they have broken the sound barrier (first done by humans just seven years before the book was written), but does not wonder why they can still hear the oxygen urn whistling. And the explanation of what escape velocity means is not quite right. They do not have to travel at escape velocity to escape the Earth; that applies only to ballistic rockets--those that have only a single blast to impart velocity to them, such as being fired from a cannon.

Is "tritetramethylbenzacarbonethylene" a reasonable name, or just chemical verbal fruit cocktail? And Cameron has David ask whether he will ever be a "space man", leading me to wonder about "space man" versus "spaceman".

Chuck has brown skin and dark hair, making me originally think he was possibly African-American, but since his grandfather had "snapping blue eyes [and] pink cheeks which were red-veined from all the storms he'd been in", and Chuck's face could turn "quite red with embarrassment", this seems unlikely. (An interracial marriage in the 1910s to 1940s is not an explanation to be accepted.) No, Chuck just has a tan.

The boys at one point walk on a very narrow path, "with their backs to the steep, damp cliff and their faces turned outward." But surely one would traverse this facing into the cliff?

Cameron also tries to add some poetry to the book (in the style sense, not in the rhyming verse sense): "In the dim light of early morning the roaring tide had come in, clawing and reaching with its strong gray fingers." And: "Now Mrs. Topman came and put out a finger to touch the great, satiny stones--each of a different hue: cobalt, verdigris, saffron, carnelian, vermilion, emerald, ultramarine, Tyrian purple, viridian--pulsing with color so deep that you could not take your eyes from the swaying, almost living thing in David's hands." I have to admit to be out of touch with current children's books; do they read like this now? (The latter does sound like Cameron grabbed a handful of crayons out of one of the larger Crayola assortments. Then again, I don't know if Crayola even makes these any more--so much has changed.)

Oddly enough, though throughout the book there was an emphasis on the idea that the boys would do all the building and traveling, without any adult help, when the time comes to form the Young Astronomers and Students of Space Travel, Mr. Bass insists that an adult shall be elected President. There is something strange, indeed, about an era when it seems fine to have two young boys travel around space on their own, but when they form a club, they have to have an adult leader.

I have no idea what is meant by "Drawings adapted from the original illustrations by Robert Henneberger". It is possible, I suppose, that the original hardback edition had more elaborate illustrations that Scholastic Books could not afford to reproduce. (One site said that the latest editions have no illustrations.) For people who want more, there are several sequels: STOWAWAY TO THE MUSHROOM PLANET, MR. BASS'S PLANETOID, A MYSTERY FOR MR. BASS, JEWELS FROM THE MOON AND THE METEOR THAT COULDN'T STAY, and TIME AND MR. BASS. Only the first is widely available.

To order The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet from, click here.

THE LUSIADS by Camoens (translated by William C. Atkinson):

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/23/2013]

THE LUSIADS by Camoens (translated by William C. Atkinson, ISBN 978-0-14-044-026-3) is the "national epic of Portugal." (Do we have a national epic? Why not?) Written in the mid-sixteenth century, it is a poem recounting the voyage of Vasco de Gama in 1497-1498 from Portugal around the tip of Africa to India and back. Though originally in verse, Atkinson has rendered it in prose, and six pages of the introduction explain why.

In one respect, Camoens set himself an impossible task. Modeling his poem after such epics as THE ILIAD, THE ODYSSEY, and especially THE AENEID, he felt obliged to put in all the Roman gods fighting over whether to help or hinder de Gama, as well as mythological tales of the founding of Portugal (a.k.a. Lusitania) by Lusus, the son of Bacchus. At the same time he is writing about what a pious Christian nation Portugal is, and how evil the Muslim infidels are. There is a real disconnect here, particularly in Canto 7 where he rails for four pages about how the other Christian nations of Europe should be fighting the infidels in Turkey, and Egypt, and North Africa instea of each other, and then says, "Now let us see what is happening to our famous navigators, now that Venus has calmed the blustering fury of the hostile winds and they are come at last in sight of land, the goal of their so constant perseverance, the land to which they have come to spread the faith of Christ, bringing to its peoples a new way of life under a new sovereign." It is good to know that the Roman goddess Venus is helping to promote Christ, though a bit strange.

In keeping with the classical epic style, Camoens uses a lot of similes. For example, he writes, "When the provident ants impelled to unwonted effort by fear of the harsh winter ahead, move in cumbrous supplies to the ant-hill, they show a vigour none had believed possible. Such were the strivings now of the nymphs as they sought to avert from the Portuguese the fearsome end that lay in wait for them."

It is also a bit strange how Camoens is constantly talking about how the Muslims are deceptive and lie to de Gama, and then in Canto 8 has the following: "And now the devil, speaking true for once, revealed to one of [the heathen soothsayers of Calcutta] how the [Portuguese] would mean their perpetual subjection to an alien yoke and the destruction of their lives and property." Sometimes one has to wonder which side Camoens is really on. Then again, probably Camoens thought that the perpetual subjection of heathens to the "alien" yoke of Christianity and the destruction of their lives and property was a good thing.

To order The Lusiads from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/06/2009]

THEY RANG UP THE POLICE by Joanna Cannan (ISBN-13 978-0-915230-27-3, ISBN-10 0-915230-27-5) is another 1930's mystery in the Agatha Christie vein. The sleuth in this (and its sequel DEATH AT THE DOG) is Inspector Guy Northeast, unusual for the time in that he was not an upper-class toff, or even a person of Sherlock Holmes's or Hecule Poirot's class (whatever that would be called), but more an Inspector Lestrade or Chief Inspector Japp. (Someone more familiar than I with the British class system might be able to express this better.)

(And was Joanna Cannan named on a day that the typewriters at Somerset House had only five working keys?)

To order They Rang Up the Police from, click here.

Canongate Bible:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/28/2003]

I recently bought, but haven't yet read, the two boxed sets of Canongate Bible books. Yes, I already have a copy of the King James Bible, but these have introductions written by people such as E. L. Doctorow, A. S. Byatt, and the Dalai Lama. It's a bit confusing, because the first boxed set has different introductions for about half of the books, depending on whether one has the British or American editions. Will Self wrote an introduction for "Revelation", but it was apparently so outrageous that even Grove Press refused to run it, and ran another by Kathleen Norris instead. The same happened with Louis de Bernieres's introduction to "Job", replaced by one by Charles Frazier. On the other hand the replacement of E. L. Doctorow for evolutionist Steven Rose ("Genesis"), Francisco Goldman for A. N. Wilson ("Matthew"), Barry Hannah for Australian rock star Nick Cave ("Mark"), Thomas Cahill for Richard Holloway, Bishop of Edinburgh ("Luke"), and Darcey Steinke for Blake Morrison ("John") probably had more to do with switching to American authors than any content problems.

To order the Canongate Bible: Genesis from, click here. To order other volumes, search there on your own--there are too many to list here. The boxed sets appear to be out of print.

THE STRANGER by Albert Camus:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/01/2013]

Our reading group did THE STRANGER by Albert Camus (ISBN 978-0-679-72020-1) this month. Reading it with today's perceptions, I found myself convinced that today we would diagnose Meursault as at least somewhat affected by Asperger Syndrome. He seems disconnected from emotions, or at least from the outward manifestations of them, both in how he interprets what others are doing, and in what actions of his own he finds appropriate. This is similar to the way that those with Asperger's describe themselves.

As far as the general feeling of the book, I found it similar to Franz Kafka's THE TRIAL. There is a certain level of coldness and remoteness. Whether this is from the existentialism, or from the characterization of Meursault, or from the writing style, I cannot say. One person proposed that it was the whole absurdity of the situation in general and of the trial specifically, where whether Meursault drank coffee near his mother's corpse seemed to be very important.

I see things that seem to reflect more a Stoic philosophy than something specifically existential (for which I cannot even find a good definition). For example, Muersault says, "Deep down I knew perfectly well that it doesn't much matter whether you die at thirty or at seventy, since in either case other men and women will naturally go on living." And later he says, "Since we're all going to die, it's obvious that when and how don't matter."

One can argue that there is some existentialism in the sentence, "He [the priest] wasn't even sure he was alive, because he was living like a dead man." If I were to try to define existentialism based on this sentence, it would be that only by accepting that life is meaningless and that there is no afterlife can one truly live in this one.

To order The Stranger from, click here.

CLOSE TO SHORE by Michael Capuzzo:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/29/2016]

CLOSE TO SHORE by Michael Capuzzo (ISBN 978-0-7679-0414-8) is a book detailing the 1916 shark attacks in New Jersey, including two in Matawan Creek, just two or three miles from our house. But more than that, it is a picture of life in 1916. Capuzzo describes in detail the homes and lifestyles of people of that time, the rise of the Jersey Shore as a destination, the changing attitudes toward "ocean bathing" (swimming), the state of the knowledge of medicine, what was known then about sharks, what is known now about sharks, and so on. Alas, the one thing missing is an index. Given how easy it is to generate an index of at least the names and places mentioned in a book these days, there is really no excuse for omitting one.

As an example of his style (and of the sort of thing covered) consider this ObSF reference: "Dr. Vansant was astonished to read that many Americans were disappointed in [Professor William Curtis] Farabee's expedition [to British Guiana]. It was a great age of exploration, when Peary reached for the North Pole, and many believed Farabee had set out to find "the lost world" of Jurassic dinosaurs on a remote Amazonian plateau discovered by the British Professor Challenger in 1912. Dr. Vansant was mystified that the average man didn't seem to understand that both the Jurassic dinosaur and Professor Challenger were fictions in Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 bestseller THE LOST WORLD. Indeed Dr. Vansant was frequently struck by the ignorance of the public in scientific matters."

Some of what Capuzzo writes about ties in with a lot what I've been reading about animal intelligence. For example, "As it swam and grew, the shark adapted and learned by experience, but the ability to reason, suggested some experts, was beyond it. 'Reasoning implies the ability to integrate experience, forethought, rationality, learning ... into a complex decision-making process,' ichthyologist George Burgess of the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History says. 'Sharks, like most animals, simply react in predetermined ways that, from an evolutionary standpoint, are clearly effective--or else they wouldn't be here any longer!" Well, maybe yes, and maybe no. (I will have more to say about animal intelligence next week, when I comment on Franz de Waal's ARE WE SMART ENOUGH TO KNOW HOW SMART ANIMALS ARE?)

Lest anyone think that New Jersey was a liberal, Northern state, Capuzzo reports that in Asbury Park, "the St. Claire was advertising for 'colored waitresses,' [and] the Surf House for 'two experienced white chambermaids.'"

Capuzzo says that in the 1960s and 1970s scientists "began ... to accept the fact that there are no documented cases of an orca ever killing a man." There are such cases, of course, the first being in 1981, but Capuzzo is often sloppy with his tenses and probably meant that there were none in the 1960s and 1970s. There are even now, though, no documented cases of wild orcas killing a human.

All in all, this is an enthralling history of the New Jersey shark attacks of 1916.

To order Close to Shore from, click here.

THE CRYSTAL CITY by Orson Scott Card:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/20/2004]

Orson Scott Card's THE CRYSTAL CITY is the sixth of his "Alvin the Maker" series. The premise of this series is that the Aztecs defeated the Spaniards and the Puritans remained in power in Britain. It does an even worse job of standing alone [than MIDWINTER NIGHTINGALE], since apparently the first three chapters were removed to become the novella "The Yazoo Queen" in Robert Silverberg's anthology LEGENDS II. The result is that there are not just references to previous books which manage to be explained enough for new readers, but references to things in the first three (now missing) chapters that aren't explained. This will be particularly annoying to readers who buy all seven books (there's one more to come), and then discover that they still don't have a whole coherent story.

To order The Crystal City from, click here.

ENDER'S SHADOW by Orson Scott Card:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/19/2003]

My library science fiction discussion group read Orson Scott Card's ENDER'S SHADOW, a parallel book to ENDER'S GAME. Though people say it stands alone, I'm not convinced of that. (I read ENDER'S GAME years ago, so I can't completely judge.)

To order Ender's Shadow from, click here.

PASTWATCH: THE REDEMPTION OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS by Orson Scott Card (Tor, ISBN 0-312-85058-1, 1996, 348pp, hardback):

There is a really interesting philosophical question here. Unfortunately, Card manages to side-step it entirely.

In the future (our future), a time machine has been invented, but it's not a chronoporter, it's a chronovisor. That is, you can't travel to the past, just view it. (I found myself asking the same question of this that I asked of Queen Tikka's television in Phantom Empire: where were the cameras and microphones that were sending these pictures?) Tagiri, one of the watchers, begins to think they should go back and fix history to be better. (Why does she think this when everyone is sure that time travel is impossible?) One day Diko, her daughter who is also a watcher, sees a vision appear to Columbus telling him to sail west. Convinced that the vision is really a traveler from another timeline (even though everyone has rejected the idea that there are many parallel worlds), Diko manages to convince the project that 1) they can build a time machine and 2) they should send her back to change history. What about the fact that changing history will wipe out there world? Card neatly postulates an eco-disaster that will leave everyone dead in a few years anyway, so what the heck. (I guess the lives of all those who lived in the mean time don't count.)

In other words, Card raises the issue of whether changing the past is ethical, given that doing so will cause the annihilation of millions of people. And then he drops it. Oh, his characters spend time talking about how much better the world will be for the (as yet non-existent) people in the new world, without talking very much at all about the fate of the currently existing people in the old.

Card also makes a few other slips, On page 171, for example, he claims that plagues sweeping through Americas wouldn't cause a Tlaxcala empire to fall any more than plagues in Europe caused the fall of empires there, but he overlooks the fact that the plagues in Europe didn't kill 90% and the plagues in America would. (Later, Card gets around this by having Diko spread a milder version of everything to create an immunity.)

Card also has a devout Muslim say, "I spit on your Christ." Devout Muslims consider Jesus a prophet and would never say such a thing. It could be that Kemal is not a true Muslim, but since he is portrayed as one, a little more accuracy and fairness would be nice.

I also thought it ironic that, given that one of Diko's co-travelers thinks the native American cultures superior, he nonetheless makes a speech (on page 183) about how mating without marriage is a repudiation of the community. The Americans he is so eager to save didn't necessarily feel this way. Why does Card insert this? To preach at the reader. Which is why I find the thoughts (on page 187) of a character thinking about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain particularly ironic: "No, the Jews had to be expelled because as long as the weaker Christians could look around them and see unbelievers prospering, see them marrying and having children and living normal and decent lives, they would not be firm in their faith that only in Christ is there happiness. The Jews had to go." I wonder how many other readers realize that Card has hit on the real reason that many people are against same-sex marriages. I wonder if Card realized it.

Unfortunately, most of what Card is pushing is that the Europeans were almost entirely evil, and that the native Americans were almost entirely good, except for a few minor details like human sacrifice. Card seems to have jumped on the political correctness bandwagon here, overlooking the possibility that the lower technological level in the Americas was what kept the native Americans from being as successfully oppressive as the Europeans. By giving the Americans a technology on a par with the Europeans, it's quite possible that the time travelers could have created a world in which the Americans conquered and enslaved the Europeans. (Of course, Card wrote the book so they didn't. Heinlein was good at this sort of thing also.)

And one final note: Card lists the sources that he used in researching this book. The one source that seems to me the most obvious and necessary he doesn't even mention: the letters of Columbus himself, written to Ferdinand and Isabella and reporting on his four voyages. It is available in a bilingual edition from Dover Books.

To order Pastwatch from, click here.

EYEWITNESS TO HISTORY edited by John Carey:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/22/2007]

Our book group chose selections from EYEWITNESS TO HISTORY edited by John Carey (ISBN-10 0-380-72968-7, ISBN-13 978-0-380-72968-5) for this month's discussion. After much debate we decided on pages 1 through 174, along with the introduction. (This brought us up to the founding of Jamestown in 1607, which seemed a good cut-off point. We try to keep the page count per month under 300 pages.) The introduction was added at the last minute, when I realized that it provided a fair amount for discussion, as Carey talks about the history and philosophy of reportage. For example, he cites Ben Jonson's 1626 play "The Staple of News" as using "the self-evident absurdity of news-gathering as an activity. History has not supported Jonson's judgement." He also discusses the science fiction novel THE TIN MEN by Michael Frayn (ISBN-10 0-006-54102-X, ISBN-13 978-0-006-54102-8).

