All reviews copyright 1984-2019 Evelyn C. Leeper.
ANGKOR: HEART OF AN ASIAN EMPIRE by Bruno Dagens:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/14/2014]
ANGKOR: HEART OF AN ASIAN EMPIRE by Bruno Dagens (ISBN 978-0-8109-2801-5) is more a history of the archaeology of Angkor Wat than a guidebook to the complex, and the illustrations consist of the drawings, engravings, sketches, and paintings of the time of the explorers. The actual works written by the explorers would have been more interesting than just the brief excerpts here, but many are out of print and in any case I would not have time for all of them. Dagens does make the point at the beginning that to say the ruins were "discovered" by various Western explorers is inaccurate; the Khmer knew they were there all along.
To order Angkor: Heart of an Asian Empire from amazon.com, click here.
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY by Roald Dahl:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/22/2005]
After seeing the new film CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, I went home and re-watched the older WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and read the book (which I had not read before) (ISBN 0-141-30115-5). The new movie takes the name of the book and returns to some of the original ideas that the first movie changed, but also incorporates ideas from the first movie not in the book, and adds a lot of film references in general. One change from the book is that Charlie's father is still alive--maybe Burton thought that far too many children's movies had dead parents. One restoration was that the songs in the new movie use Dahl's words, rather than being entirely new songs as they were in the older film version. I thought the new movie was much better than the old one, but probably cannot fairly judge the book--I'm well out of the target age group.
To order Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from amazon.com, click here.
THE MEMORY CATHEDRAL by Jack Dann (Bantam, ISBN 0-553-09637-0, 1995, 486pp, hardback):
This seems to have been the "Year of da Vinci," with not one but two alternate history novels about the artist and inventor. One of these is Paul J. McAuley's Pasquale's Angel, the other is Jack Dann's Memory Cathedral.
I call them alternate histories, but Dann's at least is written more as a secret history--not what might have happened but didn't, but what might have happened that we didn't hear about. In this case, it's about what might have happened during Leonardo's trip east. Frankly, I am of the opinion that it would be unlikely that the events described here happened without any record, but that is a dispute over classification, not over the book itself.
And the book itself is very good. Dann has done the research, and the life and politics of 15th Century Florence and the eastern Mediterranean come to life in his telling. He does take a few liberties (changing Machiavelli's age, and introducing Christopher Columbus into the scene), but these are minor changes which serve the literary purpose without being false to the sense of historical truth. (George MacDonald Fraser explains this idea at greater length in his book The Hollywood History of the World.)
Even with all his research, though, at least one error has crept in. On page 342, Dann describes a camel as getting up by raising first its front part, then its back. Having ridden a camel, I can assure you that camels raise their back part first. (The first thing they tell you is to lean back when the camel gets up, or you'll fall off.)
But considering the level of detail that Dann has created, this is a truly minor point. Dann does a good job of describing the jockeying for power in the eastern Mediterranean as well as giving the reader a window into Leonardo mind through the use of "the memory cathedral" he has built. This book was not marketed as science fiction, so you will probably have to seek it out in the mainstream fiction section of your bookstore. Do so, by all means--it's well worth the search.
To order The Memory Cathedral from amazon.com, click here.
REBEL by Jack Dann:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/20/2004]
Jack Dann's REBEL (ISBN 0-380-97839-3) is an alternate history: what if James Dean had not been not killed in his car crash? This didn't sound very promising to me, and indeed becomes interesting only by getting Dean involved in politics by way of Marilyn Monroe's connection with the Kennedys. I felt like I was reading a tabloid newspaper through most of it, with the bulk of the story being about Jimmy and Marilyn, and Jimmy and Pier Angeli, and Marilyn and Jack, and Marilyn and Bobby, and all sorts of other pairings. Oh, and Elvis. Even I, a cinema fan, found this uninvolving. (Contrast this with Kim Newman's or Howard Waldrop's Hollywood alternate histories--those are very engaging.)
To order Rebel from amazon.com, click here.
"Inferno" by Dante Aligheri:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/10/2010]
In addition to all the books mentioned in recent columns as preparation for our recent trip to Italy, I also read "Inferno" by Dante while in Italy. Now, I personally prefer H. R. Huse's translation (ISBN 978-0-030-08690-8) over John Ciardi's (ISBN 978-0-451-53139-1) for readability. Ciardi's translation maintains the rhyme scheme of the original, but I find it distracting, since it is not a traditional one in English. But my copy of Ciardi's translation was about half the size of my Huse, so I took that, and I will admit that poetically Ciardi is better. For example, I was struck by this description of Dante climbing a steep hill:
"And there I lay to rest from my heart's race
till calm and breath returned to me. Then rose
and pushed up that dead slope at such a pace
each footfall rose above the last." [Canto I, Lines 28-31]
But when I got home and looked it up in Huse, it was rendered as:
"After I had rested a little my weary body,
I took my way over the lonely slope
[climbing] so that the firm foot always was the lower."
[Canto I, Lines 27-29]
It is clearer, but not as poetic.
At times one hears echoes of Bible verses:
"These are the nearly soulless
whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise.
They are mixed here with that despicable corps
of angels who were neither for God nor Satan,
but only for themselves."
[Canto III, Lines 32-36]
This reminds me of:
"I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth."
And sometimes I see something that may be Ciardi taking his inspiration from elsewhere:
"... [I] walked at his side
in silence and ashamed until we came
through the dead cavern to that sunless tide."
[Canto III, Lines 76-78]
This sounds a lot like:
"Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea."
[Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Kubla Khan"]
"We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea."
[Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"]
Huse renders this:
"Then with eyes ashamed and lowered,
fearing that my words might have offended him,
I kept from speaking until we reached the stream."
[Canto III, Line 78-80]
which drops both the "dead cavern" and the "soulless tide".
The section on limbo seems to have a contradiction in it (in both translations). First Dante has Virgil say:
"And still their merits fail,
for they lacked Baptism's grace, which is the door
of the true faith you were born to. Their birth fell
before the age of the Christian mysteries,
and so they did not worship God's Trinity
in fullest duty. I am one of these."
[Canto IV, Lines 34-39]
"and by himself apart, the Saladin."
[Canto IV, Line 129]
"Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna,
and Averrhoës of the Great Commentary."
[Canto IV, Lines 146-147]
The problem is that Saladin, Galen, Avicenna, and Averrhoës all lived after "the age of Christian mysteries" and were aware of them, so it makes no sense according to what Virgil has said that they are in Limbo instead of lower down. Yes, it is possible that Virgil was not telling the whole truth, but you would think that the presence of Saladin, who fought the Crusaders, would seem a bit strange to Dante.
To order H. R. Huse's translation of Inferno from amazon.com, click here.
To order John Ciardi's translation of Inferno from amazon.com, click here.
THE DARWIN CONSPIRACY by John Darnton:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/17/2006]
The novel THE DARWIN CONSPIRACY by John Darnton (ISBN 1-4000-4137-6) sounded promising. The jacket asks, "What led Darwin to the theory of evolution? Why did he wait twenty-two years to write ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES? Why was he incapacitated by mysterious illnesses and frightened of travel? Who was his secret rival?" And the book manages to be at least moderately engrossing on some of these--right up until the end, when Darnton pulls the most bizarre rabbit out of a hat I can remember for a long time. I do not want to give too much away, in case some Darwin completist out there wants to read the book, but, trust me, it is an even less likely scenario than that of THE DA VINCI CODE. However, it has inspired me to put THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES on my reading queue. (I cannot remember if I ever read it--if so, it was probably forty years ago.)
To order The Darwin Conspiracy from amazon.com, click here.
OPERA FOR BEGINNERS by Ron David (illustrated by Paul Gordon):
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/22/2008]
OPERA FOR BEGINNERS by Ron David (illustrated by Paul Gordon) (ISBN-13 978-0-86316-086-7, ISBN-10 0-96316-086-7) treats opera a bit differently than other introductory books. It's not just that David takes a very "irreverent" attitude towards opera, or that David explains opera with references to rap, jazz, and other "popular" forms of music. It is that he also covers opera from multiple perspectives--not just the development of the art form, but also a discussion of the development of singing styles and the great singers of opera. He also gives some suggestions for starting to listen to opera, including the idea of not starting by listening to entire operas. While one may dispute David's aesthetic judgments, I have to say that his approach is refreshing. The real question is whether someone with no interest in opera would pick up this book to learn about it in the first place.
To order Opera for Beginners from amazon.com, click here.
ADVENTURES IN UNHISTORY by Avram Davidson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/13/2009]
Kudos to Tor--ADVENTURES IN UNHISTORY: CONJECTURES ON THE FACTUAL FOUNDATIONS OF SEVERAL ANCIENT LEGENDS by Avram Davidson (ISBN-13 978-0-765-30760-6, ISBN-10 0-765-30760-X) is a beautifully produced book. It has an index. The fore edges are trimmed, which makes it easy to flip through the pages when looking for something. And the best part is that you can tell what chapter you are in, not from page headings, but because at the top outside corner of each righthand page there is a two-inch by two-inch George Barr pen-and-ink drawing of the topic. For Sinbad, there is a dhow, for extinct birds the moa, and so on.
But what of the writing?
"That true things may be written in a book cannot make true all things written in books. Nor, to take the tally and turn it over, does one lie or a hundred lies prove King David right when he said in his sorrow, 'All men are liars.'"
Clearly Davidson is crafting his sentences. He could just say, "Just because some things in books are true does not mean everything in books is true. And one lie does not make everything a lie." But he says it so much more elegantly. Whether this is an attempt to emulate the flowery language of his sources--the 1001 Nights, Le Morte d'Arthur, and so on--or just because he wants to paint with words, I cannot say. But how much more memorable it is.
To order Adventures in Unhistory from amazon.com, click here.
THE AVRAM DAVIDSON TREASURY by Avram Davidson (edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis):
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/07/2007]
THE AVRAM DAVIDSON TREASURY by Avram Davidson (edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis) (ISBN-13 978-0-312-86731-7, ISBN-10 0-312-86731-X) is a collection of some of Davidson's best work, arranged chronologically with introductions by Silverberg and Davis. I would swear that Davidson's story "Or the Grasses Grow" had been made into a "Twilight Zone" episode, but thorough checking tells me I would be wrong. And in his introduction to the story, Gardner Dozois acknowledges that "Full Chicken Richness" is one of only two stories on its particular topic. Since the other came out just three years earlier and was even nominated for a Hugo, I suspect that Davidson may have been influenced by it.
To order The Avram Davidson Treasury from amazon.com, click here.
AFTER THE FACT: THE ART OF HISTORICAL DETECTION by James West Davidson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/22/2003]
AFTER THE FACT: THE ART OF HISTORICAL DETECTION (Vol. 1) is about the sort of historical detection that Simon Worrall was doing (and, for that matter, the sort that Mark Hofmann had done to do his forgeries). This volume has a prologue about selecting evidence, using as its topic the death of an American diplomat soon after the American Revolution. The seven sections that follow (in the third edition) include a study of indentured servitude and slavery in early Virginia, Jackson's frontier versus Turner's, the "psychohistory" of John Brown, and the difficulties in getting an accurate view of slavery through oral histories. ("Psychohistory" here refers to determining Brown's psychological state, not the predictive science of Isaac Asimov's works.) Of interest to historians (professional and amateur), I suspect this book is a bit too dry for the general public. (And priced as a textbook, it's also a bit expensive. I found it at the local thrift shop.)
And tying in with the idea of historical evidence, I recently watched the film TWELVE ANGRY MEN. If you are unfamiliar with the film, you should see it, so I will not describe it too much. The setting is a jury room for a trial where the verdict seems obvious at first but .... What is interesting is that every time I watch this now, it occurs to me that the same people who like this film also have definite opinions of the O. J. Simpson trial which are almost diametrically opposed to their views here.
To order After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection (both volumes combined) from amazon.com, click here.
THE EXPLOSIONIST by Jenny Davidson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/13/2009]
THE EXPLOSIONIST by Jenny Davidson (ISBN-13 978-0-06-123975-5, ISBN-10 0-06-123975-5) is a young adult alternate history set in Scotland in the early 20th century in a world where Wellington lost and Napoleon was victorious at Waterloo. Europe is divided between the Hanseatic League and everyone else. Spiritualism is a real science, and terrorism is a problem. The last part is where the parallels to our world become a little less subtle (though still more subtle than some other alternate histories I have read recently). The big problem is that the book is very open-ended--I am sure there is a sequel coming down the line if this is successful.
