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, 01/28/2011]

KONG UNBOUND: THE CULTURAL IMPACT, POP MYTHOS, AND SCIENTIFIC PLAUSIBILITY OF A CINEMATIC LEGEND edited by Karen Haber (ISBN 978-1-4165-1670-5) is a collection of essays pretty much described by the title. Christopher Priest writes about how the introduction of Production Code affected the film, William Stout talks about the film's influence on art (and other fields), Robert Silverberg analyzes the script, and so on.

There are a few slips. Harry Harrison writes, "[The prehistoric monsters] were created by Willis H. O'Brien, assisted by a youthful Ray Harryhausen, who virtually invented stop-motion special effects for the film." This makes it sound as though Harryhausen invented stop-motion special effects--a better way of punctuating the sentence would have been to use parentheses rather than commas to set off "assisted by a youthful Ray Harryhausen". But it's wrong on a more basic level: Harryhausen did not assist O'Brien on KING KONG. (Harryhausen was barely thirteen when the film was made--youthful indeed!) Harryhausen did assist O'Brien on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, but that was made sixteen years later, in 1949.

To order Kong Unbound from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/23/2004]

Mark Haddon's THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME (ISBN 0-385-51210-4) will undoubtedly be compared to Elizabeth Moon's THE SPEED OF DARK by those reviewers who have read the latter. However, since Moon's book is science fiction and this is not, most mainstream reviewers probably will not have read the Moon. Both are about people with autism (Asperger's Syndrome), but there the similarity ends. THE SPEED OF DARK is told by a third-person narrator, and is set in a future when major medical advances have been made regarding autism, while THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME is told in the first person by its main character in what is very much the present. Only in the sense that the main characters have similar personalities are the books similar. Since they seem to have consistent views of how autism affects people, and since both authors have direct experience with autistic individuals, I am assuming the portrayals are reasonable. In Haddon's book, the narrator (Christopher John Francis Boone) is a fan of Sherlock Holmes (because he thinks Holmes has a lot of the same personality traits as he does). But though it starts as a mystery, the mystery is solved relatively early, and the book is more about Boone's learning to cope with his family and with the world at large. Perhaps because of the first-person narration by someone whose though processes are very different than mine, I was reminded more of FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON. (I hasten to add that this is not because Boone has a lower intelligence than average--it's quite the opposite, in fact.) For readers who want books examining "alien" ways of thinking, this is a reminder that sometimes other human beings can be the most alien of all.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/30/2006]

The regular book group this month read THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon (ISBN 1-400-03271-7); the science fiction group read THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon (ISBN 0-345-48139-9). I have already commented on both of these (THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon in the 04/23/04 issue of the MT VOID and THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon in the 03/28/03 issue), but I have to add that on second reading, the Haddon stands up much better than the Moon. One problem is that Moon's autistic characters have undergone a science-fictional treatment, "early intervention", which made them basically less "autistic" and more "normal". (Yes, I realize that the terms "autistic" and "normal" are both politically incorrect and medically inaccurate. But I am trying to keep this column short.) This treatment makes the story easier, but less interesting. Haddon's character is more authentic, which ultimately makes him more interesting. (I will note that other people thought the Moon was more interesting than the Haddon.) One thing everybody agreed on was that many of the symptoms displayed by the autistic characters in both books were characteristics of a lot of (presumably) non-autistic people that they knew. A lot of the discussion time, in fact, was spent discussing just what autism is and how one arrives at that diagnosis.

To order The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time from, click here.

THE GIFT by Hafiz (translated by Daniel Ladinsky):

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

Of the great Islamic poets, the best known in the West are probably Omar Khayyam, Rumi, and Hafiz. I cannot say for sure, but I suspect that a fair part of Hafiz's fame may be due to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who has Sherlock Holmes say, "You may remember the old Persian saying, 'There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.' There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world." ["A Case of Identity"] I should note, however, that extensive searches by Holmes scholars have failed to find any such quotation anywhere in Hafiz's writings.

In any case, THE GIFT by Hafiz (translated by Daniel Ladinsky) (ISBN-13 978-0-140-19581-1, ISBN-10 0-140-19581-5) is an attempt to create a modern translation of Hafiz. However, at times I think Ladinsky gets a bit too modern. For example, "The Clay Bowl's Destiny", Ladinsky translates the the last phrase as "In/His sublime,/Ball-busting course/Of/Spirit/Love." (Ladinsky also seems to want to maximize the number of lines, and minimize the number of words per line.) One also finds the word "dropkick" and poems called "The Bag Lady" and "There Could Be Holy Fallout".

A more representative sample of Hafiz might be "The Sun Never Says": "Even/After/All this time/The sun never says to the earth,/You owe/Mr."/Look/What happens/With a love like that,/It lights the/Whole/Sky."

To order The Gift from, click here.

HEART OF THE WORLD by H. Rider Haggard:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/19/2019]

Reading about John L. Stephens's explorations of Mayan ruins led me to HEART OF THE WORLD by H. Rider Haggard (ISBN 0-87877-109-3), universally described as Haggard writing about a hidden Mayan city. But I gave up after about a hundred pages. First of all, Haggard seems a bit confused between Aztecs and the Mayans. The book takes place in what is definitely Mayan territory, Chiapas and Guatemala, but keeps referring to "the Empire of the Aztecs", "an Aztec scroll", and so on. And second, it was taking too long to get to the part of the story that was interesting to me.

To order Heart of the World from, click here.

"Exile" by Edmond Hamilton:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/31/2019]

"Exile" by Edmond Hamilton is another story whose ending, possibly surprising at the time, is oh so predictable now. And I know the meaning of "queer" has changed a lot in 75 years, but it sure was popular back then: in "Death Sentence" Theor Realo is called "queer" (twice), and here Carrick is called "a queer chap."

THE SIGN AND THE SEAL by Graham Hancock:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/25/2005]

A friend recommended Graham Hancock's THE SIGN AND THE SEAL (ISBN 0-7493-0186-4), which postulates that 1) the Ark of the Covenant is being kept in the church of Saint Mary of Zion in Axum, Ethiopia, and 2) the Ark itself is an amazing technological weapon. powered by tablets made of some radioactive material. I will state up-front that I went into this book skeptical, and that may have colored my reading. I found the book overly long and complicated, with too much time being spent on describing Hancock's travels and all his "amazing insights" (e.g., "What I found most exciting of all about the obelisk was that it was intact--not rusting and crumbling--and that it was covered with fresh red primer paint. Someone, clearly, was still taking an interest in the explorer...." [page 185]). I also thought he was too quick to grasp at what would support his theories and to dismiss conflicting evidence. For example, he makes much of the fact that Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai: it should not take God that long to write two tablets, so Moses must have been building something (page 347ff). But he does not deal with all the other occurrences of "forty days" or "forty years" in the Torah:

Why forty? I could just as easily argue that many of those could be connected to gematria: "40" is the number for the verb "lamed-heh-heh" meaning to wander or to err. And all of these are connecting with wandering, or the erring of the Israelites, or both. Even if it was 42 or 38 days, perhaps there would still be something to explain, but there is no evidence to support the conclusions that Hancock draws.

Or when he proposes three possible explanations to account for the powers attributed to the Ark:

1) The Old Testament was right, and the Ark contains Divine powers.
2) The Old Testament was wrong, and the Israelites were "victims of a collective mass hallucination that lasted for several hundred years."
3) A little bit of both: the Ark possessed powers which were not Divine, but were man-made. (pg. 285ff)

Hancock seems to ignore a fourth possibility:
4) Various phenomena were misinterpreted, elaborated on, etc., to fit in with the myth of Divine power in the Ark, or perhaps just to make a good story that helped to justify devotion.

If you don't allow number 4, then applying Hancock's three limited possibilities to, say, various relics of the Catholic Church, says that if you do not accept that the relics have divine powers then you must think that Christians have been the victims of mass hallucinations or that the relics have some natural power, neither of which seems credible to most skeptics.

On the whole, while some of Hancock's ideas are interesting, I found the book too convoluted and unconvincing to recommend.

(Thanks to Mark for helping me figure out how to phrase some of this, particularly in trying to describe the visuals on page 117 of the first book. Truly a picture is worth a thousand words!)

To order The Sign and the Seal from, click here.

"The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon" by Elizabeth Hand:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/08/2011]

"The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon" by Elizabeth Hand (in the anthology STORIES edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio) is a sentimental secret history of aviation sort of story. There's a fragment of a nitrate film showing some unknown flying machine, and all sorts of nostalgia for the early days of flight. Eh.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/25/2017]

SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND by Yuval Noah Harari (ISBN 978-0-099-59008-8) covers Homo sapiens through four "revolutions": the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, the Unification of Humankind, and the Scientific Revolution. The third ("the Unification of Humankind") is often overlooked or rather, not often considered as a major change in Homo sapiens. Harari also looks forward to a possible fifth revolution, which would be the end of Homo sapiens as it changes into a new species.

Harari is careful to distinguish between our specific species, "Homo sapiens" (which he refers to as "sapiens"), and all members of the genus Homo," (which he refers to as humans"). He does this to encompass not only the past (extinct) species of the genus Homo, but possible future species as well.

I found Harari's account of how we got to where we are engaging. However, I was not convinced by his explanation of religion, and I am sure that many will disagree with his account of economics in the sections on the unification of mankind, continuing into the scientific revolution. There is a lot to think about--and to argue about--in his analysis of how one should measure happiness, particularly in people long dead.

Harari is on shaky ground as well when he offers opinions on subjects he has not sufficiently researched. Harari writes about the quest for immortality (or at least "a-mortality"), and then says, "This is not science-fiction. Most science-fiction plots describe a world in which Sapiens--identical to us--enjoy superior technology such as light-speed spaceships and laser guns. The ethical and political dilemmas central to these plots are taken from our own world, and they merely recreate our emotional and social tensions against a futuristic background." One gets the distinct impression that Harari is getting his impressions from films, rather than from a knowledge of written science fiction. (That he uses Shelley, Huxley, and Orwell to illustrate some of his points proves that science fiction is not all light-speed ships and laser guns.)

As far as the future, Harari sees energy and resources as basically limitless, though he recognizes that all energy(*) comes from the sun and is limited to 3,766,800 exajoules a year. (Harari does acknowledges nuclear and gravitational energy but does not quantify them.) He says that we now use 50 exajoules a year, so we are a long way away from ever reaching the limits of the sun's energy. But he does not note that our energy use has been doubling every twenty years, nor that at this rate, in only 300 years or so, we will be using it all. (Yes, I realize this may be comparable to Mark Twain's extrapolations about the length of the Mississippi River.)

In SAPIENS, there is a lot that is informative, a lot that is thought-provoking, a lot that is arguable, and some that is just wrong. Each reader must figure out for themselves what is which.

To order Sapiens from, click here.


I found SUICIDE EXCEPTED (1954) by Cyril Hare way too obvious--I knew who the guilty party was a quarter of the way through, with confirming clues showing up every few chapters after that as well. I don't think it's just because reading a lot of mysteries makes them easier--others are still just as surprising as before.

To order Suicide Excepted from, click here.