To order Eyewitness to History from, click here.

"Blueprint for Armageddon" by Dan Carlin:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/27/2014]

Even better than Tuchman's book, though, or at least more engaging and involving, is Dan Carlin's "Hardcore History" podcast series about World War I, "Blueprint for Armageddon". So far he has done three episodes (totaling ten-and-a-half hours) and covered up through 1915. You can find this at


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/01/2019]

JUNGLE OF STONE: THE EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY OF JOHN L. STEPHENS AND FREDERICK CATHERWOOD AND THE DISCOVERY OF THE LOST CIVILIZATION OF THE MAYA by William Carlson (ISBN 978-0-06-240740-5) is the story of two of the early archaeologists, who were best known for their explorations of the Mayan ruins of Central America and Mexico, though they began in Egypt and the Middle East. Catherwood is the

lesser-known of the two, though his precise drawings were crucial to the understanding of these sites. Stephens did the writing, and he also was quite thorough. There had been earlier explorers, but they often spent more of their time writing about the people or the terrain, and only a paragraph or two about the actual ruins. And the explorers who did write about the ruins often let their prejudices get in the way; they would claim, for example, that the ruins looked Mediterranean and hence were built by the Phoenicians. Jean-Frederic Waldeck, for example, drew the Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal to look very Egyptian, and put (non-existent) elephants into the glyphs at Palenque. Waldeck also drew very Egyptian-looking statues that simply did not exist, and in fact Waldeck had never visited the sites where he claimed to have seen them.

(Ironically, there are glyphs at Copan that actually do bear a strong resemblance to elephants. These have generated much discussion, with one theory being that a small number of mammoths might have survived in the Americas until relatively recent (paleontologically speaking) times.)

The main problem with many of the other illustrators is that the structures and carvings don't look at all Mediterranean, but until people accepted that the earth (and its people) were older than 6000 years, they could not envision how a totally unknown race could even exist. Even after this, they resisted the notion that the indigenous population could have constructed such elaborate cities. Stephens and Catherwood went a long way towards showing that the ancient Mayan civilization covered a broad area and was totally unrelated to any "Old World" civilizations.

Carlson covers a lot of historical detail that Stephens's writing ignores, such as the odd circumstances that led Stephens to end up in Panama to start with. (He was sent as a diplomat after several previous appointees had died, either in Panama, or before even leaving the United States.) Carlson also describes the great difficulties Stephens and Catherwood faced, and in general provides the background, but clearly the key works to read are Stephens and Catherwood's four volumes on the Maya (INCIDENTS OF TRAVEL IN CENTRAL AMERICA, CIAPAS, AND YUCATAN in two volumes and INCIDENTS OF TRAVEL IN YUCATAN in two volumes), as well as their INCIDENTS OF TRAVEL IN EGYPT, ARABIA PETRAEA, AND THE HOLY LAND and INCIDENTS OF TRAVEL IN GREECE, TURKEY, RUSSIA AND POLAND. BREAKING THE MAYA CODE by Michael D. Coe is also well worth reading.

To order Jungle of Stone from, click here.

PAST IMPERFECT edited by Mark Carnes:

NOVEL HISTORY edited by Mark Carnes:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/23/2005]

In 1996, Mark C. Carnes edited PAST IMPERFECT (ISBN 0-8050-3760-8), in which historians wrote essays about various (historical) films. For example, Jonathan D. Spence wrote about SHANGHAI EXPRESS, and (as an example of the broad definition of "history" used) Stephen Jay Gould wrote about JURASSIC PARK. Now Carnes is back, with NOVEL HISTORY (ISBN 0-684-85765-0), in which historians write about historical novels. And this time the novelists (well, most of them) are given a chance to respond. Part of what this means is that you can be reasonably sure that none of the living authors are going to be completely trashed. On the other hand, it probably would not be worthwhile to spend time writing essays on bad books anyway. The one problem is that if you are not familiar with the book being discussed, then the discussion is not very meaningful. (This was less of a problem in PAST IMPERFECT, as the movies chosen were far more widely known.)

To order Past Imperfect from, click here.

To order Novel History from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/26/2016]

MANDEN FLORES A LA LUNA ("Send Flowers to the Moon") by J. Carnicero (no ISBN; Toray, 1970) appears to be the Spanish equivalent of half of an Ace Double. At about 24,000 words, it is a novella, and a short one at that. Toray "Bolsilibros" ("pocket books") were published in a number of genres, just like Ace Doubles. (Yes, there were Western Ace Doubles, and probably other genres as well.) Toray had six different Western lines, much as a romance novel publishers today will have several lines (time travel, contemporary, frontier, etc.). Toray had two SF ("Anticipation") lines: Science Fiction and Space. (The icon for Science Fiction was a robot, so it was not strictly a hard/soft SF split.) Each came out fifteen times a year and cost ten pesetas (about 15 US cents at the time).

It is difficult to find information on many of these works (and authors). Apparently, being an Anglo author had a certain cachet, so, for example, Luis Garcia Leche wrote as "Louis G. Milk" and Jose Leon Dominquez wrote as "Kelltom McIntire". ("Kelltom McIntire" sounds as nicely inconspicuous for a pseudonym as "Ford Prefect", but that's neither here nor there.) "J. Carnicero" does not sound like a pseudonym, but it is; his real name is Jose Carlos Canalda. (In Spanish, "carnicero" means "butcher" so I will forever think of author Jim Butcher when I hear the name, even though he is totally unconnected both linguistically and personally.)

MANDEN FLORES A LA LUNA starts with a prologue--a dialogue between (one presumes) the author and the "man in the street" ("hombre de la calle"). The author is moved and inspired by the achievement in 1959 of landing a craft on the moon; the man in the street wants to know why we are wasting money on this sort of thing. Carnicero's response is a bit too much like "There will always be hunger," though he does note that the solution to world hunger involves changing the nature of human beings, not just throwing money at the problem. The man in the street wants to "make habitable" the Sahara or the Amazon jungle. Nowadays most scientists have a completely different attitude toward making the Amazon jungle (more) habitable--it's a really bad idea, both in terms of loss of possibly valuable plants and animals, and in terms of further destruction of the parts of Earth's biosphere that produces oxygen. One can only be pleased that we did not take the money from the space program and spend it on cutting down the rain forests!

The story itself is about a moon mission. In the world of the novella, there have already been several moon missions so this one is just another mission, with little press coverage or attention paid. Now this immediately brings to mind the Apollo 13 mission of early 1970, since obviously something will happen to this mission to make it exciting. (And it does.) Obvious plot twist, coincidence, or just a short publishing cycle? Well, the fact that Carnicero also writes about using "free return" (slingshotting around the moon) just as Apollo 13 did, and of one of the astronauts pulling off his bio-sensors because he is tired of everyone knowing everything about his bodily functions (just as happened with Apollo 13), makes me think this was written after that mission.

At any rate, Carnicero writes, "What yesterday was big news and had a big impact on the public consciousness, today nobody even remembers it. These are the consequences of modern life," and that pretty much sums up the later space missions.

One can say that Carnicero recognizes verisimilitude in having the mission be an American one. While we in the United States are accustomed to having space novels take place with American ships and crews (though this is changing), near-future novels from other countries did not have the luxury of having their characters be familiar countrymen. And the near-future setting and the long introspective passages, as well as the lack of a lot of techno-babble, makes MANDEN FLORES A LA LUNA more in the style of Michael Crichton and Martin Caidin than an "Analog"-style story.

However, for a short novella, it does have a lot of padding in the middle. Almost a third of it consists of agonized waiting on earth when contact is lost with the ship. And the very "Twilight Zone" ending is totally at odds with the rest of the story.

[I realize that readers will not be able to go out to their local used bookstore and pick up a copy of this. However, as a glimpse into science fiction in the rest of the world in the 1970s, it seemed worth covering.]


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/03/2005]

Caleb Carr's THE ITALIAN SECRETARY (ISBN 0-7867-1548-0) is a straightforward Holmes story. The "Italian secretary" of the title is David Rizzio (music teacher to Mary, Queen of Scots), who was killed three hundred years ago. But his ghost may or may not be involved in some very strange murders in Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. There are a couple of problems with this novel. One is that Carr, although an historian, has no ear for the use (or mis-use) of ahistorical words. So in the first dozen or so pages, we run across such words as "odds-on", "sonic", and "electronic" scattered among the supposedly Victorian prose, and each time it's like tripping over a concealed rock. And I find the use of the supernatural in Holmes stories problematic in general. At the end either it turns out that there are supernatural goings-on (which to my mind is completely contrary to the spirit of the Sherlock Holmes canon--no pun intended), or there aren't, in which case the reader feels they have been led down the garden path. (Yes, in some of Doyle's stories, a ghost is suggested, but Holmes immediately discounts that idea. I'm talking about stories in which he is not so adamant.) Somehow, I just can't recommend this book.

To order The Italian Secretary from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/30/2004]

Philip Carraher's ALIAS SIMON HAWKE: FURTHER ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES IN NEW YORK (ISBN 1-4033-6992-5, 1st Books Library) is another collection of mystery stories, in this case a novella and three short stories set during a time when Sherlock Holmes was incognito in New York after the incident at Reichenbach Falls. Carraher tries, and his evocation of 1890s New York is a reasonable substitute for Victorian London, but I miss Watson's narrative style.

To order Alias Simon Hawke from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/03/2008]

CONSTANTINE'S SWORD: THE CHURCH AND THE JEWS by James Carroll (ISBN-13 978-0-618-21908-7, ISBN-10 0-618-21908-0) covers an important topic--the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church towards Jews through the ages. Unfortunately, it seems completely unfocused. Carroll will talk about some historical period, then veer off into a description of how he met Pope John XXIII, or seeing some Catholic ceremony in Germany when he was a child, or being in the anti-(Vietnam)-war movement. I can't help but feel that he should have written two books: one a memoir of his life and the other a history of anti-Semitism in the Church.

This anti-Semitism went through several phases. At times, the belief that the Jews must remain to witness the final days was a dominant factor. Other times, the drive to convert Jews was based on the idea that if they just heard the "truth", they would convert. A particularly counter-productive phase was the belief that the Jews knew that Jesus was the Messiah, but refused to convert out of contrariness and/or wickedness. (I find it ironic that a few years ago I heard a variation of this argument from a Jew, who argued that gays and lesbians knew that what they were doing was wrong, but did it anyway out of wickedness.)

One of the digressions was actually fairly apt in its depiction of how people turn history to their own ends. Carroll was constantly told about his great-uncle in Ireland for whom he was named. "It was the year of the Rising against the British, and he died an Irish hero," his mother would say. So when Carroll went to Ireland, he went to his ancestral town, and asked about whether his great-uncle was buried there. Sure enough, he was directed to the churchyard. "I pushed away high the grass away to read the inscription: 'James Morrissey, RIP.' Sure enough, the date of his death was 1916. [But] I now made out before his name the letters 'Pvt.,' and below it was the seal of the British Empire. I read the words 'Killed in France.' I was confused only for a moment. Private James Morrissey 'died an Irish hero in the year of the Rising against the British,' but instead of as an Irish Republican Brotherhood rebel, he died as a British soldier, fighting for the king in the Great War."

To order Constantine's Sword from, click here.

TOP DOG by Jerry Jay Carroll (Ace, ISBN 0-441-00368-0, 1996, 330pp, trade paperback):

William Bogart Ingersol awoke one morning to discover he had been turned into a giant dog.

Well, maybe not giant, but definitely a dog. This is where the resemblance to Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis ends, unless one considers Ingersol's attempts to deal with his new body as paralleling Gregor Samsoe's efforts. In fact, the rest of the story is a more traditional fantasy, with wizards and magic and such. But the conceit of having the main character a corporate magnate transformed into a canine and transported into a magic world gives this a new level that other such stories often lack. I am not generally a high fantasy fan, but this (in my opinion) walks the line between high fantasy and ... well, it's not low fantasy, but whatever other sort of fantasy one finds. (Urban fantasy, just a bit?) If you're looking for a fantasy that stands out for its originality, I would recommend Top Dog.

To order Top Dog from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/17/2009]

REMARKABLE CREATURES: EPIC ADVENTURES IN THE SEARCH FOR THE ORIGINS OF SPECIES by Sean B. Carroll (ISBN-13 978-0-151-01485-9, ISBN-10 0-15101-485-X) pointed out what a remarkable anniversary year 2009 is. Most people who follow this sort of thing are aware that it is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. But it is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of ORIGIN OF SPECIES, the 100the anniversary of the discovery of the Burgess Shale, and the 50th anniversary of the first hominid finds by the Leakeys in east Africa. (And it is apparently the 30th anniversary of when Luis and Frank Alvarez, Frank Asaro, and Helen Michael wrote their paper on the Chicxulub asteroid extinction at the end of the Mezozoic, since it was published in the June 1980 issue of SCIENCE.)

To order Remarkable Creatures from, click here.

ABC FOR BOOK COLLECTORS by John Carter, revised by Nicolas Barker:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/28/2007]

ABC FOR BOOK COLLECTORS by John Carter, revised by Nicolas Barker (ISBN-13 978-1-584-56112-5, ISBN-10 1-584-56112-2) is a delightful book that covers all the terms a serious book collector needs. The problem for the rest of us is that we may not have as much interest in the fine distinctions among types of leather binding as serious collectors. Personally, when I am describing my collection of science fiction paperbacks, the terms "crushed Morocco" and "Levant leather" rarely arise. However, there is enough to make flipping through it worthwhile for people who love books even if the books are not two hundred years old, bound in leather, and inscribed. For example, Carter (or Barker) has a clear opinion on the question of whether advance copies are the true first editions: "But they do not (as is sometimes suggested) represent a first or early issue in the proper sense of the word; nor can the existence of fifty advance copies of a book prejudice in any way the firstness of the first edition as issued on the day of publication." He refers to this preference for an advance copy as "the chronological obsession", of which he says, "if a slightly acid note is discernible in the comments offered [in various entries] in this book on the more extreme manifestations of priority-consciousness, it must be set down to the conviction that all extremes are a bore." Of deckle edges, he says (or they say--it is not always clear what is Carter and what is Barker), "They have, certainly, a sort of antiquarian charm, ..., but they collect dust and, being technically obsolete for a century and a half, hardly avoid a self-conscious air. In books of reference they are intolerable." The item on dos-a-dos binding says that it is usually done on "service books or works of piety" but does not even mention Ace Doubles. Carter (or Barker) does not suffer fools gladly. Of "else fine" he says, "A favourite phrase with the never-say-die type of cataloguer, used in such contexts as 'somewhat wormed and age-stained, piece torn from title, headlines cut into, joints repaired, new lettering-piece, else fine.'" And of "excessively": "An adverb of enthusiasm, frequently and irritatingly mis-used with the adjective 'rare'. Rarity may be extreme, notorious, ultimate, even legendary; but it cannot be excessive." One of the best things about this book, though, is that it labels all its parts with the correct terms. So the loose endpaper has "loose endpaper" printed on it in small capitals, the righthand edge of it has "fore-edge", and so on. The only parts not so labeled are the outside of the dust jacket. [This was true of the Seventh Edition; I assume it will continue in future editions/printings as well.]