What is interesting is that this--like a lot of young adult novels--is written as well as many "adult" novels, yet priced at about two-thirds the cost ($17.99 versus $24.95). On the one hand, one wishes the author would be paid comparably whether the novel is young adult or not. On the other hand, I suppose the assumption is that young adults have less discretionary income
To order The Explosionist from amazon.com, click here.
THE SHADOWS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES edited by David Stuart Davies:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/03/2004]
THE SHADOWS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES edited by David Stuart Davies (ISBN 1-85326-744-9) is a perfect example of Barnes's quote--but then, that's true of most mystery stories. One of the major differences between science fiction and mysteries, in fact, has been described as science fiction being an "open" form (lots of questions remain at the end about what comes next, and so on), and mysteries as a "closed" form (all the loose ends are wrapped up and explained). Davies here has collected a wonderful anthology of mystery stories from roughly the same era as Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" (well, Poe's "The Purloined Letter" is a little bit earlier). They all have that wonderful "gaslight" feel, even if some occur after the advent of electricity, yet are a varied collection, with some serious, some humorous, some written from the point of view of the detective, some from that of the perpetrator, and so on. There is Bret Harte's "The Stolen Cigar Case", one of Ernest Bramah's stories about blind detective Max Carrados, one of E. W. Hornung's Raffles story, a Jacques Futrelle "Thinking Machine" story, and a Sexton Blake. Alas, it seems to have been published only in Britain (though I bought my copy here). It is, however, still in print in its home country. [While reading this, I discovered that Hornung was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's brother-in-law!]
To order The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes from amazon.com, click here.
SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE VEILED DETECTIVE by David Stuart Davies:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/09/2015]
SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE VEILED DETECTIVE by David Sturart Davies (ISBN 978-1-8485-64090-9) is a re-imagining of the origins of Sherlock Holmes, John H. Watson, and many of the other characters involved in several of Holmes's most famous stories. (The cover blurb, "The World's Greatest Detective Returns", is completely misleading and wrong.) If you liked the direction the television "Sherlock" has taken, you may like this, but I tend to prefer my Sherlock Holmes stories authentic. (My other objection to this is that so much of it--particularly the dialogue--has been lifted directly from the original stories, meaning this is in some sense similar to books such as SENSE AND SENSIBILITY AND SEA MONSTERS, where the majority of the book is already written.)
To order Sherlock Holmes & the Veiled Detective from amazon.com, click here.
INTRODUCING ANTHROPOLOGY by Merryl Wyn Davies (with illustrations by Piero):
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/15/2005]
INTRODUCING ANTHROPOLOGY by Merryl Wyn Davies (with illustrations by Piero) (ISBN 1-840-46663-4) was a disappointment. First, I found the book to be much sketchier in its coverage than other books in this series. For example, the book says that some anthropologists study kinship structures, and gives the reader a lot of terms used in this area, but doesn't say anything about what different structures might mean. And in general, Davies just tells the reader that anthropologists look at this or that, and what that sub-field is called, rather than attempting to talk about what has been discovered in these fields. It's possible that one is not supposed to expect any sort of conclusions or even theories from anthropology (and indeed, Davies spends a lot of time attacking earlier styles of anthropology that presented conclusions like "Englishmen are superior to everyone else"). But if this is the case, Davies doesn't make it clear. And I found Piero's style of art annoying. It seemed overly political (though that could be the captions Davies placed on it), but also seemed to try to make people, well, ugly. I've liked most of this series, but this one didn't work for me.
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/29/2005]
Update: I had written my comments on Merryl Wyn Davies and Piero's INTRODUCING ANTHROPOLOGY before completely finishing it, so I have an addendum. Page 151 of the book talks about how Margaret Mead's writings influenced Dr. Benjamin Spock and his theories about how to raise children. Page 152 then reveals how her "discoveries" were discredited when it was revealed that her descriptions of how children and adolescents acted in Samoa were actually based on talking to four adolescent girls who, it turns out, were talking about their sexual fantasies rather than than sexual experiences. And page 153 talks about her defenders and has one character saying, "But, we argue, she nevertheless gained into American culture through her studies." I assume Piero was making a pun when he drew this character to look like Mr. Spock from "Star Trek"--either that, or he was confused between Dr. Spock and Mr. Spock.
To order Introducing Anthropology from amazon.com, click here.
COLLABORATOR by Murray Davies:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/11/2004]
Murray Davies's COLLABORATOR (Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-90844-9, #16.99) is a fine work in what seemed to have been an overly-mined area: what if the Germans won in World War II? This, admittedly, isn't quite that sweeping--it is focused on what might have happened if a German invasion of England succeeded. It is a very British look--much more downbeat than most American authors would write, and not relying on the Yanks rushing in to save the day. Instead, it looks at the reactions of a variety of Britishers to an invasion and occupation, as well as the possible progression of actions by the Germans during such an occupation. It reminds me of Kevin Brownlow's IT HAPPENED HERE and other well-written, low-key speculations. I can only hope that some American publisher will decide to pick it up in spite of all the "flaws" I mentioned.
To order Collaborator from amazon.com, click here.
THE EERIE SILENCE: RENEWING OUR SEARCH FOR ALIEN INTELLIGENCE by Paul Davies:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/10/2014]
We chose THE EERIE SILENCE: RENEWING OUR SEARCH FOR ALIEN INTELLIGENCE by Paul Davies (ISBN 978-0-547-42258-9) for our December book discussion book, and it did a reasonably interesting job of examining the Fermi Paradox. (Briefly put, the Fermi Paradox is, "If there are all those extra-terrestrial intelligences out there that we think there are, how come we haven't seen any evidence of them?")
Davies did make a minor literary error: Wells did not have his time machine go backwards to before it was built (though he did imply it could). On the other hand, I found it interesting to realize that cable television is ruining our chances for discovering other civilizations, because while we were broadcasting television signals into space for fifty years, that is pretty much coming to an end.
To order The Eerie Silence from amazon.com, click here.
THE COLLECTED STORIES OF LYDIA DAVIS by Lydia Davis:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/15/2018]
For those who find today's fiction too long, I want to recommend the work of Lydia Davis. Her omnibus volume, THE COLLECTED STORIES OF LYDIA DAVIS (ISBN 978-0-312-65539-6), is 752 pages and contains 198 stories, the complete contents of four previously published books: BREAK IT DOWN, ALMOST NO MEMORY, SAMUEL JOHNSON IS INDIGNANT, VARIETIES OF DISTURBANCE.
The problem, of course, in reviewing or even discussing individual stories is that they are often so short that to say anything about them is to ruin the enjoyment of reading them. For example, "Idea for a Short Documentary Film" is only twelve words long; how can I say anything about it without giving it all away? So I will just recommend a few of my favorites:
Everyone who loves flash fiction, or even the "longer" works of such authors of Fredric Brown, should check out the works of Lydia Davis.
To order The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis from amazon.com, click here.
THE ANCESTOR'S TALE by Richard Dawkins:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/30/2005]
THE ANCESTOR'S TALE by Richard Dawkins (ISBN 0-618-61916-X) works its way back through evolution, seeing it as a pilgrimage in which we meet up with our "distant cousins" as we all march back to the beginnings of life. Dawkins sticks fairly closely to his rule of not including species whose descendants have not survived until the present, though he admits to cheating a bit to include Homo habilis, Neanderthals, and the dodo. His initial discussion of "most recent common ancestor" (and how someone could be the most recent common ancestor of everyone on earth and still have none of his genes surviving in anyone) provides a very good lesson in basic genetics and evolution. My one complaint is Dawkins's tendency to throw in political asides that have nothing to do with his subject. One might argue, for example, that the claims of creationists have something to do with evolution, but snide remarks about how the Baghdad museum was looted because the American "invaders" were guarding the Oil Ministry instead really are completely off-topic. Still, there are only a smattering of them throughout this large book, and the rest is fascinating. The pattern here reminds me of Matt Ridley's GENOME, where each chapter was about a different gene on a different chromosome. Here it is about a different current species and how they derived their current characteristics from their earlier origins. And each tale illustrates a different principle of evolutionary biology--sensory perception for duck-billed platypuses, sexual selection for peacocks, the definition of species for salamander, the defintion (and purpose) of race for grasshoppers, and so on--so by the end of the book you have a very good grounding in the subject.
To order The Ancestor's Tale from amazon.com, click here.
"Immersion" by Aliette de Bodard:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/28/2013]
"Immersion" by Aliette de Bodard is yet another story in her Xuya universe, though its alternate history aspect is minimal. (de Bodard says that this and "On a Red Station, Drifting" did not start out as part of this universe.) It is reasonable enough science fiction, though whether it is Hugo-quality is debatable.
"The Jaguar House, in Shadow" by Aliette de Bodard:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/15/2011]
"The Jaguar House, in Shadow" by Aliette de Bodard (in ASIMOV'S 07/10) is another in her series in which the Azteca are not conquered by the Spanish. This is a very self-contained story, with little connection to the world outside the Azteca, and as such does not use the alternate history aspect as strongly as some of her others. The result is a story than seems to lack much science fictional content.
"On a Red Station, Drifting" by Aliette de Bodard:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/28/2013]
"On a Red Station, Drifting" by Aliette de Bodard (ISBN 978-0-956-39245-9) is purportedly an alternate history story in de Bodard's "Xuya" universe (though is it an alternate history if it is set in the future on the alternate track?). However, it could just as easily be set in our future after the global situation has shifted, as indeed it is wont to do. It is okay, but not Hugo material.
To order "On a Red Station, Drifting" from amazon.com, click here.
HOW PROUST CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE by Alain de Botton:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/13/2003]
I plan to read all of Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" (or "In Search of Lost Time", as it's now called), and have read the first book (SWANN'S WAY) already. So when I heard about Alain de Botton's book HOW PROUST CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE, I thought, "Well, that should be helpful as a study guide." Eventually, I found a copy in a library, and what I discovered was that it was full of "pop philosophy" (which is at least a level above pop psychology) on ideas that could be found in a lot of other books besides Proust as well. While I don't discount it completely as an annotation to Proust, it isn't really about how Proust is so different from any other author. (It also assumes that the details of Proust's life are valuable in understanding the book, which is a theory I subscribe to, but not universal.) Also on my stack is Phyllis Rose's A YEAR OF READING PROUST, so I'll have to read that and compare it.
To order How Proust Can Change Your Life from amazon.com, click here.
A WEEK AT THE AIRPORT: A HEATHROW DIARY by Alain de Botton:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/27/2012]
A WEEK AT THE AIRPORT: A HEATHROW DIARY by Alain de Botton (ISBN 978-0-307-73967-4) was written when Heathrow Airport asked him to become a writer in residence for a week. It is good to see people caring about the arts, but I am not sure that an airport needs a writer in residence.
However, de Botton does write a very poetic account of the airport, as in this extract:
"As David lifted a suitcase on the conveyor belt, he came to an unexpected and troubling realization: that he was bringing himself with him on his holiday. Whatever the qualities of the Dimitra Residence, they were going to be critically undermined by the fact he would be in the villa as well. He had booked the trip in the expectation of being able to enjoy his children, his wife, the Mediterranean, some spanokopita and the Attic skies, but it was evident that he would be forced to apprehend all of these through the distorting filter of his own being, with its debilitating levels of fear, anxiety and wayward desire. There was, of course, no official recourse available to him, whether for assistance or complaint. British Airways did, it was true, maintain a desk manned by some unusually personable employees and adorned with the message: 'We are here to help.' But the staff shied away from existential issues, seeming to restrict their insights to matters relating to the transit time to adjacent satellites and the location of the nearest toilets."
To order A Week at the Airport: Heathrow Airport from amazon.com, click here.
CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER by Thomas De Quincey:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/27/2012]
What can you say about someone who read CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER by Thomas De Quincey (ISBN 978-0-486-28742-3) and finds the most interesting part De Quincey's description of his library? "Paint me, then, a room seventeen feet by twelve, and not more than seven and a half feet high. ... Of [books], I have about five thousand, collected gradually since my eighteenth year. Therefore, painter, put as many as you can into this room." Okay, the perimeter of the room is (17*2)<(12*2), or 58 feet. There has to be at least one door, and he mentions a fireplace, so let's assume 50 running feet for ease of computation. Seven and a half feet high is 90 inches; if we assume each shelf is 9 inches high (including the shelf itself), that leaves room for 10 shelves, giving us 500 feet of shelving at most. 5000 books in that room would imply 10 books per foot. According to a librarian friend, the rule of thumb today is 25 books for each three feet of shelving (the standard library shelf), or about 8 per foot. (For paperbacks, it is 45 per three feet, but De Quincey had no paperbacks.) I suppose it is possible that there were a higher percentage of thinner books back then, but it still seems that putting 5000 books in the space specified would be a problem.