Origins of Ancient Civilizations by Professor Kenneth Harl:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/14/2010]

"Origins of Ancient Civilizations" by Professor Kenneth Harl is another course from The Teaching Company. Having just finished "Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations", this seemed like a good next choice. And Harl has turned out to be a bit more engaging than Prof. Brian M. Fagan, and certainly a faster talker. One gets the impression that one is getting considerably more than thirty minutes' worth in a half hour.

Of course, as usual, I can find things with which to disagree. In the second lecture, Fagan is discussing literacy and tries to define what constitutes a fully-formed written language (as opposed to, say, a minimal set of pictograms or a bunch of knotted strings). But he falls into a circular reasoning trap when he says that a fully-formed written language is one that can convey everything that the spoken language does. He doesn't seem to recognize that even our written language does not meet this requirement: it does not convey emotion, or tone, or various other content. And I am not sure that other current languages would meet this. Alphabetic languages probably would, but would a pictographic language such as Chinese? (For that matter, I'm not sure that Hebrew without the vowels would even meet the requirement.)

Harl also talks about agglutinative versus inflected languages (in the context of ancient Sumerian), which will sound familiar to people who have read Neal Stephenson's SNOWCRASH.

LAND OF THE DEAD by Thomas Harlan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/25/2009]

I started LAND OF THE DEAD by Thomas Harlan (ISBN-13 978-0-765-31204-4, ISBN-10 0-765-31204-2), set in a world in which the Japanese reached the Aztecs before the Spanish did. However, it had two strikes against it. First, it is the third in the "Time of the Sixth Sun" series. And second, it begins with three pages explaining the measurements and Mexica ship names, and a long table of equivalences between military ranks of the Mexica, Nisei, fleet, and army/navy ranks. An attempt to read it decided it--the first few pages seemed to assume a knowledge of what had come before that I did not have. The series may be good, but one apparently has to start with the first book.

To order Land of the Dead from, click here.

WORLDSHAKER by Richard Harland:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/01/2011]

WORLDSHAKER by Richard Harland (ISBN 978-1-4169-9552-4) is a steampunk alternate history, heavy on the steampunk and light on the alternate history. The turning point is (points are?) the Napoleonic Wars, which in this world do not end in 1814, but drag on and on, leading to increased technology such as two-mile-long juggernauts that have become the equivalent of generation ships, with a social structure apparently inspired by H. G. Wells. The likelihood of this alternate history is negligible (which, I suppose, is true of most steampunk). If you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you will like.

To order Worldshaker from, click here.

"The Rose" by Charles L. Harness:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/02/2004]

"The Rose" by Charles L. Harness is about a confrontation between science and art, but frankly it struck me as a lot of mumbo-jumbo.

"Stars & Stripes" trilogy by Harry Harrison:

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

I finished Harry Harrison's "Stars & Stripes" trilogy (STARS & STRIPES FOREVER, STARS & STRIPES IN PERIL, and STARS & STRIPES TRIUMPHANT). The premise is that an actual event at the start of the American Civil War triggered a genuine rift with England, who then sided with the Confederacy, although their attempts to aid the Confederacy backfired. I have two complaints about the trilogy. One, the whole progression of events seems a bit simplistic, and rather biased in its politics. And two, if one were to remove the parts that served to remind readers of events in previous volumes, and to tighten up the writing, this could easily be one book instead of a trilogy for which readers had to wait two years and pay three times as much for the whole thing. This may be a sad side effect of all of Harry Turtledove's alternate history series--publishers and authors now feel that all alternate histories should be series.

To order Stars & Stripes Forever from, click here.
To order Stars & Stripes in Peril from, click here.
To order Stars & Stripes Truiumphant from, click here.

THE YEAR 2000 edited by Harry Harrison (Ace, ISBN 0-441-00406-7, 1997, 326pp, hardback): edited by Harry Harrison (Berkley, ISBN 0-425-02117-3, 1970, 254pp, paperback):

In 1970, Harry Harrison had thirteen authors write stories set thiry years in the future, in the year 2000. Well, having arrived there, I thought this might be a good time to see how close or far these stories are from reality.

The beginning of the first story, Fritz Leiber's "America the Beautiful," gives you a feel for what these stories are like: "I am returning to England. I am shorthanding this, July 5, 2000, aboard the Dallas-London rocket as it arches silently out of the diffused violet daylight of the stratosphere into the eternally star-spangled purple night of the ionosphere." The story itself deals with both the rising tensions between America and "the Communist League," and the generally self-satisfied feeling that Americans have with themselves. If the former has turned out to be false, there is still some truth in the latter.

The second story ("Prometheus Rebound" by Daniel F. Galouye) reads like something out of the 1930s, making me wonder what he was thinking the year 2000 would be like.

Before there was Mike Resnick, there was Chad Oliver, and before there was "Kirinyaga" there was "Far from This Earth," Oliver's story of progress, if progress it be, in Kenya. It's surprising, in fact, that this was not one of the inspirations for Resnick's series, but it wasn't.

Naomi Mitchison's "After the Accident" is a rather straight-forward genetic engineering story. And "Utopian" by Mack Reynolds reads like one of those stilted Utopian stories from decades ago, right down to people saying things like "If we were still using the somewhat inefficient calendar of your period, this would be approximately the year 2000."

Like Reynolds's story, "Sea Change" by A. Bertram Chandler deals with someone who has "time-traveled" (via deep sleep) from 1970 to 2000. And similarly, Chandler also has a theme of "the old best are sometimes the best," though in a different sense than Reynolds.

Robert Silverberg is one of the two authors who thought the race issue would be critical over the next thirty years. Though his racially separated society of "Black Is Beautiful" did not arise, his story does raise issues that are relevant today, not least of which is when does autonomy become just segregation under a different name. (The paperback edition has an unfortunate typo at the beginning, with "1933" instead of "1983.")

The other story of race relations is "American Dead" by Harry Harrison, and it paints an even gloomier view of the conflict between black and white. What is of interest is that neither Silverberg nor Harrison has any other racial influences in his story. Missing are the Asians and the Hispanics who certainly have an impact in the racial politics of the United States in the year 2000.

"The Lawgiver" by Keith Laumer is still very topical today with its theme of "right-to-life" issues, though a bit heavy-handed, I thought.

Though in real life J. J. Coupling was involved in communications technology (under his real name, John R. Pierce, he was an executive director in Bell Labs when he wrote his story), "To Be a Man" is more about bioengineering. However, it has some very "modern" ideas, in particular more of the concepts that Greg Egan is using these days. (I was particularly reminded of Egan's "Reasons to be Cheerful.")

One note: of the thirteen authors, only Aldiss, Coupling, Harrison, Masson, and Silverberg are still alive to see how it really turned out. And the used bookstore where Mark or I bought this went out of business a few years ago as well, after being in existence more than a hundred years.

To order The Year 2000 from, click here.

"A Witch's Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies" by Alix E. Harrow:

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

"A Witch's Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies" by Alix E. Harrow reminded me of Genevieve Cogman's "Invisible Library" series, being about magical books and portals and such. I think these sorts of stories are popular because readers of fantasy and science fiction, at least those dedicated enough to nominate for the Hugo Awards, are by their nature enthralled by books.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/11/2008]

HAUNTED GROUND by Erin Hart (ISBN-13 978-0-743-27210-0, ISBN-10 0-743-27210-2) was chosen by the newly formed afternoon book discussion group at my library. This is a mystery novel involving a skull found in an Irish peat bog, a missing woman and his child, and the murder of the sister of one of the main characters. I have to admit that I had some problems keeping the characters straight because I had no feel for how to pronounce most of the Irish names, and that appears to be how I remember names. (Strangely, I remember books visually, seeing the cover as part of my re-collection.) Anyway, I found this book disconcerting--there was something about it that made me think of it as a science fiction book (which it is not), but the writing style seemed wrong for that. The end was a bit too convenient, and overall I was underwhelmed. Your mileage may vary. [-ecl]

To order Haunted Ground from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/23/2007]

THE BLACK SPHINX by Matt Hart (ISBN-10 0-552-55421-9, ISBN-13 978-0-552-55421-3) is a young adult novel from Britain. The premise is some sort of alternate history, where London is a small village, and Wolveston is the big metropolis. Except for that, there is little alternate history aspect, and it is more a straight fantasy novel with Dickensian influences. (I guess I was hoping for a world in which the Egyptian dynasties and religion survived.) However, as a fantasy it is pretty good. The cover illustration, by David Richards, is reminiscent of Edward Gorey. (The back cover, however, is rather hideous, as someone apparently decided to maximize the number of fonts used; I think there were fifteen, but it was hard to tell.) And to give the young readers something to do besides just read the book, each page has a couple of words from the Black Sphinx's curse, done as a substitution code with heiroglyphs for letters. I did not bother to decode 294 pages of these, but someone might.

To order The Black Sphinx from, click here.

PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/30/2008]

Our book discussion group read PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf (ISBN-13 978-0-375-70585-4, ISBN-10 0-375-70585-6). It was better than a lot of the current fiction chosen for discussion groups in that the people all seem like the sort of people you might meet in the supermarket--there are no serial killers, wacko fundamentalists, etc. But the one element I am going to comment on is the lack of quotation marks. From what I read about this, this may be a new trend among fiction writers: leaving out the quotation marks altogether and having the paragraph structure and internal clues let the reader know who is talking. Many reviewers liked this, saying it gave the book an immediacy and a feeling of involvement for the reader. Others found it distracting and confusing. I am in the latter camp. It was not always confusing, but as someone who grew up reading books with quotation marks, I did find it distracting. It is perhaps less of a gimmick than writing an entire book without the letter "e", but it still seems a gimmick.

To order Plainsong from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/03/2009]

Another collection in the F. A. Thorpe "Large Print Linford Mystery Library" series that my library had was SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DISAPPEARING PRINCE AND OTHER STORIES by Edmund Hastie (ISBN-13 978-1-84782-110-2, ISBN-10 1-84782-110-3). These were "original" pastiches, in the sense that they were not based on cases referred to by Doyle. The title story is about the disappearance of the Crown Prince of Japan from Oxbridge (that marvelous merging of Oxford and Cambridge, used by writers to avoid insulting either one or the other), and is reasonably well-written. The other stories are actually fairly weak and poorly written--not too surprising when you realize that the author was fourteen years old when he wrote them. (I suppose what is surprising is that the first one is as good as it is.) I'm not even sure why it was published, as it just lowers the overall quality of the line.

To order Sherlock Holmes and the Disappearing Prince from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/08/2008]

I listened to MOUNTAINS OF THE PHARAOHS by Zahi Hawass (read by Simon Vance) (ISBN-13 978-0-385-50305-1, ISBN-10 0-385-50305-9; audiobook ISBN-13 978-1-400-13280-5, ISBN-10 1-400-13280-0) on a recent trip. Many parts merely reinforced the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words--listening to the reader describing the layout of a tomb complex, complete with measurements (and given in both metric and English units to boot!) was less than edifying.

Hawass stresses that the pyramids were built by the ancient Egyptians, not by aliens or Atlanteans. He talks about this emphatically in the introduction. A few chapters later, he refers to the builders, and says "the men who built the pyramids--and they were men..." and I found myself wondering for a minute why he was emphasizing that women did not build the pyramids. And then I realized that by "men" he meant "humans", not "males". Hawass also emphasized his belief that the pyramids were not built by slaves, but by volunteer labor. He tries to give the impression of freely given labor, but his description ultimately sounds more like corvee (labor in lieu of taxes) than true volunteers.