To order ABC for Book Collectors from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/30/2007]

PLATO AND A PLATYPUS WALK INTO A BAR: UNDERSTANDING PHILOSOPHY THROUGH JOKES by Tom Cathcart and Dan Klein (ISBN-13 978-0-8109-1493-3, ISBN-10 0-8109-1493-X) gives a very sketchy outline of such topics as metaphysics, logic, ethics, and so on. Each aspect of the topic is illustrated with jokes so, for example, a paragraph on utilitarianism is followed by a joke illustrating (or refuting) it. My problems with the book are that the philosophy is fairly superficial, and the jokes fairly old. It is clearly intended as a book intended to make people feel they are reading something edifying, while not taxing them too much. There is a brief (humorous) glossary, but no index. This is okay for a quick read, but don't mistake it for a useful text on philosophy.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/10/2009]

I had read PLATO AND A PLATYPUS WALK INTO A BAR: UNDERSTANDING PHILOSOPHY THROUGH JOKES by Tom Cathcart and Dan Klein (read by Johnny Heller, ISBN-13 978-1-428-17376-7, ISBN-10 1-428-17376-5) before, but I listened to it on a recent trip. (The selection of books on CD near me is not very extensive--at least in ones that interest me--and most cheap rental cars do not have an input jack.) As I said before, the philosophy is fairly superficial, and the jokes fairly old. I had hoped the latter at least would improve by hearing them spoken rather than reading them, but no such luck. On the other hand, it was better than four hours of repetitive news radio.

I did notice a couple of errors that I either had not caught or did not remember from the book. A housewife is told that a certain household appliance that would cut her work in half. "Great, I'll take two!" she says. The authors point out that this is wrong; two would only cut it by three-quarters. Fine, but then they say three would cut it by five-sixths. Bzzzt! But thank you for playing.

Another joke has a museum guard telling someone that the dinosaur bones on display are three million four years and six months old. How does he know so exactly? Well, when he started he was told they were three million years old, and that was four-and-a-half years ago. Since the dinosaurs died out sixty-five million years ago, this is way off.

To order Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar from, click here.

To order Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar as an audiobook from, click here.


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

DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP by Willa Cather (ISBN 978-0-679-72889-4) is considered a classic, but while modern audiences can read it as a description of the landscapes and scenery of New Mexico, they will probably also find the human aspects troubling. It starts with three Cardinals in Rome needing to name a bishop for the new See of New Mexico. The Bishop of Durango has written to suggest one of his priests, but the Bishop from America who is in Rome says, "[It] would be a great misfortune if a native priest were appointed; they have never done well in that field." This is the same feeling expressed by Abner Hale in James Michener's HAWAII--he keeps asking his superiors back on the mainland to send more ministers and refuses to ordain any native Hawaiians. Maybe this was a common trait among missionaries, but in DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP it is just the first of many rather patronizing comments about the native Latino population. Cather is much more respectful towards the Navajos, and does make her worst "villains" white people, but her attitude towards other races seems to consider them as children who need to be (gently) disciplined and taught.

This is reinforced by such asides as, "The Mexicans were children who played with their religion." Of the Native Americans on the other hand, she writes, "It was the Indian's way to pass through a country without disturbing anything," "They seemed to have none of the European's desire to 'master' nature," and (of two Zuni runners) "their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried flight." The Archbishop (and presumably Cather herself) sees them as a part of nature, not as people. To him, they have no desire to change, to improve their condition. Given that, could they be true Catholics, could they convert from their old way of life to a new one? If the Bishop at the beginning of the novel was against making Mexicans anything higher than an ordinary priest, then the Archbishop here would probably not accept Navajos even as priests.

(I will also note that Cather and her characters consistently refer to characters as Mexicans, even though they are living in American territory and are presumably Mexican-Americans. Then again, even today people refer to Mexican-Americans (and often other Latinos as well) as "Mexicans", so this shouldn't surprise me. After all, this was written in 1927.)

Like I say, the descriptions are poetic, but the social attitudes seem very dated. I cannot say it worked for me, but Catholics may find some of the religious meditations more meaningful than I did.

To order Death Comes for the Archbishop from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/17/2007]

The BBC ran an adaptation of C. S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia"--all seven books, running about twenty-four hours in total. We listened to this (over several days), and I also read REVISITING NARNIA: FANTASY, MYTH AND RELIGION IN C. S. LEWIS' CHRONICLES edited by Shanna Caughy (ISBN-13 978-1-932100-63-1, ISBN-10 1-932100-63-6). This is a collection of essays about the Narnia books from various perspectives. For example, in "Greek Delight" Nick Mamatas explains how Lewis's theology is very Roman Catholic and often completely at odds with the Greek Orthodox view of God and Jesus. (And also how if you want to recreate the taste of Turkish Delight, you should "find a well-worn sliver of fragrant soap, dip it in confectioner's sugar, and eat it."

Naomi Woods's "God in the Details" makes a lot of points I agree with. Woods says that at times it seems as if Aslan had created Narnia for the benefit of children from Earth, so that they could come there and learn spiritual/religious lessons. Also, all the good children seem priggish, possibly because what Aslan teaches is blind obedience to him. Lewis at times uses characters' looks to signal that they are not the "good guys": "prim dumpy little girls with fat legs" or boys who look like pigs. Eustace's love of informational books and his parents' vegetarianism are considered negative qualities, and the Calormenes embody all the negative stereotypes of the Arabs.

There are two essays on the "correct" reading order for the books. They agree that the correct order is that in which they were written, but for completely different reasons.

My own observation is that in THE LAST BATTLE, Shift (the ape) deceives everyone by telling them that they cannot speak to Aslan directly, but only through him. This sounds to me very much like the traditional Catholic view that the priest is needed to intercede between God and man, and I was a bit surprised to see Lewis show that as such a negative thing and prone to abuse.

And if the end of THE LAST BATTLE is "the beginning of the real story", what kind of story can it be, with no conflict and no change? "The term is over; the holidays have begun." But what is the purpose of a never-ending holiday? It may be enjoyable, but as a story, it is not very interesting.

To order Revisiting Narnia from, click here.

24 FAVORITE ONE-ACT PLAYS edited by Bennett Cerf and Van H. Cartmell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/07/2003]

I also finished 24 FAVORITE ONE-ACT PLAYS edited by Bennett Cerf and Van H. Cartmell. These may be their favorite plays, but many of them are completely fprgotten today. Then again, one-act plays don't lend themselves to the sort of theater one finds today, except maybe in pairs or trios by a local theater group. There was even a Lord Dunsany play ("The Jest of Hahalaba"). (I looked this up on and discovered that the same collection is now listed as edited by Van H. Cartmell as the primary editor.)

To order 24 Favorite One-Act Plays from, click here.

THE REEL CIVIL WAR by Bruce Chadwick:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/07/2005]

Bruce Chadwick's THE REEL CIVIL WAR (ISBN 0-375-70832-4) takes a distinct "anti-Southern" position, but nonetheless offers some interesting viewpoints on films about the Civil War. I say "anti-Southern" because Chadwick seems to see any indication that Southerners were brave, or noble, or had any higher feelings as a denial of the brutality of slavery. The result is that he criticizes any film that doesn't show the South and Southerners as completely without redeeming characteristics. On the other hand, he does cover a lot of films which were far too slanted towards the South, and it's possibly that this tendency has led to a backlash from him. It's certainly interesting to read about all the forgotten Civil War films of the first half of the 20th century.

To order The Reel Civil War from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/19/2004]

Most of the books that I receive as a judge for the Sidewise Awards are straight alternate history. (There are also some straight fantasies that publishers send, either out of confusion about the award, or the hope that we may decide they are alternate history after all.) But occasionally we get a non-fiction study of alternate histories. This year it was Edgar L. Chapman and Carl B. Yoke's CLASSIC AND ICONOCLASTIC ALTERNATE HISTORY SCIENCE FICTION. Published by the Edwin Mellen Press, it consists of fifteen essays by various authors. With titles such as "Metafiction and the Gnostic Quest in 'The Man in the High Castle': Dick's Alternate History Classic After Four Decades", it is clear that these are not casual jottings, but works that could be described as "academic" and (one suspects) would probably count as publications needed in the "publish-or-perish" game. Which is not to say that they are not of interest value. (I found Robert Geary's essay on Ward Moore's BRING THE JUBILEE particularly valuable, though perhaps that is because two friends have just read this book independently of each other.) I will admit that some essays depended too much on literary theories that I was unfamiliar with. If you understand the concept that "the distinctive focus in THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is on hermeneutic activity, on the process of interpretation itself and on questions about the interrelationship of reality, history, and text (or artifact)," then this may be the book for you. Except for one small detail--the book's list price is $119.95! Some research indicates that Mellen Press is an academic vanity press, which probably explains the price. (Many of the individual papers, I should point out, were presented at the more traditionally legitimate venue of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts in Florida.) Now I realize that if you bought some of today's alternate history series in hardcover, you'd be paying this much, but I still cannot recommend this. And I'm guessing even your public library won't have it. You might try an academic library, or there are used copies available for "only" about $85.

To order Classic and Iconoclastic Alternate History Science Fiction from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/21/2007]

40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS: DARWIN, INTELLIGENT DESIGN, GOD, OXYCONTIN, AND OTHER ODDITIES ON TRIAL IN PENNSYLVANIA by Matthew Chapman (ISBN-13 978-0-061-17945-7, ISBN-10 0-061-17945-0) is an account of the Kitzmiller v Dover case of 2005, with several parents suing the Board of Education in Dover, Pennsylvania, over its attempt to introduce "intelligent design" into high school biology classes. Chapman just happens to be the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin (which does not seem to have influenced his views), and was raised and educated in Britain (which does). Even though many European countries have official state religions, they seem to have no problem with teaching evolution in the schools, and no interest in cluttering it up with "intelligent design", "creationism", or "last Tuesdayism". In fact, on the whole they think Americans are a bit loony to have a problem with evolution at all.

Anyway, the book covers the trial, but also includes a lot of editorializing by Chapman. I particularly found Chapman's personal opinions of all the participants annoying at times, though others may prefer his approach. A better (in my opinion) account was "Nova"'s "Judgment Day--Intelligent Design on Trial". (This uses recreations for the trial scenes, so there may be undetectable bias. This can be watched on-line at

Chapman's title comes from an exchange at the end of the trial. One of the defense lawyers said, "By my reckoning, this is the fortieth day since the trial began, and tonight will be the fortieth night, and I would like to know if you did that on purpose?" Judge Jones replied, "That is an interesting coincidence, but it was not by design."

Oh, and the outcome? The plaintiffs (who opposed the teaching of intelligent design) won. Judge Jones minced no words when he referred to "the breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision" to promote intelligent design. Ironically, by the time the Board of Education lost, though, almost all those who had tried to promote intelligent design had been replaced by "evolutionists" in the fall 2005 election. (In fact, one of the new Board members was also a plaintiff in the case.) So in some sense the winners had to pay the fine and costs anyway!

To order 40 Days and 40 Nights from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/07/2003]

If you have any friends who are doctors, you should point them towards George Chappell's THROUGH THE ALIMENTARY CANAL WITH GUN AND CAMERA, an older novel (or possibly novella) of a tour of the human body written in the style of late 19th century travelogues.

To order Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera from, click here.

DEFINING MOMENTS IN BOOKS edited by Lucy Daniel:


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/06/2018]

I have been reading DEFINING MOMENTS IN BOOKS edited by Lucy Daniel (ISBN 978-1-844-03605-9) which has hundreds of paragraphs on important books, writers, characters, and moments in 20th century literary history. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in books being added to my reading list. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN UNKNOWN INDIAN by Nirad C. Chaudhuri (ISBN 978-0-201-15576-1) was one of these, and when it showed up at the Bryn Mawr book sale less than a week after I put it on the list, it just seemed serendipitous. Written in 1951 (shortly after Partition), it covers Chaudhuri's life through 1921, albeit with a few references to the politics of Partition. Chaudhuri has been accused of too much Anglophilia, although he was also supportive of the right-wing nationalist movement in India. Some of this is apparent in THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN UNKNOWN INDIAN, of course, but mostly it is an utterly enthralling portrait of India--or rather, one Bengali's experience of Bengal and Kolkata--in the first two decades of the 20th century.

One of the most obvious examples of referencing the later history of the region is Chaudhuri's discussion of the dissension over the British partition of the Bengal Presidency (subdivision) in 1905 into Eastern and Western Bengal; the two were re-united in 1911.

To order Defining Moments in Books from, click here.

To order The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian from, click here.

THE CHERRY ORCHARD by Anton Chekhov:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/13/2010]

We recently watched a 1962 BBC production of THE CHERRY ORCHARD by Anton Chekhov and I was stuck by how topical it was. The mother, faced with having to pay taxes on the estate, basically decides to bury her head in the sand and refuse to take any action. For example, she could save the house by selling the cherry orchard, but apparently doesn't think she should have to make any sacrifices and so refuses to do so. This reminded me of people now who want to keep getting Social Security, Medicare, police, road maintenance, etc., but not to have to pay the taxes to support those services.

The mother also does not want to take the alternative of cutting down the orchard and leasing the plots of land either. Nowadays, of course, her attitude would fit right in with the idea of preservation of "greenspace", but I don't think that was Chekhov's intent. (In specific, the characters talk about how no one is buying the cherries anymore, and they've even forgotten how to make cherry jam.) Rather, she refuses to realize that unless she takes action, the orchard will be sold and then be cut down anyway. This too is familiar--people bemoaning how they don't like all the changes going on and how they want to freeze everything in place. The mother here has her nice house, beautiful view of the orchard, access to the river--and she doesn't want other people to have any of those things because that means giving up a bit of what she has. It may be a stretch, but all the people whose ancestors got here before there were immigration restrictions and took land that no one else was using (except the Indians, who didn't count), are now complaining about immigrants in just the same way. (One I know not only had ancestors who got here a couple of hundred years ago, but apparently further back they were among those who came over to England with the Norman invaders. I guess invading another country is better than being an illegal immigrant.)

And in THE CHERRY ORCHARD, who eventually buys the orchard? A man whose grandfather used to be a serf on the estate before emancipation (1861). Not surprisingly, he has no great emotional attachment to the accoutrements of the landed gentry--he sees the orchard as an impediment to be removed in order to get full value from the land. This is not surprising--I doubt that the grandchildren of slaves here would have been too upset to see the plantations sold and broken up so that houses could be built on small plots that they might be able to own.

THE COMIC STORIES by Anton Chekhov:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/13/2006]

I discovered THE COMIC STORIES by Anton Chekhov (translated by Harvey Pitcher, ISBN 1-56663-242-0) from listening to "Cutting a Dash", a BBC show based on Lynne Truss's writings about punctuation. (She later wrote a book on the subject, EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES, which I reviewed in the 12/03/04 issue of the MT VOID.) In her discussion of the exclamation mark on the show, Truss quotes from the Chekhov story "The Exclamation Mark". When I went to find this story, I discovered that the various web sites that claim to have all of Chekhov's stories did not have this one, and indeed, this collection is this story's first appearance in English. These stories are not comic in the same way that P. G. Wodehouse or Damon Runyon or even Nikolai Gogol is comic, but they are amusing. My problem is that because I borrowed this from a distant library, I have to read the thirty stories too close together (even with a three-week loan period). Reading too many comic stories too close together is like eating a pound of chocolate at one sitting. So if you have a taste for Chekhov's humor, this book might be better purchased than borrowed.

To order The Comic Stories from, click here.

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH by G. K. Chesterton:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/15/2005]

G. K. Chesterton's THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (ISBN 0-486-43178-9) has no relation to either of the Hitchcock films of that title, but is rather a collection of eight stories about sleuth Horne Fisher, who "knows too much" about the British upper class. The stories have Chesterton's literary flair, but are not as appealing as his "Father Brown" stories, perhaps because Fisher is not as appealing as Father Brown. And I came to this conclusion well before I read the following speech by Fisher: "...if you think I'm going to let the Union Jack go down and down eternally, down in defeat and derision, amid the jeers of the very Jews who have sucked us dry--no I won't, and that's flat; not if the Chancellor were blackmailed by twenty millionaires with their gutter rags, not if the Prime Minister married twenty Yankee Jewesses, ...." (page 71-72) (Yeah, I know--I seem to be seeing this sort of thing everywhere. Trust me, I'm not choosing books trying to find these.)