To order Confessions of an English Opium-Eater from amazon.com, click here.
THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint-Exupery:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/17/2019]
THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (ISBN 978-1-840-22760-4) represents half of a first: the first time someone has been nominated in both a fiction and an art category on the same Hugo ballot (or, I suspect, any Hugo ballot). While this is a classic, and has been in print since its publication, it doesn't do anything for me. (Nor do the drawings--I cannot believe there were not five professional science fiction/fantasy artists--or even ten--who did better work than this.)
To order The Little Prince from amazon.com, click here.
VICTORIAN INVENTIONS by Leonard De Vries:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/09/2003]
Of interest to all us technical types is Leonard De Vries's VICTORIAN INVENTIONS. This book is even older than the Roszak, having been published in 1972 by the American Heritage Press, but since it is entirely about Victorian inventions, it hasn't become any more outdated than it was. Some of these inventions eventually succeeded. The most interesting to me was the red-green eyeglass system for 3-D movies--although the version here (1890) was for stereoscopic slides in a theater instead. There was also an inner-spring mattress (1871), and a child's "Picture-Book with Animal Noises" (1898), where the sounds are generated by means of strings that the child can pull.
But others never came to fruition. In many cases, this was a good thing. Consider the "Tricycle and Printing Press Combined" (1895), which allowed one to compose "short advertisements" on the tires such that (with the aid of the ink tank mounted on the frame), "the advertisement [could be] printed on a clean background to make it legible for a prolonged period of time." Just what we need--an automated way to produce graffiti on the roads! (Although the requirement that the surface be clean probably would have made it unusable.)
There was also "A Spherical, Transparent Velocipede" (1884) which apparently operated on a method similar to an acrobat progressing on a ball, except that the operator is inside a hollow sphere which contains some sort of ball-and-socket seat arrangement to stabilize it. My favorite part, though, was what happens when the sphere arrives at a river. "The sphero-velocipedist, propelling his vehicle with the utmost possible speed, rolls down the back with sufficient momentum to bring him to the other side of the stream. For the sphere floats on the water and continues to revolve until it has reached the opposite back." Even assuming it would work this way--of which I am exceedingly skeptical--one has to assume the sphere would actually arrive at the other side of the river considerably downstream from where he started. And if he misjudges the speed necessarily, he could easily end up floating downstream all the way to the sea--or the next waterfall. (I love the way the "river" changes to a "stream" in the description.) Oh, the sphere is also described as being made up of "some transparent, solid and not too fragile material." And what, pray tell, would this have been in 1884?
To order Victorian Inventions from amazon.com, click here.
ARE WE SMART ENOUGH TO KNOW HOW SMART ANIMALS ARE? by Frans de Waal:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/05/2016]
ARE WE SMART ENOUGH TO KNOW HOW SMART ANIMALS ARE? by Frans de Waal (ISBN 978-0-393-24618-6) is written for a general audience, so there is a lot of "anecdotal evidence." He also presents results of controlled experiments, but this has its problems. The main problem in studying animal intelligence (a.k.a. animal cognition) is that we do not have a good definition of intelligence and how to measure it. Or of cognition, or of language, or of tools, tool-using, and tool-making. Or of self-awareness. Of or most of the "things" the scientists want to study.
Of course, the lack of solid definitions is due in part to the strong desire of many (both scientists and non-scientists) in making/keeping humans exceptional. One need only look at the evolution of the definition of language over the years--as people found animals whose communication met all the requirements at time X, new requirements were added. The classic example, thought, is that humans were once called "the only animal who uses tools." When other animals (e.g., apes, corvids) were seen using tools, we became "the only animal who makes tools." When that failed, it became "the only animal who makes tools ahead of time and carries them around." This also has proven to be false; someone once claimed that the next revision would be, "the only animal that uses a Black & Decker table saw."
(de Waal says whenever a student writes about "non-human intelligence" he wants to write in the margin, "Why not non-hyena intelligence or non-shark intelligence?" Dividing intelligence into "human" and "everything else" is not useful scientifically.)
In one study, border collies were listed as the most intelligent dog species. The owner of a dog whose species (Afghan hound) rated much lower pointed out that this was because Afghans were "independent-minded, stubborn, and unwilling to follow orders." The list, he said, "was about obedience, not intelligence."
de Waal also notes that most of the tests which "proved" that animals had no cognition, or self-awareness, or whatever, were seriously flawed. Elephants were given the mirror test for self-awareness using a small mirror placed outside the bars of their cage in such a way that they may not have been able to see their faces in it. They failed the test. But when a large enough mirror was placed in the cage (eliminating a double set of bars), they passed.
Another example: experimenters claimed children and chimpanzees were given the same test. But the children were seated on their mothers' laps, in the same room as the experimenter, who was the same species as them. The chimpanzees were alone on a chair on the other side of a wire screen from the experimenter, who was not the same species as them.
Yet another: testing wolves against dogs with tests that involve interacting with, or taking cues from, humans (such as pointing tests) is not impartial. The dogs have all had much contact with humans, while the wolves rarely have. Wild wolves do poorly in pointing tests; the few wolves raised by humans do as well as dogs.
These are just a few of the topics de Waal covers. As I said, this is a book for general audiences, not a scientific paper full of tables of data, and as such, is certainly worthwhile for people interested in "animal intelligence."
To order Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? from amazon.com, click here.
ROBINSON CRUSOE by Daniel Defoe:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/12/2013]
ROBINSON CRUSOE by Daniel Defoe (ISBN 978-1-593-08360-1) was the companion book to the movie shown by our book/movie discussion group for July. (The movie was ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS.) The edition I read was published in the 1940s by Garden City Publishing Company, a Scribner's wannabe, with a cover by D. Cammerota and illustrations by Noel Pocock, who are N. C. Wyeth wannabes.
ROBINSON CRUSOE (often considered the first novel in the English language) was published in 1719, when knowledge of Africa was fairly sparse among the reading population, so the fact that Defoe (in the character of Crusoe) keeps talking about tigers in Africa probably would not have bothered the general public at that time. (Or, come to think of it, even now.)
On the other hand, Defoe is constantly excoriated for having Crusoe take off his clothes, swim out to the wreck, and fill his pockets with bread. But Crusoe says, "I pulled off my clothes ... and took the water." He does not say that he took off all his clothes, and indeed if someone said that today, we would not think it strange if they retained, e.g., their underwear. And indeed later, Crusoe says, "I had the mortification to see my coat, shirt, and waistcoat, which I had left on shore upon the sand, swim away; as for my breeches, which were only linen, and open-kneed, I swam on board in them and my stockings." Given that later he also says that even if the sun and weather were not a problem, he would not feel comfortable going about with no clothes, I think we can agree that by his initial statement Defoe never meant to include all Crusoe's clothing. [pages 62, 64]
This is not to say that Defoe does not have inconsistencies. Crusoe initially says he had nothing but a knife, a tobacco-pipe, and a little tobacco. Then, after a few years, Crusoe muses "how [he] must have acted if [he] had got nothing out of the ship." He concludes, "... if I had killed a goat or a fowl, by any contrivance, I had no way to flay or open them, or part the flesh from the skin and the bowels, or to cut it up..." He also says, "The second thing I would fain have had was a tobacco-pipe..." So he has managed to forget two of the three things he specifically mentioned having before he went back to the ship. [pages 61, 155, 129]
He claims that after four years, "My ink ... had been gone for some time, all but a very little, which I eked out with water, a little and a little, till it was so pale it scarce left any appearance of black upon the paper." But many years later he has enough ink to draw up a contract. [pages 157, ???]
The Biblical quotes are probably intended to be from the King James translation. What Defoe renders as "Call on Me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver, and thou shalt glorify Me," is Psalm 50:15 ("And call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me," in King James.) I cannot find "He is exalted a Prince and a Saviour" at all, though Acts 5:31 is close: "Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins." [page 114, 116]
Most people probably think of Crusoe as being shipwrecked somewhere in the south Pacific, but in fact he is somewhere in the western Caribbean. (He gives some description of his position, but what with two storms driving the ship, it is not possible to figure out exactly where.) [page 55]
Crusoe originally observes the Sabbath (Sunday) by marking it specially on his notched calendar and by not working, but says, "I soon neglected my keeping Sundays; for, omitting my mark for them on my post, I forgot which was which." He does seem to know the date, though, even after losing track of Sundays, so you would think it would be easy enough for him to count out days to determine when the Sundays would fall. [page 89]
The earthquake Crusoe experiences, and his later thoughts of it and religion, might seem to be inspired by the Lisbon, but that did not take place until 1755, almost forty years after ROBINSON CRUSOE was published. Defoe probably drew upon the (now) less well-known Lima earthquake of 1687, which destroyed the entire city. [pages 98-99, 109]
J. Donald Crowley claims that a he-goat changes into a she-goat, but again I think this is just reading too much into the words. Crusoe says, "In this journey my dog surprised a young kid, and seized upon it, and I running in to take hold of it, caught it, and save it alive from the dog. I had a great mind to bring it home if I could, for I had often been musing whether it might be possible to get a kid or two, and so raise a breed of tame goats... I made a collar to this little creature, and with a string, which I made of some rope-tarn, which I always carried about me, I led him along, though with some difficulty, till I came to my bower, and there I enclosed him and left him..." Through most of this, the kid is merely an "it", and the three references to "him" seem more like the off-hand male default than a specific gender. The references to "her" later, in reference to catching three more kids, seem more likely to be accurate, since they follow a long acquaintance. [pages 133, 171]
On a more serious level, one must recognize that by modern standards, Robinson Crusoe is a real sh*thead. He is captured by pirates and enslaved, but manages to escape with the help of another slave, a boy named Xury. When they are rescued by a Portuguese ship, the captain offers to buy everything Crusoe has, including sixty pieces of eight for what Crusoe terms "my boy Xury." (When did he become his boy?) Crusoe hesitates, saying, "I was very loth to sell the poor boy's liberty, who had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own." However, when the captain said that he would set the boy free in ten years if he converted to Christianity, Crusoe decides this is very reasonable, and so agrees. I cannot help but feel that if it were Crusoe's ten years and a requirement for him to convert to some other religion, he would be less sanguine about it. [page 46]
And after Crusoe has lived in Brazil a while and owns a plantation, his neighbors suggest they all take a ship to Africa to acquire some slaves without going through the government monopoly. This is the voyage during which he is shipwrecked (and all his shipmates killed), and it is hard not to feel there is some justice in this. [page 52]
Crusoe spends twenty-five years on the island before Friday shows up, and somehow retains his sanity and manages to do everything: make pottery, grow grain and turn it into bread, build huts and furniture, etc. I understand that a man of that period was more capable in basic tasks--I have no doubt he knows how to make fire from a flint, for example--but a lot of what Crusoe does is a bit more specialized. And it does seem unlikely that someone living in isolation for decades would not have gone "around the bend." In this regard, CAST AWAY is probably much more accurate. (And most imitations do not put a solitary person on an island. THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND by Jules Verne has a group of castaways. THE SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON by Johann David Wyss has a family. And so on. ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS has one castaway, but he finds a companion much sooner than Crusoe.)
Defoe must have been paid by the word--after a twenty-five-page account of his shipwreck and first days on the island, he gives us eight pages of journal which basically just repeats what he has already said.
To order Robinson Crusoe from amazon.com, click here.
"The Faithful" by Lester del Rey:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/20/2014]
"The Faithful", Lester del Rey (Astounding Science-Fiction, April 1938; THE EARLY DEL REY): This was del Rey's first story, and may well have served as inspiration for Clifford Simak's "City" stories, being a story of men and dogs in the far future.
"Helen O'Loy" by Lester del Rey:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/20/2014]
"Helen O'Loy", Lester del Rey (Astounding Science-Fiction, December 1938; Robert Silverberg's SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME): This was del Rey's second story, and one much imitated by subsequent authors. The best-known would probably be the "Twilight Zone" episode "The Lonely", written by Rod Serling. This, more than most of the other stories, is still effective and is the most readable of the batch. Yes, the gender roles in it are dated, but that is part of the the point--they are to a great extent created by the then-current pop culture images of them.
"Nerves" by Lester del Rey:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/11/2018]
"Nerves", by Lester del Rey (Astounding Science Fiction, September 1942): I started this in the 1956 novel version and the first chapter just about drove me up a wall.