To order Mountains of the Pharaohs from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/18/2009]

WHY YOU SHOULD READ KAFKA BEFORE YOU WASTE YOUR LIFE (British title: EXCAVATING KAFKA) by James Hawes (ISBN-13 978-0-312-37651-2, ISBN-10 0-312-37651-0) could have been interesting, as Hawes sets out to demolish all the things we think we know about Kafka. It starts out in a promising way, including a (possibly) unintentional joke. When Hawes is talking about the fame of Kafka and how it extends even to those who have not read Kafka, he says, "The brooding face of Kafka has become the icon of that K.-myth and his name, typographically irresistible to anyone from west of the Rhine ... has entered the languages of the world in the term kafkaesque, used wherever guiltless people are trapped in some nightmarish bureaucratic catch-22." [page 5] Everyone understands that sentence--even those who have never read Joseph Heller!

But then he drifts into a world of his own making, where he is so against that idea that there might be any truth in the "Tide of History" theory that he writes:

"So when a recent biographer of Kafka (Nicholas Murray) writes with a straight face of 'the long-standing debate about whether Kafka foresaw the fate of the Jews in Nazi Europe,' I throw his book across the room. 'Foresaw?' Sorry, what is he trying to say? That history is prewritten? That it is all out there already, just sitting and waiting? This is no debate, this is plain and simple tripe that belongs in 'Star Trek' or 'Dr. Who'." [page 89]

He does get one thing right: "Star Trek" and "Dr. Who" have been fairly loyal to the notion that a time traveler cannot change history, so in that sense "history is prewritten." (Hawes wrote before the latest "Star Trek" movie.)

But the argument that just because history is not absolutely predetermined, nothing can be foreseen is clearly poppycock. I can foresee the sun will rise tomorrow. Japan could foresee when they attacked Pearl Harbor that they would end up in a war with the United States. The generals in World War I should have foreseen the results of attempting mass charges against machine gun emplacements. We all think that we can foresee the results of Candidate A being elected rather than Candidate B, or vice versa. We may be mistaken in some aspects, but if we did not think we could foresee the results, voting would be a completely meaningless action.

But Hawes makes even more radical claims. He writes of the anti-Semitism in Prague: "In fact, in 1910 Prague, what we now see as anti-Semitism was really anti-Germanism. ... the Jews of Prague were attacked not because they were Jews as such, not because of what they were, but because of the political/linguistic choice they had made." [page 101-102] This seems to suggest that what had been anti-Semitism for the last couple of thousand years suddenly changed into anti-Germanism for twenty-five years, and then changed back. And for the short period, the anti-Semitism was apparently really the Jews' fault.


Hawes spends a full chapter of the book discussing Kafka's pornography collection--with illustrations. While I understand the need to discuss this in a serious analysis of Kafka's works, Hawes is writing something less academic and more "commercial", and it looks like pure opportunism.

Hawes discusses Kafka's two notes to Max Brod directing that his papers be burned, and then says, "There's no doubt at all that Kafka didn't mean a word of it. ... There really no doubt: when Kafka instructed Brod to destroy his work, he didn't for one moment expect it to happen." First of all, this is proof by intimidation: Hawes gives no evidence, just declares his conclusion is obvious. And secondly, what is his conclusion? Why, that Kafka foresaw what would happen!

To order Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life from, click here.


Among the most unlikely literary detectives might be Will Shakespeare, in Simon Hawke's series. The second one, THE SLAYING OF THE SHREW, has nothing to add to either detection or Shakespeare and seems to be designed mostly to cash in on Shakespeare's recent burst of popularity. (And even being a fan of Shakespeare didn't help me here.)

To order The Slaying of the Shrew from, click here.

THE SCARLET LETTER by Nathaniel Hawthorne:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/11/2019]

For Nathaniel Hawthorne, the book in the Great Courses course on American Classics was THE SCARLET LETTER (ISBN 978-1-512-09056-7). This is Hawthorne's classic, so why did we have to read THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES in high school? I suppose for the same reason that someone in sophomore English class got sent to the principal's office for saying Shakespeare had to marry his wife because she was pregnant. In any case, the short stories were of more interest, "The Minister's Black Veil", "Young Goodman Brown", and (particularly) "Wakefield". The latter may have inspired Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Enoch Arden", though there are clearly some major differences. (And the latter in turn inspired an Agatha Christie novel (TAKEN AT THE FLOOD) and an Agatha Christie ("While the Light Lasts").)

To order The Scarlet Letter from, click here .

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

    TALES AND SKETCHES by Nathaniel Hawthorne:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/26/2016]

    I've been reading the "Library of America" volume of TALES AND SKETCHES by Nathaniel Hawthorne, containing TWICE-TOLD TALES, MOSSES FROM AN OLD MANSE, THE SNOW-IMAGE, A WONDER BOOK FOR GIRLS AND BOYS, and TANGLEWOOD TALES FOR GIRLS AND BOYS; BEING A SECOND WONDER BOOK (ISBN 978-0-9404-5003-5). It is 1500 pages long and has well over a hundred tales, so you will be pleased to hear I am not commenting on each one.

    Hawthorne's writing has been called "New England Gothic" and "Alice Doane's Appeal" is a good example why--think Tennessee Williams in Puritan Massachusetts.

    "The Canal Boat" (in "Sketches from Memory") proves Ecclesiastes 1:9: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun." "Anon, a Virginia schoolmaster, too intent on a pocket Virgil to heed the helmsman's warning--'Bridge! bridge!'--was saluted by said bridge on his knowledge-box. I had prostrated myself like a pagan before his idol, but heard the dull leaden sound of the contact, and fully expected to see the treasures of the poor man's cranium scattered about the deck. However, as there was no harm done, except a large bump on the head, and probably a corresponding dent in the bridge, the rest of us exchanged glances and laughed quietly. Oh, how pitiless are idle people."

    [A recent news report says, "Navigating the sidewalks of modern cities can be very challenging and hazardous dodging all the unguided missiles of people texting while walking. These people are a danger to themselves, and to anyone in their path. ... This hazard has forced many municipal authorities to consider installing protective soft bumpers on lamp posts because people kept running into them and getting injured."]

    "Monsieur le Miroir" (1937) has definite Borgesian overtones, as the narrator describes the title character: his own reflection in the mirror, though that is never stated explicitly and indeed, one is given the impression the narrator does not realize that. There are similarities to Edgar Allan Poe's "William Wilson" (1839) and Alfred de Musset's "The December Night" (1937), and later to the 1913 and 1926 films "The Student of Prague", which are based on these.

    "Old News" is a recounting of the contents of newspapers from three times in the past: first, around 1740, then 1760 (during "The Old French War" (the 1755-1760 period of the "French and Indian War", which in turn was the North American theater of the "Seven Years' War")), and finally 1780 (during the American Revolution). Each is a snapshot of the times, of the people who lived through them, and of what the newspapers reported and how they reported it.

    "Mrs. Bullfrog" is a humorous story of the sort that Mark Twain would write towards the end of the nineteenth century. The narrator and his new bride get in a coach after the wedding to travel to their new home. The narrator goes on at length about the perfection of his bride. He starts to play with her hair and she pushes him away, gently at first, saying he would disarrange her curls, then more insistently. Other seemingly minor events occur, until the coach hits a pile of gravel and overturns, and things suddenly go very strange indeed.

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    BEOWULF translated by Seamus Heaney:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/13/2013]

    BEOWULF (translated by Seamus Heaney) (ISBN 978-0-393-32097-8) is actually a bilingual edition, with Old English on the left-hand pages, and Heaney's translation on the right. This lets you notice some of the finer points of the translation. First, it maintains the alliteration of the original, with each line having a repeated initial consonant sound:

    So, The Spear-Danes in days gone by
    and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
    We have heard those princes' heroic campaigns.

    The first has a repeated "D" sound, the second "K", and the third "H". And in spite of the three Latin derivatives and one Greek in this verse, Heaney tends towards words of Old English origin rather than other languages. He seems to choose Latinate words only if there is no common Old English derivative. For example, the only Old English derivative equivalent of "prince" I can think of would be "lordling"--hardly a common term.

    The bilingual text also lets you see just what the Old English words were for a lot of current English. (Because it is not interlinear, and the grammar necessarily involves some re-arrangement, one cannot always match up the words.) But you can tell that "princes" matches up with "aethelingas" and "king" with "cyninga".

    Oh, and BEOWULF was written in Old English. Chaucer's works were written in Middle English. Shakespeare's were written in what is basically modern English.

    Here are examples to clarify.


    Hwæt we Gar-Dena in gear-dagum
    þeod-cyninga þrym gefrunon,
    hu ða æthelingas ellen fremedon.


    Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
    The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
    And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
    Of which vertu engendred is the flour;


    Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home:
    Is this a holiday? what! know you not,
    Being mechanical, you ought not walk
    Upon a labouring day without the sign
    Of your profession? Speak, what trade art thou?

    This is not to say that the spelling in Shakespeare has not been regularized for 20th century readers. I was reading some of the "doubtful" Shakespeare plays in a book called THE SHAKESPEARE APOCRYPHA. These are taken directly from the various quartos, etc., and have not had the spelling regularized. So here are four lines from EDWARD III:

    But heauen I call to recorde of my vowes:
    It is not hate nor any priuat wronge,
    But loue vnto my country and the right,
    Prouokes my tongue, thus lauish in report.

    Every edition of Shakespeare that I have seen for general use standardizes the spelling so that the last four lines, for example, would read:

    But heaven I call to record of my vows:
    It is not hate nor any private wrong,
    But love unto my country and the right,
    Provokes my tongue, thus lavish in report.

    It is also interesting to see a lot of Tolkien's tropes in what may be their original setting. In the third section in particular (when Beowulf fights the dragon who has the hoard of treasure), we read:

    The precious cup
    had come to him from the hand of the finder,
    the one who had started all this strife
    and was now added as a thirteenth to their number.
    They press-ganged and compelled this poor creature
    to be their guide. Against his will
    he led them to the earth-vault he alone knew, ...

    Doesn't this sound a lot like Gollum ("finder", "poor creature") being forced to join the ring-bearer, who was one of a group of nine (rather than twelve) companions on the quest involving part of a dragon's hoard. (Though in BEOWULF it is a cup that is found, there are a lot of rings being given and described throughout.)

    Oh, and on the back cover, the blurb begins, "Composed toward the end of the first millennium of our era, ..." My first reaction was, "What era is that?" Only because I knew when BEOWULF was composed was I able to figure out what it meant, but really, isn't that an odd way to express it?

    To order Beowulf from, click here.

    ALICE PAYNE ARRIVES by Kate Heartfield:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/25/2019]

    ALICE PAYNE ARRIVES by Kate Heartfield (ISBN 978-1-250-31373-7) reminds me of "El Ministerio del Tiempo"--there is time travel and a "time patrol", but there are also other organized groups who have conflicting ideas of how time travel should be used. Should one attempt to "maintain" history? Should one attempt to "fix" history's "mistakes"? Should one try to make changes to improve history? (A lot of this shows up in an info-dump towards the end as an experienced time traveler explains all this to someone just let in on the secret.)

