Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2019 Evelyn C. Leeper.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/23/2016]

JEWS, SLAVES, AND THE SLAVE TRADE: SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT by Eli Faber (ISBN 978-0-8147-2638-9) is an extreme example of "annotations" gone wild. It is 366 pages long (plus 17 pages of introductory lists, acknowledgements, etc.). Of that, 146 pages (37%) are text, 108 pages (28%) are appendices, 76 pages (20%) are footnotes, and 46 pages (12%) are bibliographies, indices, etc. True, it is published by an academic press, and as is common with academic books, has no price printed on the jacket flap; the NYU Press site has $89 for the hardback and $27 for the paperback.

The conclusion Faber drew was that Jews were represented in the population of slave traders and slave owners (in English, Dutch, and Portuguese countries and colonies) in about the same proportion as Jews were in the general population. I would note, however, that the number were so small as to make any definite conclusions impossible--when you are talking about 3 families out of 102 or some such, the margin of error is significant.

To order Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade from, click here.


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

I had read Anne Fadiman's EX LIBRIS: CONFESSIONS OF A COMMON READER a while ago, but immediately afterwards loaned it out to a friend and so couldn't really review it well. But I found another copy cheap (see article above) and so will cover it now.

Anne Fadiman is Clifton Fadiman's daughter, and so grew up in a house of books and learning. They could all be science fiction fans from some of their traits. For example, there is the chapter that begins with them sitting down in a restaurant. Anne's brother says, "They've transposed the 'e' and the 'i' in Madeira sauce." Anne notes, "They've made Bel Paese into one word, and it's lowercase." And their mother adds, "At least they spell better than the place where we had dinner last Tuesday. They serve P-E-A-K-I-N-G duck." (This may not be representative of all science fiction fans, but proof-reading, spelling, and grammar are major topics in rec.arts.sf.fandom.)

And if you read in my article on acquisitions that what I got for my birthday was a trip to a book warehouse's annual sale, I should add that the idea came from this book, where Fadiman describes her 42nd birthday, when she was "spirited away to a mystery destination," which turned out to be Riverrun Bookstore in Hastings-on-Hudson, where she ended up with nineteen pounds of used books. (We bought considerably more than that at the warehouse, since the cinema book was over seven pounds by itself, and the Hartwell, the Clarke, and two science books three pounds each. Of course, ours weren't exactly used.)

Fadiman also writes about odd words, strange books, and the other usual topics one finds in this sort of book (i.e., books about books).

To order Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/11/2010]

In his review of CRO-MAGNON: HOW THE ICE AGE GAVE BIRTH TO THE FIRST MODERN HUMANS by Brian Fagan (ISBN-13 978-1-596-915824), A. C. Grayling writes, "An equally significant discovery, made this year by Svante Paabo's team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, is that between one and four per cent of modern human DNA is Neanderthal. Modern Africans share no DNA with Neanderthals." There is a great irony here, I think, that the people most associated with the fear of "miscegenation" (the mixing of what we currently term races) are themselves the descendents of the results of the mixing of two groups even more distant from each other than races (though not so far distant as separate species). If one applied the "one-drop" rule to those segregationists of the Jim Crow era, they might not even qualify for citizenship. And one wonders where a Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon mix might fall in the Aryan "racial purity" laws.

To order Cro-Magnon from, click here.

"Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations" by Brian M. Fagan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/12/2010]

We're watching the Teaching Company course "Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations", taught by Prof. Brian M. Fagan. It is a good course, but 1) it could use more maps showing the topography at various times, and 2) someone needs to go over pronunciation with Prof. Fagan. He mispronounces a lot of words, including skeletal, motif, archetype, and diaspora.

TIME DETECTIVES by Brian M. Fagan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/08/2006]

TIME DETECTIVES by Brian M. Fagan (ISBN 0-684-81828-0) is subtitled "How Scientists Use Modern Technology to Unravel the Secrets of the Past". If you like "CSI", you will probably like this book. (It was written in 1996, before "CSI" came on the scene.) Each chapter is about a different archaeological site, and how modern scientific techniques (e.g. isotopic chemistry) were used to find out as much as possible about that site. It is a bit dry and technical at times, but overall makes the sites "come to life."

To order Time Detectives from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/09/2008]

The Teaching Company course GREAT BATTLES OF THE ANCIENT WORLD by Prof. Garrett S. Fagan is a much better course than "Books That Made History; Books That Can Change Your Life" (reviewed in the 08/10/07 issue of the MT VOID). Maybe it is because the subject of the former lends itself to more objective lectures than the latter. GREAT BATTLES is a more difficult course to follow, and Fagan has a much drier and more academic delivery than Frears does. But I also feel I learned more from it. In any case, I am much more satisfied with this course.

There is a slight science fiction connection here, as Fagan talks about counterfactuals (what if Alexander had been killed before he started his conquests?), and even lists the alternate history/counterfactual anthology WHAT IF? edited by Robert Cowley (ISBN-13 978-0-425-17642-9, ISBN-10 0-425-17642-8) in his supplemental reading list. (Conveniently, friends just gave me this for my birthday.) And speaking of reading lists, one problem with this course is that many of the books on the "essential reading lists" given at the end of each lesson summary are available only at college libraries, or in expensive editions, if you want to buy them. (A sampling indicated that if you were lucky, you might find an ex-library edition of some of the books for under $50.) But if you were in a position to get books from a college library, you probably wouldn't be taking this course. At least some are more widely available (e.g., Herodotus and Plutarch).

So as part of listening to this, I've been reading what recommended books I could find. The first was Homer's "Iliad", in specific, the sections about battle. Now, Fagan talked about how the descriptions were an amalgam of the warfare of the time of the Trojan War and the warfare of Homer's time. For example, the social structure and some of the battle techniques are more from Homer's time, but a lot of the Bronze Age armor that Homer described was no longer in use by the time of Homer (who was in the Iron Age). In fact, some of the armor Homer described, although real historically, pre-dated even the time of the Trojan War.

One thing to be noted about Homer is how graphic his descriptions are. For example, "[The] son of Phyleus ... struck him with the sharp spear behind the head at the tendon, and straight on through the teeth and under the tongue cut the bronze blade, and he dropped in the dust gripping in his teeth the cold bronze." [5.72-75, Richmond Lattimore translation] Or, "Hippolochos sprang away, but Atreides killed him dismounted, cutting away his arms with a sword- stroke, free of the shoulder, and sent him spinning like a log down the battle." [11.145-147]

But Homer also personalizes the battle. He names the killers, but also the killed, in amazing numbers. (One has to marvel at the memories of those who recited this.) But more than naming everyone, he also describes the costs of war: "Diomedes .. went after the two sons of Phainops, Zanthos and Thoon, full grown both, but Phainops was stricken in sorrowful old age nor could breed another son to leave among his possessions. There he killed these two and took away the dear life from them both, leaving to their father lamentation and sorrowful affliction, since he was not to welcome them home from the fighting alive still; and remoter kinsmen shared his possessions." [5.151-158]

And Homer even acknowledges that the battles of his world cannot be like those of the Trojan War. He does not talk about how the gods no longer take a personal hand, but rather that men are different: "A man could not easily hold it, not even if he were very strong, in both hands, of men such as men are now, but he heaving it high threw it...." [12.381-393]

For the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrians (701 B.C.E.), the readings were II Kings 18-19, II Chronicles 32, and Isaiah 36-37. Now Chronicles itself is more an expansion of Kings, but the description in Isaiah is in large part word for word the same as that in Kings. This indicates that the writing of one was almost certainly based on the other, and not independent.

In "Infectious Alternatives: The Plague that Saved Jerusalem, 701 B.C." (in the Cowley), William H. McNeill speculates on what might have happened if the Assyrians had taken Jerusalem. But a much better version is Poul Anderson's "In the House of Sorrows" (in Gregory Benford's anthology WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: ALTERNATE EMPIRES, ISBN-13 978-0-743-48729-0, ISBN-10 0-743-48729-X). Anderson sets his story in something probably approximating the present, but in a very different world, where the Assyrians took Jerusalem, and the world's politics, religion, science, and everything else are very different. This is one of my favorite alternate histories, because Anderson did not pick any of the over-used points of divergence from recent history, but instead chose a very important ancient cultural turning point.

When Fagan moves to early Greek battles, the readings include Herodotus's HISTORIES (Books 6-9). In Book 7, Herodotus claims the size of the Persian army Xerxes brought from Asia to Thermopylae was 1,700,000 infantry, 100,000 cavalry (including camels and chariots), and 157,610 naval personnel. Xerxes collected 324,000 more troops as he traveled through Europe. With support staff, the total Herodotus gives for Xerxes's army is 5,283,320. Fagan points out that this is clearly a vast over-estimate--the size of the army Germany used for the WWII invasion of Russia was less than half that. (Xerxes supposedly measured his army by having the 10,000 "Immortals" stand as tightly together as possible. He then drew a line around them, dispersed them, and built a fence on the line. Then he had the troops march into this "corral" in groups of 10,000. For 1,700,000 men, this would have been done 170 times. Assuming that it took even just 15 minutes for each collection, this is over forty hours for the size given of the infantry alone. There is no indication that the measurement might have been done in parallel rather than sequential.)

Herodotus also recounts how a bridge across the Hellespont was destroyed by a storm, and Xerxes "gave orders that the Hellepont should receive three hundred lashes and have a pair of feters thrown into it." Herodotus also claims that he had heard that people were also send to brand the Hellespont with hot irons(!). Fagan described these actions of Xerxes as the "locus classicus of despotic hubris in antiquity"--a lovely phrase.

P. Green's THE GRECO-PERSIAN WARS tries to explain Herodotus's numbers for the various armies and fleets. First, Green suggests that Herodotus confused chiliads and myriads, resulting in a ten-fold increase in troop counts. Green also says that if the number given for the size of the Persian fleet includes all boats used in the bridges across the Hellespont, it is not unreasonable.

The alternate histories really kick in with the battles of Marathon (490 B.C.E.) and Salamis (480 B.C.E.): Lois Tilton's "Pericles the Tyrant" (ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION, Oct/Nov 2005], Harry Turtledove's "Counting Potsherds" (Gregory Benford's WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: ALTERNATIVE EMPIRES), and Victor Davis Hanson's "No Glory that was Greece: The Persians Win at Salamis, 480 B.C." (Cowley). Also, of course Herodotus's HISTORIES (Book 8-9), Plutarch's "Themistocles" and "Aristides", and "The Persians" by Aeschylus.

Turtledove's "Counting Potsherds" is a classic. It takes place in Hellas, with a Persian representative in Hellas trying to discover the name of the king who was defeated by Khsrish four hundred years earlier. His confusion at what he discovers is Turtledove's point, so I will not give it away. Tilton's "Pericles the Tyrant" won the Sidewise Award for Short Form in 2005, so I suppose it's a classic also.

Now I must admit that somewhere around this point, I started to fall behind in my background reading. In addition, I got to a point where most of the works were unavailable to me (except Plutarch, which I had already read). I did read Josiah Ober's "Conquest Denied: The Premature Death of Alexander the Great" and Lewis H. Lapham's "Furor Teutonicus: The Teutoburg Forest, A.D. 9" in Cowley. The latter point of divergence was also the starting point for Kirk Mitchell's "Procurator" trilogy, Robert Silverberg's UP THE LINE, and David Drake and Janet Morris's ARC RIDERS: THE FOURTH ROME.

Okay, this is probably more information than you wanted about ancient battles. But no one was forcing you to read it all.

To order Great Battles of the Ancient World, click here.

To order What If? from, click here.

To order What Might Have Been: Alternate Empires from, click here.

To order Herodotus's The Histories from, click here.

To order The Greco-Persian Wars from, click here.

ALIEN FROM THE STARS by R. L. Fanthorpe:

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

I read ALIEN FROM THE STARS by R. L. Fanthorpe (no ISBN) because I felt I should read something by this (somewhat) infamous author. What I discovered was that Fanthorpe loved infodumps, and every once in a while he would bring the action to a screeching halt while one character gives a highly technical lecture on biology or whatever to another character. They are so technical, I have no idea if they are accurate. I am glad I have some idea of what Fanthorpe's writing is like, but I cannot recommend it.

To order Alien from the Stars from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/17/2011]

WORD PLAY: WHAT HAPPENS WHEN PEOPLE TALK by Peter Farb (ISBN 0-679-73408-2) is old enough that some of theories expounded in it have since been discredited--in specific Benjamin Lee Whorf's theories about the Hopi language and theory of time. Of others I am not sure of their status. For example, the ways languages divide the color spectrum are many, but there appears to be a consistency. Languages start with words for black and white. Next to come is red, followed by green then yellow, or yellow then green. Then comes blue, followed by brown. Eventually other terms may be added--orange, pink, gray, purple, violet, and so on--but these are much less common.

(Farb refers to these as terms in the color spectrum, but that is not, strictly speaking, accurate. White and black are not elements of the spectrum, nor is brown.)

Other statements, too, are outdated, such as, "almost no one speaks Mandarin Chinese outside western and northern China and Taiwan." He says English is spoken as a first or second language by 750 million people, or 20% of the world's population, and Mandarin Chinese by 450 million (12%). The current figures are 950 million English speakers (14%), and 1,365 million Chinese speakers (20%). However, the nature of the written languages makes English more adaptable to computers, a factor that was nowhere in Farb's view in 1973.

The section on how different languages, or rather different cultures, round numbers is, I think, just wrong both in terms of cause and in terms of being outdated. Farb says that we have the 9-second 100-yard dash, and the French have the 10-second 100-meter dash. But it is not a function of the English and French languages, even though Farb talks about "the French speech community" and "English-speaking peoples." In 1973, when the book was written, metrication had not yet taken hold in Britain, Australia, etc. Now that it has, and assuming metrication included sports, I am sure the British et al refer to the 10-second 100-meter dash. (And I doubt that in 1973 the French-speaking Quebeçois referred to metric units, though they do now.)