Talking about the area around the atomic plant that is the scene of the story, the narrator (or perhaps the main character) thinks, "Behind the tract lay a great tract of barren land, stretching down a brackish little stream to a swamp farther away. That, at least, was useful, since it served as a dumping ground for their wastes." What?!!
"He let himself in the side entrance, palming his cigar out of long habit, though he'd had the 'No Smoking' signs removed years ago..."
And the doctors are really pleased that the nurse "bullied" a woman claiming radiation poisoning into giving a blood sample, and then one says, "At least there's a chance then. If that's it [leukemia], we can get a specialist to scare her with the facts. She ought to jump at the chance to ditch her lawyer for free treatment." Great--not only does medical treatment apparently cost a lot, but they're willing to use extortion by basically telling this woman that she will die unless she drops the lawsuit.
Well, it turns out that none of this is in the novella version, so I cannot down-rate it for them, but I have to wonder what del Rey was thinking when he wrote this stuff.
BABEL-17 by Samuel R. Delany:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/09/2010]
BABEL-17 by Samuel R. Delany is an old book (it was first published in 1966), but I had never read it before. One reason was that other Delany books I had read (DHALGREN, NOVA) had put me off Delany. Thinking about it, though, I wonder if some of that was that I had read those books when I was too young for them (NOVA when I was 22, DHALGREN when I was 25). Delany is not an easy author, and maybe one needs more maturity than I had then. At any rate, BABEL-17 when I was 59 did not seem nearly as hard to read (except maybe for Part Four, which I think is supposed to be hard to read). What made me pick it up was hearing that it was based on linguistics, and in particular on the idea of a(n artificial) language which has no first-person-singular pronouns (or first-person-plural, or second-person either). Having just finished listening to John H. McWhorter's Teaching Company course on human language, I was eager to read stories that used some of the ideas that I have just heard, and BABEL-17 did this. Delany definitely uses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis here--the idea that not having a first-person-singular pronoun will affect how a person regards himself (as opposed to the Sapper-Worf hypothesis, which says that Picard should transfer Worf to the bomb squad).
And consider the following passage: "I saw a bunch of the weirdest, oddest people I had ever met in my life, who thought different, and acted different, and even made love different. And they made me laugh, and get angry, and be happy, and be sad, and excited, and even fall in love a little. ... And they didn't seem to be so weird or strange anymore." The fact that this book is from 1966 means that this was written three years before Stonewall, so its lack of subtlety is understandable.
Oh, and there is humor as well. One off-stage character is named Muels Aranlyne, and he had written a book titled EMPIRE STAR. Samuel R. Delany wrote a novella titled EMPIRE STAR in 1966.
To order Babel-17 from amazon.com, click here.
NOTHING TO ENVY: ORDINARY LIVES IN NORTH KOREA by Barbara Demick:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/23/2010]
The subtitle of NOTHING TO ENVY: ORDINARY LIVES IN NORTH KOREA by Barbara Demick (ISBN 978-0-385-52390-5) is not quite accurate, because the six people Demick writes about all have something that set them apart from most North Koreans--they have escaped to South Korea. However else they may be "ordinary" North Koreans, that they had the desire and initiative to flee North Korea means that they are not ordinary.
What made them defect? Demick gives a few examples of what tipped the scales. One saw an American nail clipper and thought, "If North Korea couldn't make such a fine nail clipper, how could it compete with American weapons?" Another was someone who accidentally heard the South Korea broadcast of a situation comedy where two young women were fighting over a parking space. It isn't clear which flummoxed him more: that young women could own private cars or that there were so many cars that there weren't enough spaces for them. But the one that rang a bell was the person who saw a photo in the official media of oppressed South Koreans picketing against their exploitation by the capitalist system. All he noticed was that the oppressed workers had jackets with zippers and ballpoint pens in their pockets--both luxury items in North Korea. This is basically the same story as what happened in Russia when they screened THE GRAPES OF WRATH to show how bad American farm workers were treated: people's reaction was "You mean that in America even the poorest families own their own car?!"
The most specific part of Demick's book, and indeed of the people's stories, is about the Great Famine. Caused in part by factors beyond the government's control (flooding and natural disasters), it was exacerbated by the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and the rise of capitalism in China, with both countries cutting back on the economic aid they gave North Korea through subsidized prices and other ways. (In particular, the loss of imported oil was a major factor, affecting not only electricity production and fuel for farm machinery, but the manufacture of fertilizer and many other products necessary to maintain a standard of living. This is worth remembering.) Add to these factors the unwillingness of North Korea to admit there was a problem and to accept humanitarian aid until the famine had gone on for several years, and you have the reason that between one and three million North Koreans died as a result of food shortages. (As one escapee put it, by 1998 the worst was over, not because anything got better, but because "everyone who was going to die was already dead.") Demick describes how the six people she describes were affected by the famine and how they dealt with it.
All in all, a very enlightening book.
To order Nothing to Envy from amazon.com, click here.
"Sergeant Chip" by Bradley Denton:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/10/2005]
"Sergeant Chip" by Bradley Denton ("Fantasy & Science Fiction" 09/04) is, on the other hand, more in the traditional style. The eponymous character is a dog, albeit a very intelligent dog who is in telepathic contact with his human master/squad captain. If the war (and general political situation) that they are in seem very current, perhaps even too topical, one has to recall that the story could be transposed back to earlier wars as well, so I don't think one can claim this is merely a screed against the current war.
"Discourse on Method" by Rene Descartes:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/02/2003 and 05/16/2003]
I'm also reading Rene Descartes's "Discourse on Method" (and other works). Of "Discourse" there is little to say that hasn't been said before, but I did find his argument for the existence of God, while not as weak as that of St. Anselm, still a bit shaky. Basically, it seems to be that when he thinks of a perfect being, this thought is more perfect than he (Descartes) is, and so he could not have originated it, hence it must have originated from this more perfect being and placed in his (Descartes's) mind.
And in his "Synopsis" to his "Meditations", Descartes writes, "For although all the accidents of the mind be changed--Although, for example, it think certain things, will others, and perceive others, the mind itself does not vary with these changes; while, on the contrary, the human body is no longer the same if a change takes place in the form of any of its parts: from which it follows that the body may, indeed, without difficulty perish, but that the mind is in its own nature immortal." One wonders if he could still say that in these days of genetic engineering, plastic surgery, artificial hearts, and general surgical advances.
He also says, "[W]e cannot conceive body unless as divisible; while, on the other hand, mind cannot be conceived unless as indivisible. For we are not able to conceive the half of a mind, as we can of any body, however small, so that the natures of these two substances are to be held, not only as diverse, but even in some measure as contraries." Again, modern discoveries of "multiple personalities" (disassociative identity disorder) would put this into question in a way that Descartes never dreamed of.
But perhaps even more basic is Descartes's famous, "Cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"). In his first Meditation, he suggests, "For perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be." So how does he account for sleep, and his apparent continuity through it?
Also, at one point he says, "In all fraud and deceit there is a certain imperfection," while he why he claims, "It is impossible that [God] should will to deceive me." But later he says, "I am not always capable of comprehending the reasons why God acts as he does" and "God is immense, incomprehensble, and infinite, I have no longer any difficulty in discerning that there is an infinity of things in his power whose causes transcent the grasp of my mind." Therefore, it would seem that there might be some reason why God would will to deceive him that he can't comprehend.
(Coincidentally, I have been running across a lot of articles recently discussing the differences between Descartes's view of the mind-body dichotomy and Spinoza's. Among them are http://tinyurl.com/bjtq from the New York Times and http://tinyurl.com/bjtx from the Guardian, as well as an earlier article from the New York Times that is no longer on-line.)
To order Discourse on Method from amazon.com, click here.
THE BIG BOOK OF JEWISH CONSPIRACIES by David Deutsch and Joshua Newman:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/09/2007]
My complaint about THE BIG BOOK OF JEWISH CONSPIRACIES by David Deutsch and Joshua Newman (ISBN-10 0-312-33439-7, ISBN-13 978-0-312-33439-0) is not that it presents all the classic "Jewish conspiracies" as true. It is that the authors seemed reticent to give the writing even a smidgen of believability. (Goliath, they say, was bribed to throw the fight and used the money to open "a small bistro specializing in Meso-Mediterranean fusion." Maybe they were worried that if they had anything at all plausible, someone would use it to bolster their own claims of conspiracies. The result is something even less convincing than the parody newspaper "The Onion". Come to think of it, though, "The Onion" has managed to be taken seriously by the media in other countries, so maybe Deutsch and Neuman would be right to be concerned. Deutsch and Neuman are the editors and publisher of "Heeb: The New Review", which the "New York Post" described as "a cross between 'The Onion' and 'Vanity Fair'." Perhaps when they do not have to sustain a premise through an entire book, it works better.
To order The Big Book of Jewish Conspiracies from amazon.com, click here.
THROUGH THE LANGUAGE GLASS: WHY THE WORLD LOOKS DIFFERENT IN OTHER LANGUAGES by Guy Deutscher:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/17/2014]
THROUGH THE LANGUAGE GLASS: WHY THE WORLD LOOKS DIFFERENT IN OTHER LANGUAGES by Guy Deutscher (ISBN 978-0-8050-8195-4) covers a lot of what I have discussed here before: William Gladstone's analysis of color in Homer's writings, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and so on.
Back in 2012 I wrote about how the words for colors develop in a language, and the use of color in Homer. Linguists had discovered that all languages create words for color in a particular order. The first words created are for black and white. Next invariably comes red, and after that yellow and green, although the order of the latter two may vary, and last comes blue. Apparently orange, purple, brown, and other more specific colors such as aquamarine come later and in some sense do not count, although in some languages there are more terms than we have for "basic" colors. For example, Russian has a word for light blue (goluboy) and another for dark blue (siniy), but no word for just blue.
In the 19th century William Gladstone was the first to point out that Homer's use of words for color was, well, odd. Homer rarely mentioned color, and never mentioned blue. The term "wine-looking" (or "wine-dark") was applied both to the sea and to oxen.
Gladstone's explanation was that the Homeric Greeks had no sense of color other than black, white, and red. Linguist Guy Deutscher (among others) claimed this was wrong, that the Greeks could distinguish colors every bit as we can.
But Deutscher seems to have modified his views somewhat. While it is true that the Homeric Greeks were not color-blind in the traditional sense, they may have been color-blind because they were not attuned to distinguishing between some colors. Various experiments have shown that if a culture does not have different names for green and blue, it will take longer for people from that culture to distinguish that a blue swatch is different from a bunch of green swatches than it would for a person who had different names for the color of the blue swatch and the color of the green swatches. (The same occurs when showing people a set of dark blue swatches and a slightly lighter blue swatch. If the difference crosses the "goluboy/siniy" line, a Russian-speaker can detect the difference faster than an English-speaker.
Deutscher says that one issue of "blue" is that there really is not much blue in nature. (The blue flowers we see and all artificially created genetically.) Until one can create a color, he says, there is no need for a term for it. Red is the easier color to produce; blue is the hardest.
As for the sky, Deutscher performed an experiment. After his daughter Alma was born, he and his wife taught her all the colors, including blue, with one exception: they never told her the sky was blue. Then when she knew her colors well, he asked her what color the sky was. At first, she could not understand the question; the sky was not a thing like a blue ball or a blue towel. Then, after many weeks of being asked, she said it was white. Only later did she say it was blue. She came to this conclusion on her own, but had someone not been asking her, she might not have ever thought about it.
Deutscher says of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that Sapir and Whorf looked at the wrong aspect. They said that the language limited what people could think of, but as Deutscher points out, the lack of a word does not mean the idea does not exist. That is how new words are created or adopted. English has no word for "Schadenfreude"--or rather, the English word for "Schadenfreude" is "Schadenfreude".
Deutscher says that language does affect how we think, but it is in what it requires, not what it allows. When we say we met a friend for lunch, the listener does not know whether the friends is male or female unless we choose to tell them. In French, we must specify the sex. When we make a statement, we do not need to specify how or why we think it is true. The Matses has a system of evidentiality for verbs that requires the speaker to say whether they are speaking from direct evidence, inference, conjecture, or hearsay. (They also have three different forms for the past, depending on whether it is immediate, recent, or distant.)
To order Through the Language Glass from amazon.com, click here.