To order The Man Who Knew Too Much from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/28/2003]

Our library group read Tracy Chevalier's GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING. I wish I could say I liked it, but it really didn't do anything for me. People apparently liked the way it evoked that period in Delft, but as someone who reads a lot of "world-building" books (for worlds both historical and fantastical), I didn't think it was exceptional. And in fact, several other people found it not as enthralling as the reviews would make one think. It is popular with reading groups, and I would attribute this to two facts: it's short (233 pages), and its protagonist is a woman (a girl, actually). Since most reading groups are either all-female or mostly female, the books popular with them seem to have a preponderance of female protagonists. I suppose I should suggest some Joanna Russ or James Schmitz (although female authors seem to get extra points also).

To order Girl with a Pearl Earring from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/22/2017]

FINDERS KEEPERS: A TALE OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL PLUNDER AND OBSESSION by Craig Childs (ISBN 978-0-316-06642-6) is a book with an agenda. Childs is using the phrase "finders keepers" ironically (or possibly sarcastically). Far from believing that people who have found archaeological artifacts are entitled to them, he does not believe anyone is entitled to them--they should remain in the ground (or wherever they are). Museums should not get them--they are already overflowing with artifacts in storage rooms. Even the indigenous people (or whatever group is associated with them) should not get them--he describes one tribe that is digging up their artifacts and selling them to support the tribe. Childs does somewhat grudgingly acknowledge that "salvage archaeology" (removing artifacts that are discovered when a new subway tunnel is dug, or the ground excavated for a new building, for example) may be necessary. When he asked a Phoenix area developer how he felt about destroying a Hohokam burial ground (which involved removing all the corpses and giving them to the local tribes (who are not Hohokam, but claim descent from them), the developer said, "Tell me a place you can dig in the valley without hitting something Hohokam." But in general Childs believes that what is in the ground should stay in the ground. If he thinks there is value in studying what is found, he also believes it should be returned to where it was found--exactly--in the same state in which it was found. He believes this even though he realizes that doing that leaves it vulnerable to "pot diggers", but since he does not think putting things in a museum is any better than putting them in a private home, this does not change his mind.

To order Finders Keepers from, click here.

THE AWAKENING by Kate Chopin:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/01/2004]

The general library discussion group chose Kate Chopin's THE AWAKENING (ISBN 0-486-27786-0) for this month. I gather this is a mainstay in courses on feminist literature, but it failed to do much for me when reading it on its own merits. At the time of its publication in 1899, it was considered shocking, and while on an intellectual basis I see why, it fails to engage me emotionally in the main character's feelings. (This is one of that series of Dover "Thrift Editions" I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, which had a spike in sales when was offering free shipping on orders of two or more books.)

To order The Awakening from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/09/2009]

Three weeks ago, in the 12/19/08 issue of the MT VOID, I wrote about COUNTERKNOWLEDGE by Damian Thompson, and in particular his discussion of pseudo-history. Well, MICHELANGELO'S NOTEBOOK by Paul Christopher (ISBN-13 978-0-451-41186-0, ISBN-10 0-451-41186-2) is another example of this proliferation of pseudo-history. The copyright page of MICHELANGELO'S NOTEBOOK has the usual disclaimer: "This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are use fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is totally coincidental. But at the end is an "Author's Note" which says that certain relationships in the story are "true" and "known". So far as I can tell, this is not the case, and the "Author's Note", while having some facts in it, is as fictional as the rest of the book. (I am avoiding being too specific in case you decide to read the book, though frankly, the "revelation" is predictable and the book is not that good.) While I am no great admirer of the person in question, this claim about what is "true" is really uncalled for. One would think that a mystery/thriller about missing and stolen art works would be sufficiently exciting, but ever since THE DA VINCI CODE, authors have apparently decided that they must include some long-running conspiracy--preferably involving the Catholic Church--by a secret society to conceal the truth about something or other. With a few additions and the right marketing, Michael Flynn could have a runaway best seller with his 1990 novel IN THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND. Interestingly, when I reviewed that book twenty years ago, I mentioned Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln's HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL (upon which THE DA VINCI CODE was based) in the review.

But Flynn was honest about his book. He did not pretend in an author's note that his speculations were actual facts, Christopher (and others) seem to think that doing so makes their books better, but it just serves to degrade the public's intelligence. For the people who believe it, it makes them believe things such as that there really is a secret society working to maintain Jesus's bloodline. And for the people who realize that these "Author's Notes" are as fictional as the rest of the book, it makes them suspicious of everything they read. This may not seem so bad, but what it means is that it is impossible to convince them of anything, because any facts they don't like, they can dismiss as mere fabrications.

There's apparently a sequel to this (THE AZTEC CONSPIRACY), exposing some other conspiracy, probably also with an "Author's Note". With novels this makes some sense, I suppose, but one wonders why people are not more skeptical of the various claims made by many "non-fiction" writers. Don't people find it peculiar that the same person can manage to uncover hidden secrets in so many diverse areas of history? It's as if in science the same person who formulated relativity than went on to discover DNA.

(It could be that the Coen Brothers need to take some blame here, for saying at the beginning of their 1996 film FARGO as "This is a true story." Certainly many people believed it was.)

To order Michelangelo's Notebook from, click here.

THE WAY OF CHUANG TZU translated by Thomas Merton:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/20/2009]

THE WAY OF CHUANG TZU (translated by Thomas Merton) (ISBN-13 978-0-87733-676-9, ISBN-10 0-87733-676-6) is one of those "Shambhala Pocket Classics". (Unlike convention "pocket programs", these truly are pocket-sized. There is something odd about the fact that one can fit the wisdom of Chuang Tzu in a pocket, but not the schedule of a science fiction convention.)

A sample: "To organize is to destroy."

Or: "Of safeguarding property Chuang Tzu wrote: 'For security against robbers that snatch purses and rifle bags, people stow their possessions in trunks and bind them with ropes and bolts and strong locks. This is what the world calls wit. But in reality it is only saving up for the strong thief, who hoists the trunk on his back and runs--fearing only that the ropes and bolts will not hold or that the lock will break. Isn't everything we do to secure ourselves against future loss a little like this? ...

The invention of weights and measures
Makes robbery easier.
Signing contracts, settings seals,
Makes robbery more sure.
Teaching love and duty
Provides a fitting language
With which to prove that robbery
Is really for the general good.
A poor man must swing
For stealing a belt buckle
But if a rich man steals a whole state
He is acclaimed
As statesman of the year."

To order The Way of Chuang Tzu from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/19/2016]

I finally got around to reading the four-volume A HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING PEOPLES (THE BIRTH OF BRITAIN, THE NEW WORLD, THE AGE OF REVOLUTION, THE NEW DEMOCRACIES) by Winston S. Churchill ISBN 978-0-880-29427-0).

Churchill begins back in the Neolithic Period (well, he starts with Caesar's invasion and then jumps back to the Neolithic), of which he writes, "At that point we can plainly recognise across the vanished milleniums a fellow-being. A biped capable of slaying another with iron is evidently to modern eyes a man and a brother."

At times he waxes poetic, perhaps even to the point of excess:

"From outside the uncouth barbarians smote upon the barriers. Here on the mainland were savage, fighting animals, joined together in a comradeship of arms, with the best fighting men and their progeny as leaders. In the rough-and-tumble of these communities, with all their crimes and bestialities, there was a more active principle of life than in the majestic achievements of the Roman Empire. We see these forces swelling like a flood against all the threatened dykes of the Roman world, not only brimming at the lip of the dam, but percolating insidiously, now by a breach, now in a mere ooze, while all the time men become conscious of the frailty of the structure itself. Floods of new untamed life burst ceaselessly from Asia, driving westward in a succession of waves. Against these there was no easy superiority of weapons. Cold steel and discipline and the slight capital surplus necessary to move and organise armies constituted the sole defences. If the superior virtue of the legion failed all fell. Certainly from the middle of the second century all these disruptive forces were plainly manifest. However, in Roman Britain men thought for many generations that they had answered the riddle of the Sphinx. They misconceived the meaning of her smile."

Churchill fills his work with small details that bring it alive. For example, in the fourth century, the Britons developed an invisibility cloak for their ships. Well, not really, but they painted them sea-green--"the vessels, the hulls, sails, the men's clothes, and even faces"--which made them, if not truly invisible against the sea, at least incredibly difficult to see at a distance.

He tells of Offa, who took over the Canterbury mint and had his name inscribed on their coins. One of them was "a gold dinar, copied from an Arabic die, and is stamped with the superscription 'rex Offa'. The Canterbury evidently regarded the Arabic as mere ornamentation, and all men would have been shocked had they known that it declared 'There is no God but one and Mahomet is his Prophet.'"

Churchill is a master of the understatement; speaking of the size of a Viking ship found in Norway in 1880, he writes, "It was remeasured with precision in 1944 in spite of other distractions."

Or, "It was Twelfth Night, and the Saxons, who in these days of torment refreshed and fortified themselves by celebrating the feasts of the Church, were off their guard, engaged in pious exercises, or perhaps even drunk."

Occasionally, it is the final aside that almost seems to be the point: "They were, in fact, the most audacious and treacherous type of pirate and shark that had ever yet appeared, and, owing to the very defective organisation of the Saxons and the conditions of the period, they achieved a fuller realisation of their desires than any of those who have emulated their proficiency--and there have been many."

When he writes, "This sublime power to rise above the whole force of circumstances, to remain unbiased by the extremes of victory or defeat, to persevere in the teeth of disaster, to greet returning fortune with a cool eye, to have faith in men after repeated betrayals, raises Alfred far above the turmoil of barbaric wars to his pinnacle of deathless glory," one hears echoes of Rudyard Kipling's "If".

Churchill claims, "The tailed comet or 'hairy star' which appeared at the time of Harold's coronation is now identified by astronomers as Halley's Comet, which had previously heralded the Nativity of Our Lord; and it is evident that this example of divine economy in the movements for mundane purposes of celestial bodies might have been turned by deft interpretation to Harold's advantage." Actually, the consensus is that the "Star of Bethlehem" was not Halley's comet, which would have been visible in 11 B.C.E., too early by any accepted dating of the Nativity.

Not surprisingly, Churchill weighs in on the Richard III controversy: saint or devil? Churchill begins by admitting that Sir Thomas More's account was completely biased against Richard and for the Tudors (who were, after all, usurpers by any reasonable standard):

"Sir Thomas More late in the next reign wrote his celebrated history. His book was based of course on information given him under the new and strongly established regime. His object seems to have been less to compose a factual narrative than a moralistic drama. In it Richard is evil incarnate, and Henry Tudor, the deliverer of the kingdom, all sweetness and light. The opposite view would have been treason. Not only is every possible crime attributed by More to Richard, and some impossible ones, but he is presented as a physical monster, crookbacked and withered of arm. No one in his lifetime seems to have remarked these deformities, but they are now very familiar to us through Shakespeare's play."

And of course Shakespeare also wrote under the Tudors. So Churchill admits More is untrustworthy, and that the physical characteristics attributed to Richard were at best overstated, if not entirely fictitious. (The recent discovery of Richard's skeleton indicates that there was at least some deformity, but the X-rays they show of Richard's spine look a lot like those of mine with its scoliosis, and I am not quite the deformed monster Richard is described as.)

But after acknowledging all this, Churchill goes on to say, "Needless to say, as soon as the Tudor dynasty was laid to rest defenders of Richard fell to work, and they have been increasingly busy ever since. More's tale however has priority." In order words, we know we cannot trust More, but we have no other account, so we will accept his. Churchill then recounts the June 13 Tower scene as told by More as if it is fact.

Churchill claims that after the second Prince was moved to the Tower, "neither he nor his brother was ever to leave [it] again." It is not clear what his source is for this.

He also admits (as far as I can tell) that Edward IV does seem to have been married to someone (either Elizabeth Lucy or Eleanor Butler) before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, which means that if Richard III did claim Edward IV's children by Elizabeth Woodville were bastards, he was right.

Churchill claims:

"It is contended by the defenders of King Richard that the Tudor version of these events has prevailed. But the English people who lived at the time and learned of the events day by day formed their convictions two years before the Tudors gained power, or were indeed a prominent factor. Richard III held the authority of government. He told his own story with what facilities were available, and he was spontaneously and almost universally disbelieved. Indeed, no fact stands forth more unchallengeable than that the overwhelming majority of the nation was convinced that Richard had used his power as Protector to usurp the crown and that the princes had disappeared in the Tower. It will take many ingenious books to raise this issue to the dignity of a historical controversy."

Of course, he does not provide specific citations for his claims. THE BIRTH OF BRITAIN was published a few years after Josephine Tey's THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, so all this is probably somewhat in response to this. (That Churchill had not read THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, which discussed at length his role in the Tonypandy riots, does not bear consideration.)

Churchill also writes:

"It is certain that the helpless children in the Tower were not seen again after the month of July 1483. Yet we are invited by some to believe that they languished in captivity, unnoticed and unrecorded, for another two years, only to be done to death by Henry Tudor. According to Sir Thomas More's story, Richard resolved in July to extirpate the menace to his peace and sovereignty presented by the princes."

Back to the unreliable More again.

He then writes:

"In the reign of Charles II, when in 1674 the staircase leading to the chapel in the White Tower was altered, the skeletons of two young lads, whose apparent ages fitted the two princes, were found buried under a mass of rubble. They were examined by the royal surgeon, and the antiquaries reported that they were undoubtedly the remains of Edward V and the Duke of York. Charles accepted this view, and the skeletons were reburied in Henry VII's Chapel at Westminster with a Latin inscription laying all blame upon their perfidious uncle, "the usurper of the realm". This has not prevented various writers, among whom Horace Walpole is notable, from endeavouring to clear Richard of the crime, or from attempting to cast it, without any evidence beyond conjecture, upon Henry VII. However, in our own time an exhumation has confirmed the view of the disinterested authorities of King Charles's reign."

Actually, all an exhumation could confirm is the approximate age of the two skeletons, and the approximate year they died. The margin of error in these cannot allow a "confirmation" that they were killed during Richard's reign, and as far as they might guess the cause of death, it could apply to either Richard or Henry VII. But Churchill tries a quick hand-waving (I am sure there is a name for this logical fallacy) to convince the reader it has been proved that Richard is the villain.

The irony is that while Churchill cites as support for Richard's villainy that the people supposedly feared him, etc., in THE NEW WORLD he says that in spite of the murders, burnings, persecutions, tortures, "severe penalties," and oppression by Henry VIII, "yet his subjects did not turn from Henry in loathing." This certainly would seem to indicate that the villainy or lack thereof in a monarch is not necessarily reflected in the people's feelings towards him (or her).

[Oddly, this series does not seem to have been issued unabridged in a single-volume, though it might be possible, as it totals 1760 pages, while the unabridged LES MISERABLES is 1488 in mass-market paperback. Also, I will not that it ends with the Boer War, probably because after that point, Churchill had become involved in politics and so, when writing this work, felt either that he could not be objective or that he would not appear objective.]

To order The History of the English-Speaking Peoples from, click here.

THE GNOSTICS by Tobias Churton:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/27/2002]

I just finished C. S. Lewis's autobiography, SURPRISED BY JOY. I suggested it for the library book discussion group, but someone wanted me to make sure it was the sort of thing people would like. I'm not sure I can judge that, but I'm finding it quite suitable. (The discussion group has some constraints on its choices--the book must be available in numbers in the library system, not too new, and not too long. The last rules out most recent biographies. The rule about "not too new" is because those books are in too great a demand already.)

SURPRISED BY JOY is certainly more accessible than the other "religious" book I read at the same time, Tobias Churton's THE GNOSTICS. It's surprisingly difficult to find any sort of basic book about gnosticism, but apparently this was a companion piece to a British television series about it, and so isn't too academic. (What I'm really looking for is one of those "Gnosticism for Beginners" or "Introducing Gnosticism" graphic texts from Totem Books. (These should not be confused with the "for Dummies" series. The "Introducing Kafka" volume is illustrated by Robert Crumb.)

To order The Gnostics from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/23/2015]

I was reading SELECTED POLITICAL SPEECHES by Cicero (ISBN 978-0-14-044214-4) and have concluded that anyone who thinks political speeches today are inflammatory has not read Cicero's speeches against Lucius Sergius Catalina. From the second oration:

"At length, O Romans, we have dismissed from the city, or driven out, or, when he was departing of his own accord, we have pursued with words, Lucius Catiline, mad with audacity, breathing wickedness, impiously planning mischief to his country, threatening fire and sword to you and to this city."