And after spending most of the book explaining why no language is inherently more difficult or easy, since children learn any of them at about the same speed, he then writes, "If some accident of history had made Celtic rather than English the language of Great Britain and if Britain had similarly risen to prominence, the peoples of the world would have had to learn an extremely difficult language, judging from present-day Welsh."

To order Word Play from, click here.

KINDLING by Mike Farren:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/11/2005]

Mike Farren's KINDLING (ISBN 0-765-30656-5) is even worse than John Birmingham's WEAPONS OF CHOICE and Charles Stross's THE FAMILY TRADE for many reasons. First, nowhere on the cover (front or back) does it indicate that it is the first book of a series. Only after the reader has slogged through 416 pages, does she get to read the final words: "TO BE CONTINUED". And amazingly enough, this is priced at $27.95, above the theoretical limit. If the book were good, that would be some mitigation, but it isn't. The alternate world Farren describes makes no sense. In it North America was settled primarily by the Norse, and Christianity apparently shares equally with Wicca (although we also have a rabbi), yet we have Jamestown, Virginia, Albany, etc. We also have a plethora (one might even say a surfeit) of recognizable names: Queen Diana (who cared about the poor and did a lot of good works) and her husband King Carlyle (who was self-indulgent, extravagant, and autocratic), General James Dean, Colonel Patton (a woman, but with the same personality as her namesake), Vincent Corleone (head of the United Workers Party), Prime Minister Jack Kennedy, and Jackvance Weaver. And lastly, it's written entirely from a male perspective. True, the four central characters are two males and two females, but while the males are characters with personalities and lives of their own, the females are defined solely by their relationships with men. (And the clincher is the way the sex scenes are written--this book is obviously intended for a male audience.) So it's only part of a badly written, over-priced series. 'Nuff said.

(Again, if you wonder why I am reading all these, it is because I am on a panel judging alternate history works, and am now in catch-up mode on last year's novels. There have been, I should add, multi-volume alternate histories I did like, such as Mary Gentle's "Book of ASH". Not only was it excellently written--unlike a lot of these--but it was released as a single volume in Britain, and while it was split into four parts in the United States, it was clearly labeled, all four parts came out in the same year, and it came out in mass-market paperback, meaning it cost about what a single hardback would.)

To order Kindling from, click here.

AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/20/2006]

I always write about the books I finish, so it is probably only fair that once in a while I mention a book I have started but could not finish. AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner (ISBN 0-679-73225-X) is one of those. I know it is a classic. I know it is on high school summer reading lists. But I found it uninvolving and, to some extent, unreadable.

To order As I Lay Dying from, click here.

THE HEROINES by Eileen Favorite (narrated by Charlotte Parry):

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/22/2014]

THE WOMAN WHO DIED A LOT by Jasper Fforde is much better than THE HEROINES by Eileen Favorite (narrated by Charlotte Parry) (ISBN 978-1-436-10247-6; book 978-1-416-54811-9). This I listened to on a "Playaway", which is an MP3 player pre-loaded with a single audiobook. It is smaller than a pack of cigarettes (and isn't it odd that even if you do not smoke, you know what I mean when I say that?), but this means that the controls are minimal and take some getting used to. (Pressing Fast Forward once skips to the next chapter, while holding it down advances within the current chapter, which I find completely backward.)

Anyway, the premise of THE HEROINES is that the protagonist's mother runs a bed-and-breakfast for heroines who want a vacation from their books. This could have been the "chick lit" book it was marketed as, but instead it turns into a sort of "snake pit" novel with the protagonist being committed to a mental institution because she sees fictional characters, etc. It may be more realistic, but it was not what I was looking for.

(I will admit that I did not finish this book. I read a couple of reviews and decided that it was not worth the time to listen to it. Were I able to skim-read it, I might have kept with it, but listening to it, even speeded up, required more commitment than I was willing to give.)

To order The Heroines from, click here.


EMBASSY ROW by Quinn Fawcett:


When you get bored with Sherlock Holmes, there's Mycroft Holmes, in Quinn Fawcett's series. I had to go to Toronto to discover these (in The Sleuth of Baker Street) even though they're published by Tor here in the United States, because I don't really check the mystery sections in the bookstore, and because the first was published as mass-market originals, it didn't show up on the library's new book shelves. The first two, AGAINST THE BROTHERHOOD and EMBASSY ROW, were acceptable, though the recurring premise of an evil brotherhood and a correspondingly good lodge fighting them didn't thrill me, and when I tried the third one, THE FLYING SCOTSMAN, I just couldn't get into it. (In spite of the photo and biography of "Quinn Fawcett" on the book flaps, Quinn Fawcett is a pseudonym for the writing team of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Bill Fawcett.)

To order Against the Brotherhood from, click here.
To order Embassy Row from, click here.
To order The Flying Scotsman from, click here.

IMPROBABLE by Adam Fawer:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/11/2006]

IMPROBABLE by Adam Fawer (ISBN 0-06-073677-1) is being marketed as a mainstream thriller, with blurbs by Caleb Carr and Clive Cussler. Do not let that fool you--this is a science fiction novel, and what is more, it is filled with so much nitty-gritty of mathematics (probability) and quantum physics that it might have even qualified for inclusion in ANALOG. David Caine is a man who is capable of calculating probabilities almost instantaneously, which means he almost always wins at games of chance. But the operative word here is "almost", and after a bad bet, Caine finds himself deeply in debt to the Russian Mafia. When he tries to get money by signing up for an experimental treatment for his epilepsy, he finds that his ability has expanded to encompass seeing the results of all the probabilities he calculates. He also finds that he is not the target of not just the Russian Mafia, but also the CIA, North Korean spies, Russian spies, and probably a bunch more people I have forgotten. (I should have used Mark's diagramming method.) People frequently ask on Usenet for examples of mathematical science fiction--well, here is a good one.

To order Improbable from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/11/2005]

ZENO AND THE TORTOISE: HOW TO THINK LIKE A PHILOSOPHER by Nicholas Fearn (ISBN 0-8021-3917-5) consists of brief chapters, each covering a philosopher and his theories (though for some reason Wittengenstein gets two.) The scope is from Thales to Derrida, and covers philosophers often skipped over in introductory books, such as Thales, Francis Bacon, Thomas Reid, Fearn gives a brief biography of the philosopher and a brief summary of the philosophy, with occasional side comments. (Of Nietzsche's "anti-Semitism", he explained that Nietzsche was not anti-Semitic and that Wagner's anti-Semitism was why Nietzsche broke with him. After Nietzsche's death his sister re-edited some of his notes and forged others to support her husband's anti-Semitic views. Fearn says that Nietzsche would have despised the Nazis and their policies.) The one drawback to the book is that it covers only two dozen philosophers, so it misses a lot of the continuity of philosophy. I suppose for someone with no background in philosophy, this might be a good start, but they would still need a more thorough overview to understand how each philosopher builds on what came before.

To order Zeno and the Tortoise from, click here.


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

As part of our recent trip to the Canadian Rockies, we listened to "Books That Made History; Books That Can Change Your Life", an audiocourse from The Teaching Company (a.k.a. Great Courses). While looking at great works and how they addressed the themes of God, life, and so on was thought-provoking, I have several problems with this particular course. The lecturer, Professor J. Rufus Fears, is quite irritating at times. First of all, he has a definite Christian agenda and tries to shoe-horn works like "The Iliad" into delivering a basically Christian message, or at least supporting Christian ideals.

Fears also makes annoying slips that did not get corrected, such as saying Desdemona is a senator's wife (rather than a senator's daughter), or that Athena is Kronos's daughter (rather than Zeus's), or that the main character of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is the prototype for its author, Erich Maria Remarque. In his lecture on the Oresteia, he pronounces "Oresteia" as if it were spelled "Orestaia", and "Orestes" as if it were spelled "Oriestes". He also keeps prefixing the definite article to titles. "The Oresteia" is fine, but "The Othello" or "The Prometheus Bound"? And he attempts to quote from the works, but without notes, because he gets some very famous lines wrong.

And lastly, Fears is self-contradictory. He sees Biblical connections everywhere they are convenient, and ignores them otherwise, no matter how obvious they are. In "The Oresteia" he talks about how Agamemnon was told by the gods (whom Fears often refers to as "God" in other lectures) to sacrifice his daughter before sailing to Troy. Fears makes a big point of how Agamemnon did not have to do this; he could have said, "No, this is an immoral act and I will not do it." But he never draws any connection between this and the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, perhaps because it would put Abraham in the wrong. He does something similar later with Pericles, Lincoln, and Remarque: after talking about how Pericles and Lincoln both promote what appears to Fears to be the important virtue of the nobility of dying for one's country to defend its way of life, he then praises Remarque for pointing out that sometimes it is not a virtue. (And he does not even address that the Nazis, whom he is often holding up as bad examples, also were dying for their country to defend its way of life. Should that be considered noble and good?) Fears gives the dichotomy of those who respond to their country's call and those who say, "War is bad; I am a pacifist." He does not acknowledge a third response: "Some wars are just, but this one is not." This ties in with his binary notion that there is such a thing as absolute good and absolute evil. (In fairness, in a later lecture he does talk about just and unjust wars, so perhaps he is just being an agent provocateur at times, but it is quite annoying.)

(He also claims that Lincoln's goal from the beginning was to end slavery. This can best be described as a load of hooey. Lincoln's goal was to preserve the Union.)

And one more minor quibble: Fears keeps referring to previous courses he has done, assuming everyone has heard those as well. ("As we saw in our previous course on the famous Romans, ....")

To order Books That Made History; Books That Can Change Your Life, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/30/2011]

CRAZY U: ONE DAD'S CRASH COURSE IN GETTING HIS KID INTO COLLEGE by Andrew Ferguson (ISBN 978-1-4391-0121-6) is Ferguson's story of his son's journey through the college admissions maze. Or rather, as the title indicates, it is about Andrew Ferguson's journey--there is surprisingly little about his son. And while Ferguson's discovery of all the problems, pitfalls, and paradoxes of college admissions is engaging (and depressing), it oddly does not really address the question of why the parents of college-bound students seem to be the ones who do all the work, rather than the student.

Ferguson describes his experience in applying to colleges in the 1970s, and it was similar to mine (in the late 1960s). I filled in a couple of applications (on paper). I don't think either school required an essay. I never visited the schools. I never took the PSAT. (I did take the SAT.) My parents did fill in a financial statement, but only because I had won a National Merit scholarship and it required one to determine just how large (or small) the scholarship would be. I had some extra-curricular activities, but nothing in the way of summer jobs or projects. There were no AP courses at the time, at least not in my school.

Admittedly, I was not applying to Ivy League schools, but even people who did apply to more exclusive schools did not send in dozens of (expensive) applications, spend an entire summer visiting schools (to which their parents would have to drive them), captain the football team, and run a soup kitchen for Vietnamese immigrants in their spare time. The whole process has changed.

Ferguson spends a lot of time on three aspects of the application process: the essay, the "US News & World Report" book of college rankings, and the cost of a college education. The essay, he concludes, has been designed to ask all the wrong questions, look for all the wrong skills, and select all the wrong people. The "US News & World Report" college ranking system has the same problem as any ranking system--sooner or later people will figure out how to game the system. This is not only Ferguson's conclusion--it is pretty much everyone's conclusion. In 1995 Steve Stecklow of the "Wall Street Journal" found that a quarter of the schools were fudging the numbers they gave to "US News & World Report".

And even when the schools did not lie, they figured out how to improve their numbers--sometimes to the detriment of the students. For example, schools got points for classes of fewer than twenty students and lost points for classes of more than fifty. So one school took students from classes of twenty-one or twenty-two students and moved them to a class with fifty-five students.

And the cost of higher education? Well, one person Ferguson talked to suggested that just like we were in a housing bubble where prices were way out of proportion to value, we're in a higher education bubble, and at some point it will all collapse. Given that any increase in financial aid just brings about an increase in costs, without a corresponding increase in quality of education, he may well be right.

To order Crazy U from, click here.


John Ferguson's DEATH COMES TO PERIGORD (1931) is set on one of the Channel Islands. Ferguson is Scottish, so this isn't, strictly speaking, an English mystery, but it is interesting that he wrote about the other end of Britain rather than Scotland. This one is notable mostly for the setting, though the mystery/forensic aspect is handled well enough.

To order Death Comes to Perigord from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/01/2012]

CIVILIZATION: THE WEST AND THE REST by Niall Ferguson (ISBN 978-1-59420-305-3) has somewhat more content than WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM, but only because of a lot of what seems to be "scattershot history." Ferguson compares traffic on the Thames and the Yangzi in the year 1420, describes how the Ottoman Empire was at the gates of Vienna in 1683, and so on. While all of his examples help demonstrate his premise, he never ties them together as a continuous thread. Ferguson's premise is that the rise of the West over the last six hundred years can be attributed to six factors (or "killer apps", as he calls them): - Competition - Science - Medicine - Laws of Property - Consumerism - Work Ethic For example, in 1400 China had an advanced and stable civilization while Europe was a hodge-podge of small backward kingdoms in constant conflict with each other (and their neighbors). The prediction at the time would have been that China would continue to be the leading civilization, but Ferguson says it was the very turmoil that Europe was in that caused it to surpass China. This is not exactly a new idea of course; one need only consider Harry Lime's quote from THE THIRD MAN: "In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love--they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Isaac Asimov claimed much the same thing in THE END OF ETERNITY, and Harry Turtledove uses it as an important element in his "Worldwar" series. Each of the six factors supposedly gets a chapter, but the chapters do not necessarily stay on topic. The most extreme example is probably the chapter "Medicine", which devotes only eight out of its fifty-five pages to talking about medicine, and even those are more about public health in the sense of clean water, a working sewer system, etc., than what we think of as medicine. The other forty-seven pages are a long description of the various forms of colonialism and slavery practiced by the various European powers, e.g., in Ibero-American colonies slaves had more rights and could more easily buy their freedom than in Anglo-American colonies. This chapter also contains eight pages on the French Revolution. Talking about the (Protestant[*]) work ethic, Johnson describes how much more religious the United States is than Europe. His example is Springfield, Missouri, with 400 Christian churches ( 1 for every 1000 people), including 122 Baptist churches, 36 Methodist churches, 25 Churches of Christ, and 15 Churches of God. He compares this to Europe, with its state-endorsed and supported religions, and notes, "In religion as in business, state monopolies are inefficient." Ironically, then, he proceeds to talk about how all this American religiosity is more a consumer-driven one, where churches compete more on entertainment potential than on theological or doctrinal differences. [*] Johnson talks about how this work ethic was attributed to Protestants by Max Weber (the originator of the concept). Weber seemed to work at willfully disregarding the evidence of Jewish or Catholic entrepreneurs. For example, of the Jews he wrote, "The Jews stood on the side of the politically and speculatively oriented adventurous capitalism; their ethos was ... that of pariah capitalism. Only Puritanism carried the ethos of the rational organization of capital and labour." This is, so far as I can tell, proof by assertion. Johnson notes that if one looks at successful CEOs, it appears that Jews outperform Protestants. I suspect you would find that Mormons (who are not Protestants, not deriving from the Martin Luther Reformation) do well also. In fact, the work ethic is probably driven as much by a combination of competition, laws of property, and consumerism as by any religious fervor. Similarly, medicine is really a subset of science. But six "killer apps" is a better number than four, at least in terms of dividing a book into chapters.