WOMEN AND THE MILITARY by John P. Dever and Maria C. Dever:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/28/2014]
WOMEN AND THE MILITARY by John P. Dever and Maria C. Dever (ISBN 0-89950-976-2) is almost entirely about the United States military, with a few seemingly random additions from the rest of the world: Deborah, Boudicea, Joan of Arc, Hannah Senesh, ... There is one fighter pilot from the World War II era in the USSR, and no one from any Axis countries. (Given that the Germans had women testing jet fighters, you would think one of them would have been included.) The whole book seems to be written at a young-adult level, and the index merely recapitulates the table of contents. (You would think they would at least add an entry for "Molly Pitcher" rather than expecting you to know to look her up under "Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley".) This is the sort of book school libraries might want to encourage girls to look at "non-traditional" careers and to provide material for reports for Women's History Month, but there is not much more than that it is useful for.
To order Women and the Military from amazon.com, click here.
THE MATH INSTINCT by Keith Devlin:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/21/2005]
THE MATH INSTINCT by Keith Devlin (ISBN 1-56025-672-9) has two "discoveries" worth noting. One is that many animals have mathematical ability, either in their apparent ability to understand basic arithmetic, or in a honeybee's "knowledge" that a hexagon is the most efficient tesselation, or in a dog's ability to determine a minimum-length path that we must use calculus to calculate. The other is that many people who do badly on arithmetic tests can apply that same arithmetic perfectly in real life. (For example, a twelve-year-old Brazilian street vendor had no problem telling a customer how much ten coconuts were if one cost thirty-five cruzeiros, the same child could not give the correct answer when asked what ten times thirty-five was.) I'm not sure all his examples count as a "math instinct" (stereo vision, for example, may have mathematical principles that explain it, but it is not an "instinct" per se), but they are thought-provoking.
To order The Math Instinct from amazon.com, click here.
THE COURSE OF EMPIRE by Bernard DeVoto:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/23/2007]
I recently finished THE COURSE OF EMPIRE by Bernard DeVoto (ISBN-13 978-0-395-92498-3, ISBN-10 0-395-92498-7). At one point during that time, I was watching an episode of Showtime's "Masters of Horror" and found myself thinking, "Why am I watching this when I could be reading THE COURSE OF EMPIRE?" Whether this says something about THE COURSE OF EMPIRE or about "Masters of Horror" (or indeed, about me) is left for you to decide.
In any case, DeVoto has a very flowery and enjoyable (to me, anyway) style. Writing of Europe in 1962, DeVoto says, "The imperial frontiers in North America were captive to the forces Louis XIV had loosed. The one last war that would master Europe exhausted Europe but settled nothing. For two years after it ended diplomacy tried to create a stable alignment of the powers. The best hope of peace lay in the fact that for half a century Spain had been falling like Lucifer son of morning and was now prostrate. Its possessions spread across Europe without logic of geography or nationality. If they could be satisfactorily distributed among the powers peace might follow like the well-being of a man who has dined well."
Or, "England raised up Pitt and Pitt was the father of victory. He organized a second war, a global one. He roused the British people to the highest pitch of patriotism they had ever known and made them--by that time they had repudiated him, which is what happens to British geniuses who win wars--the greatest commercial nation and the greatest colonial power."
DeVoto spends a couple of paragraphs discussing why the Louisiana Purchase was probably illegal. It was not that there was no provision in the Constitution to acquire more land, but rather for three other reasons. First, Napoleon did not own Louisiana when he sold it to the United States, because the "Retrocession" from Spain had not yet gone through. Second, he did not consult the Senate and Legislative Assembly of the French Republic, as he was required to do. And last, the Treaty of San Ildefonso, which was instrumental in granting Louisiana to France, also said that Louisiana would revert to Spain if there was any attempt to "cede or alienate it." So Napoleon's mere offer of Louisiana was enough to cause it to revert to Spain. Of course, this is somewhat moot, as Spain (and the Senate and Legislative Assembly) could not enforce any of this.
One problem with reading this is that DeVoto frequently uses out-moded spellings for proper names (for example, "Spanyards"). Admittedly most of this is in direct quotation, but it still brings one up short for an instant. He refers to Meriwether Lewis's dog as "Scammon" where now he is universally called "Seaman". (This probably just means that Lewis had abominable hand-writing which has recently been re-interpreted.)
To order The Course of Empire from amazon.com, click here.
THE EMPEROR OF GONDWANALAND AND OTHER STORIES by Paul Di Filippo:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/24/2006]
In the 09/09/05 issue of the MT VOID, I talked about Jorge Luis Borges at some length including a long commentary on "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius". At one point I suggested that if someone wanted to do a theme anthology, they could do worse than one of stories inspired by Borges. Well, they can add the title story of THE EMPEROR OF GONDWANALAND AND OTHER STORIES by Paul Di Filippo (ISBN 1-56025-665-6) to their table of contents. In "The Emperor of Gondwanaland", Mutt Spindler starts looking at web pages for micro-nations and finds a site for Gondwanaland. This site was far more elaborate than other micro-nation sites, with a wealth of detail and dozens of boards discussing all aspects of life in Gondwanaland. At first Mutt thinks that these are all people who are even more fanatic than Civil War re-enactors or Renaissance Faire types, but soon he begins to think there is something more. Certainly even at this point the elaborate imagined world is reminiscent of Borges's story about Tlon, but when Spindler goes to Buenos Aires to find the "Funes district of Tlun" I think we can conclude that Borges was a major inspiration for this story. (Strangely, Di Filippo mentions a Steely Dan song as inspiration in his introduction, but not Borges.)
To order The Emperor of Gondwanaland from amazon.com, click here.
FUZZY DICE by Paul Di Filippo:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/30/2004]
Paul Di Filippo's FUZZY DICE (ISBN 1-902880-66-8, PS Publishing, UK) is one of a new sub-genre of science fiction written by Di Filippo, Rudy Rucker, and Clifford Pickover (among others), though its roots go back to Edwin Abbott. If the sub-genre has a name, I don't know it. It's not "mathematical science fiction" per se, but that's a big part of it. I would describe it as science fiction with a heavy underpinning of quantum physics and geometry. In FUZZY DICE, the narrator is given a yo-yo and a Pez dispenser that let him travel between alternate worlds (as in the multiple-worlds theory of quantum physics). One of them, a cellular automata world, has a lot of similarities to Abbott's FLATLAND. Another is a more traditional alternate world in which hippies have taken control. (Rudy Rucker provides the introduction with a summary on page five of all the worlds visited. Don't read it first.)
All this is imbued with a sense of humor. For example, when the narrator is first visited by the being who gives him the yo-yo and dispenser, a creature he describes as "a self-similar metal shrub of fractal dimensions", he responds thusly: "I scooted back, bumping into a rack of abridged audiobooks. 'No way! I don't even know why I'm listening to you! You're probably just a hallucination anyhow. I knew I was on the verge of cracking up, but I didn't realize I had finally gone over the edge! Or maybe I fell asleep reading that boring science book. An undigested blot of Egg McMuffin, that's what you are!' I slapped myself across the face to wait myself up, and it hurt like the dickens."
This was published as a limited edition in Britain, so whether it will ever become widely available in the United States or even Canada is unclear. (Canada is a good place to buy British books--the exchange rate is reasonable, and the shipping charges are much better. I usually save up my purchases for our annual trip to Toronto, but I have also used http://www.chapters.ca.)
To order Fuzzy Dice from amazon.com, click here.
THE RED TENT by Anita Diamant:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/22/2009]
A few weeks ago I was in the minority in my opinion of Cory Doctorow's LITTLE BROTHER, and now I find myself in that position with THE RED TENT by Anita Diamant (ISBN-13 978-0-312-19551-9, ISBN-10 0-312-19551-9). The only reason I read this book was because it was chosen for our book discussion group.
Let me start by giving some of the reasons other people gave for disliking it and explaining why they are not my reasons:
Many have said it was not "Christian", which strikes me as besides the point (especially given that Diamant is Jewish). People also say it was advertised as "Christian fiction", which is like claiming Shakespeare is an American author. (After I read the dozenth or so description of this book about the daughter of Jacob and Leah, with its events taking place around 1800 B.C.E., as being "Christian fiction", I was ready to heave the book at the next person who said that.)
More generally, people have also said it was "blasphemous," or tried to destroy or belittle their faith. Whether that is true or not, an author is not obliged to write books supporting people's faith.
There was also the complaint that it was "disgusting" in its emphasis on blood, birthing, and sex. I would contend that those aspects seemed overdone to me, but I'm not sure that "disgusting" is a fair description.
No, my complaints are as follows:
First, Diamant supposedly bases her story on the Biblical account in Genesis. But she assumes that (almost) everything in that one existing account is a lie. If she's going to do that, she should just make up fictional characters. Other authors have written "responses" to stories, but they relied on the original stories being at worst mis-interpretations, not outright lies. (Examples would be Gregory Maguire's WICKED and others, or Stephen Baxter's THE TIME SHIPS.) Among other things, Diamant changes the genealogy around, assigning children to different parents and creating twins where none existed before. She also ignores all oral tradition (midrash) on Dinah (and everyone else involved). Most, but not all, of her changes seem to be aimed at attacking almost all the men in the story.
As one reviewer said (rather charitably, I thought), "Diamant penned an interesting tale, but she never let the Genesis account get in the way of her story."
It is similar to THE DA VINCI CODE in this regard, though the latter is even more clearly contrary to fact, given that it contradicts facts in much more recent and better-documented history. But it can be argued that both contradict their sources and by doing so, offend their readers.
Diamant also seems to misunderstand the religious dynamic of the time. The (pagan) wives would have been more accepting of their husbands' god (El); it is the (monotheistic) husbands would violently object to the gods (and goddesses) that their wives worshipped.
I am not an expert on the Bronze Age, but many who are say that Diamant's portrayal of it is completely inaccurate. (So it is definitely troubling to see reader's comments that say, "I must admit that this book was interesting as I did learn a few things about the traditions back in those days.") One example of inaccuracy is the mention of the Valley of the Kings--the first royal burial in that area was not until about three hundred years after this story takes place.
I do know something about menstrual cycles, and while the cycles of women in the same house may actually synchronize, they have nothing to do with the lunar cycle, do not always occur with the new moon, do not occur simultaneously for all women in the entire region (world?), and do not last the same length of time for all. Even if they did, that time would hardly be what appears to be the equivalent of a spa vacation. First of all, while all the women are lying around doing nothing, who is cooking and baking and drawing water? Since it can't be the men, but it must be someone, the only possibility I can think of is that there are a whole bunch of female slaves who don't get to share all this "sisterhood is powerful" monthly session.
And there is the rather obvious problem that all the men in the story are brutes. (The rare exceptions are not very realistic either.)
Someone wrote, "Not a surprise that one reviewer compared this book to [THE] MISTS OF AVALON--both books insert contemporary neo-pagan beliefs and sensibilities into stories set in earlier times, and both books delight advocates of women-centric neo-pagan spirituality."
And finally, and most importantly to me, nothing much happens. In the Biblical version, the events that occur are important because they are the will of God, and are the basis of the formation of his "chosen people." But THE RED TENT denies this basis, placing the people in a mundane situation with no special position, and no real evidence of a God guiding them, so what happens has no real import. That Esau sold his birthright to Jacob is important in the Bible is important because Jacob will become the ancestor of Israel. In THE RED TENT, Esau and Jacob are just two illiterate shepherds struggling for power in their immediate family. Having removed all historical reason for caring what happens to these people, Diamant has not replaced that with anything. (And had she changed the names of the people in this story to lose all Biblical reference, then I doubt anyone would read it.)
What I find most surprising is that this book is on high school reading lists. It clearly offends many religious people, the history (and biology) is bad, and nothing interesting happens.
To order The Red Tent from amazon.com, click here.
COLLAPSE: HOW SOCIETIES CHOOSE TO FAIL OR SUCCEED by Jared Diamond:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/29/2005]
Jared Diamond's COLLAPSE: HOW SOCIETIES CHOOSE TO FAIL OR SUCCEED (ISBN 0-670-03337-5) is not as well structured as his earlier book, GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL: THE FATES OF HUMAN SOCIETIES. Diamond hops around quite a bit in both time and space in COLLAPSE, and (perhaps more seriously) in what factors he examines. So when he looks at past societies, he goes from Easter Island (failed) to Pitcairn Island (failed) to the Anasazi (failed) to the Mayas (failed) to Iceland (succeeded) to Greenland (failed) to New Guinea (succeeded). There is no chronological or geographic progression, nor is there a continuum of factors here. (The five factors he cites and examines are ecological damage by humans, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly neighbors, and a society's responses to problems.) He also spends a lot of time discussing Montana's Bitterroot Valley as an example of how a current society is responding to problems. In addition to the lack of "flow", I thought Diamond spent a lot of time repeating himself. I understand that he wanted to show the similarities and differences in the various collapses, but I found myself skipping chunks of material that I felt he had already presented in earlier chapters. Diamond is not anti-big-business, but he is an environmentalist. A lot of the later part of the book discusses how what is good for the environment can be good for business, but I can't say I left feeling wildly optimistic.