And later:

"For what evil or wickedness can be devised or imagined which he did not conceive? What prisoner, what gladiator, what thief; what assassin, what parricide, what forger of wills, what cheat, what debauchee, what spendthrift, what adulterer, what abandoned woman, what corrupter of youth, what profligate, what scoundrel can be found in all Italy, who does not avow that he has been on terms of intimacy with Catiline? What murder has been committed for years without him? What nefarious act of infamy that has not been done by him. But in what other man were there ever so many allurements for youth as in him, who both indulged in infamous love for others, and encouraged their infamous affections for himself, promising to some enjoyment of their lust, to others the death of their parents, and not only instigating them to iniquity, but even assisting them in it."

Doesn't it make you happy that you live in a time when the candidates spew their venom only on illegal immigrants and television reporters? (Then again, maybe Cicero attacked his opponents because he didn't have illegal immigrants and television reporters to pick on.)

The fourth oration begins with a discussion of the death penalty. (I will note that the condemned are not guilty of murder, but of conspiracy to commit treason and mayhem.) Decimus Silanus, apparently, feels that the Cataline conspirators "should not for a single moment be permitted to live and enjoy the air we all breathe." Gaius Caesar (a.k.a. Julius Caesar), on the other hand, feels that death was created by the gods "not as a punishment at all, but as an inevitable natural happening, or a relief from toil and trouble." However, imprisonment was clearly designed as a punishment for "atrocious" crimes. Caesar argues that life imprisonment is a greater punishment than death. "It was to scare criminals here on earth that men of ancient times held that punishments for evil-doers are paralleled by similar penalties which they will continue to suffer after they are dead; because our ancestors realized, evidently, that if the terror of those posthumous sanctions were removed, the threat of death itself would hold no fears any longer."

Cicero sides with Silanus, observing that they would have to build prisons and pay people to guard these man and even then it seems likely they would somehow contrive to escape. The argument that the Sempronian Law forbids the death penalty against Roman citizens when the Assembly has not voted it he dismisses in an all-too-familiar fashion: he claims that Caesar (and others) "must also know that a man who is a public enemy cannot possibly be regarded as a citizen at all." How often throughout history have people been stripped of their rights and their lives by the state deciding that they are public enemies and hence not "real" citizens after all? How often does one nation portray its enemies as "sub-humans", "beasts", or "animals"? (And it clearly continues even into science fictional futures, with the ironically named Caesar in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES being challenged by an ape opponent that he must not kill Koba with the law "Ape not kill ape" and responding "Koba not ape" right before killing him.)

To order Selected Political Speeches from, click here.

THE BLACK GOD'S DRUMS by P. Djeli Clark:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/01/2019]

THE BLACK GOD'S DRUMS by P. Djeli Clark (ISBN 978-1-250-29471-5) is set in the late 19th century in an alternate world where New Orleans is free from either side of the still-continuing Civil War, and Haiti has achieved a much more successful independence. The book is told in a first-person narrative in a New Orleans patois; one wonders how the audiobook would sound! (There is no audiobook so far--one suspects finding the right reader for it is even more difficult than usual.) At any rate, a very enjoyable read.

To order The Black God's Drums from, click here.

"The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington" by P. Djeli Clark:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/21/2019]

"The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington" by P. Djeli Clark is not a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is rather a piece written in the same vein as many of Jorge Luis Borges's "stories" (e.g., "The Library of Babel", "The Babylonian Lottery") which are sketches or portraits more than simple narratives. The title emphasizes that there are as many different stories as there are teeth--it is not "The Secret *Life* of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington".

BOOK GIRL by Sarah Clarkson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/04/2019]

BOOK GIRL by Sarah Clarkson (ISBN 978-1-4964-2580-5) is to some extent yet another book about the joys of reading. It differs in being aimed specifically at girls (and their mothers), and written from and with a specifically Christian perspective. The former manifests itself in the majority of the books recommended having female protagonists, the latter, in almost all the biographies being about missionaries or other religious figures.

For what it's worth, she recommends THE LORD OF THE RINGS in multiple chapters. Oddly, she also recommends the "Narnia" books, although the disposition of Susan in THE LAST BATTLE is considered problematic by many current critics. (She is excluded from Narnia when all her siblings are accepted, because she became interested in "nylons and lipstick and invitations." Whether the problem is her interest in these things, or her exclusive interest in these things to the detriment of the "correct" spiritual life is much debated.)

Anyway, for Christian mothers of young girls (or girls old enough to choose their own books), this contains a lot of book recommendations, many of which are considered classics by people across religious and gender lines (e.g., CHARLOTTE'S WEB, MIDDLEMARCH, THE ODYSSEY). But its narrow focus makes it less useful to others.

To order Book Girl from, click here.

PAPA by Susy Clemens:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/25/2003]

A more interesting literary biography [than Aldiss's] was PAPA, the biography of Samuel Clemens written by Susy Clemens when she was thirteen years old. Her spelling is quite outrageous, but her descriptions of Twain are pretty much spot-on.

To order Papa from, click here.

"Attitude" by Hal Clement:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/17/2019]

There's always one on each ballot--one finalist that is totally unavailable--and this year it is "Attitude" by Hal Clement. This will not stop it from winning, of course; Clifford Simak's "Rule 18" won a Retro Hugo in 2014 for its 1939 publication, and it had been reprinted since only once--in Italian. I think I can safely say that he won on name-recognition, and the same could happen with Clement. ("Attitude" is available in NESFA's Clement collection, but I have no access to it.)


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/18/2004]

Hal Clement's MISSION OF GRAVITY (ISBN 0-345-00993-2), unlike the Asimov, did not seem to age well. Maybe my tolerance for pages of world-building infodump has decreased, because I seem to remember that when I first read it about thirty years ago it was great.

To order Mission of Gravity from, click here.

NEEDLE by Hal Clement:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/27/2004]

I re-read Hal Clement's NEEDLE as a stroll down Memory Lane, and concluded that it is really a "young adult" novel. And though Hunter talks about the clues that give the fugitive's host away, when I flipped back through the book, I couldn't really find where they were revealed to the reader, somewhat marring the mystery aspect. (Hal Clement died October 29, 2003, for those who have not heard. -mrl)

To order Needle from, click here.

"Proof" by Hal Clement:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/25/2018]

"Proof", by Hal Clement (Astounding Science Fiction, June 1942): "They had evolved far down near the solar core, where pressures and temperatures were such that matter existed in the "collapsed" state characteristic of the entire mass of white dwarf stars. Their bodies were simply constructed: a matrix of close-packed electrons--really an unimaginably dense electrostatic field, possessing quasi-solid properties--surrounded a core of neutrons, compacted to the ultimate degree. Radiation of sufficient energy, falling on the "skin," was stabilized, altered to the pattern and structure of neutrons; the tiny particles of neutronium which resulted were borne along a circulatory system--of magnetic fields, instead of blood--to the nucleus, where it was stored."

If this is your cup of tea, then this is your cup of tea. Otherwise, this will read like a physics book about physics that you never run into in your daily life. People who complain that Clement's MISSION OF GRAVITY has no real characters should read this--by comparison, MISSION OF GRAVITY is a novel of deep psychological analysis.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/30/2018]

I recently watched READY PLAYER ONE. It took me about thirty seconds after one character was introduced to figure out where this was going. James Halliday is Steve Jobs. Oasis is the Metaverse. Clearly i-R0k is Raven. The Distracted Globe is the Black Sun. The Curator is the Librarian. Wade doesn't live in a storage locker per se, but what he does live in is not very different.

To order Ready Player One from, click here.

RAISED BY PUPPETS by Andrei Codrescu:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/01/2003]

I enjoy Andrei Codrescu's essays on NPR and find them thought-provoking, but somehow when they are put down on the printed page, they seem much more cynical and bitter. The latest of his collections that I'm reading, RAISED BY PUPPETS, certainly has that problem, though I suppose it's possible that the radio essays are bitter and cynical and I just miss it. Codrescu does say in "My Brush with Hollywood" that writing is different than speaking when he writes, "If they're written down, they're literary. When they're on tape [or radio], they're not." (He's wrong about Sabbatai Zevi, however. Codrescu places him around the year 1000; actually Zevi lived in the 17th century. In addition, Sabbatai Zevi and his followers were Jewish; why would they think the world was ending in the year 1000? And for that matter, there was no widespread belief at the time that the world was ending in 1000--that was a story concocted about six hundred years later.)

To order Raised by Puppets from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/11/2003]

As I said, I got to only one Williams play before I got sidetracked into the autobiography of Buffalo Bill Cody. One might say that Cody's attitude towards Indians was less than currently politically correct, but he was after all a man of his times, and interesting times they were.

To order The Life of the Honorable William F. Cody from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/26/2005]

Pat and Fred Cody's CODY'S BOOKS: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A BERKELEY BOOKSTORE 1956-1977 (ISBN 0-8118-0140-3) is at times more about Berkeley in that turbulent time than about the bookstore itself. People looking for tips on how to start and operate a bookstore will find some information here, but even that is of more interest historically than practically. When Cody's started as a paperback bookstore, distribution, marketing, and just about every other aspect of book-selling was very different than it is now. (And by paperback bookstore, they seem to have meant primarily trade paperbacks, not mass market.) So far as I can tell, in fact, the store was kept afloat for many years only by the wildly successful European art calendars, in a time when there was not an American calendar industry other than those given away by service stations and such. This book probably has its greatest appeal as a history of those times in Berkeley from someone "on the front lines", so to speak.

To order Cody's Books from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/19/2017]

BREAKING THE MAYAN CODE (REVISED) by Michael D. Coe (ISBN 978-0-500-28133-8) goes into much more detail than the NOVA special "Cracking the Mayan Code", to the extent that it is not always easy to follow what Coe is trying to say, especially in terms of analyzing the component parts of the glyphs, and the categorization of them as logographic, syllabic, or alphabetic (phonetic, actually). The television show could highlight various parts of a glyph as the narrator explained its role in the total meaning of the glyph, while that does not happen in the book.

While in general Coe seems to be fair and even-handed, a couple of slips stood out. I can understand why Coe gave full credit to Michael Ventris for the decipherment of Linear B: the contributions of Alice Kober to that task were pretty much unknown until several years after BREAKING THE MAYAN CODE was written. (See my review of THE RIDDLE OF THE LABYRINTH: THE QUEST TO CRACK AN ANCIENT CODE by Margalit Fox in the 03/21/2014 issue of the MT VOID [], for details on this.) His use of the phrase "the famous husband-and-wife team of Col. William Friedman" is more worrisome--unless somehow Col. William Friedman married himself.

As I said, it is often difficult to follow what Coe is saying, and maybe it just required more concentration than I gave it; it seems more at the level of an academic-level book (undergraduate, probably) than one aimed at the general public.

[I know what someone is going to say--the idea that the general public would be interested in any book on translating Mayan glyphs is risible. But I think you know what I mean.)

To order Breaking the Mayan Code (Revised) from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/02/2009]

I had bought a dozen "old" mysteries (from the 1930s and 1940s) re-printed by Rue Morgue Press in nice trade paperbacks. I read the first one (for me, anyway), WHO KILLED THE CURATE? by Joan Coggin (ISBN-13 978-0-815230-44-0, ISBN-10 0-815230-44-5). It was fine except for the main character, Lady Lupin, who is a society flibbertygibbet married to a vicar. The back blurb compares her to Gracie Allen, and an apt comparison it is--she is full of apparent non sequuntur(*), and as the back blurb says, "she literally doesn't know Jews from Jesuits." I never found this type of character either believable or funny, so it was hard for me to enjoy the novel, even though the mystery and supporting players were fine.

(*) Yes, that's the plural of "non sequitur"!

To order Who Killed the Curate? from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/11/2013]

THEY STILL CALL ME JUNIOR by Frank Coghlan (ISBN 978-0-786-46381-7) is Coghlan's memoir of his life in Hollywood as the child actor playing Billy Batson in the "Captain Marvel" serials and later in the navy as a pilot and Hollywood liaison. While some of the various anecdotes are interesting (and occasionally salacious), the long plot descriptions of every film he was in serve more as padding than as revealing of anything worthwhile. This book is an example of the minimal editing that McFarland reportedly does, with such errors as "descendants" when "ancestors" is meant, or "gratuitously" instead of "done at no charge." Unless you are fascinated by child stars, there is little here to enthrall you.

To order They Still Call Me Junior from, click here.

is "The Wall Around the World" by Theodore Cogswell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/16/2004]

My choice for the Retro Hugo for Novelette is "The Wall Around the World" by Theodore Cogswell. Oddly enough, this seems like it would be a fine companion piece for the "Harry Potter" books, with its "scientific" approach to magic. I also liked Philip K. Dick's "Second Variety", though either I remembered it or the ending was obvious. Still, the discussion of war and its methods was what the story was really about.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/10/2007]

As part of our recent trip to the Canadian Rockies (which included various paleontological sites), I re-read parts of WANDERING LANDS AND ANIMALS: THE STORY OF CONTINENTAL DRIFT AND ANIMAL POPULATIONS (ISBN-10 0-486-24918-2, ISBN-13 978-0-486-24918-6) by Edwin H. Colbert. He talks about the fauna of isolated islands, and says (on page 255) that the native fauna of Australia consists of "marsupials, of some monotremes, and of such placental mammals as rodents, bats, and the dingo." If the native fauna of Australia includes the dingo, and "it is obvious that the dingo was brought to the continent by aboriginal immigrants," then doesn't that make the aboriginal immigrants part of the native fauna, and in particular a native placental mammal along with rodents and bats?

One might also note that the "tradition" of a North American invasion into South America which drives many species to extinction is not a twentieth century phenomenon. During the Pliocene (a million years ago or so), the Panama land bridge was re-established between North America and the previously isolated South America, and the fauna of the latter --marsupial borhyaenids, litopterns, notoungulates, ground sloths, and glyptodonts--were decimated by the invading species.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/04/2011]

WANDERING LANDS AND ANIMALS by Edwin H. Colbert (ISBN 978-0-486-24918-2-6) was February's choice for our [mostly science] book discussion group. I recommended it; the reason I like it is that it has an epic sweep the same way that Olaf Stapledon's LAST AND FIRST MEN has. Both cover millions of years and the evolution of species over that time. It is not the individual that is the character but the collective, the species.

Back in 1972, when this was written, continental drift (a.k.a. plate tectonics) was still relatively new, and the KT asteroid still unknown. Colbert notes that the initial paleontological evidence for continental drift, a.k.a. tectonic plates, was explained in other unlikely ways, but geological evidence suggested Gondwanaland and it explained the paleontological evidence much better as well.

Although the KT asteroid was not known in 1972, there were speculations that it was some sort of global catastrophe that killed off the dinosaurs, and Colbert asks a question still unresolved: "Why the dinosaurs should have become extinct at the end of Cretaceous time is one of the great puzzles of geologic history. ... [Why] did all of the dinosaurs die out at the end of Cretaceous history? Why did not some of them survive, as did their close cousins the crocodilians?" [page 202]

Colbert chooses his words very carefully. He writes, "A theory, to be valid, must satisfy all aspects of the subject upon which it touches." [page 13] Note that he does not say that a theory is "correct", but that it is "valid." All those who talk about how evolution is "just a theory" need to understand what a theory is and what it means to be valid.

Colbert writes about digging for fossils in Antarctica, saying, for example, "It was interesting, however, to note the variability of temperatures within the hut. At floor level, water if spilled would freeze; at waist level the temperatures were usually about 40 degrees; at shoulder level a comfortable 70 degrees was common; and at the top of the arched hut the temperature was commonly 90 degrees and more." [page 48]

On the other hand, sometimes the information Colbert had at the time was incomplete. There were many instances where fossils of a certain type might be expected on a given continent but had [have?] not yet been found. Other speculations have since been disproved--for example, "It has recently [as of 1972] been suggested, upon the basis of geophysical evidence, that most of China, and perhaps Indonesia, may have been a part of Gondwanaland, forming a northeastern extension of the ancient continent, to occupy much of the area between Africa and Australia." [page 65, also page 152]

He has a sense of humor; after having discussed all the fossil evidence of Lystrosaurus on various continents for several chapters, he says, "By now the reader probably is sick unto the point of ennui of Lystrosaurus, yet there is no getting away from this useful reptile." [page 71]

[By the way, I indicate page numbers because the index is skimpy--there are some entries in the index for "India", but not for all the mentions of India in the text.]