    To order Alice Payne Arrives from, click here.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/04/2012]

    In the introduction to ECONOMICS WITHOUT ILLUSIONS: DEBUNKING THE MYTHS OF MODERN CAPITALISM by Joseph Heath (ISBN 978-0-307-59057-2), Heath says that not only is he not an economist, he has essentially had no formal training in the subject. Therefore, in order to accept much of what he says, one has to assume that he is capable of self-instruction and able to recognize his limitations.

    Alas, he manages to ruin his credibility on the very first page. He is trying to explain why the film BLADE RUNNER was such a shock when it came out, and "how deeply it revolutionized science fiction as a genre." It is because, he says, "it was the first time anyone had ever suggested that there might be advertising in the future--or worse, that there might be even more of it in the future than in the present." I would not buy that, even if they threw in a Feckle freezer. If you know what a Feckle freezer is, you can see where this is going; if not, I will tell you that a Feckle freezer is the product that they are testing advertising for in Frederik Pohl's "The Tunnel Under the World" (1955). Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth wrote an even earlier "advertising in science fiction" story, the novel THE SPACE MERCHANTS (1952).

    Now, Heath may be referring to only science fiction films, but if so, he should say so. And even there, he is wrong. Daniel F. Galouye's 1954 novel SIMULACRON-3 was made into a German mini-series in 1973, and is another example of advertising in science fiction. (If I were being snippy, I might say that the fact that he was in high school when BLADE RUNNER came out might explain why he does not know anything about earlier science fiction.)

    Another earlier science fiction film that showed advertising was GORGO (1960). But that took place in its own present, not the future. That is one reason why there were not a lot of films about future advertising--most of the science fiction films before the 1970s seemed to be about the present rather than the future: monsters in present-day cities, inventions in present-day labs, nuclear war in the present-day world, etc. It made the sets so much cheaper.

    Which I suppose brings us back to economics, which is what the book is actually about. If the only mistake had to do with science fiction, it could be overlooked. But Heath also makes a claim about queuing theory that is not only wrong, but widely known to be wrong. He describes a standard situation (such as in a grocery store) where there are several cashiers and many people who want service. Heath claims that the best solution is not some elaborate organized cashier assignment run by the store, but rather just letting the customers choose which queue they want to get on, based on which seem to be shorter or faster-moving.

    Now, anyone who has done any shopping knows that you can pick what looks like a short, fast queue, only to discover that the first person has a fistful of coupons which won't scan properly, the second person ends up in a long discussion about whether the tuna should have rung up with a sale price, and the third person really has two orders that need to be rung up separately.

    Queuing theory says that the most efficient method is the "single-queue, multiple-server". Banks, post offices, and lots of other places use this. But there is a problem in grocery stores: it is not just people standing in line, it is people with carts. The military commissaries I went to as a child used the SQMS system, but it resulted in a long queue snaking up and down the aisles. As you walked through the store (only four long aisles, so the path was really well-defined) , when you discovered the end of the queue you just got on it and did the rest of your shopping as you moved along the way. At the front, an airman would direct the person at the front of the queue to the next free cashier. This worked very well in a military context, but I can see it might run into a problem in a much larger, less "directed", and certainly less controlled supermarket. However, Heath does not point this out, but merely asserts that having customers choose their queues is the best system.

    Many of Heath's claims are interesting and thought-provoking, but this sloppiness makes them untrustworthy as well. Maybe that is the ultimate lesson--never trust anyone on any statement about the economy.

    To order Economics Without Illusions from, click here.

    TENNIS SHOES AMONG THE NEPHITES by Chris Heimerdinger (Covenant Books, ISBN 1-55503-131-5, 1989, 229pp, trade paperback):

    This is a book whose target audience is teenage Mormon boys. I, on the other hand, am a middle-aged Jewish woman. So why am I reviewing this?

    Well, perhaps the main reason is to remind people that there is more to science fiction than what they find in their local mall store, or even in their local superstore. Here is a book that in its eleventh printing, has spawned a whole series, and that I can almost guarantee that practically no one reading this has heard of.

    Although teenager Jim finds his classmate Garth a bit of a nerd, he is fascinated by Garth's discoveries in a nearby cave. So he and Garth and his younger sister Jennifer go exploring, fall into a whirlpool, and wake up in the Meso-America of the Nephites and the Lamanites. (The Nephites and the Lamanites are tribes from two thousand years ago described in the Book of Mormon.) So what you have is a group of teenagers who find themselves in another time and have to use their knowledge of history to get by.

    Of course, the history is Mormon history, so this is more like finding oneself back in Joseph's Egypt than at Plymouth Rock. And while it must be meaningful and educational to someone who knows at least the basic story, it's a bit baffling to someone who doesn't. (I suppose that one might claim that it should teach it to someone who doesn't know it already, but it didn't have that effect on me, partly because with Jim and Garth back there, things are at least slightly changed from the "real" history.)

    Am I recommending this? Not really. Unless you live in an area with a large Mormon population, your local bookstore won't have this. While I assume that you can order it directly from Covenant (no, I don't have the address or phone number, but I'm sure directory assistance can help you), it's not clear that it's worthwhile for most people. On the other hand, if you want to look at some of the "edges" of the fantasy field, you might find this interesting.

    To order Tennis Shoes among the Nephites from, click here.

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    Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

    All reviews copyright 1984-2015 Evelyn C. Leeper.

    A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/08/2006]

    A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway (ISBN 0-02-051960-5) is Hemingway's reminiscence of Paris in the 1920s. However, as Errol Selkirk noted in HEMINGWAY FOR BEGINNERS (ISBN 0-863-16128-6), it was not written until shortly before his death in 1961, and indeed the final editing was after his death. (The book was finally published in 1964.) So a lot of the memories are colored by intervening events: fallings-out with friends, literary successes or failures, and so on. Still, it does give a picture of what Paris was like in that era, and unlike George Orwell in DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON, Hemingway was not stuck in a restaurant kitchen washing dishes, but was hob-nobbing with the literary lights of that time. (HEMINGWAY FOR BEGINNERS gives a good summary of his life, but the artwork in it does not do as much to amplify the contents as the artwork in the books in the "Introducing" series.)

    To order A Moveable Feast from, click here.

    To order Hemingway for Beginners from, click here.

    THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/06/2004]

    One book suggested for reading groups was Ernest Hemingway's THE SUN ALSO RISES. It is a classic. I did not like it. Simple declarative sentences are fine, but they get boring after a while. One longs for a dependent clause, but one doesn't find one. All the people are obnoxious. The narrator was injured in the war, but Hemingway cannot say how. Who cares?

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/23/2004]

    A few weeks ago, I was rather critical of Ernest Hemingway's THE SUN ALSO RISES (ISBN 0-684-80071-3). Last week we had the discussion meeting, and all six other attendees agreed with me--a unanimous thumbs-down vote. (In case anyone wants to see this as gender-based, the group was three men and four women.) I think I can safely say we won't be doing more Hemingway soon. (Our next books include Joseph Conrad's LORD JIM, Graham Greene's THE END OF THE AFFAIR, Betty Smith's A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, John Steinbeck's SWEET THURSDAY, Kate Chopin's THE AWAKENING, Paulo Coelho's THE ALCHEMIST, Jasper Fforde's THE EYRE AFFAIR, and Franz Kafka's THE TRIAL.)

    To order The Sun Also Rises from, click here.

    JANE AUSTEN'S GUIDE TO DATING by Lauren Henderson:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/17/2006]

    In JANE AUSTEN'S GUIDE TO DATING (ISBN 1-4013-0117-7), Lauren Henderson seems to have been inspired by THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB. In that novel, the author draws parallels between the plots and lessons in Austen's novels and the lives of the members of a book group reading those works. In JANE AUSTEN'S GUIDE TO DATING Henderson tries to write a dating guide based on Austen's plots and lessons. I should offer the following disclaimer--my dating experience is 1) extremely limited and 2) extremely outdated, having occurred almost forty years ago. (That's about 20% of the way back to when Austen wrote, if you care.) At any rate, Henderson puts forth such rules as "If You Like Someone, Make It Clear That You Do", and "Don't Fall for Superficial Qualities", and "Be Witty If You Can, but Not Cynical, Indiscreet, or Cruel". Pretty bland suggestions, I would say. Obviously this book is not aimed at me; if I had any doubts, the choices in the quiz to determine which Jane Austen character I am frequently were all wrong. For example, one question is "Your favorite movie star is;" and the choices are:

    	a. Anyone dark, French and sexily brooding
    	b. George Clooney
    	c. Colin Farrell
    	d. Matthew McConaughey
    	e. Viggo Mortensoen
    	f. Harrison Ford

    Whether by "favorite" they mean the actor I think the best, or the one I think the most attractive, this list doesn't do it for me. As far as I can tell, the book is gimmicky and is probably not going to solve anyone's dating problems, but if someone more knowledgeable about dating wants to dispute this, feel free.

    To order Jane Austen's Guide to Dating from, click here.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/04/2017]

    THE ASSIMILATED CUBAN'S GUIDE TO QUANTUM SANTERÍA by Carlos Hernández (ISBN 978-1-495-60739-4) is a great collection. According to the Introduction, the author is an assimilated Cuban who lives in Queens. The collection has a dozen stories:

    "The Aphotic Ghost": The narrator's son, a diver and photographer in the aphotic zone (the level of the sea so deep that there is no light) had taken up mountain climbing and died on Everest, and the narrator begins to train to be able to climb Everest and recover the body. But why is he so insistent about it?

    "Homeostasis": An operation lets people with severe brain damage live normal lives, but what does it do to their personhood?

    "Entanglements": This is a story of parallel worlds, though ultimately it is about how people deal with this one.

    "The International Studbook of the Giant Panda": Is this a story of waldos (telepresence) or of virtual reality or something else entirely? It is also a reminder of the bizarre lengths to which devoted researchers will go to save a species. This is the first of the stories with reporter Gabrielle Real.

    "The Macrobe Conservation Project": Children's perceptions of the world are often very different from adults'. Not only that, but they also form these into a picture of the world that is not always congruent to reality. (It is like the old story of the young child saying the Pledge of Allegiance and wondering who "Richard Stands" was, that the Republic was for.) This story involves that idea and an almost completely distinct thread about intelligent plants and their symbiosis (?) with humans.

    "Los Simpaticos": If you thought reality television was bad in our world, wait until you read this story. And you may think you know where this is going, but I would not count on it.

    "More Than Pigs and Rosaries Can Give": A tale of possession and politics and loss. If I had to give it a label, I would call it magic realism`

    "Bone of My Bone": This is an example of literalizing a metaphor.

    "The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory": It sounds like a fantasy, but it is strictly science fiction. Trust me. This is another Gabrielle Real story.

    "American Moat": First contact does not always turn out the way you expect, or even the way they expect.

    "Fantasie Impromptu No. 4 In C#min, Op. 66": If we can upload a person into a computer, what happens to their soul? If we destroy the computer, is that murder? And what if ... but that would be telling?

    "The Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santería": This story is just what the title says. The narrator is the assimilated Cuban, who is trying to use santería to bring about what he wants--but it is difficult to get all the obscure ingredients in suburban Connecticut, so there is a level of indeterminacy in the santería. Warning for monolinguists: there is a fair amount of dialogue in Spanish. Reading it with Google Translate at hand might be a good idea.

    The styles of these re varied, but three of them are tied together by having reporter Gabrielle Real as the main character.