To order Collapse from amazon.com, click here.
THE COLLECTED POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON by Emily Dickinson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/14/2018]
I recently bought a book titled THE COLLECTED POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON (ISBN 978-1-59308-050-1). Now, when you buy something labeled "The Collected Works of" don't you expect all their works? It is not called "Some Collected Works of" or "Some Works of" or even "Collected Works of", but "*The* Collected Works of". Well, this book is not the collected 1717 poems of Emily Dickinson. but only 593 of them. I didn't pay of a lot of money for this (it was a dollar at a Friends of the Library book sale), but it seems very deceptive.
To order The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson from amazon.com, click here.
THE WORD OF GOD, OR, HOLY WRIT REWRITTEN by Thomas M. Disch:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/09/2011]
THE WORD OF GOD, OR, HOLY WRIT REWRITTEN, by Thomas M. Disch (ISBN 978-1-892391-77-3) is ... well, what is it anyway? Part fiction, part poetry, part memoir, part satire, it seems to be a medley more than a novel, or even a collection.
The premise of this first-person narrative is that Disch is a god (or possibly the God--it is not quite clear). Disch explains how everyone seems to have gotten the whole God thing wrong, along with stories of how Philip K. Dick tried to kill him by going back in time and killing Thomas Mann (purportedly Disch's real father), how Disch got baptized at Noah's Ark Mission, and his opinions of monotheism, of evil, and of a whole lot more. Some of the stories are probably true, some are clearly false, and some you cannot tell. Did Dick really think Harrison Ford was trying to kill him? As if anticipating some of these questions, the copyright page says, "All events portrayed in this book, and any resemblance to real people or events, especially the late Philip K. Dick, is purely coincidental."
The framework parts are reminiscent of Mark Twain, but the inserted stories and poems are pure Disch (except when the poems are someone else's). There is a lot of discussion of suicide in this book, published in 2008, shortly before Disch committed suicide on July 4 of that year, and overall, this is singularly appropriate as the final work of Disch's career.
To order The Word of God from amazon.com, click here.
"I, Robot" by Cory Doctorow:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/19/2006]
I guess this is the Year of the Robot. In the novella category we had "Identity Theft" by Robert J. Sawyer, and in the novelette category, we have "I, Robot" by Cory Doctorow (THE INFINITE MATRIX, Feb 15, 2005). Doctorow's story is set in Toronto, which is also where Sawyer lives, so maybe it's something in the air in Toronto. This is probably best described by Doctorow himself, who says, "Last spring, in the wake of Ray Bradbury pitching a tantrum over Michael Moore appropriating the title of FAHRENHEIT 451 to make FAHRENHEIT 9/11, I conceived of a plan to write a series of stories with the same titles as famous sf shorts, which would pick apart the totalitarian assumptions underpinning some of sf's classic narratives."
THE HORUS KILLINGS by P. C. Doherty:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/31/2004]
I picked up P. C. Doherty's THE HORUS KILLINGS (ISBN 0-425-18293-2) at a dollar store, and while it was certainly worth that price, I didn't find it enthralling enough to recommend paying cover price. This may be a problem I have with mysteries in general. I generally see most of them as puzzles, and would not want to re-read them. The ones I would recommend would be the more literary ones that warrant multiple readings. (And I was pleased to read someone's description of John Dickson Carr recently as an author who wrote entirely for the puzzle aspect of how the murder was done, with no style or characterization or even much motivation. I thought I was the only one who thought that.) Anyway, this was what I would call a good "beach read" (or would have, before this week's events made beaches no longer the relaxing places they used to be).
To order The Horus Killings from amazon.com, click here.
THE FORGER'S SPELL: A TRUE STORY OF VERMEER, NAZIS, AND THE GREATEST ART HOAX OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY by Edward Dolnick:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/25/2008]
THE FORGER'S SPELL: A TRUE STORY OF VERMEER, NAZIS, AND THE GREATEST ART HOAX OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY by Edward Dolnick (ISBN-13 978-0-06-082541-6, ISBN-10 0-06-082541-3) is primarily about Han van Meegeren, a painter who forged several Vermeers which fooled even the leading art critics of the day. Dolnick goes into a lot of technical detail of how van Meegeren did this, and even more on the psychology of convincing people that forgeries are real. He also explains how critics in the 1930s were fooled but we can tell immediately these are fakes. One reason, he says, is that van Meegeren's women have features that were considered beautiful in the 1930s when he painted them, but not now. So while his audience saw beauty, we do not. He actually makes a science fiction connection, saying, "science fiction always tells as much about the era when it was created as about the era it tries to imagine. In the future as it was portrayed in the fifties, for instance, husbands commuted to work in personal rockets and wives stayed home and cooked up meals in a pill. For a decade or two, readers found it all quite plausible." (page 221)
One might compare this to films. We can look at a film made about Troy for example, and be able to tell whether it was made in the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1980s, or the 2000s. Even if someone tries to make a film now that looks old, there are often things that give it away. Some are technical, but others are harder to define. The Timothy Hines version of WAR OF THE WORLDS was made to look Edwardian--though obviously no one was making color sound films then--but it is clearly a product of the 2000s rather than, say, the 1950s.
I have two quibbles with THE FORGER'S SPELL. One is that the book is told in a strange order. For the first hundred pages Dolnick talks about Nazi art looting and thefts, then he jumps back to the creation and selling of forged Vermeers in the 1920s and 1930s. As each major character is introduced Dolnick has to jump back in time again to give the background of that character, which gives the narrative a "stop-and-start" quality. Then he finishes with the discovery of the forgeries, after the war. So Dolnick tells the middle chapter of the story, then the beginning, and then the end.
It is not until the epilogue that Dolnick addresses why a painting thought to be by painter X is worth millions, but when it turns out to be by painter Y, it is worth $1.98. (Actually, good forgeries are worth more than that, but as curiosities rather than as art.) We have this idea that art should be valued as art, but it seems that much of it is valued as relic. Van Meegeren asked, "Yesterday this picture was worth millions of guilders, and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it. Today, it is worth nothing, and nobody would cross the street to see it from free. But the picture has not changed. What has?"
Dolnick's answer is three-fold. First, "the world was full of people who thought of themselves as art lovers but were in fact merely snobs." Second, he quotes Alfred Lessing, who said that Vermeer was great because "he painted certain pictures in a certain manner at a certain time in the history and development of art." And lastly, Dolnick says, "When we praise a work of ark, we have in mind not only the finished product but the way that product was made. ... [The] forger has the unfair advantage of working from someone else's model." (page 291)
To order The Forger's Spell from amazon.com, click here.
HOLLYWOOD ENLISTS! by Ralph Donald:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/08/2017]
HOLLYWOOD ENLISTS! by Ralph Donald (ISBN 978-1-4422-7726-7) is a reasonably good coverage of Hollywood films during World War II. Donald lists a half dozen tropes that one finds in war propaganda ("the enemy are beasts", "we are just defending our way of life", and so on) and examines how films made in Hollywood exemplify these tropes. This would be of particular interest to fans of war movies, but a bit pricy for the casual reader.
To order Hollywood Enlists! from amazon.com, click here.
BABEL: AROUND THE WORLD IN TWENTY LANGUAGES and LINGO: AROUND EUROPE IN SIXTY LANGUAGES by Gaston Dorrin:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/05/2019]
For people interested in "popular linguistics writing" (sort of a parallel to "popular science writing", I can recommend Gaston Dorrin's BABEL: AROUND THE WORLD IN TWENTY LANGUAGES (ISBN 978-0-802-14780-6) and LINGO: AROUND EUROPE IN SIXTY LANGUAGES (ISBN 978-0-802-12571-2). The former is twenty chapters on the twenty most widely spoken languages, and their individual "foibles" (as Amazon's summary calls them). The latter is a look at sixty European languages, and their histories and foibles. I found them a whole lot of fun, and they pass muster by John McWhorter, who has recommended them on his "Lexicon Valley: podcast, so they are definitely worth your time if you have any interest oin this subject.
To order Babel from amazon.com, click here.
To order Lingo from amazon.com, click here.
NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND by Fyodor Dostoevsky:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/03/2015]
NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND by Fyodor Dostoevsky (ISBN 978-0-486-27053-1) was written in 1864. I mention this because early on, the narrator writes, "I did not know how to become anything: neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. ... I want now to tell you ... why I could not even become an insect. I tell you solemnly, that I have many times tried to become an insect." If you did not know that Franz Kafka wrote THE METAMORPHOSIS in 1915, fifty years after NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND, you might think that Dostoevsky was inspired by Kafka when, if anything, it was the other way around. Such is the power that Kafka had that he made the trope distinctively his.
Dostoevsky (in the person of the narrator) claims, "The enjoyment of the sufferer finds expression in those moans; if he did not feel enjoyment in them he would not moan." I think Dostoevsky was not as much a behavioral psychologist as he thought. I suspect moaning, screaming, and crying out are reflexes that evolved when if you were injured, the best thing to do was to cry out for help.
"In any case civilization has made mankind if not more blood-thirsty, at least vilely, more loathsomely blood-thirsty. In old days he saw justice in bloodshed and with his conscience at peace exterminated those he thought proper. Now we do think bloodshed abominable and yet we engage in this abomination, and with more energy than ever. Which is worse? Decide that for yourselves." It is a hundred and fifty years later and one suspects Dostoevsky would not have changed his opinion much.
"What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. ... And in particular it may be more advantageous than any advantage even when it does us obvious harm, and contradicts the soundest conclusions of our reason--for in any circumstances it preserves for us what is most precious and most important--that is, our personality, our individuality."
Or more concisely, one is forced to believe in free will. (Or, as the old joke continues, one chooses to believe in determinism.)
"May it not be that he loves chaos and destruction ... because he is instinctively afraid of attaining his object and completing the edifice he is constructing?" I would not say I love chaos and destruction, but I do tend to put off finalizing projects--wrapping a gift, sealing an envelope, etc.--until almost the last minute. I don't have this problem with reversible actions; for example, I have no problem emptying the dishwasher and putting all the dishes away. But when the step is "irreversible", something kicks in.
I cannot say I recommend NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND--it is far too bleak and downbeat to recommend. (I read it because there was a film made of it that seemed to be considered well-done, and I figured I should read the book before seeing the movie.)
To order Notes from Underground from amazon.com, click here.
I RODE WITH STONEWALL by Henry Kyd Douglas:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/08/2004]
Henry Kyd Douglas's I RODE WITH STONEWALL (ISBN 0-891-76040-7) is one of many first-person Civil War accounts I picked up when one of the local used bookstores closed. Douglas was on Jackson's staff, and so there is a lot more about the major personalities and anecdotes and less of details about battles than one would find in a foot soldier or line officer's account.
To order I Rode with Stonewall from amazon.com, click here.
UNCLE PETROS & GOLDBACH'S CONJECTURE by Apostolos Doxiadis:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/12/2003]
Apostolos Doxiadis's UNCLE PETROS & GOLDBACH'S CONJECTURE is a novel that started out with some intriguing characters, and I had high hopes for it. Unfortunately, it turned into a thinly veiled book describing Goldbach's Conjecture, the history of efforts to solve it, and observations about mathematics in general and number theory in particular. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I would have preferred a straight non-fiction book for this purpose. When I pick up a novel, I had a different set of expectations than when I pick up a non-fiction book, and I had to re-adjust those when I realized what was going on. (In science fiction jargon, I guess you could say that the book was one massive infodump.)
To order Uncle Petros & Goldbach's Conjecture from amazon.com, click here.
THE SEVEN SISTERS by Margaret Drabble:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/25/2012]
THE SEVEN SISTERS by Margaret Drabble (ISBN 978-0-15-100740-0) was recommended by Dr. Braund during her Aeneid lectures for Stanford. That's one advantage of the non-Teaching Company courses. Because they are (usually) longer, and also not committed to being so self-contained, the professors can recommend other books, movies, TV shows, and so on, that the Teaching Company audience is not as receptive to following up on. (The major marketing strategy of the Teaching Company is that you can get an education just by listening to their courses while commuting, exercising, or whatever.)