To order Civilization: The West and the Rest from, click here.

TWELVE DAYS OF TERROR by Richard G. Fernicola, MD:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/28/2016]

At first glance, TWELVE DAYS OF TERROR by Richard G. Fernicola, MD (ISBN 978-1-4930-2324-0) would appear to be similar to CLOSE TO SHORE by Michael Capuzzo (ISBN 978-0-7679-0414-8), which is reviewed in the 07/29/16 issue of the MT VOID. but it differs in many ways. First off, let me say that one rarely sees an author use "M.D." after his name on a cover unless the book is about something medical, and while one can argue that the injuries sustained by the victims qualify, this does not seem to be primarily a medical book. Second, the cover says, "With a New 100th Anniversary Preface" and the back cover says that the book was made into a television movie also titled TWELVE DAYS OF TERROR, yet the copyright date in the book is 2016, with no indication of an earlier publication. A bit of Googling shows the book was originally published in 2001 and the movie made in 2004, but whether this book has any new material other than the new preface is unknown. (Capuzzo's book was also published in 2001.) As one reviewer noted, Capuzzo treats the shark as a character and his book has the flow of a novel (think Truman Capote's "non-fiction novel"), while Fernicola is more like a textbook. In addition, Fernicola includes the story of his research: how he tracked down witnesses and relatives of witnesses, and what they said. Capuzzo relies more on documents (death certificates, newspapers, and so on), and if he includes "direct testimony" he does does make how he got it part of the narrative. Fernicola also spends more time on subsequent shark attacks and studies, trying to find some definite answers to whether it was one shark, and what type of shark(s). Capuzzo has much less of this, because he covers much more of the ambiance of the 1916 Jersey Shore. Apparently, Fernicola spent twenty years researching the attacks. Capuzzo's book, on the other hand, will be more accessible to the casual reader.

To order Twelve Days of Terror from, click here.

WORLDCON STORIES by Massimo Ferri et al:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/09/2012]

WORLDCON STORIES by Massimo Ferri ("Symphonic Theorem", translated by Massimo Ferri), Renato Pestiniero ("Night of the Id", translated by Joe F. Randolph), and Veronika Santo ("The Venetian Clock", translated from the Croatian By Aleksandar Ziljak) was another Chicon 7 special edition. "Symphonic Theorem" is another piece of mathematical science fiction. "Night of the Id" is the basis of the film PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES {a.k.a. DEMON PLANET, a.k.a. TERRORE NELLO SPAZIO).

THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE WRITING 2001 edited by Timothy Ferris:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/23/2010]

Selected essays from THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE WRITING 2001 (ISBN-13 978-0-06-093648-8) edited by Timothy Ferris was this month's topic in our general book discussion group. Why this book? Well, it was the only volume of the series that had more than one copy in our library system. And why just selections? Because at 330 pages, the book was longer than our usual limit. In addition, by choosing articles that were also available on-line it made it easier for people to read them.

The first question that occurs to me is, "Why were these essays chosen for this volume?" What makes them the best? The best-written from a literary aspect? The most ground-breaking in terms of science? The most effective in terms of informing, or influencing, the public? What? It turns out that Timothy Ferris addresses this in his introduction, saying, "[We] elected to concentrate on science writing--on the best writing out there, regardless of its subject."

Certainly Natalie Angier's "In Mandrill Society, Life Is a Girl Thing" is written with a definite eye towards style, such as saying when describing the mandrill:

	its lozenge-shaped muzzle 
	of red and blue 
	more like what you 
	would expect on a bird 
	than on the furred.
Except of course, that it appears as a simple sentence, not a poem. And Angier ends by asking, "Can mandrills find safety in numbers should human hunters come to call? Don't bet a buffalo nickel on it."

(Why does mandrill society--with hundreds of females in the group, but males only during breeding season--sound like the society in Sheri Tepper's THE GATE TO WOMEN'S COUNTRY?)

On the other hand, James Schwartz's "Death of an Altruist" (a brief biography of George Price, sociobiologist, atheist turned fundamentalist, and extreme altruist) seems more like a first draft, in the sense that it jumps around in time in a way that makes it more difficult to follow. (For example, the word "meanwhile" appears four times in this fairly short article.) And while it covers the facts of Price's "tumultuous story" (as Schwartz calls it), it does not do much to analyze the reasons behind it and one leaves not understanding Price any better than one started.

John Archibald Wheeler's "How Come the Quantum?" is more Wheeler's musings on quantum theory than a coherent essay written for the layperson. For example, at some point he switches from a discussion of quanta to something which sounds like the double-slit experiment and the particle-wave dichotomy. (If it weren't, then this would just reinforce my feeling that Wheeler is not writing very clearly, but others in the discussion agreed that this was what he meant.)

Another article was Stephen S. Hall's "The Recycled Generation", about creating stem cells from cow embryos and human DNA. According to one of the scientists interviewed, this would result in all sorts of therapeutic processes in about ten years. However, this was in 2001 and it all seems to have fizzled by now.

John Terborgh's "In the Company of Humans" is about why some animals like to hang around humans, but the reasons seemed pretty obvious. And the last three--Ernst Mayr's "Darwin's Influence on Modern Thought", Richard Preston's "The Genome Warrior", and Malcolm Gladwell's "John Rock's Error"--just did not seem all that well-written.

Some of this is undoubtedly a function of where the piece was originally published. Angier was writing for the "New York Times", while Schwartz was writing for "Lingua Franca". And several of us seemed less than thrilled with the "New Yorker" style of writing, as in the Preston and the Gladwell.

To order The Best American Science Writing 2001 from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/26/2004]

Leonard Fetzer's PRE-REVOLUTIONARY SCIENCE FICTION: AN ANTHOLOGY is an anthology of early Russian science fiction stories. However, I don't know if they're all utopian stories because that's all Russians wrote, or because that's what interested Fetzer. In any case, this is probably only of interest to people interested in that sub-genre, and at a similar level (and style) to Edward Bellamy's LOOKING BACKWARD.

To order Pre-Revolutionary Science Fiction from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/09/2005]

PERFECTLY REASONABLE DEVIATIONS FROM THE BEATEN PATH: THE LETTERS OF RICHARD P. FEYNMAN (ISBN 0-7382-0636-9) is of minor interest, unless you are doing a lot of research on Feynman. Concentrate instead on his books SURELY YOU'RE JOKING, MR. FEYMAN and WHAT DO YOU CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK?

To order Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/02/2016]

SOME KIND OF HERO: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF THE JAMES BOND FILMS by Matthew Field and Jay Chowdhury (ISBN 978-0-750-96421-0) is thick (700 pages), and full of all sorts of details about the films (each film gets a chapter, plus there are a few transitional chapters). It even has an index (though titles starting with "The " are alphabetized under "The" and "Sherriff J. W. Pepper" is alphabetized under "S" and not under "P"). So die-hard Bond fans will undoubtedly find it fascinating.

However, it has its flaws. The main one seems to be that while it is full of information and anecdotes, it is light on context, or on the cultural and sociological aspects of the films. There is a passing mention on how the filmmakers were apparently uneasy about having an African-American villain (Yaphet Kotto) in LIVE AND LET DIE and excluded Kotto from the publicity for the film. But one would expect more about that in the chapter. Similarly, there is nothing about casting Joseph Wiseman (a Caucasian) as Dr. No (a Chinese), and only a passing mention of Bond's "conversion" of Pussy Galore in GOLDFINGER.

I suppose it is not fair to complain that a book with so much in it already did not add more, but it seems to me that the social attitudes portrayed in the films are an important part of their history and should not just be ignored. Still, for fans looking for a lot of detail about the series, this is probably the most complete volume yet.

To order Some Kind of Hero from, click here.

LOST by Joy Fielding:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/19/2003]

Because of the Toronto International Film Festival, about the only thing I've had time to read during the last week or so was Joy Fielding's LOST. And the only reason I read that was because it was set at last year's Toronto International Film Festival.

Fielding gets a lot of the festival stuff right--after all, she's been attending for many years--but she gets a few things wrong as well. For example, the idea of "code words" in the descriptions is spot-on; for example, "lyrical" really means "boring" and "uncompromising" means "hand-held camera". But she also has the protagonist mention seeing three films a day for ten days on a thirty-coupon book. I wish--the first day of the ten-day festival, the films don't start until evening, and one is hard-pressed to manage two films, and day two is not much better.

The story itself concerns the main character's daughter, who vanishes after an audition with a famous director in town for the festival. By three-quarters of the way through, I was sure Fielding had painted herself into a corner, but she does manage to come up with a satisfactory, if peculiar, ending. That's the good news. The bad news is that this book was published only in Canada, so unless you live there or order from there, you'll never see this anyway. But since its main appeal seems to be the festival setting, it's not a major loss. [Actually, it turns out that is no longer true.]

To order Lost from, click here.

"The Political Prisoner" by Charles Coleman Finlay:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/29/2009]

"The Political Prisoner" by Charles Coleman Finlay (F&SF Aug 2008): I found this a bit too clearly a re-telling of past political purges to be able to rate it highly. (I had the same problem with Robert Charles Wilson's recent alternate history, "This Peaceable land".) While it is true that one can be able to gain insight into our current situation, or even our history, from well-written science fiction, a certain level of subtlety is to be desired.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/13/2017]

HIEROGLYPH: STORIES AND VISIONS FOR A BETTER FUTURE edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer (ISBN 978-0-062-20471-4) is the product of a challenge to science fiction writers to write more positive, big-engineering (or big-science) sorts of stories. Apparently someone blamed science fiction writers for the current sad state of "big science", saying that they had stopped writing inspiring stories. Well, it is true that ANALOG (and before that, ASTOUNDING) used to publish this sort of story (and maybe still do, for all I know). But an issue of ANALOG would have one earnest story about "big science" ... and then there would be a humorous "first contact" story, and a puzzle sort of story, and so on. Having an entire (thick) volume of earnest "big science" stories just accentuates how they are all trying so hard to send a message to the reader, often at the expense of story and character. I don't mind infodumps, but many of these are nothing but infodumps.

To order Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future from, click here.

THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO by Charles Finney:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/11/2010]

THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO by Charles Finney (ISBN-13 978-0-8032-6907-1) was the book chosen for the Middletown book-and-film group this month, and I ended up with a bunch of brief comments:

The circus comes to Abalone, Arizona. The abalone is an ocean creature, not one of the desert, and it seems unlikely that someone would name a town in Arizona after them.

The proofreader is Mr. Etaoin; E, T, A, O, I, and N are the most common letters in English, in order.

The college boys are members of Sigma Omicron Beta--in other words, they are S.O.B.s.

The soldier is traveling by train in "sidedoor pullmans", i.e., freight cars.

One good touch is that the unicorn explicitly does not have a horse's tail. All too often, artists depict unicorns as being just horses with a horn stuck on them.

Slick calls his friend Paul "Oom Powl", which is Dutch for "Uncle Paul", which in turn is a play on the idea of a Dutch uncle--though admittedly Paul does not play that role.

The question of whether it is a Russian or a bear is carried on far too long.

Most of the fantastic creatures in THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO are drawn from actual mythology, legend, or literature, but the Hound of the Hedges appears to be entirely Finney's creation. (One is reminded of Jorge Luis Borges's UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY, in which the stories are generally based on fact, but with a tweak here and a twist there.)

Of the satyr, Dr. Lao says, "They provoked him to jealousy with strange gods, with abominations provoked they him to anger." The phrase "to become strange gods" is from Deuteronomy 32:16, and "strange gods" retains that allusion.

Finney likes to use alliteration: "Then the midway was desolate, save for its wreath of dust, as the people all disappeared beneath the canvas. And the ringing of the bronze gong diminuendoed and died."

At times, though, Finney gets so involved in his literary references that he forgets his characters' natures. For example, I doubt that one of the quarantine inspectors would really know who Pierrot and Columbine were.

Lao's switching back and forth between pidgin English and full (even florid) English reminds me of the story of the man sitting next to a Chinese (or perhaps Japanese) gentleman at a fancy dinner many years ago. Wanting to make conversation, the man asked, "Likee dinner?" The Chinese gentleman just smiled. After the meal, the host announced the speaker, and the Chinese gentleman got up and gave a speech in perfect English. He then returned to his seat, turned to the man, and asked, "Likee speech?" (A similar incident is portrayed in the film THE WIND AND THE LION.)

The book THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO is much better than the movie (7 FACES OF DR. LAO).