    The book is very easy to read from a physical standpoint, but that is in part because all the pages have wide margins and are almost double-spaced. Okay, that is a slight exaggeration, but there are 25 lines to a page, while the average book of this size has about 35. Each line has about 10 words, which is about average. So the 271 pages are really closer to 200. I am not sure if the intent was to make it easier to read, or to pad out the book, but I appreciate not having tiny, close-set lines.

    To order The Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santería from, click here.

    THE HISTORIES by Herodotus (translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, introduction by A. R. Burn):

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

    THE HISTORIES by Herodotus (translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, introduction by A. R. Burn) (ISBN-10 0-140-44908-6, ISBN-13 978-0-140-44908-2) is not reportage. Most of it is not first-person writing, and even when it is, at times Herodotus is either making it up or is extremely gullible. He does not claim to have seen the gold-digging ants, for example, but does present it as fact. He claims to have seen an inscription on the side of the Great Pyramid recording the amount spent on radishes, onions, and leeks for the workers. But he adds that "the interpreter who read me the inscription said the sum was 1600 talents of silver." So obviously he did not know from first-hand knowledge what the inscription said, and was almost definitely lied to by the interpreter (who may not have had any idea what the inscription said either).

    Burn points out that Herodotus is willing to report beliefs even when he does not believe them himself. For example, "The third theory [of what causes the Nile to rise each year) is much the most plausible, but at the same time furthest from the truth; according to this, the water of the Nile comes from melting snow, but as it flows from Libya through Ethiopia into Egypt, that is, from a very hot into a cooler climate, how could it possibly originate in snow? Obviously, this view is as worthless as the other two." And talking of Phoenicians who circumnavigated Africa, Herodotus writes, "These men made a statement which I do not myself believe, though others may, to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of [Africa], they had the sun on their right--to the northward of them." Well, Herodotus may not have believed these statements, but they are both, in fact, true.

    [Note: the ISBN numbers given are for a newer edition, with the introduction by someone other than Burn.]

    To order The Histories from, click here.

    OLD-NEW LAND (ALTNEULAND) by Theodor Herzl:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/30/2010]

    OLD-NEW LAND (ALTNEULAND) by Theodor Herzl (translated by Lotta Levensohn) (ISBN-10 0-910129-61-4) is a typical utopian novel of the sort that was popular towards the end of the 19th century. The utopian society is being set up in Palestine by Jews, but that is really peripheral to the utopian aspects. The only relevance that the Jewishness of the project has is that the founders use the anti-Semitism of Europe to encourage Jews to emigrate and Christians to support them in doing so. In retrospect, this seems very bizarre--sort of like using the racism of the mid-20th Century American South to get all the blacks to emigrate to Africa.

    And this is a fairly apt parallel, because one of the projects this utopia is working on is an anti-malarial drug so that the blacks in America can be encouraged to emigrate back to Africa--but even that only as a side effect of "opening up of Africa." One scientist says, "The white colonist goes under in Africa. That country can be opened up to civilization only after malaria has been subdued. Only then will enormous areas become available for the surplus populations of Europe." While it is true that at the time Herzl wrote this book, there was a strong "Back-to-Africa" movement, it was not intended as a side effect of bringing millions of white colonists there. Now this reads as the worst sort of condescension and paternalism. Herzl also vastly underestimates the difficulties caused by the influx of millions of Jews into Palestine, and their project to acquire all the land. (Then again, all utopian novels seem to gloss over the areas that people think would cause the most problems.)

    Some things never change, though: "The [younger generation] were really only a kind of superior proletariat, victims of a viewpoint that had dominated middle-class Jews twenty or thirty years before: the sons must not be what the fathers had been. They were to be freed from the hardships of trade and commerce. And so the younger generation entered the 'liberal' professions en masse. The result was an unfortunate surplus of trained men who could find no work, but were at the same time spoiled for a modest way of life."

    My edition of this book is also annotated with comparisons to the actual situation in Palestine at the time of the translation. However, since the translation was made in 1941, the comments are somewhat out-of-date.

    To order Old-New Land (Alteneuland) from, click here.

    MAGISTER LUDI (a.k.a. THE GLASS BEAD GAME) by Herman Hesse:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/08/2015]

    I gave up on MAGISTER LUDI (a.k.a. THE GLASS BEAD GAME) by Herman Hesse (ISBN 978-0-312-27849-6) after about a hundred pages--it just was not working for me. However, I did run across an interesting description of the main character, Joseph Knecht, "who [has] not been driven by a single talent to concentrate on a specialty, but whose nature rather aims at integration, synthesis, and universality..." In this he reminds me of Mia in Alexei Panshin's RITE OF PASSAGE.

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/03/2019]

    DAS GLASPERLENSPIEL [THE GLASS BEAD GAME] by Hermann Hesse (ISBN 978-0-312-27849-6) has perhaps the most complicated history of any of the finalists in this category. Published in German in Switzerland in 1943 as DAS GLASPERLENSPIEL, it was translated into English by M. Savill and published in 1949 as MAGISTER LUDI. It was then re-translated by Richard and Clara Winston and published in 1969 as THE GLASS BEAD GAME: (MAGISTER LUDI). The latter is apparently the preferred translation, but it is worth pointing out that it is the original German-language novel that was nominated. And I'll wrap up my comments by saying that this is the second time I've tried to read this, and I might as well be trying to read the German. Okay, that's a bit of an overstatement, but this is way too dense for me.

    To order Das Glasperlenspiel [The Glass Bead Game] from, click here.

    +SIDDHARTHA by Herman Hesse:

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

    SIDDHARTHA by Herman Hesse (translated by Joachim Neugroschel) (ISBN 978-0-14-243718-6) was our book discussion group choice for last month. Somehow I could not get into the mood of it. I liked the rhythm of the writing: "In the shade of the house, in the sunshine of the riverbank near the boats, in the shade of the Salwood forest, in the shade of the fig tree is where Siddhartha grew up, the handsome son of the Brahman, the young falcon, together with his friend Govinda, son of a Brahman. The sun tanned his light shoulders by the banks of the river when bathing, performing the sacred ablutions, the sacred offerings." It seemed poetic, and reminiscent of various religious texts without resorting to "thee/thou" and "dost" and "hath" and that sort of thing.

    And I liked a couple of the ideas. For example, Hesse writes, "It is this what you mean, isn't it, that the river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and that there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future?" This is actually a fairly good statement of one theory of time--that the past, present, and future all exist and we merely move through them, rather than the past and the future being created each instant. (In the former, the future is fixed; in the latter, it is mutable.)

    And one of the central ideas--that some things cannot be taught but must be experienced--is certainly similar to the idea of "Mary in the Black-and-White Room" proposed by Frank Jackson. But if I was supposed to have some sort of spiritual satori from this, it just did not work for me.

    To order Siddhartha from, click here.

    "The Boy Who Cast No Shadow" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt:

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

    "The Boy Who Cast No Shadow" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt suffers by having a double premise--not just a boy who casts no shadow, but also a boy made of glass. I suppose one should have a willing suspension of disbelief here, but it is pushing it. It also seems to have obvious parallels and connections to our world, and the problem is that maybe they are a bit too obvious.

    KICK ASS by Carl Hiaasen:

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

    Carl Hiaasen's KICK ASS is a collection of his columns about South Florida politics, and if we had all read this in early 2000, we would have just sawed the whole state off and let it float out to sea before the election--or at least not been surprised at how badly the whole thing was run there. The best line, though, is in regard to the story of how a lot of expensive homes fell apart during Hurricane Andrew, while the inexpensive homes built by Habitat for Humanity didn't lose so much as a shingle. When asked about this, Habitat for Humanity leader and former President Jimmy Carter said, "Well, we use nails in ours." (Apparently the expensive homes were merely stapled together. True.)

    To order Kick Ass from, click here.

    SCAT by Carl Hiassen:

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

    For those who like Carl Hiassen's writing but find many of his novels too strong, I recommend his young adult novels. SCAT by Carl Hiassen (ISBN-13 978-0-375-83486-8), for example, has the same themes of preserving the environment against those who would despoil it for commercial gain, and also has a typical Hiassen cast of wacky characters, such as a substitute teacher who always teaches from the same page of whatever textbook the class is using, only depending on what day of the week it is, and a pyromaniac student who ate the teacher's pencil in class.

    To order Scat from, click here.

    THE COALWOOD WAY by Homer Hickam, Jr.:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/04/2003]

    During our trip to Oklahoma, I read a lot of topical books. In West Virginia I read THE COALWOOD WAY by Homer Hickam, Jr., the third book in the "Coalwood" trilogy. The first two are ROCKET BOYS (made into the film OCTOBER SKY) and SKY OF STONE. THE COALWOOD WAY takes part of the period of ROCKET BOYS and expands upon it. While an authentic view of life in a coal town (and perhaps more authentic in that aspect than ROCKET BOYS), it isn't as enthralling as ROCKET BOYS. First of all, if you've read ROCKET BOYS, you know how a lot of things in THE COALWOOD WAY will turn out. And the other stories added made me feel as though the first book had been, if not censored, at least somewhat fictionalized by leaving out a lot of fairly important events. Of the three, it is the most disappointing.

    To order The Coalwood Way from, click here.

    ROCKET BOYS by Homer H. Hickam, Jr.:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/21/2003]

    Once again, my library discussion group chose a book I had read before: Homer H. Hickam, Jr.'s ROCKET BOYS (made into the anagrammatic movie OCTOBER SKY). This is the autobiographical story of how the author, a boy from a coal mining town where football was the only way anyone had ever gotten to college, won the National Science Fair and went on to become a genuine rocket scientist. Hickam has a very readable yet still evocative writing style as he describes life in a coal company town where even the minister is hired by the company. (He describes how they were at various times Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal, because those were the ministers hired. I guess dogma didn't count for much.)

    What struck me this time was how so much depended on circumstance and chance. Had Hickam not had a supportive high school science teacher, he probably would have ended up mining coal. And if he hadn't had the friends he did, with the talents they had, he might still have ended up mining coal. But even more so, had he not been there in Coalwood, his friends would definitely have ended up mining coal. (Well, maybe not Quentin.)

    This is now the first of a three-book triptych, the other two being SKY OF STONE (about his return to Coalwood as a miner one summer during college), and THE COALWOOD WAY, which I'm planning on reading during our trip through West Virginia this summer. (We may end up visiting Coalwood, time permitting, though it's not exactly on the beaten path.)

    To order Rocket Boys from, click here.

    BLACK HOUSE by Patricia Highsmith:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/07/2004]

    Patricia Highsmith's BLACK HOUSE is hard to read for a different reason--it is too unsettling. Highsmith is best known as the author of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and the creator of Ripley (the talented one, not the Alien-fighter), but her best work may be in her short fiction, which I would describe as "tales of extreme un-ease" in which perfectly normal people end up killing someone without feeling any sense of guilt or remorse. I have to admit I stopped after two stories because they were so effective that they were making me feel very uneasy and uncomfortable.

    To order Black House from, click here.

    THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2015 by Joe Hill and John Joseph Adams:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/08/2017]

    THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2015 edited by Joe Hill and John Joseph Adams (ISBN 978-0-544-44977-0) is (in my opinion) a better than average annual anthology. In part this may be because I prefer slipstream stories (or if you'd rather, stories closer to mainstream). Hill has taken his selection from sources outside the traditional science fiction and fantasy markets (much as Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling for their series of "Year's Best Horror and Fantasy"). The result is an anthology that should have broader appeal than the various traditional "Year's Best Science Fiction" series. Its placement in the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt series of "Best American X" should help them get this wider audience as well. However, it has a downside of covering only *American* stories, rather than all those in the English language.

    To order The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 from, click here.

    SEABISCUIT by Laura Hillenbrand:

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

    The "general" discussion group read Laura Hillenbrand's SEABISCUIT, which I found almost impossible to read. I don't know if it was the style, or the fact that I don't know much about horse racing and got lost by technical terms, but I found that as soon as Hillenbrand started describing the actual racing, I got lost. The fact that I had seen the movie also meant that I kept overlaying that, including its actors, characterizations, etc., onto the book. Conclusion: always read the book before seeing the movie.

    To order Seabiscuit from, click here.

    The Great Taos Bank Robbery by Tony Hillerman:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/26/2010]

    THE GREAT TAOS BANK ROBBERY by Tony Hillerman (ISBN-13 978-0-8263-0530-X) is a collection of essays. The title story is about a bank robbery--of sorts. "We All Fall Down" describes the search for the source of a bubonic plague outbreak in New Mexico a la Berton Roueche. "Mr. Luna's Lazarus Act" is a very topical discussion of election mathematics (with aspects of Arrow's Theorem in play, even if it is not explicitly named). Some of the remaining "essays" are just very short anecdotes, but overall one gets a sense of the atmosphere and culture of the Southwest.

    To order The Great Taos Bank Robbery from, click here.

    LOST HORIZON by James Hilton:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/13/2016]

    The book discussion group at the Old Bridge Library chose LOST HORIZON by James Hilton (ISBN 978-0-062-11372-6) for this month and the science fiction film-and-book discussion group at the Middletown Library. All this needs a lot of explanation. The Old Bridge group reads science fiction in odd-numbered months, and other books in even-numbered months. Although LOST HORIZON is a fantasy, it is considered "mainstream", so it fell into an even-numbered month. The Middletown group has a lot of overlap with the Old Bridge group, though, so it was decided to kill two birds with one stone and show the 1937 film for its meeting the following month.

    These comments are on both the book and the 1937 film. The less said about the 1973 film, the better.

    To order Lost Horizon from, click here.

    THE WOMAN AND THE APE by Peter Høeg:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/24/2006]

    THE WOMAN AND THE APE by Peter Høeg, translated by Barbara Haveland (ISBN 0-374-29203-5) was chosen as the book for joint science fiction and general discussion groups meeting. (The general group meets the third Thursday of each month; the science fiction group meets the fourth Thursday. But in November the fourth Thursday is Thanksgiving, so we try to pick a science fiction book with general appeal. In 2004 it was THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde; in 2005 it was BRING THE JUBILEE by Ward Moore.)

    Anyway, someone in the general group suggested THE WOMAN AND THE APE a few months ago, so we tagged it for the joint meeting. The premise is that someone has discovered "a highly developed anthropoid ape, the closest thing yet to a human being." Adam Burden names him Erasmus and brings him back to London, where Adam's wife Madelene falls in love with Erasmus, and helps him escape. This book reminds me of a lot of books with similar themes: HIS MONKEY WIFE by John Collier, YOU SHALL KNOW THEM by Vercors, or even DAISY, IN THE SUN by Connie Willis. THE WOMAN AND THE APE, though, has a strong emphasis on how the protagonist is not understood by her spouse, etc. Lest you think it is a "males-are-bad" thing, the spouse's sister and female secretary are no prizes either. It is just another level of "humans are bad."

    There are more compound and complex sentences (one might even say run-on sentences) than I usually see in novels these days. (Example: "But the world has changed, now was the time to study, present and preserve, and he had said this with the gravity that comes from knowing that your family goes back seven hundred years, that you have had splendid ancestors and that you are yourself even better." I do not know if that is true in the original Danish, or whether that is an artifact of the translation.

    Høeg has one of his characters claim, by the way, that London has more non-human animals per square mile than any other area of Great Britain, and more than "Mato Grosso in the dry season." I have no idea if this is true. I do know that this should not be read as a completely realistic novel--several plot points strain credulity beyond what would be expected in a science fiction novel. Whether it should be considered magical realism, or a fable, or what is not clear, but it is not strictly a classical science fiction novel.

    To order The Woman and the Ape from, click here.

    HOLMES ON THE RANGE by Steve Hockensmith:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/13/2009]

    I recently read HOLMES ON THE RANGE by Steve Hockensmith (ISBN-13 978-0-312-34780-2, ISBN-10 0-312-34780-4). This is a combination mystery-Western, but it does not have Sherlock Holmes in it. Rather, it has a cowboy who has read and become fascinated by Sherlock Holmes, and then finds himself in a real-life mystery on the ranch where he is working. The Watson character (narrator-cum-assistant) is his brother. I thought this was fairly well done, except for the gimmick that some of the characters in the book turn out to be related to characters in one of the Holmes stories. This "making Holmes real" gimmick rather than just letting a cowboy like Old Red be inspired by fictional stories may have seemed necessary to Hockensmith. And I realize that any Holmes pastiche that includes Sherlock Holmes himself does this of necessity. But somehow when the story is about someone inspired by the stories, the necessity of maintaining the "reality" of Holmes seems weaker and more contrived--at least to me.

    To order Holmes on the Range from, click here.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/30/2012]

    THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CLOCKWORK MAN by Mark Hodder (ISBN 978-1-616-14359-6) is a sort of supernatural steampunk adventure with Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Swinburne as secret agents. It is okay, but every once in a while Hodder makes a goof. Sometimes it is something blatantly wrong: "The cactus has reloaded already. For as long as it's in a defensive state, it'll produce spines continuously. You could fire this thing for hours on end and never run out of ammunition!" (page 214) Has this cactus repealed the law of conservation of mass?

    Other times it is an awkward attempt to draw a parallel between Hodder's world and ours. Burton is Burton and Swinburne is Swinburne (or at least as far as one can have transworld identities--this may be a future article), but his Burke and Hare are not our Burke and Hare, no matter how cute Hodder gets: "Palmerston's odd-job men [who are named Burke and Hare] resembled nothing so much as a couple of eighteenth-century gravediggers." (page 211) Well, our Burke and Hare were a couple of eighteenth-century gravediggers, and plopping them into the nineteenth century makes no sense.

    THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CLOCKWORK MAN is a sequel to THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK, and is followed by THE EXPEDITION TO THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON. If you're going to read this, you should probably start at the beginning of the series.

    To order The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man from, click here.

    THE TRUE BELIEVER by Eric Hoffer:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/21/2017]

    THE TRUE BELIEVER by Eric Hoffer (ISBN 978-0-060-50591-2) looks at mass political movements. (Hoffer professionally was a longshoreman, but he also was a political philosopher.) The book is valuable reading now, although one suspects that could be said at any time. Hoffer disagrees somewhat that it could be said at any time, and he explains why some periods are more conducive to mass movements than others, e.g., why the Protestant Reformation succeeded, but there was no successful mass uprising against the more corrupt Catholic Church of the tenth century or so.

    Hoffer covers the topic in a very structured manner. His four main sections are "The Appeal of Mass Movements", "The Potential Converts", "United Action and Self-Sacrifice", and "Beginning and End". These in turn have subsections so, for example, "Unifying Agents" in the third section includes hatred, imitation, persuasion and coercion, leadership, action, suspicion, and the effects of unification.

    Much of what Hoffer says seems self-evident or obvious, but Hoffer may have been the first to cover it in an organized fashion for a wide audience. (THE TRUE BELIEVER was first published in 1951.) Clearly, he had a lot of then-recent movements to use as examples: various Chinese revolutionary movements, Japanese militarism, Nazism, Communism, not to mention older examples such as Christianity, Islam, and the Protestant Reformation.

    This has become a classic and makes a good companion book to IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE, on which I commented last week.

    To order The True Believer from, click here.


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

    The book that was most strongly put forward as alternate history was Mary Hoffman's STRAVAGANZA: CITY OF MASKS. Well, it does take place in an alternate Venice in a world in which Remus won out over Romulus rather than vice versa. But there is also travel between this world and our own by "stravagantes" using magical means. The protagonists are again teenagers, a few years older than those of "Warriors of Alavna", one from each world. And again we have the girl masquerading as a boy, though not for very long. It's basically a straight historical fantasy, reminiscent of Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, or even Joan Vinge's SNOW QUEEN, and I would recommend it in that category. It's not as British as WARRIORS OF ALAVNA, but like that book, available only in Britain (and possibly Canada).

    To order Stravaganza: City of Masks from, click here.

    AND GOD SAID by Dr. Joel M. Hoffman:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/08/2010]

    AND GOD SAID by Dr. Joel M. Hoffman (ISBN 978-0-312-56558-9), about Bible translation, would seem to have no connection to science fiction. (Fantasy, perhaps, but that's another issue.) But in his introduction, talking about how seriously people take Bible translations, Hoffman writes [asterisks indicate Hoffman's italics]:

    "... in the fall of 1993, a Yale student named Kevin Wilson began a project to translate the Bible into Klingon. ... Wilson's team included nearly a dozen scholars, among them Dr. Lawrence M. Schoen, who had already earned a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, and the Reverned Professor Glen Proechel, then a Spanish instructor at the University of Minnesota. But Professor Proechel ended up quitting the translation project in protest, arguing that Dr. Schoen was doing it wrong. 'It's not going to make any sense,' the way Wilson's gang was doing it, he told THE WALL STREET JOURNAL in June of 1994, explaining that Klingons' 'mode of thought is quite different.'" There are no Klingons, there is no Klingon thought, and except for what linguist Dr. Marc Okrand invented for the 1984 movie STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK, there is no Klingon language. But that didn't stop too qualified academicians from taking their vehement disagreement to the media."

    That said, Hoffman then proceeds to spend quite a bit of time talking about translation problems in general, sometimes using the Bible for his examples, but often not. He also uses modern Hebrew, but that is pure coincidence. For example, modern Hebrew has two words for blue: "kachol" for dark blue, "t'chelet" for light blue. How would one translate into Hebrew a line of a poem that read in English, "and two blue blocks, one light, one dark"? (However, Hoffman's claim that we have something similar in English, with light red being "pink" is not entirely convincing--after all, he just used the words "light red" to define "pink", so clearly the words "light red" have a meaning to us.)

    To order And God Said from, click here.

    FOLLYWOOD by Michael Hollister:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/18/2008]

    FOLLYWOOD by Michael Hollister (ISBN-13 978-1-4208-5349-X, ISBN-10 1-4208-5349-X) shows a lot of research--in fact, that seems to be its main purpose. The book has three aspects:

    For the latter, Hollister seems to have a definite agenda in making the blacklist seem like it was a good and reasonable thing to do.

    But to do this, he has to re-write history to some extent. So when he reaches the climactic meeting of the Directors Guild, at which they are debating whether to require a loyalty oath, he has John Ford respond to Cecil DeMille's pushing of the oath by saying:

    "I am a director of westerns. I am one of the founders of this Guild. I would like to state that I have been on Mr. Mankiewicz's side of the fight all through it. ... I don't agree with C. B. DeMille. I admire him. I don't like him, but I admire him, and without Mr. DeMille, your Guild is busted up."