Anyway, THE SEVEN SISTERS is about Candida Wilton, a divorcee in London who was part of an adult education class on Virgil. The class is canceled when the building is converted into a fitness center, but when Candida gets an unexpected windfall, she convinces the teacher, two other students, and two friends to join her on a "Virgil" tour of Carthage (Tunisia) and Italy. Most of the novel is about the same sorts of things that most modern novels are, but there is a lot of Virgil in it as well. There are many references that readers unfamiliar with Virgil will not understand. (For example, the pilot ship for the ferry is named "Ascanius", and Candida talks about how she doesn't have a Golden Bough to take to the Cumaean Sybil.) In fact, the only parts of the book I enjoyed were the Virgilian references. On the other hand, I can see how this is probably popular as a "woman's book" and with book discussion groups.
To order The Seven Sisters from amazon.com, click here.
MÁS ALLÁ DEL ARROZ Y LA HABICHUELAS: LA GUÍA LATINO-CARIBEÑA PARA COMER SANO CON DIABETES (BEYOND RICE AND BEANS: THE CARIBBEAN LATINO GUIDE TO EATING HEALTHY WITH DIABETES) by Lorena Drago:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/30/2009]
MÁS ALLÁ DEL ARROZ Y LA HABICHUELAS: LA GUÍA LATINO-CARIBEÑA PARA COMER SANO CON DIABETES (BEYOND RICE AND BEANS: THE CARIBBEAN LATINO GUIDE TO EATING HEALTHY WITH DIABETES) by Lorena Drago (ISBN-13 978-1-58-040221-7, ISBN-10 1-58-040221-6) is a food guide in the format of an Ace Double, one side in English and the other in Spanish. I had hoped to find some good recipes to serve my father, but it is not a cookbook. Rather it is a guide to adapting Puerto Rican/Dominican/Cuban cuisine for diabetics. Reading it, though, I learned a lot about Puerto Rican cuisine I did not know (or realize). For example, my father is always asking for more liquid when I served him beans. It turns out that Puerto Rican cuisine includes the concept of "el caldito do habichuelas", or bean sauce, served over rice. (This is not a thick gravy, but something of soup-like consistency.) Presumably this started as an economy measure way to stretch the beans further, but it seems to be popular even when economics don't demand it.
At the very beginning of the book, Drago tells of a home health nurse from Puerto Rico who asked a weight loss center for information on Latin diets and was handed a menu that contained enchiladas and tacos. "Where are the menus with pasteles, and arroz con gandules?" she asked. And Drago also cited an article titled "Dominicans Do Not Eat Tacos" by Joan Clifford. This book, at least, seems to recognize the differences. (Oh, and it does have a couple of recipes.)
To order Más Allá del Arroz y las Habichuelas from amazon.com, click here.
HEADS TO THE STORM edited by David Drake and Sandra Miesel:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/09/2007]
HEADS TO THE STORM edited by David Drake and Sandra Miesel (ISBN-10 0-671-69847-8, ISBN-13 978-0-671-69847-8) is a "tribute to Rudyard Kipling," but I suspect you have to be more of a Kipling fan than I am to see the influences in some of the pieces. Some of the introductions explain the connections, but a lot are more about how the author discovered Kipling. Unfortunately, there is a certain sameness to these--the "Just So" stories, then the "Jungle Book" stories, and so on. Kipling fans will undoubtedly like this better than I did, though.
To order Heads to the Storm from amazon.com, click here.
THE TWO GEORGES by Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove (Tor, ISBN 0-312-85969-4, 1996, 384pp, hardback):
The cover describes Dreyfuss as an Oscar winner, and Turtledove as a Hugo winner. Of the two, the latter is perhaps more germane to the book--Dreyfuss won as an actor, not a writer. But Turtledove has said that Dreyfuss contributed heavily to the dialogue, so perhaps this is a more equal partnership than last year's team of Gingrich and Forstchen. However, this book does have the (apparently) obligatory sex scene. Mercifully, this one is shorter.
The premise of The Two Georges is that there was no American Revolution. The exact details of how this occurred (or perhaps more accurately, failed to occur) are not spelled out. This is actually a good touch, because too often the background is given as a sort of "lump," something like, "Fred mused how different the world would be if Queen Mary had died earlier and her bastard sister Elizabeth had become Queen of England." There's actually something refreshing about not getting all the details.
Of course, Dreyfuss and Turtledove don't entirely avoid this sort of thing. There are a fair number of references to what Washington or King George (the two Georges of the title) did and how that affected the present. Given that we rarely find ourselves thinking how different our world would be if there were no American Revolution, at least in our daily routine, this does feel a bit artificial. And the main character at one point is reading The United Colonies Triumphant, an alternate history book about our world.
The book is alternate history but the plot is strictly mystery: the famous Gainsborough painting "The Two Georges" has been stolen while touring the North American colonies and just before King-Emperor Charles III was due to speak in front of it. The radical separatist group, the Sons of Liberty, has stolen it and is demanding a ransom for its return, and Colonel Thomas Bushnell and Samuel Stanley of the RAMP are assigned to recover the painting, which is a major cultural icon (sort of like the original Declaration of Independence).
Turtledove is good at research, so it's hard to find errors per se. One of my complaints is more a stylistic one: I find it difficult to believe that two hundred years after the break point we would have any of the same people as we have in our world, and in very similar positions. In particular, I find it difficult to explain how Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been as involved in politics in a society with far fewer racial problems that our own as he was in ours. I also question whether the Irish would be as prominent, since a change in politics preventing the American Revolution might very well have prevented the Irish Potato Famine as well. Other references that served more as stumbling blocks than stepping stones were Beethoven writing his Third Symphony to celebrate Napoleon's uprising against Louis XVI, and the use of "To Anacreon in Heaven" as the North American anthem. Language-wise Dreyfuss and Turtledove sick fairly closely to British English (with references to serviettes rather than napkins, for example), but do occasionally slip, calling trousers pants, or vests undershirts. (I am reminded of the recent report of the British MP who was found dead in "pants and suspenders." To most Americans, this doesn't sound too shocking; however, the American translation is that he was found in "undershorts and a garter belt.")
Unfortunately, the mystery part of this novel, which is the main plot, is not particularly well-constructed. Clues are telegraphed, and in general there is a lot of fairly standard stuff going on. There is also a fairly standard romance with Bushnell meeting a professional woman with whom he initially does not get along, and so on.
I liked the background of The Two Georges, even with my reservations, and would recommend it for that reason to alternate history fans. But it is the alternate history aspect that makes this book worthwhile. If that aspect doesn't appeal to you, you can skip it as a mystery.
To order The Two Georges from amazon.com, click here.
REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/01/2013]
REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier (ISBN 978-0-380-73040-5) begins with a chapter that is practically botanical pornography:
"Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. The beeches with white, naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church. And there were other tress as well, trees that I did not recognise, squat oaks and tortured elms that straggled check by jowl with the beeches, and had thrust themselves out of the quiet earth, along with monster shrubs and plants, none of which I remembered. ... The trees had thrown out low branches, making an impediment to progress, the gnarled roots looking like skeleton claws. ... I saw that the garden had obeyed the jungle law, even as the woods had done. The rhododendrons stood fifty feet high, twisted and entwined with bracken, and they had entered into alien marriage with a host of nameless shrubs, poor, bastard things that clung about their roots as though conscious of their spurious origin. A lilac had mated with a copper beech, and to bind them yet more closely to one another the malevolent ivy, always an enemy to grace, had thrown her tendrils about the pair and made them prisoners."
The classic question left unanswered in REBECCA is, "What is the narrator's given name and maiden name?" Du Maurier goes to great length to avoid giving them; Hitchcock did likewise in his film version. But du Maurier does drop a couple of clues. When Maxim first sends the narrator a note, she writes, "But my name was on the envelope, and spelt correctly, an unusual thing." And later, Maxim says to her, "You have a very lovely and unusual name." Both of these could easily be applied to Daphne du Maurier's own name, and while I do not think she was making herself the narrator's character, I suspect there may have been some idea that the name was hers.
John Sutherland, in his essay on unanswered questions in REBECCA, quotes Hitchcock as seeing a flaw in the second body washing up on the beach the same night as Rebecca disappeared. But that was the movie's flaw; in the novel, two months elapse, and indeed, they have to, or the body would not be so decomposed that it could be mis-identified. Obviously if it were the same night, it would be a rather unbelievable coincidence, but it was not. Sutherland lists the second body's identity as an unanswered question, but it is not one that needs answering in the context of the book. Clearly there are no unsolved missing persons reports matching it, so it is (undoubtedly) presumed to be someone with no friends or relatives.
And there must have been something in the air, or the water, or something, because in the same year (1938) both du Maurier and Agatha Christie used the same metaphor. Du Maurier wrote of Mrs. Van Hopper's appearance when she said, "while she, like a large, complacent spider, spun her wide net of tedium around the stranger's person." And Christie introduced Mrs. Boynton in APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH with the description, "Old, swollen, bloated, sitting there immovable--a distorted old Buddha--a gross spider in the center of a web."
The film also changed the meeting of heroine and Maxim from the hotel in Monte Carlo to the cliff, eliminating the need for the later scene of Maxim and the heroine on the cliff. (Later there is condensation of scenes, with what in the novel are the fireworks of the ball actually being the distress rockets of the ship, which in the novel does not wreck until the next day.)
Similarly, on the Criterion DVD, Leonard J. Leff says, "Selznick added scenes of Van Hopper's confinement" to provide space for the romantic development, but again these were in the novel. I suppose it is possible that the scenes were not in the original screenplay and Selznick asked for them to be added, but Leff seems to imply they were entirely Selznick's idea.
A detail that is new in the film is that Rebecca's underwear was made by nuns, emphasizing the distinction between Rebecca's pure persona in the manor and her lascivious persona in the cottage.
Leff says, "Hitchcock of course had [Mrs. Van Hooper] choose the cold cream for her ashtray." First of all, that is directly from the novel. But secondly, the screenplay credit is to Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison; the adaptation credit is to Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan. It is possible that Leff saying that Hitchcock made that choice because the original treatment given to MacDonald and Hogan was written by Hitchcock, Hogan, and Alma Reville, but even if so, it is not clear which of them decided to use the scene.
Similarly, Leff says that Hitchcock's early treatments for REBECCA have the heroine breaking the Cupid in anger, while the film shows her breaking it in clumsiness. But the film shows what du Maurier wrote, slightly changed in actual method but still from clumsiness rather than from anger. (This makes sense, because she also overturned the vase of flowers in Monte Carlo from awkwardness, and drops her gloves when she first arrives at Manderly. These two events are retained from the novel in the film.)
The biggest change, though, was due to Joseph Breen, who insisted that murder could not go unpunished, which eventually resulted in changing the murder to an accident.
To order Rebecca from amazon.com, click here.
"The Heloise Archive" by L. Timmel Duchamp:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/05/2004]
I recently read two novellas, L. Timmel Duchamp's "The Heloise Archive" and Michael Moorcock's "The Mystery of the Texas Twister", for the Sidewise Award. Both, alas, fell victim to political/social agendas.
"The Heloise Archive" (in LOVE'S BODY, DANCING IN TIME, ISBN Aqueduct Press, ISBN 0-974-65591-0) has Heloise (of Heloise and Abelard) have a visitation by an "angel" (apparently the image of either a time traveler or someone from another world-line or both). This visitation convinces her to reform the Catholic Church to be much more feminist. Since this feminism is of the sort that emphasizes a Goddess rather than a God, I cannot help but feel that the scenario is somewhat unlikely.
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/12/2005]
L. Timmel Duchamp, "The Heloise Archive" (LOVE'S BODY, DANCING IN TIME, ISBN 0-974-65591-0): The premise is that Heloise (of Heloise & Abelard fame) is visited by visions which direct her into forming a new, more feminist branch of the Catholic Church. As one might suspect, this series of letters leads heavily towards being a bit too preachy.
To order Love's Body, Dancing in Time from amazon.com, click here.
INTO AFRICA: THE EPIC ADVENTURES OF STANLEY & LIVINGSTONE by Martin Dugard:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/28/2005]
INTO AFRICA: THE EPIC ADVENTURES OF STANLEY & LIVINGSTONE by Martin Dugard (ISBN 0-7679-1074-5) reveals more of the negative sides of the two explorers than most people know, while at the same time respecting their achievements. The revelation that the American Henry Morton Stanley was really John Rowlands from Wales will not be a surprise to many people--this has been somewhat widely known for a while. (Oddly, the index does not have any entry for "Rowlands, John"--not even a "see Stanley, Henry".) But the details of the political machinations, and their dealings with slave traders (by both Stanley and the staunch abolitionist Livingstone), and their interest in the local women are probably new to most people. (I have read Henry M. Stanley's THROUGH THE DARK CONTINENT as published by Dover, but Dugard says, "the emotions set forth in [Stanley's] books were often revised from his more honest journal entries.") Sidi Mubarak Bombay is mentioned often; in fact, other than Stanley and Livingstone, he is one of the people with the most index entries. Burton, Speke, Stanley, and Livingstone have all had reams written about them--has anyone done a book about Sidi Bombay? (Quick answer--not that I could find in amazon.com.) [-ecl]
To order Into Africa from amazon.com, click here.
THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO by Alexandre Dumas:
One of the stories much abridged by Hollywood (and, for that matter, by most publishers) is Alexandre Dumas's THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. (Well, okay, this ran 1237 pages in my unabridged edition.) The basic story remains in the various film versions, but a lot of the elaboration and detail is gone. Mark thinks that Bob Kane might have gotten some of the inspiration for "Batman" from this, with the idea of a wealthy man who is secretly avenging wrongs. While the movies are enjoyable enough, they can't compare to the book.
To order The Count of Monte Cristo from amazon.com, click here.
THE GREAT DETECTIVE: THE AMAZING RISE AND IMMORTAL LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Zach Dundas:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/09/2018]
THE GREAT DETECTIVE: THE AMAZING RISE AND IMMORTAL LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Zach Dundas (ISBN 978-0-544-21404-0) is a contrast to FROM HOLMES TO SHERLOCK (by Mattias Bostrom, reviewed in the 12/08/17 issue of the MT VOID). The latter covers the history of Sherlock Holmes, while the former concentrates more on Dundas's experience relating to Sherlock Holmes. Among other things, we find out that Dundas and Bostrom became friends at an early age as Sherlockian pen pals. It is not as scholarly as Bostom's book, but certainly enjoyable in its own right.
To order The Great Detective from amazon.com, click here.
THE GREATEST MINDS AND IDEAS OF ALL TIME by Will Durant:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/14/2009]
Will Durant is best known for his eleven-volume "Story of Civilization". THE GREATEST MINDS AND IDEAS OF ALL TIME (ISBN-13 978-0-743-23553-2, ISBN-10 0-743-23553-3) is a collection of his essays from various sources. Unfortunately, many of the things Durant says do not enhance his reputation as an historian. For example, he says that reason allowed us to defeat the dinosaur. We did not defeat the dinosaur, by reason or otherwise. While he wrote before the discovery of the KT layer that led us to the knowledge of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, he should have known that they died off millions of years before reason arose. He also extrapolates from the idea that general intelligence is required for progress to the idea that genius is required for progress, which is not necessarily true. (Durant definitely subscribes to the "Great Man" theory of history.)
He also says things such as "[Bach] also had time to have twenty children." This is hardly an accomplishment per se. Now if Mrs. Bach had written all the music as well as having twenty children.... (My point, in case it is not clear, is that merely to father twenty children requires very little time.) He talks about "the educated man" and "masculine poetry" as an ideal, and so on. He rhapsodizes ancient Greece was a glorious civilization, but then talks about how Rome was defeated by slavery without ever explaining why slavery was okay in Greece.
His list are at times idiosyncratic. His "Ten Greatest Geniuses" are Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Nicolai Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Voltaire, Immanual Kant, and Charles Darwin. His "Ten Greatest Poets" are Homer, King David, Euripides, Lucretius, Li Po, Dante, William Shakespeare, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Walt Whitman.
When talking about the "Ten Greatest Achievements", he says that measuring progress should be objective, not subjective, so we cannot define it through happiness. Then he defines progress as "increased control over the environment/external world." It is not clear that this is any less subjective. (The achievements are speech, fire, the conquest of animals [both domestication and the ability to kill predators], agriculture, social organization, morality, tools, science, education, and writing/printing.)
The audiobook version has a whole set of additional problems. The reader mispronounces many words and names, including Flaubert, Goethe, and As(h)oka. But even more, listening to an essay which is primarily a list of "the hundred books necessary for a good education" does not give one much chance to retain the information. These turn out to be mostly texts and overviews--not "The Great Books"--and one suspects many of them are either outdated, unavailable, or both.
As I said, although the brief biographies et al are somewhat informative, I do not think that this book enhances Durant's reputation.
To order The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time from amazon.com, click here.
POPE JOAN by Lawrence Durrell:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/10/2017]
POPE JOAN by Lawrence Durrell (ISBN 0-14-00-3760-8) is described on the back cover as "Durrell's adaptation of the notorious Greek classic PAPISSA JOANNA" by Emmanuel Royidis (a.k.a. Roides), published in 1886. (Durrell's book was published in 1960; I suspect that under the copyright laws of the time, PAPISSA JOANNA was in public domain.)
There is a lot of snarkiness in Durrell's work, which derives from the original work. (Indeed, Royidis was excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church because of this novel.) For example, Durrell writes, "The happy Emperor spent his days with little to do but ... to track down guilty murderers and bandits on whom he imposed a small fine: while those of his subjects who ate meat on Fridays or were caught spitting after Communion were hanged from the branches of trees.""
Or, speaking of the chastity required of monks, he says, "The Franks, however, after a term of self-sacrifice, gave it up and appeased the legates of lubricity, in order that they might, in calmness and tranquility of spirit, concentrate on salvation. St. Anthony quitted temptation with a cold bath. But according to the wise Archigenes, temperance is itself the most violent aphrodisiac. How wise, how very wise, were the Franks, then, to outlaw such methods in the monasteries." [For what it's worth, the story of Pope Joan is now almost universally considered to be a legend. For one thing, stories differ on when she presumably reigned. Some say 1099, and some say between Leo IV and Benedict III in the 850s. Record for both dates reveal no gaps between known (male) popes that Pope Joan could have filled.]
To order Pope Joan from amazon.com, click here.
SICILIAN CAROUSEL by Lawrence Durrell:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/10/2017]
I still have not figured out whether SICILIAN CAROUSEL by Lawrence Durrell (ISBN 978-0-14-00-4687-8) is fiction, or non-fiction, or some strange combination of the two. The Coen Brothers began their film FARGO by saying, "This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1967." But in fact, the film was a complete fiction. Conversely, Durrell begins by saying, "Though all the characters in this book are imaginary..." The best I can guess is that Durrell did in fact take the trip described in SICILIAN CAROUSEL and all the descriptions of places are true to life, but the characters and events are all fictitious.
People have criticized Durrell for concentrating on the Greek history of Sicily and almost completely ignoring its history since then (i.e., the Romans, the Goths, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, the Germans, the Spanish, and the Italians, and probably a few I've missed). But when traveling one must always pick and choose what to concentrate on. In Fact, Durrell has one of his characters describe the notes in his tour guide with, "There are four terms, four values for the monuments. Together they form the word Moss. M is for must, O is for ought really, SH is for should really, and SK is for skip." But even more incisive is his observation, "This is the whole trouble with guides and guide books--the difficulty of disentangling what is historically important from what is artistically essential." The ruins of an old fort may be historically important, while the forest surrounding it more artistically essential.
One thing visitors will miss are the bees in Agamemnon's tomb. Apparently a few generations before Durrell's trip, wild bees had taken up residence in what is called "Agamemnon's tomb" in Mycenae, and the tomb was full of their humming, but then what Durrell describes as "an unlucky spraying by insecticide" had killed them all and the tomb returned to silence. One might debate which is the more desirable state.
Durrell talks about visiting museums, and how some of their contents are perhaps not displayed to their best advantage: "We were going to visit the Archaeological Museum in order to the cultural treasures which the wretched archaeologists had carefully removed from Selinunte. It was distasteful to be forced to replace them mentally in order to admire them--I was reminded of my youth when I used to traipse around the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, trying in a dispirited fashion to replace them upon the Acropolis which I had not as yet seen, with the help of photographs. It did not work, context is everything; besides, these were decorative additions to structure not independent art works."
I know people pooh-pooh synchronicity, but how else to explain why I saw two completely independent references to "chthonic deities" in one day, one in Durrell and one in the film INFERNO. And this only about a week after I saw two completely independent references to Twain's article on the German language in a single day.
To order Sicilian Carousel from amazon.com, click here.
ON THE EDGE OF GONE by Corinne Duyvis:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/30/2016]
ON THE EDGE OF GONE by Corinne Duyvis (ISBN 978-1-4197-1903-5) starts in 2034, when Earth discovers that a comet is going to hit it six months later. The main character (and first person narrator) is Denise who is a young adult, works in an animal shelter, and has what can best be described as a dysfunctional family. Oh, and she is autistic. (This sounds like a gimmick, but it isn't if it is done well. I'm sure a hundred years ago, a first person female or black narrator would have sounded like a gimmick.)
Denise and her mother live in the Netherlands. They are assigned to a temporary shelter, not a permanent shelter, and definitely not one of the generation ships that were built (rather quickly, it seems). But the best-laid schemes, and all that ...
I liked the narrator, and I thought the point of view well done, but I was not convinced that all the secondary characters' actions are believable. Maybe people are different in the Netherlands, but I doubt that they are that different. Buy, hey, what the heck, I was willing to go with the to see how Duyvis did the whole "after the apocalypse" scenario. Your mileage may vary.
To order On the Edge of Gonex from amazon.com, click here.
ENGLISH GOTHIC: A CENTURY OF HORROR CINEMA
by Jonathan Rigby (Reynolds & Hearn, 2000, 272pp, L17.95)
NIGHTWALKERS: GOTHIC HORROR MOVIES: THE MODERN ERA by Bruce Lanier Wright (Taylor, 1995, 171pp, $17.95)
BRIGHT DARKNESS: THE LOST ART OF THE SUPERNATURAL FILM by Jeremy Dyson (Cassell, 1997, 282pp, price unknown):
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/06/2003]
Last year I read Jonathan Rigby's ENGLISH GOTHIC: A CENTURY OF HORROR CINEMA (Reynolds & Hearn, 2000, 272pp, L17.95). Then a couple of weeks ago, I read NIGHTWALKERS: GOTHIC HORROR MOVIES: THE MODERN ERA by Bruce Lanier Wright (Taylor, 1995, 171pp, $17.95). And when Mark saw me enjoying that, he said I should also read Jeremy Dyson's BRIGHT DARKNESS: THE LOST ART OF THE SUPERNATURAL FILM (Cassell, 1997, 282pp, price unknown).
The first point worth noting is that only one of these are British, which is surprising when one considers that when one talks about "Gothic horror films" or "supernatural horror films," often the studio name that first comes to mind is Hammer Films. Ironically, Dyson doesn't cover the Hammer era at all, but instead concentrates on the Universal/RKO era of the 1930s and 1940s. Wright, on the other hand, focuses on the Hammer period from 1957 to 1976 but covers American and Continental horror films as well as British, while Rigby takes an approach orthogonal to both and covers a century's worth of films, all English.
All three have one thing in common--they concentrate on the "horror film" rather than the "terror film." Their goal is not to write about slasher films, or stalker films, or psycho films, but about "supernatural" horror--horror that is based on something beyond the world we know. (Wright makes the distinction at the end between Gothic and Grand Guignol styles, saying the latter emphasizes our physical existence in this world, while the former postulates a structure of good and evil in which we move.)
On to specifics. Rigby's ENGLISH GOTHIC is a very thorough coverage of its topics, with particular value for the pre-Hammer era which tends to be ignored or skimmed over in works of this kind. Rigby does not cover every film in detail, but at least references and puts in context the films for which he doesn't give detailed plot synopses and analyses.
Wright's NIGHTWALKERS is much less thorough, even for the period it covers, though he spends a bit more time on the films he does cover in depth. And Dyson covers even fewer films, but each again in yet more depth, with entire chapters devoted to "King Kong" and "Cat People", for example.
The real problem with all of these, of course, is that after you have finished reading about a film, you'll want to pull out the DVD (or videotape) and watch it again. After reading about what Wright called "the Cornish horrors" ("The Reptile" and "Plague of the Zombies"), for example, I suggested to Mark that this would make a good Sunday afternoon double feature. Luckily, he agreed, and since it just happened to be Sunday afternoon, that was one problem solved. :-)
All three books are somewhat difficult to find in stores, though on-line booksellers have made it relatively easy on-line. If you are going to get only one of the three, ENGLISH GOTHIC is probably the best choice. BRIGHT DARKNESS is the most academic, with NIGHTWALKERS being the most "pop culture" of the three, though hardly a fluff coffee table book.
To order English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema from amazon.com, click here.
To order Nightwalkers: Gothic Horror Movies from amazon.com, click here.
To order Bright Darkness: The Lost Art of the Supernatural Film from amazon.com, click here.