When we visited Newfoundland, we saw evidence of the continental drift Colbert is writing about. We toured the Tablelands, where the Earth's mantle is exposed. Our guide used an analogy with an apple: the skin is the crust, the pulp is the mantle, and the core is the core. The Tablelands is a piece of the mantle. As he said, "Here the earth is flipped inside out." How did this happen? "Continents are big rafts floating on magma." What is now the Americas is called Laurasia, and Eurasia/Africa is Gondwanaland. The Atlantic was Iapetus. Laurasia and Gondwanaland collided a billion years ago (the sign there said 450 million years ago, though). Normally you have subduction (both plates move downward), but here parts of Gondwanaland rode up on top of Laurasia. After 250 million years, they split apart, but on a different line, leaving pieces of the mantle from Gondwanaland behind. The glaciers scoured off the crust, exposing the mantle. It is not unique, though--all of the Appalachian, Long Range, and Caledonian mountains are the same range formed from this piece of mantle.

Of course, Newfoundland is weird in many ways besides having exposed mantle and being partially covered by the European tectonic plate. It, along with Labrador, was an independent country until 1949. Its time zone is a half hour off from adjacent time zones. Its cell phone service is not shared by any other company. And its provincial flower is carnivorous.

To order Wandering Lands and Animals from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/03/2013]

Our book discussion group did several stories from FANCIES AND GOODNIGHTS by John Collier (ISBN 978-1-590-17051-9):

"Bottle Party": This is a traditional fantasy with a somewhat predictable twist.

"Evening Primrose": Did Collier originate this idea (the story was first published in 1941), which has been dramatized at least twice on television and twice on radio, as well as apparently inspiring several other teleplays? It is definitely a more poetic/literary style than "Bottle Party".

"Witch's Money": The ending is almost "The Lady or the Tiger". I have seen this idea before, I thought with a large bill that made the rounds in a small town, functioning almost like Eric Frank Russell's "obs" from THE GREAT EXPLOSION. Collier's story was published in 1939, but the story I am thinking of may pre-date even that.

"Are You Too Late or Was I Too Early?": This one was a bit too poetic and airy for me.

"Fallen Star", "Pictures in the Fire", and "Halfway to Hell": I suppose the "deal with the Devil" story was not stale when these was written, but by now tricking the Devil has gotten very familiar. In any case, Collier seems to love this theme.

"Three Bears Cottage": This is another story with a predictable ending.

"Wet Saturday": Another twist ending, but I cannot figure out the motivation for it.

"Squirrels Have Bright Eyes": Eh.

"The Lady on the Grey": This is not as traditional as "Bottle Party", but still has a somewhat predictable twist.

"Incident on a Lake": For some reason, this made be think of the film LAKE PLACID, though it really has very little in common plotwise.

"Over Insurance": Mark has often related this story, but it turns out his description does not exactly match the story--and I think I like his better.

To order Fancies and Goodnights from, click here.

ROAD TO PERDITION by Max Allan Collins and Richard Rayner:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/28/2003]

We picked up Max Allan Collins and Richard Rayner's ROAD TO PERDITION since I was curious to see what graphic novels were like these days. What I discovered, at least in this case, was that the graphics were not very informative or useful to me in understanding the story. I found this strange, because in the film the visuals are very important. Maybe an appreciation of graphic novels is something that requires a lot more background, or practice, or something.

To order Road to Perdition from, click here.

SIXPENCE HOUSE by Paul Collins:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/05/2004]

For people who know about Hay-on-Wye, Paul Collins's SIXPENCE HOUSE will be of interest. Collins decided to leave San Francisco with his wife and baby and move to Hay-on-Wye. This sounds like a book-lover's dream, but as Collins discovered, there is reality to deal with as well as the fantasy.

To order Sixpence House from, click here.

BASIL by Wilkie Collins:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/03/2011]

People who complain about the overuse in coincidence in modern novels need to read one where it's laid on with a trowel. (Warning: Spoilers Ahoy!) In BASIL by Wilkie Collins (ISBN 0-486-24015-0), the main character, Basil, falls in love with a girl he happens to see on the bus. It turns out the the girl's father's clerk (and her tutor) is the son of a man hanged for forgery because Basil's father would not forgive him. This is bad enough, but there's more. Basil and the girl marry secretly, but she continues her affair with the clerk. Finally, it has reached a stage where she has Basil completely in her power--he is stuck with her and is responsible for all her debts, but she has run off with the clerk. So what happens? She goes to visit the clerk in the hospital, accidentally runs up to the wrong bed, contracts typhus for that five-second mistake, and dies.

To order Basil from, click here.

MURDER, MRS. HUDSON by Sydney Hosier:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/05/2003]

A couple of books inspired by Sherlock Holmes are Susan Conant's BARKER STREET REGULARS and Sydney Hosier's MURDER, MRS. HUDSON. The former involves a murder, dogs, and Sherlock Holmes aficionados. The latter is the second book in a series that has Mrs. Hudson as the detective and would be okay except for the fact that Hosier has decided to give her a friend who can travel out of her body. This is presumably explained more in the first book of the series, but I'm not going out of my way to find it.

To order Barker Street Regulars from, click here.

To order Murder, Mrs. Hudson from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/16/2004]

I had heard that Richard Condon's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE was different from the film primarily in that the sexual undertones of the film were made explicit in the book. This is true, and while the book is well-written, I'm not sure it adds that much if you've seen the movie. (By the way, director John Frankenheimer gives a great commentary track on the DVD. There is a new release of the film on DVD scheduled for July 13 with some additional features, but the older release also has the commentary.)

To order The Manchurian Candidate from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/16/2007]

MONITOR FOUND IN ORBIT by Michael G. Coney (ISBN-10 0-879-97132-0 ISBN-13 978-0-879-97132-8) is an old collection of nine of Coney's short stories that I was inspired to read by James Nicoll's review of it as part of his massive overview of DAW books that was posted to Usenet ( The lead story of a collection is usually assumed to be the strongest. But here the lead story, "The True Worth of Ruth Villiers", is a "gimmick" story, with the premises rather obviously set up so as to constrain the story rather artificially. "The Mind Prison" is also hard to believe, and predictable. I did rather like the idea behind "R26/5/PSY and I", even if it does not bear much examination, and similarly with "Esmeralda". I agree with Nicoll when he says, "[almost] all of these are competently written at the words and paragraph level even if some of the background assumptions don't seem to stand up to close inspection. This might seem like damning with faint praise but I do not intend to do so. It is a rare modern anthology which has this high a fraction of readable prose, and dodgy world construction is still just as common as in the 1970s."

To order Monitor Found in Orbit from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/22/2013]

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FICTIONAL & FANTASTIC LANGUAGES by Tim Conley & Stephen Cain (ISBN 978-0-313-33188-6) is the sort of book that has been somewhat superseded by the Web in the sense that if you Google any of the languages, you would find more about it than you do in the book. Yet without the book you probably would not have any idea what languages there were for you to Google. One might quibble about the choice to arrange this encyclopedia by source work (book, film, or whatever) instead of by language, but since many of the languages are not actually named there really was not much choice. (There is an index so that you can look up a language by name.)

To order Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages from, click here.

HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/10/2017]

I am listening to the Great Courses lectures on "Masterworks of Early 20th Century Literature" and although the professor said that the lectures would be accessible even if the listener had not read the works being discussed, I decided to read at least the shorter works. The first was Rudyard Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King", which suffers (for me, at least) by being impossible to read without picturing the 1975 film.

The next was HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad (ISBN 978-0-486-26464-6). As preface to my comments, I will point out after an introductory lecture, there were two lectures about modernism, and particularly modernism (Impressionism and Post-Impressionism) in art. So I was particularly struck by all the references to the visual in HEART OF DARKNESS: by my count, 236 references to color, fog, smoke, dusk, "lurid glares", "unstained light", "gauzy and radiant fabric", "a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke", luminosity, gloom, brilliance, and (of course) darkness.

Some of this is to be expected for a book titled "Heart of Darkness", but there seems to be far more than can be explained by that--unless the title was the back of the effect of Conrad's concentrating on the visual rather than the cause. And of course the fact that after noticing the first few references I became far more conscious of them, meaning that they became even more noticeable and made every scene a painting in my mind.

One reference to color may not be clear to most readers today. Conrad refers to "a large shining map, marked with all the colours of a rainbow. There was a large amount of red--good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer." It turns out that at the time Conrad was writing, maps tended to use standard colors: red for English colonies, blue for French, green for Italian, yellow for Belgian, and purple for German. (If such standardization seems odd, just think how we have ended up with red states and blue states.)

To order Heart of Darkness from, click here.

LORD JIM by Joseph Conrad:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/28/2004]

I tried to read Joseph Conrad's LORD JIM, this month's selection for the general book discussion group at the library. But it was just too tough going. I know people talk about how Joseph Conrad mastered English so well as a second language, but if one looks at just this novel, one gets the impression that he didn't really have the hang of it. His phrasing, combined with the non-linear telling of the story, made this the sort of book that I decided life was too short to read. (Many people felt this way, though a couple of people did finish it, and one really liked it. That gives it a slight edge over THE SUN ALSO RISES, which no one liked.)

To order Lord Jim from, click here.

CASTRO'S BOMB by Robert Conroy:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/24/2012]

In CASTRO'S BOMB by Robert Conroy (Kindle only, ASIN B005ORV3IM), the politics and military aspects are done reasonably well (at least as far as I can tell), but Conroy really needs to have only male characters. Regarding female characters, one of two things seem to be the case: 1) Conroy has no idea how to write female characters, or 2) Conroy knows how to write female characters, but figures his audience is all male and consists of people who do not want well-written female characters.

So far as I can tell, the female characters are entirely defined by sex (including rape), fear of pregnancy, menstruation, emotions, what they are wearing, and how they look. They plead for their husbands, or spend time searching their bombed-out apartments for jewelry. The only real exception to this seems to be the Cuban women who stop the tank column, and even they are more into passive resistance. (One might speculate on the differing portrayals of Anglo and Russian women versus those of Hispanic women, but I am not going to go there.)

(This problem, by the way, also appears in his earlier books, HIMMLER'S WAR and 1942, and possibly others that I do not recall.)

Conroy also depends a lot on infodumps, even to the extent of explaining the origin of the military response "Nuts!" But in non-military matters, he makes mistakes (which should have been caught by his editor, assuming Kindle books have editors). For example, there is his use of the term "Hobson's choice" in the sense of Scylla and Charybdis, when it really means no choice at all. ("Any color as long as it's black" would be a classic example.) And it is not a case of the error being the character's rather than the author's--the speaker (Kennedy) was classically educated and would know what "Hobson's choice" means.

To order Castro's Bomb from, click here.

1901 by Robert Conroy (Lyford Books, ISBN 0-89141-537-8, 1995, 374pp, hardback):

There are two kinds of alternate histories. The first is the kind that assumes some sort of change and then looks at what the world (or part of it) would be like years later. Examples of this are Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle, Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, and Robert Harris's Fatherland. The second assumes some sort of change and then starts following the affect of this change from that point. Examples of this are Harry Turtledove's Guns of the South and Leo Frankowski's Cross-Time Engineer. I must admit to a preference for the first. In part, this is because while the second can be well done, it all too often is just a detailed description of how the author thinks some war would have gone after the change. 1901 is precisely this sort of book.

The premise is that Germany, jealous of the United States' overseas possessions, attacks us in June 1901. Most of the book is spent detailing the land and sea campaigns resulting from this, with scant time given to what things are like in the areas of the United States not directly involved, or indeed even in the war zones except for a few somewhat perfunctory descriptions of fleeing refugees. As far as I can tell, Conroy does a reasonable job at what he does, though things work out a little too conveniently and pat. His characters are fairly one-dimensional: militarily, they're okay, but the emotionally they are trite and predictable, not to mention incredibly stereotypical. For example, it is the lower-class girl who gets raped, and who starts having "noisy" sex first, while the upper-class girl gets rescued after being merely groped, and who waits longer and then has more discreet sex.

If you are looking for an alternate history that dwells on "what-if" battles and wars, then you will probably enjoy this. The battles have a very World War I feel to them, though they are also reminiscent of Gallipoli, and it is interesting to read Conroy's speculations on how a German-American war would have gone fifteen years earlier, and on the other side of the Atlantic. By positioning the war when he does, Conroy gets to compare the styles of the commanders who fought in the Civil War with those of the commanders who fought in World War I (in our timeline). But if you're looking for a detailed look at a changed society, 1901 doesn't even start to do this.

To order 1901 from, click here.

1945: A Novel by Robert Conroy:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/07/2007]

1945 by Robert Conroy (ISBN-13 978-0-345-49479-5, ISBN-10 0-345-49479-2) is an alternate history that takes as its premise that Japan does not surrender after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but rather that a coup imprisons the Emperor and insists on continuing the war. The premise is fine, the way the story unfolds is reasonable, but the writing style is wooden. Conroy often insists on referring to characters by full name and military rank, even when such usage is awkward, and misuses some words as "decimated". I suppose that military strategists might find this of interest, but I cannot really recommend it for other readers. (Conroy's other books are 1901 and 1862, which are not easily remembered titles, and also liable to be confused with the 1632, 1633, 1634, 1812, 1824, or whatever from Flint and Weber. Actually, I think that Flint and Weber have multiple books titled 1634, differing only in their subtitles.)

To order 1945 from, click here.

ACRES OF DIAMONDS by Russell Conwell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/05/2010]

One of my father's favorite books is ACRES OF DIAMONDS by Russell Conwell. I am not giving an ISBN for this, because what I am discussing here are various editions. My father had several copies on his bookshelf, and flipping through them I discovered that editors love to tamper.

Russell H. Conwell gave the text as a public speech more than 6000 times between 1877 and 1926. Not surprisingly, it was written in the ornate, declamatory style of the era. So I suppose it is not surprising that editors in the last forty years feel they should "update" it--after all, they are "updating" Shakespeare!

So what I had to compare were:

The first paragraph of the 1905 edition--which I would assume to be the most accurate to Conwell--reads:

"When going down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers many years ago with a party of English travelers I found myself under the direction of an old Arab guide whom we hired up in Bagdad, and I have often thought how that guide resembled our barbers in certain mental characteristics. He thought that it was not only his duty to guide us down those rivers, and do what he was paid for doing, but also to entertain us with stories curious and weird, ancient and modern, strange and familiar."

The 1968 edition renders this as:

"While traveling down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers many years ago, I found myself in the company of an old Arab guide we had hired at Bagdad. He was unusually talkative, and seemed to think it was not only his duty to guide us, and do what he was paid for doing, but also to entertain us with stories."


The 2003 edition leaves the opening untouched, but makes other changes. For example, one story Conwell tells is of A. T. Stewart who started with $1.50, but lost 87-1/2 cents on his first business venture. He learned from this and invested the remaining 62-1/2 cents wisely. The 2003 edition decided that half-cents would confuse people, so it dropped them. The result is an arithmetic error: Stewart starts with $1.50, loses 87 cents, and has 62 cents left! But I suspect the biggest difference in the 2003 edition is the formatting to emphasize the key points.