    What Ford actually said (according to all reports I have read), is:

    "My name's John Ford. I make Westerns. I don't think there is anyone in the room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B. De Mille. In that respect I admire him. But I don't like you, C. B. I don't like what you stand for and I don't like what you've been saying here tonight."

    He also moved that De Mille resign from the board of directors--hardly in keeping with what Hollister has him saying. [ and others]

    And Hollister also left off what DeMille was doing that was the proximate cause--reading off the names of people he thought might be Communists with a Jewish accent to emphasize that they were all Jewish.

    Now, I obviously have the view that blacklist et al was a bad thing, so I may be somewhat biased here, but it seems to me that Hollister is not playing fair here. He has Ford saying, in effect, that he admires DeMille (in this debate) even though he doesn't like him, when in fact what he said was that even though he admired DeMille (as a director), he did not like him. And he leaves off some important information about how the blacklist was carried out.

    Maybe I am expecting too much from a self-published book. But what we have here are recycled anecdotes, unlikely film treatments (one suspects Hollister has a secret desire to be a film writer), and a very slanted presentation of a critical period in Hollywood (and national) history. Not recommended.

    To order Follywood from, click here.

    SETTING THE EAST ABLAZE by Peter Hopkirk:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/05/2019]

    SETTING THE EAST ABLAZE by Peter Hopkirk (ISBN 978-0-719-56450-5) is a fairly concise history of the Bolsheviks early attempts to spread Marxism into Central Asia and India. I can't say I could always keep track of everyone and everyplace (my knowledge of the geography of central Asia is not all it should be), but fascinating nonetheless. (This is an example of the sort of random book found on the sale shelf at Second Time Books in Mount Laurel; for $2 it seemed worth a try, and indeed it was. This sort of serendipity never happens when looking for a book online, which is why brick-and-mortar book stores and book sales are so important.)

    To order Setting the East Ablaze from, click here.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/04/2006]

    TRESPASSERS ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD: THE SECRET EXPLORATION OF TIBET by Peter Hopkirk (ISBN 1-56836-050-9) is about the attempts of Westerners in get into Lhasa when not just Lhasa, but all of Tibet, was closed to foreigners. However, the most interesting stories are of non-Westerners, in specific the pundits from India. In the 1860s, several Indians who had been specially trained by the British were sent to try to penetrate into Tibet, get to Lhasa, and ascertain the situation vis-a-vis the Chinese and particularly the Russians. The story of how they were treated by the British is as depressing as their adventures are exciting. First, the British came close to completely undermining their efforts by publishing the details of their training and travels in the "Journal of the Royal Geographical Society" in 1868. Only the fact that no one in China happened to read the "Journal" prevented future trips from meeting with disaster. (And you thought security leaks were a new thing!) Second, when the pundits were finished, they got piddling amounts of money (or, if they were really lucky, small pensions) and a few (oral) words of thanks. William Rockhill observed, "If any British observer had done one third of Nain Singh [or others] accomplished, medals and decorations, lucrative offices and professional promotion, freedom of cities and every form of lionisation would have been his. As for those native explorers, a small pecuniary reward and obscurity are all to which they can look forward. . . . " Sir Richard Temple asked the question of why these pundits did it, and then gave his answer, "Not to those honours which afforded an honorable stimulus to British enterprise, but only this--his zeal for the department he served, his obedience to so good a superior as General Walker, his loyalty to the public service, his firm determination to do his duty according to his poor ability and, above all things, his reliance upon the British Government which he knew would reward him generously should he survive, and would take of his family should he perish." This sounds so condescending that it is even more depressing to realize that corporations now expect this of the employees, and deliver even less after years of service.

    These people were followed by a series of considerably less competent (and less prepared) Europeans, including several who decided they were called to preach the Gospel in Lhasa. Petrus and Susie Rijnhart decided not only to go to Lhasa, but to take their newborn son with them. Only Susie survived--barely. Another explorer, Henry Savage Landor, seems to have done everything possible to antagonize the Tibetans he dealt with. Today's tourists may be obnoxious at times, but the sheer presumptuousness of some of these early explorers is amazing.

    To order Trespassers on the Roof of the World from, click here.

    SHALOM, JAPAN by Shifra Horn:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/31/2004]

    Shifra Horn's SHALOM, JAPAN (ISBN 1-57566-223-X) is a collection of essays about Japan by the wife of an Israeli diplomat who lived there for five years. The double translation (Japanese words into Hebrew and then into English) has resulted in some peculiar spellings (e.g., "Om Shinari-Kiu" rather than the more recognizable "Aum Shinrikyo"). Horn's comments are not always flattering, and many have complained about her stereotyping of the Japanese and her occasionally negative attitude. However, I found this collection valuable as providing an alternative viewpoint to the generally carefully diplomatic articles one usually sees, and Horn's negativity seems directed at societal mores that end up causing suicides or leaving the homeless to their fate rather than everything different. You may disagree with her at times, but she does give you food for thought.

    To order Shalom, Japan from, click here.

    INTRODUCING FOUCAULT by Chris Horrocks and Zoran Jevtic:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/29/2005]

    I found most of the "Introducing" books from Totem Books/Icon Books to be quite good, but recently I've run across a couple that seem to have a very different idea of what "introducing" means. For example, Chris Horrocks and Zoran Jevtic's INTRODUCING FOUCAULT (ISBN 1-84046-086-5) has statements like the following: "'Archaeology', as the investigation of that which renders necessary a certain form of thought, implies an excavation of unconsciously organized sediments of thought. Unlike a history of ideas, it doesn't assume that a knowledge accumulates towards any historical conclusion. Archaeology ignores individuals and their histories. It prefers to excavate impersonal structures of knowledge." (page 64) It does cover Foucault's life fairly thoroughly, but fails (I think) in explicating his philosophy to a beginner. (For one thing, it frequently compares and contrasts Foucault's ideas with those of Hegel or Heidegger, but assumes that the reader is already familiar with the latter. This book might be good for someone who has a strong background in philosophy, particularly 20th century French philosophy--but then again, those people might not need it.

    To order Introducing Foucault from, click here.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/25/2014]

    CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC by Tony Horwitz (ISBN 978-0-679-75833-X) is Horwitz's travelogue of a journey through the South to see how the Civil War impacts today. There are a variety of manifestations Horwitz looks into: re-enactors, historical societies, groups such as the Daughters of the Confederacy, and the attitudes of "average" Southerners, both black and white.

    He met people who fit every stereotype of redneck Southerners, who said things like, "I'm here to defend my race against the government and the Jewish-controlled media." (In this, there seems to be a rare point of agreement between the whites and the blacks--one black veteran of the Selma-to-Montgomery march told Horwitz, "It's true what [Farrakhan] says about the Jews. They used to be on our side. But now a lot of them are blood-suckers.")

    He met (Southern) re-enactors who portrayed Confederates one weekend and Yankees the next (as the circumstances demanded), more interested in the struggle than in promoting the politics of either side. He met members of organizations who were entirely wrapped up in remembering the past, and other members (often the next generation) who were members mostly to please their families.

    Shelby Foote has what Horwitz described as a "nuanced" view of the Ku Klux Klan, the Confederate battle flag, and (one presumes) most of the controversial elements of the Civil War image. Foote sees the original Ku Klux Klan as "[Combating] the cruel excesses of Reconstruction." But that Klan disbanded around 1870; the Klan of today originated after the film BIRTH OF A NATION, and was just "anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-black." Similarly, "the [Confederate] battle flag was a combat standard, not a political. ... [It] had become 'a banner of shame and disgrace and hate.' But [Foote] pinned the blame for this on educated Southerners who allowed white supremacists to misuse the flag during the civil rights struggle."

    The only problem with this, and most other Southern apologists' views of the Civil War is that they all seem to be based on the claim that the Civil War was about states rights and the Southern way of life. But the "Southern way of life" was possible only because of slavery, and several of the declarations of secession (South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas) explicitly name slavery as the main cause (or indeed, the only cause) of their secession. Most of the other seceding states did not explicitly list the causes of their decision.

    What Horwitz also found was that a hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, blacks and whites had separate museums, separate Memorial Day ceremonies, separate parades, and separate views of history. Re-enactors--on both Union and Confederate sides--are overwhelmingly white. Classrooms and school cafeterias may be integrated, but when they seat themselves, the black students sit on one side and the white students on the other.

    Horvitz sums up the situation thusly: "The issues at stake in the Civil War--race in particular--remained raw and unresolved, as did the broad question the conflict posed: Would America remain one nation? In 1861, this was a regional dilemma. which it wasn't anymore. But socially and culturally, there were ample signs of separatism and disunion along class, race, ethnic and gender lines. The whole notion of a common people united by common principles--even by a common language--seemed more open to question than at any period in my lifetime."

    To order Confederates in the Attic from, click here.

    SUBMISSION by MichelHouellebecq (translated by Lorin Stein:

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

    SUBMISSION by Michel Houellebecq (translated by Lorin Stein) (ISBN 978-0-374-27157-2) is one of those "mainstream science fiction" novels that most science fiction readers will never hear about. It does not help that it is a foreign novel, written in French and requiring a translator. Reading it, I gained a new appreciation for Ken Liu's translation skills, not just in which words to choose, but in what to footnote. A lot of SUBMISSION is lost if the reader does not have a knowledge of French politics and French politicians. For example, Houellebecq makes a passing reference to the "Thirty Glorious Years." Liu would have footnoted this, but Stein leaves it to the reader to go and look it up in Wikipedia, breaking the train of reading.

    Taking place in 2022, the novel tells the story of the meteoric rise of an Islamic political party in France which gains control by aligning itself with what I presume are real current political parties in France. In practically no time (a month, so far as I can tell), they have Islamicized the education system, over-hauled employment and marriage law, and gotten several North African countries added to the EU. Okay, it's a satire (though I think THE NEW YORKER'S Adam Gopnik went too far when he called it "a comic masterpiece"), but even so, I found that my disbelief could not be willingly suspended to that extent.

    To order Submission from, click here.

    HEART OF LIGHT by Sarah A. Hoyt:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/06/2008]

    A few weeks ago, I quoted the beginning of Jeffrey E. Barlough's BERTRAM OF BUTTER CROSS as an example of how a book can grab me in the first couple of paragraphs. HEART OF LIGHT by Sarah A. Hoyt (ISBN-13 978-0-553-58966-5, ISBN-10 0-553-58966-0) begins:

    "What is wrong?" Emily asked.

    She sat, naked, on her bridal bed, the waves of her dark hair falling like a dusky veil over her golden shoulders and small breasts. Over it, wrapped around her, she clutched a multicolored flowered shawl, a legacy from her Indian grandmother.

    Nigel, her husband of ten hours, stood at the foot of the bed, trying to arrange his blue dressing gown with shaking hands and only managing to twist it, so it hung askew and displayed a portion of his pale muscular chest.