To order The Circus of Dr. Lao from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/22/2010]

THE BODY SNATCHERS (a.k.a. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) by Jack Finney (ISBN 978-0-684-85258-4) was the book chosen for the SF-book-and-movie group this month, with the 1956 movie INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. There are actually four film versions of the book: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956), INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978), BODY SNATCHERS (1993), and THE INVASION (2007). The first is the most accurate to the book--more accurate than most film versions of books. What is missing from the film, however, are most of the sections that give you a sense of the internal thoughts and emotions of the main character (Miles Bennell), and also some of the descriptive passages. For example, there is a long section where Miles is walking through the town and notices that stores are closed, that no one is painting their house, and so on. There is a bit of this in the movie, but not as much. (Actually, the description sounds like a lot of the "Rust Belt" towns hard hit by the recession.)

To order The Body Snatchers from, click here.

TIME AND AGAIN by Jack Finney:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/30/2003]

Our library science fiction discussion group just read Jack Finney's TIME AND AGAIN. This is a book about a man who takes part in a time-travel project involving living in a place designed to be just like the destination time and place (think "1900 House" or "Frontier House" or "Manor House"). In this case, Simon Morley lives in an apartment in the Dakota which is exactly as it was in 1882, and so manages to transport himself back to then. The consensus was that Finney was too enamored of the time--the details were at times overwhelming--and that there was really very little science fiction content. I felt if he could have written a straight historical novel set in that time, he would have done that instead.

The back blurbs bear this out, I think. "Would you like to travel back in time to a better, simpler world?" Better or simpler according to whom? Morley gets to run around any hinderance because he's male, and white, and knows about the era. Come to think of it, that's a major problem with most time-travel stories: the protagonist is always so conveniently prepared. I mentioned this last week with FALLAM'S SECRET, but it goes way back. The Connecticut Yankee was certainly knowledgeable about all sorts of technology, but if you went back in time, could you build a forge? And L. Sprague de Camp's hero in LEST DARKNESS FALL just happens to speak Latin. Poul Anderson has been one of the few to treat the topic more realistically (in "The Man Who Came Early"), but as that story shows, you don't get a very exciting tale that way.

(A similar notion, though not dealing with time travel, is to be found in Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's "Mute Inglorious Tam".)

Another blurb (from the "Philadelphia Inquirer") describes TIME AND AGAIN as a "Jules Verne-like fantasy", indicating a complete ignorance of the type of work Verne wrote. (Hint: Verne was very strong on technology and pooh-poohed H. G. Wells's cavorite as too much like magic. What would he have made of thinking oneself back in time?)

This book is not to be confused with BID TIME RETURN by Richard Matheson, which was made into the film SOMEWHERE IN TIME with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, in which someone thinks himself back to the 1890s and falls in love with an actress there. Or with TIME AFTER TIME by Karl Alexander, in which H. G. Wells uses his time machine (!) to chase Jack the Ripper into the then-present. It has a sequel, though, FROM TIME TO TIME.

To order Time and Again from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/08/2019]

HISTORIANS' FALLACIES: TOWARD A LOGIC OF HISTORICAL THOUGHT by David Hackett Fischer (ISBN 978-0-06-131545-9) cover snot only the familiar fallacies, such as those of causation (e.g., post hoc ergo propter hoc) and substantive distraction (e.g., ad hominem), but some more specific to historiography, such as those of narration (e.g., false periodization). Unfortunately, at times Fischer seems to fall into his own traps, such as describing W. J. Cash's MIND OF THE SOUTH as taking the plantation legend and turning it upside down: "He stood Scarlett O'Hara on her head. When the crinolines billowed out and down, there wasn't much to be seen of Scarlett's upper parts, but there was a considerable display of her lower ones, which some innocents in our own century naively persist in mistaking for reality. Scarlett's lower parts make a splendid spectacle. But it is a little disconcerting to find, in a book called THE MIND OF THE SOUTH, so little brain and so much bottom." Fischer may be criticizing the fallacy of composition, but he is surely guilty of at least the fallacy of insidious analogy.

To order Historians' Fallacies from, click here.


Mary Fitt's DEATH AND THE PLEASANT VOICES (1946) is full of mistaken identities and various wills which may or may not exist, but still seems somewhat mechanical in its plotting.

To order Death and the Pleasant Voices from, click here.

REDCOATS' REVENGE by Col. David Fitz-Enz, USA (Ret.):

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/27/2009]

REDCOATS' REVENGE by Col. David Fitz-Enz, USA (Ret.) (ISBN-13 978-1-57488-987-1, ISBN-10 1-574-88987-7) is a novel of the sort I haven't seen since FOR WANT OF A NAIL by Robert Sobel--the fake history textbook. (This doesn't mean there haven't been others, just that I haven't seen them.) There is some dialogue, but on the whole it's clear this is written more as a history book from this alternate world (where the British win the War of 1812) than as a novel. True, it lacks the fake footnotes, bibliography and other accoutrements of Sobel's work, but that may be just as well. These days, if it had all that, people might actually believe it was really true. For that matter, for reasons known only to the publisher, they have decided to give the Dewey Decimal classification as 973.5/2, which is plop in the middle of the American history section, rather than in fiction. (I got my library to ignore the given classification and move it to fiction before some high school kid tried to write a report on the War of 1812 from it.)

Of REDCOATS' REVENGE, Joseph T. Major wrote, "... this is an attempt to provide a serious speculation about a point of departure and its consequences. ... Those who want to read about what if Spartacus had a Piper Cub and the like likely won't be thrilled by this."

To order Redcoats' Revenge from, click here.

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/22/2003]

I also read F. Scott Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY for our library's book discussion group. I can't say it did much for me, even though it's supposedly a classic.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/28/2012]

I also recently read THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald (ISBN 978-0-743-27356-7). In the first chapter there is a reference by Tom Buchanan to "'The Rise of the Colored Empires'" by this man Goddard." Most reviews have said that this is a thinly veiled reference to the real-life Lothrop Stoddard's book of the time, THE RISING TIDE OF COLOR. But I wonder if the intent was not to portray Tom as a pretentious poseur who attempts to seem like an intellectual but cannot get the author's name or book title correct.

I found this line of his in Chapter VII oddly prescient: "Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they'll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white."

And in Chapter IX, Fitzgerald gives as good a summary of how rich people live as I have seen recently: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made...."

To order The Great Gatsby from, click here.

HAMMETT UNWRITTEN by Owen Fitzstephen (Gordon McAlpine):

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/10/2015]

HAMMETT UNWRITTEN by Owen Fitzstephen (pen name for Gordon McAlpine) (ISBN 978-1-51514-714-3) is a convoluted novel. The author listed on the cover, "Owen Fitzstephen", is actually a character in Dashiell Hammett's novel THE DAIN CURSE. The plot takes place between 1922 and 1959, and begins with the "true" events that Hammett (supposedly) experienced that he converted into THE MALTESE FALCON. The characters are all the people who (supposedly) took part in those events, plus others he met later, such as Lillian Hellman, John Huston, and so on. It turns out that while the Falcon wasn't all it was claimed to be, it may not be entirely mundane either.

In addition to treating fiction as fact, or at least claiming there is fact behind the fiction, Fitzstephen/McAlpine has his narrative jumping around in time, at least at the beginning, going from 1922 to 1959 to 1933 before settling in to a mostly linear story, though with many references to previous events. Even if you do not entirely believe the explanations within the novel, they do manage to explain events that happened in our world. This is a must for fans of meta-fiction and of Dashiell Hammett.

To order Hammett Unwritten from, click here.

"The Dictionary of Received Ideas" by Gustave Flaubert:

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

If you liked Ambrose Bierce's THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY, you will probably also enjoy "The Dictionary of Received Ideas" by Gustave Flaubert, translated by A. J. Krailsheimer (in BOUVARD AND PECUCHET, ISBN 0-140-44320-7).

For the flavor, I will give you an example that appears in both, "diplomacy":

Bierce: "The patriotic art of lying for one's country."

Flaubert: "A fine career, but best with difficulties and full of mystery. Suitable only for aristocrats. A profession of vague importance, though superior to trade. Diplomats are always subtle and shrewd."

One thing I wonder about is the translation process. Krailsheimer does indicate a couple of spots where he took liberties. For example, he has "SPICE: plural of 'spouse'; an old joke but still good for a laugh," with a note "[chacal/shakos in French]." "Chacal" is "jackal", but I cannot find "shakos" in my dictionary. I could not understand how "DIANA: Goddess of the chaste (chased)" could work in English and French--the French verb is "chasser" and the adjective is "chaste" (with a 't'). So I looked it up, and an on-line version of "Dictionnaire des idees recues" has the definition "Diesse de la chasse-tete", or something like "Goddess of the leader of the hunt" with a pun on "chastete" ("chastity"). So Krailsheimer was in fact not adding a pun, but coming up with one in English that would reflect the one in French. Still, for several, I wonder if the clichés exist in French (such as "WIT: Always preceded by 'sparkling' or IMAGINATION: Always 'lively').

[French readers will find links to it online at Sadly I cannot find it online in English. People who enjoy them may also enjoy the delicious "Maxims of La Rochefoucauld". They also hard to find in English, but some five hundred of La Rochefoucauld's maxims can be found in English at --mrl]

To order "The Dictionary of Received Ideas" from, click here.


MADAME BOVARY by Gustave Flaubert:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/22/2006]

The book about reading literature through the lens of biology I mentioned in my review of DOM CASMURRO is MADAME BOVARY'S OVARIES: A DARWINIAN LOOK THROUGH LITERATURE by David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash (ISBN 0-7394-6351-9). Before reading this, I read MADAME BOVARY by Gustave Flaubert (ISBN 0-553-21341-5), although it turns out that the Barashes spend only a small amount of time on Madame Bovary. I guess they chose her for the title on the basis of a clever word rhyme, rather than as the main topic of their book. The book is more about biology, really, and how our genes influence our actions and emotions, than about literature per se. The literature merely reflects real life. For example, there is plenty of jealousy in the real world, and "Othello" just reflects that. This seems more of an attempt to bridge the gap between C. P. Snow's two worlds (science and art) by introducing science to people who might not ordinarily pick up a science book than to preent some radically new literary theory.

Oh, and MADAME BOVARY? I think I am in the camp that asks why this book is a classic. Flaubert is very good at descriptions, but the plot is very pedestrian. BOUVARD AND PECUCHET by Gustave Flaubert, translated by A. J. Krailsheimer (ISBN 0-140-44320-7) gives Flaubert a better way to display his descriptions by doing away with plot almost entirely. The title characters are two clerks who take their savings and go off to try various professions and hobbies: agriculture, philosophy, and so on. They are incompetent at all of them, and Flaubert uses this as his means of attacking the pretensions of the French of his time. This was certainly more entertaining than Emma Bovary's peccadilloes.

To order Madame Bovary from, click here.

To order Madame Bovary's Ovaries from, click here.

THE SEQUEL OF APPOMATTOX by Walter Lynwood Fleming:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/12/2009]

"When a people [are blocked from creating their own homeland, and] find themselves persecuted by aliens under legal forms, they will invent some means outside the law for protecting themselves; and such experiences will inevitably result in a weakening of respect for law and in a return to more primitive methods of justice." The goal, apparently was to "frighten the [aliens] into better conduct" and to aid the leaders of the people "to regain control of society."

Sounds like the Middle East, doesn't it?

Walter Lynwood Fleming is apparently considered to be a balanced historian when it comes to describing Reconstruction. Yet he was able to write the above in THE SEQUEL OF APPOMATTOX (1919) (no ISBN), along with a lot more that portrays the North as almost entirely in the wrong, the South almost entirely in the right, and the Ku Klux Klan just another social club that occasionally played on the "superstitious fears of the negro" to maintain order. Yes, it is depressing to read about the Northern Radicals, but it is also depressing to read about how caring the former slave-owners were of their former slaves, how much the former slaves loved their old masters, how if the North had just left the South alone everything would have been peachy, and how much all these attitudes and more were still perfectly acceptable fifty years after the Civil War.

To order The Sequel of Appomattox from, click here.


THE MIDDLE TEMPLE MURDER by J. S. Fletcher (1918) introduces some of the more important characters a bit farther into the story than modern readers might be used to, but is still better written and more engaging than a lot of the more recent works. (Maybe for me, the Golden Age ended around 1920.)

To order The Middle Temple Murder from, click here.

GRANTVILLE GAZETTE II edited by Eric Flint:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/13/2006]

GRANTVILLE GAZETTE II edited by Eric Flint (ISBN 1-416-52051-1) does not have the advantage of many anthologies which give the reader a variety of stories--it consist entirely of stories set in (and non-fiction about) Eric Flint's "1632" universe. (This began with the novel 1632 in which a chunk of current-day West Virginia is suddenly transported to Europe in the midst of the Thirty Years' War, and has been continued in several books and stories.) The stories all assume a familiarity with the earlier works, and the whole thing seems to have become very self-contained, with special electronic bulletin boards established by Baen Books, including one that Flint requires all story submissions be posted to before he will even consider them for publication. In addition, the proofreading is execrable, with such errors as 'a next thing' instead of 'a near thing', and several spots where two words are run together.

To order Grantville Gazette II from, click here.

"The Clapping Hands of God" by Michael F. Flynn:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/10/2005]

"The Clapping Hands of God" by Michael F. Flynn ("Analog" 07-08/04) is a first-contact story, with the twist that the humans come from a future in which Islam is the primary religion. It's well done, though I'm not sure the twist is not just that--a gimmick rather than an integral part of the story.


[MT VOID, 11/30/1991]

IN THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND by Michael Flynn (IBN-13 978-0-765-34498-4, ISBN-10 0-765-34498-X) falls into that interesting category of "secret history"--interesting to me, at any rate, because it frequently straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction. For example, Michael Baigent's HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL supposes that Europe is really ruled by a secret society led by a descendent of Jesus, and the book is marketed as non-fiction. Well, IN THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND is marketed as fiction, but there's nothing impossible in it.