The 1968 and 1972 editions retain the half-cents. In fact, the 1972 edition seems identical to the 1905; the difference in word count is probably due to sampling error.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/02/2007]

And speaking of Augustine, I also listened to AUGUSTINE FOR ARMCHAIR THEOLOGIANS by Stephen A. Cooper (read by Simon Vance) (ISBN 0-664-22372-9, audiobook ISBN 1-596-44188-7). This is much longer (about six hours) and aimed mostly at Catholics, I suspect, but I found it interesting nonetheless. There were a couple of points I thought worth mentioning. First, Cooper talks about how Augustine "proves" the existence of "natural law". Augustine argues that stealing is against natural law, because even thieves do not believe it is right that people should steal from them. As such, this seems to be an application of Kant's categorical imperative centuries before Kant formulated it. And Cooper says that Augustine had tried to read the Bible when he was young but gave up, but not because it was too difficult. Cooper pointed out that Augustine was educated in a classical manner, and read elegant Latin works. However, the Latin translation available to him was aimed at the average person (I got the impression that the modern English equivalent would be the "Good News Bible"), and Augustine found it very inelegant and vulgar. I think this was probably the "Vetus Latina", not the Vulgate.

To order Augustine for Armchair Theologians from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/29/2010]

THE DOSSIER OF SOLAR PONS by Basil Copper (ISBN 978-0-897-33252-1) is the eighth in the series of Sherlock Holmes pastiches featuring Solar Pons. (The first seven were written by August Derleth.) Of all the "copies" of Holmes, Solar Pons is the best, and also the one who appears primarily in short story form (as did Holmes). One of the things Derleth did when he started the series was to place it in the 1920s rather than the late 19th century. This lets Pons use somewhat more up-to-date methods, while still setting the story back in a more picturesque time.

To order The Dossier of Solar Pons from, click here.

LEVIATHAN WAKES by James S. A. Corey:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/22/2012]

LEVIATHAN WAKES (ISBN 978-0-316-12908-4) by James S. A. Corey is a classic space opera in the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein, with battling space ships, complicated politics, etc. Following what was going on was not always easy (because of the use of jargon), and the ending seems contrived. Also, it is the size of a doorstop, 600 pages in a large trade paperback format--you might have stuck RED PLANET in a back pocket, but this requires a tote bag. This makes it inconvenient to read.

To order Leviathan Wakes from, click here.

"The Copenhagen Interpretation" by Paul Cornell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/29/2012]

I have read "The Copenhagen Interpretation" by Paul Cornell (Asimov's 07/11) three times and when I am done, it is as if it has made no impression or sense whatsoever on my brain.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/10/2006]

LEAVE ME ALONE, I'M READING: FINDING MYSELF AND LOSING MYSELF IN BOOKS by Maureen Corrigan (ISBN 0-375-50425-7) is about her experiences in reading, both as a girl growing up in Queens, and as a book reviewer in her adult life. Corrigan focuses on three categories of books, as she says: "I especially want to look at men's and women's lives as they've been depicted in three mostly noncanonical categories of stories: the female extreme-adventure tale, the hard-boiled detective novel, and the Catholic-martyr narratives." By "female extreme-adventure tale", Corrigan does not mean women mountain-climbers, but women who endure domestic abuse, societal mistreatment, etc. Examples she gives include Anne Bronte's THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL, or for that matter, almost any Bronte novel. Interestingly, though Corrigan talks a lot about the women in the Brontes' novels, she does not even mention any of George Eliot's female characters, though Eliot's Dorothea Brooke in MIDDLEMARCH and Dinah Morris in ADAM BEDE are very memorable. (And it's not even clear that Eliot's characters would contradict any of Corrigan theories.) "Catholic-martyr narratives" was perhaps a bit more central to Corrigan's life than to other readers since she attended pre-Vatican II Catholic schools. They include such books as KAREN (about Karen Killilea, though perhaps as much about the author, her mother Marie) and Dr. Tom Dooley's memoirs. KAREN rang a bell--I'm sure I read it back in school over forty years ago, indicating that that sort of inspirational book was probably promoted as much in public schools as in parochial ones. Corrigan's reminiscences of growing up reading will strike a wonderfully familiar and nostalgic chord with anyone for whom books were a major part of their childhood, as well as providing an interesting perspective on these categories.

To order Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading from, click here.

THE CORONER'S LUNCH by Clive Cotterill:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/01/2014]

THE CORONER'S LUNCH by Colin Cotterill (ISBN 978-1-56947-376-4) is the first in Cotterill's series about Dr. Siri Paiboun, chief coroner in Vientiane, Laos. This one is set in 1976; shortly after a Communist government was installed in Laos, and there are currently eight more in the series. Cotterill blends murder mystery, political commentary, humor, and the supernatural, and manages to make it work.

The political commentary is of two sorts: the internal thoughts of the main character about the political situation, and such descriptions as, "The Lao Women's Union was housed in a two-storey building whose frontage was overgrown with flowering shrubs. They'd been tended to look natural but were kept under total control"--not unlike the populace as well, one imagines.

Cotterill has a breezy style and although there is a fair amount of police involvement, the book is not as graphic as many police procedurals. One is reminded of Agatha Christie, or perhaps of Sven Hjerson, the Finnish detective of Christie's mystery writer character, Ariadne Oliver. (Many also make the obvious comparison to Alexander McCall Smith's "Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series.) I am looking forward to reading more Dr. Paiboun stories.

To order The Coroner's Lunch from, click here.

KILLED AT THE WHIM OF A HAT by Clive Cotterill:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/01/2014]

I also read KILLED AT THE WHIM OF A HAT by Colin Cotterill (ISBN 978-0-312-56453-7), the first of his "Jimm Juree" series. (Just as Agatha Christie had both Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, and Alexander McCall Smith has both Mma Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie, Cotterill has his two detectives.) Jimm was a crime reporter in Chiang Mai, Thailand, before having to move to southern Thailand. But soon enough she is involved in investigating several murders, along with her semi-senile mother, her close-mouthed grandfather, her transgender sister, a gay policeman, a monk, and a nun. Okay, it does sound like an assortment of "funny hats," but Cotterill makes it work.

To order Killed at the Whim of a Hat from, click here.

"Early Retirement" by Mat Coward:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/13/2002]

One story I liked was Mat Coward's "Early Retirement" in the September 2002 issue of INTERZONE. As someone who worked for a company that sponsored these "team-building" exercises, I could appreciate it perhaps more than others. (Though I will admit that I personally never went on one.)


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/25/2008]

The notion that people are too concerned with the origins and expert opinions of art and not enough with their feelings about it ties in with comments made by Tyler Cowen in his book DISCOVER YOUR INNER ECONOMIST (ISBN-13 978-0-452-28963-5, ISBN-10 0-452-28963-7). He was discussing the best way to see an art museum. Interspersed with suggestions such as to skip the first room entirely (because it is always the most crowded), he observed that most people spend more time reading the labels than looking at the art. When you enter a gallery, he said, look around, pick the one item that you like the most or find the most intriguing, and spend your time looking at that.

To order Discover Your Inner Economist from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/13/2012]

In AN ECONOMIST GETS LUNCH: NEW RULES FOR EVERYDAY FOODIES by Tyler Cowen (ISBN 978-0-525-95266-4), Cowen looks at food from an economic standpoint. Some of this may sound familiar, e.g., the idea that foods grown on another continent and brought in by ship may have a lower carbon footprint than locally grown foods. But Cowen spends more time talking about such things as the specifics of various ethnic cuisines. For example, Mexican cooking involves cutting meat thinner or shredding it, while American cuisine has thick steaks--why? Mexican beef is grass-fed, so the meat is stronger tasting, gamier, and "chewier" (tougher). American beef is corn-fed, hence milder and more tender.

As for why most American food is--or at least was--fairly mediocre, Cowen's theory is that the causes are primarily:

There is also a great chapter--perhaps the best chapter in the book--on learning how to shop in an Asian supermarket.

To order An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies from, click here.

THOMAS WORLD by Richard Cox:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/07/2015]

THOMAS WORLD by Richard Cox (ISBN 978-1-59780-308-3) is a novel that one would think should have gotten more attention from the science fiction community. The first-person protagonist, Thomas Phillips, has a strange experience with a shining blue orb that seems to enter his head during a church service, after which he starts seeing strange reactions (or lack of reactions) from people he interacts with, as well as having the feeling that he is being watched and followed by mysterious men. And in addition, he hears voices reciting numbers and even random strangers suddenly turning to him and telling him things such as that everything is an illusion. All this somehow seems to be tied up with a game called "Ant 2.0" and the novels of Philip K. Dick.

The main problem is that this seems a bit too much like THE TRUMAN SHOW, though even that comparison raises questions. The basic one is whether Thomas's solipsism is purely mental, or has a physical basis. With Truman, we see the physical limits, but with Thomas, his travels seem to cover too large an area to be within a physical world.

Oddly enough, THOMAS WORLD seems to have made no impression on the usual science fiction reviewers, and all the reviews I can find are in mainstream media. (Maybe Google just doesn't find those in genre publications.) In any case, if you are a fan of Dick, you definitely should seek this out.

To order Thomas World from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/18/2003]

Dale R. Cozort's AMERICAN INDIAN VICTORIES (published by is an odd book. It is not, strictly speaking, alternate history, but rather a discussion of how the conquest and colonization of the Americas went, and a discussion of a set of historical changes with brief suggestions of possible results of these changes. As alternate history it seems like taking the easy way out--coming up with a list of ideas for stories without actually writing the stories. But as history, this is perfectly acceptable, and I would recommend this to people interested in the historical aspects of that period. (By the way, this in general is a period well before the "Indian Wars" of the 19th century, so there are no alternate Custers et all here.)

To order American Indian Victories from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/08/2005]

THE OXFORD BOOK OF ENGLISH DETECTIVE STORIES edited by Patricia Craig (ISBN 0-192-80375-1) is a 1990 collection of the classics of that genre. It is a great collection, even if the people who are most likely to be interested in it are also the most likely to have read many of the stories already. It might make a good gift for someone who has just discovered the English detective story, though, and needs a sampler to see which authors he might like.

To order The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/09/2007]

Written in 1851, FIFTEEN DECISIVE BATTLES OF THE WORLD by Sir Edward S. Creasey (ISBN-10 0-306-80559-6, ISBN-13 978-0-306-80559-2) is a classic.

The battles are (briefly):

     490 B.C.E.--The Persians defeated at Marathon.
     413 B.C.E.--The Athenians defeated at Syracuse.
     331 B.C.E.--Darius III defeated at Gaugamela (Arbela).
     207 B.C.E.--The Catheginians defeated at Metaurus.
       9 B.C.E.--The Romans defeated in the Teutoberg Forest.
     451 C.E.--Attila the Hun defeated at Chalons.
     732 C.E.--The Moors defeated at Tours.
    1066 C.E.--Harold defeated at Hastings.
    1429 C.E.--The English defeated at Orleans.
    1588 C.E.--The Spanish Armada defeated.
    1704 C.E.--The French defeated at Blenheim.
    1709 C.E.--The Swedes defeated at Poltava.
    1777 C.E.--Burgoyne defeated at Saratoga.
    1792 C.E.--Foreign armies defeated at Valmy.
    1815 C.E.--Napoleon defeated at Waterloo.

One thing that is noted by everyone is that all of these are very Eurocentric choices. But even more than that, they are all battles that reinforced (western) European dominance. Even Teutoberg is seen by Creasy as leading directly to the establishment of the British peoples. Creasy chooses Tours as critical in halting the Arab invasion of Europe. But he ignores the recapture of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187 or the capture of Acre in 1291, either of which could be cited as halting the expansion of Europe into the Middle East and Asia. He ignores the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. He ignores the defeat in the Battle of Koan of the Mongols invading Japan in 1281.

[He also does not include Yarmouk in 636 which brought Islam flooding out of Arabia and is arguably the most important. See -mrl] [And which one rarely ever hears about. -ecl]

One might think that Creasy's critical turning points would have generated various alternate history stories, but one would be only partly accurate. Yes, there are stories based on most of the early ones (though with Alexander, Carthage, and Joan of Arc they are more general than based on specific battles) and for Saratoga and Waterloo, but nothing for Syracuse, Tours, Blenheim, Poltava, or Valmy.

Historian Joseph B. Mitchell has five more battles since 1851:

    1863--Confederates defeated in the Vicksburg Campaign.
    1866--Austria defeated at Sadowa in the Seven Weeks' War.
    1914--German forces defeated at the Marne.
    1942--Japanese defeated at Midway.
    1942--Germans defeated at Stalingrad (now Volgograd).

For alternate histories, Vicksburg has been almost ignored, while Gettysburg has inspired dozens of stories. Sadowa? Nothing. The Marne? Most World War I alternate histories focus on either the assassination or some obscure German corporal. And it seems as though there are only a couple of stories on Midway and none on Stalingrad. (One might argue that Mitchell should have chosen Pearl Harbor, since without that we might have "sat out" the war, and things would be very different now.)

By the way, in his chapter on Saratoga, Creasy quotes Alexis de Toqueville, who had written fifteen years earlier. Even by Creasy's time, it was a picture of the United States that was not accurate, and certainly as a prediction of what would come was fairly far off: "The time will therefore come when one hundred and fifty millions of men will be living in North America, equal in condition, one race, owing their origin to the same cause, and preserving the same civilisation, the same language, the same religion, the same habits, the same manners, and imbued with the same opinions, propagated under the same forms. The rest is uncertain, but this is certain; ...." (The United States population was 150,000,000 in 1950.)

Creasy himself repeatedly refers to "Anglo-Americans", and says things like, "They, like ourselves, are members of the great Anglo-Saxon nation", and "our race is one, being of the same blood, speaking the same language, having an essential resemblance in our institutions and usages, and worshipping in the temples of the same God." Again, even in Creasy's time this was not accurate--even before the massive influx of immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United States had a fair percentage of German (almost 10% of the population during the War of 1812), Scots, and Irish. And of course there was a very large percentage of African-Americans, which both he and de Toqueville ignored.

To order Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World from, click here.

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN by Michael Crichton:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/16/2009]

The newly formed science fiction discussion group in Middletown (NJ) chose THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN by Michael Crichton for the January meeting. (Each month we choose a book and the movie made from it--we read the book ahead of time, then watch the movie for the first half of the meeting, then discuss the two for the second half.)

A few observations about the book: It is a massive expository lump (or as Mark said, "an expository lump with trimmings").

A couple of weeks ago I talked about novels that blurred the line between fiction and fact. Crichton did that forty years ago--the "Acknowledgements" at the beginning and the "References" at the end are both made-up. Even the opening quotes after the title page are made up, attributed to characters in the book.

Crichton cites Lewis Bornheim's definition of a crisis: "a situation in which a previously tolerable set of circumstances is suddenly, by the addition of another factor, rendered wholly intolerable." Then he says, "At the time of Andromeda, there had never been a crisis of biological science...." What about the bubonic plague, the introduction of European diseases to New World, or the 1918 Influenza Pandemic?

He also claims that "1-101-1110" is "a perfectly reasonable telephone number". No, it wasn't at the time (1969) and probably not even now. Exchanges (the "101" part) could not start with a "1", because that signaled long distance.

On page 201 he has the characters discussing "what is life?" One definition they give is, "All living organisms in some way took in energy--as food, or sunlight--and converted it to another form of energy, and put it to use. (Viruses were the exception to this rule, but the group was prepared to define viruses as nonliving.)" Then someone claims three items stretch this too far: a black cloth (in sunlight, it converts radiant energy to heat), a watch with a radium dial (radioactive decay produces light), and a piece of granite ("It is living, breathing, walking, and talking. Only we cannot see it because it is happening too slowly.") While one may agree with the first two, I have no idea what he means by the last. But the classic test case that is usually given is fire--it consumes fuel, outputs waste, etc.

To order The Andromeda Strain from, click here.

SPHERE by Michael Crichton:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/22/2013]

SPHERE by Michael Crichton (ISBN 978-0-061-99055-7) is very cinematic. This is not precisely a compliment. It is written in short simple scenes, with not very well-fleshed out characters: the mathematician is a bad guy, the woman is defensive about her gender, and so on. It is full of sloppy science and writing. For example, the marine biologist refers to "octopi" (the correct term is "octopuses"). Another character talks about a computer using "askey code." And there are several (other) awkward info-dumps as well.