    Far from grabbing me, this overripe romance prose made me want to grab it--and hurl it across the room. However, this was a library book, and I did need to read it in my capacity as a member of the Sidewise Awards panel, so I "soldiered on." While the rest of the book was not this appallingly bad, it had a whole series of flaws. First, it seemed very much inspired by Naomi Novick's "Temeraire" series; set in what is basically our world in the 19th century, but with (Chinese) dragons and magic. (Hoyt sets her story in late Victorian times, while Novick sets hers in the Napoleonic Wars.) But everything in this book is far too similar to our timeline (more so than in "Temeraire"): Victoria is Queen, Albert is dead, there was a Chinese Gordon and Mahdists, and so on. This can work, but it requires a deft touch; Esther Friesner did it reasonable well with DRUID'S BLOOD, for example, but here it fails to convince me.

    There is also far too much feminist preaching: every few chapters Emily muses on her condition as a wife who is under the legal control of her husband, who cannot do anything on her own, who envies the Masai woman who is independent (and how likely is that, one wonders?), and so on. And of course there is the obligatory display of racist attitudes by the Europeans (and how wrong they are).

    Oh, and it is the first of a series. With no warning of this on the cover or the back cover. Only inside the front cover does one see "Look for Sarah A. Hoyt's next fantasy" and a picture of the cover of SOUL OF FIRE, clearly book two in the series. (And an excerpt of SOUL OF FIRE at the end of the book confirms this.) I've said before what I think of publishers who do this, and have not changed my opinion since then. Ptui!

    To order Heart of Light from, click here.

    TYPEWRITER IN THE SKY by L. Ron Hubbard:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/24/2010]

    TYPEWRITER IN THE SKY by L. Ron Hubbard (ISBN 0-88404-933-7) is one of those classics that nobody has read. Well, okay, not nobody; Tim Powers is quoted on the jacket as saying, "I don't think Philip K. Dick would have written his novels if he had not read TYPEWRITER IN THE SKY." However, since its original publication in UNKNOWN FANTASY FICTION in 1940, it has been reprinted only three times: Gnome Press (1951), Popular Library (1977, in an omnibus with FEAR), and this edition from Bridge Publications (1995). Ironically, its closing lines are among the best known in science fiction:

    Up there--


    In a dirty bathrobe?

    But in spite of its influence on Dick and others, and in spite of the interesting (and Dickian) ideas behind it, the story itself is not that good. Part of the problem is that because of the premise, the story cannot be very good. (Actually, the premise of the story was not original with Hubbard either. One could claim that Chuang Tzu was the first to express it, thousands of years ago, in his dream of being a butterfly.) Still, as long as you can read the book keeping this in mind, it works reasonably well, though it does drag at times, and might have been better told at a shorter length.

    To order Typewriter in the Sky from, click here.

    FEAR by L. Ron Hubbard:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/26/2003]

    The "something old" was L. Ron Hubbard's FEAR. First published in 1940, it's a lot shorter than Hubbard's later work and, while not great, is certainly readable enough--and after sixty years, that's saying something. Basically, a professor finds he has lost four hours of his life and tries to discover what has happened. While it's billed as a horror novel, it is not (by today's standards) horrific, but it is a classic.

    To order Fear from, click here.

    "Essays on Humanity" by Victor Hugo:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/16/2003]

    Victor Hugo is best known for LES MISERABLES and NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS. I reviewed his TOILERS OF THE SEA here a few months ago (02/14/03), and now I've just read his "Essays on Humanity" (at least those printed in the Walter J. Black 1928 Hugo omnibus edition). His first, "Capital Punishment", is actually a companion piece to his fiction work "Last Days of a Condemned Man" from "Stories of Crime". Hugo presents a fairly strong case against capital punishment. (It is important to remember that capital punishment in France in Hugo's time was applied to more than just murderers, but Hugo is clear that he opposes all capital punishment.)

    Of course, many of his arguments now seem a bit familiar. (For example, he disputes the notion that capital punishment serves as a warning to others.) Another familiar argument of Hugo's is that the condemned had been deprived of any chance by society to do other than become criminals.

    Some of the arguments are no longer applicable. For example, he describes many botched executions on the guillotine, and gives them as reasons to abolish capital punishment. The only result was that eventually countries adopted different modes of execution, which in turn were also decried as barbaric.

    Some of his arguments are a bit shaky. Against the argument that a prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment might escape, he says, "Keep watch more strictly! If you do not believe in the solidity of iron bars, how do you venture to have menageries? Let there be no executioner when the jailer can suffice." I guess Hugo hadn't read Dumas's THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, or didn't realize that prisoners can bribe guards in a way that animals in a zoo can't.

    Hugo preaches a return to the "gentle laws of Christ" and end with the declaration, "The Cross shall displace the Gibbet." While I know what he meant, I can't help but feel it is a poor phrasing, as if he wishes to replace hanging with crucifixion.

    In another essay, "The Minds and the Masses", he talks at length about the necessity for education and culture for all, but the most striking quote is in regard to the opposition and hatred towards those who propose this, by quoting the early Christian philosopher Tertullian: "O Romans! we are just, kind, thinking, lettered, honest men. We meet to pray, and we love you because you are our brethren. We are gentle and peaceable like little children, and we wish for concord among men. Nevertheless, O Romans! if the Tiber overflows, or if the Nile does not, you cry, 'to the lions with the Christians!'"

    These seem to be out of print, but has some or all of them.

    THE TOILERS OF THE SEA by Victor Hugo:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/14/2003]

    Victor Hugo wrote three books as a triptych: LES MISERABLES (about humanity), NOTRE DAME DE PARIS (about religion), and THE TOILERS OF THE SEA (about nature). Of the three, the last is rarely read these days. But it is perhaps the most science fictional, since part of it has to do with sea monsters (though of the cephalapod variety rather than the saurian). I am not saying that one should read it because of this, however, but because it is Victor Hugo, and so far as I know he never wrote a bad book. At four hundred pages it's even slightly shorter than NOTRE DAME DE PARIS, and certainly shorter than the 1463-page LES MISERABLES. (I mention this because people are always saying they don't have time to read long books. They often say this while picking up Robert Jordan or Tom Clancy novels.)

    To order The Toilers of the Sea from, click here.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/20/2004]

    I am sure there is a lot to dispute in Samuel P. Huntington's THE CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS AND THE REMAKING OF WORLD ORDER (ISBN 0-684-81164-2), but there is also a lot that seems to explain the world today. Huntington's premise is that now that the Cold War between "the West" and "Communism" is gone, the more basic conflicts between civilizations have re-emerged. Huntington sees the major civilizations of the world as Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic (Chinese), Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist, and Japanese, and the conflicts as occurring between those civilizations, particularly at "fault lines" where they border, or in "cleft countries" or "torn countries". Huntington cites Carroll Quigley's seven stages of civilizayion (mixture, gestation, expansion, age of conflict, universal empire, decay, and invasion), and then attempts to demonstrate these with current and past civilizations. He then characterizes "Western civilization" as having the following characteristics: the Classical legacy, Catholicism and Protestantism, European languages, separation of spiritual and temporal authority, rule of law, social pluralism, representative bodies, and individualism. While one might debate some of these (in particular, the separation of authority seems to have varied over time), Huntington does show that these are ways to contrast Western civilization with others. For example, Japanese civilization traditionally devalues rather than values individualism, and Islamic civilization is based on the notion than temporal and spiritual authority are one.

    Huntington supports his paradigm by observing how current conflicts play out in places like Yugoslavia, the Central Asian republics, the Ukraine, and so on. In Yugoslavia, Russia and other Orthodox countries sided with the (Orthodox) Serbs, the Islamic countries sides with the (Muslim) Bosnians, and the Catholic/Protestant West sided with the (Catholic) Croats. But in addition to these alignments, Huntington points out that the West preaches "universalism", yet fails to demonstrate it: "Democracy is promoted but not if it brings Islamic fundamentalists to power; nonproliferation is preached for Iran and Iraq but not for Israel; free trade is the elixir of economic growth but not for agriculture; human rights are an issue with China but not with Saudi Arabia; aggression against oil-owning Kuwaitis is massively repulsed but not against non-oil-owning Bosnians." This is a book worth reading even if you do not agree with Huntington's premise.

    To order The Clash of Civilizations from, click here.

    BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/02/2005]

    I re-read BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley (ISBN 0-060-92987-1) because I was sure that a line from the film STUNT MAN ("a stick of gum will make you hum") was from it. It wasn't, though lines with similar rhythms do show up, and there is "sex gum" in the book as well. What struck me was that if you look at this and the only other science fiction considered respectable enough for school book reports when I was growing up, George Orwell's 1984, 1984 has overshadowed BRAVE NEW WORLD, but BRAVE NEW WORLD is the more topical, with its subliminal teaching and advertising, class structure, reproductive technology, and emphasis on sex as separate from love. People seem to re-read 1984 every once in a while, but BRAVE NEW WORLD is ignored. So next time, re-read that one.

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/15/2007]

    Last month our science fiction book group read BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley (ISBN-10 0-060-77609-9, ISBN-13 978-0-060-77609-1). A lot has been said about this, so I will comment just on a few aspects. First are the names Huxley used. Most of the names he chose he took from prominent and famous at the time of his writing. The following is a list of all the names in the book, with sources for the ones (I think) I know: Ford and Freud are well-known and commented on, but we also find Bokanovsky, Podsnap (OUR MUTUAL FRIEND), Foster, Mustapha Mond, Lenina (Lenin--a political philosopher), Fanny, Marx (a political philosopher), Pfitzner (a composer and anti-modernist), Kawaguchi, Edzel (Edsel--an industrialist), Benito (a politician) Hoover (a politician), Helmholtz (a physician and physicist) Watson (a child psychologist), Stopes (a family planning advocate), Rothschild (a financier), Sarojini (a woman's emancipationist) Engels (a political philosopher), Bradlaugh (an atheist), Diesel (an inventor), Deterding (the chairman of Royal Dutch Petroleum in Huxley's time), Bakunin (a political philosopher), Tomakin, Dr. Shaw (socialist), Gaffney, Keate, Primo (a dictator) Mellon (a banker), Darwin (a scientist), Bonaparte (a politician). Some of those seem obscure but were not at the time the book was written (1932). For example, Miguel Primo de Rivera was the dictator of Spain from 1923 to 1930. (The few I have not annotated I could not find any well-known real-life person of the time with that name.)

    The racism of the book is also worth noting, not just the entire portrayal of the Zuni as unhygienic fanatics, but also the comments about the fertility of different races, etc.

    And finally, was Huxley being slyly sarcastic when he wrote, "[And] on khaki paper and in words exclusively of one syllable, 'The Delta Mirror'"

    To order Brave New World from, click here.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/26/2013]

    I picked up SELECTIONS FROM THE ESSAYS OF T. H. HUXLEY by Thomas Henry Huxley (no ISBN) at the Cranbury Bookworm moving sale. Almost immediately on starting it, I ran across this delightful description of the origins of the Royal Society: "And it is a strange evidence of the taste for knowledge which the most obviously worthless of the Stuarts shared with his father and grandfather, that Charles the Second was not content with saying witty things about his philosophers, but did wise things with regard to them. For he not only bestowed upon them such attention as he could spare from his poodles and his mistresses, but being in his usual state of impecuniosity, begged for them of the Duke of Ormond; and, that step being without effect, gave them Chelsea College, a charter, and a mace: crowning his favours in the best way they could be crowned, by burdening them no further with royal patronage or state interference."

    To order Selections from the Essays of T. H. Huxley from, click here.

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