The premise is that Charles Babbage completed his analytical engine, but news of its success was suppressed by a group of social scientists who decided to use it to predict historical trends. If this sounds like Isaac Asimov's "psychohistory," it is, and Flynn's characters even discuss the similarity. In present-day (or very near future) San Francisco Sarah Beaumont stumbles across the existence of a secret society which has been using the engine, and now computers, not only to predict trends, but to try to change them. While she is trying to accept this idea, she is told there is at least one other group with a similar plan--and it is more ruthless in what it will do to effect change. This second group wants to kill Sarah to protect itself, and Sarah finds herself in an uneasy alliance with the first group to try to block the second.

Through the book there is a lot of discussion and philosophizing on the morality of all this. While in some books this sort of thing might seem preachy, it works here, because the plot requires someone to try to convince Sarah to help the society. (Even so, there are a few occasions when even this is strained, including some classroom sessions reminiscent of of ones from Robert A. Heinlein's STARSHIP TROOPERS.) And Flynn also managed to win the Libertarian "Prometheus Award" without having more than a smattering of violent sex, an element that I had come to think was almost a requirement for that award (two past winners were J. Neil Schulman, who wrote THE RAINBOW CADENZA, and L. Neil Smith, who wrote THE CRYSTAL EMPIRE and acknowledged his debt to Schulman in the acknowledgements of that book). Maybe some Libertarian out there can explain why there seems to be a correlation.

However, as I said, Flynn avoids this, and sticks to the subject at hand. The characters are well-drawn and more varied (racially, ethnicly, and otherwise) than most authors bother to do. This may seem like a minor point, but it helps give the novel a more realistic feel than many novels have. The book does drag a bit at the end and devolves from philosophy into a chase sequence, but on the whole it is a satisfying book with some ideas to think about when you're done.

(Is Charles Babbage making a comeback? William Gibson and Bruce Sterling recently wrote THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE in which the adoption of Babbage's difference engine--not analytic engine--by the British government leads to a very different world than our own. And did you know that Babbage also invented the cow-catcher?)

(A note on the proofreading, or lack thereof: This is the worst proofread book I have ever seen, with the possible exception of some cheap porno novels. "Assesor" should be "Assessor" (page 54), "Hickock" should be "Hickok" (pages 63 and 67), the typeface should have returned to Times Roman in the middle of page 101 (not stayed italic), and there is at least one line missing in paragraph six on page 107. After that, I stopped keeping track.)

To order In the Country of the Blind from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/02/2004]

Ken Follett's historical novel THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH is set in twelfth century England during the time of the wars between Stephen and Maud and revolves around the building of the cathedral at Kingsbridge. If you're into architecture and architectural history (particularly of Gothic cathedrals), you'll almost definitely enjoy this book. (I'm sure someone somewhere has described it as "historical fiction with rivets.") There's also the requisite amount of love, sex, violence, and so on. My one objection might be that the characters seem to be like Harry Turtledove's Basilos (in his "Agent of Byzantium" stories)--they appear to invent a major new commercial concept (e.g., dealing in wool futures, becoming an intermediate trader, etc.) every few weeks.

To order The Pillars of the Earth from, click here.


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

THE BELEAGUERED CITY: THE VICKSBURG CAMPAIGN DECEMBER 1862 - JULY 1863 by Shelby Foote (ISBN 978-0-679-60170-8) is a 350-page excerpt from Foote's THE CIVIL WAR, A NARRATIVE: FREDERICKSBURG TO MERIDIAN (the second volume of Foote's three-volume history of the Civil War). Grant's efforts to take Vicksburg included seven different plans that failed before he came up with one that succeeded. Coincidentally, while I was in the middle of these, we watched a movie about the Large Hadron Collider in which one physicist, Savas Dimopoulos, talks about how those theoretical physicists whose theories were disproven (or at least cast into serious doubt) should react: "Jumping from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm is the secret to success." Well, I'm not sure Grant's reactions ever escalated to the point of enthusiasm, but he certainly had the "get back up on the horse" spirit. This was first demonstrated at Shiloh, when after the first (disastrous) day, his friend William Tecumseh Sherman said to him, "We've had the devil's own day, haven't we?" And all Grant said was, "Yes--lick 'em tomorrow, though." And he did.

Similarly, none of his seven failures to take Vicksburg (nor his overly optimistic prediction about the time required for the eighth, successful assault) convinced Grant to give up. To get a feeling of what he was up against, here's a summary:

  1. Mississippi Central Railroad: Confederates disrupted lines of communication and supply.
  2. Chickasaw Bluffs: The Confederates held the high ground on an old Indian mound and the Union could not dislodge them.
  3. Old Canal: A sudden river rise flooded the area and filled the canal with sediment.
  4. Lake Providence: The channel was so filled with stumps and such that there were not enough boats that could traverse it and ferry the men. Confederates also felled large trees to block the passage even more. (This was true of the next two attempts as well.)
  5. Yazoo Pass: This time the problem was above, not below--there were so many low-hanging trees that the gunboats had everything above decks destroyed when they went through.
  6. Steele Bayou: This combined the problems of the two previous attempts, and the overhanging trees were home to "rats, mice, cockroaches, snakes, and lizards" as well, which all fell into the boats when they brushed against the trees. The boats were also attacked by raccoons and wildcats.
  7. New Canal (Duckport Canal): By the time the canal was finished, the river had fallen so far that the canal was unusable except by flatboats.

On another topic, a recent article in the "New York Times" talked about how important coffee was in the Civil War. This was primarily for its caffeine--generals would see that the men had their coffee right before a battle--but also as a psychological boost, which they would get from coffee-like beverages made from grains or other substances. (Think Postum.) Regarding this, I note that Foote quotes Grant as saying at one point, "I do not calculate upon the possibility of supplying the army with full rations from Grand Gulf. I know it will be impossible with constructing additional roads. What I do expect, however, is to get up what rations of hard bread, coffee, and salt we can, and make the country furnish the balance." So Grant considered it as basic as hardtack and salt. As for the hardtack, at one point the troops had been "eating off the land" for three weeks, and were tired of it. "Turkey and sweet potatoes were fine as a special treat, it seemed, but such rich food had begun to pall as a regular thing." They were calling (yelling, in fact) for hardtack, and Grant obliged. "That night there was hardtack for everyone, along with beans, and coffee to wash it down." They may not have called for coffee, but clearly Grant (and Foote) understood it to be important.

To order The Beleaguered City from, click here.

THE CIVIL WAR by Shelby Foote:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/05/2016]

THE CIVIL WAR by Shelby Foote (3 volumes) (978-0-394-74913-6) was something I had had on my "to-read" list for a long time, yet the reading of it has been somewhat of a disappointment. In part this is a case of false expectations: having watched Ken Burns's THE CIVIL WAR, I saw Foote as a master of the anecdote, someone who made history come alive by talking about individuals' comments, little-known facts, and so on. What I found was a little bit of that and a lot of descriptions of troop movements, military hierarchies, and so on. As if I did not find this confusing enough, he also refers to various generals by their nicknames ("the Creole", "Little Napoleon", and so on). Given time, I might recall who is who, but it definitely catches me up.

In my review of WHEN GENERAL GRANT EXPELLED THE JEWS by Jonathan D. Sarna, I wrote about Grant's General Orders No. 11 (issued December 17, 1862) expelling the Jews from parts of Tennessee. Grant later claimed that it was written by a subordinate and his signed it without reading it.

However, apparently Grant's prejudice was more deep-seated than Sarna described. According to Foote, "[In the fall of 1862], in fact his aggressive instincts seemed mostly reserved for the Jews in his department. 'Refuse to all permits to come south of Jackson for the present,' he wired Hurlbut at that place, adding: 'The Israelites especially should be kept out.' He instructed his railroad superintendent to 'give orders to all conductors on the road that no Jews are to be permitted to travel on the railroad southward from any point. They may go north and be encouraged in it; but they are such an intolerable nuisance that the department must be purged of them.'" (Wikipedia gives the date of this order as November 9, 1862.) As Foote notes, "In time [that this would prevent Jewish fathers or mothers from visiting their sons in the Union Army] would be called to his attention," which implies that there was a long gap before this happened.

To order The Civil War from, click here.


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

DAZZLED AND DECEIVED: MIMICRY AND CAMOUFLAGE by Peter Forbes (ISBN 978-0-300-17896-8) had a great idea for a book, but poorly executed. A book like that cries out for photographic illustration throughout to demonstrate all the various animals, military camouflage, etc. While DAZZLED AND DECEIVED does have 34 color and black-and-white photographs, they are all on a signature of glossy pages in the middle, and not referenced at all in the text, e.g., the text about the lobster moth does not tell you to look at Plate 14, and the index just lists "Moths" without telling you what page the text about the lobster moth is on. Given that some of the photographs are black-and-white, and also that most of early military camouflage was being looked at from black-and-white reconnaissance photographs, a lot more could have been included on the text pages themselves.

That said, it still has something to offer the reader if one is willing to accept descriptions of camouflage rather than actual pictures.

To order Dazzled and Deceived from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/18/2009]

A while ago I bought a couple of books in the "Yale Chronicles of America" series. One was THE SEQUEL OF APPOMATTOX by Walter Lynwood Fleming, on which I commented in the 06/12/09 issue of the MT VOID. The other was WASHINGTON AND HIS COLLEAGUES by Henry Jones Ford (no ISBN). It is not a description of the various people Washington knew, even though that is what it sounds like. The subtitle gives a hint: "The Rise and Fall of Federalism". It is in fact a study of the first dozen years or so of the United States and specifically how the Congress, the President, and the Cabinet interpreted their roles (and each other's) under the new and as yet somewhat ambiguous Constitution. For example, could the President remove a Cabinet officer without the approval of Congress? What was the Federal responsibility towards the debts owned by states, or to individuals by foreign entities? It is interesting to see Ford observations about what the hundred and thirty years between Washington's administration and Ford's time have shown about the decisions that were made, and even more to see that much of what troubled the Founding Fathers is still a source of contention today. For example, Alexander Hamilton had a lot of proposals, a lot of ideas and plans, while Thomas Jefferson seemed to fall into the position of nay-sayer: he never had a counter-proposal to solve a problem, but instead merely opposed what Hamilton suggested. Or as Ford says, "Hamilton was clear, positive, and decided as to what to do and how to do it. Jefferson was active in finding objections but not in finding ways and means of action. This contrast became sharper as time went on, and, as Washington was in a position where he had to do something, he was forced to rely on Hamilton more and more."

[I am reminded of a favorite quote from the film THE LIBERTINE. "Anyone can oppose, it's fun to be against things, but there comes a time when you have to start being for things as well." -mrl]

To order Washington and His Colleagues from, click here.

"The Empire of Ice Cream" by Jeffrey Ford:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/09/2004]

The best of the six nominees for Hugo for Best Novelette was "The Empire of Ice Cream" by Jeffrey Ford, about a man with synesthaesia (as in the punch line of "The Man with English",the classic science fiction story by Horace L. Gold: "What smells purple?"). There seems to be an increase in the number of stories about diseases, or more specifically, mental conditions. Recently, for example, there has been Elizabeth Moon's THE SPEED OF DARK and Mark Haddon's THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME about autism, and now this. And, yes, this is in fact science fiction, although that doesn't become obvious until the end.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/30/2012]

The premise of RIGHTS GONE WRONG: HOW THE LAW CORRUPTS THE STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY by Richard Thompson Ford (ISBN 978-0-374-25035-5) is basically two-fold: The Law of Unintended Consequences applies, and people will find ways to "game" any system. Since these are not exactly new ideas, the book does not say anything amazing, but merely supplies examples.

To order Rights Gone Wrong: How the Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality from, click here.

1945 by Newt Gingrich & William R. Fortschen (Baen, ISBN 0-671-87739-9, 1995, 382pp, paperback):

I suppose it's only fair to state up front that Newt Gingrich is not one of my favorite people. I still think I can be objective about this review, but I thought I should at least say that.

It's also worth noting up front that on page 382, the book says "To Be Continued...," and indeed ends rather abruptly in the middle of events, though the jacket does not indicate anywhere that this is the first book of the series. This leads people to ask where Gingrich is going to find the time to write the sequel, which in turn leads them to ask how much of this he actually wrote. Who knows? He was a professor of history, so he does have the background for developing the concept, but it's not unreasonable to assume that most of the actual writing was Forstchen's.

The premise of this alternate history is that at the time of Pearl Harbor, Hitler was in a coma from a plane crash and so could not declare war on the United States. As a result, the Pacific War was quickly won by us, while Germany overran Europe, leaving only England standing against it. This could be a fascinating examination of the world that would have resulted, but instead it's an excuse for long descriptions of armaments and the use of incredibly stale clichés ("The film [of the death camps] had run counter to everything he had ever thought he knew about a culture that could produce Goethe, Beethoven and Schiller."). And it falls into the trap of preaching: "There were times when a man had to lay his life on the line, and that meant not just his physical life--most servicemen understood and accepted the probability that from time to time they must step in harm's way--but his career as well, which far too many were afraid to risk." And on top of everything else, what puts our country at risk? The fact that the government has taken away the guns of people in a certain area. Who is going to save the day? The good ol' Southern boys who still have guns.

The one positive thing I can say is that while the famous excerpt about the "pouting sex kitten" turning into "Diana the huntress" is still here--and indeed is the prologue to the book--the rest of the book is not in that style. (And a good thing it is, too, since that style is very un-1940s: it is very jarring to read a historical novel in too modern a style.) In fact, the whole "subplot" of that prologue is somewhat unnecessary, at least in this volume, and appears only once more, and then briefly, making the whole thing appear like a crash publicity stunt to gain attention for the book.

For me, the appeal of alternate history is to see what sort of world, what sort of society, might develop if something were different. As I noted, though, we see next to nothing of the world--almost the entire book is spent in government offices, on military bases, or in battles. There's no description of how life is different in the United States, no description of how life is different in Germany, and next to nothing about the result of the quick war in the Pacific. In short, there's nothing that \fII\fR can recommend here.