To order Sphere from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/07/2012]

This month's book discussion group choice, THE ASTONISHING HYPOTHESIS: THE SCIENTIFIC SEARCH FOR THE SOUL by Francis Crick (ISBN 978-0-684-19431-8), is mis-named. The "astonishing hypothesis" is a form of determinism--everything is reducible to the activities of neurons. Of it, Crick says: "There are, of course, educated people who believe the Astonishing Hypothesis is so plausible that it should not be called astonishing. ... I suspect that such people have often not seen the full implication of the hypothesis. I myself find it difficult at times to avoid the idea of a homunculus. One slips into it so easily. The Astonishing Hypothesis states that all aspects of the brain's behavior are due to the activities of neurons. ... Many of my readers might justifiably complain that what has been discussed in this book has very little to do with the human soul as they understand it. ... Such criticisms are perfectly valid at the moment, but making them in this context would show a lack of appreciation of the methods of science."

There are several problems with this. First, the book is not about the "scientific search for the soul"--indeed, the soul is barely mentioned. Most of it seems to be about how vision works. Crick explains that this is because that is one of the easiest brain functions to study. (I am reminded of the joke about the man looking for his keys under the street light.)

Second, Crick spends a lot of time talking about vision and color, and describing various optical effects and illusions, but there are no color plates or illustrations.

Third, I find it rather patronizing that Crick tells the reader that if she does not think the hypothesis is astonishing, that is because she does not understand it.

Mark gave what I thought was a good parallel to much of what Crick was saying: a television picture is due to the actions of pixels, yet the collective result seems to be more than just the sum of the parts.

As is often the case, the discussion group drifted off-topic, talking about such diverse topics as how many brains an octopus has, the possibility of multiple origins of life, and "the doorway effect." The last is the fact that you are more likely to forget something when you pass through a doorway. For example, if you get up to get a pen and walk ten feet within the same room, you will probably remember why you got up. But if you walk ten feet into the next room, you are more likely to get there and find yourself thinking, "Now why did I come in here?"

To order The Astonishing Hypothesis from, click here.

KAFKA'S SOUP by Mark Crick:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/07/2010]

KAFKA'S SOUP: A COMPLETE HISTORY OF WORLD LITERATURE IN 14 RECIPES by Mark Crick (ISBN-13 0-15-101283-0) is a collection of recipes, each written in the style of a well-known author. (well, mostly--I had never heard of Irvine Welsh before). One can only appreciate the pastiches of authors one is familiar with, though, so I really only "got" about half this book: Raymond Chandler, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, John Steinbeck, Homer, Geoffrey Chaucer, and (of course) Jorge Luis Borges. Some of the others I could get a sense of, but realized I was missing a lot. For example, "Tarragon Eggs à la Jane Austen" begins, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that eggs, kept for too long, go off." Or "Lamb with Dill Sauce à la Raymond Chandler: "I took hold of the [leg of lamb]. It felt cold and damp, like a coroner's handshake." Without a familiarity with the original, these homages fall flat. The Borges, in particular, is patterned after a specific story in addition to its more general imitation of style and images. The Kafka, also, has implicit connections to THE TRIAL.

On the other hand, I have no ideas if the recipes are any good. (Having just tried a couple of recipes out of cookbooks that sounded good to me, but turned out only so-so, I am convinced that I cannot judge a recipe on the page.) I do find the idea of Kafka serving "Quick Miso Soup" a bit outré--but maybe that was on purpose. The rest of the recipes seem better paired to their "inspirations."

To order Kafka's Soup from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/14/2003]

As part of my alternate history reading I read CRIMSON SKIES, a tie-in to the game. It's three novellas (or perhaps novelettes) rather than a single novel, and the first and third stories are at least entertaining, if not great literature.

To order Crimson Skies from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/27/2017] We also listened to THE POLITICALLY INCORRECT GUIDE TO THE CIVIL WAR by H. W. Crocker III (ISBN 1-433-25123-X) or rather, we listened to one disc of the ten. The problem was that it was far too annoying to listen to Crocker's attempts to justify the legality of the South's secession and the rightness of its cause.. Do not misunderstand--there are definitely actions of the Union during Civil War that were not only of questionable legality, but that were flat-out illegal: the creation of West Virginia, the suspension of habeas corpus, and the special requirements laid on Southern states before they we "re-admitted" to the Union that the Union claimed they could not leave.

But Crocker persists in saying things like "South Carolina wanted to secede because they felt the Northern states were oppressing it", or "Virginians just wanted to continue their lifestyle and traditions", or "the way of life is the South was slower and easier, with the rough edges smoothed off." What he means, of course, is "white males in South Carolina wanted to secede because they felt the Northern states were oppressing it", or "white Virginians just wanted to continue their lifestyle and traditions", or "the way of life in the South for rich whites was slower and easier, with the rough edges smoothed off."

He also argued both that since the states were independent sovereign entities that formed the United States, they could secede, and because the colonies were colonies they could not secede from England. But when was Arkansas an independent entity?

To order The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/17/2017]

THROUGH FIVE ADMINISTRATIONS: REMINISCENCES OF COLONEL WILLIAM H. CROOK (ISBN 978-1-3316-2057-0) consists of Crooks's experiences and observations during his time as body-guard, clerk, and dispersing agent to Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, and Garfield, and Arthur. (He was not on duty when Lincoln was assassinated, and no longer a bodyguard when Garfield was.) Crook actually served under twelve Presidents--Lincoln through Wilson--but these memoirs cover only six. Arthur is covered in the same chapter as Garfield, and apparently Crook considered them one administration.

Mixed in with the more straightforward observations, we catch glimpses of less reported aspects. We see the casual racism of the time--not just the use of terms such as "darkies", but descriptions such as "we saw some [Union] soldiers not far away 'initiating' some negroes by tossing them on a blanket. When they came down they were supposed to be transformed into Yankees. The darkies yelled lustily during the process, and came down livid under their black skins. ... The President [Lincoln] laughed boyishly; I heard him afterward telling some one about the funny sight." (It reminded me of the scene in BOARDWALK EMPIRE when some white character just reaches over and rubs Chalky White's head "for luck"--apparently this used to be considered [by whites] acceptable behavior! You can tell, of course, that White is less than thrilled.)

It was of this same visit of Lincoln to Richmond that Crook says, "It was nothing sort of miraculous that some attempt on his life was not made. It is to the everlasting glory of the South that he was permitted to come and go in peace."

There is much made by Crook and others of Lincoln's premonitions about his death. (For example, Crook says that evening was the only time Lincoln did not say "good night" to him, but rather "good-bye.") But Crook also quotes Lincoln as saying, "I have perfect confidence in those who are around me--in every one of you men. I know no one could do it [assassinate me] and escape alive. But if it is to be done, it is impossible to prevent." While it is true that Booth was eventually killed, it is certainly conceivable that he could have escaped.

Crook describes the actions of the Congress in 1866 and 1867 to effect Reconstruction by opining, "The first was tragic, culminating as it did in negro Suffrage, the disenfranchisement of the majority of the better class of Southerners, ..."

There are also small asides illuminating the characters of the men and women Crook encountered. For example, of President Hayes he wrote, "At the commissary the very best things were to be obtained at cost price. This President Hayes refused to do. 'I prefer to buy like other men,' he said." But he was also careful to absolve Grant of blame in availing himself of the commissary, preceding this by, "It had been the custom during the Grant administration to buy the groceries [for the White House] of the army commissary. This was perfectly natural and proper because of the army associations of General Grant." (I am not sure I would say this was proper, since by the time he was President, Grant was not longer in the Army.)

To order Through Five Administrations from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/14/2011]

ECOLOGICAL IMPERIALISM: THE BIOLOGICAL EXPANSION OF EUROPE, 900-1900 by Alfred W. Crosby (ISBN 978-0-521-33613-0) was one of the textbooks for Geography 10 at the University of California at Berkeley. This was a course available through podcasts, or at least mostly available--the course included several films, and audio podcasts are not the best medium for a course which features a lot of maps. However, I was able to gather some useful information, and decided that reading this textbook would be worthwhile.

Crosby wrote this in 1986, well before Jared Diamond's GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL, and Diamond seems to have gotten a lot of his ideas either from Crosby, or from Crosby's sources. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, but I suspect most people think Diamond originated it all. Crosby covers just about everything Diamond does, and more besides, such as how the existence of Pangaea meant that evolution had a very different effect before its break-up 200 million years ago (or so) than after.

One of the films for the course, by the way, was GRASS (1925). This silent documentary of nomadic herders in Iraq and Iran was sufficiently popular that its filmmakers were able to get funding for their next film: KING KONG.

To order Ecological Imperialism from, click here.

"A New Refutation" by John Crowley:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/06/2006]

As with so many works these days, "A New Refutation" by John Crowley (subtitled "Hommage a J.L.B."), written for the Readercon 17 Souvenir Book, suffers from a lack of editing. In it Crowley talks about computers generating texts, and talks about "the long-standing problem of how few colors a mapmaker would need to construct a map where no two contiguous countries or regions would be the same color" and says, "a computer . . . has proven that three colors are in fact enough." No, it is four colors. What is disturbing about this is that an author would be embarrassed to have written that France is in Asia, or that Herman Melville wrote DAVID COPPERFIELD, but I suspect that if this mistake were pointed out, the response would be that no one would notice. (I will not accept as valid the suggestion that the story is set in an alternate universe where three colors suffice.)

THE TRANSLATOR by John Crowley:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/04/2003]

I had seen John Crowley's THE TRANSLATOR in a new bookstore and resolved to try the library, but when I saw a copy at Half-Price Books, I figured it was probably as good a way as any to use some of my store credit. Unlike his other books, this has no overt fantasy element, but is the rather straightforward story of an exiled Russian poet and a college student during the Cuban missile crisis. Crowley has his characters spend a lot of time not just writing poetry but explaining why they chose this word instead of that word, and how this phrase was a reference to that other quotation, and so on.

To order The Translator from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/03/2005]

Mitch Cullin's A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND (ISBN 0-385-51328-3) is not a Sherlock Holmes pastiche in the usual sense of the term. There are a couple of mysteries involved, but the focus is not so much on solving them as on Holmes as an old man, ninety-two years old and dealing with both the physical and the mental infirmities that so often accompany old age. He can no longer take in a scene at a glance and remember it perfectly. As he expresses it, "Over time, I have realized my mind no longer operates in such a fluid manner. . . . My means for recall--those various groupings of words and numbers--aren't as easily accessible as they were. Traveling through India . . . I stepped from the train somewhere in the middle of the country . . . and was promptly accosted by a dancing, half-naked beggar, a most joyous fellow. Previously, I would have observed everything around me in perfect detail . . . but that rarely happens anymore. I don't remember the station building and I cannot tell you if there were vendors or people nearby. All I can recall is a toothless brown-skinned beggar dancing before me, and arm outstretched for a few pence. What matters to me now is that I possess that delightful vision of him; where the event took place is of no account. Had this occurred sixty years ago, I would have been quite distraught for being unable to summon the location and its minutiae. But now I retain only what is necessary. The minor details aren't essential--what appears in my mind these days are rudimentary impressions, not all the frivolous surroundings. And for that I am grateful."

I'm sure some will complain of this "aging" of the story. After all, most people get hooked on the Sherlock Holmes stories when they are fairly young, and A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND has lacks any of the adventure of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, or any of the detection skills shown in A STUDY IN SCARLET. In science fiction, a fair number of people have taken up the complaint that the "sense of wonder" is vanishing, replaced by stories about old age and downbeat futures. And this story may indicate a similar trend in other fields (though the downbeat world here is not the future, but a bombed-out post-WWII Japan.) Twenty years ago, we had YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, looking at a childhood (patterned more after Indian Jones than Sherlock Holmes, one suspects), but now we get what is in essence "Sherlock Holmes--The Twilight Years". Is this because authors are getting older, or because readers of books are getting older, or (possibly) not even an accurate description of the current state of writing? In any case, I am also getting older, and so at least for me this book was a thoughtful change from the vast number of books set during Holmes's prime. (Has anyone ever tried to take all the pastiches and fit them into a timeline? I suspect that, like "M*A*S*H" on television, or Bernard Cornwell's "Sharpe" series, there are more stories than time to fit them into. And Mark has noted that James Bond forty years after DR. NO still seems to be the same age, so the timeline there is obviously off as well.

To order A Slight Trick of the Mind from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/19/2013]

I recently finished SIMPLE LIBRARY CATALOGUING (SEVENTH EDITION) by Arthur Curley (ISBN 978-0-810-81649-7) but frankly, what can one say about a book like that? I suppose the only observation of interest is that many of the alphabetization rules in it that we learned in school have been replaced by rules based on computer sort order. So the old rule to treat words starting with "Mc" as if they started with "Mac" (e.g., "McBride" precedes "MacDonald", which precedes "McDougall") has been replaced by alphabetizing by what is actually there (e.g., "MacDonald" precedes "McBride" which precedes "McDougall").

On the other hand, I still think that "Dr." and "Doctor" should both be treated as "Doctor", because frankly, who can remember when the title is spelled out and when it isn't?

And while one normally alphabetizes numbers as being spelled out, there is much to be said for occasionally treating them as numeric. For example, "World's Best SF: 1969" should precede "World's Best SF: 1970". And "The Fourth Galaxy Reader" should precede "The Fifth Galaxy Reader".

To order Simple Library Cataloguing from, click here.

THE GOSPEL PROBE by Myron Curtis:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/26/2006]

I recently read THE GOSPEL PROBE by Myron Curtis (ISBN 0-595-36327-X), published by iUniverse. iUniverse publishes books that cannot find other publishers; it is what used to be called a "vanity press" (though I am sure they would protest the term). The book was sent to me as an alternate history, and there is indeed an alternate history aspect (which I will not reveal here). But it is minimal, and--the book is mostly a time travel story of representatives from what is apparently the Roman Catholic Church in the future going back to 30 C.E. to check on the accuracy of the Gospels (and others trying to stop them, etc.). It then also has a secret history aspect at the end. I found the plotting disjointed, but it is also technically poorly written. It is full of typographical errors ("Ok" for "OK" or "Okay" [page 8]), spelling errors and/or wrong homophones ("effect" where "affect" is meant [page 37], or "in a lighter vain" [page 53]), and just bad writing. For example, Curtis defines acronyms within direct speech, e.g.:

"You must understand ...," said the secretary. "If we make no effort to satisfy the Lobby for Judeo-Christian Traditions (LJCT) which is pressuring the council, ...." [page 18]

He also coins the name "Palistisraelia", where "Palestisraelia" is more likely (if either could be considered likely!). And he gives long Latin or Italian names for committees, objects, and such, immediately translates them, and then never uses the Latin or Italian again.

It did make me realize that however bad I think proofreading as become in major publishers' books, it is close to non-existent in publishers like iUniverse.

To order The Gospel Probe from, click here.

REVISIONS edited by Julie E. Czerneda and Isaac Spzindel:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/01/2004]

All too often, alternate histories focus on battles or military maneuvers. So it was encouraging to see Julie E. Czerneda and Isaac Spzindel's REVISIONS (ISBN 0-7564-0240-9), whose premise was alternate histories based on changes in scientific discoveries. Not all lived up to this, though. For example, "The Resonance of Light" by Geoffrey Landis has the scientific discovery, but then it gets all wrapped up in an assassination. It's not a bad story, but it falls into the same sort of track as so many others. Others fail because they make some unjustified assumptions, or because they fail to show how the alternate world is different from ours. There are some good stories mixed in, however. Some, like "The Ashbazu Effect" by John G. McDaid, work because simply they have an interesting scientific premise and follow through on it. Others, like Mike Resnick and Susan R. Matthews's "Swimming Upstream in the Wells of the Desert", work because they give the reader a well-drawn picture of the alternate world. And at least one, James Alan Gardner's "Axial Axioms", is very good in spite of the fact that it doesn't work as an alternate history story at all. In fact, it's not even a story, but more an alternate mathematical philosophy, or alternate philosophical mathematics, or something. (Read it, and then you try to define it.) Though the overall quality of this anthology is spotty, the fact that there is at least at attempt to look at alternate history from a different basis makes this worth looking at.

To order ReVisions from, click here.

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