To order 1945 from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/04/2013]

GHOSTS OF THE CONFEDERACY: DEFEAT, THE LOST CAUSE, AND THE EMERGENCE OF THE NEW SOUTH by Gaines M. Foster (ISBN 978-0-19-504213-9) makes an good companion book to Edmund Wilson's PATRIOTIC GORE. Wilson looks at how the South's post-Civil-War attitude towards the war and towards itself was reflected in its literature of the period. While Foster does look at some of the writings of the time, he concentrates on the organizations formed to remember, to memorialize, and to interpret the war. So many were formed, in fact, that Foster provides a page of "Frequently Used Abbreviations" so that you can be reminded that the SCV is the Sons of Confederate Veterans while the UDC is the United Daughters of the Confederacy. However, it does not include USCV, the original acronym of the SCV, standing for the United Sons of Confederate Veterans. In the text Foster explains that after the USCV formed, they were horrified to discover that there was another USCV--the United States Colored Volunteers--and immediately changed their name and acronym.

Indeed, the one aspect of the book that makes it difficult to read is the constant use of acronyms that are too close to each other and references by last name only to three different Lees, two Johnsons, two Johnstons, and so on. This is obviously not entirely Foster's fault, but one wishes he would use full names more often.

To order Ghosts of the Confederacy from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/21/2003]

If you want something simpler than Fintan O'Toole's SHAKESPEARE IS HARD, BUT SO IS LIFE, try Thomas C. Foster's HOW TO READ LITERATURE LIKE A PROFESSOR. This seems to be a very strange entry in the self-help field. Basically, Foster gives you a series of chapters with "rules" for interpreting literature. In case you have difficulty in figuring out the rules from the chapters and examples, Foster gives you the rules in bold-face type. And what are the rules? Well, the first few include, "The real reason for a quest is self-knowledge," "Whenever people eat or drink together, it's communion," and "Ghosts and vampires are never only about ghosts and vampires." The problem with all this is that if you're someone who finds these "rules" new, it's unlikely they're going to make a big difference in how you read. Actually, it's unlikely in that case that you'd pick up this book in the first place (although it may have the same intended market as those "Bluffer's" books). Even I, who loves to see lists of things, find this approach to literature a bit strained. But the last rule is worth remembering: "Don't read with your eyes." By this, Foster means that one must at least partially judge a book by the standards of its intended audience--relatively easy for this week's best-seller, not so easy for Homer's "Iliad".

To order How To Read Literature Like a Professor from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/21/2014]

THE RIDDLE OF THE LABYRINTH: THE QUEST TO CRACK AN ANCIENT CODE by Margalit Fox (ISBN 978-0-062-22883-3) is the story of the discovery and eventual decipherment of Linear B. The three main characters are Arthur Evans, Alice Kober, and Michael Ventris: Evans discovered the tablets, Kober made the majority of the breakthroughs in deciphering them, and Ventris used Kober's work to finish the job.

There are parallels to the Rosalyn Franklin story: just as Franklyn did a lot of the work on discovering DNA but James Watson and Francis Crick got all the credit, so Kober made giant strides in deciphering Linear B but Ventris got all the credit. In both cases, the omission was in part due to the gender of the person but also in part because both Franklyn and Kober died before they could finish the job. And in both cases, there is now a belated attempt to correct the oversight.

Fox does a good job of explaining how Kober "cracked" the code. For example, she explains how Kober determined that Linear B was an inflected language, based on charting relative positions of syllables in words (and this in spite of the inflection often changing the final syllable of the base word!). After reading Fox's description, I feel that I understand it, even though there is no chance I could ever do it myself.

Fox also describes some of Kober innovative scientific techniques, such as her use of homemade "punch cards" to keep track of relative positions in words of the various syllables and all of which syllables are adjacent to which others. (For this, she says in a letter, "I did in on the little slide rule I just bought to hasten the arithmetic I'll have to do." I would bet that most people would not have thought the decipherment of Linear B involved slide rules.)

For those interested in archaeology, languages, ciphers, or how science is done, this is a must-read book.

To order The Riddle of the Labyrinth from, click here.

LAUDATO SI' by Pope Francis:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/31/2015]

I recently read a book on the current environmental crisis, ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME by Jorge Mario Bergoglio (ISBN 978-1-612-78386-4) which actually has a lot of connections with AURORA by Kim Stanley Robinson (which I reviewed last week).

I'll first note that this is written from a religious perspective and for a primarily Christian audience, as Bergoglio says: "Furthermore, although this [volume] welcomes dialogue with everyone so that together we can seek paths of liberation, I would like from the outset to show how faith convictions can offer Christians, and some other believers as well, ample motivation to care for nature and for the most vulnerable of their brothers and sisters."

He also starts out by disavowing the "Earth has been given unconditionally to mankind" attitude one often hears: "... nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God's image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. ... Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures. ... Instead, our 'dominion' over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship." And later, he again criticizes absolutism: "The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property."

Bergoglio does not take the stereotypical anti-evolution position, but rather says, "Although change is part of the working of complex systems, the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution."

(He does not endorse evolution exclusively, though, as he also writes, "Human beings, even if we postulate a process of evolution, also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems.")

While many authors try to separate environmental issues from other issues, Bergoglio ties them together, noting, "There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees..."

The bottom line, for Bergoglio anyway, seems to be, "We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. ... We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental."

So ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME spends a fair amount of time on economics and on the problems of the poor. Some of these are very basic, such as access to safe drinking water. But even these do not get the attention they deserve. "These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage. ... This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems."

Bergoglio sees our attitudes as a continuum, saying, "It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings." As a result of our indifference, he continues, "... we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights."

But he is saying that we institute a welfare state to solve the problems of poverty, but rather that we should aspire to Maimonides's highest level of charity, namely, providing the means for someone to avoid the need for charity: "Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work."

However, he does want some basic changes in our socio-economic system. As he notes, "To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practise a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute." Later he is even more specific, saying, "Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, foregoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises after a slow, costly and only apparent recovery."

In some respects, alas, the "obvious" science expressed may be wrong, or at least questionable. For example, Bergoglio says, "Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water." This is true of some cities, I suppose, but in fact cities are efficient structures which use much less energy and water per person than other living arrangements. For example, an apartment building provides more insulation per apartment (through internal walls) to retain heat in the winter. The very fact that people tend to occupy much smaller residences in cities than in suburbs saves energy as well as water (few city dwellers have large lawns or private swimming pools). Transit in cities also tends to emphasize public transit more and private vehicles less. Not only does this provide economies of scale, but public transit is more likely to be powered through electricity or other alternatives rather than gasoline.

Bergoglio may be thinking less of cities such as Boston and San Francisco, though, and more of places such as Mexico City and Mumbai when he writes, "In the unstable neighbourhoods of mega-cities, the daily experience of overcrowding and social anonymity can create a sense of uprootedness which spawns antisocial behaviour and violence."

One of the things that some readers may find disconcerting is that Bergoglio does not attempt to present reams of data supporting his contentions on global climate change, but simply states, "Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth."

Unlike many people trying to deal with global climate change, Bergoglio is not anti-science or anti-technology. He says straight out, "It is right to rejoice in these advances [of science] and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for 'science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity'."

Of course, his application of science often tends toward the philosophical, or even New Age, as when he seems to derive his belief in the interconnectedness of everything from physics, specifically observing, "Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation."

However, he also recognizes the negative aspects of science, when he observes, "Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational."

In part, he attributes this to too much knowledge and technology, so that "the fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant."

However, science (in his opinion) has its limits. For example, he says, "... experimentation on animals is morally acceptable only 'if it remains within reasonable limits [and] contributes to caring for or saving human lives'."

And sometimes he verges into almost a sort of relativism, as when he says, "It is difficult to make a general judgment about genetic modification (GM), whether vegetable or animal, medical or agricultural, since these vary greatly among themselves and call for specific considerations. The risks involved are not always due to the techniques used, but rather to their improper or excessive application."

As for solutions to the problems he has listed, Bergoglio is less specific. He seems determined to avoid saying that we have exceeded Earth's "carrying capacity," instead claiming, "To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues." But he does concede that "attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels." (For an illustration of the population density imbalance, see

Rather than absolute population, he sees "consumerism" as the true problem, and says, "That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth. [It has been said that] 'technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency'." However, this is not just decreased growth, but actually shrinkage; he does not want to change the sign of just the second derivative, but also of the first derivative.

Of course, Neal Stephenson (in SNOWCRASH) has his own description of this which is a bit starker: "Once we've brain-drained out technology into other countries--once things have evened out ... once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel--once the Invisible Hand has taken all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brick maker would consider to be prosperity..." (Of course, none of the main characters seem to be living in the Pakistani bricklayer style, which somewhat undercuts Stephenson's message.)

And if climate change does not get us, he warns, social revolution and chaos will: "Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction."

He also agrees that we need long-term, considered, global solutions, saying, "Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. ... A global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries."

He states flatly, "We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels--especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas--needs to be progressively replaced without delay."

For other problems, he is more vague (and less re-assuring): "With regard to climate change, the advances have been regrettably few. Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most."

He does disparage some current "solutions": "The strategy of buying and selling 'carbon credits' can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide."

And he recognizes that this will be difficult, saying, "This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen. [They say,] 'Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage'." He adds, "To take up these responsibilities and the costs they entail, politicians will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and results which dominates present-day economics and politics. [But] the environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces."

To order Laudato Si' from, click here.


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

THE ECONOMIC NATURALIST; IN SEARCH OF EXPLANATIONS FOR EVERYDAY ENIGMAS by Robert H. Frank (ISBN-13 978-0-465-00217-7, ISBN-10 0-465-00217-X) proposes answers to such questions as "Why do drive-up ATMs have Braille keypads?" and "Why do most states enforce mandatory kindergarten start dates?" Some of the answers are obvious, and others are arguable, but on the whole this is at least an amusing book.

To order The Economic Naturalist from, click here.

ON BULLSH*T by Harry G. Frankfurt:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/12/2005]

Harry G. Frankfurt's ON BULLSH*T (ISBN 0-691-12294-6) is a slim volume which I had hoped would be about the eponymous topic and its manifestations in today's society. Instead, it was almost entirely an analysis of the origin of the term and its precise definition. At about 9000 words, it's a long analysis, but not worth buying a hardback for, even at $9.95. (If it were a science fiction story, it would be at the low word-count end of the novelette category.) I suspect this will be purchased mostly to give as gifts with inscriptions either warning the recipient to watch out for bullsh*t, or telling the recipient to stop spreading it so much.

To order On Bullsh*t from, click here.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Benjamin Franklin:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/09/2018]

I have just started the Great Courses course on "Classics of American Literature", which has 84 lectures. It seems like it might be a good idea to read the works along with listening to the lectures, but I suspect this ambition on my part will not last. Some will be too long (I would like to finish the course before I die :-) ), some will not appeal to me (they may be classics, but I don't have to read them--especially if I have read them before), and some may be hard to find.

At any rate the first one is AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Benjamin Franklin (ISBN 978-0-486-29073-7). I am sure I read this ages ago, but it is short enough that I read it again. Though Franklin talks a lot about humility as a virtue, he does not display very much in this work--and indeed, writes about how hard it is to develop humility without ending up proud that you are so humble.

If one considers this an example of Franklin's wit, it is not the only one. When discussing the organization of people into militias for defense against the French, he snidely writes, "Indeed I had some cause to believe that the defense of the country was not disagreeable to any of them, provided they were not required to assist in it."

Of his invention of the Franklin stove, he says he took no patent out on it because, "That, as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously." What an ideal world Franklin must have lived in! :-)

Ever the scientists, Franklin writes that he had often been skeptical of claims of a speaker addressing 25,000 people, or an ancient general addressing entire armies. So when the Reverend Whitefield addressed a crowd from the corner of Market Street and Second Street, Franklin backed down Market Street until he could no longer understand him (almost to Front Street). He then calculated the area of a semi-circle of which his distance from Whitefield was the radius and concluded that, allowing two square feet per person, in an open area he could be heard by more than 30,000 people.

Franklin writes of losing his four-year-old son to smallpox, and says, "I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen." Given how much more dangerous smallpox inoculation was then compared to, say, measles vaccination now, maybe Franklin's comments should be more widely publicized.

But Franklin does show some linguistic ignorance. He writes, "We are told that it is proper to begin first with the Latin, and, having acquired that, it will be more easy to attain those modern languages which are derived from it; and yet we do not begin with the Greek, in order to more easily acquire the Latin." He completely misses the fact that Latin is not at all derived from Greek, while French, Spanish, and Italian are pretty much derived from Latin. He is correct, though, when he says that those who begin with Latin and quit after a few years have not learned anything practical, while starting with a modern language at least gives them something useful in their common life after the same period of time.

To order Autobiography from, click here.

CELEBRATION, U.S.A.: LIVING IN DISNEY'S BRAVE NEW TOWN by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/23/2014]

In response to discussion of a recent column written about Celebration, Florida, a planned community designed and built by the Walt Disney Company, I just checked out CELEBRATION, U.S.A.: LIVING IN DISNEY'S BRAVE NEW TOWN by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins (ISBN 978-0-805-05560-3). The first thing I looked up was what it said about churches (that being one of the main foci of the discussion.). At the beginning of the planning, a consultant had recommended having many churches scattered through the community. But Disney wanted a single church in the downtown area, to be used for joint worship. Not surprisingly, this never worked out. Eventually the Presbyterians bought the designated land. Then Disney wanted them to build an old New England-style church, seating a couple of hundred people. "The Presbyterians balked," say Frantz and Collins. This was still planned to be the only church, and the projected population of Celebration was 20,000. (By 2013, almost twenty years after it opened, it had reached only 7000.) Also, the Presbyterians had their own ideas about what the church should look like. The result was a proposal for a huge $11 million complex, with a main sanctuary seating eight hundred. Then Disney asked for a voice in choosing the minister. Not surprisingly, this was also rejected.

However, two years later, ground had not been broken, and there was nowhere near enough money. For some reason, the people who had proposed this thought that the money for it would come from the national church and other Presbyterians (and probably some from Disney as well), and were shocked to discover that it was the congregation's members who would be footing the bill. After much debate and several false starts, they eventually settled on a much less ambitious plan.

Other denominations ended up worshiping at churches in neighboring communities or in people's homes or other buildings. There was a Jewish congregation, which did not even have a rabbi and had no plans to build a synagogue.

(All of this was as of 1999. Current church information is at . If one looks at the Community Presbyterian Church in GoogleMaps, one sees something quite different from an old New England-style church, and indeed something that looks quite a bit different than what I would think of as "neo-traditional".)

Then I started reading the book at the beginning. Much has been made of the HOA (Home Owners Association) aspects of Celebration: limited architectural choices, strict rules about lawns, landscaping, signs (e.g., no "For Sale" signs allowed), parking cars, etc. These extended to residents being told that even temporary curtains in other than white were not allowed, and you could not even pile moving boxes in front of an uncurtained window when you first moved it.

But other aspects received less attention. Disney dictated what businesses could open in the downtown at the beginning, so while there was a small grocery store, there was no supermarket. Nor was there a hardware store, a florist, or a hair salon, meaning that residents had to drive several miles to the next town for these services. There was not even a library (didn't the planners ever see IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE?). Eventually a small branch of the county library was opened in the school for four hours a day. (The town's bookstore was very small and seemed to sell more tourist items and gifts than books. However, according to Frantz and Collins, most of the residents did not seem to read that much anyway: their homes did not have any books or bookshelves around, and they never discussed books.)

Oh, yes--tourists. Because Celebration was so hyped by Disney when it was built, many people who did not live there thought of it as just another theme park, and residents would occasionally find tourists walking through their back yards and peering in the windows, or even asking if they could come into their houses and look around.

However, the biggest problem to many residents was the school. It was designed as some sort of incredibly progressive school, with several grades in a single large room, no individual subjects, no textbooks, and no standard report cards or grades. Students would work on a series of nine-week projects (that they chose) which were supposed to teach them all the subjects (apparently by osmosis). The result was, in many cases, a disaster. Parents had no idea how their children were doing, there seemed to be very little supervision of students in the school, the mix of ages in a single room was okay in the 9-12 grades, but a disaster for the K-5 grades. Most of these families had been attracted by the wonderful promises of a state-of-the-art high-tech school, but the reality was very different.

And if this were not enough, families with children who were looking at colleges were discovering that none of the prestigious (or even just mainstream) colleges and universities would even look at a student who had no transcript with standard classes and grades for them. The school instead sent a "portfolio" of the student's projects and such, but given how many applicants schools get these days, no school anyone was interested in had the inclination to spend time examining a portfolio. Not surprisingly, this was totally unacceptable to the parents. So the school started issuing transcripts, but in many cases the grades (and even the classes) seemed to be made up.

(Eventually, the school returned to a much more traditional structure, with actual classes in math, history, English, etc.; textbooks; and graded report cards, but by then many families either moved, or pulled their children out of the school in favor of private schools or home schooling. The latest information is that there are now also separate schools for primary and secondary grades.)

A continuing public relations problem is the demographics of Celebration. It is an overwhelmingly white town, in a very ethnically mixed county. In part this is because rather than allow "affordable housing" to be built in the town, or allow lower-income people to get government help with their mortgages, Disney paid $300,000 toward some sort of affordable housing elsewhere. The result is that even though the town contains several different "levels" of housing, including apartments, none of them are available to anyone who is not at least middle-class.

(The latest figures show a population 91% white (81.9% non-Hispanic white), 1.5% black, 3.2% Asian, and 0.26% Native American. Hispanics of all races are 11.2% of the town's population. This is a big improvement over the initial figures, but nowhere near reflecting the area as a whole. One theory is that for many people, what makes them move to Celebration is nostalgia for the sort of small town they grew up in and had good memories of, but for blacks, particularly in the South, their memories of this sort of small town are less likely to cause nostalgia than fear.)

But almost all the problems to some extent are a side effect of the fact that Disney built Celebration and promoted it. Most of the people who bought homes there were Disney fans and had visited the theme parks many times. In the theme parks, everyone is friendly, everything is clean, nothing is broken, and so on. This is because there is an entire "backstage" crew making sure of all this, using a vast network of underground tunnels in which to stash the garbage, repair the broken items, and so on. But as Frantz and Collins say, "There are no tunnels in Celebration in which to hide life's nitty-gritty." It is populated by real people, not employees who will always act as they are directed.

And in this regard Disney was equally blind. Used to saying "Jump" and being asked, "How high?" on the way up by everyone from employees to politicians, Disney was taken aback when they could not tell people where they could worship or who their minister would be, or find enough teachers to teach in an experimental school in a town they could not afford to live in, or could sell their homes and leave only if they did not tell anyone why. For them too, the expectation of utopia was a bar they could not reach.

To order Celebration, U.S.A. from, click here.

WHITE-COLLAR SWEATSHOP by Jill Andresky Fraser:

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

Jill Andresky Fraser's WHITE-COLLAR SWEATSHOP was published in 2001, and apparently written before the technology companies' meltdown. In a sense, then, she was writing about the good old days, when people had jobs they could be overworked and mistreated at. (Though she does describe a lot of layoffs--I think the difference is that many of the people in the book who are laid off find jobs at other companies where they will be equally overworked. Nowadays that doesn't seem to be happening.)

But the negative practices she describes aren't exactly new, though she seems to imply they came along in the 1980s. For example, she talks about one bank's "Adopt-an-ATM" program, where employees were asked to volunteer to clean up around one of the bank's ATMs near their home--on their own time and without pay. (The Department of Labor put the kibosh on this one.) But when I worked for Burroughs in 1973-1974, similar shenanigans went on. For example, they would require that I visit a customer four hours away (spending eight hours there) without an option to stay overnight, and would even dispute paying for breakfast. They would send employees to classes where accommodations were dormitory-style and you were assigned to room with a total stranger. During the gasoline crisis, they required that each of us do two trips a week to San Francisco to deliver or pick up card decks for compiling. (And when I tried to choose both trips on the same day, so that I needed to drive to work only once and could take the train the other four days, I think that was disallowed.) And the list goes on. My point is (in case you lost track) that a lot of the "sweatshop" conditions that Fraser decries as new are new merely in companies that had been reasonable before--but that this "reasonableness" was by no means universal.

To order White-Collar Sweatshop from, click here.

COPENHAGEN by Michael Frayn:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/13/2016]

COPENHAGEN by Michael Frayn (ISBN 978-0-413-72490-5) is a play about the meeting in Copenhagen in 1941 between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Heisenberg explained many times what was said, but the accounts were never clear and were inconsistent with each other. (One is sorely tempted to say his accounts were uncertain.) Basically, he claimed he was trying to convince Bohr that both sides should stall the production of atomic bombs in the hope that Bohr would convey this to scientists in America. Bohr wrote his version of what was said, but at the time of the writing of the play, his account was scheduled to remain sealed until fifty years after his death. However, the success of the play led them to release the papers, which were many drafts of the same letter, in 2002. In them, Bohr claimed Heisenberg was boasting about how Germany would soon have the atomic bomb and would soon win the war. Heisenberg's son says that Bohr was just unable to detect the subtext of what Heisenberg was saying, because Heisenberg had to be very circumspect.

This Frayn knew, of course, and acknowledged it early on, having Bohr's wife say, "He knows he's being watched, of course. ... He has to be careful about what he says. ... You know you're being watched yourself." This is interesting not just to help explain why the dialogue between Heisenberg and Bohr could not be straightforward, but also as a reference to the Uncertainty Principle, at least as it is understood by most people: the act of observing affects what is being observed.

However, this is not quite an accurate summary. As Heisenberg says in the play, "Everyone understands uncertainty. Or thinks he does. No one understands my trip to Copenhagen." One might add that even people who think they understand his trip to Copenhagen are mistaken as those who think they understand uncertainty, and vice versa.

Throughout the play, one finds oneself constantly asking if Heisenberg is amoral, or clueless, or both. His opening conversation with the Bohrs about sailing, skiing, and general conditions seems to indicate that there is at least a certain level of cluelessness. But Bohr clearly thinks Heisenberg amoral, accusing him of ignoring the ethical implications of his actions by saying, "Your talent is ... for always being in more than one position at a time, like one of your particles."

Throughout, Frayn uses the language of physics metaphorically. Not only are there at least hints that uncertainty applies to people's interactions as well as particles', but Frayn will have Bohr talk about the lack of cadmium control rods in Heisenberg's early reactors, and then admonish Heisenberg about not thinking ahead by saying, "I should have been there to slow you down a little."

There has been a version of COPENHAGEN filmed for PBS, and another recorded as a radio play for L.A. Theatre Works. Both are abridged from Frayn's original playscript, so even if you have seen/heard a dramatic version, there is more to be gained by reading the script.

To order Copenhagen from, click here.

THE TIN MEN by Michael Frayn:

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

In his introduction to EYEWITNESS TO HISTORY, John Carey discusses THE TIN MEN by Michael Frayn (ISBN-10 0-006-54102-X, ISBN-13 978-0-006-54102-8).

Now, the one thing that can be said about having a ridiculously large science fiction collection is that when I read a reference to a book such as THE TIN MEN, one can go and pluck it off the shelf. (Or in my case, out of the box.) This is a social satire reminiscent of those of Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth. At the William Morris Institute of Automation Research, people are busy trying to find ways to automate everything. Rowe, for example, is working on coming up with programming that will produce the descriptions and results of sporting events without the actual inconvenience of playing the games or running the races. What Carey is talking about, though, is Goldwasser's job: automating the production of news. One sample would be a file he picks up which is labeled "Child Told Dress Unsuitable by Teacher" and reads: "V. Satis. Basic plot entirely invariable. Variables confined to three. (1) Clothing objected to (high heels/petticoat/frilly knickers). (2) Whether child also smokes and/or uses lipstick. (3) Whether child alleged by parents to be humiliated by having offending clothing inspected before whole school. Frequency of publication: once every nine days."

There is also a great sequence which is basically a flow-chart/state diagram of an article. One starts with "Traditionally," and then chooses an event: weddings, deaths, births, and so on. "Weddings" leads to "are occasions for rejoicing"; deaths leads to "are occasions for mourning." "The wedding of X and Y" is followed by a choice between "is no exception" or "is a case in point." And so on. (Now you know where all those clichés come from!)

All this is combined with a plot about the Queen's visit, which starts out as a brief stop and escalates through the efforts of dozens of committees, overlapping and duplicating each other's work. This was probably true to some extent when Frayn wrote THE TIN MEN (1965), but has grown and expanded enormously since then.

(Frayn is probably best known these days as the author of the play COPENHAGEN.)

To order The Tin Men from, click here.


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

MR. POTTERMACK'S OVERSIGHT by R. Austin Freeman (ISBN 978-1-596-54693-6) is a detective story from the classic era, written by the author of the "Thinking Machine" stories. Unfortunately, this is one of those stories that turns on a fact that was probably obscure even when it was written, but now is completely unknown. I won't say exactly what it is, but a similar example from a different story had to do with picking the one name out of a list that could have been dialed as a phone number--except that at the time of the story, phone numbers were only four digits long. Still, there is a "Columbo" aspect of MR. POTTERMACK'S OVERSIGHT (you see the crime being committed--the question is how the detective will figure it out) which was unusual for when the novel was written.

To order Mr. Pottermack's Oversight from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/28/2006]

R. Austin Freeman is best known for his shorter "Dr. Thondyke" mystery stories; the mostly widely available collection has been THE BEST DR. THORNDYKE DETECTIVE STORIES (ISBN 0-486-20388-3), but Freeman also wrote several "Dr. Thorndyke" novels, including THE STONEWARE MONKEY & THE PENROSE MYSTERY (issued in a single volume, ISBN 0-486-22963-7). The first story, according to E. F. Bleiler, is the only mystery novel to trigger a genuine archaeological dig. And both are well worth reading.

To order The Stoneware Monkey & The Penrose Mystery from, click here.

THE TERMINATOR by Sean French:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/03/2015]

I have been reading more of the BFI booklets on film, and have come to the conclusion that the first one I read (CAT PEOPLE by Kim Newman, reviewed in the 10/10/14 issue of the MT VOID) may be the best, at least for my purposes. Certainly the last two had some surprising errors.

In THE TERMINATOR by Sean French (ISBN 978-0-85170-533-8), French applies what must be now considered an outdated test. Claiming that perhaps THE TERMINATOR has achieved classic status "by outliving its decade, if not its century" (Samuel Johnson's criterion), French writes, "This 1984 film was considered worthy of a sequel after a gap of no less than seven years. As I write, in early 1996, twelve years after its opening, you can still buy it on video. What greater demonstration of longevity could be required?" Well, these days you can buy just about anything on video, so that really does not count for much.

French also claims Karloff played "endless recyclings of the Frankenstein monster." Actually, Karloff played the monster only three times--in the first three Universal films (FRANKENSTEIN (1931), BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939).

To order The Terminator from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/18/2010]

In MOSES AND MONOTHEISM by Sigmund Freud (ISBN-13 978-0-394-70014-4), Freud talks about the standard myth of the hero as son of a king who is exposed/cast adrift, rescued, and brought up by peasants, only to eventually discover his royal lineage. But, he then notes, Moses was the son of peasants and brought up by a king. So Freud assumes that the Moses myth was originally composed to match the traditional structure as much as possible--given what Freud asserts is the historical fact that Moses was Egyptian. In fact, Freud seems to do most of his arguing that Moses was an Egyptian in reverse: "If Moses was an Egyptian, then that would explain X." But what he needs to do is to show that nothing else will explain X. When he does this, it is often by dismissing everything else as being made up to cover up the fact that Moses was Egyptian. For example, Egyptians practiced circumcision, so that was where the Hebrews got it. Yes, the Torah describes circumcision as occurring among the Hebrews before they came to Egypt, but Freud says that this is just because the Jews wanted to cover up the fact that their religion was derived from an Egyptian one.

In other words, it's basically a conspiracy theory: any contradictory evidence is just something that has been created and planted to deceive people.

Freud seems to commit other logical fallacies. For example, he writes, "I venture now to draw the following conclusion: if Moses was an Egyptian and if he transmitted to the Jews his own religion, then it was that of Ikhnaton, the Aton religion." This is well and good, if actually a bit obvious, but then somehow these seems to mutate into, "If there are similarities between Judaism and the Aton religion, that supports the idea that Moses was Egyptian," which is not the same thing at all.

And he says, "It must have been a considerable number that left the country with Moses; a small crowd would not have been worth the while of that ambitious man, with his great schemes." Joseph Smith led 170 people west to Utah, not what I would call a considerable number.

To order Moses and Monotheism from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/04/2014]

LIFE AND LISZT: RECOLLECTIONS OF A CONCERT PIANIST by Arthur Friedham (ISBN 978-0-685-20505-1) covers a lot more about Friedham than about Franz Liszt and should probably be read selectively for the Liszt sections unless you are really into the history of Arthur Friedham.

To order Life and Liszt: Recollections of a Concert Pianist from, click here.

HOT, FLAT, AND CROWDED by Thomas L. Friedman:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/28/2010]

HOT, FLAT, AND CROWDED: WHY WE NEED A GREEN REVOLUTION--AND HOW IT CAN RENEW AMERICA by Thomas L. Friedman (ISBN-13 978-1-607-51627-9) is a sequel to his book THE WORLD IS FLAT. Just like a lot of people, he makes the point that "going green" is not going to be cheap or painless or easy. In one chapter titled "205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth", Friedman says that people tell him we are having a green revolution and he responds, "Really? Really? A green revolution? Have you ever seen a revolution where no one got hurt? That's the green revolution we're having. In the green revolution we're having, everyone's a winner, nobody has to give up anything, and the adjective that most often modifies 'green revolution' is 'easy.' That's not a revolution. That's a party."

Another chapter is "China for a Day (But Not for Two)", where Friedman says that the one aspect of China's government that he envies is its ability to "simply order top-down the sweeping changes in prices, regulations, standards, education, and infrastructure that reflect China's long-term strategic national interests." Well, of course one problem with this is that occasionally (or perhaps not so occasionally) these sweeping changes are disastrous, such as the "Great Leap Forward" with its backyard smelters.

But the examples he gives are still thought-provoking. Consider unleaded gasoline. "America started the process of removing lead from gasoline in 1973, and it took until 1995 until all gasoline sold in our country was unleaded. China decided to go lead-free in 1998; the new standard was partially implemented in Beijing in 1999, and by 2000 the entire country's gasoline was lead-free." And another: In late 2007 The State Council announced that starting June 1, 2008, no stores could give out free plastic bags.

But why only for one day? Because, Friedman acknowledges, a lot of these Chinese directives are ignored at the lower levels. In the United States, we have a system that (according to him) mandates enforcement. Well, this does not actually seem to be the case--consider the laws prohibiting the hiring of illegal immigrants. But the other problem is that we don't want a system where the government can just mandate whatever it wants without any sort of recourse by the citizens. It sounds great when you're talking about banning plastic shopping bags, but what if the next decree was that no one was allowed to own more than three pairs of shoes, or that anyone whose house had more than 400 square feet per person would have to take in enough homeless people to get it down to that amount? To some extent, the slackness of enforcement in China is there because there is no discussion of the laws, and the enforcement of our laws is there because we have more input in the making of them.

As with most serious books on the environment, HOT, FLAT, AND CROWDED has some interesting ideas, but (alas) these ideas all have their problems.

To order Hot, Flat, and Crowded from, click here.

LONGITUDES & ATTITUDES by Thomas L. Friedman:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/14/2005]

Thomas L. Friedman's LONGITUDES & ATTITUDES (ISBN 1-400-03125-7) is a collection of Friedman's essays about the world situation, from shortly before 9/11 to the present. Friedman's position in brief is that the Arab world in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, needs to accept that the conditions in their countries are what led to the 9/11 terrorists, and that they need to start thinking about providing better living conditions for their people, which means better education, which will inevitably mean more freedom and democracy as well. He is strongly critical of Yasser Arafat because Arafat failed to work on any sort of infrastructure for a Palestinian state, but instead focused on the conflict with Israel. At the same time, Friedman says that it has been an enormous mistake for Israel to allow, or even worse, encourage, settlements in the occupied territories. Since all Friedman's columns were written before Arafat's death, it will be interesting to see how that situation plays out. The main problem with the book is that because it is a collection of columns written about the same subject, there is a fair amount of repetition. Whether or not Friedman is correct in his conclusions is impossible to say, but it is clear that he has studied and thought about the situation enough to be worth listening to.

And if you want a science fiction connection, how about this? You remember the Babel fish, about which Douglas Adams said, "If you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any language. ... Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation." Well, Friedman writes, "Thanks to translation services like those of MEMRI or 'Middle East Mirror', you now get instant feedback on what commentators in Arab newspapers are saying about you and vice versa. The Saudi ambassador to London publishes a small poem in praise of a Palestinian suicide bomber in and Arabic paper in London, and I've got a translated copy in my e-mail the next morning. We are all right up in each other's face now, with no walls from behind which we can refine our messages at home, or scream to ourselves in private and then communicate calmly with each other. Instead, I write something in a white-hot rage and it gets right into someone's face in the Middle East or Europe, and then they write back in a white-hit rage, and we both end up angrier than we might have been had we not been so easily connected." Or as he summarizes, "It's as though God suddenly gave us all the tools to communicate and none of the tools to understand."

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CHILD OF THE EAGLE by Esther Friesner (Baen, ISBN 0-671-87725-9, 1996, 312pp, mass market paperback):

Alternate histories are about "what if"s, but even so I was skeptical of this one. After all, the premise is that Venus (the goddess, not the planet) comes down and convinces Brutus to save Caesar from the assassination attempt. This could be a pretty silly idea, but Friesner manages to avoid the pitfalls. Venus is not just a silly love goddess, but the more accurate serious deity of Greek mythology. And her intervention is kept to a minimum.

Friesner also manages to come up with a plausible alternate history--perhaps someone more familiar with the period could pick holes in it, but I found it believable. I also found the motivations interesting, though the ending was a bit telegraphed. (Does saying that constitute a spoiler?) But Friesner is never one for the simplistic and manages to cast an unexpectedly mythic interpretation and motivation to it all.

Don't dismiss this one as just another silly-premised alternate history. Unusual the premise may be, but Friesner develops it with seriousness and diligence, and more than a little philosophy. I won't argue that Shakespeare's treatment of Julius Caesar and Brutus isn't greater, but I would recommend this book to those interested in historical fantasy.

Oh, and while it's true that Charleton Heston was in two film versions of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, he never played Brutus (or any of the other conspirators), which appears to be how Gary Ruddell depicted him on the cover.

To order Child of the Eagle from, click here.

THE PSALMS OF HEROD by Esther M. Friesner (White Wolf Borealis, ISBN 1-56504-916-0, 1995, 478pp, trade paperback):

If Esther Friesner can write something like this, why is she wasting her time on Chicks in Chainmail?

Well, okay, I'm sure that Chicks in Chainmail pays the rent, while a serious novel like The Psalms of Herod pays for espresso. It's the way of the world. I could be wrong. I hope I am. But judging by the number of articles mentioning on Chicks in Chainmail on the Net (forty-one) compared to the number mentioning The Psalms of Herod (eleven, six of which are announcements from bookstores), I suspect I'm not.

But back to the book.

I will try to avoid giving away too much of the plot, which will probably make this a bit vague. The time is the future, and there has been some sort of holocaust. The world is much more sparsely populated, and there has been a return to a more pioneer society--and a more religious one. There are identifiable elements from present religions but, not surprisingly, there have also been some changes because of the changed situation. Friesner doesn't have an "expository lump" to tell the reader what the society is like, but relies on the reader picking up on the details as they are given as part of the story. The society is not a likable one--not the cozy families of the post-holocaust novels of the 1950s or even the survivalist discipline of more recent works--but it is consistent. There are echoes of Walter Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz here, as well as of George Stewart's Earth Abides, but only echoes--Friesner has looked at the paths others have taken in this genre, and struck out on her own.

There are a couple of problems. The main problem is that turns out to be yet another first book of a bleedin' series. And there is no warning of this on the cover or anywhere in the book--except on the last page, where they advertise the next book, Sword of Mary, due out in October of 1996.

The other problem is that I am not entirely convinced about the likelihood or even possibility of the basic assumption of the book. With a lesser author this might be more of an objection, but Friesner handles the plot and characters so well that I am willing to suspend my disbelief in this regard.

I am trying to avoid revealing too much, and the result is probably somewhat incoherent. Come back and re-read this after you've read the book and it will be much clearer.

[Note: This is a trade paperback, but it is the size that one thinks of as "mass market." "Trade" and "mass market" have meanings based on distribution methods, not size. In other words, don't go looking for an oversize book.]

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MAKING HISTORY by Stephen Fry (Arrow, ISBN 0-09-946481-0, 1997, 553pp, A$14.95; Random House, ISBN 0-679-45955-3, 1998, 400pp, hardback):

This book will be printed in the United States, but I was ordering something else from Australia anyway, so I figured I wouldn't wait. I'm glad I didn't.

At first it seemed fairly standard stuff--hero uses time machine (of sorts) to eliminate Hitler. It's been done before, with varying results, but all pretty much of the "no-World-War-II-or-the-Holocaust" sort, and whether or not paradise results, the result is usually arguably better than our timeline in which 54,000,000 people died as a result of World War II.

Fry takes a different approach. His main character, Michael Young, meets Leo Zuckermann, whose father was at Auschwitz, and as a result Zuckermann wants to eliminate Hitler. Because the only time travel capability Zuckermann can invent is the ability to send small packages back in time, they come up with a fairly interesting (though very heavily telegraphed) method of accomplishing that. After Michael Young sends his parcel back through time, he suddenly finds himself somewhere else. He's not in Cambridge, he's in Princeton. And though he's the same person, somehow he's different--or at least the person he is in this world is different. And this world is not better. How Fry manages to do all this and make this a humorous novel as well is a feat in itself.

Fry does a good job of showing Young trying to cope in a world with which he is unfamiliar. Unlike the all-too-usual hero who immediately figures everything out, Young makes mistakes. In fact, he makes a mistake practically every time he opens his mouth. He does eventually resort to that tried-and-true approach, finding history books in the library to explain everything to him, and of course to us as a side-effect.

One of the things that Fry does is to make it clear that he thinks our world is pretty good. At one point Young tells another character, "I haven't told you about Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch and fundamentalists and infant crack addicts with Uzis. I haven't told you about lottery scratchcards and mad cow disease and Larry King Live," to which the other character replies, "You told me about political correctness and gay quarters in towns and rock and roll and Clinton Eastwood movies and kids not having to call their dads "sir" but saying "motherfucker" and "no way, dude" and chilling off in Ecstasy dance clubs. I want some of that. I want to be cool. ... I want to wear weird clothes and grow my hair long without being fined by the college or having a fight with my parents. If you want to do that here, you live in a ghetto and the police round you up and harassle you. ... Give me a chance to use these words and live this life." How you feel about the book may depend on how you feel about this philosophy.

Making History is a good blend of alternate history and British humor that I would recommend to fans of either.

To order Making History from, click here.

ADIOS, HEMINGWAY by Leonardo Padura Fuentes:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/20/2006]

ADIOS, HEMINGWAY by Leonardo Padura Fuentes (translated by John King, ISBN 1-84195-642-2) is a murder mystery set in present-day Cuba, though the murder took place over forty years ago. The police have unearthed a body on the former estate (and now museum) of Ernest Hemingway, and Padura Fuentes interweaves two threads to tell the story. The main character in the present is Mario Conde, an ex-cop asked to investigate the murder; the main character in the past is, not surprisingly, Hemingway. (Padura Fuentes has written a series of books featuring Conde.) These is a lot more emphasis on the Cubans around Hemingway than one has seen before, but there is still enough about Hemingway to make the reader completely dislike him. I doubt that was Padura Fuentes's goal; his characters agree that Hemingway was not a good person. but they seem readier to forgive him than most readers may be. This is a good choice for those who like "bibliomysteries", though nowhere near as good as BORGES AND THE ETERNAL ORANGUTANS.

To order Adios, Hemingway from, click here.

"Movement" by Nancy Fulda:

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

"Movement" by Nancy Fulda (Asimov's 03/11) is a story about autism told from the point of view of the person with autism. This has been done before, most notably THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon in the mainstream world, and THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon in the science fiction one. (Not forgetting, of course, THINKING IN PICTURES by Temple Grandin in the non-fiction realm.) The problem, then, is that Fulda needs to bring something new to the table in her story--and she doesn't.

"THE THINKING MACHINE" by Jacques Futrelle:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/18/2005]

Jacques Futrelle's "THE THINKING MACHINE" (ISBN 0-8129-7014-4) (edited by Harlan Ellison) includes the most famous of the stories about Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen ("The "Thinking Machine"), "The Problem of Cell 13", as well a selection of other stories. While some of the stories have interesting twists, none of them are up to "Cell 13", and all of them are pretty unlikely if you think about them. For people who are curious about the evolution of the detective story (and the puzzle story), I suppose this as good a selection as any, but I think the average reader could give this a miss. (Ellison apparently wanted to re-title many of the stories, but in several cases his suggested title gives away the "twist". so if you read this, I'd suggest not reading his list until after you read the stories.)

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